Claire shuffles toward the register, clamping something against her belly, casting sidelong glances. She thinks she’s found a treasure; I can tell by her scowl. I see this every day: the scavenger’s soft-shoe, chary glee of the thrift store shopper. My customers have no poker faces. Whatever she’s found glints dully between her fingers, which poke like bird’s claws from fingerless gloves. Whatever it is, she’s wrong about it. There’s nothing here but junk. I should know.
She plunks half a doorknob down on the counter. It looks familiar.
Woody, she says, this came off in my hand. When I opened the door.
Oh, I say. It’s not for sale.
Don’t insult me, she says. Coat flapping, she turns on one heel and disappears into a murky corner to inspect the mismatched crockery. Her coat is the type a flasher would wear. I sold it to her a few weeks ago, for two bucks. Claire shops here every day, but I don’t think she especially likes me. It’s okay; the feeling’s mutual.
The thrift store stinks of sour laundry and wet ceiling tiles. My brother Grover left it to me. It’s probably what killed him, all the dust and mold. I should mop. I should jettison the crushed lampshades and raveling scarves and action figures missing limbs—a battalion of tiny plastic amputees. But then I’d have to raise prices, and my customers expect rock-bottom. Most are immigrants who are amazed to buy a stained, pilly sweater for seventy-five cents. I tell them this is America, land of miracles.
Before, I was assistant manager of a discount shoe outlet. At least now I am the boss of something. Our mother named us after presidents.
Claire is back at the counter. Woody, she says, would you take a quarter for this? She’s holding a chipped horse figurine. On closer inspection I see it’s a unicorn with its horn broken off. She says, It’s a gift for my son. He’s coming to visit. He loves horses.
Sure, I say. She extracts her coin purse from her voluminous coat.
She says, You’re supposed to haggle. Your brother was world-class. He knew what this stuff was worth. You just give it away!
Claire, I say, you’re my best customer. I’d never haggle with you.
I miss selling shoes. I miss their smell, of canvas and leather and possibility. When someone left with a pair tucked beneath an arm, I’d wonder: where will those shoes take them? Maybe they’d save someone’s life wearing those shoes, or wear them to meet the president. Maybe they’d win the lotto, or cure cancer in those shoes. Maybe they’d march somewhere in protest of something, and change the world.
That evening I try to lock up the store and I can’t because of the broken doorknob. I call a locksmith. When he finally shows up he says, This place reminds me of that show on TV. The one about the hoarders.
Yeah, I say, shrugging. I know.
The next day Claire does not come, nor the day after that. I wonder if she is upset about the doorknob, if she thinks I blame her. On the third day a man comes in wearing a sports coat and cologne. His hair is combed. He is as out-of-place in my store as an angel, fluttering glittery wings.
You got a truck, guy? he asks.
I’ve a houseload of stuff, all yours if you can come get it. I don’t know what’s there, probably nothing good. Maybe coupla antiques.
He looks rich, so I tell him I’ll come.
The house is a termite-chewed Victorian a few blocks away. Most of its paint has flaked into the flowerbeds. Some of the windows have cardboard in them. It should be condemned. Claire is standing in the front yard in her flasher coat, wringing her hands. She rushes to my truck.
Woody you have to help me, she whispers. She looks caved-in, lost. He wants to put me in a home, she says. He’s taking my things. My things!
The sports-coated man gets out of his Mercedes. You two know each other? he asks.
No! Claire says. She winks, but it’s desperate, not merry. I follow them into the house which smells of mothballs and overripe fruit.
Ma, which boxes are going with you? he asks. Claire gestures loosely around the room. The man sighs. The facility said three boxes, Ma.
She lifts the flaps on one and then another. I won this ribbon in a cake-baking competition when I was twelve, she says. This hat went to that doll your grandfather brought from Germany. The doll is here, somewhere. This bit of string was some beads I wore on my wedding day. We were dancing and your father dipped me and it busted. Beads went rolling! She smiles but then the smile too skitters away. It’s everything, she says. You understand? She looks from him to me.
Ma, he says, I’ve got to look out for you. It’ll be clean there. Hot meals, physical therapy. Peers, Ma. Sing-alongs.
She opens another box. Its depths seem to hold for her the mysteries of the cosmos.
Ma, we don’t have all day, the man says.
You’re wrong, she says. I have all the days, right here. She holds up a faded nylon dog collar. Jojo’s, she says. Remember Jojo?
The man closes his eyes, at the end of his patience.
I lift the box and whisper, Don’t worry, Claire, I won’t sell it, I’ll keep it safe for you.
After loading up, I tell the guy to give me his address, in case I find any family heirlooms. He snorts but writes it down. I ask where he’s taking her and he says something that sounds like Tender Bridges, which is an awful name for a nursing home. It sounds like a cemetery. But then, they all do.
I don’t take Claire’s boxes back to my thrift store, though. I take them straight to the town dump. Because I’ve seen what’s in them: mixed with the crumbling detritus of her past is stuff I sold to her and cannot bear to see or sell or smell again. Mismatched Tupperware, pencils with the erasers gone hard and dry. It kills me, how worthless it all is. At the dump though, I have a small change of heart and keep three boxes, just in case.
When I get back to the store it’s late. I want nothing more than to go upstairs and heat some soup in my spare and tidy kitchen. But when I do, the kitchen seems over-bright and the soup tastes of nothing.
Before he died, Grover called me once a month and we talked about the weather. Otherwise I did not often think of him; he reminded me of me. Now I wonder: had he known the singular satisfactions of an eccentric bachelor, or the torment of private vice? How often had he eaten soup alone? It took weeks to scour his various residues from the baseboards and porcelain. Now, nothing of him remains.
I carry my soup downstairs, to the back of the store where Claire’s boxes are stacked. One box contains old fabric scraps and dress patterns, brittle as ancient papyrus. Another is full of slides. I hold one to the fading light and see a miniature woman with a baby on her hip, dust specks beneath the monumental noses of Mount Rushmore. A third box contains mostly letters and cards, penned in feathery script. My darling, one reads, Today I fed the pigeons at the park and saw the white one you named Blanche. I thought my heart would stop. At the bottom of this box are receipts, a shoelace, and the unicorn figurine with the broken horn.
As I hold it, it occurs to me that Grover must have put it wherever Claire found it. I picture him thumbing the dust from its flanks, placing it on a shelf, walking away. My grief opens like a flower.
I’ll call her, I think. I’ll call Claire and read her one of these letters.
I’m sorry, the operator says. No listing for Tender Bridges. I’ve got Sunny Acres. I’ve got Ivy Hill.
I know it’s wrong but I call anyway because, maybe. Ivy Hill says they didn’t get anyone new today. But Sunny Acres says, We got a lady, not sure of her name, let me look—
Just put her on, I say.
A reedy voice says hello. It doesn’t sound like Claire.
My darling, I say. Today I fed the pigeons at the park and saw the white one you named Blanche—
Who is this?
I thought my heart would stop, I say, my voice breaking.
Are you some kinda pervert?
I think so, yes, I whisper. I hang up.
There is no name on the scrap of paper Claire’s son gave me, only his address. I write it on an envelope, and put the broken unicorn inside.
E. D. Watson is a night clerk at a public library. Her work has been published by Narrative and [PANK], among other journals. She loves pigeons, and people who wear costumes as everyday clothes.