by Rachel Aydt
The salesperson who sold the set of World Book Encyclopedias to Dorothy O’Sullivan in 1958 knocked on her door, his tired hat in one hand and his briefcase in the other. He touted his product. ‘It’s a real boon for a family, a real step-up on the homework front!’ Dorothy used her apron to wipe her hands. She led him into her living room where he sank down into a blue overstuffed couch. The coffee table wasn’t a table at all, but a trunk, and on the trunk was an antique scale from a candy store. It was filled with peppermints, but he didn’t take one. ‘Well, I don’t personally have children,’ the salesman continued, ‘but I do love to look things up on occasion.’ And so the exchange went, back and forth, until a deal was struck; his third of the long, hot day. Dorothy also had no children to share the encyclopedia with, but she too had a deep curiosity about things and spent the next decades picking up the different volumes of her investment whenever she longed to crack open a mystery.
At 1410 Lutheran Avenue, amid a cluster of other one-family houses in Middle Village, Queens, Dorothy had occupied her detached clapboard house for fifty years. After a slip in the bathtub at age 87 she moved into a modest nursing home. Four years and seven months after that she departed this world, an enviable lifespan with plenty of good time behind her, that, strung together added up to, what most would call, a life well-lived. She made her middle class living teaching 8th grade science at the local high school. She paid her bills on time; washed her face every single night before going to bed; despised sitcoms but took a liking to Columbo. Locust Manor Senior Residence had none of Dorothy’s relatives on record—a fact pressed upon her when she was still living—and so the morning after she died, they called the city to inform the antiquatedly-named Orphan’s Court that a Mrs. O’Sullivan had passed.
It was Thomas Babbitt’s job to empty the contents of houses. For six years he’d worked for an estate disposal service called “Waste Away” whose motto was “Waste Not, Want Not.” Many of the properties he was dispatched to were in older settled neighborhoods, where looming apartment buildings hadn’t yet fully erased the landscape of modest detached houses. Waste Away did a brisk business of separating the trash from the treasure. The goal was empty: What they did with the items was of no consequence to the city, and this is how Thomas made his extra pocket money. Sometimes he called in auctioneers; other times, he curated a few boxes off the top to sell to old Betty Sopolsky at her “Good Junk Shop” in Hell’s Kitchen.
Whenever the Orphan’s Court called Waste Away, an inevitable process was hitched into place. Sometimes the property would be cleaned out and put up at a sheriff’s auction. Other times, this was impossible: Dorothy’s house couldn’t be sold because it had a giant crack in its foundation, rendering it useless. There were other considerations, too: the city planned to raze other houses on the block, clearing it for possible gas excavation. One by one these houses were quietly purchased from the aging community. There, they stood vacant with tall grasses in the front yards, old mail and flyers collecting on doorsteps. The city’s environmentally nefarious intentions were buried in Queens City Council Board Meeting minutes; residents would have to look hard to interpret the Urban Green Spaces agenda items.
When Thomas arrived at the house on Lutheran Avenue, he stood in the stale entryway. The job ahead of him was typical, but right off the bat this one felt more monumental than other clearings. In the case of this little house, the furnishings announced themselves as decades old, flickering before him like blocks of years on a march. At the end of a long, paneled hallway was a built-in bookshelf with rows of encyclopedias. The kitchen adjoined the carpeted living room. The theme was Americana. Folded blankets on the couch were red, white, and blue, with embroidered stars. An embroidered soldier holding a musket hung in a frame, next to a painting of a child with a crooked smile, mysteriously painted in a yellow hooded raincoat.
Other items might be of possible interest to Thomas, or to an auctioneer if he went in that direction: a wooden cradle that held baby dolls with porcelain faces and little hands. An electric organ with a foot pedal that added a dimension of formality to a modest-sized living room. Many, many collectable coffee mugs with pictures of Norman Rockwell paintings (“the storyteller”, “the lighthouse keeper”, “the holiday dinner”).
He moved through the house to the back sliding door and looked out the window. There were no typical findings of family in the backyard; no barbeque grill or toolshed or swing set, but a ubiquitous thornless honey locust stood tall. In the corner of the kitchen was an empty terrarium that had a few rocks and sticks haphazardly arranged. A lizard’s skeleton was coiled in the center. Thomas had trouble rectifying the image of this dead, abandoned pet with the other contents of the house.
When Thomas was a boy, his nickname was Tiny and his aquarium was a carefully constructed world of twigs with forked branches, stones unearthed from the small turtle pond in Alphabet City, and pond water with an aeration system. When his tadpoles hatched and were able to live on their own, they moved from water in a deep bowl to elevated stones. They could swim, but they could also hop, and to keep them from exiting captivity he put a screened lid over the top and placed a large rock over the lid to keep it secure. Once they were ready to be released, he’d call his friend Winnie, short for Winifred, and together they set them carefully in a coffee can and walked them back to the pond.
Tiny and Winnie were quite the pair, wearing their New York childhoods like a badge, a swagger of confidence that connected them to the asphalt, and to each other. They’d walk down East 5th Street to the turtle pond, which was tucked into the community Hands Garden, so named because an intricate wrought iron fence had hands welded into the design. They went to the pond alone, and they went in tandem, into the edge of the grasses, shoes muddy and shins stung from nettles and mosquitos. Their creature hunts were gentle and hospitable to the tidal pools of swimming tadpoles. They tilted old glass jelly jars into the murky water to gather them up and bring them to their respective homes to spawn. The tadpoles couldn’t all make it to frog status, but if they were lucky, one or two would linger long enough to receive a name: TimBuk, Sammy, Little Hop, Big Chief, and Joey.
Returning the named friends back to the pond was a melancholic chore, but there were simply too many to keep as pets. They smelled like algae and mucked up the water, and Beth, Tiny’s mother, found them disgusting, besides. Once, he’d heard her scream from the bathroom, and when he ran in to see what happened, he found her clinging to a bath towel, her face twisted in disgust. God almighty, Tiny. Can you please get rid of these frogs once and for all! On the edge of the bathtub was what Winnie and Tiny considered a medium-sized frog, large enough to fit in a palm. After containing it for its return to the wild, they’d sit on the edge of the manmade water feature, their expressive eyes pointed toward the scummy water. They’d tilt and shake the can, and the temporary resident would leap to its freedom, unaware of the swirling metropolis around it.
Near a patch of tall grass Tiny and Winnie set up impromptu new digs for their latest exonerated: ripped pieces of 2’ x 4’ plywood balanced over two stones, an amphibian Stonehenge. These were gentle spaces for new, stunned lives. But as a real, practical shelter, the frogs never took up residence, intuiting predatory dangers with easy access to them, like the neighborhood raccoons and hawks. Sometimes Winnie and Tiny found baby snapping turtles in the grasses of the garden. Some years they emerged from the mud, tiny and urgent; in other years, they preferred to stay hidden. Tiny saw himself in the turtles. He saw himself in the way they bit when they were angry, and in their loneliness. Only Winnie could keep him from feeling like every day was a cloudy one, not that he’d ever told her that.
When Thomas stepped into the house, he closed his eyes and took in the musty air. It was familiar. He was hit with a dizzy spell of recognition crawling up a spine. The shape of the room, and the old oak cabinet that stood in the corner mirrored so many other places he had emptied over the years. But in the case of this house, his instructions were firm: the structure would be razed. He’d been hired to do a quick and dirty dump-the-contents job.
An antique wooden clock hung in the corner, away from the light, though heavy drapes kept sun from sliding in. It might have told time, but Thomas suspected no one ever wound it up. In fact, it was a house without many useful objects. There was a bright red antique coffee grinder wheel, knee-high, that never ground coffee. There was a standing wooden wool spinner with a foot pedal that never spooled anything. For the most part, it sat and gathered dust specks from the light. Come to think of it, probably like Dorothy.
Thomas called Betty who occasionally purchased things from his hauls. Betty was especially interested in old photographs so whenever he found old photo albums or drawers stuffed with pictures, he set them aside for her and she would restock an open bin she kept towards the front of her store. Thomas didn’t understand why anyone would want to buy other people’s photos. He knew it was unlikely that much beyond the smaller items could be recycled. It was common to order a 40-yard dumpster and bring in gloved-workers to hastily toss all of the contents, the former occupants’ lives now measured by cubic square feet. No experiences can fit into the dumpsters, no experiences, or ghosts, can be categorized by their weight, or their size. Here, Dorothy’s life was entombed: Reader’s Digest collections and American Heritage hardbound magazines. Cream of Wheat and Ritz crackers. Cans of soup and pineapple. Cake mixes. LPs. A closet filled with Christmas ornaments and the fake fir tree that broke down into three pieces, slid back into its fading box year after year.
Over the years, Thomas’s temptation to keep things had diminished. He justified pocketing smaller household items, things grabbed from spice cabinets like a jar of cinnamon. He sprinkled it in his oatmeal every morning, which a doctor once told him, would help lower his cholesterol. Into a plastic tote the spice jar would fall, next to a rescued vintage potato peeler because his had rusted. Useful things, stealthily stowed away from the useless.
An old ham radio was parked on the top shelf of a long-neglected closet. His own had won second prize in his sixth-grade science fair. When Tiny first touched the wires together, he heard static, the sound emerging like a nail skidding across an LP. Thomas remembered the first signal, and a thrill came over him. Alllooooo, 10-1, Can you read me…Hotel Echo Lima Lima Oscar… The first voice was male, scratchy, and jovial. The radio frequency spectrum worked, and its sound was a slippery gift that couldn’t be captured. Tiny wanted to say hello back, but there was no means to do so. He hadn’t thought that far ahead and wouldn’t have known which random words to string together, anyway. Four decades later, and god only knew where his radio had ended up.
When Thomas plucked the World Book volumes from the shelves to take a look, he knew they were going to be among the first items to hit the dumpster. They fell open to the dog eared pages of Dorothy’s searches: planets, axis, Africa, water moccasin, whales. Over the decades, much of the swampy area abutting Dorothy’s neighborhood was drained of its water by a new railroad, followed by a city park. For a moment Thomas wondered if Dorothy had caught the wasted lizard herself.
Thomas imagined lives stamped upon one plot of land, the weight of the collective emotions that bore down on a space, how the space changes, how memory interacts with the things and the people who are left. How odd that he could walk into a space, spot an organ in the corner, flip a switch, and think this is really something, but not know that Dorothy’s foot pumped the pedal after every Thanksgiving dinner between 1955 and 1985, cousins long forgotten refilling their amber colored glasses from the punchbowl. Certain keys would be stuck, for instance, but wouldn’t bely the fact that “The Gang’s All Here” and “Tis a Long, Long Road to Tiperary” were played with the joy that post-war could afford. Had he known everything, the disposal would have been harder. It was like each object was fused in its place, memorized by the house—this detergent on this shelf, this old Utica Club bottle opener in this drawer.
And now, the crack in the foundation.
Better yet might have been to stay away while the earth swallowed it all up, but he knew it never happened that way. There were deaths, and then wrecking balls. Then the sod laid over the hole in the ground, and after that, a volunteer sprouting from the honey locust ripped from its domain. He wondered where Winnie was and how she was doing. If he could’ve made it work, he would have resurrected Dorothy’s old ham radio and given her a holler, asked her to take a walk with him to the turtle pond for old times’ sake.
Rachel Aydt is a part-time Assistant Professor of writing at the New School University, and also teaches at the Writing Institute of Sarah Lawrence College. Her essays and short stories have appeared in The White Review, HCE Review, Broad Street Journal, Post Road, Variant Literature, Beyond Words, The Wax Paper, Green Mountains Journal, and more. She lives in New York City.