OK, you all got me thinking...so here's another thrift store story. I dunno why it's in the present tense, since I usually despise present tense. It just seemed to work. Here's the vase kinda thing that inspired the tale:
As Jeannette fumbles with the key, I stand on the broken concrete slab at the bottom of the steps, shivering in the chill dampness of an early March morning, arms folded across my chest. My eyes take in the torn screen flapping in the breeze and the green film that climbs up the windows, seeming to sprout from the blackened sills. I bite my lip. It could be worse, I tell myself. I have been telling myself this over and over again since we first pulled into the drive, since I first caught sight of the green-scummed white trailer, since I first saw the overgrown yard, the piles of mouldering boards and old tires half covered in ivy and moss as we pulled into the drive. It could be worse. I can fix it up.
The door swings open at last, and I am on alert. Jeannette disappears into the dimness ahead of me, and stops short. “Oh,” she says in an odd little voice, and turns back to me, her bottom lip drooping slightly.
“What is it?” I ask, starting up the steps. One of the steps is broken, rotting away; I am careful not to step on it. I can fix it up.
“It’s just—it’s not very—” She shrugs; she has no words, so she steps aside for me to see for myself.
It is dirty and smells like mice and stuffiness, but I had braced myself for these things. But on top of these faults, it looks as though the very worst parts of the seventies came here to die. One wall in the kitchen is covered in broad avocado, orange and goldenrod stripes; another sports enormous daisies of the same color. The linoleum, where it isn’t worn through, has a random pattern of rectangles in a pea green that makes me feel a bit queasy just looking at it. The kitchen counter is aluminum-rimmed formica in a slightly paler shade of the same color. The living room walls are paneled in dark fake wood, warped and bulging in spots. The stove is also yellow: a dirty shade, browned around the edges as though pre-burnt. “Well,” I say, and then stop, just as Jeannette had.
I walk through the rest of the trailer, and find it much the same. Even the bathroom has plasticky flowers on the walls, and fixtures of the same dirty-yellow shade as the stove. There is brown shag carpeting in one bedroom, dingy orange in another. "It isn’t so bad,” I say, though my voice rings hollow in my ears. “The roof hasn’t leaked recently.”
Jeannette is quiet, and seems slightly embarrassed. “Mrs. Boyle warned me it hadn’t been kept up, but I hadn’t really pictured—”
“It’s fine,” I say firmly. It is. I can’t stay with Jeannette and Brian in their tiny apartment forever, and I can’t go back where I came from. And I can’t afford much. This ugly place is a godsend.
“I suppose you can decorate it some,” Jeannette says doubtfully. Her own little place is beautiful, tasteful, modern. She walks to the striped wall and runs a hand down it, and then turns back to me with her face all scrunched up as if in pain, and I can’t help but laugh. She shakes her head, but laughs too.
She is quieter than usual through dinner that evening, until Brian has gone into the back to play a computer game and we settle down for more girl talk. “Marcia,” she says, “You know, I’ve been thinking. At first I was trying to figure out what even goes with avocado and orange besides more avocado and orange. I don’t think you could paint over that stuff in the kitchen, even if we could find cheap paint—it’s like plastic sheeting. So you’re probably stuck with things as they are, at least for now. But you know...if you can’t beat it, why not embrace it?”
“How do you mean?” I ask.
“Well, why not get more avocado and orange? Why not go all out? The place can’t get any uglier. We could purposely seek out the weirdest, kitschiest retro-ist junk we can find. It’d be...cathartic, or something.” This means shopping. Jeannette is getting more excited by the second. “What do you think?”
“I don’t know,” I say doubtfully, but Jeannette is already chattering away merrily and doesn't hear.
We drive to the thrift store on Saturday. Jeannette is bubbly; I remain doubtful. Our first find is a giant misshapen vase sort of a thing, bright orange, with stamped flowers and unreadable letters on the bulbous body. Jeannette pounces on it joyfully. “This would be perfect!” she says. It is likely the first time anyone has used that particular adjective in connection with this...object.
“It’s too big!” I protest.
“Too big for what purpose?” she asks, and I have no response. She sets it heavily in the cart, dusts off her hands on her jeans, and we move on. The vase is soon joined by a lava lamp, curtains of a heavy orange and brown speckled cream fabric, a dusty bouquet of obviously fake sunflowers, a quilted wall-hanging of concentric red, white and orange circles. By this time, I am getting into the spirit of things, and I heap orange bath towels and a bead curtain onto the pile. I feel like seeking out a bandana and bell bottomed pants as well, to complete the stepping back in time.
We drag everything back to the trailer and spend the whole afternoon scrubbing and scouring the trailer top to bottom, inside and out. Brian stops by and fixes the broken step, and helps us begin clearing the yard. And then Jeannette and I spend a rainy Sunday afternoon decorating the place with our found treasures. We put the giant vase-like object in the bathroom, filled with the fake sunflowers. The door to one of the bedrooms is missing, so we hang up the bead curtain across the doorway. I decide it will be my office; the mesmerizing movement and sound of the beads helps me think. The wall-hanging goes in the living room, and the lava lamp goes on a red table in front of it.
I drive back to Jeannette and Brian’s house for my things. “I made tea,” Jeannette says when I return, handing me a steaming mug: one of the heavy earthen mugs I couldn’t resist at the thrift store, though they are as ugly in their own way as anything else we’d found, a muddy olive green, slightly crooked and speckled. “It’s tradition: Mom made tea for us to celebrate with after I finished moving into my first apartment after college.”
“Once is a tradition?”
“Now it’s twice. It’s tradition.” She lifts her mug and sips carefully, holding the tea bag to one side. “Cheers.”
I wrap my hands around the heat of my own mug. A thought strikes me. “What did you heat the water in?”
“You don’t want to know.”
“Not that old pot we found under the sink? The one that had a mouse nest in it?”
“I washed it! Really well.” She takes another fierce sip. “Besides, the water boiled. It’s fine.”
I wrinkle my nose, but sip my own tea just the same. I am surprised by how good it is, sweet and spicy. Hot cinnamon lingers on my tongue. Mug in hand, I find a convenient corner and slide down against the wall with my knees pulled up in front of me. Jeannette comes to sit beside me, sinking to the ground with a deep sigh. “You need some leopard print bean bags or something,” she says.
“Mm,” I reply, “A nice finishing touch it would be.” I gaze around at my cheerful little kingdom and the amazing ugliness we have assembled, and I know that for what it is, it is good.