The spitball whizzed past the mailbox, landed with a wet sting against Alice's cheek and then dropped like a stone at her feet. The laughter of the two boys wafted along the spring breeze and disappeared into the cherry blossoms of Alice's next door neighbor. She lifted a hand to her cheek, felt the dampness of the missile, and knew a tiny red spot had already formed there to remind her later of the attack. The boys, tousled hair gleaming in the sun, sped away on their bikes. The creak of their two wheelers vanished with them and Alice bent over her mailbox and pried open its door. Nothing. Always nothing. She let the door hang open and walked back up the driveway. Her purple housecoat fluttered around her knees and stones dug into her bare feet. She stopped once to yank out a dandelion weed whose limp head lay against the yellowing grass of her lawn.
Inside, Alice hunched over her kitchen table with Friday's newspaper unfurled in front of her. The yard sales advertised for the weekend were circled in red. A yellow legal pad sat next to the newspaper. Alice consulted her worn local map and compared it to the circled addresses from the paper. Then she carefully ordered the yard sales by location, printing and numbering them on the legal pad. She rounded her O's like fat raindrops. Tomorrow was Saturday. And then Sunday. The two best days of the week for Alice. Yard sale days. Around her home lay the objects of her obsession: old toys, appliances that no longer worked, stained clothing, ancient books, jigsaw puzzles with missing pieces, chipped plates, entire collections of glass figurines and knickknacks. Stacks of magazines rested on tabletops and floors. Once purchased, these treasures found a space in Alice's house and lived there undisturbed.
Saturday morning Alice rose early. The sun peeked weakly over the mountains near her home and clouds skittered across a pale blue sky. She wore a threadbare sweater over a white T-shirt, and navy blue polyester pants. Her car groaned, sputtered and jumped to life under her gentle prodding. Fifteen minutes after backing down her driveway, Alice stood in front of a small white house whose porch sagged beneath the weight of its years. She glanced at the folded newspaper in her hand. The ad said:
*"Yard sale, Saturday, 8.30 to noon. NO EARLY BIRDS."*
Alice's watch read seven thirty. Okay, she was technically an early bird, but perhaps they would let her have just a quick look.
She climbed the wooden steps to the porch and rapped on the door. Several moments later, a big man, his belly sagging over the waistline of his pants, wrenched open the door and filled the frame. He squinted at Alice.
"I'm here for the yard sale." Alice gave the man her best smile.
"It ain't time yet," he said.
Alice shifted her weight and entwined her narrow hands. "Well, um, yes, but maybe I could just take a quick look. I'll be very quiet."
"Mable!" The man hollered over his shoulder. "There's some nut here that wants to see the stuff."
Alice twitched at the word "nut." She chewed her bottom lip and bent her head so that her hair fell forward over her face. Behind the man, a woman's voice drifted on the still morning air.
"I'll be right there, Harold."
The man looked at Alice and shook his head.
"You should get a life," he said. He turned and walked away leaving her alone on the front porch.
Mable's footsteps sounded in the hallway.
"Why hello, Alice," she said. "I thought you might be here."
Relief soared inside Alice. Here was the lady from the grocery store who doubled her coupons every week. Sometimes she gave Alice the day old bread at no charge. Mable dropped a plump hand onto Alice's shoulder.
"Come in," she said.
Alice followed Mable down a short corridor and into a kitchen that smelled of eggs and bacon and freshly baked bread.
"There you go," Mable said, pointing at a mound of cardboard boxes stacked on a screened in porch that adjoined the kitchen. "Take your time while I clean up this breakfast mess. Then maybe you can help me bring stuff out front."
Alice sank to the floor and reached for a stuffed teddy bear whose left eye was missing. He peered one eyed from the top of a box. A tear in his right arm bled stuffing. Alice pressed the bear to her chest.
"He belonged to my son," Mable said.
"You have kids?"
"Had." Mable moved about the kitchen, piling dishes into the sink, wiping the counters. "Just Bobby."
"I never did," Alice said.
"He loved that bear." Mable laughed, looked at Alice. "Harold told me it's time to get rid of Bobby's stuff." She sighed and glanced out the kitchen window at a weeping willow, its tired branches trailing bright green-gold leaves. "He's been dead for more than thirty years now."
"He was such a cute little boy." Mable's voice softened in memory. "It's not too often kids die from the flu. But, Bobby did. Just like that." Mable snapped her fingers.
"The flu," Alice echoed. She watched Mable for a few seconds, then held the teddy bear up. "How much do you want for him?"
"What?" Mable looked startled.
"Does he have a price?"
Mable tipped her head. "Alice, do you have family? Is there anyone in your life?"
Alice shifted her weight, veered her eyes away from Mable.
"Alice," Mable squatted beside her. "Do you have a friend?"
Discomfort was replaced with a sudden, blind anger. How dare this woman act like Alice was a weirdo, without friends or family. How dare she!
"How much?" Alice asked, waving the teddy in front of Mable's face. She saw the look of dismay, the wrinkle of Mable's brow, the sadness filling Mable's brown eyes.
"You can have him for free," Mable said. She stood, turned away from Alice.
"I have to go," Alice said. She hurried back down the hallway with the teddy bear pressed to her chest. Her heart throbbed a ragged beat. The rest of the day, as Alice moved predictably from one yard sale to the next, slashing a red line through each completed address on the yellow legal pad, she tried to forget the way Mable had looked at her.
Back at her battered little house, it took Alice almost half an hour to unload her car and find a place for each item she had bought. She loved the feel of her purchases. She loved the fact that these things that others had thought were junk, now belonged to her. When she lifted the one-eyed teddy from the car she was surprised that the joy she felt about her other purchases was somehow lacking with this one. She remembered Mable's words: *He loved that bear.* She carried the bear into the house and perched him high atop a worn out bookcase. She tried to eat her dinner, a frozen meal that she heated in the microwave. Her eyes kept slipping up to the bear where he leaned amid piles of magazines and knickknacks.
As the heat of the day faded into dusk, Alice gathered the bear in her arms, climbed into her car and drove back to Mable's house. She approached the sagging front porch, climbed its steps and rang the doorbell. Behind the door, she heard Harold's heavy approach and grit her teeth for his greeting.
"You again?" Harold shook his head. "I thought I told you to get a life."
"Alice?" Mable stepped out into the dark, crossed her arms over her chest.
Harold threw his hands in the air and snorted. "Nutcase," he said and lumbered back down the hallway.
"You should keep him." Alice thrust the bear toward Mable. A piece of stuffing floated like a drunk moth to the worn wood of the porch. Mable took the bear from Alice, gazed into his one glass eye and sighed.
"Would you like a cup of tea, Alice? I was just making a pot. We can sit out here so we don't bother Harold."
A warmth filled Alice's stomach and spread up to her chest. A cup of tea. Almost like they were friends.
"Okay," she said, and smiled.