Southern Legitimacy Statement: Texan turned South Carolinian, I’ve been tailgating more than I’ve been kissed–but I get all the sugar I need from my sweet tea.
The Sum Belongings of a Long-Time Collector
The first item that caught Jared’s attention was the wheelbarrow. It was bright yellow, positioned under his Aunt SueEllen’s widescreen, with an embroidered cushion, open umbrella, and random collection of junk nestled in its bed. Jared turned his focus back on his aunt—her bare feet, dirty blonde hair, loose blue tank top and vague capris—and tried to keep his face from showing alarm. No one had told him his aunt was a hoarder.
She grabbed one of his bag’s and ushered Jared into the house. “Be warned,” she said. “It’s a jungle in there.”
There were brass pots, golf clubs, piles of heavy coats and baseball hats and work boots, furniture too numerous for Jared to identify. Suddenly he saw a bright red bowling ball, a large globe of the earth, then a monopoly box, a Big Ben figurine, a Snoopy alarm clock, a Van Gogh print, a jar of rocks, a teddy bear wearing overalls, a porcelain vase with a dragon painted as though winding around it, and an unplugged lava lamp. Plants lined the windows: orchids, ferns, flowering cacti, and leafy things wound around each other like unborn triplets. The couch was unreachable, but a cleared path led to a closed door and a set of stairs. SueEllen’s kitchen was cluttered, but usable. She had decorative holiday serving trays on display above her cabinets, crowded by rows of Coca Cola bottles, mason jars, wooden crates overflowing with junk, and a rusted watering can. Her dining table was equally cluttered, but the junk was pushed to one side. Jared saw shoes, binoculars, a life-sized plush tiger, a vintage hair brush, and a glass bottle of cologne. At the table’s other end, two chairs and the spots before them were cleared. SueEllen’s attempt to clean for company, Jared thought. He took a step inside and felt something beneath his foot. He looked down. It was a PEZ dispenser.
“I like your stuff,” Jared said.
“Thanks. It likes to fall down, so watch your feet and elbows and don’t back into anything,” she said. “Stairs this way. Just send up a flare if you get lost.”
A narrow pathway lead to the base of a narrower set of stairs. Or maybe the stairs weren’t so narrow, they were just made that way by the mounds of stuff lining the edges. Jared saw a plush Yoda toy lying face down on a pile of Sharpie packs and a water gun. He picked it up and stared into the character’s wise, contemplative expression.
“Gosh, I used to have one of these,” Jared said, excited to have found a common ground with his aunt. “Star Wars was my favorite growing up. I had the bedsheets and everything.”
“Star Wars. So that’s where that guy’s from,” SueEllen said. “He’s a cute little rascal.”
The devoted nerd within Jared wanted to correct his aunt on calling a Jedi master ‘cute.’ A more logical part of his mind wondered why, since she clearly wasn’t a fan, SueEllen owned the toy at all.
Jared returned the Yoda to its Sharpie mound, propping it upright, as if to allow it some dignity. He then followed his aunt up the stairs, wondering what life must do to a person to keep them from seeing Star Wars or turning them into a compulsive hoarder.
The stairs opened into a converted loft space. The slanted ceilings caused Jared to stoop a few steps and revealed the room’s original function as an attic. As Jared suspected, the room was cluttered, but in this case, it had a theme. This hoard was specifically paper: newspapers, notepads, tracing paper, fishing periodicals, magazines from Sports Illustrated to Esquire, spiral notebooks with patterns of cartoonish puppies or owls, leather bound journals monogrammed with unfamiliar initials, graph paper and college ruled paper still wrapped in their plastic casings, and stacks of loose leafs all faded in dull shades of decay. Impressed into the floor were worn blotches of newspaper, long ago fallen, now flattened and aged so they were one with the hardwood. The wall at the room’s end was plastered with articles and sports posters, all pinned around a circular window. A wooden desk sat below, covered in overflow papers and a cardboard box. Jared shuffled to the desk, sliding his sneakers over headlines and ads and obituaries. The box was filled with journals. A gray leather one with Gaelic-looking inscriptions caught Jared’s eye. He pulled it out and opened it. The pages were blank.
“I’ve already cleaned out most of the junk, if you can believe it,” SueEllen said. She gestured to the corner nearest the stairs, where three clear boxes were stacked, each filled with papers and journals. Several others sat empty beside them, and the ones SueEllen had packed were overstuffed. Their plastic sides bore white streaks from the pressure, like stretch marks on skin, Jared thought.
“The boxes were my friend Edna’s idea,” SueEllen said. “They’re eye sores, but they get the job done. Hope you won’t mind having them stacked in your room.”
Jared liked the permanence in the way his aunt called it his room. He tried to think up phrases of gratitude, something sincere but not cheesy. Instead he asked if she had gloves.
“You mean latex gloves? I think I’ve got something in the garage,” SueEllen said.
“More like work gloves,” Jared said. He held up his hands and wiggled his fingertips. “For the paper cuts,” he said.
SueEllen laughed long enough for Jared to begin laughing at his aunt for laughing. She raised her hands, palms up, to show off the various band aids that adorned her fingers. A quick venture into the garage and a dig through the hoard produced two pair of garden gloves. Jared took the royal blue ones, patterned in ladybugs. They’d never been worn. SueEllen had her own pair of semi tattered green ones. They smelled like the earth and puffed little plumes of dirt whenever they made contact with something to throw in a box.
It took over an hour for Jared and his aunt to clear the room. At first Jared was careful not to bend corners or crinkle papers. He lifted only small stacks at a time and placed them neatly in the bottom of a box, tapping the sides of the papers to straighten them. SueEllen was reckless from the start. She grabbed armfuls of whatever was within reach and plopped them into the box like they were a great weight. Jared began doing the same. When they finished, Jared’s arms were chaffed a deep red. Empty, the loft was bigger than Jared’s dorm room.
“I’ve got an air mattress,” SueEllen said. “And if you poke around enough you’ll find some extra furniture if you want a nightstand or coffee table. Feel free to use anything you can find.”
Jared thanked her for the offer and tried not to let it show that he had no intention of ransacking SueEllen’s hoard, regardless of her detachment. He moved the desk from under the window to make room for the mountainous hutch his mother bought at Ikea. He plugged in his desk lamp and had some extra organizing boxes he stacked on the desk. Jared’s clothes were stuffed in trash bags, and when he dragged them up to the loft like the dead he realized the room lacked a closet. In the background he heard the streaming hum of SueEllen inflating the air mattress with a hair dryer. She had told Jared that the mattress came with an electric inflator. It was somewhere among the chaos of her belongings.
Downstairs, Jared waded through the hoard. An old fedora caught his eye. It was sitting on an old trunk, like something a gentleman of another century would have used for travel. Jared picked up the hat and looked inside, checking for lice even though he probably wouldn’t be able to identify any if he saw it. He decided it was safe and put it on his head.
SueEllen waddled out of the kitchen with the mattress in her wingspan.
“Dashing,” she said.
It struck Jared that the hat must have belonged to her husband. He snatched if off then grabbed the bottom half of the mattress.
“You really ought to keep that,” she said.
Jared and his aunt carried the mattress over their heads to avoid knocking anything over. SueEllen’s arms were stretched to their limit, elbows locked. The piles nearest the stairs were tallest, and they had to shift the mattress and turn it sideways to fit through safely. A microwave teetered near SueEllen’s bedroom door. Jared accidently nudged it with the mattress and nearly toppled it. This was the only near-accident they encountered.
Jared carried the mattress up the stairs and into the loft. As he left his aunt at the bottom of the stairs, he thought again of that old trunk.
“Aunt SueEllen,” he called. “Would it be okay if I used that trunk from by the couch?”
“Beg pardon?” She asked.
“The treasure chest looking thing,” Jared said. “Under the hat.”
“If it’s not plugged into the wall or in my bedroom, it’s fair game,” SueEllen said.
After making the bed, Jared returned to where he left the fedora and put it back on. He pulled the trunk from where it sat wedged between the front of the couch and what looked like a tuba case and carried it upstairs. Jared heard his dad’s voice in his head, ordering him to lift with the knees, not the back. He pushed the voice out but lifted from the knees anyway. The trunk went at the foot of Jared’s air mattress, like a hope chest. The inside was empty and smelled like a jar of coins. Jared suspected his aunt had never used it. He refolded his clothes and organized them in the bottom of the trunk, and decided he liked it better than a closet. When he closed the lid, he felt like a pirate.
His plundering continued. Downstairs, no longer hesitant about removing treasures from the hoard, Jared pushed through the clutter and found a wire trashcan and the cardboard box for a coffee machine inside. The box was empty, so Jared tossed it back on the pile and kept the trashcan for his room. On the way to the attic he noticed a rolled up rug leaned against the TV. Jared put the trashcan under his arm and dragged the rug upstairs with the other. Downstairs again he found a tarnished floor lamp with no lightbulb or lampshade. SueEllen disappeared into her room and returned with a bulb, and some poking around gave Jared his choice of lampshades. He picked a drum shaped one the color of moss and left behind a ruffled pink one and another imprinted with birds.
There were other knickknacks that appealed to him: a model airplane kit, packs of men’s athletic socks, a leather jacket, vintage Ray Bans, a book of dirty jokes, some dress pearls tied in a knot, and lots of Star Wars paraphernalia, all of which SueEllen showed no emotional interest in whatsoever. Jared put the plush Yoda on his pillow.
Piece by piece, Jared took the treasured odds and ends that caught his eye and put them in the attic, lining Frank’s old desk and the top of the old dresser. They were mostly useless things, like a wooden backscratcher with prongs like bear claws and Scooby Doo head cover he plucked from a dusty set of golf clubs by the garage door, but they made Jared feel oddly excited. His eyes still occasionally throbbed to remind him that everything was not okay, that only a few hours ago his parents had broken up with him, but the aching disappeared as his new room came together and he realized he was having fun. Going up and down the stairs had quickened the beating of his heart, and he felt more awake, more energized. When the room was done it looked like a proper college boy’s room. Jared was content, and even though none of the furniture matched or even complimented the rest, the pieces filled the room nicely, the way his cramped dorm room had looked after he moved in, as though everything belonged.
It was then that Jared sat down on his bed and began to cry, slow tears at first, then so heavily his breath came in gasps. He shoved his face into his comforter and gripped handfuls of the material in his fists and shook it as he sobbed. He took out his phone and stared at Lexi’s name in his contacts and reread old messages. Heart-eyed emojis and selfies she sent from class. Maybe he couldn’t be attracted to her, but Lexi was his high school sweetheart. They’d played videogames together in his parents’ basement and spent holidays together and worn couples’ Halloween costumes. He wanted to call her more than anything, but knew she wouldn’t pick up. Ever since she found out about Michael, she’s been ignoring him.
Jared thought of Michael and cried some more. Not because he longed for him in the way he did for Lexi, but because Michael was the first boy he’d been with and Jared knew he meant nothing to him. There was no romance, no emotional attachment. Like SueEllen and her belongings. Jared was just someone Michael liked to make out with. He’d been openly gay since he was eleven and laughed when Jared’s roommate walked in on them, didn’t try to deny anything. Jared hated himself for wearing Michael’s hoodie. He didn’t move to take it off.
By the time Jared allowed his thoughts to settle on his parents he was rocking back and forth on the bed, sweating and choking to breathe. Jared knew he was almost twenty years old and past the age of crying tantrums, but couldn’t stop. He grabbed the Yoda and cried into its green, felt face. This wasn’t like senior year of high school when the stress of SAT scores and college applications sent Jared crying to his room. No matter how loud he cried, his mom wasn’t going to lightly open the door and rub his hair until his gasping stopped. His dad wouldn’t come sit next to them and squeeze Jared’s shoulder, the pressure of his hand telling Jared that he could be a man and cry his eyes out, too. No one was going to order Jared a pizza and let him eat their crust.
Jared kept crying until he grew tired enough to stop. He didn’t move to wipe his nose or turn on a light. Michael’s hoodie was sweat soaked on his back. Yoda remained hugged in his elbow. When Jared heard SueEllen’s footsteps coming cautiously up the stairs, he thought about hiding the doll. Instead he gripped it tighter to his chest and avoided looking at his aunt when she came in.
SueEllen sat down in the doorway, her back pushed against the doorframe and her legs bent in front of her. Oddly youthful, Jared thought. Jared was too numb from crying to feel fully embarrassed, but as his aunt looked at him, his ears grew hot.
“I think I have a fever,” Jared said. His voice was raspy from the crying. He wiped his eyes. “Or allergies.”
“Or really shitty parents,” SueEllen said.
Jared rolled over and allowed himself to look at his aunt, a woman he wouldn’t have pegged as a curser, or even capable of finding a four letter word in the dictionary. Her comment made him feel better.
“Have you ever boiled blue crab?” SueEllen asked.
Jared shook his head. “Dad doesn’t like seafood,” he said.
“Your dad is a turkey,” SueEllen said. “My neighbor just dropped off some live ones. It’s better than whatever they’ve been feeding you in college, I can promise that. Come help me in the kitchen,” she said, standing up. “I’ll even let you lick the tongs.” SueEllen disappeared down the stairs.
Jared soon learned his aunt was kidding about licking the tongs. Instead, SueEllen showed Jared how to use them to lift the crab from the cooler and place it in the boiling water.
“Watch for the magic,” SueEllen said, pointing into the pot.
Jared leaned over just as the crab began to change shades. Its greenish brown shell slowly became orange. Then, all at once, the creature was bright red. Jared blinked a few times and his aunt clapped her hands, said he was a natural. Jared stared at the red thing the water had repainted, then plopped in another crab. Again it transformed before his eyes. Jared found himself grinning and laughing along with his aunt, as though he had made a great eureka of a discovery, as if he were an artist watching a piece perfect itself.
Jared is dousing the last of his crab in butter when he hears a loud thud from the living room. After a minute his aunt walks into the kitchen, holding her head. Beneath her thinning hair, a brown spot spreads out like a wet sharpie stain.
“Son, I’m going to have to ask you to get my purse. We’re going to the hospital.” She said calmly. She told him that the microwave fell and hit her head.
Jared had witnessed several concussions at football games and practices, and recognized the ill and disoriented look growing in SueEllen’s eyes. He grabbed the hand towel from the sink and pressed it to SueEllen’s head.
“Have you ever had a concussion before?” He asked.
SueEllen shook her head and vomited against the linoleum kitchen floor.
Jared gave his aunt the towel and grabbed the trashcan from under the sink and put it in front of his aunt. With one hand behind her back and another holding her elbow, he guided her out the garage door and headed for his truck.
Jared buckled his aunt’s seatbelt for her, like strapping a child into a car seat.
“Where’s the purse?” Jared asked.
SueEllen breathed heavily for a moment. “Forget the purse,” she said finally. She spat into the trashcan a few times. “Just grab my wallet.”
Jared ran inside, the back of his neck dampened with sweat. The wallet wasn’t on the kitchen counter. He looked around at the piles of junk around him, cursed at a nearby cherub perched on a stereo, then rushed back to his aunt.
“SueEllen, your wallet. I can’t find it.”
SueEllen remained still and silent, and Jared repeated himself.
“Forget the wallet,” she whispered.
SueEllen slumped so her forehead rested on the rim of the trashcan. “It’s in my purse,” she murmured. “In my bedroom.”
Jared hurried back into house and maneuvered around the stacks and mounds down the path to SueEllen’s bedroom. The fallen microwave sat somewhat regally on a pile of multicolored beanie babies. Jared kicked it as he passed.
SueEllen’s door was closed. It was an ordinary, white door, with a silver handle and no indication of whatever chaos the door cancelled. A pair of water skies and a walking stick carved with animals boarding Noah’s Arc leaned next to the frame. Bilingual dictionaries scattered beneath Jared’s feet. He gripped the shining door handle, hoping the purse would be in plain sight and SueEllen’s personal bedroom hoard wouldn’t pull him under like quicksand.
Jared put his full weight into the door, expecting resistance, but it opened smooth as a breeze. The room was light. A pleasant rose-shaded rug covered the hardwood floors Jared hadn’t noticed lined the entire house. The rug matched the flowers on the curtains and the stitching of the throw pillows. SueEllen’s king sized bed was made, the purse plopped at its foot. For a moment, Jared forgot about the blood spreading from his aunt’s forehead and why he had entered her room. From wall to wall, shelf by shelf, SueEllen’s room was completely and disturbingly immaculate.
SueEllen was preoccupied with staring into the bottom of her trashcan when Jared returned to the car. They were silent as he adjusted the seat and turned on the ignition. Halfway out of the garage, Jared stopped.
“Aunt Sue, I don’t know where I’m going.”
SueEllen didn’t raise her eyes. “Used to be mine and Frank’s room,” she said. “It was a mess like the rest of the house. Not just with stuff. I could handle the stuff. But the filth, that was unbearable. We had roaches, roaches like you wouldn’t believe.” SueEllen spoke slowly, still staring into her bucket. “Turn left out of the neighborhood, then follow the blue signs.”
Jared started backing out again. “Was he always a hoarder?” He asked lightly.
“Were you always a homosexual?” SueEllen shot back. “But yes. Frank was always a collector—that’s what he called it. Always eccentric, but not always so alarming. That wasn’t until the end.”
SueEllen leaned back and closed her eyes.
“There was an incident the week or so before he died. I forget. I heard him hollering and when I ran outside he was lying on his back. I thought it was a heart attack—we’ve been through a few of those—but apparently it was only a bee. Suddenly there’s his heal in my face, and he’s screaming for me to suck the venom out.”
Jared hadn’t heard of bees having venom, but didn’t ask anything. His aunt’s voice came from far away. It occurred to Jared that SueEllen was very old, and her life had left her tired and saddened. He tried to imagine his small aunt puckering his uncle’s foot, sucking at something nothing, it didn’t matter. The image was so heartbreaking Jared almost missed the first hospital sign.
An awful sound came from SueEllen’s throat and she began vomiting again. Jared tried to focus on the road, as if by engrossing himself with the blinking sequence of reflectors he could offer his aunt some privacy.
When she was done she pushed the glovebox open and removed a neat bundle of napkins. From his peripherals Jared saw her daub her face in quick, ladylike pats.
“Anyone tell you how he did it?” She asked.
Jared was confused. “No ma’am,” he said, not wanting to seem like he wasn’t paying attention, though her question left him lost.
“Tractor oil,” she said.
Jared turned on the blinker. It took several clicks before he realized she was talking about Frank’s suicide. He’d always envisioned a gun.
“Here’s the kicker,” SueEllen said. “We didn’t even own a tractor. Didn’t have oil. He drove down to Wal-Mart and bought him some, like it was a carton of eggs off the grocery list or something.”
“I didn’t know that,” Jared said. He imagined what that was like for his uncle Frank, watching the cashier bag up the oil can, driving home with it sitting in the passenger seat, the contents gently sloshing as he turned into his neighborhood. He wondered if it was the boy who looked like Michael who sold him the oil, or if a suicidal man uses a turn signal, and what was it about oil that seemed appealing to Frank, that seemed right.
“That’s my husband for you,” SueEllen said.
Jared pulled into the parking lot of the hospital. He slowed more than usual for the speedbumps, but his aunt still moaned as the tires dipped.
“Why’d you keep the stuff?” Jared asked.
SueEllen was quiet for so long Jared stopped listening for an answer. It wasn’t until after he parked the car that she spoke.
“Same reason he did,” she said. “To fill in the cracks.”
Overhead lights in the parking lot revealed the blood trailing down SueEllen’s face and neck. Jared watched the stain grow on her collar.
“It’s dangerous for you live there,” Jared said. “And the hospital is going to ask questions. They’re going to send someone to your house or arrest me or send you to a home or something.”
“They’re not sending me anywhere,” she said. “I’m not crazy.”
“You inherited the crazy,” Jared said, angrier than he wanted to.
SueEllen didn’t argue back. Instead she sighed, deflated in a way that told Jared that, without meaning to, he’d won.
“It’s going to be okay,” Jared said. He took a napkin from SueEllen’s fist and brushed the blood from her neck. It smeared, but stopped running. “Just tell the doctor your house is a mess because of the yard sale, and that’s how you got hurt.”
SueEllen frowned, confused. She put her hand to her head, as if to search for the missing memory by hand. “Yard sale?” She breathed the word as if it were a foreign language. Then she met eyes with Jared and he saw, beneath the disorientation of her injury, a spark of recognition fanned into excitement.
The doctor told SueEllen to take a few days of rest and pay attention to her symptoms, but whatever injury the microwave had done was minor and her nausea and headache would be gone within the week.
Not twenty four hours after receiving her concussion, SueEllen was flitting around the house making nonstop plans about the yard sale, which she advertised in the local newspapers as ‘A Mass Estate Sale for the Sum Belongings of a Long-Time Collector,” an everything goes event to start the upcoming weekend. This gave Jared and his aunt four days of preparation.
“Just getting the stuff out the front door will be a hassle,” he said. “Not to mention potentially dangerous.”
SueEllen gingerly placed her hand on the bruised spot of her head. She and Jared were sitting on her back porch. It was evening and the frogs were croaking persistent as a ringtone.
“Then it’s a good thing I have my big strong football-playing nephew here help me,” she said. “Thank God you were born a homosexual.”
The next few days passed with the same energy Jared felt when he had filled the loft with treasures, even if the goal was reversed. SueEllen purchased more giant plastic boxes and she and Jared filled them by the armful. This worked for the small stuff—wallets, books, model cars, watering cans, baseball hats, bowling shoes—and the boxes were easy enough to transport outside after SueEllen returned to the store and bought a dolly, but items too big or too heavy for a box Jared carried by hand. Box by box, armful by backbreaking armful, Jared dug into SueEllen’s living room. He excavated a coffee table, which he started to drag outside. His aunt stopped him.
“My daddy made it for me as a wedding present,” she said. She rubbed the wooden edges of the little table, smiling. “I haven’t seen this in years.”
The table was sanded smooth, but Jared noticed sporadic clusters of little pock marks dotting the top.
“Looks like it’s been through a hail storm,” he said.
“They’re from the dice,” SueEllen said. “Frank and I used to play board games. Before his collections took over.”
Jared returned the coffee table to its spot in front of the couch. In the days leading up to the yard sale he’d also uncover a picture frame, a seashell-decorated table lamp, a box of DVDs, some bedroom slippers, and a radio, all of which he tried to take outside without knowing they were part of the house, long ago lost in Frank’s hoard.
Outside, SueEllen set up half a dozen collapsible tables she’d mooched off of neighbors and had oversized picnic blankets laid out for overflow. She emptied the boxes Jared brought and organized them by cost: 50 cents, a dollar, five dollars, ten, fifteen, and free, which was mostly trash but SueEllen said might appeal to ‘artsy’ people. SueEllen was generous with her pricing. A piano keyboard was in the fifteen dollar pile, and the golf club sets were priced at ten. She wanted everything gone.
The night before the yard sale, SueEllen and Jared had another feast of blue crab. Frank’s hoard was outside, covered with tarps, but they weren’t concerned with thievery as they dined at SueEllen’s cleared dining room table. Jared watched his aunt stare around every few moments and smile, like a child wearing glasses for the first time. Disbelief and joy and the realization that she had, in fact, been living without something.
Jared awoke the next morning at a quarter to six to his aunt’s excited bellows.
“Jared, put pants on and come out here,” she said. “We’ve got customers!”
Jared pulled on shorts and Michael’s hoodie and rushed outside. Dew was still sprinkled across the yard, and the air was humid but not yet heavy. Jared expected to see only two or three of SueEllen’s neighbors, maybe runners or dog walkers who stumbled upon SueEllen’s ‘Mass Estate Sale’ and decided to take a look. Instead there were dozens. Older gentlemen, expensive looking ladies, people who looked like their careers kept them in a garage or in a hard hat all day. One man had a magnifying glass, and a few others wore work gloves. The way they meandered, head’s down, reminded Jared of sharks’ teeth hunting along the beach.
SueEllen was walking around in her bathrobe, grinning. “I guess I should have advertised a start time for this thing,” she said.
SueEllen and Jared soon learned that their estate sale was much more relaxed than other estate sales, and all of the serious shoppers were prepared to pay much more than SueEllen’s prices. Jared spent his time walking around to answer question or help people carry things to their cars. He pulled a lawn chair from the garage and had to argue with his aunt to make her sit down, concerned about worsening her head injury.
Around the time Jared was feeling hungry for breakfast a sweaty-haired man approached Jared to purchase the porcelain dragon vase, a jeweled watch, and a bobble head Michael Jackson. The man was fat and his hair was long.
“How much do you want for these?” He asked.
“I think watch was five dollars, and the other two were ones,” Jared said.
The man shook his head as he handed Jared two flimsy fives. “Feels just like stealing,” he said. He scanned Jared through his bifocals. “Aren’t you hot in that jacket, son?”
“Cold natured,” Jared said, though his back was sweating and the fabric clung to his back.
“Lucky you,” the man said.
Jared ignored the man and called to his aunt to bring the man some change. She got up from her chair and unzipped the fanny pack at her waist, causing the man to roll his eyes. SueEllen had changed out of the bathrobe, but the oversized fanny pack was almost more of a spectacle. SueEllen handed the man two ones.
“You really ought to hire a professional next time,” the man said. “They’re better at pricing and advertising.”
“Thank you,” SueEllen said. “I’ll keep that in mind for the next time my husband up and kills himself.”
The man’s ears turned red. He thanked SueEllen and Jared then rushed back to his car, head down. Jared smiled to himself and SueEllen sighed quietly sighed with her shoulders then returned to the house. Jared hoped she wasn’t planning to take off the fanny pack, and worried that maybe he should go check on her. Getting rid of Frank’s stuff couldn’t be easy for her, Jared thought. It had filled the gaps in her life for so long. But SueEllen returned a few minutes later, the black pack still bulging from her pant line, and Jared smiled once again. Her hands full of more items. Mostly clothes and knickknacks and a few aged books.
“How much more is there?” Jared asked, half panicked.
“Calm down. These are mine. Just a few things I’ve been meaning to drop off at Goodwill,” she said. “The universe is giving me an opportunity to make some cash. I’d be a fool to pass it up.”
She dumped her things on the one dollar table. Immediately a woman with a magnifying glass walked over to inspect the new additions.
SueEllen sat back in her lawn chair and wiped the sweat from her forehead. The mark the microwave left behind had turned purple and greened the surrounding scalp. Jared stared at the bruise beneath her hairline, and when SueEllen saw him looking, she winked.
“Makes you look tough,” he said, which made her smile, though she waved her hand as if to brush his comment from the air.
“Makes me look senile,” she said. “Speaking of, would mind going inside to fetch an old woman a glass of water?”
Jared nodded. “Do you want ice?” He asked.
“Do I want ice,” SueEllen mocked.
When Jared returned with the water it was even hotter than before. It was still early, not yet nine o’clock, but the sun meeting the moist asphalt of the street created wafts of steam and SueEllen had removed her sweatshirt to reveal a sleeveless polo. The sun seemed brighter than before, intensely so. Jared couldn’t tell if the phenomenon was caused by going from indoors to outdoors, but it was like a sheet of foggy glass had been filtering the sun’s rays, only to be removed while Jared was inside.
Jared’s aunt thanked him when he handed her the water, but he didn’t respond. He was suddenly aware of the weight of Michael’s hoodie, how its fabric stuck to his arms. He shook it off and walked over to the free pile. The hoodie was sweaty and he wanted to prove to himself how little it meant to him by denying it a price, but when he reached the spot he didn’t let it go. He looked at it, all balled up in his palms like hand muffs, and decided it was worth something after all. Jared put it on the fifty cent table then turned back to aunt, who was calling for him from the lawn chair, ice ratting her glass like buttons in a jar.