paul farenbacher always told me, Never call yourself a salesperson. What you do isn’t sales, he’d say. You aren’t in sales. What you are doing is providing people with an opportunity. This is what you do. Sometimes. It’s not even what you do. It’s not who you are. You are Meredith; you are a lovely woman. And Meredith reads and enjoys the theatre and spending time outdoors. Meredith also sometimes provides an opportunity for an individual to purchase excellent cleaning products. See? This is not sales. Never say you are a salesperson.
Paul Farenbacher provided opportunities for individuals to purchase products for twenty-five years before he retired, before he got sick. He started out selling detergents and disinfectants—not too different from what I do now, in fact—but after that, he sold cookware: heavy, enamel-coated cast iron. He also had a brief stint selling vitamins and nutritional supplements made from Blu-Green algae. I still have a questionable canister of this powdered seaweed at home. He claimed it strengthened his immune system. I have used it exactly once. I blended it into a Blu-Green Banana Smoothie, as suggested on the side panel. The powder turned the liquefied fruit such a disturbing shade of turquoise that I was moved to pour the lumpy miracle cure down the toilet. I snapped the plastic lid onto the tin and tucked it into the back of my cupboard. I should throw it away, but I can’t.
I would really like a cup of coffee. It’s nine o’clock on Saturday morning and I’m standing on the Farenbachers’ front lawn with their son, Trevor. I’m trying to make eye contact with the early birds as they swarm the rack of Paul Farenbacher’s suits, looking for bargains. A money belt loaded with coins hugs my waist and I am grateful for the anchor. It’s beautiful today—drifts of petals from the cherry trees have sifted into small piles on both sides of the curb. A light breeze and the petals stir like confetti in a snow globe. Trevor is having a hard time with this sale. He’s going around behind his mother’s back with a black Sharpie, marking the prices up when she’s not looking. He came back from Costa Rica this winter, when his father got sick. He said he wanted to restructure his business and get certified to teach kitesurfing here in Victoria. I wonder what he wants to do now.
Paul Farenbacher used to live in Costa Rica. One of the ten windiest places in the world, he told me. That’s why Trevor was there. But in the sixties, Paul Farenbacher was involved in something called the Instinctive Nutrition Movement, a group who smelled their food and then decided to eat it based on their intuitive reaction to the odour. They used to eat live shellfish, he told me. Right out of the ocean. Something about the briny tang was intuitively comforting to the ancient reptilian mind—it triggered memories, perhaps, of an amoebic past spent suspended in saline—so they would gnaw at live prawns and crabs still blue from the waves, bite into the salty bodies before boiling water could taint them.
I’ve never been to Costa Rica. I’ve never been east of Osoyoos, British Columbia.
Trevor’s mother, Margaret, stands in the middle of the lawn, next to Paul Farenbacher’s reclining chair. One of the early birds approaches her. The woman is wearing a pale blue trench coat. She has very curly hair. It’s scraped off her face and cinched in a tight puff at the base of her head. The woman looks at Margaret, she looks at the chair, and she bites her lip, thinking.
Can I sit in it? she asks.
Of course, says Margaret. Use the lever, get a feel for it.
Just pretend you’re in your living room, Bruce says. Try to ignore us.
If only it were that easy, says Trevor.
Bruce is Margaret’s new boyfriend. Today is only the second time I’ve seen them together. The first time was the wet and uncomfortable Thursday evening at Welsh & Bloom Funeral Home, only two months ago, when the whole neighbourhood came out on the rainiest night of the winter to see Paul Farenbacher arranged in a box in a jaunty pinstripe suit I’d never seen him wear before (such wide, bold stripes: he looked as though he were dressed for a performance in Vegas). A collection of Paul’s old cronies was there, from all his years of work—the cookware men, the detergent and spray disinfectant men, the Blu-Green algae men (who were actually mostly women)—huddled under the dripping canvas awning out front, a cluster of khaki overcoats under a cloud of smoke that condensed into fog. The sixty-year-old’s version of extreme sport: smoking at a funeral sponsored by lung cancer. The risk! The bravado! And Margaret Farenbacher in the front row, tucked into a pearl-grey suit like an altocumulus formation, managing to look parched in the rainstorm, her face powdered, her lipstick bleeding into cracks, her hair shellacked into feathers. Beside her, the tall man in black we all now know as Bruce, or Margaret’s new boyfriend, looking like he could use a cigarette himself.
Margaret has sold the Farenbacher bungalow and is moving in with Bruce, which is the reason for this yard sale. Perhaps that’s why Margaret chose to dress her husband in pinstripes on the day he was buried; in a muted way, she was also celebrating her engagement to Bruce. I don’t mean to sound unkind. I’ve lived next door to the Farenbachers for thirty years. I grew up with Trevor. I learned how to ride a bicycle in their driveway. Paul and Margaret used to babysit me. Margaret can be a very lovely woman.
I still live with my parents, in the house where I grew up. I run a small business called Scrub Goddess, a line of all-natural household cleansers. I started by mixing baking soda, a mild abrasive, with clove oil. I made batches of the stuff in the kitchen sink. I called it Artemis Powder and stuck a pink label on the jar—the same kind of jar you’d find filled with Parmesan cheese at the grocery store—and started selling it door to door. Business has grown, and I’ve converted our unfinished basement into a workable industrial unit. My mother helps me run my booth at the trade shows. Ten years ago, if someone had told me this would be my life, I would never have believed it.
It’s comfortable, the woman says, after she’s sat in the chair, pressed her lower back against the lumbar pillow, experimented with the lever, and hauled herself out again. It looks very new.
Oh, it is, says Margaret. It’s hardly been used.
You’re unbelievable, says Trevor.
She just means that it’s in excellent condition, I say to Trevor.
The woman asks Margaret, Why are you selling it?
Bruce nestles Margaret’s shoulders under his big arm. Well, he says, I already have a leather club chair, and there’s just not enough room for the sectional, the loveseat and two big chairs in my living room.
Margaret pats the back of the La-Z-Boy like it’s a dog. It’s been very good to us, she says, but it’s time to let it go to a new home now.
I’ll need a hand if I get it, the woman says. Let me think. She starts to walk away.
Don’t think about it too long! calls Bruce.
Margaret is wearing a pungent perfume. The thick scent hangs around her like a sticky brown cloud. She has styled her grey hair so that it wafts up off her head like layers of meringue. She wears caramel-coloured loafers that sink into the grass. They’re dark around the toes, stained from the dew.
She’ll come back, says Bruce. Don’t worry.
Do I look worried? Trevor says.
Trev, says Margaret.
Trevor turns away from her, walks over to the boxes set in the shady grass in the front of the yard. I follow him. Do you want to take a break? I ask. He ignores me.
He crouches by the milk crate, his back arched in a C-curve, and silently flips through his father’s old record albums. He looks like his father—smaller than average, even a bit shorter than I am. Stocky, with the kind of muscles that I’ve always thought were good for rock climbing or skateboarding. We kissed once. In the kitchen at the Murphys’ annual holiday block party. Trevor came in looking to refill his glass with something, and there I was, refilling my own. We were both drunk. He pressed me up against the refrigerator when we kissed, and my back slid over a button on the fridge door that made a pile of ice cubes fall out. They spilled all over the floor like a cold, glittering win at a private slot machine.
When I found out that Paul Farenbacher was sick, I started to come over to visit during the day, when Margaret was at the office. Trevor was still in Costa Rica. I made miso broth with thin slices of green onion and I served it to him in a deep red and white soup bowl I found in Chinatown. We listened to the radio together. I offered to make him a Blu-Green Banana Smoothie once, and he made a face and smacked the air with his hand. Those people don’t know shit from putty, he said. Throw that stuff away. The smell of Windex made him feel sick, so I spritzed their windows and countertops with my spearmint-scented Demeter Spray.
He bought the La-Z-Boy as a gift for himself soon after his diagnosis. He said he’d spent his whole life fighting it, but that it was finally time to recognize the desires of his inner lazy man. He showed me a catalogue of chairs for lazy people: slots for the remote controls, coolers in the armrests, space for a whole six-pack of beer. Paul ordered the basic model in solid blue. After the chemotherapy, this was the only place he could still feel comfortable. He often spent the night there, in the reclined position, a blanket tucked up around his chin. He’d lost all of his thick white hair—he’d gone silver in his twenties, and as long as I’d known him, his hair was a source of pride—but he refused to wear a toque over his bald head, even on cool nights. My head is not a teapot, he’d say.
Trevor finally says something to me. Should I keep this? he asks. He’s holding an Arlo Guthrie album.
You keep whatever you think, I say. Keep it, if you want it.
He slips it back into the milk crate and stands up. No. I have enough.
Why don’t we get some coffee. Get out of here for a while.
I’ll take the whole crate, says a man behind us. I turn around. A pair of sunglasses hang around his neck on a thick orange plastic cord. He already has his wallet out in his hands. His fingers press two green bills out of the crease. He says, I’ll give you forty bucks and I’ll take the record player and this whole crate of albums off your hands.
The record player alone is twenty-five, says Trevor.
I’ll give you forty for the whole shebang.
What did I just say? says Trevor.
I put my hand on Trevor’s back and feel his spine through the cotton. That’s fine, I say gently. We can do forty. Do you need a hand getting it to your car?
The man is still looking at Trevor. No, thank you, he says carefully. I’ve got it.
After he’s gone, Trevor says, Well, he just cleaned up, didn’t he.
It’s just five dollars. It doesn’t matter.
Whatever, he says. I hardly remember Dad using that record player anyway.
Your dad liked his music, though, I say.
What do you mean by that? Trevor looks at me.
What I meant was that Paul Farenbacher liked his music, those records that just drove off in a blue car with a yellow “Save Our Troops” decal. He had no use for contemporary artists. I’d burned him CDs thinking I could find something with a classic roots feel, a new collaboration he’d like despite himself: Billy Bragg playing with Wilco, Robert Plant with Alison Krauss. He thanked me for the albums but never listened to them more than once. Eventually I accepted that he simply preferred the sound of his own records.
Your father had strong opinions, I say to Trevor. I mean, he knew what he liked and didn’t like.
Trevor looks at me slantwise. How is your father doing, Meredith? He must like his new job, sitting on the couch testing candy all day.
He’s actually on the computer all day.
I was only kidding.
My father used to work at the Island Dairy plant before he injured himself. He had an accident while sweeping the floor with a cheap broom—the plastic handle fell off mid-sweep, and the metal rod, which was sharp and jagged at the end under the plastic cap, slipped and punctured his forearm, just past his wrist, severing a tendon and leaving him with numbness in three of the four fingers of his right hand. He’s since gone on disability, which has significantly cut the household income even though he was only a few years away from retirement anyway, and now he stays at home and helps my mother track promotions for her Candy-of-the-Month mail order business. We’re all self-made people out here on Linden Street.
He’s doing better, I tell Trevor. He’s starting to write with his left hand. It’s almost as good as his right. You can only tell on some letters, because he writes them backwards.
What letters does he write backwards?
I think about it. S, I say. And N.
Trevor pulls out a ratchet set. Mom, are you sure you want to get rid of this? he says. You can use these, you know. These are good tools.
I don’t even know what that’s called, says Margaret. I wouldn’t know how to use it. I have my hammer and my screwdriver set and my little power drill, and I’m just fine with that.
I have a ratchet set, says Bruce.
I’m sure you do, says Trevor.
I’m going to make a coffee run, I say. Who wants coffee?
Oh, Meredith, I’d just love one, says Margaret. Cream and sugar, please.
Thanks for helping us out, Meredith, says Bruce. We sure do appreciate you being here today. He adds: Milk, no sugar for me.
Bruce is tall, and he stands with his chest raised. He’s in excellent shape for a man well into his sixties. His frame is classic strength. He has large hands that have seen some physical work, hands you feel you can trust. Bruce is not a heartless man. He has a good face. I don’t blame Margaret for wanting to move in with him.
Margaret says, Before I forget, Meredith, I’m almost out of my Artemis Powder.
I might have a jar kicking around for you, I tell her.
How’s that going? asks Trevor.
Business is good, I tell him. People don’t want to use chemicals anymore. Everyone is afraid of cancer. Then I stop, realizing what I just said.
I didn’t mean that—
Margaret has wandered over to the card table that’s set up on the other side of the yard. She rearranges piles of mismatched dishware, putting the large plates on the bottom, saucers and bowls on top. I watch her turn some of these pieces upside down over the lawn, dumping out the cherry blossoms that have collected inside. She looks at the mugs, and one by one shakes the petals out of those too. Then she straightens all of the mugs so that their handles are pointing in the same direction.
Sorry if I’m being a bastard today, Trevor says to me.
You aren’t really. It’s okay.
It’s because when I listen to myself talk, the words sound ridiculous.
I know, I tell him. I feel the same way.
I’m just aggravated. Don’t listen to me today.
A woman with a vinyl clutch purse is moving through the rack of clothes with her fingers like she’s leafing through office files. Then she turns around and leaves the yard, her purse tucked under her arm. Trevor says, When we’re talking, it’s so obvious that we’re alive.
We could be quiet, I say.
No, he says. That’s awkward.
He’s playing with his T-shirt. Rolling the edge of the fabric between his thumb and forefinger so it makes a tight tube. Then letting it go so it hangs in a curl at his waist. I want to reach out and press the curl down and feel his hip under my hand.
I miss your dad, I say. I spent a lot of time with him this winter.
I know, he says.
Paul Farenbacher’s briefcase is on the grass by my feet. I have a collection of old battered suitcases I’ve picked up from antique shops and estate sales. I love them. They’re all in my living room, holding my tax returns and receipts from the past seven years. I have to keep the paperwork for that long in case I’m audited; every year someone starts a rumour that they’re digging for fraud associated with natural health trends and small businesses. I promised myself that I would stop buying the suitcases when I realized that I was, quite literally, collecting baggage. But this one is special. I bend down to get it. The cover is black with a pebbly texture. It has a monogram engraved on a brass plate under the handle: P. A. F.
What’s the A for?
Axel, Trevor says. Paul Axel. I have the same middle name.
Do you mind? I’d like to have it, if that’s okay.
No, you should have it. You keep suitcases, don’t you? He says keep. Like they’re cockatiels, or exotic orchids.
I could give you the five. To make up for the record guy.
Don’t be stupid. It’s yours.
I let the briefcase rest on my palms and he touches the sides, flicks open the latch. There’s a dusty, grapefruity smell, like sour paper and ink. All of my suitcases have this smell. I’m disappointed when I realize that Paul Farenbacher’s case is no different. The lining has an amorphous blue stain in the corner. There are two hinged metal arms holding up the top.
Thank you, I say.
Do you want anything?
He looks at me, confused. This is the first time I’ve really seen Trevor’s eyes since he’s been home. His irises have asymmetrical spots of gold embedded in the blue. The roundness of his eyes, the roundness of his face. He is so much like his father. This is Paul Farenbacher at my age, I think. Involuntarily, I think of kissing Trevor, his smooth teeth sliding against my tongue. I look away.
I mean from the bakery. Coffee, something to eat.
Oh. No, thanks.
I’ll get us cookies or something. You haven’t had breakfast.
Trevor lowers the lid of the briefcase and it snaps in place. I’ll save this for you, he says. You take this home.
One black October day when I was twelve, the same day I woke up to a scritching sound inside my ear (a sound that suspiciously felt like an insect, though I knew that it was highly unlikely a bug could have crawled into my ear canal; I told myself that it was a drop of water trapped in there), I found out I had been dumped by Shane DeSouza. Brad Garret came up to me at recess and said: Shane’s with Tammy now, so don’t call him your boyfriend anymore. Tammy was a winch-faced gymnast with a spiral perm and a penchant for a certain purple, sticky lip gloss that came in a plastic pot and had an iridescent sheen; an American brand with a French name that I knew for a fact had been tested cruelly on laboratory rabbits; a lip gloss that had been passed around to all of the girls at recess the day before, everyone but me, and when I returned to class after the lunch break on that day, my lips were conspicuously dry and un-glossed. Which is exactly why, I reasoned, huddled in the back of the playground digging at the base of the chain-link fence with a stick, Shane DeSouza didn’t want to be seen with me anymore. As I cried and snuffled, my sinuses filled with fluid, giving me an ache in my temples and the ugly need to suck back tears and snot. This made the scritching in my ear intensify, almost as though there really was something in there, a tiny creature who could sense my distress.
That afternoon I was late, having dragged my sneakers through the ditches along the side of the road on the long way home, keeping my head down low, looking at stones and half-rotten leaves and disintegrating litter for poetic implications that would enhance my feeling of wretchedness. When I opened the door, I could tell that Paul Farenbacher was there. The house smelled like his aftershave: caraway seeds, menthol, and sawdust.
Meredith, said my mother. There you are. Come say hello to Mr. Farenbacher. He’s just brought us a gift for Thanksgiving weekend. She held a square, heavy-looking bottle in her hands.
Paul Farenbacher bent over the banister to get a look at me. Hallo, he said.
After he left, my mother showed the bottle to me—it was almond-infused Polish vodka. She uncorked it, took a whiff, and made a face. It smells like cyanide, she said, and she poured the contents down the drain. She rinsed the hand-blown glass bottle, mottled with intentional imperfections, shimmering and opalescent—not unlike Tammy’s lip gloss, I noted to myself—and set it on the shelf next to the glass paperweight with a swallowtail butterfly trapped inside it.
Our house was built without any kind of mud room. After an outing, before joining the rest of the household, you were required to remove your shoes at the door, hang your coat on the hook, and slipper your way up the stairs so you wouldn’t leave a trace of the outdoors in the carpet fibres. There was a banister that framed the stairs at the entranceway to better facilitate the viewing of family and friends as they completed this procedure. After years of bearing the weight of these observers, the railing on the banister had loosened, and Paul Farenbacher leaned right along with it. When I looked up, he was tilting towards me at an alarming angle.
What’s wrong with you? he asked me. You look puffy. He exchanged a glance with my mother. Tell me this is not trouble with a man!
Paul Farenbacher’s lightly accented English sounded knowledgeable and wise to me, and his prematurely white hair and beard, trimmed with precision, so white that it dazzled against his toast-coloured skin, made him look like a wizard or a scientist, equally capable of saving me from the mysteries of the paranormal and the evils of humanity. The truth was that I felt safer with Paul Farenbacher than I did with my own father. My father—whose car insurance had increased exponentially from the number of fender-benders he caused every year; who, when helping me with my math homework, poured a liberal amount of Canadian Club into one of our sunflower-printed gas station collectible tumblers, calling it his “magic formula revealer”; who had to wear a shower cap and rubber gloves to work and came home from the Island Farms Dairy Production Plant every night smelling like sour milk—secretly embarrassed me.
I think something is eating my ear, I told Paul Farenbacher.
That night, while my mother started dinner (Please stay for a bite, Paul. I’m making extra. Call Margaret and Trevor) and my father watched television (Can I get you a drink, Paul, let me pour you a cocktail), I lay down on the loveseat and let Paul Farenbacher peer into my ear canal with a flashlight and gently press his callused index finger against the tragus of my right ear until a small black spider crawled out, along his finger, and into the palm of his hand.
Gotcha, Paul Farenbacher said.
I bring back a cardboard tray from the bakery, with a paper cup tucked in each of the slots and cookies for all of us to share. I deliver a cup to Bruce. I give Trevor a cup too, even though he said he didn’t want one. He tells me his mom is in the backyard.
Margaret is smoking on the back steps behind the house. Paul’s old ashtray is beside her. Red lettering on white ceramic: York University Class of ’69. A roll of ash lies on top of a slice of masking tape with the price marked on it.
I raise my eyebrows. That’ll be twenty-five cents, ma’am.
Oh, geez, she says, exhaling a fast puff. Don’t tell Trevor, okay? Thank you, honey. I bend to offer her the tray and she takes her coffee cup out of it. It makes a squeaking sound as she pulls.
Meredith. She motions with her hand to a space on the step beside her. She pats the wood and says to me: Can I talk to you for a minute?
I know this is hard for Trevor.
It’s hard for everyone, I say. We all loved him.
Margaret nods. She holds the cigarette to her lips like a dart and inhales, eyes squinting. Then she drops her hand and looks at the cigarette in her fingers. She exhales.
These are Paul’s, she says. I don’t even smoke.
I ask, Can I have a drag?
She passes it to me with a sneaky look, and I put it to my lips just to have a taste.
I never thought I’d see this, she says. You’re the healthiest person I know.
Don’t tell my clients, I say, and let the smoke out when I smile. I sit down beside her and slip the cigarette back into the notch in the ashtray.
Margaret slices the Scotch tape with one polished fingernail and loosens the flap of the cookie box until it pops open. Since we’re making confessions, she says. She plucks out an almond crescent and considers it. She continues, I’m assuming you knew that Paul and I had an understanding.
I look at her.
She puts the cookie in her mouth all at once. I watch her chewing and swallowing and I can imagine her jawbone, her teeth, the skull that is under her skin. I wonder at this: without skin and muscles, we would all be indistinguishable. Each one of us has a skull that looks exactly the same as all the others.
It was so hard for us at the end, she says.
I’m unclear whom she means by us, but I don’t say anything.
I just wanted to thank you. She licks the powdery crumbs off like she’s kissing each finger. He loved having you come over so often. He told me.
I take this in. Then I say: You and Bruce.
She nods. I know this must seem rushed to everyone, she says. But they don’t know the whole thing. I just thank God that it was fast for Paul.
She crushes the end of the cigarette into the masking tape until the smoke stops and it becomes nothing more than a stub of paper in a tiny heap of black and white ash.
Boris, the big ginger tom from down the street, has jumped inside the box of paperbacks. His ears—two orange triangles with wispy white bristles—poke up over the brim. This improves sales. He’s a popular cat. A small crowd gathers around him. I sell a copy of Neuromancer, a battered copy of A Prayer for Owen Meany, and a handful of detective novels that I don’t recognize.
I ask Trevor if he’s going to go back to Costa Rica.
I’m going to take some time off, he says. I might go to Europe. My grandmother is in Berlin.
What about the kitesurfing? I say.
He smiles. The wind will be here when I get back.
Well. If you need a place to stay in the meantime.
He looks at me and I see his chest move through his cotton T-shirt when he takes a breath and again I have to stop myself from touching him. I wonder if he knows the truth about his mother and Bruce. If it would matter to him if he knew.
We should have dinner or something, he says to me.
The woman in the blue trench coat comes back. She’s brought someone with her: a short, suntanned man with a curly blond ponytail peeking out from under a baseball cap that says J. Brinkman and Associates Reforestation and a flat gold chain around his neck with links that move like a snake. They both touch the sides of the La-Z-Boy, drawing lines in the plush with their fingers as they talk about getting it into their truck.
I think we’re finally going to sell the big boy, I say to Trevor, and something wavers in my solar plexus as I watch the transaction.
The woman passes Margaret a bundle of twenty-dollar bills, folded in half. Margaret shakes her hand and puts the cash in her back pocket. Bruce helps the man with the chair. They stand on either side of it and they use their legs when they lift it off the ground. It looks heavy. Like pallbearers, they stand for a moment to stabilize before they carry it out to the truck.
Excuse me, I say when I see the wind swatting the flaps of blue plush fabric against the chair legs like prayer flags, the men’s fingers pressing into the sides of the chair, scraping it into the back of the flatbed truck that is already sprinkled with pink petals even though it’s only been parked there for a minute. Wait! I call after them, half running across the lawn like a lachrymose widow, my throat filled with hot and itchy clots of tears, crying now, because I remember the last thing that Paul Farenbacher said to me, Bis morgen, which wasn’t significant at the time, just a little thing he said to me before I left him for the night, tucked into that chair, that blue chair. Wait, I scream, and now Bruce is behind me, he’s got his arms around me—my God, he’s a big man, his hands are easily twice the size of my shoulders—he’s got me, he’s holding me in a gesture that is half restraint, half reassurance. You can’t have that chair, I blubber through the window of the truck to the woman, who is already sitting in the passenger side, her tight red face concerned and frightened. That chair, I cry. That chair is not for sale.
Sarah Selecky was a finalist for the 2010 Scotiabank Giller Prize, and was shortlisted for the 2011 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, for This Cake Is for the Party (2010).