I crane my neck with difficulty, trying to look him in the eye. I don’t blame him for his impatience. A time like this. All these expectations. So many people. But words have never come easily to me, and today is no exception. The only thing I can think of is the obvious, and for just as obvious reasons, it’s probably not appropriate.
Castles and lions the first to our land
Conquistadores so strong and so bold …
All marching up northward to take a stand
Expanding the new world across from the old …
No. Definitely not appropriate.
Just to be clear, none of this would have happened without Miss Duvarney. Of course, I don’t mean it was her fault. Quite the opposite. Because of what befell her, and how much she meant to me.
Eleanor Duvarney—my seventh-grade teacher. Sam Houston Middle School. One of eleven middle schools bearing that name in Texas if you’re counting. Thirty-nine the day I stepped into her classroom, a tall woman with long hair tucked into a bun (the battle with flyaways lost daily), fond of gray cardigans and brown dresses and dark shoes and a lone, optimistic touch of red lipstick, like a cardinal on the limb of a cottonwood losing its leaves. A beautiful, elegant woman to seventh-grade me; you can imagine my surprise, and anger, upon learning afterward that people considered her quite plain.
Always smiling, always cheerful. The only teacher—really, the only person—who looked past my face and my Salvation Army clothes and the shyness everyone mistook for belligerence and peered into my soul to see the real me. Who taught me pride: in myself, in my hopes, in my state. Who didn’t comment on the fact I shared a different skin color with Billy, my one and only friend. Who didn’t laugh when I came in the very next day after she taught us the rhyme and recited it from memory.
Yes, Miss Duvarney was a dream teacher. Which was appropriate because I saw her there too, at night, tucked on the far edge of the soiled mattress I shared with my brothers. Not those kind of dreams. Dreams in which she taught me all day long and we lived in a big house full of books, and music, and paintings. A house as far from my trailer at the edge of the creek as you could possibly travel.
I moved on, of course. Or was moved on, as the psychologists later put it, shuttled from grade to grade with no care paid to what if anything I learned along the way. Which wasn’t much, given how bored I was with almost every aspect of school from the day I left Miss Duvarney’s classroom. But I stayed in touch, if that’s what you call my periodic after-school visits when I wasn’t in detention and she wasn’t busy with the play or the musical or the next day’s lesson plan.
And then one summer she was married, to everyone’s surprise, and she didn’t return to school that fall, and I lost track of her completely.
Until, along with everyone else, I heard the news of her disappearance.
I was out of school by then, digging ditches for Harris County, but at least—so my stepfather told me—I was lucky to have a job at all. Me and Billy both, sweating it out through the long, hot, endlessly humid Houston days.
“I’m gonna volunteer,” I said, the day after the news broke.
“To help look for her.”
Billy eyed me skeptically, black face shiny in the midday sun. “Isn’t that a job for the police?”
“Extra pair of eyes can’t hurt.”
He never did take to the idea but agreed to drive me to the house that night, after work. To where Miss Duvarney moved after she married and before she disappeared. A fancy pile of stone and timber and stucco at the end of a long driveway, lawn so green it hurt my eyes just looking at it. A gong inside like something in a church when I pressed the bell.
I stared at the woman standing in the doorway. Golden-haired, blue-eyed, in a short—a very short—black dress. Silver earrings glinting like drops of water caught in the sun. Thick strand of pearls encircling her neck.