Madrigal has lost an earring, five carats of genuine imperial golden topaz, inherited from her great-grandmother, a Russian princess who smuggled her jewelry out of Moscow when she fled the Bolsheviks. Very well hidden, Madrigal says. Hidden where? everyone wants to know, but she laughs and says, Let’s just say, there’s a reason we call them the family jewels. It slipped from her ear during the Freshman Experience excursion to downtown Greeneburg (River Park, today; last week it was the War Museum) and I volunteer to help her find it. Dr. Graves, our faculty advisor, says he can’t leave us unsupervised, but Madrigal wants her earring, and my roommate is a junior with his own car on campus and a job downtown. He’s a barista at Southern Brew, and if we meet him there, he’ll bring us back to Cornerstone College before dorm curfew.
“You behave yourself, young Vaughn,” Dr. Graves says as he leaves us. “Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do,” and he flickers a wink at me as the Freshman Experience class leaves. He’s known me since I was a baby, and he’s let me turn in two late papers so far.
Madrigal smells of some innocent citrusy little-girl perfume, like orange candy. I wish she hadn’t worn those shoes. I’m taller than her when she’s in flats but now her eyes are on a level with my eyebrows, and people will think I’m her little brother. Or they’ll think does he know how lucky he is? or she’s so far out of his league, it’s not even funny. My grandfather used to call it punching above your weight.
We’re alone, if you can call it alone: alone among the dogs and their walkers, children and their mothers, and joggers in yoga pants weaving through the crowds. October crows shout from the oaks, calling me thief and liar. Children wade into the river with their hands full of bread, and the ducks flurry around them, mostly mallards, a few fat white ones with orange beaks, and a surprising swan. Madrigal, kneeling, runs her hands through the mulch under the blooming coreopsis.
“You had both earrings when we left the zoo,” I say.
Dr. Graves actually did this: brought us on a field trip to the zoo. We’re eighteen years old. He teaches Old Testament at Cornerstone College, and he used to live near my grandfather. They got drunk in the same bars. Once he threatened to shoot my grandfather for giving him the side-eye. Another time. Dr. Graves smashed a beer bottle on a table and cut his own hand to shreds. He still has no control over the left middle finger, and sometimes it will rise of its own accord and waggle expressively, mostly during Wednesday morning chapel when the closing prayer goes longer than forty-five seconds.
Now Dr. Graves gives us the finger as he guides his obedient sheep to the college bus. Madrigal and I head for the zoo, watching for a flash of gold beside the path, and she says, “I’m bored. Tell me something interesting.”
I tell her how my parents got divorced when I was three and each married a person just like each other, even with the same initials and hair color, and all their new children look like me. My littlest brother, now three years old, even has most of my name. I’m Vaughn and he’s Van. Thanks, Dad.
Madrigal yawns. Her eyes are the color of espresso. The one earring casts diagonals of yellow light along her cheek. The other earring jingles in my pocket. She can’t hear it, but the crows do, and they swirl up again shouting thief, thief. People who see us must wonder where we’re going, and I wonder too: where can I go with a girl like this? In high school I was the guy the second-prettiest girl in school would date once or twice while she was breaking up with her boyfriend, but only if we went somewhere he could see us. Also, no kissing. That was the rule. They broke up every three weeks, so she let me break the no-kissing rule a couple of times. Madrigal isn’t breaking up with anyone, as far as I know. She can do better.
“Is that the best you can do?” she says.
Madrigal isn’t a real name. I bet her parents call her Megan or Madison. She’s the kind of girl whose name was in the top twenty the year after she was born.
My grandfather was a famous storyteller. There’s the one about the dog he used to have, who would sit up on a chair and cross her legs and make sounds like human speech; there’s the one about his ex-wife who moved to Nevada and built a new house but could never move in because overnight it filled with thousands of scorpions. The best stories involved his brother. The last story he ever told me had been my favorite since I was four. “For my sixth birthday I got a bow and arrow,” he said. Then he stopped talking. He was in the hospital after a heart attack, and the IV dripped into him. His eyes were black, with only a rind of blue on the wide-open pupils; he was already far away, in the dark.
He couldn’t remember the story, so I told it to him. “You wanted to shoot a moving target,” I said, “so you paid your brother a nickel a time to run across the back yard.”
He shook his head. “No, no . . . that’s not right.”
“He never had a brother,” my father said when we left the hospital. “It was all a lie.”
I tell this story to Madrigal and my version is, “But he turned out to be a good shot, and he shot his brother—right through the neck—killed him dead! His parents destroyed all the pictures of the brother and pretended he’d never lived at all.”
Madrigal takes my hand. Can she feel the imprint of the topaz earring on my palm? No; she smiles, and we have reached the playground outside the zoo. In a month, this place will be veiled with icy rain, but now the maple leaves, topaz gold, chase each other in whirlwinds under the slides and the climbing castle, and the sun is so bright you can’t see the rust. We stand at the gate of the zoo, and the howling monkeys send their cry over the park and the river, and all the children shriek in answer.
“I took a selfie here,” Madrigal says, and we look at her phone: there she is with both earrings. We walk slowly, scanning both sides of the path.
An old man in gray dreadlocks plays Taylor Swift’s Love Story on steel drums, and the crows have gone to accuse some other sinner. Madrigal’s Russian heirloom is stamped CHINA in tiny letters on the back, so I’m not the only liar here. I saw those same earrings in WalMart before Mother’s Day last year and almost bought them, but ended up choosing a card. An expensive card: when you opened it, it played Für Elise. Madrigal twirls a length of hair around her finger, twists it all the way up to the root and lets it go. It springs into a coil. She pulls it and lets it bounce. She’s bored. I’m dying here.
“I fell off a swing once and scraped my leg,” I tell her.
Upside: she looks at me. Downside: that look. “A cousin of mine hanged herself on a playground swing,” she says.
All the flesh of my leg was scraped off in a two-inch streak, down to the glistening pink bone. I have an epic scar, worthy of a better story—I should have thought of something. Tarantula bite. Extremely small cannibals. Alligator with short attention span.
“It was supposed to be a Halloween prank,” Madrigal says. “She had a harness inside her coat. She wanted to scare the little kids. Then some guys drove by in a truck, they’d been wrecking Halloween decorations all over the town, they thought she was a scarecrow. Blew a hole in her with a shotgun.”
“No way.” But I remember this, or something like it, on the news last year: someone dressed as a scarecrow, shot on his front porch while lying in wait to scare little kids. Not the hanging, that’s all Madrigal.
I have no more stories. Nothing.
A woman leaves the playground, her big blond two-year-old squalling in its stroller, “Want slide, want swing!” She walks in fast hard steps, slamming her heels on the rubber path. A man overtakes her, puts his right arm around her shoulders and his left hand on the stroller’s handle. She hip-bumps him; he keeps his grip on the stroller, and it tips up on its two left wheels. The toddler shrieks and the woman says loudly, “Leave me alone!”
Thank you, Jesus! Here’s something. “She found out he had an affair,” I say. I turn and Madrigal turns with me; we follow the couple, close enough that we can hear their voices.
Madrigal shakes her head. “He found out she had an affair—”
“And the baby’s not his.”
Madrigal laughs. I made her laugh. People turn to look, attracted by her clear and brilliant voice. They see a skinny guy trying too hard. But I made her laugh.
“He says he’ll go for custody and she’ll never see the baby again,” Madrigal says.
The baby cries like a siren, wee-wa, wee-wa, arching his body against the safety harness, and the woman walks alongside with her arms crossed. We’re playing a kind of tennis; if you let the ball drop, you lose. “They’re already divorced and this is a custody exchange,” I say.
There was a time when my parents exchanged me at a police station. Once my father forgot me to pick me up. After that, I went to live with my grandfather. He told me about my father as a child: the time he swallowed a baby tooth and it got lodged in his appendix, the time a goat kicked him in the head at the petting zoo, how he had to be taken out of a showing of Star Wars because he was terrified of C-3PO. Madrigal twirls her hair.
“He kidnapped her,” I suggest. “He’s kept her in his basement for ten years. She used to try to get away but now she’s brainwashed. Sometimes he lets her out, but she’s not allowed to make eye contact. He’s mad because saw her talking to some other kid’s mom.”
“No. She’s his real wife, she’s going out on purpose and looking for new girls for him. He’s mad because he doesn’t want someone’s mother, all used up and stretched out and stuff. She was supposed to find someone young. But she’s jealous. She doesn’t want to be replaced. She killed the last one herself because he liked the young one better.”
“That’s a bad story. Don’t you feel bad?”
She laughs. Her other earring flies off, and she catches it. “No.”
Here’s a story I can never tell. When I was eight, my grandfather taught me to drive. “Time you were a man,” he said. “This is the clutch.” Of course he drove a stick. A 1978 Ford F-150. Green, except the tailgate, which was black and came from a Chevy. The truck hated me. It lurched and kicked; I had to stand out of the seat to mash the brakes. “Clutch,” my grandfather yelled, “gas!” The truck lunged and ran over a possum.
We’d crushed its hips but it was still alive. It tried to crawl away. The front legs grasped the asphalt and pulled, and pulled again, and stretched the middle of its body. The hips and back legs were smashed into the road. Where the fur was scraped off the midsection of its body, you could see the skin strain, pink and glistening, thinning as it struggled to crawl away. My grandfather gave me the tire iron and said, “Finish it.”
I hit its head, but my wrist turned at the last minute and the tire iron rang on the asphalt. My second blow, I hit the possum’s shoulder. It squealed and hissed. My grandfather stepped on the possum’s skull and crushed it, then drove us home. He did not offer to teach me to drive, or suggest it was time for me to be a man, ever again.
How will I give the earring back? I’ll have to pretend to find it—she’ll see it in my hand—I’ll never get away with this.
Madrigal is laughing. The story of the Woman with the Stroller has taken some surprising turns. We’ve run through the Halloween options: hell-child, vampire, werewolf, zombie, changeling, alien; the alien idea moves her into science fiction. “She’s an inventor for a high-tech weapons company,” she says. “It’s a robot with artificial intelligence, they’re programming it to crawl around in public spaces and record people. She’s bonded to it and she’s trying to rescue it and he’s CIA, he’s going to kill her and everyone who saw it. Including us.”
I’m sticking with the real-baby scenario. “She’s his nanny. She kidnapped his baby and disappeared two years ago, and he’s been searching for her ever since.”
“Oh, boring. She’s some girl who looks like the nanny, it’s not his baby, and she’s got no idea what he’s talking about. Any second now he’s going to shoot her and grab the kid.”
All our stories have one thing in common: everyone wants this kid. It’s hard to see why; he’s nothing special. Why should they want him? Nobody wanted me. I have Madrigal’s earring in my hand, ready to toss it under a holly bush the second she looks away from me. Ahead of us on the path, the man walks away from the woman, with his car keys chiming in his hand; he’s gone to get the car to meet them at the park entrance. Nobody’s life is as interesting as you want it to be. They were arguing about some dull ordinary thing. Where to eat dinner, whose parents they should visit for Thanksgiving.
“He’s her brother,” Madrigal says. “He’s an international drug smuggler. He’ll give her a hundred thousand dollars if she’ll smuggle cocaine to, um, where, London, in her baby’s diaper.”
The woman spins the stroller on its back wheels and runs it toward us, up onto my feet. She’s shaking; her face is red and she comes right up to Madrigal. “You don’t know anything about anyone,” she says. “You don’t know who I am. You don’t even know who you are! You think you’re so smart. Everyone can hear you, don’t you know even that?”
Madrigal takes a step back. Her hands flutter in front of her. “I don’t, I didn’t,” she says.
“You couldn’t even talk quietly, no, you’re practically shouting. All these lies. Like it’s a joke to you, what goes on in people’s private lives. What’s wrong with you?”
She waits for us to answer. I have nothing. Nothing. The crows laugh. “It didn’t mean anything,” Madrigal says in a small voice.
“Everything means something,” the woman says. She spins the stroller off my toes and walks hard and quick up the path, to where the unknown man waits to take her into her unknowable life. She’ll tell this story to her friends. These stupid kids at the park, they thought they were so special.
“It didn’t mean anything!” Madrigal says to me.
“She’s crazy,” I tell Madrigal. “It was just a game.”
Madrigal will hate me now. Every time she sees me, she’ll remember this, this instant of humiliation, a tiny piece of truth like a needle in your hand. I drop the topaz earring in my pocket. Maybe I’ll give it to her later. Maybe I’ll keep it forever. Maybe I’ll throw it away. Three different stories that haven’t happened yet, and all of them are true.
Image Credit: Flickr