“We ain’t getting any younger,” Grandma would say over the phone. So on Friday night, Mom would drive me from Irvine to their place in Lake Forest.
Grandma Annette was a wild lady with a collection of costume jewelry and an endless supply of sass. Grandpa John was older, already in his late 70s, and though he hardly left the house, he always dressed in a button-up shirt with his hair neatly gelled. Whenever I saw him, he’d give me a big hug and tell me I was his favorite grandchild, and “No, I didn’t say that to your cousins.”
I always had a good time at their house. We watched movies, played games, and made oatmeal cookies. But by age 9, my favorite activity was going to garage sales with Grandma.
I loved going to garage sales, and not just because Grandma usually bought me an old Happy Meal toy or a puzzle with almost all the pieces. I liked looking at people’s stuff fanned out in the driveway so I could guess their secrets.
I imagined that one old woman was a former government spy.
“She had so many cameras and binoculars,” I told Grandma one morning.
“She was a nature photographer,” Grandma said. “She took pictures of birds.”
A cover, obviously.
I’d sift through the contents of each property, always managing to uncover a story hidden under a T-shirt or inside a jewelry box. One man, I was certain, had run away to join the circus in his youth, as evidenced by the collection of Barnum & Bailey posters. After finding an empty gun case at one sale, I was sure the woman with the lawn gnomes had killed her husband.
After so many weekends with Grandma, I’d been through the contents of what seemed like hundreds of homes in Orange County. One exception was Mrs. Adams’ house across the street.
I could see her front door from my window, and her secrets were as alluring and out of reach as the box of fancy chocolates Grandma kept on top of the refrigerator. The house across the street had a mysterious aura, with its patches of dead grass in the lawn and gray-curtained windows. But what really intrigued me was that I never saw Mrs. Adams come out of her house, and that she never, not even once, had a garage sale.
“Why doesn’t that lady across the street come out of her house, Grandma?” I asked one day between bites of grilled cheese. “I bet she’s hiding something.”
“You leave that old girl alone. She’s an odd duck, but she’s harmless.”
While Grandma wasn’t looking, Grandpa poured extra Hershey’s syrup into my glass of chocolate milk with a wink. “She gets out some days for bridge club or to go to the store,” he said. “You just never see her ’cause you only come on weekends.”
Too nervous to knock on Mrs. Adams’ door and introduce myself, I kept watch of her home from across the street. I imagined the treasures inside, the forbidden souvenirs tucked away in drawers and under beds. I wanted so badly to see what secrets that house contained.
Each weekend that I visited my grandparents, I pushed back the drapes and looked out my window to Mrs. Adams’ yard, hoping to see a “Garage Sale” sign out front. To my disappointment, I woke up every weekend to an empty lawn.
In front of the usual houses were the same pool toys, band shirts, and board games for sale. I began to lose interest.
One weekend, Grandma and I decided to have our own garage sale. We picked out old clothes, toys, and even some of the things we’d bought from other yard sales that year. Grandpa helped by sorting through old paperbacks.
That morning, I had been so distracted boxing stuff that I forgot to look out the window. I was bringing out a load of T-shirts when I froze in the driveway. Mrs. Adams’ yard was packed with fold-out tables topped with old clothes, tarps spread out on the grass with lamps and books, and countless boxes lining the driveway with $1 written on the sides. There was even a couch with a side table.
I dropped the shirts, ran across the street, and plopped down next to the first box I could reach. I began shuffling through card games, books, and records. Soon, a story emerged. With all these records of old musicals, she must have been a singer. Maybe on Broadway. Or maybe she was a famous dancer until some tragic accident ended her career.
I was deciding which box to look through next when my eyes landed on a cardboard sign duct-taped to a tree. Much like other garage sale signs, it was written in smudged marker. But something was different.
“Grandma?” I said.
“What’s an Estate Sale?”
“It’s a garage sale, but for when people die and someone sells their stuff.”
I stopped and looked around the yard again. Neighbors walked from table to table, inspecting the spread.
“Mrs. Adams is dead?”
Grandma shrugged. “Yeah, I guess you weren’t over when it happened; real sad. She was a nice lady.”
I looked down at the boxes in front of me and stood up, suddenly no longer interested in looking through things that belonged to Mrs. Adams. It didn’t seem right to look through her secrets, her memories, when she wasn’t here.
I stood in her yard, wondering if her kids, or grandkids, had sorted through these things before placing them out.
I turned around and saw Grandpa across the street, sitting in a lawn chair. He was guarding our sale, an envelope of $1 bills on his lap for change.
Over the next few years, I would watch Grandpa go in for surgeries, see Grandma getting tired faster, and notice them both slowing down. Before that day on Mrs. Adams’ lawn, I hadn’t considered the possibility of them passing away one day.
I went back across the street without buying anything. For the rest of the morning, I helped my grandparents with our garage sale, selling items from our lawn just as we had bought them from others’. Every so often I looked across the street to Mrs. Adams’ house, the estate sale getting smaller and smaller until, eventually, everything was gone.