My mother loved auctions, and really—what was not to love? Sometimes she would pack my brothers and me into the station wagon and drive, just because she liked one of the auctioneers. A big auction would have a food table with chili and hot dogs, and pie by the slice, which we kids would notice right away, as my mother drifted where her curiosity took her. She upholstered furniture, and people always needed couches, if she could find a good one. She had a friend who refinished dining tables and fine furniture, and perhaps she could find him a deal. And of course, my mother was a player in the day-to-day history of my town. Everybody loved Pat, and she made people laugh. I could hear her from such a distance that I never worried where to find her.
She would give my brothers and me two dollars apiece, and we would see who could buy the best prize, and we would shoot off in different directions to rummage through the tents and the tables of treasures, on a dusty hot day with nothing better to do and nowhere better to go. My brothers would head to the electronics, and I would head to the household goods.
I craved the old trunks, the quilts and old lamps, especially—anything that looked like it had a life before 1950. My mom would bid for me, but only up to a limit, and always my dream furniture would go to another bidder. My best bet—for coming away with anything at all—was to rummage through the tables of small stuff sorted into lots, to be sold by the box. I worked in polite silence, as a ten-year-old, pulling down each box and laying out the goods on the grass to examine them. Then I would repack the box and lift it back onto the table.
Unpacking yet another box of junk, I found it, this tiny blue porcelain vase with a pink cherub and roses, sweet sculptured leaves and gold-painted edges. I remember the gasp, and sitting down on the grass to look it over. Vase? So tiny, so detailed. What could it possibly be FOR? The world went wobbly around the edges as I sat for a moment, before I remembered that other shoppers COULD SEE ME looking at this blue bit of bliss. And they were on the hunt for buried treasure, too. I put the sweet thing under a crumpled piece of newspaper on the very bottom of the box, and stacked on top of it a glass maple-syrup pitcher with pouring lid—the kind that could be found at any diner. Then I straightened my shoulders and put on my best auction-goer face, glancing from side-to-side with a face that I hoped would not betray how deeply I had fallen in love with this cherub beneath the paper, beneath the syrup pitcher.
If I were a film-maker, I would put that little girl in pigtails, the curls of her hair escaping the bright beaded ties. She would be pale as expectation, freckled as only a child can be, when the freckles can be counted like constellations. She would be fully believing that she’d hidden her desire because she only glanced at that box every few seconds. But she would be shaking as the auctioneer moved from the farm machinery to the auction tent, from the big furniture to the boxes of the small things. She would step forward so the man could see her plainly, when her box was lifted by the auctioneer’s assistant. The man showing the box would pull out the syrup jug and a brass candle-holder to show the buyers what kind of kitchen stuff to expect. And the bidding would begin at fifty cents. The girl shoots her hand up.
“Fifty cents and-a-dollar-now, dollar-now, dollar-now, not-gonna-let-this-purty-box-go for a-dollar-now, dollar…”
“HUP!” shouts the assistant, pointing to a man at the back left of the crowd.
“Na Five-doller-five-dollar-five, who’ll gimme five?” He looks at me.
“TWO,” I shout, nearly leaping with effort, fists down by my sides, stepping closer.
“Three, gimme-three, gimme-three, and YES!” the auctioneer points to the back and I gasp for the second time in the day, spent, the end. I don’t have three dollars. I step backward into the crowd, face hot, trying to find someone to hide behind.
“Na FIVE-dollar five-dollar who will gimme five? HUP!” He points to the back right. “Now TEN dollar-ten-dollar who will give me ten for this fine box of household goods including this darling maple-syrup pitcher, who will give me ten? Ten dollars? Who will give me ten?” I know he looks to the man on the back left, and I know he looks for me, because that is his job, but I am hiding, defeated. “SOLD to the lady in the blue shirt for five dollars, now onto box number seven—can you bring me the next box? Who will give me fifty cents?”
I am not a film-maker, and I can’t say what the scene looks like, only that crying is a hateful thing on a sunny bright day, and I know that girl would sniff back tears with a fierceness nearing violence, willing herself not to cry.
I wandered to find my mother. Maybe we could have that hot dog now, and maybe I’d feel like it wasn’t the end of the world if I could have a slice of pie. Maybe. How could that sweet little thing sell for more than twice as much money as my mother had given me? The world was so unfair.
“Hey, hon. What was in that box you were bidding for?” I sniffed and trembled as I grabbed the hem of her shirt. “Now, it doesn’t matter—it doesn’t matter,” she knelt and put her hands on my shoulders. “I saw you bidding. You did a good job, but you have to go slower, so you don't use up all your money so fast.” She held me close to her side, walking with me in some direction I could no longer see. “I’d like to pay,” she said to the lady at the table with the cash box. “That’s two-dollars for Burl’s stereo speakers, and two-dollars for David’s tools, and five dollars for box number six in the kitchen goods.” I looked at the hem I was still holding—the blue shirt. My mother was wearing a blue shirt.
“The box? You got my box?”
“I knew you’d bid everything you had, so I figured it must be something more important than a syrup jug.” We found box number six, just sitting there on the table where the auctioneer left it, with the name "Pat" on a piece of paper taped to the flap. I stretched my hand down into the corner, under the crumpled newspaper, to show her my treasure. She took it in her big hands and turned it in the sunlight.
“Well, now. Isn’t that a pretty thing? I think this is probably for holding rings by the sink, so that fine ladies don’t lose their jewelry while they wash the dishes. You’ll want to wrap that up in paper again, so we don’t break it on the way home.” I told her I thought Burl would like the maple-syrup jug, and the rest of the box was just junk. “Well it’s our junk now, so we’d best get some pie and call it a day.”
Sweet world, where someone, somewhere, can dream up an odd little holder for rings and make a cherub and roses from porcelain, for fine ladies who probably never shop at dusty auctions on a hot July day, for my mother who knew five dollars was a small price, even if I didn’t know that then. I smile every time I look at it, just for its dearness-deep-down-things. I’ve only ever used it to hold the little papers from fortune cookies, and maybe a button or a bead.
The wind blew last night, and threw down a hand-made glass trivet from my brother, down from the window-sill, into the thumb-sized terra cotta spirit-man from Santa Fe, into the wee ring-holder. One more gasp, finding the cherub separated from the tiny vase, but the break is not a bad one. It’s a miracle that the delicate thing has lasted this long, in a world of packing boxes and crumpled newspapers, era after era, home after home, blustering wind crossing over yet another window sill, a little blue holder for dreams.