Tea and Crumpets?

 

 

------------------------------------------------------------------------

 

The disheveled Mark clearly had not expected to find me on his door step

-- had not likely even heard the bell, so caught up in his own thinking.

He certainly didn't recognize me from eleven years earlier. Yet he wore

the same slightly embarrassed look, tainted with annoyance, as if still

jealous over the attentions Sue attracted, then from the men who fawned

over her and her baby, now over the concern her friends raised at her

vanishing. Mark looked a little nervous, too, like a man with something

to hide.

 

"What do you want?" he asked, making no move to push open the glass door

between us, though the weak aluminum seemed to shudder as he spoke.

 

"I'm looking for Sue Merchant, I mean -- Walsh," I said.

 

Mark's gaze grew narrow at the mention of Sue's maiden name. He didn't

exactly twitch, yet took on an even more puzzled look. He tilted his

head, giving it a slight jerk indicating the left side of house where

the pickup with camper cap was parked and the fumes from the used car

dealer flowed out to the sidewalk like an out going tide.

 

"Her apartment is up the driveway," he said, his gaze set down as not to

meet mine, glancing at me with that kind of slide long stare I used to

get from card sharks in the army and dope dealers on the street of LA,

card sharks trying to cheat me out of my monthly pay and dope dealers

seeking to sell me aspirin instead of LSD.

 

But while Mark may have excelled as a house painter, and followed

strongly in the footsteps of his brother as a musician, he struggled to

maintain a straight face, lacking Sue's ability to even lie by

implication. His face advertised some secret he'd been entrusted to

keep, a fact he seemed to understand about himself, a fact that seemed

to make him even more embarrassed, and made him even more rude and moody

than the descriptions Sue's former school mates implied.

 

Again, I glanced at the mail boxes, at the middle of three boxes where

Sue's name had been written out in magic marker on what looked to be

medical tape, a name faded from exposure to sun and rain, a measure of

the woman herself, changing the way the portrait did for Dorian Gray,

not with evil, but with insignificance.

 

Or had the rumor mill missed out this time, distorting the reports,

exaggerating one of Sue's former little weekend disappearances into

something overly dramatic. Sue routinely vanished when at college,

vanishing for a day or two after she had stirred up passions among

friends or romantic interests. People at the school newspaper sometimes

wanted to lynch her after one of her emotional episodes or bouts of

story-telling. She usually returned after she had used her got word from

her spies that all was safe again.

 

Maybe Joel was right later when he mumbled over Sue's alleged bi-polar

disease and her need for lithium, despite the fact that Sue hated

doctors, could not be dragged to doctors unless it served some other

more devious purpose.

 

I nodded to Mark, then turned, making my way to the corner of the

building, as Mark scurried down the street the other way, perhaps to a

waiting car, or up across the tracks to pick up Sue's child from school.

He did not glance back at me, though I glanced at him, before the

building blocked my view and I was confronted with Sue's world again,

and the pathetic sense that she had locked herself up in a prison of her

own creation, blue collar middle class with no sense of distinction.

About half way down the asphalt driveway, I came to a door and several

windows, and only then wondered what I might say to Sue if she answered

my knock on her door.

 

"Hi there, remember me from 1983? I was your literary editor then, only

now I'm investigating reports of your disappearance, rreports I might

say have been grossly exaggerated. Can I come in for some tea and

crumpets?

 

And she standing on the inside the way Mark had, clutching one of the

numerous self-help books and pseudo-health books out of which she shaped

her life, finding some new disease or psychological disorder she could

claim to have. In school, she had run through an alphabet of these,

suffering everything from frigidity to boarder-line personality

disorders, each of which seemed to put her into a "fugue," each of which

would make her float across campus, bemoaning her fate.

 

Tea and crumpets?

 

Somehow all that sounded wrong. Sue scared me. She had a way of looking

into people and reading their vulnerabilities. Much later, Joel would

question my motives for coming, just as I would, saying I wasn't so much

interested in finding Sue as settling issues Sue raised for me and

society. In my life, I had loved women much like Sue, battling against

their manipulations and their masks to find the solid person beneath.

Sue was a lot like my ex-wife, and several ex-girlfriends, the sheer

force of her personality shaping everything around her, acting like a

gravity well that caused weaker personalities to orbit her. In my life

I'd struggled numerous times to break free of such influences, but I

remained fascinated as to what made people like Sue so attractive -- And

needy.

 

When I reached the door, I found I had no reason to knock. The rumor

mill had maintained its remarkable reputation for accuracy, and any

doubt about Sue's vanishing evaporated when I saw the poster propped

inside the window, a poster with Sue's picture and the details of her

disappearance. And even though only a few days had passed, the poster

looked old and tattered, as affected by the elements as the name tag on

the mail box had been. While other posters bore other photographs, this

poster's photograph was a lie, showing the image of a much younger Sue

-- a Sue I recognized from our last face to face meeting, a Sue that

held up the young baby David.

 

David, I knew, was already 11, and from all indications, the Sue who

disappeared three days earlier no longer bore the perpetually innocent

expression this photograph showed, the expression that helped deceive

men into thinking she was as helpless and vulnerable as she claimed. Few

understood the shark-like mentality her blue eyes and remarkable smile

hid. This was the image supermarket tabloids craved and the local

newspapers and broadcast media would later exploit, emphasizing that

age-old simplistic metaphor of the Madonna-whore.

 

Newer photographs showed the strain Sue had suffered, her eyes unable to

disguise the hunger, her aging face unable to support her elaborate

masquerades. Yet in some ways, this and the other photographs did not

tell the whole truth about her, allowing her to play the age game most

middle-aged women played, allowing her to live in that limbo of time

which the less observant might mistake her age as anything from 16 to

36. But looking at the poster, I still reacted to Sue's smile -- that

same delighted grin she cast at me and others during her nearly constant

wanderings around campus years earlier, stirring in me that regret that

perhaps -- this time -- Sue might actually be dead or a victim, carrying

the curse of the wolf-crying child to her grave.

 

The poster, however, provided a sparse obituary, painting a minimalist's

portrait of her life:

 

MISSING PERSON:

 

 

Sue Walsh, blonde hair, blue eyes, 36-years-old; 5'6" tall; 100 110 lb.;

last seen on Tues., July 16, 1996, between 11 a.m. and noon along

Washington Avenue in Nutley, New Jersey. If you have information, please

contact the Nutley police. Reward if found.

 

 

I had seen posters of this kind stapled to countless telephone poles

throughout the suburbs, usually advertising a yard sale or requesting

help in find a missing pet. This poster, however, lacked the amount

offered in its reward, or the remarkable sense of urgency Sue's usual

plots required: Just plain English, not dramatics, no moaning and

groaning, no pleas for help. Yet looking at this piece of cardboard, I

was struck by how Sue might have savored it if indeed all this was just

one more of her elaborate jokes. I could picture here hidden in

someone's apartment somewhere, holding a copy, unable to stop herself

from laughing -- just the way she sometimes did during one of her pranks

at college.

 

But was this a prank now? Were Sue's jokes really jokes at school. I

remember her laughing over them, as other people suffered. I could

recall too many of Sue's "I'm walking around in a fugue," speeches,

those moments when she claimed to be floating through life in a kind of

fog, never certain about where she was or what might happen. Only the

most naive or stupid people took her seriously after any extended

contact with her, and for that reason, she often went from group to

group, searching -- perhaps -- to find a group of people who were so

stupid they might never catch on to her tricks.

 

Indeed, over time, she might even have collected such a cast of

characters, the way Dry Alcoholics collected people to help support

their misery -- though even in those cases, sooner or later, even the

stupidest was bound to catch on, growing weary of the constant midnight

calls Sue claimed to get or the perpetual shadowy figures tailing after

her wherever she went.

 

I recalled people bemoaning her calls in the middle of the night, the

hours listening to her detail her latest tragic episodes, which they in

turn passed along, calling this person and that, to say: "Have you heard

what Sue's done now?"

 

On occasion I heard from Sue's victims, those who had no other set of

ears upon which to vent their built up rage. None dared express that

rage to Sue herself, as they could not bear the thought of alienating

her. Many said they'd come to hate Sue over time, but few said they

could live without seeing or hearing or talking to her -- even

subjecting themselves to her constant petty plots, giving her rides,

money, food, a place to stay, hiding her, making telephone calls for

her, investigating men she claimed were stalkers or members of the mob

for her, all in order to keep close to her, on the off chance that some

day, in some other life perhaps, she would realize just how much they

secretly loved her, and in this fantasy of fantasies, she would come to

love them in the same way -- which, of course, she never would. But as I

stared at her poster, I heard the others, the wiser people from college

laughing, those voices whispering at me not to believe a word of what I

now read.

 

"That's our Sue," they whispered. "This trick is right up her alley.

 

------------------------------------------------------------------------

Unfortunate Timing

 

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