Sightings

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BY GAY BAINES

1

Marlene Persons had trouble with her Acura one day in early January. She pulled over to the side of the northbound lane in the curve just after the Jamison entrance, where the road was shadowed by evergreens and scrubby bushes. Deep, crunchy snow lay on the ground that sloped away from the pavement. Buffalo was less than fifteen miles away. Other cars on the same commuter schedule flew past.

After the traffic had let up, she tried to start the Acura. The engine turned over once but would not catch. Damn. She did not want to run the battery down. There was no way to call the Auto Club as she had no car phone.

She had just gotten out of the car when she saw a man come from between the evergreens and bushes. Oh, great. First my car breaks down and now I’m to be robbed. Wait. Maybe he isn’t armed. Maybe if I just get back in the car and lock it and―

“Hi,” he said. How had he climbed up the shoulder of the highway so quickly? “Need a push?”

She studied him. He had a short beard, longish hair, black eyes, a nervous mouth, thick eyebrows. He spoke with an accent that she could not identify. His coat had long sleeves with black braid looped at the cuffs and a long, sweeping skirt. All he needed was a large hat and he could be a Peterman’s ad.

“Let’s look under the hood,” he said.

They gazed at the engine together. It was as great a mystery to Marlene as it had been the day she looked at it in the Honda showroom. At that time she had said, “Very nice,” thinking she was a fool.

“Do you have a hatpin?” the stranger asked.

“A what?”

“A hatpin, you know, to hold your hat on with,” he said.

“Of course not,” she said, “but I do have this pin.” From the lapel of her coat she removed an enameled button given to her at a meeting the previous fall. It stated I am a member of Hillary’s Fan Club. She wore it primarily as a joke.

The man took the pin from her and gazed, incuriously, at the inscription for a second before opening the clasp and testing the sharpness of the pin with the tip of his finger. He bent over the engine and scraped, delicately, at a surface. Marlene frowned. Her suspicions rose to the surface again. Would he stab her with the pin? She stepped away from him, leaned against the car behind the door on the driver’s side. Then if he tried anything…

He straightened up and looked at her. “Could you try starting it now?”

She got in, locked the door, and turned the ignition. The Acura started easily. She rolled down the window.

He handed her pin back, having rubbed it clean on his sleeve. She waited, expecting some Hillary joke. But all he said was, “Just a little grime on a couple of connections there. Should be okay.”

Then, without saying more, he turned and walked back through the snow into the trees. Marlene sat, still frowning, her hand resting on the gearshift. After a few moments she realized that the window was open, time was passing, a desk full of work waited for her. She closed the window, shifted into first, and drove to Buffalo, arriving only three minutes late.

 

2

Jack Tremain didn’t like to admit that he hated elevators. It would have meant the kiss of death to his career. So he never got in an elevator alone. That way he would have someone to talk to, no matter what. As the elevator sank twenty stories, he could chat to his fellow riders about the American League pennant race or whatever. He was usually lucky. The building had enough employees in various firms on the top floors that he rarely lacked for company.

One Friday in October his luck ran out. His boss, Marlene, had just come back from her honeymoon in Tahiti. Jack stayed late in her office, looking at her photographs. When he went out to get on the elevator, it was empty. He hesitated; maybe another employee, staying late, would come along…but the elevator doors began to shut. Well, good. Someone might get on at a lower floor. He pushed the doors open, walked in, and punched “1.” The elevator sank noiselessly except for a tinkle of shallow music.

Between the fifteenth and fourteenth floors, the elevator slowed. Somebody getting on, probably; but no. The car hesitated at fourteen, then sank a little, shuddered, bumped down an inch, a foot, an inch, stopped.

“Christ,” Jack said aloud. The doors remained shut. He punched “1” again, at first gently, then harder. He punched “Door Open,” “Door Closed,” various floor numbers, including those above him. Nothing happened. Finally he pushed the “alarm” button and heard its sound studding the air in some far‑off part of the building. Fat lot of good that would do.

“Hey!” he shouted. “I’m stuck on the fourteenth floor!” When this cry produced only silence, he tried again. “I’M STUCK IN THE GODDAMN ELEVATOR! GET ME OUT OF HERE!”

Silence again. Cool it, he thought, but even as the thought crossed his mind, he felt himself break out in sweat. Don’t panic! Be good to yourself! All this will pass! Stupid feel‑good punchy ideas, the kind of empty encouragement his boss, that cow, would give him. If she was here. He wished she was. “HELP!” he shouted again.

As the echo of his strained voice faded, he heard a lightly metallic sound above him. He swallowed, stared up at the ceiling. A voice came through it, quite faint: “Hold on a sec.”

A square in the center of the ceiling lifted away and a face peered down. A young guy, not a kid though. Beard, longish hair, some new fellow, probably an exec who’d lost his job to downsizing, slumming it as a janitor.

“Hi,” the man said. “How long you been stuck?”

“Oh, ten, maybe fifteen minutes.” Jack could feel his voice shaking.

“That all? Funny… Well. I’ll come down, see what I can do.”

The man jumped down into the elevator, then reached up and dragged a bundle down from the hole he had come through. It looked like a blanket roll. Jack watched, puzzled.

“Okay,” the young man said. “Let’s have a look at the control panel.” He opened a blank plate set into the side wall of the cage, revealing an array of unmarked buttons. Jack frowned.

“Let’s try this,” the young fellow said, rubbing his hands together. He punched a few buttons. After a series of clanks, the elevator began to descend slowly, smoothly.

As they descended, a cold wind blew down through the hole in the ceiling. Jack looked up and saw, in the murk of the shaft, ropes slithering up and down. He shuddered.

“Yeah, it is cold in these shafts toward night,” his companion said. He untied his bundle, which proved to be a long, braided, heavy coat. Wonder what movie wardrobe he got that from, Jack thought.

When they walked into the lobby from the elevator, the kid in the long coat said, “Well, gotta take my leave. Have a nice night,” and strode off across the glassy surface of the lobby floor.

Jack bought a paper on his way to the train but couldn’t read it.

 

3

Clarissa hugged herself. It was happening again. She did not want to faint. Not in philosophy class, especially today, during her midterm exam.

She knew perfectly well that her “fainting spells,” as her parents called them, were nothing of the kind. They were something more sinister, preceded by frightening apprehension, a vision of horses, followed by exhausting sleep, sometimes a migraine. She had told her mother about the spells but not about the vision.

“You’ll outgrow it,” her mother said. “People do.”

What made her say this? Clarissa wondered. Perhaps she was thinking of Jack, her older brother, plagued by asthma, night terrors, stage fright, claustrophobia―yet he had left all of these inhibiting conditions behind, become a famous author of economic treatises, an adviser to the President, a frequent guest on The News Hour.

Somehow Clarissa knew she wouldn’t “outgrow” her seizures. For that’s what they were. Frustrated by her parents’ dogged ignorance, she had gone to the library and read every book or article she could find on epilepsy, seizures, and migraine. They told her little outside of useless facts, such as the names of famous or accomplished people who had suffered from seizures, and stern advice (“Take your medication even if your seizures stop”). Dr. Todhunter, the family physician, was not much help. He told her to eat more vegetables. Would vegetables have helped Julius Caesar, or Dostoevsky, or Vincent van Gogh?

So here she was, about to take her midterm exam in philosophy, her favorite subject. If she was lucky, she’d stop short of passing out, would end up with a headache and a desire to sleep. She had dreamt last night of a small house with square, unglazed windows, its walls washed in pale yellow, sunlight outside on the leafy maples. A continuation, perhaps, of the dream the night before, a dream set in the Adirondacks, bears growling out of sight in the bushes, canoes yellow on the blue water; or another dream from last week, in the kitchen at home, plates of scrambled eggs on the table, the kettle steaming, snow halfway up the window, horses puffing and snorting outside…

Clarissa raised her hand. Dr. Lu came to her side. How tiny she is, Clarissa thought, while in the left ear another voice said, I’ve done this before, thought this before; no, I haven’t. But you have…

“I’m sick,” Clarissa said while a blissful, second Clarissa went on recounting her dreams.

“Have you started your exam?” the professor asked.

“Yes, I’ve done half, two essays. But I must get out of here.”

“Are you faint?”

What a cold bitch she is. “Yes, I think so.”

“If you leave, you will forfeit your exam,” Dr. Lu said.

“Very well then,” Clarissa said and tore up her blue book. “It’s forfeited. Now may I leave?”

Dr. Lu blinked, then said “Yes. But let me have your blue book.”

Clarissa fled into the hall. Good‑bye, dean’s list; good‑bye, grad school. She’d never make it through finals. Much as she would like to go back to bed, she knew her dorm was too far away. On the steps of Sage Hall, she sat down and leaned her head against the stone balustrade.

“Good idea,” said a voice.

Clarissa jumped. Where had he come from? “What?” she said.

“The cool stone on your head. Relieves headache. I recommend it.”

He looked like a throwback to a time when her parents were young, the sixties they were always talking about, when nobody cared how they looked. They said. This guy’s hair was a little long. He was bareheaded despite the cold. Her vision had turned everything golden. He stood in a gold mist.

“Are you a doctor or what?” she asked.

“I do what I can,” he said. “But no, I’m not a doctor. Try some deep breathing.”

“Deep breathing.”

“No, really. Try it.”

He doesn’t even know what’s wrong with me, she thought. But she closed her mouth, drew in a cold breath.

“Now let it go,” he said. “Slowly, but let it go.”

She breathed out, slowly. Her lungs felt like water envelopes, full of November water, on the verge of freezing. As she exhaled, they warmed. The coldness shifted to her mind, making it crystalline, hard, bright. The dream sequence stopped. She opened her eyes, had not realized they were closed.

“See?” he said.

Later, sitting over a cup of coffee, she wondered about his coat. The color of it―a cross between blue and black―reminded her of the old lap robe in her parents’ Saab. It was a sort of heirloom, handed down. Was his coat an ancestral garment? It made her think of the sky on a late winter night. A midnight sky in March, with Orion overhead but sliding out of the crown of heaven. She sighed. Would she ever see him again? Would he rescue her again before another seizure?

Two days later Dr. Lu asked her to stop in her office. On her desk lay Clarissa’s blue book, carefully Scotch‑taped together.

“You did very well on the first half of your exam,” she said. “I pieced it together because I know you are a good student, you listen carefully and do all the reading. Most students don’t. I would like to give you credit for this half of your exam. You can make up the rest by writing an extra essay, due next week. Is that agreeable?”

 

4

In her embarrassment, Dr. Lu could not speak at all. English, that language she thought she knew so well, had fled from her lips. All she could do was plead in Chinese, the language she thought forgotten. How could she forget her wallet? Her purse, her briefcase, one full of pills, the other full of papers from the existentialism seminar, sat in her shopping cart, mute, mocking. She knew where her wallet was: under her pillow, back in the condo. She had left it there last night when the Phi Psi Philosophy Club had come for coffee and chat after the Eco lecture in Sage Hall.

Finally, with effort, she said to the dull-eyed cashier, a blonde of about seventeen with Cindy emblazoned on her Buy‑Rite smock, “I’m sorry. I forgot my money.”

“Oh,” the girl said. “Don’t you have a Buy-Rite card?”

“Yes, and a Visa. I’ve left them home.”

“I’ll get it,” said a voice at her elbow. She turned and shrank a bit. Americans! Too forward, all of them, and how odd they smelled. This was a young man in a dark coat, bearded, not as foreign as most of them, though his hair was too long.

“Excuse?” she said, still tongue-tied.

“It’s all right,” he said. “I’ll pay.”

“That’s kind of you,” she said.

“It’s my duty and pleasure,” he said.

At first she thought, How formal, what an odd expression. Then she realized he had spoken in Chinese. She turned to look at him again as he pulled a thin wad of money from a deep pocket and slipped out two twenties, which he handed to “Cindy.”

“Wait a moment,” Dr. Lu said. “I have coupons…”

 

5

Cindy cried but Zeke, her boyfriend, was optimistic. “We’ll find Chichi, don’t worry,” he said. “How far away can a little dog run?”

“She can run fast,” Cindy said with a sniff. “You’ve never tried to bathe her.”

“First we do the SPCA, then all the shelters,” he said, “then we make posters, put ’em up in Buy-Rite―hell, you work there, should be easy. Then ads in the papers, fliers to hand out at the bus stop.”

“You make it sound like a political campaign,” Cindy said.

“It is, in a way. All advertising is. Hey, you know this guy?”

“Who?”

“Coming in the door. Jesus Christ, he’s got Chichi.”

“WHAT?” Cindy stood up, nearly upsetting her Dr Pepper. But she did not have to run to reclaim her dog. The man―someone she was sure she knew―came toward her.

“Is she yours?” he asked and placed Chichi in her arms.

Cindy looked down at the dog, who was amazingly calm, then up at the stranger.

“Where did you find her?” she asked.

“In the library,” he said. “Actually, in the basement. She’d made a bed for herself near the furnace. I looked at her tag, saw she was yours, and here she is.”

“Do they allow dogs in here?” Zeke asked.

“We’d better leave,” Cindy said. They put on their coats. Zeke carried Chichi outside. Cindy paid for herself and Zeke. Outside they got into Zeke’s pickup.

“Where’s the guy in the coat?” Zeke asked.

“I thought he was with you. Guess he left. Too bad, I would have paid him a reward. I know I’ve seen him before.”

“He shop at Buy-Rite?”

“Yes. Well, no, not really. He came in one day and paid for a lady’s order. She’s a professor at the college, forgot her wallet.”

“Next time he comes in, thank him for finding Chichi.”

“I don’t think he’ll come in,” Cindy said and wondered why she said it.

 

5

Jack and Clarissa had not seen each other for a year.

“How’s school?” he asked her, always the older brother. “Still hate it?”

“No,” Clarissa said. “What a question! I might as well ask if you’re still afraid of elevators.”

He blanched, then laughed. “I use them more than I used to.” Then he became serious and went on to tell her about the time he was trapped on the fourteenth floor.

Clarissa stared at him. “You say he wore a long coat? Did it have frogs?”

“Yeah. Wonder where he got it.”

“I saw him too. In front of Sage Hall.”

“Don’t tell me your precious college has gone coed,” he said.

“No, I saw him just once. He helped me get over a migraine attack or something.”

“What did he look like?”

“Kind of short―about five-five, dark eyes, a beard, long dark hair. And that coat.”

“Same guy.”

“The same one who got you out of the elevator?”

“Yes.” Jack was getting excited. “I’m not the only one. My boss saw him on the expressway, out in the country a few years back. Her car conked out on her, he walked out of the woods, fixed it, then disappeared back into the trees.”

“Who is he? Or is he anybody?”

 

6

During the same week Dr. Lu invited Cindy to the Faculty Dining Room for coffee. They talked of the man in the long coat.

“Did you ask his name?” Dr. Lu asked.

“No. I didn’t think I should, somehow,” Cindy said.

“Perhaps it’s just as well,” Dr. Lu said. “Think of Lohengrin.”

“Low and who?”

“Never mind. Sometimes it’s better to accept what comes and not ask questions.”

“Don’t you ask a lot of questions? I mean, you’re a professor and all.”

“All that means is I know which questions to ask. Would you like more coffee?”

“Yes, thanks. You know, I’ve never been on the campus before.”

“Yet you’ve lived here all your life?”

“Yes.”

“Perhaps this man we’re so puzzled about walked in your life for the sole purpose of bringing you here.”

“My boyfriend’s mother thinks he must be an angel,” Cindy said.

“I doubt that,” said Dr. Lu.

 

7

Marlene Persons and her husband, Mark Luce, decided to celebrate their fifth anniversary by going into the Grand Canyon. It was a scary prospect. They had arranged to ride down into the canyon on mules, to camp for five days on its floor, cut off from civilization. The prospect of such an adventure would have terrified her ten years ago. Perhaps having Mark with her gave her confidence.

As they waited for their gear to be packed on the mules, Marlene wandered toward the canyon’s edge, where people stood, some with cameras, some with binoculars. Some merely gazed. Among them was a familiar figure. Marlene stared; no one could say she was rude, since no one was looking at her. Could it be the same man? There was something about him… She walked over to him, made brave by the freedom she felt out in the desert.

“Where’s your coat?” she asked him.

“I don’t need it,” he said. “Not this time of year.”

“You are the same person then,” she said.

“If you like. You still drive an Acura?”

“Not anymore.”

“Haven’t been east for awhile. I’ll have to get back in time to see the leaves turn.”

“You care about that?”

“Sure. Everybody cares.”

“Who’s the guy? One of your employees?” Mark asked as they waited.

“No, just somebody I met in Elma once. Fixed my car on the 400.”

“Nice of him.”

Mounted on her mule, Marlene rode down into the canyon, feeling the sun warm on her forearms. She was too preoccupied to be frightened, though others had told her of the steep declines next to the path, of attacks of vertigo and throat‑catching fear. As they neared bottom she heard a cry from on high, near the precipice. She looked up and saw a figure fall slowly, then stop in mid‑fall and―what? She couldn’t see; the sun, dipping close to the canyon’s edge, blinded her.

“Did you see that?” she asked Mark.

“Hmm?”

“Never mind.”

Marlene smiled. At one time her curiosity, her desire to know, would have driven her to distraction, might even have spoiled her camping holiday with Mark. No more. Whoever the stranger was, he had touched her life once but he had moved on.


Gay Baines’ poetry has appeared in RE:AL, Rattapallax, Cimarron, Slipstream, Poet Lore, Atlanta Review, and other journals. She is co-founder and poetry editor of July Literary Press in Buffalo, In 2002 she published her first novel, Dear M.K. Her poetry collection, Don’t Let Go, was published in 2010. She is desultorily on a chapbook, The Book of Lies, and a novel, Kate. She lives in East Aurora, New York.

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