Extract

My job as a mail recovery worker involved restoring more ordinary things. Lesser goods. The sort of things that fell into the cracks of people’s couches or cropped up at neigh­borhood flea markets. Boy scout badges, vacation photos, magic markers, teeth molds. A medical x-ray. A book of Sufi poetry. A Leonard Cohen audio cassette. Nothing was too small to matter to someone, somewhere.

Every day, inquiring letters arrived at my desk. Some had photos of the lost object enclosed; some attached a hastily sketched fac­simile. Many letters con­tained excep­tionally detailed nar­ratives, pro­ceeding on the assumption that an item was likely to be handled more carefully and/or returned more promptly if it was given a personal identity.

Moo-moo” has been part of the family for gen­er­ations. Over the years, he has traveled to Birm­ingham, Berlin, Montreal and the Hamptons. I sin­cerely hope he can be found and for­warded to my grandson at the enclosed address.

Others were written in hand­writing dis­torted by grief.

All we have left of our son Stewart is a toothbrush, a digital wristwatch and a few other personal effects, which the Hospital gave us in a clear plastic bag when we went to sign the death forms. We were sending a few of these keepsakes on to his brother in Yellowknife…

A few people chose to write their letters from the object’s vantage point.

I am a silver heart-shaped locket. If you open my belly you will see a tiny picture of a man with wavy blond hair and a tan. That man sent me to the woman who he plans to marry but I must have got lost on the way. I am anxious to be united with her…

Once in awhile there was a cranky, blaming letter about bureau­cratic incom­petence. (These tended to be in uppercase and full of demon­strative punctuation.)

I am unfailingly amazed at your gross inep­titude. twice this year, i have sent a package that has not arrived at its intended des­ti­nation. are your postmen pil­fering from their cus­tomers?! this is a publicly-funded insti­tution: are you sleeping on the job!?!!?!

I tried not to let the com­plaints get to me.

I liked the act of sal­vaging, and the feeling of goodness and purpose it gave me. Then again, maybe I was just nosy, a little too fas­cinated by other people’s property. In Andrei’s absence, I felt increasingly indebted to my work. I found myself sorting cutlery with the exacting patience of a 1950s housewife. I folded clothing with a newfound ten­derness, in the way an expecting mother folds the layette of a much-awaited infant.

I plunged my arm zealously into the bucket and brought up one item after another. A canvas museum tote bag sug­gested an older woman; Hong Kong movie mag­azines sug­gested a teenage boy; a silver tie pin sug­gested a busi­nessman; a pink FREE TIBET t-shirt sug­gested a young, activist, possibly style-conscious female. Each item, no matter what it was, com­forted me. I could lose myself in the lives piled up on my table.

I lost track of whole days, in fact, until an entire week had dis­ap­peared. The rep­e­tition of matching things up, sorting them into boxes, the small pur­ga­tories that lined my shelves, allowed my mind to soften and blur.

I knew from practice the perils of too little con­cen­tration: over­looked clues, incor­rectly attributed belongings. But I’d also learned it was a mistake to con­centrate too much — part of the mind always had to remain open.