It wasn’t a bad purchase for only $14.50. Winter had hit hard and I had needed a new winter coat for years. Unfortunately, I happened to lose my good, high-paying job through a cruel twist of fate – as well as convoluted office politics – not months earlier and had to scramble for the new, so-so, lower paying job I had at that time. Needless to say, as a result, I had to scrounge and cut back wherever I could, even in the clothing department. That’s not to say that I was blowing my money on Gucci and Dolce & Gabbana, but getting the latest Eddie Bauer coat was not in the budget either. So, like any good young man trying to make his dollar stretch, I shopped at the one place where you could find an amazing deal on high quality clothing items (maybe) – at the local thrift store!
I had searched the racks for an hour and was ready to give up when my eye landed on a good find. It was a black, down-filled coat with a quilted interior lining and a water resistant exterior – perfect for almost anything winter could bring. And, surprisingly enough, it was in great condition – something I don’t normally expect from a thrift store. Anytime I had ever been shopping in a thrift store in the past, I was lucky if I was able to find a piece of clothing that only had ONE small hole in it. Something like this was nothing short of miraculous! Not only did it look great, it felt so damn comfortable! Having been satisfied with my find, I proceeded to the checkout counter, produced a somewhat wrinkled monetary note with the face of Andrew Jackson on it, received the required change from the transaction and proceeded to put on said jacket before stepping out into the cold, winter afternoon air – temporary windbreaker jacket draped over my arm.
I was immediately gratified with my purchase as the light winter wind blew against me and I found myself not being chilled – with the exception of my hands, as I didn’t have the sense God gave the common dog to grab a pair from home before heading out. I quickly plunged my hands in the deep, warm pockets as I walked to my car. As soon as my right hand hit the bottom of the right side pocket, I felt something very small and metallic protrude against my fingertips. I placed my thumb and index finger around the jagged, flattened tip of the mystery object and removed what looked like a very small key. It didn’t look like a door key of any kind, nor did it look like it was big enough for a car or even a padlock. It couldn’t have been more than an inch long with a thin shaft, with the traditional two-pronged tooth at one end and a heart-shaped head at the other. Must be a jewelry box key, I thought, or maybe the key to a diary. Oh well, I’ll toss it later. I dropped the key back in my pocket, entered my car, started the engine, turned on the heater to attain that state of toasty warmness and proceeded to drive to my next all-important destination – the grocery store.
I had gathered all of the necessary items a man like me needed to get for a cold winter night – two packs of Hot Pockets, a loaf of bread, some peanut butter, and last but not least, a 12-pack of Budweiser. The only thing left was to make the purchase with what was left of my meager paycheck for that week. As I arrived closer to the checkout lanes, I realized at that moment that I should have remembered that when the weather person on the news announces even the hint of a snow storm of any kind, people flock to their local grocer to obtain the absolute necessities for being “snowed-in,” that being mostly bread and milk. As a consequence, that usually resulted in long lines – even with the advent of self-checkout.
As I always tried to ensure that the few cashiers present earned their already meager pay, I opted for the personal touch and waited in one of the lines that were actually manned by a living person. As had happened numerous times in the past whenever I opted for this choice, the person a few people ahead of me in line had decided that buying out half of the store was the best way to go, snow or not, as was evident by the enormous pile of groceries and assorted dry and paper goods in her cart. And, as always, I groaned – mostly internally, with some of my disgust verbalized in the form of a mildly guttural grunt.
“Huh?” the woman in front of me asked as she turned in response to my noise-making.
I was puzzled at first as to why this woman was asking me this, but then realized what I had done and said, “Oh, just up ahead there.” I then pointed lightly at the overloaded cart ahead.
The woman looked where I was pointing and said, “Oh, yeah.” She just shook her head mildly and quietly said, “How about leaving some for the rest of us, right?”
I chortled and replied, “Tell me about it.”
We exchanged a chuckle, and then began a nice enough conversation. I learned that her name was Karen and that she was only a couple of years older than I was. While no runway model, she had a very cute, lightly freckled face with auburn hair that protruded from her gray winter cap and came down to the top of her shoulders. She was only there to get a couple of things, as she was just craving some hot chocolate and some cookies. During the course of our chat, the cookies she was holding slipped and fell to the ground. As she bent down to pick them up, the chain on the necklace she had been wearing had broken loose and a heart-shaped item fell to the floor along with the chain.
“Damn,” she lightly cursed. “Chain broke again.”
As she picked up her cookies, I bent down and picked up the item. I stood back up and handed the item to her, to which she said, “Thank you,” and quickly grabbed it out of my hand.
I was a little shocked at the veracity at which she grabbed the keepsake out of my hand and reflexively held up my hand and said, “Sorry.”
Karen realized what she had done and apologetically said, “I’m sorry. You were just trying to help me, I know.”
I waved my free hand somewhat dismissively and said, “No worries. Do you mind if I ask what that is?”
She looked at me for a moment, then looked at the heart-shaped jewelry piece in her hand, then back to me and said, “My husband gave it to me…right before he died.”
“Oh god,” I said, sympathetically. “I’m sorry.”
She shook her head lightly and said, “It’s okay. He died about two years ago. I’d like to think I’ve moved on from it.” She then handed me the heart-shaped piece for my inspection.
I took it in the palm of my hand and looked at it carefully. It was a couple of inches around from the size of it and had a hinge on the left side of it with a traditional looking keyhole on the front of it. It was made of gold with some sort of decorative pattern on it. I could tell after looking at it that it was a locket of some kind. “Very nice,” I said in response to the looks of the piece. “What’s inside?”
“A picture of me and my husband,” she said. “Sadly, I lost my key for it. My husband had the other one, but I don’t know what happened to it. I’ve looked everywhere I can think of, but I can’t find it. And, since it was custom made, I can’t get a replacement key. But, I still wear it, though. You know, so he’s always with me – that kind of thing.”
I nodded my head in understanding at the sentiment behind her words. It was at that moment that a strange, yet somewhat fitting notion hit me. I found myself unconsciously looking down at the right side pocket of my jacket, remembering the strange little key I had found earlier. I reached into the pocket, retrieved the key and proceeded to insert it into the small lock on the locket.
Could it be? I thought, with a sudden mix of questioning and hope.
As if in answer to my own internal question, the key fit perfectly into the keyhole. I then twisted it to the right and was rewarded with the locket popping open. Karen’s mouth went open with astonishment as she brought up her hand to her mouth, tears beginning to form in her eyes.
“Oh, my god,” she said as she brought her hand down and indicated the key. “Where did you find that?”
“It was in the pocket of my jacket,” I said, reluctantly. At that moment, I wasn’t sure if the situation was about to get emotionally bad, and quickly.
Karen quickly eyed my coat and said, “I thought it looked familiar – your coat, I mean. Where did you get it?”
“At the thrift store about four blocks from here,” I replied, still not knowing what to expect.
“Gotcha,” she replied. She then looked at my hands and said, “Could I have my locket, please?”
I immediately handed her the locket with the key still in the lock. She took it gingerly and opened it the rest of the way. Upon seeing the picture inside, a tear fell from her left eye as her bottom lip quivered slightly. She simply looked at the picture for a moment, and then squeezed her eyes closed in an attempt to squeeze the tears back. She only succeeded in squeezing more tears out. She sniffled and opened her eyes as she took in a sobbing breath. She then smiled at the sight, brought the locket to her mouth and kissed in tenderly. Remembering that I was still standing there, she closed the locket and said, “Thank you. I should’ve known that something like this must’ve happened to his key. He was always absent-minded. Probably put it in the pocket of his coat there,” she said as she pointed to my coat, “and then forgot about it. I still had my key at the time, so I didn’t even think about his key when I dropped off his clothes for donation. Small world, huh?”
I couldn’t help but chortle at the irony of the situation as a replied, “I guess so. Whodathunkit?”
My wordplay elicited a small laugh from Karen as she unexpectedly reached out and hugged me lightly and said, “Thank you so much for this.”
I gently patted Karen on her back on said, “I’m glad I could help.”
She then leaned back and wiped away the tears from her eyes. At that moment, I don’t know what possessed me to show such generosity, but I grabbed one side of my coat in my hand and asked, “Would you like to have it back?”
Karen gave me a shocked, puzzled look and replied, “What? No! It’s freezing outside! I’m not about to take it from you.”
“Okay,” I replied. “I just thought…”
“Listen,” she interrupted. “It’s enough that you and I met, and that, for whatever reason, you brought this key back to me. You let me see my husband again – in a way. I am so grateful for that. After he died, it took me a long while, but I finally got up the courage to get rid of his things, in the hopes that someone would make good use of them. Looks like it worked.” She reached up her free hand placed it on my chest as she said, “My husband was a good man. And now, it looks like another good man is wearing this – just as it should be.” She then patted the coat and brought her hand down again.
I nodded in understanding of what had just happened and what she had said and smiled. We continued to make small talk as the slow line finally allowed for her to get her small bounty purchased. As she picked up her small bag, she looked at me again, quickly hugged me and said, “Thank you again. You don’t know how much it means to me.” She then smiled and walked towards the front doors, looking back only one last time to wave goodbye. I returned the wave with a warm smile as the cashier began scanning my items. Over the repetitive beeps of my tallied items, the young man behind the counter asked, “What was that about, dude?”
“Nothing,” I said as my gaze lingered at the front doors for a moment. “Just a reunion.”
“Huh?” the young man quizzically asked.
I turned my attention back to the cashier, slightly shook my head, smiled and said, “Never mind. What do I owe you?”