Human Resources had summoned me by email, my team having missed its quota, when Angie called. She was crying on her cell phone and her voice was muffled. Then the signal burst through in painful clarity. “Karen? Dad’s dead!”
“Are you sure?” I asked her, a stupid question. “What happened?” I loitered by a window getting details and ended up five minutes late to my firing.
That morning Dad, Joe Corduroy, Antiques and Collectibles, was upending a commode-turned-planter in the garage, explaining to Angie the value of plumbing fixtures, when he groaned and fell, taken by a heart attack. “I was doing what I remember from First Aid until the EMT pulled me away. She said he was gone when he hit the ground.”
“I asked if you had any questions?” Judy Bishop, the HR rep, indicated the letter she’d set before me. Judy was well coiffed and devoid of emotion.
I read the first sentence, then the words ‘disappointing performance’. That stung. In paragraph two I saw that my severance was three months’ salary, and they threw in a fraction of the bonus I would have collected next month. I shook my head. No questions.
“We’re sorry it ended like this,” said Judy in her corporate voice.
With a row to myself on the Chicago-Boston flight, I cried a little, and when Angie picked me up at the Riverside station we both cried. Since my Christmas visit, my little sister had followed through on her vow to go Goth: black t-shirt and denim, her hair dyed to match. “I got things started, thought I’d help,” she said, handing me a checklist from a funeral director. She had made some lavish choices. Home again, I found Dad’s checkbook and confirmed my fears about his finances and cancelled all but the state-mandated essentials. Out with the weatherproofed, polished-bronze casket, no limo for us, no wake catered by Legal Seafoods. “Who died and…” Angie caught herself in the cliché, but pouted as I undid her work.
“He told me I was executor of his will, but he never got around to writing one. He has – had – eighty-seven dollars in his checking account. How are you going to pay for a twelve-thousand-dollar funeral?” I asked coldly.
Her eyes brimmed and she spoke to me as little as possible the rest of the day.
Dad’s funeral was well attended; we didn’t have much family but he knew everyone in town. I felt a little ashamed at the no-frills internment. “He’s our father!” Angie erupted just before the Spartan funeral, wearing a borrowed plaid skirt of mine, tears blurring her makeup.
I was numb, from Dad’s death and my firing. “We can’t afford it. He would’ve wanted it to be simple.” My severance check was still in my purse and it would have paid for what I’d cancelled, but Dad had raised us to be tight with a buck.
After the funeral we exchanged skirts and blouses for jeans and a couple of Dad’s old shirts, and entered the garage to sort out his collectibles.
It was close and moldy and I started sneezing; we had to shove aside piles of old newspapers and magazines just to open the door, and I regretted having no gloves. Patting a bound pile of old Popular Mechanic, she said, “He was planning to recycle if the price went up.” I found tools, old windows, plumbing fixtures, stacked boxes, broken bikes, record albums, door knobs and hinges, old signs, mantels, and behind a rack of old dresses, a collection of erotic wood sculptures neither of us knew about, and many, many lawn gnomes. Junk.
I found a scout uniform, spotted with mold. “This was Mrs. Sitka’s stuff. From ten years ago. Why is it still here?”
“He probably forgot about it. I did.” She appraised it with a frown. “We can sell some of this on Amazon,” she said, in a confident voice she’d inherited from Dad, and like him, more attitude than fact.
“Doubt it,” I said tersely, kicking aside a box of Reader’s Digests. “You have to sell volume and make money on the shipping. I have – had- a coworker who used to do it on the side.”
“Maybe eBay?” she suggested. “I set up an account. I meant to sell our stuff. Then Dad started bidding with my account.”
She was amused, I was aggravated. Late in the day we jammed all five garbage cans overfull. My borrowed shirt was gray with dirt and sweat, and I had another sneezing fit that looked awful in the tissue. “I’ve been looking for a glass vase I got him to buy. Maybe he sold it?”
“Dad was more a buyer—“Angie started.
“Than a seller,” we said in unison, one of Mom’s expressions, and shared a grin. After Mom’s death three years ago, the house’s upkeep had suffered. She had also been the one who’d kept the business in the black and the garage orderly.
After dinner of macaroni and cheese, I paid bills. Angie did the dishes, then wrote an elegy for him on Facebook. Her friends pinged back with crying emoticons. She stopped when she heard me sigh. “You look like Mom when she was paying the bills. Angry.”
“Sorry I had to be a cheapskate,” I apologized. “I asked Dad a couple times if he’d put anything aside. Best I can tell, he was in the hole.”
Angie nodded glumly. “I thought so.”
“Even keeping the burial to basics we owe the funeral ghouls twelve hundred and change. Normally a life insurance policy pays for that, but he cashed his in last November to pay taxes.”
Angie frowned; she hadn’t known that.
“After paying the electric, there’s all of twelve dollars in the checking account.”
“Dad didn’t like banks.”
“I know. I haven’t ruled out finding money buried somewhere, but it’s more likely to be a roll of quarters than twenties.”
She looked at me, embarrassed. “Don’t you, like, make a lot of money?”
I’d bragged at Christmas about the promotion I was slaving for, and now my embarrassment was bottomless. “Up until Monday, I earned sixty-two thousand, which isn’t bad for twenty-six. I lost my job the day Dad passed away, so it was a really bad day.” I teared up, in spite of myself.
“Shit. Really?” She hesitantly offered me a hug; we’d never been close and suddenly we were all we had.
The house reeked of Dad’s cheap cigars, which Angie savored. “I can still smell him,” she said wistfully, curling fetal on the sagging couch.
“Mom would have killed him for smoking inside. So, after she died, did he sell anything?”
“I sold a gate-leg table off Craigslist, and some old china, and Dad found some copper gutters he sold to the recycler. And he found some old lawn mowers that we fixed and I sold.”
I finished reviewing the bills. “We need to liquidate the collection, and it would help to get at least six thou for it, which seems unlikely.” Looking at her, in a parental voice, I asked, “Did you get the acceptance from Bowdoin?”
“Yessss.” After I’d nagged, she had applied to my alma mater. A member of the National Honor Society, she had the grades, she just hadn’t wanted to go to college. And at the time she had a boyfriend, which she didn’t anymore. “I was thinking of creative writing, but Dad said, ‘Learn the business, make a real living.’ I wanted to get a job at Market Basket to have money for clothes. He kept telling me he’d take me shopping, which he kept putting off.”
I remembered how disappointing life with Dad had been. “It would be good to get some tuition money, too.” I did a brisk stroll down the hallway, down the cellar steps, but there were no surprises. “Same tiny bathroom. No updates. We can sell the house, that and maybe some tuition help from the college and a modest student loan should cover school. I know this dump won’t sell fast, and,” I looked at the tired paint, the worn floors, “it won’t sell for much, but it’s all equity.”
Water whistled through pipes in the wall. “The toilet leaks,” Angie said. “Dad was looking for the parts.”
“You can buy them for ten bucks,” I said, lifting the porcelain top of the commode, exposing the faulty mechanism. “Probably why the damn water bill is so high.” From the look on her face I knew I had to ease up. “I loved Dad, but I think losing Mom hurt me more.”
She smiled sadly. “Well, you were her favorite.”
“I was not Mom’s favorite,” I said. “I wasn’t anybody’s favorite. Do you remember the argument I started, telling Mom and Dad to computerize their inventory.”
Angie frowned. “A little.”
The memory stung; I wished I’d been nicer to him. I’d told Dad he was a junk dealer, not ‘collectibles’, I’d used my fingers to mime quotes. “I’d just bought an Apple and there were all these business applications. I said we could make more money and live in a nice house.” I blushed at the memory. Mom ended up defending Dad, even though she liked my idea. “I wanted them to think I was bright. When I finished school and Mom died, I decided to live somewhere else. Away from the collectibles.”
“Dad never understood why you went to Chicago. He was always seeing jobs in the paper and saying ‘here’s one your sister could do’.” She smiled. “One was bookkeeper for a strip club.”
“Think it’s still available?”
We took in the view from the front door, the unmowed yard in the setting sun. “I do have to go back, at least to clean out my apartment.”
“You want to sell the house and give up your apartment. Where are we going to live?”
I smiled at the reality check. “Good point. First, we sell the junk.”
“Collectibles,” she corrected me with a grin, and picked up a framed photo of all of us, taken just before Mom died, when she realized there was no family photo. She was trying to smile but looked tired from the cancer. Dad was at his most elegant in a disgusting bolo tie. I looked bored, Angie was smiling. The frame was aluminum, meant to glisten with dozens of rhinestones, but only three remained, scattered among empty gray sockets. Dad found it when Mom asked for a picture frame. Not for the first time, I wondered why our only family photo didn’t merit a nicer frame in Dad’s eyes. He’d taken too much pride from using discards. There we go, woulda cost us ten bucks in the store.
The next morning, behind a pile of coaxial cable, I found the vase; even amid the junk, it had light and color. “I forgot how beautiful you are,” I said in a hushed tone, remembering the day I first saw it. It sported a green branch under a green sky. It seemed to glow under the most feeble light, and the leaves of raised glass, a darker green I especially loved, felt impossibly smooth to my fingertip. I’d found it at an estate sale in Weston and urged Dad to pay the stickered eighty bucks for it.
He’d been pleased at my interest but not the price. “Honey, I’ll offer ‘em twenty. Then I’ll go up a little. We’ll get it for thirty, how much you wanna bet?” They stuck at fifty-five, and I pretended to pray, so he paid, which rankled him. I’d urged him to get it appraised, but then Mom died, and a few months later I was in Chicago.
Where to sell, quickly? Angie suggested, “Let’s see what we can do in a day at Brimfield.” Angie called in a one-day registration to the antique fair and we went online to price our collectibles.
An hour later, she rested her forehead in her palm. “I don’t think we’ll get six thou. Maybe six hundred. The erotic sculptures? Every time I try to price them I get a malware warning.” Looking up, “Dad, what were you thinking?”
The vase was harder to gauge. I looked closely for cracks or other flaws and found a name in script – Galle. In a few keystrokes we discovered the value of the French artist and I was as excited as when I’d first left for Chicago. “Holy shit. I knew this was worth something.” Beginning prices were around six thousand, it could be worth up to fifty. I felt lighthearted for the first time in weeks. “Ha! Dad, I found your investment. But I get partial credit.” I looked at Angie. “Maybe we just leave it out and see what people think.” Brimfield attracted savvy buyers with real money. I wanted to ignite a bidding war. That night I grinned in my sleep; I had learned the business.
We set out at seven a.m. I offered to drive, but Angie insisted. “She’s a handful on a bumpy road.” We said little on the hour ride to central Massachusetts, until we reached a line of traffic a half-mile out.
“They’re pulling ‘em in from all over,” she said, remembering Dad’s stock comment for Brimfield. She gripped the steering wheel with both hands as the bumpy pavement torqued it left and right. The engine needed revving or it threatened to stall. At the entrance she pointed out a tent advertising tattoos and piercings; “Karen, see him? I want a stud in my right nostril.” She grinned. “Dad swore if I did it he wouldn’t let me in the house.” Her grin faded with the memory. “No longer an issue.”
A teenager with an official looking baton guided us into the vendor rows. “Where are we?” Angie asked, glancing at me.
“3-G. This is 3,” I said, leaning forward from the bench seat to peer through the windshield, checking the hand-lettered signs on pine sticks. “There’s A, and B. I guess we’re in the back.” I knew Angie was thinking, like Dad, we’re stuck in back with the dumpsters!
“He brought me once,” I said as Angie backed into our spot. I remembered it as a gathering of losers selling junk. “Got to be ten years ago. You and Mom, you had a softball tournament. Dad priced his stuff higher than anyone else. I don’t think we made back the gas money. He kept saying ‘our stuff is premium’. He spent all day talking.”
“He liked to talk about his stuff, other people’s stuff,” said Angie. “I forgot about the softball team. I was a good hitter.”
It felt wrong to be part of a mile-long yard sale at nine on a weekday. I was accustomed to being in my cubicle, studying spreadsheets, reading financial reports, replying to emails, preparing for meetings. Instead, I pulled on gloves and piled tools on folding tables, hammers and old drills clunking into each other, and then hauled out the old windows. Sweat dripping in my eyes, I collected one under each arm, my little used muscles trembling.
Angie was lost in thought, holding a gnome. I asked, “Honey, could you hurry up? As soon as you’ve got them all out, look around and see what our competition is.” I glanced at the erotic sculptures. “See if anyone else has sculptures with woodies. I do not want to take them back. They creep me out.”
“I believe I’m the one who learned the business,” she said distantly, clearly resenting my hurry up. She headed off.
I set the vase on a table, slightly apart from some cut glass ashtrays. I wiped my sweaty forehead and checked my watch. Nine-thirty, Wall Street was opening.
Angie returned ten minutes later with coffee. We gathered at the cashbox under the tarp. “Two sugars, two creams.”
“Thanks, I didn’t even think to ask. Sorry about that ‘hurry up’.” I touched the vase. “Here’s the nest egg.”
She glanced at it. “I don’t think Dad meant that as his nest egg. It’s okay.”
I held it protectively. “Okay? It’s beautiful. It’s the only thing here I like. Now it’s time to cash it out.”
She seemed happier today, at the fair. “I was thinking about how Dad always had faith that the next twenty bucks he needed was already on its way to his pocket.”
“He should have prayed for fifties, not twenties.”
She gave me a labored look. “I understand, we need money.” She turned her head towards the next row. “Old windows, they’re getting fifty for, the tub should go for a hundred. The tools, between twenty and fifty.” She glanced at ours. “Probably nearer twenty. And there’s a guy in ‘J’ with African sculptures. Mostly big tits, between twenty and a hundred bucks. He wasn’t around when I stopped. I’ll try him again.”
“Okay, we price everything a few bucks less, and add ‘Reasonable Offer’. Our goal is a roll of cash and an empty truck.”
Angie sipped and looked distant. “Before? I was thinking about college. Dad wasn’t big on it. He kept saying ‘You learn this business hands-on.’”
“True,” I said, smelling my coffee and wishing it was a Starbucks. “But if Mom was here, she would want you in college. You need to learn something besides the business. Writing, whatever.” I knew how often freshmen changed majors. But I was glad Angie was thinking again. She had a lot to think about.
An elderly woman with swollen legs paused at our table, walking laboriously with a cane. Her jacket was old and had many pockets, her cargo shorts stained, and she walked in orthotic shoes. Her long gray hair was pulled back with children’s barrettes. When she spoke she had the smile of a carved pumpkin. “Hello. I’m Elma Sweeney,” she said with a deep Downeast accent. “Where’s Dick?” Dad’s old friends called him Dick for reasons mysterious to us. “Are you his daughters?” Dottahs?
“We are. He died last Monday,” said Angie with a sad frown. “We’re trying to clean out his inventory.”
Elma looked stricken. “I’m so sorry. I hadn’t heard. I’ve known him for thirty years. Very smart man. Knew a lot, lot about value. Never lost a dollar selling short. I looked forward to seeing him here. I’m so sorry. How’d he die?” ‘Hawdee-die’
“Heart attack. He didn’t have any history. It just struck.”
Elma shook her head, as though any death was unfair. “Well, you gotta die of something. Dick and I go back a long time. I’m very sorry to hear it. You girls take care.”
It seemed every dealer had known Dad as Dick, and I let Angie accept condolences, pretending I was working on a spreadsheet. I tried searching job boards but my mind wandered from Sr. Software Analyst to Home Healthcare Aid. I didn’t know what kind of job to look for. Well, you have to do something. That severance won’t last forever. Oddly, it was Dad’s voice, someone I thought I’d stopped listening to years ago.
I went for a walk, following Angie’s directions to the tarp of James Hickory, Collector of Curiosities, as engraved on a wooden shingle hung from his tarp pole. Behind his ancient Jeep, I saw the tent Mr. Hickory had slept in, a sleeping bag inside rolled up snugly.
Beside the Jeep on the grass were the mahogany figures of absurdly well-endowed women. I glanced left and right at his wares, then approached Mr. Hickory. “Help you?” he asked in an accent I couldn’t place.
“Hi, I’m Karen Corduroy.”
“Jim Hickory. Pleased to meet you, Karen.” He smiled. “You Dick’s daughter? Very sorry to hear about him. I enjoyed chatting with him. Smart man. What can I do for you?”
“Your wooden figures? How much are you asking for them?”
“Twenty apiece. I have sixteen and I can do a deal for all of ‘em.”
Now it got delicate. “Are you interested in acquiring some different ones?”
His smile changed direction, from genial greeter, to lopsided. “What d’you have?”
I tried to describe them without blushing or using my hands.
“Appears Dick was collecting the males.” Hickory nodded knowledgeably.
“What do they go for?” I asked.
“If you want to fetch one of yours, I’ll take a look at it.”
I fetched a small one in a paper bag. He rose from his seat and put his glasses on. His brown pants were deeply creased, as though he’d slept in them, and he smelled of his breakfast Cheetos. He turned the male figurine around in his thick hands, one fingernail blackened, looking closer, then set it down, sighing. He smiled a kindly grin, a little foolish looking, as though confessing to a mistake. “I’m sorry, Karen, but I’m ninety-nine-percent sure this is a fake. This is made of stained pine. Mine,” he nodded at his wares, “are mahogany. Wish Dick had asked me about these. Could’ve steered him clear.”
I was angry. As soon as he finished, I choked out, “Thanks for your help.”
I returned to find Angie had sold all the tools. “How?”
“Another collector,” she said smugly. “I offered him a fifteen percent cut to take them all. I know Dad got most of them for a buck or less. See? I can sell stuff.”
“That’s better news than I have.” I dropped the fertility doll on the ground like it had soiled my hand. “These things? Friggin’ firewood.”
She mouthed ‘oh’.
“It’s okay, we’ll be okay.” I smiled grimly, “and tonight we have a bonfire!”
A woman in clean denim and golf shirt picked up a brass doorknocker, set it down, left and came back and asked, “How much for the faucets?” She had salt-and-pepper hair, a thin, lined face.
“Make an offer,” I asked.
“Give you eight?”
Angie piped up. “Make it nine?”
A middle-aged man in painters’ whites, who looked like he’d just finished painting a barn red, stopped to smile at the lawn gnomes. “My wife loves ‘em.” He knelt by one, picked it up, smiled at it, then stood, turned away, and looked over the windows. Then he asked, “How much for the tub?”
“Hundred,” I said first, smiling at Angie, a competition suddenly between us. “I’ll consider an offer.”
Angie shook her head slightly. I said, “Can you go eighty?”
He looked at the tub again. “Eighty.”
“How much for the windows?”
Without looking at her I said, “Forty-five apiece. There’re ten of them.”
“How’s three-fifty cash for all of ‘em?”
“That’ll work, too.”
I knew Dad had collected the windows on garbage day two towns over. If only he had sold as well as he’d collected, maybe we wouldn’t have lived off discards, maybe he’d have seen a doctor more regularly, maybe he’d still be alive.
The man buying windows was peeling bills off a roll when he saw the vase. He knelt to study it. “Look at you,” he said reverently. “Galle?”
“Yes, it is.” I felt an adrenaline rush.
He retrieved a soft rag from his back pocket and dabbed at a spot. “Very nice,” he smiled. “How much?”
“Make me an offer?”
He reached for it, then looked at me. “Do you mind? I’d like to see it with more light.” He took a step back, raised it over his head to capture the sun. “I’ll go a hundred,” he said, and dug out his wallet.
“No, that one’s worth more,” I said, hoping I was right.
He looked at it again. “One-twenty?”
Not even close to six thousand. “Let me think about it. You going to be around? I won’t sell it to anyone else for a half hour.”
He nodded. “Okay. I need to pack up what I’ve already got. I’ll be back.”
A slim woman, dressed in elegant, spotless gray linen, had been idling across the way. She paused before the stained glass and studied it. “How much for this?” she asked in a strong Long Island voice.
“I’m considering offers. The bidding starts at,” I felt a bit breathless, “a thousand.”
She frowned, bent and looked closely at it, rubbed at imaginary dirt, touched her lips with her index finger and walked away.
Angie heard my price. “A thousand?” she asked, incredulously. “Dad had anything worth a thousand?”
“Maybe. We paid fifty bucks for it six years ago. It would be nice to make a killing.”
The Long Island woman returned with a man in a tweed jacket, with styled gray hair. He looked at the vase carefully, used his reading glasses and got close enough for a nose print, picked it up, upended it, then looked at her and shook his head. She frowned and looked at me as though I’d misled them. “My friend says this is not original Galle. It’s a knock-off.”
My heart sank. “Are you sure?”
The man, rail-thin, spoke in a British accent. He had oddly long fingers. “It is signed Galle here. The etched plant is his preferred motif. But underneath?” and he upended it and touched two tiny dimpled spots on the bottom. “This is where the injection mold broke off. This was mass produced.” He enunciated the words with contempt. “The seam is almost invisible. It’s a very nice piece, for decorating purposes. Truly, a beautiful fake.” He set it back on the table. They walked off and I felt foolish.
“I didn’t want to say anything,” said Angie, frowning sympathetically. “Dad got it appraised and it wasn’t an original. I just wasn’t sure they could tell.”
My head ached. What rattled me more? That I was wrong? That I hadn’t learned the business? Or that I’d called my father a junk dealer, and I’d also bought junk, or how did the man put it? A beautiful fake. My burgeoning self-confidence faded. “I feel so stupid.”
“Hey, we’ve got nine hundred and sixteen dollars. That’s more than we ever cleared.” She smiled at me, hopeful. Her voice dropped at the end. “I wonder if Dad thought those wooden idols were legit. I hate to think he paid for them.”
“If he did, he paid very little, that was his way,” I said, to comfort her.
“Hey, is this your guy coming back?”
I picked up the vase, which I still loved, but it was worth a hundred and twenty dollars to this man. Unenthusiastically, I said, “If you still want it, you can have it.”
He nodded and counted twenties onto the table. I remembered holding the vase that day, begging Dad to buy it, and his consternation. “Eighty is top buck. If I pay top buck for it, how do I make a profit?” he asked, teaching me. To my embarrassment, my eyes welled up and I felt tears on my cheeks. The buyer couldn’t help noticing. “Are you okay?” He paused, a bill pinched in mid-air.
I’d laughed telling Mom how irritated Dad was when he paid fifty dollars for it. She had smiled, I think just because I’d spent the day with him, collecting. I found I was blinking away tears.
Angie picked the vase up. “We’d like to keep this, after all. It’s a family heirloom.” She smiled hopefully at the buyer.
He was a good sport. Scooping up his cash, “Okay, I can respect that. If you change your mind, here’s my number.” He set his business card on the table and headed off.
Angie hugged me, sniffing some tears of her own. “You need something nice to remember Dad,” she whispered.
I nodded. And though I didn’t shed a tear seeing Dad in a coffin, I cried as I held the vase. My phone buzzed, a text from a work friend ‘just heard you were canned?’ “I’ll be right back,” I told my sister, walking around the truck.
Angie began collecting the gnomes. She reached for one – we hadn’t sold any – and her fingertips slipped, the gnome rolled free and broke on a knob of granite. “Shit. Five bucks shot to hell.” She saw a piece of brown paper in the ceramic torso, knelt and pulled on it and a small bag came loose. Inside – a roll of twenties had been stuffed through a hole in the base. She picked up another and goosed it and smiled as she felt brown paper. Dropping it on the same rock, she found another bag of bills. “Dad, you paranoid son of a…”
Ten minutes later, I returned to find the debris from a mass killing of lawn gnomes, and Angie counting bills. “I found his savings,” she announced in a stage whisper. “Ten thousand, mostly in twenties, a few fifties. Even some Benjamins,” she held them up as if for a photo.
I gasped. “We could have sold these for, like, a dollar apiece and –” I raised my eyes heavenward.
Angie studied her nose in the rear-view mirror, admiring the green stud in her right nostril. I’d held her hand for the piercing and told a joke when she remembered she was afraid of needles. “Why can’t a blonde dial 911?” I locked eyes with her. “She can’t find the 11.”
“Ouch,” she gritted her teeth as her nose was punctured. “That was a terrible joke,” she smiled.
Traffic was lighter as we drove out, the truck bouncier without cargo. “What do you do for fun?” she asked as we hit the Mass Pike.
“Not much.” I was holding the vase like it was my child. “You should come with me back to Chicago, we can make it a mini-vacation. I never got around to sight-seeing. And sometime real soon, let’s talk about college.” We headed home with the sun setting in the side-view., Angie found a metalhead station on the radio and I endured it. She had to brake hard for a slow driver and something on the floor rolled against my ankle. I retrieved an intact gnome. “You feeling lucky?” I asked.