This little story saw print publication in “Ballyhoo Stories,” a now defunct little lit mag of the early aughts. (Remember lit mags? Yeah, me neither …) I actually did a live reading of it at a coffee shop downtown, which was attended by a solid dozen people. The story was inspired by an anecdote a friend told me about uncovering a cache of sexy photographs at an estate sale.
We were working that summer for Herb’s dad, Ray Dwyer, who owned an antique shop in St. Paul. Herb grew up in the shop, surrounded by highboys, vanities, and mirrored coat racks. From the time he was ten, he knew furniture like most boys know bicycles and baseball cards. I swear he could tell a genuine Stickley table from a reproduction, blindfolded and bound to a chair, just by smell.
Every Thursday and Friday morning, we made the rounds of the estate sales in the Twin Cities. Sometimes we went as far as Gaylord or Rochester if the auction list was promising. My job was to drive the truck and load the booty, while Herb selected the pieces and struck the deals. We were nineteen that summer, before our sophomore year at St. Olaf College, but Herb still didn’t have a driver’s license.
That Thursday, Herb spent almost an hour haggling over a wardrobe at a sale in Northeast Minneapolis while I sat on the tailgate of the truck. He talked the guy running the sale down to just over half the asking price by pointing out that neither the finish nor the hardware were original, and got him to toss in a crate of old books to boot.
“That was a pretty good deal,” Herb said when we pulled out of the alley. “Dad can fix it up nice.”
“And the books?”
“For me.” He still had his victory grin, the one that replaced his game face after a round of bargaining. “I saw an old Encyclopedia Britannica in there; maybe it’s a full set.”
“Where to next?” I asked.
Herb looked over the scribbles in the little blue notebook he always carried.
“Kenwood,” he said. “There’s a dining room set I want to look at. Then lunch at Lake Harriet, and Mager’s and Quinn before we head back?”
I nodded. Mager’s and Quinn was an antiquarian book dealer in Uptown, and would have been Herb’s most lucrative source of income if he didn’t roll most of his earnings back into purchases there. Herb had developed the same eye for books that he had for furniture.
The house in the Kenwood neighborhood was solid and stately. It had a porch that stretched the width of the house, French windows flung open to the cool summer breeze blowing off Lake Harriet. The small windows around the second storey gave the house an aloof appearance, like a graceful old lady looking down her patrician nose at us, not scoldingly, but slightly bemused. We parked the truck across the street and went up the flagstone walk to the porch.
The sale opened at seven in the morning, so by ten o’clock the locusts had descended already. We passed a young couple on the walk, the man carrying a pair of brass lamps in his arms. On the porch we met Fred Gibson, who ran a shop in Minnetonka that specialized in military memorabilia, slipping on his shoes while balancing a cardboard box on his shoulder.
“Anything good, Fred?” Herb asked. A month earlier, Herb sold Fred a footlocker full of Nazi brick-a-brack: ceremonial daggers, arm bands, yellowed newspapers printed in High Gothic script, even a tea set emblazoned with red and blue swastikas. Herb’s father would never carry such things at Dwyer Antiques, but taking the box had been a condition of the deal for a rustic Czech pie safe; Fred knew his market, and was only too happy to take the footlocker for a good price. He could sell the tea set alone for twice what he paid for the whole box.
Fred shook his square, shaved head. “Some old Navy stuff. Nothing spectacular.”
“Did you get a look at the dining room set? Is it still here?”
Fred nodded. “Nice one. Fancy sideboard. Your dad would love it.”
We thanked him, then took off our shoes as instructed by the handwritten sign taped on the glass door into the house. There were nine or ten pairs of shoes lined up on the porch—sneakers, sandals, work boots—and we added ours to the collection.
The furniture had been moved out of the living room beside the front hall to make space for a horseshoe of card tables laden with stuff: pots and pans, picture frames, linens, Christmas decorations, a waffle iron still in its cardboard box. Everything had a price, written in large black numbers on blue and green stickers. Even the tables themselves were marked for sale.
Herb glanced at the tables, then moved through the living room to the dining room. It was a formal and not very inviting space, undecorated except for an ornate chandelier and a beveled mirror above a built-in hutch. Neither was priced. The table we had come to see squatted in the center of the room on lion-clawed feet, its four paws clutching brass balls that rested on the floor.
The whimsical feet seemed too dainty for the table’s oaken bulk. It was thick as a butcher’s block, and rectangular, with a rough, dark grain under its smooth finish. Herb squatted next to the table, and I joined him.
“Look at this,” he whispered, reaching out to touch a metal lever under the table. He pressed down on it, and with a groan the table split in half on heavy iron runners. Herb gave a twist to the lever, and I watched in surprise as a hinged wooden leaf unfolded in the gap and snapped into place, adding ten inches to the table’s already impressive width.
“I see you found the lever,” said a voice behind us.
I turned around and looked up at an old woman with thick white hair and pale eyes. She wore a dark blue blazer and skirt that made her hair look even whiter, like spun platinum.
“I’ve only ever seen one mechanical self-storer before,” Herb said. He was still whispering.
“Nice, isn’t it?” She put her hand on the table and swept her fingers along the surface. “It was in my second husband’s family. Shame to leave it behind, but it’s far too heavy to take.”
When I stood, the woman came to my chest, and I’m not especially big. If she was more than five feet tall, I’d be surprised.
“So—this is your house?” I asked.
“For another week, at least. Then off to Arizona.”
“It’s very nice,” Herb said.
We had been going to estate sales for a month and this was just the second time the home owner had been there. Usually, the owner had already moved away, or died. The other time it was the old man’s grandson running the sale, and the old man sat the whole time in a wheelchair in the corner, his spotted hands folded in his lap, staring at the people haggling over his dishes and chairs. We didn’t stay there long.
“Too much house for an old woman,” she said, “and too cold for my creaky bones.” She rapped the table with her knuckles. “So—you two look awfully young to be buying old tables.”
“We work for my dad,” Herb said. “Dwyer Antiques, over the river. Maybe you’ve been there?”
The woman laughed, a high, giggly, youthful laugh.
“I don’t go to antique stores,” she said. “I’m afraid if I stand still too long, someone will try to buy me.”
I laughed and glanced over at Herb. His face was flat, preparing for the bargaining game.
“You interested?” she asked.
“How much?” Herb asked.
“Twelve hundred. Includes the table, chairs, and sideboard.”
Herb went over to the sideboard, which was heavy and dark like the table. The pulls on the cupboards and drawers echoed the table’s fanciful legs, with small brass balls clutched in lions’ claws dangling down the face.
“Do you know where it was made?” Herb asked.
“My mother-in-law always claimed Germany, but I suspect France. It was her mother-in-law’s, and she was Alsatian.”
While Herb discussed the dining room set, I went back out through the living room. There were three people going through the things on the tables, but none looked serious about buying. Across the front hall was a staircase, and I followed it up to the second storey. On the walls above the stairs were a few pictures, all with price stickers. Light squares on the wallpaper showed where some pictures were already gone.
The stairs intersected a long hallway with rooms on both sides. Some of the doors were open, and people were milling around in the rooms. As I went down the hall I passed a sewing room packed with bolts of fabric and bags of yarn; a bedroom with linens and books stacked neatly on an old iron-framed bed; a small bathroom where everything but the toilet and sink was tagged for sale.
The room at the end of the hall, overlooking the back yard, was full of portable clothes racks, hung with dresses, suits, and jackets. Most of the clothes were men’s.
I went to one rack that was a little emptier than the others, with a few scattered blue jackets and shirts. This was probably the rack that Fred Gibson had picked over; the jackets and shirts were uniform parts, some still crisp with starch but smelling of mothballs. A cardboard box under the rack held some black shoes and a rolled watch cap. The light coming through the windows made the shoes glisten like wet stones.
I went back downstairs to see if Herb was in his end-game yet. I found him sitting at the kitchen table with the old woman, coffee cups in their hands, looking at a photograph album. When the woman saw me, she smiled and got up to pour me some coffee.
“I was just telling Herbert,” she said over her shoulder, “how much he looks like my first husband, Chester. The curly hair, the dimple on the chin. I think you’re even about the same height he was.”
Herb had the album open to a black and white picture of a young man in slacks and a sweater, his back against a tree, squinting into the sun. The resemblance was uncanny—not just the hair and dimple, but even the slumped shoulders, hands thrust into pockets and little-boy grin looked like Herb.
“Chester’s cousin Nate took that one,” she said when she came back to the table with my coffee. “We were at his folks’ farm, about a month after we were married, and a week before he went to Chicago for training.”
I could see the farmhouse over the man’s shoulder, a grainy smudge on a low hill. Between Chester and the hill was a plowed field, still muddy; I’d guess the picture was taken in late March.
“Of course,” she said and took her seat again, “the Navy cut off all that beautiful hair. Lord, how I cried when he came home on leave with his bald head!”
“How old is he in this picture?” Herb asked.
“Just turned eighteen. He was living in the city with his uncle—Nate’s father—learning the grain exchange. Just sharpening pencils and getting coffee for the traders, really, but it was a way in. You must be about eighteen yourself.”
“Nineteen,” Herb said.
She made that giggly, tinkly laugh again. “I remember when a year made a big difference. At my age, we’re a little more vague. How old do you think I am?”
Herb’s ears turned red, and he stammered, “I’m not very good at—“
“I am seventy-six years, three months, twelve days, and … “ she looked up a blue plastic clock on the wall, “six hours old, give or take. And most days I still feel like an eighteen-year-old girl with arthritis.”
“How long were you married to him?” I asked.
“To Chester? Less than a year. But we were only together that first month, and week before he shipped out. He was killed in Guam seven months later.”
“I’m so sorry,” Herb said.
“Oh, don’t be. Fifty-eight years later, who knows if we’d still have been together? We were far too young. I was married to Richard for over forty years; poor Chester is like someone from a history book now.”
She took Herb’s coffee cup and asked, “Can I top you off?”
“Oh, no, thanks,” Herb said. “We really should get back to the shop.”
“Well, I hope your dad is pleased. I’m sure you’re robbing a poor old woman.”
Herb laughed and took the book of “Dwyer Antiques” checks out of his pocket. “I’d never do that, Mrs. Scocroft.”
“Call me Pearl.”
“Yes, ma’am. Pearl.”
Herb’s ears were still red while he wrote out the check. I looked over his shoulder; it was for the original twelve hundred. Herb looked back at me, then looked away and tore out the check.
“Wait just a minute,” Mrs. Scocroft said after she slipped the check into the pocket of her blazer. Then she went out the back door of the kitchen. I heard footfalls on stairs going down into the basement.
A few minutes later she came back with a blue woolen pea coat over her arm and a white sailor’s cap in her hand. She handed the coat to Herb and the hat to me.
“These were Chester’s. I don’t know why I kept them for so long. Try it on, please; I want to see if it fits.”
Herb slipped his arms into the sleeves and closed the row of black buttons. It was a little bit too long, falling almost to the hem of his shorts, but fit perfectly through the shoulders and chest. He flipped up the collar and grinned.
“Oh, perfect!” she said, clasping her hands together. “Please, keep it. You look like Chester come to life.”
“Oh, no, I can’t, Mrs. Scocroft,” Herb said, and started to slide the coat off his shoulders.
“Call me Pearl,” she said again. “And you must take it.” She reached up to put her hand on his shoulder.
“Then let me pay for it.”
“No. Some things are too valuable to be sold. They have to be given away.”
Herb pulled the coat tight again and smiled down at Mrs. Scocroft. For a second I expected him to lean down and give her a kiss, but he just stood with the coat buttoned closed, his curly hair touching the collar.
I thanked Mrs. Scocroft and went to work on the dining room set. Herb blinked, then jogged over to help me. The metal machinery for operating the leaf made the table even heavier than it looked. Negotiating it through the front door was difficult, but we managed to tip it sideways through the porch and down the walk. Mrs. Scocroft watched through the living room windows as we juggled the pieces around the wardrobe in the back of the truck, and waved as we drove away.
“I think she was flirting with you,” I said when we pulled away.
“Don’t be silly.” Herb was still wearing the pea coat, which smelled musty and had strands of cobwebs clinging to the shoulders. “She was just a sweet old lady.”
“You didn’t even try to talk her down, did you?”
“That was a fair price. Dad can sell this for double, triple maybe.”
I shrugged, but didn’t push it further.
We got hoagies to go at Davani’s and stopped near the band shell on Lake Harriet for lunch. Herb brought the box of books to the picnic table to see if there was anything worth selling. The encyclopedia turned out to be a red herring, just an orphaned “E-F” volume, but he found some art books and a first edition “Peyton Place” that would bring a few dollars.
“You could probably have got her down to eight hundred,” I said.
“Maybe. I think I was a fair price. She could have done better going straight to a dealer. Or even at auction—it’s a rare set.”
When he stood up, he wrinkled his eyebrows and reached inside the pea coat. After some fumbling, his hand came out with a stiff yellow envelope.
“What’s in it?” I asked.
“I don’t know.”
There was nothing written on the outside of the envelope. Herb untucked the flap and pulled out a small stack of black and white photographs, three inches square with scalloped edges.
The picture on top was of a pretty blonde girl wearing a pea coat and dark slacks. The coat fell past her knees. She had a white sailor hat perched on top of her head. It reminded me of the old “Gee, I wish I was a man” recruiting poster, with a cute redhead in a sailor suit winking at the boys. The girl was standing on a porch, leaning up against a white post, smiling at the camera.
In the next picture she was leaning over the porch railing a little bit, winking, and the top of the coat had slipped open to show her throat. In the third, the coat had fallen open further, and one small white breast was clearly visible in the coat’s shadows.
“Oh my God,” Herb whispered. “I think that’s Mrs. Scocroft.”
I didn’t say anything. Herb continued to flip through the photographs, which showed progressively less of the uniform and more of the girl. She seemed to be laughing as the coat fell off her shoulders, as she unbuttoned the too-big trousers that threatened to drop off her narrow hips, as she held the sailor hat in front of herself like a fan dancer. The last picture—there were twelve in all—showed the girl in profile, hugging the post and grinning over her shoulder, the round curve of her bottom smoothing the square lines of the railing. The uniform lay in a loose pile on the floor. Beyond the porch was a muddy plowed field, and a smudge that may have been a stand of trees.
Herb turned the stack over and fanned them out like playing cards. In a girlish hand across the back of the first picture was written, “For Chet, my sailor boy. Think only of me. Love, your Pearl.”
“Oh my God,” Herb said again.
“She was quite a looker,” I said and elbowed his ribs.
“We shouldn’t have these.”
“Why not? She gave them to you.”
“I don’t think she meant to. I don’t think she knew.”
“Oh, come on. You don’t forget taking pictures like that. And you don’t lose track of them.”
Herb turned the pictures back over and held out one from the middle. The girl had lost the coat completely, and was holding up the trousers with her hands in her pockets. Her skin was brilliantly white against the gray sky. I could almost hear Mrs. Scocroft’s giggle on that spring day sixty years ago.
“We have to give these back,” Herb said.
“I don’t think so. Either she meant you to have them, and she’ll be offended, or she forgot about them, and she’ll be mortified.”
“We can’t keep them.” He kept shuffling the pictures, shaking his head. “It’s not right.”
“We could sell them, then,” I said. “I’ll bet Fred would take them.”
Herb gave me such a withering look that I wished I hadn’t said it. We had heard about, but never seen, the special collection that Fred Gibson kept in a locked drawer behind the counter. It was the nexus of war and sex: illustrated guides to New Orleans’ brothels during the Federal occupation; Nazi propaganda cards that pictured Russian girls being raped by hook-nosed Jews while their men were at the siege of Stalingrad; government-issued condom packets that came ashore at Normandy; Playboy pages wrinkled and stained from being folded into the helmets of grunts at Khe San. I’m sure there were examples of homemade comfort, too, amid the snapshots of Saigon bar girls and Parisian street walkers, but I couldn’t image Mrs. Scocroft’s bare shoulders and bright giggle shuffled in among all that sweaty desperation. So I tried to change the subject.
“Who do you think took them?” I asked.
“I don’t know. Chet?”
“Nah. They must have been a surprise for him, a set of private French postcards.”
“The cousin, I’ll bet. Ned?”
“Nate,” Herb said.
“Yeah, Nate. That’s the farm from the picture of Chester. I’ll bet Nate had his own dark room—you wouldn’t take pictures like this to be developed. I wonder what he thought of seeing his cousin’s wife in the altogether?”
“Well, I feel pretty uncomfortable about it.”
“That’s just because you’re a prude. What, did you think it was all Glen Miller waltzes and ‘I’ll Be Seeing You’? These are pretty sexy.”
“You’re sick.” Herb put the pictures back in the envelope and returned them to the jacket’s inside pocket. “She was a looker, though,” he said, and grinned.
“I’ll be Chet liked having them on those long nights at sea.”
“You’re still sick.” He picked up the box of books. “Come on, we’ve got to get back to the shop.”
It took us an hour to sell the books; Herb worked hard to get top dollar for his “Peyton Place.” At Mager’s and Quinn I found a book of bomber nose art, pin-up girls who flew by night over Tokyo, Dresden, Nagasaki and Berlin. I tried to get Herb to buy it, but he looked away and ignored me. It was fifty bucks, so I passed it up, too, and left those curvy gals on the shelf for someone else.
Mr. Dwyer was thrilled with the dining room set, especially when Herb told him he talked Mrs. Scocroft down from almost two grand. I said nothing, and kept quiet about the coat, which was folded carefully on the passenger seat of the truck.
“So, should we take the pictures back now?” I asked when we left for the day. We were waiting at the bus stop a block from the shop, heading back to our summer sublease near the university.
Herb shook his head. “I’ll go tomorrow before work. I think it’s best if there’s just one of us.”
He wore the pea coat all that fall and winter, sometimes with the sailor hat cocked at a jaunty angle on his head. One time, at a house party off campus, I started to tell the story behind the pea coat. We had met a couple of girls on the porch, braving the first chilly breezes of November, and I wondered what they would think of Mrs. Scocroft and her photographs. I wondered if girls our age—the picture-Mrs.-Scocroft’s eternal age—would send a sailor boy off with a gift like that. But Herb gave me such a hard look, as hard as when I suggested selling her to Fred, that I cut the story short with Herb accepting Chester’s coat. The girls thought the story charming and sweet, but not enough so to get either to repeat Mrs. Scocroft’s performance.
He never told me if he took the pictures back, or if he delivered them in person. I never asked. I imagined, though, that Herb still carried those twelve photographs in his inside pocket, maybe with a thirteenth snapshot—Mrs. Scocroft beside the pool in Arizona, wearing a white and blue golf set, squinting into the sun and laughing.