CONJUNCTIONS: A Web Exclusive
Everything flows, the Greek said from the river bank. Barging down the interstate, we tell you everything fails. Retail and wholesale, manufacturing and service, ingenious start-ups and old-line standards, the narrow-niched and the broad-based, the local and the international, businesses, companies, firms, conglomerates, they all fail. Margin shrinks, profits plummet, losses mount, and we dissolve the assets, turn movable goods into liquid money, transform trailers of objects into digits on liquid crystal displays.
To compete with other road shows—monster trucks, heavy metal acts, wrestlemanias—and undersell local discounters, we’re a tour de force and four-day display of surprise. Suddenly you see thirty high-cab Kenworths filling the right lane like a military convoy, tractors and trailers all the same gun-metal gray. Our closed nose-to-tail formation looks like boxcars—MIDWEST LIQUIDATORS, MIDWEST LIQUIDATORS, MIDWEST LIQUIDATORS—trundling toward some final depot. The diesels’ roar and smoke demonstrate that our over-the-road Army-Navy store carries every American service’s surplus. And to oncoming traffic, our daytime headlights show that, like a funeral procession, we’re hauling the heaviest weight, the dead weight of failure.
Your weight, Dad.
Before AIDS and before charity concerts, those extravaganzas that hyphened “aid” to defunct groups, we could quietly announce our arrival. Before the Community Chest emptied out and the United Fund was plundered, we could subtly advertise our altruism with a minor misspelling: Midwest Liquaidators. Now we’re forced to cast a major spell, come in big and come on strong, if we’re to aid the all we serve: the sinking entrepreneurs, the family concerns going under, the franchises drowning in debt, the corporations that can’t be bailed out, and you, all of you who walk our aisles, survey the products in piles like the wrack of flood, and buy the goods we offer at savings only liquidation allows.
We saturate you with unexpected air power in Tuesday drive time. “Whump whump whump” the ads begin. Then our traffic reporter screams over the noise: “Everything fails. The Liquidators are coming, the Liquidators are coming. Out past the loop, traffic is backing up.” (The sound of downshifting, the surge of torque in a lower gear.) “Cars are lining up behind the Liquidator trucks. It’s a mile-long caravan following the Liquidators to the arena.” (The beep beep of happy horns.) “Bring your trailers and vans and pickups and empty trunks,” the voice shouts and hesitates before identifying the appeal of returning armies, “collect the spoils.” Then, over the returning helicopter whump, “Thursday through Sunday while they last, America’s best deals on wheels.” Finally, almost covered by the noise, a fading trailer: “Only once this yeeaarr.”
On Wednesday we dolly in the crates and boxes, remove the merchandise, pile the containers in walls, and make a maze. We set our wares on the floor, fanning out irregular shapes—wooden duck decoys, coffee-makers, pillows—and stacking up rectangles and squares—socket sets, VCRs, and tool boxes. No shelves or tables or bins raise and organize our low-tide remnants. Narrow aisles coil and loop through the almost solid mass of solids. Hypermarket grids don’t section and suspended signs don’t name our display of dense disorder—bathroom tissue stacked next to touch-up guns, Ninja Turtle back packs spilling into Hocking microwave cookware, layers of industrial tarps across from stands of beer logo pool cues. Our design is unpredictable combination, the familiar scrambled into strangeness, a rapid succession of surprises whatever curling path you choose. Around the curve ahead, over the wall of brand-name boxes, or far across this huge floor are, somewhere, air ratchets next to wicker baskets, boomerangs sliding into surge protectors. Without clear sight lines or consumer categories, somewhere is anywhere, anywhere is everywhere, and the scale of our show seems prodigious, a Kenworth cornucopia.
And Henry says liquidating is not a worthy life for a man?
Former spectators in this venue, you come out of your seats and down to the floor, all of you now suddenly athletes, men, women, and children walking where you’ve never been before, unfettered by ticket stubs and officious ushers, circulating freely where you’ve watched all the hometown heroes, moving where you want, ignoring if you wish the scattered spectators sitting still as our wares, passive observers of your motion, respondents to your desire and will. You take any path through the floor’s field of force, wander the twisting aisles waiting for impulse or search the piles for things you need. Sliding along like skaters in slow motion, towering over the floor-bound goods like high-rising hoopsters, you’re the winners now. In the seller-buyer conflict we can never completely hide, you’re the ones with force. Man, woman, or child, you reach down, pick up, and hold. You lean in, stretch out, and heft. You raise your arms, grasp, and weigh. Everything is within your reach, like a caravan’s display or a hand-assembled bazaar. We give you the power of purchase, physical purchase, literal leverage, a place to stand and bend and lift, every shopper a shoplifter.
Judith taught me this, the old appeal of cash and carry. Where is she now?
As you leave the arena, you notice the signs you didn’t see above the doors when you rushed in: “Thank You For Contributing To The Liquidators’ Savings.” Strangely worded, our sendoff recalls our invitation on the back doors of every trailer: “Follow Our Lead To The River Of Savings.” Having saved money in our flowing emporium, you leave as an immersed member of Midwest Liquidators. Holding your goods, you surprise yourself, suddenly realize you’re doing good. You too are giving aid, not full-fledged salvation of distressed businesses but the dignity-saving payment of some outstanding debts. Like us and with us, you’re transforming total failure into partial success, participating in our fractional philanthropy and decimal deliverance. Satisfied customer, you pack your trunk or load your van, drive home the weight we’ve hauled across state lines. Diffusing the collected waste of our nation’s commerce, you’re a local rep of the Liquidators’ All-American altruism.
Midwest Liquidators, despite our name, is a one-man family business. No Ringling brothers. No Barnum and Bailey in the background. Just ringmaster Thomas Bond. “Bond’s Bondnanza,” my son Henry used to call the show. In Chicago, I wouldn’t have remembered that. I was walking through the aisles just before opening when Joe Fox, sitting in with the parts washers, called to me.
“Hey, T. B. What is today?”
“Today?” It sounded like an object, a word that should have been preceded by “a,” one of our specialty tools, a pincher or a ball-joint separator. I stood still and could not summon up the day of the week, which Joe no doubt knew; the date, which he probably wanted; or even the month, a piece of information every ambulatory person should know. Joe thought I hadn’t heard him, so he asked a little louder.
“What is it today, Tom?”
I wondered the same thing. What is it with me today? I still had to answer the more basic question. I glanced around for clues, but no customers were in the aisles. My watch told only the time. Elimination ruled out Monday, the day we pack up, Tuesday, and Wednesday.
“If this is Chicago,” I told Joe, “it’s a broad-shoulders day.”
“Yeah, right, but what’s the date?”
Anybody could forget a date, even a man whose movements were scheduled weeks and months in advance on a three-foot square calendar in his Winnebago. But I didn’t have any idea—first, middle, end of the month, the month itself.
“I’ll have to get back to you on that, Joe,” I said as if we were talking on the phone about some grinding wheels he wanted to sell me. I tried to get out of the conversation with the drivers’ unofficial motto, appropriate for day, week, or year: “Whatever today is, Joe, you’re going to like it when it’s over.”
“Not if I miss calling Christie on our anniversary, I won’t. I think I’ve got two days left before the twenty-third.”
I could still subtract, even if I didn’t know the day or month. I told Joe it must be the twenty-first, and he called down the aisle to check with another driver. Of course, it came to me, if this is Chicago, it’s probably September. I heard the other driver confirm the twenty-first. I got out my wallet to check what day this September 21 was, found my plastic calendar with 1995 at its top, and couldn’t believe the four digits. They looked arbitrary and artificial, marked down from the actual century, but I didn’t feel this possible reversal had given me an extra five or ten years. Instead, time seemed reduced, my distress magnified. I felt heavy, much heavier than my actual pounds, my body dense with time’s compaction, bone turned to stone, blood congealing into lead. I was afraid I couldn’t move. Someone would have to push or pull me up the aisle like a paralyzed groom. My feet felt flat as punctured tires. Only my hands could move. I turned over the plastic calendar and read 1996. Time resumed its forward flow, the ten o’clock bell went off, and I was able to walk on down the aisle.
That night, I called my GP. As usual, he told me to worry about my diet and forget about my forgetfulness. He says my three prescriptions—a potion to neutralize acid in my spastic colon and two capsules to keep blood flowing through arteries contracted by hypertension and restaurant food—may give me occasional fuzziness. He’s worried that, at fifty-five years and 250 pounds, I’ll drop dead. I’m more worried about my gradually failing memory, gradual until the sudden blank on the floor. Words and numbers are disappearing from my brain’s pathways. To grasp the word I want, I probe gray matter with likeness, same sounds or leading analogies. To keep numbers, I murmur mnemonics to myself. Like shingles, post-its overlap post-its on my desk. I find myself reimaging places and products, rehearsing the future like a golfer practicing his putting stroke while lying in bed. Driving the Winnebago between cities, I phone ahead to recheck arrangements, record conversations, and replay them at he city limits. I turn up the volume, but my voice sounds faint on the replay, a ringmaster without amplification.
After I talked to Doc Horton, I called Henry in Cincinnati and arranged to meet him the next weekend at a Bengals game. Between February and November, the months the Liquidators tour, this is usually the way we meet, a public occasion made familial, an event where competition on the field or floor distracts us from our differences over the Liquidators. Ever since high school, Henry has resisted my attempts to interest him in the company. Give him time, I thought, he’ll come around. But if I can’t remember the month, it’s time to exert some pressure. I have to persuade Henry that the Liquidators requires blood trust. With so many hands touching our goods, it’s easy for inventory to leak and stock to shrink. We should have a mom minding the warehouse in Middletown while pop works the front, but mom left ten years ago and pop, like the merchandise, is spread far and wide. When I’m inspecting towels and bath mats at a Marietta sale, I need a brother helping the drivers set up in Flint. My sister hasn’t left Ohio in ten years. When I’m reading the monitor in the Winnebago outside the arena, a relative should be walking the floor next door, watching money change hands. Half the year my daughter lives in another hemisphere. Henry has to realize that Midwest Liquidators is not like land that can be deeded or property that can be assigned. This cross-country juggling act can’t be fobbed onto surrogates, managed by modem, or even sold to strangers at anything like a fair price. If our false-front name is not filled out by kin, the Liquidators’ flatland cycle of savings will be discontinued like the products we sell. It would kill me to broadcast a Monday message: “The Liquidators are leaving, the Liquidators are leaving.”
The night before my Sunday meeting with Henry, I drove the twenty-five miles from the Cincinnati airport to Middletown. I went past the warehouse on Central, two blocks from the ramshackle remains of Sorg Paper and a block from the Great Miami River, a real river when I was a kid but now a stream since the Army Corps of Engineers widened the bed and created breastworks that might be needed if citizens have to board an ark. Move out of the city, I was advised, when we outgrew our old rented building. Land was cheap out near I-75 before the mall was built. Put up one of those ranch warehouses, tin walls on a cement slab, a structure made of garage doors. But when Middletown Fabrications moved to Alabama, I waited for them to default on their taxes and picked up their brick building with leaded windows, plank floors, and freight elevators, a museum of the old industrial age when business didn’t require military ugliness.
I drove the three blocks down Main to the house where my parents lived, where my sister remains. Sis is scooping popcorn out at the Triplex. Since I pay all the home expenses, I think she took the job to check coins for her collection. It’s her investment for the time when her son, Jim—named for my father’s father in lieu of certified paternity—will call from some far-away jail and ask for bail. At sixteen, Jimmie stole his mother’s car and left Middletown. Jimmie, my wife used to say, was born to liquidate: no fixed address, no scruples about lifting merchandise, and no family loyalty.
When Henry was a teenager, he didn’t want to leave. He always had a lot of good selfish reasons to stay at home—friends, football practice, his own large room and tape collection—but I suspected his mother discouraged him from traveling with me. If Elizabeth had been thinking clearly in those years she called us “the Inseminators,” she would have sent Henry along to chaperone his supposedly errant father.
When Judith asked to spend her sixteenth summer with me, Elizabeth said no but Judith exploited her mother’s inconsistency—“You say Dad doesn’t spend enough time with us, but you try to stop me from spending time with him.”—and played navigator. Every summer Judith would spend at least a month in the Winnebago, and after her sophomore year at Haverford she worked her whole vacation to help pay the extra expenses of her junior year in Switzerland. Her anthropology taught me things I didn’t know about the customers and Judith got along fine with the men, but the Liquidators was no match for mountains once she learned to ski.
After Henry finished Ohio State in l987, he did ride with me for a month, more compensation for the two-month Eurail Pass I’d given him for graduation than a serious try-out of the business. We went to ball games and the younger drivers included him in their “Red Dress Club,” which had an up-to-date list of the best singles bars in our forty-five cities, but we were either too big for the Winnebago or Henry felt sharing a bathroom with his father was disloyal to his mother. “Mother Hen” Judith used to call him when she was living hand to mouth wherever there was snow and Henry was flying twice a year to see Elizabeth in Seattle, trying to persuade her to stop drinking the vodka sours she’d traded for her Middletown gin and tonics.
As I walked up to the front porch of the Bond homestead, I remembered another fall night when Elizabeth, Mom, and I were sitting on the porch. Henry was about twelve and Judith ten. They were playing kick the can with neighborhood kids and Henry was it. After he’d looked behind all the trees out by the sidewalk, explored the bushes by the garage, and named four other players—running back to the can shouting “Boo, hoo, hoo, I see you”—Henry had only Judith left to find. He was extremely careful, afraid of straying too far from the can that, kicked, would liberate his prisoners and would keep him it. The captive kids were making fun of his caution. It was getting dark and Henry had to venture further and further away from the can if he was to catch a glimpse of Judith and scream out her location. As Henry crept over to the right corner of the porch for a look into the backyard, Judith burst from the other corner, a blur in her white shift. In the race to the can out on the lawn, she had a couple of steps head start and momentum on the blue-jeaned, heavy-legged Henry. Sure she was going to kick the can before he could get to it, she screamed at the top of her ten-year-old lungs, “Boo hoo hoo, I screw you.” The can rolled across the lawn, the captives fled, Henry tackled his sister, and Elizabeth ran down, separated them, and sent Judith to bed.
“Where does she get that language?” Elizabeth asked Mom and me. Not from her grandmother, certainly, and not from a father who’s like a two-month Santa, ho-ho-hoing in for Thanksgiving, wrapping joke presents from what was still left of American locality, and celebrating a month-long New Year, with occasional overnight trips to sales. Elizabeth thought “screw,” with its equal application to sex and business, was liquidator language, but in later years she was the one who abandoned her Middletown gentility, invented vulgar insults, and then abandoned me.
As I drove back to Cincinnati the next morning, I reviewed my mental file on Henry, information compiled of anecdote, guesswork, and his credit report. Henry had mentioned a salary ceiling in his cubicle at Data Data; he was making $30,000. $12,000 of that he was spending on his over-priced river-view apartment. Another $8,000 for the meals he ate out, plus double the $2,500 he admitted he lost betting last year. With his car payment, current athletic ticket prices, and no dependents to help on taxes, Henry was carrying about $5,000 in credit card debt. Considering the jobs some of his classmates had, Henry was successful but still running behind what he needed.
The Bengals lost and Henry lost three hundred dollars. We walked twenty minutes uphill to his apartment on Mt. Adams. To demonstrate, I understood later, his domesticity, Henry grilled steaks on the balcony. Watching him stand far away from the grill and throw matches at the lighter-soaked charcoal, I wondered if Henry was too good-looking to be a liquidator. On top of my keg-with-legs body, he has the long Anglo-Saxon facial lines of his mother and her family of transplanted New Englanders, the gaunt people who 150 years ago started Ohio colleges and, in her family’s case, a dry goods store. His sandy hair, blue eyes, and thin lips should be behind a bank desk selling foreclosed property to my mismatched collection of ethnic features: curly but thinning black hair, brown eyes, round cheeks, and a mouth most associates assume is Jewish because East Coast liquidators started out as rag men. Since the Mafia controls rubbish removal in movies, customers think I’m Italian-American, but with my father’s dark complexion I could also pass for African-American if I went out at night with my mostly black drivers. Henry has a tennis tan, his light skin a reddish brown.
Henry knew I wasn’t in Cincinnati to watch football or eat the cartoned potato salad he served with the steaks, so after the meal and “NFL Today” I told him direct: I wanted him to consider more seriously than he ever had joining the company.
“Why right now, Dad? You’ll be back in Middletown in two months. Why the special trip?”
“I wanted to lay out the deal and give you some time to think about it before November. Horton wants me to cut down. You’re thirty and may not be moving up as fast as you’d like.”
“Good. The time is right then. I want you to come in and manage the Liquidators.”
“Run the company now?”
“That’s right, Henry. Not a hostile takeover and selloff but our own little Ford family succession.”
“What makes you think I could do the job?”
“You have the body for it. I trust you. That’s the most important thing. And you’re smart. I’ve watched you work with your icons and commands, programs and subprograms. Midwest Liquidators is equally complicated but also substantial, the things themselves plus people, about fifty to command and maybe another 600,000 to serve. After six months on the road with me, you’d have control of the routines and begin to know the people who can make things easier for you.”
“I’d be spending most of my time at the warehouse and sales. As we went along, I’d take you backward to the sources, show you how to buy, arrange for transport, juggle the warehouse and the resupply trucks. Eventually, you’ll be able to do the whole thing by yourself. If you give the life a year, you’ll fall in love with it.”
“You may not believe this, Dad, but I’ve been thinking about moving out of this apartment, maybe buying a house in Middletown. You know how depressed property values are there.”
“So are the people. Last time I looked at the Great Miami it didn’t have any floating bars like those.” I pointed out at the riverboats and barges hooked to the Kentucky shore, “Chuckles” and “Hooters” and the other spots where Henry spent his evenings. The names changed as often as Henry’s girlfriends, but the bars kept reopening, were never liquidated. I couldn’t picture Henry walking down the cracked sidewalk of Maple to Stan’s Place, where he could drink fifty-cent glasses of beer and talk about second shift layoffs at the steel mill.
“I’m closer to retirement age than you are, Dad. I’m thinking about getting married, settling down, having a family.”
This astonished me. It was the first time I remember hearing Henry say “family” since Elizabeth left. Maybe I’d been relying on the sociologists’ statistics about the children of divorce, their reluctance to marry and have children, or perhaps I’d missed some significant repetition in the girlfriends’ names: Wendy, Ann, Camille, Wendy, Susan, Wendy. I was so surprised I said something stupid, so dumb I wondered afterward if Henry had been waiting years for this occasion, preparing to say what he’d keep silent for a decade.
“Liquidators have families,” I said.
“I don’t want a family like ours.”
“I didn’t want a family like ours.”
“It’s what we are.”
As Henry continued, I was sure he’d been preparing, waiting to set this ambush, deliver this accusation.
“We’re an extended family, an over-extended family. Mom in Seattle, you in transit, me in Cincinnati, and Judith all over the map. I never hear from Judith. You don’t talk to Mom. This family is bankrupt.”
“Knowing what you do, you’d make different choices. I had a family and then became a liquidator. You’d choose a wife who could handle the life, who’d do some traveling with you.”
“You’re saying Mom should have been trailing you around in another Winnebago when we were in school?”
“No, I’m not saying that. The business was a necessity. As it grew, and as you got older, there were ways we could have been together more. Your mother refused to adapt.”
When I got my job with Radio Shack in Covington, Elizabeth didn’t want to move from Middletown, were a street was named for her family. In those years I kidded her about being “shiftless,” the word her father used when describing black employees at his store. In the “Perpetrator” phase, Elizabeth said we’d become a Negro family, the father off doing goods like they were drugs.
“Mom says you’re the one who refused to adapt. When the company could comfortably support all of us, you kept expanding.”
“I explained that to her a hundred times. We have to amaze the customers. The only way to do it is to grow every year, play bigger venues, pack more goods into the space.”
“But that meant spending more time away from her and us. OK, Judith and I turned out all right, if you consider skiing and swimming a good return on a $100,000 education. But look at what the Liquidators has done to Mom.”
This sentence had always been the risk of asking Henry into the company. Now that I needed him, he no longer needed to disguise his anger in standoffishness and wisecracks. But this was no time to explain my marriage to my son.
“I know how your mother feels about those years, Henry. I’m not going to make excuses to you. I won’t try to explain the past because, to tell you the truth, I don’t remember it all that well. Nothing can be done now about what happened between your mother and me. But you don’t have to be bound by our past.”
“Just because you’re not doesn’t mean I’m not. I’m still Mom’s son. If I worked for you, I’d be bound to the Liquidators the way you are. A very short rope for ten months a year. Why don’t you ask Judith? She likes to live in a room.”
“You’re a wagering man, Henry. How likely a candidate is she to manage the Liquidators? Right now she’s snorkeling in Belize and probably living in a tent.”
The preliminaries were out of the way. Except for the talk about settling down, I’d anticipated Henry’s objections and evasions. I’d stroked his ego. Now it was time to appeal to Henry’s moral smugness, put him on the high road of liquidation. Once again I explained the service we performed for failures, the women and men done in by Henry’s data, the numbers large or small defined by a single preceding mark, the short line below the bottom line, the dread sign of loss:—“Mine us,” I said, “take whatever ore is left and turn it into money.” Salve our shame.
For Henry, I spread our benefits to Middletown itself: drivers and warehousemen the company employed, families supported, taxes paid, the multiplier effect of liquidator money.
I emphasized the good he could do for our four days of customers, all the emotional by-products of our products. It had been years since Henry saw our people. I reminded him about Thursday’s senior citizens whose Social Security checks we cash. I described Friday’s suburban matrons who come to slum, to be happy they’re not married to liquidators.
“The money,” Henry said, “where does the money come from?”
“Saturday’s payday,” I told him. The customers come in shoals, seething and writhing in our zigzag aisles like salmon in man-made fish steps. They’re white as underbellies, Saturday’s customers, the foaming, desperate middle class of America, swimming against the waterfall trickle-down has become, gushed backward and down, taking their straight-haired, blue-eyed spawn with them. We get the unschooled schools, the clerks and repairmen, the off-brand blue jeans and home-town sweatshirts, overweight wives and stringy husbands, perky mothers and sulky fathers. They come all day, from ten to ten, children in tow or pushed ahead, bumped forward or wheeled through the aisles. Wives prove their frugality to husbands who accuse them of budgetary carelessness. Men demonstrate their handymanhood to women who claim they want only bigger screens. To this duress generation, we give the feeling that they still have power, can pick and choose, and in an instant—the unit of time they still own—can decide to spend.
Sunday is the day of the rest, the other colors: blacks of every shade, light brown and deeply tanned Hispanics, all the yellows of Asian immigrants, poor whites with sun-burned faces and cheap orange blouses, green-pallored rummies and purple-veined homeless people who show up at closing, hoping something no longer worth transporting will fall off our trucks. For the six-day week workers, we order direct from factories bottom-of-the-line products—children’s polyester pajamas, work gloves, small pans for hot plates—that will last until next year, goods we rarely find in liquidation sales because few fail selling to increased demand. When we think we have Sunday’s necessities covered, new needs arise and strip our stocks: plastic sheeting to cover winter windows, pirated video games, sixteen-cent votive candles. At four o’clock the drivers get up off their chairs, enter the aisles, and shout “Only once this yeeaarr.” For the hangers-on, people so poor they forsake their Sunday nap to wait for closing, we’re willing to wheel and deal. We step into the aisles and surprise the customers one last time. We offer instant mark-downs, three for two’s on bags of sponges or two for one’s on kitchen deodorizers or baby blankets. At the end of the day, at the end of our stay, we’re like open-air produce sellers in countries without supermarkets, a reminder of home for people who have recently washed up on our shores and leached into the Midwest.
Everybody—not just immigrants—gets the gift of memory from the Liquidators. The retirees flash sixty years back to crossroads Esso stations and general stores crammed with everything from buckshot to hair ribbons. Women and men in middle age see our stock and remember small-town “sidewalk sales,” when bins of unsold goods—swim suits and paints in unpopular colors—appeared outdoors in August. The young recall their first held-hand visit to the corner store, its ceiling-high stacks of crazy combinations—champagne next to canned tomatoes—and the glass candy case, a box of equal delights and impossible decisions.
Perhaps to Henry I sounded like our radio ads or sendoff signs, maybe I was overselling our aid, or possibly he thought I was telling him what he wanted to hear because at the end of my public service announcement Henry ignored our charity.
“I’m sorry, Dad, but liquidating is just not something I want to get into.”
Henry sounded sixteen years old. Or he was testing me, trying to piss me off.
“Liquidating is not some fucking hobby like ballroom dancing or stamp collecting you `get into.’ I’m talking about a multi-million dollar business I want you to take over. A family business begun by your grandfather and handed down to me. The Liquidators is like a family line. How can you treat it like an impulse shopper: ‘No thanks, just looking’?”
“Don’t talk to me about the ‘family line.’ That’s a line of shit. If you were interested in family continuity, you’d ask who I’m thinking about marrying. You’d be pleased I want to bring up kids in Middletown.”
“The dumbest shits there can have kids, and most have a couple before they’re married. I wish you well. I’m anxious to meet the lucky woman. But right now I’m giving you the chance to do something big for yourself and the town.”
Henry still had the body of a tight end, including a neck nearly as wide as his head, but that neck flared red like it did when he was scolded as a kid.
“Then why does it sound to me like it’s yourself you’re most concerned with?”
“Maybe you’re just hearing your own fear. If you’re afraid of the risk, try it for a year. There’ll always be a cubicle at Data Data.”
Although Henry was angry, he didn’t take the bait.
“Like you’ve always said, Dad, it doesn’t take a genius to run the Liquidators. Heroism also isn’t required. You just need to be obsessed with objects.”
“That’s what you think about me?”
“How else could you do what you do? But there’s no need of arguing about that. No matter what you say, you can’t force me to take the company.”
Henry had me there. I’d seen hundreds of people forced out of business, but no matter how much pressure I exerted I couldn’t force Henry into Midwest Liquidators.
“You’re right,” I told him, “but there’s something I can do. I can sit right here until you tell me the truth. Everything you’ve said until now doesn’t add up. Something’s missing. You’re lying to me or to yourself.”
“Why can’t you just accept that I don’t want to do this? You wouldn’t want a lukewarm successor, would you?”
“What I want is to keep the company in the family. Tell me why you won’t give it a chance.”
“OK, Dad, you want the truth? I figure Midwest Liquidators must be failing.”
This was the most surprising and punishing thing Henry had said. It wasn’t about my past mistakes. It implied on-going manipulation, that I would selfishly sacrifice Henry’s future. That and worse. The Liquidators failing. I felt as if Henry had led me to this spot so he could spring the trap door, watch the breath go out of me as he’d heard me pant up the hill to his apartment. If so, he had his wish. I gulped before answering.
“Do you really believe I’d invite you onto a sinking ship?”
“Maybe you believe I can save it.”
“You helped with the computerized tracking system, but I didn’t come here with an SOS I’m offering you an investment you’ll never afford to buy while typing in your cubicle.”
“The next century belongs to data, Dad. The Liquidators won’t last.”
Henry’s certitude, his tone of finality, gave me back my wind, flushed my neck. I wasn’t giving Henry those last words.
“You’re wrong, Henry, dead wrong. And you’re going to be sorry, too. The Liquidators will be around as long as people want to be surprised. Not just by fumbles and interceptions. But real mass and motion coming into their city. Like the circus, Henry.”
“For your sake, Da, I hope you’re right, because I don’t see you back in Middletown any more than you can see me there. You wanted the truth. I’ve told you what I think. Now let’s drop it.”
“Only once this yeeaarr,” I thought but said nothing more about the company. I wasn’t offering Henry any further mark-downs. And I wasn’t going to beg, not Henry, not now.
“We have no personal life,” Elizabeth used to say as code for conventional family living. Without their father present more, the children would never achieve her goal for them: “I want Henry and Judith to have a normal life and be happy whatever they do.” Well, Elizabeth was wrong. Henry was homing in on “personal life” now, common selfishness, a shrinking from and shirking of the public good, our traveling exhibition of altruism.
Trying to recruit a successor, I may have discounted motives and relied too much on physical inheritance, the family line so plain in three generations of Bond males, our large bodies’ tropim toward physics, the force that courses through our veins. Henry at twelve already had my shape as a young man, the barrel chest and fire-plug thighs my father passed on to me. Too many years of road food have turned my body into fat, but Nautilus machines keep Henry looking like my father when he lifted and twisted metal to make a living.
Dad’s trade was liquidating, though he never would have used that word to describe plumbing. About the only words he cared about were family names—my own, Jimmie, Henry and Judith—perhaps because he was the last Bond. Dad said nothing about the people behind those names, so as children my sister and I felt we had inherited some secret history. The fact was Dad also said next to nothing about his own life, the years he drifted around the south like a tinker before coming to Middletown in 1935. He was looking for a job at Armco Steel or Sorg Paper but ended up apprenticing himself to a plumber. New homes were hooking onto city water and old houses at the enter of town were changing from steel and lead to copper, so business was good. While the plumber studied water—pressure, hot and cold direction, the suck of egress—the apprentice attended to pipe: pulled out the old, carried in the new, and hauled away the scrap.
When Dad became a plumber himself, he started Bond’s Salvage on the side. During the war, metal of all sorts became precious. Late at night I’d look out my bedroom window to the shed behind our house and watch my father work, separating the pure from the impure. When his acetylene torch struck some flammable alloy, the shed lit up with a shower of sparks and I saw Dad made huge by the trick of incandescence and the protective devices he wore, the full face mask with its small glass eye-slit, the welder’s heavy apron and hockey player gloves, the steel-tipped boots laced high and tight. These moments were numerous, and my father’s posture must have been different each time, yet I remember the flashes as a single, coalesced instant my father bending over his work like some well-shelled alchemist burning into the secret of matter.
On weekends, other plumbers’ apprentices dropped their week’s haul on Dad’s scales, janitors brought radiators and busted tools in cars that were ready for scrap themselves, mechanics came with batteries and out-of-round wheels, farmers unloaded pieces of cultivators and balers from their pickups. New customers wanted to haggle, but Dad wasn’t talkative. He’d read the scales, write down the numbers with a greasy pencil he stuck behind his ear, add them up, and show the total to the seller, rarely bothering to pronounce the figure at the bottom of the pad. Dad didn’t have much more to say in the house to my mother, sister, or me. If his stomach troubles allowed him to eat dinner with us, Mom supplied both sides of conversation, every once in a while requiring from Dad a confirming grunt or head-shake negation. When my sister and I were kids, Mom explained his silence or gruffness as if he were a troll: “Of course, your father loves you, but he spends too much time alone in dark cellars.” When we were adolescents, she read a Reader’s Digest article and told us “Your father has what is called a saturnine personality.” Once she had that tag to stick on her silent husband with the perennially aching feet, Mom could proceed to supply all the household language, issuing a steady flow of questions, commands, and information from her kitchen where a radio droned every waking hour, filling gaps when Mom was out of the house and supplying her with songs, jingles, news, and jokes to tell Sis and me.
I was a junior in high school when Dad had such a bad case of gout he couldn’t walk for days. That’s when he was diagnosed as suffering from lead poisoning. Too many lead pipes, too much lead paint he burned off his scrap metal. He closed the salvage business and six months later surprised the three of us, along with everybody else in Middletown, by starting the Auction Barn. He bought furniture from estate sales and retirees going into apartments, appliances from factory workers leaving for some larger city, and equipment from farmers moving into town. Every other Saturday night from May through September a hired spieler worked the audience to bid half what the items were worth new and twice what Dad had paid.
In this new sideline, Dad did the lifting, I helped with my teenage strength, Sis sold hot dogs, and Mom collected money from the bidders. If they had second thoughts, she always had some words of reassurance, complimenting the “charming curve” of a rounded breakfront, praising a Kelvinator’s freezer compartment (“Charles and I have one just like it at home“), even talking up the “Potluck Boxes” people bought to keep their kids quiet, cardboard cartons containing stuff too small to sell—playing cards, wooden spoons, toy soldiers, and always a ten-cent package of balloons so Mom could truthfully but enigmatically say “You’ll find something bigger than the box in there.”
During the years I was in college, the Middletown Auction Barn grew and Dad gave up plumbing. In August of 1967 when Henry was two, Judith was just born, and I was Assistant Manager at the Covington Radio Shack, Dad renamed the business Ohio Auction Barns, began trucking his castoffs to rented barns in Lima, Xenia, and other Ohio towns, and asked me to go in with him. I was pleased he wanted me to join his business but didn’t believe my marketing degree was necessary to move secondhand goods. I did agree to help him out some weekends and, I thought, give him a chance to persuade me while we rode to and from his Mid-Ohio locations.
We were in Xenia on a rainy Saturday night, October 22nd. The crowd had been small and silent, keeping their bidding hands in their pockets. Dad was testy, disappointed that I was seeing such a turnout, angry at the amount of things he had to truck back to Middletown. He and I were loading a pine blanket chest that hadn’t come close to the minimum bid of forty dollars. It was too stolid to mix with Scandinavian, too large to be used as a coffee table in the new living-dining rooms of tract houses, and not yet old enough to be antique. Not even the auctioneer’s rattling its mysterious contents could get a bid. Dad had pulled the chest up the ramp and rolled it to the front of the van. He nodded toward the compartment that extended forward over the cab. We bent our knees, got a good low grip on the sides of the chest, and started to lift. The chest was not that heavy, not even with the pots and pans inside, not for bodies that could have been twins, one a little fuller, the other slightly taller.
I don’t remember exactly what happened then: Either I lifted more quickly and shifted the contents of the chest toward Dad or his grip slipped and the contents slid in his direction. The loose objects couldn’t have weighed twenty pounds, but just after I heard them rattle along the bottom of the chest I remember Dad grunting—a low exhalation, powerful sigh—and suddenly his end of the chest dropped to the floor, he slumped forward onto the inclined plane, and with his weight added to the weight of the chest I failed to hold up my end. The chest slipped out of my fingers, slammed to the floor as if it had been dropped from the highest smokestack at Armco, and Dad fell off to the right before I could catch him and hold him up.
First aid couldn’t make him breathe. My mother’s hysterical babble couldn’t get him to speak. The Life Squad’s electroshock couldn’t make him move. “A massive heart attack,” the Emergency Room doctor said, “Your father was dead before he hit the floor.”
A day after the burial, we discovered Dad had a thousand dollars of life insurance he’d bought when he was twenty-one. No matter how bright a Radio Shack electronic future might be, I had two families to support in the present. Without intending to—because Dad must have thought he’d live forever or last long enough to laugh at what his life was worth at twenty-one—my father forced me into his business. I was left holding a collection of second-hand goods that had to be auctioned off. I added liquidated—but new—products to my father’s beat-up stock. In a year, I changed the company’s name to Ohio Liquidators and in another two years “Ohio” became “Midwest.” To keep two households going—Elizabeth, Henry, and Judith in our Covington shotgun; Mom, Sis, and Jimmie in the Middletown house with fifteen years left on the mortgage—the business had to grow toward a migrant workers’ schedule, an almost full-time year of utilizing our rented warehouse, leased trucks, and experienced drivers.
As we added cities and employees, Elizabeth’s names for the Liquidators marked our expanding territory and declining marriage. We were “Prospectors” of the border states in the early seventies, “Inseminators” along the southern rim later in the decade, and, just before she left in 1985, “Perpetrators.” Although the buildup to her departure was as loud as the final pleas of an auctioneer—slammed phones and two-day scream-fests when I was home in December and January—I never heard the hammer drop. I flew in from Baton Rouge on a Sunday evening in May, and Elizabeth wasn’t at the airport to meet me. When I got home, the car was in the garage and everything in the house looked the same, but her closets were empty, drawers cleaned out and neatly shut. There were no smashed pictures, no note, no message on the answering machine. I called Mom and asked her when she’d last seen or talked with Elizabeth. “Yesterday,” she said, “or was it Friday? She dropped by to say hello but seemed in a hurry.”
“Was it yesterday or the day before, Mom? It’s kind of important.”
“I’m not sure, but she had on that nice yellow dress I gave her years ago. I’m sure she’ll remember when she was here.”
A decade after that night’s long-distance conversations with Henry and Judith at college, the next week’s letter from Elizabeth’s lawyer, months of phone calls to Seattle, and the judge pronouncing the settlement in a cold Butler County courthouse, I remember word for word this exchange with my mother, her inability to remember what day—Friday or Saturday—she’d last seen Elizabeth. Now it is from that Sunday, the nineteenth of May, 1985, that I date Mom’s long slow slide into silence. The vessels of her brain were drying out, the gerontologist said two years later: “If it’s Alzheimer’s, as we think, the brain seizes up like an engine without oil.”
Time rolled up like the portable screen families show slides on: first yesterday and last year, then Mom’s mid-life, and finally her youth, the bottom of the screen wrapped tight in its metal sheath, the spring broken. When Mom first realized there was much she was forgetting, she developed cueing strategies, used the family “we”: “So what have we been up to the last few days?” As time contracted and Mom forgot what had been said fifteen minutes before, conversations became painfully repetitive for others but continually surprising for her. Then she lost the seconds required to form a sentence and said only the names of familiar objects—chair, bed, plate. She became like the infant who, I remember learning in college, can’t imagine a thing exists when it disappears from view. When she could no longer say “hands,” her right one was unable to lift her spoon to her mouth. After her legs refused to carry her to the bathroom, my sister couldn’t care for Mom at home and I took her to the Alzheimer’s Center in Cincinnati.
It was January 13, 1990. I lifted Mom out of the passenger seat, placed her in a wheelchair, rolled her through the automatic doors, turned left, and pushed her down the hall toward the room I’d selected for her. We wheeled along the carpeted corridor, passing pajama-clad men who hauled themselves along the rails attached to both walls, passing rooms where I saw women sitting on their beds and staring out at what must have been to them an endless, ever-changing film running in their doorways. We rolled past a group meeting, fifteen or so patients who could still speak. They were crowded together on couches and folding chairs, all silent for the moment, as was the aide in charge, all lost in contemplation of whatever time they had left, not to live but to remember. During this ride to my mother’s room—as during the forty-five minute drive from Middletown and as on every recent occasion when I was with her—she kept saying the last word I ever heard her say, filling the silence as she had since I could remember, saying the word over and over again with an almost neutral tone, as if she was reminding herself so she’d know it when she really needed it or wanted it, repeating like the musical instrument her repetition named repeatedly—“Tom, Tom, Tom, Tom,” her only son.
At the end of the paperwork with the Admissions Director, she asked me if I had a medical power of attorney and, when I produced it, asked if I wished my mother to be a ‘No Code’ patient. I didn’t understand.
“If your mother is ‘No Code’ and she should lapse into unconsciousness, we would not attempt to resuscitate.”
“Why do you call this ‘No Code?’”
“Because in a health emergency, we announce a ‘Code’ over the intercom.”
I thought of how much my mother loved words, not the crossworder’s exotica or linguist’s curiosities but saws and sayings, clever combinations and catchy slogans, the radio announcer’s patter and seller’s small talk she’d passed on to me. I became irritated with the Admissions Director, both her title suggesting one had to pass tests to get into the Center and her confusing terminology.
“So ‘No Code’ is contradictory,” I told her, “it’s a coded phrase, a secret message that really says ’Do not save this person’s life.’”
Trained to counsel people without hope, the Director said “Perhaps you should think of ‘No Code’ as meaning ‘Let my poor mother die.’”
I thought about what the Director said the days I sat by mother’s bed in the Center and I thought about it back home in Middletown, and just before the Liquidators packed up in February I called the Director. “No Code,” I told her. The second week of June, when I was in Omaha, mother choked on some food, aspirated, lost consciousness, and, as a No Code patient, died a day later.
October 22, 1967, May 19, 1985, and January 13, 1990, I remember fine. They last like the figure of my father instantaneously lit up by sparks. These dated memories I’d just as soon see dissolve, not like a movie shot to something else but like an island slowly losing its sharp edges to erosion. Instead it’s recent events that have become as gray as our tractor-trailers. Even the last two years seem to be fading away from me, tipping downward like the pots and pans in the dark chest my father dropped. Although the layout of last month’s show in Peoria is clear as an aerial photograph, I spent two days there trying to remember the name of Cobo’s security chief, a man I’ve dealt with for ten years.
I didn’t tell Henry this history of liquidating because I want him to accept the company for what it is and what it can still do. Validation, I suppose, is what I seek along with a successor. Loading my life onto the business or asking for some undue generosity wouldn’t have worked with Henry anyway, not if he thinks the company is failing.
The Liquidators failing? No chance. Whenever men create things, some are bound to fuck up. Even God’s creation failed and flooded. You don’t need to go all the way back to zero to remember failure is endemic. Failure continues. That’s no surprise. Since the Liquidators began, auto manufacturers and airlines have gone under. Savings and Loans, the companies that were supposed to control debt, bellied up. Big brand names stay afloat with Chapter 13 protection. The current downsizing is nothing more than partial liquidation, whole divisions canceled, the office furniture sold off. Small business failure is up. Personal bankruptcies are on the rise, more than a million filed this year.
How could I forget failure?
Forty-five times a year we aim our trucks at its center. Rolling past the junkyards, rubbish heaps, garbage dumps, and landfills on the edges of cities, the light outer ring of waste, we shoot for the decayed inner circle, the arena or coliseum built next to high-rise slums, the exhibition space near disintegrating tenements, burned-out gas stations, plywood-windowed storefronts, cars without wheels. The small Friday crowds and ever larger turnouts on Saturday and Sunday are mobile reminders of standing dereliction, the massive urban weight beyond transformation.
How could I doubt failure?
It’s pandemic, in the water, in the air. My father used to call the Great Miami behind our house “Middletown’s cesspool.” To jet-ski on the Ohio, Henry said, you need a diver’s wet suit. The Chicago River, Detroit’s Rouge, and Cleveland’s Cuyahoga are even worse, thick with waste, threatening to become solid. From waterways, failure oozes out to rot and rust the infrastructure we travel, the pot-holed interstate cement and quaking bridges, the run-down municipal streets and over-burdened local services. From our deteriorating roadways, failure rises high, the gray smog in Minneapolis, the smudged sky of Duluth, the ozone cloud hanging over Memphis.
I look ahead and see failure increasing. My past may be receding from me, but the Liquidators will last. Our future is as bright as LED lights, as exciting as our entry into your city. When the calendar gets its next first digit, “New ideas for a new millennium” will be the message in every medium. Manufacturers will torture metal and plastic into novel shapes that won’t sell. We’ll transport the objects, transform failure into cash flow. Every day will be like Sunday. As businesses fail and the labor force is cut, the tax base will decrease and governments will liquidate their assets. Schools will fail and we’ll buy the books. Debtor families will ask us to take children off their hands. The Liquidators’ profits will increase, and out-of-career professionals will apply to drive the Kenworths. When citizens are pleading for aid, Liquidators will no longer have to surprise and advertise. We’ll be welcomed into your city four times a year. We’ll gradually grow so successful we won’t need me. Continental Liquidators will paint its trailers blue and become a blue chip corporation. We’ll be like no-risk bonds, and yet profit will not be our only motive. When museums are forced to sell off their collections to private individuals, we’ll do our public service, save the day again. In all the domes up and down our millennial land, the Liquidators will reserve a small corner of our show to display objects from the past, things that will last forever.
“Mary and Joseph are on the road,” I told Judith on the phone, reminding her that even parents of the savior had to travel.
“The wise men are hauling gifts,” she said.
“And the tax man is ruining the land,” I finished off our old pre-Christmas joke.
“So, can you make it home this year?” I asked her, two months after my talk with Henry.
“Not unless you want to support me the rest of the year. I don’t have a day off until mid-January.”
“You can meet Henry’s intended. Take a couple of days sick leave.”
“It’s peak season in the mountains, Dad. Most people don’t have two months of winter vacation. Why don’t you come up here? Not even Killington has lights on the slopes, a few restaurants still serve meat, and during the day there’s gorgeous scenery to see.”
Henry made me come to him. Judith was forcing me to go to her. If I was going to launch a surprise attack, I had to resist her invitation.
“I didn’t think that Piper in Rutland was ever going to get off the ground.”
“Fly a jet to Albany and rent a car.”
“I really didn’t like being impaled by that T-bar on Okemo.”
“Here you can ride the heated cable cars. They’re about the size of the Winnebago.”
I should have gone to Lausanne and brought Judith back when I got her first letters praising mountains. If we were the crime family Henry thought, I’d have at least sent someone to break her leg. Henry had the body for liquidating, but it was Judith who took to the business when she was a kid. At ten, she’d go with me to the warehouse, for her a gigantic dollhouse she imagined opening up. As a teenager, she wore the gray smock like a princess’ cape. She grinned at the customers’ double-takes when they found a size-five girl sitting demurely next to band saws or drill presses. After two years at Haverford, Judith took notes on the Liquidators’ tales and interviewed customers. It was Judith who suggested we abandon our orderly floor plan and make the show a bazaar, a space to tour. But after Lausanne, Judith’s attention wandered backward from people to places, from anthropology to ecology. The birthday books she asked for had million-year time scales. She wanted to be outdoors in the worst of weather. Like my father at the end of his life, Judith would drink only bottled water.
“My life has to fit into two suitcases,“ Judith says. As light as she travels, giving her the Liquidators was going to be a tough sell. The clothes Judith wears don’t have pockets: Money wouldn’t recruit her. She can’t be goaded. Henry’s plans surprised me, but ultimately he was logical and practical. From Judith I could count on some reserve of sympathy. I was the one who encouraged her to go away to school, to study in Switzerland. If her account was short when her AmEx bill came to Middletown, I helped her out. But Judith could be unpredictable. Her mind is like one of those huge drills that ream tunnels under rivers, bays, and straits, but you never know where the exit hole will be. Although she doesn’t move by whim, exactly, she makes quick decisions about the next season of her life. When she got a call from Chile the first time, he left the next day.
My first night in Killington, Judith came by the hotel to pick me up. She looked like a kid bundled up in a snowsuit: insulated boots, baggy pants, a fluffy down parka, a white toque covering her wiry black hair and setting off her round, dark-brown eyes. Even the slightly protruding teeth she’d refused to have braced looked like a child’s overbite. She laughed at my black wool topcoat and overshoes, and said we might not get into a restaurant. At dinner, with some of her layers peeled off, she seemed thinner than usual, a small, dark-complected anomaly here where men looked like former beach boys and women were raised on fjords.
While Judith grazed her salad, I asked her if she was getting enough to eat, and she repeated what she and Doc Horton had been telling me for years. Standing out in the wind and shouting to her pupils had changed the way Judith spoke: slowly, a little loud, and with the assurance of a primary school teacher. I let her tell me about the beauty of Vermont, the purity of the air, the pleasure of teaching people how to master gravity, the reward of rescuing those who failed, the breathing exercises she taught those in pain, the good it would do me to get some exercise. Some of this, of course, I’d heard before, but I listened on, waiting for some confession of weary joints or dissatisfaction that I might use when I brought up the future of the Liquidators.
The day before Christmas, I drove to Woodstock and walked around the shops looking for something light that Judith would keep. After every season she sold her boots, skis, and heavy clothes because, as an instructor, she got deep discounts for wearing the newest products each year. She didn’t need many clothes when she went snorkeling, so after mailing her season’s books to Middletown she managed with her two suitcases. This year she wanted something very heavy called The Moral Animal. I also bought her a fine chain made from, the tag said, local gold.
After dinner on Christmas Eve, Judith gave me a carved good luck charm from Belize and an enlarged photograph of her face looking into the winter sun, her goggles pulled up on her forehead.
“It’s beautiful,” I said, “but these don’t all look like squint lines to me.”
“You’re a charmer, Dad.”
“All I mean is this job won’t last forever.”
“I don’t need it that long. People your age are still teaching. A woman in her sixties works with kids here.”
“What if you fall down and fracture your hip?”
“And the next season?”
“The next season will take care of itself. I don’t have a car payment, Dad. I don’t have a car. I share a room. If I have to get off the mountain, I’ll find something else outdoors.”
“What about a family? If you decide to have kids, you can’t be rolling down slopes.”
“What are you worried about, Dad, the Bonds dying out?”
“Not the Bonds,” I said and gave her the book an necklace. After she’d opened the packages, I told Judith I had something else for her.
“I want to give you the Liquidators,” I said.
“We’ve already exchanged gifts, Dad. It wouldn’t be fair to give me another million tons. I don’t have anything to give you in return.”
“I’m serious. I want you to take the Liquidators.”
I wondered if Henry had warned Judith. She didn’t act surprised. She laughed and continued to treat the notion like a joke.
“Let me check my calendar. I think I’m busy all next week. Maybe after that.”
“Please be serious, Judith. I want you to have the company.”
This time I must have sounded like I’d just written my will.
“Is something wrong, Dad? What are you saying?”
“Doc Horton told me I have to get off the road. You know the company and enjoyed it when you rode in the Winnebago. I want you to take it over. This would be a great opportunity for you.”
“This is too fast and thick for me. Let’s take these one at a time. What did Horton say?”
I repeated the doctor’s warnings and told Judith about my blanking out in Chicago. Health was one of her interests. She examined mine with care, asking questions about the details and my medications. She agreed that she used to find the Liquidators fascinating.
“But this is all so sudden,” she said. “I don’t know what to think. Do you expect me to give you an answer right away?”
“I need to know how you feel about it.”
“It’s extremely generous of you, Dad, but I’m afraid I’m not the right person for this. What about Henry?”
“I offered him a chance to manage it. I thought he was better suited to the life, but he refused. You I’m offering ownership, free and clear, no debt. Take the Liquidators into the Green Mountains if you want. Stage the shows in open-air arenas.”
“Why did Henry refuse?”
“He said he’s thinking about raising a family and wouldn’t want to be away from home. But I think he feels he doesn’t owe me anything.”
“Why are you talking like a collection agency, Dad?”
“Because I’ve put my life into the Liquidators. I want to give it to you. Parents all over the country are loading their children and grandchildren with decades of debt. You I’m handing a lifelong asset. All I’m asking in return is that you give it a trial run.”
“I know how you love the company. And I love you, Dad, but you’re asking me to give you something that’s impossible. I can’t supervise thirty truck drivers.”
“Hugh Hefner’s daughter, Christie, runs the Playboy empire.”
“She runs an office, not a band of throwbacks. You’re setting me up to fail. Why are you asking me to do this?”
Henry wouldn’t. Judith couldn’t, or said she couldn’t. She was slipping away.
“Because I’m desperate. I’m sinking, Judith. You saw what happened to your grandmother. I’m afraid I’m losing it. I can’t keep running the company. You’re my last chance. The Liquidators still have a public to serve. Without you, the Liquidators won’t last.”
Judith was silent. She reached across the table and took my hand, but with her forehead furrowed and lips pursed, she looked like a Friday lady.
“What if the Liquidators didn’t last?”
“What do you mean?”
“What if unsold merchandise piled up? It would become a mountain and Americans would recognize the excess they produce every year. That would be a service, wouldn’t it?”
Jesus fucking Christ. Just at the moment I beg my daughter for pity, she starts talking about a symbolic mountain. I felt like a sinkhole had opened up beneath me, one of those mysterious voids into which cars and trucks suddenly disappear.
“Are you telling me the Liquidators has been a massive mistake?”
“Not for you.”
“But what is it you’ve really been serving all these years? The over-produce, over-sell economy that depletes resources and pollutes the environment. Look at the fossil fuels you use just to get the goods from one city to the next, the diesel fumes you put in the air.”
“This is why you won’t get involved, because the Liquidators aren’t politically correct?”
“No, Dad. I can’t take the Liquidators. I’m offering reasons why you can let it go now. You don’t have to keep doing it for Henry and me.”
“All right then.”
“You’re forgetting the customers.”
“Things have changed in the decade since I rode with you, Dad. People are spending more of their money on travel. They want new sites and experiences, not just products.”
“You know we provide more than products. We put the customers in touch with history. You taught me that, Judith. The poor we give a sense of freedom and power. To everybody we give the chance to give aid.”
“What if the customers don’t see it that way anymore?”
“Why shouldn’t they?”
“As failure increases, maybe generosity decreases”
“Are you telling me altruism doesn’t exist anymore?”
“No. Altruism definitely exists.” Here Judith took one of her unpredictable detours, one that seemed to undermine her attack on the Liquidators. She told me about research that confirmed altruism, books of evolutionary psychology that demonstrated it. The selfish gene ruled, but concern for kin, not just offspring, was genetically rewarded in primates. Down at the bottom of history, where apes turned into humans, was altruism. What a wonderful Christmas gift and unanticipated byproduct of my long-shot tour to Vermont. Altruism was real. However altruism developed out of necessity in my family, it was also inherited, older than animals who stood on two legs and used tools. Altruism was not the secret transformation of something else, not just another name for guilt or shame or fear, but was something itself, a survival mechanism to preserve. Although primate altruism was replicated and saved in early nomadic cultures, Judith said, it was largely lost in agricultural and industrial societies. Judith may have intended only to give me credit for my early altruism, but I saw a use for her information about early man.
“The Liquidators go back further than I’d ever realized,” I told her. “We’re shepherds minding our stock, hunters and gatherers of the things people need. These are reasons to keep the Liquidators in motion. Assuming you’ve inherited some of my altruism,” I said, “you should pass it along to the customers. The Liquidators should be saved.”
“At any cost?”
Judith’s answer set me back. It seemed designed to hurt. From Henry, I expected punishment, but not from Judith.
“Asking my daughter to take over is ’at any cost’?”
“I’m talking about you. You’re killing yourself, Dad. You don’t have to do that anymore. You don’t have to keep liquidating for mother either.”
“To prove it was necessary all those years.”
“Let’s bring this back to you, Judith.”
“I can’t do it. I know I can’t. Maybe you’ll have to liquidate the Liquidators to save yourself.”
“Save myself? For what?”
“You don’t have to live for something or for the public. You like to travel. Get out of the Midwest. Take a look at the oceans. See another hemisphere. Go around the world.”
“Ski Killington. Raft the Colorado. Surf the Barrier Reef.”
“You’re only fifty-five. If you get out from under the Liquidators and some of that weight, you won’t need all your medications. Your mind will clear. You’ll find something else you want to do.”
“I feel better already. Merry Christmas, Happy New Year. How do I get to Belize from here?”
“I’m sorry, Dad, but I just can’t do this for you. I wish I could, but I know I can’t. I just can.” She looked directly into my eyes. “Did you really think I’d take the Liquidators?” she asked.
“Yes,” I lied.
Judith began to cry. I hadn’t seen tears in her eye since she was a kid, not even when she was squinting into winter sun. I felt like a ton of shit, immobile like that day in Chicago. Not just heavy but a heavy, a bad man.
“No,” I confessed. “I’m sorry I asked. I guess I was hoping you’d surprise me.”
In February, sales held even in Columbus, dipped a little in Dayton. In Indianapolis, Evansville, and Springfield, we were running a consistent 5% behind last year’s numbers, nothing to worry about if I weren’t planning to come back to Henry with evidence of our continuing success.
In St. Louis we were downtown in Kiel Auditorium, not far from the arch. The weather was good, the inner city was declining, we weren’t competing with a visiting circus or home team, and yet we were off about ten percent on Thursday and Friday. Even on Saturday, the crowd was thick only at mid-day. Sunday afternoon a drunk climbed up into the bleachers and started clapping and screaming as if we were the Blues. Two security men chased him around while the customers craned their necks and applauded the asshole, like a fool who runs out onto the diamond asking for an autograph. Watching him caper and dodge the rent-a-cops, listening to him mock my men and our goods with his shouted praise, I remembered Judith’s advice. “Liquidate the Liquidators.” I’d use the phrase for a new promotion, a “Going Out of Business Sale.” It was my last chance with Henry. In a month I’d present him with the boosted sales figures, prove the customers still appreciated us. Henry would get one more opportunity to be a Bond.
In Little Rock and Tulsa, Thursday and Friday customers didn’t believe our new ads, the radio announcer’s elegiac baritone—“Don’t miss the Liquidators’ farewell tour: One last time for all”—and the black border around our newspaper flyer’s message: “Nothing lasts. Everything must go.” The seniors said we’d be back posing as IRS auctioneers. Professionals mocked our imitation of aging rockers. But the weekend people responded immediately, spiking sales so fast our resupply trucks couldn’t keep up in Tulsa. When the stock started to thin, the mounds slump, and the paths widen, the old folks and suburbanites began listening to the Liquidators’ last call. In Springfield, Missouri, I noticed elderly men were bringing along their wives to help carry their steals. The housewives of Kansas City came to Kemper Arena both Thursday and Friday to stock up on disposables. The weekday excitement further stimulated the weekenders. On Saturdays little white kids were pressed into service as carriers while their mothers grabbed kitchen aids and their fathers lugged out wood lathes, scroll saws, and sandblasters. On Sundays we were being paid with wrinkled dollar bills and piggy bank change, money usually scraped together for lottery tickets or wine. Business was better than ever. Goods were flying out the doors. Cash was piling up in our boxes.
The Capital-Journal in Topeka did a story on us, a dying breed, commercial lemmings. In Wichita, I sensed our force waning, the effect of shrinking critical mass. I rented room dividers to hide empty space at the edges of the Kansas Coliseum. In Lincoln, I wanted to fill out the floor with extra paper supplies, but my vendor refused to ship the order without cash up front. Owners of local flea markets came to pay their respects: Did I have anything they could take off my hands? A transport company in Columbus faxed me an inquiry about my trucks. Between Lincoln and Omaha, I got a call from Ernie Franklin of Atlantic Liquidators. He was sorry to hear I was going under and would give me thirty cents on the dollar for my stock, sight unseen.
These men were businessmen, the kind Henry used to hate, predictably feasting on what they thought was failure, our accelerated success. It was the customers who shocked me. They started to bargain with the drivers. The seniors on Social Security wanted ten percent off. Sunday people with menial jobs didn’t wait for late afternoon markdowns but suggested throw-ins all day long. I could understand them, even Saturday’s tribe of the not-quite impoverished who asked for deals. They tested the water by suggesting three for the price of two on small items, immediate “rebates” on the heavy equipment. But the slumming professionals in Des Moines also tried to negotiate, to nickel and dime men they already thought were low-class scum. I heard a man in a suit wheedle Jay Schiff about a two-foot pipe wrench.
“Nine-ninety-five is too high for something I won’t use that much.”
“Think of it as basement insurance,” Jay said.
“What if the teeth get chewed up? You’re going out of business. How do I know this wrench will still work when you’re gone?”
“Look, mister, you just said you wouldn’t use it that much. Even if it’s once every five years, which I doubt because a man dressed like you probably has a dry basement, you’ll be able to give this wrench to your grandson for a wedding present.”
“Will you take nine-fifty?”
Jay took the man’s ten and fumbled around in his pockets, pretending to grope for change, trying to embarrass the man, but he waited with his hand out.
The less stock we had, the more aggressive the customers became, forcing us up off our folding chairs to argue and explain and defend. They all began treating the show like a yard sale, a collection of used junk with wishful-thinking tags. The customers paid no attention to prices but instead made ridiculous offers they expected us to take. In Cedar Rapids, I took down and threw away the “Thanks For Years of Saving with Us” signs. To avoid haggling with every individual who had five dollars in his pocket, we were forced to mark down twenty percent across the board. The customers still insisted on trying to buy at their prices.
In Minneapolis’s Target Center we went to twenty-five percent. The more we reduced prices, the more the customers reduced us as if the Liquidators were a bunch of rag tag irregulars trying to sell war-crime booty. Every day was like Friday, the old and poor and people of color all acting like suburbanites. For merely showing up, the customers wanted a reward, like a drink at an Irish wake, food after a funeral.
What happened to altruism?
The customers thought we were going down and were taking advantage. If they had once given aid to failures, the customers weren’t giving it to us. They were the criminals now, aiding and abetting each other in robbing us of dignity. Buyers had abandoned all pretense of saving others to take revenge on the sellers. The customers were discounting us, I now felt, because they hated buying from us. They were destroying us because they hated themselves for patronizing us. Instead of creating pride and altruism, the Liquidators had somewhere along the line engendered self-loathing. Where the shift occurred, I couldn’t tell. It was too late to remember exactly when the American ideal lost its “i” and became pure “deal.” For twenty-five years we’d been pleasantly surprising our public. In two months, the customers shocked us, treated us like shit, turned a family business into refuse.
Screw the customers. I wanted to be done with the Liquidators. I wanted it finished just as suddenly as we appeared in cities. The company felt like thirty trailer-loads of millstones. I was supposed to be a discount Houdini, merchandising magician, but I felt more like a cat in a burlap bag filled with stones. I didn’t call Henry or Judith. No more negotiating with anyone. I wanted out now. Not “once this year” but once and forever, right now. Fuck the customers. In Duluth, I called Ernie Franklin and took his offer. Eliminate the customers. Liquidate the Liquidators. Nothing lasts.
Back in Middletown, I mow the lawn. The roar and smoke remind me of our diesels.
I drive to Cincinnati and watch the office workers brush against one another in Fountain Square at lunchtime. The nights Sis doesn’t work, I take her out to eat.
I avoid the empty warehouse.
The Winnebago I’ve sold to Jerry Grant. When he handed me the check, Jerry said he and his wife might have to live in the camper if he doesn’t find a job soon.
After it rains, I walk over to the river. It too has failed. The Corps of Engineers has reduced the Great Miami to a small stream, even in the spring.
Doc Horton complimented my blood pressure reading. He cut back on a prescription, said I’d be sharper, and told me to ride an exercycle.
I sit on the front porch and rock like Mom used to when she didn’t know what month it was. It’s May, my first in Middletown since I began liquidating. Now that I sleep in the same bed every night, my mind is more scattered than ever. I watched a Headline News item about Detroit and imagined I was in the Winnebago outside Cobo. One morning I woke up believing I’d heard my father’s pickup cough in the driveway.
Mowing the lawn, trimming the shrubs, watching Sis paint the upstairs bathroom, I understand how much work she has put in to preserve the homestead, the Bond museum. It has lasted. She repaints one room a year, the same color it was twelve years ago. The sofa that’s always been here will always be here, reupholstered. Jimmie’s bed has his old cartoon-figure bedspread on it. Maybe that’s why he doesn’t come back.
There’s something in the air. It’s not Sis’s paint fumes. Something thick, hard to breathe, as if the humidity outside becomes a substance inside the house, invisible but heavy. I never noticed this problem in January and February, when the heat pump recirculated air. I go out and sit on the porch, walk around the backyard where Dad’s shed used to be.
Judith has sent me travel brochures, but I haven’t applied for my passport. My body feels so heavy I’d be charged for two seats.
Henry seems relieved that the Liquidators have disappeared. He ad Wendy picked me up one Sunday afternoon and showed me starter houses they were considering. I’ve decided Henry’s desire to move back to Middletown wasn’t a ruse, but I don’t understand it.
Sis seems happy to have me back. We don’t talk about the company. I think she knows I’m in mourning. Sis also doesn’t ask about my plans. I try to help her with the crossword puzzle she works every morning at breakfast. Sis basically lives in the kitchen. On the big oak table are her laptop, her coin-collecting books, and her phone so she can talk to her friends about the coin information on her screen. Sis doesn’t use the kitchen to cook. She says she doesn’t have time now that she’ll be playing golf.
I was on the road too long with men. I don’t know anything about women, including the one I’ve known the longest. My house-bound sister—who leaves only to pick up deli food, get coins at the bank, and shovel popcorn—will be out on the golf course.
“You’re going to play golf again?” I asked.
Of course. Why shouldn’t a fifty-three-year-old single woman with a minimum-wage job and a break-even coin collection decide to take advantage of the golf lessons Mom paid for when we were teenagers, probably hoping we’d become lawyers or doctors or bankers and use the game. After Sis had Jimmie, she didn’t need golf. Then there were the years taking care of Mom. When Sis got the night job last fall, she tells me, she started playing. I hadn’t noticed. Now that the course was dry again she was going back out.
That afternoon, I went down to the cellar and looked for my clubs. Golf would get me moving and get me out of the house for four hours.
The next time Sis mentioned golf, I went out to Weatherwax with her. I’m retired. Maybe I should have kept the Winnebago and moved to Florida.
“Why don’t you buy some of these marked-down golf shoes?” Sis asked in the pro shop.
“I’ll play in these loafers today.”
“I’m not giving you any handicap. Don’t you have any sneakers?”
“You must be the only person over fifty in Middletown who doesn’t own a pair of sneakers or Rocksports.”
I thought of the Thursday men, the Medicare crowd padding the floor in their soft shoes.
We rented a cart. After twenty-five years of directing the Kenworths, I was reduced to letting my sister haul my weight around in a battery-powered toy.
In her goofy saddle shoes, culottes, orange knit shirt, and visor, Sis looked like any country-club matron, a Friday lady. Like she said, “Why not?” The Bonds were a prominent Middletown family, even if one was in food service and the other unemployed.
Driving the cart, Sis announced the yardage in her old merry way, the precise full numbers—“two-hundred-twenty-five yards to the green, one-hundred sixty yards to the stick”—that mocked my teenage desire to know exactly where I was on the course. As when she was fourteen, Sis hit her three-iron like a clothesline off the tee, used the same club a couple more times, and worried about the pin only when she pulled out her wedge.
I was surprised how much my body remembered of the forty-year-old lessons and how much my mind interfered with my arms’ and hips’ memory. I was still trying to outthink and overpower the ball. After I lost three Titelists on the first six holes, Sis put away the score card and gave me some X-outs to play the rest of the way.
We went back out two days later. The familiar course made me forget the old house we shared, as if I were back touring cities instead of holes. Weatherwax also brought back good memories of the single summer Sis and I carried our clubs together. Her clothesline shots made us equals, and the acres of grass freed us from our parents. I wasn’t permitted to drive a car and Sis wasn’t allowed to date. We talked about girls and boys, Fords and the Everly brothers, the foolish restrictions Mom and Dad had placed on us. We knew more about each other that summer than any time before or since. Now I wish I remembered more.
Middletown has other public courses, but Sis always wants to play Weatherwax. I wonder if she’s doing it for me.
“Don’t you get sick of playing the same eighteen every time?” I ask her.
“My ball never lands in the same place. Playing one course makes you appreciate small differences. So you gradually improve your game.”
For Sis, Weatherwax is not memory lane. It’s Middletown contracted, a tight little measure of how—at age fifty-three—she is getting better, month by month, yard by yard, inch by inch.
On Sundays, I go to the warehouse and throw away the mail that has piled up during the week. Unlike the Winnebago, the warehouse is stuck in downtown Middletown. I’ll never be able to sell it. I can’t even have a fire. I’ll have to walk away from it, just like Middletown Fabrications did.
On June 3 I broke a hundred at Weatherwax. The next day, Sis and I were even after six holes. This was as close as I’d ever get to her. After our tee shots on seven, I told Sis I was thinking about moving to Cincinnati.
“Are you trying to psych me out?” she said.
“Don’t worry, this round won’t last.”
“Does Amy Prus still live down there?”
Amy was a girl I dated in high school, someone we’d talked about a few days before.
“I haven’t seen Amy in thirty years. Have I had any calls from throaty women?”
“Henry’s coming here and you’re going there?”
“I gotta get out of town,” I said, like an outlaw in the old Westerns.
“Now that you’re under a hundred, you’ll find guys to play with.”
“I need to get out of the house.”
Sis was silent. Maybe I sounded like an unhappy husband or an empty-nest housewife. She stopped the cart and hit her three iron. I topped my four wood.
“What about the house?” she asked.
“It’s too big. It’s too small. I don’t know. I just don’t want to live there.”
“That’s not what I was asking. I don’t have the money to buy my half of the house from you.”
Even the liquidator’s sister is afraid of the liquidator.
“I want you to have it.”
“Just like that. You’re giving me the house?”
“You’re the one who’s kept it up. Plus all those years taking care of Mom.”
“But you’ve been paying all the expenses.”
“You deserve the house. If you need help with the expenses, I’ll chip in.”
“That’s not what I meant.”
“I know, I just wanted to make sure you don’t worry about the house. You’ll be needing money for greens fees.”
“Oh, Tom,” Sis said and stopped the cart. She leaned over, put her arm around my shoulders, and kissed me on the check. “Thank you, Tom,” she said. “I don’t know what I’d do without you.”
Finally, I’m able to give away something that another person wants. Altruism rewarded.
I signed over the house to Sis. The warehouse remained to be disposed of. It was solid, durable, brick walls and stone lintels, plank floors reinforced with steel, hundreds of leaded-glass windows. MIDWEST LIQUIDATORS was still on the roof. I hated to see the building torn down. The warehouse had once held machines, but walking around its first floor the Sunday after I gave Sis the house I couldn’t imagine anything to make here. Small manufacturing in Middletown was as dead as my father. Some entrepreneur might turn the warehouse into an outlet mall but not me. No more consumers for me, no more haggling. For exercise, I walked up the stairs to the third floor. I was panting at the top, but the warehouse was too big to make over into a fitness club. I looked out the windows on the south side. A great view of the Great Miami River, but tourists wouldn’t come to stay at the Liquidator Hotel. Middletown needs an attraction, something to pull people. Looking down three blocks to our house beside the river, I remembered my father’s pride in his first Auction Barn, drawing Cincinnatians and Daytonians, “the city slickers,” to Middletown.
I turned away from the view and looked around at the empty shelves, the empty floor, reminders of my recent failures. Reminders, too, of all the display spaces I’d taken the Liquidators into.
Then I surprised myself.
I’ll transform this warehouse into a showplace.
LIQUIDATING LAND. Failed products through the ages. Now there’s a sure-fire loser.
Not art. I didn’t care about art.
Not natural history. Cincinnati has that.
Something specialized, unique. Yellow Springs has an African-American Heritage Museum, and there’s the Abraham Lincoln Home in Springfield.
Not people. I wanted objects, something permanent, lasting. Like the trucks in Cincinnati’s Fire Museum or the toys in Indianapolis’ Children’s Museum. But not just for kids.
I wanted something that would surprise, like the show. I also wanted weight, like the show, like the Bonds.
I thought of my father again, that huge figure with the acetylene torch, and just as suddenly as he dropped the chest in the van, I had a crackpot idea I had to investigate.
I ran down the stairs, drove to the Middletown library, and used the card catalogue for the first time since college. My idea looked plausible, but I needed more detail. The next day I went to the University of Cincinnati’s research library for its electronic searching and stacks of stacks. I piled volumes on my table. In eight hours, I handled more books than I had in the last five years. My crackpot concept was valid.
I told my accountant to tally up my holdings and estimate my net worth like I’d added up the information. I had a lot of land around Middletown, property I’d kept secret from Henry and Judith because I didn’t want them to think the Liquidators was a hobby. Realtors made their predictions. I brought in an architect from Dayton, and he sent me to Columbus and Louisville to look at buildings. I talked with engineers and contractors, phoned suppliers and scholars. I plugged my money into my concept. The project I had in mind was feasible. Not fail-safe and not bigger than the traveling show, but better—better for me, better for the public, a form of aid that not even Judith could dispute, the kind of data-rich business that Henry should approve.
The renovated warehouse would be an anchor, like a mall department store bringing customers down a line of shops, recalling Middletownians back downtown. But much more too, an attraction exerting force at a distance, a magnet for tourists. The Liquidators announced our arrival and listed our offerings in local media. To pull people to Middletown, we’ll join contemporary commerce and disseminate messages, rather than haul goods, all across the Midwest. No more trapped and resentful consumers. Our new customers will freely choose to visit our display. We’ll give them a money-back guarantee to insure their satisfaction. Daytrippers in the TriState area will visit Middletown as they do Shakertown, Berea, and New Harmony, our nineteenth-century heritage. During the school year, students of all ages will take field-trips to Middletown and the history here. Tourists will come over Route 122 from King’s Island Amusement Park on I-7l, travel down I-75 from Dayton’s Air Force Museum, whip up 75 from Cincinnati’s Riverfront Stadium and Tall Stacks. From St. Louis’s arch and Nashville’s Parthenon, Niagara Falls and Chicago’s lakeshore, sights and sites I’ve seen for decades, travelers from all over the Midwest will drive the old Liquidators’ routes to our new facility.
MIDWEST LIQUIDATORS will become THE MUSEUM OF LEAD.
That’s what I discovered in the libraries. One of the first minerals processed by man, lead has been in continual use for 6,000 years. It will always be here. It barely changes. Even the half life of lead is long. Slowly it decays, making glaciers look like avalanches. To the dense atoms of lead, radioactivity is no peril. Should the force of gravity fail, the planet float apart into space, lead—the heaviest of elements—will be the last to leave.
Lead is liquid. Since ancient Egypt, lead has been valued for its low melting point, its use in casting and patching, making ammunition and coins in Greece, sealing baths and viaducts in Rome. Then lead was put into liquids—wine in the middle ages, paints, pesticides, and gas in the twentieth century. Lead spread into the air, into the water, down to our riverbeds and lakes and ocean floors.
Lead surprises. For thousands of years, humans failed to understand the effects of lead. Only in the last thirty years have scientists learned how minuscule exposure does massive damage to bodies and brains, activity and memory. The Museum will be an instructive collection of objects from the past, an altruistic warning for the future.
And lead is dead weight, the element alchemists couldn’t turn to gold. The Museum will be nonprofit, will make only enough to last.
In September, Judith comes through Middletown on her way to Colorado and I decide it’s time to tell her and Sis and Henry what I’m planning. I’ll drive them over to Lebanon’s Golden Lamb, a restaurant that’s been in business longer than any Bond has lived in Ohio. Mom liked the tavern bustle and would talk Dad into taking us there on birthdays. Elizabeth and I continued the tradition whenever I was home. Sis and I haven’t been this summer because neither of us had anything to celebrate, not until I imagined the Museum of Lead.
Judith and Henry acted like teenagers in the backseat of the Buick. Judith needled him about the weight he’s gained, and Henry said her skin is permanently wrinkled from all her scuba diving. Both of them were kidding Sis about cheating me at golf. Sis rarely sees Judith, so she was enjoying the adolescent normalcy in back. Except for long-lost Jimmie, the only Bond we were missing was Elizabeth. Driving the familiar fourteen miles, listening to my family banter and laugh, I realized again I’d been wrong to try manipulating my kids into the Liquidators. Judith has the job she wants in Aspen this winter, but she may change her mind when she hears about the Museum. Eventually, I’ll offer Henry a position, save him the drive to Data Data, pay him enough to afford a substantial house. But I won’t exert any pressure, throw any weight. When the Museum is up and running, I’ll give Sis a job: no late hours, plenty of coins to inspect, some afternoons off to play golf.
It was Sunday, the restaurant’s busiest day, so I’d reserved a private room upstairs. After the waitress brought our drinks, I said I had a couple of announcements to make.
“The Liquidators are coming, the Liquidators are coming back,” Henry said and grinned at me.
“Henry,” Sis said, “don’t make fun of your father.”
“All these days and nights you’ve been away,” she said to me, “you’ve been going out with Amy Prus, haven’t you Tom?”
“Nope. But maybe I’ll start, Sis. I’m feeling livelier than I have in years.”
I paused and said, “First, I’ve decided to stay in Middletown.”
Across the table, Sis looked a little worried.
“But not in the homestead,” I assured her. “I’ll be in a condo, something easy to take care of because I’m going to be real busy the next few months.”
“I heard you were doing some work on the warehouse,” Henry said. “You’re turning it into condos, aren’t you? That should work—high ceilings, river view.”
“Actually, I’m going back in business.”
“That’s wonderful, Tom. Congratulations,“ Sis said. No more worry about my continuing to help with the house’s upkeep.
“You’re not putting in boutiques, are you?’ Judith said.
“Something better an bigger than that. I’m going to create a museum.”
“A museum?” Sis and Henry said, almost exactly together, almost exactly as I anticipated. Judith looked surprised but didn’t say anything.
“I didn’t know you knew anything about art,” Sis said.
“What kind of museum?” Henry asked.
“Lead,” I said.
“What?” Henry said as if he’d been grazed by a bullet.
“That’s right, lead through the ages. Your grandfather was poisoned by lead. I think that’s how I got the idea. The museum will tell the story of lead, how it’s changed, how people have been changed by it. For most of history people haven’t known the damage lead was doing to them. My father didn’t know why his stomach and feet were always aching, not until Sis and I were teenagers.”
“What a wonderful idea,” Judith said.
Henry looked pained, Sis puzzled. I filled their silence with a short description of my design, displays of white lead from Sumer and Nile-measuring plummets from Egypt, lead tablets and icons from the Classical world, British pewter, organ pipes, gutters, divers’ belts, dentists’ aprons, hair formula, tin cans. The Liquidator show was scrambled. The Museum will have a clear chronological line. I also told the Bonds how the museum would draw people to Middletown.
“Do you have the money to do this?” Henry asked. “A museum sounds like an expensive proposition.”
Only Judith wasn’t worried about Tom Bond’s money.
Lead is cheap, like liquidated goods, I said. Then I told them about all my real-estate holdings, the land I bought up when local businesses went under. I could easily cover the start-up costs, the early losses. After a few months, I expect to start breaking even.
“Why did you conceal all this property from us, Dad?” Judith asked.
“Because I wanted you to take over the company.”
“That wasn’t fair.”
“Why didn’t you tell us about the museum earlier?” Henry asked.
“I wanted the whole thing clearly in my mind.”
“So you could surprise us like thirty Kenworths rumbling into Middletown.”
“Maybe so, Henry. I’m sorry. I really thought you’d go for this idea. It’s all information, really.”
“Dad, you were right about the Liquidators lasting and I was wrong,” Henry said. “They’d still be going if you hadn’t decided to stop. But this is different. There’s nothing for the customers to take home. Who will drive to Middletown to see lead exhibited?”
“A lot of people will. There’s a Mining Museum out in Leadville, Colorado. Just about every city has some unique attraction. People like to get in their cars and go see something different. Have an unusual experience,” I said, using Judith’s defense of skiing.
“Maybe so, but will they pay?”
“What about that, Tom?” Sis asked.
She was catching on to Henry’s suggestion. But she had her own unexpected take on the consequence.
“The Liquidators were always out of town,“ she said. “But if you start a museum downtown at the warehouse and it doesn’t work out, it’s going to be one big embarrassment.”
Weatherwax won’t hold Sis. She wants to move up—a country club membership, social respectability, redeem the Bond name.
“So what, Ti-Ti,” Judith said, using her and Henry’s childhood name for their aunt. “Even if only a few people come, the building won’t fall down. And the people who do come will take home some new ideas about history and ecology.”
“You don’t have to live here, Judith.”
“I just realized,” Henry said. “This is your idea, isn’t it Jude?”
“No it isn’t. I wish it was. You should give Dad some credit, Henry. Since you’re moving back home, maybe he’s doing it to be closer to you. Did you ever think of that?”
Judith’s tone was hard to determine. I liked Wendy well enough but hadn’t envisioned guiding little Bonds through the museum. Henry ignored Judith to question me.
“Why, Dad? Why would you want to create a museum?”
“Since I came up with this idea, I’ve been feeling good, back in motion. And I believe the museum will do good, make up for some of my mistakes with the Liquidators.”
“What mistakes do you mean?” Sis asked.
I glanced in Judith’s direction.
“After Carnegie ravaged the land, he built libraries. After polluting the air, Rockefeller built hospitals. Ford created educational foundations after creating cars to use Carnegie’s steel and Rockefeller’s oil. Think of The Museum of Lead as paying off some of the Liquidators’ debts.”
“Kind of grandiose comparisons aren’t they, Dad?” Henry said. “You cram some useless objects into the warehouse the way you used to pack arenas and that expiates everything you’ve ever done?”
“I didn’t say that. I know what you’re getting at, Henry. What the Liquidators did to you kids and your mother. Look, I can’t make time run upstream. I think I know what my being away did to your Mom. I can’t do anything about that now except admit it.”
Henry looked at Judith. “You don’t have a problem with that, do you?”
“Don’t give me that crap, Henry. It’s convenient for you to pity Mom. Then you can feel sorry for yourself. Poor first-born son. All that patriarchal pressure and fear of failure. You had your chance in the Winnebago.”
“But I couldn’t play the little frocked princess.”
“Not if you wanted to stay in your bedroom and play with yourself.”
“I don’t need that from a fucking runaway,” Henry barked and stood up.
“So now you’re going to run way?” Judith asked.
“Please, please,” I said to Henry. “Please sit down. Stop it now, both of you. This is supposed to be a family celebration.”
“That’s nice, Dad, but maybe it’s too late. And too late to build a stupid museum in Middletown.”
“That’s a stupid fucking remark,” Judith said.
“Judith, Judith,” Sis said.
“Oh come on, Ti-Ti. Anyone who had a kid at sixteen must have heard ‘fuck.’”
“Please, please,” I said to Judith. “No more now. This is terrible. Please, both of you. Just cool down while I go to find the waitress.”
When I came back, everyone was quiet. As they ordered their meals, I thought I’m the one who brought them here. But had I brought them all to this ugliness by leaving them? Separating my children to compete for my favor? Or did competition and resentment begin before I left? Cain killed Abel. Was it because his father was forced to leave home and become a wanderer? Winning and losing, success and failure, expansion and liquidation—they all begin at home. China has the right idea—one kid per couple. No wonder failure is rampant in America. In every family there has to be a loser. Neither Judith nor Henry wants to be Sis.
“Listen,” I said when the waitress left, “here’s something we can all agree on. Think of the Museum as a memorial. To memory. To our Mom and Dad, Sis, the poisoned man who forgot his children, the woman who forgot everything.”
“Why a memorial, Dad?” Judith asked. “Why make the Museum personal?” Judith sounded if she were quarreling with her mother’s “personal life.”
The Liquidators’ public had been my personal life. This was the time to tell my family why.
“None of you know this,” I said, “but for years I’ve felt I liquidated my father and mother.”
“Mom told us about the van, Dad,” Henry said. “you didn’t kill your father. No one but you believes that. You shouldn’t believe it any longer.”
“No, no, Tom,” Sis said. “You couldn’t help what happened to Mom.”
“What about grandmom?” Judith asked.
“When she was in the Alzheimer’s Center, I told them not to resuscitate her if she lapsed into unconsciousness.”
Now everyone was silent. No “Tom, Tom, Tom, Tom,” except inside my head, the voice I’ve been trying to drown out since January 13, 1990.
“Why didn’t you talk with me about that decision, Tom?” Sis asked.
“I guess because I was the one with the medical power of attorney.”
“But you should have asked me. I took care of Mom. I had a right. What were you trying to do, punish me because we had to put her in the center?”
Sis seemed surprised at her question. She started to cry. Henry put his left hand on her shoulder. Judith took her left hand.
“Why, Tom, why?” Sis asked.
“Because I wanted to save you from feeling responsible.”
Sis shook her head and kept on crying.
“Come on Ti-Ti, it’s OK, it’s OK,” Henry said.
“Why all these secrets, Dad?” Judith asked. “The museum, the land, your mother?”
“I don’t know.”
“Power,” Henry said. “Just like the Liquidators. Spring a huge surprise on an unsuspecting audience.”
Sis, my wonderful Sis, stopped crying and came to my rescue, “Our father concealed things. He would never talk about his family, his past. He made us feel people were watching us, wondering what our secret was, when it was going to pop out into the open.”
“I love the Museum idea, Dad,” Judith said, “but you can’t get over the feeling of parricide by building a temple.”
“Or a fucking pyramid,” Henry said.
“What do you mean by that?” I asked.
Henry hesitated, as if his comment had slipped out, “It’s not a memorial. It’s a monument to yourself. Jude and I wouldn’t take over the Liquidators. Now you’re going to punish us by building something that will last, will outlast us. That’s not expiation. That’s revenge. Revenge and selfishness.”
The bottom line, always the bottom line. Everyone was silenced by “selfishness.” I realized I didn’t know what to expect from any of these people. Was Henry this angry because he needed money from me to pay off gambling debts? Could it be that Judith’s resentment of my secrets was stronger than her enthusiasm for my project? Did Sis want me out of the house so she could have a gentleman caller?
Again Sis tried to moderate, “Why don’t you give the museum idea some time, Tom? You’ve got time.” To me, though, Sis sounded like one of the Friday matrons who tried to bargain with the Liquidators’ on our final tour.
“Give it twenty years or so,” Henry said, piling on the customers’ disrespect, predicting how long I’d live.
“The warehouse isn’t going anyplace,“ Judith said. “Maybe you’re moving too fast. I like the idea, but if you invest too much in it, make it too personal, you’re bound to fail.”
The Bond family curse. Etch it on a lead tablet like the Greeks did. Everything fails. Sis starts to say something but stops. Silence all around the table. Silence and stillness. Out in the public room, other diners are talking, all striving to be heard over all. Servers are carrying in their heavy trays. The busboys are rattling their loads, taking out the scraps. Sitting still, I feel like I did on the floor in Chicago. Sunk, too heavy to move. Sis stares at me. Judith looks at her food. Henry gazes at a point over Judith’s head.
I push up out of my chair. No one speaks. Sis doesn’t say, “Tom, the waitress will be here soon.” Judith doesn’t ask, “Do you want to be alone for a minute, Dad?” No “Dad’s going to give us another spiel” from Henry.
I push my chair in and leave the room. I find the waitress and give her $200. Then I walk down the stairs and go out the door. Like the Liquidators on Mondays, like Elizabeth.
I walk to the parking lot and get in the Buick. Let the Bonds wonder where I’ve gone, let them talk it through, over, and out among themselves, judge my motives, predict the consequences. They’re talkers, the Bonds. Just like the customers at the end—negotiating, wheedling, haggling. The three of them have their new lives. Why try to talk me out of mine? Fear, rage, envy, pity, self-hate, love. I’ll never know their motives. The museum won’t hurt them. You’d think I wanted to be Jimmie, the disappearing Bond, the vagabond. Here I am home at last, free at last to do something lasting, worthy and lasting, something that will be good for my family, and they don’t even give me a chance to offer them the benefits.
I didn’t get to tell them about seeing my father lying motionless on the van floor, dead as lead. The first and final surprise, the ultimate leave-taking.
I pull out of the parking lot. Let the Bonds find someone else to carry them back to Middletown. “Follow Our Lead To The River Of Savings,” our back doors used to say. I drive to the warehouse, park in the rear, get out. The dark building looms above me. You’ve got time, Sis said. Yes, but not Henry’s twenty years. The warehouse isn’t going anyplace, Judith said. “Maybe you’re moving too fast.” I turn and look out over the Great Miami, once truly Great, tumbling objects in the spring, eliciting wonder. Now the river moves slowly in the man-made channel it will never overflow.
Everything flows or fails.
I won’t slow now. Like the roaring Kenworths, I have momentum. “Save yourself,” Judith said on Christmas Eve. Maybe the Museum is a delusion, maybe it will fail. But as I walk beside the silent river, I start shaping the broadcast. “The Museum of Lead is coming.” No more negotiating. Fuck failure. Come in big, come on strong. “The MUSEUM OF LEAD is coming, the MUSEUM OF LEAD is coming.” A tour de force. “Tour all recorded history’s spoils.” Promise and deliver the goods. “The one and only Museum of Lead.” Watch solid turn into liquid, liquid change into solid. “The Greatest Show About Earth.” See the history of failure transformed into success. “Education guaranteed.” The future flows out ahead. “This year, all year, every year, all years, the Museum of Lead, forever laaassstiiing.”