by Rigoberto González
A frequent weekend pastime for my grandparents was hunting for yard sales. The attention-grabbing signs made it easy. Though sometimes we just happened upon the telltale spread on a lawn, compelling Abuelo to pull over immediately. Abuela liked picking at the secondhand clothes laid out on folding tables while Abuelo and I ruffled through the assortment of cardboard boxes on the driveway, containing everything from books to toys to tools. If there was a piece of used furniture, like an easy chair, we each took a turn sitting in it. Abuelo was also drawn to lamps and kitchen electronics, though I hardly saw him take one of them home. Abuela bought a shirt or a sweater once in a while, but for him this was strictly an activity to kill time on a Sunday morning.
Tía Melania also loved yard sales. When she had me tag along she wanted company because none of her children wanted to be seen by anyone they knew. I didn’t care because I didn’t consider any of my classmates in junior high friends. And not once did I ever run into anyone I recognized.
“Las ventas,” my family called them. Someone’s garage had exploded and the patrons swooped in like crows to pick through the detritus.
I didn’t cringe at the thought of wearing someone else’s worn shoes or putting on a shirt with a small stain that had made it unwearable to its original owner. We couldn’t afford new things, unless we bought them across the border in Mexicali. But Mexican clothing was so distinct from what the American kids wore that these new items looked foreign and out of fashion. The California flea markets sold new clothes, but they were cheap looking because they were mass produced in China. There was no winning the game of style so I stopped caring about it, even if the other kids in school made fun of me.
For Christmas one year, Tía Melania gave my brother and me knitted wool sweaters from the flea market. His was tan with black designs woven into a pattern that circled the torso and sleeves. Mine was identical, except it was white. When school resumed after winter break, the weather was still cool in the mornings, so I wore that sweater regularly because it was the warmest one I owned. My brother, on the other hand, refused to wear it even once.
“I’m not wearing no damn Charlie Brown clothes,” he said.
When I walked into science class, I heard someone whistling the theme song to The Flintstones cartoon. I thought nothing of it, until I realized that it had to be more than a passing coincidence that I heard this tune each time I walked into the classroom that winter. Eventually others caught on and joined in the laughter until the science teacher quieted everyone down.
I might have felt more humiliated if I cared about any of them. But I didn’t. I refused to speak to anyone or to hang out with them during free period or during lunch. I’d rather hide out in the library and read, a habit I kept through high school.
Being poor wasn’t uncommon where we lived, the Fred Young Farm Labor Camp for families of those who worked in the agricultural fields, so I didn’t think there was anything to be ashamed of. Besides, I admired Tía Melania’s zeal and Abuela’s concentration as they sifted through other people’s castoffs.
The sellers were not the only enterprising people present at these yard sales. Once in a while, a small lemonade or cupcake stand sat a few feet apart from the chaos. A young girl or two stood behind a homemade sign that read: 50¢ a cup or 50¢ a piece. And without fail, Abuela would walk over to make a purchase.
At first I didn’t take much notice, though I was surprised Abuela didn’t offer to buy me a brownie or a refreshing cup of lemonade. She stood there next to the ragtag stand as she enjoyed her purchase. Once she bought a cupcake just before we climbed back in the car and she sat calmly in her seat, savoring the treat. The smell wafted to the back, where I sat, feeling left out. I had spent what little change I had on a book and a deck of cards, so I stared down at my items and tried not to think about the sugar high Abuela was enjoying all the way home.
The next time we stopped at a yard sale, I kept my eye on the nearby stand touting chocolate chip cookies. I wasn’t compelled to spend my money on a treat made by a child younger than me. But that didn’t stop Abuela. After having her fill of browsing through used clothing, she beelined it to the stand and pulled out a dollar from her bag. The little blonde girl looked delighted as she gave my grandmother two quarters back since each cookie was 25¢. Still, Abuela ate them both.
I began to wonder about this selfish quirk. Abuelo had a similar one with seafood. Because of our mother’s death and our father’s abandonment, my brother and I qualified for government assistance after we moved in with our grandparents. Each month we received a check administered by Abuelo, but we received no personal allowance since, in his view, we had no personal expenses.
When that check arrived, my grandparents took a long trip to the grocery store and came back fully stocked with the essentials—bread, rice, beans, veggies, cereals, milk. I never imagined there was money to splurge on anything special, until I stumbled upon Abuelo’s little guilty pleasures in the freezer.
I didn’t have many occasions to look in the top compartment of the refrigerator. But one afternoon I bumped my elbow against the door and Abuela suggested I put ice on it. I opened the freezer door and reached into the tray for ice cubes. Something strange caught my eye. It was sealed in plastic with a price label on it, clearly an item from the market. It looked like a rock. Upon closer inspection, I discovered it was a large clam, nothing like the three-inch mussels we fished out of the dirty canals across the border. I also found a pair of octopus tentacles, tilapia, and shrimp. Except for the fish, none of the other items had ever been served at dinner. Nor had I seen Abuelo cook them for himself.
But they were his treasure, I was sure of it. I imagined he prepared himself these delicacies while Abuela was out laboring in the fields and I was at school.
I didn’t ask anyone about this because I wasn’t that interested. Like Abuela’s yard sale cupcakes, seafood wasn’t appetizing to me. Though I did figure out that he was buying these items with the extra funds he received for becoming his grandson’s legal guardian. It made sense suddenly why when my brother Alex dropped out of school and insisted on moving in with our father in Mexicali, Abuelo became furious. His monthly check would be cut in half.
“You better not go down that same road!” he yelled at me as I sat at the dining table, doing my homework.
I must have looked frightened because Abuela stepped forward right away and tried to calm him down, assuring him that I liked school, even though I had never expressed that to her. In fact, neither of them had ever asked or bothered to look at my grades. And I certainly didn’t volunteer any progress reports.
We lived together, but I didn’t feel close to them. I would recognize this type of housing environment once I got to college and rented apartments with roommates: Each person kept to their own interests and their own secrets. It didn’t make sense to be so emotionally detached from family, especially one’s grandparents, but that’s how we cohabitated until I left for the university.
We did, however, do one thing together: go to yard sales, where I got to spend the few dollars my father gave me when he dropped in to visit his parents, which was not often. He had remarried and Abuelo wasn’t particularly fond of his new wife or their three rowdy boys. My father understood this so he walked in alone and left unceremoniously an hour or so later. I knew he wasn’t there to visit me because we rarely spoke. I felt like an afterthought at times, because he would rush into my bedroom just before leaving to offer me what I believed to be a consolation prize. I took the spending money anyway. Abuelo was right, I didn’t have any personal expenses, except for books, the one thing that made me happy.
A used book had a very different history than used shorts or a used blender. The only property that wore off was its newness, but its magic remained intact. Unlike other used items, books were not being discarded—they were being shared. Its secondhand status was not a downgrade but a seal of approval. Dog-eared pages, underlined sentences, highlighted passages, even small notes on the margins were all evidence of its ability to hold a reader’s interest. Such books called to me. When I held them in my hands, I understood what a sacred gift I was touching: somebody else’s eyes had spent hours tracing every single word, and that pleasure had now been entrusted to me.
I came to understand that a similar euphoria seized Abuela when she walked over to the cupcake stand. She did have a sweet tooth, much needier than mine. During Halloween season, she made sure to buy plenty of candies for the treat-or-treaters, but she was actually stingy with her giveaways. Abuelo would chastise her for sitting outside well into the night, waiting for the costumed children to walk up with their paper bags or plastic pumpkins. Abuela was committed to seeing the evening through, keeping herself occupied by unwrapping a caramel every so often. I could hear the crinkling of the plastic wrapper through the bedroom window, and though she didn’t make any sounds of satisfaction, I knew she was in her private paradise. After Halloween, there was so much candy left over, enough for her to enjoy the rest of November.
“Why didn’t you give all that garbage away?” Abuelo complained because the excess bags of candy took up room in the cupboards. Since we had a small kitchen, space was precious.
Abuela held one finger up. “One child, one candy,” she said, firmly.
I couldn’t help but grin. She mirrored my expression as she unwrapped a piece of candy. She popped the red and white starlight mint into her mouth.
My curiosity about her yard sale stand patronage didn’t wane however. I suspected it was more than just reaching for something sweet. But I didn’t want to disrupt her reverie as she enjoyed yet another cupcake, this one with lemon frosting and sprinkles. Abuelo, however, broached the subject. He was in a particularly foul mood that morning because the car was making funny noises all the way to the yard sale. His exasperation was triggered again when he restarted the engine as we prepared to go home. The strange noise had gotten worse. Abuela’s cutesy little cupcake didn’t synch with the moment.
“Ay, Maruca,” he said. “What’s so great about these tiny crumbs of bread? Are you sure they’re not store-bought?”
Undeterred, Abuela bit into her cupcake. When she turned to Abuelo, I noticed a green sprinkle stuck to her upper lip but I didn’t bother to point it out since I knew she would run her tongue across it like a cat signaling it had been sated.
When the car kept rattling, Abuelo redirected his energy.
“This piece of shit,” he said. “I should roll it into the Salton Sea.”
I pictured Abuelo driving down to the man-made lake in the middle of the Coachella Valley desert and wondered if there was enough water left to drown a car.
Later that afternoon, taking advantage of the fact that Abuelo had gone to consult a mechanic, I sat next to Abuela as she rummaged through her basket of jewelry. Beneath the clutter of earrings, she kept a sizeable collection of fake precious stones. She’d dig into them and then let them rain back into the basket. This must have been meditative for her because she repeated this action a number of times before she continued on her quest for a ring or earrings that sparkled in the light.
I never asked Abuela where and how she had acquired her collection because one thing was certain, she didn’t add to it. At the yard sales, she might glance over at the table with costume jewelry spread out on a cloth or dangling from an earring tree, but these displays rarely called to her like the heaps of clothing. It seemed odd suddenly because over the years I had witnessed countless times how she became entranced with her stones.
When she paused her sifting, I cut in with my question.
“Abuela,” I said. “You really do like those cupcakes at the yard sales, don’t you?”
Another thought popped into my head. When she went grocery shopping, she didn’t bring back any cupcakes though she returned with a generous helping of fruit Danish covered in swirls of frosting. Or coconut cake, which she basically enjoyed by herself because neither Abuelo nor I appreciated that flavor. Yet there she was at the yard sales, moving in methodically toward the cupcake stand. It was as if she had established a clear boundary between what she enjoyed inside of the house and outside of it. At least with the cupcakes and the jewelry.
“They’re good,” she said. She smiled. She had forgotten or hadn’t bothered to insert her dentures, so that smile was mostly gums.
“And what else?” I said, hoping to coax a better answer.
Abuela knew what I was after. She proceeded to tell me a story while looking through the items in the basket.
“When I was a girl, I wanted to make my own money. But who was going to give a job to a child who wasn’t even wearing shoes?”
The detail about walking about barefoot in Michoacán stayed with me. It wasn’t the first time she had mentioned it. Each time my throat tightened.
“I had almost given up when I came across the sweet potato seller. She had a large tub of sweet potatoes she was cleaning and cutting before cooking them over the fire. But people started arriving and she became flustered. So I saw an opportunity.”
Abuela’s eyes brightened. This happened when she was particularly pleased with herself.
“Since I was the only one offering to help, she had to accept. She had no choice, even though I was so young. But I knew how to cut since Mamá Lola insisted I had to learn early. So there I was, washing and cutting until she ran out of sweet potatoes.”
She paused. I knew about this pause. Abuelo did it, and so did my father, Tía Melania, and Tío Rafa. Whenever they were storytelling, they inserted these silences for dramatic effect. Tía Melania was the master of the craft, however, because she insisted on telling her tale while eating a taco or spooning menudo into her mouth. The pause was an opportunity to take the next bite or spoonful of stew. Once we caught on, we still weren’t certain what was being embedded into what: the story into the meal or the meal into the story.
Abuela continued: “The crowd at the corner began to disperse as soon as they noticed the seller scooping the last bits of sweet potato into a cup and tipping the pot to let the final traces of molasses water pour out. My hands were raw and achy by then, but I made it through the entire tub.”
She shook her head, signaling that the story was about to take a twist.
“I stood there as the woman started getting her things together. She went about her business as if she had forgotten all about me, so I said to her, ‘Señora, are you going to pay me for the work I did?’ When she turned around, she looked offended. ‘But you asked if you could help,’ she said. ‘You offered to do me a favor.’”
Abuela shook her head and sighed.
“A favor. Can you imagine that? I stood there for hours with the expectation that I was earning money for the first time. I had already planned how I was going to enter the house, bragging to my sisters that I had pesos to spend. And this chingada vieja cheated me of that.”
“What did you do?” I asked.
“What could I do? I was still a stupid girl. I knew how to slice a vegetable but not to argue. I walked home and didn’t tell anybody because they would blame me, not the grown-up who had outsmarted me.”
One thing about our family’s storytelling was that they didn’t give away the moral of the story. Storytelling was a holistic experience, not a build-up to a lesson. It was up to the listener to take some of what had been offered and digest it according to their needs. As for the connection between this travesty of the sweet potato seller and the cupcake stands, I had been focusing on the wrong image. It wasn’t the cupcake I had to wonder about, or even Abuela as she stood at the stand, exchanging pocket change for a treat. It was the beaming girls themselves. How they lit up when they saw a customer approaching, how they bared their baby teeth and toothless smiles with glee. Abuela was the woman who took them seriously, patronizing their businesses and demonstrating her gratitude when she savored the cupcake in front of them. It was too easy to dismiss these girls or keep them invisible, and so rewarding to let them know they had been seen.
The next time we dropped in on a yard sale with a cupcake stand, I felt sentimental about the insider knowledge of Abuela’s actions. When she walked to a small table with a modest display of baked treats, I turned my entire body around to face the scene as if that made me a participant somehow. The young girl sitting behind the table stood up and, despite the language difference, was able to communicate with my grandmother, who picked up a chocolate cupcake whose frosting glimmered in the sun. She took a small bite and nodded in approval, enchanting the young seller. When Abuela headed back to the sales items, I started walking in her direction. I wanted to let her know that I understood now and that I too found joy in her kindness toward these girls who wanted to earn a little extra spending money—money that had more value because they had worked for it. But as I got closer to Abuela, I realized she was lost in a state of bliss, her eyes looking out into space as she took another bite of her cupcake. I stopped and remained silent as she passed me by as gracefully as a leaf stirred into the air by a gentle wind.
Rigoberto González is the author of eighteen books of poetry and prose including the memoir What Drowns the Flowers in Your Mouth: A Memoir of Brotherhood, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. His awards include Lannan, Guggenheim, NEA, NYFA, and USA Rolón fellowships, the PEN/Voelcker Award, the American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation, the Lenore Marshall Prize from the Academy of American Poets, and the Shelley Memorial Prize from the Poetry Society of America. A critic-at-large for The LA Times and contributing editor for Poets & Writers Magazine, he is the series editor for the Camino del Sol Latinx Literary Series at the University of Arizona Press. Currently, he’s Distinguished Professor of English and the director of the MFA Program in Creative Writing at Rutgers-Newark, the State University of New Jersey.