In light of the current political climate, it’s hard to know what the word truth means. We hear conflicting stories about the “Wall” and the government shutdown, often from the same person, and yet scores of Americans believe whatever they are told no matter how contradictory the messages. As “truth” seems to be fluid and subjective, people find comfort in digging in their heels and believing that whatever it is they believe is The Truth.
This morning I was at the Tuten Penland Auction previewing before Friday night’s auction. I love Johnny and Tommy and enjoy shooting the breeze with them. In the car on the way over there I was listening to an engaging book on tape, The Leftovers, by Tom Perotta. I just started listening to it, but it is great so far. At the opening of the book on an ordinary October day, thousands of people from all corners of the world disappear. Ordinary people are stunned into suddenly being confronted by The Rapture. Nonbelievers feel silly that they poo-pooed the Bible story about virtuous Christians getting taken to heaven to their reward. They regret laughing at people on airplanes reading books from the Left Behind series. Religious people, though, are appalled because those taken are not just devout Christians: people of all religious paths, young people, old people, and every kind of person have disappeared. One year later at The Memorial Parade, a Christian minister carries a banner proclaiming the “October 14 was NOT The Rapture.” Yet no one understand exactly what has happened. What has happened? What is true?
While Johnny Penland and I discussed how hard it is to discern the truth, he told me that a friend of his always says, “Remember that there are always two sides to every story. Sometimes three.” It made me remember a man who used to be a regular at the auction, but has disappeared, albeit not to Heaven. I always puzzled about what his story was.
The man looked a lot like Santa Claus, but without the jolly demeanor. He was short and round, his prodigious belly held up by a strong belt. He wore a cap and had magnificent whiskers, big and white. His taste in merchandise ran across the board; he liked anything Asheville, anything Biltmore, anything Coca-Cola, anything advertising. In short, he liked everything, and when he started bidding on an item, he would not stop until he had won, no matter the cost. Each week he dropped at least $1000.
Others at the auction grew to dislike him, because he bought up everything and people couldn’t get items they really wanted. A few began playing with him by bidding against him until the price was way beyond the value of the item. Then they would quit, forcing him to buy the item at inflated price. He didn’t seem to care, though, but just kept right on bidding. He needed a large truck to carry off his winnings every week.
One day I asked him if he had a shop he was buying for, but he said that he planned on keeping everything. He said it all would appreciate in value, and he would have a nice nest egg someday. As he had already overpaid for almost everything, his goal did not seem practical. The previous week I had scored a large collection of Mexican pottery for twelve dollars and enjoyed looking at it in the cupboard on my front porch. That night he had bought a table lot of junk and was packing it up. On the table were a few dinner plates matching my Mexican set. I thought it would be nice to add those to my display. I asked if he would sell me those plates and he refused. It seemed strange, but I had to accept that.
I asked Johnny what had happened to that guy as I haven’t seen him for a long time. He told me that the man had inherited some money and used it to collect stuff at the auction, and had filled up a warehouse. He was married, and his wife got sick of him, and filed for divorce. He was furious and lost it, throwing his phone at a judge and threatening the police. He claimed that his wife had already taken her share of the inheritance, using it for cruises and expensive vacations without him. The judge ruled, however, that his assets be auctioned off and the proceeds split with his wife. When approached by the court, Johnny was not excited about re-selling the items the guy had bought and told the judge that if he agreed, the man would not be allowed to be present at the auction. Johnny believes that a sale was held somewhere in South Carolina and that the guy was there carrying on. No doubt the sale brought far less money than the guy expected. What was the true value of all that stuff?
John Banville writes in Ancient Light that any work of memoir is necessarily mendacious. I am currently working on a short story about my father. As I remember events of my early years, I am amazed at the light-hearted and sweet moments that come back to me. The story I tell myself is that my father was a liar and a scammer and that he was always mean to me. I have pushed to the back of my mental desktop the charmer he could be. Even though I, of all people should know the truth of my own life, it turns out I am not sure even about all that.