The Rescue

A cold wind from the Pacific Ocean gusted over fields west of the oil refinery, whistling as it punched through the cyclone fence between the construction trailers and employee parking lot. Beyond the fields, clouds had massed over the distant horizon and were slowly drifting southeast. Penn McNeal walked across graveled dirt and his boots crunched on the gravel until he stepped up a short flight of wooden stairs to the trailer door and the crunching stopped. Standing at a plywood table covered by blueprints, yellow notepads and paperwork, he picked up a telephone and began dialing. A moment later the door swung open and a man wearing coveralls and a white hard hat walked inside. He wiped grease from his hands and glanced at Penn.

“I need blueprint specs for setting the fan motors in the south cooling tower.”

“Give me five minutes… I’m calling my ex.”

“Good luck,” the man grinned. He opened the door and glanced over his shoulder, “I’ll be in the smoking area.”

Penn nodded and finished dialing. Unlikely though it may have seemed he wasn’t sure he recognized the voice on the telephone, suggesting he had perhaps dialed the wrong number. He hesitated and heard a clicking sound followed by the silence of an open line. He dialed again. After ringing three times someone picked up but said nothing. Penn said, “Janey? Is that you?”

The line went dead again. After setting the phone in its plastic cradle, he checked his pocket for his car keys and then stared blankly at the wall, scratching whisker stubble along the side of his jaw. He decided to try one more time.

“Stop harassing me!” came a sudden shrill voice.

“Don’t hang up, it’s me.”

After a pause the voice said, “What do you want?”

“Just reminding you, I’ll be picking Janey up after work.”

“You have her next weekend, not this one.”

“Don’t play games with me. I know you remember.”

“Don’t tell me what I remember. What I remember is what I remember.”

“I know you goddamn well remember — ”

“You stop playing your games.”

“What’s the point of this? What exactly do you want?”

She hesitated and then spoke in a slow measured way. “The point is you’re being controlled. They want to control everybody.”

Penn released a long breath that had his lips been closer together would have made a soft whistling sound. “Have you been smoking dope again?”

“No! It’s a government conspiracy,” she nearly shouted. A few seconds later she whispered, “It’s the CIA, they’re beaming telepathic propaganda from satellites. They murdered the Kennedys and Martin Luther King and when Nixon gets elected they’ll take over the country. You’ll see.”

Penn pinched the bridge of his nose. “I don’t want to hear this. I’ll be there at five.”

“I’m rescuing Janey. You’ll see I was right.”

Penn heard the apian buzz of a disconnected line and dropped the phone into its cradle, pulled his car keys from his pocket and walked from the construction trailer to the smoking area. The man in the white hard hat noticed him and pushed his cigarette butt into a sand-filled bucket.

“I have to take off,” Penn said. “Get the blueprints and specs from the general foreman and tell him my daughter’s sick. I’ll see him Monday morning.”

Penn dogtrotted to the three acres of graveled dirt where the refinery’s contract workers parked. When he reached the gate, he showed his badge to the guard, hurried across the parking area and unlocked his car and drove the frontage road to the I-80 onramp. Ten miles down the freeway, the southwest bound lanes were at a standstill and he rolled to a stop behind a long clog of cars and semi-trucks. “Sonofabitch,” he mumbled and reached for his cigarettes.

Forty minutes later he arrived at the University Avenue exit, drove several blocks, turned right onto San Pablo Avenue and drove another six blocks to Kitty’s shabby apartment building. She had begun acting oddly some months ago, little things at first, but the oddity of her behavior had worsened to the point where Penn feared she was seriously losing her grip. He wouldn’t have said it aloud to himself or anyone else for that matter, but at the back of his mind he knew he should have acted sooner. The only question was whether it was already too late.

At the front door, Kitty’s disheveled roommate twitched nervously as Penn held her in his gaze and demanded to know where his wife and daughter were. The woman’s shirtless boyfriend appeared in the background, unshaven, tired under the eyes, telling Penn to mellow out and not make a scene. Penn pushed past the woman.

“I’m calling the cops,” the boyfriend threatened.

Penn headed toward the hallway. “Go ahead, asshole. I’ll implicate you in kidnapping,” he said over his shoulder.

A musty odor permeated Kitty’s bedroom. Crumpled balls of typing paper, notepads, newspaper clippings and magazines littered the floor and the top of a small desk. Blankets, dirty sheets and pillows sat piled together on an old mattress. The telephone cord was jerked from the wall lying on floor looped over the panda bear Penn had given Janey for her third birthday. He tried to open the closet but the door jammed, so he kicked the floor guide loose and jerked the roller from its track. In the corner, a pile of wrinkled clothes sat next to a tangle of wire hangers and an umbrella that looked as if it had been blown inside out by a strong gust of wind.

The boyfriend appeared at the bedroom door. “What do you think you’re doing?”

“Where’d Kitty take my daughter?”

“I don’t know nothing about your daughter.”

Penn took a menacing step forward. “You better tell me something.”

The boyfriend backed up. “She had a couple suitcases.”

“Where was she going?”

“Maybe she said something about New York.”

“Her parents’ house?”

“I don’t know, man, she was acting nuts.”

Apprehension grew large in Penn’s mind. “How was she going to get to New York?”

“Listen, we don’t know nothing. We’re just roommates.”

Penn took a pen from his shirt pocket and wrote his phone number on a scrap of paper. “If she shows up or you hear anything, you call me right away. I mean it.”

“No problem, man. We don’t want any trouble over this shit.”

Over the next several days, a long string of telephone calls and conversations revealed no clue where Kitty and three-year old Janey had vanished. On the fourth day, while he drank coffee at the kitchen table, Penn remembered Kitty’s confidante, the Tarot card reader who hawked for customers at the Café Mediterranean. He drove across town, parked his station wagon on Telegraph Avenue and made his way along the crowded sidewalk.

The fortuneteller presided over a table in the rear of the smoky café, amongst other tables crowded with the denizens of Berkeley, students, street people, young hippies, and old self-styled anarchists and malcontents. She didn’t recognize Penn — they’d never met — nor had she taken notice of his tall muscular frame as he threaded his way between tables and stood beside her. Buffalo Springfield’s Mr. Soul played in the background, barely audible over the hum of voices and steaming espresso machines.

“I’m trying to find Kitty Ruskin,” Penn said.

The woman looked up from her cards and eyed Penn, as if sorting through her lexicon of names and faces. “Who are you?” she wanted to know.

Penn had prepared an escort of lies. “I’m David, Jeffery Burke’s cousin. He asked me to tell Kitty her mother and father need to contact her — something about a trust fund.”

The words trust fund brought all eyes at the table to Penn. “Kitty’s grandmother? Is she leaving her some money?”

“I don’t know about that. Do you know where I can find her?”

A delivery truck groaned up Telegraph, preceded by the high-pitch whirring of its gearbox. When the noise subsided, the woman stood and exhaled a jet of smoke. She motioned Penn closer. He fished his pocket for a cigarette and leaned his head toward hers.

“Kitty told me she was going to India with her kid,” she said in a low, confidential voice.

“India? Why would she go to India?”

The woman’s brow knitted. “How well do you know Kitty?”

“I met her couple times at Jeff’s house. “Is there any way to reach her?”

“Talk to Leslie, Danny Delacour’s ex-wife. You know her, don’t you?”

“Sure I do. Thanks for the information.” Penn started to turn.

She touched his shoulder. “Maybe you’d like a reading.” Her eyes tracked his as she tucked a stray ringlet of dark hair beneath her purple gold-stripped bandana.

“Not today.”

“Two bucks. The cards never lie.”

“I’m in a hurry.”

“The king of swords,” she called after him. “I can tell by the look in your face, there’s trouble in your future.”

Two weeks later Penn stood on the sidewalk beside a large suitcase, in front of the two-bedroom house he rented on Grove Street, waiting for his old friend Jack Wellman. A marine layer hung over the city like wet cotton, mist dripping from tree branches and the eves of houses. Autumn leaves cluttered the sidewalks and clogged street gutters and the world seemed gray and depressing. He lit a cigarette and exhaled a cloud that dissipated into the grayness above.

The houses were post-war vintage, some stucco, others shiplap-sided, some with flaking paint, and others topped by brown cedar-shingled roofs. Walnut and elm trees lined the buckling sidewalks and branches drooped over cars parked in long parallel lines. Penn glanced down the street and noticed a beat-up old Volkswagen van brake at the intersection. It was Jack, all right, black-framed glasses, curly red hair above his freckled face, hunched over the steering wheel. Penn grabbed his hefty suitcase. His back tightened and sent a sharp twinge down his left leg.

“Hey Jack, good to see you.”

“I need to get gas.”

After a few minutes in Jack’s sputtering van, Penn wondered if he had picked the right friend to drive him to the airport. They filled up at a Chevron station not far from the freeway and he handed Jack a five-dollar bill. The gravity of Penn’s mission was underpinned by a blend of determination and hopefulness, yet beneath his self-girded optimism, a host of dark possibilities was never far from his thoughts. Before reaching the freeway, they waited at a crossing for a long freight train, caught in the clattering tonnage and squealing sounds of metal against metal.

Jack looked over at Penn as the last few boxcars rumbled past. “You really think you can find her?” he asked in a colorless voice.

“I talked to Danny Delacour’s ex-old lady. She had a couple letters with return addresses from somewhere in Calcutta.”

“Calcutta? There’s what, seven million people in that city?”

“Sometimes you bank on a long shot.”

“You okay?”

“Yeah… I’m all right.” Penn scratched his cheek. “I’ll find her. I have to find her.”

“But what if you can’t?”

“I can’t look at it that way.”

Three hours later, he was flying over the Rocky Mountains, their snow-capped peaks a white blaze standing out above a mosaic of greens and earthen browns. Kitty was crazier than palm trees on Mars, but that notion took Penn only so far; going further required the sort of self-examination he was neither comfortable with nor inclined to engage. His childhood and teenage years had nothing in common with television sit-coms, no Ozzie and Harriet, no Leave it to Beaver — not by any stretch of imagination. The McNeal family was entrenched in two generation’s worth of economic decline; from what was once the post-Victorian good life — expensive houses, posh vacations, maids and private academies — the McNeals had fallen from social and economic ascension to little more than tightfisted middle-class existence.

And Penn was, among other things, the child of a chain-smoking mother who drank too much, and an idle, sometimes abusive father who had built his life largely off inherited money. Penn’s younger sister, Peggy, trapped in postpartum depression and her own failing marriage, had tried suicide six months ago. Somewhere along the way, the McNeal family had taken a bad turn. Maybe it was rooted in unhappy marriages, or maybe the premature death of Grandfather Henry McNeal, the icon who had built the family fortunes during the 1920s. Or maybe it was down to some invisible sequence of DNA markers — like a curse carried from one generation to the next. Who could say? Lacking benchmarks to measure from or compass needles to point the way, no one in the McNeal family appeared to be doing particularly well.

From New York City came London’s Heathrow airport, a layover and a ticket on another airliner to Greece. After a longer layover in Athens, Penn landed in Calcutta. It rose up in its own province, in an uprush, a sprawling mass oozing its own imperfection — thick brown haze violating the sky. Penn’s taxi halted behind a gridlock of vehicles, pedestrians, bicycles, donkeys and rickshaws. Through the open window that Penn was about to roll up, the breeze carried the pungent odors of elemental poverty and the stench of overpopulation. A stout policeman standing in the intersection with white-gloved hands, routed traffic in alternating directions — old trucks and cars puffing smoky exhaust and inching forward to escape the clog.

That evening, having settled into a shabby tourist hotel, Penn was suffering jet lag and was so worn out he slept almost ten hours. In the morning after orienting himself, he hired a taxi and set about tracking down the return address Kitty had scribbled on her letters. Turned out it was a small café several kilometers from his hotel, and a young girl was sweeping the sidewalk outside the front door with a broom that looked like it was made of long twigs tied together on a stick. Penn questioned the taxi driver. The young man assured him it was the right address. Penn paid him and walked past the girl with the broom. The man behind the counter spoke almost no English, so Penn took a photograph from his daypack and held it up for the man to see, but his blank expression and the shrug that followed made it clear he didn’t understand what Penn wanted. Penn dug his tourist dictionary from his daypack and flipped through the pages.

Before he could find the right words, an old woman appeared from the kitchen. He dangled the photograph in front of her and she looked at it and shook her head, and then pointed outside as if to indicate — or so he assumed — where it was he needed to look. He thanked her and walked out the door, dodging several bicycles as he made his way over the potholed pavement toward a building with a small sign that read: INTERNATIONAL YOUTH HOSTEL.

A man sitting at a desk greeted him. He spoke good English and looked closely at the photos. “It seems possible I recognize the child. Do you have the mother’s name and when she may have stayed here?”

For clarity’s sake Penn wrote Kitty’s full name on a piece of paper and explained what he hoped would be the right time frame, a span of about a week or so when, he figured, Kitty would have arrived. The man walked to a tall metal file cabinet, pulled out the top drawer and removed a folder thick with pages. He set the folder on the desk and told Penn he could look through it if he cared to do so. Penn methodically checked name after name to no avail, and later that night it rained hard. He lay in bed in the small dark room of his hotel, smoking cigarettes and wondering if he would ever find his daughter.

Over the next three days, Penn’s resolve gained momentum despite numerous setbacks and he made himself known to every storekeeper and merchant in a ten-block radius. He searched the backstreets and alleys of one squalid neighborhood after another, and then around noon on the fourth day, amidst the heat and unbearable humidity, a twig of a man stepped out of a door in a small office-like storefront whose only window was covered on the inside by yellowed newspaper taped to the cracked glass. He motioned to Penn and asked if he was in need of directions. Penn said no and reached inside his daypack.

The man considered the photos. His face was compact and angular, his dark eyes like polished stones. He canted his head slightly and scratched at his chin as if to augment his powers of recollection, and then, glancing back and forth from one photo to the other, he leaned closer squinting his eyes.

“Have you seen them?”

The man looked up at Penn. “I want to be certain. Would this be your wife and daughter?” Penn said yes and the man asked what the problem was. The last thing Penn wanted to do was explain everything. “You see my wife, she’s not well,” he said and tapped his finger on his temple. “Not well in her mind. I have to find her before something bad happens.”

“I see,” the man said. “How sorry I am but I do have good news for you today. I am very certain I have seen this woman and child, seen them more than once. The child’s hair was so blond. I remember how bright it was in the sunlight.”

“Is it nearby… the place you saw them?”

“Not far. The plaza, that way,” and he pointed. “A ten minute walk.”

“What were they doing there?”

“I believe your wife was begging.”

Penn was stunned. “Begging for what, for money?”

“For money… or perchance food. Begging is a way of life for many in India.”

“Could you please show me where she was?”

“I am willing to do that,” he said.

As they started down the street a group of schoolchildren was crossing an intersection, and a woman, whom Penn took to be the teacher, stood several steps into the crosswalk with a raised hand. The children, dressed in blue and white uniforms, moved like a column of busy ants. Their happy faces and the music of their voices caught Penn unexpectedly and he felt his throat tighten. He ignored the feeling and followed the man along crowded sidewalks and made conversation until he had nothing left to say. Finally they reached a point where the street dead-ended at the edge of the large plaza.

The man led Penn to an area of open space between lines of vendor’s carts, vegetable and fruit stands. He pointed to a spot where an old man and two older women were sitting with clay bowls in front of their feet. “This is the place,” he said. “I have seen them here twice.”

“How long ago?”

“The first time I am not so certain. The second time was last week.”

“Thank you. I really appreciate your help.” Penn shook the man’s hand; the man smiled, turned then and walked away.

Penn scanned the crowds of milling customers and noticed a middle-aged white woman, an American by her dress, emerging from underneath a large canopy. She was about to pass by when he spoke. “Excuse me, ma’am, do you speak English?”

The woman looked up with surprise followed by suspicion. “Yes, I do.”

“Could you please tell me if you’ve seen this woman and child?” Penn held a pair of enlarged photos at arm’s length. Her shoulders relaxed and she studied his bearded face for a moment before focusing on the photographs. She reached toward the picture of Kitty. “May I?”

“Yes, of course.” Penn inched forward and handed her the photograph.

She seemed content to stand at ease contemplating the photo. “I can’t say for certain. I’ve only been here ten days, but maybe the woman’s face looks familiar. Are they missing?”

“Yes … in a manner of speaking.”

Penn’s answer brought suspicion to the woman’s eyes. “What do you mean, in a manner of speaking?”

“She’s my wife, Kitty, and that’s my daughter, Janey. Kitty is … how can I put this? She’s not well, psychologically. She kidnapped Janey about a month ago in California. I’m trying to find her so I can take my daughter home.”

“I’m so sorry,” the woman said. “I’m a nurse. I do volunteer work with a medical team from Cleveland.” She glanced again at the photo. I might have seen her in the clinic but I can’t say for certain. I’ve seen hundreds of faces since I arrived.”

“Is the clinic nearby?”

She pointed. “Six blocks, that way.”

Penn reached into the daypack slung over his shoulder. “I have copies. Could you please take these and contact me if you see her?”

The woman consented. Penn handed her two photos and his hotel telephone number. “My name’s Penn McNeal.” He paused, searching the woman’s face.

She returned his look. “I’ll certainly keep an eye out for her. I wish you luck.”

“I’m going to need it.”

He spent the remainder of the day searching every side street and alley that spoked out from the plaza, returning several times to check the place the man had shown him. But Kitty and Janey were not to be found among the beggars or milling crowds, and as the afternoon sun settled into the brown haze in the west, Penn pressed his face into the palms of his hands. He wasn’t feeling well, too tightly packed, too dense, and ready to explode like a hand grenade.

Several days later, by chance alone, a middle-aged American tourist noticed one of the scores of fliers Penn had posted in key locations, and he stood contemplating the two photos on the lower half of the page. Penn was on his way to the plaza to check if Kitty had returned to do her begging, and when he spotted the man peering at a flier stapled to a telephone pole, he stopped and explained his circumstances and asked the man if he recognized the woman or the child.

“I’m pretty sure I do,” the man answered. “It was last week and I had just eaten lunch at a restaurant. When I walked outside a woman with a little girl asked if I could help her with some money, claiming she’d been robbed and was waiting for funds to be wired from America. Of course I was suspicious, she looked rather disheveled and out of sorts, but the child appeared frail and distressed, so I gave the women five dollars.”

Penn winced. “Do you have any idea where she was staying?”

The man said he didn’t but that out of curiosity and concern for the child, he had followed the woman to a shabby neighborhood some blocks north of the plaza. “I had the impression she was looking for someone, the way she wandered around glancing in different directions. Two men started arguing loudly across the street, and during the distraction I lost sight of her and the child.”

Penn asked the man if he would be willing to show him where he had followed her. He said he would but when they arrived there was no sign of Kitty. Penn, crestfallen, thanked the man and asked him to call his room at the hotel if he saw her again.

“I don’t mind doing that. Provided the phone lines are working,” he said and grinned.

Penn thanked the man and left.

In the morning before sunrise, for lack of a better plan, Penn had decided to check that same neighborhood, and from there he would make his usual rounds, stopping at least once at the Plaza. In the thin light of predawn, rapt in the strange milieu of this alien world, he lit a cigarette and made for the street headed north from the plaza. Eventually, the street narrowed and after a couple blocks opened up to the area the man had taken him to, and it was here the flickery light of a small fire caught Penn’s eye.

Three middle-aged men and an old woman wrapped in an orange sari held sticks above the flames, above a clay urn where fire sprouted weakly from a pile of dried cow dung. Penn walked closer and saw something that made him pause. Off to one side set back a ways and half-hidden in a makeshift hut in a shadowy space between corrugated tin hovels, a white woman lay on a blanket underneath a dark man, her legs askew, the man’s ass working with labored velocity at the confluence of her thighs.

Like driving past a bad car accident, Penn tried not to look but he looked anyway. Fornication was the last currency of human survival, he thought. The woman lifted a leg, kicking at the air. He took a drag on his cigarette, watched a moment longer, closed his eyes and reopened them, as if testing the reality of what he was seeing. He dropped the cigarette and stepped slowly forward, each step tentative as if resisting its own resolve to inch closer toward the edge of a bottomless precipice. Within a few yards of the woman and the dark-skinned man, he felt himself caught in a twinkling that seemed slowed to quarter speed, maybe even slower, and the past and future were both present in that moment, lingering in suspension, waiting to project forward like 16-mm film spinning off a metal reel. He saw a dark blotch on the backside of the woman’s pale thigh and his eyes fixed on it; it was something he’d seen many times before. Kitty had birthmark above her knee the size of a half-dollar. His fists tightened into hardened balls. The urge to attack her, beat her to a pulp for what she’d done, but he told himself that if he gave in to his rage perhaps he wouldn’t survive the aftermath. He imagined the bowels of a dank prison, the grim desperate faces of malnourished men behind iron bars. Then he imagined himself behind those same rusted bars.

The figures gathered around the fire were unaware, staring at the thatch of smoky flames rising from within the rim of the clay urn. The eastern sky was blanching. In a pool of shadows beside the hut, not twenty feet from the dark-skinned man and white woman — whose bodies were now limp and half lost in the gloomy light — something moved.

In a dreamscape coalescing into something too real for words, Penn saw a trace of color, something discordant amid the backdrop of indistinct forms and dull shades of brown and gray. A lock of blond hair splayed out from under a tattered blanket, the ivory paleness of a hollow cheek. Penn hunched down and crept forward like a cat burglar whose footfalls were lighter than the wind. He paused and took a deep breath before pulling back the soiled cloth.

He lifted the child in his arms and felt the weightlessness of a frail body, saw a tangle of wispy hair and felt the boniness of her ribs beneath a soiled blouse. Her brown eyes opened and she looked blankly into his face. “Shhh … sweetie. I’m taking you home.”

No one noticed as he walked away, silently, invisibly, carrying the small bundle toward the pale light of the rising sun.

Photo by Raghu Nayyar on Unsplash


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