The poster for the estate sale is nothing but a torn bit of cardboard nailed to a lightpole, lime green and fuschia letters on brown paper. But it may as well be neon to Claire as she turns to me, mouth spreading into a grin, on her face the glee I imagine might flash across a pirate’s when a merchant ship appears on the horizon. Everyone knows estate sales are gold mines, her bouncing eyebrows tell me. Cheaper than garage sales and better quality stuff. Mom used to drag my sister and I to garage sales all the time, made us stand with our fingers tucked into the waistband of our pants so we wouldn’t break something she didn’t want to buy. They say women marry men like their fathers, so I guess in my case, I’d end up with a woman like my mother.
We park under a birch and I try not to feel like my eight-year old self following my mother up a stranger’s front walk.
A teenage girl opens the door for a couple ahead of us. It’ll break ninety today, but these two are stuffed into their skinny black jeans and torn-elbowed cardigans as though reasonable shorts and sandals would defy their dress-code. Horn-rimmed glasses. The woman’s hair done up in a way I can only describe as “coiffed,” a word I thought died in the 50s until my brain rummages it out from some old book I must have read.
A woman, the girl’s mother or aunt, sits in a gray folding chair right across from the front door, her eyes fixed on the floor. The woman tsks. “Close the door,” she says to the girl, even though we are about to cross the jamb. “Don’t let that heat in.”
As we enter the front room, I am overwhelmed by the presence of people. I had not imagined there would be so many scavengers at once, but as I begin to see past human shapes to the people themselves, I realize everyone sits and all wear the tight-mouthed look of the newly bereaved. Beyond that, they just look similar, these people: their short legs and plump, round bodies. All in their late, middle years – late 40s, 50s. The men in t-shirts, jeans, and industrial boots; hair cropped close, clean shaven. The women and girls wearing too much makeup, their bodies emitting the sticky scent of hairspray.
No one makes eye contact, but they look at what we look at, what we touch. They watch Claire pick up Grandma’s stack of glass candy dishes and stare until she puts them down again. They follow us out of the front room, their eyes heavy pebbles thrown at our backs.
In the kitchen, a crockpot bubbles with barbecue sauce and sausages. Stacked around the crockpot, the bag of chips, the box of sodas sit more plates and bowls, cups and saucers, mugs with Peanuts characters and Pomeranian puppies. On a formica table, salt and pepper shaker collections stand in a column, a battalion of “S” and “P”s, Snoopy and Woodie, Charlie and Lucy, Marcie and the Lesbian in sandals my mother always compared me to. There’s Popeye and Olive Oil, a puppy and kitten, a green canary and a yellow one, another set of letters bringing up the rear. A man pushes past me and wordlessly dips a ladle-full of sausages onto his paper plate. He adds a handful of chips and with his other hand, manages to pop an RC soda.
The cupboards stand open, doors all akimbo as though to tell the strangers, don’t bother opening us, we’re empty already, can’t you tell? No one’s home. And yet everyone’s here.
My finger slides over Peppermint Patty’s smooth face, the lacquer shiny, the rubber plug on the bottom brittle and crusty, little crystals of salt stuck to her hair. The tip of one foot is chipped, the tan paint of skin ending abruptly at the white flesh of the ceramic underneath. I’ll pay for Marcie too, but I just want this one to carry on the joke Mom and I share. I’ll take it to her at the hospital and add it to the pile of detritus my sister and I bring to mark each day. She’ll go home the day after tomorrow they say, but it’s only a matter of time before she’s back in again. The way of the disease. I hold my thumb over the chipped foot like I can staunch this wound.
Upstairs, another teenage girl has been sent to keep an eye out. She picks bright pink flakes of polish from her nails. Like the kitchen cupboards below, the closets have been turned inside out. Women’s clothes hang from the back of the door and from the handles of the slightly ajar dresser drawers; shoes line the walls. They are old things – fur coats, slips, polyester shirts in baby blue – perhaps the best of what little good there was. The couple who entered ahead of us debate the possibility of layering five or six satin slips, question if it’s “too much.” Not with the right bobble necklace, the boyfriend says, the stem of his glasses between his teeth.
In the bathroom, faded green wall-paper hides behind photographs of waterfalls, sometimes with one man or one woman standing to the side, sometimes with both when they must have asked a passing tourist to take their photo. Old Faithful roars up as the couple and three children stand at attention in front. The little girl in pigtails resembles the woman monitoring the door, her eyes cast down at the same angle. Each picture is labeled with a post-it that reads: “not for sale.”
Where, I want to know, are the giant brassieres, the wide cotton panties, the hose drying over the tub? Where are the slippers worn uneven on the soles and grungy on the bottom from dragging the trash down on Sunday evenings? Where are the saved Miracle Whip jars, the stacks of plastic tubs that used to hold Coolwhip and cottage cheese and yogurt?
My memory even conjures the smell of that old woman’s life – musk like patchouli mixed with baby powder and the fetid smoke of Winston-Salems. Now all those ashtrays that used to lie on surfaces all over the house are washed and stacked and guarded by the family in one of the rooms below. All of this was worthless a week ago, just things the family dreaded having to clear out someday. But when someday becomes this day, when the pale, thin hands are no longer there to clasp the handle of the mug, the mug becomes the vessel that carries us to her.
Across from the bathroom, the two doors nearest the stairs are closed. Claire is already tramping down the stairs, on her way to the basement to look for antique toys, which she’s heard are selling like mad. At the top of the stairs, I watch her as though she is falling, getting further away with each step, smaller too. I turn and open the door behind me.
The room is cool here, on the shady side of the house. Like “coiffed,” this room could have come out of the fifties. Two twin beds with matching flower-print coverlets, pink dust-ruffles, and pillows. A white night-stand between them and on it, another garishly pink lamp covered in yellow roses with a pink shade. I sit on one of the beds. My sister and I shared a room just like this – two twin beds with a table in between. But our room never achieved the polished togetherness of this one. Thank god.
Heavy feet climb the stairs beyond the door, two gruff voices arguing in the hushed manner of people trying not to seem like they’re arguing.
“I just don’t see the big deal,” says one. “Ron’s mother needs a new dining set and what else would we do with it?” A pause. “You’ve got to stop carrying those around.”
“Just let me think,” insists the other. “You just keep giving it all away.”
They’re standing in the doorway, the same two girls in front of Old Faithful only fifty years later. The younger one gives me a look that needs no words and huffs down the hall, out of breath from age and weight. Sick of strangers in her mother’s house. The other comes in and sits down across from me on the bed. She’s the one with the pig-tails, but her hair is short, and gray, and coarse now. She stares at the corner of my bed.
“That one was mine,” she says. Eyes flicker to mine and away again. She holds the pair of grungy slippers I knew were somewhere.
I begin to stand, but she waves me stop with a slipper. “Sit down,” she says. Her hand rubs the coverlet. “I’ve never sat on Bethann’s bed before. Strange.”
A silence lands between us like a ball no one wants to reach for and put back into play. It’s not awkward like most silences between strangers, just a fact.
“Your mother?” I say.
“Sorry,” I offer.
She nods again. She points at the salt shaker in my hand. “Bought that at a garage sale, myself,” she says. “Mama loved those kids. She’d tape the Sunday paper to the cabinet door while she made biscuits and read the comics.” Her eyes fall again to their natural downcast state, fingers sliding back and forth over the toe. She smiles, remembering things no one else will ever know. That’s the way with memories. Each one a present only you can open. After another minute, she rises and walks out, down the stairs. The chair by the door creaks, old metal on old metal as she sinks back into place.
In the end, I can’t bring myself to buy anything. Patty sits alone on the white nightstand. I can’t decide which is more disrespectful –to grope my way through this family’s house, touching, holding, grabbing these people’s memories and evaluating them; hearing my mother’s voice from twenty years ago saying “no, no. I don’t think this stack of dishes is worth a dollar. Maybe a quarter.” Or worse: not to buy anything at all.
I avoid eye contact with the sausage-eating mourners, with the other voyeur shoppers, even with Claire as we pass back through the front room. At the door, I thank the woman and our hands touch for a moment. My eyes sting with the questions I want to ask. Where did she die? Here, in this house surrounded by her kitsch? Or off in a hospital bed surrounded by nothing? Were those children in the photo with her? What did they say to ease her passing?
Which side of the bed are you supposed to sit on, and how tightly do you hold the hand so she knows you’re there but not so tightly it hurts? Is “recover” a word that exists yet in your lexicon or does that come later? Or not at all?
Outside, the sun is almost disrespectfully bright. I squint up through the dappled leaves of the birch and imagine my life forty years from now: the Peppermint Patty figurines I buy Mom as gag gifts, the pot-holders I used to make as a child. The tea towels from her travels. The wine-stem markers she never used and the mugs we made at camp. All that junk scattered across my mother’s kitchen counters like an unruly platoon, my sister holding the garbage bin under the lip to sweep them all in after the sale is over, her face lined with the age I begin to see marking it now. They say she could have a normal life, live as long as anyone else, but they say it like the couple paying for their satin slips: they’ve handed over too much and wait for change.
Claire asks me a question in her loud excited voice, talking about how we should get on the estate sale circuit, find some real deals out there, begin collecting. She holds up a little wooden paddle duck with a ripped rubber foot like a trophy. “Real find, huh?”
“What??” I say, though what I mean is “Shh!” Doesn’t she know any better than to yell at a funeral?
Amy Foster Myer writes and teaches in Portland, Oregon. She earned her MFA from Queens University of Charlotte. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in SmokeLong Quarterly, Prime Number, Hermeneutic Chaos Literary Journal, Blue Lake Review, and Eunoia Review.
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