Stella thought she’d made up a lie on the spot, asking her childhood friend if he remembered the strange public broadcast TV show with the unsettling host she and all the neighborhood kids appeared on years ago. But he does remember. And so does her mom. Why doesn’t Stella? The more she investigates the show and the grip it has on her hometown, the eerier the mystery grows.
In his last years, Marco’s older brother Denny had become one of those people whose possessions swallowed them entirely. The kind they made documentaries about, the kind people staged interventions for, the kind people made excuses not to visit, and who stopped going out, and who were spoken of in sighs and silences. Those were the things Stella thought about after Denny died, and those were the reasons why, after eyeing the four other people at the funeral, she offered to help Marco clean out the house.
“Are you sure?” Marco asked. “You barely even knew him. It’s been thirty years since you saw him last.”
Marco’s husband, Justin, elbowed Marco in the ribs. “Take her up on it. I’ve got to get home tomorrow and you could use help.”
“I don’t mind. Denny was nice to me,” Stella said, and then added, “But I’d be doing it to help you.”
The first part was a lie, the second part true. Denny had been the weird older brother who was always there when their friends hung out at Marco’s back in high school, always lurking with a notebook and a furtive expression. She remembered Marco going out of his way to try to include Denny, Marco’s admiration wrapped in disappointment, his slow slide into embarrassment.
She and Marco had been good friends then, but she hadn’t kept up with anyone from high school. She had no excuse; social media could reconnect just about anyone at any time. She wasn’t sure what it said about her or them that nobody had tried to communicate.
On the first night of her visit with her parents, her mother had said, “Your friend Marco’s brother died this week,” and Stella had suddenly been overwhelmed with remorse for having let that particular friendship lapse. Even more so when she read the obituary her mother had clipped, and she realized Marco’s parents had died a few years before. That was why she went to the funeral and that was why she volunteered.
“I’d like to help,” she said.
Two days later, she arrived at the house wearing clothes from a bag her mother had never gotten around to donating: jeans decades out of style and dappled with paint, treadworn gym shoes, and a baggy, age-stretched T-shirt from the Tim Burton Batman. She wasn’t self-conscious about the clothes—they made sense for deep cleaning—but there was something surreal about the combination of these particular clothes and this particular door.
“I can’t believe you still have that T-shirt,” Marco said when he stepped out onto the stoop. “Mine disintegrated. Do you remember we all skipped school to go to the first showing?”
“Yeah. I didn’t even know my mom still had it. I thought she’d thrown it out years ago.”
“Cool—and thanks for doing this. I told myself I wouldn’t ask anybody, but if someone offered I’d take them up on it. Promise me you won’t think less of me for the way this looks? Our parents gave him the house. I tried to help him when I visited, but he didn’t really let me, and he made it clear if I pushed too hard I wouldn’t be welcome anymore.”
Stella nodded. “I promise.”
He handed her a pair of latex gloves and a paper mask to cover her mouth and nose; she considered for the first time how bad it might be. She hadn’t even really registered that he had squeezed through a cracked door and greeted her outside. The lawn was manicured, the flower beds mulched and weeded and ready for the spring that promised to erupt at any moment, if winter ever agreed to depart. The shutters sported fresh white paint.
Which was why she was surprised when Marco cracked the door again to enter, leaving only enough room for her to squeeze through as she followed. Something was piled behind the door. Also beside the door, in front of the door, and in every available space in the entranceway. A narrow path led forward to the kitchen, another into the living room, another upstairs.
“Oh,” she said.
He glanced back at her. “It’s not too late to back out. You didn’t know what you were signing up for.”
“I didn’t,” she admitted. “But it’s okay. Do you have a game plan?”
“Dining room, living room, rec room, bedrooms, in that order. I have no clue how long any room will take, so whatever we get done is fine. Most of what you’ll find is garbage, which can go into bags I’ll take to the dumpster in the yard. Let me know if you see anything you think I might care about. We should probably work in the same room, anyhow, since I don’t want either of us dying under a pile. That was all I thought about while I cleaned a path through the kitchen to get to the dumpster: If I get buried working in here alone, nobody will ever find me.”
“Dining room it is, then.” She tried to inject enthusiasm into her voice, or at least moral support.
It was strange seeing a house where she had spent so much time reduced to such a fallen state. She didn’t think she’d have been able to say where a side table or a bookcase had stood, but there they were, in the deepest strata, and she remembered.
They’d met here to go to prom, ten of them. Marco’s father had photographed the whole group together, only saying once, “In my day, people went to prom with dates,” and promptly getting shushed by Marco’s mother. Denny had sat on the stairs and watched them, omnipresent notebook in his hands. It hadn’t felt weird until Marco told him to go upstairs, and then suddenly it had gone from just another family member watching the festivities to something more unsettling.
She and Marco went through the living room to the dining room. A massive table still dominated the room, though it was covered with glue sticks and paintbrushes and other art supplies. Every other surface in the room held towering piles, but the section demarcated by paint-smeared newspaper suggested Denny had actually used the table.
She smelled the kitchen from ten feet away. Her face must have shown it, because Marco said, “I’m serious. Don’t go in there unless you have to. I’ve got all the windows open and three fans blowing but it’s not enough. I thought we could start in here because it might actually be easiest. You can do the sideboard and the china cabinets and I’ll work on clearing the table. Two categories: garbage and maybe-not-garbage, which includes personal stuff and anything you think might be valuable. Dying is shockingly expensive.”
Stella didn’t know if that referred to Denny’s death—she didn’t know how he’d died—or to the funeral, and she didn’t want to ask. She wondered why Marco had chosen the impersonal job with no decisions involved, but when she came to one of his grandmother’s porcelain teacups, broken by the weight of everything layered on top of it, she thought she understood. He didn’t necessarily remember what was under here, but seeing it damaged would be harder than if Stella just threw it in a big black bag. The items would jog memories; their absence would not.
She also came to understand the purpose of the latex gloves. The piles held surprises. Papers layered on papers layered on toys and antiques, then, suddenly, mouse turds or a cat’s hairball or the flattened tendril of some once-green plant or something moldering and indefinable. Denny had apparently smoked, too; every few layers, a full ashtray made an appearance. The papers were for the most part easy discards: the news and obituary sections of the local weekly newspaper, going back ten, fifteen, thirty-five years, some with articles cut out.
Here and there, she came across something that had survived: a silver platter, a resilient teapot, a framed photo. She placed those on the table in the space Marco had cleared. For a while it felt like she was just shifting the mess sideways, but eventually she began to recognize progress in the form of the furniture under the piles. When Marco finished, he dragged her garbage bags through the kitchen and out to the dumpster, then started sifting through the stuff she’d set aside. He labeled three boxes: “keep,” “donate,” and “sell.” Some items took him longer than others; she decided not to ask how he made the choices. If he wanted to talk, he’d talk.
“Stop for lunch?” Marco asked when the table at last held only filled boxes.
Stella’s stomach had started grumbling an hour before; she was more than happy to take a break. She reached instinctively for her phone to check the time, then stopped herself and peeled the gloves off the way she’d learned in first aid in high school, avoiding contamination. “I need to wash my hands.”
“Do it at the deli on the corner. You don’t want to get near any of these sinks.”
The deli on the corner hadn’t been there when they were kids. What had been? A real estate office or something else that hadn’t registered in her teenage mind. Now it was a hipster re-creation of a deli, really, complete with order numbers from a wall dispenser. A butcher with a waxed mustache took their order.
“Did he go to school with us?” Stella whispered to Marco, watching the butcher.
He nodded. “Chris Bethel. He was in the class between us and Denny, except he had a different name back then.”
In that moment, she remembered Chris Bethel, pre-transition, playing Viola in Twelfth Night like a person who knew what it was to be shipwrecked on a strange shore. Good for him.
While they waited, she ducked into the bathroom to scrub her hands. She smelled like the house now, and hoped nobody else noticed.
Marco had already claimed their sandwiches, in plastic baskets and waxed paper, and chosen a corner table away from the other customers. They took their first few bites without speaking. Marco hadn’t said much all morning, and Stella had managed not to give in to her usual need to fill silences, but now she couldn’t help it.
“Where do you live? And how long have you and Justin been together?”
“Outside Boston,” he said. “And fifteen years. How about you?”
“Chicago. Divorced. One son, Cooper. I travel a lot. I work sales for a coffee distributor.”
Even as she spoke, she hated that she’d said it. None of it was true. She had always done that, inventing things when she had no reason to lie, just because they sounded interesting, or because it gave her a thrill. If he had asked to see pictures of her nonexistent son Cooper, she’d have nothing to show. Not to mention she had no idea what a coffee distributor did.
Marco didn’t seem to notice, or else he knew it wasn’t true and filed it away as proof they had drifted apart for a reason. They finished their sandwiches in silence.
“Tackle the living room next?” Marco asked. “Or the rec room?”
“Rec room,” she said. It was farther from the kitchen.
Farther from the kitchen, but the basement litter pans lent a different odor and trapped it in the windowless space. She sighed and tugged the mask up.
Marco did the same. “The weird thing is I haven’t found a cat. I’m hoping maybe it was indoor-outdoor or something . . .”
Stella didn’t know how to respond, so she said, “Hmm,” and resolved to be extra careful when sticking her hands into anything.
The built-in bookshelves on the back wall held tubs and tubs of what looked like holiday decorations.
“What do you want to do with holiday stuff?” Stella pulled the nearest box forward on the shelf and peered inside. Halloween and Christmas, mostly, but all mixed together, so reindeer ornaments and spider lights negotiated a fragile peace.
“I’d love to say toss it, but I think we need to take everything out, in case.”
He tossed her a sealed package to inspect. It held two droid ornaments, like R2-D2 but different colors. “Collector’s item, mint condition. I found it a minute ago, under a big ball of tinsel and plastic reindeer. It’s like this all over the house: valuable stuff hidden with the crap. A prize in every fucking box.”
The size of the undertaking was slowly dawning on her. “How long are you here for?”
“I’ve got a good boss. She said I could work from here until I had all Denny’s stuff in order. I was thinking a week, but it might be more like a month, given everything . . .”
“A month! We made good progress today, though . . .”
“You haven’t seen upstairs. Or the garage. There’s a lot, Stella. The dining room was probably the easiest other than the kitchen, which will be one hundred percent garbage.”
“That’s if he didn’t stash more collectibles in the flour.”
Marco blanched. “Oh god. How did I not think of that?”
Part of her wanted to offer to help again, but she didn’t think she could stomach the stench for two days in a row, and she was supposed to be spending time with her parents, who already said she didn’t come home enough. She wanted to offer, but she didn’t want him to take her up on it. “I’ll come back if I can.”