The Girl Detective
Author: Kelly Link. This story is distributed under the following license: Creative Commons Attribution NonCommercial ShareAlike 2.5
The girl detective looked at her reflection in the mirror. This was a different girl. This was a girl who would chew gum. — DORA KNEZ, in conversation
The girl detective's mother is missing.
The girl detective's mother has been missing for a long time.
Think of the underworld as the back of your closet, behind all those racks of clothes that you don't wear anymore. Things are always getting pushed back there and forgotten about. The underworld is full of things that you've forgotten about. Some of them, if only you could remember, you might want to take them back. Trips to the underworld are always very nostalgic. It's darker in there. The seasons don't match. Mostly people end up there by accident, or else because in the end there was nowhere else to go. Only heroes and girl detectives go to the underworld on purpose.
There are three kinds of food.
One is the food that your mother makes for you. One is the kind of food that you eat in restaurants. One is the kind of food that you eat in dreams. There's one other kind of food, but you can only get that in the underworld, and it's not really food. It's more like dancing.
The girl detective eats dreams.
The girl detective won't eat her dinner. Her father, the housekeeper — they've tried everything they can think of. Her father takes her out to eat — Chinese restaurants, once even a truckstop two states away for chicken-fried steak. The girl detective used to love chicken-fried steak. Her father has gained ten pounds, but the girl detective will only have a glass of water, not even a slice of lemon. I saw them once at that new restaurant downtown, and the girl detective was folding her napkin while her father ate. I went over to their table after they'd left. She'd folded her napkin into a swan. I put it into my pocket, along with her dinner roll and a packet of sugar. I thought these things might be clues.
The housekeeper cooks all the food that the girl detective used to love. Green beans, macaroni and cheese, parsnips, stewed pears — the girl detective used to eat all her vegetables. The girl detective used to love vegetables. She always cleaned her plate. If only her mother were still here, the housekeeper will say, and sigh. The girl detective's father sighs. Aren't you the littlest bit hungry? they ask her. Wouldn't you like a bite to eat? But the girl detective still goes to bed hungry.
There is some debate about whether the girl detective needs to eat food at all. Is it possible that she is eating in secret? Is she anorexic? Bulimic? Is she protesting something? What could we cook that would tempt her?
I am doing my best to answer these very questions. I am detecting the girl detective. I sit in a tree across the street from her window, and this is what I see. The girl detective goes to bed hungry, but she eats our dreams while we are asleep. She has eaten my dreams. She has eaten your dreams, one after the other, as if they were grapes or oysters. The girl detective is getting fat on other people's dreams.
The case of the tap-dancing bankrobbers.
Just a few days ago, I saw this on the news. You remember, that bank downtown. Maybe you were in line for a teller, waiting to make a deposit. Perhaps you saw them come in. They had long, long legs, and they were wearing sequins. Feathers. Not much else. They wore tiny black dominos, hair pinned up in tall loopy curls, and their mouths were wide and red. Their eyes glittered.
You were being interviewed on the news. "We all thought that someone in the bank must be having a birthday," you said. "They had on these skimpy outfits. There was music playing."
They spun. They pranced. They kicked. They were carrying purses, and they took tiny black guns out of their purses. Sit down on the floor, one of them told you. You sat on the floor. Sitting on the floor, it was possible to look up their short, flounced skirts. You could see their underwear. It was satin, and embroidered with the days of the week. There were twelve bank robbers: Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday, and then Mayday, Payday, Yesterday, Someday, and Birthday. The one who had spoken to you was Birthday. She seemed to be the leader. She went over to a teller, and pointed the little gun at him. They spoke earnestly. They went away, through a door over to the side. All the other bank robbers went with them, except for Wednesday and Thursday, who were keeping an eye on you. They shuffled a little on the marble floor as they waited. They kept their guns pointed at the security guard, who had been asleep on a chair by the door. He stayed asleep.
In about a minute, the other bank robbers came back through the door again, with the teller. They looked satisfied. The teller looked confused, and he went and sat on the floor next to you. The bank robbers left. Witnesses say they got in a red van with something written in gold on the side and drove away. The driver was an older woman. She looked stern.
Police are on the lookout for this woman, for this van. When they arrived, what did they find inside the vault? Nothing was missing. In fact, things appeared to have been left behind. Several tons of mismatched socks, several hundred pairs of prescription glasses, retainers, a ball python six feet long, curled decoratively around the bronze vault dial. Also a woman claiming to be Amelia Earhart. When police questioned this woman, she claimed to remember very little. She remembers a place, police suspect that she was held hostage there by the bank robbers. It was dark, she said, and people were dancing. The food was pretty good. Police have the woman in protective custody, where she has reportedly received serious proposals from lonely men and major publishing houses.
In the past two months the tap-dancing robbers have kept busy. Who are these masked women? Speculation is rife. All dance performances, modern, classical, even student rehearsals, are well-attended. Banks have become popular places to go on dates or on weekdays, during lunch. Some people bring roses to throw. The girl detective is reportedly working on the case.
Secret origins of the girl detective.
Some people say that she doesn't exist. Someone once suggested that I was the girl detective, but I've never known whether or not they were serious. At least I don't think that I am the girl detective. If I were the girl detective, I would surely know.
When the girl detective leaves her father's house one morning, a man is lurking outside. I've been watching him for a while now from my tree. I'm a little stiff, but happy to be here. He's a fat man with pouched, beautiful eyes. He sighs heavily a few times. He takes the girl detective by the arm. Can I tell you a story, he says.
All right, says the girl detective politely. She takes her arm back, sits down on the front steps. The man sits down beside her and lights a smelly cigar.
The girl detective saves the world.
The girl detective has saved the world on at least three separate occasions. Not that she is bragging.
The girl detective doesn't care for fiction.
The girl detective doesn't actually read much. She doesn't have the time. Her father used to read fairy tales to her when she was little. She didn't like them. For example, the twelve dancing princesses. If their father really wants to stop them, why doesn't he just forbid the royal shoemaker to make them any more dancing shoes? Why do they have to go underground to dance? Don't they have a ballroom? Do they like dancing or are they secretly relieved when they get caught? Who taught them to dance?
The girl detective has thought a lot about the twelve dancing princesses. She and the princesses have a few things in common. For instance, shoe leather. Possibly underwear. Also, no mother. This is another thing about fiction, fairy tales in particular. The mother is usually missing. The girl detective imagines, all of a sudden, all of these mothers. They're all in the same place. They're far away, some place she can't find them. It infuriates her. What are they up to, all of these mothers?
The fat man's story.
This man has twelve daughters, says the fat man. All of them lookers. Nice gams. He's a rich man but he doesn't have a wife. He has to take care of the girls all by himself. He does the best he can. The oldest one is still living at home when the youngest one graduates from high school. This makes their father happy. How can he take care of them if they move away from home?
But strange things start to happen. The girls all sleep in the same bedroom, which is fine, no problem, because they all get along great. But then the girls start to sleep all day. He can't wake them up. It's as if they've been drugged. He brings in specialists. The specialists all shake their heads.
At night the girls wake up. They're perky. Affectionate. They apply makeup. They whisper and giggle. They eat dinner with their father, and everyone pretends that everything's normal. At bedtime they go to their room and lock the door, and in the morning when their father knocks on the door to wake them up, gently at first, tapping, then harder, begging them to open the door, beside each bed is a worn-out pair of dancing shoes.
Here's the thing. He's never even bought them dancing lessons. They all took horseback riding, tennis, those classes where you learn to make dollhouse furniture out of cigarette boxes and doilies.
So he hires a detective. Me, says the fat man — you wouldn't think it, but I used to be young and handsome and quick on my feet. I used to be a pretty good dancer myself.
The man puffs on his cigar. Are you getting all this? the girl detective calls to me, where I'm sitting up in the tree. I nod. Why don't you take a hike, she says.
Why we love the girl detective.
We love the girl detective because she reminds us of the children we wish we had. She is courteous, but also brave. She loathes injustice; she is passionate, but also well-groomed. She keeps her room neat, but not too neat. She feeds her goldfish. She will get good grades, keep her curfew when it doesn't interfere with fighting crime. She'll come home from an Ivy League college on weekends to do her laundry.
She reminds us of the girl we hope to marry one day. If we ask her, she will take care of us, cook us nutritious meals, find our car keys when we've misplaced them. The girl detective is good at finding things. She will balance the checkbook, plan vacations, and occasionally meet us at the door when we come home from work, wearing nothing but a blue ribbon in her hair. She will fill our eyes. We will bury our faces in her dark, light, silky, curled, frizzed, teased, short, shining, long, shining hair. Tangerine, clove, russet, coal-colored, oxblood, buttercup, clay-colored, tallow, titian, lampblack, sooty, scented hair. The color of her hair will always inflame us.
She reminds us of our mothers.
DANCE WITH BEAUTIFUL GIRLS.
The father hides me in the closet one night, and I wait until the girls, they all come to bed. It's a big closet. And it smells nice, like girl sweat and cloves and mothballs. I hold onto the sleeve of someone's dress to balance while I'm looking through the keyhole. Don't think I don't go through all the pockets. But all I find is a marble and a deck of cards with the Queen of Spades missing, a napkin folded into a swan maybe, a box of matches from a Chinese restaurant.
I look through the keyhole, maybe I'm hoping to see one or two of them take off their clothes, but instead they lock the bedroom door and move one of the beds, knock on the floor and guess what? There's a secret passageway. Down they go, one after the other. They look so demure, like they're going to Sunday School.
I wait a bit and then I follow them. The passageway is plaster and bricks first, and then it's dirt with packed walls. The walls open up and we could be walking along, all of us holding hands if we wanted to. It's pretty dark, but each girl has a flashlight. I follow the twelve pairs of feet in twelve new pairs of kid leather dancing shoes, each in its own little puddle of light. I stretch my hands up and I stand on my toes, but I can't feel the roof of the tunnel anymore. There's a breeze, raising the hair on my neck.
Up till then I think I know this city pretty well, but we go down and down, me after the last girl, the youngest, and when at last the passageway levels out, we're in a forest. There's this moss on the trunk of the trees, which glows. It looks like paradise by the light of the moss. The ground is soft like velvet, and the air tastes good. I think I must be dreaming, but I reach up and break off a branch.
The youngest girl hears the branch snap and she turns around, but I've ducked behind a tree. So she goes on and we go on.
Then we come to a river. Down by the bank there are twelve young men, Oriental, gangsters by the look of 'em, black hair slicked back, smooth-faced in the dim light, and I can see they're all wearing guns under their nice dinner jackets. I stay back in the trees. I think maybe it's the white slave trade, but the girls go peaceful, and they're smiling and laughing with their escorts, so I stay back in the trees and think for a bit. Each man rows one of the girls across the river in a little canoe. Me, I wait a while and then I get in a canoe and start rowing myself across, quiet as I can. The water is black and there's a bit of a current, as if it knows where it's going. I don't quite trust this water. I get close to the last boat with the youngest girl in it and water from my oar splashes up and gets her face wet, I guess, because she says to the man, someone's out there.
Alligator, maybe, he says, and I swear he looks just like the waiter who brought me orange chicken in that new restaurant downtown. I'm so close, I swear they must see me, but they don't seem to. Or maybe they're just being polite.
We all get out on the other side and there's a nightclub all lit up with paper lanterns on the veranda. Men and women are standing out on the veranda, and there's a band playing inside. It's the kind of music that makes you start tapping your feet. It gets inside me and starts knocking inside my head. By now I think the girls must have seen me, but they don't look at me. They seem to be ignoring me. "Well, here they are," this one woman says. "Hello, girls." She's tall, and so beautiful she looks like a movie star, but she's stern-looking too, like she probably plays villains. She's wearing one of them tight silky dresses with dragons on it, but she's not Oriental.
"Now let's get started," she says. Over the door of the nightclub is a sign. DANCE WITH BEAUTIFUL GIRLS. They go in. I wait a bit and go in, too.
I dance with the oldest and I dance with the youngest and of course they pretend that they don't know me, but they think I dance pretty fine. We shimmy and we grind, we bump and we do the Charleston. This girl she opens up her legs for me but she's got her hands down in an X, and then her knees are back together and her arms fly open like she's going to grab me, and then her hands are crossing over and back on her knees again. I lift her up in the air by her armpits and her skirt flies up. She's standing on the air like it was solid as the dance floor, and when I put her back down, she moves on the floor like it was air. She just floats. Her feet are tapping the whole time and sparks are flying up from her shoes and my shoes and everybody's shoes. I dance with a lot of girls and they're all beautiful, just like the sign says, even the ones who aren't. And when the band starts to sound tired, I sneak out the door and back across the river, back through the forest, back up the secret passageway into the girls' bedroom.
I get back in the closet and wipe my face on someone's dress. The sweat is dripping off me. Pretty soon the girls come home too, limping a little bit, but smiling. They sit down on their beds and they take off their shoes. Sure enough, their shoes are worn right through. Mine aren't much better.
That's when I step out of the closet and while they're all screaming, lamenting, shrieking, scolding, yelling, cursing, I unlock the bedroom door and let their father in. He's been waiting there all night. He's hangdog. There are circles under his eyes. Did you follow them? he says.
I did, I say.
Did you stick to them? he says. He won't look at them.
I did, I say. I give him the branch. A little bit later, when I get to know the oldest girl, we get married. We go out dancing almost every night, but I never see that club again.
There are two kinds of names.
The girl detective has learned to distrust certain people. People who don't blink enough, for example. People who don't fidget. People who dance too well. People who are too fat or too thin. People who cry and don't need to blow their noses afterwards. People with certain kinds of names are prone to wild and extravagant behavior. Sometimes they turn to a life of crime. If only their parents had been more thoughtful. These people have names like Bernadette, Sylvester, Arabella, Apocolopus, Thaddeus, Gertrude, Gomez, Xavier, Xerxes. Flora. They wear sinister lipsticks, plot world destruction, ride to the hounds, take up archery instead of bowling. They steal inheritances, wear false teeth, hide wills, shoplift, plot murders, take off their clothes and dance on tables in crowded bars just after everyone has gotten off work.
On the other hand, it doesn't do to trust people named George or Maxine, or Sandra, or Bradley. People with names like this are obviously hiding something. Men who limp. Who have crooked, or too many teeth. People who don't floss. People who are stingy or who leave overgenerous tips. People who don't wash their hands after going to the bathroom. People who want things too badly. The world is a dangerous place, full of people who don't trust each other. This is why I am staying up in this tree. I wouldn't come down even if she asked me to.
The girl detective is looking for her mother.
The girl detective has been looking for her mother for a long time. She doesn't expect her mother to be easy to find. After all, her mother is also a master of disguises. If we fail to know the girl detective when she comes to find us, how will the girl detective know her mother?
She sees her sometimes in other people's dreams. Look at the way this woman is dreaming about goldfish, her mother says. And the girl detective tastes the goldfish and something is revealed to her. Maybe a broken heart, maybe something about money, or a holiday that the woman is about to take. Maybe the woman is about to win the lottery.
Sometimes the girl detective thinks she is missing her mother's point. Maybe the thing she is supposed to be learning is not about vacations or broken hearts or lotteries or missing wills or any of these things. Maybe her mother is trying to tell the girl detective how to get to where she is. In the meantime, the girl detective collects the clues from other people's dreams and we ask her to find our missing pets, to tell us if our spouses are being honest with us, to tell us who are really our friends, and to keep an eye on the world while we are sleeping.
About three o'clock this morning, the girl detective pushed up her window and looked at me. She looked like she hadn't been getting much sleep either. "Are you still up in that tree?"
Why we fear the girl detective.
She reminds us of our mothers. She eats our dreams. She knows what we have been up to, what we are longing for. She knows what we are capable of, and what we are not capable of. She is looking for something. We are afraid that she is looking for us. We are afraid that she is not looking for us. Who will find us, if the girl detective does not?
The girl detective asks a few questions.
"I think I've heard this story before," the girl detective says to the fat man.
"It's an old story."
The man stares at her sadly and she stares back. "So why are you telling me?"
"Don't know," he says. "My wife disappeared a few months ago. I mean, she passed on, she died. I can't find her is what I mean. But I thought that maybe if someone could find that club again, she might be there. But I'm old and her father's house burned down thirty years ago. I can't even find that Chinese restaurant anymore."
"Even if I found the club," the girl detective says, "if she's dead, she probably won't be there. And if she is there, she may not want to come back."
"I guess I know that too, girlie," he says. "But to talk about her, how I met her. Stuff like that helps. Besides, you don't know. She might be there. You never know about these things."
He gives her a photograph of his wife.
"What was your wife's name?" the girl detective says.
"I've been trying to remember that myself," he says.
Some things that have recently turned up in bank vaults.
Lost pets. The crew and passengers of the Mary Celeste. More socks. Several boxes of Christmas tree ornaments. A play by Shakespeare, about star-crossed lovers. It doesn't end well. Wedding rings. Some albino alligators. Several tons of seventh-grade homework. Ballistic missiles. A glass slipper. Some African explorers. A whole party of Himalayan mountain climbers. Children, whose faces I knew from milk cartons. The rest of that poem by Coleridge. Also fortune cookies.
Further secret origins of the girl detective.
Some people say that she was the child of missionaries, raised by wolves, that she is the Princess Anastasia, last of the Romanovs. Some people say that she is actually a man. Some people say that she came here from another planet and that some day, when she finds what she is looking for, she'll go home. Some people are hoping that she will take us with her.
If you ask them what she is looking for, they shrug and say, "Ask the girl detective."
Some people say that she is two thousand years old.
Some people say that she is not one girl but many — that is, she's actually a secret society of Girl Scouts. Or possibly a sub-branch of the FBI.
Whom does the girl detective love?
Remember that boy, Fred, or Nat? Something like that. He was in love with the girl detective, even though she was smarter than him, even though he never got to rescue her even once from the bad guys, or when he did, she was really just letting him, to be kind. He was a nice boy with a good sense of humor, but he used to have this recurring dream in which he was a golden retriever. The girl detective knew this, of course, the way she knows all our dreams. How could she settle down with a boy who dreamed that he was a retriever?
Everyone has seen the headlines. "Girl Detective Spurns Head of State." "I Caught My Husband in Bed with the Girl Detective." "Married Twenty Years, Husband and Father of Four, Revealed to Be the Girl Detective."
I myself was the girl detective's lover for three happy months. We met every Thursday night in a friend's summer cottage beside a small lake. She introduced herself as Pomegranate Buhm. I was besotted with her, her long legs so pale they looked like two slices of moonlight. I loved her size eleven feet, her black hair that always smelled like grapefruit. When we made love, she stuck her chewing gum on the headboard. Her underwear was embroidered with the days of the week.
We always met on Thursday, as I have said, but according to her underwear, we also met on Saturdays, on Wednesdays, on Mondays, Tuesdays, and once, memorably, on a Friday. That Friday, or rather that Thursday, she had a tattoo of a grandfather clock beneath her right breast. I licked it, surreptitiously, but it didn't come off. The previous Thursday (Monday according to the underwear) it had been under her left breast. I think I began to suspect then, although I said nothing and neither did she.
The next Thursday the tattoo was back, tucked discreetly under the left breast, but it was too late. It ended as I slept, dreaming about the waitress at Frank's Inland Seafood, the one with Monday nights off, with the gap between her teeth and the freckles on her ass. I was dreaming that she and I were in a boat on the middle of the lake. There was a hole in the bottom of the boat. I was putting something in it — to keep the water out — when I became aware that there was another woman watching us, an older woman, tall with a stern expression. She was standing on the water as if it were a dance floor. "Did you think she wouldn't find out?" she said. The waitress pushed me away, pulling her underwear back up. The boat wobbled. This waitress's underwear had a word embroidered on it:
I woke up and the girl detective was sitting beside me on the bed, stark naked and dripping wet. The shower was still running. She had a strange expression on her face, as if she'd just eaten a large meal and it was disagreeing with her.
"I can explain everything," I said. She shrugged and stood up. She walked out of the room stark naked and the next time I saw her, it was two years later and she was disguised as an Office Lady in a law firm in downtown Tokyo, tapping out Morse code on the desk with one long petal-pink fingernail. It was something about expense accounts, or possibly a dirty limerick. She winked at me and I fell in love all over again.
But I never saw the waitress again.
What the girl detective eats for dinner.
The girl detective lies down on her bed and closes her eyes. Possibly the girl detective has taken the fat man's case. Possibly she is just tired. Or curious.
All over the city, all over the world, people are asleep. Sitting up in my tree, I am getting tired just thinking about them. They are dreaming about their children, they are dreaming about their mothers, they are dreaming about their lovers. They dream that they can fly. They dream that the world is round like a dinner plate. Some of them fall off the world in their dreams. Some of them dream about food. The girl detective walks through these dreams. She picks an apple off a tree in someone's dream. Someone else is dreaming about the house they lived in as a child. The girl detective breaks off a bit of their house. It pools in her mouth like honey.
The woman down the street is dreaming about her third husband, the one who ran off with his secretary. That's what she thinks. He went for takeout one night five years ago and never came back. It was a long time ago. His secretary said she didn't know a thing about it, but the woman could tell the other woman was lying. Or maybe he ran away and joined the circus.
There is a man who lives in her basement, although the woman doesn't know it. He's got a television down there, and a small refrigerator, and a couch that he sleeps on. He's been living there for the past two years, very quietly. He comes up for air at night. The woman wouldn't recognize this man if she bumped into him on the street. They were married about twenty years and then he went to pick up the lo mein and the wontons and the shrimp fried rice, and it's taken him a while to get back home. He still had his set of keys. She hasn't been down in the basement in years. It's hard for her to get down the stairs.
The man is dreaming too. He's working up his courage to go upstairs and walk out the front door. In his dream he walks out to the street and then turns around. He'll walk right back up to the front door, ring the bell. Maybe they'll get married again someday. Maybe she never divorced him. He's dreaming about their honeymoon. They'll go out for dinner. Or they'll go down in the basement, down through the trapdoor into the underworld. He'll show her the sights. He'll take her dancing.
The girl detective takes a bite of the underworld.
I used to eat out a lot. I had a favorite restaurant, which had really good garlic shrimp, and I liked the pancakes, too, the scallion pancakes. But you have to be careful. I knew someone, their fortune said, "Your life right now is like a rollercoaster. But don't worry, it will soon be over." Now what is that supposed to mean?
Then it happened to me. The first fortune was ominous. "No one will ever love you the way that you love them." I thought about it. Maybe it was true. I came back to the restaurant a week later and I ordered the shrimp and I ate it and when I opened the fortune cookie I read, "Your friends are not who you think they are."
I became uneasy. I thought I would stay away for a few weeks. I ate Thai food instead. Italian. But the thing is, I still wasn't safe. No restaurants are safe — except maybe truckstops, or automats. Waiters, waitresses — they pretend to be kind. They bring us what we ask for. They ask us if there is anything else we want. They are solicitous of our health. They remember our names when we come back again.
They are as kind to us as if they were our own mothers, and we are familiar with them. Sometimes we pinch their fannies.
I don't like to cook for myself. I live alone, and there doesn't seem to be much point to it. Sometimes I dream about food — for instance, a cake, it was made of whipped cream. It was the size of a living room. Just as I was about to take a bite, a dancing girl kicked out of it. Then another dancing girl. A whole troop of dancing girls, in fact, all covered in whipped cream. They were delicious.
I like to eat food made by other people. It feels like a relationship. But you can't trust other people. Especially not waiters. They aren't our friends, you see. They aren't our mothers. They don't give us the food that we long for — not the food that we dream about — although they could. If they wanted to.
We ask them for recommendations about the menu, but they know so much more than that — if only they should choose to tell us. They do not choose to tell us. Their kindnesses are arbitrary, and not to be counted as lasting. We sit here in this world, and the food that they bring us isn't of this world, not entirely. They are not like us. They serve a great mystery.
I returned to the Chinese restaurant like a condemned man. I ate my last meal. A party of women in big hats and small dresses sat at the table next to me. They ordered their food and then departed for the bathroom. Did they ever come back? I never saw them come back.
The waiter brought me the check and a fortune cookie. I uncurled my fortune and read my fate. "You will die at the hands of a stranger." As I went away, the waiter smiled at me. His smile was inscrutable.
I sit here in my tree, eating takeout food, hauled up on a bit of string. I put my binoculars down to eat. Who knows what my fortune will say?
What color is the girl detective's hair?
Some people say that the girl detective is a natural blonde. Others say that she's a redhead, how could the girl detective be anything else? Her father just smiles and says she looks just like her mother. I myself am not even sure that the girl detective remembers the original color of her hair. She is a master of disguises. I feel I should make it clear that no one has ever seen the girl detective in the same room as the aged housekeeper. She and her father have often been seen dining out together, but I repeat, the girl detective is a master of disguises. She is capable of anything.
Further secret origins of the girl detective.
Some people say that a small child in a grocery store bit her. It was one of those children who are constantly asking their parents why the sky is blue and are there really giant alligators — formerly the pets of other small children — living in the sewers of the city and if China is directly below us, could we drill a hole and go right through the center of the earth and if so would we come up upside down and so on. This child, radioactive with curiosity, bit the girl detective, and in that instant the girl detective suddenly saw all of these answers, all at once. She was so overcome she had to lie down in the middle of the aisle with the breakfast cereal on one side and the canned tomatoes on the other, and the store manager came over and asked if she was all right. She wasn't all right, but she smiled and let him help her stand up again, and that night she went home and stitched the days of the week on her underwear, so that if she was ever run over by a car, at least it would be perfectly clear when the accident had occurred. She thought this would make her mother happy.
Why did the girl detective cross the road?
Because she thought she saw her mother.
Why did the girl detective's mother cross the road?
If only the girl detective knew!
The girl detective was very small when her mother left. No one ever speaks of her mother. It causes her father too much pain even to hear her name spoken. To see it written down. Possibly the girl detective was named after her mother and this is why we must not say her name.
No one has ever explained to the girl detective why her mother left, although it must have been to do something very important. Possibly she died. That would be important enough, almost forgivable.
In the girl detective's room there is a single photograph in a small gold frame of a woman, tall and with a very faint smile, rising up on her toes. Arms flung open. She is wearing a long skirt and a shirt with no sleeves, a pair of worn dancing shoes. She is holding a sheaf of wheat. She looks as if she is dancing. The girl detective suspects that this is her mother. She studies the photograph nightly. People dream about lost or stolen things, and this woman, her mother, is always in these dreams.
She remembers a woman walking in front of her. The girl detective was holding this woman's hand. The woman said something to her. It might have been something like, "Always look both ways," or "Always wash your hands after you use a public bathroom," or maybe "I love you," and then the woman stepped into the street. After that the girl detective isn't sure what happened. There was a van, red and gold, going fast around the corner. On the side was "Eat at Mom's Chinese Restaurant." Or maybe "Eat at Moon's." Maybe it hit the woman.
Maybe it stopped and the woman got in. She said her mother's name then, and no one said anything back.
The girl detective goes out to eat.
I only leave my tree to go to the bathroom. It's sort of like camping. I have a roll of toilet paper and a little shovel. At night I tie myself to the branch with a rope. But I don't really sleep much. It's about seven o'clock in the evening when the girl detective leaves her house. "Where are you going," I say, just to make conversation.
She says that she's going to that new restaurant downtown, if it's any of my business. She asks if I want to come, but I have plans. I can tell that something's up. She's disguised as a young woman. Her eyes are keen and they flash a lot. "Can you bring me back an order of steamed dumplings?" I call after her, "Some white rice?"
She pretends she doesn't hear me. Of course I follow her. She takes a bus. I climb between trees. It's kind of fun. Occasionally there aren't any trees and I have to make do with telephone poles, or water towers. Generally I keep off the ground.
There's a nice little potted ficus at Mom's Chinese Restaurant. I sit in it and ponder the menu. I try not to catch the waiter's eye. He's a tall, stern-looking man. The girl detective is obviously trying to make up her mind between the rolling beef and the glowing squid. Listed under appetizers, there's scallion pancakes, egg rolls with shrimp, and wantons (which I have ordered many times. But they always turn out to be wontons instead), also dancing girls. The girl detective orders a glass of water, no lemon. Then she asks the waiter, "Where are you from?"
"China," he says.
"I mean, where do you live now," the girl detective says.
"China," he says. "I commute."
The girl detective tries again. "How long has this restaurant been here?"
"Sometimes, for quite a while," he says. "Don't forget to wash your hands before you eat."
The girl detective goes to the bathroom.
At the next table there are twelve women wearing dark glasses. They may have been sitting there for quite a while. They stand up, they file one by one into the women's bathroom. The girl detective sits for a minute. Then she follows them. After a minute I follow her. No one stops me. Why should they? I step carefully from table to table. I slouch behind the flower arrangements.
In the bathroom there aren't any trees, so I climb up on the electric dryer and sit with my knees up by my ears and my hands around my knees. I try to look inconspicuous. There is only one stall and absolutely no sign of the twelve women. Maybe they're all in the same stall, but I can see under the door and I don't see any feet. The girl detective is washing her hands. She washes her hands thoughtfully, for a long time. Then she comes over and dries them. "What next?" I ask her.
Her eyes flash keenly. She pushes open the door of the stall with her foot. It swings. Both of us can see that the stall is empty. Furthermore there isn't even a toilet in it. Instead there is a staircase going down. A draft is coming up. I almost think I can hear alligators, scratching and slithering around somewhere further down the stairs.
The girl detective goes to the underworld.
She has a flashlight of course. She stands at the top of the stairs and looks back at me. The light from the flashlight puddles around her feet. "Are you coming or not?" she says. What can I say? I fall in love with the girl detective all over again. I come down off the dryer. "I guess," I say. We start down the stairs.
The underworld is everything I've been telling you. It's really big. We don't see any alligators, but that doesn't mean that there aren't any. It's dark. It's a little bit cool and I'm glad that I'm wearing my cardigan. There are trees with moss on them. The moss glows. I take to the trees. I swing from branch to branch. I was always good at gym. Beneath me the girl detective strides forward purposefully, her large feet lit up like two boats. I am in love with the top of her head, with the tidy part straight down the middle. I feel tenderly towards this part. I secretly vow to preserve it. Not one hair on her head shall come to harm.
But then we come to a river. It's a wide river and probably deep. I sit in a tree at the edge of the river, and I can't make up my mind to climb down. Not even for the sake of the part in the hair of the girl detective. She looks up at me and shrugs. "Suit yourself," she says.
"I'll wait right here," I say. There are cute little canoes by the side of the river. Some people say that the girl detective can walk on water, but I see her climb in one of the canoes. This isn't the kind of river that you want to stick your toes in. It's too spick-and-span. You might leave footprints.
I watch her go across the river. I see her get out on the other side. There is a nightclub on the other side, with a veranda and a big sign over the veranda. DANCE WITH BEAUTIFUL GIRLS.There is a woman standing on the veranda. People are dancing. There is music playing. Up in my tree, my feet are tapping air. Someone says, "Mom?" Someone embraces someone else. Everyone is dancing. "Where have you been?" someone says. "Spring cleaning," someone says.
It is hard to see what is going on across the river. Chinese waiters in elegant tuxedos are dipping dancing princesses. There are a lot of sequins. They are dancing so fast, things get blurry. Things run together. I think I see alligators dancing. I see a fat old man dancing with the girl detective's mother. Maybe even the housekeeper is dancing. It's hard to tell if their feet are even touching the ground. There are sparks. Fireworks. The musicians are dancing, too, but they don't stop playing. I'm dancing up in my tree. The leaves shake and the branch groans, but the branch doesn't break.
We dance for hours. Maybe for days. It's hard to tell when it stays dark all the time. Then there is a line of dancers coming across the river. They skip across the backs of the white alligators, who snap at their heels. They are hand in hand, spinning and turning and falling back, and leaping forward. It's hard to see them, they're moving so fast. It's so dark down here. Is that a dancing princess, or a bank robber? Is that a fat old man, or an alligator, or a housekeeper? I wish I knew. Is that the girl detective or is it her mother? One looks back at the other and smiles. She doesn't say a thing, she just smiles.
I look, and in the mossy glow they all look like the girl detective. Or maybe the girl detective looks like all of them. They all look so happy. Passing in the opposite direction is a line of Chinese waiters. They swing the first line as they pass. They cut across and dosey-do. They clap hands. They clutch each other, across the breast and the back, and tango. But the girl detectives keep up towards the restaurant and the bathroom and the secret staircase. The waiters keep on towards the water, towards the nightclub. Down in that nightclub, there's a bathroom. In the bathroom, there's another staircase. The waiters are going home to bed.
I'm exhausted. I can't keep up with the girl detectives. "Wait!" I yell. "Hold it for just a second. I'm coming with you."
They all turn and look back at me. I'm dizzy with all of that looking. I fall out of my tree. I hit the ground. Really, that's all I remember.
When I woke up.
Someone had carried me back to my tree and tucked me in. I was snug as a bug. I was back in the tree across the street from the girl detective's window. This time the blind was down. I couldn't see a thing.
The end of the girl detective?
Some people say that she never came back from the underworld.
The return of the girl detective.
I had to go to the airport for some reason. It's a long story. It was an important case. This wasn't that long ago. I hadn't been down out of the tree for very long. I was missing the tree.
I thought I saw the girl detective in the bar in Terminal B. She was sitting in one of the back booths, disguised as a fat old man. There was a napkin in front of her, folded into a giraffe. She was crying but there was the napkin folded into a giraffe — she had nothing to wipe her nose on. I would have gone over and given her my handkerchief, but someone sat down next to her. It was a kid about twelve years old. She had red hair. She was wearing overalls. She just sat next to him, and she put down another napkin. She didn't say a word to him. The old man blew his nose on it and I realized that he wasn't the girl detective at all. He was just an old man. It was the kid in the overalls — what a great disguise! Then the waitress came over to take their order. I wasn't sure about the waitress. Maybe she was the girl detective. But she gave me such a look — I had to get up and leave.
Why I got down out of the tree.
She came over and stood under the tree. She looked a lot like my mother. Get down out of that tree this instant! she said. Don't you know it's time for dinner?
This story was previously published in Event Horizon (1999) and Stranger Things Happen (2005).