Today’s preview from Before and Afterlives is the opening of my story, “Vanishing Point”, which first appeared in the Canadian literary journal, Descant. It’s a story about a mother whose son has been afflicted with a mysterious disease that is plaguing her community. People begin to vanish slowly, to become invisible and to lose their solidity in increments, and over a period of time, they disappear altogether. The narration style is a monologue, or a letter, however you’d like to imagine it, in which she speaks to a social scientist who is attempting to collect narratives from people who have lost a loved one to the strange illness.
You asked me, sir, to tell you about my son’s disappearance. I must admit that I did not know what to think when your first letter arrived. And when you phoned, I think I was a bit startled by all your attention. We don’t get many phone calls here, you see. But since last week, when I told you an interview was out of the question, I’ve been unable to stop thinking about Nathan and how, as a mother, I have a duty. Others should know the truth. You wanted to know what life was like here, in my house, in my family, with Nathan and then, afterwards, without him. It’s not as simple as that, though. A person isn’t here one day, then gone the next. If I’m going to tell you anything, it won’t be what you’re expecting. It might not be what you want to hear. But, in any case, I’ll tell you what I know. What I know is the truth.
From the beginning, his growing absence was oppressive. If I was not in the kitchen making supper for Sarah and myself, I was attending to my son in his room. We seemed to eat a lot during those days. An affliction of hunger consumed us that could not be satisfied. As Nathan disappeared, Sarah and I ate and ate. I made meals we’d never heard of, recipes out of foreign cookbooks, fancy dishes that required an orange peel or a sculptured radish rosette on the side. We were pretending to have money, even though we had no money. I do have money now, though. Now that Nathan is not so demanding. Yes, sir, Sarah and I are off the dole.
We ate exotic foods, Thai and Indian curries. We ground our own spices in the coffee grinder. Also we had a peculiar taste for Ethiopian, and Sarah and I would sometimes joke about this. You know, how starving those people are and how we craved their recipes. What a laugh! It was a laugh then, I tell you. I had my own boy starving. Starving for solidity. Sometimes he could barely move off of his bed.
Do you know those movies where a person suddenly acquires the ability to walk through walls? The ones where someone becomes transparent to the point that no one else can see them unless looked at very hard? The Invisible Man? Movies like that? Let me tell you, they’re a pack of lies. Those people never seem to have problems. They move through life more easily in fact. Now they can walk through moving traffic and never have to wait for the light. Now they can strip off their clothes and sneak into shower rooms to watch people, bodies, drifting through steam, larger than life, without ever getting caught.
There were days when Nathan couldn’t bring himself to go to the bathroom on his own. There were days when Sarah and I tried to help him into the shower, but he fell through our hands, through the hardwood floor, down into the living room. We’d find him lying under the coffee table, his arms threaded through the table legs. Or, once, splayed out in the middle of the broken plants and pottery he’d landed on. I was always frightened. Someday, I thought, he will fall and fall forever, and then where will he go? I remembered how, when we were little, we thought if a person dug a deep enough hole in the ground, they’d fall through to China. Our parents frightened us with thoughts like that. Why was it they wanted to frighten us?
Nathan never fell to China. Or if he did, he fell back in time for me not to notice. I don’t think this is possible. I don’t think this ever happened. Still, though, I’ll leave it open. I have learned to leave things open, sir. Have you?
It was a Friday last September the school called me. The school nurse said, “I think you need to come down.” I told her that I had to work, and she said, “I really think you should come down, Miss Livingston.” She said my name real tough-like, like she was gritting her teeth.
“All right,” I said. “All right. I’ll come down.”
Nathan was waiting for me in the nurse’s office. He was lying on a table, like in a doctor’s exam room, with the crackling paper rolled over its top. Only that paper didn’t crackle. It didn’t make any noise at all. Now being a doctor yourself, sir, you know you can’t shut that paper up. Even though you are up there at the university studying “the social implications of phenomena”, as you put it in your letter, and are in great need of “personal narratives” and “statistics” so that the research will be “pure”, and are not a real doctor, practicing medicine and such, I’m sure you have been on one of those tables before. Not even staying completely still, which is impossible if you ask me, will shut that paper up. I asked, “What’s wrong? What’s happened here?” And the nurse, a woman who was not as severe as I had expected, a woman who wore a fuzzy blue sweater and did not have her hair up in a bun but let it fall over her shoulders like dark cream, she said, “I’m so sorry.”
I went over to Nathan and looked at his eyes. His eyes were open, but he didn’t seem to see me. They were blue eyes, watery eyes, my father’s eyes. When he was born, how happy I was to see those eyes! Not my husband’s, who was a drunkard and a cheater, not his eyes. I said, “Nathan? Honey, what’s wrong?” His lips trembled. I thought, What am I going to do? Already I knew without knowing what afflicted him that things were going to change.
The nurse put her arm around me and said, “Be calm.” She unbuttoned Nathan’s shirt, one button at a time, her fingers were so deft, and pulled back each side of his shirt like a curtain. If you could see what I saw that day. It was not always like that, I assure you. Nathan: his chest, only his chest, had gone translucent. I saw those lungs filling and expelling air, two brownish, soggy sacs going up and down, up and down. And his heart, it throbbed beneath them. The blood slid through his veins and I thought of blue rivers winding on a map. The nurse covered him over again and began buttoning his tiny buttons. And look here, I thought, even those buttons are clear.
Perhaps I am exaggerating this all a bit. I don’t know. This is how I remember it: his lungs, his heart, the blood in his veins and arteries, the webbing of his nerves. Sir, I know you are a not a real doctor and all, but let me ask you something. Have you ever seen anything like this? Have you ever seen your own child like this? Sir, do you have children?
I took my son home and, while we drove in the car, neither of us said anything. Nathan looked out the window at the passing mills and factories, the ones that all closed down years ago. Their smokeless stacks loomed above us, gray against the gray sky. I live on the South side of town, not the best place to raise children, Lord knows, but I did the best I could.
The factories we passed were tattooed with graffiti. The gridwork of their windows was busted out. Kids used to come down to the mills to paint their names, to spray-paint their useless childhood loves, to mark down their childhood enemies as though they were making hit lists. They threw rocks, pieces of broken concrete, at the gridded windows high overhead. The glass would shatter and rain down at their feet, onto the factory floors, and oh, how we laughed and gripped each other’s shoulders at these small victories. It felt good to bust up those places that broke first our parents’ backs, and then, after shutting down, their spirits.
I think Nathan and his friends did this, too. To let out frustration. I don’t know. I’m only guessing. It’s something I’ve learned to do.