In retrospect, I think he over-reacted. He knew I liked a laugh, and he knew that, as dismal as the job was, I truly appreciated it. I concede that perhaps the two squashes down the shirt where a bit much, but I tend to get a little stupid around sad women, and Marge had just lost her dog to an overly aggressive sedan. Boy she loved that dog. What was I supposed to do? Morning shift in that cafeteria was shitty enough without a heartbroken head-chef. Being the go getter that I am, I took it upon myself to boost moral. The choice was obvious, I swooped into my classic imitation of the boss’ wife, it always landed strong. I wobbled around the kitchen, squashes in my shirt jingling about waving a ladle frantically, screaming “when are ya gonna put ambrosia salad on the menu Terry?”. Terry took exception. He’d been there all along. ‘Oops, sorry Terry.’ And, even though I told him that, no, there still were many, he swore that it was indeed the last straw and told me to leave. I left with the ladle. At least Marge laughed.
The cafeteria was located in the economics department but fed a much larger portion of the university, mainly because it had held strong in its’ mandate to not put ambrosia salad on the menu. Its’ hustle and bustle of sleep-deprived students ensured a healthy lost and found section that I’d taken to peruse respectfully in my time as line cook. Perhaps helping myself to the odd university themed sweater or novel. But today, with my short-term financial prospects having been dealt a severe blow, I felt that this campus owed me, and, as I strolled passed the lost and found, I took it all, the whole damn big blue bin and ran.
Out of breath, I threw the bin down under the t-rex in the geology department. A single smelly mitt, a pair of 90s neon shades, a handheld dictaphone, an anonymous vile of pills, and a bunch of black books. ‘Yeah me.’ I gave a bitter-sweet smile to the T-rex. He smiled back. I popped one of the pills, and pressed play on the dictaphone: “common-pool resources can be effectively managed collectively, without government or private control, as long as those using the resource are physically close…”.
‘Sure, why not’. I put the tape in my pocket, let it roll and grabbed the black books. There were six of them, tied together by a pair of old shoelaces. The dust particles danced in the sun as I undid the knot. The opening page of book one had an, ‘In case of loss, please return to’, section that read: ‘your problem now!’. They’d left the reward section empty. I turned to the next page and discovered the beginning of a neatly penned long list. I flipped through the book to locate the list’s end, but it never came. The second book picked up right where the first ended with entry #333 334. ‘Hmmph, I guess it truly was my problem now’.
Upon closer inspection, the pattern was evident: an old date, a location, a second date. The first entries read like so:
1-1895. Under the park bench in Wallenburg park. June 05.
2-1932. Bottom of George Ward pool. June 05.
And so on, and so forth, till the last entry of the first book:
#333 333-1852. Sidewalk at 23rd and F. October 06.
And so on, and so forth. It was precise and meticulous work. Book through book.
#442 496 -1984. In the ashtray outside Slick Jim’s barber shop. April o7.
#1 254 367 - 1754. Floor of taxi. November 12.
So on and so forth. Till halfway into the 6th book with entry #2 000 000 -1979. Chip aisle in Dugas confectionary, December 20. ‘Shit! 2 millions… of something collected.’ The T-rex didn’t share my awe.
The author added a PS:
Lot 79, Berkshire storage.
‘Well, curiosity peeked’.
The anonymous pill had given me a childish grin and the dictaphone in my pocket reminded me that “insiders who are given a say in resource management will self-police”. Being pretty sure Terry wasn’t gonna come running through the geology department halls yelping “Come back, I’m sorry”, I slapped the neon shades on my face, grabbed the books and hit the sunshine soaked city streets beyond the campus in search of Lot 79, Berkshire storage.
It took most of the day to locate, five times around the tape in the dictaphone. The sun had begun to show signs of fatigue drawing long goodbye shadows all over the empty roads of the industrial area. The sign was a bulky wooden thing hanging on to a wired fence: Berkshire Storage, let us park your rig, it read. I walked into the yard where a toll booth stood awkwardly at the end of a driveway like a teenage boy wearing shorts in church. The woman in the booth didn’t inspire conversation. “Lot 79?”, I dared with a smile. She wasn’t as friendly as the t-rex and let her finger respond. I followed its’ guidance. It led me to a parking lot of trucks and semi-trailers placed in orderly quadrants. ‘Thank you finger’, and I smiled under my shades, confident in my ability to locate #79.
Trudging along the rows of these massive goods transportation devices, I allowed my brain to wander. What was I gonna find? 2 million of something. Love letters, cashew shells, empty beer cans, limbs? I wrestled my brain back to reason with a shake and decided that at least I’d just scored the back end of a semi, or a cab. That definitely had value, and might just keep me away from another shitty kitchen job.
I found 79, just as I’d predicted, between 78 and 80. Unfortunately, the lot held but a small trailer like the kind a band might rent to lug their gear on tour. From the graffiti present on it, I deduced that it’d been there a while. June 05, read the first entry. If 05 was the year, my trailer had been there well over a decade. I took a moment to appreciate the graffiti, but really, I was stalling. The sun’s shadows were now palpable, nipping at my thighs. ‘What if I was followed?’
The graffiti was a dense tapestry of banal tags, however, a bold and stylized “CASH” written on the back end resonated. I felt the word fitting for graffiti, and hoped it was an omen as it framed the basic padlock keeping me from its’ contents. A basic combination padlock. Three numbers, it was always three numbers. Right three, left two, back right. It had to be the three numbers with the address in the last book. 12-36-4.
I steadied my hands around the rusty lock thinking about all the padlocks of my life so as not to let the fear sink in. I rotated right three times and located the 12, left twice to 36 and finally stopped on the 4. I scanned the surroundings half hoping someone would stop me. I was alone, so I tugged down. The lock clicked and seemed happy to be opened as if freed like a genie from a bottle. ‘Oh boy’. The doors swung open in an inviting way but I couldn’t make out what lay inside, just a vague shape. I reached for my eyes to give them an encouraging rub. It was then I realized I was still wearing the sunglasses. ‘Geez, off you go’, and I saw my bounty. The trailer was three quarters full, floor to roof with neatly stacked pennies. 2 millions pennies to be exact. ‘Well, mystery solved’.
I did realize that technically this amounted to 20 000 dollars, but on the spot, I couldn’t for the life of me imagine a business allowing me to pay for anything in pennies. Would the electric company accept a box of these brown beauties as payment? I knew what my landlord would say. I filled every inch of pocket I had and even stuffed my socks of pennies and strode home. Night was taking over the city.
I lay on my bed a long time thinking about those pennies. Breathing softly. I didn’t want to disturb the uneven leg at the foot of the bed. It always thumped hard on the breaking linoleum floor with the slightest shift of weight. I lay there till I couldn’t stand it anymore, got up and glued the exact amount of pennies under the leg. ’32 cents. Voila!’ I hadn’t had a level bed since my parents’ house. I slept hard like a balanced spreadsheet.
The next week went by quick as I fell into a new routine. Stroll to the trailer with the neighbour’s kid’s red wagon and fill it up. On my way back, stop at the fountain in front of city hall where I’d toss in around 6$ of pennies making a variety of wishes. A quick stop in at the flower shop where my friend Bianca used pennies in water to keep the tulips and roses fresh. And finally, I’d make my rounds at the three downtown banks who’d allow me to cash in 20$ worth a day. Once back home, I’d use the remaining pennies to spruce up the apartment; made some door stops and door handles for the kitchen cupboards and even retiled the bathroom floor with them. It looked amazing all sparkly copper.
From there, it sort of got out hand. I started seeing the pennies more as a medium than as currency. I made a bird bath for the old lady across the street, and one of those ‘free library’ mini houses for the neighbourhood. The purchase of an industrial Bunsen burner put my daily routine to rest once and for all. With it, I could muster up enough heat to melt the pennies. I made cutlery, earrings, little figurines for the kids next door. I made plates and tea pots, ornate lamp fixtures that I gave my friends. I even made weapons for the odd folks that re-enact medieval battles in the park. It had been a fantastic summer!
It wasn’t long before the leaves started to fall, the days got shorter and that the trailer was down to its’ last load. 20 000 dollars gone. I’d managed to stay afloat with a few craft sales and cashing the odd load of pennies, but I certainly had not gotten ahead. The journey with the last of the pennies was endless, but I made it home. I fired up the Bunsen burner and smelted what remained, I knew what had to be done.
I made my way back to campus on the last day of fall and strode right into the cafeteria kitchen as if I’d never left. I found Terry sweating in his office trying to fill dishwasher shifts. I handed him a copper poured ladle to which I’d inscribed ‘I’m sorry Terry’ into the handle and begged for my old job back. He was graceful enough to oblige, as long as I covered in the dish pit for a couple days. The pennies were all gone.
I kept the last book. In it was the very last entry, number 2 000 000. I instinctively wrote the word CASH under it. It was a quiet day and at my feet there was a brown speck. I bent over, picked up a penny and wrote it down on the next page.