I wrote this almost exactly fifteen years ago, in the summer of 1999, coming back from having auctioned off my grandfather’s belongings on a hot Texas day. It has far too many semi-colons, but I have better things to do than to mess with the text. With the exception of some misspellings, here it is as I wrote it then.
Mom woke me up at 6:30 in the morning. I thought, “What are we doing getting up this early? The auction doesn’t start ’till 10.” But when people started showing up a half-hour later, I knew it was going to be a busy day.
Walking around the house — for all anyone knew, just another curious local interested in an old man’s lifetime of collections — I felt increasingly distant. Every knick-knack and bauble, laid out to fill the yard, were vessels of memory, reminders of summers spend in grandparental solitude.
My mom and dad used to send me off to Weatherford for a week or two between school years; grandmom and granddad weren’t very “hands-on” folks, so I had the run of the house. Everything reminded me of the summer of my childhood and the autumn of my grandparents’ lives. The little red bird perched on the wavy lampshade by wire-formed feet; the porceline figures of women sewing, reading, hugging children; the countless glass bottles smelling faintly of perfumes from more than half-a-century ago; they were natural extensions of my grandparents, their personalities made external. I buried my grandfather’s body several weeks before, but over a long, hot Texas morning we auctioned off his soul.
Of particular interest were the tools and the relics: the things which, as a child, I wasn’t allowed to touch. There were probably five complete workshops worth of wrenches, pliers, hammers, saws, brackets, braces, bolts, and screws. There were enough weed eaters and mowers and edgers and blowers to start a landscaping company.
Most of the relics I didn’t even know existed until the auction had already been announced — and unfortunately, once something had been inventoried for the auction, it couldn’t be taken out. This included the single-shot shotgun, a little 410, once used by my great-grandfather, Sherwood Henry Pearcy, on his farm at the turn of the century. My grandfather’d kept it cleaned and oiled, ready for use, and it was found leaned up against his bed the day he died. The prize, though, was the 18-inch-long Nazi dress dagger, tightly sheathed in leather, that granddad had said he’d pulled off an officer in World War II. It disturbed me a little, but it was beautiful. It was emblazoned with swastikas on pommel and hilt, weighted for decoration but long and sharp and precisely manufactured enough to go through a person’s belly and come out his back as though cutting through the air. I had no weapons at the time; I’m not much of a weapon person. But I wanted that rifle, and I wanted that dagger.
My father, since his dad died, has been distant. Knowing how weird I felt walking around among personal belongings, labeled for sale, I knew I couldn’t imagine how my dad might feel about it. He’d told my mom to throw everything that wasn’t spoken for into the auction, though she cautioned him that he might regret it later. But dad shut down a few months ago and it’ll be awhile ’till he starts caring about things again.
Since we couldn’t pull them from the auction, we set high minimums on the dagger and the rifle; if the bidding didn’t reach the minimums, then we’d keep the weapons. Mom wanted me to get a bidder number anyway and bid on the rifle. I’d just bid until the bidding stopped and then we’d pay the auctioneer his 20% cut, calling it a draw.
I was given a post in the front yard, where the more valuable items were arrayed on two long rows of folding card tables. A stranger asked me what I was doing there, and I confessed I was close family.
“Is stuff going missing?” he asked. No, I didn’t think it was, though I feared it might; granddad had a lot of cool stuff. Mostly, though, people just didn’t know how to handle good, quality things. I don’t mean this as a slam at “country-folk” in general or the populace Weatherford in specific; I’ve gotten my favorite books back from best friends with the spines all torn out and not so much as an apology to go with it. Leading up to the auction, people were doing really stupid shit — picking up mechanical clocks and shaking them, for example. I mean, damn! You don’t shake things driven by delicate gears. Luckily, mom had thought to take the pendulum out so everything was cool. Still, I didn’t see anyone trying to pocket anything, and I didn’t notice anything go missing, and it wasn’t for lack of keeping my eyes open.
Also, the auctioneer gave us some tips on how to keep people from taking advantage of the situation. “Unplug all the phones,” he advised. “People like to save up their long-distance calling for an estate sale, then when everyone’s outside . . .” This was enough to make me a little paranoid. How cheap and petty, I thought, to take advantage of another person’s grief that way.
Before the auction started, my mom came out with grave news. “John Kennedy Jr. and his wife were just in a plane crash; they think they’re dead.” So that’s something else that happened that day. News quickly spread among the assembled throng as they picked through a century’s accumulation of stuff, most purchased before the dead man’s father had been made President.
The knife and the rifle — and various other rifles I didn’t care about — were kept in the auctioneer’s trailer. I could see them hanging up from my post on the front porch. Occasionally I’d see a good old boy pulling at the brim of his cowboy hat, inspecting the shotgun with a cell phone cradled between ear and shoulder. Talking to a gun appraiser or a knowledgable friend, I imagined.
I walked into the trailer when I could no longer see the Nazi dagger hanging from the trailer’s far well, only to be faced with an old man inspecting one of the bolt-action rifles — inadvertently aimed at me. I recoiled smoothly out of the doorway, though it made him jump a little. If the gun had been loaded, it probably would’ve gone off in his hands. I had a brief flash of that alternate world where a red blossom opened up on my right side, the imagined pain blinding me from further fantasy.
“Didn’t mean to startle ya,” he said.
“No problem,” I replied, gesturing as though pushing the rifle barrel aside. “I just don’t like to enter rooms to find guns pointed at me.”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” he said, forehead furrowed with genuine concern. “Didn’t even realize what I was doing.” He aimed the rifle out the trailer window as he completed his inspection. Goddamn, I thought, I don’t know how someone could reach such an advanced age without learning not to aim guns casually where people are likely to be.
Inside the trailer was a girl, maybe all of 14 years old, selling hot dogs, snacks, and drinks for the auctioneer. Everyone makes money how they can.
“Yeah, I dated a guy from there,” she told someone I couldn’t see. “Well, not ‘dated’ — we just went out a couple times. But he has no respect for women. After the second date, I was like, ‘You ain’t worth my time.'” I wondered where she would be in another 14 years.
My mom found a huge guy in the kitchen with the refrigerator door open, leaning in slack-jawed as though inspecting the interior.
“Excuse me, sir,” she said, tapping the “no sale” sign on the door. “This isn’t for sale.”
“Oh, I’m just coolin’ off,” he replied, staring blankly forward.
After we met up and exchanged stories, right before the mid-day break and the auctioning of the weapons, mom said, “At least the guy in the fridge didn’t have a rifle.”
“Did he have thumbs?” I asked.
In the end, we kept both gun and knife. Some guy bid up to $120 for it, and I bit $125 — even though I didn’t have to enter the bidding at all, with a minimum of $150, but my mom applied unnecessary pressure for me to do so.
The knife made it more than halfway through to its minimum bid of $900, but I’m not sure that was even a real bid as it was entered by the man running the auction, who knew the minimum. I think he just wanted to get it over with and inflated the bidding with a bogus entry. If I’m ever put in charge of two yards full of stuff to auction, I won’t want to waste time with stuff the family decided at the last minute not to sell.
Some people were a little bitter about it, though. I overestimated how much this auction meant to some people. I mean, to me this was just the culmination of a long period of family strangeness following a much longer period of family estrangement. But come four o’clock I was free to drive back to Austin. For these people, this was their life. This auction was very important to them for all sorts of selfish (or perhaps merely personal) reasons. Maybe I took it too lightly, all things considered.
“Cain’t believe you turned down $120 for that rifle!” one snaggle-toothed thin blonde woman hunted my mom and I down to tell us. The rest of those assembled were gathered around the rest of the rifle bidding in the back yard.
“Well,” mom said, “it belonged to his father.” She meant it belonged to my grandfather’s father.
“But it ain’t an antique! You can get that same guy down at the store for $99! And you turned down a hundred-and-twenty?”
“It is an antique,” my mother politely insisted.
“But you can get plenty just like it down at the store,” the woman said, “and they even got a star on the handle!”
Mom smiled at her dismissively. Myself, I couldn’t say anything. The previous night, I’d told mom that I wasn’t holding my tongue any more. When granddad was sick, I was the good grandson. When his sister died later that week, I put up with all the ridiculous things said by my peripheral relatives. When he died ten days later, I remained respectful even to the leering second cousin who told me — just feet from the site where I’d just lain my grandfather’s body to its eternal rest — what a good-looking woman my sister appeared to be.
Still, I just couldn’t bear to speak a word to these people for fear of the explosion that might come. I just smiled and nodded sympathetically, sort of a “those are the breaks, I guess we must be screwed” sort of look.
The overweight Nazi knife bidder informed me that he didn’t know what happened with the bidding on that one.
“I see them knives all the time on the eBay, always for ’round $300 or even $350.”
“Really?” I said, with a facetious tone of disbelief. He drew back with great apprehension, surprised that I didn’t just sheepishly hand over the knife, victim to his Internet-savvyness. I kept forgetting that in small-town Texas, the Internet was mostly something that rich folks did. When I heard other people mention the Internet that morning, it was always in the settling of an argument. “Well, but I read it on the Internet.” Something about the ‘Net carries the weight of truth. I’d chastised myself for my old prejudice about people living in small towns not knowing anything about the Internet, so it relieved me to hear an actual Weatherford resident expressing shock that another Weatherford resident had heard of eBay. Dang us city folk
I tried talking my mom into letting me take the knife with me, but she kept it, planning to drive it back to Kansas City to have it appraised.
Then there were the Masonic fezes, emblems of one of several secret fraternal orders grandfather belonged to. I mean, I couldn’t just let those go. I had to out-bid one of the many old Gertrude Stein-era lesbians who’d showed for the sale, but I got them. Twenty bucks.
The worst scene was near the end. A young blond girl, maybe 12 or 13 years old, had fallen in love with my old computer, a Mac SE that my parents had bought and used intermittently in the early-90s. It had a dot-matrix printer, a ton of software (including a shrink-wrapped copy of Microsoft Word) — it was ready to go.
How in love with it was she? She was sitting on the floor hugging it to her chest right before the bidding. Sadly, her parents stopped bidding at $20, so someone else got it for $25. She ran into the bathroom, crying, and refused to come out for some time. This is real, I had to remind myself; these were peoples’ lives. I remained quietly reverential through the remainder of the proceedings.