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Only a couple of hours before the baby was kidnapped, the grandfather reached a reconciliation with death. It happened at some deep level of his mind while he was thinking about other things. He was a retired professor of the history of science and was writing a speech for the ladies of the Afternoon Club about fakes, charlatans, and pseudo-sciences. It was one of his favorite topics. The speech was to be delivered on Saturday.
His name was Harry Field. He was alone in the house with the baby, who slept while he worked. His work went slowly because of the distractions on his mind. There was a letter he had received recently from an old friend named Lena Fowler whom he had not heard from in fifty years. Three weeks had passed and he had not answered it. He looked out the window thinking back and forth between his speech and the letter. He did not notice that he was also thinking about death.
It was a pretty afternoon in early March, the sun shining on his dusty window. It glared on the arm of the leather chair and reflected on the screen obscuring the words. This morning Harry almost fainted after breakfast. It scared him, the blotted vision and pressure at the back of his skull. He hoped it wasn't precursor to a stroke. This too distracted him while he worked on the speech. He was obsessed with death. He had been thinking about it all his life and though he was often able to postpone the question temporarily he had never been able to reconcile himself. He was seventy years old and might last another twenty or twenty-five years. Or he might not. Either way did not make much difference to the horror, which was unimaginable, of the coming nonexistence of his consciousness, his mind, his eyes and ears, memories, thoughts, self.
The unexpected news of his reconciliation with death came up from his inside mind in the midst of these distractions. It came with a strong warm feeling and words: See, it's all right. It amazed him and he wondered how he had reached that conclusion. It must have been by some unconscious process or sequence of ideas which arrived at the point full of ergo and voilà: here you are, Harry, it's your answer after all these years. He looked forward to the evening when he could retrace what the reasoning actually was.
Then the baby was kidnapped and everything went into chaos. While he worked that afternoon she slept in the room across the hall. The responsibility for her made him uncomfortable, and he was waiting to be relieved. His wife Barbara was in San Diego. She flew there three weeks ago to help her extremely old and recently bereaved mother get used to living as a widow. His daughter Judy, the baby's mother, was at work. The baby sitter Connie Rice would come at three-thirty. The baby's name was Hazel and they called her Hazy. Concerned because she had been sleeping so long, he tiptoed across the hall to take a peek. He saw her padded rear end sticking up and he closed the door softly not to wake her.
If she cried he would pick her up. Then he would rest her thick padded bottom in the crook of his elbow and hold her against his shoulder not changing her diaper unless absolutely necessary.
Usually she could last unchanged until Connie Rice came back. He would take her downstairs and put her by the toy box next to the fireplace while he sat in the armchair and watched. There was the stuffed penguin and the mailbox and the inflatable alligator. If she was crabby he would carry her around thinking how old he was, over seventy, and how young she was, sixteen months, and how heavy she was and how fragile his back. He would talk language to her saying here we go around the living room and see the hall closet and those are overcoats and that's the piano and now the dining room and this my friend is the kitchen and what do you think of that rack of spices? Don't like it? In that case take a look at the china closet and the plates which are decorative and that's an Indian relic and that picture a sample of modern art and wouldn't you rather get down and walk around on your own feet? Are you hungry, what should I feed you, a piece of bread, a cracker, orange juice?
Sometimes his talk was good enough to make the baby relax against his old cheek and he would feel the little hard knob covered in silky hair full of trust while he soaked in sentimentality. He would think my daughter Judy to whom you belong and my wife Barbara to whom Judy belongs and all of us getting older on this cool sunny March day inside out to the yellow winter-killed lawn and the bare trees with peeling bark and the early spring birds at the feeder, titmice, house finches, chickadees, all precarious waiting for the better days to come. And Connie the baby sitter should be here by three-thirty.
The kidnapper was a man named Oliver Quinn. He was the baby's father. He took the baby right out of Harry's hands, which Harry allowed since he did not realize the extent of Oliver's estrangement from Judy. This Oliver came and rang the door chimes around two-thirty. Harry interrupted his writing, went downstairs with mild alarm and opened the door. It took him a moment to connect, this big man with the round fat face and glasses, scarf with tassel, plump purple jacket, smiling like a salesman. Hi Professor, Isn't this a great spring day?
Judy's at work, Harry said.
I forgot. She works. How's she doing?
And my child? Does she walk yet?
She toddles around.
Great. Does she talk?
Judy thinks so, I can't tell.
Where is she now?
But I hear her, Oliver said. Can I see her?
I'll have to get her up.
So old Harry, who didn't much like this Oliver Quinn, let him sit in the living room while he tended to the baby. The baby quieted when Grandpa came into her room. The room was humid. He picked her up, heavy in his arms, in a little shirt and fat rubber pants full of diaper. She settled comfortably against his shoulder, hot and moist. He put her on the changing table, cleaned her up and dried her and put another diaper on while she watched sleepily. He put on her purple playsuit, and brought her down.
She looked at Oliver, no recognition. Hi kid. He came to take her and she tightened her arms around Harry's neck. Sorry kid, too fast. Harry put her on the floor where she sat, looking around.
She got up and toddled to the toy box. She pulled things out and threw them. She carried a rag doll to Oliver without looking at him. He reached for it and she pulled it back and threw it at the piano.
How's Judy's social life?
Harry's dislike of Oliver Quinn had to do with how he had dropped out of Judy's life when she got pregnant and came back when the baby was born and then left again. He didn't like the things Judy said about him.
I heard she had a boyfriend. He said it pleasantly with point.
I can't speak for her, Harry said.
Sure. I won't interfere. Friend of mine saw her the other night at Clippers. She's got progressive ideas.
What do you mean?
Harry was annoyed. If he's talking about David Leo let him say it. Expose himself for the bigot he is.
The baby thrust the stuffed octopus at Oliver Quinn.
Look at this, an octopus. Thank you, lady.
He handed the octopus back to the child, took it back, handed it back, not paying attention.
Nice day, he said to the child. Like to go to the playground? He looked at Harry. How about it? he said. Let me take her off your hands a while.
Harry tightened, not prepared for this. That's all right, he said, I can handle her. He wished Connie Rice were here.
I'll bet you're busy, Oliver said. I saw your article about science and religion. Judy showed it to me. Right interesting. I bet you're writing all the time.
I'm busy, Harry admitted.
Keeping busy in retirement. What are you writing now?
Right enough. So let me take Hazy to the playground, you write your miscellaneous.
That isn't necessary, Harry said. I can take care of her.
No, Professor, you don't understand. I want to take her to the playground. She's my daughter. Sand box, slide, tunnel. Like that, kiddo?
The man's looking at him as if his fears were unreasonable irritated Harry but embarrassed him too.
Judy won't mind, Oliver said. I'm the father. I wouldn't let anything happen to her.
I know you wouldn't, Harry said. He was thinking how mean and suspicious he looked. The child climbed up on Oliver's knee, putting a butterfly net over his face. The rich chuckling laugh of the child, while Oliver made faces and played her game.
So Harry gave in. Okay, he said, but please bring her back in an hour.
Sure thing, Professor.
The red jacket with white fur and a hood. While Hazy sat on Oliver's lap, Harry put the jacket on her. He watched them out the door, Oliver carrying. Her face looked out from the hood over Oliver's shoulder while she waved bye with two fingers down the steps. An old brown Toyota with a dented left fender. Somebody in the passenger seat. Already he wished he hadn't done it, and there was still time to stop them if he ran out, but he told himself it was too late, and it was. He saw Oliver strapping the baby into a child seat in the back. The child seat reassured him, the sense of responsibility it implied.
It took a while for Harry to realize that he had delivered his daughter's baby to a kidnapper. Connie Rice came at three-thirty. She was the baby sitter and housekeeper while his wife was in California. He heard her walking around downstairs. After a while she came up.
Her voice sang up the stairs, Where's my lovey dove, still asleep this gorgeous afternoon?
Surprise in the baby's room. Not here? Where did you go?
From the study Harry called. Her father took her to the playground.
What father? Oliver Quinn, Harry said.
Connie Rice stood in the study door thinking it over. Did he really? This Connie Rice was a healthy young woman with long sandy hair and a sandy outdoor face full of bones. Not only was she helping out in Barbara's absence, she and Joe her husband were editing a Festschrift in Harry's honor. He saw the thoughts working inside her face behind the bones. Well, she said, after a while. I'd better do something useful around the house.
He went back to work. The house was no longer silent. He heard the vacuum cleaner and smelled cooking. The presence of someone else in the house gave him only a specious relief, it did not help the anxiety, neurotic as it was. Then he got absorbed in his work and forgot the anxiety until he realized with a jolt that a lot of time had passed. What?
Five o'clock. The idea took shape, a shock. He hurried downstairs and saw Connie in the living room reading Time.
She said it: Weren't they supposed to be back by now? Then suddenly she sat up. Which playground did they go to?
I don't know.
I'll go look, she said. She got her coat. This suggested emergency, so she softened it saying, They must have got carried away by the beautiful day. Adding, I'd better find them before Judy comes home. He watched her down the steps her unbuttoned coat flaring, her car turning around quickly, zipping away.
No chance of working now, he brought the afternoon paper in, looked at it, couldn't read. Carried away by the beautiful day. He walked back and forth in the living room. Hazy's toys were back in the toy box. Connie had replaced them while she waited. The aroma from the kitchen promised good things ahead once the future was cleared.
But Connie didn't come back. Twenty minutes passed, then more. He tried to imagine Connie at the playground with Oliver and the baby relieved to have found you enjoying the beautiful but now chilling early March afternoon, with a chat to get to know you while forgetting the worried old grandfather at home. It was time for Judy to come home. If she passed the playground on the way, she would have seen her child there with Oliver and Connie.
He saw Judy's car coming up the street. He thought, she'll have Hazy with her. She pulled into the garage but came out alone. He watched her in her office suit up the walk unaware.
I'll have to tell her her child isn't here, he thought.
She came in the back while he was in front watching for Connie's car. He went to the kitchen. She dropped her coat on a kitchen chair.
Smells good, what is it? she said.
How's my baby?
She went to the playground, he said, as calm as he could manage. We're waiting for her to come back.
That's nice, she said. It's such a nice day.
He realized she thought Hazy had gone to the playground with Connie. They're late getting back, he said. Connie went to look for her.
He told her quietly: Oliver took her.
He came by. He took her to the playground.
Oliver? You let Oliver take my baby?
Calmly as possible he said, He wanted to see her for a little while.
His daughter Judy looked at him. He had never seen such a look on her face. She paused, then uttered a sound. Not really a scream, not loud, a little shriek but it was like lightning.
What did you do with my baby?
She put her hands to her face and took them off and stared at them. Daddy, Daddy how could you? She turned around and paced with gasps and moans. My baby, my baby.
Connie Rice came back. I drove to all the playgrounds, she said. I drove all around looking at the streets.
Judy sat on the sofa, her shoulders hunched, face twisted.
I'll never see her again, Judy said.
No no Judy, Connie said. She's all right.
She looked despairingly at Harry. You gave my baby away. He had never been accused by his children before. It shocked him and filled him with fright like the unknown.
She sat up straight. Call the police, she said. She looked at Harry. You call them, she said, you're the one who let her go.
He saw the rightness of that and went to the phone. He heard Connie say softly to Judy, Don't be hard on him, Judy, he didn't realize.
He should have realized, she said. A moment later, I'm sorry, Daddy.
He called the police putting the word kidnapping into his own voice at last, thereby confirming it an event. Once that happened everything else was displaced. He remembered the reconciliation with death that he had reached earlier in the day. He never did get a chance to track the forgotten reasoning that led to that conclusion. It seemed remote now. Everything did. The speech he had been writing, the campaign against the charlatans and fakers and pseudo-sciences he loved to demolish, as well as Lena the old girl friend and the letter he wanted to write. All were irrelevant and perverse in the light of the unnatural disappearance of his daughter's child.
When we finished packing we got into the car and fastened our seat belts. It was changed from cloudy to sunny. I looked at the house when Oliver pulled the car into the street. It disappeared so did the street.
And now Nicky where do you think we are going Oliver said.
To Miller Church I said.
First a necessary stop or two he said. He pulled into a gas station. Why do you think we are stopping here.
To get gas I said.
Why do we need gas.
To make the car go I said.
Righto man. That's the old understanding at work.
He made me pump the gas. He gave me money which I gave to the guy with the machine. We went on.
Now Nicky another stop. Do you know this neighborhood he said.
No I said.
This is a residential district. Resi-dential. This is where the university people live. Do you know what the university people do.
They go to the university I said.
Correct. Do you know any university people.
You are a university person I said.
Right and wrong he said. I was but I am not. Once upon a time but I have ceased to be.
The street had a circle at the end. It had big houses and didn't go anywhere. He parked the car. I waited while he went into the house. He stayed a long time. Kids came by from school looked at me. Birds on the grass mud wet ground. Bare trees with branches shiny in the sun. Crows flying above the trees saying caw caw talking to each other in a crowd going somewhere caw cawing as they go. If I was them I'd caw too.
After a while Oliver came out of the house carrying a package in a red and white Santa Claus suit. It wasn't a package it was a baby. Look what I got he said. Company for our trip.
He strapped the baby into the seat in back. Now you see why I got the child seat he said. Because the law which says you can't take an infant in a car except a car seat so says the law.
So says the law I said.
It's important to obey the law he said.
The baby looked at us not saying anything.
Meet my daughter.
Pleased to meet you I said.
The baby stared at me eyes brown. Oliver started the car. You didn't know I had a daughter he said her name is Hazel. Ask her if she recognizes her name.
I turned to the back seat and said is your name Hazel. I told Oliver no answer.
That's because you're being too direct. It takes know how to handle a baby. You need to know how. Watch this. He pulled into a parking lot next to a row of stores. Wait here and don't let my daughter go away he said. I waited in the car with the baby who looked out the window at the passing scene. This was people going in and out of the store with shopping bags. After a while Oliver came back with a package wrapped in pink plastic that took both arms to carry. He put it in the back seat next to the baby.
Excerpted from "Disciples"
Copyright © 1997 Austin Wright.
Excerpted by permission of Atlantic Books Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
1 Harry Field,
2 Nick Foster,
3 Judy Field,
4 Oliver Quinn,
5 David Leo,
6 Harry Field,
7 Judy Field,
8 Oliver Quinn,
9 David Leo,
10 Judy Field,
11 David Leo,
12 Harry Field,
13 Nick Foster,
14 Harry Field,
15 David Leo,
16 Harry Field,
17 Nick Foster,
18 Lena Fowler Armstrong,
19 David Leo,
20 Nick Foster,
21 David Leo,
22 Nick Foster,
23 Harry Field,
24 Lena Fowler Armstrong,
25 Jake Loomer,
26 Nick Foster,
28 Lena Fowler Armstrong,
29 David Leo,
30 Judy Field,
31 Harry Field,