Rhys O’Connor

Rhys O’Connor is a writer from Trenton, New Jersey. He recently received his BA in Art History from Wesleyan University. He is so young.
rhyscoconnor@ (





Missing Person

Already Madeleine wanted to learn the past tense, but my French was running thin. It was getting so hard to keep up the lie that I was fluent.

Part of the agreement I had with her mother, my landlady, was that in return for a slightly lowered rent, I would be her daughter’s French and tennis tutor. I also had to cook her meals five times a week. It had sounded so simple before I arrived—I could breeze through my old vocabulary flashcards from high school. But I’d lived with them in their North London home for a few months now and Madeleine was getting restless with ‘fruits de mer’ and ‘récupération des bagages.’ She wanted to put those nouns into action and time.

Joshua’ she said, slowly emphasizing each syllable of my name and lifting it out of its American plain. ‘How do you say: I had had no sympathy for Amanda when she was having a row with the teacher’? We were translating her diary.

‘Why don’t we play a little tennis before it gets dark,’ I suggested. I had also told her mother that I knew how to play tennis. I’d found a series of helpful online tutorials that described grip, swing, and following through, which I could easily parrot back on the local park courts. I studied the videos at work during the day and was excited to try the moves out by night. I was a much stronger hitter than Madeleine, who could never return my serves.

‘But it’s rainy out,’ she said.

I looked around her room for something distracting. She was approaching twelve, when all her senses would heighten, she would see through my nerves, and tell on me. ‘All those hads feel overwritten. Try: I have no sympathy for Amanda. She fights with the teacher.’

So Madeleine scribbled that out. Then she asked, ‘Tu vouloir ton père mort?’ She meant if I missed my dead dad. Madeleine’s father had died from lung cancer just after she was born, so she thought my dad was dead too and liked to bring it up. Mine hadn’t died officially, he was a missing person.

‘Pas mort,’ I corrected. ‘Disparaître.’ Then the downstairs door opened and I heard two voices—her mother Lynne, and a man’s. Madeleine looked up, recognizing the sound of her brother, and left without asking to be excused, which was something Lynne told me was unacceptable for her to do, but I hung my head in relief. Pretty soon she would have questions about the subjunctive.

I had met the brother Conor a couple of times. Four times, actually.

He was twenty-five, three years older than me, and I thought we looked alike, which may have been why Lynne liked me. We were both tall and had brown eyes and long, pointed noses. His hair was much shorter than mine at first, so I’d brought his Facebook profile picture to a barber’s, because I wanted Lynne to think I was him when we were in low lighting or when she was feeling unwell—she was ill with something and went to the hospital often, so it was possible.

Conor worked in Leeds as a civil servant and visited every few weeks. I lived in their guest room, which was across the hall from his, though I had never seen inside the room because he kept his door locked when he was gone. I could make out the floor lamp by his window if I looked up from the street.

He looked very big in their tiny kitchen, like he had started to bodybuild. I would have to increase my caloric intake if I wanted to maintain a close resemblance. But I usually ate Madeleine’s leftovers for dinner, and her favorite meal was beans on toast, which, to avoid conflict, I pretended to enjoy.

‘Conor, this is the American lodger, Joshua,’ Lynne said. He held my outstretched hand but looked at the cat on the floor. ‘Ah, you’ve met, that’s right, that’s right.’
‘All right?’ he asked.
‘Yes, I’m all right.’

He took a seat at the kitchen table while Lynne pulled out a box of spaghetti from the cupboard, and Madeleine and I were sent to what they called the conservatory, which was a table beside an alcove for the radiator.

We said unconjugated French verbs to one another and ate from small bowls of leftover beans. I craned my neck to watch Conor and his mom on the other side of the room. She was pouring heavy cream into a pan full of mushrooms, and the smell caused an ache in my side. My father had aches in his side, which were hernias.

I couldn’t hear what Conor and Lynne were saying. I tried to imagine it while I watched their thin lips making shapes, like I was scripting a play. But it just became a reproduction of the last phone conversation I had had with my mom, done in my best English accent.

Do let me know if you’d like to keep any of your father’s clothes, love. Conor ran his fingers along the back of his head to feel the way it had just been shaved down.

I hadn’t thought of that yet. Won’t he be needing them? Lynne clapped her hands together and laughed, but I didn’t know how to pivot the tone of my script.

It’s awfully sad business. Conor picked the cat off the floor and held it in his lap. He smiled and showed all his teeth, which were crowded up to the front. I felt an ache in my gut again.

Well, then, it’s off to the rubbish bin with the lot of it.

Fancy a cuppa? I was resorting to clichés. Madeleine put her head on the table and sighed.

That would have me proper chuffed to bits.

Even though I’d gotten my degree in Music Theory, I came to London for a job at a digital media consulting agency. I rarely worked a full day anymore. I usually left after lunch, or didn’t go in at all, calling in sick with something I half-believed I had. Today was the hernia. ‘I’m going work from home today. I just need to try and push the intestine back myself, but I should be in tomorrow,’ I explained over the phone to my department head.

I didn’t feel bad about skipping either. I paid very little in rent, since I was Madeleine’s live-in nanny, and if I did get fired and was in a hard pinch for funds, I always had my Bank of America traveler’ card, which I was told would rewarded me the more I became comfortable using it.

It really wouldn’t make a difference to me if I was let go. There was no one in the country I knew who would care or be disappointed in me. There was also no urgency in that line of work.

When I did show up, I spent my day in the bean-bag common area with my desk mate Tom, a thick-necked Minnesotan from Cornell Business. He had a tattoo on his wrist of a compass, which he got because he loved to travel.

We weren’t friends. I often said no to his lunch offers so that I could eat beside some of my British co-workers—I didn’t want to hear a Minnesotan accent. But he was useful to have around. He usually watched professional lacrosse highlights on his work laptop while I prepared for Madeleine’s tennis lessons on mine, and we would keep an eye out for higher-ups if they were approaching from behind.

Sometimes we spent whole afternoons talking about the way British people spoke. It hadn’t grown old yet either: pavement versus sidewalk, toilet versus bathroom.

‘Did you know they call taints a gooch?’ Tom said on my first day of work. He said gooch like how the Queen might, barely letting it come between pursed lips.

Still, I didn’t want to talk with him outside of work, and the sight of his name on my ringing phone made me wince.

By then I was alone in the house. The slim cat had pushed Conor’s unlocked door open a sliver and I was already pressing my palm against the wood, pushing it slowly and feeling for resistance.

‘Are you skiving?’ Tom asked like the chimney sweep in Mary Poppins.

‘What does that mean.’ The door dragged against the carpet, but there was no obstacle stopping me.

Conor’s room was small, with a steeply pitched ceiling. I wondered if he’d hit his head against it all the time growing up, and that’s why he was kind of a slow guy.

‘Skiving means skipping, playing hooky.’ I opened his drawer and read the tags on his T-shirts. Then I rifled through his desk drawers, which were filled with a decade’s worth of dead iPods, lighters, and old protest flyers. So boring.

‘I’m ill, Tom,’ I said.

‘Don’t bullshit me, I’m not the boss. Do come to the museum with me,’ he said as the Queen. I did like the sound of a museum, but I didn’t like the sound of him.

‘I don’t know, I’m in a bad way. I’m poorly I am.’ I was heading towards Leeds with my accent. There was a crumpled pair of Conor’s boxer-shorts beneath his desk.

I picked them up. I’d never touched another man’s underwear. They felt rough, like they were made out of hide.

‘It would give me an excuse to get out of here,’ Tom said. He shared my work ethic. I went back to my room and took off my jeans, swapping my underwear for Conor’s. It really wasn’t sexual at all. Since my dad had disappeared last year, I was too sad to get in that sort of mood. Also I’d had a pretty bad sexual experience in May which had left me, I suspected, permanently flaccid. That had been with my college girlfriend Zoe, who’d sent me a text from the library stacks during finals week, which read: ‘did u know there is more than one way I can get to your prostate???’ and had ended with me sitting on the edge of her bed while she pushed the greased end of an artist’s pencil down my urethra. Since then I hadn’t even felt stirrings. When I touched my genitals with my hand, I was only checking for lumps.

I watched myself in the mirror, rubbing my fingers along the hem of Conor’s boxers, and I tried to imagine Tom standing in front of a painting. I really didn’t think he was the type to look at art. I imagined him getting off work and heading straight for another ride on the London Eye. ‘Which museum?’

‘It’s an old house at the top of Hampstead Heath.’ Not even one of the big museums. I imagined my dad raising his eyebrows. You and a man, together, alone? He wasn’t too progressive about things like sexuality and gender. I remembered one summer we had gone into the city to see Shakespeare in the Park, with a woman playing Romeo. As the actors bowed Dad said, ‘Why were they lesbians?’ He’d asked loud enough for others in the audience to laugh at us.

I agreed to meet Tom in Hampstead. I didn’t want to be home when Conor got back from wherever he’d gone to—I wanted him to think I was a hard worker. So I caught a train heading south that was jam-packed with lunchtime commuters, and I had to hunch over—I had inherited my Dad’s height. I thought about my large father wandering down the Delaware Scenic Byway that night in his flannel Lands’ End pajamas. It still seemed so unlikely a man that big could just vanish.

I thought of the wrinkles he had on the sides of his mouth, which had once been deep scars from severe childhood acne and gave him a perpetual pout.

I thought of the way he smelled. I could smell him. I smelled him.

It came through the fog of body odor and sour old cigarette: his favorite kind of tea, women’s body lotion, and sweat.

It made my eyes water. It smelled like a catch in my throat.

He drank herbal tea to soothe his singing voice, and he sweat all the time because of some genetic thing he’d gotten from his mother, which thankfully had skipped me.

‘Dad, why do you wear women’s lotion?’ I’d asked him many years ago, and he got so mad that he wrote a song about me. I found the lyrics while snooping through his desk. He’d called it ‘Bad Boy’ and it included the lines

young boy, you oughta treat your old man right
bad boy saying crazy things just to pick a fight

I was disgusted. On top of being very sensitive he was also so corny. He tried to sing like Fats Waller. I’d lived my whole life thinking my dad was the sanest sort of person, and suddenly I’d found out he was going insane.

‘Get off your goddamn high horse,’ he’d snapped at me, like I thought he was debasing himself by rubbing Rose Moment Body Milk onto his elbows and forearms, when I had only been curious. That was the angriest I’d seen him, sweating with hurt as another bad song festered in his mind. Clearly this was a nerve that was tender from something that happened in his childhood, so I recommended he talk about it to a therapist. ‘Writing music is my therapy,’ he liked to say. There was really no hope.

‘That’s my dad,’ I said aloud to the commuters, but nobody was paying attention over the screeching sound, from how fast they made the trains move in this city. I tried to walk off the train and follow the scent, but the doors shut as I moved to step off, and only my arm made it through; the door shut and its grip was hard. My veins would be crushed, bone snapped, arm sanded down as the train sped its way through the tunnel, and the doors would reopen on some frayed nerves hanging loose. I pictured the busker at Tottenham Court Station who strummed his guitar with a stump. Was this how it happened to him? I had a flash of my future as a misshapen man, learning the tabs for Britain’s favorite soft rock, and scrabbling on the ground with my remaining hand for a ten pence coin, which looked so large, so valuable.

But then the doors opened. “Wow, I thought I was gonna—” I said, but nobody was paying attention.

This must have been some sign from the universe, and I considered my options for getting an answer, like from the Zodiac or kabbalah numerology. Would a psychic be able to explain? Had I been visited by a ghost, or was he following me in the city? I felt crazy, my heart was racing. Pain surged through me, maybe my intestines slipping from my groin and into my leg. I could have thrown up, and they would have to stop the train while I scooped vomit into my scarf.

‘Maybe it was just your brain tricking you,’ Tom suggested when I described the smell. I’d met him at the base of the heath, where he was waiting, dwarfed by a fallen tree. The heath had once been somebody’s big backyard, like everywhere else in England, and we walked up the hill as trespassers.

‘That’s what my dad would say,’ I told him. Dad liked to think he was rational and scientific. He’d want to figure out the explanation, that there was some growth pressing on the part of my brain that controlled scent memory.

‘What was he like?’

‘What is he like,’ I corrected.

I described the way my dad loved to talk about whoever had invented the flat-bottom paper bag, and how he would mime loading groceries into something with a cumbersome pointed base, performing frustration as it fell, then stick his finger up: Ah-hah! ‘Ingenious!’ he’d say.

‘Do you know what dogging is?’ Tom asked. The heath was beginning to darken.‘Is that like, playing hooky?’ He shook his head solemnly.
‘It’s fucking outdoors. That’s what they call it here.’
‘Wow,’ I said.
‘That part of the heath is where guys go to dog,’ he explained, pointing far out.
‘You said we were going to a museum.’
Tom smiled and kept his eyes on the gravel path.

I kept going on about Dad. I tried to explain his one great invention, which was a device to keep squirrels off a bird feeder. It was all built on a system of counterweights, and if anything heavier than an Eastern Phoebe landed on the feeding perch, a sock filled with steel ball-bearings would swing on lever and crash against the side of a Zildjian cymbal. When adults fixate on bird feeding, it usually means they’re about to die, but my Dad had loved birds since he was born.

‘So, wait, how did he disappear?’ Tom spoke so slowly, like Madeleine translating from French.

‘I wasn’t home for Thanksgiving break, I was with my girlfriend’s family.’ I checked to see if Tom had reacted at all to girlfriend, but he looked blank. ‘I got a text from my mom a few days later, saying that he’d just gotten up after the meal and then,’ I made a popping sound with my lips.

‘The turkey must have been really bad. Did you guys have a funeral?’ Tom asked.

Truthfully, in my mind I had already imagined the perfect ceremony. It began with the eulogy I’d write: I would tell the story of when I was six and fell asleep in Dad’s guitar case, and how he had nestled me in with some blankets and pillows and left his own pricey Gibson to lean on the wall. Then I’d play one of his favorite songs on that very same Gibson—The Beatles’ ‘Mother Nature’s Son,’ following a stoic reading of some Robert Burns by Mom.

Tom looked me in the eye as I described it. It felt so nice to look back at him. Had he brought me here to dog? He had very full lips, so it wasn’t hard to imagine that his mouth would feel good. His compass tattoo, which had seemed silly to me, now looked like an interesting scar from an accident.

‘I guess it’s brave of you to hold onto some hope,’ he said. I didn’t like that, making me sound naïve.

‘Well, it’s been a year, so nobody’s really holding their breath.’ I scowled. I had forgotten about Conor’s boxers until I noticed the way it was bunching up in the creases of my thighs as I hiked upwards. I hadn’t meant to keep them on. I slipped a hand down the back of my pants to tug the underwear down while Tom looked at a crow in a tree.

‘Maybe he followed you to London.’ He was losing breath on this hill.

‘I guess anything is possible.’ Tom could get that tattooed on his other wrist.

‘That’s it,’ Tom interrupted, pointing at a great stucco-covered estate. ‘You’d’ve never thought it was here.’

We walked all the way around it, peering into the dark windows, and Tom tried the door.

‘It’s locked.’ I squinted and couldn’t see anything but our reflection. ‘I thought it’d be open.’ He knocked, pressing his nose onto the glass. ‘I’m really sorry, man. Maybe it’s one of their holidays or something.’

‘Don’t worry about it. I didn’t have any better plans.’

We walked along the peak of the estate to three stucco huts, which had a sign describing them as the dairy complex, dating from the early 1800s. It was also entirely locked, some doors even painted shut.

‘What do you see?’ I asked while Tom looked into the smallest hut.

‘There’s a bunch of kids’ toys in a bucket,’ he called back.

I saw a small kitchenette—a white electric kettle with brown stains, a narrow sink, dirty refrigerator and shelves with dusty Ribena and tea biscuit wrappers. It looked like a museum to English domesticity. It looked like somebody had lived inside, years ago, had snuck in and kept the place well-stocked enough to get by, right under the nose of the National Trust.

‘Dahling, we’ve locked ourselves out again, haven’t we,’ Tom said in his best royal accent.
‘Oh dear, right we have,’ I responded, going kind of Scottish.
‘This day has been a real gooch, hasn’t it.’
‘Quite right.’
‘Let’s head back into the heath for a spot of dogging.’
‘After we’ll eat Kinder Eggs.’
‘That sounds smashing.’


When Tom left to take a piss (not the piss, which had another meaning), I opened the front pocket of his backpack and found about twenty pounds’ worth of loose change and a bottle of Lexapro. Lexapro—what was he so sad about? I took a couple coins to buy some food.

I thought about asking Tom over for dinner. I felt a pang of satisfaction, thinking of Conor and Lynne watching us, Tom, Madeleine, and I, sitting around that little table eating toast, making Madeleine feel left out while we talked about something only Americans could understand, and translating bits to her out of kindness.

I zipped Tom’s bag back up and Google searched: can smell my dead dad. It suggested lymphoma, something my dad would have suggested himself.

I breathed deeply, trying to smell him again. I only smelled wood smoke. I imagined him falling off the side of the highway and into the river, his body contorting in the fall like a gray squirrel from a bird feeder, writhing after a sonic shock.

Then Tom was back, his fingertips probably a bit wet from the last drop of urine as he’d rezipped his jeans. He sat down on the bench next to me, and he kept knocking his knee against mine; he was looking around innocently but I felt his thigh getting closer. I thought about what I should do, what it would mean, and how I could say it in French.