FICTION- The winning short story: 'Pockets'

John stands apart from the others. His sweatshirt hood up and over his forehead, zipper firmly closed, he shifts his weight from one foot to another, his thin frame turned inward. His eyes stay focused on a spot on the ground before him, until a man in a windbreaker makes his way to the front of the crowd.

The man smiles and waves at those in the front as he announces to the crowd, "All ready?" He waits for a response, seems to deliberate if he should press for a more enthusiastic one, then decides against it and lifts the rolling metal door with a flourish.

The faded light of early morning slowly exposes the contents of the storage unit. The press of people move inside, shining flashlights into corners, jumping to see over crumpled boxes and leaning around bent mattresses to peer into dark corners. Couples whisper to one another– phrases become clear, "picked through," "could be vintage," "organized boxes."

John enters the unit alone, his eyes moving expertly over the dim edges of boxes, piles, and plastic bags heaving with secrets. His mouth moves silently, calculating the worth of what he can see. He quickly decides that this storage unit holds nothing overtly of value, and shuffles out again into the cold. He shoves his hands deep into his frayed pockets and waits while the others scan and guess about the owners of this storage locker, and the worth of if its abandoned contents.

A car pulls up– black, new, shiny in a way that one knows it would be shiny even if not new. A stout, bundled man steps lightly out of the car, as a hush descends over the crowd.

"It's Dale..." sounds a whisper to nobody in particular as everyone has recognized this man, famous in storage unit auction circles. 

John shakes his head ruefully, stiffening at the nature of luck in the universe. Dale attends these auctions as a hobby; his settled life as a developer provides for him ably. But last month, Dale bid $250 on a storage unit that contained a box of Confederate currency that Dale was able to sell for $6,000. Or maybe it was $60,000– numbers that high lost their distinction for John who had a hard time fathoming owning a home, or buying a new car, let alone walking around with a roll of 100-dollar bills in his pocket.

His thoughts turn toward pockets– and his obsession with them as a child, when at school he would regularly indicate his need to go to the bathroom, and then creep noiselessly toward the teachers' lounge. The room was sun-filled and still, and he always paused at the threshold, taking in the smell of stability. He'd close his eyes and breathe deeply, filling his lungs with the scent of damp wool, books, cleaning spray, and canned soup. Then his eyes would fly open, as he became aware of his surroundings, and his need. Quickly and efficiently, he'd root through the pockets of coats and jackets, sweaters and cardigans hanging neatly on the hooks on the wall to the left of the door. Even though he was looking for money, he was always surprised when he found it– perpetually astonished that someone would have so much money that they would carelessly leave bills behind, quietly nested in the soft folds of their pockets. He worked around the wallets, with photos of spouses and sweethearts and children, his fingers feeling only for the edges of forgotten bills.

These bills he'd tuck into his sock and then he'd creep to the door, open it, peer carefully around the corner, and shuffle quietly back to his classroom. For the rest of the day, his ankle hummed warmly, and his concentration would wander as he'd wrestle in ecstasy with the indecision of where, oh where?, would he escape to after school.

The final bell of the day felt like a warm shower over his shoulders, and his eyes would lighten, the grayish pall that normally permeated his stark features replaced with the glow of expectation. Eagerly, he'd jog out of school and hurry to the market where he'd roam the aisles of food slowly, in a delirium of hunger and craving.

Out of the cashier's sight, he'd secretly remove the bills from his sock. He would then approach the counter with his beef jerky and Snickers bars, pretzels and fruit chews, wait to be told the amount (which he'd already calculated to be certain of a minimum of change) and push this dollars across the counter.

The change he threw into the donation box on the counter. Another child might have done so proudly, puffed with an air of altruism. John did it for self-preservation; any money he came home with would quickly attract his parents' attention. Once they noticed, they would either punish him for secreting money from them, or praise him gleefully as they hustled to scramble additional change and then rush out "to make a visit." They'd return hours later, eyes glassy, speech indistinct, charging about the threadbare room in ways that would be comical in an old movie, but which terrified John in the darkened half-light of his reality. He'd hold his breath, tense and alert for startling sounds, swearing, or sudden odors that would signal destruction to the apartment, and thus put their home at risk. They'd had to move too many times because of damage and fires to an apartment, or for unpaid rent.

At one point, desperate to get out of the cold, they'd moved into a storage unit, not unlike the one John stood before now. Inhabiting a storage space was against policy, but John's parents secured a unit far from the bored manager's office, and limited their comings and goings to early morning or after dark. His parents were smugly satisfied with their clandestine storage unit home– under army surplus blankets, stiff with use and cold, they congratulated themselves on how much they saved in rent, how much they were able to use for their well-deserved pleasure.

Their boxes of possessions– albums, and mementos, baby rattles and clothes too dingy to sell, Star Wars sheets too small to use– were pushed up against the chill; a camping stove and lamp on a folding table served as their living space. And so they eked out a fragile existence, while their son nourished himself in forbidden corners– a vacated teachers' lounge, the snack aisle of the Lucky 7 Super Mart. 

It was the policy of the storage company to confiscate a unit after two months of unpaid rent. The manager of their unit allowed an extra month because the bills were returned, recipient unknown, from the address the bill was sent– the address supplied by John's parents. Without a way to bill them, notices were placed on the door of the unit, notes which were burned for warmth and entertainment when the nights became longer and chillier.

One day, a strange padlock greeted John when he returned from school, books under his arm, the coming dark at his back. He hunched against the metal door, unsure of where to go. His thoughts moved slowly; he had not dared to sneak into the lounge that day, and the slowness of his sugar-starved brain bothered him far more than his aching stomach.

His parents returned when the sky arched darkly overhead. They were heedless of him, and of the dangers of their voices as they shouted at each other, hurling curses with frightening speed and anger. When they spotted the lock, their argument cut off abruptly, like a vacuum power cord pulled suddenly from the wall. They yanked John up, and stumbled back across the parking lot, alternately cursing and laughing.

And so John said goodbye to his childhood treasures. For years, he assumed the boxes still lay beyond the padlock, and hoped to one day pay the back rent and reclaim his treasures. His later realization that the contents of those boxes were undoubtedly lining the dump caused merely an aftershock of the pain of that afternoon when his parents carried him away from the last of what he knew to be constant. 

John pulled his hood further over his head to shake off the memory. He had left those confused days behind; his life, though perhaps not the wool and books existence he so craved during his youth, was at least not the drug-addled haze his parents framed for him. He had a home– granted, a rental, but he paid the rent no matter the circumstances. His girlfriend and her son stayed with him, and he, who was certain of few things, was certain that this home would be his, theirs, until they decided it was best to move. And though his income was not steadily high, it provided for their basic needs.

Every Saturday, John came to these auctions, bid on lockers, and spent the rest of the day rooting through the chaos of someone else's past. He saw the same people at almost every auction, and without meaning to, he got attached to seeing their pinched and eager faces every week. His optimism was beaten out of him at an early age, along with his dreams of finishing high school and his fondness for snack foods, and yet he took comfort in watching the others speculate about the locker's contents. John bid only on what he could see, risking nothing on expensive-looking computer boxes or old steamer trunks. He smiled at those who bid based on instinct, with their certainty that a slit in mattress concealed some forgotten cash or that a dispatched end table resembled an antique. 

The bidding for the storage locker went quickly. There was little inside to generate enthusiasm, and the auctioneer moved on to the next unit. In this one, John noted a crushed box of pots and pans and a curio box full of action figures. John won this locker with a bid of $400, an amount he knew he could recoup just with what was visible. He spent the rest of the day sorting through the unit. One pile to sell, one pile for the dump, and a small pile that appeared worthless; and yet it was separated from the dump pile clearly and carefully in a neat box.

John was pleased with his win. He had enough to make up the cost of the bid, plus items worth enough to pay half of this month's rent. This took the pressure off of next week's auction and removed some of the stress lines from around his mouth. He placed the items to sell in bins in the back of his battered truck and filled the rest of the truck bed with items to haul to the dump on his way home. The smaller box of carefully culled items he loaded gently onto the front seat beside him. 

On his way out of the parking lot, he brought the small armload of items into the manager's office. The manager smiled upon seeing him, familiar with John and his third pile. John pushed the box across the counter, and the manager could make out a small quilted blanket, a few dog-eared children's books, and a stuffed cat with the fur loved off of one of its ears. "Can you make sure the previous owner of locker 5310 gets these, please," he asked softly, the small smile playing at the corners of his mouth at odds with the sadness shining in his eyes. 

John paused, rubbing the lining of his pockets absently, then turned and stepped out into the twilight.


This story won the first prize in the 2010 Hook short story contest which was judged by noted author John Grisham.



What a wonderful story. I felt as though I were in John's skin - felt every feeling he experienced. Michelle, you are a talented, inspiring young author. Keep it going!

This was a hauntingly beautiful story. As I neared the end, I was sorry this was a short story, wanting to keep reading about this fragile young man with the gentle spirit. Great job, Michelle.

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