I was reading and drinking a glass of cool water in the kitchen when my father came out of his nap and entered, disoriented and yawning. For all its importance Cohen’s Handbook was not a heavy book and when he appeared I drew it quickly onto my lap, under the table. My father licked his dry lips and cast about, searching for the smell of food perhaps, the sound of pots or the clinking of glasses, or footsteps. What he said then surprised me, although on the face of it his words seem slight.
Where is your mother?
His voice was hoarse and dry. I slid the book on to another chair, rose, and handed him my glass of water. He gulped it down. He didn’t say those words again, but the two of us stared at each other in a way that struck me somehow as adult, as though he knew that by reading his law book I had inserted myself into his world. His look persisted until I dropped my eyes. I had actually just turned thirteen. Two weeks ago, I’d been twelve.
At work? I said, to break his gaze. I had assumed that he knew where she was, that he’d got the information when he phoned. I knew she was not really at work. She had answered a telephone call and then told me that she was going in to her office to pick up a folder or two. A tribal enrollment specialist, she was probably mulling over some petition she’d been handed. She was the head of a department of one. It was a Sunday—thus the hush. The Sunday afternoon suspension. Even if she’d gone to her sister Clemence’s house to visit afterward, Mom would have returned by now to start dinner. We both knew that. Women don’t realize how much store men set on the regularity of their habits. We absorb their comings and goings into our bodies, their rhythms into our bones. Our pulse is set to theirs, and as always on a weekend afternoon we were waiting for my mother to start us ticking away on the evening.
And so, you see, her absence stopped time.
What should we do, we both said at once, which was again upsetting. But at least my father, seeing me unnerved, took charge. Let’s go find her, he said. And even then as I threw on my jacket, I was glad that he was so definite—find her, not just look for her, not search. We would go out and find her.
From THE ROUND HOUSE by Louise Erdrich Copyright © 2012 by Louise Erdrich. Reprinted courtesy of Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.