Mrs. Fisk is a collector. Cup and saucer sets, linens, and anything at all related to monkeys. Those are the things she looks for, but she’ll buy anything she thinks is “a steal.”
We arrived at the house at 25 Meadowlark Lane at 8:30 on a damp, windy Florida February morning. We needed to get there early so no one would beat us to the treasures. Whenever Mrs. Fisk used this word, I saw old ladies dragging chests of Sinatra records, flowery dresses, and strings of pearls from attics and basements. Pirates with etiquette.
There was a small cluster of nine or ten people gathered on the front porch. They all knew one another and greeted Mrs. Fisk as she claimed the bottom step. She introduced me by saying, “She’s a first-timer.”
While I was trying to decide between an excited or somber “hello,” a young man in well-worn khakis with many pockets and a faded yellow linen shirt thrust his hand at me. “Good luck in there. If you see something you want pick it up, don’t leave and think it over while you look around. If you do, it won’t be there when you go back for it.” He was obviously going with excited, potential treasure outweighing the presence of death.
“What are you hunting?” asked a tall man in a red flannel shirt.
“I like books,” I said. I’d chosen somber, with a politely excited smile.
“Ah. There’s always books. You can have them. I’m after the tools. You aren’t looking for tools too are you?”
“No. Just books.”
As 9:00 approached, the mood on the porch became tense and the loose crowd of people began to form a clear line. People shifted one foot to another, waiting for the door to open. No more fellow felling on the porch steps, now. Position was important. Everyone decided which room to head for first.
“They won’t let us in until exactly 9:00. The guy that’s running this sale never does,” Mrs. Fisk told me. “You have to really bargain with him, too. He’ll tell you that prices are firm the first day of the sale, but if you bother him enough he’ll break down just to get rid of you. If he doesn’t, hide what you want and come back for it tomorrow.”
He opened the door one minute early.
“He must be in a good mood,” I said.
The door opened and a tall young man in glasses waved everyone in. He had a table set up by the door and he greeted the first few people rushing through the door by name, including Mrs. Fisk. She just nodded. I smiled, head down, and said, “Hello.”
The hall opened into a dining room that once may have been very elegant. A massive Eastlake mahogany dining set was the centerpiece of the room. Large, white price stickers marred the deep glow of the dining table, china cabinet, and sideboard. Beyond this room was a living room with a long yellow embroidered couch, a slender ebony inlaid coffee table, and a delicate Victorian wicker rocker, all spoiled by the round white price stickers. The living room and dining room were separated by an archway and there was a lady standing in the arch.
“She works here. Makes sure no one steals anything,” Mrs. Fisk said, as she rummaged through a box of linens next to the sideboard.
“What do you mean works here? Isn’t this someone’s home?”
“Oh, no. Well, yes, it was, or is. I don’t know the story on this house. Amanda,” she called to the lady in the doorway, “is this person dead or in a home? What’s the story?”
“She passed away.”
“Thanks,” Mrs. Fisk said and went back to rifling through the linens, scattering them onto the floor at her feet. “Go find your books. You don’t have to stick with me.”
“The books are in the study,” Amanda said. “Go through the kitchen and around the corner past the back door.”
“Thanks. This is my first time,” I explained.
In the kitchen a woman and her husband had dumped a drawer of flatware on the counter and were pulling out all the forks, separating them into small piles according to pattern. I stepped over the drawer that lay discarded in the middle of the floor into another hallway.
There were delicate, hand colored etchings of Paris and Rome lining the walls of the hall, sloppy red prices scrawled onto the price stickers. The hardwood floor framed a blue, gold, and green rug. Persian or Oriental, I didn’t know, but I got the feel from it that I wasn’t going to be able to afford anything I might find in this house.
The young guy in the khakis whom I had met out front was in the study. I hadn’t gotten his name, so I tagged him Zippo guy when I saw his fanaticism for the lighters he was inspecting.
“You’re a special one,” he said to a lighter he held close to his nose. “Ah, flinty. Don’t you love that smell.”
There was a sign on the wall that said, “Hard covers $2 Paperbacks 50 cents unless otherwise marked.” The large room was filled with books.
I could see myself sitting in an overstuffed lounge chair in the middle of the room, a lamp on a small table next to me, and books lining every wall. Paperbacks mixed in with hard covers. Books arranged not according to what they looked like, what they were worth, and especially not alphabetically, but according to subject. History with history, adventure with adventure, classics with classics, plays with plays, mysteries with mysteries, reference books with reference books, and on and on.
Now there were crooked piles of books on the floor, on tables, under tables where they had fallen off, some crammed into bookcases wherever they would fit, and those few that still stood, somehow managing to transcend the chaos to stand dignified and upright.
The books were piled up in the room like a pirate’s booty waiting to be discovered, so I dug in. The chaos enticed me, made me less reverent and cautious in my handling of the books than I was in the rare and used bookstores I frequented.
I was almost finished going through the books an hour later. I couldn’t linger over the books the way I wanted because of a man who had come in wearing a bright blue T-shirt with “Book Cellar” and a phone number printed in bright gold letters across the back. He crowded next to me and started grabbing books before I was able to get into a comfortable mood with them.
I had worked my way around the room where the Zippo guy was still fondling lighters. “You need a box to protect your things,” he said.
I looked down at the books in my stack. There were some I’d been hunting for a few months—the last two original James Bond paperbacks I needed to finish my set and a 1920s hard cover edition of Conan Doyle’s The Lost World. I didn’t want to lose these. “A box. Sure. Where can I find one?”
He pointed under the table. When I pulled out the box a stack of small red leather books with gold-lettered spines fell over. They were only about half the size of a paperback. I reached for them, but the book guy, who’d lurked closer to me when I bent under the table, got them first. He thumbed through them, then looked around the room, scanning the shelves and the piles on the floor.
“Have you seen any more of these?” he asked.
I shook my head at the ass.
“Well then,” he said holding the books out to me, “you can have them. They aren’t worth anything without the rest of the set.”
I held small late Victorian editions of Shakespeare’s plays Antony and Cleopatra, Julius Caesar, and Titus Andronicus in my hands. They each had fine etchings before the title page. The pages were thin, but heavy, paper and there was a red ribbon to be used as a page marker sewn into the binding. The page edges were gilt.
“These are more valuable than you think,” I said to him.
He came up from under the table with two Dickens volumes in his hand. “No they aren’t,” he said. “Not unless you have the rest of the set. Even then, they are common.”
I turned my back on him and pretended to be interested in the Zippo guy’s lighters.
He pulled a book and its cargo of lighters closer.
“I already have one of those,” I said. “Mine is from 1932. Is that a Webster’s New International? It looks just like mine. I weighed it on my bathroom scale right after I bought it. 15 pounds. I’ve never had mine appraised.”
The Zippo guy shrugged. “I don’t know what it’s worth. I’m only paying two bucks for it though, no more.”
“Why do you want it?” I asked the Zippo guy.
He just shrugged.
“There she is. Are you having any luck? Find any good deals?” Mrs. Fisk came rushing into the room. She peeked into my box. “Well, I guess you have. I’ve got some more looking to do, but I want to go ahead and pay for these things so I don’t have to lug them around.” She held up a small box full of linens, topped off by a small porcelain monkey holding a violin. “I found another little guy for my monkey band. I need your keys so I can lock this stuff in your car. Want me to take those books out for you so you can look around some more?”
“Yes. Thanks.” I gave her the keys and some money for the books.
“I’ll bargain him down on these for you,” she said. “No use paying full price if you are going to take so many off their hands.”
When I passed through the kitchen again it was wrecked. A woman was stuffing cans and boxes of food into a garbage bag. “It’s free,” she said. “They can’t charge for it.” She pulled a bottle of vodka out of the cabinet over the oven. “The booze is free too.”
In the hall to the bedrooms, people were shuffling past each other with armloads of stuff.
In the first bedroom a lady not much older than Mrs. Fisk was dumping some cheap costume jewelry into her purse and into the pocket of her purple jacket.
In the next bedroom there were clothes piled on a large metal canopy bed. The blue brocade bedspread was in a heap on the floor. There didn’t seem to be anyone in the room, so I went in. I picked up a pink chenille sweater from the floor. A sign on the wall read, “Dresses, purses, shoes, other clothing $4.” Cheaper than the thrift store I went to sometimes.
I had one arm into the sweater when a lady in a white dress suit with a Chanel scarf around her neck came out of the closet. “Hey, that’s mine. I threw it on the bed there. That’s my pile.”
She bumped into the dresser, sending a picture frame sliding across the floor. A skinny gray-haired lady in too bright pink lipstick smiled up at me from the photo at my feet.
“That sweater was on my pile, miss.” The lady in the Chanel shook a hanger at me. “Give me the sweater.” She tugged on the empty sleeve so hard I spun half around and tripped over my own feet. When I hit the floor, the woman pulled the sweater free. She picked up the pile of clothes on the bed and looked down at me, and said, “Pink is my color.” Then she left.
I lifted the dust ruffle of the bed to find the picture that had slid under when I fell to the floor. I grabbed the photo and slid around the bed on my butt towards a book shaped dark object at the head of the bed.
It was Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls. An appointment card for a doctor’s visit, dated only three weeks ago, for Anna Marchette marked the page where Robert Jordan and Maria feel the earth move.
I hugged the book to my chest, set the photo of Anna face down on the night table, and left the bedroom.
The book didn’t look new, but it was in very good condition. There were a few minor bumps to the corners and a little tear in the dust jacket at the top of the spine, but these were minor flaws. I opened to the publication page. First edition. In good condition. Original dust jacket. There was no shiny white price tag in or on the book. Someone could buy it for the two dollar hard cover price announced on the signs in the study.
I hurried down the hall, holding the book tight. Mrs. Fisk and a friend were waiting for me.
A tall elderly woman was sitting on the embroidered yellow couch clutching a photo album to her chest and watching people pillaging Anna’s home for bargains and treasures.
“This is her sister’s house,” Mrs. Fisk whispered.
“It is,” said her friend. She was a small woman, who barely came up to my chin. “She shouldn’t be here. I never understand why family comes to these things.”
“I would think it would be unpleasant for them,” said Mrs. Fisk. “I wouldn’t want people rummaging through my family things, or my own at that. Buying my things. That’s awful to think of.”
Mrs. Fisk turned her back to the sister and stepped in close to her friend. She pulled a small brooch out of her dress pocket. “Look what I found stashed under the bathroom sink. Someone must have hid it there for tomorrow when Bill will half price and negotiate.”
“Oh, that’s pretty,” said her friend. “How much is it?”
“I don’t know. There’s no tag on it.”
“Well, just slip it in your pocket. They don’t know it’s here.”
“That’s stealing,” I said.
“They’ll never miss it. Besides the lady’s dead, she doesn’t need it. If it was important to the sister she would have found it,” Mrs. Fisk said, slipping the brooch back into her pocket. “Are you ready?”
I held the Hemingway at my side, tapping the bulk of it against my thigh.
The line at the front door was long and slow, so I was trapped listening to Mrs. Fisk prattle on about her monkey band.
“Do you need that book for your collection?” Mrs. Fisk asked me.
“I’m not a collector.”
“But you have all those books,” said Mrs. Fisk. “All neat and dusted. You take good care of them like I do my linens and my monkeys. I’d call that a collection, which makes you a collector.”
“I don’t buy them to collect. I buy them to enjoy,” I said.
“So do I,” Mrs. Fisk said. She was smiling at me like she knew something I didn’t. This old woman who was going to steal a junky old brooch she could very well afford to pay for. I could never afford a first edition Hemingway. She was just smiling and smiling as if even when she did pay for something she wasn’t stealing. That’s what she did; she looked for “steals.” She’d said it to me a hundred times. “Oh look at this monkey, it was a steal. What a treasure.”
“What is that book?” she asked now. “It looks old.”
“It’s a Hemingway, and it is old.”
“That makes it valuable doesn’t it?” she asked.
“Old doesn’t necessarily mean valuable. It’s two bucks and that’s what I’m paying.”
“See. A steal.”
“The brooch you’re stealing,” I said. “What’s it worth? Are you really going to enjoy it, stealing it from a dead lady like a grave robber.”
“Oh, my god,” yelled Mrs. Fisk. “Oh, how can you? Did you hear what she said? Stealing? Me? Never. No.”
Her friend hugged her as people in line started to look our way. I think I must have been the only one who saw Mrs. Fisk slip the brooch down the front of her friend’s dress.
I fled to the living room.
There was the sister, Anna’s sister, sitting on the couch looking through photo albums.
“Excuse me,” I said, sliding the Hemingway onto the couch between myself and the sister. “I think you might want this.”
The sister looked at the Hemingway. “I’m not much of a reader,” she said. “Anna was. She loved her books.”
The Zippo guy came up to us holding out a stack of letters. “I found these in an old dictionary. I looked at a couple. They’ve never been sent, but they were written by the lady that used to live here.” He smiled and winked at me as if we had some secret to share.
“My sister,” the woman said, taking the letters. She ran her fingers across the faint blue print on the first letter. “This one’s to her daughter, Isabella. She died when she was only fourteen. Anna told me she wrote letters to her and to our brother Horace who was killed in World War II. I looked all over the house for these.”
The Zippo guy handed her a handkerchief from one of his many pants pockets.
“Thank you,” she said.
“There’s only one with a stamp. I think that’s a good stamp, too. Worth a little bit of money,” he told her.
“Thank you for returning them to me.” She peeked into the Zippo guy’s boxes. “Oh, Henry’s lighters. I wish one of the kids had wanted these. Henry took such care of them.”
“I can tell.”
The sister reached into the Zippo box and pulled out a lighter. “Why don’t you just slip out the back door with me,” she said, stroking the surface of the lighter in her hand. “I’d much rather give them away than have them sold. It won’t seem so impersonal.”
The Zippo guy smiled, but shook his head. “Oh, no. You don’t need to do that.”
But of course Anna’s sister insisted. The Zippo guy’s resistance disappeared.
I grabbed the Hemingway and got up from the couch unnoticed by the sister and the crooked Zippo guy. I slipped into the hall, pressing my back to the wall and peeking around the corner to keep the Zippo guy and the sister in my sight.
I had tried to give the Hemingway to the sister. I was being honest. More honest than the guy she was leading through the kitchen and out the back door.
I hurried behind them hoping to get to the back door before the sister came back in and locked it.
“What are you doing?”
My hand was on the doorknob; I could have run.
Amanda was behind me. I stared at the “Adams’ Auctions and Estates” on her shirt, thinking fast, fast. What could I say?
“I was just looking outside for my friend. She’s not in here anywhere. I thought maybe she went outside.”
“Have you paid for that book you’re walking out with?” she asked.
“I’m not walking out with it. Mrs. Fisk told me she paid for it when she paid for my other books earlier.”
“Where are the other books?” Amanda asked.
“In my car,” I mumbled.
“Why do you still have that one then?” She held her hand out for the book.
“Do you know Mrs. Fisk?” I asked.
“Yes,” she replied. “Too well.”
“She put a brooch she found in the bathroom down the front of her friend’s dress so that she wouldn’t have to pay for it. It looked expensive.”
She reached past me and locked the door.
“Anna’s sister won’t be able to get back in now. She helped the guy who buys lighters carry his things outside. She wanted him to have them for free.” I said this as if I thought it was the sweetest thing I had ever heard.
“Jesus, you people. Out this door?” she asked.
“Yes,” I said. Go, go, go.
She went, leaving the door open.
I waited a beat and locked the door.
About five minutes later it was easy to slip past the chaos of people in the hallway held up by the argument between Bill, the Zippo guy, and Anna’s sister.
“I am currently a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Southern Mississippi and an adjunct instructor of Composition, Literature, and Creative Writing at the University of West Florida in Pensacola. I have only 3 publication credits, however: a short story in Product, a short story in Emerald Coast Review X, and a poem in Nightmares. I write constantly, but am woefully undisciplined when it comes to submitting my work. I enjoy the writing much more than the marketing, I guess.” E-mail: ras[at]uwf.edu.