Below is an excerpt from the first four chapters of The Fact of a Body, Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich’s gripping hybrid memoir of a murder case and family secrets. Blending crime reportage with first-person narrative of her own struggles, the braided story wrestles with trauma, violence, and the ways we try to understand the past, especially when those we trust betray us. Our thanks to Marzano-Lesnevich and Flatiron for sharing it with the Longreads community.
Note: This work is not authorized or approved by the Louisiana Capital Assistance Center or its clients, and the views expressed by the author do not reflect the views or positions of anyone other than the author. The author’s description of any legal proceedings, including her description of the positions of the parties and the circumstances and events of the crimes charged, are drawn solely from the court record, other publicly available information, and her own research.
The boy wears sweatpants the color of a Louisiana lake. Later, the police report will note them as blue, though in every description his mother gives thereafter she will always insist on calling them aqua or teal. On his feet are the muddy hiking boots every boy wears in this part of the state, perfect for playing in the woods. In one small fist, he grips a BB gun half as tall as he is. The BB gun is the Daisy brand, with a long, brown plastic barrel the boy keeps as shiny as if it were real metal. The only child of a single mother, Jeremy Guillory is used to moving often, sleeping in bedrooms that aren’t his. His mother’s friends all rent houses along the same dead-end street the landlord calls Watson Road whenever he wants to charge higher rent, though it doesn’t really have a name and even the town police department will need directions to find it. Settlers from Iowa named the town after their home state but, wanting a fresh start, pronounced the name Io-way, even as they kept the spelling. The town has always been a place people come for new starts, always been a place they can’t quite leave the past behind. There, the boy and his mother stay with whoever can pay the electricity bill one month, whoever can keep the gas on the next. Wherever the boy lands, he takes his BB gun with him. It is his most prized possession.
Now it is the first week in February. The leaves are green and lush on the trees, but the temperature dips at night. Lorilei, Jeremy’s mother, isn’t working. She rented a home just for the two of them — their first — but the electricity’s been turned off. Her brother Richard lives in a sprawling house up on the hill, but she isn’t staying with Richard. Instead, Lorilei and Jeremy are staying with Lorilei’s friend Melissa, Melissa’s boyfriend, Michael, and their baby. The baby is two years old, old enough that he wants to play with the boy and screams when he doesn’t get his way.
Today the baby is wailing. Jeremy, six years old, just off the yellow school bus home from kindergarten, eats his after-school snack in a hurry, dreaming of getting away from the noise, dreaming of the fun to be had out in the woods.
At the end of the road there is a weathered white house and, behind it, a thatch of woods. The woods are the dense, deciduous, swampy kind, the kind in which rotting leaves mingle with the earth and the ground gives soft way beneath the boy’s feet. Though the thatch is very small, with only a single ravine like a scar in the earth, a single place to play war or dream of hiding away forever, these woods are Jeremy’s favorite place to play.
He asks his mother for the BB gun. She takes it down from the shelf that keeps it safe from the baby and hands it to him. Jeremy runs out the door. Two children near his age, a boy name Joey and a girl named June, live in the white house by the woods, and though Jeremy likes exploring on his own, it’s more fun when Joey can join him. He goes to their door and he knocks.
A man answers. The man wears thick glasses. He has a small head and large jug ears. At twenty-six and only 140 pounds, Ricky Joseph Langley is slight for a grown man — but still much bigger than the boy. He, too, grew up in this town. Now he rents a room from Joey and June’s parents, whom he met when he started working with their mother, Pearl, at the Fuel Stop out on the highway. He’s supposed to pay Pearl fifty dollars a week, but he’s never been able to afford it. He makes up the money in babysitting. Just a few days ago he looked after Joey and Jeremy. He brought them soap when they were in their bath.
“Is Joey here?” Jeremy asks.
“No,” Ricky says. “They went fishing.” It’s true. Joey’s father and the boy packed up poles just twenty minutes ago and drove out toward the lake. They’ll be gone all afternoon. “They’ll be back soon,” Ricky says. “You can come in and wait if you like.”
Jeremy plays at this house every week. He knows Ricky. Yet he pauses.
“Why don’t you come in?” Ricky says again. He opens the door wider and turns away. Jeremy walks over the threshold, carefully props his BB gun against a wall near the entry way, and climbs the stairs to Joey’s bedroom. He sits down cross-legged on the floor and begins to play.
Ricky climbs the stairs after him. He wants only to watch Jeremy play — later he will say this, later he will swear to it. But the watching changes something in him, and from this point on it is as if he is in a dream. He walks up behind Jeremy and hooks his forearm around the child’s neck, lifting him into the air. Jeremy kicks so hard his boots fall off. Ricky squeezes. Jeremy stops breathing.
Maybe now Ricky touches him; maybe now he can admit to himself what he’s wanted since seeing Jeremy in the bath. Maybe he doesn’t. In all that will come from this moment, the three different trials and the three different videotaped confessions and the DNA testing and the serology reports and the bodily fluid reports and the psychiatric testimony and all the sworn sworn sworn truths, no one but Ricky will ever know for certain.
Ricky picks up Jeremy, cradling the boy as if he were simply asleep, and carries him into his own bedroom. He lays him out on the mattress. He covers Jeremy — no, this is a body now; he covers the body — in a blue blanket printed with the cartoon face of Dick Tracy, detective. Then he sits at the edge of the bed and pets the blond hair.
There’s a knock on the door downstairs. He goes to answer it. In the entry way stands a young woman. Her hair is the shade of brown that is often a childhood blond.
“Have you seen my son?” When Lorilei asks this, she is three months pregnant.
“Who’s your son?” he asks.
“Jeremy,” she answers, and Ricky realizes he already knew.
“No,” he says, “I haven’t seen him.”
She sighs. “Well, maybe he’s gone to my brother’s.”
“Maybe,” Ricky agrees. “So why don’t you come on in? You could use our phone. You could call your brother.”
“Thank you.” Lorilei steps inside. To her right, propped up against the wall, is a Daisy-brand BB gun, its long brown barrel shiny and smooth.
But she steps to the left. She does not see the gun. He offers her the phone and she dials, looking for her son.
TAPED CONFESSION OF RICKY JOSEPH LANGLEY, 1992
Q: Do you know why you killed Jeremy?
A: No. I ain’t, I never even thought I could, I mean, that’s the first time.
Q: And what made you decide to do it?
A: I couldn’t tell you. I’m still fumblin’ with it in my mind, trying to figure out, you know. It’s like I know I did it, but yet it’s like if, something you read in the newspaper.
Q: Sort of like a dream for you, Ricky?
A: I guess. I couldn’t really . . . I don’t know how I’m supposed to act.
Q: But you know you did this?
Q: Now, you’ve had problems with kids in the past.
Q: You want to tell me about those?
A: It’s just, I can’t explain. I guess that’s my destiny, okay, it’s true.
New Jersey, 1983
Nine years before Ricky Langley will kill Jeremy Guillory, when he is still eighteen years old and I am five, my parents buy a gray Victorian house that squats at the top of a hill in the New Jersey town of Tenafly. All around the house the lawns are manicured, but high, reedy grasses surround the gray Victorian, and the wood on one side of the porch has started to rot. The house has been abandoned for six years. The afternoon we move in, the neighbor boy stands in the grass at the side of the porch, watching. Blond hair cut in a kitchen-bowl bob, jeans ripped and bleached like my mother won’t let me wear. Behind the boy is a gray stone house, all its windows dark. Sometimes a cat walks up to him, crossing the driveway from his front yard to ours, and he reaches down to scratch its head before the cat saunters off. There seem to be many cats. The boy watches as we make trip after trip into our new house, my two sisters and my brother and I carrying boxes of our stuffed animals, teetering stacks of the large cardboard bricks we’ll use to build forts. In this house, my father has told us, we will have a playroom all our own.
Eventually the neighbor boy calls me over. I walk to the railing and squat down. The white posts that line the porch accordion his face like cartoon jail bars.
“What’s your name?” he asks.
I tell him.
“You’re moving in?”
He looks like he’d be a grade ahead of me, maybe two. I want to say something clever, but “yeah” comes out.
He’s chewing on something as he watches me. I catch a flash of pink. Gum. “The dad who used to live here strangled the mom. In the kitchen,” he adds.
“Did she die?” I’ve only recently learned this word.
“No.” He puts his hands in his pockets and watches me, chewing. We’re silent for a moment.
Then my mother calls. “Coming,” I say.
Later, when I carry a cardboard box of spatulas and bowls into the kitchen, this scene is all I can see: the father pressing his wife backward over the stained orange Formica counters, his hands around her neck, trying to wring the life out of her as if she were a dirty dishrag. When I go to my new school their little girl will turn out to be in my kindergarten class. She’ll have light brown hair cut in a pageboy and she’ll want to be a dentist and I’ll never be able to meet her eyes without wondering whether she watched.
But the school system is a good one, one of the best in the state. The house, marked by its past, is cheap, and with four kids and only my father’s salary as a government lawyer, cheap is what my parents need. There’s a lawn that unfurls like a carpet and upstairs bedrooms enough for all six of us: my parents will take the large one at the top of the stairs, while my twin brother, Andy, and my littlest sister, Elize, each get a smaller one pushing back into the house. My middle sister, Nicola, and I will share the bedroom farthest from the front. The house’s long corridors — perfect for playing catch — make the house seem grand. It was grand once, officers’ quarters in the Revolutionary War, when, my father tells me, the neighbor boy’s stone house was only the barn. I love imagining horses’ heads poking out from the little windows that dot the stone house, the horses’ jaws working their hay like the boy chewed his gum.
The big house is in disrepair. The feature in best shape is a wooden staircase that rises steeply out of the entrance foyer. After the officers left the house, my father tells us, a family moved in, then two more generations of families before us. One of those earlier fathers built the staircase from a kit out of the Sears Roebuck catalog. It is still well-preserved, shellacked, with its fine turned posts not even dented. A couple of years from now, when we finally get a black mutt with perky ears on the condition that my father be allowed to name him Cowboy, the dog will teethe on the staircase posts. Each time my father will pay to have a man in town with a lathe make a perfect copy of the damaged post. Years from now, when we’re adults, my sisters and I will each get a dog of our own, and when we visit my aging parents in this house, each dog in its puppyhood will chew through the posts. Each time my father will go back to the same man with the lathe, then elderly, and painstakingly replace each one. As though, having inherited the staircase from the fathers before him, it were his special duty to maintain it.
But the rest of the house has taken a beating. The roof has bald spots where shingles have fallen off like fur from mange. Some of the interior walls have holes, places you can see the house’s skeleton beams. Great bubbles of green linoleum rise from the kitchen floor. They crackle when I step on them, but even when I jump I can’t make them burst.
My father finds three boys from a nearby architectural college who need cash and aren’t afraid of a little sawdust. One of them, Greg, pleases my father by researching how to add gingerbread trim to the house, swirls of two-inch-thick wood he’ll cut out and tack to the rooflines, reminding me of icing. Greg has an idea. He will rebuild the house in the style known as Carpenter Gothic, handmade flourishes everywhere.
My father has always loved big dreams, and Greg is suddenly the group leader. Lanky and tan, Greg has a head of curls that turn blonder and blonder in the sun as the summer weeks go by. My twin brother had curls like that as a toddler. Now Andy’s hair has turned dark, he favors a crew cut, and when he takes off his shirt at the beach there’s a slash all the way across his stomach that I faintly understand and faintly don’t. He was sick when we were born; he is sick sometimes now. Even though we aren’t unpacked yet, aren’t set up in the house, my parents still have a blue duffel bag ready in the upstairs closet for when they have to take him to the hospital, for reasons I don’t know but, somehow, know not to ask about. With the crew cut emphasizing the fine bones of his face, and his ribs jutting out over the scar, my brother’s white suburban sneakers make him look like an adopted refugee from some forgotten war.
But the architect boys are beautiful. Greg scales the pitched peaks of the roof. His friends climb high ladders over the windows. They cut through the air like dolphins through water, not slowed by the tape measures and wrenches that dangle from the belt loops of their cutoffs. The tools trail behind them, as though they, like me, can do nothing but follow the boys. In the evenings I watch them from the lawn, the sound of crickets surrounding us. Sometimes when they stay late Greg cuts holes in the top of a jar for me, and when I bring him the fireflies I’ve caught he praises me. “That’s a pretty one,” he says. “Isn’t its light beautiful?” I love the fireflies’ glow so much that once, instead of releasing my catch, I keep the jar on my nightstand. But in the morning the fireflies are just bugs; they don’t give off any light.
One day, my father gives Greg a set of keys and claps him on the back. They review clipboard lists the boys suddenly carry, then nod and shake hands in the gravel driveway. My parents pack us all up to visit my mother’s relatives in France. By the time we come home, we will have a new home. The house will be wiped clean of its past.
Only one main road leads into Tenafly. It begins on the far end of town from our house, winding leisurely down a large hill. There, the road’s banked sides give generous lift to trees that yawn and stretch with plenty of room to bend. Beneath the trees’ canopies sprawl estates of elaborately landscaped lawns with white-pillared houses and iron gates. Tiny stone bridges arch artificial brooks.
The road narrows. The building that was once the town’s high school is now a funeral parlor, classrooms turned into viewing rooms. Next door is the Catholic church. Just past the church lies a set of railroad tracks. The railroad stopped coming through town decades before we moved in; by the time I graduate from college, I will have watched the old station turn from a magazine stand into a hair salon, then into a café that serves ten-dollar organic sandwiches and four-dollar coffees. But as a child I know only to hold my breath as the tracks snag the car tires. Then I touch my finger to the hard glass of the window, lest ghosts find a chink in my connection to the physical world, a way to come in.
The tracks release the car, and from there the town changes. A small downtown appears. A lone apartment building, full of single units, out of place in a town so clearly meant for families. One magnolia tree stands on its lawn, the tree’s pale, floppy blossoms beautiful and strange against the oaks and elms of the Northeast. Then lot sizes shrink, only a driveway between houses. A second hill appears less than half the size of the first. At its top sits our grand Victorian. Past our house the road dips into another town, one with crime ours lacks and school statistics we whisper to each other like warnings.
The phone line’s busy at her brother’s house, doesn’t stop with the beep beep beep. Lorilei’s tired. She doesn’t want to walk all the way to her brother’s. Richard has put a white fence around his yard, as though to separate himself from all the homes that don’t have the things he does. Homes like the one Lorilei rents, where she can’t even keep the electricity on. The fence, it just gets to her. The gate’s on the far side of the house, and to reach their door she has to walk all the way around it, all the way around the pretty yard and the shiny white posts and the toys and bikes his kids have got. But there’s nothing else to do, Jeremy’s missing, so she thanks the man in the white house for letting her use the phone, zips up her hooded sweatshirt, and walks. By Richard’s there’s a sidewalk, but here the road ripples up against weeds, a slash in the dirt for a gutter. Lorilei — twenty-nine years old, heavyset even without the pregnancy having begun to show — thrusts her hands into the pockets of her jeans for warmth and bends her head low. Thin sneakers that stick in the February mud, no good for walking. This was supposed to be a quiet night at home, just Melissa and the baby.
The sun spills orange and red streaks across the horizon. It’s just before 6:00 p.m. and the street is eerily quiet. House after house she passes has the blinds down, slats pressed together like tight white lips. Behind them, families are sitting down together to dinner. In one yard, a plastic tricycle lies upended, its pedals in the air ready to spin away to nowhere. She taught Jeremy to ride a trike when he was three and the town paper published a photo of the two of them, her hovering over Jeremy, her hands on the hard little moons of his shoulders, both of them grinning into the camera lens. Lorilei Guillory and her son, Jeremy Guillory. Everyone in town knew that last name was hers. That there wasn’t a man.
She remembers, suddenly, herself and Richard when they were kids, pedaling into the bend of the road, the hours stretching before them like the bend of the sun.
The hill he lives on is to the west, and in the distance she sees his ranch house. A tire swing for his boy and girl to play on, strung from an oak tree. Richard’s toolshed. And a car in the driveway — red, which belongs to Mary, Richard’s wife. When she and Mary spoke this morning, Mary said she was going to go grocery shopping this evening and that when Jeremy saw her car pull in he should walk on over and she’d take him. Jeremy had gotten so excited when he heard Lorilei on the phone with her that Lorilei couldn’t say no. Hard for her, that Mary’s the one with the car and the money, the one who gets to take him shopping. Still, she hopes that means he’s there now.
But when Mary answers the door, her lipstick on fresh, Lorilei knows from Mary’s blank face that he isn’t. She asks anyway.
“Haven’t seen him,” Mary says. “And I was just getting ready to head out.”
That’s when Lorilei knows he must be lost.
Ten minutes later she’s borrowed Mary’s car and driven it to the edge of the woods, the headlights pointed in. It’s close to dark now. Jeremy knows to come home before then. When she pulls up, the glint from the cars beams lights the rusted frame of a four-wheeler. Sometimes Jeremy and the Lawson boy, Joey, will sit out here on the frame and fire their BB guns off into the woods for hours. But it’s empty now, the woods nothing but quiet. She gets out of the car and leans on the four-wheeler frame. “Jeremy!” she calls. “Jeremy, it’s your mama! Can you hear me? Jeremy!”
There’s only silence. Not even a bird.
She hears a car pull in behind her. “You all right, Lori?” Terry Lawson, Joey’s father, is driving, two of the neighbors with him.
“Jeremy’s missing,” Lorilei hears herself say. Her voice sounds ragged.
The men grab flashlights from the trunk and head into the woods. This is where, later, her memory cuts out.
But the tape from the fire department shows that the first call comes in at 6:44 p.m. The caller identifies herself as Lorilei Guillory, the mother of the boy she’s reporting missing. The dispatcher takes down her information and promises to send a cruiser out to Iowa. “Io-way,” Lorilei says into the phone. “Please. Y’all know where that is?”
“Yes, ma’am. Io-way,” the dispatcher replies.
The second call comes in at 6:57 p.m. The caller is a young man, and he says no one’s turned up and when are the police coming? The boy’s mother just called from his house, but he knows this area’s confusing for folks not from around here. “You got two roads out here running right next to each other,” he says. “And this one they call Watson Road but it doesn’t really got a name. That’s the one you want. The house is the white two-story.” They’ll know it, he says, by the washer in the front yard and the staircase in the back that leads out to the woods. “I’ll give y’all the number here,” he says, “in case you get yourselves lost.”
“I need your name, sir,” says the dispatcher.
“Ricky Langley,” the caller replies.
That night, Lorilei sits on the front stoop of the white house, and at least one story told of the search for her son includes what happens next. The street is totally dark — no streetlight out this way — but slowly lightens as more and more cruisers arrive. In the distance she can hear the searchers call to one another, a truck engine idle. She knows they’re close by but still the sound feels very far away, muffled.
Like how the wet and rotting leaves on the ground in the ravine where Jeremy plays turn everything spongy. He gets so dirty from those leaves, but tonight she must be glad they’re soft. She must think of him there, his cheek creased from small twigs as if from a pillow, the way his hair flops in his eyes when he’s too sleepy to brush it off. Jeremy sleeps like a puppy on his side, his arms and legs flung out in front of him. His pink mouth open, the little puffs of air. She used to watch him breathe when he was a baby. All new mothers do that, she supposes, but it still felt like a miracle, the way he just kept breathing.
She shakes off the thought. Over the tree line, the search beams make a cat’s cradle, and she watches the pattern change. Richard says that in the morning they’ll call in helicopters. Why they wouldn’t bring them in now, when her boy’s out there alone and cold in the dark, she doesn’t know.
“Want a drink?” She looks up and the man from the afternoon is standing at the side edge of the porch. It takes her a second to recognize him, the afternoon feels so long ago. Back before everything.
“Ricky, right?” she says.
“Yes, ma’am,” he says. He’s holding a bottle in one hand and he raises it to her in invitation. Behind him, the darkness of the woods is like a fog. It’s as though he stepped from nothingness.
Lorilei doesn’t drink. She hasn’t had a drink in years. She used to run wild with her drinking, the arrests landing her in the local newspaper, her name a tight “L. Guillory” on the police blotter. But when Jeremy was born she cleaned herself up. She wanted to do right by him. Now there’s another baby to think of, three months inside her.
But she’s so scared about Jeremy and that bottle looks so good, its amber color glowing in the light. Jeremy’s kindergarten went on a class trip to the science museum in Lake Charles today. The same trip she took at his age, and perhaps the drink’s warm glow makes her think of the resin fossils she saw then. It’s a strange night, Jeremy gone, all the neighbors out and looking, a night outside time. A night that could last forever, suspended like a bug in that amber, Jeremy always out there somewhere, she always on this porch, waiting. All she has to do is make it through this night.
She takes the bottle. There’s two inches of liquor. “Thanks,” she says.
The first sip is sharp and glass-smooth. It shimmies down inside her, curls up in her belly, warm.
The second sip is sweet. The third.
“Sorry they haven’t found your boy,” Ricky says. In the glare from the porch light his glasses are opaque.
She doesn’t say anything.
“It sounds like people are sure looking,” he says.
Lorilei’s tired. She doesn’t want to talk. So she doesn’t. She just leans back against the stoop for a long time, sometimes with her eyes closed when she can’t bear the quiet and sometimes with her eyes open when she can’t bear the black. The liquor’s gone before she knows it. The man stays at the edge of the grass, his hands in his khaki pockets, silent. It’s companionable. They could almost be friends.
Later she won’t be able to say how long passes before he coughs, a polite sound as if he’s afraid to disturb her. “Well,” he says then, “I’d better be going back in. I really hope they find him.”
New Jersey, 1983
After we’re settled into the new house, my father leaves his job as a government lawyer and opens a solo law practice in the nearby town of Teaneck, finding another gray Victorian and renting the first floor as his office. He buys a piece of black lacquer sixteen inches long and eight inches wide and has Andrew Robert Lesnevich etched into it, followed by the word he worked for: esquire. The sign will be the first of many. He hangs it over his door and waits for cases to arrive.
Come they eventually do, the parade of the unlucky and unwise that make up any small-town lawyer’s work. There’s the house wife with the secret fondness for drink who gets behind the wheel and won’t admit that her head isn’t bobbing only from fatigue. There’s the old man who slips on the shop keeper’s icy walk downtown, and the teenage shoplifter whose hands, always so quick, finally fail her. My father’s not a gossip; he can be trusted and he likes it this way, one foot in the web of every one’s lives. He is needed, but not too closely. Best of all, he is admired. Years in the Air Force have given him a straight-backed public bearing that allows him to take on others’ stories with ease and authority.
Law wasn’t his first choice. My father dreamt of flying fighter planes as a boy. His father had been lost at sea in World War II. His mother never went on another date, and his father’s naval legacy made a military career feel like a birthright. He had flat feet, he was color-blind, he was six feet four — he would never, after all, be a fighter pilot. But he could play tennis. He joined the Air Force and sat out the Vietnam War at a wooden desk in the tropics, stamping papers over and over and then signing them in triplicate, giving his wrist a workout on the courts beating Army and Navy. When he finished active duty, the question of his future loomed. He had studied geology in college, psychology for a master’s. He could resume his studies. Maybe he could become a scientist. Maybe a teacher.
But he didn’t want to sit behind a lab bench any more than he wanted to sit behind a desk. If he couldn’t be a hotshot pilot he wanted a political stage. He wanted to stand in front of people and have them know that little fatherless Andrew from Cliffside Park, New Jersey, had made it.
* * *
When my father reaches this part of the story, one I listen to him tell often, his deep voice grows more insistent, its cadence more punctuated. My father is a storyteller. He tells stories to juries for a living, and he tells them to us around a thick white Formica table so big he found it for a discount; no other family wanted it, he says. We fit perfectly. My father sits on one side of the table, flanked by two of us, my mother on the other side, flanked by two more. The table’s edges are curved so Elize, the youngest, just learning to walk, doesn’t hurt herself when she bumps into it. Around the table we are his audience and his life is the text. Listening as a child I always imagine that the fork he describes in the road is literal: a one-lane highway somewhere in eastern Missouri, no cars on the road except for his, the yellow cut of headlights through the dark his only guide. It is night, the time for dreams and big decisions, and the velvet sky above is pinpricked with light. From behind the wheel my father sees the road ahead of him split. To his left, the West. A left turn will free him from his mother’s clutch. It will save him the depression that has started to haunt him as surely as it does her, from the way his father’s death made his tie to her seem fated, his life cast when he was still a baby. Out West is California, where he will have a life as solid and stable as the rocks he once studied. He will be a teacher, yes, but maybe a politician, too. He will feel beloved. He will be happy.
“But instead” — he always comes to this point in the story — “I knew my mother needed me. I took a right turn. I came back to New Jersey. And then I met your mother.”
* * *
All this from a single turn: his mother, our mother, the four of us children, and now this gray office of his own, where he works in the light of a long metal desk lamp that was once his uncle’s. A large bay window looks out onto the porch. Nights that he fails to close the slat blinds, we can stand on that porch and make out the silhouette of his head bent low in the light of the metal lamp. One night, my mother calls the office again and again and, getting no answer, packs us into the car and drives over — a sure sign she’s nervous, as my mother, the born-and-bred New Yorker from Astoria, Queens, didn’t consent to learn to drive until she was thirty-eight and will never lose the stiffness in her hold on the wheel, her hands locked into the ten o’clock and two o’clock positions as she was taught. Someday, when they have money, she’ll use a car service to take her where she needs to go. But now driving at night is even worse than during the day, and she folds her body to clutch the wheel to her chest as if it were a life preserver.
When we arrive at the office, every window is dark, no sign of my father. “Stay here,” my mother says to me and Andy and my sisters. “Stay right here.” This is unusual. My parents almost never leave us in the car. Unless my grandparents come and babysit, they almost never leave us anywhere. We have been everywhere with them: into the backs of courtrooms, into fancy restaurants. There’s a picture of Andy and me at three years old standing hand in hand on the red velvet steps of the Metropolitan Opera House, me in a white frilly dress and Andy’s curls backlit over his pale blue suit. But tonight we stay in the car. It’s a warm early fall night and the windows are down. The air’s a little sticky, the leaves heavily soft around us. In the glow of a nearby streetlamp, we watch our mother climb the porch steps and press the doorbell. She waits. There’s no response. She presses it again. Nothing. She raps on the bay window and calls in — “Drew! Drew!” — her voice growing higher and louder as she repeats his name.
When I am closer to the age at which she stands on the porch than the age at which I sit in the car watching, I’ll come back to this moment. Then I’ll understand what fears the night held for her. Perhaps he’d finally left the way he threatened to some dark nights, nights that he raged at the choice he’d made on a lonely Missouri road, the choice that had trapped him in this story with us. Nights he sat alone at the white Formica table, drinking off the remainder of the dinner wine he and my mother had opened together, and then opening his own. Those nights he swore we’d be better off without him. Those nights he swore we’d be better off if he were dead.
But this night, as I watch my mother on the porch, and I listen to her call his name and listen to the silence in response, I know only to be afraid that he’s dead not by his hand but by fate. He lost his father when he was a baby. He lost the uncle who helped raise him to an early heart attack. Every March, when we kiss his cheek and tell him happy birthday, if he’s had some wine he shakes his head and says how surprised he is to still be alive. He repeats this sentence year after year until some part of me, I suppose, grows surprised right along with him.
On this night he finally emerges from the door, and in the light of the streetlamp I watch my mother’s face relax into a mix of joy and relief, thankful that they’re still in this together. They walk back to the car hand in hand. She’s beaming. “Hey, kids,” he says. “I fell asleep at my desk.” His tie hangs loosened around his neck. He rubs his eyes with his fingers, then he smiles, too. My mother kisses him, presses the keys into his hand. He’ll drive us home now. They’ll figure out how to get the other car back in the morning.