The blue haired crone glared at me over her rhinestone studded glasses. She sucked her teeth suspiciously while I searched the binder for a price check. The binder, held together by three strips of ancient, crumbling duct tape, threatened to explode with every page I turned. The yellowed receipts, vendor lists, and inventory sheets were so softened and faded they couldn’t menace the fastest fingers with paper cuts anymore. I could feel her cold eyes, which never left my face, searching for confirmation that she was being overcharged. Little did she know there was no price list in this binder, there was no price list anywhere in this entire building; never had been, never would be. Our vendors determined their own prices arbitrarily and could change them on a whim.
“I’m sorry,” I said, “There doesn’t seem to be a price listed on here for that…item.” The hesitation was because I didn’t know what she was holding. It could have been anything: a plastic, yellowed soap dish, a mottled smoke-smudged ashtray, a flat and melted butter dish, only the vendor would know for sure. I tried not to sigh as I stepped out from behind the counter and took the ‘item’ from the wizened old woman, trying not to stare at her ratty, stained cardigan, buttoned to the throat, and her home-knit beret. Flipping over the warped plastic I looked at the bottom for the vendor number. 73. Mrs. Gray-Whitney. Serves Mrs. Gray-Whitney right, I thought as the teeth-sucker continued to practice her pastime, shuffling behind me towards the vendor tables in the back. We squeezed around a scuffed armoire and under a hand-painted sign that said “Tie your Wagons Here”. We meandered through a maze of rejected kitchen items, rusted farm implements corralled in musty wine barrels, racks of stained and mended “vintage” clothes that had been discovered in attics and basements, displays of gaudy costume jewelry your spinster great aunt who everyone was secretly afraid of may have worn, and pushed our way through hoards of people arguing, bartering, and touching things with little gasps of reverence and awe. This wasn’t anything new; after all, it was a Saturday at the Mecca of Junk.
Saturday, the day little old ladies with blue hair dragged their small, yapping dogs up and down the aisles looking at things they had all probably owned at one point in their lives but were now about to spend their social security checks on. The day fat, bald men with loud shorts and cameras around their necks listened to a million piercing screams from their tall, gratingly annoying New Jersey wives about the fabulous discards they had just discovered. The day the hippies from the local campus walked the three floors of the shop pretending that they had money to buy things they didn’t need or really want, just to make their apartments feel “more retro, you know?” Saturday, the day that I wished I was able to sleep in like most of America but instead I had to be here, at the zoo, helping local vendors set up or tear down their displays, price their valuables, and ship out their crap. The only way to manage the insanity was to drink unbelievable quantities of coffee and breathe deeply while my feet were stepped on, my ribs nudged, and my opinions asked about dishes I wouldn’t let my dog eat out of, much less give as a “unique” wedding gift.
Not that I should be complaining. As a student I knew I was lucky to have even found a job in this town but things always sound better before you get involved. I mean nine dollars an hour plus discounts seemed like a great deal before I realized the kind of people I would be dealing with…or the stuff that was being discounted. I know, I know it’s an antique shop for goodness sake, what kind of stuff did I think they would be selling. But the truth is I did it for the books. I always do it for the books. In my mind an antique shop is crowded with glassware, dishes, pottery, other random cast-off items, and shelves and shelves of books. Books that never give you a paper cut, that soothe your soul and make you forget that your professors hate you and you don’t have a boyfriend. I mean, what is wrong with me? I have a dog. I’m semi-athletic. I don’t sweat a lot, have a weird deformity, or even have very high standards. Why can’t someone find me attractive or give me a passing grade on a quiz? I was going to have to face the facts; my scholastic career, my job, and my life were pretty sucky and there wasn’t much that could help me escape; escape school, finances, reality and….
“Excuse me, miss?”
The tooth-sucker was back and, once again, I was threading my way through the crowds, heading for Enid’s table. She was one of the few vendors that rented space in our building that I actually liked. She sold real antiques, not just yard-sale rejects that had been dropped a few too many times and were now being passed off as authentic objects. Enid, like her merchandise, was the real deal.
(See Short Story link to read this story in full at The Peel Literary Magazine)