During our Wednesday night drives we got to know each other. She listened to my stories of break-ups, Westerns, and uncertain futures, and I learned about her shaky marriage, the art business, and the pains of an all too certain future.
That year she invited me over for Thanksgiving dinner, where I met Oliver, her husband. He was a journalist who had once dreamed of making it big, but had settled, after marriage and mortgage, for The Buffalo News. He was a pleasant, if somewhat distant, man, and he and Sabrina, despite their difficulties, seemed devoted to one another. He was still hoping for a big breakthrough, but he wasn’t kidding himself. He lived in Western New York.
I left Buffalo the following year for Ann Arbor, but stayed in contact with Sabrina. In Oct of 1999, she wrote that Oliver had accepted a big assignment and would be gone for months at a time. It had to do with the disappearance of W. T. Steinberg, a British writer.
When I visited her in the summer of 2000 with my wife Sanaz, Oliver still had not returned. Sabrina was worried; she hadn’t heard from her husband in weeks.
At the time, I was oblivious to the strange assignment Oliver had taken on. In fact, I began to believe that he had only taken it to leave Buffalo and his wife behind. If you wanted to vanish, could there be a better way than going on a business trip and never return?
Yet I was, as I’ve often been, sorely mistaken. Years later I received an urgent invitation by Sabrina and made the trip to Buffalo. After not receiving word from her husband for four years, she had tried to find him. But police and a hired private investigator turned up little more than gas receipts and a few motel bills. Nothing after January 1, 2004.
It was then that Andy McPherson, Oliver’s former editor at The Buffalo News came forward and presented Sabrina with thirteen essays he’d received since her husband had left five years previous. Sabrina was very upset when I arrived at her small home she had since moved out of the house she’d shared with her husband. She asked me to read Oliver’s essays, and, when I expressed interest in the material, said, “You take them. I can’t have them in my house. Burn them, publish them, feed them to the dogs. I can’t wait for him any longer.”
No one can be certain it happened this way, but the events rendered in the following paragraphs seem plausible to me, probable even. From long months of research, from Oliver Elkin’s sketches, from what I was told by Sabrina, I have pieced together this intro to his book.
It starts in a coffeeshop that isn’t even a real coffeeshop, but one of these cafés set into a large bookstore. Sitting at an orange table Oliver Elkin gets a phone call. Minutes later he drives to Lancaster Ave. He’s never seen an Aston Martin Lagonda before. The car is all edges, knives, an assortment of exquisite cutlery, an engineer’s ambition. No compromises, and, as he later learns, full of advanced technology, for 1981.
The Eighties haven’t aged well, their aesthetics look old beyond years, a bag of tricks with no tricks inside, but the Lagonda was a failure in its time and looks grand now. Grand anywhere, but grand especially on Lancaster Avenue in Buffalo, where Dodge vans and Grand Ams and Volvos render themselves invisible.
W. T. Steinberg, the British journalist, has vanished. The Lagonda has been parked in front of 204 Lancaster for two weeks, the parking tickets are legion, three tires flat. The Lagonda is Steinberg’s, and so are two spare suits found in the trunk, a passport, ten pairs of shoes, a tape recorder without tapes, a notebook without pages, a Los Angeles Dodgers hat, a NASCAR road map. And $40,000 in cash.
Andy McPherson, the Buffalo News editor-in-chief and Oliver’s boss, has connections to the local police department, and a week after the Lagonda has been impounded, suits and road map are on his desk. Oliver tries on a dark blue Prada coat. He’s five foot seven inches, and not even his fingertips make it out of the sleeves.
The segments of the road map are coffee-stained, torn, and on several of them, Steinberg has left red circles. Barney pushes the map toward Oliver and raises a brow.
When he comes home, Oliver is out of a job. He doesn’t want to tell Sabrina, his wife, but he has to. He will give her a sweetened version of the deal he struck. He’s leaving his salaried position to investigate the thirteen places W. T. Steinberg visited before he disappeared. He will write impressions from the road, postcards to the editor. If he does a good, or even moderate job, he’ll find an open door at the News on his return. Maybe he’ll get a book deal from a New York publisher.
“But I can’t come with you,” Sabrina exclaims. She’s an art teacher at SUNY at Buffalo. Students’ portfolios are stacked on the kitchen table. Her face is smeared with toothpaste because she’d heard it’s good against acne.
“I didn’t,” Oliver says, “I didn’t think you could.”
“Oh.” She looks down into the swirling soy milk in her tea. “You’ve planned everything already.” A dry bit of toothpaste falls from her cheek onto the table.
Steinberg is little more than a shadow. Oliver’s research has dug up few facts about the man. He arrived in Manhattan a year earlier, in September of 1998. He stayed in the Marriott at the World Trade Center for two weeks, and bought the Lagonda from a dealer of rare and antique cars, Edward Morgan. The dealer was interviewed by the police, and Oliver himself called him, but Morgan had no recollection of Steinberg. An accent? Maybe. The business records indicate that the car was paid for in cash.
A British newspaper published several articles of his, but the Manchester Liberal has no photo of Steinberg, nor has any of the editors ever seen him. He sent in his articles by mail, was paid by check.
The articles themselves are of little help deciphering Steinberg. Yet he must have had a taste for the obscure. The first article published by the Liberal was entitled “What’s In That Basement?” and chronicled an apparent rat-epidemic in one of the industrial suburbs of Manchester.
Another of the articles dealt with a man who claimed that he was able to make himself disappear, but refused to do the trick in front of Steinberg’s camera. He quoted stage fright as the reason. After a week he disappeared and was never seen again.
Steinberg’s last article for the Liberal reports on the fate of a store located inside one of Manchester’s steel mills selling marionettes. The owner claimed to have learned the art of making his marionettes from a 17th century wood-carver, and insisted on having lived through four centuries. He’d chosen the unlikely location because he also worked the third shift in the mill. He was never seen sleeping, and said he had slept all he could in his first hundred years and didn’t expect to ever close his eyes again.