Penguins. One of nature’s most interesting projects. The female penguin has the egg, and then she gives it to the male, while she runs off on her own to the ocean. She has a grand time all by herself, if she’s not eaten by some other big animal, while the male is standing, huddling over the egg, for three months. Cold, alone, in the widest, most expansive desert in the world, Antarctica. Meanwhile the chick hatches. Then the female returns. Suddenly there’s a blast of cold air and your father is nudging you off his feet, where he’s kept you warm this whole time, and some stranger wants you to climb aboard hers. What do you say to this mother who’s been gone this whole time?
If you were a penguin chick, or a person like me, you would know what I felt like the morning of August ninth, in the late twentieth century.
At first it was a normal morning. I rose and dressed, feeling for the umpteenth time how grateful I was for summer break. Downstairs my father was eating his usual fried egg and tomato, at the kitchen table, and he talked to me while I fixed my breakfast.
He seemed a little more nervous than usual. Normally he’d chat on about his work, which was historical studies mainly at the university, but today he would say some interesting fact about Alfred the Great, and then fall silent, twiddling his fork through his fingers.
“Alex,” he said suddenly. “You might have wondered sometimes about your mom.”
I looked up from my toast in the oven. “I guess. You told me you were divorced.”
“Erm… no. Actually, um. Well, she left. We’re not divorced. Separated mainly. She was… like a balloon. And our marriage was the string. And I was the child holding onto her. Free spirit, you know? We are so different… she likes her friends and parties and clothes, and I can’t look above old dead men and their deeds. That’s… that’s what she told me anyway.”
I sat down across from him. “I like that you can’t look above men’s deeds. You’re an interesting dad.”
He smiled gratefully. “Well. Your mother. She’s coming home.”
I jumped up and shouted, “When?”
There was a noise at the door, an insistent rap-rap-rap-rap-rap.
“Right now.” My father shrank a little.
“Why didn’t you tell me!” I shouted, heading for the door.
“I… did,” he protested weakly.
At the door was a large woman, her hair bleached yellow and her neck and bosom adorned with diamonds and pearls. She was heavily painted, and her clothes were the most fashionable I’d ever seen in our small town. She was not the mother I’d imagined for myself as a young child.
“Why, Alexander!” she cried. “How you’ve grown! Are you a teenager now? Is Mummy’s wittle boy a teenager?”
I mumbled, “I’m sixteen…”
She stepped in uninvited, pinching my cheek. Then she sneered, just the tiniest bit, at the house inside. “Is this where you live, Alexander?”
I did not answer, and she did not notice. She was yelling, “Dennys! Get here!”
I looked around. The house wasn’t that bad, looking through my eyes. But through hers, I saw the books everywhere, the dingy walls, the peeling ceiling, the papers taped absentmindedly by my father to the windows when he was in need of a place to put his notes. For the first time, I was embarrassed by my house.
My father came in, so thin, so small compared to my dominating mother. I’d always thought he was the perfect look for a historian who spent all his time between the covers of books, but next to my mother he seemed positively mouselike.
“Dennys!” she gushed. “This is where you live? What a rat’s nest!”
My father was silent.
“Well, introduce me, Dennys!”
“Alex, your mother. Laverne, Alex.”
“Charmed,” she said. “Now, where shall I sleep?”
“Er… er… how long are you staying?”
“A few weeks. Then charming Alexander must come with me!”
“What!” I stammered, “No! I love it here! Why would you want me?”
“It’s the rage to have a handsome young son with you on the best cruises. And we must breed you up well, Alex. It wouldn’t do well to have you marry the neighbor girl in Judsonia, Arkansas!”
I blushed. I had a crush on Lila, the next door girl.
“You will go to the best European schools, Alexander. You will meet the very best people. You might meet the Queen of Laodicea! I am best friends with her, you know.”
And so on.
I’ll take a break from writing now. My hand has started to ache.
I escaped to my room quickly after that and despaired. At the rate my father was going, not protesting a word my mother said, he wouldn’t even object to her practically kidnapping me. I’d have to do things myself. I’d wanted to for a long time anyway.
I could always come back.
I decided I would just walk, for one day, and see how far I could get.
I waited a few days, to see if she was really serious. But Laverne, each time she saw me, pinched my cheek and gushed, “You absolutely must come with me next week, Alexander!”
And my father would only look down and sigh.
So I packed. I took my school backpack and filled it with an extra change of clothes, all my savings ($450), my track medal, my father’s favorite book that he’d given to me, and a notebook. You’d never know what I could write down.
I left a note, pinned to my father’s pillow. Dear Dad, I left, because I wanted to stay. Don’t think badly of me, please. I’ll come back soon. Don’t let Lavern after me, please. Love, Alex.
I hoped it would be enough.
I walked. I walked far. I still remember how much my legs, trained to near physical-perfection by my track coach, ached and ached. I started at dawn, just after my father had left for work and my mother to the local bridge parlor. I walked until noon, and then I stopped and ate an orange I’d taken. I kept going, fighting the heat, watching the air for shimmers in front of me to make sure I wouldn’t collapse from sunstroke. No cars passed me.
It was getting dark when I stepped off the highway, and found a tall tree. “This’ll work,” I thought, suddenly wishing for matches.
I did the best I could out there in the woods. I had a little shelter from branches tied to the tall limbs of the tree, and I’d found a tiny tepid creek that I filtered with my shirt. I had my own system and routine. I found food and was able to trap a rabbit, once, which I roasted until it was as hard as an old shoe.
It was about two days before I heard the first of the police cars come through. They were shouting my name through a megaphone. The volume made me crouch in my treehouse and cover my ears with my backpack.
I almost came down when an officer traipsed through the woods calling my name. But then he shouted, “Son, please. Your muther’s so worried!”
I stayed up high, and out of sight. I was lucky I’d chosen a tree with high branches, and had pulled my rope ladder (made from bits and pieces of some old hunter’s rope I’d found in the woods) up behind me that afternoon.
Three days. Four. Five. Ten. I still saw the police cars every day. I still found berries to eat, but I was losing weight fast. Not a day went by when I didn’t regret what I’d done.
This isn’t some survival story. This is from the pages of my notebook, the book I took with me. If this were some survival story, it would be a novel. But this is about as much as a teenage boy could force himself to write in the way of journal entries.
My hand is numb. I wrote most of this from my bed at home afterward.
I went home a month later. Laverne was gone, and my father had accepted that he was going to live the rest of his life alone. I begged his forgiveness, and he granted it gladly. There were tears. There still are tears; you can tell from the wrinkles on the paper.
I have not seen my mother in some time. The last I heard her name was when my father was on the phone with a divorce lawyer.
My name is Alexander Graham Bell, and I hope this story has a happy ending.