By Scott Warrender
I was the one, and not my younger sister, who helped my mother wrap her hairdo every night. The year was 1973, and my mother considered herself one of the new breed of working housewives: a homemaker and realtor who had her hair salon-washed and set each week, then protected her investment in a toilet paper cocoon.
I held the roll and supervised the nightly swathe. She would rotate in her swivel chair in front of the vanity mirror, smoke slim cigarettes, and quote taglines from magazine ads like “I won’t feel guilty about wanting it all,” or “We’ve come a long way baby!”
After dinner, he would often retreat into the garage—followed by the family dog, an overfed Corgi. There he tinkered with the woodworking tools passed down to him by his father: an assortment of chisels, awls, gauges, and a large collection of hooked knives, each with its own place on the pegboard wall above his workbench. He whittled horses and fantastical chess characters out of chunks of basswood and pine. After a few hours, he would plod upstairs and read westerns or true crime novels, turn off the light, and smoke a Lucky Strike in the pitch-blackness of their bedroom.
Under his side of the bed, he kept a bullet-less handgun in a brown grocer’s bag. My sister and I would play with it when my parents weren’t home, reenacting favorite episodes of “Hawaii Five-0” and “Adam 12” with a new cast of characters that included scientists and evil gymnasts.
On summer days, my sister and I would take the dog and hike down into the ravine behind the house to an embankment I had discovered, where we would dig for fossils—chunks of sandstone and chalk on which improbable tracings of Miocene-era shells, leaves and sea creatures could be made out. We labeled and cataloged each piece, and placed them on the shelves above our beds. She named our collection “Fragments of the Forgotten” and we fantasized about opening up a museum, selling tickets, striking it rich.
She was convinced that I would one day become an archeologist, and that she would parlay an Olympic medal in gymnastics into a career that required poise, like a game-show presenter or a magician’s assistant. She aspired to be the next Olga Korbut and would spend her weekends out on the front lawn, spinning like a blender blade, performing back-flips and cartwheels for anyone who happened to be passing by.
In school, I learned about some holy men in Turkey who would spin as part of their religious ceremony. I showed her a photo of The Whirling Dervishes and she recreated one of their dress-like outfits with an oatmeal container and the sheet from her bed. Then she leapt around the front yard and driveway like a maniac, and both of us laughed until we cried.
The summer she turned twelve, she received “The Big Book of Astronomy” for her birthday. That night, during one of many dewy sleep-outs on the back lawn, we learned that the word “planet” meant wanderer, and that if we had a tub of water large enough, Saturn would float.
We lay on our backs, sucked on our sour apple candies, and stared up into the pin-poked sky, quickly coming to the conclusion that some truths were just too large to comprehend. Neither of us could imagine a planet-sized pool of water, and the time we spent trying to do so left us confused and convinced of our insignificance.
“How far does the sky go?” she asked me, yawning and brushing her hair away from her face.
I turned in my sleeping bag and pushed myself up onto one elbow.
“It’s been theorized,” I began, sounding as scholarly as possible, and pointing up at the North Star for dramatic emphasis. “That if someone were to travel in a straight line, they would end up where they started.”
Then I went on and on about space-time, the expanding universe, and dark energy. It was our version of the campfire ghost story; almost-believed truths that made us worry and marvel. When I was through, I pulled her sleeping bag up to her chin, slid deep into mine, and fell asleep trying to count the stars in the big dipper.
Those conversations were always shared in private out on the dark middle-lawn, or under blanket tents in the timid yellow of a flashlight; never at the family dinner table. My mother refused to be diverted from the stories of her exhausting day, and my father always seemed diluted by her outspokenness, and unable to cobble out a place in family conversations.
It was the doneness of the chicken, the sweetness of the pie, the ungodly price of gas, or the Catholic family down the block whose oldest son had been sent away for burning down the local library. Those were the topics. Not planets or fossils. Not holy men who twirled to connect their limited lives to some eternal mystery.
“I’m using the old bathroom door and we’re going to make a photo collage coffee table,” my mother declared one night. “I read about it in Craft Horizons.”
She removed the foil covers from our T.V. dinners then flitted away, back into the kitchen. My father sipped his drink and looked over at me. He rolled his eyes and smiled and my sister and I did the same. It was the secret code of the non-mother alliance: all those who loved her yet took what she said with a grain of salt.
“Your father and I will choose the photos,” she shouted from the kitchen. We heard the creak and bang of cupboard doors opening and closing. “You kids can glue them in place and then I’ll Mod-Podge everything.”
She entered the dining room with her great-grandmother’s crystal pitcher filled with milk. She placed it onto the table where it sat, oddly misrelated to the aluminum trays and their triangular ponds of fish sticks, peas, and apple pie.
“That’ll be fun,” she said and looked around for approval. “Right?”
We nodded and allowed her bright idea to drift away from the table along with so many of the others: painting the house in rainbow colors, buying a drum machine organ, tilling up the backyard and planting a pumpkin patch. My mother wanted to set us apart from the other middle-class replicas, but there was never any follow through. She seemed content to just be the idea person, as if simply making plans were enough to give our family the level of distinction she thought we deserved.
In our home, the blinds were never lowered and the Southern California sun beat into our air. Voices were seldom raised, and disparate opinions were seldom tolerated. In that way, our family seemed identical to every other family in our neighborhood. Our house, to every other house in every other duplicated row in every other duplicated development in Orange County.
We were not special, interesting, or remarkable. We had no distinction, until one sunny day in December when my twelve-year-old sister left for school and was never seen again.
In the months and years that followed, the air in our house was hotter, the voices were even lower, and all of the unsaid things that floated around were lethal. My mother replaced her tightly bound grief with all things God, and my father with anything that contained alcohol, until my mother—unfailingly preemptive—forced us to attend a meeting of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in the next community over. We redirected our shellshock and lost ourselves in the duties of good soldiers of “Christ Jesus”. I was expected to fill my weekends with church activities, and so I spent most of my teenage years amassing an inventory of Bible studies, youth meetings, and door-to-door humiliations.
In September of my senior year, my mother complained of a headache, cried out for my father, then dropped dead in the kitchen. It didn’t take long for her sisters to swoop in to our house and clear out any evidence that she had ever been there. By the time I returned home, the house had been wiped clean, her clothes had been boxed and removed, and a consolation cake from a neighbor had already been placed on the buffet table.
The new grieving was not like the lost emptiness of the years before my mother’s death. The hole she left in our lives was explicit and permanent, and we estranged ourselves from our church family and burrowed into misery. Once again, my father began his practiced drinking and would—apropos of nothing—slam cupboards and shout out random “shits” or “goddammits”. One night, through my bedroom window, I could see him sitting in the dark in the back seat of our station wagon, sobbing into his hands. I closed the curtains, placed a Led Zeppelin album on the turntable, and turned up the volume as high as it would go.
Hours later, when I heard his bedroom door close, I walked downstairs to a fire he had built in the fireplace. Large chunks of pine had been piled onto the grate and, directly in the center, the front half of a horse’s body seemed to be clawing itself out of a block of wood, as if it were trying to outrun the flames.
The night before I left for school, someone ran over our old Corgi after it absent-mindedly wandered out into street. I lifted its limp body off the pavement, placed it in the trunk of my car, and drove it to a nearby animal hospital. The next morning, after I showered and packed, I opened the door to my father’s bedroom and watched him sleep. Still bound by old borders, a year later he had carefully edged himself to the far side of the bed. I left a note on the kitchen counter, promising to call and letting him know his dog was dead.
The next time I saw my father, it was Thanksgiving.
We met at Dewey’s, which was just like Denny’s with a different sign. We ordered the requisite Thanksgiving meal: turkey breast, stuffing, mashed potatoes, all glued together with canned gravy—perfectly salty, unnaturally smooth. We ate in silence and when we were done, my father pushed his plate away.
“How’s school?” he asked.
“I like it,” I said. “The classes are easy.”
He made a funny sound; a combination of a cough and a hiccup.
I looked away, took in the near-empty restaurant. Clattery glass, flatware poured from one metal container into another, the cash register chomping shut, Roberta Flack’s disembodied voice singing Killing me Softly, and the sharp smell from an empty coffee pot, forgotten on the Silex.
“Get good grades and don’t lose that scholarship ‘cause I don’t have any money,” he told me.
My impulse was to make eye contact, but he was too focused on the whipped cream he scratched off his pie with a fork.
“Listen,” he said, still looking down at the table. “I have something I need to give you.”
He pulled out a folded grocery sack from the pocket of his wool coat and slid it in my direction. I began to open the sack but he stopped me.
“Not here,” he said. “Later.” Then he smoothed his hair back nervously, checked the restaurant for our waitress, and lowered his voice.
“I don’t want it around the house anymore. I don’t care what you do with it. Just take it away. Can you do that for me?”
Our eyes met for just a second. He swallowed then looked away.
A flash of connection? The restoration of some lost alliance? I couldn’t tell.
“What are we doing for Christmas?” he asked.
“Why don’t we take a road trip?” I said. Then I jokingly added, “Maybe on Route Sixty-six?”
He made that strange sound again and looked at his watch. “Better get going.”
We walked to our cars. Clouds that looked to me pressed and smeared, scudded against the dark sky. The wet pavement and the gusts of wind reminded me we were on the outer edge of yet another holiday season.
“You comin’ home?” my father asked, watching me and wringing his hands. “I’m selling the house in January.”
I was silent. It was ridiculous to imagine him staying there and, after a moment, I nodded that I understood and agreed.
“I thought I might head back to school for the weekend.”
“Gotcha. Well.” He reached into his wallet and handed me a folded-up newspaper clipping.
“Thought you might want this. Not sure if you’d seen it yet.”
“So—“ He pulled his coat closed. “See you at Christmas?”
“School’s over on the eleventh,” I said. “I’ll be home then.”
“Okay,” he said, walking to the station wagon. “Not sure about Route Sixty-six but we can talk about going up to Sacramento to see your Grandma.”
A half-committed grin, then he sat down, closed the door, and drove away.
I started my car and turned on the heat. I opened the folded-up clipping and read it by the orange light of the restaurant sign.
“Remains were found in the basement of an Orange County home yesterday. The resident, who has been identified as Marvin Thomas Pecking, was taken into custody. ‘The bodies of four young girls were found buried in the cellar,’ said Officer Mark Ghelquest, police spokesman.”
I squinted, distracted by the sudden spiky pain behind my eyes, and half-read the rest of the article.
“Latest victim escaped. . . police called. . . next of kin . . . identification of bodies. . . remains unearthed. . .”
The man—this Marvin Thomas Pecking—I knew who we was, and where he lived. My father knew him too, in passing. I remembered them chatting about the weather on the sidewalk in front of our house.
I realized then my father and I shared the certainty that after four years, my sister, his daughter, had finally been found.
The grocery sack my father handed me sat on the passenger seat. Inside, the small handgun in a black leather case and a new box of bullets.
Since the day my sister disappeared, I had watched my father dissolve, as I had dissolved, as we both had deconstructed ourselves into men whose only purpose was to make it through the day. And now, years later, my father and I had become two more consequences of Marvin Pecking’s insanity; powerless scraps of wind that push into things, unimportant, forgotten. Our muscles had turned into gas; weightless and formless. Our guts had seeped away and hardened. We were hollow. Imprints. Tracings.
On the way back to school, I stopped the car on a bridge, walked to the rail, and dropped the gun in its case over the edge into the river. It slipped through the steely water without a sound.
I imagined my father waiting outside of the city courthouse, stepping out of the crowd, and shooting Marvin Pecking dead. Or perhaps he wanted to tell me that he had made it through the worst, that he was ready to start living again and wanted no option of an early exit.
I turned the car around and drove back to our neighborhood, then parked outside the shutdown house with police tape draped across its porch. I stood out on the muddy lawn and stared up at the front door and the two sidelight windows that stared back like empty eyes. Barking sobs roared and disappeared into gusts of wind, and I spent what seemed like the better part of an hour releasing, and beginning to understand something that until that evening had seemed indefinable.
The cloud cover cracked, and the moon faded in and out behind a gauze of fog. I tipped my head back, noticed a fleck of sunburst, and recognized Venus, bright and burning.
I held my arms out from my sides and slowly began to spin. I reached out to the air with my fingers and stirred up the muddy ground with my feet, trying to collect any atom, any thought left behind, any forgotten breath, any parts of my sister that might have remained so I could take them with me.