It is a coolish July evening and the sun has slunk behind the thick-leaved Virginia skyline, and the nighttime chorus of toads and crickets and cicadas is beginning to rise in pitch and volume, falling silent and then starting up again as my friend Judy and I walk down the gravel road towards her childhood home.
“I’m only taking like one or two things,” Judy tells me. She’s carrying a sports duffel that I can tell is empty by the way it dimples down the middle and the side flaps sigh open and closed as it jounces against her hip like a weary accordion. Judy has just signed a lease on an apartment in the city, and I’ve agreed to help her go through her old room and sort through her “things,” a word she uses deprecatingly and with a kind of expectant dread. “It’s a lot,” she cautions as she shoulders open the front door. “I’m serious. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
Judy is taller than I am, with fine strawberry-blonde hair made blonder by a special shampoo. During the week she works at a tanning salon. Her skin is the exact color of the orangey-brown lotion Jergens sells in those spooky labeled bottles (NATURAL GLOW, RICH BRONZE, LEVEL 8), except for the raised pores on her arms and hands where her naturally pale skin forces itself into the air and gives her the overall appearance of varnished wood. Today she smells like coconuts, and her fingernails are long and red and flawlessly smooth.
“Okay,” she tells me. “Get ready.” She opens the door to her room.
Every raised surface is heaped with clothes. Her desk is piled with papers, gunky-looking lip gloss tubes, folders, posters, crusted nail-polish bottles, dusty soccer trophies, photographs, pens, barrettes, notebooks that I can tell from the doorway are new, spines uncracked. A cluster of garbage bags in the far corner of the room overflows with shoes. Plastic crates arranged strategically on the floor are filled with folded t-shirts and look absolutely unmovable, creating a labyrinth though which Judy picks her way delicately, examining half-opened Ziploc bags cloudy with their contents’ leakage. I can’t tell if the room is large or small; the air does not move or change. There’s no way I can move without stepping on something expensive-looking. I feel like I’m in an abandoned Marshalls warehouse, and I tell her so.
“Shut up,” she says. She pulls her hair into a loose bun and bends over to open a plastic bag. “Shit, there’s so much stuff. God!” She picks up items at random. “Oh, this is gross.” It’s a bottle of lotion. “This girl I hate got it for my birthday. Do you want it? My friends think it smells good; I can’t stand it.”
On a tall cylinder of perfume: “I used to love this. Here, smell it.” The room suddenly smells like the inside of an Abercrombie & Fitch, musky and woodsy and vile.
On a tube of mascara: “I literally used to use nothing but this. I made my mom buy me three at once, once.”
On a bottle of liquid foundation: “This might be your skin tone.” A pause, and then: “You know, you could be a lot darker if you wanted. You really should come in sometime; I’d hook you up, completely free, the whole first week.”
Six of the most common items collected or “hoarded” by individuals whose behavior is considered compulsive: junk mail, cooking equipment, craft materials, clothes, trash, promotional products or “freebies” [Wikipedia].
But also books, animals, insects, and other vermin: things that have or seem to have the capacity to listen, to comfort.
The moon is up; I can see it through the room’s open window. Judy’s finished divvying up cosmetics—she’s put two bottles of perfume and some powder foundation into her duffel—and moved on to the piles of clothes on the floor and chairs and bed.
“This is going to be so sad,” she says. She laughs at herself. “Oh, this is sad. I’m such a fag.” Holding up a cardigan with ruffles on the chest: “I can’t believe I wore this.” A half-buried sheet of glossy school photos slips from an armful of clothes she’s tossing on top of a reject pile (“I’ll donate them, or something”).“Wow, this is old. Look at what I’m wearing.” Shocked, maybe a little wistful: “I was so tiny!” She passes me the pictures. I point out that it’s clear she hadn’t gone through puberty when they were taken.
“Right, but still.”
The items tossed onto Mt. Goodwill during this exchange include a black pea coat, pink V-neck sweater with bobbles, red sweatpants, black sweatpants with white stripes, dark wash boot-cut jeans, semi-distressed light-wash jeans, skinny leopard-print belt, peplum skirt, gray cardigan, gauzy white tank top, soft olive-green jacket with side zip and hood that I recognize as having lusted after during high school. This last she holds up to me.
“You loved this, didn’t you? Here, take it.” She throws it to me.
“I don’t want it now,” I say.
Here’s what’s funny. Whatever phenomenon’s making me uncomfortable right now in Judy’s room does not feel modern or generation-specific. My grandparents’ own house is full of ‘antiques,’ tarnished jewelry and broken earphones and hotel-size shampoo bottles and sticky Fisher-Price toys, and across the street the barns they own are likewise full of ancient crap. Just recently they’ve started, like Judy, to “go through their things,” to try to unload fifty years’ worth of family ballast. The house was invaded, the barn doors thrown open, crates and crates carried out and dumped almost immediately into the back of a truck driven by a stolid-faced guy paid to take it all to the dump. As a sagging cardboard box was taken from the depths of the garage my grandmother ran out, a towel still in her hand. “Don’t you throw that away!” she yelled. “Don’t you dare!” She wrenched the box from my grandfather and pulled out a metal wok, clearly unused and half-eaten with rust.
“Come here,” she said to me. “Does this still look usable to you? I mean, couldn’t we just wipe this stuff off?” She touched the rusted rim of the wok’s belly gently. When my grandmother was a child, a house fire destroyed many of her and her family’s possessions. What could I say right then, as we stood barefoot on the hot asphalt and stared at the gutted garage? What could anyone have said that wouldn’t have been rude or snarky or some kind of unhelpful lie?
Mt. Goodwill has grown exponentially and teeters dangerously towards the bed. Judy’s moved on to a coatrack of dresses. “This is so beautiful,” she says. The dress she’s holding up is pink, short, heavily beaded all over. “I’ve never worn it. I’ve never worn any of these. This is so stupid. This is so sad.”
On a flimsy orange dress: “I stole this. I don’t even know why.”
At her desk Judy founders for the first time. “It’s all this junk,” she says. “Stuff from Nick [long-term ex-boyfriend].” She holds up a pair of pearl earrings, then a flouncy scarf.
“I shouldn’t keep it, I really shouldn’t. But I can’t just throw it out. It’s memories, you know?” As she puts them aside, a football poster slides off the desk and unfurls slowly, white tongue hanging over an upended crate.
“Oh God.” A handmade card: HAPPY BIRTHDAY! I LOVE YOU. The writing turns to soft pencil under the inscription, and when I squint to make it out Judy claps the card shut and tucks it into the duffel, now stretched tight as sausage casing.
Terry from Illinois collects cats. Forty-nine are living, although many are disease-ridden and/or starving, and maybe a hundred are dead and refrigerated in her house, which is collapsing in on itself from urine and excrement and general decay. Effluvium about the living quarters appears as mind-bogglingly repulsive as one could imagine. Among the dead animals in her refrigerator—which include birds, mice, and roadkill as well as cats—some have been liquefied with age. It’s got to be the most voyeuristic, gruesome episode the Lifetime television series Hoarders has ever aired; between shots of the foulest crisper drawer in America one can imagine television executives literally kicking their heels together with glee. It comes out that Terry is traumatized by the death of her father and consequently has a warped outlook towards (or maybe fear of, the skinny blonde psychologist/‘organizer’ coyly postulates) mortality. Not to worry, though; by the end of the episode Terry is safely installed in a clean new home. The bodies of her dead cats have been cremated, the ashes given to Terry in a tasteful stainless-steel heart-shaped box. In the final scene, she stands on a bridge overlooking a river and shakes the ashes into the water below as her children rub her back and murmur consolations. Her profile is inscrutable.
The story’s made loathsome for reality TV—the juiced-up narration, the sharp cuts between scenes for Maximum Drama, the coiffed death-mask of a smiling Robin Zasio—but even Zasio’s withering sympathy isn’t enough to quell the uneasy feeling that lingered after I closed my laptop and stared sort of abstractly around my own room: books, heaped clothes both dirty and clean, inexpertly tacked-up posters and tapestries, reminders that even alone I am not alone: the distressed, slightly stupid feeling that I’d been somehow spiritually had.
But it’s morning when Judy and I walk back up the gravel road hauling three more bags than she’d intended, sky the color of a wet cleaned scallop. Later that afternoon her mother drives us to the outlet mall and Judy buys some shoes and a back-to-school dress, and I buy another tapestry to tack up over my room’s uneven paint job that looks so unpleasant when naked, full of lumps and cracks and even small holes where the dark comes in.