- Hollow Object
Beth tried to reach her daughter first thing on Sunday morning. When her daughter didn’t answer the phone, a feeling of alarm arose and, like a weather balloon, kept sending Beth disquieting signals all day. Beth and Vanessa had a relationship marked by an almost occult sense of the other’s welfare. Over the years, mother and daughter often called one another just to “check in” when they sensed something amiss, and often, in some related way, they were right. This constant fear for her daughter’s wellbeing was uncomfortable for Beth. But the truth was, without it, she feared they would drift apart.
Sundays. The day of the week that bonded all peoples of the world in laziness. And this one was hot, rendering shade a currency. Beth knew that Vanessa hardly ever left her house on Sundays. She lived with the baby less than ten miles north of the college town in which she’d been raised, in a two-bedroom apartment in a sprawling old house at the edge of a Christmas tree farm. The big house was sectioned into separate apartments, but over time the residents of the house had developed a culture of their own. Now it seemed to Beth more like a commune. Residents wandered in and out of each other’s apartments at all hours, and often cooked meals together. Most of them were single people, all of ambiguous early middle age. Beth often wondered why none were married, and what psychic wounds had led them there. But she was smart enough not to inquire. Vanessa was the only resident in the house with a child. The child—a boy named Chance—was eighteen months old.
Beth tried to reach Vanessa again at one o’clock, and then again at five. No answer. The little weather balloon soared across the backyard, the decking, the birdfeeder, sending its shadowy transmissions from an increasingly colder part of the mesosphere. Even as she sat with her iced tea and watched what looked like a rare waxwing visit the birdfeeder, her disquiet grew. That’s what it felt like—a drop in barometric pressure, a hushing, an intimidation. With sudden sharpness, she remembered one of the many experiments she had conducted with the children, back in the years she’d had all three of them at home. [End Page 66]
Her husband, Gene, had been packing for a business trip to the Midwest, when she noticed little Vanessa looking disappointed at the sight of her daddy packing again. So Beth improvised an experiment. She instructed each of the three children to give their father a hollow object. He would pack these objects in his suitcase and fly with them, so that the children could observe the effects of air pressure upon the objects. Vanessa, the eldest, gave her father an empty water bottle, the cap of which she instructed him to screw tightly at cruising altitude, for she already anticipated the outcome of the experiment. The middle child gave his father a can of aerosolized spray butter that he hoped would explode in the cargo hold. The littlest, not quite understanding the basic premise, gave her daddy an orange. While Gene was airborne, a cold front descended from Canada, and gale force winds swept the Plains. Beth didn’t know any of this at the time—she wouldn’t have heard the radio anyway over the sounds of three children squalling in the bathtub—but at that very moment her husband was riding through darkness in crash position, the plane plummeting.
The crisis lent the return of the children’s pressurized objects more than a little profundity. The water bottle was warped, taking on strangely human proportions, tiny-wasted and crouched like a skeleton. The aerosol can had not exploded, but leaked a buttery juice onto the contents of Gene’s suitcase. Only the orange was unchanged. The orange sat there on the bedspread like some kind of unholy icon. Something so simple as to mock curiosity. Sitting on the bed, one hand bandaged, Gene lit a cigarette and shook his head. The baby toddled to the bed and retrieved her...