Mitigating Circumstances

 
 

By Danielle Rado

 

The detectives called and left a message that said they were investigating an abduction. An alleged abduction. There were certain facts, they said, that were in dispute. They did not explain the nature of this dispute—whether it was between two people, or two people and the known facts, or the known facts and the possible facts—only that there was one. This suggested to her that there were facts that were not in dispute, facts that were known, or facts that at some point could become known. Furthermore, the detectives added, they understood, though they did not say from where they had gotten this understanding, that there had been some—ahem, they cleared their throats, as gentlemen do when faced with these facts—mitigating circumstances between her and Ms. K—.

This was a fact she could not dispute. She and Ms. K— had had some mitigating circumstances. In fact, they had mitigated each other for nearly three years. They had often mitigated each other in the evenings, and sometimes in the early afternoons. Occasionally they mitigated each other in the mornings, before the groundswell of domesticity reared its head against them. Sometimes they mitigated each other to the disturbance of the neighbors, and sometimes to the disturbance of themselves. Until, finally, Ms. K— had mitigated her out the door.

She had assumed that the past few months had been enough to mitigate her presence in Ms. K—’s life, as new experience upon new experience should have diluted her substance in Ms. K—’s pool of memory. But now here she was, present again, or at least reconstituted as a vague figure on the periphery of Ms. K—’s world.

She dialed the number the detectives had left at the end of their message and, when no one answered, left a message on their answering machine in turn. She said that she was willing to cooperate, though she was unsure what cooperation meant in these circumstances. She was sure they wanted something from her. She was not sure if she could provide that something. She was sure something had happened to Ms. K—. She was not sure if she was suspect or not. She was sure that if she was not, then there must be someone else out there, another shadow figure now lurking in the periphery of her life. In the message, she spoke as if everything she said were fact. 

  

At home, after work, she made coffee and mitigated the pot while she waited for the detectives to return her call. She took out a notepad and mapped out different possibilities. An abduction was clear-cut—someone is taken by someone else to somewhere else. Someone else does something to that someone in that somewhere else. When it’s over, the memories of that someone and that someone else are diluted by time.

But in an alleged abduction, there are many possibilities. Someone is taken or is not. Someone else is there or is not. Someone else is one or is many. Somewhere else does or does not exist. Someone returns or does not. All variables combine to create thousands of scenarios. Here are some of the ones she wrote down:

 

Scenario 1: Ms. K— is taken by someone she doesn’t know to some place she doesn’t know. Things are done to her while she is there.

Scenario 2: Ms. K— is taken by someone she knows. She opens her door, invites someone in, brews coffee that will be left to mold in the pot.

Scenario 3: Ms. K— is not taken at all, but merely leaves of her own accord and chooses not to inform anyone of this decision. Currently, Ms. K— is on the road halfway across the country, or on a plane to begin her backpacking tour of Europe, or just over in the next town in a lovely two-story home going by Mrs. L— or perhaps Mrs. M— by now.

Scenario 4: Ms. K— is not taken, nor does she leave of her own accord, but, being the poor driver that she is, careens off the edge of the road into a ditch that is conveniently located just below the casual eye level of passing motorists. Her body mitigates its flesh as it waits for discovery. The blue car rusts.

Scenario 5: The detectives take Ms. K—. They knock on her door and when she answers, they allegedly abduct her. They leave her somewhere and wait several months. In the meantime, they go about their normal routine, clocking in and out of work, investigating other crimes, following leads to their dead ends, until they have sufficiently forgotten where they have left her. Then they create a file and begin to investigate. They go to Ms. K—’s place and, after sifting through the mountain of magazines and envelopes underneath the mail slot, they pull an electric bill that contains an overdue notice and her name alongside Ms. K—’s on the account. Therefore, in the ensuing investigation, she is the first lead they call. On the phone with the detective, the only question she asks is whether or not she’s responsible for paying that bill.

Scenario 6: She has taken Ms. K—.

Scenario 7: The detectives’ phone line is merely an assemblage of recorded voices running through thousands of scenarios in an endless loop.

Scenario 8: Ms. K— is not now nor has she ever been anywhere at all.

 

The following evening, after still having not heard back from the detectives despite her several messages, she went to Ms. K—’s rented row house to see for herself if anyone was home. Though she recognized the porch, the shutters, the hum of the porch light in its filthy fixture, the place seemed unfamiliar. No lights were on inside.

As she stood on the porch a car pulled up on the opposite side of the street and cut its lights but not its engine. Inside the car was the silhouette of a round head and large frame. Or a narrow head and slight frame. It either turned and looked at her, or continued to stare straight ahead. She stood directly under the porch’s light, her own shadow a slight pool beneath her as if her insides and not the car’s were leaking oil.

 

She stood on the porch under the light, unable to move even when the car door opened and a leg extended its heavy foot and placed it on the ground. Then the other leg and other foot, just as heavy as the last. The head and soon the entire body hoisted itself from the innards of the car.

The car door closed, killing the interior light, and the figure was a shadow once more. She stood still lit under the porch light. They assessed each other as if they were each sides of a severed moon, which, after the explosion, were sent hurtling around the earth in either direction to meet again, halfway through their orbits, to hover in the confusion of spectral memory as they faced the convex side of the self they had never seen before. If a moon was out that night, it was canceled by the glow of the buildings and trees created by the street lamps surrounding the scene around them.

 

The detectives called the next day while she was at work and left another message. They reminded her that they needed to talk with her, that they still understood that she could help them. They were certain that she had some information that would clarify the alleged circumstances; that she would cooperate and call them back.

When she returned home that evening, she called them again and left another message. She could help them, she said. She had information, valuable information. What she had was a list of facts that were not in dispute. While waiting for their call, she made coffee and reviewed her list.

 

Fact 1: The electricity at Ms. K—’s has not been shut off.

Fact 2: Ms. K— is or is not abducted.

Fact 3: Something always allegedly happens.

Fact 4: Answering machines only record the particular circumstances of the moment and not the larger context.

Fact 5: The detectives are concerned with Facts 2 and 3.

Fact 6: Only one investigatory path can be followed at a time.

Fact 7: At a certain point, a body’s deterioration, like a car’s, like a house’s, like a relationship’s, is irreparable.

Fact 8: There are always mitigating circumstances.

 

After leaving her message, she went to Ms. K—’s house to note the security of the locks. The fact that they had been changed since she moved out made them more secure. She removed her key to the old lock from her chain and placed it under the mat. She looked around as she did this to see if someone was watching her put it in its old hiding place.

 

She returned to Ms. K—’s house to check things out. When she found that her old key no longer worked in the lock, she grabbed a fist-size rock from beside the porch and punched it through the front window. She undid the latch, raised the window, and climbed in.

She felt her way to the front of the room and flicked the switch by the door. The lights did not turn on. Her memory arranged the dark shapes of the furniture in the places she had last seen them. Until she left the safety of the wall to stumble through the house, there was no way to know if the furniture was still in those spots or if Ms. K— had rearranged since she left.

The only thing she discovered was that Ms. K— had not moved any of the furniture. She climbed back through the window.

 

A small yowl alerted her that the cat had circled round from the back of the house to the porch. It rubbed itself against her, smearing oil and dirt from its fur onto her trouser leg. Its purr had the warble of a feral cat, though this one had been theirs its whole life. She bent down and scratched behind its ears. 

 

The cat, returned to its feral state by the missing of Ms. K—, leapt onto the porch as she approached. Its fur stood in a straight line down its back. His eyes were black moons against the dirty light overhead as he stalked around her. She bent to pet him but was rebuked by his hiss.

Instead of crawling out the window, she moved through the dark to the backdoor and exited, hoping she remained unseen. In the alley she stumbled across a woman prone on the ground. Without any light, she could not tell the circumstances of this woman. She prodded her with her toe.

Woman 1: rises to her feet and shouts what the hell does she think she’s doing. She steps back, her hands up trying to signal she meant no offense, and trips over a broken wooden chair. The back of her head hits the pavement.

Woman 2: does not respond. She prods again, this time harder, just to make sure.

Woman 3: is a trash bag that has fallen out of the bin.

Woman 4: is Ms. K—, even though during their relationship Ms. K— never once took out the trash.

Woman 5: is actually a crouching detective, taking notes on the circumstances of Ms. K—’s suspended daily life. He says to her, brandishing the notepad in which he has written down everything regarding the cat, that the other detectives will be very interested in this.

Woman 6: rises up on his heavy feet, a shadow still over his face. The detectives now have two alleged abductions to investigate.

Woman 7: they passionately embrace.

Woman 8: Nice girls don’t frequent alleys.

 

Later she returned and poured a bag of cat food onto the porch. The light in the neighbor’s front room came on. She dropped the bag and ran into the nearby alley.

When her breathing calmed, she walked home. The row of streetlights suspended her and the floating debris she could not help but disturb in intervals of shadow moments. 

 

The detectives called again and left a message. Without introduction, they read a list of names and asked if she recognized any of them. They read the names slowly, smoothing out the mispronounced syllables with straight edged tongues as if names were just verbal cement from which to construct the world. The list was in alphabetical order by first name. One of the names was hers. Other names she recognized and still others she did not. All of the names seemed suspect. 

 

 

The next day there was a shoeprint in the cat food. Nearby, the cat crouched in an island of cleared space, thrusting its chin out repeatedly as it worked the food down its throat. She knelt by the print and let the hard pieces of cat food press into her knees and palms as she leaned in for closer inspection. There was a hint of vertical tread lines in the crushed food.

She looked around to see if anyone was watching. The suspicious car was still parked across the street, and the neighbor’s light was still on. Or the car had returned and parked there again and the neighbor had turned on the light once more because he had or had not heard a disturbance on the porch next door. Neither the driver nor the neighbor could be seen.

She scooped up some cat food from the edge of the pile. The cat did not look up at her, but continued to clear its perimeter amongst the pieces of food.

The cat cleared a perimeter so wide it eventually encompassed her as well. She and the cat sat in this island of razed space and dreamt of rescue as the change of seasons became the only discernable marker of time. As the leaves melded colors with the row houses’ muted façades, she wondered if the detectives had started an investigation for her alleged abduction. First, she wondered if this is where Ms. K— has been all this time, isolated on a parallel island with a parallel cat. 

 

A police car pulled up. The lights were flashing but the siren was not on. It parked at an angle so that it blocked traffic in both directions. Not that there was traffic on this street at this time of night. That must be why, she thought, someone had placed a call about suspicious behavior. The police officer emerged and stood with one arm on the hood of his car and the other draped over the open door. His face was muted as the red light spun behind him. She wondered if he could clearly see the circumstances of the porch.

 

She filled her pocket with pieces of cat food and walked home.

She listened to the detectives’ message again. She reviewed the possible relations the names could represent.

Name 1: is a boss.

Name 2: is a former lover.

Name 3: is an alleged.

Name 4: leads to arguments.

Name 5: is Mrs. L— or Mrs. M—.

Name 6: is mitigated by Ms. K—.

Name 7: is mitigated by Ms. K—.

Name 8: is mitigated by Ms. K—.

Name 9: is mitigated by the circumstances.

 

She scattered the cat food on her kitchen floor. She stepped with her right foot, crushing the food between her shoe and the linoleum. She lifted her other leg so all her weight rested on this one foot. She carefully stepped off. She knelt and examined the print.

She went to the closet and retrieved another pair of shoes. Actually, only the right shoe. She put it on. She stepped next to the first print and shifted her weight in the same manner. She examined the print. She made a pot of coffee. She wanted to make more prints but had run out of cat food.

The next day the food was cleared from the porch and the cat was gone. In light of those circumstances, she decided not to sweep her own kitchen floor until she spoke with the detectives. When the detectives called, she told them she had valuable information.

 

She was at work again when the detectives called, so they left a message. Their tone was beginning to sound irritated. They felt she was avoiding them. They still needed to talk to her. And what was this valuable information she had. She could assume that they hadn’t thought that maybe Ms. K— was just avoiding them. After all, she would tell them when they finally spoke, it’s not unheard of that Ms. K— would avoid people.

 

Avoidance 1: Ms. K— comes home late from work without calling. After Ms. K— is gone, there is no one for her not to receive phone calls from.

Avoidance 2: Ms. K— becomes abducted.

Avoidance 3: Ms. K— is not missing at all, but merely has begun to do everything completely differently than before—traveling a different way to a different grocery store, making appointments with a different doctors, taking a new route to a new job, for example—and therefore has gone unnoticed by all the people who used to notice her.

Avoidance 4: Ms. K— no longer leaves her home.

Avoidance 5: She discovers that she is not the one being avoided, but on the contrary, has been the one used to avoid something else. That is, Ms. K— had used her in order to avoid someone else somewhere else. Now that Ms. K— is ready to face the person she had been avoiding, Ms. K— has returned home, not to the home she and Ms. K— shared, but to the home Ms. K— shared with that someone else and she in turn has become the aberration. Such is the strength of Ms. K—’s convictions that she is not only an aberration in Ms. K—’s life, but in her own as well. And so there are not even alleged circumstances for the detectives to investigate.

Avoidance 6: Do we really need to talk about this here?

Avoidance 7: She does not answer the phone when it rings.

Avoidance 8: Lists.

 

When they called, the detectives said they had more valuable information.

With her coffee in one hand and her phone in the other, she listened to the voicemail and thought about the nature of knowing, the understanding of articulated words and expressions. She thought about how this understanding is given to others; that it’s not really given, just taken, thrown into the full light of the world to be poked and prodded, cracked, opened, examined, mitigated, gotten. But something always remains underneath, silent and shadowed, that wells up only in its own disarticulation.

 

Disarticulation 1: A limb is separated from the body at a joint.

Disarticulation 2: Ms. K—’s body is traced, part by part.

Disarticulation 3: By her with her hands.

Disarticulation 4: By detectives with chalk.

Disarticulation 5: By someone with something.

Disarticulation 6: By a series of words and not words mitigated by time and diluted by memory.

Disarticulation 7: She walks down a street lined by alleyways. Whichever path she chooses precludes the choice of all others.

Disarticulation 8: They say psychopaths typically begin by practicing on animals. Either way, she does not see the cat again.

Disarticulation 9: She ties a string to her ankle and the other end to the coffee pot. She walks to Ms. K—’s house. From there it’s an endless extension of twine back home.

 

Her messages have not been returned, so she goes to find the detectives. She opens the door to the labyrinthine station. The man sitting behind the front desk does not look up at her. There are things, she understands, that need to be said. His face is shadowed by the brightness given off by the walls and floor and even the desk. He waves his hand tiredly behind him, indicating the direction she can or must head.

She walks past him. Immediately the hallway splits and she must choose. Both directions look exactly the same, both contain the same swallowing light. She chooses one and walks down it. She turns one last time to assess the other. It does not promise anything different than the one she is in. It does not give off a smell or warmth that appeal to her senses any more than the one she’s in.

Other divergences come. She follows them without plan or method.

 

Hallway 1: leads to an interrogation room where they are waiting for her. They sit her down, handcuff her to the table and, looming over her, proceed to question her. There are some things they wish to understand, they say, things that need to be gotten to the bottom of.

Hallway 2: leads to the evidence room. She deposits the broken bits of cat food on a shelf and marks it with a tag that reads Ms. K— and the date.

Hallway 3: leads to Hallway 4.

Hallway 5: leads to a dark room. A light flips on in the other half. She sees her pale reflection in the glass then through the other side, where a line of figures stand, staring at their reflection in the mirror side. There’s Ms. K—, Mrs. L—, Mrs. M—, and others. She is asked to identify which one is hers. It depends, she says.

Hallway 6: leads to a dark room. A light flips on on the other side. She sees her reflection in the glass and knows there are others on the other side that are watching her fully illuminated fully illuminated. A voice asks her to step forward and say this line. We are all (ahem) mitigated by the circumstances.

Hallway 7: leads to an alleged abductor sitting behind a heavy oak desk. She says she has come about Ms. K—. Who?, the alleged abductor asks.

Hallway 8: leads to the center office. Everyone is here. I’ve come about Ms. K—, she says. They understand. They say, Wait here. They begin to clear the room of everything—the table and chairs, the filing cabinet, the bookshelf and its books, themselves—except for her and the light. When they close the door, the doorway vanishes as well. The bare bulb overhead swings slightly. She stands in the center, morphing shapes leaking beneath her.

 

Every time you remember something, the circumstances further embed in your brain, and the facts further dilute. To recall is to dilute, but we’re only aware this has happened when we can test it against irrefutable evidence.

She reaches down and unties the string around her ankle. She holds the end in her fist and wraps it around her palm. Instead of following the string back out, she pulls it toward her as she winds it again and again around her hand until it resembles a skein, from which the other end dangles untethered.

 

Danielle Rado has had works published in Harpur Palate, the Mochila Review, Floodwall, Bloom, Clackamas Review, and Unstuck, among others.

She currently teaches comp. and literature at Johnson & Wales University in Denver.