The runaway’s parents were having a homecoming party for their teenaged daughter. Linda Swinson had taken off, but she came home, and Frank knew that the Swinsons had felt obliged to invite him to the party, probably hoping he wouldn’t show up. He cruised by, seeing ribbons and balloons wrapped around porch rails, and people partying inside. If Linda was his kid, he wouldn’t throw her a shindig.
He was the county’s Senior Investigator, and had met with the parents when Linda failed to come home after a dance. He’d supervised an initial investigation, and then called in the state troopers three days later. He’d been describing his work on the case, when one of the troopers interrupted him to ask about good places to eat in town. Frank rattled on about Starkey’s Café, and made matters worse by talking about how he’d had to alter his diet and work schedule.
“I had an incident a while back,” he’d said, “but I’m on top of things now.”
It was the way the troopers shook their heads, one of them even patting him on the shoulder, and thanking him for the café recommendation, that had bothered Frank most. The troopers hadn’t even asked him about the incident he’d mentioned.
Three months earlier, he’d been driving north of Laramie to deal with a domestic squabble. He sensed that something peculiar was happening because sounds suddenly seemed exaggerated. He heard the river crashing through the valley, and saw cloudy gangs of birds rioting off, the frantic fluttering of their wings sounding so close he could’ve been hearing his own heart. He knew he’d probably missed an important turn, but couldn’t remember where he was going. He stopped the car and stared at the hills and the wind-heeled grass, then glanced at himself in the rearview mirror, expecting to see a dramatic change, but the mirror image confirmed that he looked no different, yet something had surely happened. He opened his wallet, saw his badge, license, and credit cards. He’d tried calling his office, but couldn’t remember the number. Even his ATM number and coworkers’ names had vanished from memory. When he looked out the window again, he saw a cow’s head propped on top of a guardrail, the cow’s big eyes tinseled with impossibly shiny pine needles. Frank had turned the car around, but when he glanced back, there was no sign of the cow’s head.
The doctors called it a mini-stroke, a preview of something worse coming his way if he didn’t quit smoking and working full-time. They predicted that information would come back, which happened the next day when he successfully used an ATM at a convenience store. He bought snack food, and swiped a key chain and candy bars. He’d never shoplifted before. He was fifty-five, and colleagues had left him little to do since the mini-stroke, until Linda Swinson disappeared.
It was starting to rain as he drove through town, and when he saw a coffee shop, Concoctions, he wondered why hadn’t noticed it before.
He stood near the shop, seeing a woman inside removing a yellow cake from the front window. Then she opened the door, and invited him in.
She looked to be in her forties, and wore a fancy blue dress. Paintings and posters of Paris lined the wall above an espresso machine and a display case tiered with bread and pastries, facing a series of empty tables.
“Care for a cup of coffee?” she asked.
“Sounds good. Some cake, too. Nice place you have here.”
“I opened three weeks ago. Business will pick up once I’m established.”
“I developed a sweet tooth after I gave up cigarettes,” he said, introduced himself, andlearned that her name was Cynthia Gault.
“I gained a lot of weight when I quit smoking. I went back to smoking, but the weight stayed on,” she said.
She was not a heavy woman, about five foot four, gray eyes and curly brown hair. He guessed her weight to be about one-hundred thirty. He felt odd, doing this, as if he’d be called on at some point to identify her features for someone.
“Must be interesting, having a place like this,” he told her.
“I always wanted to run my own business. I love baking at night,” she said, her head lowered, as if disclosing an intimacy.
“I used to work a night shift. Thought I’d never get used to it, but I did,” he said, hoping that she might ask him questions about his work, but she busied herself by putting the cake away, and wiping the counter. “Well, I should be going.”
He looked up Concoctions in the phone book at home, the ad listing catering services—cakes and pastries delivered to special events—and in costume, on request. He felt titillated and afraid at the image of her showing up in a costume at strangers’ houses.
He returned to Concoctions the next day after work, its window decorated with Halloween designs. He felt a dent of pity at the lack of customers. Cynthia was behind the counter, working on a pumpkin pie. “I’m glad you’re here. I need an expert opinion. What do you think?” she asked, turning the pie on its pedestal.
“Pretty,” he said, which applied to the way she looked, her hair pulled back, her face flushed and ruddy.
She surprised him by inviting him to dinner. She was giving him the directions to her apartment complex, when he told her he was the Senior Investigator for the county, and knew the territory. She smiled and told him they’d have a lot to talk about at dinner.
“I’m really looking forward to it,” she said, and then a man entered, decked out in expensive-looking hunting clothing.
“Howdy,” the man said to Frank and Cynthia. He rubbed his hands, and announced that it was cold outside, as if reporting major news.
Frank nodded, then left the shop, glancing back to see Cynthia filling the man’s thermos. He drove home, showered, and put on a suit he hadn’t worn for a while, and that now was tight on him.
A fat boy was watching TV in the living room of Cynthia’s apartment, when Frank arrived with wine. “Dale,” she said, “this is Frank Dorsey. He’s the County Senior Investigator.”
The boy glanced at him, and turned back to the TV.
“You like it here in Wyoming?” Frank asked him.
“It’s fabulous,” Dale said, left his chair, and went upstairs.
Cynthia led Frank into the kitchen and told him Dale had eaten earlier. “I’m divorced. I thought I’d stay back East until Dale finished school, but here we are.”
“Here we are,” Dale repeated, and came downstairs in a black dress and silver high-heeled shoes.
“You look beautiful, darling,” Cynthia told him.
Frank watched Dale prance around the kitchen, holding one of his mother’s cigarettes, and Frank smiled at the boy, but the whole act bothered him.
“Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do,” Dale told Frank, and went back upstairs.
Frank heard a door slam and the sound of something crashing to the floor.
“I have a confession to make,” Cynthia said. “I recognized you last night. I saw your picture in the paper with that business about the missing girl.”
“Did you hear something crash upstairs?”
She shrugged. “The bathroom shelf keeps falling down. So, everything turned out all rightwith that missing girl?”
“Just a teenager sowing her oats, but she gave us all a scare.” He described his work on the case, all the while thinking of damage. Cynthia allowed things to fall apart, her ruined son proof. “I’ve got a confession, too. I’m dying for a cigarette.”
She laughed. “If I give you one, will you always associate me with your downfall?”
But she served him coffee and pie instead, and brought some pie up to Dale.
“What’s his story?” Frank heard Dale ask his mother.
“Be good, please be good,” Frank heard her say.
“Tomorrow, how about going for a Sunday drive and a picnic?” he asked Cynthia when she returned downstairs.
“I’d love it, and so would Dale.”
As he walked through the courtyard, he saw curtains part in the apartment across from Cynthia’s, the people probably figuring that he was there to investigate trouble.
Dale met him at the door Sunday afternoon in a pair of blue pajamas. Cartoons played on TV. “Mom, the senior instigator’s here,” he shouted. “A picnic, and she’s gussying up,” he whispered to Frank.
“Aren’t you coming?”
“Nope,” Dale said, and returned to the TV.
Frank tried to look disappointed, and then Cynthia came downstairs in black slacks and a silky white blouse, apologizing for the delay.
“When are you coming back?” Dale asked her.
“When are you going to do your homework?”
The boy looked at Frank. “Isn’t she something?”
“I’m glad we’re alone,” she said in the car. “I’m not complaining. He’s really a sweet boy, but he never wants to make new friends. Eleven, and he stays in all the time.”
“He’s new in town,” Frank said, wondering what she wanted from him. Someone to handle her son?
“You packed enough for an army,” she said when he pulled into the picnic area and unloaded food.
“I thought Dale would be coming with us.”
“He likes to stay inside. Frank, I do worry about him.”
He nodded. “I was wondering why you didn’t let on at first that you recognized me from the newspaper.”
“I don’t know. Funny thing is, I was going to close early, but I’m glad I didn’t.”
“Me too,” he said. “Soon as I got home, I looked in the phone book, saw your ad for parties, and tried to picture you getting ready for those shindigs.”
“Really? I’ve had only one catering job here. A retirement celebration.”
“And you dressed up as?”
“A hippie. I really like what I do. I feel lucky, like maybe it’s my turn now, you know, for the good life.”
He felt touched, and decided to tell her about the day he’d suddenly lost his bearings and his memory. “I felt calm at first. I wasn’t sure until later that my mind had gone blank. The doctors said everything would come back. I was lucky, they said. It could’ve been worse.”
“People are always saying things could be worse.”
“Yes. Hell, I didn’t even have a real stroke, just a warning, so I’ve tried to cut down on the stress.”
“And how does a person do that?”
He laughed. “I don’t have a clue.”
He felt all right about telling her about the incident, but he didn’t mention a thing about the surprising relief he’d felt later. I’m out of it now, he’d thought, pitying people going about their business, and he kept conjuring up the peculiar sights and sounds he’d seen and heard that day, convinced he’d been singled out for something remarkable, everything else canceled.
He wanted to stay longer with Cynthia, but she glanced at her watch, and told him she had to check on Dale, and get ready for work.
“I’m pretty busy myself,” he said, “but maybe we can set aside some time later. I could show you some spectacular sights around here.”
“Of course,” he said, stunned to discover how much he already resented the kid.
Dale was still in his pajamas, a bag of potato chips next to his chair, and some action figures dressed in shiny capes, tiny hats, and colorful skirts.
“You used my costume fabric, didn’t you?” Cynthia said.
Dale grinned. “You got a call, Mom.”
“I’ll try to fix that bathroom shelf you mentioned,” Frank said. “Got some tools I can borrow?”
“It’s okay. It’s not your problem. I’ll get to it later,” she said, and headed to the phone.
“She can’t fix anything,” Dale told Frank. “You’ll see.”
Frank headed up the stairs, wondering if Dale had always been this way, or was just showing off, even what the story was about Dale’s father.
“Oh, yes, that would be lovely,” he heard her say on the phone.
A silk slip hung haphazardly from a hook on the bathroom door. Toothbrushes and cosmetics were on the floor, next to the shelf that belonged above the sink, a flimsy thing that had been crudely attached to the sheetrock. She’d left a toolbox on the floor.
He worked on the shelf, embarrassed by his eagerness for her approval, but who wouldn’t want to feel necessary and capable?
When he heard footsteps on the stairs, his heart raced.
She looked at the shelf, and kept thanking him, as if he’d accomplished a miracle.
“I really have been meaning to get to it,” she said.
“Your landlord should be tending to things.”
“It makes me feel good to finish a small task. Something doable, for a change. Do you know what I’m saying?”
He nodded, and as she replaced cosmetics on the shelf, he thought of how close and comfortable they seemed around each other, as if everything had speeded up. She turned to him, and touched his cheek, the gesture so tender and sincere, he felt his face flush. He held her hand, and then heard the noise of pots and pans clattering downstairs.
He braced himself to hear her say that she needed to tend to Dale, but she surprised him by leading him to her bedroom, and shutting the door.
Bolts of material were stacked next to a sewing machine. The late-afternoon sun thieved through the white curtains, casting patterns on the bed.
“Dale and I had to stay at a campground until we found this place,” she said. “It turned out to be the best time, the best time.”
He felt an absurd jealousy, and sat on the edge of the bed, uncertain of what to say, as if he were facing an important test.
“I shoplifted the day I lost my memory, a first for me,” he confessed, expecting her to look shocked.
She sat next to him. “We all make mistakes. Oh, the things I could tell you.”
“Mom,” Dale hollered. “What about dinner?”
“We’re having a conversation here,” she shouted.
“Well, you better get a move on,” Dale said.
“I’ve got to feed him and go to the shop, Frank. I’m glad we had this talk.”
This talk, he thought. He’d jabbered about himself and the shoplifting incident. What he really wanted to say is: “I’m not always like this.”
“You coming back?” Dale asked him downstairs at the door.
“You bet. I’m taking you out trick or treating,” Frank said, surprising himself.
She gave him a quizzical look, and he wondered if she felt he’d overstepped his bounds. “I thought you’d be tied up at the coffee shop, or working at a party,” he said.
“Both, but I can take care of Dale.”
“Five o’clock,” Dale said, looked out mournfully at the snow, then retreated to his chair.
“You could thank him,” she told Dale.
“Five o’clock,” the boy repeated.
As Frank walked through the complex, curtains parted, and people looked at him and at the falling snow. A little girl emerged from an apartment, mounted a tricycle, and followed him to the gate. “Let me out,” she said. “Let me out.” He closed the gate, and heard the girl banging the bike against it.
His deputy had left a message on his answering machine at home. Someone had shot a rancher’s steer. “Up by Owl Creek. Prank, probably. I’ll handle it, but you might want to have a look-see.”
The wind had picked up, and the temperature had fallen when he reached the site, and saw the deputy and another man stamping their feet. He introduced himself to the rancher, and they both looked at the wet face of the steer. Its eyes were open, the lashes thatched with frost.
“I’m not expecting you to get worked up about this,” the rancher said. “Just to know who the victim is.”
“Meaning?” Frank asked.
“Meaning this happened to me. Your deputy claims it’s a prank. Is that supposed to make me feel better?”
“I’ll handle it,” Frank told him, and then motioned to the deputy to follow him to their cars.
“Nothing I said satisfied him none,” the deputy said. “I checked the area already, and I called some people to remove the steer.”
“I’ll wait for them.”
“Could be awhile. You sure?”
“I’m sure,” Frank said, and after the deputy left, he searched the area, feeling a flicker of excitement when he found a spent cartridge shell. He stayed to watch men remove the steer, dragging it with a tow chain, and lifting it with a winch, the carcass making an awful sound when it landed in the truck bed.
He was shivering when he called Cynthia. “I had to go out on a case. Just wanted you to know that nothing will stop me from picking up Dale, like I promised.”
“Frank, be careful. Is someone with you?”
“I’ve got things under control,” he told her.
As he drove to the rancher’s place, he concentrated on the scenery, as if it were all a crime scene, and some big revelation and solution would come to him, but he saw only the familiar hills, acres of land, hay bales shrouded in snow, and a sky scalloped with low gray clouds that seemed to have mobbed up to make everything look dreary.
A woman met him at the door of the rancher’s place. “Tom’s out working on the fence,” she said. “He feels awful about what happened.”
“I don’t blame him. It’s a serious matter. The steer’s been removed. You can tell him that and that I found a shell.”
“I’ll tell him you stopped by. It was good of those hunters to come clean. Nobody would’ve known any different either. They paid him, too. City slickers. Maybe in the snow a steer looks like an elk to them. Stupid, if you ask me.”
“Jesus, Jesus,” Frank muttered in his car, feeling like a fool. He knew he was being melodramatic, but as he entered a convenience store, he looked at the security camera, knowing that the image of him buying a pack of cigarettes would mean nothing to anyone, but a thrill moved through him when the clerk muttered about a special deal.
“You can get two packs of smokes for only seventy-five cents more.”
“Sounds good to me,” Frank said, telling the clerk to add two lighters.
The snow had let up, and a crescent moon showed in a faultless-looking sky. As he drove through town, the streetlights cast a buttery glow on the wet streets. He pulled into the parking lot behind Concoctions, and stepped outside. Everything seemed hushed and still. Even his footsteps seemed muffled as he approached the back door, hearing country-western music playing inside.
Her hands were covered with flour, and on a long wooden table were silver bowls filled with batter.
It seemed like a movie he’d seen—a couple making love in a kitchen—while music played. He saw his boots on the floor, his jacket on a chair, a record of flour on them. He reached into his jacket pocket for the cigarettes. “This is like something out of a movie,” he said.
She laughed. “So, that’s why you’re smoking?”
“I’ve been looking for an excuse for a long time for that.”
“I just made love on the floor of my shop.”
“Are you sorry?” he said.
“No, of course not.”
“You make it sound like an achievement.”
A braid of color rose on her throat. “Am I supposed to feel ashamed now? What’s wrong with feeling good? Why do you want to ruin it?”
She turned her back to him, dressed, and went into the front part of the shop. He stared at the room, as if to remember every detail. When he saw his distorted reflection in the silver bowls, he plunged his hand into the bowl of batter, and licked his fingers.
He was almost home when an image of himself as a boy, skipping school one fall day, came inexplicably to mind, unfolding dreamlike: wind-bent blond grass, a loamy pond scent, and fish popping up, dimpling the surface, but he couldn’t remember why he’d skipped school, except for the counterfeit pleasure of thinking he’d be missed.
He went upstairs and lay down in bed, and thought of the future plans he’d entertained of showing Cynthia his house. It had belonged to his parents, originally built by his great-grandparents. She might praise it, the furnishings, the land and the views, but she’d have to be wondering if he’d always lived alone in this big house, always saw himself plodding on with things in a solitary way.
When another image of himself as a boy emerged, he wondered if it was a side- effect of his stroke, or something common to everyone as they aged, but he felt content to ride with the image of pheasant hunting with his father during a fall day, everything coming back to him: an expansive clear sky, a nurturing stew of sagebrush, alfalfa, pine, scents, and his father’s excitement when flustered birds boiled up from the tall grass.
“Isn’t that something?” his father had said. “You don’t see something like that every day, do you?”
He couldn’t recall what he’d said to his father, who would’ve been younger than Frank was now, lonely for company and corroboration in his insistence on seeing a remarkable sight. Frank’s mother had taken off on them, and his father would die a month later, making Frank wonder, then and now, if his father had had a premonition, a warning sign.
He arrived at Cynthia’s apartment an hour late. Dale had on makeup and the same black dress he’d worn the first night. “No costume for you, huh?” Dale said.
“Nope. Let’s go. Put a coat on.”
Dale draped a purse over his wrist instead. Frank said nothing, but both he and the boy looked at the marks his fingers had left on Dale’s arm as he herded him out.
Costumed children moved through the complex, including the little girl who’d followed Frank the night before. She was dressed in a ballerina costume.
“It’s not a good idea for a little kid like that to be on her own,” Frank said.
Dale shrugged. “She’s not going to win any prizes with that unoriginal costume.”
“And who are you supposed to be?” Frank wanted to ask Dale, but he said nothing, just stood back on the lawn as Dale went to apartments. Doors opened, and shafts of light fell outside as people dropped candy into Dale’s purse. Frank waited for someone to remark at the sight of this fat boy dressed outlandishly, his big feet jammed into high-heeled shoes.
He heard the front gate open, and saw Cynthia in a fireman’s outfit—a bulky fluorescent jacket, baggy pants, and tall rubber boots. He began to walk toward her, but she shook her head.
“I have to deliver a birthday cake for a party. I didn’t want my son to be alone.”
“Where’s the fire?” Dale said, and went to another apartment. Cynthia joined him. People dropped treats in Dale’s purse.
Frank watched them getting into her car, balloons bobbing in the back. He followed them in his car, even though common sense told him to quit. Then they stopped in a fancy neighborhood, carrying a cake and balloons. Someone wearing a bear costume ushered them inside the house.
They were singing the birthday song to a little boy in a Batman costume when he went in. People dressed like cowboys, clowns, and vampires glanced at him, probably wondering why he was at this celebration. Then they clapped and took pictures of the birthday boy blowing out the candles on the cake.
“Isn’t this divine?” Frank heard Dale say, and saw people gawking at Dale, and whispering. He glanced at Cynthia in her outfit, dreading hearing people making unkind remarks about Dale, and hurting her, but he knew that nothing could be as awful as his own treatment of Cynthia earlier in her shop, when she’d been most vulnerable.
“Take it easy,” he told Dale.
“Did someone call the cops?” Dale asked, and people laughed.
If he had to recreate the scene for anyone, Frank would say he acted on instinct, quickly moving toward the door, then feeling an odd emotion, almost like elation, when a hand touched his arm.
But it was Dale, doing his usual shenanigans.
“Let’s give her a scare. Let’s take off on her,” Dale told him.
Frank saw that she wasn’t paying attention to them; she was busy with the birthday boy and his parents, doling out the cake, but Dale kept a prim hold on his arm, this boy in a dress, his mouth smeared with lipstick.
Sights, sounds, and smells seem magnified: Dale giggling, people shoveling cake and ice cream into their mouths, making exaggerated smacking sounds, and an electric smell and feel in the room that reminded Frank of summer storms.
“Oh boy, we’re in for it now,” Dale said.
She was coming toward them in her tall boots, and Frank felt giddy being an accomplice to Dale. The hosts looked eager and pleased at getting their money’s worth. Frank opened the door, and people clapped, actually clapped, probably thinking he was leading the boy to safety, playing his part.
Cynthia was close now, an inscrutable expression on her face that the partygoers couldn’t see, but one that Frank judged as striking. And there was Dale beside him, shaking, lowering his guard, Frank wanted to believe, unable to separate his reaction from the boy’s, and Dale obliged by saying, “She wants us. Here she comes. Isn’t she something?”
Leslee Becker grew up in the Adirondacks, and has published a story collection, The Sincere Café. Her stories have appeared in The Kenyon Review, The Atlantic, Ploughshares, Epoch, Boston Review, Iowa Review, and elsewhere. She lives in Fort Collins, Colorado, and teaches at Colorado State University.