Most often my estate sale experiences are archeological forays into every day lives, pilfering through artifacts from recent history. Parlors with colonial or italiante decor. State of the art stereos in maple cabinets, a turntable and AM / FM radio.
I go to estate sales often. They inspire me. I store up the memories like stock photography, scenes to be mined later for my works of fiction.
They are time machines and I am taken back to the 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s.
Kitchens with cafe curtains in fabric recognizably 1950s. Teal and black atomic design. The temptation to purchase nags but I’d learned from too many failed attempts at washing out the dusty scent from the fibers–some kind of organic immortality: dust, grease, smoke. years of it penetrating the cotton home made window coverings. Who cares though–about purchasing them? Just standing there by the sink, the formica counter top. Standing there, frozen in the 1950s. When I am in kitchens during estate sales I often think of Kay Ryan’s poem: Things Shouldn’t be so hard:
A life should leave
ruts where she
went out and back
to get the mail
or move the hose
around the yard;
where she used to
stand before the sink,
a worn-out place;
beneath her hand
the china knobs
rubbed down to
the switch she
used to feel for
in the dark
Her things should
keep her marks.
of a life should show;
it should abrade.
And when life stops,
a certain space—
should be left scarred
by the grand and
be so hard.
I’ve written before about discovering boxes of photographs and journals. I’ve found parenting books from the 1920s. Hat boxes with wigs on styrofoam heads. I’ve found quilts and sketches. Sideboards with drawers containing pressed and starched doilies.
These are the sealed up time-capsules not just an era preserved, a life preserved. In its singularity it speaks the existential condition. Every estate sale is a life once but no longer lived.
The estate sale I went to today was different.
It was quite synchronistic too. Halloween is just around the corner. It is not that I think the person who vacated the house was bad. I don’t know who lived there or why they lived the way they did. However, what was left behind was overwhelming, startling, and instead of dreamy and nostalgic scenes from middle-class 1940s America, this was something all together more sinister.
No one I know would have ventured into this place. indeed, the customers were not the usual estate sale folks (antique collectors, vintage hunters, artists). You had to have courage to enter this house. There were a couple of young goth women–actors maybe. they were carrying out truckloads of tooled dresses, sequined and bright orange. Matching gloves. One carried a wedding dress. I could see mold climbing up the train like English Ivy. Hats, ventriloquist dolls. There were men my age (in their 50s) but with a lost in time affect and attire. Suspenders like my grandfather used to wear, white t-shirts stained yellow around the belly.
I’d wandered into hell.
Yet I guess I wanted this sort of inspiration because I entered despite the rotting wood porch. The odor. I tried but I couldn’t place it–must, body odor, dust, smoke, cooking grease–a concoction of spores and mites and particulate matter that very likely has lodged itself into my asthmatic lungs wreaking havoc in my respiratory system.
Still I ventured.
So much stuff. Narrow pathways through the front two rooms dug into the debris. I think it would have been a living room and a dining room, but there was no way to see through the mess what–if any– furniture was underneath. There was no longer room in the house. There was no order. I couldn’t help but wonder how one lives like this.
I walked through the kitchen. I realized I had my hands deep within my jean pockets–a protective act. Whatever I did, my unconscious knew I should not touch a thing.
Then, I smelled it. Creosote? Dead bodies? I didn’t know. The scent was pungent and vile. It was coming from the entryway that led to the basement stairs. I pressed on. I noted a sort of gate against the wall of the stair well as I descended.
Oh my God. From the moment I walked into the first room all I could picture was a dungeon. That deep, dank Cormick McCarth’s road. Humans partially devoured in wait for the cannibals that lived in the rooms above.
A night mare. I expected to see a dead body.
or I wouldn’t have been surprised to uncover a limb under a pile of old magazines.
I navigated the small rooms, more like cells within which victims would be housed, kept separate from the others but close enough to hear cries, screams. The walls papered in a collage of old magazine covers. 1950s chrome and vinyl chairs stacked against a wall covered in a thick layer of dirt and dust and mold.
I hated the thought but couldn’t help it. What would it be like to be trapped down there–the creepy faces of 1940s film stars staring down at me as I struggled to get air in that toxic subterranean grave. Locked in one of the strange cages or restrained somehow. What would my mind do to survive? Would I study the walls, memorize the images, imbue them with some familiarity. Make the faces kindred. Would I hallucinate from the toxic mold, witnessing the people on the covers coming to life, a crowded theater of disembodied heads of those famous and infamous but now long since dead and buried. Their image to live on in the collaged dungeon decor.
Would I wrestle loose or break out of a metal cage. Would I look for windows hidden by the stacks of newspapers and old reel to reel players. Record albums, dolls, old suitcases. Would I find no windows, only more dirt and more junk piled behind yet even more? Instead would I venture up to the top of the wood stairs, painted dark greet with dirty rubber treads. Would I have perfected stealth and hone my vigilance so I could sense when my captor left the home.