“The Reality Auction” by James Davis May

James Davis May


from a typo on a sign in Warne, North Carolina

It was a dour crowd that gathered at the auction house
beside the Community Center,
elderly, for the most part; the auctioneer, meanwhile,
sounded more like a Latin teacher
rehearsing declensions than a derby announcer
as he invited bidding on the first item,
Sparrow Consciousness, which drew only two offers,
though its description promised keen appreciation
for both the lexicon of gravel and the flavor
of windfall seeds on cold February mornings.

A couple—she wore flowers in her hair,
and a threadbare sundress; he, a greasy ponytail,
jeans, and a stain-spackled t-shirt—bid aggressively
on the blue pills of Altered States and went unchallenged.
The afternoon went on. Objective Reality
went for its asking price, not a penny more.
And when it came time to bid on the Ideal,
a burly man hauled in a miniature oak cask,
the contents of which, the auctioneer said,
should be self-evident, so it remained sealed.

The oldest couple there opened the bidding,
remembering their trip to San Francisco in 1948,
the loaf of sourdough they ate one night instead of dinner
(they could afford the travel but not their meals,
so they ate the bread slowly, tearing off pieces
which they fed to each other, leaning on the bakery’s wall
before returning to their motel and making love
as cold air scudded in from the bay and surrounded their bed).
They were outbid, though, by a farmer’s widow,
and she, in turn, was overcome by a mustachioed man

in a brown suit who appeared to have won
when the auctioneer, his voice excited by then
but quickening to a stop, opened a manila envelope
and, frowning, announced that the minimum bid
had not been reached, that they had to keep going
or the cask would be returned to the warehouse.
By then, everyone’s budget was stretched.
Their sole option was to pool their funds
and share the prize. Fist-thick rolls of twenties,
checks, and jewelry all filled the hat they passed.

When the price was reached and the barrel tapped,
they each tasted their thimble-sized share
of the sunset-red liquor, which was unlike anything
anyone had ever had and thus hard to remember
even seconds after—so they all stayed circling the empty cask,
sniffing their empty glasses, trying to describe what they knew
but couldn’t name. A few said it tasted bright, citrusy;
others thought bitter and ashy. “Brisk,” one said.
“Well worth it,” another added, and the rest stood there
in that sort of silence that sounds like agreement.

from Rattle #46, Winter 2014
Rattle Poetry Prize Finalist


James Davis May: “Warne, North Carolina, where I saw the sign mentioned in the epigraph for the poem, is about six miles from Young Harris, Georgia, where my wife, daughter, and I moved last year. Though we’re happy in Young Harris now, our move was a difficult one, as all moves are, and I remember questioning a lot of things, including, as the poem suggests, the nature of reality.” (web)

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