Weekends you’ll find me at the Treasures ‘n Trash flea market down on Old Grafton Road. All the regulars know me there; I’ve been a regular myself for nearly thirty years. The wife and I arrive early on Saturdays so we can be all set up and ready for the first treasure hunters by 6:30 AM.
The spots aren’t reserved but Thelma and I always stake out some territory at the far end of Aisle G. Harry thinks we’re crazy, because we’re so far from the porta potties and the fast food franchises, but it suits us. There’s nobody to our left and some woods behind, so we get a little peace and quiet, and some shade, too. And it’s a corner that’s easily overlooked by the revenuers…
We set up three tables every week. One displays my collection of old glass milk bottles, each one adorned with a dairy logo. I’ve got dairies from all over the state and a half-dozen from even further afield. I usually sell one or two a day. That’s okay, though, I’m in no hurry. Each one’s got a story and if they don’t sell, well, I still have my story, don’t I?
The second table is packed with Thelma’s quilts – we do a nice business on them. They look real nice and colorful sitting there and the tourists can’t resist. I tell them that the quilts are hand-crafted by my pretty wife. That gets ‘em. Thelma just smiles from behind the rickety table and continues piecing fabric.
The last table just has junk.
Once we get set up, I leave Thelma in charge and make my first per-am-bu-lation down the dusty, winding pathways of the market, to see what I can see. You really can find treasures this way, although half the time when I get back Thelma just sighs and points to our junk table. I protest, try to tell her what a great gadget I’ve found, or how useful this whachamacallit will be when it gets cleaned up a bit, but more often than not she won’t be swayed and the thingy goes onto the third table. Sometimes I sneak it off again when she ain’t looking.
When I’m done hunting it’s Thelma’s turn. I sit and greet the bargain hunters and she goes out, os-ten-sib-ly to get us coffee, but she does some hunting of her own. You wouldn’t guess it to look at her, all white-haired and rosy-cheeked, but my wife has the hunting instincts of a hungry tigress and that’s no lie. Besides the coffee, she usually comes back with some pre-plastic currency or maybe some old-format DVDs that you can’t find anywhere anymore.
But the best thing Thelma returns with – a reliable treasure – is gossip. I don’t know how she does it, but every week she comes back with some tidbit that makes my jaw drop. Like how Harry was marrying again and how his current two wives and their seven kids were all excited. Or that I ought to take a look at the bald newcomer in Aisle C because she thought he might be IRS. Or how Martine, who sells old science fiction books just a few spots down from us in Aisle G, was having an affair with both of the Smith brothers, her own competitors down on Aisle M.
I guess people just feel they can confide in my Thelma – she comes back with the most amazing stories. I hear all about it while we sit side-by-side in our folding chairs, drinking our coffee and eating some raspberry Danish we’ve brought from home.
One sunny Saturday afternoon we were sitting and eating our ice cream in the shade of the maples that grew in the undeveloped plot behind our tables. Business was slow but it was pleasant watching the silly tourists go by, my woman at my side, and no need to do anything but enjoy the breeze and the gossip.
I told Thelma I needed to see a man about a horse, winked, and strolled into the woods. Fifty feet in the noise from the hawkers and the visitors was just about swallowed up by the trees. I could hear just a murmur but I couldn’t see a blessed thing.
It was much nicer peeing here than walking the whole way back to the entrance to Treasures ‘n Trash where the porta-potties are. They’re clean enough in the morning but by late afternoon, with the sun beating down, the woods smelled a whole lot better.
I finished my business, and was about to return to my beloved, when a noise distracted me. It was a whirring followed by a crystal bell “ting!” at the end, and it seemed to come from off to my left.
Strange, I thought.
The land here was county-owned and was left natural as a buffer between the commercial district in the north-east and the state highway off that-a-way. When I was a boy, teenagers scared the younger kids with stories about how these woods were inhabited by zombies, gremlins and the like, but all I ever saw were some squirrels and a moose I named Chester.
I stepped carefully over a tiny stream and pushed the branches of a young spruce out of the way. Then I saw it.
It weren’t no squirrel. Not Chester, neither.
It was about five feet tall at the shoulder (and I call it a shoulder for want of a better word), hairy along its grayish-blue bulbous middle. There was a yellow lump on top of that tubby middle and four yellow legs in brown boots under it. The four blue hands – well, man-ip-u-la-ting extremities – radiating out from its middle were all busy. One was rubbing some fallen leaves against itself, two were holding some kind of keyboard and the fourth looked to be typing on it. There was a strong smell, but it wasn’t as bad as the porta-potties. In fact, it smelled a bit like cinnamon after-shave.
I think the critter had been seeing a man about a horse, too, or maybe about a hex-a-pedal herbivore.
A gentleman should excuse himself on occasions like this so I mumbled my apologies and turned to go.
I stopped in my tracks when the colorful creature opened one of its mouths and said, “Would you happen to have a three-inch purple doohickey?”
I was pretty shook up. I didn’t rightly know what a doohickey was and wondered if Thelma did; that woman knew everything. But even if I didn’t know whether or not I had one, the critter deserved an answer.
“Not sure. What’s a doohickey?”
“It’s a special kind of thingamabob which morphs into a preon gizmo when under gravitational stress.”
“Hmmm. I’ve got all sorts of doodads; perhaps we can do business. Wanna take a look?”
“That would be a fine thing. Gratitude goes out to you. My collaborator of the first rank will join us.”
I took this to mean that the critter had a partner or colleague. Well, the more the merrier, I say.
It said something into the machine it was holding, and all of a sudden the undergrowth some ten feet behind it was disturbed, the branches swaying to and fro. Another one of the creatures came out from behind a wild blueberry bush. It was a bit larger than the first guy and its coloration was reversed. It looked a bit like a giant blue-footed booby, and it was carrying a purple thingamajig in one of its yellow manipulators, turning it over and over. This critter was saying something that even to my human ears sounded rather heated.
I’m guessing it was the alien version of a certain four-letter word, but that’s just me.
“My name is Thorvald,” I said. “Pleased to meet you both,” I added for politeness’ sake. The second critter stretched out that grayish-blue lump of his momentarily and then said, “Mine is Hrkring. My collaborator of the second rank is calling himself Merkidot this solar cycle. Would you happen to have a purple doohickey? About three inches long?”
“I’ve already asked him,” Merkidot sighed.
“How about a thingummy? We need a transparent thingummy with retractable whatsises. And a thermal gimcracky of large but variable dimensions”
“I have all sorts of things on my third table and you gentlemen are welcome to come take a look. If I don’t have it, I’ll betcha someone at the market does.”
I led them over the stream and through the woods back to the flea market, only to discover all of our neighbors had closed shop for the day and Thelma beginning to pack up.
“What took you so long, old man?” She sounded aggrieved.
“I was having a nice conversation with these two… men. This is Hrkring and his collaborator is Merkidot. They need a three-inch purple doohickey which morphs into a preon gizmo and a transparent thingummy. Either of those things among the junk… err, treasures on the third table?
Thelma’s eyes widened in what I’m guessin’ was astonishment at first sight of our potential customers. But Thelma’s alright – she doesn’t have a prejudiced bone in her body.
“Well, let’s see. What does a doohickey do? Maybe we’ve got something that will do the same job.” I looked at Thelma with pride. Good question. Why hadn’t I asked that? She got right down to business.
Hrkring said, “It wraps around a sonic amulet and keeps the glitches out.”
“Is that a doohickey in your, umm, hand?” she asked.
“Yes, it is, but it broke when our vehicle and your planet tried to inhabit the same section of space-time. Now its molecules are hipurtated into rigidity but we need it to be flexible.”
Thelma pursed her lips and stood awhile in thought. And while in uffish thought she stood, I offered Merkidot and Hrkring the last of our raspberry Danish, and chatted politely while the little wheels turned inside my beloved’s head.
“I have just thing!” she exclaimed, picking up a small plastic egg from our third table – the one we reserve for junk of the finest kind. Harry calls it all “trash” because of the name of the market, but I prefer the eternal mystery of “junk”.
Thelma pried open the egg, which fell into two halves in her hand. Inside one half was some purple gloop. She teased an edge with one finger and worked the putty away from and out of its plastic shell slowly but surely.
“Watch this.” My bride rolled the putty between her hands, still strong and able as the day we wed. She made a small snake of it and showed it to Hrkring. “You can even see it morph. You can wrap it around anything and it will keep the glitches out, one hundred percent.”
“I despaired at finding a purple morphable doohickey on your planet but I perceive my ears can now relax,” Merkidot stretched his yellow lump and then telescoped it back in.
Hrkring said, “Gratitude to you both. What is the price for the doohickey?”
Thelma smiled. She said, “This is a very special purple doohickey. It is not only flexible but has many extraordinary properties.”
She demonstrated how one could twist, fold, and pop the putty, and even showed our guests how it could copy images. She stretched the putty all around and then pressed it onto my favorite comic strip from last Sunday’s newspaper. (We always have newspaper around, to wrap the merchandise for transport.) Thelma peeled the putty from the paper and triumphantly displayed the blurred image of a yellow-and-black cartoon tiger.
Merkidot rattled off something to Hrkring, and Hrkring responded by rotating 360 degrees while making the whirring-ting! noise I heard in the woodlands behind the market.
Hrkring then turned to me and said, “We shall report that you humans have highly advanced aesthetic sensory apparatus.”
I was a little confused but Thelma pushed a white curl off her forehead and said, “How nice. I will set it aside for you. What else can I show you gentlemen?”
“We are also in need of a transparent thingummy, preferably with retractable whatsises. Our own works well in nano-gravity but to reach escape velocity from your planet we need one of thicker skin.”
“A transparent thingummy…hmm,” Thelma mused.
I walked over to the right-most of our three tables, and considered the choices before me. Transparent, yes. I wasn’t sure about the retractable whatsises.
“How about this?” I asked, handing Hrkring a graceful hourglass-shaped milk bottle. It sported the outline of a contented orange cow with the words “Happy Acres Dairy” in an arc below her. One of his manipulating extremities grasped the waist of the milk bottle and brought it up to one of his four eyes, with the base of the bottle closest to his bluish lump.
More jibber-jabber between the customers. I didn’t understand a word so I just waited, and thought about suggesting to Thelma that we get some Chinese food for dinner. They jabbered some more. I swear, it can even make an easy-going guy like me vote to make English the official language.
Thelma yawned and then said, “So, will it work?”
Merkidot said, “The skin is thick and contains space-time in the perfect proportion. I believe it will give us the retro-boost required but Hrkring says we must have retractable whatsises.”
I rubbed my chin. It was getting late and most of the vendors had packed up and gone home already, but with a little bit of luck I’d be able to find some whatsises of the retracting variety. I asked them to wait, and circled around our tables and strode up Aisle G. At the first cross-lane I turned left and continued about a hundred feet. Yup, Danny was still there but he was packing up. He had jacks in his ears under the dreadlocks and was bopping around to some music so I had to raise my voice a bit to get his attention.
“Hi, Grandpa!” He was a good kid despite his smart mouth, and worked at the flea market every weekend selling office supplies to raise money for his graduate program in astrophysics.
“Hey Danny. I want to buy some ball-points.”
He sold me a package of a dozen with black ink, but then I turned back and bought another dozen with blue ink, which I hoped was enough. I headed back to Thelma and our two customers.
Thelma was laughing when I got there. “What’s the joke?” I said.
“Merkidot was telling me about the last time he laid an egg and the convolutions he went through to get it fertilized.”
I sometimes wonder how I’ve spent forty years with that woman. Everybody knows males don’t lay eggs. But see what I mean? Even strangers gossip with Thelma.
I shook my head and returned to the business at hand.
“Behold: retractable whatsises!” I declaimed, and clicked a Bic a few times.
Hrkring asked if he could examine our high-tech retractable solution to his intractable problem. He clicked and clicked some more. Then he dropped seven or eight of the ball-point pens into the milk bottle/thingummy. He held the bottle up to his eyes and appeared to squint through its transparent skin at the whatsises.
Merkidot took the remaining pens and said, “These will provide mutual coherence. Their spectral variation will allow us to fine-tune the moment of phase shift but we will have to retrofit them to the thingummy.”
Thelma set the whatsises aside too.
“The last piece of apparatus we need is a thermal gimcracky. It must be rather large but storable in a small 4-dimensional space. Hrkring must be able to deploy it using a single extremity, and its insulating qualities must be uniform and consistent, and at least 75 on the krepulian scale. Its color and aroma are unimportant compared with the metrical specifications.”
Thelma got that look in her eye which told me she was up to something.
She said, “I believe we have the highest quality thermal gimcracky in the galaxy right over here.” She pulled a quilt out from the bottom of her layered coverlet display.
She continued, “You see we have many gimcrackies. But this one is the one for you. It will keep your eggs and whatsises snug as a bug in a rug. It can be folded and unfolded with just one hand, or any extremity you like, if you lay it down on any two-dimensional surface, and when fully deployed it will cover a California-king size bed or both of you. And although you were too concerned about the other features to specify the color, you can see it has a lovely moiré pattern which will bring much joy to your vehicle. And better yet: the contrasting trim makes it even more valuable.”
Hrkring and Merkidot agreed that our thermal gimcracky would do the job about as well as anything else they were likely to find on this planet, so the next step was to negotiate a price for all the widgets.
Merkidot suggested that we might be amenable to giving them a discount since they were doing so much business with us.
Thelma pointed out that we had kept the store open well past our normal business hours, just for them.
Hrkring reminded us that he and Merkidot would have to retrofit the whatsises and that the delicate operation would take four to the sixth power lilopans, a unit of measure used for linear time that he could not, most unfortunately, convert for us into human terms. But time is money, they said, and we had to allow that this was often true.
I said it was only fair that a middle-man be allowed to make a few percentage points for the knowledge that brings two parties together, and that the retractable whatsises cost me a pretty penny.
Seeing their hesitation and wanting to press my advantage, I reminded them that we had provided them with one-stop shopping, only a short distance from their crippled vehicle. And I closed the sale by casually lifting up the purple putty and deforming it so the tiger grew before their very eyes.
Merkidot closed all four of his eyes, or maybe her eyes (I was still sure males don’t lay eggs but Thelma had done so well thus far that I didn’t want to intrude), whirred a bit and then opened them. He sat down on the ground, his yellow legs arrayed around him. Reaching into a pocket in the left rear boot, he withdrew some green rocks the size of ping-pong balls and a small gizmo, or maybe it was a gadget or a flapdoodle – hard to say.
He passed the rocks up to Thelma and the device to me. “I believe these will be equitable payment. The green rocks are beryllium alumino siliciate and the electronic unit will allow you to bypass all involuntary governmental-revenue enhancement petitions.”
I looked at my ladylove, her white hair coming loose from her bun, her apple cheeks blossoming into a smile.
The moiré-patterned thermal gimcracky was a water-stained moving company quilt that we used to protect Thelma’s handiwork between our house and the flea market. And the electronic gadget seemed like just the thing if that bald guy in Aisle C did turn out to be with the IRS.
“It’s a deal!”
We waved farewell and bon voyage.
“So, wanna get some Chinese take-out for dinner?”
This story first appeared in Eldritch Science June 2021.
Edited by Marie Ginga.
Melody Friedenthal is a librarian at a public library and a copyeditor for MetaStellar. In her spare time she's the chief bottle-washer for To Tell A Tale Writers' Group and is an affiliate member of the SFWA. Her work has been published in Tales From Shelf 804: an anthology, N3F, Bardsy, MetaStellar, and New Myths. She believes writing is a gateway drug, alpacas are cute, and dark chocolate is heaven.