This Is My Oldest Story
True Story #15
This Is My Oldest Story
In May of 1992, a little before the end of fourth grade, my best friend Kristy and I and a few others from our street—Ryan, Tim, Tom, maybe Naomi—hopped on our bikes and started riding. Most of us had younger brothers, and we left them at home. We didn’t tell our parents we were going. They thought we were in the basement of Tim’s house, playing Tetris, and although their anxiousness had relaxed by inches over the past two and a half years, we knew that any request to bike farther than the outlined boundary of our street would receive a firm no. So we just went.
It was spring in Minnesota. The leaves were bright on the trees, the breeze a push at our backs. We wore T-shirts, but sometimes a cloud would pass over the sun and we would remember how close we still were to cold, and we’d bike faster.
We veered right at the end of our street—it bordered a thick grove of trees where the older kids used to play but which was now off-limits—and then stood on our pedals, aiming our bodies forward, and turned left up the big hill. We didn’t talk. Our breath was focused, none to spare. I remember looking at the lawns of the houses we passed, the deep green of the grass, the way the trees with their shadowed trunks seemed to watch us.
Had we said where we were going? Had someone suggested it out loud? In those days, enough bound us together that we had learned to read minds through the blinking of eyelids and other subtle gestures.
We slowed as we neared the top of the hill, our breathing ragged.
A car passed, rattling down the hill, heading toward town.
In front of us now stretched fields. Farmland. Ready soil, that time of year. In the roadside ditches, small shoots of crisp grass punched up among the old stalks of winter. The wind, swooping low, blew across it all, audible and hollow in the open.
My skin tingled.
“There,” said one of us, pointing.
And together, we hopped off our bikes, stepped forward, our sneakers crackling atop the road, not stopping or speaking until we reached a patch of field, unremarkable, yet to us as distinct as the space between before and after.
“Do you think he’s dead?” someone asked.
“No,” we said.
“Yes,” we said.
“He’s fourteen now,” one of us figured.
We thought of ourselves: Ten. Almost eleven. The age he’d been.
I don’t remember how long we stood there, how long we studied the grass in the ditch, how long we strained our eyes for a clue that had been missed, how often we dreamed about the second when—on October 22, 1989—the road we were standing on became not a road but the last road, when the bike went from upright to flat in the grass, the rear tire spinning, when not only the grass and the ditch and the road and the town and the state but the entire world changed.
One of us kicked at a pebble.
We glanced across the field, toward the wooded country road beyond, where he had lived. We imagined the quiet of his bedroom.
In a few weeks, my classmates and I would finish fourth grade, and then my family would pack our bedsheets and videotapes in boxes and move fifteen miles south, to a new house in a new neighborhood in a new town. I was nervous about leaving. Scared about losing my best friend. But I remember saying, or maybe just thinking, peering at that ditch, “I won’t miss this.”
I was right, but not in the way I meant then. You can’t miss what never leaves you.
Eventually, one of us spun a bike from that square of heavy field, and like a flight of swallows, the others turned too, back down the hill, toward our houses on the same street, toward the hidden keys that opened the locked doors, toward the parents with deep lines in their faces, toward our younger brothers, who still played with an abandon we knew, for us, was gone.
• • •
I have often thought, This is not my story to tell.
And what a relief, really, because it is a story of terror and loss, and I am not one to chase sorrow. So I try to set the story aside. Or at least focus on facts.
There were three boys that night, on October 22.
Two of them were told to run, were shown a gun, ran.
It is their story—theirs in a way they cannot set aside. From the moment they entered the front door as two and not three, they have had to relive and explain and wonder.
And as for the boy who was made to stay—well.
The things he would say.
I, though, did not tremble in that field. A stranger’s hand did not press me down. My life wasn’t stolen.
And yet, something was.
• • •
Here is the part of the story that everyone who lived in Minnesota in 1989 knows: an eleven-year-old boy named Jacob Wetterling was kidnapped. He was riding his bicycle home with his best friend and younger brother after renting a videotape from a local convenience store. They were on sleepy, small-town roads. It was Sunday night. A block from the Wetterlings’ house on the edge of town, as they were about to pass through farmland, a masked man sprang from a ditch with a gun, ordering the boys off the road and their bikes. He asked their ages, then told two of them to run and not look back or he’d shoot. They obeyed. Of course they did. But soon their hearts made them turn, and when they did, the man and Jacob had disappeared.
For almost twenty-seven years, the Wetterlings and law enforcement and community members searched for him, all praying that by some miracle he would come home.
• • •
I slept in a basement bedroom then. It was cool in the warm months, and quiet. We lived on the edge of St. Joseph, a bucolic town of almost three thousand people, right beside a farmer’s field, in which we often played. Sometimes I would wake in the morning and lie in bed, listening to the sound the cornstalks made as they brushed against each other just beyond my window. It always seemed friendly, like chatter.
When I woke on October 23, though, the sound was different. Louder. Frantic.
I sat straight up. I was still eight, in the way I’d known eight. But as I stepped from bed, moved aside the window curtain, stared out, I felt a tingling along my spine.
A swarm of helicopters filled the sky. A sea of strangers in baseball caps and windbreakers was moving through my yard. Their leashed dogs led them past the swing and into my tree fort, the dogs’ wet noses lifted high and digging deep and searching searching searching.
Beyond them, under the swooping helicopters, the corn whipped back and forth.
What were they looking for?
In the days that followed, I answered this question, filled it out with hypotheticals: the gun, a bike, a shirt, some blood, Jacob. There was a tip line the adults discussed, especially when they thought the children weren’t listening, but I was, and as my understanding of the events deepened, I wanted desperately to have something to say. This was about alleviation, lightening some pressure. If I could help, offer a clue, share up the secrets of the tree fort, it seemed I might be able to feel less awful about being me: being safe.
In later weeks, I would go to candlelight vigils. I would release a white balloon into the sky along with hundreds of others. My little brother and I would pin homemade JACOB'S HOPE signs on the fronts of our bikes and ride up and down our street, a clump of adults—our parents, other parents, a police officer—huddled at a mailbox, watching us, watching the ends of the road and the thick trunks of trees, hollering that we had ridden too far.
“But we aren’t even at the end yet,” my brother would say to me.
He was right; the street went on for three more houses on either side.
I would try to explain.
But before I could do that, I had to step away from my window that first morning, ascend the stairs from my bedroom, discover that the wind from the helicopters had pushed into my house.
A man in a blue FBI jacket sat on our couch, drank my mother’s coffee, asked my father questions. When I leaned into my father, I could smell his sweat, the raised hackles. And my mother, standing next to the window, her arms wrapped around herself, gaped at me.
“Mom?” I asked. “What’s happened?”
I’m sure she answered, but what I remember is her covering her mouth with her hand and twisting toward the road, peering down through the pane with what I couldn’t name then as the same desperation I would later feel.
It wasn’t me. It could have been me.
There were police all over our street, on foot, in cars, on horses. She was counting them.
I went to that window, too, and watched.
• • •
When I first moved to a large city, I was already in my twenties. I realized quickly that it would take me a long time to stop pausing at ordinary metropolitan things that struck me as odd: the presence of multiple grocery stores within a few blocks of each other; women who spent hundreds of dollars on handbags; men who hired companies to mow their lawns; high schools with names other than that of the town. And when I grabbed one of the state’s main newspapers and read the headlines, the events they described had regularly occurred within thirty miles of where I was reading. Which was not only odd but unsettling because—not every day or even every week, but often—there would have been a terrible car crash or an apartment fire or a double homicide just along the busy highway from whatever coffee shop I was sitting in. But I’d glance at the people around me, and no one seemed the least bit bothered.
Perhaps they hadn’t heard?
While I waited for someone to stand up, clutching a rolled newspaper, and call out for action, I sipped at my coffee, which soon went cold.
• • •
Do you remember being eight? Do you remember how it felt to know the parameters of your world, to understand exactly how tall and how long and how deep your life was? It consisted of particular people and places and memories, and though it wasn’t perfect, it had tangible borders. Sometimes you dreamt beyond them, but mostly they tucked you in at bedtime, they were warm under your chin, rose-colored and known.
But something changes when your third-period computer teacher appears on the national news, when she is not leaning over you, all coffee breath and bad hair, showing you how to locate home row on a keyboard in front of a Macintosh with green letters, but is instead hammering missing posters into nearby telephone poles.
You see her. You gasp. You keep blinking. What is she doing on the television? You gather that it’s because of this thing that’s happened, that she and other teachers and members of the community have put their coffee in thermoses and are spending their extra hours on the streets, at the police station, at the hotline headquarters, trying any number of tactics, whatever they can do, following the directions of others or following their own intuition. It doesn’t matter just as long as they are doing something, because there is no sitting still in a small town after a tragedy. That tragedy walks up the front steps and into everybody’s house and sits there. It’s not a guest. It hasn’t been invited in. But the door wasn’t locked, so what can be done? If you leave, you don’t have to worry about putting more coffee on. If you leave, you can busy yourself with good works and try to forget how if this thing happened a few neighborhoods over, it could happen to anyone, even you.
• • •
I still live in the city, but on the edge of it, in a community thick with trees. When my husband works late, my son and I play in the yard after dinner. He rides his red tricycle with a confidence that is new, and I see the way he climbs higher on the incline of the driveway, the way he tears back down, wheels and pedals spinning, the way his face reflects the joy of almost-flight. To feel the limits of your body fade. To feel the wideness of the world. It covers him, this fresh ascension, a kind of dusky halo.
When we head in, the sun dipping behind a stand of maples, the mosquitoes out now with the bees, I let him lead us. He pushes the house door open, flips on the lights. And then, as I’ve taught him, he twists the lock tight.
• • •
A few days after the abduction, we returned to school. Elementary school hallways are generally not places of hushed meditation. But that morning, after our parents watched us recede through the swinging glass doors, we all moved to our classrooms as if in shrouds. As if we knew what those were. Silence. Footsteps. An occasional whisper.
We’d passed a police car stationed at the front of the school: protection.
Parents had told us various versions of what had happened, and the rumors that started to circulate when we entered the smaller quarters of our classrooms were many and mixed. But where just about anything else on the news was impossible for children our ages to conceptualize, being kidnapped—that was a nightmare with specific, realistic graphics that each of us had suffered in the preceding dark hours. It was impossible not to imagine oneself as Jacob. The details were our lives: video rental, bicycle, best friend, brother.
Our teachers took our hands, used soft voices, and turned away toward the blackboard when our eyes asked too much.
• • •
I am a teacher now, and each year something awful happens to at least one of my students. I hear about it in the hallway or through an email, or from the students themselves, admissions they leave for me on an essay page.
I am supposed to be the adult. I am supposed to know how to guide.
They look to me with eyes wide as craters, pulling at bracelets on wrists, twirling brightly colored hair, hands deep in pockets. Shaking. I see the ways in which they do not sleep, how the things that have not yet happened can be the most unbearable, when layered on top of the things that already have. I am their teacher. And yet, confronted by a certain kind of loss, I return to that window in my childhood bedroom, and am overcome.
• • •
At some point amid our teachers’ subdued attempts to restore routine, “the neighborhood kids,” as the school counselor called us, were collected from our various classrooms and brought to a conference chamber. The walls were an undecorated gray, and there was no table. We sat in a circle on the floor, just as we did when we played games or had show-and-tell, except a few adults were interspersed among us. Kristy sat next to me, and we immediately held hands. Tim, Tom, Ryan, and Naomi fiddled with the laces on their tennis shoes.
And then there was Carmen. Jacob’s younger sister.
I couldn’t believe she was there. I had inexplicably assumed that Jacob’s kidnapping was mixed with her existence too.
A few weeks earlier, she and I had been talking at lunch about her birthday party, about cake and cutout dolls and leaping off swings into sand. It had been the easiest kind of talking: over peanut butter and jelly, celery sticks and pickles, talk and crunch and talk and crunch, then off to go wash our hands.
Sitting there six feet away from her, I tried to think of what to say, but therein lay the problem: the thinking. Thinking, even a little bit, brought me not to her, my friend, but to her missing brother, the way he had danced around us at her birthday party, singing some song, so much older and louder and alive. Before school that morning, I had watched my little brother slurp the milk from his cereal bowl. There was nothing I could possibly say. So instead I stared at her hair, the perfect auburn frame it made around her face.
We were told some things, asked some things, encouraged to speak our thoughts and questions and feelings.
To say anything with Carmen in the room was impossible. Every one of us kids felt that.
So when the counselor pointedly asked Carmen a question, and she tried to answer it, and couldn’t, and ran trembling with tears out the door, there was a great communal sense of relief. You could see it lift off us and trail after her, like smoke. I let go of Kristy’s hand. Wiped my sweaty palm on my pants. Stared at the gray walls, grateful they were plain.
• • •
Annually in late October, the case was revisited in the news.
Always, I read the articles, viewed the reports, eyed the updated photograph of Jacob—at fourteen, twenty-one, thirty. A bike in a ditch. That solitary St. Joseph road lined with telephone poles.
For the most part, the details no longer made me shake.
Over the two and a half decades following the boy’s abduction, more than fifty thousand tips—from suspicious tire prints to possible sightings—were received in connection with the investigation. Many came in response to a sketch of the perpetrator based on the boys’ descriptions. Others were the product of rumor and even hope.
In 2010, investigators dug through a plot of land on a family farm next to the abduction site. They sifted soil. Trampled fields. Brought in excavators. On the TV screen, I observed the reporters and law enforcement, how hungry they were. But nothing.
In 2014, some tip gave a reporter reason to interview a convicted murderer who was already in jail. He insisted, “Never had nothing to do with the Jacob Wetterling kid, never.” But in the article’s comments thread, people still speculated.
Where was Jacob? What had happened?
Between the leads, the breaks, the dead ends: days of loud silence.
Then, in October of 2015, another man from the area, who investigators had concluded was connected to the abduction and assault of a twelve-year-old boy in a neighboring town in the winter preceding Jacob’s abduction, was arrested on child pornography charges and named as a person of interest in the Wetterling case. His face filled the screen of my computer, and my eyes stung.
“Come to bed?” my husband asked from the stairs, finding me reading, disheveled in the dim glow of the screen.
But when I glanced away from the stories, toward my husband, I saw the face of someone younger, someone with sandy brown hair, like him, blue eyes, like him, a boy, my neighbor, eleven, red bike, rented videotapes, best friends, brothers, and the impenetrable dark.
• • •
In the days and weeks and months following Jacob’s kidnapping, I would climb into the top bunk in my brother’s upstairs room, say prayers with my parents, and watch them walk out the door. At least there is reprieve in sleep, I imagine them thinking.
But I did not stay in bed. I was not tired. My mind was not full of dreams.
When the sound of my brother’s breathing grew regular and deep, I went to his window. From its height, I could see—between our yard’s edge and the cornfield—the foot trail, a line of fine dirt that my brother and I and our friends from the neighborhood and kids from other parts of town all traveled throughout the warmer months. It was a well-known shortcut from our street to the convenience store some two hundred yards beyond the field—the Tom Thumb.
I have always wondered what movie those three boys rented there that October night, what story they had hoped to be swept up into back at the Wetterling home.
In the weeks before Jacob was taken, I’d leaned against my own basement window most evenings, often with the glass pushed high, the scent of bonfires and trodden grass sifting in through the screen. Soon the corn would be cut. Soon the air would bend cold. Soon the land would lie quiet. Soon, I kept thinking, imagining myself elsewhere, my life bigger, my knowledge of the world more than what it was, waiting at that window.
Upstairs in my brother’s room, my parents a wall away, I stared into the same distance, black as before, but graver, guessing after that movie, wondering about the boy I’d seen dancing in the kitchen at his sister’s birthday party, recalling the sound of his singing. I wondered about the last conversation he’d had with his brother, the warmth of the red jacket he wore. And at some point, the wondering became a seeing, and the more I peered into the darkness, the more I was sure I was seeing memories, the more I knew that I had been at my window that night he was taken, that I had seen the three boys bike along that path behind my house. They were in silhouette, their bikes floating forward as if on water, one of them standing on his pedals, all of them in a line, forward, forward, forward. And then, from the space behind them, I watched a man rise, hunched, a golem, a shape from the movies I hadn’t yet been allowed to watch, the stories I hadn’t yet heard but which existed in my subconscious as I now knew the world held crouching, haunting men. I watched him stalk after those bikes, those boys. I watched his shadow disappear into other shadows.
I saw them back there, in my yard.
This was part of the story I told. I told it to girls at slumber parties, to bunkmates at summer camp, to boyfriends under autumn moons, to a stranger across a café table in Paris, to myself: I saw them, I saw him, I was that close.
I don’t know when it merged from mind to word, from image to fact. But it is part of why the story made me shake. For a long time, I believed it.
You see, it is my oldest story. Memory and imagination. The details arranging themselves to matter.
• • •
I am thirty-five now, and over the past ten years, I have largely stopped telling my oldest story. I have a husband, a son, a career, eighty new students each autumn, an old house with wooden eaves full of small holes that bees keep nosing through. We sit for breakfast, and a bee bounces against the window glass behind my son, and he asks, “Where are they coming from? How are they getting in?” And I tell him about the hive that is likely in an attic corner, about the buzzing we can’t see or hear, about all the things that exist beyond our vision.
Together, we look past the glass into the morning.
But every October a news report revisits that day in 1989. And each time I am propelled to write through it, to try.
There have been essays, poems, letters, half a novel. Sketches. Images remembered. Old names I’d thought forgotten. That eight-year-old girl surfacing without more than a breath.
A thousand starts, always abandoned.
I’d lose what I wanted to say. Or it would feel false, writing anything at all.
I’d decide again it wasn’t my story to tell.
And yet, when I do talk about it—when it comes up unexpectedly at the lunch table or on the sidewalk beside a summer parade—I discover there is always someone else who remembers Jacob and the events surrounding his abduction with the same clarity, the same clutching-of-chest, that I do. “We didn’t want to go trick-or-treating that year,” someone tells me. “If I can’t see my child, I panic,” someone else says. “Do you remember,” another asks, “how our parents left the porch light on for Jacob? Sometimes, when I am closing up the house, I still hope a light will lead him home.”
As I’ve aged—and especially since I’ve become a mother—I’ve thought about how many children in 1989 experienced Jacob’s story in a way that bound it to their own. How many parents, like mine, sat beside their kids and had a conversation. How many front doors, like mine, were suddenly locked. How many dogs barking in the night came to symbolize all there was to fear.
I wonder: How many of us—children and parents and neighbors—have lived through these years in a kind of disequilibrium, where the questions have always outnumbered what is known?
In the 1970s, a Minnesota researcher named Pauline Boss coined the term ambiguous loss. She first used it to describe the emotional reactions of families of soldiers who went missing in action. The condition later came to be associated with other types of loss—dementia, infertility, someone’s disappearance. Boss’s work explored the complicated trauma that occurs when a loss has no closure. A grief that goes on and on, unresolved.
And then one day, when I opened my computer, there was another news article.
And I learned that while I had been teaching a fresh set of students and reading to my son and baking a ham for weekend guests and sleeping fitfully through an early autumn rain, investigators had been digging through some old farmland and had discovered Jacob’s remains, mixed among the tatters of the clothes he had been taken in.
They had found him, thirty miles from home.
There would be more news reports. A court hearing. A final connecting of dark and distant dots. We would learn about the kidnapper, with his twenty-seven years of ghosts. Old video footage from 1989 would resurface, and the colors on the screen, the hairstyles, the size of the eyeglass frames, the numerous shots of country roads and white ribbons and red bikes deserted in long grasses would remind me what it was to be eight and a friend and a sister and a daughter and someone who was newly absorbing the struggle of making sense of the world.
I would find myself shaking, weeping in my mother’s arms.
It is my oldest story.
The words are not perfect, or even right, but they are mine, they are not mine, they pinpoint the way in. They buzz in my chest, insistent, humming through the dark toward the holes they have made and traveled and known. I let them fly.
• • •
I write this over Labor Day weekend while my son naps.
When he wakes, I am in his bedroom, writing. I set aside my computer, pick him up, and his body molds to mine. He lets me rest him on my lap, cover us both with a blanket, and rock and rock and rock back from that other place of dreams and unknown space, a terrain we can never share, but which I hope stays white and clean and easy for him for so many more years. I kiss his brow. Smooth his unruly hair. When he stretches back, I run my fingers along the soft plain of his belly, his ribs perfect ridges that protect the folded wings of his lungs, his racing, fluttering heart.
I hold him for as long as he lets me.
• • •
One morning a week or so after Jacob was kidnapped, the elementary school children of St. Joseph, Minnesota, were escorted from our classrooms and gathered in the gym. There were no chairs, so we sat on the floor in neat rows that eventually unraveled into one another. A man in a plaid shirt with brown hair stood on a temporary stage, holding a guitar. His name was Red Grammer. He was Jacob’s favorite singer.
I do not remember who introduced him. I do not remember what he said before he started to strum the strings. But I can call up the exact lines of heaviness that etched his face, how I studied him, the way everything I’d been feeling was in the ache of his voice.
“Listen,” he called out into a small microphone, “can you hear the sound? Of hearts beating all the world around.”
I knew the melody. Everyone did. The song had been playing on the local radio stations, a type of prayer. I thought, perhaps, it was the song I’d heard Jacob singing when I watched him dance around his kitchen at his sister’s birthday party those few weeks ago—not the whole song but snatches, a boy singing without noticing his own sounds.
Even before Grammer reached the chorus, every child had joined in.
There were no windows in the gym, just four solid concrete walls, and yet in my memory it all dissolved into open air, our voices rippling out and out and up, and I told myself, with what hope had not been stolen, He will hear us. He will hold on a little longer. He will come home.
Next to me sat Kristy, cross-legged, holding my hand. Naomi, Ryan, Tim, and Tom were there somewhere. And Carmen? Her older sister and other brother? Her parents? Probably they were near the front or the very back, although I do not remember them among the crowd.
But I do remember Jacob. The way his smile shone out on homemade buttons affixed to jean jackets. The way that gym full of kids held his name in their mouths.
Now, twenty-eight years later, we know he was already in the earth, past both the horror of what happened to him and the realization that it could happen at all, gone away, beyond the pain.
But that day, in the gym, he was not gone. He was everywhere.
We couldn’t see the place where he was. We knew it wasn’t on the playground or at the Tom Thumb renting a videotape or on the couch in his parents’ basement, his siblings leaning against his legs. But when we closed our eyes and heard that music, we felt the room fill with the buoyancy of his innocence. Which is to say we felt ours. How young we were. How even if marked, we would go on, and rise to some place higher.
* Illustration by Anna Hall
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