My brother James called me one night to suggest that we drive over to our parents’ house to clean out our father’s tool shed. This was in mid-August, three months after Dad’s passing. He’d had a heart attack one afternoon while trimming the weeds at the side of the house. A neighbor had spotted him lying there on the ground by the fence, the weed whacker still rumbling around in the grass beside him. “It’s not like Mom has any plans for it,” James said, referring to the contents of the shed. “You know it’s just going to sit there and rust. We should at least do something with it.”
I didn’t particularly feel up to the task, only because I hadn’t really felt up to anything since the funeral. In fact, this would have been the first time in several weeks that I’d left my apartment for anything more than another stack of frozen dinners from the ValuMart down the road, where the cashiers had come to regard me with the kind of brittle tolerance usually reserved for homeless people. But I knew that James was right about Mom forgetting everything out there in the shed. Since Dad had died, she’d gone out of her way to avoid the house in favor of the church, where she would busy herself for most of the day with inane little tasks—dusting the hymnals in the pews, buffing the floors of the Sunday school rooms—mired in a state in of severe denial. And as much as I hated the idea of peeling myself out of my apartment to clean out my dead father’s things, the thought of all his tools being left out there to rust bothered me even more. So, the following Saturday afternoon I picked James up in my truck and we headed out to our folks’ house.
The shed was little more than a large wooden cube set up on cinder blocks in the back yard by the fence. It was crammed full old cobwebby tools, rusted-over cans of paint, and pieces of rotten lumber, all left over from Dad’s post-navy years when he’d worked briefly as a general contractor. We started by hauling the table saw and some of the other bulkier items out into the yard to free up some space inside. The smaller pieces, hand tools and such, we tossed unceremoniously out into the overgrown grass to be sorted out later. The air was hot and thick and cloying; it didn’t take more than ten minutes for me to work up a sweat.
In the back corner, tucked away beneath a long plywood shelf running the length of the far wall, was an old mildewy tarp. It had been weighted down with a few bags of instant concrete that had long since hardened into big stone lozenges. I hefted them off to the side and pulled back the tarp to find sixteen sloppy stacks of old pornographic magazines, their covers gnarled and wrinkled and faded with age.
I called James in from the yard where he was sorting through a box of old drill bits, and I led him over to the magazines. For a while all we could do was stand there trying to make sense of what we were seeing, until finally James chuckled and said, “Wow.” He grinned as if I’d just told him a dirty joke. “Did you know about this?”
He shook his head. “But I guess it’s better we find out this way instead of, you know, some other way.
He hunkered down and began to rifle through the magazines. There had to be at least two hundred of them, the titles ranging from recognizable (Penthouse, Hustler) to pointedly obscure and artless (Horny Housewives, Xtreme Asian Teens). The women leered back at us from the warped pages, their sleek, pliant bodies sprawled across enormous beds or draped over the hoods of expensive automobiles. They wore stringy lingerie and thick coats of oil that gave them the appearance of having been basted—ready to be devoured. There was a fairly predictable gamut of costumes, cowgirls and French maids and nurses; in one picture, a pantyless Dorothy Gale lay on her back in a field of poppies with her gingham skirt bunched up around her waist, while a man dressed as the Tin Man knelt before her with her ruby slipper-clad feet propped up on either of his shoulders, as though he were peering through a set of prison bars. His costume amounted to nothing more than a full-body coat of silver paint and a small funnel strapped to his head.
“Jesus,” James cackled. “I can never watch The Wizard of Oz again.”
I stumbled out into the yard and braced myself against the table saw. James appeared in the doorway of the shed. “You okay?” he called out, still laughing a bit.
“I just need a minute.”
“Take your time,” he replied, and then disappeared back inside the shed, presumably to continue pawing through the magazines.
I stood there for a few minutes with my hands planted on the edge of the cutting board and my head hanging down between my shoulders, trying to collect my thoughts. I knew I was experiencing something like shock. How long had this been going on? What drives someone to cultivate such a collection? No one likes to think of his father as a person who has to hide things. I remembered the time back in seventh grade when Vince Doss and I had gotten caught watching a bootlegged copy of Lipstick Lesbians. Vince had forgotten to take the tape out of the VCR and his parents had discovered it and called my folks (James had found this infinitely amusing). Dad was furious, far more than he should have been, I had thought as I sat on the stool in the kitchen listening to him howl at me for a good twenty minutes about how Vince, whom he confessed to having always thought of a bad seed, and I should know better, how we were too young for that kind of thing, on and on, ultimately grounding me for a month.
Now this. I didn’t know what to make of it, all these magazines. It was a phenomenal leap in logic, one that my brain seemed incapable of making.
Presently, Mom was at the church helping to prepare the parish hall for a wedding reception. She wasn’t supposed to be home until around five, but it was still pretty weird having the magazines out in the open like that, so we dumped them into black garbage bags and stashed them behind the woodpile for the time being.
The rest of the afternoon we spent in near silence, rummaging around inside the musty shed, our clothes dark and heavy with sweat. We decided to skip lunch so we could knock it all out as soon as possible. I watched James stroll back and forth between the yard and the shed with the broad, confident gait of a man who has recently come into privileged information, his mouth puckered in a cocky smirk. At thirty-six—three years older than me—he bore a remarkable resemblance to our father: same jowly cheeks, same hefty frame. The fuzzy pale crescent of his belly peeked out from beneath his faded Redskins’ t-shirt.
James was someone you had to get used to, the kind of guy who whistles at girls and never picks up the tab. He’d been the general manager of an outer space-themed restaurant up until a year earlier when a nineteen-year-old waitress filed a sexual harassment claim against him. He’d sworn up and down that he never laid a finger on the girl, but they canned him all the same. Since then he’d been working in a Best Buy warehouse not far from our folks’ place. It was only temporary, he’d told me, just until he got his feet back on the ground, but as far I could tell he wasn’t rushing to make any plans.
As for me, I was teaching statistics at a nearby community college—not a huge step up from what my brother was doing, at least not financially, but I perceived it as a variation on what I had set out to do. I lived in a tiny one-bedroom apartment not far from the school, in a complex populated primarily by Mexican immigrants. I had a cat and an exercise bike and a 36-inch television. Weekends were spent going to the movies by myself and wondering what my next move was supposed to be.
In a way, I had hoped that Dad’s passing might offer some sort of perspective on things, one of those life-affirming epiphanies you see in Frank Capra films. This was what had been going through my head during those last few days in the hospital, which I had spent dozing in the stiff armchair next to the old man’s bed, listening to the hiss of the oxygen machine and watching his skin take on the grayish-pink complexion of uncooked chicken; I kept thinking that maybe I was supposed to be learning something from all this.
It was close to four by the time James and I finished with the shed. Peeling off our damp T-shirts, we shambled out into the yard and sat down in the grass, muttering Geez and Oh man and rubbing the backs of our necks. James trotted inside the house and returned a moment later with two beers. We sat in the shade with our backs against the shed, drinking in silence, too worn out to make conversation. When I’d finished, I sat my bottle on a scrap of particle board lying nearby and motioned toward the bags behind the woodpile. “We should get these to a dumpster,” I said. “We can sort out the rest of this stuff later on. I don’t want Mom to see them.”
“Hang on a sec,” said James. He stood slowly, wincing at the clicking sound of his knees, and walked over to the bags. With his cigarette in his teeth—something he’d picked up from Dad, a pack-a-day smoker up until the end—he kneeled down and fished around inside of one.
“You know, some of this stuff is pretty old,” he said.
“So, what I’m saying is that there’s, like, a market for that sort of thing. Vintage pornography.”
I stood and walked over to him. “You’re not serious.”
“Look. Some of these go back to, like, the sixties. I mean, check this out.” Reaching down into the bag, he dug out a small magazine and handed it to me. The cover featured the grainy image of a plump blonde in lacy black underwear lounging sideways in a big Victorian-style armchair with her fishnet-bound legs hanging lazily over the armrest, a small black stiletto dangling from her toes like some kind of threat. The date on the spine was 1964, nine years before I was born. This meant that either Dad had been into this stuff since his thirties, or that it was something he’d picked up later on. Neither possibility was any less disturbing.
James stood and tossed his cigarette into the yard. He tapped the cover of the magazine. “See what I mean? Very retro, am I right?” The way he said retro, it wasn’t so much a word as a sound, something low and croaky, like a broken video reel.
I handed the magazine back to him. “I don’t know if this is old enough to be considered vintage.”
“Like you’re an authority.”
“How do you know that people are into this?”
He shrugged. “I mean, you just hear about it, you know? People are into all sorts of weird shit. I think I read something about it on the internet.”
That my brother might know a little about vintage pornography didn’t exactly surprise me. I confess that when the sexual harassment allegations had first surfaced, I wasn’t sure what to believe. It would be nice to say that I had instinctively leapt to his defense, but the truth is that it didn’t strike me as something totally out of character for him.
James’ plan was to carry the magazines out to the Tropic of Cancer, an adult bookstore a couple blocks from Uncle Tim’s house out in Ghent—a good twenty-minute drive from Mom and Dad’s place. As I thought it over, I couldn’t help feeling that there was something mildly insensitive about pawning off Dad’s stuff so easily. Giving tools away was one thing, but this was something else entirely, a secret, something that no one was supposed to know about, not even us, and with this in mind, the idea of profiting from the magazines felt a little like treason. Of course, this was all assuming that the store was even willing to take the magazines, which, given their condition, didn’t seem likely. I figured, worst case scenario, the place refused, and we ended up tossing them in a dumpster somewhere. We’d be getting them off our hands either way, but at least this way we got a long air-conditioned drive in my truck, and after huffing around in the sun all day, this actually sounded pretty good.
Finally I agreed, and James trotted inside the house to call the place to ask about their buyback policy on used magazines. A few minutes later he walked out to the driveway where I was loading the bags into the back of the truck, and he pumped his fists in this lame little thumbs-up dance. “The guy said to bring them on out,” he announced.
I hopped down out off the tailgate and wiped the sweat from my forehead. “Dad would be thrilled.”
He waved his arm dismissively. “Lighten up, Professor. This is the silver lining of a very dark cloud. We should make the best of it.
As we swung out onto the highway, James asked me if I thought Mom suspected anything about the magazines.
“Absolutely not,” I replied. “Obviously he was trying to hide the stuff. Otherwise, why would he keep it in the shed?”
“I guess.” James stared thoughtfully out the window. I’d believed him when he told me he hadn’t known about the magazines, but now it occurred to me that I wouldn’t have been surprised either way.
“We’re not going to tell her, are we?” he said after a few moments.
“Who? Mom? No, we’re not going to tell Mom. Jesus. Why would you want to do that?”
“I didn’t say I wanted to, I was just asking if we were going to.”
“Okay, well, the answer is no.”
“You don’t think maybe she has a right to know?” There was a snide quality to his voice, something lawyerish and suggestive, like he was baiting me.
I sighed. “It’s not an issue of rights, James. You know that. Mom’s got enough on her mind right now without having to deal with the fact that her late husband was a sexual deviant.”
“It doesn’t make him a deviant,” he replied coldly.
“You know what I mean.”
For a moment he just eyed me with this narrow sideways scowl, the same look that Dad used to give us as kids when we’d gotten out of line, and then he turned his attention back out the window. In the distance we could see the Norfolk shipyards looming like the ruins of some war-torn cityscape with its huge grey hulls and its jumble of control towers. We passed by the Jamaica Tavern, an old topless bar that was owned by one of Dad’s friends from the local chapter of the Naval Officers’ Association. I could remember the time years earlier when the man had contracted Dad to build a new runway for the main stage. There was an issue with termites, he’d explained, and he didn’t need some poor dancer falling through the wood and breaking an ankle. On a Saturday afternoon in December of my senior year of college, Dad loaded me and James and Mom into the van and hauled us over to the club to see the runway he’d constructed. He ushered us to a table at the front of the room, which was lit almost exclusively by these tiny bamboo lamps on each of the tables, past a half dozen or so sullen, disheveled characters who peered up at us skeptically, as though awaiting a punchline. The runway, carpeted with a dark blue nylon flatweave, jutted out from the semi-circled main stage toward the center of the room, approximating a crude phallic shape that wasn’t immediately noticeable, not unless, I speculated, you had gotten a close look at the plans. Sipping his beer, Dad ran his hand across one of the three-foot mirrors paneling the sides of the structure. “Look here,” he said dreamily as a dark-skinned girl in a red see-through teddy strutted past our table. “Can’t even see the framing. See? Yeah, that’s gonna hold up real good.” The girl glanced uneasily toward our table, more at Dad it seemed, which angered me in a way that I didn’t really understand, even though he didn’t seem to notice her at all. Mom stared down into her iced tea as though she wanted to crawl inside of it.
The Tropic of Cancer was a small brick building situated in the back corner of a weedy lot nestled amongst a strip of glum warehouses and machine shops. The inside was surprisingly bright, lit up by long tracks of fluorescent lights running the length of the paneled ceiling. A portly silver-haired fellow stood behind a dusty glass counter by the door with his chin in his hand, staring down at a book of crosswords. He looked up at us we entered and then immediately back down at his puzzle.
James approached the man and introduced himself.
“I called a little while ago? About the magazines?” He jerked a thumb toward me, hovering behind him. “This is my brother Dave.”
The man reached across the counter and gave James’ hand a quick pump. “Stan.”
James bobbed his head in greeting and then shoved his hands in his pockets. For a few moments we just stood there, me and him, not really sure where to go from here, until finally Stan sighed and stood up straight and said, “Well, show me these magazines, then.”
There were no customers in the store at the moment, so he followed us outside to the truck. James led him around to the back and dropped the tailgate and then lit a cigarette and stood off to the side and watched as Stan sorted through the collection of crusty magazines. He picked up a copy of Barely Legal, flipped halfway through, dropped it back into the garbage bag. The pages made a crunching sound like dead leaves. “Hell of a collection here,” he said in a way that might have been sarcastic, though the flat, stiff timbre of his voice made it hard to tell.
“They were our dad’s,” James said. I flashed him a look; why did he have to broadcast this fact to strangers? He rolled his eyes at me.
After a few minutes Stan shoved his hands in his pockets and stepped back from the truck, and I noticed for the first time that he was wearing a t-shirt from the local chapter of the Naval Officers’ Association. He’d been leaning against the counter inside so that the emblem on the front—a small gold anchor encircled by five hands, affecting a pentagon—hadn’t been noticeable. Dad had had a shirt exactly like it, though this didn’t really mean much; all of the retired sailors in the area did. But still. I guess I was just in the position to draw connections.
Clearing his throat, Stan fixed his droopy gaze upon us. “Yeah, well, I mean, I’ll take them if you’re just gonna throw them out. There’s always someone who’ll want them.”
“Okay. How much?” said James.
Stan cocked his head. “How much what?”
“Money. How much were you willing to spend?”
The man’s eyes went wide. “What, you want me to buy this stuff?” A jagged laugh crept up out of his throat. “It don’t work that way at all.”
But James wouldn’t be deterred. He just kept smiling in that self-assured way he had, like he knew something you didn’t. Haggling got him all worked up; he liked to think of himself as crafty and shrewd, someone to be dealt with.
“Come on now, hold up. There’s some good stuff in here. Look at the dates. See? That’s classic, man. Vintage, know what I mean?”
“No resale value,” Stan said calmly. “Half this stuff’s ruined, can’t hardly turn the pages. Mint condition, maybe I could help you out, but the way it is, all I can do is give you some store credit.”
With a contemplative groan, Stan once again reached down into the bag and sifted through the amalgam of stiff, sticky pages. He scratched his neck. “Twenty.”
“That’s it? Twenty?”
A peculiar twinge of defensiveness ran through me. An hour or so earlier I’d been trying to convince James that the magazines were more or less worthless. But now, to hear it from someone else, someone who didn’t know Dad, it was hard not to feel a bit slighted on my father’s behalf.
All the same, I knew that this was a pretty generous offer. However trivial this favor of Stan’s might have been, it was still a favor. I looked up at James, standing on the opposite side of the truck with his arms folded on the top of the bed wall, and I shrugged and said, “We’re already here. It’s not like anyone else is going to want them.”James grimaced a little and tossed his cigarette butt out into the parking lot. “Yeah, okay.”
Moments later we got to work moving the bags into a small musty stock room at the back of the store. Stan stood behind the counter, hunched over his puzzle booklet, watching us plod back and forth from the truck to the room. A couple times I caught myself staring at his shirt, the front of which was partially visible over the lip of the counter. Dad had worn his whenever he’d worked in the back yard, and I had this image of him tromping around out around the shed, his faded jeans sagging against the weight of his leather tool belt—a Father’s Day gift from James and me.
When we were finished with the magazines we ambled up to the counter, and Stan looked up from under his thick grey brow and said, “That it?” “That’s it,” James replied.
The man swept a hand through the air like a model on a game show, gesturing toward the plastic white racks of merchandise behind us. “Twenty bucks. Go crazy.”