When the sheriff’s office called to say We found your father, he’ll be okay, Chris wasn’t all that surprised. There’d been other calls from law enforcement over the years, and each time, Jerry Jamison had landed on his feet. The surprise this time was where they’d found his father: in the county landfill, trapped inside a refrigerator.
Chris parked the car and climbed out, clobbered first by the stink of dusty decay. He crossed a littered wasteland: old tires, black trash bags spilling food wrappers, and a cluster of home appliances, some with their mechanical guts exposed. On bare earth, lying on its back, was an old-style fridge with a heavy pump-handle latch. The door was open to the sky. A deputy steadied a measuring tape along its edge.
Nearby, Chris’s father lay on an ambulance gurney, tie loose, white Oxford shirt as wrinkled as when he’d scrambled from their apartment that morning sloshing coffee from a porcelain mug. He’d been late as usual to the first meeting of the day, this time with the appliance workers union.
A man wearing blue jeans and a Ducks Unlimited windbreaker hovered over the gurney, notepad in hand. Chris recognized him from local TV. He was the county sheriff. In his campaign ads he’d looked ridiculous in bulky SWAT gear, but it was enough tough-guy crap for the voters of Preston, Pennsylvania to reelect him.
Chris’s father would occasionally recite a homespun one-liner about how to deal with cops: Power is neither smart nor stupid, but it’s never smart to make power feel stupid. So Chris decided to play the part of the wide-eyed and well-meaning youth, respectful of his superiors. Even if he didn’t feel it.
The sheriff glanced up. “You’re related to Mr. Jamison?” His tone was strictly business.
“Yes Sir. I’m his son. Will he be all right?”
“Is there a Mrs. Jamison?” The sheriff’s pen danced on the notepad.
“She’s deceased.” Chris hated the word, used most by authorities and bureaucrats, but it worked well to discourage follow-up questions. Awkward, painful questions.
“Someone drugged your father,” the sheriff said. “The ambulance crew gave him a reversal agent, but he’s still a little out of it, so you can answer my questions until he becomes capable.” Chris wanted to say He’s never been capable, but the gun-toting buzzkill with the ballpoint was in no joking mood.
An EMT walked up. She held Jerry’s wallet, flipped open to display the driver’s license. The sheriff took it and walked off with the EMT to exchange a few words out of earshot.
Chris sat on the edge of the gurney. He imagined being trapped in a lightless, airless box. His stomach tightened. How amazing that you could feel claustrophobic inside your own imagination. Unconsciously, his eyes flicked skyward, seeking the reassurance of open space. Then he looked down at his father. “What was it like in that thing?”
Jerry blinked hard three times, as if clearing mist from his corneas. “No day at the beach,” he replied, glancing sideways at nothing in particular, a gesture Chris had seen a thousand times. His father was holding back. If the near-death experience had taught any profound life lessons, Jerry Jamison was not about to testify.
“What really happened today,” Chris whispered, “or should I wait ‘til the cops leave before asking?”
The sheriff returned with an aluminum stool from the ambulance. He snapped it open and sat down on the other side of the gurney. A pistol peeked from under his jacket. His blue jeans were creased. Who the hell ironed Levis? Probably his little woman. The man glanced down at his notepad. “How old are you?” he asked Chris.
“Your dad’s full name and birthdate.” A command, not a request.
Wait. The guy had just checked Jerry’s license. Some weird test? Maybe just procedure. Cops stuck to procedure as instinctively as scratching an itch. “Gerald William Jamison. June 1, 1943.”
Jerry brought his hands to his cheeks. “Where am I?” His eyeballs seemed untethered.
“Take a whiff, Mr. Jamison,” the sheriff said, “We’re in the town’s armpit, and once I get some answers we can all leave.”
“I don’t know.” Jerry’s voice was weak. “I’m on this bed… and I used to be in that fridge over there.”
“That fridge,” the sheriff mocked. “It’s not just any old fridge. It’s an ArctiCool, probably made by the fathers of the workers you represent.”
You represent. The sheriff had spoken these last two words with a sliver of sarcasm. An accusation? Chris coughed and raised an eyebrow. “Why is that important… Sir?”
“Do you know what your dad does for a living?”
Jerk. Yes, Chris knew what his father did for a living, perhaps too well. To sidestep all the uncomfortable subjects, Chris and his dad often talked about Jerry’s job, the tit-for-tat tactics, the mind games, the bluffs and the lies — little lies and big lies. Sometimes Jerry spoke of deception the way a woodworker might speak of his chisel collection, with professional pride.
And they talked about the routine danger of striding into the line of fire between two warring armies, the union and the company.
“He’s a freelance labor negotiator,” Chris said, “representing the appliance workers.”
The sheriff grinned as if nothing could ever surprise him. “Well, that might explain why someone tried to suffocate him… or scare him.”
“You tell me. Negotiations go great for the company, lousy for the union, and all of a sudden, your father — lead negotiator for the workers — gets kidnapped and iced in one of the company’s products.”
Chris straightened his back. “So the union loses one round. That happens. Doesn’t make it okay to try to kill somebody.”
Jerry groaned and brought his hands to his temples.
The sheriff turned to the patient. “That’s a side effect of the sedative. Ketamine. Nasty stuff. Even hallucinogenic. Kids trip on it.”
This wasn’t making sense. How could the cops know what drug the kidnappers used?
The sheriff went on. “They knocked him out with an inhalant, probably a solvent, and then stuck him with a needle.”
“I beg your pardon, Sir, but-”
“How do we know all this?” The sheriff’s condescension grated. “Because they called us. We spoke to them.”
Then go arrest them instead of wasting time! “Um, excuse me for saying, but wouldn’t it make sense to try to find these people?”
The sheriff hardened his stare. “First, the callers weren’t too eager to give us their names and addresses. Second, I’ll ask the questions.” He turned to Jerry, who had his eyes squeezed shut. “What’s the last thing you remember?”
Jerry blinked and seemed to concentrate. “I was meeting with… the union reps. Holiday Inn conference center. We ran out of options so we called it quits for the morning. I walked to my car out back of the hotel. No, wait… it was out front.”
“He’s doped up,” Chris said. “He can’t answer questions when he’s like that.”
“’83 Honda?” the sheriff asked.
They already knew what car Jerry drove. Why ask? Chris caught a whiff of rotting meat and exhaled through his nostrils. “That’s right. Why?”
“Just double checking.”
Acting the part of the compliant teen was becoming difficult. In a union town, everyone took a side, even the cops. “Is he being charged with something?” Maybe this was the moment to clam up and call a lawyer, like that time in Cleveland.
The sheriff returned to his notepad. “Not right now.”
Chris felt the heat rising in his cheeks. Angry, sarcastic words rose too, testing his self-control, threatening to burst forth. Oh, now I get it, Sheriff. Dad locked himself in. A suicide! He was distraught about letting down his blue-collar brothers and figured he’d end it all because they couldn’t score another three minutes for worker lunch breaks!
But instead he said, “These people tried to kill him.”
The sheriff shook his head. “I doubt it. They called 9-1-1 right after they latched the door. They knew we’d respond because the landfill is on county property. They also knew the worst-case drive time and how many minutes before he’d suffocate. They didn’t want him dead. They wanted him warned.”
“My dad’s a victim here,” Chris said, frowning, but beginning to doubt what he’d just said.
“Listen.” The sheriff’s face was taut. “Maybe you already know the answer to the big question.”
Chris didn’t feel like giving the satisfaction of a response.
“What did your father do to get somebody that pissed off?”
Minutes passed, maybe ten, maybe sixty. Jerry couldn’t tell. Time was all fucked up. Something bucked and swayed under his body. A vehicle in motion?
He opened his eyes to a spotless white ceiling, translucent IV bag, wall-mounted medical equipment. An ambulance. His head pulsed, each heartbeat like a whack to the temple. He glanced to the side. Chris watched him intently, lips pressed tight. He was expecting an explanation. Or waiting for the right moment to tell me I’m a screw-up. Well, guess what, son, I already know that.
Chris spoke over rumbling engine noise. “They’re taking you to the hospital for observation.”
“Doctors worry about getting sued. They won’t keep you long. But then what? What are we going to do?”
“We’re done here. Job’s over.” Jerry kneaded his temples and winced. “The cops will file their report and forget about it.”
Chris looked puzzled. “You don’t want to know who did this to you?”
Jerry already knew who did it. “Not particularly.” No point facing any of them again. “Besides, I’ve got something in the works, a new gig.”
Chris dropped his gaze to the vinyl floor. “How far away?”
Jerry’s chest ached at seeing his son so dejected, as if anticipating a blow to the back of the head. Chris had always hated the moves. Jerry sighed. “I’ll tell you once I know for sure.”
Chris stuck out his chin. “Then tell me now what happened this morning.”
Hadn’t they been through enough for one day? Okay, just the facts. Chris wouldn’t argue about facts. “We were in the conference room at the hotel, waiting. The company owed us their response.”
Chris already knew that labor negotiations had dragged on for weeks. Both sides were pissed off and spent. On one side was Jerry’s current boss, the Boiler, Furnace, and Allied Appliance Workers Union. On the other side was TransArc, the parent company of ArctiCool Appliances.
Days earlier, the union chiefs had finally agreed to Jerry’s proposal, a Hail Mary pass. Union leadership agreed to cut their stewards and officers by thirty percent if the company promised to leave hourly wages unchanged. The rank and file, the union’s foot soldiers, had given their blessing.
“Around noon,” Jerry said, “some fast-talking suit from the company breezes in all tightlipped and tight-assed and thrusts out a sheet of paper. The first paragraph was nothing but corn syrup, crap like our rich shared history of successful collaboration and heartfelt wishes for future synergies. Then they dropped the bomb: the deal was dead. Two of the plant’s five freezer models will shift to a Mexican sweatshop, workforce reduction begins ASAP, and the company won’t entertain a counteroffer.”
Chris shook his head. “They should’ve just said go to hell. Would’ve saved a lot of typing.”
“There was nothing left to do so we all headed off. They jumped me in the parking lot.”
“Who jumped you?”
“I never saw them.” He vaguely remembered muscular arms across his chest and his feet leaving the ground. Then a needle burned in his upper arm and stillness, even peace, like being cocooned in grandma’s quilt.
The next thing he remembered was waking, breaking the surface between sleep and consciousness a few times, like swimming up for air and then sinking. He thought he’d been dreaming of being buried alive. But then he realized it wasn’t a dream after all. He was underground.
But he hadn’t panicked. Maybe he would’ve, if not for the drugs. Maybe his kidnappers did him a favor by pickling his brain with joy juice. No, he hadn’t clawed the walls until his fingers bled, like in the movies. Instead, he reached out his hands, loosely connected to arms that barely attached to shoulders, and brushed his fingertips across the cool metallic ceiling of his coffin. His limbs seemed mechanical and right-angled, like a praying mantis or a Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em robot. “I’ll knock your block off,” he whispered in the dark and smiled as he remembered the old TV commercial. He ordered his legs to move. They remained still or flailed in a silvery blur like silent eggbeaters; he couldn’t tell. He commanded his arms to retract and they obeyed. He listened to his own breathing, deep and rhythmic.
“Were you scared in there, Dad?” Jerry glanced at him. Chris was studying his face. Was that a rare shadow of concern in his son’s expression?
In the blackness, he’d imagined himself in a movie theater, floating above the audience like a wayward balloon. Black-and-white scenes flickered on the silver screen, a silent movie. He scanned the crowd below and saw the stern faces of his parents. He saw his wife Ellie, her forehead bunched, gesture him down. He saw Chris, wearing the same peeved look as when Aunt Gwen dragged him to Sunday Mass.
Then the sound switched on and the movie screen exploded with blinding white light. Full-color faces appeared, grim and urgent. One face dangled a stethoscope. They shouted commands, their arms reaching toward him, clutching. The theater lost its roof. They pulled him toward the sky.
No, he’d never panicked. But the drugs weren’t the only reason, and the realization became a dull throb in his chest. The future contained only more days without Ellie. Days with Chris staring back, weary disappointment in his eyes.
All he’d felt in that fridge-crypt was a longing for release, an end to the pain.
“Dad, are you listening?” Chris asked. “Were you scared?”
“I was high as a kite.” Jerry glanced away. A son should believe that his father’s fearless. “As far as I could tell, I was under the covers in bed. Then whammo, daylight, I’m blind as a mole and people are grabbing me. Everything happened so fast. Can’t remember much else.”
Chris was quiet for a few seconds before speaking again. “Why’s the sheriff acting like you deserved it?”
Jerry gnawed the inside of his lip and stared at the ceiling. “Drop it. There’s nothing more to say. The losers need a scapegoat, that’s all.”
When Jerry glanced back, Chris was still studying him.