L.B. Sedlacek has had poetry and fiction appear in different journals and zines. Her first short story collection came out on Leap Day 2020 entitled “Four Thieves of Vinegar” published by Alien Buddha Press. Her latest poetry books are “The Poet Next Door” (Cyberwit), “The Adventures of Stick People on Cars” (Alien Buddha Press), “The Architect of French Fries” (Presa Press) and “Words and Bones” (Finishing Line Press.) She is a former Poetry Editor for “ESC! Magazine” and co-hosted the podcast “Coffee House to Go.” LB also enjoys swimming, reading, and playing ukulele.
How To Escape When Tied Up: Expand your body as much as possible, flex your arms against your bonds, push against the bonds as much as possible, once your captors leave suck in your chest and stomach, wiggle free with the extra room you have given yourself.
The pictures. They were always there. On the bookshelves, the desks, behind the computer monitors, taped to the walls, clipped to the cubicle skins, on top of the computer monitors, pinned to bulletin boards. At each one, I stared, I examined, I squinted and turned my neck this way and that and leaned forward to get a better look, my mind racing, searching for a gleam of recognition, a hint of familiarity.
The pictures were almost always from the neck up. Women in blouses, women in pearls and blouses, men in suits with ties, or some kind of candid shot. The most popular one I’d seen was a kid kicking a soccer ball or throwing a football or one involved in some sports related activity. There were almost never any pictures showing the shoes. I looked at my shoes, craning my neck to look down, peer over desk tops, computers, to see if there were any feet or the pictures of the homes they lived in.
The shoes could contain clues. It was easy to make assumptions. A guy chowing on a burger and fries with paint on his shoes was quickly marked as a painter. A woman with scuffed up leather shoes easily identified as a business woman, but not one at the top. A kid with brand new tennis shoes deemed to be from a family that could afford to buy new all the time because shoes were something that most kids would dirty up in a few days or maybe a couple of weeks.
Yep, the shoes had it, but their pictures were hard to find and I didn’t have a shoe fetish or foot fetish or anything of the sort. I was looking for some hint from someone I might know or could have known like those restaurant encounters with frequent eye contact and thoughts racing in the head of whether you knew the person catching your eye or if they were just trying to pick you up or if you’d seen them somewhere before in the grocery store, post office, traffic. I was looking for a message in the shoes. The pictures usually had none in them so I’d have to guess what they were wearing, why they were wearing them, how they were wearing them and what they looked like, how much they cost, how old they were, what condition they were in as if I was some kind of woman with a closet full of shoes. I only owned ten pairs of shoes. I thought any more than that would be overkill. I settled back against the pink cushion examining the women in front of me. I could only see her from the waist up. She wore glasses. A pearl necklace. Her hair in a hairstyle a decade too old for the time, a decade too young for her face. Her make up was overdone with blotches of over pinked cheeks and smeary red lipstick. The hair was dark and I couldn’t tell if it was all natural or had help from a bottle. Her pink sweater matched her makeup. A beige overcoat rested on the chair behind her. I couldn’t see a scarf, gloves, or hat.
I wasn’t wearing them either and with the wind whipping through the alleys outside I knew I should’ve had them or at least worn a heavier coat but I had been fooled by the sunshine. There was plenty of it. It had outshone the street vendors too here some seventeen blocks from the Capitol, nine blocks from the White House, they had packed up their tables earlier – I had watched through my K street apartment window on the tenth floor, and so even if I wanted to buy a scarf (stolen, maybe?) I could not. The airport stores were closed. If I had gone to a nearby hotel I might’ve found one at a lobby shop, but I would’ve paid five times what it was worth.
I had owned a good scarf. Black, white and grey. A checkered pattern. Warm, too. Looked good with anything. I had gone to see a play at Ford’s Theatre, gone downstairs in the doom and gloom, the dark gray walls, the dim lighting to look at the Lincoln exhibit. I’d used the rest room there. Hung my scarf on the back of the door. When I went back after the show (something about Will Rogers) it was gone. I called the box office asking for lost and found the next day and they laughed and said they couldn’t find it. Didn’t seem to care anyway or worry that the rightful neck was going without its only cover from the cold biting wind because I was foolish enough to use their rest room. I hadn’t seen anyone wearing it when we poured out into the streets after the show was over. It was a good scarf. Soft and comfortable. I had itchy skin. It was hard for me to find something that worked with it.
I zipped up my jacket; something made of black cotton and stared at Miss pink sweater. Her name wasn’t Miss. She wasn’t a Miss either. Her name tag read Tracey.
I slid my eyes left and right looking at the TV screens on either side of me. Tracey didn’t show up on screen, wasn’t being short circuit monitored like I was and I was all there in bright living color wearing a brown turtleneck, no necklace, no jewelry of any kind and jeans, slightly faded.
“Miss?” She looked down at her clipboard searching through the black and white boxes.
“Melissa. Just call me Melissa.”
She nodded, flipped more pages and finally held out her hand. It contained a rectangle shaped navy blue box with a cord and what looked like a pen attached to the end of the cord.
“I need you to sign on this box, Melissa. Now, you won’t see anything when you’re writing but your signature will be collected electronically on the computer. Just write like you do normally.”
I sighed and wondered about normal and writing and how my handwriting was never all that normal because I jumped around from using my left hand and my right hand and sometimes both at the same time if I was on the phone or cooking. I used the same dark blue boxes at my job but I wasn’t about to tell Tracey that or what I did or how I brokered deals that ranged from selling flowers to bow and arrows to the right people for the right price or the wrong people for the very right price.
Tracey continued to talk and I knew she was saying something about privacy, maybe my privacy, I wasn’t sure and I did the side swipe peripheral vision thing watching the old man with the cane who sat to the left of me leaning back staring at us both and taking in every word being said so I wondered how private any of it was. The old guy was dressed all in gray, even a gray hat and glasses with frames of black. He stared at the TV screen. It was black, too. Not even turned on, not even the picture without the sound.
I wanted to scream at Tracey and even the old man. How would I know what the risks were with all that I was facing now but I still wanted to know. I had a picture. Torn and wrinkled but always in my purse nearby where I could get it if I wanted. I would have to use it. I would have to get it out and expose it to the light. I would have to see it.
It was like the car that belonged to the boyfriend of a girl I used to know in school. It sat in the front yard, under wraps in a car cover, light brown or maybe light blue. My memory didn’t seem to play out in color and I remembered it was a sports car; black with white stripes not a high end one but one in the middle and still too expensive for most to afford in my quiet southern home town of Drake Falls, east of the Appalachians. The car, when it wasn’t under wraps, sat underneath the cover just in sight of the front porch long and inviting with white rocking chairs just like you see in pictures and dangling with wind chimes in all shapes and sizes that sounded like a tiny bell choir when the wind blew just right.
The house and the car were in the middle of town right off the main drag. I drove by it on the way from the airport and the car was still there, parked, underneath its light blue / light beige blanket but the tires were missing, the car was sitting on cinder blocks. The girl I knew never married that boyfriend; married some other boyfriend with more money whose sports car wasn’t sitting and rusting in his family’s front yard. The one with the car, that boyfriend, I was never sure what happened to him and I sometimes wondered what had happened to him to make his parents keep that car because it was probably thirty years old by now and not a classic because of its condition. I wondered what would make them keep that car tucked on their lawn for so long it had begun to grow roots. I wondered what kept me from removing the picture I had in my wallet, buried away not showing it to anyone especially myself.
I fingered it now. Tracey called somebody on the phone and asked them to fax her something, a form for me to sign with the electronic box I thought I heard her say. She hung up and pointed to the waiting room where the old man still sat staring straight ahead at me, at her, at her pictures, at the blank TV. I scooted to the other side of the room with my clipboard, the pink piece of paper Tracey told me I needed to fill out. I sat in the chair by the lamp. I pretended I needed the lamp, but it was just an excuse to be away from Tracey and the old man.
It was a simple form. Name. Date of birth. Address. Phone number. Signature at the bottom. It was one of the simplest forms I’d ever seen or filled out. Nothing like the ten page spreads on some things that I couldn’t even recall but knew I had filled out.
I returned my clipboard and retreated back to the corner. I took a couple of breaths and tried to look out the window, the blinds were closed tight but I could see faint sunlight through the slits. The waiting room was quiet, peaceful, not even any background music playing.
I didn’t sit long before Tracey, woman of all trades, the head woman in charge or the only one there, I wasn’t sure which – she opened another door (the door beside the blank TV) and told me to come on back. I nodded and stood up. I wasn’t ready to go back, I wanted to watch the blank TV a little longer, sunbathe under the lamp, read the smudged and creased magazines offering every solution for everything from my weight problems to my marriage problems. I wasn’t overweight, I wasn’t married, and I wasn’t really anything. I wasn’t attached to anything.
The walls behind the door were pink, like the carpet, like the paper on the clipboard, like Tracey’s blouse. There was less light behind the doors, recessed lighting, turned low and dim. A low humming of some kind of classical or easy listening music pressed against my ears but it was so low I thought it could just be my imagination singing a symphony in my head.
Tracey pressed a wad of tissues into my hand, pushed open a door labeled 3A and said, “Take as much time as you need.”
I nodded, walked in and closed the door fishing for the picture, the only photograph I carried, with my fingers not pulling it out until I was sure Tracey was gone. The faces matched. I wasn’t sure why I thought they wouldn’t, the skin different, younger in the photograph and pinker. The hair was different too, a light brown, but now in person a faded gray. There were no glasses that matched the 2×3 square in my hand.
It had been nineteen years since I’d seen my Mother, and I hadn’t talked to her in that long either. My sister, Margaret, was supposed to be here, but couldn’t be because she was stuck in the snow at the airport somewhere in Minnesota so I was here in Drake Falls where our parents had retired except my Dad was in a nursing home and didn’t know where he was half the time. I lived the closest, but it was Margaret who visited, Margaret who called, Margaret who took care of everything. It was dumb luck that I was here at all. I had no idea anything was wrong and they didn’t want me to know and I knew that my parents probably wouldn’t even want me here, especially my Mom to see her like she was now.
They stopped talking to me, talking only to Margaret for all those years and Margaret who was the oldest kept me in the loop for a few of them but then she grew tired of being in the middle so she stopped telling me anything and stopped telling them anything about me. My parents never knew where I moved (from Minnesota to Washington DC), where I worked, what I did with my free time, who or what I did with anyone, what I ate, what I liked, nothing. I had stopped existing for them in 1989 and for Margaret about 1993.
It hadn’t mattered to any of us I guess. At parties when I was asked the obligatory where are you from, who are your parents, do you have any siblings questions I always managed to small talk my way out of it or change the subject successfully to the weather or a piece of jewelry or a sweater, blouse, tie, shirt, something someone was wearing. I became skilled at the art of distraction which in my case was the art of I don’t really want to share my family history or lack thereof with anyone.
I wasn’t quite sure how I got so good at it, why I felt I needed to do it in the first place. I could’ve just told the truth, told anyone who asked the obligatory questions that my folks kind of disowned me, didn’t really want to talk to me, like a lot of other parents they hadn’t agreed with my life choices like when I dropped out of college and squandered all the tuition money they’d given me on making a demo recording of a song that I thought sounded so great but when I listened to it years later it made perfect sense why it hadn’t gone anywhere, hadn’t landed me a record deal or any kind of deal playing the Y or a birthday party. It all became habit. The disownment part of me and I returned it without thought after awhile.
I sighed and looked around for Tracey. No one else was inside, in the pink carpeted room with recessed lighting and no windows, no cracks not even unintentional ones where I could put my nose up to them and breathe in a whiff of fresh air.
Margaret would’ve handled it better, I thought, especially since she knew Mom was sick, she knew all the last wishes, all the plans for whatever pieces there’d be to pick up and I hadn’t even been given any warning only a quick phone call with her screaming in her northern affected accent that it was an emergency and I needed to go to handle things. I wasn’t handling things and I would call her later or maybe send her an email and tell her that all of it was a formality for me. Me with my photograph, ancient and torn, me with my notes I jotted down as Margaret rattled them off to me. Margaret’s Mom’s final hour without Margaret, without Dad, without me because I had known nothing about it and if not for the snow and Margaret being stuck somewhere in an airport in Minnesota then I would’ve never known content to believe that my Mom, and somehow my Dad, were just fine living out their days doing whatever they did without their disowned daughter. Margaret would’ve known what to do. Me, I couldn’t do it without the picture.
I held it up and nodded. I walked back into the lobby with the old man still staring at the blank TV. Tracey typed on her computer with shards of sunlight popping the glass of her photographs, her kinfolk dressed in church going clothes, picture posing clothes staring right back at her, the old man and me.
“Yep. That’s her. Do you want me to sign something? My sister won’t be able to make it today. Should be here when the snow lets up. I’m sure she’ll give you a call.”
Tracey stared at me her mouth flying open at the appropriate moment and closing again as she realized her mistake, registering the picture in my hands and figuring out that I was the daughter in flesh and blood but I was not the daughter.
“She’ll be making all the arrangements?”
“Well, thank you then, Melissa. And I am sorry for your loss.”
“Thank you, Tracey.” I nodded heading for the door. I nodded to the old man and I squinted at the silent TV but I still didn’t see anything or see what he was seeing. I stopped at the door and turned back to Tracey. She looked up and smiled. I smiled back and whispered, “I’m sorry for your loss, too.”