WHEN I RECEIVED word that Anna Damiani Barrett was officially lost--lost, that is, for the first time--I was home for dinner with my parents. It was toward the end of the meal, my father already pushed back slightly from the table so that his large, tired body could unfurl in a slouch, my mother stacking plates and prodding the remains of the roast with the serving fork.
I drained the last of my beer and watched my father reach for his yellow legal pad. He ran his hand through his thick gray hair and considered the pad, on which he recorded, in the order of their occurring to him, matters that he needed to discuss with us. This was the phase of dinner in which plans were made, consensus reached. Anna had often remarked on the military atmosphere of the proceedings.
"He might as well have unfolded a map of Normandy on the table," Anna said to me once. "Your father is still the perfect soldier."
In many ways, she was right. My father maintained a humorless intolerance for disobedience. Even a trip to the local mall was an operation requiring precise planning and a rendezvous time. When I was young I found an old snapshot of him, in uniform, smiling in front of a dusty truck. I stashed the picture in my bureau drawer and occasionally took it out to wonder at, imagining that earlier, secret life.
Glancing up in my direction from his legal pad, he said, "Number one. There's a letter for you."
I was always retrieving mail when I came home, mostly credit card applications and statements about the accumulating interest on my student loans. Usually my father tossed the relevant envelope to me and moved on to another item on the list, but this time he exchanged a look with my mother and remained silent.
"The return address says Barrett," he said.
"Is it from Anna?"
"I don't read your mail."
He handed the letter to me with uncharacteristic gentleness. The envelope was cream colored, with a Central Park West return address that I remembered well. The paper was as thick and soft as vellum. The stationery inside bore a calligraphic insignia, CHB, in elegant black embossing. Once I saw that it was from Anna's stepfather, I was sure it would say that Anna was dead. With my eyes racing across the sentences, trying to absorb their meanings even before the individual words had registered, I read Carl Barrett's haphazard script:
I hope this note finds you well. It has been too long since we have been in touch, and I regret that the occasion for my note is an unpleasant one. I am writing on behalf of Anna. It has been several months since I have heard from her. I am desperate to have some news of her, but all of my inquiries have been ineffectual. In case Anna contacts you or in case you hear some news about her, won't you please let me know?
My parents were too polite to ask what it said, but I knew they were wondering.
"It's from her stepfather. He doesn't know where she is. He wants to know if I have any information."
"Do you?" my mother said.
"Of course not."
"The poor girl," my father said, shaking his head.
"What do you mean?" I said.
"It's not her fault, is it? I strongly believe that sometimes people can't help themselves."
"Oh right, I forgot. It's all just a quirk of brain chemistry, not a personal failing, right?"
"I just thank God that you've never given us problems like that," my mother said.
I felt a strong desire not to delve further into the topic of Anna's culpability or to open a philosophical discussion about the nature of addiction.
"I've got to get home," I said.
From Empire of Light by David Czuchlewski. Copyright 2003 by Davind Czuchlewski. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced without written permission from the publisher, Putnam books.
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