Needle In the Haystack
When he got her call, Jim headed straight over to her house. She didn’t answer the door, so he made his way around to the gate and let himself into the back yard. She was there, piling the contents of several storage boxes into the stone fire pit that dominated her patio area.
“Ella? What’s going on?”
“You’re just in time,” she answered. “Come help me stack the rest of this stuff in here.”
Jim approached and peered into one of the boxes.
“So, uh, what’s the thinking, here?” he asked. He lifted a red, white, and blue sailor hat out of the box nearest him. “What is all this?”
“My life,” said Ella. “This is everything from the closet in my bedroom.” She heaped an armful of sweaters on top of a fuzzy, heart-shaped pillow that said, “Sweet!” in red velvet letters.
“You need to tell me the longer version of the story,” Jim said.
“My whole life is a collection of random things I’ve collected over the years. Fuzzy pillows, sailor hats, English lit notes, red espadrilles, and t-shirts advertising local bands that broke up three years ago. None of it makes any sense!” She gave the box beside her a kick. “I can’t find me in all of this. Look at this junk! When you look at this, who do you see? Nobody, that’s who. You couldn’t find anyone in a hodgepodge like this.”
Ella emptied the last few things from her box onto the pile and reached for the box beside Jim. Several blouses, a pair of boots, a stack of fashion magazines, and a plush toy camel joined the heap. She flung the now-empty box over onto the pile of other empties and reached for a can of lighter fluid.
“Now, wait a minute,” said Jim. He reached for the lighter fluid but Ella swung it out of his reach. “Ella, what are you doing? You can’t burn all this! Half of this stuff is your clothes. What good will that do you?”
“I’m trying to find myself in the midst of the pile of junk my life has become,” she said. “It feels like looking for a needle in a haystack.”
“So, you’re going to set fire to everything?”
“If you want to find a needle in a haystack, the most efficient way is to burn the haystack,” said Ella. “All that will be left is the needle.”
That stopped the conversation cold. Jim had to admit that she had a real point. Still, it seemed like a drastic step.
“Couldn’t you just do a really aggressive Spring cleaning?” he asked. “Burning all this seems like a waste.”
“It’s not the same. It’s not just the stuff, Jim. It’s everything this stuff represents. I kept all of this for a reason. You know I clean out my closets every year. If it’s still in there, it’s because I thought it was something I ought to keep,” Ella explained. “The trouble is, when I consider my reasons and see all of these things, it makes less and less sense to me. I need to cut through the crap and then, perhaps I’ll be able to find just who I am.” She gave him a wry grin. “I know it sounds crazy, but I need this. It’s symbolic. It’s tangible. It’s closure.”
With that, she shook lighter fluid liberally over the pile. Then, she picked up a box of wooden matches, struck one, and tossed it on top. The fluid went up in flames with the sound of a giant, indrawn breath. FWOOF!
Ella stepped back and stood beside Jim, watching as the flames ate through the collection. Her face was a mask of calm indifference, even as the fire destroyed her favorite wool scarf and melted a little plastic turtle with a sign on its shell that read, “Keep on truckin’!” Jim had to wonder what the neighbors would think of all the smoke. Following his gaze, Ella seemed to read his mind.
“I warned all the neighbors that I had some things I wanted to burn in my fire pit this afternoon. I promised I’d keep the extinguisher handy.” She pointed to it standing nearby.
It took a long time for the flames to burn through everything. Once, Ella even tossed on a wadded up ball of newspaper which she soaked with more of the lighter fluid.
“Needs a little oomph,” she explained and shrugged.
Nearly two hours had passed before the last embers went out. The smoke had dissipated and only a few charred remains could be seen in the bottom of the stone pit. Ella picked up an old stick and stirred the ashes around, peering at them intently. The fading sunlight caught something and it flashed brightly. Carefully, she prodded it free from the mess and over to the side of the pit. Then, using a handkerchief, she lifted it out and examined it.
“Holy crap,” Ella breathed. “I didn’t know this was in here. I thought I’d lost it years ago.”
“What is it?” Jim asked. He squinted at it and Ella handed it to him, cloth and all. He rubbed it clean with a corner of the handkerchief and looked it over carefully.
It was a small medal, the ribbon from which is should have hung was burned away. There was a raised design that looked like a shooting star on one side and on the other, engraved letters read, “Most Likely to Succeed.”
They looked at the medal quietly for a few minutes. Jim opened his mouth to say something about the Universe being pretty set on giving her a message when Ella interrupted by bursting into laughter.
“I don’t think I get the joke,” said Jim, frowning. “The only thing that survived your conflagration was your medal. That seems rather moving to me.”
Ella laughed harder, wheezing and wiping her eyes.
“I’m sorry,” she said, patting Jim on the shoulder. “I must sound like a madwoman. But, that medal wasn’t mine.” Her voice dissolved into giggles again and a minute or two passed before she was able to continue. “That medal belonged to my college boyfriend, Pete. He wore it on the inside of his leather jacket everywhere he went. Whenever he had had too much to drink, he’d start flashing that thing around and insisting that he was the ultimate authority on whatever anyone was talking about. He was such an ass.”
“How did you get it, then?” asked Jim.
“I borrowed his jacket one night after a concert. I guess the medal fell off in my closet when I hung it up. I gave the jacket back the next time I saw him and he was furious with me for losing it. He said I was an irresponsible fuck-up who would never amount to anything.” Ella frowned. “That was it for us, of course. When I moved out of that apartment, my mom helped me pack and, as I recall, she packed everything in my closet. When I got to this place, I just shoved everything into the new closet. Didn’t even think about it. The medal must have been in that last box I never unpacked until now.”
“Okay, then,” said Jim. “In that case, I have no idea what the Universe it trying to tell you.”
“No, it’s okay,” she said. “Your original message still works. Pete might have been the original owner of the medal, but he never finished college. He flunked out, moved back with his parents, and got a job at the grocery store. Though, the last I heard, he had been promoted to manager.” Ella shrugged. “That’s not too bad. Still, I did finish school, graduated with honors, and got a job I love.” She bumped Jim’s shoulder with her own. “And friends I love, too. That sounds pretty successful to me.”
“So, you did find the needle in your haystack,” observed Jim.
“Yes, I believe I did.”