SOMETIMES, WHEN WE’RE OUT LOOKING FOR MY SISTER, MITCH, MY MOTHER’S HUSBAND, TELLS ME TO KEEP MY EYES PEELED FOR THE EIGHT TIME AND I SAY, “THEY’RE NOT ONLY PEELED, THEY’RE BLEEDING,” BECAUSE I HAVE NEVER HEARD A MORE DISGUSTING SAYING. It’s February, or maybe March, or maybe April but still cold, and the fact that these men - Mitch, the cops with their stiff blue-black coats and puffy faces, Mitch’s belching friends - are five express stops from where I last saw Isabel, gives me the sensation of a helium balloon, like there are things in the world that are still possible. Other times, when I’m back in the room we used to share and the Q train is speeding east on the tracks next to our window, I start digging through her drawers, scrunched-up lace skirts, perfectly folded peach silk scarves, bras she never let me borrow. I can’t make myself wear anything of hers, not even a nightshirt, so I lie on her bed on top of the covers and am slammed with the realization that in less than four years I’ll be sixteen like she was, and this is when I think of the Detective, and this is when I start to cry.
These are the things that disgust my sister: laziness, mayonnaise, cruelty to animals, fart and prank comedies, raw meat, my mother’s peanut butter pie. It’s bad luck, then, that Mitch is into meat and laziness, in that order, and when he isn’t watching the Mets or the Cubs or the Baltimore Orioles he’s driving the trucks that cart hamburger patties and whole entire chickens to stores in Brooklyn. When I was younger we used to ride with him, stopping for ice creams my sister wouldn’t eat, Mitch and my sister fighting about the air conditioning, my mother telling them both to shut up, but smiling, like she thought it was funny, like she thought it was a show. A few months after they got married she had the idea that we should spend time together,just the three of us. We went to Coney Island to see the annual hot dog eating contest, tiny trim people stuffing their faces with slimy strings of meat. Mitch, arms crossed over his grey undershirt, soggy at the armpits, was explaining that our seats were as good as they were - the third row - because he had supplied the dogs himself.
His pride was clunky, you could see and feel it. He brought crinkle fries for me and Isabel, but ate most of them himself. I had this feeling Isabel was going to complain but secretly be glad. Instead she whispered, “I’m going to be sick,” said she had to go to the bathroom, and ducked into the crowd. By the time the contest was over and Roberta Faus of Bensonhurst was named the winner, she still hadn’t come back, and Mitch’s voice boomed over half the island: the cops were looking for her, the firemen were looking for her, and eventually I found her back at the house, in the basement with the door closed, streakinga canvas with half-formed, dueling horses, one white, the other brown and grey. I had this sense I shouldn’t interrupt, like when we saw a possum in the tree outside our window and didn’t want to scare it off. So I stood in the doorway and watched her add a painful red patch and finally said, “everyone was freaking out.” She didn’t answer, and so I said, “why’d you leave anyway?” I was shifting from one foot to the other, a long slow shuffle, my legs heavy with the weight of running, sweaty like Mitch and my heart still beating, I could hear it.
“I can only tolerate the gross and pointless for so long.”
My mother, whose name is Phyllis and she wishes that it wasn’t, says that the worst part of this whole thing – worse than the late nights, worse than detective fees that might make us lose the house – is that she just doesn’t know, that she’s constantly squirming, even in her sleep. It would be better to be sure, to have a body either walking the earth or buried under it. I disagree. The way I see it, it’s like when you take a test, and you think you’ve done badly, you don’t actually want the grade - you’d rather exist in the safety of not knowing. Maybe that’s why I didn’t answer the policeman that first Fall night, almost Thanksgiving and my sister hadn’t come home and hadn’t called, not once. You could smell leaves burning in the air, and the first thing I said to the cop was that that smell was something my sister had liked best.
“What’s your favorite season?” I asked, leaning back into the sofa, which was sagging in the middle. Probably because my mother’s eating had gotten even worse. The policeman pretended he hadn’t heard and crouched in front of me as though I was only eight or nine.
“This. Is. Very. Important,” he’d said, each word a sentence of its own. I nodded, thinking of the last thing Isabel had said to me, to stay where I was and keep my mouth shut. I looked for my mother, for Mitch, but they had disappeared into the kitchen, leaving me with this man who had a gun somewhere invisible, not even caring that he could just reach in and shoot. “We need to know the last time that you saw your sister.”
I didn’t know why he said “we” when there was only one of him. I didn’t say anything. I stuck my hands deep in the pockets of my robe, an old one from my sister. I didn’t tell him about how, the night she disappeared, I’d followed her to the Salvation Center in Ditmus Park, not caring that it meant I had to help her cook beef stew for three hours in a kitchen the size of our closet, not caring that actual crap was all over the parking lot because the project kids took their dogs there and never bothered to clean up. On the way back to the train she kept kicking things – empty cans, smudged wrappers – telling me to get lost, but I wouldn’t, not until we were about to swipe our metro-cards through the turnstile. She said she’d smack me if I didn’t take the train in the other direction, away from Coney Island.
“Do you,” he asked, “want your sister to come home?”
Sometimes I wanted her to come and sometimes I didn’t. Once my sister let me come with her to Pearl Paint and choose colors for her; she closed her eyes and told me to drop whatever I wanted in the basket. They were potpourri, these cops; they kept coming, and I stayed silent. There were cops in full uniform, guns in holsters stiff on their sides, there were plain clothes policeman making coffee in our kitchen wearing flannel shirts, there was a woman I suspected to be FBI, tall and solid and frizzy haired, leaning against the kitchen counter and telling my mother how to keep fit before following me into the living room and trying to loosen me up by offering to play a game of cards.
“Cards,” I said, repeating what my sister had told Mitch’s friends, “are a decent way to kill time for the simple minded.”
I was getting tired of being difficult. I promised myself I’d stick it out. I promised myself I wouldn’t eat the donuts Mitch and my mother offered me at breakfast, and I wouldn’t say anything to my friends at school. I wouldn’t look for the paintings my mother had boxed up, and I wouldn’t think of that night in Ditmus Park, when my sister told me I couldn’t keep following her. “Wait here,” she said, dragging me down to the Manhattan bound side of the Coutelyou stop and setting her feet where she wanted me to stand. She grabbed my shoulders and pushed me there, as if this would make me stick.
“Close your eyes and don’t open them until you’ve counted to three hundred. Or until the subway comes. Whatever’s first.”
November, December, January. There were police dogs higher than my waist and they dug up all around Brooklyn, all the places my mother thought she’d gone, because my mother knew nothing. They didn’t go near the train tracks where my sister and her boyfriend traded cigarettes with kids from the high school near the projects, and I didn’t direct them there.
When the Detective came, a tall man with a Yankees cap pulled over his head – he had grey eyebrows and a grey mustache he kept pulling at, as though he was uncomfortable – I would have rather told him because he seemed nervous, because he didn’t seem so sure. But instead of talking I wrote questions on sheets of paper from my books at school, graphed so there were no easy lines to write between. I wrote them with a laundry marker that permanently seeped into the carpet, slipped them underneath my mother’s door. Do you think she’s living with Dalton, her boyfriend, who I had a crush on once? Do you think she’s moved across America? What do you think? Do you think she’s gone to outer space?
Neither my mother nor Mitch responded to these notes. They looked at me a little harsher in the morning, slammed rather than placed the eggs I didn't eat (my sister wouldn't have) down on the table, stared only at the newspapers I was pretty sure they didn't read. And when we move into the apartment in Greenpoint there isn't the room I shared with Isabel to distract us. There isn't the acrylic smell of paint, nauseating and comforting, the walls are bare. My mother will not tell me where her paintings are hidden.
It is almost Spring when I go to the Detective's. The slip of paper with his phone number on it has been wedged into the plastic canister next to where my mother keeps fortunes cracked out of cookies. I have to lower my voice when I call information, I’m always afraid of being caught at things. When I was younger I used to steal chocolate milk and moon pies from the bodega down the street but my sister said it wasn't right. The day is warm for March but overcast. The detective's office is near Atlantic Avenue, past the road forked into three different ones, cars speeding, a bus stopping and groaning out a ramp out for a boy in a wheelchair, a boy with fine hair the color of gold. He looks younger than me, maybe eleven, and there he is, wheeling himself onto the bus without so much as a pant. There is a thirty story building, once the tallest in New York, with a clock on top that ticks towards noon.
The building the detective is in doesn’t have an elevator so I have to climb the stairs (so narrow Mitch or my mother would have had to turn sideways). The walls are yellow and peeling. There is a scent of something I can’t identify – vanilla air freshener, but stale - and I have to keep climbing, the stairs shifting under my weight (Mitch or my mother wouldn’t have made it at all), counting the flights on my fingers: two, four, six. The walls drown out the souvlaki vendors and old, hairless men selling roasted nuts. By the time I reach Caulfield and Kingdom Esq, I have lost count of the flights. There is a sharp pain in my side as though I have just been punched by metal, maybe something harder. The name Caulfield and Kingdom isn’t written on a plaque. It is as though the words have been scratched in with a nail file. I do not need to buzz.
The detective is now wearing a pilled Mets hat. When he sees that I am staring he says, “I have a hunch they’ll have a better season.” He doesn’t motion for me to sit down, and there isn’t really anywhere I can sit. Newspapers are piled on all the chairs. I can vaguely make out the date on one, May of last year. The detective offers me coffee and I drink it because that’s the right thing to do. It is disgusting.
“Is your partner’s name Kingdom?” I ask. The Detective stares, a weird grin on his face. “On the door. Kingdom.”
“Oh, that,” the Detective says, “I thought it sounded better than just Caulfield, if you know what I mean.” I remember my mom saying he was the last resort, the bottom of the bucket, so maybe that’s why I like him. He has pulled a fold out chair from somewhere behind his desk. It screeches as it opens.
He nods. “I remember.” He lights a cigarette and rolls one in my direction, without asking if I want to smoke it.
“I’m fourteen,” I say, and the Detective shakes his head, slides the cigarette back into the carton. He has sunken cheeks and a sour smell. His body tilts, as though there’s too much weight on one side. I hand him the twenty dollar bill and he looks at me like teachers sometimes do when I’ve said something I know is stupid.
“Listen,” he says, “I lost a dog once. So I know what you’re going through.”
I nod. I’ve never had a dog, but I know he doesn’t.
“She’s been missing since November. Last November. I know there hasn’t been another November but you know what I mean.”
The detective stares at me.
“Sometimes she played pranks. Sometimes she goes away for a really long time. So I didn’t want to get her in trouble.” Even if this sounds true it feels like a lie.
“Time’s wasting, darlin’. Why don’t you tell me the last place you saw her.”
“She probably wouldn’t still be there anyway.”
“Emma – that’s your name, isn’t it?”
“Ellen. Did your sister ever hurt herself?”
“What do you mean?”
“I think you know what I mean.”
“She wrapped rubber bands around her wrists.”
“Did your sister ever hide things?”
“If she hid them how would I have known she had them?”
“Where was the last place you saw her?”
I know the answer to this, and for the first time I say it. “November 11th. Last year. Like I said. In Ditmus Park.”
“What time was it?”
“Five. Five thirty. It was getting dark.”
“Ditmus Park is close to your house, isn’t it?”
“Close to where we used to live. We moved. My mom’s husband couldn’t afford the mortgage.”
“Let’s stay with this, Ellen.” He says my name as though I am a child. The twenty dollar bill I gave him sticks out of his shirt pocket. “What were you doing in Ditmus Park?”
“I followed my sister there. Isabel. I followed her after school. The soup kitchen, like I said. She didn’t have anything in her backpack that day. Usually it’s really heavy. Sometimes I carry it for her. She doesn’t make me – I offer.”
“You must be a good sister.”
“Anyway, she told me to wait for her. For three hundred seconds.”
“Had she ever done this before?”
“Once she made me wait for one hundred fifty.”
The night Isabel disappeared I counted to two hundred fifty and broke my promise. The train pulled in on the other side of the platform and I unglued my feet from the cement and took off up and down the stairs, the car doors snapping shut behind me. I barely made it. I was one car away from my sister. I could see her through hazy glass, sitting with a boy I didn’t recognize. A man across from me was snoring. The boy kissed my sister and she pushed him away. She seemed to be smiling and I didn’t understand it. She rested her head on his shoulder and for a moment she looked to me like she was preparing to paint, serene and ready for anything. For a moment I thought my mother, Phyllis, would be happy to see her like this, and then I realized, no, my mother wouldn’t have been happy at all.
The Detective stares at me. He is listening, really listening, and I it makes me want to speak very softly. His eyes remind me of spoons, maybe ladels that sop up too much, then spill.
“Is that the last time you saw your sister?”
The last time. The train reached the end of the line: Coney Island. In Coney Island, at night, the subway platform is this dark strip, like it wants to be the ocean. I am remembering this now. Maybe I have paid twenty dollars to remember, and maybe I have convinced myself that my sister would have wanted me to forget. I followed them to the beach, her legs sticklike in shorts even though it was November. Halfway down the beach she took them off. She dropped her backpack. By the time I reached it and saw that it was empty she had her ankles in the ocean, the boy up to his knees. They were holding hands. His hand was on her waist. I didn’t understand why she wasn’t freezing. I zipped open her backpack: a metro card, a lipstick, a five dollar bill.
“No credit card?”
I don’t remember a credit card. This is the sort of detail I should have told the detective earlier. My stomach feels heavy now, heavy and bare at the same time. When Phyllis is angry she says that labor hurts a lot. I will leave here and work at a soup kitchen and maybe my sister will come back.
“These are the things I need to know,” the Detective says. “Where, what time, why did she leave?” He doesn’t say this meanly. He picks up his pack of cigarettes like he’s about to offer me another and puts them back down. Wherever my sister is, she’ll never have to be in a room with a balding man in a fifty year old Mets hat. When Phyllis is angry she says there’s a special place in the world for people who look perfect and don’t follow the rules.
At night, the Cyclone looked as old as it really was, a sad tower of wooden boxes that creaked when the wind smacked them. The lights of Nathan’s on the Boardwalk flickered for people who wanted hot dogs at midnight. Everything else was silent, the ocean with its low whoosh and the stores with their shades down and lights out, dark where too-bright multicolor used to be. My sister was waist deep in water and swimming. She was getting smaller but it looked like she was swimming towards something rather than away from it. The boy followed but wasn’t as fast, and I had this feeling she was happy, and that was the last thing that I saw.
“My sister left before. At the hot dog eating contest. She came back.”
The Detective listens. He thumbs through a book now, it looks like an address book, but maybe there are cases, kids who have gone missing and been found. When he sees that I am staring he closes the book. He takes my hand and squeezes it, and his skin is rough and smells like smoke, and it is like he is saying, the end.
It is summer when I go back to Coney Island. I wear my sister’s shoes, though her tops are still too big for me, broad around the shoulders. I have a boyfriend now, and his name is Derek, though that’s not really worth mentioning because he’s not for keeps, as my sister would say. As the Q train shoots above ground into the orange heat of a June day he is trying unsuccessfully to make a lighter flame up, he is very interested in this lighter, obsessed with it. My friends – the boys – have grease in their hair and their dark t-shirts are torn, but the girls, including me, are wearing shimmering tops and the occasional fin. We are going to see the mermaid parade.
The summer is the one time of year when my mother doesn’t seem to remember my sister, when she is cheerfully focused on weighing raw pork (Mitch’s) on a Weight Watcher’s scale. I have uncovered my sister’s pictures, boxed in my mother’s closet, not hidden, just precious. Sometimes I mistake my mother’s motives. She tries very hard at everything and it makes me feel sorry for her. My sister’s pictures have been laminated, I can’t touch their surfaces and when I look at them they seem sparse and amateur.
The Q is crowded, too hot. Derek is smoking now, into my mouth and into my ears, my eyelids hurt, and he keeps reaching around my shoulder, grabbing, and I laugh a lot because it distracts me and I know it looks good. I focus on a mermaid with runny makeup and a standout costume, all silver, and I want my sister to see her but it’s too late for wanting. The train pulls into Coney Island, and the platform in daylight is electric blues and aluminum foil. Maybe she would have liked it and maybe she would have hated it.
We push, my friends and I, out onto the sidewalk, hot through the heels of our shoes. Down the boardwalk the Mermaid Parade is gearing up, and Derek, done with his cigarette, grabs my thumb and tugs me towards the Cyclone. “I’d rather not,” I say, thinking of the wooden boxes, stepping closer towards the Mermaids. They have an artificial glow I’m sure can’t be found in any ocean. I can’t stop staring.
“It’s not that bad,” Derek says. “I’ll show you. I won’t puke.”
“That’s really encouraging.”
They go up without me. The Cyclone, like I warned them, is wooden and rickety. My friend Tammy pukes. The King and Queen Mermaid are on their float, perched above the platform where Roberta Faus of Bensonhurst won the hot dog eating contest the year my sister disappeared for the first time but came back. “Off the wall!” Derek calls from somewhere above me; he is running from the Cyclone over to me. He kisses me and it is the way it always is, a lot saliva and for some reason my throat hurts. One day I’ll be able to bend over backwards.
They go up again. Tammy, too. Derek calls me a killjoy but he doesn’t mean it. The Mermaid King and Queen have settled into their thrones. The King tosses me a glow-in-the-dark necklace even though it’s the middle of the day. I sit next to the platform. Under the tinsel it’s a mess of ketchup, gum, wadded plastic bags, just like the train tracks only there aren’t any rats.
I watch the cyclone heave up and down, and I watch the Ferris wheel spin. My necklace starts to glow and it is a color I didn’t expect, a dull, dark yellow. By now Derek and the rest of them are probably wondering where I am. I pull my knees into my chest and stay as still as possible, waiting for the loudspeaker to sound, waiting for someone to call my name.
Jenny Halper’s fiction has appeared in journals including Smokelong Quarterly, PANK, Frigg, Wigleaf Top 50 Very Short Stories 2009, and is forthcoming in an anthology from Persea books. Jenny has written for the Boston Phoenix and Nylon Magazine, among others, and recently co-wrote a script with Susan Seidelman and adapted a novel for Pretty Pictures. She currently serves as Development Executive at Maven Pictures, and was previously Development Executive on films The Kids are All Right and The Whistleblower. She lives in Brooklyn with her turtle, Herbert, plus lots of stray books picked up on Park Slope stoops, a ten year old VCR, and lots of Jolly Time Healthy Pop Kettle Corn.
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