“Stop complaining,” said Julie, looking over her shoulder at her husband as she stacked dishes and coffee cups on a folding utility table against the garage wall. “We’re lucky to get anything at all.”
“I’m not complaining,” said Tom, searching for a place on the concrete garage floor to set the box he was carrying. “It just seems unfair. Your mom and aunt get the house, your uncle gets the money in the bank, your sister gets the new car, and we get—”
“Put the box there,” said Julie, pointing.
Tom dropped the box. It clanged—more goddamn pots and pans.
“And we get the shit,” said Tom, as he brushed a wave of blonde hair from his forehead.
“It’s not shit,” replied Julie. She peered inside the box and then looked at him. “And for your information, my mom, aunt, uncle, and sister were all there for my grandmother when she was sick and dying. I wasn’t. And it’s not like I didn’t want to be. It’s not like we lived that far away.”
“All right, I’m guilty. I didn’t want you to go. I really needed you to help me out at the gym. And, besides, it’s not like you never got to see her. We came here every other Sunday when she started to get real sick.”
“I know. I feel like I should have spent more time with her, though, especially as she got older.”
Tom watched Julie bend over the box to pick up some pots and pans. A smile crept over his face. He never tired of seeing his lovely wife in her tight white shorts which emphasized the pleasant contour of her firm, tanned legs.
“Grandma had such an interesting life,” said Julie, unaware that her husband was enjoying the sight behind her. She began to arrange the pots and pans on the table. “Mostly, she had a hard, sad life, especially before she came—”
“Yeah, you’ve told me,” said Tom, his voice flat.
“What did I tell you?”
“Your grandma married a guy twenty-four years older than she was. They fled Germany—or Russia—or wherever it was—and arrived in America without a pot to pee in. They didn’t know anybody here, and they didn’t know much English. And when they died, they obviously learned some English and left us with lots of pots to pee in.”
Julie burst out laughing and then shook her head, feigning disgust. Finally, she smiled and said, “I’m impressed you remembered. They came from Russia. But everything else you said is accurate. Everything except that smart-ass bit about leaving us with lots of pots to pee in.”
She couldn’t refrain from laughing again though.
Tom glowed. Her laughter and captivating smile with the intriguing dimples had a warm, soothing effect on him. When he had met her, he told all his friends he had found the woman he was going to marry. That surprised many of them because he seemed to enjoy dating a different sexy hottie every other weekend.
“Tom, rearrange these boxes on the floor so we’ll have a path to walk in. And put some of those boxes with things in them under the table outside on the driveway.”
“You think we’ll get that many people, Julie?”
“Absolutely, don’t be so negative. Think positive. People love garage sales.”
“I can’t understand it,” said Tom, shaking his head. “People getting up early on a Saturday morning on their day off so that they can be first in line to buy other people’s . . . s-h-i-t.”
“It’s not s-h-i-t. Now make some room.”
Tom opened the garage door and dragged some of the boxes outside that contained garden tools, linen, dishes, books, magazines, picture frames, knickknacks, souvenirs, and other stuff. It was twilight. He glanced at the sun starting to rise and noticed at the end of the house a hibiscus shrub with large pink flowers. He walked over and pinched off one of the flower stems. Then he went back into the garage, closed the garage door, and handed the pink flower to Julie.
“Happy eighth month anniversary, honey,” he said.
Julie laughed and kissed him. “Has it been eight months already?”
Tom nodded. “Tomorrow will be eight months.”
“So much has happened since we tied the knot,” Julie said. “That’s so sweet of you to remember. I’m sorry I don’t have anything to give you to celebrate our eighth month anniversary.”
“No problem.” Then Tom’s eyes grew wide and he grinned. “Well, maybe there is one thing you can get me.”
“You know, the down payment for a new pickup truck.”
“No! Not that again!” Julie said. “You know we can’t afford it.”
“Tom, no. Let’s get back to work. We still got stuff in the attic that needs to come down.”
“More stuff? Are you serious?”
“Yes. Mom says that some of the stuff in the attic has been up there for over twenty years, ever since my grandfather died. They were his personal items.”
“Oh, wonderful! I can’t wait to see what priceless treasures we’ll find up there. Maybe we’ll get lucky and find a hidden stash of his old underwear—with pee stains still intact!”
“You’re sick! You’re disgusting!” Julie grimaced and turned away. She didn’t want Tom to see her face as she fought off the impulse to laugh. Then she reached over and gave him a quick surprise kiss on his lips. He reciprocated by extending the kiss. She gently and playfully bit his lower lip and whispered seductively into his ear, “Now get back to work, buddy.”
Obediently, Tom scooped up an armload of floral blouses and shoved them in a box marked: CLOTHES: $1 PER ITEM.
Some of this stuff should have been donated, thought Tom.
But they needed the extra money to pay bills, and, of course, to save up for a down payment on a new truck.
“Tom, take these three empty boxes and put them in the kitchen next to the garbage can.”
Tom carried the boxes into the kitchen. When he returned, he said, “Julie, it really seems like we’re getting a crappy deal. We’re stuck doing all the dirty work. And what for?”
“Tom, stop griping. Please.”
Tom sighed. His wife’s back was toward him, but he decided to persist anyway. “I’m just upset because we’re probably not going to get enough money to apply toward a down payment to buy a new truck.”
Julie ignored him. She continued to sort through the boxes.
“Julie, can’t we sell some of that furniture you’re getting? You know I’m not into that old, dark mahogany crap.”
Julie spun around. “No! Tom, no! I promised Mom I wouldn’t get rid of the furniture, for sentimental sake. Besides, I like some of that old dark mahogany crap, as you call it.”
“Julie, we already have nice furniture. What we need is a truck. Then I wouldn’t have to rent a U-Haul every time I have to buy some exercise equipment for the gym.”
“Tom, are you crazy? How can you say our furniture is nice? It’s dingy. It’s falling apart. It’s made out of cheap particle board. And the fitness center doesn’t need any more exercise equipment, for God’s sake! We don’t have any room for more equipment.”
“We’d have more room if we expanded our fitness center to another location, Julie.”
“Forget it, Tom. We don’t need to expand. We need to get our first gym running efficiently so it can pay the bills, and we can start making a profit. We’ve talked about this before. Why are you bringing this up again now?”
“Julie, I really could use—”
“Tom, listen. Please listen carefully. We’re barely making ends meet, as it is. For two years we haven’t made any money. We need to consider selling the gym and going back to our regular jobs.”
“Christ, Julie! You can’t be serious.”
Julie was serious. She wanted to tell him how tired she was of always having to worry about paying the bills. She wanted to tell him how humiliating it was to borrow money from her mother when they fell short so many times. And, more important, she wanted to tell him how she had decided to quit working at their gym and return to nursing—and not just because of the steady income, but for the satisfaction she got from helping patients in the hospital. She wanted to break the news to him now, but she knew this wasn’t the right time or place to get into an argument. They had to hurry to get ready for the garage sale. She decided to play it safe and said, “Honey, all I’m saying is this isn’t the time to expand the gym. Anyway, the only reason you want a new truck is to look cool.”
“So, what’s wrong with wanting to look cool?” asked Tom.
“Tom, honey, we have to get ready. It’s almost seven-thirty. People will be breaking down the garage door before long to buy this stuff, and you know we can use the money.”
Tom sighed and relented, at least for the moment. “Okay, fine. What’d you want me to do?”
“Bring down the stuff in the attic. There’s a ladder in the corner.”
The entrance to the attic was near the middle of the garage. Tom pushed some boxes aside and jockeyed the aluminum stepladder directly under the rectangular opening. As he climbed up the ladder, he thought about Julie’s threat to close the fitness center they had started two years ago.
She couldn’t be serious, could she?
Tom knew the fitness center wasn’t making a profit. Nevertheless, he enjoyed the gym immensely. He enjoyed having his own business, being his own boss, making his own hours, and being able to dress casually. He enjoyed helping new clients lose weight and get into shape and feel better about themselves. He enjoyed socializing with the fitness center members—many had become close friends. Before he and Julie bought the gym, he had worked for a large technology distributor. He had sold software, hardware, servers, fiber-optic cables, and technology test equipment. Every day in his office he had to wear nice attire: a white long-sleeve shirt, a tie, dress slacks, and polished dress shoes. The days were long and never over until he had answered every email and sales call from his regular clients. He had monthly sales quotas to meet, though that was hardly a problem for he was a competent salesperson, blessed with a gift of gab. He made excellent money, but he didn’t enjoy the stress and discipline of working in the corporate world. Tom fell in love with the fitness center the moment he found out it was available to purchase. He and Julie pooled their funds together and bought it. At the time, they both thought it was a great opportunity to be able to work and spend time together and make a lot of money. They did work and spend considerable time together; however, they didn’t make a lot of money. In the past year or so, Julie didn’t seem to enjoy the fitness center as much as he did. She seemed moody—sometimes miserable. Tom, though, loved being able to work out in the gym any time during the day, and instructing new customers on the safe, proper use of the free weights and Nautilus equipment. He loved the sounds of the gym—the grunts and groans of hard-exercising patrons testing their limits. He loved the sights of the gym—the aisles of gleaming Nautilus machines and racks of neatly stacked black metal barbell weights and dumbbells. And, not to mention, he loved the sight of the throngs of shapely women clad in shorts or skin-tight lululemon leggings working out. Everything and everybody, it seemed, was unabashedly on perpetual display. It wasn’t that Tom wasn’t attracted to his beautiful wife, but who can blame a young, supercharged American male like himself for not wanting to ogle (though somewhat guiltily) all the entrees in the smorgasbord?
Tom turned his attention to lifting the ceiling panel of the attic opening and moving it out of the way. He took another step up on the ladder and poked his head through the opening. It was too dark to see anything.
“I need a flashlight,” Tom called out.
A moment later, Tom felt Julie’s hand on the back of his thigh. He stooped down, his fingers fishing for the plastic cylinder. Without warning, Julie’s long fingernails slipped under the hem of his shorts. His leg jerked up.
“Hey! Careful, girl. You know what that does to me.”
Julie laughed. “Yeah, I know. A spider crawling up your leg could get you in the mood!”
“Probably, but I guess that depends on what kind of spider it is.”
Julie laughed again and handed him the flashlight. He flicked on the switch and aimed the silver beam into the blackness.
“Speaking of spiders,” muttered Tom, “I hope there aren’t many up here.”
“What do you see?”
“Tom . . .”
“Boxes. More boxes.”
“Good. Start bringing them down.”
“You’d be dusty, too, if somebody left you up there for over twenty years.”
Tom grunted as he jerked his body through the attic opening. He set the flashlight down on a small stack of floor tiles and grabbed the first box he saw. Dust exploded everywhere. Tom snapped his eyes shut and sneezed.
“Are you all right, Tom?”
He sneezed again and waited for the dust to settle.
“I’m fine, fine,” he said hoarsely. “How about climbing up the ladder . . . so I can hand you a box.”
Julie climbed up the ladder steps and steadied herself near the top. She extended her arms above her head and carefully balanced the crumbling bottom of the cardboard box that Tom had set on her hands. Slowly, she lowered the box to the floor. Then she unfolded the box top flaps.
“Any valuable treasures?” asked Tom, peering down from the attic entrance.
“Pens, pencils, scissors, an eraser, another eraser,” said Julie, rooting through the contents, “a pencil sharpener, a paperweight, a roll of Scotch tape, a pocketknife, a piece of rope—”
“A piece of rope?”
“Make that two pieces of rope.”
“Two pieces of rope? Were your grandpa and grandma into some fifty shades of gray? And I’m not talking about the color of their hair.”
Julie giggled. “Yeah, right.” She continued sorting through the remainder of the contents. “A lighter, a Webster pocket dictionary, a letter opener, a toothbrush—”
“A toothbrush? Save that. I could use a new toothbrush.”
“Gross! It’s disgusting. The bristles are black and grimy.”
“That’s okay. I’ll douse it with some bleach and spray it with some Krylon white paint. My teeth won’t know the difference.”
Julie smiled up at him. She was relieved that he had stopped talking nonsense about buying a new pickup truck. “How many more boxes are there?”
“A couple. And some floor tile.”
“Let’s get the other two boxes. Leave the tile.”
Tom handed another box to Julie after she had stepped back onto the ladder. She brought it down and then got the other one. She peered inside them. There were tools, hats, reading glasses, a deck of cards, fingernail clippers, a radio, a beer mug, a camera, a can of brown shoe polish, a watch, a smudged baseball (not autographed), and other frustratingly insignificant items. Julie folded the box top flaps and slid the boxes under a table. She noticed Tom was still in the attic.
“What’re you doing, Tom?”
“There’s something else up here. A painting. It’s big. I don’t know if I can get it through the hole.”
“Somebody had to get it up there, Tom.”
“Yeah, you got a good point,” said Tom. “Unless the painting got bigger up here as time went by.”
“Or unless the attic access hole got smaller,” replied Julie, trying to keep up with him.
“You mean smaller like our closet gets every time you buy another new pair of shoes.”
“I don’t buy that many shoes!” Julie cried out. At least not as many shoes as most of my girlfriends, she thought. “Speak for yourself, bud, with all the shoes you got.”
“Forget I mentioned it then.” After a long pause, Tom called down, “This painting . . . from what I can see up here in the dark . . . it’s uglier than a puss-filled zit. You should see it.”
“I can’t see it if it’s up there.”
“The frame’s kind of cool, though.”
“Bring it down, Tom.”
“It’s a little heavy.”
She heard him sneeze.
“And dusty,” he said.
“I’ll come up and help.”
“No, I got it. Just stand near the top of the ladder.”
Tom managed to squeeze the painting through the opening. Julie grabbed both corners of the wooden frame and slowly stepped down three steps as Tom held onto the top.
“Try to put the frame on the step and walk it down carefully, one step at a time,” Tom said.
Following Tom’s suggestion, Julie brought the painting down to the concrete garage floor. Tom stepped down the ladder and together they placed the painting on top of some boxes. With a quick backhand, Tom whisked away cobwebs. Then they both stepped back and stared at the painting.
Through the film of dust, bright crayon-like colors were visible. Near the top of the canvas, an animal’s head was painted cadmium red, its large snout pointed toward the cobalt-blue sky. Near the center was a young woman’s face—pale blue, and her eyes were sullen. At the bottom of the painting was the outline of a man standing apprehensively on the roof of a brown shack.
Tom picked up a rag and wiped off his hands. He shook his head. To him, the painting looked like it was painted by a six-year-old child. “Well, it’s not exactly a Rembrandt, is it?”
Julie continued to stare, quiet.
“Did your grandpa like to paint?” asked Tom. “Like maybe when he was in kindergarten?”
“Ha-ha! My grandfather didn’t paint it. He didn’t even like art.”
“That’s a relief,” said Tom, laughing. He gazed near the top of the painting. “Well, I must say, that sure is a scary-looking dragon’s head.”
“That’s not a dragon’s head.”
“It isn’t? What is it then?”
“A donkey’s head.”
“A donkey’s head? Really? Are you sure?”
“I remember the painting when I was a little girl. My grandfather kept it tucked away in his man-cave den because my grandmother didn’t like it. She didn’t want it hanging any place where people could see it.”
“Thank goodness your grandma had some taste.”
“The painting was given to my grandfather by a childhood friend who was visiting from overseas. The images are supposed to represent the village where my grandfather and his friend grew up. I recall asking my grandfather about the painting before he died, when I was about six years old, and he explained it all to me.”
“What does the village have to do with the red dragon’s head?”
“No, a red donkey’s head. You don’t have dragons living in a poor, rural village. Just donkeys.”
“But a donkey’s head isn’t red.”
“Maybe the donkey is angry.”
“And a donkey doesn’t have a long, pointy snout.”
“Okay. Let’s just forget it.”
“Too bad your grandpa’s friend didn’t bring him back a Picasso.”
“Ha! Like you’d know a Picasso if you saw it.”
“Sure, I would,” said Tom. “When I was in my third-grade art class, I had trouble drawing people’s faces, so I drew triangles. My art teacher called me a young Picasso.”
“That’s wonderful,” said Julie, beaming at him with pride. “That’s really creative, my young Picasso.”
“Well, not really,” said Tom, lowering his eyes. “Actually, I was trying to draw squares and they came out as triangles.” He grinned and winked at her.
“Ah, I should have known better.” Julie turned back toward the painting. “Okay, so what do you think of the frame?”
Tom reached down and ran his fingers along the ornate swirls. He felt the coarse areas where the gold gilding had flaked off. “It needs to be refurbished.”
Julie massaged the wood with her thumb. “Yeah, but it looks handcrafted. It might be worth something.”
“Enough to buy a new truck?”
“Not that again.”
“Not even enough money to have a baby and start a family,” said Julie, not missing an opportunity to bring up a subject important to her.
“Oh, not that again! Julie, we need to get our fitness center business going before we can start a family.”
“I know. I know. If you’d stop talking about buying a truck, I’ll stop talking about having a baby and starting a family.”
“Fine,” Tom said, but he knew he wasn’t going to give up that easily.
“Tom, why don’t we put the painting inside the house somewhere? In the kitchen. We’ll take it to a reputable antique shop or art gallery somewhere and get an expert to appraise it.”
“People collect frames?”
“People collect anything.”
“What do you collect?”
Tom stared, dumbfounded and hurt.
Julie laughed and reached her arm around Tom. “But you’re the only man I want in my collection.”
Tom grinned sheepishly and bent over to kiss her.
The doorbell rang.
Julie glanced down at her cell phone. “It’s past eight!”
Tom grabbed the painting with both hands and lugged it into the kitchen.
“My God, Julie!” shouted Tom. “You should see all the people outside—all the cars lined up. You’d think it was a Beyoncé concert!”
The morning sailed by. Hundreds of vehicles, it seemed, stopped and sputtered away. Money poured in—mostly dollar bills—tons of dollar bills. Tom felt like a concession-stand worker selling cold draft beers at a baseball game on a sweltering summer day.
When nobody was nearby, Tom leaned over and whispered into Julie’s ear, “People have a rash for trash. An itch for rub-itch.”
Julie grinned. “You’re such a poet and I didn’t even know it.”
“Seriously, look!” He smiled broadly as he pulled out a big wad of crumpled bills in his fist. Tom figured he had at least three hundred dollars. He knew Julie had as much. Six hundred dollars. Maybe enough money to put a down payment on a new truck if he played his cards right.
After one o’clock, the traffic dwindled. Then, in the darkening, cloudy sky, a bolt of lightning flashed, followed by the rumble of thunder.
“Rain’s coming,” said Julie. “Let’s get everything inside.”
They took items off the folding tables and placed them into empty boxes. Then they slid the boxes into the garage.
“I’m hungry,” said Julie. “I’ll go grab lunch. What kind of sub do you want?”
“You want me to go?”
“No, why don’t you put the tables into the garage and close the garage door.”
“Okay. Get me a turkey with lettuce and tomato—no mayo.”
Tom watched his wife drive off in their twelve-year-old Chrysler 300 with the faded silver finish, cracked plastic bumpers, and dented rear driver’s fender. Tom was ashamed of the car. In the early morning when he would arrive to open the fitness center, he always parked several spaces away and made sure nobody was looking when he ducked out of his car.
Rain began to splatter down. Tom rushed to fold the tables together and leaned them against a wall inside the garage. When he had finished, he pressed the switch to close the garage door. As it squeaked and teetered down, Tom saw a blue Chevy pickup truck pull up into the driveway.
“Christ! Another trash rat!” Tom muttered under his breath. “Even when it’s raining—nothing stops them.”
Tom motioned to the man in the truck to go to the front door. He stepped out of his truck. He looked to be in his late fifties, short and stocky, with a round, sunburned face and a trimmed white beard and mustache. The most unusual thing about the man, though, was a red plaid headband that partially covered his forehead and ears. The headband looked cheap and knitted by an amateur.
“I’m sorry to trouble you,” said the man. “Is your garage sale still going on?”
If you have the cash, we have the trash, thought Tom. He grinned at the man and said, “The garage sale’s not over until the last customer sings—or is broke.”
The man forced a polite laugh. “Well, I’m not broke yet.”
“Then come right on inside, sir.” Tom stepped aside to let the man in. He was wet; water dripped on the tiled floor. “I’ll get you some paper towels.”
“No need to trouble yourself but thanks.”
Tom returned from the kitchen and handed him a roll of paper towels. The man thanked him again and stuck his hand out. “I’m Charles Sanger,” he said. “Just call me Charley.”
Tom shook the man’s hand. “I’m Tom Boyd. Just call me Tom.”
Charley smiled. “Okay, Tom. Did you have a good garage sale?”
“Can’t complain, but hopefully tomorrow it won’t rain, and we’ll be able to get rid of the rest of this wonderful stuff. Hey, I really like your truck. Especially the four doors—the extended cab.”
“Thanks, it serves its purpose,” Charley said, drying off his face and arms. “The extended cab is nice. Gives me plenty of extra room to haul the grandkids around, and on a rainy day like this, it’s good to have the extra room to keep the stuff I buy and sell from getting wet.”
“That’s what I need, a truck like yours. If I could ever talk my wife into letting me buy one.”
Charley chuckled. “I know the feeling, Tom. My wife prefers a Cadillac. I said, yeah, right, when we win the lottery. Sometimes she forgets that the truck pays the bills.”
“Right! That’s what I’ve been trying to tell my wife. The truck will help pay the bills.”
“What kind of work do you do, Tom?”
“I own a fitness center—a gym. It’s called T & J Total Fitness. The T stands for Tom and the J stands for my wife, Julie.”
“Nice. I can see you’re in great shape from working out.”
Tom grinned and mumbled a thanks.
Then Charley looked puzzled. “What would you use a truck for in the fitness center business?”
“I need the truck to pick up used exercise equipment that I buy,” explained Tom. “New equipment is too expensive.”
Charley smiled and nodded. “I understand. You have to save money where you can when you have your own small business.”
“Exactly. That’s what I try to tell my wife. The truck would pay for itself.”
Charley looked for a place to toss the wadded paper towels.
“I’ll take that,” said Tom. “You want a bottle of water? I would offer you something more refreshing, but it’s all we got in the fridge.”
Charley laughed. “No, thank you. I’m good. Is your fitness center around here?”
“No. Near Daytona Beach. My wife and I are just here for the weekend. Her grandma passed away and we got designated to get rid of some of her things that nobody in the family wanted to keep.”
“Hopefully it’s been worth your time.”
Tom nodded and said, “Hey, what kind of stuff do you buy and sell?”
“A little bit of everything,” said Charley. “Mostly Lionel train collectibles, old toys, Disney collectibles—they sell well around here. Also, my favorite, World War II memorabilia. Helmets, uniforms, boots, metals, guns—you name it.”
“Awesome. But I’m afraid you won’t find anything like that here. Mostly a bunch of crap is left over, if you want to know the truth. But you’re free to look for yourself.” Tom led Charley into the garage. “You might find some women’s blouses and brassieres that look like they’ve been through World War II though.”
Charley laughed. “I’m afraid my wife’s got enough of that stuff herself.”
It was Tom’s turn to laugh.
Charley stooped to his knees and opened a box.
After rummaging through the boxes for a few minutes, he said grimly, “I think you might be right, Tom. Doesn’t look like there’s much here I could use.”
Charley stood up.
“Hmmm . . . What about a painting from around the World War II era?” said Tom. “My wife and I just brought it down from the attic. It was up there for a long time, over twenty years. It belonged to her grandpa who got it from a friend when he was young.”
“I don’t know much about paintings,” said Charley.
“This one’s unique,” said Tom. “Take a peek at it.”
Tom led the way into the kitchen to the painting. Out of the corner of his eye, Tom watched the old man’s expression. Charley grimaced.
“What do you think?” asked Tom.
“Well . . . ” Charley struggled for words. “The painting certainly is different. But I don’t think it has anything to do with World War II.”
“Sure it does,” said Tom. “You see that guy standing on the roof of the shack? He’s standing there because he’s distraught over his bean field getting bombed by German Dornier bombers. And you see that young woman’s face? She’s sad because she's the guy’s new wife, and now they won’t be able to have bean soup for dinner.”
“You have quite an imagination, Tom,” said Charley, laughing. “And I see you have some knowledge of German bombers used in World War II. But I’m not interested in the painting. I like the frame, though.”
“Yeah? Well, that’s exactly where I was leading,” said Tom. “Maybe the painting’s not a masterpiece, but the frame . . . it’s priceless.”
“It’s got character,” said Charley. “I’ve never seen one like it before. Do you mind if I take a closer look?”
“No problem. Help yourself.”
Charley reached down and dug his thumbnail into the back of the molding. “The wood’s solid,” he said. He checked the corners of the frame. “Sturdy . . . all-wood dovetailed joints.” He tapped his fingernails along the ornate designs. “The carved ornamentation is made out of wood, too, not gesso. That’s good.”
“My wife thinks the frame is worth a song,” said Tom.
“It could be.”
“What do you think it is worth, Charley?”
“To be honest with you, I’m not an expert on frames. I know the basics, but that’s not saying much.”
“What would you pay for it?”
“I don’t know.”
“Make a fair offer and it could be yours.”
“Tom, I really don’t know what’s fair.”
Tom became quiet. He was proud of his ability to sell, but he was stumped on how to approach this situation. If he were selling a fitness center membership, he’d tell his client about all the health benefits of working out and looking good. If his client was single, he’d tell his client about how easy it was to meet and mingle with other singles in the relaxed and productive environment of the fitness center. And if that didn’t do the trick, he’d use his favorite closing pitch: “Try it for two weeks. If you don’t like working out here, I’ll refund all your money and rip up the annual contract.” Seldom did anybody want their money back. He went out of his way to make sure his customers felt comfortable, and he would even introduce them to friendly club members.
An idea occurred to Tom.
“I have a suggestion, Charley. Since neither one of us knows what a fair price is, and we both want to be fair with each other, how about this? Give me six hundred dollars for the frame and take the damn painting too, and if you sell it for a good profit, throw me a bone. On the other hand, if you don’t do well with it, I’ll give you some money back.”
Charley laughed heartedly. “In all my years of dealing with collectibles, I don’t think anybody has ever presented a deal quite like that. But I like your novel approach.”
He stooped down to one knee to scrutinize the frame further. After a few minutes, he stood up and said, “I’ll tell you what, Tom. I feel more comfortable at four hundred dollars.”
Tom considered the offer for a moment, then said, “Charley, meet me halfway. I’ll take five hundred dollars.”
Charley rubbed his white beard with his left hand. He muttered, “I don’t know . . .”
“Like I said, if you don’t make money, send me a text and I’ll make it up to you.”
Tom extended his right hand out to shake.
A few seconds later, Charley nodded and smiled. “Okay, Tom. You got a deal.”
Charley shook his hand and then reached for his wallet. He gave Tom ten fifty-dollar-bills. Tom gave him his phone number.
“If you’re ever in Daytona Beach, stop in and see me at my gym.”
“My daughter lives nearby. I just may take you up on that.”
The rain had subsided. Tom and Charley carried the painting out the front door and placed it onto the rear-seat floorboard of the truck.
“One day I’m going to have a truck like yours,” said Tom.
“I know you will,” said Charley. “You remind me a lot of myself when I was your age. You’re ambitious.”
A few minutes after Charley had departed, Julie returned holding a white paper bag containing two subs and chips and drinks.
Tom couldn’t wait to tell her about his brilliant sale of the painting and frame. He happily spread the ten fifty-dollar-bills onto a card table. Julie looked disappointed.
“What’s wrong?’ asked Tom.
“I thought we agreed to take the painting to an antique store or some place to get a professional appraisal.”
“Julie, how much more money do you think we could have gotten for that old frame? An antique store may have tried to rip us off. And now we don’t have to lug it around everywhere. Especially in our piece-of-shit little car. Now, if we had a nice big truck, that would have been different.”
“Oh no! Not the truck again. You’re driving me crazy with that. Please stop.”
“Okay. Anyway, we got cash money. Five hundred dollars.”
“We can certainly use it to pay some bills.”
“Yeah. I bet we got over a thousand dollars now.”
After stopping at home to have lunch with his wife, Charley drove to a large art gallery owned by his cousin’s friend named Armen. Charley and Armen carried the painting into the gallery and placed it on a large countertop.
“It’s a little dusty and needs a little touching up, but what do you think of the frame?” asked Charley.
Wearing his prince-nez, Armen peered at the frame. He spoke with an accent. “It’s old. The painting is old too. See how dark the back of the canvas is?”
“Yeah, I noticed that. What do you think the value of the frame is though? I just bought it at a garage sale a few hours ago.”
“A few hundred dollars, I suppose. Judging by the style of the artwork, I’d say the painting is around a hundred years old or so. So, perhaps the frame is the same.”
“What will you pay me for the frame?”
Armen ignored him. His gaze fell on the signature in the bottom right-hand corner and suddenly his face lit up. “Where did you say you got this painting?”
“At a garage sale. The guy who sold it to me said it had been in the attic for a long time. It belonged to his wife’s grandfather.” Charley paused to try to recollect what Tom had told him. “I think the guy mentioned that his grandfather had gotten the painting when he was young. Anyway, her grandmother had passed away recently, and they were getting rid of the stuff left in the house. The painting was set aside in the kitchen, and the guy showed it to me when I mentioned I bought and sold World War II collectibles. I bought it because the frame looked old and ornate. So, you think the frame is only worth a few hundred dollars, huh?”
“Never mind the goddamn frame! What do you want to do with the painting?”
“I want to sell it with the frame, of course,” Charley said, confused. “Is there a problem?”
“I don’t know. I have to make a call.”
As Tom and Julie prepared for the Sunday morning garage sale, first setting up their tables outside, a white Cadillac stopped at the curb. A man and a woman were inside the car.
“Oh crap! Early birds,” said Julie. “Don’t they ever pay attention to the start time?”
“More pain in the asses,” said Tom.
“Hmph! Depends if they buy anything.”
A man in a tight gray suit stepped out of the driver’s side.
“Shit!” said Tom.
“That’s the guy I sold the frame to. He probably wants his money back.”
Charley walked toward them, smiled and said, “Good morning.”
“Morning,” murmured Tom, wondering how much money he’d have to return.
“I’m on my way to church and I’m running a little late. I wasn’t sure I’d catch you this early.”
“Well, you caught us,” said Tom with a wry grin. You caught us before we could make a quick getaway out of town with your money, thought Tom.
“This is my wife, Julie,” said Tom
“My name’s Charley. Please to meet you.”
They shook hands politely. Then Charley’s lips started to tremble as he spoke. “I don’t know how to thank you, Tom, for talking me into buying that painting yesterday. The frame wasn’t worth much money, but the painting—oh, that was a different story! It turned out to have been painted by an artist named Marc Chagall. Not sure if you ever heard of him. I never did. I guess he was a famous Russian artist, so I was told. I took the painting to an art gallery and the owner contacted an art signature expert to closely examine the piece, and he said the painting was authentic. We struck a deal, and I got enough money to get my wife a new Cadillac. Can you believe that? I can’t thank you enough.”
Tom and Julie were stunned. Neither could speak. They stood motionless like frozen ice sculptures.
“I got to go now, we’re running late for church, but I wanted to stop here first to thank you.”
Before Tom and Julie could open their mouths, the Cadillac sped off. Then Julie spun toward Tom. “I told you not to sell that painting! But you didn’t listen. You always do what you want to do. And I’m sick of it!”
“Shut up! I’m not finished. All you do is talk about buying a truck when we got tons of bills we can’t even pay. You leave it up to me pay the bills and I can’t handle it anymore! It’s too much, it’s too much. I quit, Tom! I’m going back to my nursing job so we can pay our goddamn bills!”
Julie burst into tears and ran into an empty bedroom where she slammed the door shut and locked it.
“I’m sorry, Julie,” said Tom as she spun away, but his voice was too soft, too hurt, for her to hear.
He knew he had pushed his luck too far. He knew Julie stressed about trying to pay the bills all the time, and he was aware that often she had to ask her mother for small “loans” to cover the bills when they had no other means to pay. And, in his heart, he knew the fitness center wasn’t doing well enough to cover loan payments for a new truck. And had he listened to Julie and taken the painting to a reputable antique shop, they may have received enough money to pay their bills, to start a family, and perhaps to have enough money left over to put a down payment on a truck for himself.
Tom lowered his head and put his hands over his face. How could he have been so stupid? His main problem, he realized, was that he hadn’t been listening to his wife and several other people he was close to who had been trying to tell him about the fitness center’s financial problems. He had been too stubborn, too selfish, and too immature to pay attention to Julie who was trying her best to keep things together. Now, in a bizarre turn of events, he was paying a steep price for his childish behavior. He felt like bursting into tears himself.
Tom walked to the bedroom where Julie had locked the door. He could hear her sobbing. He waited a few minutes then knocked on the door and said, “Julie, I’m very sorry. Please let me in.”
“Go away!” Julie shouted. “Leave me alone!”
“Julie, please open the door. I want to apologize.”
But her sobbing grew louder. He knew it was useless.
He walked back into the garage. With his mind in a fog, he finished setting things up for the garage sale. He told everybody who came, “Please take what you want and pay me whatever you feel is fair. Everything must go by noon.”
What he had left over at noon, he boxed up and dragged to the road curb. Julie watched Tom from the bedroom window. She knew it was time to go. She freshened up her makeup and brushed her hair in the bathroom and then walked outside. When Tom saw her, he rushed over. He wrapped his arms around her and gave her a hug, but she didn’t reciprocate. Her body was cold and stiff, and she stared at him blankly.
Shaken, he said, “I’m sorry, Julie. I’ve been wrong about a lot of stuff. I know how things have been difficult for you. I know I’ve been unreasonable and immature. I won’t ever mention anything about buying a truck again.” He knew that promise would be as hard to keep as any promise he had ever made before, but he was determined to change and become more responsible and mature.
“Okay, Tom,” Julie said finally. “But I still intend to go back to nursing. You’ll have to manage the gym without me.”
Tom swallowed hard. Then he nodded slowly and said, “I understand. I’ll manage. And Julie, I gave it some thought. If the gym doesn’t start making a profit within three months, we’ll sell it and I’ll go back to selling software and tech equipment, so we can have enough money to start a family.”
For the first time, the stark coldness washed away from Julie’s face. She bit her bottom lip and said, “Are you serious? Do you mean it, Tom?”
“I do, Julie. I love you, and I don’t want to ever lose you. And when we’re ready, I’m looking forward to starting a family with you.”
Julie stared at Tom in disbelief. When she realized he was sincere, her taut lips broke into a wide smile. She threw her arms around Tom and hugged him.
“I love you,” she said.
An RN, Julie immediately found work in a local hospital.
Tom took a new approach at the fitness center, working harder on saving money and recruiting new members. Also, instead of misleading his closest fitness center members about how prosperous the gym was, he decided to be honest and informed them that the gym was not doing well financially—and unless he turned things around within three months—he’d have to close or sell the gym. The most loyal members of the fitness center—a close-knit family—didn’t want to see the gym sold or shut down, so they volunteered to do Julie’s work—and more. For a slight reduction in their monthly dues (Tom insisted), they cleaned windows, floors, bathrooms, and exercise equipment; they answered the phones when Tom was with a client; they proved to be competent salespeople and brought in several new members among their friends and family. After three months, the gym was in the black, making a solid profit even beyond the salary Tom was taking home every month.
An unexpected change occurred in their marriage too. Not being around Julie at the gym made Tom start to miss her terribly. He missed her quick smile and contagious laughter and playful sense of humor. He couldn’t wait to get home to spend time with her, to have dinner with her, and to tell her about all the funny and eventful things that had happened that day. He also stopped ogling other attractive women in the gym. He only wanted to look at his beautiful, sexy wife; watching her undress seductively every night was something he would think about all day at the gym, with an enigmatic grin on his face.
Julie, also, was much happier. She enjoyed nursing; taking care of the old, the sick, and the wounded gave her a satisfaction that she couldn’t get from any other occupation. Furthermore, she had enough money now to pay the bills, to pay back her mother’s debt, and even had a surplus at the end of the month to put into a designated “start a family” savings account. She also looked forward at the end of the day to be with her handsome husband. She was delighted that the gym was becoming profitable, because she knew what made Tom most happy was operating his own successful business and helping people become healthier and more fit by working out.
Julie could see the change in Tom. He seemed to be a different person. He was less stressed out, more cheerful and upbeat, more affectionate and loving. She looked forward to seeing him when she got home from work. She liked listening to his success stories about how he had helped a new client lose weight, and she liked listening to his humorous anecdotes of some of the usual characters at the fitness center. Julie enjoyed pleasing her adoring husband, trying new things to surprise him, and keeping his attention by doing tantalizing little things she knew he liked so much.
When they celebrated their first anniversary at an upscale Italian restaurant, they talked about how much their relationship had changed for the better after the Sunday when they had found out they had given away a valuable painting.
“You know, Tom, if we had kept the painting and gotten a lot of money for it, our lives and marriage would have probably kept going down the same disastrous course it was headed.”
“Yes, I never thought of it like that before, but I think you’re right, Julie. How ironical. If it wasn’t for the that damn silly painting with the red-headed donkey—“
“Don’t you mean red-headed dragon?”
Tom was caught by surprise, then they both burst out laughing, and restaurant patrons at tables nearby looked at them and wondered what was so funny.
A few weeks later, as Tom was showing a new member how to use the Nautilus leg exercise equipment, another fitness center member interrupted him.
“A gentleman you know has been waiting to see you in your office.”
Tom excused himself and walked over to his small office. He was surprised to see Charley standing in front of his desk. The man with the white beard and hand-knitted, red plaid headband smiled warmly and reached his arms out to give Tom a strong embrace.
“You have an amazing fitness club, Tom. Just the way I envisioned it.”
Tom thanked him.
“I have some great news,” said Charley. “It took a while to get the proper authentication for the Marc Chagall painting that I bought from you, but Sotheby has finally auctioned it off. Last week I received the balance of the proceeds that the art gallery had agreed to give to me. Tom, we made a deal too. That is, if I did well, I would throw you a bone. I believe that is how you had phrased it. Anyway, I did very well and I’m a man of my word. I hope you accept this as a token of my gratitude, and in satisfaction of our agreement.”
Charley handed Tom an envelope. Tom opened it and pulled out a cashier’s check. He looked at it, blinked his eyes, and looked again. Then his eyes teared up.
After Charley departed, Tom rushed to the hospital where Julie was working her day shift. When she came into the lobby, Tom waved the cashier’s check in the air.
“We have enough money to put a down payment on a home and start a family!” Tom cried out.
“What are you talking about?”
He shoved the cashier’s check into her hand. She looked down and saw the amount: One-Hundred-Fifty-Thousand Dollars.
They both cried and hugged each other for a long time.
Julie waited for Christmas morning to tell Tom the wonderful news. He opened his Christmas card and found a sonogram showing a baby inside her uterus. After they kissed and hugged for a while, Julie made another announcement. She had one more Christmas gift for Tom. She led him by the hand, opened the front door, and they stepped outside.
On the driveway was a new blue Chevrolet extended cab pickup truck with a large red Christmas ribbon tied over the roof.