I think of the children who will never know, intuitively, that a flower is a plant’s way of making love, or what silence sounds like, or that trees breathe out what we breathe in.
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I got the call in the middle of the night. I dressed fast, expecting Parker to wake up any minute and make me come back, but he didn’t. It was summer, and the air felt warm even at 2 AM. I made a cup of coffee and walked down the long driveway to the road. Julie was giving me a ride, but she’d never been to my house before. Nobody ever came there to see me. I walked down the drive, drinking coffee. I had brought the flashlight, but the moon was out, so I didn’t need it. I could see the neighbors’ black-and-white cows in the field next to me — or, at least, I could see the white part. I pretended, just for a moment, that I was never coming back, that I had never lived here in the first place. I was just a woman walking down a country lane. I didn’t have any before or after. It felt good.
The main highway wasn’t far from our house: just down the feeder road and past the Farm & Fleet. If you headed north on that highway, you could get to Chicago in less than two hours. A lot of times I’d think about standing there and putting my thumb out. If you’re a girl or a woman, you’ll get a ride fast. Parker said girls who did that deserved what they got, that they should have known better. The first time I heard him say something like that, I was surprised, but I got used to it eventually.
At the end of the road I waited and looked back at the house. The moon was out. When you live in the country, even just three miles from town, you always know about the moon: if it’s full or crescent, waxing or waning. It’s a presence. From where I stood, I could just make out the shape of the house. There were trees around it. Burr oaks. There was an old barn, too, and a brick silo built to store corn but empty and falling apart now. I liked to go in there and sit in that round, quiet place, the blue sky a perfect circle above where the roof used to be. Parker grew up in the country and did not find it romantic. He didn’t especially like the cows or the garden or the moon or any of it. He didn’t form attachments.
Parker had a little boy in town, but he didn’t visit him, and he didn’t give the mother any money, either. “How do I know he’s mine?” he would say, but anybody could see that the boy looked just like him. The same sweet mouth and blue eyes. I only saw the child once, so I can’t speak for later. But that’s the way he started out, with those kind blue eyes.
I saw him when Parker and I went to the mother’s apartment. She looked at me and said, “Jailbait,” but I was nineteen by then. Parker said later she was jealous, which I doubt. He’d come there to argue about money. The baby was in one of those wind-up swings, rocking back and forth. Some babies fall straight asleep in a wind-up swing, but he just sat very still, with his father’s blue eyes and his father’s lips. It was too bad he didn’t look like his mother. Women like that sometimes, for the baby to look like them, especially if the father is someone like Parker. If I were that baby’s mother, I wouldn’t have wanted to be reminded of Parker every time I turned around. I wouldn’t have wanted Parker’s face looking at me. So that was unlucky for the boy.
I sat next to him while they argued. Parker said he didn’t have any money to give her, even if he was inclined to, which he wasn’t. “Hey, baby,” I said to the boy. Every time the swing came forward, I touched his tiny, naked foot. For days after that visit, I loved Parker again, just a little bit. But it lasted only so long, and it wasn’t enough.
That boy would be almost three years old now, I thought as I stood waiting for Julie. He’d be one of those skinny, anxious, doomed children you see sometimes. Or maybe not. Maybe he’d turned out different. It seemed unlikely, but maybe his mother had managed to love him anyway, despite his father, while it still mattered.
Finally I saw the headlights.
Julie never knew how to talk to me. During volunteer training we’d learned that, once or twice, mentally disturbed women had volunteered. Maybe Julie thought I was one of them. I got in the car and sat looking out, wondering this myself.
“Follow my lead,” she said. “I’ve done this a couple of times already. When we get there, I’ll talk and you listen. The first time out, you mostly observe how it’s done.”
“Right,” I said.
I wished I had taken a drink before I’d left. Just one. Not enough to be drunk but enough to keep me calm. They say if you drink vodka, nobody will smell it. I wasn’t sure that was true, and vodka sounded terrible to me, which probably meant I wasn’t an alcoholic.
“Where are we going?” I asked.
“The police station.”
“Not the hospital?” In training they’d said we would usually go to the hospital.
“They already did the hospital,” said Julie. “They should have called us then, but they didn’t.”
We were out on the highway now, headed toward town. I could see Parker’s and my house. It looked OK in the dark. I’d planted flowers all around the front: coreopsis, sunflowers, Shasta daisies, freesia. I was partial to yellow flowers that year. Earlier I had gone through a red phase. I never did like a white flower. Sunflowers are still my favorite: ridiculously cheerful and as tall as a human being.
I’d left a note for Parker, hadn’t I? I’d left it on the table in clear view. And I had told him about volunteering, and he hadn’t objected, although he could change his mind.
Julie turned on the radio, then turned it off again.
I tried to think of something to say to put her at ease, but everything I thought of seemed phony. Anyhow I didn’t care what kind of job Julie had, or how long she’d lived in town, or how long she’d been a volunteer, or why she’d volunteered in the first place, which was a touchy subject for a lot of the women. I looked at her feet. It was two in the morning, but Julie had thought to wear good shoes: shiny with low heels. She wore a navy-blue skirt and a tasteful white blouse. Her pocketbook on the seat between us was the same color as her shoes. My own shoes were scuffed and muddy. I was leaving dirt in her car. I had just thrown on whatever clothes were handy: bluejeans and a T-shirt. They hadn’t mentioned in our training that we should dress up. They hadn’t said: low heels, skirt, tasteful blouse. Julie wore lipstick. She must have gotten the call and then gone into the bathroom, stood in front of the mirror, and put on her lipstick while somewhere a girl sat waiting for us. Julie had picked out shoes to match her pocketbook. She was not sitting here now wondering if she had left a note for her husband, and would he find it, and would that be OK? She was not wondering that. She was probably wondering about me.
“It’s a nice night, anyway,” I said, and Julie agreed. Then I questioned my use of the word anyway. Why had I chosen it? To imply that, even though this terrible thing had happened to someone, it was still a nice night? I’d once known how to talk to people but not so much anymore. At one time I would have been completely at ease with someone like Julie.
“How old is she?” I asked. That was a question I really wanted an answer to.
The number hung in the air. Too young. Not that any age is all right. Fifteen. A kid, but without the benefit of the forgiveness we give little kids. It seemed exactly the wrong age. I shouldn’t have come, I thought. I had the wrong shoes, the wrong thoughts, the wrong history, the wrong life. I was all wrong. I was not someone you would call for help. I was the one who needed help. I needed somebody driving through the night to get to me, somebody trained who knew what to do.
“You’ll do fine,” said Julie, as if she sensed my insecurity.
When we got there, the girl was sitting in a waiting room. She said her name was Tracy.
“That’s my name, too,” I said.
“Mine’s with two e’s. T-r-a-c-e-e.”
She was a skinny girl with long hair and bluejeans and flip-flops. She had a People magazine on her lap, but she didn’t look at it. Some movie star in a bikini was on the cover. Tracee rolled the magazine up as if to swat somebody, then unrolled it again. Her fingers were pale. She had chewed the nails down past the quick. I let Julie take the lead, like she’d said, and she filled Tracee in on what would happen. Then a cop came in, and Julie got up to talk to him.
Tracee had a small, round bruise on her neck. “You OK?” I asked.
She nodded. “My granny gave me something.”
“To make you feel better?”
“That’s good.” I looked over at Julie and tried to remember what they’d said we should do in training. I had written it all down in a spiral notebook.
“You got a mom?” I asked. This was not in my notebook. This was nosy.
She shook her head. “I live with my granny.”
“OK, then.” I wondered whether her mother didn’t know how to spell Tracy, or if she thought she was giving her child something special: a name that sounded normal but was spelled different, like it was French, maybe.
“If you want to talk,” I said, “you can.”
“I already told them.”
“You know, whatever somebody does to you, no matter what, there is some part of you they can’t get at. They might want to, but they can’t. Some secret part that nobody can get to.”
She looked right at me for the first time. “You believe that?”
“I know it.” This was not in my notes. I was not supposed to offer opinions or reassurance to the victims — no, that was the wrong word. They were not victims. They were some other word I couldn’t think of. Not client. That would be totally wrong.
“I just wanted to go for a ride on his motorcycle,” she said.
If it weren’t for the framed pictures of cops on the walls, this might have been anyone’s waiting room: a doctor’s, a dentist’s, a high-school principal’s. A man in wrinkled khaki pants walked past carrying two styrofoam cups.
I excused myself and went to the bathroom and washed my hands and face. They always tell girls not to take a bath afterward, but just thinking of it made me feel dirty. I looked at my face in the mirror. I combed my fingers through my hair and rinsed my mouth out and used a paper towel to wipe my teeth. Once, when I was hitchhiking, I’d taken a whole sponge bath in a bathroom sink.
I was pulling my hair back in a ponytail when Julie came in. “In a minute he’ll take her statement,” she said. She went into one of the stalls and shut the door. “She’s kind of loopy, don’t you think?”
“She’s OK,” I said.
“If you say so.”
“She took a downer.”
“A what?” I could hear Julie lifting her skirt.
“A tranquilizer or something.”
“She told you that?”
I could see Julie’s shiny shoes under the door. The cop would take Tracee’s statement soon. In training we were told that people needed to put their experience into a story with a beginning, middle, and end, so they could begin to fit it into the bigger narrative of their lives. The trauma. How to fit it.
“I’m glad you can talk to her,” Julie said. “Because . . .” She hesitated. “Between you and me, I’m having a hard time relating to that girl.”
I didn’t answer. Maybe if I stayed quiet, she would think I hadn’t heard her. Who’s to say I had? Or maybe I thought she was just talking to herself in there. I opened the door and slipped out.
A few minutes later we were all sitting in the detective’s office. He sat at his desk with a pad of paper and a pen, ready to take the girl’s statement. We huddled close together under the fluorescent lights, our knees almost touching.
For a moment I had the irrational sense that it was my statement he was taking; that any minute I’d be expected to tell a story with a beginning, middle, and end. It would have to make sense and could not contradict itself. It would have to be logical. It was logical, of course, if you thought about it. If you went step by step, each one small, almost innocent, until finally you’ve gone too far and can’t get out.
She took a ride on his motorcycle, she said. His name was Ray. She didn’t know his last name. “We went out in the country. There was a farmhouse, but nobody lived in it. We pulled in the driveway.” Tracee leaned closer to the detective to watch him write. “And there was this other guy there.”
“How old?” the detective asked.
She shrugged. “I don’t know. Your age, maybe?”
“Thirty?” said the detective.
“Something like that.” She stopped talking until he had written it all down. “Wait. The other guy showed up later.”
The detective stopped writing and looked at her. “He was there, or he came later?”
“I just wanted a ride on Ray’s motorcycle.” Her face was calm, but she twisted her fingers in her lap while she spoke.
“So, tell me what happened.”
The first time she told us the details, it was shocking, even though I’d already imagined what she would say. Maybe there are small variations, but it’s all the same. There was nothing new or original about it, and yet . . . The second time she told it was better. I mean, it wasn’t so hard to hear. And then, when she had to say it a third time, I felt like we were stuck in some kind of hell, like we’d have to sit and listen forever, and I thought they shouldn’t have so much power, those men who’d done this to her, that we had to listen again and again and imagine what they’d done again and again, and they kept doing it forever. Even though I knew they were the weak ones — that this crime revealed something about them, something pitiful and contemptible — still I couldn’t deny there was a kind of power in it, a power that had brought us there in the middle of the night to listen to this story.
By the middle of the third time, she thought she had it straight. The second man had pulled in the drive about fifteen minutes after she had arrived with Ray. This would not look good in court, if the case ever went to court: her uncertainty about the sequence of events, which was the fault of the tranquilizer, maybe, muddying things up. Why should we be expected to remember everything, I thought, and what did it matter which came first? Tracee was not impatient with the questions. If she had to say something three times, she would.
The second man — he was related to Ray, she thought — drove a motorcycle, too. A Harley. His “hog,” she called it. And that’s when the alarm went off in my head, but distant, like it was in the next room, or downstairs, or far away.
“Was his name Gary?” I asked.
Julie shot me a look. We were there to offer support, not to ask questions.
“Yeah,” Tracee said. “That was his name.”
I sat back in my chair. I thought of the baby, three years old now, and his tiny feet, his ears like little seashells. Ray and Gary were Parker’s friends. They had been to my house. They’d sat in my living room. I knew Ray’s wife. Sometimes I took care of their kids, Dee Dee and Little Ray. They were always kind to me — much kinder than Parker. I had thought that helping other girls might be the beginning of a way out, but it had only taken me deeper. I could feel Julie watching me.
“Ray Campbell and Gary Chisolm,” I said. I spelled their names and waited for the detective to finish writing. “They’re cousins.”
Their names wouldn’t help, I feared, even if she got her story straight. They would get to her. She would go home and be alone, no cops around. Or she would go out somewhere. She would walk down the street or an alley or be in a car — anywhere — and there was nothing we could do, because Tracee was not like Gary and Ray, and she was not like the cop, and she was not like Julie, who wanted to help but was having a hard time relating to a girl like this, a working-class girl, a girl who lived with her grandmother, a girl who was slightly high because her grandmother had given her a pill, a girl who hung out with the wrong kind of guys, a girl who’d walked straight into a trap, a girl who should have known better.
In Alison Clement’s “Girls like Her” [March 2017] we come to understand the world of the story a little at a time, the way we do in real life. I hope Clement keeps writing stories as compelling as this one.