I came across Jenny Davis’s novel Sex Education at a local garage sale in my neighborhood in the French Quarters. I remembered it being part of a book report in high school. I smiled as I thought of how the classroom simmered in controversy when everyone thought the teacher had lost her mind handing out books about sex. As it turned out, the book really wasn’t about sex at all.
I watched as people surveyed the delicate rows of small porcelain dolls and copper ashtrays. They eagerly picked over jewelry boxes filled with antique buttons, costume jewelry, and old coins.
The elderly woman who owned the garage sale fodder would negotiate the price of an item and appeared flustered each time a new buyer approached her with a small item. I imagined how hard it must be to put a price on a lifetime of memories.
I tried hard to distance myself from each item’s possible history and wondered why the woman wanted to sell her things. As I inventoried the collection of the neat stack of books, the elderly woman stood next to me. I turned and asked if she would like to sell the book.
She inhaled deeply and took the book from my hand passing her hand over the cover, caressing its spine and straightening out the creased edges of the book pages. It looked as if the book had triggered a small memory of its own. I asked how the book had come into her possession. She told me that the book had been really hard to find because it had been banned at one time.
The old woman explained that her daughter had needed to read the book for an assignment, and a friend who had a copy had loaned it to her.
“I guess I still have it then,” she chuckled and introduced herself to me as Emily.
“You know this book hasn’t got anything to do with sex,” she went on. “It’s really a love story, about two teenagers who meet in sex education class in their high school. They later become quite the heroes—so sad that one of them died.” Emily quickly placed her hand over her mouth. “Oh dear! I didn’t mean to give away the ending.”
“It’s all right. I’ve read it. I also read this book in school and was surprised to find it here. It’s one of the first published editions,” I said excitedly. I had a passion for collecting old books, and this one was a classic.
“How much for this horse?” A bearded man wearing checkered pants interrupted Emily’s train of thought.
Emily took the black ceramic horse from the man’s hand and looked at the bottom of the base, presumably looking for the little price sticker like that of the other sale items on her table. The horse had no sticker, however, and she frowned at this. She caressed the figurine and ran her soft fingertips over the faded aspects of the eyes and mane, removing the bit of dust that had gathered on the tiny hooves.
“Oh, I’m sorry, hon. I just remembered when I bought this horse for my daughter. She wanted a rocking horse and I couldn’t afford it at the time.” Emily gushed. “I spotted this one on display in the dry goods store and I was worried that she wouldn’t like him. As it turned out, she loved it. So I had to buy one every month thereafter. That’s her entire collection over there, you see.”
She motioned to a nearby table that displayed ceramic horses in delicate rows of six. I counted twenty-three horses and noticed the space where the black horse had stood.
Emily approached the table and rearranged the remaining ceramic horses to take up the space of the missing horse, her daughter’s first.
“That’s a nice story ma’am,” the man said as he reached for the black horse, but Emily still held on to it. “So, how much for the horse?”
“Oh yes, you still wish to buy this one?”
“Yes ma’am. How much you want for it?”
“Oh, well. I don’t know if I can put a price on it. It’s a really old horse.”
“How about a dollar then?”
Emily clenched her jaw at hearing this suggestion.
“I’m sorry. I can’t let it go for such a low price. It was my daughter’s very first horse you see. She was so proud of it, you know.” Emily protested. The man remained insistent, however.
“Okay, I will go as high as a buck-fifty if you want to get rid of it.”
Emily clearly didn’t want to be rid of anything actually. She probably just needed a little money to cover her extra expenses. She rubbed her hands together as if her hands ached. I could see the elderly woman was being forced to assess her memories in dollars.
“I’m sorry, but I can’t let it go for such an unfair price,” she said nervously. She still held the ceramic horse, now pulling it closer to her chest.
“Well, it isn’t much of a garage sale if you don’t sell anything in it!” The man huffed and walked away. Emily watched him walk away as if she were in a trance.
Blankly, she turned to ask me what I wanted to pay for the book. Knowing the answer, I asked her why she was selling her things.
“I just need a little help paying my bills and buying medicine,” she replied with a reluctant shrug.
“What’s the value of all the items on your little tables?”
“I was hoping to at least get a couple hundred dollars with all this—enough to pay for my arthritis prescription.”
“I’ll take them.”
“Everything?” she asked, her eyes widening.
I began to collect all the little things off her tables in boxes. I introduced myself as her neighbor and explained that I lived just across the street. I then wrote her a check for two hundred dollars and helped her store the boxes in her apartment.
“I don’t know how to thank you.”
“There’s no need.” I smiled at her.
We chatted a bit and learned that we’d been neighbors for nearly three years. When she mentioned not having seen me around, I admitted that was mostly because of an anxiety disorder I had. Meeting new people is genuinely difficult for me, so I stay mostly to myself. I do try to make an effort now and then to get out more, such as this garage sale. The past few years, I’d begun to pay more attention to the people all around me. I’d noticed many of the younger ones were leaving homes, selling their cars, starting new families. Sometimes a few of my older neighbors would receive visits from their families, but the majority of them had no one to visit them.
Emily described the neighbors and explained how they were mostly quite a bit older than I was. She, and the other parents in the neighborhood remained in their homes after their children had long gone, leaving Emily and others like her behind, with their memories spread out on little tables.
I promised her I’d come by for tea and turned to go home when Emily reminded me of the Jenny Davis novel I’d asked about earlier. She asked if I wanted to keep it.
“Well, maybe I could read it and return it to you by this weekend?” I suggested.
She breathed a sigh of relief. “That would be perfect. Thank you.”
“No trouble. We’re neighbors.”
To this, we both smiled. At least she would get a chance to hold onto her lifetime of memories for a while longer.
Art ‘The Unmasking’ courtesy of Marit Rogne. All rights reserved.
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