Monday, May 16, 2011

Introductions & Explanations

Early in the summer of 2010, there was an estate sale in my neighbourhood.

Now normally, I’ll see a garage or yard sale and continue to walk by. My life’s quota of gaudy neon stuffed animals is filled and all my relatives have had boy babies. So frilly girl’s dresses on white plastic hangers are alien and useless to me. I’m too pessimistic to believe that I’ll find a mint copy of Amazing Fantasy number 15 amidst the piles of Archie comics, so I always keep on truckin'.

However, that Monday morn I was doing my stepping right when a tired looking woman was propping up the “Estate Sale” sign in the postage-stamp sized garden. I was only a block and a half from my Toronto home. Coincidence is composed of soundless, tiny chains.

I thought estate sales were grandiose affairs that happened at manors and mansions, not at a well-kept semi-detached just outside the downtown core. But you don't need wealth, just death, to sell off a mortal's trappings.

Death and your proximity to it come with built-in morbidity generators, so even though my feet kept a-walking, my eyes must have hesitated. The tired sign woman had turned to prop open the screen door. That hydraulic-looking thingamajig at the bottom of the door gave her some trouble, but as she stood up from it, she saw me seeing her.

She looked haggard and down enough that I felt obligated to cheer her up. It’s this instant obligation, even for people I don’t know – I think – that’s making me post this stuff.

So cheerily, but not too – after all, estate sales mean somebody died, right? – I asked, “Open for business?”

She half-smiled and responded, “I guess so.”

I could have said, “Well, good luck” or “Maybe I’ll stop in later, I’ve got to get to a dentist appointment”.

But lying to the recently bereaved, which is what I assumed she was, feels cruel and wrong and invites curses from the ghost of the dearly departed.

“Great,” I said and felt my feet moving in a new direction.

Why do obligations lead to ever increasing obligations? I say this because I had no desire to buy some dead person’s stuff; I pictured yellowing doilies and badly framed oil paintings with too many reds and oranges. I had maybe 30 bucks in my wallet and better things to spend it on. But now, I felt obliged to look and looking leads to buy. Especially when you're the only customer in a retail outlet that is a house just down the street from yours.

I was gearing myself to select the first not-too-heinous Dalton knock-off and get the hell out. Duty done.

Though my neighbourhood is ancient, steeped in century old Victorian homes, it’s been gentrifying nicely. The inside of the death house didn’t reek of the ex-occupant who began rotting in the upstairs four-poster bed. Twelve foot high ceiling and a modern minimalist style gave the first room, a dining-family room combo, an airy and light feel. Not my style, but closer than the Addams-family digs I had expected.

“You’re the first one,” she said quietly as she breezed past me to go to the kitchen.

“Oh good.” I scanned the room wondering what I could quickly snag and not pay more than five dollars for.

“Anything particular you’re looking for?” she called from the kitchen. Sounded like she was pouring herself a glass of water.

In my head I said, “Oh yeah, I comb dead people’s stuff with shopping list in hand. I follow the obituaries every Sunday, barely able to restrain my consumeristic glee. In a former life, I scavenged corpses on medieval battlefields.”

But what I said was, “Music?”

She came back out sipping her water and pointing to a wooden box in the corner. The solidly built crate was labelled “Dynamex” in faded ink.

“He had some vinyl.”

“Oh really?” I sauntered quickly over, feigning interest. Honestly, I was sure that a box of old records would cost far more than what I had on me, and I could scoot out looking disappointed. Hell, the dynamite crate must be worth more than twenty bucks alone.

I knelt down and fingered through the records. Looked like 70’s and 80’s mostly. I pulled up a couple, but I didn’t even read the band-names or register the album art. Too eager to get on with my soul-shriveling plan of escape.

“Wow, cool. Hmmm,” and a beat to lend realism, then, “How much?”

She shrugged gave me a “I dunno” pressing of the lips together. Then, “Twenty?”

My eyebrows rose in what I hoped was a look of consideration, but inside I swore. I knew I had twenty, but I didn’t want to spend that much, especially on something I utterly did not want.

“You could get more for them,” I told her with sagacity and kindness.

“It’s okay. I’m not up to haggling.”

Oh, not fair, even if somebody in your family did just die.

I looked back to the wooden crate stuffed with the Pat Benetars and Triumph discs. Damn this dead guy’s choice in music, and damn his taste in minimalism; not a brass unicorn or faux-crystal candle holder in sight.

Desperation wins.

“Ok, 20 it is.” My hand was already flipping open my wallet and pulling out the required legal tender. “Here you go.”

I scooped up my booty and headed for the door. I tossed a “Thanks!” over my shoulder. She didn’t say good-bye immediately, so I knew something else was coming. “Do you live near here?”

I told her. She nodded and asked, “So did you ever see him or meet him, or from before, his wife and daughter?”

My face was a mask of neutral pleasantry, immune to further inquiry. “No, I didn’t.”

She expected this answer. “Well, thanks.” A slight waving of the twenty.

“Oh no, thank you!” A slight raising of the albatross crate. I said it with genuine joy. I was, after all, now getting out of there.

Off the heating sidewalk, the late summer breeze wafted the smell of old cardboard from the box into my face.

Twenty bucks. Lousy music. A dynamite crate.

Too much spent to just ignore what was bought. A purchase too lousy to dump to a friend. A container too large to give to the garbage on the way inside the house.

All those things. And my own stupid curiousity and sense of obligation led me to find what was hidden, page by page, inside the sleeves of the records.

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