High LonesomeStories 1966-2006
By Joyce Carol Oates
His father had said this. His father had spoken flatly, without an air of mystery or threat. It was not a statement to be challenged and it was not a statement to be explained. Later, when his father had vanished out of his life, he would summon back the words as a kind of explanation and in anxious moments he would mis-hear the words as There are places in the world where people can vanish.
Still later, when he had not seen his father in a long time, or what seemed to him a long time, months, or maybe just weeks, he would try to summon the words again, exactly as his father had uttered them, but by this time he'd become uncertain, anxious. Where people can vanish, or where people vanish?
Yet not his name but his surname was the issue. For his surname had been so disgraced there had come to be a fascination in its forbidden sound. The elided consonants and vowels, the lift of its final syllable, an expression of (possibly mocking) surprise like an arched eyebrow. In private, in his secret places, he spoke the forbidden name aloud in mimicry of newscasters who gave to it an air of intrigue and reproach. Sometimes in his bed at night in his new room in his grandparents' house he pressed his face deeply into the pillow and spoke the forbidden name, each syllable equally and defiantly stressed - Szaara. He spoke the name until his breath ran out and his lungs ached and through his body raced a half-pleasurable panic that he would smother.
A pillow. Where his mouth was, wet with saliva. Where his teeth gnawed. A pillow is a comforting thing when your head rests on it, but if a pillow is pressed against your face, if you are lying on your back and a pillow is pressed against your face, you could not summon the strength to push it away and save yourself.
Before even the impeachment hearings his mother had filed for divorce from their father. But before even she'd filed for divorce she'd moved them - Emily, Philip, herself - into her parents' big stone house overlooking the Hudson River at Nyack, New York.
Now it was a drive of several hours to the old house in Trenton, overlooking the Delaware River. On the map, it was really not very far but there was an air of distance and finality in his mother's frequently repeated words: "Out of state."
Private day schools. Nyack Academy for Emily, who was fifteen and in her second year of high school, Edgerstoune School for Philip, who would be thirteen in August, and would enter eighth grade. In New Jersey both children had gone to the Pennington Academy, in a northern Trenton suburb. Sometimes their mother drove them to school, sometimes one of their father's assistants. There was a private bus provided by the school, of the identical bright-pumpkin hue of public school buses but only one-third the size. Riding on this bus, they'd never sat together and acknowledged each other only politely, with diffident smiles.
For a few weeks during the impeachment hearings they'd continued to attend the Pennington Academy, but when criminal charges were brought against their father and the impeachment hearings ceased, their mother had removed them from school.
For this wasn't a "new" new name, of course. It was their Nyack grandparents' name which they'd long known and with which they had, their mother insisted, only happy associations. Their mother would take up again her old, "maiden" name with relief. During the sixteen years of her marriage to the New Jersey politician Roy Szaara she had retained Hudgkins as her middle name, she'd continued to be known by certain of her women friends, with whom she'd gone to Bryn Mawr, as Miriam Hudgkins. And so: "It isn't a great change. It's more like coming back home." She smiled bravely. She smiled defiantly. She had had her hair cut and restyled and she had a new way of clasping, at waist level, her shaky left hand in her more forceful right hand, as a practiced tennis player might clasp a racket.
You might have thought that "Spider Boy" was in playful reference to the comic strip/movie superhero "-Spider-man" but in fact Philip had no interest in Spider-man as he had no interest in the comics, action films and video games that so captivated other boys.
It was a way of evoking the haunting and powerful presence that existed now entirely in memory. Except for a single memento (smelly, ugly, of a clumsy size and in no way to be mistaken for something of Philip's own) kept in a secret place in his room, Philip might begin to consider whether Spider Boy had ever existed. For he understood He has vanished without having needed to be told.