For years I struggled to remember a story that was read to me by a woman in a beige terrycloth bathrobe, a woman with tears in her eyes who was twenty-five years older than I. She was the mother of a summer friend of mine when I was twelve, and I don’t remember either of their first names anymore. The husband and father was an employee of my father’s, who had brought the family to Charlotte, North Carolina. We were there, as we were every July, to help him out at the Gift Show in the cavernous Merchandise Mart.
The man, named Roberts, was large and bearded, and I was a bit in awe of him. He looked like Grizzly Adams, and he lumbered after my father, hugging his clipboard of order forms, trying to learn how to be a salesman. He had a girl my age, and after a day or two of playing waitress together – taking orders of coffee and biscuits for the salesman and the customers, and standing in line at the snack bar, she invited me home for a sleepover.
They lived in a small house with a big yard, almost smothered by the choking green foliage of a humid summer. I remember a pleasant dinner, of bathing in the sweet drawl of their Carolina voices. The girl and I played a game with dice on the floor of their parlor, and she showed me her cheerleading outfit, and then the paperback yearbook from her junior high school, and we pointed out which boy was cutest on each page. But my eyes kept drifting to the wall of books that climbed to the ceiling of that room, and after a while I went and stood by them, holding my head sideways to read the titles.
Our home did not have even one bookshelf (although we had four televisions) other than the one that was built into my desk in my bedroom. All the books in the house were mine. I don’t think I had been fully aware until that moment that adults, other than teachers and librarians, liked to read as well.
The mother must have seen me standing there, touching the spines of her books. That entire collection belonged to her, and as it turned out, she was alone in her family as well. She pulled out the heavy volumes and lay them in my hands, and then pulled them away again to flip excitedly through the pages, saying, “Listen. You have to listen to this.” And she read to me in a breathless, emotional voice, while her daughter tapped her foot on the floor, irritated to have her friend stolen away. I was tugged between them, between Dickens and the feather-haired eighth grade boys in the yearbook, and I tried to be true to my peer, to be a good friend, but in the end I sat on an ottoman while the mother drew more books down from the shelves, and the girl went to bed alone, sulking in her babydoll pajamas.
We stayed up half the night, that woman in her thirties and I. I sat there as open as a baby bird, as she fed me stories by hand. And as the night cooled into a dim gray dawn and the grit scratched at our eyes, she said, “Just one more.”
She opened a book that was heavy, with fine yellowed pages. “Close your eyes, sweetheart, and listen to this,” she told me. “This is Thomas Wolfe.” And she read a passage about a man, who is trying desperately to remember his brother, who had died when he was only twelve, and the man himself was four. And all he could remember was his brother’s berry-colored birthmark, and how the brother tried to teach him to say his name, Grover, but he couldn’t, it was too hard for his small mouth. It was a heartbreaking story of memory and loss, and trying desperately to grasp something elusive.
She cried as she read it, and I was shocked at the sight of her, this woman in her nightrobe, the tears splashing onto the pages, and something about it broke my heart a millions times over. I had not known that a book could make you weep, but I felt it then, the tears running down my face for the little boy who lost his brother, for the man who lost his memory, for the woman reading alone in that house. It was only a small moment, and then we wiped our eyes and she sent me to bed in the brightening morning. A few hours later, she hugged me goodbye as I climbed into the car and the daughter and I resumed our talk of pop music and cute boys. I never saw her again. A few months later, my father informed me that Roberts was never going to make a proper salesman, and they fell off our radar forever.
I tried to find that story again for years, every time I went to a bookstore or library. I searched for Thomas Wolfe, convinced that what I had heard was either from Look Homeward, Angel, or You Can’t Go Home Again. That was what the story was about, wasn’t it? Not being able to go home. I pored through the pages, searching for the little boy with the brother named Grover, for any mention of the birthmark. But they had disappeared as thoroughly as the Roberts family.
In high school, I loved a song by Jackson Browne that made me believe that he, too, had read this story I longed to read again.
Well I looked into a house I once lived in
Around the time I first went on my own
When the roads were as many as the places I had dreamed of
And my friends and I were one
Now the distance is done and the search has begun
I’ve come to see where my beginnings have gone
I played it over and over, and it always brought back that woman who loved to read, her thin face surrounded by brown hair, her bathrobe, the book in her hands, her tears and the way that she looked at me like someone from her own country. And I went back to the libraries, scouring again and again the Thomas Wolfe, and I never found it. I searched until I thought for sure I had made it all up, that it had been a dream.
And I wonder how she knew, but of course she couldn’t have, that I would grow up to be like the man in the story, like the narrator of Jackson Browne’s song, someone who was always searching for the elusive, for the my own beginnings.
Did she know that I was adopted? That that story would lodge in my heart and never really leave. That I have done nothing my entire life but go back, and go back, to a place before speech and memory, to find the woman who gave birth to me at midnight, who would bring me by taxi to a Manhattan agency, and then flee back to Iowa.
I did not think of that woman, or that story, for many years, although it came up at strange intevals, when I had a boyfriend with a brother named Grover, when the parents of a friend of mine sold her childhood home and she wept for the room she would never see again. At the core of that yearned-after place was Mrs. Roberts, the woman who had shown me how words could make one weep.
Then one day I found myself in an imaginary place, where people who love books joined together in cyberspace, in a world beyond television and professional sports and war. I suddenly remembered Mrs. Roberts while I was browsing in Readerville.com, a neighborhood she would know well. And I typed out the question, never fully expecting a response: Did anybody know of a book by Thomas Wolfe, something with a boy named Grover, and his brother?
In less than ten minutes someone had posted an answer for me: an underlined link that said, The Lost Boy. I was breathless as I clicked there, and for a second my computer hesitated and then the words unfurled, this story published in 1937, and it was all there. It had been in a short-story collection by Wolfe called The Hills Beyond.
And as I read it, I was back in the middle of a North Carolina night, and I was sitting in my nightshirt next to a woman who is now in her seventies. I was stunned at how it moved me, and I could understand her tears, at the passing of time and people.
Then he said to the woman who was sitting on -the porch: “This house— excuse me-but could you tell me, please who lives in this house?”
He knew his words were strange and hollow, and he had not said what he wished to say. She stared at him a moment, puzzled.
Then she said: “I live here. Who are you looking for?”
He said, “Why, I am looking for-”
And then he stopped, because he knew he could not tell her what it was that he was looking for.
“There used to be a house-” he said.
The woman was now staring at him hard.
He said, “I think I used to live here.”
She said nothing.
In a moment he continued, “I used to live here in this house,” he said, “when I was a little boy.”
I come from many places. I come from a mint-green house in New Jersey, where I lived from the time I was adopted when I was four months old. I will never forget that house in Park Ridge, where through my adulthood, my room had the same dark Ethan Allen furniture, and the drawers were filled with long-dry pens and folded up notes I passed to my girlfriends during math class. There were small square snapshots of my summer days at camp, of my Keeshond dog who has been dead since I was in college.
Different people live there now, but I still drive past whenever I am in New Jersey. The quarter-acre yard is the same, and every time I go back it seems to shrink by a few feet. The stilthouse that my father built with my uncles has long been torn down, although I can see a round patch from its cement foundation and I remember my cousins and I painting the bannister that surrounded the house, in rainbow colors, the bright yellow and the dull imperfect purple. I remember the tarred blacktop of the driveway and the snake that my uncle trapped underneath a tar bucket.
There are a million memories in that house and its sad, overgrown yard. I remember standing in my father’s workshop and seeing his yellowed goggles, the great saw that whined its song through the house, the sawdust on the concrete floor. The babyfood jars filled with tiny tacks and screws were lined up in the workroom shelf, with their labels still legible in his narrow, slanted print. There was the radio that he built by hand, its giant circular speaker booming into this room, his favorite room. When I stood at his workbench and wrote my name in the sawdust, I could hear my father’s voice lingering in the walls. Hey Rascal, he said, and if I closed my eyes I could feel it, his hand on my head, his warm breath on my face.
But I am also from another place, a place that I have never seen. I am a person built of secrets and the voices of those who made me are nothing more than whispers in my dreams. I strain back to a house I may never find, to people whose names I will never be able to pronounce. But for everything that is lost, something else is found. In my long and searching life I have somehow found words, and the capacity to build a life in story.
The years dropped off like fallen leaves: the face came back again-the soft dark oval, the dark eyes, the soft brown berry on the neck, the raven hair, all bending down, approaching-the whole appearing to him ghost-wise, intent and instant.
“Now say it— Groverl”
“No— not Gova— Grover! … Say it!”
“Ah-h— you didn’t say it. You said Gova. Grover-now say it!”
Thomas Wolfe’s story of a lost brother broke open the heart of a woman whose name I don’t remember. And in the dark humid night she gave me the key that binds us all together, those of us who have lost things, who have known suffering and joy and those moments that melt in the smallest instant and then disappear. Stories are the way of holding those moments, either true or imagined, of finding once again the brother with the berry-colored birthmark, the father who smiled through a cloud of sawdust, the anonymous twilit evening when we sparked into being.