In a college dorm, in a prison, in a marriage
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The Sumner Press, the weekly paper from my hometown in southeastern Illinois, continues to arrive in my mailbox in Ohio even though I’m not a subscriber. A few years ago, when my wife and I were the grand marshals for the Sumner fall-festival parade, the publisher gave us a complimentary one-year subscription. The subscription has run out, but the paper keeps coming, as if a higher power has decided I need it in my life. “I don’t know why you want that rag in our house,” my wife says. She resents its conservative opinions. I’m more inclined to tolerate them, though I don’t agree with them any more than she does.
I’ve never been able to explain to her why the Press makes me happy. Today I take note of the fact that Christmas decorations will soon be up along the main thoroughfare. I see that the Masonic fish fry is taking place this evening. The Christmas parade will be on Saturday, December 13. The “Community News,” which keeps me up on the comings and goings of Sumner’s citizens, is full of items like this one, about a certain I.F. and her niece D.A., who took her aunt to get her hair set and then on to Vincennes, where they enjoyed lunch at the Dogwood Barbecue. None of this has anything to do with me, outside the fact that I once lived in the place. And maybe that’s what I like about the Press: the feeling that I can eavesdrop on my hometown without risk.
Then I turn to the classified ads, which I almost never read, and my eye lands on an advertisement taken out by Judy Beyers of Fort Branch, Indiana. She’s looking for her brother, who was born Alvin David Smith to Davis “Smitty” Smith and Velma (Cleeves) Smith in Fort Branch in 1955. Alvin David was, according to the ad, adopted by a couple believed to have lived in Sumner, Illinois. Anyone with information should please contact Judy by e-mail or phone (address and number provided).
Suddenly I’m no longer a voyeur. I’m involved. You see, I have information that Judy Beyers wants.
I hesitate at first, not sure whether I should contact her, for fear that I’ll encroach on Alvin David’s privacy. To distract myself I read the two columns above the ad, which carry the circuit-court clerk’s notice of petition for the acquisition of mineral rights on some land in Lukin Township. The word Lukin takes me momentarily away from what I might tell Judy Beyers and back to my childhood, which is only indirectly related to what she needs to know. But bear with me.
When I was a boy, I lived on a farm in Lukin Township, and I went to a two-room school. I rode a yellow bus that was supposed to pick me up on County Line Road at the end of our lane, but for some reason my father arranged for the bus to come all the way down our lane to get me. I wonder now what grounds he gave for this request. Why was I the only kid on the route to get picked up at his doorstep? My mother was a grade-school teacher, and surely she’d grown weary of parents who lobbied for exceptions for their sons and daughters. I’d never known my stern and stoic father to expect anyone to give him special consideration. When I was barely a year old, he lost his hands in a farming accident, and he had prostheses — a pair of curved steel hooks — at the ends of his arms. He took pride in doing nearly everything he’d been able to do before his accident: He farmed his ground, punished his body with labor, cussed his machinery when it broke down, and repaired it himself when he could. He birthed calves, cut hogs, and hefted hay bales. Whenever I whined that I couldn’t do something, he said, “Can’t never did nothing.”
So why in the world would such a man ask the bus driver to come down our lane? Could it be because I was the only child of older parents? My mother was forty-five when she had me; my father, forty-two. I had no older brothers or sisters to accompany me on the walk to County Line Road or to watch over me during the wait for the bus. My mother couldn’t provide an escort — she’d be on her way to work — and my father was busy with the farm. But there were other children on the route who had to walk alone to the ends of lanes and stand and wait for the bus. I really don’t know why my parents thought I shouldn’t do likewise. Maybe I was too timid and uneasy with new situations. Maybe I balked. I can only assume that they saw a need in me and decided to try to meet it for my sake.
Because my wife never wanted children, I’ve never known that urge to protect a son or daughter, never had a child’s needs and wishes to put above my own. Perhaps I was more fragile at that age than I remember. I missed fourteen days of school in first grade because I was “sick.” Really I was homesick, afraid to be away from my house. Why? I think my father’s accident had shaken my world so much that I clung to habit, stability, and comfort. The accident surely had imprinted on me the unsettling feeling that, if I wasn’t watchful, something could happen to change my life forever. My father’s hands were mangled by the shucking-box rollers of his corn picker, a piece of machinery he used daily during harvest. (He should have shut down the power and stopped those spinning rollers before trying to loosen an ear of corn that had lodged between them.) My aunt would tell me later that he’d returned from the hospital a shattered man with frayed nerves and a bad temper. He filled our home with his anger, and I was left forever with the feeling that I could never trust what I thought was mine to control.
None of this would be of any use to Judy Beyers in her search for her brother. I have information that would help, yet here I sit, reading about how the Lawrence County Housing Authority is accepting applications for low-rent housing. I even take time to research the county’s demographics, letting an Internet search postpone the decision whether to tell Judy what I know. Close to seventeen thousand people live in the county, which is located across the Wabash River from Vincennes, Indiana. Around 15 percent of those people live below the poverty line. Even in 1961, when I started first grade, most of the farmers there were barely getting by. My parents were fairly flush because of my mother’s teaching position, which she would lose during the summer between my first- and second-grade years because the school board thought she had problems disciplining her students. I remember plenty of families, though, who were tapped out and providing for their kids as best they could. When I look now at the school photos from that time, I can see, despite the scrubbed faces and bright smiles, all the signs of stretched budgets: the haircuts done at home; the beat-up shoes; the clothes handed down from older brothers and sisters; the same outfits worn two years in a row, because those were the best clothes they had.
So we were farm kids going to a two-room school. A bus drove us down dirt and gravel roads, past farmhouses and barns and livestock pens, over creeks that rose above their banks in spring, beneath skies lined with contrails from jets or leaden with clouds. In winter we breathed on the glass of the bus windows and wrote our names with our gloved fingers, as if to leave evidence (which, of course, would vanish) that we’d been there: Dale and Cynda Thacker, Larry and Dan Brian, Tony Hair, Alan Correll, Rick Lewis, Becky Hasewinkle, Tammy Marks, Bobbi Riggs, David Sidebottom. When I look at the school photo now, I can name all twenty-seven of us, grades one through eight, at that itty-bitty school in that itty-bitty township where every morning and afternoon we climbed on and off the bus, linked by the fact that we lived along rural roads that ran at right angles to each other. Back then it felt as if our entire lives were meant to take place within the township’s boundaries. We’d always be there. We’d know one another forever.
From the classified-ad rates listed in the Press, I see that Judy Beyers’s ad, at sixty-three words, cost her a total of $12.60: a reasonable sum to spend on a shot at finding a brother.
“I think I know him,” I say to my wife. “The man she’s looking for. I think I went to school with him.”
“Are you sure?”
“Not entirely. But I remember this kid.”
I more than remember him. David Sidebottom — we called him David, but his first name was Alvin — lived on Gilead Church Road. Like me he was the son of older parents, and they had a run-down house on my bus route. In my mind I can see him running out of that house and bounding onto the bus, swiping at his drippy nose with his coat sleeve, bringing with him the smell of hot cooking grease. My father used to say Alvin David’s parents didn’t have “a pot to piss in.” A question I keep mulling over is how in 1955 — if indeed I have the right family — a couple like that, poor and aged, would have managed to adopt a baby. I assume the birth parents, for whatever reason, couldn’t care for the child, and there happened to be this kindly old couple willing to take him in.
My wife says, “I wonder if he knows that he was adopted.”
I’ve been wondering that, too.
“So, what are you going to do?” she asks.
“I might be the only one who saw the ad who can help her.”
I e-mail Judy Beyers to say I may have information about her brother, but the e-mail bounces back. I double-check the address and try again. Back it comes. Here it sits in my in-box, this message that may or may not contain the facts Judy needs. For some reason cyberspace refuses to be a party to this possible sibling reunion, and I feel sad just thinking about this sister looking in vain for her lost brother.
Sister. The word has always sounded sweet to me. When I was young, I made up a story to explain to myself the extraordinary — to me — fact that my parents were so much older than the parents of my friends. In the story I conjured, I was adopted and had an older sister I didn’t know about. We’d been separated, and I’d been taken in by this quiet woman and this angry man. The sister in my story somehow found me and took me away from my father’s rage. His hooks could grasp a belt, a yardstick, a switch cut from a persimmon tree, and he would whip me about my legs and buttocks until welts appeared, and I’d sob with a raw ache because, during the whippings and for a good while after they were over, I believed that my father didn’t love me. Even if he could convince a school board to allow a bus to drive all the way down our lane, it didn’t mean he cared for me. I felt my mother’s love, but she was too timid to stand up to my father. I’ve never blamed her for that. She loved me as best she could, but she knew that the only thing she could give me, besides her love, was an example of what it means to endure. So I longed for a sister to protect me.
When the e-mail to Judy Beyers bounces back a third time, I consider, as I’m prone to do, that the universe is telling me something — perhaps that this is none of my business. Maybe Alvin David Sidebottom, if he truly is Alvin David Smith, doesn’t want to be found. Maybe I should leave well enough alone.
But I can’t. I think of all the times I’ve posted queries on genealogy websites and relied on strangers to provide information about my ancestors. The Martins and the Reads (my mother’s side of the family) left few footprints as they passed through the world, and, when I went searching for what I could find, it was often kind people with no stake in the matter who gave me assistance.
So I call the number in Judy Beyers’s ad and get her voice mail. I leave a message that starts, “This may not be anything at all, but I thought you should have the information in case it helps you.”
I go on to tell her that I was born in 1955, the same year as her brother, and I went to school in the country about ten miles from Sumner with a boy named Alvin David. I remember that his parents were an older couple. I remember they didn’t have much. I leave my phone number in case she wants to talk.
I hang up and think, Well, there. I’ve done what I can. Let whatever forces guide us through the world take it from here.
My mother always told me, on nights when I couldn’t fall asleep, “Just count your blessings, and they’ll give you peace.”
I often had trouble sleeping when I was young. I was a sleepwalker, a sleep-talker, a boy who had nightmares, who slept on a sofa bed in the living room and woke in the night to the headlights of cars creeping down the lane. My father sometimes threatened to give me “to the Gypsies.” Perhaps they were the drivers of the cars, I thought, bent on thievery and kidnapping. Anything was possible.
Judy Beyers calls back just a few minutes after I’ve left my voice mail. She tells me she’s talked with her older cousin, who remembers more about Alvin David: Yes, he was adopted by an older couple. Yes, they were poor.
“What did he look like?” she asks me. “This boy you knew?” I can hear the excitement in her trembling voice. She’s closer to finding her brother than she’s ever been before.
“A small boy,” I say, “with dark hair.”
“Oh, Lord. I’m shaking. You’re the first person who’s tried to help me. What do I do now?”
How overwhelmed Judy seems, nearly paralyzed with the thought that she might find her brother. I give her some suggestions for her next move: I’ve read in the Sumner Press about a Pam Sidebottom who serves on the Bridgeport City Council. (Bridgeport is a small town five miles east of Sumner.) “Could be his wife?” I say to Judy with a question in my voice. “Maybe he’s still in the area.” I suggest that she go to the county clerk’s office in the Lawrenceville courthouse — Lawrenceville is the county seat — and see if she can find property-tax records or the like for Alvin David Sidebottom.
Once I’m off the phone, I decide to see what I can discover via the Internet. It doesn’t take me long to find an Alvin D. Sidebottom, age fifty-two (same as me), living in Lawrenceville, Illinois. I don’t pay the small fee required to get further records on Alvin, because I always balk at using a credit card online for fear of identity theft. I recognize the irony of wanting to protect my own identity while doing all I can to reveal someone else’s.
I e-mail Judy — she told me that the Press left a “dot” out of her address, so now I add it, and the cyberspace gods are appeased — and I tell her what I’ve found.
My wife, by nature a private person, says, “You better hope this has a good end.”
I do. I hope that Alvin David Sidebottom will welcome his sister into his life. But I also consider the possibility that he might not.
“It could be a delicate situation,” my wife says.
“I’m just telling the woman what I know,” I say.
Still, I’m nervous. I wonder how much Alvin David remembers about me — in particular, about a moment at the Lukin School that had a profound effect on me, one of those events in a kid’s life that stays with him or her for good. So much of what I’ve written comes, however indirectly, from that moment.
Our teacher had decided we’d operate under the Old Testament law of “an eye for an eye”: whatever we did to someone else would be returned to us in kind. It sounds barbaric now, but I suppose it was meant to teach us that our actions had consequences; that no one gets away clean; that when we touch the world, the world touches us back. One day Alvin David kicked me in the leg, and our teacher brought him and me to the front of the room and demanded that I kick him back. I don’t know why he’d kicked me. Maybe we’d just been roughhousing, or maybe, somewhere deep down, he resented me because I was good at my lessons and he wasn’t, or because my family was more comfortable than his. Whatever the reason he’d kicked me, I was now in the uncomfortable position of having to return the favor. I was shy, and I knew the lash of my father’s belt and how it made me ache inside. The truth was I felt sorry for Alvin David, who had so little, and I didn’t want to hurt him. I would have preferred to go back to my desk and pretend that nothing had happened. But I had to obey the teacher, so I gave him a tap on the shin. As I tapped him, I looked him in the eye, hoping he’d understand.
Alvin David didn’t understand, though. All he did was laugh at my feeble retaliation, leaving me feeling humiliated and angry and small — leaving me to work out, over years and years, the place empathy has in an unkind world.
And, thinking of his face, I suddenly remember the old school picture.
“I have a class photo that has Alvin David in it,” I write to Judy. “I could scan it and e-mail it to you, if you think it might be helpful.”
I’m fully invested in this now, perhaps because I feel there’s something unresolved in my history with Alvin David. The unsettling mix of emotions that rose up in me that day when I was expected to return his kick has fueled so much of what I’ve put on paper over the years that, in some ways, I owe my career to him. If he hadn’t laughed at me that day at school, maybe I wouldn’t have learned about the consequences of our choices as early as I did. Maybe I wouldn’t have tried to work out the back-and-forth pull between empathy and anger in nearly everything I’ve written.
Still, there’s a part of me that’s afraid my wife is right, that all this might turn out badly. Her concerns are based on her own family history of relatives who stop speaking to each other and petty arguments that explode into feuds. She’s not very close to her own brother. They’ll go months without talking because of a falling-out. My wife suspects that Alvin David won’t want to be found, and he’ll blame me for my part in the affair. Could it be that she even hopes for that to happen, thereby proving that her own family history is the norm?
“OMG,” Judy says in her e-mail response. (Although I’m not one to send text messages, I know that the abbreviation stands for “Oh, my God!”) “That would be absolutely wonderful!”
I scan the photo and send it to her, identifying Alvin David as the third from the left in the front row, a little boy in what I’m sure were the best clothes he had: scuffed, ankle-high brogans; a pair of heavy cotton trousers that we called “wash pants,” the legs so short his bare shins show above his socks; and a white polo shirt with a dark stain around the crest on the pocket.
In her response Judy doesn’t take the time to capitalize or worry about punctuation: “omg. i am almost positive it is him, i am taking my laptop up to my cousins right now, she will know for absolute certain.” She closes with what I hope will remain her feelings even once this story is resolved: “you are an angel lee.”
Judy soon writes me back and says the picture of Alvin David strongly resembles one of her father as a boy. She tells me that she called the sheriff’s department in Lawrenceville, and though the dispatcher couldn’t legally tell her anything, she gave Judy reason to believe that she had the right city.
“I’m going to Lawrenceville on Saturday,” she writes, “to see what I can find out.”
I wish her luck.
On Saturday, and then again on Sunday, I don’t hear anything from Judy, and I worry that she didn’t find her brother. I worry that she found him and that it didn’t go well. I tell myself that, either way, it’s none of my business. Then on Sunday evening I call to check my voice mail at the university, and I hear a man’s voice: “Mr. Martin, this is Mr. Sidebottom. Alvin David Sidebottom.” The voice has that unmistakable southern-Illinois twang. It’s a curt voice, set about its business. A voice I haven’t heard in forty-six years, a little husky now with age or nerves. The voice of a man with something on his mind. “I’ll be back in touch with you,” he says. “You can count on that.”
That’s it. He’s called me out of anger. The repetition of “Mr.” — as in “Mr. Martin, this is Mr. Sidebottom” — sounds cross, as in “Who in the hell do you think you are? What right do you have poking your nose in my business?”
I tell my wife about the voice mail. She lifts her eyebrows as if to say, See? What did I tell you?
An e-mail from Judy does nothing to make me feel better. All it says is “I found him, and, yes, it was him.”
I respond, “I hope the reunion was something he welcomed,” but she doesn’t answer, which worries me even more. I’m afraid there’s been an ugly scene, and she can’t bring herself to tell me about it.
I rarely answer the phone at our house, preferring to leave the task to my wife, but tonight I’m standing right by it when it rings.
“Is this Lee Martin?” a man on the other end of the line asks.
I tell him it is.
“This is Alvin Sidebottom,” he says. “I finally got your home number from my sister.” He clears his throat, and his voice gets softer. “I’m calling to say thank you.”
I carry the cordless phone upstairs to my study. It’s the holiday season, and as I talk to Alvin David, I look out the window at my neighbor’s light display across the street: white icicles hanging from the gutters, outlines of sleighs and snowmen on the lawn, multicolored lights in the shrubs, miniature Christmas trees along the driveway, carols playing over a speaker. I’ve always thought it a garish display, and I’ve taken to referring to this neighbor as “Clark Griswold,” after the Christmasphile played by Chevy Chase in the movie Christmas Vacation. (“Is your house on fire, Clark?” his aunt asks him in one scene. “No, Aunt Bethany,” he answers, “those are the Christmas lights.”) Last year my neighbor had his lights up before Halloween. This year he waited until November 1 to start the show. I’m a man who likes to keep his holidays separate. It’s not that I’m a Scrooge; I just believe there’s a proper time for celebrating a holiday, and if my neighbor lights up his house before that time, well, that’s just smug, as if he’s saying he’s got more Christmas cheer than the rest of us.
Tonight, though, I’m grateful for those lights, because they make a perfect backdrop for the story Alvin David tells me about Judy and her cousin showing up at his door:
The cousin stood a bit forward on the stoop, Judy slightly behind her.
“Was your dad Davis Smith?” the cousin asked.
“That’s right,” said Alvin David.
So he knew he was adopted.
“And your mother was Velma Cleeves?”
The cousin stepped back and pulled Judy around to her side. “Meet your sister,” the cousin said.
Alvin David says to me on the phone, “I just about fell over.”
Later I’ll learn from Judy that she and Alvin David had the same father but different mothers. Judy was given up for adoption, too, and when she was eighteen, she found her birth father’s family. By that time he was dead. She knew she had a half brother named Alvin, and she’d been trying to find him for years.
“The funny thing is,” he tells me, “I used to drive a truck, and I made deliveries just a couple of blocks from her house in Fort Branch.”
That’s where he is now: her house. I can hear conversation and laughter in the background, the sounds of a holiday gathering. He’s celebrating with the family he never knew, and I’m looking at my neighbor’s lights, an ache rising in my throat, because my parents are long gone, and I’m an only child with no children of my own, and this year at Christmas it’ll be, as always, just my wife and me.
I listen to Alvin David as he tells me how he’s sitting right now with his sister and his cousins, and I can hear the how-the-heck-did-this-happen wonder in his voice. And I think about that time at the Lukin School when he kicked me, and I had to kick him back, and how he laughed at me. All these years I’ve remembered that kick, remembered his face breaking into laughter, remembered the humiliation. I want to ask him if he remembers it, but then he says, “When Judy told me someone I went to Lukin with called her, I knew it had to be you.”
“Why do you say that?” I ask. “I moved away before third grade.” My mother took a teaching position in Oak Forest, Illinois, and we lived there until I started high school. “I wouldn’t think you’d even remember me.”
“Oh, I remember you,” he says. “You were about the only friend I had back then.”
This catches me off guard. When I look at that old school photo, I can pick out the boys who were my closest friends, and Alvin David isn’t one of them. I even recall participating in one or two tricks played on him. Now he gives me his address, and I write it down. He wants to stay in touch, he says. He’s going to send me a picture of himself. He’s so enthusiastic and friendly, I can’t bring myself to mention the time he kicked me. Besides, his statement about my having been his only friend is enough to tell me, if I’ll let it, that he does remember that kick, and, what’s more, he understands that when I tapped him back, I was doing him a kindness.
Alvin David pauses to say to someone there with him, “Sure, I’ll take another one,” and I realize I’m keeping him from his party.
“It’s some story, isn’t it?” I say to him.
“Yes, sir, it is, indeed.”
He thanks me again, and we say goodbye. It’s getting late. My neighbor’s lights have gone off. I stand here, holding to myself what’s just happened with Alvin David, keeping it all mine just a bit longer before telling my wife.
“Who was it?” she asks when I go downstairs.
“Alvin David Sidebottom.” And I tell her the whole story, including the part about him saying I was his only friend. “So it’s a happy ending,” I say.
As we’re turning off the lights, getting ready to go upstairs to bed, I think of how I came to my parents unexpectedly, in the middle of their lives, and how Glen and Reba Sidebottom adopted a little boy so they wouldn’t be alone.
My wife seems genuinely happy about the way things have turned out for Alvin David and Judy. I was wrong to imagine that she wished otherwise, and I feel guilty for everything I’ve learned to keep to myself. For example, I don’t tell her that I often wonder what our child would have been like, had we ever had one. I don’t say that, in the innermost part of me, I mourn the fact that she refused to have children. I don’t tell her that in some ways this story of Alvin David Sidebottom has left me feeling as content as I’ve been in some time. Nor do I tell her that a part of me thinks of him tonight, with his new family — I remember the sounds of laughter in the background — and longs for everything he now has. I turn off the last light, and there’s a moment of stillness before my wife and I move toward the stairs through the dark, quiet house, here at the end of our day.
Some names have been changed to protect privacy.