Fiction, Vol. 8.1, March 2014
There were no clues. None. Nothing out of place in the house—no jimmied lock or broken window, no evidence of struggle, such as overturned furniture, an abandoned shoe, or a suspicious smear of blood on the floor. No clothing or luggage missing from her closet. Not even a drawer left hanging open, its contents awry and rifled. Certainly no note of explanation. Only a few breakfast dishes left in the kitchen sink, as usual. Her car sat in the driveway, locked and intact. True, it was parked a few feet further down the driveway than usual, far enough out of place to be momentarily tantalizing, but not enough so, in the end, to offer any meaning. There were no sightings, no testimonials of friends who had spoken to her recently or witnesses who “thought” they saw her—at the market, slipping into a car at the edge of a parking lot, glancing over her shoulder as she disappeared behind a door. Nothing. There was no GPS signal to track—her cell phone lay on the passenger seat with a pack of cigarettes inside her locked car. There were no phone calls with suspicious hang-ups after a moment of silence, no list of demands, no phone calls at all, no e-mails, letters, or postcards. No irregular credit card charges, bank withdrawals, or stock transactions. Nothing.
There was one fact: Greta was gone. One day I came home from work, and she had simply vanished. Just gone.
When Marsha’s eyes fall on me, I raise my eyebrows and tap the lip of my beer glass, calling for another. She nods, a slight grin teasing the corners of her mouth, and tilts a clean glass under the tap. At this point it’s become comfortable between us. Marsha finds me romantic, in a comical, ironic sort of way. Desperate man at the frayed, failed end of a desperate quest. I amuse her, I suppose. Pathetic, but in a sad, sweet way, she said once.
We’ve already closed up, and Marsha has given last call. She tallies the night’s receipts while at the other end of the bar from me the last two stragglers finish their last beers. She swaps out the fresh beer for the empty glass in front of me, holding the empty in one hand while she rubs the back of her neck with the other. She stretches her neck as she rubs it. When she does this the lines around her mouth and eyes don’t disappear, but they flatten, as if they were drawn onto a younger face rather than worn into this mature one.
The beer is cold and flows down easily, washing away some of the grit of a long day’s work. I take in a long swallow and set the glass back on the bar.
“Need any help?” I ask.
“Thanks, no. I’ve got it. Ray and Junior’ll be done by the time I finish counting the drawer.”
“Okay.” I gulp down the last of my beer. “I’m gonna head on home then.”
“Could you do me a favor when you get there?” For the last few months I’ve been living in the trailer next to hers, which she owns and lets me stay in.
“Can’t remember if Pancho was inside or out when I left this morning. Would you let him in if he’s out and check for bodies? It’s been a long day, and I don’t want to end this one by stepping on the remains of some pitiful little critter.”
Pancho is Marsha’s big black and white tomcat, one eye missing, a broken tail that hangs in a drooping arch from his rear end, and a little gimpy hitch to his walk, legacies of the wilder life he seeks outside of Marsha’s trailer. Older and slower as he is now, he’s still a determined and wily hunter, and as far as Marsha can tell he always brings his prey home to her. Every few days he deposits an offering of a field mouse, bird, lizard, ground squirrel, or young jack rabbit on Marsha’s front steps. Once, according to Marsha, a baby rattlesnake. “One of those midget rattlers we’ve got around here. Little but every bit as nasty as any other rattler. A miracle that damned cat is still alive, the way he carries on.” Pancho is her devoted provider.
“Glad to,” I say and stand up from my seat at the bar. We have keys to each other’s trailers.
“You’re sweet, Teddy.” She reaches across the bar and runs her fingertips over the graying stubble along my cheek and jaw. Greta used to do the same thing, in much the same way.
The first phase of Greta’s disappearance was brief, played out on a strictly personal level. I contacted everyone we knew—anyone I could think of who might know something, might be privy to some morsel of knowledge I lacked access to. Friends, family, acquaintances, co-workers, former co-workers, former friends—everyone I could imagine short of stopping strangers on the street. Mark and Frieda were among the first I called. We had been scheduled to have dinner at their house the next night.
“And Teddy,” Frieda said before she hung up, “Greta had asked what she could bring tomorrow night. Tell her a salad would be nice—I’ve got the rest of it covered.”
“Okay,” I said. At that point, Greta’s absence was presumed to be no more than a bit of miscommunication.
When I spoke to Greta’s sister, Marla, later that night, she asked if I’d put up flyers and been out calling for her around the neighborhood. Marla worked with an animal rescue group on Long Island and saw all disappearances in terms of stray dogs and cats.
“She’s not a dog, Marla,” I said.
“The principle’s the same. It can’t hurt,” she said. “Call me as soon as you hear something, Teddy.”
I nodded off that first night in an arm chair in the den with the phone in my lap.
The moon is nearly full above the Sawatch Range to the east. The sagebrush across the expanse of mesa behind our trailers glistens in silver-blue light. This, the liquid moonlight on the sagebrush, may, in the end, be what has kept me here in western Colorado a paycheck or two longer than necessary. It’s time to go again. I’ll talk it over with Marsha when she gets home. Pancho is nowhere to be seen.
I work the key gently back and forth in the lock until it finally catches the worn tumblers and opens the door to Marsha’s trailer. There are no carcasses currently on the front steps. Inside, I call Pancho by name. We get on well, and he’ll usually come to my call if he’s within earshot and not preoccupied with his killing. When he doesn’t come sauntering up to me right away, I check his usual spots—in the bedroom, curled on Marsha’s pillow; nestled in a tub of cleaning rags in a narrow broom closet, next to the container of his food; sprawled halfway across the kitchen table. I call one last time, then turn back toward the front door, my shoulder just grazing the knick-knack shelf where Marsha keeps a few family photographs. The standing frames holding the photographs wobble slightly but remain upright and in place.
One picture shows Marsha’s parents, an inexpensive studio shot, conventionally posed with her father standing behind her mother, one hand on the shoulder of his wife. Exactly the sort of photograph usually seen on knick-knack shelves and in local newspapers to commemorate a wedding anniversary. The rest of the pictures on the shelf are of Ethan, Marsha’s son. Most of the photos cohere into a brief, fairly typical collage of a boy’s childhood—a posed school photo of Ethan, in probably about the fifth or sixth grade; Ethan in his high school football uniform, on one knee, his helmet on the ground in front of him, a football notched firmly in the crook of his arm; Ethan, maybe a year or two older than the football picture, astride a motorcycle, one foot on a strut, the other firmly planted on the ground. The same motorcycle now sits under a tarp behind Marsha’s trailer. Two photographs stand out from the more conventional montage. One, larger than the others and centered prominently on the shelf, reveals a stern, serious, square-jawed Ethan, his hair cropped close, clad in his dress blues, a graduation picture of sorts, taken upon his completion of basic training in the Marine Corps, about a year before his deployment to Afghanistan. The other photo shows a much younger Marsha, in cut-off denim shorts, a halter top, sunglasses, her dark hair held back by a blue bandanna. She’s seated in bright sunlight on the steps of this same trailer, laughing with unaffected abandon. Cradled in her arms is a naked infant Ethan, his head tilted peacefully against his mother’s bare shoulder, a placid, nearly serene grin on his face, and his chubby little baby fingers wrapped firmly around his baby pecker.
Nowhere on the shelf is there a photograph of anyone who might be Ethan’s father.
With a cold beer in my hand, I settle into one of the two cheap folding lawn chairs behind my trailer.
“Pancho.” My voice scatters like birdshot through the mesa moonlight. If he’s not engrossed in one of his little slaughters, the cat should turn up soon.
The early teases of autumn have crept across the mesa. Already visible on the distant slopes, flecks of yellow as the aspens begin to turn. I stretch my legs, press my back into the webbing of the chair, and draw in a slow swallow of the cold beer. The wet, cool glass of the beer bottle in my hand is soothing. The sagebrush flutters and shimmers silvery under the fingers of a momentary breeze. The mesa night is peaceful. I haven’t dreamt of Greta in weeks.
At first the dreams ravaged me, left me sweating, gasping, screaming. Comprehensive and detailed, my dreams ran the gamut from lurid, horrifying scenes of imprisonment, bondage, rape, dismemberment to idyllic narratives of Greta ensconced in a new and happy life, laughing at or indifferent to my anguish. The former was too gruesome to recount. The latter was worse. In one scenario, Greta lived a luxurious and fulfilling life in a Manhattan penthouse, with a wealthy and attentive husband and four beautiful and talented children. I was her employee, her butler, and at the dream’s end, she fired me. “Theodore, your services will no longer be needed,” she said. Her blue, almond-shaped eyes looked at me with disdain and pity as she handed me an envelope with my severance check. The envelope was empty, of course.
In the end, my subconscious mind is a simple and mundane entity. Over time, it collapsed and condensed the various dreams into a single recurring one. Greta’s eyes, disembodied and beautiful as ever, appearing before me, floating in blackness. They are closed, then open slowly, gaze at me for a moment, then close again. As I reach desperately for them, they open one more time and rise over a vast, indefinite horizon. Her voice floats toward me as if from her eyes. “Where are you, Teddy?” And then her eyes close slowly, the scene vanishes, and my hand grasps air. The last time I had the dream, her eyes rose above this moonlit mesa, opened once, closed, and vanished. There was no voice.
But the peace of these mesa nights is not mine. I am an imposter, inhabiting the skin of a satisfied man. I’ve no right to it. When Marsha gets home, I’ll tell her I’ll work through the end of the week and then be gone.
A shadow moves through the mottled moonlight at the base of the sagebrush, and Pancho steps into view. Marsha’s missing cat has returned from his nocturnal ramble. From my lawn chair, I can’t tell exactly what he’s caught, only that the hunt has again been successful. The vague outline of a small, limp form droops from the sides of his mouth, skewered securely in place by his improbably long fangs. My guess would be a ground squirrel.
He looks askance at me for only a moment, then walks to Marsha’s trailer, up the steps, and deposits his kill on the little stoop in front of Marsha’s door. He sniffs it once for confirmation, then hops down the steps and walks over next to my lawn chair, sits, licks his front paws and begins to groom himself. He is proud and fulfilled.
“Sorry, buddy,” I say to him, “but I’m under strict instructions to get rid of whatever you just dragged in before your mama gets home.”
The second phase of Greta’s disappearance inevitably brought the authorities into play. That next morning I awoke before dawn, confused and disoriented in the chair where I had nodded off in the den. I shook off the disorientation as best I could and quickly stalked through the house, calling Greta’s name, searching everywhere I had already searched. I parted the curtains and looked out the window to see that her car remained where it was the day before. Nothing had moved or changed. I called the police.
The officer to respond first to my call was a woman, probably in her late twenties, short and a bit round, with blonde hair pulled tightly back in a short ponytail. Regulation, I assumed. She informed me that “the subject” would have to be missing for forty-eight hours before an official missing person report could be filed, but she politely took my information anyway. She asked a few basic questions about where Greta might have been, if we’d been having any marital problems—nothing unexpected. I clicked onto the picture file on my laptop and printed a recent photo of Greta and gave it to her. She told me they would be in touch soon and left.
I called Mark at the job site, gave him a short version of what was happening, and told him I wouldn’t be there until the situation had been resolved. Just a day or two, I told him. And so, I was home the next morning when the same female officer, accompanied by two detectives, appeared at my door. Now that the forty-eight-hour period had elapsed, Greta was officially a missing person, and this was an official investigation. Accordingly, their questions became equally more official—more pointed, detailed, accusatory. Greta and I were loyal viewers of Law and Order and all its variants, so I knew what they were doing. I was informed. I got it. The spouse is always the first suspect. At this point, I was the only suspect, I could see it in their eyes. They needed me to be the suspect, to be guilty—it was the only story they had to follow at this point. I sympathized with them, in fact, envied them. They had at least one story to pursue. I had none. I endured their questions, their forced apologetic tone, their attempts to twist and rephrase the questions in order to trip me up, get me to reveal the guilty truth. The only truth I had was that Greta was gone, simply gone, so there was nothing for them to trip me up about. Every attempt, every version, got the same response. I welcomed their request to search the premises, welcomed it with sincerity. Perhaps they would spot something I had missed.
Although I think they were genuinely disappointed by the end of the week, after another more thorough search and more questioning; the police had accepted the fact that I was a victim, an innocent party, not a criminal. They were more effectively geared up to deal with a wife-killing fiend. A complete absence of clues, absolute indeterminacy, that was far trickier.
“Are you sure there’s not something, Mr. Benton?” asked one of the detectives the last time I saw him. “Something, any little thing slightly different, out of place, no matter how seemingly insignificant? To be frank, we have no leads.” Nothing in his training had adequately prepared him for this degree of ambiguity. For a moment I thought he might break into tears, and I almost reached out to embrace him, console him.
“No. Nothing,” I said.
The case remained open, and I called the contact number they provided me every day, until I became a nuisance.
“Mr. Benton, I assure you, we’re doing everything we can to locate your wife. I promise you we’ll contact you the moment there’s anything to report. But, difficult as it is, sometimes in these situations…”
“I assure you, we’ll be in touch the moment there’s anything to report.”
I posted Greta’s picture and information on the missing person sites on the web. How many of them there were astounded me, but I took no solace from the fact that I was not alone in this situation. I hired a private investigator, a bull dog of a former police officer whom I was forced to admire for his honesty. “I’ll do what I can, Mr. Benton, but I won’t lie to you. With no clues to go on, well, it’s not real promising. I have to tell you, if someone wants to be gone, really be gone, well, there’s not all that much…”
The only surprise in the whole saga up to that point, other than Greta’s disappearance itself, was the absence of any surprise at all in how it transpired. I could predict each step in the authorities’ actions, could foresee each question, each turn of events. Each component of the scenario occurred in order, as if scripted. Each actor in the drama knew his or her role, and I apparently knew my part as well. The inscrutable had reached into my chest and raked its talons through my viscera, and it played out like a script for a weekly television show. The only discrepancy between my story and all those television programs was the ending of the episode. None of those television shows would have tolerated the utter lack of narrative resolution. Neither the format nor the audience could permit arrival at the end of the episode without, at least, some tiny scrap or hint of knowledge. Never could it accept what my story revealed at the episode’s conclusion: nothing. Nothing at all.
While Pancho preens, I walk to Marsha’s trailer. The porch light is dim, but bright enough to illuminate the dead ground squirrel lying slumped on its side on the stoop. The eyelids are pinched shut, the front legs pulled in close to the body, the tiny front paws clenched—a prayerful pose, as if it were caught in an act of supplication for the mercy that would not be forthcoming at the moment it was dispatched. The stripes of lighter-colored fur on its back, bordered by bands of black, almost glow in the porch light. Pancho delivered the coup de grâce at the neck, where the fur is damp and clumped around a congealing patch of blood no larger than a dime. Marsha’s old one-eyed cat hunts with determination and devotion and kills with pitiless precision.
I scoop the carcass into my palm and carry it to the trash can at the end of Marsha’s trailer. Slight as it is, the weight of the squirrel’s corpse in my hand is definite, palpable. I feel comfort in the flesh-to-flesh contact, the tactile certainty of its inanimate body. Pancho pauses in his grooming, his one eye tracking my progress. After untying one of the plastic trash bags already in the can, I drop the dead squirrel into the opening, tie the bag closed again, and snap the lid of the can back into place. Pancho continues to track me for a few more steps as I walk back toward my trailer, then turns his one-eyed gaze out to the sagebrush mesa for another moment before returning to his grooming.
“Well, it’s the thought that counts. I promise I’ll tell her all about it when she gets home, Pancho. Your gift will not go unnoticed.”
Inside my trailer, I wash a fleck of squirrel blood from my hands, pull on a sweatshirt against the cooling night air, take one more beer from the refrigerator, and step back out into the moon-loud night. When I sit back down in the lawn chair, Pancho rises up, places his front paws on my thigh, stretches, pulls a couple of indifferent, sharpening tugs of his claws across the denim of my jeans, and hops up on me. For the moment, in the interest of comfort, my theft of his prey is forgiven. He stretches again, yawns, and curls into my lap to rest.
Our two trailers sit at the edge of town, the last eastern seam of Hutchins, Colorado, before this vast expanse of sagebrush mesa. “The old family compound,” Marsha called it. Her parents owned and ran the diner in town that was now Marsha’s. Nothing grand, but enough to get by on. “A decent living,” she claimed her father had always said. She’d grown up with her parents in the trailer she lived in now. Until her death when Marsha was in grade school, a grandmother had lived in the smaller trailer where I’d been living since late winter. A few months after her mother’s death when Marsha was in high school, she moved from her father’s trailer into the grandmother’s vacant one. “Just got too tight in there, both of us trying to tip-toe around the memories,” she had told me. She’d raised Ethan in my trailer. The “happy result of a drive-by trucking”—her way to dispense with the brief relationship with a long-haul trucker that produced her son.
“Don’t judge me, Teddy,” she had said.
“I wouldn’t presume,” I said.
“It’s not easy maintaining one’s dignity when your life’s a country and western song.”
She had run the diner alongside her father for years after her mother’s death, sharing the combined duties of cook, dishwasher, bookkeeper, waiter and bartender. Ethan had done much of his growing up at a small table in the back of the diner. A year or so before I’d limped into Hutchins, her father had died, dropped dead from a heart attack. Marsha had found him flat on his back under a large case of frozen hash browns on the floor of the walk-in cooler. “Poignant and fitting, don’t you think?” she had said, grinning, but there was the hint of a tear in one eye when she said it.
After her father’s death, she moved back into the larger trailer she had grown up in. “When somebody dies, I move. I don’t move far, but I move.” Her plan was to keep my trailer for Ethan to move into when he got home, for when he got out of the Marines. What she didn’t say, but could be heard roaring deep in her chest: if he got home.
Two people perched on the edge of the mesa night, each watching for someone who may or may not return.
I stopped into Marsha’s diner one afternoon, worn out and wondering if I was on the brink of giving up. The roads had been clear of snow for the past week, but there had been light blowing snow most of that day. My eyes were tired from straining to see through the flurries. I needed food and to reassess my situation. I’d been on the road for over a year at that point. The online accounts I’d set up before I left, for my wireless account, cell phone, and the one credit card I kept, they still had funds, good until at least the beginning of next year, I estimated. Cash, however, was a different case. I was running low and needed to replenish it if I was to keep going. I needed a job. Or so I convinced myself. What I really needed, what I wanted, was to stop moving, to rest for a while.
I had come into the diner mid-afternoon, after the lunch rush, and Marsha was alone. Dirty dishes and half-full glasses and wadded greasy napkins still covered the empty tables and lined the bar. Marsha was rushing, frantically trying to bring the chaos under control, her hair disheveled, her apron smeared and filthy. Breathing heavily, she dropped a tub full of dishes in the kitchen, grabbed an order pad, and hurried down to where I sat staring at the little plastic-coated menu. I ordered a cheeseburger and a draft beer, thinking that wouldn’t be too difficult for a woman already so haggard.
Halfway through my burger, she had pretty much gotten the front of the diner cleaned up and into shape. Blowing a strand of hair off her forehead, she walked over to me.
“Everything okay?” she asked.
I nodded, chewing, my mouth full of gnawed cheeseburger.
“Sorry to be rushing around so, but I’m alone here now,” she said.
I gulped down what I’d been chewing.
“Looks like you could use some help,” I said, reaching for my beer.
“I had some until Ronny, the idiot fucking cook, decided it was a good time to get arrested.”
According to Marsha, Ronny had been drunk enough already and was headed into the IGA grocery store at the other end of Hutchins to buy still more beer when the two Mexicans came out of the store. They were year-round farm hands who worked for one of the apple growers outside of town. They’d been into town that night to buy a few groceries and were heading out to where their patrón waited for them in his pick-up. Apparently, Ronny had decided at that point that Mexicans, in general, were responsible for all the country’s ills, and these two Mexicans, in particular, whom he pounced on and promptly began to pummel into the asphalt of the parking lot. By the accounts that Marsha had heard, he was making a pretty good job of it, too, for someone so drunk, until the Mexicans’ patrón, who’d been watching from his truck, whacked Ronny across the back of the head with the barrel of the pistol he wore holstered at his side and summoned the county sheriff.
“Short version, he was arrested for being an asshole,” she said. “I don’t think that’s an official legal designation, but it ought to be, at least in Ronny’s case. It would sure simplify things.”
I laughed, barely refraining from spraying beer all over the bar.
“I don’t suppose you’re looking for work, are you?” she asked.
“Well, now that you ask.”
Her question was rhetorical, and I could see the pause in her face when confronted with the idea of actually hiring some guy off the street whose only address was his car and whom she didn’t know from Adam. When I told her that I did, in fact, have a lot of experience working in restaurants in my younger days, as a cook, a waiter, and a bartender, I could see her soften some. When I gave her a short but sincere version of the last three years since Greta’s disappearance, the past year on the road, of what had led me to her diner, she said I could start right away and live rent-free in the little trailer beside hers on the edge of the mesa.
Arrested for being an asshole. Greta would love this woman.
As month piled upon month, it became more difficult to cling to hope. Hope, anticipation, expectation—they’re creatures that require feeding from time to time to be sustained, and there wasn’t a speck of food in the larder. But I clung to that famished hope nonetheless. I had no other option. All the assorted authorities were on board and playing their assigned roles as best they could, as far as I could tell. And I, too, played my role, immersed myself in the character of the distraught and desperate husband, helpless to act in any meaningful way, a desiccated shell of a man, hoping for the return of the living flesh that might make him whole again. I’d heard the stories, of kidnap victims surfacing many years after the event, the discussions of Stockholm Syndrome and captives coming to identify with their captors, of random circumstances leading to the possibility of escape. These were all parts of the script, demanding I retain hope. And I did.
What the script failed to provide, what the various accounts and statistics omitted, was a guide for when the doors closed and night fell on the house without Greta in it. The simple, undiluted loneliness of it all. The thump of a footstep across the floor, the click of a door opening or closing, the metallic rattle of the handle when the toilet is flushed, the deafening sound of sudden silence when the refrigerator stops running, the hushed rustle of sheets being pulled back on an empty bed. Every sound bounced back at me in a brittle, cackling echo without Greta there to absorb it.
I pulled out every photo album we had and spread them out on the kitchen and dining room tables, poring over the images for hours and days. At first I thought my purpose was obvious, simply to have her image before me as a stand-in for the real thing. As the days passed, however, I realized I was scouring the images of the past for some clue to the present, something in the background of a shot, some curious look on her face that would indicate she’d rather be there then than here now. It took very little time before I began to speak to the photographs.
I checked the phones daily to be sure they were properly plugged in and the answering machines functioning. I got extra cell phones, and kept them plugged into chargers when I wasn’t carrying them. Whenever I went out, I left tape recorders running so I could study the sounds the house made while I was gone. Some sort of involuntary electrical charge fired in my brain each time I looked out the window and saw Greta’s car still there in the driveway, fooling me into thinking for a split second that, at last, she’d come home. I checked my postings on the missing person web sites regularly, but soon realized that most of the responses those generated were phony, even malicious or cruel. One man wrote, “Shit, buddy, count yourself lucky. I wish my wife would disappear. Ha-ha.” If I’d known his real name and where he lived, I’d have responded to his posting in person, with a ball-peen hammer.
After a month I had returned to work. By most standards, I was useless on the job and in any normal circumstances, would have been let go. But, since Mark and I were co-owners of our construction company, I could get away with it. Besides, Mark had always been the one who stirred up business. He was the one who got us the big contract to refit the dormitories at the university. I’d always been more of the on-site manager, a glorified foreman really. The business got along fine with me merely going through the motions.
Each night I went home to an empty house, the walls of which seemed to taunt me as they opened out into a cavernous and isolated space, filled with every horrifying and humiliating image my tortured mind could imagine of where Greta might be and what might be happening to her. Most nights I passed out in an arm chair, a glass of scotch in one hand, a phone in the other. It felt as if the cells of my body were pulling apart, as if I were disintegrating. I longed to act, to do something, to be an active agent in these events, but there was nothing to do. I went mad with inaction. I sat. I waited. I hoped. I called the police and my private investigator until I became an official nuisance. And sometimes I called Marla.
“No, Teddy. I haven’t heard anything. Don’t you think I’d call you right away if I had? Jesus Christ, go to sleep, Teddy. It’s the middle of the night.”
This last beer remains cold longer in the cool night air. I hold the bottle by its neck, and the bottom of it rests on my thigh, the chill ring sinking into the flesh of my leg. Pancho is curled into a tight circle in my lap, his breathing deep and steady. Marsha should be home soon.
She’d been excited tonight. Ethan was going to call. He had sent her a brief e-mail from base camp a week ago, saying he’d call today, once they got back from the mission they were about to undertake. Marsha could never keep straight the time difference between Hutchins, Colorado, and Afghanistan, couldn’t really remember if “today” was tomorrow there, or yesterday. She’d had her cell phone clutched at her side for the last three days. If he’d called before she left the diner, she would be a while yet.
Marsha could barely imagine Afghanistan. Aside from news reports on the television that she could barely stand to watch and the few photos and bits of information from Ethan, Afghanistan wasn’t really a place. It was a vague thing, a set of conditions devoid of history, culture, and geopolitics. It was a negative to her. Afghanistan wasn’t Hutchins, Colorado, the place she had lived her entire life, raised her son and buried her parents. Afghanistan was simply where Ethan was when he should have been right here, at home, where his mother was and where he belonged.
From what she had told me, Marsha had almost literally spent her entire life here in Hutchins, in her “family compound” on the edge of the mesa. She’d been to Denver twice and that one trip to Las Vegas years ago. Otherwise, there was something in her that said this place, this dusty little town surrounded by sagebrush and the distant mountains, was who she was, where she was supposed to be. It was home, and that was enough. She didn’t question it. She never felt dissatisfied.
It started simply enough—a new employee and neighbor relating the various events of his life and loss and the subsequent travels that brought him to her door. But over the past months, as the weather warmed over the summer, we often found ourselves out here under the mesa moonlight in these two old lawn chairs after a long day and night at the diner, and it became a sort of pastime. I’d settle into my lawn chair, she into hers, both of us tired and still a bit grimy from work, and we’d sip from our beers and I’d tell her about places I’d been other than Hutchins, Colorado. She’d ask, and I’d tell her of travels I’d had—with Greta or on my own, it didn’t matter. Always, these conversations began the same. She’d say “tell me about” someplace or other, and I would oblige. And she never listened to my tales with any sense of greedy longing or disappointment. She would have scoffed stridently at the idea that she was an unfulfilled middle-aged woman feeding vicariously on the life of another. The fact that I’d been many places around this country and elsewhere in the world had nothing to do with her standing as a human being and the fact that she hadn’t been much of anywhere. The stories of my travels pleased and amused her. She simply enjoyed them. And she set no qualitative value on the distance or glamour of a particular locale. She would just as soon say, “tell me about Pittsburgh” as she would say “tell me about Paris.”
That the other actors in my drama could with relative ease slip back into their regular lives after Greta had been gone for two years should not have surprised me. And it didn’t. For the police and my private investigator, it was simply work, their job, one of many items on their list of things to attend to that they tried to leave at the office when they went home at night. That I spent my nights slumped blankly in an arm chair, carried on long conversations with the pictures of Greta in our photo albums, or drunkenly buried my face in the clothes hanging in Greta’s closet, searching for her scent—of no professional concern to them. Greta was just one item on their lists, and as time passed she slipped lower and lower on those lists. No, I wasn’t surprised. Bitter, resentful—perhaps. Envious—most certainly.
Mark and Frieda had begun inviting me to dinner parties again, and often I managed to rally and actually go. I would bring wine and sometimes even find some satisfaction in my role as a nominally tragic figure. Often, when I came to dinner, there would be among the guests at least one vaguely middle-aged, single woman, recently divorced or widowed. I found their misguided attempts at matchmaking oddly sweet, and I never really became angry about it. Frieda couldn’t help herself.
“I know it’s horrible, Teddy. I can only imagine,” Frieda would say, stroking my back, her eyes welling up. “We miss her too, but you have to keep living.”
Marla always tried to keep up a strong front, play her part as the devoted sister. And she did. But I could hear in her voice that she was pulling back, accepting, resigning herself to some reality I didn’t know how to accept. She had a family and a life other than Greta, and she had to save something for them. Still, she tried to put on a good face, to do what she thought she should to keep me afloat.
“You have to believe, Teddy. That she’s out there somewhere and somehow, sometime, something will turn up. You have to have faith.”
True, there were stories of like situations. I’d heard them all and had the script to refer to for possibilities. After years of captivity, the kidnapper becomes complacent, careless, distracted, and the captive at last escapes back into a breathless world that had assumed she was gone forever. But the odds were against it. Resulting from a string of random coincidental circumstances, a woman long missing and declared dead is spotted in a supermarket by an acquaintance from her past. The acquaintance later tells the authorities and reporters that there “was just something familiar” about the woman she saw squeezing melons in the produce section, trying to select the best one for the fruit salad she was planning for her entirely new family’s dinner that evening. But the odds were against it. A farmer, a hiker, a homeless vagrant stumbles onto decomposing human remains, and the woman’s long-grieving family at last receives the news they had most feared, but at least they now have a sense of closure. Not quite as unlikely, but the odds were still against it.
My private investigator was always a consummate professional about such matters. “At any given time, there are anywhere from sixty to a hundred thousand people missing in the United States. Most turn up, but we just can’t find them all, Mr. Benton, no matter how hard we try. And we have tried our best. We’ll keep trying. Her case is still open. But I’d suggest, well, that you might want to consider, to accept the possibility that she won’t be found. Can’t be found. Doesn’t want to be found. I’m sorry if that seems cruel, but those are the facts.”
Faith would not sustain me when I pressed my forehead against the glass of the living room window, staring into the black hole of the night, waiting dumbly for one thing. Have faith. Believe. I believed nothing. I knew some things. Many other things I didn’t know. Some other things I didn’t have an adequate means of perception to know, if they were knowable. Belief was irrelevant. I knew Greta was gone. I didn’t know where she was or what had happened. I had no means of knowing what had happened. Faith was useless, a narcotic masking agent for the terror of not-knowing. Indeterminacy, I realized, was the one indisputable condition of life, was the one faithful truth I could believe in about life as I now lived it. Was there a masking agent for indeterminacy? Beyond illusion and fantasy, no. There was only motion.
The milk carton was what did it, the catalyst that shook me free of the skin of hope and inaction. In the supermarket one day, buying a few groceries, I lifted a carton of milk from the cooler and saw Greta’s face staring back at me. My legs went limp and I nearly collapsed on the floor in the dairy section. The same photograph I had given the round, blonde female police officer two years ago. Above her photo, in bold type: “HAVE YOU SEEN ME?” Below the photo, Greta’s name, date of birth, height and weight, color of hair and eyes, date last seen, and a toll-free phone number. Her almond-shaped eyes stared back at me in black and white. My beautiful wife was no longer missing. She was right there, in the palm of my shaking hand, staring blankly back at me, almost mocking me. Greta had become packaging. I had to act, to do something, no matter how futile. I had to go.
Marla’s response was understandable, I suppose, when I called to tell her of my plan to search for Greta myself and how she could get in touch with me for the foreseeable future.
“Teddy, I understand, I do,” Marla had said. “She’s my sister, for godsakes. It’s killing me, too. We’ve done all we can, we’re still doing all we can. But to take off on some absurd sort of road trip to look for her, that’s just crazy. I mean, where would you start looking for her in the whole wide world? You need to find some way to get on with your life, Teddy.”
I had found a way. Greta was missing. My life was somewhere else. I would go there, too.
My plan seemed so irrational and fundamentally flawed strategically that I could imagine even Greta agreeing with her sister’s assessment of my scheme.
“Don’t be a schmuck, Teddy,” she would have said.
I went anyway.
Pancho is still sleeping and I’m getting drowsy when I hear the gravel crunching under the tires of Marsha’s pick-up as she pulls in beside her trailer. My eyes flutter fully open and awake, and I turn to see her stepping out of her truck, still wearing her apron from the diner. Pancho lifts his head, confirms that Marsha has, in fact, returned once again. He looks at me briefly, his one eye blinking slowly as he yawns, then he curls up again and continues his rest.
I raise my arm and catch Marsha’s eye. Her finger points to her front steps as she turns a quizzical gaze to me.
“All clear,” I say, assuring her that her way is free of the trophies of Pancho’s carnage.
She nods and walks up the steps.
“Stay put. Let me clean up and I’ll be right out.” I make the okay sign with my thumb and forefinger pinched together, the other three fingers lifted, as she slips inside.
Setting my empty beer bottle on the ground beside the chair, I stroke Pancho’s fur and wait in the moonlight. When Marsha reemerges, the apron is gone and she wears a dark fleece jacket. Her face shines in the porch light from the scrubbing she’s given herself, and her hair is pulled back firmly in a ponytail. She carries two bottles of beer and hands one to me as she drops, exhausted, into the other lawn chair.
“Thanks,” I say.
She takes a long, luxurious swallow of her beer, sits back and sighs.
“Ah, that’s more like it.”
Pancho rises, arches his back, and hops from my lap to Marsha’s, settling quickly back down to sleep. Marsha scratches gently behind his ears.
“What did mama’s little murderer bring her tonight, huh?” she asks and raises her beer to her lips again.
“Ground squirrel,” I say. “All securely tucked away and gone.”
“Thank you, Teddy.” She touches the palm of her hand briefly to the side of my face. Her flesh is full and warm against my cheek in the chill air.
“Did Ethan call yet?”
“Not yet.” She lifts her other hand and wiggles the cell phone firmly lodged in her grip, then slips the phone into the pocket of her jacket.
For several minutes we sit in silence, nursing our beers and watching the light shift over the sagebrush as the moon drifts further away from the Sawatch Range.
“I can’t…really can’t thank you enough, Marsha.” My voice breaks the quiet, and Marsha leans forward and looks at me, waiting. “Thank you, for taking in a stranger, for everything.”
Marsha slouches sideways in her chair and tilts her face toward me.
“You’re leaving, aren’t you?”
“I guess so.”
“The devoted knight must return to his desperate quest.” She smiles and casually rubs her hand across the back of mine. “Can’t run the risk of stumbling into happiness.”
“It’s fine, Teddy. I knew this was coming.” She pats the back of my hand. “You gotta do what you gotta do.”
“I can work out the rest of the week, but then…I hate to leave you short-handed. Will you…?”
“It’s okay, Teddy. I’ll be fine. Actually, Ronny’s due to get out of county lock-up this week, and he’ll want his old job back.”
I grimace and start to protest, but she cuts me off cleanly.
“Relax. He’s may be an asshole, but he’s my asshole. I can manage him. It’s time for you to go, Teddy. You have to.” Her fingers find the ruff of fur at Pancho’s neck and her eyes turn back to the mesa before us. “Wherever Greta is, God bless her, she’s a lucky woman.”
Marsha sets her empty bottle aside and leans back into her chair. One hand continues stroking Pancho. Her other hand slides down my arm and folds my hand softly into its grasp.
“Tell me about Venice,” she says.
“A medieval city on the Adriatic in northeastern Italy. Founded in the seventh century, built on 118 alluvial islets—”
I pause, grinning. She presses my hand tightly and digs her fingernails into my palm, as I knew she would. Marsha never wants to hear anything she “could read in an encyclopedia any old day.” She wants a different Venice, a personal, living Venice, the one I carry within me.
“Now, do it right, Teddy. Tell me about Venice.”
“In a window niche of an old medieval building,” I begin, “beside our hotel, right across from our hotel window, was a pigeon egg. Just one egg. Sitting right there on that narrow stone ledge. No nest. Nothing to keep it from falling to the street below. The mother was there sitting on the egg sometimes. Sometimes gone. You see pigeons everywhere, especially in Venice. But for some reason, we had never thought about pigeons on a nest. Pigeons just were. But there, right outside our window, that one lonesome little egg.”
Marsha smiles, tilts her head against the back of the chair, presses my hand in hers more firmly, and closes her eyes.
Once I had settled on the plan to go in search of Greta myself, the world became sleek, and events proceeded with clarity and purpose. I had something to do.
Mark was damned good about it all. Since the big university job, the company was doing well enough, and we both knew my absence wouldn’t make much difference one way or the other, considering how I’d been the last two years. I’d retain my half-share of the business, on paper, but we both agreed it just wouldn’t be right for me to keep taking my salary. We were doing well enough, but not that well.
I cleaned out all our savings, stock and retirement accounts, paid off the last of the principal on our mortgage, and gave my private investigator an advance against expenses yet to be incurred. For the one credit card I would maintain, as well as the wireless account for my laptop and the cell phone that I would need on the road, I set up automated online debit accounts. In the age of the internet, wireless, cell phones, and all their exponentially proliferating offspring, place had become irrelevant. I could take care of the remaining business of home in a library, café, or coffee shop anywhere.
All of Greta’s things, all of our belongings with any lasting or sentimental value, and much of the furniture and household goods, I packed up and placed in a self-storage unit, for which I paid two years in advance. Our photo albums received special care. All but one photo were sealed in heavy plastic bags and nestled in bubble-wrap within heavy cardboard boxes as if they were heirloom china. The one photo I kept out—a younger Greta, her head tilted to the side, smiling as she caught the setting sun at a thatch-roofed bar in the Caribbean—that one I taped to the sun visor in my car.
When I contacted the real estate agent, she assured me that she already had a client who would be an excellent, dependable long-term renter. Rent the house generated would cover the real estate company’s management fee, the property taxes and insurance, with a little left over to be transferred into my new debit accounts from time to time. I signed the realtor’s papers, turned over a set of keys, packed the car, and was gone.
The road atlas lay on the passenger seat beside me. Greta’s photograph hovered above me on the visor. The nightmares had long since resolved themselves into the recurring dream of Greta’s eyes rising over the horizon. Now, when her eyes asked, “Where are you, Teddy?” I would have an answer. I would be able to sleep at night and keep my vision focused clearly on the road ahead during the day. By my calculations, I had enough money to remain on the road for well over a year, at least. Maybe longer. I began to move.
If Greta’s disappearance was not of her own volition, in the utter absence of any sort of clue, then it didn’t matter where I went. Even dumb luck would be more productive than sitting slumped in my chair, waiting. If her disappearance was, somehow, her own choice, then at least there was some scrap of logic to searching places we had been before, places I knew she had any sort of fondness for. I’d start here in the states, then perhaps go on to Europe, if the money held out. In effect, I would begin searching for her as if I were driving and walking through the photo albums I had so carefully stored away. It made some concrete sense, even if the odds were against it. Actually, it seemed to me that I was, in fact, pursuing my quest quite rationally, despite what Marla thought. I began, of course, in New York City.
Marla and her family clearly found my unannounced appearance at their home on Long Island a boorish and inconvenient intrusion. She trained a wary eye on me, but relented. She was Greta’s sister, after all, and I wouldn’t actually be in their house that much. I slept on the sofa in the rec room, took the train into the city each day for weeks, and wandered the streets and subways of Manhattan and Brooklyn and Queens (never the Bronx) until late each night. I fully expected to go selectively mad, to hallucinate, to begin the final breakdown by imagining I saw Greta on every street corner in the massive city that had given birth to her. But I kept my wits. I was afoot in the world, on the lookout, loosed of limits, at the ready. I was moving. At the end of a month, I packed my car again and rolled off into the continent opening before me.
“Oh, Teddy, you poor bastard,” Marla said when I left. “Don’t drive off the edge of the world.”
“I won’t.” In the rearview mirror, I could see her hand to her face, her head shaking, as I pulled away.
But I did. I stepped into my scripted role—the desperate man on a hopeless quest—and drove off the edge of the known world onto the endless road. The desperate man who stood on the breakwater in Rockport, held upright by the wind, his nostrils filled with the scent of boiling lobster. Who frantically grabbed the arm of a woman he thought he recognized in Dupont Circle and barely escaped the grasp of the policeman on foot patrol who responded when the woman screamed. Who endured clouds of deer flies on the Outer Banks because a beach seemed a logical destination for escape. Who accepted a tiny round basket made of sea grass from a Gullah woman on the streets of Charleston because she said he needed it to “carry the sadness in.” Who was tossed out onto the street by security guards for tacking up unapproved missing person flyers in the Atrium Mall in Chicago. Who woke face-down in the parking lot of the Razorback Barbeque in West Memphis, sat up, wiped the dried blood from his lip, and picked the gravel and glass from his hands and knees. Who pleaded with the woman at the counter in the root shop in New Orleans, begging for access to her back room and the real spells that might conjure answers to his questions. Who sat slumped on a park bench in the Old Town Plaza of Albuquerque until a passing tourist laid a dollar in his limp, upturned hand. Who watched the sea lions on the rocks off Point Lobos and for just a few seconds more than a minute forgot why he had come there. Who stomped blindly through the tidal pools off the Olympic coast, mashing starfish and anemones under his boots. Who woke in his car in a rest area on the interstate west of Salina when hailstones began to pepper his dust-caked windshield. Who waited out the last blizzard of winter in Leadville, crawled down out of McClure Pass through blowing snow, and limped into Hutchins in a car battered by a year on the road but with a crumpled picture of his wife still attached to the visor. Who stumbled into Marsha’s diner, low on funds and exhausted, asking only for a cheeseburger and a beer and to stop for a little while.
“In Venice, the old medieval streets were often so narrow, we could hold hands as we walked and touch the buildings on either side without letting go of each other’s hands. The walls seemed to close in and embrace you. Loved leaving the maps in the hotel room and just getting lost down those little streets.”
“Mmmm.” Marsha nestles deeper into her chair and laces her fingers through mine. “I’m going to miss this, Teddy.”
“I’ll miss it too,” I say. A shudder grips me low in my abdomen and begins to ripple upwards. It rolls through my chest, my neck quivers, and my head begins to twitch slowly back and forth. My whole body begins to shake. When my voice finally works its way from my throat, it is cracked and broken. “I’ll miss…miss…” And all control flushes from me.
I drop from the chair and collapse to my knees in the dirt. My body is a heaving earthquake of convulsion, spilling out the years of grief delayed, of grief denied, the agony of the flesh untouched and absent, the blank space still awaiting the unknowable answer. The raw noise issuing from deep in my chest freezes the night air, the unintelligible guttural sound of sheer animal pain. I am pure fissure, the gaping rift from which all things fall away. I weep with abandon.
I feel Marsha slide from her chair and kneel beside me.
“Well, it’s about damned time,” she says. Her arms engirth me and pull me close. My spasms are absorbed in the warm press of her body. “Oh, Teddy. There now. There now. Finally.”
Time and the night dissolve into a single solution as Marsha rocks me against her breast.
“There now. There now.”
I don’t feel so much cleansed as I do cauterized when Marsha at last takes my hands and pulls me from the ground and turns us toward her trailer. Pancho has been sitting indifferently nearby, but as we begin to step away, his ears prick up and he turns his head sharply. Marsha’s hunter has sensed something again, and he’s off into the sagebrush before either of us can lunge and grab him.
“Oh, damn it,” Marsha says. “Now he’ll be off all night, and god knows what he’ll drag in this time.”
“I should have put him inside earlier,” I say. “I’ll go catch him.”
“Nonsense,” Marsha says and clutches my arm. “Come on. You can hardly stand upright.”
Just then the ringtone of her phone starts to blare from her pocket. Ethan is calling from Afghanistan. Marsha starts, releases my arm, and paws at her pocket until she withdraws her cell phone.
“It’s Ethan. I have to take this. Are you…?”
“Go. Go.” I wave her away with the back of my hand. “Go. Talk to your son. I’m fine. I’ll get Pancho and be right back. Go.”
She has already turned away and answered her phone.
“Oh, baby. How are you?” she says into her phone as she walks away into her trailer. “Don’t tell your mother ‘fine.’ When I ask how you are, I want to hear exactly how there are no new holes in your body.”
The moon is behind me now, and I follow my shadow into the natural pathways through the sparse sagebrush. My eyes scan the moonlit ground to either side of my shadow. I spot Pancho about thirty or so yards from the trailers, and he’s already in his crouch, stalking slowly, carefully up on whatever pitiful victim waits in the shadow of the sage. He shows no sign of acknowledging my approach. His focus on his prey is absolute, and I creep up softly behind him, stalking the stalker, bend low, reach quickly, and grab him around the middle with both hands.
Too pleased with my agility in snaring the cat so quickly, it takes a moment before the sound of the rattle registers in my ears. A soft shushing sound almost, little more than the sound of crickets. Pancho has zeroed in on a rattlesnake. “Little but every bit as nasty as any other rattler.” Now fully alert to what lies coiled and equally alert nearby, I trot briskly back to our trailers. Pancho is still clutched in my hands, and I hold him up before me, looking at his one-eyed face, the absurdly long fangs projecting from his jowls. Behind him, the moon-seared mesa sprawls unimpeded to the yellow-stippled Sawatch Range. The cat closes his single, predator’s eye, then opens it again and yawns. I cradle him in my arms and, both of us now safely distant from the rattler, we sink back into one of the lawn chairs. Marsha’s shadow passes by a window in her trailer. I see the outline of her free hand gesturing as she talks to Ethan on the phone.
One morning in Venice, very early, while Greta still slept, I took a leisurely walk through the Piazza San Marco, to see it before it was overwhelmed by the hordes of tourists. Except for a few vendors setting up their stands, the vast piazza was virtually empty—just me, a few pigeons, those few vendors, and a solitary woman sitting in one of the hundreds of café chairs in the piazza, weeping quietly to herself. I want to tell Marsha about that morning. Pancho and I will wait right here until she’s off the phone with Ethan.