My mother filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy on a Monday, not long after I turned 19. Six months later, a paper appeared on our porch. It was wedged into the crevice of the screen door. The paper told us what we both, by then, already knew: that by or before the date of August 4, in thirty days, we had to leave. At that time, the house was to be cleared of all belongings and readied for auction.
The paper lay on the kitchen counter, untouched, with the rest of the mail. The next morning, it was still there. Coffee had dribbled over it, wrinkling parts of the page into crinkled dots of dried brown. My mother pinned it to the center of the fridge with the strongest magnet she could find. For the next month, until a man came by and took the fridge, lugging it into the trunk of his Ford F-150, the paper hung there. A “Sav-More” coupon book was taped next to it.
We knew there were things that had to be done. There were things that had to go. My mother rented a 20-foot dumpster, which sat at the top of the driveway, closest to the back door. The wheels of it dug deep into the gravel below. It was summer. The dumpster was parked under the wide shade of a catalpa tree in our yard; it began to fill with the tree’s flowers, which spun down like little ivory pinwheels.
My mother parked her car at the edge of the driveway, near the street, to give the thing as much room as possible. I had to park my car in the grass of the front yard. By August, the grass had yellowed, crisp, under the shadow of my Dodge.
Outside the back door was a narrow path of loose red cobblestone, framed by mint on either side. The short path ended at a picket fence, which had a broken latch that let the door continually laze open. The gate led to the top of the driveway, where the mouth of the dumpster opened wide.
We carried things out to the dumpster in plastic laundry baskets and cardboard boxes. It made sense to start from the bottom of the house and work our way up. In the basement, we wore dust masks and yellow rubber gloves while we worked, just in case. Even with the masks, the air still smelled of the wet stone that lined the walls. It was dark, except for a Coleman lantern placed at the bottom of the stairs.
A stack of old Consumer Report magazines dating from the mid-’90s took up a whole corner of the basement. The majority of the things we cleared were what we had expected – mounds of musty paint cans, stained rugs, broken chairs, dirty rags – but there were some surprises. My father’s baseball gloves, stiff to the touch, were found in a box labeled “Sentimental.” Later, the box was sent to storage, locked in a unit my mother bought for the things she wanted to keep.
You had to be careful not to let the baskets sag under too much weight, but aside from that, cleaning had a mindless rhythm, like a set of suicide drills on a basketball court. It was a trudge down a set of steep wooden stairs, a grab at whatever objects were nearest, a slow march back up the stairs, with the laundry basket held at your hip, and a short jog back to the dumpster. Our faces were damp with sweat; our breath, hot, got caught in the masks. The sun beat hot and bright after the cool of the basement. Whenever it got to be too much, we dangled our feet in the pool out back, where algae had grown thick along the concrete walls. At the slightest touch, the algae would come loose and dissolve in a puff of russet-brown.
The pool’s filtration system had broken earlier that summer. My mother felt awful about “letting it go,” but neither of us had the energy to scrape the algae or dump bleach-bottles of chlorine or try to pump the filter anymore. No one else seem to mind; the kids old and brave enough to dive in the deep end carved messages with their fingers in the algae-dust, which only lasted a few minutes and then blurred, like an Etch-a-Sketch shaken out. The grime attracted a family of ducks. From time to time, they flew from who knows where to lap around the pool, pumping their necks forward to peck at the water.
At night, we carted garbage bags full of clothes out to the porch. The bags made for perfect chairs: soft and craterous, with a sharp smell of mothballs. We sat on the bags long enough for our legs to stick to the warm plastic. When the porch got so full of bags that we could no longer walk, my mother called Purple Heart, and someone came to lug the bags away.
When it rained, water pooled in the corners of the dumpster. The driveway began to smell like wet paper and wet wood and dirty wet metal. Junk began to jut out over the top of the metal walls. A red and white playpen was visible from the kitchen window.
By the time we had made it to the second floor, my mother debated getting another dumpster. In the end, though, the rest of the house was dismantled one piece at a time. My mother posted an ad on Craigslist, asking for anyone willing to do heavy lifting: cash only. It didn’t take long to hear back.
The bathtub in the closet upstairs took four men. It was a cast-iron antique, with silver feet at the bottom, and had been there when my parents bought the house. The men had to grip the smooth lip of it with their bare hands. It took forty minutes to get the tub through my mother’s bedroom, down the stairs and out the front door.
On August 1, three days before the move, a man came to inspect the final condition of the house. The man balanced his clipboard against his shirt, which was too tight and not long enough to hide a pouch of floury skin. He wore a shark-tooth necklace and a backwards baseball cap, which he periodically lifted up to matt the mess of black curls below.
He went through the house room by room, marking things on his clipboard along the way. When he got to my old bedroom, he noted a crack in the window that my father had made while trying to catch a bat with a butterfly net at two o’clock one morning. My mother told me it had happened shortly before he died. I was five.
At the end of his tour, the man plucked a paper from his clipboard and put it on the kitchen counter for my mother to sign. The man spoke to my mother without looking her in the eye. At that point, the hardwood floor was without any rugs. In the emptiness, the man’s voice rang with a faint echo. He said everything was in order; the house looked great. He chewed what smelled like a pack of Juicy Fruit.
He had parked his car next to mine in the grass of the front lawn. It was drizzling. When he backed out, the tires tore up the grass. The dirt underneath was a sloppy loam. From inside, I heard the grille of his car hit the road, which happened whenever anyone tried to pull out of our driveway too quickly.