by Jon Sorensen

The garage sale ends as it does every year, leaving behind the pine cone lamp, the broken towel rack and the mismatched barbeque tools that will be saved for next year’s “Super-Sized, Village-Wide Garage Sale.”

“Just throw them away,” my wife calls through the door, too late, as I wobble onto the porch, arms clutching the Disney commemorative clock, the Swiss binoculars (with one functioning lens), and a dozen other things that no one would buy.

Whenever I ignore my wife, her first instinct is to repeat herself, only louder this time and with unmistakable enunciation.

“Leave-them-by-the-ROAD! They-will-be-gone-by-MOR-NING!”

Now we get physical.

Pressing her shoulder against the door, she tries to block my way back to the basement. I retaliate with my left foot, prying open the screen door until the bobble-head turtle and the oversized Easter basket slip from my fingers. The basket lands at my feet before the turtle, a souvenir from Folly Beach, falls straight into the basket, preparing itself for another year of storage.

Scowling through the window, my wife is less cooperative. She advises me not to – quote – “bring that junk inside this house!”

“Open up,” I respond impatiently. “You can’t just throw these things away.”
“Anybody would! Only YOU can’t!”

This is our late October ritual. We have spoken these lines before because nothing ever changes with the annual garage sale. Despite all of my work, very little is sold and now the leftovers must return to a dark corner of the basement until they reemerge next October and another chance at redemption.

Like our marriage, there is a lot to put away.
“It’s a garage sale – not an orphanage!” my helpful spouse reminds me. “Leave them by the road! Somebody’s going to take it!”

I never respond to this, her perpetual “suggestion,” although I have given it some thought over the years. Abandoning a few things would be easier than hauling everything back inside. It certainly would be easier than listening to her complain that I am a “hoarder” and a “packrat.”

It has been a long and unproductive day and I don’t have the energy to fight just now. My only answer is to pile my unsold goods onto the porch, covering the cracks and blisters I had promised to repaint, before I head back to the road to retrieve more stuff.

Kicking a path through the leaves, I remind myself that my wife seldom knows what she is talking about, especially when it concerns me.

I have never been a hoarder. What’s a packrat, anyway?

If I could choose the right word, I would call myself an “enthusiast.” This is not a description I can share with my wife. She knows I am nostalgic and sentimental, but she refuses to acknowledge my aesthetic side. Never mind that I have a profound appreciation for the beauty in nearly all things.
I have been this way for as long as I can remember.

While my classmates were buying snow globes and “Maid of the Mist” t-shirts, I came back from Niagara Falls with a collection of miniature hurricane lamps. Showing off my unique purchase, I was surprised by the curious, almost contemptuous, look on my teacher’s face. Before I could explain myself, Mr. Anderson abruptly turned and walked away, leaving me alone at the front of the bus. I was steamed.

For the rest of the trip, I imagined Mr. Anderson floating alongside the bus, a mound of soggy clothes and his face in the water, gliding down the Erie Canal. We get off the bus in Albany, but I see his large and buoyant body continuing south along the Hudson. I chuckled – in fact, I still do – to think of the hungry fish waiting for him in the ocean, dark and huge. Nibble, nibble, nibble!

I still have those glass lamps tucked away somewhere in the basement, apart from the area reserved for my garage sale items. Mr. Anderson’s quizzical expression has also stayed with me. I can feel his reproachful attitude from the people moving quickly past my garage sale tables – hardly looking at my merchandise! – as if finer things were waiting for them in the yard next door.

With each year’s sale, I’m finding more things left behind and it’s getting harder not to take this personally.

People can be so clueless. Why can’t they appreciate old or, at least, older, things even if they are not actual antiques? This, too, is a sore subject.

Who should decide whether something is an antique? Certainly not our local antique appraisers, those PBS wannabes. None of them has ever found anything valuable among my collections! Well, if that’s true, then what the hell is a ‘Limited Edition,’ I’d like to know.

The whole thing has the whiff of conspiracy.

How can I explain the empathy I feel for abandoned gadgets, like the Dan Quayle ‘Potatoe’ Peeler or the Wolfman Jack Shaving Kit, and all the other household kitsch and knick-knacks I have saved from the landfill?

I can find exquisite craftsmanship in the tiny faces of porcelain angels and I marvel at the intelligent design of the Jack Lalanne Fruit Juicer and Forearm Press. Even a chipped ceramic picture frame – with “Greetings from Blue Mountain Lake!” – can stir memories that nearly bring me to tears. So much of this is a mystery I can hardly express.

We used to do the garage sale together, back when my wife and I were first married and trying to fit into our new community. Now she leaves the garage sale entirely to me and still she complains about it!

“Where do you find this junk?” she gripes on the eve of every garage sale. She’ll say  it again the next morning as I carefully organize my merchandise, each item cleaned and tagged at the end of our driveway. But I never let Eeyore spoil my fun.

There is always an exciting discovery as I prepare for the annual sale, pulling out lost treasures that surprise even me. This year it was the Jimmy Durante electric tea kettle. (When the water boils, you hear a recording of Durante’s famous “HOT-cha-cha-cha, HOT-cha-cha-cha…” and then the water pours out through his nose. Classic!)

To improve my sales, I divide my items into various “departments” – sporting goods, housewares, entertainment, etc. (I tried signage for a few years until some wise guy kept asking me, “What floor is lingerie?”)

The Entertainment section is by far my largest department because the kids have accumulated so many video games, DVDs and books. My wife has bought the rest: romance novels and how-to advice on self-improvement, organizational management and relationship counseling.

I never have time to read. Eventually these books will find their way to the basement.

The book buyers – even the casual browsers – are always my favorite customers. Even if they don’t buy anything, just watching them hold a classic novel or thumb through one of my college textbooks makes me feel at one with these people. Other customers are not so kind.

Some people are still miffed from last year’s sale when I used an old police siren to signal the start of my “Five Minutes of Madness” sale. Someone even called the cops. They claimed the siren had nearly given them a heart attack. Well, if they’re so worried about their heart, then why don’t they buy the Ab-Rotator or one of my other exercise machines? That answer did not please the cop.

Another way to boost my sales is with “loss leaders” – one of the lessons I teach in my “Introduction to Business” class at the high school. By marking down the price of an expensive item – like a forgotten wedding gift, for example – a loss leader is a good way to draw people over to my less-popular perennials.

Most years, I put out a few of the kids’ belongings – their computer games or a birthday present (as long as the kids don’t notice). This time I decided to give away all of their action figures and plastic Disney characters we’ve collected from cereal boxes and countless Happy Meals. These toys were out for just a few minutes when the entire basket was scooped up by this creepy old woman.

She said her family uses these figurines at Christmastime, tying little strings around their necks before hanging each little body on a tree. “We call it the ‘Hanging Tree,’” she explained and my head snapped up as soon as she said it.

I searched her puckered face to see if she might be joking. She was smiling, but it did not look like a Christmassy kind of smile. As the old woman limped away, I could only imagine poor Mickey Mouse and the rest of those cartoon characters swinging helplessly from the Christmas Hanging Tree.

I’m about to tell this story to my wife when I see her pointing to the road.

“Don’t leave the card tables out there,” she squawks. “Those are worth something!”

I look back toward the road and sigh. It is not quite five o’clock and already they are coming up the street: those late-afternoon buzzards picking through the unsold leftovers in yards and driveways.
(Yards and driveways! This is another thing that drives me crazy about the Village-wide Garage Sale!)

How can people simply scatter their garage sale items across their yards without thinking about the dirt or the rain or the bugs? I always makes an effort to keep my merchandise dry and clean, spreading out tarps and setting up card tables and saw horses topped with plywood. Otherwise, what kind of message are you sending to your customers?

I wonder whether I should offer this advice to my neighbors.

At my sale, prices are always negotiable – right down to zero. I don’t care about the money. What I’m really looking for is validation. For me, every purchase is proof that my things are worth owning and keeping, despite what my wife thinks.

I would never say this, of course, but whenever someone buys something from my garage sale, I never really let it go. Somehow it always stays with me. It’s like that inscription I once saw on a decorative plate: “Everything you touch belongs to your heart.” In that way, I figure, anything I have ever sold still belongs to me.

Once you hold something, it’s yours forever.

I like to imagine where these things will end up in their new homes. Are they displayed prominently on curio cabinets or living room shelves? Will they be protected in keepsake boxes to be saved as heirlooms for future generations? Sometimes at night, I will look through windows to see for myself.
Of course, every garage sale is a chance to compare yourself to your neighbors and there’s always the usual assortment of velvet paintings, Thomas Kinkade jigsaw puzzles and stacks of the Readers Digest. Worst of all are the clothes – even underwear! – put out for sale with those low-rider jeans and the lowbrow sweatpants emblazoned with ‘Pink’ and ‘Juicy’ and those other unsavory suggestions.

And these are the people who sneer at MY merchandise!

The neighbors who draw the most curiosity reside in the larger, more stately homes. These people almost never participate in the Village-wide Garage Sale. It’s modesty, I suppose and I admire their reticence.

Having nicer things doesn’t give you license to flaunt your possessions before the entire world, sprinkling your castoffs like breadcrumbs for the birds! Despite my wife’s persistent nagging, this is why I refuse to leave anything out for free.

“Leave it by the road – somebody’s going to take it.” Somebody’s taking it, all right. Me!

Our village-wide event attracts people of all kinds and everyone is looking for a bargain. The auction houses and the knowledgeable collectors – the ones who know what they are looking for – arrive early in the morning before the wagon trains of mothers and their screaming offspring and the hagglers who pester you for a nickel off a ten-cent purchase or the clumsy browsers who pick things up from the table without returning them to their proper place!

By the time I set everything up and open for business, the wiser customers have come and gone. All that’s left are these scratch-off idiots, searching for a Dutch master that may be hiding beneath a Paint-by-Number clown. Imbeciles! (Trust me, I’ve had their children in my classroom!)

Once more, my thoughts are interrupted by my helpful bride.

“You should give away that ridiculous beer keg!” she hollers from upstairs.
With some effort, I respond. “Are you referring to the metallic umbrella stand?”

“Whatever it is. If you leave it out there, it’ll be gone in half an hour. Look – here comes someone now!”

I turn to see one of the freebie hunters moving closer to our driveway. He is a squat, thick-shouldered man, moving efficiently from yard to yard, as he tosses unsold residue into a truck that is following him up the street. Suddenly, the neighborhood feels like a Cormac McCarthy novel.

I start toward the road until I realize that this man has gotten too close. Going out there now would be embarrassing, as if I were offering scraps to a wandering dog. But this dog hardly seems to care. As soon as the man reaches my Sporting Goods table, he shows  no interest in any of my displays – and there are thirteen tables out there!

I’ll see about this!

Jumping down from the porch, I’m shouting, “Half off! Half off! Everything HALF OFF!”

I must have been speaking too loudly – or perhaps I was too agitated – because the man turns to me with a worried expression. Then, just as quickly, he goes back to searching the other yards, tossing more goods into his truck as he moves farther down the street.

Well what the hell? Not a wave of his hand or a how-do-you-do?

As if put all these things out here for my own amusement! I’m so angry now, I want to throw something!

On the Entertainment table, I see the Star Wars nesting dolls. I reach for them, but all that comes off in my hand is the top of Darth Vader. I look back at the table and there is Yoda staring back at me with that reproachful look again!

“Why are you shouting?”

I jump at the sound of my wife’s voice coming toward me! She never comes out during the garage sale and her appearance now fills me with dread. Casually, I slide to my right, attempting to block her view of the Housewares Department.

“It’s going to be dark before you get all this stuff inside,” she says and then her eyes darken. “What is that doing out here?”

She has spotted the silver tea service on the table behind me.
“What the hell? This was a wedding present!”

“I know, I know and I wasn’t trying to sell it – see, I’ve got it marked ‘SOLD.’ I put it out here to make the customers hungry for more. Get their curiosity up, you know?”

She is not listening to me. Cradling the silver service under her arm, she furiously burrows through the other tables, turning over magazine racks, used draperies and NFL towels.

“What else is out here?” she demands.

 “Nothing, nothing,” I respond meekly. “Take it inside, will you?”

She stands in front of me now, closer than she has been in quite a while, until the teapot’s pointy spout is pressing into my chest. I back away from the pain and wave a hand toward the mounds of unsold goods.

“Look, I’ll go through the rest of this now – okay? – and I’ll leave some things outside like you suggested. Somebody’s going to take it, right?”

Without another word, she leaves me by the road.

I begin my search in the Sporting Goods department. Immediately, I am torn by the sight of a Tony Jacklin seven iron, the Lawn Jarts and, most special of all, the Archie Peck-signature croquet set. This is going to be a tough choice.

No one else in the family wanted to learn croquet and the Jarts became an issue after my wife found the kids tossing them over the passing cars. I was supposed to throw them away, but I could no more junk the Jarts than I could part with the Lloyd Bridges Junior Harpoon. (For now, the harpoon is hidden in the basement, safe from the kids and any horseplay by the road.)

As I hold the seven iron in my hands, it occurs to me that golf seems to be such an easy game. I would have taken it up if I had found more clubs. Instead, I turn to the beer keg umbrella stand and, by the next morning, the keg is gone.

“Someone took the umbrella stand,” I tell her, pretending to be pleased.
“Really? I didn’t think anyone would want that ugly old thing.”
“If you must know, that was a great example of Americana folk art.”
“It was a piece of something, all right.”

“Maybe you don’t appreciate what others can.”

“I’ll bet it won’t happen again,” she sneers. “Not with your junk.”

I take the bait. That night, I put out an Underwood typewriter and, even with it missing a ribbon and several keys, the typewriter vanishes by the next morning. I felt badly at first because I always intended to get that thing repaired. A solid typewriter can be a good backup on those days when the Internet is down.

Now that the Underwood has disappeared so quickly, I am intrigued. Someone obviously appreciates my things, at least enough to take them away and get them fixed. So I decide to offer more of my garage sale inventory: weathered pots and pans, bed frames, some serving trays, six boxes of masonry screws, an electric bread slicer that is missing its blade. Without a sound, night after night, another item is swept away.

It now feels as if I am part of something important, like some new happening in the Village. I have made a connection to someone or something that is mysterious and unspoken.
Until the ceramic wall tiles.

I knew this was a bit of a gamble because each tile is decorated with a letter of the alphabet and for some reason all of my vowels are missing. The tiles sit there for several days until one morning I see my wife out by the road and she is speaking to that thick-shouldered man – the buzzard from the garage sale. They are each holding some of the alphabet tiles and they seem to be laughing!
“He wanted those tiles?” I ask when she comes inside.

“No, that’s not what he wants.”
“Why not?”
“Relax. He’s only interested in metal – you know, steel, iron. He runs that big salvage yard out by the highway.”
“Does he live in the village?”
“No, he’s got that huge house out on Stimson.”
“The mansion – past the school?”

“The one with the enormous boat. He also has a repair shop out there. You should talk to him about that floor safe you put in the basement. He might want to buy it or maybe he can fix it for you.”
How I got that thing down to the basement, I have no idea. The safe must weigh close to 700 pounds and it is as ugly as it is useless – painted haphazardly in dull silver paint with a door that has not been opened in more than fifty years. It had been in my parents’ house and as far as anyone could remember the combination was lost before the war. Even with the right numbers, I doubt it will open. I use it now to hold up my work bench.

Still, the idea of getting it fixed is enticing and for the next several weeks I think about the valuables I could put inside my safe.

“I think I’ll stop out to see the salvage guy,” I tell my wife. Predictably, she frowns.

“You’ll never get around to it. I’ll give him a call. His name is Donald Baylor. People call him Donnie. I have his card.”
“How did you get that?”
“I went out to see his secondhand shop a couple of weeks ago.”
“You never mentioned it.”
“You never listen.”
A few days later, Donnie Baylor comes over to look at the safe in the basement.

“What are you going to do with that?” Baylor asks, pointing to a 240-volt air conditioner resting on the floor. The hulking machine is holding up the other side of the work bench.

“That was my mother’s,” I tell him. “We can’t use it. It’s way too big for this place.”
Without thinking, I hear myself say, “Do you want to buy it?” Before I can take it back, Donnie Baylor offers me twenty-five bucks.

“I’d give you more but it’ll take at least two of my guys to get it out of here.”

“Okay, I guess. Let me think about it.”

Examining the safe, Baylor shakes his head. “It’ll take an awful lot to get this thing open. Pretty much stuck for good, I’d say.” Then Baylor turns and smiles. “It’s too bad – we were doin’ so good, you and me.”

“What do you mean?”

“Those things you’ve been leaving by the road. It’s not a lot, but it’s all been good scrap. I figured you must have more down here.”

“Scrap?” I ask.

“We recycle all kinds of metal.”
“You mean you fix them?”
“No, we drop it in a kiln and melt it.”
I take a step backward, falling against the staircase. I picture the beer keg umbrella stand, the Underwood typewriter, the serving trays and all the rest of it melting in a pot of boiling ore.
Gone forever.
“I didn’t … realize.” I hurry up the stairs before “Donnie” can say anything more. A minute later, my wife comes down the basement stairs.

“He said you wanted to ask me something?”

“Ask you what?” Then Baylor chuckles. “Well maybe I do have some questions for you …”

“Then the answer is yes, yes, yes …” she whispers, stepping into his embrace. Their hips slide together as he reaches for the back of her head, kissing her hard on the mouth. Leaning against the work bench, she presses her hands inside his work shirt until something startles her from behind. With a faint cry of surprise, she pulls her hands back and turns toward the noise at the bottom of the stairs.

It’s me.

Baylor moves away from the work bench as my wife straightens her clothes, pulling back her hair and stealing a cautious glance toward me. She frowns – again – as she reads the front of my t-shirt:  “You Have To Be Odd To Be Number One.” It looks as if she might start laughing.

Tucking in his shirt, Baylor feels the spittle still lurking around his mouth. He wipes it away with the back of his hand and then closes his hand into a fist. I’m still not moving.
“So what do you want to do?” Baylor asks.

“About what?” I say, miserably.
“Your stuff.”

I was asking myself that very question as I stood at the top of the stairs, listening to my wife make love to “Donnie.” My mind was racing through the garage sale inventory – the harpoon, the croquet mallets, the Lawn Jarts, the golf club – because I could not go back into the basement until I had something in my hands.

I might have forgiven them, but it’s too late for that now. Once you hold something, it’s yours forever. Well, he can have her.

Opening a drawer in the kitchen, I pull out a large carving knife, part of the Ginsu Steak Knife Collection from late-night TV.

The noise from the basement is getting louder now, pulling me toward the stairs. I take each step carefully because the knife is long and dangerous. It also gives me time to think since I don’t know what, exactly, I’m going to do with this knife.

In the half light of the basement, I see her smirking at me, her shoes scratching against the grit of the basement floor, until I bring the knife out from behind my back and then she stops moving. She doesn’t understand why I am holding this long knife.

Do I have to remind her?
Somebody’s going to take it.

About the Author:

A writer in upstate New York, Jon Sorensen was the Albany bureau chief for the New York Daily News, the Buffalo News and other newspapers prior to working as a consumer frauds investigator and a public relations director for state agencies in New York.