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Flea Market

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

Each February or March, when the ice goes out, the Upper Mississippi begins spring housecleaning, washing out last year's accumulated debris. Down the river, borne by the high water and the new fresh current come dead fish, lumber, bottles, masses of leaves, and tree limbs. Sloughs are cleaned out, and islands no longer needed are washed away. Shorelines are trimmed.

Inspired by the Mississippi, people along the shore look to their own debris. Out from the attics to makeshift tables on the driveways come the excesses that mark civilized societies: the high chair no longer needed, the pressure cooker no one has time to use anymore, wedding gifts still in their boxes, the easy chair grandpa lived in until he died, ceramic elephants and other dust collectors.

By June, the entire shoreline form St. Paul to St. Louis has turned into a necklace of yard and garage sales. A few of the smaller towns have community-wide sales. Each family replaces what it sells with finds from neighbors' sales up the street. These finds, in turn, become part of the junk at next summer's sale. Just as surely as three limbs and fish make their way down the river, civilization's debris makes its way down along the shore.

I know this for a fact. Three years ago, in Minneapolis, my brother put our family's old automatic apple peeler in his sale. It was snapped up by a woman from St. Paul, just downriver. An apple peeler is one of those items you just have to have the minute you see it, only to discover that you never use it. And so, it went from St. Paul to a man in Red Wing, then on to Lake City that same summer.

The second year, it traveled all the way from Winona to Dubuque, where it was used once for the Women of the Evangelical Lutheran Church apple pie sale. Rumor has it currently in Belleville or Galena. I expect it to drift by Rock Island any season now. Should I swim out and try to rescue it, or let it take its inevitable course, yard by yard, down to the sea?

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois.