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Tracks Under the Snow
Every child can look back and recall memories that had a huge influence on their lives. Some have the pleasant images of baseball fields and snowball fights in the knee-deep snow. Others, not as lucky or remotely as pleasant, may see the pictures of violent parents, burning houses,, group beatings or rape. I always believed that I hovered somewhere in between these extremes.
Hovering may be the best word to describe my childhood. I always seemed to be in the middle, unable to fit in or smooth my way into a stream of ideas or people. An adult would ask me a question (How are you today?) and I would ponder the query. How was I today? I didn’t know. It had been ok, I supposed. But by the time I had decided what to tell the adult in question, they had already moved on in the conversation, asking me other questions or talking about their day.
I had always believed that there was something wrong with my brain, my being so different. Maybe that is why I saw the beginnings of my problems as opposed to the actual event or climax. The images that I most vividly remember where before I even understood what was happening and how it would affect my previously naive childhood and me.
A man stands in the kitchen, leaning his denim-clad hip against the marble table. Your eyes are immediately drawn to his holstered gun playing peek-a-boo from inside his soft brown leather jacket. He look odd against the domestic setting, like a picture cut out of a cowboy magazine and placed in a Home and Gardens. He looked too scruffy, too worn to be at ease in the cold polished kitchen. He may have realized this too, for his eyes darted to and fro, never landing for too long on one thing, seeming to shuffle around in a frantic dance.
A woman sat in the kitchen chair, her back slumped, her shoulders curved. Her hands hung limply in her lap, resting against her plain cotton dress as if it were too much work to lift them. Her usually well-kept hair escaped her bun and was hanging in greasy strands in front of her face, obscuring her eyes and facial expressions from view. Even with the barrier though, you could tell that her eyes would be red and her mouth twisted in a grimace looking alien on her lovely face. It was almost as if her mood was reflecting on her surroundings, the remodeled kitchen looking cold and barren without her warmth to fill it. She never lifted her head as the man gave his speech and left, swinging the door closed behind him. The burst of air from the doorway briefly blew her hair away from her cheeks, giving a window to her pain streaked face.
A child crouched in the doorway, peeking around the maple doorframe. His tiny hands grip the wood to keep him upright as he rocks from his heels to his toes in a rapid swaying like a leaf in a harsh wind. His huge brown eyes stare into the kitchen taking in the scene with youthful innocence.
I have always blamed my personality and inability to fit in on my parents. My father was the mayor of the town, an ex-lawyer and a great thinker. He always encouraged me to think about everything I heard and process it before making a judgment. Maybe I would have dismissed this as phooey adult talk except that I hardly ever saw my father since he was being called off often to do important mayoral duties. Therefore, everything he said was breathed in, stored, and turned over in my head for days after it left his lips.
My mother, on the other hand, was not a thinker. She believed that we were slightly superior to others who lived in smaller houses with smaller lawns and no pool. She wasn’t racist or sexist, but her own brand of prejudice; what I called fortunist. For that was the word she always used. We owned a FORTUNE and we were FORTUNATE that we did. She thought she was so funny.
My mother wasn’t a bad person, or so I believed. She simply thought that we had to be perfect to show the less fortunate people how it was done. As a result I detached myself from others my age in an attempt to obey my mother’s wishes. I was often alone in my childhood, walking or fishing, reading or writing. My favorite hobby was to find tracks in the woods in the summer, record them in a notebook and find their location again after the snow of winter melted. They were always gone without a trace. I found this fascinating. That is, until my mother became pregnant. As her stomach grew so did my apprehension. I was so exited I hardly left the house even when she was only starting to show.
My little brother was born April 9th, 1968. His birth was difficult, my mother in excruciating pain through the whole thing. I watched it from the doorway, crouched so the midwife didn’t see me. When the screaming was finally over, I tiptoed into the room to get a look at my new sibling. I was so exited I could barley breath.
I had many expectations for my brother. He would be a little me, less fortunate, maybe odd looking so I’d still be in charge, but he’d be quick and witty and make me laugh. He would keep me company and I would teach him to fish and hunt and to read. We would be best friends and I would never be alone again. These were my fantasies and they grew every minute as I watched the midwife lift my brother out of the bed and wipe him off. She bundled him up with my old blanket, her hands swift and professional.
An embroidered pillow propped up my mother’s head, and she now lifted her head from it and held out her hands to accept the bundle. I didn’t find it odd at the time that my new brother didn’t cry. I had no experience with babies so it seemed normal to me. But my mother’s face was stony. She knew something was wrong. My mother flipped the blanket off his face and stroked his cheeks. Still no sound. By now the midwife was fluttering around cleaning up the mess and strategically not looking at my mother.
I was oblivious to the mood of the room. I ran in and climbed onto the bed.
“What’s his name? It’s a boy right? Can I hold him? Is he cute? Can I hold him? Please?”
My mother patted my head absently and handed me the bundle. I cradled it as I’d seen my mother do and looked in awe at the tiny face, wrinkled and red. Hands shaking with excitement, I spun to my mother.
“Can I show Father?” As it turned out , my father wasn’t there. He was in town, attending a meeting. When I informed my mother of that her face lost it’s color and she sank back onto the bed.
“Go give the baby a bath, Jack.”
I Complied, and then returned, only to have my mother tell me to feed it. My mother’s breast milk had dried up after she had me, so we hired a wet nurse, Sue. Sue accepted the baby and fed it. When he was done and drifted off into a restless sleep Sue pulled me close to her.
“That boy’s mute!” She whispered, her breath smelling sour. “You mama must be disappointed! Imagine, the great mayor’s wife, birthing a cripple!” She burst into gales of laughter that woke the baby in question. His face screwed up but no wail emerged. I scooped him up and sang awkwardly, rocking him. After awhile he drifted again, and I could sneak into my room to fall into a worried sleep.
My brother was named Martin James Coopler, named after the late Martin Luther King Jr. who had been killed only five days before his birth. Because my mother was so ashamed of the boy that had come out of her body, it fell to me and Sue to take care of him. I didn’t really mind, finding his gestures and wide eyes cute. I believe that I was the only one in the family who thought so. My father had been in a rage when he found out. He had stalked into my mother’s room, while Sue tried desperately to stop him, telling him that she was still weak. He had roared at her and pushed her out of the way before slamming the door of my mother’s bedroom in her face. After that he was home less and whenever he met with me, he specified that I not bring Martin.
As Martin grew, he became increasingly aware of how the household felt about him. I tried to make it up to him with my love, sharing my Beatles records and books. As he formed opinions for himself though, he turned to Black Sabbath and other loud music. He also enjoyed sports, much more than I. We played football and soccer, basketball and baseball. I ought him everything I knew about the games and we looked up the rest at the local library. While he wasn’t very strong, he was extremely fast. He loved racing me, even beating me as his legs grew.
Communication wasn’t hard between us. I he wanted something he would act it out. If I couldn’t understand even then he would write it in the dirt. All and all, I didn’t think it was a terrible thing that he was mute. Unfortunately, my mother didn’t share this theory. We got into our first real argument about him as he approached his fifth year and the start of kindergarten.
“He can’t go.”
I turned to stare at her. “What? He has to go! It’s the law!”
“I won’t let the townsfolk see my son parading down the street, flaunting his disability!”
“He doesn’t flaunt it!” How could my mother be so blind?
“I won’t take him!”
“Then I will!”
“I forbid it! You will not be tarnished by his reputation!”
“Tarnished?” We were shouting now. “Tarnished? He’s your son!”
“I wish he weren’t!”
WE stood, gasping, in the kitchen. I couldn’t believe she had just said that. I knew she was self-centered, but still! I turned, unable to look her in the face and found myself looking at the stricken face of Martin, crouching in the maple doorway. His huge brown eyes stared out at us with youthful innocence that seemed to seep out of his pupils before by eyes.
“Martin...” I started towards him, hands held out to comfort, but he slipped out of sight and I heard him running out the door. I couldn’t catch him if he didn’t want me to, so I turned one last glare at my mother and ran after him, hoping to find him before it got dark.
I was in sixth grade when Martin entered kindergarten. My school started a week earlier, so I left the house early every morning and returned at dinnertime. Thinking back, if I’d been just a few minutes earlier that day maybe I could have stopped it. Maybe not. That day I had been walking slowly, rehearsing another argument in my mind to convince my mother to let Martin join me in school. As it turned out, it wasn’t necessary.
I entered the house and looked around, surprised that Martin hadn’t met me when I returned. I put my stuff down and walked through the house looking for him. I was growing worried when I found y mother in the kitchen. She had a large glass of wine in front of her, half empty. The bottle it came from lay within easy reach.
I was shocked. My mother almost never drank, disliking the feeling of losing control. She looked up, saw me and giggled.
“Where’s Martin?” I approached her warily, hoping she wouldn’t throw her wine at me.
“Don’t worry Jack!” She stood and staggered to the sink where she dumped the rest of her wine. She than picked up the bottle and refilled it. “I took care of him.” She giggled again and drained her glass.
I had been backing away, aware that she wasn’t in her right mind, but when I heard that I froze. “You didn’t.”
“I did.” Another giggle.
I spun, charging for the door. Having forgotten that I was closer to the doorframe then I had been when I came in, I ran straight into it. A flair of pain went straight through my temple, but I ignored it and tore out into the yard. Sue was standing by our pool, her face white. I tripped to a halt and stared down at the pale, limp body of my beloved brother. I stopped. Just stopped. I couldn’t think, couldn’t breath. Only one thing stood crystal clear in my mind.
Turning my back on Sue’s worried face I walked back to the house. My mother met me at the door. Before I could say anything, she started talking.
“Go ahead and tell the police.” She said tauntingly. “Then they’ll take me away and you won’t have a mother either. It’ll just be you, all alone. You know your father won’t take care of you! He’ll shove you off on some poor relative somewhere. Is that what you want?”
I didn’t know what to say. Did I want to be an orphan? My mind was too numb. I couldn’t think. I pushed past her and headed upstairs to fall into bed. I closed my eyes, but I couldn’t get the image of Martin’s accusing eyes staring at me out of my head.
I woke knowing what I had to do. It was 3:00 am and still dark but I felt more awake then I had in awhile. I grabbed Martin’s sweatshirt hanging from my door and left the house. First, I waded into our pool and dragged Martin’s limp body out of the chilly water. I was extra careful not to look at his face, afraid of what I might see there. Martin was a dead weight and before long I was panting and shivering. Still, I persisted in draping his slim body over my shoulder and staggering to the woods. As I walked I couldn’t stand the silence and started to talk to his silent form. I blabbered about anything that came to mind, but he stayed silent. Of course, he’d always been silent, but I’d grown adapt at interpreting his silences and the quiet surrounding me was accusing.
I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry
I was sobbing now and couldn’t get anything out of my mouth. I laid his body gently on the ground and crossed his arms over his chest. They lay there limply, dripping water onto the hard packed ground. A stain started to spread around his body and in the gloom it looked like a puddle of blood.
Thats when I lost it. I ran, blinded by the cloud of my tears, numb to the sticks and branches digging into my skin as I rushed past, trying to get away. Eventually I found myself on the road leading into town and started walking.
The road to town was about half a mile of dirt and stones. Fifteen minutes into the walk I realized that I’d forgotten my shoes by the side of the pool. My feet were so numb by then though, that it didn’t matter. By the time I got into town I felt like death warmed over. I deserved it. I deserved it all.
The sheriff's office was in the center of town, sharing a building with the town library. I limped up the steps and tried to throw ope the door only to be stopped by the puzzling invention of the lock. I stared dully at the door for a minute before it sank in that I had just wasted an hour’s worth of time. Too tired to walk back home, I curled up on the step, draped Martin’s damp sweater over me and promptly fell asleep.
The town sheriff, John Beck, always came to work early. He’’d been having troubles with his wife, so he spent as much time in the office as possible. That fact probably saved my life. He arrived at his office at 7:00 in the morning to find a huddled body on his steps. We had no homeless in our town; the prospect of it was ridiculous, so he knew that the small body was someone he knew. Picking me up, he let us into his office and proceeded to warm and wake me.
I was told later what happened when John went up to tell my mother what had happened. I was sleeping at the time, though the doctor, Mr. Collins, said it was more like a coma. I had a bad case of hyperthermia and server frostbite on my toes and fingers. He said that when John called him in and he saw me, he thought he’d been called in to inspect a corpse, thats how pale I was. The illusion was quickly shattered when he felt my fever.
By the time I was conscious enough to understand what was going on, everyone in the town knew what had happened. John came into my room and sat in the chair across from my bed and stared at me. I stared back, unsure about what was happening. My sight was still blurry and I had a headache from hell but the fact that John had talked to my mother kept me from returning to the blissful oblivion of sleep.
“well, uh, Jack...I went to talk to your mother about the condition you were in when you got here and, um...” He trailed off, seeming not to know quiet what to say. I didn’t help him any, just waited staring at him. He avoided my eyes carefully and fixed them on the wall instead. He took a deep breath and continued his story to the peeling paint. “As I said, I went to talk to her, said that you were down at my station with a fever and if she wanted me to bring you up or if she wanted to come down to see you.” I stiffened but he didn’t seem to notice. “And she said, well she said, that she didn’t have any sons.” He slid a glance my way and seemed slightly disappointed by my stone-cold face. “I, well, asked her, of course, what she meant by that, and she looked at me like I was the crazy one. Said she’d never had any kids and wasn’t planning on having any. Was cooking lunch, pretty as you please, hair all done up and stuff.” He stuck his head, “Didn't understand what was goin’ on so I told her ‘bout you and your brother and she just sat there and stared at me, hair hanging all over her face. Couldn’t see what was going on there, don’t know if I really wanted to. I left then, wasn’t nothing I could do and asked the maid, what’s her name? Sue?” He looked at me, waiting for a response, But I couldn’t force anything out of my lips. It all seemed so surreal. I just nodded dumbly.
He gave me an odd look but continued his story. “Well, anyway, I asked Sue what was goin‘ on and she said the mistress had finally flipped her lid. Said ever since yesterday morning she’d been pretending she didn’t have no kids. Threw all your stuff on the lawn and lit it all on fire. Sue said she was scared out of her mind, but after that the mistress just went back to normal, exept that she denied that she’d ever had kids.” He scratched his head absently. “Oddest thing I ever did see. I went for a walk, back behind your house, wanted to clear my head, didn’t know what was going on. But I bet you can guess what I found on that path when I started waking.” He shot me another odd look and I felt the blood drain out of my face. Martin. Martin.
I didn’t say anything just directed my gaze to the bed covers. I heard John sigh and push up from his chair with a groan. “I can’t charge her, you know. There’s not enough evidence.”
I nodded. Thats what she wanted.
“And you can’t go back there. She’s not even admitting you exist.”
Another nod. “you don’t want to know what happened?”
“I can guess. Kid was mute, he went for a swim, couldn’t scream for help. Simple as that.” He gave me another hard stare. “We’re a simple town here, Jack. We got a good mayor and no more trouble then the occasion fight. We don’t have murder here. Your mother’s just grief sick. You understand what I’m saying?”
I nodded again. Was that the only movement I was capable of? It seemed like it. I was a coward. I didn’t argue with John just kept nodding until he left me alone to sleep.
When I think of this period in my life, the two images that came to mind, along with the crouching boy, are pictures that John’s story brought to my mind. That, and the last time I’d seen my brother alive.
My mother was right about my future.My father was quick to disown me, shooing me off to live with his sister in New York. The change in scenery was hard for me, and I don’t know if I could have gotten through it without the help of my aunt’s disabled son George.
I never saw my father again, only hearing about him when he died, crashing into a tree with his new wife, a 23-year-old woman. I was also 23 at the time. I don’t think she knew I existed. I had no doubt that that small town in the mountains of Vermont had covered up the whole incident, our identities erased with the new snow, like those tracks from my childhood, all those years ago.