"Spalding Gray Is Missing"

(written January 2004)

“Life approximates a play performed in its early scenes by a cast of human actors, and towards the end by mannequins painted to resemble them” - Arthur Schopenhauer

I think we first noticed it when I saw the newspaper article. That was about four months after Teresa disappeared.

“It’s not a coincidence,” my wife said, and you had to pay attention then. My wife thinks everything is a coincidence.

“Teresa went missing the same way, remember?” She was flipping through one of those freebie magazines they give away at Wal-Mart. “We all saw her get on the school bus, but none of the other kids could remember where she sat. And when the bus got to school she wasn’t on board anymore.”

(This was the really weird element with Teresa. Even the police were freaked out.)

My wife was thinking about the guy on the ferry, the one they said was the last to see Spalding Gray. Spalding Gray talked before about jumping off the ferry, so it seemed like a clue.

Still I didn’t get it: “What’s that got to do with anything?”

“Teresa was reading a book by Spalding Gray the night before she got on the bus. And Spalding Gray went to a movie just before he got on the ferry. Don’t you see?”

“No.” She didn’t press her point. I think she found something in the magazine she wanted to read. You’re lucky if you can find any distraction these days.

There’s hardly anything interesting in the newspaper. I remember trying to tell that to one of the cops, but he just kept hammering away about the disappearance: “It must be so hard for both of you, searching for news about Teresa.”

“About Teresa, about whatever,” I said. “Something exciting, at least. I can’t even read the paper any more. You know less after you finish than when you started. I don’t think the people who write this stuff even know what they’re talking about.”

The cop asked me if we wanted to see another counselor. The first one stopped coming after a while, but I can’t remember why.

Teresa’s disappearance made for a lot of changes at first. For the first week or so people were coming and going at all hours, just like back in college. I decided to play it up a little by doing the bartender thing, serving cocktails to the detectives and pretending it was a frat party. “Everyone saw her get on the bus,” I’d tell them. “Isn’t that bizarre?” I’ve always been into paranormal stuff, ever since I was a kid.

Finally my wife told me to cool it. “The bizarre part is good for us,” she explained. “If the kids and the bus driver hadn’t seen her get on, we’d be in jail now.”

“In jail?”

“That’s what somebody told me. They said we were freaking people out.”

“Whatever.” (No one ever touched their drinks anyway. They said they weren’t allowed to.)

After a few weeks the cops pretty much gave up. They kept coming by every once in a while so as not to hurt our feelings, but they can’t drop all the other things they’re doing just for us. I realize that. Even then it was still a little different not having Teresa around, but to be honest you stop noticing once you get used to a new routine. My wife said she thought she was getting an extra hour of sleep every night, and she did seem to be looking better. Kids can run you ragged.

We didn’t connect it with anything else. There might have been an article in the paper somewhere, but who can get through that every day? Still, we should have picked up the signs after my wife finally had that long sit-down talk with her boss. She’d been in line for a promotion, and we’d known the talk was going to happen eventually. It’s as if we thought about it in capital letters: “The Talk”.

“He says he hasn’t had time to plan for any of the new positions here,” she told me that evening. “He’s been tied up with all the problems at the Chicago office, and on top of that his wife disappeared, so it was just like the whole thing we had with Teresa. People running in and out of his house every five minutes.”

“It must take forever just to give them all the tour,” I said. Her boss always holds the office Christmas party at his place, so he gets a chance to show it off. “When did she disappear?”

“A couple of weeks ago, he said. So I guess he’s still got the police stuff to deal with.”

“Might not have tapered off yet,” I agreed.

“But he was very nice about it. He says they’ll be making their staffing decisions no later than the end of next month.” That meant another Talk to look forward to—although it was basically the same Talk we’d been looking forward to already, just postponed, and didn’t really count as something new. Half the time it’s like a donkey with a carrot, you know?

Anyhow I probably should have figured out then that something was up, but they say it takes three events to make a trend. Spalding Gray was number three, so I guess he stuck in my mind at some level.

A couple of days after we saw the article I called a friend of mine from college, a guy I hadn’t been in touch with for ages. You have to take the initiative every so often.

I figured we could break the ice by catching up on the news: “What’s happening, bro?”

“It’s total craziness here!” my friend said. “One of my kids just disappeared.”

I was pretty freaked out. “No way! Mine too.” My friend has two children and they’re both a few years older than Teresa, but what happened with him was very similar. His son was driving home from the movies with his girlfriend and ended up running the car off the road. The girlfriend was fine when they found her, but the kid was gone. She couldn’t even remember if he got out of the car after it crashed. She said the movie made her too depressed to notice anything else.

We agreed that something strange was happening, especially since it turned out that another buddy of ours had disappeared the week before. “I called him up to see how he was doing,” my friend said, “and his wife was like ‘Search me’. It was so weird.”

Pretty soon we got sidetracked into talking about the rest of the guys, and I started reminding him about how we should all try and get back together at some point, maybe for a picnic or something. Our lives needed more excitement, or so it seemed to me.

“Better hurry before someone else disappears,” my friend said. He hasn’t changed at all—still the same cut-up he was freshman year. After a few minutes one of the cops at his house told him to get off the line. I’m always talking about that picnic, but at this rate I don’t see how we’re ever going to get it together.

Exciting things are happening all around us, actually, but most of the time we don’t notice them. People never understand this. I tried to explain it to the counselor, but I think I just ended up freaking her out. I told her that an exciting thing is not necessarily one thing that seems exciting all by itself. Those are the easiest to spot, but they don’t come along very often. Most exciting things are actually exciting patterns, or exciting associations of things. Just by accident I’d stumbled across a pattern, and that was something to hold on to.

But you can only get so much mileage out of one pattern. Sooner or later it slips through your fingers or fades away like the color in a soap bubble about to burst. Even before you hang up the phone, you fall back into the illusion that life is dull.

I didn’t think about Teresa again for nearly a year. My wife got the promotion and a much higher salary, but we’d agreed in advance not to let that change anything.

One day the phone rang out of the blue. It was my friend from college, the one whose son disappeared.

“How’s it going, man?” he asked me.

“Same old same old,” I said. “Did that kid of yours ever turn up?”

“As if,” my friend said. “Actually that’s what I was calling about. Is yours still gone?”

“Gone with the wind,” I said. “We’re going to sue the school district.” My wife’s brother is an attorney, so that was his idea.

“I get it. Instead of chasing an ambulance, you’re chasing a school bus.”

“Yeah, yeah, wise guy. My wife’s handling the paperwork.” That’s when I remembered that all the documents were still spread out on the kitchen table, where we left them after opening the package from the lawyers. It’s been a while now, I think.

“How’s she doing?” my friend asked. “Still the same old spark?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “Same old same old.” I was trying to remember the last time I’d talked to my wife. She wasn’t at breakfast that morning, I was pretty sure, or I would have said something about the papers.

As soon as I got off the phone, I took a look in the kitchen to see if my wife had sent the documents back. They were still on the table, along with a whole pile of other mail she hadn’t opened. I checked the postmark dates but I can never remember which day it is anyway, so that didn’t help much.

I went upstairs to see if my wife was around. It was pretty late in the evening, so she should have been home by then. Her briefcase was in the usual place near her side of the bed, which meant either she was already back or she hadn’t gone to work in the first place. I noticed she’d left a magazine lying open on the bedside table.

One of the articles in the magazine was a retrospective about Spalding Gray, but I didn’t really look at that since I hadn’t been to any of his shows in the first place. The piece my wife had been reading was a short story. I’m not much of a fiction person, but I figured I’d give it a shot.

In the story, two middle-aged women are walking down a suburban street in the early evening, trying to find the house of a college professor whose class they took many years earlier. The professor taught some boring subject, like mechanical engineering, but the women have never forgotten his astounding lectures. Even now they can hardly stop thinking about him. They speak in hushed tones as they walk, murmuring about ‘shear’ and ‘load’ and ‘weight-bearing structures’ as if these were the most fascinating things in the world.

Eventually one of the women begins a long, breathless monologue into her companion’s enchanted ear. She whispers on and on about the professor’s brilliant ideas, and each sentence transfigures the dusty bones of physics into something rich and strange. When she uses the word torque it becomes provocative, almost obscene. When she says catastrophic failure you start to choke up. At least I know I did.

When the woman finishes speaking, she comes to herself and realizes that her friend has vanished. She stops for a moment, looks around, and then begins again as if nothing had happened, with a fresh soliloquy in praise of the old professor. She continues walking down the street, and the narrator points out that it is now too dark to read the numbers on the houses.

The story ends there.

When I finished reading the sky was getting light. (I tend to lose track of time.) I decided my wife was definitely missing since she hadn’t come to bed, which meant for one thing that I’d have to take care of all the legal stuff myself. It’s supposed to be pretty self-explanatory, but I haven’t looked at it in detail yet.

Before I go to work today I’m going to do something a little unusual. We live not too far from my old college, and at the edge of campus near the freshman dorms there’s a small public park with a basketball court. My buddies and I played pick-up games there back in the day, and with all those happy memories it’s just the spot for the picnic I’ve been planning.

The only real problem with the picnic is getting in touch with everyone to set a date, which I always forget to do after I get home from work. But forgetting is easy when one evening is just like another. The things that happen are hardly ever exciting things, and if you don’t find a pattern or make one, a year can slip by like blowing your nose.

So the trick is to do something that fixes the idea of the picnic in memory. I’ve noticed that when you drive past the park in early morning, the sun shines very faintly through the trees across the campus, and one of the dorm buildings throws a shadow over the basketball court. If I’m passing at just the right time the light around the place reminds me of a winter afternoon eighteen years ago, the afternoon I met my wife.

Today I’m going to drive by the park when the sun’s position calls back the rapture of that first moment—the moment that led to all the others, the one that brought me the marriage, the house, the daughter, the police, the cocktails, the first Talk, the newspaper article, the first phone call, the second Talk, the second phone call, and the papers on the kitchen table. (It’s going to be one hell of a lawsuit when it comes to trial, believe me.)

As I pass the basketball court I’ll look straight into the sun and say to myself, “Dude, you’re totally at that picnic with the guys.” And before you know it, there I’ll be.

In the meantime, tell your friends!