(This prompt gave me a good reason to revisit this story, one I all but gave up on so I sanded it down a bit and revised it.)
Other People's Things
Gwen spent the best part of the morning going through the Saturday classifieds looking for the nearest garage and yard sales. She felt a lot more energetic than she had in ages, at least since the last of her chemo treatments. She looked forward to being out and about again in the warm spring air, she felt her life-flow emerging slowly back, like Japanese Koi who slowly thaw back to life from its frozen sleep. It was the simple things now that drew the most appreciation, the big things would just have to wait. She found it amazing how her own serious illness and her arduous battle to continue living could possibly put everything into perspective in such glorious ways. She accepted this as the most precious gift she had ever received. Gwen poured another cup of coffee and watched her husband Jim outside the kitchen window in the side yard, he tinkered around with something mechanical from the garage that needed his retired engineering mind's attention. A faint breeze brought down more blossoms from the apple tree and it fell like snow.
Gwen wasn’t looking for anything in particular at the rummage sales but her infamous collection that she named “Tackiness Galore” needed some overdue attention. Her display in the basement hadn’t been added onto in a very long time. Her prized gems were always a hit when she and Jim entertained and the crowd usually ventured downstairs to take a look at it. She had everything arranged in the far corner of the finished basement. She enjoyed playing the part of museum docent as a line of amused friends and colleagues held onto their drinks and followed her down the steep stairs to take a look. The Mighty Matador on velvet is displayed regally on an easel, a must for any tasteless collection of this nature. A John Lennon tapestry hangs on the far wall and he’s wearing his trademark round glasses, circa Sgt. Pepper’s. When the lights are flipped off his glasses continue to glow magnificently. (Gwen often wondered what the relationship was between fallen rock ‘n roll idols and the need to create such horrible art in their honor.) There's a plethora of odds and ends that are placed neatly on corner shelving. The highlights here include a knight and shining armor made completely of Stroh’s beer cans, a terra cotta sow with her terra cotta offspring snuggled happily at her cement teats, the half completed paint-by-number Mona Lisa, and a Benny Hill bourbon decanter that plays the Benny Hill theme song whenever you push the hidden button to pour a shot, his eyes also click back and forth on his cheeky smiling face. There’s a vast menagerie of Chia Pets, knick-knack nightmares, an assortment of crocheted beer can hats, and the prized Nativity where each role is portrayed by a ceramic cat. The Three Wise Cats are presenting their gifts to the baby Jesus kitten, their little gifts have written on them “frankincense and purr”. That was a glorious find when she stumbled across it!
Jim continually complains about it, “Someday our kids are going to be stuck with all this crap, they’ll have a big yard sale of their own before they sell this place and then everyone in this neighborhood is going to think we were totally nuts and completely tasteless too!”
* * *
Gwen drove along the county road and looked again at one of the addresses she had circled in the classifieds, she knew she was on the right road headed west but she didn’t realize how far from town this place was going to be. It was completely rural by now and she drove by all the freshly plowed fields and barns and the occasional herd of cattle that dotted the emerging green hillsides. Just then she spotted a sign on a gigantic piece of poster board that read “Big Yard Sale” that had an arrow pointing up a gravel driveway. Attached to the sign was a trio of red balloons that fluttered about. A battered mailbox mauled by generations of teenagers with baseball bats and cherry bombs had the same faded numbers as the one she had circled in the paper.
“Other people’s things,” Gwen mused to herself.
She always thought about this line before each sale. She enjoyed figuring people out by the things they had, not in a material way but as clues. She always observed the stuff that other people bought in the grocery store, she'd watch their food items parade forth toward the cashier in the checkout lines. Were the people in front of her health conscious? Did they enjoy cooking or did they buy convenience foods? Did they have large families? She could always tell about how many kids customers had just by looking at the cereal brands, the amount of juice boxes, and the gallons of milk. Gwen was essentially a very nosy person, she should have been a psychologist or an advice columnist instead of a high school history teacher. Her favorite books to read were always biographies and autobiographies and she watched a few reality shows on television too but she never quite warmed up to them. After this year of battling cancer and beating it she’d had enough reality in her own life, thank you very much! And here she was out and about again, the spring air can be so intoxicating.
Gwen plans out these driving around yard sale days, secretly enjoying what people have and are about to sell to other people now. Sometimes it's very functional and useful, like the twin-stroller she used when her grand-kids visited; not quite twins but they were eighteen months apart and it came in handy. And always looking for a new project for Jim, he was a man who needed a busy mind to go with his busy hands to fix and repair just about everything under the sun. These projects kept him occupied and content and he still lived within the generational fringe where fixing things rather discarding them was still a virtue.
She parked her station wagon alongside an ailing out-building and two mangy dogs ran up to her and they sniffed and pawed at her legs in a menacing way. She hates this. Is it rude to brush dogs like this aside or just pretend she's oblivious to this canine intrusion? Or should she pet them and pretend she loves scraggly scrapping dogs? Not to mention being immediately frightened by these two, they appeared to be part pit-bull and something else equally deadly and their friendly eyes that most dogs have were replaced by cold and indifferent stares. These were the kind of dogs that could easily survive a nuclear war and then they’d really thrive.
She walked toward the big open yard; a row of totterey card tables were covered up with household goods and piles of boxes. A woman’s raspy voice boomed out from the darkness from within a cavernous dilapidated garage that Gwen hadn't even noticed when she drove up. Her voice sounded alarmingly like Janis Joplin's did, melodically raspy and full of blues.
“We got childrens clothes too in them boxes by that peach tree. They’re all folded up but you can look through ‘em, just keep ‘em folded up ‘cuz I worked half the day just foldin ‘em all up!”
Gwen had no intention of looking through the children’s clothes or anyone else’s clothes for that matter. She bought other people’s things but she drew the line at buying other people’s clothes.
The woman with the whiskey voice slowly appeared from the darkness of the garage and into the bright sunlight of the warm spring day. She held up a pudgy hand to shield her eyes from the harsh light of ordinary daylight that most people look forward to. She looked a lot like those old pictures you see of Elvis Presley’s mother. She wore a large print blouse over super plus-sized polyester stir-up pants that were still too tight, revealing lumpy fat legs and an enormous rear end. Her swollen feet were squeezed into a pair of worn slippers and she appeared deeply upset about something. She looked Gwen over suspiciously. Gwen decided right then and there that she’d look through the things that were laid out and scattered throughout the yard and then she’d politely leave as soon as possible. She suddenly wished that she hadn’t picked this yard sale to go to first. She turned around from Elvis's mother and was startled by a young girl who stood right next to her, as if she suddenly appeared out of nowhere.
The little girl was about eight or nine and she was very skinny and had light gray eyes that seemed to get lost in her pale white face; she had a wide open stare and breathed slowly through her open mouth like kids do when they have adenoids. Her dirty-blonde hair with uneven bangs looked like it hadn't been brushed today. She wore a pink “My Little Pony” sweatshirt and some faded dungarees that were much too short for her growing legs. She held a tiny calico kitten in her hands.
“Hi there, I’m LeAnn, I'm named after LeAnn Rimes. See my kitten? I named her Kaylee and isn’t she the cutest thing?”
Gwen took a look at the sickly calico kitten with runny eyes and it suddenly mewed out to no one in particular but not a sound escaped from its tiny little mouth.
“Cute alright,” Gwen said politely nodding her head. She smiled kindly at the little girl and said, “Well my name is Gwen, Gwen Gladstone.”
“That’s my Grandma Jessie, she has to stay out of the sun cause she's allergic somehow so that's why she stays inside the garage and shade and I’m helping her out. I live here now too, well, since mama left me here, at least for now.”
LeAnn followed Gwen’s every step like a shadow after that introduction. Gwen meandered through the yard of things: there was an ancient Electrolux vacuum cleaner, three bowling balls, an oversized bright-orange table lamp without a shade, a set of scratched up bar stools, a pile of crazy-quilt comforters, and an old chainsaw that had a cardboard sign leaning against it that read, “$15.00 Needs Work”. (Jim would love getting his hands on that, Gwen thought.) She looked at the various items placed on the largest table in the yard. There was an assortment of ancient hair dryers, two electric popcorn poppers, an array of kitchen utensils, a heap of yellow curtains, and a wok still in the original box; Gwen couldn’t imagine Mrs. Presley stir-frying chicken and vegetables, that’s for sure. Gwen almost knocked over a dusty wooden box of empty old Pepsi-Cola bottles and lost her footing on the bumpy lawn but managed to keep her balance. She looked through a tattered stack of record albums, it was mostly 70’s country type music like Mac Davis, Merle Haggard, Donna Fargo, Alabama, Buck Owens and gracing one of the covers was Loretta Lynn with her cascading brown hair wearing a long frilly white dress. She lost interest with the record stack and noticed all the cassettes, newer music that a teen in the 80’s and 90’s might listen to; maybe it was LeAnn’s mother who listened to Nelson, White Snake and Guns ‘n Roses. Gwen fingered through some old trinkets and a pile of 4-H buttons and patches. Did LeAnn’s mother belong to 4-H at one time too? How sad, she must have been a pretty wholesome kid. She looked through a plastic box of trivets, crocheted pot holders and a collection of silly ceramic salt and pepper shakers bound together with masking tape. There was a mirrored curio case full of costume jewelry and polished rocks, collectible spoons and novelty thimbles.
The dogs began barking frantically at a car climbing slowly up the gravel driveway and Gwen was relieved not being the only customer anymore but that was short-lived.
“It’s Grampa!” LeAnn yelled wildly and then she took off half running and skipping happily toward the old brown car that jerked to a stop. She still cupped the kitten in her small nervous hands.
The big woman stomped out of the garage and waddled up to the car and began talking angrily and quickly through the driver’s window. She seemed to be a woman who enjoyed being mad and wouldn’t mind a complete stranger listening in on it too as her anger escalated. She whirled around suddenly and yelled at the little girl and her bulging eyes were on fire.
“LeAnn, git in the house now that Paw-Paw's back and git yer room picked up like I asked you to do hours ago!”
LeAnn looked embarrassed and took a quick look at Gwen and then she ran inside the old house; the screen door slammed shut behind her. The big woman’s attention zeroed back in on the skinny man in the car who remained sitting in the driver's seat with the window rolled down.
“An’ I told you to git me a Mars Bar, was that too much to ask for while I been runnin’ this yard sale? A Mars Bar, that was it, that’s all I asked for but no, no sir, not you, you, you…”
She sounded like she was about to sob but she took in a massive deep breath instead and gulped in the air, she looked and sounded like she was about to have a massive coronary. She had an explosive wheezing coughing fit instead. The thin man in the car pulled at his rubbery brown face and his eyes were turned downward. The fat woman finally managed to catch her breath and continued to bellow out something that got lost in the wind. Gwen took this opportunity to skulk back to her car unnoticed when the big woman reeled around and screeched, startling Gwen who froze in her tracks. “Leavin’ so soon? Did you even see them boxes of dishes and all them pretty china plates yet?”
Jessie looked Gwen over, she knew her type.
All high and mighty and never knew what a bad day was like let alone havin’ a whole lifetime of crappy days. Look at her standing scared like, an’ weak. She don’t know what it’s like losin’ a daughter so young like I did, puttin’ up a yard sale to get rid of more memories. Why did Cindy leave like that? She coulda stayed on here and when was she goin’ to come back for LeeAnn?
Jessie's heart sank and her throat tightened up. She lit up a cigarette as she walked toward the woman in her yard.
Gwen stammered but managed to say, “I have to be going; I have an appointment this afternoon.” She walked quickly to her car and was instantly relieved to open the door and sit inside the familiar surroundings and smells of her own station wagon.
“Get me out of here now!” she thought to herself, and she noticed the fat woman still glaring at her, her eyes were two black slits from facing the bright sunlight. She did look like Elvis’s mother with that downturned line of a mouth etched deeply into her face of dough. Such an unhappy person, so vile, so. . . Gwen turned the key in the ignition and the car roared alive. She backed out slowly and then she stopped when she noticed LeAnn standing at a window upstairs. One thin arm was waving slowly goodbye to Gwen, so sad, so alone in this world of dysfunction and chaos. She still held the kitten in her other hand. The fat woman continued to smoke her cigarette and she walked back heavily toward the shade and darkness of her lair again. Gwen smiled cheerfully and waved back at the little girl in the window. She continued to slowly back down the gravel driveway. She pushed her foot down hard on the accelerator when she reached the paved county road. She wondered what happened to the little girl’s mother. “Other people’s things,” Gwen said aloud to herself sadly as she thought about things thrown out, sold or abandoned, including little kids. She headed back toward town and the further she ventured from that place, the better she felt. It was amazing to Gwen how familiar toxic settings are -- whether they’re therapeutic chemical compounds, radiation, or all the poisonous environments of the world in general. The further she got from the old farmhouse the better she felt.
Gwen opened up the sunroof of her car and suddenly every favorite song seemed to be on, one after another, without commercial breaks, songs she hadn't heard in at least ten years. She checked her cell phone, her best friend Janet tried to call four times when Gwen was out of reach without a signal, and Jim tried to call twice. Janet ended up text messaging, "Are we still on tonight for dinner?"
Dust from the back of her car caused a visible past, even on the pavement a trail was left behind until it finally faded into nothingness. She looked at her phone again. Boy, did Gwen have a story to tell over dinner tonight.