Saturday night, the rain less a deluge and more a tuneful patter. I am sitting with my grey tabby, Dickens, and reading poets Denise Levertov and Louise Gluck and just finishing a perfect poem, “Autumn” by Rilke. And the phone rings. I ignore it. I am reading the four stanzas for the fourth time because they break my heart in a way that floods me with tenderness, even joy. I want to feel it completely. What can I say? I’m a therapist but my inclination is toward mysticism. The beauty of life was shaken up long ago but still I see it and reach for it.
The phone keeps ringing, jarring the quietude, until the voice mail takes over. I read again each line, then close my eyes. Dickens sleeps or pretends to as rain drums on the awning of the window. It is the kind of night I wait for, when everything is comforting. Meaningful without being hard. All I need is a mug of tea and a shortbread cookie so I ease myself off the couch, Dickens stretching gracefully, hind legs to front paws.
I stop at the phone on the way to the kitchen and check the voice mail. Nothing. I rarely answer the landline but I can’t give it up. It is my business line, the one that fields after-hour calls from the office, intercepts fundraisers and records appointment reminders. The kettle boils as I read a few pages of Levertov, then add a tea bag that releases peppermint, cinnamon, and ginger, along with catnip and other delights. Dickens will poke his nose into the cooling steam.
I am settling down with Hirsch, a new poet, when the phone rings again. I hesitate, get up to check the number. Same unknown number as before. Wait to see if there is a message left this time. There is not. I sit down and resolve to ignore it, turn to the first page of the new book.
Dickens is unsettled; he smells the catnip or maybe he feels restless after so much napping with me. Rainfall has started to drum harder; rivulets stream from the black and white awning, all the way down to the ground which is at a near-flood stage. I watch as headlights from cars suffuse them with brilliance. I am sleepy. Tea beckons. Dickens walks along the back of the couch and finally sits, but stretches his neck out, catches a whiff of my tea.
The jangling of the phone dissipates my reverie so I get up and grab the receiver.
Silence except for rain in the background.
“Hello? Can I help you?”
Not even a breath released. I start to hang up.
“Wait, don’t hang up, it’s Renee.” Her voice is low and rich, slow to move. Thick honey. “Maynard’s friend. He gave me your number.”
I mentally run through my client list and cannot recall a Renee. Maynard. Did he ever mention a Renee? No. But Maynard Gentilly, the trombone player with MS and too many bottles of bourbon, is a long-term client.
“Yes, Maynard…he referred you? I’m so sorry, you’ll need to call the office on Monday. The voice mail message gives that information. If it is an emergency–”
“Well, I’m not sure it’s all that. But it’s something. Something big, bigger than me. You’re Martha Berring, right?”
“Marta. Marta Berringer. Do you have the right number? Renee…what is your last name now?”
“Marta, Martha, either way you’re the one. It’s about Elias and Sarita. My kids. They seem to be in trouble and I don’t know what to do. Maynard, he said you could help me out. I think they got with that guy Arnie Z., runs so much around here, you know”–her voice softens to a whisper–“drugs and stuff.”
I glance at Dickens sniffing my tea delicately. “Look, you have the wrong number. You might call the police.” I frown at him when he taps the mug with his paw. “Are you safe? Can you make that call if needed?”
“No, no, no police! Just someone to check things out. You know, see what’s up. You do that, I know, Maynard told me you’re very observant, he pays you good money to get the details and you work pretty fast. He said I’d better call. But that’s all I need, really. Information. I’ll take over from there. It will be better when I know.”
“Renee…what’s your last name?” I write down the two alleged kids’ names on the note pad by the phone. “I’m not a private detective. People come to my office and talk about problems. Issues in their lives. I try to help them make better sense of things, heal from difficult experiences. Recover from addiction. Maybe that’s why he gave you my number. You mentioned drugs. Do you want help with drug problems?”
“I can’t come to your office. I don’t have a drug problem! I should never have left my apartment. Cold here.” Renee coughed hard. “Elias, he was gone a week, then Sarita took off after him in the Buick. Then they both… just…gone. They’re kids, Martha, just kids….good kids who turned the wrong corner.”
My sleepy mind stands at attention. Kids disappearing, not good. But I need more; she is very distraught. I take the note pad and pen with me, then remove the tea from Dickens and lean back into the couch. Dickens settles once more on my lap. The wind comes up and the awning riffles, making a slapping sound. I grab a woolen throw, toss it over Dickens and my lap.
“Your kids… that is worrisome. How old are they, Renee?”
“Sixteen, seventeen. They took to the streets over summer. June, it was early summer 2013, no, it’s 2014. Right? Right. Now school’s started they’ve stayed out late, never do see them anymore. They fell into the wrong crowd, you know, drugs, do nothing but hang out. Sarita, she’s not like that, she’s smart, she’s got talent. Elias, well, he’s his daddy all over but he could be different, learn a trade, make good money. But they’re just… gone, I tell you! I called because I don’t know who or what else, oh, hell, I don’t know anything, anymore, it gets all mixed up…”
I hold the mug under my chin, warmth spreading to my cheeks and ear lobes. The ginger and mint perk me up more. I’m hungry but forgot the shortbread. In stead, I start to jot things down. “They’re gone, you feel, for good…disappeared? Or they’re gone right now and you don’t know quite where?”
“That’s the thing, I need someone to find out. I called you because you do that, figure things out. Maynard says he trusts you with his life. His life. Sarita and Elias, they left last month and nothing since then. Not a word from them, no one answers their cell phones. I have called a thousand times, Martha. I can’t even leave a message.” Her voice trembles, an undulation of sound that treis to be clear words. “I–I last saw them… in the plaza. They were running past Cal’s Kitchen. I heard it then, all that screaming, those shots like a war starting up. They kept running, running even though I yelled their names, told them to stop! I fell, caught my head on a bench, then got up a few minutes later. They were just…gone. Maynard, he said to I need to lie low now, take it easy but I can’t, I have to find them. You can do this, right?”
“Wait. Gunshots? You heard gunshots in the plaza, is that right? And your kids were there, you watched them run.”
My mouth feels dry despite having sipped tea as Renee talked. I now recall news on television, two weeks ago. Drug house raided. Full of customers. People ran, scattered when shots were fired. Three dead, three on the run. Drug dealer apprehended. But who was it that died? Who disappeared?
“They were there, ran, then gone.” A crying out that was more stifled scream than crying. “What can I do? Where can I look, Martha? They say it’s too late. Maynard even says so!”
The blanket is pulled close around my shoulders and Dickens leaves, no longer intrigued by catnip-dosed tea. My vacated lap is chilly. I shiver. Why did I answer the phone? What can I possibly do for this woman?
Three dead, three runners. If Elias and Sarita were there they were either shot or are in jail or off to points unknown. Renee is terribly lost, too. Grief has throttled her and won’t let go of her mind, body or soul. Maynard knew this. Gave her my number so she could get help. But when the office recording came on, she dialed this number, hoping I would answer.
“Renee, what’s your last name? Number? So I have it in case I need to call you.”
Silence. Perhaps she is looking for her number on her cell phone. I can hear her rummaging in a bag or purse. “Ostrowski. It’s 772-2821. No, 774-3821 or… what is it? What did Sarita say it was changed to? Maybe 772-8321? I don’t know her number anymore!”
“Renee. Listen a minute. Will you do that? Sit down wherever you are. Hear me now. I don’t need your children’s numbers. I would like yours. Maybe I can help you.”
I know I can check my caller ID but I want her to be present right now, focus, alleviate the growing hysteria. I hear her warm voice slip into tears. The phone is held away, perhaps set down, and she is inside sorrow, that place where darkness sifts through all losses and leaves nothing unturned. Pain rises to the surface and forms a bright wound that drains the ache.
I know so well this sound. It replicates, echoing through my dreams. It careens off my office walls. It can tangle my thoughts when I am trying to pursue a simple, good time with friends, pull me back when I let down my guard with the man I am seeing. It can reel me back to those steep ledges where life is perched above a deep valley as I am asked to witness one more person’s hidden truth. Unspeakable, heart-stopping things. But I do know how to step aside–this is my work, discovering trouble and extricating those mired in it– and let anger and hurt run like a river, let it spill from the person who cannot hold it inside any longer. I can be a very still island amid drowning emotions. The world’s mothers and fathers cry out all night and day for their children, for themselves. I can only pray for this patchwork human world.
I hear the need underlining Renee’s voice. She is floundering, becoming more weary.
“I cannot give you more than this, my children are gone, my life is an empty sack, Martha, emptied of everything. I cannot find them in my desperation. It is terrible, terrible, the awful longing.”
“Where are you?”
“Wh-what’s that? Me? I’m at the plaza. Hoping they come back.”
“Wait there. Please don’t leave for a few minutes. Alright?”
I should never do this, not ever, leave my home when work hours are done and then go to someone who is a stranger and there are so many unanswered questions. I have not done this before. But tonight is different. I have read poetry that opened me up, exposed me to abiding Spirit again. And I cannot find a way to staunch the bleeding of this woman’s heart by taking notes. It spills into my life, no matter inconvenience or common sense. I leave my books and Dickens the cat and steaming sweet tea. Leave my safety zone. I hurry down the street in dauntless rain and take a near-empty bus. I get off at the plaza.
Renee is there, alone, sitting on a bench in the covered bus stop. I know it is she. Clutching a phone to her chest. She looks up, wordless, head shaking back and forth. I am a tall woman in a navy trench coat with long wet hair stuck to my face, tennis shoes and jeans soaked, my glasses beaded with water. I take them off and look at her. See her soft, round, lined face. Her darkened blue eyes, the creases in her forehead. Her anguish a mark upon her.
“I’m Marta, remember?” When she doesn’t respond I start again. “Hello, Renee. I’m Martha Berring.”
She stands up, throws her arms around me, her life turning into sand in an hourglass, her body passing through my grasp, so I grab her under the arms. Grip her back until my fingers hurt. I ask for help and the rain falls like stars tossed down. The night is a cloak pulled about us, taming outrage and despair. We are standing together and rock and rock and the weeping late autumn air gathers about us like the Breath of God.
(NOTE: We all know this world is far too full of sorrow. So today I read poetry by Rainier Maria Rilke, a favorite poet. I came across “Autumn” again, absorbed it, and then this story began to form. Please find the poem; read it yourself. Especially the very last two lines. You will be glad you did.)