Fiction Fiction 2011


“I knew that all the things we’d gathered there so many years would be scattered and gone. All that had held it together would come apart and be gone as if it never was.”

Arnold McCardy cried the sale. He had his loudspeaker and two men to help him and watch for bids. They started the sale out in the barn lot with the farm machinery, and sold their way towards the house and the front yard where I was. I could hear them coming ever closer, Arnold McCardy praising whatever it was he was about to sell, and then his singsong, and then stopping to praise again and plead for another bid, and then the singsong again, and then “Sold!”

And then he would start it all again, a little closer. And I waited, watching the people who were looking at the things for sale, the furniture lined up in rows across the yard and the smaller things, dishes and such, set out on the wagons. And I, who was not going to buy anything, sat there looking at everything that was for sale.

I had sort of got ready to see the household things carried outdoors and laid out to be looked at and sold. What I wasn’t ready for was how poor it looked once it was out of place, all the marks of use and wear on everything, the fretted or shiny places on the furniture where our hands had rested, what I knew to somebody else would be the secondhand look of it all. The cracks and chips in the dishes, seemed like I’d known them so well I hadn’t seen them for years, but now I saw them. Everything already looked like it belonged to somebody else.

I was getting spoken to and speaking, some of the women, old friends, neighbors, leaning over to give me a hug, but all the time I was listening. “Sold!” “Sold!” Every time I heard it, I knew that, piece by piece, the things we’d all of us gathered there so many years would be scattered and gone. All that had been used to make it a dwelling place, by my folks on back, by Grover and me, by just me with Coulter and Wilma to help me, all the memories of all the lives that had made it and held it together, all would come apart and be gone as if it never was.

After while, soon enough, the crowd had shifted into the yard, and Arnold McCardy was selling the furniture, some that went for antiques and brought a pretty penny, some that didn’t. He sold the kitchen table, painted how many times, that we bought when we married, before we had hardly anything to put on it. He sold the chiffonier that I think came from my mother’s grandmother. He sold the walnut four-poster bed that Grover’s dad sawed the posts off of when they moved into a house with low ceilings. Lord, what didn’t he sell! He sold a rusty set of firedogs that had been wired to a rafter in the smokehouse as long as I can remember. He sold a set of curtain stretchers that he gave a man a dollar to bid on, and then sold to him for fifty cents.

When he got to the chair I was sitting in and was telling what a fine chair it was, somebody yelled out, “Does the lady go with it?”

And Arnold McCardy said, “No, now, we’re selling the chair, not the lady.”

He sold the chair.

He sold even the doilies I’d crocheted for the stand tables and the back of the sofa.

He sold all the kitchen utensils, all the knives and forks and spoons, all the dishes right down to the sugar bowl.

When everything was sold off of the wagons and some were beginning to pay for what they’d bought and go to their cars, Arnold McCardy kept his place, standing on the wagon nearest to me. He told about the farm, how big it was, how it laid, the condition of the improvements, and so on. And then he started his cry.

I knew Coulter Branch was going to bid on the place. He had taken good care of it ever since Grover died. He’s Lyda and Danny Branch’s son, and that’s a family that takes care of things. Coulter knew the place, knew how to farm it, he wanted it, and he needed it. Lord knows I wanted him to have it, him and Wilma. He was in the bidding from the start, and he stayed with it for a while, and then he had to give it up.

Coulter is a smart man, and thoughtful. He knew pretty exactly what the place was worth as a farm. What I didn’t expect, and maybe he didn’t, was that to a certain kind of person it was worth more as an investment than it was worth as a farm. And that kind of person, it so happened, was there. “Mr. Gotrocks” I call him, a man from Louisville with, I reckon, no end of money.

I was watching Coulter and trying to think fast enough to pray for him. When his final bid was topped, I saw him walk away with his head down. I’ll not forget that. With my last breath I’ll grieve over that. I’ll die wishing I had just given the farm to Coulter and Wilma, but of course my children wouldn’t have stood for it. Althie might’ve, but the others wouldn’t.

And I’ll tell you what happened then. Althie nor Coulter nor Wilma, none of my loved ones, would have told me. But it was talked about, it got around, and one of the old ones here told me about it.

Mr. Gotrocks hadn’t any sooner paid his investment into it than he hired a man with a bulldozer to smash the house and other buildings all to flinders, and push them into a pile, and set them afire. He pushed out every fence, every landmark that stood above the ground, every tree. A place where generations of people had lived their lives. If they came back now, looking for it, they wouldn’t know where they were.

And so it’s all gone. A new time has come. Various ones of the old time keep faith and stop by to see me, Coulter and Wilma and a few others. But the one I wait to see is Althie. Seems like my whole life now is lived under the feeling of her hand touching me that day of the sale, and every day still.

I lie awake in the night, and I can see it all in my mind, the old place, the house, all the things I took care of so long. I thought I might miss it, but I don’t. The time has gone when I could do more than worry about it, and I declare it’s a load off my mind. But the thoughts, still, are a kind of company.

Wendell Berry’s most recent books include What Matters?: Economics for a Renewed Commonwealth, The Poetry of William Carlos Williams of Rutherford, and Leavings: Poems. This story is set in 1991.
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Wendell Berry is a farmer, an activist, and the author of numerous essays, poems, novels, and short stories. He has received the National Humanities Medal, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and a Lannan Literary Award, among other honors. He lives in Kentucky.

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