It’s raining again. Dark. Grey. Depressing. Again. Just another reason to stay in, as if I really needed one. I doubt anyone would want to be around me right now anyway. The feeling is mutual.
The mail slot opens and wet envelopes fall through to the floor. Onto the pile that was already there and probably will be for at least a few more days – just more tedious, mediocre chores to fill your already fucking fabulously exciting daily routine.
James’ funeral was five weeks ago. It rained then too. Why not? Who needs the sun when you’re saying your final goodbye to the one person who was supposed to be your future?
The cat doesn’t seem to give a shit but when do they ever. He’s the only reason I’ve been getting up these last few weeks, otherwise I get an earful of what I can only imagine are the most fragrant curse words cats have in their vocabulary. And I know there are plenty.
How could this have happened to us?
The phone rings, startling me from my cat translation musings. After deciding to finally answer it, it’s my sister. “How are you holding up?”. I say I’m doing fine. It’s a lie and she knows it but doesn’t push back. “Maybe I could stop over tomorrow? I can make your favorite “…blah blah blah is all I hear. She won’t take no for an answer so I just say “Don’t count on me getting dressed up for company.”
It’s almost 4pm so I mix up a vodka on ice and leave my spot on the couch to head to the spare bedroom. I can’t sleep in ours anymore, at least for now.
The doorbell is ringing, I just want to stay here with the blankets over my head, spinning with the half 1.75 of vodka I killed last night. Then the phone starts blaring – my sister is here. And now so is the cat. I drag myself out of the blanket fort I’ve built over my head and stumble downstairs.
I open the lock and her mouth drops open – “You look like shit” spills out before she can contain herself. “Get the fuck in here now that I’m up” I respond and leave the doorway. She stoops and gathers my mail as she comes in. “When is the last time you opened your mail?”.
I pour a fresh vodka over ice and offer her one out of courtesy, knowing she won’t take it. It is Tuesday morning.
She starts organizing and unloading groceries – looks like we’re having Mom’s special meatloaf today – and after prepping everything she sits down at the table and starts going through my mail.
“Have you seen this one? It looks official.” I slug my vodka and roll my eyes.
She opens a larger-sized manila envelope and pulls out a little black notebook. Her eyes meet mine and I can tell she’s asking for permission to continue. I nod.
The first page reads “For my Eskimo”. That’s James’ nickname for me. We live in Minnesota and I’m a functional winter person vs. a fashionable winter person. He always got a kick out of me buying men’s winter clothing but I never once bitched about being cold.
My sister reads on: “Eskimo: I love you more than words can express, you are my moral compass, my right hand and my best friend. If you have received this letter it is because something has happened to separate us temporarily. In that instance, I have a few things I would like to share with you that I have collected over the years. They are yours and yours only, my beautiful Eskimo. I love and will always love you forever until we can be together again.”
I melt down into a puddle and my sister does too. I haven’t felt anything but an empty chest and vodka-infused numbness for weeks now and the pain rips through my heart like lightning.
After we get ourselves together, she continues reading. “I have come from a long line of family members who are collectors and hunters. We find and save and pass on what we feel is valuable, whether monetary or sentimental or both. I have created and saved some sites for you to follow in our footsteps – I am the last of my family line and you and our children were to be the next generation. I am sorry that I am not there to continue that tradition with you but I know that you will continue it with yours and am proud to share this tradition with the only woman I have ever loved, my Eskimo”.
Finally, she reads the next page: “Your first hidden item is in our house. It’s hidden in the office wall directly behind the hockey painting you have always hated. The cache is behind the area of that painting where I was sitting in the stadium the day that photo was taken for the print.” The rest of the little black book is missing pages that have oddly been torn out.
My sister and I meet eyes for a brief moment and then head to the office.
The painting was of the opening day of the Minnesota Wild in the National Hockey League, and is 15 in a series of 20 prints. It’s a nice piece but I was never really much of a hockey fan. He was at that game opener and has shown every single person who has visited our house the exact location on the painting where his seats were located.
We carefully lift the print down and sure enough, there is a cache in the wall with a steel box in it, directly behind where he was sitting in the stadium that day in respect to the painting. It has a password of four numbers.
She looks at me and waits. What are the four numbers? Is it a code? A birthday? I have no idea, just keep furrowing my brows, wracking my brain if he ever mentioned anything and come up with nothing. We try a few birthday combinations that don’t work and then just sit and stare at the box in confusion, trying to think of what those four numbers could possibly be. Then a thought comes to me – why choose that specific location inside the house and not leave some clue to the password for me? I think about that for a minute and finally a light bulb goes on. I Google the date of the inaugural game – October 6th of 2001. I look at my sister and she nods, encouraging me to try it so I enter 1006 and hold my breath. I pull on the handle and it slides open like it was never locked in the first place. We stare at each other for a moment and then start digging out what is inside.
There’s a velvet bag containing a delicately beautiful, antique pearl and diamond necklace with matching earrings and a black and white photo of a beautiful young woman in a wedding dress wearing the same pearl set. On the back of the photo is written “Great grandmother on her wedding day”. There is also a fairly large sized white envelope containing cash.
Twenty thousand dollars to be exact.
Our mouths drop open. Neither of us know what to say.
We wait for a moment to absorb the situation and then redirect our attention to the remaining contents of the steel box. The only other item left to open is a small, white envelope sealed with the words ‘My Eskimo’ written on it. I catch my breath and hold the envelope close to my heart with my eyes closed – I can almost feel James here with me. I open my eyes and slowly, carefully unseal the envelope to find within it a small slip of paper obviously torn from the little black book. It displays a charcoal sketch of the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, Italy with the words “First clue for your next stop, my Eskimo” below it.
We sit back.
Am I supposed to go to Italy? Is that what the money is for? It just seems to be such a vague reference to someplace in Europe for someone from rural America to know where to start. Palazzo Vecchio. Kind of a big place to pinpoint something I was supposed to find, especially since it’s known for many of those types of clandestine and secretive backdrops already. Something in the back of my mind is triggering a memory but I can’t seem to grasp what it is just yet. It just felt so overwhelming without having more information. With James being the only remaining heir in his family line I had no one to reach out to for answers.
Feeling grateful to have an opportunity to feel James with me again after all this loneliness I am eager to continue digging but am also exhausted. We eat, hug as she leaves and I’m off to vodka-land in the spare room for the evening.
Wednesday morning starts the same as yesterday. My brain is a fog.
Okay, no lying, it’s 2 in the afternoon. Something has been eating at the back of my brain about conversations James and I have had that may be related to Italy and the charcoal drawing from the box. After dragging myself out of the bed fort, making a half-assed attempt at combing my hair and of course, feeding the cat, I start looking through old photo albums of ours and our families’ and after a few hours stumble across a page that is labeled ‘Palazzo Vecchio, Firenze, Italia’.
There is a section of James’ high school photos where they re-enacted a play originally based in Florence, Italy that I remember him talking about to me once, a very long time ago. The kids were all standing in line in front of a large, woven tapestry in a theater out in South Dakota, where he was originally raised, a photo taken after the opening night. I look closer and gasp: The tapestry design was of none other than the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence. I look at the cat and say out loud: “Well, this is what the $20K was for – James is sending us on a scavenger hunt”. I guess my next move is to begin preparations for a trip to his hometown. I need to find what he found so important that he needed to lead me to without having ever mentioned it before.
It is dawning on me that this may be just the genesis of following a much bigger trail. I mean, $20,000 is a lot of money to simply start with a quick four-hour road trip to South Dakota…