My cat is an asshole. It’s not like I don’t love her—she’s my life—but I’m getting sick of her claw marks. They’re everywhere, like feline graffiti, and I need to do something. There’s no way in hell I’m declawing her because that’s just inhumane. And there’s no way in hell she’ll wear the little booties I just bought her, regardless of the four-star Amazon review. So now what? Should I just let her do whatever she wants like the little pussy-cat princess she is? Should I just let my apartment go to shit?
It’s doable, I guess. I haven’t had a date in a decade and all my friends are online, so it’s not like I need to impress anybody. But what if? I almost asked out Teresa the last time I got my teeth cleaned, and she had a look in her eye that makes me think I should’ve. Maybe she’ll come over someday. And if she does, she’ll see the claw marks—she’ll know I have a cat, and subconsciously, she’ll smell the air. That’s how it works. She’ll convince herself that my apartment is disgusting and then she’ll convince herself that I’m disgusting, and then I’ll have to find a new dentist.
I’ll fix up this apartment. I’ll throw away all this ratty furniture and I’ll get new stuff. It’s about time anyway; I’ve been calling this couch is “vintage” for years, but really, it’s pawn-shop-chic at best. So, I’ll switch to a modern look. I’ll get rid of all this cloth and wood and I’ll buy metallic things, sparse and utilitarian. A minimalistic look, like in the movies. There’s no way Princess will be able to mess that up with her claws. Purr-fect.
I swipe right to unlock my iPhone and I open Facebook.
I am the king of Facebook. Seriously. I have over two-thousand followers and nobody argues with me anymore on my posts. They know what happens.
I check my notifications—sixty-three of them!—and then I search for the local garage sale site. I’m scrolling through the listings. Cars, bikes, beds…rooms for rent, ISO babysitters, spare tires. And then I see it: a Crestview estate sale. “folding furniture, a steel cot, a record player, knickknackery, and fifty years’ worth of collectables!” Wonderful. I’m only ten minutes away.
I look around for Princess but I can’t find her anywhere; it’s her fault I can’t say goodbye. And then I leave through my apartment’s front door, on the ground floor of a converted hotel building on the north-side of Durango.
It’s cold out, bright and wet on an early-spring Sunday morning. Actually, this is perfect garage sale weather. The hobbyists and tourists will stay inside leaving only the regulars like me, and there won’t be many of us because it’s so early in the season anyway. So I like my chances.
I start my Nissan Xterra and head out. I turn on the radio and find some classic rock; all that other stuff is just noise. I crack my window and light a menthol, I let my thoughts wonder as I drive. Moments later I turn right on snowy twenty-fourth, and I kick-in the four-wheel drive. Unstoppable. I climb the wooded hills into the Crestview neighborhood.
There’s a house for sale on the right side; I pull over just for the hell of it. There’s an information box staked into the front lawn, full of fliers. I walk through the crusty snow and pull one out, a full-color piece of paper with pictures and a description. I laugh. A half-million for a two-bedroom that hasn’t been updated in twenty years? Seriously? This neighborhood is effing ridiculous. No thank you; Princess and I don’t need anything this big, and I wouldn’t buy it even if I could afford it.
I keep the flyer just in case, and get back in my SUV. I open Google Maps on my phone and put in the address. I’m three minutes away.
The drive over is a daydream: fantasies about what my place will look like when I’m done and what Teresa might say if she ever sees it. I put my Xterra in park right up against the curb. This is perfect. There’re only two other cars parked on the street, both Subarus, and it’s still early.
The house is a single-story anachronism. It’s plastered white with wooden shutters over the windows—they’re painted pink with cutouts of little tulips to match the pink door of the single-car, detached garage. There’s even a picket fence poking up out of the snow. The whole place just screams nineteen-fifty-something, from the square, snow-covered shrubbery to the brick chimney.
I walk up the path, right past the homemade “come inside” sign stuck in the snow, and I grunt my disproval; it’s not a real garage sale unless the garage door is open. I walk inside.
Oh. My. God.
This house is a walk-in time capsule. The air is musky and rank, like a mixture of mothballs and moldy earth. The carpet is thick and green, with discernable paths crisscrossing through the shag. The walls are wood panels, dark brown with even darker grain. The popcorn ceiling is dirty with dust and smoke. And the furniture is incredible: patinaed period pieces mixed with plaid upholstered couches and chairs. Beautiful. It’s like whoever lives here kept up with modern fashion until nineteen-fifty-six and then just gave up, refusing to make even the smallest update as the years bled by.
A quick look tells me that none of the furniture here will work, but I need to explore this place. If the living room is this freakishly cool, I can’t imagine what the kitchen is like.
I walk past the furniture and curios cabinets in the living room—filled to brimming with bric-a-brac—towards what I assume is the kitchen. I push past the slatted double doors and stand in awe on the yellowed linoleum. This room puts the “kitsch” in “kitchen.” The avocado-green lacquered appliances all match, and they’re festooned with hand-knitted rags. The countertops are grungy Formica and framed pictures of chickens cover most of the wall-papered walls.
It’s a walk-through kitchen, and through the slatted doors on the far end, I can hear voices. Two women talking. I walk over quietly to listen in; there’s a fine line between people-watching and eavesdropping, and I have no compunctions with crossing it.
“…newspapers were fifteen cents on Sundays. Everything was cheaper way-back-when,” says one woman.
“I know! And whoever lives here obviously has no clue what year it is! Did you see that record player in the other room? The big one with two built in speakers? The sticker said ‘twenty bucks!’” Says the other woman, in an excited whisper.
“Yeah. My name is Anna, by the way.”
“Christin. Nice to meet you. Is that your Forester out there?”
“Yeah, I love it. Do you drive one too?”
“I drive an Outback, so yeah, pretty much,” Christin says. They both giggle.
“Anyway, I wanna buy everything here, but I feel bad. Kind of like stealing from a baby, you know?”
“Not really, no. You know these people?”
“I just met the old woman. She’s putting prices on stuff in one of the back bedrooms. I asked if she was moving to make small-talk, and she told me her husband died just two weeks ago. Fell down the stairs leading to the basement! And now she’s selling everything so she can move in with her daughter. See what I mean?” Anna asks.
“That poor thing! But you know what? If she thinks these prices are fair, they’re fair. I’m getting that record player, but I won’t haggle.”
I back out of the kitchen quietly and go hunting for the back bedrooms. I walk through the living room and down a hallway. I walk past a bathroom and get a peek at pink tile and a clawfoot tub. I walk to the end of the hallway and into what must be the master bedroom. There’s a set of matching twin beds nestled into the shag carpet, and the paneled walls are covered with framed pictures of Jesus and his mom. A brown ceiling fan is humming quietly above me, and an old woman is standing by the wall, staring out a small window that looks out over the back yard.
“How much for the record player in the living room?” I ask.
She turns to look at me with a smile, and I meet her watery green eyes with my own. Was she just about to cry?
“Son, it’s polite to introduce yourself before you offer to buy something.”
“Yes ma’am,” I say, surprising myself with the formality, “I apologize. My name is Justin.”
“Oh, that’s okay sweetheart, I was just teasing.” Her smile is wide and bright; her expression is mischievous and smart, like maybe the years haven’t touched her mind. “It’s twenty bucks.”
“Seriously? It’s worth way more than that. I’ll give you forty.”
“Well, then you have a deal.” She nods her thanks, and smiles with her eyes.
“Perfect! But I’ll need to come back for it. Tomorrow maybe? There’s no room in the car.”
“Whatever works for you, Justin.”
We stand quietly for a moment, looking at each other. Her hair is thin but well kept, and she’s wearing a dark dress, deep red or maroon. She walks over and reaches out to shake my hand, and I accept. Her hand feels so small in mine, thin bones and fragile skin, but it isn’t trembling.
I let go and walk around the room, looking at everything else in a polite showing of interest. There’s a large picture of Jesus on the cross between the beds. I lean in close for a look at the little round sticker on the glass. Three dollars.
“Are you looking for anything in particular?” She asks.
“Yeah. Maybe some new furniture. Something my cat won’t mess up. I have a friend coming over.” Why is it so easy to lie to strangers?
“Oh really?” she asks with a ruthless smirk, “is it someone special?”
“Yeah. I asked her out last week. She’s my dental hygienist.” I smirk back, conspiratorially.
“Oh that’s just wonderful, Justin! And you want to make your house look nice for her? You’re such a gentleman, doing nice things for young women and paying the old ones twice what they ask.” She gives me a wink. “Where does she work?”
“Junction Creek Dental? You know, that place off twenty-second?”
“Oh dear, yes! Is her name Teresa? She’s just so wonderful and gentle! You lucky man!”
Son of a bitch! Stupid small towns and stupid old women, always chatting with everyone.
“I have an appointment with her next week,” she says, “I probably won’t make it, but if I do, I’ll put in a good word for you.”
“Uh, no,” I say, “it’s someone else. There’s a few offices over there, you know.” I look around frantically for an out, “how much for the luggage set?” I point at the two matching suitcases against the wall behind me. They’re just as old as everything else, brown canvas with leather straps.
“Oh, I’m not selling those, sweetheart. I’ll need them to go see my Jenny.”
“She’s your daughter? How old is she?” I know it’s an awkward question, but I need to make her forget about Teresa.
“Oh, she’s, you know. Older, now.” She looks confused. “Anyway, go ahead and come back any time tomorrow afternoon for your record player. It was nice to meet you Justin. I need to go check on the other two.” She walks past me, patting my shoulder curtly as she does, and leaves the room without looking back—her dismissal is polite, but obvious.
I find my way out of the house and drive away. The day is still bright and clear and cold, but it smells ten times fresher outside than the sepulture that woman called home.
Why’d she freak out like that? Why’d she give me crap for not introducing myself and then leave so quickly? Actually, come to think of it, she never told me her name even after I told her mine. That’s super rude. Maybe her husband fell down those stairs because he was running away. Ha!
I regret the thought as soon as I think it. I can’t imagine what it would be like to end up alone or what it would be like to sell everything you’ve collected with someone else, and even though she didn’t tell me her name, she was a sweetheart. And maybe she forgot? Old people are doing that kind of stuff all the time, so she’s cool, I guess. But I’m still worried she might say something to Teresa. If she does, I’ll look like an ass. How the hell will I explain it away? “Oh, I’m sorry, Teresa, I told some sweet old lady you were coming over for date night even though we’ve never really talked. Is that cool?” Damn it.
I worry about it all the way home.
I sleep with a fitted sheet and a comforter. One pillow. All my bedclothes are red satin. It looks a bit tacky, but cat hair doesn’t stick to satin as much as it would to high thread-count cotton, so I don’t mind. Princess is sleeping next to me—she looks like a miniature leopard, proud and majestic, all curled up—and I reach over to rub the little “M” in the brindled fur between her eyes. She purrs through her dream, and I smile in the morning light while dust moats sparkle in my bedroom air.
And then it hits me: I don’t need new furniture. Actually, I have everything I need, we have everything we need. That old woman and her husband decided what they had sixty years ago was good enough, so why can’t I just do the same? If Teresa minds the smell, she’s not the girl for me. It’s not like I’d ever get rid of Princess for her anyway, so screw it. I’ll go buy that record player because I said I would, and I’ll get that old woman’s name. I’ll tell her it’s fine if she wants to put in a good word for me, and then sometime this week, I’m going to ask out Teresa. All my worrying last night made me realize I don’t have much choice, so I’ll just face it. And if I’m being honest, there’s a pretty good chance Teresa will say “yes.”
She’s always so kind and attentive. There’s no way she’s not flirting, because girls aren’t usually that nice. Well, online they are, but just because they know how important I am. But Teresa is good to me in the real world, and that’s rare. She even touched my shoulder lightly the last time I sat in her hygiene chair. And then she asked if I was okay after leaning the chair back, and then she pressed her stomach against the top of my head the entire time she cleaned my teeth. Would she have done that if she didn’t want me to ask her out? Nope. And to cap it all off, when she asked me to hold that little suction thing—she called it “Mr. Thirsty” and I laughed—she joked that I was a “big boy” and I saw something in her eyes. Come to think of it, I know she’ll say “yes.”
My morning ablutions take thirty minutes and it takes almost as long to clean out the back of my Xterra and fold down the seats. There should be plenty of room. The ride over takes a bit longer than yesterday because these narrow mountain-town roads are filled with lunch-hour traffic. Suckers. All these poor fools, rushing around in their nine-to-fives, it’s just so damn pointless. My dad always gives me crap, telling me that I’m a “leach” who’s milking the government, but he’s dumb. Life is about being happy, and I’m winning. Those idiots rushing from place to place are the real losers.
I knock on the woman’s door and wait.
There’s a panel of dappled yellow glass—the kind that always reminds me of old pizza restaurants for some reason—in the front door, and it looks like the lights are on inside, but that might just be sunlight from another window or something. I press the doorbell but I don’t hear anything, no electronic two-tone, so it must be broken. I hear a garage door open. I back up a bit and look over to my left; sure enough, the pink door of the woman’s detached garage is opening. I walk back down the path and along the sidewalk to her driveway. I’ll just wait here for her to pull out—I don’t want to give her a heart attack or something by startling her. I stare at my phone and smile—Princess’s picture on my lock-screen is just too cute—as I wait for her to come down the drive.
She pulls up next to me and stops, I hear an electric whine and I look up as she rolls down her window. Her car is a boat, big and red with wings in the back, this thing is better than the boatmobile. And she’s resplendent, sitting alone in the front. Everything about this old woman is ebullient, from her little white driving gloves to the red handkerchief holding back her grey hair, she looks like Ms. Daisy if Ms. Daisy drove herself.
“Hello Justin,” she says it as if she expected to find me here, calm and confident, “how are you today?”
“Fine! How are you? I’m here for the record player?”
“Yes, Justin,” she sighs like I’m daft, “I know. I remembered your name, after all.”
“Right. Sorry.” I look around, searching for something to say. I see her suitcases in the backseat, the same brown canvas and leather straps I remember from yesterday. They’re strapped in with the seatbelts as if they were children.
“I guess I showed up just in time, yeah? You going on your trip to see your Jenny?”
“Oh, Justin,” she looks at me, an apology plain in her eyes, “I don’t have a daughter, I never could.”
“What? But I thought that’s who you were going to see?”
“No, I’m afraid that’s not why I’m leaving. But I am leaving.” She turns away from me, looking out her windshield while she speaks: “I’m leaving, and I’m taking this car. It’s the first time I’ve driven it in almost twenty years, Justin.”
I have no idea what the expression on her face means. I can’t read it. It’s like there’re too many emotions mixed together, and it’s muddling her mien into something too deep to make out. So I just stand still until she speaks again:
“But you can have the record player for free. I’m going to owe you at least that much. I left it right by the front door, and you can just load it up while I’m gone, you know, before you call anybody.”
She still isn’t looking at me. Both of her hands, in their little white gloves, are glued to her woodgrain steering wheel. What the hell is she talking about? She continues:
“And you can have all Harold’s records too. You could probably sell them for a pretty penny, if you wanted. You’ll find them down in the basement.” She turns to look at me finally, her eyes are green and watery, but her smile is hard. “Justin, I’m so sorry for the mess down there.”
I’ll remember always the deep hum that came from her car as she drove away, and I’ll remember always the wonderful smell of the fresh air, outside.