"That sounds good. How long have you been at it?"
"About a year," he said. "We're called 'pickers,' or storage room gamblers, sometimes resellers, treasure hunters. How it works is I check the papers for auction listings. I also subscribe to a couple newsletters. You never know what you'll find. Couple of weeks ago, I paid two-fifty and found a painting worth more than fifteen hundred bucks. I was jazzed."
"I can imagine."
"Of course, there's rules to the practice, like anything else in life. You can't touch the rooms' contents, can't go inside before the bidding starts, and there's no refunds. You pay six hundred dollars and all you come up with is a stack of old magazines, then it's too bad for you. Such is life and all that."'
"Can you make a living at it?"
He shifted in his seat. "Not so's you'd notice. This is strictly a hobby in between roofing engagements. Nice thing about it is it doesn't look good on paper so the wife can't hit me up for alimony. She was the one who walked out so up hers is what I say."
The waitress appeared at the table with a coffee pot in hand, refilling his cup and pouring one for me. Teddy and the waitress exchanged pleasantries. I took the moment to add milk to my coffee and then tore the corner off a pack of sugar, which I don't ordinarily take. Anything to fill time till they finished their conversation. Frankly, I thought he had the hots for her.
Once she departed, Teddy turned his attention to me. I could see the box on the seat beside him. He noticed my glance. "I can see you're curious. Wanna peek?"
I said, "Sure."
I made a move toward the box and Teddy put a hand out, saying, "Gimme five bucks first." Then he laughed. "You shoulda seen the look on your face. Come on. I'm teasing. Help yourself." He hefted the box and passed it across the table. It was maybe 36 inches square, awkward, but not heavy, the cardboard powdery with dust. The top had been sealed, but I could see where the packing tape had been cut and the flaps folded back together. I set the box on the seat beside me and pulled the flaps apart. The contents seemed hastily thrown together with no particular thought paid to the organization. It was rather like the last of the cartons packed in the moving process; stuff you don't dare throw out, but don't really know what else to do with. A box like this could probably sit unopened in your basement for the next ten years, and nothing would ever stimulate a search for even one of the items. On the other hand, if you felt the need to inventory the contents, you'd still feel too attached to the items to toss the assortment in the trash. The next time you moved, you'd end up adding the box to the other boxes on the van, gradually accumulating sufficient junk to fill a well, a storage bin.
I could tell at a glance these were articles I wanted. In addition to the grade school souvenirs, I spotted the high school diploma he'd mentioned, my year book, some textbooks, and more importantly, file after file of mimeographed pages from my classes at the police academy. Thirty bucks was nothing for this treasury of remembrances.
Teddy was watching my face, trying to gauge the dollar signs in my reaction. I found myself avoiding eye contact lest he sense the extent of my interest. Stalling, I said, "Whose storage space was it? I don't believe you mentioned that."
"Guy named John Russell. He a friend of yours?"
"I wouldn't call him a friend, but I know him," I said. "Actually, that's an in-joke, like an alias. ' John Russell' is a character in an Elmore Leonard novel called Hombre."
"Well I tried to get ahold of him, but I didn't have much luck. Way too many Russells in this part of the state. Couple of dozen Johns, ten or fifteen Jacks, but none were him because I checked it out."
Copyright Sue Grafton. Excerpted with the permission of the publisher - Henry Holt
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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