Charlie Sofer got home from work on a Thursday evening to find a green envelope taped to his front door. The note inside was written in an elegant, wispy script that he recognized as his mother’s.
My Dearest Charlie,
They have finally got hold of me. They have whisked me away across town where I couldn’t see where it is. They are holding me until as they say they are good and ready to let go. So you should wait for further notice from us.
Your Loving Mother,
Charlie set the letter on the kitchen table and called his mother’s number, but no one answered. He read the note again, looking for clues. It was clearly Elsa’s handwriting: tiny, precise, lower-case letters interspersed with dramatic, looping capitals; the signature was unmistakable. The paper looked to be from a note pad she kept by the phone in her bedroom.
He wasn’t sure what to make of the message. In the two years since she’d suffered a mild stroke she had often complained about perilous corners and crannies on her block inhabited by lurking predators. The neighborhood was in decline, but Charlie had never spotted any menacing loiterers or evidence of drug trafficking or the like. He also understood that the world can be scary and genuinely unkind to a seventy-four-year-old woman. As he set the note on the kitchen counter, he recalled that the envelope was from a card he’d sent her on Mother’s Day; she had simply scratched out the word “Mom” on the front.
He had last seen his mother the previous Sunday evening, and it was apparent then that she was in one of her frequent bad spells. He and his daughter Joelle had arrived late with Chinese food, and Elsa had greeted them with a look both worried and distracted as she welcomed them into her apartment’s familiar mix of odors — stale smoke and instant coffee, overripe bananas and mildewed books and her own leaky, unwashed body. She was smoking more vehemently than usual, wrestling each drag out of the cigarette with her desperate, noisy lungs, then releasing the smoke with a sigh of turmoil and dissatisfaction. She smoked straight through dinner, saying little and eating less.
It was only as the time for leave-taking approached that Elsa began to voice her apprehension, standing in the kitchen doorway and speaking in short gushes that would suddenly stop dead, as if the power had been turned off, then start up again out of the silence of Charlie and Joelle’s politeness. Things were wrong, ominously wrong, in the neighborhood: streetlights that had worked for years had mysteriously gone dark; the empty storefront at the corner showed signs of squatter occupation; the police rarely patrolled the block, even though Elsa had warned them more than once that criminals had their eye on her building. Her neighbors in the building didn’t seem to care, treated her like a child, in fact, when she complained.
When Joelle made motions to leave, zipping up her pink vinyl jacket and edging toward the front door, Elsa ambushed her, clutching her granddaughter’s arm and patting her cheek as she turned to Charlie with what was meant to be a smile. “Watch out for this girl, she’s precious. Seems a little pale though, don’t you think, Charlie?” Charlie smiled and shrugged. Elsa’s voice leaped in pitch and intensity. “Take care of her! You hear me Charlie? You got no idea who’s out there and what they will do to an innocent, unsuspecting person.”
A bad sign. If Elsa got onto the evil characters lurking in the shadows of her life, the evening would drag out with a sour tedium. “She’s old enough to watch out for herself, Mother. She’s not a kid anymore. Look at her.” He waved his hand toward Joelle with a flourish that said any nineteen-year-old with a shaved, tattooed head and multiple piercings in her face and body made her own decisions. It was a gesture intended to draw Elsa’s attention away from her own anxiety, but it didn’t work.
“You just don’t know,” she said. “You walk out the door and it looks like a calm and quiet street. But there are nasty characters out there and they do bad stuff. Happens all the time. They could be nearby, maybe even stalking you. Observing, waiting for you to let down your guard. You can’t relax in such circumstances. You need to be vigilant — both of you.” She held up her hand, signaling that no one was to move or speak while she stubbed her cigarette and fished out a new one. Charlie could hear her breathing shift, becoming quicker and shallower, and a quiet hum started up in her throat. He’d come to regard this humming sound as a little engine driven by the demons inside her, and knew she was revving up to a higher pitch of fear and fantasy.
When she began speaking again, her eyes behaved differently, gazed with a kind of visionary penetration, past her son and granddaughter and into a distant realm where some awful drama of ambush and mayhem was playing out. “They keep irregular hours, so you can’t even guess when they’re awake and on the prowl. They know your patterns, your body rhythms, your movements.” She paused, and Charlie could hear the engine’s steady whine. He looked at Joelle, who was staring at Elsa with both alarm and dismay, and decided to try to head his mother off again.
“Mom, I know you worry, but — ”
“Somebody has to, and Lord knows it aint you.”
“Please, Mom — ”
“You gotta live like a warrior, always on the alert.” She opened the front door. “You two stick close together. There’s power in numbers, and there’s power in love. Joelle, you look like a fella, and a mean one at that, but I love you big time. Say hi to your mom. Thanks for dinner, Charlie. Next time, how about pizza for a change.”
Outside Elsa’s apartment building, Charlie thanked Joelle for coming with him. “I know your grandmother can get a little tedious, going on about all her worries and fears,” he said. “I really appreciate your hanging in there, Sweetie.”
He opened his arms for a goodbye embrace, but Joelle turned away. She’d been unusually quiet all evening. Now she looked offended. “I love Gramma. I came to be with her, to bear witness to her pain, not to do you a favor. Jesus, Daddy.” She gazed at him with a smoldering anger that he’d known, intermittently, since she was twelve. He could think of nothing to say, and she finally shook her head and stomped away in her big noisy boots, leaving Charlie — not for the first time — dazed and hurt.
The day after Charlie got the note from his mother, he took a cab to her place during his lunch hour and let himself in with a spare key she’d given him. The apartment looked and smelled the same. All the windows were locked shut, and there was an unwashed coffee cup in the kitchen sink. The bed was unmade; for some reason he got down on his hands and knees and checked under the bed, but there wasn’t anything there. As he stood up, he felt a sharp pain in his lower back, and it occurred to him that his heavy, out-of-shape body was succumbing to age as surely as Elsa’s was.
When he got home that evening there was another note taped to the door. This one was in a windowed envelope that had been used for a power company bill.
There is a phone booth at Pier 18, just across from the diner with the crummy $4.99 early bird breakfast. Please be there at 3 pm tomorrow.
As he was putting the letter back in the envelope he noticed something inside. It was a sparse lock of his mother’s hair, cut close to the scalp — a reddish brown color, with white roots.
Charlie arrived at the designated location twenty minutes before the hour. It was at the southeast corner of the city’s downtown area, on the edge of the bay, a district that had managed to remain lightly industrial and somewhat seedy in the face of encroaching gentrification. The phone booth — a large battered aluminum box from the seventies with one of the lower window panels covered in plywood — was easy to spot. He checked to make sure the phone worked — so few of them did anymore.
At five after three, the phone rang. His mother’s voice came on before he could get a word out. “Charlie? Are you all right?”
“Mom, where are you?”
“Where are you? I’ll come and get you.”
“That won’t be necessary. They take care of all my transportation.”
“I’ve been terribly worried about you, Mom. You didn’t tell anybody you were leaving. Mrs. Olafson said she had just talked with you the same morning you left.”