The Kidnapped and the Volunteers
So Roger buys a school bus, a small one used before by the Korean church gone under. Five hundred bucks at the bank auction got him this, and on its side is painted REPENT SINNERS.
That night, Roger bombs around town with all the lights going like an ambulance, the stop sign on the side out like a wing as he flies through the neighborhood. Clip and I stand on the corner, drugged and locked out of our apartment because we both lost our keys.
Roger pulls up and throws open the door to the bus.
“Get in, kiddies!” he says. “You’ll be late for school.”
I back up, not recognizing him from under a blanket of ether. Clip gets on and looks back at me, his wits still somehow about him. Then a dog barks in the night and I run onto the bus.
Something extra kicks in and I’m convinced I have to keep running inside the bus to stay on board. I jog in place and don’t hear much of their conversation, just what Roger yells. Ether turns the volume of the world up and down in pulses, like dunking your head in and out of water.
“I’m gonna teach! I have knowledge! And now this bus!”
Well, he does have the bus.
“The wonders of medicine!” he says. “This town is sick!”
Finally, I collapse into a seat a few back from the front. The ether rag is still tucked into the front of my shirt like I’m at a restaurant.
“How about we eat something?” I say.
Roger glares at me over his shoulder and the bus slides into the on-coming lane. “This is serious.”
So I just lean against the cool glass of the window and think about how earlier that day I saw Korean Janet eating slices of some kind of magnificent green fruit on the ledge outside the salon, juice on her chin, her eyes closing with each bite.
When they’re through talking and Roger finally drops us off, Clip and I try to sleep in the azalea bushes next to our apartment. Lying there, I whisper to Clip, “What did you say the name of that fruit was again?” The memory goes with this stuff too.
“Kiwi. Christ, write it down.”
“Kiwi,” I mumble. Fantastic.
The Korean Church went under because the Korean dry cleaners did. It was taken as a bad sign by the congregation and many abandoned their new religion.
The Korean dry cleaners went under because lots of places did. Northeast Philadelphia is reeling under white-flight and the allure of the suburban mall. The only place left now is the Korean nail salon where the white women still get sharpened and painted. The Korean men avoid the place. Instead, they wander the neighborhood like tolerated pigeons. God and money have left them.
Clip and I fell out of state college like there was a sliding board attached to it. Classrooms ejected us. Fraternity parties were places we got beat up and we never liked the taste of beer. But we did manage to steal as much ether as we could carry from the biology lab.
Roger’s from the neighborhood and was also in our biology class—pre-med—though Clip insisted no real doctor ever went to state college. Roger was the guy with his hand up constantly, but never with the right answer. He always did the opposite of the experiment—shocked frogs back to life, spread mean viruses from dish to dish. He stayed in school and abused loans. Clip and I left.
Now we work as “lunch aides” at St. Cecilia’s Elementary, keeping the uniformed kids inside the cones in the parking lot where they have recess. My sister Lovely teaches fourth grade and got us the job.
She threatened us, “Mess this one up and you can rot. One kid gets hit by a car, and you’re no longer my brother.” She pointed to Clip, “That goes double for you.”
Lovely’s a sad girl who lives for knowing more than ten-year-olds. Now that our parents are dead, the ghost of our mother haunts her frame and I can tell she wants to ground me.
I’m also in love with Korean Janet. Her cheek bones are as high as heaven, shoulders broad like a swimmer’s. She works in the nail salon but I see her everywhere: taking her dog for a check-up at the animal hospital, putting extra butter on her popcorn at the movies, cutting coupons in the Mayfair Diner on Sunday afternoons. Her eyes are like two hooded thugs.
Janet is serious. A student. A Christian. A kiwi-eater.
Roger pulls duct tape across the REPENT SINNERS sign on the side of the bus, but keeps all the crosses intact. We see all these little heads in the windows behind him when the bus speeds past our corner in the morning.
Clip and I still haven’t found our keys. We catch up on sleep in the faculty lounge during the day when the teachers are teaching, and then work the lot when it’s recess time.
“Ah,” Clip says, smiling, eyes closed, and stretched out on the couch. “The good old days.”
“Which were those?”
“You know. Eating crayons. Nap time. Sniffing glue. It’s good to be back at school.”
I realize he’s raided the supply closet.
“Gimme,” I say. “Share the wealth.”
He tosses me a tiny bottle of White-Out. I’m overzealous and get paint on my nose.
“Easy,” Clip says. “This stuff is non-toxic.”
He’s right. The headache hits immediately, but still, it’s like hammering at a pillow. We gurgle on the couch until 10:30, and then go out on the lot to set up the cones. The space we mark out is ragged.
First lunch period and the youngest kids pour out of the cafeteria, burping bologna and cheese. They like me and Clip, and show off a little for us. One kid stands on his hands, falls, scrapes his face. Another grabs the girls’ skirts and drags them around the lot. One tightens his little Catholic tie until his face turns blue and he faints. We laugh, then blow our whistles and they stop.
But out there on the lot, something isn’t right. Even we can tell, high in the huffing clouds and all. Some kids are missing.
After work, Clip and I go to Pennypack Park, sniff anti-freeze under the trees. We’re rationing the ether we’ve got—about a gallon of lab-grade stuff that should keep us floating for a good couple weeks if we’re careful. We get dumb and the feel of the grass is so perfect I take my shoes off.
The Korean men gather there in the afternoons too, feed the pigeons, twist their mustaches. Some of their wives work in the salon with Janet. Some of their wives have gone back to their old country, I think; there are fewer than there used to be. The men talk to each other in Korean, words that rhyme with “sing” and “pow,” and we think they sound angry. One stands up on a picnic table—the ousted preacher—and shouts. His strange eyes are huge behind over-sized glasses, his button-up shirt untucked. The other men smoke their tiny cigars and nod.
Clip and I call the old preacher Duk, and make fun of him. We make the sign of the cross like karate chops at each other, say, “Fatha! Sahn! Horly Shpirit!” Soon we’re wrestling full-on and roll out of the woods, laughing. The Koreans get up and leave.
Still can’t find our keys. We tried the windows to our apartment with no luck. We don’t know the landlord’s number and would be afraid to call it if we did. At first we thought, they’ll turn up. Then we started to think, maybe we don’t need to get inside.
“We could just live in this park,” Clip says. “Everything we need is here. Water, food. Air.”
I’m not so natural a person and complain about the phone calls I might miss, hair conditioner, clean underwear.
“We’ll wear big leaves as underwear and shave our heads. And here’s our new phone.” Clip cups his hands around his mouth and shouts, “911! I’m having a heart attack! The baby is breeching!”
Some sparrows stir and the leaves shake but no one comes to the rescue.
Korean Janet has never lost a key, to be sure. She rolls her loose change—tips from the Salon, I guess—and takes them to the bank in big linen bags. My room in the apartment I’m locked out of is littered with nickels I’ll never count or spend. I’m almost too lazy to be rich.
I asked her once if she needed help carrying her bags of change but she beat me off like a thief, saying things like “sing!” and “pow!”
But she does have a rump on her. Even Clip will admit this.
He says, “Quite a backseat for a foreign car.”
Roger shows up at the Mayfair Diner, complaining and wearing a stethoscope. Clip and I eat stacks of pancakes late at night because there’s no time in the morning before work and the ether makes us starving.
“Damn Koreans keep throwing fruit at my bus.”
It’s out there in the lot, parked sideways across a whole row of spots, a fan in the engine still growling. A table of Korean men look up from their coffee across the diner. One points.
“Maybe they don’t like that you crossed out their message,” Clip says. “It’s a good one, you know.”
“Maybe they’re upset their church went under,” I say.
“Is this still America?” Roger says, pouring the spilled coffee in his saucer back into the cup. “Yes. Am I God? No. One threw a whole cabbage at me while I was driving. That’s dangerous.”
“Where did you take those kids you picked up today?” Clip asks very casually, his mouth full of pancake.
Roger stares him down for a second, the bandage on his head crunching as he furrows his brow. “Nowhere.”
“You better watch yourself. They’re looking for a kidnapper.”
“It’s not kidnapping if they just get on. They can make their own choices. Plus, I have a school.”
“Cops might see it different. Moms and Dads will too, I think.”
“You guys give advice now? At least I got keys.” He dangles them in front of us like we’re babies and downs his coffee. “Let me know if you want me to ram your door down with my bus so you two can get some sleep.”
Roger leaves and pulls out of the lot, honking. Everyone in the diner grimaces. He’s the problem no one knows how to solve yet.
Duk and the Koreans are at our corner the next morning when Clip and I stumble out of the bushes, kicking bottles of windshield-wiper fluid with us, still in a bad huffing haze.
“Where our bus?” Duk asks. The other men nod at each other like, Yeah, good question.
“Don’t know, Duk,” Clip says. “But we gotta go to work. Can’t talk.” He has pink flowers and twigs sticking out of his hair.
Duk says, “Duk?”
Clip points at him, “You Duk,” then pokes himself in the chest, “Me Tarzan.”
“We see you with him. Where he now? Row-ger.”
“I don’t know, Duk.” Clip bends down to tie his shoe. “In your bus maybe?”
The Koreans circle up and chat, and then follow us all the way to the school, ten feet back and silent, like a pack of dogs waiting for us to croak. But they stop at the door to the school like there’s a hex over it.
Inside, Clip snores on the couch, peaceful, but no amount of rubber cement can relax me. Finally, someone needs us to pour sawdust on some second grader’s puke. I go do it.
At lunch when we come out of the Teachers’ Lounge, the Koreans approach the parking lot, yelling, “Where children?”
Duk’s right. More kids are missing, some of theirs now. Clip and I stand at opposite corners of the lot with only thirty kids between us, and they’re docile and confused by their friends’ absences. They hover in the middle, maybe afraid they’ll disappear too.
Clip is annoyed. I can see the huffing-headache sitting on his brow. “Don’t know the answer to that one either, Duk. Lots of things are missing. For instance, where are our keys?”
Duk seems to know he’s being insulted, but is not sure how. He lights a miniature cigar, says, “Something not right.”
“You said it, Duk.”
Then a kid on Clip’s side runs past the cones toward Rhawn Street. I blow my whistle and the kid freezes. A tennis ball rolls down the long driveway into lunchtime traffic.
“Tell you what, Duk,” Clip says. “I’ll make you a deal. Find our keys and I’ll find your kids.”
Lovely grabs us before we go home from work.
“What’s going on? Where are the kids? What’s with the Koreans?” Lots of questions we can’t answer.
She tells us the receptionist spent all afternoon calling parents to ask them why their kid was absent with no excuse. She tells us none of the parents knew their kids weren’t going to school; they’re always home by three o’clock, safe and sound.
I say, “Roger?” and Lovely punches me in the arm. They had a thing once and she knows we’re sort of like friends.
“You two better not be involved in this.” She stamps off towards her car in a cloud of chalk dust.
Clip shouts, “Can we stay with you tonight?”
I’ve considered getting a manicure for the chance to talk to Korean Janet. I’ve vowed— Clip as my witness—to learn Korean. I don’t do either.
Instead, I just watch her, hoping to become like those nature photographers who eventually seem to the animals to be just another gazelle or plant in the background. I want to be a piece of furniture she walks by, maybe sits on. I watch her on her bike with the basket and bell. To and from the nail salon, looking fresh as she enters and tired when she leaves, still beautiful. Then up the stairs to the El platform wearing a backpack full of schoolbooks.
I go to a grocery store and find what they say is kiwi fruit, but they’re just brown and hairy, none of that brilliant, juicy green I saw before. I buy two, intending to confront Clip about it.
That night, I come back to the corner exhausted from following her. Clip, already lounging in the azalea bushes, passes me a plastic bottle with a rag in it. “Sniff what I got out of the salon dumpster.”
I give it a whirl. It’s a sour, metallic burn—most taste happens in the nose, so it’s a lot like drinking nail polish remover. It’s exactly like sniffing it.
“You’re not actually falling for the preacher’s daughter, are you?” Clip says.
“She’s Duk’s?” The thought hadn’t occurred to me. But I guess Clip is watching her too, and doing a better job.
“Of course. She looks exactly like him. Saw him kiss her on the head in the salon. You think she’s gonna be a hell cat in the sack because she’s the minister’s daughter or something?”
“I’d just like her to say something to me in English at this point.”
“So you just think it’s interesting she’s from Mars? And hope she thinks vice-versa?” Clip takes a huff and says, holding his breath, “Ain’t gonna happen—cough!—this ain’t that movie.”
“Anyway, it wasn’t kiwi. Look.” I hold the two hairy bastards out in what I think is a small victory.
“Here. Gimme.” Clip rips the top off one, and there it is—neon joy. There’s hope after all.
When we wake up the next morning, I notice Clip’s nails are trim and clean. Mine aren’t. Roger speeds past and kids I recognize smile in the windows and wave back, the bus pointing distinctly away from the school.
“Maybe we should follow him,” Clip says. But the bus is already out of sight.
On the lot at recess, twenty kids shuffle around. I don’t have to blow the whistle once.
A few cops stroll up to talk to Clip and me.
“So where are all the kids?” one says.
Clip has hit the ether at work today—something we swore we would never do—and does all the talking.
“Not at school. You guys call it ‘truant,’ I think.”
“Think something bad is going on here?”
I can see Clip framed in one of the cop’s mirrored lens and me in the other.
“They ain’t learning their multiplication tables, if that’s what you mean.”
“You know what I mean.”
“I do. But, officer, these kids here depend on me for their safety. And every question you ask me is a distraction. So if you don’t mind.”
The cop turns to me and says, “Well?”
I say, “I don’t have kids. Don’t know what they do, but you might want to ask—”
Clip interrupts me.
“While you’re here though, I would like to report a robbery. Someone stole our keys.”
Saturday is quiet. Clip is gone when I wake up, so I go to Lovely’s house. She’s drinking pink wine with ice and crying when I get there.
“Their parents want my head. They say it’s my fault. The kids don’t like me.”
“They like you fine. They just don’t like school.”
“Why won’t they just arrest Roger? You said yourself he’s taking the kids.”
“I didn’t say that. Plus, no one knows where he’s taking them.” I slink towards the wine bottle to see if she’ll stop me. She doesn’t.
“He hasn’t done anything,” I say, pouring a glass. “He doesn’t hurt them.”
“You don’t know that.”
“I’ll try and do something, okay, Lovely. I will.”
She cries on my shoulder, thanking me, but I have no idea what I’ll do.
On Sunday, Duk is preaching in the nail salon. White women who had appointments storm out, but all the Korean men are in there now with their wives and families, just like it used to be.
I watch from outside with a pocket full of new kiwis, looking for Janet. There she is, sitting on a sink, head bowed. Her hair is black but shiny white in the salon’s fluorescent lights.
Duk spots me mid-sermon through the window. He points and the whole congregation turns as if I was just what he was talking about. There’s violence in their Christian eyes. I take off, running.
Later that night on my walk back to the bushes, Janet is outside of the salon, putting packages into the basket on her bike. I walk up presenting a kiwi, thinking, now is my chance, but Roger’s bus pulls in between us. Janet gets on squealing and Roger starts all the lights on the thing like it’s a goddamn party.
I haven’t tasted a kiwi yet and won’t until it’s with her. I pocket them again, though they are getting bruised. If only I had a refrigerator.
There are no kids in the lot at recess, just a few more cops milling around and taking notes. Everyone’s either kidnapped by Roger or kept home by terrified parents. They realized Roger was just running the bus route five minutes ahead of schedule and picking up whoever was waiting. And the kids always got on.
With nothing to do, Clip and I rearrange the cones in the lot into the shape of a bus, hoping we might conjure the kids up. We’ve been overzealous again and become White-Out-painted Indians. Lovely sees what we’ve done and yells at us to go home, the school is closed, we may be fired.
“I’m sick of the bushes,” Clip says that night, and all I can see of him are the white splotches under the moon. “Let’s try the old Korean church tonight. We could sleep there, take a bath in left over holy water. You wanna?”
We walk down to the church and Clip breaks in.
“Why don’t we do that to our apartment?” I ask him, not knowing he knew how to do that.
He just says, “Do what?”
Dim stained-glass saints line the walls in the church, angry in the dark. Clip runs to the pulpit and says, “A reading from the first letter to Clip. ‘I think we should see other people. Amen.’” He pulls the ether out of his coat, uncorks it, saying, “Do this in memory of me,” and takes a sniff. I approach the altar.
“Did you go to the nail salon?” I ask him.
“No. But Roger took me.”
“In the bus?”
“Yup. He’s after Janet, too.”
“I noticed. Why?”
“Stupid question. He’s the one she wants too, sorry to say. That’s the movie right there. See the difference?”
I don’t. Roger is a kidnapper with a bus. I’m a huffer with a job.
“Roger’s the dangerous guy her dad hates. She’s the girl no one can have. You’re just an extra who walks across the set every once in a while. It’s best for us to wait this one out.”
“But I think we’re involved already.”
“No, no,” Clip says. “We have our own movie. The quest. The quest to find our keys!” Then he blesses me with more karate chops, we take the sacrament, and fall asleep in the pews.
I ether-dream of Janet. The hard back of the wooden bench can’t wake me, and it feels good sleeping here. I can smell her and her people, feel their god up on the wall, watching me back.
I know Roger. Pre-med or not, he knows nothing of my Janet’s kiwis.
We oversleep and Clip and I hear someone coming into the church in the morning. We run to one of the confessionals and hide.
It’s Roger and the kids. They all file up the center aisle towards the altar and take seats in the pews. The kids’ uniforms are untucked, but they are happy and well-behaved.
“Now’s our chance,” I whisper, but Clip shakes his head.
“Let’s see what happens.”
“We’re late for work.”
“Doesn’t look like they’ll need us.”
Roger walks up to the pulpit and drags a full human skeleton replica from one of the side vestibules and rolls it toward center stage. The kids cheer. One of them yells, “Mr. Bad to the Bone!”
Then Janet appears dressed in her nail salon whites. A new shout goes up from the kids, “Nurse Miss Janet, Nurse Miss Janet!” She waves and bows a little.
Roger opens a briefcase from under the altar, dons a surgeon’s mask, and places a microscope on the altar. Janet stretches rubber gloves and he slips his hand in, and kisses her on the forehead. She begins arranging test tubes in racks and the children are buzzing in their pews. Then she places a syringe on a metal platter.
“So where were we yesterday?” Roger asks his congregation.
A few kids yell back, “Blood types!”
“Good, good. That’s right, blood types. I need a volunteer!”
Twenty hands go up.
Duk and the Koreans must have been doing their own detective work. Roger made a strange display of his crime, and it wouldn’t be impossible to follow that bus.
As a few kids file up toward Roger and his needle, the Koreans burst through the front entrance of the church, running on their own short legs toward the altar.
Clip nods at me like, See?
Roger and the Koreans struggle at the pulpit, and their shouts and blows echo in the empty church. The needle clatters on the marble. Kids start to cry.
The Koreans grab Roger, walk him down the aisle towards who-knows-where, but Duk stays behind the altar and a look flashes across his face like he’s finally at home. He holds his hands out—both palms up—and begins to pray in Korean, holy sing and holy pow.
Watching all this happen, with the rafters of the church pointing up, the kids’ cries ringing the windows like bells, the uncorked fumes in this booth, I feel moved to pray, to confess.
Kids, I would say, I’m sorry for this monster. I’m sorry for ever taking medicine lightly. Lovely, I’ve sinned against your school, Duk, against your church. And Janet, I have confused things about you the most. Forgive me.
Clip, on the other hand, says, “You know, we could just spill the rest of this gallon in here and stay gone for a couple days. I don’t want to deal with any of this shit.”
The moment is gone, so we lie back and don’t watch, huffing a little, the sound going in and out like it does. I can hear Duk yelling at Janet and her sobbing. Eventually the bus starts outside and I get a whiff of its awful exhaust. We look out and the church is finally empty.
“We can leave now,” I say.
We creep out and the saints are alive in the morning sunlight. Clip stops in front of one who’s holding a staff and says, “I need one of those.”
I’m not sure if Clip means a large wooden stick to coax sheep and crush snakes and part waters. Or a holy person like that to believe in and appeal to. I don’t ask.
“What were we about to see?” I ask Clip. I’m thinking of the needle.
“No idea. Thank god we’re not involved though, huh?”
Roger’s bus is the Koreans’ again. They just took it back. It says REPENT SINNERS on the side once more.
Roger has disappeared. There were no police involved that I know of. The Koreans didn’t want it, out of shame. No one in the neighborhood ever mentioned the bus incident again—not the parents or the teachers. I think there’s a great feeling of guilt about the whole thing, as if the town had created Roger out of its own nightmares and was somehow responsible.
The kids are sad. Lovely says that during art class, many of them draw buses and fight scenes in a church and happy-looking hospitals.
The Koreans permanently turn the nail salon into a church on Sundays, but Duk is happy. His congregation has returned, and though they have to sit on sinks and foot baths, they are devout once again. On the street, he’s a stained-glass saint lit up in the sun. Birds land on his shoulders. He even performs a miracle and opens the door to our apartment. “We had deal,” he says, as his nephew—a locksmith of all things—packs up his tools. We peak into the apartment, and our keys are hanging by the door, right where they belonged. They were never lost.