The Disappearing Dude
WHEN I WAS SMALL, my mother always began my favorite story by saying, “This is the story of my life, Jessie. It starts when I was a little girl, just like you.”
Sitting on her lap and staring up into her face, I was amazed to think that my big, soft mommy had once been a child, too.
“I had a mother and a father,” my mother continued, “and everything was nice until I was nine years old. My father went fishing on a big lake, Oneida Lake, and a storm came up, and the wind blew and there were big waves.”
“How big?” I asked.
“Big, Jessie! Big! My father didn’t know how to swim, and he wasn’t wearing a life jacket. The boat went over and he drowned. Jeez!”
She always said jeez like that when she got upset. I petted her cheek and said I would never get drowned and make her sad. She hugged me close, and I snuggled in, because now the story got even sadder.
“My mother got married again,” she went on, “and you know, her husband was my stepfather, right? Well, he didn’t like me. Every day it was, ‘Maribeth, you make too much noise. Maribeth, shut your big mouth. Maribeth, you are a brat.’”
“But your mama loved you,” I said.
“Yes, she did.”
“Just like you love me.”
“Then my mother got cancer and died. Now, don’t cry,” she said quickly. “Are you going to cry?”
I shook my head hard. “You won’t die, will you, Mama?”
“Not for a long, long time, sweetie. Not till I’m an old bent lady with no teeth.” She showed me her teeth. “See how strong they are?”
“Will Aunt Zis die? Her teeth aren’t so strong.”
“She won’t die for a long, long time, either.”
“Promise?” I would sit there, my four-year-old heart beating fast, waiting to hear her promise, as if her words alone could keep her and Aunt Zis safe.
“Want me to stop, Jessie? Are you getting too upset, baby?”
“No! Keep telling.” It was a thrilling story, scarier, sadder, and much better than any of the stories Aunt Zis read me at night, which were usually about bunnies and bears.
“After my mother died, my stepfather told me he was going to move to Denver. He had a son there, from when he was married before. He didn’t want to take me with him. He didn’t exactly say that, but he told me he didn’t know how he got stuck with a fourteen-year-old girl.”
The part about Denver and the son was a little confusing, but I knew what came next. “You said, ‘I don’t want to go with you.’ And he said, ‘Well, hell, that’s fine with me, but you better find somebody to live with.’”
“You got it. I didn’t know what I was going to do. Who could I live with? I didn’t have anyone. Then—”
“I know! I know!” I sat up, excited. “Just like in a fairy tale, you remembered that your mama had an aunt!”
“And she lived in New York City. But how was I going to find her? New York City! One of the biggest cities in the whole world. Millions of people, Jessie. It was a miracle I found her. And you know what she did?”
“What?” I knew, but I wanted to hear my mother say it.
“She got right on the train and came up here. Day one, I talked to her. Day two, she was here. Day three, she said to my stepfather, ‘Go! We don’t need you.’ She rescued me. She saved my life. She didn’t have to do that, did she? She could have said, ‘Sorry. I’m not a young woman. No fourteen-year-old girls for me, either.’”
“But she didn’t say it!” I quickly kissed my mother.
“And you know something else she could have said? ‘Maribeth, you come live with me in New York City.’”
“Anybody else would have said that.” I said it before my mother could, and I got another hug for remembering.
“Aunt Zis said I didn’t need to change schools and cities and friends, besides everything else. She said I’d had enough stuff in my life, we would just live right here.”
“And so you did! Now tell me the James Wells part.”
My mother took a breath. “I was seventeen, and one day I met this guy in a record store and—”
“This guy in a record store who had a big voice, like me,” I reminded her.
“And beautiful eyebrows, like me.”
“Strong as a little horse.”
She nodded. “He worked in lots of countries, on highways and bridges. He worked in Canada, Brazil, Saudi Arabia. He had two leather jackets and a BMW. He once paid fifty dollars for a silk tie. When he got dressed up, he looked like a prince!”
“And then you got married to the prince, even though Aunt Zis didn’t want you to, so young, and you were beautiful.”
“Uh-huh. And then he wanted to buy a house, one of those brick ones with three fireplaces and three garages and three bathrooms. Don’t I wish! But I found this little old house, which is so great, and all we could afford, anyway.”
“Our house,” I said with satisfaction. “And you moved in, and I was born, and I was wonderful.”
“One hundred percent right on the mark! And then one day—”
I couldn’t wait for her to say it. “James Wells said, ‘I’m going out for a while.’”
“Uh-huh. And I said, ‘Where are you going?’ And he looked at his watch and said—”
“‘Nowhere special, be back in a few hours.’” This always hit my funny bone. “Nowhere special, be back in a few hours! But he never came back and you cried for three days!”
One day I added, “Because he was James Wells, the disappearing dude.”
“Where’d you get that, you cutie? Zis,” my mother called to my aunt, “did you hear what this child just said?” She couldn’t stop laughing, and the disappearing dude became part of the story, too.
For years, my mother told me that story. For years, I loved it, and I listened, crying and laughing at all the right moments. Well, I was small. I was a child. Not that I’m an adult now, but I am fourteen, and it’s different. I don’t ask for the story anymore, and if my mother does refer to it, I hear it differently. It seems to me there’s something left out—it’s like a frame without a picture. The frame is intricate, carved, full of detail, but in the center is an emptiness. Something is missing: James Wells. Who he was, what he was like, why he left us. Why he left me.
Copyright © 1995 by Norma Fox Mazer
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