The furniture was sparse and dated, and it wasn’t the best quality but the pieces weren’t cheap either. They came from the era when young couples struggled after they bought a home, when they saved until they could get rid of hand-me-down pieces. This was before stores offered “don’t pay a cent for 12 months” payment plans, but no matter; these were “cash on the barrel” people and they would have laughed at the thought of not paying for something you could take home that day in the trunk of your station wagon. Everything in this place was clean but dusty and the house smelled of Avon perfume samples. There were no pieces of clothing to be seen, and I looked. There was not even a forgotten coat in dry cleaner’s thin plastic. Instead, books were spread out on the closet floors: Amazing Cats, Ontario Wildflowers Field Guide, a Weight Watchers cookbook from the 1980′s, bundles of Family Circle magazine with pages torn out, maybe magazine-tested recipes mailed to friends at a time when we were connected by paper and ink and curly telephone cords.
The bathroom had blue tiles from from floor to ceiling, and all of the fixtures were blue. There was no shower curtain and I hummed to hear the acoustic effect but it sounded hollow like the inside of an empty pretend spaceship and it scared me so I stopped. With the bathroom the door closed it I felt like I was drowning. I almost drowned once, in a blue-tiled Florida motel pool the summer I was five. I fell into the deep end, right where someone had taken the care to paint a large black “8′” on the concrete patio. But they didn’t go on to explain what 8′ meant and I was five, not eight and so paid no attention and fell in. I was hauled out by a man who doesn’t like water and I was thankful but guilty. People who do not like water take that very seriously and who was I to force his hand?
I opened the mirrored medicine chest and there were oily rings on glass shelves from discarded bottles of cough syrups and ache ointments. I heard voices getting closer and although I wasn’t doing anything wrong, I felt a like an intruder here and so I closed the cabinet and straightened the small blue rug. I went into the back bedroom, where the only piece of furniture was a small table with a sewing machine and lamp. I leaned over the table and looked at the garden outside where the weeds had grown to shoulder height and wondered how long it had been since the grass was cut and why hadn’t the neighbour done it on Saturday afternoons when he cut his own. The neighbour had laundry hanging on the line and the breeze blew great clouds of dandelion fluff into the fat pockets of her fitted sheets. They had time to hang laundry but not to cut a neighbours grass. I disliked them instantly.
I went downstairs and saw some Green Shirts talking to a woman in Bermuda shorts. She had too long toenails poking out of her sandals. Dark-hair Green Shirt was explaining to Toenails that you hired the Green Shirts when you wanted to sell everything in a home. They sold the belongings of people who were moving out of the country, or into retirement homes, or into a grave. They both laughed at grave and I wondered how long it had been since either had put someone in one.
I saw him in the living room and I walked up behind him quietly and whispered in his ear, “There were never children in this house.” And there weren’t; I knew it. “How can you possibly know that?” he asked. “Easy,” I said, and pointed to a large cut-glass ashtray on the coffee table as concrete proof that this house had never held small children for anything more than an awkward visit.
“What about this?” he asked, and led me into the kitchen. On the table was an old dollhouse filled with beautiful handmade furniture. The walls were covered in wallpaper and there was real broadloom in the bedrooms. The dollhouse bathroom had better flooring than the bathroom upstairs and there was a tiny piano and even a cat in a basket in the parlor. This house would go to the highest bidder, or end up on a flea market vendor’s table. Or it would become landfill. I told him I was going outside to look in the garden.
Why do we keep some things and throw others away? Why do we buy stuff? When we buy something – even something we think we will love forever – do we consider the day our children may sell it because it is a burden, this stuff? And, in the absence of children and family, do we think about the people who will come in, the Green Shirts, armed with masking tape and a permanent marker? Who are these people to us, these people who will decide what our treasures and what our junk is worth?
I have a framed picture I bought when my children were small. It’s of two small rosy-cheeked children. They are cherubic and soft around the edges and when I look at the picture I can feel the lovely compact weight of a sleepy baby on my lap. When I bought that picture I did not buy it with the understanding that on a sunny July morning, 50 years from now, someone I don’t know will buy it for it’s frame and smash out the print under glass. Maybe they’ll cut themselves. I would be lying if I said I didn’t hope so, just a little.
I had to find him. I had to leave. He was in the basement, looking at a pile of tools. Some were rusted and all of them were ancient, but he had a small collection started in an empty beer case and I knew we’d be leaving with them. “Pay full price,” I told him. “I don’t care how much they’re asking. Just give them what they want.“