“Mother, there’s a whole box of that stuff up here in the attic.”
“Well, Emily, it’s not hurting anybody up there. Why can’t you just let it be?”
Emily Frank shook her head slowly, standing up to her full five feet nine inches as she scanned the dimly lit, dusty place around her.
“Because we decided that you would start to get rid of this stuff, and the church flea market is next week. It’s the perfect opportunity.”
Margaret Frank stepped to the base of the attic stairs. “I think it was you who decided that. I’m still not so sure.”
Emily closed her eyes hard. “We’ve had this discussion before, mom, many times, and we both decided it was time to get rid of some of dad’s things.”
Arthur Frank died two years ago. The emphysema that took him out of the coal mine ten years back had finally worn him down. He was 76.
“Besides,” Margaret continued, “what’s the harm in keeping a couple boxes of dad’s old things up in the attic anyway? It’s not like we need the space.”
Emily rubbed the dust from her hands. She had been gathering things to offer at the semi-annual flea market at Covenant Church, two blocks down the street, one of the oldest congregations in Forest Glen, West Virginia, a mining town in the mountains about thirty miles east of Beckley.
The flea market had come in April and October every year for as long as anyone could remember. Originally, it was a fundraiser for the church’s mission work and its school. More recently, though, with the school closed these ten years (and the building rented out to a day care and an insurance company) and the mission effort reduced to supporting five orphan children via Americares Inc., the event was a vestige of what Covenant once was, like the now rusted iron fence and the dusty pillars by the entrance.
Last April’s sale brought in $864, most of which went to roof repairs and painting the church hall which, as it happens, is where the market was always held.
The flea market was still as much a social occasion as anything else, assembling the most active members of the church, mostly women, as always, for a weekend of sitting, selling, smiling, and sizing up the state of their aging sisterhood. Margaret Frank had been a regular at the Covenant Church flea market for thirty-five years, since Emily first attended Bible School.
“Mother,” Emily appeared at the attic door, looking down the steps, “if we’re ever going to sell this house…”
Margaret Frank raised her hands to her face, shaking her head. “Not this again, Em. I never said I wanted to sell this house; that’s you talking, not me.”
“No, no. I’m not going anywhere. This is my house.”
“But it needs to be painted; the garage is falling apart; there’s the steps, the roof.”
“I can manage.”
“Mom, you can barely keep up now, and in two years you’ll be eighty.”
“I said, I can manage here, Emily Louise. I certainly won’t be going down to one of those little boxes you keep talking about, the ones they’re building down by the river.”
“They’re condos, mom, assisted living designed for older...”
“Little boxes built for old fogies who can’t take care of themselves.”
“Helen Marshall bought one last month, mom. She’s been a friend of yours at church ever since I can remember.”
“Yes, and Helen Marshall’s been an old fogy since she was fifty, believe me.”
Margaret Frank looked up at her daughter, squinting. “I tell you what, girlie; I’ll take a box of dad’s things to sell at the flea market if you take the stuff you still have from Richard Welker there too.”
“Don’t change the subject. We were talking about…”
“You were talking about what you wanted to talk about. Now it’s my turn,” the old woman’s voice curled up the stairs. “I’ll make you a deal. A box of dad’s old stuff for a box of whatever it is you still have here from Richard.”
Emily Frank disappeared from the top of the stairs.
“Thought so,” Margaret mumbled, turning toward her bedroom.
Emily had met Richard Welker twelve years ago, when she was in graduate school at Morgantown, working on the MSW that earned her the job as executive director of the Wren County Free Clinic, her current position.
Richard was the son of James and Janet Welker, owners of Welker’s Department Store in Charleston, a retail hub with a large store downtown and two smaller outlets, one in St. Albans and the other in Chelyan. It had been in business for sixty years, and with James looking at retirement, Richard, the heir apparent, had gone on to work on his MBA.
Emily was tall, thin, blonde and bright; Richard was handsome, confident, and not from Forest Glen. It was the perfect match, struck bright with heat and light.
After a year, they were engaged. He would take on the vice presidency at Welker’s and she would work for Kanawha County Social Services. It would be perfect. As he moved to the top of the company, she could do the kind of work she always wanted to do. The stars were aligned.
Then Arthur Frank took ill. Margaret struggled to take care of him, but his needs, wants, and unraveling personality strained her capacities to do so. Money got tight.
Emily moved back home “to help get things balanced,” she told Richard. “A couple months, tops,” she had tried to assuage his skepticism.
The “couple months” turned into six, and their once nightly calls dwindled to two a week. He came down to visit once or twice but found it all too depressing, the town, the house, the prospects, eventually, even Emily. Before the end of the first year, the engagement was off. Not long after, Richard had taken up with a dazzling young woman from Charleston whose father headed up one of the largest law firms in West Virginia. They were married six months later.
Emily sat on an old coffee table at the back of the attic. The name Richard Welker, especially when said aloud, still made her flinch. She had tried to get past it. She worked extra hours at her new job with Wren County Children’s Services. That made her tired, though she still couldn’t sleep well, and it did nothing to lift her spirits. She joined a book club at the library, but it made her feel like she was in a room filled with different versions of her mother, so she dropped out after four sessions. At the prompting of friends at work, she signed on to a dating service and went on three ‘dates’ with men whose deficits of wit, charm, and looks only elevated the already lofty status of the Richard Welker prototype. On three occasions, she turned aside the advances of Leonard Haney, Wren County Deputy Sheriff and former high school classmate. Though pleasant enough and thoughtful, the slightly overweight Haney seemed trapped, in Emily’s mind at least, in twelfth grade and in Forest Glen. Emily Frank rejected both those enclosures.
There was a box of gifts and mementos from Richard that she brought with her from Charleston. In it were tickets, dance programs, notes, photos, and a handful of jewelry, including her one carat engagement ring and a cameo on a twenty-two carat gold chain. She had seen that at an antique shop in Pittsburgh one weekend, and had commented how lovely she thought it was. Two months later, Richard presented it on her birthday.
At the bottom of the box was a folded copy of the Richard Welker-Danielle Dailey wedding announcement in the Charleston Gazette. There was a picture and quite a story about the union of two prominent families. Danielle dazzled her beautiful blonde self into the lens, and Richard flashed his Rob Lowe smile for posterity. When Emily first saw it, it was as though she had been shot. It literally staggered her, took her breath. She had to sit down. But, despite the photo’s residual potency, she still took it out from time to time, unfolding it as if she were preparing altar linens, and stared at the image like an art student alone in a museum, gazing at a masterpiece the like of which she would surely never be able to produce.
Sitting there in the dusty attic of her parents’ old bungalow, she reached for the small box one more time. She opened it and breathed in the scent of years come and gone, of things set into a gallery behind her. She lifted the cameo, looked at its delicate alabaster profile, its soft blue background. She let the chain slide down her wrist, the gold links stroking her skin. She set the piece down and took out the clipping.
It was strange how time aged and made brittle the once pliant paper, like the subtle toll on muscles, bone, and skin. But though the clipping aged like the hand that lifted it from its resting place, the smiles and eyes still cut through the years like beacons, cold fires from a place she had left long before she wanted to. She rubbed her finger across the photo as if to flip back his thick black hair as she had always done. Her thumb rested on the woman’s face and, for that second, she was gone, and it was only Richard smiling out to her.
Emily drew a heavy breath and looked out across the attic. Along the opposite wall were four large boxes of clothes from her father’s closet and dresser. There were two smaller boxes holding items like his bowling trophies, watches, wallets, union pins, pictures, prayerbook, pens, and a book of Shakespeare’s sonnets that Margaret had bought for him before they were married. Emily had been surprised to find the pages thin with wear. There were also three rings: one from Wren County High School, an amethyst birthstone set in 14 carat gold (and which she had only seen her father wear twice), and the simple gold wedding band that Arthur Frank had never taken off for fifty-two years.
The late afternoon October light slanted in through the louvers of the attic vent, and dust danced silently in the rays. The sweet musky scent of fall mingled with the arid attic, conjuring a sense of solitude in the hand of stopped time. Emily closed her eyes and leaned back against the wall. She crossed her arms on her chest and let her head nod. Except for the gentle tapping of leaves against the window as they rustled in the breeze, this world was silent.
Beneath the turquoise sky of late October, the tired river rolled by the dusty walls, empty halls of Forest Glen, past yellow trees and orange, the remnants of the mills, the hills above the brown stone Covenant Church. Eight steps up from Center Street, behind its ancient fence, the spire like a faded sentry rose to maples, elms.
In the community room beneath it, tables were set in rows before a stage. At the door on the right side, Pastor Simmons sat with an old cigar box and a hand stamp, taking money from visitors, most of them from the church and town, some from Benson seven miles south. A few drove up from Beckley.
People sat behind the tables neatly lined along the gray tile floor, their wares set out
before them. There were collections of old photos and magazines, glass jewelry, painted
bird houses, old sets of china, varnished wooden pens spun at home on a lathe, comic books — some
in plastic bags, others just in stacks— all manner of glassware, clothing washed and folded for a
second chance, minerals and gemstones, gold and silver trinkets, baseball cards in boxes, scarves new and used, books, scented candles; the aggregate remainder of defeat or hope, however the buyer or the seller saw it.
Along the wall opposite the stage were another dozen tables set out for the chicken dinner, cakes, and pies that the women of the church made. Six of them in aprons prepared the food while three others took orders and brought out the meals. These were Margaret Frank’s friends, the flea market kitchen crew, though she was not with them on this day. Instead, Margaret was sitting uncomfortably behind one of the sales tables.
In front of her she had carefully set out a small pile of Arthur’s best shirts, washed and ironed to look as if they’d never been worn. Each displayed a small $2.00 sticker. There were four belts also priced at $2.00. A packet of a dozen pens, $2.00. Four watches, $5.00 each, and a handsome amethyst ring neatly set in a small black jewelry box, $20. Set off to the side, resting in a slightly larger box, was the alabaster cameo with its sticker, $80.
Along the wall opposite the admission table were several displays from Forest Glen and Wren County organizations. The Red Cross was always on hand, so were the county schools, this day represented by Harold Jeffries, the high school principal. The County Sheriff’s Office was there with a large D.A.R.E. poster and matching brochures. Sitting behind that table was Deputy Leonard Haney, decked out, as usual, in formal uniform, his expanded midsection protruding past the jacket’s capacity.
Just to the right of Deputy Haney, Emily Frank stood by the large glossy poster for the Wren County Free Clinic, a display she had brought to every Covenant Church flea market since she became the executive director three years ago. She was surprised when Helen Marshall had approached her about the position; after all, she was just a case worker for Children’s Services at the time. She had no medical or administrative experience at all. But Mrs. Marshall, a member of the boards of both organizations, took her aside at a fundraiser one evening and suggested that she apply. The founding director, it seemed, was stepping down after ten years.
Emily was amazed when she was chosen for the job, and she was intimidated by the challenge. More than forty percent of Wren County families qualified for the services of the free clinic, many of them from the Franks’ neighborhood and church.
Three doctors, a dentist, and four nurses contributed their services while twenty non-medical volunteers helped keep the place running ten hours a day, six days a week. Emily coordinated the schedules, secured medical equipment and supplies, paid the bills, did fundraising, and served as the face of the clinic to the community. The demand was endless, the need was often frightening. Her paycheck was a joke. Emily loved every moment of her job.
As she scanned the community room, she noticed her mother’s discomfort at the table. Margaret squinted as she focused on the people browsing through the space, lifting items for inspection, chatting with the sellers. She kept one hand atop the stack of shirts as if to hide or claim them, saying ’no, not these.’
“What size are those sweaters?” a young woman asked as she pulled her six year-old daughter closer.
“They’re medium,” Margaret said quietly. “They’re all medium.”
“Oh, that’s too bad,” the young woman shook her head. “They’re really nice, but George is at least a large, maybe an extra large,” and she tugged on the girl once again. “Come on, Lucy, let’s go.”
A small smile crossed Emily’s face as her mother watched the two depart, relieved for the moment, anxious about the next inspection. Margaret wore a plain print dress and a blue cardigan sweater. “It’s always cold in that darn room,” she had said when they left in the morning. She had round tortoise-shell glasses that hung from a chain around her neck when she didn’t need to “look close up” as she would say. Her hair was gray and short. She had given up coloring it about three years back.
She’ll be eighty soon Emily thought as she watched her mother examine one of the watches. They’ll all be eighty soon. Emily looked across the tables to the pastor at the door, the women in the kitchen, the twenty-five or so people either walking amid the merchandise or eating.
There was a strange appetite in the room, an old cotton, glass jewelry, folding chair kind of appetite that sought out and consumed quietly, slowly, like the sound of aprons tied on where pies and cakes were set out before a savior and his cross. It was the scent of the room, the church, October in these mountains, a kind of election by attrition.
The alabaster cameo was at the very edge of the table, as if an observer to all the other items.
“Emily, you don’t charge $100 for something at the church flea market; no one will pay that,” Margaret Frank had told her daughter that morning as they placed things in a box.
“Well, it’s worth a lot more than that,” Emily said, looking down at the piece she now held. It’s worth much more than that.”
“Well, maybe it is, and dad’s shirts and sweaters are worth more than $2 and $3, but that’s what I’m asking. That’s how this works.”
Emily set the cameo down and looked out the kitchen window.
“That’s how flea markets work; it isn’t about what price you ask or what a thing is really worth.”
Emily poured another cup of coffee.
“You know,” Margaret turned toward her daughter, “we can just put all this stuff back upstairs.”
Emily took a long sip.
“It was your idea, girlie; you know that. I didn’t want to do this…….”
“I know,” Emily looked back.
“I wasn’t the one who….”
“Yes, mom, I know.”
“If you don’t want to do this, we can……”
“Okay, okay, mother.” Emily walked back to the table. She picked the sticker off the small black box and took another from a bag. She held it for a moment, looking once again out the window to the orange, yellow, and red coming to life in the back yard. She nodded, wrote $80 on the new sticker, and set the box down.
Margaret rolled her eyes. “Okay, Em, whatever you want.” She reached for her jacket. “Come on, let’s go.”
“Well,” Leonard Haney was saying to the young man who had left his girlfriend to peruse the tables and meandered over to the Sheriff’s Office display. “You can get your Police Officer’s Academy at the tech school down in Beckley and maybe go on for an associate’s at the college they got there.” He stood with his legs spread and his arms swung behind his back, like a soldier at parade rest.
Leonard Haney had never been a soldier.
“What about firearms training?” the young man asked, excited.
“It comes with the basic program. Then you get regular qualifying once you sign on with a unit.”
“Cool. How long you been with the Sheriff’s?”
Leonard cocked his head and nodded. Well, when I came out of the Academy, I signed on part time over in Benson. I did that for five years, then went full time.”
The young man nodded.
“I was there another three years then I signed on with the Sheriff; that was ten years ago.”
As he spoke, Leonard Haney stole glances over the visitor’s shoulder to Emily at the next table, each time smiling. Twice when she noticed him, he snapped his eyes to attention on his audience.
“Yep,” he said, shaking his head and rocking back on his heels, “I figure to be the Sheriff of Wren County in another five years.”
“Cool,” the young man managed, matching the nod. “Cool.”
As that conversation wound out, a young couple who had been slowly walking from table to table examining the items, stopped at Margaret Frank’s station.
Emily watched as the couple, each holding a young child, looked through the shirts and sweaters. She recognized them from the clinic. Dr. Reynolds there had guided them through a difficult pregnancy and the birth of the twins. Problems remained, Emily knew, and the family still came in regularly.
As the man held out a brown v-neck for consideration, the young woman’s eyes fell on the cameo.
“Oh my,” Emily could hear her say, even at a distance. “This is just lovely.” The woman picked up the small, black box. “Tom, look at this.”
Emily felt herself coil, ready to strike out and grab the box away. It was as if someone had stolen into her room, found her diary, a box of letters. She felt suddenly naked, in a spotlight. She closed her eyes. This was a mistake.
“That’s real pretty, hon,” the man said.
Margaret Frank looked over at her daughter.
“It’s the prettiest thing I’ve ever seen,” the young woman offered in a hushed tone.
“And it’s……….it’s eighty dollars!” the man nearly yelped.
“Oh my.” She said.
“That’s a lot of money…….”
“I know,” his wife managed weakly.
“I’d really love to……but……”
“I know. I know.”
Emily opened her eyes to see the young couple walk away from her mother’s table, the wife glancing back as they moved on.
Margaret’s eyes caught Emily’s; they both looked away.
Leonard Haney sat back down as the young man left for the food tables. He arrived there just as the young family took up seats with a small plate of snacks.
Emily watched. She scanned the Covenant Church community room and its tables, items for sale, the pastor with his cigar box, the old women in the kitchen, the people who came in bringing October with them, her mother sitting alone behind those items from her life so neatly set out. Emily watched.
Then she walked slowly toward her mother’s table.
“I told you that……..” Margaret started.
Emily held up her hand and shook her head. She picked up the small black box.
“What are you……?”
She reached out, touched her mother’s hand, then walked over to the tables by the kitchen.
She came up to the young woman who sat with her daughter on her lap. Her husband sat across from her with the other little girl.
“Hello Ms. Frank,” the wife smiled as she approached.
Emily nodded, then peeled the price sticker from the box and extended it to the woman.
“Here, it’s yours.
“Ms. Frank, we can’t pay……”
Emily shook her head. “It’s yours.”
“Ms. Frank, I can’t….”
“Please. It means more to you than it does to me. It’s my privilege.”
The young woman looked at the cameo then up at Emily. She could barely form the words ‘Thank You,’ but she managed.
Emily smiled, nodded, and walked back toward her own table.
As she passed the Sheriff’s Office display, she leaned over to the deputy.
“Hey Haney, you want to go grab a cup of coffee?”
John P. Kristofco's stories, poetry and essays have appeared in many different publications, including The Cape Rock, Folio, Blueline, The Rockford Review, The Cimarron Review, The Rockhurst Review, The Chaffin Journal, Oyez, The Owen Wister Review, The Storyteller and Offcourse.