Robert Pope | The lost boy

When news that a child had disappeared rippled through the neighborhood, we answered the call. I’d been living here eight years and hadn’t had many conversations with neighbors on my street. For one thing, everyone on Shaggy Birch Loop was Catholic except me and the older couple next door who didn’t talk with anyone. Their son had died at some point in the past, over eight years ago, and they had become withdrawn. The only time the man spoke to me was to ask if he could cut down a sturdy poplar on our property line, for firewood. He was a man my size, wearing a red flannel shirt, wrinkled brown slacks, and work boots. He sometimes wore glasses with clear frames. He had thin brown and gray hair. By the time I got home from work, all that remained was a stump, the logs stacked neatly on top of his woodpile, the prettiest white wood with a dark core at the center. I had to run my hand over the smooth top of the stump.

The son had been a young man of 19 or 20, and drugs had been involved. I don’t know if they had any religion, but I know they didn’t go to St. Martha’s. Perhaps they once had. I went quite a few times myself and tried to join. My first wife and I divorced, so I would have had to file a petition to have the marriage annulled retroactively. This involved a questionnaire with some 90 questions, and I would have had to ask a couple of friends or family members to fill out another such questionnaire, to establish the flaw that invalidated our marriage, as if it had never been. I would also have to pay a $500 legal fee for a cannon lawyer to declare my previous marriage invalid and then remarry Catherine in the church; otherwise we would not be considered married at all. They might have thought that Laura’s claiming to be an atheist was enough of a flaw to begin with. We did have arguments, like any couple, but I didn’t want the marriage declared invalid, so I gave up and quit going.

I didn’t regret anything except the break-up, which came after seven years. Laura had a chance to work overseas, in Sweden, but I did not want to just leave my job here and my family. I wasn’t likely to find something better than the university, where I was an IT guy. My parents and brother and sister lived within an hour’s drive. Laura and I tried the long-distance marriage a while, but that ended when she met a German man and fell in love. I’m happy for her; I told her so. She wanted me to meet Wolfgang. I’d like to, I told her, though I had no interest in meeting him. And then when Catherine and I married, it was out of the question. Catherine and I work together at the university, same department. She’d had a brain tumor when she was 15 that left her blind in one eye and with no sense of smell.

But about my first marriage, the story was simple: I loved her and she loved me. Now she had a child, son of a German man, whose name was Hans. Laura and Wolfgang, and little Hans, who has her blonde hair and rosy cheeks. That was behind us now, but I did not want that seven years of my life declared invalid, which must mean that I am not meant to be a Catholic. I go on as I am, as nothing, same as Catherine, square pegs in a neighborhood of round holes, along with the neighbors whose son died. The only thing that connects me to this neighborhood is coaching soccer at the junior high team. They pay me a modest sum, but that’s not why I do it. I played in high school and in college and wanted to keep it going. This was early in November. Our season had ended on the weekend, when we lost a semi-final game we should have won, 1-4.

When I heard a kid had gone missing, I followed people moving in that direction until I got to a house with a cruiser out front, low blue and red lights swirling. It turned out the kid was actually 13-year-old Peter Johns, one of my players. I’d reprimanded him at our last game, which felt lousy now. A policeman hooked me up with a couple of men I’d never met, all of us carrying different flashlights. It was getting dark as groups split up in various directions. We had the upper streets of the neighborhood to search.

Our development had gone up in the late sixties, a couple hundred houses, probably more. Developers purchased the land from farmers who had worked these fields for a few generations. On the upper side, Cardinal Road separated the houses and people from a wooded area that had been there longer than that. Wooded parcels would be developed one day soon, we had been told, with houses more expensive than ours, on smaller lots. Ours had no lots smaller than half an acre, most of them a little bigger. The rule had been instituted that no fences could be erected around any lots, to keep the open flow of the land. All of us had septic tanks and wells, but there had been some discussion whether to hook up to city water. I had no opinion on the matter. City dwellers called this living out in the country. Catherine and I lived out in the country, in the same house Laura and I did.

Below the development, the neighborhood trailed into overgrown fields until you got to Moxley Road, where a new development was already going in. A large parcel of land in-between had been deeded to the university where I worked, as wetlands preserve, so at least that wouldn’t be developed. Our search party went through each street of the upper neighborhood, knocking on doors to make sure Peter hadn’t disappeared into someone’s house, where he was safely playing video games. We went up to Cardinal while others combed down to Moxley. We talked about what might have happened, where he might be, without acknowledging our fear that he had been abducted and taken out of the area altogether.

At 11:30 or so, the other men in my group called it a night. We exchanged phone numbers, in case we were needed or some news came in. I stayed because I had coached this kid. He was no great shakes as a soccer player, but my philosophy was, if you want to be on the team, I’ll get you in now and again. The school did expect me to win some games, however. My boys fed into a high school team that had always been competitive.

I had on boots and jacket, gloves and cap, though it hadn’t gotten below 45⁰ during the day. Temperatures had been falling and might drop into low 30s, high 20s before the night was over. I didn’t like to think of Peter out there without proper dress. I felt certain he wouldn’t have thought ahead. We split up at the edge of the wooded area across Cardinal, but I still wanted to take a look in there, just in case.

The moon was an edge off full, but it gave light. When clouds drifted across the face, it got darker, and then it would come back. As I moved into the trees, I couldn’t have seen much if I didn’t have the flashlight, a yellow box affair with one big battery inside. It gave good light and the beam spread. I called Peter’s name a few times, but the twigs, branches, and fallen leaves all made enough noise in passing that he could have heard me anyway. A fox stood illuminated for a moment, eyes glowing, before dashing off. One day, coming home from work, I’d seen a box turtle crossing the road in front of me, from these woods. I’d pulled over and carried it across so it wouldn’t get hit by a car. On the other side of the woods is a little stream filled with watercress at that time of year. I thought maybe the turtle had wanted to get at the watercress.

I’d only been in the woods 15, maybe 20 minutes, when I tripped over a big rock. I caught myself with one hand against a tree and stood like that a while, listening to the silence. I heard a few leaves rattling softly. Dark of night surrounded me, darker than in the neighborhood. I sat on the rock a moment and took cigarettes from my jacket pocket. I had quit at the start of the season, but I hadn’t worn this jacket since last year. I had slipped a book of matches under the cellophane, so I lit up and had a smoke. I turned off the flashlight and set it at my feet. It got dark awfully quick. I couldn’t see a thing when I turned it off, but my eyes started getting used to the dark, and I could make out the ground and the trees and such. It reminded me of when Laura and I went camping, sitting in the dark by the light of a small fire.

She and Wolfgang lived in Stockholm, as far away as another planet, with this son I’d seen in the photo. It could be snowing there now, six o’clock in the morning. They could still be in bed, or getting up. Laura liked to get up early and fix a pot of coffee. She wrote in her journal with her first cup of the day so I just ignored her when I got a cup to get ready for work. When I asked what was in it, she told me she wrote about the day before, what she was going to do in the day to come. Sometimes, she wrote down a dream, if it stuck in her mind. She said I could read it if I liked, but I never did. I liked to see her writing at the round dining room table before I took a shower, the privacy of it.

I missed that for the longest time once she left. I expected to see her and she wasn’t there. I had to fix the coffee. That made me feel alone. I had been considering getting a dog for quite a while, just to have a creature stirring up the air. My next-door neighbors, on the other side of the older couple whose son died, had a wire-haired fox terrier, white, with black spots. An energetic dog with a sharp, clearly defined bark. Each bark stood out on its own, not like some small dogs where they all run together in a rush. I had seen Joe throwing a stick for Junior. When he had the stick in his hand, cocked back to throw, Junior came off the ground like he was on springs, as high as Joe’s shoulder, five or six times, until he threw the stick, then, off like a shot.

I watched the dog for them one week and let it in the house, just to see what it would be like. But Joe’s dog acted like a stranger, sniffing around the whole time. It was weird having the dog in my house, and it made me wonder why Laura and I never had one, or even a cat. If we’d had a dog, it would have been harder for her to leave, but she would have left the dog there too, I knew that much. So, I was glad we didn’t have one. I didn’t want it to be any harder on her than it had to be, and the dog would have been lonely for her, which would have depressed me. As it was, I continued to get dressed and go to work, and on some evenings or weekends I coached the boys, but I felt empty space around me, a buffer of silence between me and the rest of the world.

Catherine and I actually do have a dog, one we adopted at a refuge, I guess you’d call it, but she’s not all that active. Catherine found her, a solid dog about forty pounds, reddish brown, and completely blind, with her eyes sewn shut so she doesn’t scare kids. After Catherine saw her, she cried all night. The next day we went to get her, and she named her Periwinkle. She’s a nice dog, and likes to go on walks although she can’t see a thing. Catherine says she sees with her nose, which is more than Catherine, who has no sense of smell. She’s not completely blind in the bad eye. She sees colors and movement in that one, and there’s been talk the damage may be repairable, so she could get some back. She repeated 10th grade because of this tumor, laid up with surgeries. That’s when she’d learned about computers, stuck at home. She’s a quiet woman, a good companion who goes along with anything I want and usually seems happy about it. She has a sweet smile, short red hair, and pale green eyes. Sometimes I get disturbed when she sits on the couch staring out the window vacantly. It scares me until she turns and gives me the smile and it’s all right. She’s a hard worker, very dependable, and we end up going out for dinner quite a bit, because we come home tired.

It was dark and cool in the trees, and I smelled dirt and rotting leaves. I always liked that smell, when we helped Dad in the garden. He’d get Max and me out to clean and bury the garden in the fall and turn soil each spring, a nice plot with tomatoes, beans, lettuce and peppers, carrots and cucumbers, always squash and sunflowers. Their house sits on an acre and a half, the garden along the back, blackberry bushes at one end. Gardening had been something that his father had taught him. It’s funny that my grandparents came from Germany, with an accent that stays with Grandma to this day. Grandpa too, until he died before Laura and I got married. I once wrote to Laura that she didn’t have to go all the way to Stockholm to marry a German. Grandpa said he came to America because he had been called into the army and decided it was time to seek his fortune elsewhere. He said he was a lover, not a fighter.

When Dad got drafted during Vietnam, Grandpa suggested he take a job with our cousin who owned a company in Sweden. Some coincidence, now that I think of it. Dad spent the better part of a year in East Asia, as he called it. He never talked specifics, but I met some guys he was in with. One had a glass eye, no thumb.

I stubbed the cigarette out on the rock under me. I had to work at eight next morning, so I’d have to get home. But thinking about Pete made me reluctant to give up. I thought if anyone could find him, it would be me. This odd, thin kid in an oversized red jersey, number 13 on the back, and the long, wide black shorts, his mouth perpetually open on the field, watching intently as the ball and the striker ran past. No exaggeration, the absolute worst player I’d had in the three years. When I looked, he’d be way off the sideline, paying zero attention, searching the grasses for crickets and hoppers. A couple of times he’d climbed a tree.

A guy like that sticks in the back of your mind. You’re happy to forget about him but you can’t, especially if he goes missing. Second half of our last game was a runaway. After our first and only goal, the Hillside Hawks took no prisoners. We took two guys off the field injured. In the last 10 minutes I put in third-stringers. When I looked for Pete, he was nowhere to be found. I asked a couple of kids where he had gotten to, and one of them pointed out a tree about 15 feet off the sideline. Pete sat in the crotch smoking a cigarette. I ran over and yelled at him. I told him to put out the cigarette and get down if he wanted to go in. He looked down at me a moment and then leaned his head back on a branch. I was fit to be tied but had a game to finish, so I went back and got it over with. I had a pep talk with the boys about a good season and all of their best plays and so on, and the treat volunteer came over with health bars and Gatorade.

I left them sitting on the grass, talking and laughing amongst themselves, and headed to the tree Pete was climbing down. When I grabbed his shirt at the neck, his narrow shoulder stuck out. He looked so ridiculous with his floppy hair, big brown eyes and wet mouth. I set my hands on my hips and he watched me staring at him. He looked so little and skinny, but I was pissed off about losing so badly. Pete represented the reasons we lost, so I shouted without thinking: “Jesus Christ, get your fucking head in the game.”

When I went back to my team, I was still angry, complicated by how embarrassed I was I had said such a thing to the waif, which was how I thought of him. Time to send in the waif, I’d think before I called for Peter. I took them out for pizza, but Peter went home with his mother. I felt worse about this as the evening went on, until I had to let it go to get any sleep at all. I drank several brandies and prayed about it and corked off to sleep. That was on the weekend, and now here I was, sitting on a rock in the woods, ostensibly looking for Peter, thinking about my woes. I realized between game time and the present moment that I had related myself to Peter, because I felt I had been caught in a stasis myself, not an iota of change in my life, as if I was sitting in the tree with Peter smoking a cigarette.

No telling where he was, but it made me lonely thinking about him. I picked up a stick and snapped off twigs that ran along the main branch. I started thinking about Stockholm, about Laura with her German man and blonde boy named Hans. The pang that twisted in my stomach made me think I might be getting sick. I had not wanted a divorce at all was the main problem. I kept thinking she would come home soon, and we’d take up where we left off. She’d told me she didn’t want to have kids for another 10 years, maybe never, then she married Wolfgang and had Hans right away. If I didn’t have the job and coaching, I couldn’t have stood the emptiness. This Peter, this disengaged kid, caught up in isolation and disinterest, was missing. I had pretty much gone missing too, when Laura left. I should have quit my job, said good-bye to family, and gone with her, but that’s not how I saw things then. I would have been a tag-along husband. I had no idea what I would do. She’d have a job and be supporting us, and I would be doing what?

One of the things about being a young man is you need to be doing something, getting ahead, supporting your family. When I thought about Laura, I thought about the ocean between us. I felt the rocking of the waves until I got a hold on myself. If she needed me in an emergency, I couldn’t get to her. But now she had Wolfgang. She wouldn’t call me if she needed something urgently. I zipped my jacket because I’d started to feel the cold. I felt a drop of water on the back of my hand and wiped it off—trees dripping. I wiped the back of my hand on my pants. Someday love would come back, my mother said, with someone else.

But my emotions had hooked on this thorn in my past. Once the past backed away for another year or so, I could start over. I was pretty sure I wanted to join the church to have one more thing besides a job and coaching, to occupy emotions or spiritual yearnings, if that’s what I had. If that had worked, I would have been grateful. I knew I could still answer the ninety-some questions, but I balked at asking my brother or sister to fill one out. My sister was mad at Laura for leaving. She’d tried to talk her out of it. She had two kids, boy and girl, and did not understand Laura’s lack of interest in children. She became furious when she heard of Hans, calling Laura a liar. Though she had gotten over her anger, she could still tap into it when it came up. My brother John came to help out at soccer practice sometimes. I know he’d have said what I wanted him to say. I couldn’t see a purpose to it now.

My parents would want to know why I couldn’t stick to being Lutheran, like them. That ended when I met Laura—she’d ridiculed it into oblivion. I could no longer go back, but I maybe could claim something two thousand years old and steeped in ritual and anguish. But why in the world did I want to become Catholic if they didn’t want me until I claimed everything before had been a mistake? The appeal was strong, the reaction just as powerful.

Of course, sometimes I thought there had been a flaw. Maybe the fact that Laura would take off and leave me like that indicated a flaw. When she finished the master’s degree, she said her eyes had been opened. Her excitement rolled over all we had in Ohio. Nothing could stop her without creating resentment. I saw that clearly. I prayed every night that she wouldn’t leave, and after she left, that she’d come back. I didn’t get on my knees or anything. I lay in bed with my hands folded, talking to God or someone I felt was listening. It went on a long time. Sometimes I moved my lips, as if I needed the assurance of speech. I started praying about Laura first, and then touched on every member of my family before I got to myself, my feelings of loss and guilt and shame. Tonight, I would pray for Peter as well, my missing soccer player.

If I found him, if he materialized before me in the dark, I did not know what I would say to him. He was one of those boys who felt alone, though his mother loved him and wanted him back. His father lived in Cincinnati. I had already wondered if that’s where he had gone, but his mother called there first thing. I realized not only that I didn’t I know what I would say to him, I had nothing to say. I couldn’t dispel his isolation, or his inadequacy for the life before him. He felt distant from his parents, the father who had moved away, the mother working to keep the house going. It would do no good to tell him they loved him. He would have to deal with that himself. Maybe someone else would know a way. I did not.

Pete, I would say, and that would be it. I might put my hand on his shoulder and he would glance at it. He was an unattractive kid, prominent bones, overlarge eyes, a flat, lusterless brown that held no surprise or beauty. He did not know why he was here, what he was supposed to do, so he kept looking for the little things, bugs, leaves, sticks to swing at the grass. If he appeared in the woods, in the dark, stood before me and asked what I was doing here, what would I say?

“Coach, what are you doing here?”

“I was looking for you, Peter. The whole neighborhood came out to look for you.”

“Where are they now?”

“They all went home, except for me.”

If he asked for a cigarette, I would have given him one and lit it. “Hey, buddy, you know that’s not good for you. Stunt your growth, kill you eventually.” He wouldn’t even nod his head in acknowledgment. “Your mom is going to be upset when she learns where you’ve been.”

He would look away, and that’s when I would say what I had to say. “Look, I’m sorry I yelled at you. I’m not mad at you. It’s not my right to be mad at you.” But what I said, that still rang true. He had to get his head in the game. If he didn’t, he would never do anything, never go anywhere. Of course, maybe he needed to get away from everything, to be himself for a while. I could understand that. I canceled myself out. Anything I thought to say, I thought of some other reason why I shouldn’t say it. I was accomplishing nothing. It was time to go home, have a glass of brandy, read in bed a while. If I had found him, I would have walked him home to his mother, who would meet us at the door.

“Oh, thank God!” she would say. “Where did you find him?” She would throw her arms around him, hug him tightly.

“He was in the woods, Mrs. Johns,” I would say. “Sitting in a tree. I saw him do things like that at practice and during games. I couldn’t go in until I knew he was safe.”

She would look at Peter as if just waiting to get him alone.

“What do you say to a boy like this, Mr. Miller?” she would say. Though it would not be a question, I would tell her I didn’t know, which would have been the truth.

“Take care,” I whispered, as I walked out of the woods. The moonlight became brighter. I crossed Cardinal and went between houses to Shaggy Birch Loop as it started, an early snow that would amount to nothing. It made me feel awkward, as if someone was watching in the dark. Or, maybe what I felt was no one watching me walk across neighborhood yards in a first snow, only a few windows lighted, shades pulled, curtains drawn against the night. I saw my own darkened house and went to it. I flipped on a light in the kitchen and stood with my hands on the counter. I knew Catherine would be upstairs in bed. She never stayed up past 10 and just corked off like a baby. I saw myself pouring the brandy and taking it upstairs long before I actually poured brandy and went to bed.

Periwinkle slept on top of the covers, at the foot of the bed, and when I got in bed her tail thumped. I put my hand on her back to let her know I saw her. Catherine was breathing softly in sleep. She has a gift for sleeping, gentle as a child, the same way she lives her waking life. She’s like a saint to me. If I could be more like her I would be a happier man. I tend to brood, locked in my own dark thoughts. While I watched her sleeping I thought about Peter, and then I closed my eyes and said a prayer for him. I remembered a Bible verse I memorized, at Peter’s age, to repeat before my parents’ church: Who among you, having a hundred sheep, if he loses just one, doesn’t leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the lost one until he finds it?

That night I dreamed I saw Peter under a blue streetlight by himself, smoking a cigarette as he waited for a school bus that would carry him wherever he was going. He carried a net sack, such as we use for soccer balls, but filled with bones to mark the spot. I pulled over to offer him a ride, but woke to find myself alone in a darkened room. The next few nights the neighbors met again, to comb the neighborhood, up to the junior high and high school. We lost our energy for the search but persevered. For weeks and months, I kept a lookout for the missing boy, thinking that I caught a glimpse of him, a shadow drifting across the playing field. I feared our little patch of woods, though I strained my eyes to see inside whenever I passed by. A year had passed when we held the vigil, walking through the neighborhood with lit candles. He had become an idea we could not forget, as we waited for his bones to show the way to him.

Robert Pope has published a novel, Jack’s Universe, as well as a collection of stories, Private Acts, as well as many stories and personal essays in journals such as The Kenyon Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, and Fiction International. He teaches at The University of Akron. The MOON has previously published two of his stories: Valeria and Oskar and Agnar in Akron.

Photo credit: Meghan Holmes for Unsplash.com

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