At the Goodwill by my house, a regular cast of characters wanders the aisles, searching for hidden gems. Occasionally, there are treasures. The trick is to find them first. Ragtag, we circle, acolytes of good fortune. United in purpose, we summon luck: Work clothes and throwback Hall and Oates records amidst the Conway Twitty; flatware and heavy cutting boards, the wood not dulled by someone else’s blade.
When I was a kid, we didn’t shop at the Goodwill, though our financial situation recommended it. Rather, we did without. Mom stockpiled coupons. Clothes tumbled down from one kid to the next, a threadbare succession. Now, I’m here every day. The Goodwill is a safe space for castoffs, a penultimate stop before they spin out into irrelevance.
I walk circles through the store alone, stringing prayer beads: women’s clothes, housewares, electronics, records, books, repeat. Sometimes, though, I lock eyes with a stranger, just a glance. I feel her watching me as I watch her, objects sliding through our searching hands.
Certain objects carry mysteries, like the six green choir robes that have hung disembodied for a year. Was a local church shut down, its stained glass covered, and harmonies scattered? Did the choir trade up to a higher thread count, fattened by the insurance policy of faith? The robes hover, awaiting new voices to rise from their folds. They rest in that same position for weeks.
As a girl, I sat on an altar wearing a robe like this, waiting out long Episcopal Sundays. I went through the motions, holding crosses, or handing parched wafers to the priest glancing sidelong at a semi-circle of waiting teeth. I run a hand across the robes and call back the image. Spare change hits brass and I hear my mother’s alto lifted in praise. It comes so easily to her, this way of believing. As I dissolve into the memory, the robes edge back at my touch. I stand still and wait for lightning. I wait to feel alive inside of a peculiar kind of sadness.
When donations are processed at the Goodwill by my house, the fresh goods are best by definition. Brought out at random intervals, they’re announced with flair. The resale hawks cluster by the warehouse, orderly lists creating a sense of purpose. The rest of us walk crooked lines, attuned to the loudspeaker’s crackle. When the call comes, I’ll be looking at the marks on the bottom of a carafe or examining a pale blue sundress, searching for frays. I’ll be turning to leave empty-handed, shoulders angled toward the earth. But then: “All right…all right,” the man’s voice rises like that of an auctioneer. “We’ve got a freeessshhh rack of wares!” He revs: “Don’t be shy. Don’t be scared. Fresh rack of wares!”
From all corners, we beeline toward the swinging doors from which his rolling shelves emerge. In that moment, a shuffled universe reverberates. Picture frames rest alongside authentic “Len-Ox,” as our smiling MC says it. Open-mouthed Christmas angels lay prone in August, separating time from space. We eye the wares like relics, reaching hands toward the racks. We push in close, determined to touch them first.
These days, we are a carnival, we are a riot, all overflowing carts and “that’ll be $21.40, please.” I find an Albert Cooper record, no scratches, and six red polka-dotted old-fashioned glasses. I marvel at a leopard-print sweater, good as new, with an original price tag to prove it. All around me, conversations mask the buzz of fluorescence, low-voltage memory humming through the place. We shop and find our former selves scattered on the shelves. The Goodwill is a communion these days. It is connection. Stories slip out in Spanish and English and sometimes French. I stand in the aisle, electrified, and wait for the dead objects to speak to me.
Sometimes, though, fresh wares never arrive. The barometer drops, the light goes shrill, and my scars are on full display. Hand on a pair of slacks, I picture a woman in a walk-up who looks like my grandmother, a survivor seeking solace in a blue-tone Pall Mall haze. There is strong coffee boiling on the hot plate and rolled quarters in orange jackets on the dining table. Walking worn gray pathways, I see my mother in the choir loft, running prayers with light shards illuminating her face. These circles are a form of dialogue with the women who have shaped me. Yet what I’m looking for isn’t here. I stand beside a jumbled pile of Christmas decorations when it hits me, looking past them, and women “tsk” me: Get out of the way. All the while, those green robes hang defiant in their faith. The Goodwill is a place that gives, but it is also a place that takes.