Off the Face of the Earth
How could my mother choose a man who killed, whose past was tangled in camouflage and secrets; with an eagle tattoo on his left arm, a ball cap with an American flag, a red truck with a POW bumper sticker? Who tore me from the life I knew, moving us to Virginia, its unbearable heat, its statues of heroes from North and South and highways named in their honor; the ghosts of Vietnam, palpable and cautionary, a black wall with tens of thousands of names of the dead, the missing. The military everywhere, forts and bases: McNair, Belvoir, Meade; acres of cemeteries which held the bones of soldiers from World Wars, Korea, Vietnam; and families, here one year, transferred the next. And my new house, a shrine filled with signed photographs and medals in velvet-lined boxes, flags folded into triangles displayed in mahogany frames.
How could my mother expect me to love him, someone who had no family left, a wife who left while he was overseas, no children, a mother and father long dead, and a brother, war-wounded, drug-damaged, dead? Everything about him broadcasted loss, even the silver bracelet he wore with a friend’s name, the date of his disappearance 10-13-71, Laos. William, a helicopter gunner everyone called Wait because he was always late to the tarmac, his flight suit still unzipped, shouting Wait. Wait for me.
Who disappeared off the face of the earth.
It wasn’t love at first sight. They met at her cousin’s wedding reception in Virginia, an Army affair at the Officers Club at Fort Myer. My mother had never seen so many men in dress uniforms with such proper wives and felt completely out of place. Bo, boisterous and ruddy, made a beeline for her and never stopped talking, she said, insisting on a walk around the Tidal Basin that evening to see the just-bloomed cherry blossoms, a profusion of pink and white reflected in the water, like nothing she’d ever seen. But it was love at third sight, if such a thing exists, and two months later we ended up here; my mother Ellen with a new last name, and me, my bearings lost.
To survive, I stayed in my room and read, wrote letters to my best friend Lilly, listened to the radio and slept for hours on end. I avoided children on the block who wanted to ride bikes or go to the pool. They were too young, too ugly, too confident. There was no room for anyone else but Lilly and my memories. From first grade on we sat together at lunch, swapped sandwiches, survived occasional taunts. We were sisters, might as well have been, knowing what the other would say, doing our hair the same way, passing notes in our secret language.
Looking back, I wonder if other parents pitied my mother, a woman whose husband disappeared for reasons unknown. And me, growing up without a father in a small house with a plain exterior, no decorative plastic animals on a deep green lawn, no painted shutters and railings. No one in our neighborhood was divorced, let alone abandoned; people like us lived in the city, not on a quiet, tidy street in the suburbs. In all those years I never let myself think about how she felt, didn’t consider how lonely or sad she was, if she’d prefer a different life. I didn’t want to know how much money she made, how much she saved for us. As long as she was there when I woke up and when I fell asleep, and the hours in between, I needed nothing more.
I felt safe when I slept in her bed and never imagined she would relinquish our intimacy to a man she loved and expected me to love. She got married and caused me to divorce my best and only friend.
Mid-June; my mother was consumed with decorations, paint colors, tasteful furniture comfortable and big enough for Bo. I left my things in boxes, intending to sort out books and clothes when I was ready, amused that it looked like I was moving out, not in.
When I asked my mother what Bo did during the day she said he spent hours at the VFW, talking with other veterans, men who were never the same after coming home. He felt an obligation, she said, to his fellow soldiers who never got credit for their service and sacrifice. At that point I wasn’t impressed, knowing little about the war’s collateral damage and little about Bo’s character. He also spent time on a buddy’s boat in the Chesapeake and came home smelling of sunburn, beer and sweat and brought us bluefish which, horrifically in my opinion, were whacked with a bat and then gutted.
Sometimes I saw him in the garden, planting tomatoes, zucchini, lettuce and herbs, and on the side of the house, gladioli and hostas. Having lived alone for so long, he was used to shopping for groceries and grilling; I could tell that my mother was relieved and grateful, not knowing the proper aisles for rice and syrup, and never having grilled in her entire life.
To this day, June and July are defined by the smell of burgers and corn roasted in foil, charcoal and lighter fluid.
Sooner or later I knew my mother would tell me to spend time with Bo. Get to know him, let him get to know you. The thought of hours with a virtual stranger triggered my active imagination, fed by crime stories which predicted a terrible end; chopped up and left in the woods, a sullen twelve-year-old whose body wouldn’t be found for decades. I’d never been alone with any man; my world had been populated with girls and women who knew how periods felt, who cried at movies, knew how to braid hair.
My first outing was a trip to the Meadows Farms nursery. I was short and light and needed a boost into his truck; and Bo lifted me under my arms and deposited me onto the hot vinyl seat. During the ride I sized him up: his disregard for seat belts, the littered floor, his country music tapes, singers whose names I’d later learn: George Jones, Tammy Wynette, Johnny Cash.
I’d never seen anything like the nursery, rows of trees with roots bundled in burlap, wheelbarrows, paving stones. Bo laughed when he caught me holding my nose, the smell of fertilizer and manure which overpowers even to this day. He bought four rose bushes, offered to show me how to plant them, how to dig, prune and till, things I saw as men’s work.
His size, voice, manner irritated me; I tried to ignore him when he called me Jilly Willy, Jilly Nilly, Jilly Dilly. As we drove home, I saw the reflection of his freckled arm in the side mirror, his reddish-blond hair, his shiny bracelet. The hot air blew against my face; I held my arm out my window, unafraid of losing it to a passing truck.
In the driveway, I peeled myself off the sweaty vinyl seat; Bo laughed, “Sounded like a fart, Jilly Vanilly,” and I ran inside, humiliated.
My mother caused me irreparable harm; I pouted, cultivated an air of disdain. She saw through me, ignored my snit and took me to Ocean City, our first trip as a family. I saw Bo in his large swimming trunks, his arms and legs covered in reddish-blond hair; and I complained that the ocean was not as nice as Jones Beach, the boardwalk was tacky, the salt-water taffy was just okay. In the motel, I was happy to share a bed with my mother again, hugging and tickling, but it was strange to hear Bo snoring in the other bed.
I couldn’t resist peeling my sunburned shoulders, uncovering patches of pig-pink skin. “Isn’t that fun?” he asked, teasing instead of chiding, denying me the pleasure of ticking him off.
Boredom was oppressive, and I was restless, at loose ends. I hadn’t changed my opinion of Bo, and my mother was a pain with the honey this and honey that; I had to bolt. Unlike Long Island, which was full of scrub pines and sand, the trees in Virginia were varied and beautiful. I decided to make the nearby woods a summer home, my cocoon.
I spent solitary hours watching spangled light, taking in the smell of wet leaves, moldering trees covered in lichen and mushrooms, and the sound of owls and scampering squirrels; I felt untethered, became a different, capable Jill. I was good with a compass, slowly learning to recognize oaks and elms, hickory and sedge, to differentiate deciduous from evergreen.
One afternoon I came home late, my legs scratched from a vine’s thorns; I had put spit on the wounds, which I knew animals did to heal, but they still bled. Bo turned away from the television, winked, said, “Welcome home wounded soldier.”
A few days later I took a different path, went north instead of east. By chance my world was altered: that morning the woods became the keeper of secrets, my accomplice; when I found her, the girl beneath the oak, what was left of her, a girl I guessed was close to my age.
A sneaker lay a few yards away, faded by time and weather, and a once-pink backpack. To see if there was anything more, I carefully moved a pile of leaves which hid the roots of a shady tree, feeling like an archeologist uncovering a treasure. Under the pile was a wet layer that I peeled away; worms, centipedes and fat white bugs crawled away from decomposed leaf litter. There was a set of small bones oddly arranged, a skull facing up, an arm bent at the elbow and several ribs through which a skinny sapling grew. I was sure she was about my size, that her sneaker would fit; I so wanted to measure myself against her, but the gnarled tree roots made it impossible. Who was she, how did she die, where was the rest of her?
I’d seen a living thing decay only once: a deer by the side of the road over several days went from repose, to awful bloat, to a crow-picked set of bones. I refused to think that the girl went through the same cycle; to me, she was simply alive, then gone. I imagined her life, named her Sadie, wove a story about her death: she was lost, late for supper, fell, she was not found. Then I realized it could be me.
In late August, Wait came home.
His remains were found by a boy in Laos in a village so tiny it was impossible to find on a map. He was flown home, buried in Arlington on a humid morning. A twenty-one-gun salute, jets flying in the Missing Man formation, a single plane straying from the rest; the military rituals of grief.
Just a few bones were enough to identify him: teeth matched to old dental records, a broken shinbone matched up with a childhood X-ray. I wondered how they were arranged in his normal- sized coffin and whether his wife, who refused to remarry, saw them before the burial. We returned to her house for a small reception, and I found it strange to see red, white and blue balloons tied to chairs, a WELCOME HOME banner tacked to the wall. My mother didn’t leave Bo’s side as they mingled with guests, and I felt utterly alone. Emotions overwhelmed me; I couldn’t fathom or shepherd them.
I knew little about Wait apart from his name on a silver bracelet and the story of his remains and couldn’t mourn him like others did. But I wanted to assign my restless, self-conscious sadness to something, someone.
I saw Bo still in uniform sitting alone on a backyard bench, bent forward, his shoulders heaving; I realized that my sadness was for him. For the first time in my life, I saw grief up close, and it hurt my heart to see a man so big, so tough, succumb to it.
I visited Sadie regularly before school began; she was my friend, secret, entirely mine. I knew it was creepy to spend time with a dead girl, a skeleton; how queer to bring her a blanket, leave a note saying I’d see her in the spring.
School started, and I was glad not to be the only new kid; there were military brats who were bound by their experiences of moving every few years, the absence of fathers for long periods of time. They had a bond among themselves; I was on the outside, knew none of the lingo, which branch was which, ranks and missions.
At that time I didn’t appreciate Bo’s accomplishments, his courage. If I had, I’d know that he outshone these fathers, many of whom were career military with a clear path; not drafted, not forced to fight a war few supported, with orders to strafe villages and devastate the landscape with chemicals and fire. He was an eighteen-year-old boy from an average family who didn’t ask to go to Vietnam. He didn’t run, showed up with the belief that our country was right, that his actions, however brutal, were not noble, but necessary.
Bo commanded a Huey helicopter armed with an M-60 machine gun which could fire over five hundred bullets in quick succession. I know he saw terrible things: soldiers and villagers his crew killed all in a day’s work; dead bodies in rice paddies, floating in the river, strewn across a field still clutching their weapons. Women, children and the old. Even as an adult, I never asked about the war; though curious, I respected his reticence.
He was not awarded medals for killing, but for saving lives at his own peril; he rescued three wounded soldiers, dragging them across an open field to the helicopter while under fire.
And Wait, the door gunner on another Huey, flew into Laos; his helicopter was brought down in a barrage of bullets, its rotor demolished. It fell to earth, and Wait disappeared into the tangled, unforgiving jungle.
In the end it didn’t matter if I could relate to the other kids; no one else knew a pilot who disappeared off the face of the earth and came home to Virginia.
Bo packed my lunch each day in a paper bag, JILL written in black marker, a sandwich wrapped tight in wax paper, neat as sheets on a soldier’s bed. Everything was in order: coats in the closet, shoes by the door, my backpack on the kitchen table, staving off even the slightest hint of chaos.
I began to see why my mother loved him. He pulled her chair out, held the door, called her Sweetie, hugged her like a bear. And did the same for me, except the hugs, except for Sweetie. I was Little Tick, a pest. My feelings confused me; once he leaned over my shoulder to cut my steak, and I felt the reddish-blond hair on his arm brush my cheek; the soap he used suddenly smelled good; I liked when he mussed up my hair. Before I cringed if he touched me; and then I didn’t.
During “Profession Week,” we had to talk about our future dream jobs. Speaking for five minutes and listening to inane presentations about chefs, astronauts, police officers was hell. My mother gave me a boost of confidence, but nothing allayed my apprehension.
Since Wait’s return, I had delved into the issue of MIAs and POWs.
Stories about Prisoners of War, torture, conditions in prisons like the Hanoi Hilton enlightened and saddened me.
I didn’t know a title, so I described myself instead as Someone Who Solved The Mystery of Human Bones. Explaining that my interest was generated by Wait, I described how soldiers were captured or went missing, the long wait for families to get word. Halfway through, I began to feel awkward and incoherent, felt a wave of nausea but went on, launching into a hypothetical: someone finds what’s left of a soldier after decomposition, after maggots and animals have eaten his flesh. All that’s left is a set of bones called remains.
I held up three chicken bones, a rib bone, a leg and a wing, explained that the human version of these might be the only things left. The bones would be matched up to a soldier’s medical records, X-rays of a childhood broken bone, a set of fillings. I told my class that their bones and teeth might hold the key to their identity if they were murdered and not found for a long time.
I remember utter silence as I returned to my desk, feeling a combination of relief and trepidation.
My mother and Bo were asked to meet with the principal after Mrs. Rodriguez claimed that my presentation gave her son nightmares. I sat outside the office and heard everything; they were urged to keep eye on me, make sure I didn’t have access to inappropriate information. Immediately Bo raised his voice and said that I was an extremely intelligent girl, and under no circumstances would he suppress my curiosity. The principal called me special, which I learned later was often a euphemism for a number of disabilities. I wasn’t scared of punishment, just discouraged; I would always be the weird girl, always an outsider.
On the way home my mother said nothing, fidgeting with her purse which Bo dubbed the Grand Canyon, so deep she could never find tissues or a pen or keys. He said nothing either; but when we got home, he whispered Tick, Wait would be proud of you.
The sound and smell of burning wood, turnips and mince pie astounded my senses that day, our first Thanksgiving together. The house was filled with people, friends of Bo, couples and children, neighbors. With admiration, I watched Bo stuff three turkeys, make gravy without lumps, whip potatoes, stopping for a beer or two. I was overwhelmed: the sound of clinking silverware and glasses, each conversation carried out in a different pitch, names I could not remember, and feeling anchorless while my mother and Bo talked to adults at the table’s other end. I was uncomfortable when a neighbor suggested we say grace, a blessing with phrases foreign to me, “fellowship” and “physical appetites,” Baptist Grace, another Southern custom I didn’t understand or appreciate.
I remember hearing the every-Thanksgiving Lions-Cowboys game in the background as Bo told the gals, a phrase I still dislike, to relax over coffee and pie. I fell asleep on the couch next to my mother, safe and full. And ready for the start of hunting season.
I’d known Bo for less than six months, and although we did things as family, a Redskins game, a trip to Skyline Drive to see the leaves at their peak, the movies and museums in Washington, D.C., hunting was different. It was just me and him alone for an entire day.
I never agreed outright to go, but Bo knew I would. Over the months I grew intrigued and wanted to do something girls didn’t usually do. Not to kill, but to immerse myself in the aspects of autumn’s terrain and see the world at 4 a.m. My mother gave me orders in her habitually anxious way: sleep on the way, don’t lose your gloves or hat, stay close to Bo; and she knelt down to zip my jacket all the way to my chin like I was off to Antarctica.
I remember the freezing truck, some too-hot chocolate and a powdered Entenmann’s donut in a box Bo hid from my mother. We listened to early morning radio as he drove in pitch dark, Casey Kasem or some other year-end countdown show. Bo gave me a hard time about popular songs, told me nothing compared to the Stones, the Doors, Hendrix, assuming I didn’t know or like them; then Willie Nelson’s Always on My Mind came on, and Bo said, “This is real music.” I remember feeling cheated; he seemed to disappear into the song. He knew the words, sang with emotion; it was for someone else, not a never-kissed twelve-year-old. I was unable to get my bearings; where was the unsentimental rough man I knew, the one sitting next to me in a warm truck in the night’s last light, who was with me and no one else, who held my life in his hands?
The dark, the monotonous sounds of the road and radio, too hot from my heavy jacket, I fell asleep and woke leaning on Bo’s shoulder like my mother did; and he said “Wake up Little Tick,” not Sleeping Beauty, the words he said to her. He’d parked on the side of the road, and the tick-tick of blinkers, the bright overhead light jarred me. Bo leaned over and opened the glove compartment, unconcerned about the avalanche of papers, plastic spoons, McDonald’s napkins and several maps falling to the floor; then slammed it shut, flung open the driver’s door, stood next to the car. He patted down every pocket of his ridiculous camouflage jacket and pants more then once, checked every inside pocket, looked under the front seat and fumed, opened my door without explanation, yelled “Jesus H. Christ!” Then I knew that he’d forgotten the permit.
My world went red; he’d betrayed me. I relied on Bo, his competence and sense of order gave me the kind of security I never had with my mother; I felt foolish, my eagerness and high expectations for the day embarrassed me.
Over the years I’ve lived with the aftereffects of impulsivity—bad haircuts, a terrible dress, falling in love too fast—and cringe when I remember what I did next: disengaged the keys and threw them out the window into the dark brush. It never occurred to me that I was now Bo’s hostage. I wanted him to spend time in the cold searching for the key, to be at my mercy; but for every minute he spent in the bushes, I sat shivering in the unheated truck. Everything had gone to shit.
A few minutes passed before he reappeared; “You are an evil child and you are going to Hell”; then he showed me the spare key kept in a small magnetized box under the truck. “If I survived the Viet Cong, I can certainly survive you, Little Tick.”
I moved close to the window, not wanting to see Bo’s face. There was no traffic, no radio, just the sound of his breathing, and my own breath; and I was sure he could hear my angry heart, over which I had no control.
After some time it came out of nowhere, a diner, letters spelled out in red neon; I still remember it, incongruous, magical. And how I felt when Bo said he’d buy me pancakes as a consolation prize; I was relieved he broke the ice but still furious. His jocular order to get my skinny ass out of the truck grated on me, as did his exaggerated request for forgiveness.
It was like every diner on television: jukeboxes at each table, counter seats that spun around, and Darlene, a large waitress with an apron and white nurse shoes. She gave me a hug, my face against her ample breasts, and smiled at Bo; I wondered if she thought it strange to see a man alone with a kid at this time in the morning. I considered telling her that I had been kidnapped, Bo’s payback.
He ate like a man facing execution, I thought: eggs, bacon, sausage, grits. He gave me a quarter to play three songs; I flipped through the metal pages, making as much noise as I could, until Bo threatened to play, A Boy Named Sue and The Chipmunk Song. I moved to another table, settled on Hey Jude, Love’s Been a Little Bit Hard On Me and the third, that Willie Nelson song. I regretted my choice immediately; Bo would think I was currying favor, forgave his trespass. In truth, I wanted to show him I was mature enough to understand the lyrics, the emotion in Willie Nelson’s voice, that it wasn’t just his song.
Walking toward the truck, Bo punched my arm lightly, said good choice and that he’d decided to keep me after all.
How disappointing to see the sun at 6:30, the elation of driving in the dark gone. Bo suggested we kill a Christmas tree, have something to show for this botched hunting trip. It was the first time I had a house big enough for a real tree, so tall I’d need a ladder to put the angel on top. We trudged through a field of fir trees which Bo said belonged to no one, and I watched him hack through the tough trunk, grunting with each swing, and it hit me: what if he had a heart attack and died here, in this isolated place, what would I do? I would be fatherless again.
In lieu of a deer, we put the fir in the back of his truck and drove home in mid-morning light, passing a hunter with a buck strapped to his roof. Bo said it was disrespectful to parade any creature after the soul left the body; I knew he meant the war too, how the dead were left ravaged, undignified.
My mother squealed when she saw the tree, was glad to see I survived, and thanked Bo for the magnificent fir, “And oh,” she said, “here’s the license you forgot, I felt so bad”; and I knew they’d cooked it up, the plan to shield me from hunting’s horror. I didn’t respond. I wasn’t mad about missing the kill, just disappointed there were no bones for my collection.
By Christmastime I’d made some friends, had good grades, missed my old life less and less. I grew used to Bo, glad he helped my mother with making fires, hanging outdoor lights and decorating the tree. The smell of cookies, the tree, the sound of snow shovels on concrete, crackling logs; my first Noel, the happiest of my life.
There was no hole where a father should be, no need for my mother’s false cheerfulness. It was icy cold, unusual for Virginia; I vividly remember the smell of coffee and cinnamon buns, the tree and its small white lights, my mother in her pink bathrobe, me in plaid pajamas, Bo in his sweatpants and an ugly Rudolf sweater.
I received practical gifts: a subscription to National Geographic, Birds of the Mid-Atlantic, and from Bo, a Swiss Army knife; and my mother’s gifts, sweaters and jeans. And mine for them, coffee mugs, Bo’s with the American flag, my mother’s, white with her initial. Of course there were pictures: my mother and me, Bo and me, three of us waiting for the timer with our patient smiles. I remember sinking into a post-present stupor when my mother said, “There’s one more present for you,” and she handed me an unwrapped shoebox which held a black kitten, astoundingly beautiful, its tiny mew, sharp temporary milk teeth called deciduous like trees that lose leaves each year.
My mother suggested dumb names, Midnight, Kit-Cat, Ebony. “He’s Mao,” I said. “Meow?” my mother asked. I spelled M-A-O. I could tell she was confused, and I repeated M-A-O. Bo looked at me with a serious face and said “Jill, the Chinese eat cats, you know,” and shook his head.
The winter gave way to an early spring: as if earth itself had melted, mud and squish, earthworms wiggling in their burrows. The cyclical wait for buds: forsythia, purple crocus enfolding orange saffron, Virginia’s magnolias. The occasional honk of returning geese, and the sun’s new angle. Spring amazed me, how birds know where to lay their eggs and nurture fledglings, how the males and females summon each other with exclusive calls.
But March nights were still cold, and we had fires, continued to wear our heavy jackets, closed windows tight. I loved Saturday nights when Bo bought pizzas and Pepsi and we’d watch TV. My mother had an annoying habit of talking through programs, sharing her thoughts on commercials and plot twists, especially while we watched Still Missing. Despite Bo’s shushing, she commented on every cold case, criticized the original investigation. One particular night, an episode concerned a little girl from Maryland who had disappeared four years earlier: Monique, with two puffy pigtails, two grieving parents who knew nothing about their daughter’s fate. “Monique is a good girl, who would want to harm her?” They begged the public to help find her, hopefully alive, even though so much time had passed.
Rarely is there a happy ending. Most cases stay cold, sometimes forever; boxes of documents and photographs lay unopened for decades. Tip lines, pleas for information usually produce nothing, maybe a few useless leads, phone calls from weirdoes and psychics. Little Monique had faded from public memory.
Every night before bed I kissed my mother’s cheek, heard Bo say “Goodnight Little Tick,” and nestled under my quilt, Mao at the end of my bed. Usually I played games in my head, listing states and capitals, names of characters in books and movies, and fell quickly to sleep. But that night, no game, no warm covers helped, not with the tragic world right outside my door, and my role in it.
Early next morning Bo ordered me to put rain boots on, bring gloves; the ground was covered in layers of wet leaves and winter-fallen branches and twigs, rotting trees and stumps. The menacing woods were not my summer refuge; they were a place of decay.
Intimidated by Bo’s looming presence behind me, I was afraid of losing my way, but my instincts were right, and I led him through the intricacies of my established route: the almost-melted brook, a boscage of trees with conspicuous lichen. I remember that his heavy breath and my loud anxious heart accompanied our slog; what took me twenty minutes in the summer seemed to take hours that day.
I remember the overwhelming wish to run, deny my own existence, die. I had done a terrible, terrible thing. As I got closer to Sadie my heart sank, and when we arrived, I felt no relief, no sadness, no guilt, just cold terror.
The high pile of leaves, the tattered DO NOT DISTURB sign I’d tucked between branches, and the sad, thin tree which grew straight through her ribs were still there. Bo knelt down, his big hands undoing my late summer’s work; gently, different from digging, planting, hammering. He directed me to help, and I did, moved the leaves, which covered the soggy blanket I’d brought, her backpack and sneaker where I’d found them.
Most of that afternoon was a blur except for some things: Bo’s silence when we uncovered the bones, him sketching their arrangement, making note of longitude and latitude and tying yellow ribbons on the surrounding trees, not as a sign of remembrance, but as markers for those coming after we left to take Monique home, the real girl I never imagined was black.
I look back; I’m in a grey haze, just me and Sadie in an intimate limbo. It turns real; we are three, Bo, Monique and I, for a brief time in a place of leaves, where she was thrown away, where I was called, where Bo, like the boy in Laos, knelt next to the bones of someone whose soul was long gone.
I became aware of my body, my breath and heart again, and the weight of the physical world; anticipated anger, reproach, and feared the ruin of my hard-won connection with Bo.
The echo of our silence was loud, and the woods grew shiver-cold. Bo called me over and sat me on his lap facing him; then opened his hunting jacket, scooched me close to his chest and zipped it halfway up. He rocked me back and forth, as if I were a baby; but the gesture didn’t conjure up emotions from my infancy; it was new, the first and only time I was close enough to hear a man’s heartbeat; collaborating atria and ventricles, the full and empty chambers; mine, little still like Monique’s which was lifted from its bony cage; Bo’s, the size of his fist, and loud.
Bo said “Time to go, Little Tick.” All the way home he carried me, my legs wrapped around his waist, my head on his chest in the cocoon he made for me; wracked with guilt, utterly bereft, I sobbed and couldn’t stop, My nose ran on his flannel shirt, already wet with tears; trembling, I couldn’t catch my breath, couldn’t speak. Eventually I wore myself out, then succumbed to a kind of insensible sleep; I don’t remember for how long, but do remember a sudden swell; “I love you Daddy,” and he squeezed me tight. “I’ve loved you since day one, Tick.”
This is what I remember once home: my mother held me, kissed my neck, washed my hair with strawberry shampoo, and I slept for a whole day, waking Sunday night for dinner. I felt like Dorothy returned from Oz, but unlike her, I said little. Whenever I was quiet, my mother tried to fill the space with light conversation, hoping to draw me out; but Bo knew when silence was imperative. In the following days we talked, my mother and I, about Sadie, secrets and loneliness, and she choked up when we talked about Bo, how far I’d come in loving him. I went to school as usual, did my homework at the kitchen table, dried dishes as if nothing had changed, knowing everything had. Eventually Bo told me what happened afterwards: police recovered the bones, identified the remains, returned them to Monique’s family for burial. I never knew if the cold case show mentioned her return, or if Bo ever met with her parents to explain what I’d done. For years I carried deep guilt for Bo’s sacrifice on my behalf. He submitted to police interrogations, gave sworn statements willingly, relieved me of responsibility. For which I am forever grateful.
My thirteenth birthday came in early April after the formal start of spring, I’ve kept photographs in the pink album my mother gave me, and when I look at them I laugh, me in a dumb party hat making devil horns over Bo’s head, my mother holding up a chocolate cake as I lean in to blow candles out.
There were presents, a new bike, a Walkman; and another I found on my dresser before bedtime. A small box and a note.
Happy Birthday Big Tick (Totally Impressive Charming Kid)
Here is a little prayer I said every time before I flew.
Dear Lord, be good to me. The sky is so vast and my plane is so small.
Say it when life gets hard.
You are the bravest person I have ever known.
P.S. I didn’t know what kind of necklace to buy, so this will have to do, but it is non-returnable.
Type A POSITIVE
His dog tags were lighter than I imagined. I ran my fingers over raised letters, which gave the barest facts. When I read Bo’s blood type and religion, I saw him in a starkly different way; the gruff man who took up so much space, who burped at the supper table, sweat through his patriotic tee-shirts; those facts were immaterial.
He was a soldier who might need blood, a priest’s blessing, whose body might come back mangled, his mind gone; or as a set of remains. It made my heart ache, knowing how much this man, my father, was willing to give; how much he already gave, how much more he’d give if I ever asked.