This short story was published in The Southern California Anthology XVIII in 2002.
The Apricot Appraisal
Lyle slinks into the antique shop just before noon, looking like last month’s socks on the bottom of a laundry bag. I’m so happy to see him and so pissed off he left in the first place that I almost throw the toaster at him.
I settle for sarcasm. “Well, well. Look what the cat dragged in.” I’m perched on the stool by the cash register trying to fix the toaster. It’s an antique, all right. The heating element runs rights right down the middle, and on either side is a door. You put a piece of bread inside and close the door. When you think it’s toasted enough, you open the door, turn the bread over, and shut the door again until the second side’s done.
“Coffee,” says Lyle.
“There isn’t any.”
He’s halfway down the Mickey Mouse aisle before it sinks “No coffee?”
“If you want coffee, go to McDonald’s,” I say. “Better yet, go home.”
“I don’t have half and half, either. You’re the only one that drinks it and it turned sour, so I flushed it down the toilet.”
Lyle thinks about this. “Can we start over? Hello, Josie, it’s good to see you again.” He talks real slow, like his tongue keeps snagging on his teeth. “And how are you today?”
“Sick of taking care of your store, since you asked. How would you feel if you were eighteen and your boss just—disappeared one day and left you by yourself to take care of all these priceless antiques? I ought to quit!”
I’m overdoing the sarcasm, but I can’t help it. This is the longest conversation I’ve had with anybody since he left. “Phyllis said you were a binge drinker, but I thought that meant you’d get sloshed every so often and cry and feel sorry for yourself. I didn’t know it meant you’d drive to Outer Mongolia—”
“—and hole up there nine and a half days and not even call me. Bars in Outer Mojave don’t have phones?”
“I need a cigarette.”
Lyle’s older than my father, or maybe I just think that because his hair is gray and he walks stooped over. He’s real skinny with tiny, perfect features, like a doll’s. Sometimes I want to touch part of him, his ear, for instance, just to see what something that perfect feels like.
“You don’t need a cigarette,” I say. “You need a shower.” I pick up one of his mini-screwdrivers. Something’s wrong with a door hinge on the toaster—it won’t close all the way. Plus, the top’s dented.
Halfway out the front door Lyle stops. “That’s not plugged in, I hope.”
Through the open door I watch him try to light a cigarette. His hands are shaking so bad he torches three matches before connecting, but I don’t feel sorry for him. He’s the one who decided to drink himself shit-faced.
“Whose car is that in the parking lot?” he asks.
“Mine. It’s where I sleep. If you don’t like it, I’ll park behind McDonald’s.”
“Why are you sleeping in your car? That’s not smart, Josie.”
“Excuse me? You are telling me about being smart? And where did you sleep all last week?”
Lyle’s propped against the side of the building with one hand holding his elbow up so his cigarette is right in front of his face. Even when he’s not hung-over he never answers questions straight off. He likes to smoke and think and take his time, and sometimes when he does answer, what he says is so off the wall it’s like we’re having two different conversations.
“Something happen between you and Phyllis? I thought you two were pals.”
“She crapped out on me.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means I went home last Tuesday expecting dinner, but both her kids were there instead, telling me the house is up for sale and I have till the end of the week to move. So I stuffed everything in my car and moved into your parking lot.”
Lyle looks like he leaned down to sniff a flower and it went off in his face. “Wait a minute. What are you saying?”
“Phyllis bought the farm. Disappeared into the Great Beyond. Died. Got it? Now why don’t you meander off to that yard sale and cheat some little old lady? That ought to cheer you up.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“The flyer that came in the mail just before you left,” I tell him. Lyle’s not the only one who can change the subject.
“I don’t cheat people, Josie.”
“Oh, right. You’re the one that got hurt when you came back from that garage sale with a box of Fiestaware you paid twenty bucks for!”
“I run an antique store, not a charity. That Fiestaware will pay the rent for months, plus electricity, plus your salary. Who did I hurt? And who am I hurting by taking a couple of drinks now and then?”
“Will you stick to the subject?” I yell. “I’m not talking about you being drunk!”
“Okay then, I’m not either. People put their stuff out and expect me to be honest about what it’s worth. But most of them are too lazy to clean it first, and I can’t see what I’m buying. I have to guess and then look it up in Schroeder’s when I get back. Sometimes I’m right, sometimes not. And some people sell their stuff dirty on purpose, because the piece has a defect and they think they can hide it. So tell me—who’s hurting who?”
That almost makes sense, but I’m too mad to admit it. “You know what pisses me off? You complain people don’t clean their stuff. But it’s been around—otherwise it wouldn’t be an antique. When you use something every day, it shows. Why does something have to be perfect before you like it?”
“If a piece is clean you can see the defects, but also you can see what’s special about it. Why does that piss you off?”
“Because if you treated people as good as you do all this stuff, maybe you’d still have a wife to go home to!”
What happened was, I’m heading for Los Angeles except I took a wrong turn and ended up here. So I asked around for a place to spend the night and somebody said try Phyllis. Her youngest had just gotten married and it was like instant mother-daughter on her part, except there was no way I wanted a re-run of that.
Next thing I knew it was a week later and Phyllis asked if I wanted a job. When I told her yes, she got all excited and said I should talk to Lyle because he ran this antique store and needed somebody to cover the cash register when he was out. But when Phyllis mentioned she and Lyle’s wife went to the sane Al-Anon meeting, I thought, no way. No more drunks in my life.
So I went to work for a company that installed alarm systems, figuring I could earn some serious money for once without Mom taking half. I was who people called when their alarm went off by mistake because somebody slammed a door too hard or the dog got out or there was an earthquake. The San Andreas Fault cuts right through here— you can see it from the freeway, the rocks squeezed into loops like twisted laundry—and every day there’s a new pile of ground-up dirt at the base of the rocks.
The first earthquake, a little one, hit while I was at work. When everybody belly-flopped under their desk, so did I. Even before the shaking stopped, the phones started to ring. Every alarm in town had gone off.
But now I only hide under my desk if it’s major. The big quakes start off with a noise like all the windows are slithering around in their frames. Then my hands start to tingle, like when you shake out a blanket and it’s full of static electricity. Then the ground starts heaving.
One night when Phyllis and I were watching TV, this guy explained how everybody needed an earthquake preparedness kit—a battery-powered radio, a flashlight, a blanket, bottled water, stuff like that. I thought okay, that makes sense. So I bought a backpack and filled it with earthquake stuff and put it in the back of my car. At the last minute I tossed a bag of dried apricots on top. I love how they taste, so sweet and tart that once I start eating them I can’t stop. If I was going to get stuck someplace because of an earthquake, I wanted consolation.
Phyllis said I should keep my jewelry in the car too, because if it was a bad quake and I was at work, looters might break into her house. Before my parents got divorced, Dad gave me a bracelet with a purple stone that had belonged to Grammy. It’s the only jewelry I have. Phyllis said I ought to buy one of those little fireproof safes, too, so I could keep my bracelet in it along with my “important papers.”
Imported papers like what? The one that said I had to live with Mom until I was eighteen and couldn’t see my father at all because the judge ruled a drunk wasn’t a fit parent? Which didn’t matter anyway because once the divorce was final he split, so if I want to hear him say he loves me I have to say it to myself? Those important papers?
But I did what Phyllis suggested, bought a little safe and asked one of the installers at work to put in a car alarm for me. His name’s Freddy and he has orange hair. For real—he doesn’t dye it. The way I asked, I made it sound like there was something in it for him if he didn’t charge me. We did it in the back of my car—it’s cheaper than paying cash for what you want. A little trick I picked up living with Mom.
When Freddy said hi the next morning I pretended I didn’t know him. He didn’t take the hint. The next thing it was Josie, want to have lunch? Or Josie, how about a movie tonight? I told him thanks but no thanks. But a few days later there he was again, tangerine hair slicked back with water, sucking on a breath mint, hands behind his back. I’d already seen the heart-shaped candy box, and when he finally left, so did I. For good –I didn’t even tell my boss. I wanted a boyfriend about as bad as I wanted the flu.
Dumb move, quitting like that. There isn’t a lot of work around here–the San Andreas fault makes people nervous.
Then I remembered Lyle.
A top-heavy woman wearing fake nails said he hadn’t been in the store for six days and what did I want with him? I told her about Phyllis and needing a job. She looked at me, clicking her nails on the counter-top like she was machine-gunning somebody, then grabbed a key and tossed it at me.
“Congratulations, honey. Consider yourself hired. When the son-of-a-bitch comes back, tell him I’m through being a doormat. If he wants to talk to me, tell him to call my lawyer.”
And that was that—I had a job at Lyle’s antique store. I decided if his bitch of a wife was leaving him, I’d probably like him after all.
As soon as she left I toured the place. It was crammed with furniture, vinyl records, cookie jars, lamps, waffle irons with those round black and white fabric cords, glass pitchers in iridescent colors—I’d never seen so much stuff. But I couldn’t get over how clean everything was. Like nobody had ever touched it.
The next morning I opened the store at ten because that’s when the sign on the door said it opened. Lyle stumbled in after lunch, so hung-over his eyes wouldn’t focus. He asked where his wife was, but when I told him what she’d said about being a doormat, he grinned.
“What’s so funny about divorce?” I said. “It’s not funny. It’s like people dying.” He stopped grinning. He didn’t look like he was enjoying it much anyway. “Well, then. Thanks for helping out. What do I owe you?”
“I’m not helping out. I work here. Your wife hired me—my name’s Josie.”
Lyle backed up until he could focus on me. “One day at a time,” Josie,” he said finally. “Okay? Let’s just take it one day at a time.”
Most days I worked behind the counter, or showed people where the World War II memorabilia was, while Lyle went to yard sales or puttered in the back, fixing things. “Restoration,” he called it. That was the part he liked best.
I got into a routine: I walked to work to save on gas, and on my way I’d pick up some doughnuts—Lyle always had a pot of coffee going. After work I’d walk back to Phyllis’s place for dinner, and either hit the mall or watch TV with Phyllis. She was chatty but easy to be around, and after a couple of months getting to Los Angeles didn’t seem like such a big deal anymore.
Then Lyle disappeared.
“At least sleep inside the shop,” he’s saying through the open door. “I have a rollaway I’ll bring in for you. Have you checked the local classifieds? I bet you can find somebody looking for a roommate. Somebody your age you can be friends with.”
“Maybe I don’t want another roommate. Did you ever think about that? Maybe I’m out of here. Just tell me one thing first—then you can smoke or go home or fire me or whatever. Just tell me why you keep running off and leaving people.”
Before Lyle can say anything, a pickup hauls into the parking lot and a kid hops out.
Lyle lets the cigarette fall through his fingers and steps on it, working his face up into a smile. “Morning!”
The kid nods and eases through the door. He’s a real carrot top. For a second I think it’s Freddy from the alarm company. I’m so glad to see him my heart soars into my throat like a bird that sees a hole in the sky.
But it’s not Freddy. This guy is older, and instead of candy he has a brown bundle. “My grandmother died and left me this,” he says to Lyle. “Her name was, her name was Baldwin.”
Lyle moves behind the counter next to me and watches the kid unwrap the bundle. Inside is a set of silverware so tarnished it’s black and blue. Over Lyle’s shoulder I can make out the initial “B” on one of the serving spoons.
“And what’s your name?” Lyle asks.
For a minute the kid looks blank. “Same as hers. Baldwin.”
Lyle takes his jeweler’s loupe out and looks for a hallmark on the back of the spoon. As usual he takes his time. The kid starts to fidget. “So how much will you give me? It’s real silver, anybody can see that.”
“You’d sell something your grandmother gave you?” I blurt out.
His head snaps up. “Who’s she?” he asks Lyle. “What’s her problem?”
“I wouldn’t know where to start,” says Mr. Perfect.
“You’re not really going to buy that dirty silver from him, are you? Because if you are, let me show you what my grandmother left me!”
The safe is still in the back seat of my car, along with all my stuff from Phyllis’s house plus two cushions from the couch by the TV that she embroidered herself. I haul it all into the store and dump it out.
“Go ahead, take a look,” I tell Lyle. “What’s this worth?” I hold up Grammy’s
bracelet. “Make me an offer.”
Lyle leans both hands on the counter-top. “I can’t buy that from you, Josie.”
“Why not? It’s not perfect, is that it? Make me an offer!”
“It belonged to your grandmother.”
“So? His comes from his grandmother!”
“When silver’s monogrammed, it lowers the value. You know that. And the set’s not complete. I’d say twenty, maybe twenty five, tops.”
“No way!” sneers the kid. “It’s worth more and you know it, asshole!”
I never have liked that word, but then I hear something I like even less—a tiny, faraway sound like glass shivering. The air in front of my face starts shedding sparks.
“Oh, fuck.” The kid looks longingly at the silver. All the glasses on the shelves are rocking. “Okay! Twenty five bucks!”
Calm as frozen water, Lyle pulls a twenty and a five out of the drawer. The kid grabs the money and bolts just as an etched glass mirror in the back topples over.
“Outside,” Lyle says to me.
The pickup squeals out of the parking lot. All the other cars on the street have pulled over. The ground’s bucking so hard I have to brace myself against Lyle or I’d fall down. Power lines whip back and forth over our head like jump ropes. Lyle has hold of my hand, and I’m surprised at how rough and calloused his is. Not perfect-feeling at all.
“Scared?’ he says.
“Then why are you crying?”
“Why did you buy his silverware and not my bracelet?”
“It’s sterling, and worth a lot more than what I paid him. I’m guessing he stole it. But somebody who loved you gave you the bracelet.”
“It’s because I didn’t clean it up, isn’t it. I’m just one of those people you make fun of because they—”
“We’ll talk about it later.”
I’ve heard that before–except “later” never comes.
The wires finally stop twirling. No buildings fell over. Nobody’s screaming. We’re still alive.
I yank my hand out of Lyle’s. “I quit. Pay me what you owe me and I’m out of here.”
“Will you quit telling me what to do?”
“I’ll make a pot of coffee and we’ll talk. You work hard and you’re good with the customers and I depend on you. I don’t want to lose you, Josie.”
I stand there like a loony, clutching Grammy’s bracelet. What I want is to make a run for it, but I can’t forget how happy I was when I thought it was Freddy walking through that door, and how good it would feel—even if I start sniveling halfway through—to tell him how much I miss Phyllis.
“Goddamn it,” says Lyle. “I’m sorry I left you here by yourself. But I can’t promise it’ll never happen again. All I can promise is, I’ll always come back. Just don’t treat me like dogshit when I do.” He heads inside the store, another cigarette in his mouth. This time he doesn’t even try to light it.
My stuff is where I dropped it—all over the floor. I should stow it in my car again and sweep up the broken glass before somebody gets hurt. Everything except the apricots. I’ll open the bag and put it on the counter. We just had an earthquake, didn’t we?
When Lyle comes back with the coffee I’ll ask if he likes dried apricots. If he says yes, I’ll ask him to show me how to fix the toaster so it works like it’s supposed to. If he does, I’ll stay.