by Carolyn Light Bell
It was one of those bright winter days. Glorious! Sun dancing so hard on the snow, I thought I would burst. My eyes blinded by millions of crystalline mirrors, my lungs happily inhaling each fresh breath, my feet strong as I pounded down the snowy walk. A day perfect to cruise and peruse, my favorite pastime. I almost always find something beautiful. Something to fill the ache.
The stone house on the corner of 27th and Oak was boarded up, a rare sight. I scanned the front yard. The woman who lived here cared about appearances, but she must have suffered a tragedy. I felt it right through my heavy, purple down coat, the special one with pockets galore I wear on the lucrative kind of day I was hoping to have. There were lots and lots of things in the yard, still showing through the snow. Like one of those shiny, gazing globes sitting on a concrete pedestal for no special reason except to stun passersby with its prettiness. If I’d been a bird, I’d want to fly right to it. A cunning, stumpy little leprechaun wearing a red shirt and yellow hat sat on a tall tree stump with his little stumpy legs crossed. A big plaster of paris stag with antlers stood between pine trees as if he were grazing there. A concrete birdbath doubled as a skating pond for chickadees. A wooden rocking chair for two rocked slowly by itself. The woman who lived there needed an audience, someone like me to bring her old things to life.
Suddenly there it was—prime for pilfering—a lovely hand-tatted lace pillowcase lying in a baby blue doll buggy, a smidge soiled and torn at the edges, but exactly what I needed. It would add just the right touch to a small pillow I had on my purple velvet couch in the living room. Quaint, really. Just right.
I’ll take good care of it, madam. It will decorate the space where Spunky used to curl up and purr his own little percussive one-cat band.
Joan and Tom, on the Special Home segment of KPRS radio show, were only yesterday interviewing an ethnographer who said Mexicans pile a lot of things in their front yards to gain status—trinkets and signs from places they’ve been to or admire.
All things considered, Joan and Tom, Mexicans don’t have a monopoly on showing off. I’ve seen lots of yards belonging to bunches of different kinds of people, yards with a whole heap of stuff in front. Old cars. Nativity scenes year-round, Confederate flags, flocks of faux flowers.
The lady who lived on the corner of 27th and Oak had her own style. Eclectic, like me. But I like to keep my stuff private, inside my own domain. I collect a lot of things that mean something only to me. I don’t need a crowd to witness. There’s the adorable little Eloise doll with her hair and dress all akimbo. She sits on a shelf by my lipsticks because she makes me laugh. She has lipstick kisses all over her white cloth face from guess who? Then, there’s the mug from a prom I went to with Arnie on our first date. I’ve collected a lineup of mugs to keep it company on one of my bookshelves. Everything has a place.
So many other little things beautify my life that I can’t tell you about. You’d think I was—well, sentimental.
I checked up and down the street. No one. I climbed through the melting snow, lifted the pillow out of the buggy, and slid the pillowcase off. I folded it up and put it in my coat pocket—a small thing. No one would notice. After all, based on the bright orange notice in the window, the bank probably owned the place. They wouldn’t miss it.
Rust stains? Oh, they’ll come out in the wash.
I didn’t even know I wanted that little old pillowcase, but it seemed such a shame for a delicate piece of goods to be left out in the weather where nothing but flyby birds and the wind know it’s there.
Why do I take other people’s things? So I can give them the proper setting they deserve. Show them off to special friends—whoever may happen to come by—although no one seems to come over anymore.
With a lighter step, I made my way a few blocks down to the library. I immediately located a whole section of books from the forties and fifties. They were marked DISCARD on the inside in carmine red. The section I spotted first was all about horses.
I slid Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty off the shelf from between her shelf mates. Even though I have two copies at home, this one has beautiful illustrations. I didn’t want it to just languish away, unnoticed. It’s an important book because it teaches kindness to others, especially to animals.
I had kind of a funny, sick feeling in my belly, wondering if it was all right, what I was doing. On the other hand, if these books were discards, what difference would it make if I found a home for them?
I used to take things when I was twelve. I was looking for attention from my mother who was never home. I didn’t know any better, but the police never dragged me home by my ear like I imagined, so it didn’t do any good. I don’t need attention now. I’m happy by myself, surrounded by little treasures that remind me of particular people or times in my life.
I didn’t look inside the book for an electronic sensor that would set off an alarm. I draped my coat over my arm so I could walk past the guards without suspicion.
I like little risks. If they caught me, I’d say, Oh, my! I intended to check it out, but I forgot. So sorry. Sorry. Sorry. Won’t you be a dear and put it back for me? Studying me, a guard would believe I could forget. Let’s just say I’m no longer in my twenties.
Arnie, I know I didn’t ask you first, but it was free. You always liked that. Or are you ashamed of me now because I hid the book under my coat? I am going a little further than I used to with this purloining business.
So many deceptions still haunt me. The first thing I remember taking was lipsticks from Woolworth’s dime store. I didn’t want them so much, but I loved the excitement I felt in my throat when I slid them into my pockets. Then it was bigger things…records, small articles of clothing—scarves, hats. Then even bigger things like sweaters. Once I rolled away a red suitcase.
It’s getting time to move on in life, get rid of stuff.
So every once in a while, I part with a few of my pretties. Triples of things like crystal creamers. It’s best to keep two of something because one might break and then I’ll have another. I bring extras to a consignment place on Hennepin that sends me a check sometimes. I count on the few people who want old things more than I do—effete men, fussy women, young marrieds. Not too many people my age collect antiques.
When I remember, I cash the checks. Otherwise I watch them pile up on my desk. From time to time I pick something up and bring it right to consignment because on my way home I remember I already have two.
Old things and old ways are better than new and modern. I’ll give you an example. Last summer when I went to the rose gardens, I headed straight for the lavender roses because they always smell the sweetest. I looked up and down several rose beds, high and low. None.
Then I looked for the old, orange roses because they smell spicy, like rich perfume. None around.
I bent down over and over again to sniff different species of roses. They’re more perfect than they used to be, with bigger faces, but they don’t have that delicious fragrance that makes you want to roll around and giggle. In fact, they don’t smell at all.
Hybridization. It’s the same thing you see in people.
That must be why I collect so much stuff. Because nothing is like it used to be, and I keep hoping I can make it better. Because roses don’t smell anymore. At least my things smell of all the people and places they’ve known—crinoline dances, intimate longings, Sunday dinners, and brandy nightcaps.
My sister dropped by unexpectedly on Tuesday. She had the quietest little knock. I almost didn’t hear it. I opened the door a crack to see who it was. For all I knew it could have been a solicitor. There she was, standing sheepishly on the front stoop.
Hi! Can I come in?
Sure, I said, although I didn’t really want to see her.
She came in, yanked off her sloshy boots, and looked around.
Wow, she said. She stood there gaping while an embarrassing silence stretched between us.
Wow, she said again. Would you just look at all this stuff?!
It’s been a few months, well, maybe closer to a year since I’ve seen her. Just once after Arnie died. Yes, I forgot to say my husband died. Five years, three months, and two days ago. So now you know everything. I live alone because my husband Arnie and my cat Spunky died. Within a month of each other.
I hang onto things that have no place in the hearts of anyone but me. I feel sad about all those things no one wants.
Someone has to keep the past alive.
Category: Fiction, Short Story