Long Division


by Vincent Scarpa

My son is convinced that dinosaurs have taken his mother away. This is the most recent in a list of explanations he has arrived at in the year since Holly disappeared to account for her absence. First it was aliens, sent to Earth with the charge of retrieving its best mother. Nate thought maybe they wanted her to teach classes on Mars about helping with homework or baking oatmeal cookies. Maybe they wanted to give her an award on Jupiter for best bedtime story. But as weeks turned into months, Nate revised. Aliens would have brought her back by now, he said. Aliens are nicer than most people think. Sea pirates were next, never mind that Kentucky is landlocked. He debunked this theory after coming to understand, while studying geography with Mr. Kiel, the bigness of the oceans that could be keeping his mother away, and decided instead that sea pirates only collected mothers from the west coast who, he reasoned, would have no need of Dramamine.

He offered the dinosaur hypothesis this morning in the parking lot of the Catholic school where he is a third-grader and I teach mathematics. I think probably what happened, he said, is that pterodactyls picked her up outside the grocery store and then flew her underground. I agreed that it sounded very plausible. It's as good if not better than anything I've come up with. They're teaching her to be one of them, Nate said, and when she comes back she'll show us how to fly.

We're at the school ten minutes early because it's Nate's turn to lead morning ceremony over the intercom. I walk him into the main office where Barb, the secretary, files her nails with an emery board in the shape of the crucified Christ. On her desk is a plaque that reads, "You don't have to be crazy to work here; WE'LL TEACH YOU," and another that names her "World's Best Secretary," which, in response to often being met by her bad breath and self-righteous tendencies at early hours, I have frequently thought of qualifying with an embossed "quarter-finalist" underneath. There's no one here who couldn't stand to be humbled.

"Remember to annunciate," she tells Nate. "The Lord doesn't like mumbling."

This is the thing about being in a Catholic school: you learn a lot about what Jesus hates.

Nate takes a seat and mouths the words to the Nicene Creed until Barb gives him the green light and turns on the intercom. Sometimes I worry about the theology they inflate him with here, but guess what? The kid's never guessed his mother was taken away by angels. I leave the office and listen to his voice echo through the hallways, filling them with muffled, lisping prayer. He was nailed to the cross under Punching Pilots. He suppered death and was berries.

My task at Holy Spirit for the last ten years has been to instruct advanced eighth-graders in pre-algebra, though my degree was in comparative literature and I am a nonbeliever who still, from time to time, is perplexed by fractions. After Holly's disappearance, the joke I made to a blonde on a barstool was: I know more about division than anyone in Pike County.

Today is Friday, so class participation is abysmal. They come in groups of fifteen for forty-five minute periods, students with little to offer but their faces, lit by the cell phones they hide in their laps.

"True or false," I say, resting the chalk on my podium and turning to them. "If two sides of an equation are equal, say, a=b, you can add or subtract the same amount on both sides and they'll still be equal."

Kate Walden, the sheriff's daughter, raises her hand. "True."

I prod. "Are you sure? Always, no matter what, they'll be equal. You're sure?"

"Wait," she says. "I mean false."

"It was true," I say. I mean for these follow-up questions to inspire earned confidence in answers, but mostly they serve to characterize the students as incredibly weak-willed. Kate looks away, pretends to cough, and tucks a piece of hair behind her ear. Last week, I gave her a uniform violation for hooped earrings that were, in direct violation of the school handbook, the size of quarters, not dimes. Today, she wears silver studs. She is less attractive in person than the framed photo in her father's office would suggest, where the photographer made the astute decision to shoot her from the side. I stared at that picture many times on the sheriff's desk in the weeks after Holly went missing, and thus I feel this is a well-informed observation rather than a misguided reaction to her father's incompetence.

When the bell rings, the students reanimate and file out of the classroom. Nate passes by my door and peeks his head in, asks my opinion of his performance this morning. I tell him great job and that it's not his fault the speaker system has not been updated since Reagan's first term.

"Can we listen to mom?" Nate asks, as I start the ignition and pull out of the parking lot. He means can we listen to Holly's CD. She recorded it herself a decade ago with friends in Nashville; some standards and a few originals. The standards are better. I've kept the CD in the car in the hopes that, if the windows are down and the volume loud, some stranger will recognize her voice and tell me where last he heard it. And because Nate likes the way she sings "I Still Miss Someone." He wants to know that one by heart before she gets back, he says, and then asks if I think pterodactyls can sing.

Lately, he wants to listen to his mother's CD more and more. I mentioned this to my own mother, who calls twice a month from Memphis, and she offered about as much judgment and as little advice as everyone else in my life. There is unanimity in their belief that I'm not handling this well, that I owe my son something I'm not giving him in this process, that I need to invent some hard-line approach on how to handle his terrible optimism. I don't contest that, but what I'm short on is alternatives. Show me the child psychology book with the chapter titled What To Tell Your Son When Your Wife Goes Missing.

What I don't need a book to tell me is that what's happened will ruin my son forever. It will ruin me forever. And if it is to be that Holly returns, as we'd known her or as something devolved with wings, we will be too ruined for her to love us back to whole.

I press play on the CD, because it is what's easiest, and the song ends as we pull into our driveway, where Holly's car is not. Once inside, Nate sheds a layer of clothing and his backpack, spreads himself flat on the couch. "Home sweet home," he says, because he heard it said by an elderly Labrador in a movie we watched together last week where a family's pets critiqued the petty drama of their owners in cartoon voices.

You can vacuum our entire house without switching outlets, which is another way of saying we are lower-middle class. There are two bedrooms, a bathroom, an office, and a backyard that, in summer, Holly called a firefly exhibit with free entry. If I could do it with magic, if I could direct the house with my fingers, I'd shrink it in half. It is a space large enough to suggest that a third person should be occupying it, and the hallway seems disproportional when there's no one else to bump into in transit.

"Dinner isn't going to make itself," Nate says, because this too was said by the elderly Labrador.

*

The week before Holly disappeared, we took Nate camping on the banks of the Green River in Muhlenberg County. It is the place that John Prine means in "Paradise," a song we loved, so when we arrived we believed that perhaps we were in the wrong part of it. In other words, he left out the flies, as anyone who's been to paradise might. But the sun was warm and the water cool, the face of the river dotted with mussel drudgers and top-heavy canoes. At night, under blue moon, black sky, stars, I could not think of all three of us as anything but happy. At least, this is what I told the sheriff.

What I left out was the last night of the vacation, when Nate bet Holly she couldn't start a fire. He said she'd be too afraid. He did not know that, when I asked her in high school to prove how much she loved me, what she did was hold her palm over a lit candle and say, Tell me when you're convinced. Holly took the car to the convenience store up the road to pick up lighter fluid and matches.

"Back up, kiddo," she said when she returned, and Nate sat on my lap in the camping chair we'd turned around, five minutes after our departure, to retrieve from our front porch.

Holly squeezed the bottle of lighter fluid over a previous camper's unused teepee construction, arranged a few more scraps, struck a match, and threw it from a few feet back. The wind set the flames dancing from top to bottom, and the whole thing was bright with heat in a matter of seconds. We clapped for Holly, Nate and I, and she took a bow and did a victory dance.

And she was still dancing when, from inside of the fire, there emerged a stray calico mother, a newborn in her mouth and her hind legs trying desperately to shake the flames that had already taken her tail. I covered Nate's eyes instantly, picked him up and held his face into my chest. Holly screamed.

What's worse is that, after depositing the unmoving kitten out of harm's way, the cat went back in for the rest.

"I think some things are better in songs," Nate said, on the interstate with paradise twenty miles behind us.

"Everything is," Holly said.

*

A week later, we came home from school to an empty driveway, nothing in the house missing but her. It was hours before the panic set in, but the panic was better than what came to replace it. There was hope in that panic. Hope that the phone would ring and announce her safety, that her license plate would be spotted on the highway. Hope that if she were taken, she would be found, and that if she had left, she would return.

But it has been a year today, and I called the police station this morning and said, I'd like it on record that I still miss my missing person.

So that's where I am.

These days, I like Nate's theories best. The Pikesville PD is getting us nowhere, and I've run out ideas of my own. So tonight, after dinner, I'll set up blankets and pillows in our backyard, make popcorn and hot chocolate and anything else Nate wants, and we'll watch for his mother, for my Jurassic wife, for Holly's pterodactyl wings, spelling her whereabouts in shadows on the moon.


BIO: Vincent Scarpa is a soon-to-be Michener Fellow at the University of Texas. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Hayden's Ferry Review, The Baltimore Review, and Plain China: Best of Undergraduate Writing. He is the 2012 recipient of the Norman Mailer College Fiction Award.