Open House

Mrs. Crawford was halfway into the living room before she spotted the crouching man. He was brushing the tips of his fingers across the wooden surface of the coffee table. He looked like he was going to lick it. Mrs. Crawford tied her bathrobe tighter. Much tighter.

“How much?” the man asked. The front door was open, an incongruous gap in the room. “If you’re offering the ottoman, too, I’ll take it.”

Mrs. Crawford wrung her arthritic hands. Her bottom lip quivered. Her eyes jumped to the door, the table, the ottoman, and then the man. He was wearing a grey suit that didn’t fit, his hair was brushed but needed a trim, and his facial hair was between stubble and beard. Now he seemed to be resting his head on the table. Or maybe he was listening to it. His big cheek pancaked out, giving his lip an Elvis-like curl.

“Will you accept fifty for the table?” he slurred. “And another ten for the ottoman?”

Mrs. Crawford stuttered a moment, working the long-settled mucus from her throat. The man stood up to his full height, and Mrs. Crawford managed to say, “Yes. Yes, that’s fair.”

Dimples formed in the man’s cheeks, and his teeth appeared between his lips. Mrs. Crawford looked to the archway that led to the kitchen. She could see her phone on the counter, just above the cutlery drawer.

“How much for that desk lamp?”

The man approached the lamp that sat atop the record cabinet, which was next to the kitchen entrance. He stopped in front of the archway and examined the lamp.

Mrs. Crawford opened her mouth wide and tried to bring her voice back. Too high, too hard, so it came out as silence. She coughed, launching a shiny string of phlegm that wrapped around her chin.

She tried her normal voice.

“Ten dollars,” she said, the words bubbling from her throat.

The man hummed and tugged on the beaded cord under the ruffled green lampshade. The cord made a sandy, crackling noise, then a sharp snap as the light bathed his wrist in green. He tugged it again and the light turned off.

“I don’t know,” he said. Crackle-click. Crackle-click. “It’s kind of small. Will you take five?”

The man looked down at Mrs. Crawford. She put a hand on the side of the living room sofa and leaned on it. Her right knee was wobbling. She said, “Yes, five is all right.”

The man nodded. He bent down and unplugged the lamp, brought the cord up, and wrapped it around the lamp’s neck seven times.

“Do you mind if I keep the bulb?”

Cars puttered by outside the house, then faded. None slowed down or stopped. Mrs. Crawford could hear them through the wide-open front door. They were steady, unhurried.

“No.”

“You know, I’ll pay six for the lamp.”

“All right.”

Teeth, dimples. He examined the turntable that sat at the top of the record cabinet, next to where the lamp used to be. He whistled, tapping the lamp’s body to his thigh.

“Always wanted a turntable. It’d be nice to have something that doesn’t connect to the internet. I hate being so plugged in all the time. Hate distractions. How much?”

He held his eyes to Mrs. Crawford’s.

She said, “For my… for the record player?”

“No,” said the man. “How much do I hate distractions?”

More cars outside. Many of them. A thousand.

The man spread his arms wide, like a bear. He said, “This much.” The lamp’s neck was still in his hand, and the cord was dangling, clicking against the lamp body.

Then he laughed. Then he said, “Yes, for the record player.”

Mrs. Crawford’s left foot was cold. It had wobbled out of her slipper. She slipped it back on, but her leg was still unsteady. She realized she was smiling. She was smiling at the man’s laugh.

He moved in front of the record cabinet, turning his back to Mrs. Crawford, and dropped to his knees. He set the lamp down and began pulling out records, balancing them between the carpet and his fingers and flipping through each album a second or two at a time. The entrance to the kitchen was now unblocked.

Mrs. Crawford took a step toward the kitchen, but she didn’t remove her hand from the sofa so she didn’t go far. Her left knee wobbled like a guitar string.

“I don’t need the speakers,” said the man. Kneeling, he was as tall as Mrs. Crawford. He eyed her over his shoulder.

“Thirty,” said Mrs. Crawford.

“Thirty is more than fair,” said the man, turning his head back and continuing to flip through records. “Can’t pass on a deal like that. Oh, Pete Seeger. Sure, I’m a sucker for the oldies.”

Mrs. Crawford hung her head so the loose skin of her saliva-wet chin touched her neck. Her eye-line was level with the man’s close-cropped hair. She said, “If I had a hammer.”

I’d hammer in the mo-er-ning, I’d hammer in the eve-ning, I’d hammer at supper time,” sang the man. He looked over his shoulder again. “Is that how it goes?”

He had been singing loudly, and the door was open. Open and empty.

“It’s yours,” said Mrs. Crawford. “With the record player.”

One dimple this time, since his head was turned to the side. “That’ll be a good start to my collection,” he said. He tugged the Pete Seeger record out of the pile, acid paper swishing, and placed it to the side, in front of the path to the kitchen. He thumbed through a few more records. “Never was one for polka, myself.”

“No,” said Mrs. Crawford, eyeing the Pete Seeger album. Pete smiled at her.

The man hummed and slid the pile of records back into the glass cabinet and closed it. He picked up the Pete Seeger album and the lamp and stood up, turning to face Mrs. Crawford.

“I think that’s all I have room for in my car, anyway,” he said, looking down with the dots in his cheeks. He glanced around the living room, pointing at the coffee table. “That’s fifty for the table.” He pointed at the record player. “And another thirty for the record player and the album. And—five? No, six. Six for the lamp, I remember.” He placed the lamp next to the record player, put the album under his arm and held it to his torso. He reached into his coat. Mrs. Crawford stiffened, which made her wobble even more. The man pulled out his wallet, flipped it open, fingered through some bills, and tugged out a few. “Fifty, twenty, twenty. Do you have four in change?”

Mrs. Crawford worked her jaw. She murmured and watched the bills in the man’s large hand.

“You know what? Keep the extra four. For the album.” He pressed the bills to Mrs. Crawford. He was very close, so the money was brushing her wringing hands. Gradually, her fingers tightened over the bills and the man let them go.

Then he smiled and took Mrs. Crawford’s free hand in his palm, shaking it firmly. Her arthritis flared. The man’s eyes were grey, like his suit. Then he let go. He seized the lamp and placed the record on the little coffee table, set the lamp on the record, and picked the table up with everything else balanced atop it.

Mrs. Crawford watched him carry the table outside.

He was gone. Mrs. Crawford braced herself on the sofa and stepped toward the archway. Then she placed her other hand on the cabinet with the record player and took another step. Standing in front of the threshold to the kitchen, she looked down at the record player. Then to the front door, which was still open. She could see dust swimming in the ray of daylight. A city bus passed by, growling and wheezing. Then a few more cars. Mrs. Crawford stopped, turned to face the front door, and the man came back inside.

He smiled without dimples and approached her. Her gnarled fingers curled in the dust of the cabinet top. The man placed his broad hands on the record player and lifted it up, higher than Mrs. Crawford’s head. The countertop was now bare except for the dustless shadows left behind.

“I’ve got my eye on a couple more things,” he said, lowering the record player to cradle against his chest. “I’ll be by again some time.”

Mrs. Crawford sputtered and said a word, and through the crackling, bubbling mucus it sounded like, “Kruh.”

The man nodded. He turned his back to her and walked to the door. Then he stopped and looked behind him, to the middle of the living room. “The ottoman,” he said. And he left, with Mrs. Crawford’s record player in his arms.

Many cars passed before Mrs. Crawford’s heart steadied. Once it did, she made it into the kitchen. On the counter next to her phone lay a pack of cigarettes. She slid one free, placed it in her dry lips. She then produced a lighter from her bathrobe pocket, and struck it with a scarred thumb. The flame sparked. She thumbed again. Sparks. With a tear tickling her cheek, she tried again. It lit.

Another man entered the house.

“What in the hell?” he called. “Marie! And the record player, too? Marie, where’d you—there you are. What’d you do with the old coffee table? And the record player? Come on, now, I know you didn’t move ‘em yourself. Don’t tell me we got robbed. Dammit, I’m gone not twenty minutes… Are you all right? Marie? Marie. Why was the door open?”

Mrs. Crawford slipped the lighter into her bathrobe pocket and felt the ninety dollars there. She closed her eyes, held the cigarette to her lips, and inhaled, just a little while longer.

 

 


 

 

Day 331 and 332’s prompt categories were, “Stranger danger,” “The hermit,” and, “Chainsmoking.”

Been a while since I had to scrunch two prompts together, but this one is long enough to make up for it.

– H.

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