The Lost Boy

A Popped Balloon

I

“Kyle! Kyle!” Harriet fought through the underbrush, her frantic path like something dictated by a crazy pinball machine. She gasped for breath; her body ill-prepared for these demands. She wished the world wasn’t so dim, so blurred, so far away. She was used to the experience of being drunk. But not now. Please!

It had been a kick-back Sunday afternoon in Frank’s back yard: Kyle, 3, chasing the bright orange balloon around the yard. The other kids, older, shooting basketballs at the hoop that was lowered to their height. A dozen adults jamming around the fire pit, vanquishing a potluck munificence of booze, brats and baked beans, and creating a parody of the less inebriated performances the night before. Smoke from a half dozen joints making spiritual union with the rich offerings of the pine logs.

As one of the lengthy improvs came to an end, Harriet rested her fiddle on her knee. Looking around, she slowly grasped that Kyle wasn’t there.

“Where’s Kyle?” she screamed.

One of the kids thought he chased his balloon into the woods.

She became a lot more sober, fast. At least, she tried to. As she raced into the woods, she screamed to the others, “Kyle’s in the woods. We gotta find him!” But where? Frank’s house was surrounded on three sides by woods darkening in the twilight.

First one way, then another — no idea where she should run.

She almost missed it—the little, orange scrap of rubber, the popped remains of Kyle’s balloon, lying in the leaves.

“This way! This way!” she shouted. No one followed. “Come on!” she cried as she ran. Why don’t they come?

She crashed, through brush that scratched and tore to hold her back, into a small clearing. There was no sun; a tiny cabin, painted with elaborate patterns that twisted and swirled in slow, uncanny motion, seemed to glow by absorbing the surrounding light. A woman sat on the porch. A cape, whose patterns matched the cabin, partially hid a white blouse and navy blue, straight skirt. Weird bangles cluttered her wrists and arms. As Harriet registered the woman’s black, sunken eyes, hooked nose, protruding chin and shriveled skin, childhood terrors exploded in her soul. More terrifying: Kyle sat on the woman’s lap holding a green balloon.

“Kyle!” she called.

Something was wrong. As hard as she ran, she didn’t get any closer. The cabin seemed to float in wavering, blurring mist.

“Mommy! Mommy! Come see my new balloon.”

“I’m coming, Kyle.”

The cabin taunted her as her legs struggled against concrete boots.

The woman disappeared into the cabin with Kyle.

Harriet woke up at the kitchen table, an empty glass in her hand, her head lying on a letter from Ohio Child Protective Services. She got up to refill her glass, stopped, picked up the letter, reread it. Her scream as she hurled the glass at the ceramic backsplash sent the cat racing to cower under the sofa. Harriet sat down and cried.

An orange balloon, shrunken and tired, oscillated vaguely in the corner.

II

Harriet made her way across the lawn, in the dark, uncoiling the extension cord through the newly fallen snow. One end ran into her basement window. She poked the other end through the hedge, then walked to the sidewalk and back up on Jack and Glenda’s side of the hedge. She found the end of the cord and pulled enough through to reach their house, a mirror-image of her 1950s ranch. On her knees, her hands getting numb, she found the outlet behind the shrubs and plugged in the cord.

Her power and gas had been cut off four days ago. She didn’t fight it. Then they took Kyle. The case worker said she’d have to stop drinking, get a job, get the utilities turned back on, and convince her that she was a responsible mother.

Hell. Why don’t they demand that I grow wings and fly too? She pleaded unsuccessfully with Bobby to come home. After a day of rage and self-abuse, she gave up. Two drunken days later, the first cold spell came, early for the Cleveland area, and she knew she had to do something. If she could get away with the extension cord to the neighbor’s house, she might be OK.

Her small, thin body was thoroughly chilled when she got back from running the extension cord. Other cords ran from it, to a heater in the basement to keep the pipes from freezing, to a hotplate in the kitchen, and to a heater in the hall. She’d have to heat water on the hot plate for coffee, dishes and sponge bath. She tacked blankets across the entries to the living room and dining room. She made a bed on a mattress in the hall. She hoped she had enough blankets to stay warm through the night.

With a glass of whiskey, she settled into a folding sling-back chair in front of the electric heater. This will work till I find a job. How she had come to this state she didn’t totally understand. Sure, she drank a bit. But lots of musicians drank heavily. So why did her gigs dry up? When they did, she simply stopped paying bills. Fortunately the house was paid for, an inheritance from her mother. She could thank her for that, at least.

She dozed. Images of Bobby and Kyle drifted past, the two of them playing on the floor. It had been over a year since Bobby and Kyle played together. Bobby had given up on her and her drinking and moved back to Grand Rapids.

Then she saw herself playing on the floor with her father. But suddenly they weren’t playing. She was sprawled over his knee, her mother’s hairbrush in his angry hand. She woke with a gasp. She never learned what she did wrong to bring on those punishments, although she had gradually learned to avoid him as much as possible when he was drunk. What she hated most was that he used her mother’s hairbrush, black enamel framed in silver, with silver inlays of her mother’s initials. Its gently curved, silver handle echoed the larger curves of the brush itself. She loved the hairbrush when it was in her mother’s hands, smoothing and unsnarling her hair.

She flashed back to the little seven-year-old girl, coming home from school on a winter day to find no one there. Not unusual. But then it got dark, and still no one had come home. She had finally turned on lights, gone to the kitchen and made herself a peanut butter sandwich. After some TV, she had gone to bed. The house was still November-dark when her alarm woke her at six-thirty. She had headed to the bathroom, passing her parents’ open door. They were not there. That’s when she got scared.

She got her mother’s hairbrush and sat with it on their bed. She traced her finger around the silver that framed its black enamel inlay. She played with the bristles and cried softly. What had she done to drive them away? I’m sorry, Mommy. Please come back. I’ll be good.

She was still on the bed, occasionally brushing at her hair and wanting her mother to be doing it, when the doorbell rang. She ignored it. It kept ringing. She gave in and went to the door. Through the peephole she saw Mrs. Kuipers, her teacher, and a lady she didn’t know. She opened the door and the women walked in. While the strange lady walked around the house, poking here and there, Mrs. Kuipers got her dressed and offered a vague explanation about her parents being tied up. She would need to spend a few days with a new friend. As they took her away, Harriet carried her Pooh-bear and Mrs. Kuipers carried a small suitcase.

It was many more than “a few days” before they brought her home. Mommy hugged and kissed her. Her father wasn’t there. After dinner, Mommy read her a story and tucked her into bed. Harriet rose early and pleaded till Mommy got up to brush her hair. Panic when the brush wasn’t there. Joy when the black and silver talisman greeted them from the second drawer. Mommy took her position on the toilet seat; Harriet stood, her eyes closed. Each stroke of the brush and each painful snarl brought more peace. When Mommy finished, Harriet insisted on more.

Harriet rarely saw her father after that. Her parents eventually divorced, when she was ten, about the same time Mommy bought her a brush so she could brush her own hair. Harriet continued to use the black and silver brush whenever she could.

Now the brush belonged to her, as did the house. In which she was all alone.

A snowplow, rumbled down the street, its orange lights flashing through the living room, bringing her back to the present.

She finished her drink, changed quickly into sweat pants and hooded sweat shirt, and climbed into her chilly bed. She lay awake with images of Kyle filling her mind. Suddenly a huge sob escaped and she cried till she fell asleep.

In the morning she splashed her face with icy tap water and boiled water for a cup of instant coffee. Then she poured herself another double shot and settled down with her stack of romances from the library.

About eleven o’clock she walked to McDonald’s, got herself an Egg McMuffin and logged onto their WiFi. She spent five minutes searching for jobs but found nothing that looked interesting. She walked back home. From a block away she saw Jack and Glenda standing on their front stoop. Jack had the extension cord in his hand.

Oh shit. She wanted to disappear down a sewer. OK. Turn around, cut through a yard and get to your house from another direction. Too dumb. Just face the music. Even if your hair hasn’t been washed in a week. What the fuck does it matter, anyway? You can live without heat and electricity. Just drain all the pipes and traps and sleep in the bus station.

As she approached them, she compared their house with hers. Freshly painted taupe with dark green trim versus 20-year old faded blue; neat shrubs versus exposed cinder block foundation.

Jack and Glenda met her on the sidewalk. Jack, about 55, was bald, his fringe shaved, with a growing pot belly bulging over his belt, his suit coat open, his tie several inches of bulge short of his belt. Glenda was petite, with out-of-style glasses and dull house-wifey clothes. They looked concerned, not angry.

“This isn’t a solution to your problem,” Jack said, holding up the extension cord. They knew about her lack of gigs and her drinking. She had told them everything was fine and she had a job lined up. Now they knew different. She could tell they had somehow found out about Kyle.

“We want to help you,” Glenda said. “But you have to help yourself as well. Come on in and let’s talk.”

“I’m sorry,” she said. “That was stupid of me.” She just wanted to get into her house and have a drink. “I have to do something in the house first.”

“Nope,” Jack said. “You don’t need more ‘something.’ You need to break that habit.” Care and parental sternness in his voice.

“Don’t say it that way. It’s not like I’m an alcoholic or anything. Just having a hard stretch.”

“We’re not going to argue. We don’t begrudge you some electricity. But on the condition that you quit drinking.” She knew Jack was a recovering alcoholic and had found Jesus when he stopped drinking.

She didn’t argue. What was the point? After Jack reconnected the extension cord, they sat around the dining room table. Glenda served coffee and almond coffee cake.

“We should begin by praying together,” Jack said.

She thought that was nonsense but again didn’t argue.

“Dear God,” Jack prayed, “we come to you this morning to thank you for your many blessings. We lift up Harriet to you and just ask that you come into her heart and give her the strength to fight the demon alcohol. We just beg you to fill her with your Spirit so she might find your love and just repent of her ways and turn back to you. We ask all this in the name of your Son, Jesus Christ. Amen.”

“Now,” he continued, “how are we going to get your life straightened out?”

“I don’t know what you mean. I’m fine. I just need some luck finding a new job.”

“Come on, Harriet. You know that’s not true. You’re almost totally dysfunctional right now.”

Harriet didn’t say anything. Jack continued, “To begin with,” — why was he doing all the talking, she wondered since Glenda was unquestionably smarter than he — “you’re moving in with us.”

Harriet didn’t like this. But the memory of the cold mattress on the cold floor and the cold water in her face shattered her resistance. Whatever. Maybe it can help me turn my life around. She felt herself giving in to a dependency that went beyond the extension cord linking their two houses.

Glenda settled her in the guest bedroom. It was still a boy’s bedroom, with blue walls, sports posters on the wall. On the dresser were photos of their grown son, Jack Junior, his wife and the grandkids. Seeing the look on her face when she saw the pictures, Glenda gathered them up.

“You don’t need these.” Glenda knew that not only had Kyle been taken from her, but that Bobby had left a year or so back because of her drinking.

Harriet sat on the bed. She fought off tears. More than anything, she wanted a drink.

You don’t need that drink . . . This is so stupid. They’re treating me like a derelict, like a child who can’t take care of herself. Stuck in a child’s bedroom. I’ll show them. When they see I can do without alcohol they’ll let me go back to my house.

At dinner that night, Jack told about his day and Glenda updated him with what happened on the soaps. Harriet was a bit startled when they began the meal with prayer and ended with a bit of Bible reading and a prayer. At least they didn’t pry or lecture.

She didn’t sleep that night, between her body’s demand for alcohol and her heart’s need for Kyle. She schemed how she might sneak back to her house for a drink. She pulled on some clothes and carried her shoes in her hand. But she had to go past their bedroom.

As she passed their door, open a crack, Glenda called out, “Harriet?”

“Sorry to wake you. Just heading to the bathroom.”

She used the bathroom and tip-toed back to her bedroom.

Just make it through the night. Tomorrow I’ll find a way.

The next day, Glenda kept Harriet occupied with her all day. The day set the pattern for the days that followed. Jack went off to work — he was a salesman of some kind. The two women ate together, shopped together, went to the library together, did housework together. While Glenda watched her soaps, Harriet read romances and mysteries. Glenda checked out some books on alcoholism recovery, but Harriet wasn’t interested.

Somehow it was always Glenda’s ideas and plans they followed, even though she regularly asked what Harriet would like to do. Harriet simply had no plans or ideas beyond going through the motions of looking for work each day. Every once in a while rebellion would rumble in her chest, but she quickly squelched it.

Gradually her craving for alcohol diminished. She felt plugged into a source of love and energy. When she thought about Kyle, she fought the heartache by promising she would get him back soon. She didn’t spend any time thinking about when or how that would happen. She was happy to rest in the care of her hosts.

A week and a half on, something she read made her put down the romance and stare at the wall. What are you doing here? You should be out working, not hanging around Glenda like a little child. You don’t need to be here. You’ve shown you can do without the alcohol.

But the thought of actually engaging the world without alcohol sent her back to the book.

With all the time they spent together, and with Glenda’s quiet support, Harriet started opening up, talking about things she hadn’t talked about to anyone before. It started with a letter from Child Protective Services setting a date for a hearing.

“What about Bobby? Can’t he come and take Kyle?”

“Bobby’s not his father.”

“Couldn’t he adopt him? He’s still your husband, after all.”

“He wanted to at one time, but not any more. He gave up on me and Kyle.”

“Maybe it’s not too late.”

Harriet started to cry. “It is too late. Bobby’s not coming back . . . I’ve ruined everything with my drinking.”

She rushed to her room.

Over the next days she talked more with Glenda . It was usually over a cup of tea in the afternoon. They munched ginger snaps or coffee cake and sipped silently. Glenda had learned that she didn’t have to say anything. Slowly, Harriet would tell a bit of her story— about Bobby, about her ex, about how he had raped her during the divorce proceedings, about her parents. Gradually, about her drinking. She had started to lose heart during the late stages of the marriage. After the rape she had given up. Drinking was easier than struggling. She met Bobby; he loved her; she married him. Bobby tried to be sympathetic and supportive. But it wasn’t enough to give her the strength to stop drinking. Glenda listened and made supporting noises. Sometimes Harriet would cry and Glenda would hug her.

III

During the third week, after a quiet tea-time during which they had simply chatted about household matters, Glenda went back to her soaps and Harriet settled in her room with a novel. She read about a Julie, who gets into drugs, leaves home for the promise of a job and good money in New York and ends up trapped in prostitution.

Harriet paused in her reading. There but for the grace of God go I . . . That’s Jack’s phrase. Sure I’m fortunate to avoid a fate like Julie. But “the grace of God”?

She was proud of not having a drink in three weeks. She looked at the picture of Kyle on the dresser. She looked at her violin case in the corner. I’ll get them back sometime. Just not now . . . No. You’ve got to do something, now, girl. You can’t just vegetate here. It ain’t right. You’re too old to be their child . . . Well, actually not. Biologically, they’re old enough to be your parents. Whatever. It’s time you start to grow up.

She took out her violin and started with her warm-up exercises and a favorite etude. Irritated that her fingers were slow and awkward and her bow clumsy, she quit. She wanted to go for a walk, but knew Glenda would insist on coming along. This too irritated her. But she routed Glenda from her soap opera and they went out into the December cold. As usual, she averted her eyes from the extension cord connecting the two houses.

“I loved hearing your violin,” Glenda said.

“I was playing terribly.”

“Well, it’s been several weeks since you played anything.”

“This is worse than several weeks off,” Harriet replied. “This is years of neglect.” Thinking about the neglect of her art brought a wave of self-loathing and regret. She loved the violin. She loved the way her music spoke to people. But after the rape she had practiced less and less and eventually had stopped altogether. Gigs became scarce, meaning she played even less.

“Let’s go back,” she said, turning as she spoke. She hurried to her room and practiced for an hour, till her uncalloused fingers were sore and her shoulders ached.

The household routine continued, except now Harriet spent two, and then three hours a day practicing. The fingers toughened and the shoulders stopped aching.

A friend called. “I hear Lambert needs a couple of more violins for his production of The Unsinkable Molly Brown. Why don’t you give him a call?”

She called, not without anxiety. Lambert was an old friend who had watched her slide and tried to help.

“I need violins,” he said. “But . . . this is embarrassing, Harriet, but I have to ask you to play for me first.”

She didn’t know what to say. She wanted to just hang up.

“Harriet . . . ?”

She knew he was right.

“I’ll come over.”

After she played for him and looked in his eyes, he just shook his head.

“I’m sorry, Harriet. It’s just not there.”

Glenda was waiting in the car. Harriet got in without a word. Glenda saw her face and didn’t say anything. Three blocks later, at a red light, Harriet opened the door, climbed out, and headed down the side street.

She turned in at The Speakeasy. Standing inside the entrance she soaked in the old familiar atmosphere, the thirty years’ worth of embedded tobacco smoke in the walls and ceiling, the mixed bouquet of beer, whiskey and other alcohols, the chatter of voices in the nearly dark room. All the old need returned. She nodded at the bartender, a woman she had known here for years, and headed to her old table in the corner.

A waitress brought her an Old Fashioned glass with a double shot of Jack Daniels and one ice cube. She sat and stared at it. For ten minutes.

Jack walked in the door and slid into the seat across from her.

She cursed herself silently for making that happen. She knew he hadn’t been in a bar in twenty years, and she knew how hard it would be for him in this atmosphere.

“I didn’t drink it,” she said.

He nodded. “Let’s go.”

He found a parking space in front of her house. Walking to his door, she turned and stared at the extension cord. As soon as they got in the house, she called the utility company and paid her bill with her credit card, which she had somehow managed not to max out. The next day the gas and electricity were turned back on. Glenda helped carry her stuff back to her house. The house was warm; the lights worked; she felt good.

Glenda gave her a hug. “Remember, it’s not gonna be easy. You can’t afford to get lonely. The bedroom’s yours. Come to work or sleep. There’s always a place for you at the table. And pray.”

Harriet thought AA would be more useful than a lot of prayer. She could already feel the demands on her resilience as the tentacles of reality approached, promising struggle. After Glenda left, she went outside and disconnected the extension cord. As she coiled it up, she felt the beginning of a new life, like she had been born again.

 

IV

Harriet settled in her favorite easy chair, a pink poly throw covering the torn brown vinyl. She was home. Home to the house that had been home for her entire life. Now she sat and reconnected.

The furniture, left over from her parents, was battered and worn. She kept it on purpose. Her fresh eyes saw how faded and stained the walls had become. I could paint them. That can’t be too hard.

The picture window displayed a front yard, bare spots and weeds covered by snow. Need to weed and replant, come spring.

A glance in the other direction revealed chrome-and-Formica table and chairs, a high chair tucked against the wall, and the small kitchen. Beyond, a large back yard, its fence sagging here and there and pinned flat at one point by the branch that had fallen five years ago.  I’ll need money to take care of that tree and fence. Then Kyle can have a dog like good old Fritz.

She drew a deep breath and pulled out the vacuum cleaner and dust clothes to confront the detritus of dereliction. Everywhere except Kyle’s bedroom, whose door would remain shut.

Later, she drove to Good’s Supermarket, through the quiet, stable residential neighborhood in Maasdam. At the grocery check out, her charge wasn’t accepted until she removed a dozen items. She thanked whatever stars watched out for her that the card hadn’t maxed out before she paid the utility bills.

Job search strategies ran through her mind on the drive home. No more just-going-through-the-motions.

She was eager to cook for herself, for the first time in a month-and-a-half. She dropped a chicken breast into the hot frying pan, heated water for her Minute Rice, and opened a bag of lettuce. It had been a very long time since she cooked without a glass of wine or whiskey in her hand, she realized.

A romance novel filled the evening. At ten-thirty she brushed her teeth, then picked up her hair brush. In a dreamy mood she started brushing.

She could feel Mommy using brush and fingers to patiently unsnarl the knots. Patiently, that is, when Mommy was sober and rested. Other times, it became a war; more than once Harriet broke free and raced out of the house.

She pushed memories aside and surrendered to the caress of the natural bristles. The mood continued as she cleared the brush of the loose hairs. Along with hers were several of Kyle’s, soft, short and black. A sob sneaked out. She scooted to her bedroom without looking at Kyle’s door.

In the morning, Kyle’s high chair dominated her consciousness. It had been her high chair and her father’s before that. Solid wood with nicely turned legs and a carved back. Bobby had dug it out of the attic and restored the paint job when Kyle was six months old. She told herself it wouldn’t be long now before she had him back.

Find a job. Then, Child Protective Services, hear this: He’s mine again!

For now, she fetched a sheet from the linen closet and draped it over the chair.

After breakfast she practiced for three hours, focusing on the Bach Sonatas and Partitas for Unaccompanied Violin. Her arms and fingers felt fresh after a day off from practicing. She could still play the pieces from memory, just a lapse here or there, but the phrasing, dynamics and tricky sections revealed the limits of her progress.

After lunch — tuna from a foil package with some mayo and sweet pickle relish and eaten with a spoon — she settled in the living room and stared out at the street. OK. So how you gonna support yourself? Not with the violin. You burned too many bridges—actually, washed away too many bridges with the alcohol. You knew your playing wasn’t ready, even before you went to that Molly Brown audition.

She thought about the grocery store. Yesterday, her friend Marieke had been stuck working a cash register, complaining about under-staffing, when she should have been back in the meat department she managed.

Maybe . . .

No way. You left that behind along with high school. And what would they pay? $10 an hour? So maybe you get thirty hours a week. What’s that? $1250-$1300 a month?

You can live on that for now! You can walk to Good’s, so no commuting expenses.

She called Marieke. Would they hire her?

“You gotta stay sober.”

“I haven’t had a drink in seven weeks.”

“You’re not shitting me?”

“Honest. Talk to Jack and Glenda. I’ve been living with them.”

“I’m putting myself on the line. Don’t let me down.”

After the call, she watched the falling snow.

She started a routine of work and practice. Her daily walk to Good’s took her past the elementary school where she had started Suzuki violin. From the very first “Twinkle” and “Mississippi motorcycle,” the violin was peace, nourishment, security. By high school, she was playing a professional-quality violin on loan and taking lessons from a leading Cleveland Orchestra member. She had gone through Ohio University on a music scholarship. Now she had to recover what she had lost.

Practice took three or more hours a day. Her playing progressed quickly. During Thanksgiving week she played for Lambert again and got a paying gig for the Maasdam Messiah sing-along.

She called the caseworker. “I’m ready to get Kyle back.”

The morning of the interview there were still some of Kyle’s hairs entwined in the bristles of her mother’s hairbrush. At the Family Services Building, in Medina, she laid out her progress and situation.

“You’re doing good, Harriet. But it’s too soon. We need to be sure the things you have in place will stay in place. With a single mother, in particular, we have to be sure the situation is solid.”

Every Christmas light between Medina to Maasdam jeered at her. She was just glad she made it home without crashing.

She tried calling Bobby, but he didn’t answer.

With the brush in her hand, she went next door to Glenda. Calm slowly replaced the anger and despair as Glenda brushed her hair in the darkened living room. The black enamel and silver trim of the brush glistened in the lights of the Christmas tree.

V

Back in October, a call from Harriet had disturbed Bobby Van Houten’s peaceful hike around Reeds Lake, on a chilly, gray day in Grand Rapids.

What does she want now? He ignored the call; this was not a time to talk to her. Slowly his peace returned: the quiet road with an occasional car, the swampy, reedy shallows, the wakes and small waves catching what brightness there was. And, across the water, the striking, modern East Grand Rapids Library, whose view of the lake drew his attention when he tried to work there.

As he came up the steep path onto Lake Drive, he checked the phone. A text message from Harriet: “They took Kyle.”

The news saddened but did not surprise him. He had married Harriet when Kyle was eight months old — the son of her ex, who had forced himself on her during the divorce proceedings, even though he knew she was off the pill. The reason Bobby was back in Grand Rapids, rather than with Harriet in Ohio, was her downward spiral of drunkenness. He had fled from the stress and pain.

He made his way to a breakfast joint in Eastown, ordered coffee and a Western omelet, and called Harriet.

She started as soon as she answered. “They took him. They said I wasn’t fit to be a mother. What am I gonna do, Bobby? I want my baby. Come home, Bobby, and help me get him back.”

“I can’t do that, Harry.” — He was the only one permitted to call her “Harry” — “What good would it do anyway? I’m not Kyle’s father. My being there won’t make any difference.”

“Yes it will. You can tell them that I’m shaping up and that you’re seeing that Kyle gets cared for.”

“What’ll happen is, you’ll be drunk or stoned, and I’ll be taking care of both of you.”

“No it won’t. Honest. I’ve learned my lesson. I’m changing.”

“I’ll believe it when I see it — or better, hear it from others. I’m not going to put myself through that grief again.”

“Please, Bobby, please. For our love. For Kyle. Please . . . .”

“Sorry, Harry. I can’t do it. I gotta go now. They’ll take care of Kyle, and you gotta take care of yourself.”

He hung up, though she was continuing to plead.

He nibbled at his omelet. What he needed was to go across the street to the pub and have a drink.

His phone rang. If it was her, he wouldn’t answer. It was his friend Caleb, checking about rehearsal that afternoon. Responding to the tone of Bobby’s voice, Caleb asked what was wrong.

“Harriet. They took Kyle from her.”

“Shit man. That sucks. Why would they do that?”

Caleb had been with Bobby at the Wheatland Festival. Her music, reaching Bobby from the stage, had touched him. Later, she jammed with them. He couldn’t take his eyes off her — small and slender, with long hair, brightly patterned long skirt, beaded necklace — even as he continued to be seduced by her music. He thought she looked like she might be pregnant, but she had no ring. She told him she liked that he was short and seemed kind and gentle. That his face was not rugged and his hair was not black.

Bobby drove with her back to Cleveland. Harriet was four months pregnant and had just gotten a restraining order against her soon-to-be ex. Eleven months later they married. Another two-and-a-half years and Bobby was back in GR. Caleb knew why.

“She didn’t tell me what she did, but it must have been serious. She wants me to come down and help her get him back.”

“Doesn’t sound like you want to do that.”

“I’ve tried everything.”

“You know about breaking addiction. You couldn’t use that experience to help her?” Caleb had watched Bobby fight his way free from alcohol.

“Everybody’s different. I tried to give her love and support, but it never really reached her, or she wouldn’t open to it, or something. She has to figure it out for herself. Kyle will be better off, assuming they find a decent foster home.”

“But what about you? You’re still in love with her. And you’re really attached to Kyle. You’re just gonna sit here in GR?”

“All I can do.”

The restaurant was beginning to fill for lunch.

“Gotta go, K. Too many people here. See you at four.”

Bobby didn’t want to have this conversation over the phone. There was something wrong with doing personal stuff over the phone. Of course, that could be an advantage too. He had called Harriet from Grand Rapids to tell her he wasn’t coming back. He knew he couldn’t do it in person.

He walked to the big house on Lake Drive where he rented an attic apartment. He was just settling at his computer to finish the web site job when Harriet called again.

He waited five rings before deciding to answer.

“Hi,” he said in a resigned voice.

“Bobby, I swear. I’ve thrown away every bottle and every bit of weed. Please come home. I promise this is different.”

Bobby didn’t answer. Memories of Harry and Kyle and him together at gigs. Memories of her coming to bed in her teddy. Then the other memories. Memories of the house when he came back from a road trip — garbage, dirty dishes, Kyle’s diaper rash, and, twice, dried up vomit. Memories of her screwing up performances or being too drunk to show up for a gig. In the end he couldn’t cope with the big messes in her life. He couldn’t cope with seeing her disintegrate.

He was glad he was on the phone.

“No, Harry. You know I love you and Kyle. But I can’t do it.”

Harriet let out a cry of despair, shouted he was a good-for-nothing shit, and hung up. Bobby sat, shaken and miserable. His mind kept running a loop between “I’ve done everything I can for her — it’s up to her” and “You love her — how can you quit on her like this?” and “I had to get out of there for my own sanity.”

* * * * *

Two months later, in December, Bobby was finishing his six-mile Reeds Lake Run, slogging back through the slushy, sloppy snow of Eastown. It had turned warm, starting to rain. That reminded him of the umbrella he had left in Maasdam — not that he needed an umbrella very often. And he didn’t like thinking about Maasdam. He had pretty much damped down his conscience. His phone rang — Harriet. He hadn’t talked to her for two months. He didn’t answer the phone.

He finished his shower. After toweling off, he carefully folded the towel and laid it in the laundry basket. The floor mat, balanced exactly on its midpoint, was hung precisely in the center of the shower door rack. The shower doors were centered precisely in the middle of their tracks, leaving an equal space on each side so the shower would dry.

His phone rang. It was Marieke, Harriet’s friend. He knew what she would say. Her faith that Harriet would get it right had survived several failed attempts. Marieke, tall and athletic, seemed to have a hollow leg when it came to alcohol. But she knew Harriet had to be dry, and she did everything she could to help. Now Bobby hoped it wasn’t bad news about Harriet.

“Listen, Bobby. This is a critical time. She’s been dry for two months now and working at the store. She was sure she’d get Kyle back today, but they turned her down. Something about needing more time to be sure, and something about the special difficulties of a single mother. If you came back, that could tip the balance.”

Bobby was glad for the phone.

“Wish I could believe that, Marieke. I can’t get myself into that mess again. I’ve given her what I owe her. There’s only so much someone can do for someone else.”

Marieke nearly shouted. “I don’t believe that and you don’t believe that. It’s not a matter of ‘owe.’ This is the woman you love. She’s at a life-crucial point. If you don’t come now, that life can go down the tubes permanently.”

“I’m sorry, Marieke — ”

In Maasdam, Marieke hung up without saying anything. She looked at Harriet and shook her head in disappointment.

Harriet said, “I know what I have to do.”

At four-thirty the next day Bobby was driving past the Greyhound bus station. In the growing darkness, he spotted a figure struggling against the wind and rain, under an umbrella that sported a wild, Hawaiian-shirt pattern against a green background. His heart jumped as he turned the corner onto Wealthy Street. It was exactly like the old umbrella he had left behind in Maasdam. How weird that he should see one like that just now, when Maasdam was at the center of his struggling conscience.

Bobby’s conscience hadn’t let up on him an hour later when someone banged on his door. Harriet stood there, the green umbrella dripping at her side, jeans and boots soaked. He said nothing. She said nothing. She walked in, put her backpack down and sat on the floor, her back against the far wall. She studied the apartment — pure Bobby. Floor immaculate. Bed made military style. No clothes or shoes lying about. Not a pan or dish, clean or dirty, in sight. Violin case carefully lined up against the wall. Music stand next to it — all the music carefully stowed in binders on the book shelf. No papers on the desk.

Bobby knew she wouldn’t move till he said he would come back with her. She knew that she had the upper hand, now that they weren’t talking on the phone.

Bobby silently asked God if He was trying to tell him something. He could almost hear God’s scornful reply, “Son, I’m hittin’ you over the head with a two-by-four. Don’t go askin’ such stupid questions.”

Bobby got the umbrella from the landing outside his door and placed it in the precise center of the bathtub to dry.

A bright orange balloon, full and firm, oscillated slowly on top of a bookcase.

©Eric Beversluis 2016, 2017
Originally published at The Weekly Knob

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