When one of your best friends calls to announce her garage sale and to ask for your daughter’s help tagging items, say no.
Better yet, don’t answer the phone.
A few hours after the call, your husband will suggest that you try to sell the bike your son has outgrown. Your daughter will phone your friend to ask if you could contribute a few—a very few!—items to the sale. The hand mower will be identified as something no longer wanted. Then a child’s booster seat, a tricycle, bike helmet, roller skates.
Like a brush fire, suddenly your whole family will be aflame with the desire to be free of unwanted articles. Each one of you was choking with unused stuff, but until the announcement of the sale you were unaware of your unhealthy condition.
A vision of quick money will accompany your pressing need to pare down. You will see yourselves making hundreds of dollars. Who wouldn’t pay $75 for that hand mower? People will rush to buy the sweatshirt covered with excessively bright hummingbirds your mother gave you. Everyone needs a cheese grater, or two.
Hours will evaporate in the collective sweep of the house—no drawer, closet, shelf or box will be safe. You will polish the silver bangles you wore in junior high school, peel the tomato sauce off the booster seat, fold and stack stained dish towels feeling a barely containable excitement about the money sure to soon be in your hands.
Empty hangers will rattle in the closets, and you will see the bottom of drawers for the first time in years. Privately you will wonder what you wouldn’t be willing to sell. You will argue with your husband over an elaborately beaded necklace his mother gave you. Surely it has sentimental value, he will say. Without consideration you will tag it at $5.
You will write sums on masking tape and affix them to each item. Then your husband will survey the prices and say they are too low. Another fight will ensue, which will conclude by tripling the asking price. You will be in tears by the time the stuff is hauled into the van.
You will take turns with your daughter staffing the cash register. During lulls, of which there will be many, you will refold t-shirts and make bigger and brighter signs saying CURTAINS, BEDSPREADS, SOCKS, and move certain items into more prominent positions. You will huddle by the money box, analyzing why people buy the things they do: the discussion will be inconclusive. But you will be able to say with certainty that people like t-shirts.
Weird people frequent garage sales—women looking for shoulder pads, men looking for silver they can melt. You suspect that people are lonely and that is why they go to garage sales. A captive audience can be found slumped around the money box who will listen to potential customers tell how they lost 85 pounds, or why one leg is shorter than the other, or how they learned they had a twin who lives in Montana. You will find these stories surprisingly interesting after five or six hours on the sun-baked macadam.
Your mother often advised that when you were done with a thing and the thing was done with you, you should give it away. That bit of wisdom will be confirmed as you notice how your friend will not accept the offer of $90 for an old beat-up desk priced at $150. She says, the desk has been in the family for fifty years. Who cares, you will want to scream. Even if the desk had belonged to George Washington, it was a sorry affair. After she refuses the offer, she will make a sign saying PINE and tape it on top. No one will buy it; no one will even stop to read the sign.
But then, it is not only your friend who will be deluded about the value of her belongings. You will find you are capable of behaving in unseemly ways at garage sales. For example, when a mother and her children look at the bean bags you are selling, you will send your son to offer the second bag for free. After he makes the offer, he will turn and shake his head to indicate No. She wouldn’t take them even if they were both free. You feel repudiated. Only later will you ponder the absurdity: a woman will have the good sense to refuse the two bean bags you were trying to get rid of since the day they entered your house, and yet you feel repudiated. It doesn’t help that upon examination, it will be discovered that one bag has a whopper of a rip and the other has lost its filling. Nonetheless you will feel rebuked by her refusal to take these bags into her heart and her home. This is what garage sales do: suddenly you are an overheated woman invested in whether some other overheated woman will buy for the asking price the bean bags you hated. And if this woman tries to bargain you down, you’ll rear yourself back, and say I will not take $3 for it. She will then rear herself back and say Well then, don’t take $3 for it. She will then huff all the way back to her car parked on the grass even though signs are posted saying Stay Off.
At the end of the first day you will earn $64, after subtracting the $10 owed for advertising. The second day you will earn $49. You will estimate having spent at least twenty hours preparing items, setting up, and staffing the sale. It will not be one person working twenty hours; it will be four. At the end of the sale, you will haul home more than you brought, the emotional weight of disappointment multiplying the unsold items. Instead of one unsold hand mower, ten will flatten your grass. Instead of one sweatshirt with excessively bright humming birds, you will have seven. They will almost sing.
MARCIA ALDIRCH is the author of Girl Rearing, published by W.W. Norton. Companion to an Untold Story won the AWP Award in Creative Nonfiction. She is at work on Haze, a narrative of marriage and divorce during her college years.