This is Just to Say
One hot late August morning in 1934, a man creeps into his home's kitchen just as dawn breaks. Tenderly, he opens the icebox, cringing as it squeaks like an asthmatic mouse. A rooster crows at the farm down the road, and the man cocks his head to listen for the sound of his wife shuffling out of bed upstairs, but hears nothing. From the icebox, he removes a small burlap sack with half a dozen plums inside it, places the bag on the counter next to the sink, and closes the icebox. After once again making sure that his wife still sleeps, he methodically takes each plum out of the bag and, one by one, swallows them whole. Pits and all.
Upon finishing the plums, the man walks to the coat rack next to the door that leads outside and rummages in the pockets of one coat. He pulls out a stub of pencil and a prescription pad. Tearing off a sheet, he jots a quick note on the back. I have eaten the plums that were in the icebox, he begins. He scribbles another few lines before placing the note on the counter next to the empty sack. For the final time, he listens for his wife's footsteps as he stands at the door. For the final time, all he hears is the chipping of sparrows outside and the distant cough of a motorcar. He opens the door and takes a step out before stopping. He returns to the counter, stares at the note. The words Forgive me stare back. The man snatches the note, crumples it into his pocket, and exits the house, gingerly shutting the door behind him so as not to wake his wife as he leaves. The sky, for now, is clear, and he anticipates no problems.
Florence is not a young woman anymore. Certainly too old to be embarking upon such adventures as would require a private eye. Yet, when she woke up to an empty house that was already beginning to bake in the sun of early afternoon, she felt instantly that something was amiss. Her husband was nowhere to be found. Not in the yard or at his office at the school or at the general store sitting and jawing and drinking strong black coffee with the other old men. And then there was the empty bag that should have held plums. Just as there was no evidence of her husband, there was no evidence of them, neither juice nor pits nor pulp.
When nothing turned up of either husband or plums, Florence knew what she had to do. Flipping through the Yellow Pages, she found the listing she needed, somewhere after podiatrists and pottery, but before probation services and psychics. And that is how she finds herself now standing in front of a dark wooden door with Josiah "Smokey" Gunn, Private Eye, written on the window in gold paint. It is the only occupied office in an otherwise deserted wooden building on the outskirts of town.
She raps on the door, the sound echoing through the empty hall. After a moment, a voice barks, "Enter," and she does.
The office is spare, as if the occupant just moved in or is preparing to move out. Nothing adorns the walls, no diplomas or printed reproductions of artwork. The floor is dark wood, all the edges sporting a fine layer of dust and debris. A desk, also dark wood, sits in the center of the room, with an empty chair opposite it and an occupied chair behind it. In the chair sits the man who Florence presumes is Josiah "Smokey" Gunn, Private Eye. On the desk in front of him sits a mostly full bottle of Dead Duck brand bourbon, a glass filled to the brim with said bourbon, and an equally full ashtray, though this of course holds cigarette butts and not bourbon. There is also a telephone, its cord snaking across the bare floor to an outlet in the corner.
"Mr. Gunn?" Florence ventures.
He takes a long sip from the bourbon glass, puts it down, produces a package of cigarettes from his pocket, taps one out, lights it, and leans back in his chair. "Mrs. Florence Williams, I presume?" He puts his feet on the desk and leans back so far it is a wonder he doesn't simply tip over. "I have to admit, on the phone you sounded . . . leggier."
Florence looks down at herself. Even in her youth, she would not have described herself as "leggy," and the years have transformed her such that the word that she feels best describes her now is "matronly." The kids, of course, moved away years ago.
"Does this mean you won't help me?" she asks.
Gunn taps a quarter inch of ash from his cigarette onto the floor. "I didn't say that, Mrs. Williams. Now, what was this case about? Missing plums, was it?"
"Well, yes," she says, "but I'm rather more concerned with my missing husband."
He leans forward, balancing the cigarette on the edge of the ashtray. Eyeing her, he takes a slurping gulp of bourbon and hisses with enjoyment. "I generally try to avoid produce-related crime. Frankly, the sorts who get involved in it tend to be most unsavory." He tilts back the glass and drains nearly half of the remaining whiskey. One eyebrow raises. "Can you pay in cash?"
As the words are still leaving his mouth, Florence opens her pocketbook and removes a slender billfold. "Anything, Mr. Gunn," she says. "Whatever you need to help me find my husband."
Gunn slaps his palms on the desk and stands. The remaining whiskey streams from the glass down his throat. He takes another drag of the cigarette then stubs it out in the ashtray. Bending down, he retrieves a tattered leather briefcase from below his desk. He opens it and stuffs the bourbon bottle in. "All right, Mrs. Williams," he says, straightening. "Let's go find those plums."
Florence has never been a materialistic woman. She and William live comfortably, though far from ostentatiously. They have their own car, though they only use it when necessary, for groceries and William's occasional house call. They had sat around the same dark oak radio set listening to the end of the Great War and the beginning of the Great Depression, and that set still stands sentry in the room next to the fireplace. Like everyone else, their telephone shares a party line. And, of course, there is the icebox. These are the things that they need, and Florence never worries that what she has is not good enough, or that she does not have enough possessions.
Still, she cannot help but be dismayed as she watches Smokey Gunn, Private Eye recklessly rifle through the cabinets of her kitchen, dropping to the floor old letters, half-used stamp books, whisks, a little-used corkscrew, and the other assorted bric-a-brac of a long marriage. Seeing these items--an old pair of William's glasses, missing a lens; a ticket stub from the first movie they saw together; a lead pencil worn to a nub--she feels William in the room with her, pictures him squinting at a piece of paper, the pencil poised just above it, his brow furrowed as he searches for just the right word to make his poem complete. She does not want Gunn's haste to misplace a single item.
"No juice," he mutters, "no rind, not even a pit."
It is all too much for Florence. "Mr. Gunn," she snaps. "Please. It's my husband I'm paying you to find, not any plums."
Gunn pauses in his rummaging. When he had arrived, he asked Florence for a glass and poured a significant belt of bourbon into it. Now, as he appraises Florence, he takes a sip from this glass. "Tell me, Mrs. Williams," he says, "your husband. He has two working legs, correct?"
"Of course he does," she answers.
"And he is able to use these legs to move himself about? To go to, say, work, or the store? To perhaps operate the pedals on a bicycle or automobile?"
"Then you see, it's quite simple," he explains. "With so many methods of movement, your husband could be anywhere. He could, in fact, be moving from one place to another at this very moment. He could, in fact, be constantly on the move, like certain seabirds I have heard of. The plums, on the other hand, are stuck wherever they are. At most, they can fall on the floor to roll under a counter or tabletop. Thus," he pauses to take another sip, which empties the glass, "we find the plums, we find your husband."
Florence considers this for a drawn out moment. She has to admit to herself that there is a kind of logic in Gunn's argument, that his words create a sense of security. "Still . . ."
"Mrs. Williams," he says, "before you query, please let me tell you something." He lifts the glass, finds it empty and puts it back down. "Something that I have never told anyone before. When I fought in the Great War, I was stationed briefly in France, at which point I became separated from my comrades. After days of wandering, I eventually found myself in a provincial village, hidden within the forest. The inhabitants were a shy and peculiar people, speaking no dialect of French that I understood, though we did manage to communicate in a kind of pidgin English, and they did help me to find my way back to my fellow men-at-arms. Upon doing so, they insisted that I not tell anyone about their village; that they only needed more time to be left alone so that they may complete some sort of project. These mysterious people, madam, also were inordinately fond of fruit, particularly peaches, nectarines, cherries, and other varietals housing pits and stones. Of course, you see that plums are just the sort of fruit they would desire. Their desire went beyond simple culinary enjoyment. I am certain they were using these fruits for something, for their project. And, I understand the oddity of this remark, but what most struck me about these people, more so than their secrecy or even their strange language, was how, after gorging on fruit, they would disappear for hours on end with no explanation. I once attempted to ask, but my host simply acted as if I had never spoken. How this all ties together with your husband's disappearance I cannot say, but I do have a distinct feeling that these people and your missing plums must somehow be related."
Upon finishing his speech, which he makes it through with minimal slurring despite the impressive amounts of bourbon he has consumed, he takes a deep breath, and pours himself another couple fingers. The bottle is getting perilously close to empty.
Hesitantly, Florence asks, "Mr. Gunn, are you drunk?"
"Almost always, Mrs. Williams," he sighs. "You never know when you'll stumble onto a clue."
Outside, the sun begins to set, sending rays of pink and violet light streaming through the kitchen window. Florence cannot recall the last time that she went so long without seeing William, without speaking to him, without holding his hand or kissing his fingertips or the top of his head.
"Perhaps," she says to Gunn, "I should join you in a drink, then." She reaches into a cabinet for a glass, but it slips through her fingers and falls to the floor. Luckily, it does not break, but rolls under the counter. Gunn stoops to pick it up, but when he stands, he is holding a scrap of paper instead.
He reads the paper and hands it to her. "Tell me, Mrs. Williams, am I mistaken or is there a tavern on the outskirts of town that has a painting of a red wheelbarrow on its sign?"
"There is. The Hen and Barrow."
"It seems quite a lot depends on it. Mrs. Williams," Gunn says, not meeting her eye, "how well do you know your husband's history? Where he came from? Does he have any family to speak of?"
She shakes her head. "He's an only child. And both of his parents died before William and I met."
He bends and finally picks up the fallen glass, placing it next to his own on the counter. Eyeing the amber liquid, he swirls it around the bottom of the bottle. He twists the cap off, pours out the remainder of the bourbon into the two glasses, and lifts his glass in a mock toast. "I think we should finish this off, Mrs. Williams. We don't have much further to go. From here on out, we can run on fumes."
Wrinkling her nose at the whiskey vapor rising from the glass, Florence tilts her head back and drinks down the bourbon. The warm bite shakes her body from her throat to her toes. Neither she nor William was ever much for the drink, even when younger, though she has to admit that when William did partake, it tended to be a particular brandy. Brandy made not from fermented and distilled grapes, but plums.
Even from a distance, it is clear that The Hen and Barrow tavern is closed. No buttery light spills from the windows, no muted laughter or shouting or click of billiard balls comes from behind the door. Still, Gunn strides directly to the door and pushes against it. It does not give way, and he begins pounding on it with a fist. The sign above the door shows a white chicken pecking at the ground as it stands next to an overturned red wheelbarrow.
"We know you're in there!" he shouts. Ear pressed to the door, he hits it again then motions for Florence to come over. He indicates her and the door, waving his hand in an inviting gesture.
Quietly at first, then louder, Florence calls, "William? William are you in there, darling? It's me." She can't be sure, but thinks she detects sound inside, some shuffling, a muted argument."William?" her voice hitches. "Please. I miss you."
Now she is certain that voices are arguing in the dark behind the door. Finally, she hears a latch click as the door is unlocked and opens a crack. The face that peeks out from behind the door is furry with buggy eyes and a circular gaping maw in the center. And yet it is William. The eye color is wrong, but the sensitivity remains.
Gently, she pulls the door back, exposing the rest of him. The reddish-black fur covers his entire body, which sprouts several additional pairs of tiny arms along the torso. Hanging behind him are what appear to be wings, though they seem too flopped and ragged to actually lift him. She reaches out her hands and takes his, the ones on the primary set of arms. William steps through the doorway and into the glow of the gas lamps.
"I didn't want you to see me like this," he says. "I didn't want you to remember me this way."
She tells him, "I'll remember you in every way."
"I," his voice catches in his throat, "I have to go. We've been synthesizing fuel all this time, in our bodies . . . the sugars. To get back to our home. But I never . . . I thought you and I would have more time."
Moths swirl around the gas lamp nearest them, and one descends to land on William's shoulder, its sticky feet tangling themselves in his fur. It is a late summer moth, white streaked with purple the color of ripe plums. Florence plucks it from his fur and holds it up, letting it fly away and back to the light.
Smokey Gunn, who has tactfully remained in the background, speaks up, extending his hand to shake. "Mr. Williams, I presume."
William shakes his hand, but his eyes remain fixed on Florence. "Thank you for helping my wife," he says. "I'm glad, now, that I can say goodbye. It was all just so sudden, so unexpected."
Gunn nods. "I would imagine these sorts of things typically are."
From the tavern, a buzzing begins, rising and rattling like a bee trapped between a window and outdoors. White light streams from the door, illuminating William so that even though she stands in front of him, Florence sees little more than a silhouette. The roof of the tavern lifts up and crashes to the back of the building, sending up a massive plume of dust and ash. A ship, an honest-to-goodness flying saucer, rises from The Hen and Barrow tavern.
"May I hold you one last time?" William asks, raising his voice above the hum.
Surprising William and herself, Florence laughs. Her whole body shakes and she throws herself into William's many arms. She buries her face in the fur on his chest. She inhales his familiar scent, now tinged with a fruity sweetness. The light blazes, the air around them vibrates and hums. And then William is gone and the saucer floats away like a dandelion seed on the breeze.
Florence is silent. The world seems quieter than is possible in the wake of the ship. No crickets chirp, and the moths seem to have been temporarily flushed from the lamps.
From behind her, she hears the flick of a match catching and Smokey Gunn, Private Eye say, "I need a drink." He steps past her and enters the tavern. Moments later, he returns, holding a bottle of Dead Duck bourbon in one hand and a small paper sack in the other.
"Would you look at that," he says, holding up the bottle, "they have my brand. And," he adds, handing the sack to her, "your plums. Looks like they had some extras."
A moth lands on Florence's hand and quickly takes off again, heading for the glowing lamp. With the saucer gone, they are reclaiming their traditional territory. A dog barks in the distance and sets off a chorus from the others in the neighborhood. It seems no one noticed the saucer, a benefit of the tavern being so far on the outskirts of town.
Florence removes a plum from the bag. Its flesh is firm under her fingertips. With great deliberation, she lifts it to her mouth and takes a bite. It is so sweet, but so cold.