by Patricia S. Temple
I used to go walking first thing in the morning. Good for an old woman’s heart. The muggy Alabama weather was one reason I’d head out early. Another was our neighborhood didn’t have sidewalks, so it was safer to walk before the not-yet-retired people hit the road in their cars, late for work.
I’d start out around six so I could be finished before the heat hit around seven. When I’d get back, my husband would still be sleeping.
While I walked, I looked for treasures. I’ve done that all my life. I think it comes from growing up without toys. My father, a stout German farmer, thought toys were a waste of money and a distraction from working on the farm.
“The family that works together, plays together,” he said whenever my mother suggested we might take a day off. Obviously he didn’t consider pitching ensilage from the silo or weeding the tomato fields as working together because the longed for day to play never happened.
As a child I devoured the books in our school library. There was a series about a young girl who was a thing finder. She found other people’s lost things and invented all manner of fun activities to do with them. I made it my goal to be a thing finder too, trying my best to invent adventures with whatever I found, as she did.
When Mother went to town for groceries on Saturdays, I begged to go along. She refused to park in front of the taverns which were next to the only grocery, so if there was not a spot in the store lot, she’d park at least a block away, this in order to protect her reputation as a chaste woman. During the trek from our car to the store, I’d scan the streets for treasures. I found a ball point pen that still worked, many gloves without mates, rubber bands, a baby sock, and, best of all, a tangled slinky which I smuggled home to play with in spite of my father’s ranting.
I found treasures on the farm too: praying mantis egg cases, skins shed by snakes, butterfly chrysalises, the ground nests of oven birds. That’s not counting the roadkill, mostly possums, and now and then a raccoon or a turtle. I placed them on an old plank left over from a deer stand which I found in the woods. It made a passable hospital for animals. I tenderly nursed them with healing potions from the creek.
The phenomenon of thing finding goes on around the world. For a while, I lived in Chicago. There, competition was fierce. Once while I was walking down the Magnificent Mile, I picked up a child’s barrette. A man, perhaps in his late twenties, was walking past me. He stopped in his tracks. “Oh, I dropped something,” he called out loudly. He grabbed my arm. “What did you just pick up?”
“This barrette with pink flowers. I bet it’s yours.” I brushed his hand off my arm and held it out. He looked and hurried on, but I knew if I had found something he wanted, I would have been no match for him.
I always dreamed of finding something valuable, money or a piece of jewelry. I imagined that would be a highlight of my life.
Even in my retirement when I came upon a pile of pine straw in the road, I’d kick it around a bit to see if anything valuable was in it. Old habits die hard.
One day an early-morning bus passed me. I liked the smell of diesel fuel that trailed behind those busses. For a minute I’d imagine I was in some exotic third world crowded city instead of the work-a-day world of Birmingham.
Someone threw half a donut out the bus window. It landed at my feet. Beside it was something small and round, likely one of a thousand bottle caps that littered the roadside. But it wasn’t a bottle cap. It was a ring with ruby and diamond-looking stones. I thought it was probably a toy, but still it was pretty, and I bent to pick it up.
It was obvious right away that it was real. My heart began to beat very fast. I glanced around me. No one was in sight. I took several deep breaths and then, although my legs were trembling, I attempted to walk as I normally would for home. I tried to get a rhythm going by repeating a chant to myself, Thank you lousy passenger or driver who threw a donut out the window. Thank you lousy passenger or driver …
At the time I thought it was a good thing to find a ring.
“How was your morning walk?” my husband asked when he got up.
I considered telling him about the ring, but I knew if I did, he’d take over and decide what to do with it. He was from a generation of men who considered it their duty to boss their wives, and their wives were supposed to be obedient. A woman had to be very clever just to get by. I put the ring inside an old sock in my underwear drawer. For days I found every manner of excuse to hang around the bedroom just to be near it.
Likely it was someone’s engagement ring. I imagined a young couple riding in a car. They were arguing. Perhaps the man had shown too much interest in the bride-to-be’s sister, and she was tired of living in the shadow of her younger, prettier sister. In a fit of jealousy she threw the ring out the window. Though the fiancée, about to become ex-fiancée, came back and searched, he never found it.
I decided to have the ring appraised. There is a jeweler just a few blocks from our house, but I chose not to go there, figuring if the ring really was valuable, they could easily find out who I was and conspire to get it from me. Possibly their store had sold the ring to the couple in the first place.
I drove to another suburb an hour away where I found a jewelry store in a shopping center. The clerk in the showroom took the ring from me and walked into a glass enclosed area. I noticed she used a key to get in. I watched her hand the ring to an older gentleman, impeccably dressed and well-groomed. He moved slowly and deliberately, making a statement that he was in charge. He held the ring with his arms outstretched as if it were something beneath him and adjusted an eyepiece of some kind to his forehead to examine it. He handed the ring back to the clerk without even glancing my way, but I was pretty sure he saw me. I wished I’d been more careful with my hair and worn my sandals instead of my tennis shoes.
The clerk returned. “Where did you get this?” she asked.
“It’s mine,” I said. “I’ve had it for a long time.
Now the man came out of the glass-enclosed area. He did not greet me or smile. “The ring is worth somewhere around seven thousand dollars,” he said to the clerk. “I can clean it up and size it to fit her finger for four hundred.” He walked away without acknowledging me.
The clerk picked up a small book. “What is your name?” she asked, her pen poised.
“No. Give it back,” I said. “Uh, it’s from a dear aunt who lives in Chicago. “
I hurried from the store.
I put the ring back in the sock for a few more days while I alternately felt guilty for not trying to find its owner and complacently argued to myself that surely its owner had it insured.
I called the local paper and placed an ad: Found: Something valuable near Star Lake. Call to identify. 555-2880.
The calls began to pour in.
“Was it perhaps an earring?” the first caller wanted to know.
Another guessed a bracelet.
“Was it perhaps a watch?” the next caller asked.
“No, and you’re the man who just called to ask if it was an earring.”
There were a lot of strangers walking around Star Lake the night my ad first appeared in the paper. They kept their eyes fixed on the pine straw they were kicking, oblivious to the beauty around them. Immediately I regretted placing the ad!
“Was it perhaps an antique brooch?” The voice was gruff, with an East European accent, but I recognized it.
“You again. Nope. Nothing antique.” I hung up.
Overcome by a strong desire to show off my good fortune, I wore the ring to the Senior Center where I play bridge on Monday mornings. I waved my hand across the table at every opportunity.
“Where did you get that ring?” my partner finally asked me.
“You must be the one who put the ad in the paper. Is that the valuable thing you found?” someone else asked.
“No. My husband bought it for me,” I lied.
The accuser rolled her eyes.
“By the way, just how valuable is that ring?” another asked. “We could have better snacks if we had a small refrigerator here.”
“If we need a refrigerator, everyone should chip in,” I said. Feeling miserable, I took the ring off and put it in the change compartment of my purse.
That night a woman, about my age, quite stocky, rang our doorbell. She wore red-framed glasses and her gray-blond hair was pulled back in a ponytail reminiscent of a Barbie Doll. “Did you find tickets to the Alabama- Mississippi State game?” she asked. “I can’t find ours and my husband will kill me.”
“No. I’m sorry,” I said.
As she walked away I noticed the back of her t-shirt. It had a silhouette of a girl in a prom dress. ALABAMA GIRLS DRESS UP FOR FIRST DOWNS, it read.
“What does your shirt mean?” I called to her.
“Alabama gets a lot of first downs,” she mumbled. I could barely hear her.
A preacher called. “Did you find a Bible?” he asked, “because the Bible is the most valuable thing there is, and I can identify the Bible. It’s the written word of God.”
“Not a Bible.”
“Well let me extend an invitation to you to visit our church. Services are Sunday mornings at ten. This week we are meeting between services to talk about enlarging our sanctuary, which just shows you how excellent we are.”
“Congratulations!” I said.
“Oh, and if you come bring that valuable thing you found with you,” he said.
The next call was a familiar voice, though this time with a fake southern drawl, “Was it perhaps a ring?” it asked.
“Can you be more specific? And stop saying perhaps, it gives you away.”
“A diamond ring.”
“Was it perhaps a diamond ring with rubies.”
There was a long silence and I realized the caller had tricked me into giving him information I hadn’t intended to.
“No. And stop calling. I’ll never give you the ring.”
“I believe you will and soon,” he said.
The next night he called again. “Perhaps many rubies.”
“Yes. That’s it. A huge diamond in the center with rubies all around it. Nine of them. And there’s an inscription, To Joanne with all my love.
He chuckled and hung up.
I chuckled too. I had totally lied to him to throw him off.
The next morning, shortly after my husband left for Friday breakfast with the men’s group from church, a police car pulled up in front of our house. A policeman got out. Immediately a beat-up Plymouth pulled up behind the officer’s patrol car. The man who hopped out wore disheveled clothes. His tousled hair had not been combed. He seemed to be still half asleep, and I guessed he did not usually get up so early.
The policeman rang the doorbell. When I opened it, he touched the bill of his cap. “Sorry to bother you, ma’am. This person claims you have a ring that belongs to him.”
I asked if the man could describe the ring. He did, with a great deal of confidence for one so sleepy. His words matched mine of the previous day.
“Officer, this man has been calling me day and night trying to trick me out of my ring. I gave him a false description to throw him off”. I walked to the bedroom with the policeman and the sleepy guy following. I opened my underwear drawer and took out the sock and then the ring, while the officer watched.
The man’s eyes flashed with anger. “Officer, I demand that you arrest this woman for lying.”
“We don’t arrest people for lying, Sir, and anyway, I’d have to arrest you too since you lied first.”
The man fixed his gaze on me. “You are an evil person,” he said.
There was such conviction in his words that the bad things I’d done through the years began to race through my mind, and I could see the truth of it.
“All right. All right. That’s enough. Let’s go,” the policeman said. “Sorry to bother you, ma’am.”
“You are evil,” the man said again. He headed for his car.
I followed him, feeling small and helpless. “I didn’t even have toys when I was little,” I said.
By now we had reached his car. I glanced inside. There were empty fast food containers and cast off clothing on the seats and floor, but what caught my eye were the wads of gum on the dashboard. There must have been more than 20.
As a child I had a neighbor who saved his gum in his car. He gave my grandma and me a ride to church on Sundays. She and I sat in the back, and every time I tried to stand up to count Sam’s gum, Grandma would push me down.
If the man had said something nice or asked for the ring, I might have given it to him then and there, just for the memory of Grandma and Sam. Besides, I now hated the ring. The greed of the people who tried to get it from me, my own greed, had poisoned any desire I once had felt for it.
After that I avoided my underwear drawer entirely, choosing instead to wash out the socks and panties I’d worn each day in the evening and then hang them to dry on the shower rod.
Then I began to avoid the bedroom too. “I think my back feels better when I sleep on the couch,” I lied to my husband.
The ring had become a curse.
One evening my husband suggested we go for a drive. I put the ring in my pocket. We drove onto a country road, and soon no other cars were in sight. I opened the window and threw the ring out.
“What was that?” he asked.
“A valuable ring,” I said.
“Of course it wasn’t,” he answered. “What was it really?”
“A banana peel. Didn’t you notice I was eating a banana?”
“No. Did you bring one for me?”
“You don’t even like bananas. Besides, there was only one left.”
“Still, you shouldn’t throw things out the window.”
“I won’t do it anymore..”
He patted my knee, pleased that I had accepted his correction, and we drove on.
Patricia S. Temple is a retired bilingual classroom teacher with stories published in Fugue, the Heartlands Today, The Portland Review, the Acorn, Wisconsin Review, Whiskey Island Review and bilingual journals. Her family retired to Hoover, Alabama, three years ago.