The Auction, a short story

Grandpa stood at the lace-curtained window looking down from the second story bedroom to the yard below.  Look at all those people down there, he thought.  Must be at least thirty or forty, maybe more.  The crowd below was milling about in the early autumn sun, waiting.  Imagine that.  Grandpa thought that perhaps a person ought to feel more than he was feeling.  It was odd, and then to have the whole family skating around his moods so cautiously. 

Imagine all those people, Grandma, coming to the farm to pick over all of our old junk.  He rubbed the lace between his fingers, it smelled dusty, and thought about her again, his mate, his friend.  The missing her didn't stop, not for a moment.  Oh, it eased a bit, settling into his middle like a heavy cat on his lap; soft, but heavy.  But still, there was the missing her.

The farm auction was scheduled to begin at 9:00 a.m.  Furniture littered the yard in ragged rows hauled out early this morning by a couple of young fellows.  The oak credenza brought over from Germany a century before by Grandma's family, the tattered curved sectional, bounced nearly to death by generations of grand kids, the kitchen table, so many hours sipping coffee, making plans, talking and more tables, chairs, beds, and boxes and boxes of accumulation.  Forty-seven years of marriage now strewn about in boxes and fingered by strangers; weddings, births, school kids, graduations.  And death.  All due to be sold at auction at 9:00 a.m.  In less than one day, a century of stuff would be scattered and sent off in opposite directions.

Why does it all seem so silly and dull?  Grandpa watched the three men set up the auctioneer's stand.  The bald one's head is shining already, Grandpa noted.  Going to be a hot one.  The two younger workers were taller and quick to take orders from the squat, balding man.  From the window, they all looked like speechless dolls dancing noiselessly around his sunburned yard. 

"Dad?  Dad, are you up here?"  Grandpa could hear his oldest son, Jim, calling up as he scaled the stairs and strode into the room.

Jim stopped abruptly as he saw his father near the window still clutching a bit of lace in his fingertips and staring down at the yard.  "Oh, sorry, Dad.  I, I didn't mean to bust in on you.  Maybe you would rather be alone.  I'll just go back down..."

"No.  No son, come over here a minute.  Look."  He waited until Jim stood beside him.  "Did you ever think so much stuff could come out of such a small house as this?  Lord, it never seemed that big, to hold so much."  The two men, father and son, stood side by side and gazed quietly at the yard below.  "Years ago, we were settlers, and now we are settling up."  He chuckled just a bit at his own play on words.  Jim didn't seem to get the humor.

Across the yard and to the east, away from the auction activity, a long table covered in pretty linen, (Grandma's linen) stood alone beneath the crab apple tree.  The table was covered with dishes and figurines and dainty little porcelain boxes.  A tall pewter candelabrum stood sentry over the long rows of assorted pretties.  The grandchildren, sixteen in all, milled around the table carefully fondling each pretty bauble where soon they would line up, oldest first, youngest last, and begin the slow procession past the table.  Each child was allowed to choose things, special things, one at a time, to keep, from Grandma and Grandpa’s things.  The line would move until the table was bare or each child, (some not so young anymore) was satisfied with his or her finds. 

Jim squirmed uncomfortably beside his father.  "It seemed the only way, Dad.  Sure hope you don't mind.  Mary and I thought the younger ones should have something...” His voice trailed off apologetically.

Grandpa knew that Jim didn’t understand his silence, yet how could he tell him it wasn't displeasure or even sadness.  He had never been one for talking about how things were on the inside and he didn't know how to start now.  Even as he spoke, his words sounded useless, like drops of rain hitting hard clay.  "I know Jim, Grandma wanted the kids to have something.  And the apartment will be great, really.  All of those people my own age, new things to do."

Jim stood a while longer and then backed away slowly as if he were not quite sure what to do or say.  He smiled stiffly and said, "Well, guess I’ll leave you alone for a bit."  And then he was gone again, and Grandpa smiled and chuckled a bit.  Just like his dad, this one; long on feelings, short on words.

The old man finally turned away from the window and sat on the small loveseat he had chosen to keep for his new apartment.  How do you explain?  It seemed like a man ought to feel something after farming the same spread for better than fifty years and then just stopping all of a sudden one day and selling the whole works to some young couple with grand visions who will, like him and Grandma, turn the soil, raise families, make memories and fill the house with their own years of accumulation.  Life was such a mystery.

Jim didn't understand.  Not yet.  Its only things Jim, thought Grandpa.  Only things.  It gets real easy to let the things go when it’s just the missing that is left.  Missing Grandma, missing the farm, missing youth.  Lord, who would have ever thought we would live so long anyhow.  The heavy cat feeling shifted and was settling in his lap again.  Things don't make a life, and they don't go along in death.  Just things.  His heart felt full and heavy.  It was good to just sit by a window and see, really see, that all that stuff down there was not what life is about.   The good things were all safe, where nobody could get at them, and they couldn't be auctioned off at any price.  These things were given away, for free.  Right Grandma? 

The microphone screeched as the auctioneer began.  "Gather round folks, gonna be all done by mid afternoon.  Lets get going."  It was 9:00 a.m. straight up.   


First Published in The South Dakota Review