Benjamin Johnson had a thing for spoons. Not just any old spoon, like the kind you keep in your house by the dozen, but the collectable kind, with fancy lettering and interesting shapes. He especially liked the kind with holes in the bowl that couldn’t be used as a spoon should. His Romanian girlfriend Lenuta suspected that he had a fascination for objects that were of utilitarian design but had been appropriated for artistic purposes. She suspected this was why he loved her, with her peasant shape, as opposed to thin, aristocratic American women.
Benjamin worked in the coffee shop beside the railway bridge while she worked as a seamstress two blocks over. They lived in an upstairs apartment across from the coffee shop. Many nights, Benjamin would work late. Lenuta sat on the window sill, smoking hand-rolled cigarettes and listening to East European albums on a phonograph she inherited from her aunt. When business was slow, he went to the window and watched her. She would lean out into the light of the street lamps. Passersby would glance up at her and frown, for the music as much as her smoking. In those moments, she wanted him to run out into the street and yell at them, to tell them not to disapprove of his girlfriend. She wondered how she would react if he ever did.
They had been together for two years, and over that period of time, their lives had fallen into an unbreakable rhythm. He would come home from work, smelling of exotic beans and whipped cream, and they would make love. She left the phonograph playing when they did. “Do you do that because you don’t want the neighbors to hear us?” He asked her once. “No,” she said, and smiled mysteriously.
In the mornings, they made breakfast together, surrounded by display shelves of spoons. At last count, Benjamin had accumulated 563 individual spoons and sixty complete collections. Lenuta knew that he didn’t like the complete collections as much as the truly unique and bizarre individual spoons. He lost interest in the sets when he completed them.
On Saturday they drove around the state in their bondo-colored station wagon. They bought newspapers in every town and village, and sought out every antique store, every garage sale, and every auction. Benjamin hunched over the newspaper. It stretched across the massive steering wheel, and he read in quick bursts between glances at the road. Lenuta painted her toenails and practiced her Romanian. “I don’t want to forget my words,” she explained to anyone who cared to ask
On Sundays, Benjamin polished his newfound collections and touched up anything that showed signs of tarnish. She listened to the radio, read fashion magazines, and made clippings of clothing she thought she might like to try to copy some day.
When Lenuta and Benjamin had first met, and after he had revealed his collection, Lenuta had asked if he wanted to be spanked with a spoon. “My interest isn’t sexual,” he stated firmly. Lenuta laughed and shook her head. She couldn’t imagine having that level of devotion for anything that couldn’t devote itself back to her. Their relationship nearly hadn’t happened, but Benjamin had pursued her like he did his spoons, demanding dates. He always brought flowers. She refused him every time until he asked her in proper Romanian. He had to be dedicated, she reasoned, to teach himself a language, even a small part.
One Friday evening, after he returned from a long shift making cappuccinos for the tourists in town to celebrate the Fall Festival, Lenuta decided she had had enough of scouring the countryside for utensils. “Just this once, let’s stay in and play cards. We’ll make spicy drinks and finger-paint in the nude.”
Benjamin turned pale at the suggestion and refused to speak to her. He locked himself in the bathroom and moaned unintelligibly for several hours. Lenuta waited for him at first, but finally fell asleep. When she woke up, Benjamin was gone. She didn’t think much about his absence, just then.
After a cold shower, she hurried down to the street and unchained her bicycle. She hadn’t ridden it much since she had met Benjamin, and it seemed like a day to ride. She took off at a run, hopped on, and down the street she sailed, leaves in the gutter crunching under her tires. When she was a little girl living in Sibiu, her greatest delight had been riding a bicycle through large, cold puddles of rain water, or through dry piles of leaves. Now, she rode in search of puddles.
On the other side of the rails, she found an empty field of gravel, spotted with murky pools left by a storm from three nights before. The wind whipped through her hair as she peddled furiously. She hit the puddles one after another sending up huge waves of muddy water. By the time she had emptied them, her hair and clothing were soaked with rainwater. She stopped to wring out the mud and noticed a man standing in the weeds next to the tracks.
He wore a wide-brimmed cowboy hat and a loose gray suit. Either he had shrunk in size or the suit had grown since he had purchased it. It hung loosely, and could use a good alteration by skilled hands, she mused. The sleeves obscured his hands, and what skin showed was pale, leathery almost, and pulled tightly against the bones of his face. His eyes, she could not see under the brim of the hat. He held his arms loose at his sides, and she stared at the sleeves, wondering if they hid a weapon. When he noticed her watching, he slipped off into the weeds. A train blew its horn and passed, bringing a fierce breeze. Lenuta walked her bike closer to the tracks and closed her eyes. The train shook the earth beneath her. She felt as if the old man was watching her. She didn’t let it bother her. It was not often that someone paid her square shape any attention.
Benjamin sat at the kitchen table and stared at three new spoons. One was red, the second yellow, and the third blue. “Romania,” was all he said. Lenuta took another shower, and when she was finished, he had already mounted the spoons in his Countries of the World collection. His color had returned, and he spoke with her finally.
“I understand that my spoon hunts are boring. From now on, you can stay home and I’ll go out on my own,” he said. She felt hurt, but didn’t know why. She didn’t argue.
On Sunday, he ignored the bulk of his collection and spent hours carefully polishing his new additions. He smiled when he held them up in the sunlight to check his work. Lenuta made her clippings, and tried not to think about the spoons. That had been her whole point; to not have to think about them, just once.
Benjamin didn’t come home from work the following Wednesday. When she walked down the block after her shift, their station wagon was gone. She waited for several hours and fell asleep with her records playing and the window wide open. Benjamin came in after midnight and shuffled around the apartment, tidying things, and closing the window.
“Where were you?” she asked sleepily.
“Estate sale,” he said, and slipped under the covers beside her, then rolled away and went to sleep.
He didn’t come home Thursday night until after midnight.
“Auction,” he said, and turned off the light.
The next Saturday, Lenuta ran noisily down the stairs to her bike. She was surprised to see the old man with the gray suit standing outside the coffee shop. He held a ceramic mug of steaming liquid under his nose and inhaled deeply, sleeves pushed up towards the elbows and dangling like loose skin. The difference in size between him and his clothing had grown even more, she thought, and wondered if he would even be visible through the polyester the next time she encountered him. She rode around the block four times, dodging the occasional car, eying him suspiciously. Even after four passes, she never saw him take a drink from his mug, but he paid her no attention. She shrugged and rode away.
Lenuta pedaled back to the gravel field in search of puddles. The sky was gravel-colored, and she imagined being trapped in a gray bubble. Unfortunately, the puddles had dried up. She rode towards the park, but city sweepers had taken care of most of the leaves. The trees had shed their pelts and had become sharp, multi-pronged pitchforks jabbing at the clouds overhead. Lenuta hoped that a cloud would brush against the trees and tear open, spilling down enough rain to fill the shallow spots. After several hours, she became too cold to wait any longer and pedaled back.
The door on the street stood open. She hurried up the stairs, but Benjamin was not home, and the door to the apartment was open also. She felt certain she had closed it. In the two years she had lived with Benjamin, she had never forgotten to close it.
She searched the house. No major appliances had gone missing. They didn’t own a TV, and her jewelry was worthless — a child’s baubles. The only things missing were Benjamin’s newest spoons.
Lenuta stood in the doorway to block his entrance, determined that she somehow ward off the coming catastrophe. “Someone stole my spoons,” he said in an even tone.
She nodded and stepped aside. “Just three.”
He put down a brown paper bag of groceries, and then took from his coat pocket a tarnished soup ladle with impractical curlicues sprouting like flower buds from the handle. He stared at it for a moment, and then hung it from an empty hook above the microwave. “You left the doors unlocked?”
“We always leave the doors unlocked,” she said. Crime was rare in their community. And Benjamin had never made her a key.
He walked to the window, and faltered halfway there. He had become ghostly again, and his hands were shaking. Lenuta reached out to touch him. His skin felt cold and damp, like a puddle of autumn rainwater.
“I’ll find them,” she said.
Benjamin didn’t go to work the next day, or the day after. He sat in his green-upholstered chair and stared unblinking at the space where his spoons had been. He refused to eat, and Lenuta never saw him use the bathroom. He grew paler every day, until she began to catch glimpses of things behind him. On the second day, one of his coworkers shouted up at their window, asking about him. Lenuta told him that Benjamin had the flu. That night, in the dark, she could no longer see him. The only way she could tell where he sat was by his ragged breathing.
The man in the suit had to have taken the spoons. It couldn’t be a coincidence that she had seen him the day they vanished. She asked people in the shop if they knew him.
“That’s Pierre,” Charles said. He was the owner of the shop, and Benjamin’s boss. “He’s a bit eccentric. He’s from France.” Charles winked, as if he explained all there was to know about the man.
“Do you know where I can find him?” she asked.
Charles explained that Pierre lived on a pension check mostly and worked as a security guard for the railroad property on the west of the tracks. He lived in a utility shed next to the old smokestack. The railroad had never torn it down, even though the glove factory was long gone.
Lenuta walked across the foot bridge and down the dusty, empty road towards the monolithic smokestack. She did not feel like riding her bicycle anymore. The railroad had painted its name on the concrete in big yellow letters, top to bottom. A fence lined with barbed wire encircled the area — she had read in the paper that a local teen had fallen to his death from the top of the tower. Ever since, it had been the subject of numerous dares and challenges among the community’s youth, and that didn’t surprise Lenuta. She herself had once climbed to the top of an abandoned Soviet construction project because a neighborhood boy believed she would not. If not for the stack, the area wouldn’t have needed a security guard. She guessed that Pierre did more to scare people away with his appearance than for any other reason, but she also wondered if he had been on the job when the teen had climbed to the top, or if he had gotten it because of the incident.
After shuffling along the fence for a dozen yards, she discovered a man-sized hole. Rotting railroad ties littered the ground, and the remains of tracks peeped from the soil, as if the earth had decided to reclaim the metal.
Refuse and leaves drifted on the cold wind. White smoke puffed from a chimney in the rear, and stacks of wood were piled under a blue tarp on the north side. A snowflake landed on the tip of her nose and melted into a drop of water. She wiped it away with the sleeve of her sweater, and knocked on the door.
She heard rustling within, and a dark shadow appeared behind the opaque green fiberglass door. It swung open just a crack, and a bright blue eye stared out. He spoke with a raspy voice, with hints of whispers and birdsong around the edges.
“You’ve come,” he said. The door opened wide. He wore the same gray suit from before, but he did not have his cowboy hat. His head was completely bald and covered in red and blue splotches.
Behind him, Lenuta could see all manner of objects decorating the shack. Teak cuckoo clocks, cheap hippy tapestries, picture frames with faded black and white photos, the antlers of a seven point buck, and indecipherable knickknacks hung from the wall. Furniture of wood, cloth, and wicker had been squeezed into the little shack, leaving only six inch wide paths between them. She imagined him squeezing between them on his thin bird-legs, touching the objects with an obscene fondness.
“Give me the spoons,” she demanded. She felt like crying.
“Come, sit down.”
She obeyed and collapsed on blue sofa with white trim. He perched on top of a leather footstool, bony knees in his chest.
“Are you sure?” He asked.
“They don’t belong to you,” she spat back. “Benjamin needs them. He fades away without them.”
He frowned. “He must have them?” He withdrew the spoons from his jacket pocket and held them out to her. “Take then….” He trailed off.
“Why did you steal them?”
“I steal that which is, how do you say…surrogate?” he said with a sad smile.
“He loves me,” she said, her voice firm and unwavering.
Pierre shrugged, and looked around. Instead of pleasure, she saw sadness in his eyes. “He did. No, he does, without,” the old man whispered. A clock chimed from somewhere in the depths of junk.
“Take the spoons,” he urged her. When he opened his mouth, she saw he had only four teeth. The rest of his mouth was purple tongue and pink gums. “I didn’t know about…the other thing.” He winced.
“If I don’t?”
He muttered something in French that she didn’t understand and closed his eyes. She leaned forward to hear his muttering better, and he snapped out with his right hand and grabbed her wrist. With his left, he forced them into her hand. She examined his eyes, wanting to see a madness that wasn’t there.
“The spoons, or you. I tried to stop, but this time, no good.” He sighed. “My help is never asked for, and always needed.” He waved his hands at the contents of the shop. “Always something to fill the void, but I take.”
She tried to back away, but there was nowhere to go. She wanted to drop the spoons, but the cold metal stuck to her skin, bit into it as if they had teeth. Pierre laughed at her, and then her anger took over. She hadn’t hit anyone since she was a small child. His eyes grew wide before she hit him on the temple. He fell over and groaned. “Vous fille folle!”
She ran through the snow with a fistful of spoons pulled against her chest. She paid no attention to the cold metal burning through her sweater, into her skin.
She got as far as the gravel lot before she allowed herself to cry.
“I couldn’t find them,” she told the space where Benjamin sat while shaking the snow from her coat. She could just barely see him now, even in daylight. He looked at her with no expression. She turned away, to where the spoons had hung before and imagined them, buried under stone shards and snow. She imagined them digging their way out like tiny shovels.
“Do you still love me?” she asked.
“Will you always?”
“Yes,” he said in a dead voice.