Fiction · 01/22/2014

Abduction at the Deluxe Kwik-Trip Pump

I was abducted at the Deluxe Kwik-Trip pump. Yet more proof that supporting local business has its benefits. It is not easy getting abducted, you see. It was May, and I’d been angling for a kidnapping since tax season in March.

The reason: I discovered my husband’s life insurance policy.

Tim is an oncologist. He is paid a tidy sum to save generally unhappy, but suddenly valuable lives. If he were to die, a check for three million dollars would arrive in the mail. A figure like that makes a girl think.

So I thought, and I thought that I didn’t recall signing off on any fixed amount for my own untimely passing. Financially speaking, my body if I died was worth nothing at all. This rankled.

After all, Tim could not replace me with just any woman he plucked off the streets. He’d have to date first, and then there’d be nannies and maids to pay, restaurant bills, and eHarmony fees. Not to mention the time he’d lose on the endeavor, which, multiplied by his hourly rate, would cost a considerable amount. Viewed in this light, my value was significant. I used to work in marketing and view matters at all levels of illumination.

It seemed to me that my worth was a mathematical problem in need of a solution. So I itemized my clothing, tallied up the price of household ornaments, kitchen appliances and furniture I could reasonably claim to own. I brought my SUV to a used car salesman for a quote. The man wore a loose blue suit he’d doused in cologne, and an ill-fitting smile that clinked over the vehicle’s measly sum. The SUV, with a mere two thousand miles on the odometer, was worth twenty thousand less than its original price.

Naturally, after eighteen years of marriage, I found this two-year depreciation troubling. Exactly how much would my husband pay for me, I wondered. If I were abducted, say?

That’s how it started, anyway: wondering how much one is worth.

I bought a ticket to Mexico City, which has the highest rate of kidnappings. The moment I touched down, my phone buzzed. Mom, we’re out of Cheerios, Tracie, my fifteen-year-old daughter wrote. I texted back that she ought to buy more, because it’s important to impress upon children the responsibilities attached to independence. She must have told her father I had cell reception again, because he messaged, Paper towels? For the last fifteen years I’ve stored the kitchen rolls above the sink.

It rained in Mexico. The streets flooded and this moisture created a general lassitude not conducive towards my kidnapping. I sallied, venturing alone to a trendy nightclub with my smartphone and tablet on display. A good plan, were it not that the venue was already full at only eight pm. I was forced to hail a taxi while supple women who must have reserved in advance entered, their valeted cars splashing gutter water over my dress. I did not make eye contact with the tobacco-toothed cab driver; I focused on parading my technology.

I need a new swimsuit for Kate’s pool party, Mom. Tracie wrote, distraught. I look like a condom in the one I use for meets. This was true. I told her to charge a bikini to my card.

Plastic cutlery? Tim asked.

By the end of the week my skin had puckered in the damp, and I’d only been mugged. This was a blow. I bought a new cell and Tim wrote: Frank shut his hand in the car door and I was late for radiology treatment because Tracie was at some swim meet out of town. Shouldn’t I have known about that?! P.S. Where do you buy those corn chips I like and do they deliver?

Tracie said, Dad’s pissed. He had to cancel more appointments cos Frank broke his leg when he fell from a tree (the dweeb tried to climb one handed). Blamed me for not helping out. Told him he’s acting like an ass. We’re not speaking now.

In marketing it never does to cry into your pantyhose. America had disappointed. But there were other continents. I bought a ticket to Somalia.

I’d determined from the news that while sometimes statements were made by insurgents there with disembodied heads, kidnappings largely focused on ransom money. Hauling enough anti-malarials then to weather a decent hostage situation, I boarded a plane for Mogadishu.

You’re right, Tim emailed. The kitchen design is appalling. (Still can’t find paper towels. Under different sink?) We’ll redo it just the way you like. Well, no granite cut by the hands of virgins from Italy etc. Ha! (But seriously, other stones are just as nice).

Tracie texted: There’s only spaghetti Bolognese left in the frozen meals, Mom. I’m vegetarian?! Also, Frank’s eating the dog food. Also, I don’t think the dog’s been fed.

The hotel I’d booked was abysmal for the price with rusty taps and no hot water, the paint peeling from the punctured walls that at some point had been white but were now the color of mustard in places, and elsewhere maize. Mogadishu, at least, was exquisite. Although I wasn’t able to wander the palazzos along the riverside, which the concierge insisted were controlled by warlords. I doubted this. Apart from the occasional gunfight, the city was quiet. Instead, he had his guards take me to the Bakara Market, where I suspected his family sold their wares: an array of AK-47s, hand propelled rockets, and grenades. I sent a picture to my kids of children hawking these goods, because one ought to remind them what a positive outlook can do. Tracie replied, I picked around the beef. I hope that counts. Otherwise I’m pinning my moral failings on you.

Perhaps the Somalis weren’t aware abductable tourists were in Mogadishu. After five days, I began to wonder if I ought to try Kenya instead, and found myself a South African hunter who operated tours on the side.

This time I took no chances. On landing in Nairobi, I climbed into an imposing, air-conditioned jeep that sported hatches in the roof through which one could shoot the wildlife. Kenya was big on animal protection, and poaching was sure to attract attention. My thick-necked guide hurtled me across the plains, his Iron Maiden playing at full volume, while I mowed down zebras and felled an entire herd of elephants. In four days I killed an additional leopard, three giraffe, five cape buffalo, and one hundred and fifty wildebeest. My shoulder ached from shooting. My cell battery was almost dead.

Tracie: I’m meant to go to K’s party tomorrow and Dad’s making me babysit Frank! This isn’t fair! Did I mention he’s eating the dog food??

Tim: Jesus Christ, Irene. Frank is sleeping over at Lu’s and Tracie is out God knows where and I only know one setting on the microwave and it’s defrost.

I changed my flight to leave the next morning at nine am. Only twenty-five hours later, I unlocked my car, which I’d parked at the airport.

The speed of my return was disorienting. I wasn’t ready yet for straight roads and wet, black fields, and I stopped for gas at the Deluxe Kwik-Trip to delay opening my front door.

I was sorting through my foreign change for a coupon when two men climbed into the back seat without bothering to shake the mulch from their boots, and ordered me to drive.

“Finally,” I said. “You wouldn’t believe how hard it is to be kidnapped these days.”

“Kidnapped?” the older man said. He had a thick brush of moustache that flittered when he talked.

“A ransom is more lucrative than carjacking.” I forged ahead. “Besides, this vehicle has depreciated miserably. A bad investment from the start. I told my husband we should have bought something fresh. Something with solar panels shaped to mimic our Lady of Liberty. A patriotic, energy-efficient car.”

“How lucrative?” the younger man asked. He was a well-proportioned man, with lazy eyes that clung to the upholstery and leather dashboard.

“We just need a ride,” the older man said, plaintively.

“Very lucrative,” I said, shifting into drive. Relatively. A thin line of dirt stuck beneath their blunt fingernails. Grease had stained their faded jeans.

“Goddamn, you’re going the wrong way,” he said.

“Just for a quick shop. We need something to eat the next few days.”

“This isn’t summer camp lady,” he said, digging his dirty fingers into the front seat so he could spit in my face. “This is a kidnapping.” I was impressed at the speed and sincerity with which he adopted his newfound role.

The younger man lived on the highway in a clapboard structure set beneath power poles that stretched across the recently ploughed fields, still soft with fertilizer. “How pastoral,” I said, inspecting the corrugated tin mailbox that had been built to look like Christ on the cross, while the men gallantly carried my luggage and the groceries inside.

They led me to an army cot in a small room plastered with posters of women with large breasts and undersized clothes. The younger man blushed tangerine.

“There could be more variety,” I said. “Surely not all the women you’ve liked have looked quite so… ripe.”

“None of them,” the older man laughed.

I busied myself in the kitchen making my lasagna while they argued over the possibility of finding such a girl.

“Delicious,” the younger man said. I knew. I’d pinched my lasagna recipe from the Bon Appetit website. It had rated five stars.

“Now about this kidnapping,” the older man said.

I suggested burning my car to eliminate fingerprints. It was a piece of crap and I’d want a new vehicle when I returned.

The younger man shook his head. “No need to draw attention. The police are overworked anyway. He meant how much should we demand.”

The older man thought we should seek a reasonable quarter million so that Tim wouldn’t be tempted to involve the authorities. The younger figured half a million a more appropriate sum. No one asked for less than five hundred grand, and they didn’t want to seem like amateurs.

“One million,” I said. “Or I walk.” I was no bargain basement wife. My husband ought to recognize I was worth more than he could afford. He ought to be forced to beg on Cable T.V. for donations he’d be loathe to accept – depending on others something indecent, not in accordance with the American bootstrap way of life. Not that Tim had a sympathetic face. He wouldn’t receive many donations the way he scowled when he talked. Still, there were suckers everywhere. And seeing him grovel would be a treat. “A million five,” I changed my mind. The older man looked like I’d fed him raw meat.

At first, the abduction felt like a holiday. We played rummy, betting matchsticks, which we exchanged for the remote control to the T.V. The only show we could agree on was Celebrity Apprentice. The younger man liked the Discovery Channel, and the older watched sitcoms. I invariably turned to the news, though Tim never appeared.

But as days passed we began to argue. The younger man worried his mother would return from her trip to Disneyland with the grandkids. The older said he shouldn’t have been so greedy then. I scoured the windows, which were dark with a thick layer of tobacco smoke.

“We could say we saved her. Say we found her on the side of the road,” the younger one said. But the police weren’t offering a stinking reward. So it wasn’t surprising when the younger one flung his prepaid phone in the trash and announced, “Four hundred and fifty thousand. That’s what he’s willing to pay.”

“More lucrative than carjacking,” I reminded him. “Five hundred grand isn’t bad.”

“Four hundred and fifty thousand,” he said again.

“And my heart,” the older man said. “I’ve lost three years on this escapade.”

I cooked an elaborate beef roulade from the Country Living website. No one spoke during the meal, but the recipe had only rated a three. Early the next morning, the sun still pinched along the edge of the wire fence, they handed me some change and pointed in the direction of the bus. This time, I carried my luggage along the gravel shoulder myself.

I had to transfer twice, and the house had emptied by the time I returned. The garden hadn’t been tended in weeks and weeds strangled a bed of half-drowned begonias. I ripped the flowers out, determined to replace them with hardier fare that spring. Junipers. Chokeberry. Placed strategically, the trees and hedges would lend a grandeur to our summer barbecues. I began to think about a gazebo. A hot tub. A croquet lawn. I was so busy planning the season’s various engagements I didn’t notice that the ransom money, which was supposed to be deposited at a local laundromat, never left our accounts. But then, I barely thought of the abduction at all.

I did not think of it two months later when Frank was suspended for terrifically detailed threats that the school board thought warranted hospitalization, or five years after that when Tracie brought her girlfriend home and said, “Don’t bother washing the dishes. What would my mother do with her life?” I did not think about it when Tim stared at my clavicle and finally informed me plunging necklines were no longer appropriate at my age, or when, after I tried to be passionate in bed, he said, “Do stop making a spectacle.” When my former marketing colleagues ranted about the horrors of business travel, and the PEO women made a fuss of the robbery at Melissa Girven’s place, and Frank began missing family occasions for clients, it never occurred to me to mention my abduction. I laughed on the telephone telling stories of my family’s latest excesses (Frank’s obsession with purified water, Tracie’s fifth child — as if two weren’t enough). And I nodded at Tim’s funeral hearing strangers describe how this man I’d lived with fifty years had impacted their lives, because I didn’t have anything to say myself besides who the fuck are you again? (Not polite). A few were Frank’s red-eyed friends. You could tell by the exquisite suits they wore, and the way their leather soles slapped against the hardwood floors.

Only sometimes, on those rare occasions the cicadas tire in the early summer and you can hear the corn grow, do I find myself on the porch, voicelessly mouthing the words to myself: I was abducted at the Deluxe Kwik-Trip pump. I think it has something to do with the quiet of the shadows that stretch across the subdivision, barely reaching our sidewalk. The cement is pink in the evening light, like the long neck of a duck in the market that has hung too long by its beak.

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Lara Markstein is a South African born New Zealander, who has lived the past six years in Boston, Durham, and Oakland. She graduated magna cum laude with a Bachelor of Arts from Harvard University, where she studied English, and received her Masters in Fine Arts from the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College. Her work has appeared in the Greensboro Review and has been recognized by the Bank of New Zealand Katherine Mansfield Short Story Awards. She currently serves as the Program Officer at the UC Berkeley Center for New Media.