The Missing Place
COLLEEN MITCHELL’S WORLD had been reduced to the two folded sheets of paper she clutched tightly in her left hand. She’d been holding them since leaving Sudbury at four thirty that morning, even when she went through security at Logan, even during the layover in Minneapolis, where she paced numbly up and down the terminal. The paper was slightly damp now and softened from too much handling.
Nobody wrote real letters anymore. Especially not kids. All through middle school, Colleen had forced Paul to write thank-you notes by hand every birthday and Christmas; the monogrammed stationery was still around somewhere, up in the dusty shelves of his closet. Once high school started, they had bigger battles to fight, and she gave up on the notes.
When was the last time she’d even seen her son’s blocky, leaning handwriting? There must be papers—class notes, tests—in the boxes he’d brought back from Syracuse, but Colleen hadn’t had the heart to open any of them, and they too were stacked in the closet. Nowadays Paul texted, that was all, and in Colleen’s hand was a printout of all the texts from him. God bless Vicki—she’d figured out how to print them in neat columns so they fit on two double-sided pages and had emailed Colleen the file too, “just in case.”
Colleen had read them a hundred times. They went back four months, to last September. All the communications from her son
since he left—and they fit on two pages. One more indictment of her parenting, of what she’d done wrong or too much or not enough.
SEPTEMBER 27, 2010, 2:05 PM
Got it thx
That was the oldest one. Colleen couldn’t remember what Paul had been thanking her for. Probably one of her care packages—she sent them all throughout last autumn, boxes packed with homemade brownies and Sky Bars and paperback books she knew he’d never read. But when Paul came home for Thanksgiving (well, the week after Thanksgiving, but she and Andy and Andy’s brother Rob and Rob’s girlfriend had delayed the whole turkey-and-pie production until Paul could be there; Andy had even taped the games and waited to watch them with him), he made it clear that the packages embarrassed him.
Next was a series of texts from her:
OCTOBER 28, 2010, 9:16 AM
Hi sweetie dad has enough frequent flyer miles for u to come home when you’re off
OCTOBER 29, 2010, 7:44 AM
When are you off again?
OCTOBER 30, 2010, 11:50 PM
Wish u were here for hween the flannigans have the pumpkin lights in the trees
Like he was eleven, for God’s sake, and off at sleepaway camp, instead of twenty, a man.
A small sob escaped Colleen’s throat, an expulsion of the panic
that she’d mostly got under control. She covered the sound with a cough. In her carry-on was half a bottle of Paxil, which Dr. Garrity had given her over a year ago before they settled on a regimen of red clover extract and the occasional Ambien to treat what was, he assured her, a perfectly normal transition into menopause. She hadn’t liked the Paxil; it made her feel dizzy and sometimes sweaty, but she’d packed the bottle yesterday along with her own sleeping pills and Andy’s too. She hadn’t told him, and she felt a little guilty about that, but he’d be able to get a refill tomorrow. She’d leave a message with the doctor’s answering service when they landed, and then all he’d have to do was pick it up.
Colleen refolded the papers and rested her forehead against the airplane window, looking out into the night. The plane had begun its descent. The flight attendant had made her announcement—they’d be on the ground a few minutes before ten, the temperature was one degree, winds at something. One degree was cold. But Boston got cold too, and it didn’t bother Colleen the way it did some people.
Far below, rural North Dakota was lit up by the moon, a vast rolling plain of silvery snow interrupted here and there by rocky swaths where the land rose up in ridges. Colleen tried to remember if she’d ever been to either Dakota. She couldn’t even remember the names of the capitals—Pierre? Was that one of them?
A flare of orange caught her eye, a rippling brightness surrounded by a yawning black hole in the snow. And there. And there! Half a dozen of them dotting the bleak landscape, blazes so bright they looked unnatural, the Day-Glo of a traffic cone. Colleen’s first thought was forest fire, but there were no trees, and then she thought of the burning piles of trash she saw sometimes in Mattapan or Dorchester. But people didn’t burn trash at night, and besides, there were no houses, no town, just—
And then she saw it, the tall burred spire like an old-time radio tower, and she knew, even as they flew past, that she had seen her first rig. The plane was still too far up for her to make out any details except that it looked so small, so flimsy, almost like a child’s toy—a Playmobil oil rig play set with little plastic roughnecks.
The plane tipped down, the engine shifted, and so did the men, the tired-looking, ill-shaven lot of them who’d boarded with her in Minneapolis. They turned off their iPads and crumpled their paper coffee cups and cleared the sleep from their throats.
Colleen closed her eyes, the image of the rig imprinted in her mind, and as they approached Lawton, she thought, Give him back, you have to give him back to me.