Part 1: Mystery
Sometime in the Summer of 2008, I received a mysterious package in the mail.
It wasn't my birthday, but it was wrapped like a present. It was about 3 feet tall by 8 inches wide (probably was not cheap to mail), and it came from Woodland Hills, CA. The name listed on the address label was "Kuchta", a name which I had no context for, from a place I'd never heard of. The package contained two items. A handwritten note, which said something along the lines of "Was It Good For You?", and this painting:
And that's it. No context and absolutely no evidence that I could trace back to anyone I knew. Emily and I had recently moved into our apartment in NW Portland, and only a handful of people had our address. I distinctly remember double-checking to make sure that I hadn't put our new location up publicly on Facebook inadvertently. Because it was addressed to me personally, I ruled out accident, and because my address was a relative unknown, I ruled out a purely random act of "weirdness". The most baffling thing about it at the time was the apparent cost that it would require to mail it- I knew people who would play a trick like that on me, but it had to have cost $20 to ship, which pretty instantly rules out all of those people.
I used the tools I had to sleuth- I remember staring vacantly at a picture of the address on Google street view, looking for clues. My ex-girlfriend was the one person I knew living in Southern California, and (after some pondering) I reached out to her to see if she knew anything about it.
She did not.
I probably asked around a few likely suspects among my friends, feeling for leads but giving up pretty early when it was obvious they had no idea what I was talking about. Dejected, I wrote the address down in a notebook, and discarded the letter and wrapping paper.
The painting lived in the bathroom of our apartment for the next 8 months or so, and I couldn't bring myself to get rid of it when we moved to our house in January of 2009. Discarding the painting (creepy as it was) felt like giving up on a little mystery that in my heart I knew was worth solving. So it came with us.
I think it spent the first year or so propped up in our current bathroom, prior to a little remodel, and has lived in our basement since. In a stack of random art while Nathan occupied the basement bedroom, it graduated to leaning up against a wall in full view since we got married and kicked out the roomates. Every time I see it, an inspired confusion sets in. I don't like a joke that I'm not in on, especially one I know I would enjoy the punchline of, but I do love a puzzle. Time passes.
Part 2: Breakthroughs
Over the past month or two, Emily and I have been organizing our miscellany and disposing of things that we've just been holding onto for no real reason. It's a healthy purge, and in the process we've been uncovering things like this, both nostalgic and mysterious. We haven't gotten to the room with the painting yet, but today I did uncover the notepad with the mysterious address in it. My office is in shambles- drawers emptied of their contents, piles upon piles for the basement, the file cabinet, Goodwill, and to be organized.
Emily was out running errands, and I decided to pick up my own little "fools errand" one more time and see what I could make of it.
Internet sleuthing has become a little easier since 2009, mostly as a result of the majority of Americans still living having put themselves into it in some way. My puzzle developed like this:
I had a last name and an address, which is a good place to start. Using these two, I was able to find a first name (as a technical contact on a whois lookup for a domain that has since changed owners, for an online gaming site). The domain itself was a red herring- I used archive.org to look up screenshots of it from 2005, and it was not anything associated with anyone I knew. But I had a full name.
With that full name, and a little Googling, I found the person. You'd think this would have broken it open for me, but it was strangely anti-climactic. I'm going to leave out the personal details I found, as this story ultimately is not about that person, but I found photographs as well- headshots of an actress listed on the website for a talent agency. A tan, blonde woman with short hair, who looks like nobody I know and nobody who would send me, randomly, a boudoir painting of a woman in a gold frame.
Obviously, with a full name, you go to Facebook. And yes, after a few false leads, I eventually found her there. She hadn't posted anything since 2011 (and even then all the public could see was a few headshots), but I at least presumably tied her into my world on some level with her listing as a graduate of the University of Oregon. She had no mutual friends with me, and really only one or two friends at all, both of which appeared to be talent agencies.
But I knew it was her, somehow. I could tie the name to the address, and the name and address to the photos, and the photos to the FB account, so somehow this was my lady. There was a brief mental debate as to whether contacting her was a can of worms I wanted to open- if this woman had no context to me and chose me to send a weird painting to, should I be reaching out? Questions of sanity entered my mind. Should I create an anonymous account to protect myself? I'm sure it wouldn't be hard with all of my public info online to track me down and find me if you really wanted to.
But I couldn't resist. I went downstairs and photographed the painting, and sent a simple enough Facebook message with the photo that was something along the lines of: "Does this painting mean anything to you?". With someone who hadn't used their Facebook account in 4 years, I was not optimistic about a speedy response to a message from a stranger. So I kept going. My mind reeled.
I did those free "people searches" that tell you past cities of people (and let you pay more for additional info, which I declined), and backtraced her to Eugene, LA, and Amherst Mass., none of which broke anything open for me. I tried to find names of relatives or children who might be my age (this woman was 15-20 years older than me) who might be a mutual acquaintance of a friend, but nothing was popping up. Ready to give up, I did one last search with a new combination of the pieces I had, and returned a result with a slight first name variation- a nickname.
Would this be enough to try it all again? I kept frantically Googling, now with the nickname, which lead me to a Twitter account created in 2009, with a single tweet. Something along the lines of "Learning to use Twitter" (everyone's first tweet, more or less). But there was also a new piece of information- a link to a now-defunct blog about Prop 8 (no screencaps on archive.org, unfortunately).
It felt like a breakthrough, but it still wasn't really, because it wasn't information that connected her to anyone. With my last bit of energy I had to put into this for the day, I gave one last Google, and there I saw it-
A picture of my mystery woman with Nathan's aunt Diane, at an anti Prop 8 rally.
I had won.
With definitive proof that it was either Nathan or his brother Tyler, I gave Nathan a call, ready to gloat. I wasted no time, and immediately primed him for a response. I didn't come out accusatory, considering that it could just have easily been his brother, but obviously I chose him first for a reason. Initially he denied being involved, which threw me for a second. But I pressed on and explained my story, the near proof that I had, and what it all had to mean.
After a brief silence, he told me that this story was actually one that he had told three weeks ago, at his Grandpa's funeral.
Part 3: Eulogy
John Duke was a salty old sailor of a man, who entered my life in 6th grade and watched me grow up alongside Nathan. I spent a lot of time running through his house, playing video games upstairs, raiding his fridge, and generally making myself at home in his world.
Nathan lived 30 miles away, but John's house was 2 blocks away- I could see it out my front door. I just had to look up the street for the white Dodge Intrepid, and I would know that I could wander over and make trouble. We shot one of our better middle school parody films there (Star Wars), which culminated in a trampoline light saber fight between me (Luke Skywaker, dressed from head to toe in bright Nike sportswear) and Darth Vader (Will Burton in a skull mask). It was the meeting ground before our homecoming dance Junior year, and for late night merrymaking year round.
John was always at every big event, sporting, school, or otherwise, and when we left for college his home was a meeting point whenever we were back in town. On occasion I'd get to see him when the Defreeses came to visit Corvallis, and later Portland, and it was always like striking back up a conversation with an old friend, no time lost. I got to share my wedding, as well as both Nathan and Tyler's with him. He had a genuine interest in my life, and for someone who had seen as much as he had, that meant a lot to me.
John passed away somewhat suddenly about three weeks ago, suddenly for me anyway, who last saw him in good health and spirits in August. He was with family, which is about as much as you can ask for, a family who still very much centered their lives around him. John will be always be remembered fondly for his character, wit and spirit, and those things are evident in the people he passed them on to.
So where is this all going?
After a pause on the line Nathan informed me that in actuality, John was behind the whole project. Apparently, he just thought it would be a good idea to mess with me. We hadn't seen each other in a few years, and that was grounds enough for a complicated prank with no followup or payoff.
The painting- like all of his greatest and most mysterious treasures- came from a mail order catalog. I have no idea what kind of catalog sells such things, but if anyone had one, it was John.
The now discarded note is even more amazing effort. As Nathan tells it, it was written by a waitress at a steakhouse outside of town. It seems like that's a bit overkill, tracks-covering wise, but I have to appreciate the joy that the two of them must have gotten piecing together these various elements.
And the real feat- once it was all compiled- was to mail it down to California to Nathan's aunt and her wife (our mysterious Kuchta), who probably confusedly played along in this bizarre affair.
And then, radio silence. There was no satisfaction of the reveal, no follow-through, no hints.
Nathan says he doesn't remember being asked about it, which seems like a stretch. Emily goes the other way, and says that we had pretty much decided when we gave up that it had to be him. In my mind, I asked everybody and had no primary suspect. John Duke was near the bottom of my list, it's safe to say.
The timing of this is the most funny to me. A final surprise from a man who was full of them- the pieces aligning in such a way to allow me to finally get to the bottom of a mystery that I could just have easily abandoned forever. But I like to think he knew I wouldn't, that that was part of the bond we shared. I regret not being able to show up to Johns house come Thanksgiving with a knowing smile on my face, ready to confront him about his role in the prank. I like to think he remembered it every time he saw me since, which may or may not be true. But I also have to appreciate the ultimate payoff for this gift- he gave me a funny puzzle and snuck out the back door while I was still fiddling with the pieces.
Good move, John.