From the author: Originally published in Every Day Fiction. It's about relationships and detritus and actually the story itself was triggered by neighbors who continued to dump their trash into the back yard. Accidentally, I believe, but the behavior did not change until their dumpster was moved.
The fence at the end of Penny’s yard is made of tall redwood stakes. They’re not tall enough. The stakes mostly hide an apartment building in the next yard, people and children and dogs and cars and a trash dumpster parked on the other side of her fence. Kids get the traditional job of tossing the garbage. Little kid arms apparently can’t make the toss into the dumpster’s gaping maw but they manage to fling bags of used lifestyle into her yard, her quiet and green hideaway shared by wild parrots and an avocado tree.
She puts on rubber kitchen gloves and collects the trash, thinking, bastid kids and what kind of parents? and throw it back at them and ewww, gross! Sometimes she takes photos and sends them to the property managers with a note begging please. Help. Do something. Her emails and photos are ignored. Most times she doesn’t bother. She collects the rubbish and ties it into a neat plastic bag and deposits it in her own trash containers.
This time, she sits on a used brick border surrounding the rosemary, short and close-clipped. She sees something interesting. She picks up the small gray velveteen box that was not nestled among dirty diapers and stained sanitary napkins. It’s heavy. They always are.
She prises open the lid. Nothing but a stale bit of yellowed foam with two slits for earrings. She’s not surprised. It’s rubbish, after all. She laughs, closes the lid, and tosses the box into the plastic bag. Something rattles. She peers into the plastic bag. The gray box is on top.
Opened again, it still contains a bed of yellowed foam. She lifts that out. Underneath are the earrings. Gold wire holds a pendant of a small diamond and tear-shaped aquamarine. They’re grimy. Still, they reflect what sparse light shimmers in the dark place here by the fence. They enchant her.
She flicks away the foam bed and drops the jewels into the box, snaps it closed, puts it in her pocket. She must finish her work here, cleaning up someone else’s mess.
In the kitchen she pulls off the gloves then rescues the velveteen box. She spills the earrings onto the granite counter and considers them while she scrubs her hands.
Diamonds are forever, and a girl’s best friend, and some pearls are beyond price, but she’s never had luck with jewelry. She snags the jewelry-cleaner, an almost-unused gift from long ago, from under the sink, and drops the earrings into its depths of red-tinted fluid. Swish swish and thirty seconds and a minor touch-up with the tiny black brush (included) and the earrings are no longer grimy but sparkle in the dimness of her kitchen. She puts them up against the closed-over holes in her earlobes and imagines wearing them – to a party, dressed to the nines, maybe even at The Magic Castle – but for a reason she doesn’t consider she puts them down on the sideboard again.
In her room. Under the bed. Near the headboard. She recovers a plain shoebox. Dust puffs up when she lifts the lid. Inside is a true rainbow of little velveteen boxes. Black and white, red and blue, gray green purple teal. She plucks the teal box from its nest and caresses it with her pinkie. How old had she been? Seven? Twelve?
Her Granpa, a merchant marine, entertained her childhood with tales of hidden treasure and secret gemstone mines. He sent her an illustrated Ali Baba And The Forty Thieves, a gilded copy of The Count Of Monte Cristo. She dreamt of piles of eternal glittering gems. She loved the adventures but couldn’t bring herself to believe in them. Life was winter coats and pink foam curlers.
The package came one day while she was home alone between school and dinner. Not delivered by the friendly postman but by a tall and distant man, young and impatient. Exotic stamps covered the small brown envelope. There was her name in her Granpa’s familiar scrawling print. She used scissors to open the package neatly. The envelope released its contents: the teal velveteen box. She gasped. What could it possibly be? She shoved the lid up. Revealed, the earrings sparkled. Pale blue stones. Glinting white stones. Diamonds and aquamarines. Her birth stone. She held them cupped in her palm for all the hours until her mother came home.
Her mother agreed they were gorgeous. She nodded at the idea of getting pierced ears – tomorrow! Her mother smiled at the praise Penny heaped on her Granpa.
Penny took them to bed with her, clasped in her hand. In the morning they were gone. Her mother never mentioned the earrings, never discussed pierced ears. Penny watched her carefully. Did her mother know what evil genie stole the earrings from her sleeper’s fingers? She had her suspicions but she never asked. And she still had the box.
Jewels fled through her life. Bobby gave her rubies when she asked for opals. Pearls when she wanted diamonds. He shrugged when she asked about a golden band. When he left the few jewels went with him. The velveteen boxes remained. Other men, other jewelry given and taken. They left her and the boxes behind.
In the kitchen she picks up the diamond and aquamarine earrings. Again she’s struck by how lovely they are. Are they the same ones, Granpa’s gift? Could they be? Not that it matters. She opens the teal box and slides the earrings into the old foam bed inside. She puts it back amongst its barren brothers and restores the lid to the shoebox. She goes into the back yard, to the rosemary corner, to the redwood fence. She drags an old bench close and steps up. Looks over.
The black flap that covers the dumpster’s mouth is closed. She leans over the fence and places the shoebox on top.
Maybe someone will find them. Maybe not. She doesn’t need them any more.