“Do we just go in?” Kevin asked.
“I think so?” I said, unsure, as we slowly walked up the brick steps. The front door was open behind a glass storm door, and we looked in. A woman standing in the kitchen looked up at me, and I smiled and awkwardly gestured to the door.
“Come on in!” she shouted, and when we walked in we saw two women sitting on a couch, another sitting at a table behind a cash box, and stuff everywhere.
“Everything’s for sale, upstairs, downstairs, and basement. Let us know if you have any questions,” the one behind the cash box told us.
Kevin and I looked at each other, trying to act like this all felt completely normal and not weird at all- to be walking through a [presumably deceased] person’s house, looking at price tags. We were really only there to see if we could find an old chair to add to our mismatched dining set, completely furnished with unique sidewalk finds.
“We’ll just start upstairs,” I said loudly, to convince myself that we were actually going to do this estate sale thing. “What a gorgeous mirror!” I said, eying an old ivory mirror on the wall with a yellow sticker reading $75. It reminded me of the decor in Kevin’s grandmother’s house: old, unchanged, and oddly comforting.
We wandered through the rooms upstairs, stepping over piles of clothes, keeping our distance from mattresses leaning against the walls, running our fingers over the tops of beautiful mahogany furniture that was too big for our car and our apartment. Dusty suitcases were stacked on the floor, their tags handwritten in elegant cursive like the way my grandmothers write, the way I was taught to write but never do. One chair caught our eye, but it was too rickety for regular use. I came very close to buying a beautiful wooden dollhouse for my new niece, but there was no price on it and my niece is not even two months old yet. We went down to the basement.
Stacks of records, books, and odd pieces of furniture filled the front part of the basement. In the back, near the water heater, were various medical supplies: a walker, a handicap shower seat, a cane. A bookcase was cluttered with lamps and dolls and a wooden case filled with poker chips, chess pieces, and a checkerboard.
“This is really weird,” I said to Kevin, who was flipping through an old newspaper. “All this stuff used to matter to someone.”
For over a week, Kevin’s parents had been coyly asking us if we’d received the boxes they sent. They refused to say what they were, why they had been sent, or why they were important. We were eager to see what all the fuss was about, but mostly we were confused. Kevin had received his birthday presents, and his father isn’t one to play games or keep secrets. The fact that he was in on it only confused us more.
Finally the boxes arrived. I had come home first, and struggled to bring the 3 heavy boxes inside while our upstairs neighbor held the door open for me. The cats immediately pounced on the boxes, full of new smells, and I sliced open the tape on the first box. Surrounded by Styrofoam peanuts and layers of bubble wrap were heavy stacks of records – all the records Kevin’s parents owned, previously collecting dust in their garage, unused but too special to throw away. These albums spanned history – from childhood records, to Dylan and Springsteen, to Michael Jackson. The third box was full of CDs, now that most of the world has moved on to digital music, and this, too, was a huge collection. Admittedly we listen to records far more than CDs or digital files – but even this collection was special.
We gleefully pulled out the stacks, and Kevin told me that despite my protests, we would definitely be alphabetizing them so that we would know exactly where each album was (I lost that battle, but even as I fought I knew he was right).
We set the needle down on Born To Run, sat back, and stared at our inheritance in stacks on the floor.
After a while we didn’t want to be in the house anymore. We went back upstairs, eyed the piles of dishes, bowls, and cookware on the kitchen counters, and made our way to the living room. We flipped through old albums, mostly Italian crooners, and listened to the conversation from the front room.
“That last lady was already asking about the house! Ma’s not even cold in her grave, and people wanna buy the house!”
“And did you hear what someone offered for the dollhouse? $50! My uncle bought that for $300 – it’s a beautiful dollhouse! These people have no idea!”
Then they stared at us. We had nothing in our hands.
“How much is that?” I asked, pointing to the chair behind the cash box.
“I’ll sell it to you for $15.”
We took it home.
The last time I was home in Florida, I went rummaging in the big oak cabinet in my parents’ living room. The cabinet is filled with shoe boxes of loose pictures, old photo albums, stacks of cassette tapes, and old piano lesson books. It’s also the place I stashed my favorite records, the ones I’d taken from my parents’ collection when I was a kid. My two favorites were The Early Beatles and The Monkees. I would lock my door, set the needle down, and make up a dance for each song on the Beatles album. “Baby It’s You (Sha La La)” and “Chains” had the most elaborate dances, and I critiqued all my moves in the mirror over my dresser, as well as my mirrored closet door. Of course I had no idea what any of these songs meant, but I knew I liked them. Mostly, I loved that they had belonged to my dad, his name written neatly in pen in the top right corner of each album.
Unfortunately, I never showed these dances to anyone, because of an experience I never fully recovered from. When I was six or seven years old, I got my hands on a Whitney Houston album and made up a dance to “I Wanna Dance With Somebody.” I worked on the moves all day, and finally called in my sisters to watch. Within minutes they were laughing and teasing me. All I had done was point to my teeth and wiggle my hips for the line I thought said, “I wanna feel my teeth with somebody!”
“That’s not the line!”
“Yes it is!”
“It’s heat, not teeth. I wanna feel the heat with somebody. Why would you feel your teeth with somebody?!”
I didn’t know what “feel the heat” meant, and I didn’t know why it was funny, so I shooed them out of my room and never performed again.
The Whitney album probably got thrown out with the rest of the records that had warped over time in the hot garage, but thankfully my carefully stowed Beatles and Monkees were well-preserved inside. When I listen to them, I am back at home, twirling around my room, singing every word as loud as I can. And when I look at the framed album cover, with my father’s name in the corner, I feel a special connection to the parents who helped me fall in love with music.
On Saturday we planned to organize the records, but first we needed a bookshelf, as the collection was now too big for the small cabinet where we’d been storing our own records. There was nothing on the sidewalk (we took a drive around the neighborhood), and nothing listed online that caught our eye.
“We could always try another estate sale,” I said, and Kevin quickly found one a couple miles from our apartment.
This time, we knew what to do. We parked on the street, quickly scanning the items already sent to the sidewalk for trash, and the pile of stuff on the side of the house – more medical supplies, an old steamer trunk, and unidentifiable broken metal objects. The things they knew wouldn’t sell.
We walked in, said hello, and Kevin asked knowingly, “Is everything for sale?”
There were three men at the table. The oldest one simply nodded. The youngest one said, “Yeah, go upstairs and downstairs.” The middle one smiled and said, “You can’t leave unless you buy something!” We couldn’t figure out the relationships, but one thing was clear: this was the old man’s house. And we were walking through to take what we wanted.
The rooms upstairs were the same as at the other sale: clothes, mattresses, albums, books. The kitchen and living room had nothing we needed, and on our way to the basement we counted five record players. Records were in piles all over (more Italian crooners). I was surprised that they had this many – and that nobody had taken them.
While we looked around, the old man was never very far away. He said very little, and when he spoke to the other men, I wasn’t sure if he was even speaking English. In the basement we found a chair that would work for the dining room.
“I’m interested in that chair,” I said to the young man.
“How interested? $10?”
“How about $5?”
“Deal.” He spoke softly to the older man, who nodded and looked around like he was lost.
We were about to leave, thinking the bookshelf hunt was over, until we noticed one at the back of the basement, covered in knick-knacks, candles, and books. It looked about a hundred years old, covered in dust with a child’s crayon scrawls on the edge of one of the shelves.
“I don’t know,” I said. “It needs to hold records.”
“Let’s try!” The young man said. He quickly removed the objects, readjusted the shelves, and I found yet another stack of records to use as a sample. I grabbed the top record – Styx – and held it vertically while Kevin and the young man adjusted the shelves.
We really liked it. It was old, weird, and clearly had personal history: just our style. The feet curled under before they touched the floor, like on a claw-foot bathtub, and the shoulders of the bookshelf were rounded. The middle-aged man spoke up. “That’s quality oak. Paine Furniture Company in Boston, from the 1890s. The label is on the back.”
“And did you buy it yourself in the 1890s?” I asked, smiling.
He laughed and shook his head. “You’re Italian, aren’t you!”
The older man looked uncomfortable, like he wanted everyone to leave so he could clean out his house and the memory of his [I assume] wife and get on with it. He didn’t smile, didn’t seem excited about making a sale, and certainly wasn’t encouraging us to buy anything.
I understood. Clearly at this stage, anything the family really wanted would have been dispersed. The estate sale was for the leftovers. Things that had mattered at some point to someone, but didn’t matter enough for someone else to take on the physical and emotional weight of them. Things that would be buried at the dump if nobody took them. Things whose lives had ended.
But this old bookcase had been purchased, and a child had drawn on it, and it had been somewhere in the house, a place to hold smaller things that mattered to this man and his family.
“Let’s take it,” I said to Kevin.
“What do you want to pay?” the young man asked.
Kevin looked at the bookshelf, thought for a minute, and said, “$20?”
“We were asking $50. It’s solid oak.”
“Will you take $30?”
He spoke softly to the older man, who looked at the bookcase and simply nodded.
We loaded the bookcase into the back of the car, stacked the chair on top, and headed home. On the way, we saw a big table, dresser, chair, and rolled up carpet next to garbage bins on the sidewalk in front of a house. I stopped the car and Kevin knocked on the door. When a man answered, Kevin said, “Excuse me, we noticed a chair out there, and…”
“It’s all garbage,” the man said.
“So it’s ok to take? We wanted to be sure.”
“Take whatever you want.”
We added the chair to the haul, and when we got home we wiped down everything with an old towel. I set up the chairs at the table, and together we carefully lifted the bookcase inside.
While we happily lined up the records on the shelves, I thought about where they had been as they moved around with Kevin’s parents. Massachusetts. Connecticut. Florida. Back to New England and back to Florida. Several houses, condos, and finally the garage. I don’t know how long it’s been since they’ve had a working record player, but clearly the albums were never deemed trash, or giveaways to the public.
I grouped five or six Beatles albums together and smiled, relieved that they would never be orphaned at an estate sale. And even if we didn’t have a record player, even if we didn’t love the Beatles and Springsteen and Dylan and most of the music in the collection, I think that’s all Kevin’s parents (specifically, his father) wanted to know. That a stranger wouldn’t flip through a piece of his history and try to score a deal. This part of his life still mattered to him, and now, it will always matter to us.
We placed two framed albums on top of the bookshelf and I silently thanked my dad for letting me keep The Early Beatles so long ago. I put on a Jim Croce album, singing every word until the needle reached the end.