Vanishing and Other Stories, page 1
VANISHING AND OTHER STORIES
DEBORAH WILLIS was born and raised in Calgary, Alberta. Her work has appeared in the Bridport Prize Anthology, Event, and Grain, and she was a winner of PRISM International’s annual fiction prize. She graduated from the University of Victoria, and has worked as a horseback-riding instructor and a newspaper reporter. She currently works as a bookseller in Victoria, B.C.
and other stories
D E B O R A H W I L L I S
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First published 2009
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 (WEB)
Copyright © Deborah Willis, 2009
SUMMERTIME (from “Porgy and Bess”)
Music and Lyrics by GEORGE GERSHWIN, DU BOSE and DOROTHY HEYWARD and IRA GRESHWIN
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Publisher’s note: This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Manufactured in Canada.
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LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA CATALOGUING IN PUBLICATION
Willis, Deborah (Deborah M.)
Vanishing and other stories / Deborah Willis.
PS8645.I565V39 2009 C813’.6 C2009-900173-X
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for my parents
This Other Us
And the Living Is Easy
v a n i s h i n g
WEEKS PASS and the police give up their investigations. The newspapermen who wrote “Local Writer Vanishes” find other stories. Months go by, then a year.
Marlene and Bea drink afternoon coffee and their conversation slips back to the everyday: the price of potatoes at Loblaws, who’s a good doctor and who’s not, what kind of pictures are showing these days. Marlene goes to shul more often, and stands for the Mourners’ Kaddish.
But Tabitha imagines that her father stepped onto a bus, then onto a boat, and soon they’ll receive a postcard from India. She imagines him showing up in five years, his hair greyed or gone, with stories of living in Oregon, or Alaska, or the Alps. She imagines he simply moved into an apartment downtown. Sometimes—and this really puts ants in her stomach—she imagines he is hiding somewhere in the house, behind the couch or in the closets. She checks under her bed every night before she goes to sleep.
THE DAY NATHAN DISAPPEARED began like any other Saturday. Marlene put a long coat over her housedress and dragged Tabitha to Honest Ed’s. They bought a pie plate on sale, six pairs of nylons, some patterned dishcloths, and—after Tabitha pleaded—a life-sized ceramic bust of Elvis Presley. “Where will we put that thing, Tabby?” Marlene said as they stood in line at the till. “What will your father say?”
But Tabitha knew her mother loved the Elvis too—the realistic folds in his collar, the glassy brown eyes, that smile. During the streetcar ride home, he sat on Tabitha’s lap and she wrapped her arms around his smooth, painted shoulders. He made it all worth-while—Marlene’s housedress, the streetcar windows that steamed up from people’s breath, and even Honest Ed’s itself. The crowded aisles, high ceilings, and the sign outside that announced Honest Ed’s: Only the Floors Are Crooked!
When they arrived home, Tabitha went in ahead to find the perfect place for the Elvis, and that’s when she saw the attic’s open hatch. She stared at the ceiling’s gape. Never in her ten years had she known her father to treat his office carelessly. She thought of calling to Marlene, but Tabitha knew how slowly her mother moved—how her hips cracked when she bent to unbuckle her shoes, and how she hung each coat on its proper hanger. And Tabitha didn’t want to speak her worst fear aloud, wasn’t even sure if a nightmare thought like this could be spoken.
“Dad?” she called up into the dark place where he did his writing. No answer, and before she could help it, she imagined her father hanging from the ceiling. She pictured it like the movies: his crumpled face and a sinister, creaking rope. She imagined that his swinging body looked long—not tall, long. She climbed the ladder, feeling sick and dizzy as she put her foot on the final step. Then, weak-kneed with relief—initial, foolish relief—she found the attic empty.
HE SEEMED TO HAVE LEFT IN A RUSH. They know he walked out the front door and locked it behind him, bringing only his thick wool coat, his scarf and hat, his umbrella. He left his typewriter, his books.
They might have assumed he’d gone to the office for a couple of hours, or out for a walk, if he hadn’t taken the time to tidy the attic before he left. The scripts of his finished plays were held together with paper clips, last-minute changes indicated in pencil in the margins. The more recent works were stacked on the floor. Marlene put these in a box and tied it closed with string, because he’d left a note that read, Unfinished.
THREE YEARS LATER, the plays Nathan completed are produced in Toronto and Halifax. Marlene gets a job as a bookkeeper and discovers that she’s good at it. At Tabitha’s bat mitzvah, the rabbi says he’s rarely seen such a dramatic reading of the parshah.
Life is as uplifting as a musical, except that sometimes Tabitha wakes at night to find Marlene humming Paul Anka songs into her ear. “You had
No matter how hard she tries, Tabitha can’t remember. All that lingers is sweat on her pyjamas and a bad feeling in her throat.
WHEN TABITHA SHOWED HER MOTHER the open hatch, the empty attic, Marlene stared at the floor and furniture, her hands hanging at her sides. She bent to look at some of the papers, then went to the window by Nathan’s desk. “He’s gone,” she said, more to herself than to Tabitha. Then she descended to the kitchen, where afternoon light still brightened the room. She picked up the phone and Tabitha knew it was to call her sister, to ask Bea to come over, right away, please. But Marlene just held the receiver in her hand as though it were heavy, as though she were too tired to dial.
Tabitha touched Marlene’s hip, where the housedress pleated. “I’ll do it,” she said. “I’ll call her.”
Half an hour later, Bea brought mandel bread and said things like, “Maybe he was murdered. Or kidnapped.”
Marlene shook her head. “Kidnapped people don’t bring umbrellas with them. Besides, everybody liked him. He was a gentle man. And a good lawyer.”
Marlene didn’t mention Lev, but Tabitha imagined her father leaving the house to see him, putting on a suit and brushing the lint from his hat. Nothing out of the ordinary, though maybe that day Nathan hesitated when he got halfway there. Anything could have happened. Maybe he turned into a shop and fell in love with the beautiful clerk. Maybe he stepped off the Bloor Viaduct. She imagined his body buried under snow. She imagined it would turn up in spring. But she didn’t say any of this, because Bea was saying, “Maybe burglars broke in and attacked him,” and Marlene was holding a cup of tea to her chest, shivering.
SIX YEARS AFTER NATHAN’S DISAPPEARANCE, one of his plays is performed off-Broadway, and an academic from Montreal writes about the influence of Yiddish theatre on his sense of structure. Marlene gets some royalties and moves in with Bea. They don’t need to worry about coupons anymore, but they do.
At sixteen, Tabitha drops out of school and gets a job as a secretary. She buys a record player and collects LPs. She takes swimming lessons because she wants to be Esther Williams.
Nearly everybody’s heard of the playwright who disappeared, and when people learn Tabitha’s last name, three times out of five they ask if there’s any relation. When she nods, they say things like, “He must have been such a fascinating man.” Yes, she smiles. He was very clever. Vanishing, she thinks, was the smartest thing he ever did.
THE FIRST TIME Tabitha had gone into the attic, she was seven years old and forbidden.
“He’s very busy,” Marlene would say, never allowing Nathan’s work to be disturbed. “He’s writing.”
But Tabitha needed to know what this word writing meant. Of course, she knew how to write. In Mrs. Hill’s grade two class she was forced to spell out words in a notebook, and was learning how to form each letter: upper case, lower, cursive. But surely this wasn’t connected to what her father did in the attic. He’s writing. Marlene said it with such reverence that it was obvious she herself didn’t know what, exactly, Nathan did up there.
So while Marlene weeded the small, patchy flower beds that lined the porch, Tabitha climbed the ladder. She knew her father was up there because she could hear the floorboards creak as he took a few steps or adjusted himself in his chair. She pressed against the hatch—it felt heavy to her then—and she was almost relieved when she couldn’t lift it. But then it squeaked open and she saw into the cramped room. Even in the middle of the day, it was dark. She could smell the dust and the damp.
“Yes?” Her father sounded far away.
Tabitha knew she should gently ease the hatch down and run to the yard. She still wore her sun hat and she should be outside, helping Marlene water the marigolds.
“What is it?” Her father’s voice sounded closer now, and he opened the hatch all the way. “Yes?”
It took a moment for her eyes to adjust to the dark. Then she saw his ironed pants, tucked shirt, slim and serious face.
“Does your mother want something?”
She shook her head. The sun hat, which was too big because Marlene wanted it to last, slipped over her eyes. He bent to fix it and she felt his hand on top of her head.
“I wanted to see the attic,” she said. “I wanted to see what you do.”
“I rarely do much.” He nodded for her to climb into the dim room. The ceiling was so low it nearly grazed his thin hair. There were papers everywhere—organized, or perhaps not organized, on the floor, the desk, in boxes, and along the windowsill of the turret window. “Come on,” he said. “You can help me with something.”
She hated to hear these words from Marlene, as they meant Tabitha would be asked to put away dishes, or help pick rocks from the flower beds. But Nathan cleared some papers off an old wooden chair and nodded for her to take a seat. The chair had arms, a high back, and looked like his own. He handed her three sheets of paper that he had typewritten. “Well.” He sat across from her. “You can read, can’t you?”
The ink was smudged in some places, and there were pencil scratchings in the margins. It wasn’t like the picture books she was used to, and she didn’t know where to begin, so she said, “I’m an excellent reader.” Her teacher had told her this after Tabitha read a passage aloud in class. “If only I’d spend less time daydreaming and more time concentrating on my studies.” She imitated Mrs. Hill’s stiff lips and intonation, her emphasis on less and more.
“Is that so?” Nathan smiled at her joke. For a second he looked at her the way he looked at Lev—as though she were a good show, one that captivated him. “What do they make you read in school?”
“Some poems. And the Lord’s Prayer.”
“Ah. Of course.” He pointed to a sentence at the top of the page. “Start here and go to the bottom. It’s a monologue.”
So Tabitha sat across from her father and read what he told her to read. He closed his eyes, and she thought at first that he wasn’t listening. But every once in a while he took the paper from her to slash out a word or add sentences in a hand she couldn’t make out. He didn’t explain the plot and she couldn’t understand it on her own; the person on the page seemed injured, but she didn’t know how or why. Still, she read—with an even intonation, the way Mrs. Hill had taught. Occasionally her father said things like, “Can you repeat the last line?” or “Not so fast. Pay attention to the rhythm.”
After this, going into the attic didn’t scare her. If Nathan didn’t want her help, she would sit in the chair—her chair—and watch him type. She was almost sure that he liked having her there, and once he said, “You are a good reader. Damn good.” After three years, she got so she could decipher his handwriting.
Tabitha never told her mother of these visits, and she knew this was a betrayal. But she didn’t want to share what she knew of his piles of paper and his slanted, chaotic notes. It was too precious, this secret.
BY THE 1970S, some critics claim him as a visionary of a socialist utopia, and the literary journals love him. A long-running production of his most popular work plays at the Eaton Auditorium.
Tabitha lives in New York, and she often sees her father. He’ll be in brown polyester, or sometimes in cowboy boots. He’ll be a man on a billboard, or a friendly, blurry face when she’s smoked too much hash. The guy behind the counter at her local grocer’s. Or a man in a dance bar, in a purple suit and fake eyelashes. She learns to ignore these visions so she can enjoy the city, her own success.
She is invited to every party worth attending and she is the life of them, sampling all New York offers her: the dancing, the three-somes, the various chemical highs. She has her mother’s strong nose and dark eyes, mixed with a haunting kind of ingenuousness. This proves to be marketable. She gets cast in roles that involve crying and shrieking. As a lark, she keeps a running tally of how many times she gets to kill herself onstage.
LIKE EVERY OTHER F
Her name was Sofia, and she had brown hair that curled around her ears. She wore a pencil skirt, a wide red belt, and a small leather hat. She hadn’t dressed up her outfit the way Marlene would have, with makeup and pearls. She didn’t have to. Her skin had a natural blush and her navy sweater brought out her eyes. Tabitha had never seen anyone so graceful, so poised. Next to this woman, she felt ashamed of her mother, and ashamed of her own awkward body. She imitated Sofia’s posture, stretched her neck and held her shoulders straight.
“This beautiful lady,” said Lev as he stood in the doorway, “has agreed to be my wife.”
Nathan curved the corners of his mouth into something that resembled a smile and nodded to the woman.
Marlene held out her hand. “How lovely to meet you.” She took Sofia’s coat and gloves. “How lovely.”
Over dinner, the men spoke of books. Lev had recently published a first collection, and though Nathan never wrote a single line of verse, poetry was the only topic seriously broached at the Sabbath table. From nearly two years of these dinners, Tabitha learned that Nathan was forever grateful for Klein and Lev found him depressing. Lev deemed Pound “robust and brilliant”; Nathan thought him a fascist, and a victim of his own poetic rules. Nathan admired Elizabeth Bishop, but Lev didn’t pay much attention to her. And they never agreed on Layton.