The Sound of The Setting Sun

The old man took a deep breath of the evening air. The sun had not quite set but the woods were beginning to come alive with night sounds. He sat near a small fire and looked out over the lake. He had driven up here, to the trailhead, and then hiked in 7 miles to this spot that he knew so well. He also knew it would be deserted; late October was not high tourist season in the North Woods. Not even hunters would hike in this far.

He was exhausted from the hike, but content and the only thing missing was Sam…he would have liked to have his dog here with him…especially now, but in the end he decided it would be best to leave him with Patti, she loved the dog and would know what to do. He was lucky to have Patti come into his life, at 23 years old it was strange that they got on so well, but she had taken a liking to him after he’d come in to pay his rent and made a point of checking on him almost every day. Even when she wasn’t working she would text him a funny picture or video the way young people like to do.

What really cinched it was the time he talked her into taking him skiing. It wasn’t that he couldn’t drive himself, he certainly could, but he knew if something happened his daughters would swoop in and take away his skis, his car, his freedom. For some reason, they thought he was hard of hearing…a misapprehension he used to his advantage. So he knew he needed to watch his step. They meant well, but their attempts to “protect” him meant losing his independence. Even Sam was a risk…he’d overheard one daughter saying something about a “rescue”. So what he needed was a wingman and Patti was up for the job. It took some talking, but after assuring her that he would stay on the green hills and throwing in gas money, lunch and dinner, and setting her up with a private ski lesson she agreed.

Everything went fine although he’d fibbed about the green hills, but as he explained some people can ski well into their 70s and even 80s. Once they arrived and Patti saw the large number of seniors on skis, she relaxed and went off for her lesson leaving him to do what he liked best; enjoying the peace and quiet of the snow covered trails and the occassional rush of doing something a little risky. Patti had refused to take any of his money even though her ski rentals and lesson had cost her a pretty penny. They had taken his car and he’d let her drive down but on the way home he drove…he wanted her to see he was fine driving alone, and in any event his daughters had insisted he upgrade his car to the lastest safety features which didn’t hurt any. During that three hour drive he’d come to regard her almost as a daughter…she had shared a lot with him and he began to understand that she was a special type of person. He loved his daughters beyond all measure but he understood that they had thier lives to live and so he felt fortunate to have someone like Patti in his life.

“Daddy, I don’t think you should be living alone”. That was Gracie, his youngest and the one he called Princess. She more than anyone knew that he would never be able to stand losing his own place. He kissed her on the cheek and promised her he would think about it. They both knew he was lying and Gracie wouldn’t push the issue but her older sister was another story. She had been checking out “nice places” and kept sending him brochures which he promised her he would read. “Would I get to keep my car?” “Now daddy…”. It all came to a head the day he fell, both girls freaked out a little and both came to town to take him to his doctor. He had to give permission but they came into the exam room with him. Finally, to get out of there, he’d agreed that he must have gotten a little light headed. They went home and the girls had the opinion from his own doctor that he should probably “be around people”. He explained about Patti looking in on him, but they objected saying “and what happens when she gets a new job?”

The irony of the situation was that he had actually tripped over Sam; no spring chicken himself, Sam was half blind and had taken to being underfoot all the time. If he had admitted that though, they may have taken Sam away. His sister called him; she never called with happy news. All she had to say was “how do you think your daughters would feel if they found you laying on the floor dead?” Thanks Phyllis. He said she was absolutely right and he would do something about it straight away. “Thank God I was able to talk some sense into you” she said before announcing that she had to go watch her favorite TV show.

Something his daughters did not know about was the followup call he’d gotten from his doctor’s office. His steadliy declining kidney function was reaching a critical stage. Telling his daughters would mean he had seen his last day of skiing, his last walk in the woods alone, his last drive to the ocean to watch the waves crash on the shore while he sipped beers from his cooler. He HAD confided in Patti, told her he wanted one last trip to the North Country, and she had given him a tent that she never used. His daughters wouldn’t like it and they would feel betrayed, well maybe Gracie would understand after awhile…she was her father’s daughter. Patti wouldn’t like it either, but she would immediately understand and that is why she was watching Sam.

He took the three notes, one for each daughter and one for Patti, put them in plastic bags and pinned them to the tent wall. They would find the car first so there was a note in the car pointing out his camping site. He told all three girls he loved them and asked Patti to take care of Sam, although he already knew she would. And then he thought about his late wife for a few minutes…would she understand? Of course she would; she knew who she married.

He watched as the sky turned orange, then red, then purple. He watched as the stars appeared and found Polaris, Orion and Ursa Major. There was no moon and that made him a little sad but he was able to make out Venus and Mars. He had carried in a can of beer and left it to chill in a nearby stream. He got up and grabbed the beer…it was perfect. He sat back down just outside the tent entrance, pulled the bottle from his pocket and without hesitation swallowed it’s contents, washing it down with the ice cold beer. Then he sat back and breathed the pine air and he could smell the Balsam and he could smell the Tamarack and he could smell the Jack Pine. He could hear a fish striking at a mosquito and his daughters crying in their cribs and he heard his wife saying she was waiting for him.

© Glenn R Keller 2020, All Rights Reserved

Beach Therapy

Hand in hand, they walked down the beach into the dark. The lights from the hotel and the reggae band fading. He took off his sweater and put it down so she wouldn’t get sand up her skirt. They’d just met each other when she’d walked down onto the sand but she’d known at once that they would be together every day for the rest of her stay. They were having a moment…staring at the ships in the distance, their running lights appearing and disappearing with the movement of the sea.

They didn’t touch each other, not even a lean…she knew it would come but didn’t want to spoil the simple intimacy of the moment. So the two of them sat there, not speaking, the way close friends do when there’s no pressure to fill the silence. “I’d better turn in” she said. He rose silently and offered his hand to help her up and they headed back to the hotel. He kept hold of her hand…she didn’t object.

The next morning she came down early to enjoy a cup of coffee on her own before she met him for breakfast. She explained to the waiter that someone would be joining her but after about an hour he still hadn’t come down and she was getting anxious. Seeing her worry, the hostess came over to have a chat while she waited. She explained that they had only just met on the beach, and well, maybe she’d been naive. The hostess just said “oh my” and hurried off. Well that was strange…

“You’ve got to be kidding me”. The bartender sighed. He’d come over to her when the hostess told him about the stranger on the beach. “I know it’s hard to believe Miss but you’re not back in Michigan…”. She shook her head and headed back to her room but first she stopped at the front desk to inquire about the tall dark haired stranger on holiday by himself.

She spent the day reading and drinking at the lagoon bar hoping to see him, knowing she wouldn’t but wanted to show that lunatic bartender and the idiot hostess that it was all just a misunderstanding. He must be staying at one of the nearby hotels. She just assumed they were in the same place…that had to be it right? But as darkness fell and she could see the band setting up again, she went back to her room to freshen up and put on something pretty.

It was 8:30, right after sunset, she took the last sip of her drink then got up from the bar, slipped off her sandals and walked down onto the beach. “Hi” and there he was just like the night before. She said nothing about where he’d been, she just offered her hand and he took it, leading her down the beach to the same spot. And they sat there again, saying nothing, watching the ships and watching the moon play on the waves. And somehow, the intimacy was greater. She didn’t bother asking him to meet her for breakfast…that was impossible but she went down to the beach the next night and the next and every night for the rest of her stay.

On the last night, as they were holding hands heading back to her hotel she told him she was going home in the morning and tears started to roll down her face. He wiped away a tear… “It’ll be okay. You have what you need now”. Then he walked away and disappeared into the darkness down the beach.

JFK

It’d been a long flight from Russia and Peter was walking around like a zombie. He passed through the maze that was the old Pan Am terminal into another, even older terminal. After passing several waiting areas he found what he was looking for: a gate with no flights posted on the monitor, and not a soul in the waiting area. Sweet! He could catch a few winks undisturbed by nattering couples and unruly children. He plopped in a chair, put his feet on his briefcase and had almost shut his eyes when he saw something a few yards away. Shit. He wasn’t alone. He sulked as if someone had barged into his private property.

He opened his eyes a bit more; it was a flight attendant, but what was she doing on the floor? She had taken her boots off and was sitting with her feet curled up under her, reading a book. She had wavy dark hair pulled over one shoulder and he could see she was slim and by the look of her legs tall as well. She looked up. Damn! He had stared too long. On defense, he flashed her what had to be the nerdiest grin ever. She smiled back, and he mumbled “hi” and figured it was time to butt out and take his catnap. After all, she was after the same thing he was; peace and quiet.

“Where are you heading?” Well maybe she wanted to chat after all. “Dulles” he replied, “connecting from Moscow”. She nodded “that’s a long day. I just worked a flight from Paris, deadheading back to Atlanta now”. “So why are you sitting on the floor?” She laughed, “I’m working on my thesis and it’s the only way to keep all my crap organized, I’m Juliette by the way”. “Nice to meet you, I’m Peter. Is it Julie for short?” “Nope, I prefer Juliette.”

As it turned out she was working on a Masters Degree in French history for no reason other than she found it interesting. So she was a Francophile….that explained the Juliette thing. But at the moment she wasn’t particularly motivated after her overseas flight so they wound up getting a bite at a nearby restaurant. The conversation flowed easily as he too had an interest in history. They exchanged social media information and kept in touch over messenger. She documented her travels on Instagram and he always had to make a pithy comment on each picture.

A few months later she sent him a message “I snagged the Dulles to Paris roundtrip, I’ll have an overnight in D.C. Buy me dinner.” Dinner went great, not there was much doubt, they’d been messaging and occasionally calling each other ever since JFK. He wanted to see her when she returned from Paris. “When will you be back?” “Tuesday. I have a 3 day layover in Paris. Fun, but I’ll be on my own. Everyone else will want to shop and go clubbing. I just want to hit the museums and walk my feet off.” They agreed to meet when she came back through and he got a long hug when he dropped her at the crew hotel. But thinking on what she’d said about being alone in Paris he couldn’t help wondering was that a hint?

He walked through the main cabin door and couldn’t find her. Crap. What if her assignment had changed. It was a risk just showing up, but he wanted to surprise her. Guess he’d be the one alone in Paris. “I can’t believe you”. He spun around and saw a grinning Juliette in the entry to business class. “Well, couldn’t let you wander Paris alone could I”. She laughed “I’m a big girl”. “Well I thought you might like some company and well…I mean…are you mad?” He was stammering. “Cut it out, you’re right where you’re supposed to be. I practically beat you over the head hoping you’d ask me yesterday, but the surprise is nice”. She squeezed his hand ” now sir, you’re in 24B, please take your seat and I’ll attend to you later.”

He watched her walk up the aisle back to her business class passengers and was just starting to settle in when she showed up again. “Sir” he leered at her “yes ma’am”. “Good news. You’ve been upgraded. Please get your belongings and follow me”. As they moved into the premium cabin he noticed an empty seat next to a pretty blonde and headed for it. Juliet grabbed his arm and guided him towards a seat next to a young man wearing headphones. “Nice try bucko. You just sit right here where I can keep an eye on you.”

What followed for the next hour or so was a parade of flight attendants and even the Captain, slowly walking by, trying to look casual, checking him out. One crusty veteran looked him up and down, grunted and shook her head. Finally, the Captain plopped down in the seat across the aisle. “So you’re Jules’s boyfriend.” Boyfriend? What had she told them? Well, he had to admit, he didn’t mind the sound of it. The Captain was still talking, he looked him over. Right out of central casting, tall, Dutch, square jaw, “you have to forgive us, always there is a passenger who is after Juliette and always she is saying ‘no'”. So we are very curious about the passenger she said ‘yes’ to”. Peter laughed “well truth be told, it was more like I said yes to her.” The Captain laughed “be good to her”, and then he disappeared back to the flight deck. It was all very friendly, but there was the hint of a warning in the Captain’s tone.

Paris was a complete success. He’d assumed she’d bunk with her crew but she had other plans and so they wound up spending almost every minute of the three days together. By the time they’d boarded the flight back he told her he thought he was in love. She was noncommittal but when his entree was served about an hour into the flight it came with a note that sealed the deal. He thought “damn…and I wasn’t even going to speak to her”.

After they landed at Dulles she had to hustle back to Atlanta so she could get enough sleep before her next assignment. As promised, she texted that she’d gotten home alright and added an ‘I Love You’ lest he forget. He was already working out where they would meet next and texted her about his idea. But she didn’t answer that text. Or the next one, or the next…then he tried calling and her phone went to voice mail. He kept calling and leaving messages over the next 2 weeks until her mailbox was full. Was she ghosting him? She didn’t seem the type, she was direct, even blunt. She would have at least told him to knock it off. Something was very wrong.

And now be began to realize how little he knew about her. He knew her last name, where she worked, her mobile number, that she lived somewhere in Atlanta, and that she had parents in Michigan…or was it Minnesota? He decided to check with the airline and finally found a number for Human Resources. “Has she been to work and do you know what flight she was working last?” Dead end. “All we can do is confirm she works for us sir, the rest is confidential…” he didn’t give up, “I’m worried about her.” The HR clerk sighed “No offense sir, but we get lots of calls where someone is trying to track down one of our Flight Attendants”. End of call.

He tried a different tack. He had a friend who was a retired Captain…maybe he still knew someone that would be more helpful. He was right on it: “All I could find out is she hasn’t flown for over two weeks, scheduling can’t find her and and she’s been suspended”. “Have they tried to track her down?” His friend sensed the distress in his voice but couldn’t help from laughing, “It’s a big airline, people quit without notice all the time. Sorry bud, hope you find her.” He was disappointed but still it was a tiny bit more than he’d known previously. He was getting ready to hang up “oh I almost forgot…the Captain on her last flight…he’s not showed up for work either”. Peter whistled. “Well surely this will have them try to hunt them down.” “Not necessarily. They won’t do much more than you’ve already done. Look, I know you’re crazy about her, but a pilot going on a bender with a pretty flight attendant? Wouldn’t be the first time. Not the second or third time either.” Peter felt himself getting angry at his friend but held it together, “doesn’t seem like the type but I take your point. I do appreciate your help”. “No problem buddy, I hope you find her”.

Peter thought surely he was closing in on the smoking gun…it was just too much coincidence that the pilot had disappeared at the same time. He needed to find some more info on this guy. Having reached a dead end at the airline he decided to call in his best online stalker buddy. Actually, he and Lori had been on and off for years so maybe buddy wasn’t the right word but it wasn’t the wrong word either. Lori came down to his apartment with a couple bottles of wine figuring this was going to turn into a booty call. Seeing no chance of that she started in on the wine. After Peter finished telling the story she snorted and almost blew wine out her nose.

“Okay”, she began, “so you meet a beautiful woman in an airport waiting room and she asks you to buy her some dinner before her flight”. “She didn’t ask me to buy, I just did “. “Okay whatever. Then she maneuvers you into going to Paris with her…”. “Wait a minute that was my idea.” Lori rolled her eyes “you’re cute. Did she sleep with you?” Peter clearly looking for something to recover his dignity snapped “yes. And then some.” “Well, that’s a point in your favor.” Peter thought she was enjoying herself a bit too much at his expense. “Don’t you think we should be focusing on that pilot?” “Irrelevant.” She stated flatly. “If she lied to you do you even care about the pilot?” Peter had to admit she had a point. “Let’s focus on her. I want you to write down everything she told you about herself. Dig deep. Now get cracking.”

After about an hour Lori was on her 3rd glass of wine and Peter was done with the list and handed it over for review. She rolled her eyes again, “Seriously? She doesn’t like THAT?” He tried to look innocent “you said everything…”. “What the hell were you trying to do?” “Nothing, she just came out with it”. She gave him the side eye “you mean like on the airport shuttle?” He grabbed the wine bottle “that’s enough, you get jealous when you drink”. She grabbed it back. “You wish. Let’s get back to work”.

“Okay. You have circumstantial evidence that she lives in Atlanta.” “No that’s solid. I met her flight when she came to Dulles”. “She’s a flight attendant and that’s a hub. Easy to game that. Circumstantial.” She moved on, “She works for the airline that’s for sure. And I feel like she is from Michigan for sure.” He shook his head “that’s just what she said, I have no evidence.” She disagreed: “She told you she’s a Packers fan. Someone faking they’re from Michigan wouldn’t say the “Packers”. Peter had almost forgotten about her history studies “she’s a whiz at French history, so that checks out too.” Lori screwed up here face and stared at the laptop. “She claimed she had little internet access until she left for college.” A grin started to form “I know where’s she’s from”. Lori then proceeded to put together the puzzle for Peter. “She lives in Michigan but likes the Packers…” Peter noted that there were Packers fans everywhere. “Just stay with me hun. She loves snowmobiling and she said her college was too far away to go home very often right?” Peter nodded. “And where did she go to college?” Lori said this like she was a game show host leading up to the final answer “Detroit, will you just tell me if you know something for chrissakes?” “God don’t be so crabby. Alright groucho man, she’s from the Upper Peninsula! You don’t look impressed…why don’t you look impressed?” Peter sighed “do you have any idea how big the Upper Peninsula is? That’s like 300,000 people up there.” “311,000 to be precise. That’s why you have me and the Mac daddy here” she said, patting her laptop.

Lori was simultaneously searching online for clues and singing a song designed to annoy Peter. For his part, he pretended not to be annoyed, though he was, which only made her sing with increasing gusto. “I know what you’re up to and you can forget it.” She only pouted and drilled into some new discovery. “Ooooh oooh is this her????” Peter rushed to look over her shoulder. There was a photo of a grinning beaver on the screen.

It was way past sunrise and Peter had dozed off on the couch but woke to hear Lori talking excitedly to someone on the phone. When his eyes could focus he could see she wanted him to take the phone. “What???” She half whispered “it’s her mom! She wants to talk to you.” He started to put it on speaker and Lori waved him off, “I’m crashing. Fill me in later.” The call went on for over an hour with them each walking through their latest convos with Juliette sifting for clues. She assured Peter her daughter was not the type to just ghost someone. She’d not heard from her in a couple,of weeks but hadn’t been worried until now. They agreed that she would call the airline (as next of kin they would tell her more) and Peter would pursue other means. There was talk of calling the police but mom was going to try to reach a couple of her girlfriends first. He decided to get some more sleep and then he’d get Lori caught up. He went into his bedroom only to find Lori sprawled across his bed snoring loudly. He pushed her to one side and laid down next to her. He was out in a minute.

They slept late, but after brunch they were back on the phone with Juliette’s folks. Her dad had gotten home from a business trip and immediately called the police in the Atlanta suburb where Juliette had her apartment. He got on the line, “the police asked for your number but…”. Peter said “thanks but you have to call them back right now and give it to them”. “Will you keep looking for her?” Peter answered “With all due respect sir, I wouldn’t stop if you asked me to.” Her parents both thanked him and they agreed to speak again that evening. Lori looked over at him “NOW it’s time to find out about this Captain.

Peters’s interview with the police was thorough and tedious. He was impressed…they actually seemed to be looking for her. Unlike him, they were able to find out that she had indeed taken the flight from Dulles to Atlanta which both helped the case and proved that Peter had not been the last to see her. While that was going on Lori had been digging around trying to get more on Captain Bligh as she had taken to calling him. She’d had some success.

“Now who is this we are going to see?” They has flown to Minneapolis the night before and had met Lori’s Sorority sister for breakfast. She was driving them north of the city to meet Shelly, a woman she’d met doing a community theatre production. As she’d explained over breakfast, at one performance Shelly’s boyfriend had attended and went for drinks with the cast. He was hard to forget, tall and handsome. His name was Dirk, a Dutch guy. He was an airline pilot.

Shelly was distraught, Dirk texted or called her almost every night without fail unless he was working a flight. And then he always let her know when he’d arrived. “Do you think they ran off? Dirk and your girlfriend?” “I don’t think so Shelly”. Shelly was trying not to cry, “then where are they…?” “I wish I knew…”. Lori interrupted “you two getting upset isn’t going to find them. Shelly, thanks hun, don’t worry, we’re gonna find them you’ve given us tons of details. “Shelly nodded “thank you”. They left her with their contact numbers and what to say if Dirk or even Juliette were to contact her.

On the drive back to the twin cities they inventoried their findings. Lori was excited though Peter couldn’t see why. “Big deal, we got a list of his destinations and his phone number. The cops will have that by now too.”. Lori scoffed “do the cops have a record of what he did…” Peter interrupted “says he did”. “Jesus Peter, sooner or later you have to believe something or you’ll never get anywhere at all. Now the only thing we need to do is find all the other Shellys, this guy’s a player”. Peter was shaking his head “he’s a straight arrow. He never made a pass at Juliette or any of the other Flight Attendants”. Lori laughed “so what, ever hear the expression ‘don’t shit where you eat'”? Peter got a mischievous look on his face “Jesus Lori, sooner or later…”. She cut his sentence off and punctuated it with a hard punch in the arm.

They were going through their notes on Capt. Bligh when the phone rang. It was Juliette’s father, “someone from the airline called and wanted to talk about Juliette but insisted on speaking to you two”. “Why us” asked Peter? “I don’t know, though she said it wasn’t official and would only talk to Peter and that chick who’s helping him”. “That chick, nice” muttered Lori. “Honestly, she sounded scared”. Lori arched an eyebrow, “lose her job scared? “. “Worse scared.”Peter took the woman’s number and promised he’d call back after they’d spoken.

It took awhile to draw her out, she was frightened, but gradually they got her to open up. Turns out she’d been the purser on that trip to Paris and word leaked out that someone was looking for Juliette. It wasn’t hard to put 2 + 2 together, but she had no way of contacting him so she got hold of Juliette’s emergency contact info, reached her parents, and here they were. “Girls are going missing and the airline is saying it’s normal attrition but everyone knows something’s wrong.” Lori asked carefully, ” what makes everyone think that? ” The woman asked Peter if she thought Juliette was the type that would just scram, “definitely not”, ” well it’s the same pattern with the other girls, they work a Paris trip, deadhead back to their home city and then they go missing.” Lori pushed her: “who are the other girls?” The woman hesitated, “I can’t say. Look, I like Juliette so I want to help but please swear you won’t tell anyone we spoke.” Peter and Lori swore to it, “okay there’s one more thing. Captain Dirk is somehow mixed up in this.” After she hung up Peter protested “this is a red herring. Shelly said he’d never gone missing before so I’m not seeing what would be different this time”. Lori put her hand on his shoulder “Peter, it’s you. You’re what’s different”

They began debating the merits of which trail to go down next. It was beyond doubt that somehow this Dirk guy, Captain Anders to be precise, was up to his neck in it. On the other hand tracking down who the girls were might establish a pattern. Lori scrunched up her face, “I’m not even sure the cops know there’s more than one. Searching all over the country looking for missing women who happen to be flight attendants…Damnit!!!” “What? What are you thinking?” Lori grabbed her mobile and told SIRI to call Juliette’s Mom. Her father answered and told Lori she was too upset and he’d have to do. “No. Put her on, it’s important.” Lori covered the mic “I think I know who one of the other missing girls is”. Mom came on the phone. “Ma’am what did you tell me about Juliette’s roommate being on vacation?” Lori thanked her and without so much as glancing at Peter dialed the detective working the case on Juliette. She put it on speaker and Peter heard an annoyed voice come on the line. Lori didn’t give him time to get a word out “Yeah it’s me again, so when the fuck were you going to tell me her roommate was missing too?” Flustered, the detective blurted out “we don’t have time to deal with amateurs”. Bad choice of words. Lori was on him “what do you have on Anders?” “Person of interest, not a suspect at this time”. “Oh yeah? Did you know there are more than 2 missing flight attendants and they all flew to Paris right before they went missing?” The detective was trying not to sound excited “how did you find that out?” “Never mind. Look I know we are not ‘working together’ but we’ve got nothing else to do but work this. I will tell you everything I find out if you do the same, agreed?” She didn’t wait for his answer, “good”.

Peter was shaking his head “how did you know for sure it was her roommate?” Lori grabbed an apple “I didn’t. But I do now” She chomped on the apple. “Well you could have just asked”, Lori laughed, “that’s how you get men to talk. If you ask they’ll have time to come up with a story”. “And if it had been a woman?” “A woman would not have even heard the question, she would have torn my head off.” “Geez, I’m glad you’re on my side”. “I can’t believe I’m helping you find another woman”. He kissed her on the cheek “thank you”. She snorted “whatever, I think it’s time to check her social media again”, Peter groaned “We spent hours going through her instagram account and nothing. Just a bunch of her friends posing on beaches and in front of mirrors”. “True, but now we have someone to zone in on.” “Did the cops give you her name?” “Rhonda Turner. But she’s not in Juliette’s list of followers. Not surprising, probably using a made up name, so we are going to have to find her the hard way.”

After about an hour they’d collected and printed out five mirror selfies of Juliette that they determined must have been from her apartment. “What’s the point of this?” He asked. “Just do what I say. Go through the list of Juliette’s female followers and checkout their pics until you find something interesting. Try not to hurt yourself.” “Where the hell are you going?” She laughed “I’m free labor and your ex. Don’t push your luck. I’ll be right back.”

When she returned Peter was grinning “I found her! Username is RhondaFlys.” “Matched the wallpaper in the selfies didn’t you?” He looked crestfallen, “I thought I made that up…”. She patted him on the head “you did honey. I just made it up first.” She handed him a beer she’d gotten from down the street.”

As it turned out, Rhonda was a social media addict and her accounts on Instagram and Facebook yielded a bonanza of cat videos and selfies. Fortunately there were lots of pictures with Flight crew including Juliette and Anders and she consistently tagged everyone in her photos. Soon they had a wall full of index cards and yarn tying together all the relationships. They were starting to get punchy from lack of sleep so Lori headed for Peter’s bed to crash for awhile. He took a walk around the deserted streets to clear his head. When his head was clear it told him to get some sleep. Walking into his room he saw Lori was again taking up most of the bed but wasn’t yet asleep. He crawled in next to her but did not shove her aside this time. He whispered thank you, and she moved closer to him and then went out like a light.

Peter woke up to the smell of fresh coffee and the crackling of frying bacon. He threw on his robe and went to the kitchen. Lori motioned for him to sit down. Funny, he thought, during the time they were a couple she had never cooked once, yet here she was like Suzy Homemaker. “What’s gotten into you?” She wagged her finger at him “don’t be so suspicious, I went for a walk and got hungry, bacon, eggs, toast and orange juice sounded good.” He saluted her with his cup, “and coffee”. Lori just smiled. She filled a couple of plates and they sat in silence while they ate, thinking. As soon as Peter was done, Lori led him to her laptop and told him to sit down. She’d been up to more than walking and cooking while he was sleeping.

“So here is Anders on Rhonda’s list of followers and she follows him of course”. Peter nodded “that’s to be expected, but no connection between Anders and Juliette right?” “Right. But look here. I started going through El Creepo’s list of connections focusing on the flight attendants”. He was beginning to understand her methods; focus on the easy stuff first and you might catch a break. Lori had indeed caught a break but it wasn’t the kind of break either of them was expecting…or wanting.

Peter hung up the phone, the detective had been sympathetic, and even acknowledged they might be on to something but that; 1. Men looking at internet porn wasn’t illegal and; 2. there wasn’t enough of a lead to go on to start pulling in the type of resources they would need. Besides, he reminded them, they were far from exhausting their conventional leads and his captain would insist he follow those before going off on something speculative. He did promise however to call a friend at the FBI who specialized in this sort of thing. Neither of them thought it was speculative and Peter was still shaken by what Lori had shown him. If Lori’s theory was right, Juliette was in grave danger.

They called Juliette’s father and filled him in on progress but only told him she might be with Anders and that the police were reaching out to the FBI…all true but hardly the whole picture. They had both agreed that further frightening her parents wouldn’t do any good. Peter’s phone dinged with an incoming text from his retired captain friend. “Four, women same thing. No shows for work, suspended, couldn’t get names.” He texted back a “thank you” and put his head in his hands.

Peter was looking at the picture of Rhonda the flight attendant and then the other account that Lori had found. There was something familiar about the profile pic and then she realized that the redhead featured in the porn account looked a hell of a lot like the blonde Rhonda. She finally found a small scar on her neck and confirmed it. The rest was easy. She was able to track two of the followers from her legit account to two other porn accounts. These three women HAD to be the other missing flight attendants. And then Peter had realized something that made his blood run cold: none of their legit accounts had been touched in weeks…just like Juliette’s.

“We need to verify this and then we can get some help from the feds; ironically they’re the only ones who can verify our theory. Can we call Daniel? The one with the wife that went missing?” Daniel was a childhood friend of Peter’s and a detective with the local police force. He and his wife, Gretchen, had become locally famous when she’d mysteriously disappeared. Gretchen was a frumpy dresser but her mother, a PR professional knew how to keep the police on the case; she found the one glamour shot she had of her daughter and made sure it got in the local papers. The press went berserk and the cops were forced to keep the case as a top priority. Ironically, Gretchen had rescued herself with Daniel’s unwitting help, and the strange circumstances along with her good looks kept the story alive and they lived like minor celebrities.

They met over lunch at a posh suburban restaurant, all brass and Art Deco and waiters in white aprons, it felt like they had stepped back a century. Gretchen’s outfit was muted but there was no hiding who she was , and the other customers snuck glances in their direction. Daniel had indeed spoken to his fed friends who were able to confirm that all four women were indeed missing. Lori shook her head “what is Anders into?”. Gretchen tried to sound upbeat “there’s no porn account for Juliette yet, Anders Dutch passport has been revoked and border patrol is on the lookout for him”. “So they’re probably holed up somewhere in the country, which for now is a good thing” Daniel offered. Peter stared at his plate “what happens when they’re done with these girls?”. Gretchen laid it out straight: “everyone pictures cases like this happening in Eastern Europe or some place like that. Truth is these women could all be in New Jersey or someplace . They may be messed up but there’s a much better chance of finding them…”. Peter completed her sentence “Alive”.

They’d been back at his apartment throwing out theories but not accomplishing much. Peter got up and took a walk. He’d spent a grand total of 93 hours with this woman and had fallen hard…who was she? The local pizza joint was open so he stopped in and got a large pie…he wasn’t sure about Daniel and Gretchen but Lori loved pizza. He trotted up the stairs, reinvigorated and excited about the hot pizza. He threw open the door and said “pizza!” but no one budged. Not even a facial twitch. The one exception was Gretchen who just gave him a baleful look. “They’re not missing”.

Peter set the pizza down on the counter “you found her?” He’d said it like a man repeats news he thinks is too good to be true. He wasn’t wrong. Daniel walked over to him and put his hand on his shoulder “no, we didn’t find them. We just know they’re safe and not missing”. It was a lot to process, should he be happy? Sad? What? His mind did the only thing it could do, it evaded the obvious, hard question and went on a tangent “do her parents know yet?” Lori piped in “they knew it all along. They played along with us because the feds thought you were mixed up in it.”. It was too much and Peter just sat down and stared into space. Gretchen shooed Daniel away and sat down next to him. “I’m gone 45 minutes…”. “I know. It just all came together that fast”.

Gretchen started filling in the blanks. How Daniel’s buddy at the bureau had called and told him to back off. Daniel pressed his friend, and his luck, for Peter’s sake. All he got was “we have them and they’ve committed no crimes.” Daniel got nothing else out of his friend, well almost. He had a theory and he tested it. “Our friend wants to see the girl. They were lovers.” All the agent said was “he’ll never see her”. That told Daniel everything he needed to know. Gretchen tried to soothe Peter…she’s safe Peter. “I would have went with her, she could have at least asked”. Gretchen took his hand “if your places were switched, would you have done that to her? Asking her to make that choice? To never see her parents again? Her friends? Would you really have done that? Never see your parents again? Or Lori?”. Peter was shaking his head, I couldn’t have asked that. And no, my parents are dead but I don’t think I could have left Lori”. “It’s because she cared about you that she didn’t make you choose”.

Peter regained his composure. “So what happened? What were they into?” Daniel shook his head. “Hard to tell, but if I had to guess, Juliette had been targeted like the rest of these girls. Probably were going to befriend her in Paris…but then you showed up and you never left her side”. Peter was confused, “so the Feds are involved in a non-kidnapping?” “They must have made another try for her…but Anders is keeping an eye on her and got in the middle of it”. Gretchen took over from Daniel “So they go to the feds and the feds know these guys are really bad actors…”. Peter was nodding now “so Anders and Juliette can finger these guys”. “Probably”. So now the cross examination he’d gotten from Anders on the way to Paris made sense…he had been on high red alert.

It had been six months since he’d met Juliette and while he wasn’t over her, he’d come to accept reality. He walked into his apartment and Lori was on the couch working on her laptop, mooching his WiFi. It was okay, he liked having her around. There’d been a couple of near misses, but they’d kept it platonic; he wasn’t sure why, except that maybe she’d think he was just rebounding. He was going through the mail when one envelope caught his eye. It was handwritten. He opened it to find a smaller envelope inside. He did not recognize the handwriting but the writer was unmistakable: “Do you remember the two dogs we saw near La Place des Vosges “? Juliette was probably taking a crazy chance writing to him, even if she’d managed to conceal the true origin of the letter; which was postmarked Chicago. It went on and finally ended with an offer. She’d finagled a way that they could meet each other: would he like to see her? Instructions followed.

He went onto the balcony hoping the cold night air would focus his thinking. But what was there to think about; wasn’t this what he’d wanted? He looked through the window at Lori, she was oblivious, and she’d tell him to go if he asked her. He went back inside and sat next to her, she was typing an email so he said nothing, but he leaned over and kissed her on the cheek. “Where did that come from?” “I’m sorry, are you mad”? “No dumbass, just wondering why it took you so long.” She continued typing but moved closer to him. “Any interesting mail?” “Nothing important”

© Glenn R Keller 2020, All Rights Reserved

Broken Links

After my grandfather retired he would always point to two things he was proud of; The Verrazano Narrows Bridge and the Twin Towers. He was a shop steward in the electrical union and his guys had done the work on both.

He could quite literally point to them because on a clear day you could see them both off his back patio, which was really a dock just off Jamaica Bay. A working class neighborhood with waterfront access and a view of Manhattan on a good day. He earned it.

I was glad he wasn’t around to see the towers come down. Days later an American Airlines jet flew low over his old house before diving into a neighborhood in the Rockaways…it was an accident but fresh after 9/11 New Yorkers were edgy. He would have been 94…a 94 year old shouldn’t have to go through that.

I couldn’t see the towers from our apartment in east central Queens…Manhattan was a world away. But I visited Manhattan often, mostly the museums, Radio City, stuff like that. The Towers, like the Statue of Liberty were for tourists and so my visits there were with visitors in tow. Friends from Indiana, cousins from Illinois. A crush from Michigan.

Night time was the time to go up to the Observation Deck. The city lights stretched out forever only broken by the a dark swath of Atlantic Ocean to the Southeast. It was quiet as a church and indeed it was almost spiritual that New Years Eve so many years ago.

All the people I took there, when they watched the towers come down, that visit was their connection. They must have thought “I was there. Right there.” Janie too…I wonder what she thought. “I was there with that crazy fool that was in love with me. I let him take my hand, in the dark, oblivious to the hate in the world”

But mostly I think of my Grandfather. And I miss him and hate that the tragedy reminds me of him.

Rise and Fall

“My parents said you’re not allowed in my house anymore”. I looked at Robert “What did I ever do to them?” “They said you’re a trouble maker and a bad influence”. Well, they weren’t wrong. I looked around, half the kids in our 5th grade class were crowded around listening in. “Fuck your parents.” Collective whoa from the crowd.

So of course I went to Robert’s house for lunch. In fact there were lots of lunch invites after that from the latchkey kids living close to our school in Hollis, Queens. Even Claudia, the acknowledged class goddess whipped me up some food in her parents swanky apartment in Jamaica Estates. “If my parents find out you’re here they’ll kill me”. Who says being a bad boy doesn’t pay?

But fate, looking a lot like my mother intervened. And just like that, I was at the bottom of the totem pole in a new school with a bunch of brownnoses and a teacher I went to war with. And that’s a story I’ll share later.

Not This Time

I had been upgraded to 1st Class on a business trip to Memphis.  It was one of those last flight of the night deals when everyone is in a mellow state; passengers, crew, gate agents.  The plane was full save the one seat beside me.  No way it’s going to stay open.  I had a book to read, but was in that half-reading,  half-alert state that you are in while you are waiting to see who your seatmate is.  Once they settle in, I would do my usual courtesy greeting and go back to my reading.

No one else was boarding, but the door was still open,  you could hear the whine of the APUs and some chatter on the jet bridge.  The flight attendant moved back a step and waved in the last passenger,  and then directed her to the seat beside me.

She was dressed the way people used to dress to fly when it was not so common or to board a first class long distance train.   Expensive coat,  nice dress, pearls,  patent leather heels.  And she was attractive.  Actually,  she was beautiful,  with wavy brunette hair that made her blue eyes stand out.  We did the customary greeting, she ordered a drink and we both settled in,  me with my book.

When the flight attendant appeared to take up the glasses before takeoff,  she said something funny.  I can’t remember what it was but all three of us were laughing.  That broke the ice, we exchanged names, and for the next 90 minutes, we talked without pause, other than to have drinks refilled.

The cabin lights were off other than the spillover from the galley and we spoke in that semi-darkness with the sound of the engines that seemed to magnify the intimacy.   She had man troubles.  She was reassessing her life,  and I was right there for part of it.  She had just been badly used and she admitted she was stuck in a pattern.  Her problem was not quantity,  but as is so often the case,  it was quality.  We spoke very little about myself, only that I had a family with a daughter.  The conversation continued along the same lines right up until the time we heard the screech of the tires touching down.

We both sighed,  we could have talked a lot longer.  She looked at me “so what are you doing now?”.  She’d opened a door.  I walked around it.  I have some work to do tonight.  It was a lie, but one I judged was worth telling.  “oh”.

She got up first,  and I watched her get her things together.  When I got up,  she was ready to head out the door, but she stopped and turned around.  She put her hand on my upper arm, and she stood there looking at it for a second,  her hand on my arm.  Then she looked me in the eyes and said “You were exactly what I needed tonight.  Thank you.”  And then she turned and walked off the plane.

The Ground Beneath Us

We are living an illusion. We see the road ahead and we see the ground beneath and imagine, that it is firm and that it goes on forever.

But the horizon is a funhouse mirror and the ground is a knifes edge. Still, we walk along it and tell ourselves it’s solid. Until we’re pushed, a tiny tap really is all it takes, and we’re fighting for balance, our arms flailing around the air, looking for a handhold until we fall off one side or another.

“Your doctors office called”, “HR wants to see you”, “There’s a police officer at the door”.

And right then plans and hopes and dreams and the bullshit we tell ourselves all give way to the relentless math of the universe.

And the universe doesn’t care who we voted for, the universe doesn’t care what race we are the universe doesn’t care if we were rich or poor or good or evil or if we marched with King or cured polio. It doesn’t care about justice or injustice because it doesn’t care about us.

We, collectively, all of us together, are a cipher in time and space. Do you imagine that King Henry VIII is somewhere paying for beheading two of his wives? Do you imagine you will pay a price for that spider you whacked with a shoe? Laid side by side there is little to distinguish them.

We don’t exist. That’s the math. That’s the scale of the numbers. It’s going to fill in the missing side of the polynomial whether we like it or not but the truth is it doesn’t take much. We live on a planet that circles an un remarkable star that doesn’t even register within one arm of an unremarkable spiral galaxy among billions in space…space that continually confounds the physical laws we’ve made to comprehend it.

We are extraordinarily alone. In the cold. Walking our knifes edge. And all we have is each other and only for a nano second. And once we realize that…it’s always too late.

Body Count

I was sitting in the First Class Lounge watching the carnage at the bar. One by one men, traveling by themselves, approached the blonde at the end of the bar and one by one they went down in flames.

She had her back to me but she’d gotten up a few times so I got a look at her and man was she pretty…just a knockout. She wasn’t wearing a ring, and her and the bartender were getting along just fine so I figured she couldn’t be all that mean.

So I go up to the bartender and I ask him what’s up with the blonde and he gives me a blank stare. So I get out my wallet and slide a twenty across the bar. He looks at me and says “you seen the body count?” I slide another twenty his way. He pockets the bills and says “she’s watching the Red Sox play the Yankees. She’s in here once a month and we talk baseball.” So I ask him “Is she an iceberg?” “No she’s funny, but every one of those meatballs asked her a stupid question when she just wants to watch the ball game.” I thought for a minute then asked him who she was rooting for. “Die hard Red Sox fan. Good luck pal, nice knowing you” he says.

I took the stool next to her and said “Red Sox playing eh?” She doesn’t even look at me. She’s just staring at the TV and just kind of grunts. So I sit there next to her staring at the TV for like two minutes. Finally I say to no one in particular “I hate the fucking Red Sox”. She didn’t say anything. She didn’t even turn my way. She just reached over and put her cigarette out in my drink.

And that, Patti, is how I met your mother.

© Glenn R Keller 2020, All Rights Reserved

The Marine Theater

The ushers hustled everyone to their seats.  They wore the Jones Beach State Park uniform.  Blue and white.  There were seahorse emblems on their hats and epaulets.

Limousines were parked in their special lot while VIP guests ate 5 star meals in the dining room.  Soon they would be whisked to their special box seats right up front with each box manned by an attendant to bring food and drink at their whim.

Guy Lambardo’s Royal Canadians were warming up in the orchestra pit on the audience side of the moat.   They were the house orchestra for the lineup of Broadway shows produced especially for Jones Beach Marine Theater.  These were not travelling shows, these were dedicated productions starring the biggest names in musical theater.  There was a hum of outboard motors as the ramps between the stage and the shore were retracted from the moat.

Suddenly the orchestra launched into a fanfare and the house lights dropped.  The only lighting was from the stand lights in the orchestra pit and navigation lights out in the bay.  Suddenly there is the roar of twin marine engines at full power.  A spotlight searches the water until it lands on a speeding wooden Chris Craft runabout.  Guy Lambardo is at the helm and he comes to a dramatic stop right in front of the conductors box.  He hops out of the boat and onto the stage and immediately he strikes up the Star Spangled Banner.

The spectacle complete, the lights come down and the Orchestra begins the overture.  And this was what it was like to see a show at the Jones Beach Marine Theater.   And this was a State Park,  one of the finest in the world, which is just as Robert Moses had intended.  People will rave about Radio City Music Hall,  but in its day, Radio City was just another big theater in a city that was full of big theaters.   The Marine Theater was something totally unique.

It still operates today as a concert venue.  The moat has been filled in with seats and the dining rooms are gone.  It is undoubtedly an amazing venue for an outdoor concert,  situated on a bay next to the Atlantic.  But at one time,  it was something only Robert Moses could have pulled off.

Beauty and The Beast

I’ve never fallen out of love so fast. Yeah she was beautiful, yes she was a nice young lady, but she’d crossed a line that revealed her true character.

Selling books door to door was always going to be a sketchy enterprise. But despite my well known cynicism, I fell for the lure of a summer of hard work and adventure coupled with making a boat load of money. It was a rah rah affair, a real believe in yourself, what’s his name bullshit festival.

We targeted the most vulnerable, never a well to do neighborhood, and never when a husband was home. If you can think of a more crass approach I’d love to hear it. When I managed to get inside it was most often a lonely woman who wanted company. I could never close those sales…maybe they reminded me too much of someone.

The net of all this was I was always having to go on calls with the local sales manager, another student not much older than me, so she could show me how to close. I was in love with her, and her roommate, another crew member was, possibly, in love with me. I’d go over and sleep on their couch the night before we went out on calls. They’d make breakfast for me. Was this supposed to be punishment? I was in fricking guy Heaven. I got sent out with the roommate once…that never happened again because I talked her into goofing off all day. So I went out with Claire, and pretended to be interested in selling books.

The morning went well, we sold three or four sets and I took the lead while she watched and coached afterward. We split the commission, which was fair because she would have sold at least that many on her own. And then a very young mother came to the door with her baby in her arms. She was trying to feed her baby but listened politely to Claire’s spiel.

Let me stop right here and mention what really got to me on some calls. Usually when you got in, they knew you were selling something educational and they wanted to be good mothers. And they could almost never afford it. We had methods to get around it, but that was my problem, I’d look at this struggling young mother and I couldn’t pull the trigger, “you’re right ma’am…the library down the street is probably your best bet, and so on”.

This was one of those situations, this poor women was all wrapped up in guilt…she wanted those books for her baby who could start reading soon but as she put it, “I’m already having to choose between food and rent”. That’s where I would have just hung out for awhile and chatted because she was sad and pretty and who could resist that? But this wasn’t about me, this was Claire’s sale and she bored in for the kill “we just need a deposit”, the woman shook her head and said “ I only have eight dollars to last the rest of the week”. “We’ll take it!”. And so Claire did take it.

I don’t remember exactly what happened when we got outside, other than I was furious. I do know it was only around 1 in the afternoon and we had 8 more hours of sales calls to make. But not me…that was my last call ever. I quit on the spot and hitchhiked back to the apartment I shared with the male crew members about 40 miles away, found a Greyhound and went home without a job. On the way home I missed Claire’s roommate…we’d had fun together, but whenever I think of Claire, I can only think of how unfeeling she turned out to be.

© Glenn R Keller 2020, All Rights Reserved