Copyright is held by the author.
ARCHIE MEZINIS was a walker — a boardwalk stroller, a country road rambler, a city street seeker. Sometimes he drove all the way to Philadelphia so he could meander up Race Street and down Market before getting in his car and driving back to New Egypt. Saturdays, Archie took his daughter-in-law to the flea market in Englishtown, driving her up from the New Jersey Pine Barrens in his 2002 Plymouth so she could open her T-shirt and sweat shirt business at 6 a.m. While Elisa unloaded boxes of shirts and the press to imprint logos of rock bands, he unfolded tables and set up the blue sunshade tarp.
Her customers came to Englishtown from as far away as Manhattan and Newark. If no treasures caught their eye, there were always cosmetics, a baseball cap or one of Elisa’s T-shirts.
He anticipated Saturdays, not because he was close to Elisa or because the assignment gave him a purpose for living out his retirement. His compulsion lay in taking an hour to file up and down the lanes between the tables, looking for what dealers called “smalls,” little items that moved quickly off the tables. His practiced eye could spot a three-inch Meissen figurine and know it really was Japanese, or a Murano cigarette tin worth twice the asking price now that smoking was socially hazardous. He didn’t re-sell the finds. Instead, they went onto a shelf or into a footlocker. A single item in his pocket could validate his existence for the next week, reinforcing an existential question as to whether he was truly alive.
Once or twice he’d stop, hold up an item and say, “How much you asking?” He was a buyer, not a pain-in-the-ass negotiator. If the item was two bucks, he paid two bucks. The urban hagglers were contemptible, city folk who came down to Englishtown and returned proud if they knocked fifty cents off the locals. They were bennies, come to suck in the benefits of a day in New Jersey. Benny also referred to Brooklyn, Elizabeth, Newark, and New York, their points of origin.
He made a point of walking by the dealer with two tables on Connecticut Avenue because she had the most interesting finds. Her business card said she was Maureen Sweeney. She looked to be in her 50s, and even during the heat of the afternoon when he returned to pick up Elisa, she nodded if their eyes happened to meet. When she smiled her teeth were miniature mah-jongg ivories. He imagined the bandanna holding her hair was a souvenir of some African adventure, and enjoyed the way her first and last names almost rhymed.
“How much you asking?” He showed her an angled wire ending in a flat piece of gold-toned metal with a glass jewel.
Maureen shrugged. “A buck. Don’t know what it is, but you can have it for a buck.”
“It’s a toogle. Thought you’d know that. Your mother probably had one.”
She blinked and laughed. “Toogle?”
“It’s for a woman to hook onto the table and then hang her purse when she sat down in a restaurant. Kept your purse off the floor and out of sight. See how it balances?”
“A toogle. You’re kidding?” Maureen’s face was flushed in the heat as she brushed brown hair back under the bandanna.
He shook his head and smiled back. Smiles could be infectious, like yawns and sneezes — cathartic, too. “I have maybe two dozen at home.”
“Jeez, you collect them?”
“Well, not collect exactly. They’re just part of the past that’s disappearing. Like those pencils with a ball on the end, little thingies that women used to dial the telephone so they didn’t break their fingernails. Guess I have twenty or thirty. They advertised banks and hardware stores — before refrigerator magnets were invented and celluloid mirrors went out of style.”
“Doesn’t your wife or whatever get kind of crazy with all this stuff?”
“You’re a dealer,” he said. “You know it’s not about collecting. It’s about something else. Connecting with the world.”
“I know. Hey, I see you all the time. My name’s Maureen.” She reached out a hand, something that had never happened to Archie at Englishtown. Her palm had a firm, no-nonsense feel, the kind of hand that could heft an object and appraise its intrinsic value. He held it a second longer than he meant to.
“Maureen, I know. I’m Archie, and no, there’s no wife now.” Instead, there was an emptiness he tried to fill with insignificant treasures.
“Sorry.” She dipped her head in an unconscious benediction.
“Don’t be,” he said. Too many people said sorry, then redirected the conversation. His loss was an embarrassment to friends who had known them. He’d had two purposes in his life: installing and maintaining oil heaters and loving his wife of 37 years. One employer and one wife, and now both were gone.
“I just said that ’cause I know the feeling. There’s no Mr. Sweeney either.”
“I drop my daughter-in-law off at her shirt concession, then scout the place every Saturday.”
“Me too. I mean, I’m here because I like all the people. What a parade! It beats sitting behind a counter.”
“Never know,” Archie said, “I might find that million-dollar item, like the guy who found a Declaration of Independence behind a bad painting. He wanted the frame, and lo and behold . . .”
“I heard that! Million-dollar treasure in a flea market. Happens all the time.”
“I’ll take the toogle, Maureen.” He reached for his billfold.
She waved her hand. “Take it, Archie.”
She nodded, and the smile lit up her face again. “Come see me. I have a shop in Red Bank. Might have some more toogles or telephone diallers tucked away.”
“I might do that. I could do that on Monday. What about Monday?”
“Monday sounds great. Hey, if I find something worth a million, I’ll split it with you.”
“You never know what you’re going to find,” he said. “Never know in life.”
Archie walked down Connecticut Avenue with a new feeling lodged somewhere in his mind, a connectedness, something bigger than the pocketbook hook in his pocket. When he picked Elisa up later she’d probably ask if he was successful in finding any treasures. He could answer, “Maybe.”