By Briana Wipf
The gossip column of the Weekly Herald announced the Davises’ annual family trip to Yellowstone National Park the second week of July – Mr. and Mrs. boarded the train with four children under the age of ten. Fourteen days later, a solemn article on the bottom of the front page announced they would return with just three.
The second youngest, a five-year-old named Ralph, disappeared at the Bozeman train station on their return trip, sucked into an unthinking crush of travelers never to rematerialize. The Davises stayed an extra two days in Bozeman, notified the authorities, hoped the boy would turn up. He didn’t.
The day before the Davises returned home, the telephone tree of the Presbyterian ladies association planned for its members to bring dinners to the family for the next week. Each time one of the ladies arrived with a serving dish in hand, Mrs. Davis would invite them inside and tell the story of losing Ralph. By the end of the week, her cheeks had become two round, saturated sponges.
At their next meeting the Presbyterian ladies agreed that there was some justice in Ralph’s disappearance: Mrs. Davis had always seemed to favor him the least of her children because he was small and ugly and needed thick glasses to correct his eyesight. If she was so obvious about her feelings, maybe it served her right to lose him.
Her disdain may have been warranted. The child had at least five cowlicks and one arm slightly longer than the other, so the hand-me-downs from his older brother all needed the left sleeve shortened. He was known to be shy, and you could ask him a question and he would look you straight in the eye and say nothing.
When school began, all the teachers who taught in the grades of Ralph’s siblings told their classes to be especially nice to the Davis children. It was worse than if Ralph had died, the teachers said, because the family didn’t know anything. Imagine that, they said.
Ralph would have entered kindergarten. There, the teachers said nothing; the students did not even know he should be there.
Every few weeks, the Weekly Herald would run a brief story explaining that the Davises had received word from somewhere – Idaho or Saskatchewan or Nebraska – that police had located a boy who did not belong where he was. Mr. Davis would take a train to Soda Springs or Moose Jaw or Broken Bow to meet the boy. The next week, a follow-up story ran that said the boy had not been Ralph.
The paper boy who delivered the morning daily always knew first. When he delivered the Davises’ newspaper at five in the morning, if the kitchen light was on that meant Mrs. Davis had stayed up all night smoking cigarettes. That meant Mr. Davis had called the day before and told her it was not Ralph.
The morning paper boy would tell his mother, who would tell everyone else.
In November, the Weekly Herald reported that Mr. Davis got a call to identify the body of a boy that had been found near a highway in Oklahoma.
This time Nancy Kenyon and Eunice Peterson took turns keeping Mrs. Davis company during the day while she waited. They noticed the house had become shabby. Mrs. Davis acted her way through cleaning and laundry and cooking. She barely talked to her other children.
Mr. Davis called two days after he left. The boy wasn’t Ralph.
Nancy Kenyon, who was sitting with Mrs. Davis when the telephone call came, exclaimed with joy. She embraced Mrs. Davis and went home, her job finished.
A few hours after she had gone home, Nancy Kenyon answered a knock at the door to find the Davises’ daughter, who said she needed help waking her mother up from a nap. Nancy Kenyon accompanied the girl inside the Davis home and found Mrs. Davis sleeping deeply on the bed. A bottle of Veronal elixir was on the bathroom counter.
In early December, the Weekly Herald included in its gossip section a short notice saying that Mr. and Mrs. Davis were going to Helena together to investigate another possible Ralph.
Mr. Davis’s mother had come to stay with the other children, and Nancy Kenyon took a pound cake over, where she learned that the boy was in the state children’s home, having been found with a half dozen other children in the house of a woman who was known to collect indigent children and sell them to rich people.
Nancy Kenyon brought the news back to the Presbyterian ladies, some of whom expressed great hope that the boy was Ralph. This entire travail had become tiresome and couldn’t go on forever.
The next day, Mr. Davis’s mother informed Nancy Kenyon that the boy was indeed Ralph. The three of them would return that afternoon.
One of the Weekly Herald’s reporters was among the several dozen people who had gathered at the train station to await the Davises. The three disembarked the train to applause and a rousing rendition of “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow.” Mrs. Davis blushed, Ralph covered his face, and Mr. Davis smiled and gently parted the crowd with one arm, while the other was wrapped around Mrs. Davis’s shoulder. The reporter accompanied the family home.
Mrs. Davis giggled and fussed over the boy, wearing a new suit of clothes purchased just for him the day before. He looked tired and confused and didn’t speak. Mrs. Davis told the reporter she and her husband were thankful to have their family intact again and were looking forward to enrolling Ralph in kindergarten. The reporter snapped a photo.
“Ralph Davis Found,” triumphed the front-page story the next Wednesday. Along with the story, a black-and-white photo showed Mrs. Davis sitting on a Davenport, looking down at a little boy with smooth, light-colored hair and wearing wire glasses. The boy rested his arms, both of the same length, on his lap.
Briana Wipf is currently at work on her doctoral dissertation on the literature of contact between Christians, Jews, and Muslims during the Middle Ages. Before returning to graduate school, she worked as a reporter in her home state of Montana. Her creative work has been published in The Good Life Review, Drunk Monkeys, The Blood Pudding, and others. She lives in Pittsburgh, PA., with her husband, Jesse, their daughter, Adelaide, and dog, Roger Daltrey.