The Disappearance of J. Frank Donaldson
Winner of the 2014 Boulevard
Short Fiction Contest for Emerging Writers
J. Frank Donaldson has disappeared. He is a bank teller described by family as a “responsible young man,” and I feel a nervous pinch at the base of my esophagus because I have this sick certitude that I know J. Frank Donaldson and that he is responsible, and also kind, though the name resounds emptily across my memories. I don’t have to page through my high school yearbook to know that he wasn’t in my hundred-soul graduating class, most of whom I met in kindergarten. But he might have been the class of 2006, above mine, or 2008 below. As I hear a moth fry on the Penn Station streetlamp outside my open window, I think about calling my parents in New Jersey; I don’t have my high school yearbook here in Baltimore, in my adult life, where like all adults I wake each day prepared to cauterize the days before.
J. Frank Donaldson disappeared early this morning, after a late night out at the Meridian Bar in Hoboken. With friends? Yes, says the news item, with friends, though the nausea I am quelling tells me he did not have friends, he’d gone out in a sad attempt to make some, he was sitting alone at the sparse Wednesday-night bar attempting conversation with the pretty bartender whenever she refilled his pint glass.
I minimize the screen. I shine my sun-colored desktop wallpaper at my window, in case there’s still time to tempt the sizzling moth from the streetlamp. I do not know J. Frank Donaldson. I can’t keep staring at his eyes.
My students ask what’s wrong. “That’s generous,” I tell them. “Thank you for asking after me.” I will never cease to be moved by the students who treat my life as an entity to ask after. I wish I could go back and treat my own T.A.s this way, like people with struggles and triumphs they were inserting, if I listened carefully, into their weekly discussion sections. ￼￼
What’s wrong is J. Frank Donaldson, still missing. I study my classroom and see a dark, wood-paneled seminar-tableful of J. Frank Donaldsons, kids who are responsible and kind and candidates for disappearance. I want to tie them together, loose ropes knotted from beltloop to beltloop, to ensure that they avoid his fate. When I first starting teaching (three years ago, fresh out of college myself) I used to tell my kids each Friday, Here’s my cell number, call or text—yes, you really can text—if you’re in trouble. That’s because I knew a guy, a mentor of sorts in college, who died of substance abuse Halloween night. I’d thought, three years ago: if you call me, students, I can save you. But no one called, not even to worry insignificant problems like pagination and word count, so I don’t give out my number anymore. I only give out my hopes.
“An assignment,” I say, grateful that I am teaching an expository writing class that the dean requires and no one cares about, least of all my supervisor, so I can make up unrelated humanitarian assignments whenever I please. “For the duration of the weekend, tie a string between yourself and another member of the class.”
“How long should the string be?” says Jaspreet, who might just call to ask about paragraph spacing, if she had my number.
I consider saying I don’t care, but I discover that I do care. I conceptualize the length of the string, the nearness I want to impose. “Three yards exactly,” I say.
“What if we don’t know anyone in the class?” says Keven, at the same time as Jaspreet says. “Does that mean we have to sleep in the same room?”
I want to tell Jaspreet yes, very much so—that would make the assignment one I’d have loved, in college; I try to assign assignments I’d have loved—but I worry I will get fired. I tell them so. Pedagogical transparency, that’s what my college mentor Professor Li advised when I first got this gig, a young teacher need only be transparent about his goals. “When it’s time for bed,” I say, “you may extend the string as long as required to span the distance from one dorm to another.”
“What if we live off-campus?” says Jaspreet, so I call on Keven, who’s an artist, to draw a rough map of campus on the blackboard. I hand him the box of colored chalk I carry in my backpack. I divide the map into quadrants, and allocate five minutes to working out amongst themselves who lives nearest each. ￼￼
My kids do not ask why I am instructing them to string themselves together, and I am proud and tell them I am proud. By now, the week before Thanksgiving, they trust that I always have a secret lesson whose end goal they need to not-know. Just last week, for example, they transcribed overheard conversations in the campus dining hall. When in class we read the conversations aloud, we concluded that taking other people’s words into our own mouths expanded our empathy in ways that mere listening could not.
Jaspreet lingers, after I dismiss the class, to ask me again what’s wrong. I say that I am gladdened by the expansion of her empathy since last week’s exercise, and I smile and smile until she hoists her backpack onto one shoulder and departs.
I like the feeling of looking around my newly vacated classroom after a seminar, before the arrival of the Urdu tutor and his solitary pupil, knowing that I’ve imparted lessons of enduring value. Some women, in their adult lives, develop unwanted facial hair along their jaw lines; some men develop unwanted patterns of sweat along their backs. I have observed both these phenomena among my students. In my adult life, I have developed a lot of love and not a lot of people to give it to. Sometimes, my excess love feels like a backed-up pipe inside me. Sometimes I worry the pipe will burst, and I don’t want to know what will happen if it does. So I pinhole-prick it to relieve the pressure, and I don’t tell my classes that they are the places I let my love leak.
I head straight to the train station when I wake up, late afternoon. I tried all night not to Google J. Frank Donaldson, and I tried not to set a Google News Alert for his name in my email, but I failed at both attempts. J. Frank Donaldson looks like a frat boy, some provocation in the cool set of his eyes and jaw, but several of my politest students have been frat boys—even Keven is a frat boy—so I have reversed my opinion of them. Besides, J. Frank Donaldson must suffer for looking like a frat boy; because he is expected to already-have friends, no one notices that he doesn’t.
It is a lucky day for me at Penn Station: the escalator has broken, so mothers with strollers and old men with canes need to find the service elevator. I smile, I point, and I offer directions. ￼￼
I live beside the train station because I like to inhabit the places where people are most likely to desire acute help. I have memorized the map of the station’s surrounding area—even the back alleys with their big blue dumpsters and the new pretzel café that is likely to close soon—for the days I stand outside the front doors in a Charm City sweatshirt, looking both approachable and local. I learned the train schedules years ago, but still check weather and track delays, up and down the eastern seaboard, for the days I post myself beside the automated ticket-buying machines. I carry an extra roll of toilet paper in my backpack, for days the bathroom stall beside mine runs out, and I know the person I am helping only by the hand he reaches under the metal divider to accept a square.
I want to be abundantly needed. This is not an easy goal, when you are twenty-five, an only child, single, childless, parents in declining but still good health. Many of my high school friends have wives who require dinner or a fifty or a sounding board, children who require a proofreader or a kiss or a warding-off of ghosts. Those without have mothers who need their save-the-date or girlfriends who need their nights off. It strikes me as unnecessary, redundant, that those who already have people needing them are needed so much.
I pluck up a newspaper that has fallen from the armpit of a young man in a suit, who doesn’t need the service elevator. I am surprised to see that the disappearance of J. Frank Donaldson has made the papers down in Maryland. I do not like the way the article has superimposed his picture—a school photograph, it appears, unwalled by a worried mother with more gray than brown in her hair—over a pixelated image of yellow crime-scene tape. J. Frank Donaldson is a responsible, kind, and also private boy. He deserves better than sensationalism.
“Six-seventy, I got the broker down to,” my mother says, when I have carried the newspaper back to my apartment and called her. She wants me to move back to my hometown (I’m stagnating, she says) and has been scoping one-bedrooms over the bowling alley beside my junior high.
“But what will I do with Leon?”—my three-year-old baobab, a gift from my father upon my first semester teaching college, which will grow to a magnificent, thick-trunked tree over many decades, but is extremely sensitive to environmental change in these early years. ￼￼
“You said under seven hundred, you’ll consider it,” my mother says.
“Could you do me a favor?” I say. I don’t like to reject my parents outright because they had me late and now are old, and I worry that each time I speak to them will be the last. “Could you check my high school yearbook? Should be in the second storage basket under my bed, under Nana’s pillowcases.”
Within seconds, I hear the dull unbuckling of a plastic bin. Perhaps my mother was already stationed in my old bedroom when I called, sitting on my bed beneath my framed school pictures, stroking my hand-sewn quilt, looking out the window to the diseased elms growing through the power lines in the front yard. “Who am I looking for?” she says.
“J. Frank Donaldson,” I tell her. “Not in my grade.”
“That young man who went missing in Hoboken? You knew him?”
“Yes,” I say. “I’m not sure.”
“I’m so sorry, honey,” says my mother—but she can’t find him in my yearbook, though she laughingly calls my father for help. (“That font gets smaller every year,” she moans.) I hear him mutter, “You told him about six-seventy?” before he says, “New Jersey misses you, Kiddo,” his voice reduced through the receiver. Before Professor Li died, he’d sounded just like my father. Small and shaky. Then again he’d been only thirty-four, Professor Li, a young teacher himself; his shaking had issued from a methamphetamine addiction, the details of which I do not wish to believe.
Google News Alerts tells me that J. Frank Donaldson is still missing up in Hoboken, though his mother has provided a new picture, and in this one you can tell there’s something wrong with his right eye: it droops a little, which must be what gives him the goading look of a frat boy when really he is only a polite, responsible, kind, and private young man. A young man who tells his graying mother over the phone, “That’s OK, Mom, don’t worry, it doesn’t matter,” when she has strained her failing eyesight seeking something her child wanted that she could not find.
I try never to assign my students tasks that I do not also complete. Last week I too sat in the dining hall, buying lunch with cash because I have ￼￼a faculty ID, not a student card with dining dollars. I too spoke the words I’d transcribed, aloud in my apartment, listening as conversation soaked into Leon’s slim just-sprouting leaves, learning to understand why Rosi blew off Jared who was like good with his hands but a total, freaking, limp-dick of a kisser. This was the successful test-run of my lesson: sitting earlier that evening in the dining hall, passively listening, I had not understood; I had thought that Rosi should give Jared a chance to keep kissing her.
I pack my books of one- and two-cent stamps, to account for the recent postage hike that my fellow patrons may have forgotten, and purchase a roll of packaging cord from the local post office. I tie one end of the cord to the beltloops of my favorite jeans—a gift from my mother for my twenty-second birthday, now slightly tight around the waist—then email my kids: If anyone needs extra string, just let me know. Twenty minutes later I send a second email, appending my phone number because it is already Sunday afternoon, and they may need an immediate contact. I wonder to whom I should tie the other end of my packaging cord. Someone in class, I’d instructed, but attaching myself to a student would be inappropriate, so I allow myself to amend the assignment. I will simply carry the ball of twine in my pocket. I stay up late that night—mouthing J. Frank Donaldson’s name to test for familiarity—in case my students text me, needing string.
Monday Come Monday, I am surprised to discover a messy cluster of threads beneath the seminar table, twined like a schoolgirl’s cat’s cradle. J. Frank Donaldson has not been found, dead or alive; the cops suspect foul play; the Meridian Bar where he was last seen has been yellow- crime-scene-taped. Curiously, no further photos have emerged, only the one where his jaw is set and the one where his right eye droops. I imagine J. Frank Donaldson’s mother sitting on his bed beside the sickened elms, between her fingertips the quilt his grandmother sewed when he was born, deciding not to offer more photographs off her wall; her son is a private boy, family-minded.
“You may detach yourselves,” I tell my kids, grateful to count sixteen in all, every last student seen safely through the weekend. “The assignment period is over.” ￼￼
My students shift uncomfortably in their seats. Under the table, I feel their strings sway against my knees. Jaspreet, linked by her silver bangle bracelet to a green satin-ribbon path I cannot trace, says, “But that’s the point, isn’t it? Now we’re attached we don’t want to detach.”
That had not been the point. The point was safety. The point was fear, assuaging fear. “Be that as it may”—I try not to nix my students’ ideas out of hand; I try to foster a welcoming classroom environment— “you will now experience renewed independence.” I had not anticipated this need; I have not brought scissors. I call on Keven, who often carries art supplies in his rolling backpack, to provide a pair, but he claims to have none.
My kids have never refused an assignment before. I fall silent, deciding how to handle their rebuff. Professor Li once said that a good teacher is one who is willing to learn from his students, so I say, “Very good, class. You have learned the lesson I want you to learn.” But I do not name the lesson, and I write the structure of the five-paragraph essay on the board, hoping they won’t notice the bulge of the unattached ball of twine in my pocket. No one asks me what’s wrong. While my gaze is to the blackboard, I hear the soft swish of fabric and the quick zip of knots pulled tight, and I suspect that my kids are tying themselves more intricately to one another.
When I dismiss the class, no one moves. “Go on home,” I say, and I try to laugh like my mother, calling my father from the next room. “You don’t have to stay here with me!”
They cannot go on home; they are tangled so elaborately under the seminar table that to leave would mean uprooting its heavy wooden legs and carrying it with them out the door. I laugh again, feeling the backed-up pipe of love inside me clog, swell with pressure. “You guys really take my assignments seriously, huh!” I say. I wipe the yellow chalk dust from my hands. I take my seat at the head of the table. I wonder if I can roll my twine ball out of my pocket, into the ropy mass, without the students noticing.
“You don’t have to stay here with us,” Jaspreet tells me, and when she gestures to the door I see the slight tug on a skein of green satin threaded through Keven’s wristwatch. “You can go on home, too, if you want.”
“The Urdu tutorial will want the room soon,” I say. The truth is I’d like to spend a few moments in my empty classroom, metal chairs pushed away from the dark-wood table, fluorescent lights shining. But the Urdu tutor and his pupil enter and want my seat, so I give it to them. Words I don’t understand in cadences I can’t imitate issue from my kids’ unpracticed mouths as I leave them in the classroom without me.
￼￼I rotate Leon so the leaves that have arched all day toward the sun are arching toward my bed. Tonight, the light of the streetlamp will swerve the paths of moths but not the spine of Leon. J. Frank Donaldson “was a sweet kid,” according to his high school cross-country coach—who was not the cross-country coach at my high school—and I note the use of the past tense, an unfounded postulation that must hurt his mother. I wish I could call and tell her, Do not lose hope! Your son is polite, responsible, kind, private, family-minded and, somewhere, alive.
I walk through campus on my way to the train station. I cannot spot my students, perhaps binding themselves ever more densely to each new class that sits around the seminar table. Everywhere on the quad, I see strings: kite wire spooling toward the clock tower, bits of yarn winding through browned leaf piles, rappelling-club bungee cord plunging from the spire of the library. None are seeking someone to attach to. The ball of twine is still in my pocket, still fastened by one slim strand and a double-knot to my beltloop. On the train, because I cannot call J. Frank Donaldson’s mother, I call my own. My father picks up. “I’m on my way home to New Jersey,” I tell him.
“To see the apartment above the bowling alley?” I don’t say no, though the memory of shaky Professor Li in my head is reminding me, Students arrive with assumptions that suit them. You must challenge only and especially the most comfortable among these assumptions. “Your mother is looking into exotic-flora flatbeds,” my father says.
“Thank her,” I say. The window beside me is sinking slowly from the grip of its rubber frame. I watch its gradual collapse, feel the slim passage of cold wind streaming through the fault, wonder whether anyone else notices. A white-bearded conductor collects slips of leftover paper from the luggage rack above my head, remarking on the recent victory of his son’s high school football team but not on the ￼￼window. I finger the cord in my pocket. As soon as the conductor passes into the next carriage, I hurl the string out the window.
For long minutes I feel the flutter of twine at my waist, unraveling; then briefly I worry that I will be dragged through the windowglass if the string catches a branch or a telephone pole or a tunnel; then for a time I feel nothing at all; then I wake from a nap to find the white-bearded conductor calling Newark and the window closed and the frayed string in my lap, only a few yards long, attached to nothing.
At the Meridian Bar in Hoboken, reams of yellow crime-scene tape coat the mirror behind the liquor bottles. I sit where J. Frank Donaldson must have sat, at the end of the bar nearest the bathrooms, the countertop sloped so the tap runoff collects in a foamy pool beneath my water glass. I check to see whether the bathroom needs the roll of toilet paper in my briefcase; I find it well-stocked. On my barstool, I arrange myself around a cartooned turkey wall-hanging, dangling from the pursehook at my knee. I say what J. Frank Don- aldson must have said, which might not have been understandable to someone just listening: “I’ll take what they’re having.” I gesture indistinctly to the surrounding booths, as J. Frank Donaldson must have done (as if the patrons were his Greek brothers and sisters) in a wan effort to clarify my antecedent. I attempt conversation with the pretty bartender each time she refills my pint glass, and I know by the bleary swans of light before my eyes that the backed-up pipes inside J. Frank Donaldson and me have burst at last, and I wait and wait and wait to disappear.
But I don’t disappear.
Just after midnight, the pretty bartender locks herself in the bathroom beside my barstool, and when she emerges she is J. Frank Donaldson. “You’ve been here all along!” I say. “Does your mother know?”
“Everyone knows,” he says. “I am not missing anymore.”
My students will be so pleased. Now that J. Frank Donaldson is found, they will sense a change in me, a loosening. They will respect ￼￼my assignments again; they will require my direction; they will follow my example, unravel from one another, let me back in.
“Last call,” says J. Frank Donaldson, with a tight smile into the drooping right eye that in life looks congenial, not confrontational: a kind, responsible, alive, family-minded, polite and private wink. I rise, but I feel a tug at my waist, and glance down to discover that the packaging cord at my beltloop has wound around the elastic hoop piercing the turkey’s pilgrim-hat head. I fumble with the strings, to untie myself, but cannot locate the end of the cord. As J. Frank Donaldson ushers out the final patrons, I look to him for help: he is superimposed over tangled ropes of crime-scene yellow cable, and, with a feeling of caulking something in me that has overflowed, I understand at last why he’s been winking at me all week via Google News Alerts. Did I hook him, when I threw my ball of twine out the window of the train? Or have we been attached all along, from the moment he went missing?
“You go on home,” J. Frank Donaldson tells me. “I’ll close, and meet you there.” But his drooping eye winks at me again. I think we both know we would have to uproot the whole counter if we left this place together, the whole bar, the whole of Hoboken, New Jersey; we both know that our knotted yellow rope-strings fasten so far underground that we would shake the whole earth, he and I, shake the dark place where Professor Li is sleeping, shake my kids back at the seminar table in Baltimore like pins struck by a bowling ball, if we decided to stand up and leave.
I let my arms cross on the drink-sticky counter and my head fall to the nest of my elbows because I am prepared to stay the night with him, so he cannot get lost again. I will give him my phone number, in case he should ever find himself lost again. Professor Li had my phone number too, Halloween night, but he did not, apparently, think he was allowed to use it.
“Call me,” I say, and J. Frank Donaldson laughs. I do not let myself wonder whether he is laughing at me. I want to explain that he can always call, always, in the middle of the night I will be awake if he should lose himself and need me—but I feel a soft rapping on my shoulder and hear a small voice and an affectionate laugh, and my mom and dad are here. Though I am twenty-five years old with an adult ￼￼life—and a job, and students who are knotted to a table—they have come to pick me up. “You’ve got a text message,” says my mother, nodding to my sun-colored, lit-up phone screen in a puddle of beer at my wrist, and I know before I check that it will be Jaspreet, asking after margin size on the string write-up. “We heard your friend was found,” she adds.
I can’t read her tone, whether she is saddened or relieved. I can’t leave before J. Frank Donaldson knows that he can even call me during class, if need be.
“Sorry we didn’t make Thanksgiving plans, Kiddo,” says my father. “We didn’t know you’d be home.”
They are swiveling me like a plant toward the parking lot—away from the turkey on the purse hook, away from J. Frank Donaldson. I resist, my knees bent beneath the barstool, feet airborne. I cannot locate J. Frank Donaldson, who’s ducked out the back door beside the bathrooms to grab a broom.
My mother says, “You don’t want to come home with us?” She squints, as though she can’t make out my face in the dim light. I do not know whether J. Frank Donaldson is lost again, in a back alley of the Meridian Bar whose blue dumpsters I am unfamiliar with, but I see before me an unwalled image of his mother, searching for him. “We bought a family feast from Boston Market.”
With a great effort, feeling the drag at my waist, I rise from my barstool. I leave my tip in postage stamps. I follow my mother and father to the front door. As I step after them into the dim sunlight of the early morning and the brighter lamplights of Manhattan across the water, I feel a pressure in my pocket and hear a loud crack, and I see my parents, for one brief moment before each rights the other, falter and stumble: because they are old; or because the earth has shaken.