by Jason Hill
Facts about the yard sale:
The yard sale is located at 1147 S 2nd Street.
The yard sale is practically all-day Saturday, May 26, from nine a.m. until four p.m.
The weather for the yard sale is excellent. The sky is pebble-strewn, brilliant and white. The temperature is crisp but not cold.
The yard sale is advertised by signs that Mark and Alice drive past on their way home.
The signs for the yard sale interrupted the conversation that began with Alice asking, Are we going home? as they turned off Olivas and toward their neighborhood.
The reply from Mark: Was there somewhere else we needed to go? he asked.
The response was not to point out that there were human remains in the back seat. The fact of this seemed self-evidently something to be dealt with. The fact it was not being dealt with was a whisper in Alice’s ear: It’s not about your level of comfort.
The signs for the yard sale are hand-lettered in multiple colors of magic marker. They are attached to dowels by pieces of duct tape, at least two strips of silver on the back of the signs that Alice sees as they drive past and she uses them as excuse number eight to look in the back seat.
The signs begin appearing six blocks away from the actual location in violation of what Alice always believed was an unspoken rule that you only put up yard-sale signs on your block, or maybe the next one over. Any advertising further afield than that should be restricted to photo-copied fliers stapled to utility poles.
The families in this neighborhood like to have yard sales. They clean out garages and the rooms of children gone to college. They pack up the things from previous marriages that long and difficult negotiations have finally declared unnecessary after years of being unwelcome.
The yard sale is a good idea, Alice thinks. We should have a yard sale.
The yard sale is on their street.
The yard sale is so well attended that Mark has to skip their block and park two streets down.
They walk up their street and see their belongings for sale.
The yard sale is happening in front of their house. The door to their house is open but the shoppers seem to be restricting themselves to the yard.
The yard sale prompts Mark to ask, What the fuck?
The atmosphere of the car ride was decidedly different than the weather. The calm before the storm, a tempest approaching over the horizon.
The obvious question: What are we supposed to do with them? Alice asked about the ashes. She assumed Mark’s first wife had left instructions.
The unexpected reality: Actually, she didn’t, Mark said. I don’t know what I’m supposed to do with them.
The yard sale has four tables. Three of them are folding tables, long rectangles of veneered particle board with hollow metal legs. The fourth is from their front hallway, a three-foot tall oval table with a marble top.
The sign on this table is more crudely lettered than the others. It says: These items not for sale. This is the table where Mark sets the blue-and-white, Delft-style vase while Alice stands mute, holding the paper Whole Foods bag full of produce and a very good cut of flank steak.
The first table holds knickknacks and mementos. Alice’s small menagerie of handmade animal figurines collected on travels. Some from her life before, in the independence of her youth when she traveled alone to places others called unsafe. A roughly carved wooden pig, a brightly painted turtle, a stone owl. Etcetera. Others are trinkets, gaudy and desperate, predictable and overpriced. A leaping and ugly dolphin, a mass-produced giraffe. Also on the first table are a crystal flower vase, small kitchen implements, dishes, and most of their coffee mugs, including three carry-overs from Mark’s first marriage. Missing are the usual collections of children’s toys. Mark’s children are long since moved out, estranged from their mother. Alice has none of her own.
The second table displays neatly folded towels and bedsheets. Shirts and pants and dresses and skirts that would normally be hanging in their closet are draped flatly on the right-hand side, lumped together for five dollars each, no matter their material or thread-count.
The third table holds books, magazines, lamps, and an old laptop that Alice had forgotten was tucked onto the top shelf of their closet.
The scene prompts Mark to look at Alice and ask as if she should accept responsibility, What the actual fuck, Alice? She widens her eyes and tries to appeal to his belief in her ignorance. He turns to the house and stomps up the stairs, disappearing into the front foyer. Alice watches him go, thinks that she should have had him put the groceries in the fridge, then sets them down beside the oval table.
The yard sale does not have music. Alice thinks there should be music. There was music as she waited outside the funeral home, scanning radio stations, hoping to find something subdued but not too somber. She didn’t mind that they were here. Mark’s first wife was important to him, their divorce a bitter disappointment for the failure it represented after nearly twenty years. When he told her that Janet had died and he was in charge of the arrangements she did not resist. Janet had no siblings and her parents were dead. The children traveled for the funeral but returned home immediately, before the ashes were collected. Their relationship with their mother had frayed at the same time as Mark’s.
The simple solution offered to the question of the ashes: Scatter them. Bury them. Not take them home, Alice said as the car breaks and she feels or imagines-but-feels ashes spilling into the air, onto her skin.
The refusal: I can’t just toss them somewhere, Alice. I have to think about this.
The reasoning: Janet was important to you. It’s a personal loss. But she’s still your ex-wife and they’re still ashes.
What are you saying?
The firm and, Alice thinks, unnecessary explanation: I don’t think it’s selfish for me not to want your ex-wife’s ashes in our house. It’s okay for me to say I don’t want to put these on the mantle and walk past them every day. She wasn’t good to you. Or your kids. At least not most of the time.
The third table also has short boxes filled with Mark’s collection of comic books from the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s. The boxes sit with their lids off next to the magazines and books. A sign protrudes from the back of one of the boxes and reads All Comics $1 or $40 Per Box. The boxes have attracted a man with a patchy beard and an emaciated body that contradicts the food stains Alice can see on his shirt.
The man looks through the comics, flipping them with his fingers and examining the titles. His expression betrays amazement.
The man asks, Is this right? and points to the sign.
The right and wrong of the yard sale escape Alice. The fact that these are their things, hers and Marks’s, runs away from her.
The events of the day return. The dread that morning, the ride to the funeral home, the collection of the vase that now sits on the oval table. The drive to Whole Foods after and the mundane act of shopping juxtaposed by the decidedly strange knowledge that Mark’s ex-wife’s ashes were sitting in a vase in the back seat of their car, shortly to be joined by citrus, leeks, cilantro, and granola bought in bulk. Alice could not keep herself from thinking about the porcelain container of carbonized life. She had never imagined driving down the road with her husband and his ex-wife’s ashes. Looking at the vase in the back seat as they bounced over a pothole she thought that if it spilled, the ashes would get into the fabric and need to be vacuumed. She would not be the one to do that, no way. She would be the one to do it.
The man with the patchy beard says, Excuse me.
The shrug Alice gives him says it’s right.
The man grabs at his wallet, hurried and anxious. He pulls out three twenty-dollar bills. Will you take sixty for two boxes? he asks.
The boxes of comic books have been taking up space in the back room for years now. Mark has not looked inside of them in, well, forever as far as she can remember.
The answer Alice gives to the man: Sure.
The man hands her the bills and stack the boxes on top of each other. He doesn’t look like he could carry that much, but he does. He staggers off with them leaning against his chest and wrestles them into the back seat of a copper-colored Datsun.
The Datsun has a hand-lettered sign in the rear window that reads “For Sale” followed by a phone number.
The fact is, everything is for sale. Everything ends up on the auction block or a cheap table with hollow metal legs.
The yard sale has more items from Mark, or Mark and Janet, than it does from Alice. She looks around and makes mental lists.
The lists aren’t just items for sale.
The lists are also grievances.
The items on one list end up being items on another:
The picture of Mark standing along a ridge of the Andes. Janet took the picture and it has never set well with Alice that she has to live with his ex-wife’s vision of Mark.
The tie rack of fabric tongues lolling in the breeze. Alice refuses to offer her opinion on his ties and when she does, Mark jokes she’s no good if she can’t help him dress. The joke is not a joke because Alice knows this is something Janet used to do and Mark came to depend on it.
The barely used book, mixed in with the others, on pregnancy past forty. The conversations, arguments about the book are peppered with memories of Mark saying, I love my kids but Janet was the wrong person to be a mother. I am not the wrong person, Alice said. She tried to show him. Tried with her actions and her body to show how much she desired to be a mother, to show how much it meant to her. But Mark did not want more children.
The bed they sleep in. She didn’t see it before because the mattresses are not in the yard but there it is, leaning against the edge of the house, a small price tag tied to it. It was the guest bed when Mark lived with Janet and now Alice must sleep in it.
The dresser that her clothes are in was a gift from Janet’s mother to the couple. Mark said it was good enough and didn’t want to buy a new one. Alice didn’t tell him that she deserved something new, something that didn’t have the memory of Janet’s mother attached to it. Alice has not always stood up for herself.
The table with the kitchen items also has her cookbooks. She takes them off and puts them on the not-for-sale table.
The table with their linens also has her earring tree on it and even though almost all of the earrings are gone, she moves this to the not-for-sale table too.
The not-for-sale table is getting crowded. When she moves her grandmother’s makeup box to the table, she has to shift the vase holding Janet to make room.
The vase ends up on the table with the knick-knacks.
The woman who is standing at the table when Alice puts the vase down looks at it.
The woman says, That’s lovely. How much is it?
The vase should not be for sale. The vase is not the problem. The ex-wife’s ashes are not the problem.
The price is five dollars.
The woman pays in dirty, crinkled singles.
The sound of Mark coming out of the house precedes his arrival. The thunder of his steps rolling from the hallway as from distant mountains across plains. He emerges into sunlight but clouds gather around him. Alice can feel the temperature drop. A cold front.
The crowd pays him no mind, no matter that he is asking loudly, Who’s in charge here?
The lack of answer angers him. He turns to the gathered crowd, searching for the person bargaining, collecting money. Who’s in charge? he asks, still louder.
The five singles slip quietly into Alice’s pocket as she turns to help another shopper.
Jason Hill holds an MFA in creative writing from Spalding University and an MA in philosophy from the University of Connecticut. His fictions have appeared in The Bangalore Review, Pithead Chapel, The Stonecoast Review, and Tulane Review, among others. He is a Pushcart nominee and was a finalist for the 2018 William van Dyke Prize and the 2019 Larry Brown Short Story Award. He has lived in Providence, Boston, Jersey City, and Louisville. His current whereabouts are unknown.