Friday, November 16, 2007


Free Fiction Friday: "Granma Stemple"

I've missed a couple of weeks of free fiction offerings, what with WFC and the recovery thereof. This week's offering is something of a trifle. I wrote it a long time ago, and it appeared online in a couple of slightly different versions on different webzines. This is, I think, the original version, one of a sheaf of stories I wrote set in the fictional Texas town of Denniston. Only a few of those stories have ever seen the light of day, but Denniston features prominently in a few projects I've got in development, so perhaps I'll dust the rest of them off sooner or later and see if they're worth salvaging.

In any event, here's this story I wrote...

Granma Stemple
by Chris Roberson

You can get just about anything you want at the Denniston Flea Market, if not quite everything you need. Held the first weekend of every month, rain or shine, for as long as anyone can remember, its about like any other flea market you might ever have seen, only a little more so. If you do go (just take the Pomo exit off the expressway, go south, and you can’t miss it) ramble around the eight acres of antique and junk dealers all you want, eat a corn dog or one of those foot long polish sausages if you feel up to it, by all means have some pink lemonade and cotton candy, but don’t even think about leaving before you stop by Granma Stemple’s stall. If you drive away before visiting Granma, you'll have missed the heart of the Denniston market. If there’s anything you’ve ever really wanted, anything at all, chances are you’ll find it there.

This is my opinion, you understand, and others would most likely tell you different, but I’ve spent one weekend out of four at the market now for some thirty years, and I’ve seen them come and go. Old retired couples with their life-long collections of porcelain knick-knacks and salt & pepper shakers, sitting in the shade of their prized r.v.; young hustlers with a crate load of shoddy Korean shoes, trying to pass them off for anything they can take; shop keepers trying to dump all the merchandise they wouldn’t even dare carry in their stores; folk artists selling bits of wood with paintings on them, or paintings done up like clocks. I’ve seen them all. But of every stall I’ve seen, Granma Stemple’s stands out the most for remembering.

Granma is one of the flea market’s best kept secrets. She’s been set up in the same spot for as long as I’ve been coming out, and doesn’t show any signs of moving. She was one of the earliest dealers to have a permanent building of any kind, even if it was only ratty old two-by-fours and corrugated tin siding hammered together into a lopsided box. That box kept the rain off of her in the rain, and the sun in the sunshine. And it holds a lot more merchandise than you’d ever think; a lot more.

I didn’t go over to Granma’s stall for a lot of years. I was at the market to sell, not to buy. I worked my weeks over at the VA hospital, and had a house and attic full of junk. My mother’s things, left there when she went to live at the nursing home those last few years; my boy’s books and toys and such from before he got run over by that car; my wife’s, because when she left it was in a hurry, and she didn’t take much with her. I had that stuff cluttering up my life for too long, I figured, so I rented out a spot and started ferrying stuff over once a month. It made from some extra cash, and made my house a bit easier to move around in.

Now, Granma Stemple’s stall was up just a ways from mine, and though I didn’t ever go in, I’d see her every now and again on my way down to the portalets. She’d always be sitting there, on her high wooden chair, smoking those long thin cigarettes of hers. She hardly ever spoke, only when spoken to first, and even then only to mumble a bit as to what the price of something was, or maybe just what it was exactly anyway.

From my stall I’d see people walking back from hers. Never many, one or two or three each market day, and they’d always have something with them, and they’d always looked kind of stunned. Like they’d found something they’d been looking for a long while, or maybe never even knew they wanted. Sometimes I’d ask them, if they happened to slow down near my tables, just what it was Granma sold. They’d just smile, kind of stupidly, and hold up whatever it was they’d bought. “This,” was all they’d ever say.

I saw old 45 records in those people’s hands, or metal lunch boxes, or key rings, or Barbie dolls. Every time something different, and every time it was like the most important thing in the world. People didn’t just hold the things they bought from Granma, they clung to them.

Now, as the years went by, and my house got more and more empty, I started to peek around the other stalls, to see if I couldn’t find something that’s look good in my place. One time I found an old cavalry sword, which the fellow said had come down from the Civil War; I knew it wasn’t any older than WWI, but it looked fine over my mantle so I didn’t complain. I found an old juke box another time, a battered old Wurlitzer, and once I got it hammered out, and polished up, it looked just fine in my den. And I found a few good paintings, and a strange little African statue (though most likely from Taiwan), and a new set of dishes, and a dresser. But after all that, after all those years of buying, I never once stopped by Granma Stemple’s.

I’d seen the things people bought from Granma, and it wasn’t anything I needed. Junk is all, I figured, and so walked on by. She kept everything in that shack of hers, and with the shades in there so dark you couldn’t see a thing from the outside. And she’d just sit there on her high chair, smoking and not talking.

So a few years went by, and I bought everything I thought I needed; but my house still seemed too big, and too empty. Everything left of my mothers, and my boy’s and my wife’s was up in the attic now, and I only had to go up a couple of times a year to get something to sell. But even with all their stuff up there, out of sight, or away in other folk’s homes, that still didn’t seem like my house. I still felt like I was just borrowing it, from all those that had gone away.

It was spring, when I’d been a regular at the market for about twelve years, when I finally went to see Granma Stemple. Most everybody else had come and gone since the old days, and I didn’t get on too well with the new dealers that were showing up. All hairy, in dirty clothes, acting like a bath was something to harm you. I saw one selling out Nazi patches, if you can believe it, right there in Denniston.

So I walked on down to Granma Stemple’s stall, and walked right up to where she sat. It was sunny out, and she had a big straw hat pulled down low over her face. About all I could see was her chin, and her bottom lip, and that long thin cigarette dangling.

“Afternoon,” I said.

She just mumbled back.

“Fine day,” I said again.

She mumbled back again.

I turned my head a bit, peeking into the shadows of her shack.

“So, what are you selling today?” I asked.

She just jerked her chin a bit, pointing it back to the shack.

“What people want,” she mumbled, down below her breath.

“That so? Guess I’ll have to take a look.”

She didn’t say another word, so I turned and walked back to her stall. It was small, but bigger inside than it looked, and when my yes had adjusted themselves to the dark, I could see that inside there was only one table, set against the back wall. And on that table was a yellowed old envelope. I bent down to look at it, all water stained and tattered, and saw my own name was written on it in simple, block letters.

I snatched it up and carried it back to where Granma sat.

“What’s this?” I asked, my voice kind of set on edge. I shook the envelope at her.

“What you want,” she muttered.

I look at her, and then at the envelope in my hands.

“You selling this, you mean?” I asked. Then I said, “How much?”

“Already yours,” she mumbled. Then she titled her head back and bit, and looked at me with one gray eye from underneath that hat. “See ya.”

So I thanked her, and walked away. She was one odd bird, I figured, and it was a wonder she ever made a dime. No merchandise, and leaving people little notes in the open. I stuck that envelope in my back pocket and didn’t think another thing about it.

That night, back at my house after my day at the market, I was changing into another pair of pants when I found that envelope in my pocket. I’d about forgotten all about it. Pulling on my other pants, I sat down on the edge of the bed and looked at it. It looked old, and worn, and I could tell there was something in it. The writing, my name on the front, looked to have been done some time before, and the handwriting looked familiar.

Sitting there on the edge of the bed, I tore open that envelope and took out what was inside. It was a little piece of paper, folded up, and when I got it unfolded I saw it only had four words on it, in the same handwriting as on the front:

I sat there a little while, trying to puzzle that one out, when sure enough I heard a pounding at the door. I pulled on my boots, and dropped that paper onto the bed, and went down to answer it, wondering would could be coming around at that hour. At any hour, really.

I opened the door, and there they were. My mother, my boy, my wife. All standing on the porch, smiling at me.

“Thanks, hon,” my wife said, “we all forgot our keys and couldn’t get in.”

“We got fried chicken for dinner, dad,” my boy said, grinning from ear to ear.

“You’ll get none ‘till you wash up, boy,” my mother said, patting her grandson on the back, pushing him in the door.

That night we had fried chicken, and sat around listening to the radio. Me, my dead son, the mother I’d buried fifteen years before, and the wife who’d up and run off to Nevada. We had a grand old time, and that big old house didn’t seem so empty anymore.

Come morning, I woke up alone. My wife wasn’t in my bed anymore, and I couldn’t hear the sound of my boy playing out in the yard, and I knew my mother wouldn’t be down in the kitchen at her sewing machine. I knew they were all gone. Don’t ask me how, I just did.

It was Sunday morning, the last day of the market until the next month. I got dressed, put that envelope back in my pocket and drove my truck down to the market. It wasn’t fifteen minutes before I was back at Granma Stemple’s stall, my cap in my hands.

“Ma’am,” I told her, stepping forward slowly, “I’m going to have to give this back.”

I held out the envelope to her, the piece of paper back inside. I figured I knew what would happen the next night I pulled that paper out, and the time after that, and all the times after that.

“It’s what you want,” she muttered.

She didn’t look up.

“Yeah,” I answered, “I imagine it is. Bit it ain’t what I need.”

We were like that for a bit, me standing and holding that envelope out, her sitting and smoking. Finally I said, “Please.”

“Alright,” she muttered back.

She took the envelope from me, and tucked it into her dress somewhere. And she didn’t say another word

I went back to my stall, and I never went back that way again. But I’d never steer anyone away, no. Everybody should have the chance to shop there, and see what they might find. But remember this: you can find most anything you want at the Denniston Flea Market, but you might not find what you need.


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