The Day August Ate September / 15 August 1999
The water from the hose tasted like spiky minerals and it iced Alma’s gums straightaway. She’d been back and forth between the front lawn and the side of the house all day, but now that the sun was going down, the coiled green shock didn’t hold the same novelty.
Batya lifted up a leg and examined the perpendicular marks that the chair had made in her thigh. There were still a few stragglers making their way around the three card tables, eyeballing the round, fluorescent orange price stickers with blank expressions.
“How much for this?” said a woman in a gray jogging suit, holding a punch bowl in both hands, not looking at Batya.
“What’s it say?” Batya ran her finger along the embossed name on the cover of her paperback.
“Seven-fifty, but that can’t be right.”
“That’s right.” Batya plotted a bell curve in her mind, with the x-axis being “time” and the y-axis being “tolerability,” and the customers today created an extremely smooth and bulbous shape, more like the implausible profile of Missy Tortora than Batya herself, but Missy was a senior and that extra year was saturated with potential. The early morning visitors were professionals, arriving even as she and Alma were dragging the goods out toward the sidewalk. They were cold and dark, these early birds, robot surgeons that cut you open and found what they needed quickly and efficiently. Later, human beings began showing up and at first that was even harder because they all had their quiet condolences, their little variations on the same theme, and Batya had to come up with her own variations of thanks, of subtle deflection. Basically the yard was thick with guilt, as if the neighbors and passersby were plucking the watch from a dead man’s wrist. As the shadows stretched past a comfortable length, the final shift ambled by and picked through what was left, confident in the knowledge that you were now desperate, that you had been way too close to humanity for the entire day, that you were sapped by the sun and weary and unhappy and at that point a difference of a few dollars really didn’t matter.
Which was true, Batya had to admit. She and her sister’d siphoned off as much as possible, and that was the point. They’d made a few hundred dollars, but the real money was going to come from the house. This thing was just to get rid of the stuff, most of which had been accumulated by their parents over the past twenty-odd years.
Batya had severed herself from these objects the night before. She and Alma each had their own box where they could store the special items, the things that should never be given away. They’d agreed one cardboard box would be enough, and it helped knowing the limitations beforehand, though it was still a tricky process, leafing through photographs and fondling jewelry. Alma took the letters they had written each other in college, while Batya took the perfume and aftershave because they provided the most visceral memories.
Batya snatched the five-dollar bill from the punch bowl woman and stuffed it in her pocket with the others. The sprinkler across the street let out a neverending hiss. She glimpsed Mr. Driscoll strolling down the street, hands in pockets (forced casualness), and she pretended not to notice, picking up the paperback and reading the explanatory blurb for maybe the millionth time.
“Oh, hi, Mr. Driscoll. What’s the haps.”
“Just stopped by to see how things were going.”
“Still a lot of bargains to be had,” Batya said, shading her eyes to see him better.
He crouched down, into the shadows, placing a hand on the arm of her lawn chair. “I know you don’t want to hear this,” he said.
Batya kept the tight-lipped smile on her face, her eyes pleading with him to keep things pretend.
“But I just wanted to say, once more, for the record, that my offer still stands.”
Batya nodded. Alma ran over, her hair drenched and cheeks flushed.
“There’s no hurry,” he said. “Take some time to think about everything, stay with me and Linda for a while.” He put a hand to his heart. “I solemnly swear I will not hassle you about returning to school next month.”
Alma rolled back and forth on the balls of her feet, looking at her sister.
“We’ve already got the plan,” Batya said, waving Alma over.
“I know,” Mr. Driscoll said.
Batya picked up a towel from the lawn and began to dry Alma’s hair. Alma thrashed around but Batya’s grip was firm. “The judge said it was OK,” she told Mr. Driscoll.
“I know,” he said again. “But the judge is an idiot and so are you if you two leave here by yourselves.”
“Oranges give you cancer,” Alma said from underneath the towel.
“Mr. Driscoll,” Batya said.
At the furthest card table, a teenaged boy was quickly flipping through a stack of baseball cards from a generation ago, just as many had before him.
“Mr. Driscoll, imagine if every single thing you looked at scared you. Every place you went, every person you saw.”
“Wouldn’t you want to blank it all out?”
The boy pocketed a card while no one was looking.
“Wouldn’t you want to hurt someone?”
Mr. Driscoll glanced out into the street for a moment, then stood back up. “You have my number,” he said, wiping away a bead of sweat from his forehead with the heel of his hand.
As he walked back down the driveway, Batya took the towel from Alma’s head and swatted her behind. “Go handle that shoplifter,” she told her sister, who immediately ran back over to the hose at the side of the house.