T H E S U N B U R N E D D A U G H T E R
by Bruce Guernsey
There was a real lost child.
I don’t want to swaddle it
I’m just a journalist
who can’t believe in objectivity.
—William Matthews, “The Search Party”
Not here at all, at all.
Pretty girls like that,
took them away, away,
got no say at all.
Skid Row, man,
make whores outta them,
they do, they do.
Check the dumpsters
check the dumpsters,
got the blisters.
Eyes bulbous and rolling, he was toad-like on his haunches drawing twisted, disjointed figures on the sidewalk, his long, yellowed nails scratching the concrete as he sketched, mumbling in rhymes. I’d asked him if he’d seen this young woman recently, this brilliantly beautiful young law school graduate in the picture — “Have you seen her? Please, sir, have you? She’s my daughter.”
We were down to one last chance. We’d figured out the on-line ID. That was easy — her email address — but had only three chances to crack the Bank of America pass code, to see if she’d used her ATM, to track where she’d been, to see if she was still on Venice Beach where we had been looking for almost a week.
“What’s your best guess,” I asked.
“I don’t know, Dad. I don’t know.”
Brendan was lying on the worn couch of the motel room, exhausted. He’d been out from dawn until well after midnight looking for his sister among the shadowy alleys and blanketed shadows all the way from the Beach to the pier in Santa Monica, then back.
My daughter’s Shih Tzu was curled up next to him, exhausted, too, but from throwing up a couple of times during the night. Little Mo had stomach cancer and not many months to live, but Brendan had brought him along on the plane anyway.
“I want them to see each other again,” he said. “And maybe he’ll bring us some luck.”
So far, though, all we had were leads that didn’t pan out. Megan had been there alright. Lots of people had seen her wildly dancing half-naked on the little mounds of grass between the boardwalk and the ocean.
“She didn’t look like she was on drugs,” one guy told me, his nose and ears pierced with small pins and arrows. The serpentine tattoos down the length of his arms seemed to coil around him as he spoke, his hands in an eerie slow-motion like he was handling a snake.
“Not on drugs, man — no, she looked like she needed ‘em. I’m here everyday, this is where I live, so like come by and I’ll tell you if she shows.”
But she had not, and no one had seen her since Brendan and his mother had arrived a couple of days before my wife and I did. They had managed to retrieve some of her things from the apartment where Megan was staying: her clothes and guitar, her laptop.
Victoria and I had been abroad part of that July and had just come back, only to discover that Megan had already moved to California while we were gone. She was to start a new teaching job in the fall and had left early from where she was living in St. Louis to house-sit for a couple who would be her colleagues. She was to look after their place while finding her own. She would also take care of their two dogs and in return, she could use their car. They were off to Atlanta to get married.
But the two of us were against this whole idea no matter how good it sounded. Ever since a car accident Meg had had two years before this move, a collision that left her unconscious for almost half an hour, she had been acting more unstable than she ever had before. My daughter was always one for taking chances and getting into trouble, too often the result of booze and pot, but during her last two years in law school, she had begun to show signs of a problem far deeper than too much partying, especially that second summer when she was on the island of Rhodes in Greece, studying international law for eight weeks.
She was excited about going, and we reminisced about the spring she spent with me while I was teaching for a semester in northern Greece several years before. Meg was sixteen then, and her radiant energy made her a great traveling companion, and we went everywhere: to Delphi, various islands, and Istanbul. I had been going through a bout of homesickness around that time, and her company was a gift, especially her sense of humor.
“Remember May Day and the chest-hair dude,” and there we’d be, laughing uncontrollably again about the graying Greek guy, making his moves on a young woman near where we sat at an outdoor café.
It became one of our many private jokes:
“You should have seen it, more and more curly black hair kept coming out of his shirt, one button at a time, the closer he got to her — didn’t it, Dad! — this cool-guy grin on his face and a shirt full of fur,” and the two of us would be hysterical in front of whoever was forced to listen, often for the third or fourth time.
But my daughter and I shared another kind of traveling, too — the more metaphoric kind. “Poetry is the oldest recorded literary form in all languages,” she wrote once after a reading she’d gone to, no doubt at my urging. “Poetry is music that needs no instruments. It is love without bodies; it is painting without a canvas.” My teaching job in literature and creative writing meant we had a lot of poets visit both our campus and our home. Their voices caught her ear long before she had any formal schooling in literature.
One evening in an Athens taverna, we listened together to the powerful voice of the poet Katerina Anghelaki-Rooke. Megan was enthralled and later showed me what she had written in her journal:
Katerina is a stocky Greek woman with a hardy laugh beneath a witch’s face. She snorts and grumbles and takes shots of ouzo. She talks about astrology, and is comfortable (or lazy) enough not to leave her chair while she recites her poetry. When I say recite, I mean it — for her, no book is necessary:
To The Earth
I speak to the earth today and I say
Good earth with the night birds
Silent and black-winged
With chattering morning birds
With waters, salty and sweet —
They go their own way
And, of course, indifferent.
Earth — you’re all I know of the world.
Even the sky is part of you
And you will cover me
Like a soft blanket one day.
Sturdy, full of life and earth and sex and wine, she flaps about and bobs her head. She feels her words; she remembers the dreams that made them so. She makes love to her food; she fondles her booze. Her security is threatening. I feel at some point that she has eaten her lover, her children, or at least wanted to. To her, the earth is gluttonous, pulsating until the moment it can swallow us whole.
Of course I’d co-sign the loan for the Tulane summer program and buy her air fare.
“You’ll have a great time, Meg, and learn a lot. Enjoy the sun, too — it’s a good anti-depressant.”
“I know, Dad. Believe me, I know. Thanks. Love you.”
But her gratitude was short-lived. It was a bright June day when I picked her up to go to the airport, but the sunlight didn’t seem to matter as her brow grew darker and eyes more intense the closer we got to Lambert Field. Then her voice began to change.
“Why do you have this big fucking car, this SUV thing? Don’t you know there’s an energy crisis? Don’t answer me. Just shut up. You’re a liar anyway.”
I didn’t say a word until I offered to help her with her bag at the departure gate. She took it from me angrily and walked away without once looking back.
I sat in the car for a long time after, watching the planes taking off. What did I do wrong? Why’s she like this sometimes? Why? — plane after plane and she on one of them, lifting from the ground now, growing smaller into the sky, then gone.
No one heard a thing from her for the next two months, and I had no idea that she had even returned until I heard from my sister who was also living in St. Louis at the time. Thankfully, she had gained Megan’s trust and got her hospitalized for three days in a psych ward when she returned, sure the FBI was following her and asking why her parents had cut her head off when she was a kid. She later claimed that she had been taking her mood stabilizers while in Greece but that they didn’t work. But no one knows for sure what she did there, other than fail the two courses she took. She never said a word about her experience, as if it never happened.
But, typically, Megan rallied, and a week after she was released from the hospital, she started an internship at the Public Defender’s office and went on to finish it successfully as well as her final year of school. But looming up ahead were the law boards.
Not passing them depressed her immensely. “I’m sorry to disappoint you,” she said in her email, emotionally too down to call. So I did.
“Megan, most people take those boards a couple of times before they pass them. Study hard and give them a try again next year. We’re all really proud of you. You’ll do fine.”
She’d think about it, she said, and then began to describe some of the questions on the exam, how odd it was that there were so many similarities between them and our own lives. “Dad, there was even a question about real estate taxes on log homes in the country, just like yours. And another about suing a veterinarian if your dog gets sick,” as hers had been. She went on with several more examples. Oh, my. No wonder she didn’t pass — she’d made up her own exam and never really took the one there in front of her. The stress had been too much. And she had been doing so well lately . . .
But again Megan fought back and stabilized, later that summer taking a job as a case worker for the Presbyterian Children’s Foundation in St. Louis. It was tough work in tough neighborhoods and in a city with the worst crime record in the country that year. She helped find foster parents for young kids, which meant taking them from their troubled homes. But her love for children and desire to protect them kept her going.
“You can’t believe the street I was on today, Dad. Trash everywhere and people asleep in it. Mean-looking dudes all over and me the white-girl law bringer. But I got little Dominick out of there. He was crying a lot, but he’s safe now.”
We were all immensely proud of the work she was doing, but scared, too, for her safety, but also her sanity. She was growing more and more depressed with each displaced child. “I want to build bunk beds all over my little house and let them all stay,” she said in an email. She managed to permanently place five of the fifteen in her charge, a very high success rate but one that she saw as a failure: “I pity the situations I left behind and consider them my fault,” she wrote later.
She had also been getting into terrible arguments with her friends, her recent ones from law school but even some she’d had since childhood. Two of them told me later they never wanted to see Megan again. Then, the next spring, she abruptly hung up the phone on me because I would not take care of her dog when she wanted me to.
“This trip to Italy is something we’ve planned for a long time, Meg, and we won’t be here to look after Mo,” I explained. “And besides, the little guy is pretty sick. Shouldn’t he really be with you? . . . Megan, hey, are you there? Meg?”
I was baffled because my daughter adored her dog and treated him like he was her kid, a wonderfully spoiled one. The two of them even looked alike with their ample, untamed manes, but before her move to Venice Beach, Megan flew to Denver where Brendan lives to leave the dog with him.
Something was very wrong, and before Victoria and I left on our trip in early July, I strongly suggested to my ex-wife that Megan stay where she was and get to the psychiatrist she’d been seeing for her increasing mood swings. Maybe he could alter the meds she’d been taking for what the doctor had diagnosed as the early symptoms of bi-polar disease.
But, instead, because she knew how much Meg wanted to live near the sea and in the sun, Janet helped her move, and so our daughter was left alone in some unknown couple’s apartment, itself in a near-empty, unfinished building, with two very large dogs she had never seen before and an increasing number of voices she was beginning to hear, and all of this just a couple of blocks from that frightening circus called Venice Beach.
And a madhouse it is, but for those just sight-seeing, a lot of fun: the jugglers, the hair-do’s, the unicycles and artists make the Beach a cool place to visit. But you don’t want to search there — you don’t want to get to know the place the way we had.
Not all monsters awake from their daydreams.
Some stay stuck playing Jesus Christ in psych wards
or humble themselves in corners of outdoor markets,
words for sale,
only words for sale.
Monster is a dirty word,
the dirty word:
fear the drooling, the crazy, the suicidal. The lucky live in beach houses —
The rich, the working, the brutally functional.
But some of them are sad:
the commute, the computer, the cell phone,
the empty, artless conversation that ends in a ten o’clock bedtime.
The rich pass by bird-watchers on the sidewalk.
When a dime is thrown,
the man who sees invisible dragons
is reminded of the letter O
and remembers a time when he, too was afraid of monsters.
Each morning Victoria and I would start out with my daughter’s picture in hand to go from shop to shop, or vendor to vendor, along the boardwalk. We’d stop nearly every passerby and ask, “Have you seen this young woman? She’s thirty-one, about five-two with long, curly blond hair. She has a tattoo on her left shoulder. Does she look familiar?”
“Nope. I’m sorry. She’s lovely — I sure hope you find her.”
“OK — thanks anyway, but in case you do see her, could you please give us a call,” and we’d hand out a card with our cell phone number on it.
But it was the more positive responses that grew to be the most frustrating. A spark of hope sent us in any number of directions — to Santa Monica, perhaps, where someone said he’d seen her last night, “on the corner where all the street people hang out,” which meant we had to find out where that was and then to be there for part of a day or night, watching and waiting.
Or to the many “for women only” shelters there are in the area — “I saw her go in, I know it was her from the hair. The Women’s Recovery Center, you know, over there on Colorado Ave. You’ll find her. I know she’s there.”
I’d wait outside while Victoria, one brave person, went in. These shelters were tough, no-nonsense spots, and for some reason I always feared she wouldn’t come out, that something would happen, though she assured me she was fine. I trusted that she knew best: raising three great children while at the same time caring for her late husband dying of cancer had given her a sense of perspective that few people have. She knew what was important and what wasn’t, and children were. She’d also taken off to California herself many years ago, leaving her small hometown in Illinois for the maze of LA. She knew the lure of the place — its wonders, its terrors.
Maybe Meg’s here, I’d think, pacing back and forth outside the anonymous building. Why wouldn’t she be? They have food and a place to sleep, and it’s close to the beach and where her apartment was on Vernon. She could have walked here easily. Of course, when we began to take taxis to follow up on one of these increasingly distant leads, my hopes grew dimmer and dimmer.
Meanwhile, Brendan would be off on his daily round of searching among the bodies in piled blankets that lay everywhere: on benches, in the alleys, below the Santa Monica pier. High on pillars above the beach, the pier was a dormitory for the homeless with its cool, darkened sand, and away from the hoards of tourists. We were with him one afternoon going from one heap of blankets to another, looking for her face swaddled in those shadows, only to be startled by the frightened eyes peering back, but never were they hers.
I was scared for my son but proud of his courage. Having recently survived his own personal troubles, he was determined not to give up on his sister. He was also far more familiar with the world of alternative lifestyles than any of us and could talk to the locals like one of their own. He and I hugged each time he set off, and I can still see him disappearing among the skate boarders and Hawaiian shirts into the mist of the ocean air.
It’s late, Brendan. Time to quit. Come back, and I’d lie awake for hours, seeing again in the headlights that crossed the ceiling, the shadows weaving around a fire on the beach every sunset, drumming, chanting, until, in their blankets like shrouds, they wandered off to the darkened corners of the shuttered shops.
I never slept until I heard his key at the door and his footsteps on the carpet, sneaking in like he was sixteen again.
“Anything?” I’d whisper from our room.
“No. I’ll look south tomorrow.”
“Get some sleep.”
Black shapes on the sand, three of them — which one, which one, the sun going down . . . Boa tarde, are you my daughter? Let me see your face. Boa tarde. Desculpa, I’m sorry. Reaching, touching, my hand on the shawl slipping from her shoulder, the white bone of her shoulder, skeletal, coral, cold . . .
“Sweetie, hey Sweetie, wake up — you’re having a bad dream. Are you okay?”
“Huh? Sorry. Didn’t mean to wake you.”
“Don’t worry — I’ve been awake for a while. Want to talk about it?”
“Yeah, I guess. . . . Portugal . . . the year I was teaching there with Janet and the kids. We found this little beach town called Nazare where the old widows come out late afternoons. So strange, their sitting there on the beach, all dressed in black, staring out at the sea. They light candles, too — waiting for their lost husbands. Fishermen, sometimes gone for years, but they still sit there.”
“Hmm — so you were on that beach again?”
“Yeah. I guess. I was trying to touch one of them, to see her face, but then I did and she was just nothing, nothing but bones. . . . Megan almost drowned there, too — maybe that’s why I’m thinking of the place. We’d left the kids to play around in the sand and had gone to have some wine in an outside bar near-by. ‘No going near the water,’ we told them, but Meg — she was nine — she couldn’t resist, like now, and in she went to chase a wave. It flattened her, and these three Portuguese guys had to haul her out before she went under for good, forever . . . Have you seen the size of these, these waves?”
“Come closer. We need to hug.”
Tangle dance in the tops of monkey trees
like a three day scream on the beach
with a wild flower tucked between my teeth
and the voice of Poseidon echoing through my ears:
“Smoke starfish, Mermaid, solve the death of JFK.”
You find them.
The FBI put ME in a microwave,
looking for answers to America’s
unsolved mysteries. Meanwhile,
I’m starving to death and memorizing license
plate numbers in a grocery store parking lot.
When will I get to teach lessons again?
Wake to an alarm clock?
Put money in a 401K?
As soon as the vampire bats
stop hiding in the bushes, when red wine
is made from anything but blood, if the circus
ever ceases to reincarnate and enslave me . . .
I will escape
ON OUR OWN
In her fear and utter exhaustion, Meg’s mother had begun taking more and more of the blame on herself. “It’s my fault, her being here.” “This was her dream, to live on Venice Beach, but why didn’t I realize how sick she was.” “She’s gone — I know it.” But her increasing anguish made her a poor detective. We needed level heads, but it didn’t take long before everyone was tense and at each other’s throats.
“Yeah, you did, you enabled her to get here, but this isn’t about you, it’s about finding Meg. So enough of your self-pity, okay?”
Such mean comments by me were of no help either.
So it was I felt both regret and relief when she had to return to Illinois and her mandatory work as a pediatric nurse practitioner. She was sobbing as she got into the taxi. As angry as I was with her for having helped Meg move and then her consuming guilt, I truly pitied her because I pitied myself, fearing the same things she did. I also knew full well that I hadn’t been as attentive to Megan’s increasing illness as I should have been.
“Find her, oh please,” she said, and we hugged one another as we once had years ago when the kids were first born. I was crying, too, as her taxi turned the corner. “We will, we will,” I waved, but knowing, as each endless night turned into day, that we might never.
Janet had spent her time dealing with the “worthless, fucking cops,” as she put it mildly. For five straight days she’d been at the Beach police station first thing in the morning, then on the phone and in offices with the LAPD the rest of the day.
“If she’s over eighteen, we can’t help you unless you got power of attorney.”
“But she’s ill, sir, and in a psychotic state. She could harm herself.”
“Do you know how many weirdos there are out there we have to look out for?
“This is my daughter we’re talking about, officer.”
“Look, I’m sorry. You should know there are a lot of daughters and sons around here. You people are the exception — you’ve come to find your kid. Most people don’t give a damn,” which was something I seriously doubted until Brendan told us about a girl he’d shown Meg’s picture to who looked up at him and said, “I wish someone was out there looking for me.”
Contacts with the Missing Persons Bureau and Mental Health were even more exasperating. The former would not handle the latter — that is, if you were mentally ill, you were not a missing person, you were a sick one. And if you were missing, there was no way to document your disease, to show that you were bi-polar like Meg. You were simply missing, for whatever reason, and thus would not be on any records that Mental Health would keep.
Our ultimate frustration was almost comic. Victoria was on the cell phone with Mental Health while I was on the motel’s, talking to Missing Persons. Simultaneously, the voice on her end said we should be calling the voice on my end who was saying the same damn thing.
And, finally, who was to say she was actually missing? What proof do you have? Perhaps your daughter wants her own life and wants you out of it. Maybe you are after her money? Maybe you aren’t her parents, or sibling, or step-mother at all? Who are you anyway, and why are you really after this young woman?
We had come to hate the so-called “right of privacy” so beautifully worked into the California culture by the former governor, the late Ronald Reagan. In the name of privacy he closed up the mental institutions and gave all the many troubled people like my lost daughter the right to wander on their own — private citizens all, protected from the possible intrusion of family and friends, protected from protection itself.
Thus we arrived at the last chance of three, allowed to pry into Megan’s checking account in hopes of it revealing what the public servants and our personal searches had not.
And now, as I type this on the twin of my daughter’s Dell laptop, I look up again to see Brendan trying to stay awake in the mid-afternoon light and Victoria staring out the motel room window towards the sea.
I also see the sweet little dog, and here he comes jumping up on my lap with that funny little snort from his stubby, ever runny nose, and I say, “Hey, MoTown, how you feeling today?”
“That’s it, it’s gotta be!” — and I carefully type one of the wee dog’s many nicknames onto the Bank of America’s password entry with its case sensitive capital “M” and capital “T,” hit the enter button, and wait.
Nothing happens, so I double click and wait again, afraid to say a word to my wife and son.
There are two convicts loose
from the state pen
six miles from here,
lifers, the news say,
rape and murder.
We post the cat on the porch,
bolt the door
and ready the kids for bed.
In the shower my daughter
sings like a rock star,
fogging the mirror with song.
I knock, to hurry her along,
but she doesn’t answer,
the shower a heavy drummer.
I knock again and see
those faces on the screen,
that stare, the chipped grin
rising on the mirror, through the steam.
The first we heard of Megan’s disappearance was a phone call from Janet on the 25th of July, 2006. “Huh? What do you mean she’s missing,” I heard Victoria ask, knowing full well that my former wife often imagines the worst. “Aren’t you jumping the gun here a little? She’s probably just having a good time and has forgotten to write or call.”
No, Janet was adamant: Megan was gone, unheard from by anyone since early in the month, including Jeff and Cindy, whose apartment she was in. They were worried, and Jeff decided to fly back to LA to see what was going on. It was then we learned that Megan’s “dream” had turned into a young couple’s nightmare, as well as our own, and most hauntingly, our daughter’s.
388 Vernon Street, Apartment One, was the victim of a very frightened person, someone who was hearing things that others did not and had written unreadable words all over the walls in large, script-like letters together with frenzied drawings of mermaids and pirates; someone who had taken all the photos in the house from their frames — photos of a young couple holding hands, or petting their dogs, or smiling with their family — and had cut all them into tiny, infinitesimal pieces; someone who had stopped buying dog food and fed the dogs oatmeal instead and left it smeared all over the floor; and in the bathtub this same someone had placed all the stereo and video equipment and turned on the water, filling the tub to the top, then walked out the apartment door for good, leaving it half-open.
And days later, here comes Jeff, walking slowly up the sidewalk, looking at all the paper and beer cans outside his first-floor apartment, sensing something is wrong. He sets down his suitcase, slowly pushes open the unclosed door and stands there, his hand over his mouth, trembling at what he sees.
“Anyone? Hello! Champ, Chi-Chi — here pups! Jesus, shit, what’s happened?”
He gropes about his jacket, searching for his cell phone and punches in 9-1-1.
“Yes, please, I think there’s been a murder at my apartment. Who? Who? — I don’t know who . . . the someone who was staying here, that’s who. Hurry, will you!?”
Jeff was right. There had been a murder, but this was not the typical case for a detective to solve. This was a murder without a corpse. Instead, some voice had risen up and slain the person Jeff’s prep school had hired, the young woman with excellent teaching credentials and two graduate degrees — the one who had moved to sun-lit California because the gray winters of the mid-west made her depressed, because there was lots of excitement on the Beach, things were happening there, and she’d be so happy and feel so good that who needs medications — so how about some weed from the street instead, and a few beers? — nothing wrong with that, and then maybe score a little crack from Chief, “starfish” he calls it — some cool dude, that Chief — but who are these people looking back at me from all over this house? Go away, shut up. Turn that thing down, will you! Where’s all that coming from, that whining? I’ll fix your ass . . .
But when Jeff got around to calling Janet a couple of days later, his emotions had gone from fear through sorrow to rage. He didn’t give a damn where Megan was or how sick she must be — he wanted payment for the profound damage she had done, the thousands of dollars worth. I didn’t blame him really, but in order to get the police active in searching for Meg, Jeff would have to help us find her by reporting the damage as a break-in, an actual violation of the law. The cops wouldn’t do a thing otherwise, but for whatever reason, he refused to do so.
“My daughter’s life is at stake here,” I said over the phone. “Your walls can be repainted, you know.” He knew, but I had the troubling feeling he wanted to punish her, and us, to the ultimate. “Okay, then, but you don’t get a nickel, pal.”
Lord Foul has run amuck and driven me over again.
“Alas!” say the bats, pissing in their caves.
“Too bad!” says the warthog, chewing awful stick crud,
digging crusty scratches in the dirt.
“What is it this time?” say the mosquitoes, pumped full of iron, forging gleeful smiles,
“Have you crashed, gone mad, been robbed or sickened?”
The box I check is all of the above,
and as I step, without notice, into the heart of the eye of the middle of the jungle,
I stop to check my supplies.
One net, one bread, a fist and a bottle,
“For defense or survival?” asks the on-looking tomcat,
scratching the knick on the upper left ear.
With my head, still bandaged, I fought full force to manage a whisper,
“I don’t fucking believe it — I think we did it. I think we’re in! Megan’s bank account — I think we’re here.”
“You did what?” Victoria said from somewhere far off.
“You shitting me, Dad?” Brendan was suddenly awake.
“No, get over here. Maybe we can track her now.”
And we did, patiently, her day-by-day path, following it like a wounded deer’s, starting with her earliest transactions when she first got to Venice Beach in late June and then into mid-July when she began to wander.
The closer we got to the present, the more extravagant and confused her transactions became. There were five postings for 7/19 alone, all in Santa Monica, including a huge bill for The Georgian, a very plush hotel, but also one for the Holiday Inn on the same date, together with some place called Jinky’s and another for Bubba Gump’s, a pricey tourist trap.
“She sure can waste some coin,” Brendan said, and she’d been doing so, hundreds of dollars of it, though this was not the first time. Internet travel deals, endless magazine subscriptions, on-line gambling: she tried them all in her manic moments in the past. I had to keep reminding myself that this was part of the disease, but I confess to being angry sometimes, not always able to separate her illness from bad behavior, just plain bad behavior.
“She’s not here, Dad, look,” Brendan said, snapping me out of the many worries I was having about how to pay for all this, plus for all our expenses now here in California where we’d already spent a couple of thousand we didn’t have.
“She’s not in Venice Beach, I mean — she’s in Marina Del Rey. Look at this last posting.”
“What? 7/28 — that’s just two days ago. I don’t believe it. Hot shit. Where is this place anyway?” I asked, all worries about money instantly gone: Megan was somewhere, and just ahead of us.
“It’s not far, a mile or so, so let’s get going,” Victoria said, and we grabbed our posters, pictures, and maps, tucked Mr. Mo in his hide-away kennel, and headed for the lobby where a taxi was waiting in the so-called shade. It was over 100 that day, and the sun was everywhere.
“Best Western Pacific Motel does not allow pets. The maid service has discovered you have one and you must leave. Please come to the front desk.”
We had just returned and found this note on the door — all afternoon in the relentless heat, and now this painful note. We knew the rule — the “no pets” sign was right there on the front desk. But Brendan had managed to sneak the little dog in when he first arrived, and we would tuck Mo under a jacket to take him out to poop and pee. Mo was very quiet otherwise, and when we’d be out for several hours, he’d sleep in his portable kennel. We had also requested no maid service, but maybe he’d barked or had cried at the door.
But there was no way he was going anywhere. No way.
“Come here, Shortpants,” and I scooped him up, holding him carefully against my chest. “He’s getting so thin, Sweetie. His ribs, feel his ribs . . . I don’t know if I can take much more of this. I mean, Brendan has to leave tomorrow, and we haven’t found her. What can we do, just the two of us? And now they say we can’t have Mo . . .”
“Bruce, calm down a little. It’ll be okay. You stay here with the dog and let me go plead our case with them,” and dear Victoria headed to the lobby.
We had not found a thing in Marina del Rey, nothing, just a lot of rich peoples’ boats, snug in their private moorings. Unlike Venice Beach, there was no concentration of people in a single area, and the sidewalks were mostly empty which meant we had to walk a lot further in the eternal sun. It was exhausting, and I was nearly delirious.
Why? Why hadn’t anyone seen her? She was just there two days ago, for God’s sakes.
Or was she?
That’s it — she didn’t use the card at all, someone else did. She’s lost it, that’s what’s happened. Now what?
I flopped down on the couch, still holding the dog, and closed my eyes. We’d been at this for six days, six of them, and from some place in my memory, I saw this small boy covered up in a wooden cart and his grandmother pulling him along through the dust towards the sea. He’s got cholera, but he’ll live if she can keep him alive for six days, and only she. I will, I will. That’s what she believes, some old Egyptian myth, so she hides him from everyone. Andree Chedid, The Sixth Day, her beautiful novel. I will . . .
And then I fell asleep, MoTown cradled on my chest, the two of us snoring away.
On May 11, 1987, my father disappeared from the VA hospital in Coatesville, Pennsylvania, where my mother had him committed for Parkinson’s disease. She simply couldn’t take care of him anymore. He was in an ambulatory part of the facility and on his good days could manage to get himself dressed and shuffle about the halls and lawn near the building. But on that day in May, exactly a month after his birthday, he shuffled off too far and was never seen again.
My siblings and I got there as soon as we could, and with the help of a Navy helicopter and search parties with bloodhounds, we covered every possible spot he could have gone, beginning first with any water nearby. We scoured the pastoral countryside and talked to every shop owner and person on the street, doing the same then as we were doing now, putting up posters, showing his picture, asking “have you seen this bent-over old man?”
But over the next many months I continued to see him in every mall I’d go into or street I’d walk down. There was Pop, moving inexorably along ahead of me. How his ghostly image kept escaping my grasp, I never understood, but he managed to, disguised always as some other aging gentleman.
My father never wanted to die in a hospital, and the last time I ever spoke with him, he told me he was “getting out of this hellhole on my birthday,” which was April 11th. He was off by a month, but my theory is that he was just trying to get home to blow out the candles one more time. He could not have gone far, however, bent over and in need of medications as he was. He simply found a place in the woods to curl up and hide out for a while.
“This must remind you of looking for Pop,” Brendan said early on in our search. He was twelve when his grandfather disappeared.
“It does, but this is worse. Maybe because I can’t believe such a thing is happening again. . . . But this is your sister, B’nan. My child.”
“Pop was a cool guy. I miss him a lot.”
“Me, too. But I like to think there’s something heroic in what he did. He set off on his own, like the old wolf leaving the pack, wandering away. A romantic notion, maybe, but there’s nothing romantic in what’s happening to Meg. She’s not in charge. Something else is, something she can’t control. It’s carrying her off, and we gotta stop it.”
On the third day without sleep
I woke from a waking dream
since dreams were the same as waking
and put on my father’s cap, blaze-orange
across the corn fields, through the hedgerows
like a small fire in the cold
those mornings we hunted together
and searched that morning alone, certain
I’d find him that day, remembering
a pheasant we’d shot and lost
somewhere in the brush,
thirty, forty yards away, not far
but gone, not even a feather,
just gone, like my father
until I set his cap in the center
the way he showed me how,
circling outward from it ever further,
fields, trees, years from then now
where I left it that night
that he might find it, still warm
from the dream I had while searching,
from the search I make each day,
“MoTown can stay here as long as we like. They were very kind about it when I told them the whole story, why we’re here and all. I thought the manager was going to cry,” Victoria said, then started to herself. “Mr. Garcia said Mo’s like our seeing-eye dog, and companion dogs can go anywhere in California. So we don’t have to hide him anymore.”
“Did you hear that, Stubs?” I said, lifting the wee dog up joyfully. “Great news, huh? You can even guide us across the street,” which in a way he was already doing. His being with us was to have a part of my daughter there, too: a living, breathing part, unlike the objects from her apartment. If something happened to him, in my imagination it was like something happening to her. To me they shared a profound innocence that I wanted to save, like childhood itself. Despite all that Megan had said and done to me and others over the last many months, I knew there was still a child somewhere deep down inside her, and MoVaughn was its symbol.
Megan Bartlett Guernsey was born on March 13, 1975 in Norfolk, Virginia. From the very first, there was something different about her. Even in her first pictures from the hospital, she had one eye open and a slight smile on her face. Plus, she was a pale yellow and needed to stay in the hospital a few extra days for infant jaundice that required a bilirubin light.
Early mornings in her crib Meg would sing away like a sparrow as the sun came up, and then would giggle to herself as if she knew some joke we didn’t. Learning to move about on all fours at first, and then on her determined two, she quickly became known as “The Bomb.” If we heard an odd kind of ticking noise coming from her — “eh-eh-eh-eh” — as she toddled across the room, we knew something was about to be blasted as she’d grab onto whatever was near and knock it over.
Meg was born at a time when her name wasn’t as well known as it is today. It’s strange how names catch on, but this version of her name was one of the first and a genuine original. “The Bomb” had many other nick-names, as well, like “Megaton,” a perfect blend of her given name and that more explosive “eh-eh-eh” one. “The Cheese” was another name that stuck because that’s all she’d eat most of the time, sweeping all other food from her high chair while squealing loudly. Later, “Mouse” was something I called her a lot, in honor of her diet of various cheddars.
When we brought our first puppy home, “Meganski” was almost four and treated the dog as if he were a person, dressing him up in tee-shirts, shorts, and hats. Poor Dewey didn’t know any better, and the rest of his doggy life would wear most anything for a little while. He was my daughter’s first pup and pet, the source perhaps for her fascination with “pup-pets.”
In college she created her own street people from trash heaps around the campus. With tin can grins, cigarette butt teeth, and eyes of spit-out gum, the grotesques she created were works of genius. They were also terrifying, as were the witches she created for a production of Macbeth. After getting an MA in English, she was hired to teach junior high by a prep school in New Jersey where Megan eagerly took on the task of creating costumes and choreography for seventh and eighth graders. Her witches stole the show with their wild looks she crafted with their yellowed eyes and hair full of static, seemingly on fire.
The next year, feeling that the kids at Montclair-Kimberley Academy were too privileged, she moved to the south side of Chicago to teach the same grades at an African-American private school in a high crime area of the city and in a school that itself was failing. The stress of the job began to show, and Meg would call me often, worried about this student or that, how she could help them, or frustrated by one of her colleagues.
Maybe doing something really different, something that hadn’t been tried before might be a good idea, she concluded, and on Valentine’s Day, 2002, a one and only performance of Romeo and Juliet took place at The Harvard School of Hyde Park — Megan Guernsey, Director. Amazed and overwhelmed, I wasn’t the only one standing and clapping wildly in that creaking old gym when the kids took their bow on a platform made into the stage.
I was the only white guy there, but not the only proud father. These young kids had done Shakespeare — how wonderful! — and my daughter’s love of theater and performance was the reason. She and fantasy had been friends for a long time.
So had she and idealism.
The Harvard School with its inner-city kids was just one example of my daughter’s desire to make a difference in peoples’ lives. Just after college where she’d been a Dean’s List student, she wrote me about a job she was applying for, and why: “I have an interview tomorrow at an assisted living facility (for old folks) . . . I would be a ‘caretaker’ if I get the job, which could mean anything from wiping butts to reading birthday cards aloud . . . The best part about it is that I’d actually be doing something to help people out. As much as I’d really want to see old folks’ families care for them at home, I have to be realistic in that that situation isn’t usually feasible for most households. I guess it’s the kind of job that could make me a little sad, but at least it would be work that extracted an emotional response instead of feeling like a machine.”
That’s why I wasn’t too surprised when she called me about her plans after that year of teaching in south Chicago:
“Dad, I think I can help these kids more if I go to law school instead of teaching them about semi-colons. I just got accepted at St. Louis University. I’ll be starting in the fall.”
May in March: our daughter’s birthday, somehow now twenty
as the crocus uncurl in their black beds, everywhere
yellow, yellow, a whole week of weather
yellow as her hair —
even the bug light on the north porch
where a moth this birthday evening, back too soon,
flaps against the glass flower,
the dust of its wings on the yellow bloom.
In the mild of this scented night, so fragile,
we walk her to her car and back to college:
seat belt on, doors locked, half a carrot cake
in a box beside her and leaning against it the vase
we found and filled with twenty daffodils
to brighten the table tonight, yellow, yellow,
yellow as the petals from its delicate neck
like wishes we’d given light to, gone in a breath.
Few things are more frightening than a phone call late at night. The red glare of numbers by the bedside said it was 3:38.
“Meg’s been in an accident. The hospital just called. I don’t know much more than that.”
My sister would be there as soon as she could, to St. John’s. She’d let us know right away.
This was the second accident Megan had while in law school, and the worse of the two by far. She’d been smacked in the side at an intersection near her house a year before, and though the small car she was driving was totaled, she was pretty much okay. This next time, however, she could have been decapitated as anyone in the passenger’s seat would certainly have been.
But who has passengers along when you’re off to see a sometime boyfriend at three in the morning, especially when you want to get in the last word and have had a little late-night booze to help you say it, and then start cruising down a dimly lit, back-city street in your low-riding, fast-driving Tiburon and . . .
Megan remembers nothing after that except waking up in the hospital, terrified that she’d killed somebody. Instead, she hadn’t seen the dump truck’s bent bumper sticking far out into the street and went right into it, ripping off the roof of the car, throwing her onto the pavement, still attached to her seat.
Her face was badly cut and her right wrist dislocated, but most importantly, close to thirty minutes had elapsed between the collision and her regaining consciousness. What did that mean, we wanted to know. What about the trauma to her brain? The many cat-scans were negative, but what did they know? Six months later she was on her way to a lost summer in Greece.
And then, almost exactly two years after that, on a sunny June morning at our summer place in Maine, lazily over coffee on the deck, I stared at this news item in the Portland Sunday Telegram. There had been a hideous murder in the city, and during the trial, details of the killer’s past were like ice down my spine:
“Some noted that a serious head injury Gurney received in a traffic crash in 2005 changed his personality and behavior, and that his effort to wean himself off painkillers contributed to his aggressive behavior. Evaluations after Sarnacki’s death said Gurney reported hearing voices and seeing signs in mundane things that others did not see. He said her decapitation and the fire he set were a purification ritual that would give her eternal life.”
Megan Guernsey disappeared a month later.
“He wants to talk to you, Brendan. Somebody named Flash. Says you met him the other day on the beach.”
The guy’s name was just how we got out of there, too — out the door, down the stairs, and onto the beach, full-speed. Sure enough, ambulance lights were pulsing a few blocks away, and Flash was certain that he’d seen someone who looked like Megan being picked up, or so he’d told Brendan.
“From dehydration,” Brendan said, as we got closer to the scene: a blur of dizzying lights, of reds and whites in a cloud of rising exhaust. “He said the EMT’s get a lot of calls about people with bad sunburns,” and the three of us tried to see who was on the stretcher, looking for her long hair, her tattoo. For that ankle bracelet she’d worn for years, the one I bought her in Istanbul.
But we weren’t alone. A good-sized crowd had gathered, mostly just curious, but a few in it were suspicious of what was going on: “Leave us alone.” “We can take care of ourselves.” “Let be.”
Although nobody screamed “Pigs” as we used to yell in the sixties marching against the war, it was clear there was tension between the street people and anyone whom they thought of as a threat. There was definitely a sense of family on the Beach, as one member looked out for the other, just as we were trying to do. As strange as they often were in the way they dressed and behaved, I always felt that most of the people we talked with were genuine in their concern for some family in trouble. They identified as if they themselves were searching, like the young woman who kept staring at Victoria one morning and followed us for a while as we walked along the boardwalk.
“She kept looking at me like she was looking for her mother,” V. said later. “She was so thin, a waif. I wanted to take her with me.”
There were, of course, enough truly haunted individuals around to remind us that young women are lured from their nest on the Beach all the time, by drugs, by cash, by illness.
“Meg! Is that you? We’re here, we’re here.” Victoria was on her tip-toes trying to get a look, jumping and waving at the stretcher that went into the ambulance. But there was no way you could tell in the blinding lights that soon went over a knoll and back down onto the streets towards . . .
“Marina del Rey,” someone yelled back. “That’s where they take them overnight. One night only, then back out.”
My son was off to find Flash to shake his hand and put a few bucks in it while we got back to the motel as soon as we could, then immediately on the phone to the hospital in the same town we’d walked the length of earlier that day.
“Are you sure you know the way to LAX?” I asked. “It’s a really confusing out there on those roads, so you be careful.”
Brendan was loading his two beat-up duffle bags in the trunk of the rental car he’d arrived in with MoVaughn a week earlier. We had used it only once in a while and had relied on taxis instead. None of us knew the labyrinth of roads in the area and needed to be looking everywhere else, instead.
“Yeah, I can find the airport — there’s a map for that. You have to find her, Dad. You and Victoria.”
I feared this day and now it was here. We were now on our own, true enough, but I also feared for my son’s emotions and they were bare as I’d ever seen them right then. He’d lost ball games before, and girlfriends, but never his sister. Things hadn’t always been so great between them, and he even told her once that he would never speak to her again. Megan could do that to you sometimes. But this was for real. He might truly never have the chance to speak to her again, and he knew that. We all did, even after last night with its chance that she might be somewhere safe.
“Keep after those hospital people. Keep calling! So what if one nurse said she couldn’t tell you. The hell with her. Somebody will. Somebody will take the chance and tell you if she’s been there. Don’t quit.”
And then he paused for a moment and said he’d forgotten something upstairs in the room and would be right back, which he was a few minutes later, but with very red eyes. And then we all had them, hugging my kid good-by.
Back in the room ourselves, when I picked MoVaughn up, I knew right away what Brendan had forgotten, what he realized he had left upstairs.
Found in the limbs by my son
walking the wind in the apple
the reach and hold of his climbing
the fluttering down of leaves
Held in his palm to the house
a hollow of woven reeds
of hair from the rubbings of deer
skin from the shed of a snake
Set by his bed on the bureau
by the wash of ocean in shells
the husk of a locust still singing
the silent horn of a snail
Heard in his sleep as song
a bird as bright as blood
pecking the breath from blossoms
to feed the beaks of its young
THE RIGHT THING
If there is a “perfect storm” for disaster, there must be something similar for its opposite: the right combination of perseverance, luck, and good people to make the “perfect calm.” We were out on that pavement every hour and would continue to be. We’d also had some luck with the lap-top, getting into Meg’s account, and we were now beginning to get help from folks like Mr.Garcia, the motel manager, and this guy Flash who had no reason to call us other than some sense that it was the right thing to do. No doubt he was grateful for the twenty bucks Brendan gave him as thanks, but I believe he and the motel man had another motivation: a sense that we are all in this together, none of us knowing why we’re here on the planet and what it all means, if anything. We have to make our meaning, and they had.
So did a nurse named Rachel.
“Keep this hush-hush, but someone matching what you describe was here a couple of nights ago. She had a terrible burn and her face was swollen real bad. I was working the shift and remember that tattoo on her shoulder.”
“You’re kidding me. When, when? Is she still there? Where did she go?”
“No, no. We keep them only a night. It was a couple of nights ago. They come in anonymously and leave that way. We sometimes give them clothes, too, if they need them.”
I was going nuts on the phone, waving my arms about like a madman, trying to tell Victoria, and maybe the whole world, that something good was happening.
“Oh, thank you, thank you. But do you know what she had on?’
“I just don’t remember and better stop talking now anyway. . . . Oh, there is one more thing I remember, and I hate to say it, but she wasn’t very nice to us. She seemed real sad at first, but then turned kind of mean, really.”
I apologized hugely and felt embarrassed. I wanted to hug this lady and kept thanking her.
“She could have lost her job, you know,” Victoria said after I hung up. “But good for Rachel.”
And back to Marina del Rey we hurried, my sunburned daughter’s trail as hot as the high sun, that fierce eye through a magnifying glass.
But on our way in the taxi I kept thinking about that nurse, about her name: Rachel, Rachel. What is it I’m trying to remember about that name? Something about . . .
“I know, Sweetie, I know! — the whaling ship Rachel! Its captain lost his son at sea, but Ahab, that bastard, doesn’t give a damn and won’t help find the boy. Rachel — ‘weeping for her children, because they are lost.’”
A city blown to pieces
not my first World War
one battle ground was an island airport and a bottle of pink pills
stale pizza crusts in the garbage can,
but Anne should remember that from the 90’s,
shoveling in the Pizza Hut breadsticks in Phoenix,
making a tent by the rental cars
It’s innocent in your 20’s
being turned on
in fact, no one seems to know you’re gone
the first time you hit Venice’s
streets, hitch up to San fran,
do acid in some frat house, swim naked
in some French guy’s pool.
Back then it was an adventure.
“She’s with Anne,” they thought.
(She’ll keep me out of trouble)
Was I sick then
Was I safe
I was hungry. We both were, and after another frenzied search of the neighboring Marina D., then back to Santa Monica on a futile tip, we were having a drink at the Sidewalk Cafe in Venice Beach and checking out the menu. We’d eaten there often because it was right on the boardwalk, and we could watch everyone go by, whether on foot, skate, or stilt. It was also a good place to spy from, and we were always on guard like sleuths in shades.
“Is this whole thing real or not, Sweetie,” I said. “I mean, it’s like we’re in a detective flick, watching for the bad guy all the time, played by Megan. Script by Fellini.”
Hollywood was just down the road, after all, and I started telling her about my late Uncle Donald who had trouble with reality himself.
“‘We’re going to make a movie,’ he told me all the time when I was a kid. ‘I can fly. Watch!’ and he’d bounce around the room flapping his flabby arms and his shirt tails out like sails ‘Come on, try it yourself! Ha-ha! Up in the air we go!’”
I loved my zany uncle who was so different from my workaholic father. Both were World War II veterans and both had their scars, quite literally, in my father’s case. But Donald’s were deeper. A confused and frightened person to begin with, he’d been left for more than two years in the vast emptiness of the Aleutian Islands to watch for Japanese war planes and never recovered from that isolation, talking to himself continually. Uncle Don lived for more than eighty years with his many imagined friends and loved the motion pictures, as he called them, where all his pals appeared one time or another.
“Look at this place, Victoria. Donald would have fit in just fine, don’t you think? — with all these other self-chatterers.”
“Maybe they’re all on the phone, who knows. It’s kinda hard to tell these days,” she said, just as on cue some guy sitting alone a few tables down from us started laughing real loud, no one else around, until we started laughing, too.
“See what I mean? Why wouldn’t I think this is all make-believe?! Boing! Boing! — I’m just back with my uncle, trying to gain altitude on my pogo stick.”
But sadly, as I went on to tell her, Donald wasn’t the only mentally ill person in our extended family. Janet’s brother Joe was another, a shy, withdrawn young man who grew up tending flowers for his family’s wholesale greenhouse business. Joey knew the fragility of things — of glass, of seedlings — and sent to Viet Nam in the late 1960’s, he was not equipped to deal with what awaited him there. The war with its violent colors must have terrified him. When he came home, he retreated from family and friends, and spent the rest of his life alone, except for the plants he listened to, talking back.
“So, yes, on Janet’s side there’s as much a history as on mine. And you also know me and the rest of my clan — we’re pretty goofy. It’s in the blood, poor Meg. But let’s change the subject, okay?”
“Fine with me, but let’s first raise a glass to your uncle and poor Joey, okay? We’re going to find her, Bruce.”
The mad uncle
nobody loves but the children.
How they squeal as he dances
in the rain.
The frog is a prince,
in his emerald jacket —
the toad, a jester,
his coat of warts, brown motley.
Once, before time,
the toad had a beautiful voice,
sang all evening
in the grass —
sang so sweetly that birds
pecked the music from his throat.
All the songs of birds
are the toad’s
hopping at the feet of kids
the old soft-shoe.
As usual, sleep didn’t come easy that night. Brendan wasn’t out there at least, but his sister still was. But where had she gone from the hospital two nights ago? Nobody, nobody, had seen her anywhere, which was odd because she was there, somewhere — from the morning they let her out, wandering around.
But maybe she isn’t. Maybe she’s not wandering at all, has found some place to hide out, to sleep. Like Pop. Where the hell did he go? People don’t just disappear . . .
Oh but they do. All the time, and I stayed awake for a long while thinking about the faces on milk cartons around the time my father was missing, the little kids who’d vanished, their pictures vague in the waxy past. And what’s this crap everyone says now, reporters and all, that so-and-so has “gone” missing? Where the hell did that come from? Megan IS missing. She didn’t go and DO it. You GO to the store, perhaps, but you don’t GO missing, for Christsake. Missing’s not a place, and I was soon out of bed, pacing around.
Let me think, let me think . . . Where the hell did she go?
The successful detective is also a psychologist which is probably why Edgar Poe created the first such character, Monsieur Dupin, the model for Sherlock Holmes. Poe was fascinated by the mind, both its reasoning powers and the loss of them to madness. Dupin solves his crime by his rational ability, not by jumping up and down like Rumpelstiltskin as I was. Instead, he enters the villain’s mind and tries to think like him.
So what was there in Marina del Rey that might attract my daughter? Like me, she’s a Pisces, and there’s water, water, everywhere around here, but where and what in particular? The ocean, of course, but looking at it was out of the question. The waves frightened me. From the first, I thought that’s where she had gone and still feared that happening. But fear’s an emotion, and I needed a way to control it.
“So what else, Watson? What else has to do with water? A yacht, perhaps?”
“But did you not notice the ‘No Trespassing’ signs, Holmes? You are usually more observant.”
“Precisely. What could be more tempting for this spirited young barrister than such restrictions displayed about the dock?”
“You are not suggesting, Sir, that she might go aboard in defiance of the very basis of law that she wished to practice? Such action would be self-contradictory, if I might be so blunt.”
“Mind your tongue, Watson. But that’s exactly where ‘The Bomb’ has gone missing. On one of those fancy-assed boats, old boy.”
And then I started laughing uncontrollably.
Such was the madness I was going through myself, almost losing my mind as I tried to find my daughter who had lost hers. I was indeed starting to have these kind of goofy dialogues go on in my brain which perhaps needed some kind of relief from all of the tension. The unreality of her disappearance, the fears of what might have happened, the exhaustion plus the zany atmosphere of Venice Beach itself made me wonder if I, too, was going nuts.
But tomorrow was the seventh day of our search, and even the Lord rested a little that day, and so I crawled into bed, still giggling to myself, more my Uncle Donald than Sherlock Holmes.
Victoria was taking a shower, and I had just returned with some sticky buns and coffee. Even in our air-conditioned room, I could feel the waves, rolling in, drawing back, rolling in again, a block and a few sand dunes away. There’d been a full moon last night, high tide, and I was soon rocking with the cradle of the sea like I was still on our ship ten years ago.
Could that be? The S.S. Universe Explorer, port side, Cabin 345. Ten years? Anchors away.
In the fall of 1996, I’d been hired to teach on Semester at Sea, a round-the-world educational voyage for some five hundred college students who take courses on board. I was the English department, and my children were able to sail with me because they were still in college. We stopped in ten different ports, from Japan to Morocco.
As I stood there in that motel room, sipping some coffee and moving with the waves, I kept thinking about that cabin I’d had on the ship, how secure I felt there, tucked in, the sea all around sloshing about, and me in my snug little berth with my children nearby in theirs.
I’m surprised I wasn’t sucking my thumb remembering all that, which brought to mind a childhood picture I have of my daughter. Thumb in her mouth, she’s holding onto one end of her “blankie” and our new puppy is tug-of-warring at the other. There’s no sweeter picture of a little kid.
“Holmes is right,” I said aloud. “She’s on a fancy boat there in Marina del Rey. I’ll bet anything. Asleep in one of those womby bunks.”
“What’s that, my dearest? I smell coffee and something cinnamon. Who’s Holmes?”
There was to be no rest for the weary, lost in their dreams. Drowning out the rhythm of the incoming tide was a loud speaker from the boardwalk: Hare, Hare, Hare Krishna. Today was their parade on the Beach, held annually on the first of August. It was about the last thing I wanted to hear. “Are those weirdos still around?” I asked. “The last one I saw was bugging me in an airport a long time ago.”
“You’re being rude. They are gentle people and Megan might just be among them. You told me how much she loved India on your trip around the world. Let’s get out there. She might be.”
There was no doubt that I was becoming less and less tolerant of most everything. I didn’t want to be that way. I was simply worn out with all the varieties of life around me and just wanted to be home, to have my life simple again: to go fly fishing and watch the Red Sox. I was retired, dammit.
“Ivan Ilytch’s life was most simple and most ordinary, and therefore most terrifying.”
These words I’d read once came flashing through my memory. Tolstoy’s legendary nobody was a blinking red light in my life. After I’d read “The Death of Ivan Ilytch” my senior year in high school, I was determined not to be like him, to realize at the end of my life what I had wasted. And then from somewhere came memories of the factories I worked in to pay for college: the many desperate people on the assembly line at Fedder’s Air; my sophomore year in the paint room at Panel Graphic with its toxic smells; that bastard of a boss at Jet Spray Cooler. But I was white, male, middle-class, and most importantly, going to college. At the end of the summer, I’d be outta there and sitting in a seminar. What a lucky son of a bitch, and then on our trip around the world where I breathed the slums of India and held the hand of an orphan in Viet Nam . . .
“I’m sorry, Victoria. You’re right. I’m being a jerk. Let’s go to the celebration, but I still can’t stand patchouli. Sorry. It stinks.”
And it was everywhere, swirling around like the colors that bloomed in the air, orange, yellow, and pink on floats that made the boardwalk a sea of balloons, gravity defied like a worn-out western god by the waving of fans and twirling shapes that kept every tangible thing in motion — Krishna the Supreme and the mantra of Hare, each of us blessed by the force within, each of us a match to be lit, the fire ready there and waiting.
I fucking loved it.
It was just what I needed: magical, mystical, and wonderfully ridiculous.
I went back to our room happy, ready to light up, though not in the way most of the chanting parishioners had done. I had my energy back.
So enough of this already! Let’s find my girl!
That seventh day became the seventh night, and I was on the phone. If my thinking was right — if as my left brain Mr. Holmes had concluded — Megan was on one of those boats, then I figured she wouldn’t be for long. The water-craft there were elegant sloops of sleekly smoothed mahogany — works of sculpture, really — so the law had to be watching the docks all the time. Besides, if she were still on one of the boats, how would we know? I wasn’t about to risk being arrested for snooping around.
Plus, all that I’d been reading about the fate of the mentally ill made me realize that hospitals and jails had a lot in common. Emergency rooms, or those on wheels like the one that picked Megan up, turn into a hospital bed for a day or so. From there to the local slam is often the next step, jails over-crowded now with the lost and wandering, many of whom are not in their right mind and should be in an institution instead, if there were any.
Three hundred-fifty thousand, that’s the number of so-called offenders I heard about on NPR one afternoon, “offenders” because they are mentally ill. What an outrage: Rikers Island in New York is now the largest de facto psychiatric hospital in the country, and the LA County Jail is second. Meg could be on her way there from the holding tank in Marina Del Rey.
“What do you mean you can’t tell me whether she’s been arrested or not? Is she there, was she ever? Did you let her go?”
I‘d given the anonymous sergeant all the info he needed, told him why I had to know, but the answer was the same as we’d been hearing. I was an idiot to think otherwise:
“The law is to protect his or her privacy, sir.”
Arrrgghhh . . .
But then the automaton said this, “You can, however, find such information on our website.”
“Excuse me? Did you just say that you can’t tell me whether she is in your jail or has been, but I can find that out on the computer?”
“That is correct, sir. Our web address is . . . “
I was out of my chair in an instant, but poured a stiff drink before I grabbed for my daughter’s laptop. How ironic, it occurred to me at that moment, having her own computer to help find her. I’m a failed Luddite myself, but I don’t know where we would have been if we didn’t have it. Or where she would have.
“Thanks, Hal,” I said. “But why are you taking so long? Come on, connect!”
E’s, F’s, G’s, click, click, click, scrolling down slowly, my index finger on the screen, “Ge-, Gl-, Gr-,” “Gu”-ernsey, Megan.
“Son of a bitch! Holy moly! Victoria, here she is!”
And, indeed, there she was:
“07/29/06, 16:26, Slip #411, MDR. Trespassing. Released: 7/31/06. 8:30.”
That was all, nothing but facts. The bilirubin light. Why she couldn’t come home — had to stay all by herself, an infant. What do these facts have to say about that? About her!
“The 31st — that was yesterday, right? But ‘MDR’?”
“Marina del Rey, I guess. They let her out yesterday morning. Maybe I should call them back, find out which way she was going, if she’s okay.”
“It’s worth a try.” Which, of course, it wasn’t.
Black jack, the jawbone
stood stickin it to the man
by a twilight of moonshine
and a quick-witted sky.
“Take my harvest,” she said.
quick as a fly on a windshield,
splat as a chip-chop jellyfish,
he harpooned in a swimmer’s swish.
Black jack, that fast.
As if aware we were running on empty, MoVaughn had stopped eating. His mistress was out there somewhere, and although we’d found out where she’d been, where was she now? At least she’d had a roof over her head for a couple of nights, plus some water and food which she probably wouldn’t eat, a vegetarian for the last many years and as picky about food as she was in her high-chair. I smiled for a moment as I saw a tin plate of creamed chipped beef sailing across the cell.
But I wasn’t in a laughing mood. We simply didn’t know what to do next.
Dogs pick up on your feelings pretty fast, and that morning Mo shut down. He also hadn’t pooped in four days. Maybe a new kind of food would work, so I tried a couple of convenience stores nearby and came back with some stinky canned stuff I thought he’d eat. No luck. He just went back to bed.
The horrible thought that we might have to put him to sleep had crossed my mind too many times. He was not in pain, but his increasing lack of appetite and playfulness was a bad sign. Our spark was gone, too, and neither Victoria nor I had the strength to get out on that crowded pavement again without some real destination or purpose in mind.
But we didn’t have the time to take a day off. Not that we had a schedule really, or a plane to catch. We had cancelled our return flight already, several times. It was originally scheduled for three days after our arrival, and then rebooked twice after at a hundred bucks a ticket. But to hell with the cost — we didn’t have the time because Megan didn’t.
Weak from hunger and heat, as confused as she must have been, my daughter was terribly vulnerable out alone in this LA world, one I knew only from grotesques in the tabloids and from TV with its cold-case crime scenes, and one Victoria knew personally, which was worse. Plus, as we’d been warned many times by well-meaning people, the police did indeed round up the homeless, especially in tourist areas, and take them to Skid Row where they usually vanished. The prostitution and pornography rings were also real, active and luring.
All of this was way too much for me to think about. I had to stay busy instead, so while petting Mr. Mo, I started to wonder, could it be that he’s picking up something from her, not us? That’s she’s somewhere nearby and his depression is a reflection of hers? A crazy idea, no doubt, but better than the despair I was sinking into.
“Come here, little dog. Let me carry you around for a while,” and I tucked him under my arm.
“Don’t keep him out there very long, Sweetie. And you either, I’m worried about you, too — an hour tops, you promise?” And off we went into the western sunlight, a man and his faithful hound.
MoTown and I made a lot of friends that afternoon and stayed out long enough for “Mozambique” to finally do his business underneath a windy palm. Hard as stone it was, the poor pooch’s poop, but he livened up after and trotted along the boardwalk for a while, wagging his tail for all the cute girls who wanted to pet him. If he was now our guide dog, his longing for Megan must have been even more acute than mine, searching among those young women with his saucer eyes for her curly long hair, that sudden smile.
We even ventured down to the water, its great green waves. Those widows staring out at the Atlantic — that long-legged girl who just walked by, smiling at Mo. Those crones on the beach in Portugal, these surfers, all of us here and now, then those yet to be . . . I lay back in the sand and looked up at the sky. A long vapor trail stretched across it for a while, then lost its shape and disappeared, not a puff of it left to say that someone had ordered a drink up there or someone else had fallen to sleep — nothing to prove that anyone had ever been there at all.
I don’t remember being so tired, ever, as I was that late afternoon.
The next day we started talking seriously about flying home. We’d been out all morning walking the area with her picture, but no one had seen her, even the shop-keepers and locals whom we had gotten to know.
“Haven’t found her yet, huh? So sorry. You two must be exhausted,” and we were.
We had hit the wall, an expression I’d heard many times but never fully understood until I ran a marathon in St. Louis a decade before. It was eighteen degrees that November morning, and the wind was gusting out of the west as the race headed right into it on Lindell Boulevard, a long gradual slope until the park where we turned back towards the river at the twenty mile mark.
I simply couldn’t go on. There was nothing left in the tank, and after all that training, the hours, those miles . . . The wall! The fucking wall! It’s real. But then along came some old guy in funny green running shorts — some bent-over gent trotting by as I panted along barely moving.
“You stop now, and you’ll be sorry,” he said. “Your muscles will tighten right up. Come on, I’ll race you to the top,” and up a little hill in front of us someone was playing “Chariots of Fire,” and off I went, gutting out the last six miles. I waited at the finish to thank the old guy, but he never made it, if he was ever there at all. The mind is its own Venice Beach.
Mine needed to sneak off into the shadows and lie down, Victoria with me. This marathon we were running had no set rules, no established distance of twenty-six-and-a-quarter miles, something the ancient Greeks thought as the limit of human exertion. Little did they know.
Our course changed daily, too, and so did our game plan as a result, though “game” is the wrong word because it implies a board or field to play on — some defined set of boundaries. But this wasn’t Monopoly or chess or baseball. This was random and unpredictable, and I had just about given up trying to make some order out of the chaos. And even though Janet had agreed to help out with our expenses, our staying was costing all of us a small fortune. Taxi cabs alone were running us up to fifty bucks a day. Victoria and I also had a home of our own and pets in the kennel, so I picked up the phone to call Southwest for the fourth time.
The next available flight to Manchester was on August 5, three days off, which was later than I wanted, or at least a part of me did, the exhausted part. But always in the background another me kept hearing, “You’ve got to find her, Dad . . . Don’t quit,” like some ventriloquist had taught MoVaughn how to talk.
MY FATHER’S VOICE
A bad connection,
my father’s voice, thin on the phone,
but there were no storms back east,
none here in Illinois.
He was winded,
though it rang just once,
as if he’d been running —
said he was waiting for a business call.
The less I could hear him,
the louder I yelled,
sounding like him those Saturday mornings,
shouting out chores.
I asked would he be out this fall
but his answer was lost in voices,
far off, some other phone.
In the distance, I could hear their laughter.
“That’s got to be Janet,” I said. “Nobody else calls this damn early,” and I staggered around trying to find the phone. It was vibrating somewhere on the dresser.
“Huh? She did what?! Meg called you? When? Where? Give me the name!” and we were down the stairs and out, a scene we’d replayed so often but that had never had worked before. It had to now. There was no more time for another dress rehearsal.
“We need to hire you to help us find our daughter,” I said to the cab driver waiting outside the motel. “We’ve been searching for ten days now, and I think she may be near El Segundo. Do you know where that is?”
“Si. I do. Which way you want? — Sepulveda or 405?
“Whatever’s fastest,” I said naively and got in next to him.
Victoria had the map open on the back seat. The town was about ten miles away, but why had Megan gone that direction, and how? Did she walk it in this heat?
“I have no idea. All I know is what Janet said. Meg called and wasn’t making any sense except that she couldn’t pay for her breakfast so they were going to call the cops. She wanted Janet’s credit card number. Then she hung up. This was at the Ramada Inn on El-whatever it is, maybe an hour ago.”
“Sweetie, El Segundo looks to be right next to the airport. You don’t think she’s trying to get on a plane, do you?”
It had never occurred to me, Megan trying to fly somewhere — to Greece again or some imagined place, like that horrid island she snuck off to from the ship in Viet Nam. Monkey Island. Don’t go. It’s off limits, she was told. You’ll get sick, but Meg went anyway and had them crawling all over her. Monkeys. I don’t get it. Puppets and monkeys.
“How many children you have, senor? We have six,” and he pointed to their pictures on the dashboard, then crossed himself when he touched the image of the Virgin Mary next to them.
“My name is Bruce, and this is Victoria, my wife. Your children are very beautiful. We are happy for you,” and I began to tell Jose our story. Thick in traffic, idling away on the Interstate, we had plenty of time for that, but precious little left for finding Megan.
El Segundo Boulevard is a straight shot of hot asphalt that stretches west-east from the ocean front all the way to Interstate 110, a distance of about twenty miles. The interstate highway we were on crosses it just south of the airport, about a third of the way along the boulevard, inland from the water. We had to find the motel that Megan had called from and to start there, then try to guess which way she went and what she might have done. It was nearly three hours since she had called Janet, and Meg could be anywhere by now, including the airport. If she were on the boulevard, however, she’d be easy to spot: it was treeless and empty, nobody anywhere. Why would there be? — it was too hot to breathe, let alone walk.
“There’s the place up there, Jose. On the right. We’ll be back as soon as we can.”
“I will not leave you, Senor. God blessings — I will stay until you find your daughter, Miss Megan.” Victoria and I headed to the motel office, her picture in hand, both of us a little teary-eyed from what the cab driver had just said. What Jose had just said . . . We had found another good person.
Sadly, that wasn’t true inside. They had seen her alright. She’d had a big breakfast and then couldn’t pay.
“I apologize, but my daughter is very ill. May I put her meal on my card,” which they were happy to do but not very gracious about. She was just another vagrant to them, and they had no idea which direction she had gone after the police arrived and told her to leave. They also could not have cared less. But on my way to the men’s room, a janitor passing by asked me if I knew that young woman in the picture I was holding.
“She’s here last night, sleeping down in the basement. On a bunch of old towels and stuff. Pretty beat up she was, so I just let her sleep it off.”
“Thank you. Thank you. You didn’t see where she went later on, did you?”
He had no idea but suggested a park up the boulevard to the right, to the east, because “A lot of lost people are there. Good luck to you, sir.”
For every shit-head we met, we met their opposite, times two.
Something inside me knew that Megan had gone west, towards the water, not inland where that park was. The increasing temperature and diminished breeze were obvious reasons, but the smell wasn’t right either. There wasn’t one; the heat had baked it out of the air. She would walk toward the sea, I knew it.
Smell and memory. So profoundly linked they are, and many of my children’s fondest memories are of being on Cape Cod with Janet’s parents. Both are gone now, but the smell of the sea is not, and I imagined that in her mind Megan was on her way to her grandparents’ place near the beach, to Grandpa Joe’s and Nana’s. They’d have something to sooth her sunburn.
“What are you thinking about, Sweetie?”
“I was just fantasizing about being Odysseus, what he would do now. I think he’d turn this ship around and go in the other direction. Meg’s headed to the water.”
“The Odyssey, huh? I know the story and promise to read it one day, but what do you mean? It’s a big book.”
“Well, we’re trying to get Meg home and all kinds of monsters keep getting in our way — just as happens for Odysseus who nearly goes nuts a few times and gets really depressed. At one point — and this is what I was thinking about — the god of the winds tells him that he likes him because the big O. uses his brain. He tries to think things through, or as that psychologist I was seeing a few years ago said, ‘it’s okay to be smart.’ I keep trying to remind myself of that. Over and over. So let’s look at the map again.”
We went to the homeless park anyway, being almost there, but as expected, there was no sign of Meg. The couple of people we did see were asleep in the few patches of shade, but there was no reason to wake them. The area was pretty rough with lots of boarded-up store fronts and hostile looks. I was pleased the ocean was the other direction.
“Which now, Senor?”
“To the water, but we maybe we should check out the airport first. What do you think, Victoria?’
“Yes. I think that’s why she came this way to begin with.”
“Si. I promise we find her. The Blessed Virgin will protect.”
I hoped Jose was right, but growing up a Catholic kid myself, I had discovered through many attempts that prayer didn’t always yield results. Tenacity was more effective, and my old man was the model of that. He was not a Catholic or even a church-going person at all. He was a “nose to the grindstone” kind of guy, that being one of his favorite expressions. Thus I grew up with both mystery and muscle as my two greatest influences: the wonder of Holy Communion as I took into myself the body and blood of Christ every Sunday, combined with the weekday “hit the books” command from Captain Pop.
I was also by now an experienced searcher, both hoping for a miracle and trying to make one.
When I was a boy
there was music to milk in the morning,
its windy ring, the bottles clinking
like chimes in the dark
when I’d wake before school
to hear the milkman bringing
on his white wings our milk
thick with cream for the licking.
From the tin box on the back stoop
I’d lift them slippery as fish still dripping
cool against my small boy’s chest, hugging
glass to the white, icebox door,
my morning chore before the nuns,
those angels on broom-sticks over me hovering
asking why, why God made thee,
their steel-rimmed eyes and me, still yawning.
Milk, oh milk, sweet, sweet milk,
it melts a winter morning
this milk I warm for my kids, this soothing
silk from the carton with its faces now
of the missing, vague in wax, everybody’s children
who late for the school bell’s ringing
took a ride one day forever.
The bus, kids, it’s here. I love you, get going.
A right off El Segundo Boulevard put us on Sepulveda, Route 1, the way to the airport through a steep tunnel with two narrow, fast-moving lanes that pulled us in their undertow ever faster into a whirlpool of flashing lights, a swirl of shapes and voices, the roar of jets like breakers over our heads.
Have you seen the size of these, of these waves?
“Oh, Sweetie, oh,” I whispered, reaching back for her hand.
Victoria was suddenly and profoundly sobbing.
Her sorrow shook me. I was scared, like I couldn’t touch bottom. Victoria had been the steady one during this whole nightmare. She’d been angry as hell at Janet a few times, but that was different. Her sense of purpose was unwavering, but the scene in front of us was simply too much: we had reached an underworld of push and shove, of faceless bodies coming and going in a blur.
If Megan was here, Megan was gone.
It’s okay to be smart — that’s what he said, the shrink, Dr. Rigg. It’s okay to be smart.
“Let’s retrace our steps,” I said. “We need to start over.”
Inching our way through the honking of vans and taxis, through the shrill voices, as we headed back to El Segundo Boulevard, I started thinking about how Megan would have gotten to LAX if she had. I knew she must be out of cash, so most probably she walked, and I started looking around for a sidewalk or some foot path amidst all the mad traffic lanes for her to get to the airport.
But there was nothing. Not a damn thing to walk on. Hot shit.
Victoria was silent, expressionless, looking at nothing out the window, and seeing it, too.
“Sweetie, I have some good news. Megan’s not back there. She never was,” and I told her why.
The loveliest smile came slowly over her face as we leaned toward each other and kissed.
Of course, if Megan had hitched a ride or something, she would have been lost in that mass of people, but I didn’t mention such a possibility to my love. I needed her strength, and that idea would have destroyed me, too. I had to banish it from my mind and keep going.
“Jose, Jose — pull in here, Jose. To the right.”
We had started the whole search over, from the Ramada Inn and then back around toward the sea — slowly, slowly in the right hand lane, the drivers behind honking and pissed off as hell, all of them in a hurry, not one checking out the few shady spots along the road where our daughter might be asleep.
“Yeah, here, Jose,” and we pulled into a Denny’s and a motel next door.
“Sweetie, I really admire your trying to think this through, but why are we stopping here? A Denny’s? Megan would never go there. It smells like sausage.”
“Yup, you’re right. It makes no sense. Maybe it’s male intuition or just a guess, but I have this feeling she’s been here, but not to the damn Denny’s,” and I grabbed one of Meg’s photos and headed for the door of the exclusive Marriot Residence Motel.
It was that word “residence” that did it for me, why something inside clicked. The lost want to be home was the premise I was working with from the start. That’s where my father was headed, I’m sure, and Megan thought she’d found a home, a temporary one at least, in Jeff and Cindy’s apartment. She was also there to find a place of her own, but when the walls and pictures and dogs started screaming, she ran away.
Ran away? Why wouldn’t she? Don’t you see — this has to end, Janet. We can’t keep on like this. The kids are scared, can’t sleep. Please stop, ok? Try to calm down. I’m sorry, I’m sorry, but we need some help. A counselor — how about that? Let’s try to find someone in the morning.
“She was here a couple of hours ago,” the desk clerk said. “Isn’t this the same young woman who came in and was looking around, acting kind of strange?”
“Yeah, let me see,” her colleague said, staring at the photo. “I’m pretty sure that’s her. Yeah. She was looking at one of these real estate brochures.”
I was out of there fast, leaving our cell phone number and thanking them again and again.
“She was here, she was here,” I said out of breath, and off we went down the boulevard at a slow and steady pace though I was now like one of those manic drivers behind us and wanted to get going. I could feel the excitement in my wrists.
“Red light, dammit.”
We were at the intersection of El Segundo and Sepulveda which meant a long wait in the busy intersection. My adrenalin was pumping, and the clear thinking I was trying to maintain right then wasn’t very clear. But Victoria’s was.
“Jose,” she said. “There’s a Starbucks just down here to the right. What do you think, Sweetie? Maybe she’s in there or has been,” but I didn’t think so and just wanted get going. Come on, come on.
Fortunately, Jose didn’t hear me and when the endless light changed, he turned right and then into the Starbucks lot.
I was impatiently out of the taxi first and into the coffee shop where, as I had somehow concluded, she would not be. I was right — we’re wasting time — no one in the place had seen her. Let’s get going — I was a nervous wreck like I’d had consumed all the caffeine in the place. My heart was racing as I leaned against the glass in the entryway, trying to calm down.
Why’s she waving at me like that? Alright, alright. Hold on . . .
“They’ve seen her, Sweetie. The EMT guys standing over there. I just talked to them. Her tattoo, they remember it. They saw her in El Segundo.”
Auto mechanic in a fish market, down the row of tuna’s eyes,
feathering skin circles light by the market’s knife,
romance, butchery by the seaside.
Pearls inside oysters, clams inside men,
butter beyond fairytales, shrimp to begin.
What is there about summer time,
the breaking of shell
the slip of a vegetarian, the cracking like hell
the pot set to boil, the crab to ply
the bill of the lobster makes patriarchs cry.
Landlocked in Illinois
July cornfields are a breeze at the corporate restaurant
mother orders her dressing on the side
and requests a tiny fork.
Cozy. Clean. Safe. I wonder if she knew that about this small suburban town a short distance from the ocean. It was the utter opposite of Venice Beach.
The ambulance men who’d seen her said she was walking down Main, and that’s what we were on when the boulevard ended. The look of the street lived up to its name. There were several small businesses, a real estate office, and some official looking buildings lining both sides. I didn’t see a single person with purple hair or drawing on the sidewalk or swallowing fire. And no unicycles either, though there were a couple of two-wheelers parked in a rack in front of a coffee shop. Megan would be easy to spot, so we drove up and down the street a couple of times, and then tried a few side streets with no luck.
“Look, there’s a sign for the library,” I said. “That would make sense, wouldn’t it? It’s free and gotta be a lot cooler than outside. There are places to sit, too, and a bathroom. Good idea?”
Victoria would go in with the picture and ask around while I searched a small park across from the building. It was a little league field — MoVaughn — and had plenty of shade, and meanwhile Jose would look for a gas station.
“Senor Bruce. We are almost empty. I will not leave you and be back soon. Blessings,” and he turned the corner. What a nice man. Blessings to you, too, Jose, and as I walked toward the ball field, I heard the screech of tires coming from around the block.
“I have found her, Senor. I have found her! She here sitting on a wall. Come! We go!”
I don’t remember what happened next. I know I didn’t go into the library to tell Victoria. I guess I had no thoughts at all as we rounded the corner, just the trembles, and there was my daughter, my Megan, my child.
“Stop here, Jose. Gracias, gracias,” and I got out of the cab and walked towards her. She was chewing on a straw, staring down at her feet, and then looked up at me with absolutely no surprise at all.
“Oh, hi Dad.”
Hi Dad? What? Huh?
“Hi, Meg. How are things going?”
“You should know. You killed me here five years ago. Right here on this spot. See — this black spot, a dead cat. I’m a dead cat. ”
“I really don’t remember that, Megan. I don’t, I’m sorry. May I sit here with you on the wall, maybe for a little while?”
“Not here. Not right here, no. Move down, move down.”
“OK,” and I moved about five feet away, not sure what to make of what she was saying. I thought she was joking at first, some kind of weird humor, but there was nothing funny at all in what she was saying and in the strange way she was saying it. I didn’t know who was there behind those swollen eyes. Her nose was flattened, too, and wider, like she’d been in a fight. She was mean enough.
To our left I heard a motorcycle coming along, and on it, pulling up in front of us was a cop. Shit. He’s going to screw this up. Get outta here.
He turned off his engine, swung his leg over, and walked toward us, helmet still on and reflector glasses shining. The man was huge.
“How are you folks, today? It’s a warm one once again, isn’t it?
Megan was chewing furiously on that straw, then pulling it through her teeth. She didn’t say a thing.
“We’re fine, officer. This is my daughter, Megan.”
He made a slight bow, tilting his head her way, then took off his glasses and asked me my name.
“Bruce. My name’s Bruce, sir.”
“That’s a good name, isn’t it?”
“Well, maybe. I guess.”
“Nice to meet you,” and he put out his hand. “Bruce. That’s my name, too.”
When he said that, I felt something inside of me that I can’t really describe, some feeling of security brought on by this weird coincidence of names.
“What’s that you’re reading, Megan? Thinking about buying a place around here,” he said, and there next to her was the real estate brochure the woman at the Marriott had mentioned.
I don’t want to look at any more houses, Janet. A new one won’t solve it. It won’t.
“I don’t need your help, OK? Or his,” she said, looking my way. “Leave me alone.”
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Jose’s taxi come around the corner and Victoria sitting next to him. They went up the block a little ways and parked, but Victoria did not get out right away. She knew how unpredictable Megan could be.
“Do you mind if your dad and I take a little walk for a moment, Miss?” the officer asked, and since “it’s a free country, ass-hole,” as he was told, we went down the sidewalk for a little ways to talk.
“I need to know a little more about your daughter, sir. She’s seems to be having some problems,” and he pulled out a pad to write on.
“Yes, she’s having a psychotic episode and disappeared about a month ago. We’ve just found her.”
“Yes, my wife was looking for her in the library, showing her picture to people.”
“That must be why we got the 911 call. Someone saw a person they were told was missing. What’s her date of birth, please?”
“March 10th, 1975 . . . No, sorry. I mean March 13th, 1975.”
“Okay, got it, but why did you say March 10 at first?”
“I got confused. That’s my birthday.”
“Really? That’s my birthday, too.”
Whoever was making this film would not be believed. Coincidences like that cannot appear in art. It’s against the rules, but like real life, this mad search we’d been on had none. That’s why some tall, friendly, conscientious policeman can have the same first name and birthday as a more vertically challenged English professor-poet in El Segundo, California on August 2, 2006. It can happen in life, and did, but don’t put it on the screen.
“I need to call in some mental health people who are part of our force here, but first, do you have anyone I might call about her health, a psychiatrist perhaps?”
I’d been carrying her St. Louis doctor’s number in my pocket for the last ten days and was never more happy to share it. He was even in his office and confirmed that Megan needed help. She could harm herself; the doctor had no doubt.
As we turned back towards Meg, she was talking to Victoria who was slowly walking up to her.
“Yeah, you can sit here. I don’t give a shit. But take off the sunglasses first. I gotta be sure.”
“OK, I will — it’s me. You seem angry — are you sure it’s okay to sit? I guess I’m a little afraid.”
Megan didn’t say anything back. Instead, her eyes did, welling up as she stared vacantly all around, past us, past everything, her shoulders collapsing as the anger went out of her, the straw she’d been tearing at now like a thumb in her mouth, a little kid lost at the carnival.
Meganski, Megaton, Mouse.
“I’ve been talking to your David, you know,” she said. “He’s doing alright, your husband — he’s doing fine. And there’s Grandpa Joe over there right now,” and she waved to an older man walking down the other side of the street.
“We’re all here. It’s so quiet. Yes, so quiet.”
“Officers, I am a law school graduate and hold a Master’s Degree in English as well. I am completely responsible for my actions and cognizant of this situation. I thank you, but I do not need your help.”
Who’s this speaking now, the two mental health officers must have wondered, as we all did, looking at the person in front of us who was gnawing on a straw again, her skin scarlet and raw and her nose smashed in — this person with so many voices sitting on a wall in a town she’d wandered into in purple flip-flops, a pink tank-top, and orange shorts.
“You can’t take me in. I know my rights. I have done nothing wrong”
In fact, she hadn’t, in any criminal sense that had been reported anyway. I was cussing out Jeff and Cindy for not filing a complaint against her when Officer Bruce approached her on another tact.
“Miss, your feet are terribly swollen, and I would like you to voluntarily go with us to the hospital for what appears to be a serious case of gout.”
Great idea, I thought, but Megan was onto it immediately.
“Sir, you know as well as I do that I do not have gout or any other such disease. I was an intern at the Public Defender’s office in St. Louis where the police violated a citizen’s rights again and again with such deceit.”
It was then I saw that look come back again, the one that came over her when she was going to Greece, that horrible trip to the airport, her eyes narrowing and her voice a growl.
“So fuck off, liar. Get your filthy mitts off me,” which thankfully the police did not, cuffing her hands behind her back and forcing her into a cruiser.
I was numb and shaking, holding a trembling Victoria next to me, her eyes closed and tears down her face.
“Your daughter will be examined at the UCLA hospital, the Harbor branch. The taxi driver will know where it is,” and he put out his hand again, this good person named Bruce. “I know we are taking a bit of a chance here, bringing her in, but the other officers agree. She needs help.”
I nodded, not quite able to talk yet, staring up the street where the police car had disappeared carrying my child away. Which plane is hers? Which one is she on?
“I don’t know how to thank you, sir. This has been a tough go for all of our family. We are grateful, truly grateful.”
“I’m glad to be able to help,” he said as he walked towards his motorcycle and put his reflector glasses back on like a mask, anonymous again.
“Oh — what’s your last name by the way?”
“Well, it’s not yours, if that’s what you’re thinking,” he said with a grin. “It’s Lewis, Bruce Lewis,” and like the Lone Ranger, he was on his silver bike and away.
We crossed the street where Jose was waiting. His eyes were as red as ours.
“The Blessed Virgin. She protect.”
He knew the hospital alright, but couldn’t take us there. He had to get back home. Yes, yes — you do. Home. It was getting late, and he’d been with us for over eight hours. I gave him all the money I had in my pocket, three hundred dollars or more. I wish it had been five, a thousand. So many kind people.
“No, it’s yours. All of it, please, por favor.”
Blessings, Jose. Blessings.
I would like to say that we were happy with what had happened in the last few hours in El Segundo, but that would not be true. There was a sense of relief, but not of joy. One search was over, but another was just beginning.
“She’s one sick puppy,” the young doctor said who came out of the lock-up ward at the hospital. “She even thinks that I’m a guy named Kevin who was on some ship with her around the world. That’s not untypical with the disease, to think they’ve gone all kinds of places. ”
“She has, Doctor,” I said. “You don’t look a bit like Kevin who was a student of mine, but my daughter has sailed around the world. She has.” I was on her side, defensive. I was her father. She was telling the truth.
“All right then, but she needs to be in a controlled environment for a number of days, closely watched with a regimented series of medications. We will be transferring her to Del Amo Behavioral Center in the morning. It’s not far from here and is one of our very best facilities.
“I’m sorry to question what you say, Doctor. I miss her, that’s all,” and we shook hands and set a time when we could meet Meg at the mental hospital sometime the next day for a brief visit.
The day after that, we’d be on a plane back east.
“Janet,” I said as we were trying to find our way out of the enormous hospital. “I need to call Janet and Brendan.” I had totally forgotten them.
“What time is it back there? This is terrible. I should have called right away. They don’t know what’s going on. I screwed up,” and I started shaking all over, totally confused.
“Bruce, sit down. Stay here. Close your eyes and don’t move. I’m going to find us some water.”
We don’t have to worry about finding our car keys, purple slippers, or toothpaste.
Juice in the evenings,
Lucky Charms in the mornings,
basketball three times a day.
We come to the conclusion that we are not Jesus Christ.
That our parents didn’t really feed us glass-shaving sandwiches,
the UFO which landed next to the grocery store never actually existed.
We hear the sound of the sea in the distance,
the waves hitting the sand,
lingering salt on our fingertips
lingering sand on our toes.
Staff tie us down,
smiles on special-minded people turn to open-mouthed drools,
flowered fantasies get lost in Rispridal, Abilify, Topamax.
We search the basketball
court for pieces of grass to stand on
and never find them, never find them.
A single man rocks back and forth.
fountains pour inside us,
Pirates, never to be forgotten, wave their hands in jest
and sail away on stately ships,
laughing, swimming, counting their golden coins.
MO’DALA by Victoria Guernsey
The labyrinth, the maze, the route to Del Amo — they were all the same.
“Where is this place?”
“23700 Camino del Sol, that’s the address,” I repeated, but our driver couldn’t find it anywhere. Neither could we. From Interstate 405, caught in idling traffic that made minutes eternal, we eventually made our way down Route One through places like Lawndale and Windsong, towns with names like cemeteries until we reached Torrance, the center of the labyrinth where Meg, and the Minotaur of a disease that held her captive, waited in the hospital we hadn’t yet found after nearly three hours driving the forty miles from Venice Beach.
“Where is this place?”
Then from Route One onto endless Hawthorne Boulevard, Lomita next, and finally, Hospital Drive, giving us hope that we were close except that the hospital turned out to be a large general one for the area, not the special facility we were looking for.
“Keep driving around, it’s got to be here somewhere,” and somewhere was exactly where we found it, lost in a myriad of exits and entrances for the many parking lots around the hospital, that so-called street “Camino del Sol,” roughly the length of a McDonald’s drive-thru and numbered, of course, 23700, just as we had written down. Where 23701 could be found, or 23699, the gods only knew.
“Maybe we should have dropped some bread crumbs,” Victoria said as we stepped out on the taxi into the heat. “At least she’s safe here — no one can find her!”
And who would look for her in such a place anyway, a handsome low building with well-tended flowers and matched pairs of palms along the left and right symmetrical walkways to the entrance?
“I’m just fine,” the exterior seemed to say, “balanced and harmonious.”
But the locked doors and Lysoled walls inside said something else, as we followed the arrows on the floor to the “day-room” where we were to meet the case worker and have a chance to visit with Meg.
From somewhere down a passageway we walked by, someone was screaming.
“Hello. My name is Emily Jones, and before we have your daughter come in for a brief visit, I’d like to explain our procedures here.”
I did my best to pay attention, but there was something about the so-called “day-room” that disturbed and distracted me. Good thing Victoria was keeping notes. Meg would be on a 72 hour hold while she would be without any drugs of any kind and then would be started . . . So many boxes of tissues. Look at them all: one on every table, beside each chair . . . on anti-psychotics and mood-stabilizers as determined by one of our psychiatrists, Dr. Franco . . . And flowers, too, lots of green leaves. Good. But windows? Wait a second — where are the windows? . . . Typically, her stay with us will be for 14 days after the holding period, or to maximum of 30 . . . That door, the one with the steel rod across it, the one she’ll be coming through. What goes on in there? That screaming, who was screaming? . . . After that she will be in a half-way house nearby such as Josephine’s Independent Living or Dorothy’s Home . . . home? home! . . . where her medications will continue to be overseen and administered.
“And has there been a diagnosis of any kind as yet?” I could hear Victoria ask.
“For the moment, we are following the initial diagnosis of her doctor in St. Louis — bipolar disorder with schizoid tendencies in the manic phase.”
“You bastard, Dad. What do you mean I couldn’t bring him to the wedding? That was a shitty thing to do. Just shitty.”
“Well, I guess I’m not sure what you’re talking about, Meg. But are you doing okay here? I mean, how are things going?”
She sat across from us on the couch, staring at the floor and shaking her head. Her hair was filthy and terribly twisted as if someone had been pulling on it. As if she had.
“You know damn well what I mean. How come you said I couldn’t bring Greg? What the fuck.”
“You added him at the last minute, Megan, and I was worried we’d have enough food,” Victoria tried to explain. “But, you know, that was three years ago, and it worked out, didn’t it? I’m glad he came. He was a nice guy.”
“He was an abusive prick. What are you talking about? What the shit do you know!”
“Enough, enough,” I said. “That’s no way to speak,” and it was the last we did, the next many minutes of our time together in the “day-room” spent looking at the scuffed beige linoleum at our feet.
“I’m afraid our time is up,” the official voice in the room said.
“Megan, your family has gone through a great deal of effort and emotion to find you and to make sure you’re safe. I think you might be more grateful.”
“Yeah, yeah. OK,” and then she paused for a moment, looking far off somewhere the way she had when she was sitting on that wall in El Segundo and the anger went out of her for a moment.
I saw her face soften as the lines left her brow, and then, to my astonishment there was my daughter crossing the room towards us, her hospital top three sizes too big and her pants baggy as a clown’s.
“Nice threads,” I said spontaneously, somehow forgetting everything else.
“Yeah, you like these, Dad? Me, too. I’m stylin,’ aren’t I?” and she spun around and started to laugh.
We found her. We found her.
“They’ll help you here, Mouse. And we’ll look after MoVaughn, I promise. It will be his first trip to Maine,” and the three of us hugged and cried and hugged again until the case worker walked her to the door I’d been staring at with a light above it that turned red when opened, then, thunk, locked automatically after.
“I’m so sorry you’ve had to go through this,” Emily Jones said kindly. “I can’t imagine.”
“Thank you,” I nodded, but what’s she going through, my Meg? Her terrors?
“Yes, we can only imagine,” I said, looking towards the sealed, steel-barred door.
Delusions run deep in the darkened hours
of my mind’s dire try
in less than a tempest
in the dampest of time.
“ ’Tis I, the drown tire,
dismal by soap scum and seaweed like sheep,
pulled by the hook truck
of a summer’s sunny sky
and a night of no sleep,
quaintly up high
like I’m somebody’s keep.”
Trash to me is it always,
thrown back in the heap.
Give to me just my sanity,
something to keep.
Years back, when my father and I did a lot of hunting together, he’d always remark about how his perceptions had changed in the three or four days spent watching for the slightest motion in the woods, for the shadow of a deer, dawn and dusk. At attention like that for hours, for days, the senses grow more acute whether you hunt with a weapon or with your heart, and as Victoria and I sat in the back of the cab on our way to the airport, the little dog snug between us, I couldn’t stop looking, I couldn’t stop searching.
At traffic lights, along a city street, onto the Interstate, I kept looking for Megan, or perhaps for my old man. My brain knew where she was, but my body craved the very process of the search itself like some kind of drug that made the visual world powerfully tactile — a kind of high I couldn’t come down from and am not sure I wanted to.
“Look at that guy there, Sweetie. He’s lost, I can tell” — I must have said that a dozen times on the way to LAX, a ride that was otherwise silent, the two of us completely drained but for this odd, unfulfilled need to keep searching that I felt way down inside, a need that came from the deep and painful awareness that my daughter was lost in a more profound way than any city or forest could hide her.
More than anything, as I realized later, I needed to grieve.
“We are here, senor,” and when I stopped looking far away, sure enough, here we were — at the Southwest departure gate where a long line flowed out the door and down the sidewalk. The driver pulled in as close as he could get, and Victoria carried Mo in his crate plus one of our bags to the curb while I unpacked the trunk. In addition to our own pair, we’d taken on three of my daughter’s, two of which I set down on the pavement as I hurried the others to where Victoria was waiting.
The bags that I’d briefly set down were just a few yards in front of the next car in line and were very visible, but that didn’t stop the asshole behind us. Instead, when I turned back, the bastard was pushing and scraping Meg’s bags ahead of him until they were wedged under his big shiny bumper.
“Whoa! Hey! Stop!” I yelled, jumping in the way and pounding my hand on his hood.
“Get your hands off my car or I’ll beat the shit out of you,” is all I remember except for a huge and tanned bald head with, I swear, a single eye in its middle, slamming his door and coming at me.
“You’re running over our bags — what the hell? You could see them there.”
“They were in my way, that’s why, and you’re a dead fucker if you touch my car again.”
Grabbing at them furiously, I pulled Meg’s two cases out, oily and torn, and got them to the sidewalk where Victoria was yelling back at the creep. He had no reason to do what he did. The lines were long and everyone had to wait. Besides, he saw me put the bags there and knew I’d be right back.
For a moment, a powerful moment, I wanted to run at the bastard, to nail him in the nuts, then spit on his fucking car. Oh, I wanted to. Oh, I needed to. That son of a bitch was everything I hated right then, running over my daughter’s clothes, her photos and souvenirs.
Disease — bi-polar disease, that’s what he is, and I can feel my heart beating wildly again as I type this because I want at him still, though he’d have killed me for sure.
But from somewhere in the middle of the lined-up passengers came another voice:
“Hey, Mister, I suggest you shut up and get back in your piece of shit car.”
“And now!” came another. “Otherwise, we’re going to help you. Get it, dude?”
Two young guys they were. Two very big young men who like everyone else saw what was going on. Two guys named “Bruce Lewis,” and “Jose,” and “Mr. Garcia.” Maybe even “Rachel” — it was California after all.
For every shit-head we’d met . . .
The creep gave us all the finger then sped ahead ten yards maybe at most, as far as anyone could do in that mess of traffic but not before there arose another voice, one from a long time ago, from some lost garden perhaps where he still lives with his green pony tail, sandals and earring:
“Peace, peace and love, my brothers. Like, be merciful, dudes, forgive. ”
V. and I looked at one another in amazement, then down at Mo.
“Get me out of here,” he was saying, his big round sweet innocent eyes larger than ever.
“Excuse me, sir, but is that a dog you have inside that carrier?”
“Yes, mam. This is MoVaughn, and he’ll shake hands with you if you want.”
“Southwest does not allow pets, sir. You cannot have him on board.”
“What? That’s ridiculous. We traveled all the way from Manchester, New Hampshire with him, mam. On Southwest. Eleven days ago. I’ve got our receipts right here.”
“Thank you. Yes, I see that you flew from MCR to LAX, but there’s no mention of a dog. Southwest does not allow pets. We have a strict policy about that, sir.”
“Well, how do you explain our walking on board back there and no one saying a thing? You people don’t seem very consistent in your policy. We’re booked on this flight and so’s this little guy here”
“Please step out of the line, sir and ma’am.”
“Not unless you take us to your supervisor.”
“Well done, Sweetie. After that horror with the bags outside, I’m surprised you didn’t lose it about Mo. What are we going to do?”
“Keep bluffing, I guess. I had no idea Southwest didn’t allow dogs. Let’s try to be as calm as we can with this lady up here. You okay?”
“I guess, but I’ll let you talk if you don’t mind. You seem to be on a roll.”
But there was no more lying left in me.
“Miss, this is my daughter’s little dog, her companion dog, and he has been with us for the last several days as we have been trying to find her, my daughter, who’s very smart and went to law school and came out here for a job but who has some emotional problems and, and . . .well, she’s sick and disappeared,” and next thing I knew, I was choking on my words so turned around to Victoria for help but she was already crying, and there we were, the two of us sobbing away, my head on the counter now in front of this complete stranger named Fiona who had no clue, the poor woman, but handed us a box of tissues, then bent down to look at Mo peering back from his carrier.
“Well, whatever’s happened, I’m so sorry. You two look like you’ve been through a lot” she said in a soft voice after we got a little better control of ourselves. “And what a cute little dog, but we do have this policy about pets, you know.”
“Honestly, we did not, mam, but he has to come with us. I was trying to tell you about my daughter — I’m sorry, I just lost it. . . . yes, lost, that’s what I mean — she’s been lost for weeks now, but we found her” and, of course, I was soon into the box of tissues again.
“You found her? Out here?! There’s a lot of folks around here, you know, and it can be kinda dangerous. But really, you found her?”
“Yes, we did. We did. She’s safe — at least for now, safe. In a hospital nearby. Yes, safe. But we have her dog and . . .”
“You two go right ahead to the gate and take this puppy along with you. We do make exceptions, you know. We are human, I hope. I’ll let them know upstairs. He’s your companion dog, right?”
And there we were sobbing again, trying to thank Fiona but blubbering away instead.
“You three have a good flight, and thank you for flying with us today.”
“Shouldn’t we be sending Officer Bruce a Christmas card? Or maybe some kind of appropriate present, like a Springsteen song? You ‘Bruces’ like to stick together, you know.”
We were headed to St. Louis on our way to see Megan, and Victoria was making some notes about Christmas stuff that we still had to do.
“I really think that’s a little much, Sweetie. Don’t you? I mean, he was just doing his job, though that was pretty cool when he called to see how things were going with Meg. So, okay, how about we compromise and send him a birthday card instead? You do remember when that is, I hope.”
Officer Lewis had indeed phoned us shortly after Meg was hospitalized in LA. His concern was remarkable and well beyond anything his job required. But he was not alone in the pantheon of kind people who’d helped us find my daughter. I’d canonized them all in my mind: without their help we might never have found Megan, who was doing much better and back near us.
After her fourteen-day stay at Del Amo, she had been in one of the half-way houses near the hospital for another ten. It then took a lot of coaxing to get her to return home to Illinois, which she did, flying by herself out of LAX to St. Louis. I was scared to death that she would vanish again, but she made it and I think was very pleased with herself for doing so alone.
The deal was that she would leave the Los Angeles area if she could be on her own again and look for a job in a place she knew well. That meant St. Louis, which made sense: she still had friends in the area and her law degree from “SLU” meant more there than anywhere else. Most importantly, all of us but Brendan were only a couple of hours up the road.
But part of the agreement was also that she would first she come back to Champaign, stay with Janet and her husband for a brief time, part of it as an out-patient for two weeks at the Pavillion, a treatment center in Champaign.
By the time Victoria and I returned to our winter home in Illinois, with Janet’s generous help Meg had already found a place in St. Louis, a high-rise apartment in the central west end. She was way up on the 14th floor.
“You guys, come see me. I’ve got some interviews coming up, but we’ll find the time. I miss you. Drive down as soon as you can,” which we first did around Thanksgiving. We had a lot to be thankful for.
“How did she sound this time, Bruce?” Victoria asked.
We’d both been silent for a while after discussing Christmas gifts. The hypnotic sameness of Interstate 70 combined with the flat stretches of open of Illinois fields can do that to you.
“Typical late fall day, isn’t it? Pretty gray and bleak.”
“I asked you about Meg, Sweetie. About her call last night, how she seemed. Or are you answering me in some metaphoric kind of way?”
I guess I was because somewhere in my mind the fields out there always remind me of trying to find my father and of our search for Megan. All that emptiness lets the imagination roam and get lost.
“She sounded drunk, that’s how. Just as she did the last time we talked. I don’t think she’s drinking, though. God, I hope not. It’s gotta be all those damn drugs she’s taking.”
“Probably, but that’s always a worry, her self-medicating. I wonder if she’s fallen asleep in any more interviews,” and we both started laughing again about Megan’s writing us about nodding off and starting to snore as the interviewer talked on.
“I didn’t get the job,” was the last sentence in her email.
“Yeah, that was pretty funny,” I said, “except she sounded that same way back when she was smoking a lot of pot and drinking too much. But let me ask you something that’s a little off the topic, but maybe not. You grew up in this open land, in this flatness, so why is that single tree out in the middle of that field over there? Look at it — not a damn thing around it anywhere. And I’ve seen others just like it on the way to Chicago, out in those huge fields off the interstate. One tree out there in the middle of nowhere. But why?”
“I’d guess there’s a grave site there, or maybe an old well by it. Or maybe that’s where the original farm house stood. There’s a reason, believe me,” Victoria said.
“Something to mark time by, you mean? That makes sense, but what about place? — to me that tree’s like the center of a compass, don’t you think? Something to keep you from losing direction, a steadying point — the tree left there for someone plowing the field maybe, a kind of marker that he can look back at and gauge where he is, where he’s been. I mean, how else could you stay sane in so much open space?”
“This reminds me of my favorite poem of yours, ‘Distance.’ I love that poem. Can you remember it?”
“I guess. You mean right now?”
“Yeah, right now — it reminds me of Megan somehow.”
“Funny you should say that. It does me, too. Ok, let’s see . . .
There is a house across the field.
From the other side where I started
it did not seem so far away.
I have been walking toward it a long time,
through mud, the turned ground,
and now this snow beginning to fall.
The house has grown
only slightly larger
and I think I see someone outside.
Yes, I am sure of it —
people, two or three, beside the house,
moving about. I am waving, suddenly waving,
but out so far in this openness of field
will not be seen or heard.
Faster, walk faster,
before they go inside
whoever they are, before they close the door
across the field
where nothing is growing,
the gray, flat horizon.
“That’s a really good poem, my love. It’s your version of “Christina’s World,” don’t you think?”
“Well, maybe, but you’re putting Wyeth in pretty good company, you know. . . . Just joking, of course, but I guess I’ve really never thought of that poem and his painting together, but they are kind of alike, aren’t they? Maybe I should call it ‘Megan’s World.’”
“You know, it’s not just that we found her once — that’s profound, of course — but now, she has to be the one to find herself. I think that’s the biggest change in Meg right now: she knows that she has an illness and must treat it. Remember what she said in that email about the woman she met who had some of the same delusions she’d had? They were both so afraid that it might happen again.”
“Maybe that’s why I was so focused on that tree in the field back there, Sweetie. Megan now has a place to start from, and to look back at, to see how far she’s come. I‘m scared about the pot and booze haunting her, though. Her voice reminds me too much of all that. But this Christmas present we’re shipping her might just do the trick. But first, taking her meds, of course.”
“Of course. That’s a given, a must. But maybe the best part about the running machine gift idea is that it was hers. Her idea. I think she senses she needs to rebuild, and the running thing is perfect, a real symbol of trying to recover. And it’s practical, too: she’s safe inside doing it.”
“But that’s only if she will, right?”
“Yeah, and those meds. Only if she will. That’s up to her.”
by Megan Guernsey
I thought the moon was an egg in the sky,
So I brought it down to my table,I picked off its shell, bit by bit, piece by piece.
Don’t worry, I was careful.
But something was alive in there,
A chicken I think,
So I hit it hard with my hammer.
Its tail, its head, smashed flat on my table.
And I hit its heart.
Again against its pulsing chicken heart,
But it would not flatten.
It will not flatten.
I hit, it beats.
And the moon has been full for weeks.
The Author and His Daughter, 2005
Bruce Guernsey is Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Eastern Illinois University where he taught Creative Writing and 19th Century American Literature for twenty-five years. He has also taught at William and Mary, Johns Hopkins, and Virginia Wesleyan where he was Poet in Residence for four years. He was awarded seven faculty excellence awards for teaching at Eastern Illinois, and in 1992-93, was selected as the State of Illinois Board of Governors’ “Professor of the Year,” the highest award in that state system. He has also been the recipient of two Senior Fulbright Lectureships in American Poetry to Portugal and to Greece and has twice sailed around the world as a faculty member with Semester at Sea.
His poems have appeared in The Atlantic, Poetry, The American Scholar, and many of the quarterlies, and among his awards are fellowships in creative writing from the NEA, four from the Illinois Arts, and the NEA Residency Fellowship at the MacDowell Colony. Five of his poems have been featured in Ted Kooser’s “American Life in Poetry.” He is a former editor of The Spoon River Poetry Review.
The author of thirteen collections of poetry, his most recent book is FROM RAIN: Poems, 1970-2010 (Ecco Qua Press, 2012). He also recently edited Mapping the Line: Poets on Teaching, a collection of class-tested exercises, written and used by some of the country’s best poet/teachers.
“The Sunburned Daughter” was first published in the online magazine, Wild River Review.
Some of the poems used in this book previously appeared in collections or anthologies:
Poems by Bruce Guernsey:
“Mug Shot,” “The Nest,” “Toad” in January Thaw, University of Pittsburgh Press (1982)
“The Cap,” “The Vase,” “Milk,” “My Father’s Voice,” “Distance” in The Lost Brigade, Water Press and Media (2004)
“Weatherstripping,” New England Primer, Cherry Grove Collections (2008)
Poem by Megan Guernsey:
“Entitled,” Touch of Tomorrow Anthology, Watermark Press, 2004
I am grateful to the MacDowell Colony, which awarded me a National Endowment of the Arts Residency Fellowship to work on this project during the summer of 2011. Their confidence in me remains a great inspiration as does the trust my family has put in me to be truthful and accurate in all that is related here.
There is, however, no way to thank my best and dearest friend, my wife Victoria, whose steadiness during this ordeal was our compass. Without her, we would remain lost in our searching.