“Here comes Rob with his paper bag again,” snickered Mary. “It looks really full this time. You have to ask him what’s in it.”
“No way,” said Tim, watching Rob shuffle down the sidewalk, mumbling to himself. “He could go nuts on me or something.”
“Oh stop,” laughed Mary, waving amiably at Rob.
The man looked to be in his late fifties, and if Tim hadn’t seen him as often as he did, he’d have assumed him homeless. He watched the world with wide, terrified eyes and always clutched a paper bag in one hand. The bags always seemed newly crinkled, and every day the shape within was different. Mary called it a mystery. Tim called it none of their business.
“Hi Rob, nice day, isn’t it?” greeted Mary.
She’d been the one to bother learning his name. If it had been up to Tim, Rob would have remained part of the scenery of city living. Another faceless shade passing by like traffic lights on their walls at night.
“It is warm,” agreed the man as he drew near, peering sideways down the narrow walk between their house and the neighbor’s as if someone would come leaping out at any second.
Mary nudged Tim with the toe of her sandal.
“So, uh, what’s in the bag today, Rob?” Tim asked casually.
Rob’s eyes went wide and he clutched the bag to his chest.
“Forget about it,” said Tim, internally promising to have words with his overly curious wife that evening. “It’s not import…”
His words got lost when Rob threw the bag at his feet and ran. Tim turned a dark look on Mary, whose mouth hung open.
“Your fault,” he growled, reaching down for the bag and wondering how he’d figure out where Rob lived so he could return it to him.
He stopped, though, when the bag fell open enough for him to spot red metal inside. He reached in and pulled out an old toy tractor, staring at it in disbelief. It even had the logo he’d tried to paint on it with his small, unsteady hand.
“A toy?” Mary laughed, reaching for it.
Tim pulled it away.
“Not just any toy,” he said. “I don’t understand. This went missing when I was a kid. I was devastated. This isn’t even possible.”
Tim waved off Mary’s questions. How could he explain the weeks of heartbreak after he’d realized that his tractor was well and truly gone? The tears he’d tried to hide in his pillow at night. The countless times he’d checked again the exact spot where he’d left it. How he’d known more surely than anything that he hadn’t just misplaced it like everyone said.
He placed it reverently on a high shelf in the garage and spent a portion of the evening staring at it.
When Tim saw Rob walking clear across the city the next day with a new paper bag in hand, he quickly found a parking spot and called to reschedule his meeting. Rob looked like he was considering running again when he spotted Tim but with slumped shoulders shuffled forward to meet him instead.
“So what was it?” Rob mumbled to Tim’s shoes. “Long lost watch? Favorite book? I didn’t steal it.”
“You couldn’t have,” said Tim. “How on earth did you find that tractor, and how would you know it had belonged to me?”
“Tractor, huh?” said Rob, shuffling his feet and continuing to refuse to meet Tim’s gaze. “So you know I didn’t take it. I don’t steal.”
“But how did you find it?” repeated Tim.
That tractor had been the deepest, most frustrating mystery of his childhood. He’d moved on, of course, but in a funny way there had always been a hole left in him, like a loss of innocence, that he felt keenly when his thoughts drifted back to that time.
Rob shrugged. “Hard to explain,” he said.
“And what do you have in the sack today?” asked Tim.
Rob took a wary step away. “Listen,” he said, “you seem like a nice man, not violent like others, but eventually you all find something you don’t like and then it’s hit Rob time. Hit him again and again until he cries.”
Tim took a step back, aghast. “I wouldn’t hurt you, Rob,” he said. “I just… you don’t understand what that stupid little tractor meant to me once.”
Rob was already nodding his head, in a way that he often did when walking. It was part of the reason Tim had left him alone for so many years before Mary started engaging the man in conversation.
“But I do, but I do, but I do,” he was chanting.
“Okay, listen, sorry to bother you,” said Tim, retreating to his air conditioned car, and a pretty busy schedule.
Weeks passed by without a Rob sighting, and Tim was glad for it. Each night he gazed at that tractor, just wondering. When he did see Rob again, shuffling through their neighborhood with his paper bag, he resolved to let the man pass in peace. Mary had different plans.
“Hi Rob!” she called, waving.
Rob looked for a second like an animal caught in a trap. He paused, looking back and forth, and finally shuffled over to greet Mary and Tim.
“What’s in the sack today?” asked Mary, raising an amused brow at Tim.
Rob sighed and handed it to her, watching his feet as she opened it. Mary frowned, and looked at Rob suspiciously.
“I’ve been looking everywhere for this,” she scolded, pulling out the pink gardening glove she’d been complaining about for weeks. “I don’t appreciate…”
Tim interrupted her by putting his arm around Rob’s shoulder and saying, “I’ll talk to him, honey.” He waited until they rounded the corner before telling Rob, “we would have been there for an hour and I’ve heard enough about that glove.”
Rob smiled gratefully. “I didn’t steal it,” he said quickly.
“Tell you what,” said Tim, “if you tell me what’s going on with the paper bags, I’ll go back there and convince Mary of that.”
Rob thought it over for a while and then shrugged.
“I stole something once. Just once. I don’t do it anymore,” he added quickly, his eyes going wide and wild.
“Okay,” Tim said, waiting for the rest.
“I wasn’t even hungry,” Rob said, looking down.
That was when Tim noticed that Rob had a new paper bag in his hand.
“Doesn’t matter how many times I try to get rid of it,” Rob said, peeking inside and crumpling it closed again. “It just shows up again. Always that same pastrami sandwich. I wasn’t even hungry.”
“How did… where were you storing that one?” Tim asked, studying Rob for signs of bulging pockets.
Rob shrugged. “They just appear,” he said, “ever since I took that sandwich. I see a sandwich.” He shoved the sack into Tim’s hands. “What is it when you open it?”
Tim pulled out several pieces of paper. “This is the term paper that I lost on my way to campus my sophomore year,” he said. “My professor wouldn’t accept it late and my grade point average dropped because of that stupid class. I had to retake it in summer school, the summer when my best friends fell in with this eccentric rich kid who flew them all over the world. Worst summer of my life.”
Rob shrugged again. “Next one will be worse,” he said. “They never get better.”
“So, you’re saying this all started after you stole someone’s sandwich?” Tim asked.
Rob nodded and shuffled his feet. “Wasn’t even hungry,” he mumbled.
Tim nearly laughed at the ludicrous fairy tale tragedy quality to Rob’s story. Well, the reappearance of his long lost toy tractor had him in a fairy tale believing mood.
“If this were some kind of morality tale,” he said, “then you’re supposed to learn a lesson from your punishment. Maybe the person whose sandwich you stole was hungry. Have you tried giving the sack to someone hungry?”
Rob blinked at Tim as if he’d just seen him for the first time and turned his gaze down to the fresh new sack in his hand.
“No,” he said, shuffling off without another word.
Tim didn’t see Rob for a few more weeks after that, and when he did, it was Mary who recognized him.
“That looks like our Rob,” she said, squinting from the shade of the porch at a man walking down the sidewalk. “He doesn’t have a paper bag, though. If it is him, I’m going to give him a piece of my mind for helping you play that gag on me with the gardening glove. Not funny.”
Tim gave her his best guilty smile and sheltered his eyes to get a better look. Sure enough, it was Rob, though something was different. It wasn’t just the absence of the paper bag. When Rob drew up to their porch, he gave Tim a warm smile. Not frightened like before, but open and paternal. He stepped onto the porch without breaking stride and threw his arms around Tim.
“Thank you,” he said. “Thank you.”