Years ago a colleague stopped me in the hall and said, “Elizabeth, you liked the movie last night, didn’t you?” He’d heard me laugh. It’s nice when people actually know you by your laugh, there in the crowd, in the dark. I grew up in a smallish town and I like a small world. But I don’t go to the movies much and so the General Anonymity of Being doesn’t get pierced very often, at least not in unexpected ways. I know: I don’t get out enough.
Last weekend, though, I headed to an auction. It was an estate sale, the kind where they post a handwritten sign in the yard for two or three weeks and there’s a day when everyone comes to walk through the place, checking out the furniture, looking at the roof, wondering whether to think about—gasp—bidding on the house itself, or just set hopes on the china cupboard unaccountably kept in the basement. I wanted a desk chair. There were two: antique, oak, also in the basement, and if I were lucky maybe I could get them both. A friend was interested in some dressers—two of those, as well—and my god, there was a ton or two of tools. The lately departed had been a woodworker and his shop was very well appointed. I didn’t see any real sign of a garden—he’d been in his 90s, so it might have been a while since the yard had got much attention—but a thicket of wood-handled shovels and hoes and mattocks and such sprawled against the side of the house. A lifetime of stuff, all hauled out and set on folding tables in the yard, or stacked on the patio wall, or leaned up underneath the eaves.
In the garage, under the deceased’s lumber collection stored in the rafters, a woman from the auction company scanned my driver’s license and gave me Number 64, handwritten in beautiful fat black marker. Already, a few people were buying slices of pie, bratwurst in a bun, cold sodas. The sky couldn’t decide between rain and not-rain, the clouds testing all the gradations in between.
Well, a person had to practice. I bid on a framed woodblock print, said to be Birger Sandzén (“we don’t know if it’s original,” the auctioneer muttered)—trees in motion, the vertical heft of the trunk balanced by all that lateral leaf-canopy, reaching and swaying in the invisible wind. “Let’s start at five-hundred, five-hundred dollars,” he called out but nobody nibbled, not till he dropped all the way down to a starting price of only 50 bucks. I joined in, hung with it for a few volleys, and then shook my head into silence. This was Just Practice. When the piece went for $165 I walked over to the woman who’d bought it and asked for a look. “Nice,” I said, and she agreed.
After that it was time for chatting, drifting around while the collectibles were scattered or sold in little matched cherubic pairs. A couple of friends showed up: Gina looked again at the dressers, favoring one with 1940s lines and a fresh coat of green chalk paint. Marcia checked out a table loaded with office equipment—adding machine tape, a paper cutter, a three-hole punch. A paper shredder! She needed one. Then they took off—it would be hours before the furniture came up for sale. My friend Alison texted me—could I please send her a picture of the lawnmower? Sure. By the garage I chatted with a guy also admiring the garden tools. I picked up a little folding shovel—loosen the screw ring, snap the blade into place.
“Isn’t that cute,” I said.
“It’s an old Boy Scout shovel,” the guy answered, with a gap-tooth smile that indicated yeah, it was cute, but he wouldn’t be the one to say so.
Out back I chatted with a man with a Vietnam Veterans hat and a pristine Louisiana accent. We stood on the patio beside the rock retaining wall. “It’s a nice house,” he offered. “My wife would love it. But this lot—too many snakes!” He stared unhappily at the ivy-draped hillside sloping under leafless trees. “I walk on this road sometimes,” he said. “Once I saw a big snake right out front.”
The yard was what I liked best about the place. Some big oaks, older than I am. But why argue?
“I guess snakes could keep down the mice,” I offered lamely, and he laughed.
“You got that right,” he said. I never saw him bid on anything; just here for the occasion, maybe.
Down in the walkout basement I sat in the desk chairs, one after another. I flipped them over for inspection. An older couple was also checking them out, along with the other antiques. We chatted and I learned their story: they’d known one another in childhood, but she’d moved away—did she say just after high school? Or before? They’d had separate lives, known loss: each had buried a spouse. Another text pinged in from Alison—instructions to bid on that lawnmower—and I lost just how it was they reconnected, but reconnect they had.
We traded seats—there was an oak rocker, gracile and golden, that we all sat in and admired, and I figured I wouldn’t be able to snag that. There was a bent-wood club chair with a brocade seat. There was an old church pew, its stern back against the wall.
I told them I sit for a living. As I’d guessed, they were both retired.
One of the desk chairs, we all agreed, had more character, slightly lither lines.
“It’s been repaired somewhere along the way,” I said. Maybe they’d want it just a little less?
“Sure enough. But those are antique, square screws. That work was done a long time ago.” He didn’t sound uninterested.
A friend of some friends was on a mission with the china cupboards. In a convoluted way, he was the reason I was there at all. A UPS deliveryman, Mike had known when another house up the street came empty—the owner died of lung cancer, far too young, he said. He’d put the word out to our mutual friends, Ed and Sil, that the place would be for sale and they’d snapped it up before it could hit the market. A new roof, maybe a new deck—it needed lots of work but they had both skills and patience. My partner Dave and I had come by to visit while they were in town working on the place and that’s when I saw the auction sign just down the street. How one-degree-of-separation-ish things are! Thirty years ago Dave lived in half a duplex, Ed and Sil in the other. “We almost shared a bathroom,” Sil told me once. Almost? “The toilets were right behind each other with just the wall between. Sometimes I’d be sitting on ours and when Dave sat on the one in his unit I’d go up like a little teeter-totter.” They love this story. Dave said, “I’m pretty sure I heard Sil say, ‘Wheeee!’”
Mike was looking a little perplexed. He, too, was charged with bidding on behalf of absent buyers.
“Sil asked me to try to get the unusual one, with light-colored wood,” he said. Which one was that? Together we examined them all—there were three, none with wood we’d call dark—and Mike sent emails, left phone messages. “Maybe they’ll get back to me before it’s time to bid.” He bought a few boxes of books and carried them to his truck.
A couple maybe in their 20s bought a few comforters and towels. They bought a large framed picture, lots of sky and trees. “Nice to see young people at an auction,” somebody called out. They grinned.
A woman wearing a belted coat and a look of guarded interest scooped up piles of assorted whatevers when the bidding lagged. Two dollars? Two-fifty? Nope, no takers. But time was also money so, Sold: a dollar bill, the auctioneer would proclaim, and Number 52 would have another midden heap. This was the image we’d contemplated when my aunt died. Who could stand a bunch of strangers pawing through her eclectic collections bereaved of all their stories, waiting to be hauled away for just a dollar bill? Not us. Whatever wasn’t in the will we gave to people who knew her—she’d lived over 60 years in the same small town. The last remnants I loaded into the van a friend had loaned me and took to the thrift store. When someone sold it off for almost nothing, we wouldn’t have to be around to watch.
Gina and Marcia were nowhere to be seen, so when the time came I bought the paper shredder: $3 and it came complete with a grocery sack half full of shreds. I bid on a bunch of wood clamps but I didn’t need them, really, and they went to the Reconnected Couple. So did a box of wood chisels. I bought a Skilsaw remembering the times I’d wished I had one. I bought the lawnmower! The Young Couple got down to business—this was what they’d really come for: ladders, air compressor, drill press. The guy I talked with earlier bought the folding shovel and when I shot him a smile, he gave me a double thumbs-up.
“Okay,” said the auctioneer, “we’re going to move inside now for the furniture. The rooms are small so we’ll have staff located throughout the house. You don’t have to be in the same room with the piece you want to bid on.” That, I thought, would be intimidating.
Folks packed the deck to watch the kitchen appliances sold off one by one. In the tiny living room the buyers squeezed together, three of us on the sofa that somebody eventually bought out from under us, not quite “As-Is.” Gina still wasn’t back so I managed to cram into the bedroom and was bidding on the green dresser—I’ve got seventy who’ll give me seventy-five—when she finally showed up and I could duck out. All over the house came little yelps and yips as the crew worked through disorder of the multi-room action. Bidding from the hallway, from the next room, the assistants like border collies nipping the chaos into formation. Eighty-five, eighty-five, YEP, now ninety. Now ninety. YEP.Ten dollars for the Good Lamp, Good Lamp. Who’ll go fifteen for the Good Lamp? Twelve-fifty? YEP.
By the time the action moved to the basement it was getting dark. This time I stood squashed against the wall to bid on the chairs. The Reconnected Couple, sitting on that church pew, went high for buyer’s choice and took the golden rocker and—the other desk chair. I actually blew them a kiss. Mine came up next and I kept with the bidding—YEP—until it SOLD fifty-five dollars Number 64, that’s 64. Gina wanted an antique step stool but had lost her number card; the auctioneer rolled his eyes a little but put it on my ticket, Number 64. There were no takers for the Good Club Chair so I nodded once, twice, and bought it, SOLD, for just ten dollars. Somehow, in the general good will, I also managed to buy a plastic potted plant.
Winding up, then winding down. Everywhere, people were backing up cars and trucks and trailers. We tied the lawnmower on Gina’s little flatbed trailer to deliver to Alison. I unloaded the potted plant on Number 52, the woman who’d been buying up little one-dollar lots—she actually gave me two bucks for it. The Reconnected Couple and I said goodbye in the street. Mike hadn’t bought a china cabinet after all—“Sil said she’d go to a hundred but a dealer kept bidding it up until it went for $225.”
Only after dropping off the lawnmower did I remember the Good Club Chair, paid for but left behind. By the time I got back the place was thinning out. Two young kids were tumbling in the front yard; a boom box played old pop music in the cavity of the kitchen. A woman with long hair, whom I hadn’t seen all day, was sitting on the front stoop and as I climbed the stairs, the chair in my arms, she stood up and came indoors. It was her parents’ house we had been disassembling.
“Oh, I always liked that chair,” she said.
You see already where this story is going, where it’s going to end.
She tried not to take it, but that good chair wasn’t heading home with me, not now. I thought of the antique ice pick, the one thing I wanted most from my aunt’s kitchen, and the way she’d freeze blocks of ice in old milk containers, the old waxed carton kind, and then she’d bust them up to fill her cooler for days at the lake. I thought about my mother’s drop leaf table, shipped all the way across the Pacific when my brother and sister-in-law moved to New Zealand, how they will get to sit at it in their new dining room, the one that looks out over Tasman Bay instead of the oaks and wild cherries we all saw, thirty years ago, from my mother’s place. The desk chair looks a lot like one my father had throughout my childhood.
“I’m sorry for your loss,” I said—another lame sentence, rubbed thin with overuse, but it’s what a person can say to strangers. Then I let myself out into the cold spring night and drove home with the Skilsaw and desk chair and paper shredder in the back of my car.