Spring 2011, Volume 10

Nonfiction by Elaine Tuman

Flea Market

Today I am hauling all my junk to the flea market. It is located at VFW Post 8725, named in honor of Private First Class Dan Campion. A photograph of him is featured prominently in the hall. The photo, of World War II vintage, shows a young and closed-mouthed Dan looking tentatively at the camera. The corners of his mouth are turning up the slightest bit—perhaps in anticipation of a VFW post named in his honor? But do you know what has to happen in order for this to occur? You have to die an untimely death. On his chest he wears two Army medals I don’t recognize. No wonder. He was a Marine.

The hall resembles a grade-school auditorium without the chairs. There are rows of wooden tables. Just set your junk up and begin to sell. The other vendors are beginning to eye you. If you sit next to them will you steal some of their business? Will a dollar meant for them go to you instead? Are you one of those people who sell high-quality junk and handmade handicrafts? Crocheted baby blankets, for instance, the perfect choice for a baby shower. Because if you can crochet with skill you can make a killing. I’m speaking figuratively. But if you’re stationed next to one of these homemade crocheted baby-blanket people and all you’re offering is used machine-made baby quilts—who do you think is going to come out on top?

As I slowly lay my stuff out on the table, I reassure the woman sitting next to me— “Really, I can’t sew a stitch.”

Judging from the caliber of the merchandise on display, I could have emptied the contents of my trash can onto the table and made a tidy profit. But who am I to judge? I have brought five bags of junk here under the delusion that my junk is worth money. I’m convinced that if I sit here long enough the right person for my junk will appear.

A tall skinny guy with a droopy mustache approaches. I stare at his Metallica t-shirt.

“How can I help you, sir?” I say.

“These tape recorders work?”

“Of course,” I say quickly.

He’s playing it very, very cool. “Well…then how much are they?”

“Fifty cents each.” I instantly realize I’ve gone way too low. Because he gives me a look that says—I know these tape recorders don’t work. I don’t care what you say.

That shuts me up. But I won’t make that mistake again. I promptly raise the price to a dollar.

So far I have made $6.50. I paid $7.00 for the table. It will be very discouraging if I don’t make back the price. So far, I’ve only sold two military uniform shirts and a bag of dirty Boy Scout mess kits.

Today my table features a host of weird electronic gadgets. For some reason a great many old guys find these items irresistible—everything from a Geiger counter to a Dictaphone. An old man passes my table three times. Each time he caresses the CB radio longingly. Finally, Grandpa gives in and takes home his prize after getting me down to a dollar.

My next customer is an old veteran in a garrison cap covered with medals. He is wheeling a filled-to-the-brim grocery cart. Smashed grocery bags take up a lot of space. He’s a live one! The tape recorders—he wants both of them. He territorially pats each one and tells me to wait till he gets some change. The Geiger counter—he can’t believe this little beauty hasn’t been taken off my hands yet, and only a dollar? The electric razors . . .

He carefully picks each one up and fingers the moving parts.

“See this?”

He is rubbing his finger back and forth across the business end of the razor.

I shrug. I hope he doesn’t ask me anything technical.

“There’s a little nick here along the shaving end. Now, don’t worry, that doesn’t mean I won’t buy it. But you’ve got to pay attention. This little imperfection could cause a nasty shaving accident.”

“Really, I had no idea,” I say, feigning interest.

“Yep.” He nods solemnly. “One morning it’s just business as usual. You’re shaving and all of a sudden this little defect gouges you. There’s blood all over the bathroom!” The old man shakes his head and chuckles.

“Now I’d hate to ask my wife to clean up after a little debacle like that. She’d call me an old fool for buying this thing in the first place.”

He leans forward, smiling.

“Besides, she has more important things to do in the morning, like fix my breakfast.”

Before he leaves my table he explains to me that he’ll be back to pick up the stuff on the way out. That’s good. It’s my biggest sale yet—$5.00.

“Yes, I’ll definitely buy this,” he says. “For the parts, for the parts.”

I keep seeing him. He visits every table. And I’m monitoring him closely to see if he pulls out his wallet. Then I hear him. He starts singing the Marine hymn. No one seems to notice.

He finally makes it back. He’s not singing anymore. He gives me a crumpled five-dollar bill and piles the gadgets on top of his overstuffed cart.

I can never predict what is going to sell. For example, I never thought I would be able to unload the plastic bunny lamp. It was a large, white, spooky plastic monstrosity that lit when you plugged it in. But then it broke. That plastic bunny lamp—that cheap, gaudy lamp with the maniacal gap-toothed grin—was a scary presence in my son’s room for six months—until it broke.

But that bunny called out to someone.

And then there was the ax handle.

“See if you can get rid of this,” my husband said as he pulled a long beat-up pole out of a box in the crawl space.

“What is it?”

“It’s an ax handle,” he said impatiently.

“Who in their right mind would buy that?” I said.

“Are you kidding? You could beat the shit out of someone with this.”

Fine. So I throw it in with the rest of the stuff. Sure enough, it sells.

“I think I can do something with this,” a man in a baseball cap says. “How much do you want for it?”

His wife rolls her eyes.

So I say fifty cents. Fifty cents is the price. Fifty cents is just cheap enough. It’s the cutoff point where suddenly junk becomes desirable. They think, yeah, I can afford to gamble on that.

“Look at that,” the lady at the table next to me says, pointing at a large framed photograph of the Pope. “You know, I like the Pope as well as the next guy. But that’s the last thing I’d hang up on my wall.”

An hour later. A woman stands in front of that same picture, transfixed.

“Look at that, Harry,” she says. “It’s so large and so cheap. I just have to have it.”

She grins as Harry rifles through his pockets for the cash.

“I just don’t know why I’m spending so much money here today,” she says as she tucks the picture under her arm.

I know why.

Because you can see it in their faces. They get the cash out; they buy it—that little lift they get. Very similar to the lift I got when I originally bought the clothes I’m selling here today.

Around two o’clock business slows.

The lady across the way asks me, “How did you do?”

I smile and say, “It looks like you did very well.”

Definitely. As the vendors begin to leave, a few panic buyers cluster around the remaining tables. Suddenly there is a run on clock radios, potholders and crocheted napkin rings. Unfortunately, the panic buyers seem to satisfy their urges long before they reach my corner table.

That’s okay. I pack my stuff up and console myself with the fact that for most people their visit to the flea market has been a rousing success.

I think of the couple gazing lovingly at the photograph of the Pope. It’s in their living room over the fireplace. The bunny lamp buyer is visiting his grandson tonight. He can’t wait to see little Kyle’s reaction to the gift. And somewhere a man in a baseball cap is down in his basement getting ready to do something with an ax handle.

“I told you it was a piece of junk,” his wife yells down.



BIO:  Elaine Tuman is an Army veteran and mother of three who served stateside as well as overseas, including long-term deployments to Cuba, Bosnia, Afghanistan, and short-term tours of duty to Europe, Asia, and Central and South America. During her military career, she trained as an interrogator, a broadcast journalist, and a psychological operations specialist.

The broadcast journalism career garnered her extensive bylines in many military publications and journals, as well as on-air credit for news writing. Her work also has appeared in the Alexandria Gazette-Journal, Talon Magazine, The Tuscaloosa News, and the Washington Times.

She received an M.A. in creative writing from the University of Illinois at Chicago and have written several screenplays. One of them, Bagram, was read by the National Pastime Theater in Chicago and is currently under consideration for local production. I am also a writer on "Pillow Talks," a Web series that debuted in early 2009. My work has appeared or is forthcoming in the Kore Press anthology Powder: Writing by Women in the Ranks from Vietnam to Iraq, Cadillac Cicatrix, and Downstate Story. The anthology has been promoted on NPR. In connection with the anthology, I have made appearances in Chicago and Minneapolis. Three of my comic sketches have been selected to appear in an upcoming book of audition pieces for young people, edited by Janet Milstein.