The Adventures of Kiki, P.I.
When I told my sister-in-law, the infamous (if you live in Huntington, West Virginia) Kiki, P.I. that I was going to collect her adventures into a book, Watson-style, she laughed and threatened to take up smoking (real) cigarettes. I warned her a pipe would be more appropriate in this particular analogy, but she waved me off. We sat quietly on the front steps of her ranch house. Up the hill, we could see the monument memorializing the Marshall University football players who died in a plane crash in 1970. Their ghosts seemed to hang around like a sweaty, athletic fog. She told me to record the following on my phone:
“I wasn’t born this way. I’m no Lady Gaga of Mysteries,
nor do I belong among those who hate
their mothers or their own bodies for longing
to be mothers. I like babies. And animals.
And baby animals. I put ketchup on my fries.
Salt everything. But. I can’t pass a hollow tree trunk
and not slide my hand inside. I can’t help but note
the blue car passing the house at 7:46 a.m.
weekdays and wonder what happened last Tuesday—
unusual wind swept in from the west.
It smelled like jasmine. A white cat stepped
in new paint striping the street and walked east.
It didn’t lead to anything, but you see what I mean—
I follow the scent. I take my whiskey like my men—
straight. My makeup like my women—on point.
Sometimes I pluck a long strand of hair
and balance it on the doorknob. Sometimes it turns
blonde or red. Every investigation is a divination.
The body solves what the mind cannot. And spirit…”
She yawned then, and I swear I saw a fruit fly float out of her mouth. She said that wasn’t possible. She solved that mystery years ago. Then she went inside the house to take a nap. It was 10:00a.m. We’d only eaten a light brunch and had planned to go to the farmer’s market.
I left my brother and his wife to their Saturday, but not without first seeing a cat’s yellow footprints on the street and following them. Kiki, P.I. was right: the track led nowhere, disappearing mid-street as if the cat had taken flight.
The Allegory in the Alliteration
Kiki P.I. twirled her fake mustache, examining the evidence I had brought her: a blue bowl filled with sifted flour, a bronze bracelet, and a biography of Bonnie & Clyde. She tapped her magnifying glass against the table and sighed as if she’d seen this all before. Maybe she had. She’d been solving mysteries since before she and my brother met eight years ago. Michael says he fell for her the day she helped him plug a leaking watermelon at the grocery store where she worked. “Sometimes, they get excited,” she had said, placing a piece of chewed gum over the melon’s hole. She patted it as she might a fretful dog. “This one’s on the house,” she continued, handing the melon to Michael. He asked her out that night.
“The thing is,” she said, placing the bowl on the biography, burying the bracelet in the flour, “you mistake alliteration for loyalty. It’s quite common.” She patted my hand as if she’d diagnosed an infection with a difficult but attainable cure. “My last client brought me a candelabra, a collage of catkins and capybaras, and a heap of cicada husks.”
I knew she probably charged that person, as anyone with an alliteration problem must have cash to spare, but since we’re family, she said to uncork the wine I brought over. We drank. She magnified my wine glass and my face, its map of acne scars moonish and huge. “More evidence is required. As is fresh air,” she said. We decamped to her patio.
We gathered kindling and built a fire. She never asked why I brought her these things, what heartbreak lured me here. Again. We sat beside the fire and she pretended to smoke a cigarette—one of her bad habits. She even collects ashtrays and matches to heighten the effect.
“The answer,” she said, “is on the next train.” One whistled in the distance. I started to laugh, but she didn’t crack. Kiki, P.I. never breaks. Once she told me there is no separation between the investigator and the investigation.
The train whistle was part telegram, part moat. My heart was a hot air balloon jammed in my chest. “When we imagine flames,” she added. “We feed them.” She told me all I needed was some s’mores, a bit of music. She texted Michael to bring home dark chocolate, graham crackers, and miniature marshmallows—she likes the ones that are dyed in Easter colors best.
I nodded, only partly relieved. “This alliterative ache will pass,” she said, patting my hand, “like an alphabet allocating its letters to an alligator.” She paused. “Or a snake.”
The Broken Watch Full of Sunlight
She smelled the leather watchband twice before sliding on rubber gloves to pick it up. “We must preserve the integrity of the evidence,” she said.
I nodded, but she didn’t offer me a pair of gloves. This was the first time I came to her with a real mystery—not my usual relationship woes. The broken watch appeared in my mailbox, its face cracked like an egg.
“I’m sorry,” I said as if finding a problem made me its creator. Kiki, P.I. reminded me this wasn’t her first rodeo by telling me about her first rodeo. (“A horse was missing its shoe. I found it by the lake outside of town, underneath an overturned canoe.”)
She stared at the watch then raised a palm toward me as if to command my silence, although I was already silent. She hummed to herself, “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.” With tweezers, she fit the glass back into its frame.
One piece, flea-sized, was missing “That’s not good,” she said.
I looked at the sky, still blue as Billie Holiday although it was 10 pm. Insomnia drifted like smoke through Huntington. Blackout curtains and sleep masks were fetching high prices on E-bay and my dreams were gaudy with sun-speckled teacups, with the endless glare off of gigantic wind chimes.
“I’m sorry,” I said again, having nothing else to add. It’s strange having a detective in the family. If you don’t have a mystery to share, it’s hard to know what to talk about.
Kiki commanded me to bring her iodine, a feather boa, cayenne pepper, and super glue. “Pick up a pizza, too,” she added, almost as an afterthought.
When I returned with her supplies and a steaming pepperoni pie, she wrapped the boa around her neck and tweezed off the glass shards she had, just hours before, placed so carefully into the watch’s face. Then she filled the face with iodine and cayenne pepper, before gluing back the glass, the missing piece replaced with a pearl of super glue.
“That’s it?” I asked, impressed. She shrugged, humming merrily, merrily, and grabbed a slice.
“Beats me,” she said, eyeing the sky as one would a suspicious alibi. “Time will tell.” She winked.
Cheese burned our tongues and we stuffed ourselves, wrapped, at least for the moment, in our robes of endless sunlight.
The Hazards of a Haunted Painting
This time, Kiki asked me over. She opened the front door and gestured me in without a word. I walked on tiptoe as if by instinct. She pointed to the painting in her hall, a painting she once told me she bought at a yard sale for three dollars because it reminded her of the word “generosity.”
“Que pintura es una locura,” she said. I do not know Spanish well, and neither does she, so she also spun a finger beside her ear and made cuckoo eyes. I nodded, solemnly. Long ago I learned not to laugh at Kiki’s proclamations. We tiptoed down the hall and stood outside on the back patio.
Sliding the glass door closed behind her, Kiki laid out her plan in English, now that we were out of earshot of the painting, which, she explained, didn’t understand Spanish. “You ready to be my Lois Lane?” I nodded, though I thought Watson or at the very least one of Nancy Drew’s gal pals would have been more fitting. She pointed to the kitchen where she’d laid out ingredients for lasagna. “You bake, I’ll shop,” she said and before I could ask for what, she was out the door.
Alone with the painting, my skin pricked as if covered in hives or ants. I felt like Lois Lane would be braver, so I rolled up my sleeves and put together a lasagna, layer by layer, garlic, onion, and the doughy scent of noodles filling the kitchen, almost making me forget I was literally in a haunted house, if one haunted object made an entire home a haunt.
The painting in question was of a blue vase filled with white daisies, a sliced avocado at the base, the seed inside dark and shining like a pupil. I touched the frame and it felt like ice: my finger damp and blue, the blue spreading like a rash up my arm. I wanted to swear in Spanish so the painting didn’t know how freaked out I was, but I was too freaked out to remember any Spanish curses. I waited for Kiki outside, hoping the sun would fade the blue from my skin and that the lasagna didn’t burn.
When Kiki returned, she eyed my blue skin, looked at me with disappointment: “just stay out here.”
Wearing thick rubber gloves and a bandana over her mouth, she carried the painting outside, leaning it against the back fence. She tapped each side of the frame with a tuning fork. She approached me, slipping off her shoes. “Like my new toe ring?”
“Is it magic?” I asked, nodding appreciatively at the copper band, the small turquoise stone.
“Of course not!” she said. “I’m going to check on the lasagna and get something for your skin. Don’t touch the painting.”
She returned with a weight belt, which she strapped around my waist. “Wear this for an hour and your skin will be back to its pale, freckled ways. Unless you’re into the blue?” I shook my head. The belt cinched my waist like a ribbon encircling a bouquet.
“I don’t want you to think what I do is just a bunch of froo-froo mumbo jumbo,” she said, sheepishly handing me two burning incense sticks. “But, we need to go over there and smoke the ghost out.”
We waved incense—patchouli and pine because (Kiki informed me) ghosts hate this combination—at the painting. The daisies in the frame drooped. The vase cracked and the avocado seed broke open, revealing a tiny sprout. Kiki sighed in relief. “It should be fine by morning,” she said. “Want to stay for dinner? I hear we’re having lasagna.” I laughed and tightened the belt around my waist. The blue was already fading from my skin.
The Solution for the Swamp (of Online Dating)
“Unless you want to be sweeping everyone off their feet constantly,” Kiki told me, flicking imaginary cigarette ash out the window as we drove west on Interstate 64, “that shit ain’t for you.” We were headed back to Illinois to visit our families for Thanksgiving. My brother slept in the back seat.
“Then how do you propose a gal like me meets anyone in fabulous Huntington, West Virginia?” I found myself craving a fake cigarette too, my hands twitchy in the passenger seat as the miles flew past.
“Easy. You’ve got to be a broom,” she said, waving her hand wildly while still pinching her fake cigarette. “Oh my god. We are turning you into a broom. Like, right now.”
“On the side of a major interstate? I think my love life can wait.”
“But the internet is everywhere! It is now!” She threw the imaginary cigarette butt out the window and then tapped my brother’s leg. “Michael, wake up.” He blinked at us, recognizing immediately that Kiki had an IDEA.
“Let’s hear it,” he said, stretching his arms and cracking his toes.
"Look up where we can find an antique store,” she said. Michael pulled out his phone and found one twenty miles away. Kiki clapped her hands against the steering wheel. “This calls for a celebration.” She passed me the bottle of imaginary whiskey we’d been drinking. I pretended to take a swig and handed the “bottle” back to Michael. He gulped.
Michael navigated us to the antique mall which clearly used to be a K-Mart. It was monstrous in size and the flickering fluorescent light made the heavy wood furniture and delicate stained-glass lamps look stolen.
“Okay. We’ve got to hurry. Everyone split up. Look for the sexiest broom you can find. Something with a wood handle and, like, really delicate bristles,” Kiki instructed us.
I walked down the cluttered aisles, trying not to get distracted by old hat boxes and suitcases filled with scarves. After awhile I heard Michael whistling the notes our family uses to beckon each other as well as our dogs.I zigzagged through the aisles to find him, holding a very old, very fragile broom. The bristles were mostly bent at odd angles and were a weird hybrid of beige and gray. The head of the broom wobbled. “A screw’s missing, but that’s what makes it…sexy, right?” He winked at me as Kiki approached. She approved and we bought the overpriced, nearly broken broom.
Outside she positioned me with the broom in front of an antique hutch. She had me crouch. “I want only your hands, near the head of the broom. It’s too bad you don’t do manicures.” I suddenly regretted my unevenly cut nails, but I crouched, holding the broom as sexily as possible. She took several pictures with her phone then texted them to me. “Use one of these for your profile picture. You’ll have a hundred matches in ten seconds.”
I figured I had nothing to lose. When we got back to the car I took the back seat. Michael settled into the passenger seat, offering me an imaginary piece of gum. “I wish we had real gum,” I said.
“You’ve got to admit,” Michael said, blowing an imaginary bubble. “This was one of the most normal adventures we’ve had yet.”
Coda or Kiki P.I.’s Take on Cash for Clues
She had seen the signs around campus and, having solved many of Huntington’s strangest mysteries—uncorked the Mystery of the Pigeon-holed Locksmith, rescued a child from a bewitched revolving door, and invented a rain jacket that repelled both water and bad dreams—she thought it was time to go pro.
“I mean, if there’s a poet making money delivering dreams to the people of Richmond, Virginia,” she explained at our weekly Friday Night Dinners (a ritual inspired by our love of Gilmore Girls) “why can’t I get in on the game? I’ve got clues waiting to be sold.”
“But I don’t think…” I began, looking to my brother for guidance. He sighed while passing me a platter of pork chops. “...that ‘Cash for Clues’ means what you think it means.”
"This is a post-truth world,” she said as she stabbed a Brussels sprout with her fork. “It means exactly what I think it means.”
After dinner, I helped her build an Etsy shop (Kiki P.I.’s House of Clues). We brainstormed various categories to meet everyone’s clue needs: Cheap Clues, Classy Clues, Charming Clues, even (to appeal to millennial nostalgia) Blue’s Clues. The problem was optics: Kiki insisted her clues be custom-made.
“That means that you don’t have anything to sell,” I said. She looked at me blankly. Michael wisely left the room.
“I do,” Kiki said. “I just don’t have buyers yet.” She had me place a custom order and uploaded the sexy broom as an example clue. We had Michael request the dream-repelling raincoat and added that photograph. The store still looked empty, but Kiki, P.I.thought it was social media ready. “Scarcity breeds desire,” she insisted.
Of course, she was right. She could barely keep up with demand; she mailed a solved crossword puzzle to a grandmother in Cleveland, Ohio and spent an hour on the phone with a man afraid of his children’s sandbox. She built a birdhouse and shipped it to a mother whose three-year-old daughter insisted she was an oriole. Money trickled in; her shop received rave reviews.
“I might quit my day job,” she said, knitting a purple ruff for someone’s depressed pet pug.
This time I couldn’t protest. “You’re going to continue offering family discounts, right?” I asked.
“Obviously, my little ham sandwich,” she said, repairing a dropped stitch. “What do you think I am, some kind of dragon hoarding clues like coins?” She gasped and dropped her knitting, running to the kitchen where Michael was unloading the dishwasher. “I’m going to be a dragon hoarding coins for Halloween,” she announced. “And you’ve got to dress up as the coins.”
They high-fived, and I was pretty sure I knew the solution to the Mystery of Best Couples Halloween Costume 2017. I thought for a moment about the money I made as a part-time waitress and a part-time teacher.
“Hey Kiki,” I said. “Think you can teach me the trade?”
She laughed. “I’ve already begun.”
Amie Whittemore is the author of the poetry collection Glass Harvest (Autumn House Press) and co-founder of the Charlottesville Reading Series in Virginia. Her poems have appeared in The Gettysburg Review, Sycamore Review, Smartish Pace, Cimarron Review, and elsewhere. She teaches English at Middle Tennessee State University.