In the shower, eyes closed, rinsing away lather, David Morgan caught his wife’s thoughts, like ping pong balls thrown hither and yon. Butter rancid … take it back … roast tonight … damn! Father Morgan … buy eggs … drinking again … Beth was in the kitchen washing dishes, seeing Morgan’s father stumble from a taxi out front.
Father. His once concise and lucid logic had been altered by thirty years of cell destruction. Father’s brain now produced a kaleidoscope of involuntary images and impressions, a mosaic of past and present. His emotions blunted, pictures in Father’s head formed without conscious effort: a shudder of thunder, lashing rain, shards of memory from the night it all began—
In the beginning, a recurring phrase in Father’s intoxicated brain, it was wonderful.
Wishful thinking? David had never been sure. It was one of nature’s mercies that time dulled one’s perception of pain. Perhaps, “in the beginning” it was not “wonderful.” But today, thirty-four years later, it seemed so to Father.
Father’s thoughts as he weaved unsteadily before approaching the house—a familiar form of self-punishment: “A woman doesn’t disappear this day and time, Mr. Morgan.” Detective. 1946. Atlanta. “Your wife would have to live. There’d be utility bills. Driver’s license. Social security payments. Salary checks, identification cards, these things surface, Mr. Morgan. After so many months, when we can’t find someone it means—well—I’m sorry.”
Eight months, two weeks, three days.
“You mean she’s dead?” Father had questioned, thirty-four years ago.
“More than likely, Mr. Morgan.”
Images: The kitchen of the home Father and Mama had purchased soon after marrying. It was cold despite a hiss of burning gas from an open oven. Father sitting there, thirty-four years younger than today, his calloused hands cupped a coffee mug and steam rose between fingers stained ocher from nicotine.
“Diane,” Father had grieved aloud, “please, God.”
Father tormented himself, even today, thinking of how he thought about Diane that night three decades past. Always laughing, her blue eyes sparkling, lips so crimson no lipstick had ever been required. Dead? Inconceivable. And why? How?
More images, always in painful sequence, attendant with the same inner turmoil that had eventually driven Father to drink.
“Your father is here, David.”
“All right, Beth. Thank you.”
“He’s drinking.” Beth’s form was a shadow, beyond the translucent shower door.
“I’ll be dressed in a few minutes,” David said.
Passing the living room, Beth offered coffee, which Father declined. All this, David perceived as he completed his shower.
First, they had searched the nearby woodlands. Nothing.
Then the police turned to him—Father so terrified he was in shock, and their eyes asked the question: You?
Damn them. Damn them!
Fruitless, excruciating, accusatory interrogation culminating finally in a polygraph.
“Is your name Wally Morgan?”
“Do you know Diane Morgan?”
“Please answer yes or no, Mr. Morgan. Do you know Diane Morgan?”
“She is your wife?”
“You reside together at 1222 Stoneybrook Drive?”
“Did you and your wife have an argument on the morning of April twenty-fourth?”
“Did your wife leave the house to go outside that day, Mr. Morgan?”
“Yes.” To hang up clothes.
“And it was the last time you saw her?”
“Yes.” Goddamn you. Yes!
“You know of no reason she would leave you of her own free will?”
“You did her no bodily harm?”
“No.” Oh, God—
“Since that day, you have not seen her?”
“You have seen her?”
Pause. The police officer checked the wiggles and squiggles of needles registering heartbeat and respiration. He said, “Let me rephrase the question, Mr. Morgan. Have you seen your wife since this past April twenty-fourth?”
On and on. Same questions in different forms, their expressions bland, their eyes belying doubts. “Nobody can disappear these days, Mr. Morgan. It means—”
How who why where?
Shaving, his own reflection blurred in a mirror clouded by condensation from the shower, David felt the recurring frustration Father had felt then, and was reliving now as he sat in the living room.
That long-ago night, sipping coffee from a mug, Father had watched wet leaves adhere to the kitchen window. The eaves moaned without as Father moaned within, tongues of wind licking loose boards, whistling in every niche and crevice, sighing, groaning, giving breath to the structure and voice to the room. He had sat at the enamel-top kitchen table listening to WSB radio, the announcer’s voice broken by the static of a winter storm. Diane had been gone eight months, two weeks, three days.
“How long before you missed her, Mr. Morgan?” Remembering.
“I don’t know. I was listening to baseball games on the radio. An hour maybe.”
“Does it generally take your wife an hour to hang up her wash?”
“More or less. I don’t know.”
“We had a late cold snap April twenty-fourth. My wife doesn’t hang out wet clothes when they tend to freeze.”
“Okay what, Mr. Morgan?”
“Okay, good for your wife. Mine went out to hang up clothes, like I said.”
“And you didn’t miss her for an hour, you said.”
“I said I don’t know how long it was. I guess an hour. Maybe. I don’t know.”
“No, you don’t see, you son of a bitch. You see you don’t know what to see and so you say ‘I see.’ Bastard.”
“We’re trying to help, Mr. Morgan.”
“Like hell. You’re wasting your time trying to make it seem like me. I tell you and tell you and you keep coming back to me. Diane left the house to hang up clothes. I went out to look for her and found the basket, the clothes, and she was gone. I called the neighbors, thinking she might have gone visiting.”
“Without telling you? Was she prone to walk off like that?”
“I was listening to a baseball game! She could’ve told me and it didn’t register.”
“When I’d called every place I thought she’d go, I went out and looked again. I could see where she’d walked in the rime. A little ways north and the tracks stopped.”
Dead. Eight months, two weeks, three days ago. April 24, 1946. “Mr. Morgan, did you love your wife?”
“Yes.” More than life. More than anything.
“I love my wife too, Mr. Morgan. But we have scraps now and again. You know—little squabbles. Sometimes the nerves begin to crawl and—”
“We didn’t have a fight.”
“—before you know it, boom!”
“I said, no fight.”
“It’s human, you know. You’re sorry later. But in a flash of temper—”
“Not even a disagreement.”
“You and your wife never had disagreements, Mr. Morgan?”
“Not that day.”
“How rarely, Mr. Morgan?”
“Count one hand—six years of marriage, four, five times.”
“A neighbor”—the officer had turned pages on a clipboard—“says you argued consistently.”
“Argue? Argue, not fight.”
“Ah. A distinction. Literal meaning, right? Valid. Okay, Mr. Morgan. Did you and Mrs. Morgan argue that day?”
“No. No. No.”
“Maybe hereafter we ought to define what we mean, eh, Mr. Morgan? You being a man who tends to literal meanings and all.”
“No, no, no—”
“By fight, I mean confrontation, Mr. Morgan. A dispute. A disagreement that made either or both of you angry.”
“Mr. Morgan, we’re trying to help …”
Eight months—two weeks—three days—
He must sell the house, now. Most of the furniture was gone. Including the few precious pieces given to Diane by her grandmother. Father had sold it all. For detectives. He couldn’t work, couldn’t sleep, couldn’t make simple decisions. And throughout, day and night, for eight months, two weeks and three days the questions thrummed in his brain: Why? How?
“All the servicemen coming home from overseas,” a policeman had suggested, “maybe Mrs. Morgan fell in love and—”
They had to drag Father off the man.
David patted his chin with a towel, applied after-shave lotion. He heard Beth offer Father coffee again, to no avail.
Father’s mind muddled, shifted, remembering his honeymoon in the Smoky Mountains just before World War II changed their lives. Sparkling blue eyes laughing, lips so crimson…
Images: seeking the sustenance of a human voice, be it ever so remote, Father had adjusted the volume of the radio that night. The signal crackled, the station ebbed, WSB in Atlanta sending a Strauss waltz through the streaks of lightning, roaring wind, pelting rain.
David stood before his bathroom mirror experiencing what Father was enduring in the living room.
Father had jolted. So violently, coffee leaped from his cup and scalded his hand unnoticed. He sat still as stone, listening. It had happened before. Out of the stupor of exhaustion, he had come upright, straining to hear a call from afar—Diane?
It was the wind.
Shutter tapping, leaves rustling, eaves moaning, wood expanding and contracting—it wasn’t Diane.
His chest constricted as if in a vise—“Wallllllllllyyyyy …”
His muscles starched by adrenaline, taut with fear and dread and hope—“Wallllllyyyyyy—”
He threw the mug aside, thrashing past table and chairs, flinging himself at the bolted door.
When the portal opened, flung wide by his snatching hands and the pressure of wind, icy rain blew in Wally’s face and the room temperature plunged as he stared at shining blue eyes, irritated but not angry, lips discolored, her stomach—
“Why did you lock me out, Wally?”
“Look at me, I’m drenched.”
“Diane!” Her dress, a formless shift eight months ago, was drawn skintight over a bulging belly, plastered to her flesh by rain.
“Where—what—where’ve you been?”
“Honestly, Wally. I might as well write messages when you’re in front of that radio. I told you, I was going out to hang up clothes.”
She walked with outthrust toes to the sink and rinsed her arms. Mustering some inner strength, Father had cautiously questioned, “Hanging up clothes in the rain? At night?”
He saw a flicker of doubt cross her face, eyes darting a moment, but then the twinkle returned and she laughed that delicious laughter that always set things straight.
He seized her at arm’s length. “Diane, where have you been?”
“Wally, I told you.”
“To hang up clothes. Wally, you’re hurting me.”
“Nearly nine months ago, Diane.”
“Wally, you’re hurting my arms. What’s wrong with you?”
“Eight and a half months ago you walked out to hang up clothes, Diane. It was April. This is January 1947.”
She looked not at him, but through and past his eyes. She shivered, chin tucked, chiding, “Wally”
“Are you”—he looked down at her abdomen—“are you all right, Diane?”
“Diane, my darling, listen to me—”
She was smiling, almost benevolently, waiting for the joke to end.
“Diane, you’ve been gone nearly nine months.”
“Wally, are you teasing me?”
“Look at yourself,” he said gently.
Her gaze fell, and when she finally looked up again, there was no laughter in those troubled eyes. “I’m pregnant.”
“What happened, Diane?”
“How can—” She sagged and he eased her to a chair.
“Who was it, Diane?”
“I can’t be—how can—Wally?”
He knelt beside her, a hand on the cold flesh of a forearm, and he felt her tremble. “How can this be?” she said softly.
“Who is the father, Diane?”
“I don’t know.”
“My stomach hurts, Wally.”
“I don’t care who, but tell me.”
“I have to lie down, Wally. I’m going to be sick”
“Diane, please. I forgive you. But tell me who.”
She looked down at the body which was her own as if it were some alien thing lying across her lap.
Suddenly, she seized his shirt with both hands, teeth clenched, and cried, “Dear God! Wally. Wally!”
Father, in the living room, shuddered, gasped, ill from liquor and an empty stomach. That night, thirty-four years ago, David was born.
In the beginning…
It would be the same sequence. David tuned him out, concentrated on a double Windsor knot he fashioned with his tie.
“Breakfast?” Beth questioned at the bedroom door.
“Your father should eat.”
“But he won’t.”
“He should, though.”
Her thoughts contradicted the solicitous words: she’d be glad to have Father out the house, on their way to visit Mama at Milledgeville before Robbie awoke, before Father became sick on the new living-room rug.
“I’ll be glad to cook something, if you can talk him into eating,” Beth said.
“No, honey. We’ll stop along the way, maybe.”
“I don’t mind doing it.
But she did.
He kissed her in passing, walked the hall to the living room.
“Doing all right, Dad?”
“Yeah. Be okay.”
“We can skip going if you wish.”
“No. Diane—your mother—expecting us.”
“She’d understand if I called and explained.”
“No.” Damn her, damn her!
“Very well,” David conceded. “I’m ready if you are.”
“Be careful, David,” Beth said.
“Be back about dark, Beth.”
He extended a hand to help Father.
Who is the question? Somebody. Had to be somebody.
“Watch your step, Dad.”
Never said who.
“Dad? You going to make it?”
“I’ll make it.”
“Watch your step.”
“Fine,” Father said.
A glance at Beth, her concern thinly disguised. David smiled and her worry eased.
“Here we go.” David spoke as if to a child. He unlocked the car, opened the door. He smelled Father’s breath, reeking with stomach acid, liquor fumes. David shut the door, locking it. He waved at Beth and she lifted a palm tentatively. David concentrated an instant on positive emotions, and the hand leaped upward, waving vigorously, her smile now full and genuine.
Beth returned to the kitchen, humming, her day off to a better start, full of contentment, happiness.
It was something David had the power to do—make people feel good. Comfortable and unthreatened.
He remembered the first time Father attacked Mama, the initial sinking into an alcoholic fury.
“No, Wally! No!” Mama had screamed.
“Tell me who, goddamn you!”
“I don’t know.”
“I don’t, I swear it, Wally. I don’t know!”
Three-year-old David sat on the floor with eyes wide, uncertain, fearful. He saw Father shove Mama against a wall; he cuffed her head, shook her shoulders, teeth bared, and his thought was a new word then—“bastard.”
“You’re going to by God tell me, Diane, you hear me? I’ve had aplenty of this amnesia crap. You’re going to tell me who fathered that boy.”
David heard the slap of an open hand on Mama’s face and he saw her reel and fall. Then Father wheeled and advanced in a rage.
“No, Wally! Not the baby!”
But it was not Mama who halted Father. From a source he did not understand, David thought his father out of anger.
Suddenly, erupting in tears, Father had sunk to his knees and pulled David into his arms.
“I’m sorry,” Father had wept. “I’m sorry.”
Mama came to Father and they cried together. That night, for the first time in a very long while, Father made love to Mama, and with David’s gentling influence, happiness was restored momentarily.
It took all his concentration, all his will, his strength. It was not something he could sustain indefinitely. So, slowly, the relationship deteriorated and alcohol became Father’s mistress.
“Never told me who,” Father mumbled.
“She doesn’t know,” David said, turning east toward the sanatorium.
“Somebody,” Father muttered, head lolling against the car window.
David drove like an automaton, following the familiar highway, Father’s lips making blubbery sounds with each exhalation.
By what sign might one recognize his own madness?
Where did reason depart from fantasy?
And Mama—now fifteen years a resident in a hospital for the mentally incompetent. What of Mama?
Who fathered her child?
And was this not madness?
David fought depression, a sadness as though a close friend had died.
But it was mankind for whom he grieved.