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Romance Fiction Friendship

Have you ever lost your wallet while on vacation in a foreign country and thought, “Welp, I hope whoever finds it has a gas! Now, where is the local consulate office?” Yeah, me neither. I mean, I did lose my wallet on vacation in a foreign country, but the words coming from my mouth were not those of hope for the persons who discovered it. They were more like phrases that would make a sailor blush, mixed in with some sobbing and uncontrolled bouts of hysteria. 

Twenty years ago, I took a gap year in college and decided that backpacking through Europe would help me find myself and give me life experiences to take into adulthood. I was high over the Alps in one of those alpine gondola cable cars when I reached into my inner jacket pocket to get a piece of gum. Chewing helps with the dramatic rise in elevation and keeps your inner eardrums from filling with painful pressure. That’s when I realized my wallet wasn’t where I’d thought I’d put it. Frantically, I checked all the usual places I would stuff it, and then I checked everywhere else. It was nowhere to be found. Fortunately, I had stuck my passport in a separate pocket, along with some local currency. So, when I arrived at the other end of the gondola ride, I could phone for help, and after forty-eight hours of extreme duress, my journey continued. Even though I enjoyed my trip, the weight of the lost wallet clouded my memories. 

It wasn’t the items in the wallet, so much as the wallet itself, that held the most value to me. It was my grandfather’s wallet. He’d bought it while stationed in Italy during WWII. Inside was the picture of my grandmother that he carried with him the entire length of his tour of duty. He gifted it to me at my high school graduation as a reminder to remain vigilant and a symbol of perseverance through life's great and small difficulties. I can still smell the vintage hand-tooled leather and feel its soft buttery texture. It broke my heart that I had lost something so important and special.

When I returned from my trip, I didn’t mention to him that I’d misplaced his precious gift, and he went to his grave shortly thereafter, being none the wiser. I felt terrible about my deception by omission but concluded no good would come from telling him or my grandmother.

Fast forward to the present. About a year ago, I received a random email that wound up in my junk mail folder. I don’t typically look at the thing before sending its contents to that great electronic trash heap in the cloud. Still, something in the subject line caught my attention. It read: Lost Wallet in Vaduz – June 2000?

It took me a second to click on it as my memory returned to all the places I’d visited on that trip. Sure enough, I had spent two nights in the tiny country of Liechtenstein and its capital Vaduz, before crossing over into Switzerland and my now infamous journey through the Alps. 

Opening the email, it read: 

Dear Joseph Barnes,

Back in 2000, you (or someone with your name) may have stopped by my pub in Vaduz, leaving behind your wallet. Because we are a city of only a few thousand, I knew right away it must have been a tourist that left it behind. The pub is also next to the train station, so I tucked it away in a safe place, hoping its owner would soon notice it missing and return for it. Unfortunately, shortly afterward, I became ill, and the pub had to shut down for a time. When I returned, I had forgotten all about the wallet until one of my staff found it while doing a deep cleaning about five years later. Instead of taking the chance of mailing it back to the address on the photo ID inside the wallet, we framed it and hung it on the wall. Every year, on your birthday, we held a small party in your honor, hoping that someday you’d return to our micro but mighty nation in search of your former possession. It’s been fifteen years now. I’m getting old, and so are you! Ha! So, instead of holding out hope that you’d return, I’ve set out to try and find its rightful owner and offer to send it back to you. If you are indeed the Joseph Barnes of Chicago, Illinois, and this finely made billfold, please reply to this email, and I will arrange for its safe return. 

Sincerely, Zeru Darwish, Owner of Zeru’s Pub, Vaduz, Liechtenstein.

Needless to say, I was shocked and amazed that my grandfather’s old wallet had been rediscovered all these years later. Not only that, but the local patrons celebrated my birthday every year all those thousands of miles away! It was like finding a family I never knew existed.

I quickly responded to Zeru and informed him that I was indeed the wallet owner and would love to plan a way to get it back. I didn’t want to take the chance of it going through the mail and possibly getting lost in customs, so I asked him to hold it a little longer. Secretly, I wanted to surprise my well-wishers on my birthday, which was a few months out.

A month before I was to leave for my trip, I was in a horrible car crash that killed my girlfriend and her best friend and left another passenger and me critically wounded. It looked like I wouldn’t make the trip after all. I was devastated, not just because I risked being separated from the wallet for a little longer, but because I had lost even more with the people I cared about. Physically, I was left temporarily paralyzed and had to learn to walk again. I had head trauma that messed with my memory and moods, and scars on my face made me look like a monster when I looked in the mirror. I became so depressed that I figured I might be better off following my girlfriend into the afterlife. 

Zeru continued to stay in touch and knew about my accident. He and the regular patrons actually sent me a handmade get-well card and a pair of false teeth, which Liechtenstein is the biggest exporter of. I received the package on one of my lowest days. It lifted me up enough that I decided I'd take the time and head to Vaduz despite the physical and emotional pain and the hurdles I’d still have to traverse. Life was too short, as they say. So, why keep putting things off?

Liechtenstein is not an easy place to get to, which is probably why it’s one of the least visited European countries. My new physical limitations made it even more challenging. However, I eventually got there, stepping off the train in Vaduz on a foggy evening in September into the bar that would change my life forever.

“Can I help you?” a woman behind the bar asked as I limped in with my cane. “Wait. Oh. My. Heavens. It’s you! Joseph Barnes! That face. How could I forget that face!” Tears formed in her eyes as she pulled the string attached to a cowbell. It started ringing frantically as everyone stopped what they were doing and turned their attention to me.

“Everyone! It’s our patron saint of Zeru’s in the flesh! Meet Joseph Barnes all the way from Chicago, Illinois, America!” she cried in a unique German accent specific to the region.

The small crowd cheered and shouted, “Prost!” in my honor. I stood there awkwardly, shifting from foot to foot. How did these people even recognize me with my mangled nose and puckered muscles of my face, twisting the left corner of my mouth into a Joker-like sneer? How did they not see the flecks of gray in my once jet-black hair or the wrinkles of bitterness that had formed at the corners of my eyes and forehead?

“Where’s Zeru?” I asked the woman.

Her face turned ashen, yet resolute, and her voice became taut. “He…he passed away three days ago. This is his wake,” she sighed, lowering her eyelids as she waved her hand toward the crowd. 

Upon further inspection, I noticed how each of them was dressed all in black and held looks of sorrow and grief. I hung my head in shame and disbelief. I had waited too long to make this journey.

“But how will I ever thank him for his kindness and generosity?” I cried in disillusion.

Then a young woman came from the back of the crowd. Her hair was tangled, and her pale eyes looked swollen as though they carried the weight of the world. Yet, she had faint lines of humor around her mouth shaped like a Cupid’s bow. 

“I’m Sarah, Zeru’s daughter,” she bowed her head in reverence. “Thank you for coming all this way on such a perfect night. He would be honored that you are here. We are all honored that you are here,” she said, raising her voice and looking around the room. Heads nodded, and a few mugs raised in a solemn toast.

“How? What happened?” I asked.

“He had a rare form of cancer. He’d endured it for the last fifteen years or so, but it became too much. My life has been taking him to treatments and helping to run this place. Now, we celebrate his extraordinary life and the closing of the bar. I can’t possibly run this all by myself,” she said, wariness in her voice.

“How can I help?” I asked, not even thinking it through. “You all have been this invisible force in my life, and I feel compelled to pay it back.”

“You are too kind, Joseph Barnes of Chicago, Illinois. Please, take your wallet, and stay for a drink. Tell us what you’ve been doing with your life for the last twenty years. Unload your burdens, as is the custom at a place like this. Then we will close up shop together and move on.”

“No!” I shouted louder than I had intended. “No,” I repeated, quieter. I was incredulous at the thought of Zeru’s bar closing when I had just discovered it again.

“No?” Sarah questioned. “You won’t stay?”

“No, I won’t let this place close. This was Zeru’s place. His heart and soul. I mean, besides you. I know that. I felt it in our email exchanges. You can’t let this place go.”

“Thank you for your passion and understanding of my father. But this is not my heart and soul. I am young and want to travel the world. Have experiences before I am tied down to a career and a family.”

I laughed, thinking how she was me twenty years ago.

“Forgive me for asking, but was Zeru married?”

“Oh,” Sarah laughed. “You mean, where is my mother?”

I nodded.

“That story definitely requires a drink. Sit. You are exhausted, and standing can’t be good for your leg,” she gestured to my cane.

“Honestly, I haven’t felt this well in a long time…despite my situation and yours,” I said, heat coloring my cheeks. I was handling this all wrong.

Stepping behind the bar, she poured me a glass of ruby-garnet colored wine and one for herself. “I’m sorry, I should have asked if you prefer beer. This is from the prince’s vineyard. If you are serious about keeping this place open, you need to have a taste for the local flavors.” Then she held her glass in a toast, “Prost,” she saluted before taking a healthy gulp. “As for the story of my mother. Well, it’s brief. My parents married young, an arranged marriage between their families in Syria. I was born, and she became unhappy. Probably due to postpartum conditions, but my father also liked to drink. That is against the religion. So, he left and came here, opened this place, and she stayed behind. She and the rest of my family were killed in the war. I came here when it started to escape a similar fate and helped my father run this place and keep him healthy. Now I want what I want.”

“I understand that, and I’m sorry for your losses. I, too, needed to get out and grow at your age. It's what brought me and my wallet here,” I smiled, seeing it still mounted to the wall beside the display of various bottles of wine and spirits. A computer printout of a more recent picture of me was taped beside it. That must be how the first woman recognized me.

“Oh, yes! Your wallet,” Sarah turned and grabbed the frame from the wall. “I almost forgot,” she giggled. I stilled her hand as she started to undo the back of the shadow box frame.

“You know what? Why don’t you put it back.”

“Are you sure?” she asked a flicker of curiosity in her eyes.

“Yes. It has spent more time here now than it ever did with me. Besides, I’m serious about helping this place stay open. As you can see,” I waved my hand at myself, “I’m in a bit of a transition myself. Let’s discuss it further. Maybe tomorrow. Tonight, it’s all about your father,” I said, raising my glass this time in a toast.

“Tell me, Joseph. What brought you to my father’s bar that night? Or, more importantly, what caused you to leave your wallet behind? And who is the beautiful woman in the photograph?”

I recounted my grandfather’s tale first, avoiding her other question, when suddenly a hush and a gust of cool mountain air fell over the bar. Glancing at the door, I took in the radiance of a tall, elegant woman about my age with golden shoulder-length locks and a formal countenance.

“Sarah,” she sighed, rushing to the bar. “I came as soon as I could.”

Sarah came from around the counter and embraced the newcomer in a warm, friendly manner. “Oh, Claudia, thank you for coming.”

“Claudia?” I said aloud. It was an automatic and powerful reaction.

She turned to look at me quizzically but without recognition.

“Of course, you wouldn’t remember me. Joseph Barnes. From the States. We met in this very place twenty years ago.”

“And the reason you left your wallet behind?” Sarah giggled.

Claudia stepped back as if someone had struck her. “Well, what a strange coincidence. The boy I ruled out because he was American,” she smiled.

“The woman I could never forget,” I replied.

Sarah poured Claudia a hearty glass of the same rich liquid we were enjoying and raised her glass. With her eyes to the sky, she said, “To Baba Zeru, still bringing people together even from the great beyond.”

“To Zeru!” everyone shouted, while Claudia and I got lost in each other’s eyes.

“Joseph has bought the place and is relocating to Vaduz. So, I guess you can’t rule him out any longer,” Sarah offered to Claudia with a satisfied grin. “And Claudia lives in Switzerland but comes back to visit her parents about once a month, Joseph. She’s in financing. Perhaps she can help you with that loan you’ll need to revamp this place. I need to go check on something somewhere,” she trailed off. 

At least, that’s how it sounded to my ears. I couldn’t tear my attention away from rediscovering something I thought I had lost long ago.

April 07, 2023 18:50

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9 comments

Kathryn Kahn
15:22 Apr 10, 2023

What a lovely romantic story. I like how hope arises out of tragedy. I like how we think he has found what he's lost when he finds the wallet, but it turns out he finds another lost "item" that's even more important.

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KT George
21:57 Apr 10, 2023

Thank you! I liked toying with the idea that losing something isn't always tangible. I appreciate you taking the time to read and leave a comment. ~ KTG

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Viga Boland
17:37 Apr 08, 2023

Ok…now I get why you and I are fans of each other’s writing: we’re both romantics at heart, love seeing good things happening to good people, and want to believe this old world isn’t such a bad place all the time. This story has all of that. Unfortunately, KT, the more I read your stories and so many others on here, the more convinced I’m becoming that I really am out of my league on Reedsy. So many have such wonderfully, creative imaginations. All these well-chiselled stories remind me what I’ve told myself the past 7 years: I suck at fict...

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KT George
01:03 Apr 09, 2023

You know, it's funny because I wouldn't consider myself a romantic. Yet lately, I've been drawn to it. Probably because the world could use a bit more love in it these days. And for the record, your fiction does. Not. Suck. You are a fabulous writer with so much to give in any genre. You don't need to worry about competing with anyone, except for those AI writing tools that seem all the rage. All of us humans need to be concerned about that! Thank you for taking the time to read and review, as always. And your kindness. Marie Forleo, a bus...

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Lily Finch
23:12 Apr 07, 2023

KT, pretty neat and tidy writing. It has its highs and lows; as readers, we are there every step of the way. I surmised Joseph would end up running the bar but never guessed that Zeru would die. It was a good bit of suspense. LF6.

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KT George
03:37 Apr 08, 2023

What was the clue you picked up on that I was going in that direction (of Joseph running the bar)? I'm glad it was a little suspenseful. Thanks for reading, LF6!

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Lily Finch
04:13 Apr 08, 2023

It was like finding a family I never knew existed., Secretly, I wanted to surprise my well-wishers on my birthday, which was a few months out., “No!” I shouted louder than I had intended. “No,” I repeated, quieter. I was incredulous at the thought of Zeru’s bar closing when I had just discovered it again. “No?” Sarah questioned. “You won’t stay?” “No, I won’t let this place close. This was Zeru’s place. His heart and soul. I mean, besides you. I know that. I felt it in our email exchanges. You can’t let this place go.” Pretty leading sent...

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KT George
14:12 Apr 08, 2023

Yes, by then, I was leading him there. I was wondering if I said something early on that gave it away. Thanks!

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Lily Finch
15:27 Apr 08, 2023

There was an earlier phrase, but I cannot find it now. LF6.

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