The Geography of Lost Things
4:05 P.M. RUSSELLVILLE, CA INVENTORY: (0)
I stand on the front porch, watching Mom shove her overnight bag into the cluttered back seat of Rosie’s sedan. I suppose I could blame Rosie for getting Mom the job in the first place, but that would be petty and childish. We need the money. I know that. Mom knows that. Even Rosie knows that.
It’s why Mom is disappearing to Sacramento for a week to serve fancy appetizers to even fancier people, leaving me to finish packing up the house by myself.
Graduation is coming up! How will you be spending Senior Week?
A Hitting up every party in town.
B On a beach in Mexico.
C Trying to fit your entire life into a box.
Not that I really have anything better to do.
Sure, there’ll be parties. My best friend, June, already
told me she was having one tomorrow night. But it’s definitely not what I had planned for the week between the last day of high school and graduation. Although, to be honest, I’m not sure what I had planned.
I just didn’t expect this.
I didn’t expect Mom to give up so easily.
I didn’t expect to be the one still fighting.
Mom comes back to the porch to hug me good-bye. She takes in my crossed arms and the permanent scowl that hasn’t left my face since she came home last week with what she called “the keys to our new life.”
She really should have worked in advertising instead of food service.
“Don’t worry,” Mom says. “I’ll be back in time for the moving truck.”
“I could ask Pam for an advance on my paycheck,” I tell her.
Mom sighs. “We’ve been through this. You know it’s not enough.”
“Maybe if we sell the car—”
“Ali, give it up. It’s over.”
“But—” I try to argue.
“But we’ve been through all the buts. A thousand times. There are no more buts left.”
“There has to be.”
Mom brushes a strand of curly brown hair from my face. She’s already getting blurry through the tears that are forming in my eyes. I hastily gather up my unruly hair and secure
it with the rubber band I always keep around my wrist.
“I think you’ll like living in Harvest Grove,” Mom says. “They have a pool. And a gym. All the apartments come with new carpeting. No more of that ugly brown shag.”
“I like the ugly brown shag.”
Mom chuckles. “That’s just because you’ve never seen nice carpet before. Plus, you’ll have a great place to come home to when you visit me from UC Davis next year.”
I swallow down the giant lump that has just formed in my throat.
You got a full scholarship to the college of your dreams! What do you do?
A Start shopping for dorm room furniture.
B Spend the entire summer obsessing over the course catalog.
C Hide the letter in your backpack and “accidentally” forget to tell your mother you never accepted the offer.
“Mom,” I say, my voice cracking. “Don’t do this. Don’t let them take it. We have to fight.”
“We’ve been fighting!” Mom’s voice rises and then immediately falls again. “Ali. I’m done. Done fighting. Done trying to get out from under his mistakes. This gives us a fresh start. Please try to understand that I need one.”
My gaze falls to the ground. Because I can’t look at her when she says stuff like that. Because how do you argue with that? Because she’s right.
I know she’s right.
And yet, everything about this feels wrong.
“I’ll see you in a week.” Mom kisses me on the forehead before I can come up with any more useless protests. And then, she’s gone. By the time I look up again, Rosie’s car is already halfway down the driveway.
I turn and head into the house, navigating through the maze of cardboard boxes. I’m surprised there are so many. I didn’t think we had that much stuff. Mom and I share a love of decluttering. We’re always finding excuses to throw things away, or donate them to Goodwill.
But I guess everyone accumulates things. Even us.
I walk into the kitchen and put on a pot of coffee. As it brews, I head to the desk in the living room where Mom keeps all the paperwork for the house. Bills, bank statements, legal documents. All meticulously organized in hanging file folders in a drawer. I find the folder I’m looking for and flip it open to the first document inside. I skim over all the fake niceties. The “Dear Ms. Collins, we regret to inform you . . .” Like they’re simply writing to tell us that the pillow shams we ordered are out of stock.
I scroll down to the bottom. To the giant black box surrounding the words TOTAL AMOUNT OVERDUE and the deadline FRIDAY, MAY 29.
A week from tomorrow.
I sigh and shut my eyes tight.
She’s right. It’s not enough. Even if we sold the car and the furniture and Pam was able to give me the biggest
advance ever offered to an employee in the history of the pet boarding industry, it wouldn’t be enough.
I glance around the living room. At the walls that won’t be our walls. At the carpet that won’t be our carpet. At the boxes that will be emptied somewhere else. Stuff stuffed into new cabinets. New drawers.
No, not stuffed.
Neatly stored. Meticulously organized. Maybe even labeled.
I’m sure most people would look at this house and laugh at my desperation. I know it doesn’t look like much from the outside. Or the inside. The drywall has cracks in it. The paint is chipping. The bedrooms are tiny. The kitchen is tinier. The microwave hasn’t worked in more than two years. The shower stall in the one bathroom that Mom and I share leaks.
But it’s ours.
Mom’s and mine.
No matter what has happened to us in the past eighteen years—no matter how many times he’s let us down—this house has been there for us. A rock beneath the trembling ground. It’s been our safe haven—our eye of so many storms. Russellville may be saturated with painful memories, but this house is where all the good ones live. The sights and sounds and smells. Mom singing in the bathroom as she gets ready for work. Rain pooling at the base of the front porch, causing us to have to jump off the last step. Pumpkin bread baking in the oven. Not
only in the fall, but year-round, because Mom and I both love pumpkin.
Where does all of that go?
How can the bank possibly repossess things like that? How can they just suck it all up into their vaults and lock it away forever?
The coffeepot beeps, interrupting my thoughts. I shut the folder, slip it into place, and close the drawer. I head back into the kitchen and pull one of the two coffee mugs down from the cabinet. We’ve never kept a lot of stuff in the house. Just the essentials. Two of everything. Two plates, two sets of silverware, two glasses, two coffee mugs. By the end of next week, it will all be in boxes too.
As I pour the coffee, watching the stream of dark brown liquid fill the mug, I think about holes.
Big, gaping holes cut into the ground.
Holes so deep, you can’t see the top once you’re inside. And the ground keeps sinking beneath your feet. Like quicksand. Pulling you farther and farther down, until your hope of ever climbing out is gone.
And then, of course, I think about Jackson.
Smiling his disarming smile.
Murmuring his empty reassurances.
Holding a shovel.
Neither of us were all that shocked when we learned that Jackson had died. Mom and I both knew it was coming
eventually. Jackson’s lifestyle wasn’t exactly the kind you’d describe as “sustainable.” He had always lived by a code of impermanence. It’s why we never had a current address for him. Never knew where he was or when or if he would call. Never knew what kind of condition he would be in when he did.
Mom and I didn’t even know Jackson had been sick. Which, of course, was typical. He did everything without telling us or soliciting our opinion on the matter. Apparently, that also included dying.
For the next few hours, I blast the bubbliest music I can find on my phone, drink an obscene amount of coffee, and force myself to pack. I start with my bedroom, opening closet doors and dresser drawers and dumping as much as I can into trash bags. The fewer boxes we have to bring with us, the better.
It feels good to throw things away. Like I’m not only making room in the cabinets, but also making room in my head. Clearing space for better and brighter things. Pushing bad, stale memories out the door.
When the coffeepot is empty and the trash bags are full, I collapse onto the couch, take out my phone, and navigate to my favorite personality quiz website. I scroll through all of the new quizzes that have popped up since yesterday, quickly ruling out the ones for which I already know what result I’ll get.
Which Star Wars Episode Best Describes Your Last Relationship?
Episode II: Attack of the Clones.
How Stubborn Are You?
What Do Your Summer Plans Say About Your Life?
That I have no life.
Finally, I find one that looks interesting—Which Classic Novel Character Would You Most Likely Have as a BFF?—and start answering the questions.
I’ve pretty much taken every personality quiz under the sun. I can tell you who I am in relation to every single television show, movie, book, and one-hit-wonder song. I know what my favorite doughnut flavor says about me (simple and non-fussy); what my dream vacation is (Rome); what Disney villain best represents my dark side (Ursula from The Little Mermaid); and what my best quality is based on what pizza toppings I like (selfless).
Personality quizzes have always felt comforting to me. They sum people up, distill the complexities of human beings down to a few digestible sentences.
Just as the quiz spits out my result—Jane Eyre—an alarm goes off on my phone, reminding me that I’m due at Chateau Marmutt, the pet hotel where I work, for my overnight shift in thirty minutes. I basically get paid to sleep in a room surrounded by dogs. It’s not a bad gig.
I carry the full trash bags out to the bins at the end of the driveway and turn back to the house, bounding up the porch steps. But I freeze when I see the notice pinned to the door.
How many of those things do they need to send us? We get it. You’re serious about it. This is not a joke.
The deadline is stamped onto the page like a searing, red-hot brand.
Friday, May 29.
Pay, or else.
Or else . . .
Somehow Mom has come to terms with the “or else.” She almost seems to have chosen it. But I just can’t bring myself to choose that.
I can’t bring myself to let them win. To let Jackson win. To let the world win.
June would say it’s because I’m too competitive. It’s the excuse she always gives when she’s losing at a board game, which she almost always does.
And maybe I am. Maybe I can’t admit defeat. But this feels like more than defeat. This isn’t Monopoly. We’re not just turning in all of our little green houses to the bank and forfeiting the game. This is real. A real house. A real family. Real memories steeped into the walls.
The bank is foreclosing on your house! How do you react?
A Keep packing. Can’t argue with the almighty bank.
B Steal all the toilets and fixtures. They can have the walls, but they can’t have the towel bars!
C Refuse to accept the inevitable.
I rip the notice from the door, crumple it up in my hands, and toss it onto the porch. I slam the front door
closed behind me and stand with my back pressed against the wall, breathing hard. My eyes squeeze shut, so I don’t have to see the boxes. The furniture. The walls. My nine-year-old self standing by the window, her face glued to the glass, wondering when he was coming back.
Back then, it was always when. It was never if.
The if came later.
“Please,” I whisper to the quiet house, as though I’m trying to rally its support. As though I’m begging it to fight back too. Don’t let yourself be taken. Stand your ground. Lock your doors. Turn your floors into hot lava. Whatever it takes. Haven’t you loved us back? Haven’t we been just as much a part of you as you have been of us? Do you really want strangers living in your walls?
I don’t expect the house to respond. But somehow it does.
Because just then, there’s a knock on the door.
Before Jackson died, unexpected knocks on the door usually meant one thing: he was back. The last time he came back, however, he didn’t even make it to the front door. Mom and I heard his car pulling into the driveway. We both recognized the familiar roar of that engine. It was my sixteenth birthday. We were doing the dishes after breakfast when the sound stopped us both short. We exchanged a knowing look. It was a look we reserved for moments like this. A silent vow. A reconfirming of the pact that bonded us.
Then, without a word, we both dried our hands and headed outside, intercepting him before he could even make it up to the front porch.
I saw the car first. Jackson’s blue 1968 Firebird convertible glinting in the morning sun. That car was one of the only things Jackson took seriously in life. Along with a popular late-nineties post-grunge band called Fear Epidemic. He’d bought the Firebird the day he graduated from high school, approximately eleven months before I was born. It was with him the day he died. I wasn’t.
I saw Jackson next. He was drunk—not a surprise—and he had a bleached-blond woman in a leather miniskirt hanging on his arm—also not a surprise. She appeared older than some of the others. More worn, like fruit that had been left in a dehydrator too long.
I remember exactly what the two of them looked like standing in our driveway. They looked like strangers. They looked like washed-out remnants from another time. Artifacts dug up from the dirt.
“Marylou,” Jackson slurred to the girl. “I’d like you to meet my daughter.”
The woman stared at him, as though this weren’t actually her name and she was trying to decide whether or not she cared. Apparently, she didn’t. She reached out a bejeweled hand to shake mine. “Hi. You must be the famous—”
“Ali,” I interrupted her before she had a chance to utter the name that I’d long since given up. That I could barely stand to hear spoken aloud anymore.
“Ali,” Jackson repeated with a twinkle in his eye. “That’s right. I forgot. She doesn’t like the name I picked out for her. She goes by Ali now.”
I fought the urge to remind him that I’d actually gone by Ali my whole life. Everyone I knew called me Ali. He was the only one who’d ever called me by that other name.
I’m still not sure why my mom ever agreed to Jackson’s ridiculous name choice to begin with. She was probably too hopped-up on labor drugs at the time to disagree. Or maybe she was just too hopped-up on the charm of Jackson. They seemed to have similar effects on a person. They both numbed you until you couldn’t feel a thing. Until you believed that you lived in a world where pain was impossible.
“I’m up in Fort Bragg now,” Jackson said, even though no one had asked. “Less than an hour up the California coast. Would be nice if you came to visit sometime.”
“What are you doing here?” Mom asked, stepping up to stand beside me, creating our usual unified front. Her voice was calm, reasonable. A result of years of practice. You didn’t raise your voice at Jackson. Or get too worked up. Because he had this mysterious talent for always making you feel like you were the unreasonable one. Like life was one big joke and you just lacked the sense of humor to get it.
“Just thought I’d come see my daughter on her birthday,” Jackson responded, winking at me. “It’s not every day a girl turns sixteen.”
Mom stiffened beside me. I knew why. She was sur
prised. Surprised that he had not only remembered the date but had also gotten the age right. It was little things like that that poked holes in your anger. That made you second-guess—for even a split second—your silent promises to never let him back in.
Something jangled in Jackson’s hand, pulling my gaze downward. It was his key ring with the single silver key dangling off of it. The same nondescript key ring he’d had for as long as I could remember. The same jangling sound that populated my sporadic childhood memories.
He nodded to the Firebird idling behind him in the driveway. The very vehicle that had taken him away seven years ago ironically kept bringing him back. Never on a consistent basis. Never with any warning or phone calls or texts. Always just showing up, the roaring engine audible from the top of the driveway, the polished chrome wheels blinding all passing traffic.
The top of the car was down, and the white leather appeared freshly conditioned. Jackson looked like he hadn’t bathed in days, but the car, per usual, was immaculate.
“Want to take her for a spin?” Jackson asked.
Mom answered for me. “She doesn’t have her license yet.”
“Well, let’s go down to the DMV and take care of that right now,” Jackson said with the enthusiasm of a father pitching a trip to Disneyland to a small child.
“She’s not going anywhere with you, Jack,” Mom replied tightly, setting her hands on my shoulders.
Jackson rubbed the dark scruff around his jaw and smiled back at my mother. That same disarming, charismatic smile that she’d fought to break free from since high school.
He tossed the key ring straight up in the air. I imagine he had every intention of catching it. But the alcohol had affected his coordination. I watched the sparkling metal twirl and dance before falling to the asphalt next to his feet with a clank.
It made him laugh so hard, he nearly fell over. Marylou—or whatever her name really was—laughed too.
That’s when Mom sent them away. She bent down, scooped up the keys, thrust them into Marylou’s hands—the decidedly more sober one—and told them to leave. I didn’t argue. I’d stopped being that kid who gave her absent father the benefit of the doubt years ago. I’d stopped blaming my mother for making him leave. I knew exactly why he left.
He left because that’s what Jackson did.
The knock comes again. This time, more urgently. My stomach caves in on itself as I push my back further against the door, like I’m trying to literally hold the visitor at bay. Although it feels more like I’m holding back an insurgent army.
There’s no one it could possibly be who I would want to see right now. Ever since that last visit from Jackson two
years ago, the only surprise visitors we’ve been getting around here are the collecting kind. The kind who pin notices with big red dates to your door.
And yet, the knocking doesn’t stop. The visitor won’t leave.
Finally, I get so fed up, I turn and yank the door open, ready to take out all of my anger and frustration on whoever is standing there. I don’t care who it is. A debt collector, the UPS man, the Pope. Whoever is pounding on my door deserves everything that’s bubbling to the surface right now, ready to stream out of my mouth like a river of hot lava.
But it’s the object in the man’s hand that stops me short. That clamps my lips shut. That pushes everything back inside. It’s the first thing my gaze lands on. Not the hand holding it. Not the strange man the hand is attached to.
The large yellow envelope with my name scribbled across the center.
The moment I see it, I know that it’s from Jackson. Not just from the lazy handwriting—the incomplete Os and undotted Is that reminded me of burning sauce on the stove and stacks of unopened final payment notices stuffed into boxes. But because Jackson is—was—the only person who still uses that name.
The room does a full rotation, causing me to look away and then look back at the envelope just to make sure I’m not imagining it.
“Are you the daughter of Jackson Collins?”
The voice forces me to look up. Up, up, up. Until there’s a face. An unfamiliar face I’ve never seen before, but I
immediately distrust. Not because he looks like a distrustful guy, which he doesn’t—he’s clean-cut, with pressed khakis and a friendly, toothy grin—but because he’s now associated. Just saying Jackson’s name—just holding an envelope with Jackson’s handwriting on it—will forever stain him in my memory.
My head feels heavy, thick with possible reactions to the very simple question of “Are you the daughter of Jackson Collins?”
Shut the door.
Tell him to leave.
Anything to avoid the real answer. Because the real answer has never served me. Not when Jackson was alive and, I am certain, not now that Jackson is dead.
But somehow, the real answer is what comes out. “Yes.”
“I’m Pete. I knew your father before he died. He rented a room from me up in Tacoma.”
So that’s where he died. We didn’t know. When the call came from the hospital, there was no information on the caller ID. Mom didn’t ask, and I didn’t blame her. But now, I find the name of the city tumbling around in my brain like metal screws in a dryer.
I guess it makes sense. He went back to them. To the band he loved. The music that inspired him. Fear Epidemic was formed in Tacoma. All the members were from there. Jackson always liked to say that he made that band.
That he discovered them and told all of his friends and that’s why they became famous.
“It’s just south of Seattle, Washington,” Pete explains, clearly interpreting my silence as confusion.
“I know where Tacoma is,” I say quickly. Rudely. But I don’t care. I don’t want to talk geography with this stranger holding an envelope with my real name on it. I want him to get to the point. Tell me what’s inside. Because unless he does, I’m not sure I’ll actually be able to take it from him. I’m not sure I’ll be able to open it on my own. I can’t handle any more of Jackson’s surprises.
I thought his last surprise was the final one.
Death usually is.
Pete clears his throat. “Right, well, anyway. He wanted you to have this. He made me promise I’d bring it to you.”
He smiles and holds out the envelope, looking like a dutiful Labrador retriever delivering a Frisbee, waiting for praise. I stare at the name. Jackson’s handwriting, even messier than usual.
Did he write it when he was sick?
While he was dying?
Was it the last thing he did?
“What is it?” I ask, my gaze darting suspiciously between the man and the envelope.
The saying “Don’t shoot the messenger” flutters through my mind, but I ignore it.
He looks confused for a moment, as though he were under the impression that I already knew he was coming. He must not have known Jackson very well if that’s what he assumed.
He glances behind him and jerks a thumb over his shoulder. “That.”
I follow his gaze, and that’s when I see it. I’m actually not sure why I didn’t notice it before. But there it is. Just like I remembered. Jackson’s most prized possession.
Why didn’t I hear it pull up? Why didn’t the sound jolt me to attention like it always did?
Maybe it was never the car that was so deafening, demanding attention. Maybe it was Jackson.
I flounder for words, glancing between Pete and the blue 1968 Firebird convertible parked in the driveway, waiting for him to tell me that this is all a big joke. Haha! What a funny prank. One final rug for Jackson to pull out from under me.
Because the alternative is just too hard to believe. Jackson never left behind anything valuable. Jackson left behind messes. He left behind deep holes that can never be filled.
“A-a-are you sure?” I finally manage to get out.
Pete laughs at my reaction. “She’s a beauty, isn’t she? Real classic, that car. You’re a lucky girl to have a father like that.”
A lucky girl.
Never in my eighteen years of life have “lucky” and “father” ever been so close together in a sentence.
“Well, I gotta run,” Pete says. “A friend is picking me up and driving me to the airport.” He thrusts the envelope into my hand. “Paperwork is all in here. Oh, and here’s the key.”
Pete reaches into his pocket and pulls out a simple silver key ring.
The breath hitches in my chest.
The last time I saw that key ring was more than two years ago. On my sixteenth birthday. It’s exactly as I remember.
It’s funny how time can weather a man, fade a memory, change a name, but it seems to do nothing to objects. They’re like little time capsules buried in your life, digging themselves up all on their own, regardless of whether or not you’re ready to see them again.
“Well, enjoy her,” Pete says. “She’s all gassed up.” He tosses me the key. Somehow, despite the numbness that has invaded my entire body like a plague, I manage to catch it.
Pete turns and jogs down the front steps. I stare dazedly at the key ring in one hand, the envelope in the other, and then finally, the car in the driveway. I still can’t bring myself to believe that it’s mine. That Jackson actually left me something. But then I open the envelope, ripping through the tape that sealed it, and pull out the piece of paper inside. I take in the ornate blue border, the faint “State of California” watermark, the words CERTIFICATE OF TITLE printed in all caps across the top. And my name—my full legal name—typed in a crisp black font.
Jackson’s handwriting may have been sloppy, untrustworthy, and barely legible, but this piece of paper is clear enough.
Suddenly, a very different sensation travels through me. An unfamiliar sensation. It’s so foreign, I can’t even be sure I’m correctly identifying it.
But it feels a lot like hope.