The Mission

Posted on: June 19, 2014

It's Tuesday, and today, The Mission Thrift Store will put its new merchandise on the floor. I make a point to stop in each week to browse the new goods. Rice cookers, unopened undershirts, mismatched sheets—I like to pick through the shelves. I'm amazed by what people give away.

Do you know how many picture frames are donated to The Mission? Hundreds. And nearly all of them still have photographs in them. I don't know why the staff doesn't take them out. Maybe they think it's too sad to discard the photos; maybe they hope someone will feel inspired to replace it with their own photograph. I've never purchased one of these frames, but I make a point to visit the back corner shelf where they're all stacked.

I visit every Tuesday, but I find myself at the store a few times a week. When it’s slow at the office, or I can’t watch any more TV at home, I make a trip to the store. Some people go to church to reflect and find peace. I go to the thrift store for the same reasons.

I would be lying if I said I didn't also go there to see Sara. She's been working there nearly every day since I moved here four years ago. She works at the processing counter. It's Sara's job to decide what stays and what goes. She seems to understand the needs of the town—who might need a futon frame or a prom dress or copies of Chicken Soup for the Soul.

I round the corner and keep my head ducked from the cold. Spring feels far away today. Last week, I stopped by The Mission wearing only a t-shirt and shorts. Today, I'm bundled in an overcoat I bought for six dollars last fall. I reach the store and enter it, catching the door before it slams behind me.

Sara looks up from the counter and waves.

“Mike!” She smiles. She always manages to sound surprised to see me, but thrilled that I stopped by. I walk up to her counter and survey the box of junk in front of her. “I was hoping you'd stop by,” she says, “New merchandise today.”

She digs through the box and pulls out a curling iron. The cord is frayed and crimped, and the barrel is covered in rust. “I mean, who wouldn't want this?” She laughs, tossing it into a trash can behind her. “It's nice to see you,” she says.

“It's nice to see you, too,” I say. I want to tell her about the cherry blossoms frozen to my windshield this morning, how I thought they were perfect and complicated. Something about the last trace of winter mingling with spring, something like that. I want to tell her how I thought the mix was sad and beautiful and confusing—like her. But I would never say that.

I wouldn't even tell her how I thought of her when the cherry blossoms first bloomed a week ago. How the surge of pink and snow outside my window was a surprise: a new color against the bleak winter sky. What I want to tell her is that she looks so cute in her green apron, that the color makes her eyes sparkle. That the fluorescent overhead lights makes her hair shine, that her perfume somehow cuts through the musty smell of old clothes and furniture.

I want to tell her how each Tuesday, I linger in the back corner of the store looking at each photograph she sends to the shelf, what she deems worthy of keeping. “It's nice to see you, too,” I say again. I tap my hand on the counter and back away. “I’ll be in the back, checking out what’s new.”

Sara's digging through the box, not looking at me. “Mmhmm,” she says. “Have fun.”

I walk to the home goods section and begin to pick through the linens and hand towels. It's all so familiar, the usual thrift store fare: pineapple tea towels, green and khaki plaid sheets, personalized pillow cases: Some Bunny Loves You, Jeremy.

I arrive at the art and picture frame area. The shelves are especially full today. I spot a red bound photo album, reach for it, and open to the first page. The book itself is beautiful, hardly marked. Inside, photos are tucked between the cellophane pages. A family smiles back at me; three children are tan, hair sun-bleached and wavy. I flip through the entire vacation, then I close the book, feeling guilty for looking into their memories.

Out of the corner of my eye, I see a large, shiny frame. It's pearly and silver, like a frame for a wedding photo. I pull it off the shelf to inspect it. My throat goes dry. Looking back at me is a young woman with dark hair piled on top of her head. A long cathedral veil covers her face and drapes over her shoulders and strapless wedding gown. Her face is covered, but I know those eyes.

It was her idea to start coming to The Mission Thrift Store. She wanted us to have a ritual, she said. So, each week, we would get coffee, stroll the main drag downtown and end our evening browsing the shelves. Her favorite game was to make up stories about the people in the photographs. Kate could create a story from the top of her head—tangled, complicated stories of love lost and found, births and deaths. She would make me laugh so hard that Sara would have to shush us from the front of the store. We were married three years before she left.

Maybe she’s happier now. I always pictured her living out west—somewhere more dry and predictable than the east coast. I imagine her barefoot in a backyard somewhere, pinning clean sheets and undershirts to a clothing line. She has two children, maybe, and a dog that her neighbors tease her for. “He's too fluffy to live in the desert,” they laugh. She has everything she's ever wanted.

I peek over the shelves to see if Sara is watching. She isn't at the counter. I unbutton my coat and slide the frame under my arm. As I'm buttoning my coat, Sara appears. She says, “I'm sorry, Mike.”

I start to speak, to wave off her apology. How could she have remembered about Kate after all this time? I shake my head, but before I can speak, Sara says, “I'm sorry, Mike, but you can't just take that.” Our eyes lock, and I clench my hands into fists.

“Excuse me,” I answer, my voice low. I shove past Sara and push through the front door, and a blast of cold air hits me. I march down the street, the frame still stuck under my arm. My heart races, and I feel the sweat on the back of my neck as the wind whips around me. I look over my shoulder, but Sara isn't following me.

Written by: Whitney Gray Schultz
Photograph by: Emily Blincoe

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