Mr. Howard

Mr. Howard

Mr. Howard greeted the day by clipping on his bike helmet, gliding out his driveway, and putting a foot down at the mouth of Appleberry Court. From there, east or west, he let his front tire choose. It guided him like a divining rod as he wended through the streets, scanning the sidewalks, medians, and gutters for trash worthy of a second life. Cars sometimes announced their presence with a honk, and he’d waved them on. “Saw you first,” he’d mutter. He could decipher the green of cash from that of leaves. He’d plucked pennies from dirt. Somehow he didn’t glimpse Sam before Sam t-boned him on the bike path downtown.

“You okay, my friend?” Sam said. A grease-spotted Hawaiian shirt tarped his belly. Wisps of white hair poked through the slats in his lime green helmet. “Whoopsie-daisy.” He extended a hand.

Mr. Howard, who’d landed on a toyon bush, picked up his bike and brushed off. “I’m fine. No damage done,” he said. A patch of skin below his elbow glistened. He re-tucked his shirt.

Sam’s bike was a brother to his own: panniers saddled the back wheel and above them a milk crate was strapped to the rack. The handlebar basket held a tangle of bungee cords—and a dusty but perfectly good Christmas platter. Mr. Howard understood this kook to be competition. Dirty, disorganized competition.

“My name’s Sam,” Sam said.

“I’m Moffett.”

“Well, Mr. Moffett—“

“No, it’s Howard.”

“Okay then, Howard.”

“No, Mr. Howard. Mr. Moffett Howard.” How many times had he had this exact conversation? “Mr. Howard is fine,” he said.

“Mr. Howard, I will look where I’m going next time. I get so focused on the ground…” Sam finished his sentence with a flutter of his hands, then rode off, jerking side to side—like a first grader, Mr. Howard thought.

Mr. Howard had started riding the day after he retired—“Early retired,” Mrs. Howard barked whenever the subject came up. The wine distribution company where he’d managed shipping for 23 years had “strongly encouraged” him to step down after it put him through Six Sigma training and he failed the green belt exam. No part of him could pretend shipping was karate, and he didn’t warm to 30-year-olds in ties acting like a “cause-and-effect analysis” was anything other than bald common sense. Rescuing and reviving what people had tossed aside became both his justice and his peace, until Sam.

Sam appeared the next week, and the week after, and the week after that. Each time he rolled up, tube socks stretched to his knees, he began a show-and-tell about what he’d found—so proud of himself—like he expected Mr. Howard to be happy for him. Then he’d wedge in some personal tidbit: He’d been at Altamont and hadn’t sensed any bad vibes. “Maybe it was the shrooms?” he said like nothing, like he hadn’t committed a crime. He built sculptures with the trash he picked up and then sold them—stoking consumerism, was what Mr. Howard thought. Sam took things that were of no use to people and made another no-use thing. Once Sam explained he was likely in the top 1% of farters, could fart on command. “It’s an underappreciated skill,” he said, “as you can imagine.” Mr. Howard tried not to.


Mr. Howard placed a rhinestone hairclip on the shelf in his garage labeled “Ladies Accessories.” He tucked a gardening glove in with “Tools.” But was a gardening glove a tool? He wavered. Mrs. Howard might call it a Ladies Accessory. She had big hands. He cleaned a silver bike bell with degreaser and a Q-tip until that nagging thought moved him to clear three fists of shelf space and click out a new category with his label maker—“Protective Gear.” He hadn’t finished enjoying this victory when his family flooded in.

“The time has come, Moffet,” announced Mrs. Howard, flanked by their son and daughter-in-law and Mrs. Howard’s poodle.

“I’ve got two words for you: garage sale,” she said.

Mr. Howard stepped back into his Office Supplies overflow, crushing a spool of scotch tape. She’d threatened it before, but she’d never come with backup.

“We could toss some of this, right?” his son said. “How about this pile of Leisure Wear? Nobody wears used leisure wear.”

“I could take it to Goodwill on your behalf,” his daughter-in-law offered. “You’d get a tax write-off.”

None of them understood. You slap on a price tag and people want what they don’t need, which was why so much ended up on the street. How many bottles of $60 wine had he shipped that weren’t any better than the $20 bottles? Just because some guy probed a delicate glass with an obscene nose saying, …cherries, blackberries, vanilla, cigar… old shoe leather. It didn’t matter. People were easily duped.

“Keep a few things if you have to, but no more than will fit in your grave,” Mrs. Howard said lifting a string of wicker lobster lights with the tip of her finger.

He pictured it—swarming strangers, touching and poking his finds, their pockets fat with cash. It gave him the feeling he’d had at his proctologist’s office with the doctor ahem-ing under his hospital gown.

“Think about it, Dad. We can pop open the garage door, set this stuff on tables in the driveway. It’ll be epic. I’ll grill up some bratwursts, get a pony of IPA.”

“Bad idea,” he said. “No sale. No how.” He shoved his fists into the pockets of his jeans. When his daughter had left for college, he’d wanted to display his World War II model planes in her room, but Mrs. Howard said she needed the space for her quilts. When his son left, Mrs. Howard said they needed a guest room and that war paraphernalia was inhospitable. “Bombs and guns and D-day, that’s what they’ll dream about.” So he’d been pushed into the garage like a bad dog, and his doghouse was now his empire of America’s forgotten, overseen by planes that hung by fishing line from the ceiling.

“It’s happening,” said Mrs. Howard. “Next Sunday. This has gone on long enough. El Niño’s coming and I want to park inside, damn it.”

“You don’t want mom to haul groceries in the rain, do you?” his son said.

The poodle eyed Mr. Howard, cocked its manicured head to the side. Mr. Howard thought to punt it.

“That’s a negative,” he said, but they were already turning to leave, and stronger resistance, he’d accepted long ago, would backfire. He could yell, You never think about what I want, because it’s true, that’s how he felt. But she’d strike back with, Never? So you’re saying I’m a selfish cow. I guess that’s what you think of me. You don’t even like me. Over the years he’d taken refuge in a quieter warfare, cooking their hamburgers to well-done when Mrs. Howard liked them medium, pretending he couldn’t hear her calling from upstairs.

Alone again, he walked the aisles of his shelves, considering the jewelry, dishes, clothing, books, computer components, unending one-offs—a plastic Chewbacca mask, a Cuisinart blender, a sparkly purple dog purse. How many neighbors, delivery people, and door-to-door solicitors had he pulled into his garage? “See something you could use? Take it,” he’d say. “Better than buying a new one,” he’d say twice. It wasn’t charity. It was a lesson: need what you have, have what you truly need. He’d tell Mrs. Howard about his finds, or his kids when they called, but they’d change the subject. Sam was the only one who got excited for him, but then Sam was excitable, an excitable intrusion into Mr. Howard’s right-of-way. A garage sale meant Mr. Howard would have to yield the streets to Sam for at least one whole day, maybe more.


The evening before the sale, Mr. Howard’s son stopped by.

“You don’t have to help tomorrow, you know,” his son said. “We can handle it.”

Mr. Howard set down his paintbrush—he was touching-up a SpongeBob SquarePants mug—and consulted his nearest shelf. “You need that?” he said, pointing a desk lamp. “Take it while you can.”

“No, Dad, but, uh, thanks.”

“How about a socket set? Every man needs a socket set.”

Mr. Howard had once given his son a framed Picasso print he’d found leaning against a dumpster, but he never saw it hung. As it was, the art at his son’s place made him question whether he’d been a good father.

“I’m sorry about tomorrow. But this stuff—it’s not even vintage. You might want to… You might want to talk to someone about it.”

“Talk to someone?”

“Someone who could help.”

Mr. Howard squinted at his son with his feral beard and form-fitting jeans, and shook his head. “How about you take those clippers. Help with that thing on your face.”

“Nice,” his son said and crossed his arms. “Ha, ha.”

Mr. Howard returned to the mug, and his son stood pushing his beard up to his nose and letting it fall.


On the morning of the sale, Mr. Howard sat in a lawn chair to the side while his family chatted up neighbors and strangers, making no effort to hide their enjoyment. He jangled the watch on his wrist as he studied the flow of his things back into society, the cat-eye sunglasses that would once again straddle the bridge of a nose, the Barry Manilow disc that would slip softly into a car stereo, the unopened package of pantyhose that would dull a gnarl of varicose veins. He figured most of it would end up tossed again, that he might find the chain and locket that just sold hanging in the grate of a storm drain three months later. This made him no rescuer, no caped man for reduce and reuse, but simply what he had been for decades, a lowly intermediary in a system of oversupply and inflated demand.

He readied a last-ditch protest. Once they’d sold enough to accommodate Mrs. Howard’s car, he’d shoo everyone home. Half a garage was better than no garage. As he imagined the crowd unhanding his things and scurrying, he heard a voice calling from the street.

“Hey! What are you doing here?”

It was Sam, who braked and bumped into the mailbox.

“Oh Jesus Christ,” Mr. Howard groaned. He slowly stood.

Sam ambled across the lawn and shook his hand.

“I live here,” Mr. Howard said and immediately wished he hadn’t. Sam might target his neighborhood just to spite him.

“No way, I would have pegged you for a Silver Sun Homes guy.”

It was a retirement community with a sprawling golf course. Mr. Howard took the comment as, You’re soft and you like to play Go Fish.

“Looks like you got a lot of stuff,” Sam said.

Stuff I swiped from you, Mr. Howard thought. “That’s right, turning my loot into cash,” he said and then quickly added, “putting it toward the cruise of Mexico we’ll take this fall.”

Mrs. Howard heard this and raised an eyebrow. Mexico? she mouthed.

Sam began sifting through Mr. Howard’s finds, making Mr. Howard’s bowels rumble. It wasn’t enough to look, Sam needed to touch everything, to inspect from below, from both sides. He brought a few things to his nose and took a whiff, the spaz, and then he settled finally on a Hotwheels ‘63 Corvette. Probably a cherry for the top of one of his hippie sculptures some fool would buy for $500.

“How much?” Sam asked.

Mr. Howard eyed the car but could not name a price. He was against selling, but he didn’t want Sam to simply take more from him. Fifty cents was the figure that came to mind.

“You know, if you want to hang on to this one, that’s fine by me. I wouldn’t want to give her up,” Sam said.

Mr. Howard, ashamed now that he’d thought to charge him, blurted, “No, no. You have it. It’s a gift.”

Sam’s watery eyes widened and then softened.

“You sure? I’ll give you a buck. I picked up thirty-nine cents already this morning.”

The news pinched Mr. Howard, but he said, “No, I mean it. You have it, if you need it.”

Sam smiled under his dead dandelion hair, a smile transfixed on Mr. Howard, not the toy. And Mr. Howard recognized the look, had felt it on his own face many times. It was the proud, excited look of a new find. Mr. Howard blushed.


By the end of the day Mrs. Howard got her parking space. Mr. Howard was left with the job of re-categorizing and re-labeling, re-cleaning and re-displaying. He was a man picking up the pieces after a natural disaster, an earthquake or flood.

Over Sanka that night, he told Mrs. Howard, “What am I supposed to do with one camera and one DVD player? Put them together and call them ‘electronics’? That’s a lazy word.”

She shrugged and blew on her coffee. “You could get rid of the rest of it.”

“All of it, huh?” he said. “Every last thing. How about me, too? Get rid of me.”

“For god’s sake, Moffett, you really do think I’m a witch.”

In the morning he lay in bed listening to the birds, thinking about Sam out on the roads, free. Mrs. Howard and the poodle were at her knitting group, so he had the house to himself, but to what end, he couldn’t figure. With half the garage now brimming, where would he put new finds? He spent the day watching TV, doing crosswords, avoiding the garage where his bike leaned against a wall, an invitation he did not know how to answer. After a day of dawdling capped by a mostly silent spaghetti dinner with Mrs. Howard, he finally went to it, opened the garage door, and took to oiling the chain as the twilight faded. With the sky a navy blue, he strapped on a headlight and a taillight and rode out, leaving the garage door open.

He liked the sights: families huddled at their kitchen tables, glowing store signage, the hopscotch of streetlights down the more trafficked roads. He couldn’t see well enough to scavenge, and there was a calm in not having to look. Mr. Howard rode aimlessly, felt the cool night on his face.

After a few miles, he realized he’d wound toward Sam’s place, an area on the north end of town he’d avoided since learning Sam lived there. There was one large lot on Sam’s street. It held a stand of towering redwoods and was bordered with six feet of pine. Mr. Howard leaned his bike against the fence, and looked in both directions. He gripped the ledge, pulled himself up, and peeked over.

By the ambient streetlight, he saw a strange community. Figures, sort of, compiled from microwaves, golf clubs, skateboard wheels, cabinet doors, and other discarded things. The figures seemed at play there in the yard in the night. He dropped down and jumped back up for a better look, thinking they must be moving somehow, that they were electronic or part mobile, but they were stationary. He sensed that when he looked away, they would resume a secret game, a waggish sort of red light, green light they were playing, perhaps with him. That’s what Sam had done with the things people didn’t want anymore. How?

Aware someone might think him a prowler, Mr. Howard let himself down. He took a seat in the weeds and rested his back on the fence where his own garage came to him, all the things Sam could probably use. An umbrella—he had one with colorful panels. Or a folding chair—it could be broken down and repurposed in a thousand ways. He thought with some shame of the finds that sat unclaimed on his shelves, even after a full-day’s sale. All those years since they’d been used.

He’d be back to see Sam’s sculptures in the daylight. He’d bring offerings on his bike, could say since no one bought them at the sale, Sam could have them, no big deal. As he pedaled home, the moon still low in the sky, he imagined saying, “This old stuff? You take it.” He rehearsed different versions, considering what might sound the most natural, until his mind quieted with a thought. He wouldn’t need to bring or say anything. He could show up on Sam’s doorstep empty-handed and purposeless, and Sam would welcome him in.


About the Author

Kara Vernor’s fiction and essays have appeared in Ninth Letter, Gulf Coast, Wigleaf, The Normal School, and elsewhere. She has received support from the Elizabeth George Foundation, and her writing has been selected for Best Small Fictions, Best Microfiction, Wigleaf’s Top 50, and the W. W. Norton anthology, Flash Fiction America. Her chapbook, Because I Wanted to Write You a Pop Song, is available from Split Lip Press.


Photo by Sean Benesh on Unsplash