“You know, I was a performer once.” She looked up at me from her vinyl chair, the sun washed green across her face through her plastic visor. “I sang and danced, with such a wonderful band. We used to tour the country, entertaining thousands, every night a sold out show.” Her gaze shifted slowly from me to the surrounding space, her own driveway, lined with folding card tables piled with her belongings, tagged and numbered with masking tape. “But that was all before the accident.” Her fragile hand rose to her mouth. “A collision.” she whispered, tears forming in the corners of her eyes. “A truck hit our bus one night while we drove through the snow, somewhere in Pennsylvania.”
“No, mom, you were a court reporter.” The forty-something man standing at a table behind her shook his head. “You’re talking about Gloria Estefan again.” He looked up at me; his hands still working, drawing prices on dishes with a wax china marker. “She’s moving in with us.” He gestured to his mother, then himself and another woman standing behind him on the sidewalk. She was distracted, negotiating with a man over the cost of the mother’s Formica kitchen table. “She gets a little confused sometimes.” He walked around the table and rested his hand on his mother’s shoulder.
I nodded my head and pressed my lips into a flat smile.
“That’s tough, so tough, but really good of you.” I looked him in the eye and softened my brow, “So… how much is this tape player?” I asked awkwardly, unsure the proper amount of time had elapsed.
“Three dollars.” He took my money and I slipped the Walkman into my pocket. I glanced back down at the old woman, whose attention had shifted to the house across the street, where a neighbor’s dog barked from behind closed blinds. Distracted, she mumbled out a quiet conga tune and smiled, impressed with herself, eyes flickering with secrets remembered incorrectly.
For years, that was how I made a living, buying old, often forgotten pieces of estates from the families of people too incapacitated, or in some cases too dead, to care for their old belongings. I happily bought everything from them, digging through piles of boxes left for decades in attics and garages, checking brands on faded tags for items to mark up and sell online. In the beginning I seemed to have a natural talent, for a while it seemed as though I could predict future trends simply by reading the home and style section of a newspaper. I once sold a dented globe to a woman in Tacoma for 65 dollars just because the non-dented side had appeared on a blog. One month it was globes, the next, something equally bizarre, empty hatboxes or old barware. Most of the time it was stuff I found somewhat easily, the real trick was snatching it all up and convincing people it was worth something.
Officially, my only training was working as an assistant to a real estate liquidator in California. I was drawn in by the thrill of the hunt. I imagined myself squirming through crawlspaces wearing a headlamp and carrying an archaeologist’s brush, eventually becoming famous for solving some long forgotten mystery. Aha! Old widow Mertz’s jewels were hidden behind this grandfather clock the entire time! My heart raced in anticipation. In reality, the bulk of my job was wiping down old chairs with a damp rag. Nancy Drew would be so disappointed.
On days when my rag duties were light, I moved on to stacking boxes into piles and setting out items to deep clean before their departure to the owner’s showroom. Most estates were mundane, dated electronics and family photos, but occasionally I came across something a little more interesting. For every twelve estates that are all heated hair rollers and moth-eaten blankets, there’s one with a garage full of Styrofoam heads and matted wigs. I kept working for the sake of coming across those flukes, those rare instances that kept me entertained, gave me new lives to imagine, each day I prayed for a weird one. In the home of a former Hell’s Angel, I found a box with “Magic” scrawled across the top in permanent marker. Assuming it was full of stacking cups and bendable silver dollars, I dropped it on its side and left it when Julie, the woman I worked for, called me into another room to help her oil the old bikers leather collection.
When I returned to the box at the end of the day it had sprung a leak. Asymmetrical patches had appeared, spreading like ink blots along the sides and running down to the bottom. I sat on the floor and cautiously slid the box towards myself; leaving behind it a wet trail that darkened the concrete floor. I peeled open the wet box flaps and felt the soggy cardboard dampening the fingertips of my work gloves. Even before it was fully open, the box reeked of ammonia. With one arm I went through the contents, using the other as a mask, breathing through the fabric of my sleeve. The box was mostly full of driftwood and feathers bound in leather, wet fur and animal bones, crystals, and at the bottom, several shattered glass bottles.
“Julie?” I choked back a gag and called to my boss across the warehouse, the nervousness in my voice obvious enough to bring her over.
She looked down at the contents and retched, eyes watering as she reached into the box. She wiped off an unbroken vial and handed it to me. “Good thing you’re wearing those gloves, this is all perfect for the Halloween display.”
I spent hours the following morning cleaning out a box of old ashtrays, some were elaborate, etched brass and heavy faceted crystal, while others were kitschy, vacation souvenirs, ceramic sets of boobs with airbrushed tan lines, alligators in sunglasses insisting I visit Pensacola. After taking out the last ashtray, I searched through the shredded newsprint to the bottom of the box and found it was lined with little hollow cardboard coasters; each one containing a film reel about the width of a fingernail. Holding one strip high to the light above me, I slowly made out little ant-sized figures in different phases of motion. I noticed some of the people were in uniform and some, much to my amusement, were naked. I brought the film closer to my face, squinting to make out the uniform but couldn’t pinpoint it. Giggling, I lifted the empty film container and read the spine, I let out an involuntarily shriek and let go of the box, half dropping it, half throwing it.
“What was that?” she asked.
NAZIS! It read like the title of a musical.
Panicked, I quickly began flipping through the other boxes, in hopes of finding more wholesome genres of porn, imagining that the original owner had bought it on accident. Yet the deeper into the box I got, the further the movie titles diverged from the familiarity of 70’s porn we all know and love, titles like Mothers and Daughters, Dianne’s Ordeal, and arguably the most disturbing, Rape In Vivid Color.
“I found a bunch of porn.”
“Like more vintage Playboys?” Julie asked hopefully.
“No,” I paused, “Like porn movies, the 8 millimeter kind.”
“Oh, I know someone who wants those.”
“These are kind of weird.”
“Spit it out, there’s a market for everything.”
“It’s, um, Nazi rape porn, and, uh, incest?”
“Oh,” my boss thought for a second. “I know someone who wants those too.”
The box remained hidden under a display table for weeks, every shift I worked I would distractedly peer into the excelsior, checking for the little film reels before and after each client left in attempt to catch, and eventually shame, the sick Nazi fetishists my boss had been working for. As time went on, I was scheduled less and less in the warehouse, until I was eventually let go completely. Due, I assume, to the daily judgmental faces I made at my boss, but also possibly because she was afraid I would again douse hundreds of dollars worth of memorabilia in magic animal piss. Either way, I was fired.
For months I scoured thrift stores and garage sales, slowly building up my stockpile, filling closets and spare rooms of my house with linens, paperweights, and prints ripped out of old textbooks. I had worked for Julie long enough to know that people will buy pretty much anything if you display it the right way. It couldn’t be that hard, a couple floral tablecloths and some cutesy labels, you’re pretty much set.
Look out world! I thought as I hammered out the keys of an old typewriter to sell individually, I’m selling every last piece of this shit!
Online stores are different than flea markets because online, you can wait months before selling anything; people can browse anonymously without the added anxiety of being watched from behind a counter. In person, you can subject people to the hard sell, convincing them that if they don’t buy your glittery tinsel tree skirt they might run the risk of ruining Christmas. Oddly, my version of the hard sell was not the most successful, so I did what anyone in my position would do, I became violently hostile, arguing aggressively with people over their hand painted woodblock wine holders, accusing them of being passé.
“Chevron patterns are out,” I would yell. “You want to know what real timeless elegance looks like? It looks like this macramé owl. And lucky for you, I happen to have several for sale.” It came to the point where I actually started to believe myself. It might have been all the work I had put into it, all the long hours I had spent amongst my treasure, maybe I was just getting soft, but either way all the sad-eyed blue boy paintings and bejeweled pieces of fruit were starting to grow on me, like a younger sibling, or mold.
“This is all just a bunch of junk.” I overheard a young girl whisper to her mother one morning while I brushed out the tangles in a hula doll’s plastic grass skirt. Pretending not to have heard her, I glanced up from my seat behind my booth and met eyes with Mr. T. He stared back at me from the orphaned thermos I had found months before, his signature grimace had changed, he no longer looked angry, just disappointed. I could have defended his honor, I could have screamed at that little girl, but I stayed silent, defeated, I had failed both Mr. T and myself. As I packed up my booth, I considered the lettering on the label I had made for the loose typewriter keys. Was my handwriting too unfriendly? Was the color scheme too abrasive? What would have been a better method to use?
Damnit, I thought, I should have used that typewriter to make these.
As I unpacked at home, I accepted the fact that I was never going to be featured in any design blogs. I was never going to be one of those people standing alongside other creative movers and shakers, guiding photographers through hallways beautifully decorated with antiques, chopping vegetables on my vintage butcher block, elegant little knickknacks sparsely placed here and there just so, sophisticated conversation pieces at every turn. As much as I hate to admit it, no one wants to take a tour of my old PEZ dispensers.
I think I ran into trouble because I never knew what to pass up, I let my own questionable taste dictate my purchases, for a while it worked, but eventually the tastes of others changed and mine remained the same. I ended up surrounding myself with all the stuff no one wanted any more. I didn’t ask myself the important questions.
Questions like how much can I sell this for? Is there a market for this? How many Avon bottles shaped like U.S. presidents can you collect before they stop being useful? It’s too late now, because I have all 50 of them, a parade of little disembodied old man heads, smiling back at me from my bathroom windowsill every time I wash my hands.
In the back of my mind, there’s some sick part of me that knows eventually someone will have no choice but to take all of it. I could do the courteous thing and save some family member the trouble of having to sort through everything, avoid forcing them to endure commiserative smiles once it’s my own estate being packed up and sold away. But within me there lies a morbid curiosity that wants to see it happen, people offering my family their sympathies prematurely as though my grave is all but filled. I imagine it’s the closest thing to attending your own funeral. I’ll sit slack in a lawn chair fiddling with pilled wads of Kleenex, trying to catch someone’s attention, hoping to look them in the face and bask in their gestures of pity, those strained, thin-lipped smiles, charitably performed with sad eyes, no teeth. If I were to be so lucky, I like to think I would do my best to participate, looking out with glassy-eyes onto my lawn, different parts of my life laid out on the grass before me, happily selling away my past, telling stories of lives unlived.
I picture a young neighbor of mine going through the boxes, innocently asking the price of a cassette player, and I’ll warn him of the alluring siren song of the macramé owl, for it hoots to everyone, waiting patiently to drown them with its dusty yarn tentacles. I’ll tell him that it’s no way to go, not when he still has his youth. Though it may ultimately be a blur when the time comes, the image I have of it all now is clear. I can see everything, my whole life ahead of me, in vivid color.