The Bill in the Wall

I cannot remember what we were hiding from. We were nestled back in the darkest corner of the shop, and took care to hold very still when anyone passed by. Maybe we weren’t hiding from anything. Sometimes you don’t need something specific to hide from, you just feel like hiding. We were behind piles of strange and mysterious things, on the scraps of carpet, cross-legged in the dust. The air had that thick, slightly syrupy scent it got sometimes, where you felt like you were swimming in molasses; not just the humidity that leads to sluggishness, but the actual smell, hovering at the edges of your nostrils.

Maybe we were telling a ghost story, or hiding from an international spy ring. I really don’t remember. But I do remember that we were hunching in the shadows. The shop was mostly a mess of exposed beams and joists, with occasional pieces of particleboard tacked up where someone at some point wanted a surface to stick things on, or paint white and use as a background. In a few sections of the shop, the original wooden paneling existed in splintery strips, torn off piece by piece for projects or burning in the woodstove, no one really knew.

I don’t know when the shop was built. It had that blocky, indeterminate shape that could date anywhere from 1940 to 1990. The midcentury was a dire period for a lot of architecture, particularly practical, functional architecture that exists solely to house things, workspaces, rather than people and ideas. The shop used to be a great big open space and sometimes people hacked bits off, made walls, lined them with sheetrock, created corners and corridors. It was a maze, undoubtedly a firetrap, the sort of place a building inspector would look at and promptly burst into tears, except that, of course, no building inspectors ever came here.

Our little corner was one of the forgotten spaces, a place we had carved out to entertain ourselves where people more or less left us alone, and certainly didn’t trouble themselves about whatever it was we did back there. The scraps and detritus of the games of childhood, fabric and paper, bent pastels, colored pencils, collected at the edges. A small box shoved behind the wall paneling held more treasured objects. Marbles, erasers, a tiny wind up horse. We used to spill them out across the floor and chase them around with our fingers, imagining a much larger world without the constraints established by meddlesome adults and their ilk.

The box was stuck, that day. We blamed each other fiercely for this, neatly forgetting whoever had put it back last. Surely it was the other who had shoved it in too hard, snagging it on a nail or perhaps wedging it between two pieces of movable and now immovable wood, in that strange way objects have of becoming lodged where, moments ago, they were perfectly free and loose. I couldn’t grasp it in short, stubby fingers and when I proposed using another piece of wood to try and knock it out, this proposal was discarded.

After all, the box might break, and then where would we be. The small objects inside would slip deeper into the recesses of the wall, perhaps tumble all the way to the bottom, the floor, and then fall into the mysterious cracks and holes that dotted the edges of the shop. No one would want to crawl under this end of the building to retrieve them, not where the hill made the headroom cramped and limited and someone once said a skunk lived, although we never seemed to smell it. But they know what they say about the smells that surround you, how you don’t notice them because they’re part of you.

No, instead we decided to attack the paneling, instead. No one would care, most of the shop had already been denuded and this particular corner was probably only safe because it was hard to reach and no one had noticed a few lingering relics. This, of course, would ruin the hiding place for the box, but given the recent turn of events, maybe it wasn’t such a safe place to begin with, perhaps we should eke out another hole in another corner.

The wood was surprisingly stubborn. It might be old and thin but it was redwood, and it had hardened around the nails and resisted our clawing efforts to prise it off the framing. Eventually we restored to splintering it off by breaking pieces off the side, hoping we’d expose enough of the space behind it to reach the box. The back was covered in yellowing strips of newsprint, with periodic streaks of glossy glue. Classifieds, advertisements, a style from perhaps the 1960s, bright and bubbly with hope even after all those years. I wanted to examine them more closely but she didn’t, and so we made a little pile of redwood shreds and the paper flaked and drifted away to join the snowstorm of particles in the shop’s air.

When the bill fluttered out, she thought it was part of the newspaper at first, but I knew better. This looked, and felt, different. It was coloured and the newspaper wasn’t, the paper was still white and creamy, if frail, not yellowing and curling like the papers. This was something else. I scooped it up, box forgotten, and realised I was looking at a $20 CSA bill, although I didn’t know it was a CSA bill then, I just knew it was money and it was old.

Later I showed my father, and explained where I found it, and he was as mystified as I was about the bill’s origins; the shop certainly post-dated the Civil War, and it was odd to just find the bill alone, with nothing else, no protection. Whoever hid it in the wall, all those years ago, I wonder what they were thinking.