I’ve returned to Iowa to complete a purge of my childhood home. My dad is a dermatologist, and he’s going on a two month trip to El Salvador to volunteer at a rural clinic. It’s the kind of thing he’d never have done before, with his fear of parasites and lumpy pillows. But things are different now.
It’s a big, modern house in the countryside north of Iowa City. A planned neighborhood with a list of prissy bylaws. My parents’ house sits at the bottom of a hill, where the neighborhood ends in a cul-de-sac. Behind the house there’s a sluggish creek. We used to wade in the creek, until one day my friend Laura emerged with leeches pinned to her calves.
When my mom died last year, someone — I don’t think it was my dad, but I don’t know who else it could’ve been — pushed her things into piles and covered the piles with bedsheets. Everything goes, except the furniture and his mother’s piano. He paid for my flight from Los Angeles. He’ll give me a check for two thousand dollars when he returns.
My dad picks me up at the airport and we have an awkward dinner at a Thai restaurant where the food is all burnt and sticky. He asks me about work; I lie and say it’s going well. He picks at his Pad Thai. My dad, once a man of indiscriminate appetites, now recognizes bad food for what it is.
I’m surprised he would trust me with this job, and even more surprised by my own eagerness to please him. He has put the few things he wants to keep in the master bedroom closet, and nailed a sheet of plywood over the door. My delinquent days were over ten years ago, but he still can’t get over the credit card fraud, or the time I had my middle-aged boyfriend hold me for ransom in a Cedar Rapids motel room.
We spend two polite days, tiptoeing around each other and around the sheeted mounds. He cooks for me, makes me elaborate vodka drinks. His gratitude makes me uncomfortable.
Then, he is gone. On my first morning alone in the house, I wake early and drink three cups of coffee. I find a legal pad on my mom’s desk in the kitchen. I carry it from room to room, taking notes. There are six major piles and three auxiliary piles. The big piles are located in the living room, foyer, dining room, laundry room, study. Another pile shares the formal sitting room with my grandmother’s piano. The piles are waist-high. The sheets are tucked tight around them.
My dad could have paid someone to haul this stuff away, but I know why he didn’t. He doesn’t really want me to get rid of everything. He wants me to sniff out the important items, absorb their emotional shock waves, then squirrel them away for him to revisit when he’s ready. I’ve brought empty duffel bags to carry my loot.
Nothing left to do but start sorting. I pull back the sheet on the living room pile. At the top are purses, coats, soft things soaked in my mom’s perfume. My stomach heaves, and I replace the sheet. I switch to the foyer pile. I peel up the sheet and see plastic storage boxes of sunglasses, books, makeup, each labeled in my mother’s cursive script. A box of old letters, the paper so worn it feels furry. I stand up, walk to the bathroom, and vomit.
I have two months, so I let myself forget about the sheeted mounds. I spend mornings finding creative ways to get into town. Evenings, I seek couches to sleep on, anything to avoid being alone in the house after dark. When I have to, I sleep on the back deck, a flesh buffet for the mosquitoes.
I can’t use my dad’s BMW, because I never learned to drive stick. My mom’s Subaru is in the garage, too, but I can’t use it because that’s where she died. It wasn’t the Subaru’s fault. I linger in the garage. I stroke the Subaru near the headlights, where its face is.
Suddenly it’s July, and I have only one week left. I wake in a panic. I drink a glass of vodka, then rip the sheet off the living room pile. I attack the things under it, pulling them out and throwing them in huge black garbage bags. I keep my nose passage closed at the back of my throat.
This works for a few minutes. Then I see a turquoise suit I remember her wearing on dates with my dad.
I start crying. My dad wasn’t cut out for this, and neither am I.
At this point, I can’t afford to hire a professional to haul everything away. My dad gave me three hundred dollars to rent a truck. I’ve spent most of it on liquor and taxis.
I walk three miles downtown to a sports bar I liked as a teenager. The bar has changed. There are more TVs. Everyone looks depressingly Midwestern, wearing the kind of oversized t-shirts you get for free when you sign up for a gym membership. I sit next to a loose-jointed boy with the eyelashes of a cartoon deer. His name is Peter. We talk about sunburns.
Peter’s friends, two boys and two girls, are tall and tan and white-teethed. I realize they are still in high school. I explain my dilemma. They are stoned enough to find it fascinating. I pay Peter my last fifty dollars to oversee the plundering of my father’s house.
They arrive at noon the next day, in their parents’ SUVs. They ring the doorbell, though I told them to just come in. I watch TV in the master bedroom and ignore Peter’s calls. In his voicemails, he asks questions about individual items — exactly what I told him not to do.
In the afternoon, the music starts. The bass is powerful, shaking the walls and floors like the house’s own beating heart. I watch The Godfather trilogy. I eat Xanax and Tums like movie candy and fall asleep at eight p.m.
I wake to new cars. The circular driveway resembles a small, poorly managed parking lot.
I’m forced to venture downstairs once I run out of granola bars. A dozen people mill around the kitchen. A thin, pale girl stands in front of the cabinets, swaying behind a curtain of hair. She’s holding one of the faceless Amish cloth dolls that my mom liked to collect. I’ve always hated those dolls, and I hate this one even more, now that the girl has drawn a smile on it in Sharpie.
By the third day, the piles remain, though they seem less tall. I go into the living room and find Peter on the couch. A girl sits across his long legs.
“They aren’t taking enough,” I say.
Peter looks guilty. He says his friend is making flyers.
“Whatever,” I say. “Just get it done.”
On the fourth day, Iowa City’s homeless population begins arriving on foot. Some have backpacks; others, shopping carts. They have walked for hours on the gravel shoulders of highways, just to get here. Peter’s flyers have worked.
I give them four hours. Then I go downstairs with the butcher knife my mom always kept under her side of the mattress.
“Take it and go,” I say. They are startled and ashamed. They can’t carry much in their shopping carts and backpacks. I help one man affix an extra bundle with twine.
We have two days to finish the job. They come and go at all hours, by taxi and motorcycle. They carpool in minivans, borrow pickup trucks from country friends.
The first floor is clotted with bodies. I accept cans of beer and wander through rooms, averting my eyes from the deflated piles.
In the living room, a tall man is taking apart the ceiling fan. Another man kneels, prying up the carpet.
“The carpet stays,” I say. “And the fan.”
“Flyer said everything,” the carpet man says with a shrug.
In the kitchen, a fat man lies passed-out on the table. Someone has placed a row of ceramic figurines on his belly, little deer and rabbits and gnomes. They are remarkably sure-footed, rising and falling with his breath like objects on a calm sea.
I go outside. The sun’s setting over the slow creek. Peter has started a fire just beyond the back deck. Shirtless teenagers stand around, feeding it things from the piles. Flames lick the eaves of the roof.
The lawn is ruined. I hope my father doesn’t look out here until I’m back in LA. It’s his own fault. He should have dealt with it himself. If he’d been more aware of the things happening in this house, my mother might still be alive.
I watch three boys carry out the piano, tilted onto its back. I had taped a sign on the piano saying it was off-limits, but maybe it fell off, or the boys were too drunk to notice. I must tell them to spare my grandmother’s piano. I have five seconds to act.
The piano lands on the fire with the sound of splintering wood. It is not burning fast enough. In a voice that sounds strange to me, I tell Peter there’s lighter fluid in the garage.