Gas Card

Letter to Myself at 40:

I am twenty today.  Another autumn birthday. I’ve always turned a new year when plastic witches are hanging in windows, with fiberglass webs and spiders made of wire.  I was born to goblin days.

I spent the late morning unfolding myself from the stupor of a night of drinking beer and smoking pot, succumbing to sleep with a belly full of nachos.  Two nights ago, I dropped acid; not the first time, but each time it’s just a little different.  Me and a friend wandered the bare streets of the old town, well after three, breaking the crisp leaves under foot, startled by our voices, by the lights in the alleys.  Part of me worried about cops; part of me took the world apart and put it back together, gently, one grain of sand and human ego at a time.  We were bleary fools and wise ancients.  We slept heavy in the daylight hours, drank the next night through.

I used the gas card my Dad gave me to buy snacks for everyone that night at the gas station; they paid me back with a sofa bed and beers.  I will be old enough to buy my own drinks next October.

Will you be a sad old thing when you’re forty, me? Will you think about about how your Dad stuck with the bill on the gas card? Will you remember his tone of disappointment when he sees how much you’ve abused the privilege? Will you regret every advantage you took without grace, without thankfulness and reverence?  Will you miss your father? Will he be gone when you’re forty?  Will he have slipped away, you summoned by a late night call from your mother? Will you have Thanksgiving in the room next to where they removed him from the house, a white cloth dropped over his grey face?

Will you punish yourself or the whiskey or both?  Probably both.

I like the phrase ‘punishing the whiskey’.  It’s almost the words of something I heard from an old movie I love. Because at twenty, I love old 30s movies, putting on mascara, doing drugs, and worrying about boys who don’t love me.  Maybe when I’m forty I won’t worry about sparse eye lashes or dicks or dicks with dicks. Will I shave every day like Dad? Will I be a man he would like?

What will I worry about?

Will I be alone?  Or will I be gloriously confident, happy, thoughtless? Bouncing from one success to another like a bubble that smells of champagne and just enough sleep?  Is life ever going to be so simple?

Tonight, I came home early, disappointed that I didn’t run into Steve at the tea room.  What would we have talked about? The poetry he knows that is always a little too rare for anyone else at the table? I’m not going to realize what a silly snob he is for another dozen years, right? His nose is straight, his eyes such a dark green, they are like lakes of ice, trodden by literary greats from old worlds.  He thinks about things before he says them, batting his great thoughts on a vast field I shouldn’t play on.  I am all romance and laziness. I’m barely curious, too intent on making my own gossamer worlds. Yet how I wonder about this young man, want to be let into his soul.  Will it be nothingness to me when I am twenty years older?

Mom and Dad are asleep already when I get home. It’s a relief, really and truly. I think I’ve broken them of worrying about my late night escapades. Still, I steal around the kitchen like a thief, opening drawers for snacks, ninja quiet. If they catch me making a sandwich at one in the morning, we might have to make small talk. And they don’t get me anymore, if they ever did. It’s best if I put together my sandwich in silence, eat it alone in my basement room.  I can fill the silence with cable TV; Lauren Hutton talking to people through mirrors.

Dad in his underwear, big belly, flop of hair falling the wrong way, showing his baldness. With his fat rolls and his moles, he is homely and foolish to a young shit like me.  What can he say to me that I want to hear? If he feigned to care about what I care about, would it knit us any closer?  If he talked about vampires, about Stone Temple Pilots, about loving someone who doesn’t see me…would we see each other finally?

Older me, what do you think? Do you think Dad knows what it’s like to love someone who doesn’t see him?  Or does anyone see anyone? See them enough?  Are you happy, older me? Do you think I’m a fool or do you think you are?

Older me, are you kind? Do you forgive me?

I’m only doing the best I can.

Erotic, Painful, Strange

On a rainy Sunday afternoon in late September of last year, the nine year case of missing teen Alessandra Ferguson came to a bloody confrontation in a downtown area office.  A thirteen hour stand off between police officials and Karl Ferguson ended when snipers, working from a nearby roof top, took down the forty-seven year old business man with a series of shots that shattered glass on the seventeenth floor of the Kressler Building.

An hour later, encircled by police and welfare officials, Alessandra Ferguson was guided from the building and into a waiting car.  The daughter of a wealthy Boston-area family, the image used upon her disappearance was of a pig-tailed blond in a soccer uniform, her nose dusted in freckles and her smile vaguely wistful.  The young woman who folded herself into the squad car was unmistakably her, though the drawn face glimpsed through folds of brown hair showed signs of the horrors of her nearly decade long captivity.

The case, which went cold within weeks of breaking, was unofficially shelved in 2007, two years after the girl failed to show up for a piano lesson after school.  Last year, Detectives Gale Rutherford and Kevin Brown were given permission to reopen the file, based on an unlikely source of information: the previous year’s bestselling erotic novel, “The Lord Giveth”, which followed the life of a girl in Regency-era England who receives an unorthodox sexual education from a wealthy aristocrat entrusted with her guardianship.

The novel was an anomaly in its genre, mixing raw sexuality with themes of depression and brutality.  It came from a first-time published author who refused book-signings or any press, and declined to include a photo in the cover design. All negotiations with agents and editors were handled by a legal proxy.  The aura of mystery surrounding the author, coupled with the graphic sexual nature of the novel, quickly drove sales of the volume to new records in the publishing world.  There was a fever pitch to the question, “Who is James Quinn?” Rumors abounded that the author was in fact a public figure; the names of former presidents and Hollywood celebrities alike were bandied about as readers and media speculated about the author’s identity.

Gale Rutherford would not describe herself as a romance fiction reader.  She attributed her wife’s fascination with the novel for the initial insight that reopened the case.  “Every night, Deidra was telling me something she’d read that day. Eventually, I stopped rolling my eyes at all the sex, and I started to feel there was something strange here, something familiar and heart-breaking.  I started to read the book myself and then I bought my own copy.”

Rutherford laughed drily, “Deidra teased me at first, until she noticed I was marking passages.  A week after I started, I went to my sergeant and asked to review the case file.”

“I carry a lot of images with me from my cases, but you learn to be weary of remembering things wrongly.  Starting at the name of the author, I wanted to see photographs that were taken of Alessandra’s bedroom at the time of her disappearance.  I asked my partner, Detective Brown, to follow a couple of minor leads for me at the same time, although we had not yet been granted permission to investigate the case again.  When his research lead him to Malcolm Romney and then to the fraternity that Romney had belonged to in college, we knew we had compelling information. That was when we were granted permission to reopen the case.”

Although the family of the now-found missing girl used the weight of their considerable wealth and connections to put a buffer between her and the media, eventually Alessandra Ferguson agreed to a primetime interview with a noted journalist.  Airing last month, a year to the date since Karl Ferguson was near-fatally shot by snipers, the question of the author of the erotic fiction as well as details of the nine year captivity came to light.

Some evidence had already made its way into the public domain, and the interviewer opened with questions about Robert Blume, the childhood friend of Alessandra who was initially fingered by police in 2005 and who committed suicide later that year.

“He was my friend. He never hurt me,” Alessandra said calmly.  She wore a navy blouse for the interview. Her brown hair was dressed off her face and confined at the nape of her neck.  A diamond on her right hand flashed in the light frequently during the interview, but was never discussed, though there was much online speculation about it.  She looked mature and sophisticated, much older than her twenty-one years.

“Did you know until your release that he had died?”

“Not until a couple of months ago.” She glanced away. “It was recommended that I be caught up on things slowly.  My mother has been a guardian to me, very loyal and very patient.”

“Robert Blume was questioned for any involvement in your disappearance.  He told police that he loved you, that he felt it was inappropriate, that he’d told you the week before you went missing.  You’ve told police that you were never scared of him, never worried about his feelings.”

“He told me he loved me and at that time, I didn’t know that he meant it exactly that way.”

The interviewer studied her a moment.  “But you say that this is what ultimately lead to your imprisonment by your father.”

“Yes.”

“How so?”

“As it was explained to me, my father felt I was unsafe. He was a fanatical person in many ways. He had views that were religious about virginity.  He told me he was saving me from Robert.”

“When he put you into the chamber in his office building?”

“Initially, he kept me in a house on the outskirts of the city. Later he took me to the place where I lived the rest of the years.”

“Did you try to escape from the house in Sunnyvale?”

“I was only there a week.  He told me I was safe, brought me toys and clothes. He said my mother knew where I was and that she’d visit me soon.”

“And when you were taken the to the Kressler Building chamber, you were told she would be waiting there for you?”

“Yes.”

“Can we talk a little more about Robert Blume for a moment?”

Alessandra nodded.

“He was sixteen and you were eleven.  When he was being investigated, the public quickly decided that he was guilty.  Your father was very outspoken in the boy’s defense. He made a statement at the time that there was not enough information for a witch hunt.  You say he never mentioned any of these things to you?”

The girl hesitated.  “He never told me about anything that was happening out there.  But when he began to be addicted to my writings, he once asked me to change something which I now connect to his feelings about what happened to Robert.”

The interviewer watched her while she studied her hands for a long moment.  “I wrote about a young man with brown hair and green eyes.  He looked like Robert.  I wrote that he and Clara were in love.  When I read to him a scene with the two of them being intimate, he became very agitated.  Enraged, really.  He wanted me to write the character out of the story, but there was a rule I’d made the year before, after something else, that he could never ask me to take a character out of a story.  They could be written out, but what was already written was set in stone.  He said the boy should be caught stealing and shot while he escaped.”

“Did you agree to that?”

“I never let him tell me how to write, but I said I’d find a way to split the two up.”

“The boy that was like Robert and your heroine, Clara Jennings?”

“Yes.”

“Was it explicitly clear to both you and your father that Clara was a version of yourself?”

“Yes.”

“I wanted to get back to something you said earlier.  You describe and have described your father as having become addicted to your writing.”

“Yes.”

“Can you elaborate on that?”

“When he finally agreed to bring me some books on tape and eventually a laptop to write on, I was only thirteen. I was writing what I had always loved the most, these romance novels. By that time, I knew about sex, and I think I was trying to normalize it for myself. I began to write stories that placed my experiences into the lives of the women I had been identifying with in those novels.”

“He wasn’t troubled by your sexual writing? I’m thinking back to his comments to you at the beginning, about protecting your virginity.”

“He had already taken that, so whatever he had to do to rearrange his thoughts about that, he had long since done.”

“How long after your imprisonment at the Kressler Building before the first sexual incident?”

“A year.”

“So you were twelve.”

“Yes.”

The interviewer probed her with a narrowed gaze.  “You’re very calm, Alessandra.”

“This is my history. It’s only new to you.”

“I was asking about the addiction…”

In a forensic photo of the missing girl’s bedroom, there were two books on the nightstand, each earmarked as if being read simultaneously.  Her mother at the time described her only daughter as a book-lover.  The built in shelves along one wall of the room were more filled with novels and care-worm children’s books than with dolls or toys.  The author surnames of the two books abandoned on the nightstand were ‘Quinn’ and ‘James’, which together made the name of the writer of ‘The Lord Giveth’.  Once enlargements helped to identify the book titles, Detective Rutherford bought the books and began to read them carefully.

In the second half of the prime time interview, the journalist sat down with Detective Rutherford.  Speaking of her initial lead, she said, “Diedra knew I hadn’t suddenly become a fan of historic romance novels.  Women in the throes of passion don’t spend the afternoon color coding passages with highlighters.”

“So, you started to feel that this novel, ‘The Lord Giveth’, was encoded with a message from Alessandra Ferguson.”

The detective shook her head.  “At first, I felt that is was encoded.  I didn’t know if it was Alessandra or someone else, someone close to the case. Maybe a former employee of the Fergusons.”

“Did you consider Karl Ferguson?”

“Yes.”

“But he was not identified as a suspect back in 2005.”

“That’s right.  We always question family in cases of missing children and we follow any leads we can.  In this case, we could find nothing to link him to her disappearance.”

“Did you know about the property that Mr. Ferguson owned out in Sunnyvale?”

“That did not become evident until a couple of months into the investigation.  The title was held by a corporation that Mr. Ferguson was associated with and that was not picked up initially. Of course, by the time we did a routine site check, she had been moved to the Kessler Building.”

“Before this recent discovery, before breaking this case, were you frustrated to see the case go cold?”

“Of course.  I don’t know any detective who can walk away from an unsolved crime without carrying the weight with them.”

“Did you have a pet suspect during all these years? Robert Blume? A lot of people felt that his suicide was a confession.  It’s been said that may have lead to the decision to shut down the investigation.”

“I think the term ‘pet suspect’ is an odd choice of words.  But, look, I want to be clear that Robert Blume’s suicide had nothing to do with the case being shelved.  We were actively following leads for another year afterward.  You have to understand, when something like this is new, we’re inundated with calls, tip offs.  They’re almost always entirely unfounded, though most of them are well-intended. Some are purely pranks.  Eventually, the phones stop ringing, the emails stop coming in.”

“Some have said that Karl Ferguson used his influence to shutter the investigation.”

“Who?”

“Who has said that?”

“Yes.”

The interviewer glanced down at her notes. “A former child services chief with the city stated he was directed to cease follow up with Blume’s family by a man largely recognized as a friend of the Ferguson family.  Numerous investigative journalist have come forward, saying they were moved to other stories in the weeks following the case without explanation from their editors. It’s hard to deny this case had a fairly small national imprint in an age of Caylee Anthony crime stories.”

“To be frank with you, ma’am, whether Mr. Ferguson had a role or not in taking the spotlight off the case, speaking as an investigator, that’s something of a blessing.  It’s hard to see justice served when you’re impeded by a media circus.”

“It’s ironic, then, isn’t it, that without a novel that had become sensationalized in the media, this case might never have been solved.”

There was a pause, tense and bald, between the two women.

Detective Rutherford shrugged, “You’re right. That is pretty ironic.”

The journalist interviewed the detective on a set at the local studio, a beige space with a potted palm in the distance and a pair of brass sconces gleaming dully in the shadows.  It might have been a hotel suite or a conference room in a law office.  The setting for her interview with Alessandra Ferguson was much warmer and more sophisticated.  In a book-lined room in the Ferguson townhouse, where the antique moldings were made of trees that no longer grow on this continent, she asked the girl to describe a typical day during her years of captivity.

“Well, that was a long time.  It changed with the years.”

“In the beginning…”

“In the beginning, I slept a lot and I cried a lot.  This made my father angry.  He felt he was doing me a favor and I was being ungrateful.”

“How long would you say this lasted?”

“I don’t know. Back then, I had no way to count the days.”

“When did it change?”

“The first time he had intercourse with me.”

“You were twelve.”

“Yes.”

The journalist nodded.

“After that, I had trouble sleeping.  He used to bring me things to help. Nyquil. Sometimes prescriptions.”

“And when did he allow you to start writing?”

“He allowed me to have books on tape first, authors I used to like before.  It made things less scary in there when I was alone.”

“Did his visits make you feel less lonely?”

“Of course.”

“Eventually, you asked for a computer so you could write.”

“Yes.”

“And he said no?”

“Yes. That’s right.”

“What changed his mind?”

“When he had to abort my pregnancy.”

The interviewer took a breath.  She hesitated, but the girl continued, filling the vacuum her words made.

“When he figured out I was pregnant, he told me there was no way we could keep it.  He read up on how to do it, told me he would be able to perform it.”

“You must have been terrified.”

“He was a smart person. He was very capable. When he told me he could do it safely, I believed him.”

“Really?”

“Really.”

“So you weren’t scared that he could harm you, that you might die?”

“I think my ideas about fear and harm were very different by then.”

The journalist placed a hand over her mouth, tipping her face down to the pages in her lap.  The camera captured the two women from a distance, the young woman in the navy and the older woman in a rusty tweed blazer.  There were shadows of leaves from outside the window, rising and falling on the spines of the books behind them.

“So he performs the abortion.”

“And I didn’t want to speak to him for a while after that.  One day, he brought me a laptop and we started talking again.”

“How long after that before he began to demand your stories? Was he the first to suggest they be more sexual?”

“No. I wrote what I knew. The first time I read one of that kind to him, he sat through the story and was very quiet. When I looked up at the end, he was pale and sweaty. I thought he was dying.”

“You thought he was having a heart attack?”

“Yes. Maybe.  He took the laptop away with him and wouldn’t talk to me.  Then, eventually, he brought it back.”

“Did he tell you then to write more of that kind of story?”

“No.  I just did.”

“And he began to ask for more of them?”

“Yes.”

“And then he began to tell you to write certain things into them?”

“I think I realized I had the upper hand, because if he could be satisfied by writing those things himself, he would’ve done so. So I made a rule that he could request things in my writing, but I would ultimately decide what made it to the page.”

“So you at last had some kind of power.”

“Yes.”

“But you didn’t realize it.”

“I realized it a little bit. Later, I was able to use it better.”

The journalist nodded.

“How did that change things for you?”

“I wanted to be able to read magazines, to read newspapers.  I asked for anything that would tell me what the world out there was like.”

“He agreed?”

“At first he brought me things like chocolate, clothes, told me this was how girls were dressing now.  Eventually I made him realize I didn’t care about that. I wanted things to read about the world.”

“Because the lap top had no internet connection?”

“Yes.”

“What else were you able to ask for that changed the dynamic there?”

“I was allowed to refuse sex.  He took care of himself while I read.”

The interviewer signaled the cameraman and they broke for a while.  The girl was staring into the shadows of the library, still and pale like a statue or a sage.  The reporter took five minutes to smoke a cigarette out on the street.  A bank of clouds moved in over the city and when they resumed the taping, the light had shifted in the room a bit.

On the beige set where she’d met with the investigator later in the same week, she asked about an interview Rutherford had given to Time magazine in 2012.  “The article was about missing children cases and how detectives handle failure. You said that you thought about the Ferguson case every day. Is that true?”

“I said I wondered about Alessandra all the time, whether she was alive, how she was doing. ”

“Are you aware that the article played such an important part in how the case was solved?”

“I was told that she saw the article.”

“She says reading that was the first confirmation she had that someone out there might still think she was alive. She had assumed until then that people thought she was dead.”

The detective nodded.

“What would you say to Alessandra if she were here right now?”

“I’ve already had a chance to speak with her.”

“And what did you say?”

“I said I was glad she was alive.”

In the depositions that Alessandra provided to the investigators, leading to the closing of the case and the conviction of her father, she described how she began to plug clues into her writing as to her whereabouts and her captor.  It was something she began in her short stories, writing things that resembled truths of her relationship with her father, hoping to understand how far she could go before he recognized the coding.  The journalist asked about this.

“Your father eventually agreed to take your novel to a third party to seek an agent.  He knew the book inside out presumably. Why do you think he couldn’t see the same clues in it that Detective Rutherford was able to see?”

“I guess people can’t see themselves.”

The journalist studied her.

“I think my father liked the story because in it, the girl was free and she made her own choices.”

“You think he had remorse?”

“I don’t know that he had remorse, but I think that, through the characters in the story, he could experience whatever gratified him in the things he did to me, without any guilt that it was rape.  I was careful to avoid making it about rape because he’d never have let that out the door.  I wrote something like that once, and it led to one of his rages, one of our silent periods.  Days of not talking. He took the laptop away again that time, too.”

“Your father is at the state penitentiary now, serving three consecutive life sentences.”

“Yes.”

“Have you spoken with him since the night you were freed?”

The girl dropped her gaze, shifted in her seat.

“Alessandra?”

“Yes, we’ve spoken.”

“What did you say to him? Do you mind me asking?”

“That’s something I’d care not to discuss.”

The journalist lowered glittering eyes to her notes.

When Detective Brown followed a string of leads that began at the publishers of Alessandra’s novel and ended with identifying Malcolm Romney, the handler of the manuscript, as a fraternity brother of Karl Ferguson, the information was enough to open the case.  Romney testified that he did not know the origin of the writing and had been lead to believe that it was the original work of Karl Ferguson himself.  The plump lawyer sweated nervously as Brown and Rutherford interrogated him, adding at one point, “I did think it was strange, the father of a missing girl, writing stuff like that.”

“Your commission for handling the manuscript was the same as an agents, correct?”

He swallowed. “Yes.”

In the interview with the journalist, Rutherford recalled feeling elated that they were closing in on the truth.  “But I still couldn’t be sure she was alive.  If Ferguson had written the novel, it might have been a kind of confession.  The only obvious action at that point was to begin to tail him.  Evidence was gathered from then on in what felt like a long time, but was really only days. You learn to be patient as an investigator, but we were close and that made it hard.”

“What kinds of evidence?”

“Purchases that would have been for a woman. Perfume, women’s magazines, clothes, jewelry.”

Alessandra was beginning to look tired by the time the journalist honed in on the last days before her liberation.  A member of the house staff brought coffee and once the silver service had been cleared out of the shot, they resumed taping.

“You refused gifts from your father for a long time.”

“Yes.”

“But then near the end, you asked him for things.”

“He was glad to do it. I had read about the success of the novel, the speculation about who wrote it.  I told him I felt cheated, because I should be enjoying the fame.”

“Really?”

“Yes.”

“And you felt that way?”

“Only a little.  I had this feeling that if I asked for expensive gifts, it would make him conspicuous if anyone out there was watching.”

“Well, it worked. Detective Rutherford says that the jewelry, along with other evidence, helped compel a search warrant.”

The girl bit her lip, looked away, seeming young again.

The journalist leaned in for her last question.  “Now that you’re out of your imprisonment, knowing the bait you cast saved your life, what do you feel about your novel?”

“What do I feel about my novel?”

“I mean, some book clubs took it off their reading list once the story broke, feeling, I gather, there was something disturbing about the subtext.  People have said discovering that something erotic and pleasurable was in fact the result of your life as a victim of so many horrific encounters at your father’s hands… That, well, it changes the reading of the book.”

Alessandra glanced at the shelves surrounding them.

The reporter tilted her head, “So I ask again, what do you feel about your novel?”

The girl took a breath.

“I feel that it’s a good story.”