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by Robert Boucheron

Every red-blooded boy kept a cigar box under the bed, where nobody ever would think to look. That was my belief, though I knew of no one else who did. Maybe I read a reminiscence of days gone by, before electric lights and automobiles. Girls kept a diary, a book with a miniature lock and key, where they wrote down feelings. Boys roamed wild in a state of nature, collected things, and hid them in a cigar box.

It was fragrant, like cigarettes but stronger. A straight pin pierced the edge of the lid, which was illustrated in garish color. Outside, tobacco flowers wreathed a vignette of Old Havana. Inside, a pair of lovers lurked in costume: Juliet gazed from a balcony with roses, while Romeo stood below and clutched his heart. Messages in Spanish were printed here and there. The lid had a torn paper seal like a postage stamp from a foreign country.

Where did the cigar box come from? Maybe my uncle who smoked cigars slipped it to me on the sly. Or the man with tangled hair and beard who lived under the overpass sold it for all the pocket change I had plus a candy bar. Later he tried to sell me other things, but by then I was pickier.

Wonderful in itself, the cigar box held my stash. This came to include a beer bottle cap in mint condition, some cat’s eye marbles, a lump of white quartz, a triangular snip of copper, a black rubber gasket ring, and a great horned beetle I found dead. The joker from a deck of cards lay on the bottom face down. Oh, and I had a jackknife with a pearl handle and two rusty blades, the stub of a red pencil, and a tiny bear with arms and legs that moved and a head that swiveled. The bear was a gift from my grandmother when I was little. He had a tiny woolen scarf I wove on a toy loom.

I forgot about the cigar box for long stretches. A new acquisition made me lie on the floor on my stomach, reach into the darkness, and find the box with my fingertips. Then I opened the lid and took inventory, as if I had opened King Tut’s tomb, crammed with things made of solid gold. Except for the beetle, which developed a nasty smell, nothing could be traded or discarded. The collection was permanent.

On a day of rain and falling leaves, I pawed through the cigar box. The sacred objects had lost their luster. That was ages ago in a home that is no more, and where it all went is anybody’s guess.

Robert Boucheron grew up in Syracuse and Schenectady, New York. From 1978 to 2016, he worked as an architect in New York City and Charlottesville, Virginia. His short stories and essays appear in Fiction International, London Journal of Fiction, New Haven Review, Poydras Review, The Short Story, and other magazines.