by Katie Enggass
Conversations with "K" professors can go on for decades - one of the educational values of Kalamazoo College. An example of this has been the ongoing literary criticism exchange between Hal Harris, professor emeritus of English, and Katie (Fancher) Enggass '78. They've traded plays (Harris's) for short stories (Enggass's) for mutual review and criticism. BeLight did a story on Dr. Harris in its September 2009 issue, which also featured a short story ("How to cut up a melon") by Enggass. It's our privilege to share another of her stories in this issue. The illustrations are the artwork of Chelsea Rye '09. Says Harris: "[Enggass] is one of the finest short story writers I've read." Photo shows Katie and her husband, Murray, both "K" graduates, hiking in New Mexico. Story illustrations are by Chelsea Rye '09.
When they first moved to New Mexico Monica and her husband started taking beer rides. One winter day they stopped at Pine Flats picnic area to use the outhouse and decided to park there, finish a beer, use the outhouse again, then head home. It was a cold dusk, so they sat in the car and left it running with the heater on. A police cruiser came by, did a U-turn. Two officers checked them out. One went around the back of the car to note the license plate and call it in, and Monica rolled down the window when the other one knocked twice on the glass with his knuckle. He told her to turn off the engine.
"How many beers have you had?" he asked her. She looked down at the beer can tucked between her legs, too overwhelmed with guilt to dream up a good story.
"Three," Tim spoke up.
"Three," she echoed.
The officer considered them through the open window, his breath fogging. "All I want is for you two to get home safe." Safely. There she was, about to be arrested, thinking about dumb grammar.
But the police officers let them go. Drove off, up and left them to their own devices. Tim emptied the open beer cans into a snowbank and put all the evidence in the trunk as Monica restarted the car. They didn't look at each other all the way home. They never really talked about it, either; they just quit the rides. Once, months later, Monica was feeling her usual type of free-floating guilt and wondered aloud, "What were we thinking?" Tim dismissed it. It was over, nothing had happened, they weren't doing it anymore, why worry, but she was remembering how she would clean the bathrooms before each ride in case they died and relatives would show up at their apartment to divide their paltry possessions.
About three years later, as a solution to her general lack of ambition, Monica hit on the idea of having a kid. A baby. Tim had a good job as an administrator with the school district, so that was all set. Starting a family, that's what people do, after a certain point.
Monica went off the pill. She got pregnant as soon as they started trying. It occurred to her after a few weeks that she should probably behave herself - not that she was that bad - so she eliminated alcohol entirely, ate a low sugar diet, gave up caffeine. Took walks. Everything. She sailed through the nine months, no problem, except she couldn't watch the nightly news without crying.
On the day Tim installed the child safety seat in their Honda, her water broke. Bryan was born about twelve hours later, and he had things wrong with him that they didn't even know could go wrong. Bryan died during surgery, about eight hours after his birth.
Blown overboard, swept out to sea - anyone would be. The ocean Monica fell into was not only grief but disgrace. On the surface of that ocean, the simplest part, she was disgusted with herself. She said to Tim, "For heaven's sake, even animals can crank out normal offspring." Shifting below her, though, was the real failure, a fluid void beyond character or personality or the lack thereof, beyond her former range of vision. Bluish, bloated shapes swayed like seaweed in weird currents. Blind albino fish nosed along the sea floor, fathoms down, never having seen the sun. Why was her body still floating? What held her up? She was afraid to look down.
Tim and Monica started taking rides again that first year after Bryan, no beer this time, so maybe they'd learned how to be civilized and mature. Usually they would brew a thermos of coffee and pick up some donuts to take along. They headed north and west in the opposite direction of the old rides, to Bernalillo and then toward the gypsum mines of White Mesa, curving into San Ysidro. There they'd make the turn toward Jemez Pueblo, following the river through red rock country. Sometimes they'd stop at one of the picnic areas right off the road, but more often they continued toward Jemez Springs, passing the retreat where they send all the pedophile priests and ending up at the ruins of a Spanish mission. They'd often take a quick hike through the stone rubble to stretch their legs before heading back. They were practically regulars at a place that didn't inspire regularity. There wasn't much to see at the mission, but they liked peering through the windows at the outlines of former rooms. When the roof has caved in, windows and doors become purposeless yet compelling: abstract sculpture.
During these rides Bryan's car seat remained in the back, all hooked up facing to the rear. They just hadn't quite gotten around to taking it out. Then again, they hadn't quite decided whether or not they would try to have another kid. They hadn't ruled anything out - or in. It was Tim's theory that they would really value another child, having experienced loss - the kind of twist he might put on the school district's low test scores; they'd have focus this time. All Monica said was, "Value?" She hated that word when it was a verb.
Monica thought she should do something writerly with the information she'd gained, however limited, from the Bryan experience. She considered writing a series for the newspaper about what happens when an infant dies: the counseling services offered by hospital staff, the viewing and holding of the swaddled bundle, the taking of sad documentary photographs, the use of that awful word "closure," special deals offered by funeral homes, the support groups, the personal stories. She tried to imagine interviewing the other bereaved, or worse, stealing their stories without permission, attending meetings like a spy with her ulterior motive, selling out.
She spent the midnight hours dreaming up letters to Dear Abby lamenting the predictably dismissive comments people make about angels and adoption and starting a new one ASAP. She couldn't come up with replacement comments, however. What should people say?
Perhaps, then, a description of Bryan for posterity. With his scrunched, dark, just-born face he'd looked like Bald Tim in a Bad Mood. Later, he seemed too small. She unwrapped him a little and saw something was wrong with his left hand. He was missing the pad at the base of his thumb and his fingers were bunched, squidlike, the only outward deformity besides coarse black stitches, what they'd done to him trying to save him.
What about a poem? No, poetry was out, too chancy, too intense, too easy to look ridiculous, like having a mirror above the bed. She attempted a journal entry, but it was too much about me, me, me - much ado: the problem with memoirs.
Tim started it one windy Sunday in early spring, whimsically including Bryan in the conversation as they drove, pointing out landmarks as if to a toddler in the back seat. Bryan would have been about two years old. "Hey, Bryan, check out that cherry-picker," he said as they were leaving town. "Look, cows!" "See the church?" As they slowed to drive through the pueblo, it started to sprinkle and sand ticked against the windows.
"Spitting," Tim said cheerfully to his new audience. They descended until they reached a natural amphitheater, a half circle of red cliffs surrounding a flat parking area of packed dirt. During tourist season they might stop and buy round loaves of heavy bland bread from the stands set up there. Today they passed two sheriff cars parked next to a rusted white pick-up with a woman sitting in the bed leaning against the cab.
"I wonder what they're up to," Monica said. A bit farther down the road was a fire truck pulled off on the river side of the road near a clump of cottonwoods. Already the drizzle was drying up.
"I want to see how high the runoff is." Tim turned left into one of the roadside picnic areas. There was a charge for parking now, a new development, two dollars put in an envelope and stuffed into a slot in a hollow metal pole.
Monica put on her sweatshirt and they took the asphalt path past a few picnic shelters to the water. Landscapers had done some work there, shoring up the bank with scalloped bricks. Logs spanned the stream at regular intervals, creating noisy mini waterfalls, and the water flowing over them churned white at each drop-off. Across the river the canyon walls were steep, layered and seamed, a lesson in geology.
"Pretty high." Tim left the paved path and Monica followed, looping along the river below the parking area, slipping on damp leaves. Ahead they saw a clump of tree cholla swaying in the wind and at the end of one skinny branch like an odd bloom was a child's blue mitten, not snagged but placed there deliberately, waving.
"Look at that, Bryan," Monica said, stopping.
Tim put his hand on her shoulder. "Surreal."
The sun came out briefly as they approached one of the shelters. Monica sat on the concrete table with her feet on the bench for a better view of the water. After a while she leaned back and watched the clouds scoot beyond the slats of the roof, not a roof but open beams, a ramada. She closed her eyes and smelled wet leaves and at the same time dust, listening to the rush, the constancy of the water's flow over rocks. She wondered if they should drive on, wasting a little more time, or go home, wasting a little less time, but wasting. She pictured their usual destination of collapsed Spanish mission and realized what it had always reminded her of: something found at the bottom of an aquarium. That gravel, a castle, and this made her think about an exhibit they'd seen about flight, how flying is like swimming, to insects. The air is that thick to them.
A coolness passed over her, a shadow. She opened her eyes and Tim was leaning over her, upside down, pouches under his eyes like strange baggy eyelids.
"Wake up," he said, and kissed her, awkwardly, his chin bumping her nose.
"This is why people don't usually kiss
Poetry was out, too chancy, too intense, too easy to look ridiculous, like having a mirror above the bed.upside down," she said. He turned his head to kiss her again, sideways, then stepped back.
"I wish we could get started right now," he said suddenly. She sat up. His focus was so intense she had to resist looking over her shoulder.
"Right here?" she said, trying to lighten things up.
"I hear a maybe. What about a yes? We could have another kid and name it Bryan and pretend nothing happened. I'm joking."
"Bryan, even if it's a girl," she said.
"Seriously, they did that to Salvador Dali. His older brother died and when he was born his parents gave him the same name."
"Bryan, even if it's Salvador Dali."
"Hey," Tim said, "That explains a lot, right?"
Behind them in the parking lot a car door slammed. Tim helped her climb down from the table. He put his arm around her and raised his eyebrows at her in sort of a fake leer that reminded her of a long time ago. "Do I know how to get my two dollar's worth or what?"
A heavy-set officer in a tan uniform and a belt bristling with lethal-looking equipment had parked his car next to theirs.
"We've got a missing boy," the officer explained when they got closer. He took off his sunglasses and looked at them and Monica couldn't help herself. She laughed. She honestly could not think what the officer wanted or what should come next until Tim spoke. "We
haven't seen anything."
"Sorry," Monica said. "How old?"
"Four. Dark hair. Red Lobos sweatshirt."
"No, we haven't seen him." She thought of the white truck on the way in. "Is it that woman in the pick-up?"
He frowned. "Ma'am?"
"The woman, the mother." And what about the mitten? She explained and pointed.
"I don't think he had - ," the officer started to say, squinting politely and regretfully in the direction of the cholla, and at the same time Tim added that it was probably nothing. He sounded impatient, as if Monica were being silly, causing trouble.
"Yeah, it's probably nothing," she repeated. "Oh - "
The officer waited.
"He's in the river."
"Monica, for God's sake." Tim unlocked the driver's side and opened the door and she could see the officer glance inside at the car seat, then at Tim, then at her, trying to figure it out. He nodded once, as if he understood something.
"We're hoping not," he answered, as she opened her door.
"We'll keep an eye out on the way back," Tim said in his best well-adjusted style, and the officer nodded again. They backed out and turned right on the main road.
"Could you have sounded nuttier?" Tim asked. She tried to think why he was so irritated. A couple minutes later they passed the fire truck, then the pick-up. The woman still sat in back, wrapped in a striped blanket.
"Why isn't she searching with everyone else?" Monica said. "I'd be doing something, at least, to feel better."
"Would you?" Tim shook his head.
"Maybe we should turn around."
"I'm not stopping."
"I mean, I could give her some of the coffee." And the whole scene flashed through her head: the steaming cup, the dark roast, the woman's gratefulness, how good coffee is sometimes even when everything else is terrible.
"We have some left."
"Monica. Listen. You are not giving her coffee. I am not giving her coffee. No one is giving her coffee. She's on her own."
He kept driving and two days later they found out in the newspaper what had happened. The mother was going to leave the child with the grandmother, but the grandmother was ill, so she took the kid along. They parked by the red rocks, three or four vehicles. Saturday night. They partied, drank beer and wine until past dark, and the mother and son got sleepy. "Sleepy?" Tim said. "More like passed out." They climbed into the back of the truck with a blanket and when the mother woke up at dawn the boy was gone. Everyone was gone. She thought maybe the boy was with the boyfriend, but it turned out he wasn't, and Monday afternoon they'd found him downriver.
Monica told Tim after she read the article that he was right, it was time to move on, but she didn't say she was feeling the cold lapping of that ocean again, gathering force to swamp yet another sand castle. That boy, caught on a root, submerged, and her boy, their Bryan, nowhere. Once in college she'd drunk enough to blank out. She'd come to with a whoosh - the lights came on, voices, music. To everyone else, she'd been present - upright, talking, laughing - when actually she hadn't been there at all.
She asked Tim half seriously if all the screw-ups and mistakes in the world were her fault - was the carelessness - all of it, all her fault?
He pretended to think about it. "Probably." She swatted him with the newspaper and he wrestled it from her and tossed it into the recycling bin. Everybody knows fearing deep water is the same as being afraid of heights. She was still a criminal and a bum, a complete giant nothing for all eternity, but for now, for today - let that other poor woman borrow the blame.
Murray and Katie Enggass (both members of the Class of 1978) hiking near San Ysidro, New Mexico.