The Disappearing Boy ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
(Published in Sunken Lines, December 2009)
Dinner was finished and the women were washing the dishes. Cap went into the kitchen and stood in the middle of the floor but nobody paid any attention to him. Grandma was standing at the sink with her back to him, her hands in soapy water; his mother was standing beside Grandma drying the dishes. Zeddie, his mother’s sister, was sitting at the table crying. Rosemary, his uncle’s wife, was also sitting at the table, smoking a cigarette and looking bored. The bright light glinted off her eyeglasses that were shaped like a cat’s eyes.
“Are you sure you don’t want me to help?” Rosemary asked. “I feel so guilty just sitting here.”
“No, it’s all right,” his mother said. “You can do it next time.”
“Let me have a cigarette,” Zeddie said to Rosemary. She had stopped crying for the moment but was about to begin again.
Rosemary threw her the pack and Zeddie took one out and tapped it on the table and put in between her lips but she didn’t light it. She began blubbering again, the cigarette bobbing up and down in her mouth.
“And do you know he bought a fifth of whiskey and lottery tickets with his last money?” Zeddie said through her tears. “And we didn’t even have any food in the house! I just don’t know what we’re going to do! He doesn’t make enough money to begin with, and then he takes what little money he has and buys crap with it!”
“Have you thought about getting a job yourself and making your own money so you don’t have to depend on him for everything?” Rosemary asked brightly.
“And what would I do?” Zeddie asked through her tears. She blew her nose on a balled-up Kleenex and looked at Rosemary as though she had just suggested a trip to the moon. “I’ve never had a job before in my life.”
“That’s no reason you can’t get one,” Rosemary said. “You have to start somewhere.”
“Have you ever thought about leaving the bastard?” Cap’s mother asked as she put the clean silverware in the drawer. “I told you before you married him he wasn’t good husband material.”
“I know you did,” Zeddie said, “but I thought love was all that mattered.”
“This is nothing new,” Grandma said wearily. “You either have to learn to get along with your husband or leave him and start over again.”
“I have thought about leaving him,” Zeddie said. “I’ve thought about getting into the car and driving over a cliff. That would put an end to all this misery!”
“The only problem with that is there aren’t any high enough cliffs close by,” Rosemary said with a laugh. “You’d have to drive a couple hundred miles just to kill yourself.”
Zeddie turned on Rosemary, her eyes flashing. “Do you have to make a joke out of everything?” she said. “You have a husband who does what he’s supposed to do! You don’t know what it’s like to have a husband who is an absolute bum!”
“Oh, I don’t think he’s that bad,” Grandma said.
“Well, I’m sorry,” Rosemary said, “but it just seems that maybe you’re asking for it.”
“Asking for what?” Zeddie said. “You don’t know what you’re talking about! You’re not even a real member of this family!”
“Calm down, Zeddie,” Grandma said. “She’s only trying to help. She didn’t mean anything by it.”
“Mother, can I have a soda?” Cap asked.
His mother turned around and looked at him, realizing for the first time that he was in the room. “No, you may not have a soda,” she said. “We just finished dinner and you hardly ate anything.”
“You can have a glass of milk,” Grandma said.
“I don’t want that,” he said.
“Don’t you want to grow up and be a big strong man like your father?” Rosemary said.
“No!” he said.
Muffy, Cap’s sister, came in at that moment from outside. She was carrying the garbage pale and she had a smirk on her face.
“Where have you been?” Cap’s mother asked. “Why does it take you fifteen minutes to empty the garbage? I was about to send out a search party.”
“Oh, I was talking to someone,” Muffy said airily.
“Who is there to talk to when you go out into the back yard to empty the garbage?”
“Is it still raining?” Rosemary asked.
“I didn’t notice,” Muffy said. “Maybe it is.”
Cap sat down at the table and picked up Rosemary’s cigarette and held it up between his fingers and pretended to take a puff and blow out smoke rings. Rosemary laughed and said he was a jokester. His mother turned around and told him to leave the cigarettes alone and quit clowning or she was going to get his father to smack him a good one.
He put the cigarette down and picked up Grandpa’s cards and began shuffling them the way Grandpa had showed him. “Anybody want to play cards?” he asked.
“Oh, you are so stupid!” Muffy said. “You can’t play cards! That’s something grownup people do.”
“Maybe Grandpa will play some rummy with you later,” Grandma said.
“Why don’t you go outside on the back porch and see what Tolliver is up to?” his mother said. “We’re trying to get the dishes washed up.”
He went out the back door, careful to not let it slam, and when he saw it was still raining, he sat down in Grandpa’s big sagging old chair and looked out at the muddy yard. A white chicken ran across the yard with a brown chicken chasing it and they both went out of sight.
Tolliver, Grandma’s tom cat, was asleep in the laundry basket on the floor. He raised his head and looked at Cap and blinked his eyes a couple of times and yawned and went back to sleep.
“Hey, you!” Cap said, but Tolliver ignored him.
He sat in the chair and watched the rain. When he began to feel sleepy, he went back into the kitchen. Grandma and his mother were finishing up the dishes and Aunt Zeddie was still bawling. He went through the kitchen into the front room. Muffy was lying on the couch looking up at the ceiling, picking her nose. She seemed to be deep in thought and didn’t look at him. He went on through the front room and out the front door to the porch where the men were.
“And she had knockers out to here,” Uncle Doyle was saying. He held his hands out as though holding two invisible basketballs. “She wasn’t wearing a brasserie, either.”
“Careful!” Grandpa said, when he realized Cap was standing there looking at them. The men stopped talking then, but Uncle Doyle and Cap’s father were laughing.
“Did the women chase you out of the kitchen?” Uncle Doyle asked in his teasing way.
“No,” Cap said. He went over and sat down on the porch swing beside Grandpa. “Aunt Zeddie is in there crying.”
“What’s she crying about?” Grandpa asked.
“What is she not crying about is more like it,” Uncle Doyle said.
“I think she’s crying because she doesn’t have any money,” Cap said.
“We could all cry for that reason,” Uncle Smoky said. He was Cap’s mother’s only brother. He had an artificial leg below the knee from a car accident he had when he was in high school. He had been married to Rosemary for less than a year. They hadn’t told anybody yet, but they planned on getting a divorce as soon as Rosemary got an insurance settlement from her father’s estate. Uncle Smoky had promised her he wouldn’t keep her from getting out of the marriage when the time came.
“Zeddie’s got problems with her nerves,” Uncle Doyle said.
“Haven’t they all?” Uncle Smoky said.
“I warned you not to marry her,” Cap’s father said.
“I know you did, Carl,” Uncle Doyle said.
“Zeddie has always worked hard at getting more mileage out of her problems than anybody else,” Grandpa said.
“Grandpa, will you play cards with me?” Cap asked.
“Not now,” Grandpa said. “I’m resting.”
“Why don’t you teach that boy poker so he can come to our Saturday night poker games?” Uncle Doyle said. “He can bring the beer.”
“Grandpa, it stopped raining,” Cap said. “I want to go up to the digging and look around.”
“Well, okay, but be careful,” Grandpa said.
“And stay out of the mud,” his father said.
“I won’t,” Cap said, but nobody heard him because Uncle Doyle was saying something funny again and they were all laughing.
He went around the house and crossed the big back yard to the alley. He cut through the alley, careful to avoid the puddles, to the neighbor’s yard that bordered the alley and cut across to the church. Next to the church a new brick building was being built. The walls were up, with the blank spaces where the windows would go, but there was no roof yet. It was Sunday, so no workmen were around. The building had an eerie feeling of abandonment. Through the window spaces he could see only blackness inside the building. He had the feeling someone was in there that he couldn’t see looking out at him.
All around the building workmen had dug trenches. Dirt was piled beside the trenches higher than Cap’s head. Huge pipes lay on the ground beside the trenches. He walked around the trenches, picking up a couple of rocks and throwing them into the muddy water. He took a stick and leaned over the trench and stuck it down into the water to see how deep it was.
He stayed for about ten minutes, until the raw brick walls and the ugly brown water-filled trenches began to feel oppressive to him, and then he went back to Grandma and Grandpa’s house the same way he had come.
He went through the back door into the kitchen. The women had finished washing the dishes and were in the living room. He could hear their talking and laughter. Careful to not be seen, he crossed the hallway off the dining room to the closed door of Grandma and Grandpa’s bedroom. He opened the door and went inside.
The room was cooler than the rest of the house and had a pleasant odor of old wood and freshly washed bed linens. He looked at the high bed with its immaculate white spread. He closed the door and moved around to the other side of the bed where there was another door in the far wall he had never noticed before. When he opened that door, he saw it was a big closet where Grandma kept all her old coats and clothes that she never wore anymore or that were out of season. He went inside and closed the door and breathed in the odors of cedar and old cloth and mothballs. He had the pleasant sensation of being surrounded by soft, old-smelling things hanging all around his head. He walked forward into the darkness until he reached the back wall and turned around; the closet went back much farther than it seemed to at first. His eyes adjusted to the darkness and he was able to see well enough from the light underneath the door. He sat on the floor and leaned against the back wall, enjoying the secret feeling of nobody knowing where he was.
Through the wall he could hear the sounds of voices in the front room; he couldn’t hear what they were saying, but he could hear a murmur, almost like a buzzing of bees. One bee would buzz for a while and then another bee would buzz, sounding a little different from the other bees, and then one of the bees would laugh. He felt a little vibration whenever anybody walked across the floor. He was fascinated by the sounds because they offered a fresh perspective on any sounds he had ever heard in the house before.
After he had been hiding in the closet for about a half-hour, his mother began to wonder where he was. She stood up from the sofa and went to the front door and stepped out onto the porch where the men were.
“Where’s Cap?” she asked.
“Isn’t he in the house?” Cap’s father asked.
“If he was in the house, would I be asking where he is?”
“He was here a little while ago,” Uncle Doyle said.
“He said he was going up to the digging,” Grandpa said.
“When was that?”
“I don’t know. I think it was about an hour ago.”
“Well, for heaven’s sake,” she said, “why didn’t you tell him he couldn’t go?”
Soon they were all looking for Cap. Muffy and his mother went outside and walked around the house calling his name. Zeddie had stopped crying and had begun a search of her own, feeling, as she said, that he was hiding somewhere in the house. She went into all the bedrooms with a flashlight and looked under the beds and inside all the closets. When she came at last to the big closet in Grandma and Grandpa’s room, she opened the door and softly called his name, as if looking for a lost puppy. She reached her big arms in and moved aside some of the hanging clothes and shone the flashlight all around. Cap could see her round race with her red cheeks and her little slit eyes, but she didn’t see him. He had to cover his mouth to keep from laughing. In a moment she gave up and closed the door and left.
When Zeddie told Grandma she had searched the house from top to bottom and couldn’t find Cap anywhere, Grandma told Uncle Smoky and Uncle Doyle to go up to the digging and look for him.
“Look everywhere,” Grandma said, afraid to say what they were all thinking, that he might have fallen into one of the trenches and drowned.
Uncle Doyle and Uncle Smoky walked up to the digging and looked all around. They looked in the trenches and covered every inch of ground. Uncle Doyle even shimmied through one of the window openings of the unfinished building and looked inside. In a little while they gave up and went back to the house and reported to Grandma they had seen no sign of Cap, not even any footprints.
“Supposing he’s been kidnapped,” Grandma said. “I think we should call the police!”
“Before you get hysterical,” Grandpa said, “let’s go see if we can find anybody who saw anything. Somebody must have seen him somewhere. He can’t have just disappeared.”
From inside the closet Cap heard the voices and the flurry of activity and sensed, in a way, a subtle change in the atmosphere. He began to realize he had disrupted the grownups’ peaceful Sunday and they very likely would not see the humor in it. His mother would cry and lecture him and his father would blow his stack. Even Grandma would be disappointed in him.
He stood up and made his way back through the hanging garments to the door and opened it and stepped out of the closet and closed the door as quietly as he could. He crept out of the bedroom into the hallway and into the front room. He thought they would all be sitting there, angry and upset; he was surprised to find no one there.
He felt his spirits lift a little to know no one knew he had been hiding in the closet. Since they didn’t know, he wasn’t going to tell them. He would just make them think it had all been a mistake, that he had been there, under their noses, all along. They just hadn’t seen him.
He sat down in Grandpa’s recliner and lay back and covered up with Grandma’s afghan. He knew very well they were all outside and would come back into the house in a minute and see him sitting there. He needed to make himself look small and innocent. If he could manage to look sick, that would be even better. Nobody would ever want to punish a sick child.
Copyright © 2011 by Allen Kopp