If I had to choose a The Game of Life house card equivalent for the foreclosure in Washougal, Washington, which I visited on my second day working in the field of foreclosure, I’d say it was the farmhouse minus the barn and silo in the background. The five or so acres of land surrounding the house did not constitute a farm, per se. There was little evidence anyone had ever worked the land. The land had been neglected for some time, in fact, and appeared even more so framed, as it was, by the grounds on either side of it, which resembled those of Millionaire Estates or Countryside Acres. But the farmhouse-ness and curb appeal (or lack thereof, as it were) of that property aside, and though, call it what you will, it was no Tudor or Victorian, it would have been the envy of players who’d drawn the Mobile Home or Split-Level when they’d moved their car to the square on the board that said STOP: Buy A House.
Part of me couldn’t help but gloat about the irony of the circumstances of such a trashout. I wouldn’t go as far as to say that I celebrated that foreclosure, or any foreclosure for that matter, but I also can’t deny that trashing out a house like that one, a house that, at least in my estimation, symbolized a middle- or upper-middle-class stability I’d never experienced in real life and had experienced only rarely in the game of it, felt better to me than trashing out a property akin to the Mobile Home or the Split-Level. Trashing out a house like that was, I suppose, not unlike a moment when, while playing The Game of Life as a child, the more successful of my opponents, those who'd drawn career and/or salary cards superior to mine and whose subsequent spins seemed always to advance their little plastic cars to favorable spaces (as I fell farther, and further, behind), finally had a lousy spin that promised, if only briefly, to even the standings. The class-based conflicts and rivalries The Game of Life had inspired between me and my peers all those years ago had, apparently, found a new frontier within which to manifest, the fact that someone who was wealthier than I’d ever been had experienced a substantial loss and that I had the opportunity to witness first-hand its aftermath like some form of eco-cosmic justice or comeuppance.
That said, life itself — and, namely, in this case, the part of it that’s defined by buying, owning, losing a home — is arguably more complicated than its portrayal in any game purporting to mimic it. Moreover, a foreclosure is a ghost town — but a shadowy semblance of its former existence — and, as such, the data or evidence I had on hand about the identities of a foreclosure's former residents and the justness (or injustice) of their wins and losses was inconclusive, at best.
The death and/or illness of a loved one and its accompanying expenses, divorce (and its accompanying expenses), the loss of a breadwinner’s income, and mismanagement of funds are, according to recent studies, the most common causes of foreclosure, and while, at least in the case of a house like the one in Washougal, or if only to ease my conscience, I would have preferred to believe that the cause of foreclosure had been the latter — that the mortgagee(s) had, for lack of a better word, "deserved" the loss they’d endured — unless the former residents had left behind records of any or all of the above, there was no way of knowing for sure that such was the case, especially not until I entered the house.
“You never really know what you’re up against until you open the door,” my dad had said before.
Barring the possibility that squatters had bunked at that farmhouse after its mortgagee(s) departed and that the messes left within it had been created by said squatters, the story I’d created about the house while we drove down its long, asphalt driveway only partly matched the scenes within it, which didn’t suggest the middle- or upper-middle-class stability I’d imagined so much as a kind of resignation about the loss of it. Little furniture had been left behind, and what furniture did remain was of a quality that didn’t seem as luxurious as I'd imagined from the driveway.
The prefabricated wood flooring in the den was littered with piles of random debris: flattened Diet Coke and 7-Up boxes, a pencil, a small, overturned, cardboard box, Jolly Rancher wrappers, and an empty spray bottle of Febreeze. The pink couch in the middle of the room was in decent shape, and a single wooden chair stood in the corner, facing the couch. I imagined the sit-down that might have occurred there before the mortgagee(s) departed, a sit-down in which they must have decided the couch and chair weren’t worth hauling away, nor was The Cat that Smelled a Rat.
More likely, or so I began to imagine as I continued my tour of the interior of the house, that pink couch and chair was where kids congregated as their parents, having used what sodas their kids didn’t drink to mix cocktails in kitchen down the hallway from them, gathered in the dining room/living room to smoke Marlboro lights, the bright white butts of which they flicked into the fireplace.
That the house didn’t smell like cigarettes led me to believe the stress of foreclosure had inspired the habit.
There was one leather recliner in that room — gently used — where I imagined the parents must have taken turns sitting while they contemplated how to absorb the brunt of their recent misfortune. The kitchen attached to what I’ll call the smoking quarters, in addition to the second living room beyond the smoking quarters, held most of the trash the past residents had left downstairs, about half of which they'd bagged for us but hadn’t gotten around to hauling away, or perhaps didn’t care to after a certain point. Hefty sacks snuggled sluggishly beneath the kitchen counter and around the fireplace like black cats too fat to move, red and blue bows tied around what would have been their necks.
Their standby dishes (assuming they’d packed the ones they used regularly and would continue to use wherever it was they were going) matched for the most part. They’d started to wash them but hadn’t finished, the sink having since become a petri dish for mold. Light bulbs, like discarded ideas, lay upon windowsills and shelves, and, as an example of the imperfect nature of the deduction I would practice regularly in the field of foreclosure, on account of stories my dad had told me of drug dens, and on account of the butts in the fireplace and the bottles of pills on the countertop in the kitchen, as well as a result of being inclined to assume worst-case scenarios (despite the children I’d imagined on the pink couch in the den), I initially associated the light bulbs with drug use. I quickly realized, however, and my dad soon corroborated, that I was wrong. One had to remove the bulbs in order to remove the fixtures, and every fixture, as well as nearly every switch-plate, was missing throughout the house. Wires hung from ceilings and walls like colorful frayed nerves. The dishwasher and refrigerator and oven were absent, as well as the washer and dryer, and, we’d soon learn, the bathtub from the master bathroom upstairs had likewise been removed: a hole in that wall the size of a man’s chest revealed a network of pipes where that tub had been. The house was full of trash, but parts of it were naked.
“They really stripped this place,” my dad said.
Stripping a house, he explained, was a kind of “F#@* you!” from the mortgagee(s) to the bank that had repossessed the property, the act lessening the value of the house, as well as making more work for whomever had to deal with its aftermath, which, in this case, happened, at least in part, to be us.
If not a “F#@* you!” to the bank then stripping was an act of “desperation,” or just plain practical or resourceful, depending on how you choose to look at it.
Bathtubs and appliances, and, in some cases, even light fixtures, are valuable, after all, and can be sold. So in most cases the impulse to strip a house, as these mortgagees had, was probably a combination of both vengeance and desperation and practicality or resourcefulness.
Though the house had been stripped, it wasn’t gutted or severely damaged: no copper wiring was missing, and walls didn’t frame graffiti, nor was there evidence of squatters — typically, squatters don't tend to garnish their drinks — so it seemed fair to conclude the owners truly needed what they took with them and/or that their actions were, indeed, spurred by ill-feelings toward the bank.
Whatever the case might be, unless neighbors (or the past owners themselves) could corroborate the activity on a property post-foreclosure, post-eviction (or exodus), you never really could know for sure whether it was the homeowners themselves who’d done the stripping or any variety of so-called desperate (or resourceful) souls for whom a foreclosure’s appliances and light fixtures, and even its copper wiring, were a paycheck. Besides, how different were we, I wondered, from the (presumably) stealthy midnight marauders who'd hauled that bathtub out the door on their shoulders? The USPS mailbox anchoring the lawn at the house my boyfriend and I shared, and the canopy covering my dad's Dodge were, if not a tweaker’s, a scrapper’s dream. In other words, save for the fact that our entry into a foreclosure was official, and that we weren’t in the market for appliances or light fixtures or copper wiring, and that whatever we didn't end up taking with us we'd have to recycle or promise to a landfill, we too, were, however “officially” and innocuously, profiting on the losses of others, an unsavory fact I had yet to fully unpack.
There was enough trash the residents hadn’t yet bagged that getting it out efficiently required a scoop shovel and an industrial broom. Excluding drywall screen (I'd learned the day before that drywall screen does wonders when removing stains from toilet bowls), contractor bags, and my dad's beloved Cub Cadet mower, among the equipment we used to perform a "trashout," these were favored tools, both of which are featured in the first series of photos I took upon our arrival.
When you think of a scoop shovel, you think of that shovel being used outdoors (to scoop grain or gravel or snow). You don’t think of using that shovel indoors to scoop up the debris of a house and to release that debris into large black contractor bags: old tennis shoes, plastic cups, a dog bowl, Crayola markers, cigarette butts, empty beer bottles. Such a broom is typically used to sweep out the dust in garages or to clean up during the construction of a home — not to sweep up the destruction of a home (trash left on the living room floor).
Sweep the trash into piles, scoop it, and then release the trash into a bag. Start again. That's how we began in both the garage and inside that house. Bag after bag after bag, photo after photo after photo: my dad in his jeans and leather loafers, moving the trash across the concrete floor in the garage, and then my then-boyfriend's (now husband's) dad in one of four bathrooms, scoop shovel in hand, going after bottles of lotion, razors, sundries we’d dumped from the drawers below the sink.
My dad’s fascination with the trashout phase of our labor, his desire to rummage through every bag or box he came across, had mostly waned after three years (he understood that time was money and that “treasures” were few and far between) — but my boyfriend's dad and I were green, so to speak.
We worked quickly, but not without curiosity.
He salvaged a little metal statue of a girl with a watering can he’d found on the deck. “Some kid would love to have these things,” he said of a pile of stuffed animals he wanted to be sure to donate to Goodwill. Meanwhile, and ever on the hunt to discover who and what and why, I studied receipts for trips to Disneyland and for a cruise, and, from these small papers and other telling pieces of trash, a family of four or five had lived there: the Ericksons, I'll call them.
The cupboards below the kitchen counter/bar, previously blocked by Hefty sacks we’d since dragged by the neck to the garage, promised arts and crafts. The Eriksons stored a variety of rulers and scissors in those cupboards, some of which I use to this day. The children had won at least one blue ribbon, and, according to what I assume was supposed to be wallpaper border, even the youngest among them knew the alphabet, or was learning it. When they weren’t chewing Jolly Ranchers and Bottle Caps or spooning Ben and Jerry’s from the pint, waiting for their turn at Guitar Hero, the Erickson children did their homework with the help of textbooks whose covers featured MATH and Lady Liberty, and at least one of their parents read, or had at least contemplated reading, Gun, Steel, and Germs, in addition, I can only presume, to The Cat that Smelled a Rat, both of which, unlike the Jazzercise step and the five-pound weights I didn’t want to admit I’d probably never use, I didn’t set aside. My fortune that day, from one of that foreclosure’s cookies’ papers: Finish your work on hand. Don’t be greedy.
But the treasure hunt part of a trashout is addictive — if there are closed boxes, you want to open them (you never know what you might find inside). That being said, I didn’t hear my dad say to leave be the small cooler that sat outside the door on the wrap around porch. Judging from the interior of the home, namely the kitchen sink, which was full of dishes — mold growing in them, dead flies floating on the greasy, grimy surface of the tepid water — it had been some time since the Ericksons had left, it was late June, and it was hot, and it turns out there are some things you just shouldn’t open at a foreclosure — like coolers sitting in the sun.
This cooler in particular, an Igloo brand Playmate, happened to be full of meat, or what had, at some point prior to the Ericksons's departure, been meat — the fixings for a barbecue that never happened. Though I’d only squatted before the hot gooey mess for no more than a split second, the scent itself followed me — never in my life had I seen nor smelled anything as putrid as what I saw and smelled inside that Playmate, and I’d never ran as quickly either, probably.
The scent of rotting flesh can only be described as revolting.
It was palpable.
It literally clung to me, seeped into my clothes and into my nostrils even after I’d ran away from the porch. My boyfriend's dad had been standing at least ten feet away from me when I opened the thing, but the scent clung to him as well, and it overpowered my dad, too, who had been in the garage when I made that mistake, my curiosity getting the best of me.
“I told you not to open that,” he said.
Up until then, and despite my hang-ups from childhood about my successes in The Game of Life as it presents itself in life itself, I’d mostly felt empathy toward the people who used own these houses, but in this case it was something like resentment I felt. Had the Ericksons left that cooler on the porch on purpose? Were they hiding in the trees, watching me wretch?
It took several minutes for the stench to dissipate (I wish I could say that was the last time I encountered such a mess meat, but it wasn’t).
“Pandora’s cooler,” I said, laughing.
It’s while cleaning houses like that house in Washougal that you start thinking of your dream house not only in terms of aesthetics and comfort but also in terms of practicality. How much space do you really want to manage on a daily basis? What kinds of things do you want inside that space: what kind of carpet or paint or cupboards or bathroom flooring or doors or windows? If I were to possess one day the desire and the resources to design my own house, I would never choose to have tile of any kind, anywhere, is one thing that I decided as I cleaned that house. I can say without fear of exaggeration that I spent at least an entire hour scrubbing the title in the shower in the master bedroom — the grout. I used a variety of products: outdoor bleach, regular bleach, Bar Keeper’s Friend, CLR (I probably went against all the warnings that tell you what not to mix with what — I didn’t care). I used scrub-brush, drywall screen, the past owners' toothbrushes, which I’d set aside anticipating I might need them for that very reason. I turned on the fan and kept it going as I worked. I wore a mask, and opened the windows in the master bedroom from which I could see my boyfriend's dad pushing the Billy Goat we'd rented, its motor loud and confident.
But alas. Though I have no way of confirming the exact model of Billy Goat we rented for that lawn, it must not have been a good one. I remember seeing my boyfriend’s dad lying on his back in the grass or just paused there in the lawn, studying the work that remained ahead of him. But I wondered which was worse, scrubbing a shower for an hour (knowing that it was but an infinitesimal portion of what needed cleaning) or operating a Billy Goat and raking what it spat out.
You not only contemplate what sort of house you want (both in terms of the interior and exterior) when you spend a whole day cleaning a house like that one, you also begin to realize what clean really looks like. You begin to think that you ought to clean your own house more frequently (all the while resenting the fact that the house you are cleaning so thoroughly is not your own and that the people who lived there, who’d left the mess you are cleaning will never witness its transformation). You realize there are parts of houses that rarely get cleaned during regular sessions of housekeeping: the baseboards (magnets for hair and dust), the tops of cupboards (in bathrooms and kitchens), window seams (for which there really ought to be a specialized tool), and grout, of course, and you try to think of someone who regularly cleans all of the above, but you can’t think of anyone. Because the thing about a house is that you fill it with stuff, and it isn’t until all that stuff is out that you really begin to notice how dirty it’s become — that the carpet where your bed was or where your couch or favorite chair was is lighter and brighter than the surrounding carpet, or that the drawer in which you store your silverware is full of crumbs, and that globs of peanut butter or jelly or pasta sauce have collected on the tops of the doors to your cupboards. We’re talking, in some cases, the residue of spilled foods from 1986 if you’re especially negligent about housekeeping. But for what reason does one ever see her house so empty, save for moving out of that house, and then what is the reward for cleaning it so?
I added to my list of what I would not have in a house of my own the Lazy Susan — that sort of “secret” little cranny of a cupboard in the corner of your regiment of cupboards which is disguised as two ordinary cupboard doors from the outside but when pulled reveals the two “doors” are actually one connected by a pair of hinges (yet another place where globs of 1986’s spaghetti sauce can be found). When the door is opened you see a tiered, circular set of shelves where people tend to keep things that make a mess when they spill (especially when they spill in combination): macaroni noodles, flour, syrup, honey.
This is to say that although the name Susan connotes “joy of life,” when I encountered the Lazy Susan at this foreclosure, and as I encountered those in future foreclosures, I thought the bane of my existence. Because the thing about a Lazy Susan is that there tends to be a big empty space behind the shelves that is difficult to reach on account of those shelves — to reach that area with a rag requires some flexibility and determination on the part of the person cleaning. Vacuums, of course, especially Shopvacs, work well to suck up stuff like flour and macaroni noodles, but not even a Shopvac can suck up pools of honey from years ago that no one even noticed had spilled because the shelves were filled with other forgettable things.
When my dad wasn’t weed-whacking or raking outside, he was inside, cleaning with me, joking with me about stuff like Lazy Susans, which did help boost morale.
We took turns photographing what we did.
Hand, rag, drawer. Hand, rag, shelf. Hand, rag, sink. Hand, rag, toilet.
Really hand, rag, bottle of_____, and ____.
It was important to have the cleaning product in the frame as “proof” that we were, in fact, cleaning. What’s funny about that, however, my dad and I agreed, is that just because the bottle of cleaning product was in the photo didn’t mean that anyone had actually used it for whatever task was being performing in the photo. Moreover, the bottle itself might not even contain what the label suggested it did. We might not have even been doing the task we appeared to be doing. The only way a trashout photo, or any photo, for that matter, could really “prove” anything to an objective viewer is if there were a way for that viewer to crawl inside the photo or if the photo emitted its own sensory atmosphere that would allow its viewer to smell what the subject inside the photograph smelled (I wished there had been a way for someone to smell Pandora’s cooler), to feel what the subject felt (I wished whoever viewed the photos could have experienced the backache of working the Billy Goat), to taste what the subject tasted (sweat and dust and chemicals).
It was sort of like product placement.
Which particular product do we wish to advertise in this particular shot? Clorox Cleanup? 409? Windex? If we placed a Clorox Cleanup bottle in a shot of me cleaning a windowpane or if we put the Windex in a shot of dusting a fan blade would anyone notice? This was but my third day in this line of work, and I was already coming up with little games like this to entertain myself and to mess with whoever might be reviewing the photos. My next goal was to start posing when the camera was in my dad’s hands — to make faces, to squat awkwardly. I wanted to give them a show. Especially since I was not going to be making a significant amount of money, I might as well have a little fun not making money.
“Whyn’t choo go to Washougal?” we started saying.
We were becoming punchier by the hour on the second day, due to exhaustion, fumes (including the gasoline lingering from an experiment with a leaf-blower indoors), and the general absurdity of how hard we were working and how little actually seemed to be getting done — whether we ever going to get out of Washougal or not was what we really wanted to know.
I was not surprised to later confirm that my boyfriend's dad felt the same way, but I was a little surprised by the candidness with which he expressed how he’d felt. “You guys must have seen me on my back in the grass and felt sorry for me,” he said. “Later that day, you said I could go home and you would finish raking...I was relieved to start the drive...”
There is something about his perception of our response to his exhaustion and discomfort that intrigues me. Feeling sorry for someone means pitying him, and I’m not sure whether I felt pity for him so much as I did for my dad and me. Did I pity him or did I feel guilty about what he’d endured under our jurisdiction and pity myself, in turn, for being so ridden with guilt? In this case, I felt guilty because of how hard he he had been working for what I knew would be little pay. More than that, I felt guilty because I knew my dad would put him and me before himself and because the costs of the trashout had accumulated beyond our expectations.
We hadn’t planned on renting extra equipment, and we now had to subtract about $90 for the Billy Goat and about $50 for the leaf-blower (we'd experimented using the leaf-blower to accumulate debris in the house, and the experiment had failed). Using the original $2000 paycheck, and excluding the fees we’d face at the dump, in the end, I estimated, my dad would be left with about $500, which, using a ten hours per day equation would pan out to about thirteen dollars per hour, which, according to what I’d heard from my boyfriend before about landscaping and from my boyfriend's dad and his wife, who’d make a decent living before the recession, managing estates of the wealthy, was half the amount an average landscaper or privately hired housekeeper would probably get paid, and that’s not to mention the fact that the average landscaper or privately hired housekeeper usually would not have been starting at Ground Zero.
I knew it was foolish to feel guilty. It wasn’t like I’d conspired to bring us all to this farmhouse in Washougal. It wasn’t like I had any control over the condition of the property either. In fact, it felt as though there was no offense, no epicenter for the feeling — which then made me feel guilty for feeling guilty. But if anyone owed anyone anything in this scenario wouldn’t it have been my dad who owed me? If anyone should feel guilty or regretful under these circumstances, shouldn’t it have been my dad — for not having better equipment?
I admired my dad’s resourcefulness greatly. I admired the fact that he’d jerry-rigged the Cub Cadet so that it spat the grass out rather than collecting it in a bag (this was more efficient, he said, than the alternative), and I admired that he’d jerry-rigged the headlight on his Dodge (with Plexiglas and a broken CD to reflect the light). I took comfort in the fact that he could fix things (at least temporarily) when they broke, but I also regretted that he had to do so in the first place. I regretted that the air-conditioning in his pickup didn’t work and that we didn’t pack lunches.
I didn’t think my boyfriend's dad had it all together, by any means, but I couldn’t help but compare the two men and it seemed that, compared to my dad, my boyfriend's dad was, at least on the surface, a little farther/further along the way with his fully-functioning pickup and his sandwiches and slices of apples, which he'd shared with us the day before when he'd found out we hadn't packed lunches.
But farther/further along the way to where or what?
I envied my boyfriend's dad in his air-conditioned pickup. I suspected he was taking his time on his way home, driving in the slow lane, or that maybe he’d arrived, showered, sat down to a meal, the TV playing quietly in the background. He laughed at me when I later told him the extent to which I’d agonized over whether or not he felt this foreclosure business was worth doing. He assured me there had been no need for me to worry about his state of mind those two days and that he had no hard feelings about working with my dad and me — his thought was that work was work and that everything would “work” out. “I was driving somewhere new,” he told me. “It is hard to describe the feeling I get when I am alone in a new place with time a good car, and a few bucks. It is like I could get lost and yet found if that makes sense.”
That makes perfect sense to me (except it had never for me been a “good” car, and probably never would be).
But which way did the scales tip?
Was it better to be more lost than found or more found than lost?
What point was I on the spectrum, I might have wondered that night as my dad and I, after another ten hour day, arrived at Motel 6 again.
Going to a motel was a relief after a long day in the field of foreclosure because the thing about motels is that — unlike most houses, save, perhaps, those of the old-money billionaires — they are cleaned every day (unless a guest asks to not be disturbed, of course). The bed sheets are washed daily, at least, if not the bedspreads (unless it appears as though a washing is needed — and I’ll leave that to the imagination). Bathrooms are supposed to be cleaned thoroughly every day, carpets vacuumed.
There would later be some instances when I didn’t take a shower right away after working in a foreclosure all day, but I can say this was not one of those instances — not after my encounter with that disgusting shower, not after handling the moldy dishes from the kitchen sink, and, what’s more, not on account of how hot it was and how much I sweated and the debris that clung to me, my nostrils black around the edges from all the dust I’d breathed. I blew black into Kleenex, making a promise to myself that I would be more conscientious about wearing a mask at all times and gloves even though each made me uncomfortable. I didn’t like breathing in my recycled breath beneath the mask, and after a certain amount of time those rubber gloves made my hands sweat to the point of pruning, and the insides of the gloves would sort of slough off and stick between my fingers like wet lint. The worst was when I had to take the gloves off (to use the toilet or to smoke or to take a photo)— there was almost a suction effect when I pulled the gloves back onto my hands. Inevitably, too, at some point in the process of scrubbing a toilet or a sink or a bath tub or a shower, water would trickle inside the gloves, adding to the moisture already present on account of sweating, and my fingers and my wrists and my arms would just kind of slip around in there until I couldn’t stand it anymore, deciding I’d rather damage my skin with chemicals and risk encounters with germs than I would keep them inside those nasty gloves for one more second.
I knew things in our motel room looked cleaner than they actually were — especially the bedspread, which might not have been washed for a week, but, regardless of the realities of the cleanliness (or lack thereof) of our room, specifically of its bathroom, when I compared its condition to the condition of the bathrooms at the house we’d been working at, as far as I was concerned the motel bathtub and the motel sink and the motel toilet were clean enough to lick. I turned on the light and the fan, and, despite the fact that the fan sounded as powerful as a jet’s engine, the bathroom began to fill with steam, fogging the mirror.
I liked taking showers — especially as a means of waking up or as a way to “wash off the day.” I liked bathing in general. But I didn’t drag it out like some people do. Get wet, shampoo and rinse, apply conditioner, and let set while scrubbing body (and while shaving when needed), wash face, rinse body, rinse hair, and get out.
I didn’t want to spend any more time with my naked self than was necessary.
Except for the duration of pretty serious bouts of weird diets I’d attempted as an undergraduate in college (mainly in an attempt to get rid of the acne that plagued me starting my freshman year and had yet to fully subside), my less-than-toned physique wasn’t a surprise considering I hadn’t really taken care of my body at all since I was an adolescent or maybe I never really had. I’d never been a runner — even before I started smoking when I was fifteen, I hated running. I remember having to play little mind games with myself in elementary school and middle school in order to endure running the mile (the most dreadful part of the President’s Physical Fitness test). “I only run when I’m being chased,” is what I’d say, and on the track at school I sometimes had to imagine I was being chased. The only form of physical exercise I had ever really enjoyed was dancing. I started ballet lessons when I was two years old, and I continued to do ballet until after my parents divorced and we couldn’t afford the lessons anymore, which I know now were a measly twenty dollars a month, an amount with which my dad had been burdened and which he apparently failed to cough up routinely enough.
I’d picked up ballet again when I was in middle school, for long enough to be cast in the Dance Centre’s production of The Nutcracker. My friends had major roles in the program, but as “Party Girl #2” I didn’t even really dance at all but rather stood around and pretended to be talking to guests at a Christmas gathering.
Eventually, I quit again.
I could still see the definition of my quadriceps so prominent when I danced if I flexed them, but that definition had lessened over the last few years. That figure was somewhere within me, but I suppose it’s safe to say that for each increase in my metal fitness I’d sought since I was “Party Girl #2” I’d experienced a decrease in my physical fitness as well as in my self esteem. The water felt good as it rolled down my back and my face and my legs, but I didn’t feel comfortable in my own skin — I felt like my mind was trapped in a suit of flesh and bone that didn’t match what it was holding hostage. My knees ached, remembering bygone years of plies and pirouettes and leaps, this new strain upon them emphasizing old injury. I’m a foreclosed ballerina, I thought as the water rushed over me.
The rest of the routine: get out of the shower, dry feet, dry arms and legs, wrap towel around head, and get dressed as quickly as possible—before the mirror de-fogs. While hair dries, brush teeth, slap make-up on cheeks and forehead and under tired eyes, drag lipstick across lips, blot, remove towel, pull brush through hair, tie hair back.
We drove to the nearest grocery store (leaving the TV on for my dad’s black Lab, Gabe) and returned with food and wine. We ate, and we opened the wine (a wine opener is one thing my dad never went without on the road), and we stepped outside for a cigarette. I called my boyfriend with a report and listened to him talk about his day with our Yorkie Biscuit. He told me how much they missed me, and we said we loved each other and hung up, and I wondered, as I always had, if only in the deepest recesses of my heart, and despite our history, just how much we did love each other. I’d spent the last couple of years asking him if we would ever get married, if we would ever have children and buy a house of our own, but, if only because of this recent gig I’d taken on in the field of foreclosure, I was starting to wonder whether or not that is the course I wanted my life to take.
“Love you, honey,” my dad teased me about the conversation as I put down my cell phone on the nightstand between us.
My dad’s commentary was predictable, and I found some comfort in its predictability, his teasing just one of the ways he kept me entertained, or kept me from diving any deeper than I already had into the doubts he must of sensed I had about my the brightness of my future.
I can see my dad laying back on his bed, two pillows propped beneath his head, the remote in one hand and a book open in his other hand.
That is how he wound down.
While I was writing in my notebook or revising the essays I'd written in my Master's thesis, he would change his focus periodically between the pages of his book and the flashing TV screen, depending on what was on the news and how deeply he was invested in what he was reading. Sometimes, he would recite passages from his book to me. Even though he had never pursued education beyond the Community College level, my dad knew the difference between popular or genre fiction and works of literature. Still, he’d read me passages of less-than-literary texts as if they were the highest of quality: the description of a landscape that he’d deemed relevant to where we happened to be at the time, or a reference to a conflict that had to do with foreclosure or the mortgage crisis, or just a sentence that he thought was well constructed (or poorly constructed). Most of the time I only half-listened, which he suspected.
“Neat,” he’d say, smirking, mocking my disinterested response to his recitation.
When I did pay attention to my what my dad read to me or to the news, I did, at times, with the awe of a child, with the curiosity of someone foreign to her own environment or like someone going through rehabilitation after a neural disfiguration.
I watched the news like I was learning for the first time about the country, and the State, of my origin. I was almost thirty years old. I was a woman of letters, a scholar, a writer, and though I’d gone through phases in my late teens and in my early twenties, or while I was writing this paper or that paper, phases during which I would try and study up on American History, on Geography, and Politics, on everything that everyone but me seemed to know inside and out, in some ways, I guess you could say that the fitness of my intellect had deteriorated (or ceased to develop) after a certain point, along with my physical fitness — that maybe I had nothing going for me, or so one of the soliloquies looping in my mind would have led me to believe. Such soliloquies weren't new.
“I started writing on September 4th, 1990,” I’d written inside a journal I kept in third grade — one of those journals a teacher has her students write in daily and turn it in at the end of the week. This simple statement seemed of great significance to me. Did this mean I started writing in that blue journal on that date or was I writing a note to my future writer-self, I wondered, so as to inform her that she started writing the story she was still trying to tell (the story about the divorce of her parents and the loss of her childhood home, and, now, her work in the field of foreclosure, and, now, about her struggles to embrace or to further develop her identity) over twenty years prior? Even at that young age (of eight or nine years old), I was concerned and anxious about my intellectual aptitude, my worth, my very sense of existing in the world: “I feel dumb,” I note. “I feel like I am nothing,” I note. “I’m stressed,” I note. Then again, these are not the words of an ordinary third grader — these are the words of a third grader whose parents are in an ongoing custody battle.
I remember this: in third grade, my concept of gravity consisted of an image of Earth and a bunch of stick figures standing around the perimeter of the planet hand to hand, and what I didn’t understand, for the life of me, was why the figures on the sides and the bottoms of Earth didn’t fall into space. When it came to the concept of war, all I could picture was battle: a vast bloody field upon which men and women ran at each other really, really fast with guns and spears.
Why, I asked myself, would anyone want to do that?
“War is dumb,” I said in a recent debate with friends, a comment about which they still tease me. “War is dumb” is a dumb comment to make. I know that war is more complicated than the image I conjured in elementary school, but part of me still can’t comprehend the rest of war — what might justify its violence or whether violence is ever justifiable — and isn’t a bloody field always the outcome to which war ultimately equates?
By the time I was in that room at Motel 6, part of me still felt like I was in third grade, struggling with fractions, struggling to understand concepts like gravity and war. The thought of mortgage companies kicking families out of their houses with nowhere to go was something that presently baffled me, for example, my thoughts about that seeming just as juvenile as my third-grade-self’s thoughts about war and gravity. There was, for example, the imaginary soap opera version of foreclosure I’d been contemplating since my first day working with my dad. These are the Days of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac was an absurd spin-off of the soaps my mom watched when I was a child. Commercial breaks were for home loans. In each episode, men and women wandered through bedrooms and living rooms and kitchens, hurriedly packing what they could of their belongings. They evacuated like foreclosure were a tornado or a hurricane.
The news I paid attention to that night, eager to learn about what was going on, if only as a kind of antidote to the current acuteness of the self-deprecating soliloquies that were gaining strength, included commentary on H1N1 (I was a bit of a hypochondriac), along with announcements about NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO). The LRO had entered orbit around the moon that very day, and its purpose, at least as I understand it then, was to make a 3-D map of the moon’s surface so as to aid in the selection of future landing sites, and aside from its help establishing future landing sites, this recon also provided photographs of debris left over from the Apollo Mission.
I was already beginning to see foreclosure, and a need for trashouts, everywhere.
I’d heard, for instance, about all the trash on Mt. Everest, and I’d imagined, if only in jest, a work order to go up there to haul all that garbage down, and I’d laughed with my dad about the image of a Super U-Haul traversing the nearly 30,000 feet to the summit and back down and about how if it weren’t for the need for oxygen tanks (which account for a significant amount of trash on Everest), I wouldn’t put it past him to think, altitude sickness and all, he could navigate the knife-edge ridges and Cols without too much trouble.
“Litter and it will hurt” is Washington’s Department of Ecology campaign.
But it wasn’t working too well.
Like I played with the idea of Mt. Everest needing a trashout, I was beginning to daydream, however absurdly, about how Washougal at large needed a trashout, and then Washington, and then the U.S., and then the Earth itself, and now, at least according to the photos from the LRO, even the moon needed a trashout.
I paid attention, likewise, to updates on Air France Flight 447, which had crashed in the Atlantic on June 1st — search efforts were still in effect. By June 23rd, officials had identified eleven of the fifty bodies that had been recovered from the crash (one hundred and sixty-six bodies remained at sea). The cause of the crash remained under investigation, as well as the messages sent from the plane before it crashed — nineteen warning messages and six failure messages, a total of four minutes of transmission concerning navigation, auto-flight, flight controls, and cabin air-conditioning.
They say flying is safer than driving, but the thought of a plane crashing, of that giant air-born vessel free-falling from the sky like that seemed worse than losing control on a road — on the road, at least you weren’t fighting gravity. I wondered how you’d even go about such a search, and I thought about how debris from the plane had come to shore, miles from where the plane had crashed, and how the Atlantic, too, needed a trashout.
Used to having my boyfriend and dog with me in bed, I invited Gabe to join me, the TV screen flashing upon us. He jumped up and plopped down at my feet on the bedspread.
The Motel 6 bedspreads I loved, regardless of how dirty I suspected they might have been: colorful depictions of the motorist’s experience (a car, an old station wagon, a city-scape, a mountain-scape (complete with the image of a bear and snow-capped peaks), a desert-scape, a sea-scape (represented in the form of a shell), and a dog that my dad and I told Gabe was him (it looks very much like him), pretending he was aware of the resemblance.
“Gabe, you love Motel 6, don’t you?”
Cue the routine thump of his happy tail.
“I have my daughter with me,” my dad had said to the person at the check-in desk, emphasizing the need for two beds, just as he’d do at all the motels we'd stay at in the future, as though he were worried the person checking us in might get the wrong idea otherwise — most fifty-nine-year-old dads and their twenty-seven-year-old daughters probably don’t share motel rooms on a regular basis. I guess this as good a time as any to say that we weren't (aren't) your ordinary dad-daughter duo, in that we didn't mind sharing motel rooms or the intimacy such rooms demand, the only thing between us while we sleep a chintzy table with a lamp, an alarm clock, a telephone, and, of course, Gabe, at least once he’s jumped off my bed and laid on the floor between us. In fact, I think the arrangement made us each feel a bit nostalgic.
It was to the Super 8 Motel in my hometown my dad used to take me and my older sister during his weekends with us after my parents divorced. It was like vacation or maybe that was just how my dad had sold to me the scenario: there was a pool and I didn’t have to make my bed. Whether staying at the Super 8 all those years ago really had felt like vacation (or just a distraction from the reality of our broken home) or not, I now knew that my dad probably wasn’t staying at the Super 8 for fun — but that he probably didn’t have any other place to take his daughters when he had them.
This was a little like that.
In whatever version of The Game of Life my parents were currently playing, it seemed as though, of late, my mom was winning — she'd recently remarried and was sharing a house with a man who loved her, and that house was a mansion compared to the house she and my dad had once shared. While my mom slept on a bed with a $5000 walnut frame, my dad was living out of his army duffel bag, eating delicatessen chickens with plastic forks, sipping Old Vine Zin from Styrofoam cups at Motel 6s, and, when he wasn’t on the road, between foreclosures, he was living with his parents, sleeping on a twin bed in his old bedroom, all the furniture he owned either in the sinking red barn there, covered in tattered blue tarps, or in the storage unit he’d started renting, which also held the things he'd salvaged from foreclosures, as though it was only a matter of time before he found a place to put everything.
I knew I was not as much of an asset to my dad's outfit as he insisted I was (really, once he'd paid me, I'd be a deficit). I felt guilty about the fact that he'd had to pay for an extra bed. But maybe that's not the only reason my dad had invited me to join him on this (ad)venture (because he needed a laborer). Maybe he was still trying to make up for the part in our dad-daughter narrative in which he'd come up short, in which he hadn't been able to pay for my ballet lessons, for example, or in which he wasn't able to keep my childhood home, or in which, as noted in my blue journal from third grade, I'd been devastated by the distance between us: "My mom says I can't see my dad until he pays child support. He owes us $100." Maybe this was his most recent effort to make sure I kept a roof over my head. And maybe I had similar motives. Maybe it wasn't just the promise of good stories I knew I'd find in the homes of strangers that had drawn me to this labor, or the fact that I had no other immediate prospects. Maybe the reason I was drawn to this labor was because it gave me an opportunity to let my dad redeem himself, to play the role of a provider again, and to let myself play the role of a daughter who needs him, a daughter who believes he's back on his feet, and that his belongings won't remain in storage forever.
We were traveling on business, of course, but there, in that motel room, were we not also taking solace in having settled somewhere together again, if only briefly?
One more cup of wine and one more cigarette break later, my dad started to fall asleep, still wearing his jeans, his glasses slipping down his nose, and I’d given up on my writing or my thinking about my writing, and I was tired enough to shut down without the white noise of the TV masking the silence.
“What are you doing?” he said, as he would many times after this, renewing his grip on the remote as I attempted to peel it from his hand.
“You’re asleep,” I said.
“No, I’m not,” he said, his eyes barely open, his book resting upon his chest.
I got back into bed and rolled onto my side, took a deep breath, closed my eyes, rehearsing, in my mind’s eye, the next day's performance.
The treasure hunt had ended. There was nothing at that house I wanted or needed. Full contractor bags like big black boulders awaited us in the back of the U-Haul trailer. They were full of empty cans of Diet Coke, rolls of gift wrap, and colorful strips of paper with the letters of the alphabet. There was a brass lamp somewhere in the mix (a lamp eerily familiar, not unlike the lamps featured in my family’s home videos — a ghost lamp I refused to touch).
I thought of all those people on Flight 447, how the Atlantic had swallowed them, how they had taken a trip never to return, and I felt a swell of compassion not just for the families of deceased passengers, sleepless someplace far away, mourning their loss, but for the pilots and for the families of the pilots who were now bearing the burden of any mistakes made in the cockpit, and of their too-quick descent they executed so as to avoid the storm ahead of them.
But perhaps it was best that the pilots had died.
I knew if I were one of them, and I’d lived, it would be all I could do not to wish I’d died along with everyone else.
It’s idiotic what we do.
We ascend to 38,000 feet in a hunk of metal, and then we’re surprised when it plummets. We climb to heights at which we cannot breathe without the aid of oxygen tanks and at which point temperatures aren’t suitable for human habitation, let alone recreation, and then we’re surprised when we don’t make it back down. We borrow against our homes, spending money we don’t have, in denial we’ll ever lose them. But we do. The Ericksons did. I imagined how they felt: fractured, weatherworn, swallowed up and washed ashore, the light fixtures and switch-plates the only things left to which they could cling — their bathtub, less than seaworthy, sinking.
If only, like in The Game of Life, winning in life itself were a matter of "getting lucky." "Find a job, have money (maybe), go to college to get a lot of knowledge, get married, have a baby. Take a chance, find romance. All your dreams may come true..."
If only we could spin again or go back to the beginning.
If only when we lost, we could put that story back into a box, pull the string on a lightbulb in a closet, leave it in the dark.