Christa

Michael McGrath

Christa was the muscle. She was raised in a teeming orphanage, where she sharpened her tongue and hardened her knuckles. My stomach murmured. The scanner said there was a grease fire at Bingo Burger. The whole town smelled juicy. “Let’s get lunch,” I said to the group assembled in the conference room.

We were on the clock. A missing girl. Our interns were scrounging her social-media profiles.

“Let’s get lunch,” I said again.

“I already ate,” said Christa, head down.

“Oh? What’d you have?”

Some days we only exchanged menus.

“Pulled-pork footlong at my desk,” she said, smoothing a map. We lived near a famous forest. “I’ve never had any sympathy for lost hikers.”

“You’re in the wrong business,” I said.

 

Christa is my ex-wife and sometimes-mistress. Every Friday night she goes to the fights. Christa has a storage locker filled with wigs. We argue each month when the bill comes to the office. She already has the kind of hair that changes every day, from waves to crimps to curls, depending on the weather and other mysterious, vaguely feminine forces. But Christa says she needs the wigs for our work. She says she needs them “just in case.” I say she hasn’t been sick for years. The wigs are an itchy, expensive reminder of a bad time.

 

“Hello, officers,” said Christa, as we pulled in across from a parked undercover cruiser. “How inconspicuous. Bulky coats, mayo mustaches.”

“What are they doing here?” I asked.

“Where’s the kid?” she asked.

“Troy Lindsey,” I said, checking my notes. “His shift ends at three. Intern says he heads straight home. Gets high, jerks off, lights fireworks off the back porch . . .”

“Okay,” she said to the mirror as it rattled with incoming bass, “here he comes.”

You could tell times were tough up and down. Troy drove his Beamer to a Wing Dings delivery gig. Daddy was slashing allowances across the board. The shadow of borrowed money stretched across our town. Unfortunately, Christa didn’t believe in idling engines.

“Damn, it’s cold in here,” I said.

“I’m wearing flannel-lined denim,” said Christa.

“Secret pajamas,” I said approvingly.

Troy’s dented and growling M3 pulled into the garage. His beautiful, blonde girlfriend had been missing three days. 

 

Christa was in the first co-ed class of our nation’s premiere reform school, the worst kids from the best families. She dismantled the most popular boy at an archaic form of handball particular to the institution. The only other girl was the dean’s daughter, who kept to her study carrel. Christa’s boxing match with the headmaster’s bodyguard was featured on local public access, where it caught the attention of Brown recruiters. The coach found her a work-study job feeding frozen mice to a snake in a lab. She named all the mice, but never the snake.

 

Wednesday morning I gave Christa a nudge. Tuesday was Ladies’ Night. Some weeks she stopped at my place for a nightcap and a bedtime story. Christa liked to mark the dirty parts of paperbacks with squares of tissue paper. I maintained a small library under my bed.

“That’s it, no more sugared rims,” she said between coughing jags.

“Put a dollar in the jar,” I said.

“Any word on the girl?”

“They canvassed the forest again with a different breed of dog,” I said.

“Wing Ding manager said Troy called in sick. Intern at the house says the place is dark.”

“She’s gone.”

“We don’t know that,” I said. “Meet anyone last night?”

“A few familiar faces,” she said. “Don’t worry, I bought all my own drinks.”

“What are you looking for? Maybe I can help. Pull up your profile.”

“Stick to the presumed dead,” she said.

“What picture do you use? You have so many different looks.”

She cracked the laptop, left it on the bed and walked to the bathroom. I pulled the screen close. There she was: smiling on the beach, lips full and red, no hair. It was from our last vacation, where the blind piano player took our requests each night in the hotel bar. We tipped like sheiks and made love in the steam room.

She dressed briskly, an elastic in her mouth.

“You look beautiful,” I said.

In terms of devotion, I pretty much subsist on Christa’s bathwater. When it snows I shovel and salt her walkway. I pay her fines at the library. We met in a holding cell at the Canadian border and were married at Niagara Falls.

Our first job together was a cruise-ship extraction. Christa found the run-away stepmother hiding in the pool deck’s Lost and Found, submerged in discarded bikini bits.

 

Television trucks crowded the cul de sac. Neighbors gathered on their porches. I tightened my grip on the steering wheel. Mr. Lindsey was reading a statement in the front yard. His wife and lawyer stood behind him. The wife appeared glazed, medicated. The lawyer was Bernie Felt, a neighborhood dirtbag from way back. He specialized in well-publicized damage control jobs. The cameras always paid, even if the client was overextended. I rubbed my twitching eyelid with extra knuckle. My mouth was rotten with Bingo Burger onion rings and glove compartment tartar sauce.

“I can’t watch this,” said Christa. “Let’s go to the park.”

 

People sat in their cars with the engines running, eating footlongs and staring in the frozen reservoir at the center of our national park. Ice floes clung to the cliffs in the distance. We hit the trails, kicking leaves and scabs of snow, searching for a broken bottle, charred tin foil, a coat string snagged on a branch.

Christa wore an orange hat.

“What’s with the hat?” I asked. “It’s not hunting season.”

“People are desperate,” she said.

It was true, we knew men doing jail time for spotlighting game and stealing livestock. I inched closer to her side. Wind swept the reservoir.

“Think the girl’s family will respond?”

“I raided petty cash and sent the interns to interview mallrats,” I said.

“Which mall?”

 

“East,” I said.

“Wrong,” she said. “You want Woodland. This girl is one-hundred percent Woodland.”

“East has punks too,” I said.

“They have nose studs and ski coats,” said Christa. “Woodland kids have bolts through their lips and NO FUTURE fist tattoos. Go ask them where they think this girl went. Nothing would shock them.”

“We’ll check Woodland this afternoon.”

“It’ll be too late,” sighed Christa. “The East kids will suck those interns dry.”

A rifle shot cracked in the distance and echoed across the ice.

 

Bernie Felt’s interns were beautiful and bored. The lobby walls were cluttered with portraits of his yacht and prize-winning pets.

“If he asks, we’re back together,” murmured Christa.

“Wait, what?”

Bernie’s face was fashionably ruddy and his fingers were too fat for their rings. He raised silver wolfhounds on a farm outside town. “Christa! Stunning, as usual.”

“Hi, Bernie.”

“Seltzer, coffee? Something stronger?”

“Nothing, as usual.”

I ordered a Scotch. The interns—sorority sisters eight credits from an Ivy MRS—rightfully ignored me. Meanwhile our interns were polishing associate degrees, hoping to wade into the typing pool. Bernie removed his tie clip and dropped it on his desk, its jewel dinging the glass like a bell.

Christa stayed standing. “Where is she, Bernie?”

“Don’t you watch the news?” said Bernie. “My client has no clue.”

“Hey, maybe it was an accident,” I said. “Maybe he had no choice. Maybe she’s buried in one of his pappy’s vacant industrial parks.”

“How does Troy define their relationship?” asked Christa.

“Kids don’t do that anymore,” said Bernie.

“I did read that somewhere,” I said.

“We’re focusing on out-of-towners,” said Bernie. “Transients.”

The last disappearance lingered for years. Every suicide, every single-car accident or early retirement raised rumors. We all felt connected, complicit. The remains were finally found on a pasture belonging to prominent locals, but it wasn’t too far from the Interstate. You could still hear tractor-trailers downshifting from the middle of that field.

 

“But enough of this tragic shit,” said Bernie. “How are you two doing?”

“We’re busy,” said Christa.

“We’re committed,” I said, reaching for Christa’s hand.

“I’ll toast to that,” said Bernie. “You sure I can’t offer a drink? Whiskey? Something with a sugared rim?”

An intern entered, carrying Christa’s orange hat.

 

The Blue Bird was full of strangers. My high score had been bumped off the leader board. My brow collapsed into a Photo Hunt furrow: the goat was missing his sunglasses, a tablecloth changed patterns. The kitchen was closed, but Wayne put a pretzel in the microwave after he called me a cab.

 

There was some mistake. These were not my eyeballs.

I took a few wet blinks and scanned the kitchenette: an empty bottle overturned in the blender, a bag of ice leaking all over the linoleum, Christa standing in the doorway holding gas-station coffee and wearing my favorite wig. It was long and red, like a foxtail. I groaned.

“We’re on Troy,” she said. “His shift starts in ten minutes.”

“Take that off,” I said.

“What?”

“The wig,” I said.

“It’s mine,” she said.

“I bought it for you,” I said.

“I need it,” she said.

“You have too many disguises,” I said. “You can’t just disappear whenever you want.”

When we separated, Christa said it was nobody’s fault. I believed her. Who gets a second shot at life and doesn’t make a few adjustments?

“Does Bernie read to you?” I asked.

“Do you want this coffee or should I throw it in your face?”

“He thinks these girls are roadkill,” I said.

“No, he doesn’t.”

“He would’ve said the same about you. An orphan with a nice ass crossing the street at night? Oh well, she should’ve known better.”

I managed to dodge most of the coffee and went for the wig. We were never the kind of couple to pick fights as foreplay. When we got mad we stayed mad until there were reparations. Throwing stars, dirty stories, sugared rims—apologies were meaningless without the goods. This time was different. Taking someone’s hair is a heinous violation. She hid her shock well. I got sick.

It was all we could do.

 

Troy peeled out of the Wing Dings parking lot. He drove all over town, left greasy bags and boxes on cold porches, tire shops and car washes, a rusty loading dock. The M3 hummed and thumped. Troy’s father made his first million filling an old pig farm with a tract development. After the owners went bust he bought the houses back from the bank and split them into duplexes.

 

The Woodland parking lot was rigidly divided. The snooty RV crowd kept to themselves. Other long-term tenants had tents and propane grills. New arrivals were living in their cars, the adults slouched in the front seats, children and cat boxes and suitcases in the back. Finally there were the street kids and runaways, milling and scraping like wild dogs. Most of them recognized me and Christa. Some of their parents had sent us after them. They all knew Troy.

When he pulled in they swarmed his car until he handed out whatever was left in the trunk. He squashed a fight with soda and cigarettes.

“What’s his story?” I asked.

“Half a semester at Loyola,” said Christa. “Gouged an eye in a frat brawl.

Arresting officer said she had to stun him like a rampaging zoo animal, said he took a bean bag to the chest and kept coming, said she’d never seen anything like it.”

“Risk of flight?”

“Minimal,” said Christa. “Maybe domestic. He pawned his Les Paul last week.”

“Assuming no help from daddy,” I said. “Or that shithead Bernie.”

“Let’s not dive into all that again,” said Christa.

 

The Friday fights went down in the middle-school gym. I bought popcorn from the Girl Scouts, climbed the pullout bleachers and settled into a splintery groove. The usual dank chill warmed to a comforting humidity under the harsh lights. Spectators chugged flasks and drooled into Styrofoam. The title bout featured a widely reviled local locksmith, usually seen trailing the Sheriff on his eviction rounds with a sinister ring of keys. I craned my neck, looking for Christa. She always sat close to the ring, chin on her fist, elbows digging into her knees, nostrils flared.

The PA cackled as the announcer—a slurring Hertz agent—introduced the locksmith. He emerged from behind a labial curtain masking the fire exit, thick limbed and pink chested, a middling thug aged and salted to semi-respectability. Inflamed by the boos of the crowd he worked himself into a corner frenzy and kicked over a gray slop bucket. His opponent was a wiry Blue Bird dishwasher.

I recognized the ring-card girl. Danielle wore an outdated one-piece and silver nail polish. When she was eight her father nabbed her off the school bus after a custody spat. Christa and I tracked them to a swampland motel. The old man next to me grunted in appreciation as she walked the canvas, card held high.

 

Late at night, after the last round of celebratory shots at the Bird, I walked across town to the office, looking for Christa. I wanted to tell her about the locksmith’s wild haymakers, the dishwasher’s precision jabs, the broken nose and spat teeth. From the street I could see a light in the conference room. I felt hope surge through me, neutralizing all the numbing agents, busy work, rationalizations and unspoken vows. But it was just an intern, Kim, playing solitaire on a laptop with a loud fan, drinking pink wine from a Dixie cup, eating cold Wing Dings. She didn’t seem surprised by my presence or my state. Unlike most people I tried to stay blind to the youth and beauty of my interns—I happened to know that Bernie Felt ran a particularly swinging program—but Kim was undeniably fine.

“Don’t you have a bunk in some student slum?” I asked.

“I’ve been sexiled,” she said.

“When’d you get the food?”

“Earlier tonight,” she said. “Joel was staked out across the street and brought it back for the rest of us. Man, I used to eat this stuff all the time. We’d get it as a treat after soccer.”

I felt the space between us—the years, the truncated lifetimes—expand and yawn, depositing me on some distant, blasted outpost.

Kim reached her hand into the Wing Dings bag.

“Grody,” she said, peeling a long, blonde hair from a stick of mozzarella.

My gut flipped as the hair dangled from her finger, glistening in a splash of street light.

* * *

The Wing Dings walk-in freezer was cold and bright. Troy’s manager called the police, then corporate. The girl’s blue body was slumped behind cloudy bags of chicken parts. Christa crouched beside her, steaming from both nostrils. She always chased the closure, but for me it stung like surgical staples. I’d almost rather the missing wander the ether forever, their absence an invisible but undeniable rebuke to our rotten lives. Crosses by the road, ribbons in the trees.

I know, I’m in the wrong business.