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The Back Door

Jim Schepker

Jill used a small brass key that did not belong to her to slip through the back door of the thrift store.

Gil, her ex-husband, had forgotten that she still had this key. And what he didn’t know would someday, she hoped, hurt him. 

Hurt him badly.

In truth, instead of naming the shop Gil’s Thrift Emporium, he should have called it Gil’s Cheap Tricks.

Or maybe, better still, Gil’s Cheater Theater.

Because that’s what he was – cheap, and a cheater.

That’s why the shop had only one security camera located on its back wall, above the cash register, staring down the storefront’s center aisle.  One camera was, after all, half the cost of two.

Knowing the landscape, Jill sidled along the back wall behind the counter area, and then, standing directly below the camera, removed the black silk scarf draped around her neck and deftly arched it skyward until it settled, and then enveloped, the camera’s lens.

There was once a time, now many months ago, when Jill had loved this store. And Gil.

It began when she had been a loyal customer of Gil’s, often selling and trading for goods, or leaving items behind on consignment.  

Jill had always had a good eye for merchandise, a skill passed down from her Mom, a veteran tag sale and flea market huntress. From Mom, Jill had learned that there were always hidden gems out there, just waiting to be unearthed.  And Jill’s Mom was always up to the task – rain, sleet or snow.  In fact, bad weather often meant fewer miners and richer treasures.

Her Mom also introduced Jill to a gold mine of private wealthy collectors.  These loyal folks had taste, trust for Jill’s Mom, and best of all, they hated to haggle.

After her Mom passed, Jill continued the tradition – in part, to sustain the happy bond that had bound them so tightly on so many past adventures.

The hunts were also lucrative.  Jill often earned more from her buying-and-selling weekend outings than she did from the weekly drudgery of her admin assistant job at a local bank. Jill’s leisure lucre, she liked to think of it.

Jill had learned along the way that the skill of the good hunter began with identifying the right prey – the right tag sale addresses for her weekend forays.  These addresses were often not in the outer suburban, affluent neighborhood rings because those owners usually knew their merchandise and its value.

No, the right addresses were often found in the older neighborhoods at the city’s outer fringes. Many current owners there had inherited rambling homes from parents who were once wealthy but had later endured hard times.  Those parents had often passed along attics and basements stuffed full from their intercontinental travel days. But they had not passed along to their progeny the proper knowledge of the materials they had treasured. And now that next generation was eager to unload these burdens.

And for flea markets: The farther from the city, the better.  Old-timers out there often owned authentically good keepsakes, often American-made, that had been cherished and passed lovingly along through several generations.  And now, the impending sales of their rolling meadows and Victorian homes to eager real estate developers often called for the prompt, wholesale disposition of these goods so that those sellers could spread their snowbird wings and migrate south.

Jill had also learned to size up a site’s prospects in seconds.  The displays in tag sale driveways and flea market stalls were usually an assortment of the following:  racks or stacks of clothes… no, not today, not ever; furniture, never the large living room or bedroom items, but smaller end tables or bookshelves… possibly; rows of books, especially if leather-bound with gold engravings… maybe, probably; stacks of comic books… yes, but only if mint; paintings, porcelains and lamps… always worth a look; and jewelry, watches, or desktop paraphernalia… definite yeses.

Jill’s relationship with Gil had begun with simple business transactions.  She brought her finds to him, and he had always paid fair – and often more-than-fair – prices.  She could have, should have, questioned his generosity in those early encounters.  But she left it at that – just one dealer being kind to another.

As their relationship evolved, she steadily became Gil’s principal provider – in more ways than one.  He wasn’t sure what he liked more, Gil once said – the warmth of her deep-brown eyes, or her keen eye for good deals. A fancy Elizabethan settee, in the shop’s backroom, with its rich red satin, had become their daily place to huddle – and cuddle.  

After their marriage, Jill continued to scour the city’s neighborhoods and outer rural rings on weekends, but with an added lover’s fervor.  She was now supporting a business and a household.

But soon, subtly at first, and then abruptly, that began to change.  Gil no longer seemed to prize her treasures.  He began to challenge her purchases, even saying that she had overpaid for many of them.  “Jill, you’re going to give me a heart attack with the money you’re pissing away,” he once bellowed in slurred words at the end of one of her long days, a day when she had just purchased three Albrecht Durer engravings for $1 each.

And the harder she searched; the more heartlessly cruel Gil became.

There was that downpour Saturday when she had spotted several porcelains that she suspected might be Song Dynasty pieces.  She made a quick, low-ball offer to the owner.  “No, I don’t think so. I really don’t know much about them – except that Mom loved them. So I just don’t think I can let them go for that” was the seller’s response, a response that told Jill two things:  The items had a sentimental value for the daughter, but not a financial one.  After returning to her car, Jill’s dog-eared copy of Dynasty Antiquities, nestled in the glove compartment, confirmed that the faint, cornflower-blue marks she had spotted on the porcelain undersides did, indeed, make them very valuable.  After she returned and paid the owner’s asking price, $48, she rushed back to the shop to share her treasures.  

And Gil’s response: “I don’t really care how much you think they’re worth.  My customers hate that kind of chintzy, useless crap. So don’t ever bring any more of it around. Ever.”  Gil’s passion for collectible treasures, and for her, had been, she was learning, passing.

At the end of another long weekend, Jill returned to the store to find a pile of black plastic trash bags filled with gaudy, carnival-style stuffed animals.  When she questioned Gil, he told her that he was doing a favor for a very good customer, and that the “lovable little critters will sell like hotcakes.” Seeing her furrowed brow, he then added that Jill was “… losing your sales touch, and worse, your touch with the real world, too.” 

On another occasion, as Jill sorted and tagged her recent finds in the back office after a long and rainy day, she heard Gil telling a buxom blonde at the front counter that he would gladly reduce the cost of “that French pearl necklace” she was toying with by “ten bucks….no, no, make it fifteen bucks.”  Gil thought the pearls were “French” because Lillian had identified them as “faux pearls” on the price tag ticket, and “faux,” after all, is French. Gil next said that he would throw in another piece of “that costume jewelry on the top shelf there” that the blonde had been earlier eyeing “just to seal the deal.”  Jill learned later that he had given the blonde a pair of earrings with the dangling blue sapphires that she had purchased at considerable expense just several weeks earlier.

Jill’s love of her lucrative adventures had begun to shrink, and then shrivel on that sad day.       

The final straw was Jill’s learning one day, after retiring earlier than usual from her Saturday itinerary thanks to an overheated radiator that filled her yellow Vega with acrid blue smoke. That’s when she discovered that the red-satin settee in the back of the shop was now being used for more than his occasional naps, especially on weekends when she was out on the road logging those many miles.  That day, the stuffed-animal owner buttoned her blouse and hurried out of the shop without uttering a word.

So Jill developed a post-nuptial plan.  She would continue her tag sale and flea market junkets focused solely on purchasing junk: costume jewelry, knock-off watches, cheap flatware, and reproduction paintings and prints.

Junk, yes, but scrupulously selected because the items she now haggled over had to be very close matches to many of the valuable items that she had earlier purchased and which now graced the thrift shop’s display cases, walls and shelves.

Jill’s key had allowed her to periodically slip back into the shop on early mornings with her new purchases, replacing original, valuable items with the cheap imitations, switch the price tags from the old to the new materials, and then be on her way well before Gil’s late-morning arrivals.

She even began to enlarge many of the shop’s collections, especially among the rubies, sapphires, and diamonds. These new costume items also received typewritten tags, hammered out on the battered Smith Corona in the back room by latex-gloved fingertips, testifying to their guaranteed authenticity and value.

In all, it took Jill nearly six months to replace many of the valuables of her past collections, and to add the new faux items. 

Gil never noticed the new materials because his usual, frugal customers seldom ever browsed the higher-ticket merchandise that Jill had secured in locked cabinets.

And Gil, she continued to learn, had never been particularly attentive to, nor even interested in, his merchandise.  After several earlier failed businesses – a bar, a barbershop, and a taco food truck – he had inherited the shop from his father.  And while Gil had welcomed the security of the ownership position, he had not inherited his father’s passion for restoration and preservation.  Gil’s only real passions had become, it now seemed, cheap bourbons and cigars. And cheaper women.

As Jill was finalizing her inventory interventions, she arranged for the final coup de grace:  To ensure that Gil paid the full price for her artful deceptions, Jill had visited a community newspaper in the city’s most affluent suburb and handed over a display ad that advertised “genuine, certified” materials which were promoted as “50% off because the thrift shop owner is imminently retiring after 20 years’ service in the fine antiques and collectibles business.” Genuine diamonds and pearls, gold watches and bracelets, Impressionist paintings by Connecticut artists, rare book editions, Chinese Ming vases, and delicate English porcelains were among the items included in the ad’s bullet-point details.

Jill paid $249.86 in cash for the ad’s two insertions. The two-column ad, with lots of white space, would run on consecutive Fridays in the weekly’s next two issues – and, at Jill’s insistence, at placements anchoring the bottom of their finance pages. 

Several weeks after the ad’s second appearance Jill dropped by the thrift shop just to say ‘hi’ and to ‘see how things were going.’

And that’s when Jill learned that Gil had died two days earlier.

Jill had been right: Her ad’s appeal had delivered scores of wealthy, knowledgeable buyers to the thrift shop.  Some quickly spotted, of course, the fakes and frauds on display.  Others had purchased items, and then shared them with their local jewelers and antiques dealers for appraisals.  Some of those scammed buyers had apparently contacted local authorities and lawyers – all as Jill had hoped.  

Investigations were begun. Sticker tags, all with their misleading details, were confiscated as evidence. And Gil found himself up against a legal wall.  

It was the thought that he would have to hire a lawyer that had probably prompted the massive heart attack that took his life there in the shop on that recent Tuesday morning.

Jill found this ending both chilling and ironic:  Gil did, apparently, have a heart after all.

And one final item of interest: Jill learned that Gil’s sister planned to put the thrift shop up for sale – immediately, as a turnkey transaction, with all inventory included.   

Jill’s bursting closets could nicely help to fill the store’s now-depleted displays – and she thought she just might know exactly where to advertise their values.

She would not even have to change the shop’s locks or keys.  The loyal and trusty shop door key suspended on a thin gold chain that now snuggled between her breasts would work just fine.

And for the shop’s new name, replacing Gil’s Thrift Emporium: Now, Jill’s Gift Emporium.


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