Shady Goings-On at “Pap-Aw’s Closet”
Maybe a drug deal was about to take place. Perhaps “Pap-Aw” is a bookie. I don’t know. I was just there to buy a few more chairs. A little background before I get into the sketchiness I’ve just witnessed…
“Pap-Aw’s Closet” is thrift store on the west side of town. It looks very much like an over-filled and poorly organized storage shed. Like an old man’s hoard. It faces the highway, but there is no front entrance. The intended front door is barricaded on both the interior and exterior with shelves. The merchandise deemed most valuable by Pap-Aw (i.e. wind-chimes, a faded Little Tikes firetruck, a pair of benches constructed with 2X4s, and a large, blue industrial barrel, the kind we use at the hospital for disposing of barium sulfate), is out front so as to garner attention from would-be customers. A plywood sign reads, “Park in Back,” and so help me, I do.
Behind “Pap-Aw’s Closet” is a rusted aluminum storage shed, a mildew-covered 70s-era church bus, saw horses, a dresser mirror (sans dresser), and the large set of oak chairs that had caught my attention as I drove home from work.
‘Come on in, we’re open!” reads a sign, but I can not be sure if the sign, itself, is merchandise or if it is meant to signify that the establishment is open for business. A Hispanic woman walks past me. She is holding hands with a young boy, a child wearing a backpack. I am instantly self-conscious about my presence in the parking lot, the lost, clueless expression I’m wearing, and so I decide to hustle on down the garbage-flanked goat trail to the back door of the thrift store.
There is no overhead lightening in “Pap-Aw’s Closet,” but there is electricity. I know this only because a fan is running; an ancient floor model with steel face which oscillates in slow motion, blowing stale air and cob webs to the left. And the right. And the left…
Upon entering the “store,” I am overcome with the same variety of fear I always feel when Jodi Foster’s character, Clarice, enters the home of James Gum in Silence of the Lambs. But Clarice has a gun and extensive training on how to use it. What do I have? I have a low threshold for tears and a desperate need for affordable chairs, that’s what.
I see no one and leave immediately. Peace out, creepy fan. Someone follows me out. I hear footsteps but don’t have the courage to turn and face them until I reach my car.
“Was you wantin’ somethin’?”
It is Pap-Aw. He is in his early to mid-seventies in age. He wears a pastel green Hawaiian print shirt and a thin mustache. He is clear-skinned and caramel colored.
“I was just going to ask about those chairs,” I say. I point in their direction.
“They good chairs. Solid oak. Come out a old schoolhouse,” he says.
I walk toward the chairs and have a seat on the one that is neither triple-stacked nor covered in trash. It is just as he described. Oak. Sturdy. Very comfortable. I could see these in the dining room. All I’d have to do is clean out the spider eggs, scrap of the petrified chewing gum with a flat-head screwdriver, and cover the graffiti with Kiltz and a couple coats of paint.
“How much you asking for them?” I ask.
“Fifteen dollars for a pair,” he says. That is an amazing price for sturdy, matching chairs. I am looking for a dozen, you see. Our dining room table is eleven feet long. We sort of forgot about chairs when we bought it two years ago. Anything X 12 = more than I want to pay, so this is the deal I’ve been waiting for.
“Thank you, sir,” I say. “I’m going to come back with my husband. He has a truck.”
“You do that,” Pap-Aw says. “I’ll be up here tomorrow after church.”
Todd and I return the following day. After church. Pap-Aw is there. He is wearing the same pastel green shirt with hibiscus flowers, but today (presumably because of the church service he has attended) the shirt is topped off with a sport coat. It is tomato-red with brass-toned buttons.
“I’ll take the chairs. I just want two today – need to make sure they’re the right height and all. If they work, we will come back for the rest.”
“That’ll be fifteen dollars,” Pap-Aw says.
“Here you are,” I say. I hand Pap-Aw a twenty dollar bill. He pulls a handful of coins out of his pocket, then tells me he doesn’t have enough change. He doesn’t go inside to get change out of a cash register, because there is no cash register. There is not even a little metal cash box like what people have at yard sales.
“I guess keep the change,” I say. “When I come back for the rest of the chairs, you can give me the five dollar credit.”
“Just remind me,” he says, but I know I wont.
I clean, prime, and paint the two test chairs. I am happy with the result.
So you’re up to speed now. Up to today.
I go by “Pap-Aws” again. Today. After work. This is my third trip, but I’m still frightened by the store. It smells. It’s hot and dark. This Pap-Aw character always takes a few minutes to run down. I have to walk this way and that calling, “Hey, you in there?!” But I go, because I am dying to get a full dozen chairs. I could have them painted and ready before Thanksgiving. I really want them, so I go. I wrangle Pap-Aw, tell him I need more chairs, and I say I’ve room for four more in the back of my car.
“Go on and take what you want,” he says.
“Thank you. It’s just that there are things on the chairs that I don’t want to damage.”
“It’ll be alright,” he says. “Move it off.” But the thing is that I can’t. The “things on the chairs” are enormous sheets of plywood and plate glass. I can’t move them off without breaking them or injuring myself. He looks out at the mess and agrees to help me. together we walk to the messy pile of chairs, and as he raises the plywood so that I might crawl under and fetch one of the chairs, a pick-up truck pulls up.
There are two guys in the truck. They are slim and roughly my age. They look like mug shots and they smell like ash trays. How to describe these dudes: like the kind of men who eat beanie weenies directly from a can while sitting on a tailgate (and NOT on a camping trip). Those guys. The sort of men whom you sometimes see relieving themselves on the shrubbery in a field adjacent to a K-Mart. They are staring and me, and they hate my guts. I can just tell. It is visceral.
The driver of the truck hops out and walks toward us. “Pap-Aw!” he shouts.
Pap-Aw nods at the mug shot man, pulls a chair loose, and then shakes his head. “This one is missing the cross bar,” he says. I take the faulty chair from him and put it aside.
Mug shot looks at me and says, “You’re a teacher!” It is an accusation.
You’re a criminal! I think to myself. But maybe I’m wrong. I’m not a teacher, so he is certainly wrong about me.
“I’m not a teacher,” I say. “I’m just getting chairs.”
Mug shot starts pacing. Pacing and smoking. He and the passenger in the pick up exchange knowing glances as Pap-Aw and I forage through the chairs. Pap-Aw finds a chair that is too short, one that is busted across the back, and then two more “good ones.” The process takes forever. And the scaring guys, they don’t walk around and feign interest in the junk or anything like that. They just wait impatiently for their turn with Pap-Aw.
“Okay,” I finally say. “That’s all I can hold this trip.” I close the hatch of my car, settle up with Pap-Aw, and drive away.
The whole drive home, I wonder what is happening over at “Pap-Aw’s Closet.” No one (other than me) appears to be buying any of the merchandise. These guys in the truck, I can assure you, aren’t shopping for chairs. So what, they’re all friends? Pap-Aw is twice their age. He is clean and goes to church. He smells of aftershave. The odds that he is friends with the chain-smoking boys in the pick-up – it doesn’t compute. The ethnicity of the men involved would suggest that the shop owner isn’t their biological Pap-Aw. What is it, then? Shady goings-on, I tell you. I’m nevertheless going back for the last six chairs. I’m just that desperate to complete the set. These chairs; they’re such a good deal! I’m bringing my husband, though. I’m bringing my husband, and maybe a bottle of mace.