Words and Photo by A.A. Reinecke
The word “yard sale” draws, to most, an image of dust bottomed glassware; to the soft of mind it conjures prospect of silverware to reveal,
with lye and metal wool, the initials of a president’s cousin or another man of once-removed significance. To John Brady, the worth of whose brain had been estimated—by a small, but by all means reputable newspaper—at the sum of four million and seventy five thousand dollars, it meant a particularly green afternoon in Poughkeepsie, New York.
Karen’s was a good house with a wide lawn, a brick exterior and a tennis court made of imported clay. She had a folding table open on the cement of the front walk up; over her face sat the effect of hastened dissipation. “Brady,” she said, when he approached the lawn, “The million dollar brain.”
Brady stopped at the table. His nephew stood at Karen’s legs with his six year old palms tight to her jean-clad calves. “Hey Bumby.”
Bumby clung tighter.
“Say hi, Bumby.”
“Where’s Dad?” said Bumby.
“Dad’s sleeping,” said Karen.
“Will he be up soon?”
“I don’t know.” Karen tucked her thin, dark blonde hair behind her ears. “Can you get Uncle John a cocoa?” she said.
Brady put his hands in his coat pockets. “You tell ‘em—”
“Yeah. That he’s sleeping,” Karen said. “I feel like nothing’s real. Do you ever feel like that? Like someone’s ‘gonna wake me and tell me he’s only in the shower. Only, I don’t know, at the store for a carton of milk. Though it were a fake. The capsize. The blood.”
Brady ran his hand over his hair, held it a minute where the shore of it met his forehead, as one might hold a bandage, an ice pack, a handful of mint sprigs for a headache. He was smarter than swimming in grief, he thought. He’d retreated from that high dive and was better for it.
Bumby returned with a Styrofoam cup. He looked like Gerald, with eyes both navy and gray but not really either, and a pencil-width mouth.
Brady accepted the cup. “Thanks.”
Bumby shirked away and pressed his chest tight against the greyhound—a thin, meek dog who sat with all the movement of a paperweight beside Karen’s calves. “Why isn’t Robert sleeping with him?”
Karen looked down at her son. “With who?”
“What do you mean who? Dad.”
“Dad’s sleeping alone.”
“Why not with Robert?” he said. Gerald had named the greyhound Robert E. Lee when he brought him from the breeder in Maine, for his gray coat.
“Robert does his own sleeping, dear.”
Bumby was unappeased. “I want Dad.”
“I told you he’s sleeping.”
“I don’t care he’s sleeping. I want him.”
Robert E. Lee, whose left ear the comment hard largely been cast into, turned his head and gave a feeble attempt at standing. When Bumby failed to release his arms he let out a military bark.
Bumby leaned his olive-skinned, six year old face beside Robert’s gray head. “Why don’t we go on inside? Wouldn’t you like some of those crackers, Robert?” he said. Bumby latched his pudgy little fingers through the collar and led him into the house through the side door to the mudroom, on which warm rain still perched from the previous night’s storm.
A woman, maybe sixty or seventy, approached the table. She began picking things up, weighing them in her palms, sometimes discreetly and sometimes not discreetly turning them over for the price labels, trying to scrub dust off things with her sleeve. She nodded respectfully at them.
“I’ll be right with you,” Karen said loudly, then turned to Brady. “I’m sorry. He’s just a kid. He doesn’t understand family or courtesy or,” she paused to pick up a blue-tinted glass, “or societal norms—”
“Don’t worry about it.” Brady picked up a chipped, cut-glass ice bucket, attempting to reassume his role as buyer. He wouldn’t talk about Gerald. Not the will or whether or not they would burn his clothes, the coats and leather equestrian boots and the good things, in the fireplace or store them until Bumby came of height and shoulder width.
“I’ve made a mess of him.”
“That’s not true.”
Karen put her hands in her coat pockets. “You know someone stopped me yesterday at the post office? I was buying a thing of stamps and had him with me and someone asked me if I was his nurse.”
Brady set down the ice bucket and moved, further down the table, to a silver item: an apple press or a sculptor’s stamp. “Oh, he looks just like you.” He picked up the silver item and turned it over in his hands. “He’s got that,” he searched in his sister-in-law’s small featured face for a similarity in the boy’s, “That same brow.”
“That’s shit.” She took her hands out of her wool pockets. “It’s his same face, John. The mouth and all of it.”
Brady set down the apple press and held up set of glass coasters, with fake snow and what looked to be dried cranberries sealed inside. “Can I buy these?”
“You don’t have to buy anything.”
“Isn’t this supposed to be a yard sale?”
“Fine. Buy whatever you want. Buy all of it. You can pay me in philosophy. Something from that four million dollar head?”
Brady set down the coasters. “You read that, too?”
“Me and the Eastern Seaboard.” Karen took a canvas, framed in faded gold and thick with oil paint, along with a felted cap hat, from the table. “Let me try a sale. We can’t all live on crackers and cold chicken, you know.”
Brady analyzed the spread of belongings. He might buy some things, he thought. Trash for the apartment for a laugh. Hadn’t that been an extinct word for the past few months? Laugh. He could buy lots of things. All nice things. All worthy of a place in the apartment. “How about these?” he called, “How about this box of soap bars?”
“Just a minute, John.”
He picked up the bar soaps and dried cranberry coasters and began making a pile for himself. It was four in the afternoon and the sky warm and full with the prospect of rain. Bumby and Robert were watching the yard sale from the mudroom window; more people had arrived, maybe out of obligation, maybe out of want: two graduates stood, hands in pockets, assessing the jewelry spread. Brady saw from where he was standing some of the things he had helped Gerald select for Karen along the five year sting of their short marriage: the miniscule gold things he’d bought her before he’d had the good job, the emerald which had been for her birthday, the sapphires on a band the man at Tiffany’s had referred to as “lakes for the fingers.”
Familiar porcelain, in a pink china pattern, wore sweaters of dust. A wooden school desk, long neglected in the garage, sat beside a hardwood dresser, and the three-fourth pile, green carpet, worn and dented with the ghosts of coffee tables, linen couches, arm chairs, and the brocade piano bench they’d had done to match the Rockefeller one in that year’s Mansion Section.
A girl in a Wellesley t-shirt, gray with purple lettering across the front, and a thick cotton sweater over, assessed some photographs. A clean looking family tried to imagine the blue-glass set in their home. A sticker beneath the giant cut glass punch bowl Brady had purchased for the wedding—at a price upwards of $250—asked in fat, Sharpie’d numbers for a sum of $45.
“Karen?” he called across the table. “This one for forty-five?” He picked up the bowl. Held it as his chest so the wool of his polo coat against the glass looked like dirt covered in cracked ice.
Karen looked at the bowl. Looked, too, at his turned in mouth which had been Gerald’s and was Bumby’s too and like a rudder stuck inward, and the lake around them, the smell of salt and scotch and the coldness and the capsize with his head pulled—“Take it,” she said. “Take it for thirty.” The great perimeter of the bowl looked suddenly to her like a lake, or the vessel for holding, as the water had, that great maroon blooming from his jaw. “Oh, take it, please!”
One of the graduates approached Brady. He expected the old: And Gerald Brady you know him? Saw him once on the Northeastern circuit—
“You buying those?” came the form of the words, instead.
“What?” said Brady.
“Those,” the man spoke to a set of gold-rimmed liquor glasses. “It’s fine if you are. You had them first. I just thought I’d—”
Brady looked at the glasses. There appeared to him suddenly the coating of dust they wore, gray and indecent: time spilt over Gerald’s things as though flour or salt by a child’s incautious palm. “Go ahead.”
“Thanks,” said the graduate. He put liquor glasses atop a linen-covered book he’d already selected. The cover of the book was dark blue, almost black, the title shielded with his coat arm. “Really. These’re great.”
Brady nodded. He thought of the graduate taking them to wherever he lived. He might use them as catch-all trays or to hold toothbrushes in the bathroom or to drink coffee. He didn’t, for some reason, anticipate their utility as the alcoholic kind.
“You know what this’s for?” asked the graduate. “Someone must’ve died or something, huh? You don’t see sales like this ‘less someone—”
“Guess you don’t.” Brady returned his hands to his pockets.
“You know the guy or something?”
“No,” Brady said to the table.
“Interesting things they’ve got.”
Brady looked at the table house and felt a pang of second-hand defensiveness. “I think it’s a pretty good show.”
The graduate nodded. “A good show—yeah. I didn’t mean bad interesting, only—” he rubbed a bit of the liquor glass dust with his coat sleeve, “I like estate sales, okay. I just can’t shake the idea that they’re selling existences. You know. Pieces of the deceased for five dollar sums and whatnot. Sort of odd, huh?”
Brady discovered a gum wrapper in his pocket.
“But what do I know?” The graduate rushed to fill the space his unanswered words had left. Brady thought that interesting, the way people tried so hard at making filling the creases of things, tying knots of torn hems, cutting hang nails, pressing egg salad sandwiches together so the eggs meshed and didn’t leave any gaps. “What do I know more than anyone? I don’t know the family.” He looked very skinny when he closed his mouth, as though the words had accounted for bulk in his frame.
“Everyone knows more than anyone about something,” said Brady, sorry.
“Guess you’re right,” said the graduate. His face was wide and there was something painfully honest in the composition of his features. “That’s a nice bowl. You should get that.”
Brady looked at the table. “It’s forty-five dollars.”
“’Gotta be worth a lot more than that.”
Brady felt his coat tight, though he hadn’t eaten much in a month and he could, in the bathroom mirror, see the desert dunes of his ribs through his chest. I didn’t used to be like this, he thought. I used to make good conversation.
“I guess I’ll go and pay. It was good talking—”
“I know the family,” Brady said, suddenly. “I know the family and the father died in a sailing accident.”
The graduate shed the glasses.
“I know the brother,” Brady continued, “From college. It was a capsize, the accident. The rudder got stuck—”
“Is he taking the loss alright?”
“I don’t know.” Five o’clock had pulled a dark curtain over the lawn; Brady saw Bumby and Richard through the window, Richard sprawled on the cool extension of the fireplace, Bumby running over his gray, bony head, the small tan of his palm. There was a comforting yellow glow from the pane and Brady remembered an old axiom from his sophomore year at Georgetown.
“They’re fine, though? The family.”
Brady looked in at Bumby with his turned in mouth. “I don’t know,” he said. “I read somewhere not to make windows of men’s souls.”