counting on the kindness of strangers


IAN LAYS ON TOP OF THE DUVET this Monday morning still in the clothes he had on yesterday staring at the ceiling. The activity in his brain runs a pattern from searching for familiar shapes in its texture – a decor of post-popcorn acoustics, this design done with a mop saturated with paste made from thinned drywall mud and joint compound slopping it overhead onto the ceiling, overlapping splotches – to the terror of the thought that there’s a man in a storage unit, bound and gagged, hopefully alive, waiting for Ian to return.

It’s been about nine years since Ian scraped off the popcorn texture with a super wide putty knife attached to a telescoping pole. The popcorn had flecks of glitter in it, tell- tale of a 1960’s remnant in a master bedroom that has since been made contemporary. The mess it makes and the effort it takes to remove is gigantic. Everything has to come out of the room and the carpet has to come up. All this shortly after he and Linda finished the first remodel. He would subsequently lay there in bed on weekend mornings while she dozed, and look at the ceiling when it occurred to him he probably spent more time looking at the ceiling than any other part of the room, so it should be corrected, match the decor of the rest of the chamber.

The human body can go three days without water. Gray probably had breakfast the day before. He’s okay. The bleeding has had to have stopped by now. He’s upright, harder to aspirate and easier for him to blow out his nose. If he had been found by anyone at this point, Ian would not be laying on the bed staring at the ceiling where he finds the moose with an exaggerated nose and huge antlers.

So they moved everything out of the room, pulled up the carpet, new sculpted wall-to-wall with a thick pad, and masked off the walls, three of which are painted in Taupe, the accent wall in Sage, both in eggshell, along with the door trim painted in gloss linen, including the master entry, the closet door and the master bath door. This bedroom was critical to Linda’s and Ian’s sanity, a sanctified respite away from the round-the-clock care, feeding, flexing and bending, engaging and loving of their daughter.

It was in the third of the ten-year vigil when someone suggested they have a place in their home, plush and thick and quiet and warm with a spa of a master bath where they could take a break. They infers they did it together, but that was never the case. Not once. The queen-size bed might suggest some togetherness, but the Lay-Z-Boy recliner in the nursery undermines that assumption. Spa is an overstatement for anyone who’s been to one. The best they could afford in the remodel was a jetted standard tub, but the tile and the upscale fixtures and the expensive bath linens from Target and the high gloss paint on the trim made it feel and look like how they imagined a resort hotel bath to be, at least for the first few weeks. It was all really nice and the thick pad in the bedroom held up pretty well.

With the furniture out, carpet up and the masking in place, the master bedroom was ready to have its ceiling scraped. Enter the shop vac, the super wide putty knife, the painter’s paper coveralls, the shower cap, the goggles.

THE GOGGLES. They are still in the truck in the bag, and the shop towels are in the unit, and the phone –

Ian lifts straight up off the bed and brings his feet to the floor. There on the nightstand is Gray’s phone with its battery next to it. He picks them up and hesitates and holds his breath. He snaps the two together, rotates the phone and flips it open and presses the power button. A tone and a blip and it powers on, then a chime and a message on the ID screen, Pamela, Missed 27 calls. The device illuminates and chimes its ring tone now in Ian’s hand. On the screen it says Pamela.

This renders him motionless except for the bulge in his temples, the tears in his eyes. He looks away from the phone, still ringing in his hand, and he inhales, taking quick choppy breaths stifling the cry, what would most certainly turn into bawling. He has a hostage sequestered in a storage unit that he has assaulted. Kidnapping, aggravated assault. No, it would just be assault without the use of a gun. The phone stops ringing. A moment later the voicemail tone rings. Ian disassembles the phone back to its two parts, the battery and the receiver.

I’ve got to keep it together.

THE REAGAN MASTER SUITE has floor-to-ceiling northern light, the rest of the walls in Antique White with low-mass furnishings trimmed in stainless steel and bamboo. A bamboo floor creates the space for a king size adjustable bed, all of it too masculine for Pamela’s taste, though she’d never breathe a word of critique. Pam has lit on her haunches, knees together on a lounge, her elbows on her knees, in her hand her cell phone. Like Ian she hasn’t changed since yesterday. Pre-dawn light is coming through the windows as she dials and brings the device to her ear and speaks, “Detective Alvarez, Missing Persons.”

Bedside on the integrated night table is a photograph of the happy couple, the deck of a sailboat on a vector leading out from behind them.

“He told me to call this morning if I didn’t hear anything last night.”

In front of the frame is a ladies Rolex.

Her voice is getting more stainless steel itself, “I didn’t hear anything last night.”

On a wall is a framed and matted photograph of a very young Doctor Reagan holding a newborn. It’s his first delivery, then in residency at U.C. San Francisco, when he met Pam.

“I haven’t heard anything from my husband who’s been missing since yesterday.”

She listens.

“Can you explain that to me?”

She listens, growing more indignant as she interrupts.

“My husband is a respected obstetrician in this community, I hardly think- No, he didn’t know the man that he was with.”

Out in the great room is a space that has been created for the rug, the sofas separated, the coffee table moved to the landing, Pam’s voice bouncing off all the hard surfaces from the master bedroom to this space.

To be easily escalated is uncharacteristic for Pam, even when the stakes involve her husband. He has always been one to take care of himself and she has always been one to negotiate in the stickiest of circumstances with a cool head. Pam’s skills were honed in Uganda, negotiating for supplies and bargaining with a regime that had no interest in preserving quality of life. Safely back in the States she turned her attention and prowess to philanthropic work, raising money for facilities and treatment for the non-profit foundation of the prominent healthcare organization under whose umbrella the South Highland Women’s Center functioned. Pam was instrumental in the Foundation’s success in building a pediatric wing, expanding Labor and Delivery and attracting cardiologists to populate the region’s only acute cardiac care unit. She created the town’s cultural attraction during the holidays with the Christmas Tree Festivity, the Foundation’s top fund raiser where individuals and organizations decorated evergreens and auctioned them off at a Dickens-like festival with music and other crafts, all the proceeds of which go to the foundation. When a major donor, who for political reasons decided to rescind an eight figure donation to establish a free-clinic since part of its care purview would be to provide family planning, Pam was able to close the deal with everyone still smiling about it. She competed directly with neighboring regions to establish a cancer center in her town, making it possible for treatment to be available within a few minutes drive instead of the hours’ distance it would otherwise take, a horrible journey for any chemo patient. And Pam has been the champion of women’s healthcare in an era and area of phallocentric agendas. She is no stranger to holding a position with the rhetorical skills of a litigator resulting in health care access for women below the poverty line and for oncology patients in therapeutic regimens. At five-feet, barely one hundred pounds, her influence was forged in her engagement, her intuition and her intelligence. Gray Reagan was a lucky man.

“I told you we ran into him at the hardware store,” her frustration echoing through the home.

The Reagan garage floor is finished cement in a gloss maroon stain upon which is parked the Mercedes alongside a black Lincoln Navigator and a customized golf cart.

“It was a small white truck, a Ford I think. I don’t know what is what.”

She escalates more, “I don’t have a license number,” she stands and at just about the volume of a yell, “because we were counting on the kindness of strangers!”

It echos through the rest of the house. Then, back in control, “So, I guess I’ll call you back later, then?”

She disconnects, grabs her keys and sac and leaves the retreat through the living space, down the hallway to the laundry and mudroom and through the door to the garage. She gets into the Mercedes and the garage door opener engages the faux concrete slab of a door, the sound of which is eclipsed by the ignition of the E-Class that then backs out into the early morning.

The drive out of Silverado is an homage to the wines of the famous Napa Valley vintner. The Reagan home is on Mt. George Circle fed by a side street, Cabernet, that stems from Miller Ranch Boulevard. Cabernet is a street too short to host any addresses, just the red sedan that was passed Pam and Gray and Ian the afternoon before, now parked. She drives by Merlot Avenue, Carneros Circle and Sangiovese Circle. Miller Ranch is unusually quiet. James and Catherine are usually walking their Collie, or Joyce can be found on her morning constitution, Peggy on her Sunday walk/run flinging her arms swinging up ridiculously high like a – today is not Sunday. There is no one. No traffic either, but that is lost on Pamela, all the way to the home improvement center.

Her Mercedes navigates its empty parking lot, finds a stall close to the entry and parks. Pamela gets out, remotes the door locked and crosses the lane to the store front. She does not notice what is not present – the absence of the rows of gas grills and lawn mowers – she just marches right to the strategic entrance engineered to funnel home improvers and merchandise returners into the big box, while the other doors facilitate the exit of paid customers with their Lowe’s merchandise. She is in full anticipation that the automatic doors will slide open, until that one last step when the neurons are firing signals to halt the momentum due to a fixed object. She stops. She steps back. Maybe it did not sense her. Forward again, but no open. They are locked.

She looks for the business hour placard and glances at where her watch would be then takes her phone out of her pocket. It is ten to seven. Six-fifty. She turns to look at the big empty lot within which the E-Class is parked. Much farther beyond it, at the boundary of the empty is a sedan of some sort.

Pam has no idea it is this early. The temporal context of her living the last nineteen hours had slipped a cog running together hours and thoughts and frustration. No wonder the detective wasn’t in. She cups her hands around her eyes and presses against the sliding door and searches. A figure of a man walks down the aisle that separates general paint merchandise from the gardening section. She bangs on the glass.

“Hey in there!”

Bang, bang, bang.

The figure walks on, pushing a propane powered floor buffer.

A man appears from nowhere just the other side of the glass, startling her. His badge indicates he has something to do with management. She fogs the window slightly as she speaks into it.

“Please, can you help me? I need to know who was in your store yesterday. Please, can you help me?”

He processes her, sizing up this little woman with this strange request. His eyes go to the side and then back to Pam.

“We were in your store yesterday and bought a rug and a man helped us take it home, only he didn’t take it home or my husband who was with him. My husband was with him and now he is missing and I’m trying to find him and the Police won’t do anything because it’s too early. Please?”

He looks at his watch. “Your husband is missing?”

“Yes, it was just yesterday! I have the receipt. We were right after him in line, the man who took my husband.”

She holds the receipt against the window pressing it flat so the entire slip makes contact on the glass. He checks it out and returns his eyes back to Pam.

His keys come out from their tethered anchor on his belt into a tumbler and turn, throwing the bolt back. He reaches to the side and flips a switch and the doors split open, sliding to their apex. Propane exhaust wafts a bit over them and in the recesses of the big box the drone of the propane powered buffer oscillates on.

“Please, can you just tell me his name?”

IAN’S WHITE FORD RANGER is backed into the driveway of the ranch home on Glacier Drive, several boxes already in the bed. He exits the home with another load, three boxes at a time. They must be blankets and stuffed animals and such. He’s been busy since he recovered from the panic of Gray’s ringing cell phone. These boxes along with the others in the bed of the truck have been neatly identified with the name Virginia in indelible ink, some with sub-headings like Bed, Feeding, R.T., Toys, and Meds. He has opened her door and packed the rest of her room – what has become a shrine in a way – left untouched for the last five years. One toy in particular is a cube with color and shapes, switches and toggles and buttons that would reward their manipulation with a sound, the moo of a cow, the ring of a ship’s bell, the whistle and chug of a locomotive. That’s the sound it made when Ian pulled it down from a shelf in her closet. A motion switch inside energized a circuit and played a sampled clip. It surprised him, haunting in a way. He touched a button, turned a crank, flipped a toggle, every tactile impetus had an auditory response, even after five years of dormancy. He could still hear it packed inside a box with her stuffed bear, her long-eared floppy rabbit, Eeyore and Winnie and her pink satin night-night blanket as he carried it to the truck.

Ian lifts the tailgate and secures it, the fourth wall of this box. A muffled moo. The Ranger backs out of the driveway, is put into drive and goes forward to the intersection of Glacier and Rainier Road, Rainier to Yosemite, Yosemite to Yellowstone that dumps out to Grand Boulevard. These roads are busier than the wine roads of Silverado. Bedroom community commuters on their way to diamond lanes and Park-n-rides, and converging strollers for playdates. A stroller is the only unboxed item in the back of the truck. It is nothing like the Graco models at WalMart. This one is stout, a thick red frame with hand-machined hardware, cleats that hold the bottom cushion and seat back in place, buttresses that adjust to place a headrest and side bolsters in just the right positions, and a spring-loaded locking pin mechanism that allows an abductor to flip out from between the legs of this stroller’s passenger to make it easier to get her out and in. The wheels are industrial, large and thick and easy to get rolling. All the cushioned pieces are covered in black vinyl and were fashioned to the specific contours of its passenger’s little body. That, and the inherent liability of this handmade device made it impossible to recycle for another kid’s use. Not the case for Stella, though, the canine companion. She found a new companion within a couple of weeks of Virginia’s passing.

Ian arrives at Fort Knox at the long and tall black iron gate, the passage through which is marked by a post that arcs out from its base that holds a keypad within the shadow of its sunshade. Ian pokes out the numbers from his truck window. A moment, and then the gate begins a slow, sideways move on rails, opening at least twice with width needed for the Ranger to pass, which it does and ambles along the uneven asphalt and the cement ruts. It turns up an alley flanked by red rolling doors and buff brick. Brake lights burn and the little white trucks squeeks to a stop. The hockey puck padlock clicks and a bar slides over and the door rolls up.

Ian looks into the unit. There are the other boxes he unloaded yesterday, the bikes and the patio furniture. At the bed of the truck he lifts out boxes and carries them into the unit, on one trip grazing his head on the suspended low-watt bulb. He places the last two boxes on the seat of an orphaned sea-foam green adirondack chair, steps out of the unit and pulls the door down closed and secures it. He picks up one last box from the bed of the truck. It’s marked Virginia with the subheading Feeding, and walks away from the unit, the box held with both arms.

Just outside the automated gate is a pay phone. Perhaps not the smartest place for a pay phone because when the dryers turn on from the automated car wash bay the conversation is over if not suspended, not a problem though this Monday morning. Not many people wash their cars on Monday morning. Ian is at the payphone, box on the ground, his wallet in hand and he is fishing through it to find a business card, A-1 Medical Supplies. He dashes a couple of coins in the slot and dials and waits. The coins are released inside the phone.

“Hi, um, I need to know if you have any adult NG tubes in stock.” Ian looks around. “No, I need one this morning. I thought I had one but I’m out.” He shoulders the receiver and puts the card back in his wallet and his wallet back in his pocket. “Uh, yeah, you can call this number,” he reads it off the payphone, “Six, five, six, one, one, one, seven. You might want to let it ring.”

No luck. He hangs up, picks up the box and walks to the keypad, but before he enters the numbers he goes back to the payphone, pulls the A-1 card out again along with the Sharpy from his pants pocket and writes the number on the back of the card. Numbers written, numbers punched and the gate begins to open, the long drive chain wagging from the torque of the motor. Ian slips through and with haste disappears back into the alleys of Fort Knox.

In the alley where the Ranger is parked, Ian is at another rolling door of another unit across the way. He fishes through his pocket for another key. It is dark inside this unit except for the light that bleeds through the crags and joints of the door. The metal-on-metal sound of the lock clicks, the bolt slides and the door raises violently up. Ian slips inside and then just as violently the door rushes down right to the point of contact where he finesses it to seal shut. His eyes having not adjusted he gropes the air to find the string that is tied to the cord of the light fixture, pulls it and illuminates the interior. He sets the box on the cement floor and waits a moment for his eyes to adjust, then walks around the adirondack and faces what he wept about earlier this morning.

THE HOME IMPROVEMENT STORE shift manager is slowly pulling a cash register tape through one hand with the other, his big thumbs feed it through line by line past his searching, magnified stare. He and Pam are standing in the elevated customer service booth just outside the business office located at the end of the long row of checkout stands. He bites his bottom lip as he scans, not entirely believing the woman’s story, but not one to deny her either. She seems credible, even desperate and given all the price changes he has to get out this morning along with all the clearance tagging this seems a worthwhile endeavor. The morning shift is arriving and a cashier weaves between them to get her drawer, giving them both a look. The feed of the tape stops, his thumbs frame a transaction on the paper. He finds Mrs. Reagan’s transaction number that is on her receipt and reverses the tape back one transaction. He looks at her over his reading glasses.

“It was a cash transaction, Mrs. Regan.”

This doesn’t register with Pam. “A cash transaction?”

“He paid with cash. There’s no record of who he was.”

She pinned more hope on this than what she had thought, the disappointment taking her breath away for a moment. She collects herself, steps down from the customer service area, looking down the row of registers. The retail lights are burning on to their business brightness. There, right there, is where they were yesterday. She looks more and all she finds is her way out, the manager at the door, spinning a key and manually opening it for her and she steps out into the anteroom with the rock salt and the propane exchange rack. A switch is flipped from inside and both sets of doors slide open and Pam walks back to her car.

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