The Feral Detective

Jonathan Lethem

November 6, 2018 
The following is from Jonathan Lethem's novel, The Feral Detective. Phoebe Siegler is searching for her friend's missing daughter, Arabella, and hires Charles Heist, a loner with a pet opossum, to help. The pair navigate the enclaves of desert-dwelling vagabonds and find Arabella caught in a standoff that only Heist can end. Jonathan Lethem is the author of ten novels, and a winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award. He teaches creative writing at Pomona College in California.

A voice behind the brass #8 called, “It’s open.” I pushed in. The usual law of glaring sunlight applied, so I was blinded in the gloom. There wasn’t a foyer or waiting area, let alone a secretary screening his appointments. I’d lurched into the so-called suite, a large, cluttered, murky space that grew darker when the voice said “Close the door” and I obeyed. In the instant I’d had to discern outlines, I made out the boat-sized desk, the figure behind it, the shapes along the walls, all inanimate. No other bodies waiting in ambush, I felt reasonably sure. I could be back through the door before he’d be around the desk. I had pepper spray and a tiny compressed-air klaxon horn in my purse. I’d never used either one, and the klaxon was maybe a joke.

“Phoebe Siegler?” The only lamp in the room sat on the desk. All I saw was jeans and boots. The lamp had for company only a landline, a heavy black office phone. No computer.

“Sorry I’m late,” I said, just to say something.

He dropped his feet from the desk and rolled forward in his chair and my eyes adjusted first to find his worn red leather jacket, cut and detailed like a cowboy shirt, with white-leather-trimmed vest pockets and cuffs. The leather was so stiff and dry, it was as if a cowboy shirt had been cast in bronze, then spray-painted. An absurd jacket, though I came to take it for granted. More than that, as an emblem. I’ve still never seen another like it.

Above, his big head came into the light. His eyes were brown under bushy, devilishly arched brows. His hair streamed back from his wide forehead, and his sideburns were wide and beardy enough to seem to stream from his cheeks too. Like his whole face had pushed through a gap in a web of hair, I thought absurdly. Where the burns stopped he needed a shave, two days’ worth at least. He resembled one of those pottery leaf-faces you find hanging on the sheds of wannabe-English gardens. His big nose and lips, his deep-cleft chin and philtrum, looked like ceramic or wood. Somehow, despite or because of all of this, I registered him as attractive, with an undertow of disgust. The disgust was perhaps at myself, for noticing.

A minor nagging mystery for me had always been what did Meryl see in Clint anyhow? I think I caught that movie on cable when I was eleven or twelve, and I’d found him only baffling and weird. So maybe that was the mystery I’d come all this way to solve. Realizing I find someone attractive is often like this for me, a catching-up of the brain to something as remote as if on some faraway planet. I guess I could cross it off my bucket list: I’d now felt a jerk on my chain for a fiftyish cowboyish fellow. Go figure.

That didn’t mean I wanted to flirt. I was terrified, and showed it. He said, “I’m Charles Heist,” and moved farther into the light, but didn’t stick out his hand. My eyes adjusted enough to tabulate the array of stuff along the walls. On the left, a narrow iron-frame bed, with heaped-up blankets, and pillows lined the long way, against the wall. I hoped he wouldn’t suggest I consider it a couch. On the right, a battered black case for an acoustic guitar, a two-drawer filing cabinet, and a long blond wood armoire, one I couldn’t keep from noting would have been a pretty swank piece of Danish modern if it wasn’t ruined. But this was my brain pinballing to irrelevancies.

He helped me out. “You said on the phone you were looking for someone.” I’d called a number the day before and been called back—from the phone on the desk, perhaps.

“My friend’s daughter, yes.”

“Sit.” He pointed at a folding chair between the file cabinet and armoire. While I took it and scissored it open for myself, he watched, seeming frankly unashamed not to show any gallantry. I preferred the desk between us for now, and maybe he felt this, so that in fact the deeper gallantry was on view.

“Realizing I find someone attractive is often like this for me, a catching-up of the brain to something as remote as if on some faraway planet. I guess I could cross it off my bucket list: I’d now felt a jerk on my chain for a fiftyish cowboyish fellow.”

“Jane Toth sent you?”

“Yes.” Jane Toth was the social worker whose name the local police had given me after they’d finished shrugging off my expectation that they’d be any help in my search for Arabella Swados, whose trail had led to Upland. Eighteen-year-old Reed College dropouts three months missing didn’t meet their standard for expanding their caseload. So I’d gone to find Ms. Toth, a local specialist in destitutes and runaways. After subjecting me to a sequence of expectation-lowering gestures herself, she’d jotted Heist’s name and number on the back of her card and mentioned his weird nickname. She’d also warned me that his methods were a little unorthodox, but he sometimes produced miraculous results for families with trails grown cold, like Arabella’s.

“You bring some materials?”

“Sorry.” I would try to stop saying that. I dug in my purse for Arabella’s passport, with a photo taken just a year before, when she was seventeen. “I guess this means we don’t have to look in Mexico.”

“We’re not that near to Mexico here, Ms. Siegler. But if you wanted, there are places you could cross the line with a driver’s license.”

“I don’t think she has one.”

“Is she using credit cards?”

“She had one of her mom’s, but she’s not using it. We tried that.”

“Or you wouldn’t be here.”

The passport I’d slid onto his desk was clean and tight, and the tension in the binding snapped it shut, not that he noticed. Heist—I should call him Charles, only he wasn’t that to me, not yet—didn’t look at the passport. He stared at me. I’ve endured my share of male strip-you-bare eyework, but this was more existentially blunt, souls meeting in a sunstruck clearing. For an instant he seemed as shook that I’d entered his office as I was.

“I guess you don’t work along those lines so much, tracing documents and so on.” Duh. I was blithering.

“Not at all.”

“In high school she worked on an organic farm in Vermont.” Saying this, I found myself flashing on the mountains, the blasted expanses I’d just ducked in from. The blue. Arabella and I, we were an awfully long way from Vermont’s village green rendition of the rural now. “She got onto a kind of off-the-grid idea there, I think. You know, from similarly privileged kids who didn’t know any better than she did.”

“Off-the-grid isn’t always a terrible idea.” He said this without venting any disapproval my way, as much as I’d invited it.

“No, sure, I didn’t mean that. So, that is the kind of thing you do?”

“Yes.” Now the blue light of his stare was the same as that sky: killing me. Perhaps in mercy, he broke the tension, opened a desk drawer at his right. Of course a gun could come out. Or maybe this was the part of the script where he produced a bottle and two shot glasses. Perhaps I closely resembled the woman who had broken his heart. I leaned a little forward. The drawer was deep, and scraped free of the desk heavily. He scooped his hand down low and brought out a furry gray-striped football with a cone-like white snout and soft pink claws like the hands of a child’s doll. I surprised myself knowing its right name without even trying—an opossum.

The creature’s legs and thick bare tail dangled on either side of Heist’s arm, but it wasn’t dead. Its black eyes glistened. I sat back a little. The room had a warm woody smell, like under-brush, and now I credited it to the animal I hadn’t known was hiding in the drawer. Heist stroked the creature with one blunt finger, from between its catlike ears, down its spine, seeming to hypnotize it. Or maybe it was me that was hypnotized.

“Does it work like a bloodhound?” I joked. “I forgot to bring a scrap of clothing.”

“Her name is Jean.” He spoke evenly, still unaffronted by my flip tone. “She’s recovering from a urinary tract infection, if it doesn’t kill her.”

“Just a pet, then.”

“Some people thought so, but they were misinformed. I took her off their hands.”

“Ah. So now she lives in your desk?” “For the time being.”

“Then what—you release her to the wild?”

“If she lives. She probably won’t.”

It all sounded a little righteous to me, but I didn’t have the zoological grounds to quibble. Still, I couldn’t keep from the impression that Heist cuddled the animal not for its own sake, and not even to impress me, but to salve his own desolation. Maybe just hearing about lost girls was too much for this person. I’d begun kicking myself for imagining he could locate one.

“He scooped his hand down low and brought out a furry gray-striped football with a cone-like white snout and soft pink claws like the hands of a child’s doll. I surprised myself knowing its right name without even trying—an opossum.”

“What do you need to go forward?” I asked. “I mean, concerning Arabella.”

“I’ll ask around.” He stroked the opossum, who blinked at me.

“Should I pay you?”

“Let’s see what I find, then we’ll talk. Are there other names?”

“Other names?”

“Other names she might go under. Or names she’s thrown around, part of this time in her life. Friends, boyfriends, enemies.”

“I think she quit throwing names around. Quit calling home entirely. But I’ll check with her mom.”

“Anything is better than nothing.”

“There is one name, though I hesitate.”

He and Jean waited, all eyes on me.

“Leonard Cohen.”

“Go on.”

“She was a bit of a freak about him, I think that might be worth mentioning. Even before he died, I mean. It could be that’s the point of this, ah, general destination.” Not to add that I couldn’t think of one other fucking reason in the universe a thinking, feeling teenage vegan would migrate to this locale, but I didn’t want to insult the precinct Charles Heist and his little friend called home.

“You think she went up the mountain.”

“I couldn’t dismiss the coincidence.” Here was exactly as far as my sleuthing had gotten: Mount Baldy, one of those mountains Upland lay at the foot of, was home to Leonard Cohen’s Buddhist guru, had been for a decade or so his place of retreat. I couldn’t pick it out of the lineup of white-topped peaks, but for that I had the rental’s GPS, or maybe now this guy.

The prospect seemed to trouble him, and he waited a long time before producing his totally unsatisfying reply. “Okay. I’ll put it on my list.”

I wished he’d actually exhibit a list, even if it were scrawled on a Post-it, but it was at least good to hear him invoke the word. Action items, procedures, protocols, anything but this human freak show in a red leather jacket soothing or being soothed by his comfort opossum.

Well, wasn’t I the judgmental Acela-corridor elite? The bubble I’d fled, coming west, I actually carted around on my back like a snail’s shell, a bubble fit for one. As my fear abated, in its place a kind of rage coursed through me, that I’d come to this absurd passage, that I’d placed Arabella in hands such as these. Or that Arabella had placed me in them; it could be seen either way. Seeming to read me again, Heist lifted his free hand from Jean’s ears long enough to palm the passport into an interior pocket of the jacket. Too late for me to take it back. I was an idiot for not making a photocopy and for letting him near the original.

“Where can I find you?” he asked.

“I’m staying at the Doubletree, just down Foothill—”

“Under your own name?”

“Yes, but what I was going to say is could I come with you?

Maybe I’d be able to help describe her—”

I’d stopped at a sound of clunking and rustling, directly behind me. I almost shit my pants. Another rescue animal? The front panel of the armoire slid open, and two filthy bare feet protruded sideways into the room, their ankles covered in gray leggings. The feet twisted to find the floor, and the rest of the person attached came writhing out, to crouch like the animal I’d mistaken her for.

“I couldn’t think of one other fucking reason in the universe a thinking, feeling teenage vegan would migrate to this locale, but I didn’t want to insult the precinct Charles Heist and his little friend called home.”

A girl, maybe thirteen or fourteen, I guessed. Her black hair was lank to her shoulders and looked as though it had been cut with the nail clippers no one had taught her to use on her raw-bitten fingers. She wrapped her elbows around her knees and watched me sidelong, not turning her almond-shaped head completely in my direction. She wore a tubelike black sundress over the leggings. Her bare arms were deeply tanned, and lightly furred with sun-bleached hair contrasting with the black sprigs at both armpits.

“It’s okay,” said Heist. He talked past me, to the girl. “She isn’t looking for you.”

She sat that way, quivering slightly, pursing one corner of her mouth.

“She thought you might be an emissary of the courts,” he explained. It was nice he felt compelled to account to me at all, I suppose. I’d half risen from my chair. I sat again.

“Go ahead,” said Heist.

The girl scurried up and into the mound of blankets on the low bed. She took the same position beneath them, huddled around her knees, her eyes poking from the top as if from an anthill.

Was it a message to me, that I should remember some lost don’t wish to be found?

Heist lowered Jean gently back into her drawer and slid it shut. “This is Phoebe,” he said to the girl. “She’s looking for someone else, someone who ran away. We’re going to help her.” We? I might cry now. Did the girl ride on Jean when they searched together? No, she’d need a bigger animal, a wolf or goat. Or maybe the detective carried her under his free arm, the one that wasn’t holding the opossum.

“I’ll find you at the Doubletree,” he said to me now. It wasn’t curt or rude, but I was being dismissed. I felt as though a trap door had opened under the chair.

“You sure I can’t go along?” I heard myself nearly pleading. “I’d like to get the lay of the land, actually. I’m only here for one reason.”

“Maybe after I make a few inquiries.”

“Great,” I said, then added lamely, “I’ll work things from my end in the meantime.” The words we exchanged seemed credible enough, if they’d been spoken in a credible atmosphere. Here, they seemed a tinny rehearsal, something having no bearing on what was actually being enacted in this room, a thing I couldn’t have named and in which I was an unwilling player.

Could I ask him for the passport back? I didn’t. The girl watched me as I went for the door, opened it to the blinding glare. For the first time, I noticed the water dish and food bowl in the corner—Jean’s meal station. Or maybe the furry girl’s. It occurred to me that Heist had introduced the opossum by name, but not the girl. I felt demented with despair, having come here. My radical gesture, to quit my privileged cage and go intrepid. Take the role of rescuer. Yet it was as though I’d been willingly reduced, exposed as nothing more than that opossum, or the girl in the blanket. My mission had defaulted to another surrender to male authority, the same wheezy script that ran the whole world I’d fled. All the lost girls, waiting for their detectives. Me, I’d be waiting at the Doubletree, to contemplate all the comforts I’d forsaken. And yet I felt also the utter inadequacy of the authority to whom I’d defaulted, he with not even a gun or a bottle of Scotch or a broken heart in his drawer, only a marsupial with a urinary tract infection. I was confused, to say the least. I got out of there.


From The Feral Detective. Used with permission of Ecco Books. Copyright © 2018 by Jonathan Lethem.

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