I looked like a girl you’d expect to see on a city bus, reading some clothbound book from the library about plants or geography, perhaps wearing a net over my light brown hair. You might take me for a nursing student or a typist, note the nervous hands, a foot tapping, bitten lip. I looked like nothing special. It’s easy for me to imagine this girl, a strange, young and mousy version of me, carrying an anonymous leather purse or eating from a small package of peanuts, rolling each one between her gloved fingers, sucking in her cheeks, staring anxiously out the window. The sunlight in the morning illuminated the thin down on my face, which I tried to cover with pressed powder, a shade too pink for my wan complexion. I was thin, my figure was jagged, my movements pointy and hesitant, my posture stiff. The terrain of my face was heavy with soft, rumbling acne scars blurring whatever delight or madness lay beneath that cold and deadly New England exterior. If I’d worn glasses I could have passed for smart, but I was too impatient to be truly smart. You’d have expected me to enjoy the stillness of closed rooms, take comfort in dull silence, my gaze moving slowly across paper, walls, heavy curtains, thoughts never shifting from what my eyes identified — book, desk, tree, person. But I deplored silence. I deplored stillness. I hated almost everything. I was very unhappy and angry all the time. I tried to control myself, and that only made me more awkward, unhappier, and angrier. I was like Joan of Arc, or Hamlet, but born into the wrong life — the life of a nobody, a waif, invisible. There’s no better way to say it: I was not myself back then. I was someone else. I was Eileen.
And back then — this was fifty years ago — I was a prude. Just look at me. I wore heavy wool skirts that fell past my knees, thick stockings. I always buttoned my jackets and blouses as high as they could go. I wasn’t a girl who turned heads. But there was nothing really so wrong or terrible about my appearance. I was young and fine, average, I guess. But at the time I thought I was the worst — ugly, disgusting, unfit for the world. In such a state it seemed ridiculous to call attention to myself. I rarely wore jewelry, never perfume, and I didn’t paint my nails. For a while I did wear a ring with a little ruby in it. It had belonged to my mother.
My last days as that angry little Eileen took place in late December, in the brutal cold town where I was born and raised. The snow had fallen for the winter, a good three or four feet of it. It sat staunchly in every front yard, rolled out at the lip of every first-floor windowsill like a flood. During the day, the top layer of snow melted and the slush in the gutters loosened a bit and you remembered that life was joyful from time to time, that the sun did shine. But by afternoon, the sun had disappeared and everything froze all over again, building a glaze on the snow so thick at night it could hold the weight of a full-grown man. Each morning, I threw salt from the bucket by the front door down the narrow path from the porch to the street. Icicles hung from the rafter over the front door, and I stood there imagining them cracking and darting through my breasts, slicing through the thick gristle of my shoulder like bullets or cleaving my brain into pieces. The sidewalk had been shoveled by the next-door neighbors, a family my father distrusted because they were Lutheran and he was Catholic. But he distrusted everyone. He was fearful and crazy the way old drunks get. Those Lutheran neighbors had left a white wicker basket of cellophane-wrapped waxed apples, a box of chocolates, and a bottle of sherry by the front door for Christmas. I remember the card read, “Bless you both.”
Who really knew what happened inside the house while I was at work? It was a three-story colonial of brown wood and flaking red trim. I imagine my father sucking down that sherry in the spirit of Christmas, lighting an old cigar on the stove. That’s a funny picture. Generally he drank gin. Beer, occasionally. He was a drunk, as I said. He was simple in that way. When something was the matter, he was easy to distract and soothe: I’d just hand him a bottle and leave the room. Of course his drinking put a strain on me as a young person. It made me very tense and edgy. That happens when one lives with an alcoholic. My story in this sense is not unique. I’ve lived with many alcoholic men over the years, and each has taught me that it is useless to worry, fruitless to ask why, suicide to try to help them. They are who they are, for better and worse. Now I live alone. Happily. Gleefully, even. I’m too old to concern myself with other people’s affairs. And I no longer waste my time thinking ahead into the future, worrying about things that haven’t happened yet. But I worried all the time when I was young, not least of all about my future, and mostly with respect to my father — how long he had left to live, what he might do, what I would find when I got home from work each evening.
Ours was not a very nice home. After my mother died, we never sorted or put her things away, never rearranged anything, and without her to clean it, the house was dirty and dusty and full of useless decorations and crowded with things, things, things everywhere. And yet it felt completely empty. It was like an abandoned home, its owners having fled one night like Jews or gypsies. We didn’t use the den or the dining room or the upstairs bedrooms much. Everything just sat there collecting dust, a magazine splayed over the arm of the couch for years, candy dish full of dead ants. I remember it like those photos of homes in the desert ravaged by nuclear testing. I think you can imagine the details for yourself.
I slept in the attic, on a cot purchased by my father for some summer camping trip he never took a decade earlier. The attic was unfinished, a cold and dusty place I’d retreated to when my mother had gotten sick. Sleep in my childhood bedroom, which was next to hers, had been impossible. She had wailed and cried and called my name throughout the night. The attic was quiet. Not much noise traveled up there from the lower floors of the house. My father had an armchair that he’d dragged from the den into the kitchen. He slept there. It was the kind of chair that shuttled backward at the pull of a lever, a charming novelty when he’d bought it. But the lever no longer worked. The thing had rusted into permanent repose. Everything in the house was like that chair — grimy, ruined, and frozen.
I remember it pleased me that the sun set so early that winter. Under the cover of darkness, I was somewhat comforted. My father, however, was scared of the dark. That may sound like an endearing peculiarity, but it was not. At night he would light the stove and the oven and drink and watch the blue flames whir under the weak overhead light. He was always cold, he said. And yet he barely dressed. This one evening — I’ll begin my story there — I found him sitting barefoot on the stairs, drinking the sherry, the butt of a cigar between his fingers. “Poor Eileen,” he said sarcastically when I walked through the door. He was very contemptuous of me, found me pathetic and unattractive and had no qualms about saying so. If my daydreams from back then came true, one day I’d have found him splayed out at the bottom of the stairs, neck broken but still breathing. “It’s about time,” I’d say with the most bored affect I could muster, peering over his dying body. So I loathed him, yes, but I was very dutiful. It was just the two of us in the house — Dad and me. I do have a sister, still alive as far as I know, but we haven’t spoken in over fifty years.
“Hi, Dad,” I said, passing him on the stairs.
He was not a very large man, but he had broad shoulders and long legs, a sort of regal look about him. His thinning gray hair stood up high and bowed over the crown of his head. His face appeared to be decades older than he really was, and bore in it a wide-eyed skepticism and a look of perpetual disapproval. In retrospect he was much like the boys in the prison where I worked — sensitive and angry. His hands shook all the time no matter how much he drank. He was always rubbing at his chin, which was red and drawn and wrinkled. He’d tug at it the way you’d rub the head of a young boy and call him a little rascal. His one regret in life, he said, was that he’d never been able to grow a real beard, as though he could have willed it, but he had failed to. He was like that — regretful and arrogant and illogical at once. I don’t think he ever really loved his children. The wedding band he continued to wear years after her death suggested that he’d loved our mother to some degree at least. But I suspect he was incapable of love, real love. He was a cruel character. Imagining his parents beating him as a child is the only path to forgiveness that I have found so far. It isn’t perfect, but it does the trick.
This isn’t a story of how awful my father was, let me be clear. Bemoaning his cruelty is not the point of this at all. But I do remember that day on the stairs, how he winced when he turned to look up at me, as though the sight of me made him ill. I stood on the landing, looking down.
“You’re going out again,” he croaked, “to Lardner’s.” Lardner’s was the liquor store across town. He let the empty sherry bottle slip from his fingers and roll down the staircase, step by step.
I’m very reasonable now, peaceful even, but back then I was easily enraged. My father’s demands that I do his bidding like a maid, a servant, were constant. But I was not the kind of girl to say no to anyone.
“All right,” I said.
My father grunted and puffed on the short butt of his cigar.
When I was disturbed, I took some comfort in attending to my appearance. I was obsessed with the way I looked, in fact. My eyes are small and green, and you wouldn’t — especially back then — have seen much kindness in them. I am not one of those women who try to make people happy all the time. I’m not that strategic. If you’d seen me back then with a barrette in my hair, my mousy gray wool coat, you’d have expected me to be just a minor character in this saga — conscientious, even-tempered, dull, irrelevant. I looked like a shy and gentle soul from afar, and sometimes I wished I was one. But I cursed and blushed and broke out in sweats quite often, and that day I slammed the bathroom door shut by kicking it with the full sole of my shoe, nearly busting the hinges. I looked so boring, lifeless, immune and unaffected, but in truth I was always furious, seething, my thoughts racing, my mind like a killer’s. It was easy to hide behind the dull face I wore, moping around. I really thought I had everybody fooled. And I didn’t really read books about flowers or home economics. I liked books about awful things — murder, illness, death. I remember selecting one of the thickest books from the public library, a chronicle of ancient Egyptian medicine, to study the gruesome practice of pulling the brains of the dead out through the nose like skeins of yarn. I liked to think of my brain like that, tangled up in my skull. The idea that my brains could be untangled, straightened out, and thus refashioned into a state of peace and sanity was a comforting fantasy. I often felt there was something wired weird in my brain, a problem so complicated only a lobotomy could solve it — I’d need a whole new mind or a whole new life. I could be very dramatic in my self-assessments. Besides books, I enjoyed my issues of National Geographicmagazine, which I got delivered to me in the mail. That was a real luxury and made me feel very special. Articles describing the naive beliefs of the primitives fascinated me. Their blood rites, the human sacrifices, all that needless suffering. I was dark, you might say. Moony. But I don’t think I was really so hardhearted by nature. Had I been born into a different family, I might have grown up to act and feel perfectly normal.
Truth be told, I was a glutton for punishment. I didn’t really mind getting bossed around by my father. I’d get angry, and I loathed him, yes, but my fury gave my life a kind of purpose, and running his errands killed time. That is what I imagined life to be — one long sentence of waiting out the clock.
I tried to look miserable and exhausted when I came out from the bathroom that evening. My father groaned impatiently. I sighed and plucked the cash he held out. I buttoned my coat back up. I was relieved to have somewhere to go, a way to pass the evening hours other than to pace the attic or watch my father drink. There was nothing I loved more than leaving the house.
If I had slammed the front door hard on my way out, as I was tempted to, one of those icicles overhead would have surely cracked off. I imagined one plummeting through the hollow of my collarbone and stabbing me straight through the heart. Or, had I tilted my head back, perhaps it would have soared down my throat, scraping the vacuous center of my body — I liked to picture these things — and followed through to my guts, finally parting my nether regions like a glass dagger. That was how I imagined my anatomy back then, brain like tangled yarn, body like an empty vessel, private parts like some strange foreign country. But I was careful shutting the door, of course. I didn’t really want to die.
Since my father had become unfit to drive it, I drove his old Dodge. I loved that car. It was a four-door Coronet, matte green, full of scrapes and dents. The floorboards had rusted through from years of salt and ice. I kept in the glove box of the Dodge a dead field mouse I’d found one day on the porch frozen in a tight ball. I’d picked it up by its tail and swirled it through the air for a moment, then slung it in the glove box with a broken flashlight, a map of New England freeways, a few green nickels. Every now and then that winter, I’d peek at the mouse, check on its invisible decomposition in the freezing cold. I think it made me feel powerful somehow. A little totem. A good luck charm.
Outside I tested the temperature with the tip of my tongue, sticking it out into the biting wind until it hurt. That night it must have been down close to single digits. It hurt just to breathe. But I preferred cold weather over hot. Summers I was restless and cranky. I’d break out in rashes, have to lie in cold baths. I’d sit at my desk in the prison whipping a paper fan furiously at my face. I did not like to sweat in front of other people. Such proof of carnality I found lewd, disgusting. Similarly, I did not like to dance or do sports. I did not listen to the Beatles or watch Ed Sullivan on TV. I wasn’t interested in fun or popularity back then. I preferred to read about ancient times, distant lands. Knowledge of anything current or faddish made me feel I was just a victim of isolation. If I avoided all that on purpose, I could believe I was in control.
One thing about that Dodge was that it made me sick to drive it. I knew there was something wrong with the exhaust, but at the time I couldn’t think of dealing with such a problem. Part of me liked having to roll down the windows, even in the cold. I thought that I was very brave. But really I was scared that if I made a fuss over the car, it would be taken away from me. That car was the one thing in my life that gave me any hope. It was my only means of escape. Before he’d retired, my father had driven it on his days off. He’d wheeled it around town so carelessly — parked up on curbs, screeched around corners, stalled out on no gas at the dead of night, scraped it alongside milk delivery trucks, the side of the AMP building, and so forth. Everybody drove drunk back then, but that was no excuse. I myself was a decent driver. I never sped, never blew through red lights. When it was dark out, I liked to drive slowly, foot barely on the pedal, and watch the town roll by like in a movie. I always imagined other people’s homes to be so much nicer than mine, full of polished wood furniture and elegant fireplaces and stockings hung for Christmas. Cookies in the cupboards, lawn mowers in the garages. It was easy to think of everyone having it better than me back then. Down the block, one illuminated vestibule made me feel particularly disparaged. It had a white bench and a blade by the door like an upturned ice skate to scrape the snow from your boots and a garland of holly hung on the front door. The town was a pretty place, quaint, you’d call it. And unless you’ve grown up in New England, you don’t know the peculiar stillness of a coastal town covered in snow at night. It is not like in other places. The light does something funny at sunset. It seems not to wane but to recede out toward the ocean. The light just gets pulled away.
I’ll never forget that bright jangle of the bell over the liquor store door since it rang for me nearly every evening. Lardner’s Liquors. I loved it there. It was warm and orderly, and I wandered the aisles for as long as I could, pretending to browse. I knew, of course, where the gin was kept: center aisle on the right if you’re facing the cashier, a few feet from the back wall, and just two shelves of it, Beefeater on top and Seagram’s below it. Mr. Lewis, who worked there, was so gentle and happy, as though it had never occurred to him just what all that liquor was for. That night, I got the gin, paid, and went back to the car, laid the bottles on the passenger’s seat. How odd it is that liquor never freezes. It was the one thing in that place that simply refused the cold. I shivered in the Dodge, turned the key, and drove slowly home. I took the long and scenic route as the darkness fell, I remember.
My father was in his chair in the kitchen when I got back to the house. Nothing special happened that night. It’s just a place to begin. I set the bottles down within his reach on the floor and crumpled the paper bag in my fist, threw it at the pile of trash by the back door. I walked up to the attic. I read my magazine. I went to bed.
So here we are. My name was Eileen Dunlop. Now you know me. I was twenty-four years old and had a job that paid fifty-seven dollars a week as a kind of secretary at a private juvenile correctional facility for teenage boys. I think of it now as what it really was for all intents and purposes — a prison for children. I will call it Moorehead. Delvin Moorehead was a terrible landlord I had years later, and so to use his name for such a place feels appropriate.
In a week, I would run away from home and never go back. This is the story of how I disappeared.