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In the Final Draft, What Will All Those Pieces of Your Life Reveal to Others?


It was the last weekend of the year 2000--a too-warm, California day that made the Christmas decorations and lights, which were still up on many houses, look out of place. I was driving through Santa Monica, grateful for a thin lens of clouds moving in as the sun sank toward the ocean; I miss winter and appreciate anything that resembles it. I passed a corner house with a painted wooden sign out front and the words that have always made me hit the brakes: "ESTATE SALE."

I climbed up the wooden steps onto the porch, quickly checked the price on a wicker corner shelf--definitely overpriced, as was the matching mirror. Some quaint wall decorations were also costly, by estate sale standards, and I was about to leave. But something pulled me into the house, where everything except the roof was for sale. A large note was tacked to the open front door: "Please, no smoking, no strollers, no shopping bags." As I stepped across the threshold, the smell of old cigarette smoke hit me--smoke that had seeped into the floor boards, the walls, the furniture.

More things were laid out on tables: lace doilies, Roseville pottery, delicately embroidered tablecloths and napkins--feminine artifacts, not a golf club or a tool set in sight. An elderly woman lived here alone, I thought, noticing the more recent additions: a huge TV set, a cheap, imitation Chinese rug. Four or five people were in the den and living room, presiding over the sale, and I was trying to figure out who was family and who were helpful neighbors.

At some point, I got the distinct feeling that the woman had died in the house; it was as if I had overheard it, although I hadn't. I had such a clear impression of a woman living out her days in this old wooden house, sitting in front of the television, smoking . . . I glanced around for old photographs but didn't see any. I knew I wasn't going to buy anything here, yet I didn't want to leave. Even though I have frequented garage sales for years, I had never before had the feeling that I was crawling inside a person's life--or death.

As I made my way into the kitchen, I thought of the strange intimacy of going through a person's things, particularly those they leave behind, when they aren't there to weed through those possessions themselves. Just as in the rest of the house, the kitchen was a display of every dish, every wine goblet that this woman had owned. Platters that might have, in years past, held Thanksgiving turkeys. A stack of glass ashtrays. Old mixing bowls. Drawers of silverware, although I suspected that the woman had used only a few pieces as the years wound down.

The stale residue of cigarette smoke was starting to get to me, and I was feeling claustrophobic. There were no houseplants, no signs that any kind of pet had lived here. Maybe it was the sense of loneliness that was closing in on me--the feeling that this woman had shuffled through these rooms, remembering when she used to set tables with her fine lace tablecloths and crystal wine goblets. Remembering--that's what she had left. That, and the brand-new TV set, which was sold for a hefty price while I was there.

I walked out the back door, and in the area between the house and the detached garage, two men were talking; one was buying a bundle of firewood from the other. Behind them was a wheelchair, also for sale. I lingered long enough to pick up snatches of the conversation: " . . . lived here most of her life . . . don't know yet about the house . . . a hard time of year . . ." The wheelchair looked ghostly and sad to me, and I walked the two blocks to my car, wondering what kind of lives were unfolding behind other front doors.

When I walked through my own door, I stopped and looked around . . . as if I were entering another person's life . . . pretending I was. If this were an estate sale, if everything here were now displayed, price-tagged, assessed by strangers, what would they gather about the life that had been lived here?

I looked at the basket of cat toys, and my cats' favorites scattered across the floor. The coffee table I bought at a yard sale and refinished myself. The rabbit cookie jar that I got for $2 at a flea market, which I've never filled with cookies--I just like the way it looks. The mismatched dishes . . . I don't like things that match.

And then I focused on my desk--every writer's worst fantasy, I think, that we'll die and someone will go through the fragments of writing, the unfinished novel, the scrawled ideas that bloomed in a sleepy mind at 3 in the morning. Maybe I should leave instructions somewhere--taped to the wall, on file at my attorney's office--that when I die, whatever is on my desk should be promptly destroyed. The hard drive of my computer, too--erase it, make it crash.

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