Estates of Being

Photo: Margarita Marushevska


Last weekend, I went to an estate sale around the corner from my house. I’m drawn to estate sales, but not for the usual reasons: for me, it’s the stories.

Most estate sales are for emptying out a house when someone dies. It’s typically an elderly person, and the evidence is strewn throughout the house. Racks of clothes that went out of fashion years ago. Keepsakes that haven’t moved from the shelf in 20 years. Trophies. Photos. Good quality kitchen appliances. Old appointment books, computers, phones.

But beyond the garage full of broken and worn out tools, my favorite is always The Books. And there are almost always books. Religious books like ‘Jesus Has a Plan’. Rapture fiction. How to Pray Better. Old Time/Life picture book series. Scrabble dictionaries. A sordid assortment of novels, books by politicians, and never-opened cookbooks. To me, these tell a story about who these people were. What did they read about? What were they thinking? How did they spend their time?

At this sale, I saw several books about cancer: ‘Juicing to Beat Cancer’. ‘Meditation Over Medication’. ‘Juicing Your Way to Remission.’ And so on. Ah, well. None of it worked. And so out go the books.

I often think about my own future estate sale. How will it look? What will be sold? Will anybody want any of it? And what story will a wandering shopper deduce from perusing my books? As I glance over at my bookshelf, I see–a Latin textbook. Several books on writing. Philosophy. Mythology. Mental health, math, a lot of history, Ashley’s Book of Knots. Too many self-help books. Would they see insatiable curiosity, or a guy who’s mind was all over the place? Which books would they want to take home? It’s strangely comforting to think of some of my books being picked out and making their way to into homes and minds and perhaps nudging someone else’s life in some direction.

Many years ago, I visited another estate sale in a well-to-do neighborhood, and it was a wonder. The old house was neat, not large but well-appointed. The bed was neatly made; a book on the nightstand with a bookmark halfway through, a few pictures. I saw two medical degrees framed on the bedroom wall. There were pillows on only one side of the modest bed, and a few items of women’s clothing, hung in the far reaches of the closet. A widower, I figured.

Downstairs was different. Scattered around a workshop were hundreds of bicycle parts–three-wheelers, recumbents, custom contraptions, all in various states of construction. On a large workbench was a set of gears, neatly disassembled, with an open can of grease nearby and a shop rag laid across the stool. It struck me then that it looked as if the man had just picked up his jacket and calmly left the house, expecting to return later to resume working on a bike. But he never did.

I saw a small door in the corner, and jumped a little when I opened it to find a knee-high jumble of body parts. Or so I thought, for the first few seconds; then I realized they were prosthetics. Arms, legs, hands.

Another visitor walked up behind me, peering over my shoulder into the room through the small door. His eyebrows raised, he said ‘I wonder what all these cost?’

And so the universe presented me with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, which I took.

“I don’t know”, I said, grinning. “Probably an arm and a leg.”