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Bidding for a Bit of Iowa

The woman in the trailer held out a heavy white card and said, "You'll be No. 51." Then she took my $5. Anywhere else, I realized, she would have made the exchange in reverse. But I was becoming accustomed to these rural niceties. A week before, I'd lost my wallet in the grocery parking lot. Before I'd even noticed it was missing, a white-haired farmer in a seed-company hat was standing at my door, handing it to me like it was my mail. We'd learned in a short time that nobody in town locked their cars or their houses. (We still did.) And by the time that farmer had driven off, I'd learned something else about Iowa.

Now I looked at the white card:

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Brinkmeyer Family Auction Company. Farm Machinery. Real Estate. Household & Antiques. All sales final and must be settled for on day of sale. Thank you for attending our auction.

When I looked up, the woman was gone. "Thanks," I said into the trailer, and back came a hardy, "You bet!"

I caught up with my wife, Sharen, who was already in the backyard. "Let's not go too crazy," she said, pulling me toward the crowd. The yard was much like the one I'd grown up in back in Providence, except that the air smelled like a greenhouse, and to look beyond the fence was to travel for miles over rolling hills, rows of seedling corn, oceans of sky. It was a view so immense that it still took me a minute or so to take it in whenever I noticed it. And I couldn't help noticing it often, displaced Easterner that I was.

This yard, too, was a maze of furniture, farm implements, hand tools, bicycles, a washer (what Iowans call a "war-sher") and dryer, and assorted other items that make up a home over time. There was a sizzling hot-dog stand, only they were selling bratwurst. A soda stand, only they called it pop. Atop a hay cart piled high with boxes, a tall man (Brinkmeyer?) cleared his throat into a megaphone. He spoke with two boys (also Brinkmeyers?) fishing through the boxes, then he leaned on one knee and said into the megaphone: "We'll start with this here box, ladies and gents. Fishin' tackle, jar of buttons, handmade patchwork quilt, and ... what are those, Billy, candy jars?" The boy shrugged. "Candy jars, then."

"It's a nice quilt," Sharen said, squeezing my hand.

"The fishing lures are still in their packages," I said through the side of my mouth. A small boy next to us tugged his mother's arm and pointed to the tackle box. She reached up to the quilt and felt the fabric.

"Don't go higher than $20," Sharen whispered.

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The auctioneer's voice cracked, "Let's start the bidding at $5, then. There's five, do I hear seven then? Seven, seven, and there's seven! And nine? Nine? Nine?"

"Fifteen!" I called out, thrusting up my card. I'd never been to an auction, and I felt bold.

"Fifteen! Do I hear $20, then? Twenty? Twenty? Twenty? Fifteen, and 15, 15....?"

The boy tugged his mother's arm, an amazed but undefeated look in his eyes, acquiescence in hers.

"Eighteen!" she called.

"Twenty!" a man yelled behind me.

"We have $20, now, from the gent in the striped shirt. Twenty five, five, five, and there's 25. Thirty, 30... Come on now, I'd pay $30 myself for the quilt alone."

Sharen took the card from my hand. But? But? I said with my eyes. She shook her head. I shook mine back at her. The boy tugged harder at his mother's arm until it finally lifted into the air.

"Thirty dollars from the lovely lady. Ma'am, that boy sure must like to fish. Do I hear 35, 35, 35?" Brinkmeyer scanned the crowd. "Thirty's going once, going twice, and ... sold!" He lowered the megaphone. "Billy, hand that lady the bargain of her life," he said.

For the rest of the afternoon, we followed Brinkmeyer and his speedy pitch from box to box, piece to piece. The bids we won were most often those that no one else seemed too eager to win. A crate full of paints and brushes. A tool belt. Bric-a-brac and gewgaws, enough to fill the back seat of our Honda. We hadn't spent much, but we were driving off with a genuine piece of Iowa, and when I finished school and we moved again, some of it would come with us. Driving back that evening toward the farmhouse we were renting, I watched the hills lose themselves in the shadows, the slice of moon materialize on the horizon. It was a landscape, a life, that for the first few months I hadn't been so sure about, but now it was undeniable.

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