It's payday, and I'm scratching my shopping itch at the various flea markets and thrift stores that populate my little hometown of Leesville, LA. Standing in a gravel parking lot, I wipe hot beads of sweat off my forehead with my shirt.
In a place like this, everyone knows everyone else. I've been here 12 years, and I'm on a first-name basis with the owners of every small business I care to visit. "Hey, Josh! Long time no see. I've got some of the best tomatoes you'll ever taste. Here, try one!"
I start at Willie's Flea Market, Hwy 171 E.,just outside of Pickering. A big row of eight or so barn-sized buildings, with several small trailers parked around. I discuss Kabbalism with a Messianic Jewish shop owner.
Here, nobody locks anything. Nothing is ever stolen, no graffiti is to be seen, and the cluster of teenagers on the street corner greet me with a "Hello, sir!" and a juvenile grin. I once lost a bike on Christmas Eve. Next day, I saw a little kid riding it a few blocks away. Rolling down the car window, I hollered
"Hey dude, where'd you get that bike?"
"My daddy gave it to me"
"That's a cool set of wheels buddy. You like it?"
"Yeah, I never had a bike before"
"Hope you enjoy it"
I drove away, wishing only that I had thought of it myself.
I make a few small purchases. A CB set, a power drill, a few books. My throat dry, I step inside the last building in the row. A sign advertising "Soda's and Candy's, fifty cents" hangs on the wall. I fish two quarters out of my pocket, and the shopkeeper (who also happened to be my instructor when I took Driver's Ed) pulls a Pepsi out of a dilapidated refrigerator.
For some reason, everyone seems to want to adopt everyone else. I get treated like a son or a father by 'most everybody I run into. No one cares about race or origin here. The Ft. Polk military base has turned our little town into a hotbed of microculture. I've chatted with Peruvians, Australians, New Zealanders, Chinese, Filipinos, and a dozen other nationalities.
A hop on the highway, and I'm at a shack called Tina's Thrift shop. As I step inside, I hear a Jamaican woman inviting me in. I give an interested glance at a pair of wooden shelf speakers. "You want those? They sound nice." I lift the heavy speakers out of the dusty cranny they sit in. "How much?" I ask. She thinks a moment, and suggests I make an offer. Stepping back a couple of millennia, I present my initial offer. "Twenty." She shakes her head - "I wanna get thirty five. These have very good sound". I close in on my target. "Twenty seven?" I grin, just like my ancestors must have long before history had been written. "That's a deal, my son." Calls me son. "I get you to thirty with the tax!" "I know, that's what I wanted to pay." I get a I'm-gonna-kill-you look. I hand over the cash, and the lady declares that I am from Dallas. I evacuate the shop... I was born in Dallas, but moved away at age four.
My claim to fame in this community is that I am one of only about five computer repairmen in the area. I get knocks on my door often, asking me to come fix an ancient PC in some shack in the woods. I regard this as one of my greatest privileges.
Looking across the nearly unusable parking lot, I see another ancient-looking building with a sign in front advertising "Shoe Repair, Car Sales, and Books". Books! I walk up the wooden steps. In the doorway, I meet a middle-aged looking man carrying a box.
"Yes, for a little while yet"
"When do you open up?"
"You closing down?"
"Yup. When I leave tonight I'm gone for good. See all this junk? I gotta have it out of here in the next four hours."
"Hmmm. Mind if I look at what you have left?"
"Sure. I'm always in a selling mood."
I walk in the door, and I am greeted by the most untrustworthy piece of architecture I have ever laid eyes on. Pieces of dirty plywood are nailed over holes in half-rotten ceiling supports. Rusty light fixtures hang from the thin roof on hairlike strands of fishline.
Half of the structure is filled with mattresses, pickup truck caps, bits of metal scrap, power saws, televisions in rat-eaten wooden cabinets, and other unworthy items. In the other half is a massive quantity of books. I stand beneath the wide bookshelf. I see encyclopedias, classics, textbooks, mysteries, romances, and countless other one-of-a-kind literary works that have been out of print since my grandparents were first blinking their eyes at the big world.
There's gotta be a name for the massive collections of "stuff" you find littered outside many of the homes and businesses around here. Cars, electronics, unidentifiable pieces of machinery, fallen trees, broken glass, paper, lawn mowers, baby dolls, bicycles, and other unbelievable cruft are displayed like badges of honor and experience. Just ask any grizzled old redneck to give you a tour of his property. Every rusty thingamajig has a story behind it.
"Are these books for sale? How much?"
"They sure are. I need to get rid of them. I'll sell them to you by the box."
I'm a bit puzzled at the vagueness of this, but I press on.
"How about I fill this box here? How much for this?"
Evidently I'm not the only one puzzled.
"Hmmm...er...um... How about you just make me an offer on the whole mess?"
Mess? I'm looking at the biggest treasure trove anyone could ask for, and I'm suddenly imagining myself owning the whole thing.
"A hundred bucks?"
"What you got to load 'em into?" He gives me a big Louisiana smile.
"I got a minivan. Here's eighty, I'll get the other twenty to you first thing in the morning."
"No problem. I'll be here pretty late tonight, so you won't have any trouble getting these out of here."
I leave the shop with the feeling that I've just made the biggest, awfullest, awesomest mistake of my entire life. That's a lot of books. I'm still living at home. What will my parents say? This stuff wouldn't even fit into my bedroom if I burned it first.
Later that night, as I'm hauling the last of the books into my minivan, I ask the man how many books he had sold me. "Oh, about six thousand".
I like books.
He asked me to guess his age. "Fifty", I ventured.
"Thanks, kid. I'm seventy eight. Come visit my shop in DeRidder sometime."