In this story for readers of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and A Man Called Ove, when all seems lost, he finds what matters most.
Walter Lavender Jr. is a master of finding. A wearer of high-tops. A maker of croissants. A son keeping vigil, twelve years counting.
But he wouldn't be able to tell you. Silenced by his motor speech disorder, Walter's life gets lonely. Fortunately, he has The Lavenders—his mother's enchanted dessert shop, where marzipan dragons breathe actual fire. He also has a knack for tracking down any missing thing—except for his lost father.
So when the Book at the root of the bakery's magic vanishes, Walter, accompanied by his overweight golden retriever, journeys through New York City to find it—along the way encountering an unforgettable cast of lost souls.
Steeped in nostalgic wonder, The Luster of Lost Things explores the depths of our capacity for kindness and our ability to heal. A lyrical meditation on why we become lost and how we are found, from the bright, broken heart of a boy who knows where to look for everyone but himself.
Release date: August 8, 2017
Publisher: G.P. Putnam's Sons
Print pages: 336
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The Luster of Lost Things
Sophie Chen Keller
Somewhere in the Fourteenth Street subway station there is a statue of a little bronze man who waits for a train that never comes. I looked forward to stopping by his bench, so that I could take the seat next to him and inspect my reflection in his shiny bald head. My mom, Lucy Lavender, always said that I was just like my dad, Walter Lavender Sr.—the same eyes and patience for listening, and that gentle way of curiosity and kindness. But no matter what surface I looked in and how hard I studied my features, I saw only my own face, bland and uncomplicated, and it was that, along with my silence, that others attributed to the dumbness of a slow, amiable boy.
I did not mind, mostly, because then I was free to observe. Without the distractions of speaking and being noticed, I could listen more closely to what people said to each other and to themselves. I could watch more carefully as the skin of the world glided and stretched, and when I was open and attentive enough, I caught glimmers of the underlying bones and gears and my understanding of the secret workings of life sharpened.
In kindergarten, the teacher read aloud the story of Helen Keller and had us sit in the dark until our ears tingled, our fingers too, and we smelled and heard things we had overlooked. I wondered if that was what happened to me—the silence embedding itself into the crevices of my brain, forming a singular sense that reached into the borderland between the real and the imagined to discern the echoes of the imperceptible.
My whole life, my mouth had been shut and my eyes wide open, and the deeper and darker my silence became, the more I began to sense outside of it—traces of light, shifts in matter, changing undercurrents. As I grew older and it became clear to me that Lucy didn’t perceive what I perceived, it was already just another part of me, and there was nothing so incredible about that.
The things I noticed were small and fleeting, easy to miss—scratches or flourishes in reality, clues that pointed the way to the larger truths buried beneath the surface, like the molten ripple along the base of a vase of lilies in danger of tipping over or, when it came to people, the disappointed hiss of something doused before it could be said. Later, at Lucy’s suggestion, I began recording these truths in my notebook, so that my mind did not turn into a prison for my thoughts.
“Write down the things you pick up that the rest of us miss,” she said. “That way, you won’t forget a single one, and one day, you can tell me everything.”
My notebook was my companion before I found Milton. It became a part of who I was—an observer, a witness. When I noticed a small detail about a person and jotted it down, I had a feeling that I was speaking and an ear was listening.
Sometimes, though, I looked down at my handwriting—unreadable to anyone who wasn’t me, the letters distorted and toppling over like towers of blocks—and a bolt of rage ripped through me because these thoughts did not matter; I could not communicate them to anyone. I was trapped in my role as an observer, separated from everyone else and unable to be a part of the story.
That changed a few weeks before I turned seven. I learned that I could do something—that my ability to see around corners to flashes of the truth made me better at finding things. It first happened when a customer finished paying for her strawberry cheesecake profiteroles, and while Lucy printed the receipt, the woman touched her ear and discovered that her diamond earring was missing.
I hadn’t yet devised my rules for finding but that time the telltale sign was an easy one to spot. As Lucy hurried around the counter and the woman crouched to sweep the floor, I noticed a delicate strand of silver trickling down her arm—a sign that she seemed to look right through. I tracked the silvery strand to where it stopped and reached forward to pluck the diamond earring caught in her sweater, and that was the beginning.
The next time I passed a flyer for a pair of missing sunglasses, I found myself lingering, copying down the information in my notebook. Soon, it wasn’t just the cases that came to me by accident; I scoured the city for flyers and posted flyers of my own—LOST SOMETHING? COME TO THE LAVENDERS—and I jumped in when I saw someone searching on the subway or in the streets or in the shop.
I felt compelled to help, because I knew what it was like to lose something too. Walter Lavender Sr. had been lost my entire life; he disappeared while co-piloting a flight en route to Bombay, and searchers toiled through the winter and into the spring, looking for the missing aircraft. They couldn’t find any signs of it, or him—not by any rules of seeking and finding. Eventually that flight was pronounced his last, and he dissolved into the gray mists of the Arabian Sea.
Three days after Lucy said farewell to him she said hello to me, her heart full to bursting and the taste of tears in her mouth. I cried rarely and slept often and before Lucy knew it, I was five months old and the shop sign—wooden, smallish—went up, and it said, THE LAVENDERS, each letter gleaming a slow, rich chocolate brown. At the bottom, gold script winked in the sun like polished pennies, and it said, little things desserterie.
That first afternoon, Lucy propped the door open and planted her feet in the doorway, smiling bravely as she waited. This was the shop she’d dreamed up with Walter Lavender Sr., the shop she’d opened with every last cent from their savings and the settlement, and as she hiked me higher on her hip, she must have thought, with a hope that felt as crushing as desperation, that this might be a new beginning.
For me, that was the start of everything: the two of us in the door frame, the empty shop beyond. My eyes were gray pools, searching even then, my toes curled into tiny question marks. Perhaps I was still keeping an eye out for the namesake I never met, long after everyone else had given up.
Over the years, Lucy told me stories of Walter Lavender Sr. and I gulped them down whole like grapes, one by one, but there was one I savored most because it felt more like a memory than a story, like it had been carried with me from one world to the next—a vivid split-second impression of the heavens churning and constellations turning and I am swirling, kicking, and a deep voice rumbles across my sky and my swirling slows so that I can listen. It was the last story he told to Lucy, to me, before leaving on that flight, and I asked Lucy to recount it over and over.
Once upon a time, there was a boy who never imagined he could fly very far. He lived close to here, across the East River, in a tenement over the subway tracks next to a pawnshop and a liquor store. Every day after dinner he went down to a spot on the beach, and one day someone else happened to be there first.
The woman reminded the boy of a wild mermaid, lounging there with crystals of salt and seaweed tangled in her hair, and although she wasn’t, that’s what she became in his recollections in the years to come. He minded his own business at first, walking until the Atlantic touched his toes and he couldn’t go any farther.
The mermaid watched him looking out over the waves and sketched a picture of him, not as he was but as she saw that he could be. She called him over and he said he had no money. She framed the picture and gave it to him as a gift, that little picture of a plane winging over the water, and in the little window of the little plane was a boy with chipmunk cheeks from smiling.
Before, he’d felt trapped in a life that was not meant for him. But in those wings, he saw a way to escape. Ever after, when he walked from his home to the beach and stopped at the water’s edge, instead of seeing an end, he saw how there could be a beginning.
The boy grew older and when he left home to follow his dream of flying, it felt like he was arriving instead, into a place that was all his own. He went on to journey across many lands and oceans and mountains, and he wanted to thank the mermaid but couldn’t find her again, and later he lost the portrait she drew to inspire him. But he never forgot about the power of an act of kindness to change someone’s life.
“So, little guy, that’s it for now,” he had told me in Lucy’s belly. “I have to go, but don’t you forget it’s only for a little while. Do you know that airports have beacons, and you can see them from incredible distances? I’ll look for the light to find my way back, and before you know it, I’ll be here to meet you. Cross my heart, so don’t be sad.”
I hadn’t yet found traces of him in my reflection or anywhere else out there, but I had read that the world was full of strange and miraculous things—seas that burned and healed your sores, and springs that bubbled and steamed in glaciers, and trees that twisted and walked on water. Since there was no evidence and no one knew for certain what had happened to Walter Lavender Sr., I made a light of my own, a beacon for him to follow home. I used a mason jar, and I put it in the window and refilled the oil and replaced the wick and tended to the flame, even as the days became years.
But I also prepared myself for the other way his story could end, where he could no longer return and knock on the door. I monitored the paper and the mailbox for new developments, and I also reread old reports and gathered stories about him from Lucy, collecting as much information as I could and poring over it for clues on where to look and what to look for. That way, I would be able to recognize the sign when I saw it—the one that would mean he was not returning.
Lost things could be found; Walter Lavender Sr. did not just disappear, and until I knew for certain what had happened to him, he was at once searching for the way back and already gone.
Over the years, when he did not return and I did not find any clues that pointed to him, I began to wonder whether he did not want to be found. Maybe he was embarrassed of me, because I was not like him and also not like most people who talked without thinking, just opening their mouths to release a volley of words like arrows. All I could do was hope that wasn’t it—that he knew I was learning the one lesson he left me, about kindness and changing lives.
For Lucy, the months after opening the shop were even worse than the months after Walter Lavender Sr.’s disappearance. The emptiness around her seemed to grow large and larger still—the floor echoing, the ceiling cavernous—and a slow fall turned into a winter that saw few holiday sales, just record-breaking low temperatures and relentless snowfall. The doors froze over and ice crystals formed on Lucy’s scarf like a bitter beard as she shoveled the sidewalk and scraped the shop windows, and in our apartment upstairs she swaddled me in blankets and put on both of her coats and lowered the heat to get by, and we waited for the storm to pass.
Then, one very late night in January, a stranger stumbled upon our doorstep.
That was where Lucy always started the story of the shop’s new beginning, when she led new customers through the tour of the shop. In the winter dark, some way from midnight and morning, she woke and saw that it was snowing.
She approached the window and hovered over the hushed street, hardly daring to make a sound for fear of shattering something important. Her breath fogged the glass. She cleared it with a swipe of her hand and noticed a shadow moving under the shop awning.
She pressed her forehead against the window and felt the cold bite as she realized that the shadow was a woman, trying to build a trash-bag shelter around a footstool piled with canvases. A gust of wind rattled the windowpane, tipping over the canvases below, and the woman lumbered after them as they slid across the black ice, her braid swaying with the movement. She knelt to pick up the last canvas and a taxi turned onto the street, its headlights sweeping low across her so that Lucy caught a glimpse of the drawing.
A plane, coasting over the waves.
Lucy’s breath seemed to freeze and expand in her chest. She had never seen the portrait from Walter Lavender Sr.’s story; it had been lost a long time ago, but she thought it would probably look just like that. The water rippled with reflected light, casting a glare across the plane’s windshield—or it could’ve been the pilot’s smile, shining bright as the sun.
The headlights faded and the window fogged over again and Lucy’s exhaustion returned, clouding her mind, and she decided to let it be. I stirred and she hummed “Auld Lang Syne” until I quieted. I went back to sleep but she could not. She was thinking about Walter Lavender Sr. and the story that meant so much to him, about how he found his wings and the mermaid he didn’t get a chance to thank.
His mermaid was an artist too, and Brighton Beach was just forty minutes away on the B train. Lucy kept returning to the lost portrait and thinking, What if that’s her?, and thinking again, That’s not possible, and then she reconsidered that too, and thought, Why not?—and what did it matter, really, if it was or was not, now that she had seen?
When she returned to the window, she noticed how the woman’s braid, long and heavy, swung as she worked. To Lucy, it looked just like a fish tail.
She took me down to the shop and turned on the lights and opened the door, and a honeyed light poured out onto the sidewalk.
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