The auctioneer remembers. What it cost him to learn to chant ($37.50 for a class in 1978). The year this house was built (1946; the deceased laid the bricks himself after returning from the War). What this bidder, a trim lady with carefully permed hair, will pay for a McCoy planter shaped like a bird-of-paradise ($80). “One more time, believe I would. Believe you’ll get it,” says the auctioneer as another man bids higher. “I was wrong,” the auctioneer says. “I have ninety, who’ll give me a hundred, hundred, hundred? Nice piece,” he says. “Don’t shake your head. Don’t walk away.”
I like this auctioneer, and I go to all his sales. A big suntanned man with a neatly trimmed silver goatee, his chant is a pleasure to hear and easy to follow: playful, a bit of a twang, and a tobacco-auction echo in the soft-r way he sings “quarter.” By the sale’s very nature, we don’t want the same things, and yet he’s such a good salesman that I feel we’re on the same team. We need each other.
I love auction day’s carnival atmosphere. It’s an efficient treasure hunt; the place is flushed empty in a day’s time, and we each leave with what we wanted most. The auction saves waste by keeping goods in circulation. But for me, the best part is the chant, which rests on one note even as the auctioneer’s words dance and dip. On action day, I rest inside the chant, and feel it bear my weight.
Most of these sales take place at old farmhouses along narrow roads; we park on the shoulder and unfold our chairs under shade trees planted years ago by somebody long gone. But today we’re in town, the Hotel Easley, a two-story brick affair with striped awnings, halfway between the high school and the funeral parlor. Like always, the auctioneer snaps on the PA at 10:00 a.m. and starts in. First item: a six-drawer dresser with attached mirror. He tries twenty-five dollars, “twenty-five, five, five.” No takers. So he drops to twenty, “ twenty, twenty-dollar bid, all right, ten, am I bid ten, ten. Ten. [Sigh.] Gimme five dollars, people, five dollars to start.” Someone hollers, “Two-fifty!” and six hands shoot up. It’s gonna be that kind of day.
When I grew up here in the 1980s, the Hotel Easley still drew textile managers visiting from out of town. But by the time I started high school, the hotel had turned into an old folks’ home—I remember a woman sitting on the deep front porch in the same chaise lounge that waits in the dewy grass with a number zip-tied to its frame. When I moved away for college, the hotel was a halfway house for people who’d just gotten out of jail. And for years now it’s stood empty.
Its furnishings reflect that history. Dozens of dressers and nightstands, box lots of sherbet dishes, slippery old National Geographic magazines. But other items are harder to trace. Pillbox hats with traces of makeup staining their grosgrain insides. Pocketbooks, empty but for little mirrors in waxed-paper slipcovers that crumble under my fingertips. Slide rule, topo map, and a dissection kit nested in a case that snaps shut with a click. In a box lot, if you want one item, you have to buy the whole grab-bag bunch.
As the morning wears on and we shift to stay in the shade, I see bidders I recognize from other sales: the trio of white-haired sisters, the city dealers in the navy Jeep, that ponytailed guy whose shirt says, I COULD TRY TO CARE, BUT MY GIVE-A-DAMN BROKE. Auctions aren’t anonymous; when you register, you give the clerk your name, phone number, and a copy of your driver’s license. We must be a little ruthless to do this, haggling possessions of the dead. But to buy at an auction is to start a new conversation with an old piece. I’ll remember this afternoon’s particulars long after I’ve forgotten a thousand other summer hours: the sudden downpour, pecan tree dropping pollen down my neck, boy pushing a toy bulldozer through the gravel.
“It’s like playing a banjo,” the auctioneer says, sitting across from me at a local diner where we’ve met to talk. “Start out, you can only play one note at a time. Then, over time, if you practice, you’re playing ‘Foggy Mountain Breakdown.’”
I like him as much in person as I do on the block, where he sings, sometimes, for eight hours at a stretch. His hands are a workingman’s hands, wedding bad on one finger and a Mason’s signet on another, and the rise and fall of his pitch generates the power of the chant. “People get anxious when an item they’re interested in comes up,” he says. “You can sense it. Whether you say ‘hypnotize,’ or ‘get into the joy of the auction,’ the tune soothes people.”
At the sale last Saturday, I watched as his five-month-old grandson rode in the crook of his arm, staring at his granddaddy’s face while he chanted. Auctions are family affairs: his wife clerks, his son is a ringman, a daughter and a daughter-in-law calculate totals when buyers close out. But it’s more than that. “You’ll see families break up over stuff,” he says. Once a man had to buy back at auction a silver dollar his mother had promised him, years ago, and paid more than it was worth because his brother kept bidding against him. “When he won that thing, he held it up in front of everybody, said ‘I got my dollar back.’”
I love box lots for their quality of surprise. How does the auctioneer build them? “You got to put the good, the bad, and the ugly in there,” he says. “Something to catch that person’s eye. Think of a husband and wife. Think of a mother and daughter.” That way, you run a better chance of getting multiple bidders involved. “All you got to do is spark a little interest. Old jacks they remember playing with, key chain with ‘Chevrolet’ on it. Anything to spark some memories back where it used to be.”
Oil lamp crammed with dead wasps, filling-station watering can, card table with two folding chairs repainted yellow. Canning jars starred with seed bubbles. Potluck casserole dish still labeled with her name. Hammer price does not include sales tax; all items sold as is, where is. Homemade toolbox, ‘79 Ford, nightgowns. Child’s tea set, still in the box.
“Tew, tew, tew,” cries the mockingbird from the upper reaches of the pecan tree. “Five, five, anywhere five—HEP”, yells the ringman— “gimme ten, ten, ten.” The women in the front row murmur to each other, and out on the highway, a car slows down, then speeds off. Below all this is the sound of my heart beating, the house’s floorboards creaking beneath strange feet as people step into the attic and pull the chain on the bulb. Hiss of electricity, slap of the Porta-John door. The auctioneer keeps three things in mid: the have, the want, the next. The have is the current price, the want is what he’s asking, the next is a click past that. His guiding star is more.
What must we, the gallery, look like to him? Our faces worried or wanting, bored or at peace. As my eyes shift out of focus and I tuck my card under my thing. As the woman next to me fidgets when the lawn mower comes on the block, and bids high. As that city dealer carries off an armful of hand-stitched quilts. The auctioneer mops his brow with a handkerchief and sips lukewarm water to open his throat. When learning to chant, try filler words such as Whatabout, bettaget, gottaget. Believe I would. “I like to drove my family crazy,” the auctioneer said of learning to chant. “On car trips, I’d sell telephone poles, cows, cars coming down the road. With repetition, you can do anything you want to do.”
Even when I forget that these objects once belonged to a living person, the auctioneer remembers, moving between the quick and the dead and striving to do right by both. “I want to do the best I can by the seller,” he told me, “but I want to protect the buyer too.” I remember a sale at a little house by the railroad tracks. She’d kept a garden. Even the rusty tomato cages were tagged and numbered but those purple irises bloomed for nobody but her.
When the sale day ended at the Hotel Easley, I paid for a set of jadeite mugs, a little cross painted with GOD BLESS OUR HOME, and what I wanted most, a bundle of old keys. One for each door at the Hotel, plus a master.
How many times did someone else do as I am doing, rolling the key slowly between thumb and forefinger? People call it a skeleton key but really it’s a bit and barrel, and any lock it fits is easy to pick: bow, shank, bit. Now I can claim every room it opened. The tidy bed that waited for the widower, the pile of street clothes stiff with starch, the hook holding the bride’s traveling cloak. I can step over the threshold, knowing that once I do, someone here will look after me. Mount the creaking staircase, set down my suitcase, and shut the door as the afternoon fades. Stare out the window as ripples of heat rise from the undertaker’s smokestack. And when night falls on a Friday you can hear the marching band play. Here we go, Easley, here we go; hear the crowd yell when a call goes their way. Later, after the late train runs, you’ll hear keys knock against each other as the hotelkeeper replaces one on its rightful hook.
Keys are for the living; to turn one against the outside is to stake your claim to everything within. THe time will come when I will ong to be unburdened, necklace to paperback, and when that day arrives I want someone orderly and calm on the block, someone honest, good-humored. Someone who earns his pay wiping my life as clean as he can so someone else can get her use of it. Believe, I would, the auctioneer says. Believe I would.
From The World is on Fire, by Joni Tevis (Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 2015).
Copyright © 2015 by Joni Tevis. Reprinted with permission from Milkweed Editions. milkweed.org
JONI TEVIS is the author of two books of essays, most recently The World Is On Fire: Scrap, Treasure, and Songs of Apocalypse. Her work has appeared in Orion, The Oxford American, Poets & Writers, the Pushcart Prize anthology, and elsewhere. She serves as the Bennette E. Geer Associate Professor of English at Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina.