The Current Situation
On a warm afternoon in summer, many years after his kidnapping, in the makeshift room above his garage, in a modest, ramshackle suburban neighborhood in a small city somewhere in the West, Jim stands at the window, training a pair of binoculars on the neighborhood streets. He’s watching for signs of trouble, of any threats to his own family. For now, all looks quiet on the Western front. Across the street, a woman walking a white poodle, down the block a guy on a bike, but no apparent threat in sight. He reviews the neighbors in his mind. Probably no kidnappers among them, but the neighbors make him insecure in other ways. The Wilsons across the street have great adventures. Their boy, Addell, at four, was the youngest ever to climb Pike’s Peak. The Johnsons, to the south, are great humanitarians; broad-faced and beaming toothily, they are frequently pictured in the paper for their winter coat drives. The Smiths, to the north, are simply beloved by everyone. They have seven children and each year a different one is high school valedictorian. They have a swimming pool filled all summer with family and friends and neighbors, all bouncing cheerily around.
All three families send Christmas newsletters. So many awards! So many scholarships! So many trips! So much happiness and success! How can Jim’s family compete?
The Rathmans do not send Christmas newsletters. There are older children who have moved back home, husky young men who go in and out the front door carrying automotive parts. They have numerous cars and trucks parked in their driveway, in front of their house and up and down the street. They are forever working on their cars and trucks and washing them. Whenever he pulls his scraggly Toyota into his driveway, which has cracked and settled, weeds spurting through the seams, Jim waves to them if they are in their driveway working on their cars and they wave grudgingly back with wrench-filled hands.
Worrying about so many things at once is tiresome, and Jim moves from the window and lies down on an old green couch. Through motes of dust, as if materializing in a sudden glare of sunlight through the window, into the scene intrudes a shadowy, plump, bearded man, reminiscent of a therapist he saw some years ago. The therapist sighs as if suffering from an ache in his buttocks, swaddles down in a swivel chair, hands folded over his plump belly. He wears a dark suit and has an immaculately trimmed beard and impeccable fingernails, though he is stout, red-faced, sweaty. His voice is deep, loud, faintly theatrical. “You really have self-esteem issues, worrying about what the neighbors think. You should get some help for that. But go on. What else is on your mind?”
On this warm day in summer, he tells his therapist about his idea for the family saga, how he will recount the kidnapping of his ancestors in the frontier days and his own kidnapping. The book will be such a smashing success that it will free Jim from the clutches of President Jammer and the mad linguist, Dr. Dalton. “And there are other kidnappings as well!” he says, excitedly now. “It’s all about—it’s all about: where does one belong? We’ve all been taken—taken from our true home, and it’s only a matter of getting back there! Of finding our way back home.”
His therapist rolls his eyes, sighs, “If only.”
Yes, yes, he will stick it to old Jammer and Dalton. Just let them try to push around a Nobel Prize winner! He won’t put up with their abuse anymore! In his summer class just yesterday Jim was lecturing when the thin pale gas wafted under the door. The students paused in mid-text message, mouths agape. They all slumbered and woke in a daze. “Does anyone remember what we were talking about?” Jim asked. No one did. The students shook their heads and refocused on their text messaging.
But more importantly than his neighbors or Jammer or Dalton, his father will be impressed! The old guy doesn’t get out much anymore, maybe he’ll take him with him to Stockholm. Jim shuts his eyes and here’s the old soldier now, back in the family kitchen, birds alighting in the bird bath way back by the alley. “Why Stockholm?” his father asks, face querulous, eyes glinty beneath his thick glasses. “Where the hell is Stockholm anyway? Europe? That’s a hell of a long way to go. I don’t have enough frequent flyer miles. You know if we held off until spring we might get a better deal.”
“I could pay for it out of my winnings.”
“It would probably be warmer in spring.”
“Well, there’s this thing about collecting my prize.”
“What prize was that again?”
“The Nobel. The Nobel Prize.”
“Oh right. What is the prize anyway? A trophy?”
“About a million bucks.”
“A million bucks? That’s not bad. Cash or annuity? What was it for again?”
“Our family history. Our story. Going back to the frontier days when Tom and Will got kidnapped by the Comanches. And when Len and Sis and I got kidnapped after the guy stalked Mom.”
“Oh. Well, try to keep it cheerful. Nobody wants to read anything depressing. Say, if you give a little talk or something, make sure to mention your sister’s a surgeon.”