I eavesdropped as I sifted through a rusted toolbox in a crowded corner of the basement. His uncle had been an artist or something, the nephew told another estate sale visitor. The family had been clearing out the sagging house since February, he continued, his tone disinterested and tired. A young mother commented on the faded linoleum up in the kitchen.

“Yeah, it’s too bad,” the nephew agreed, shaking his head. “Some people don’t maintain their property.”

“Especially a man living alone,” an older woman — A cousin? A sister? — commented.

The dead man’s nephew described first entering the basement, how they could barely move around and had to clear paths through the junk. But I knew his uncle was no hoarder and the junk wasn’t necessarily junk. He was a maker and a fixer and a doer with a curious mind. You could see it spread across the floor and piled against the basement walls. Ancient cans of house paint, boxes of wiring, spare insulation tucked over a cabinet. Shelves of sanders, drills, saws, welding equipment. Unidentifiable industrial equipment hiding in stubborn filing cabinet drawers. Brand new parts for obsolete machines. Chock Full O’ Nuts coffee cans chock full o’ drywall screws.

Upstairs: faded wallpaper, scuffed hardwood, dusty oak trim. Where this family saw neglect, I saw a house unmolested by modern bullshit. I browsed the dead man’s inner life in a side room dominated by six large bookcases: fine art lithographs, photography collections, comics, books on commercial illustration. How-to manuals on silkscreening, woodworking, and gardening. Out in the living room, thirty-year-old stereo components were stacked near photography equipment: cameras and tripods, a camcorder, a tempting Beseler photo enlarger (tempting for what? I don’t develop film. It was simply a machine of desire). In the dining room, two plastic totes of random A/V connectors, computer cables, and spindles of blank CDRs. Nearby, conté crayons and a clogged airbrush. In the garage, yard tools leaned against scrap lumber, an old metal street sign hidden in the back. Uncle artist-or-something had lived alone in his old house with his thing-making things. Now it all had to go, make an offer, the house had already sold.

Mortality crept into my guts. I was witnessing the end of my own story, standing right in the middle of it, taking part in it. Maybe this guy’s life wasn’t exactly like my own, but it sure as hell wasn’t not-like-it, at least when viewed through the prism of Stuff: Staedtler technical pens I’d owned in college. A shelf of DVDs I’d either seen or would consider watching. A guillotine paper cutter (bigger than mine) balanced next to an old brown desk lamp (his had a clamp—the nearly identical one in my office didn’t). The more I looked and the more I found, the less fun the whole ordeal got. It felt like I was picking over my own carcass.

Part of me wanted to buy everything, to rescue it from the dumpster waiting in the driveway. The other part of me wanted to rush home and empty my own house, give it all away, scuttle the whole fucking ship before someone else got saddled with the task. Leave nothing behind to be misunderstood or liquidated or forgotten. Instead I roamed through his house alongside strangers and deal-seekers, filling an old milk crate with a few bucks’ worth of detritus. Small things: tools and project ideas and doo-dads. Stuff migrating from one crooked New England house to another.

I crouched next to a stack of art magazines and plugged in a darkroom timer. It was a heavy, solid thing. Vintage. It hummed in my hand, a professional’s tool performing its task with patient precision, counting steadily down to zero.

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