By Mary Ann Presman
Crystal felt she was sorting through the chapters of her life as she hauled stuff to the porch for her garage sale. Was it still a “garage sale” if you held it on the porch? She was lucky to have a porch—one of the reasons she rented this first floor space in Mrs. Larkin’s dilapidated old house. That, and the rent was reasonable.
All of Benton Square was unearthing their treasures this weekend; it was a sale the rest of the city marked on their calendars. In this older mixed neighborhood, you could find everything from genuine antiques to baby clothes, scads of books and more than a few old bicycles, many abandoned treadmills and racks of clothing in now-too-small sizes. The Benton Square Garage Sale was always held the first weekend in May to coincide with the annual rite of spring cleaning.
Crystal was not nearly so organized as to subscribe to any ritual of spring cleaning. And it wasn’t that she had lots to get rid of—but she was low on cash and hoped this would be a way to make a few bucks.
The house afforded her two storage spaces, some shelves in a corner of the basement, and—for the more precious things—a large pantry at the back of her kitchen. She began her quest for candidates in the basement; if they weren’t precious enough to be stored upstairs, wouldn’t it seem they were likely items for the sale? Here was a box of Christmas lights used for stringing from the eaves—that one Christmas when she and Chuck, her ex, were imitating normal people as best they could. Disc jockeys weren’t, by and large, normal people—what had she expected?
Also, a whole box of flower vases. From the days when she was being courted by Oskar, who worked at a greenhouse and sent her flowers once a week. They were the standard clear glass variety, but maybe someone was planning a big party and would want a boxful of vases. Definitely garage sale material.
An unwieldy cinched green plastic garbage bag contained white tennis shirts and shorts, even a tennis dress. She could still wear them, but she never played tennis at that club anymore. She could wear anything she wanted at the public courts that were within walking distance.
This box of old LPs really shouldn’t be stored in the basement, although she had never noticed a water problem. When the radio station cleaned out all its LPs, she lugged them home by the boxful. All the music is on satellite or computer now. She didn’t even have a turntable anymore, why was she hanging on to these 33s? Would they sell? Does anybody still have a record player? Crystal pulled out the first album in the box, curious to see what it might be. Captain and Tennille, with their goofy-looking dogs and proclaiming “Love Will Keep Us Together.” Well, it did—for a while. Longer than it had worked for her.
Crystal was about to begin poking around in the pantry when Denise arrived, Ms. Enthusiasm herself.
“You could plug in that string of Christmas lights and hang them across the front of the porch,” Denise suggested. “That’ll draw attention to your sale, even to people just walking by on the sidewalk.”
“Will little twinkle lights show up that much in the daytime?” wondered Crystal aloud.
“Of course they will! There you go, being negative again.” Denise began pulling at the tangle of lights with her plump fingers. “Do you want me to help, or don’t you?”
Good question, thought Crystal.
“If I were you, I’d put a few of those albums outside the box—on display like—so people are tempted to look inside,” Denise continued.
Denise was in her element—organizing stuff was her strong suit. Her own house, a few blocks away on one of the better streets, was clear of clutter. “If I don’t use it or wear it over the space of twelve months—out it goes!” And by god, she stuck to it. Crystal surmised Denise’s husband, Martin, made sure he stayed useful. He put in long hours at the office, provided well for his family, and spent his weekends working outside when the weather was good, in the basement when it wasn’t.
“Gosh! These are a mess!” Denise plopped down on the porch swing, sending it swaying. The hooks in the porch ceiling strained noisily, but the swing held. Unperturbed, she set about systematically straightening out what Crystal guessed were at least three strings of lights.
No one ever took them for sisters. Well, they weren’t really full sisters, they were half-sisters—same mother, different fathers. Crystal took after their mother—dark-haired, tallish, thin and more-or-less indecisive. Denise, on the other hand, inherited not only a sturdy blond physical presence, but her father’s take-charge capabilities. It was his resolve that had saved their mother’s life, Crystal realized, but it had made her rebel as an adolescent. New father, new rules, no longer the sole focus of her mother’s attention. She’d made a mess of her teenage years—and on into her twenties. Which was what gave Denise, ten years her junior, the prerogative to boss her around.
“Is this all the stuff you have?” Denise asked.
“No, I haven’t even dug into the pantry yet. But the sale doesn’t start til nine tomorrow. I can get more stuff out in the morning.” Crystal perched on the porch railing and thought how good a cold beer would taste.
“You should have it all out here before it gets dark so you can see how best to arrange things. And you’ll want to put price tags on all of it. Do you have something to use for price tags?”
“Price tags?” The thought hadn’t even occurred to Crystal. Criminy.
“You could do those in the morning,” Denise allowed. “But all the more reason to get everything out here now. You want me to help?” She made as if to get up from the swing, but Crystal moved quickly to put a hand on her shoulder.
“No. That’s all right. I can do it. You’ve taken on quite a job there.” Crystal headed for the door.
“Were you just going to sell these all tangled up?”
“I guess.” She let the screen door bang behind her and headed for the pantry.
Crystal eyed the couple of boxes in the far corner of the pantry—the safest place to store her mother’s good china. Better not haul those out now. Instead, she reached for a stack of board games—Sorry and Clue and Yahtzee and the like. Nobody played board games anymore, they were all hypnotized by the screens of their smart phones, playing Angry Birds. She set the games on the kitchen table and removed the top one, setting it aside. Crystal wasn’t ready to give up on a face-to-face game of Scrabble.
She picked up the remaining stack and headed for the porch, pushing the screen door open with her slim hip.
“Oh, those are good!” exclaimed Denise. “Perfect garage sale material. Here, put them over on the swing where people can see them right away.” She stood, the tangle of Christmas lights miraculously straightened out and fastened in reasonable loops, as if they were a cowpuncher’s rope.
Crystal waited for the swing to stop swaying and then set the games down. Denise put the lights on the table and scooched the stack of games sideways and over to one end of the swing. “That way you’ll have room for more stuff here,” she advised.
“Right,” acknowledged Crystal.
“I’m really sorry I won’t be able to help you tomorrow, but the Art Guild Brunch is a big fundraiser and it just wouldn’t do for me to miss it—being the brunch chair and all.”
“Oh, don’t worry. I’ll make out. Too bad they’re scheduled on the same day, though. You probably didn’t realize that when you set the date.”
“Well, you have to admit, it’s not the same crowd,” Denise pointed out. “And I suspect there won’t be a swarm of people all at once, although I haven’t been to a garage sale in years so I’m no expert.”
“I wasn’t here last year, so I don’t know,” said Crystal. “I mean, I was living here, but I wasn’t in town for Benton Square’s Garage Sale.”
“Was that the weekend you went off with that florist person?”
“No, I think I was in Kalamazoo interviewing for a job at a radio station.”
“Wasn’t he gay?”
“You mean, because he worked at a greenhouse?”
“Well…?” Denise sort of fluttered her hand in a questioning gesture.
“Oskar definitely is not gay.”
“Really?” Denise wanted more information, but Crystal was not about to give it to her.
“What do you think I should use for pricetags?” Crystal looked around as if some logical material would reveal itself.
“They sell them in little packages—little tags with strings in them and everything.”
“Oh, like at Michael’s or Office Depot. Places like that.”
“Really. Why don’t I just run out and get some for you?”
“Do you have time?”
“Sure. It’ll just take a half-hour or so—I know right where to go. It’d take you forever.” Denise smiled indulgently. “But then I’ll have to drop them off and be on my way. Can you figure out the prices for yourself?”
“I’ll manage,” Crystal said.
“Okay then, I’m off.” Denise grabbed her car keys and purse and pushed open the screen door.
Well, that worked.
Crystal returned to the pantry for more garage sale candidates. How had she managed to accumulate so many plastic containers? They were stacked—sort of—in a corner closest to the pantry entrance, ready to be snatched up and filled with—what? Leftover mostaccioli? Her landlady’s applesauce? A collection of rubber bands and twist-ties? Hopes and dreams?
She wondered if anyone would actually buy them. Perhaps some earnest recycler might. She dumped them in a brown paper bag without bothering to match lids to containers and took them to the porch. Playing matchmaker would be a good project for Denise if she returned with any extra minutes to grant to Crystal’s Garage Sale Project. Denise was best kept busy.
More staring at stuff on the pantry shelves. She definitely did not want to take her mother’s dishes out there until Denise had come and gone for the last time. How about this bread maker? Whoops! She remembered in the nick of time that Denise and Martin had given it to her for Christmas a few years back. She’d used it a couple of times while married to Chuck but not since. Crystal in the kitchen was like Mr. T in a “White Gloves and Party Manners” class. She’d add the bread baker to the sale items first thing in the morning, when Denise would be busy going over her plan of attack for the Artists Guild Brunch.
A slam of the porch door announced Denise’s return. “Here they are,” she called out, as Crystal went to greet her. “Just where I thought they’d be…at Office Depot.” Denise waved a plastic bag in the air and handed it to her sister.
“Thanks,” Crystal said. She peered inside and pulled out the tags. “These are perfect.” She smiled at Denise. “I never knew such a thing existed.”
“Right…they’re just what you need. Glad I could help.” Denise looked around. “Is this all the stuff you have?”
“Oh, I’m still deciding on what can go and what I want to keep.”
“If I had more time, I could help you with that…but I don’t. Sorry.”
“It’s okay. I just have to put on my Practical Person hat and get to it,” Crystal said.
“It’s not easy, I know. Some things are difficult to part with.” Denise smiled. “Well, gotta run. Good luck with all of this tomorrow.” She gave Crystal a hug. “It’s supposed to be a nice day, so that should promote traffic.”
“Right. And good luck with your brunch thingy.” Crystal followed Denise to the porch door. “And thanks again for all your help,” she said, as Denise descended the porch steps.
Crystal turned back to the porch with the price tags in her hand. She looked at the box of vases. She certainly wasn’t going to put an individual price tag on each vase. She went into the kitchen and found a black marker in the “everything” drawer. ANY VASE – 50 cents she wrote on the side of the box. LP’s – 3 for $1, she printed in large letters on that box. She recognized the apostrophe as a grammatical error, but it looked better that way. And made up for all the apostrophes left out in crossword puzzles.
What would she use the price tags for? Back to the pantry. It was probably safe to take the Bread Maker out now, but she had no idea what price to put on it. She didn’t even know what they cost new. Have to look that up on EBay.
And then there were her mother’s good dishes.
Crystal was standing in the kitchen with her first cup of coffee the next morning when she thought she heard a thump on the porch. She went over and peered through the closed storm door. She moved sideways so she could see outside. Somebody was standing there, peering into the porch. She glanced at the clock—7:37 a.m. She looked down to be sure she was fully clothed, then opened the storm door.
“The garage sale doesn’t start until nine o’clock,” she said, still behind the kitchen screen door.
The man lowered the hand he used to shade his eyes and smiled cheerfully at Crystal.
“Oh, I know. I thought I’d take a look-see before I went for breakfast so I know where to come first.”
She looked him over carefully. “It’s a little early to be peeking into people’s porches.”
“Oh, crap! I didn’t scare you, did I?” He backed down a step. “I didn’t even think about that.”
“You’re lucky I didn’t have my six-shooter handy,” Crystal said, grinning at the man’s obvious embarrassment.
“Are you a good shot?”
“Darned if I know,” she admitted. Crystal opened the door and stepped onto the porch. “Are you looking for something in particular?”
“Oh, I’m in the market for all kinds of stuff.” He stepped back up to the top step, but remained on his side of the outside screen door and made no move to open it. “I’m just moving into an apartment kinda close by and I’m going to need furniture…lamps…pots and pans…kitchen utensils…that kind of thing.”
“Well, you’re in luck. You’ll find all that and more at the Benton Square Garage Sale. Good timing on your part.” She walked over and stood just this side of the door, wanting to get a better look at this prospective customer…new neighbor…whatever he was. “I can’t let you in yet. They get pretty cranky about that.”
“They?” the young man asked. Because she could see now that he was what Crystal would call young –about her age, really. Kind of an average-looking guy. No distinguishing tattoos or abnormalities that would make him stand out in a police lineup.
“The Benton Square Garage Sale Committee.” Crystal lowered her voice an octave to become an imaginary committee person. “‘If one person starts selling early, then people will expect others to do the same, and we lose all control over the hours of the sale.’” She smiled. “Can’t have an out-of-control garage sale.”
“Right. All heck is likely to break loose.”
“And to be honest, I don’t even have all my stuff out here yet. There’ll be more when you come back at nine.” Crystal waved vaguely at what was on the porch.
“Do you have any kitchen things?”
“There are some dishes that aren’t out here yet. And a bread-maker.”
“I was really looking for pots and pans,” he said.
“Are you going to eat your dinner right out of the pan?” Crystal asked.
He grinned. “Of course not. What do you take me for—some sort of barbarian? I’ll have you know I’m a respectable human being. My mom raised me right.” Almost as an afterthought he added, “My name is Ned Sullivan.”
Crystal transferred her coffee mug to her left hand, pushed open the door with her foot—causing Ned to back down a step—and stuck out her hand to shake his. “I’m Crystal. Welcome to the neighborhood, Ned. Be sure you come back at nine.”
“Oh, I will.” He smiled and backed down the steps to the sidewalk. “For sure…I’ll be back.”
At least he didn’t do an Arnold Schwarzenegger imitation—Crystal had to give him points for that.
After her second cup of coffee, Crystal carried the bread-maker to the porch. Then the heavy carton containing her mother’s good dishes. She had saved a prominent place on the table for these—they would be her high-ticket items. The bread-maker looked “like new” in its original box with colorful photos on the side. She rummaged around in the kitchen drawers and found the instructions in with hotpads and dishtowels. As she tucked the little booklet in its box, she began to feel organized. Well, a little.
People were beginning to drive slowly up and down the street, eyeing the houses with bright yellow Benton Square Garage Sale signs in front. It was a few minutes before nine; she stood contemplating the box with the dishes. Should she sell them as a complete set or allow people—like Ned, who wouldn’t need a service for twelve—to purchase just a few pieces? Maybe she’d play that by ear. Probably should take out a few plates and a cup and saucer so people can see what they look like. She lifted a plate out of its newspaper wrapping and turned it over. “Ballet Icing” she read the name of the pattern aloud. “Ohmigosh, I didn’t realize it was Waterford.” She turned it back over, studying the pretty white-on-white scroll that edged the rim of the plate. When had her mother received these dishes? Who would have spent that kind of money? They must have been part of a bridal registry…so many years ago.
“You can’t seriously be thinking of selling Mother’s dishes?”
Crystal nearly dropped the plate she was holding. She didn’t hear Denise come up the porch steps—her arrival muffled by the general hub-bub now taking place up and down the block.
“Aren’t you supposed to be at a brunch?” Crystal stuffed the plate back into the box.
“I thought I’d stop by to see if you needed any last-minute help.” Denise stayed a few steps inside the porch door. She glanced at the bread-maker, then looked from the carton containing the dishes to Crystal. “Seriously. You’re not putting Mother’s dishes in your garage sale, are you?” She practically spit out the words.
Crystal looked at the evidence. “That’s the plan,” she admitted.
“Crystal, if you don’t want those dishes, I’ll be happy to take them off your hands.” Denise stepped toward the table. “You could give them to me.”
“I could, but I could also sell them in my garage sale.” Crystal moved so she was between the table and Denise.
“Those dishes should stay in the family.”
“They’re just dishes, Denise. It’s not like they’re photograph albums, filled with loving memories. Can you even remember these being used?”
Crystal knew her mother had used these dishes only on rare occasions. She wasn’t even sure she had used them after she married Denise’s father. Perhaps they were an unpleasant reminder of her first marriage.
“But they belonged to our mother,” Denise argued.
“And she gave them to me,” Crystal pointed out. “Neither of us has ever used them.”
“Because they’ve been sitting in a box in your pantry.”
“That’s because these dishes are mine…and I can do whatever I please with them.”
“If you’d stick to a budget you wouldn’t be so hard up that you’d need to sell your…our…mother’s dishes in a garage sale.”
“The fact remains,” Crystal stood taller, chin in air, “it’s my prerogative to do so.”
Denise stood a moment, biting her lip, then without another word she whirled and pushed open the screen door—nearly knocking over the person who stood on the steps.
Sure enough, it was Ned Sullivan.
“Unhappy customer so early in the morning?” he asked.
“Unhappy sister,” Crystal admitted. “Sorry she almost knocked you over.”
“I’m not easy to knock over.” Ned smiled at her. “But sisters—or brothers, for that matter—have a way of exerting a force that isn’t always physical.”
“Ohmigod. An early morning psychoanalysis.” Crystal feigned distress with a melodramatic hand to her forehead.
“Okay, sorry. It’s none of my business,” Ned said, turning away to look around the porch. “Let’s see what you have for sale here.” He took a few steps from Crystal, paused, and pointed to the box of dishes. “I think I’ll stay away from those. Not exactly uncouth bachelor material, anyway, are they? Can you even put them in a dishwasher?”
“Darned if I know,” Crystal admitted. “Probably not. Otherwise I might have been using them myself.”
“Are you a bachelor?” he asked. “I mean…”
“Are you moving?”
“No, I’m just trying to clear a little of the clutter out of my life…and make a few bucks.” Crystal glanced at the merchandise. “Probably this stuff would just be clutter to you, too. I think the Schmidts over on the corner are selling some actual furniture.”
“Hey, I might need some Christmas lights.” Ned held up the strings Denise had so carefully untangled. He looked at Crystal. “Are you trying to get rid of me?”
“No, no. Absolutely not.” Why did this fluster her? “I was just trying to be helpful.”
“Thank you for that.” He touched the brim of his baseball cap.
“Ned,” he said. “Ned Sullivan.”
“I remember your name.” She felt herself blush.
“Really? Good.” There was that disarming grin again. “And you’re Crystal, right?”
“Me Crystal, you Ned.” Uh-oh. Was that a step forward too quickly?
He smiled even more broadly and raised the lights in the air. “Crystal with the Christmas lights for sale.”
“I think I’m going to get myself some coffee.” Crystal headed for the kitchen door, then felt compelled to offer, “Do you want a cup?”
“I’d love one.”
When she came back on the porch with two mugs of coffee, Ned was looking through the LPs.
“I forgot to ask if you need cream or sugar.” She tentatively offered one of the mugs to him.
“This is good.” Sipped, nodded appreciatively. “You have quite a collection of LPs here.”
“Yeah, I used to work for a radio station.”
“Really? Here in town?”
“No. In a previous life, in another town.”
“Were you a disk jockey? You have a nice voice.”
“No.” She blushed again, godammit. “I was a copywriter…wrote the radio commercials.”
“Ah! So do you have an unfinished novel in a drawer somewhere?”
“Not really.” You couldn’t call what she had in the drawer an ‘unfinished novel.’ “I liked working in radio, but it’s not the same anymore.”
“So what do you do now?” Ned continued to look through the LPs while he gleaned information.
“I work at the library.”
“That sounds good.”
“It is good…though it doesn’t pay much. I’m essentially part-time. I keep hoping my boss will decide to retire so I can be promoted to Director of Community Relations. But she’s still going strong!”
“Pretty inconsiderate.” Ned lifted his mug to hers in a toast, “To early retirement.”
Their mugs clinked.
“So, in an effort to augment my income, I’ve stooped to the unimaginable low of putting my mother’s dishes up for sale.” Crystal looked to Ned for sympathy.
He hesitated. “And the person that deems this such a dastardly deed is your sister?”
“Same mother…or same father?” Ned turned slightly away so as not to be questioning Crystal face-to-face.
“Mother.” Crystal wasn’t sure she liked where this was going. “It’s not like I have any kids to pass the dishes on down to.”
“Does your sister have kids?” He pulled an LP out of the box to scrutinize it.
“Two daughters.” If she hadn’t given this guy a cup of coffee he’d be gone by now. “If Denise really wants the dishes, she could have them. She could buy them in the garage sale like anybody else.”
“True.” Ned glanced at Crystal, then returned to his study of Bruce Springsteen’s face on a well-worn album cover.
Crystal waited for his next pithy question. Why did she feel the need for his—or anyone’s—approval? “I mean, she has all kinds of money. It wouldn’t bust her precious budget to pay for the dishes.” That sounded whiny, didn’t it?
Ned pushed the LP back into the box and looked at her. “I’ve already said more than I should have.”
“So you think I’m in the wrong here?”
“Look, they’re your dishes, aren’t they? If your mother gave them to you—then you’re free to do whatever you want with them.”
“Right. At least, I thought so.”
Ned poked in the LP box again. “Here’s something you might consider…” and then his gaze met hers. “What would your mother want?”
Oh, god. Of course. Crystal walked to the porch door and stared out at the sunlit and shade-dappled lawn. It was so obvious, so simple. Why hadn’t she asked herself that question? Because she knew the answer, goddammit.
She turned back to Ned. “It is so embarrassing to have to admit that I never asked myself that question.”
“Maybe. But understandable.”
“You don’t think I’m a horrible person?”
“Number one, you shouldn’t care what I think. Number two, for what it’s worth, I don’t think you’re a horrible person. If that’s the worst thing you’ve ever done…”
“Where did you come from?” Crystal asked.
“Never mind that…look who’s coming up the walk.” Ned moved back behind the box of LPs.
It was Denise, in a very big hurry. She pounced up the steps and pulled a handful of bills out of her pocket. “I went to the ATM. I knew you’d want cash. Will eighty dollars cover it?”
“I’ve had a change of heart, Denise. Mom’s dishes are not for sale.” Crystal didn’t back up from where she stood, so the two sisters were face to face, the porch door hung open. She waited while Denise attempted to compose herself and then resisted the temptation to further torment her. “They’re yours.”
Denise looked bewildered.
“Seriously.” Crystal stepped to the table and began rewrapping the plate to put it back in the box. “I’ll never use these dishes. You will. And then maybe your daughters will.” She gave Denise a rueful smile. “Mom would have liked that.”
Denise looked over at Ned in wonder. He raised his coffee cup to her.
“I know you have that brunch thing. Why don’t I just pack them up and you can pick them up tomorrow?” suggested Crystal.
“Are you sure? You’re giving them to me?” Denise made a halfhearted effort to offer Crystal the cash still in her hand.
“I’m sure. I promise I won’t change my mind.” She made a show of looking at her watch. “But you’d better get going.”
“Right.” Denise looked again at Ned. He grinned. “Thanks so very much,” she said, hugging Crystal. Tears welled in her eyes as she turned and hurried down the steps, stuffing the cash back into her jacket pocket.
Crystal eyed Ned. “I think Mom sent you.”
He shrugged. “Does that mean I already have Mom’s approval?”