By Wendy Hodge
Leaving Opelika and driving up Highway 280, just a few miles from the Georgia line, sits a two-acre patch of land covered with dusty, red, Alabama earth. Five days a week, it is deserted except for a few lopsided wooden tables underneath a wooden overhang. It is parched and lonely, as if neither a breeze nor a soul has moved over the surface in ages.
But on the weekends, just as the sun is waking up, the Lee County Flea Market turns that two acres into THE place to be in Smith Station, Alabama. Row after row of folding tables are set end to end, a straggly line of ragtag soldiers at formation. There, in the half light of dawn, vendors pull their wares from the backs of pick-ups or the hatchbacks of SUVs, nodding silent hellos to each other as they get ready for their 12-hour day.
And then the shoppers arrive… by the truckload. Literally. Parking is haphazard at best, and the ruts in the soil are deep. Imagine a roller coaster in slow motion, but with no track. It is not for the faint-hearted. Or for anyone in urgent need of a restroom.
A couple of weeks ago, my best friend and I spent a few hours on a Saturday morning strolling through the merchandise. It was the first time for both of us at this particular flea market. We wandered from table to table, and the heat moved relentlessly right along with us. There is no rhyme or reason as to the groupings of items for sale. A table with used books and DVDs was flanked on one side with racks of new (still in the package socks) and on the other side with crates of live chickens and goats. Some of it is junk. Some of it is cute and crafty. Some of it is, I am convinced, stolen. And some of it is pure antique treasure. The chatter of neighbors and strangers (Spanish-speaking, English-speaking, and Redneck Alabama-speaking)… and livestock… fills the air, mixing with the sugary aroma of funnel cakes and lemonade. It is intoxicating.
Just as we were beginning to wilt from the heat, I caught a flash of blue from a table in the distance. I follow that blue flash until I am standing in front of a table filled with pots and pans and baking dishes and table lamps. Almost hidden behind a stack of Tupperware, is a set of four cobalt blue drinking glasses. I am a sucker for cobalt blue. They are long-stemmed and delicate, and my fingers reach out of their own free will just to touch one.
“How much?” I ask the gentleman behind the table.
“You can have the set for two dollars.”
I gasp and may have squealed with delight. “I’ll take them!”
“I think I have a set of dishes that matches those. Let me check,” he says over his shoulder as he bends to search under the table. A sign is taped to the end of the table which reads “Sam’s Stuff.”
I grin at my best friend who is smiling. “I like watching you light up like that,” he says.
From under the table comes a muffled voice (Sam, I assume). “I thought I had a set of these.”
And he lifts a box and opens the flaps for me to see. It’s a set of eight dinner plates and salad plates. They are the same shade of blue, and they look as if they’ve never been used.
“How much are they?” I ask.
“Five dollars for the set sound fair?” Sam answers.
“I’ll give you six,” I say, letting my excitement get ahead of my math.
“You’re the queen of hagglers, Wendy,” laughs my best friend as he lifts the box to carry them to the car.
I hand over my money, and Sam winks a farewell to us.
“Let’s load these up and keep shopping,” my best friend says loudly over the braying of a miniature mule in the stall next to us. “But let me do the negotiating.”
By the time we were ready to leave, the car was loaded with homemade beef jerky (my best friend prefers the spicy stuff), a T-square (because my best friend happens to be a very handy man), and an end table (for my new apartment). My cobalt blue treasures rested in my lap and reflected the light through the window. We congratulated ourselves and each other on the bargains we’d found and smiled all the way back to Opelika… because the weekend was spread out in front of us and because we were together.
Today, I am alone for a bit on this Saturday morning and decide to stop by the Flea Market on my way to Opelika. This time I am not shopping, just looking… and listening. As chaotic and dusty as it is, it’s also the perfect place to witness so many stories. There’s the Vietnam vet who buys and resells electronics with his service dog by his side. He’s lost everything and everyone, except for T-bone, who looks at his master with sheer love on his face. A few tables down is the local “bee man” who sells honey cultivated from his own hives. His son, born with Down Syndrome, hugs everyone who buys a jar. At the back of the field, under a huge oak tree, is the Hispanic family with a dozen kids who raise goats and chickens for sale. Each of their animals has a name, and one of the children will tell you a story about whichever one you decide to buy and take home with you. Juanita, their albino chicken with the pink eyes, tries to peck at my fingers when I reach out to touch her. I am convinced she is possessed by the devil himself.
Just as I am ready to leave, I pass by a table with handmade wooden signs – “If you want dinner in bed, sleep in the kitchen” and “I identify as a skinny supermodel” and “Because Granny Said So!” all hand-carved and painted in bright colors. In the midst of all that is a white piece of wood with these words carved in a simple script – “Every Minute is a Lifetime, and Treasures are Every Single Where.” Smiling, I pick it up and flip it over. On the back is a signature – Miss Gussie.
A hand reaches out and touches mine. Dark eyes set in a cocoa-brown face. And a smile that radiates. “I’m Miss Gussie,” she says in a soft voice.
“That was my grandmother’s name,” I say.
And just like that I am crying. Nothing dramatic, just silent and slow.
“Well, sugar,” Gussie says to me as she puts her arm around my shoulder. “I think this should belong to you.” She closes her hand around mine and nods at me.
“Thank you,” I say and reach for my purse.
“That’s a gift,” she says, firmly but kindly. “Enjoy that, child.”
No one has called me child since my grandmother held me close and comforted me, so many years ago.
I thank her again and walk to my car, not even hearing the noise around me any longer. I turned my car toward home, silent and lost in memory. Remembering my own sweet Gussie.
By the time you read, this I will have completed yet another trip around the sun. Another 365 days. Another 8,760 hours. Another 525,600 minutes. If the sign I’ve just bought and Miss Gussie are correct, that’s 525,600 lifetimes I’ve been granted since my last birthday. I’ve tried to live each one to the fullest. This much is true, because of the people I love, there is sweetness in every single one of those minutes….even the not-so-happy ones. Because I am alive. I am here, underneath this sun, and there are treasures “every single where.”