Five Dollar Box

When my mother-in-law moved from New Mexico, back to Indiana, where she was originally from, she packed up most of her stuff, and what she didn’t want, she mailed to us, which is how we ended up with a box full of clowns.

We are not clown people, but even if we were, these were the ugliest things we’d ever seen.

The clowns—and there were at least forty of them—were made from glass slag, mixed up in a vat and poured into clown molds. They were each part of a clown orchestra—or something–and when the clowns were arranged in a circle, like a group of friendly musicians, they looked more like little monsters with deformed lumps in their little lumpy hands. Each clown was about as big as a fist. Hideous little fist-sized things.

My mother-in-law collected ‘collectables’ and the clowns were part of her retirement plan. She planned to sell them at flea-markets, but then she got too old to drive, and then she was going to sell them on eBay, but she didn’t like computers or the internet, and had always depended on her husband to handle that part of sales. Then her husband died, and there she was, stuck in New Mexico with a house full of ‘collectibles.’

Some days we would get three or four boxes in the mail. One had a ceramic Christmas tree in it that some relative had made in a shopping center ceramics class. Seasonal? Sure. Attractive? Oh no. That one went straight to the attic. A lot of things went straight to the attic. I would say to my wife, “Why don’t we just throw these things away? She obviously doesn’t want them.” .

My wife would say, “We can’t.”

More boxes came. Cookbooks from different churches, stapled together by volunteers. Clothes that had been on sale for a dollar at Wal-Mart that neither of us would ever wear. Appliances and copper pans that she’d ordered off late-night TV. “Oh my God,” I said to my wife as the attic filled up. “What’re we going to do with all this shit?”

“We could have a yard sale,” said my wife.

“We could,” I said, pointing to the box of clowns. “But who’s going to buy that?

“I’ll give it away,” she said.

“Let’s haul it to Goodwill,” I said. “Let someone else throw it away.”

“No,” said my wife, for reasons I could not fathom. “I’ll take care of it.”

Months passed. A year. The pandemic came and mostly went. The clowns remained in the attic.

“We need to clean out the attic,” my wife said to me one fine spring morning as we were eating breakfast. The windows were open. In the kitchen, it smelled like flowers.

“Okay,” I said, always the willing partner. “What about the clowns?”

She frowned at me as though she had forgotten all about them.

“Fuck,” she said.

I ate another bite of toast, watching our previous conversations play out behind her eyes.

Suddenly she got up and found a Sharpie in the everything drawer. “I know what to do.”

“Yard sale?” I said, without hope.

“I have a better idea,” said my wife.

That morning we put the box of clowns in the back seat of the car. We drove around for a while until we found a neighborhood where we didn’t know anyone. Big houses with pesticide lawns, and streets named after poets. Not a sidewalk in sight. And then we saw a yard sale. Not just one, but at least half a dozen. It was a beautiful weekend and there were a ton of people rummaging through tables covered with junk.

“Not here,” said my wife as we drove slowly past one yard sale after another. “The next one.”

We finally stopped in front of an enormous split-level with a two-car garage. The yard, was covered with tables. People milled around on the grass, in the driveway. It was hard to believe all that junk had come out of that house.

“Maybe the whole neighborhood got together,” I mused.

“Come on,” said my wife. “Let’s look around.”

We got out and I locked the car. I glanced at the box of clowns, but I knew I was not in control of this situation, so I followed my wife up the crowded driveway, waiting for her to make her move.

We wandered around, eyeing baby clothes and old ties. There were glasses that had been jam jars. A waffle iron. Dolls with and without their hair. An accordion. Vinyl records in a plastic milk crate. Candidates for the dump, I thought, but money was changing hands. People were driving off with…things. I kept my hands in my pockets as my wife studied what was for sale. After about fifteen minutes, she turned to me and showed me the Sharpie, which she’d stashed in her coat. “Come on,” she said in a low voice, and led me back to the car.

“What’re we doing?” I murmured as she opened the back door.

Without answering she wrote on the box of clowns, $5.00

She picked up the box, which was heavy because it was full of forty fist-sized chunks of ugly glass. “Here,” she said, and I took it. “Follow me,” she whispered. “Just act normal.”

No one normally walks back into a yard sale carrying a box, but I did my best to look nonchalant, until we reached a table by the garage. The host of the yard sale was close by but had her back to us. She was sitting at a card table counting cash.

“Here,” hissed my wife, jabbing her thumb at the table. “No!” she said when I tried to put the box on the table. “Someone’ll see it! Underneath!

I didn’t say anything. I just kept my eyes on the host and quietly, gently, slid the box under the table, turning it so the scrawl of Sharpie was easily visible.

The woman hosting the yard sale looked up and smiled at us. “Did you see anything you liked?”

“Oh, a lot,” said my wife. “But we only have a credit card.”

The woman whipped out her phone, which had a tiny thing attached for reading credit cards.” It’s no problem,” she said.

My wife and I looked at each other. I touched the five-dollar box with my toe and pushed it a little further under the table.

“You know what?” said my wife, ever-so-perkily. “We’ll come back with cash after lunch.”

“Better hurry!” said the yard sale host. “There won’t be anything left!”

My wife gave her a huge smile, grabbed my hand and walked me past the junk and across the cul-de-sac to the car.

We got in.

“Drive,” said my wife breathlessly, as though we’d just heisted a bank. “Just drive.”

“What would your mother say?” I said as we turned out of the neighborhood and opened the windows.

“She’s never gonna know,” said my wife. “Now let’s go home and get another box.”


Suzanne Feldman graduated from the Maryland Institute College of Art in 1981 and received a Masters in Creative Writing from Johns Hopkins University in 2004.  Her novel Absalom’s Daughters (Holt, 2016) received a starred review in Kirkus.  Her short story The Witch Bottle (Gargoyle Magazine 2016) was nominated for a Pushcart Prize.  She received a Nebula Award in 2001 for her short fiction and the Editors Prize for fiction in 2005 at The Missouri Review.  She has had stories published in Narrative Magazine, including The Lapedo Child which was selected as one of the year’s best (2013). She was a Walter Dakin Fellow at the Sewanee Writers Conference in 2019. Her latest novel, Sister of the Great War, (Mira/HarperCollins, 2021) has been nominated for a Lambda Literary Award. She is a 2022 recipient of a grant from the Maryland State Arts Council. She was the 2022 winner of the Washington Writers Publishing House (WWPH) award for fiction (The Witch Bottle and Other Stories).