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About the Author
Susie Hara lives in San Francisco. Her stories have been published in several anthologies, including Fast Girls, Best American Erotica, and Flash in the Attic Fiction, vol. 2. Her play Lost and Found in the Mission won the Best Ensemble award in the 2008 San Francisco Fringe Festival. She has received fellowships from Millay Art Colony, Ragdale Foundation, and Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. FINDER OF LOST OBJECTS (Ithuriel's Spear, 2014) is her first novel.
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Finder of Lost Objects
By Susie Hara
Ithuriel's SpearCopyright © 2014 Susie Hara
All rights reserved.
ON A SUNNY SAN FRANCISCO MORNING after a string of foggy days, I sat on the red exercise ball in my office, wondering how I was going to pay the rent. When Grace Valdez walked in the door I stood up, and the ball rolled away from me on its slow trajectory along the sloping floor.
"I saw your sign," she said. "I want to talk to you about finding something I've lost."
I held out my hand. "My name is Sadie. Sadie Garcia Miller." We shook hands. Hers was cool and dry.
"Grace." She paused. "Valdez."
"Please have a seat."
She surveyed the rolling ball and my chairless office. I pulled out a folding chair and set it up for her. I retrieved the ball and sat back down behind my desk.
Grace Valdez looked like she had blown across town from a more upscale neighborhood, the Marina or Pacific Heights. She looked about ten years younger than me, around thirty. Her jagged-cut hair was shot through with subtle blond highlights, and her tawny skin seemed to glow. She wore designer jeans and a nice pair of strappy heels.
"What is it you're looking for?" I asked.
She picked at her thumbnail cuticle. "My brother...."
"Ms. Valdez." I hesitated. I needed the money. "I'd like to help you, but I don't find missing persons. I find lost objects. I can refer you to an excellent private investigator."
"No—no." Her voice was breathy, Marilyn-Monroe-like." I mean, my brother has what I'm looking for. The book. My brother has it."
"A book." Maybe I said it too loudly. Ms. Valdez flinched. Pretty jumpy for a woman in search of a simple book. But then, nothing is as it seems in my line of work. People say they're looking for an object, but they're really looking for a whole lot more. A way to fill up the emptiness, a way to cover the gaping hole. I'm an expert on that.
"Mind if I smoke?" I said.
She smiled for the first time and, taking out a pack of Camel filters, offered me one.
I lit our cigarettes with the snap of my lighter.
She drew on her cigarette. "This is nice. You don't get to smoke indoors much anymore."
"I know." I usually didn't smoke in the office, actually, because most of my clients or would-be clients would run screaming from the smell of cigarette smoke.
But this was clearly an exception. I reached into the desk drawer, brought out the ashtray, and put it between us. "This might seem obvious, but—have you asked your brother to give the book back?"
"Of course. He says he doesn't have it. But he does, I know he does. He stole it from me, the—" she stopped herself— "jerk."
"I see. What's the value of the book?"
"I don't think it has much financial value."
"Sentimental value, then. You want that particular book, no other copy will do, is that right?"
"That's right," she said, and her eyes darkened. "The book is inscribed to me from my mother. She used to read it to me when I was a child. Since she's been gone, I have always treasured it."
"Gone?" I said. "Do you mean—"
"Heart attack. When I was twelve."
"I'm sorry." I didn't tell her we had something in common. I chased away the hollow feeling in my chest.
"Ms. Valdez. I have a few questions, if you don't mind." I opened my notebook. "When was the last time you saw your brother?"
"It'll be two years ago this Christmas."
"Did you ask him then if he had the book?"
"No—it went missing after that." Her voice was edged with resentment.
"And you contacted him?"
"Many times, but he never responded."
"Did something happen between you that caused him to break off communication?"
Her eyes shifted to the right. I followed her gaze. Where she was looking there was nothing interesting, only an oak filing cabinet; no pictures on the walls, no bookcases, no potted plants. And I knew, just like my grandpa taught me, she had to be hiding something.
"I don't know," she said.
"Where does your brother live?"
"He used to live in Fresno, in the house where we grew up. But when I call, I either get the machine, or one of our tías picks up—they live there too."
"Did you ask your tías?"
"They won't talk to me either."
"And why is that?"
"It doesn't matter," she said, waving away a puff of smoke.
I wanted to tell her yes, it does matter. Sometimes the smallest detail leads to the missing object. Instead I let the silence hang between us, hoping it would draw her out.
"My aunts thought," she said, "Joey and I were having ... an improper relationship. We weren't. They never believed me. I became the scapegoat. Know what I mean?"
"They blamed it on you and not your brother?"
"Of course," Grace said, with a bitter smile.
"Yes, we always get blamed, don't we?" I shook my head.
She nodded. There was a hardness in her eyes, and under it, a hint of hurt.
We smoked in silence for a time.
"What's the name of the book?"
"The Journey, by Renata Holland."
I made a note of it. "When was it published?"
"I'm not sure exactly, but—I think in the sixties."
"What's it about?" I drew a quick sketch of a book in the corner of my notebook.
"A young girl who goes on a dangerous journey to rescue her father." A shiver ran through me. A girl trying to save her father. "That sounds intriguing," I said. "So it's a—Young Adult book?"
"Yes, that's what they call it now."
"What does the cover look like?" I asked.
Her gaze turned inward. "A pale green background. A red-haired girl perched in a tree, looking up at the sky, at a full moon and stars. And it has one of those gold medal things on the cover, a Millhouse Award."
"And the inscription—what does it say?"
"To my daughter, Graciela."
In the whisper of sadness that flickered on her face, I caught a glimpse of a little girl, always on her own, an outsider searching to belong.
"It's a special book, then. A keepsake," I said.
The light in her eyes shifted, and she looked at me directly. "That's a good way of saying it. Yes, it's my talis— "Her face colored.
"I have to get it back. I can't stop thinking about it, like when you need a cigarette, except you can't have one but you can't stop thinking about it either."
I perked up. The nature of the client's fixation always contains clues to the lost treasure. To find the object of desire, follow the obsession. "When you think about the book, where do you see it?"
"I picture it ... in my mother's hands. As she read to us."
An image came into focus of a warm, maternal woman with a soft, curvy body, a coil of braided black hair pinned up with tortoiseshell combs, her reading glasses perched on her nose. Along with the picture came a feeling of sadness, washing over me and settling in my chest like a bad cold.
"Thanks," I said. "These questions help me find things."
"I understand. I'm psychic too. I've tried and tried, but I can't visualize where the book is now."
I started to tell her I'm not psychic, I just use my senses and intuition to lead me to the lost item. But I left it alone. Better to let my actions speak for themselves.
Pulling out my contract, I told her I'd be happy to take her case. She took out her reading glasses and read the contract word for word. She didn't blink at the fee schedule or the upfront retainer. We signed the agreement and she wrote me out a check. I tucked it away, silently thanking the gods of commerce. Just in the nick of time to cover my rent.
"I'll need a photo of Joey," I said. "Not digital—a print."
"I'll get that to you." She stood and put the contract in her bag. "Ms. Garcia Miller...."
"Call me Sadie."
"Sadie. I'm wondering." Her eyes burned. "Do you know St. Anthony?"
I thought of saying that I was half-Catholic, half-Jewish, and these two halves did not make a whole. "I have to confess, I'm not Catholic," I said, hoping she'd get the joke.
"You don't have to be Catholic. You're familiar, though?"
"Yes. Patron saint of lost objects."
"I've been praying to him for some time. When I saw the sign in your window today I knew it was meant to be."
"Maybe it was," I said, gathering up the paperwork, even though I wasn't sure if I agreed with "meant to be" as a concept. I felt more affinity to Insh'Allah, an Arabic phrase, literally "God willing," but which in my rough translation meant that some things were simply out of our control.
"By the way," I said, "I'm from the Central Valley too. Bakersfield. Born and raised. Are you from Fresno originally or—."
"No," she said, shoving her cigarettes into her bag, and she was gone, slamming the door behind her. The Tibetan bells hanging over the doorknob clanged violently, and in the wake of her departure the louvered blinds tapped on the glass.CHAPTER 2
I finished my sentence to the empty room. Something about my question had pissed off Grace Valdez. But in my business, anger is a good thing. Like a big yellow traffic sign with a solid black arrow, it tells me—go this way.
Pushing my hair out of my face and tucking it behind my ear, I felt something odd: no earrings. Wait a minute. I'd worn the opal ones today, for luck. I touched my earlobe on the other side, and sure enough, the earring was in place. No, no, no. Impossible.
I searched every corner of my office, behind the oak filing cabinet and under my desk, and scoured the back room, around the sink and counters, telling myself it had to be there. But the truth was, I could have lost it anywhere: at home, on my way to the office. I sat down on the ball, trying to hold back the tears.
I told myself the earring would turn up. I would find it, just the way I found things for everyone else. The first time I discovered my penchant for finding missing objects, I was eleven years old.
"Son of a bitch." Dad was leafing through piles of paper—on his desk, on the kitchen counter, in the living room, swearing and sweating as he went.
I put my hand on his shoulder. "What are you looking for, Dad?"
"A document," he said.
"I can help you."
"Sadie, I've looked everywhere. If I don't find it, I'm screwed. Royally screwed. I'll lose my job."
This was weird—he'd never said anything like that before. "Dad. What do the papers look like? What colors? Tell me. I'll find what you're looking for."
He shook his head, but then said, "OK. A bunch of papers. White. With black type and a big red stamp on each page that says 'confidential.' Held together at the top with one of those two-hole binder clamps."
"Silver clip thing?"
"OK, Dad. Let me look."
I started in the kitchen, making my way through every room of the house. I looked everywhere: no luck. I sat down on the couch and closed my eyes. I thought about Dad's union, the United Farm Workers. I had just finished a paper on the Grape Strike and now I understood there was a whole other side of the UFW. I knew them as family friends—the other organizers and all the field workers who rumpled my hair and called me Sedita—but I'd never realized before that they had made history.
When I thought about La Paz, the union headquarters, I got a fuzzy feeling in my chest. I was sore from shooting hoops the day before, and it seemed like my aching arms and shivery chest were all working together to give me a message. About the papers. I looked for a picture in my mind, but it was blank. Then the body feelings got so big they made me stand up and go outside and look at the moon, which was almost full. Right in front of me was the car. The car. The fuzzy feeling exploded. I checked the front and back seats, then went down on my knees and looked underneath the passenger seat. Papers. I pulled them out. White, with a silver two-hole binder clip—.
He ran out of the house, and we whooped and hollered and he lifted me high in the air and kissed me.
"You found them in the car? Where? I looked all through it," he said.
"Under the passenger seat."
"I swear I looked there."
I shrugged my shoulders. "Maybe it was hiding from you."
"Sedita," he said, his face lit by the moon. "You have the knack. Just like your mother." His words settled into my heart. A knack. From my mother.
Just as the memory of that day had unfurled and wrapped itself around me, it now folded itself back up again. I did what I always do when I want to forget all that. I opened my laptop and got to work.
My online search for Grace's brother turned up a zillion Jose Valdezes but only a few Jose Ruiz Valdezes, one of whom kept showing up as a cast member at community theaters in the Fresno area. A couple of feature articles in the San Joaquin Valley Spanish-language papers mentioned a "Joey" Valdez.
I found The Journey and ordered a copy, then went back to looking for Joey Valdez. Traipsing through a labyrinth of websites, clicking and skimming, I went from one site to the next and the next and the next. Some time later, I heard the Tibetan bells and came out of my online trance long enough to look up from the screen. But it was only my cat Emma, batting the bells with her paw.
There was something tugging at the back of my mind. What was it? Someone I was supposed to call? Daniela. I texted her, knowing my ten-year-old niece would never actually answer the phone.
I always had to fight off a nagging sense of worry about my niece, even when nothing was wrong. Lately, though, she was a regular drama queen. Maybe I had to get used to it— she was a preteen now. But it seemed like there was a layer of anger underneath her sass. Had something happened ...? It was probably nothing, I told myself. She'll be OK. She'll be fine.CHAPTER 3
I locked up my office and walked the six blocks to my truck. It was already eighty degrees, and when it's October in San Francisco everyone celebrates the warm weather, riding their bicycles, putting on their cutoffs and tank tops, and— for some women (plus a few men)—donning their skimpiest dresses. I'd taken the opportunity to put on a red-and-yellow backless sundress, a vintage number in a crinkly 1950s rayon. Strolling down Valencia Street, I took in the lovely sight of skin—joyfully exposed in a collective festival of fleeting summer.
A half hour later, I was on the road to Fresno.
The drive to Fresno goes right through the heartland of California. The farms and agricultural corporations of the San Joaquin Valley are key to the state economy, even though the reality is that the top cash crop of California is marijuana, grown farther north, in beautiful Humboldt County. But for mainstream agriculture, this swath of land is essential not only to the state economy, but also to the exploitation and employment of thousands of migrant farm workers, generations of whom have settled in the San Joaquin Valley, aka the Central Valley, aka the Valley.
As I drove south on Interstate 5, amidst the yellow-brown hills and neat rows of cotton, alfalfa, or nut trees, I had plenty of time to think. The landscape reminded me of growing up in the Valley. I remembered all the times I'd driven with my dad, miles and miles of freeway and road, for his work, but once in awhile—for a special trip. The memory of my twelfth birthday came, unbidden.
Dad was driving. He'd refused to answer any of my questions, but since I hadn't had to get dressed up, I knew we weren't going to a play or a restaurant. But for sure we were going to Los Angeles, I could tell by the route. I couldn't believe it when we got there.
"The Forum! Oh my gosh, we're going to see the Lakers! You said we couldn't go—you sneaky bootface." Throwing my arms around him, I kissed him five times. He looked pretty proud of himself as he pulled the Volkswagen Bug into the line of cars waiting to get into the parking lot.
"OK, Punkamonk. I have to drive." But he was grinning.
At the start of the game, the sound of the shoes on the court—jeet, jeet, jeet. It smelled like floor varnish and hot dogs, and all the mixed smells of a gazillion people. The lights were so bright the floor looked like polished amber. "I don't see him, Dad. You sure he's here?"
"Right there. In the corner by the—"
"I see—I see him!" Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. I'd read up about him and watched every game I could on tv, at least when I was allowed to.
Excerpted from Finder of Lost Objects by Susie Hara. Copyright © 2014 Susie Hara. Excerpted by permission of Ithuriel's Spear.
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