THE SCHWINN CLICKED like a fishing line as he navigated the edge of the tropical neighborhood. Blades of late afternoon sun cut through the swaying palm trees. His sifter, mini-shovel and fanny pack clanked together, the chorus of his daily routine against the caw of the gulls and the hush of the waves. Todd Freeman glided to his favorite post to lock up his bike: right where the street, sidewalk, and beach converged. He thought he smelled grilled Mahi-Mahi on the wind.
Todd clutched the metal detector in one hand and rolled the old bike past Mrs. Renee’s plant-covered porch. He didn’t see her for their customary wave, but he got his first extra strong whiff of beach air, salty as the rim of a glass and blown right into his face, overpowering the brief hint of grilled fish.
He spotted a couple walking away from the water after what Todd presumed was an overstayed visit, given the lobster redness of their skin. Even from his distance he knew they’d be hurting bad by tomorrow.
They took notice of him. He hopped off the bike and walked it to the favorite weathered and initial-scrawled post, watching them. By the time they got close enough, he had already locked the bike and readjusted his tool belt.
Todd offered them a smile.
The couple, a middle aged guy whose face told the world he never wanted to go to the beach again in his life only took a quick glance at him, while a plump, short-haired woman who followed, offered a kind smile in return. He was more on a march, hauling their beach chairs and a beach bag while she followed behind in an open-armed waddle, more for her burned skin than her size, her hands raised and swinging with each step, as if she was walking on stilts.
Holding his smile, Todd said, “Hello.”
“’Ello” The woman said in a soft and reedy British lilt. “Windy day today.”
“Yeah? Sunny too?” Todd asked, hoping he didn’t come off as too sarcastic to her.
“Oh! Like you wouldn’t believe!” she exclaimed, the eeeve stretching out in her voice for emphasis.
Todd waited for her to pass through the small walkway to and from the sands. As he did, she noticed his gear.
“Wassat you got there?” she asked, and pointed.
“Oh, what? My metal detector?”
“Yeah, I ‘adn’t seen one of those in years. You a treasure
“Hmm. More or less.”
“You look like one. Especially with that belt.”
“Tools of the trade.” Todd slipped past her as he noticed a thin
gold chain slathered against her sweaty sun-reddened chest. “You ever find anything big? Like...reeeeally big?”
“Uh, to me, it depends on who’s asking. What’s big to you
may not be big to the next person.”
“So that’s a ‘no’?”
“Well, you might’ve left the matching earrings that go with
that necklace back at your campsite, and I may find them.”
The woman looked liked she had been goosed. Gasping, her face lit up with surprise and recall, touching her ears. Then she looked to, and rushed toward, the man with the bag and chairs in tow.
“Did you grab my earrings?” Eeeeariiiings. Her voice echoed down the street as she tried to catch up to him, sunlight hitting her between the homes and trees.
Faraway, clearly annoyed and very clearly not British, the man called back, “They’re in the car, Bernice!”
Todd watched them go, hitching up his belt and his machine. Switching the metal detector from his right hand to his left, he looked at his ring finger on his left hand and the absence of a ring there. Still felt strange, even after all this time...
Reaching the sands, he leaned the machine against his favorite palm tree on the beach and slipped on his headphones. Jacking the corded earmuffs into the machine, he turned it on, and adjusted it.
Then, he set off.
The phrase that most of us are familiar with goes, One man’s trash is another man’s treasure. Other variants of that antiquated phrase read differently to some extent or another, but for Todd Darren Freeman of Key West, Florida, he recognized the standard form of that commonplace expression and dwelled on its meaning, as well as just the sounds of the words themselves. Why? Because Todd was the kind of man that used words as solace, who dealt with pain through artistic, creative expression. He was the kind of man who discovered an unmatched meditative quality in the art of a simple, fine-cut phrase.
Nevertheless, like any forward-thinking creative on the prowl for inspiration—not too different from his hunt presently on the beach—he had gone in search of something similar, pro- found, touching; a phrase for the long haul. Still waters certainly ran deep within Todd, but he believed there was nothing wrong with a cresting wave now and again to wrinkle the surface or a skipping stone to liven things up. To acquire something with the same kind of power that could move him as much as that ordinary expression—a poem, a string of notes from a beautiful song, or perhaps even another famous phrase—was a daunting challenge. So, in the meantime, that proverbial, household adage always came back to him as the most powerful and applicable for him. Powerful enough, in fact, for him to center the better part of his life on the essence of those seven little words.
Todd knew that if this small but weighty serving of himself ever got out, people would counter—with him being an artist and all—that something along the lines of A picture paints a thousand words would be more fitting for a man like him; a man with his level of talent and skill.
Nah, no thanks. That one was a bit too mainstream for him.
Okay. George Bernard Shaw’s line, Life isn’t about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself always struck a certain moving cord with Todd, especially with that little seven letter F-word snuck in there, that he adored so much. And that C-word in there, too. The two major pillars of his life, and therefore, a serious con- tender. Admittedly, Todd never dreamed he would have or could have constructed or created a life like his. It was a lifestyle he’d fallen into the way some folks fall unreflectively into homes or careers.
All right, perhaps something equally touching from Van Gogh like, The more I think about it, the more I realize there is nothing more artistic than to love others. Todd thought that was pretty apropos, and a hard-running contender for a man who did what he did with his spare time, beyond his painting.
Sometimes, Todd didn’t think of himself as an artist at all, but rather a connoisseur of junk piles and lost things. He knew it was incredibly silly. Dusty antiques were not the man’s bread and butter, and neither were the things he uncovered beneath the sands of the beaches he would visit. As a matter of fact, they weren’t even real interests of his. No, it was the act of finding and the humble deed of returning in which Todd took the most pleasure. Painting was his income. Painting fed him, physically, emotionally and creatively, on deep levels of his soul. But it was finding and returning that made him feel wealthy. Magical.
Suffice it to say, Todd Freeman was welcomed with open arms at any doorway he darkened throughout the southern Florida Keys. The local churches were proud of him, mothers swore they would love to see their sons grow to become a man like Todd, and even the local government—the county of Monroe and the city of Key West—beamed that they were the home of such a fine human being, as humanitarian awards and nominations were no stranger to Todd Freeman’s name.
Some of the locals unaware of Todd’s reputation would think,
There goes another coin shooter, another beach bum just trying to survive, and feel a trace of pity for him, believing he was a poor man in search of some spare change to buy a cold drink and shelter from the hot sun. Mercy to those unfortunate souls. As Todd swung his metal detector in front of him now, like an invisible and excited dog on the end of its steal leash, making sure to cover all ground, he spotted a few remaining people on the beach peer at him in either that familiar pity or mere curiosity.
Now, depending on the weather and how many tourists decided to invade the Keys during any particular season like hungry ants to a picnic, it was common knowledge to most natives of the Southern ‘Conch Islands’ that they could find Todd scouring the sands of Higgs, Smathers, and Ft. Zack Beach just before sunset. Sometimes, even relatively smaller beaches on the island like Rest Beach and South Beach were combed, where he usually spotted more Cuban coins, and which offered a nice change in scenery.
But usually those three main beaches were his standard go-tos, mainly because they were enough to keep him busy. Often, if anyone happened to catch his attention as he swept the sand with his trusty long-necked metal detector, they would send him a wave and a smile, which Todd would answer with his crooked grin that stretched his scruffy face, and lifted his sand-scratched sunglasses. Then he’d continue on, swinging and rotating his detector, the balmy breezes swirling his golden hair as nearby the waves whispered enchanted nothings to the shore. Some remarked that his life could exist on a postcard.
Some also said the postcard could be labeled, Welcome to Paradise.
With the southern trade winds momentarily calm, and most of the beachgoers packing up for the evening (off to find better digs, no doubt, for the daily Sunset Celebration on the western side of the island) the beach was mostly his own.
There were a few stragglers left behind, some old salty dogs from the nearby Naval Base puffing on expensive cigars or young vacationers reveling in the water’s glowing colors, but they were few and far between, and hardly a nuisance.
In reality, Todd’s beachcombing was for others as well as him- self. People often left pieces of themselves behind in these sands, things for him to find and return. Obviously, misplaced dimes and quarters weren’t the makings of sleepless nights, but a lost wedding band or a handsome-looking watch, gifted, say, by a beloved, late grandparent, was.
His system was easy. After a find of some potential worth, Todd would jump on the web and make a posting, or do it the old-fashioned way and inform his contact at The Citizen, the local newspaper of Key West, of his discovery. With a grain of hope in his heart that someone was looking for the lost object, Todd Freeman would tell the world what pearl he’d found in this expansive oyster.
So, as a precaution, Todd would keep the findings untouched in a safe place in the back office of his art studio. That is, until he received The Call, when he’d hear the quivering, hopeful voice on the other end, full of tentative optimism for reclaiming their lost treasure.
Over the past few years of trolling the beaches with his Matrix M6 metal detector swaying at his feet, and the headphones mounted on his skull producing that steady, heart rate-monitor beeping, his skin had bronzed to the color of a ripe peach. His hair had a bleached, sandy blonde shade with a soft dotting of gray at his temples, which the sun could also take credit for with a little help from Father Time, none of which took away from his sharpness, and sharp he was.
How sharp? Sharp enough to know that people were aware of the things they’d lost, and understood that losing something dear can be enough to break a person if it has enough significance, enough history, enough substance. And it was for this exact reason he advertised his findings.
Granted, he also knew people were going to be people. The darker side of human nature would inevitably raise its ugly head out of the sand with the swindlers and crooks just as alive in their dishonesty as he was in his generosity. But by relying on his instincts, Todd could usually read if they were being honest with him about the lost possessions. The smiles, the reactions, the wide eyes, and various bits of knowledge and events that were connected to the object at hand, were usually enough to tell. Sometimes it was just their glow of hope that he instantly identified when they would creep cautiously through the front door of his studio gallery.
For Todd, however, that was his true thrill. Seeing the expressions of faint hope that this might really, really be their lost possession, and then to witness and experience the bliss that flooded their faces, was all an incredible high. Some slowly came to tears, while others actually burst out crying right in front of him once Todd brought them the lost item. Sometimes it would move and touch him, as well. As a rule, a well-stocked supply of tissues was always available around the studio.
He kept track of his findings too, no matter what they were, in a journal for his own safekeeping. On record this year alone, the Selfless Scavenger had collected for himself over three hundred dollars in lost change on Higgs Beach. The amount of recyclable junk he had uncovered and had hauled to the salvage center in the back of his car was nearly double that amount. All and all, by the end of the year, if he had chosen to do so, he could have saved enough to make a sizable dint in December’s mortgage payment, which in this part of Florida wasn’t cheap.
Normally, though, he wouldn’t bankroll the money for rent. Instead, he would come up with enough at the end of each week to stroll down to Southern Cross or Sloppy Joe’s for some onion rings and a couple of cold ones, enjoy an amateur guitar show on stage, and strike up a nice conversation with a visitor from out of town. Saving was Christ’s department. Todd Freeman liked to spend and enjoy; Sunshine-Tax and Spend, you could say. A cheap appetizer and a few beers were a reasonable fee for his good deeds, large and small, worthless and priceless.
Over the past few years of hunting, he had scrounged up everything from sea glass, parts of bicycles, heaps of aluminum from soda cans, key chains, keys, paperclips, staples, glasses, watches, Matchbox cars, and even a few crowns from teeth. One time he stumbled upon one of the smaller models of iPods buried just beneath the dunes, the initials R.C. carved on the back. It didn’t work anymore, but still, being the Selfless Scavenger that he was, he posted it anyway. Maybe “R.C.” was still out there, after all.
As expected, not everything he found met an owner. He kept another special box set aside in the back of the gallery for such things he couldn’t bring himself to give away. He didn’t know why he kept the items since they were junk to him. He only knew someone missed them—a broken pocket-watch, a handmade doll with a sad smile stitched on the face with blue button eyes, and even a gnarled necklace with a single shark tooth.
Someone missed them. They were all meant for someone. After all, one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.
On this particular balmy, screen-saver of a day in mid-September, between when the last of the college kids had trickled back to school and the snowbirds flew south for the winter—Todd hadn’t scrounged up but a few pennies and a beer bottle cap.
There were plenty of days Todd rounded up nothing more than what was currently jingling in his pockets, and there were more than enough days that his searches came up with nothing at all.
To anyone who has ever had it happen to them, the feeling that naturally accompanies it is a surreal, almost out-of-body experience. The Rush of Possibility. His hand would brush away the loose sand to see, with his own eyes, what he had discovered, hidden and sparkling and trod over by so many others. It might only be as small as a quarter (or an actual quarter), or perhaps as posh as a gold bracelet, but it was still that King Tut-High, that Montezuma’s Gold-Ecstasy that couldn’t be equaled.
It was closing in on 7:30 in the evening. In fact, it was right around the time when the rest of the country was coming home from another day of work, settling in with their families, eating dinner, or finishing up Wheel of Fortune and preparing their tired minds for a grueling round of Jeopardy! (a favorite of Todd’s when rainy weather held him indoors, or the call of the sands was lacking).
It was about ten feet from the shore, right about where the dry sand met wet, and it was understandable that no one spotted it since it looked like a weathered shell with rough edges, or maybe another old rusted bottle cap.
He stopped, then reached for the little gardening shovel hanging from his belt.
Todd had picked up tips about maximizing the treasure hunting experience, and couldn’t help but smile each time he slipped on his utility belt for a trip to the beach or when he reached for one the tools hanging from his hips. Although, they did feel like more than just tools for his trade. No, they felt more...superhero to him, silly as that might sound. His own personal utility belt. The adult equivalent of his old Batman pajamas.
About ten days before, when he’d been working on a canvas of brilliant red hibiscus in bloom, and of course with his signature pink and blue Key West villas subtly keeping watch in the background, a category-three hurricane named Eli had come crashing through the Caribbean. Not an end-of-times whopper, but nothing to thumb a nose at either. Eli had slammed Jamaica with one-hundred-and-ten mile an hour winds, killing three people while gaining considerable strength. From there, the storm had weakened to a category two, but only briefly, before suddenly swinging northwest toward Cuba and the Keys, picking up speed once more.
Eli had been the exact kind of storm the snowbirds were so frightened of. This always made Todd laugh, who had lived through several Ohio blizzards, a minor Los Angeles earthquake, and a flood that swept away most of a Mississippi town of less than a thousand residences. Hurricanes were frightening; there was no doubt about it (especially when appearing on the Doppler radar during the weather forecast as a massive blob hulking straight for you). Obviously, living in the Keys, you made sure to get the hell out of Dodge when one rolled into town with guns blazing. Yet there was a certain upside to hurricanes for a Selfless Scavenger like Todd Freeman: these storms would bring in wash from the ocean, and sometimes...sometimes...the findings were incredible.
Eli had blown through just two weeks ago. In that time, Todd had found a lot of rusted, barnacle-encrusted parts of sunken ships—or so he liked to think—and other random scraps of steel and metal. There was even a misshapen piece of something that he was sure was a warped fragment of a downed plane, a souvenir the ocean had taken for itself that had been wrenched from the trenches of the Gulf Stream and wound up on the shore. He planned to do some investigating over the next few months with the wreckage, perhaps connect it with a plane or a ship that might have gone down in the past few years.
Except, his optimism was overshadowed by his innumerable discoveries in the past that tended to be nothing exciting—nothing to write home about, as the saying goes. Todd secretly knew in his heart this promising airplane scrap would ultimately come to nothing more than junk, but he kept his hope alive that it might be a clue to something bigger. It wasn’t like that hadn’t happened before. Go ask Jeremy Patrick, Prisoner J776GK9.
He could do a little research and see where it took him. Who knew? It might be the keystone to the puzzle that he, and anyone else who was interested, might need to see the whole mysterious picture.
That was what it took to be a connoisseur, was it not? Dedication, integrity, and research.
Yesterday on the beach, he had come up with bones. He assumed the haul Eli had brought in had depleted by this point, although he was finding some nice-looking shells to add to his collection, something he could draw inspiration from for a new painting. He also assumed that was exactly what he was bending down to grab when the metal detector sounded off in such wild insistence.
So when Todd found it...the tiny, weathered disc pressed just a fingernail deep beneath the gritty sand, with the headphones bursting to squealing life, he thought, even with the most minimal amount of luck, that it might be another penny to go in his pocket, and nothing more. Perhaps, it could even be a Cuban or Mexican coin, given the color.
Wiping away the grains of sand, he noticed the item bore the dirty brown color of aged American pennies but was much weightier; like the weight of maybe three Kennedy half-dollars, from his guess.
Todd thought, Well, that’s better than another rusted out piece of scrap.
Then he examined it closer.
First off, the size was wrong for it to be an average American penny, or even a Mexican peso for that matter. It was the size of a quarter. It easily could have been a quarter floating out in the ocean, all the salts and minerals eating at it for Poseidon knew how many years.
But he doubted it.
Todd wiped some of the last grains of sand from the surface, to expose the face profile engraved there. It was a coin—he was certain of that, at least. He pondered for a moment, as his coin expert contact in Miami, Alex, floated into this mind. He wondered what he would think of this one and made a mental note to email him tonight.
He made out the profile of a man on the coin, similar to that of Lincoln on the penny. Only there was something different that Todd could just barely see on the face in the dull orange glow of the setting sun.
He blinked away sweat and turned the coin over in his clammy palm, finding what looked like random, embossed scribbles. The heat was relentless, the sweat stinging his eyes. He squinted, wiping his face against his forearm and then the collar of his shirt.
I’ll look at it later, he thought, and stuffed the coin in his fanny pack hanging on the side of his hip. He stood up, glanced around. The beach was empty. A warm breeze off the ocean tussled his hair as large clouds sat bunched across the southern horizon, toward Cuba.