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Home » Stories, True and Otherwise

You Never Know

Submitted by on September 11, 2015 – 9:58 AM72 Comments


I take a walk almost every day, usually early, before the day gets hot and busy.

It has its own hashtag in my IM window with Wing, where we tell each other about completed tasks and essential pictures of little hedgehogs: #oldladywalk. "Moved TGW to 10 ET. … FO pics in DB gen pop. … #oldladywalk, back in 40." The window is always open, and except for that dark side of the time-difference moon when neither of us is awake, one of us is always in it, pinning virtual notecards to the bulletin board for the other to find when she wakes up.

The #oldladywalk has a variety of routes. On weekends, I like to wander around Green-Wood Cemetery and get lost for an hour. One of the footpaths leads under a weeping beech whose branches touch the ground to create a cool, dappled cave. There is one family beneath it, interred a hundred years ago in the tree's youth; it's also where cemetery staff hides inelegant whatnots like carts and tarps, and where teenagers hide themselves, and carve their initials and private jokes into the trunk.


Weekdays, I walk a park route, down along the border of Kensington and then up through Prospect Park along the southwestern edge. It's a nice, hilly bit with a mildly aerobic flight of stone steps in the middle, and often I have it to myself, but the night shift leaves its own notecards — like the microwaves and toaster ovens you can regularly find smashed and strewn across the landing. I don't know what ritual purpose the destruction of reheating devices might serve; I just know that, every couple of weeks, I'll see an orphaned cord at the base of the steps. Once in a while, I spot a couple sleeping in one of the path turnouts, spooned together next to a fallen log. And the note rock, of course. It's naked today (well, save the Sharpie graffiti), because it rained all day yesterday, but for weeks it said something to the effect of "waited for you bozo" in yellow chalk, with an arrow pointing to the hint of a path into the underbrush.

I love the note rock. I love thinking about it: who is the bozo; is it "Bozo" (who wrote the note? are they friends from clown school?); what did the author wait for, and for how long; does s/he keep the chalk in the crook of a tree or carry it with him/her, or what (tree-crook storage is maybe a thing in the park; I saw a huge pair of blue sneakers off the Bartel-Pritchard entrance the other day). What other notes have appeared there? What scavenger hunts or LARPs have used it as a guide? In the room of my heart that loves codes and dead drops and the potential, no matter how remote, that any count number jotted on a sawbuck or misdelivered postcard could turn into an exciting and vaguely dangerous puzzle requiring Morse code (which I know) and an eyeglasses attachment with a lighted magnifier (which I own two of) (#oldladycrafts), I have happily cleared a space for the note rock. That room is right next door to the room where I keep unsolved mysteries: what really happened on the Lindbergh estate that night, who really killed those women in the Whitechapel district, what Lee Harvey Oswald might have said at trial, JonBenet, Bambi Bembenek, and Roanoke. My god, Roanoke. We have, like, two clues. Neither of them is helpful. We will never, ever know what became of the settlers. We know — but we don't know.

Wing left me a notecard idea on the overnight, weeks back — that I should put Mystery Show on the Don case. Don did seem to qualify, because Lord knows Googling hadn't turned him up, and neither had Craigslisting, TWoP advertising, Ancestry.comming, or paid searching. But I didn't do it. Partly I didn't think it's the kind of mystery Starlee Kine likes, a little kooky, seemingly trivial. Partly I believe that Don may want to stay unfound, a desire I can't confirm but should try to respect, in case. I don't know.

Partly I don't want to know. An unsolved mystery is annoying, it sticks and nags, but it's appealing in spite of that and because of that. I want the answer…but also I don't, because then the story is over, and the pleasure of the present tense, the cracking and solving and realizing, is gone. Replaced by accomplishment and closure, whatever that is, sure. But an unsolved mystery is as much "you just never know" as it is "we can't ever know." Possibility. Hopes.

We should call them "unsolvable," I guess, things like Roanoke. They are, now. "Croatoan" carved in a tree, grey-eyed children in the Native American villages a generation later…somewhere in our educated guesses and the careful sifting of Carolina soil is the answer. If an announcement came across the wire that historians unearthed conclusive proof as to the colony's fate, I would rush to read it. And then I would feel a little sad, as though I'd lost something. One day Don may walk out of a virtual woods and find me. We may end up elbow-to-elbow on a ferry. We probably won't — but you just never know. And I know what I really need to about Don already.

I left a chunk of blue chalk on the note rock today, a little mitzvah for Bozo's friend. If you see it, leave me a puzzle or a Tic-Tac-Toe board, and blow my mind. Or "happy birthday, Don" in bubble letters is nice, too.

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  • SorchaRei says:

    Happy birthday, Don.

    Thanks for writing yet another one of these essays. First place I come on 9/11 every year. Best to you, and thank you.

  • rayvyn2k says:

    Been waiting for this while watching the NBC replay. Love you.

    Happy Birthday, Don.

  • Nevsky says:

    Oh man, every year…every year..

    I think of you every year on this date, and feel my fingers typing out the TN URL.
    Your writing is EVERYTHING.

    I will never, ever forget For Thou Art With Us. Beyond heartbreaking but so beautiful in spite of everything. I still tear up when I remember the part where you walked up to your waiting mother and cried.

    I'm so glad you and Don had each other that day.

    Big hugs to you from Australia, Sars.

    (…and happy birthday, Don.)

  • akamarykate says:

    Among the many things this day always beings to mind (as I shake my head at the people crying, "Never forget!" as if we could), you and Don are always I the mix. I don't know if I've ever commented here before, but today I want to, if only to wish Don a happy birthday. (He now shares the birthday with a rambunctious, sweet little 2yo I know named Amos, so there's another thing in my mind jumble now.)

  • Anne-Cara says:

    Happy birthday, Don.

  • HBD says:

    Like others, this is my 9/11 morning ritual. Thank you for putting into words what comes so difficult for many of us. And happy birthday Don, always.

  • Mellaby says:

    Happy birthday, Don.

  • Jill says:

    Every year. Thanks, Sars. Happy birthday, Don.

  • Kristin says:

    Thanks, Sars. And many happy returns, Don.

  • kate says:

    Happy birthday, Don. And thank you, Sars.

  • Coleen says:

    Happy birthday, Don.

    Thank you for writing, Sarah. I'm glad you and Bozo are around.

  • Dayna says:

    A lovely meditation essay on mysteries and resolutions. Someday you may end up elbow to elbow with Don, someday we may find out what happened at Roanoke. Sometimes, the resolution is that there is no resolution. I have avoided the replays on TV of what happened that day 14 years ago, your annual essay is enough for me to remember. Happy Birthday, Don.

  • Jenn says:

    Another "always here on 9/11l reader. Happy birthday, Don; and thanks, Sarah. And hey, come to Chicago for baseball already. It's getting exciting around here. ?

  • Shannon says:

    Happy Birthday, Don. Peace and love to you, Sars.

  • Reader Gretchen says:

    Thank you, Sarah. Happy Birthday Don. Much love to you both.

  • Kristin says:

    I always think of you and Don on this day. Came here specifically to see what you would post. Never disappoints.

  • Angie says:

    I love our community here, and I love you, Sarah for sharing these every year, and I love you, Don, for being there when the world fell apart, if only for a few hours.

  • Cheryl says:

    Happy birthday Don.

    And thanks Sarah.

  • Sara J says:

    Happy birthday, Don. As always you're my first stop, Sarah. Thank you for everything, and helping me reprocess things every year.

  • Vanessa says:

    Every year. Happy Birthday Don!

  • Veronica B. says:

    Fourteen years ago, already being a regular reader I came here and was comforted after being evacuated from the John Hancock tower in Boston myself.

    Every year, I come back here and am comforted again.

    Thank you, Sars.

  • Julia says:

    Like so many – me too, every year. Thank you, Sars.

    Happy Birthday, Don.

  • Julia says:

    It can still feel like yesterday. I remember everything from that day and so many after it with painful clarity. There were so many days and weeks and months that we didn't seem to think or speak of anything else and then when we did it seemed almost like heresy. We've grieved and had moments of silence, listened to the reading of names, marked solemn anniversaries at one, five, ten years on. We've seen the events of the day packaged and repackaged in endless news programs and documentaries and I've dutifully watched so many of them I've memorized smoke patterns and camera angles and know the names of all the first responders. Still, for me, none of the footage and years of cultural and political analysis can evoke the immediacy of what transpired on September 11, 2001 or more accurately represent how we have struggled to understand and make peace with it in the years that followed the way your writing has.

    I remember refreshing TN over and over on my little green iMac, waiting for word that somebody I "knew" but didn't really know was okay. My husband didn't get it and my son was only four but I was so relieved when I knew you were safe. My son is now away at college, my beloved Luddite husband has some grasp of what a "blog" is, and I can check in with the Nation from my tablet before I even get out of bed but reading glasses are no longer optional. For Thou Art With Us is truly a blessing. Thank you, Sars.

    Happy Birthday, Don.

  • Ann_Margrock says:

    Don, I hope the universe has been good to you.
    I've been a TN reader since before Don, but every year I get up early to visit the site for the yearly homage.
    Without knowing you or Don, your experience with and search for him has been a profound and personal touchstone for…well, so many of us, I think. In a way I'm glad you've never found Don because the idea of continuing to connect hope to that awful day 14 years ago is very important to me (I was teaching at Hunter College at the time).

    Don, Happy Birthday and Peace.

    Sars, Thank you and Peace.

  • Abby says:

    I said "Happy Birthday, Don" aloud in my car on the way to the office this morning. I think of him every year. Thank you for this, Sars.

  • frogprof says:

    Merci, as always. Hard to believe, in so many ways, that's it's been 14 years since "Don's birthday" became part of my lexicon.

  • Bitts says:

    Here today, as ever. Thanks for doing our remembering.

    Happy birthday, Don.

  • Melissa says:

    <3 Sars….Happy Birthday Don

  • mctwin says:

    As always, Sars, you express perfectly what I wish I could say. As much as we hope you find Don some day, and share that beer, the anticipation has grown to a solid mass that we would miss if it was gone. Again, you totally ROCK in every way possible!! Best wishes for a wonderful year. Happy birthday, most kind Don.

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    Thanks, everyone. I'm glad we're all here.

  • Jill G says:

    Here. Happy birthday, Don.

  • the Bloody Munchkin says:

    This one snuck up on me Sars. I hadn't been paying attention to dates lately. I got halfway through the essay and then i hit the part about Don and I gasped, aware of its meaning and its poignancy.

    Thank you for this.

    Happy Birthday Don. You are for better or worse the entirety of Tomato Nation's Roanoke.

  • Jen S 1.0 says:

    I don't tear up until I come here.

    Happy Birthday, Don. Sars, your site is incomparable in its quietness and focus on this day.

  • Kim says:

    It is always a joy to read a dense, radiant piece of your writing, Sarah, and in particular on this day. It's part of my ritual observation: I put out my flag, and I come here. Thank you as ever for speaking for and to us, and best wishes to you…and of course to Don, wherever he may be.

  • Amy says:

    Once again I came here first thing to do my remembering. Thank you, Sars, for always giving me a place with always the right words.

    Happy birthday, Don. Thank you for being with Sars and all of us every year.

  • Scott W. says:

    That day – those days – so much spinning out of control. How I made it to your site is now lost to time, but I'm so happy I was able to catch and hold onto your genuine, heartfelt words. In them I had a spot from which to ground myself.

    I laugh a small laugh at how the ethereal world of bits and pixels has provided some of the most solid anchors I've come across.

    Here's to a tradition I wish I did not have; to bounded hope that carries easily; & to your continuing contributions of love and soul you offer a world in need.

    Thanks Sars. Thanks so very much.


  • Q says:

    Happy birthday, Don.

    Beautiful, Sars.

  • Maria says:

    Happy Birthday, Don. A thank you, a well wish, and my annual prayer. Three words that mean so much more than the sum of their letters.

    Thanks everyone, for checking in. It's somewhat comforting on this crazy day to know we share this touchstone.

    I still believe, Sars. And I'm still so glad you (and so many others that day) had your battle buddy. <3

  • Megan says:

    Like so many others have said, every year, I come here, and I think of you and I think of Don. This year, I didn't write about the event. For some reason, I thought maybe it was time to move on. And I realized I was wrong. This is something I want to write about, that I want to remember. Something that we SHOULD remember.

    Happy birthday, Don, wherever you are.

  • Dukebdc says:

    Thanks Sars, and happy birthday Don. I came to TN in 2000 on the recommendation of a co-worker, and initially stayed for the hilarious cat essays.

    Then 9/11 came, and I stayed for your other essays too.

    Modern technology has made us all want resolution right now to our questions. The mystery of Don before and after 9/11 may never be resolved. People pass in and out of our lives for many reasons, or for no reason but coincidence. Some disappear, and some leave an impression.

    While walking out of DC that day, I came upon one guy going against the tide of people evacuating the city. He was blissfully unaware of what was happening and I heard a portion of his phone conversation, "Hey, did you hear that Michael Jordan is coming back to the Wizards?" He was the last person I came across who lived in a Sept. 10th world.

  • sam says:

    I keep thinking that one year I'm going to wake up, and this day will simply be another day again. And it never is.

    I have a strict podcast regimen that involves listening to podcasts in chronological order, and for newly discovered shows with a backlog, adding in one episode at a time from oldest to newest to the end of the existing queue when I've finished the prior episode.

    This morning, the podcast that started playing on my morning commute, purely by coincidence, was episode 4 of Mystery Show – Vanity Plate. I don't want to spoil anything here for those that haven't listened to it (and the link doesn't spoil unless you click on the transcript), but for those who have, you'll understand just how eerily timely it was. And why I ended up sobbing on the subway.

    And now I'm hoping no one walks in to my office to find me sobbing again (a good way to round out my day, I think).

    Happy Birthday, Don.

  • Dsayko says:

    Every year, I too come back here to read and remember. Thank you, Sarah. Happy birthday, Don. Be well, Nation.

  • Beanie says:

    Thank you, Sars.

    Happy Birthday, Don.

  • MizShrew says:

    As ever, the best thing about this day that I will read today. Thank you Sars. Happy Birthday, Don, wherever you are.

  • Leigh says:

    I too used to be here every day but haven't been a regular in years now. I always come back on this day, though.

    I realized, just now, that I love that this unsolved mystery of human compassion and connection is a part of my annual understanding and processing of this day. A wise friend posted in part, "I would like to propose that we shine a light on a moment in time when America was at its greatest. We'd just suffered an unimaginable loss but we rose up, we banded together, and we comforted strangers regardless of their skin color, politics, gender preference, religion, or whether they thought the dress was blue/black or gold. We were Americans, we were human, and we were certain that times would get better. Let's get back to THAT feeling without it taking another unspeakable tragedy to get us there. Hate eventually came to us after the towers came down, but it took time. Our first instinct was love and it was beautiful."

    Your story is an embodiment of that truth, and the mystery helps it to linger and stay fresh. Thank you for being here, and sharing this with us.

    Happy birthday, Don.

  • Heather says:

    Happy Birthday, Don.

  • Mathilda Moo says:

    Today, there was the blue. Not many of the dates line up with that perfect blue sky, that seemed like nothing but perfect, nothing could ever fall from such a sky to harm. Happy Birthday, Don. Here's to you, Sars. Here's to you.

  • Beth C. says:

    A very happy birthday, Don.

  • kate says:

    I love this community and I love that we all come back here to remember.

    And what did happen to Bozo anyway?

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