I hope you will enjoy this short story. It’s a bit late for Halloween, and there is definitely nothing festive about it. Like the title says, it’s a tale about the worst date night ever.
At a metal utility barn in the middle of nowhere, cars filed haphazardly into parking spots.
Inside, a man chuckled over the P.A system, speaking off-mic to one of the regular attendees of the Saturday night auction. Folding chairs were lined up in rows, plastic and metal folding tables were set-up in a horseshoe formation and topped with boxes of junk – a few family heirlooms, furniture, bric-a-brac, crap.
Elsie attended alone.
Her days were measured by auctions, antique shop hours, and meals that were prepared in advanced and divvied up into single serving freezer containers. The auctioneer, whom she knew on a first name basis, left a cushion on a folding chair for her comfort and reservation. She took her seat well before the auction began, pulled one of those plastic freezer containers from her purse and settled in for dinner and crowd watching.
A man in a flannel shirt and beard stepped up to the box that was on the table to Elsie’s right. At his side stood a skinny woman who dressed like Audrey Hepburn and matched that man about as well as that “pair” of lamps on the table to their right. He was what they called a hipster these days, with his little incongruous beard and man bun.
Elsie smiled, shook her head, and drove half of a cracker into her chicken salad.
“Do you have a different opinion?” The woman turned to Elsie.
Elsie looked up with a start. “I’m sure I’ve always got an opinion. Which one are you askin’ about?”
The hipster laughed and the Hepburn woman raised an eyebrow.
“The box of china. Is it Limoges Haviland?” The woman held up a dinner plate.
Elsie chewed, shoved the other half of the cracker into the chicken salad, then reached out for the plate which the woman handed her. She flipped it over and read the maker’s mark, then handing it back to the woman, she turned her attention back to the chicken salad.
“People’s Republic of China,” Elsie said.
Both the man and the woman, heads together, flipped the plate again and inspected the underside. The woman looked skeptical.
“How did you know that?” The man said with belief that was not shared by his mismatched girlfriend.
Elsie swallowed before answering. “It says Limoges China. That’s not a description. It’s the place of manufacture, not Limoges, France.”
With good spirit, the man said to his partner, “we’re sitting next to this lady tonight.”
Elsie glanced down the aisle to her right. Neither seat had been reserved yet per the usual cushion or paper placeholders, so without seeming anti-social, she had little choice other than to give an invitation by half-hearted gesture. Without surprise, the man took the seat closest to Elsie. The woman sat on his opposite side.
Turning back to the business of her chicken salad, she tried to ignore the couple. But the man was chatty as well as hungry. He kept eyeing her salad and crackers until she finally offered him one, which he declined in favor of clamboring back over her to grab a hot dog from the concessions stand outside.
So pretty. Soooo pretty once.
The words were a whisper, nearly inaudible above the din of noise as the auction crowd increased.
I was cherished once.
Elsie cocked her head and tried to pinpoint the direction of the whispers.
“So do you come to these auctions often?” The Hepburn woman one seat over asked, pulling Elsie away from the task at hand.
Elsie tried to paint on a smile. “I’m here most Saturday nights.”
The woman nodded and wore a smug smile. “I guess that’s as good a way to spend a Saturday night as any.”
Elsie read between the lines; You have no social life.
So pretty once. Then, I was cherished, the whispering began again, and Elsie pointedly turned away from the woman. Did I ever tell you about the time the boys nearly broke my shade?
It was a lamp. Elsie scanned the items on the tables until she found a lovely piece, bronze base, lily design, lead pierced shade…
The Honorable Hamilton Price was out and the boys were home with just a housekeeper to keep them in check…
Hepburn’s partner returned just in time for the first auction item. Jim Patter, the auctioneer, held up a lamp with a bronze base, made eye contact with several bidders, Elsie among them, then began the fast-paced “cattle rattle” for a starting bid.
Elsie raised her cracker, a subtle motion picked up by the auctioneer.
Oh, and the parties they had… once… long ago. The whispers trailed off with sadness.
Regular auctions, those that are held in the same place on the same night with regularity draw a repeat clientele, a mixture of antiques dealers, hobbyists, and lonely souls with nothing better to do on a Saturday night. Over time, the group of regulars become a family of sorts. Elsie recognized faces, knew who collected what, could spot a hoarder a mile away, and that was reciprocated. Most people at this auction knew, when Elsie began a bid on a thing, she would go home with that thing. Occassionally, someone would run the bid up just to see if she would drop out. She never did.
The price rose with someone taking the biding well over a hundred. It was Hepburn, two seats over. Elsie just kept nodding, occasionally taking a bite of her cracker, with or without chicken salad on it. Finally, the woman shook her head vehemently, letting the lamp go to the high bidder, Elsie.
“And it’s a pretty little thing with a lot of potential. Sold.” The auctioneer ended bidding with a thump of his gavel.
Hepburn watched the lamp as it was removed from the podium in front and carried around the room by one of the auction house runners. The woman’s mouth opened in disbelief when Elsie, having popped the top back on the remains of her dinner, took the lamp from the runner, then put it into the box on the outside aisle, beside her chair.
Elsie stroked the lamp’s shade, muttering something.
“You bought that? I didn’t even see you raise your number,” the hipster said.
Elsie nodded and tugged on her ear. She had no real objection to the couple. If only they would be quiet so she could listen.
Pulling out a small plastic bag of grapes, Elsie offered one, first to the hipster, then to Hepburn. The woman declined the offer. Judging from the look on her face, she detested grapes. Elsie smiled, popped a grape into her mouth, and turned her attention back to the auction.
The woman bid on two more things and won both bids. She seemed to be slightly placated. The hipster boyfriend bid on a pair of tramp art boxes.
“No,” his girlfriend hissed. “Too high.”
But he kept bidding, only hesitating when the bidding went beyond his comfort level. He bid twice more, probably to spite his girlfriend, and won the bid.
“Those are nice,” Elsie complimented.
The hipster, whose name she learned was Marcus, thanked her. “I don’t know. They just spoke to me.”
Elsie gave him a long side look.
From the podium came the soft sound of someone sobbing. Elsie looked up.
Would have been better if I had been lost in the house fire too. The very idea of going to another home, with another family. It cannot be borne.
“Here’s a pretty little chair. Dainty ladies’ chair. What’ll you give for it? Do I hear fifty? FiftyDollarBidFiftyDollarFiftyDollarFifty-fi’GimmeFiftyDollarBid to start things off here, FiftyDollarBid…”
Elsie raised her number, straining to see the chair over the shoulders of people on the front row.
“I have fifty, Who’llGoFiveWho’llGoFiveGotFiftyDollarGoFiftyFiveFiftyFiveFiftyFive…” he gestured toward the back row and shouted, “FiftyFiveDollarFiftyFiveSixtyWillYouGoSixtyFiftyFiveGoSixtyGoSixtyGoSixty…”
Elsie held up her card.
“I’veGotSixtyGoSeventySixtyGoSeventySixtySixtyFiveSixtyFiveSixtyFiveAskin’SixtyFiveSixtyFiveBid,” he gestured to the back row again, then looked back to Elsie.
Elsie raised her card.
“I’veGotSeventySeventyGoEightySeventyGoEightySeventyGoEighty?SeventyGoFiveSeventyGoSeventyFiveBidIsSeventyWillYouGoFiveGoFiveGoFive…” The auctioneer looked around the room. No one countered.
“Sold. Seventy dollars to… number 5.”
Elsie had not realized she had been holding her breath. The chair was brought around to the side, the runner about to take it to the back of the room, when Elsie stood up from her folding chair, moved it into the aisle, then directed the runner to put the upholstered chair where her folding chair had been. It stuck out into the aisle a bit, but the runner simply laughed, did as he was directed, then raced back to the front of the auction house to grab another piece.
Elsie stroked the back of the chair, and cooed. “You’ll come home with me. You’ve had a hard life. I’ll take care of you.”
The sobbing subsided.
Who are you?
“Shhh. We’ll talk later,” Elsie said.
Marcus the hipster was watching her. She painted on a smile.
“I’m sure I could learn a thing or two about antiques from you.”
Reaching into her bag that was tucked inside the box with her lamp and her left over chicken salad, she produced a business card and handed it to Marcus. It read, “Dust Bunnies/Antiques, Art and Fine Collectibles/Elsie Smith/434-984-0820.
“Can’t wait to visit,” he said.
His smile touched his eyes.
His girlfriend did not smile.
Grrrrrrrr. A long, low rumble came tumbling toward Elsie like a wave to shore.
She snapped her chin in the direction of the growl.
At the same time, Hepburn elbowed her boyfriend and pointed with her chin to the new piece coming up for auction.
GrrrrrrrrRRRR, the thing bellowed.
Elsie looked at the faces around her. Certainly someone else must be able to hear this.
It was clearly coming from the trunk that was now being displayed front and center at the podium.
“What am I bid for this fabulous old trunk, in pristine condition?” The furniture handler lifted the trunk high onto his shoulder, spun to his side, and let the lid open, with the mouth of the trunk yawning toward the crowd of buyers. Elsie saw a dark bottomless chasm.
“Let’s start her at twenty-five. TwentyFiveBidToStart’erTwentyFiveTwentyFiveWho’llGiveTwenty-Fi-“
Elsie raised her card.
The trunk gave a tremendous growl. Elsie could practically see the thing shiver as it was hoisted above the heads of the crowd. This was malevolence in its animated form.
“Grrrrawl!” The trunk screamed.
“…twenty-five’sTheBidDoIHearThirtyThirtyThirty. Thirty! Thirty-fiveThirtyFiveThirtyFiveThirtyFive…”
Elsie looked to her left in time to see the woman two seats down lower her card. And that was a problem. Elsie felt no fondness for the woman. Her partner seemed alright, but neither one of them deserved that monster.
“…ThirtyFiveThirtyFiveThirtyFive. Thirty-Five! FortyFortyFortyFortyWho’llGiveFortyBidIsAtThirtyFiveWho’llGiveForty…”
The woman lifted her card, cutting a sideways glance toward Elsie.
Elsie lifted her card almost before the auctioneer could take it in.
Elsie rolled her eyes. The trunk gave a guttural growl. Elsie bid.
“A hundred,” the woman called out.
The auctioneer smiled.
The Runner put the trunk down on the table at the front and rubbed his shoulder. Elsie wasn’t surprised. That thing would have some bite. She, on the other hand, had a special means for treating such pieces – the malevolent, or vindictive pieces. Those that no one should have in their home. Elsie knew how to handle them. It was a public service she was doing.
She lifted her card one last time. “One twenty-five.”
“OneTwentyFiveTwentyFiveFiftyFiftyFiftyWho’llGoFiftyBidIsOneTwentyFiveWho’llGoOneFiftyFiftyFifty…” He gestured toward the woman, egging her on.
The one turned pointedly to Elsie, and holding her gaze, lifted her card into the air.
Typically, if it was a piece that Elsie had decided she wanted, Elsie got it. Regulars sometimes played with her, running the bid up gradually, knowing that she would keep bidding until she got the object. This woman didn’t know and with her, it was personal. She wanted the piece, only because Elsie seemed determined to have it.
In contrast to her usual, Elsie turned to the auctioneer, smiled sweetly, and shook her head.
The auctioneer raised one eyebrow in surprise.
“OneTwentyFiveOneTwentyFiveOneTwentyFiveWeAllIn?” The knob of wood he used as a gavel came down on the podium. “SoldOneTwentyFive. Number?”
The woman held up her card again. “Fifty-three.”
The trunk gave a tremendous growl and Elsie could have sworn, a triumphant guttural laugh. That was gonna be trouble for the woman. And while Elsie wouldn’t wish that thing on anyone unprepared to handle it, she thought the woman might just deserve it a little bit.
“Really?” Her partner spoke up. “You bought that? You think it’s worth it?”
The woman did not respond, so he looked to Elsie, unaware that the two women had been bidding against one another.
“What do you think? Is it really worth one-twenty-five?”
“The value of a thing doesn’t always lie in its resale value.”
“I try not to let my emotions get involved, the woman spoke up.”
Elsie knew otherwise.
The next hour went without conflict. The woman bid on some choice items. Elsie listened to the pieces and bid accordingly. The man purchased “mantiques”. And as the bidding began to wind down, chairs cleared out, Elsie packed up her treasures with the care they deserved, paid for her purchases, then began loading her truck parked around the side of the barn.
Two cars down, the man helped his business partner load their van with the fruits of the evening. Elsie watched as he hoisted the trunk into the rear of the van, then prepared to put some smaller objects inside the trunk for safe keeping.
“Don’t do that!” Elsie warned over the car between them.
The woman was busy packing some fragile perfume bottles into a box in the front passenger seat.
Elsie walked around to the back of the other car. She was half-hidden from the woman, so she could speak to the man.
“The history of a piece is, to some, palpable. The piece absorbs the time, emotions, actions, of what went on around it. There are gentle pieces.” She nodded toward the smaller box he had been about to stow inside the trunk. “They have had positive experiences. You are their guardian. And then there are pieces that have had negative experiences. The history is absorbed by the piece, be that a gentle passing or malevolence.” She nodded toward the trunk. “Don’t put that one,” again pointing to the smaller box, “near the other one.” Her finger swung like a pendulum to the trunk.
“Your partner paid too much for the trunk.”
The man looked over his shoulder. “I think she was… caught up in the moment.”
“You can’t blame her though. The trunk was probably instrumental in that emotion.”
“The trunk?” The man took his hand off of the trunk’s lid.
“She won’t make money on it. It’ll be a drain so long as she keeps it.”
The woman moved around the car to be a part of the conversation and protect her interest.
“Best to get rid of it as soon as possible.”
“You bid on it though, didn’t you?”
Elsie nodded. “Just trying to do a public service.”
“How philanthropic of you,” the woman said with no little bit of sarcasm. “I bet you’d be willing to take it off our hands too.”
Just then the trunk gave a tremendous growl that ended in a phlegmy laugh.
Elsie thought about it for a minute, then she nodded. She knew from experience, getting rid of something like that had its own set of risks. Try to burn it and a stray spark was likely to burn your house down. Throw it in the river and someone was likely to drown in that spot next week.
“I’ll give you what you bid.”
“Two Fifty,” the woman said without hesitation, almost speaking over top of Elsie.
Elsie sighed and dropped her chin to her chest.
“You can’t be serious,” her boyfriend chuckled. “We paid almost half that.”
“The price is two hundred, fifty dollars… if you’re that interested.”
“Really, Jenn, it’s not worth….” her boyfriend was clearly embarrassed.
“No, no. It’s fine. I’ll take it.” Elsie walked back to her truck to retrieve her wallet.
“Jenn, you cannot ask her to pay $250 for a trunk that is clearly not worth… if she had really wanted it, she could have outbid you during the auction.”
“She knows something.” His partner shushed him as Elsie returned, although she had clearly heard what they had been saying.
“Will you take a check?”
But his partner hissed and shushed him. “This is business. Our business, if you recall. You’re the one who told me not to let emotions effect the bidding.”
“It’s fine,” Elsie soothed. I’ve got cash… in… here… somewhere.” She dug through her purse, counted up bills, then dug through her jeans pockets, producing two hundred, fifteen dollars and seventy-five cents.
“Will you take a check for partial payment?” Elsie smiled, trying to make light of coming short.
“I’m sorry. It’s cash only.” The woman reached for the hatchback door of her minivan and slammed it closed.
“You cannot be serious, Jenn. Be reasonable, if not on the price, then on the terms. Here.” He dug into his own pocket. “I’ve got another ten, eleven, twelve…” he counted out dollar bills.
Jenn was clearly not prepared to negotiate. Elsie knew it was the influence of the piece.
“Maybe if you hadn’t stuffed yourself on so many chili dogs you’d be able to spot your new business partner the extra cash.”
“Now, Jenn, let’s be reasonable.”
And with that, the woman, Jenn, spun on her heel, got in the minivan and drove off into the night.
Elsie put up her hand with the cash protruding like a bouquet and a victim of unrequited love. The woman barreled through the crowd, several people jumping out of the driveway to avoid her hitting them.
And in the end, it was Elsie and Marcus, staring after a set of red tail lights, then watching the minivan as she sped out onto the dark country road.
Marcus turned, looking ridiculous. He too still held his few bills scrunched up in his fist. He was wide-eyed and bewildered.
“She left me. She drove off and left me here.”
Elsie sighed, then shoved her cash back into her wallet.
“No problem. I can give you a lift. Afterall, I feel like I sort of got you into this.”
“You did no such thing. She’s behaving like a mad woman.” Again, he turned to look after his retreating partner, but she, the minivan and the taillights were long gone.
“You cannot blame her too much.”
“I do. I blame her… for getting nasty in there, and buying something she clearly had no business buying… just because she wanted to prevent you having it.”
So he had noticed that. Elsie smiled a little.
“I blame her for being ridiculous in offering to sell it to you for that much, for not taking a check, for leaving me here without a ride….”
“I said I’d give you a ride. Come on.”
She motioned toward her truck, in the same gesture, waving to the auctioneer who was pulling on a much deserved soda.
Still flustered, the lumberjack let himself be lured to the truck. He climbed in, still shaking his head over the scene his partner had just created.
As they climbed into the cab of her truck, he shook his head, then turned to look at Elsie. “How do you know? How do you know what to bid on and what not to?”
Elsie smiled, turned on her headlights, checked the rearview mirror and threw the engine into reverse. In the back of the truck, a chair, a lamp and a box of bric-a-brac, kept each other company. The chair rocked back and forth, the lamp and box tucked between the chair and the truck wall. They would be alright. The chair had found a home in which she might retire and the lamp would burn bright again with new purpose. The chair had ceased it’s agonizing weeping and Elsie could hear it give a nervous laugh as it listened to the noisy excited chatter of the bric-a-brac.
“Oh, you know, the pieces, they just… speak to me.”