I CAN’T EXPLAIN WHY I did it. Often, it is as if a part of me has its own impulsive life beyond my control. I am astounded at the mess it causes. And occasionally at the good that comes of it regardless. But, whichever way, it is always my conscious self that has to deal with the consequences. Good or bad.
My father built the house on Langely Lake for my mother, in the town she grew up in. It was a hundred miles from the glassy skyscrapers my father built in the city, and a world away from the Calloway family name and money and penthouse on the Upper East Side.
The house on Langely Lake looked unlike any of the other houses in town, with their graying vinyl siding and slouching carports. No, the house on Langely Lake wasn’t a house at all. It was a fortress three stories tall, built of stone, with a thick fence and impenetrable hedges all the way around.
When I was a little girl, we spent our summers in that fortress. I remember slumber parties in a tent on the back lawn and afternoons spent sunning on the raft just off shore. I remember tall glasses of lemonade sweating on the patio and the sundresses my mother wore and her wide brimmed hats.
Once I thought my father had built that house to keep everyone else out, but then my uncle Hank found the photographs. They were in a shoe box, hidden under a loose floorboard in my parents’ bedroom. They were taken that summer, 2007, a few weeks before my mother disappeared. I saw the photographs and I realized I had been wrong about everything.
Because my father hadn’t built the house on Langely Lake to keep everyone else out. He’d built it to keep us in.
It's gutting how much can change in just four weeks. One moment I’m Hero Whistle-blower; the next, State Enemy Number One. The pressure rises day on day, and Mikey senses we’re not telling him what’s going on. It’s true, but he’s already bad enough: confused, clingy and sobbing in his sleep. He’s throwing major tantrums at the slightest thing.
Let us begin with what might be considered a paradigmatic example of a bullshit job. Kurt works for a subcontractor for the German military. Or . . . actually, he is employed by a subcontractor of a subcontractor of a subcontractor for the German military. Here is how he describes his work:
The German military has a subcontractor that does their IT work. The IT firm has a subcontractor that does their logistics.The logistics firm has a subcontractor that does their personnel management, and I work for that company. Let’s say soldier A moves to an office two rooms farther down the hall. Instead of just carrying his computer over there, he has to fill out a form.The IT subcontractor will get the form, people will read it and approve it, and forward it to the logistics firm.The logistics firm will then have to approve the moving down the hall and will request personnel from us. The office people in my company will then do whatever they do, and now I come in. I get an email: “Be at barracks B at time C.” Usually these barracks are one hundred to five hundred kilometers [62–310 miles] away from my home, so I will get a rental car. I take the rental car, drive to the barracks, let dispatch know that I arrived, fill out a form, unhook the computer, load the computer into a box, seal the box, have a guy from the logistics firm carry the box to the next room, where I unseal the box, fill out another form, hook up the computer, call dispatch to tell them how long I took, get a couple of signatures, take my rental car back home, send dispatch a letter with all of the paperwork and then get paid. So instead of the soldier carrying his computer for five meters, two people drive for a combined six to ten hours, fill out around fifteen pages of paperwork, and waste a good four hundred euros of taxpayers’ money.
If you take photographs through a prism, you can turn people into ghosts. I’d taught Jamie that this year, my eighteenth year of life, and possibly my last. Whenever a bad memory crept into my brain, I held a prism up to it, and it would distort and soften. That way I could cope with it a bit better.
There were other memories, though, of which I wanted to remember every last detail. They gave me something to hold onto. Because one day soon, I knew, I might not wake up.
On the first day no one really noticed. Perhaps there was a chuckle among the midwives at the sight of all those babies wrapped in blue blankets, not a pink one in sight. Individual hospitals would’ve thought nothing of it. They wouldn’t have known that this day of blue was only the beginning.
On the second day they frowned, confused, at another twenty-four hours of blue.
The September days are shorter and cooler now. Autumn is here, and the purple heather flowers have nearly finished blooming.
My little brother Niall and his friends are playing Soldiers while we wait on the wharf. They march up and down and pretend to fire rifles. Niall wears the red woollen vest our Grandma Coira knitted. He says it makes him look like a real army man.
At the airport, Kerry noticed a sign warning visitors to allow more time for their journeys on New Zealand roads. The sign included a picture of said roads, apparently drawn by a person with a partiality for Scalextric tracks made entirely from the curved parts.
‘A blatant exaggeration’ had been Kerry’s thought then. Two days later, on the hill heading over to Gabriel’s Bay, his thought was ‘What the infernal hell?’
I hadn’t heard from Maya for two and a half weeks.
She wasn’t answering her phone or posting online, and when I rang the London office of the publisher where she worked, I was told she’d taken some leave. I thought the tone of the call was strange; the woman cut me off, although I could have been imagining it. I asked to speak to Gene Jacobs, but she said he’d left to work for another company.
None of Maya’s Auckland friends knew where she was, and I didn’t have any contacts for her in London.
It was unusual. My girl had always kept in touch.
The baby is lying on her back. There are oxygen prongs up her nose and a drip connected to her bellybutton, but she seems calm and relaxed – not at all concerned as the ultrasonographer repeatedly passes the wand over her tummy while peering at the
screen that’s playing a grainy black and white movie of the child’s insides. As the image is refocused and reframed, zoomed in and out, we can all see the intricate plumbing of the gut, and the heart chambers pumping like little fists clenching and unclenching.
When you hear the following words, what do you think of? Wagon wheels, Manhattans and run worms. If you answered ‘cocktails’, that’d be optimistic, but incorrect. These words are all types of graphical reports you can get when watching the game of cricket. These words are all types of graphical reports you can get when watching the game of cricket.
We arrive in this universe through no choice of our own, at a time and place not of our choosing. For a few moments, like cosmic fireflies, we will travel with other humans, with our parents, with our sisters and brothers, with our children, with friends and enemies. We will travel, too, with other life-forms, from bacteria to baboons, with rocks and oceans and auroras, with moons and meteors, planets and stars, with quarks and photons and supernovas and black holes, with slugs and cell phones, and with lots and lots of empty space. The cavalcade is rich, colorful, cacophonous, and mysterious, and though we humans will eventually leave it, the cavalcade will move on. In the remote future, other travelers will join and leave the cavalcade. Eventually, though, the cavalcade will thin out. Gazillions of years from today, it will fade away like a ghost at dawn, dissolving into the ocean of energy from which it first appeared.
I wondered when rigor mortis would set in, or if it already had. Once I had cleared away the broken glass and washed the blood off the floor, I needed to get out. I inched my way past it, past him, and locked myself into the bathroom. I showered as quickly as I could. The cracked mirror above the sink reflected my bloodshot eyes and my puffy skin. I applied make‑up with shaking hands and dried my hair. I emerged from the bathroom but could not avoid looking at the huge corpse slumped on the floor. I forced myself to be calm. I grabbed the first thing in the wardrobe that came to hand. My silk cashmere dress had worn thin with use, but it was the best thing I had. I needed to leave. I couldn’t think straight with him lying there, a blood‑soaked monster.
Antaeus was a giant, or rather a semi-giant of sorts, the literal son of Mother Earth, Gaea, and Poseidon, the god of the sea.He had a strange occupation, which consisted of forcing passersby in his country, (Greek) Libya, to wrestle; his thing was to pin his victims to the ground and crush them. This macabre hobby was apparently the expression of filial devotion; Antaeus aimed at building a temple to his father, Poseidon, using for raw material the skulls of his victims.
Viktor is sick. It means this morning I have to do the feeding out. First, I chop some kindling for the woodburner in the dining room and take it up the stairs with the basket of wood. The air in the dining room still smells of last night. Roast chicken, laughter. A few table tops need to be wiped.
In the kitchen I boil the eggs, switch on the urn. The kitchen is uncomfortably shiny at this hour. My reflection too blurry to see myself properly.
I can’t imagine going back to hell without Magda. “Fly to Kraków tonight,” I beg Magda the next morning from the phone in the Hotel zum Türken lobby. “Please come back to Auschwitz with me.”
I wouldn’t have survived without her. I can’t survive returning to our prison now unless she is beside me, holding my hand. I know it’s not possible to relive the past, to be who I used to be, to hug my mother again, even once. There is nothing that can alter the past, that can make me different from who I am, change what was done to my parents, done to me. There is no going back. I know this. But I can’t ignore the feeling that there is something waiting for me in my old prison, something to recover. Or discover. Some long-lost part of me.
I didn’t always want to be a nurse. I went through a number of career possibilities and continually exasperated the careers advisor at my failing secondary school. ‘Marine biologist’ was one career choice that I listed, having visions of wearing a swimsuit all day in a sunny climate and swim ming with dolphins. When I discovered that much of the work of a marine biologist involved studying plankton off the coast of Wales, I had a rethink. During one summer in Swansea I spent time watching my greatgreataunt gutting catfish in the large kitchen sink; and once I went out on a boat with hairy, gruff and burly yellowbooted men who pissed in the sea and swore continually. I’d also eaten cockles and laver bread for breakfast. Marine biology was definitely out.
I often think to myself that so many different films could share a single title: The Last Hours of Their Lives. Only the characters never know this, and hurtle along with a truly moving degree of unawareness and vigour, doing both significant and trivial things as usual in the full expectation of living forever.
My brother and I are with our dad at Howrah station to meet our grandmother off the train, but have learnt upon getting here that it’s running two hours late. Which is certainly not enough time to return home, and Baba doesn’t think it’s even worth heading back as far as Esplanade or Park Street for some kind of snack or treat. It will probably take half an hour getting there, crawling along Brabourne Road, and then we’ll have to come back. Let’s see what there is to eat at the station instead.
Beatriz knew it was wrong to hate a missionary, but when it came to Marietta, she couldn’t help herself. Marietta liked to hum. Interminable, tuneless humming, like the dirge of a bluebottle. Bea was acutely aware of quite how often Marietta felt the need to serenade the Lord. Marietta sang ‘Onward, Christian Soldiers’ in the garden. She droned ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’ in her bedroom. She whined ‘Jesus, Mi Lavem Yu Tumas’ under her breath while they ate supper together. Upon interrogation, Max claimed he hadn’t noticed, but Bea didn’t believe him. The noise filtered through the cracks in the bamboo walls, and crawled right into the ears. Mission House was simply not built for two people, and one hummer.
That muggy morning in July my partner, Rich Conklin, and I were on stakeout in the Tenderloin, one of San Francisco’s sketchiest, most crime-ridden neighborhoods. We had parked our 1998 gray Chevy sedan where we had a good view of the six-story apartment building on the corner of Leavenworth and Turk.
It’s been said that watching paint dry is high entertainment compared with being on stakeout, but this was the exception to the rule.
We were psyched and determined.
Just after 4 a.m. under a starless sky, a man in a well-worn tweed coat and black knit cap crossed Broadway onto Front Street, humming a tune as he strolled south to Sydney G. Walton Square.
The square was a cozy one-block park, bounded by iron fencing with an artifact of a brick gate set at a diagonal on one corner. Inside were paths and seating and garden beds, cut back now at the end of the growing season.
During the day Walton Square was crowded with office workers from San Francisco’s Financial District, eating their take-out lunches near the fountain. At night the streets were empty and the park was occupied by homeless people going through the trash cans, sleeping on the benches, congregating near the gate.
The man in the shapeless tweed coat stopped outside the iron fencing and looked around the park and surroundings with purpose. He was still humming tunelessly and gripping a 9mm gun in his right-hand pocket.