Nothing Here Has Any Real Value

Honorable mention

A green pressed-glass punchbowl with eight cup hooks. Seven green pressed-glass cups. A full set of china that no one recognizes. Several electronic devices of varied and unknown purposes, packed with multiple cords, attachments, bags, and filters. Eight felt Christmas stockings that my great-grandmother made, with names written across the tops in glitter, in conditions ranging from poor to unrecognizable. A child's wooden bank, empty, in the shape of a zebra. A typewriter. A collection of sherry glasses: reds, purples, blues, greens – some darkened with dust. Boxes of yellowed financial papers kept long past the requisite seven years, papers that have to be sorted and passed through a shredder. I convinced my neighbor, Marie, to come and help me price everything, and she brought along her boyfriend. All of us unpacked the cabinets, drinking cheap wine, and loudly lamenting the fact that my mother never threw anything away.

Almost none of what we found was meaningful to me, things bought or received and then forgotten and stored far before I attached them to any importance. I was seeing many of these things for the first time. I'd been putting this weekend off ever since Mother was sent to the nursing home and I closed up the house, only returning when she had a request for something specific. Though they weren't, by definition, proper requests, I always knew that some action was required. Do you remember that yellow afghan your grandmother made for me? The one with the shell pattern and the little tassels on the end? That was always the best blanket. Or, I know I used to have a pair of navy blue slippers. I remember them because they were so warm. I wish I had those now. The floors in this place get so cold at night! And then I would go get the item, rushing in and out of the house as fast as possible.

The three of us – Marie, the boyfriend, and I – sat around the living room unpacking and pricing. Whenever the conversation lulled, and only one person was left speaking, there was a terrible echo, as whatever he or she was saying reverberated around the empty room. After the first few times that happened, it was as if we'd made an agreement not to let one person's voice be alone again. Either multiple conversations or none. We packed up the whole place in one evening.

Now everything is arranged on folding tables on the front lawn, waiting to be sold. The tables were borrowed from a coworker, who lent them to me begrudgingly and under the constraints that I must have them back by one-thirty, in time for her backyard barbecue. I am the only one out here manning the sale, and I don't mind. Garage sales start hours earlier than I normally wake on the weekends, and I am thankful for the lack of conversation.

"How much for the markers?"

A large man, sixtyish, has pushed behind my card table counter and is pointing to the plastic bin right beside my cash box. I keep this bin in the trunk of my car, and it is full of markers and pens, some that work, and some that don't.

My ad in the newspaper outlined the duration of my garage sale, 8:00 AM to 1:00 PM, and I had set up early to allow myself some extra pricing time. It was still dark outside when I began to notice the first of the large American sedans slowing in front of the house, the passengers pointing flashlights out of windows to read the painted numbers at the end of the drive. I had rushed to grab my masking tape and this plastic bin of markers, in case something became separated from its price.

"Nothing back here is for sale," I say, hoping that he'll pick up on my pointed back here and move back out onto the lawn.

"But my grandkids would love these! The littlest, Bessa, she cranks out artwork like you wouldn't believe!"

I'm smiling, but it's because I don't know what to say. I didn't expect any haggling, mostly because I've set all my prices so low. I want to get rid of everything. The Realtor wants to start showing the house next week, and I long ago took everything I wanted or needed. Nothing here has any real value, anyway. I don't care about the money.

"I've been using those to mark prices," I say. "I can't sell them. I need them in case I forgot to tag something."

The man looks around the lawn at the offerings, a sparse assortment of knickknacks, mismatched dishes, and other miscellaneous housewares. He looks back at me and does one of those silent laughs, the kind that make the person's head bounce a little. He walks away from me without saying anything else.

Two of my remaining customers are middle school boys, their BMXs resting at the foot of the drive. They are looking through the milk crates of records. One of the boys holds up my copy of The Sound of Music and looks as if he is going to say something to the other boy. I only realize I'm staring when he catches my glance and pretends to study the record, replacing it only after a respectable period of time. I want to tell him that the record belonged to my mother, not me, but the need to give an explanation seems more embarrassing than being the presumed owner.

I sit on the porch steps and begin to shuffle through the box closest to me. On the front of the box one of us has printed: "Everything in this box, $5 dollars."

My mother's teenage jewelry box rests on top. I recognize it from my childhood. It's place was at the top of the hall closet, and occasionally one of us girls would want to pull it down and examine its contents. What do you want to look at that for? Mother would always ask, as if no one had ever made the request before. It's just a bunch of old junk.

The jewelry box is covered in green fabric, and when I open the lid a tiny plastic ballerina twists ungracefully, hesitating at several points on the rotation. A small, slow note comes from somewhere deep inside the box, defiantly finishing its interrupted song. I realize that my mother was right; there wasn't much in this box that couldn't be classified as junk. Mostly broken costume jewelry. A tarnished metal cross probably given to her by an aunt one Easter. As I shift the pieces around, my fingers find a small gray velvet box. I don't remember ever seeing this before, but this doesn't seem unusual because my sisters and I often tired of a thing before it was fully examined. I open it carefully. Inside, there is a small heart set with the tiniest of diamonds, in a setting obviously intended to exaggerate its size. I carefully remove the heart – below it the yellowed flocked card holds a bright white heart of its own, a kind of reverse shadow. The back of the necklace reads, in all caps, "REMEMBER ME. PHILIP." My father's name was Robert.

"Hey! Hey lady!"

I slip the heart necklace into the pocket of my jeans and hurriedly put everything back as it was. I look up; one of the two BMX kids, the blonde one, is running up to me. He has this expression on his face; he looks like he might cry or he might laugh, but he can't decide which.

"Brandon got hit by a car!"

"Where is he?"

That's all I can think to say. The boy grabs my arm and I run with him down the lawn, around the boxes and the mess. He pushes between a woman and my pile of matted stuffed animals. I stumble over a box and spill electric cords onto the grass.

We stop abruptly at the edge of the lawn. The other boy is sitting on the curb, his bike a tangled disaster beside him. His arm is bleeding.

"I'm fine," he says, in a kind of a grunt.

He seems disappointed as he picks at his arm. He nods his head toward a broken concrete curb a few feet down.

"Some guy in a minivan hit my bike, and I got knocked off onto that curb. He ran over my bike."

"Where is he?" I ask. "Where's the guy in the minivan?"

He shrugs, nods his head down the road. "He left."

I am so inadequately prepared for this.

"I'm sorry," I say.

He shrugs again, then holds up his arm to me.

"It's not a big deal. You got any bandages?"

I agree to go check, but I am sure there is nothing. When Mother moved to the nursing home, I packed up anything even marginally medical and sent it with her. I hurry back up the lawn and into the house.

I walk in through the living room and let the screen door slam shut. I frantically open and close cabinets. First, the bathroom. There isn't anything. I make my way down the hall, through each of the bedrooms and the closets. My parents' bedroom is the last one at the end of the hall. It has this strange closet, which I guess I had forgotten until this point. From the outside it looks like two separate closets, but when you step inside, you can see they are connected. There is one long shelf along the back wall, a shelf that spans across the back of both closets, and there is a box left sitting on it. I pull it down, step out of the closet and empty the contents of the box onto the floor. It is full of unopened packages. My mother was known for finding things on sale, and when she did, she bought them – regardless of whether she needed them or not. We came across a lot of these things while packing. Disposable razors in a brand my father would never have used. More white tube socks than anyone could – or did – wear. This box has two pair of cotton plaid pajamas, one blue and one red, still sealed in yellowing plastic. I rip open the plastic and pull out the top pair. The fabric is much easier to tear than I expected. I make two thin, bandage-like strips and return to the yard.

I run all the way back down the lawn before realizing that the boys aren't where I left them. I look around the yard. The only person left is the elderly woman who was looking through the stuffed animals earlier. She does not see me coming up to her; she is holding each animal close to her face, trying to read the tags, though I wrote them with thick black marker.

"Excuse me, m'am, did you see where those kids went?"

She leans in a little, a smile on her face though her forehead is frowning.

"The boys," I say, catching my breath. "There were two boys here on bikes. One of them got knocked off his bike and scraped his arm. I just went in for a second to get something to bandage it up with."

All traces of a frown disappear as the woman begins to understand. She smiles and looks at my homemade bandages.

"Oh, that's nice, dear. But those kids left a few minutes ago. The little towheaded one waited up close to the house for a while. But then he shot off in a hurry, let the other one ride his bike. Very sweet! But no, they've left."

The elderly woman goes back to sorting through the toys, and I walk back to the front porch steps. I slump down, still clutching the torn pajamas. I notice the crumpled bike, propped up against the trash cans at the end of the driveway across the street.

My breath is just slowing to normal when the woman comes up to me, smiling. She is holding a small blue giraffe, something I'm sure I got from one of those machines where you pay a quarter and use the little metal claws to grasp for something, anything good.

"I'm sorry, this is the smallest bill I've got," she said, handing me the twenty.

I steady myself I get up from the stairs, heading toward the green metal cash box. When I open it, the top tray is empty. I lift the tray, and the bottom of the box is still lined with silver change. There is this moment where I'm slightly comforted by the thought that maybe I've taken all the bills myself, tucked them in a white envelope, and locked them safely inside the house. I realize that I am still clutching the torn pajamas, the ones I intended to give to the boys, and then my naïve comfort subsides. I was inside the house for five, ten minutes? I give the woman her twenty, but I am too embarrassed to explain why.

"Just keep it," I say. "It's only a quarter. I'd rather not use all my change."

It is one o'clock. I walk to each end of the block, pulling the signs off the telephone poles. I consolidate the remains of the sale. It is amazing to me to see what people take, and what people choose to leave behind. The box of mismatched vacuum cleaner attachments was one of the first things to go. The stack of china is still sitting on the table, even though I priced the whole thing at $10.

I move the rest of the boxes back into the living room, which has never seemed so empty. There is a remarkable quiet in the house. Everywhere there is a smell faintly tinged with dust and mildew, the smell of a house occupied by one family for fifty-four years, of things stored and then left untouched, a smell now unsettled by the moving. Now that most everything is gone, the house seems so small; it is hard to imagine our family and all our belongings ever fitting comfortably in here. I feel unusually tall, as if I could stand on tiptoes and the top of my head would touch the ceiling. It's as if the house was lived in for so long that a little of the life seeped out from its occupants and into the carpets, the walls, the drapes; little ghosts of existence that you can't quite see or touch, but you know are there. I did not expect to feel this way, but there is something about being here in the middle of this living room, something both shapeless and concrete – like the feeling you get when you see a familiar person in a dream, and you know it's supposed to be one person but it looks like someone else entirely. end story

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