July 7, 2013

Freaks of Vermont

My first customer drove up an hour before the yard sale was supposed to start. He

David sells off his Vermont life.

hopped out of his pickup and stared at my shut garage doors. His jeans hung on him in classic I‑don’t-care-how-these-make-my-flat-ass-look-I-just-want-to-be-comfortable disregard.

“You got any guns?” he hollered.

“What? Guns?” I hopped off the porch.

“Guns? Antique rifles?”

“You’re an early bird.” I smiled because I thought I should smile. What did I know of yard sales and the social etiquette required?

“Supposed to start at 9.”

“No, 10. At least that’s what I put in the ad.”

I was beginning to get it, though. It was a strategy. He wanted first dibs. I opened the garage doors. “No guns, I’m sorry. Some furniture, housewares, some garden stuff.”

He walked around the garage, picking things up, tilting them for examination, putting them down.

“You moving?” he asked.

“Back to New York.”

“Oh? I used to live closer to Hobson, back when this was a nicer road.”

“It’s a bit edgy,” I agreed. A dog barked. My house stood in the village on a street that led to a wood mill. During the week, on the days the mill had work to do, I heard the hypnotic buzzing of the saws. Some people complained about it, but not the owner of the coffeeshop. “It’s the sound of honest work,” she said. But the half of the road that was closest to Main Street was seedy, where once stately houses had been converted into dark apartments, and these apartments filled with out-of-work pill poppers and their broods of near-feral children. They sent their kids fishing for food. The pastoral sight of them heading toward the river took a bit to shake off.

“This used to be the street to live on in Hobson,” the man said. He was mid-fifties, sandy-haired, beak-capped, Hitler-moustached. Men with this look never disappointed. They knew everything, and thought the rest of us were either socialistic parasites bent on bringing down the “republic,” or idiotic low-information voters brainwashed by Obummer.

“Ever since they opened up that welfare office in Martintown, it’s attracted them. I don’t blame you for leaving. You sure you don’t have any guns?”

As was typical for the valley in the morning, a mist still clung around the bushes and grass, and the ground was soppy. “How about this nice space heater?”

“And I doubt it’s going to get any better. Once you start down the road of giving drug addicts welfare there’s no going back. You see, it’s a vicious cycle, and it never …” He started on, as though he had repressed a decade’s worth of political outrage, and finally found me to enlighten. It was less the content of his complaints, but his surety that I found obnoxious, his belief, transmitted by his tone, that God spoke through him.

I nodded vigorously, and smiled like an idiot.

“Well, nothing here I can’t live without,” he said. He touched a finger to his cap and drove off.

He might have been right about the street where my house sat riverside, but I was still going to miss it: the street, the house, Vermont. I was already in pre-nostalgia. I didn’t want the house any more, and I was done with this town, but I wasn’t ready to leave, not the ownership that animals seem to have here, not the cool nights, not the deep rural calm, not the daily human intimacies you hate and love and that you only get in a village this small.

It was my first yard sale. And it was tough to realize that it’s not like selling something on eBay, but instead a wholesale abandonment of your worldly possessions without regard to their practical and emotional value. At best, the yard sale becomes an entertainment. The freaks come out of the woodwork.

For example, soon after Hitler left, another pickup truck appeared. Out came a wiry elderly couple. The man wore his thin white hair down to his shoulders, and his face was as craggy and worn as any described in books about pioneers. Meanwhile, his companion dressed teen style: tight-fitting, low slung jeans and a tank top. I think I also saw a hint of pink thongs.

“Howdy,” they said.

“Oh. Howdy,” I said back, loudly, because from the cab of the pickup came the ferocious barking of tiny dogs, their stubby faces plastered against the windows. More than two of them, probably three, possibly four. It looked as though all they wanted was their freedom. And isn’t that the way of dog ownership? We keep them for their unabashed, intense love, but we imprison them to receive it.

As the couple wandered through my things, I tried to make conversation. “So how many you got in there? Dogs. Four?” The man stopped to stare at the distance and calculate. “Six,” he said. “Yeah, six.”

I nodded vigorously, and smiled like an idiot. At the window, the dogs begged.

“Well, nothing here we can’t live without,” the woman said, and they drove off.

The dreadlocked hippie who bought a Star Trek novel a tenant had let behind. The overworked, overweight mom who dragged off the tube television I was giving away for free. The obviously desperately poor family who rummaged through the $1 boxes that Veronica — a pro in the mercenary arts — suggested I set up. I gave a lot away. For two days, I met the people I never see in the coffeeshop or at The Spoke. They don’t show up at the town events, or pull into the farmstand. Maybe they did sometimes, but I never saw them. What I came to understand was that they trolled the newspapers for yard sales and went around all the nearby towns to add to their collections. A twitchy little man with a mustache weeping down his cheeks wondered, while tugging his whiskers, whether I had any “old watches, broken watches, maybe comic books, old jewelry, family heirlooms, toys.”

“No, nothing like that. More like toaster ovens and pans, and a weed whacker.”

“So no watches, even broken watches, anything collectible?” He left looking extremely disappointed.

One of the last to visit my yard sale was a grandfather and his tubby grandson who had just a wisp of a mustache shadowing his lip. The grandfather was one of those salty, smart-alecky types, despite having the grave look of an Amish farmer, what with the farmer hat and long, narrow beard. The boy grew fascinated by the portable speakers you could plug an iPod into. He kept coming back to it.

“They love those gadgets,” said the grandfather, theatrically pretending not to understand the kids of today. Finally, the boy, holding the speakers, asked if he could have them for $5, instead of the $10 I marked them.

“Sure,” I said. The boy looked at his grandpa, who, with great ceremony reached into his pocket. With a knowing smile he said, “They want things, but when it comes time they look to their grandfather to pay.” He sighed. “At least my grandson had the good sense to Jew you down on the price.”

I nodded vigorously, and smiled like an idiot.