The Garage Sale
Martha Wilcox arranged a Mr. and Mrs. Turkey salt and pepper shaker set on one of the tables neatly arranged in her driveway. She then turned to survey the garage. From the open doorway to the back of the two-car garage, borrowed folding tables delivered and set up by the teen faith ministry group of St. Ignatius Catholic Church were covered with clothes, knick-knacks, dishes, garden tools, and a myriad of other collected possessions she hoped someone else would love just as much as she had over the years. With a fondness that comes from remembering how each piece came to be a part of her life, from having to dust, move, sometimes even wash the item, Martha perused the goods now on sale. With the two days of setting up for the sale over, with time to step back and examine her work, Martha felt the first feelings of seller’s remorse try to snake their way into her thoughts.
All of the things had special meaning. Each object her gaze settled on, the conversation attached whispered through her mind, and for several moments, Martha listened, a melancholy seeping into her as she heard her late husband John laugh over her delight at the cookbook he’d presented to her on their twenty-first wedding anniversary the year 1981, as she listened to her only son Kyle explain his reason for using some of his summer corn-detasseling money to get her a foot warmer for Christmas the year 1986, as she cried along with her daughters when they’d given her a much longed-for Barry Manilow’s Greatest Hits album on her fiftieth birthday the year 1992. Her seller’s remorse grew. She knew, though, she needed to pare down. She didn’t like to think it, had stubbornly pushed the thought from her mind, but she couldn’t deny that maybe the day would soon come when she would have to move. The thought came more and more often, since noticing a considerable difference in her eyesight, and especially after having failed the vision screening when she’d gone to renew her driver’s license a few days before her sixty-eighth birthday in May. Strong prescription glasses helped correct her fading vision, and her ophthalmologist, the middle-aged, bald, and almost disturbingly jolly Dr. Bly, had been happy to endorse her ability to drive, but Martha couldn’t bring herself to return to the license branch. The embarrassment from the previous encounter, when the clerk, Jeannie Bittick Myers, valedictorian of Martha’s graduating high school class, had looked over her bifocals and down her long nose at Martha, saying in her same know-it-all voice Martha remembered all too well from the class of 1960’s Valedictorian Address, that Martha needed to hand over her license until she had obtained a written endorsement from her ophthalmologist. Martha, Jeannie Bittick Myers had said, must certify that her vision was corrected and that she had a doctor’s permission to drive before she could test for her new driver’s license. Now reliant on her children and her neighbors if she wished to go to the grocery store or anywhere else, Martha saw this as one step closer to having to make the change she really wasn’t ready to make. Heaven forbid she’d have to move to Meadowview Homes on the other side of town, but even if she could move in with one of her three children, she wouldn’t be able to take the years of collected stuff with her.
Martha raised her arm to glance at her watch. The large numbers enabled her to see easily, with or without her new glasses, that it wasn’t quite seven a.m. She then turned and appraised the street, quiet under the early morning July sunshine. Nothing stirred amidst the quiet cul-de-sac, lined on both sides and around the circle with mature crabapple trees planted thirty-eight years before, when she and John had moved into the then-new home, one of the ubiquitous bi-levels built at the time. They’d started out on the other side of town, in a small ranch, and when one day they’d passed the new development on their way to church, they’d decided it was time to sell, invest in a more modern, bigger home. John’s position as a police officer barely made the move possible, so Martha went to work in the lunchroom at the high school from which they’d both graduated. Her small contribution enabled her family to live there comfortably. She couldn’t think of any other place where she would ever feel as happy and content.
Martha went into the garage and sat at the card table she’d set up towards the back, just in front of the door leading into the laundry room. To make her garage sale look nice, and with a hunch it just might encourage people to buy, Martha had pulled out the green gingham tablecloth she’d found at the Ag store several years before, and had stashed away in her dining hutch, had all but forgotten about as she waited for the just-right occasion to use it. While cleaning the hutch, rummaging through it to find anything that seemed garage sale worthy, Martha had come across the tablecloth. The crisp green and white checked cloth now covered the fork holes her grandkids had poked into the top of the card table over the years. To one side she had placed a blue Ball jar filled with a fat bouquet of white daisies bought at the IGA the day before. Next to the flowers was her money box, and on top of the money box a legal pad on which she would record each item sold and the amount given for it, though there really was no reason to keep track.
As she sat there, Martha’s gaze settled on a bright yellow jogging stroller parked near a table at the front of the driveway. She shifted in her chair, almost standing to go retrieve the stroller to put it back inside, back in the corner of the laundry room closet where it’d been since early February, tucked behind winter coats and boots, and covered by two boxes of Christmas tree ornaments. She remembered well the morning Kyle had stopped by, brought the stroller into her kitchen, and pleaded with her to keep it hidden away somewhere, anywhere, just as long as his wife wouldn’t be able to find it. Jules, he told Martha, was obsessed with running, with taking the boy out, even in sub-zero wind chill that made his eyes tear, made the tears freeze. Jules, he complained, was on the verge of hurting their son, herself, their unborn daughter, maybe all three of them if she didn’t stop with her running. The incessant running. Martha hadn’t wanted to keep the stroller, but the haggard look on her son’s face, his dark brown eyes heavy with fatigue, his slumped, weary shoulders made her take the stroller and hide it. As a rule, Martha tried to stay out of Kyle’s affairs. She’d spoken her concerns about how young Jules was when he’d announced he was going to marry her, she being only twenty-one to his thirty-five, but Kyle had assured her the age difference didn’t matter. Jules, he’d said, was an old soul.
Jules had arrived just after lunch that day, asking if Kyle had been by, if he had perhaps dropped off her jogging stroller. It’d most likely blown down the road during the night because of that awful wind, and she was hoping he’d picked it up, just decided to drop it off at Martha’s on his way to the elevator, Jules had told her mother-in-law. Martha had lied, saying no, she hadn’t seen her son that day, or that week for that matter. She didn’t miss the hint of panic brewing in Jules’ hazel eyes.
Now Martha eyed the stroller. It just didn’t seem right selling something that didn’t belong to her.
As she was about to stand to go get the stroller and return it to the closet, Martha heard a car door shut. A young woman Martha judged to be around twenty-five walked into view and smiled when she saw Martha sitting at the table. Her drab green hospital scrubs bore a large, white M. H. on the pocket, Meadowview Homes. Martha wondered if the young woman knew her childhood friend, Alice Reese, who had recently moved into Meadowview. Diagnosed with Alzheimer’s three years before, Alice’s health had steadily declined, and after wandering away from her home for the eighth time in a two week period, after finally being found four hours after her last disappearance, eating discarded fried chicken from the trash can behind the Captain’s Corner restaurant over on Maple Street, Alice’s younger sister Delores had had no choice but to turn the care of her sibling over to the skilled nursing care facility. Martha shook her head. Poor Alice. She, like Martha, was only sixty-eight years old. Though she hadn’t gone to visit her yet, Martha tried to remember to say a special prayer for Alice each Sunday, had even lit a candle for her and put her name on the month’s Intentions list for Father Ray to read aloud. Four Sundays of multiple “Lord, hear our prayer” surely couldn’t hurt.
After walking slowly around each table and spending time examining a pair of blue curtain panels that had hung at the family room picture window until Martha recently replaced them with a pair of pale yellow panels, the young woman approached Martha, holding a multi-colored glass vase and an old oil lamp, the vase a gift from her youngest daughter for Mother’s Day twenty-four years ago, and the oil lamp, an antiques mall find during the family summer trip to Tennessee, before the kids became teenagers and didn’t want to travel, leave their friends, be stuck in a car for hours with nothing to do but play I Spy or the license plate game. When the young woman set her garage sale finds on the table, any lingering thoughts of Alice vanished. Slowly, methodically, Martha wrapped newspaper around the vase and oil lamp base, pushed a crumpled piece of paper inside the lamp’s globe, then finished by wrapping several sheets of paper around it to create cushion, not wanting anything to break, all the while nodding at the young woman’s murmuring of how pretty the vase would look on her kitchen table, filled with zinnias. Martha placed each object into one of the many IGA plastic bags she’d been saving for the garage sale and handed the bag to the young woman who was holding out a five dollar bill. Martha took the payment and slipped it into the money box.
The young woman walked away slowly, eyeing the blue curtain panels as she passed the table on the way to her car. Martha heard the engine start, the car pull away. The cul-de-sac became quiet again. Martha wrote down on the legal pad the two items sold and the amount paid for each. For several minutes she sat staring at the money box. She kept hearing John’s voice explaining why he’d gotten her that cookbook. For the key lime pie recipe, he’d said. He’d always wanted her to make him a key lime pie. Now she had no reason not to. And each year, from their twenty-first anniversary until their forty-fifth, three weeks before John’s death, Martha had made him a key lime pie. Each time she’d set a plated piece of pie in front of him, he’d patted her hand in thanks, looked up at her and winked.
Another car door closing brought Martha out of her memories. She looked up to see a couple with two children Martha thought to be around ten and twelve moving between the tables. She smiled at the kids who appeared very bored with the whole garage sale process. They didn’t smile back. The woman reached out to pick up the empty picture frame that’d never been used, had been stashed into a box, the box stacked in the extra room downstairs. She then lifted the ceramic red chili trivet, a companion to the red chili napkin holder that had slipped from Martha’s fingers almost as soon as she had pulled it from the package, it shattering on the kitchen floor. With these items held tightly against her chest, the woman walked into the garage and began examining a large cobalt blue bowl given to Martha and John as a wedding gift. The last time Martha had used the bowl was for her daughter Charlotte’s baby shower thirteen years before. It had held the ginger ale punch.
Another car pulled to the curb near the driveway. Martha watched as two women emerged, the passenger with red hair pulled back and into a messy updo, the driver an older, heavier set woman with gray hair. Martha knew the latter, Ruthie Gibson, had worked with Ruthie in the high school lunch room for nearly thirty years. They’d been friends even longer, having grown up in the small town together, attended the same schools, the same church. But Ruthie’s two bad knees that needed replacements and arthritis in her left hip prevented her from getting out much these days. Her lack of mobility along with her fear of tripping on the tiniest thing and thus falling, sending her to County Hospital, kept her close to home most days. Seeing her friend out and about, with the red-haired woman at her elbow to help steady her, made Martha smile. She watched as the two women looked at a tabletop water fountain that was supposed to offer the soothing sounds of water running over rocks. Martha had gotten the fountain for John when he’d had his stroke and was lying in a hospital bed. She’d thought the water sounds might help him dream of the fishing trips he’d taken each year with Kyle up to the boundary waters of Canada. For several days, John had hung on, and Martha’s hope that he would open his eyes and smile at her increased with each day that passed. But the stroke had been massive, and on the fourth day, John slipped away. Martha had gathered up the fountain, brought it home, and set it on the sofa table where she kept it filled with water, kept it gurgling for months, until the day her grandson had stood on the sofa and pushed it off the table, sending the rocks scattering, the water splashing over the hardwood floor. Nothing had broken on the fountain, but Martha believed the time had come to put it away, out of her grandson’s reach.
When Martha looked away from Ruthie, she noticed several more people had arrived and were looking through the items she’d placed on the tables. A young man of about twenty or so was looking at John’s trowel and the homemade stakes that marked which vegetable was which. John had seen similar vegetable stakes at the Ag store, but believing he could make nicer ones, he’d come home, gone to his workbench in the garage, and fashioned his own out of wood and tiny copper letters. After the first garden season, the letters had a patina, making them appear much older than they really were. Martha thought the stakes beautiful.
The woman with the picture frame, trivet, and cobalt bowl had walked over to the stroller. She was engaged in a discussion about it with the man and two children. All four were nodding their heads as if buying the stroller was a good idea. The woman placed the picture frame and trivet in the seat of the stroller then handed the bowl to the girl so she could take hold of the stroller handle and move it back and forth. After this brief test run, she went around in front, bent over the seat and buckled the harness together then clicked the button that separated all the pieces again.
Martha watched as the couple spoke to one another, nodded towards the stroller, spoke some more. The woman ran her hand over the canopy, checked the fabric closely then went around the stroller, pressing each tire. She looked back at the man and smiled. The man turned and walked into the garage, stopping just inside to ask how much Martha was asking for the stroller. It didn’t seem to have a price on it.
Before Martha could answer, a tall, thin, white haired man strode over to the stroller. Martha recognized Charlie Traugott. She’d heard he’d quit the rabbit business. She’d heard he’d set free all the rabbits he and his wife Edith had bred and raised. Edith, it seemed, was extremely angry over this and had ordered Charlie to get out. Martha had heard he was now living in town, having found a small house to rent over on Willow Street. She’d always liked Charlie, such a gentle man. At least he seemed so when she saw him in church each Sunday. Without Edith. Now, Charlie struck up a conversation with the woman who had retrieved her picture frame and trivet from the stroller seat. The woman shook her head, nodded, then shook her head again. She turned to her husband who was looking expectantly at Martha and called his name.
Martha felt the heat rise through her limbs, creep up her neck. Strangers and friends picking over her possessions made her feel suddenly nauseous. She stood, her legs shaky, and took a step towards the man asking about the price on the stroller. She looked at Ruthie holding the tabletop fountain, the young man grasping the vegetable stakes, the woman with her picture frame, trivet, and cobalt bowl. She knew it wasn’t time. Not yet.
She started with the young man holding the vegetables stakes. He didn’t resist when Martha took his hand in hers, pulled his fingers away from the stakes, and grasped them, setting them back on the table. When she approached Ruthie, Martha simply nodded when Ruthie asked if she was okay. Martha pulled the tabletop fountain from her friend’s hands and placed it back beside the blue curtain panels. Martha then went to the end of the driveway and removed the garage sale sign she’d taped to her mailbox. With the sign in hand, she went to the woman holding the picture frame, red chili trivet, and cobalt bowl. The woman had placed the trivet in the bowl, with the picture frame on top. She handed these items to Martha after looking at them longingly. Martha took her possessions and held them to her chest.
As she turned to set her things on a nearby table, Martha saw Charlie with one hand on the stroller handle, his other hand holding five fanned out twenty dollar bills. She looked at him, puzzled, wondering what an old man would want with a stroller since he and Edith had never had any children. Martha had heard this was the grounds on which Charlie was seeking an annulment. Martha had heard that Edith had led Charlie to believe she wanted kids when they’d first married but had intentionally made sure she’d never get pregnant. Martha thought maybe Charlie wanted it to experience what it would have been like to push a stroller. The woman who’d carefully examined the stroller muttered she’d give a hundred twenty for it. Charlie countered with a hundred forty. Martha looked from Charlie to the woman, her man, their two children, then to the stroller.
With a shake of her head, Martha grabbed the stroller handle and pulled the contraption behind her into the garage. For the next hour, Martha busied herself by bringing all her possessions from the tables arranged on the driveway into the garage, finding a space for every item. When she set the last of her things on the floor next to John’s workbench, she went to the door leading into the laundry room and turned to make sure she’d not missed anything. Satisfied, she reached out and pushed the button that lowered the garage door.