After Natey-Nate’s check-up, Gretchen found herself standing in the foyer of Grotson’s Donuts. A small boy stared into the donut case as if he would be asked to identify them later in a line up, until finally he pointed to a pink frosted donut and nodded.
The man at the counter, a worn New Mexico Aggies t-shirt under his apron, a hair net over his hair, pulled out the wax paper slip in anticipation of Gretchen’s order with no sign of recognition. When they’d worked together there, a hundred years ago, before she’d won and lost her role as aspiring poetry workshop professor, she’d thought of him as JoeGrot: Joe for the working man, and Grot for the donuts. Whenever she tried to remember his actual name, she couldn’t. Her Uncle Steve intruded and the name was lost. Abduct, abandon, obliterate/ these three things are not so great…now which student had written that?
JoeGrot looked more like Uncle Steve than anyone she’d ever encountered, especially in profile, being tall, big-boned but thin, with a large, narrow pointy nose, overgrown layers of dark strawberry blonde hair and blue, wide-spaced eyes. His shoulders, as he reached for her old-fashioned, had the same thick slab-like quality as Uncle Steve’s.
She climbed in the car with Natey-Nate still strapped to her chest, and rummaged in the waxed paper bag—curiously roomy, as if the dimensions inside were bigger than those out—finding the crisp warm shell of an old-fashioned donut. Natey-Nate stirred, nestling deeper into himself. Gretchen brushed a donut crumb off the top of his head, her fingers gentle as she could make them.
JoeGrot appeared through the back door, arms straining with garbage bags. She watched his tired tread, the clawed clutch of his hands on the bags, divining if he were an alcoholic: yes, she decided. She didn’t remember him drinking on the job, but as an alcoholic herself, albeit recovering, she assumed she had better than average powers of deduction. Had JoeGrot ever abducted anyone? Alcoholics would probably have a higher rate of abductions, with all those lowered inhibitions, she thought, but how would one find out for sure? She saw JoeGrot glance over to the parking lot of Basilica de Santa Monica, and she wondered if he knew of the AA meetings converging not twenty yards away.
She nibbled her donut, considering how far, at any given point, an inhabitant of New Mexico—no, the U.S.—was from an alcoholic. Two hundred yards? A mile? Five miles? She dropped the last bite under the steering wheel and, maneuvering so as not to squash Natey-Nate, plucked it up, examined it and popped it in her mouth. JoeGrot hurled the bags with a discus-throwing motion into the dumpster. Had he ever abducted any girls, boys, cousins, nephews—nieces?
She wondered why thoughts of abductions were so less frequent than those about alcoholism. Abductions, abductees, abductors were very under-represented in her mind. You took me/I took you/we kidnapped each other’s…what? Which student had written that? Oh yes, we kidnapped each other’s hearts like pirates/in the sea of love: the girl from Mexico City. She’d been the pride, hope and glory of the math department, and went on to big things at Princeton. Gretchen remembered how the girl had brought Celine Dion lyrics to ‘Intro to Poetry’ and read them with tears in her eyes and Gretchen had felt actual, if momentary, love for her.
But it was another class, a blond boy, penning the lines abduct, abandon, obliterate/these three things are not so great that had knocked a startled laugh out of her when he’d read aloud, puzzling the other students. For a moment she’d wondered if the student knew her history. But of course he hadn’t.
Her teeth ground on grit that had clung to the dropped donut. She folded the empty, not seeing JoeGrot until he knocked on her window. He asked for a light and then, as an afterthought, a dollar. She gave him both, their eyes meeting and not looking away, curiously neutral. She asked for the dollar back; he handed it to her. Then she made a motion: keep it.
Gretchen pulled onto the highway, glancing at the flattened and desiccated body of what was either a dog, fox, wolf or coyote. Natey-Nate had fallen asleep. She was still thinking of JoeGrot, using her memory to survey him from every angle as if it would solve something, undo a knot in her mind: Uncle Steve, she supposed. She sighed.
Her abduction was a terrible, terrible thing to have happened, but somehow, it had just never seemed like it.
Gretchen had been twelve, reluctantly attending a ‘Christ Has Risen!’ slumber party for the Methodist Junior Teen-in-Training Girl’s Prayer Circle. At 2:30 a.m., Steve Raskins had kicked in the door of the host family’s basement rec room. He took the first blond head he saw poking out of a sleeping bag, Gretchen’s, in exile of unpopularity, near the door.
Earlier, one of the mothers clopped down the stairs, clucking that Jesus would never have stayed up so late, and the girls had just begun settling when Gretchen said the reason Jesus never would have stayed up so late was because he was boring. She had spoken in an invidious, offhand spirit, but became adamant in the ensuing volley of outrage and tearful reproaches. This went on until Gretchen dragged her sleeping bag as far away as she could—by the door—and went to sleep.
When Gretchen, a legendarily heavy sleeper, finally came to some groggy consciousness by the prodding of Uncle Steve’s rifle into the small of her back, the first thing she saw was a cowering huddle of pastel pajama-wearing girls in the corner. The door was old and decrepit, and hadn’t taken much effort to kick in, but apparently the noise had been terrifying.
Gretchen would never have thought it was possible for something like an abduction at gunpoint to seem so ordinary as to be inconsequential. But really, it hadn’t been so bad. As a heavy sleeper, she was used to waking in a state of unmitigated confusion. If Uncle Steve was there, well, she saw him all the time; if he brandished his rifle, as a dedicated hunter, that wasn’t so unusual either. The smell of beer had no new or particularly disquieting associations. Uncle Steve, while rarely drunk, was often drinking when Aunt Trixie was gone, which was most of the time as she embarked on her window treatment empire. It wasn’t until he’d frog-marched Gretchen, still querulous with sleep, into an unfamiliar station wagon—stolen, as it turned out—that Uncle Steve realized he’d gotten the wrong girl. It was Jenny, his step-daughter, and Gretchen’s cousin, he had been after. It was the hair: Gretchen and Jenny, so often mistaken for each other, they responded to each other’s names, and came to understand when a teacher or friend’s parent said the wrong name, but meant themselves.
That this misidentification had led to irritated confusion on Uncle Steve’s part—not panic or rage—had only reinforced her lack of alarm. He pressed for Jenny’s whereabouts. Gretchen hadn’t the presence of mind, nor knew of any reason, to lie. A siren screamed in the distance; Uncle Steve turned off his headlights, winding his way through side streets as Gretchen explained that Jenny was grounded for sassing Trixie. What constituted sassing Trixie had a certain fluidity and when Gretchen described the affront, Uncle Steve gave her a glum glance as if to say ‘that’s Trixie for you.’
So it was: the single greatest trauma of her life, and Gretchen experienced it in a sort of non-pulsed vacuum, a vacuum she sometimes doubted had ever been pierced. Uncle Steve had grabbed bags of slumber party pretzels, tortilla and corn chips and a bottle of grape juice on the way out, and as they drove around, he chomped, slugging back the juice. At first he hadn’t wanted to share, but grudgingly agreed, becoming tired of Gretchen’s protestations. The night had lengthened, broadened, flattened. Uncle Steve drove them on a single winding road passing few cars. He’d blasted the heat; the feel of hot air up her nose and the taste of salty chips had merged with the smell of warmed pleather seats. He’d pulled a bottle of whiskey from under the seat and poured it into the grape juice. After downing a few inches of this, he’d asked her petulantly why Jenny had said what she said.
Gretchen, who had no idea what he was talking about, shrugged. He sounded like one of her friends complaining about a tattletale. Later she heard it had been a neighbor who’d called the police about the abuse going on in the house. Gretchen would never know how the neighbor had discovered this, and in fact, had taken great pains never ever to know.
Uncle Steve, considering Jenny’s betrayal, shook his head, and with a wounded air, dipped his hand into the pretzels. He was younger than Aunt Trixie by eight years, and to Gretchen, not so different from the neighborhood boys. Uncle Steve began reciting in a bored voice all the ways a person might die out if dropped out in the middle of the wilderness. He itemized the ways he knew to kill someone and get away with it. She challenged him on a few points and he conceded one or two, pointing out the fallacy of another. They drove on, Uncle Steve methodically chewing his way through the second bag of stick pretzels. Then, as dawn broke, at a little parking lot next to a trail in the state park, he’d stopped. He demanded back the corn chips she’d been nibbling. She refused. He told her in a new, hard voice, to get out of the car.
It was the first time she’d felt fear. She argued, but her voice had lost its adamancy. The sensation of cool rough asphalt on the soles of her bare feet was emblazoned in her memory as a sort of miracle of fear, sky, life, air. She stood in her blue flowered pajamas, holding the corn chips, the sky bordered by a rim of new daylight. Her amazement had been neutral, neither terrible nor wonderful, but absolute.
Uncle Steve told her not to say anything. He gunned the accelerator, then screeched to a halt. The window lowered and the barrel of the rifle appeared.
He fired two shots. The first whizzed past her. The second grazed her thigh. Uncle Steve tore off, and she’d shouted jerk before throwing the bag of corn chips after him.
She noticed she was bleeding. She retrieved the bag that seemed to crinkle unusually loudly and, at an interval she didn’t remember, folded herself up on a large rock and went to sleep, holding the bag, which was how she was discovered. The police had to prod her awake and, to their astonishment, found her more grouchy than afraid.
Gretchen glanced at Natey-Nate in the back, clicked to the right lane to let one of the many drivers that went ninety miles an hour out here on the highways pass, and looked out at the rocks, so enormous, so preposterously craggy, so indomitable, like leprous versions of cathedrals.
Abductions seemed both more and less likely out here in New Mexico. Sometimes she thought nearly every place she went looked like a potential crime scene. She pushed her hand through the seat to place it on Natey-Nate’s leg. No abductions for you, she thought, giving him the lightest of squeezes. She pulled her arm back, rested it on her leg, and wondered how it was that she had no idea if she had a scar from the bullet.
She shrugged. She didn’t think so.
Gilmore Tamny lives in Somerville, MA, where she writes, plays guitar and draws a worrying number of lines, currently chronicled here: http://linesdotscircles.tumblr.com. Her post-WWII repressed British lady potboiler MY DAYS WITH MILLICENT is being serialized at OhioEdit.com; here is a brief quiz to see if it might interest readers: http://ohioedit.com/is-my-days-with-millicent-right-for-me/. She is currently playing in Weather Weapon http://weatherweapon.bandcamp.com.