The orange sign flapping in the breeze doesn’t surprise me. When the building you grow up in resembles a ball of unraveling twine, it’s expected. Obvious. I stand in the driveway which is cracked and sprouting grass. The house looks worse than I remember.
And that’s pretty bad.
The porch is trying to make an escape. The gables, painted hot pink, plum and lime green teeter precariously. Piles of rusted metal and broken plastic furniture pieces lie near the lilac bushes. The window panes, what’s left of them, are opaque.
“Aunt” Claudine took in children like stray cats, nourishing us with garden vegetables and stale bread. She made sure we had clothes that fit, and most important, time to “experience creativity.” We shared things that shouldn’t be shared, like toothbrushes. But each of us was kept well-supplied with pristine pots of paints, pointed drawing tools, clay, crayons and markers. The only thing lacking was paper.
“Who needs paper? This is your home,” Aunt Claudine sang out when the newest arrival asked where he or she could find something to draw on. “Make it beautiful!”
And we did. Or at least, we tried. We painted interior walls with hieroglyphic-type images, made sculptures of broken pottery and china cups and doll heads. Once, we dyed one of the many mangy dogs’ pink. Another time we sewed tattered curtains into turbans and held court in a grove of trees. The gables had been painted shortly before I left, at age of 17, to discover myself.
I walk now behind the ramshackle building, following the overgrowth by memory. The gardens are long gone, but I remember them. Aunt Claudine insisted that they be aesthetically pleasing. Cherry tomato plants pirouetted around snarls of zucchini vines. Corn stalks, with their knife-like emerald leaves, were deposited among mounds of plump carrots and caterpillar-chewed Swiss chard. The potatoes—sweet, Russet and purple (our favorite)—always ran in tidy rows in front of the garden shed. I don’t know why it was the only well-ordered row in the entire garden.
The potatoes were fun to harvest. It was like a search for lost treasure. Under the heavy, dark soil the smooth, skin of the potato would practically glow in the humus. It was magic. One half of a potato could make a plant that would produce eight or ten or twelve whole potatoes. How did it work?
I walk back to the front of the house, inspect the Condemned sign more closely. I pull another tattered sign from my pocket, smooth it out against the sagging front step. It was once white, now pale yellow, the photo faded with age. “Missing” it screams in bold letters across the top. The photo of a small boy, aged 27 months stares back at me. I remember the first time I saw it.
I was 17 and hitchhiking across country. In my backpack was an extra set of clothes, a toothbrush, a single faded photo and a sketchbook: my essentials. I was waiting for a trucker named Oscar to finish cleaning up in one of the truck stop bathrooms. The sign, hanging on the overcrowded bulletin board, called to me. There must have been two hundred Missing posters on that board; I was drawn to that one. Drawn to that poster’s picture because it identically matched the one in my backpack.
I don’t remember much about my life up until the time the photo was taken, but I remember sitting for it. The smell of perfume (my mother’s?) a musky vanilla scent. The scratchy blue blanket that covered the photography pedestal I sat on. The photographer had a strange, squeaky voice and floppy clown that popped up above the camera. I cried the first time I saw the hat explode upward from behind the camera, terrified. A woman’s voice comforted me. I don’t remember anything else from the time before Claudine took me.
I stared at the poster in the entryway for a long time, memorizing the curve of my rounded cheek, the perfect line of tiny white teeth. I was still staring, immobilized, when Oscar emerged from the bathroom. His slap on my back jolted me to the present. I waited until he headed for the truck to snatch the poster from the board and stuff it into my pocket.
I hold it now in one hand, fish out a push pin with the other. I stab the pin through the picture and into the rotting wood of the house. Across the bottom of the poster, my hand scrawled note: “It’s me, Andy. Were you one of the others?” Below this, my cell phone number and email address.
Maybe one of the other kids will come back here, like me. Maybe we can finally piece together life before and after Claudine, why she did what she did.
Or maybe we’ll just sit and sketch.
Copyright 2017, J.P. Choquette
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