The Scrap Exchange
When you’re poor, you spend a lot of your life looking at the backside of things. The balcony off my mama’s apartment, it looks out over a whole mess of kudzu, a tsunami of it, and beyond that is the backside of Lakewood Shopping Center, which used to be nothing but a Food Lion, a laundromat, and a Chinese take-out place that’s been there so long I don’t even know the name of it, just that my mama asks me to pick up her General Tso’s Chicken there every Sunday. One week I showed up with french fries and burgers and milkshakes instead and she said, “Uh-uh, go get me some General Tso’s.” That’s how my mama is. She knows what she wants. When all the kudzu blooms in late August throw off their smell of grape kool-aid, mama will sit out there even in the boiling heat, a towel around her neck because she’s sweating buckets, just because she likes the smell of it.
Lakewood also used to have a bar that’s since shut down, and a tienda with fresh tortillas that tasted like little clouds. The tienda place got shut down and gutted, on account of rats someone told me, but I call bullshit, and then it was turned into an upscale place with shish-ka-bobs made out of organic flowers you can eat, but that place shut down, too. The place my mama’s apartment backs up too directly used to be a surplus store for discarded office furniture from the university. Now it’s a thrift store on steroids. They call it the Scrap Exchange. The back entrance, the one we can see from mama’s porch, is piled up with old traffic signs and broken fans and bits of scrap metal and beat-up, mismatched shoes. There’s a gate at the top of the stairs, closed with a padlock. “As if anyone would want to steal those things,” mama says from her porch, where she is barely visible behind a living screen of ferns and succulents and flowering cacti that she nudges and prods to life with a watering can and a spray bottle and the papery dry pads of her fingers. When neighbors visit, or when I come with the kids, she sits silently pruning and plucking, listening or not listening, watching the parking lot and rooftops baking in the sun while her own porch explodes with life.
My kids like taking mama to the Scrap Exchange, even though she can't get over the fact that anyone would pay ten cents for a button that fell off someone's coat, or a penny for a holiday card with no envelope. I guess when you got hand-me-downs and castoffs all your life, paying for used and broken things seems less appealing. If mama is going to buy something, and she rarely does, she wants it shiny and new. I can’t say I blame her. When the kids drag her to the Scrap Exchange, she peers down into the bins of bent nails and dried up markers, broken records and board games with missing pieces, but she won’t touch a thing. Keeps her hands in her pockets, her eyebrows raised, and a squeeze tube of sanitizer handy. The other day we left with a handful of ribbons, a plastic dinosaur, a matchbox car with flames on the side, and a trophy with some stranger’s name on it, the kids happy as clams on just six bucks, and mama told the kids if they wanted those scraps in their own house they were welcome to them, but they weren’t bringing them to her place. And when the kids took an art class there last week, making signs with their names on them out of pool noodles and bits of yarn and plastic tubing like the kind they use on oxygen tanks, mama stood by and shook her head like we’d all lost our minds.
The other day, though, we were walking through the store, two of the kids having run off to the buttons and yarns, another one off to the binders and magnets, the baby still asleep in his stroller, and mama and I passed by a stack of old calendars. When I picked one up, mama snorted. “What you gonna do with a calendar from 1981?” she wanted to know. I laughed and told her good point, but it was a Peanuts calendar, and I’d always been a sucker for Snoopy, so I kept flipping through the pages — Snoopy relaxing on his dog house, Snoopy playing his mouth harp, Snoopy tormenting Charlie Brown with his positive attitude and go-lucky nature. Mama was looking over my shoulder, ready to chime in with some criticism, I figured, when suddenly she reached over and gripped my elbow. I’d just flipped to October, where Snoopy was standing in a pumpkin patch, holding a sign that said, “Boo!”
“Stop,” mama said. Stop what, I wanted to know, but she just reached across me and pointed one of her bony fingers to October 24th, where someone had penciled in, “Cliff’s funeral.”
“Cliff’s funeral was in 1981,” she said. “In October.” Cliff was my uncle, mama’s brother, and I remember when he died, working on a fishing boat off the coast. I was five years old, and Cliff, when he was in town, was mama’s everything — he did all the things around the house our absent father couldn't, hung blinds and fixed the water heater and killed bugs too big for mama to kill on her own. He lived just one block off and after he died it was mama who had to go through his things. She kept none of it, with the exception of a gold ring he always wore on his right ring finger but which he was not wearing when he died. It had a cross on the front and their mother's name engraved on the inside, where the metal met his flesh. Mama still keeps it on her bedside table.
Mama took the calendar from me and turned it back to January, then flipped slowly through the months, studying the scrawled handwriting in the squares. One of the kids was pulling at her skirt but she paid him no mind. Finally, she shut the calendar and looked at me, “This was Eugenia's calendar,” she said.
“Who's Eugenia?” I asked.
But mama had already turned towards the front of the store, where she pulled a quarter from her pocket, slapped it down on the counter, and headed for the door. We all followed her.
"Who's Eugenia?" I asked again, chiming in with the kids who were asking mama what she planned to do with that calendar. But mama said she reckoned that was none of our damn business.