My dad died this week. This is a story I wrote a couple of years ago about him.
Last Sunday morning, as I enjoyed the silence and my first cup of coffee, I started to hear some strange noises. Bump…..bump……bump.
Silence again. Then the faint but unmistakeable sound of footsteps. Another bump. Long silence. A few more footsteps. Another bump. They were coming from the attic. Squirrels? Mice?
I did what I usually do when confronted with the grim prospect of a household chore that could not be immediately subcontracted. I ignored it.
But the noises grew louder and louder. Clearly someone or something was rummaging through our attic. It had to be a bear. Or Big Foot. No ordinary human would venture to the nether regions of our garage.
I ran to the garage and saw the attic door open and my wife casting boxes everywhere.
“What are you doing?” I yelled.
“Where is the box with the Beanie Babies?”
The Beanie Babies-those tiny stuffed animals that were all the rage in the early ’90’s. When they first appeared we bought some for our kids. Then my wife got wind that they might be a collector’s item, so we bought several hundred more, left the tags attached and put them directly in a box in the attic. Seemed like a pretty solid retirement plan. Incubate those gems for a couple of decades and, in the event Ross Perot wasn’t able save America from economic ruin, sell them on the open market. Index funds are for suckers.
“Well? Aren’t you going to help me look?”
I climbed midway up the ladder when I was struck by a horrible thought.
“I think we gave them to Goodwill.”
“You better not have given them to Goodwill!”
“Why do you need them?”
“Just start looking.”
I found myself rummaging through several sizable mounds of worthless residue accumulated over the past 25 years.
My wife was going at this with great gusto. Finally, she confessed in a conspiratorial whisper.
“The Princess Di Bear is worth $75,000.”
I was careful. My wife tends to mishear things. She still thinks the chorus to “Beasts of Burden” is “I’ll never leave your pizza burnin’.” She also once called our kids’ school to protest when she heard the cafeteria was serving fish dicks.
“$75,000? That’s impossible.”
“Yes. $75,000. I saw it on the internet.”
So it had to be true.
I guess it couldn’t hurt. Just a couple of years ago some lucky bastard in Toulouse, France stumbled upon a Caravaggio worth $136 million when he was having his roof repaired.
After about 30 minutes planting the seedlings of asbestosis in my lungs, I gave up. I can safely confirm that I don’t own a Honus Wagner baseball card or an original Van Gogh. Or, alas, it would appear, a Princess Di beanie baby.
This isn’t too surprising. I’m not much of a collector. That’s not to say it isn’t in my genes.
My dad was a hell of a trader. He would drag us to flea markets and estate sales almost every Saturday morning growing up. He would move through the tables with the grace of a lumberjack. He had an aura of flea market mogul about him. There could be a hundred people standing at a table of junk and my dad would always be the one who caught the vendor’s wary eye.
“What you lookin’ for?”
“Not buyin’ today. Just out with the kids.”
He paused for awhile over some old, wooden fishing lures while the vendor, a bear of a man in bib overalls, tried to resist the tractor beam. Then after just the right length of time had passed, my dad walked away.
“Them’s wood minnows. Company that makes ’em went out of business 40 years ago” the vendor called after my dad.
My dad was already across the way at a competitor’s table where he paid a dollar for some old postcards. I kept glancing back at the fishing lures salesman. My instincts told me we still had some unfinished business.
Finally, my dad sauntered back and picked up one of the lures.
“What’ll you take?”
“Askin’ $40 for 10 but I’d take a little less. Gotta get a scrip filled for nitro. Bout to run out.”
My dad, clearly unconcerned with this man’s incipient medical condition, examined the lure even more closely.
“Look an awful lot like the ones I saw last week in Lindale. Ol’ boy had a whole table of ’em. Come to find out they were fakes.”
My dad sounded like an investigator on CSI: Lake Tenkiller.
The vendor and I couldn’t tell whether my dad was bluffing. I eyed the exchange like I was witnessing the climax of a John Wayne movie.
“How about 13 lures for $15?” asked my Dad.
One of his favorite negotiating ploys was to mix up the bargain i.e. change the numerator; adjust the denominator. The vendor was sufficiently befuddled and, as best I can recall, my dad finally ended up with 15 lures for $25.
When I was about ten my dad took me to Mecca for junk dealers-First Monday Trade Days in Canton, Texas.
We rode down there with one of his best crap cronies, Poe.
To this day I’m not sure whether Poe was his last name or first. I do know he was as shifty as the popped clutch on a Model T. He had a firm, protruded belly that made him walk with a backwards lean as though he were carrying twins at full term. His daily uniform was high water jeans, frayed gray T-shirts and a ball cap that could barely contain his unruly mop of hair.
He supported himself with dice games and the two bit commerce of bric a brac. He didn’t pay taxes because he claimed to be registered with the IRS as a Unitarian minister. He was the type of guy who would rather climb a tree and run a con than stand on the ground and work for an honest living. But he was sure a lot of fun to be around.
We picked up Poe at a storage unit. He threw a couple of large, dirty boxes in the back of the van and we were off.
I woke from a nap as we pulled into the flea grounds. It looked as though every garage sale since Herod’s reign heaved forth its contents onto 250 acres of scrubby hell. Row upon row of vendors with every ware imaginable- watches, hubcaps, transistor radios, dolls, glassware, paintings, lamps, clothing, pop bottles, tools, cinder blocks, license plates.
We pulled to our spot and set our table. My dad carefully displayed an assortment of hickory shafted golf clubs, a dozen gutta percha golf balls, some antique toys and a stack of vintage postcards. Poe opened his box to reveal some old coins, several rusty knives, rain sticks, a heavily dented trumpet, a ukulele with no strings, a felt painting of a nude woman in semi-repose and a frayed rabbit’s foot. Poe placed the rabbit’s foot in a fancy glass box and set it toward the back, distinctly separate from his other clutter.
My dad handed me a twenty dollar bill and turned me loose.
I quickly located a booth with vintage games. A Plinko board was $8 and a magic set was $3. I couldn’t decide. It was still early so I ventured on.
The more I looked, the more overwhelmed I became. I was headed back to our booth empty handed when I saw a dealer selling vintage tin signs-Burma Shave, Coca-Cola, Route 66, Humble Oil etc.
Then I spied a cheap plastic sign with a painting of a small dachshund and the caption: “Have you seen my wiener?”
Newly aware of the hilarity of this double entendre, I was eager to show my dad and Poe my maturing sense of humor. I just knew us guys would get a hell of a chuckle out of it.
“How much for the sign?” I asked the man.
“How much you got?”
“I reckon I could let it go for $20.”
Sweet. My first scalp. I handed the man my money, tucked the sign under my arm and sprinted back to camp.
“What’ve you got there, weasel wart?” asked Poe.
“Where’s my dad?”
Just then my dad appeared and it was time for the big reveal.
Poe roared with approval. My dad looked at me with a glare he usually reserved for bankers, lawyers and high school football coaches.
“What’d you pay for it?” he asked.
A dollar? He thought this sign was worth a dollar? Didn’t he get it? I tried to explain but about this time Poe gave me a shush. A mark approacheth.
I looked up and saw a man wearing a ball cap with a confederate flag. Thousands of tiny, broken capillaries pockmarked his nose and cheeks. He was drinking a can of beer wrapped in a brown paper bag.
After lingering a few minutes he wondered: “What’s in the glass box?”
“Oh that. It’s not for sale.”
“Didn’t ask that.”
Poe ignored the man’s abrupt manner and handed him the glass box.
“Be real careful with it now” Poe warned.
The man laughed.
“Ain’t nothin’ but a damned ol’ rabbit’s foot.”
“That ‘damned ol’ rabbit’s foot’ belonged to Stonewall Jackson, sir.”
“Bullshit,” said the man displaying all the evidence one needs that your first instinct is almost always correct.
“Had it in his pocket at the Battle of Bull Run, first and second. Lost it after Fredricksburg. Accidentally shot by his own men a couple of weeks later.”
Poe held it to his nose.
“Still smells like his nuts.”
Poe handed it to the man. The mark didn’t bat an eye that Poe was able to discern a telltale odor from the scrotum of a long dead confederate general. The mark took a sniff and carefully placed it back in its case.
Curious, I picked it up and took a whiff. It occurred to me unlikely that anyone could prove the rancid smell was from glandular excretions more than a century ago…..but they couldn’t prove it wasn’t either.
“How much you want for it?” asked the man.
“Ain’t for sale. Sorry.”
“Bet you’d take $50 for it.”
“Bet you a fifty I won’t.”
“How bout a hunnert?”
“Sir I’m sure you’re well intentioned but I can’t sell this to just anyone. This right here is history. It needs a proper home.”
“I reckon ain’t no one could give it a better home than me. I’ve got all kind of Civil War memrobilya.”
“What you got?”
The man rattled off a litany of his belongings from the Civil Era but the die had long been cast. Sold. For $150 and a promise to give it due respect evermore.
After the man left Poe grabbed a few old coins and placed them in a different glass box, setting it again near the back of the table.
The next morning we packed our belongings but first a little unfinished business. My dad asked me to follow him.
“Grab your sign” he said.
We walked a few rows over where the sign vendor was packing his truck. I stood several yards away.
“Mornin'” said my dad.
“Can I help you?” Said the man who took my money.
“Just doin some last minute trading.”
“Don’t have much left. Most of its been packed away.”
“Looking for a Route 66 sign.”
The man started to dig under a blue tarp.
“Happen to have one right here.”
“How’s about $15?”
My dad called me over and motioned to me to hand over my sign. The man showed a brief glimmer of shame.
“Tell you what let’s do. I’ll trade you this sign for that one and a five dollar bill” offered my dad.
Obeying the code of honor among thieves, the man handed my dad a fiver and the sign.
My dad and I walked to the van where Poe was asleep in the front seat. I sat in the back and pretended to strum the Ukulele.
“Hey Poe, what are these things?”
“Indian rain sticks. That purple one there ended the dust bowl. Brought first rains to Kansas in over three years. Took this country out of a depression. Works every time.”
I turned it over and over, listening to the beads fall as a light drizzle coated the windshield.