Melanie K. Hutsell
Travis drank his afternoon coffee from the mug with the faded red and yellow K, a souvenir from his very first service award. He had considered backing his Ford pickup over it eleven months ago when he was laid off along with a thousand others in Millsborough. But there was too much to remember, and so he had put the mug back in the cabinet.
He listened to the modem as it burbled and sang out, making the connection. Travis’ wife, Tanya, was at work at the mall cafeteria, and his daughters, Peyton and Sabrina, were at the elementary school on the last full day before Christmas. Travis was supposed to be looking for jobs, and he was, mostly. But first he checked out the latest naked women on his new favorite website. Elsewhere he looked at the pillars of rock formations in marvelous colors that did not exist in his home landscape, purple and orange in a desert photograph from out west. It kept his mind off other things. He could not get high-speed internet. He could barely pay the light bill. Actually Tanya was the one who could barely pay the light bill.
Travis took another sip of coffee. It did not have so much whiskey in it today, and that was on purpose. He was getting tired of washing down the leaf-choked gutters of his life. He needed to show up later. His wife’s family would gather for an early Christmas supper at his brother-in-law’s house, but he did not really want to be there. Gary taught science and coached baseball at the county high school. Gary also smiled and shook hands like a mannequin as though Travis were another, lesser animal that should not have married into the family. But Travis never saw shame in his working-class upbringing or his good job, one of the best in town, running the reactors for cellulose conversion at the Kodak chemical plant. Even now, swallowing down the last of his coffee from the company mug, he did not taste bitterness there.
From the table across the room, his cell phone rumbled the opening notes to "Another One Bites the Dust." Travis got up from his rickety chair to answer. He had told Tanya that he had an interview in the afternoon. Maybe this would now prove true. He glanced at the display and saw a local phone number he did not recognize.
“Hello?” he said when he picked up the phone.
He heard a slight silence. It drained his throat dry.
“Hello?” said a woman who spoke with pinched vowels. “Is Mr. Travis Ketron there?”
He no longer thought this was the promise of an interview. “Who’s calling?” he said.
“This is Mrs. J. from the RPF Agency,” said the woman. “I’m calling on behalf of Millsborough Hospital.”
He did not need to talk to anybody about three thousand dollars today.
“Sorry,” said Travis, “but he’s not available. Can I take a message?”
What he said was dirtier and more damning than any website he might visit. He wanted to slam his phone across the room. His thin-shouldered Sabrina had always been a sickly child, catching every chest cold in season, spending her winters with walking pneumonia. Her case of croup four months before had been frightening enough to keep her two nights in the hospital.
He did not know how he was supposed to take care of his wife and girls in this world.
“Yes, if you happen to see him, you can tell him to call us,” said Mrs. J. “This is an urgent matter that requires Mr. Ketron’s immediate attention.”
Tanya still had to get the girls’ gifts out of layaway. He glanced at the wall where the brown box holding his family’s plastic Christmas tree leaned. Everything demanded his attention.
“All right. I’ll do that,” he said. “Goodbye now.”
He stood with the closed phone in his hand in the smothering quiet. With every passing moment, he felt himself being slowly hogtied until he could no longer wrest himself loose, until he could hardly stir enough even to try.
The rich display to him seemed an invitation to thieves who lurked in the night, who drove by slowly in dark cars, enticed by red and silver splendor. The world seemed rife with such men anymore.
Travis wore his funeral suit to his brother-in-law’s house. He had to look as though he had just come from an interview. He walked through the clear, cold evening from his pickup in the driveway toward the front door. The front window framed the many-colored tree shining in the twilight. Even from the yard, Travis could see the brightly-wrapped boxes beneath the branches. The rich display to him seemed an invitation to thieves who lurked in the night, who drove by slowly in dark cars, enticed by red and silver splendor. The world seemed rife with such men anymore.
Solemn-faced Sabrina met him at the door. “Daddy,” she said. “Daddy. Look.”
“What have you found, Little Girl?” he said.
She tugged his coat sleeve, dragging him farther into the room. He nodded and spoke to his father-in-law, who sat on the couch watching television and who grunted his name in reply. We Wish You a Merry Christmas played down the hall in the kitchen. He heard the lively cadence of the women’s voices from there also, heard their laughter like warm liquid.
Sabrina pointed to the tiny tabletop nativity in the corner. “Daddy, how come Uncle Gary and Aunt Vicky’s Baby Jesus is all tied up like that?”
Travis looked at the figurine. He was used to seeing the baby wrapped up in blankets, but had never noticed bands of cloth tight around him before, pinning his arms to his sides. He did not know what it meant. He was not much of a churchgoer. He could not recall a preacher speaking about such a thing.
“Well, baby,” he said, trying to think of more to say. His hand covered her shoulder “He does look a little different, doesn’t he?”
“That’s because he’s swaddled, Sabrina,” said Gary, coming up behind them. “That’s how they protected babies back then.”
“He’s swaddled?” said Sabrina, listening to the word. Travis listened to the rasp of congestion in her voice.
“They did a study recently,” said Gary, “that showed little ones actually prefer the feeling of being swaddled. It provides them emotional security.”
Travis turned, his hands down. “Is that a fact?” he said.
“Sure is,” said Gary. A smile stretched that did not quite fit the man’s face.
Travis did not see how having one’s arms tied could make even God feel better.
“How was that interview at the foundry?” said Gary.
Travis shrugged, tilting his head as he did so. He had not told the lie for this man. He did not really want to discuss it with Gary.
“You never can tell,” said Travis. “Something has to come through one of these days.” The bright strains of Christmas music rang falsely in his ears.
Gary nodded. “These really are hard times. Most of the kids at school have families struggling after the Kodak layoffs. All those restaurants going under, businesses boarded up. This town never will be the same.”
Travis did not trust himself to speak. Gary and his family were not the ones who suffered.
“Daddy’s going to get a job,” said Sabrina, uncertainly, her eyes traveling back and forth between his face and her uncle’s.
“Uncle Gary is talking about other people, baby,” said Travis.
Gary’s shut mouth squirmed. Watching, Travis did not feel better.
“I thought I heard your voice,” said Tanya as she entered the room. “You weren’t going to come and say hello?”
“I hadn’t got to the kitchen yet,” he said, weary of giving excuses.
Tanya mustered a smile. He saw the strain on her face, the way her mouth had started to thin like dangerous ice. But there was a tiny flicker in her eyes that he recognized as a beautiful trace of hope.
“How did it go?” she said. The music from the kitchen had turned to O Little Town of Bethlehem.
“Fine, I think,” he said. “We’ll see.” He did not have to think about three thousand dollars then, about the dirtiness of his deceptions. He had gained the glimpse he had hoped to find. For that moment, he had shielded Tanya and the girls as he wished he could be.
Tanya nodded and folded her arms. “Let’s hope so,” she said. Her eyes had already dimmed.
Peyton with her new pixie cut danced into the room.
“Aunt Vicky says let’s eat!” she said. “And guess what? I got to take the rolls from the baking sheet and put them in the basket!”
“Good girl,” said Travis. Peyton thrust up her arms, beaming.
He headed for the doorway. Sabrina and Tanya, Gary and Travis’ father-in-law stirred and came along, too, talking among themselves. As Travis passed the bookshelf crowned with Christmas candles and green and gold bows, he paused at a red-framed photograph. He peered at the picture, which was almost certainly a Polaroid. Polaroids were the mark of the enemy when Travis was growing up. But Travis looked and saw a much younger Gary and Tanya standing by tall statues of shepherds at Millsborough’s Town Circle nativity. Travis had stood there himself many times before, through the years. He had taken pictures of the figures as a child with his prized Instamatic camera.
“Yep, that’s us,” said Gary, behind him. “I had a little more hair back then.”
“Me, too,” said Travis, still looking at the picture.
The photograph of children who pointed where the shepherds gazed reminded Travis of what Millsborough meant to so many who lived there. That nativity scene had been raised at the downtown traffic circle for decades, time out of mind. It was there again this year. The Town Circle nativity did not have great religious significance to Travis. For him, it was a deeper connection to a time and place that was being slowly, irrevocably lost.
After supper, Tanya drove the girls home in the Saturn, so Travis went for a drive by himself. The streets were dark and lonesome even in the sheen of Christmas lights. His truck moved amid the cars and the noise of engines hardly heard. He drove down wide streets by apartment buildings built in the 1950s and by the city high school. The summer balloon festival was held here one early morning each year, with domes of color that gleamed overhead in the sunlight like the brightest imaginings one could ever think. Tonight the streets were lined with hulking structures and the skeletal hands of trees. Travis drove deeper downtown.
The traffic grew lighter, and the buildings got heavier, warehouses and smokestacks and forgotten stores. Railroad tracks cut across the road in places. He drove by the old paper plant and by the abandoned buildings that had housed the press. He did not turn down the road that led to the chemical plant. There were chain-link fences and gates down there.
Travis never had grasped the loud-mouthed agitators who complained about the strong chemical smells over the town on autumn days, who stabbed their forefingers at the bright water down river and yammered about the possibility of fishkills.
Kodak had fed Travis’ family as he grew up, and so the family had supported the brand even more faithfully than they cheered for the Tennessee Volunteers during football season. Trim black and yellow boxes of Kodak videotapes showcased the family’s favorite programs, Dallas and The Cosby Show. Most weekends, Travis had pledged allegiance to the American flag along with other company kids and then watched Saturday morning cartoons in the company gymnasium, eating wonderfully buttered popcorn from greasy paper bags. He camped with his brother, Charlie, and their dad in the summers at the employee campground. It had been a good way to grow up. Travis never had grasped the loud-mouthed agitators who complained about the strong chemical smells over the town on autumn days, who stabbed their forefingers at the bright water down river and yammered about the possibility of fishkills. Travis figured he liked to fish as well as the next fellow but had also known there would be no Millsborough worth living in without The Kodak. Instead he had fished from the dam at the old city reservoir and kept his mouth shut.
But the passage of more than thirty years had changed more than Travis. When Kodak filed for bankruptcy in January, it had been the final chapter in a long, slow, sad slide for the company. Many signs of its changing fortunes had manifested already. Kodak had been removed from the Dow. People took snapshots with camera phones. Years before, Wal-Mart had committed the darkest betrayal of all and started using Fuji for their photo processing. After that, Travis’ mother had taken the family photos to the local camera shop to be developed, but what Travis had not understood then was that they could never get those moments of the glory days back no matter how many photographs they took.
Near the library, Travis pulled his truck into a parking spot and shut off the engine. The cold and the night began to encroach upon him at once, slipping into the cab, growing stronger as the minutes passed. It was late for a Tuesday night. He got out of the truck in his suit and winter coat and walked up the street towards Town Circle. Windows were dark as he passed them. Small trees shivered in the wind. He did not know what he was supposed to do. He needed money he did not have. He approached the spire-tipped churches that protected the far side of the traffic circle and the tall figures casting strong shadows in the spotlights. He strode across the pavement and towards the grassy center of the circle, right towards Mary and Joseph and the manger. The closer he walked, the more desperate, the angrier he felt. He came and stood over the manger and the statue that lay on it. This baby did not look swaddled. This baby stretched up its arms as though it asked him some favor.
“Look at you,” said Travis. “How can you even begin to help me?”
He heard the rush of a car and then another. Otherwise, there was nothing, no sound, only the shadows of the churches and the onlooking statues.
His cell phone rang in his pants pocket. He did not want to talk to Mrs. J. or to anyone, not even Tanya. He let the phone ring until it fell silent. He waited some more.
Travis had seen in a show on TV once that Jesus was from a land in the desert, like the online photographs from out west. But somehow he had always thought of Jesus as being from right there at Town Circle, a Kodak child, a Kodak man.
“I did all the right things,” said Travis.
As he looked down at the statue with its upraised arms, the idea found him, stealing into his mind and lighting it up. His breath quickened. It did not seem like his lungs moving. It did not seem like his gloved hands reaching down to grasp the statue. But they belonged to him. Travis was the one who hefted the baby from the manger and staggered under the weight. He turned, with his heart thundering, his lips pressed together, and walked back towards his truck. He felt plenty warm now. He was hijacking God.
He struggled the statue down the street. No one drove by, which amazed him. When he reached the truck, he lowered the tailgate and heaved the baby into the bed. He closed the tailgate again, feeling better all the time.
His cell phone rang as he unlocked his door. He pulled the phone out of his pocket to see who called, and he read Tanya’s number. He did not want her or the girls anywhere near what he did. Right now he was seized with this imperative, to give to the universe as ruthlessly as he had gotten. He opened the phone and pressed his thumb against a key, powering it off. Travis climbed into the truck and shoved the phone into the glove box. Now he could not be traced.
He backed his truck out of the parking space and drove in search of a phone book and a phone booth. As he slowed at a red light with engine idling, he saw two beautiful women standing on the street corner in holiday lace. His whole body still buzzed and burned with his act of might. He rolled down the window.
“You angels have a Merry Christmas,” he said. Travis wanted everyone on earth to feel as alive and unfettered as he did in that moment.
The women turned their faces towards him, two expressions masked by darkness. He honestly did not know what he thought of his pronouncement either.
When Travis emerged from a bar he had not been to before, he had already tugged a tarp over the baby in the truck bed and then put a couple of beers inside himself. He also carried a scrap of paper with phone numbers scribbled down for every church on Town Circle. He had to find somewhere to place his call far, far from home. With every act, at every point of decision, he had to guard against something going wrong.
So Travis steered his truck down one country lane after another, each road a ribbon of midnight across the winter hills. Fenceposts carried barbed wire lovingly alongside him, on and on. He searched. Nearly to the state line, the phone booth appearing at an abandoned gas station was a highly improbable find. It had a folding door and sat beneath a light pole with a working bulb. He stopped his truck there, mystified.
The old service station looked overgrown and falling in, and another building seemed out beyond, set farther back from the road in a small grove of trees. Travis thought that might once have been the family house. It was a dismal place rendered eerie by the dark and starlight, a place outside of time. Beyond the trees opened a smooth, wide field.
Travis stood in the windy cold, his breath when he could see it trailing like the color of souls. He wondered if the telephone would work. Uncertainly, he walked into the booth, but when he put the receiver to his ear, he heard the dial tone. Dropping in his change, he dialed the first number on his list. The phone line crackled. He selected his way through the church’s automated attendant and finally reached the voice mail of the preacher. The recording said the man’s name was Lewis Darnell.
“Hello?” said Travis. “Hello, Mr. Darnell, this is – Captain America. I need three thousand dollars, and if you want to see Jesus again, this is what you need to do.”
He poised his lips to say the rest. Someone abruptly came on the line.
“Hello?” a man’s voice said. The voice sounded frail and tattered, agitated, incredibly human. “Hello?”
The heat inside Travis burned away. He was left as cold and still as a clearing silvered over with frost.
“Who’s speaking?” said the voice.
It was not God who spoke to Travis It was not the echo of the universe humming in his ear. He realized this man could be cornered by circumstance, too, just as he. This man could decide to fight against him, against what was happening.
“Hello?” said the voice again. “What do you want?”
All Travis could think about was the terrifying possibility of his life held hostage behind locked doors and razor wire, years of his life spent in a space not much bigger than the phone booth where he stood.
Defeated, perhaps, or smarter than he knew, Travis hung up the phone.
He returned to his truck and opened the tailgate. He would not risk driving the baby back. He wrestled the statue out of the bed and carried it beyond the circle of light and into the grass that was once a lawn. As he did, he noticed one of the baby’s hands had a broken place where fingers had been. He had not meant for that to happen.
Travis squatted and set the figure heavily down. He went back to the truck and climbed up into the bed in his good suit. He dug around until he found the baby’s fingers. He climbed out again and took the piece of statue over to where the rest of the figure rested. He put the broken part on the baby’s stomach and did not feel right about having to do it.
“You should have stayed whole, at least,” said Travis.
The statue stretched towards him wordlessly beneath the night sky. Travis stood and listened to the trees and the field.
“If you look where I tell you,” said Travis, “you’re going to find the baby Jesus.”
He needed to make one more call from the telephone booth. He slipped inside again and dialed the last church on his list. This time he left a message on the voice mail of a woman preacher. Travis had not known there were any women preachers in Millsborough.
“If you look where I tell you,” said Travis, “you’re going to find the baby Jesus.”
After describing the journey to get to the abandoned gas station, Travis walked away from the phone booth. It was ungodly late. He got in his truck and drove the miles towards town, knowing he was still a long, long way from three thousand dollars. As he reached the edge of the little city and began passing buildings he recognized, Travis opened the glove box and powered his cell phone on. He called his wife.
“Hey. Is something wrong?” he said when Tanya answered.
“Where are you, Travis?” she said. Her voice was a hissing whisper.
“Driving,” he said. “I needed to, but – I – I lost track of time. I’m sorry, babe.”
“What is that supposed to mean?” said Tanya. “For the love of God, Travis, it’s one o’clock.”
“Do you never think of the way things used to be?” he said.
There was a sound like rustling on the far end of the phone.
“Every day,” she said. “I don’t know where it is you seem to be going, all alone, without us.”
The white dashes on the road sparked over and over in his headlights. Travis would be there at the apartment in a very few minutes.
“Tanya,” said he said. “I’m right here. I’m on my way, I promise.”
There was a rise to the road, and then he was looking out across the town, the lights shimmering in the darkness, the mountains defending the shining valley. The sight chilled him with beauty before he began to feel the thaw.
“Is everything okay?” he said. “Do you need me to do something?”
He heard her ragged sigh.
“Sabrina’s getting another cold,” said Tanya. And we’re just about out of salve. Could you stop at the store and get some?”
“Sure,” said Travis. “I can do that.”
He witnessed the view framed by his truck’s windshield like a most precious photograph. Not captured on film by him then, the place where he was bound was nonetheless stamped upon him for all time. He did not see how he could go anywhere else.
Melanie K. Hutsell has published fiction in Still: The Journal, Trajectory, and in the Knoxville Writers’ Guild anthology Outscape: Writings on Fences and Frontiers. A native of Kingsport, Tenn., she currently lives in Maryville, Tenn., and enjoys the spectacular view of the mountains she sees every weekday on her morning commute to Knoxville. “Hostage” was inspired by a theft that occurred in Kingsport a few years ago.