Rose Milch had the most popular table at the lawn sale that day, but she cheated with a plate of homemade banana bread and word spread quickly about the free food in her corner of the field. With a frosted pink smile, she presided over a too-personal assortment of old nighties, picture frames with dead relatives still peering out from under dusty glass, dingy combs and broken costume jewelry, half-used diaries, and a set of Rose Milch custom-made mugs. The kids were smart enough to grab the bread at a swift jog, barely slowing to toss a “thanksmzmilch” over their shoulders as they passed. The dads were her true prey, lured in by the wafting aroma only to find themselves trapped, thumbing through Rose’s collection of unused seed packets and exchanging helpless looks between mouthfuls of the delicious bread.
Almost everyone in our town showed up for the event, and with all the proceeds going toward a new computer lab at the middle school, Shelly Dawson attributed its success to her own superior coordination of the fundraiser. She bustled from table to table, distributing collection jars and admiring the wares of each participating family. “Oh my, James, what a wonderful collection of books you’ve brought us! Thank you so much for your contribution, we really appreciate it.” Her demeanor was more visiting royalty than PTA volunteer.
Of course, we all knew that everyone had come to see what had been hiding in their neighbors’ junk drawers and cellars and linen closets for who knows how long. Some, like Mr. and Mrs. Masterson, the recent inheritors of her father’s estate, came to show how much they could afford to get rid of. While Mr. Masterson explained to interested buyers that the china set was in perfect condition and originally purchased for $550, Mrs. Masterson whispered in his ear, “I have looked at everyone else’s table and we have the nicest things in this town.”
The dawn had come like a fading bruise that morning, dark purple to lavender to ochre, and while most people were still sipping coffee in between stuffing duvets and books and old toys into boxes, the O’Keefe’s were the first ones to arrive, staking out their spot underneath the soccer goal. By the time the sun had cleared the eastern bank of elm trees, the goal posts were strung with row after row of clothesline, the years of the O’Keefe girls’ childhood ascending in pink and purple layers: mittens, church dresses, ballet leotards, parkas, purses, leggings. Slowly, this impenetrable, candy-colored wall was chinked away as mothers bought the O’Keefe girls’ past, letting little patches of light shine through with every purchase.
“Emily just loved that hat. I think she wore it every day for an entire year!”
“And how is she doing with her new job?”
“Just great. She and Allison have finally found a decent place to live in the city.”
“Oh, wonderful. Give them both my love.”
“Will do. I hope your Samantha enjoys the hat.”
Father Gordon had brought his Collected Transcendental Poetry, The Complete Works of St. Augustine, and issues of The Christian Reader dating back to 1982. He hoped some of the younger members of his congregation would take over his collection. “I know these words by heart, no need to read them anymore,” he told one of the women who, eager to show her faith, bought both the Emerson and Wordsworth volumes. “Try to get your kids to have a look at those, too,” he called after her as she walked away with the books clasped piously against her chest.
At midday, Tom Jr. backed his pickup into the middle of the field and began grilling hotdogs and hamburgers for the crowd. He played AC/DC on his car radio until Shelly Dawson asked him to turn it off because it was disturbing the elderly Mr. and Mrs. Fullerton, despite their being nearly deaf already. Rose Milch came over to complain that the barbequing smells were infiltrating her crocheted hand towels, but Tom Jr. just grinned and handed her a hotdog. The children chased each other in circles, screeching and spilling ketchup down their shirts. Women gathered in small groups, gossiping and wiping bread crumbs from the corners of their mouths. The men converged on Tom Jr.’s truck and predicted the weather, the score of that night’s game, the new calendar girl. No one noticed when Fred Ames pulled up and unloaded three boxes from his car, placing them on one of the last empty tables on the far side of the field.
“Mother!” The afternoon sun was shining in Phyllis German’s eyes as her daughter stormed toward her, pulling Annabelle Hayes behind her.
“Mother! These are my favorite jeans! What possessed you to sell them to Annabelle Hayes? I wear them like, every day. I can’t believe you would do this to me!” Katie German’s voice carried across seven tables of used books.
“Oh, dear. I’m sorry sweetheart. They must have gotten into the wrong pile.”
“Mother! You have to make her give them back!”
“I’ll give them back, I don’t mind,” Annabelle squeaked feebly from behind Katie.
“Oh my god, look at this,” Katie held up a red sweater, then a men’s dress shirt. “You can’t sell these! These are our clothes, that we wear, like, all the time!”
Phyllis looked down at the neatly folded stacks of her family’s clothing as if for the first time. “Oh dear. Oh dear oh dear. It looks like I mixed up the laundry pile with the giveaway pile. I don’t know – your father – oh dear.”
Of course, Shelly Dawson was the first one to notice Fred Ames, but she didn’t approach his table right away. Instead, she went to where Jane Krauss was trying to sell the Lego’s and Transformers and Erector Sets her son had recently grown tired of.
“I didn’t know Fred was coming, did you?” Shelly asked in a low voice, squaring the boxes of toys on the corner of the table. Jane peered over Shelly’s left shoulder to where Fred stood.
“Nooooo, I did not. I didn’t even know he was here. Is Alice here?” Her voice dropped to a whisper.
“No. I mean, I don’t think so. I wouldn’t think so.”
“Oh, no. Look,” Jane tilted her head in Fred’s direction. “They probably don’t even know.”
Sara and Chuck had just moved to town, only a month or two earlier, and they walked hand-in-hand around the field, picking out platters and rugs and lampshades for their new house. Sara’s other hand occasionally floated up to rest atop the taut curve of her belly. She was five months pregnant and just beginning to show. They stopped in front of Fred Ames’ table.
“How darling! Look, Chuck, isn’t this the sweetest thing you’ve ever seen!” She held up a tiny white cotton dress, nearly translucent, with blue and yellow piping along the collar.
“Yeah, it really is.” Chuck ran his fingers across a lavender crib blanket. Fred cleared his throat.
“Um, most of this stuff is almost new.” His light eyes were lost in his sunken, handsome face. He looked away from the young couple, focusing instead on an empty box on the grass. “Only been used once or twice.”
“Hello!” Shelly Dawson interjected. “So nice to see you, Fred. Here is your collection jar, just return it to me at the end of the day. What an adorable little frock, Sara. I hope Fred gives you a good price!” Shelly smiled at Fred, and then continued on her rounds.
Martha Peabody had left her table unattended for most of the day, trusting the honor system with the swollen and musty books she had dug out of her basement. She sat with Mary-Ann O’Keefe and they drank tea out of a thermos, watching the town pass by. Near the end of the day, John Peabody rushed over to his wife with an armload of books.
“Martha! Look what I’ve found! Someone was selling some of the books just like the ones I used to study in college – some really great ones, look, botany, geology, archaeology. Brings back some great memories, I can’t wait to look through these! I bought ten of ’em!” He was shifting weight from one foot to the other, practically giddy.
“Oh, John. That’s wonderful.” Martha turned to Mary-Ann and rolled her eyes. Later, after John had gone off to do some reading, she said, “Sometimes we old folks just need a little reshuffling,” and they both laughed, spilling their tea on the grass.
Several families had gone home and Shelly was counting the money from their jars when she thought she saw Alice Ames walking down the road toward the soccer field. At first, she wasn’t sure because Alice had cut her hair much shorter since the last time Shelly had seen her, nearly four months ago. But as she got closer, Alice’s face came into view and Shelly felt something sink inside of her. Although it was still quite warm, Alice wore a knit shawl wrapped around her shoulders, which were bent in towards her body. Shelly tried to focus on counting the money but couldn’t make it past twelve dollars without looking up to watch Alice.
Martha and Mary-Ann watched her, too, holding their cups of tea in their palms as she walked by. Rose Milch busied herself rearranging the brooches on her table, but followed Alice with her eyes. Mrs. Fullerton, not knowing how loud her voice sounded in the hushed field, asked Mr. Fullerton, “Is that the Ames girl?”
“What? Who?” Mr. Fullerton responded.
Everyone saw her except Fred. No one knew how to stop her, if they should stop her, until she was standing in front of him.
“How much for all of it?” she asked. Her normally tidy mouth was pressed and slightly off-center. She ran an impatient hand through her hair.
Much slower this time, she repeated, “How. Much. For. All. Of. It.”
“Don’t do this,” he said, looking at the box on the grass. “I thought it would be a good idea to get some of this stuff out of the house.”
“Is fifty dollars enough?”
He met her eyes and they didn’t recognize each other. “No. I mean, let’s just go home, okay? Alice?”
She pulled two fifty dollar bills from her back pocket and folded each in half before putting them in the collection jar. She bent over the table and with both arms, pulled everything within reach toward her. She lifted the bundle, cradling it against her body, then turned around and started walking back across the field. A tiny sock fell out and landed on the grass behind her, but no one picked it up. When Alice reached the edge of the road, Martha Peabody thought she saw her murmuring into her arms.
“Six hundred and forty-eight dollars and thirty cents,” Shelly Dawson announced to no one in particular. The parking lot was nearly empty and dusk settling in. “What a success!” She turned to Jane Krauss. “I think we’ll make it a yearly event.”
“Next year you should include a bake sale,” Rose Milch muttered as Tom Jr. hauled her five full boxes back to her car.
“What a wonderful idea, Rose.”