Friday, August 26, 2016

Looking for the Blue Man by Nancy Lane

Desperate to find her son, missing after a car crash in the Arizona desert, Gail finds herself in the Spanish district of Los Angeles on the advice of a psychic; by Nancy Lane.

On my first day in the Pico-Union district, blocks west of downtown Los Angeles and a six-hour drive from my home in Phoenix, Arizona, I captured a cell phone image of the mural painted on the side of a two-story apartment house at West Twelfth Street and South Union Avenue. I had read how the original mural from 1971 had been painted out by mistake and later restored, but never why the muralist painted Steve McQueen blue or why the blue-eyed actor graced this Hispanic neighborhood. The museum-worthy portrait shared space with an occupied residence where tenants shot hoops in the adjacent parking lot and bought ice cream from push-cart vendors along the sidewalk.

I rented a furnished apartment on West Eleventh Place and, with help from the landlord's grandchildren, transferred a few boxes of house wares, bedding, and "have you seen" posters and fliers from my car to what would serve as my search center. The blue Steve McQueen marked the trailhead of my search for my son Kris. I would begin in the exact spot where the psychic had told me to start.

By the second night in the apartment, sirens had become part of the evening din along with the whir of car tires on the asphalt driveway and loud voices permeating apartment walls. From dusk until after midnight, music blared - polkas rattling on, with words unintelligible to me except for the frequent mi Corazon shouted over horns and accordions.

I remembered a few words from high school Spanish class, beautiful words with lots of vowels, but too few words to stitch together a sentence or unravel one spoken to me. In the neighborhood of the blue Steve McQueen, few adults spoke English but the children did. I showed a flier to my landlord, Mr. Damaso, and his grandchildren, Mario and Andrea. I had made my posters and fliers bilingual, finding the needed Spanish words by using a translation app on my cell phone.

Mr. Damaso spoke in Spanish. Andrea translated. "Why is your son missing?"

"He drove into the desert near Phoenix and crashed into a giant saguaro," I said. "He may have been injured. No one knows. He just left his car and disappeared."

The children looked confused. "What is a giant... whatever you said?" Mario said.

"Saguaro, it's a cactus, like a tree that grows in the desert."

Mario spoke to Mr. Damaso, raising his hand high when he said, árbol gigante.

"How old is your son?" Andrea said after Mr. Damaso spoke.

"Twenty-five."

"Veinticinco," she told him.

He asked and Andrea translated, "Why do you look here instead of in the Phoenix desert?"

"Everyone searched around Phoenix for more than six months. Tips came in he had been seen at a truck stop." When I paused, Andrea translated.

"He could be anywhere," I said, "but a psychic told me to start at the blue Steve McQueen." Andrea hesitated. "A psychic is like a fortune teller." I told her.

She nodded and then explained my words to her grandfather, who smiled when she said, Señor Steve McQueen.

"Si, el hombre azul," he said. He spoke to the children. They told me they would help me after school.

My young translators helped me affix posters to telephone poles along Union Avenue and then along Pico Boulevard where, Mr. Damaso told them, a missing Anglo man would more likely be seen. "Is he like a homeless man with a beard?" Andrea said, staring at Kris's clean shaven appearance in the picture.

"He may be," I said. "If he suffered a concussion in the crash, he may have amnesia. He may be wandering around without knowing his name or where he came from. I expect to find him among homeless people." My own words pierced me and I turned away from Andrea. My sweet little boy, now a grown man, and I described him as homeless. My pocket Kleenex always ready, I dabbed and sniffled while Andrea clicked the heavy duty stapler to affix the next poster. What's worse: homeless, dead, captive, or estranged? I chose to look for a homeless man suffering from amnesia instead of, as Phoenix police suggested, an estranged man suffering from depression.

That night my next door neighbor brought me a plate of chile rellenos poblanos for dinner. Her daughter, Pilar, translated. Mrs. Garza welcomed me to the apartment building and said to come to her door if I needed anything. I smiled and thanked them both. Mrs. Garza spoke and Pilar wished me luck in finding my son. Pilar said Señor Damaso had told them my story. I stretched my arms to hug each and each hugged me back. When they left I grabbed my cell phone to translate dama triste which I had heard Mrs. Garza say to Pilar. Sad lady - yes, so I was. Alone, away from home and fearing I might be looking in the wrong place, I wept for my son, for me and, while I was at it, for the whole world. Tears splashed onto my plate of chile rellenos. I ate the food, it was good. I listened to the polka music and lay awake even after it ended.

Pilar knocked on my door before leaving for school and asked for one of my fliers, saying her father managed the barbershop on Pico Boulevard and offered to put the flier in the shop window.

"He said to tell you about a place where homeless go for meals," Pilar said. "Go to Olympic Boulevard and turn right, then a few more blocks to Hope Street. It's called Sunrise Café. Ask for Sister Soledad. She can help you."

At the Sunrise Café, people, homeless I assumed, waited within the doorway while others ate at the filled tables. What if Kris were here? I looked at the men standing and those seated - no Kris. "Are you looking for someone?" the young, Hispanic hostess asked.

"I'm looking for my son. Someone told me to speak with Sister Soledad. Is she here?"

"Yes, she's in," she said. "I'm Gabriella. Call me Gabby. Is that a flier about your son?"

"Yes, Gabby," I said. "I'm Gail Kramer and my son is Kris." I handed her a flier.

"Blue eyes and blond hair, he is handsome. But I have not seen him here. I'll ask the guests. Maybe someone has seen him."

Gabby led me to a back office where she introduced me to Sister Soledad. I was struck by the woman's beauty. Fiftyish, maybe five-four, Sister Soledad had large brown eyes and dark, shoulder-length hair. She wore a flowing, emerald green dress and a necklace with turquoise clusters and matching earrings.

She smiled. "Gail, I surprise you. You were expecting a nun, which I am not. Sister Soledad is a nickname from my TV days. I'm Soledad Reynosa. Call me Soledad."

Papers cluttered Soledad's small desk. Wall hangings spoke of accomplishments: a university diploma denoting a degree in Languages and Linguistics, certificates of outstanding performance from the State Department, plaques of recognition from the city and county.

"I was a local celebrity with a popular TV show," Soledad said. "People came with problems and I solved them on-air. When the show ended, I started Sunrise Café to feed homeless people."

"What did you do before the Café and the TV show?"

"For twenty years I translated at the State Department," Soledad said. "I spoke Spanish and English as a child in Texas and then learned more languages in college."

"Are those your children?" I pointed to two pictures, a young woman in a graduation gown and a young man in military uniform.

"Yes, mis hijos, Soledad said. "Rita graduated from law school five years ago. She's an attorney with the DA's office. Michael died in Iraq serving our country."

"I'm sorry about your son," I said. "He's handsome. You must be proud, and your daughter is so pretty."

"Thank you," Soledad said. "I am so proud of both my children. You are proud of your son, too. I know that. Tell me why he's missing."

I told her about Kris's car crash in the desert and what the Phoenix police found - no sign of foul play and no reason to suspect kidnapping.

"What do you think?" Soledad said.

"Driver side airbag deployed," I said, "so the car must have slammed against the cactus. Maybe he suffered a concussion. If he got out of the car and wandered, a motorist on the highway may have picked him up. A tipster said they saw him at a truck stop. If a trucker gave him a ride, he could be far from Phoenix."

"Did the police search for Kris?" Soledad said.

"The police searched the desert. The Boy Scouts and Kris's friends helped. Kris's father, my ex-husband, came from Seattle and stayed two months to help search. After awhile, the police focused more on why he drove into the desert. They asked about mental health issues. I told them, maybe I shouldn't have, how Kris suffered clinical depression when we moved to Phoenix from Seattle after the divorce. It wasn't just the blues, but serious depression. Kris was fifteen. With meds and time, Kris overcame the illness. At eighteen, he got a job and moved into his own apartment."

"So the police told you there was no reason to file a missing person report because he's an adult and may have chosen to leave without telling anyone, right?" Soledad said.

"Yes, the police stopped looking. I continued with help from friends and the media."

"So you're thinking amnesia keeps him away," Soledad said, "but what made him go into the desert, any ideas?" Had she read my mind about my amnesia theory?

"Kris had been going with a girl named Kate," I said, "but she found someone else. She broke up with him two weeks before he disappeared. Perhaps he felt heartbroken and went to the desert to be alone and think, maybe grieve. Kate has been helping me look."

"Did you get a tip to look in Los Angeles?" Soledad said.

"Not exactly. The local news stations ran the story and tips came in, but the leads went nowhere. Months passed and friends fell away, only Kate hung in. After six months I felt desperate." I hesitated to tell Soledad what I did next.

She smiled. "Go on, please."

I took a breath. "A co-worker told me about Vesna, a psychic reader. After several readings, Vesna told me to look in Los Angeles, near the blue Steve McQueen. I had nothing else to go on. I took time off from work and came here to look for Kris. Do you think I made a mistake listening to a psychic?"

"No, Gail, there are no mistakes. You are in the right place. We just need to figure it out. Gabby can give you fliers for places where homeless people get services. Good Samaritan Hospital is nearby. Check if they've seen a concussion patient resembling Kris. Where are you staying?"

"Mr. Damaso's apartment house on Eleventh Place, do you know him?" Soledad knew Mr. Damaso and lived near the apartments. She gave me her address and invited me to dinner on Sunday.

From the Sunrise Café and on to the hospital on Wilshire Boulevard, I had found hope to inflate sagging resolve. Soledad had given me places to go, like spokes emanating from the blue Steve McQueen. Was he just breaths away, a disoriented Kris in a hospital room or a needy Kris in line at a help center? I imagined bringing Kris with me to Soledad's dinner party, regaling her family and friends how I found him. Hope is happy and intoxicating.

But no one had seen Kris at the hospital or at any of the homeless help centers. I revisited the centers each day, scanning the faces of others' sons. On Sunday I stopped before Steve McQueen as I walked to Soledad's house. The actor's blue eyes looked angry. Late afternoon sunlight played across the building and highlighted the grooves between the wood slats crossing his image. Did I dare ask him to speak, this Hollywood son with pursed, blue lips? He wasn't about to tell me where to find my son.

A small courtyard led to a yellow, stucco house with a red tile roof. The open double doors of the entryway revealed guests standing in groups in the living room. The sounds of conversations, laughter, and ice clinking in glasses competed with food aromas to welcome those just arriving. Upon my entrance, Soledad took me by the hand and introduced me to others, among them her daughter Rita and Rita's fiancé, Mark Owens, a Deputy Sheriff. After selecting from the buffet table, I took my plate to a corner folding table where Rita invited me to eat with her and Mark. Rita, as poised and pretty as her mother, told Mark my story.

"So, Gail, you're looking in LA because of a psychic, with no clues placing Kris here. Does the psychic have credentials?" he asked.

"Yes, she's found quite a few people and has even helped Chicago police on their cases."

"How do you know that?"

"Well, she told me." Hearing my own answer, I knew it sounded foolish.

"Psychics claim to have extra sensory capabilities," he said, "but they don't. I used to work in a fraud unit. I hate to dishearten you, but I believe you could have thrown a dart on a map and just as well have chosen a place to look."

"Mark, you have a professional's view on how these things work," Rita said. "But we can't rule out possibilities."

"You mean what Soledad does," Mark said. "We've agreed to disagree on whether your mother is psychic."

"She doesn't claim to be psychic." Rita said.

"But her TV promotions billed her as a psychic."

"She's gifted at solving people's problems. My mother has helped many people, on and off her TV show."

Mark looked ready to say more but instead looked at his plate and pushed an olive around with his fork.

Rita reached over and squeezed my hand. "My mother will help you find Kris," she told me.

I went into the kitchen to help Soledad's nieces with the dishes. Soledad brought in another stack. She put her arm around me and apologized for Mark's skepticism.

"Please, you don't need to wash dishes," she said. "Mr. Damaso is leaving with his grandchildren. Walk back with them. I want you to come again tomorrow for dinner. We'll talk about finding Kris." I walked hand-in-hand with Andrea while Mario and Mr. Damaso walked behind. Sirens wailed about somebody's trouble and music blared about somebody's love as I bid goodnight and closed my door. After my shower, I checked my phone and returned a missed call from Kate.

"Kate," I said, "I haven't found any leads here. I'm glad you're still helping."

"I won't stop, Gail. By the way, I broke up with my boyfriend. He's not the one for me. Kris and I were better together."

"We'll find Kris," I said, "and he'll be happy to see you again."

The next evening, as I walked to Soledad's house, both Steve McQueen and Kris stared, Steve watching me from his mural and Kris looking out from posters on poles on both sides of the avenue. Soledad opened the door when I knocked.

"I worried about you last night," Soledad said as she hugged me. "Mark upset you."

"Mark's probably right about psychics."

"He doesn't know everything," Soledad said. She showed me to the dining nook in the kitchen. "We'll talk after dinner. I hope you like Mexican lasagna." After dinner we moved to the living room.

"Last night I thought about you and Kris and how much you are like me and Michael."

"How so?" I said.

"You and Kris have a strong bond, as did Michael and I. The moment mi hijo died a world away in Iraq, I knew. I sat in that green chair, waiting for the CNO team to knock on my door. It took them nearly six hours to come and tell me what I already knew."

"Soledad, such a loss. I wish I could have met your son."

"You've not given up on Kris. I will meet your son and we will celebrate."

"How can that happen?" I said.

"The police aren't going to help, and you don't have an army of friends to look everywhere. You have only one way to find your son," Soledad said. "You must use your love."

"I don't understand."

"Gail," Soledad said, "I speak many languages, but in all of them there is no more beautiful phrase than the Spanish words mi hijo or mi hija, meaning my son or my daughter. It's a phrase of endearment connoting pride and love. My son, even spoken by a loving parent, doesn't convey such depth of meaning as mi hijo. If you hear mi hijo said by a Spanish-speaking parent, you hear love."

I remembered Soledad using those words when speaking of Rita and Michael.

"Your love connects you to Kris," she said. "This is August. You will have Kris back for the holidays. Just keep saying, mi hijo, over and over. Think it and say it aloud, at every opportunity at all times."

I started crying thinking of Kris home for the holidays.

The morning I drove back to Phoenix, three weeks after arriving in Los Angeles, I whispered mi hijo to every saguaro I saw near the highway and every tumble weed that crossed the road in front of me. That helped me concentrate on the words. In the next weeks, as I drove to and from work and on errands, I said mi hijo deliberately, thoughtfully. In nighttime solitude before sleep and on waking each morning, I spoke mi hijo many times and wept, not because I feared Soledad was wrong, but because I pictured Kris sitting at the kitchen table, sneaking food scraps to Sparky, my dog who had been his dog until he moved to a no-pets apartment.

Kate and I continued our efforts posting on social media and contacting help services. I spent Thanksgiving Day with Kate at her parents' house. Mi hijo, mi hijo - I thought between exchanging pleasantries with Kate's relatives and passing the potatoes and cranberry sauce. Mi hijo, mi hijo - I hummed over Christmas music at the mall as November ended with a Phoenix dust storm.

Kate and her parents left for a family reunion in Pennsylvania, planning to return two days after Christmas. On December 23, Sparky and I watched a Steve McQueen marathon on TV in Kris's old room. I stared at the phones, Kris's and mine, on the stand next to the TV. The police had found Kris's phone in his car. I kept it activated in case he remembered his number and called. But when would he remember his number?

I thought back to Samuel Madrid. Soledad had sent me to Good Samaritan Hospital - Good Sam. At Good Sam I had bought a cup of coffee in the crowded cafeteria, where Samuel Madrid waved me to his table.

"There's no place else to sit, Ma'am," he had said. "Please join me."

Samuel introduced himself as a medical student who planned to specialize in sports medicine. I introduced myself and told him about Kris. Samuel stared at me for a minute and then explained he had just completed a research assignment about post-traumatic amnesia in athletes after concussion caused by sports injury. What a coincidence! For thirty minutes Samuel answered my questions about amnesia and told me things I hadn't even known to ask about.

I stared at Kris's phone on the TV stand. The athlete recovers in time, but how long depends on the severity of the concussion and the location of brain injury. After eleven months, what might Kris remember? The athlete may connect with early memories, but maybe not with anything that happened in the months or even years before the injury incident. What would Kris remember first?

What about his older phone, the flip phone Kris had in high school? Would he remember that number? Out of service ten years or more, his old number, with Seattle prefix, was probably assigned to someone else's phone by now. What if it wasn't, what if Kris remembered and got a new phone with the old number? I had long ago updated my contacts file. Kate wouldn't have the old number either. Kris had his new phone before he met her, before he met anyone in Phoenix. I could think of only one person who might still have the flip phone number, Kris's father. Yes, mi hijo, I called your dad and he still had your phone number from ten years earlier.

My heart pounded when I dialed the number. Each ring seemed prolonged, but the ringing stopped. "No one is available to take your call. At the tone, you may record your message." I quickly pressed the red icon on my phone screen to end the call. I should have left a message, even to let a stranger know the call was in error.

I dialed again. My heart thumped. Sparky whined. The room swirled. I stood and started to sway. Ring - ring - ring - ring - then the same announcement and the short tone following. Silence, I couldn't think what I wanted to say. Time passed. I had to say something. More time passed. I blurted, "Te amo, mi hijo."

"Blaaah," the dial tone replied. The swirling room slowed, Sparky settled down, my thumping heart quieted. The credits rolled for Nevada Smith. I turned off the TV. I sat for over an hour, whispering mi hijo again and again. The room darkened. I turned on lights and let Sparky out to the backyard. I took a hot shower and uttered mi hijo in a singsong as the water splashed against the shower wall. Then back in Kris's room, I squinted at my phone screen - missed call from Seattle, Washington. Not Kris's father, somebody else had called and left a voicemail. My fingers fumbled to retrieve the message.

I stopped breathing to listen to background noise, then Kris's voice, "I love you too, Mom! Hey, why are you speaking Spanish?"

Kris answered when I called back. We laughed and cried and asked and answered a million questions. Everything I told him connected memories for him, like placing jigsaw puzzle pieces into right places. He said he was in San Diego, California where Father Perry had found him dazed on the lawn at his church and had taken him to a doctor. Yes, he had suffered a concussion. Kris was staying at the rectory and working at a car wash. I mentioned his car crash in the Phoenix desert, and he knew nothing of it. The athlete may never recover memory of the injury incident.

I gave Kris phone numbers for him to call his father and Kate while I arranged for my neighbor to take care of Sparky. Just past three AM, after my three hundred and fifty mile drive, Kris stood before my headlights, slimmer than before and wearing his hair shorter than I remembered. I parked and jumped from the car. We walked arm-in-arm into the rectory, where Kris ushered me to an eat-in kitchen.

"I made you coffee, Mom. I don't remember how you like it. I made it strong." He poured me a mug.

"I'm so happy, Kris," I said. "How excited was your dad when you phoned?"

Kris's father had filled in a lot of details Kris hadn't remembered and said he would come for a visit on New Year's Day. Kate too had added puzzle pieces. Kris said he would visit Kate when she got back from Pennsylvania.

"When will we get back to Phoenix?" he said.

I had last spoken to Soledad when she phoned on Thanksgiving Day. I wanted to bring Kris to her door and surprise her on Christmas Eve. "Sometime Christmas Day, Kris. We'll see my friend in Los Angeles first, then drive home and surprise Sparky." Kris grinned when I mentioned Sparky.

I told Kris how his friends helped me move his belongings from his apartment to my house. I told him about Vesna and Soledad, about Samuel Madrid and Rita and Mark. He was surprised when I told him he disappeared in January. Father Perry found him on June 15.

"Where were you between January and the middle of June?" I said.

"I don't know. I don't even know how I got to San Diego." The athlete may not remember events occurring in the months following the injury incident.

By 7:30 AM, Kris looked drained, happy but overloaded with information. I felt exhausted. "You can lie down in my room, Mom. You must be tired from the drive. I'm going to make breakfast for the other men coming in. We're going to hang decorations in the church and put out extra chairs for the Christmas Eve crowd. I told Father Perry I would help."

In the afternoon, Father Perry brought us into his office. He asked me about Kris's past and the car accident in Phoenix. He invited us to return for a visit in the New Year. I thanked him for all the help he had given Kris. We bid Father Perry a teary goodbye and then left for Los Angeles.

"Wow, Mom, that's some mural! I couldn't picture it when you told me. What a great artist!" After driving past the blue Steve McQueen to show Kris, I parked near Soledad's house. One of Soledad's nieces answered the door.

"Come in, Señora and Señor Kramer," she said. "Feliz Navidad. We've been waiting for you. We are about to say grace."

How could they have been waiting for Kris and me? The niece must be mistaken. I didn't tell Soledad we were coming or even that I had found Kris. Soledad waved us into the dining room. Many people sat at the dining room table, where folding tables at each end extended the capacity. I noticed two chairs, conspicuously empty, near the middle of the table. A small, white box, like a ring box, sat upon a napkin at the place setting in front of one of the empty chairs.

"Gail, Kris, Merry Christmas," Soledad said and stood up. She hugged us both. "Please join us. The box is for you, Gail. Open it and then we'll say grace." Inside the box, atop a little cotton pillow, my topaz earrings sparkled. Kris had given them to me the previous Christmas. I thought I had lost them. I looked to Soledad.

"After you left, Mr. Damaso found them in your apartment, on the bathroom window sill," Soledad said. "He wanted to mail them to you, but I suggested he wait and give them to you in person." Mr. Damaso and his grandchildren sat across from Kris and me. I noticed Andrea was staring wide-eyed at Kris.

"Gracias, Señor Damaso," I said.

He smiled. "De nada, Señora Kramer."

Kris and I enjoyed Nochebuena, eating a traditional tamale dinner with our new friends. Mario and Kris bantered about football teams and the NFL. Mark asked about our plans after returning to Phoenix and if we might come back for a visit. Rita winked and whispered we should save the date, April fifteenth, for her and Mark's wedding. I felt so excited I kissed them both.

After dinner, dessert and coffee, I stacked dishes and joined others helping in the kitchen. Andrea, who had been looking out to the dining room, turned to me and whispered, "Kris looks just like Señor Steve McQueen." I turned to see. Kris, wearing a blue shirt, sporting his shorter haircut and standing with hands at his waist, could have stepped out of the landmark mural. Past midnight Kris and I thanked Soledad and wished everyone Feliz Navidad as we left.

Christmas morning, Kris and I ate sausage and eggs at my kitchen table. Sparky, back from the neighbor, eyed Kris and pawed the floor in a doggy play invitation.

"Did you know Soledad was a psychic when you met her?" Kris said.

"Soledad is not a psychic. She's just really good at helping people."

"Mom, you didn't tell her we were coming, but she had your earrings on the table!"

I got up to get a coffee refill. Turning back I saw Kris sneaking half a sausage to Sparky.

Te amo, mi hijo.

8 comments:

  1. A tender story, of love and loss and hope. A distillation of kindness and human beings at their best. Thank you, Nancy,
    Ceinwen

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  2. I don´t think it´s far fetched to consult a psychic. The story has a ring of truth for me and the strength of a parent, who will do anything to find her lost child, really comes across.
    Fine story Nancy

    Mike McC

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  3. Moral - don't give up. I lived a few miles west of the Steve McQueen mural 1979-1983. I wonder how much has changed.

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    1. Hey, Doug - I first saw it in the seventies when I worked on Wilshire. I live in Portland area now, but went back two years ago and took a picture. If you google it you'll see the redo is better than the original.

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  4. I love when you don't think you'll enjoy a story, then can't stop reading it. And happy endings are always my favorite. The mother's powerful emotions really stand out here, and the touch of wonderful Spanish "accents" makes me homesick for my native California. Very nicely done.

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  5. Not being my neck of the woods I googled the SM mural and was graphically disappointed. It just goes to prove that fiction contains the stronger truth and the mural in this story speaks directly to me. Psychics have their own unique language and the metronomic meditation between mural and verbal mantra 'mi hijo, mi hija' really got this piece working for me. A most enjoyable read!
    Nevada Smith...watched/listened to it dubbed in French in a Breton cinema in 1969!!
    B r o o k e

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  6. What a beautiful story. Excellent sense of place and character. I especially love how the author renders community, strong women, maternal love, and hope. Skillful craft. Thank you for lifting our spirits.

    James Mulhern

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