Jerry Gabriel's first book of fiction,

Drowned Boy,
won the Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction, was chosen as a Barnes and Noble "Discover Great New Writers" selection and was awarded the 2011 Towson Prize for Literature. He teaches writing at the University of Maryland and St. Mary's College of Maryland, as well as directs the Chesapeake Writers' Conference.

Escapes

posted Nov 13, 2012

Henry's first escapes were insignificant, from places where he wouldn't be missed. In ninth grade, he once disappeared half way through football practice, before team offense and windsprints and the blowhard take-a-knee business afterward. He got a drink of water from the fountain on the side of the maintenance building and then just slipped around the corner, slid down the embankment that went underneath the stadium. Down there he made his way through the culverted Boar Creek, where the Civil Conservation Corps had put the stream back in 1936, west under the football field and then several blocks more. Crouching, he scuttled along in the darkness, and came out just past Winslow Avenue, crawdads scattering beneath his foot falls. He scurried up a bank there, took off his uniform, wrapped his pads up inside his jersey, and cached all of it in some nearby bushes. He spent the rest of the afternoon at a game room further down on the westside, playing pool with some kids who went to the vocational school. Ain't you on the football team, son? One of them asked. He looked at the kid with what he imagined was confusion. I'm on student council, he said. I got no time for sports. They laughed with him, but the other boys seemed uneasy about it, unsure of what his game was. He was after all wearing his dirty football pants. Also, he had lost when he'd run for student council, but they probably had no way of knowing that.

He escaped from a moving van once by crawling to the back and cracking the rear door and just rolling out of the thing as his mother slowed at the curve near Alicia Stalton's house on State Route 489. He escaped from church repeatedly, once by borrowing the white robe of an accolyte and then walking right past the minister during the sermon, as if on official business, into the offices behind the altar. Once back there, he jumped through a sliding window and over the juniper bushes that rimmed the building.

In between his junior and senior year of high school, he and Jim Shockey were smoking pot in the woods behind Jim's house when they heard footsteps. The woods belonged to Mr. Rommel, the old man whose Cape Cod sat to the west of Shockey's parents' split level. Rommel was widely known to be a prick.

Shit, Shockey said. Rommel.

He looked around to find Henry, but Henry was already creeping down a nearby gulley, gone. Rommel's voice, meanwhile, was approaching.

Henry's best friend in college, Emile, was from a small town in Quebec. Henry tried to explain to Emile the joy of what he called the moment of abdication, but Emile couldn't quite get his head around it.

This does not make sense, Emile said in his perfect though cautious English, his slight French-Canadian accent slipping through the cracks and crevices of the words.

I should show you sometime how it works, Henry told him.

Not long after that, while sitting next to Emile in "History 259: Europe Since World War II," Henry escaped from a tedious lecture on the Berlin Airlift by disappearing through the floor vent in the back of the room. At the end of class, Amy Ingram, whom Henry had been flirting with all semester, turned around to ask him to her sorority's TG, some kind of themed party, but he was gone. Where did Henry Parks go? she asked Emile. Emile looked around and then looked to the floor, where Henry had gone. I don't know, he told her. She looked at him for a long moment, and then down at the floor vent, and seemed to make a decision about Henry Parks.

At a pre-law club meeting his junior year, he was nominated for president by a pushy kid from Florida, and was to give a three minute speech on his qualifications. Out in the hall, he and the other nominee, a girl named Rosedell, prepared for their talks. Rosedell went over a prepared handout as Henry sat quietly, confidently, thinking about a time when he was young, when all the bodies of water in Stallworth County had flooded from a series of colossal storms. The whole world had been water. He and his family, his parents up front, he and Wendy in back, drove around on back roads looking at the devastation. It was both exciting and terrible at once.

When someone opened the door to call one of them in, Henry told Rosedell to go first. Just as the door was closed and he could hear her voice beginning to enumerate her points, three boys walked by and Henry asked if any of them had a cigarette. One passed a pack to Henry, and he tapped one out and handed the pack back, and then the group began walking again, only now Henry was with them as they moved on down the hall and disappeared around the corner into the student union's lobby. The three boys watched him as he lit the cigarette—not legal for some years, everyone knew—but it all seemed perfectly natural to Henry, who had never smoked a cigarette in his life. He walked on out the main door, across the Central Green, and into the main library. Inside, he rode the elevator as far as it would go, and read the first book he saw for the rest of the afternoon, an economic history of the American Southwest.

His friends and family worried about Henry. It wasn't that these events went unnoticed always. Usually they did not. And there was the business of Wendy. His mother tried to talk to him about it once, when he was home from college for a weekend. He shrugged. Things were fine. He excused himself to get some tea. She followed him to the fridge so that he could not disappear in that very moment. He poured his tea and stood at the counter.

Do you think this has something to do with Wendy? She wanted to know.

I honestly don't know what you're talking about, Mom.

I'm worried about you, Henry. You're behaving strangely.

Why do you say that?

Because you do these things. Like the time you jumped out of the van.

I was just having some fun.

She looked at him, suspicious. Maybe it was a minor thing, she thought. Maybe it was just an odd quirk that he would grow out of.

Henry, though, did not grow out of it.

He dropped out of college during his senior year. His grades were fine, more or less. But he saw a chance to go—somenone was off-loading a plane ticket to Europe for next to nothing—and he went; he was supposed to be meeting some friends for dinner while he waited on the tarmac for a flight to JFK. This particular escape coincided neatly with an upcoming take-home test on the build-up to the Russian Revolution, which he'd been dreading. It was also that week the eighth anniversary of Wendy's death.

First he went to Spain to work on an organic farm, and then, a year later, to Micronesia, where he lived teaching English for a time. He continued east, to Easter Island, where he found employment driving a taxi for nearly two years, and finally to Bogot, where he froze up in the airport. He sat down on a bench in Immigration and simply froze. He sat there long enough for two different officials to take note of him. Esta bien? one of them asked. He nodded, but did not move. After perhaps five hours, he slipped back through the lines to the ticket counter and bought a ticket home. Colombia held a special weight. It was there, in Bogot, during a semester abroad, that Wendy, along with 112 Colombians and two Paraguayans, had died in an earthquake. She'd been at a party at a friend's house and had died trapped in the debris that had come crashing down.

Not coincidentally, of course, it was the fall after this that Henry had made his first escape at football practice.

*

Sometimes Henry would escape two or three times in one day. As he waited for a blood test in a hospital waiting room one day at 28, he got the itch, and then threw his bag out the window and jumped down. His favorite routes were windows. Though it was quite a ways down, he was an excellent jumper, had learned long ago how to give yourself to the fall, to not resist the moment of impact, but to roll right into it. Afterwards, he vanished into the neighborhoods east of the hospital, savoring the confusion felt back at the doctor's office.

Later that day, he also skipped out on his check at a placed called Tonto Brothers Pasta and Pizza. He didn't go through the bathroom window, as he had wanted to, because there was in fact no window in the bathroom; he was forced to leave the bathroom and enter the kitchen and stumble past the cook staff, pretending to look for the bathroom. He rounded a corner and saw the word "Exit" in red lights, and casually made his way toward it, ignoring the calls of a busboy telling him that he had missed his turn for the bathroom. He never ran. It was a thing he had about escaping.

For seven or eight years he held no-account jobs, lost most of them from disappearing. He hated the idea of having to quit a job the usual way, of approaching someone and giving them some made-up reason why he could no longer work there—and this, two weeks before he actually would stop working. At a tile factory in Lawson, his hometown, he left for lunch—something, in and of itself, employees were not supposed to do—by riding the mid-day train through the factory's rail exit. He jumped off the box car then and swam the river—all-the-while holding his lunch dry above him, a calzone he had heated up in the break-room's microwave before the escape. And he spent the rest of the day on a hill across the river, in the woods just below a new church, looking down on the small town. Few things had made him feel so good as watching the smoke from those kilns billow in the muggy August air.

The next May, at 33, he went to his fifteenth high school reunion. He actually did not attend the reunion, properly speaking. He created a perch for himself in the catwalk high above the floor of the National Guard Armory. He watched the events—the slide show, the dancing, the chicken parmesan and potatoes au gratin—through binoculars and through a sound amplifier for which he wore headphones. He himself ate a ham salad sandwich he had made in the room he was renting on Culver Street.

Below him, he saw that the kids he'd grown up with had moved inexorably forward into their lives. He saw, too, that the world, as it was represented by them, had been practically indifferent to his many amazing escapes. There was, in point of fact, no image of him in the slide show.

"Karma Chamelon" came on and made him sullen. Other similar music cycled through. Eventually, it grew late and people began to leave. He leaned back and thought about leaving. He looked down once more and saw Jim Shockey sitting with his family. Shockey looked bored, probably stuffed and a little drunk. But maybe happy, too. His two kids were ready to go home, alternatingly hanging off Shockey and his wife—Laurie Smythe, he remembered, a year younger than them. Henry was thinking of the time that he had abandoned Shockey in the woods. He'd laughed about it the next day, joked with Shockey about it, but he and Shockey had drifted apart from that moment. It occurred to Henry now that their falling out was because he had abandoned him out there to deal with Rommel on his own.

For whatever reason, Shockey looked up now and picked Henry out among the rafters. Their eyes met for a long moment. Shockey, Henry thought. Jim Shockey.

He was about to enact his exit, through a door and onto the roof and then onto the next roof and the next and then, finally, down a rope ladder to where his bike was hidden in the vines. But he didn't move. Soon, Laurie Shockey looked up to see what Jim was looking at. And then the girl sitting next to her looked up; he didn't know her, or maybe just didn't recognize her anymore. Soon, the entire table was looking up at him. He sat, unable to move, his headphones around his neck. It was like the day in Bogot, but somehow worse. He just looked down as his old classmates looked up at him in his strange nest.

Finally, he saw he had no choice. He walked along the catwalk as much of the room followed his progress, and then through the small door that led to the stairs. Down on the floor, the crowd sat speechless. He walked up to Shockey, whose confused children were looking at their father for some understanding of what was happening. When he stood in front of Shockey, he said, Jim. I'm sorry I left you in the woods. Everyone was watching. Shockey looked around and was speechless for a long moment, but then he got up and extended a hand toward Henry.

Well, Jesus Christ, Henry. That was a thousand years ago. Why don't you sit down here a minute.

"Der Kommisar" was playing then. Henry had liked the song. So had Wendy, he remembered. After her death, he'd somehow ended up with all her 45s. "Der Kommisar" was in there. But he could also remember her listening to it in her room. And the Talking Heads. And Elvis Costello. And "Don't You Love Me?" Who was it that sang that song? He could hear its opening synthizer coming from behind her door. It was the first he had thought of his dead sister in a long time, and he was surprised that it felt good to hold her in his memory.

What tricks are you up to these days, Henry? Jim Shockey wondered, good natured, doing his best to normalize the situation. The people at the other tables went back to the conversation.

No tricks, Henry said. Not really any tricks.

He was quiet for a moment, looked at Laurie, who looked back at him kindly, as did the four year old on her lap.

I've been through a bit of a rough patch, he told Jim. But, you know, I'm getting things straightened out now. Too long had passed, he knew—twenty years already since he'd lost Wendy. He had grieved even when his big sister had decided to study abroad.

It's only for nine months, she had told him.

But, he'd said. What about Christmas?

We'll celebrate when I come back in May, she told him.

He thought of his parents the day the news came back from Bogot of the earthquake, the terrible wait, the pain of watching his parents as they waited for news of Wendy. And then their grief, monumental and palpable, but also finite, or at least tempered by some strength in them that he apparently did not have.

In those first weeks and months, all he could think of was Wendy, the walls rattling, lamps swinging back and forth, the neighbors screaming, Ay Dios Mio.

It was almost as if he could just perfect the escape, that moment could be avoided. It didn't make any sense, he knew. He could see that. Years after her death, his father brought it up once. You know, Wendy loved you, he said. But she wouldn't have wanted the love you two shared to get in the way of your life.

Dad, he said. He looked at his dad. He was going to say, What are you talking about? But he saw in his dad's eyes a sense of understanding. He wished he could go back to that moment now. He wished he could go back and escape his escapes.

Sit down, Jim Shockey said.

He looked at Jim, whom he could see was as generous now as he had always been with his pot back then. Yeah, okay, Henry said, something taking hold inside him. Okay, he said again. I will.