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  • Aaron Carruth

Beyond Thunderdome

Updated: Jul 30

It took me an hour before I noticed that my mother’s crewneck long-sleeve shirt was on inside out. Her embarrassment was mitigated by the fact that we had only visited a single sale. We hadn’t stayed long, either. The only item of interest was something called an Ab Rocket. It was basically a core-strengthening lawn-chair. Exercise equipment is a staple of the Canadian yard sale. It’s often the gimmicky, As Seen on TV, type-stuff. And, it’s almost always unopened. The Ab Rocket would’ve been a funny gag gift for my father, but it was ten dollars. About nine dollars too many. It wasn’t that funny.


As I eased the RAV forward, my mother looked both ways - almost like she was about to commit a crime. In a way, she was. In an ill-conceived blur, she rushed her shirt off, immediately getting stuck at the elbow. I continued driving, eyes LOCKED straight ahead. The entire right hand side of the vehicle, street, and world was blind to me. My mother unsnagged her shirt in time for a fresh, red stoplight. The panic was palpable. She yanked the sleeves the right way around, cursing like she had just spent the summer aboard the Black Pearl. From the corner of my left eye, I watched as a father pulled a wagon filled with three small children up to the edge of the sidewalk. I turned and stared at him, eyes bulged in stern warning. He began tapping the walk button feverishly, though I can’t prove it was because of the scene in our car. The light turned green and I eased forward, concerned that my self-imposed blind spot might kill us in the event someone was trying to make a late dash through the intersection.


“Are we good your way?”


My mother laughed and said it was safe. “Are you SURE?” I asked, with exaggerated fear.


I sighed and wiped the non-existent sweat from my brow. That was close.


-----------


We saw a sign for a yard sale and figured it must be up the road. It wasn’t. I asked my mother to check her phone, but she insisted we could find it with regular road signs. We drove until we reached a dead-end. The signs were not as helpful as she might have hoped.

I sunk back into my seat, chuckling. Defeated, she pulled out her phone and searched for the address.


“You’re going to make a right on Dummer road,” she said.


“Pardon?”


“Dummer road,” she repeated. “I’m not making it up. The spelling’s different.”


Does that make it any better? I thought. Imagine a spelling nuance was a legitimate excuse around the meaning of a word. I can’t see it working.

MOM! He called me an idiot!


No, I called you an idiote. Not the same thing.


“I know where we are now,” my mother said, nodding confidently. “I have two connections to this place. The first is that there are reptiles that you can visit here. Like, a zoo. I’ve never seen them. I just don’t like the idea of it. I guess that’s not a connection. And the second, was when I worked at the shelter.”


Before she became a teacher, my mother worked at a shelter for women fleeing abusive relationships.


“There was a guy who we assessed as being extremely high risk. We called the police, and do you know what they confiscated?”


My mother enjoys asking questions I couldn’t possibly know the answer to.


“Stars. What are those things called? Stars for throwing? They’re stars and you kinda throw them at people.” [1]


“Ninja stars?” [2]


“Yes! Ninja stars. Ninja stars and a bunch of guns.”


If you’re not yard-saling with a parent, grandparent, or asylum escapee, these are the kinds of conversations you’re missing out on.


[1] So, you called the police on Dwight Schrute.

[2] The technical term for ninja stars is shuriken. Not to be confused with what Ryu says when he performs an uppercut – SHORYUKEN!

------------------------------


The road ahead was narrowing to a bridge that spanned the width of a single car. A van fitted with a canoe on its top, accelerated toward us like some sort of crazed camping battering ram. The man driving had a wild look in his eyes. He was the provincial park version of Mad Max. And, he was getting across this bridge first. I’ve never met anyone willing to die for the chance to J-stroke, but I wasn’t about to test him. I pulled off to the side, and watched as his ramming horn of a canoe shook with every loose pebble and bump in the road. I braced myself as he passed, certain that it was going to hurl itself from the crappy roping job and impale me.


------------------------------


“You need to get that,” my mother insisted, pointing at what looked like a stuffed monkey-type creature in a saddle. “It kind of looks like you. You know, kinda like Monchhichi.” As a child, I deeply disliked getting my haircut. Whenever it got too long, my mother would tease me and say I looked like Monchhichi. I’ve included a picture for reference.

Once, a friend overheard this comparison and came to (what I thought was) my defense.

“I don’t think he looks like Mon-ch… Monchi… Monchhichi,” he said. “He looks way more like the kid from the Jungle Book.” He meant Mowgli.

My mother tilted her head to the side and considered his argument. She slowly began nodding along in agreement. “He is pretty boney,” she added.


It was settled, I looked like a cross between a Japanese stuffed monkey and feral Disney character.


Two friendly women accidentally interrupted my reflection, explaining that the doll was meant to be attached to a dog. When the dog runs, it looks like he is being ridden by a Monchhichi-esque cowboy. At my request, they had one of their furry friends perform a demonstration.


I noticed that several other items at the sale were meant for dogs, most notably an extremely cute line of bowties. Once again, the faithful doggo had no qualms with modeling his former collection.

We chatted for a while, before buying a set of glasses for seven dollars. I wasn't not sure how old they are, but: they’re a set, they’re colourful, they have good graphics, and interesting subject matter. I doubt there's a fortune to be made, but perhaps we could knock a few dollars off breakfast.

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My mother agreed to drive if I would navigate. I managed to send us on a complete, twenty-minute loop of the exact backroads we took to find the previous sale. I suppose I was doing my part to honour the namesake of Dummer road. The gas light pinged and we pulled into the last full serve station on the planet. The scene was surreal. A small variety store stood adjacent to a mechanic’s garage – just like every gas station used to (fifty years ago). An extremely serious woman snuck beside the vehicle and waited in silence. My mother and I chatted for a few minutes before we realized she was there. When she finished pumping the gas, she asked if we were paying cash or credit. My mother said credit and the woman held out a winter-glove covered hand – wordless. My mother set her card in the woman’s palm. Her fingers closed around it slowly – mechanically – like the Terminator. She marched back to the shop and returned minutes later with the card and a receipt. My mother didn’t bother to check it. She stuffed both items in her purse and we pulled away.


We drove for more than an hour without finding another sale. My mother passed the time by apprising me of every conceivable ongoing in the lives of both of my sisters, my father, a stray dog, and Oprah Winfrey. There was a heartbeat of silence before she started this next gem.


My mother sometimes tells stories like one of those barstool trivia games. The kind where every five seconds you get another clue to a question. As time elapses, the clues get more specific and the points you receive for a correct answer drop accordingly. Here’s a beat for beat example. The dead air between statements is represented by an asterisk. Each asterisk (*) = five whole seconds. Check your score at the end of the “story”. Reader’s note: This is not an actual game. It’s a story. Pray for me.


“What are you laughing at?” my mother asked.


“Just these kids on TikTok. Honestly, I could watch them all day.”


“Oh yeah? Well… there’s this guy,” she said, letting her words hang in the air (waiting for me to buzz in?)


**


“Go on,” I said.


“Who’s a comedian...”


“Am I meant to guess who?”


*


“No. He might be fourteen. He’s young.”


**


“With great timing.”


*


“He might be twelve.”


*


“Hey, look up kid comics. He’ll be there.” [1]


***


“Well, he might be, like, sixteen now. I don’t know.”


*


“Are we on an island right now?”


I don’t know, mother. Lord knows that you are, though. My goodness. [2]


[1] On the net? [2] I think she meant Dylan Roche. In 2016, a video of his four-minute set went viral. He was fourteen at the time. He seemed pretty good for his age, but the audience was insufferable. They were laughing before he finished any of his jokes. I can’t explain why. As for scoring, if you’re still reading after that stretch of nonsense, you deserve one hundred points and a hug.

------------------------------


“You planning on baking something special?”


A man wearing a baggy green t-shirt that read: IRISH DO IT BETTER was standing opposite me. He was busy adding individual price tags to a stack of used plastic ice cube trays. The trays, once white, were now stricken with yellowed blotches. Each reminded me of a toilet bowl that had never known the joy of a good bleaching.


“I’m sorry?”


“The pan. The cake pan,” he said, pointing at the tin under my arm, “got any big plans for it?”


Inner monologue: Big plans? Sir, there is considerable rust in this antique cake pan. There’s a fifty percent chance a family of mice used this as a quasi-air bnb. You’re holding stained ice cube trays. And, despite being outdoors, all I can smell is your cat – who, by the way – looks quite ill.


His cat was at least thirty-five pounds. It hadn’t moved a whisker since we arrived. It just lay on its side in the shadow of the table with one paw slung dramatically across its face. If he was wearing a t-shirt, it would have read: TAKE ME NOW.


Baking something special? Like what? A tetanus infection? Please, I beg you, tell me that you have not baked with this pan in at least a quarter century.


“No, no big plans,” I said. “I buy old things.” I paid the man a dollar for the tin and bid him good day. My mother had already retreated to the RAV. She was busy rubbing a dollop of hand sanitizer back and forth between her palms. “You ok?” I asked.


“I had to get out of there. There were rabbit turds in one of the boxes,” she said, gritting her teeth and shivering in exaggeration.


I held the cake pan out for her to inspect it. She scrunched her nose and shook her head. Like most things, I wasn’t exactly sure what it was worth. I had never heard of Swans Down, but I knew it had to be at least fifty years old – maybe more. The big clue was that it was made in the USA. America doesn’t manufacture many of its own things anymore – certainly not bakeware.

“Do you wanna get some breakfast?” I asked.


“You can eat after a sale like that?”


Sadly, yes.

------------------------------


For the first time in almost five months, we had the opportunity to eat inside a restaurant. It felt weird. The dining area had been thinned to only a handful of tables. The rest had been moved against the bar as makeshift cleaning stations. A teenage boy stared blankly at the wall, scrubbing a ketchup bottle with a disinfectant wipe. Everything that was brought to our table smelled of lemon-scented cleaning agents. The waitress was very polite, but our presence felt like an imposition. It was just too much fuss. It was smart (and likely legally mandated), but it felt like we were a nuisance. Every time our server visited us, she immediately retreated to the bar for a squirt of hand sanitizer. Almost like I was sitting there holding rusty cake pans and stained ice cube trays.


The breakfast was okay. I ordered an eggs benedict and the yolks were solid. Quel dommage! My mother had a stack of blueberry and chocolate chip pancakes. She could only manage to eat one of the three. I suggested that the previous yard sale had cast a disappearing spell on her appetite. She shook her head, claiming she never ate very much at this hour. Just then, the cook wandered a few steps from her post and paused to look at our plates. She balked at the leftovers.


“You didn’t like them?” she asked, turning to my mother.


I’m no Michelin star inspector, but if I was, I would deduct points for this line of questioning. Poor form, say I.


My mother stammered her way through the inquisition, repeating that she was simply not a big eater in the morning.


The chef nodded along, quite certain she was being lied to.


I finished the pancakes and got up to pay the bill. Another teenage boy walked past me with a small wooden case. I paid and followed him to the patio, where he was kneeling by a girl of maybe four years of age. She pointed to something and grinned wide. The boy used a plastic glove covered hand to pull a red whistle from the pile. A red plastic whistle. The horror… the horror.


I looked upon both parents with great pity. They stood limp, despondent. Skin paling. Each keenly understood the now wretched state of their Saturday. What was once a bright and hopeful morning had been reduced to ash.


A whistle?


Their child had a whistle. How long might it entertain her? Every parent knows the inverse rule of toy appreciation. The less you spend on a given item, the more joy it will bring. That luxury, hand-painted doll house? The one you convinced your spouse was worth the extra two hundred bucks. Never touched. That purple bit of frayed thread she found in a parking lot? A summer’s worth of memories.


My heart ached for them.


She blew it softly first. Timid. Then again. She found her confidence on the third toot. I saw something die in her father’s eyes. The teenager straightened himself – smiling on – oblivious to his transgression. He caught the parent’s faces and even he, in his hormonal soaked inexperience, knew something was amiss. He almost looked apologetic.


I nodded in their general direction. Solemn. The father caught the gesture and nodded back. Wistful. We both knew the cost of this meal was more than they could have ever anticipated.


A fourth blast of the whistle, long and piercing, reminded me to be on my way. And so, we left them alone, their day, most assuredly a smoldering wasteland.


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Check back in on Thursday for my father’s analysis of the cake pan and the glasses.

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