“When a Person Goes Missing”
When my brother was a teenager and I was in grade school, he let some bullying kids from his high school convince him to skip the day and invited them over to our house. The boys refused to leave after being asked, so my brother grabbed our father’s shotgun and corralled them into the bathroom, the barrel pointed in the boys’ direction. The bathroom door now locked, my brother held the rifle, luckily, up toward the ceiling so that when his finger slipped and the mechanism went off, the bullet, with its massive force, went through the second-floor ceiling, the attic, and then out the roof of the house into the sky. How the rest of the family received the details of the incident, I can’t recall. But to travel home now is to walk beneath the hole in the ceiling stuffed with newspaper from 1978. To return is also to encounter the past lurking behind me, contorting its face so I can really feel it—its truncated force, whispering a ghost voice into my ear.
If I believed in omens, I’d say the shotgun incident was the worst of omens, literary in its foreshadowing. We can smell a hint of devastation, can’t we, a scent you can’t quite recognize upon first whiff, but you turn your nose away knowingly. Where will our characters end up? Our armed protagonist? The girl who tells the story? When I began working on this essay I wanted it to be about fate—how two black kids raised by the same working class parents could have radically different life outcomes because, as fate would have it, divergent occurrences compelled divergent paths. Bruce never went back to the high school with the bullying boys. He dropped out. It’s around this time when my parents get a call in the middle of the night that Bruce is in custody at the local precinct for being caught in a stolen car. It’s the 1970s and no charges are pressed. Boys being boys. That night, my father beats my brother mercilessly with a washing machine hose in the dank basement of our house. The chaos of a violence like that is astonishing. The cacophonous screaming. The inability for anyone to stop it. The cold pallor that hangs in the air afterward. A chasm emerged between us—me, floating off like some wandering balloon; my brother tethered tightly to a familiar story of trouble and poverty, like most of the kids in our neighborhood.
The question of fate was a fake question. It was a refusal to see how the good daughter is a part of the problem. As a kid, I was the exception, the one who would make it out of the ghetto, the one bussed out of town for school. I liked being the exception. I loved the ways people’s eyes would glimmer when I told them any little thing about my life, or when I, simply said anything aloud. “So well-spoken,” the middle class blacks would say. I basked, annoyingly, in their glow. I didn’t mind either when my brother failed because his failure meant my light shone even brighter. When Bruce is 17, already dropped out of high school, and I am 11, I’m allowed to go on ski vacations with the white families whose children I go to school with. I cannot ski, but they are patient. I don’t notice that I’m the only black face on the Vermont slopes. On the first trip, I’ve brought with me my beloved copy of Thoreau’s Walden, or Life in the Woods, not that I could understand much of it. I loved it anyway, however, for its mysteriousness, and for how its “I” stands so solidly in the wilderness.