Five years ago, my brothers and I drove to a vast flea market in Collinsville, Alabama, to buy a bantam rooster for our mother. We left with two ducks, two chickens, a Hamilton watch, two fig trees, a sack of green onions, a bone-handled pocketknife, a bushel of sweet potatoes, a four-way lug wrench, a goat named Ramrod, and a ball-peen hammer.
The goat, the size of a Shetland pony, butted my Ford Bronco so hard it rocked on its springs. That was why I bought the hammer. I was not riding back with that thing unarmed.
"Couldn't find a pistol?" I asked my brother Sam. Sam, who has always been serious, said he could have found one, easy, in the endless stalls and milling throngs of people, if he had known I needed one--that, or a banjo, a croquet mallet, or a rhesus monkey. The goat just glared at me, kind of walleyed. "Ain't he a dandy?" said my little brother, Mark.
It may have other names, this place. But for generations, my people have referred to it as Trade Day. Every Saturday, an eroded hillside explodes with color and sound, covering acres of gravel, rock, and mud with junk and treasure. If you want it, ever wanted it, or think you might want it someday, you can find it here. Quilt scraps and new and used clothes blow like banners, and ladder-back chairs and mule shoes sell next to Bear Bryant clocks, velvet matadors, mood rings, top-water lures, Dale Earnhardt action figures, and Burt Reynolds commemorative plates. I could not conjure such a place even in a fevered dream.
There are others around the South, but this is ours, a kind of clearinghouse for the vanishing skills of my people. Old men in overalls stroll with bundles of carved ax handles sanded so smooth they would not snag a silk stocking. Old women unfold patterns first traced on flour sack dresses in the time of the WPA, or Reconstruction, or The War. Crab apple jelly shines like red gold in the sunlight next to jars of honey, the comb glistening inside. There is macramé so intricate it would make a spider quit his web, just steps from bins of rusted drill bits, crosscut saws, ancient cutting boards, sunflowers the size of truck tires, hammer dulcimers, hickory nuts, and gingham bonnets, just like my grandmother Ava wore every hot day of her life.
I can mark most years of my life with purchases here. A baby duck, when I was 6. I carried it home inside my shirt to keep it warm. At 10, a harmonica I would never play, except for one long, asthmatic moan. A ukulele, at 12. I never learned to play that either. At 17, it was a Creedence Clearwater eight-track tape (it stuck on "Run Through the Jungle") and racing mirrors from a '69 Camaro.
My cousin negotiated a pistol. "Does it shoot?"
I have never seen a monkey for sale, but that doesn't mean they never had one. High on the hill--upwind, inevitably--are fightin' roosters and guinea hens (said to eat snakes), Poland China piglets, rabbits, and some of the finest dogs I have ever seen. I love to linger near the coon hunters with their redbone, bluetick, and black-and-tan hounds with bloodlines that reach back to the Bible, and listen to the lies...I mean testimonials. "Does he hunt?"
I guess there is some junk here, but I never took any of it home. Only treasure. We secured the goat with logging chain. "If he gets loose," I said as I turned the key, "I'm bailing out, and leaving him with y'all."