The Lost Child

by Wesley McNair

Remembering all the sorrow at the last Sykes reunion,
when the family patriarch and war hero, Homer,
went down at the microphone with his fatal stroke
speaking the words that didn’t go together, partly
to the Sykeses and partly to the dark that gathered
around them, as it gathered now around the last beers
floating on ice water in the tub and the paper plates

strewn across the lawn, the holdouts in Sissy’s gazebo
didn’t want to hear Faylene sobbing fullout like that,
but Mae, the whitehaired fixer of Sykes family conflicts,
was sure she could find a way to stop it. Yet Faylene
only shook her head no when Mae asked with a smile,
“Could it be back pain from the walking you done
today, Honey?” jiggling the red walker with wheels

and a hand brake that rested across Faylene’s lap, and no
some more when Mae’s son Daryl, who’d noticed how fat
Faylene had got since last year, wondered if it was a bad
combination of the wine and the heat, adding helpfully
that he’d been watching her sweat. Then Sissy,
Faylene’s first cousin and confidante sitting beside her,
whispered into her ear, was this about her husband back

in Texas, who never took her anywhere, including here,
because he was too damn busy with his hubcap business,
and Faylene, reminded by all her Ozark relatives’
attention of the sadness in her life, sobbed even
louder, crying out at last, “My father Avery
was a turd.” Nobody thought about Homer Sykes
at all after that, except his daughter, Kim.

She recalled in that moment how Homer never
came home from the military when she was a kid
needing a father, and decided he was a turd, too.

“You don’t mean that, Honey,” Mae said, still jiggling
the walker, but her brother Wendell, who had always
believed the guy who married their sister, Lana Bell,
was a hightoned sonofabitch, hoped Faylene

did mean it. Wearing an uncle’s expression of concern,
he went over and stroked her arm, saying she shouldn’t
speak ill of her father now that both he and her mother
were dead. This was how he got her to tell him
what Avery did to Lana’s photograph album,
cutting her dead first husband out of all the pictures
with scissors, and even cutting her head off

in one of them, where the husband had his arm
around her shoulder, and now that her parents
were gone, Faylene added, drying tears with the back
of her hand, and there was no more Avery to hide
her mother’s car keys and accuse her of things
he imagined with other men, she couldn’t stop thinking
of a little girl all alone, as she called herself, with no

brothers or sisters, sneaking out that album over
and over to find the same holes in it, which were like
the happiness Avery had stolen from both of them,
she said, all the while holding hands with her mother
like they were lovebirds in front of his highclass
friends. “I could almost see why Wendell done it,”
Mae said afterward, trying to explain the whole thing

to her older sister Ruth on the phone. “Why Wendell
done what?” asked Ruth. “Why he got all red in the face
and started speaking ill of Avery himself worse
than ill, really calling him a blowhard who thought
he knew it all, but didn’t know anything about the boy
nobody could of cut out of the album because
he wasn’t even in it, the one that got Lana Bell

pregnant at fifteen, when Mama packed up
her things and sent her out East to live with you
and have the baby,” Mae said. “Which I could almost see
why Wendell done,” she repeated, fearing how angry
Ruth, who had the worst temper of all the Sykeses,
was going to be that their little brother had blurted
this old family secret sealed away for years.

“Not that he should of done it,” Mae added. But Ruth
didn’t seem to get mad, and when Mae went on to tell her
about how hard Faylene took what Wendell had said
crying so, it would break your heart about her poor,
unknown brother or sister with no family, a lost child,
just like herself there was no sound from the other end
of the phone except for the amazed, excited

voices on Ruth’s TV and her radio, talking
at the same time about something for sale. “That
was when I decided to call you up, Ruth, and find out
what happened to that child,” Mae said, relieved
to have got these words out at last. Now she felt a bit
teary herself, though having no tolerance for tears,
she let them build up in her nose so she could get

rid of them by blowing it hard one time. Meanwhile,
her actual sister, who was not the one Mae imagined
at all, stared confusedly out through her tilted
glasses at the pathways around her chair, one
trailing off through stacks of magazines toward
the kitchen, another heading past the glow lights
and sacks of fertilizer and piles of clothes to disappear

down the hall into the dark, wondering who,
exactly, this Faylene was, anyway. Oh, Ruth
remembered Wendell all right, the baby brother
that her mother had late, and spoiled rotten,
and she recalled her baby sister Lana Bell,
but now she was thinking about how her mother
had spoiled Lana and her twin Myrna, too,

giving them both movie star names, while Ruth
the oldest of the seven kids, got the Bible name,
the switch, and all the house chores. “I am
the lost child, Mama,” Ruth declared, then
pulled on her baseball cap, repeating herself
with more conviction, so there was no mistaking
what she had said. Soon, the whole Sykes family

was repeating it. Surprised and alarmed, Mae called up
Ruth’s middle son, the one who understood his mother
had a good side, then phoned AmyLou, Wendell’s wife,
who told Wendell, who called everybody he could
think of, more mournful each time that the sister
he never liked seemed to be losing her grip again,
and more pleased with his importance as the person

bearing the news. “Tell Aunt Ruth we’re rooting
for her,” Faylene wrote to AmyLou on Facebook,
thanking her for the photos of the reunion, especially
drawn to the one where she was smiling in the gazebo
beside Sissy and you could hardly see her walker. “Can’t
wait till next year,” she said. She never mentioned
the lost child, and as the Sykeses all emailed

their reunion photos to each other and searched
for the ones that showed them smiling, too,
even the holdouts who had listened to Faylene cry
in the gathering darkness wanted to be back there
once more, where they were having so much fun.
Being lost wasn’t an issue to Ruth now, either,
unless you counted her struggle over the phone

to identify Mae, who called to offer comfort on Ruth’s
first night in the nursing home. “I’m the sister
with the husband that died the same year yours did,”
Mae explained, then listened to the distant voices
of commercials on the TV, while Ruth thought about
husbands and sisters and women getting cleaner counters
and kitchen floors. “The only one that’s still alive,”

Mae added, then wished she hadn’t, because
it made her think of how useless and dead she felt
in that moment as the family helper Faylene suddenly
didn’t need and Ruth didn’t even know. She wanted
Ruth to get mad at her about something, anything,
or maybe to explain how she could have said
she was a lost child, when they both knew

she was the strong and independent one. “Remember
how I always went to you for the answers when
we was kids?” she asked, and finding no answer, Mae,
who never cried, felt tears in her eyes. “Remember?”
she said again to the voices on the TV and the other
old woman holding the phone, Mae’s tears coming
so fast now she didn’t even think to blow her nose.

From The Lost Child: Ozark Poems, published by
David R. Godine (2014). Reprinted with permission.