I began life as a treasure-hunter’s apprentice.
My grandfather was a semi-professional knickknack man who spent a lot of time at flea markets and yard sales, buying junk for nickels and selling it to collectors. He had a wonderful eye for junk, but he also had a habit of growing attached to it — and so his house was full of collections of plates and wind-up toys and Toby jugs and Lord knows what else.
When he couldn’t get to a sale, sometimes he’d go out with his metal detector and hunt for junk left behind in parks and school yards. And on hot summer days, he’s take me along, ostensibly to help. In exchange, he’d give me all the loose change we found*.
My duties were two-fold:
- Carry the little spade he used to dig up coins.
- Carry two cans of Coke in a plastic bag for when we grew thirsty from our labors.
Duty number one was always a bust. I could carry that spade for maybe two blocks before one of my arms fell off, or so I invariably claimed. The sodas, however, were a different story. I never complained about their weight. I never mentioned them at all, until he asked me for a can.
“I drank it.”
“So give me the other one.”
“I drank it.”
“You drank both cans?”
“Yeah. I got thirsty.”
“Sonofagun. Boy, I hope I never get stuck in the desert with you.”
This happened every single time we went out together.
You might be thinking to yourself that this was an irony-laden farce that we played out together — him knowing what I would do, trusting me anyway, and showing mock outrage (along with inner delight) at the impishness of youth. Nope. Not even close. There was nothing ironic about the inner life of Peter Yuslum.
He would make me solemnly promise to save him a drink. And he always believed me. And I invariably betrayed him. And he somehow did not murder me with that spade and bury my body in the park. That is love.
“Why didn’t you just carry three sodas? Two for you and one for him?,” Blair asks.
It is a hot June day in Caversham. I am drinking a rare full-sugar** Coca Cola as we walk home. I am telling my wife about how Coke on a hot day always makes me think about betraying my grandfather. She is, understandably, a little concerned by this revelation.
“We tried that,” I say.“I think we even carried four cans once. I always drank everything while he wasn’t paying attention.”
“No, what’s horrible is that I never even thought about it while I was doing it. When I’m thirsty, I have a drink. It’s almost automatic.***”
“I hope I never get lost in the desert with you.”
It is July now, and we are lost in the desert.
Well, not lost exactly. We know where we are: Jordan’s Wadi Rum desert, as seen in Lawrence of Arabia and Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. The trouble is that the sun here is so hot that our guide’s truck no longer works. He has managed to coast the truck into the shade of a mountain. We’re hoping the shade eventually cools the truck enough that the engine will start again. We are 40 minutes by truck from the nearest road. No one has phone service.
“I’m thirsty,” says Blair.
And it is at this moment that I realize that the bottle of Sprite I just finished is not the only bottle I’d had that day. Somewhere in the course of the day’s travels, I absent-mindedly opened the other bottle and continued drinking, as if we had an unlimited supply. I have no memory of doing this. All I have now are two empty bottles and serious regret.
I smile weakly at the women I promised to love, honor and obey.
“No!” she gasps.
“In my defense, I did tell you this would happen.”
We are 40 minutes by truck from the nearest road. We are led by a man with exactly three teeth who would probably do anything for 200 Jordanian Dinar. The wolves and foxes of the desert would make short work of my remains. I have seen enough camel bones that day to know this is true. And let’s be honest, you might be a little sad if I disappear one day. But no one is going to look all that hard for the body.
She laughs. It is not the bright, cheerful squee I am used to. It is a dry, desperate noise from a dark, dark place — the sound of a chemical fire in the heart. She laughs. She does not have me murdered. That is love.
* He never sold these expeditions to me as treasure hunts — those were my other grandfather’s specialty. But I still expected to find great treasure chests of gold, lost just below the surface of Mechanicsburg. Because I didn’t understand how treasure works.
** The rare part here is the sugar. Anyone who has spent even a minute with me know that I knock back diet soda with a frequency that can only be described as “troubling.”
*** There are many reasons why I don’t drink alcohol. This is one of them.