The week surrounding my parents’ estate sale was, perhaps, more eventful than I might have liked, a trickster deity’s bulleted list of “what can go wrong, will go wrong.”
Friday, February 1st
- Leave Atascadero for my parents’ shuttered house. Just south of Ventura the RX-8’s Check Engine light flits on.
- Waze gets me to a Mazda dealership in Thousand Oaks (I have learned the hard way not to trust the finicky Wankel engine to strangers).
- Give thanks once again to the twinkling celestials of Global Positioning.
- Mention to service manager that my father has died, but am vague as to when; if he wants to believe it was today and jumps me to the front of the line I am slow to correct him.
- By evening I’ll have the decency to be ashamed of this. But for now I’m feeling stressed over the organizing-my-parents’-life-for-sale-to-strangers ordeal to come, and in an hour I want to be anywhere but on the 405 when the afternoon rush begins.
- After a short test drive he tells me I can probably make it to L.A. As long as the engine light doesn’t start flashing, in which case I should get off the freeway as soon as possible. And consider calling a tow truck.
- He speaks sadly of his own deceased father (these are the secret societies I have never belonged to before: Children of Alzheimer’s Sufferers, Children of Incapacitated Stroke Victims, Children of Parents Recently Lost), and wishes me well as I drive off.
- As my normally cat-silent car wheezes its way through Camarillo and past the Getty Museum I realize just how many really steep hills there are along the route.
- Pull into the hotel parking lot. I usually stay at some species of Marriott but in a fit of frugality booked eight nights at the Yelp-approved Hotel Current. The neighborhood is sketchy and behind giant welcoming stands of bamboo a dispirited cluster of elderly buildings hunches, masking their declining years beneath far too much bright blue paint.
- Revisit the wisdom of taking a second story room after four trips upstairs with luggage, bulky yoga props, netbook, speakers, and boxes of irreplaceable papers that I’m too nervous to leave unattended in the car.
- On the third trip the door stubbornly refuses to respond to either of my magnetic key cards.
- The grumpy clerk who replaces them tells me not to keep the cards next to my cell phone. I don’t have the energy to find a polite way of asking if in her universe having my cell phone in my front pocket and the key cards in my back pocket constitutes “next to.”
- Make an appointment with Cerritos Mazda for 8 a.m. Saturday morning, text my brother that I’ll need a ride to our parents’ house.
- Begin to unpack. The room is smaller than I expected. I miss having an easy chair in addition to a desk chair. Once filled, the dresser drawers slowly slide open as if pulled by ghostly hands.
- Go in search of lunch/dinner. When I return the door is on speaking terms with only one of the new key cards. I carefully slide the working card into my folio, and keep the folio eight feet away from my cell phone at all times.
- In bed by 8:15 with a headache and stiff back, “108 Sacred Names of Mother Divine” playing on my computer to mask the constant stuttering rumble of the mini-fridge.
- Asleep by 8:30.
- Awakened at 8:45 by shrieking woman. “Fuck you!”
Followed by shrieking man: “No, fuck you!”
“Fuck you, fuck you, fuck you!”
Jovial drunken laughter.
Door slams. “Where’s Oscar?” Feet stomp past my door, followed by pounding. “Oscar!”
“No, fuck you!”
Repeat until 3 a.m.
Saturday, February 2nd
- Drive the ailing RX-8 to the Mazda dealership. It must be a stoic sort of beast, as its Check Engine light remains steadfastly solid even as it lurches uncertainly forward.
- The service agent informs me that the spark plugs and ignition coil need to be replaced to the tune of $900. I can have a free car wash, though.
- Wait for my brother in the dealership lounge for over an hour. When he arrives he says, “I got up early, but I guess it takes longer at McDonalds than I thought.” He has a weekly breakfast date there with his chow and two Shih Tzu. Of course he couldn’t miss that.
- We spend several hours emptying closets and dresser drawers.
- The mystery of our father’s missing power tools is solved when a neighbor mentions one of the in-home caregivers and her husband loading up a van and driving away some months before. Twice.
- At lunch I mention that although my husband is driving down and the realtor has offered to help we’re likely to be shorthanded at the estate sale.
- “I don’t think I could watch people pawing through their stuff,” my brother says.
- We return to closet emptying. After my sister-in-law’s third phone call he asks in a desultory way if I want him to keep me company at dinner. I say of course not. He heads home.
- Spend a few more hours tackling the kitchen to no visible effect, except possibly increasing the clutter.
- Return to Hotel Current. As soon as I set a foot on the bottom step of my building I hear, “Fuck you!” “No, fuck you!”
- An hour later pull up to my new room at the Marriott Residence Inn (first floor). It is ten dollars more a night but has a full kitchen, a sofa, dresser drawers that stay closed and an aggressively enforced “no disturbance, no partying” policy.
- In bed by 8:45.
- Asleep by 9:00.
- Awakened by: nothing.
Sunday, February 3rd
- Sorting through the garage by 8:30. Text my husband model numbers for a turntable, a television, a laser-guided paper cutter.
- Wonder what magical attraction $40 has for electronic items on Ebay.
- Find a battered cedar chest in my parents’ garage filled with family memorabilia: photos my mother claimed to have destroyed but didn’t, my dreadful childhood attempts at photography, my siblings’ dreadful childhood attempts at poetry.
- My brother arrives at 11:30. He and his wife’s tea and pastry Sunday mornings are the “only real quality time” they spend together all week. Of course he couldn’t miss that.
- Husband texts that he is taking our dog to the beach. Will somehow manage to muddle through the experience without me.
- At lunch I mention that although the realtor has enlisted his girlfriend to help we will still be shorthanded for Saturday’s estate sale. “Will you come?” I finally ask point blank.
- He shakes his head. “The house creeps me out. “
- At 3 he says he has bills to do. His parting words: “I don’t want to come back here during the week. But I will. If you really need me.”
- That he doesn’t mean Saturday goes without saying.
- Pick up dinner from Trader Joe’s, studiously avoiding the wine aisle.
- Spend twenty minutes with Teambox task management. Realize that my lists are getting longer even though I’ve been laboring under the delusion that I’m getting things done.
- Walk down to the Marriott lobby and buy a half bottle of Coppola Merlot.
Monday, February 4th
- A note slid under my door during a cold, rainy night informs me that the Marriott’s annual carpet cleaning extravaganza begins tomorrow. Cleaners may or may not occupy my room between the hours of nine and five without advance notice within the next two weeks. They will set the AC at 68 degrees to encourage faster drying. They apologize for any inconvenience.
- Still overwhelmed by the sheer number of things to rearrange in the house.
- At random I pick lamps and start shuttling them all to one location.
- Takeout lunch from an unprepossessing Los Alamitos restaurant called Teriyaki Ichiban with a mean bento box and an iconically bubbly sushi chef who announces to every arriving patron that it is Monday!
- Clear a card table and start organizing light bulbs found in the pantry, the garage, overflowing a box under the kitchen table. When I am finished I have precarious stacks of forty-eight 60 watt incandescents, thirty-five 100 watts, two dozen each of three different kinds of three-ways and about a dozen each of assorted appliance and flashlight bulbs.
- Pick up dinner at Trader Joe’s. Don’t even pretend I’m not going to have wine.
Tuesday, February 5th
- Organizing books and videos when the realtor arrives to drive me to the title company. In emails his spelling is atrocious, his font of choice is Comic Sans and when he texts from his iPhone he has a tendency to use all caps, but he did find a buyer before the listing even went out.
- He asks if he can purchase the Kinkade hanging on the living room wall, as he is something of a collector. He offers what it is worth, no haggling. By Saturday’s end I will find that quaint.
- The epic scaling of Title Paperwork Mountain begins, further complicated by Establishing POA Credentials and Death of a Real Property Owner. But it is finished at last.
- I suffer only a few twinges over bargaining away someone else’s possessions.
- Return to Teriyaki Ichiban for lunch, where it is Tuesday! Recognizing me and my order, the chef asks if salmon is my favorite fish.
- Emboldened by my light bulb success, organize knick knacks, electronics, first aid and toiletries. Feel only a few minute’s uneasiness over four identical portable radios, dozen half-full boxes of assorted Band-Aids, seven hot packs, six back braces, fifty boxes of disposable latex gloves.
Wednesday, February 6th
- Been putting off the weird finality of filing my father’s will, but since my husband is arriving tomorrow to fill the aid gap left by my brother can delay no longer.
- The Norwalk Superior Court’s location defeats my GPS. I drive in circles until I find a building that looks sufficiently magisterial and make for it by good old-fashioned line of sight.
- The court clerk’s office is a sea of dispirited women and men, waiting in lines at windows or in chairs against walls.
- So many red-inked signs so insistently proclaim “Restraining Orders This Way” that it is an effort of will to resist following them.
- Finally find a window off in the corner, with a small sign reading “Filings.” There is no line. A bored clerk waves me over, takes the will and my credit card, hands me a receipt.
- Fold and stack sheets and towels, clothes my mother no longer wears, clothes my father will never wear again.
- To relieve a mounting tension jokingly text my husband asking whether I should sort the towels by size or color. By color, of course 🙂 he replies.
- I had sorted them by size. I redo them.
- On a whim ask my husband to check on the price of Reuge mechanical singing birds in a gilt cage.
- Reuge representative says $6800.
- They are probably worth, I realize a little sadly, more than the entire remaining contents of the house put together.
- Gather up eight unopened outdoor thermometers I’ve found scattered through the house and put them in my father’s study.
- Move the thermometers to the dining room.
- Move them to the kitchen.
- Move them to the dining room.
- Decide maybe I’ll make an early day of it.
Thursday February 7th
- A work crisis delays my husband’s departure.
- In a fit of energetic industry while awaiting his arrival I finish organizing the kitchen, the bedroom, the dining room.
- Am almost inured to four irons (three unopened in their boxes), six quarter-empty bottles of Windex, eight half-empty boxes of drinking straws, nine packs of wooden skewers, and seventy or so cheap blue and white plastic spatulas.
- Both my husband and I are starving by the time he arrives mid-afternoon.
- Decamp to a local sports bar called Glory Days for schooners of Newcastle and surprisingly hefty and tasty three dollar cheeseburgers.
- My phone rings halfway through the Newcastle.
- The administrator at my mother’s assisted living facility reports that my half-paralyzed mother’s roommate was caught by a caregiver screaming at and – possibly – shaking her in the middle of the night.
- On the advice of the police they are moving my mother to a respite room to separate her from her roommate.
- The Ombudsman and Department of Health and Human Services will be conducting investigations.
- No action on my part is required at this time.
- Awakened by: nothing.
- Which is unfortunate, since sometime in the night someone hits our Subaru in the Marriott parking lot and drives away.
Friday, February 8th
- Start to ask my husband why he’s standing statue-like in front of his car.
- Join him in dismayed contemplation as I see the gouged, caved in driver side rear panel.
- Recovering our wits we head out for breakfast.
- We don’t recover them enough to notice his Kindle and folio containing my power of attorney paperwork perched on the roof of the car.
- At local coffee shop my husband discovers an absence of Kindle and folio. Self-recriminations ensue. I wonder if someone can actually do anything with someone else’s POA.
- My phone rings while I’m waiting in line for food.
- The administrator at my mother’s assisted living facility reports that my mother has a 103 degree fever and is experiencing some difficulty breathing.
- The paramedics have been called and will determine whether she should go to the hospital.
- No action on my part is required at this time.
- The administrator calls again to inform me that over my mother’s objections the paramedics have bundled her off to a nearby Glendale hospital.
- I call my brother, who appears to have no standing engagements and leaves immediately for the emergency room. I follow shortly after.
- My mother is diagnosed with pneumonia, a urinary tract infection and COPD.
- Administration of medication is delayed until the attending physician has time to explain to me that the “comfort measures only” checked off on her advanced healthcare directive means “no antibiotics.”
- When I exclaim that we certainly didn’t intend that, he says “Most people don’t,” and flags down a passing nurse to begin treatment.
- In a texting misunderstanding of epic proportions I think the realtor has found an agent who will buy the entire contents of the house, enabling us to avoid the estate sale.
- Make the half hour drive back to Long Beach to discover that my husband meant a few early bird buyers had shown up.
- Buy bubble wrap to secure the $6800 bird cage and stash it in the RX-8 trunk.
- Head back to the hospital in the full force of Friday afternoon rush hour after my brother indicates that he doesn’t want to sit with our rapidly improving mother alone.
- The Subaru’s Check Engine light comes on just shy of the hospital.
- Husband is already pulling out his cell phone as he drops me off.
- Mention the situation to my brother. Suggest that if he can’t help with the sale tomorrow, he could perhaps take the Subaru somewhere for repairs.
- He stares at me blankly and then reminds our ravenous mother to finish swallowing her food before she takes the next bite.
- Develop ugly visions of me, the realtor and his girlfriend staving off the estate sale Saxons while my husband is stuck at a mechanic.
- First attempt at finding assistance is met with “it’s nearly closing time, try again on Monday” contempt.
- Second mechanic is considerably more obliging.
- Enters address into Waze.
- Cell phone crashes. Picks a random direction and starts driving.
- Reenters address.
- Cell phone crashes.
- Reenters address.
- Mechanic clears error code, says it was probably from a puddle, coos at dog until closing time.
- Brother expresses amazement at husband’s ability to get things done.
Saturday, February 9th
- Stop by a donut shop in advance of the 7 am estate sale opening.
- Eat leaden croissant and drink absolutely dreadful coffee.
- Wish for perhaps the first time in my life that Starbucks had been open.
- People begin gathering outside the house.
- Instinctively avoid making eye contact.
- Husband, realtor and girlfriend take up stations inside the house. Dog and I man the garage.
- Am vague when people ask if she is friendly.
- Snap for the first but far from the last time when a buyer insultingly undervalues a Bulova clock and a Tiffany lamp and then has the temerity to argue.
- With a predatory grin, the realtor sweeps the items out of her arms and returns them to the house.
- Woman holds out a hundred dollar bill for thirteen dollars’ worth of purchases.
- I laugh a little maniacally.
- She reaches into another pocket and hands me thirteen dollars.
- First theft of the sale, a decorative knife.
- Woman informs me that my parents’ cedar chest isn’t real cedar and she won’t pay $40 dollars for it.
- Tell her that I remember the smell of it from when I was five years old.
- Woman sniffs that she doubts it.
- “Don’t buy it then,” I snap.
- The realtor, passing by, laughs.
- Neighbor Bernard arrives to help. A charming hulk of a man who lives a few blocks away, was friendly with my father and before his retirement worked on Ed McMahon’s personal staff, he stalks into the house to look suitably imposing.
- A buyer approaches me with a large box filled with cheap items on top, expensive items hidden underneath.
- Gets huffy when I make him empty the box.
- Leaves with the cheap things.
- Neighbor Danny, who my father thought of rather like a son, arrives to help.
- Sagely suggests I move some of the growing wad of money from the cashbox to my car.
- A tiny young girl clutching my mother’s expensive colored pencils approaches apprehensively to ask the price.
- I sell them to her for a dollar.
- Bernard, his face thunderous, emerges to tell me that he prevented someone from stealing my parents’ refrigerator magnets without paying for them. “I know they’re just refrigerator magnets,” he fumes, “but it made me angry.”
- I think it might be amusing to watch Bernard angry, if I weren’t the object.
- He stalks back into the house.
- Nothing appears to be stolen after that.
- Inside the house a young Marine approaches my husband to ask about a collection of Karen Armstrong’s writings about religion. My husband tells him they belonged to my mother.
- The young marine buys them all, earnestly promising, “I’ll respect these.”
- A man who has been arguing off and on for close to forty-five minutes over wanting to pay four rather than five dollars for an eighty dollar Christmas tree hands me a five after neighbor Danny barks at him, “Just give her the damned money!”
- An angry knot of people have gathered in the bedroom to fight over who has purchasing rights to a set of dressers.
- My husband replies, “Whoever shows me the money first.”
- Bone-tired, we close down the sale.
- Over their polite protestations, give Danny a cuckoo clock and Bernard a grandmother clock as a thank you for their help and to know that something has gone to people who knew and liked my parents.
- As we drive away I see Bernard and Danny side by side, wheeling the grandmother clock down the street on a furniture dolly.
- It is the happiest sight I’ve seen all week.
Sunday, February 10th
Late afternoon, postscript
- Home at last, to a message on the answering machine from a man named Nick. He has found the lost folio containing the power of attorney paperwork and would like to know what to do with it.
- Giddy with relief, I call the number he left.
- Get, not Nick, but a recorded error message.
- Google the All-Knowing reveals: a pre-paid iPhone with no money left on it.
- An appropriate end to the week, somehow.