by Nic Olson
Assignment 3: Choose an object. Use the object to develop a character. Use the character to develop a story. The object must change hands in the story.
The items were spread across a sheet of plywood that balanced on two wooden sawhorses. Other items were beside this makeshift table in cardboard boxes and on end tables and TV trays. Some of the larger items were just placed along the edge of the driveway, the taller items standing in the trimmed green grass, the shorter heavier items like dumbbells and car parts rested on the concrete slab itself. Rick sat on a lawn chair near the opened garage, dutifully writing numbers on tiny circular yellow stickers that he was placing on each and every object on his driveway and in his garage. The most expensive item, a Honda GL 400 motorcycle was going for $1800, it needed some work. Rick had placed a yellow sticker on its leather seat. The least expensive items included a spool of brake cable for pedal bikes, pink and green wicker baskets used for Easter egg hunts and decorations, a black plastic cassette tape rack, and other objects that the regular observer, including Rick, couldn’t be sure what they were for. These items were in a box labelled, “Free” on which Rick did not put any yellow stickers, to avoid confusion with the garage-sailers, the dumb load of cheapskates, he thought.
On the plywood table were other artifacts that at one time had been the most useful items in Rick’s home but with renovations and time, had rendered them pointless, at least to Rick and his wife. Doorknobs, light switches, toothbrush holders, steel-toe work boots. Rick had priced all these fairly, he thought, with numbers that screamed, “Get rid of me but at least leave my former owner with something to remember me by.” Rick came upon his alarm clock radio, the size of a large box of chocolates, and considered its prospective price. For nearly twenty years that alarm clock woke Rick up at 6:15am every morning even if the power went out, thanks to the nine-volt battery inserted in the bottom. This clock electrified Rick to to start his routine, which was unchanged for almost as long as he owned the clock. He would eat breakfast—Corn Flakes, an apple and a cup of black coffee—flip through the Obits section of the newspaper, listen to talk radio for weather reports and then head to the city garage where he would pick up a city bus and drive his route, Route 18-Greenwood Village, until 4pm when he headed home again. Now, in his first two weeks of retirement, the alarm clock seemed nonessential since he had formed the habit of waking up every morning at 6:14 in anticipation of the breathy squeals of the alarm. He could buy a new one if he ever had a reason to wake up before then, he thought. Canadian Tire was bound to have one on sale. Ever since Canadian Tire introduced their own form of paper currency, Rick had never shopped anywhere else. His XL plaid shirts and size 36 blue jeans came from Canadian Tire, as did his socks and underwear, his toilet paper, toiletries and cleaning supplies, his car care and household items, and when Canadian Tire offered, modest food items and condiments.
Also in the garage sale were some of Rick’s wife’s items. There was a box of folded tea towels with prints of smiling ducks and pioneer children on them, fifty-cents each. There was a wire magazine rack, wrapped completely by thin plastic cord, which was fraying and unravelling, for one dollar. She also had a stack of books, each for twenty-five cents, which included quite a selection of James Patterson paperbacks, a few assorted romance novels, one or two by Steinbeck and one by Vonnegut. The Vonnegut was a gift from her daughter, already read and scored, but unread by Rick or his wife. The Vonnegut novel sat at the bottom of the pile of books which sat on top of one of two octagonal particle board end-tables, the set on sale for ten dollars. Inside, on a dog-eared page, these words, which Rick or his wife would never read since they would sell the book to a young lady later that day, were underlined with red pen:
“In time, almost all men and women will become worthless as producers of goods, food, services, and more machines, as sources of practical ideas in the areas of economics, engineering, and probably medicine, too. So—if we can’t find reasons and methods for treasuring human beings because they are human beings, then we might as well, as has so often been suggested, rub them out. Poverty is a relatively mild disease for even a very flimsy American soul, but uselessness will kill strong and weak souls alike, and kill every time. We must find a cure.”
At fifty-eight, Rick was bald and likely weighed about thirty pounds more than he had throughout most of his life. In his last few months before retirement he had noticed this increase in weight and attributed it to his wife baking more often to accommodate the increased amount of time that Rick spent at home. The more time he spent at home, the more jam-jams and snickerdoodles he ate, the more he felt like a burden. Rick was structured and reliable. Routine looked to Rick to see if it was running properly. Now without work to attend to, without his regular regimen, Rick was beginning to suffocate in his uselessness. He sat on the couch in the mornings, from 7:15 to 9:00, looking out the front window while his wife baked more than the two of them could eat in a year, and he cursed time. He had asked his wife how she had passed the last forty years as a housewife without going insane. She asked how he knew she hadn’t gone insane. By the first Monday afternoon of his retirement he had run out of things to do. His yard was pristine, his house had no real issues. He spent six hours fixing the air conditioner, something that he had never attempted before but committed to the project since he was now retired. The eavestroughs were clean, the compost was stirred, the gutters were swept, the garden was weeded. So, to pass some time, he decided to host a garage sale.
He priced the alarm clock at four dollars, and next to the cost he placed another yellow sticker that read, “Still works!”
Sam stepped out of her Pontiac Sunfire, placed her foot on a steel sewer grate that was clogged with leaves and paper coffee cups. She saw to the bottom of the sewer, brown water and sludge and shiny garbage was swallowed by the sewer, something that she never really noticed, but was thankful for, otherwise she would be standing in a puddle of muck. She headed towards the driveway that had the small red sign posted at the end, accented with a bunch of balloons that clumsily bumped each other in the wind. It was a garage sale, and she was a garage sailer, perusing the open seas of peoples’ once useful junk, looking for cheap alternatives to bringing new plastic and cardboard into the world. She had just got a job, the first job that she’d ever had, she realized, where she had to wake up before twelve noon. Almost ten years of bars and bistros and restaurants and clubs and lounges and dives and she had finally decided to somewhat grow up and get an office job. To put her party days to a rest and to settle, save, and become what her father would tell her was ‘a valued member of society.’ Sam was twenty-eight, had shoulder-length envelope-coloured brown hair, a face which resembled that of a chinchilla, and was pudgy but not fat. She was hoping that her new lifestyle, a 9-to-5, would allow her to join a gym and get in shape, make her body a tool or weapon instead of a soft inanimate object.
It was Sunday and at a party the night before, her last party before starting her data-entry job on Monday, she lost her phone. Her phone had the internet, and Sam had gone the two hours since she woke up without it. She was going through withdrawal. She needed an update from the party last night. She had come to rely heavily on the internet and her phone but never noticed her reliance until she had lost them both. All in one, she had lost her contact list, including the phone number for her new job, her camera, her day planner, her computer, her calculator and her alarm clock. It was the last of these that had caused her to stop at several garage sales on her drive from the mall to pick up new business appropriate clothing. Even if she still had her phone, she needed an alarm clock to wake her up since it had become a subconscious and sometimes even unconscious reaction to touch the phone’s off button anytime it made a sound, either that or every fifteen seconds.
The man working the garage sale sat against the brick house near the open garage door, writing on stickers and surveying to find items without prices. Sam took inventory. A miniature bag of plastic tooth-flossing picks, hopefully unused she thought, for a quarter. A box of unopened Gillette Mach3 replacement razorblades for a toonie. She was in the bathroom section, an unusual one for a garage sale, but essential items nonetheless. She came upon the plywood table with dishes and plates and household appliances. In the centre was an alarm clock radio priced at four dollars, emphatically announcing that it still functioned.
“Excuse me, may I plug this in to see if it still works?”
“Of course you can. Just bring it on over here.”
Sam grabbed the clock, which was about the size of an encyclopedia. It had a faux-wood finish, sleek angular buttons, brown tuning wheel that protruded off the side. The man plugged it in to the exterior outlet and the clock flashed ’12:00′ in sharp red digits, blinking every second. He flipped the switch from ‘Alarm’ to ‘Radio’ and the crackle of an AM station of talk radio blasted through its mono-speaker. She affirmed that she would take it, browsed the tables again, found a Vonnegut book and a pink porcelain toothbrush holder and gave the man six dollars in change, the total for her three items. Sam thanked the man and walked back to her car.
Sam knew how difficult it was going to be to transition between jobs and between lifestyles. She stopped her bar tending job on Friday and was slated to wake up at seven in the morning on Monday. Her new alarm clock was her insurance that she make the transition, even if it was guaranteed to be ugly. Without it, she would surely wake up late and continue to be ineffective. She opened the driver-side door and threw her items on the passenger seat of her car. The alarm clock bounced to the floor of the car, landing upside down with the cord caught under the seat. She reached down to grab it, felt something small and plastic under the seat just beside it, and pulled out her cellphone. She breathed in relief, left the alarm clock upside down on the floor, checked her messages and drove away.