They find Elise’s purple shirt in the late afternoon and Grace has to be sedated. At nightfall, the troopers urge us to go to a motel. Edward hasn’t returned, but we’ve been assured he’s not in custody and we can pick him up tomorrow. In the Cadillac, I follow a squad car down the highway to a building that resembles a long adobe hut with a blue neon sign mounted on top. James lets me undress and bathe him, but Grace won’t let me touch her. She cradles James in the other bed with her back to me and they fall asleep. Hugh undresses automatically and stretches out on the cot at the foot of both beds. He doesn’t sleep, but he pretends, so I leave him be.
The room is nearly bare, with a telephone between the two double beds and a cheap radio. I rummage through the Cadillac to see if Edward left any beer, then buy some from the motel owner. The beer, a strange brand, tastes bitter and delicious when I swig it from the can. I dial Clyde in Des Moines and am disappointed when I get him. He sounds like sleep and phlegm.
“We lost Elise,” I tell Clyde, without preamble. He asks the normal series of concerned questions—where, how, when, what chance. I tell him about Edward being taken in.
“No chance he…?”
He falls silent.
“You sound…all right.”
“I wish I’d come with you.”
Clyde had mentioned the idea of he and I following Edward to California in his car, but that seemed more ridiculous than playing house.
“I’ll be back soon.”
I tell him I have to go and switch off the bedside lamp.
During a light sleep, I feel a weight beside me. Grace sits on the edge of my bed smoking, her eyes bright and undrugged. The receiver is pressed to her ear and ringing but whoever she’s calling won’t answer.
“Goddamn you,” she says, and sets the receiver in its cradle.
I lift my hand and run it along her back but her spine arcs away from me. She walks to the window and pulls back the curtains I closed. The view is toward the highway and the desert on the other side. Light from the motel sign makes the broken bottles in the parking lot glow ice-blue. The same cold neon silhouettes Grace in the window, holding her there, away from me. She pulls open the rusty window frame and lets in cold, fresh air. In her nightdress, she looks like the child who once begged me to notice her lonesomeness—bare white feet, black hair falling between the blades of her hunched shoulders, a wan cheek turned halfway toward me—only to rebuff me when I tried to give any comfort. I kick away the blankets and stand next to her at the window, careful not to brush against her.
“I don’t remember being her age,” she says.
“You were smart. You liked to read, always.”
“I’m trying to think what it’s like to be her, but I can’t. I’m saying I don’t remember myself, but that’s not all of it. I don’t know her. Not well.”
“And you do. You think you do.”
“She’s like you, that’s what you think. Look where that got her.”
A flush rises in my body and drives away the cold breeze. I have the urge to slap Grace, but I return to bed and leave my daughter to her useless vigil alone. Sleep comes to me instantly, but I’m awake again at dawn, listening to Grace and the boys breathe and whimper. If Elise were here, I would wake her. We would get into the Cadillac and drive until we found a restaurant with a pile of doughnuts on a glass pedestal near the register. In a booth, I would tell her her favorite story of mine.
When I was your age, I used to wait until my family was asleep and slip out of our house at night. We lived in a dugout in those years and I didn’t like sleeping underground, buried. I’d climb up the embankment until I could walk alone to the nursery field where my father was growing trees. There were white birches and Osage oranges, strong and flexible, made to slow the wind that could rip crops from the ground. I climbed until I was high above the hill where my family slept. Sometimes, I fell asleep on a thick branch, but sometimes I was carried up and flew over the plains for fifty or a hundred miles. In the winters, the country was icy white and rolling, like a huge sheet draped over the land. In the summers, electric lights and fires shined up, two or three, then blazes of them bunched together.
But I knew my father’s nursery in daylight. I knew to listen for dogs, coyotes, and the men who went to the fields to drink. I knew how to climb and lash myself to a branch with an old belt of my father’s. Plenty of children I knew died from incaution or simple bad luck. I would tell her these things.
Elise would fix me with her lively eyes, shrug, and lick sugar off her lips.