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Finders Keepers

 

 

 

            The very day that Electra committed her crime, her landline rang.  The sound jarred her mind, as she sipped her coffee.  She had a hangover and was still in her terry cloth robe.  A cigarette hung precariously from her lips as she answered the phone, which continued to ring mercilessly until she grabbed the receiver up.

            “What?” she screamed. “I’m gonna pay.  I need time.  Get off my back!”

            As the words burst out of her mouth, the cigarette jerked up and down comically then fell onto the stained carpet and lie there smoldering as a voice blared into her ear.

            “This is your mother.  That’s no way to answer the phone.  So help me, Electra, you’d better be taking care of that baby.  My son wants us to take charge of him until he returns.  I just talked to him.  You treat your husband like crap.  You never wanted that kid.  You just want welfare money; that’s why you hold onto him.  Don’t lie to me, Electra, are you on drugs?  Have you been drinking?  You sound high.”

            “No, not high, low—hung over,” Electra muttered hoarsely. “You feel better Mom.  Why you always giving me a rough time.  You don’t want my baby.  I take care of him.  I feed him.  What more do you want?  That son of yours isn’t any help.  Do you how hard it is to live on army pay?  He keeps telling me he’s gonna quit the army, get a real job, and help me with this kid, but he ain’t gonna do that.  Until he retires, all I got is his army check and what I get from the county and state.”

            “Oh, Electra,” her mother whined, “you spend too much money.  You need a job.  You could live on base to save money, use the base pre-school, while you're out, maybe work in the exchange or get a job in town.”

            Electra, of course, had a job, and, with her nightly income, had been able to buy a forty-six-inch flat screen and keep herself supplied with drugs and booze.  Reaching down to pick up her smoldering cigarette and taking a few drags, she listened to her mother suggest other jobs for a high school dropout, including hiring herself out as a maid and working at the local mill.

            “I’m sick, Mom,” Electra groaned. “I get headaches.  I can’t concentrate.  Get that through your thick skull!” 

            “I heard things, Electra,” her mother’s voice constricted, “rumors, bad things... that your back to your old ways.”

            “Who told you that?” she cried, jumping to her feet. “Royce—my worthless husband?  Who you believe, him or me?  I don’t expect you to send money anymore.  You don’t have a hold over me now, Mom.  Why do you check up on me?  I don’t even talk to the people here, and you accuse me of hooking?  Jesus Christ, woman, I’d drop dead if I got a kind word from you!”

            “Electra, Oh Electra,” her mother sputtered into the phone, “you’ve cut yourself off from your family and the world.  Listen to you now; I didn’t say hooking.  I meant drugs, prostitutionYou just filled in the blanks.  I’m calling the authorities.  So help me, I’ll call the police if you don’t shape up!”

            Blam! went the receiver into its cradle.  Pulling her cell phone out of her pocket, a secret communication link kept from her mother, she selected a name from her caller’s list: Royce Gimble.  Forgetting completely that moment that her husband was overseas, her intention was to give him a tongue-lashing for her state of affairs.  This was all his fault, she thought, a snarl playing on her face.  He left her with a kid, backwater house, and a mountain of debt.  After several rings and a brief message “This is Royce.  I’m not here, so leave a message,” she snapped the cell phone shut and threw it across the room. 

            Her snarl was joined by a dark frown and smoldering eyes.  Looking around at the walls, floor, and into the messy kitchen, she emitted a string of invectives that would have made a sailor blush.  The house was filthy and smelled of sweat and stale beer.  She couldn’t remember the last time it had been cleaned, the dishes washed or linen changed.  If it wasn’t for Alden she would leave this town and head for the big city, where she could make real money stripping and part time hooking at the bars in town.  Electra had ceased behaving like a wife and mother long ago, even before meeting Royce while plying her trade.  Seeing her chance, she convinced him that she was in between jobs (actually the truth) and looking for a place to live, though she had practically been living on the street.  Royce hadn’t known that she was a runaway and only sixteen years old.  When they finally married she was at the legal age but already pregnant with her son.  Royce had never caught on about her antics until someone notified him while he was on activity duty in Afghanistan.   It was this unknown person that had started the rumor.  It didn’t occur to her that one of her military clients might brag about her services.  Electra didn’t know Royce knew about the prostitution now, of course; she had always felt clever about this.  All she knew in her current state of mind was how much she resented life as a military wife.  In spite of her prostitution, neglect of her son, and emptying their bank account, after buying expensive clothes, alcohol and drugs, he was to blame.  Her messed up life was his fault.     

Also to blame was her son.  He had been an accident—the only reason she married Royce Gimble.  In the next room she could hear Alden babbling again to himself.  Though his diaper needed changing and he was, like the surrounding house, unwashed and isolated from the outside world, he seemed happy at times, lying in his crib and playing with the mobile overhead.  At times, typical of unattended infants, Alden would let out a caterwauling scream.  The unsettling noise grated on her like fingernails on a blackboard.  She stood there in her terry cloth robe, her cigarette smoldered to the butt almost burning her finger, the resentment for her mother and husband swirling in her head, until something snapped in her already unhinged mind.

            When she entered the room where Alden’s small world existed, she immediately caught a whiff of his dirty diaper and noted the mess he had most recently made.  Somehow, due to her own neglect of him, he had smeared feces all over himself and the surrounding crib.  He was wailing loudly again.  Though no different than any other infant’s wail, the sound made her cringe.  Added to the unsettling sight and sound, was the awful smell she had never gotten used to.

            “Shut up, shut up!” she shrieked. “Look at you, you little horror.  Oh, why didn’t I get that abortion when I had a chance?  I don’t have a life because of you.  I’m trapped in this hole—all because of you!”

            Suddenly, in maddened rage, Electra picked the infant one arm and transported him screaming into the bathroom.  Her remedy was crude but effective.  Peeling off his diaper and shirt, she reached in to turn on the shower, and, after waiting only a few moments for the water to warm up, stuck the squalling child under the spray.  Rinsing him off after soaping him down with much less tenderness than a pet-owner for her dog, drying him roughly, and slapping on another diaper, she carried him like a rag doll back into his room, tossed him into crib and stood there glaring at the poor child.

            Inexplicably, it seemed to her, Alden had stopped screaming.  He lie there on his back, in what seemed the typical pose of an infant, as if he had suddenly fallen asleep.  That moment, as she thought what she had done, it dawned on her that he wasn’t moving.  When she bent down and picked him up, he was limp.  He was apparently not breathing.  True to her non-existent maternal nature, she didn’t check his pulse or even place her ear next to his mouth to see if was still breathing.  A ceramic cup, inexplicably placed on the crib, lie broken beneath his head.  There was a trickle of blood in back of his neck that dribbled onto her thumb as she held him aloft.  Obviously, she thought after summing up the facts, his head had smashed the cup.  Certain that her child was dead, Electra panicked.  A normal person would have been devastated with guilt and regret, but Electra chief concern was for self-preservation.  The fear of recrimination and punishment far outweighed any remorse she might feel.  He first reaction, in fact, had been to say, “It was an accident. It’s not my fault he hit his head.”  The most hardened cynic would have been shocked by such a statement, but in Electra’s deranged thinking there was no time for self-recrimination or doubt.  After driving past a certain location several times on those days she shopped in town, a fleeting memory flashed like a beacon in her mind.  It was a landfill—the perfect place to dump something.  But first, she reasoned, running around wildly through her house, she had to make it look believable.  She must have more trash to dump in the landfill.

            “Let’s see,” she mumbled frantically, “what can I throw away?”

            With a large cardboard box that held Alden’s toys, now quickly emptied, she tossed in garbage found in the house: milk cartons, wrappers, diapers, Kleenex, and dirty plates from the kitchen sink.  On top of the box, wrapped in the baby blanket his grandmother gave him, was tossed Alden Robert Gimble and just for good measure a few of his toys too.  After showering and throwing on her clothes, Electra emerged into the sunlight, the glare blinding to her eyes.  From her window next door, Annabelle Suarez caught sight of her, as did UPS driver Randall Eastman as he drove down the street.  Too frantic to notice the witnesses seeing her load her car, climb in and speed down the street, she was spotted by Marie Bartlett, on her afternoon jog, and was also spotted by Bill Markland, a neighbor down the street.

            “Damn!” Bill swore, shielding his eyes from the sun. “Who was that?  Did you get the license number?”

            “I dunno,” replied Marie, looking down the street. “It must have been an emergency.  She’s driving really fast!”

            That moment, as she waited for Bill to leave his mower and join her on the sidewalk, Annabelle Suarez bolted out her front door and crossed the street, her face radiating concern.

            Out of breath, Marie took a swig from her water bottle and wiped her brow.  Bill took the opportunity to study her glistening frame as Annabelle approached.

            “Did you see that bitch?” cried Annabelle. “Something ain’t right.  She took off like a bat out of hell!”

            “Yeah, we saw her,” Marie shrugged. “Who was that lady?”

            “That wasn’t no lady,” she replied, shielding her eyes from the sun. “Since she’s living in Sergeant Royce Gimble’ house, I assume it’s his wife.   My husband told me all about him.  Before he deployed, he introduced himself.   He’s over there training the Afghan fighters—a decorated hero.   That woman living with him is a whore.   Poor Sergeant Gimble doesn’t have a clue about her.  I see men going in and out of his house all hours of the day, but I never see her.  I don’t even know her name.  What I didn’t see in her car today was that infant of hers.  I hear the child crying, but no one’s ever seen it.  All I saw her carry out of her house was a box.  For days on end no one lays eyes on that woman or her baby, then bam! she’s racing off with that box.  That strikes me as very strange.”

            “What’re you getting at?” Bill interest mounted. “You think something happened to him?  I’m retired now, Annabelle, but I was a cop for thirty years.  I remember facts.  I heard the gossip about that woman.  The mailman told me what he saw.  If you’re worried, call Child Services.  Hell, if she left an infant alone, that’s against the law; you can even call the cops.  They might pay her a visit when she gets home.”

            “What if she doesn’t come home?” Annabelle frowned severely. “Maybe she hauled ass out of here.  After all the stuff I’ve seen over there, I think someone should check on that kid—fast!”

            “This might be child abandonment,” Marie frowned. “In that case, Bill’s right; we should call the cops!”

Drawing his cell phone from his pocket, Bill called a friend in the force.  As he reported the incident and listened to the response, he grinned with satisfaction and made a second call.  This time he walked a short distance away to discuss the problem, reported the address and what he had seen, and, after a few moments, whistled into the phone with surprise.  Annabelle stood there between the two houses, filled with regret and foreboding.  Marie glanced at her watch, impatient to finish her run.  

             “I shouldn’t have waited so long,” Annabelle said with remorse. “I should’ve done something.  I heard things…. I saw things…. I know things.”

            “It’s not your fault,” Marie patted her shoulder. “No one gets involved nowadays.  I think the guy next door to me is doing drugs.

            “Don’t worry, Annabelle.” Bill looked over with a sympathetic look.  “A patrol car’s coming over to check on the house.  I also called Child Services, too.  According to a social worker I know there, the woman at this address, Electra Gimble, was written up before.  She was given a warning just last week.”

            “Nice work.” Marie grinned with satisfaction. “Her goose is cooked!”

            “We should pray for that kid,” Annabelle declared, wringing her hands. “I shouldn’t have waited so long.”  “Please,” she added, as Bill turned to leave, “stick around awhile.  We need witnesses.  There’s something not right about this!”

             Bill nodded.  Marie sighed.  For several moments, as they waited for the police, Annabelle elaborated on her neighbor's sins.  Bill grew excited, but Marie was scandalized by the details.  According to Annabelle, Electra must be a nymphomaniac.  Both civilians and soldiers had visited her, at least seven times that she could remember.  Once even the mailman had paid her a visit.  She had seen men enter her house in the morning, afternoon, and night, and even on Sunday, on the Sabbath, a man in a suit had entered her home.  Once, Annabelle added with disgust, a trio of servicemen were invited in.  All sorts of strange noise were uttered during the visits.  Sometimes she could hear her child crying in the background.  Yet not once had she seen the woman or her child leave the house together.  She was obviously ashamed of what she did.  Why else did she hide in that house all hours of the day?

 

******

When Electra arrived at the landfill, there were several cars, pickup trucks, and one large U-Haul van, parked in the lot.  The landfill would one day be covered and become the foundation for housing or industry, but in Electra’s mind it was one vast hiding place now.  The question was, she thought, searching frantically for a secluded sector with no witnesses around, “Where?” 

That hour Sam Villalobos, an ex-Marine, and his wife Louise were searching the garbage for useful items—furniture, cutlery, even clothes.  The couple had recently lost their own child to a drunken motorist.  To worsen their plight were two factors not normally plaguing a married couple.  Sam, who suffered from post traumatic combat disorder, had difficulty holding down a job.  In her bipolar condition Louise likewise had short-term employment, herself.  Added to their financial difficulties, therefore, was their mutually inhibiting mental disorders.  In spite of government aid and occasional handouts by relatives, they were forced to live on the margin, far below the poverty level.  Though living in a small, rundown apartment and driving a relic, requiring constant repairs, they could barely pay their rent.  Sam had to do all his pickup truck’s repairs.  Thrift stores, where prices were low, had provided them with clothing and other items beyond their budget.  What they could forage in front of residential houses during the city’s bulk pickup or now at the landfill would be sold at the upcoming flea market in town.  As they piled the pickup truck with chairs, tables, and a coat rack—all in remarkably good condition, they saw, from a distance, a woman run up and throw a box down a trash-strewn hill.  

“Look, Sam,” she cried. “That woman’s acting weird.  Why did she toss that box in the landfill?  She could’ve thrown it in a trash bin or dumpster—why here?  Look at her run back to her car.  That woman’s up to no good!”

At first Sam was unimpressed.  “She’s dumping trash, Louise.  This is a landfill. What’s the big deal?”

Louise grinned mischievously at her husband. “Let’s go have a look!  I bet that was her husband in that box—chopped up into little pieces.”

“Louise, that’s not funny.” Sam sighed irritably. “We talked about this.  This is none of our business.  Did you take your meds?”

            “Nah,” she muttered, brushing a strand of hair out of her eyes, “that stuff scrambles my brains.  “I’m making this my business.  Let’s go check this out!”

            “Halt!” He held out an arm. “Let’s not let her see us.  Wait until she’s gone.”

            Her grimy deed completed, Electra hit the accelerator.  As they crouched behind the pickup, she sped passed them, without a glance.

            “Whoa, that lady’s in hurry,” cried Sam in surprise. “I don’t like the looks of this, Louise.  Let’s not get involved.  Who knows what’s in that box.” 

            “Well, I’m going to find out!” she cackled charging ahead.

            Typical of her condition, Louise was currently in her reckless mode, running excitedly to the scene as her husband tried keeping up.  Sam knew it was no use trying to stop her.  Not long ago, after catching a neighbor beating her child, she attacked her—a woman nearly twice her size, spiriting the child away before calling the police.  In the back of her mind, Sam realized, she believed the woman had forfeited her rights to the child.  She wanted to keep the abused toddler or, at the very least, expected Child Services to find him a new home.  Instead, the child was returned to the mother, who was given a mere warning, and Louise Villalobos barely escaped going to jail.

What her motive was now, Sam couldn’t tell, but he had a bad feeling about this exploit.  When they arrived at the spot where Electra tossed the box, she immediately charged down the hill, whooping with delight.

“Louise,” Sam groaned, “you should’ve taken your meds.”

            “I hear something.” She was panting. “…It sounds like a baby.  Dear God, what has that woman done?”

            Following her down the hill, Sam called out angrily. “Stop Louise.  Damn it to hell! You’re acting crazy again.  That’s garbage in that box!”

            Opening it eagerly, she saw a pair of brown eyes looking up through the toys.  Alden, who had merely been unconscious, had awakened.  Seeing the world once more, he let out a scream that caused Sam to gasp.  Louise, however, sighed with great joy.  Lifting up the small boy in wonderment, she saw immediately a replacement for her dead child.

            “That bitch dumped him like garbage,” Sam muttered in disbelief. “I’m calling the cops!”

            “No, you’re not,” she cried, pressing the boy to her chest. “Finders keepers.  Next time, she might kill him.  No one knows us in our new apartment.  This is our chance, Sam.  My insides got messed up.  I can’t have any more kids.  Because of our medical problems, we can even adopt.  He’s got black hair and dark eyes just like you, Sam.  Please, let me keep him.  I swear I’ll blow my brains out this time, if you don’t say yes.”

“Louise,” Sam pleaded, “we could go to jail.  That kid doesn’t belong to us.  This is the scene of a crime.”

“Look, there’s blood in his hair,” she observed, trotting with him to the car, “I know what happened now.  She thought she killed him, but he’s alive.  It’s a miracle, Sam.  The Lord handed him to us on a silver platter.  My cousin Rita is a nurse.  She can fix him up.”

“Your cousin is a medical practitioner, Louise.  She might just turn us in.”

“You worry too much, Sam.  She’ll do no such thing!”

During their argument, Alden had stopped crying.  He might have sensed he was finally in good hands.  Until they arrived back at their apartment, though, they would have to hide him like stolen goods.  A second crime had been committed but this time to Alden’s benefit. 

Sam groaned as they drove away. “If I get stopped, we’re screwed.  We don’t even have an infant seat.  Keep him down low on your lap.  When we get to our apartment, we’ll sneak him in.  What the hell have we done Louse?”

“We found us another child,” she said, looking down into his face, “ a gift from God!”

            “He doesn’t belong to us, Louise,” protested Sam. “We’re committing a crime!

            In a singsong voice she exclaimed happily, “Finders keepers, losers weepers!”