“Stoop Sale” by Evan Berkow
Ralph called me stupid for hoarding my memories. It was the little things that got him. The smell of strawberry rhubarb pie from the time we took a weekend upstate. When that little girl’s dog got loose on the Brooklyn promenade, the way Ralph swept it up with the casual ease of a shortstop. The girl’s shy smile when he handed it back to her.
Ralph called these “non-essentials.” He muttered about how I was just wasting space, how our pensions weren’t getting any bigger. I’d plant myself on the couch, hide behind a cup of tea or a magazine, and try to ignore his dagger-glances as he replaced his hearing aid with that tiny widget and erased our daily chores and frittering from his consciousness.
He’d kiss my head sometimes, after he reduced our marriage to the milestones and generalizations.
“I remember that I love you, Julia. Isn’t that enough?”
But Ralph is gone now. It’s been three years since the cancer stuck around long enough to swallow our savings before it took him away from me. He was depleted by the end. Looked as if he was drowning in his hospice bed, so skinny I felt only bone when I kissed him.
He begged me to erase those years of sickness when he was gone.
“I want you to only know the best of me.”
It was the last coherent thing he said. He lingered a few weeks longer. Spoke garbled sentences in a morphine-stupor. He whispered the names of old lovers and told me they were waiting for him in a hole in the ceiling.
But I held on to those days, my whole lonely watch. The sterile stink of the hospice. His monitor’s metronomic beat, so immediate even as he slipped further and further away from me. Coming home alone to our dark apartment each night.
I clung to those memories and purchased more space for them with the last of his pension.
How could I not? We had lived a shared life and as we grew old we cast off its various complexities as if seeking ballast in simplification. We never had children. We retired. Our friends passed on in one way or another. In the end, we didn’t have much aside from each other. For me, that was enough. Even as I sat vigil by his side and counted the endless seconds between each shallow breath, it was enough.
Three years. Lord.
Not long ago, I was watching some mystery program on TV. It was yet another evening spent bored out of my wits and listening to the sing-song musings of young couples strolling beneath my window. I had a bill in my hand from the memory storehouse. Beneath it, one for my rent. Beneath that, a collection notice from Ralph’s doctor.
It’s time, I thought.
On a warm Saturday morning, Brooklyn stirring to wakefulness around me, I painted a sign on the back of a pizza box. Make your best offer! I added a smiley face. One accidental drop of paint formed a teardrop on its cheek, which was not entirely inappropriate.
I took a seat on my stoop, leaned my sign against the stairs beside me, and held my big yellow binder in my lap.
Oh, that binder! It took months to create, sitting in front of my computer and wracking my brain. I reduced my whole life to taxonomy, spent hours each day thinking through categories and marking them in boldface at the top of each page. Vacations, Weddings, Anniversaries. Each category was followed by an impossibly long bullet-point list. The sum of my experiences, best and worst.
Eventually the task became kind of fun. Our species had long ago sold off our headspaces, traded volume for clarity, and I had a lifetime of memories preserved in high definition. But they were so many, a cluttered and unorganized mass. In crafting my binder, I was ordering my life, packing it up into tidy little bundles. I began to see surprising connections between events that happened years apart. Those small evolutions that carried me from points A to X became suddenly clear. I found memories that were almost forgotten, as if they had simply fallen between crates in my mental warehouse. Ralph would have shaken his head, grumbled something about a shocking waste of space and money.
Of course, some memories were completely off limits. The important things, like where I kept my reading glasses. Which was the best neighborhood supermarket. Moral lessons passed down by my parents. Even so, I kept Ralph’s frown in my head and tried to limit my hoarding to those bare essentials.
It wasn’t long before I got my first customer. She was one of the roving memory-shoppers who often stalk Brooklyn on weekend afternoons, a smart-looking young woman in a blazer who kept her blonde hair pulled back in a severe ponytail. A lawyer or something. A job that afforded little time for herself.
“You have vacations? Caribbean?”
“My husband and I went to Aruba once, back when we first retired.”
We spent some time haggling but she eventually gave in when I offered to throw in a Labor Day trip to Cape May. She pulled out her ThoughtBubble – an upscale version, as small and flat as her cellphone – and handed me the link, which I plugged into the socket within my ear. I pulled up those memories, let them wash over me one last time as they circled the drain and vanished. Her Bubble made a satisfied trilling when I unjacked. She gave me a tired smile, said that she looked forward to downloading them with her husband.
The afternoon went well. One man, dragging along an imperious little boy who pouted and stomped in the bike lane, purchased most of my childhood. He said it was for his son, to teach him a lesson about how good he had it these days. A young couple in tight jeans and rainbow hair purchased several ex-boyfriends (a category I took particular delight in compiling, relishing each sad, sexy, and embarrassing story). There was a local historian who wanted to experience my neighborhood “back in the proverbial day.”
It was flattering, having so many people interested in my mundane little life. They came by my stoop in a steady stream.
Sometime in the late afternoon, a young man stopped by. He had on a suit, royal blue with pinstripes, and a tie kept loose at his collar. He squinted through tortoise-shell glasses at my binder and ran his finger down each page. I sold half of my twenties while he browsed. And then he was in front of me, tapping the closed binder against his leg.
“How long were you and your husband together?”
He nodded. Sighed. “How much for the whole relationship?”
I stammered. “The whole thing?”
The question took me aback. Despite my intentions, I didn’t actually expect to sell all that much. I mean, I listed everything because that’s just what you do, but I always thought I’d be left with a great many memories that would have otherwise been consigned to the bargain bins of my mind. The thought had even comforted me as my binder grew to voluminous length, as the possibility of losing my whole life grew with each inch.
“Well, whatever you haven’t sold already.”
I told him that I honestly didn’t know. He removed his glasses, wiped them on his jacket, and made an offer. I won’t say the exact number but I will say that it was extraordinarily generous.
Still, I hesitated. He saw my gears turning, saw that they threatened to stutter to a halt, and upped the offer by a significant margin.
This process repeated itself three or four times before the sheer weight of it broke me down.
I shook his hand.
His Bubble was the newest model. Extra storage. I didn’t think they had even been released yet. I told him so and he winked at me. He told me it was one of the perks of designing the damn things, told me it was our little secret.
I plugged in and gave it to him, all forty-two years of Ralph and me. I have to admit, I clung to some of the memories and his Bubble responded with agitated little whirring noises. The man frowned. He told me I didn’t have to if I didn’t want to.
I shook my head and told him no. I told him that it was time to move on anyway.
I tried my best to relax, to savor those tiny little memories that rushed away from me like the stars whenever the Millennium Falcon went into hyperspace (a favorite movie from childhood and one of the memories that remained unsold).
My final glimpse of our marriage was of a crumb stuck to the corner of Ralph’s lip, the last remnant of a slice of blueberry pie. I still find it strange that I can remember, well, my remembering of that, but I’m no techie so I’ll just take it for the freebie that it is.
And then, with a dissipating heaviness in my chest, it was all gone. The man’s Bubble chirped happily. It took me a few minutes to catch my breath. The man waited patiently, polite enough to look away while my flush abated. He paid in cash, thick wads he pulled from his satchel and replaced with his Bubble. I felt like crying a bit when he zipped the bag closed and I lost sight of his device.
I asked him why he wanted it, why he wanted my marriage.
“Somebody needs to keep these things,” he said. He looked a little sad, but maybe he was just being thoughtful.
I shrugged. “They were non-essentials, I guess.”
The man smiled. “That’s what my wife always says.” He took my hand, gave it a quick squeeze and pulled close to me. “Thank you,” he whispered and I nearly blushed.
He took a step back and straightened his satchel.
“So, what do you plan on doing now?”
It was my turn to smile.
“Oh, I have a new project in mind,” I said.
I watched him walk away, watched until he became a small, shuffling point against the day and disappeared around a corner.
That was how my stoop sale ended. I tossed my sign into the recycling bin. I laid my binder beside it a few itchy seconds later. I could have kept it, but what would be the point? A souvenir? A catalogue of what I’d lost? It was better this way, with the discarded skin of my memories hauled off to eventually become a grocery receipt or a paystub.
The sun was setting over Brooklyn and I was exhausted, yearning for my couch and that evening’s episode of PBS Mystery. My bones moaned in protest when I sat down, getting crotchety in their old age. Counting my cash and credits, I found enough to pay my bills for a good many months. I resolved to treat myself to my favorite restaurant that evening.
For the first time in weeks, I inserted the widget into my ear and reviewed my stats. Some gut instinct, so strange without context, told me Ralph would have been proud.
I pulled out the jack, stashed it back in my old jewelry box, and took a few minutes to rest my eyes.
I had lied to the man. I told him that I would give him everything but I had kept two memories of Ralph.
The first was when we met. It was a blind date, a rendezvous at the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge. I was late and saw him leaning against a streetlight. He was hiding his lanky frame behind a corduroy jacket and shuffling his feet. I can still see his crooked smile when he first saw me, his nervous fingers running lines across an invisible piano by his side as I rushed towards him to apologize for my tardiness.
The second was the moment he died. His hair was reduced to a few wisps, his skin stretched so tight across his skull that his wrinkles had all but disappeared. He looked up at me with a familiarity uncommon in his last weeks and his eyes were so shockingly blue that I gasped. I could almost make out all our years together in those orbs. He opened his mouth as if he wanted to say something, but no words came out. He fought for a moment, managed a dry wheeze, and left me.
My new project is so exciting that I tremble every time I sit down to it. I have a new binder, a blue one, which I am filling with stories. They can be long or short, a paragraph or a whole ream of paper. All of them sketches of a life with Ralph. Rewriting our story is hard work, but I’m old and my days are long and bare. Besides, I already have a beginning and an ending. That’s all I really need. I’m sure that with enough time and effort, I can fill in the middle.
About the Author
Evan Berkow lives in Brooklyn, NY, with his wife and their two enormous gray cats. He writes speculative fiction when not lawyering. “Stoop Sale” is his first published work of fiction. Find him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/Evan_Berkow.