The estate sale began at 10, just like the flyers posted at the Lakewood Starbucks had promised. Long folding tables overflowing with Betty Ruth McCormick’s earthly possessions had been set up in the garage of her Munger Avenue home, and people were parking their Toyotas and Hyundais along the curb of the street.
“It’s crazy. You’ll be surprised at what people will pay cash for,” the estate sale coordinator had told Betty Ruth’s son.
This was right before she opened the garage doors and the people rushed the tables. These people scoured Betty Ruth’s personal effects—her girdles, her brassieres, her cookbooks, her Uno cards and her Scrabble tiles, even her false teeth. Her false teeth!
And now these people—the kind of people who spent their Saturdays driving around paying cash for someone else’s false teeth, were walking into Betty Ruth’s house without even knocking on the door. Trying on her wigs. Criticizing her silver patterns. Plugging in her old sewing machine to make sure that it still worked.
“Well, it won’t work if you keep playing with it like that!”
All of this would have been fine. Really. Death had a way of putting things into perspective, and Betty Ruth would have been fine with getting rid of all these useless things. She had been, if anything, a pragmatist.
It was just that no one prepares you for all these people—God, these people—walking around your house with their muddy shoes, acting like you don’t see them. Like you don’t see them rearranging your Hummel figurines into those positions.
“My God. That’s disgusting. Don’t make them do that. Why would you make them do that? What is wrong with you?”
These estate sale people were not good people. No, they most certainly were not. Good people do not walk into a stranger’s house and let their 3-year-olds touch your dinner bell collection. And they definitely don’t bicker with your son over the price of his dead mother’s prized tape measure. Yes, a figural tape measure in the shape of a majestic white sailing ship that Betty Ruth had loved.
“It’s worth more than $5, you snot rag!”
That was, perhaps, the Alzheimer’s. It had made Betty cuss like a sailor. Or maybe it wasn’t the Alzheimer’s. Maybe these people haggling over her beloved tape measure had been the last straw.
Oh, that tape measure. It was her favorite.
For most of her life Betty Ruth McCormick had kept that tape measure like a secret, in the pocket of her sewing apron. She had had a habit of putting her left hand into her pocket and worrying the edges of the ship’s ivory sails, especially when she was trying to figure out how to sew a dress that she had no business trying to sew. The tape measure had been a quiet part of everything that Betty ever made. It had helped Betty Ruth turn McCall patterns into outfits, denim into dungarees, gingham into dresses.
When Betty Ruth was younger, she had considered the tape measure to be a good luck charm; she liked to imagine that the ship would bring her amazing travels. Later, after she’d had her babies, and her marriage to Abe had settled into a dull but steady rhythm, Betty Ruth would dream of sailing away from Dallas as she sewed her daughter’s dance costumes, as she repaired her son’s britches. She would dream of taking a pirate lover, of living on a desert island eating pineapples and coconuts, of diving for pearls with a knife clenched between her teeth.
Betty Ruth had created a whole story between the white sails of this ship, and for a while in her 30s, Betty had wanted to pen a romantic novel based off these voyages—once the kids left the house, of course, and Abe retired.
Oh, this ship-shaped tape measure really was a thing of beauty. It had helped Betty Ruth make so many necessary things. It had helped soothe her worried hands. It had been a simple constant in a life that had quite frankly been too hard. After all, Betty Ruth lost her sweet daughter, Rhonda, to ovarian cancer; then Abe to Parkinson’s; and then, later, the Alzheimer’s hit like a hurricane.
“But that’s life.”
As trite as that saying was, it had comforted Betty Ruth when she said it aloud. After all, no one tells a young bride on her wedding day that she will one day bury her daughter and her husband within a year of each other, and that the world will expect her to just carry on.
So for this very reason, Betty Ruth regretted keeping her ship-shaped tape measure tucked away in her pocket. She should have shared it. Her daughter should have played with it. Her son should have borrowed it. Something this wonderful deserved to have been seen by everyone, displayed in a curio cabinet, or even a museum. For that matter, so did Betty Ruth’s dreams. They had been just as exquisite.
Yes, Betty Ruth had once been brave enough and young enough and dumb enough to have had dreams, and today, she didn’t feel like letting them go—not just yet, not with all these people in her house, not with her son locked away in her pink-tiled bathroom, crying like he was.
Will Clarke holds an M.F.A. in creative writing from the University of British Columbia and lives in East Dallas with his wife and family. He is the author of several works of fiction, including The Neon Palm of Madame Melançon, Lord Vishnu’s Love Handles, and The Worthy: A Ghost’s Story.