1.

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,
Elsa

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.

2.

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.

Dear Charlie,



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.



Love,
Mom

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?”

“How’s Joelle?”

“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.”

“Yes, we had a good little chat. Her grandson finally had surgery on his cleft palate. He’s doing very well.”

“You can’t take off without warning. You need to tell people what you’re up to.”

“Well I didn’t really have time, you know.”

“Mom, I’ve been worried sick.”

“I don’t think I like your tone of voice, Charlie.”

“Don’t you understand what it does to someone when you disappear without saying anything?”

“I’ve never liked it when you’ve talked to me like that, and I don’t like it now.”

“Mother, please try to be sensible.”

There was a sharp click, then a dial tone.

3.

The next note came by mail, two days later. The postmark was local.

Charlie Darling,

You are my son and I would never say you are insensitive but I do think you could be a little more concerned about my plight. I am captive to people who have the potential within them to be very unkind, though they won’t say exactly what sort of unkindness they might unleash. Not that you bothered to ask but so far they have treated me pretty good except the first night when they didn’t let me pee for too long and there was a little accident. Otherwise they feed me on very healthy things, healthier than I was eating at home I’m ashamed to say and I get to watch some TV. So I am doing okay you don’t have to worry about my health. NOT THAT YOU BOTHERED TO ASK. Only they don’t have much sense of humor especially Mr. Vitek who says he means business and I believe him. Though I’m not very clear about just what his business is. But he says to stand by and wait for further communication. Also he says and I quote “If you inform the police all bets are off.” That is all for now Charlie.



All my love,
Your Mother Elsa

4.

Detective Pete Milero fiddled with the thin parenthesis of his mustache, pinching the hair between the nails of his thumb and forefinger as though scraping off dried snot. He stared at the photo of Elsa Sofer for a while — too long, in fact — until his eyes finally rolled upwards and spied Charlie from behind wildly bushy gray brows. “Stunning woman,” he said with the authority of an art critic.

“That picture is from several years ago. She’s changed some. She’s aged — not just her body but, you know, her brain.”

“I’ll tell you something about women and beauty. If you have the right eye, you look at an old woman, even a very old woman, and you see what she once was. You see it and then you feel it — sometimes you can almost taste it. Same with a young girl: if you know how to look, you just dial forward through puberty and there’s your coming attraction.” He stood and leaned over with his palms on the desk, as if to make sure that Charlie could smell his breath and appreciate the sheen of his waxy bald head. “Did your mother have any boyfriends?”

“Not in years,” Charlie said.

“How the hell would you know?”

Charlie thought a moment. “I’m pretty sure she didn’t have a boyfriend.”

“I’m gonna write a book: The Secret Lives of Widows. When an old person disappears, it’s not to go join the circus. It’s not to go crash in the basement of some abandoned building with eleven other crackheads. Only reason an old broad takes off is to follow the scent of love.”

“I’ve never thought of my mother as an old broad.”

“No shame in being old. And no shame in enjoying a little nookie, if you’re seventy, eighty, whatever. It’s a blessing.” He looked back down at the photo, his large, languid eyes moving in odd patterns under their half-closed lids.

Charlie’s impatience warped into exasperation. “What are you going to do to find her?”

“Let’s wait a while. See what her next move is.”

“Do you want to see the notes she wrote?”

Milero shook his head. “She’ll let you know when she’s ready to see you. Maybe when she decides if this Vitek guy is just a good lay or if he qualifies as family.”

“Detective, I don’t believe there is any Vitek guy. I think she’s off hiding somewhere.”

“Uh-huh. Well that’s not a police matter then, is it.”

5.

No other messages came for another four days. Then, on a foggy Saturday afternoon, a short note in the mail:



Okay Charlie,

Please please come to the phone again, it is very important, they say they mean business and you can bet they mean what they say. 3pm





Mom

As the cab crawled through downtown traffic, it occurred to Charlie that the note didn’t say what day the phone call would be coming. He arrived at the corner a few minutes after the hour, and the phone began ringing as he approached it. When he lifted it, he heard his mother’s voice — she was weeping, in the childish, complaining sort of way she did when things weren’t going her way. “Oh Charlie, I’m so glad you’re there. They say they want to talk turkey now, and I was afraid you wouldn’t be there.”

“Mother, are you all right?”

“Well thank you for asking Charlie, I’m in good health, but I’m worried. They are not being so gracious to me anymore. Things are going downhill.”

“What’s going on? Are you in some kind of pain?”

“I’m fine Charlie. For now. But they’re changing their tune. There’s a chill in the air, if you know what I mean.”

“I don’t know what you mean.”

“I believe they want something.”

“What do they want, Mother?”

“I think they want ransom. I believe that’s what they’re working up to.”

“Let me talk to them.”

There was a short silence. “They don’t want to talk now.”

“What do they want?”

“I don’t know.” Another short silence. “Mr. Vitek says he wants a tooth.”

“I don’t understand. What sort of tooth?”

“He says he wants one of your teeth.”

“That’s ridiculous. I can’t give him a tooth.”

“He says it would be a gesture of good faith.”

“That’s crazy.”

“He wants your upper left bicuspid.”

“He can’t have it.” Charlie thought a moment. “How would he know it was my tooth?”

There was a longer silence. “He says he has your dental records. He says the tooth has a porcelain crown. He’ll know it when he sees it. He is a very intelligent man.”

“That’s ridiculous, Mother. You’re talking crazy stuff.”

“You better give him your tooth, Charlie. He means business.”

“Nobody’s getting my tooth.”

A pause. “He wants you to leave it in the phone booth, taped under the shelf. He says he’ll know it’s yours. He can read x-rays.”

“Let me speak to this Mr. Vitek. If there’s someone there who wants my tooth, then I want to talk to him.”

“The tooth should be there by sundown tonight. That’s what he’s saying Charlie.” The timbre of real fear came into her voice. “He’s not kidding around.”

“That’s absurd.” Charlie had the queasy feeling that the phone booth was moving very slowly along the sidewalk. “You’re not making sense, Mom. You need to come home right away. Tell whoever is there to send you home in a cab. Or I’ll come get you. I know it’s been hard for you these past years. I know you’re not feeling yourself. I will take better care of you, I promise.”

“Just do what he says, Charlie.” The phone went dead.

That night, Charlie couldn’t sleep. Each time his breathing slowed down and his thoughts thinned to smoky images, something at his very center would knot up like a cramped muscle, and he would jolt into wakefulness. His mind seemed to be swimming in a malaise that he couldn’t name or get hold of. He didn’t really know what was going on with his mother, so he didn’t know how bad to feel.

He had finally settled into a stable doze when there was a savage pounding on the front door. He stumbled across the apartment and opened the door, but nobody was there. He wondered if he had dreamed the noise, and was closing the door when he noticed something, a crumpled piece of paper or cloth sitting at the edge of the doormat. He picked it up and carried it inside.

It was a cranberry-red silk handkerchief with the four corners pulled together and knotted to form a little satchel. The letters MV were monogrammed in gold thread at one of the corners. He untied the knot and spread the little scarf out on the kitchen counter. It held a small pile of teeth, a couple of them broken off at the roots and all of them flecked with bits of blood. Most disturbing was a molar whose gold cap was identical to his mother’s.

Charlie became nauseated, then faint. He sat down at the kitchen table and rested his head on his folded arms until the vertigo and terrible lightness eased up. He sat up, but the walls began to swirl with images he had no control over, of hammers and screwdrivers and grimy pliers and his mother’s bloody hole of a mouth screaming, then laughing, then screaming again. He had to stand up and pace around just to shake the pictures that flooded his brain. He poured himself a glass of bourbon and drank it as quickly as he could without gagging, then poured some more. He was not a drinker, and his stomach rebelled, and the nausea returned, then subsided again as the warmth of the alcohol flowed up through his spine and into his head. He still couldn’t shake the imagined sights and sounds of his mother’s agony, and he carefully lifted the splayed handkerchief from the counter to the table, then sat back down. He found himself staring at the little pile of teeth just to push away other, more threatening visions.

There were six — he touched each one as he counted. He fiddled with them, carefully looking them over, pretending he was a detective, but not making any particular sense of what he observed. He arranged them into an arc that curved toward him — a toothy grin. This made him smile, not at the grotesque sight before his eyes, but at the memory of his mother’s lively, mischievous face when she had been younger and happier.

He shuffled into the living room and turned on the TV. A vaguely familiar, sixtyish actor was jabbering cheerfully about a prostate drug that helped him urinate. Charlie went back into the kitchen and grabbed his glass from the table, then went to the counter for more bourbon. Next to the bottle he spotted a tiny, tightly folded piece of yellow paper that must have fallen out of the scarf. He spread it open and read the message, written — shakily — in what was clearly his mother’s hand. “Usual booth, usual time,” was all it said. He walked back into the living room and sat down in front of the TV. Half an hour later he was asleep, the glass in one hand, the remote in the other.

6.

As the cab pulled into view of the phone booth, it occurred to Charlie that he had begun to see it as a kind of person — silent, stolid, slow-witted, but powerful and ruthless, like a guard in a concentration camp. He paid the cabby and hurried into the booth. He closed his eyes and breathed deeply. He had never prayed before and didn’t know how, but he felt his eyes look upward under their lids, felt his heart ache with a pilgrim’s yearning.

The ringing of the phone hit him like a cold wind. He hesitated before answering, feeling a physical terror, as though the phone itself could hurt him. It wasn’t until the third ring that he answered. He heard his mother’s voice, but her speech was slurred and it was difficult to make out what she was saying. It was his name. “Cha-eee,” she said over and over, “Oh Cha-ee,” and then came long garbled sentences like someone talking through thin oatmeal.

“Mother,” he responded; then, in a higher, younger voice, “Mama. Mama I’m so terribly sorry.” There was a long silence. “Are you there, Mama?”

There was more silence, then muffled sounds. A voice finally spoke. “This is Mr. Vitek. Your mother is in good health and reasonably good spirits, considering her little dental mishap. There is really nothing to worry about, so long as you listen very carefully to what I tell you.” The voice was low and assured, and somewhat cold, with a thick Eastern European accent.

“Who are you?”

“I am Mr. Vitek. We are holding Elsa Sofer until the terms of the detention are met to our satisfaction. I believe you understand now that we mean business. Perhaps we can communicate at a level of mutual respect.”

“What do you want, Mr. Vitek? I beg you to leave my mother alone. I’ll give you whatever you want. I have some money in the bank. I have music players and a laptop and two vintage guitars that I can sell. Just tell me what you want.”

The voice continued in the same cool, cultured tone, but with an edge of malice. “You have been behaving as if you have some voice, some control in these transactions. I want to disabuse you of such notions. You have none. We will communicate with mutual regard, because that is my way: I will show a man every courtesy as long as he does the same for me. But I am making the rules here. Do you understand?”

“I do, I understand.”

“Yes, well. You have seen by now that to disregard me is to invite my wrath, and my wrath is no small thing. It is my custom to mete out vengeance in biblical proportions. If you do not do as I request, I will raise your debt by a factor of seven. You now know this to be true, yes?”

“I . . . I think so, yes.”

“You did not give me what I asked for, a simple tooth, and my response was swift and severe. The retribution was sevenfold.”

Charlie thought a moment, then corrected Mr. Vitek. “There were only six.”

“I’m sorry, I don’t understand.” Vitek’s voice sounded both irritated and confused.

“There were six teeth.”

“That’s impossible. I told my man to extract seven.”

“Six.”

“I don’t believe you.”

“I have no reason to lie.”

“This is an outrage.”

“I respect you, Mr. Vitek, so I am telling you the truth. I hope you understand that.”

“I do appreciate the feedback. As you might imagine, I am more than a little upset with my man, Lars. He’s a professional who has served me for years.”

“I hope you value my honesty. I’m hoping you might reward my honesty.”

“Your reward will come when you follow my instructions.”

“Of course, yes. I just . . . Mr. Vitek, I’m begging you not to harm my mother.”

“There is no need to lower yourself to entreaty.”

“What would you like me to do?”

“As before, I am demanding a real sacrifice, a show of sincerity and commitment.”

“If you want a tooth from my mouth, I’ll give you a tooth. I’ll take a pair of pliers, a hammer, whatever, and knock out a tooth.”

“Unfortunately, the stakes have been raised since the last communication.”

“What do you want?”

“I was thinking about a toe.”

“Oh God.”

“Yes, a toe. It’s not so much, really. When you think of what I could ask for. It’s a token gesture.”

“Please, Mr. Vitek. I can give you money. You can’t really have any use for body parts. Take anything I own. Take all of it.”

“No, thank you. I have other business to do. I need to keep this phone line free.”

“Okay, okay. Tell me what toe you want. I’ll give you a toe. Right foot or left foot?”

“Not so fast, please. It isn’t your toe I want.”

Charlie felt a terror rise from deep inside him. “What do you mean?”

“Precisely what I said. I don’t want your toe. I prefer something a little more delicate and less — how shall I say it? — hirsute. I would very much like to have your daughter’s toe in my collection.”

“Mr. Vitek, please, you can’t — ”

“Yes. Her name is Joelle. I want the one next to the smallest, on her right foot — it has a silver and turquoise ring. The nail is painted dark blue.”

“Mr. Vitek, please be reasonable. I can’t do that. Please, Mr. Vitek.”

“That’s the toe for me. Bring it to the phone booth. It must be the correct one. I know what it looks like. She has lovely feet, when she’s not wearing those ridiculous military boots.” There was a quiet click, followed by a dial tone.

7.

Milero looked at the notes Charlie’s mother had written. “It’s another world,” he said.

“Excuse me?”

“The penmanship. Look at the curlicues in the caps. Look at the s’s, and how straight the lines are, without benefit of lined paper. And the signature is a little work of art. That’s old school, well-heeled, classy. An elegant woman, that’s what I would surmise. They don’t make them like that any more. You’re a lucky man.”

“She’s been kidnapped. She’s been brutalized. These notes are for real, they’re not lies. The situation isn’t imaginary.”

“I would still say give her some time. Some folks can’t be rushed. She’ll come back to you in her own time. From all I can see, she’s a prideful woman and can’t be ordered around.”

“I spoke to Vitek. He really exists. She didn’t make him up.”

“I told you that last week,” Milero said.

“I thought she was alone. I thought she was just trying to get attention.”

“An old person needs attention like anybody else. They need somebody to dote on them. And there’s the unknown quantity — we don’t know what this Vitek guy is like.”

“He’s bad news.”

“He might know some kind of European love-making tricks. He might be hung like a bull moose. She could be moaning with ecstasy the likes of which you’ve never dreamed.”

“The man is a monster. He’s brutalizing her.”

“He’s an unknown quantity. But these things happen. We see it all the time in police work.”

“He’s capable of doing terrible things to her. I think her life is in danger.” Charlie looked in Milero’s eyes to see if any of his desperation was registering on the detective. He had been holding back the most obvious evidence that a serious crime had been committed, out of some vague fear that the detective would misinterpret it. But now he took out the cranberry-colored scarf, untied it, and laid it out on the desktop — then surveyed Milero’s face again. No change.

“They’re her teeth,” Charlie said. Milero looked them over but didn’t respond. “My mother’s teeth. And now he’s asking for toes.” Milero nodded, and Charlie felt his voice become shrill. “So what do you think now?”

“I think you better find yourself a good lawyer.”

8.

Charlie called Eileen, his ex-wife, and told her to keep a close watch on Joelle. “I’m worried about her safety,” he said. “Somebody might hurt her.”

“Who? What are you talking about?”

“Just watch out for her. Don’t let her go out alone.”

“She’s nineteen. I’m lucky to see her at breakfast.”

“There are bad characters out there.”

“I smell guilt.”

“Huh?”

“You know what I mean. You neglect your kid for weeks at a time, months — and then you get all choked up with remorse and call me up all worried about her. You’re over-compensating for your own inadequacies and fear. You’re projecting.” Eileen was a therapist.

“I think she’s in danger.”

“Any particular reason?”

“There’s a lot of real evil out there.”

“Now there’s a hot tip.”

“People who would hurt a young girl. I worry.”

“I worry too. Every day. She lives in a meaner world than we ever did, and she’s not a tough kid, in spite of the front she puts up.”

“There have been threats.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Just keep an eye out for her.”

“Threats? What the hell is that supposed to mean?”

“Don’t let her go out alone anymore. Protect her. Warn her every day.”

“Have you been drinking, Charlie?”

He hung up and slumped back on the living room couch. It was his mother, not Joelle, who was truly in danger, and he knew he was helpless to do anything about it. He thought of Elsa’s painful, disfigured mouth, and felt an urge to knock out his own teeth; he began fiddling with one, an incisor that was cracked and a little loose. He cursed himself and the aimless, self-absorbed mindset that had somehow led him into this cul-de-sac. He drank.

The TV was on, and he occasionally looked in its direction, but without taking in much of what was happening onscreen. The images that flashed before him seemed to be from another culture and in another language, although, in those moments when he managed to focus, he saw familiar faces and heard English. Mostly he called up memories of his mother when she was vital and undiminished, as recently as ten years ago — flirting with the mailman, singing Patsy Cline songs while she puttered around her apartment.

The TV showed the image of a local billionaire, Leroy Sutter. He had disappeared after leaving his office two nights ago. His wife, a handsome woman with a long thin nose and dark eyes, was offering ten thousand dollars for information of his whereabouts. Charlie flipped the channel.

The sound of the tapping was so light — like a small shy animal knocking at the door — that it took a while for it to snag his awareness. He approached the door timidly, drew in a deep breath, and pulled it open. Nobody there; no bloody bundle on the mat. He heard a noise down the hall, the clang of metal on metal, near the staircase with its old bronze railing. He walked to the end of the hall and looked around and then down the stairs, where he saw a shadowy form, then heard his name, spoken quietly with what sounded like a southern drawl. He descended the stairs, noting with some surprise that he felt no fear. But by the time he arrived at the bottom, the figure had vanished. He heard footsteps and voices coming from the street, the closing of a car door, then saw tail lights receding down the block. He went back to his apartment.

At four-thirty he woke up to the sound of white noise coming from the TV. He turned off the set and stumbled into the bedroom, took off his clothes, and climbed into bed. He felt a small, slightly oily object in the bed. Switching on his reading light, he threw back the covers and found himself screaming even before he fully comprehended what lay in front of him: a scattered clutch of severed toes. He put his hand over his mouth to muffle his own shrieks, then grabbed a pillow and plunged his face into it, shouting and wailing and swearing and, finally, repeating his mother’s name — Elsa, Elsa — over and over until his breathing slowed to calmness. He continued to hold the pillow against his face.

But something like a question formed in his head, or was it just curiosity? He hadn’t really looked all that carefully at the grisly objects on his bed sheet, and for some reason that he couldn’t quite pinpoint he felt that something was amiss. He opened his eyes and stared: there they were, seven pale, oddly shaped lumps, with little brown flecks of what must have been dried blood on their surfaces. But they didn’t quite look like toes. He sat on the bed and examined closely what should have been the big toe. It was rounded at one end and had been cleanly cut at the other, so that it resembled a severed toe. But it was narrow, and small for a big toe. He touched it — the surface was hard and waxy. He picked it up and smelled it. It was food — some sort of large shelled nut. He took a bite, chewed: a Brazil nut.

9.

Charlie sat with his back against the phone booth. He assumed the police were looking for him, but he couldn’t remember if he’d told Milero where the booth was.

There had been no note with the nuts. He had in fact spent the rest of the night searching the bed, then the apartment, then the hallway outside the apartment, until he realized it was past nine. He was supposed to show up in Milero’s office with a lawyer at ten. But he didn’t have a lawyer and he hadn’t tried to find one. He’d grabbed his heavy brown leather jacket and a pair of gloves and bolted out the door just in time to catch the nine-twenty-five bus, arriving at the phone booth twenty minutes later. He realized that if Vitek were to call, it would probably be at three, but he felt he couldn’t take any chances, so he waited.

At one, he went into the diner to use the men’s room and buy a sweet roll, then hurried back out to the phone booth. At two-thirty, a young man with a shaved head in an electric green suit got on the phone. He talked an unusually long time, getting increasingly loud and belligerent, until Charlie began to pick up bits of the conversation: the man was upset because his “shipment” hadn’t come to the usual “drop.” Charlie wondered if he was a drug dealer. At quarter-to-three, he couldn’t stand it any longer, and he tapped on the side of the booth and pointed to his watch. The man gave Charlie a quick scan with his eyes, registered disdain, then turned his back. Charlie came around to the open door. “I’m expecting a call.”

“When?” the man asked.

“Any moment,” Charlie said.

The man again turned his back, but Charlie could hear that he was winding up the conversation. The man walked away without looking at Charlie. It was seven minutes to three.

Charlie resumed his seated position against the side of the booth. Nobody used the phone for the next hour, and it didn’t ring. He realized that a patrolling police car had taken notice of him. It had passed twice, and was now approaching very slowly. He got up and walked to the end of the block and then around the corner, where he found a newsstand. He bought a newspaper and a bar of Belgian chocolate from a Middle Eastern man who smiled kindly but didn’t say a word. As he turned to head back to the phone booth he caught a glimpse of the police car at the corner, so he reversed his direction and continued on around the block. When he arrived back at the phone booth, the cops were nowhere in sight. He waited, on his feet this time.

Night came, and still no phone call. Charlie, afraid to go home, spent the night in the booth. At one point he saw the owner of the diner begin cleaning up, and he ran over to get another sweet roll. The proprietor, a heavy man with a Eurasian face and a gray ponytail, gave Charlie his change, then told him to wait a moment. He poured some milk into a paper cup and handed it to Charlie. “Better with milk,” he said with a faint accent.

At exactly eleven, the phone rang. A woman, probably in her forties, spoke in a husky, expectant voice. “It’s me,” she said.

Charlie, not quite knowing how to respond, said, simply, “Hello.”

“Thank God you’re there. I’ve been thinking about you all day. Jesus, this is driving me nuts. He wanted to make love to me tonight. I had to go through with it, but all I thought about was you. It was your tongue on my breasts, it was you inside me. I miss you so much. I’m not even sure if he’s asleep, but I had to call. I prayed you’d be there, even while he was doing me. I prayed I could talk to you. God, just hearing your breathing gets me hot. I’m glad you could get away. Can we slip off to Reno next month? I can just tell him I’m going to stay at Janis’s in Santa Rosa — I cover for her when she steps out on her floppy dick of a husband. I don’t know why it’s so complicated. But Christ, there’s the kids, and all the money issues, I don’t know.” Charlie heard quiet sobbing at the other end, then: “Do you still want me?”

Charlie thought a moment. “Yes,” he said, “I do.”

There was a long pause. “Ralph?”

Charlie spoke more vehemently. “Is Mr. Vitek there?”

“Who is this?”

Charlie didn’t answer. The silence continued for some time, until finally the woman hung up. Charlie crouched down on the floor of the booth and rested his face against his knees until he fell asleep.

10.

He kept the phone booth in his sight and earshot all the next day. His clothes had gotten dirty and disheveled in the past twenty-four hours, and perhaps because of this, he felt both more accepted and more ignored by the cops, by the guy in the diner, and by the two thuggish vagrants who made this block their home base. He ate nothing but sweet rolls. Three o’clock passed, then another sunset, with no word from his mother or Vitek.

That night, at eleven, the phone rang again. “It’s me,” the same voice said. “How have you been?”

“So-so,” Charlie answered.

“Yeah, I know what you mean. I wish you were with me right now. I wish I could smell you. I want you like I can’t believe. I think I finally understand what tattoos are for. If I had your face tattooed on me, over my womb, then you’d be here, you’d be stuck on my belly, forever. That’s how it feels. I want your taste and smell to stick with me to the grave. It’s like some kind of deep pain, only I need it. Do you miss me? Do you miss my smell?”

“Yeah,” he said, feeling the sting of loneliness. “I miss you.”

“Do you miss having my breasts in your mouth?” Charlie didn’t know what to say, so he said nothing, but stayed on the phone. Each time the woman exhaled, he thought he could feel her breath against his ear.

“Don’t you just want to suck my tits? Don’t you miss it?”

Charlie, confused and forlorn, sighed. Then something inside him relaxed, and he felt his misery mutate into a lowdown carnal ache. “Yeah,” he said. “I miss it big time.”

“Tell me. Tell me what you want to do to me.”

“I’d like to be lying next to you right now,” he said as a pleasurable creepiness took hold. “I want to be there licking your breasts, licking you all over.”

“Jesus,” she said, “you’re making me wet. You’re fucking driving me crazy. I don’t know what I’m doing here with him. You’re so much better. You turn me on faster, you get me higher, you make it last longer. I love it when you do me from behind.”

Charlie felt his breath get short, heard himself say, “Yeah.”

“You love it too, don’t you?”

“I do, yes. I love slipping it into you from behind, like a wolf.”

“What’s your name?” she asked.

Charlie was struck dumb.

“What’s your name?”

“This is Ralph.”

“Yeah, right. Don’t fuck around with me. Give me a name.”

He felt a faint terror pulling at the muscles between his shoulder blades. “My name’s Charlie.”

“That’ll do. Call me Serena. Charlie, I want to fuck you something fierce. I want you in my mouth. I want your face between my legs. How bad do you want to fuck me? Do you want it bad?”

Serena’s voice had suddenly become dangerous, threatening. The sexy throatiness had lowered to a grating rasp — he wasn’t even sure if it was female. He didn’t respond.

“Tell me how bad you want me,” the voice said. “Tell me what you want to do to me. Make it rough. Tell me.” Charlie said nothing. The loud, uneven breathing continued for a full minute, then the phone went dead.

11.

Charlie was awakened by a cool damp feeling in the seat of his pants. A dog had pissed just outside the phone booth, and a small stream had trickled in to where he was sitting. He got up, went around the corner to where the Middle Eastern man was just opening the awning to the newsstand. Charlie bought a paper and went back to his daytime position on one side of the phone booth and sat on it, hoping it would absorb some of the urine from his pants.

He was facing south. The rising sun warmed the left side of his body. His breathing became a series of sighs: for some reason he felt himself, at least temporarily, begin to relax. The passing traffic seemed both musical and cinematic. The sky was as blue as Joelle’s eyes were the very first time they opened up and looked calmly into his.

He walked into the diner and went straight to the men’s room. When he came back around to the counter, the same Eurasian man — did he ever do anything but work? — nodded and got him a sweet roll without waiting for his order. “Very fresh this morning,” he said in an accent that seemed thicker. Charlie took the sweet roll to his spot by the phone booth and, sitting back down on the newspaper, savored each bite as the cars and trucks flowed past him along the Embarcadero. Something in him had shifted: this was where he was for now, so why not feel at home?

In the early afternoon, he picked up the paper and began reading the front page with its faint yellow stains. There was a suicide bombing in the Middle East, and a bank robbery in the Mission District. The state senate was debating the budget for the seventy-third day. A well-known local businessman, Leroy Sutter, had disappeared five days ago — this rang a bell: had he seen something on TV about it? He flipped the page: a bond measure to renovate the baseball stadium, soaring foreclosures on mortgages, the mayor’s affair with his daughter’s dance teacher. Somewhere in the middle of the sports section, Charlie dozed off.

In his dream, he was walking by the diner very late at night. It was closed but the owner was inside, making the next day’s sweet rolls. A bell began ringing, and Charlie realized that he was looking into a bank, not the diner, and the sweet rolls were stacks of money that the man had laid out for a robber, whom the alarm had scared away. He decided that the money was his for the taking, and stepped into the open door.

The dream had been so absolutely real that when he woke up Charlie still thought the ringing bell was a bank alarm. It took a few moments for him to realize that it came from the phone, and another few moments to figure out that he’d better answer it quick.

Vitek’s voice intoned in its familiar, measured cadence: “You are a bit slow in answering.”

“Mr. Vitek, how is my mother?”

There was a pause. “Who is this?”

“Mr. Vitek, please tell me what has become of my mother.”

“Oh, it is you.” The man seemed genuinely surprised.

“Of course it’s me. Please let me talk to my mother.”

“Is there a woman nearby — tall and thin, wavy black hair, with the long face and nose of a Modigliani portrait?”

“What are you talking about?”

“Please just answer my question. Is there such a woman in the vicinity of the phone booth?”

“Mr. Vitek, please, talk to me about my mother.”

“Excuse me, but I did not call to speak with you. Now if you will find the woman I have described and put her on the line, I would most appreciate it.”

“There’s no such person around here.”

“I don’t believe you.” Vitek seemed upset.

“There’s no woman in sight, except a couple young girls with their boyfriends at the diner.”

“You must have scared her away. How long have you been there?”

“Quite a while, but I never saw a middle-aged woman.” He thought. “But I fell asleep.”

“Fell asleep where?”

“Next to the phone booth.”

“My good gosh, she must have thought you to be a hostile derelict. You scared her away, you idiot.”

“Please tell me about my mother.”

“No.”

“Please, Mr. Vitek, tell me something.”

“What do you want to know?”

“Is she in pain?”

“I doubt it.”

“What kind of answer is that?”

“A better one than you deserve.”

“At least you didn’t cut her toes off. I guess I should thank you for that.”

“Ah. Brazil nuts. I believe you saucy Americans call them ‘nigger toes.’ A disgusting term, but evocative nonetheless.”

“I would like to speak to my mother.”

“I don’t think she’s in the mood to talk right now.”

“Please put her on, Mr. Vitek.”

“You let her down. Betrayed is not too strong a word.”

“Mr. Vitek — ”

“Would you please check again to see if Mrs. Sutter has arrived?”

“She’s not here. May I speak with my mother?”

“I’m afraid she’s in no condition to speak just now, especially not to her disappointment of a son. Another time perhaps.” Charlie heard the telephone go dead. He caressed the handset as though it were his mother’s lifeless arm, stroking it softly and remembering the last time he saw her in her apartment. A great sorrow flooded his being, filling him up so that he thought he would either burst with it or drown.

Stepping out of the booth, he surveyed the street, thinking he might discover Mrs. Sutter, but there was still no wealthy, middle-aged woman in sight.

12.

Charlie took a room in a welfare hotel in the seedy Tenderloin district. He figured the police were still looking for him, so he used the name Ralph Booth. He cashed out all the money from his checking and savings accounts, and kept the cash in little piles that he hid around his room. For the next three weeks he left the hotel only to walk the half-block to get packaged food at a corner grocery. He spent all his time in his room or, occasionally, in the lobby, in front of the TV with four or five other male tenants. He rarely spoke to them.

After those first weeks, he began venturing out in the evenings. It was almost summer. He would wait until dark, then step out the door, pick a direction, and walk. He walked without purpose or destination. It was his intention to see the city as if he’d just arrived, to stumble onto it, to discover it and learn it anew. He wanted to feel like an immigrant.

One night he wandered the streets near the Embarcadero. He saw on the clock on the Ferry Building that it was ten minutes to eleven, and found himself rushing to the phone booth by the diner. He stood by the booth, trying to look nonchalant, and waited. The diner was dark and looked completely empty inside; there was a For Lease sign over the door.

Sure enough, the phone rang at eleven. He heard the familiar voice: “Hey, it’s Serena. Are you there, Honey?” He recognized her voice, which now sounded unambiguously female: the voice of a depressed, middle-aged woman.

“Yeah, I’m here.”

“Baby, I’ve been missing you something terrible.”

“I’ve missed you too.”

There was a pause. “Charlie? Is that you?”

“Yeah, it’s me.”

“Jesus, Charlie, where have you been? It’s been so long.”

“I know — seems like years. My life has changed. You wouldn’t recognize me.”

“Are you okay, Honey?”

“Yeah, I think so.”

“I think about you sometimes. Things with Edgar have gotten worse.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.”

“They got better for a while, but now the whole marriage is in the toilet. We don’t even sleep in the same bed anymore. I’m in bed now. I’m calling you from my bed. This used to be his office, but now he uses the bedroom as his office. Even the kids know something’s wrong.”

“I’ve been through rough times myself. I live in a flophouse. I eat chips and processed cheese. Two of my neighbors have died since I moved in.”

“Jeez, Charlie, sounds like you’ve hit a snag in life’s river-ride.”

“I think I might have run into Hoover Dam.”

“Well, I got faith in you, Charlie. You’ll land on your feet, with seven lives left. It’s darkest before the dawn. Things are about to take a turn for the better, I can feel it. Chin up, Charlie.” She hung up.

On his way back to the hotel, Charlie got jumped. He recognized the two men as local thugs who had been hanging around when he had staked out the phone booth. The larger man held a knife to his throat while the short guy went through his pockets. He took Charlie’s money and threw his wallet in the gutter, then pulled the leather jacket off Charlie’s back. As the men backed away from Charlie, the big man pointing the knife at him, Charlie chuckled nervously and thanked them.

The little man walked back up to Charlie. “What was that?” he asked. “What did you say?”

“Nothing,” Charlie said.

“Thank you? Thank you for what? What you thanking me for? For this?” Charlie saw a blur of knuckles, then felt a crunching pain in his nose and mouth. He slumped down onto his knees and held his hands over his face. “Now you can thank me,” the man said. “Well? You gonna thank me? Are you?” Charlie shook his head, still holding his hands over his face. His mouth began to fill with blood, but he kept it shut. He heard the men walk away, then got up and retrieved his wallet. His upper lip was bleeding down his chin and onto his shirtfront. He bent over a metal sewer grate and spat out a mouthful of blood. There was a light clinking sound. A quick sweep with his tongue informed him that a front tooth had been knocked out.

13.

Late that summer, there was a quiet knock on Charlie’s door. He never had visitors, and figured some lost or lonely drunk was wandering the halls, so he didn’t answer. But the knocking persisted, then a voice: “Dad, are you there?” He opened the door slowly, half expecting a phantom or demon — the kind that mimics the voice of a loved one — to fly down his throat.

Joelle was taller than he remembered. Her eyes were older, and she looked tired and terribly sad. She’d let her hair grow in and dyed it jet black, which made her skin seem even paler. She walked into the room and looked around, but Charlie could tell she wasn’t really taking in what she saw. She turned to face him, then averted her eyes, looking at his chest as she spoke. “I tried to find you, for months. But you were nowhere, and I gave up. Later I was going out with this guy, a private detective, and one night I told him about you. He says I bet I could find him. But we broke up and I figured that was that. Then last Friday I get a text from him that says ‘alias ralph booth, hotel pontito.’”

She paused, as if waiting for a response. Looking at the young woman before him, Charlie was overcome with a gentle awe, a sense of the miraculous at who she was and how she’d found him. He felt his mind searching half-heartedly for words, but found none.

Joelle resumed speaking, now in a kind of plaintive singsong, as though reciting phrases she had said to herself many times, though maybe not all at once. “I know I’m not a good person, and I’m not a good daughter. I’ve been busy with my life and took you for granted. I’m basically selfish, so I shouldn’t expect much from you, or anybody else. I know Mom loves me, but that’s just because she’s a mom, it’s nothing personal. Guys never stick around for long, so I figure I don’t have much to offer. I perceive these things. And I understand maybe I don’t deserve you for a dad — I never really did anything to earn your love. But did I do things that were so bad that I should be shut out forever?” She paused again, but only for a moment. “I want to know. I’ll go away if you tell me to, if I’m that bad. But you have to tell me what I did, and then tell me to go away and never come back.”

“It’s not you. It’s them.”

“Who’s them. Who are you talking about?”

“Mr. Vitek. He wanted to hurt you, to cripple you. They can do that. They did it to your grandma. I had to protect you. I really did.”

“Have you been using drugs, Dad?”

“I don’t think so. No.”

“Can we sit down a minute?”

“Yes. Yes, I’m sorry, please have a chair. I got some food, and some soda or beer.”

“A beer would be good.”

He grabbed two bottles from the little refrigerator under the window and twisted off the tops. As he approached Joelle, he suddenly became self-conscious of the way he was walking. He had, since the mugging, developed a particular, idiosyncratic stride, a self-deprecating, slightly pigeon-toed hobble meant to communicate his subservience to local street predators; he realized that it had become second nature. He sat on the bed, his knees almost touching Joelle’s, looked down at his beer, and smiled. Joelle looked around nervously.

“Some cop’s been asking about you, Dad. Detective Milero. He comes by my place at odd hours. He stares at my tits and asks me where you went. I give him a beer and tell him I haven’t seen you. He sticks around — maybe he wants to see if you’ll call or show up. He asks questions about my love life. One time he told me I’m as beautiful as my grandmother — now there’s a slick line.” She guzzled some beer.

“You have gotten beautiful,” Charlie said, realizing that as a talker he was out of practice — his words weren’t saying quite what he meant.

“He always touches me — usually when he’s leaving. He pats me on the back and smiles this creepy smile. Then he lets his hand slide down over my ass. Ruins my appetite for hours.”

“You seem wise and sad. I hope I don’t make you sad.”

“Daddy, you disappeared. Gramma disappeared. It’s not good when people you love disappear. You figure nobody on this earth wants to be near you. You figure that everything you thought to be true was ignorance, just plain empty air.” She finished the bottle. “I had to find you.”

“I’m glad you found me,” he said.

14.

Joelle visited nearly every week. She worked as a pharmacy assistant in a Walgreen’s near the Federal Building, and it was an easy walk from there to Charlie’s hotel. She brought him supplies, and told him stories of her workday, and of the men she went out with on the weekend. She gave him an iPod that she had filled with music, including many of his favorite R&B songs of the 40s and 50s.

She had a falling out with her mother, and got herself a little studio apartment downtown. She visited Charlie more often. She fell in love with a software salesman from Seattle, a man who, like so many others she’d found herself with, didn’t seem to care for her as much as she did for him. Charlie didn’t see much of her for a while. Then she came by on a Saturday afternoon to say goodbye — she was moving to Seattle. She sent Charlie a Hallmark card every couple months, always enclosing a five hundred dollar money order.

15.

One evening the following spring, Charlie went down to the hotel lobby to check his mail. There was a letter, addressed — in typescript — to Ralph Booth. He figured it was from Joelle, though she only sent him cards and would not have typed in the address on an envelope. The letter was postmarked New Orleans. He opened it and recognized his mother’s handwriting.


Dear Charlie,

Boy was it hard to get a hold of your address. Only somebody with the wherewithal of a Mr. Vitek could track you down. Many things have happened since we last spoke. I live with Lars, who is Mr. Vitek’s chauffeur. I think we’re in Florida. Mr. Vitek owns the apartment building in which we live, and it has a swimming pool. Lars bought me flippers to swim with, because he says human feet with their tiny toes aren’t adequate for kicking through water. While I am on the subject of body parts, I should tell you that I have a set of dentures that would make a beaver grin. I ate corn right off the cob Sunday afternoon.

Charlie, Mr. Vitek tells me that you have been through some hard times. You know what, your age is a hard time of life to go through, period. I remember like it was yesterday. Just keep in mind, it is like having back pain, you think it will never end but things do get better. Believe me Charlie, things do get better. Look at me, living proof. I have had some pretty bad days in the past year or two, and now I am happy as a frog. I am even down to a pack a day, thanks to Lars.

So Charlie I send my love to you, and to Joelle too. I hope your lives are a joy, and that your health is good because good health is the foundation for good living. And maybe someday you can come out here to visit us. Lars and I have a schnauzer and many plants!

Your Loving Mother,
Elsa


A sweet warmth flooded his body as he finished reading the letter. He felt like he had as a young boy, when he’d carried his mother’s loving, protective presence inside him wherever he went.

He crossed the lobby to where a handful of men stared at a talk show on TV. He wanted to tell somebody how light, how grateful and serene he felt, but he had no friends here. He stepped outside into the crisp night air and began walking.

He headed for the waterfront, where he wandered along the periphery of the shipyards, looking at the old warehouses and tall loading cranes and, occasionally, alongside one of the piers, a brightly lit freighter from Asia or Europe. Eventually he drifted, as he knew he would, to the corner where the old phone booth still stood. The phone had been removed, but he stepped inside anyway and shut the door.

He sat down on the smelly concrete and looked out at the near-empty street. Strangely, with the phone gone, the booth now seemed more connected to the world outside, as if with a thousand invisible threads, each of them carrying faint, fragile whispers from far away. For some reason the thought made him laugh. It was a quiet laugh, yet it startled him, as though it had come from someone else, a not-so-friendly observer, looking over his shoulder.

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