The Atlas

Sane Rd., New Jersey
May 22, 2018
This is Not a Poem of the Articulate Rain
May 22, 2018

The Atlas

“—and the whole disgusting mess with the intern. You know she’s probably dead by now,” Glenda declared, sipping her Limoncello on the warm May Mother’s Day afternoon.

“Who, Monica Lewinski?” Susan hadn’t been paying attention to the first part of the story. She was twirling a sliver of fennel from the lunch salad in her mouth. The last part—the kill part—grabbed her. She was feeling tired and had a hard time following Glenda’s train of thought.

Their walk this morning had been particularly strenuous for Susan. She was three months pregnant but hadn’t said anything to her friend. Glenda knew, but she went along with Susan not telling her. Twice Susan had to stop to lean against a tree to catch her breath to keep from vomiting. Glenda eyed her with suspicion but said nothing. “The curry from last night didn’t agree with me,” Susan offered. Glenda grunted and pushed ahead. On Glenda’s veranda after lunch, Susan sank into a semi-torpid state.

“No, Chandra. Levy. Chandra Levy,” Glenda continued. “She was an intern with this congressman, de-mo-cra-tic congressman, might I add. What is it with you liberals? Screaming to high heaven about women’s rights and, first chance they get, all your politicians are perverts and rapists. Pretty young thing too, just like my Jennifer. Just imagine that poor girl’s final moments. I’ll tell you this much: anyone who believes the congressman wasn’t screwing her, I have a bridge I’d like to sell you. Her poor, poor mother. Guess she’s part of our little club now, sad to say.”

“She’s dead?”

“Well, not officially. Officially, the police and parents are still declaring her missing. Which is exactly the wrong approach.”

“So, she hasn’t actually been declared dead by the police? And there isn’t a body? So, then she’s probably still alive.”

“No. She’s dead.”

“Isn’t it a bit early to assume that?”

“You know what they say—ask a woman who knows. I went through the same thing with Jennifer.” Glenda was referring to her own daughter who several years ago had also gone missing and was later found dead.

There wasn’t a reply Susan could think of to give. What could you think of to say to that? Instead, Susan said nothing and closed her eyes against the brightness of the afternoon sun. Glenda went back into the house to get dessert. Susan didn’t want to spend the rest of the afternoon listening to Glenda’s musings about some dead white girl who probably wasn’t even dead. So what if the two women shared long curly hair? That Glenda’s daughter was murdered didn’t mean that the same was true of every other missing person. Coincidence is not correlation or causation. Faulty logic, as Susan had so often scribbled across her students’ papers.

Susan released the long, dreadlocked braids of her hair, which she had tightly looped for their morning walk through the hills of Leesburg. Already her body had begun the familiar change—going through a spring of sorts itself. Her hair was softer with an onyx lustre. Her full, brown cheeks grew rounder. Susan revelled in her body’s revolutions.

Glenda returned with blueberry pie and caught Susan checking her belly. “So, when are you due?”

“October. I was meaning to tell you, I just didn’t know when would be a good time.”

“It’s pretty obvious. That or you developed some kind of thyroid condition.” Glenda downed her drink and poured herself another Limoncello and walked to the edge of the deck to peer down at her newly planted dogwood shrubs, child soldiers meant to grow up one day into privacy-providing sentinels. “Happy Mother’s Day,” she said without turning around.

“I think I’m gonna puke,” Susan said running for the bathroom.

“There’s Listerine under the sink—use a plastic cup, thanks” Glenda shouted.

Susan returned ashen. “I think I need to lie down.”

“‘Course honey. Take the guest room. And I’ll bring up some ginger tea. That always did the trick for me.”

*

Susan and Glenda first met seven months earlier in the grey weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas in the dusty basement of a Presbyterian church in Arlington at a support group for parents who had “lost” their children. “As if we put them in the closet and couldn’t find them, like an old scarf,” as Glenda would later put it.

Susan almost didn’t make it. Forty minutes before the meeting started, she stood frozen on the platform of the Dupont Circle Metro station. Four trains had already gone by and she couldn’t bring herself to board any of them. A police offer passed her, “Evening, ma’am.” She offered him a hollow smile and backed away from the tracks. He stood at the end of the platform assessing if she was one of those holiday jumpers. His suspicious eyes forced her to board the next train.

By the time she reached the church, her toes were freezing from the black snow which had seeped into her pumps. She followed the sign which read, “SHINING STARS BEREAVEMENT GROUP THIS WAY,” a few garish lines underscored the first two words. Down the basement stairs, the last sign pointed with an arrow to the door. Hearing muffled voices, Susan pulled the door open with care but it creaked nonetheless. Everyone turned to face her. They were all white. Her face went flush.

“It’s not a barn, don’t just stand there, come in, sweetie.” Glenda beckoned in oversized Chanel sunglasses and a large gaudy handbag under her arm. Susan, in her dirty white tennis shoes, wondered if she hadn’t mistakenly wandered into a rich people’s AA meeting. Glenda pointed to an empty chair beside her as if motioning to a dog. “What’s your name, honey?” Glenda asked.

“OK. Sure. Hi, I’m Susan.”

“Hi Susan,” said the group in dull unison.

“Carl was just telling us about his son’s methamphetamine addiction and how it led to highway prostitution,” said Glenda. “Go ahead, Carl.”

Carl started anew, stammering his way through a story about birthday cakes and Thanksgiving, or maybe it was a Thanksgiving cake that reminded him of a birthday. Susan wasn’t really paying attention. Her heart was beating fast and the air inside the room was heavy and dank. She felt lightheaded.

Susan was overcome with a coughing fit.

“Don’t worry, you’ll get used to it. Or bring a face mask. It’s like Beijing in here. It’s probably asbestos—”

“It’s not asbestos,” Carl interjected.

“Are you so sure there, Carl? Oh, look at Mr. World Health Organisation here. It’s deadly, whatever it is. I keep saying: if we keep having this meeting here, we’ll be the ones dead. Why can’t we have it in the sanctuary?”

“Because they have rehearsal, Glenda, we’ve been over this,” Carl retorted. “Would anyone else like to share?” After a few prolonged moments of silence, except for the sound of Carl cracking his knuckles, the session was over.

Glenda turned to Susan, “I’m Glenda. Like the Good Witch. Easy to remember. Are you hungry? Let’s get some food. All this talk about dead kids makes me hungry. I know a great Greek place in Fairfax. God, I hope you aren’t a vegetarian.”

*

Three weeks earlier, Susan’s baby died in utero. She was four months pregnant. She had to give birth anyway. After the delivery, the nurse asked Susan and her boyfriend Aaron if they would like to have a picture together? Most families did. The word family startled Susan. Is that what they were now or what they were in the process of becoming or could still be—even after this? Before either of them could answer, the nurse pushed them together and stood with a polaroid camera. She wasn’t happy with the first shot and took another. She handed them both sets of photographs.

Susan’s mother came to visit her in the hospital, dressed in a formal black, with velvet gloves and a veil of black lace. Leaning over her bed, her mother held Susan’s hand tight and said, “God don’t like miscegenation. You would think you’d’ve learned that by now. Now, way I see it, you can keep on perverting the natural order or you can go and get someone from your own kind. I’ll be praying you make the right choice.”

Susan stayed in the hospital for two days, barely conscious for a series of bedside meetings with a counsellor, psychiatrist (who prescribed her medicine even though Susan tried to decline), a gynaecologist (pregnancy was possible again; this happens to many women—we’re not machines! and who knows, maybe third time’s the charm) and an insurance representative (future pregnancies possible but likely expensive and therefore not advised; adoption better and if she became a foster parent she could actually make money). The nurse who came by every three hours to check on her, left a flyer for the support group next to the bed. Aaron scoffed the idea.

Then there was the matter of the body. Since Susan hadn’t and wouldn’t convert to Judaism, the baby wasn’t classified as Jewish and therefore barred from burial in a Jewish cemetery. That his child would forever be marked Gentile disturbed Aaron and did nothing to retard the growing gulf between the living and the dead, between father and son, between man and woman. Susan donated the foetal tissue to the hospital, overruling Aaron’s objections, settling the issue of burial. She kept the death certificate and both photographs in a plastic sleeve at the back of an old photo album.

Two and a half weeks later, on the morning of Thanksgiving Day, Susan couldn’t get out of bed. She begged Aaron to call her family and his to cancel. Aaron’s mother offered to pack up the family, the dinner and the dog and bring them all down from Baltimore. She was halfway out the door when Aaron finally convinced her it wasn’t necessary.

“That’s sweet. How did my mother take it?”

“Oh, you know her abiding antisemitism. It really never does get old. Every interaction is like this new chance for her to be racist. It’s really quite extraordinary. She isn’t convinced Jews celebrate Thanksgiving, even if it has nothing to do with religion.” He rubbed her forehead. “It’s better to stay in anyway. Between your mother’s turkey and mine, I would’ve gained 10 pounds.” They ordered Chinese and watched The Big Sleep.

She took a few months off. The university was understanding and allowed her to continue with full pay and health insurance. She promised to return for the spring semester. In the meantime, she’d continue her manuscript on the semiotics of East Coast hip hop.

Susan’s mother sent her tapes of the Oprah Winfrey show on a weekly basis. One episode was about following your dreams. Oprah, apparently, had always wanted to be a singer. “I believe in the principle of intention. That intention rules the world. We have the world that we have based on people’s conscious and unconscious intentions,” Oprah said while wearing a Tina Turner wig.

Aaron, working on his own dissertation, kept noise-cancelling earphones on and said nothing as he worked away in the corner of the living room, casting a resentful shadow.

*

Seven months later, Susan had willed her daughter into existence, despite Aaron’s ambivalence over trying again, despite her mother’s approbations, despite the uncertainty of biology and the precariousness of her own uterus—intention and a newfound faith in probiotics.

Now, she woke to the smell of ginger in Glenda’s guest room. The nausea had passed. She sat up in the bed. It was double the size of what she and Aaron slept in at home. In fact, the bedroom felt almost as big as their whole apartment. She thought for a moment she was in the hospital. By instinct her hand reached for stomach. She realised she was at Glenda’s and the tension in her body slackened. She took a sip of the tea. It was almost like being at a spa.

“Glenda,” Susan called out. There was no reply so she got up and walked around. “Glenda?”

“Up here,” came the cheery reply from the hallway. “Careful on the ladder. It’s a rickety old thing. Now, I’ve got something to show you.”

Susan climbed the stairs. Stacks of newspapers filled every corner, some with cut-outs, other with bright red marker drawings. Not just the city paper and the local news, but also Bloomfield News, Cameron County Endeavour, Fairfax Connection and ThePhiladelphia Weekly. The pièce de résistance, however, was a large cork board onto which Glenda had glued a map of the DC metropolitan area. A crude cut-out of Chandra Levy smiled from the centre, beneath which was scrawled “WHERE ARE YOU?” The question was circled several times over as if on an extended audio loop. A picture of Glenda’s dead daughter Jennifer was plastered beside it. There was, one had to admit, a passing resemblance.

“Well look who re-joined the land of the living? How’re you feeling?”

“Better. What is all this?”

Glenda explained the map to Susan. In order to find Jennifer’s killer, she had to find more victims—the murders of women, over the last fifteen years within a 10-year age range (give or take) of Jennifer within a 50 mile range (give or take) of where Jennifer was found. Glenda excluded women killed by other women. Women whose death was ruled a suicide were, oddly, kept. The numbers needed to line up—if, say, a twenty-five-year-old committed the crime, it was unlikely that he had killed Jennifer, so that case was automatically excluded and the suspect removed.

“How long did all this take you?”

“It’s not done, yet. I started five years after Jennifer died. So, I guess that makes it about six years. Six and change. I update it whenever I hear of another murder that matches Jennifer’s profile. I just started using the web to search for more murders. I had Fred get me a computer with fast dial-up. He thinks I use it to put up real estate ads online.”

“What does he say about all this?”

“Nothing. He doesn’t come here. It’s my space. I keep it under lock and key.”

“It’s quite … something.”

“I need to talk to Chandra’s parents,” Glenda said, stepping over a stack of yellowed papers. “She’s the latest one.”

“Glenda, you don’t know that. How could you possibly know that?”

“Of course I do, sweetie. That’s what happens. It’s how these things go. Their daughter will never be found alive. The parents will wait and wait and hope. But nothing good will come of it. They’ll put up flyers and go on TV and do radio shows. There will be search parties and hotlines for people to call. They can even start a website these days, but it won’t do any good. What they should be focused on is finding the body! They’re losing time now with false hope. They should be trying to find the body and with it any clues as to what happened—who did this and why. Not that the police know what they’re doing half the time. That’s why I need to talk to the parents.”

“Glenda, I don’t think that’s a good idea. You have no idea what’s happened to that girl. Maybe she met someone and they went to Mexico. Maybe she fell in love with a Saudi prince and she’s sailing around the Gulf on a yacht. Maybe she moved to Canada because she hates George Bush. Maybe she was abducted by aliens.”

“Did you know I found out that Jennifer had been going to Philadelphia. She never told us she went to Philly. She was seeing someone. He was married. Like Chandra and that congressman. It had been going on for years. Years. With a married man.”

“That’s the only way they’re connected? Two curly-haired girls who died 15 years apart who were having sex with older men. In different cities. That’s hardly a connection.”

“But I know it! It’s like watching a movie you’ve seen before. You know how it ends but can’t remember the middle. And now it’s back on TV again, but it’s a remake with different actors.”

“Glenda, they won’t want to hear this. No parent would. Did you? If this had happened in the first weeks when Jennifer disappeared, how would you have reacted? We can discuss this more at the meeting next week. Or if you want to go to an earlier one, maybe we can find one sooner. Do you have the directory they gave us? Or maybe we can look on the web.”

“I don’t want to go to a fucking meeting!”

“How about a drink? I’m feeling lightheaded again.”

“You shouldn’t overdo it. I’ve got lemonade downstairs. You’re probably dehydrated. Are you hungry? Let’s go. You first. And be careful. Both hands on the rails.” Glenda followed, closing the attic and locking it.

This was the last time Susan visited Glenda. Her pregnancy grew more difficult as it continued. She kept going to meetings, but closer to home, in a recreation centre instead of a church.

Glenda called her a few times and left messages on her machine, but Susan didn’t call her back. Glenda blamed Mother’s Day for her behaviour, “it always brings out the crazy in me.” She wanted to know how Susan was. Did the morning sickness pass—was she drinking ginger tea? Did she know the gender yet? Maybe they could go shopping together? Or did she need help setting up a nursery?

Susan listened to each of the messages and then deleted them. There were other things to focus on. Before he left for good, Aaron had bought (but not assembled) an elliptical machine. She had a downstairs neighbour help her.

In September, already on maternity leave and beached on her sofa, Susan, like the rest of the country, watched on television as planes crashed into skyscrapers, government buildings and farmland. She didn’t know what to do. No one did. Going outside could mean certain death—if not from the planes then from the chemicals released into the air. And she had the baby to think about. No, better to stay inside and wait out the Apocalypse. And so she remained in doors, walking endlessly in place, she and her baby, waiting for the world to end.

It didn’t.

Eight months later in May of the following year, a park jogger stumbled upon the decomposing remains of a woman later identified as Chandra Levy. An autopsy ruled the cause of death as homicide. Susan watched the news report while feeding baby Samuel, who had begun to sit up on his own. She went immediately for Glenda’s number. She had a new phone and couldn’t find it. She called the operator and asked for Glenda’s number. It wasn’t listed.

In August, on a fetid Saturday, Susan piled herself and Samuel—now nearly a year old—onto the metro, then onto a bus and then in a taxi to the Glenda’s house. The neighbourhood had changed. The expansive views had been cluttered with subdivisions and houses. Highways had sprung up where forests used to be. There was a fitness centre and several grocery stores.

When Susan reached Glenda’s house, she rang the doorbell.

“Good morning,” a man in his early forties answered the door.

Susan introduced herself and explained she was looking for Glenda and Fred, who clearly were no longer there.

“Me and my wife moved in about four months ago. The previous owners died in a freak accident about four months before that. Husband had a stroke while driving in the mountains and they careened off the road and into a ditch. That’s what the realtor said, at least. Then the bank took the house. I guess they didn’t have any children.”

“Shit.”

“It was already on the market anyway and most of the stuff had been moved out. Were you all close?”

“Yeah, in a way. We were in a club together.”

“That sounds nice. I guess it’s a bit late to say, but sorry for your loss.”

“Thanks.”

“Oh, they did leave a box. A big box. Some maps and things. I don’t really know. We never wanted to open it. It was up in the attic.” He showed her the way.

“Do you mind if I take it?”

“Be my guest. My wife thought it’d be bad luck to throw it away.”

Once home, she unfolded the map on the floor. Chandra’s photo was still on the map, though wrinkled. She sat Samuel on the edge of Columbia Heights and grabbed the pen she used for grading papers. She drew a line from Dupont Circle to the Rock Creek Park where the remains were found.

She put on the percolator with a fresh scoop of ground coffee beans. There was much work to do.