By conservative estimates, there are currently enough wrongfully convicted people in prison in the United States to fill a football stadium.
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My mother became a missing person in the summer of 1994, when I was fourteen. The day she disappeared, she told my father and me she was going to the Piggly Wiggly in Lineville, about ten miles from our home in Delta, Alabama. She didn’t come back.
My father and I spent the rest of that night whispering prayers and making phone calls. No one had seen her at the store, or anywhere else. I struggled to repress images of her mangled car, her lifeless body. Sleep was out of the question.
Not long after daylight, the county investigator arrived to explain that my mother was a suspect in a crime. One of our neighbors, the father of a little girl my mother baby-sat, had reported to the police that he was missing around sixteen hundred in cash. He thought my mother might have taken it. The investigator said that, at about the time she’d left home the day before, she was supposed to be at the Clay County Courthouse for questioning. Now, because of her failure to appear, my mother was suspected of having fled to avoid prosecution.
The theft didn’t seem like something she would do — it seemed, in fact, contrary to everything I knew about her. She didn’t drive too fast or drink too much or yell at my father. And she had raised me to be an honest boy: I’d never stolen so much as a pack of gum from the store or a pencil from a classmate, and I could hardly tell a lie, even a small one. But my father and I believed the investigator’s story almost instantly because, after we’d gone all night fearing the worst, it gave us hope that she wasn’t dead.
And so the wait began.
We assumed her disappearance would last only a few days — weeks, at the most. She would grow tired of hiding and turn herself in, or the police would track her down and put her in jail. Then we could bail her out and forgive her and deal with whatever came next.
We waited through July. We waited through August.
We waited at my father’s parents’ house, which sat in a hollow just a quarter mile down Shiloh Church Road from the trailer where I had lived my whole life. We waited there because it was too painful to be at home and see my mother’s toothbrush by the sink. Her fluffy slippers with tiger faces on the toes by the front door. The breadbox she’d painted with the words Home Sweet Home on the kitchen counter. Her plants, dying. Her cat’s litter box, untouched. (He’d disappeared, too, as though he’d decided to go look for her himself.)
We waited on the front porch with the flies and the panting yard dogs. Relatives smoked cigarettes. We watched hummingbirds and carpenter bees through the heat of the day, listened to the owls and coyotes at night.
My father and I kept an eye on the passing cars, looking for one that resembled the white Cutlass she had been driving. A flash of white through the magnolias was enough to send my father scrambling for his keys to chase after it. A few minutes later he’d return, take his seat on the front porch, and light a cigarette. “The idiot ought to know better than to drive a car like that past this house,” he might say.
We drove around the county. Scoured dirt roads and back roads. Visited junkyards. Parked at hazardous turns and got out to peer into thickets. Checked under bridges and inside culverts. Craned our necks to see behind people’s houses — people we knew and people we did not. Sometimes we drove just for the sake of driving. And while we drove, we talked about her, though we had stopped saying her name.
We said “she.”
We said “her.”
Sometimes the phone would ring, and the caller would hang up when we answered — probably kids playing pranks, but we also thought it might have been her, wanting to hear our voices. We took turns answering. I always listened for the sound of breathing on the line. When I did hear it, I had the impulse to reach through the telephone and grab whoever was at the other end and demand answers: Why are you harassing us? If you have something to say, if you know something, then why not say it? Or, if you’re my mother and you’re calling because you miss me, because you need to know I’m OK (I’m not!), then please just come home, Mama. Please.
My father wasn’t an involved parent. A deeply introverted man, he was indecisive and often impatient with me. He told me that the day they brought me home from the hospital, he held me only once, then not again until I was two years old. He said he was frightened he’d damage me. (This might be an accurate description of his feelings toward me to this day.) He was just nineteen when I was born and could barely afford to put a single-wide trailer on land that belonged to his father. I was the greatest responsibility he’d known, and he retreated from it.
My mother let him. From the day I was born, she made it clear that she knew what she was doing and needed no one’s help, as if raising me were a joy she wanted all to herself.
“You gone spoil that child,” people told her. She didn’t care. She never tried to make me clean up after myself or eat foods I didn’t like. When I wanted something from the store, I almost always got it, which could have caused money problems if we’d lived close enough to a store to go shopping with any frequency. She never gave me chores or rules. When I got caught in second grade making a nude drawing of my teacher, the body parts all labeled, my mother wasn’t angry, but she was waiting for me when I stepped off the bus. “Come here,” she said, sitting in the yellowed grass where I liked to play baseball. She asked if I wanted to tell her about the picture I’d drawn. I shook my head. “Listen,” she said, lowering her face to mine. “Look at me.” She explained that I was probably going to have to do something to make it up to my teacher. Like a punishment. But she wanted me to know that she wasn’t mad. Not even a little bit. “Just don’t draw any more pictures like that, OK? You can’t be doing that, because it upsets people. But I’m not mad at you for doing it.” I considered telling her I was sorry, but somehow I knew she wanted no apology. All she wanted was for me to understand that she’d already forgiven me.
So whenever I did anything bad, even something I knew she wouldn’t like, I told her about it. I told her when I was nine that an older kid had shown me a dirty movie. I told her when I sneaked a cigarette and tried to smoke it. I needed her to know every wrong thing I did, to confirm that she loved me no matter what.
My father and I and the rest of the family told each other stories. We tried to convince ourselves that what the authorities had said was true: she’d stolen; she’d lied; she’d fled; she was alive. We talked about how none of the jobs she’d held — gas-station clerk, house-cleaner — had worked out. We talked about the debts and the bounced checks. We talked about the private school she wanted to send me to but couldn’t afford, the karate tournaments she did send me to that required plane tickets and hotel stays, the sneakers and name-brand clothes she’d found some way to buy me after I’d nagged her for them. Everyone had a story of money gone missing. Five dollars or fifty, it didn’t matter — we accused her. We were slandering her with no real evidence and for no reason except that we loved her and wanted her to come home.
The wait became our normal. My father returned to work at the rubber plant. I returned to school at Lineville High in the fall. We each handled the tension differently. He said “goddamn” and “fucking” a lot, though he had never done so in the past; I quoted the King James Bible to him. He often broke down and wept; I seldom cried — at least, not when anyone was around to see. He’d say, “She’s goddamn dead! What the hell do y’all think she is?” I’d ask why he couldn’t just have faith in the authorities and give them time to do their jobs. When he was in one of his better moods, he’d say, “If she was dead, we would have found her by now, or at least the car.” He didn’t like the Carlo Rossi wine his sister kept in their parents’ refrigerator, so he cut it with orange juice when he needed a drink. I opened the refrigerator when no one was looking and drank the wine straight from the bottle. He talked to the county investigator every day and even hired a private investigator. I watched the nude scenes in Bedroom Eyes II, fast-forwarding through the rest.
We read about ourselves in the newspaper.
At first the stories said nothing about the money she’d been accused of taking. One article mentioned that the pilots who searched for marijuana fields had been ordered to keep an eye out for her white Cutlass Ciera, but nothing had turned up. The Thanksgiving edition of The Clay Times-Journal noted that our family had started a mail-in campaign to get our story on The Oprah Winfrey Show. (The campaign had not been my idea. I felt sure Oprah would never respond, and it was embarrassing to stand at the main traffic light in Lineville and pass out envelopes addressed to Oprah Winfrey.) The Anniston Star ran an article about an event a local church in Delta had organized to support our family. This was just after a federal grand jury had indicted my mother in absentia for felony flight. We had no idea such a process was underway until the investigator called my father to let him know it had been done. My mother was now officially a fugitive, assumed to have crossed state lines to avoid giving testimony in an investigation. The evidence that she’d fled was circumstantial and convoluted, at best, but the jury had accepted it, as did we. “If Lori Lumpkin is a fugitive,” the article begins, “so be it. It doesn’t change the fact that Delta wants her home.” According to the newspaper, the church event lasted around two hours, there were refreshments and gospel singing, and a few hundred balloons were released, each bearing my mother’s picture and our family’s contact information. I’m sure it was an impressive and touching sight. I wasn’t there. I was too ashamed to be at the center of such a spectacle, to be seen hurting.
We watched ourselves on television.
The crew filmed my father first. He started with the facts: his missing wife was thirty-one years old and five foot one with brown hair and green eyes. Then he said into the camera, “Lori, come home.”
They probably hoped I would say something similar. They probably wanted footage of a green-eyed fourteen-year-old boy with a bowl cut standing beneath a grim fall sky, pleading with his mother to come back. But I couldn’t bring myself to play along. Instead I told a story about a black man I’d once seen run out of a grocery store in Mississippi with a package of sandwich meat in his hand. A couple of employees had chased him across the parking lot, and a minute later several squad cars had arrived, their lights swirling. “That’s why no one’s found my mother,” I said. “They’re too busy chasing hungry folks for stealing food.”
Looking back at my younger self — a cocky, earnest kid with his hands in the pockets of his baggy jeans, his bangs in his eyes, his eyelids sagging with feigned boredom — I see how hard I was trying to hide my suffering, pretend to be above it. But when I gave the interview, I didn’t realize I was pretending.
That night on TV they showed my father — his long hair tangled, his face as colorless as the overcast sky behind him, his beard streaked with gray though he was only thirty-four. He laughed at the sight. “My God,” he said. “I look seventy years old.” They ended the story without ever showing my face.
We prayed: Please let her be alive. Please let her come home. Please let this all be over and done with. Soon.
The word let implied that God was in control. It also implied that my mother wanted to come home, but God was keeping her away. So we called upon his only begotten son, whom he had sent to be crucified for our sins, to remind his father that he supposedly loved us.
Sometimes I took my black leather King James Bible with my name on the cover in gold letters and walked behind the house and sat atop one of the hills overlooking the creek. I allowed the wind to ruffle the thin, fragile pages while I dropped a finger on a random passage and read it aloud:
“Is any among you afflicted? Let him pray.”
“Let us run with patience the race that is set before us.”
I know which passages I read aloud in the woods because I highlighted them in yellow. My mother had given that Bible to me for my twelfth birthday. I remember trying to show enthusiasm for the gift — I sensed that she was telling me something about my becoming a man, about questions I would soon be asking that she would no longer be able to answer — but there was no denying my disappointment. I’d wanted Air Jordans.
Sometimes I read lines from the Bible to my father: “It is better to go to the house of mourning, than to go to the house of feasting; for that is the end of all men, and the living will lay it to his heart.” He asked me how I’d found the passages, and I told him about my walks in the woods. He said he’d done the same thing when he was younger.
But then he spent the rest of the day drinking. I spent it watching movies on the VCR and highlighting more passages in my King James. Late that night, after everyone else had gone to bed, I stayed up with him on my grandparents’ porch, sitting in the swing and reading in Ecclesiastes about how “all things are vanity” while moths banged against the porch light and dogs barked in the distance.
My father walked into the yard to piss. On the way back he started crying. Then he went down on his knees and finally lay flat with his face in the grass, his hands outstretched, as if prostrating himself before God. I walked inside, hoping that, after he recovered, he’d find the porch empty and think I hadn’t seen. I had the King James open in my lap when he came inside looking depleted, his face white. “Might as well put that book away,” he said. “It’s a lie.”
We printed fliers. Beneath her photo we included a Bible quote: “What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he lose one of them, doth not leave the ninety and nine in the wilderness, and go after that which is lost, until he find it? Luke 15:4.”
We delivered these fliers to all the businesses within a fifty-mile radius. We taped them to windows and power poles and streetlamps. We slipped them beneath windshield wipers. Copies of the flier were scattered throughout the trailer and stacked in the small room where we kept the computer, but I never truly looked at it until the day I saw it hanging on the wall just inside the doors of the new Walmart Supercenter in Anniston: my mother’s smiling face amid dozens of other photographs of missing people. I studied all the fliers, trying to memorize the information. I told myself I would be ready when my chance came to dial a number and help bring someone home.
Later I realized with dismay that I’d forgotten every name and number. I couldn’t picture a single face.
We bought a toll-free number — 1-800-505-LORI — and put it on the fliers, then waited for someone to dial it.
One night my father entered the front room at my grandparents’ house and announced, “We got a message!”
My grandfather lowered the footrest on his recliner. My grandmother put down her book of crosswords.
My father said she’d been spotted in Cedartown, Georgia, living in a trailer park with a Mexican family.
The next few hours were exciting. We called the investigator, who said he would follow up on the tip but warned us not to get our hopes too high: “You’ve got to expect a certain number of false leads.” We drank a bottle of Cold Duck, cheap sparkling wine that tasted like a fountain drink. I loved popping the plastic cork. I loved that no one cared that I was drinking. We stayed awake till the early hours. My father said he didn’t think she was actually living in a trailer park with some people from Mexico. “But, by God,” he said, a tremendous grin on his face, “I made something happen.” And at that moment I felt sure he was going to bring my mother home, maybe not that night or that week, but sometime soon.
The next day, after work, my father called the investigator. After he hung up, I asked what he’d found out.
He told me the person who’d left the tip had been just some kid playing on the phone. “They don’t know a fucking thing more than they did yesterday.”
I walked out the front door and hopped on my bicycle and started pedaling with no destination in mind. That’s the thing about living in Delta, Alabama: there were no destinations, certainly not for a kid on a bike looking for a way to forget.
My father stopped cutting the grass around the trailer. Kudzu encroached on the yard from the tree line, spreading into our clearing, winding up the metal frame of my old swing set, snaking into my mother’s flower garden. Inside the trailer her dirty clothes remained in a pile beside the washing machine. Dust coated her miniature brass bells and ceramic angels. The ashtrays remained full.
My father’s life became routine and repetition. Afternoons he’d come home from the rubber plant and print missing-person fliers in an almost continuous stream. Whenever I walked past the computer room, a cloud of cigarette smoke hung about the doorway. He sat with his bare feet propped on the desk. Beside him on the floor, the printer whined and shook as if it were about to take flight. If I asked what he was up to, he’d say, “Chasing leads,” or, “Shaking bushes,” or, “Grasping at straws.”
In desperation he harassed people he suspected of having information: tailed their cars, staked out their homes, snooped in their mailboxes, peered through their windows. He made cryptic threats or mailed them cards and letters accusing them of knowing where she was. He suspected these people because the phone records the private investigators had given him showed that they’d talked to my mother on the day she’d disappeared, or because they were relatives of hers with criminal records, or because someone had told my father he should suspect them, or because they’d dialed our toll-free line. He picked up expressions from talking to investigators. He called people “leads” and “persons of interest.” He liked to say he was “under duress” and couldn’t be held responsible for his actions.
If my father had been a hands-off parent before, he had totally surrendered the reins now. He could scarcely take care of himself, much less help his teenage son cope.
I started hanging around with older kids at school. We drank a lot, mostly gas-station wine like Thunderbird. We stole things from people’s yards. We called it “snatching.” “It’s Friday,” we’d say. “Let’s go snatching.” We snatched campaign signs. We snatched Halloween and Christmas decorations: a mechanical Rudolph, the black wise man from a Nativity scene.
We smoked reefer, but I didn’t enjoy it, because it caused me to panic about whether there was a God and whether my mother was alive or not. I preferred huffing gasoline. I’d cup my hands around the gas tank on my grandfather’s lawn mower and breathe in the fumes, then plop down among the rusted tools in his shed. Freon was even better. We drained it from window-unit air conditioners. I still feel bad about all the people in Clay County who must have wondered why their air conditioners wouldn’t work.
I fell in love with a skinny blonde who tasted of Winterfresh gum. We had once gone to school together, but her family had moved to a bigger town nearby. It was important to her that I understand she was a “prep” and not a “tree-hugger.” (Clay County schools didn’t have such cliques. We had only black kids and white kids and kids of either race who were so poor they wore the same clothes every day.) It was important to her that I wear Timberland boots and Polo shirts and a double-wrap velcro watch. On weekends her mother would let me spend the night at their house — my father, of course, expressed no concern — but the girl and I never had sex. We stayed up all night in her bedroom with candles and incense burning, but we always stopped short of the act. My mother had told me to wait until I was married, because it was what Jesus wanted. Drugs and alcohol and vandalism, for some reason, didn’t feel like a betrayal of her wishes, but sex was a line I wasn’t willing to cross.
Then the girl cheated on me. A boy from her town called me up and said, “She’s two-timing us, dude.” Distraught, I grabbed my boombox and headed into the woods with a pack of my aunt’s Salems and some Carlo Rossi wine. I wore a hunter-orange cap to avoid being accidentally shot. I took one sip of the wine and tossed the rest of the bottle, smoked half a cigarette and gave up. The music I played on the boom-box didn’t lift my spirits as I’d hoped. The trees creaked in the wind. I found a dry place to sit, hugged my knees, and cried.
I fell in love with another girl, who taught me how to hunt for arrowheads in plowed fields and how to listen to the Grateful Dead without getting bored. I put my Polos in the bottom drawer and started shopping at Goodwill. I loved this girl more than the first, but I didn’t have sex with her, either, though it was becoming harder to resist. I read Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra and Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. I got my driver’s license. I earned admission to the Alabama School of Math and Science, a state-funded boarding school four hours south.
I am out of here, I thought to myself.
On the second Christmas after my mother disappeared, it snowed — rare for Alabama. I walked alone down the path to my grandparents’ house, thinking how my mother would have played in the snow with me. She would have giggled and thrown snowballs and insisted we try to build a snowman. I stood on the path and looked around at the pine boughs dusted with white and felt the hollow spot within me swell until my breath caught and I cried — one of the few times I’d cried about my mother. I had cried over girls, and I’d cried watching Dead Poets Society, and I’d cried the night I’d found a starving kitten beside the road, but I was good at numbing the pain of losing my mother. That damn snow just caught me off guard.
We waited two years in all. We were lucky. Some people keep waiting forever.
A scuba diver inspecting the pylons below Foster’s Bridge found her car lying upside down in the silt. The authorities arrived on the scene to winch the car from the river bottom, trying to prevent any evidence inside from washing out. An uncle of mine who worked for the county heard the news before the rest of us and drove down to the bridge. He stood with the other onlookers and watched as soda cans and upholstery shreds poured from the shattered windshield. He watched my mother’s white tennis shoe bob atop the ripples and begin drifting slowly south.
The drive from Foster’s Bridge to our home on Shiloh Church Road is about ten miles. My mother’s body — so badly decomposed that only an incomplete skeleton was found — had lain just ten miles away as we’d waited two years for her to reappear; as my father had blamed one person after another for hiding her; as we’d invented tale after tale to explain why she hadn’t come home. While searching for her, we must have driven over that bridge dozens of times.
Later that evening the sheriff and a deputy visited us at my grandparents’ house. The sheriff told us that all signs pointed toward an accident. Yes, the same authorities who had convinced us she’d fled prosecution — and even compiled enough evidence to persuade a federal grand jury to indict her — were now telling us she’d simply lost control of her car on a hazardous stretch of county road, crashed, and died.
“I knew it all along,” my father said. “I ought to have known better than to listen to a bunch of strangers trying to tell me who my wife was.”
It wouldn’t be until years later that I’d question the story the police told and my father believed.
We held the memorial service on the bridge where she’d died. Parked cars lined the narrow road. One lane was blocked while deputies directed the sparse traffic in the other. A few dozen people stood on the bridge, many of them strangers to me, and peered down at where the car had been hauled out. I thought maybe they were imagining the day my mother had died, or the day she’d been found.
As I approached the bridge, many pairs of eyes scanned my face as if to see how grief-stricken I was, but I showed no emotion. I wasn’t about to let any stranger peek inside my shell. A woman at the railing closed her eyes, tilted back her head, and lifted her hands to the sky. I wanted to push her in the river.
Large speakers played Eric Clapton’s “Tears in Heaven.” I resented the fact that no one had consulted me about what music should be played. I hadn’t cared for the song back when my mother would listen to it, and I liked it even less now. The first saccharine notes of the ballad — written after the death of Clapton’s four-year-old son — announced to the crowd that God had recruited a new angel to his legion. She was up there now, cloaked in clouds, looking down upon us with the wisdom of the blessed dead. A local preacher spoke about the reuniting of souls in the hereafter. But I was in no mood to hear it. I was angry with God. It’s not that I’d stopped believing in him. I’d just stopped fearing him.
After the preacher had finished, my father led the way to two five-gallon buckets full of flowers. He took a white carnation and moved to the railing. The crowd followed, taking their own flowers from the buckets. A photo in The Anniston Star captures the moment when my father released his bloom. He is wearing a hat and a black T-shirt, the wind whipping his hair. He leans over the rail as far as he can without falling over, his hand outstretched, the flower a few feet below his fingers: a man saying goodbye forever to the woman he loves.
I am not in the background of this photo. As the crowd moved to the edge of the bridge, I turned to the other side to drop my rose alone. It glided to the choppy surface of the water and then drifted between the concrete columns. The crowd was staring at the mass of flowers floating downstream. No one looked in my direction.
An inordinate number of my memories of my mother involve water. There’s the day in Biloxi, Mississippi — I couldn’t have been older than four — when we were swimming together in a pool. I was wearing water wings in the shallow end with my father while she swam gracefully to the deep end and back. When she reached us, she splashed me, and I clung to my father’s neck and sobbed into his hair. She asked what was the matter, said she was just playing. Then there’s the day when we rode in my uncle’s boat on Lake Wedowee. My father had told me how deep the water was — “a hundred foot in some places” — and how the government had flooded the valley to create the reservoir, so there were pastures and roads and houses down there. The skeletal remains of treetops poked from the lake between us and the rocky shore. We were there for water-skiing. “Who wants to go first?” my uncle asked, and my mother shouted, “Me!” and dove off the back of the boat. Within a few seconds she was so far away I could no longer make out the features of her face, and it frightened me to see her alone with all that water surrounding her and the hundred feet of darkness beneath. But I kept quiet. We were supposed to be having fun. And I remember a different day at the shoreline of the same lake, when I watched her swim away. My mother was always the first of the adults to join the kids in the water. She was the youngest grown-up, after all, her face and voice still girlish. She waded past us until the water reached her upper thighs, and then she dove under. I waited for her to emerge. She stayed below the surface far longer than my own lungs would have allowed, and I grew anxious. Then I spotted her sleek brown hair underwater. “Mommy, wait!” I shouted. She didn’t slow down. I tried to follow her but turned back when I felt the bottom fall away beneath my feet. The moment was hers alone. The whole lake was hers.
A month after they found her body, a fisherman snagged her purse — it must have drifted loose when they’d hauled the car from the water — and handed it over to the police. There was no sign of any stolen money inside, not even a sodden pulp. No one else ever admitted taking it, either.
After another two months her skull was found.
Parts of her are still in the river.
We cremated the remains that were recovered, and my father built a burial plot on our property with a seven-foot wooden fence to hide it from view. He trucked in some river gravel to form a low mound, then covered the mound with topsoil and planted grass that sprouted luscious and deep-colored blades, prettier than any that had ever grown in our yard. He purchased a tombstone — “Beloved Wife and Mother” — and a small sculpture of a cat and solar-powered lanterns that turn on automatically after the sun has set. But to this day he still hasn’t buried her ashes. They remain on a shelf among her dusty knickknacks.
When I was home from college one weekend, I helped him clean up the plot. We took machetes and limb cutters and started clearing away the kudzu vines at the tree line. The dew splattered from the leaves onto our faces, and a breeze kept the morning cool despite the climbing sun.
“It feels good, don’t it?” I said. “Tearing through this stuff.”
I watched him wield the blade. His strong, tanned arms had decades of work left in them. He walked the outer edge of the plot, lifting up a few kudzu roots with the point of his machete, severing them, and smoothing the ground again with the heel of his boot. Then he let the machete slip from his hand into the soft soil and pulled a Marlboro from the pocket of his T-shirt. “When I die,” he said, “I guess you can bury me right here, too.”
It was the last thing I wanted to talk about. Still, since the topic had been broached, I figured it was better to know his wishes.
“You want me to bury her at the same time?” I asked.
His eyes met mine for an instant, and I saw a look of relief in them. Maybe he was relieved to be passing to me the burden of deciding when to put her ashes, and the hurt, to rest.
“That sounds like an all-right idea,” he said.
One question still bothers me: Why didn’t my mother say anything to us about the investigation into the missing money? Every other bit of evidence against her was, as my father would say anytime I brought the matter up, “circumstantial. After the fact.” For him, the moment my mother’s car was discovered in the river, her innocence was restored. She hadn’t stolen anyone’s money. She hadn’t fled anything. But I still have my suspicions.
A couple of years ago I asked my father if he thought she might have driven herself into the river on purpose to avoid facing criminal charges. I’d looked at the bridge on Google Earth. There was a boat ramp less than a hundred yards upstream. Maybe she’d driven down the ramp, and the car had washed downriver. I’d even found an article online that described a case in which someone had committed suicide by driving into a body of water, and the car had floated more than a hundred yards before sinking to the bottom. But my father refused to believe it. People who commit suicide leave notes, he said. They want to be found. They don’t want to disappear.
I wasn’t convinced, but I dropped the matter and didn’t bring it up again. Several weeks later, when I was visiting, he drove me out to the bridge. As dismissive as he’d been of my suggestion, apparently it had stuck with him. He wanted to make sure he’d convinced me. I think he also wanted to convince himself.
From the bridge I looked around at the houses, the boat docks, the wooded hills. Then I followed my father to the edge of a steep drop-off. We looked down twenty yards to the green water. The current moved about as slow as a duck swims. Barn swallows flitted about beneath the bridge. The water lapped at the columns, producing a steady echo. He explained that this was the spot where the police believed her car had left the road. He stood close enough to the overhanging lip that I worried the clay soil might collapse under him. He seemed intimate with the place. I got the impression he’d spent significant time there.
He pointed upstream. “There’s the boat ramp.” He talked about the angle of the current, the distance, the depth of the water. “I talked to the FBI back then about it,” he said. “They said there’s no way the car could’ve drifted down here.”
We spoke a while longer about the day the car had been found, about the incident report, about the evidence. We listed the known facts. He seemed satisfied that the issue was settled. My mother, his wife, had died in an accident, and that was that. “All righty, then,” he said, and we headed for the car.
When I reached the road, I looked back at the river. Between the bridge and the trees was an opening just wide enough for a car to pass through after leaving the road. There was exactly enough room for a vehicle to sail over the edge and land in the river, as the authorities had claimed.
For a car to make it through that narrow gap, the driver would have had to possess the worst imaginable luck. Or good aim.
It still stuns me to think that only two weeks after the discovery of my mother’s body — and just one week after her memorial service — I left for boarding school in Mobile. My father had told the counselors what had happened. I’d decided to tell no one.
He and my grandmother helped me move my belongings into the dorm. Afterward my grandmother hugged me and told me she loved me; my father looked at me and said, “All righty, then. We’ll see you later.”
My shell began to crack as soon as their car turned up the street. I hurried to my room to release my tears in private. I didn’t weep for myself, or even for my mother, but for my father, who was driving home to an empty house, cluttered and dusty and beginning to smell of mold. The next morning he would awaken and head off to work, and in the afternoon he would return to watch television alone. I thought of the kudzu encroaching upon the yard, upon him. I pitied him so much.
A couple of hours later, before he’d even had enough time to get back to Delta, I began phoning my father. Finally, the sixth or seventh time I dialed, he answered. “You made it home?” I asked.
“Nah,” he said sarcastically, “we’re still out on the interstate.”
It would be years before I stopped calling him at least once a day. He’d decided to keep the toll-free number so I’d be able to talk as long as I wanted without worrying about long-distance charges. Whenever I called my father from boarding school or college or someplace I’d traveled, it wasn’t our home number I dialed. It was 1-800-505-LORI.