My mother’s heirlooms were displayed in glass cases, always given the proper polish, worked over in her hands until they could be placed back at an exact angle that was previously believed to be unachievable. Her obsession with the passed-down was subject to a ranking system. For example: A porcelain owl pepper shaker was garage-sale fodder as long as it didn’t come from some great aunt who brought it back from Bulgaria, the glaze as smooth as the ocean she crossed to purchase the damned thing. Anything without a backstory capable of making the heart go bar-of-soap slippery was organized into boxes, tagged for sale, and destined for our tree lawn. Multiple times I caught her reciting the jargon of second-hand hagglers into a mirror: “Make me an offer” she said, her hand outstretched and awaiting payment.
It wasn’t the owl that went. It remained on the kitchen table, wings turned inward, beak shut in indifference. Its eyes, peppered from too many years of use, overlooking the kitchen. This was the privilege of apathy. Knowing that you were spared from the summer tradition of being picked up and inquired over by gaggles of fanny-packers allowed you to assert a lazy dominance over the slightly-worn utensils, the once-used crockpot, the matching set of dishrags. I crossed the owl twice on the afternoon of the garage sale. My mother complained of the heat and requested that I refill her glasses of iced tea. Someone, maybe a Bulgarian, had painted the owl’s talons a hunting shade of yellow. I hated not the thing, but the promise it carried. It would one day belong in a box that my brother and I would find ourselves debating over. “Who gets the owl?” was not a question I was interested in asking.
“Cleveland seems so dead,” my brother said during one of our late-night drives. We spent a lot of time together in cars, driving nowhere specific but always ending at Steve’s on Biddulph Road – an all-night diner sandwiched between a few bars. My brother was bound for college that fall and it was my job to prepare him for that transition. Our talks consisted of the parties he would attend and the girls he would meet, but I always tried to end the conversation with a reminder about schoolwork and doing well in classes. Whenever I felt myself getting too parental, I’d rely on Steve’s for the perfect escape. We’d laugh at the barfly burning his chin on chili or the line cook who’d plug the jukebox with a twenty dollar bill, playing nothing but sad country songs. I paid our tab and we stopped outside so I could smoke a cigarette. We discussed our plans for the next day, agreeing we would help our mom with her garage sale. We stood against our car, watching fleets of rusted sedans and a minivan without passenger windows leave the bar’s parking lot. We were a hand-me-down generation stuck inside a city that was one big garage sale. Everything here was up for grabs at a bargain price, and if you couldn’t use it, someone else would.
An elderly man was picking clumps of dirt from a garden spade. He turned it over, half-interested in the dime-a-dozen piece of lawn care equipment. “Last year, I used that to plant my poppies,” my mother told him. “They came up red as the handle you’re holding.” She had a system. Each sale began with a personal anecdote about the item in question and then a minor compliment directed at each potential customer. The man weighed it in his hands, looked down the steel edge as if aiming a gun, and settled the deal for a dollar less than my mother was asking. I watched this happen all afternoon, worried that my mother was finding more joy in the act of selling than she was making money. “The trick” she told me in a hushed tone, as if concealing the ultimate lawn sale secret, “is to price everything high so they’ll settle on your original number.” She bartered back and forth over an oscillating fan for five minutes, splitting hairs over a buck-fifty. When a deal was finally reached, she called me over to load the thing into a woman’s truck. “How many more days will your mother be out here?” the woman asked. “Until it is all sold,” I said. It seemed like a fair guess. I set the fan down gently in the bed, wiping my hands together to signal a completed transaction.
My father called them “garagers”: the people who went from lawn to lawn looking for deals. “Most of them are drunks,” he said, sitting in his underwear, flossing. My father only spoke with his fingers in his mouth, pausing between words to suck the crevice between each cleaned tooth. “Drunks,” his lips smacking, “and hillbillies.” The garage sale was scheduled to go throughout an August weekend, and after the first day my mother claimed that she had already done better than expected. “I bet I could find more things to sell,” she said. My father rolled his eyes, set his hands down on the table, the floss cuffing his index fingers. A chip had grown into the owl’s right ear exposing rough white porcelain. I watched him lean forward, carefully, both hands extending across the table. He grabbed the remote control and turned on the news. “I’ll bet,” he said.
ASHTON KAMBUROFF is a poet from Cleveland, Ohio. He currently lives in central Texas where he serves as the 2017-2018 L.D. and Laverne Clark House Writer-in-Residence. His most recent work can be found in Calamity, (B)Oink, Rappahannock Review, and other journals. He is the poetry editor for Profane and the poetry co-editor for Opossum.