Cold Case

by Jesslyn Shields

I’ve got just one really weird story, and it’s a cold case:

When I was 22, I was going to college in Arizona and was offered a three-month internship in Montana for the fall. The problem was, what was I going to do with all my stuff while I was away? I ended up renting a storage unit.

So, the storage unit I rented was just like the ones you’ve probably rented before: climate controlled, cement floor, stale-smelling. This one was managed by a cranky elderly couple who made me pay for all three months in advance. In fact, it took some real sweet talking to get them to rent it to me at all, which I thought was weird at the time.

Eventually they broke down and the sour-faced woman showed me through a dim maze of halls lined with garage doors to number 531, a 5’ x 10’ hole in the wall which easily accommodated all my stuff. I bought a Master Lock to lock it up with and put one key on my keychain and the other I gave to my boyfriend who was staying in Arizona. Then I went to Montana and didn’t give my storage unit another thought.

I got back three months later and promptly reported to Mile High Self Storage. Nobody was in the office when I got there, so I found my way to my unit in the dark — the florescent overheads weren’t on and the only light came from the red EXIT signs over the doorways. But I found number 531 and fumbled around with the lock for a while. When I finally got it open, I yanked the sliding door up over my head and, squinting into the dark, said to myself, “Wow, I have a lot more stuff than I thought.”

But here’s the thing: It wasn’t my stuff. I didn’t know this for certain because I couldn’t actually see very well, but what was obvious was the storage unit held roughly half again the belongings I remembered leaving there in September. And it smelled strange — like cigarettes and a plug-in air freshener. I began running my hands against the untidy wall of junk in front of me. There was a lidless cardboard box filled with something: shoes. No, boots. There were a couple of plastic filing boxes. There was what seemed to be a typewriter case teetering on top of a clear garment bag containing something dark. In the sinister red light from the exit sign down the hall, I started to freak out.

I left the door to my hijacked storage unit open and started jogging through the red-lit halls and down the stairs, feeling certain somebody was following me. I kept wiping my palms on my jeans, trying to get the feeling of suede and dust and heavy plastic off my hands. I called my boyfriend from the pay phone at the gas station next door.

“Did you put somebody else’s stuff in my storage unit?” I asked when he picked up the phone.

“What? No.”

“I just went to my storage unit and somebody else’s stuff is in there. You have a key, right? Whose stuff is this?”

“I didn’t put anything in there. Are you sure you opened the right one? Maybe you opened the wrong one.”


“Jess, calm down. Did you ask the manager about it?”


“Go ask. I’m sure there’s a good explanation. Did they have a key?”


“Okay, go talk to the manager.”

So, I went back to the manager’s office and nobody was there but a little glowing space heater, so I got the giant flashlight from the trunk of my car, steeled myself and went back in. I found the light switch this time. And yeah, somebody else’s stuff was still in my storage unit when I got back, but at least all my things were still underneath. I snooped around a little bit and deduced that all the stuff that wasn’t mine belonged to an old person. An old lady.

But not just any old lady — this one was special. Her name was Clarissa Quirk (names have been changed): It was written in black marker across the side of a white cardboard box. She evidently had a thing for boots with fringe and rhinestones and medallions like what you’d usually see on a bolo tie. The garment bags were stuffed with dozens of oversized acrylic Bill Cosby sweaters. Her file boxes weren’t particularly well organized, but one of them contained maybe a hundred letters from her daughter Loraine who seemed to have gone through an unhappy spell in the early 1990s. I know because I totally read those letters.

I checked back at the office before I left: The door was still open, but it was still empty. That night I had a dream that I was in Mile High Self Storage, wandering the halls, looking for number 531. The halls were long and glowed red like there was a fire burning just around every corner. When I finally found my unit, the door was unlocked and it slid right open. On top of the piles of stuff sat a black cat with human eyes the color of a yellow highlighter.

“Hello, Jesslyn,” the cat said. “Come on in…”

I lurched out of that dream around dawn and never got back to sleep. At 9 a.m., I marched into the manager’s office and found the sour-faced lady who had rented me the unit sitting at her desk with a dishwater blond Lhasa Apso on her lap. I explained that I had found someone else’s stuff in my storage unit, but when it came to the part of my speech when I was supposed to demand something from her, my voice kind of trailed off.

“I just want to know what happened…” I finally said, kind of lamely.

The lady glared at me across the desk.

“Miss, I’m afraid number 531 has always been rented by Mrs. Quirk.” she said curtly. “I’m interested in knowing how YOU got YOUR belongings in HER unit.”

“YOU rented it to me!” I almost yelled. “I gave you a check for $105 in September — I have a duplicate of the check if you want to see it!”

She did not want to see it, and she backed down a bit, saying it didn’t much matter whose unit it was, because my rental period was up and I needed to get my stuff out of there anyway. I asked her what I should do with Clarissa Quirk’s belongings and she told me to leave them in her unit. I asked if I should leave it unlocked and she looked exasperated and told me to put the lock back on the door when I left.

“But it’s my lock,” I insisted. “I have the only keys.”

“Do what ever you want, then,” she said, turning away to watch a small color TV that had been quietly burbling behind her the whole time.

I cleared out Unit 531 and stacked all Clarissa Quirk’s things in a pile in the middle of the cement floor. I left it unlocked.

And so a few weeks later, I was at the laundromat, washing clothes, reading a People magazine about Catherine Zeta-Jones and Michael Douglas’ wedding. The only other people in the whole place were the two laundromat attendants. I looked up from my magazine at one point and watched one of them going down a row of washing machines, opening all the lids. She was a thin lady in her 70s with lank, gray hair. She was wearing a long acrylic sweater over black leggings with these turquoise suede ankle boots with fringe and a turquoise-and-silver medallion on the side of each one.

That’s Clarissa Quirk, I thought. But then again, I was in Arizona where lots of 70-year-old women looked like — -

“Clarissa?” The voice came from the back room. Clarissa Quirk didn’t look up from her job, but continued down the far row of washers, opening lids. My heart was pumping blood so hard I could feel the artery in my neck pulsating.

“Yes?” she finally said when she got to the end of her row.

“Do you know where the extra dryer sheets are? For the vending machine?” the other lady attendant asked.

“I haven’t seen them lately,” Clarissa Quirk responded in a reedy sort of voice.

“EXCUSE ME,” I said, about three times louder than I’d intended.

“Yes?” Clarissa Quirk said, gazing my way with her watery blue eyes.

“Are you Clarissa Quirk?” I asked.

And this, unfortunately, is where my memory fogs up. I remember her standing there looking tired and sort of dazed as I explained that a bunch of her stuff showed up in my storage unit that was locked with my Master Lock — I kept repeating that, hoping she would register some brand of concern or surprise one of the times I said it. In fact, she seemed strangely, passively determined not to give me the of satisfaction of interesting her in any part of my story. Finally, I asked her directly how her stuff got into my storage unit, and all I got was a weary head shake and a mumbled complaint aimed against somebody named Danny.

So, I just ended up telling her that her stuff was in unit 531 and it wasn’t locked or anything. She nodded and then went out behind the laundromat for a smoke. I left and never saw her again.

Obviously, I love to tell that story because it’s just so amazing: Someone broke into my storage unit — not to steal anything, but to pile an old lady’s 1980s boot collection on top of my stuff. And then there’s the vivid nightmare and the manager lady who insisted that I was the one who was making trouble. Then, to top it all off, I met Clarissa Quirk and she was so strange and sad and otherworldly. And oddly, just exactly like I had pictured her.

But here’s the last and possibly weirdest part of this story:

All of this happened more than 10 years ago, but I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately, so the other day I started writing it down. And just on a whim, I Googled Clarissa Quirk.

And I found her. An article from a local television station reported that she died in September of 2007 in Atlanta. Her daughter Loraine packed her ashes in a box and shipped them via UPS them to New Jersey for the funeral. But when she got to New Jersey, the box had arrived, but Clarissa Quirk’s ashes were missing. Loraine went on record saying she believes they were stolen.

I think it couldn’t hurt to check out Mile High Self Storage in Prescott, Arizona. Unit 531.

Jesslyn Shields is a freelance writer in Athens, Georgia. Her interests include: speculating about what it was like to be a caveman, mourning the death of River Phoenix, and selecting fingernail polish.

Photo by Lindsay Dean, via Shutterstock.