Saturday, May 8, 2010
“Excuse me, do you work here?” the young woman with a toddler slung on one hip inquired as Jane opened the door to the waiting room to check for her Thursday, three o’clock client. It was 3:20.
“I do. Can I help you with something?” She sized up the woman—practically a child herself, undernourished physically (and no doubt emotionally) she surmised. Her limp, sand-blond hair was pulled back in a frayed-out cloth scrunchie. She wore faded jeans and a tee shirt that showed a pale stretch of belly. No make-up, no jewelry. Attractive in a ghostly sort of way.
“My therapist seems to have forgotten me...”
My client seems to have forgotten me. It’s a perfect match; come on in, Jane thought with an internal smile. “Who are you here to see?” she asked instead.
“Wendy. I mean, I could be wrong about the day, or the time, or something,” she apologized hastily, as if she were used to things being her fault.
The large-eyed toddler clung to her mother like a Rhesus monkey as she considered Jane suspiciously under eyelashes that were to die for.
“That just isn’t like Wendy. She’s as predictable as the geysers,” Jane said, glancing at her watch.
The young woman tried for a smile and failed. She looked at Wendy’s closed office door, then back at Jane.
“Would you like to leave her a note? I’ll put it in her mailbox for you,” Jane offered. “I’m sure there’s an explanation.”
The woman sat the child on the floor near her feet, searched through her bag to find paper and a pen. She scrawled a quick note, added her phone number and handed it to Jane.
“Thanks. I hope she’s okay,” she said as she gathered up the toddler, tossed her bag over her shoulder, and left through the front door.
Odd, Jane pondered, before turning to the back office where she left the note in Wendy’s mailbox. The young woman and toddler were quickly forgotten in her attempt to track down her own client who was a “no show” for the second time in a row.
“This is getting old,” she muttered to herself as the phone on the other end rang repeatedly.
At seven o’clock, Jane clicked off the Tiffany lamp, locked the door to her office and made a mental note to call Wendy. As she locked the deadbolt to the back door of the office suite, she noted the empty parking lot at the rear of the building where Wendy usually parked her Wrangler. Maybe it’s the flu, she reasoned. There’s a lot of that going around.
Jane ambled down the driveway to the front of the building and keyed the bike lock freeing her ancient Schwinn that was chained to the sign post. She secured her bag in the metal basket with a bungee cord she found in the middle of the street at the beginning of summer.
Natalie had just turned the Closed sign on the chiropractic office next door, and stepped out onto the stoop.
“Where’s you helmet?” she admonished.
“Haven’t found one yet,” Jane answered.
“Got a wing in the hospital with your name on it, girl,” Natalie called. It was a conversation they had several times a week.
“You didn’t happen to see Wendy pull in today by any chance?” Jane asked.
“Do I look like a parking monitor?” Natalie chuckled. “Why?”
“Oh, probably nothing,” Jane said. She waved as she pedaled off down the street, faster than a speeding turtle, Natalie’s favorite description.
The sun was low, but the warmth lingered. The scent of Jasmine hung thickly and mixed with dinner smells drifting from neighborhood houses. Her stomach rumbled as the scent of fried chicken wafted on the air, followed by pizza two houses later. The breeze played with her hair and she grinned with pleasure.
At home in her tiny California bungalow, Jane made wonderful dinner smells of her own. As the broccoli steamed, she sliced and heated some chicken, and forked a mound of pickled beets from a jar. She booted up her computer and opened a chilled bottle of Chardonnay. While the messages tumbled into her In Box, she typed a quick e-mail to her office mate.
Hey, Wendy, where were you today? Cute little thing was looking for you. Okay, so she was a client. You all right? Send.
Twenty messages—good God, she thought, as she closed down her computer. Jane poured herself a glass of wine, arranged the colorful food on her favorite hand-thrown pottery plate, grabbed a napkin and settled herself in front of the television. With the remote, she clicked on the Independent Film Channel. “Now this is life,” she grinned at Harley, her Tetra, who signaled his love and devotion by circling his bowl and blowing little fish bubbles at her.
Half way through Fargo the phone rang. Okay, so she’d seen the movie three times before, but still... She opted to let the machine pick up, but turned the TV volume down a notch to screen the call. Connie, who worked alternate days from Jane’s schedule, was on the line.
“Jane, if you’re there pick up. Put down your wine glass, turn off the television and answer your phone...” She was obviously going to wait her out.
“Damn,” Jane muttered, blotting chicken grease from the corner of her mouth. She wadded up the napkin and tossed it on her plate.
“Why don’t I get an evening of peace and quiet like a normal person?” she grumbled into the receiver.
“You’ve never been a normal person,” Connie bantered. “Where’s Wendy?” she cut to the chase.
“I am not my sister’s keeper,” Jane quipped, “but, funny you should ask. She missed a client hour today. Have you seen her?”
“Nope. She wasn’t around yesterday and didn’t return my phone call or my e-mail. That’s just not like her. Did she say anything about going out of town?”
“No. I usually cover for her. Maybe I’ll drop by her house on my way to the office in the morning,” Jane said.
“Tell her rent’s due at the office when you find her, okay?”
“Gee, how compassionate. Aren’t you a little worried about her?”
“I’m worried about the rent at the moment,” Connie said.
They hung up and Jane returned to the movie but couldn’t keep her mind on it. It was as if mental mice were skittering around in her brain. She had an unsettling feeling she couldn’t quite name.
“Mice do that to me,” she said to Harley. He smacked his little fish lips at her in understanding.
Wendy’s condo was ten blocks out of Jane’s way, farther by bike than by car, she figured as she puffed and panted her way up to the carport. It was empty. She chained her Schwinn to a metal post and walked up the front steps, glancing over her shoulder for neighbors who might be up and out at this hour of morning.
Five plastic-wrapped Tribunes lay at odd angles on the small porch, surrounding a potted Begonia that seemed to be suffering heat stroke. The Venetian blinds were down but not drawn shut, and Jane peered through the slats into the dark living room. On an end table near the door, a green light blinked spasmodically on the answering machine.
Without much hope, Jane pounded on the metal door frame. She lifted the lid of the mailbox next to the door and peeked in. Scrawled in spidery writing was a note on a recipe card: Wendy, I’ve got your mail. Call me when you get back. Bertha
Apparently this was the kind of neighborhood where people watched out for each other. Now, which condo belongs to Bertha, Jane wondered. She guessed Bertha didn’t know much about Begonias, and spotting the hose coiled like a dead snake under the window next to the house, Jane took the bedraggled plant back down the steps for a good soak.
Preoccupied with the plant, she didn’t notice the man approach her until his shadow fell over her like an eclipse of the sun. She turned with a start and flinched as if she’d been struck. He was huge. Eight feet at least, Jane figured, before she realized she was squatting on the ground.
“Who are you?” he boomed. The man was dressed in overalls with no shirt, and was barefooted. Copper red hair clung to his large skull in dreadlocks.
She got to her feet, the Begonia in her arms; bogish water sloshed down the front of her blouse and seeped down one pants leg.
Gathering her wits, she looked up at the giant, and said, “My name is Jane. I work with Wendy, the woman who lives here. And you would be?” The quiver in her voice belied her bravado.
“I would be wanting to change my clothes, if I were you,” he grinned, his face changing from predatory giant to overgrown imp.
Jane blushed, set the plant down and brushed at the debris that clung to the white cotton.
“Call me Bertha,” he said, extending a beefy hand. Jane’s eyes widened. They pumped hands for a moment, then he said, “She’s been gone since Saturday. Not like her.”
“No, it isn’t,” Jane agreed. “She’s been missing at the office. I thought maybe she was home with the flu or something.”
They exchanged phone numbers and promises to call if either of them heard from Wendy.
“Nice to meet you,” Jane called as she hopped on her bike. Bertha flashed a peace sign. “Live well, die with honor,” he shouted after her.
Strange, Wendy had never mentioned this neighbor to her, Jane thought. She wondered what else she might not know about Wendy’s life.
Being a Virgo had its advantages. There was a change of clothes in the closet at her office, a back-up for the unpredictable weather in the North Bay area. Jane ran a comb through her hair and sat down at her desk to check for messages. She pushed the Play button.
This is Deputy Sheriff Costa calling regarding a Wendy Philson. We have her listed as a missing person. I understand you have a business relationship with her. Please call at your earliest convenience.
Jane jotted down his number and collected the rest of her calls.
Missing person? She’d never known a missing person before. People in her life didn’t do that--didn’t just go missing. The hairs on the back of her neck prickled. She expected a voice-over to say, “You are now entering the Twilight Zone.”
She gave a little shiver and checked the clock. Four clients in a row. She’d have to return the call to Deputy Costa later.
“Have a good weekend,” she called to her last client as he walked down the hall. The young man stopped dead in his tracks, his head swiveled slowly to regard Jane. A look of agitation twisted his face.
“Oh, no, Adam, that wasn’t an order—just a wish. You know, like I hope you have a good weekend.”
A slight smile smoothed the wrinkles between his eyebrows before he turned to step through the door.
Jane let out a slow sigh and shook her head. Back at her desk she dialed Deputy Costa.
“Is there anything you can tell us about your office mate that will help us locate her?” he inquired. “Like a phone number for the family?”
“Uh—well, no, actually. I’m not sure where her family lives. I’m not even sure she has a family,” Jane stuttered.
“Any pets that might be boarded with a vet or anything?” he tried again.
“Gosh, I really don’t know if she has pets. I’ve never been in her house. I’ve only looked in her window.” Oh, brilliant, Jane thought.
“Friends she may have checked in with?” he asked.
“I’m not sure who her friends are, come to think of it.” She was feeling increasingly uneasy.
“You really don’t know much about your office mate, do you?” Deputy Costa said matter-of-factly.
“Sorry,” Jane said. “Will you let us know if you find her?”
Jane hung up the phone, sat back in her chair, and thought about how their group had formed. Connie, Megan, Patrice, and Jane had known each other in graduate school. They’d all gotten licensed within a year of one another and banned together to face the competitive world of private practice. Wendy was the last to join their group a year ago. She came highly recommended by someone, although at the moment, Jane couldn’t remember who. They said hello when they passed in the hallway, and they’d sat in business meetings together, twice. “Hmmm, I guess I really don’t know her,” Jane said aloud.
E-mails flew back and forth through cyberspace that night as the four therapists processed this turn of events. What was their duty to Wendy’s clients, if any? If she doesn’t return, what happens to her client files? Her furniture? When do we re-lease the office? What about the mail and the bills piling up? Should we change her out-going message?
Strangely unsettled by the recent events, Jane stayed close to home over the weekend, puttered in the garden, cleaned out a closet, baked a quiche—did all those grounding activities that helped her feel in control of her own small reality.
The following Monday, she hitched her bike to the sign post in front of the office, walked through the front door into the waiting room, and noticed Wendy’s office door ajar at the end of the hall.
Jane froze. “Burglar,” she whispered to the empty waiting room. In a panic, she backed out of the office, and inched her way down the front steps. She crept down the driveway, keeping a low profile under the windows on the East side of the building, and peered around the corner into the lot where Wendy’s silver Wrangler was parked in the shade.
“Oh, my god, she’s back!” Jane hollered. She jammed her key into the back door deadbolt and bounded through the mail room into the main hallway. The light shone through Wendy’s open door.
Jane, giddy with relief, rushed into the office. Grinning like a kid at Christmas, she said, “Wendy, you’re alive! You’re here! I’m so glad.”
“Wow,” Wendy said with a smile. “What did I do to deserve a welcome like this?” She looked up from her chair and studied Jane a moment. Something’s off, she thought to herself. Jane seems a little manic, possibly high on something, not like her usual sedate self.
“You’re kidding, right?” Jane bubbled. “Where on earth have you been? We’ve all been sick with worry. Your clients didn’t know what had happened to you. We didn’t know if you were coming back or...” she bubbled on until she noticed confusion plastered all over Wendy’s face.
“Uh, Jane—what are you talking about?” Wendy kept her voice even as she rose from her chair. She approached Jane cautiously, tried to maintain soothing eye contact like you might an injured animal. She’d never seen her like this.
“Oh, come on, Wendy,” Jane stared at her. “Where the hell have you been for the last week? Bertha didn’t even know where you were.”
“Who on earth is Bertha?” Wendy asked, trying to get a read on what was happening.
“Bertha—your giant neighbor,” Jane said, exasperated. “Your clients were calling and we didn’t know what to tell them. The Sheriff showed up looking for you...”
There was a tap on the door just then. Jane spun around to see Connie step through the doorway.
“Connie, thank god,” Jane said, her voice thick with desperation. “Look—she’s back,” she pointed wildly at Wendy.
“Were you gone?” Connie smiled at Wendy.
“Jane seems to think so,” Wendy answered.
Jane turned from one woman to the next and back again. “The rent, Connie. You said you were worried about the rent since Wendy was no where to be found. You remember that, right?” she pleaded. Jane’s eyes had taken on a wild, unfocused look. Her hands trembled.
“I banked Wendy’s check along with all of ours on Monday and mailed the rent Tuesday. What’s going on, Jane?” Connie glanced at Wendy who shrugged.
Jane’s knees buckled. The room swam and from somewhere far off, she heard a voice-over saying, “You have just visited the Twilight Zone.”
* Speaking of Gone, I'll be away from my computer next week, but I invite you to browse through my friend Nancy's blog. She just posted a wonderful piece on past lives. http://open.salon.com/blog/reluctant_earthling I think you'll enjoy it.