A crooked row of people stood outside the front door of an old white colonial house on the corner of a quiet street. The line extended along the front walkway and continued down the sidewalk around the block. A square wooden sign sunk into a bare spot in the front yard’s lawn announced “Estate Sale – Today – 9 am” in handwritten black marker. After I took my place in line, I realized I was among antique dealers, pickers, the frugal and the curious, and we were all waiting to see the remnants of my sister’s life.
Every fifteen minutes, a crimson red-haired woman with a deeply wrinkled face opened the front door and surveyed the line. “Nine a.m. and the first twenty-five people come in,” she announced, straining to make her voice heard to those waiting out on the street.
Through the bare windows, I could see people carrying boxes and arranging things on tables. Judges of value with deft hands were still sorting my sister’s possessions for the curious eyes of strangers. Like so many estate sales of the greatest generation in the early 1990s, the house’s peeling clapboard and loose shutters revealed black dirt you could only see if you were standing close. I lived there fifty years ago with my mother, father, and younger sister before they told me to leave for good.
The sun steamed off the rain that fell last night. The flowers on the magnolia tree in the front yard smelled like stale perfume or sour honey. If anyone asked me, I planned to say I wanted to get some kitchen gadgets cheap for my granddaughter who moved into her first apartment. I really wanted to get some things so I’d have something to give my children and grandchildren from my family. They never understood what happened to my family, why we never talked, or saw each other. When my children were young, they knew my parents and sister were living, but they stopped asking about people they never saw because I could never answer their questions.
My childhood lasted until I was nearly eighteen, and I told my parents I wanted to keep my baby and marry its father. He was a few months older than me and he never had a job, but I guess I was too young to think about practical things like that then. At that time, his parents were shadowy figures, people my mother called worse than unremarkable. My parents wanted my sister and me to marry educated people. His father was a truck mechanic in a part of town we never visited, and his mother took in sewing and cleaned houses to make extra money for their family. I guess I didn’t think about them too carefully either. I remember feeling the skin tightening over my stomach, and I had to slip a rubber band around the button and through the hole of my too tight waistband in order to sit down. I hoped the baby’s eyes were green and his hair wavy brown like his father’s. My parents said they were giving me a choice, which was no choice I could agree to, and I chose to walk out the front door of their house.
My parents died in the house thirty years ago, and my sister lived there alone until she passed away last year. I wasn’t in her will as a beneficiary. I was mentioned along with my children and grandchildren as being excluded from inheriting anything from her. I had to wait with the public for the estate sale to get any evidence I had a family.
The baby’s father and I got married, and we lived with his parents for a few months. He got a job, and we moved to an apartment. He gave me three more children and fifty years of his life before his heart failed him when he was sleeping one night in our bed. My parents and sister never forgave me for wanting that first baby and that boy. They said I shamed the family, and I never saw them again. My sister, younger than me by three years, stayed home with my parents, and my old best friend from grade school who I met years ago whispered that my sister never had a boyfriend. I always wondered whether she’d ever in her life got near a boy so she could see the color of his irises, or watch his pupils dilate with desire. A preacher I knew years back said some people are hard in their thoughts and ways because they’re afraid of something, but he said he couldn’t tell me what my family feared about me.
I’d been standing in the line to get into the house for half an hour and my left hip hurt like it was on fire. I rubbed it through the soft calico fabric of my skirt. The doctor said I have osteoporosis and my bone is as weak as glass under my skin. He said to be careful, watch steps and where my feet go, or else. My eldest daughter bought me a cane. I’m too stubborn to use it. Sometimes the pain feels good in a strange way, sort of like labor. It’s a burning deep pain that keeps me from thinking about anything else.
An aching dullness soaked my hip and rump and I walked a few feet to lean against the trunk of the foul-smelling tree, the crepe soles of my walking shoes slipping over rotting magnolia flowers. One of the estate sale workers already handed me my number to get into my sister’s house, and people behind me in line kept my space open. I could hear two women talking in line ahead of me. One had long grey hair in a braid and bags under her eyes that reminded me of hammocks. Her friend had silver hair in a crew cut and a long neck.
“Sales like this don’t come around so much anymore,” said the one with the braid. When she blinked, I could see her hammocks wobble.
“They said she never threw anything out, and she had all her parents’ stuff and their parents’ stuff.” They turned to me. “You hear anything about what’s inside?”
I shook my head. “But I used to come here when I was younger, much younger.”
The braided lady said, “You knew the family?”
“A long time ago,” I said.
“I heard she was a bit crazy,” said the other woman. She twirled her forefinger in the air while pointing at her left ear. “My name is Mary and this is Alice,” she said, nodding at her friend. “We’re in the antique business together. We’re just getting ready to open our own shop. It’s called M & A Antiques. You know, like mergers and acquisitions. We’re collecting the last few things so we can start with a decent inventory.”
“I’m Helen,” I said. “I live in the next town over, and I grew up around here.”
If I close my eyes, I can see the furniture, and my mother’s favorite trinkets placed in set locations on tabletops and on the fireplace mantels. I recall the large painting of a quiet bay surrounded by beach cottages over the living room fireplace. On the opposite wall above the sofa was a painting of a ship struggling against the sea in a storm. I hoped to find old photos, my old stuffed dog I called “Scotty,” my mother’s favorite salmon pink scarf and my father’s pipe. I didn’t know what else I wanted from my sister’s possessions. I heard she became a teacher of the deaf after our parents died, but other than that and the fact that she wanted nothing to do with me, I didn’t know anything about her.
Mary said she had a stool in their car, and I could sit on it while we were waiting instead of leaning against that smelly tree. I thanked her; she got it, and put it on the slate walk next to them.
Alice said, “You got a store too?”
“No, I’m just here to pick up some kitchen stuff cheap for my granddaughter,” I lied.
Mary and Alice looked at each other. “If she’s not in the business, she doesn’t have any stickers to put on stuff she wants,” Mary said to Alice. She turned to me. “You gotta have your own stickers, or people will beat you at getting the best stuff.” She handed me a small stack of papers covered with stickers that had “M & A Antiques” embossed in gold. “You take our stickers. We can help each other out. You put our sticker on any nice-looking furniture in rooms we didn’t get to yet, and we’ll help you get your stuff and carry it out. I mean, you don’t even have a decent bag to carry things.”
I felt tired and a little faint. My lower back muscles were contracting sharply because of the way I sat hunched on the stool. I touched my forehead with the back of my hand. I wasn’t sure how many stickers I could put on things for them.
The front door opened and a woman with dry red bobbed hair and enormous horn-rimmed glasses announced the sale was starting. She said the first twenty-five on line could enter the house for the first half hour. I had number fifteen. I stood up from the stool, and Mary picked it up and left it by an overgrown holly bush. Then, I walked through the door I’d walked out of fifty years ago.
I turned left and walked into the living room first. The tall walls were still painted the sea green my mother chose after they first moved into the house. She picked the same color for nearly all the rooms in the house because she loved the ocean. I remember she said life’s challenges were like waves breaking on the shoreline. And if you stand back far enough, she said, you can watch the darkly churning water without getting pulled into its depths.
I saw the green and gold silk couch I sat on when I told my parents my first child was due in four months. It faced the fireplace and my parent’s two chairs still flanked both arms of the couch. Alice nudged me, and pointed to my mother’s secretary by the window. The estate sale woman used the open lid of the desk to hold her moneybox. Alice whispered that I should put a sticker on it while she went into the sunroom.
The woman coughed and sneezed as she moved aside to let me put the sticker on the glass door above the open desk. “You almost need a face mask in this place. I don’t think the old lady did much cleaning.” She held a tissue to her mouth. “In fact, I know she didn’t.” Dust motes floated by in the window’s light, and the cloying smell of mildew hung in the air. Along the edges of the faded Oriental rug, small drifts of blackish dust mixed with chips of plaster littered the wooden floor.
“Did you know her?” I asked.
“Oh yes, we all did,” she said.
“What was she like?”
She coughed. “Well, let’s just say she was quite a specimen, as you can guess from the state of things in here.”
“Did she leave any papers or personal things?”
“It’s all papers and personal things. She never threw a damn thing out. We were going through sales circulars from the 1950s. She kept letters she didn’t send. Mean letters were her talent. She told boyfriends about everything that was wrong with them, and she spent a lot of time complaining to merchants. We think her mother or someone must have read them and prevented her from causing trouble.” She sneezed. “Let’s put it this way, she wasn’t a nice person.”
Something about this stranger talking this way about my sister was painful to me.
“Do you have the letters here?” I asked.
“In the old woman’s upstairs bedroom, you’ll find a few stacks, and diaries for people who like to collect that sort of thing. We kept the collectible things, but a lot of the other papers were thrown away last week.”
I went upstairs to my sister’s bedroom, which had once been my parent’s bedroom. Someone placed a box of papers and a box of small diaries on the floor by the window. Dirty white steel Venetian blinds with bent broken slats cast striped shadows over water-stained, turquoise painted walls. My mother had chosen a lighter shade of the sea for this room because it faced north. I picked up my sister’s diary from the year I had my first baby, and looked for February 15, the day I left home. My sister wrote about how much she hated me, and what I’d done to hurt my parents and the family. She said I was a bad person and my parents were right not to want me in the house.
I picked up another diary from ten years later. By then, I’d had three more children and my husband and I had bought a small house in the next town. At the time, I remembered thinking about my parents and sister, and how they were missing my children’s smiles and laughter. I hoped they’d talk to me again, shake my husband’s hand, and tousle my children’s hair. They never wrote back to me when I sent them letters telling them about my life. My sister’s diary revealed nothing about my existence. The next diary ignored my life too. She wrote about her teaching, my parent’s aches and pains, and the weather. If the day was sunny, she was unvexed. If it rained, she was cross. I decided not to ask the woman if she knew where to find my mother’s favorite pink scarf or my father’s wooden pipe. I felt I didn’t want them anymore. I didn’t want to see old photos either.
An estate sale helper leaned against my sister’s bedroom vanity table. She had a notepad and red pencil in her hand.
“How much for the boxes of letters and diaries?”
She frowned. “Isn’t it marked?”
“Maybe, I can’t see too well.”
She sighed, walked over to where I was standing, and flipped the open box lids. “Twenty dollars each.”
“I’ll take them,” I said. She listed the boxes in red on a receipt, and kicked them to the side. “Do you know if there are any toys? I’m looking for an old brown stuffed dog, sort of looks like a bear with beagle ears. “
“Check out her closet over there, she had some toys in a box. And, there are some scary-looking broken dolls upstairs on the third floor.”
I opened the closet door, and saw some stuffed animals in a tall wicker basket. I found my little dog Scotty at the bottom of the dusty pile of worn plushes. He’d been my favorite toy when I was little, and my constant companion until I was six. The estate sale helper added him to the list. He was five dollars. I stroked his velvety ears and held him under my arm.
“You know where there might be a nice trunk, or a chest? Something special, maybe with travel markings on it, or other interesting features,” I said.
She frowned and looked around the room. She pointed at an open doorway. “Sleeping porch has a deep cedar chest that was full of moth-eaten blankets. Isn’t that funny?” She laughed. “Cedar is supposed to scare them away, but she never closed the lid. We threw out the filthy pile, and found a key at the bottom. We figured she never closed the chest because she didn’t know where to find the key.”
“I think it’s a hundred dollars because it has a key.”
I looked through the doorway at the chest with its key taped to the lid. “I’ll take it.” I handed her the money for the boxes, the dog, and the chest.
“I have some friends who are going to help me get these things. I have a bad hip you see, and they’re helping me out,” I said, rubbing my left side. “Could you help me put these letters and diaries in the chest? It’ll make it easier for my friends.”
She said she could as long as no one else was in the room, and she quickly dragged the boxes to the chest. In less than five minutes, she’d stuffed the letters and booklets into the cedar chest.
I thanked her and gave her twenty dollars for her help. She stuck a red paid sticker to the top of the chest. I told her my friends Mary and Alice of M & A Antiques would be up to the room soon, and I described them. I put their sticker on the lid next to the red paid sticker. Then, I locked the chest, and put the key back under the strip of tape on the lid. I nestled my stuffed dog more deeply under my arm, walked out of the bedroom and out of the house.
I sat on Mary and Alice’s stool, and waited for them to come outside. They’d like that cedar chest, and they’d probably throw out the papers and books I’d pretend not to know about. Now I knew I could explain the last fifty years to my children and grandchildren. I decided to tell them my parents and sister got drowned trying to fight life’s changes the way an inexperienced swimmer fights a rip current. If they’d learned to swim around the undertow, they could have coasted to the beach on the crest of an ocean breaker; gliding softly on the churning seawater until they lay flat at the shingle’s edge, and gotten up to ride the next wave.