All Sales Final
Karl W. Bokelmann
"Come on, Mother. It'll do you good to get out of this stuffy old house."
"Stuffy?" Mrs. Davis clutched the worn arm of an overstuffed horsehair easy chair. It seemed to swallow up her shrunken, elderly body.
"I'm sorry, Mother," Charlene said as she touched up her lips with a shade of 'Dusty Rose'. "It's so dark in here with the shades drawn, the windows shut. My God. It's June already. And the dust!"
"I like it just fine," Charlene's mother shot back. She set her tea cup in its saucer that was arguing for space on a coffee table cluttered with Royal Doulton head cups and googly-eyed figurines. A swirl of dust traced itself into a sliver of light forcing its way from between velour curtains.
Charlene balanced her cup and saucer on her knees for lack of anywhere else to put it. She took a sip of the unsweetened green tea and set the cup down with a certain porcelain ring. "How can you keep up with all this stuff!"
"I do a little here, I do a little there. What's a little dust?"
"I can't see how you can breathe in here."
"Them cancer sticks don't help any," Mrs. Davis said, glaring at the lit end of the white cylinder tweaked between Charlene's fingers as it circled about in the semi-darkness.
"I know. I'm trying to cut down." Charlene twisted an empty pack, stuffed it into her purse and slid a new one into a leather case. "So, you want to go to that estate sale with me?"
"I don't know," Mrs. Davis said in a descending tone. It's been years . . . when your father was still alive." She felt her husband's finger arcing through the handle of the teacup. He had his favorite coffee cup, a stained jadeite 'Fire King' that still resides in the kitchen cupboard. But when he had tea, any one of the set would do, probably having drank from all of them at one time or another. She felt a faint contact with his lips with each sip she took.
Charlene took another drag off her cigarette. "I need a few things for the apartment. I got the car, but Richard got most of the furniture. It was mostly all that particle board crap anyway, excuse my French, and I want to get something made out of real wood. If I'm gonna pay for an antique, I want to be sure it is an antique."
Charlene looked around the room and saw dozens of pieces she could use. All were jammed with an eclectic display of dolls - whole and in varying degrees of dismemberment, carnival glass, cobalt, ruby, Staffordshire, Limoges, Gone-with-the-Wind lamps, Pairpoint, peachblow, hobnail. An endless assortment of objects procured at garage sales, rummage sales, church sales, estate sales, auctions, and from fellow antique dealers.
To Mrs. Davis, each piece represented a small event in her life; a sunny autumn morning when she came across a mustard glass serving set among the rest of the junk at a church rummage, standing in the rain and sliding her small frame under the garage door as it opened and scooping up the butter churn, the brass bed warmer she found late at a yard sale because everybody else thought it was a popcorn popper.
Charlene slugged down one last mouthful of green tea. "How about it, Mom. If we don't get going now, everything good's going to be gone."
"Well, okay," said Mrs. Davis, her cup rattling as she set it into the saucer. "Let me get my sweater."
Mrs. Davis struggled to lift herself out of the overstuffed chair. On her arthritic legs, one hip replaced with that of titanium, she reached for the cane leaning against the chair arm. The handle was a staghorn. A lion's head was carved into what was the base of the antler. It had a menacing countenance that was accentuated by a missing glass eye bead.
The cane used to belong to her husband who steadied himself with it after a brain condition impaired his balance for which he never fully recovered. She grasped the handle and could feel the frustration he felt at not being able to do the things that he had always done, always hoping that he would reattain the vigor of his youth, the years of his prime robbed from him never to be given back. She felt he fear and despondency when he fell onto his infant daughter as if his brain was literally shut off as Charlene, frightened and crying, lay beneath him as his bulk nearly suffocated her. What's wrong with me, Godamnit! What's wrong with me? I hurt my little girl! Months of tests, poking, prodding, never really finding out what it was, just that it stole the best years of his life with his daughter, with his wife, with his family. The years of re-hab, getting into a new line of work, always saying he'd felt as good as ever but deep inside feeling cheated.
Mrs. Davis suffered her own pain. She cared for him, working two, sometimes three jobs on top of dealing antiques and taking care of Charlene. She tried to hold things together, mustering up the energy until there was no more to conjure. But regardless of her fatigue and ache that robbed her of her vitality as well, she still felt the pain and frustration each and every time she held her husband's cane. She could have thrown it out, sold it, given it away, stashed it in some dark musty corner in an unused closet but she chose to feel as he felt; The loss, the cheat, the hurt, the frustration. It was her homage to him.
The estate sale was a few miles out of town. Charlene and her mother drove past farms with trees in front as big around as truck tires. The roads were rough with strips of tar crisscrossing in odd hieroglyphs. Narrow roads barely wide enough to allow oncoming cars passage.
Charlene broke the silence. "You know that card thing you showed me years ago, telling people's fortunes?" An unlit cigarette hung from her lower lip as she talked. "I started playing around with it at a party a few weeks ago. I'm not at all good at it. Haven't done it since meeting Richard. You know how that went." She pulled the lighter from the dashboard and lit the cigarette. "Anyway, I said, or the cards said, that this gal at work was going to have a baby. She said I was full of shit. Said she was on the pill. Wouldn't you know it, the next week she came up to me and said she was pregnant. Boy, was she pissed, like it was my fault or something."
Mrs. Davis took in a deep breath. "You know card reading is nothing to be taken lightly. Don't do it unless you or the person you're reading is serious about it."
"That's what you always told me, Mother. But you know how it is. We all had a few drinks and got on the subject of psychics and stuff. One thing led to another." Charlene took a drag off her cigarette.
Mrs. Davis opened the window. "Don't say I didn't warn you."
Mrs. Davis did her share of card-reading herself when she was younger. She understood the 'parlor game' mentality. She had gotten caught up in it herself. Ambiguous readings that could have been taken a number of ways; gossip involving a fair woman, legal figures, success in business, disappointment in love. Sometimes a death in the family would come up. Usually it wound up being some distant relative that nobody had seen in years, if ever. Then one time in reading her own cards, 'death in the family' kept coming up. She'd re-deal the cards and it kept coming up. Later that month, her infant niece had died of heart failure. She hasn't touched a deck of cards since.
"Here we are, Mother." Charlene turned up a drive marked by a sign with balloons hanging from it.
It was a pastoral image. A farmhouse at the end of a long driveway surrounded by fields sprouting with green. Trees of numerous varieties in the yard, a windbreak of tall pines on the north side. The white clapboard-sided house was big enough for a family of twelve.
"Looks like a do-it-yourselfer," Charlene's mother said. "Better deals than at those professional jobs."
Charlene pulled the car onto the lawn next to several other cars, trucks and vans. "I hope there's something left," she said. "Looks like a bunch of dealers are here already."
Mrs. Davis was a dealer for as long as she could remember, picking for her grandfather when she went along on his expeditions, an ice cream cone as a reward for making finds. She had a knack for recognizing things old. She bought 'Fenton' and 'Consolidated Glass' when her playmates were learning hopscotch. She knew the real from the reproduction by the feel of it. Or maybe it was more. She could feel the hands of the owners as they handled a piece through the years as if it had a life of its own; Glassware having been packed in a wooden box with excelsior to escape the fires of Sherman's advancing armies, the concerned hands of a mother as she poured water from a pitcher during the diphtheria outbreaks at the turn of the century, the grief of a soldier's sweetheart through the handle of a mirror when she came to terms that he wasn't returning from the trenches of the Ardennes. She touched upon past lives within every article she handled. That gift was both a blessing and a curse. Some pieces were much too painful for her to handle, surrendering them to ones lacking the sensitivity. Best to let those ignorant of the suffering take possession.
"Watch your step, Mother," said Charlene as she walked up the deteriorating concrete stoop and opened the door. On the door was a sign, hand scrawled in magic marker 'All Sales Final'.
"Don't worry about me, Charí. I got steps of my own." Mrs. Davis hobbled up the steps, her cane in her hand. 'Just hold the door open for me."
The rail didn't feel right to Mrs. Davis. It was as if it were coated with bacon grease. Her legs felt as if they were buckling beneath her but clearly saw that they were straight and erect. It didn't feel right at all but she let the feeling pass when she released the rail and lumbered in through the door.
It was like a Middle-eastern bazaar inside the house. Everything imaginable was piled up on makeshift tables of sawhorses and plywood. In the kitchen, people were haggling over the price of this or that at a table where the cash box was set up. Some succeeded in bargaining down the price, others walked away empty-handed.
The kitchen counter was layered with glasses, utensils and dishes. Charlene picked up a plate from a stack. "These dishes look nice, Mother." They were Blue Ridge with apples on them. Not particularly old but collectible. She looked at them to actually use. "What do you think of these?" She handed one to her mother.
Mrs. Davis grasped onto the plate and almost dropped it. There was nothing wrong with her grip but her arm went weak not unlike the way it did on the handrail at the back stoop. She leaned her cane against the plywood table top and held the plate firmly with both hands. She felt an energy sapping from her fingertips into the smooth glazed finish.
Agnes opened her eyes to a plain of floral rug. It smelled of dust and cat urine. Her glasses were smashed into her face. Saliva was draining from the corner of her mouth and pooling into the curl of an iris petal. Footsteps shuffled up to the door and a shadow danced about in the reflection on the hardwood floor beyond the edge of the rug.
Agnes was startled, her otherwise limp body jumping at the sound of the bolt actuated from the other side of the door. Heavy-heeled black shoes stepped in front of her face. "Dinnertime," a voice croaked.
A tray was set down on a table by the bed. The blankets and sheets were in a tangled disarray though unslept in for days. The dark-skirted woman came over to Agnes and grabbed her by the arm, dragged her to the bed and slung her across the mattress like a fifty-pound sack of dirt and given as much consideration. "Since you didn't eat yesterday, I'm giving you what's leftover," the voice grated on. it'll be what you'll have tomorrow if you don't eat it."
On the plate was a mound of cottage cheese with a greenish-gray mold interlaced
between the curds, two slices of toast curled up at the edges, and celery sticks laying limp
across one another. All served on Blue Ridge china with an apple design.
Mrs. Davis set the plate down with such a clamor that everybody in the room turned and stared.
"Mother!" Charlene said under her voice. "Careful. I haven't bought them yet." She picked up the plate, turned it over and back again. "Maybe I will get them if they can survive that!" Charlene gathered up the set of dishes and brought them to the kitchen table, requesting the owner to hold them while she looked around.
"Jeez, Mom. I felt obligated to buy them."
Mrs. Davis said nothing.
Charlene and her mother went into the bedroom where a few pieces of furniture were marked for sale. The room felt cold to her even though she was wearing a sweater under her coat. It was a cold that lingered like a dark man at night on an unlit street.
There was a bed frame (the mattress was gone), a nightstand, and a dresser marked 'Sold'. On the dresser were several items; a matching brush and mirror, boxes of costume jewelry, and several purses.
"Aren't these wild," said Charlene as she picked up one of the purses. It was a black fabric affair with a garishly large pink flower on the side. "Now I know what to do this Halloween."
Mrs. Davis was looking at herself in the hand mirror, not entirely seeing her own face reflected back to her but a stranger's with dark, sunken eyes and a cold, gray pallor.
Charlene thrust the purse into her mother's hand. "What do you think of this?"
Mrs. Davis set down the mirror and took hold of the purse.
Agnes stood shivering in the doorway between the living room and the dining room. Her back was arched from osteoporosis. Feeble fingers clutched onto her purse.
"Well, did you get it!" rattled a voice emitting from the couch.
The television was disgorging confused images of frozen dinners, Este Lauder and Phil Donahue.
"Come on. Did you get it?" The voice stood up in front of the TV.
Agnes could hear only a raucous hiss, a blend of noises beaten with a wire whisk. The living room was dark and crypt-like and she could only see a shadow. It obscured the rectangle of grainy color as it came closer. Agnes clutched the purse hard. She backed away as the hulk reached out and gabbed it from her hands.
"You deaf old bat!"
Agnes could hear well enough but could only make sense of one voice at a time. Her brain, feeble with age and wracked with fear would draw itself back into dark corners.
"We're gonna have a hard time making it through the month on your check. You're going to have to break into your CDs. We barely have enough for food, much less pay for heat."
The dark hulk tossed the purse onto the couch. It bounced off and onto the coffee table, knocking over a glass filled with wine. It streamed across the top and onto the rug.
"Damn it!" See what you made me do. Go get a rag and clean that up!"
Agnes trembled as she turned around and shuffled through the dining room and into the kitchen. The dark hulk followed close behind. "Never mind," it said as it pushed Agnes aside, nearly bowling her over. "I'll do it myself. You just worry about getting that money out of that CD."
Agnes's one palsied eye stared out at the passing shape as she turned back toward the living room. The dark shape came back.
"Well, as long as you're here, you can clean up that mess anyway." She threw a handful of rags at Agnes. "I'm going to the grocery store. You have that finished by the time I get back, okay!"
Agnes stumbled over to the coffee table, bent down onto her arthritic knees and began to sop up the wine from the carpet. Her joints snapped at every movement and jolts of electricity shot up her arms and legs. She whimpered. But the pains flashed by and were soon forgotten. No time to feel the ache, no time to feel the hurt, only looking to the task at hand, just as she had always done her entire life and still continues to do so to this day.
Mrs. Davis dropped the purse on the dresser and Charlene snatched it up. "I'm going to get this. It's only a buck." Charlene thrust her arm through the handles and began to walk out of the bedroom. "I'm going to give the living room a quick look again. You coming?"
Mrs. Davis hobbled out of the bedroom, cane in hand, glad to be out of there. Gladder yet to be out of this house.
Most of the furniture too big to be carried away were tagged with 'sold' signs. There was little left otherwise. At least anything of use. Charlene spied a wastepaper basket under the plywood table top and reached down to pull it out for a closer look. Rolling around inside were several old umbrellas and a cane. The cane was fashioned from some kind of tree growth, bent and twisted with knobby protrusions running up its length. Charlene ignored the umbrellas and pulled it out.
"This is interesting," said Charlene. "Didn't Dad collect canes?"
"Still got them somewhere," Charlene's mother replied. She held up the lion's head cane. "This one was his favorite."
"That always gave me the creeps, with that missing eye."
"Felt right to me so I figured I'd use it."
"What do you think of this?" Charlene handed the cane to her mother.
Mrs. Davis took the cane into her hand, though to touch anything in this house was like slow death.
"What do you mean, there's no money left in the account!" the shrill voice shot out through the back door. "You didn't tell me it was all used up!"
Agnes flinched, holding her cane in both hands, her palsied eye darting uncontrollably to the side. An icy rain glazed the stoop and dotted Agnes's glasses. A hand came up and grabbed at the cane but Agnes"s stiff, gray fingers held fast. She slipped on the icy stoop and brought one hand over to grasp the handrail. It was slick and greasy as well. The cane was stripped from Agnes's hand. Agnes, frightened and confused, turned away and headed down the steps. The cane came arcing through the air, striking her across her collar bone that splintered under the blow. Agnes slipped back, clawing at the handrail. Her leather soles lost contact with the step and she somersaulted backwards, her skull collapsing on the corner of the concrete step. Fragments of bone lodged into areas of her brain that controlled higher functions. She gasped one last breath, her eye twitching to one side, her tongue dropping down into her windpipe. Her heart beat one last beat and her face froze into a vacant, languid expression. The freezing rain beaded on her gray, wrinkled flesh. The cane was thrown across her chest and bounced onto the landing below.
Mrs. Davis was paralyzed, her hand unable to reckon with the cane. She stepped back, a stony glaze flashing in her eyes, one twitching to the side.
"Mother," said Charlene. "What's the matter? You look like you saw a ghost." Mrs. Davis said nothing. There was no way to describe what she felt. She wished she could.
"I think this would look cool in that umbrella stand I got from you," said Charlene as she hooked the cane over her arm next to the flowered purse.
The walls began closing in on Mrs. Davis. Brushing up against the doorjambs made her feel cold and dirty. The floor was pulling her down, her feet dragging across the hardwood floor as if it was pooled with honey.
Charlene placed the purse and the cane on the kitchen table next to the stack of Blue Ridge china. She stood in line with her mother behind the dealer haggling down the price of a piece of Watt ware.
"I'll come down ten dollars but that's it," countered a grating voice that sent cold fingers up Mrs. Davis's spine. "That's book price."
"I can't make any money on this," said the dealer as he set the piece of earthenware on the table, thrust his wallet back into his pocket and walked out with no further words. A familiar scene to Mrs. Davis, one which she had played many times herself.
The heavyset but well dressed woman seated at the kitchen table tisked and shook her head. "What do you got?" she said to Charlene.
"I got this set of dishes, this purse, and this cane." Charlene gestured over her chosen items.
Without warning, Charlene's mother grabbed her wrist with such a force that surprised even her. "Mother, what are you do..." As she held Charlene's wrist, Mrs. Davis placed her hand on the set of Blue Ridge china. She looked at Charlene with a look that speared right through her. Charlene could taste the rancid, fetid cheese, the old dried out chicken wings with the taste of Freon, the wormy beef stroganoff.
Mrs. Davis held the purse.
Charlene felt the purse ripped from her hands, emptied and thrown back into her face. On the floor lay the scattered remains; a wallet, glasses case, and a faded black and white picture of a newly-wed couple.
Mrs. Davis grabbed the cane.
Charlene's shoulder dropped as if the cane felled itself on her collar bone, the pain shooting down her arm and then the shock to the back of her head. A warm liquid flowed down her neck on otherwise cold flesh.
Charlene faced her mother with eyes as wide as quarters, the pupils shrunk to the size of BBs. She caught a sleeveful of drool running out the corner of her mouth. Mrs. Davis let go of Charlene's wrist. Charlene held onto it with her other hand as if she had been 'snake bitten', looking at her mother with fear in her eyes. Fear not for her own mother but fear for what just had transcended from her.
"Ma'am." A voice broke her from her spell. "Ma'am, that'll be $21.50."
Charlene turned toward the heavy set woman, cash box in front of her, an inquisitorial look on her face. She felt foolish, at the same time frightened and disgusted. "Oh, I'm sorry," Charlene improvised. "I just remembered. I forgot my money. I'll have to run back into town and hit up an ATM."
"I'll hold your stuff for a half-hour. After that, I can't guarantee anything," her voice croaked.
"I'll be back," said Charlene, in a hurry to leave. "Come on, Mom. Let's go."
Charlene rushed to the door, turning around to wait for her mother to catch up, anxious to purge herself from this house. She knew, and her mother knew, she wasn't going to come back.
Charlene spun her wheels out of the gravel driveway sending a spray of small stones into the air. She came in contact with the blacktop with a chirp. She oversteered into the other lane and corrected the maneuver with sweaty hands on the steering wheel. Charlene said little if nothing at all as she drove back into town, staring forward, a death grip on the wheel while her mother looked out the side window at the farms passing by.
They crossed the tracks that cut a border on the edge of town, negotiated the turn up the first block and came to a stop in front of Mrs. Davis's house. Charlene laid her head back on the headrest, exhausted.
"Mom," Charlene said, not having planned her words. "I'm not doing anything today." Actually she did plan on visiting some friends. "Do you mind if I hang around, do some cleaning up, have lunch, whatever?" Charlene hadn't spent time with her mother since going off to college, having met Richard there, getting married, and moving to the next town.
"I don't have any plans myself," said Charlene's mother. "I never do.You're welcome to stay."
In the house, Mrs. Davis rested in her overstuffed chair, her hip aching, enduring the stabs of pain shooting down her leg. She was nonetheless thankful to be out of that house and surrounded by the trappings of her own quarter.
"I made some tea," Charlene announced as she came into the dark living room from the kitchen. "Should warm you up some."
"Thank you, Dear."
"I'll be right back. I have a phone call to make." Charlene went back into the kitchen to the old black wall phone with the circular dial. She hadn't used one like it in years, long having grown used to the push button variety. She rested the receiver on her shoulder as she thumbed through the phone book, yellowed to where all the pages looked alike, wrinkled from years in a damp, steaming kitchen. Old, but the number she was looking for should still be the same.
She pulled a cigarette from the leather case and slid it between her lips. The lighter rasped as she thumbed the wheel several times but would not come to light. She looked down at the lighter and the cigarette case. Sighing with resignation, she plucked the cigarette from her mouth and snapped it in half. The case, the lighter, and the cigarette clunked into the bottom of a metal garbage pail set under the phone.
She ran her finger in little arcs, waiting as the dial came to rest with each number. Done finally, she waited for an answer on the other end of the line.
"Sheriff," said the voice thinly over the receiver.
Charlene held her fingers over the cradle for a moment, ready to pull it down. Would they buy her story? Believing it herself took some doing. But when her mother held her wrist, it was too real, too convincing. As she started to talk on the phone, Charlene could feel the energy flowing from her hand and into the receiver. The story sounded very convincing to the voice on the other end of the line.
At 46, Karl is a relative newcomer to the game of writing, not really taking it seriously until about four years ago when inspired by the "Gonzo journalism" of Hunter S. Thompson and attempting a little bit of his own gonzo when Bill Clinton came to town.
He writes with little benefit of formal writing education. Karl maintains he wouldn't know a participle if one was dangling in front of him. He writes what he feels. If it sounds right, he goes with it. Kary says, "Thankfully the comparative-contrastive essay class I attended in college didn't ruin me in the long run." He draws inspiration from many sources; Hemingway, Vonnegut, Chekhov, Bradbury, Ellison, Proulx, as well as innumerable lesser-knowns that may strike him profoundly with merely a single line.
Karl dabbled with photojournalism, having worked for the college and local paper taking the pictures and writing the articles. He found it too restricting and has since been ensnared by fiction's prose.
Bokelmann has written several screenplays in addition to numerous short stories. Karl says, "Mr. Eastwood has yet to call me so I must otherwise keep the wolves from the door by picking out nuts and bolts as a mechanical designer where I sneak in a page or two of longhand scribbling."
He is married to a woman who encourages his habit and they have one daughter. Karl says his wife and daughter are in continual fear that he may mangle and mutilate them as characters in his stories at any time. He is a lifelong resident of Wisconsin's Door peninsula, living one hour away from the recipients of the very first two Superbowl trophies. Go Pack!
As for "All Sales Final," his wife is an antique dealer and he has accompanied her to many estate sales and auctions. Sometimes he has handled a piece that makes him wonder about the stories held within. (Mrs. Davis had this ability, perhaps much to her misgiving.)
Previous Published Work:
"The Last German Cheesecake" - The son is too busy for his dying father's instruction and wishes not to make the same mistake with his own daughter.
"A Boys Game" - Playing war as a kid prepares us for the real thing. Or does it?
Published by permission of the author.