Storyglossia Issue 19, April 2007.

Keeping Up Disappearances

by Darby Harn




The walls of the room are red. They didn't start out that way. Sunlight through the yellowed newspaper he taped over the four-pane window at the back of the room makes it orange sometimes, like dried blood, or rust. There's an old Montgomery Ward ad advertising brand new 'automatic ovens'—microwaves, she thinks, they're awfully big—and a small blurb about a Good Friday fish fry at the local AMVETS post in Carpenter. Every time she breathes, she inhales the dirt on the floor. There is no floor. She's afraid this is what it's like to be buried alive. The room smells like books. It smells like sweat and urine, like the bleach he uses to cover up the stink, but he just pours it from the bottle along the window sills, in and outside the cracks underneath the doors. The stink he likes.





There are stacks and stacks of magazines and bundles of old newspapers in the red room with her. They surround her. She can barely see over them. The rafters come together in a triangle overhead, like a church steeple. The room is small. It's a shed. She might be on a farm, outside of town. She looks down toward her feet. It looks like chicken wire around her ankles, and her hands, too. It feels like wire.

He sits in the dark, where she can't see him, on a stack of papers. Sometimes he shows her a large book of blank canvas pages that he filled up with clippings from all these books, magazines and papers. Sometimes it's movie stars, Julia Roberts, Sharon Stone, those kind of women, but mostly it's girls from the local paper. Carpenter girls in cheerleader outfits or their bridal gowns or graduation caps.

He started a new page with her.





She coughs dirt. It's in the corners of her eyes, like the points of pencils in her eyes. Water. All she wants is a drink of water. "You stole me," she says.

He laughs. It embarrasses him to, he always half turns away and lowers his head when he does. He spends a lot of time in the shed with her, laughing, reading, showing her pictures of herself, touching himself over there in the corner and when he's done he takes the crumpled paper he came on and smears it on her cheek. Her lips. Her chest. He forces open her mouth and she screams and no one has ever heard her. She's far out in the country. She's nowhere.

"You stole," he says. "Little thief. I used to see you all the time. Those jeans fit? Those tight jeans?"

"You saw the jeans?"

Back in the early nineties, stores gave out cash refunds without a receipt. When there was no more money, and the first of the month was a lifetime away, she and her mother went to K-Mart, into the fitting room with two pair of jeans, but only came out with one; they wore the other underneath the jeans they came in wearing. After the shift change, they went back to the service desk, in stages, to collect their money.

They had this method down so well that it was the only way to drum up a hundred and twenty dollars in one night to get bail for her mother, after she was arrested for passing bad checks. Being poor humiliated her as much as it did her mother, and they were never poorer than at that moment, since passing bad checks and the inevitable visit from the county sheriff became more and more frequent. As soon as the cops left with her mother, she was out the door, walking to K-Mart because she didn't have the money for the bus, and she went back and back, six times, red and angry from the heat, the humiliation and she made a promise to herself that night: she'd never be that poor again. She'd never be nobody.

The girl at the customer service desk knew something wasn't right, this fourteen year-old in every half hour with another pair of jeans but Betty sold a pair of jeans she stole and talked her way out of it, like she always did.

"You saw me?" she says.

He turns away and laughs. "I saw you."

He picks up his scrapbook of girls and flips through its broad, stiff pages. He opens it across his lap and shows her a page from the middle. He points to a square cut-out of a review of a play at the community theater from almost fifteen years ago, There Goes The Bride; accompanying it is a black and white photo of the opening night production, focusing on a teenage girl dressed like a flapper, center stage.

"Polly Perkins," she says, remembering the first role she ever played. He's been watching her half her life.

"'A star is born,'" he says, reading the caption. He starts to hum an old melody. "'Catch a falling star an' put it in your pocket, never let it fade away . . . '"

He turns away, heaving with muzzled laughter.





It's six days, maybe seven. He flips through the pages of his book. Along with the cutouts, there are strands of hair, next to the pictures of nameless girls. Sara Dennison she recognizes. Brown hair. Straight and fine. In the dirt with pebbles she sees clumps of old hair. It looks like the floor of a barber shop. She thinks of her mother, chewing on the ends of her hair in the living room on the love seat Betty bought her from IKEA. For her fiftieth birthday, she flew her out to Los Angeles and took her to a high-end hair salon in Beverly Hills so she could get a real cut, not the test-dummy head she settled for every time she went to the hair college.

It didn't impress her mother as much as Betty thought it would. She gave her mother everything, half her earnings, the house, a Mercedes Benz, the haircut, and Mary Riehl never appreciated any token of her daughter's fame as much as Betty herself.

It wasn't diamond or pearl bracelets on her arm she loved best when she went out in Carpenter, or L.A., it was Betty. When she came home, she depreciated in value and now they never go out to dinner, or to movies. The car sits in the garage, unused, behind the house, large, and quiet.





He reads her newspaper articles, magazine articles, he reads transcripts of shows about her; he orders them to a P.O. Box in Redford so no one knows who they're going to, he brings them into the shed because there's no electricity in it. There's too many shows covering the case, twice as many as when it was just Sara, and he can't afford them all so he just sticks with Debbie Will. He reads to her all day and night, and he will, until he gets bored for another girl.

"I saw you," she says. "Reading."


Betty stood in the checkout at Rob's Grocery with an armful of yogurts and fruits and vegetables, things she went back to every few months, trying to jumpstart her diet and she saw him, on the way out, at the magazine rack, eyes nervously glancing over the tops of the Enquirers and Stars. She'd seen him before. She saw him in Rob's, at Sadie's, at the post office, at the Wal-Mart, in a red truck on the old highway when she was leaving town for the weekend, or coming back. Some people couldn't help but stare. Others followed her around, she was used to it. Part of her even enjoyed the attention. The day after Sara disappeared, Betty saw him standing outside Rob's in the crowd. He didn't have any flyers in his hand. She saw him outside her house, when there were so many news vans from the cable channels parked on the street she couldn't get out of her own driveway.

She told her mother about him, early on, her suspicions and her mother thought he was suspicious, too.

"You think I should tell the cops?" Betty asked her.

Her mother gave a little shrug. "You don't want to figure it all out for them, do you?"

Betty went red. "I'm not trying to."

"No," her mother said, as if she never meant it, and reached for a cigarette. "You know, you should think about buying some new clothes. You don't want to wear the same thing on Debbie every night. People notice."

They went shopping, exhausting her emergency credit card for a new wardrobe, a new outfit for every night of the week. What time she didn't spend on TV or with the investigation she used to work out to an exercise video she ordered from HSN; she lost ten pounds, she looked better than she had in years and a few weeks later, Debbie stopped booking her every night. There was the new kidnapping, in Boston.

When all the vans left, he was still there. She remembers him now, in every place, as suffocating a presence as her own, and she opened up the windows of the house, the doors, and one lonely weekend back into obscurity she drove down the old highway in the Benz with the windows down, the doors unlocked, toward Chicago, or Minneapolis, some place.

"You saw me?" he says.

"I saw you."



Copyright©2007 Darby Harn