The village of Opotiki is located between the joint of two rivers. The village is bounded on its eastern side by the Bay of Plenty, a long, coastal indentation named in the 1800s by English explorer James Cook who wanted a name that reflected the region’s abundant florae and faunae that the Maori populations feasted on. To the west of Opotiki is the Raukumara Range, a range of sandstone mountains with little flat acreage and knee high grass cover. Hills dive straight down into the sea, although there are beaches, but their shores alternate between pebbly and rocky, and the combination of strong surf and river outlets means the shores are covered with all matter of botanic flotsam.
The town does not have the feel of a tourist place. Camper vans are less frequent on the roads. Scenic turn offs are minimal. There are a trio of backpacker accommodations, small converted cottages with patios, but it seems that their vacancy signs have never been touched. B&B lodging signs, which are ubiquitous elsewhere, are absent. The feeling is of a New Zealand before Lord of the Rings, before its endemic beauty was parsed, exported, and then exploited. Opotiki never had its cameo.
The population is mostly Maori. About sixty percent according to the recent census. The locals, men and women, wear hardware store jeans or paint speckled shorts, rubber work boots and wide brimmed sun hats. They drive “utes,” which are utility vehicles with a bed and a hitch. Accents are barbed and there’s no cleanliness to the spoken sentences, they’re fussed up with quick talk and slang.
Beyond the town, in the hills, live farmers and ranchers. The land there is dissected by rivers and erosion. There are everywhere land plots that are bordered on all sides with elongated cypress trees, behind which grow the area’s most important asset and the reason why I went: kiwifruits.
The Bay of Plenty region produces the majority of the nation’s export kiwifruit crop. There are farm operations that raise cattle and cultivate avocados, but kiwifruits are the staple. They’re a finicky fruit that New Zealand, in a brilliant bait and switch, managed to re-name from the Chinese Gooseberry despite the fact that the kiwifruit originated in China and is produced there to the tune of nearly five times more tonnes per year. There are two main cultivars: the fuzzy kiwifruit, more suited for export and therefore familiar to Americans, and the golden kiwifruit, which is less acidic and whose furless skin is sandpapery and its flesh is, surprise, gold. Both cultivars require constant sun, drainable soil, and still air. So they grew well in the Bay of Plenty since the sun is copious, those sandstone mountains make ideal soil, but its the winds that require tempering. Hence the cyprus walls.
This story is not about kiwifruits though. Had the trip skewed towards my more mundane expectations this blog post would harvest from the notes I took on my first day, e.g.: “Kiwi fruits grow on woody vines, similar to grape vines. Same height, etc. Except kiwi vines are also threaded across steel wires that are strung across all the rows. So in this way each row has a six foot high canopy.”
This is a story about a first world crime. It too is about an amateur crime investigation, of stories that are generationally interwoven with different personal narratives, poverty, alcoholism, and about a privileged white boy coming in and tip toeing around making blatant accusations. This story really is about a missing cell phone.
My host was Janice, part owner of twelve hectares of kiwifruit fields and about five feet five, though her features make her appear more compact. She’s got small hands, nubbins of teeth, when she laughs she has a way of ducking her head into her shoulders like a turtle retracing its neck from fright. Her chestnut hair is shorn into a boy’s do. She is incredibly shy at first meeting, and even after getting to know her she is as quiet as cut grass, not offering up much conversation and responding to most situations with a plaintive acknowledgment. While she drove me from the bus station in her ranch’s 4×4 she said no more than a dozen words. Yet she is exceedingly kind, as in before my arrival she asked whether I had any food preferences and offered me the lift from the bus station.
Janice’s is the sole home at the end of a street that bears her husband’s surname. The street forks into a dirt road on one side. This goes up a hill that’s concealed by avocado trees and has a pair of barns at the top. The fork’s other road is a stone driveway that ends in a roundabout.
The layout of the home and environs is important here. The roundabout is a hefty skip away from the house’s patio. On the patio are multiple iron chairs, a rusted barbecue, and a square table. Each of these are in full view of the roundabout. There is a grass yard. All over it are amputated toys and chewed up braids of rope, the abandoned mischief projects of Janice’s two dogs, one a minuscule Jack Russell, the other a knotty, gray hair mutt the size of a labrador. The patio is covered with a shingled awning. The dining room is a step in from the patio, and only a sliding glass door separates the two. Janice does not lock this and the plastic curtains are pushed to the door’s far end, never pulled across, not even during the night. Beyond the dining room is a living room with those family portraits and bygone vacation photos that remember an impossible past. There are toys for grandchildren in long untouched boxes. Secluded and in the rear of the house is the guest bedroom and bathroom.
On my arrival Janice gave me a quick tour of the farm. She introduced me to her son Glenn, who is in his late thirties and is capable, fast talking, and dexterous with farm equipment. He also couldn’t be bothered to recognize my presence. If there was ever an example of a cat turned human, it would be Glenn. Janice then took me to the two old barns that were built on a hill. There was a kiwi field next to one, and a copse next to that. It was here that I first heard iterate babbling. The babbling was loud and boisterous, not so much filtering through tree branches as exploding from them. Janice and I followed a two-axel car path and came upon a single story bungalow with a patio. There were root beer and canary colored sofas and recliners with the tinge of long atmospheric exposure, the moldy look fabric acquires from time spent beyond walls. There were three men sitting on the patio. Their faces were bee sting swollen with the colors a near-to-burst-papule red. One, the tannest of the lot with long hair like a ribbon silver deposit stood up. “Oy! Oy! Oy!” He yelled when he saw me, an impish smile was positively cemented on his face, “What’s yer name?” The man’s legs were plump. His calf went into his ankle like there was no anatomical difference between the two, and his feet and toe ballooned in similar hard bloat. This was all apparent from where I stood, twenty feet away.
“Antonio, what about you?”
“Oy! Antonio, what does that make you? Polynesian?” His smile hardly moved.
“That’s great mate! A Mexican,” he turned to the two men who sat, unexcited and unmoved, on the patio, “We have a Mexican here. That’s great, you’re alright mate.”
Janice had gone inside while this conversation took place. When she re-emerged and came down the patio steps to where I was so she gave me a solemn look, one that signified “Let’s go.” When we got into the car she said, “That’s my husband Jon. He’s a bit of an alkie.”
On the morning of the crime in question, Janice woke at seven. She put out a spread that included yogurt, muesli, and milk she’d put into a cruet from the larger container. There was a dijon colored tupperware brim-full of raw honey. Janice was on her landline constantly, picking apart pieces of town gossip that sprung up or developed overnight. So and so ran through a fence. So and so has not paid alimony. So and so violated a restraining order. There were weather updates for micro patterns expected to pass over the area, a reporting not done in local channels or newspapers. There is a legal requirement that farmers who intend to spray crops alert neighbors, so she answered a few of these calls, and the initial courtesy call grew into a longer call where Janice again went over the town gossips, re-sharing what she heard while filling in blank bits—fence, alimony, restraining order, weather.
I sat outside. I keep a small notebook and was busy scribbling in it. I took my cell phone from my jean pocket and put it on one of the chair armrests. At nine Janice hollered to say she was ready to go. I put my notebook in my pocket and followed her up and through an avocado orchard while she leaned to pick and toss into a bucket the bruised or overripe avocados that’d fallen. A pig pen holding an overlarge pig is at the hill top. Avocado pits are all over the muddy enclosure. She upturned the bucket and the pig came running, tearing up the avocado skins with its snout and devouring the insides. With each snort the pig slowly ruined the idea of avocados for me. But I had also had to capture the travesty of avocados being fed to pigs, so I reached for my phone but didn’t feel it in any of my pockets. I left it on the patio chair, I thought. I didn’t go back to grab it. I followed Janice and spent the next few hours pruning and mowing kiwi fields.
When I was back down by the house I stopped to get a glass of water and look for my phone. That’s when the trouble started.
I started my search methodically, looking over the patio, the kitchen, the bedroom, on top of furnishings and table tops, underneath paper stacks and clothing columns. When I search I employ a few different tactics. The first is the “take the entire scene in” tactic. Simply look at the scene and see what’s there. That fails. I’m a guy, I can’t do that. As a kid my mother could find in two seconds what I could not in five minutes. I could be holding a box of Honey Bunches of Oats and not be able to find it. The second step is “look through belongings without upsetting the positioning of said belongings.” This means not taking a clothing pile and tossing the clothes off willy nilly. It means dissecting a pile of papers one at a time and replacing each in its exact pre-search place. This allows for a cleaner search area, one that retains as much as possible the original placement of each object. It also makes it simpler to move to the third step, which is “retrace your steps.” I did this, imagining my day in reverse back to my wake up. It took me on a walk up the avocado hill again, up to the pig pen where I was first cognizant of not having my phone. When this step fails I fall into the final and most productive/least productive step depending on outlook: “Panic.”
Many overturned rooms later and semi, maybe-not-totally-appropriate-for-the-culture venting, I decided my phone was gone. I said this to Janice who was far more lax with the idea of the phone’s disappearance than I was, saying simply, “It will turn up.” But I don’t lose my phone (or had not up to that point). Misplacing it is a rarity. It’s never slipped from my pocket, never wound up in some out of the way crevice, never had its find phone feature activated. And I knew where it was—on the patio. I rang the phone, which I’d left on, but it went straight to VM. The find my phone feature works only when the phone is turned on, and neither Vodafone nor Apple representatives could remotely turn on the phone despite my vehement assertions that, “If you can spy on me with my own camera then you can turn on my phone.”
I asked Janice if anyone else had been in the house that morning and she said yes and then named a cavalcade of visitors. First was Gabe, a neighbor and stroke survivor who each week met Theonia, an out of town speech therapist to cover speech therapy lessons at Janice’s dining room table. Then came Vivius, a farm worker who had stood on the patio unattended for ten minutes while waiting for a paycheck Janice went to grab. Janice wasn’t sure but there appeared to be people in the car that waited for him. There was also the likelihood that Jon had ambled down at some point.
Janice called Theonia and asked whether she’d seen anything. Theonia said no. Janice said she’d talk to Gabe but that the conversation would be fruitless. “He doesn’t know what he’s saying half the time.” She went up the road to talk to him since he was spending the rest of the afternoon at Jon’s house. When Janice returned she said, “It’s like shooing flies to get information from that lot. I talked to Gabe but he didn’t make a bit of sense, and I took a look at his pockets but he didn’t seem to have anything hard in them.”
I went up myself. Gabe’s communicative skills were limited to pointing. The stroke had altered entirely his body’s composition. What once was clearly a tall man who cut a lean, man’s man figure, was now a bent over, twisted sculpture of sinew and flesh. He was working on homework, which consisted of tracing letters and circling words in a word scramble. When I asked him about the phone his eyes registered understanding. But what words he had left in him were grunted out. He pointed to a blank space in the air, like with a vociferous enough attempt to speak he’d convey what he wanted to communicate. He led me down the hill, back to Janice’s. He walked to the patio and to the iron chair I’d sat on that morning. With an exaggerated finger point he pointed to the chair’s arm rest. Gabe had seen the phone. Janice remembered when he must have; at one point he went to the patio to smoke. Gabe at least confirmed that the phone was there before it wasn’t.
Gabe’s historic preference is a button phone.
Janice called the farm worker Vivius, who didn’t answer.
Jon called the house. Despite their marital estrangement, Janice and Jon speak on the phone throughout the day. He rambles and she listens. If he goes on for too long she puts the phone down and flips through her newspaper’s coupon sections. Any phone call is likely from him. Depending on her patience level she lets it ring and ring. They play phone games. If the phone rings three times and the phone ceases she knows it was him testing to see whether she’d pick up. Sometimes he catches her ignoring him. His voice is audible when he catches her, “Oy you gonna ignore me?” He calls her if a program she likes is on TV. He calls her to let her know he’s eating lunch. He calls her to come up with beer. He calls her to make inebriate noises.
Jon was adamant he’d seen a woman with a red shirt wandering the property, in and out of avocado tree shade. Jon and Janice knew this woman and her nefarious purpose, which so far had been limited to the occasional avocado theft, which, as far as crimes go, I assume ranks high on the list of ones worthy of multi-national tribunals at the Hague. Jon didn’t know if the red shirted woman came close to Janice’s property, and Janice couldn’t believe that such a brazen move fit with the woman’s typical way of operating.
“I think I will drive us down to see Vivius,” Janice said to Jon.
“Ask about the phone, he came by for his check this morning.”
“Ahhh, o’corse. That’s the bastard who dunnit!”
Vivius lives in a square apartment building with robin blue stucco and a flat roof. There are four apartments, two on each side of the building, with each pair serviced by its own staircase. When we arrived each staircase door was open. People, it was clear, regularly came in and out of all the apartments, like the entire building was a communal living space. So the building was more a homely burrow with walls and doors because that’s how the apartment was designed.
We spoke to Vivius’s foster brother. What I learned about Vivius came in increments. “He’s with his girlfriend at her kid’s preschool for their Christmas party,” the brother told us. Vivius’s car had been impounded the week before due to nonpayment of registration, so his girlfriend had to chauffeur him.
Janice asked if Vivius’s adoptive mother, Caroline, was home. Caroline adopted Vivius years earlier. Vivius had been in and out of foster homes through his teen years, but Caroline put in the paper work to adopt him before he turned eighteen. Vivius is twenty-two.
We drove to the preschool and pulled among the many cars parked at an angle along the curb. Janice went into the school to ask about Vivius’s whereabouts, and I conspicuously peered into each car window. Two teachers came out of the party and asked whether I needed help.
The preschool venture resulted in nothing. We went to a police station and filed a police report. The desk clerk was amicable. She filled out the paper work and was thorough and professional, inquiring into how they could reach me should the phone be found. I pointedly asked her, “This phone is gone isn’t it?” She dropped her shtick, “Almost certainly, but you never know.”
We returned to Janice’s. I blocked my SIM card, changed passwords for email accounts, iCloud, internet banking, etc, set my phone to wipe all data in case the phone was turned on and connected to a network or wifi. And by late afternoon it was clear that the vast majority of neighbors knew my phone was gone. I saw the orchard foreman and he yelled out, “Find your phone my brut?” Even the mail lady came to Janice’s door to drop off mail and asked, “Have you found your phone?” When I walked by Jon’s home that evening he stood up at my approach. He wore a knee-length merino short-sleeve shirt and, ostensibly, no underwear because while he talked he rubbed his penis that made a not un-sizable ridge on the fabric. His stomach protruded round and hard like an abdominal goiter and he yelled out, “Maybe a hawk’s got it, eh? HA HA HA” His laugh sounded like sandpaper. “I once walked across the lawn and had meats in my hands and dropped a bit and a hawk came out of the sky and whoosh grabbed it. Never got it back. HAHA.”
I asked, “Did the meat look like an iPhone?
“HAHA, my bru. Sweet as! It was meat, not a phone!”
Another lady, a friend of Janice’s, came by and held one of Janice’s farm dogs by the muzzle and said, “Did you run off with the phone you bad boy? Was it you?” Janice wondered. She put a remote control on the armrest of the chair in an attempt to goad a repeat performance.
A part of me wondered if I was being fucked with. It was within the realm of reason (it’s a huge realm, the Realm of Reason) that I’d unwittingly volunteered my way into a town wide mystery theatre production. What I’d seen was a town where alcohol and depression were like stone gorges that ran in families. Each day was rise with the sun and move cattle from pen to pen or spray kiwifruit and gossip about weather and then watch TV and fall with the sun. I spoke with Glenn’s girlfriend and she said Glenn had been working so much that most nights he returned home and plopped in front of the telly and his words went like stale crumbs and out of circulation pennies into the fabric creases. What I saw was a town that needed a fast paced but low stakes Who Dunnit?.
The Vivius trail remained the strongest one to follow. At dusk Janice and I moved cattle between pens and then tried a final time to speak to Vivius at home. Calls to his foster mother went unanswered and unreturned, but Janice had spoken to Vivius earlier in the day, which occurred without my knowing. The conversation prodded at Janice for the hours after. According to her she’d all but been blatant with accusing Vivius of taking the phone. The trip back to Vivius’s was part atonement, part questioning.
We arrived at the same blue apartment from earlier in the day. Vivius was inside and took a while to come out. Vivius’s girlfriend’s preschool age daughter was lying on her stomach on the upstairs balcony. She tossed her drawings off so we could look at them and wanted us to count to ten with her.
Vivius emerged barefoot. He held a button phone with a color screen. He was raggedly shaven and unable to maintain any sort of eye contact. He kept scratching his hair and neck during the conversation, to a point of frequency that Janice afterwards wondered if he was drunk or high. He stood on the front door step. We made introductions, and while we did Vivius’s girlfriend came out and stood on the upstairs patio and laid her old model smart phone on the ledge. The girlfriend was an excess of personality, like she was a drunk sorority member who was seeing her best friend for the first time in years.
Janice explained the situation. I echoed with, “Yup, no luck in finding the phone.”
The girlfriend yelled, “That’s ratchet bru. What kinda phone?”
“Super ratchet bru.”
I told them the story. I explained that if they had seen it that’d be helpful, or if they knew anyone who might have seen it that would be helpful, that unfortunately the phone was already wiped out and would be unusable for anyone but myself, that if someone happened to grab it thinking it was theirs that what they were essentially holding onto was an overpriced brick and that the best way to alleviate the situation was to just drop it off in Janice’s mailbox overnight and that’d be that, not a single question would follow.
“Just tell them to drop it off in the mailbox then?” Vivius asked.
“Yes, don’t really care if anyone took it, but if you happen to see it then just drop it off. We heard something about a woman with a red shirt.”
“That was her aunt.” Vivius said, wagging his head up to his girlfriend. Then he looked up and asked a question that tailed off at the end, “Do you think they…”
The girlfriend didn’t acknowledge and Vivius turned back to look at me, “Is there insurance on the phone?”
“No,” I said.
Janice cut in, “And he’s American, visiting New Zealand. He’s only been in this town for twelve hours so you can imagine that this is a pretty bad welcome. I feel rather embarrassed by the whole situation because I think it reflects on us.”
Vivius nodded. The girlfriend laughed and said, “Yah, that’s ratchet. So ratchet.”
We left with the promise that if they heard or saw anything they’d let us know. Vivius’s mother called back, and when she heard the story she said she’d had items go missing when the crew Vivius’s girlfriend rolled with came to her house.
I checked the mailbox each morning for the next two mornings and evenings with a resigned despondency. Janice stayed horrified and embarrassed, repeating this frame of mind again and again to me and to each caller she told the story to.
I wound up wanting to leave early. When traveling there are certainly moments when bad befalls you and your is a choice. That’s true of life in general, of course, and at this juncture I made the choice that I wouldn’t push this episode aside in order to remain at the farm and learn about kiwis and eat from Janice’s abundant supply of avocados and raw honey. I asked Janice to take me to the bus stop and she did, filling the car with her quiet trepidation that I was about to rail relentlessly on the town and its people. I didn’t, of course. Other Kiwis did that for me though. One Kiwi city dweller said of the place: “[It’s] a godawful shithole full of despots and no-hopers.”
Janice waited for me to board the bus. She had her Jack Russell in the car and he poked his nose in between the open window crack. “Maybe,” I thought, “Maybe that son of a bitch did do it.”