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In the box 

On faulty aquariums, fake tattoos and an earthenware rhino

Mermaid and Bobby lasted exactly one day -- ONE! -- before I found them dead -- DEAD! -- like little mafia hit victims floating in the murky water of my practically new (kinda) mini aquarium I got at a garage sale for three bucks. My girl had named the goldfish before we'd even bought them at PetSmart, and I swear they would have lasted longer if we'd just left them in that baggie they came home in. I should not have believed that woman who sold me the aquarium. I should not have hung the whole lives of my girl's goldfish on this woman's testimony that "everything you need is right there in the box."

And to top it off, I almost didn't buy anything at all at that garage sale, because all the good stuff was already gone, which I should have known before even getting out of my car. It was 11:30 a.m., and any bovine knows you've got to get out in the neighborhood before 11:30 on a Saturday if you want to have a hope of scoring decent second-hand loot. But I wasn't specifically trolling for garage sales that day. I just stopped in on the way to meeting Daniel and Mitch and their friend from Australia, Diane, who had hickies on her tits from a recent tryst in Havana.

Diane needed some temporary tattoos to paste on her chest before flying to New York to meet her boyfriend the next Monday, and we figured, rightly, that The Junkman's Daughter in Little Five Points would be a good place to start. I agreed to go along, even though I've been quasi boycotting that place ever since the first time I went in there and some big guy came up behind me, put his hand on my shoulder and actually said, "I need your bag."

Normally my reaction would be to call the police and report an attempted robbery, but since I was in some trendy store, I guess it's OK for a hulk with tattoos and hardware hanging off his skin to demand I hand over my purse. I guess the purpose is to "check" bags and bulky purses at the door, thereby allaying theft opportunities. But why should I trust them with my purse when they don't trust me in their store? So it's my standard to boycott places that practice this invasive method of theft deterrent, but The Junkman's Daughter makes it fairly hard for me because there really is a lot of cool stuff in there.

It doesn't help, either, that I happen to actually be the daughter of a bona fide junk dealer. Granted, it was my mother's second career, but one that was much closer to her heart than the career she had while whoring herself for the government to support her family. When I was young, she used to pull me in close by the collar to impart this piece of ancestral wisdom: "Kid," she'd say, "you can never have enough stuff."

And that was our family motto, pretty much. Our house was a temple to the fashion vortex of every decade since the '50s. We had macrame plant holders, shag carpeting the color of aging pumpkins, beaded curtains hanging in the threshold -- and rattan, rattan, rattan, honey. My mother once bought a massive opium pipe and set it on a pedestal to accessorize the living room. She thought it was pretty.

When she got laid off for the last time from her job making bombs for the American military, she went into business selling second-hand stuff at swap meets. The local paper even printed an article about her, titled "From Missiles to Miscellaneous," which featured an unflattering picture of her wearing a coin belt standing next to an ornately carved Catholic confessional on sale for only $70. When she bought it at an auction the night before, she thought it was a coffin, which I thought was fitting.

But my mother's business sense wasn't as bad as I'd anticipated. Her best friend was the infamous Bill, who has become an honorary family member and now runs a $5-a-night pensione with my sister Cheryl in Nicaragua. My mother had met him at an estate auction, where they had both vied for a box of broken ceramic beagles. He was living in his car at the time. By the time the newspaper took my mother's picture, Bill had scored an apartment on the beach and he was working the booth next to her, selling almost life-sized inflatable plastic whales, "with hardly any leaks, and most of them slow."

By the time my mother died two years later, she and Bill were business partners, and they owned a warehouse the size of a soccer field stuffed to the rafters with magnificent junk. Birthday candles and drill bits shared the same shelf space with underwire bras and garden hoses. One of my favorite photos is of my mother sitting amid all this jumble, smiling, with a big earthenware rhino in the background. Looking at that picture now, I see that her smile is a little weary. I see that, unlike me, she probably would have known not to buy a faulty aquarium at a yard sale. "Of this I am certain," I can hear her say, "everything you need is never right there in the box."

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