Beyond the Western
Burke Brentwood, Collector of Goods
Tom Sheehan

Beyond the Western

Burke Brentwood loved his name, loved saying it, loved hearing the echoes of his mother saying his name over and over, his lonely mother of post-war Twenties, practically nameless in her own way, without another soul in the whole universe attached to her with a shred of permanence. It was her who gathered old paper tied in ropes of necktie chunks or old shoe laces or found-string re-wound to be strong enough for the task, or gathered metal chunks and pieces (pipes and pots and pans and stove parts and found-rolls of copper) in burlap bags, to sell to neighborhood junk collectors for the measly cents dropped into her hungry hand to buy food for her Burke Brentwood, him with the kingly name, the name that kept her going until she passed so quickly through this life that her Burke Brentwood was the only one to remember her.

Every time he thought of her, he said her name, and every time he said her name, he thought of her, and he’d end up saying his name, rolling it around in his mouth before he let go of it.

And so it was that Burke Brentwood, in his own turn, became a junk collector in the pre-war, with his own little truck for trips around nearby towns, calling out his mission on street corners and crowded neighborhoods, and any place where hunger might prevail to drive savers and small collectors to their deeds for the same pennies his mother once collected.

Each morning of the week except on Sunday, he’d have coffee with a couple of cronies at the same booth in the same diner where Sally Perch scratched for her own living. One morning her first words were, “I found a wallet last night, stuck against the wall in this booth and all it had in it was a ten-dollar bill, and no ID, so it’s mine. But it made me think of you Burke, one day finding a chunk of gold or silver in some give-away bag that’ll make you thankful for waking up so early. I think I’ve had the same dream a couple of times, so maybe you got a hunk of surprise coming your way too, hopefully better than mine.”

The cronies started calling her Dreamer-Schemer or Dreamer-Seemer and a few other names almost at a whisper which made her laugh aloud, a joyous scratcher at life.

But Archie Young, a clerk in a sports store, added his own interpretation to the discussion; “I’ve had the same kind of dream, Burkie, about you finding something that’ll knock your socks off. I can’t ever remember what my dreams are, but they wake me up sometimes feeling good for the whole world, even though some idiots keep trying to wreck it all over the place.” .

Burkie didn’t knock the idea that something might come his way, but accepted the good wishes. “Thanks for the revelation, Archie, and if it comes back, try to find the size of it, or a shape, or what I might look for.”

And they all laughed and Sallie poured a new cup for each one at the table, saying, “It makes me feel good just to think about it, Burkie. It makes me glad I woke up early and made some extra coffee for the day.”

They all laughed at that too, knowing she was stretching herself for them, good old Sallie at the pennies again. They left the diner in a good mood, Burkie’s hands already itchy for finding. He slipped the gear-shift into first and glided off for his day.

The first waver at him was an older lady on her front porch, shaking a white handkerchief at him as if she was overboard from a boat. “I’m glad I caught you, mister,” she said. “I have all this stuff scraped up from the cellar and the attic and the garage, too, and wanted to make sure it’s on its way out of here today.”

She pointed to bundles and burlap bags in a smooth row on her porch, Burkie guessing about six or seven of them at first glance, and stacked as neat as heaven might be.

“I did it all myself, mister, while Harry’s away on one of his trips. He’s said for years he was going to do it, and by gosh, I’ve beaten him to the punch.” She smiled that rich, buoyant self-smile across her face, happy for this very moment, the junk collector here every other day, as usual, her plans almost at fruition, Harry to get his own socks knocked off on his return, just the way Burkie imagined it and could feel himself telling Archie and the boys and Sallie too, all about this first collection of the day.

Burkie couldn’t refuse a thing, not a single parcel or bag, and paid her in his penny-full way, glad to be of a service to a woman who had done it all by herself. It made him think of his mother, and he added a bit to the woman’s kitty. Then he heard Archie’s spiel echo in his head, and almost burst out with joy waiting to spread the tale of his first catch of the day. To a man, and Sallie to boot, they’d love it and have more to say about the husband Harry on a trip than about his wife on the porch.

He loaded all of it onto his truck, the neat piles of paper and magazines, and burlap bags he could see the woman buying at the hardware store from a surprised clerk who wondered what in the world she’d do with them. The last bag tossed up on the truck, a bag of rags so noted on a tag in also-neat writing, left an impression on one hand telling him something solid, and out of place, was in the bag.

He shrugged it off and worked his normal day, filling the truck to near capacity, bolstered by the woman’s first-of-the-day contributions, but not Harry’s. He had to remember that to tell the boys and Sallie. They’d love it, rolling around in the booth, Harry condemned to Hell and back, for his lack of spirit and his poor timing. Some guys never learn.

That evening, Burkie found the solid something, a little square box with a purple material coating on it, looking like it was a jewelry box. His heart skipped a beat and he thought about a woman somewhere who had lost the little box, but surely not the woman who sold the bag of rags to him. A box like this would be prominent on her living room shelf, looked at every day with pride, memories, whatever made her her.

Burkie put it on his shelf, not even opening it. He wanted to share the story with the boys and Sallie. It would make their day. He could hear some of the comments as if they were rebounds coming off some rink’s backboards.

They were the last things on his mind when he fell asleep for the night.

The following morning, he told Sallie and the boys the whole story, and how the unopened box sat on his shelf.

“A wedding ring, solid gold,” said Archie, “real solid gold worth a thousand bucks easy.” He was pleased to see the light in Burkie’s eyes, see his smile start in the middle of nowhere and come onto his face in a flash, like the way magic works.

Sallie chirped in with, “It’s not the woman’s, the lady who sold the stuff to you. She’s too neat with her stuff, but it sure could be some lady’s ring, and a thousand bucks is as good a guess as anything. When you open it up, bring it here so we can see it, so we can slam Harry for all we’re worth.” They laughed so loud the tempo in the diner took on a new phase, the day already alive and churning its wheels.

That evening, Burke Brentwood took the little purple box off the shelf and handled it, from hand to hand, as if weighing it, guessing at its contents, creating the small dream of all the junk collectors in the world of making the big hit.

He watched a movie, had his lonely supper, went back to guessing, found realizations going all ways, and finally decided to see its contents.

He was knocked sideways looking at a World Series ring from 1980, Phillies from Philadelphia, Pete Rose’s name on the side, matched by the year of the win, 1980, his number, 14, scribed too.

He had to tell Sallie and the boys about it, had little sleep, found value figures rushing through his mind, cash registers ringing, even the old one in the cellar below him, untouched for more than a year in the darkness.

The whole diner exploded. Figures jumped into the air, every range imaginable from $2000 t0 $150,000, the top coming off a mountain, bonanza, bonus, blessing, windfall, godsend, other comments lost in the din of joy for one of their brothers of the booth.

“Whoa!” Archie said, and added, “bring it to me at the store and I’ll check it out on the boss’s computer. There’s everything in there you can think about, including, if it’s happened, that someone swiped it from Pete. We all know he’s had his own problems. Plus, someone could have just made a copy and tried to palm it off as the real thing, the supposed original.”

He seemed to pause, and Sallie said, “Or swapped it for Pete’s and he doesn’t even know it yet.”

To which Archie added, “Or it was just meant to be sold, counterfeit or not, as the real thing. Maybe do-nothing Harry has more on the ball than we give him credit for, if he’s had it in secret, maybe right from 1980 or just after 1980. It’s been in his house, perhaps hid from her, as it appears, for who knows how long. Maybe the originators made a pair of rings. What do we know?”

“I’ll drop it off tomorrow, Archie. Do what you can. If it’s good luck, we’ll party. All of us.”

“Or go to jail,” Sallie added.

Two days later, Archie brought the box to the diner. “It’s exactly what it should be, 31.8 grams, 10 karat gold, 9 diamonds in the central ‘P’ for Phillies, size 10.5, his name on it where it’s supposed to be. It could be the real deal. It could be stolen. You ought to start with Pete. Don’t get pinched into getting pinched.” He held his hands palms up in the old situation custom, like saying, “What in the world have we got here?”

Pete Rose, still living in Cincinnati, said, in a phone call reply, “I still have my original, but I hate to see that one floating around to grab some poor soul into real misery. I’d rather have it in my hands. I’ll give you $4000 for it. It’s not mine, but it’s worth that to me to get if off the market, if I may say so. Is that a deal for you, Sir?”

That was the first time Burke Kentwood had been called ‘Sir’ since his mother named him.