The fallow February field had gone to a seed with wild oats and mustard weeds, growing higher than my eleven-year-old head. A soft wind set the field in waves of undulations. The dark brush of evening painted over an orange sunset, turning the buttes and the distant coast range to the west into black construction paper cut outs. Dinner had come and gone, bedtime was at hand and it was a school night. Mother’s eyes searched the field across the road as she explained over the phone to Sherriff Cardenas that her oldest daughter, Susan, had gone missing.
“Where does she hide her diary, Lola?” Mother asked.
I followed her into the bedroom I shared with my sister.
“I don’t know,” I lied, knowing it was in our bookcase, wedged behind The Story of Ann Frank. Mother searched the pillowcase of my sister’s bed and then lifted up the mattress revealing a gold chain necklace with the charm of a woman’s profile. It was Susan’s necklace Grandma purchased for her when she was installed as President in the junior lodge. All the women in the family belonged to the lodge and our Grandfather belonged to the men’s lodge.
I’d tried to read my sister’s chicken scratch many times making out a few provocative words…love, French kiss and second base.
“She may have written of a rendezvous—with a boy from school,” Mother said ploughing through a pile of clothes in a corner of the room and then, turning to scan the book case.
“Her best friend is Maria Gomez. Maybe you should call her and Grandma,” I suggested. But mother didn’t reply and instead ordered me to go check the backyard.
The enormous yard, half an acre my step father bragged, was scattered with mitts, baseball bats and balls from yesterday’s neighborhood game. I avoided the obstacles walking over to the walnut tree and called up to the tree house, “Susan, are you up there?” Silence and a mocking bird’s song was my answer.
The search party, that included my older brothers and stepfather first, tromped around the Singh’s field and then fanned out over the neighborhood. I wasn’t supposed to follow them, but I did, lagging well behind with my sheep dog, Frances. Streams of light from flashlights crisscrossed the field. The men called out my sister’s name, cupping their hands like bullhorns. They knocked on neighbors’ doors to make inquires up and down our road that dead-ended at the almond orchard. The trees there bloomed under a coppery light of the hunger moon. Creamy clusters of petals floated like snowflakes from the branches, and, though I loved their fragrance, made me sneeze. The men waved beacons of light down the rutted rows between the trees, scaring out a jackrabbit hidden in Johnson grass grown knee-high from heavy spring rains. “Hey!” one of them shouted, “I think I found something.”
I knew it would be our old fort—dug and abandoned last fall for another hideout more difficult for adults to trespass. We’d selected the unsuspecting walnut in the corner of our large backyard for the new one. The old tree’s sturdy trunk now included a roped ladder that led to a lopsided tree house made from scrap wood.
Neighbors had gathered at the edge of the orchard: women in robes and curlers, holding the hands of their small pajama-clad children. Men stood smoking, shifting their weight from side to side, grinding cigarette stubs into the blacktop. I overheard one of them say the words foul play. I wondered how play could be foul like milk, spoiled, or a ball, knocked out of bounds.
Then I thought of the little Meyer girl, Stephanie, a grade ahead of me in school. She lived near the river and a swimming hole. The river was where the kids in that neighborhood preferred to play. Stephanie and I’d become friends, both enjoying spirited games of tether ball. I’d spent the night at her house a few times, and twice we played hide-and-go-seek with neighbor kids and gone to the swimming hole though we’d been warned not to. There an ancient willow had limbs that reached down to the water as if to shake the river’s hand. One sturdy limb that stretched out across the water had been looped with a rope. We’d swing out over the water on the rope, screaming as we splat hard, shattering the glassy surface of the pool.
Foul Play Suspected the headline had read. Mother shook her head saying, “That poor little girl. Who would do such a thing?”
It had been a hot August evening when Stephanie had gone missing. She’d been playing and had disappeared into the tall brome. Someone said the river had swallowed her and I guess it had an appetite because it had eaten her clothes as well. Under the canopy of the ancient willow, they’d found Stephanie’s naked body bobbing in an eddy at the swimming hole tangled in flotsam of dead leaves and snags. A rumor spread in the schoolyard that the tips of her toes and the soft flesh of her eyelids were nibbled on by the catfish that favored the deep pool.
I had remembered her from the public pool and the swimming hole as being a strong swimmer like I was. The whole town had gone to the memorial. Her mother was inconsolable; two red welts replaced her eyes on her dour face. There was no open coffin as was custom. The hot air was made sickly sweet with the sprays of tea roses and lilies arranged on top of the casket they’d crowned with a Raggedy Ann and a pair of roller skates. I wondered if she would skate to heaven. She’d been a skilled skater and could turn on a dime. Sheriff Cardenas had questioned me.” Had I ever seen a stranger at the river?”
” No,” I’d said, picturing Crazy Cowboy Joe, the man who talked to imaginary people. He wandered around town mowing lawns and sleeping on park benches. He camped out at the river with his hound dog, Spark. He was never without his moth-eaten ten gallon hat and belt with a buckle in the shape of Texas. But he’d never bothered us and I never mentioned him to the Sheriff. I heard the big kids paid him money to buy them liquor and beer.
I pushed these thoughts from my head, spying my friends, Dina and her twin sister, Dana Nagasaki, on their front porch. I went over to stand with them. Each was in deep conversation with her Barbie. I rarely played with mine now, thinking it too babyish. Francis nudged my leg with her wet nose, alerting me that the search party across the road had emerged from the orchard. In the dim light I could see they were shaking their heads and some of them forgot to lower their oversized flashlights illuminating and blinding the small crowd that gathered on the road. Where was my sister?
Susan, my big sister, was like a third mother coming after our mother and grandmother. She’d made sure I had a library card and taught me to love books. She’d send me to deliver her overdue books and pay the fines to Mrs. Picard, the stiff-faced librarian, who’d purse her lips in disapproval as she added up the overdue charges. Susan always shared her popcorn at the Saturday matinees where we saw all kinds of movies. My favorite had been Bambi, though I used up gobs of tissues by the end of it. Sis’ was To Kill a Mockingbird. She said Atticus Finch was her hero. We both were members of the local lodge like my grandparents and mother except we were members of the young women’s auxiliary. The auxiliary was to help us to be good citizens, to be of service to the community and get ready for the adult lodge. My sister was the president and I was the marshal of the local group. You had to say a secret password to be admitted into our meetings.
Sometimes Susan and I watched American Bandstand after school with her friend Maria. Maria wore white bobby socks and black patented leather Mary Jane’s she polished with cold cream to be extra shiny. They showed me how to jitterbug. They were going to have a sock hop in our garage.
Susan and I watched the evening news together and she explained to me about the Civil Rights Movement. She’d shielded my eyes from the television when the screen showed the authorities sick their police dogs and turn fire hoses on mostly black citizens in southern towns and on the Freedom Riders, many who were northern college students. Their places of worship bussed the Freedom Riders, to southern towns to support the locals in their fight for equality. In two years my sister would be going away to college—the first in our family–and I wondered would she become a Freedom Rider too. She’d told me she might go down south and march for freedom during the summer if she didn’t need to work.
The search party trooped back to our house, and I followed Francis who was bouncing in front of me, happy she was out on an unexpected walk. One of the deputies held a sweater in his hand asking mother was it her daughter’s. The sweater was a baby blue cardigan with delicate glass colored buttons, of which some were missing. It was mud splattered and had a torn shoulder seam. She took the sweater held it up and pointed at me and said, “No, it is this daughter’s.” I burned scarlet. Sherriff Cardenas ordered his deputy to file an All Points Bulletin. “Just a precaution,” he said patting my mother’s shoulder. “Susan will turn up. She probably spent the night at a friend’s and forgot to tell you,” he said.
My sister hadn’t been at Maria’s when we’d called. Nor had Grandma heard from Susan. We often, biked the back roads, taking shortcuts through the orchards to Grandma’s high-water bungalow tucked at the edge of her peach ranch. Mother reluctantly showed the sheriff out the door and I followed them out. He lingered with her for a few moments on the front porch where a moth circled the lamp. He was a handsome man, tall, brawn, with gentle large brown eyes like a does that seemed out of place on a the former high school football player. His family was almond ranchers and had been in Tierra Buena when Mexico still owned California. When he’d run for Sheriff someone scrawled “go back to Mexico wetback” on his barn,” but that hadn’t stopped him from running for Sherriff and winning the election handily.
No one else saw the shadow glide through the darkness, an apparition down the breezeway from the backyard. It came into focus strolling nonchalantly toward us. Under the porch light, Susan’s mass of curls flew every which way. One side of her cheek was blushed as if she’d slept wrong on it. She wore jeans and a sweatshirt, carried a flashlight and a hardback book, Moby Dick, thick as a Bible.
“What’s going on?” she asked, trying to march past mother into the house.
“Stop right there young lady. Where have you been?”
“I was in the tree house and fell asleep.”
“You didn’t hear Lola calling up to you?
She didn’t answer, turned and hurried in a huff through the front door as we all trooped in behind her and lined up against the opposite side of the room from Mother and Susan. You could hear a pin drop in that room. I winced as Susan slammed the book on the table, and then answered Mother’s question.
“No, of course I didn’t.”
“Were you alone up there, Susan? Mother asked.
“Who would I have been with?”
“I don’t know, Susan, but you’ve had the sheriff department and the whole neighborhood searching for you and we’ve been worried sick!”
“I’m sorry, but I really need to go to bed,” Susan implored, picking up Moby Dick and then trying to push past her mother’s arm stuck out like a railroad crossing guard. “I have a test tomorrow– on this book,” Susan glared, holding it up with two hands.
The rest of our family huddled at one side of the living room waiting for their cue from Mother. We all held our breaths even my stepfather.
“Well, we are just glad you are all right. Time for bed” she said, clapping her hands.
“Sherriff, thank you. I’ll see you out.”
Susan and I, seeing our opportunity, shot past Mother into our bedroom closing the door with a click.
“Mom asked me where your diary was,” I said, cocking my head. “And?”— she asked, whipping around.
“I told her I didn’t know.”
“Well you have the poker face of a good liar.”
Patting the bed beside her, she said, “Sit down. Thanks for not spilling the beans.”
I looked up at her with anticipation.
“Now I’ll tell you the real reason I took off and hid in the tree house. I’m upset and especially with Mother. All the women in our family have been in the lodge. I am the president. But I read the lodge bylaws and found out they’d never allow my best friend Maria in the group because her parents are Filipino Americans or your friend Manny because his father is of East Indian descent and quite possibly Sherriff Cardenas because he’s of Mexican descent. They’d be blackballed. That word even sounds racist,” she said throwing her hands up in the air exasperated.
I didn’t understand. I liked being the youngest member and the youngest Marshal ever in the women’s lodge. My job as Marshal was to carry the American flag at the beginning of the meetings to the front of the room and install it in its stand. Then I led everyone in the Pledge of Allegiance. I stood at the front of the room with the officers. After the pledge was over I led them both to their fancy chairs that looked like thrones. It made me feel immensely important and grown-up. A few times a year at special events, we wore floor-length formals of taffeta and chiffon that Grandma designed and sewed herself for us.
“But maybe you can change things,” I said hopefully.
“Well, maybe,” she added, patting the top of my head like she had when I was little. “I’ll write a letter and see if we can get the bylaws changed and I’ll ask all our local members to sign it. You can have dibs on being the first to sign the letter,” she said.
Then, she snapped off her nightlight, but I wouldn’t get to sleep for a long while. I was glad my sister was safe and listened as she plumped her pillow and adjusted the covers of the twin bed. Soon I heard her contented snores punctuate the silence. She was a sound sleeper, not like me, always turning the day over and over in my head trying to make sense of it. My sister and I would be sort of like the Freedom Riders I’d seen on TV and read about in the newspaper. We’d be known as the two sisters trying to make our small part of the world here in our little California town equal too.
The letter was well crafted and over half the members signed it… Dear Mrs. Sweetwood, State President…It has come to the attention of the Mayville Lodge that the bylaws guiding the installation of new members discriminate against… But for all our efforts the policy would not change, and Susan would drop out of the lodge and I would too.
# # #
Jennifer O’Neill Pickering is a literary and visual artist. Blooming In Winter is available on Amazon books. She is particularly honored to have her poem, I Am the Creek included in the sculpture Open Circle that stands adjacent to William land Park in Sacramento, CA and was a city-wide response to a series of hate crimes. The Dog with the Old Soul (Harlequin) and The Raven’s Perch feature her prose.
Photo: Allef Vinicius