By: Toni mirosevich
The first clue? Three letters printed across the top band of the dog’s collar.
Dusty was the dog’s name, though after I got to know him better I’d call out, Hey Dustman, or Hi there, Mr. Dust. I noticed him, a hefty yellow lab, before we noticed his owner; a big woman, maybe in her sixties, super short hair, ruddy complexion. A few spots of sun damage on her cheeks and forehead, indicating she was an outdoorsy type. She wore the same outfit every morning, like a lot of us early risers, clothes we threw on to head down to the beach before work. The who-gives-a-shit-who–sees-me-at-this-hour outfit. Hers consisted of a pair of black nylon sweatpants, a navy blue sweatshirt, a tan sports fishing vest with lots of pockets, and a pair of worn down walking shoes.
I thought she might be, like my wife and me, “a member of the congregation,” or “funny” as my wife’s Kentucky relatives call anyone who is gay. But I couldn’t be sure. I knew very little about her. Only that every morning, from 7:30 to 8 a.m., she walked Dusty along the beach promenade, which was the same time I walked my two setters. I also knew she carried dog treats in all those pockets and was generous with them. As soon as my dogs spotted her they’d pull on their leashes and take off running across the grass, dragging me along with them, as if we were competing in Alaska’s Iditarod, sledding across a green frozen tundra next to the deep blue sea.
Dusty had a morning outfit too, the same as his workaday outfit, his dress up outfit, his bedtime outfit. It was that dog collar and there, printed in yellow on the collar’s blue background, were three letters meant to send a chill into every terrorist’s heart: FBI.
Maybe the dog collar was some kind of joke. Like the T-shirts you see tourists wear after they’ve visited Alcatraz, shirts with a prison number printed across the front pocket and printed on the back of the shirt: Alcatraz Psycho Ward: Outpatient. I used to make jokes about the kind of people who wore shirts like this until my cousin sent me a photograph of when she and I were in our early teens. In the photo you can just make out a prison number right above the left breast pocket of my blue shirt. I think my sister brought the shirt back as a souvenir after visiting The Rock.
I would have gone on thinking Dusty’s FBI collar was an example of his owner’s touristy brand of humor, until, one morning, I spied something printed on her navy blue sweatshirt. Standing there, making small talk about the weather, I let my eyes drift down to the small red and white script printed across the right hand corner of her sweatshirt. Where you’d usually find an alligator or a polo player, it read: George W. Bush Presidential Library.
A warning. A big red, white and blue stop sign. Why spend time getting to know someone if, early on, you realize you will have very little in common? If you can already see that, on some future occasion, let’s say getting together for a drink, the conversation is going to inevitably turn to politics, can see that argument coming down the tracks like a speeding train, then can project even further along that track, into the future, and notice a frostiness the next time you both meet, a moment of hesitation before she reaches into
her pocket for the dog treats or, worse, she doesn’t reach, your dogs now looking up at her, then at you, wondering what in the hell happened. You might just pull the emergency brake lever and stop the train of friendship right there.
But our dogs, magnanimous, open-hearted, apolitical (though we force them to sit with us and watch Rachel Maddow every evening) were willing to accept all political viewpoints, especially if those viewpoints came from someone who got monthly shipments of upscale dog treats from a website called Bark Box. They continued to run up and greet her as if nothing was amiss and she continued to offer them duck liver snacks or buffalo strips or sweet potato chews. She’d fish the treats out of her pocket as I tried to think of some gambit to get a conversation going. I’d toss out a line. There’d be a pause. Then, for what felt like an interminable amount of time, I’d stare down at the sidewalk waiting for her to pick up that line. Often the line just died right there on the pavement.
She was either the most reticent person I’d ever met or very tight-lipped or painfully shy. My wife asked why I kept making an effort to get to know her. “At the very least I know she isn’t going to proselytize about W,” I said. The truth is I liked her. And I liked how she treated the dogs.
One day I decided to risk it, to take our friendship to the next level.
“You know, we’ve never been formally introduced.”
Her smile got a little fixed. She paused, as if weighing what this meant. Then she stuck her hand out in that masculine way that suggested, if she wasn’t a member of the congregation, she was a frequent visitor.
“Annie,” she said. I told her mine and gave her hand a firm shake. Then we both stood in silence, staring down at our dogs, hoping they’d say something to save us.
Familiarity doesn’t always have to breed contempt. It can breed familiarity, like I know you and every morning you’re going to nod my way, and wear the same outfit, and fish those treats out of your pocket and this will be our morning ritual.
I came to expect her there every day so when she didn’t appear for a few weeks I began to worry. What had happened? Where had she gone? Had she moved? Worse yet, had something happened to Dusty?
A month passed. One morning, I saw her coming over the rise. The dogs and I raced over the grass to meet her. I forgot the unspoken rules and couldn’t stop myself from getting too personal. “Where in the hell have you been?” I asked, a little too urgently, too desperately. She took a step back. Then, looking furtively over one shoulder, then the other, she whispered, “Overseas.”
When she said that word, the way she said the word, I knew right then the dog collar wasn’t a joke.
I couldn’t stop thinking about what it all meant. The word overseas conjured up thoughts of covert activities, of going behind enemy lines, of wiretapped conversations. Of espionage. I thought about how she presented herself to the world and then it dawned on me. Wasn’t she the least likely person you’d suspect of being an agent? She looked like someone you’d see in a checkout line at Safeway, her grocery cart piled high frozen pizzas, a couple liters of Coke, some boxes of cereal. Someone who volunteered for
Coastal Clean Up day or had a job as a stay at home accountant, or whose idea of excitement was watching young couples nervously calculate whether they could make their first down payment on House Hunters.
“Who says overseas anymore?” my wife asked when I told her Annie’s answer. “It’s like a reference from another era. And where overseas? In Iraq? Afghanistan?”
“Where isn’t the FBI stationed these days?” I said. Apparently, even our little burb had its own local operative.
Not long after that, Annie confessed. Or fessed up. Or caved. One day, out of nowhere, she mentioned that she was retiring after 30 years in the service. Working for the FBI. I didn’t ask in what capacity.
Still, I was surprised. She seemed like such a solitary person. I couldn’t imagine her hanging out with the other agents, wherever other agents hung out, enjoying that tight camaraderie. Knocking back a few, telling sentimental tales about what they could get away with when J. Edgar ran the show.
If there ever was a members only club it’s the FBI. There’s an us and there’s a them. And the them are always under surveillance.
As the months went by I picked up little bits of information. Crumbs of clues. She was civic minded and picked up trash on the beach. “Somebody has to do it and I am somebody,” she said. She lived not far from the ocean, in a small cottage with a white picket fence. The fence had a sign that read “Dog in yard.” which I thought was stating
the obvious. Was that sign, like her outfit and demeanor, a smokescreen meant to throw us off the scent, to keep us from becoming too suspicious?
A cozy cottage with a screen door. A small porch with a rocker. A white picket fence. What did I expect? A bunker?
I began to notice when her car was parked outside of her house, when she came and went. I wrote it all down in a notebook I began to carry with me. I knew her movements, down to the hour; when she took Dusty for his early evening walk, when she went to the grocery, when she did her trash collecting. I took to driving by her house slowly so I could see—through her front window—the flicker of the big screen TV on her living room wall. Sometimes her screen door was open, sometimes closed. Was that some kind of signal?
It got me thinking. Our next-door neighbors, latter day survivalists, put a toilet out in their backyard. I don’t know why. It wasn’t connected to any pipes and I never saw anyone use it. I did notice that sometimes the lid on the toilet was up, sometimes down.
Who were our neighbors signaling to?
“There’s this man who comes by the tree across the street from my house. And he leaves chocolate bars.”
One morning she offers up this conversation gambit without any prodding. Maybe she’s starting to trust me.
I know that tree. A tall Monterey Cypress that stands right next to the Chinese takeout place, kitty corner to her cottage.
“This guy comes at the same time, every Saturday. At 3 o’clock. Takes two chocolate bars out of his jacket pocket. Always two. The large size. And then he leans them up again the base of the tree.”
“What kind of candy bars?”
“Milk chocolate with coconut. Ghirardelli’s. He must buy them in bulk.”
“What happens next?”
“He stands there a moment. Sometimes he pats the tree. Then he leaves.”
I try to picture it. A guy stooping down to place two chocolate bars at the base of a particular tree. Obviously it’s some kind of ritual. A few years back I visited a local cemetery where locals believed they saw the Virgin Mary’s face on a sawed off branch of a tree. To a nonbeliever like me it looked like a swirl of moss or lichen but the believers swore they saw what they saw. At the bottom of the tree they left all kinds of offerings: Candles. Prayer cards. Flower sprays of babies breath. And a single package of Skittles.
Skittles are one thing. High-end chocolate bars are another.
“Are they still there? The chocolate bars?” I ask.
“No. After he leaves I pick them up and take them into my house.”
“What do you do with them then? Throw them out?”
“No, I write the date and time on them with magic marker. I have a stack of them in my house right now.”
Somewhere, in her cottage, is a stack of rectangular bars ready to topple. A tasty form of evidence. If only I had the skill to analyze the handwriting in thick black script
across the top on each bar. And the skill to break into her cottage without being noticed. And the skill to make it out alive.
It’s all too strange. I need to find out more about the man, the tree, the chocolate. About Annie. I need to do some surveillance. Or, as I put it to my wife that evening, “I have to investigate. I need to surveille.”
“There is no such word,” she says.
Which sends me to the dictionary. What I find: Surveillance, Fr. 1790-1800; < French, equivalent to surveill (er) to watch over ( sur- sur-1+ veiller < Latin vigilāre to watch; see vigil ) + -ance -ance.
Which sends me to vigil. Then vigilant. Then vigilante. Follow the clues.
I park across the street, a safe distance from the tree, get out of the car, walk into the Chinese takeout and order some won ton soup. The lady behind the counter says it will take five minutes. She says I can sit at one of the tables and wait. I decline and tell her I’ll be right back.
I pretend I’m just a regular citizen on a neighborhood amble. There’s the tree. Near the bottom are stray cigarette butts and scraps of paper. No one has cared for the tree or the small meridian it stands on for some time. I look up at the tree’s canopy of windswept branches, nonchalantly take my cell phone out of my pocket, quickly snap some photos of the spot at the base of the tree where I think he leaves the chocolate bars. Then I casually look over my shoulder at her house, her front window. It’s a straight sight line from her window to the spot where I’m standing.
Right next to the tree is a signpost. A neighborhood watch sign: We will report any suspicious crime.
It is suspicious, isn’t it? That a man comes to a tree at the same time every week and leaves not one but two chocolate bars of a certain type and then just stands there? What could it mean? What kind of threat does he pose? What could he possibly be hiding in those chocolate bars and what kind of signal is he sending, to whom, standing before a tree that one day will be gone, taken out by storm or quake or buzz saw?
She is watching him. I am watching her watching him. He is watching what?
“He’s switched. From Ghirardelli to Lindt bars.” She’s reporting in.
“Why?” What could this signal?
“How would I know?
I ask what he looks like so I can make a composite sketch. In my mind I picture an older man, a sad-eyed gentleman, melancholy, a little down on his heels, on his luck. Maybe he lost his wife and he’s leaving the chocolate as a tribute to her. Maybe she loved those bars, that faint taste of coconut.
“He’s about 30, shaved head. A beard he dyes red. A gold stud earring, left ear. Hoodie and dirty jeans. You know, the grunge look. He drives an older black sedan. Has a bumper sticker for a heavy metal band. Acid Head.”
Maybe the beard is a cover. As is his bald head. Maybe he’s an agent too, sent by the members only club to spy on her post retirement. To make sure she’s keeping mum.
“Why do you think he leaves them?”
“How should I know?”
She isn’t interested. That’s not her job. Her job is to gather. Just to gather the information. Then she hands that info over to those with the know how to decode.
I tell everyone I know the story of the chocolate bars, anyone who will listen. Neighbors, coworkers, friends. The guy at the gas station. My favorite checker.
One day I drive down to the tree with a friend who says she wants to see where all this takes place. She’s hooked on trying to figure it out too. Before I can ask the question I’ve been asking everyone, why do you think he’s leaving the bars, she offers her own theory.
“I think I know why he’s leaving them,” she says. “He knows she’s watching him. He knows she’s picking them up and taking them inside. The bars are his way of fording the distance between them. Somehow he knows she needs to watch to feel worthwhile. The chocolate bars are his gift to her.”
That night I can’t sleep. I can’t stop thinking of her life, of this case.
If you do something for 30 years and though you proclaim oh when I retire I’ll take up golf, I’ll get into scrapbooking, I’ll take that road trip to Arkansas—how can you stop doing what you’ve done every weekday for all that time? My wife, who retired after being a nurse practitioner for 30 years, diagnoses on the street. “See that one?” she’ll say. “The one with the goiter?” Or “That guy with the bowling ball stomach? That’s a heart attack waiting to happen.” Or “That woman with a tremor? Start of Parkinson’s over there.”
What can replace the world of work, that full world of departmental intrigue, of
alliances made over coffee breaks, of battles with a nemesis, be that a snarky coworker or a bigger fish like Putin? What can substitute for a life of purpose whether that life was stocking shelves and stopping ISIS? Others came before you, others will follow and come after you, it will be a different crew, a different time, wages will rise and fall, but once you were part of this, this organization, this group, this cadre. You were a member. You nodded to the office manager as you entered, you entered the briefing room, you heard about the latest threat. The latest threat in a string of threats.
From what I’ve gathered Annie is a solitary, has always been one. What if you’re
a private person, not a glad hander, not someone who makes friends easily? Isn’t the work world the one place where you’ll find familiar faces, family? You’re all in it together, you have a common purpose, and that job you complain about still gets you up and out of your cottage every day and you leave behind those fake cheery people you see on House Hunters. They’re not your friends. They’ll never be your people.
Late afternoon I head down to the ocean for one last stroll. Maybe a walk will calm me, will end this circling, this ruminating. The need to solve this mystery. I leave the dogs at home. I want to take a walk without having to stop to let them sniff everything. They’re bird dogs and know how to follow a scent. They’ve got the nose for it. Why haven’t I?
At this time of day the usual suspects make their way down to the sea to watch the sunset. Along the promenade some sit on the concrete benches facing the ocean. Others hang onto the railing that separates the walkway from the rocks and waves below.
There’s a young couple in the middle of a deep clutch. A woman holding back a toddler who wants to use the railing like a jungle gym. A bald man leaning against the railing, deep in thought, staring out at the sea.
His bald head. His red beard.
It’s him. It’s got to be him. He’s dressed in a hoodie, frayed jeans. There’s the earring, a tiny glint of light. I could go up to him, right up to him, right now. I could strike up a conversation, something innocuous, like, “some sunset, huh?” I could make a comment about the weather, talk about how a recent windstorm off the sea really battered the local cypress, has he noticed? I could bring it around to trees. I could offer him the chocolate bar in my pocket. Last week I picked up a Ghirardelli bar to check out the packaging. I’ve been carrying it around with me ever since.
Maybe he’ll start to trust me. He’ll notice the Ghirardelli wrapper and say something about his Saturday routine. Then maybe I’ll have the nerve to ask him why he leaves the chocolate. I won’t mention all my theories. That he’s lost a loved one. That he’s a spy. That he knows she’s watching him. That he doesn’t have a reason, it’s a habit that developed, out of nowhere, he doesn’t know why he does it but its like doing 100 push ups. He just does it. That he believes if he leaves them someone will come and pick them up, notice they are untouched, and will feel like it’s their lucky day. Someone who needs a lucky day.
Or I can just leave him alone. I can let him be and not pry into the mystery of what causes him to do what he does, for whatever reason he does it. I can forget trying to find out why and just watch. The definition of surveillance wasn’t only “to watch” but
also “to watch over,” as in that old song, “Someone to watch over me,” as in someone who cares enough to look out for us. Someone to watch over a man who sees something only he can see when he looks at the sea or the sky. Or a tree.
I walk up and stand at the railing, a few feet away from him, not far, not close. He doesn’t seem to notice but I notice when something catches both of our attentions. Together we turn our heads and look down the beach to where a solitary figure with a black hefty bag is picking up trash along the shore.
Somebody’s got to do it and we, each of us, are somebody. We’re in it together. This is our club.
Toni Mirosevich is the author of six books of poetry and prose, including "Pink Harvest" (First Series in Creative Nonfiction Award.) New prose appeared recently in Pleiades, Hunger Mountain, Michigan Quarterly Review and elsewhere. She teaches Creative Writing at San Francisco State University.