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January 18th, 2003

the missing

I'm doing the "winding down after flying all night" thing after my latest California business trip in these pre-dawn hours of the morning. I have a picture in my mind of 4 p.m. this afternoon. My hearing was over, as well as my post-hearing meeting, and my post-meeting conference call. I sat in the Los Angeles airport, facing a window which permitted me to see the San Gabriel Mountains in the distance, across the entire Los Angeles basin. Although yesterday, the sky was smoggy when we landed, the view was clear as a bell, clear as a memory.

In my mind-picture, I am on my cell phone, talking to my mother. Suddenly, I'm cast back to the time when I was sixteen years old. My family moved during that Summer of 1975 from a small town of 2,000 people (Gurdon,ark) to a larger town forty miles down the road of 16,000 people. I was well familiar with Camden, as my maternal grandparents had lived there all my life, and my paternal grandfather had lived just outside there until he had passed on a few years previously. My family moved from one town to the next as I attended a science summer camp at the University of Arkansas. It was quite interesting to come home to an entirely new town, but it was more interesting/interesting than interesting/bad.

On what must have been my first Sunday in the new town, we went to Sunday school and church at the local Methodist Church. In the Sunday school class, I sat by an attractive, friendly woman who was my age but seemed, as some teenage women do, so much older than my extraordinarily young sixteen years. We had a nice chat, as the proceedings in the Sunday school moved on apace, and we traded mild sarcasms in those "really quiet" voices they call sotto voce in novels. As I remember it, I was quite witty that day. Later, in a yearbook entry, the woman I sat beside wrote some nice entry about my "dry wit"; in fact, we'd barely passed each other a few times in the hallway at school during my two years in high school there. We might nod 'hi' and smile, but we did not have enough acquaintance to be acquaintances, really, much less friends. Still, in my mind, she was on the side of the angels, somebody I never knew, but would have liked, had I known her.

This pre-dawn I see this picture of myself looking out at gorgeous mountains, sitting in a blue chair in a row of blue chairs. Across from me, a drop-dead gorgeous 20something woman sat in a vivid floral print sun-dress, wearing a broad-brimmed felt hat as if she were directly from a 1964 episode of 77, Sunset Strip. I sit in my chair, cell phone to my ear, my eyes mostly transfixed by the distant mountains, green and chapparalish in the distance.

In that moment, caught like a brief videocam picture in my mind,
my mother is telling me that the woman who sat beside me in Sunday school has died. The hearsay is that the woman was found in San Franscisco during her husband's absence on an overseas business trip, having been dead some five days. Alcohol abuse apparently figured into the cause of death, although all the details are blurred in that "right 95 percent of the time, but absurdly off 5 percent of the time" way that the small town soup can telegraph works. If the rumour is true, she would be the second sibling to fall victim to substance abuse. In my mental picture, I am on the telephone being told that a woman has died that I do not know at all, and have not seen for twenty five years, and knew only as a friendly acquaintance even then, and yet I miss her terribly, though I did not really know her at all. I am frozen in that moment; she is dead at 43.

Vasquez Rocks rhapsody