My Child Is Missing
by John Edward Gill
A small, weak voice came on. "Hello."
"Margie, I love you, I love you. This is Daddy. I love you more than all the birds in the ocean and the fish in the sky, Huckabunny."
"Margie, this is Daddy. The family you're visiting loves you and you'll come home soon." I took another breath. "Mommy loves you and Grandma Wendy does too," I said. "And all those birds in the ocean and fish in the sky."
There was a pause. I worried she might not recognize me and tried to speak slowly.
She didn't answer.
"Do you still watch Sesame Street? Big Bird, the Count, Ernie and Bert, Oscar the Grouch in his garbage can, Cookie Monster...?"
"Daddy, fish can't fly."
This was our private joke, and suddenly I realized what "cry for happiness" meant as I wiped my eyes and chin. I knew she recognized me now. We talked for a few minutes about her stuffed teddy bears and the cat, fish mobiles hanging in her room here on Long Island, her red, white and blue Raggedy Ann dress--anything to remind her of home.
Then I asked to speak with Maren.
"Is there anything she needs?"
"No, John. She's fine."
"All right, thank you. Just wanted to check in," I said, still wanting to sound friendly and casual.
"John, she brightened up when you called."
"Yes. I think it helped. I'll call again."
We hung up. Relieved I didn't show anger or fear, I paced that kitchen floor again. It sagged near the stove and sink, which I hadn't noticed while living with Estelle. Quickly, I went back downstairs and made sure the window I'd opened was secure in case I needed to get back in.
Once upstairs again, I heard the phone ring. It was probably Maren Lautin, checking to see if I was inside, so I ignored it and walked out the front door, careful not to disturb anything, but keeping her letter.
That evening I called Estelle.
"What the Hell are you doing?" I asked.
"I thought I told you not to...."
"Do you know what the climate's like in North Dakota?"
"Why should Margie be away from both her Mom and Dad?"
"I'm not talking...."
"How long will she be there?"
"Call my lawyer."
"Let me have custody. I'll still give you alimony for two years, enough to get your Masters in Anthropology."
But she hung up.
Wendy was just as vague, repeating I should call Estelle's attorney.
So I called North Dakota again. A man answered.
"Is this Doctor Lautin?" I asked.
"John, how did you get into your wife's house?"
"It's my house, too. And we're not officially divorced yet." I took deep breaths again, wanting him to tell about Estelle's plans for Margie. "I want to see my daughter, please."
"Ask your wife, John."
"I have a court order saying I can see her on weekends."
I paused, holding back anger. "Thought the Midwest was conservative. Law and order."
"Call your wife." Then he, too, hung up.
Estelle was still home when I called her a second time.
"I'm giving custody to a good family," she told me. "You'll arrange visitation through a third party and see Margie once a month."
"She should be raised on Long Island with both her parents, Estelle. Your Mom, my Mom in New Jersey, my Aunt in Nassau County, her friends in Stony Brook."
"Don't call anymore, John."
"When is she coming home?"
Estelle hung up. It was Saturday night. I couldn't reach my lawyer until Monday, so I jogged under cloudy, cold skies, hoping it wouldn't snow until I ran at least two miles to work off my anger.
Yet Monday brought more stress. My lawyer said it was impossible to win custody. This was 1973, he reminded me. Margie wasn't abandoned because she was with relatives. Visitation orders weren't enforced.
"We can try to settle out of court," he said. "But she still wants a divorce trial for cruelty. Her lawyer told me."
"I didn't beat my wife."
"I know. She's using that to get more money."
"When would there be a trial?"
"Late Spring, at the earliest."
"You're on your own."
"I could kidnap her back."
"We call that 'self-help'," he said.
"What would they do in North Dakota?"
"Arrest you for interfering with custody if Estelle's registered her New York order in Cass County, or wherever Fargo is."
"And lawyers there?"
"Cost you a fortune, John. Travel, motels, car rentals. You said this Lautin guy is a medical doctor."
"They might give him custody, then. Four kids, a leader in his home town against an outsider from the East Coast."
"I don't like 'wait and see'."
"I'll call when I get a court date."
"What if I kept calling Estelle, Wendy, their friends, North Dakota...."
"Because I want to see my daughter? They don't arrest Estelle?"
"She has custody."
Within two days I sat down with a second lawyer, one who specialized in custody. He agreed to handle my case, to ask for custody and press for an earlier court date. But he used that term 'self-help' again as far as seeing Margie now, or bringing her home.
There were maps of North Dakota I read, street diagrams of Fargo, and I learned I'd have to fly to Minneapolis, then take a second flight to Fargo. Our Spring semester would start soon. Suppose I needed bail? How long could I stay in Fargo? I had the Lautin's address, but Margie wouldn't be outside alone in this weather.
I started jogging twice a day and went over a list of Estelle's and Wendy's friends. Every evening, before ten p.m., I called one of them, politely asked if they could help bring Margie home. They seemed shocked that she was so far away. I'd prepared a speech in case police came by, but they didn't. Estelle and Wendy didn't speak with me, but one of Wendy's friends called after a week and told me not to call any more.
So, I just started from the top of my list again, phoning people, including Estelle and Wendy, twice a day, always polite, never cursing or threatening. I even called Fargo again and spoke with Margie, which I didn't think I could do.
After six weeks of my calls, Wendy went to North Dakota and brought my daughter home.
Estelle began calling every Saturday and Sunday morning around nine a.m., insisting I take Margie for the day.
"You're not supporting us. At least you could watch her," she said.
"I'm paying what the court ordered, Estelle. The judge agreed with me."
We had a trial in May. A second judge didn't raise her money and didn't grant her a divorce, but continued custody, despite North Dakota. Estelle moved in with Wendy; I went back to our house; Margie came to live with me because Estelle was busy with graduate studies.
Proceed to The Second Abduction
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