In any long-term endeavor, or anything that could honestly be cursed as toil, there is a moment when everything falls away, leaving only the essential and ageless question: why didn’t I choose a life of crime?
In this case, that question came as I was belly-deep in a trashyard armed only with a metal detector and two high-proof breathmints I had shoved in my nostrils to guard against the memories that stench would bring. They say our oldest, deepest memories are smell, and I chose to annihilate any chance of that in favor of the tearful pain of my mucus lining being attacked by menthol.
All of this for a lost engagement ring, and I wasn’t even getting married. My client, Miss Rosey Riley, had inadvertently tossed her dowry prize out with the outer cabbage leaves, the lamb bone, and the scraped-away mint jelly of a traditional Irish supper. That was what she claimed, at least. I didn’t really care if she and hers had a fight and it came from a moment’s spite or if she had polished off a doped coffee and simply swept her hock off the counter with the crumbs. She was paying me for its return, not to believe her reasons.
Hence the mucking, in what was sure to be the right spot, but even with my nose dripping sweetly for four hours, I had yet to get a hit. I had a friend in the waste truck depot that had done the solid of tracing the route to the dump to the dumping ground and double-checked the spreading schedule of the two days prior when the treasure became buried. In one of these thousand anonymous sacks was gold, but it had not registered on my magic wand, and I was at that precipice, asking myself wouldn’t it be easier to rob a joint? Pondering the rush of a crowbar’s tines through a display case window. Imagining the fireworks from tossing dye-bombed stacks out the front door of a bank, watching them turn into a poof of indelible blue in the late morning air before making a speedy getaway.
I was about to take up my mobile and start searching for the nearest kids’ lemonade stand for just a tiny taste of that other life when the detector started to beep faster. I paused everything but my heart. Like a bloodhound going stiff at that first scent. Though I could have quick-pulsed that detector like a canine nose, drawing perfectly oriented scent particles deeper, heart pumping, brain cells churning, paws ready to march on that signal.
But I only paused, I let the beeps sing out. I slowly circled the dish of the detector on the nearest bag, giving time for the chirps to quicken or slack off.
On the drive out, I had made all kinds of plans on how to approach the search. A grid, pull the hits off to the side and go through them all after. I would clear one square down deep, piling the misses off out of the way, then fill that square with the next’s, leaving no sack unsquished until I had set aside all that could, and therefore the one that would, contain Riley’s finger flair.
That lasted until I had waded out to the patch in question, which was a quarter-acre, about the size of a football field if it were a square, and that’s not including the third dimension. I was doing well not to drown in a sea of black plastic balloons stuffed with peels and rinds and rot and dread, drain clogs and shells and first drafts so vile they couldn’t be recycled.
It wasn’t that there hadn’t been hits before. The box cutter I’d brought had gutted four score and seven sacks and then some. There had been broken scissors, a doorknob or three, kitchen knives and shutoff valves, a hubcap. I had even found a few rings, but not hers.
I had the make of Riley’s bags, the variety I was against being vast. Cheap bags were plentiful, but a few of the fancy models with stretchy skin and drawstrings dotted the sea. In my misery I briefly pondered the prospect of snowflake bags, each with its own distinct pattern, from which an electronic eye could quickly locate the correct piñata of dread.
Back then, when I was getting irked, but still held out hope. What followed was a thousand more sweeps of the wand and a dozen more disappointing pulls of broken bottle openers, lamp harps, washers, and a chipped-paint paperweight molded in the shape of an ice cream sundae on its side, oozing out.
Now, I had to get out of here. I didn’t want to check this bag. I didn’t want to clamor and stumble over that smushy landscape back to my car. I wanted to strap on a black strip of cloth with two eyeholes and run down dark alleys with a burlap bag that had a dollar sign stenciled on it. I wanted to work with guys that went by names they picked up in the can, with tattoos they picked up in the can, whose favorite food was beans heated by a cigarette lighter, who had RAP sheets long enough to use as toilet paper.
Over the hours I had gotten some feel for the sniffer, and this wasn’t a lamp harp, it wasn’t a paperweight. It was small. It gave me hope, and I wanted to pull out a switchblade and tell that hope, “Hand over your wallet.” I wanted to sneak into that hope’s office at night and take the little lockbox that held the petty cash.
But I didn’t. Because once you turn down the road of righteousness, it’s its own kind of record. A clean sheet that grows, that you can’t use to wipe your ass. It builds its own momentum of wanting to see things turn out alright, of rooting for the good guys in the flicks, wanting wallets to stay where they belong. Instead, I reached for that garbage bag, kind of pinned it with my knees as I set the metal detector down and got the blade out.
I grabbed the bag by the neck and brought the sharp of the blade up to it, a small little nip that I could spread down the side as the plastic lost its connection on both sides. With my gloved hand, I batted away some beer cans, lifted an empty milk carton and tossed it aside. There it was, resting on a worn-out scouring pad.
My breath stopped as worry grew. Here it was, but insecure. Any number of false moves, and it would be spilled from the bag and into the heap. I was never closer, and yet never more vulnerable. If I reached, I could slip. I could not risk it. I slowly moved my hands back to the torn edges of the bag, and I clutched them gently, pulling the one atop the other, smothering the contents and ensuring nothing could escape.
I folded the full bag on itself as best I could, to pressure the folded split against opening and looked around for a plausible reinforcement. There. Next to the detector. An almost-empty bag with its twist-tie making most of the bag a neck. Like a beautiful black groundflower’s bud, all ready to bloom.
Taking the prize bag between my knees, I bent and snagged that second bag. I gave the twist a quick look, and I unscrewed it. As I turned that black plastic over, I watched as three black ski masks slid out, followed by two stacks of bills with bands that read $10 000 on them. That’s something, I thought, but I quickly realized the trouble. I needed to preserve this evidence.
I carefully grabbed through the mouth of the bag, picking up the spilled items, and turning the bag back over, I tied a knot in the top. Now I had two bags to deal with, and still needed a third to guarantee the ring’s safety.
A scan for prospects held no offers. The other bags were all bulging, bloated sacks that would be too much trouble. I looked farther, the nearest option, but I knew I wouldn’t trust myself not to faceplant and spill the spoils on the way. So I took off my gloves, placing them on the loot bag, and I unbuttoned my shirt, which I carefully removed and spread it out on the flattest patch I could.
I took the ring bag from between my knees and nestled it in the back of the shirt, which I folded across, then the tail up to the breast. I brought the arms of the shirt across and tied them together once. And again. I put my gloves on, and took my shirt bundle in one hand, the loot bag and my detector in the other, and I turned toward the edge of the pile.
There I was, a shirtless sweaty stink of a man, crawling over the wash of society’s refuse with a woman’s missing jewels in one hand, with hard cash from some ripoff job in the other. I stumbled and slipped along the dunes of disposal, hot sun baking, the squish and suction sounds of my weight falling on closed bellows full of filth. Sometimes there were holes, which would send out hisses and smells that could nearly penetrate my burning nose.
After twenty minutes—many stumbles and four tumbles—I made it back to the car. There on the flat gravel, I liberated the torn bag from my shirt, which I put back on. Although I’m sure it smelled, it must have before. I peeled back the edges of the bag, and I had to poke about to find that promise, cast in gold with a diamond stopper, which I wasted no time in grabbing—the risk gone. I gave it a few quick wipes along the hip of my jeans, and I slipped it onto my pinkie, down to the second knuckle, figuring it was safer there than anywhere.