A Twist

by Mary Higbee

My sister Nancy and I have become used to answering the door to strangers. Since arriving a week ago, people we don’t know have shown up bearing sympathy cards, plates of cookies, and casseroles. They also brought a story or two to tell us about some adventure they had shared with my father.

But today we are too busy to welcome callers. The severe winter storm predicted to descend in twenty-four hours has shortened our time for being in Arkansas. Noon tomorrow is our deadline for starting homeward if we hope to stay ahead of the bad weather. My husband, sister, niece, and I are down to hours to get the house ready to close up and for each of us to pack the chosen keepsakes we are taking.

A knock interrupts my last-minute packing of my dad’s art supplies. I am in the middle of filling a box with brushes and half-used tubes of oil paints with names like manganese violet and cinnabar green. Ellen is packing her grandmother’s china teacup collection, and Jim is sequestered in the basement, sorting my father’s tools for the three grandsons. Nancy is in another room, interviewing a realtor about selling our parents’ home.

Even though I am not enthused about being a hostess, I open the door to a man and woman who hurry into the sun porch while I struggle to keep the frigid blasts from snatching the storm door out of my hand. The man and woman, who I judge to be in their fifties, do not have a cake or chocolate chip cookies to offer, so I wait for them to tell me why they are here. “We’ve come to buy some furniture. Our realtor said you have some you might sell us.”

I hear their names, John and Cynthia, but it takes a few more questions to piece together their story. John and Cynthia have just moved to Arkansas from the Philippines, where they have been missionaries for the last twelve years. I fight the urge to ask how they chose to come to Arkansas because it seems like a cultural quantum leap from the Philippines.

Selling furniture to someone who suddenly appears on our doorstep is not part of our plan. Nancy passes us as she escorts the realtor through the sun porch and into the living room. She doesn’t interrupt her conversation with the realtor but raises her eyebrows to convey the question, “To whom are you talking?”

Cynthia looks at me, expectantly. “We need so much to set up housekeeping. Maybe there are a few things you can sell us.”

“I don’t know because many pieces are going to family members,” I hedge.

John steps forward. “We would appreciate your consideration. Our realtor suggested that you and your sister might be willing to sell some furnishings.”

John and Cynthia speak with such earnestness, and I soften my initial resistance and agree. “Well, okay. We can take a look to see if there is anything you might be interested in.”

I recall stage plays with plots where the characters miss one another by entering and exiting through multiple doors. A similar comedy of errors seems possible this afternoon with the combination of many visitors and the deadline the weather is imposing. I think it best to lead John and Cynthia in the opposite direction, away from Nancy and the realtor.

Cynthia takes in everything with a glance, including the art supplies. “Someone is an artist,” she observes.

“These were my father’s things,” I say.

Cynthia warms to the possibility of conversation, “Once upon a time, I painted. That was before we went to the Philippines. I would like to begin again.”

We move from the sun porch past the dining area and into the kitchen. “I love the hutch and table. Are they for sale?” asks Cynthia.

Ellen looks up from the crystal goblets she is wrapping, her expression showing alarm that someone might want the hutch and table. Quickly, more to assure my niece than to answer Cynthia’s question, I say, “No, Ellen wants those pieces of her grandmother’s.” Cynthia nods, smiling approvingly at Ellen. I am beginning to like Cynthia.

We move to the bedroom, and I conduct a mental inventory. There is a queen bed with a headboard, a dresser, and a chest of drawers. All the pieces were purchased from Sears or a small local furniture store and are many years old.

“Is the family taking this?” Cynthia inquired. When I shake my head no, she turns to John, “This is exactly what we need.” John nods in agreement.

I lead John and Cynthia down the hall and into the living room. The three of us survey the room my mother had decorated in beiges and blues. The sofa’s floral fabric has never been a favorite of mine, but Cynthia runs her hands over a cushion admiringly.

“Family?” she inquires.

“No,” I say. I do not add that none of my family likes the sofa.

Cynthia and John sit down on the sofa as if it is in a store and they are considering buying it. They look at each other and smile. The next question is if the VCR and television are for sale. It is one thing to consider selling the sofa and a dresser no one wants, but Nancy and I haven’t discussed who will take the TV and VCR. “No, not the TV and VCR,” I say firmly.

Cynthia walks to the far end of the room and sits down in a chair that has been in my parents’ living room for as long as I can remember. “This is so comfortable,” she says as she settles into the cushions. Cynthia looks at me, waiting for me to tell her if the chair is available. I nod affirmatively.

Nancy enters the room, and I introduce John and Cynthia. “Let’s sit down and talk,” Nancy says with some hesitation. John and Cynthia sit side by side on the sofa, and Nancy and I pull up dining room chairs to sit across from them.

Nervously, John reaches for Cynthia’s hand, and Cynthia gives John the married-couple look of encouragement. John has not said much during the house tour, but now he takes the lead. “We have five hundred dollars for furniture. Will you take five hundred dollars for the bed, dresser, chest of drawers, sofa, and the chair Cynthia likes?”

I don’t know what amount I am expecting, but I am surprised that John begins his offer at what seems to be their top end. Holding hands and looking anxiously at us, they appear younger than their fifty-something years.

Nancy shoots me a look that I cannot decipher. “My sister and I have to talk about this. We will be right back.” I follow Nancy through the house to the far bedroom, curious to know what she is thinking. “We can’t take five hundred dollars,” Nancy declares. “The things they want are not worth that much. Don’t you think three hundred dollars is fair?”

Seated again across from John and Cynthia, Nancy announces the new price of three hundred. Cynthia exclaims, “Oh, thank you, thank you so much. John, isn’t it wonderful?” Her eyes fill with tears. I think if this were a play, the upside-down negotiations would be the surprising twist in the plot.

John clears his throat, and perhaps emboldened by their good fortune asks, “Would you be willing to throw in the TV and VCR for a total of five hundred?”

Nancy and I break out in spontaneous laughter. We don’t need to discuss this latest proposition. It feels like fate that the TV and VCR are to belong to John and Cynthia. “Yes, yes, it’s a deal.”

“Can Cynthia stay here and wait for my friend and me to return with the truck? I’ll be back as soon as I can.” John requests and leaves.

I delay resuming my packing to be sure Cynthia is comfortable. “I will just sit here in the chair I love and read this Southwest Art magazine,” she assures me. The magazine she picks up is the latest issue that arrived just days before my dad had his heart attack. For many years, a subscription had been a gift from me to my father, and seeing Cynthia engrossed in the beautiful images on the pages of the magazine stirs up emotions of missing my dad.

During a long-ago visit to see my parents, it had been my project to tie up several years’ worth of Southwest Art into bundles and tuck them under the attic rafters for safekeeping. Cynthia’s enjoyment of the magazine made me remember the ones in the attic. “Cynthia, would you like some back issues of Southwest Art?”

“Oh! Yes, I would love it if you don’t mind parting with them,” she replies, her voice pitched a bit higher in anticipation of the gift. The magazines are easy to find, and I grab a bundle and take it down to Cynthia. She strokes the cover of the top issue in appreciation.

“Would you like more?” I ask. I make four more trips to the attic until ten bundles of magazines, a decade’s worth, are arranged in piles at her feet.

John and his friend arrive to load the furniture into the truck. The wind whips the corners of the tarp, making it hard to tie it down over the cargo. The steadily dropping temperature and gathering darkness hurry their departure. I watch the truck’s taillights disappear down the deserted street.

The living room looks bare with so much furniture gone. On the end table, Cynthia has left the latest copy of Southwest Art. Somehow, she seemed to have understood that I could part with ten years of Southwest Art, but not the last issue my father received.

Mary Higbee lives in northern California. She is a retired middle school English teacher. Her nonfiction story entitled “Details” was published in the December 2019 issue of Barnstorm Journal.  She self-published a memoir, Lessons from Afar, about her experiences of opening a secondary school in a rural village of South Sudan.  In her retirement, Mary has worked in South Sudan, Kenya, and Tanzania in the area of education, and when in Africa blogs at mhigbee.wordpress.com.