Robert Hodgson Van Wagoner (B.A., Weber State University) is the winner of the 35th Annual Utah Original Writing Competition for his novel, Dancing Naked. His fiction has appeared in The Best of Writers at Work, Carolina Quarterly, Dialogue, Metaphor, Modern Short Stories, Rough Draft, Shenandoah, and others.
Sam's caution had almost nothing to do with the Christopher boy, a child close to the age of her own son. The distant neighbor's child, Joshua Christopher, had disappeared a week earlier, abducted the police believed, and Sam, like every other parent in that community, was finding it more difficult to concentrate. She was suddenly prone to abandon little tasks half-completed, sentences half-spoken. Like a greasy film, the fact of the child's disappearance, the idea as much as the reality, clogged the pathways of Sam's days. It confirmed her fears and justified her caution—but it did not cause her preoccupation, a pattern of cautionary behavior begun five years earlier, before pregnancy, when she'd stopped smoking and drinking and sitting in hot tubs. When it came to the specifics of parenting, Sam simply started before most parents and waited longer to stop. Consider the high chair, that oak, spindle-back baby-feeder she'd seen six years earlier at the antique auction: She'd pushed the bidding much too high, an unreasonable amount to pay for any high chair, though she'd paid, knowing that the baby she would someday bear would be the only child she'd have. And consider how six years later the important thing was not what she'd paid, not how unreasonably she'd wanted that chair, but how much longer she could still squeeze Tucker, getting to be such a big boy, three almost four, into the narrow seat, his tiny hips touching both sides, knees together. A bit uncomfortable, maybe. But safe.
Like grapes halved and quartered to save choking, and a crib rather than a bed. Safe like a car-seat built in Germany and an Explorer built by Ford.
And because Sam was careful, thorough, Tucker's accident was harder to fathom; it shocked her profoundly, though she'd known in that place near the base of the skull that a bad one was inevitable. So it was: Tucker's shriek, a fine, stainless steel shriek, smithed in genuine pain, surprise. Sam felt it before she heard it, heard it the instant she pushed a loaded brush into a watercolor wash on 300 pound paper. Sam stopped tracking, film out of sync. She dropped the brush on the painting, instant puddle, and reeled toward Tucker's room. Her body caught up a little at a time though her vision lagged behind, or perhaps it was her brain that lagged, processing each scene after moving to the next. Still, in odd particulars, she was thinking, and quite clearly: "My goodness, Sam, you're moving fast." It was a deliberate thought, another voice speaking. "My goodness, you can be quick on your feet."
Elsewhere, however, there was little clarity. The other things—Tucker on the floor beside his empty crib (the crib where she'd left him an hour earlier), the body of her little boy motionless, and that big sound, such wailingmade no sense at all. She could see those things, but they were only ideas, someone else's baseless, defenseless conjecture. They fit nowhere in Sam's here and now. So she grabbed him, thinking even as her hands touched Tucker's ribs that a grab might not be the best thing, that a textbook rescue might not include such a grab. Later, after the pee and sweat and burn of adrenaline was nothing but ache, she would remember her foolishness, and the memory would send a current of what-if from shoulder to tailbone. "Things might have been worse," she would tell herself. "And much better." But for now, she would just grab, because grabbing was what her body had chosen.
"What?" Sam begged. "What did you hurt?" —though she could see it as she asked—her little boy's arm was twisted sideways and up.
She rushed him to the bathroom first and then to the kitchen. The living room last. There was nothing anywhere to help her. Tucker's lips were bluing, more air going out than coming in, his eyes were wild and rimmed with tear-magnified red. Sam had imagined a face like that, Tucker's face. Sam had seen it in the scenarios that came to her without warning, compulsions that skimmed the surface of prescience. She might be driving to the bank, a stack of cash and checks, long awaited commissions, riding on the seat beside her, and she would imagine—an urge to act, almost, as though she no longer had control over her mind and body—rolling down the window and throwing the money out. What if? She had experienced such visions since childhood. And now, with Tucker, she could scarcely believe the scenes her mind conjured: Turning a corner too fast and Tucker falling out, door flung wide, car-seat and Tucker tumbling into traffic. Backing up the Explorer without checking behind. Hot irons...boiling water...steep stairs...busy streets. What if?
Yes, losing Tucker terrified Sam, but it did not terrify her most. In those absurd, visionary moments, it was the helplessness that terrified Sam most, the thought of Tucker suffering beyond her control, beyond his own understanding. Not the controlled suffering of a hospital or the calculated suffering of discipline, but the unreasonable suffering of freak mishap, the idea of him calling her name, begging, and her too far away or too helpless to save him.
And so, Tucker's question, asked in a long, frenetic wail, and Sam's determination to give him an answer, stayed her panicked rush. She was holding Tucker out, arm's length (her arms were much stronger than usual). She was trying to protect his twisted limb. But she drew him in anyway, carefully, and pushed his face to her throat until they could both feel the pulse of her heart beating through her neck.
"Okay, Buddy," she promised. She waited: His wail fell to sobbing and his sobbing to a moaning cry. "We're all okay. Everything's going to be fine."
She laid him on the couch and gathered her keys and wallet. She touched Tucker in passing, explained what she was doing as she hurried to the Explorer where she opened the doors and started the engine. She returned and carried Tucker outside, buckled him into the passenger seat because the car-seat was too awkward. Then, knowing and not caring that she had not closed and locked the house, she ran around to the driver's door, around the back, stooping to check, to be sure there was nothing in the way. She climbed in beside Tucker and drove away…fast.
Sam caught on quickly. She answered the questions with honest statements, her demeanor rational and cooperative.
"Does the injury look that much like child abuse?" she finally asked.
The doctor looked up, startled. Sam could see herself in his eyes, this mother of this injured child who had no father—though Sam, at times, imagined the man whose sperm she'd purchased. From years of concentration, tedious assembly, she could on short notice construct Tucker's father from the atomized statistics she had so admired on paper. A hologram with living sperm. A projection she was not willing to project for this doctor. So, instead, she wondered if, to him (or to anyone else), she looked like a child abuser, her clothing covered with paint, her hair thick and clumped with drying sweat. Weathered face, raw, no makeup. Perhaps the doctor had not thought her bright enough to distill the true meaning behind his questions.
"No," he said. "Your son's injury is consistent with the explanation you gave."
Sam nodded, too tired to take offense, and brushed away an itch on her cheek using the back of her hand. Years of dirty fingers, fingers covered with paints and clays and solvents, had provided Sam a few narrowly useful habits. She tended to generalize such habits to everyday life.
"I am curious, however," the doctor said, "why the child is still in a crib? Your son's nearly four. A child that age can climb beyond wisdom. A bed just seems so much safer."
"We had an agreement," Sam said. "Until now, he never climbed out of his crib." She stared at the doctor until he nodded, bowed almost, eyes down, and went away.
Alone, finally, nothing else to do but wait for the surgeons to finish, a pin to be put in Tucker's arm, she sat down and chewed her fingers until they bled.
Sam was not married, had never married, though she had lived with a number of men. There were moments (she could count them on her fingers) when it seemed possible she had loved the men, not all of them, but one or two. At first there were older men and then there were younger men, and though they'd all appealed—for a time, anyway—none of them, not even those she'd loved, had inspired her to marry. Until Tucker came along, it was her art alone that inspired commitment and attachment and a future based upon a particular welfare. The men had been good, basically, kind and companionable. Sam was lucky with men and unlucky with relationships, those tricky unions that ultimately turned too demanding and too confining for Sam's comfort. There had been volunteers in the group, men naive enough to take on the burden of the child they learned Sam wanted. No, she'd say, but thank you very much. A man Sam did not want as a husband was not a man she wanted as the father of her child. That was the rule
though not entirely the rule...the rule as it applied to the men she knew. A man she did not know, never had to know, represented a different set of rules, altogether. Coming up hard on thirty-six, suspecting it might be now or never, she began to shop. In the doctor's office, she fingered the large folder, sheets of statistics encased in plastic, and wished the book were bigger, or better yet, that she could pick and choose, mix DNA like ingredients to a recipe: height and coloring, vocational and avocational interests, intelligence and physical wellness, personality, emotional stability. There were a few candidates, possibilities, though nothing so appealing she couldn't wait a few months in case something better came along. She left a list of desirabilities—smiling at the doctor, Sam had called it a "menu"—then waited five months for the call she began to fear might never come. It came, the new candidate wasn't perfect, but he was closer than anything she'd seen. Smart, healthy, attractive, creative. Sam's seeds were already five months older. She made an appointment and kept it.
"This is going to feel like three very bad cramps," the doctor said. She put the clamp on Sam's cervix.
"You better hurry," Sam said.
The insemination took on the first try.
Sam showed in the third month.
Now—from Tucker's conception until now—there were no live-in men, not too many dating men. This was Sam's choice for the most part, but also the natural consequence of encumbrance. It was too difficult finding baby-sitters, too stressful, thoughts of Tucker when Sam should have been concentrating on conversation or innuendo or lovemaking. It was not always so difficult, but often enough and at unpredictable times that left her hesitant to accept any invitation that excluded Tucker. She was better when the man liked children and Tucker could join them. She liked these outings, the three of them eating French fries and looking like a Republican family. But the picture left her tense and uncertain, too. Not a single one of these men was Tucker's father, though in theory any of them could have been. It was a thought she did not like, for it implied a connection that frightened her. Nature and genetics and gender conspiring to make propaganda, to seed doubts, to prophesy.
While Tucker slept, Sam watched the news and waited for her father. He would be here soon: He had come yesterday and the day before at the same time. He would arrive bearing gifts, and by the time he left, Sam would feel nervous and indebted.
Her father was an amalgamation of charisma and generosity and conceit. Sam resented his ability to elicit her adoration, an adoration much like that of a three-or five-or seven-year-old. When Sam was with her father, she was all of these ages and seldom forty years old, half a life gone. It was an old, universal joke, the regression of an adult child in the presence of a parent. And had Sam's father been an authoritarian and patronizing man, a man incapable of accepting and respecting his child's adulthood, Sam would, at least, have seen the battle-lines.
As it was, however, Sam's father was simply charismatic, generous, and conceited. He had granted Sam her independence much younger than most fathers of his generation had granted daughters their independence. His substantial wealth had, without condition, benefacted her creative aspirations, giving her the time and means to do things right. Financially, Sam had grown clear of her father: She no longer used the bottomless checking account he left in place—just in case. Her father's money would be hers someday, anyway. And Tucker's.
Sam tried to concentrate on the television. The news report she waited to see was no longer the top story, nor was it the second or third story. After a week and a half in the first five minutes, it now topped the second segment, following the first set of commercials. Three evenings earlier, the night of Tucker's surgery, it had still been second, preceded only by the biggest fire or the biggest murder or the biggest military movement of the day. Now, three days into Tucker's hospitalization, the last night he was scheduled to stay, the once preeminent Christopher story had fallen from the top, its place usurped by newer news and older commercials. To Sam it was both a travesty and a relief: A missing child so quickly slipping from society's mind…Sam hoping—oh, God, how she hoped!—she, too, might forget before long. Sam watched the news, morning and night, to measure the forgetting.
Still, the past twenty-four hours had produced a new development: A child who thought she'd seen the abduction. A brown car, maybe a station wagon, and an artist's sketch of the abductor. Sam studied the sketch—the man was blond and handsome, a little younger than Sam. Fine features. Blue eyes too kind. It was not Sam's picture, the sketch she would have drawn. This man looked too much like every man she had ever known. Or imagined knowing.
The sketch disappeared, and Mr. and Mrs. Christopher came on the screen. Sam did not know their first names. She had seen this clip before, every day, every channel. It was the parents' public plea for the return of their child. The Christophers lived a number of blocks north of Sam. She knew them by acquaintance: She had pumped gas into her car while they had pumped gas into theirs, she had shopped at the same local market, smiling and nodding to the parents of the same-aged child; she and Tucker had walked and driven past their home, seen the Christophers raking leaves or hosing their driveway. During the news clip only the mother spoke, Mrs. Christopher, and she repeated the name of the child, Joshua, in every sentence, Joshua. Mr. Christopher stood to the side, his left shoulder behind his wife's right. He held up a studio portrait of his son. Mr. Christopher was motionless, not blinking, frantic behind blank eyes. Joshua.
The segment ended but Sam continued to watch. She stared at the weatherman, thinking that a brown car, a maybe station wagon, a blue-eyed sketch of a little girl's memory was no real development at all. Joshua was no better off. All things being equal, Sam hoped Joshua was already dead. She hoped that he had died quickly, early, before he'd known what was happening.
Near the end of the weather segment (the weatherman was winding down, smiling and winking like plastic), Sam's father arrived.
"What's the weather tomorrow?" he asked, glancing at the television. He'd come in behind Sam and he carried a huge Teddy bear. Standing, the bear might have reached seven feet. "I'm playing eighteen holes tomorrow; I need good weather."
"I have no idea what tomorrow's weather is," Sam said. She pursed her lips and squinted at her father, at the bear turned sideways in his arms. The bear's feet dragged on the floor.
"I should have taught you to play golf," he said. "If I'd taught you to play golf, you'd have known tomorrow's weather." Turning, dragging the bear's feet in a compassed circle, he examined the small room. Sam watched him, knowing his next move; when he nodded, she obeyed, got out of the large recliner and pulled it a few feet farther from the bed. He put the bear in the chair—the bear was made for sitting. Like life, the soft legs hung over the edge, straight out, too much even for the large recliner. Sitting, the bear was taller than Sam.
"This is for Tucker, I assume?" she asked. It was not a stupid question.
"Unless you're not going to let him have it," her father said. "If not, then I guess it's for you." He had long ago learned to be careful and tricky when giving his grandson gifts. Because he could afford to be extravagant, Sam had made him promise that he wouldn't. He usually obeyed.
"Is it heavy?" Sam asked. "Is it going to fall down and suffocate him?" She'd already seen how easily her father, an aging man, nearly seventy years old, had handled the bear. Her question was a test, to see if she could still make fun of herself. A joke on herself.
"Light as a feather," he said. He'd spotted the joke and steered clear. He knew Sam blamed herself for Tucker's fall. He poked at the overstuffed animal. "Soft as a pillow. The boy can drag it around by himself."
Sam wagged her head and acted like she couldn't make up her mind. "You're a fart," she said. "Why the hell do you do things like this?"
"Because I'm able," he said. It was a fact, spoken evenly and on the mark, a truth of power and means and status and father-grandfatherhood. It was the way Sam had always seen her father—as a man who could and had done precisely what he'd wanted, when he'd wanted, the way he'd wanted. It was one of the reasons she adored her father. And resented him. It was why her deceased mother, her father's only wife, had adored and resented him, too. The old man smiled at his daughter and added, tactfully, "And because I can't get away with it very often."
At that moment, as if to resolve all problems, Tucker awoke. "Grampa!" he declared, though he hadn't yet seen his grandfather. The white Teddy giant loomed over Tucker. It was close and large, and Sam was startled for her son. Sam imagined waking up, thick and confused with hospital sleep, turning over and seeing the bear. A scream, at least. Wet pants, maybe. Sam didn't know whether to be relieved or concerned that Tucker hadn't been frightened.
"What about Grampa?" the grandfather asked sternly. He stepped close to the bed and looked down his nose at the child, a curmudgeon's stare.
Tucker met his grandfather's eyes without flinching. He knew this game and tried not to smile. "Grampa brought me a bear." He pointed with his good arm.
Tucker's grandfather turned and studied the bear then turned back to Tucker. "And which grandfather would that be, this grandfather you claim gave you this hideous monster?"
"Grampa Carlton," Tucker said, smiling at last. "My Grampa Carlton...the fart."
"The fart?" Grampa Carlton asked. He turned and scowled at Sam, who pulled a face and stuck out her tongue. Tucker giggled. "I see. And what makes you so certain Grampa Carlton the fart brought this fine specimen, this hideous monster?"
"Because," Tucker said. He was both humored and annoyed with the question. "Grampa Carlton's the only Grampa I got."
Grampa Carlton smiled—it was an answer worth more than a bear. It was worth an inheritance. Sam could see it in her father's face: progeny, at least one more generation bearing the Carlton name. A male heir, his own blood, an unlikely happening, impossible yet true.
"Tucker Carlton," Grampa said. "You're going to be a beauty like your mother and a genius like your grandfather."
"Yes," Sam said, looking out the window. "Or maybe he'll be a genius like his mother and a beauty like his grandfather."
Tucker had been home nearly a week, and Sam was just now beginning to remember her art. She'd skipped the groove, lost the routine. When she worked daily, the feel of a brush, the ritual of preparing paints, the smell of her studio, would set her in motion. A week and a half away from it all, however, particularly this past week and a half, had left only a mild familiarity—ideas almost created. Whatever she'd been working on before had lost her interest, or perhaps she'd spent the interest elsewhere, in some other way. Sam felt out of shape and exhausted by days of creating nothing. Days of maintaining, dismantling, securing.
During Tucker's time in the hospital, Sam had stayed with him, reading or watching TV, doodling, playing games with her son. Against the nurses' wishes, she'd spent each night in a chair beside her son's bed.
"That little Christopher boy, the missing child," she'd told the doctor, who'd interceded on behalf of the nurses. "He was the child of a neighbor." Without thinking, she'd spoken in the past tense. "He lived by my house." Sam had not been entirely satisfied with this doctor—his manner more than his work. But now as the man nodded, his eyes wandering from Sam's face to Tucker's bed, she'd felt a leveling. Before night-fall, an orderly had replaced her rocker with a large chaise recliner.
After lunch each day, while Tucker napped, Sam had driven home from the hospital to shower and change clothes. The first afternoon after Tucker's accident, the empty house had badly upset her. She'd returned intending to clean and secure for the days she would be gone, but instead had showered and changed quickly, then hurried away, leaving the house messier and little safer against burglary.
She had driven, then, directionless for a time, thinking less about Tucker and the hospital than of the house, its emptiness. If she were to lose Tucker, she'd decided, she would sell the house and move to the country where she could be alone and undisturbed. Or to the middle of a very large city where she would be surrounded by people and frantic with activity. She'd understood why widows so often moved from the homes they'd shared with their mates.
That afternoon—in what became Sam's afternoon ritual for the duration of Tucker's hospital stay—she had driven until the emptiness of her house and her loneliness for Tucker came together and drew her back to her own neighborhood, to a street close to her own. Parking at the corner, under a tree, she had sat and watched the Christopher home, never seeing a single Christopher. The house stood quiet as if Joshua's family had known—as if they had gone to the country. Gone to the city. The final day of Tucker's stay, she'd placed a small piece of pottery, a hand-thrown vase, on the Christophers' porch, flowers from her garden. She hadn't rung the doorbell.
But Tucker was home now, and since the morning of his return, Sam hadn't been back to watch the Christopher house. Rather, she'd been tearing down cribs and putting up beds, nursing little Tucker who was feeling well enough to milk full-value from his injury. Grampa Carlton, who had stopped by often since Tucker's release, inspired the boy to greater expectations. Sam couldn't compete with the old man's charm, the variety of his visits. She had no intention of competing, didn't try, though she did fix Tucker his favorite foods and switched his videos, gave him baths and took his orders. The trick was to serve penance for Tucker's injury, to absolve herself and be absolved by Tucker, while regrouping and moderating her world. Sam longed for moderation, everything out of place—Tucker and Grampa Carlton and an emergency's worth of chaos. She longed to spend silent, safe hours in her studio.
And so, eleven days after Tucker's fall from the crib, Sam returned to her studio. It was dusk, and Tucker was asleep in his new bed. Except for the displacement of the few tools Sam had used during Tucker's first days home, the studio was as she'd left it the day of the accident. The painting she had nearly finished, the abandoned wash at the bottom, lay ruined on the table. The brush was where she'd dropped it, stiff, perhaps stuck to the paper. Around it, the paint had eddied out and dried—a pattern like sandstone cliffs eroded by water. The brush and its surrounding paint divided the unfinished image, a line of demarcation between white paper and colored paper.
Sam studied the painting, wondering why she'd been interested in these particular patterns, these ideas. Beside the painting sat her palette, the paints dried and cracking. A bucket of evaporating water stagnated to the side. The water was three inches lower than it had been, a three inch stain of color, proof of a losing battle. The remaining water reminded Sam of old coffee, dark and bitter. Two expensive brushes bathed in the bucket; they were likely ruined, too.
Sam stepped back and turned on another light. She went to the French patio doors and opened them. Her studio faced north, one of the reasons she'd chosen this house, the pure north light and the large, glass doors. In fact, most of the studio's northern wall was glass; the French doors were centered in the wall. Sometimes on nice days, she would push the French doors wide and paint while Tucker played in the fenced back yard. Tucker was young and demanding; When he was awake Sam could not always get much painting done. But it was important to Sam that Tucker see her at her art. She wanted him to take it for granted.
Sam cleaned for a few minutes, dumped the old water and rinsed the brushes, put tools away, straightened. Then she returned to the painting. For a very long time, she stared at the paper and the brush and the stratified patterns of dried paint. Carefully, she removed the brush, pulling it free at the bristles where it stuck to the paper. Everywhere the brush had touched a mark remained. Had she not known what the marks were, how they had been made, she still might have guessed correctly, given her familiarity with the shape of a brush. In some places—at the handle and along the neck where the metal band held the bristles to the brush—there was no paint, only the white of clean paper. In other places—at the bristles and at shallow recesses in the sculpture of the brush—the paint had dried thick, three dimensional. Sam was strangely moved by these new patterns. They were startling and somehow important, a photographic negative, almost, of elusive and unphotographable meaning. A disharmonious feeling placed in a work that struggled to feel something else. Sam could not take her eyes from the painting. She stared at it until her peripheral vision disappeared and it became difficult to see the paper.
A sound outside, and Sam was suddenly back in her studio. She turned and looked through the open doors. The light from the studio illuminated the back yard, and as she watched, a man walked across the lawn in front of her. Sam could not see the man's face well, though she could tell he was looking in. He did not seem concerned that Sam had seen him, that Sam was so near and aware of his trespass. Without waving or nodding or announcing his intention, he continued toward the corner of Sam's yard, out of sight.
Sam's heart beat wildly, as it had the day of Tucker's fall. She could not think with such pounding in her head. Having come so far in an instant from a trance to the edge of panic—she was out of breath. She glanced into the main part of the house, through the door and into the hallway that lead to Tucker's room, then she stepped to the wall and picked up the large shears she used to cut cardboard. Still not thinking clearly, clear thinking having become largely unnecessary, she walked through the French doors and onto the patio. She stopped, brandishing the shears, and waited for her eyes to adjust.
The man was at the corner of the house, beside the large black dumpster the automated garbage truck picked up at Sam's curb on Thursdays. Sam could see him leaning into her garbage can, digging through the trash. She could see the weak beam of a flashlight glowing against the inside edge and the lid of the dumpster. The man's head was inside the can and his feet, when he reached deep, lifted from the ground.
"You better run, you bastard!" Sam screamed. She charged onto the grass, at the man. She held the shears over her head, positioned to strike.
The man fell out of the can. He got up, turned to escape, and for an instant before he scaled Sam's fence (the fence beside the gate he might more easily have used), Sam could see his face. It appeared more dazed than frightened, empty except for eyes still frantic, though not with the fear of being stabbed. She thought, perhaps, he recognized her. Shopping at the same grocery store, pumping gas side by side.
"I'm sorry!" Sam called. Joshua Christopher's father disappeared over the fence. The dumpster lid stood open like the shell of a boiled and knife-cleaned mussel: No meat in this one. No child. Sam could hear Tucker crying—her scream had startled him awake. "Oh God, I'm so sorry!"
The doctor was surprised when the insemination took on the first try. Given Sam's age—not such a young woman anymore—given the natural problems with banked sperm, she had warned Sam that it might take a number of tries. Perhaps, it would never work, not even if the sperm were fresh, deposited, spun and concentrated on the very day of insemination. To Sam, though, the fact that she was pregnant after only one try came as no surprise. She had known weeks before, at the onset of PMS; there had been something subtly different about the stretch and pull, the thinning and thickening. A single beam of clarity to cut the dull murk. It would be a cleaning out like never before, a preparation to end all preparations. When the next seed fell, she would be fertile and loamy and rich like Iowa soil.
For some time, Sam had known she was going to grow a baby, and knowing, had proceeded matter-of-factly. For a year, she had not lived with a man, for eight months she had been without oral contraception, preparing her body. She had sex only once during the eight months spanning the last pill and Tucker's conception. One time only that left her terrified and obsessing, though she'd made him wear a condom (she always required a condom), though she had inserted her diaphragm and contraceptive jelly, as always, even when taking the pill. It was not being pregnant that had terrified Sam, it was being pregnant with this man's child, any man's child. Yes, she would be pregnant, but with a no-man's child, a child with no strings attached, conceived and delivered and mothered beyond the confusion of interference and the threat of removal. The child would belong to her alone.
While waiting for the right sperm, Sam had allowed herself to nest. Strong, the nesting instinct; Sam had scoured and organized and collected, acquired. She'd bought the house and had furnished it around the child she'd not yet conceived. A process of collecting that had gradually substantiated her intentions, paving way for the uncluttering that followed. The order had been correct for Sam—collecting first until she could see what was essential, then discarding the rest, the dangerous and superfluous. She'd gotten rid of the men first, the few who still lingered about the fringes.
In the third month, Sam began to show. She'd told no one, she told no one, wore bigger clothes and made no announcements. Finally, in the fifth month her father figured it out. Since Sam had left home, her father had openly wished very few things for and from Sam's life. In general terms, he had hoped for her happiness and safety and success. Particularly, the only specific Sam could remember from her father, he had hoped for a grandchild. Not a namesake, having assumed the child or children would take the father's name—simply a grandchild from his daughter and only child. Five months into the pregnancy, when he looked at her in first recognition, Sam felt herself unfolding, unfurling with supreme generosity. Vulnerable with assumption. She was wholly unprepared.
"You're a whore!" He threw the book he was holding. Though he'd known of Sam's lovers, some of them, he'd never said anything before. There had been no previous indication, no hint that he cared enough to disapprove. It would be the first time in their lives, his and Sam's, that they would speak to each other with ungoverned cruelty. "Whose bastard is it?"
Sam sank to the floor, dropped onto her bottom, her legs folding Indian style. She bounced, almost, with the tidal movement of her womb. Her father's words filled every unbroken silence Sam had ever used to define the undefinable relationship she and her father shared. She plugged his words in and they fit. She covered her face and sobbed, feeling the compassionless nudge of hysteria. She bit her lip until the nudging stopped, and she wondered what the hell she was doing.
"I don't know whose bastard it is," she said when she could answer. "I've never seen the man. I don't even know his name."
Sam's father turned red, and the atrophied muscle in his face shook.
"What? Were you drunk? Were you stoned? Good God girl, did he blindfold you? Sneak up on you in your sleep...?"
"No," Sam said. She was still crying, but she got to her feet, hands and knees, everything heavy and off-center. She picked up her bag and rummaged until she found the pedigree, not a real pedigree of ancestors, but the statistical accounting of the traits she had selected for her child. She shoved the paper at her father. She was becoming angry. "I wasn't drunk or stoned or blindfolded. I was inseminated— fucked by a syringe! There wasn't a cock in sight!"
Mr. Carlton blinked. He opened his mouth to speak then closed it. He did not know what to say.
Sam wiped her face with the back of her hand. She glared at her father, head down, like a pugilist waiting for the next round. Then she stepped forward, grabbed the list from his hand and held it in front of his face, too close to read. "Does this guy look like anybody you know?" she demanded. But she didn't give him time to read: She stuffed the paper in her bag.
"What—?" Her father was just catching up.
"It's a boy," Sam said. She looked away from her father and in so doing missed the response she'd imagined for so long. "Tucker Carlton, your goddamned namesake."
Now, four years after the incident, Sam rarely thought of her father's words, nor of her own. Her father's rage had been the least diluted, most genuine emotion he had, to that point in their relationship, ever unveiled. She would see this later, in retrospect, and feel informed, though not much enlightened. She would feel cheated that her father had chosen to live his life secretly behind charm and generosity and ego. He'd been a man's man even to Sam, as if he couldn't make distinctions. The rage, both his and hers, had landed like fists, a stunning contact that time and insight had softened to a touch like that from the uncallused tips of Tucker's fingers, a yet more stunning contact. Almost too late, and with angry, cruel words, Sam's pregnancy had commenced an evolution: A rough and fumbling race toward connection. Somehow, Tucker's accident had allowed the old man to take the lead. He had become a presence. Too much. There were times she wished the old man would just go away.
Like now. Like lately. Come less often and stay longer, come more often and leave sooner. Tucker was changing at the hand of his grandfather, and Sam was not sure she liked what he was becoming. She was not sure she liked the tough and swagger, the games of power and implied violence. Sam was not sure she liked the way Tucker was beginning to talk, opening so many sentences, securing his position, with phrases like, "But Grampa said"
Which was why, perhaps, Sam retreated to her studio—to escape her father who had come again to play with her son. And, maybe (if she was being honest), to escape her son, whose waning convalescence and constant demand was taking its toll. Sam was exhausted; she was sleeping very little, spending her days with Tucker and her nights in the studio painting, concentrating until the strain of creating cast an aura around everything she saw. Three weeks had passed since Tucker's release from the hospital. Almost five weeks had passed since the Christopher child's disappearance. It had been two weeks since the news had last mentioned his name.
Sam opened the French doors, turned on the studio lights and began squeezing tubes of paint onto a palette. It was evening and the remaining daylight glowed blue and cool, bad for seeing color. Tucker squealed and giggled in the house; his grandfather laughed and growled and thumped from room to room. They would play until Tucker's bedtime. Sam might not like her father's intrusions, but the dislike would not keep her from using the time to her own advantage.
Time was what she needed.
Around the studio, lying on surfaces, stacked along the walls, was Sam's work of the past two weeks. A compulsive series of paintings, three, four times the amount of work produced in any other two week period of Sam's life. An astonishing quantity of work, and of a quality that frightened her. They were an idyllic, painterly lot of sympathetic, warm images—pretty, meaningless pictures Sam would have had little to do with had it not been for the missing parts. The white, vacuous holes of unpainted paper.
At first the templates Sam had used to mask the paper had been absurd like the brush, incongruent with the surrounding background: A plastic cover from an electrical outlet, a giant paper clip, the drain-cover from her shower, a fork, the paper weight from her desk. Recognizable patterns floating out of context on the surface of the landscape. Gradually, she had turned to figures, human figures. From sheets of plastic masking adhesive, she had cut the forms, small figures standing and running and sitting and moving—people in all positions and all activities. Flying kites to having sex. There were larger figures, too, whole bodies that covered most of a full sheet of watercolor paper. And portraits, heads and shoulders and torsos. The figures, the humans, she placed in context and in proportion, stuck to the paper and impervious to paint. When the painting was finished and the paper dry, the template was removed. Usually, Sam could peel it away easily, though at times the adhesive resisted, stripping away a layer of paper to leave a rough edge, as though the subject itself had vanished so quickly the air had not yet filled the space. Figured landscapes with missing figures, portraits with missing subjects, pretty pictures with the absurd intrusion of missing household implements.
Working, Sam would lose track of time and energy. She could paint for hours without knowing the beginning or the end, entranced by the continuity of this piece with the last, already filling the next paper in her mind. This evening, while her father and her son played in the house, she felt the usual downward and inward movement. A compacting of the world, walls coming together, space shrinking. Early this morning, before going to bed, she had prepared this sheet for painting. She had drawn and cut the stencils, combining (for the first time) household objects with human figures. She had drawn in the patterns and placed the stencils on the paper. Tonight's task, laying in the color, was technical work, hard work, a mechanical process refined and habituated by years of practice. A means to a much more important end. A process that distorted time.
Consequently, when Sam first noticed her father, she had no idea how long she'd been painting. He carried a long barreled gun, a clumsy, futuristic toy that shot round sponge bullets the size of golf balls. He'd arrived that evening bearing the weapons, one for him and one for Tucker, and he held his now in the attitude of war. He was sneaking through Sam's studio. Sam looked up and forced a smile. Her father put a finger to his lips and tiptoed from corner to corner, purging closets and cabinets and crawl-spaces as he went. Having secured Sam's studio, he returned to the house to continue his search. Sam returned to her painting.
It was not until the old man's third appearance, twenty-minutes later, that he finally spoke. "You didn't see Tucker go outside, did you?" He stood at the French doors surveying the dark back yard.
Sam looked up and waited for the old man's question to register. She'd heard his voice, but in her concentration, had missed the words. "What was that?" she said.
"Did Tucker go outside?" he asked. He turned and looked at Sam; he pointed the weapon through the doorway, at the back yard.
"Are you kidding?" Sam shook her head once and wondered what time it was. "Tucker doesn't go outside after dark. He knows that." She thought of Tucker's accident, her conversation with the doctor, how she'd explained the crib and the crib agreement. "He's in the house someplace."
Worried face, her father glanced at the yard and shrugged. "I can't find him," he said. "I've looked everywhere in the house."
"What do you mean you can't find him?" Sam demanded. She threw the brush in the water bucket and got down from her stool. "What were you playing? How long has he been gone?"
"We were playing war. Hide and go seek with the guns." He checked his watch. His hand was shaking. "I haven't seen him…maybe…half an hour."
"For God's sake, Dad! You haven't seen him for half an hour?" Sam could feel the dermal tingling of possibility, adrenaline surging to enumerate the options. "Tucker!" she called. She hurried into the house, opening closets and cupboards as she went. She searched each floor, every room of the house. She dismantled, looked over and under and around; she called Tucker's name, a yell that registered higher and more frantic with every room. Her father followed behind, watching Sam search. He rubbed his head and his neck under his chin and looked frightened. He was trying to stay out of Sam's way. Tucker didn't answer his mother's calls. He was nowhere she looked.
Back in her studio, Sam stood still and closed her eyes. Then she took a flashlight from the shelf and went out back. "Tucker!" she yelled. She searched the shrubbery, the window-wells, the shed. On the front lawn, she and her father met: No Tucker. The street stretched away both directions, houses and yards, the lights of the city beyond. She turned and ran back in the house, her father hurrying after her.
"Should I call the police?" her father asked.
"No," Sam said. She had begun to search the house again. She pulled bedding off beds and searched drawers too small even for Tucker. She moved furniture, looked under the couch, under the water heater, in the toilet, in the water softener. She opened the washing machine and looked inside. Opened the dryer.
Curled up on a bed of dry towels, Tucker was inside the dryer, eyes closed, his good arm wrapped around his weapon, a finger still on the trigger. At first sight, Sam thought for certain he'd stopped breathing, suffocated inside the dryer. But the small compartment was far from air-tight, and when she reached inside to grab him, his eyes opened and he instinctively pulled the trigger of his gun. Fast and true, the small soft bullet bounced off Sam's cheek and into the washroom.
"You're dead," Tucker announced.
But Sam wasn't listening. She was compressing, tensing, building to an unprecedented rage. She squeezed Tucker's little ribs until he let out a squawk. She squeezed until he screamed, "Ouch!"
"What the hell were you doing in there!" she yelled. She shook him. "You little shit—are you an idiot?" She wanted to slap his face, to throw him across the room, to pinch him until his skin bruised.
Tucker started to shriek. He kicked at Sam and thrashed about. Sam put her nose against Tucker's nose and shrieked back. The two of them shrieked at each other until they were hoarse and bawling. Sam ached to drop Tucker, but she resisted the impulse long enough for Grampa Carlton to intervene.