The MacGuffin Winter 2013
The chair was still warm. She lingered in this recently vacated office, fingertips brushing objects on the heavy oak desk: the gray-blond woman’s Rolodex, her nameplate, her red ceramic cup, a small amount of cold, black liquid in the bottom. Brina lifted it reverently, finding the dark, bronze lipstick print on the rim, placing her own lips there, relishing a bitter swallow. She knelt at the chair, the warmth of the presence that had filled it seconds ago slowly ebbing away between fingers unable to hold onto this moment.
The doorknob rattled, and she jerked to her feet, snatching up the water pail, searching the dim room. Just as the gray-blond woman reentered her office, Brina remembered the potted dracaena atop the filing cabinet and turned her back to the door, tilting the spout into the white and green-speckled leaves.
There was a sharp little intake of breath as the woman spotted her, then a slower exhale as she read the logo on the back of Brina’s green blazer: Kipfer Nursery—The Plant Pros! “Oh—you startled me,” the woman said with a little laugh, striding to her desk on white pumps and sliding a drawer open.
Brina turned silently to the philodendron that sprawled across the top of the bookcase, her pale face averted behind limp, black hair, working slowly, waiting for the woman to go away.
There was a tinkle of car keys and the drawer slid shut. At the door, the woman hesitated. “You don’t have to work in the dark, you know,” she said, flipping the light switch. Florescents buzzed to life, filling the small office with wintery light. Brina made no reply, and the woman clicked away, her long beige coat swirling around her.
Brina worked best in the dark. The moment she was alone again, she turned off the lights, welcoming back the shadows thrown by the scant late afternoon sunlight filtering through the blinds. Out in the hall, employees of Nebraska BioChem were telling each other have a nice night, see you tomorrow, shrugging into coats, turning off more lights. A little tingle chased through her. Soon they’d all be gone. All their jarring voices, their thundering footsteps, their awful, suffocating presence…all of it blessedly gone.
She turned back to the woman’s desk—and the small wastebasket beneath it. Sometimes she found what she needed in their desks, sometimes it was in their coat pockets. But the first place she always looked was in their trash. Glancing over her shoulder, making sure the door obscured her, Brina set the pail on the floor and slipped her hands into the wastebasket. Here was a store receipt proclaiming the woman’s MasterCard number. She crumpled it and dropped it back in. Dead Kleenex, gum wrappers, an office memo. Close now. Brina worked patiently, knowing it would reveal itself to her. Finally her hand, submerged in trash, brushed against it, came back, seized it.
The gloom of the deserted office barely revealed the single, cheap chenille glove Brina lifted from the garbage, its mate perhaps lost elsewhere in the day, alone rendered useless. It was pink, dingy, with a hole worn through one finger. Brina slid it onto her hand, feeling the slow tingle move up her arm. She wiggled the fingers, and bright ornaments of color glimmered in the deep cave of her mind.
The halls were nearly bereft of life now.
No one knew that her eyes were a pale, milky blue; no one knew her name. No one noticed a rag of a girl in a green jacket lingering around a corner, or just beyond a doorway, near the close of the day. Waiting for the people to go away. Alone in the deserted hall, the bucket hanging from her hand, the glove tucked in her pocket, Brina closed her eyes and drank of the silent stream of voices and hurrying steps. All those lives, surging, converging, hurrying away again, leaving little eddies of themselves, passing through her like a dying breath.
Outside, the streets of Lincoln were treacherous, lined with snow heaps, filled with people hurrying home intent on escaping the ice and gray of February. But here within these silent walls, their essence lingered, and it was for this that Brina donned her stolen jacket, hoisted her props, and haunted Nebraska BioChem’s empty halls by night.
Inside N.B.C., she drifted down the dim corridor and through a large meeting room, touching the backs of chairs, hearing the murmur and rustle of those who had filled them earlier today. The man who’d sat at the table’s head had kind, gray eyes. Brina had watched him many times from the narrow window in the door. Today she’d followed him after the meeting. When he stepped into the men’s restroom, she’d paused to carefully water the potted rubber tree nearby. As he opened the door again, he’d glanced in her direction, but she was already fading down the hall, like an unfinished thought he barely registered.
Now, a quiet click echoed as she tried his office door and found it unlocked. With a quick glance up and down the hall, she went inside, carrying her water pail, and shut herself in.
The darkness was now complete. Brina allowed her hands to guide her to whatever the man had left for her this time. Her fingertips brushed the bottom of the wastebasket; it had been dumped. She felt for the corner of his desk, pulled open the top left drawer, feeling the objects within. What she needed was not here. She closed the top drawer and opened the next. Magazines. Paperclips. A crumpled pack of cigarettes. Then, her fingers glided over something round and smooth. It was a small, cheap mirror in a circular plastic frame. Her hand curled around the treasure, held it up to her face in the dark, a reflection of nothing, and it was right that the last thing captured within its frame had been a pair of gentle gray eyes. She held the small mirror against her neck, over the pulse for a moment before slipping it into her pocket next to the pink glove.
Gray-eyed man and gray-blond woman knew each other by sight, not by name. Nebraska BioChem was a big place. Many of their discarded possessions, however, were well-acquainted.
The sky was choked with snow, and the only indication that night had become day again was the steady crawl of motorists honking and skidding their way to work. It was Wednesday, and Brina was leaving N.B.C. with her tools and treasures bundled into her knapsack. Most nights were reserved for Nebraska BioChem. Tonight, however, she would pull her thin jacket around her, and maybe one of the blankets she slept under, and make her way to Glad Tidings Community Church.
Brina had often crept in to listen to the young minister from just inside the vestibule Wednesday evenings or Sunday mornings, letting his gentle, humorous sermons carry her away for pleasant stretches of time. Of the collections slowly growing around the place where she slept, his was by far the largest. But the place at Brina’s feet was cold and empty, still waiting to be filled.
The sermon was drawing to a close. Earlier, the young minister had called all of the children to the front of the church to tell them a story of his own making, delighting both the little ones and the adults. The children loved him and he loved them; she’d felt their radiance from the back of the church where she hid. Now, the congregation was rising for the final hymn. Brina backed into a room leading off the vestibule, hands clamped over both ears, breath coming in shallow gasps and snorts. Their voices, the piano and guitar, the ebb and flow of their breath, crushed her flat to the wall. All those people—their very presence was an iceburg plowing her under.
The congregation was filing out. Everyone stopped to share words with the minister, who looked like an angel, too good to be of this earth. She watched in shadow as his handsome face shone like a star, giving light and love to all who passed. As the church gradually emptied, Brina’s breath came easily again. The pressure diminished and then was gone, leaving behind the suggestion of people.
Last to leave was a new family: a young, dark-skinned couple leading their little round-faced boy. As they passed close by, the little boy turned his head, and his big brown eyes widened in curiosity. Brina drew back, her breath catching in her chest. The little boy raised a tentative mittened hand to her, and the doors closed behind them in a swirl of snow.
Two days later, on a cold, pale Friday evening, mountains of snow heaped ’round the light poles blushed tangerine in the sunset. A small congregation filed slowly and silently into Glad Tidings Community Church on this unaccustomed night. Their faces were grave, many lowered in prayer.
The young minister took his place before his people and gazed out over them, his gentle eyes swimming with grief, wondering where he was going to find words that would give them any hope or comfort. The young dark-skinned couple sat huddled in a front pew, their arms about each other, their faces desperate—only the pair of them. It had been just over twenty-four hours since their seven-year-old son had disappeared from the front yard, leaving behind one and a half snowpeople and a mitten.
She’d set out to take a single red mitten, nothing more.
The lady again. Jacob had watched her watching him without her knowing, humming tunelessly to himself and pushing with great deliberation a sizeable snowball across the yard to the corner he’d chosen. His first snowman stood here already, leaning drunkenly and surveying the goings-on with one shrewd, black-button eye. After dinner, Jacob meant to add two snow-women. They would all be arranged in a semi-circle so that he could sit in their midst and tell them his stories.
Jacob had rolled another, mid-size snowball, grunting with the effort as his short arms levered it up the side of the larger, lopsided one, and patted it crookedly into place. Soon, Mommy would call him inside. But that would mean leaving the lady by herself, out in the cold. She was still watching him from beside a stoop across the street, thinking the parked, snow-drifted cars hid her.
Out of some soft instinct, he’d slid both mittens off, turning his back to her and trudging toward the house. He stuffed one mitten into his coat pocket. The other he let fall into the snow. Instead of going inside, Jacob had strolled around the corner, angled quickly around back of the house, and crept up the other side as quietly as possible, alongside the garden shed.
The lady was now standing in the yard. She wore only a thin green jacket, and he saw that her bare hands were red and chafed. One of these raw hands now rested on his unfinished snowman. Her gaze had shifted to the mitten on the ground. She hesitated, eyeing the house and street. Finally, she took a few cautious steps, bent, reached for the mitten.
“Boo!” yelled Jacob. The lady’s pale face had snapped around in fright, and she crouched rabbit-like for flight. Helpless not to, Jacob bubbled over with laughter. Brina had stopped, the muddy waters of her mind admitting a sudden splash of golden light. He took a small step toward her, his smile open and too innocent. She saw the snowball in his little fist the instant before he fired it at her. She ducked in surprise, lost her footing, and fell right on her butt in the snow. Once again, his giggles filled the air. He stooped to scoop up more snow, winding up for the pitch, but this time Brina was ready with her own ammo. It exploded softly against his left shoulder, filling his ear with snow; he staggered, startled, before hurling his snowball, catching Brina squarely in the chest.
Brina laughed! Almost no one had ever heard this particular sound. ‘Round the skeletal lilacs, behind the garden shed they’d raced, faces pink with cold and exertion, lungs burning, pitching snowballs with complete abandon. Twilight had descended by the time they collapsed, exhausted, into the snow bank against the garden shed. Once again, his brown eyes found her pale ones. Once again, her terror threatened to erase the tentative warmth between them, but then the little boy grinned up at her, and the strangeness went away, and a sob nearly escaped her. Instead, Brina had slowly risen from the snow, turned, and held out her hand.
The minister and his people prayed long and hard. Jacob’s mother and father held one another, weeping. A terrible struggle had taken place, right outside their home, while they prepared for dinner, completely unaware. Jacob’s kidnapper had, as evidenced by the skidding tracks scoring the front and back yards, pursued him mercilessly before at last carrying him off. Dr. Phil, combined with the slosh of the washing machine in the utility room, must have drowned out his cries for help.
At the dead end of Avenue D near the railroad tracks, they had pushed aside dead fireweeds to enter by a ground-level window, the inside of the glass smeared with black paint. The middle of the cellar was dominated by a sprawl of splintered, dust-coated furniture, stacks of moldering newspapers, rusting tools, other forsaken artifacts that had never found their way to the city dump. Two ancient radiators, one against the south wall, one next to the stairs, kept the pipes above freezing, and, in this space concealed beneath sagging wood stairs, warm enough for the dense, purple tangle of plants to thrive in the glowing florescence of a tube dangling by a piece of wire.
Kneeling on the stone floor beneath the dark jungle, Jacob lifted a pink glove from the mound of possessions under the cellar stairs. Next, he examined a small wooden hairbrush with a strand of gray and one of blond caught in the bristles. He turned and fingered the broken watchband, the round, plastic mirror, handling each with instinctive reverence. Then his small hands explored the hill at the head of her bed. He knew these broken, taped reading glasses. They had once sat upon the nose of Reverend Webster, until the congregation pitched in to buy him a new pair. And here was his Bible, the one he used to read from when he gave the children’s sermon; and here, the old, frayed scarf he’d worn all last winter. More.
“Why?” asked Jacob of this white lady standing by the heater. It was the first word passed between them since Boo. Her thin, young-old face fought itself, her body rattled like bare branches in the wind. Jacob saw many of the things she could not say. He took her hand, led her back to her nest, and sat cross-legged at her feet, thus completing the circle at last. “My name’s Jacob,” he said. “What’s your name?”
They were silent a while, desperation pouring out of her eyes. Night had fallen by now, and almost a quarter-mile away, Jacob’s mother was frantically phoning the police again, while his father knocked on every neighbor’s door, and called his name again and again until he lost his voice.
On the rough canvas where she slept among her treasures, leaving no visible mark, the woman’s bony finger slowly traced five large, wobbly letters, and Jacob concentrated. Her nose had started to run, and he gently wiped it clean with his sleeve. The snot had thin strands of red in it.
“I’m a real boy,” he told her, still out of that soft instinct. “I’m not a dream, and neither’s Brina.”
Jacob had slept at her feet that night, and when Friday dawned cold and blustering, he told Brina a story about a little boy who could fly. Next came the dragon who travels the skies, controlling the weather. They delighted in their conspiracy. He told her then about a magic fox who lived under the lilacs and could talk to children. Then he told her about the monster that tunneled beneath the ground and gobbled up mean people but left the good ones.
When the people of Glad Tidings began to file solemnly out of the church that evening, they were met on the steps by little Jacob, now mittenless.
The gray-eyed man and the gray-blond woman both wondered why they were so absent-minded from time to time. She could not recall where she’d left her old nail file; he’d searched his entire office for that damned bookmark. And neither had any memory of being given the Wandering Jews that had gradually appeared, spilling over the rims of jars and coffee cans from the corners of desks, ends of bookshelves, and tops of filing cabinets. Years would go by. They would never learn one another’s names, and eventually each would retire to enjoy grandchildren and new hobbies.
Reverend Webster also wondered occasionally where all of the houseplants kept appearing from. Some kind heart from his congregation, no doubt. Just before little Jacob’s disappearance, two new plants had come to sit in his office—one hanging from the coat rack by a rusty wire, and one on the windowsill.
Before Wednesday night services, he’d sometimes glimpsed the young woman in the Kipfer Nursery jacket with her water pail. He knew of no church that had its houseplants professionally tended. Several times, he’d attempted to approach her and ask if the services came from a donor, or to thank her, or simply to invite her to stay for the evening worship. But always the girl melted like a wraith into the depths of the church, leaving him curious and somewhat unsettled.
About his disappearance, seven-year-old Jacob had remained reticent in a good-natured way that seemed far beyond his years. He was examined by both the family physician and a child psychologist, and showed zero signs of any form of trauma.
Jacob became a hefty fifth-grader at Bigelowe Elementary. Reverend Webster had never succeeded in his endeavors to catch the plant woman, although a little detective work had revealed that Kipfer Nursery had been out of business a good five years. He’d made it a habit to leave foil-wrapped cookies on the windowsill once or twice a week. Most times, they just sat and grew stale, but occasionally he would return to find them gone—in particular if he made them with molasses.
Jacob still disappeared some afternoons after school, and where he went remained a mystery. He frequently composed the children’s sermons for Reverend Webster, and eager little ones flocked to the front of the church to soak up tales of the intelligent monarch butterflies who helped Noah patch a hole in the Ark, and Jesus’s pet mouse, who happened to be a genius at carpentry. When all rose for the closing hymn, Reverend Webster saw the occasional flicker of faded green, caught the boy’s brief side glance as he sauntered through the vestibule, ahead of his mother and father.
Any theories the reverend may have held, he kept to himself.
In February, three years after she’d first found Jacob, Brina staggered and grabbed the corner of the gray-blond woman’s desk for support. She leaned there, waiting for the room to swim back into focus. It never took long.
The outflow of employees heading home for the night filled the hall outside with thunder. Over the past year, their deafening conversations, the rustle of their clothing, the squeak and thud of their soles, had grown nearly unbearable. Brina slowly raised her head. The water in her pail had gone the color of rust as she stood over it. She withdrew from her coat pocket the ancient tee-shirt she now carried with her to staunch the nosebleeds. Jacob saw many things. He must never, never see this.
On a dark, wet morning in April, the gray-eyed man turned on the lights in his office and went to the coat rack, shrugging out of his gray trench, thinking it was a good thing retirement was only a year off; he was becoming increasingly forgetful lately. Just the other day, he’d misplaced his favorite ballpoint pen, the one sporting the company logo—
He paused, arms raised, then slowly lowered the trench onto its hook before lifting the tattered green jacket from the neighboring hook. The elbows were gone, the frayed lining had come loose around the hem. He held the jacket up, trying to read the faint lettering across the back. Something Nursery, something about plants. He frowned, trying to remember if he’d seen it somewhere before.
Who in the world would leave this old rag in his office? Why? He crossed the room to the trashcan, balling the jacket up for a slam-dunk, and the sorrow that suddenly stumbled through him left him breathless. The gray-eyed man stared down at the crumpled garment in his hands, his knees gradually yielding until he sank into a chair. Cold thunder rolled, and rain hammered the roof. Slowly, he raised the jacket and bunched it around his throat, inhaling the suggestion of one who’d once worn it.
In an office several corridors removed, the gray-blond woman touched the handle of an old, dented watering pail. Beneath her fingers, the black rubber grip was worn almost completely smooth. Her hand closed slowly around it, and the momentary essence of something or someone echoed up her arm toward her heart, and her head bowed in pure, uncomplicated sorrow.
In another part of the town, as the tardy bell sounded for second period, Bigelowe school’s glass doors had barely hissed shut behind Jacob before he was racing away from the bike racks, his jet-black hair already plastered to his skin by the torrent of rain. His breath came in choked gusts as he inhaled water and squinted, pedaling blindly through the downpour, led by that soft instinct, feeling the final darkening of a tiny sun, the tumbling of a last wall.
He’d never known her age. What he did know was that in the beginning she’d looked younger than his mother. But over the past two years, Brina’s hair had become thin and dull, her already narrow frame skeletal, her skin transparent crepe paper. He sneaked her extra blankets out of the hall closet, and even a down-stuffed winter coat to wear over the old green jacket. She walked slow, in an overly cautious way, like someone groping across a dark room, but she’d continued to tend her plants, occasionally adding another treasure to the mountains of small forgotten things spilling out across the cellar floor from under the stairs. Jacob had tried many times to make her visit a doctor, and was met always with the same gentle, faraway smile.
Jacob flew across Avenue D without so much as a glance down the gloomy street where she dwelt, standing on the pedals, water fanning out from his tires. Minutes later, he skidded into the alley behind his own house, jumping off without braking, leaving his bike to wobble into a muddy rut, where it crashed onto its side. He had already torn through the lilac bushes and was splashing across the back yard when he saw the white hand on the new grass, just visible around the corner of the garden shed. The rain drummed on the corrugated plastic roof, spilling off the edge in noisy waterfalls. Rounding the corner of the old shed, he stopped, pushing his wet hair out of his eyes.
Brina lay thin and waxen on the sodden lawn, her pale eyes filling with rain. Jacob slowly knelt in the place where the two of them had fired their first snowballs, where they’d collapsed into a snow bank and found kinship in one another’s eyes. He pulled her stick-like body into his arms and cradled her like a child, the final trace of warmth ebbing away between his fingers.
He looked up into a rain-gray sky without blinking and said good-bye to a flying boy, a storm-dragon, a talking fox.
It was late afternoon, the sky tattered and gray, every surface washed clean. Reverend Webster halted just inside the door of his office. Jacob, who should have been at Little League practice this time of day, stood with his back turned, brown hands grooming the pair of gigantic Wandering Jews that had recently been hung from either end of the bookshelf. The pockets of his Sox jacket had a noticeable bulge. On the floor nearby sat a new, red watering pail. The minister watched as the boy plucked another brittle, dead leaf and absently pushed it into his pocket. As he groomed the plant, a faded plant-care sticker on one of the plastic pots gradually came into view:
med. light, let soil dry slightly between waterings
65 – 75 F
Jacob seemed to hesitate a moment, looking at the instructions. Then he picked up the red pail and began to water the plants.
The minister watched a while before saying: “Careful you don’t give them too much.”
Jacob set the bucket aside, turning around at last and reaching inside his jacket. He held out the small, battered Bible that had gone missing some three years past. His eyes were reddened but dry. “She never meant any harm.”
Reverend Webster took back his Bible, not even surprised by the faint, momentary sweetness that fled through him and was gone, leaving only an ache, and knew the task of writing the children’s sermons was once again a one-man job. “I know,” he said.