This state of befuddled recognition ended when it was reported a couple of weeks after the kidnapping that Clark (the name Christian would never fit the slot; it lacked the snap I associated with him) had been linked through his fingerprints to a certain Christopher Chichester, who was wanted for questioning in a cold-case murder. The grisly particulars of the crime unnerved me: in 1985, John Sohus's corpse had been dismembered and buried in his mother's yard, where his bones were unearthed nine years later by swimming-pool excavators. Linda Sohus, the victim's wife, had vanished at the same time as her husband. Her body had never been recovered. Nor had police been able to locate Chichester, who'd been living on the property in a guesthouse rented from Sohus's mother.
Hearing all this, and then seeing Chichester's picture – it was a younger Clark in a tie and jacket, looking sly, with a one-step-ahead-of-all-of-you expression – I recalled a fuss he'd made once about his aversion to the sight of blood. It jellied his knees. It made his head swim. Like much that he said, the remarks came out of nowhere, unprompted and seemingly without a motive, just more of the colorful fog he spread around himself in what I'd diagnosed by then as a mild case of logorrhea, the compulsion to soothe oneself with talk, talk, talk.
On the day I relinquished my cell phone, keys, and wallet to the Foltz Center's hypersensitive metal detector, the shock of Clark's unmasking had not worn off. If anything, it had deepened over the years, combining with and compounding all the other shocks that I'd suffered since befriending him. The first, most savage of these traumas – the one that somehow stood for all the rest – occurred on the ranch, the day after my fortieth birthday. I was sitting in my blue Ford pickup, idling in the driveway near the house, about to fetch some hay bales from a field. Standing beside me at the driver's-side window was a friend from New York who'd flown out to help me celebrate. We spoke a few words as I put the truck in gear, and just as it rolled forward on its big tires, my friend cast a glance at the ground directly in front of me, a spot I couldn't see below the hood, and hollered, "Charlie!," the name of my one-year-old, who loved to crawl. The truck rolled on, a good ten feet–momentum. I stopped it as time elongated and yawned and I became a speck or cinder drifting in a nauseating gray void. I shifted into Park. I climbed down from the cab. Life had just ended for me, so I was calm. I hurried, because one must, but I was calm. With forty more years to absorb the ghastly image already taking shape in my mind's eye, adrenaline and panic were irrelevant.
He was sitting upright under the license plate, halfway between the rear tires. My perfect boy. The pickup's jacked-up, four-wheel-drive suspension had allowed the chassis to pass right over him. It made no sense. The overlay of horror – the scene that should have been – persisted in my vision as I reached for him. Angels. Providence. Only they made sense. In the realm of logic and causality, I'd killed my child, but love had vanquished physics and here he was in my arms, against my chest, with nothing but a pink patch on his forehead where the truck's differential had scraped the skin.
The accident sent a tremor through my life. Two years later I was divorced. I worked too hard. We'd never been a match. Mercury was in retrograde. Things change. Compared to what else can happen in this world, and to what almost had the day after my birthday, the divorce felt like business, a sad adult procedure. I'd married a teenager, what did I expect? To be the exception, as usual. Guess not. The sentimental turns to the statistical. I hung on to the ranch for a time, which seemed important, but cash ran low and I sold it to a neighbor who happened to be a real estate agent. A few days later he resold the place to a wealthy buyer he'd had waiting, pocketing a nice margin.
I saw my children – Charlie, and his older sister, Maisie – every other weekend, a schedule that makes a flip-card movie of parenthood. Sometimes they grew half an inch between our visits. I filled in the downtime with girlfriends and magazine work and wishful spasms of gym activity. Men who live alone don't live originally. We eat at the bar. We file for tax extensions. We call our worried mothers too often, no longer to spring exciting news on them – that season is over, and perhaps not missed – but to replay a skirmish with the ex-wife or get advice on what to tell a child who's been caught viewing hard-core Internet pornography. It's better, we think, than not calling her at all, and she must think so too, since she picks up.
Then one day she doesn't. In the summer of 2011, after a month of mysterious chills and headaches that she self-diagnosed as Lyme disease and treated with Excedrin and doxycycline, my mother died of an abscess of the brain. She was only seventy-one. She collapsed at her boyfriend's house in Iowa after a three-day visit to the State Fair. Her last meal was a snow cone. She lingered in a coma long enough for me to reach her bedside in Des Moines and, in the spirit of the living will that she kept folded in her purse, consent to the morphine drip that eased her passage. Because someone had told me the sense of hearing goes last, I held my phone beside her pillow and played her Bob Dylan's "I Shall Be Released." A day later, I drove to her house in Minnesota. In the center of her kitchen table, clipped in one of those little wire stands that florists put in bouquets to hold a card, was a note listing bank account numbers and names of lawyers. It was headed "If I die."
The cumulative result of all these shocks was to deplete some reserve of basic courage that I'd taken for granted since childhood. I wasn't so much depressed as chronically hesitant. Simple decisions that I'd once made thoughtlessly – whether to ask a woman on a date, whether to leave a front door key with a plumber, whether to answer a phone call from a strange number – felt loaded with uncertainty and peril. It didn't help any that out in Massachusetts, and then in California, my old friend Clark, under a foreign name, was wending his way through the criminal justice system, first for a crime he'd committed while I'd known him and that I hadn't seen coming but probably should have, and then for an older, more abhorrent offense that, the more I thought about our friendship, seemed coiled inside our interactions like a tiny, embryonic snake.
"Hitler went to heaven."
"The artist's blood."