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May 16, 2011

Dear Josh,
I hope my “care package” finds you well. Wish I could say it left me that way. Who knew
FedEx delivered Pandora’s boxes, right? I’m sure you must be looking over the edge of my
letter, staring down at the unstable innards bound in an oversized leather briefcase, sealed with
duct tape and cradled by packing peanuts, wondering, “What the fuck did Dan send me?” It’s a
beast. Trust me, I know. Probably dislocated your FedEx guy’s lower lumbago. Lift with your
legs.
When I first found all this, my mother had already been missing for close to a year. I’m
not sure if I took possession of her report or it me.
Things were always that way with Hilary.
“Why in Hell did Dan send me…?” I know. I know. I didn’t really have many options.
And honestly, you’re the only guy I know who might actually be able to help. Who am I to ask a
favor, right? We bump into each other up at Brown last spring; before then we only hung out
after a handful of run-ins around the city in the years since college. I don’t know man, I hope
your heart is still big and your tolerance for bullshit still miniscule.
All I’m asking is that you take a look, and if you believe me – no – if you just think there’s
something here, help me drag this behemoth out into the light. Just look inside, please. No
promises necessary. Take a glance and see if it grabs you. It got me with the first line I happened
upon:
“It was the second time he had broken the basement.”
Who the hell breaks a basement? Twice? I stumbled upon the thing while cleaning up my
mother’s past and sifting through the jigsaw of skeletons in the back of a closet, ten fathoms
deep. When I read that line, I knew. This was it, my cipher. This would help put the pieces
together and give me more closure than a closet could ever contain. I was sure that somehow this
aberrant phrase about a broken basement was the tip of the iceberg, just sharp enough to crack
open the case and let me peer inside—and find my mother.
I didn’t tell you any of this that afternoon we ran into each other up at Brown, cause,
well, how do you just unload something like this on someone? Plus, back then I was channeling
through my own river of shit, locked in with my tunneling tunnel vision. And honestly, the last
thing I wanted to do was explain to anyone how my mother had vanished. I didn’t want to
explain anything about her at all. It never went well. The last time I tried, I was 14 and got sent
to boarding school as a result. I mean sure, it stopped me from crawling into bed with my mother
every night, but it didn’t bring my dad back from the dead. That looks weird as I write it. It
wasn’t at the time. It was the only way I could cope. What do I know? I nursed till I was 3.
Psychologists’ kids are always fucked up.
Did I mention yet that I miss her?
I’d always been scared about losing my parents. What kid isn’t? I just went a little above
and beyond. I had nightmares. Not your run of the mill, wake up a little scared, turn on a
nightlight, and go back to sleep nightmares. No. I had slam awake, screaming, drenched in a cold
sweat, shiver in fear for the next three hours nightmares. And they started galloping through my
head at a very young age.
Maybe I was having premonitions about my dad’s death. He was an artist, or wished he
were: an artist dressed in lawyer’s clothing. My earliest memories are of him wearing stained

painter pants and a t-shirt blotched with color. Whenever inspired, he would sneak off to his art
studio on O Street to “keep the paint from drying out.” Maybe he should have let it go. Maybe it
was the paint that killed him. All the carcinogens and lead and mercury and sarin gas and who
the hell knows what else. Maybe that’s what gave him non-smoking lung cancer. Twin tumors
blossomed in each lung, replicating to their hearts’ content and my father’s demise. They told
him to stop eating artificial sweetner and instead to spike his coffee with massive doses of chemo
cocktails, but those cells wouldn’t stop splitting. It took only four months from diagnosis to
demise. That’s the velocity of death.
I was thirteen.
But you know all this. And I know all about your year of death and the whole high school
classmate killed by lightning thing. I’ve learned something new though since our tête-à-têtes
from sophomore year. I’ve learned about the abeyent hell that is the lack of death.
Legally speaking, the courts don’t consider someone dead until seven years after filing a missing
person’s report. Dead in absentia. My mom’s only two years in. Well, two years plus however
long it took me to realize she was gone in the first place.
It had been at least a month since the last time we had talked. (According to the police
investigation, my phone records stipulate it had actually been 38 days since my mom and I had
talked.) Some small talk, some work talk (me, not her, she rarely talked about her work), a little
dancing around romantic relationships talk (again, me not her), and lastly a fight. As always, it
escalated to a game of emotional chicken that ended with one of us hanging up on the other. I
called her a few weeks after that. Left a voice mail. It’s hard to say if she had disappeared by that
point, because my mom could hold a grudge. So fuck her for being so stubborn. She didn’t want
to talk, fine by me.
At the time I was at a company called Anomaly, which was defiantly “not an Ad-agency.”
No, no. We were executionally agnostic market innovators who utilized a multidisciplinary
approach to unravel the advertising enigmas of the modern media arena. We eschewed the old
and embraced the numinous. We thought we were hotter than a lava monster shitting in a deep
fryer turned up to high. I myself was the head of Innovation and Intellectual Initiatives, I.I.I., the
Trinity of Me, or Tri-Me for short.
Being the steward of strategy was no easy task at a place like that. To make it work, I not
only had to con an entire bullpen of bullshitters, I had to make it stick to the fan like it was
covered in airplane glue. Looks like a Brown semiotics degree had some use in the real world.
Who would’ve thought that my fabricated thesis about the utilization of reflections in Pierre
Menard’s remake of Baudrillard’s “House of Mirrors” (a film, mind you, that itself was a
complete fabrication of my imagination) would give me a corporate edge? I mean how many
different ways can someone describe how when a driver sees a red octagon atop a pole on the
side of the road, he knows to stop, even if he doesn’t see the letters S-T-O-P? He “reads” the
sign. That’s it. That’s semiotics: brand recognition, for academics.
With my days flooded by the deluge of Anomaly, my nights were inundated by the tide of
Toby. Do you remember him? I think you met the night we ran into each other at the club, K-OS.
You were there with that insecure producer named Doubtie, I think. Toby’s the guy I grew up
with in the “alleys” of Foggy Bottom, while you were living large up above Woodley Park. Toby
had become my very own Manhattan Virgil, ferrying me along a river of spirits around the nine
circles of the Lower East Side. We’d start out downing ambrosia at Milk and Honey, sipping
overpriced mojitos through stainless steel straws, sweetened by the nectar of exclusivity. I
always thought it was a cloying attempt at a speakeasy in a city where Prohibition was a bar on

the Upper West Side. Still, the mojitos were delicious, and the dark, retro- nouvelle twenties
décor reflected in the copper tiled ceiling had a certain charm. Even if we all knew that behind
that thick velvet curtain of exclusivity was a garbage-choked Delancy Street. From there, we
would stumble to any one of a bevy of hip scenes, so cool they needed only a monosyllabic
name: Branch, Tree, Land, Sea, Salt, Bread, Rain, Spice, and the coup de grâce of creativity—
Bar.
Well, late one night, he and I found ourselves in a renowned lesbian bar in the West
Village. I was swinging for the fences and doing about as well as a one-legged kid at kickball.
Toby, on the other hand, couldn’t even raise his drink to his lips as it was weighed down by the
diesel dyke hanging on his arm. Jesus, that body building gay girl had more muscle than a
Bluebell Cow and less body fat than a Eurasian model. There I was commiserating with a suicide
grrrl about how we always end up with loonies with extra crazy sprinkled on top, and there he
was murmuring into a sinewy ear, talking Hippolyta right out of her magical girdle. My only
conciliation was stealing sips of Toby’s bourbon. And damnitall if while leaning in to purloin
another slug, I didn’t overhear his athletic ornament whisper an inquiry as to Toby’s preference
for anal. I couldn’t believe it, not only was Toby picking up a lovely lady in a lesbian bar, he
found one that could make a porn star blush. Having long since hit my limit, I took that as my
cue to head out. I wandered homeward, clip-clopping along the sidewalk, watching my shadow
circle round me to avoid the street lamps. I must have had a lot more of Toby’s bourbons than I’d
realized, because the next thing I knew I woke up sitting on a bench in Union Square. A patch of
drool had blossomed on the collar of my pea coat. My breath condensed into plumes of sighs.
Fall was coming. My phone BEEPED/VIBRATED in my pocket. That must have been what
woke me.
It was a text from Toby. If a diesel dyke ever asks if ur into backdoor action, the answer
is always NO.
BEEP/VIBRATE: I think she jammed a coat rack up my arse.
I grinned so big it hurt my ears, watched the clouds of my breath evaporate, stood up, and
glanced at the frenetic digital clock that glowed eight stories above the southeast corner of the
park.
It was 4:52.
It was the 30th.
It was my mother’s birthday.
Like I said, it took a while for it all to coalesce in my head. I left long messages for her
while riding the Acela down to DC. Called her again from the cab. And shouted her name as I
unlocked the front door to my childhood home. I spent the entire weekend in the empty house. I
waited, I watched TV, I snooped through my mother’s bedroom, closets, drawers. Everything
was there. No missing underwear or suspiciously absent luggage. However, it also wasn’t like
there was a cigarette in the ashtray still quietly trailing a ribbon of smoke into the air over a glass
of milk, still wet with condensation. Just a rotten, desiccated orange on her desk and a busted
water pipe in the basement weeping from an early frost. Like she just went out one day and never
came home. That’s how I explained it to the police. Except her car was still in the garage.
The folks at Anomaly were nice enough about the whole thing when I told them I wouldn’t be in
for a few days. I called Toby. He offered to come down, but I didn’t see the point. The FBI and I
were already going through the house and her office looking for clues. The Bureau got involved
due to my mom’s position with the government – with DARPA – the Defense Advance Research
Projects Agency.

It had been awhile since I’d stepped foot in her office. It looked the same, pretty much,
just felt like everything had been shifted three inches to the left. At the time I wrote it off to
memory echo. Mom’s term. She came up with it to explain how memories tended to persist, but
distort, a little. Fade, but not uniformly, in patches. Like how in an echo certain syllables still get
punched clearly, while the other parts muddle into gibberish due to the destructive interference.
That’s what I thought it was. Back then.
Before all this.