Like most of my fiction, this story came from a list of evocative titles. Unreturned was, if I recall, on the list as a substitution for the word lost – although, as we find, being lost in this world doesn’t necessarily mean what it means. I think about what words or phrases mean and what they could mean, and I began to think of a vague world described in general terms (“wooded area,” “city,” etc.) that contains men who have colorful surnames, surnames which were created by substitutions as well – of vowels, consonants (e.g. Pleth = Plath – it’s possible I had seen something referring to Sylvia Plath earlier the day I wrote the story; Kife = Life, and so on). “Unreturned” sounded ominous to me, and the story began to take on qualities of a fable or legend, but while style and wordplay are fun, I wanted to have the characters discuss manipulation (wordplay) with the idea that it would become part of the plot. Lastly, I owe a great deal to the microfictions of Robert Walser for further inspiration. Read them.
Jon Steinhagen is a resident playwright at Chicago Dramatists; his new musical, The Next Thing, will open in Chicago this May at Signal Ensemble Theatre. Over four dozen of his short stories have been published in print and online, significantly in The American Reader, The Minetta Review, Barrelhouse, Monkeybicycle, and The Atlas Review. His story “The Armchair Detective” was published in matchbook in 2012.
Permalink: The Unreturned
Pleth went out looking for Gullenden and found him. Pleth was surprised by his success and became cocky. He told Jurnzen he would go out and look for all that were missing. “Call in Vashik and Frederlend and Kife and that little guy you didn’t really trust but had to send out,” Pleth said. “I will handle everything.”
Pleth went out. While he was gone, they asked Gullenden why he had been missing. “I am too tired to go into it,” he said, and they left him alone.
Pleth went out to the wooded area first because that was where he had found Gullenden, that was where he had felt his first surge of canniness. He carried The List of Unreturned, two meat paste sandwiches wrapped in wax paper, and a flask of his special brandy. He stepped on crisp leaves and damp dirt. He bathed in the morning quiet of the trees thrusting up from the world. He moved from sunbeam to sunbeam.
He found no one. He returned.
Gullenden said, “Do you want help?” Pleth denied help. “You needed no help becoming lost, did you?” he said, but Gullenden said he hadn’t been lost at all. The others listened to them go at it. An excerpt from the minutes:
PLETH: You were lost because I found you.
GULLENDEN: You found me because I was where I was at the exact same time you were where I was.
PLETH: You make it sound like I did nothing more than find a rock or a pond or a tree. I did much more. Trees and rocks don’t move, unless the former is being cut down and the latter is being thrown. As for ponds…
GULLENDEN: Listen, just because you say you found me doesn’t mean you can find everybody and anything. You’re skewing the language to make it mean more than it actually means.
PLETH: Ten bucks says if you went somewhere again and didn’t return, I’d find you.
GULLENDEN: You’re on, jackass.
Gullenden went somewhere and did not return. Pleth added his name to the List of Unreturned again and went out, this time into the city. He did not find him.
Nor did he find Shilker, Nish, Colmbrek, Devidovich, Krelp, or Telebatt. He returned and they had a good talking to him. He listened to all they said and, at a few minutes past midnight, handed over the List. They thanked him and went out.
Pleth went home. Gullenden was waiting for him.
“Ah,” Pleth said, “I’ve found you.” Gullenden told him he hadn’t, but Pleth insisted. He had returned to his home and found Gullenden there, which means he found Gullenden. Gullenden shook him by the shoulders. “You weren’t looking for me,” he said. “You technically can’t find me if you haven’t been looking for me. That’s ten bucks you owe me.”
Pleth said, “Do mean to tell me that the only way someone can be found is if someone else is looking for them?” Gullenden said he wasn’t saying anything of the kind, but if that’s the way Pleth chose to interpret it, sure. “Now hand over the ten bucks,” he said. Pleth resisted. “You tricked me,” he said. “You were here all along, somewhere you knew I’d eventually find you.” Gullenden said he knew nothing of the sort, because he had no assurance that once Pleth went out that he, too, might wind up being one of the unreturned. “If that’s the case,” Pleth said, “how long would you have waited here for me?” Gullenden said, “Long enough,” and went out.
Pleth went to the bathroom and sat and thought. So many of them had gone out and not come back. So many of them still around were spending so much time looking for them. In light of Gullenden’s words, it occurred to Pleth that their List was inaccurate; it was not a List of Unreturned but a List of Undiscovered. He wanted to tell Gullenden about his discovery, but feared Gullenden would put him to another test and get another ten bucks off of him.
Pleth went about his life for a few days and thought about the many of them who had become undiscovered. He mentioned his thoughts to Jurnzen, who said, “Explain.” Pleth said, “If you want to be found, you will be found. If you want to remain undiscovered, you will remain undiscovered.” He pointed to a copy of the List and said, “How do we know if those of us currently on the List are on the List because they want to be on the List and nowhere else?” Jurnzen brought up the phenomenon of Gullenden and added, “Does that mean Gullenden wanted to be found or returned or discovered or however you want to put it?”
Pleth said, “Yes.”
And Gullenden went away again and eventually became unreturned. This time, his name was not added to the List. Jurnzen did not understand. “What is he doing,” he said, “the old Boy Who Cried Wolf routine?” Pleth shrugged. He offered to go out looking for him. Jurnzen said, “Up to you.”
Pleth learned that the others who had gone out with copies of the List had been having no success in finding the other unreturned; in fact, a small number of those who had gone out became unreturned themselves, and the List grew instead of shrank. At that point, those remaining turned to Pleth and noted that thus far he had been the only one to find anyone, and would he go out again?
Pleth went out again but did not take the List with him. He did not take any sandwiches or brandy. He tipped his hat to those behind him and said, “I’ll see what I find,” and they said, “Don’t you mean you’ll see who you will find?” and Pleth said, “I mean what I say,” and that was all he said.
by Jon Steinhagen