Annie loves estate-sales. So, after sampling wedding cakes at a bakery in Park Ridge, we decide to harness our chocolate ganache-boosted energy levels and drive to a sale on the other side of town.
Park Ridge is a very affluent Jersey burg so you can’t miss the estate sale – it’s at the mansion with the long line of cars snaking out of a driveway the size of an interstate. I park behind the very last car near the entrance to the street.
“There’s more parking up front,” Annie says. “Move up.”
“No,” I say, taking the keys out of the ignition. “I want to be able to get out of here fast.”
Annie rolls her eyes. When we go to shopping malls I usually park by the exits and make the long walk to the stores. If something happens I don’t want to be fighting panicked crowds out of the lot. Always have an escape route. I read too many thrillers.
When walk into the mansion’s foyer I’m immediately hit with a feeling of sadness. Now, I’m not saying I’m psychic or anything. But I think there are people out there who can process hundreds of subtle clues on a preconscious level and then work out good hypotheses as to what happened in a given place. Usually the feelings arrive before any theories form. And the first thought I have is, “Everyone who lived here died quick.”
Ann makes a beeline to the upstairs bedroom to look at clothes, leaving me to root around the house. I rarely buy anything at these sales. That’s Ann’s job. When I go to these things I play homicide detective.
There’s no body of course, and the crime science is beyond contaminated. Family members have carted off the most valuable items and the people running the sale have turned the house upside down. But good detectives are sort of like psychics; often going on “hunches” and getting a “feel” for a crime scene before strip mining it for facts. It requires a different sort of eyes. So for a few minutes I’ll pretend I’m Harry Bosch of the L.A.P.D..
My first stop is the kitchen. Judging from the décor, it was last decorated in the late-eighties or early nineties. The Sub-Zero fridge and Jenn-Air stoves are vintage, but in good shape. The knives in the block are Wusthoff. I own the same set. The pots and pans are gone. Since the sale just started, I figure they were good pieces, cooper maybe and the family took them. Maybe a sharp-eyed buyer snapped them up the moment the house opened. There’s a lot of booze. Half-drunk bottles of scotch are selling for ten bucks. Someone liked Glenfiddich a lot.
A lady almost knocks me over and scoops up the block of Wusthoff knives. Once they’re firmly hers, she smiles at me – her face a mix of avarice and triumph and age. She has to be eighty. I’ve never understood why old people like estate sales. Soon I’ll be going to one at her house.
The dining room features a mahogany table that could seat twelve with an asking price of eight hundred bucks. A china set is arranged on top of it – middle of the road stuff, not Minton or Wedgewood – going for three-fifty. Sliver plated flatware in boxes lay on top of a cold radiator. Never used.
I move into the living room. Its floral wallpaper was in style twenty-years ago and is just beginning to peel. The house is in good shape over all – expensive but just on the cusp of being an oldster’s place. Board games from the 1970’s are piled on a couch. I had the same games as a kid. That means the children who once lived here are roughly my age. As I pick though the knickknacks and designer chotchkies, I notice that the books on the bookshelves are all from the past decade. The newest one I can find is from 2010. That gives me a timeframe. Whatever happened to the people who lived here occurred in the past three years.
Looking through the large picture window overlooking the backyard, I see a Big Wheel and a Barbie scooter thing with pick tassels coming out of the handlebars parked next to a garden shed. Grandchildren. At least two. Girl and boy. Judging from their condition, the toys are only a few years old and are suited for kids my nephew’s age. Probably bought by doting grandparents and kept here for when they pulled baby-sitting duty.
As I move towards the stairs I see some trophies piled on a serving board. One trophy is a silver plate from a women’s high school tennis championship held in 1960. Another trophy is from a Dartmouth men’s tennis tournament dated 1963. Tennis probably brought this couple together. Judging from the dates, I figure the couple was in their late sixties or early seventies.
When I get upstairs, the master bedroom is filled with men and women’s clothing. Annie is there, looking at pairs of Stuart Weitzman shoes in boxes. They’re expensive items.
“This lady had nice stuff,” Annie says. “She was thin and had good taste. Lots cashmere.”
“See anything you want?” I ask.
The master bedroom is large with his and her walk-in closets and separate sitting areas for each. As I look though the man’s clothes I note his shoes are preppy and expensive, but scuffed up. Same thing goes with his suits. They’re all classically cut Brooks Brothers’ pinstripes but well worn, even frayed in places. Some guys who are old money treat their clothes that way. Good stuff but not flashy. A uniform, not a sartorial display designed to impress people. The man was probably a banker or corporate lawyer who didn’t have to impress clients or juries; a guy who worked behind a desk all day.
“So what do you think?” Annie asks, knowing what I’m up to.
“The couple was around my parents’ age,” I say. “Give or take a year. The husband probably came from money, Ivy League educated and a lawyer. They liked tennis, had at least one child, two grandchildren and a lot of money. They either died at the same time or within months of each other.”
“What makes you think they died so close together?”
“When a spouse dies,” I say, “The first thing the survivor usually does is pack up the old stuff and give it away. That didn’t happen here. There was no time.”
“Maybe they couldn’t live with out each other.”
I say nothing because I’ve slipped out of Harry Bosch mode and am thinking about my own parents. If mom died I wonder how long my father would go on without her? If the situation was reversed, however, I can see my mom soldiering on into her nineties.
Annie heads back downstairs. As I turn to follow her, a neatly stacked set of luggage catches my eye. The paper tags affixed to the handles tell me they belonged to Phil and Donna Smith en route from JFK to Miami. Now I have names to go with the address. Soon I’ll know all about them.
Pulling out my smartphone I input the information into Google. The obituaries reveal that Donna died in September 2011 in a hospice at the age of 68. Probably cancer. She was active in her tennis club and crazy about her three grandchildren. Phil died in March of 2012 at his summer home outside Miami. He lived 71 years. His dad had been the president of a New York department store – old money – and Phil went to Yale Law before serving as corporate counsel for a couple of banking firms. Phil and Donna married in 1966 and had a son and a daughter.
Their son’s name is also Phil and Linked In tells me he’s a Cornell alum and also a lawyer. He’s two months younger than me and lives in Saddle River with his wife and two children. He’s loaded like his dad. Before you know it, I’m scrolling through the family albums on his Facebook page. His daughters look to be about eight and five years old. Then I find a picture of Phil and Donna.
The picture was taken late sunset at a beach in Florida in 2010. Donna is smiling with her arms around smaller versions of the grandkids. She’s blonde, thin and fashionably dressed. I can tell she was a sharp number all her life. Behind her the ocean is dark and impenetrable and the sky is fading to black. Maybe Donna doesn’t know the time bomb inside her has just begun to tick. Phil is chubby and looks a bit confused, his eyes unfocused. He might have known things were coming undone. Maybe it was the Glenfiddich.
I turn off the phone and take a deep breath. After Donna died, Phil probably went down to his summer home right after the funeral. Grief stricken, he had probably planned to pack up his wife’s things upon his return. He never came back. Give a year for wills and probate stuff and now we’re at the end – an estate sale. Soon another family will live here and the cycle will continue. Case closed.
As Annie and I walk to the car I tell her the results of my investigation. When I finish she says, “I heard that if you live two years after your spouse dies, you’ll probably live another ten.”
It’s only twenty-six years until I’m seventy-one. That’s not a large number. Nineteen seems like yesterday. Statistically speaking, I’ll probably be in the ground before Annie. Hopefully I’ll have more time than Phil but who knows? What if Ann goes first? I can see myself not pulling through those first two years.
Yes, I know I’m just starting my married life and already picking out grave plots. But it’s good to remember that love is impermanent and always exacts a price of suffering and loss. The object of your love will die. Some people, including myself at times, are so afraid of this that they hang out on the periphery of love, maybe bask in its glow, but never commit to anyone – not even a pet. They never want to be tied down or be “just like other people.” That may make for less painful life, but certainly a more diminished one. I wonder how Phil and Donna handled it. I wonder how their children are doing.
“Ready to go Mr. Doomsday?” Annie says, buckling her seat belt. “Ready to flee the hordes?” I smile and slip the car into drive.
I no longer need an escape route.
Wow, this may be one of the best pieces you’ve ever written. I’ve been reading your posts for years and it reminded me why I’ve kept coming back.
Or maybe it’s because my father recently went over his Will with me and I have started to really consider the possibility that my parents’ death is not a million years away. It’s made me think about exactly how I would miss them.
Either way, this one hit me deep and, speaking from my writer brain, the piece was artfully timed and crafted.
Was trying to think of something cooler to introduce myself with but I guess the good’ol “Hi” will have to do.
I am new to NYC and yes I am an actor and yes I am a waiter. I worked previously in Boston as a server and only have catering experience and bussing experience in NYC from a previous stint here. So to get down to nitty gritty as they say I am having a shit ass luck with landing a job here. So I propose to anyone who knows somone who can hire me I pay a $150.00
reward. I have a pretty good resume and do have references.
I know it’s a long shot but hey I chose to study acting in college and it don’t get longer than that man.
Great to have you back writing Steve.
Great piece, quite thought-provoking. Its a bit scary how much personal information about us is out there and available to someone who knows how to find it.
It’s spelled “tchotchke”.
A) It’s nice to see you back, virtually.
And you as well must die, belovèd dust,
And all your beauty stand you in no stead;
This flawless, vital hand, this perfect head,
This body of flame and steel, before the gust
Of Death, or under his autumnal frost,
Shall be as any leaf, be no less dead
Than the first leaf that fell,this wonder fled,
Altered, estranged, disintegrated, lost.
Nor shall my love avail you in your hour.
In spite of all my love, you will arise
Upon that day and wander down the air
Obscurely as the unattended flower,
It mattering not how beautiful you were,
Or how belovèd above all else that dies.
Edna St. Vincent Millay
Wow, good detective work. I can hear Basil Rathbone giving that commentary.
Time for you to expand into mystery novels.
Among your best. As you seem to, I find estate sales sad — although necessary. The people are gone, the stuff must move on and be useful again somewhere else. To walk through one, though, is to walk through the static remnants of a recently ended life — as they are being taken apart. You couldn’t ask for a better manifestation of impermanence.
As you say: when one partner dies, usually the other clears out all the clothing and personal effects ASAP. It’s disturbing to see, but I think I understand and would do it myself, though grieving: time to get on with one’s life. The fact that the husband didn’t do it? Maybe he had no life to get on with; he just left town for the other house and waited for the end, which wasn’t long.
Again, one of your best. I’ve been there, and it was like being there again.
Beautiful. I lost my grandmother a week ago today & this really hits home.
my father died at 62 in 1979; mother lived another 32 years and no remarriage. She kept a photo of him in his WWII Army uniform in her wallet.
One of the most difficult things I’ve ever had to do was to clean out my mother’s purse following her death. A woman’s purse is her private domaine. I learned a couple of things from the experience: it is more difficult to close a credit card account than it is to open one, with some companies even requiring copies of the death certificate. That was Lesson One. The major lesson, though, was one I’ll take with me forever. We come into this world with nothing and we leave this world with nothing. You can’t even take your purse. Period. It’s wonderful to have you back, Steve, and best regards to your intended :=)
This is a beautiful piece of writing. Thank you.
I’ve never understood why old people like estate sales. Soon I’ll be going to one at her house.
Having worked in the food & beverage industry for 40+ years, I have always enjoyed your wry observations about our mutual calling and, of course, agonized during the periods when you stepped away from your writing.
This piece was extremely moving and deftly written. Six years ago, I lost my life partner to cancer and fully expected to follow her within a year or two. Somehow, I find myself still here, numbly going through life while deeply in love with a ghost.
I wish a long and happy life for you and your family and wish to thank you for such an intuitive piece.