Everything Must Go
by Daniel Leach
The Tennessee sweatshirt marked for six dollars was easy enough to dismiss as a coincidence since it stands to reason that my ex-wife could not have been the only Volunteer fan in the entire city of Greenville. Even though it looked to be her size and, upon inspection, had a grease stain in the shape of a kidney bean by the neck just like Lyla’s did, I managed to fend off any theories about her coming back home. “Not in a million years,” she said right before she left for Macon. When I saw the earrings, though, my scalp went prickly with dread and what had been an ungrounded suspicion burgeoned into a veritable fact—two years after our divorce, Lyla had finally come back to Greenville and was seeing someone in the subdivision across the street from the one where we used to live. Moreover, she was now keen on the idea of garage sales.
I knew this because those earrings were purchased from a seaside bazaar in Rio de Janiero during the first morning of a week-long vacation we took to celebrate six years of marriage. So unless I was willing to subscribe to a theory involving a Brazilian transplant with a penchant for putting on garage sales and a passion for the Vols inexplicably moving to the Upstate, I was forced to conclude that whoever was running the sale was also seeing my ex-wife.
Now, I have never considered myself talented in the art of bluffing. Except for once, in college, when I somehow summoned the courage to stare down a Sociology professor and insist on my integrity regarding an essay that I had copied word for word from my Sigma Nu brother who had passed the class two semesters earlier and then, once more at a leadership conference, when I won the pot of a Texas Hold-em tournament with nothing more than pocket fours, my face has a history of televising whatever my heart feels. This I can’t help. So I consider it no small feat that, when the owner of the house approached me and asked if I played golf in an effort to unload a battered set of counterfeit Callaway irons, I was able to suppress my suspicion that this was the man who was currently bedding Lyla.
“They’re priced at two-hundred, but I could let them go for one-fifty,” he said, jingling the change in his pocket and shooting me a knowing smile like we were members of the same small church or had once coached Little League together when, in fact, we had never even seen each other before.
I removed a sand wedge from the bag and set up for a practice swing. I came to golf rather late in life—after college, in fact– and, as a result, I’ve never been able to achieve the fluid, unhurried backswing of golfers who have those extra decades on me. I have a stiff, punchy little stroke that looks like hell, but sends the ball on a low and straight line more often than not.
“Watch this,” I said and brought the club head back at about half speed.
I don’t know what word he was trying to get out as the club head crashed into one of those floor mirrors that was set up nearby, but he sounded like old man straining to lift something when my swing broke the cheap thing into a million pieces. There were some women a few feet away who were looking through the bake-ware and they jumped up like someone had unloaded a shotgun inside a small room.
“Oops,” I said and, taking a long sip from my McDonald’s cup, studied the man who, in all likelihood, I would end up swapping blows with before the day was over.
“Don’t worry about it,” he said and grabbed a nearby broom and swept the up the broken glass.
He was, I hate to admit, handsome in that tanned and tight-jawed Clinton-era Democrat kind of way. If he wasn’t already fifty then he was close and, although he sported his windswept salt-in-pepper hairstyle well enough, his muscles had taken on that stringy quality that one associates with yoga gurus and elderly black men. He incessantly bounced back and forth on his heels, suggesting the spry quality of man who ran track in high-school and who, three nights out of the week, still hit the pavement while the rest of us camped out in front of the television. The rhythmic little twang in his voice sounded more Charleston than Greenville and he had one of those mouths that form a subtle little grin even when he’s not trying to. He was, as far as I could tell, an all-around good man and I would bet my paycheck that he always tipped twenty percent, never lingered in the passing lane, cut the unclaimed stretch of grass that borders his neighbor’s yard without being asked to, and, in all likelihood, volunteered at a soup kitchen during Thanksgiving and Christmas. This apparent goodness, of course, made me hate him all the more, although, when it comes to a man who might be dating your ex-wife, I suppose there’s not much he can do to add or detract from your prevailing prejudice.
“What about books? You a reader? I’ve got Clancy, Patterson, and the new one by Grisham,” he said, snapping his fingers and pointing at me with a self-imposed I’ve-got-your-number-buddy amiability.
Only he didn’t have my number—not even close, actually. I had not read a book since four or five years ago when I made a new year’s resolution to read through Shelby Foote’s Civil War trilogy. I thoroughly enjoyed it and read anywhere from five to ten pages a night for several weeks. I had just read about the surrender of Fort Sumter when Lyla got me hooked on a reality show about crab fisherman, at which point I surrendered too. The large and tattered paperback sat untouched on my bedside table through June when Lyla got sick of looking at it and slid it under my bed. Unless Lucinda, who cleans my house every other Tuesday, has moved it, it is still there to this day.
“I’m good,” I said, took another sip, and waved at the two women camped out in the driveway, drinking coffee and counting money in their beach chairs. I noticed that there were four beach chairs in all—two occupied, two empty. I also did not fail to notice that, beneath one of the empty chairs, the wrapper of a sausage biscuit (Lyla’s favorite) had been packed into a tight little ball and left to occupy the cool square of shade beneath the chair. My theory, then, was this: the two women were neighbors (possibly even relatives visiting for the Fourth, which was just two days away) and the other two seats belonged to that change-jingling hillbilly and the woman who had sworn, for better or for worse, to endure my feeble attempts at being a husband.
Since they were engaged in a conversation about last year’s Clemson-Carolina game, I made a quick study of them to see if any other evidence supported my theory. At their feet, there was an open tin container which, judging by the protruding brown-flecked pieces of wax paper, contained somebody’s home-made brownies (Lyla’s desert of choice). Like most Southern women who have surrendered their best years (often without even knowing it) to soccer practices and the PTA, these two had given up on trying to hide their cellulite and wore very short and very brightly colored shorts without apology. There tans were natural and, as far as I could tell, only one of them got her blonde hair from a box. They were, if I’m being honest, not the kind of women that Lyla had surrounded herself with, but, then again, a lot can change in two years.
Then I noticed a copy of Southern Living magazine rolled up and stuffed in the cup holder of the empty chair. Although she would never shell out for a subscription, Lyla had always read those while waiting in line at the grocery store. The sweatshirt, the earrings, the sausage biscuit, the brownies, and now the Southern Living—needless to say, evidence for my theory was mounting by the minute.
“Well, buddy” the man said, sneaking up behind me and slapping me in between the shoulder blades just hard enough to leave a slight sting on the skin. “Look around. Let me know if can help you with anything.”
“Will do,” I said and pretended to look at a VHS tape of NFL highlights that had been left on top of a table of folded men’s t-shirts. Not ready for a confrontation, I continued my bluff for another couple of minutes, first testing the quality of a coffee table being sold for twenty five dollars and then thumbing through a CD collection that had an impressive array of mid-nineties alternative rock albums.
“That’s a good one,” he yelled from across the drive-way as I studied the track listing of Hootie and The Blowfish’s debut album.
I raised up my cup in agreement, not only out of courtesy, but also because I seemed to remember owning the album at some time in my life. The cover looked familiar. Only, when I scanned the track listing for the two songs I thought were on it—one about a freshman and the other about an eighth day of creation on which God makes sweet tea—it occurred to me that I was confusing it with something else.
I kept browsing and for the next fifteen minutes I felt like Sherlock Holmes—spotting clues and collecting facts. I found a picture-frame that used to sit on our mantle, though the picture (which, back then, had been Lyla and me at a Braves game) had been conveniently removed. Then there was the baby monitor that we bought before Lyla miscarried that we tried to return, but couldn’t since I had lost the receipt. They had spread our old stuff across the eight or so tables, but it seemed like every fourth item or so had that strange and familiar quality. There was a black goose-neck lamp that used to go in our office, a cork dartboard that once hung in our game-room, a casserole dish that Lyla used to make her famous Tater-Tot casserole, and an Elvis clock whose hands were made to look like Elvis’s arms that, even though I don’t remember having, I knew Lyla probably bought after we split because I know how much she loves young Elvis. There was more stuff too, but these were the important ones.
At one table there was an orange foam football just lying there on top of a chip and dip platter. Seemed like a kid was playing with it and left it there or something, so I snatched it up and slung it towards the golden retriever that was sniffing around on the front lawn. Guess I threw it a little hard because it ended up hitting the roof and tumbling down into the gutter. I would have apologized and even offered to climb up and retrieve it, but, seeing as how he didn’t even notice because he was too busy trying to push a decrepit old leaf-blower onto a lovely looking older couple in matching turquoise jogging suits, I forgot all about it and kept on browsing.
After about five or six minutes, there really wasn’t much else to browse, unless I wanted to start digging through the four cardboard boxes that were overflowing with baby clothes or pretend to be interested in one of the three dozen novelty coffee mugs that occupied their own table, so I approached the man, who was standing up talking to the two women in the beach chairs. I tapped him on the shoulder, held up the Hootie CD, and removed a single dollar bill from my wallet.
“Tell you what,” he said, leaning in and speaking in a conspiratorial kind of whisper. “I’ll throw in that blender right there for an even five.”
I wasn’t entirely sure what the connection was between a blender and a Hootie album, but I had a blender of my own and hardly ever used it and still wasn’t entirely sure I liked Hootie or just the band I thought Hootie was.
“Just the CD,” I said and then, as if it had just crossed my mind, nodded towards the sweatshirt and added, “You a Tennessee fan?”
“No sir,” he said, taking my dollar. “I bleed a different shade of orange if you know what I mean.”
“I do,” I said, holding up my ring for his approval.
“When did you graduate?” he asked and handed me back my change.
“78,” I said. “You?”
“72,” he said. “Greek?”
“Sigma Nu,” I said.
“I was a Delt,” he said and winked as he turned and walked away. “Enjoy the CD.”
“You’re wife go to Tennessee?” I said, almost to his back.
“I’m sorry?” he said.
“The sweatshirt,” I said, picking it up off the table and holding it up for him to see.
“Are you interested in that? I think she wanted a dollar, but I could give it to you for fifty cents.”
“Your wife wanted a dollar for it?” I said.
“No. I’m not married,” he said.
“Well where did it come from?” I said.
“I suppose from the closet of one of these lovely ladies,” he said, his auto-smile still smiling and his blue eyes still sparkling with neighborly affection as he swept his hand back towards to the two women.
“Did ya’ll go to Tennessee?” I hollered at the women.
“Nope,” they replied in unison.
“Ya’ll Tennessee fans?” I said.
“Nope,” they replied, again, in unison.
“Well then what are ya’ll doing with a Tennessee sweatshirt?” I asked.
“It’s not mine,” the one on the left said, rising slightly from her chair to give it a look.
“Not mine either,” the one on the right said and then reached into the tin and stuffed a brownie in her mouth.
“Wonder where it came from,” I said, locking eyes with the man and letting a smile slip just as his began to fade. “You ever been to Brazil?”
He looked in both directions to make sure that none of his neighbors were out, which they weren’t, and then over his shoulder to make sure that the women had resumed their conversation, which they had. Then he got close enough to me that I could see the friendly look had left his eye and started walking down towards the end of his driveway. I was more than happy to follow.
“Are you alright buddy?” he whispered and studied my face like a pitcher mulling over his catcher’s call.
“Me? I’m excellent,” I said and studied his face in return. Up close, I noticed the deep creases beneath his eyes and around his mouth not to mention the little loose pockets of fat that had collected at the corners of his jaw that would, in all likelihood, develop into some mean jowls the minute he ran less or drank more.
“This is a good neighborhood,” he said, still whispering. “Now I was trying to be a sport about all of it, but I think you need to get going. I’m assuming you didn’t drive.”
“Why would you assume that?” I said.
Again, he looked around to make sure no neighbors were in sight. Then he looked me square in the eye and, in that moment, I knew he was the one. But I also knew just from looking at him that he didn’t have the spine to come out and say it.
“What’s in your cup there, buddy?” he said.
Just like a Democrat to change the subject when he’s about to be exposed. I had not come that far to be thrown off course by one little smart-aleck comment though.
“First of all, it’s my cup so you don’t need to worry about what’s in it,” I said, tapping my ring kind of hard against his sternum. “And secondly I’m not your buddy so you can stop calling me that.”
About the third or fourth time I brought my ring down on his chest, he grabbed me by the wrist. I was surprised at the strength of his grip, which, for a scrappy little Delt, was pretty solid. When he did, I dropped my cup and the CD and clapped my other hand down on top of his wrist and let him feel my grip. About as soon as I did this, he brought his other hand down on top of mine, making it so that our four hands were all tangled up between us and our faces were about six inches apart. We were shaking like branches trapped in certain kinds of storms.
“Mike?” one of the women shouted, the concern in her tone appropriate to a Garage Sale Saturday, where, in her mind, nothing too bad can ever happen. “Is everything okay?”
He didn’t answer. We were still locked up, the both of us trembling pretty hard after about fifteen seconds or so. By then, his face was blood-red and veins were popping out of his neck and temples. His eyes were open so wide that his irises looked like tiny blue marbles swimming in a sea of white. Me– I was smiling like a madman.
“Get your drunk ass off my property or I’ll call the police,” he said through his teeth and tried to pry free his hands.
He couldn’t break loose though. I was squeezing him so hard I could feel his bones digging into my palms. I wrestled in high-school and won state my junior and senior year not because of technique (because I had none of that) but because I could squeeze the life out of my opponent. Six times in three years, my matches had to be stopped on account of broken fingers and once, at a tournament in Belton, I put a Mexican boy in a cradle so tight that he passed out before the fat old ref could take a knee and slap out the pin.
“Let go,” he said, which is exactly what I would say if my grip was failing and my fingers had gone softer than wet tissue.
“Where’s Lyla?” I said, squeezing even harder and feeling his knees buckle.
“Mike?” the woman shouted again, but still didn’t get out of her beach-chair enough to see us struggling. I can only imagine what she thought we were doing down there at the edge of the driveway.
“Where is she?” I repeated, shaking him like a rag-doll just for the hell of it. He seemed to weigh about as much as a pillow and it felt good to see those messy little pieces of grayish hair flopping around when I shook him.
About that time I heard a car pulling up behind us. Without letting go, I looked over my shoulder and saw a family piling out of a SUV. As if on some kind of a cue, another SUV pulled up right behind that one, this time just a black couple climbed out.
I let go.
“If I ever see you in this neighborhood again,” he said, shaking the blood back into his hands. “I’ll have you arrested.”
“I bet you will,” I said and tried to spit on his khakis.
He dodged it and didn’t even have the balls to spit back.
He practically jogged back into his house, the two women hopping out of their chairs and following right after him. I picked up my cup, which had tipped over but not completely spilled, and left the Hootie CD. I thought about tipping over a table, but it seemed, even by my standards, a little juvenile.
I had, in fact, driven. I was parked a few houses down. I got in my car and drove through some close-by neighborhoods for about ten minutes just in case he had made good on his threat to call the police. Then I drove back down his street and when I didn’t see a police cruiser and when I noticed that he was back in his driveway yukking it up with some teenager about those fake Callaways, I parked my car a little ways down the road and resolved to watch for a while. I noticed for the first time a sign taped to their mailbox. Scrawled by a sloppy black Sharpie, it read: “Everything must go.” I thought about that as I refilled my cup and was watched that empty chair. Watching that chair made the rest of the world go out of focus and I somehow knew that if I waited long enough, that if I said some more prayers but really meant it this time, Lyla would come out of that house and sit in it. She would sit in that chair and I would get out of my car and she would look up to see me coming. I believed so strongly that this would happen that I could almost see it. I was wondering if she still wore her hair long when I saw the blue-lights on fire in my rearview and looked over to see that son-of-a-bitch waving like a beauty queen.
Daniel Leach was born and raised in Greer, South Carolina, went to school at College of Charleston and Clemson, taught English at high schools in Greenville, Columbia and, most recently Charleston. Save for an eight-month stint in Los Angeles, he has spent his entire life in the South and it is with a sense of privilege that he explores the nuances of Southern culture in his fiction.