O. Henry has never been one of my favorite writers, but “The Ransom of Red Chief” is one of my favorite stories, maybe of all time.
It tells the tale of a couple of con men who get a great idea to kidnap the only child of the wealthiest man in a small town. Their plan is to demand a ransom, return the child, collect the ransom, and move on to the next con, which will be financed by the ransom for the little boy. But the little boy is so obnoxious and unruly that his kidnappers finally return him to his home and pay his father to take the child back. (Unlike other O. Henry stories, telling the twist at the end of this one doesn’t ruin the story at all. It’s that funny.)
It’s hard to say if she ever read this story, but my mother used to joke with me—if I became lost in a department store or strayed too far away from her—that she never worried about my being kidnapped because she knew my captors would bring me back after a while. I immediately thought of this the first time I read “The Ransom of Red Chief,” and again during the time when this bitchcake madness happened.
The father of one of my best friends from high school, Mary Beth, died in the spring of 2001. I knew that Beth would be traveling from England to attend the funeral, but I had no idea when she would arrive.
At the time I was freelancing for the public relations office at Glenville State College, in central West Virginia, and was set to start as a full-time staff writer within the next month. One evening at around 11:00 I was working on some copy for an academic program brochure when I heard a scratching at the window.
Sitting there in my childhood bedroom and hearing a scratching at the window by my desk instantly sent me back in time. I might as well have been writing an assignment for my eleventh grade composition class. On the many occasions when I was grounded during our adolescence Beth would sneak through the yard and knock on my window, where we would whisper to each other until I would become paranoid and send her away.
For the record, I never deserved to be grounded.
So I knew it had to be Beth. And it was.
“Spin!” she hissed. This was a nickname used only by Beth and her family. “Hey, Spin!”
She was standing on the deck outside the window with our friend Genia Jo Domico, who had lived up the hill from Beth when we were growing up.
“Go open the door and let us in!” Beth said. “Hurry up! We’re going to Genia’s and having a slumber party!”
There was laughter and hugging, and the plan was, indeed, to go to the house Genia shared with her husband Dean in Fairmont, about ten miles away, and have a slumber party. This is what old friends who grew up in a town with less than a thousand souls do when they reunite after spending years apart.
I got some night clothes together, and woke up my mother, who’d been sleeping for about an hour.
Her eyes opened, followed by some close-mouthed approximation of “Huh?”
“I’m going to Genia’s. Beth’s in town, and we’re going to Fairmont for the night,” I said to her.
Eyes now closed, she said, “Okay,” so I kissed her good-bye and we left. Never thought about my mom again the rest of the evening.
We went to an all-night diner and stole about twenty packets of grape jelly for Beth, who couldn’t seem to buy it in Leicestershire. We moved on to Genia’s, where we played a double-header of “Remember when…” and “Since I last saw you…” then went to bed.
The next morning at around 8:00 Genia’s phone rang. After she talked to the caller for a moment, she handed the phone to me.
In the back of mind, I thought it might be my mother, upset because I’d taken off at a time of night when decent people were in bed sleeping. I had the same knot in my stomach, then, that I’d had at age seventeen when I realized she knew I’d gone to see the Monkees reunion concert in Pittsburgh when I was supposed to be staying at my friend Jenifer’s to complete a joint homework assignment.
But it was Lug Gower. Lug lived across the street from my childhood home, right next door to where Beth had lived. I’ve known the man my whole life but I don’t think I could tell you his given name for a million dollars.
Lug was also, on the morning he called Genia’s house to speak to me, what small town folk call “the town cop.”
“Girl,” he said to me when I took the phone from Genia, “you better CALL YOUR MAMA right NOW! She’s got the STATE PO-LICE lookin’ for you!”
I later found out that my mother did have the state police looking for me. And she’d called Glenville State College looking for me. And, of course, she’d had poor Lug searching the entire two-square miles of the town, as well as in my car and under my bed.
Clearly, my mother wasn’t completely awake when I told her the night before that we were leaving. When she realized I wasn’t in the house the next morning, she panicked. This was understandable, because my car was still parked in the driveway but I seemed to have vanished into thin air.
From there, quite logically, she just assumed that when I was letting my yellow tom cat in or out during the night some stranger had appeared from around the corner of the house and abducted me. However, instead of assaulting and killing me—or returning me after a few hours, à la “Red Chief”—the kidnapper opted to drive me right to work, eighty-six miles away.
When I went to the PR office at Glenville State College that afternoon, the secretary’s face turned red as I walked in. “Did your mother find you?” she asked.
All I could think was, I’m thirty-one years old. I’m thirty-one years old. I’m thirty-one years old…
My mother couldn’t look at me for the next two days without saying, “I just didn’t know what happened to you,” before dissolving into tears.
If she hadn’t been so upset, I would have reminded her of what she used to tell me as a child about the implausibility of my ever staying abducted. I learned my lesson, though: no matter how awake your mother seems you should not, if you are staying with her, and happen to leave the house in the middle of the night, forget to leave your mother a note, whether you’re still of a kidnappable age or not.
This story appears in Bitchcake Madness!, a collection of short autobiographical essays.