Flea markets are a sacred space. I’m not talking about your Brooklyn hipster Flea — always a single word — where there’s graffiti artwork for sale and grody vinyl copies of Sonic Youth albums because the caked-in surface noise makes it authentic. Nor am I talking about the old-lady church basement sale where you can buy grandma’s VHS copy of Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit.
The sacred space of the flea market I’m talking about is the crossroads where Robert Johnson might have sold his soul to the devil. A place that tests you like Jesus in Gethsemane. The quicksand pit where the horse gave up on living in The NeverEnding Story. It’s a space where you encounter your deepest fears and discomforts, the stuff you don’t even process on logical or emotional level, the primate and lizard-brain stuff.
It’s in this space, on an overcast swamp of a day, where you will walk through the aisles of a dirt lot, where lifers are hawking antiques and toothpaste, pet flying squirrels (even though the sign out front prohibits animal sales,) rusty tools that hint at tetanus and scurvy, and dented boxes of tampons and laxatives. This is the space where I encountered the procurer of the Tweety Birds.
The procurer is a Robert Ripley of her time, only her eclectic collection is entirely composed of Tweety Bird stuffed animals. And she didn’t travel the world over. She just regularly hit up the Hallmark store and the thrift store. She has seven trash bags worth. About fourteen fit per bag. That’s ninety-eight Tweety Birds of varying size and heft. Let’s see, there’s one that’s holding a heart that says I WUV You, one wearing a baby bonnet, one in pajamas, one in a baseball uniform, one dressed like an angel,
it’s all too much, I need a breath,
one dressed as the Statue of Liberty, a Congrats Grad 2008 he even has tassels, the one in the cowboy outfit, one in a backwards hat and low-hanging pants. One sewn to Sylvester, a Santa one, a Satan one. Camo Tweety. Roman Tweety. Pirate Tweety. Madonna Whore Complex Tweety.
The procurer is a woman in her thirties, her skin a hide from the sun, suggesting she’s in her forties. Yet she has the meekness of a child underneath the ball cap that hides her face. Her hair looks as though she just got out of the shower. It always looks this wet. This is her legacy, this gruesome cousin of a Beanie Babies collection and an end table full of Precious Moments figurines.
Would you call it a flock? Would you call it a hoard? Would you call it a collection? Would you call it a procurement? An allotment, a ration? No — you would call it a shitpile, because that is exactly what it is. The Procurer has a shitpile of Tweety Birds, lying in the sun for sale, scattered on a tarp, streaked with dirt, in the sacred space. It is a funeral befitting for a serial killer.
The thing is she wanted to do right by them all her life, but she knew she failed them over and over. If only she could have displayed them nice — in a hammock, or on a day bed in a sun room — yet they always ended up in shit piles on the floor. Dust bunny piles, under-the-bed piles, where-the-cat-puked-and-it-was-mostly-sopped-up piles. She wanted to do right by them, but when it came time to pack them up, all she had was trashbags.
Was this a burial? Was this a reckoning? Or was it just rent money? You can feel her nervousness over it. She has a wall constructed around her, it’s an entire castle. Still, she bleeds out tension and it doesn’t need to scale the wall, it passes through effortlessly. You can feel the litany of justifications — of why it was time, of why she needs the cash — but mostly you just hear the criticizing voice of her mother who never had a nice thing to say. And maybe you catch a whiff of her father, who always smelled like turpentine and whiskey.
Old age bit the old man like a spider. His knees buckled, his back curved outward, and he suddenly wore slacks instead of pants, tops instead of shirts. His cheeks became jowls and his mouth became suspenders for them. But he could still see perfectly fine and hear perfectly fine and take care of himself perfectly fine, so stop asking questions.
He wore a button-up long sleeve top, no matter the weather. It’s June, a scorcher the radio says. Hot as a monkey’s ass is what they really mean. He wanted to hide the bones — this is what his arms had become after the spider bite, just bones and sun spots.
His waist had become bones too, so he needed a belt with his slacks. He always wore his Korean War vet cap, so people know. People need to know. He has bumper stickers on his car of other things people should know, too. He has a granddaughter named Kacy, people oughta know that. He’s an old man, he knows things, and people should know them, but nobody listens. It’s a shame, it’s all a shame.
Look at him, he’s bones, his daughter worries. He’s not eating enough these days, not taking care of himself. She wonders if she needs support, a caregiver, a place. But he has his flea market where he gets his treasures. He wouldn’t have anything else if he didn’t have his routine and his treasures. It keeps him going. Black coffee and a biscuit at McDonald’s, the flea market, a nap, the news, and a meal of soup and canned peaches.
This is his sacred space. He hobbles up the dirt lot every Saturday and Sunday. Past the toothpaste and tampon seller, past Susan, a lady friend he always says hello to, past the fruit stand and gnats. Today he sees the tarp of Tweety Birds. He thinks he’ll buy Kacy a something. A something — a vague sense of some kind of joy — a toy. A something. Just little.
She hopes the old goat will keep walking. She’s not in the mood today. Not in the mood today. Not in the mood. She says it to herself so often it’s meaningless. But the old man does not keep walking. Instead he stops before the tarp, taking in a gulp of air and settling into the ground for balance.
They eyeball each other. She studies this intruder upon her Tweety Birds. When she feels angry or nervous, she hums. It’s a barely audible, single tone of a hum. It used to drive her mother crazy, who would ask from the front seat while driving, WHAT IS THAT HUMMING? ARE YOU HUMMING BACK THERE?
The old man squints, not able to see her well enough to tell if she’s a female or a little boy in that ball cap. He exhales and rolls his tongue around. He begins his long descent into a bending position to pick one of the doohickeys up.
He sees the biggest diamond on the tarp — a twenty-two inch Tweety Bird — the big ‘un. This one was good for his grandbaby Kacy. He didn’t know. He couldn’t know. That one was special to the procurer.
“How much,” the old man shouts across the tarp, across the ocean, to the young man young lady.
She sits perched in her camp chair, frozen, in hell. She saw ones that big on eBay for a hundred bucks. Twenty-five bucks asking was more than reasonable. It was goddamn charitable. The Big ‘un has a fine layer of silt and cat hair and dust on it, but she can’t see it. This was her baby. All her babies was beautiful.
“Twenty-five,” she sneers.
“YEESH,” says the old man.
YEESH. It came out as more than a word. It came out like a bomb. And as I rummaged through books a booth over, I felt the reverb. YEESH. It rushed out like a jailbroke prisoner. It burrowed itself into me like a mole. YEESH, I still hear it at night. YEESH, it jumped out and bit me like a spider.
That’s when I looked over to see all of it: the shitpile, the procurer, the burial plot, the bones, the peaches, and strange humming sound that I could not locate.
The old man dropped the doohickey in pure disgust. A waste of time to bend over. Trying to rip off an old man. It’s a shame, it’s all a shame. And the procurer didn’t move, she just watched cautiously, like a deer waiting for the danger to dissipate.
I moved on, too. Onward in finding my own treasures and procurements, bumping into the human quibbles and strange dances in this sacred space. The big ‘un wouldn’t end up in its forever home with Kacy. Back to the trashbag, the beautiful baby.