Lost and Found



Lost and Found

 

Jesse had been collecting things for as long as he could remember. All kinds of things: a bit of dirty twine that once tied shut a bag of birdseed. A blue marble with a chip marring its perfect roundness. A rusty padlock with a key stuck in it.

He didn’t know why he sought out these items, while they called to him amid the flotsam and jetsam that littered the city streets. Why the marble and not the bottle cap next to it? Why the twine and not the skein of faded red yarn? Why the padlock—no, that one was easy. People bought padlocks because they wanted to protect something.

Somewhere there was a box or a cupboard that contained a secret, a treasure, an objet d’art that needed to be secured and protected. But until the padlock was put back where it belonged, the terrible risk of loss existed.

The padlock with its key was the only item that Jesse carried with him all the time as he wandered the streets. The rest he kept hidden in a cardboard shoebox that once held “EZ-Strider Men’s Brown Loafers, Size 12 Extra Wide Width” that he had pulled from the trashcan outside Aunt Martha’s back door.

Not that she was his aunt. That was just what she had told him to call her when the Family Services lady left him there six months ago. Sometimes, the people said he could use “aunt” and “uncle.” Other times, like at the last place, he had to be more formal: “Mr. and Mrs. Blackthorpe” or “Reverend and Mrs. Collier.” Although when he was five and a half, there was a woman who said he could call her by her first name, Annie.

“Just Annie,” she had told him while she hung up his two pairs of jeans and one jacket—it was really too small but was all he had. “I’m pretty easy-going,” she had continued, and he took her at her word.

Everybody did. Annie had bright blue eyes, a big smile that showed her small white teeth, red hair that she wore pulled back in a white-and-black checked scrunchy, and freckles. Lots of freckles. Freckles on her face. On her arms and legs. Even on the palms of her hands. One time he counted seventeen of them before he felt the sting of her flesh against his face. She had held her hand for what seemed like forever inches before his eyes, and he had just made it to the cluster at the base of her thumb before her palm came so close that it all blurred and then all he could think about was how important it was not to cry.

“I told you to empty your pockets before you put your filthy pants in the wash,” she had said, still smiling. “This is what happens when you forget,” meting out one punishing blow for each of the eight items that she found in the bottom of the washer tub: a nail, a penny, a bottle cap, a blue jay’s feather, a plastic spoon, a tiny screwdriver, a broken watchband and half of a lottery ticket.

Once it was over, she had made him retrieve each item from the chipped porcelain tub and then, one by one, she had thrown them all away in the can under the kitchen sink. At least, she thought they were thrown away. But later that night, when she was asleep, he left the lumpy couch that served as his bed and dug through the greasy chicken bones and takeout containers until he found every one of them. He didn’t know where else to keep them safe so he dug a hole in the dirt next to the back stoop and hid them deep inside.

Jesse’s plan was to retrieve them before he left Annie’s house forever. He knew that someday he would leave or be taken away. But when that day came, the social worker picked him up at his school, not at Annie’s house, and he was put in the back seat next to a trash bag with what little clothes he had and whisked away so fast he couldn’t even ask the woman to wait.

He never forgot about them though. He wrote down Annie’s address on a scrap of paper and mentally promised all those lost items that he would come back and take them away. He still had that paper, even after four more moves, and it was now safely stored in his shoebox around the corner and down the street, at the small playground next to the bar where Aunt Martha spent her Friday nights. After what happened at Annie’s, he knew the danger of keeping special things at the places he stayed.

Jesse had put the box inside a plastic store bag from Benny’s Bargain Outlet and then, climbing the one lone maple tree that shaded the broken swing set, shoved it inside a hollowed-out opening in the trunk, hoping the squirrels wouldn’t decide to investigate what was inside.

Then he kept adding to it what he had found, even though the box was starting to bulge a bit from all that he put in it.

But the padlock and key—no, that stayed with him, for reasons even he couldn’t have explained if someone had asked. Not that anyone was likely to ask him about it—or anything else, for that matter. No one asked Jesse anything: not the teachers (when he showed up at school, which was rarely), not the social worker when she came to check up on him (which was rarer still) and certainly not Aunt Martha because half the time she didn’t even know who he was.

“Billy? Frank? What’s your name again?” waving the whiskey bottle at him as though to clear away the imaginary cobwebs that obscured her vision.

“Jesse,” he would tell her, and then come closer so she could see him better. “My name is Jesse,” and she would just grin, take another swig, and fall asleep, leaving him to forage for what food he could find before he went out on his nightly scavenger hunt. Most of the time he made a peanut butter sandwich, always first inspecting the bread for signs of mold or ants. (Some days, he found both, but other days—“lucky days,” he called them—the bread was relatively insect- and fungus-free.)

It wasn’t all that bad at Aunt Martha’s. She didn’t hit him. She didn’t complain if he left stuff in his pockets. Or maybe she didn’t know. Most of the time, Jesse did the laundry at the Wash-O-Mat around the corner. And there was usually something to eat. Some days, she would even take him with her to the Indian grocery store and let him buy anything that caught his eye as long as it was under three dollars and eligible for purchase with her food-stamp card: a jar of bitter gourd pickles, passion fruit juice, mango chutney.

It was at least better than the other places—definitely better than the Mr.-and-Mrs. Bad House. That’s how he thought of it—the place that came with nightly visits from one or both of the two adults who were supposed to be caring for him. He would pretend to be sleeping, but that didn’t help. If it hadn’t been for the blood that had seeped from his pants onto the desk chair where his teacher spotted it, he might still be there.

If there were places he had been when he was even younger—before Annie’s, before the institution—he didn’t recall. And if he once had a home—a real home with a mother or father or maybe even both—his mind couldn’t travel that long journey into the past. He tried. Some nights, he would tightly close his eyes and pretend to be a baby and try to remember a sound or smell or touch. But so far it hadn’t happened.

Even so, Jesse didn’t give up. He knew the memories were out there somewhere. All he had to do was keep looking, searching, hoping.

So each day he wandered the streets, his hand firmly wrapped around the padlock and key, seeking that box of memories he could once again safely secure against loss.

 

 

Nancy Christie

  

Nancy Christie is the author of Traveling Left of Center and Other Stories (Pixel Hall Press), The Gifts Of Change (Atria/Beyond Words), Rut-Busting Book for Writers (Mill City Press) and numerous short stories. A professional writer, she also teaches writing workshop and is the founder of “Celebrate Short Fiction” Day.

Website: http://www.nancychristie.com/books/

Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/author/nancychristie

 

 

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