Dispatches | June 12, 2013

Today’s blog post comes from Rebecca Meacham.

Who would condemn the grieving parents of a long-lost, likely murdered boy? Who would turn these parents’ tears to treacle, their mourning into manipulation— and make the reader hate them, too?

Dan Chaon would. It’s a nifty trick. And it’s one of the reasons I adore “A Little Something To Remember Me By,” from Chaon’s second collection, Among the Missing.

“Here’s A Little Something To Remember Me By” opens with an unremarkable statement: “I was grown up now, married with a family of my own, but still the Ormsons wanted to see me, just like always.” Tom, the narrator, is with his family on a trip to his childhood home, where his mother’s voice has taken on a “stern, combative tone” in the wake of his father’s death.

At the center of this story is a remarkable absence: the disappearance, fifteen years earlier, of Tom’s friend, Ricky Ormson, from a local park. “As far as anyone knew, I was the last person to ever see Ricky Ormson,” Tom says, claiming to accept the loss. He’s not surprised the police have never found a body: “Really, the only surprise was the Ormsons’ insistence, year after year, that there was still the possibility of Ricky’s return. I often thought that if there was a ghost haunting me, it wasn’t Ricky; it was them— Mr. and Mrs. Ormson.”

Like other Chaon stories, “Here’s a Little Something…” works like a centrifuge: past and present spin together, ever more tightly, around a character’s central anxiety. By the end, a typical Chaon main character is even more detached from loved ones— perhaps following strangers on a street, perhaps burning down a house. What begins as a seemingly cohesive whole becomes particulate.

On the surface, Tom’s central anxiety is the devotion of Ricky’s grieving parents: now thirty, he’s tired of the being the Best Friend of Missing Ricky Ormson. The Ormsons are always sitting in the audience for his achievements, “applauding with their sad, hollow clapping.” The Ormsons “trail” him everywhere, sending gifts after the births of his children, and fixing him with their “soft, magnetic gaze” whenever they visit with him on his mother’s couch.

At the same time, Tom never fully inhabits his present-day, adult life. His wife often looks at him with “puzzled eyes.” He sits in a fog at dinner, angering his mother, contemplating how he’s “a good actor, a good liar.” He’s the parent of two sons who barely register on the page. In fact, whenever his wife and mother sympathize with the Ormsons as parents, Tom finds their attitude “infuriating…willfully childish, like someone who flirted using babytalk.” He complains that he’s living “the hypothetical life of Ricky Ormson,” but he has no idea how to move on.

Perhaps that’s because of Tom’s secret.

Halfway through the story, Tom reveals what really happened on the day of Ricky’s disappearance. At their high school, Ricky is showing off cash he’s earned for doing something “sick,” like “a lot of guys” have done. In the park, Ricky leads Tom to a car, where an older man is waiting. For what happens next, Tom is paid $50. Afterward, at the edge of the lilac bushes, Ricky waves, then disappears, saying, “See you tomorrow, I guess.”

This new information is stunning, clarifying, and Chaon’s placement of it — halfway through the story— spins the centrifuge into high gear.  Of course, Chaon puts all his characters at a dinner table with the Ormsons, who greet Tom’s children with kisses and loving murmurs. Of course, Tom sits near his brother Bryce, now a police officer, a sweet bear of a man in whom Tom almost confides. But how can he, now, after years immobilized by guilt and shame? He rationalizes: “What would I have said? Imagine telling this to… two policemen, men your father’s age. Imagine your parents hearing about it…and what if it got in the newspapers, what if the other kids in school heard about it?”

The story closes with Tom climbing into his childhood bed with his wife, at the end of their visit. On the surface, Tom’s life still looks perfectly coherent. But underneath it all, we’re deeply unsettled. What would have happened if Ricky Ormson hadn’t disappeared? What would the story of Tom have become? Is there even such a story to tell?

photomeacham[1]Rebecca Meacham’s debut story collection, Let’s Do, was published in 2004 as the winner of UNT Press’s Katherine Anne Porter Prize in Fiction and was a Barnes & Noble “Discover Great New Writers” program selection. Her stories have been published in Michigan Quarterly Review, Indiana Review, West Branch, Paper Darts, SunDog Lit, and elsewhere, and her nonfiction appears on the blog for Ploughshares. Rebecca lives with her family in the woods of Wisconsin, where she’s an Associate Professor at University of Wisconsin-Green Bay.