The man next door is a gnome.
No one knows but me. That must be very lonely. Maybe he has a tunnel in his basement that he uses to visit other gnomes. Or maybe that's dwarves. My friend Marnie could tell you. I'll ask her when I see her again, but that's after Christmas break.
I noticed it at Thanksgiving. We always have huge trash to take out. My family isn't big--just me and Mom and Dad--but we have the big house so we get the parties, and Mom has nine sisters.
Yeah. I know. NINE. And all of them have like forty-one kids. When we have a holiday party, it's like a junior high assembly with lunch. We kick out like four full rolling cans of garbage. Most of that garbage has food on it, or in it. I'm sure Mrs. Grackmuth in Civics would say that we were wasting enough food to feed all the starving Asians.
Gnomes may be tunnelers, and they may be miners, or whatever, but one thing I know they are is scavengers. They, you know, pick trash and stuff. I know cause I was there.
I volunteered to carry out the trash for Pie Night. That's the night before Thanksgiving, when we eat, duh, pie. It started with nine kinds, and now we have, like, a hundred. That's enough paper plates to carpet the freeway once Aunt Margaret gets here with her eight kids. Seven boys and Hannah. Poor kid.
When the madhouse becomes my house, I need some quiet time. There sure isn't any inside, so I go out. Nobody else wants to take the trash. I double-fisted the bags, slung them over my shoulder, and went out through the garage.
The can at the streetside rattled. The lid sat propped up half a foot, like something was caught in it. "Hey!" I yelled, hoping the cat or dog or whatever would get startled and run, because I didn't really want to try using Uncle Hank's half-eaten pumpkin pie as a defensive weapon.
The lid rattled down and something scurried away. Our streetlamp is pretty bad, and it's down the street a ways. I couldn't make out what it was. Not for sure.
But it was no cat. Cats don't have flappy tails from their suit jackets bobbing along as they run down the street.
Later that night I realized I was missing my ring. Before my grandmother died, she took me into her bedroom and made me promise not to tell the other grandkids, but she wanted me to have her ring. We spent a lot of time together, taking care of Grandpa. Grandma practically raised me.
Her ring was the only thing I wanted. It's not a rock that makes people stare in the grocery store. It's a simple gold band with a row of tiny diamonds, but I loved it and it's the only thing of hers I have. It was like having a bit of her back again.
It's always been loose on my finger, but I manage to keep it on. Except this time it wasn't there when I did my check with my thumb. At first I thought it might have been on my dresser upstairs--that's where I put it sometimes--but it wasn't, and I would never set it down anywhere else.
When I missed it, I told Mom right away. Some of the families were still there, and we all looked, but we couldn't find the ring anywhere. The parties always make me tired, but when everyone left that night I just lay on my bed and stared at the ceiling for hours. I have one poster on my wall, a thing from church. One picture on the dresser--Mom and Dad and my grandparents. And one ring. Now missing. It was a part of me like a hand. I kept touching my empty finger. The ring was still not there when I finally fell asleep.
Dad works at a media company one town over, and Mom is an ER nurse, which during any holiday means Dad is a bachelor. Except that in the Christmas season the media company has more ads to show than the whole year before that, so that makes me an orphan between the end of November and the Super Bowl.
I'm not sad about it. It's just how things are. Mom and Dad are super great. And they come for the family parties and stuff, and we call and text all the time. Well, they call. I text. Anyway.
School sucked, the way it always does before the holiday. I couldn't concentrate on anything. My grades were okay. Good enough. I had Marcie and Jan, and sometimes Franco is cool (but he's a boy, so sometimes not, too). I can get through it.
It was during history class when I wasn't thinking about anything in particular that I started to get really mad about the ring and decided I was going to find it no matter what. It was on my finger when the party started. It wasn't there when it ended. Therefore, it was in the house. I could find it.
I thought maybe I could just look in the places I had been that night--not that many--but then I thought one of the little kids could have grabbed it, and they went everywhere, so nowhere was safe. I started in the basement.
We have a lot of junk in the basement.
I had to take it out a bit at a time.
Every time I went out with another load, the bags were in a different place.
I never saw what happened, or who it was. I'd call out, "hey, get out of there. That's our trash!" which is kind of stupid when you think about it--I was throwing the stuff away, after all--but no one was ever there. It made me angry, like someone was messing with me.
I'd come back into my empty house that somehow was filled with stuff--useless stuff--and look hard for another hour. I stuck my fingers into the holes in the old toys, tossed through the old sweaters, rocked the couches and vacuumed up all the junk that came shaking out onto the floor. And the ring would never be there.
Then I'd bag up the old stuff, empty the vacuum container--sorting through that dusty mess just in case--and put the whole smelly pile on the curb. Where it didn't even stay, because something--or someone--rooted through it every time. Not real neatly, either. Papers fluttered down the street and dustballs danced to the breeze in my driveway. I had to pick them up. Again.
I tried to shake it off. It was stupid. But I couldn't. Grandma would have let it go, and told me to, as well. But Grandma was gone, and her ring was gone now, too. Besides, I knew who it was, mucking in the cans.
After a few days of this, I marched over to the neighbor's house and pounded on his door. "You! Come out here and face me! Stop playing around in my trash!"
The door handle turned slowly, and the door opened. My neighbor stood there. Short. He was really short. His face was wrinkled and leathery, like he'd been standing outside a long time letting the rain and sun beat down on him.
"What do you want?" he said.
I blinked. His voice was impossible. Seventh-graders have more bass. You could use it for a bird call. That voice could not come out of that face.
"I said, what do you want?"
"Uh, I want you to stop rooting through my trash," I finally said.
"I don't root through your trash," he said.
I pointed to a ball of tinfoil rolling down the gutter. "No? I saw you. You're making a mess. It's trash. There's nothing there you want."
His eyes tracked the foil for a long second, almost like he was evaluating it. Then he looked back to my face. "It's a dog."
"It's not a dog."
"It's a dog," he said, and shut the door in my face.
I went home. What else could I do?
For the next week, I kept the trash in the garage. Dad asked about it one morning when he went in late, and I told him what was going on.
"Mr. Ludkin is not rooting through our trash," he said. "He's lived next door for twelve years. If he were going through people's trash, we would know."
That was finals week. I didn't get much time to look for my ring, because every minute was taken up studying or complaining to someone about studying. Mom got a tree, and I was supposed to decorate it. I put up one of the glass balls, and a couple hanging wooden ornaments. In the bottom of the Christmas storage box I found a canister of tinsel. I draped one strand over the lowest frond. I took a handful and tossed it up higher.
All of a sudden I was flinging tinsel in great silver stringy handfuls, throwing them at the tree so hard I grunted with the effort. Tinsel exploded all over the room like a silver snowstorm. Tears streamed down my face. Some of the tinsel got stuck to them, and I was crying foil.
A head appeared at my front window.
It was Mr. Ludkin, eyes bugging out of his head, watching the tinsel drift around the front room in glittering showers.
That was the last straw.
I bombed out the front door to find him still standing there, as if he'd been turned to wax.
"Get out of here!" I screamed, making my own tinsel flurry on the lawn.
"Tinsel..." he said, in that squeaky voice of his.
"Tinsel. So what! Stop creeping around my house! Stop messing in our trash! Can't you just go away and leave us alone? Don't you have a garden to stand in or something?"
He whipped his head around and I clapped my hand over my mouth. I hadn't meant to say that.
"What about standing in a garden? What would you know about it?" His eyes narrowed.
"You think I'm a gnome, or something?"
I couldn't say anything. My hands balled up into fists and then relaxed, over and over. I dripped shiny Christmas on my front lawn.
His shoulders slumped. If he'd had a hat on, you know, one of those pointy red ones, he would have looked right at home standing in the dead ground under my window.
"Are you a gnome?" I said. I know that's ridiculous. I knew it was ridiculous when I said it. I still said it. I wanted to take it back, but my mouth wouldn't open.
Finally, after he stood there for a while, he nodded.
"Seriously," he said. "I can't talk about it."
"But you can root through people's trash?"
He looked so guilty my anger started losing its edge. "I'm...looking for something. And your trash has a lot of interesting things in it."
"That's disgusting," I said. "How can you live with yourself?"
"I can't live with myself if I don't look. There are...things I need. Things my body needs. If I don't find them, it's back to standing in gardens again."
I scowled at him. "You're not just a gnome, you expect me to believe you're a garden gnome?"
"Believe whatever you like."
"Whatever you're looking for, you're not going to find it in my trash."
"How do you know?"
His eyes went wide. "Because you're looking for something. And you haven't found it. That's why."
"That's why what?" I said, and took a step forward. My hands balled up again.
He took a step back, widening the gap between us again. He flicked a glance at the window, and licked his lips. "Nothing."
I had enough. "Go away," I whispered. "Just go away." I turned around and stomped up my steps.
"What are you looking for?" he called after me.
I didn't answer him, I just let the screen door slam behind me and softly closed the door.
The next day was Friday and the last day of school. Searching had exhausted me, and I got sick over the weekend. Spent it in bed. I didn't want to look any more.
I stopped putting things on the curb. The next week led to Christmas, and my parents were there not at all. I kept watch out the window for Mr. Ludkin, but never saw him. What he had said kept banging around between my ears, about how he'd end up in a garden again. I must have heard him wrong, but everything about that day was etched like acid on metal in the grooves of my head.
Thursday I went next door. I had nothing else to do. I'd searched everywhere. The ring was gone, the last thing I had to remember my grandmother by. And yes, the neighbor nosing around my trash was creepy, but in a way it was at least company. Now that was gone, too.
I rang the doorbell. Nothing. I knocked politely. Nothing.
Then I was pounding on the door and screaming. A couple of the neighborhood kids came walking by. They stared at me with worried faces, but I didn't care. I kept pounding and yelling until I was raw and hoarse, but he never came.
That evening the trash had to go out again. I cinched up the neck of it, slung it over my back, and went out into the garage. Then I stopped. Because what the heck.
I went back inside and pulled half the tinsel off the tree. Then, for good measure, I dropped in a roll of aluminum foil, two empty pie tins, and an empty can of green beans. Anything I could find that had shiny metal in it. Then I trudged out to the rollaway can and dropped the bag in. For good measure, I picked up a stick and one of the cans and banged them together. "Come and get it!" I yelled, but no one came.
The next day was Christmas. Do you know how much trash the average family generates on Christmas?
Well, it's a lot. Take it out sometime, and you'll see.
As usual, it was me that took it. Mom and Dad were there, all day, even--they took phone calls, of course, but they were there--and it was really a lovely day. I went out double-fisted again, bags kinda light because they were just wrapping paper and empty boxes, and when I got there the trash was in just the same place it had been the day before.
But when I lifted the lid of the can, it was empty. Just a couple of scraps. Most of the trash was gone. Trash day wasn't until Tuesday.
I flung the bags in and turned toward Mr. Ludkin's house, and there he was, standing in the garden. Still as a stone.
I watched him for a long minute. His face was steady, waxen.
So many things lost.
I stepped up the walk, kicking at a pebble. Just once more, I looked over at the gnome. The sun came out, first time in a week.
And very slowly, an inch at a time, Mr. Ludkin's arms came up to meet it.
Next day, I went out again, to see. Mr. Ludkin wasn't in his garden. The trash cans hadn't been touched. But something gleamed off the lid. I marched down to check it, and there was my ring. It shone like a piece of sunlight itself. Like it had never shone before, not even when Grandma was alive.
No note, nothing else. Just the ring.
I still save tinfoil. And when I put it out, I leave the lid propped open. Just a bit.