Disapparation of James
By Anne Ursu
Published by Hyperion
January 2003; 0-786-86779-5; 288 pages
James Woodrow's parents have never seen him so excited. The boy sits between Hannah and Justin in their orchestra-section seats, bobbing up and down on his springy plush chair and singing some James-like song to himself. His father caresses his thin orange hair and assures him, "The show will start soon, buddy, settle down, okay?" while exchanging puzzled glances with his wife. James's sister, Greta, is rhythmically kicking the chair in front of her, squawking emphatically. Their mother, strategically placed in between the children, whispers, "Shhhh, Greta, sweetie, don't do that."
Hannah and Justin Woodrow are not alone; parents all over the auditorium of the Lindbergh Performing Arts Center are shushing and soothing, cajoling and threatening - a steady murmur underneath the screeches, babbles, and cries of the ten-and-under set. It is two minutes after the Razzlers Circus Stage Show should have begun, and the children are restless.
"Mom, they're late," Great shrieks, pointing at her pink plastic watch. She kicks all the harder and, inspired, James begins to bounce more furiously in rhythm.
There is nothing at all unusual about Greta kicking things and shrieking, but Hannah and Justin do not know what has come over their son. He is usually the quietest boy. Enthusiasm manifests itself as a single syllable, a small smile. James can go hours without making a noise; sometimes his parents half-wonder if he has forgotten how to talk. He spends his days in his own corner of the playroom, solemnly working with his building blocks. At dinner, he sits in his chair assiduously arranging shapes with his slices of hot dog, then he returns to his construction projects until it is time for bath. He is a baby-sitter's dream; "James is so good," they say, "that sometimes you forget he is even there."
But not today. Today, James has been the picture of disobedience. He has been messing, spilling, breaking. He spent the afternoon running laps around the playroom, throwing stuffed animals, gnawing on crayons. For Justin, who has become used to more sedentary afternoons, today was a flashback to when Greta was his age; back then, but the end of the day, Justin would be ready for bed well before his daughter.
When Hannah came home early from work this afternoon, she found Justin on his back in the center of the playroom floor.
"You look as if you could use medical attention," she said. "What happened?"
He sighed theatrically. "Something has possessed your son. Look!"
Justin pointed vaguely in the direction of James's favorite corner, today a mess of broken crayons and scattered blocks, where James was jumping up and down, higher and higher each time, whooping, "Up up up up up!
Hannah exchanged a glance with her husband, then approached her son carefully. "Hi Jamesie! What are you so excited about, big guy? Is it the circus?"
And, in response, James bent his knees close to the floor, readying himself for the biggest little-boy-jump in the history of the world, and exploded, yelling, "Circus!"
Hannah smiled at her son, then turned back to her still-prone husband. "If this is James," she said, "I can't imagine what Greta will be like."
Today is Greta Woodrow's seventh birthday. Seven is, as Greta would be happy to explain to you, a very momentous age indeed. Six is just like Five, and her little brother is just Five, and he's a baby. But Seven is much closer to Ten and that means you are a full-fledged Big Kid.
A momentous occasion requires a momentous celebration: Greta will come home from school to a lavishly decorated house, she will feast on macaroni and cheese and chocolate birthday cake with strawberry ice cream, then the family will head downtown and she will be treated to the best seats in the house for the Razzlers Circus Stage Show. (The tickets are compliments of Stewart Martin, theater writer for the local newspaper and college friend of Justin's. "I got extra," he said. "Take the Munchkins.")
At dinner on her Birthday Eve, Greta cross-examined her father on the exact nature of the entertainment planned for the next evening. Greta has always been skilled at the art of interrogation; she stealthily discomfits the deposed by becoming steadily shriller with each passing question.
"Daddy?" she began, "are there gonna be lions?"
"No. This isn't that kind of circus."
"Daddy, are there gonna be elephants?"
"Daddy, are there gonna be puppies?"
"Oh, yes, actually, one. And trained birds!"
"Daddy, are there gonna be silly songs?"
"Daddy, are there gonna be jokes?"
"Yes! Lots and lots of jokes!"
"Daddy, are there gonna be clowns?"
"I'm afraid so."
"Are there gonna be tricks?"
"Tricks? Like acrobats?"
Greta's pitch was nearly inhumanly high by then, and Justin had just prepared his answer when James chimed in to ask:
Justin turned to look at James. "Well I . . . I don't know . . . " he said, shrugging at Hannah.
Now, the show is four minutes late, and Justin and Hannah, for possibly the first time, have to divide their parental attention between their two children. James has stopped bouncing; now he kicks the chair in front of him with a wild giggle, as if to compliment his sister on her most excellent idea for a diversion, and Justin must use his best paternal tone, "James. James, don't do that, I mean it."
In truth, Justin has not exactly been looking forward to the circus. Justin does not like clowns. He says he had a bad experience at his eighth birthday party - he has never elaborated; when pressed, all he will say is, "He just kept coming and coming."
As for Hannah, she would prefer to be in the bath right now with a magazine and a cup of mint tea, but she has no objection to the circus, per se, and seeing James so excited certainly makes her happy. Once the show starts and the children quiet down, she can look forward to one hundred and twenty minutes of sitting - even without a magazine or tea, this is always a good thing. So Hannah Woodrow would be in a reasonably good mood right now, if her evening had not been so handily spoiled in the lobby just moments ago.
A few weeks ago, a chance meeting with Dr. Lewis would have meant nothing - Hannah knows him professionally, or course - but now, things are different, and Hannah could not believe it when he tapped her on the shoulder with a bellowing, "Hello, there, Hannah Woodrow!" And then the doctor looked at James - who was hiding behind Justin's leg - as if he were considering him, inspecting him, diagnosing him right in the lobby. Hannah moved toward her son instinctively - this is not right. Here, here on Greta's birthday, here with the whole family out together, she did not want to be reminded of her son's appointment with the eminent pediatrician next week.
Now, six minutes after the show would have started, Hannah finds herself feeling prickly again, and she wonders where Dr. Lewis is sitting. They have not explained to James that he will be going to a new doctor; he's always hated his physicals and there's no need, yet, to tell him what is about to happen to him. But if he were to find out from Dr. Lewis instead of them, Hannah would never forgive herself -
And now, there! - seven minutes after the show should have started, the lights begin to go down in the auditorium. There hundred parents let out a sigh of relief, and Hannah whispers to her brood, "Okay, guys, the show is starting, settle down now." At that, Justin lets out a small, "ha" - like noise, and she mutters across James's bouncing head, "You're not helping."
But the instant the lights begin to dance, the music sounds, and the performers explode on the stage, both children become still. Ten bodies come tumbling onstage, four fly in on trapezes, another storms in on stilts playing the violin, three jump rope, two ride a tandem bike, and a shaggy little puppy jumps up and down in the center of it all. The stage is a flurry of bodies and motion and color and light, and even Greta cannot speak.
The music, bounces, bodies flit, and a rubbery man in a tailcoat, clown nose, top hat, and funny pants enters the fracas and tries desperately to command attention. He waves comically and screams and jumps up and down and the children in the audience begin to point and laugh. He takes off his hat and slowly scratches his thick dark brown hair. Finally, the thin man disappears offstage, and then emerges again, slowly pushing a whistle the size of a baby elephant. He stops, looks around, winks at the audience, and blows - a shriek pierces the auditorium, and all the performers stop, start, and hightail it off the stage.Copyright © 2003 Anne Ursu
Reprinted with permission.
From the highly praised author of Spilling Clarence, a luminous novel about the joy of family and the perils of loving.
The Woodrow family is going to the circus to celebrate Greta's seventh birthday. When five-year-old brother James eagerly volunteers to join the magic act, his parents watch with pride as he climbs onto the stage alongside the clown. The trick is spectacular and applause rings through the crowd as James disappears -- vanishing before their very eyes. The trouble is, James really did disappear . . . into thin air.
In the aftermath of James's disappearance, with the police investigation providing no clues, the laws of the universe come into question. His mother becomes lost in her dreams and his father becomes obsessed with the clown, while his big sister Greta sets out to figure out what happened.
A novel peppered with dreams, premonitions, and possible realities, The Disapparation of James is a work of enormous sensitivity, tenderness, and wit.(back to top)
Anne Ursu was born in Minneapolis and graduated from Brown University. She has worked in the childrens department of a major book retailer, as the theater critic for City Pages (Minneapolis), and as an arts writer for the Portland (Maine) Phoenix. She currently lives in Mountain View, California.