The first poster was for a dog. Fluorescent green paper with a smaller white page laminated on top of it to protect it from the Oregon rain. Picture of a small, scruffy dog.
Skittish, do not chase.
If seen, please call 541-555-1234
I began to see these posters everywhere. And by “everywhere,” I mean frequently along the handful of streets and corners on which I walk over and over again during the pandemic. Something about them seemed odd to me. Maybe it was the “skittish, do not chase,” which caused me to wonder what good the signs were likely to do even if the dog were spotted by a random passer-by. Maybe it was the name in quotes, “Jimmy,” like a nickname instead of a real name. (Although it might be that a nickname is all we can ever give an animal.)
While the posters did not include any weird triangles, stars, or other symbols, they put me in mind of the Stephen King story “Low Men in Little Coats” from Hearts in Atlantis. In this story, lost pet posters are coded to indicate a search for the psychic Brautigan, laying low as a tenant in the home of a widow and her young son in 1960. The film version, which takes its name from the title of the collection, turns the “low men” into boring old G-men, but in the story they are something else, servants to evil trying to capture Brautigan as part of a malevolent, multi-world plot to destroy “the beams” that hold up the Dark Tower, which itself holds together the universe. Hearts in Atlantis is a great collection, Stephen King at his best, perhaps because in it he works around the edges of his standard schtick.
After a while, the “Jimmy” posters disappeared, one-by-one, taken down by people or wind or the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. But then new ones appeared. Same style. White print-out on either neon green or punk pink. Only this time the subject was a white and black cat, “Lettie,” an animal advertised as just as skittish as her doggy counterpart. Echoes of “Low Men” shivered in my ear.
Of course, I do not believe in literal low men, hunting up a literal psychic in my neighborhood, circa now. But my mind began to spin on all the stories these posters could be trying to tell.
Perhaps the posters come from teenage satanists, seeking sacrifices for their late night revels. Such stories populated my teen years, lingering dregs of the nonsensical Satanic Panic of the 1980s, a fable that had real world negative impacts and that seems to be reanimating, zombie-like, today.
And so if not an actual cabal, how about a lone weirdo, a baby serial killer drumming up victims? Or, better yet, advertising his handiwork, a heartless victory lap for his bloody deeds. Perhaps he lives on this street or down the way, offering to help families post notices for their missing pets—hence the posters’ similarity.
But these are fantastical possibilities, plucked not only from sensationalist news but also from countless slashers and thrillers, books and podcasts about another myth—the diabolical, genius serial killer, combined with a bit of the-monster-next-door. Far too lurid for actual life. And so if not this story, then what?
Perhaps an elderly person, largely housebound due to the pandemic, alienated from the technology that everyone uses to “connect” but that seems so inherently disconnective to her. She misses phone calls. The ring insisting on being answered. She misses being exasperated by that intruding sound. She misses the brief moment of mystery between “Hello?” and the voice of the caller responding, misses the familiarity of this exchange, a tune sung so many times that everyone knows the words. And so she comes up with a plan to re-create that experience, designing a poster and waiting for the nostalgic urgency of the ringing phone. She talks to all kinds of people, nice souls who think they may have seen “Jimmy” around 10am, near the playground with their kids, or at 5:45pm, on the bark-mulch trail, as he got out for his run after work. “Do you run regularly?” she asks him. “Yes,” he replies. “Well, kinda. I just started this year. Got to work off that ‘COVID 15,’ you know?” And she laughs and says something about being glad she doesn’t need to worry about that anymore at her age, she can just let herself go. He asks if she needs help finding “Jimmy,” and she says, “No, no thanks. My grandson will help.” And he says okay and the conversation ends and she hangs up the phone, rueful, because she does not have a grandson, at least not yet. Both of her children decided not to have children, but she remains hopeful even though they are both older than she was when they moved away from home to start adult lives of their own. After a while, the calls stop. And so she makes up a new poster, a kitty this time, let’s call her “Lettie,” and places them all around the neighborhood. The phone rings again.
Or maybe there is a family particularly careless of their animals, finding themselves in need of not only one, but two, attempts to recover their pets. Even better, perhaps the animals could not take it anymore, more than a year of being stuck inside with these people who never seem to go anywhere, not really, except for the grandfather, who used to visit and sit on the big chair and use his big hands to stroke and stroke and stroke, but then he stopped coming and they do not know why. Ironically, the cat left first, but nobody noticed until the dog decided to follow suit. Perhaps “Jimmy” and “Lettie” are neighbors, friends, mammalian Montagues and Capulets who plotted their mutual elopement. And now their people collaborate on posters in the vain hope of bringing them back.
Perhaps I, myself, have been contained too long, my world narrowed for weeks at a time to this house and the nearby streets and trails I walk over and over again, a handful of variations within the same, unceasing tune. Perhaps the signs are simply for lost pets, skittish animals, in need of finding. Perhaps that’s what many of us are now, now more than ever, domesticated animals, longing for escape.