by Michael Beres
Despite his fears, there were no protests and no more rocks through his window. And although Monique Johnson was not found, within a month the news stories dwindled with the result that he and Mr. and Mrs. Johnson were allowed to return to their private worlds. Even though he had never spoken to the Johnsons, Archie felt a kinship with them in that he wished upon himself at least a small portion of the suffering partially brought on by his inability to think and act more quickly that September morning. And, although the situation was totally different, he even likened Rhonda's departure on bad terms earlier in the year to a kind of kidnapping. Rhonda taken away from him because of a lousy cat who decides to have a squeaky little munchy for breakfast. Rhonda never to be there again to keep him warm on cool evenings or cool on sultry mornings because of the death of a baby rabbit.
The calls from the police had become less frequent, and even his coworkers has ceased asking kidnapping-related questions, some of which had been cloaked in requests for the status of his well-being. At last he began to feel that the incident was complete, far enough in the past to no longer preoccupy the better part of his waking hours or disturb his sleep with dreams of the large blue car and the grotesque faces of its occupants.
He even flew out to the coast to attend his niece's First Communion. The only mention of the kidnapping during the visit was his brother's supposedly wry comment concerning the fact that he had not, as in the past at such family gatherings, brought along his video camera to record, "this rite of passage in which two-thousand-year-old human flesh is devoured by innocent children." This last statement had been whispered by his brother in the Bela Lugosi accent he had employed since they were kids. His brother's ghoulish sense of humor succeeded in cheering Archie, helping him to forget. But during a drunken discussion sitting at his brother's finished basement bar, Archie vaguely remembered bringing up the kidnapping himself, finishing off a meaningless drunken harangue with a slurred, "FFuckin' vid-yoes anyhow!" The statement seemed totally out of context and made no sense now, but Archie felt that it had been the turning point, the moment he finally put his guilt about the kidnapping behind him.
Each morning, during that long winter, when Archie went out to get the newspaper, he recalled the morning of the kidnapping. But each morning the recollection was a bit less detailed, a bit briefer. Time was passing, putting the event into that bottomless archive called the distant past. Some mornings, while passing the chair where he kept his keys and wallet and portable computer, he even failed to recall the image of Rubenesque Rhonda reclining there.
As the weather warmed with spring's approach, the rolled-up newspaper in its plastic baggy acted like the mercury in a thermometer, lying a bit farther out away from the porch as if measuring the temperature along the length of the sidewalk. Although he had begun dressing for work before retrieving the paper shortly after the kidnapping, he was now back to his habit of going out in his robe and slippers so he would have the paper to keep him company at the table while he drank his first cup of coffee.
On a particularly warm sunny morning in early March, Archie stepped out on the front porch and laughed aloud when he saw that the newspaper was all the way out at the curb. Perhaps by summer he'd have to cross the street to get it, or perhaps the newspaper destined for the folks across the street would end up here and he'd take that paper thinking it was his.
He cinched up his robe and whistled while he walked out for the paper. Down the block in the direction of the rising sun a jogger was coming toward him. Initially, because of the sun's glare, he could not tell if the jogger was man or woman. But as the figure neared with its fleshy slap of cushioned rubber on asphalt, he saw, first by the shape of the hips, then by the hair and breasts, that it was a young woman, and an attractive young woman at that.
Archie's momentary sexual attraction for the woman would have remained momentary had it not been for a series unusual circumstances which occurred at the exact moment of her approach. First, unbeknownst to him, the neighbor's cat had followed and attracted the attention of the young woman, an obvious cat lover by the way she oohed and aahed. Next, the cat sidled up to him and began rubbing its slick black flank against his bare legs as the woman stooped to pet it. Finally, the woman smiled up toward him, panting, perspiration breaking out on her face, while his right hand clutched the flimsy neck of the plastic newspaper bag that suddenly reminded him of a spent condom.
His awareness of cool morning air invading the private space beneath his short robe, along with the nearness of the woman's reddened face so close to the separation of the robe somewhere below the cinched belt, was acute. She touched the cat with one hand while straightening reddish-brown wet tendrils of hair at her temples with her other hand. When the cat purred, she purred. When she began petting the cat vigorously, the cat leaned its flank into him and even crept between his legs where she resumed petting it. And, being that it was a large cat, the sensations from the satisfaction of being petted triggered neurons near his knees and even above the knees when the beast arched its back seductively.
As the woman commented upon the size of the cat and its sleekness and the glossiness of its black fur and the beauty of the morning, he could only gurgle. She stood and asked if the cat belonged to him. Another gurgle. Finally, after staring at him for a few seconds with a puzzled look on her face, the woman ran on, leaving him feeling like a foolish child in desperate need of mothering. When he turned to look for the cat, ready to defend himself with the newspaper, it was nowhere to be seen and he hurried inside feeling old and weary.
For several mornings after that, he looked up and down the street to make sure no one--especially the young woman--was approaching. Only then did he run out to get the paper and run back inside. While doing this he felt great sexual urges and fantasized that he'd thrown aside his robe that morning and run after the young woman. He was, after all, not an old man, but a young man with a beast lurking inside, and the image of the woman stooping red-faced near his crotch was not an image to be taken lightly.
One morning the following week, when the image of the woman had begun to fade ever-so-slightly, Detective Martinez made a surprise visit before Archie left for work. The big surprise of the visit was when Martinez presented a photograph of the woman jogger. In the photograph the woman was not red-faced, not perspiring, not in her running tights. It looked like a class picture, the woman somewhat younger, all made up and wearing a prim white blouse. When Martinez asked if he had ever seen the woman before, the morning of the meeting came back in a rush, along with the phrase "run-ins with the law," and Archie could only gurgle.
After several hours of questioning at police headquarters, Archie was shown the video tape that had caused him to be a suspect in the case of a young woman who had recently disappeared while out jogging two mornings earlier. The video was taken the previous week, the clever cinematographer obviously one of Archie's neighbors in the condo across the street.
The video showed a shapely young woman in tights stroking a black cat that seemed to be trying to wrap its furry flank about the legs of a demented flasher wearing only a robe and slippers. The flasher's hair was in disarray and he had an insane look on his face, especially when the telephoto lens zoomed in on him. When the woman stood, apparently speaking, the flasher mouthed something, licking his lips and leering. When the woman ran away suddenly, the man stood staring after her, holding a plastic-wrapped newspaper tightly to his groin. The telephoto zoomed in on this detail so that the man's knuckles could be seen to have gone white with the tightness of his grip on the tube of the newspaper. Finally, the demented man in the blue robe turned violently and hobbled rapidly toward his door, doing a poor imitation of the Hunchback of Notre Dame.
After spending a day at police headquarters, Archie did not want to leave home. He called in sick at work, telling his boss he did not think he would be in at all that week. He kept the front drapes closed and did not answer the phone, not even when his brother called from the coast leaving a Bela Lugosi impression on the answering machine. He allowed the newspapers to pile up on the front walk, alternately sleeping and watching videos of old movies he had taped from television over the years. On the weekend he switched off the VCR and watched television for news of the disappeared jogger and heard reporters say that the police had a suspect but refused to give any information for fear that it might jeopardize their case.
The following Monday he listened as his boss recorded a message on the answering machine, something to the effect that she hoped Archie was all right and that she would appreciate a call. Soon after that, Martinez arrived.
"I've spoken with your brother. He's worried about you and asked if I would stop by to see if you're all right."
"I know it's been hard on you, Archie. But it would help if you would talk. Whether you did anything or not, talking is the best medicine."
"Yes, it is. I've been talking to everyone I can about the situation, trying to clear things up for you."
"I even spoke with your ex-girlfriend, Rhonda Williamson."
Rhonda, so warm and cuddly. Rhonda, so Rubenesque sitting in that chair instead of Martinez sitting there frowning at the mess in the living room. The place always so neat when Rhonda was here. Rhonda, so huggable, and now she's lost to him because a lousy cat decides to carry off a baby rabbit--but it was a cute little baby rabbit, cuter than Audie Murphy, and its being chewed on was so sad to Rhonda, especially when it squeaked. Hell, that'd make anybody cry, even him.
"Hey, take it easy, Archie. It isn't so bad. No need to go on like this. Here, blow your nose. There. Better now?"
"Wha--what did Rhonda say?"
"Not too much. Here. Sit here. Can I get you something? Coffee? Maybe something stronger?"
Martinez stooped before him, hands on his knees, sad old look on his face like he wanted to be hugged again. The sad old Martinez face and the sad old Martinez padded shoulder and the cheap detective sport coat spotted with tears made Archie even sadder.
"What did Rhonda say?"
"I'll be honest with you, Archie. There was one thing she said that makes things just a little murky."
He looked up into Martinez's fatherly watery dark brown Sergeant York eyes. "What?"
"She said when she lived here you never used to go outside in your robe."
Despite pleas from his brother and Martinez and his attorney, Archie remained cooped up in his condo like a character in Stalag 17. He even emptied the kitchen cupboard next to the dishwasher to see if there was a trap door out the bottom, but ended up using the cupboard as a hiding place instead. When the phone rang or someone came to the door, he would turn on the dishwasher to drown out the sound and curl up inside. Sometimes, for the fun of it, he would imagine that the neighbor's Nazi cat was in the washer getting the ride of its life.
During one of these escapes within the cupboard, the door opened and Martinez stooped down to stare inside while reaching out his hand. The news was good, Martinez insisted, after he'd finally gotten Archie out and propped up in a kitchen chair. The jogger had been found.
"She's a runaway, Arch. Says her husband was abusing her and she had to get out. Says she didn't want anyone to get hurt. Now you can go on with your life, Arch. Isn't that great!"
The place is called a farm. It's named after one of the state's mental health pioneers, or so he's told. It's the greatest hiding place of all. He doesn't have to do anything if he doesn't want to. They feed him and it's damn comfortable. Got his own television and they even let him bring his VCR here. Doc Myers says it's good for him.
He's just watched his favorite video, the one Doc Myers says is the secret to success, whatever that means. It wasn't rented at the Video Kitty, and it's not the video he should have taken of Rhonda reclining nude in the chair by his front door, and it's not the video he failed to take at the going-away party at work the day of the kidnapping of Monique Johnson, and it's not the video he failed to get of the kidnapping, and it's not the video he failed to get of whoever or whatever threw the rock through his front window, and it's not the video his neighbor across the street took of him and the jogger and the cat, and it's not an old movie taped from television. This video was made by Doc Myers and the ward staff especially for his therapy. The video has four distinct scenes:
That great guy Martinez coming up the sidewalk, picking up the morning paper on his way in, smiling and waving toward the front window where the drapes are open and a camera is set up on a tripod.
The reborn young woman in her tight tights running past and waving to the camera. That smile on her face so full of relief. Each time he sees it, the wonderful story of how she and her husband are reconciled and how the husband has sought emotional help for his past abusive tendencies comes out all over again.
The whole family standing arm-in-arm in front of the bar in his brother's basement recreation room, the bunch of them swaying side-to-side singing happy birthday to Archie as his brother plays chorus director, his brother glancing back to the camera, holding up an imaginary Bela Lugosi cape and winking at him during the final verse.
The drapes on his front window are parted so he can see the lens of his video camera poking through. Police car and a van pull up. Van's got the name of the mental health pioneer emblazoned on its flank. Newspapers faded within their condoms are piled up on the front stoop where a friendly neighbor has gathered them. Detective Martinez leads the way--no white coats on the three that follow, just plain old shirt sleeves. Martinez knocks, then stands with his hands clasped over his crotch as he looks down forlornly. Off to the side, appearing as a shadow almost beyond the camera's reach, the neighbor's cat has paused to glance toward the camera just before darting, hunched-backed into the bushes for baby rabbits.
When Archie discusses the video with Doc Myers, he never mentions the cat and is not certain if Doc Myers has ever even noticed it. The shadowy cat is his secret, his special hiding place here at the farm. A place he can escape to even when his brother or Rhonda or Monique Johnson's parents come to visit. Doc Myers keeps reminding him how great it is that Monique's parents have gone out of their way to assure him that he is not to blame for their daughter's disappearance with the kamikaze pilot and the pony-tailed John Wayne character in the blue car that morning so long ago.
"Monique's mom and dad don't blame you for anything," Doc Myers keeps repeating.
In answer to this statement, Archie--clever as cat who knows he's got it as good as any cat on a chicken farm where they throw away the heads -always lowers his own head, shaking it from side to side and drooling.