Riptide
by Marion Smith

Chapter 12

[p.99]I think Duncan’s asleep. His neck keeps jerking. Ever since his water-skiing accident, his neck hurts when he doesn’t hold it still. He should be wearing a brace. Maybe I should wake him.

We’ll have to talk about it. But I don’t want to. Ever. He’ll stand by me no matter what; it isn’t like he didn’t fantasize killing Clint, too, during those terrible months of his depression. Still, I wonder how he can deal with my being a murderer.

I said it. I can actually say the word.

I wish I’d done it alone. Everything I do is so interconnected with consequences for the people I love. I want to claim my own actions, take my own punishment. Responsibility is all we can ever try for.

I’ve always underestimated Duncan. I assumed he’d be distraught when I quit going to church and when I didn’t want to be around his family. Instead, he never tried to make me feel guilty about any of it, he just wanted me to do whatever I needed to. I thought he’d feel betrayed; and I know he was sad, but he understood. It’s the children he suffers over. He can let me do whatever I need to, but with his children he’s vulnerable. He thinks he’s a failure if they leave the church-because the chain of Mormon ancestors going back 160 years is broken by him. What kind of religion lays such guilt on its most loyal members?

[p.100]I’m too tired to think. I’ll put the tape back on and Duncan will wake up.

No, I’ve got to think. To have something to hold on to. To feel something.

Find an image. Something more than an empty freeway.

Cordelia. Lear bearing Cordelia in his arms. That haunts me. I’ve dreamed it. Who am I? Lear? Cordelia? No one? I’m in the scene, repeating this rosary like a charm, “I’ve had it good. I’ve had it good.” No matter what else happens, I’ll keep repeating it.

How can I presume to know what good or bad anyone else has? How can anyone? I thought life was bad in India; but do I really know? The women, in flowing lines of color, their saris, silver anklets clinking on dark slender ankles, bare feet below handwoven silk, women crouched over broken roads mending potholes with thin sticks for tools. Women working all day in humid heat, chipping stones to patch the roads. Earning ten cents an hour. At evening or at dawn they carried offerings of fruit to the temple to place before Shiva or Parvati or Hanuman. Colorful fruit nested in green leaves on shining black hair knotted in buns on smooth necks. One arm balancing the fruit, another cradling a baby against a hip. I searched their eyes when they would let me and found I could know nothing of their lives.

We were driving through the dusty streets of a small, nameless town in rural India, Duncan and I. It was hot and we had the windows down, so people were upon us, inches from our faces. The street was clogged with women and men, bicycles, cows, children, rickshaws, donkey carts. Our driver had only inched along, honking constantly for people to move aside, like driving through a herd of sheep. There was a car ahead of us, one of the few we saw, and it ran over a baby, a toddler. We saw the little body lying limp like a rag doll. Like my Goldenhair doll. People [p.101]screamed and someone ran for the mother, but in a few moments the endless flow of life went on pouring through the street. No police car would be called, no ambulance, no newspaper account would be written; another child had died in India. I wondered what meaning that mother could find in that death. Did she even have words to form the question? It was then the rosary in my head began, “I’ve had it good. I’ve had it good.”

I always thought my mother had it easy. But how can I know? It’s arrogance.

My mother.

Somewhere, in the corners of my mind, I know she’s dead. There are memories: impious tubes snaked about her chicken-boned body in a hospital room—threatening, not supporting, her life. Her hair brushed back from a yellowed brow stretched smoother than usual, like a magnetic field condensing her remaining beauty. Her gasp out of the hospital window bed facing the state capitol, flooded in white that night. “I live so close, can’t I go home?” “Where are your children?” The squeezing, coherent strength of her still knowing right hand.

Her mouth in death obscenely gaped. Someone, please take mercy on her modesty and close it.

In my mind is wasteland—uninhabited space. We never really met, or knew each other. Her inability more than mine, but does that matter? I have no way nor need to mourn.

Others wanted to re-learn her. Her notes and calendars, old love letters, withered photo albums, medicines, her underwear and com plasters, blankets stacked in closets labeled “Cashmere Very Nice.” I did not want to know of things I never knew before. It felt like stripping flesh off blanching bones.

There was a note she’d written on the back of a milk delivery list shoved in a kitchen drawer. “A school telephoned Laurel and she went. They said a girl was going to kill herself and she wanted [p.102]to talk to Laurel. She’s giving a talk on Egypt to Author’s Club today.” My validation?

Places inside me grieved for others’ grief for her. I didn’t grieve for me. I thought of Duncan and my children upon my own death sometime. I grieved for them at that. What peace I mustered that cold spring day she died was for them and for spring’s white blossoms. The dead must bury the dead. Jared’s and Tina’s babies live.

I don’t wish to turn the corners of my mind.

There’s a curve of the freeway. The junction before Baker. Baker, Barstow, San Bernardino, then Palm Springs. What do we do when we get there? Duncan said we’d go to the place where they know us on Highway 111 for breakfast. We’ll look all relaxed and refreshed and chat a moment with the owner. Refreshed. That’ll be some cosmetic job! Brushing my teeth will help. Then I wish I could sleep and sleep. Forever.

I’ve got to stop in Baker even if stopping wakes Duncan up.

For now I’ll count my losses. Forget my rosary for a while. I’ll whine and whimper. Make noise enough that this unreality will materialize to a pin prick I can feel. My losses. Is everything a contest to see who suffers most? Or least? When will I know that I am I who feels my pain and they are they? Now I can’t separate my loss from theirs. The greatest loss is vanished expectations. You’re hit on the head and your expectations jumble like tangled pick-up sticks.

A horn has jarred Duncan. He’s moving. We’ll talk.

“Where are we?” he asks in a sleep-rumpled voice while he rubs his neck.

“Baker in about twenty miles. I need to stop there. Do you feel better?”

“I dunno. It’s hard to tell. How ’bout you?”

[p.103]“I sort of expect to find none of this is real. I can’t remember now exactly why I had to do it … maybe that’s not true.”

“I remember.” He sighs. “You do too. When Clint was fired for sexually harassing a teenager in his last job, he wasn’t prosecuted. We both knew then the law would never catch him—the statute of limitations had run out in our case. You acted like something in you had snapped. ‘Enough is enough’ you kept saying. You weren’t sleeping—didn’t hear what I said to you—it was like you were possessed. Funny that my tolerance for Clint’s sins would outlast yours.”

We stare ahead. Partners in despair.

Car after car. I could swerve a tiny bit …

Don’t do that! I hate the victim-thing! Just take the curves at different speeds.

“You can think you did it vicariously for me,” he says flatly.

“Maybe it won’t even make any difference. I mean, it may spare his step-daughters and his two new birth children, and who knows who else in his neighborhood or wherever else he goes, but it won’t change anything for all the others he’s already abused.”

“Except, you know about his new family. You know for sure. And you know he’s abusing other children as well. And nothing would have stopped him.”

Duncan’s right.

“Yeah, but it’s more than that. More than hating him. You know when I went on that peace march against nuclear testing in Nevada? It’s like that except way bigger. It felt like something I had to do to go on living.”

“I know that. That’s why we’re here. I felt the same way until we went to New York and talked to Andrew Vachss. I’d planned over and over how I’d bug Clint’s house and catch him in the act. But Vachss discouraged me so much I quit fantasizing.”

Last fall we made an appointment with Vachss. He’s the [p.104]“white knight” for child abuse in the U.S. Singlehandedly, I think, he’s righted more wrongs for children all over the country than anyone.

It’s snowing on the November day we go to see him. This Lone Ranger’s office in lower Manhattan is small, shabby, and stuffed with overflowing files and papers. A German television crew is filming him as we conduct our meeting. The sound for the show will be dubbed in later. He’s making national news at the time.

He knows the story of Clint. We met him at a conference in Salt Lake and told him.

“We came to you because you’d know what we might do,” Duncan begins. “Do you know someone and how much it would cost—to bug his house, to follow him, to catch him in the act?”

“Of course I know someone. Believe me, you don’t want to do that. It’s illegal, it’s dangerous, it would cost $100,000 or more if you’re blackmailed, and there are no guarantees it would ever help. Trust me, you don’t want to do it.”

We thank him and leave. Of course he’s right. I knew before we came what he would say. He offered to inquire about Clint from an FBI friend because he said there was no doubt Clint had sent kiddie porn through the mails.

On the way down in the small, creaking elevator, I think, “If you’re going to get someone, to trap or kill him, you don’t ask help from somebody else. You don’t tell your husband. Or your therapist. Or your son-in-law. You claim your own responsibility. Andrew Vachss would.” I say this to myself as we exit into the cries and noise and cold of Broadway. I forgot about that day when Duncan and I planned this.

“I wish I’d marched for civil rights or ERA or anything I believed in,” I try to explain to Duncan. “Finally you have to stand for something. You can’t stay on the sideline any longer.” Because [p.105]I didn’t stand for Jeanne and Jasmine, I think to myself. That’s why I have to speak now, and why I had to act. But I can’t explain that part to Duncan.

“Sure,” Duncan nods. “It might have been better if you’d made your stand earlier for one of those political causes, instead of this.”

“You want out?” I ask, gripping the wheel.

“No. I’m with you. I just don’t want the consequences.”

“There have to be consequences, or it’s not real. It doesn’t count.”

“This one counts. I can promise you that.” I can’t look at his face. I can’t think of what he’s thinking. How do I make him understand how it is with me?

“Did you ever read The Plague? Camus?” I ask. Always my pattern. Reach him intellectually when I’m scared.

“I don’t think so. Where’s that pillow, do you know?” He looks around. “The only one of his I know for sure is Sisyphus pushing his falling rock. “

“Your pillow’s in the back seat. Can you reach it? I almost woke you, your head was bouncing around so much, it hurt me to look at it.”

“It’s okay. What about The Plague?”

He punches the pillow behind his head and leans back with his eyes closed.

“There’s bubonic plague in this little town in Algeria that gets quarantined from the rest of the world and the people have to come to grips with it. Most of them just pretend the plague’s not there. But the doctor and a journalist who can’t leave and a priest and a couple of others deal with it, each in his own way.”

“How?”

“Everybody does it differently. The priest has to reassess his religious ideas. The doctor and the journalist make these super-[p.106]human efforts to save people, or at least cut the death rate, but they know nothing they do will make the least bit of difference. They do it anyway.”

“That’s how you feel?”

“Sort of. It’s like I had to assert my humanity. Sounds high-blown, doesn’t it? It’s just you get pushed and pushed and pushed and finally you say ‘No more. This is where I draw my line.’”

“But Clint wasn’t pushing you anymore, at least not directly.”

“I know. But when I heard about that girl in his office, I don’t know, it just did it. Otherwise he would go on forever and nobody would ever do anything. He leaves this swath of destruction a mile wide. Finally it had to stop.”

“What got me when he lost that job was his bishop paying his mortgage. The church wouldn’t do anything to help those little step-daughters, but they paid the bastard’s mortgage!”

“That’s your sore spot, the church stuff. Me too, but especially yours, and Chris’s.”

“Yeah, Chris was about ready to shoot the stake president himself.”

“Can you believe we’re sitting here talking about shooting people like everyone always does, but I really did it? Like I’m totally free of moral imperatives now?”

“Nietzsche?” Duncan manages a small grin.

“Wow, I’m impressed.”

“That’s nice of you.”

“Touche,” I shrug.

“There’s the exit coming up. I’m getting low on cash. Do you have enough money for gas? We can’t use credit cards.”

We stop. I splash cold water on my face. I put on some [p.107]lipstick. I buy a Heath bar. This is the most candy I’ve ever eaten in twelve hours. Trick or treat.

Duncan’s in the men’s room a long time. I’m worried. When he comes out, he smiles but he looks awful.

“Next stop Barstow,” he says quietly. “I’ll drive.”