Rummage

Fiction
William Wilde


Every Saturday, it’s the same. Read the classifieds, mark the good ones, then scrounge every garage sale I can make it to. People who know me say I’m hooked on it, and maybe I am, because if I had to, I could give no sane reason for my behavior. It’s more than a cheap urge to steal a treasure in somebody’s throwaway junk and I can’t even say what exactly I’m hunting for. It’s not like I’m out there prowling for the tools and fishing lures the other men are after. But I keep coming back for something every week.

Today, the air had that bright yellow coolness that comes suddenly in the Oregon fall and I could tell the weekend sale season was almost over. I put on my old Pendleton plaid jacket and made a circuit of addresses on the west side of the Willamette. The first half-dozen places I hit were a waste of time and gas. The next one I stopped at was on one of those healthy lawn, minivan-salted suburban streets in Beaverton and it looked like more of the same. Nothing but the usual piles of outdated clothing, unneeded gadgets, and ugly Christmas gifts until I got to the back corner of the garage.

That skinny old man was sitting there in a shiny brown suit and starched shirt, his thin white hair greased down so you could see the pink scalp underneath. He sat board straight on a folding chair, bony jaw set, dry blue eyes fiercely ignoring the broken mess around him. The thing that caught my eye was the red price tag on the sleeve of the old man’s coat. I fumbled to look at it. Twenty bucks.

It was an obvious mistake, a tag that had come off something else and got stuck on his sleeve. I could have just let it go, but I didn’t. I was in a sour mood after wading through all those wastelands of castoff crap and I wanted to take it out on somebody.

I licked my lips and sized up the woman running the sale. In her forties, washed out blonde hair, soft dough settling at the corners of her mouth. She wore a faded sweatshirt that said, “Walk For Life,” on the front. The old man’s daughter, maybe.

I pointed to the tag on the old man. “I’ve been looking for one like him ever since the one I used to have went south on me. Take fifteen for him?”

She raised an arm to push back her hair and stared hard at me a moment. “For the price, I can throw in some of his old clothes off the table there.”

That stopped me short, the way she answered back deadpan, not giving an inch to my joke. I pushed it farther, starting to haggle.

“He looks like he’s got a lot of years on him. How do I know he’s got enough time left on his clock to be worth it?”

Her expression stayed sober. “He might look stringy, but he comes from tough stock. He’ll hang on forever, believe me.”

“I’d still have to feed him. That costs something.”

“He hardly eats much anymore,” she said. “Just some oatmeal and milk in the morning, soup and bread for supper.” She looked me straight in the face. “I won’t take less than eighteen, Mister. That’s final.”

My cheeks got warm behind my glasses’ lenses. The joke had gone bad, but I was locked into some stubborn contest with this woman to see who would give in first and admit they weren’t serious. It was one of those prickly standoffs that you get into with a complete stranger over some petty thing and then it just escalates out of proportion. We were haggling over more than a couple of lousy bucks now. What was she trying to prove? Maybe she was only looking for a target for her frustration too, but I was damned if I was going to let her make me be the one to back off.

“Seventeen bucks,” I said.

“Done,” she said, and I thought she would snort a laugh at last and it would be over then, but instead she moved immediately to haul the old man up off the chair. All the while the woman and I had been haggling in front of him, he had never shown he was aware of it. Now he walked with balky stiffness as she led him firmly across the yard.

I knew for sure by then that the woman had to be having her own tart joke back on me. I was the one who started this business, so I had no case to complain. But it was the matter-of-fact way that she continued to pursue it that galled me. No matter what, I couldn’t let her get the satisfaction out of it now.

I played along with it and we got the old man and a paper sack of his clothes loaded into my SUV. He never even looked at us when we put him in, like he already knew what the score was.

At the curb, I counted out the bills into the woman’s palm, sure that she would break at some point. “His name is Ed,” was the last thing she said at the car door. “But you can call him whatever you want to.”

My heart was pounding harder when I climbed in behind the wheel. I had to call her bluff once and for all. How much further was she willing to let this standoff between us go? I started the engine and we rolled slowly away with no last minute shout from behind. When I looked up to the rear-view mirror, she was already selling a homely wicker lampshade to somebody else.

I continued around the corner and out of sight, then a flash of anger made me speed up and keep on going. Because if that woman expected me to just circle the block and then pull up sheepishly a minute later back at the sale, she was in for a surprise. Let her wait and think when we didn’t come back right away, see how she liked that.

I drove vacantly around the placid, leaf spotted streets for awhile and somehow ended up parked in the lot of the Safeway store on Murray Road. We sat there as the minutes ticked by while I tried to think what to do.

I looked over at the old man in the passenger seat, his furious stare fixed through the windshield glass, still acknowledging nothing. His withdrawal made me think first of a stroke, then Alzheimer’s, or maybe it was something else that circumstances had forced him to do for himself.

We sat in a limbo of unreality in the parking lot and for the first time, I thought seriously about keeping the old man. Because, really, what was to stop me from doing that now? I paid for him, didn’t I, and my offer was taken by the seller, so how did that leave things to stand legally? It had all started as a careless joke, or maybe it really wasn’t, and I just didn’t see it until then. The old man had taken his stance of stubborn denial. Why couldn’t I do the same?

I reached my hand over to touch the sharp ridge of his shoulder. He showed no reaction to me. If I tried to speak to him, what was there that I could explain to him about why either one of us was sitting there where we were?

That woman had told me the old man’s name, but it stuck in my throat like a wrong sound when I started to say it.

His stony exile never altered a bit and I could tell then that it wasn’t going to. Whatever private thing was working inside him, I could never have a place in his situation, just like he could never belong in mine. I would have seen that before if I had stopped to think.

The mute silence was broken by the sudden bump of a shopping cart against the side of the Jeep. My head turned and I saw a woman with yelling little kids mouth a “Sorry!” at me through the side window.

Finally, I had to give in and take the old man back to where I had bought him. It was the only way now for me to get out of this thing I had started. It left a sour taste for me to give that woman the last round between us. I could imagine the crowing stories she would tell her friends later about how she had got the better of me. Now I had to go back with my tail tucked, but I had to bring an end to what had gotten so warped out of any normal sense.

I drove out of the store lot and followed the cardboard signs on the corners back to the same garage sale. When I pulled up, the woman was shifting around the clutter in the driveway. I didn’t want to have to talk to her or even look her in the eye. I only wanted to drop off the old man, then get away from there.

I got out and she recognized me as soon as I walked up. I was ready for a knowing horselaugh from her for finally making me be the first one to blink, then at least this would all be done with. But she showed none of that. The dough around her mouth set in hard lines as she saw that I had returned the old man.

“What’s wrong?” she said. “Is he broken?”

pencil

William Wilde is a native Oregonian who divides his thoughts between work in financial management and writing fiction. He likes to use Pacific Northwest settings in his stories. E-mail: billwil[at]pacifier.com.

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