We collect a lot of junk in a lifetime. We tell ourselves it will be worth a lot of money one day. Or it will come in handy eventually. Of course, it won't do either; after we die most of it will go to a yard sale. But keep it anyway. If nothing else, sorting through it will give our relatives something to do besides mourn our passing. They might even laugh when they catch themselves muttering about our stupid junk.
This autumn day Bilmar Alexander had been muttering to himself for the past four hours. While the sun was just beginning to peek over Detroit's horizon, he reported to his usual diner and ordered steak and eggs. Never mind the doctor's warning about cholesterol. Today he had to clean out his mother's attic, and he wanted--no, he needed that steak.
Already a month had passed since the funeral. This week Lucella had sent up her nephew Donovan to help with the clean-out--a sisterly hint that he'd put this off long enough. Selling a house in Detroit in this market--well, he'd tried to explain, but Lucella, sitting in Tennessee, had no idea how bad things were. So many houses just sat empty, streets and streets of them forming blocks of silence.
As the sunlight began to dance through the trees, Bilmar peered through the windows of his mother's home. Here forty years ago he and Lucella had played tag and argued and struggled with their homework. Had it really been forty years? Part of him still expected to see Daddy through that front window, feet up on the recliner, harrumphing over the newspaper. One warm spring afternoon Daddy had fallen asleep on that recliner and never awakened; now Bilmar saw only an empty room with a shabby green carpet.
This house would not sell. It would sit empty like all the other houses on this street until it crumbled or got demolished. Bilmar unlocked the door, shaking off the old ghosts. After all, this was only a house. The memories belonged to him and Lucella, not to it.
Grabbing a half-empty box of trash bags, he started up the attic stairs. This weekend he and Donovan would fly down to Lucella and Mario in Canton, Tennessee, taking a few odds and ends with them. Packing the smaller things would be cheaper than shipping it from Detroit, even with the airlines' latest racket of charging for baggage.
He rummaged around in the attic for a good three hours, sorting. Things to keep, things to be tossed away, things to set aside and decide later. Bilmar glared at a stack of clothing patterns from the 1970's, rubber-banded together into a yellowed wad. Maybe they'd sell in an antique store, but he didn't have time to fool with that. The wad took the last of the space in the oversized trash bag; he tied it shut and gave it an unceremonious kick down the stairs. He reached into the dispenser box for another plastic bag, shook it out. The breeze stirred up a brown cloud of dust, and he rubbed his eyes.
An old Canton Gazette fluttered down from its nest on a scarred bureau. He looked over it, understood as soon as he saw the date why Momma had kept it. This issue held his sister's wedding announcement. Miss Lucella Alexander to Mr. Mario Jones, hooray, hooray. Bilmar hadn't thought much of Mario at the time, had been certain it wouldn't last six months, but their daughter had just started ninth grade.
He held the paper between the Maybe bag and the Keep bag. No doubt his sister had her own copy, in her wedding album maybe, but Lucella might still want this anyway. Placing it in the Keep bag, he turned back to the bureau. Of course he had to keep the bureau. That had been Daddy's.
He would need Donovan's help to move that one, but Donovan wouldn't drop by til later. Bilmar had at first suspected Donovan came up just to play hooky for a few days, but the boy had set to work immediately, and they'd almost emptied the downstairs.
Well, he would at least carry the drawers down. Daddy had been as big a packrat as Momma, he thought as he yanked out the first drawer. An old headless doll of Lucella's met his gaze, a crinkled shopping list beside it. Tired of sorting junk, he dumped the whole drawer out into the trash bag. No priceless treasures tumbled past him: just paper, old notepads, a spool of string, and a pair of rusty scissors. Feeling better at the sight of the empty drawer, he reached for the next one, pulling it out and tipping it in without so much as a glance.
Something hard and heavy bashed his thumb on its way into the bag; he felt a sharp sting as his nail ripped. Bilmar let the drawer fall, clutching his bleeding thumb and gasping with pain. Muttering angrily again, he went downstairs for a bandage. Glancing at the clock as he went into the bathroom, he saw it had just gone noon. Well, he'd have a beer too.
With his bandaged thumb cooling against an icy Dos Equis, Bilmar climbed the stairs again. Looking around, he decided he'd made good progress. Why, he'd cleared half the attic! If the afternoon went like the morning, he and Donovan would have the attic empty by suppertime. And tomorrow he'd run the shopvac around to get most of the dust. Not much point, but he'd do his part, and who knew? Maybe somebody would fall in love with this house. His family had been happy here. Why not someone else?
Wondering what had just tried to assassinate his thumb, he bent down to the rumpled bag and peered inside.
A bronze box peeked impishly out at him from under a pile of index cards. He laid his beer on the desk and pulled the box out.
About a foot square and six inches deep, it glowed dully in the dusty light of the attic window. He ran an admiring hand over the raised patterns of braiding and basket-weave. It had to be an antique, yet he'd never seen it before. Why hadn't Daddy kept it on top of the bureau hutch, or on the mantle, where things like this belonged? He suddenly had a vision of himself holding the box on that TV antique show: "Mr. Alexander, your box is three hundred years old and should fetch a million dollars at auction..."
He chuckled to himself. Nice but not likely. He cleared the dust from his throat with a swig of beer, sat down on the coastered chair. He tried to open the lid, but it stayed firmly shut. Then he noticed the keyhole, and sighed loudly to the rafters. The key had to be in the trash bag somewhere.
His hand tipped the box slightly, and something heavy thudded against the inside. Bilmar set the box down on the bureau and slowly sank to his knees. He began digging out the trash he had just dumped. hoping to hear something metallic.
When Donovan showed up an hour later with another box of trash bags and a six-pack of soda pop, Bilmar was still kneeling beside the bureau and glaring at the bronze box, his beer warm and forgotten.