by Gary Thomson
For several weeks after he found the diamond ring in the grass near the wading beach, Gerald Davis kept it stored in a tin box that held his loose change and an unused key chain on his dressing table. The diamond’s small size and unremarkable setting got him to wondering what sort of woman would delight in this relatively meagre token of affection. He thought of his own good luck in noticing a glint of light.
In his spare time Gerald Davis preferred to sit near the water’s edge with his sketchbook near the place where he had found the ring and make secret drawings of people nearby: Elderly Woman dozing in lawn chair; Child in rapt attention at paddling swans. In his shyness he blended into the landscape. His pencil moved timidly over the fresh pages. He never spoke to the people he was sketching, nor offered them a glimpse of his finished work. His drawings were as close as he wanted to come to these strangers.
His obsession with the ring came upon him slowly, but as it took hold, his mind filled with images of the woman who wore the ring. Stone is nondescript, he reasoned, so it’s likely she’s retiring in her dress and manner. Since she lost it near the beach, perhaps nannying a child, she’s drawn to the outdoors. Somewhat like himself. One afternoon he sketched three women’s faces in his notebook. They were all young, attractive and reticent in their expression. Any of these might resemble the owner.
After two weeks of thinking about the ring Davis wondered about the best method to return it to its rightful home. The community weekly ran a lost and found column, so he might place an advertisement there. But he would hold back on a photo or detailed description. Too many crooks and cheats would lay claim to ownership.
He worked on a suitable message, and after several false phrasings and deletions he had a satisfactory announcement: Found, one diamond ring. Inscription inner band. Owner may claim item with accurate description. He added his email address.
Shortly he received three responses. An antiques dealer asked him to place the ring into his jewelry cabinet with a promise to split the sale price. The second respondent requested a donation for a local women’s shelter. The third response impressed him as sincere and legitimate: ‘Twas my gran’s ring, her gift to me before her passing. Small diamond set in white gold clasps… He noted the writer’s address, a street several blocks back from the waterfront trail. Her identification of the inscribed initials AL clinched his certainty.
He followed this third inquiry with a proposed date for a meeting, three days hence at five in the afternoon. At the waterfront bench beyond the boat launch, he finished.
As he waited for the day to arrive he pulled the ring from the tin box and held it toward the light from his bureau lamp. He would have preferred more intricate work along the band. In his mind he paired the unknown owner with the first of his three drawings: Miriam, because her face reminded him of his favourite fictional woman character.
What a squalling, distasteful park this is, Sondra Misener thought, as she approached along the pathway. Pigeons pecked in rubbish bins for food crumbs. In the shallow beach children armed with pink and lime green polystyrene flotation aids cried their brave intentions. Watchful mothers called out cautions. Nearby, an elderly man with flyaway hair was reading a comic book; beside him a portable radio boomed out country lyrics.
Sondra looked at her watch. Nearly a quarter of an hour late for her meeting with the lost and found man. She curled her nose against the pigeons, and then followed the asphalt pathway past the white painted canteen that advertised burgers and ice cream cones in red letters on an overhead sign. She wished it were a licenced premise; she could do with a low alcohol Cooler. To wash the dust away.
She rehearsed in her mind details for the finder of the ring.
From his waterside bench, Gerald was sketching a child absorbed in the progress of five mallard ducks as they swam alongside a patch of coppery algae. He was thinking idly of the ring in his blazer pocket when a woman appeared in front of him. She pulled her cardigan close about her shoulders. ‘You are Mr. Davis, yes? I’m Sondra Misener, I wrote you about my ring.’
He stood up to greet her. ‘Yes, yes, Ms. Misener. I’m so glad you could come round today.’ She nodded her head. She did not smile.
He opened his hand along the bench and invited her to sit. Her slumping shoulders made him wonder if she were tired from walking or recently taken ill with a cold or flu.
‘I know I’m late,’ she said. ‘We had a situation at work, my boss wanted it sorted before I went out.’
‘Not at all,’ Davis said. He glanced toward his sketchbook. ‘Time passes easily when I’m busy with this… Would you like a coffee? Soft drink, perhaps?’
‘A coffee. Black.’
She watched him walk towards the canteen. He had a purposeful, unhurried gait that suggested a comfortable job, probably a supervisor in an office somewhere, with good wages, so he wouldn’t be expecting a reward. Nor would she offer one. She was relieved he hadn’t suggested their meeting at her rented rooms. It would have angered her for him to see the worn carpets on her floors, or face the sun-faded curtains that trailed over grimy windows.
She picked up his sketchbook and leafed through the pages. Three portraits of young women drew her attention. She was intrigued with their stylish dress and alert expressions. The first subject was in her early twenties, waifish face framed by wispy bangs, doleful eyes. Opposite, a dark eyed Alice peered at her from behind a Wonderland of fern leaves. Slender fingers of her right hand brushed away a tangle of hair along her brow. Overleaf, a water sprite, bemused by strings of seaweed that clung to her forehead and formed a dark crown over her head. Sondra studied this portrait. She felt a strong pull of recognition. The first two sketches reminded her of the shop clerks who came into Second Wave, her work place, during their lunch breaks to browse the racks of frocks and nearly new tops, each looking for a showy item that would show off their shape and height to advantage. But Sondra never felt the attraction. Plain, simple, no fuss, that was how she always dressed, and nothing was bound to change that routine.
Shortly he returned with her coffee, and a 7Up for himself. ‘Be careful,’ he said. ‘It’s hot.’
She blew over the surface of the liquid. He watched her purse her lips. She was rather plain looking, wan and pinched about the eyes. She had probably stressed herself over the loss of the ring.
‘So, did you get it straightened out?’ he said.
‘Straightened out? What do you mean?’
He felt his insides tighten. He took a long sip of his 7Up to wash away the sour taste rising in his throat. He forced a weak smile. ‘I’m sorry. Your work. You said an emergency came up, you might not get away on time.’
‘A client who is either deaf or very forgetful. She’s content now.’ She looked at him over the rim of her cup. ‘Yes, we got it sorted.’
He placed his sketchbook along his thigh, and began to fumble around the inner pocket of his blazer. ‘I suspect you’re anxious to get this back on your finger.’ He pulled out a compact buff envelope and opened the flap. The ring skittered onto his upturned hand. ‘Here is your treasure. From lost to found again.’
Sondra studied the ring. She reached out her right hand and cradled it between her thumb and forefinger. Then she eased it onto the index finger of her left hand. She splayed her fingers and tilted her hand. She smiled as the diamond’s facets caught the light. The gesture moved
Davis in its simplicity and gravity. ‘Hold your hand… just there,’ he said. He began to sketch her face leaning toward her hand. He wanted to capture some portion of her gratitude and relief. ‘Gran and I thank you,’ she said.
‘I’m glad it’s back with its rightful owner,’ said Davis. There’d be some who might find it and pack it off to a pawn shop, he thought.
His pencil moved rapidly over the blank page. Her features took shape, gained a semblance of reality: a strand of hair over her left ear; clear eyes observing the ring. He felt himself slipping into the page, toward an unknown level of meeting with her. He half listened to Sondra’s account of the ring’s history.
She told of her grandparents’ escape from a Ukrainian village, only hours ahead of invading Nazis. With the clothes they wore, and food they could carry, she said. And a few items of jewelry. She recounted their impoverished life in Alexandria: Granddad sold and repaired clocks; Gran worked in the rich families’ houses, washing, ironing and tending their spoiled kids. At war’s end they joined the army of refugees desperate to find a refuge.
‘The ring passed to me when my mother died,’ she said. ‘It’s my only remembrance of them, all that survives of their life. It’s a minor miracle.’
‘You must have been frantic at its loss.’
Ms. Misener remained impassive at this suggestion.
It was a good story, she commended herself. Lots of action and a few danger points to keep his interest. It had come together over several years, pieces joined from fragments taken from old movies on telly, or WWII programs on the History Channel. Sometimes when she found an entry into telling it, maybe to a new shopper in Second Wave, she might skew a few details or forget a date and so hurry on to the next turning point. She reminded herself to search out a name of a Ukrainian village, to make the early part more authentic.
‘I looked at your sketches while you were gone,’ she said.
Gerald’s mood hardened. He felt a tug of resentment that she dared to examine his work uninvited. ‘Really, they’re only practice pieces, lots of mistakes. One day I’ll come back to them and bring them right.’ He lay a protective hand over the page he was working on. ‘They’re the women I imagined owned the ring.’
She continued as if she had not heard him. ‘There’s one of ‘em I like best.’
He handed her the sketchbook. She turned the pages, with care and respect. ‘This one.’ She pointed to the water sprite. Then she looked over the crowd of splashing children. In the sunlight her eyes took on a golden depth. They seemed to hold a deep yearning for acceptance or confirmation, but of which he was not certain. ‘Do I look anyways like her?’
The question startled him. He wanted to tell her that her nose was thicker, her eyes set farther apart, and her weathered cardigan detracted from her shapeliness. He made a few quick pencil strokes on his drawing of her to firm up the jaw line and make her eyes more lively. It had been easy for him earlier to render the fantasy images of the ring’s owners. Those women had leapt from some hidden corner of his mind like childhood memories or fragments of dreams. Approachable and desirable, they were. Loyal, too.
Gerald withdrew a soft cloth from his jacket pocket and swept away a few specks of pencil dust. Again he slid the book along the bench seat. ‘Here you are. I tried to gather some of Alice’s wonder, and a touch of the water maiden’s adventuresome nature. Without the tangle of seaweed, of course.’ I hope you like it, he wanted to add.
She studied the drawing, the slender face and restive eyes. Her left hand showed the ring proudly: her fingers brushed against her cheek, as if acknowledging a courtesy, or a kindness. Sondra saw a glimmer of beauty, and for a moment, since she was unacquainted with grace and comeliness, doubted her perception. She felt herself swimming in doubt.
‘You are more attractive than the one you favoured,’ he said.
There he was again. Prattling on about prettiness. Was he hoping she would fall for it just so he could have one over, have a silent laugh at her plainness?
Gerald reached over and held the book. ‘Here, we can tear the page out … gently does it, so not to rip the edge…’ He smoothed the loose page. ‘Go on, keep it. A reminder of a reunion of sorts, with your Gran.’
She stared at the ripped out page, and in her growing suspicions the dark jaw and facial lines swirled and slipped apart. She saw a callous, distorted rendition of her face. She was determined not to be made a fool of. ‘How kin I believe that?’
His brow tightened. ‘Believe what?’
‘That I have anything in common with this girl. She’s way too quiet, too settled in her expression. It’s obvious, isn’t it? Me and her is worlds apart.’
Gerald wanted to seize the sketch and crumple it into a ball. ‘It’s what I saw, your face lit up, very attractive it was. Why would you want to hide that from yourself?’
Her expression hardened. All right, she thought. We’ll see who the right fool is, here and now. She looked from the drawing to Gerald’s face. ‘It’s antique jewelry,’ she said.
‘Well, yes, it is. It’s old enough, your Gran’s family heirloom.’
‘No, it’s not mine. I mean, it’s not her’s.’
He folded the covers of his sketchbook. ‘I’m sorry, I don’t understand.’
‘It’s not my grandmother’s ring.’ She stared across the bay. ‘There never was any Gran. No flight from Ukraine, neither. No fixin’ watches or cleaning houses.’ Her voice cracked, as if she had come up against a dark torment that she could not work around or escape. ‘I saw the ring in the window of an antique store near to where I work. For a week I looked at it, ‘til I urged myself to buy it.’
Weariness collapsed her face. ‘It was part of some low-end estate jewelry, the shopkeeper said. But for me it was special. Told myself it was a link to some distant family adventure.’ He saw in her expression a plea for his understanding, that in her loneliness and unfulfilled need for daring in her life she had turned the ring into a fake.
They sat in silence for several minutes.
She slid the sketch inside her cardigan, careful to keep it flat. With a growing sadness she began to realize her make-believe story was all there ever was to keep her from a fall into nothingness, a show of false bravado. In time she would contemplate the rough made portrait of herself, see it as a gesture of reconciliation given in awkwardness and shyness. Then she would claim a portion of the dignity it offered her.
They walked together toward the boat launch. His people sketches were a weekend escape, he said. He drew advertising brochures for business catalogues and local tourist booklets to pay the bills, he added.
‘This is the short route to my rooming house,’ she said when they had reached the edge of the parking lot. He had told her about his commercial work because he knew he had his own hoax. He had conjured his fantasy women as a prelude to a romantic meeting. He had hoped for someone young and pretty, who might admire him for his act of generosity. Instead he got a pale, grey wisp of a subject, and he had responded with his embellished sketch. That he could share it with her made him grateful for a rare glimpse of belonging.
At the launch ramp a pickup truck pulled a fishing boat from the water, long runnels of water gushing along the trailer’s rear wheels. Gerald adjusted his drawing book along his chest.
He watched her approach the far end of the car park and wanted to summon her back and knew that one day he would.
Gary Thomson resides in Ontario, Canada. His short fiction has appeared [among others] in Windsor Review, fiftywordstories.com, and AgnesandTrue.com, where he is a 2019 Journey Prize nominee. In his recreational moments he blows Beatles and Satchmo’s tunes on his Hohner harmonica.