Things We Lost, Gave Away, Bought High And Sold Low

A Short Story Collection

Listen, I’ll tell you a story about things—wanting them. I can see it still with my heart’s eye: a lovely old Hamadan, in shades of deep evening blue and burnt orange—the bruised colors of a stormy sunset. It appeared to be about eight by ten feet in size, though it was hard to tell because it was covering six barrels of lobster bait, wrapped and tied with hemp as a makeshift lid. This was over twenty years ago, but the image of that lovely old Oriental rug is as clear-edged and exact as if I were looking at it now. I was then a young housewife and prowler of second-hand shops out of necessity. My husband was a college instructor, and we had very little money.

On that morning, he and our three young children were busy further up the dock, by the ferry landing, waiting in line for their weekly treat of ice cream cones, and I was taking advantage of the brief time off. I followed a path of smooth stones above the shore and came upon an out-of-the-way dock that tottered out for quite some distance across the shallow flats. It was where the lobstermen kept their barrels of bait and their boats—two or three squat open skiffs painted green with chipped gray interiors, seesawing gently on the ends of their ropes. The ocean beyond the harbor breakwater was dead low, sending steady little rolls of white foam to unfold and vanish on the border of wet sand below the rocks where I stood. I remember the sun was hot that day and intimate-feeling, smooth on my skin as if every pore were opening to it the way flowers turn and open to the sun. It is very near the same feeling as just after making love.

Other bait barrels had rugs covering their tops too—ugly, used pieces of carpet, sculptured olive or stained beige, which had long since outlived their ordinary lives. The Hamadan was a clear misfit with its beautiful, soft colors and intricate design.

No one was using the fishing dock and I moved quickly down the slatted catwalk. The stench of lobster bait—fish rotting in those barrels all summer long—was dizzying. Awful. But I had to get a closer look at that rug.

On the top part of the rug that I could see—the part not wrapped around the barrels—two worn spots showed the weave of warp and woof. But the spots weren’t badly worn, and most old Orientals have worn spots somewhere. The center was a medallion in variations of blue, black, and cream, on a field of faded orange. I loved it. More than any Oriental I had ever seen before, though I really hadn’t seen that many and knew about them mostly from books. And I wanted it. This is the strangest part of the story as I look back on it, because I’ve never wanted many things. But I wanted that rug. Maybe the dead-fish smell would never wash out, but I didn’t care; I wanted it.

The fisherman must have found the Hamadan at the dump. The small Island dump then was a treasure trove of fixable wicker chairs and other late Victorian-era furniture that “new people” who were just discovering Block Island as a summer place would throw out in favor of Danish modern or some such furniture that was trendy then.

I stood for a long time, a trespasser on the fishing dock, hoping that the fisherman who owned the rug might come. I’d offer him… what? We couldn’t afford it, but I’d go as high as fifty dollars for that rug. As I waited there, giddy with imagined bargainings, I shooed away one seagull and then another who veered in to land on the Hamadan, drawn by the fish smell coming through. But then I happened to turn, and saw from a distance in the shimmer of heat, a little knot of familiar figures approaching—my husband and children.

My husband, a few paces ahead, and our two daughters following him held ice cream cones. They were moving quickly, tilted forward, with something unhappy about the spaces between them and the hunch of their shoulders. Amos, my little one—he was just three then—was trying to keep up, his chubby little legs pumping. Guilty, I came up off the fishing dock at a run. The news was bad: after a fifteen-minute wait in line Amos lost the ice cream from his cone, and he wouldn’t stop crying, the girls reported. And then Daddy was mad at them all and waited a long time in line again to buy Amos another cone, but then Amos wouldn’t take it. I picked Amos up, and kissed his damp face that tasted of tears and ice cream, and took the unwanted cone my husband thrust at me; his impatience was unspoken yet seemed to use up the air in the car on the trip back to our rented cottage, pressing around us and exacting all our silence—except for Amos hiccupping and sniffling on my lap.

It was one of many outings that turned out with someone in tears, but the first in which I had escaped in part by seeing it as an observer—someone who happened upon this sad family, pulled away from an absorbing discovery on the little fishing dock.

I decided not to speak of the rug until I had it. My husband wouldn’t have approved for any number of reasons, and even I wouldn’t have thought it in me to at-tempt the bargain I was planning. We couldn’t afford fifty dollars, but I’d work the grocery budget somehow, and maybe, just maybe, the fisherman might give it to me when he saw how much I wanted it.

I had only seven days left of our two weeks of vacation to find the fisherman who owned the rug. I would take the car from our rented cottage at odd hours, on the pretext of grocery shopping or sightseeing, and prowl the fishing dock. It was my secret life, as irresistible and perilous as if the rug were a lover.

Finally with just one day left, as somehow I knew I would, I came upon him there. Early in the morning be-fore six A.M., when the fishing dock was soft and almost erased in fog, a man was taking bait from one of the barrels beneath my rug. Hesitantly, walking closer, I saw that he wasn’t old or picturesque as I had imagined him to be. He was a youngish-looking man near my age then, which would have been twenty-seven or twenty-eight. His unwashed brown hair was pulled back in a ponytail beneath a stained khaki cap with a long green bill, and he was wearing a rubber apron. He had a scar on his upper lip, a harelip that had been repaired, and the expression on his face was old—the gray, closed look of a native Islander. I stepped down to the little dock, emboldened by wanting the rug. Still my voice came out weak, and I could only think how frivolous my request must sound to him—me standing there in my jeans, faded red “Block Island” tee shirt and deep tourist tan showing, where he, working under the sun all day, had no tan at all on his face, and the tan on his hands went only as far as the cuff line of his long-sleeved buttoned shirt.

“No,” was all he said, and he turned back to scoop out the sickening fish mixture, watery as soup, from the barrel. The Hamadan was carelessly pushed up, and he did not care at all if he splashed fish drippings on it. I offered him seventy-five dollars. He said no, again. I offered to get him another piece of carpeting the same size, along with the seventy-five dollars, although I had no idea how I would do it.

He made a grunt that sounded like “no.” His face was dark beneath the bill of his cap, eyes hidden and intent on the work of baiting his wooden trap.

“But why not?” I was near tears and past caring if he heard it. I would carefully wash the rug and treasure it as the beautiful antique it was—hand-knotted over thousands of hours—and keep it in my living room, in a home where it deserved to be.

He looked up at me then, and I saw his eyes, which could give his face light if he wanted. “Because this one bends best around the barrels,” he said. “That kind there,” he crooked a thumb toward the other covered barrels, “is too stiff. It doesn’t bend and cover so well, and the seagulls get into it.”

That explanation I took for a kindness; he owed me nothing. And I could see that it was so—the edges of the cheap carpeting were fluted around the barrels and difficult to secure with rope, while the soft wool of the Hamadan, made of goat hair and wool from mountain sheep, wrapped soft and snug around his barrels as if it was made for that purpose alone. There was nothing more I could say. He wanted the rug for his own reasons just as much as I did for mine, and it was his rug, after all.

“May I give you my number if you change your mind?” I said, but he pretended he didn’t hear me, and I knew, myself. I had gone too far. He flipped the rug back over to cover the bait barrel and hefted his trap down into the floor of his skiff. I drove back to the cottage, where my husband and children were—thank goodness—still sleeping, and so I didn’t need to explain where I’d been or why I’d been crying.

The rest of that vacation I ached for the loss of the Hamadan and no longer made secret excursions to visit it. My husband and I were divorced two years later. That was something like seventeen years ago, and I’ll tell you this: I’ve found since then, that having left once it becomes easier ever after to be a gypsy, easier to go than stay. Oddly, despite the twelve years of that marriage, my most reliable memory of loss is the rug. Sometimes I wonder if I had gotten the beautiful Hamadan from the Island fisherman, whether my pleasure in the rug itself might have eased the unhappiness of those times and changed the nomadic direction my life took on. I never considered stealing the rug in those last, privately sad few days of vacation, though now I might.

The man I love and live with now gave his home and everything in it to his wife of twenty-six years, and took only their mutual debts. He laughs about that now, ruefully. It was an impulse born of the common illusion that any of us can, in one grand gesture, divest ourselves of our old lives—give it all away—and begin again, fresh. He settled his affairs as best he could, strapped a change of clothing to his Honda motorcycle, and took off under a bright moon. It was enough light to illuminate only the next rise in the rural roads ahead of him, which was all he cared to see. But you know how it goes: day comes with its own little knapsack of inevitabilities, and sooner or later the motorcycle fetches up at someone else’s curb.

In the same spirit I gave away an apartment house, which I had laboriously saved for in order to buy. One of my daughters and I sanded floors, plastered, painted, and papered, all by ourselves, all three apartments. But I sold it: bought high and sold low for the sake of my second marriage, thinking if I gave it my all, liquidated and shared everything, then surely the marriage would work.

There is a certain picture, that for sentimental reasons the man I live with wishes he hadn’t given to his ex-wife when he gave her all the furnishings. I miss my Stephane Grappelli tapes that I gave to my last lover. Oh, and the little fiberglass sailboat I sold cheap because it was too cumbersome to carry from place to place, and the self-cleaning garlic press that I stil1 reach for, once kept in the top left drawer of a former kitchen of mine. You see how it is with things? How they haunt by their absence, and seem more affecting and valuable than they were when you had them, and come to mean something different than what they are?

Recently I sold a Hamadan, one I bought from an Oriental rug dealer that reminded me of the lobster bait Hamadan, though it wasn’t nearly as pretty as the rug I’ve remembered. I lost two hundred dol1ars on it, bought high and sold low because I needed the money when I moved in with the man who drove off on his Honda. I didn’t mind losing money on that rug. In fact I was relieved to be rid of it, for it wasn’t nearly enough like the lovely Hamadan I’ve always wanted and still look for.