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The Cursed Treasure of the McDaniels Kids photo

Mom couldn’t understand why we were so interested in him, the old man who shuffled through the park, waving his metal detector over the thick summer grass, digging up hub caps and toothbrushes and bolts clodded with rust-colored dirt, bent nails, flattened sardine tins, and old roof tiles that came apart in his hands like scales. We couldn’t explain it either. We only knew that we were fascinated by him. With his wispy hair and loose suspenders and face crowded between bulky, square-shaped headphones, thick, round, wire glasses sliding down his nose toward an avalanche of gray-blonde mustache, the cord of the metal detector wrapped around his liver-spotted fingers, he was like something from another world, like something out of one of the old black and white science-fiction movies that sometimes played on Sunday mornings.

We never knew his name but Mom said he was a retired cop, that he used to teach the anti-drug program at Edward Smith Elementary when she was a kid. “We called him Officer Friendly,” she said, “but now, I don’t know, he’s just a bored old man with a hobby. I don’t get why you kids follow him around the way you do.”

My sister Angie—it was her idea to start burying things for him. “Like how pirates bury treasure," she said. Angie had a beat up lock-box from the flea market with the lock busted so that the lid flipped open if you tipped it. We filled it with clay sculptures we’d made at art camp—a pinch pot bowl and a couple little animals with broken legs and horns—and fake gold coins from an old Halloween pirate costume, and then we chose a spot and buried the box with a note: HERE LIES THE CURSED TREASURE OF THE McDANIELS KIDS.

We hid up in the maple tree and watched him dig up the box, slowly approaching the hump of dirt where it was buried, the search coil hovering over the grass, brushing left and right before settling on the exact spot, and then the old man unfolding the collapsible shovel at his belt and working it down through the dry earth. He opened the box and weighed the objects in his hands. He peered over his shoulder, suspicious, then stood, tucked the box under his arm, kicked the dirt back over the hole, and shuffled home.

After that, we gathered as much junk as we could find. Enamel pins and bottle caps and magnetic pieces from a board game we had outgrown, pennies and paper clips, a toy sheriff’s badge that said LONE STAR on the front. We spilled mom’s junk drawer and took keys we’d lost the locks for, belt buckles and dead batteries and a handful of old keychains from the Erie Canal Museum gift shop. From the attic, we gathered mangy Christmas tinsel and an ugly set of rectangular aluminum plates imprinted with designs of birds and flowers that Great Aunt Ruthy had given us years before. We gathered things that weren’t even metal—pieces of broken action figures and plaster fossil replicas—and buried them along with whatever cans we could dig out of the recycling bin. We wrapped all of it in handkerchiefs or newspaper or plastic shopping bags and we buried it with notes that said things like BEWARE! or DO NOT OPEN UNTIL X-MAS. Angie soaked the notes in tea or singed them over the stove to give the appearance of ancient scrolls.

Sometimes the old man would appear half-dressed, wearing a bathrobe and slippers, a yellow tank-top, and baggy flannel pajama pants. We watched him from the tree-line as he combed the field, going over the same spots again and again, like he’d forgotten what he was doing, or like he had dropped his keys and was looking around where he knew they should be. Sometimes he was out there all day, a silhouette in the dark before he finally made his way back across the street at the far end of the field to the little gray ranch house where he lived. There were moments when he would suddenly stop and look around—at the pond where families with strollers threw bread to ducks, or at the woods where we hid, watching from the branches of the old maple tree—and then he’d stare down at the machine in his hands as if he’d suddenly woken from a dream. But each time the metal detector caught a signal, the old man would come to life, would begin walking more quickly, leaning forward almost horizontally, as if he could sniff out our treasure from beneath that mustache, as if he could see with x-ray vision, straight down through the earth. We noticed, after some time, that he’d begun carrying a flip-pad in his shirt pocket, would jot notes before filling the holes back in and walking home with whatever we’d buried.

One day, we came home to find Mom sitting in the kitchen and crying. “The tuning fork,” she sobbed. “Your dad’s tuning fork.” We could barely remember the object let alone Dad ever using it. Maybe once or twice with the church choir when we were babies. But it was one of the few things of his that Mom had held onto. Angie looked at me with panic in her eyes and I knew what must have happened.

Without talking about it, we decided that we had to get the tuning fork back, and the next afternoon, we hid in our usual spot in the maple tree, Angie restlessly plucking leaves and tearing at them until she held only the skeletons of veins. It seemed forever before the old man arrived and when he did, the wind blew his wispy hair around, made it stick up in a bizarre horn.

“What should we say to him?” I asked Angie. She made no response and I knew she meant to sit in the tree until the old man was headed back home. We watched him amble through the field, following the signal through his headphones until, like a dog with a scent, he paused and walked in a quick little circle toward the exact spot. He exhumed the treasure and we saw that it was a coffee can we’d filled with severed doll parts. He tucked it under his arm and when he turned to leave, we shimmied down from the maple tree, following him at a distance. I kept nudging Angie, telling her, “Go ask him, go ask him,” and she hissed back, “I will, I will, shut up, I will.” She was two years older than me and most certainly had been the one to bury the tuning fork in the first place, so we both knew that any dirty work was going to be up to her.

At the end of the field, the old man waited for traffic, then scuttled across the road toward his little gray ranch house. Screen door clapping behind him. Massive satellite dish perched on the roof. The sun setting pink above. We stood at the end of his driveway, churning gravel beneath the toes of our shoes, wondering how we would possibly explain ourselves. When it seemed there was nothing else to do, Angie pinched herself as hard as she could, then marched up to the door. She stood on the stoop, getting up the nerve to knock.

A garage stood left of the house and from the driveway, I could see movement through the windows of the rolling door. I crept up and put my face to the glass.

“Angie,” I whispered, but she didn’t hear.

Inside the garage, a yellow light illuminated a rough wooden table cluttered with junk. The old man was picking doll parts from our coffee can and carefully placing them alongside what I realized were all of our things, everything we’d buried—the belt buckles and jewelry and coins and toys, the keychains and Christmas ornaments and everything. I knew that somewhere on the table was the tuning fork. I whispered for Angie again, my breath fogging the dirty glass. Beside each item, I could see, was a paper tent with a number—evidence markers, like you see in cop movies. On the wall, a corkboard with notes pinned up and lengths of thread stretching toward a crinkled map. Our whole lives on that table, spread out like a museum or an altar or a crime scene. I turned again to Angie—her fist raised to knock—and I cried out in horror of whatever mystery the old man thought he’d dug up.