Jake saw the sign, “NOW ACCEPTING PLOW BIDS,” stationed high on a pole in the parking lot of Brown’s car dealership on his way home from work. His methodical brain repeated the phrase as he navigated rush-hour traffic through the center of town.
“Now accepting plow bids, now accepting plow bids, now–accepting–plow–bids.”
Something was stirring, and although he wasn’t usually quick to make a connection, his synapses were firing particularly well.
“Bids!” he exclaimed, though excitement wasn’t his strong suit either.
He mulled over his idea as he drove his battered red pickup toward home, arriving at the weed-covered driveway of his small ranch 20 minutes later still excited by his thoughts. It was such an obvious answer he was surprised no one had thought of it before.
The house had belonged to his parents, Rose and Chester. Jake was their only child and a blessing after they’d nearly given up hope of having children.
Jake was determined to do right by his parents and take good care of the home, especially since he felt he had been a disappointment to them. It was nothing Rose or Chester had said, or would ever have dreamed of saying. They had been loving people, always full of laughter and good ideas.
Jake could remember many a rainy Sunday afternoon as a boy, when Rose would play her small upright piano and Chester would join her to sing something by The Beatles or the Mamas and Papas, because Rose liked to stay current.
“Come on, Jake,” his mother would say, looking over her shoulder at him from her perch on the piano bench, “try this one.” And then she’d bang away on the keys, and Jake would freeze with shyness, pretending to play with his toys while a deep sadness settled low in his belly.
On the weekly trips to the supermarket, Jake would often wander away and Rose would find him helping one of the clerks stock a shelf, or straighten a display.
“Mama,” Jake said one day in the car after the shopping, “I heard Mr. Santori tell Joe that I’m slow. What does that mean?”
He watched as his mother’s lips tightened. She shook her head. “You know what? You’re kind, and you always have a smile on your face. People think that anyone who dares to be happy must not be quite right. Don’t you listen to them, Jake.”
He tried to believe his mother, but the thought that he might not “be quite right” stuck with him, coloring his confidence with an undertone of gray.
Taking care of the house had become harder for Jake. He worked days at a construction site and by the time he got home, he was too tired to clean, or mow, or do any of the chores necessary to keep the place tidy. Sometimes he would pull into the driveway and sit in his truck, trying to muster the energy to go into the house.
Jake was motivated that day by his new idea though, and he sprang from the truck and walked briskly to the door, stopping to scratch the dappled fur of his mother’s cat Tessie on the way.
He went to the kitchen, opened a can of cat food, and placed Tessie’s bowl on the Formica counter. The cat jumped to the counter and meowed softly at him as he spooned the food into her dish.
“Tessie,” he said, stroking her soft fur while she ate, “Tess, I got an idea.”
He took a frozen dinner from the freezer and unwrapped it.
“I’m gonna accept bids, Tess. Why not?” His voice rose slightly, causing the cat to peer at him and then continue eating. “If the dealership can do it, why can’t I?” He waved the empty dinner carton in the air. “Things are too damn expensive, make them work for it, that’s what I should do.”
These thoughts occupied his mind as he ate his roast turkey, gravy, peas, and a tiny sampling of apple cobbler.
After dinner, with his small television on for company, but the volume on low so as not to distract him, he rummaged through closets looking for his mother’s craft supplies.
His parents had died within a year of each other — first Chester, then Rose. While his father had a diagnosis of heart disease, Rose had no ailment other than heartbreak. When he thought of his mother, which he did daily, Jake would sigh and tell Tessie that it was the love that got her.
“She just couldn’t live without him, loving him the way she did,” Jake would say, staring into Tessie’s solemn eyes.
Those first months after his mother died, Jake had wandered from room to room, unable to settle anywhere.
Eventually he found solace in the empty evenings by watching the news with Tessie curled up in his lap. And although he had never been one to have much interest in politics or the economy, he had begun to offer his simple thoughts and opinions to Tessie, which hadn’t seemed to bother her in the least.
After searching through the cellar, Jake finally found his mother’s poster board and markers in the back of the hall closet. He cleared assorted newspapers, credit offers, and old bills from the dining room table and laid the materials out to begin his work.
He took great care that his words didn’t dip or sway across the poster board. An hour later, he stepped back from the table to admire his handiwork.
On the first sign he had written in large letters, “NOW ACCEPTING HOUSEWORK BIDS,” and on the second, “NOW ACCEPTING DOCTOR BIDS,” and on the third, “NOW ACCEPTING BIDS FOR A COMPANION.”
He had hesitated a little on the last one, wondering if he could hope to find a suitable companion from a sign. But he remembered his initial excitement, and looking around for Tess, who was watching him from her perch on the windowsill, he said, “Tessie, I wouldn’t take real money from them of course, they could maybe fill out an application.” Tessie blinked at him, which he took for her agreement.
In the frosty morning, before he left for the job site, he plunged three tomato stakes into the front lawn, having attached his poster board to each. He took a moment to appreciate his handiwork, and drove away in his truck with an odd sense of hope emanating from somewhere near his chest.
“Gone a little bit off, huh?” Reginald said to his wife as he squinted across the street at the strange signs on Jake’s front lawn.
“What’s that?” Marta put her sewing down and got up slowly to join Reginald at the window. “What the blazes? A doctor? A companion?” She shook her head. “I told you before, I told you he wasn’t right in the head.” She looked at her husband’s craggy face for confirmation. “Didn’t I tell you?”
“Yes … yes you did.” Reginald hated admitting when Marta was right, but in this instance, there was nothing to be done. “Well, no one’s going to answer those signs, so that will take care of it right there.” He sat heavily in his favorite recliner, turning the volume of the morning news up with the remote, signaling the end of the matter.
Marta continued to stare across the street, past their own neatly trimmed lawn, to the overgrowth on Jake’s side of the street. She shook her head every few seconds, muttering things under her breath. “What would Chester and Rose say? Rolling around in their graves right now, betcha,” until finally she tired of the view and returned to her sewing.
Throughout the day they noticed several cars slow as the occupants drove past Jake’s signs, and they chuckled to each other. “Now everyone knows he’s off,” they said.
The signs had gone up on Tuesday morning. By Friday, Reginald and Marta had become slightly miffed at the number of cars stopping on the street.
“And anyway,” snapped Marta, “we shouldn’t have to stare at those darn things day in and day out.”
By the time a white van with the letters “WCFH” and “News 13” emblazoned on the side arrived on Saturday morning, Reginald was seriously thinking of yanking the signs down himself, just so he could have a little peace from Marta’s increasingly incensed mood.
They both peered surreptitiously from the sides of their front picture window, watching as the dressed-up newsperson knocked on Jake’s front door. And they watched as Jake came out on the front lawn in his weekend jeans, and tried to read his lips from across the street as he talked to the reporter, arms occasionally waving, and more animated than they’d ever witnessed.
Unsuccessful at reading Jake’s lips from across the street, they waited until 6 o’clock and turned on WCFH, Channel 13, determined to hear what Jake had told the reporter.
“Mr. Oliver, can you explain to our viewers why you put up these signs” — the reporter gestured at the poster board on the front lawn — “and what kind of response you’ve been getting to them?”
Reginald and Marta watched as Jake stuck his thumbs through the belt loops of his jeans and rocked back slightly on his heels.
“I’d be happy to!” he said. “Well, I was driving home ’bout a week or so ago, and I saw this sign up at Brown’s car dealership — ‘now accepting plow bids’ — that’s what the sign said. I got to thinking” — and here Jake paused, his forehead wrinkling in concentration — “we should all accept bids for the stuff we need.” Jake pulled his hands from his belt loops, gesturing in excitement. “Why, I need a doctor, and I need someone to keep this house up. Why not turn the tables a little?”
“Turn the tables?” the young reporter asked, taking a step back from Jake’s gesticulating arms.
“Turn the tables! They’ve got us by the balls, all of them — expecting us all to pay outrageous prices for a doctor visit, for milk, for gas, for anything at all.” Jake’s face lit up with a smile. “Here’s our chance to make them come to us, compete for it, work for it.” That seemed to settle the issue for Jake, and he looked at the reporter expectantly, sure he had made himself clear.
“Uh, and the companion? Should she ‘compete for it’ too?”
“Oh, well, that.” Jake looked a little abashed. “I thought maybe they could fill out an application, you know, not really put a price on something like that.”
“And have you gotten any responses?” The reporter looked dubious.
“Yes! Why yes I have. I’ve gotten two calls from housekeepers, and one from a fella down the street asking if I’d found a doctor yet, because he needs one too.” Jake’s face registered triumph, and so the reporter, thinking of nothing else to ask, wished him luck.
When several weeks went by and the signs rather than vanishing, multiplied instead, the white van could again be seen outside Jake’s increasingly cluttered yard.
The reporter, not yet 25 and already moving a little more slowly than in his previous visit, made his way through the forest of signs, reading along the way, “NOW ACCEPTING FURNACE REPAIR BIDS,” and “NOW ACCEPTING DENTAL CARE BIDS.”
Jake met him excitedly at the door, and waved to Reginald and Marta, whose faces he could see poking from the sides of their front window.
“It’s working!” Jake exclaimed, grabbing the reporter’s arm and pulling him out into the middle of the signs. “Right here” — he pointed to the one reading “NOW ACCEPTING SQUIRREL REMOVAL BIDS” — “I got three bids on this one alone!” He shook his head, clearly amazed.
“How do you decide which bid to accept?” asked the reporter.
Jake studied the young man’s face for a moment. “Why, I take the lowest one.”
“Oh yes, of course,” said the young man, nodding. “Well, how can you afford to pay for all these things you’re accepting bids for?”
Jake glanced around the yard, seeming to register the number of signs for the first time.
“So — how can you afford all this?” the reporter repeated, smiling tightly and hoping he’d found the odd man’s downfall that guaranteed this was his last visit.
“Well now …” Jake took a step back and looked around again. “Of course I can’t.” The reporter smiled again, almost encouragingly. “That’s why I ask everyone to agree their bid’s good for a year, so I can work my way down the list.”
“Oh.” The reporter inwardly saw himself standing on the same lawn again in a few months’ time. “What a good idea.”
“I thought so, too!” Jake exclaimed. “Now, why don’t you go talk to my neighbors across the street?” He nodded toward Reginald and Marta. “They’ve been so excited; I see them looking out near every day, and I bet they’re thinking of trying it too!” With that, Jake pumped the young man’s hand and strode through the forest of signs to his front door, stopping to pet Tessie along the way.