We Were AngryPrint
A woman’s disappearance roils an insular southern town
By Jennifer S. Davis
At our town, with its shuttered strip malls, its buckled Victorian porches, its peeling paint, its forgotten parks, where we spent idle nights screaming “Bohemian Rhapsody” and puking up Boone’s Farm behind the broken plastic playground equipment. At our teachers, with their beefy, matronly hips,’80s-styled bangs, and sweater vests, marking the calendar with bloated pumpkins, smiling turkeys, dancing Santas, heel-clicking leprechauns. At how they made us kneel on the cool tile in front of the class during homeroom and then pressed a yardstick against our knees to measure the length of our skirts. At our guidance counselor, with his lopsided mustache and shiny tie, his wall of books on test taking and colleges, books he never opened while he talked to us about exciting career opportunities in cosmetology or medical billing, the practical virtues of a vo-tech track. At the monotony of our days, their promise to unfurl one after the other with a bruising consistency as far as we girls could imagine.
Most of our fathers had left us years ago, some in a gradual migration to other women, some in silly, selfish deaths—a truck wrapped around a telephone pole, a drunken dive in too-shallow water. Our mothers had us young, some of them younger than we were then. Our mothers were bitter. Our mothers were angrier. They’d been fooled. They’d been cheated. They worked two, sometimes three jobs, spending what free time and money they had sitting in cracked Naugahyde chairs at the Cut Above getting their color done, or on bar stools at the Rodeo Club, their loosening faces purling into their sun-freckled chests, bitching to some wannabe cowboy about the men who had left them, the bosses who had cheated them, the daughters who were destined to become everything other than what they’d hoped. We painted our nails and experimented with different shades of eyeliner in the small bedrooms of the cramped homes we all lived in, the fans perched on our hand-me-down wicker dressers swirling clouds of our cigarette smoke, the music loud and thumping. Or in bright, skimpy outfits we’d lifted from the sad selection of stores in the Auburn mall, we drank PBR down by the boat landing, while some dumb-ass boy strummed Zeppelin on his guitar, hoping to sing his way into our low-slung pants. And we grew angrier.
We’d attended kindergarten in the church basement, the same church our mothers dragged us to each Sunday to show the rest of the town that they were the kind of mothers who worried about such things as their daughters’ souls, the gleam of their patent leather Mary Janes. We exchanged friendship bracelets, folded notebook paper into hand-held magic contraptions that would tell us our futures: who we’d marry, how many children we’d have, how much money our husbands would make. We traded make-out partners at church sleep-ins, writhed to “Purple Rain,” spent an hour each morning plastering our bangs with Aqua Net, sneaked cigarettes from our mother’s purses, shotgunned beers on rundown pontoon boats sidled up to the expensive MasterCrafts of cute-enough out-of-town boys. And even though most of us had boyfriends, boys we’d known our whole lives, we always hoped someone new would notice us, see that we were meant for something better than the life we had. So we allowed those other cute-enough boys, vacationing on the lake for the weekend or week from Atlanta or Montgomery or Birmingham, to lay us down on the beer-stained couch in someone’s basement. And sometimes we rode in the passenger seat of their parents’ Beamers, the thud of the stereo pounding in our chests, out the opened windows, while we worked the zipper at their crotches, their clutched beers resting on our heads as their thighs twitched and tightened. And we saw what we were doing while we were doing it, as if we were watching ourselves in some bad afterschool special, a cautionary tale about young girls heading down the wrong path, the kind of girls who blew nice girls’ boyfriends in the school parking lot for a joint.
Because none of this mattered. None of this was real. This was the early ’90s, before cell phones, before text messaging, before girls like us could spend their nights recreating sexier, edgier public versions of themselves on their Facebook pages. Our true lives were spelled out in private, in our journals, our scrapbooks, the covers of our school notebooks: our names intertwined with those of movie stars, lists of our top-ten places to live, cut-out wedding gowns with incredibly delicate lace pasted onto snapshots our mothers took of us before dances or proms, our hair fluffed, our lips stained and puckered in the self-conscious way of girls still young enough to hope that someone might actually be watching.
Nancy Miles was not us. Nancy was tall and blonde and blue-eyed, with a zippy little Miata her father bought her, because Nancy was the kind of girl whose father stayed, a father who bought his daughter a brand-new apple-red car for her sweet sixteen, a father who named his boat after her, a father who owned a pharmacy a town over, a better town. He scooped tiny pills into tiny bottles for old people and anxious women and men with back injuries from the mill, and he made so much money doing a job that didn’t seem nearly as complicated as working a cash register or remembering the ten top dinner orders. Nancy’s mother didn’t look old or sad or dried out. Diana Miles was a prettier, softer version of Nancy. The same blonde hair. The same blue eyes. She wore a heart pendant encrusted with sparkling diamonds, and she was in the habit of poking one delicate finger through the heart of that heart when talking, and Mrs. Miles was always talking. She was the kind of woman who assumed people wanted to hear what she had to say. She was the kind of woman men listened to. The Mileses lived in a sprawling house on the side of the hill overlooking the lake, and we imagined them there, sitting on their porch in the late afternoon in matching chaise longues, their iced teas sweating in the circle of their hands, the sun fading like a shutting eye into a thin seam of light as they admired all that lay before them.
Once, when we were in grade school, we went to a sleepover birthday party at Nancy’s sprawling house on the side of the hill by the lake. Our mothers dropped us off with our Strawberry Shortcake sleeping bags, our Big Chew grape bubblegum, our stashes of Maybelline and CoverGirl we’d swiped from their purses, our presents for Nancy, cheap gifts—puzzles and marbles and plastic marble-eating Hippos—that embarrassed us the minute we stepped into that house, with its matching appliances, sleek hardwood floors, and artwork lit by separate little lights. Nancy had just moved to our town from Atlanta, her parents in search of a slower pace, a rural life—fishing off the pier, golfing in the middle of the week, good small-town, American values for Nancy—and we assumed this party was her mother’s idea, her mother’s want for Nancy to make new friends in a new place. Nancy’s father brought Pizza Hut from the next town over where he worked, the better town that had a Pizza Hut, a Quincy’s Steakhouse, a Red Lobster, but did not have the beautiful lake with the cheap lakefront property that was still too expensive for our mothers to afford. We ate pizza, a birthday cake shaped like a Barbie, ice cream hardened by Magic Shell, and Nancy, who was plump then, her middle round against her stonewashed jeans, sat silently each time her mother placed a new treat before us, cramming bite after bite of food into her mouth.
Afterward, Mrs. Miles drank red wine while we sipped sparkling cider from champagne flutes. Nancy, who’d ignored us most of the night, finally said to her mother, “Why are you doing this to me?” Then she sat in a corner reading a Judy Blume novel while an apologetic Mrs. Miles, who called us beautiful young ladies, who called us darlings, who called us sweet things, sat cross-legged on the floor in a black satin negligee, which stunned and thrilled us, her assumption being that we were accustomed to sharing such sophisticated intimacy, and dealt us our fates from her tarot cards. She kept them wrapped in red velvet tied with blue ribbon, like our fates were something worth protecting.
When it was time to go to bed, a tipsy Mrs. Miles herded us into Nancy’s room, with its soft pink carpeting and a light fixture engraved with floating rose petals and a canopy bed netted in miles of butter-yellow lace, and we unrolled our sleeping bags on the floor in a tight clot in the middle of the room, a room as big as all the bedrooms in our homes put together. And after Mrs. Miles kissed us all goodnight, her lips hot on our foreheads, we pulled out our school pencil bags, where we hid the cheap makeup we’d stolen from our mothers, and plastered our eyes in powder blue, our cheeks in too-bright red. Nancy sat at the fringe of our circle, a fat silent lump, and we almost forgot she was there until she snatched a lipstick, a deep coral that made our mothers’ teeth the color of weak coffee, and circled her mouth again and again, the lipstick spreading in concentric circles, like water rippling from a thrown pebble. “Pretty?” she said, and then she laughed for the first time that night.
Our mothers, with purple-smudged eyes and morning hair and our younger siblings crammed and chittering in the backseat, picked us up the next day before their early shifts, and when Mrs. Miles escorted us to our cars with only a short robe wrapped around her lovely negligee, they said, “What kind of respectable mother walks down her driveway in broad daylight in her nightgown?” They frowned suspiciously when Mr. Miles stopped washing his Jeep Cherokee long enough to offer them a sudsy wave, and they said, “That husband of hers sure has an eye for expensive things.” And we knew that, like us, our mothers had a long list of things they wished for: a sprawling house on the hill right by the lake, a boat named after them, matching appliances in a brightly lit kitchen, a silk negligee so soft and finely woven that it felt like a second, better skin.
In Sunday school that morning we sang:
He’s still working on me,
To make me what I ought to be,
It took Him just a week to make the moon and the stars,
The sun and the earth and Mercury and Mars,
How loving and patient He must be,
Because He’s still working on me.
What we saw when we lay shoulder to shoulder on our backs on the merry-go-round in the church playground after church: drooping power lines threading one house to another, a cloudless sky with no beginning or end, the dark shadow of the old church steeple spinning in and out of sight.
We decided we hated Nancy after that sleepover. What choice did we have, really? And when she grew tall and impossibly thin, a book reader, a smart-girl darling of all the teachers, maybe we gossiped about her—about what she didn’t eat, about what she was probably doing with the cuter boys the next town over. And maybe we huddled in the halls at school when she passed, all blonde light and blue eyes, giggling at her skinny butt, her skeletal fingers. And maybe we rolled the trees in the front yard of that sprawling house on the hill right on the lake when we were bored on Friday nights, scrawling shaving cream obscenities on the hood of Mr. Miles’s jeep. And maybe we drew cadaverlike cartoons of her and let them slip to the floor after class for her to see, calling her a stuck-up cunt when she stepped over them without looking down or at us. Or even once, after a long night of shotgunning beers on the boat landing, maybe we all sneaked over to her house in the back of a pickup and shoved one of our boyfriend’s hunting knives into the tires of that apple-red Miata, laughing riotously on the drive back home, our hair whipping in the moist wind. And maybe we should have felt bad about these things. Maybe we should have considered that we might be part of the reason that Nancy rarely ate, that during fifth period when the halls were empty and she didn’t think anyone would hear that awful, guttural hacking, Nancy threw up in the girl’s bathroom what little she did eat. It was a compulsion we saw as yet another sign that she didn’t deserve what she had, that she didn’t see how good she had it. Believe this: we felt righteous.
None of us would admit it, but sometimes late at night, lying alone in our twin beds in the bedrooms of the small homes we all lived in, the fans perched on our hand-me-down wicker dressers barely stirring the leaden air, we imagined we were Nancy lying in her bed in that sprawling house on the hill, the mattress so plush that we felt we were floating, like we’d laid ourselves into the late summer lake, the temperature the exact warmth of our skin, so there was nothing separating us from water and water from us, just a fluid softness, the evening sounds of our cramped homes becoming something other than the tired workings of our mothers: late-night murmurs of a father laughing at a talk-show comedian’s antics, the soothing hum of the dinner dishes in the washer, the swooshing of the pendulum on the grandfather clock that bore our family name. And in this way we tricked ourselves into a kind, comforting sleep, the pulse of the crickets outside of Nancy’s imagined bedroom overwhelming the anxious whisper of our own hearts.
Some of us had a tender spot for Mrs. Miles, even though we were never invited back for a sleepover or a BBQ or a swim party. So when we heard that Mrs. Miles went missing that summer before our senior year, that she’d left home after breakfast to get groceries and never returned, that a scarf she had been wearing was found in the Conoco restroom a few miles from her home, some of us, most of us, were genuinely concerned. “Holy shit,” we said, thinking of what we would feel if some horrible thing happened to our own mothers, women who lived hard lives that invited such trouble, although the only danger we’d ever really feared in our town was an inability to leave it. And maybe, just maybe, some of us felt a small, unsettling satisfaction thinking of Nancy, of how scared she must be now that her life in the sprawling house on the hill right on the lake wouldn’t be her life anymore, because we were angry, but we still believed in God then, and if he loved all of us equally, why did she have a father who stayed, an apple-red Miata, her own Jet Ski, a future that promised escape? Perhaps it seemed stunningly fair that she should lose a mother who said things like darling, like sweet thing, who saw something more in us girls than her own loss.
We’d heard about Mrs. Miles’s disappearance through one the boys who had a scanner, heard about it as the police were hearing about it, and that night, when we were shotgunning beers on the boat landing, our boyfriends’ hands tucked firmly in our back pockets, their chins tucked in the flesh of our necks, we thought, What kind of fucked-up world is this? We girls had all agreed that Mrs. Miles was dead, that no woman in her right mind would leave the life she lived, but we were stunned when the boys announced, “If she’s dead, Mr. Miles did it. You saw the way she dressed, the way she carried on with other men. I bet he dumped her in the creek back of that Conoco. Drove the car into the lake. It ain’t right, but who could blame him, really? You don’t know what a woman can drive a man to do.” Their confidence pissed us off, because we thought we were women, and we thought we knew exactly what a woman could drive a man to do, and we spent most of our energy trying to do just that. “There’s going to be a search tomorrow morning,” the boys said, animated in a way we’d never seen them before. They talked about which guns they would bring, what they would do if they found Mrs. Miles’s body, because surely it was out there somewhere, discarded for them to find, and their photos would be on the front page of the Millville Record, and they would look respectful, their guns propped beside them, their caps held in their hands, their mussed hair pushed from their solemn eyes. For the first time we girls began to wonder what our boys wanted in life, if they dreamed of places other than this, of girls other than us, what they thought of when holding our bared bodies against their slight, trembling chests, and we were angry that yet again we were not enough.
Our mothers said, “Wouldn’t it be nice just to get in the car and start driving and never stop? I couldn’t even imagine it. Starting over. Everything new. A new name. A new life.” They looked at us in a way that let us know they’d imagined it often, said, “Not that I wouldn’t miss you, but you’re practically grown. You’ll be on your own soon, and you won’t need me anymore. When will it be my time? When is it my turn?”
Of course, we were all there at the Conoco the morning after Mrs. Miles disappeared, just as the sun slid into the bluing sky. The boys with their trucks, their worn boots, their baseball caps pulled low to hide bloodshot eyes. The sheriff, his broad stomach swelling in his tan uniform. The sloped-backed men—the lobes of their nostrils fern veined from too much booze—with their rifles, their hunting dogs, their fingers twitching against coffee mugs as they barked clipped instructions: Keep an eye out for piles of brush, earth recently moved, clothing, personal items. Stay in groups. Watch for moccasins.
We didn’t even notice Nancy at first, sitting quietly with Mr. Miles on the tailgate of someone’s pickup, clutching a stack of fliers. “Thank you for coming,” she said, offering a flier to anyone who passed near, subdued for once, not like she was in class, always schmoozing the teachers, always raising her hand to answer questions we didn’t think needed answers, talking about democracy and human rights and scholarships and sororities and travel-abroad programs while we worried if our mothers would be able to save enough money to send us on the three-day senior cruise to the Bahamas or what outfit we should wear for our senior pictures. Her father said nothing. We tried not to stare at him. Tried not to think of how Nancy could sit there and hold the hand that might have killed her mother, although, of course, there was no hard evidence that he had done it, or that she had even been killed, not yet anyway, and if he didn’t show up and sit quietly holding his daughter’s hand, that would have been a kind of evidence in itself, we reasoned.
But he looked so lost, so stricken, that we began to think that maybe he didn’t murder his wife and throw her body in a creek, that maybe he loved Mrs. Miles, who, everyone agreed, was a wonderful lady, a kind mother. “Mrs. Miles is a fighter,” we all murmured. “God will watch over her,” we all said, not knowing how these statements made sense, or if they were appropriate, or what was appropriate when searching for the body of a mother lost in the woods. But everyone nodded gravely when we offered this, said, “Yes indeed, God will watch over her,” and we couldn’t help but ask ourselves where God was when Mrs. Miles had been taken from the Conoco parking lot, or when she pulled out of Kroger’s, looked at the groceries sitting on the back seat, decided she didn’t want to be a wife and mother anymore, and drove to the Conoco, parked the car, and walked away from home, or when our mothers were knocked up just out of high school, some even earlier, or when our fathers disappeared into their own misery.
The flier read:
Last seen at the Kroger’s in Alexander City on July 1st at 10 AM wearing a pink sundress.Bring our wife and mother home.
Beneath the print was a smudged photo of a smiling Mrs. Miles in a dark, low-cut swimsuit sitting in a lounge chair on a pier, Nancy in oversized Dockers and a baggy T-shirt standing behind her, Nancy’s eyes wide and clear even in print, her blonde hair so light that it bled into the white of the page. “It’s my mother’s favorite picture of us,” Nancy explained when some of us stared wordlessly at the image, because who puts a photo of their mother in a swimsuit on a missing flier? “She looks real happy,” we all agreed. “Real pretty.”
Mr. Miles and Nancy searched with the lead group, their orange vests flashing bright against the deep green of the woods. We girls stayed close together as we wove through the maze of trees, the forest ground thick with leaves and vines and mud from summer rains, our matching Keds staining iron red. Of course, we all wanted Mrs. Miles to be found, and some of us clung to the small chance that she would be found alive, but unlike the boys, who were tumbling through the woods ahead of us, breaking branches, barely containing their enthusiasm, none of us wanted to be the one to find her. We still had hope of tidy lives filled with beauty, of rich boyfriends and proposals, fantastic careers as interior decorators and makeup artists, of blissful days spent on balconies and porches far from our old town with stunning views of beaches and bronzed bodies. None of us wanted to be touched by a deliberate act of savagery, which somehow seemed so much more profound than the careless acts of savagery we’d encountered in our young lives: boys accidentally shooting each other while hunting, drunken classmates hurtling their cars into trees, men getting caught in the machinery at the mill. We couldn’t help but wonder what witnessing Mrs. Miles’s murdered body would mean to the future we still believed would tumble out of our forgotten town the day after graduation, taking nothing more with us than beer-hazed memories of sweet boys promising sweet things we expected to find somewhere else.
So when the dogs started barking in the near distance, a tortured, frenzied howling, we stilled for a moment, all together, as if one breathing organism. “I don’t want to see,” someone said, but we were already moving toward the commotion, all of us, the mud from the rains sucking us into earth and releasing us reluctantly. And then we were in a small clearing, a campground of sorts on the edge of the creek, the sun high now in the blazing blue sky, a perfect summer day for lying out at the lake, squeezing Sun-In and lemons in our hair, shotgunning beers pulled from scuff-scabbed coolers. The dogs were circling something at the silt-rimmed water, the men shaking their heads and talking on their radios, gesturing at the clamoring boys to stay back. Mr. Miles stood under a tree, his thin face pressed into his thin hands. Nancy was squatting next to a leaf-covered mound, her spindly fingers stroking what looked like matted hair, and we all stopped breathing for a moment, our hearts raging in our chests. And although we were standing right there, seeing everything, we felt like we often felt, as if all of this was happening to some other girls, and the lives we were destined to be living were already in motion, waiting for us to step in, to catch up with ourselves. “It’s just an old dog,” Nancy said quietly, not lifting her head, her pale hair curtaining her face. “Looks like somebody shot it. Who would do a thing like that?” And suddenly, we were embarrassed, by the boys’ disappointed faces, by the time we took that morning to line our eyes, to roll our hair in case the newspaper took pictures, by Nancy’s tenderness toward an old dog put down by his owner in a way as familiar to us as mothers who worked the late shift and left TV dinners for us in the freezer, as fathers who failed to call on our birthdays. And we were angry. Angry that girls like Nancy were allowed such ignorance.
Mr. Miles sold his sprawling house on the hill right on the lake and moved Nancy back to Atlanta at the end of the summer. As the weeks passed and Mrs. Miles’s body remained missing, we wondered less and less about what had happened to her. What did it matter? We girls understood that people leave or are taken or die in a hundred different ways, and in the end, they are still just gone. And we’d almost forgotten about Nancy, who headed off to Tuscaloosa for school the summer after graduation, where we heard she’d painted her dorm room and fingernails black, shaved her head, spiked her nose with a fat silver bar and tattooed some saying about the purpose of life in Latin on the back of her narrow skull, her tragedy revered, nurtured, and coddled by professors who read her heartbreaking personal essays, her ranting sonnets, awed by her spectacular suffering, which only made her angrier. And most of us had forgotten our silly dreams of fantastic careers as interior decorators and makeup artists, of blissful days spent on balconies and porches far from our town with stunning views of beaches and bronzed bodies. Girls like us were expected to forget, so we could get on with the business of living, so others could get on with the business of living by forgetting us. But we would never forget seeing Nancy standing in the stark light of her bedroom window the night we thrust that hunting knife in the tire of her apple-red Miata, the way she lifted her nightgown over her head and tossed it aside, the accusatory way she stood nude and silent watching us, the big bones of her joints pressing against her skin like clenched fists, how shocked we were to see our own anguish staring, unblinkingly, back at us.
Jennifer S. Davis is the author of a collection of short stories titled Our Former Lives in Art and is at work on a novel that takes place during Reconstruction.
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