Precious Metal Detector

by Merle Drown

Come Saturday, I don't expect a brown on brown, Rustoleum special van parked at the school yard. Beyond the playground fence, he walks in green work pants and a dark blue tee-shirt, metal detector in his hands, headphones clamped over his baby blue bucket hat. He edges between the see-saws, past the swings, and stops at the monkey bars.

I practically have to stick my fingers through his glasses to get his attention.  "Hi," he says.  "How are ya?"  He speaks like he could be retired or retarded.  Both?  He's got twenty years on me, but he deserves no respect.

"What are you doing?" I ask.

"Coin shooting," he says.  "This nice little Bounty Hunter Tracker lets me swing all day without aching my arms to death."  He holds up his metal detector and grins, like I might want to buy one for myself.  Fool.

"So stealing kids' lunch money makes you a bounty hunter?"

"Oh, I pick up some clad," he says, "but that ain't what I'm after."  He slips the headphones down to his neck to talk.  I want to choke him with them.

"What do you mean 'clad'?"

He holds out a hand full of dirty dimes and quarters.  "Clad coins, modern ones with no precious metal, but I'm searching for valuables.  I've found Indian heads, large cents, a silver bracelet, two class rings, a wedding band.  That's when the fun begins, looking 'em up in the old yearbooks, town records, so I can return 'em.  The old coins I donate to the museum."

"You find any treasure today?" I ask him.

"Mostly pull tabs," he says.  "They give off the same tone as gold.  You have to dig the pull tabs if you're going to find the gold. Listen, dig, and sift."  He pulls a plastic kitty litter scoop from his belt and moves it like a magic wand.

"You're quite the philosopher," I say. "And the kids' lost lunch money pays for your fun?"

He looks up as the corners of his thick lips turn down.  "Oh, no," he says. "every Monday I turn all the clad in to the school principal.  Then any child that needs it gets some.  Ain't much, a few dollars a week, but you'd be surprised how many need it."

"That's good of you." I offer my hand and give him my name.

"Lenny," he says.  "Johnson."  He waits as I walk back to my car, then he squeezes the headphones over his hat and resumes swinging.

At home I tell my wife about it because I never want her thinking I'm pure cynic.  I recognize goodness when I find it, so on Monday I call the school principal and praise Lenny Johnson, finder of lost lunch money.

"I never heard of Lenny Johnson," she says, "and no one ever turns in any money to us."

Pull tabs and gold.  I don't bother to call the museum.

BIO: Merle Drown is the author of stories, essays, plays, reviews, and two novels, Plowing Up A Snake (The Dial Press) and The Suburbs Of Heaven (Soho Press). Merle edited Meteor in the Madhouse, the posthumous novellas of Leon Forrest, (Northwestern University Press). Barnes and Noble chose The Suburbs of Heaven for its Discover Great New Writers series. Merle has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the NH Arts Council and teaches in Southern NH U's MFA program. Pieces from a collection-in-progress, Shrunken Heads, miniature portraits of the famous among us, or Balzac in a Nutshell have appeared in Amoskeag, Meetinghouse, Night Train, The Kenyon Review, Rumble, Sub-Lit, Word Riot, Bound Off, JMWW, Eclectica, Toasted Cheese, Foliate Oak, SN Review, and 971 Menu.