Offcourse Literary Journal

Conjuring Anthony, by Ron Mac Lean.

Rain. Great sheets, falling thick. Insistent. Joanna sits on a blonde-wood stool in the window of the Frontier Restaurant in Belltown, sipping coffee and wondering what she's doing here.

It has the quality of a guessing game. Would Anthony come here? If he came, would he stay? Is this the kind of place he would work? Hide and seek. But Joanna is not in the mood for games. The area is too vast, the time too short, her patience too thin.

Her fingers surround the coffee mug, seeking warmth. Half-eaten blueberry scone on a plate before her. A snapshot of Anthony, body moving away, head turned toward the camera, face bathed in sunlight. Even then, her son was already leaving. Seeking shadows. She spins the photo on the counter so that Anthony rotates. Which direction will he point. She has shown the picture around town —have you seen him? do you know where he might be? A desperate notion. Who would have seen him, who would tell if they had?

A pair of elderly men — sixties, seventies — wearing cardigan sweaters and fedoras play checkers at a small table. Drink latté. Joanna likes to imagine that they carry the board with them for occasions such as this, seek shelter when the rain picks up. Raindrops bounce off First Avenue. Four days in Seattle, and she has found no trace of her fifteen-year-old son. Found a nice restaurant outside Pioneer Square. Bought an umbrella. Lost heart. She tries to tell herself that it's good news. That it means something, her failure to find him. That he is far from here. Working a shrimp boat in Biloxi. Washing dishes at a diner in Duluth.

It is as if there are two Joannas: the rational Jo who is here to prove to herself Anthony's innocence, to exonerate him of a crime only she suspects him of, by reassuring herself that he is not here; and the emotional Jo, who knows that her strength and encouragement should grow with each place that he is not, but who feels instead, in addition, the simple physical desire for mother and son to embrace.

A steady drip of rainwater from the blue awning outside. The strain of single parenting. The absence of a father. How there are times she wishes she'd coupled.

Joanna leaves a five-dollar bill for her coffee and scone. Puts the photo into its Ziploc bag and into the inside pocket of her anorak. Drains the last of her coffee. Bundles up. Velcro flap across her throat. Resolve around her heart.

A few days in each neighborhood. As if this were sufficient to canvas its population. To check off each area and call it done. Union Square. Queen Anne. Belltown. She has searched the streets until dizzy. Shown the snapshot until disheartened. He's my son. Have you seen him. In her experience, children who run away have reason.

Neon flickers on First Avenue. Reflects off the pavement. Queen City Grill Steaks Chops. A string of bars — the Virginia Inn, the Twenty-One Club. She tries to imagine Anthony here. To will him into being. Reminds herself it is absence she seeks to prove.

A string of retail shops. The Gap. Kyoto Sushi. Keep moving. Cover ground. First Avenue Army-Navy. She stops only because it surprises her. The addresses had been moving upscale. She pushes through the glass door. High ceilings. Camouflage clothing. Cardboard boxes filled with tiny products. Narrow aisles. Behind the counter, a man with a rust-colored toupee, a face weathered and deeply lined, like the underbelly of a whale.

Joanna locates a cardboard box filled with blue and gray gloves - $1.99 a pair. The thought of buying them depresses her. Neil Young sings from hidden speakers.

A glass case filled with hatchets, small axes. On a whim, Joanna approaches the counter. The toupee man leans on the faded wood.

She catches a glimpse of herself in a mirrored pillar. Haggard. "I ask you something?"

"No charge," the man says. Yellow corduroy shirt.

Water beads on Joanna's anorak. She removes the photo from its Ziploc bag. Lays it down carefully. "Any chance you've seen him?"

"Hang on a minute." The man looks at Joanna, then at the photo, then back at Joanna. Pulls a pair of black-framed half-glasses from a shirt pocket. "Can't see for shit," he says. Glasses in place, he holds the photo by the corners. He looks up, over the glasses, at Joanna, then back down. He nods.

Joanna fingers a jackknife in a cardboard box full of them. $1.39 in blue magic marker.

"I've seen this kid."

She looks up. Their eyes meet over the tops of his glasses.

"You sure?" She extends a finger toward the glasses. "You sure?"

"I'm not blind," he says. "I remember this kid."

"You sure?" A chill. A growing hope that makes her feel ashamed. Selfish.

He taps at the photo. "Nice kid. Bought a watch cap and a hunting knife."

A picture of Anthony wandering the aisles, perusing weaponry. She hates to think of her son here. Gleaming steel. The undercurrent of disaffected rage. No. She has only her own lack of information, and Anthony's absence.

"You sure?" This time quiet, almost under her breath. Her heart racing. "I mean, a lot of people come through here."

"Nah. I remember this kid. Took a long time deciding about the knife. We talked."

She tries to place Anthony here, at the counter, weighing purchase decisions. Adrift in a new city. Amused by the man with the bad hair piece. A gray afternoon. A chill twilight. The warmth of the store. A moment of human connection.

"What about?"

"About the Huskies. About football. It was the weekend of the UCLA game."

A sinking. Joanna fights it. Maybe Anthony has begun to follow football. Maybe he made a passing comment — guess they've gotta beat somebody — to be polite.

She nods her head. "I see."

A young woman — thin gray sweater, black t-shirt, thick metal ring in her nose that reminds Joanna of yoked oxen — moves to the register to ring up a sale.

"When was the UCLA game?" Joanna asks. "You remember?"

Joanna thinks she sees a smirk flash across the woman's face. She is an amusement to those she encounters.

The man folds his arms across his chest. "Three — no — four weeks ago. Said he was new in town. Looking for work. Did I know of anything?"

A rush of adrenaline. A flash of shame. "Did you know of anything?"


Urgency to form a question, as if an apparition has formed and only her words, their conversation, can give it substance.

"What'd you say he bought?"

"Watch cap. Hunting knife."

"Can you show me?"

"What do you mean?"

"Can you show me which ones he bought?"

He raises an eyebrow. "Course I can show you."

He leads her to a display case. Points down. "That one. Right there. Red handle. He was sure about that."
"I want one," she says. Riding the adrenaline wave. Improvising.

He shakes his head. Opens the case with a small key.

"What?" she says.

"Nothing." His hair piece seems made of something combustible. Do not wear near open flame. "You want the hat, too?"

She nods.

They walk to a folding table, a row of gray cardboard boxes, blue, black, burgundy knit caps. He hands her a black one. "This one okay?"

"You tell me," she says.

He leads her to the register. Enters the purchases. Her ears ring. Her brain buzzes.

"You're sure it was him?"

"You're his mother."

She hands him two twenties. "How'd you know?"

He looks over the glasses at her. A perfect expression of disdain. He places the purchases in a white plastic bag. Hands it to her.

"Yeah. He mentioned the hunting with his father." The buzzing turns to a spinning in Joanna's head. He places her change on the counter. "How much he looks forward to it every year."

Reeling. Falling. Her knees rubbery. Is this what lost hope feels like?

"It's tough on the kids," the man says.

She looks down at the bag. Up at him.

He sees something on her face. Offers an explanation. "Divorce," he says. He folds the glasses back into his pocket. "Anyway. I wish you luck."


She was conversant with truant officers. Knew most of them by name. Armonk an affluent community. And it's not as if Anthony was slow. He played the saxophone. Could sight read music intuitively. Sat with a sketchbook in class, drawing caricatures of his classmates. Bought himself a guitar. His yearnings were to write jazz. To paint. To live simply, grow his own food. In many ways, he had a mature understanding of what his yearnings would require of him. He just couldn't make himself bend, do all he needed to do before they would allow him to go there.

"If I know what I want," he said, "what difference does it make how old I am?"

"Societies," she said, "are set up to serve most people. There are always other people. The trick for the other people," she told him, "is to find a way through without being crushed."

"What does that mean, Mom?"

"It means you need to finish high school."

The guitar — electric, a Les Paul — he bought with money he earned delivering newspapers — the Times-Union — at 5:30 a.m. She drove. That was her contribution. To pilot the Escort wagon through the sleepy streets while the sun came up. The late winter days were the worst. Damp cold. Slush. Dawn arriving without brightness. The occasional jogger.

"Ten points, mom," he'd say, goading her to drive through puddles, to splash them.

Or, "Sun's up earlier today. You can feel Spring coming."

He was the optimist of the pair.

On the crowded streets, she'd drop him at one end, and he'd run from house to house, zigzag across the pavement, drop the morning's news on porches, on concrete steps. She'd drive to the end of the block, put the car in neutral and watch him draw closer, his image moving in and out of the rear view mirror.

He got them both up every morning. Shook her alert enough to drive. Made coffee and breakfast when they got home. She taught him to make the coffee strong, so it would stand up to cream. At first, he made cereal. Frozen waffles. As he got older, he embraced the job. Grew into it. Fresh-fruit pancakes. Eggs over easy. Home fries.

She didn't fault the teachers, or the school system. Everyone tried. Lenient boundaries. Alternate homework assignments.

She had chosen places to live based on the school districts. Bethesda, Maryland. Armonk, New York.

"We're going to work with him," Anthony's sixth grade teacher, in Bethesda, had told her. "We can make accommodations. But the bottom line is he's got to get it done."

The experimental school within the high school, in Armonk, they'd had high hopes for. She'd told him to hang on, gut it out through eighth grade then he'd do fine in the experimental school, called Murray Road because of its location. But it was too late. He'd lost trust, didn't believe school had anything he wanted. When he did do the book report it was on the Anarchist's Cookbook; although it was clear to her that this was a cry of frustration, a gesture that could be laughed off in recognition of how hard he found this, his teacher wasn't feeling that experimental.

Armonk schools even had a psychologist, who was understanding, up to a point. "There are scores of children who don't fit," the psychologist said. He and Anthony had great conversations. They liked one another. "But the fact is that to survive in this culture, in this society, everyone needs to find a way to adapt — a place where they're willing to accommodate themselves. Socialization is, after all, a large part of what school is about."

It would have been different if he'd been defiant. She might have forced the issue. But they talked. To a great extent, they were together on it. He understood the consequences.

"I can't do it, Mom. I've tried."

And, "Why mold myself into someone I don't want to be?"

And, "I'm willing to live outside this culture."

"You can't know what that means," she told him. "What it requires of you. You're too young. You have to bend."

"Why? You don't."

By then, they had lived for a year in Costa Rica, where Joanna had baked bread at a restaurant and taught Anthony on her own. By then she had spent a summer living in Tahoe with a new girlfriend, who didn't last.

They sat at the kitchen table. Huddled over coffee.

"You don't do anything the normal way," Anthony said. "You take off when you want to."

The anger was natural — he was an adolescent, a boy without a father, a boy who didn't fit and knew it from the time he was nine or ten. It was later, when his Big Brother stopped coming, when Brent his one close friend circled into a clique, it was then, eighth grade, that the Anarchist Cookbook thing started. A friend at school gave it to him. A cry for attention, for boundaries. She couldn't take it seriously. Didn't take it away. Why fuel the anger. Why give it a locus.

"I know you're angry, Anthony," she said over a breakfast of scrambled eggs and Canadian bacon - he'd kept the paper route, remained diligent with it, saved the money he'd earned. Gotten them out of bed every morning for four years. "You've got a lot to be angry about."

He sat with her. Sipped coffee. Ate rye toast.

A couple of fist fights at school. A conversation or two about constructing explosives. The infamous book report.

"I told her I knew how to build a pipe bomb. Listed the ingredients. Recited the steps."

"Anthony." A part of her wanted to laugh. Another part of her wanted to flip a switch that would force him to conform.

"Relax, Mom. Just wanted to see if she was paying attention."

And that was as far as it went. Then he was into illustrations of plants. Precise scientific drawings, genus neatly labeled in block letters beneath each picture. She told him he had to stay in school until he was sixteen. Even after she had become convinced that, for him, there might be a better way.

"This isn't about me anymore," she would tell him, driving the white Escort station wagon, a stack of Times-Unions on the bench seat between them. "There are laws. People who will enforce them. It's not a choice you're allowed to make. Not until you're sixteen."


"I can't explain why. What I know is that it's hard to live outside society. You should stay connected. At least until you're old enough to fully understand the life you're choosing. The consequences."

So they dealt with truant officers and guidance counselors and school psychologists. They stayed close, and she was proud of that. They got him through. Until his fifteenth birthday. And then he left.

Now he is out there. Somewhere. She thinks she knows where he is. But she hopes with all her heart that she is wrong.


Joanna at the corner of 2nd and Pike. Waiting for the light. Hoping the fog will lift. Don't Walk flashes before her. Buildings fade after two stories. On the street, car horns; a work crew smooths concrete on a new sidewalk. Yellow caution tape flaps like confetti. Fingers cold. Legs tired. Across the street, Holy Ghost Revival, the Green Tortoise Youth Hostel.

Joanna, staying downtown at the Vance Hotel, near the bus station, had played a game of Let's Pretend with the bartender over a vodka tonic. "Say you're a teenager. You're new in town, you're on your own. Maybe a little scared. You need work. A place to sleep. You want to lose yourself in the life of the city. Breathe for a while."

Dark wood. Wine glasses hung from racks in the ceiling. Ed, the bartender, silver hair, smart red vest, munched peanuts from a bowl. Two kids in college — U of Washington. Moonlighting at the bar. He chewed and thought. The photo of Anthony in a Ziploc bag on the bar between them.

"I was a teenager new in town," he said. The television behind him showed some hockey game — a red team, a white team. "I'd go one of two places. University, if I was inclined that way."

Joanna shook her head. "He wouldn't be," she said. She'd already been there.

Ed held up a hand. A gesture of let me finish. "Pike, if I wasn't. Lots of kids end up at a youth hostel on Second Avenue, work hauling fish at the market. It's a good place to be invisible."

The light changes. Joanna moves forward with the pack, across Second Avenue toward the market. The press of humanity. Bodies in motion. Tourists with cameras. Office workers at lunch. The smell of souvlaki from a corner stand. Joanna notices everything. Eyes alert. Ears tuned. Straining for a glimpse in the crowd. Her body reacting to a posture, a voice, a way of holding a head. What will she do if she finds him. Ask him if he'd done it? Would she know the truth, and what would she do with it.

Every neighborhood in which she does not find him, every day in which the search proves futile, should be a victory. Every day she reminds herself of this, tries in vain to make herself experience this as reassurance. This is one facet of what passes for hope. Here is the other: she does not know the condition of the victims. Does not know if they have remained alive. If they will remain alive. Does not know — has protected herself from knowing - does not know if her son is responsible.

So she walks. She catches a glimpse of hair, a way of standing in a doorway and her eyes follow to the entrance of a pawn shop, but the man whose appraising eyes meet hers is in his thirties, balding and gaunt.

Giant red neon on the roof greets her — PUBLIC MARKET. An enormous clock announces the hour — 1:30. Bodies push past, around her. The smells of fish, of bread, of impending rain. She remembers a book she used to read to Anthony as a baby — Are You My Mother? — a baby bird whose mother has flown to get food approaches all sorts of creatures — a pig, a cow, a tractor — with that simple, profound question. She wonders if it is ever possible to not recognize your own child.

She pushes past other idlers and under the market's long roof. There's no way to it but to plunge in. Her senses in overdrive. Neon announcements of fresh fish, a string of raw light bulbs along the ceiling. Bodies in motion in all directions. The cheerful sounds of commerce. A handful of tourists pause at a fish stand, salmon stacked in neat rows on glistening ice, king crab attractively arranged, men in white lab coats pulling in passers-by. How many of them must there be? Dozens. Interchangeable. "This one, you like this one?" Pulling a fish from the ice, tossing it to a wiry man behind the counter, who catches and wraps it in a single, swift motion. A polished act. The stand lit like a stage. A small man hauls a wooden crate, digs out shrimp, arranges them on a bed of ice. Joanna watches, in the background, tries to imagine that man as Anthony, Anthony as that man. Fish smell lingering on his hands. Arms aching, ears ringing at the end of each day. It is easy. But it is only imagining. She is bumped from behind, a stocky man who mutters an apology as he zips past. Then she is moving, not so much of her own accord as she is carried along in the crowd.

As a child, Anthony would draw elaborate pictures with sidewalk chalk, detailed scenarios of castles and knights, pirate ships laden with cargo. In the summers, in the hours after school, he'd squat on their cul-de-sac, an hour, two hours, lost in reverie, stopping only for the occasional car to pull in or out. Indifferent to the shouts of children playing hide-and-seek a block away.

Small signs sell product - Fresh Whole Wild King Salmon — Jude Cove Oysters — Sweet, Big-Ass Grapes. So many people. None of them Anthony. She seeks refuge outside, walks the narrow-but-less-crowded street, past restaurants and bakeries, a cigar shop. Steam rises from a manhole cover.

She stops in a brick and concrete park that overlooks the highway and Puget Sound. Pigeons. Speeding cars on wet pavement. Room to breathe. To gather herself. Across the highway, in the Sound, an enormous freighter docked, Cyrillic lettering on its side, blue and gray hull. How easy would it be to climb aboard such a ship, to stow away.

Joanna watches the water. Grateful simply for the space to see. For the expanse of sky and ocean. She has walked the city until she hurts. Until it seems to her that lost sons are everywhere, each one the direct result of some mother's failure - a missed hug, a curt reply, some unnoticeable human moment that tipped the balance and ended in a boy cut adrift.

The ocean. The sky. The possibility of breathing. She does not want to leave this spot. Does not want to enter more confined spaces, where she will have to fight off the realization that Anthony is not there.


A recipient of GQ¹s Frederick Exley Award for Short Fiction and a Pushcart Prize nominee, Ron MacLean has had short fiction published in GQ, Greensboro Review, Prism International, New Orleans Review and many other quarterlies. He has worked as a golf caddy, a journalist, a typesetter, and an Internet marketing consultant. He holds a Doctor of Arts in English from SUNY Albany, and is Executive Director of Grub Street, a non-profit writing and literary arts center in Boston. His first novel, " Blue Winnetka Skies", was published in November 2004 by Boston-based Swank Books. It is available at,, and independent bookstores. Distributed by Book Clearing House.

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