Herb stared at a nickel resting upon a small wooden box on his desk. Though staring at things or at no-things instead of talking to me wasn’t unusual, I sensed an electricity of thought connecting his eyes to that nickel. It didn’t appear to me that he was looking through it, the way he often did when lost in thought; I would guess he was trying to make it levitate.
“It’s a nickel, Herb.” I said. I was a jerk, and probably still am.
“I wish it were that simple.” Herb surprised me by responding directly. “When I was young,” he continued, “I found a little stuffed bear on a hiking trail and picked it up. It was dirty and chewed up, but I liked it. I didn’t have a stuffed bear.” I had pieced together a broad outline of Herb’s childhood, and toys didn’t figure into many of his stories. Depending on the tale, Herb depicted his family as either destitute or austere by choice. Neither scenario welcomed a fat-bagged Santa.
“I clutched the bear to my chest and promised to love him forever. I named him Buggles within the first few seconds of meeting him, though, in retrospect naming him seems a bit–I don’t know–presumptuous, maybe. I was young. ” Herb continued to stare at the nickel. “My dad saw me with the bear and asked where I got it from. Needless to say it didn’t go well. He made me find the spot it had been left in the woods and return it. I pleaded with him and tried to evoke what I had assumed was a universal finders-keepers law, but he wasn’t having any of it.
“When I put that bear down, all I could imagine is how awful an existence the bear would have to endure–rain storms, coyotes, big-booted men. I cried. Buggles would suffer in the uncaring wilderness and would miss me as I would miss him. His rescue and promise of undying love was within reach, and then he was betrayed. Would he blame me? It wasn’t my fault. It was quite a traumatic experience.
“My dad tried to get me to think about the person who lost it–maybe they will come back for it; you don’t want them to be sad–but I was having none of it. Whoever would lose such a magnificent bear didn’t deserve to have him back. Well, then my dad said something that was supposed to end it all. You know what he said?” I made an I-don’t-know face. “He said, ‘You don’t know whose it is, but you know whose it ain’t.’ That was his rule of finding things, I guess. You couldn’t keep anything you found because you could be certain it wasn’t yours. To this day I don’t know if he really believed it, or if he just didn’t want that dirty bear in his house.”
Herb had tried to live by that rule that made him so angry and had repeated those words to himself on many occasions–finding change left in a vending machine, happening upon a pair of sunglasses at the stadium. He never took anything that he knew wasn’t his. But that day, broke and absent-minded, he had picked up a nickel from the parking lot outside the convenience store.
“Why don’t you just put it back?” I asked.
“I am unsure if it will matter. If I return it to its approximate place in the parking lot–and yes, I know no one is looking for it–I might feel as if I’ve done something ‘good’ by correcting my wrong. I don’t deserve a good feeling in this matter. I don’t know whose it is, but I know whose it ain’t. I might need to keep it so that the person who lost it can feel good about contributing to the poor. Ah, I’ve started something ugly.”
That nickel remained there on the table as long as I knew Herb.