Mrs. Snow’s Way to Paradise

Photo by Bill Owens
Photo by Bill Owens

We had everything and it was all for sale. Most all the time. You think I joke? I was the witness who recorded it all with my Kodak, and if you looked over my meticulous records from back then, you’d see the hundreds of pictures I organized in one year time spans are precise close-ups. In full color. They’re starting to mildew in the battered file cabinets in my basement, part of my inheritance. I can’t for the life of me figure out why I should have kept them but after dad’s funeral my brother brought them here, protesting that our old house looked better without six rusting cabinets. Every last piece of junk had been taken to the dump or auctioned off. We gave proceeds to charity as dad wished. But since we were to share the house sale profit, I decided to get on board and took the cabinets.

That was some time ago. I have thought of it again because I’m moving. Paring down.

I kept records from about age eleven to age fifteen. There were various bits and pieces, big and small, carried in and out of the house before and after that. But by my mid-teens I had boys and softball on my mind, and I was starting to fantasize about escaping. Dad decided I should take photographs because I was always horsing around with my camera. Dad thought I had an interest when, really, I didn’t. Not at first. But it was the only way to spend personal time with him. We went on tri-county jaunts as he picked over the throwaways in other people’s garages, barns and back yards. Whenever I had time I’d help document his purchases or trades. The pictures helped a lot, he said.

We lived in a two-story colonial style house with a three car garage. Dad was a doctor, an osteopath, and mom worried about him while she raised Gene and me, Krista. He kept hours that most doctors wouldn’t so he could have long week-ends to wander city and countryside in search of the next big find. It might be a five dollar tool kit manufactured for kids in 1940 or a cracked bed frame made of prime cherry. I never could figure out what he was looking for exactly. I always asked as we got going in his special ancient truck.

“Well, it depends on what they’ve got, then what I can find. Then it depends on the haggling. I might come down to destiny, in a way.”

I had my freckled forearm on the rolled-down window, hand catching and being pushed by the burning Texas breeze. I’d check him out to see if he was feeling optimistic about fate or not that day. I could read his face; it was a good look that time.

“Well, maybe you’ll hit the jackpot.”

He smiled lazily, a gold cap catching the sunshine. “You never can tell. We have to loosely define ‘jackpot’, Kris. A handsome old hand-painted sign might be better than a mirror with a gold-plated frame. My treasure, your cast-off. That’s the fun of the hunt.”

I daydreamed as he drove, but as we approached a dirt driveway that wound alongside a creek, he let the truck idle. He stuck his head out to get a better look, clapping his palm on his hat as a breeze gusted. He always wore a weathered Panama hat when we were out and about and made me wear one, too, to help keep skin cancer at bay. Dad was like that, always advocating for the welfare of youth and happy longevity of adult patients. But when it came to junk, he had less sense.

I saw what he spotted: a rusting but sturdy blue bicycle and an assortment of round metal tubs and an oblong trough. I could imagine what mom would say if he brought that trough home. The very thought of where his finds had been and what they had been used for distressed her no end.

Dad got out and made a beeline for the trough.

“Someone could plant flowers in this and decorate a back yard, don’t you think? In good shape. Just needs thorough washing. And how about these tubs? Three of them all different sizes. More potential–storage, water containers for creatures, plantings, just paint and decorate them.”

I thought: water what? A horse in the city? A thirsty skunk?

That’s when the woman came out, her hands jammed into baggy grey sweater pockets. She looked about my dad’s age, attractive with a high ponytail and ruddy cheeks. But she didn’t look that congenial at first. I didn’t see a No Trespassing sign.

She put hand to eyes to block out the high noon glare.”You looking for somethin’?”

Dad hopped out of the truck, offered his bony hand. She didn’t offer hers but saw me and nodded.

“Jud Jenkins, Dr. Jenkins. I’m always looking for something good to buy. You selling any of this?”

As soon as they hear he’s a doctor, they tend to get friendlier. You can almost make out money signs in their eyes as they try to mask their interest. But not this one.

“Do you see a For Sale sign? That would mean Rex is formally in business.” She chuckled but it wasn’t cheery, more like heh heh.

“Well, no, can’t say I do. But you have them sitting out here by the roadside, so I thought…why not stop and see?”

“We have an overflow is all. We have a huge shed, looked like a pole barn once, and these didn’t fit so Rex, he stacks things up where he sees fit until he takes them to the junkyard. Or wherever. Because I sure can’t have his mess in the front yard, no sir.” She took her hand down and squinted at him as she stepped closer toward me. “I guess you and your daughter are trolling, right? Hoping for a few bites? How come you’re not out with your friends, dear? No boyfriend yet?” She laughed out loud this time and it was refreshing rather than irritating. It made her whole face change from mildly stormy to carefree. “No sir, I’m not selling a thing.”

“Afternoon.” A man, turned out to be Rex, emerged from a sparse line of scrubby trees. “Help you with something?”

He walked right to my dad, big man with a congenial air. The woman sauntered over to me. We watched a moment as the two, Rex substantial and my dad rail thin, shook hands in that hearty, welcoming way that says they’re members of the same club, strangers no more.

“Well, there goes an hour or two of your time, darlin’. The two fools will find plenty to yak about. Want some iced tea?”

I asked my dad if I could go to the house with her and he nodded, barely looking up.

Her porch was open, large. In need of some wood replacement. Sheltering. I settled on a rocker and she brought out two sweat-beaded glasses. When she sat down we both drank fast and noisy. She waited until I had something to say, which was a change. Adults usually wanted to dominate conversation, ask things you didn’t want to answer.

“You got a nice place out here, ma’am. I wish we had a quiet porch like this one. A pretty creek.”

She pushed wispy brunette bangs from her eyes. “I agree. It’s a good spot. It was worth marrying Rex just to enjoy this house! It needs fixing up but what doesn’t? He has the worst portion in life, working three jobs, and me just checking people in at the motel down the road on week-ends.” She took a smaller sip.” How come your dad buys junk when he’s a doctor? Surely unusual!”

My eyebrows shot up involuntarily. Being direct seemed her forte. “Oh, you know, he likes to collect stuff. Then sell it for fun.”

“Gather and hoard, you mean. Maybe cash in occasionally. I bet he has things stuffed everywhere just like Rex.”

“Well…not quite. Mom wouldn’t allow it to creep into our main living areas. That’s her domain, she says.”

The woman slumped a little, head leaning on the chair back. “So, she’s like me that way. Have to fight for and protect our space. For peace of mind.”

That struck me. I hadn’t thought of it that way. Mom was getting overrun with dad’s collections and interests. I felt she was impatient with something pretty harmless. Not that it couldn’t be an embarrassment to me, too, but he kept certain doors closed. Dad was happy with his hobby, just like mom was happy going to the gym, reading a romance book a week and having her friends over for bridge or canasta on Thursday nights. But they fought about it off and on.

“My manners, gosh, I’m Delia Snow.”

“Krista. Kris.”

“Your mother and I are certainly not much alike, I’m sure you see that. But we do have this in common: we can’t persuade our husbands that the way to paradise is clean and simple. It’s a good motto for me. Clean and simple…”

Delia Snow was going weird on me, talking about paradise when I was getting comfortable. But I wanted to be polite to someone so different and interesting.

“How’s that again?”

“Paradise. It’s having things tidy, pared down, really livable in my sweet house. My brain is less cluttered that way. But it’s also keeping things straight, simple in all ways. Knowing what counts. It sure works for me.”

“Huh, yeah, she’d agree with that, maybe. But she does have a lot of dresses and shoes in her walk-in closet.”

“Imagine that! Her own closet. Well, we gather what we like the most. I have plants, it’s a little manicured jungle in there, but other than that, only what we need. He fills up the shed because he seems to like nearly everything. I know he hides things in the trees out back. Tries to drag home more. Sometimes I put down my foot. Oftentimes not.”

She made a whistling sound as she exhaled. We got quiet, rested in heat laced with shadowy coolness. I wondered about the jungle in her house, what sort of plants she grew and if she had any children. Could I be bold, too? Then Dad and Rex were ambling back to the house, talking as if they were the best of friends.

“I married Rex ten years ago. I didn’t expect he’d have all this mess. But he has such a good way about him….”

As if he’d heard her, he lifted his hand; she returned the gesture.

“Gotta take the great with the nutty, Kris.” She got up. “Aw, you’re too young to worry! Let’s find out what they got themselves into or out of!”

I hated to leave and followed her. We enjoyed the men’s account of things, hung out on the porch a little longer with fresh iced teas, swapped pleasantries. We might have been lifelong neighbors though we lived in different parts of the county. An exceptional surprise for me.

“I’d so rather check out your shed, Rex Snow, but I have an appointment in an hour, unusual for Friday afternoon.”

He was disappointed, anyone could see that. They shared a couple more trade secrets, then that was it. Dad and I said our farewells.

Delia was waving at me as we turned onto the rutted road. I felt a little sad and asked dad if we’d ever return.

He shrugged. “You never know, my girl. Always looking for something good.” He wiped sweat off his neck and frowned. “His prices were actually a tad high. Tough time settling.”

Dad had gotten the tubs, that nasty trough and near-useable bicycle. I took pictures of them from a couple different angles. They looked almost arty in the weeds. He didn’t tell me what he paid. I didn’t care. We were done which meant I could do whatever I wanted with the rest of my day. He’d want to have a garage sale Saturday and would ask me or Gene to help out. It was Gene’s turn if I could talk him into it. But he was the least tolerant of dad’s ways.

On the ride back stinging wind whipped my hair and I hung onto my hat. No AC, a drawback to his sturdy truck. I recalled what Delia said about her and mom. How they were similar. Mom would’ve had a laugh over that so I wasn’t going to tell her. Delia had something mom didn’t. She seemed to know how to live with Rex’s junk lust. It gave me an inkling of hope for my parents. I worried all the time that mom was going to leave dad, take us with her. He made good money and he was the best dad we could have, overall. But she thought he had a few screws loose, were getting looser with time. Why else would he have to collect all that, waste money on trash, cram full our basement and garage? I didn’t know. As long as he didn’t stack stuff out by the pool… okay, sometimes it got to me. But it could be fun. Like meeting Mrs. Snow. (I loved her name both ways; she was so unlike people I knew.) I wanted to see what dad would do with the trough, if he’d sell it. Maybe I was more like him than I admitted. I didn’t know yet which way I was headed. But things had started to feel more claustrophobic. It could’ve been my parents and his stuff. Or just me.

Several years later, after mom left and just as dad was getting sick, I thought of the Snows again. If Rex was still collecting and Delia was keeping things simple and clean indoors, tending her mini-jungle. I drove out Redstone Road, surprised to note it was only fifteen miles from home. I couldn’t find their private dirt road at first, the weeds were so tall, but then I saw a tiny old and dented trailer just off the road, the sort that only one or two people can fit in to sleep. There was a For Sale sign on it.

I turned into their drive. Hesitated. The skimpy trees had grown so tall, the road so narrow. I felt guilty, like a trespasser or a long gone cousin who had failed to stop by. I could barely see the porch at the end. I backed out and took off.

I didn’t want to get out of the truck, find someone else there. Or worse, one of them still there, the other gone, whichever way it might have turned out. I wanted to remember Delia and me on the porch, talking like we knew each other, waiting for my dad and her husband to brag about who got the best deal. Then all four of us– me drinking sweet tea with the grown-ups. It had seemed good and right, like life was supposed to be about taking chances and maybe meeting up with destiny. About making friends wherever you roamed. That woman made things excellent for me a couple of lazy hours when I was almost fifteen.

I’ve decided. I’m getting rid of the old pictures and files. The crazy collections, the valuable and worthless junk are gone now. There’s no reason to keep moldering records of what has gone before me, what has been exchanged. Sold or trashed. I know what was gained and lost. I was there. In the end, dad enjoyed everything he discovered. And I had far more than I realized. Even a little spot of paradise. At least, it was for me.

 

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