I’ve done it countless times. Still, this moment makes me feel like I’m pulling the white satin ribbon off a Tiffany’s box. I insert the key in the last of three locks and take a final breath of crisp October air. Then I push the door open and inhale.
Dust, overlaid with weak-bladdered kitty. Top notes of sour milk. Undertones of cheap cigar and fried sausage. Eau de Old, Number One. Oh well.
I’ve been running estate sales for ten years, so the scent of a house pretty much tells me what I’ll find inside. In this case, nothing great. But the sale must go on.
“Ah, shit. That’s nasty.” Tyshaun, pushing past me, twists his face. Jill, lugging supplies, is right on our heels.“It’s fine,” Jill says. “You don’t know true nasty.” “Hey, I been places smell a lot worse than this,” Tyshaun shoots back.What kind of ridiculous boast is that? I head down the hall to put some space between me and my assistants. The two of them have been squabbling all day. Ever since I hired Tyshaun two months ago, Jill, who’s been with me for almost a year, never misses an opportunity to lord her seniority over him. And for Tyshaun, one-upmanship comes as automatically as blinking. He shrugs off his sweatshirt and flexes his dark, muscular arms. “I’m just sayin’, we ain’t gonna find anything good here, that’s all.”Too true. The furnishings in Agnes Szabo’s house are just what my nose told me to expect: beaten down carpeting; lumpy upholstered furniture that wasn’t attractive even when new; framed pictures of Jesus, John Kennedy, and four dogs playing poker.
The house, although small, looked fairly ship-shape from the outside. On the front stoop I’d been hoping I might open the door and inhale Eau de Old, Number Two --lemon oil, Windex, Clorox and lavender. Those are the old ladies with bathrooms so clean you could perform brain surgery in the tub. In a Number Two house I might find a Wedgewood service for twelve without a single chip, four hundred Hummel figurines, classic chrome Osterizers that still work. Nice money in a Number Two-- not extravagant, but nice.
But a house doesn’t have to smell good to yield treasures. Eau de Old, Number Three proves that: piss, unwashed socks, spilled whiskey, puke. The smell of I-don’t-give- a-damn. The smell of I-gave- up- long -ago. Newspapers piled to the ceiling and bulging cans ready to spurt botulism. Those are the houses where you might find anything, from a newly hatched Dodo to the manuscript for Gone with the Wind, Part II. If they ever find Jimmy Hoffa, it’ll be in a Number Three I scored my biggest coup in a Number Three. A ten by seven inch watercolor by the American Abstract Expressionist Lee Krasner that I sold to a European collector for $750,000, fifteen percent of which came back to me. My reward for noticing that the only decorative item in the whole house was this little painting hanging over the recliner where an old man sat drinking away the last thirty years of his life.But Agnes Szabo’s house isn’t a Two or a Three. It’s definitely a One. The most common type of old person’s house, filled with the unremarkable possessions of an unremarkable life. I’ll make enough to cover my time, plus Tyshaun’s and Jill’s, but nothing more. “Let’s get to work,” I say. “Jill, you take the upstairs. Tyshaun, start in the kitchen. I’ll do the basement.”
Immediately Tysahun looks suspicious, trying to calculate why the kitchen might be the least desirable assignment. The year he spent in Rahway State Prison on a breaking and entering charge has left him keenly attuned to any sign he’s being disrespected.
“How long this old lady been dead?” he asks. “I’m not opening the fridge if there’s stuff two months gone in there.”
“We’re just doing the inventory today,” Jill jumps in to answer for me. She tosses her head for added authority, although the gesture is pointless as she’s recently buzzed off her long black hair in favor of a post-punk crew cut. When she speaks, the studs in her tongue flash. “Tomorrow we clean. Wear your rubber gloves.” Tyshaun attempts his fierce “you’re not the boss of me” glower, but Jill, unintimidated, hands him an inventory list and stomps upstairs. Her Doc Martens raise little tumbleweeds of cat hair on the treads.I watch her go, then give Tyshaun a “whattya gonna do” shrug. The two of them make me feel like some zany sitcom mom, caring but kick-ass. Not that I’m old enough to be their mother—I only have about ten years on them. And not that I know squat about mothering, having never been on the receiving end of any. At least, none that I remember.
“Mrs. Szabo died a week ago Tuesday,” I tell Tyshaun. “The executor wants the estate sale wrapped up this weekend. There won’t be a lot of relatives crying and arguing and pulling stuff out of the sale on this job.”
“You need rich people for that.” Tyshaun looks around the cluttered livingroom. “Ain’t nobody want this shit.”“Hey, what’s our motto?”“I know, I know—One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.” Tyshaun slouches toward the kitchen, his jeans drooping below his skinny butt, striped boxers on display. “What’re them bowls I’m supposed to look out for?” he calls over his shoulder.
“Fiestaware.” I’m crazy pleased that he remembered. I hired Tyshaun for heavy lifting, but unlike the laborers I’ve had before him, he seems to be taking a genuine interest in the estate sale business. I’m not sure why that matters to me, except that I like being right. When I hired Ty, the howl from my friends, and especially my father, was loud and long. He’ll rip you off…Don’t play at being Mother Teresa. And from dear old dad, always handy with a statistic, The recidivism rate among convicted felons is 82%. Ty didn’t beg for the job. He didn’t want pity. Just a chance to work. All he said was, “I seen some things in prison I don’t ever want to see again.” What can I say? I believed him. People defy statistics.
Besides, it’s not like prime candidates for the job are thick on the ground. Must speak English, must have driver’s license, must be able to lift 300 pounds. Can’t be allergic to dust, mold or cat hair. Must be willing to work for ten bucks an hour. My applicant pool was Tyshaun and a trembling six-foot-six hulk who assured me he only had trouble following directions when he was off his meds. I hired Ty, and so far, no regrets.
I pause on the threshold of the basement stairs, cooled by mushroom-y subterranean currents. There’ll be mice down there, thousand-leggers too. Maybe a garter snake. I should send my staff to the basement, but I prefer the far corners of a house. Bedrooms are too personal. Old age is laid out for you there, in all it’s un-glory. Heart medicine, rosary beads, Depends, cents-off coupons, and always, always, a framed photo of a younger self, waist cinched in, hair stiffly curled. I can’t help thinking what I’ll leave behind fifty years from now when someone comes to clear the remains of my life. Lots of books, lots of dog fur, no family photos whatsoever.
I head down, wielding my flashlight beam like a sword. Skittering sounds indicate wildlife on the move. Not to worry—everything sounds tiny. I prefer not to encounter your larger mammals. Never met a raccoon that didn’t have serious anger management issues. My flashlight beam finds a bench full of tools. So, there is something of value down here after all. I pick up a hammer with a wooden handle smooth as silk from years of use. The tools are old but in perfect condition, everything hanging from hooks or laid out in shallow drawers. Labeled cubbyholes hold carefully sorted bolts and screws and nails. The faded printing is as flawlessly proportioned as typescript. You don’t have to be a handwriting analyst to know that Mr. Szabo, long dead, was meticulous, precise, committed to a job well done. He lingers here.
Maybe Mrs. Szabo kept the toolbench like this so she could come down and be near her husband. Or maybe I’m—what’s that shrink term?—projecting. As a child I used to crawl into the deep storage closet in the downstairs hall and sit among the boxed holiday decorations using my finger to trace my mother’s dramatic, flourishy script. Tree lights. Window Candles. Centerpiece. Ornaments. Her presence pulsed in that closet, there among the things she had selected and cared for. Everywhere else in the house she had gradually faded away. Or been cleared away.
Overhead, I hear Tyshaun banging around the kitchen, cabinet doors slamming, drawers rattling as he inventories a lifetime of dented muffin tins and well-scoured frying pans. Maybe a cow creamer or a copper Jell-o mold for the collectibles crowd. Time for me to get to work too. I pull out a clipboard and note the significant tools, then head across the room to check out some lawn furniture.
“Shit! What’s up with that?” Tyshaun’s voice comes down through the heating vent as clearly as if he were standing beside me. I lose interest in the chaise lounges. What did Tyshaun find? A bundle of twenties in the cookie jar, a diamond ring in the toaster oven? Mrs. Szabo’s nephew, the executor of her estate, was supposed to go through the house to check for money and items of sentimental value, but he didn’t seem all that interested in his aunt’s home. He probably doesn’t realize how old people squirrel things away. A knot of tension starts churning this morning’s bagel and coffee. If Tyshaun found a wad of cash, will he tell me? Jill is so hyper-scrupulous she won’t take aspirin from a client’s medicine chest if she gets a headache while we’re working. Will Tyshaun be overwhelmed by the temptation of some easy money? This is a test. I realize I’m holding my breath because I really, really want him to pass.
The door to the basement opens. “Yo, Audrey. C’mere. This is wack.”
I exhale and trot upstairs. Tyshaun waits for me in the avocado green and harvest gold kitchen. “You know what this is?” He shakes a baggie in front of my face.I glance at the bright pink pills bouncing inside, each imprinted with a little flower. “E. Ecstasy.” Ty’s eyes blink rapidly. He’s always amazed when I display knowledge of anything illicit, as if thirty-three year old white women like me live in some sort of Amish bubble. He drops the pills on the counter. “I don’t want no part of this.”A big grin spreads across my face. This is the street equivalent of a sizable wad of cash. Tyshaun passed the test with flying colors. Then my smile fades as I study the hundreds of tabs in this Zip-Loc. “Agnes Szabo was eighty-seven. What would she be doing with club drugs?”
Tyshaun looks at me like I’m a Midwestern tourist trying to navigate the A train. This is the Audrey he wants to believe I am. “Someone using this as a stash house. Maybe her nephew got a little side bizness goin’.”
“He’s a lawyer. I really don’t see him dealing drugs. Where did you find them?”
Tyshaun points to an open drawer. “Right there, next to the egg beater thing.”I stare into the drawer as if the potato masher and spatulas are going to offer some explanation. In the ten years I’ve been running estate sales I’ve found guns and porn and tons of prescription drugs hidden away, but this is a first. I reach for my cell phone. “Guess I better call the police.” Tyshaun’s hand grips my wrist. His wiry strength always surprises me. “You just askin’ for trouble. Best pretend we never saw it. I bet next time we come, it be gone.”
“No, that’s not right. I have to—”
Above us, a short sharp shriek. Then a thunderous crash shakes the walls. The wagon-wheel ceiling light swings. A china pig tips off a shelf and shatters on the floor.Jill.I race for the stairs. “Jill? Jill, are you okay?” Even with one hand holding up those goofy pants, Tyshaun overtakes me, scaling three steps at a time. A cloud of grayish dust billows from a bedroom into the upstairs hall. Coughing and squinting we make our way into the room, following the sound of Jill’s low moans.
She lays spread-eagle on a sagging double bed, in a nest of plaster chunks and splintered lathing. A small trunk pins one leg to the bed. A rotten beam dangles from a five foot wide hole in the ceiling. Her eyes flutter open, two dark holes in her ghastly dust-coated face. At least she’s conscious.
“Don’t move,” I say. “Your neck, your back…we’ve gotta call an ambulance.”
Jill sneezes, then rotates her neck experimentally. “I think I’m okay.”“What happened?” I peer through the hole in the ceiling to see the dusty rafters of the attic far above us.“I poked my head up into the attic and the only thing up there was that little trunk.” Jill points to a rotting leather box down by her legs. “I crossed over to get it and the next thing you know, I fell through the floor. I’m sorry, Audrey.”“Not your fault that termites have been eating up the beams.”
Jill tries to squirm into a sitting position.
“Ow-- Could you get that box off my leg?”
Tyshaun springs forward and picks up the trunk. As he lifts it, one rotting leather handle rips away, and the trunk tips open.A shower of gold, diamonds and pearls rains down on Jill.Tyshaun grabs the trunk from the bottom and sets it on the floor. The three of us gather around and look inside.“Geez, it’s like a buried treasure chest,” Jill says.
We forget Jill’s trauma as we stare at the tangle of jewelry.
“Why’d she live in this shitty house if she had all that up in the attic?” Tyshaun asks.
Getting down on my knees, I sift through the jewelry. “I’ve seen it before—rich old people to living like they’re poor.” My fingers trace a gaudy garnet and topaz bracelet big enough to encircle a gorilla’s wrist and a delicate strand of opals that would barely fit a child. Two men’s watches, a strand of pearls, an ornate brooch, some gold door-knocker earrings: Even without a jewelers loupe I can see that much of it is average or low quality. Still, there’s too much of value to put out in the general sale. I’ll have to get it appraised.I sit back on my heels. Drugs in the kitchen, jewels in the attic—Mrs. Szabo’s house is turning out to be far from the standard Number One. I reach for my cell phone to call my client, Cal Tremaine, when something in the trunk catches my eye.A ring, pearl and ruby set in a twist of yellow gold. I pick it up and stare. The ring was designed to twine around a slender finger like a delicate flowering vine. Very unusual. Very familiar.Jill and Tyshaun and the hole in the ceiling recede to the distance. The entire world rests in my palm.The ring was made for a hand I know I once held. A hand whose touch I can’t recall. A hand that took this ring to the bottom of a cold, cold lake.
Or so I’ve been told.
Find out what happens next. Buy the book here.