Buried Stuff

A Jane Wheel Mystery

Jane Wheel Mysteries (Volume 4)

Sharon Fiffer

Minotaur Books

1

If Jane Wheel could do it all again, go right back to the first step, square one of the major decision-making junctures of her life, if she could Michael Jackson moonwalk right back to where the metaphysical tines in the figurative fork in the proverbial road were first joined, then divided, would she choose the same path?

Flattened against the side of her garage, doors and windows locked against the outside world, Jane looked over at her husband, Charley—a geology professor who was one part Harrison Ford’s Indiana Jones, one part James Stewart’s Mr. Smith, and one part Jerry Lewis’s Nutty Professor. Any woman in the world would feel lucky, grateful, and desirous watching him now, kneeling over a box and sifting though jagged hunks of rose quartz that the family had collected one summer vacation. If it weren’t for the voices outside the garage door, the footsteps Jane could hear on the deck, the approach of strangers coming to reckon with her, she would feel all of those emotions herself— lucky, grateful, desirous. But instead she was scared, panicked, and paralyzed, knowing full well what was about to happen to all of them.

She needed to speak, to cry out, to warn her son. Nick was looking through a bag of books, blowing the dust off the top of the bindings, clapping the pages together hard, sending a shower of fine particles into the air. She might deserve what was about to happen, but Nick did not. He was only thirteen, a good student, a fine athlete, his whole life before him. Jane’s heart cracked watching him, innocently smiling up at his father, showing him one of the books he had fished out of the bag.

Jane watched their mouths move, saw their hands gesture, their eyes crinkle in laughter, but it was as if she saw it all from underwater or through a Vaseline-smeared lens. It was all in slow motion, silent. Yes, time had slowed to a crawl; but instead of giving her the time to gather strength and vanquish the enemy, it only forced her to watch what was happening in excruciating detail, powerless to stop the encroaching evil.

On the other side of the garage, also moving in painfully slow and silent motion, was Tim Lowry. He held up a small rug. Jane remembered where she had found it, at a small, brick bungalow on Chicago’s Northwest Side. It was hand hooked, a dog with a crooked tail and a smile. Jane remembered calling Tim and describing it as a dog with a human smile. She also remembered Tim, telephone smirking—he could smirk across the wires— telling Jane she must be a true connoisseur if she could tell the difference between a human smile and a canine smile. Then they had argued for more than thirty minutes about whether or not dogs smiled—or whether it was an attribute assigned to them from their human owners, who wanted to see and believe in doggy smiles. Jane wanted to shout at Tim now to look at Rita, panting and whimpering in the corner. Rita was not smiling, but she was grimacing and shaking her doggy head at what was about to happen. And a dog has to be able to smile in order to grimace, Jane wanted to tell Tim.

Tim was still silently chuckling, looking at the rug. Jane knew it wasn’t well made and the colors were hopelessly faded. The finishing was not done properly, and it was beginning to come apart near the dog’s left ear. But Jane loved it for the tiny signature barely decipherable on the backing. Sarah’s first project, made with Grandma Jessie, 1938. Tim, Jane’s best friend since they were both five years old, was shaking his head at the rug, that disdainful smirk on his face. Look at the signature, Jane would have cried had she still had the power. Look on the back. It was Sarah’s first project, for god’s sake. Who will care for it? Who will protect it?

Claire Oh smiled back at Tim, taking the rug from him, giving it a shake that was efficient and dismissive at the same time, draped it over the rungs of a ladder, a prize Jane had found at an auction in Wisconsin. A U-Pick orchard was selling out to developers, and Jane had snagged five great "picking" ladders, wide at the bottom for stability, narrowing at the top to reach into the branches of the apple trees. Claire Oh, dressed all wrong for the massacre that was about to take place, in a tailored navy blue suit with matching navy-and-white heels, narrowed her eyes while looking at the rug. She shook her head, as if to signal to the dog that he had nothing to smile about.

Jane had to find her voice, choke out a warning. She had to stop this.

Bruce Oh stood next to her, only two feet away. He looked straight ahead, as if he were steeling himself for something. Maybe he knew, too. Maybe he sensed what she had been unable to say. If she could raise an arm, she might be able to tap his shoulder. He would then read her eyes and know everything she knew. He would know the extent, the depth of what was about to happen. He would stop it. He would help her.

Jane desperately wanted this to be a dream. If she could wake up next to Charley, Nick snoring softly across the hall. . . what would she give for that? All of her hotel silver, the heavy forks and spoons and butter knives that she had found piece by piece? Her Chase cocktail shaker with the butterscotch Bakelite handles? The carton of old writing workbooks dated 1932 that she had found in a moldy box at the convent school? Her sewing boxes? Her giant tins of vintage buttons? No, no, no, and no. What bargain was she willing to make to have this reality be a dream?

How odd this was! All of the people she cared about were in this garage: Charley Nick, Tim, Bruce and Claire Oh, and even her dog, Rita. Here they were, talking to one another, laughing, totally oblivious to Jane’s fear. She could not choke out a syllable that they could hear nor could she understand what they were saying to one another, and yet she could pick up the smallest movement from outside. Of course she was expecting those sounds, those heavy footsteps, those thuglike voices, speculating on what they would do once they got inside. Who could she blame for this except herself? Jane had been warned. Just last night there had been the phone calls.

We’re coming, the voices had said. We know how to get there. One particularly belligerent man had insisted that he wanted to come immediately. I want to come tonight, he had said. I want to get to you first.

Jane had hung up on him. She had locked the house and stationed Rita in the garage to bark at any intruders, but now Jane saw that the crowd gathering was too much for her dog. Rita looked at Jane with all the pain and suffering she could muster, as if to say, what have you gotten us all into now?

Tim was walking over to where Jane stood. She saw his lips moving and noticed that he was pointing to his wrist. Was he hurt? Already? No one had gotten through the door yet. What could have happened? Now Tim motioned her away from where she was standing. What was happening? They were all looking at Jane now. Charley was smiling and Nick talking. Claire Oh had pulled herself up to her entire six feet and was looking ready and able to fend off the hordes, and Bruce Oh was breathing deeply and standing perfectly still. Jane tried desperately to focus on what Tim was saying to her.

"Ready we’re ready," he said.

"No, we’re not,"Jane whispered back.

Jane felt something near her hand. Nick was patting it awkwardly as if he wanted to comfort her and take it in his own, but knew that he had reached an age where it simply could not be done.

"It’ll be all right, Mom," he said."We’re ready."

"No," Jane whispered again, wanting desperately to hold her son and shield his eyes from what was about to happen to her, to them.

"Can we please stop this nonsense?" said Claire Oh, cutting through Jane’s anxiety like a knife. She reached her hand behind Jane to push the button that would open the electric garage door.

"It’s eight a.m. My ad said eight a.m. If there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s a garage sale that doesn’t start on time."

When the door opened, Jane’s fears were confirmed. There were at least a hundred people—men and women carrying their own bags and bubble wrap, as Jane herself did when she stood on the other side of the door—shoving one another on her driveway, waiting to rush into where Claire, Tim, Charley, Nick, and Bruce had set up tables and racks of stuff—Jane’s stuff—that she had grudgingly, when pushed and prodded—allowed that she might be willing to sell.

Claire Oh, a high-end antiques dealer who normally wouldn’t dirty her hands—and still wasn’t dirtying them, Jane noted, as she took in the thin, latex medical gloves Claire was wearing—was repaying a favor Jane had done her by running a garage sale for some of Jane’s "extras."

Some favor, Jane thought. I help her get clear of a murder charge, and she comes in to tear out my heart.

Tim Lowry not wanting to be left out, had also offered to help, but Jane had her suspicions about the attention he was paying to this sale. Jane knew she had several treasures Tim coveted, and she also knew that as a downstate dealer he didn’t want Claire Oh getting first crack at anything valuable that Jane might be willing to part with.

Well, ha! Jane thought. The laugh was on them both since she wasn’t willing to part with anything.

"Mom, how much for the ladder?" Nick asked.

"Not for sale," Jane said, delighted to find that her voice had returned when she needed it most. "We’re just using them for display."

"Janie, you have five of them," said Tim.

"No," Jane said."I want them all. They come in handy for . . ."

With all the noise and chaos and people pawing through her stuff, why suddenly did all of them get quiet as if waiting to hear what she would come up with as her reason for not selling the ladders?

". . . hanging stuff. I need them for hanging stuff."

"And you are a picker, Mrs. Wheel," said Bruce Oh."They are the ladders for picking? Seems fitting. Perhaps hanging on the wall in the hallway, on their sides, you know?"

"Bruce? Is that you giving a decorating suggestion?" asked Claire, making change for a man with an armload of books whose titles Jane was desperately trying to read in case there were any she needed to snatch back."Your idea of a well-decorated house is an empty one, isn’t it?" she added.

"Not exactly empty," Oh said, considering his wife’s comment. "I like a space to be itself a space first, before it is . . . claimed. But there are certain objects that cry out, that have their story. These ladders . . ." Oh stopped and felt one of the rungs, sturdy and substantial, the wood burnished and worn in the places where so many feet had climbed. "These ladders have the quality of wabi-sabi . . . the worn and the used and the beauty of that use," Oh said. Then he shrugged. It had been a long speech for him to make.

Jane was deeply moved. It was what she believed. Objects had a story, a life, and if one had the eyes to see it, they conveyed their beauty and sense of history, of worth. Jane had so long been a curator of the unwanted that she felt supreme relief that someone else had made such an eloquent explanation of why she needed those ladders.

Jane was breathing a bit easier now that the sale had actually started. If she threw her eyes slightly out of focus, she wouldn’t recognize that the stuff being bagged and bundled and shoved into backseats and tossed into trunks was the very stuff she had brought home and crowed over. Not all of it, of course. There had been some impulse buys, a few mistakes, and, as Tim put it so neatly, some "loser trash."

One of the benefits of clearing out some old stuff was making way for other old stuff. Claire Oh had done Jane the great favor of going through closets with her, helping her replace old "new" bedspreads and threadbare quilts with new "old" bedspreads and quilts. The just-in-case-we-have-to-host-a-marauding-army supply of old blankets that Jane hadn’t liked when she bought them new on sale when she and Charley were first married were now someone else’s treasure. And Claire had convinced her that the vintage chenille spreads Jane had captured years ago for a song before all the cable home shows and flea market parades had made vintage linens the next hot thing should be used on their beds and stored in the linen closets instead of boxed and labeled in the garage. Jane did believe in using her finds, she just didn’t always get around to unpacking them. Claire was helping her take baby steps.

But what was that brute Big Elvis, a book guy and rival picker Jane battled with at every big sale, doing here in her garage, actually finding things he wanted? If he wanted them, that meant Jane shouldn’t be selling them.

"Sorry, that’s not for sale," Jane said, unable to see what was in his hand.

"It was out here, on the table," he said, not missing a step or looking at her. His eyes were in "sweep" mode, taking in everything in the garage; and he wasn’t about to allow someone to stop him from finding the best, the rare, and the valuable. The fact that Jane happened to be the owner of the stuff was beside the point. Once that garage sale sign was hung, the owner had better stand back and wait for it to be over.

"Sorry," Jane said louder."Mistake. It’s not for sale."

She wished she knew what it was.

"What do you say? Is it for sale?" Big Elvis, his pompadour even higher than normal, arched his eyebrows and looked beyond Jane’s left shoulder.

Charley walked up next to Jane, and said firmly," ‘No’ always means ‘no.’"

"Although in this case, I can’t for the life of me . . .," Charley started to say, as Big Elvis, disgusted, threw down the cigar box he had been carrying. He stomped out of the garage saying loudly that he had never seen a worse collection of junk.

"Thanks, Charley," Jane said.

He was a good husband. Is a good husband, Jane corrected herself. What was it about reaching their middle years, as Jane had begun to think of them—much better than labeling them the final half—that made her see things in past tense before she slapped herself into the present? She resolved to get a handle on now—right now.

Take Charley, for instance, and not for granted as she so often had. All of his qualities, his handsome face, his tan, strong forearms—Jane had always been an arm girl—his quick intelligence, his thoughtful answers to Nicks questions—all of these made Jane grateful for the man. And in a moment like this, when he came to her rescue without knowing why or what he was rescuing her from, that was an over-the-top moment. She would be present in this moment. Yes, she would, and not notice that someone was walking out of the garage with a boxful of hand-embroidered tea towels. Breathe, she told herself.

"Thanks, Charley," Jane said.

"You already said that," Charley said, picking up the cigar box."What is this anyway?"

The rescued object was an El Producto cigar box. El Producto was alternately lettered in a deep rusty orange and black, and the picture was of a woman who had a most womanly figure dating from those good old days when arms could be soft and hips could be generous. The model’s coloring, however, was from the bad old days when hair might be raven black, but Hispanic or Latina beauty was represented by a dark lace blouse, a tight skirt, and a stringed instrument incongruously placed in the most lily-white hands imaginable. Although the extremely white and voluptuous model with vivid red lipstick might date the cigar box to the fifties or early sixties, the two-for-twenty-seven-cents price was probably the most telling clue.

Jane was pointing this out to Charley, who flipped the lid up and down and said, "1967."

"I don’t know, that seems a little late," Jane began.

Charley flipped the lid up again, and showed Jane that written across the top of the box in fat turquoise marker was JUNE 1967.

"My dad," said Jane, delighted. This had been worth saving. "It’s one of my dad’s."

Jane’s dad, Don, and her mother, Nellie, ran a tavern called the EZ Way Inn in Kankakee, about sixty miles south of Chicago, seventy south of Evanston, where Jane and Charley and Nick lived and were currently fighting off the North Shore garage-sale hordes. Although the tavern was a sleepy neighborhood bar now, it had once been a bustling hot spot where Jane’s dad tended bar and Nellie ran the kitchen with a cast-iron skillet and an acid tongue. She had stood at the grill or faced the giant soup pot as the factory workers lined up at the door and shouted their orders.

"Two double hamburgers, onion and pickle, and a vegetable beef, extra crackers," Leroy would yell, then move on to grab a seat at the bar and down two bottles of Pabst during a thirty-minute break from building stoves at Roper across the street.

"I’m charging you for extra crackers," Nellie would yell, flipping burgers, then preparing buns on a paper plate, throwing on the onions and pickles as she listened to the next order.

During the hour-long wave of factory workers that poured into the tiny tavern and clogged the kitchen doorway at the back of the shack, Nellie never stopped her constant motion of stirring, flipping, ladling, and plating orders. She never wrote anything down.

Excerpted from Buried Stuff by Sharon Fiffer.
Copyright 2007 by Sharon Fiffer.
Published in November 2004 by St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.