When Joni left the bookstore through the storeroom, out through the back hall that smelled like sour cheesecake from the restaurant next door, she always peered down into the trashcans and scooped up into her apron pockets little armies of wounded and unsalable ornaments. Her tree bowed lower each night under the weight of new misfits—a Rudolph without a nose at all to guide the sleigh, once-pricey now one-legged elves. When she picked up a Wednesday night shift, her campus pastor panicked, asked her to coffee. It was the typical shakedown—on keeping a day for the Lord, on not overworking, on why she wasn’t attending Group Meeting anymore even though she still made the Monday Night Girls Study and Tea hosted by his wife hadn’t Wendy told him? He wanted to know how long her parents had been divorced, whether they went to church anymore, and wasn’t that boy she was seeing, the one with the tattoos, a Catholic? He said the best way to get to know a guy—to really get to know him—was to take him to a garage sale. He’d taken Wendy, back when, to stroll through neighbors’ sunlit Saturday mornings swapping stories about their own long-lost childhoods amidst the I-had-one-of-theses and that’s-just-like-my-dad’s. He bought her a fifty cent bracelet she still wore on anniversaries and date nights, when Joni and Liza or Sheree and Danica babysat the boys.
The Catholic boy bought Joni flowers, and he didn’t only do it for sorry, but sometimes for good luck, or for you’re pretty, or for hello. But once he overdid it, and Joni didn’t even look like herself in a mirror framed by two dozen roses, lit by candlelight.
The next guy brought presents from the side of the road—a record player perfect with the wobble of nostalgia, a little wooden frog. They pulled the guts out of broken TVs to see what silver magic they were made of, made plans to fill them up again with fish. He slept too late for Saturday morning sales, so they spent the afternoon hours in thrift stores trying on eel-skin belts and plaid shirts. She loved the feel of those over-washed flannels against her naked skin when she rolled out of bed to pee in the middle of the night. Worn in, thinned by time.
Sometimes, Joni she ached for anonymity. You went without me? Joni shrugged off his heartbreak, always went without him after that. Awash in the middle of the miscellanea, she held her breath with all the scraps of strangers’ memories tossed together in the big, hot warehouse. Waiting, Joni knew, waiting for the fresh joy of being chosen and chosen again.
But Joni never volunteered at animal shelters. She had to keep her guard up, to be on the watch for that awful crush of guilt if she held a thing too long and didn’t choose it.
Because it took someone special, Joni knew, to pick up a rusted duck-shaped serving tray, cup one lone pewter pig salt shaker in the palm until cool metal warmed to the touch, to carry it up to the counter and out to the car. Once, Joni saw a man in Wal-Mart with a cart full of dented boxes, everything cracked or bent at the corners. She followed him all the way to customer service, where he revealed himself as not a kindred spirit, after all—only a scrounger angling for a discount.
She scooped up the berries she dropped on the floor and ate them anyway, knowing someone else—a picker or a packer—had surely dropped them first and what harm anyway in mitigating a needless waste, a man down, a child left behind. Why her husband would one day shadow the kitchen doorway, watching her pull at a piece of spaghetti that slipped through the colander. Watch her dragging it up from the drain, dangle it above her gaping mouth and swallow it down—whole again, belonging.
About the Author: Ashley Strosnider lives and writes in Lincoln, NE, where she works as managing editor at Prairie Schooner. She holds an MFA from the University of South Carolina, and her work appears in Fifth Wednesday, Nashville Review, and Smokelong Quarterly, among others. She also serves as fiction editor at Pithead Chapel, and her reviews appear in Publishers Weekly.
Story Song: "Honey and the Moon" by Joseph Arthur