The smell hit Emily through her mask, before she even walked through the sliding glass door and into the living room. Chanel No5 and urine. “Mixing memory and desire,” she thought to herself, remembering a poem she’d learned in college, and suppressed a laugh. She shifted Bella up a bit higher on her hip. Bella was awake now, and her sweet toddler weight was almost too heavy, but at least she wasn’t wriggling, and carrying her was much better than putting her down in this sad home.
Marianne came around the corner from another room, carrying a bag of what seemed to be clothes, her mask firmly above her nose for once. The older woman’s eyes twinkled with a combination of laughter and steely determination, the magical mix that made her both an excellent realtor and an incredible mentor. “This one, my god!” exclaimed Marianne. “Hoarding doesn’t even begin to… well, wait until you see the upstairs!”
Emily had started helping Marianne eight months ago, just before the pandemic, as a little escape from her housewife life. Just part time, while Bella went to preschool. Still, in those hours Emily felt like an adult, a career woman, more than just a mother and wife. She wanted to have a second child soon, so that Bella wouldn’t be lonely, and then she hoped that when both kids were in school full time, she could be a realtor, too. That was the plan. Then the pandemic hit and the preschools closed, which meant no childcare at all for Bella, and even though Jack was home all the time now, he was working and he couldn’t juggle that and Bella, even for a few hours. Fortunately, Marianne understood, and Emily could usually bring Bella with her. It didn’t feel to Emily like the independent career woman she wanted to be, but it paid, and Marianne was so grateful for the help. The market was booming now, especially here in Tahoe. The pandemic meant that people were willing to pay top dollar or a hideaway home, away from the city, and it also meant that a lot of homes owned by Bay Areas folks who had bought summer homes here when they retired in the booming 90s were, to be blunt, vacated suddenly or about to be vacated.
Emily’s eyes adjusted to the relative gloom and she looked around properly. Rugs on top of carpets. A mantle sagging with knickknacks. Three coffee makers on the kitchen counter. Hoarders. She’d seen a good number of them now. People who initially filled their second homes with all the odds and ends they couldn’t use but couldn’t bear to get rid of. Then when the second home became the primary one, the clutter quickly became overwhelming. The people took up less and less space, became smaller and smaller while their collections of objects expanded until the house was filled with bric-a-brac, boxes of things ordered and never even opened, file cabinets bursting with outdated paperwork, receipts, correspondence. Then they died, leaving behind a dusty mess of chaos that their children (if they had any) didn’t want, and the clean up was often left up to the realtors. Marianne specialized in these sales. Her straightforward common sense was part of what made her great at this kind of thing. Emily felt overwhelmed by disorder, and she was regularly overwhelmed; being around Marianne made her feel like there was a future for her where she could handle anything with a good pair of rubber gloves and brusque practicality.
“Keep it if you want it, sell it if someone else wants it, or trash it,” was Marianne’s mantra. They’d spent whole days at properties, just loading up the back of Marianne’s SUV. The things to keep or sell they drove to Marianne’s garage, and she sold them on eBay. But most things honestly weren’t good enough to sell. Most of the time, they just drove to the dump and back, until they had achieved some semblance of a normal looking place, and then they’d start with the open house on Saturdays, blast all the rooms with lemon-scented room freshener in the morning to take away the sad stale air, and then take more loads to the dump or to Marianne’s at the end of every day until the house sold. At least, that’s how they did it before the pandemic. Now they had to take lots of photos of every room, post everything online, let people in by appointment only, condition “as is”, serious buyers only please.
“Wait until you see the upstairs,” Marianne repeated, piling pillows on a broken chair in the living room. “It’s… something. We’re going to need a lot of photos. Here, you’ll have to go around the outside, the upstairs door locks automatically on the inside.” She held out the key ring to Emily, who grabbed it with her right hand, in which she was also holding Bella’s potty. Potty training, what a pain. She had succeeded in getting Bella out of diapers, which was a substantial savings for their young family, but she hadn’t yet weaned her off the little plastic potty. Bella was too easily afraid. She could be so quiet and serious, very much an old soul, but when she was frightened she was so tiny, a fragile creature, and Emily couldn’t bear to push her. Thus, Emily carried the little plastic potty everywhere, in case Bella needed it.
And she and Jack would have another, go through this again. The diapers, the accidents, the tears. But Emily had been an only child and she didn’t want that for Bella. Being the center of attention when her parents were around was fun, and she joked that it was great that she never had to share, but Emily knew she would gladly have traded every single toy she owned to have one friend to talk to. More than a friend: a brother or a sister. When she was little, she had imaginary friends, or so her parents told her. They weren’t imaginary for Emily; they were the only conversations she had some days when her parents would go to work and leave her, telling her she was such a big girl. She had those friends, and then. Well, then one day, she didn’t have those friends anymore. Emily remembered… well, this wasn’t the best time to think about those things, now that she was all grown up.
Emily’s parents were dead now, and there was nobody to share her memories with, nobody to confirm how things had or had not happened. She’d made some friends since she and Jack had moved to California, but now with the pandemic, Emily’s friendship circle had dwindled and vanished. Marianne was the closest thing to a friend Emily had, and she was Emily’s boss. Jack was sweet, but he was so stressed right now, it seemed wrong to complain about being lonely. Emily knew Bella needed a little brother or sister, close to her own age.
Emily walked around to the other side of the house with Bella, past a pile of old tires, and went up the stairs. She expected to see more mess, boxes, a couch with too many cushions. The usual. She opened the door and stepped back, surprised to find it fully occupied. She was about to issue apologies and make a hasty and awkward retreat before she realized that the dozen women standing in the room were not real. Well, they were real… just not real people. They were all mannequins. Elegantly dressed, realistically posed mannequins. Even Bella could tell this was something unusual.
“Mommy!” breathed Bella, as Emily lowered the girl to the teal carpet, which seemed fairly clean compared to the one downstairs. “Mommy, such BIG BARBIES!”
Emily walked into the room as if in a trance. Glittering sequins on ballgowns caught the light through the windows and the shadows as Emily passed by them. It was like walking into a party. No: It was like walking into a window display for a store selling ballgowns. Colorful dresses. High heeled shoes. Make-up. Painted nails. Jewelry. Wigs. All posed around the room, which was decorated with religious icons, richly overstuffed furniture, ornate gold mirrors, and glass pumpkins. Pumpkins?
Right, to business. Photos. Where to start? Start with this: Who has a dozen fully dressed mannequins in the living room, ready for a dinner party? Emily knew that with most hoarders there was a profound loneliness at the base of it. People who had lost family, friends, their jobs; people who had made a bad decision and lost something they loved then became unable to make decisions about letting anything go – first, things with obvious value, and then later, unable to let go of anything at all. When Emily’s mother died, Emily had stood in her kitchen holding the plain white melamine sugar bowl, thinking that was all she needed. And then, her mother’s favorite coffee mug, with the picture of a unicorn and the chipped handle. Her mother’s pillowcase, still smelling faintly like her. Emily knew it could be hard to let go. Whoever had owned this house, according to the downstairs, had been unable to let go of furniture, car parts, broken electronics, sleeping bags, piles of newspapers. Typical hoarding. But the upstairs told a story of a different kind of loneliness. This was a person who, in the apparent absence of friends, had created a world in which he was surrounded by lively, unique individuals. Did he imagine they were real? Did he act out scenarios, witty cocktail chatter, dancing?
How do you take pictures to sell a place like this? Emily knew by now that the best place to start was the kitchen or the bathroom. Marianne had taught her “Clean kitchens bring home the bacon” – in fact, a clean kitchen could mean a three percent change in the price of a house. Emily found a garbage bag and a spray bottle of cleaner under the sink and started wiping down the counters. She expected them to be crusted with that distinct dusty grease so common in older houses, but they were fairly clean. There wasn’t even a lot of clutter to throw away in the room. She wiped the counters and the fronts of the cabinets in the kitchen, and then shifted to the living room. First, started moving things off the floor, to make the room look more spacious. She used Marianne’s trick of designating a “landing room” and starting moving things into there. She moved a pile of blankets. Pillows. A lamp without a lampshade. Some of the mannequins. Then Emily realized she’d left her camera in the car. “Stay here,” she instructed Bella, who was playing with absorbed contentment with the buckles on one of the mannequin’s high heeled shoes. “Mommy will be right back.”
Emily dashed down the inner stairs, annoyed at her forgetfulness. She went out to the car to retrieve the camera bag. It wasn’t a bad neighborhood, but she still felt the relief, familiar from her years of living as a poor student, to get to the car and find the windows unbroken, her valuable camera still in its bag on the seat. She went back into the house through the open sliding door, calling as she went up the stairs “Bella, can you open the door for mommy?”
“Mommy, I have to pee and I can’t reach my potty!” Emily rushed to the door, but Bella hadn’t opened it. On the one hand, Marianne was tolerant, and to be fair the house already smelled like urine. Still, if Bella made a mess…. “It’s okay, Mommy I can go here!” Emily raced back down the stairs, ran out through the sliding door and up the outer stairs, banging the door against the wall as flung it open. Emily’s heart sank. The potty was on a chair, not on the floor where she’d meant to leave it. No wonder Bella couldn’t reach it.
“Tell Mommy where you went,” said Emily.
“I peed in the big girl potty!” replied Bella proudly, pointing at the bathroom. Emily frowned. Bella had always been afraid before. But the evidence was in the toilet. Emily turned back to Bella, who was now holding the hand of the mannequin in the purple dress, which was posed as if seated on an overstuffed lounge chair. “The pretty lady told me to,” said Bella, looking up at the face of the mannequin, its painted blue eyes, the slight dent on its nose, the angular cheekbones framed by hair that had been carefully styled to appear artfully windblown. The dress was slit to mid-thigh, an off-the-shoulder glittery design, more appropriate for a figure skater than a potty trainer.
Emily looked at Bella, at the mannequin, around the room. A memory came back to her, unbidden and unwanted, and the room around her started to shimmer with the forgotten and suddenly familiar combination of fear and excitement. “A shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent on the extraordinary thing that was happening to me.” Another thing she’d read in college. How had she forgotten; how could she forget? “Such a marvelous imagination,” her mother had said. Emily did not want to say this to Bella. But she did not know what else to say.