Free Stuff by Robert Boucheron

The custom in Belmont when they upgrade a piece of furniture or a domestic appliance or an exercise machine, or they have to move across the country for work and can take only what fits in a used subcompact, is to drag the old desk chair or vacuum cleaner or home gym out the front door and leave it on the sidewalk at the edge of the curb, and tape a scrap of paper or a flap torn from a cardboard box to what is after all a perfectly good whatever with scads of potential, though it may be dusty or stained or clogged in some unfathomable way, and then wearing only flip flops and a shirt they grabbed from the laundry pile, because there wasn’t time for chores, with a cold wind whistling between bare legs, bend down to scribble with a broken crayon or a dried-up magic marker Free Stuff.

It’s not even garbage day and practically on every block I stumble across abandoned property like unwanted infants exposed to the weather or the kindness of strangers. It squats on the bare concrete as cars whiz by and ignore the posted speed limit, and people on foot with dogs and portable devices in hand stride briskly past and yank the leash without looking. The words are faint or the wind has blown the paper backward or the angle is wrong, but I know before I get close enough to read the sign what it is. Ripe for the picking, the sidewalk special, a clear-cut case of finders keepers.

“It’s only trash,” Mrs. Harridan says. “Avert your eyes and pass on by without a backward glance.”

A box of books including paperbacks on civil rights history and progressive politics and some hardback mysteries left under the stop sign at the corner of Altavista and Viewmont. A low-rise entertainment cabinet on casters with the back peeling loose on Parkside West. An overstuffed armchair in a durable fabric on Bolling near Montrose. That was only in the past week. Today on Tufton I find a wad of manilla envelopes with gummed flap and clasp, a big glass jar of wine bottle corks, and a pile of wood offcuts from somebody’s new backyard deck and railing. I think I can work them into a project.

“Where do you intend to put all these things?” Mrs. Harridan says. “You live in a rat’s nest.”

An enameled tin for fancy cookies imported from Europe with a picture of a historic town square surrounded by tall gabled houses on Palatine at Avon. A one-gallon can for potato chips with the product shown actual size on the side and a joyous teenager about to insert one in a wide-open mouth on Castalia. A giant plastic bubble with a red spigot on the bottom to dispense jelly beans or chewing gum or something candy-coated on Hinton next to the Methodist Church.

“You’ll get sick handling food containers smeared with grease and unknown substances,” Mrs. Harridan says. “Who knows how long they’ve been outside attracting flies?”

There are items from another planet, purchased through mail order from a science fiction magazine and delivered by drone. A floor lamp arched like plant with a stem of flexible steel sprouting plastic pods on Azimuth. A black metal box with silver knobs, a knotted electric cord, a telephone receiver, and retractable trays, like an extraterrestrial fax on Meridian. A dayglow green mini-scooter tricked out with high handlebars, a studded leather seat, and dual exhaust pipes painted with flames on Zenith.

“Have some self-respect,” Mrs. Harridan says. “Don’t rummage through debris like a scavenger.”

Mrs. Harridan moves slowly with a three-pronged cane, and her eyesight is poor through thick lenses. She doesn’t see things the way I do. She sees solid waste, and I see possibilities. I try to explain about recycling and alternate use and extended product life.

“You walk too fast,” she says. “You dart ahead and leave me to fend for myself on the uneven sidewalk. What if I trip and fall while you root through another heap with your nose down and your tail sticking up in the air? Just because it’s free stuff doesn’t mean you have to paw through it like a dog.”

Household items have a story if only they could tell it. Where they were and what they did and who they came in contact with. Somebody bought them when they were new a long time ago and used them and loved them as much as you can love an inanimate object. The fatal day of parting arrived, a sad moment but tinged with hope, because somebody else might take them away to furnish a basement apartment or display in an avant-garde exhibit or sell in a shop for eclectic, one-of-a-kind odds and ends. Somebody like me. I stop in my tracks to look and listen.

Robert Boucheron is an architect in Charlottesville, Virginia. His stories and essays appear in Bellingham Review, Fiction International, Saturday Evening Post, and online magazines.