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The Things We Treasure
Clarence clasped a shiny object between two dirty fingers. It was the most precious thing that he possessed. It seemed out of place in the grimy city that clanged and banged and vibrated night and day without ceasing. Everything was loud; everything was dirty.
Brick buildings, all exactly the same, rose up like the Berlin Wall in Germany. One side—the side in which he was captive—represented slavery. It embodied oppression and everything that was wrong in this world. The other side, if one could reach it, was freedom.
Clarence pulled his sandy flat cap low as was his habit and drew his pocket watch out of his pocket, flipping it open with the fluid motion of one who has done so so many times that he does not even think about the action anymore.
He wasn’t looking at the time. He already knew the time. It was the faded black and white photograph on the upper side of the watch in which he was interested.
It was signed in looping handwriting, “Annabelle.” He had had her sign it so that he could convince the guys at the factory that she really was his. “Ay! What a lucky fellah!” they had all shouted while pounding him on the back in congratulation when he had first shown them. “How in ages did yah manage that one?” He smiled to himself wryly. How indeed.
He closed the pocket watch and slid it back into his brown overalls, still clutching in his other hand the small object. It was a ring.
It wasn’t particularly striking, but it was important. It, too, represented freedom. Sometime soon, maybe tonight even, he would propose to Annabelle with it, and she would say yes, and together they would leave this city forever. They would start a farm and have horses and grow something or the other. Maybe wheat, or corn, or potatoes even. He didn’t really care what exactly. All that mattered was that he could make an honest living and leave the engines and the machines and noise far behind.
Clarence crossed to the other side of the street as he passed the factory that formerly had been his place of employment. He eyed it uneasily, almost as if he were afraid that at any moment arms would fly out and drag him back into it if he stepped too close.
Black smoke billowed from the rusted chimneys and floated lazily above the city, pondering whether it would rise and disappear into the sky or fall back down to the city in a choking curtain of synthetic fog.
Clarence had worked night and day for more than two years at that prison. He’d hated it. Every morning at first light he had rolled out of bed, dragged himself to work, and not returned until night was fast closing in. He’d paid his dues; he’s served his time.
The only thing that had kept him going was the measly pay that he received at the end of each week.
He saved as much of it as he could manage in a glass jar. The fitting title, “wedding ring,” had been scrawled on the side.
Clarence hid it safely away so that when the time came, Annabelle would be surprised. He wanted so badly, just once, to give her something nice.
The jar had filled up ever so slowly, but he kept stuffing all that he could into it. Someday, he had known, it would contain the amount that he needed.
That day had been yesterday.
The moment he discovered he had saved enough, Clarence had stormed into his boss’s office and announced very adamantly that this factory was going to have to find someone else to oppress.
“Don’t burn your bridges,” his late mother had always told him, but he didn’t care. Just this once, it didn’t matter. He could set fire to all of his bridges if he wanted to. He could set fire to the entire city! Soon he would leave everything behind.
Large drops of rain began to fall from the sky. Clarence flipped open his pocket watch and glanced at the picture. He quickly shut it and hid it in his pocket again lest the rain damage the photograph.
He shut his eyes, and for a moment he was no longer in that dirty city with its indistinguishable brick buildings and mud-spattered streets. He was in an open field- his open field- giving thanks for the rainfall that watered his crops.
He held his arms up to the sky and whooped joyfully. Rain water ran down his face and into his eyes, and with his free hand he pushed his wet hair out of his eyes.
People passing gave him odd looks, quickening their pace as they walked by. They probably thought that he was insane. He didn’t care. All that mattered was the tiny object in his hand. Soon he would be free.
Then the unthinkable happened.
The ring slipped out of his grasp and bounce twice down his raised arm. It landed on the cuff of his shirt and bounded off, spinning slowly as it dropped towards the ground. His desperate grab at it only managed to knock it further away from him. It landed with a ting of metal colliding with concrete. One foot, then two feet- Clarence watched helplessly as it slowly rolled towards an open sewer grate in the street.
It slowed and fell over with a rattle similar to the way a coin clatters after you spin it and it is dying out.
It lay precariously on the edge of the abyss. Clarence breathed a sigh of relief. Then, the ring shook and almost as if it had consciously decided to jump, it tipped and fell down the grate. A damp plop told Clarence of its fate.
And so on the happiest day of his life, he was wet and penniless and jobless and he had no ring. But it still was the greatest day of his life, because ring or no ring, he proposed, offering a tiny string which he tied around Annabelle’s finger to take the place of the shiny ring he’d worked so long to lose.
Of course, she said yes, and the next week, Clarence packed everything that he owned, moved out of the city, and started a farm which was not particularly successful.
That is, it was not particularly successful if you count success in the form of dollars or possessions. But thankfully, Clarence didn’t. “Money can be burned,” he would say with a laugh, “and possessions have a bad habit of getting lost in drains.” He was happy and Annabelle was happy, and when everything is said and done, that was all that mattered really.