A greeter stood in the driveway wearing a black T-shirt, jeans, a set of Halloween cat ears atop his head, and had pulled a ladies negligee over his clothing. “A smile, that’s what I like to see. That’s why I do this. What a weirdo you say. But you’re smiling. Everything priced over a dollar today half off.”
Roy clutched the handles of the dog-eared backpack slung over his shoulder. “This is my father’s house.”
The man glanced inside the open garage where a woman with teased orange hair sat at a long table, counting money. “Talk to Annie.”
“I don’t need to talk to Annie. My sister made these arrangements. I flew in from Florida to supervise.”
The negligee had traveled sideways on the man’s torso. He straightened it. “We don’t recommend you stick around. Sometimes it’s better if you don’t. Sentimental value and all.”
Roy brushed past him. “I know what I’m doing.”
The weather-beaten contents of the garage were spread out on card tables in the center: an old bicycle pump, a rusty hack saw, boxes of mason jars. He stepped around an old oil stain on the floor.
An elderly, cocoa skinned woman in a wide-brimmed straw hat emerged from the door leading to the kitchen. A bald-headed young relation, same triangular nose, in a neon orange visor and an electric blue suit followed. He carried a basket of dusty artificial flowers, a small tag hanging off the handle. An oversized gold crucifix sparkled from the middle of his chest. “I want to check out the living room.”
Without looking back, she said, “We got to go!”
“Maybe they got a sofa.”
She pressed on, ignoring the items on the card tables. “We don’t got time.”
Roy watched them walk toward her white Cadillac parked at the curb. The man continued to complain as he lowered his bald head into the passenger seat.
Roy scowled. Didn’t Nancy send that basket to his mother one Easter? The thought of his ex-wife caused his heart to pick up speed. She had no taste. Good riddance to her and the hideous basket.
He stepped into the kitchen where silverware, chipped trivets, outdated cookbooks, and mismatched plates were displayed on the counters. The open cabinets revealed sets of dollar store glasses at twenty-five cents each.
The upholstery on the sofa and love-seat set in the living room was frayed. Only four years before, when he was there last, they had looked new. A coffee table had been pushed toward the front window, several gashes etched into the dark wood. The house smelled stale, as if it hadn’t yet been aired out after a long winter. A narrow hallway led to the cramped bathroom where a handwritten sign had been tacked onto the plywood door that read: “This house will be for sale at $275,400 on June 4th.” Old perfume bottles, a two-sided vanity mirror and a Sunbeam electric curler set had been retrieved from under the sink and crowded the area around the faucet.
In the back bedroom a silver-haired man with wire framed glasses and suspenders poked his nose in a display cabinet filled with travel souvenirs and petal shaped holders from Colonial Candles.
The man picked up a statue of a chipmunk holding a sign that said, WELCOME TO TAHAQUAMENON FALLS.
Roy snatched it out of the man’s hands. “That’s not for sale.”
The man grunted and a picked up a candle holder shaped like a tulip.
“That’s not for sale either.” The man put it back, glared, and strolled out, leaving behind the smell of sweat. Roy looked out the window to the yard. The grass looked as if it had been hastily cut, clippings cluttering the stone path to the patio. The worn path he and his father had made playing ball had long ago disappeared. He had been his father’s favorite at one time, before Nancy. His father hadn’t liked his ex-wife. “She’s a complainer. Wants too much.” She’d felt his disapproval and insisted they live near her family in Sarasota. When his mother died his father had taken up with a cocktail waitress. It only lasted a year, but that had been long enough to widen the chasm even further.
The closet doors in the master bedroom were splayed wide open, displaying an array of old shoes, knit sweaters, and Oxford shirts stained at the collar. The smell of old, unused leather tickled his nose. The linens and blankets had been pulled out and arranged on the bed. Christ, why didn’t Janet take any of this home?
The basement door was open and the handrail on the staircase going down felt cool and smooth. The temperature was ten degrees colder. Christmas wreaths, ornaments, and Styrofoam snowmen were displayed in front of an unused fireplace. A pile of thirty year old records rested on a table behind a worn sofa and leather recliner. A frizzy haired woman was poking through a box of old books as she knelt on the thin indoor/outdoor carpet.
Roy stared down. “My father liked to read.”
She looked up, eyes round behind her rectangular tortoise-shell frames. “Oh, nice.”
He grabbed a yellowing copy of Sidney Sheldon’s Nothing Lasts Forever. “I’ve been meaning to read this.”
A trip back up the steps revealed the elderly lady and the man in the electric blue suit had returned. The man traipsed from the back of the house to the front in quick, purposeful strides. Roy took a deep breath. Not these two again.
In the front room, the bald man stopped and slid the table away from the window, creating a mark in the shag carpet. “Kiana could use this.”
The lady examined it and grunted her assent by sucking her teeth. She went outside and returned with the orange haired clerk named Annie.
Annie pointed at the table. “That one?”
“Yes, we’ll take that. How much for the sofa and love-seat?”
Roy rushed toward them. “Those aren’t for sale.”
Annie turned and stared. “Excuse me?”
“These are my father’s things. They’re not for sale.”
“But Janet said…”
“Janet doesn’t know what she’s doing.”
Annie looked at the bald man in the blue suit. “What’s your name?”
He tugged at the lapel of his jacket. “Jerome.”
“Jerome, why don’t you wait in the garage with your mother? I’ll be right out.”
The two frowned at Roy as they stomped through the kitchen and out to the garage, the lady stopping to finger one of the trivets.
Annie turned back to face Roy. “Sir, I understand it’s difficult. That’s why we don’t recommend people…”
“Look. The living room set isn’t for sale.”
“We signed the contract with Janet.”
Roy held Sidney Sheldon to his chest. “Janet doesn’t own everything. She wasn’t a good daughter to my father.”
Annie wore a pair of white nurse’s shoes and used her right foot to scratch an itch on her left ankle. She nearly toppled over, but caught herself. “We don’t get involved in family matters, sir. Why don’t we call her then?”
“You do that,” Roy said.
Annie pulled a Razrphone out of her pants pocket and disappeared outside.
Moments later, the old lady erupted. “WHATCH YOU MEAN I GOT TA WAIT!” Roy watched her walk toward her Cadillac, shaking her head. The bald man slid into the passenger seat. She gunned the gas and screeched away from the curb.
Roy was rifling through an old croquet set in the front closet, counting the colorful balls, when he heard his sister’s voice in the garage. “He’s inside?” she asked. He shoved the set behind the old coats and shut the closet door.
“Roy!” Janet called from the kitchen.
He met her at the arch between the kitchen and the front room. She had frosted her bangs too light and cut them short. In the summer heat, her eyes looked plain and small, as if her skull were shrinking.
“What are you doing? I didn’t even know you were coming,” she said.
“You didn’t ask.”
“Well it seemed such a burden for you to fly down for the funeral, I didn’t want to bother you.”
“I’ve had a lot to do. Interviews,” he replied, staring into her tiny eyes. Janet never had to worry about looking for work or paying bills. Her husband had bought stock in Cracker Barrel and they had made enough money for an early retirement. He looked around the room at the worn furniture. She didn’t need money.
“Did you get work?” she asked.
“I have an interview at a UHAUL on Tuesday.”
Janet stepped through the plaster archway and glanced behind his shoulder. “Annie says you’re interfering with the sale. Someone wanted the sofa?”
“I don’t want to sell it.”
“I just don’t.”
“We can’t just keep it. The house has to be sold.”
“I don’t want to sell.”
“You want to buy me out and live here? You’re moving back from Florida?”
He felt a tingle at the back of his neck and his hands began to tremble. “I don’t know what I want Janet. Just go.”
“We can’t just hold onto it. The property taxes alone.”
“You should have taken better care of him. You cared more for that obnoxious husband of yours than you did your own dad.”
Her forehead turned red. “Me? You didn’t even call him at Christmas.”
He was crying now, and didn’t bother to wipe the wetness from his face. He walked into the kitchen and faced the counter nearest the sink. “I couldn’t afford it. I’ve been out of work for eight months. Is that what you wanted to hear? Jesus Christ.”
“I don’t know what you want. Dad had a will. If you were closer to him you’d have known what it said ages ago. We’re selling this stuff and the house.”
“No we’re not,” he said over his shoulder.
She hovered in the doorway like a persistent scarecrow. “We are.”
He picked up one of the trivets, the one with the pink nosed cow that said UDDERLY DELICIOUS and smashed it on the floor. Triangular bits of ceramic flew and hit the bottom of the stove.
Janet put her hands to her ears and scrunched her face, her neck disappearing as she shriveled into herself. “What’s the matter with you?”
“Get out,” he said.
She bolted toward the door. “I’m calling the police.” The door slammed shut, and he listened the rhythm of his own breathing. He retrieved a glass and filled it with water and took a drink, holding his thumb on the masking tape that declared it was for sale for fifty cents.
He set it in the porcelain sink near a rust stain and heard soft footsteps in the living room. He peered out the archway. It was the frizzy-haired woman from the basement. She was taller than she appeared crouched in front of the box of books, nearly his own height.
“I’ll…ah…be going,” she said.
“Wait,” he said, kicking away the pile of broken trivet, pushing at the bits of dust with his toe. She stared expectantly.
“Do you want to go for a cup of coffee or something?” He asked.
She paused. “My daughter is at home. She’s three.”
He took a step forward. “Can I get your number?”
She studied his face for a moment before heading toward the door. “No.”
He grabbed her arm, but she shook him off and rushed outside. He heard her murmuring to Annie. “There’s something wrong with him.” Annie mumbled something about the police.
He kicked the last bit of the trivet under the refrigerator went to the hall closet. The leather croquet case had fallen and the balls were strewn about the floor. He picked up the tangerine one and felt its smoothness in his palm. He and his mother and Nancy had played one Sunday in the yard when he and Nancy were first dating. They had sucked on glasses of sweet lemonade. Nancy wore a polka dot dress. He looked at the ball in his hand and felt nothing. He tossed the ball into the closet where it rolled along the wooden floor. He doubted he would ever feel anything again and that was worse than hurting.
The old aqua colored plastic basket was still under the bathroom sink. He rifled through its contents: a half used roll of first aid tape – dust collected on the adhesive, fish oil tablets, a black plastic comb, Benadryl tablets. He found what he was looking for stuffed in the corner behind it. His mother had been a believer in Valium. He picked up the orange vial and squinted at the small words. The prescription had long ago expired.
The pills rattled as he shook them into the palm of his hand. Twenty-six Valium could do some damage, even if they were old. He stuffed them into his mouth and washed them down with water he cupped into his hands.
Soft sunlight filtered in the front window and fell across his father’s old bowling trophies lined on the mantle. He stretched across the sofa, feeling the velvet crush beneath his weight. Behind his head a Detroit Tigers bobble-head stood on the glass end table. He heard soft voices outside and cars stopping and starting and driving away.
He thought of his mother, the day she bought him his first pair of Toughskins jeans from Sears. She had tucked her black hair behind her ear and she assured him he wasn’t chubby, just big-boned, that he’d grow into a strong man. When she’d gotten sick, he’d stayed at her bedside for days, pushing her hair behind her ears with his big fingers when she’d complained of being sweaty and hot.
He thought of his father and how he’d always taken the biggest piece of steak at their Sunday barbeques. His mother had noticed Roy staring one afternoon and explained working on the line was hard and his father needed his strength. He felt a tinge of adrenaline under his tongue as he remembered how quickly his father had taken up with Kelly, the waitress, and how irritating her nasally voice had been. He began to feel sleepy and wondered why he hadn’t been granted children of his own.
And then it was black.
Someone was tapping his cheek. “Buddy, come on buddy, wake up.”
He went to speak but his words came out garbled. He made out silver lines across the man’s forehead. Hair. It was the man who wanted to buy the chipmunk statue. “Wake up now. The ambulance is coming.”
Roy tried to focus on the man’s glasses. Dandruff had collected on the lenses under the rim. “You can have it,” he tried to say, but the words came out as HEEHEHEHHEEW.
He heard the sirens wailing, inching closer and then voices outside, a door slamming shut.
His sister: “He’s in here.”
“Over here,” the man called out. “It’ll be alright. They’ll get you the help you need.”
Roy grabbed the man’s soft hands. “Ttt-ake the chipmunk…”
Header photograph: By Gotgot44 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons