What Is Found, What Is Lost – Chapter One
In a quiet Sioux Falls neighborhood, a widow walked her Boston terrier along a shady street. The dog moved slowly and without much purpose, as if he, too, were grieving. The woman, Freddie, considered the loss of her husband, Ken, in practical terms, like the empty space in bed and the closets she cleaned out. She also reckoned a deeper loss – the light he could bring to a room, and the soft glow in her heart when she caught his eye.
Her dreams were full of him. In one, they were at a lunch counter. They shared a piece of cherry pie. The cherries were dark and drippy, and bothered Freddie because she knew that they represented his cancer. She put down her fork and said, So, what’s it like being dead? And he answered, You know, it’s not bad.
She was certain that she and Ken had never eaten at a lunch counter. The symbolism was clear. In the dream they were side-by-side, equals. In life, they hadn’t been.
Freddie was sixty-two. She was tall, with a robust manner, clearly of Nordic descent. In her youth she had been slender and fair-haired. Now her body was thick, and her hair was what some would call “salt and pepper.”
The dog, Pudgy, was eleven; he had been Ken’s adored friend, a gift from Freddie to celebrate his initial recovery from the disease that ultimately killed him. Ken was sixty-six when he died a few months before. Theirs had been a long, hard marriage. Yet love persisted, always.
She had no friends to speak of. She never had. She didn’t find it odd. The way she grew up made friendship impossible. She and her younger sister, Holly, were so isolated as children. Holly now lived in Minneapolis. Although they spoke on the telephone every other month, and saw each other once a year, Freddie knew only the outline of Holly’s life, not the actual fabric of it. She was aware that Holly had something of a circle. Social events were sometimes alluded to. She supposed Holly needed them, while she didn’t. Freddie possessed a richness of spirit – an inward bent – that allowed her to tolerate solitude.
The approaching summer would be another hot one. Holly would come for a couple of weeks. Before then, Freddie’s daughter, Beth, would bring her little boy out from Las Vegas. That Beth resembled Ken so much might be difficult. This would be her first time home since he died.
Recently on her walks with Pudgy, Freddie noticed a man driving a red pick-up. The couple across from her saw him, too. They assumed he was a landscaper, though his old truck bore no logo, or advertising of any kind. The woman behind them thought he was a drifter, down on his luck, back home to help out in exchange for a place to stay. Freddie didn’t see how the man could be connected with any one house, because his truck turned up on different streets.
The driver of the truck wasn’t young. His beard was flecked with white and his eyes were sharp and knowing. Other neighbors were leery of him and wondered if he’d break into their homes and steal. Freddie doubted that. He’d be the prime suspect if anything like that happened. When he was spotted, he was either driving the truck, or sitting in it, sipping coffee from a paper cup. No one spoke to him, and Freddie thought that was a shame.
One morning, the man’s truck was parked across the street. He was behind the wheel, head thrown back, probably asleep. Freddie dressed, poured a mug of coffee, and made her way across the road, Pudgy in tow. She tapped on the window, which was tricky with the mug in one hand and Pudgy’s leash in the other. The man’s mouth was open. Freddie could see silver fillings in his back teeth. On his neck below an overgrown beard was a small scar, perfectly straight, as if put there by a surgeon. She tapped the window harder. The man’s head lifted and he stared at her with deep blue eyes. He rolled down his window. Neither spoke. Freddie went first.
“Thought you could use this,” she said. He stared at the mug. Kiss me, I’m Polish, it said in blocky child-like lettering.
“Got a shot of whiskey for it?” he asked.
“Don’t think so. Not much of a whiskey drinker these days, truth to tell.”
“I was only kidding. Never touch the stuff, myself.”
He took the mug. His fingernails were smooth, even, and perfectly clean.
“What are you doing here?” Freddie asked. The man blew into the coffee to cool it. Then he stared darkly into the mug.
“Looking for someone,” he said.
“You ask a lot of questions.”
“You spend a lot of time in my neighborhood.”
“Guess you’re right about that.”
Inside, at her dining room table, he explained. His wife had left him three months before. He was from Omaha. The wife had family there in Sioux Falls. The brother lived two blocks over. The man – Nate – was sure she’d surface sooner or later.
“Why don’t you just ask him if he’s heard from her?” Freddie asked.
“I did. He said he hadn’t. He said they didn’t talk anymore, and hadn’t for years. I told him that was bull, because I’m the one that pays the phone bill. She called his number plenty, and stayed on the line a while each time. He said I was a liar and that he’d punch out my lights if I didn’t get off his porch.”
“Sounds like a lovely fellow.”
“That, he is.”
“You know, if she doesn’t want to be found, she won’t be. You’re easy to avoid because you’re so easy to spot,” Freddie said.
“She’s pretty easy to spot, too.”
“She’s in a . . . what do call it . . . you know, the black dress and head scarf.”
“You mean what Muslim women wear?”
“Right. She converted,” Nate said.
“What was she before?”
“Also Episcopalian, sort of,” he said. “She never went to church. I didn’t take too well to her newfangled view of things. Not Islam, in particular, you understand, just the way she went at it. All gung-ho.”
“What made her do it?”
“Looking for something, I guess.”
They all were, Freddie thought. People who depended on religion to get them through life wanted an easy answer, the responsibility in someone else’s hands. Freddie thought that was stupid. You had to think for yourself, no matter what. You had to realize the incredibly random nature of life. And you had to know that you could believe in God without following any particular religion. God was one thing, religion another. It was religion that messed everything up. She knew that first-hand. Her mother, Lorraine, had been a firebrand Bible-thumper. She gave birth to Freddie in a revival tent one spring night in 1950. Holly came along four years later.
Pudgy entered the kitchen and stared up at Nate with mucous-streaked eyes. Nate held out his hand, and Pudgy obligingly sniffed it. Then he turned away, and clicked across the floor to his tattered dog bed. He lay down, and kept his eyes on Nate.
“I’ve taken up enough of your time,” Nate said.
“Not at all. It’s been a pleasure.”
Freddie saw Nate staring at Beth’s high school picture on the sideboard. Beth wasn’t smiling. Her hair over one eye made her look both sultry and mean.
“My daughter,” Freddie said.
“Nice. We don’t have any, ourselves. I wanted them; she didn’t.”
“They can turn you inside out. Especially that one.”
Beth was an only child, Freddie said, and maybe that was the problem. Only children had some advantages, of course, but some disadvantages, too. All of their parents’ expectations heaped on them, for instance. Growing up under a microscope. At least, that’s how Freddie had explained Beth to herself for years now, though she didn’t mention this specifically to Nate.
Beth’s father only wanted the best for her. Isn’t that what fathers did? Want the best? Anyway, Beth didn’t appreciate the constant pressure to measure up. She found it too demanding. So, in rebellion she left home and got a job as a pole dancer in Las Vegas. That’s right – a real, live, exotic dancer, taking tips in her G-string. It just about broke Freddie’s heart, but her husband, well, his heart was broken, too, of course, but he put all his grief straight into rage. Not the yelling and screaming sort of rage (that was earlier, when she still lived at home), but a deep, burning, silent rage. He wouldn’t speak to his daughter, and she wouldn’t speak to him. Then Beth got pregnant. The father refused responsibility. Freddie said they should press the point through legal means. Her husband wanted nothing to do with that. Beth had the child, a little boy, and went back to pole dancing. She brought him back to Sioux Falls a couple of times – by then Freddie had gotten her husband to relent and agree to let them in the house, though he made himself scarce – but she always went away, again, back to her seedy life. Beth defended that life on the grounds that she was independent. What she meant was, independent of a man. She supported herself. Freddie didn’t, and Beth accused her of being a bad role model while she was growing up. Then Freddie pointed out that she was, in fact, entirely dependent upon men, because who else went into those places and threw money on stage for her?
“Probably a lot more than you needed to know. Didn’t used to be such a talker. Been on my own too long, I guess. My husband died about six months ago,” Freddie said.
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
Nate looked around her dining room some more. The walls were a cheerful yellow. The sideboard had two pairs of brass candlesticks and a heavy ceramic bowl that was probably Mexican,judging by its bright reds and yellows. Two small paintings of birds, one green, the other blue, hung at eye level on the wall opposite where he sat. The wood floors and rag rugs gave the whole place a homey feel. It was the kind of house he wished he and his wife had. They lived in a one-bedroom apartment in Omaha. The air conditioner didn’t always work, and the people on either side were noisy. They talked about moving. They had a little saved. Then she took over a thousand dollars out of their joint checking account the day she left. He’d been scraping by since then. He only worked part-time, driving a delivery truck, and he quit that two weeks ago to come and get her, so the apartment would be the next to go unless this lady here could give him a few bucks. She was talking again, and he hadn’t been listening.
“So, you see, we have that in common,” Freddie said.
“My daughter. Your wife. Both of them lost.”
“Well, maybe not lost, really, but – elsewhere.”
Freddie’s gray eyes were sharp and clear, and it occurred to Nate all of a sudden that she was the kind of person who probably spent her whole life acting dumber than she really was. Her manner was unpretentious, plain, and direct, but there was something in those eyes that brought him up short. As if she were seeing deep inside of him, and knew all the good and bad things he’d ever done. He told himself to take it easy, that she was just some woman who’d invited him in for coffee.
“So, you’ll just have to find her,” Freddie said.
“Your wife. Go out and find her.”
“I told you I’ve been looking.”
“But have you been looking in the right places? You tried her brother. You’ve been cruising the neighborhood. What about the mosque?”
Nate hadn’t considered that there might be a mosque in Sioux Falls, although there was at least one in Omaha. He felt like a fool under her gaze, though he was also sure that Freddie wasn’t being unkind, only practical.
“You know whereabouts I could find it?” he asked.
“No. But you’ll track it down. Now, how do you plan to handle the situation when you meet up with her again?”
“I’m going to tell her to get her bony ass back home.”
Freddie smiled. She stood up. Nate stood, too.
“Where are you staying?” Freddie asked
“Try the Motel Six on Jasper. The manager used to work with my husband.”
“What was he?”
Nate stood up a little taller.
“Then a private investigator, once he retired,” Freddie said.
“Sounds like a handy guy to have around.”
Freddie paused. A look of intense sadness swept over her.
“In fact, one of his passions was looking for missing people,” she said.
“A mentally retarded man wandered away from the mall one morning, and was never heard from again. Ken – my husband – went over every square inch of prairie for miles and miles. There was no trace. Nothing.”
That episode had been particularly painful for Ken, and made him drink even more for a little while. His fondness for whiskey almost got him kicked off the force several times. His inattention at work was one thing, but at home, it was worse. He once left his service revolver, loaded and unlocked on the coffee table and staggered off to bed after being in a bar for hours when his shift ended. Freddie found Beth playing with it, and almost lost her mind.
Freddie said nothing of that to Nate. She made her way to her front door. Nate followed. She stood a moment with him on the porch. It was time to pot her geraniums for the summer, she thought. Ken had always appreciated having color out front, though he found her taste in other things questionable.
“I didn’t catch your name,” Nate said.
“I’m sorry. Freddie. Short for Fredrika.”
“Swedish. My grandfather.”
Nate nodded. He agreed to return the following day, knowing he wouldn’t. If Freddie knew it, too, she didn’t let on.
Nate drove through Freddie’s neighborhood, feeling lost. He could find his wife easily enough. She wasn’t living with the brother, he was sure of that. He’d hung around enough to have seen her, if she were. All he had to do was get a hold of their card activity, see where she was spending money on a recurring basis – a grocery store, maybe, or a pharmacy – and get over there and wait. Instead he’d stayed on those dull, quiet streets, to think things out. He always ended in the same place. Who was she to walk out on their five years just like that? Didn’t she understand what a commitment was? She hadn’t been a good wife. She deplored housework. She seldom held a job. He was the one who brought in the money and kept things going. He’d fallen in love with her because she was beautiful and fiery, and he might love her still, though if the doubt of that was now in his mind, it might have been in his heart long before.
He was forty-two years old. His wife said he was a dreamer, entertaining fantasies instead of facing the harsh truth life never failed to serve up. Her comments were ironic, given the relative privilege she came from. Her father owned a successful grocery store. Her mother was the town beauty. Her older brother adored her. Nate, on the other hand, had been raised by a single mother whose words were often critical. He met his wife in college. She was in her last year; he was a freshman. She got pregnant, he dropped out of school and got a job, she graduated, they married, she lost the baby. She didn’t want to try again. Her degree in Anthropology wasn’t good for much. She held a number of different positions in nail salons, dog kennels, a dry cleaner or two, even the public library, where she’d helped people look things up on the Internet. She was an intelligent woman, a fast learner. One day a Muslim woman came into the library. Her clothes fascinated his wife. You’d never have to figure out what to wear in the morning. Think how freeing that would be, she said. There was a new light in her eyes. He thought little of it. Then she showed up in a black dress, her head covered, and said she was studying with the imam at the mosque. Nate couldn’t believe it. Not long after that she said, I go into a wider country than you will ever know.