Treasure Hunt

  One day toward the end, Bobo brought home a game in a bottle. Big black bottle like a magnum of champagne. Drunk or sober, Bobo acted like a fool. He tried sneaking the bottle in behind his back. But I saw the foil neck. I saw that shine and hell I didnít know. I figured we were celebrating. I thought maybe Bobo had tossed in the towel on all that A.A. gunk and we were finally getting back to our lives.

   "What are you hiding?" I said, sitting bolt-right.

   Bobo looked sharp, handsome as a soldier in his neat doorman's outfit.

   "Nothing. Not a thing," he said, beaming like it was Christmas.

   My heart started going. I pushed into my slippers and padded across the linoleum. I felt bad about my housecoat and my hair. I pushed up on tip toe and kissed Bobo's cheek. His face felt warm. I figured he'd already had a taste.

   "Close your eyes," Bobo said, but it was already too late for that.

   "Oh, Bobo," I said, as he brought the bottle around.

   "Go on. Take it." he said.

   I held my hands apart shaking like a crazy girl trying to measure something.

   "Go on," he said.

   Soon as I touched it I knew. "It's fake," I said. "It's plastic." The thing had no weight. I shook it hard and it made a sound like a jar full of pennies.

   "It's a game," Bobo said. "Look inside."

   I handed the bottle to him and shuffled back to the couch.

   "One or two players," Bobo said.

   I kicked off my slippers and pushed my feet beneath the afghan. I couldn't even look at him.

   "Says so right here. One or two players."

   Christ, I thought, he just doesn't get it.

   "I thought maybe you could play while I'm at work. Help you pass the time." said Bobo.

   I dug out the remote from between the cushions. I said, "Thank you very much but time doesn't need any help passing around here."

   I pointed and clicked, flipping channels.

   "And I don't like surprises. Especially joke gifts."

   "Jesus, Annie. I thought it was a riot. I thought it would make you smile. Christ," he said, "I almost bought two of them." I couldn't look at him for fear of seeing that damn A.A. pin that he wore like a badge.

   "Okay. Alright. Tell you what," Bobo said. "You don't like surprise gifts. Fine. Not a problem. I'll sell it to you. I'll sell you this game in a bottle for a smile. Half a smile," Bobo said.

   I thought: God, please hide me from the kitchen knives. Lately, Bobo's one year pin was a constant reminder. It had been nearly fourteen months now. Always hoping, never getting. Every day waiting for some part of something to change. It wasn't the booze. I never drank like Bobo. And the few times I did I never did anyone any harm. Most nights I had been the driver, the one who always got us home. It wasn't all the dumb meetings, or the new people, half of whom were nuts. Though I still missed some of the old gang, the good souls. And the colored lights, and the music. More than anything I missed that wild dizzy feeling I'd get when Bobo picked me up and twirled me around the dance floor.

   "Some guy was selling them out of his car," Bobo said. "Old VW, trunk in the front. Spider crack on the passenger side, but the body was mint. I told him it could use a paint job. I said Sir, I'll scrape her down and prime her for twenty bucks and half your inventory. I was serious. He had some jewelry, a lot of silver. A few pieces of gold. And all these here games. I'll fix that windshield, too, I said. But he wasn't buying, he was selling."

   I huffed my breath, tapping the remote until I hit one of my stories.

   "You know what it is?" Bobo said. "You know what I think it is? People see this uniform, they figure I'm a cop."

   I crossed my arms and ground my teeth at the TV.

   "Hey. I got a really nice tip today."

   "Shush!" I said.

   That shut him up. Bobo had learned to respect my day time shows.

   Then he said, "Well, what did you think, Annie? What in hell did you think?"

   But I just let that go.

   I don't know how long I sat with my chin pointed at the TV, how long I waited for the heat to leave my face. I didn't know what channel I was watching. When I finally focused again, I saw a woman's hand slide a silver revolver from a black purse. Then the picture faded. Then a lady standing in a pond beside a white unicorn held up a bar of green soap. I muted the set.

   I picked at my fingernails, but I really had no choice but to look over at Bobo.

   By then he'd unscrewed the bottom of the bottle and was staring into it, holding the thing like a bouquet of flowers. I watched him try and fit his hand in, but he couldn't get past the knuckles. He used two fingers to pluck out some loose playing cards and a cellophane bag of colored pieces. He dropped them on the table then stuck his nose in like he meant to get a good whiff of whatever else was in there.

   Who knows what he was looking at.

   The commercial was over, but I didn't care about that. I watched Bobo turn the bottle over and slap the side until a curved booklet slid part way out.

   "Here we go," he said, grinning at me, like he'd just found the answer to what we were doing, the two of us, living in a cramped three-room apartment overlooking a filthy river. Bobo sat down to study what he'd found and I did what I normally do when I feel one of my headaches coming on. I closed my eyes and pretended I was some place else.

   I had a short dream of the river, black as a road, and so full of chemicals that on rainy days soap suds flew up past the windows. I dreamed it was winter, and suds were flying, and the world outside was flurrying snow both ways.

   When I opened my eyes, Bobo had the game set up on top of the coffee table. There was a cloth map with oceans and islands in bright blues, yellows and reds. Wavy dashed lines connected the islands. In one corner a starred compass showed us North. I blinked at Bobo. He put on one of his ain't-life-wonderful smiles and held up one of the playing pieces -- a tiny green ship with curved sails. He moved it in front of my face as if the ship were climbing and falling, drifting on a turbulent sea.

   "Want to play now?" he asked. "I think I got it figured out."

   I shot him a look like he'd just sprouted a third eye.

   "Aren't you supposed to be at a meeting?" I said.

   He put the little ship down. "Nope. No meeting tonight." He had his nose in the little book.

   "Wednesday, isn't it?" I said.

   He pretended to read, flipping pages. He looked like an idiot sitting there with his doorman's jacket on; all the braids and embroidered swirls made him look like a crazy admiral plotting a war.

   "So why no meeting," I said.


   I picked up a red ship, the exact color of my nail polish. I made a fist and squeezed until it cut into my flesh.

   "Thought Wednesday was commitment night," I said.

   "It is," Bobo said, " but I'm not going."

   He flipped another page, but I saw his eyes tilt up. "The group is going over to the ACI. I told 'em I'd pass. It's not a crime to miss one here and there."

   "You'd know better than me," I said.

   The ACI was the Adult Correctional Institute, a local prison where Bobo's A.A. group sometimes went to counsel inmates with substance abuse problems. I knew why Bobo wasn't going. Some years before, he'd done nine months in a similar type of facility for beating a store clerk who refused to give him change. Bobo's ex had a restraining order against him and he'd been up forty-eight hours straight plotting how to kill her and kidnap his daughter and get away with it. When the clerk told him he wasn't in the change business, Bobo had beat the man half to death with a sausage of semi-frozen cookie dough. It wasn't something he was proud of.

   "I think you should go to your meeting," I said.

   I dropped the tiny ship in the pocket of my housecoat hoping that might screw up the game somehow.

   Bobo watched me do it. He said, "Maybe you want to go with me?"

   "Ha ha," I said, and picked up the fake bottle. I read the label: TREASURE HUNT. An adventure game for adults. I said, "Not much of a commitment if you don't go."

   Bobo shrugged. "Here's what you do," he said.

   He picked up a card with a treasure chest printed on it. All the cards had them. Tiny chests heaped with cutouts of cellophane and foil. He flipped this one over and read: "Set course South by South-East and roll again."

   He pulled at his lower lip with two of his fingers.

   He looked at me as if the card meant something.

   "Not like you to miss a meeting," I said.

   "I've missed before," Bobo said.

   I pulled my sleeve back and looked at my wrist as though a watch were there. "You can still make it. Not too late." Then I stood up and turned my back on Bobo. "I thought AA was all about helping people."

   "It is," he said.

   "Well, you're sure not helping anyone around here."

   I went into the kitchen. The floor was cold. I heard Bobo's shoes squeak the linoleum, but I opened the refrigerator anyway, leaning in, pretending I had no idea he was right behind me.

   "What did you do today?" he said.

   I moved an egg carton from one shelf to another. I shoved a jug of spring water to one side. I tried to make it look like I was searching. But there wasn't much to look at.

   "Do you want some eggs?" I said.

   "No. I want you to look at me."

   "I don't know if there's bread. Maybe you can go for some."

   "Annie, look at me. Look at me, baby."

   I took a jar of mayonnaise from the door rack. My hand was shaking, my whole arm. I held the jar in both hands and picked at the label. Bobo put his hand on my shoulder. "Let's go out," he said, turning to me. "We'll get Chinese. I got a nice tip today." He gave me a little squeeze, pulling, like he was trying to lift me. "What do you say? We'll squander the rent money."

   I started peeling the label from the jar. I shook my head real slow. "I'd have to get dressed," I said. "I'd have to shower and wash my hair, put on makeup. Iron. I don't want to do all that."

   "Okay," Bobo said. "We'll get it to go, then. We'll have a party right here."

   I let him take the mayonnaise jar. He put it in the refrigerator and closed the door. "Egg rolls, fried rice, some of those lobster things you like. Huh?"

   I shrugged.

   "Sure," Bobo said. "We'll get chop sticks, a whole bag of fortune cookies, the works."

   I nodded, hugging myself while Bobo hugged me, too.

   "Great," Bobo said, letting go. "Super," he said. He took his keys off the counter and jingled them in front of my face. "You get cozy. Your hair looks fine. Don't change nothing. I'll be back in a jiffy." He bent his knees and kissed my forehead. I knew what came next. I hated saying it now.

   "God, I love you," he said.

   I swallowed. "I love you, too," I said.

   And I gave him a little smile so he'd think everything was all peaches and cream.

   "Sure. See. There you go," Bobo said. "There's the face I love."

   I leaned against the refrigerator and listened to his thumps on the stairs. It sounded like he was running. I heard the downstairs door, then I went to the window and waited for him to appear from beneath the canopy. He came out twirling, dodging traffic to get to his car, and then he spun again, waving wildly. I stepped back, and held my breath. Then I felt bad and I pressed my hand to the glass, but it was too late.

   I stayed at the window for a while, watching the traffic. Then I went back in and knelt by the coffee table to clear a spot for us to eat. I held up the bottle by its neck and began dropping things into the bottom: ships, playing cards, instruction booklet. I folded up the map and stuffed that in there, too. Then I screwed the bottom on tight and held the bottle against my chest. I carried it over to the couch that way.

   I flicked past all the news and then a couple of game shows. I watched part of a cartoon with a cartoon mouse tricking a cartoon cat. I held the bottle the whole time, rocking slowly back and forth. I found a channel with people I recognized, faces I knew. It was an old black and white movie. I watched five or ten minutes of that, then I pushed the bottle lower. I held it between my thighs, tilting the neck up, careful not to shake it. I twisted the top to see if that came off, but it didn't. I remembered the way champagne used to tickle my nose, the bubbles popping, and that first slippery taste on the back of my tongue. I thought about Bobo picking me up, and everybody making a circle around us while he swung me and swung me like I had no weight. Like I was just something in orbit and he was my sun.

   During a hand cream commercial I twisted around and got to my knees. I pressed my forehead to the glass and stared down at the heart-stopping cold water that Bobo said ran half a mile deep in spots. I wondered if he had been lying when he said his father had once caught fish from the bridge using nothing but worms on a string. I watched the water and decided if there were any fish still living down there, they'd be eyeless, bloated creatures surviving on garbage and soap suds.

   I felt more warm than cold, as I tugged the afghan up to my chin. Then I did what I always do when I feel like I'm falling. I closed my eyes and waited for Bobo to save me.

Over the last five years Bob Thurber's short fiction has won more than twenty literary awards and appeared in a dozen anthologies. Though he is a no talent bum and full-time freeloader he has sometimes been referred to as The Sam Peckinpah of Flash Fiction and had his work compared to many successful dead authors; in addition, although he has no degrees, no qualifications whatsoever, his work has been recognized and distinguished by many accomplished authors including Robert Boswell, Anthony Doerr, Christopher Castellani, Drue Heinz Literature Prize winner Elizabeth Graver, National Book Award winner Julia Glass, and the legendary Amy Hempel.

Mr. Thurber resides in Massachusetts, and though you should most certainly avoid him at all costs, you might do well to track his whereabouts and learn more of his transgressions at: www.BobThurber.net

© 2006 Underground Voices