Sunday, January 31, 2010

Queen of Hearts


When the trunk arrived, he was spreading marmalade on an English muffin, listening to the latest report on the troubles in the Middle East, thinking about nothing but how the early morning sun played across the top of his kitchen table. Somewhere in the back of his mind he was deciding how he’d spend a lazy Saturday. Everyone he knew was out of town for Easter, making the spring trek through crowded airports or train stations to the place they used to call home, hugging parents and aunts who looked more worn and wrinkled than the last visit.

Given the office crazies the past few weeks, it felt good not to be over-scheduled and stressed out, late for meetings, the button falling off a dress shirt at the worst possible moment. Maybe he’d read the paper, he thought, or leaf through the magazines he never had time for anymore.

When the doorbell rang, he opened it, mildly irritated at the interruption to the perfect day he was planning. A clean, but nearly toothless guy in a crisply pressed yellow shirt stood there. Over his left pocket it said “Speedy Delivery” and there was an embroidered emblem of a gorilla running with a box. Aaron raised his eyebrows and flared his nostrils, alerted to the scent of something out of the ordinary.

“How ya doin’? Got a trunk needs ta be delivered,” the guy looked down at his clipboard. “Goes to Aaron Goldsmith.”

“That’s me. I’m not expecting anything. Who’s it from?”

“Alls I know is names and addresses,” the man said with a shrug.

“Yeah, but where did it come from?”

“My shipping manager told me to put it on the truck this morning,” the man explained. “I loaded it, heavier ‘an hell, and brought it right over. Bitch getting’ it up your front stairs.”

“OK.” Aaron puffed, gestured to a spot by the door. “Put it here in the hall?”

“Any place you want, man.”

After the battered, old trunk was settled, Aaron ran upstairs to get a couple of dollars from his wallet to tip the guy. All he had was a five. Hurrying back downstairs pajama bottoms and T-shirt flapping, he pressed the money into the man’s hand, closed the door behind him and reset the deadbolt. He turned to look more closely at the trunk, probably what they used to call a steamer trunk, back in the day. He noticed the stickers on the side: Rio, Lucerne, Congo, the St. Louis World’s Fair – 1916. He scratched his head and pulled at the rusted, but sturdy padlock that clamped the lid shut.

“Crap,” he thought as he went up stairs, noticing the cold on his bare feet. In the kitchen he rummaged through a drawer and found a screwdriver to bust the lock. He took a sip of coffee, but it was cold. Finding a hammer, he went back downstairs and banged away until the clasp broke, the lock striking the top of his left foot as it flew off. Even before he opened the lid, he was aware of the smell, like salt air and dirty underwear.


When he flipped back the lid, he found men's clothes. Tucked along the edge of the trunk, was a bent photograph, lipped under a brown, pinstriped suit jacket. It was of Uncle Jack, in a sombrero and Speedos. He had his arm around a woman with long black hair and a flowing white dress. The focus was too fuzzy to see their faces clearly, but there was a beach in the background and what looked liked beer bottles on the sand.

Uncle Jack was his mother’s youngest brother, the black sheep, they used to say. He worked as a merchant marine, making money at sea and then going to Mexico, where he lived like a king. When his money was gone, he’d go back to sea. As far as anyone knew, he never married.

Aaron used to wonder if he was gay. Not because he ever did anything to make him suspicious during his infrequent visits, but still. A middle-aged guy, no home, no wife and kids, no friends that anyone in the family knew of. He came to the funeral when his mother died, sat in the back during the service, stopped by the house for coffee and cake when it was over. Arron hadn’t heard from Uncle Jack in more than ten years.

He took the clothes out, item by item and piled them neatly on the floor. Toward the bottom he found a shoe brush, a battered wind-up alarm clock, a shaving kit and a small, leather-bound version of the New Testament, words of the gospel in red.

There were post cards, more pictures of people Arron didn’t know, a worn Masonic ring with a red stone and symbol set into it. There were pink nose plugs with a cracked rubber strap that went around the head. A metal box held an old bicycle-tire repair kit, useless now. There was a folded calendar page – November 30, 1986 circled in red.

There were broken and mismatched cuff links in a small gift box. In the bottom of the little box was a picture Arron knew. It was him in his Little League uniform, bat on his shoulder, hat pulled back so the camera could catch his face. He remembered the day it was taken, the smell of the grass, the red dirt of the infield, the grip of the bat. It all rushed back. He sat down on the floor, deflated.

He turned back to the trunk, wanting to get to the bottom, and eased his chest onto the edge and continued rummaging. In the far corner was a package wrapped in white paper and secured by a rubber band. He picked it up, slipped off the paper, let it flutter to the bottom of the trunk and found a deck of cards, worn around the edges as if played with for an eternity.

He shuffled through the deck and found it was complete, except that the joker had been turned into the queen of hearts. Sitting on the floor, Aaron set up a solitaire hand, feeling the pliant, sticky cards as he dealt.


He turned a card over and in the corner of the jack of clubs was the name Olaf Denisen, Mexico City, the ink faint but clear. On the three of spades was the name Miguel, written in tiny letters along the border. Then he noticed the names Martina, Natalie, Zoe, Rich, Mike and Ann along the edges of other cards as he turned them faster.

On the edge of the ace of spades, it said “Went to Huaca Chica with the French girl. Back 11-30-86. He’s got your queen of hearts.”

Aaron gathered the cards back into a deck, reached up and closed the lid of the trunk, stepped over the pile of clothes on the entry hall floor and walked up stairs to his bookcase. He pulled a world atlas from the shelf, but could not find Huaca Chica anywhere in Mexico. He called his friend George, but got a booming "Hola" from the answering machine.

He thought about getting on the Internet, but knew it would take too long. He took a breath, then a shower, lingering to let the hot water warm his feet. He toweled off and dressed, wondering what to do next. Why had the trunk come to him? Obviously, Uncle Jack must be dead, he thought. Where did he die and why? Who sent the trunk to him? What about the cards. Who is the queen of hearts?

He went to the phone, moved his finger through the Yellow Pages, found Mexicana Airlines, took a deep breath and dialed.