Tony found a mystery in an old book of equations he bought at a used bookstore. It was September and he was taking his first university class in thirty years and thought the old book would help him remember how X could equal Y.
Tony thought the math class could help him get away from thinking too much about his wife’s death from two years ago. Or, maybe he needed to think less about his daughter Claudia dropping out of college after getting pregnant back in April. After all, they did get married and the father will graduate next year. Tony was glad he found that mystery in the math book. It was something else to think about. It came from a postcard dated May 1969.
The backside read, “Drink cheap alcohol and dream the dreams.” The front side showed a passenger train crossing a long bridge over a placid river. A man’s scrawl laid across the bridge’s high arches and stated, “I hid an emerald. Who finds it will become a hero.”
Tony did not believe this because why would anyone write something like this on a postcard and put it in an old math book. Over the next week, the scrawled words kept pestering Tony until October brought cold air and he missed signing up for the university class. To avoid the cold and Claudia who moved in until the baby was born, he researched missing emeralds at the downtown library.
In the microfiche files from 1969, Tony read a newspaper article about an unnamed, thirty year old man who died from a heart attack on a passenger train between Fredericksburg and DC. The conductors said the old man’s last words were, “I found a magical emerald and mounted it on a ring.” He promised to come back as a ghost and reveal to whoever believed in ghosts where to find the ring. Tony wondered if riding a commuter train along the same steel tracks the man died on would help.
Tony started his search with a lot of energy, which was every time he rode the commuter train, which was five days a week to work. Each day, he picked a different train car to ride in. He searched the seats, overhead racks, and window edges for some sign of the ghost. Tony wanted the emerald ring ghost to see him looking. He believed that it was fate for him to find the postcard and he had only to find the train ghost in order to find the ring. Tony found that ghosts could be elusive.
After three weeks, Tony thought he should be focusing on something a lot more realistic. Really, he was getting confused and lost track of what train car he looked on. Tony had hoped his dead wife would come back and help him look for the emerald ghost. Maybe, I should organize a séance to ask her, he considered. Tony wondered why the paper did not print the man’s name or why the post card had no address. Tony considered asking Claudia for help since they both rode the commuter trains, just on different schedules.
“I don’t know who he was.” Tony tried to explain to Claudia. They sat at the kitchen table one evening eating supper and waiting for the baby to move again inside Claudia.
“If you thought like a detective you would have looked up obituaries,” said Claudia. She ate white rice covered with spaghetti sauce.
Tony refused to read obits since he had to list his wife in one. “I’m hoping that his ghost will help me find the treasure. I think that if I find that emerald ring, we’ll be all right.”
“There’s something wrong about chasing after that emerald ring. As if that dead man is trying to change your destiny.”
“I thought he was a part of my destiny.” Tony considered the act of a dead man altering his future as unrealistic, yet believable since he believed in ghosts and was trying to locate one.
“The whole thing sounds suspicious. Anyone hiding things and keeping secrets is up to no good. If someone has to keep secrets, then they’re usually doing things that aren’t right.”
Tony finished eating and cleaned up the kitchen. He couldn’t think of any secrets he would keep from his daughter. But, the dead man had secrets such as where he hid the emerald ring. This could be proof that secrets led to obsessions and maybe they were the same. Tony obsessed over these thoughts until he went to bed and dreamed about the book of equations.
That evening, the train stopped on a long bridge with concrete arches rising high from the undisturbed river below. Outside his rectangular train window, Tony looked down at an unopened wine bottle placed on a concrete breakout ledge that was big enough for one person to stand on and get off the steel tracks if a train came. His commuter train crawled onward and toward the next station like water seeping through a tight crack. A stop later, Tony got off on a concrete platform and under blue awnings.
“I thought I saw that ghost you were looking for,” said one of the older conductors. Tony stopped detraining. “But, it was just a greenish reflection off some bottle.”
“On the bridge we went over. It was brief, but definite. A flash of green light.”
“Thanks for telling me.”
“I’ll keep looking.”
Tony wondered why. He only mentioned it to a few people. Commuters sometimes had a lot of empty time on their hands, he concluded.
In early January, the baby erupted from Tony’s daughter. The husband came the next day. His parents the day after. On the third and fourth day, they all rested at Tony’s house until Claudia came home. On the fifth day, the other grandparents went back to their other lives. On the sixth day, the father left to finish college. On the seventh day, Tony and Claudia celebrated the first week of Alice’s life in between her crying, eating, peeing, pooping, and sleeping. They took turns sleeping.
Three weeks later at two in the morning, Tony found his granddaughter Alice asleep and she did not need his words to continue sleeping. Tony picked her up anyway to be sure she had not cried out for him. Since he had her up, Tony whispered details about his treasure hunt. He let out a deep sigh taking care not to blow in her small face as Alice’s tiny head rested in the thick, hard crook of his forearm. Tony’s daughter Claudia snored quietly in the adjoining bedroom.
As he put Alice back in the crib, Tony whispered to her, “On the commuter train this evening, I saw a woman that looked like your grandmother. She wore an emerald ring. Emerald’s are only good to share with.”
“I want to help you get through this,” Tony said to Claudia the next evening. Staying home with the baby, Claudia surfaced as an eccentric cook who took her mother’s old recipes and made them extravagant in flavor. Tony thought less of his wife’s smell that sometimes surfaced in the oddest of places of the house as if her ghost lingered where it was hard to find.
“We are getting through this,” Claudia said. Alice in her arms burped. This was followed with a course of spittle and a string of formula that the baby let flow out of her mouth like vomit was another form of language. Claudia left the table to clean her daughter.
The next evening, Tony took an earlier train and stopped by a dog pound. No, he had no idea what he was thinking except that Claudia had Alice and he wanted something, too.
The fox terrier smelled Tony first. Unbeknown to Tony, but noticed sometimes by his fellow workers, he had a sweat and sour tinge to his skin that at first made the fox terrier howl loudly. Tony walked over to her cage and brought his face to the fox terrier’s wire cage. She sprung out with a quick lick through the wire mesh. The dog seemed to be smiling which felt good to Tony.
On the way home, Tony called out names until the fox terrier barked at ‘Mary’. Mary had no clue what Tony said. The name just sounded like small bells. She was glad to have her paws on solid ground instead of a wire mesh.
“Don’t bark when we go in. Alice may be asleep.”
Tony opened the door and Mary dashed in letting out a howl that echoed deep into the foyer. Communication was always important to her.
“Why did you name her ‘Mary’? Did you forget that my mother and your wife’s name was ‘Mary’? What are you trying to say here? Do you think this mutt is my mother and your wife reincarnated?” The questions flowed out of Claudia’s mouth like blood from a cut artery.
“The dog liked the name.”
“How many names did you try on her? One?”
“I tried a lot and she liked ‘Mary’.
At the tiny bell sound, Mary let out another howl that she was hungry. Claudia stomped into the kitchen where Mary stood howling. “What do you want?”
Mary thought it obvious since they were in the kitchen with lots of food smells. Mary made it simple by thrusting her head toward the pantry where she smelled potato chips.
“She’s hungry,” Claudia said. She filled Mary’s bowl with pellets from the bag of dog food taken from Tony’s sweaty hands. Mary kept such a close eye to make sure all the bowl space became occupied with pellets, that some fell on her long nose. As Claudia put away the bag, Mary flipped a quarter of the hard pellets behind the food bowl for safekeeping. Just in case the people forgot her, particularly since she was a new experience for them.
In the meantime, Tony walked away to check on Alice which left Claudia to take Mary, her mother’s namesake, outside for a pee and poop.
In the chilly air under a full moon, Mary thought this a good family to love and who would love her in return. Despite their arguing.
“It told me to take a chance on it,” Tony told Claudia who came in with Mary.
“It’ll stay locked in the house most of the time. You’re trading it one prison for another.
“It’ll have our attention and protection.”
“We don’t know where it came from.”
“It came from the pound. When you brought Alice home, she came from the hospital. The pound is just a big hospital.”
“You logic is ridiculous.”
“It had all its shots, been cleaned, nails clipped, and teeth brushed. It’s better taken care of than me after riding the crowded commuter train.”
“I hope it’s been spaded or neutered or whatever they do to make them not attract other dogs,” said Claudia. “We don’t want any unwanted pregnancies.”
That night, Tony dreamed that the 1969 ghost was telling him something about destiny. Tony did not want to end up a ghost like this one wandering the ethereal world talking to real people about their destiny. Instead, he hoped Mary would be able to tell him the mystery of the ring. The wife, not the dog.
February entered with a blowing snow that imprisoned everyone inside the house. Tony cleared a good patch of snow for Mary which she appreciated. Except, the snow bank was much more fun and Mary came out of it each time with ice balls dangling from her fur. Claudia cleaned off Mary to keep from mopping up small puddles as Tony came in dripping with melting water. Mary gave Claudia a surprise lick for not complaining.
“Nothing ever happened to me until my wife gave birth to Claudia,” Tony told Mary a week after the snow began to melt. He laid in bed with Mary next to him watching the clock approach four in the morning. He had less and less time to get to the train.
“When Claudia was growing up, I cluttered my office cubicle with her toys that she no longer wanted. People complained that I had too much. But, this was where I spent most of my life other than the train. When they moved me to a cubicle farm, I got rid of my office files so I could keep all of the toys. All these years, I realized that all I could remember of Claudia’s childhood got mixed in with images of my fellow commuters. I do not want to remember other commuters. I want to remember what family I still have.”
The bedroom air stayed still and quiet in those early morning hours. Outside, Tony could sense the raw movement of thousands of commuters starting their daily journey. He sighed.
Tony stayed home that day and played with Mary in the melting snow. Eventually, Claudia came out with Alice bundled so much that she looked like a snowball.
On Saint Patrick’s Day, Tony decided to look again for the emerald ring. He bought a merlot in a green bottle with a tassel hung around the neck and a green stone attached. On second thought, Tony decided he did not want to drink red wine out of a green bottle. Instead, he sat at the kitchen table after Claudia and Alice had gone to bed and looked in the old book of equations.
Tony calculated the distance across the train bridge and where he saw the green wine bottle. He found that by a factor of ten the distance was equal to that between Fredericksburg and DC. Would he walk across a train bridge where the wine bottle sat? Mary at his feet looked up with a definite ‘no’ in her eyes.
The next evening on a Friday, Tony watched for that wine bottle. The train went fast, but it was there on the ledge unmoved by the train’s speed. When he got home, he liked Mary pouncing at his feet and the rich, warm smell of Claudia’s Italian cooking. Even if it tasted like Spain.
“Treasure hunts are only good if they end up with a treasure.” Tony told Claudia that evening after supper. Tony’s desert was a small dish of chocolate ice cream with a slice of mozzarella mixed in. Mary waited at Tony’s feet to lick his bowl.
“That dead man is making you look foolish chasing an emerald that probably doesn’t even exist.” Claudia ate vanilla ice cream with olive oil drizzled on top.
“Maybe you’re right and the emerald ring is just a piece of green rock with metal around it.”
“By the way, I talked to my supposed husband today and we’re getting a divorce. His parents convinced him Alice wasn’t his.”
They ate their ice cream in silence for a few minutes. Mary was glad she hid those few pellets of food behind her bowl.
“Someone needs to make sure your mother is all right on the other side. I think the train ghost is making sure of that as long as I’m looking for his emerald ring,” Tony said.
“You don’t know any of this. It’s all in your imagination. I don’t think there’s any emerald ring to be found,” Claudia said. “All the treasure of the world has been found just like all the songs have been sung and poetry has been written.”
“I want to give you a chance at hope. I think that the combination of words and music are in its infancy and there is much more to be discovered.”
Tony looked down at Mary and placed his not quite eaten ice cream next to her front paws. Tony looked at his daughter and said, “I wanted to give you the emerald when I found it. I wanted you to have a treasure.”
“Everyone here is my treasure.”
Mary smiled, but no one saw since she had ice cream drying on her whiskers.
“We are all in love. We just never know it,” Claudia said while cleaning Mary’s chocolate face. “The love comes when one person pays attention to someone else. The four walls of any house can quickly become a home with the subtle, warm glance of a fellow person.”
Claudia finished with Mary followed by a few soft swipes on Alice’s puckered face to pick out the drool. “If you think there are still words to be discovered, maybe you should spend your time on the train writing them down.”
That night, Tony put the old book of equations in his bottom bureau drawer and closed it. He decided he did not need his life derailed by something like a mystery. He turned onto his side in the fetal position. Mary licked his ear once and curled against his warm back. Through the bedroom wall, Tony listened to Claudia sing a lullaby to Alice. Mary hoped the child would be able to get the off key singing out of her head.
About the Author:
Stanley B. Trice has published stories in national and
international magazines and won several local writing contests. He is
a member of the Riverside Writers, the Virginia Writers Club, and the
North Carolina Writers Network. During the day, he commutes by train to
Northern Virginia where he works on budgets and legislative issues.