The Old Man's Daughter Never Came Home

By Chad Morgan

I thought she moved like a ghost.  I almost hadn't felt her pull back the covers and get out of the bed.  The floor was quiet as she crossed it and went to the window, and I saw the ominous red numbers of the alarm clock disappear and then reappear when she moved in front of it.  Then there she was at the window, her wide hips, round and great, her short hair and her too-skinny arms.  She put her hands on the frame of the window, pulling back the curtains, drawing them to the side and letting in a column of gray moonlight, which flanked her now on both sides. And sound came in with the moonlight, loud currents of sound as if someone had turned on a radio or a television in the next room — a car without a muffler, which sounded like a lion going to war, and voices on the street, female voices that were loud with laughter shot through with a deafening despair. 

I'd heard that laughter before, that same sad laughter that was equal parts happiness and sorrow and longing.  It had framed my coming up.  My mother laughed that way with her sisters over long games of Hand & Foot on Friday nights while my cousins and I played hide-and-go-seek; she had that laugh whenever she spoke to her friends on the telephone.  It was a sort of blues, that laughter, and hearing it now I couldn't help but think of any day with rain.  I couldn't help but think of driving across the river downtown and seeing the large houses of the rich on one side, the east side, and the smaller, shaggier houses of the poor on the west side, up river and down river and separated by the dam the city had built years ago, humongous metal doors so rusted you thought you could put your fist through it, but somehow it held the water — and driving by it one day with my mother, behind the steering wheel of her Corsica, a hideous burgundy that looked like blood and phlegm mixed together — driving past the dam when it had been raining for almost a business week and so three of the dam's five doors were open and the water from the east side was pouring through it in three great white waves.  I was quite young and my white mother, who had grown up on the East Side of the river, said, "They've opened the dam so the rich people won't flood," and I didn't know what she meant exactly, only that the rich people lived on the east side, up river, and the poor people lived on the west side, down river, where the Elkhart and the St. Joe curled through the town like two giant mythical lizards.  The rivers created islands and required bridges, and as we drove on our way home I saw through the rain the river rising, rising, and my mother said, "Somebody's basement will flood tonight," and she laughed that laugh and inside of my small young body some part of me broke, splintered like wood, and every time I hear that laughter (E has it too, sometimes) I think of my mother and that river getting higher.

"Baby," I said to E.  "What're you doing?  Come back to bed.  And close that window — it's cold."  For it was cold — crisp as a fresh leaf of lettuce, I thought.

E didn't say anything.  She stayed at the window and I thought she might jump.  She seemed perched; she seemed capable at any moment of superhuman feats — I thought she might lift the screen and hoist herself out onto the ledge, where she'd sit for a moment like a bird, watching the slow, eternal grind of the world not so far below.  She would consider it all: the row of houses, which were ancient and, in their day, years and years ago, beautiful marvels of architecture, but which were now old at best, and sagging almost visibly under the weight of generations of spoiled dreams; the women down there on the corner, also once beautiful and now hookers, maybe, or just sad and tired and coming from or going to work; the old man who lived across the street who kept the porch light on all through the night because, he'd told E once, his daughter had run away when she was sixteen and though that was now almost two decades ago and he hadn't seen her in all those years, he still believed she would return, and so he left the light on for her.  (E had told him she would throw a party and invite the entire block when that happened — when, she'd said, not if, and I said to her, "You really think she'd come back after twenty years?" and E had said, "He thinks so," and I think that was the moment I knew I loved her.)

She would go out, then, on the ledge of this old house we lived in with four other couples, friends who over the years had somehow become strangers.  We had labeled shelves in the refrigerator and in the hallways we tried our best to avoid each other.  E would go out there, I thought, trembling almost, and electric with fear, and she would fly away.  Her unhappiness and her disappointment would meet in her back, converge, and from her shoulder blades she would sprout wings.  I could see them — enormous and silver, not feathers but instead curved sheets of aluminum that would catch the wind when she let go, and she would soar.  It wouldn't be a miracle; it would be, perhaps, man's final evolution: flight.  Turning one's sorrow into wings.  Mankind has been singing about it for thousands of years, and, I thought, I was sure, I was stricken — E would be the one to show us all how.

"Hey," I said, and my voice sounded so quiet and so sad, brittle, as I was.  "Hey.  Come back to bed."  And she looked over her shoulder at me, the moonlight breaking like a tide around her face in profile.  "Come back," I said.

She closed the window and drew the curtains and she came to me, her cold body chilling mine when I put my arms around her.  I whispered that I loved her and she put her fingers through mine, and I knew that one day she would go.  I didn't know when, but I knew, the way you know when to eat, or when it is finally time to give up, that she would leave, and so I pulled her closer, right against me, and I held on tight.