Previously in Unbound Fiction:
"Travel Guide for Ameri-Students Touring Former Soviet Countries," by Anthony Doerr (Aug 23, 2000)
"Now that you have successfully deserted your sixteen classmates, three fat teachers, and one pompous Belorussian tour guide in Minsk by skulking past their rooms at dawn and through the empty hotel lobby, take the first train to Lithuania."
"Bienvenue à Dilbrith College, Marie-Claire Tremblay!!," by Simon Fanning (Jul 19, 2000)
"Marie-Claire is scheduled to arrive on the three o'clock train. And would Abélard himself not have relinquished his philosophical pursuits in order to accommodate his immaculate Héloïse?"
"The Limbo of Infants," by Sandra Riley (Jun 21, 2000)
"They like to go to Chi Chi's for cha-jitas, Claire and Tom, when they are off the island on an interstate, looking for a place to stop."
"Cicada," by Judy Wilson (May 24, 2000)
"These are things my son taught me to care about. Saturday nights he taught me to feel the thrill of the drag strip. 'The trick,' he said, 'is to not blink when the lights go green.'"
"Lyris," by Tom Drury (April 20, 2000)
"She climbed down the outside of the bridge and stood on a narrow ledge. It was not a far drop to the river; it might even be a pleasant jump in the summer."
"Contamination," by Dalia Rosenfeld (March 22, 2000)
"Igor spends most of his mornings in a cave, across the street from the park where we used to grill hamburgers and toss Frisbees over each other's heads."
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t may just be a trick of memory, but when we think about that night it seems as though it was Elsie's name the band was singing. There was something twangy and bluegrass about the distress Elsie Rojan caused the town, about the brief search and the trial and the tree swing that still hangs in her parents' front yard. "Elsie, Elsie!"
We were sitting on blankets and lawnchairs in front of the summer stage by the lake. We remember it as a moonless night, windy, finally -- during that summer it seemed we couldn't buy a breeze -- and the trees behind the stage swayed as though dancing to the music. It was a Labor Day concert, the end of a long summer of time spent on front porches drinking beers and looking into a sky that we remember as being starless almost every night. The band wasn't local: a touring bluegrass quartet. Mandolin, bass, guitar, and banjo. They lacked a fiddler, someone said, and we all agreed.
We should have known something was wrong. A dark night and windy, darker and windier the more we look back on it. We were all trying too hard to have fun; it was a whole-town outing. The mayor welcomed the band, spoke encouragingly about community, the re-opening of the plant, the warm summer nights we all had enjoyed. We stared at the skinny guitarist, his red beard sparse near the ears, and the banjo picker, a cowboy with a large round belly. The mandolin player had a high voice and sang the soprano parts in a falsetto. The bassist was from a town nearby; he was almost a home-town boy, and a crowd favorite. He tried to keep the music low, like the bottom part of one of those old barbershop quartets, but occasionally he'd break out and slap the strings against the instrument's barrel, creating a staccato rhythm like the short, separated screeches of background violins in horror movies.
The older children had scattered after dark to play in the field next to the bandstand. We could hear their shouts in the breaks between songs, when the banjo player tuned his strings and tried to sell the band's album. He had a wide, white smile and attempted to downplay the serious subjects of the songs -- prison time, loneliness, foreclosures -- with witless humor. His bolo tie grazed the top of his stomach; one string lay on each side with metal tips like long fangs.
We were all there, the town fixtures and representatives: Mr. and Mrs. Millard, large as ever in their custom lawn chairs and well into their six-pack, whooped and howled in time to the beat, clapping their hands and swinging their sausage legs. The Johansons brought Jimmy in a red wagon and encouraged him to stand and sway as best he could on his baby feet. The Peterson twins, dressed in identical red jumpers, pulled each other's hair until one began to cry and Mrs. Peterson separated them.
The Wolfsons sat on the blanket in front of us. They'd brought white wine and grapes and Mrs. Wolfson wore tight black pants and stylish sandals. She had her husband's cardigan over her shoulders. Mr. Wolfson was tan and had a full head of hair. They were too old, we said. Too old to have a twelve-year-old son. Too old to kiss like that in front of everybody. Too different from the rest of us, so different that we couldn't understand how they could be so happy when they had a "difficult son," adopted, no less, from some forest in Ecuador.
We heard Mrs. Porter behind us, clucking her tongue at the Wolfsons, expressing her disapproval, and ours, as she had so many times before. Frowning at their dark, Indian son Gabriel who was always in trouble in her sixth-grade class -- feeding the lab mice rat poison, stealing from the teachers' purses, bringing in centerfolds and charging the other boys for a 30-second peep. He was a big bully, a leering child too mean for his age, brow knitted in anger, too full of rage to belong to our town.
The Rojans had brought lawn chairs and sat on the left side of the stage. In the small circle of bushes near the playground, their older daughter sat braiding her friend's hair. In the streetlight's gelled glow, insects circled warily. Elsie had gone to play with the other seven-year-olds, running around in an elaborate game of tag just past the tire swing, out of the light.
Couldn't we have predicted it? We remember little Elsie as sweet, trusting, and blonde, two braids down her back, running off with her friends in perfect confidence. And Gabriel, resisting his mother's embrace as the music started, elbowing her in the eye as if by accident, loafing off into the woods to smoke, we thought, to encourage the other boys to make fires and pull the legs off insects.
It must have been during the final song when it happened. The song whose words could have been a warning to us about Elsie. "Elsie, Elsie!" Though those couldn't have been the real words, the true lyrics are fuzzy in memory. A fast tune, designed to make us dance. The Peterson twins got up and danced a modified Irish jig in front of the stage. Once they got things going the Millards put down their beers to move around too. We all stood up, wiped leaves and crumbs from our laps, and held hands, bouncing up and down to the song.
The wind picked up. The sky seemed to get a little darker and the music quickened slightly. The bassist slapped the instrument hard, as if trying to get the rest of the band to follow him to a slower rhythm, but the song pulsed, the lyrics warped with longing. The song picked up, faster and faster, until the stage and our neighbors were all a blur, dancing and spinning to lose ourselves in the music as the guitarist sang about the girl who'd taken the train to meet the devil. And we remember that her name seemed to sound like Elsie's. The rhymes were clever and the solos fine and the banjo soon took his turn. It was a long-necked banjo and its white paint was chipping with age. The fat musician picked wildly, one hand flying nimbly over the frets, the other hand, with its artificial nails like claws ripping at the strings, making each one wail out after the other. He wore a pained expression, as though the music were getting away from him, and gradually he looked up from the instrument and into the audience with a wide-eyed helplessness. His hands seemed to pick the music at a pace too furious to be human and we stopped dancing to watch, watch this banjo-picker possessed by music. We, in turn, were possessed, mesmerized, our small town and its stage and our picnic blankets arranged like a patchwork quilt beneath him.
And then he stopped. There was a moment of silence and then the Millards started clapping and hollering and we all joined in, hooting and stomping our feet while the band bowed.
The evening ended, and as we were all packing up our things, putting fried chicken back in baskets and dumping leftover colas onto the lawn, the strains of Mrs. Rojan's voice could be heard, like an echo of the music: "Elsie, Elsie!" And Mr. Wolfson like the bassist, thumping out "Gabriel!" We were all still too flushed from dancing, from the wild romp of the music that had taken hold of us, had held our attention in the moonless night and twirled us around like leaves in the wind, and too preoccupied with our packing and that of our neighbors to be worried. In a town like ours Elsie would come home and Gabriel would lumber back to his parents' car, and shrug off his father's friendly pat.
The banjo player put his instrument back in its case. "Elsie, Elsie!" And until he shut it firmly, it wouldn't have to be that Elsie wouldn't come home, that they'd find her in the tall trees just behind the stage at first light. And until the musician latched his case closed, we wouldn't have to see her with her dress pulled up over her head, the two braids wrapped around her neck as though suffocating her of their own accord. We don't have to remember -- for who could forget? -- the boys' tearful confession that Gabriel had told them about it, had bragged about what happened in the woods just behind the stage we were all watching, distracted by the savage tune of the bluegrass banjo, its player singing "Elsie, Elsie!" into the night.
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Allison Amend is a 1999 graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop. She lives in New York City, where she is working on a novel.
All material copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.