Collectibles and Ephemera
“So, how old is yours?” the man asks.
I’m trying to decide whether or not to buy an old school desk – the kind with the chair attached to the part you write on. It’s one of those where the wooden lid lifts up allowing you to store your notebooks, pens and pencils – plus whatever you hope the teacher doesn’t discover. It must be from the 1950s or ’60s. It has that sort of knock-off, art deco roundness to it. I remember my elementary school having rows and rows of them. It actually seems almost big enough for me to use, which I think would be a kick.
“Six,” I say. I don’t have kids. I’m not even married any more, but I don’t want to admit to looking at a student desk for myself. I’ve seen him before. He either owns this antique store, or maybe just manages it. I’ve nodded to him in the past, but this is the first time we’ve spoken to each other. Most of the time I just shop for postcards from Rhode Island. It’s sort of a hobby. My therapist says I should have one. There are lots of wish you were heres from New York, Florida and all the western states, but Rhode Island? Finding one is always providential.
“So’s mine,” the man says. “What’s his name?
The man is stocky and jovial, like a high school linebacker gone to seed. As soon as I say “Timmy,” I’m sure he must know I’m lying. The name of the kid from the old Lassie TV show was the first thing that came to mind. The guy must see a lot of old Lassie merchandise.
“My kid’s Paulie. Yours play t-ball?”
“Yeah,” I say. I’m about to add that he’s a catcher, since that’s the position I played in little league, but then I’m not sure there’s a catcher in t-ball. “He mostly likes going out for ice cream afterwards.”
He tells me more about Paulie, but then he has to help another customer. After looking around a little more I pay for the couple of postcards I found and tell him that I’m going to think about the desk. “Come back anytime,” he says.
A few weeks later I stop by again. The shop is comprised of booths that vendors rent to hawk their flotsam. There are always sellers coming and going, so maybe there’s different merchandise to look at.
When I walk in the door the guy is behind a big wooden counter with built-in display cases holding jewelry, old lighters, vintage fishing lures and various other shop-lifting worthy items. “Hey, how’s the t-ball goin’?” he asks. I have no idea why he should remember me from among his hundreds of other customers.
“He not gonna be the next Albert Pujols, but he’s a good kid,” I say. “He’s already doing math problems I can’t help him with.” Since I can’t even balance my checkbook, it’s a pretty safe lie. I don’t even know the difference between algebra and calculus. But if you want a lecture about the semiotics of French post-modern fiction, I’m your guy.
“So what school does he go to?”
If there’s something I know less about than numbers, it’s what elementary schools there are in the area. Every couple of years I vote at one of them, but I’d have to get out my registration card to remember its name. I think about the thousands of postcards of the Grand Canyon I’ve flipped past. “My ex-wife took him to Flagstaff. The courts said she couldn’t, but she did anyway.”
The guy shakes his head and is about to say something when a woman walks over and asks if he has any Beanie Babies. He doesn’t think so, but he says he can check his database. I give the guy a little nod and wander off toward the back of the store. I walk up and down the aisles, but the stuff is the same stuff that was here when I almost bought the desk. I drift toward the front of the store, hoping that I can get out without having to talk about Timmy.
As I come around the final aisle of stalls the store’s phone rings. The man says that yes, they have room for new vendors. I walk past the desk looking casually at the last couple of booths near the front, then turn and give the guy a little wave. He waves back then holds his hand over his heart in sympathy just as I’m heading out the door.
During the next few months I return only once – during the store’s big after-Christmas sale when I’m sure he’ll be too busy to single me out. Luckily, I don’t find any cards I want and the guy never even sees me.
You’re going to ask why go back? Fair question. None of the other second-hand shops have the same sense of immanent discovery combined with well-attended seediness. And who knows? Maybe I’d find a postcard from Pawtucket.
I don’t, but this time I pick up one from the Garden of Gethsemane with a real olive leaf pasted on it, and another with a pressed flower from Bethlehem.
Someone other than my friend was manning the cash register when I came in, so I decide to risk making a purchase. Unfortunately, he’s there when I approach to pay for my finds. “Hey, buddy. Good to see you. How’s the boy?” he asks.
I want to bolt, but by then I’ve set my kitschy religious cards down on the counter. “He died,” I hear myself say. “Hit-and-run. I flew out for the funeral. I…” I try to finish, but by then I’m crying. That’s been happening more and more lately, but until now these jags have only taken place when I’m alone on my ratty couch watching old movies. I turn to go.
“Here, take these,” the guy says. When I reach out for the cards he puts his hand on mine and clamps his other on my shoulder.
I take the cards and leave without paying. Now, there’s no going back.
Sheehan’s flash fiction/prose poems have appeared in, or are forthcoming from, About Place Journal, Marco Polo Arts Magazine, Passages North, Prose Poem Project and Shadowbox. His flash fiction piece, “Objets du Desir” won the Stella Kupferberg Memorial Short Story Prize from the public radio program Selected Shorts. He is the author of two books of poetry, Greatest Hits and Vengeful Hymns.