AA – Antiques Anonymous
I had the urge to make the five-hour trip to see my friend Sue in Massachusetts. A combination of lifelong familiarity and Sue’s endearing quirkiness would be the panacea for my pandemic woes. I arrived on a Thursday at about noon, and Sue, her husband Feller, and I spent two hours sitting at their kitchen table catching up on a year-and-a-half of separation. Over fried clams and beer, Sue casually mentioned that she had a new addiction – online auctions.
“Oh, like eBay?” I asked.
I soon discovered how serious her latest obsession had become. She took me on a tour of the house to show off her most recent acquisitions. Two new (read ‘new to Sue’) hutches had been obtained to display a recent haul of blue and white Staffordshire China and ruby Depression glass. Her collection of folk-art wooden horses, both of the statue and rocking form, had expanded into every room. There were antique framed pictures, mainly of nearby landscapes, and books on local history.
“I’ve picked up some furniture along the way,” she told me, nodding toward her family room crammed row after row like a wholesaler. “Great prices. I’ll give some away. Or, after I’ve cleaned it up, maybe I could sell it for a profit.”
I nodded along in amazement at the volume of what she had collected.
“Oh, by the way,” Sue said offhandedly, “I have a quick appointment tomorrow morning at 10. You don’t have to go if you don’t want.”
“To pick up a couple of things I won.”
“An online auction, I presume. What did you win?”
“A dining room table and chairs,” she said, “and a stack of 1960s teen magazines. It’ll be fast. In and out. Feller will take me in his pickup truck.”
Shrugging, I agreed that it would be fun to tag along.
We set out the next morning equipped with a roll of heavy plastic, a spool of shrink wrap, and masking tape. When we arrived at the house – a mid-1800s building reminiscent of the Little House on the Prairie era general store/post office with adjacent living quarters – the place was abuzz with other happy auction winners.
Sue introduced herself to a man with a clipboard who appeared to be in charge. He pushed reading glasses onto his nose and scanned the list in his hand.
“Ah, yes!” He nodded vigorously. “Here’s your dining room table and chairs. Here’s your stack of magazines.”
Feller and I were already moving toward the magazines with shrink wrap when the auctioneer added, “And here’s the kitchen.” Feller and I paused.
“The kitchen?” Sue asked in a voice designed to convey doubt, or forgetfulness, or bewilderment. Feller and I weren’t fooled. “What in the kitchen did I win? I can’t remember.”
“Why, the whole thing!” The auctioneer told her. “It’s lot number…” he tipped his head back slightly to peer through his glasses at the list on his clipboard, “twelve.”
“Oh!” Sue exclaimed, then chuckled nervously. “What exactly does that include?”
The auctioneer took off his glasses. “Everything. Except for the major appliances, everything is yours. But” he stopped next to a lower cabinet, “you don’t need to take anything from here. It’s all food, and the mice have gotten into it. You can leave that.”
As the auctioneer left the room, Feller and I spun around to stare at Sue wordlessly. She hemmed and hawed, avoiding our eyes as she scanned the countertops and above the cabinets, all jam-packed with stuff. Then we noticed the adjoining pantry.
“Is this ours too?” I called out to the auctioneer.
“It is indeed!”
I swear I could hear him laughing to himself.
“Sue, you brought boxes, right?” I asked.
“No,” she said. “I forgot about the kitchen.”
“Forgot?! How much did you pay for it?”
“Sixteen dollars.” She eyed me apprehensively. “The microwave and coffee maker alone should pay for it?”
We started by wrapping the plastic around the dining room furniture and magazines, then hauling them through the rain to the truck. For the next two hours, we went through the cabinets and drawers containing the late owner’s lifetime collection of glasses, dish sets, utensils, serving platters, salt and pepper shakers, flour and sugar canisters, colorful bowls, ceramic vases, pitchers and jars and plastic containers, recipe boxes, cooking tools, and on and on. We found a stack of about fifty dish towels and used them to wrap and protect the breakables. Pulling wire baskets from the walls, we packed them with odds and ends. We shrink-wrapped stacks of dinnerware and glasses and cups in an effort to keep them safe during transport.
Every object in that kitchen was coated with a layer of slimy grease, and mouse poop was everywhere. On the counters, in the cabinets, on the floor, on plates, inside of mugs. Repeatedly, we’d find ourselves gagging at the thought of what we were touching, then following it up with copious globs of the hand sanitizer from my purse. We carried load after load from the house to the truck, drenched with sweat and rain.
I pulled a porcelain platter from a cabinet and showed it to Sue. “This is worthless, Sue. See where it was broken, then glued back together? It needs to go in the garbage.” I looked around for such a thing.
“Uh, er, um, I think it’s pretty!” She grabbed it from me to wrap in towels.
“Sue! It’s junk!”
She lowered her voice. “We have to take it. That’s part of the contract when you win a lot in a house. You have to take everything.”
That’s when it dawned on me. The sheer brilliance of this operation. Sue had paid $16 for the honor of cleaning out an entire room packed mainly with rubbish. The auctioneer had gotten her, and others who had bid on full room lots, to pay him to clean out nearly 100 years’ worth of accumulation. I could only imagine what it would have cost if he’d hired 1-800-GOT-JUNK to remove it.
When I pointed out the reality of the hustle, she nodded in acknowledgment. “I know, I know. Never again! This has absolutely cured me – CURED me – of my online auction addiction. I’m cured!”
Feller looked dubious. I thought about the time when Sue and I were teens, stranded at the drive-in with a dead car battery. She was so rattled that she swore she’d never go to another drive-in movie for the rest of her life. Two weeks later, we saw The Omen at, you guessed it, the drive-in. Then there was the time she’d promised her husband that she’d stop buying goldfish for their outside pond. The next day, she came home with two more because it was a breed they didn’t have yet.
“I swear! No more,” she added emphatically. “I’m cured!”
The following day, before I headed out to visit my brother in Boston, Sue and I drove around all of our favorite hangouts from our teenage years. We ended at a country store that has existed since her father was a boy. At the entrance, I was transfixed by the smell of cinnamon and apples from the day’s baking. Sue, however, made a beeline for the vintage goods offered on consignment by local residents.
“Look at these plates!” She snatched one from a stack of eight beautiful, flowered plates with birds on them. Seeing the expression on my face, she added, “I’m not getting them. But they’re pretty.”
“I thought you were cured,” I teased her.
“I am! I am! I’m only admiring them.” She continued to admire them for five minutes, picking them up, turning them over, studying the backstamps, muttering under her breath.
Even as we were leaving with our haul of old-fashioned candies and jugs of maple syrup, Sue’s eyes kept returning to the plates. “How much are they?” she asked the cashier, knowing perfectly well they were marked as $22 for the stack of eight. “No, no. I can’t justify it. I have so many I don’t know where I’d put them. See, I’m cured!” she insisted, trying to convince herself.
We said our goodbyes, and I set out for my brother’s house. When I reached my destination, I had a new text from Sue. It was a picture of the plates with one sentence: “I broke down…”
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