by Linda Sillitoe
[p.5]As Barbara struggled to stay calm Sunday at noon, she absently noted that the rain had glued pumpkin-colored leaves against the kitchen window. The leaves resembled her children’s grade school creations, cut from heavy paper.
That detail would remain in her memory rather than the exact words her father used when he telephoned to tell her that her younger brother, Roger, was missing. Outside the window, neighbors were still parading along the sidewalk in dressy clothes. Barbara half turned away, as if those placid souls could see the shock on her face. The vibrato in her father’s voice gnawed Barbara’s nerves. Poor Dad, she thought, always the emissary of upsetting news. Only a couple of weeks ago he’d called to tell her that her sister Caitlin had been in a bad accident but that both she and her daughter were okay. Now this. Mom must be desperate.
The stupidity of Roger disappearing did not penetrate but would seep gradually into Barbara’s awareness. She instinctively fought thinking too much about it. A missing brother did not fit the careful structure of her life, or his. Maybe that was why the orange leaves helped her through the first awful minutes.
Almost immediately as her father fell silent, Barbara began to [p.6]cope. Some mechanism within her switched on with a click, although she didn’t yet have any details about this crisis. Her hands moved faster, assembling the roast and vegetables for Sunday dinner, the telephone still on her ear. Caitlin, she knew, would dig for details before she ever thought about coping. For Caitlin, finding out what had happened was coping.
Barbara couldn’t understand that. Whenever she felt upset, she called to mind the mental photograph of her husband, Fred, leaning slightly on the podium at church and speaking clearly into the microphone. “We need not be troubled,” Fred was known for intoning humbly. “Our leaders are shaping tomorrow for us to fit our every need, and we need only shape ourselves to fit that design.”
Their congregation was filled with patient professional men like Fred—though perhaps not quite so faithful or so well-spoken—and with educated but home-loving women like Barbara, though perhaps not quite so efficient or sympathetic. Fred and Barbara fit their world like cups on hooks.
Now Barbara’s plans for the afternoon, maybe for the evening, possibly even for tomorrow, were zigzagging out of bounds. Thank goodness for Fred. When he found out, he would admire her ability to cope. He had moved into the sunless void left in her heart by her older brother Boyd’s death, becoming almost a son to her parents. He’d help now, too, that Roger was missing. What was wrong with her brothers, anyway?
She hung up and called downstairs for Stacy, then dialed Roger’s wife, Robyn. She pictured her sister-in-law—who looked more like a fifteen-year-old boy than a mother of two—rushing to the telephone, thinking it might be Roger. “Just me,” Barbara said quickly, sorry if she had raised hopes. Would Robyn and her children like to come to Barbara’s home, [p.7]or should Barbara go to hers? “Mine,” Robyn said in a voice that sounded older. The police were there.
Police. Barbara kept her mind still, but her hands sped along. Stacy was beside her now, wearing earphones, which meant she was not listening to one of the stations her parents had approved. She quickly flicked off the dial when Barbara hung up the telephone.
Barbara gave her the look that Stacy called “crusty” to let her know she wasn’t getting away with anything. Then she explained that there was a family problem—Uncle Roger was missing, nobody knew why, and Barbara needed to go over to Aunt Robyn’s and, no, this time they couldn’t come and play with their cousins. Maybe she would bring their cousins home with her. In the meantime Stacy must tend the baby and pass the word to her younger brothers.
Brushing off Stacy’s burst of questions, Barbara changed into a pale green sweater and slacks. The sun behind the shutters in her bedroom hinted she wouldn’t need her coat. She quickly combed her honey blond hair, added lipstick, checked the contents of her bag, then walked through the side door into the garage. Five years ago she had formulated daily and weekly menus that altered with the seasons and balanced both calories and nutrition with foods the family generally liked. Since then her meals fell into place more easily and her weight remained stable, despite her last pregnancy, as long as she jogged three times a week.
She started the Buick and used the electronic gadget to open the door. Naturally Roger would have to disappear on a Sunday when the neighbors were home. Even driving away before Fred got home from church would seem unusual. Where Roger and Robyn lived in Taylorsville, southwest of the city, wasn’t differ-[p.8]ent except that the homes were a bedroom and bathroom smaller. A police car out front would pose quite a spectacle.
Boyd, Barbara thought suddenly, left them on a Sunday also. She shoved aside that thought. There was nothing she needed less at this moment than the memory of that wrenching day.
Pulling out of the garage, Barbara glimpsed Stacy waving out the kitchen window. I must have alarmed her, she thought, and waved back. Despite Stacy’s small rebellions, Barbara knew she could count on her. She was a fifteen-year-old copy of herself But was that fair to Stace? Sometimes Barbara tired of her own caregiver role. Still, most often, it brought her satisfaction to organize, manage, feed, clothe, and comfort, and if her daughter followed the same path, it would bring her satisfaction, too.
One-Who-Copes, Caitlin might dub her, now that Cait was back to her Native American stories. Everything Cait did, Barbara reflected, seemed to have some impact on the whole clan. Still, she wouldn’t complain as long as her sister stayed away from crime articles. Better that Caitlin insist on their parents heading the line to the buffet table (to show respect for elders) rather than feeding the grandchildren first, as they always had, than to ruin the meal by discussing the results of exploding letters.
Someone had to cope, Barbara mused with satisfaction. The Lewis family, which had once been featured in a church film on parent and child communication, had matured along some unexpected directions. Yet Barbara still pictured her childhood the way the family had appeared in the film. As the oldest daughter, Barbara had helped her mother while Boyd backed up their father’s tasks. Since their father was more often than not at work or church, Boyd had always seemed to have plenty of time to play. Besides, boys had organized fun—sports and Boy Scouts—activities their parents supported unconditionally. There was still no acceptable explanation why he unexpectedly was found dead.
[p.9]Barbara had held that Boyd had been murdered while the rest of them were visiting relatives across town. It wasn’t a situation that anyone could discuss, either then or now. Barbara had tendered her own good example to steady the family. She had graduated from college with a teaching certificate in elementary education. Then, in a lace wedding dress she sewed herself, she had married Fred in the temple downtown. Their babies arrived at regular intervals just as Barbara and her siblings had, as cute as she could have custom-ordered. Now they were all here, six of them. As Mindy—Stacy’s bookend on the other side of a string of boys—approached her first birthday, Barbara felt her life assuming order without the disruptions of pregnancy and birth.
For years she had passed on to Caitlin many of the domestic tricks, routines, and systems she had developed. Caitlin seemed grateful for a while, particularly when she and Jake produced twins. Now, however, both Barbara’s sisters seemed preoccupied with other interests and unable to find time. Robyn was more receptive. Watching her and Roger, Barbara had often felt a sense of déja vu. That’s over, she thought wryly: she and Fred had never had police interrupt their Sunday.
Busyness provided the greatest challenge. If I can just get through this, Barbara often told herself, expecting peace and plenty to arrive not more than two weeks in the future. Now she was saying it again.
Meanwhile Caitlin, who as a child had been content to tend Roger or Marly, had let her job grow into a career. Barbara couldn’t help but disapprove. After all, her sister had a hardworking husband, the twins were only eleven, and the articles she wrote ranged from the offbeat to the downright bizarre.
For a boy, Roger had done everything right—served as a missionary, gone to college, married, then graduated in business administration. He had always been dependable. But now this. [p.10]What had her father meant, that Roger had disappeared? It sounded as if Robyn had wakened to find a puff of smoke billowing from the bathroom and Roger gone.
One could almost expect Marly to vanish, Barbara thought, but a certified public accountant? Marly, the youngest, had read her way through the public library instead of finishing college. She lived alone in a downtown apartment with no intention of setting a proper example for her ten nieces and nephews. Marly could look quite stunning, but she made no effort, donning either oversized sweaters and skirts, or sweatshirts and jeans. Barbara tried to get the family to call her Marlena, her real name, but Marly she remained. She left her reddish eyebrows unplucked. Her hair had hung down her back since childhood, carelessly gathered into a ponytail or braid that looked leftover from yesterday. And she hadn’t liked even one of the men Barbara had painstakingly lined up for her. She said they were boring. What, Barbara asked herself, could be more boring than living alone?
Barbara stopped and waited for traffic. Sunlight soaked the subdivision like a Sabbath blessing, warming roofs and windows. She tapped the horn, smiling at a neighbor who tacked a scalloped lavender posterboard onto the interstate sign. “Homemaking Meeting Tuesday!” the sign announced. What was omitted was that fathers were expected to stay home and tend children on Tuesdays.
Barbara recalled this with satisfaction, not that such policies did her any good. Fred was the bishop’s first counselor and couldn’t stay home. “I don’t know how you do it,” young mothers would tell Barbara admiringly. If they were truly interested, Barbara would explain that she and Fred had worked out a system in which Stacy cared for Mindy, Brad, who was thirteen, tended three-year-old Micah, and Jared ten, tended Joshua, six. Each child graded his or her partner on color-coded index cards, [p.11]which Fred filed by month. She and Fred knew, of course, that the system led to a certain amount of negotiation among the children since their allowances fluctuated according to their behavior reports.
Roger’s disappearance not only meant Barbara had to leave the children and let Fred come home to an unsettled house, but she wanted to spend the afternoon planning a fortieth anniversary party for her parents. The family had never celebrated these milestones since Boyd’s death had come right before their parents’ twentieth anniversary.
After Boyd died, things had been bad, with Marly hospitalized and Mother so heartbroken she could hardly speak. Neither of her parents really recovered, Barbara mused. How she missed those young, vibrant parents who had laughed so easily. She missed them even more than she missed Boyd. No wonder that for some time their anniversaries had crept by unmentioned.
Recently family life had been brighter with a grandchild appearing every couple of years, and their adventures and mishaps engaging everyone’s attention. Her parents excelled as grandparents, no longer so shadowy.
These thoughts kept Barbara’s mind occupied until she turned onto the feeder into the cul de sac. Suddenly she felt cold. Roger, she thought, what has happened to you? Are you all right? A car with a large antenna on the rear was parked at the circle. Barbara braked beside the curb and dried her clammy hands. Her parents’ car already sat behind Roger’s blue Tempo in the driveway. In her rear view mirror she saw Caitlin and Jake pulling up in Jake’s gray Jeep. Why couldn’t Fred be here when she really needed him? Underneath she realized she missed Boyd—still.
“Give me strength,” Barbara whispered to the orderly God she felt hovered near her on Sundays. She opened the car door. Doing was Barbara’s forte. She would take Robyn and her babies [p.12]home with her. She could stretch dinner easily. They could forward Robyn’s telephone, and all the children could play together while the adults kept busy, rendering silent support.
First, Caitlin would want to know who, what, when, where, why, and Barbara didn’t want to sit through her questions or even the answers. Who could know, anyway, really? Better not to speculate, just to cope. She grabbed her new winter purse off the car seat and slammed the door behind her. The noise stiffened her spine. Fred would be proud of her. Certainly she could meet Caitlin’s level gray gaze without bursting into tears.