“I like that one.”
I looked at the flooring sample he was pointing to. I kept looking at it.
“You hate it, don’t you.”
“It’s a bit … busy.” I peered closer at the label. “Tiger stripe. No wonder you like it. It’s got an animal name.”
Saturday morning at Home Depot, ostensibly there for all the boring but necessary stuff we required for beginning work on our new home: a post-hole digger, a chainsaw, and a lot of cleaning equipment. At some point though we got sucked into looking at fun designery stuff like flooring and countertops and backsplashes. Just to stick to a theme, we’re looking for stuff that is, or at least loudly claims to be, eco-friendly—bamboo flooring (sustainable!), recycled glass countertops (repurposing!), all that. Yeah, I know, it’s unbearably precious, and I’m not kidding myself in imagining this stuff makes us candidates for environmental sainthood, but it at least gives us a way to envision how cool each room will be.
But before we can do anything the least bit cool, we have to do a whole lot of decidedly non-cool work—namely, cleaning. I’ve seen filthier houses than this—I once looked at a house so filled with junk the realtor and I couldn’t even get into some of the rooms, they were so jam-packed—and it is true that we merely donned gloves and facemasks rather than hazmat suits. All that said, it was still a fairly gross day. Everywhere we looked, there was garbage. In the kitchen there were petrified clumps of cat poop and mouse poop (and given the prevalence of the latter over the former, I surmised that the mice were winning). Inside the workshop we found the bones of a raccoon’s paw and outside the rib of a … something. In the laundry room I found all sorts of weird, random items, including, crammed into the back of a broken drawer, a tiny pair of girl’s cowboy boots. They looked unworn. They reminded me of that 6-word Hemingway story: For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.
The true story of the boots might not have been nearly so dramatic as that; it might have been that the little girl who owned them simply didn’t like them very much and hid them away one day. And even though this house seemed to reek of the quiet desperation of the previous inhabitants, it’s quite possible their lives were satisfying if slovenly. As a writer I could try to create some sort of fictional narrative about these people, but as strange an admission as this may be, there are times I don’t believe imagination can do justice to the truth of our lives. I’ve taught creative writing students that stories aren’t just about what happens; they’re about what matters. Well and good, but what about the rest of life? What about what doesn’t make it into the story, what gets left behind?
After we’d been working for several hours, we took a break, of sorts—our kind of break. The husband got out the macaws to free-fly them, and I decided to do a short run around our property. It’s a half-mile around the perimeter, but the prairie grasses are super thick and tall, so I ended up finding maybe a quarter-mile loop that was slightly less exhausting to get through. There we were, me high-stepping through the field, the husband calling “Boston! Phoenix!” until the pair landed on his arm and he sent them off again. The western horizon glowed crimson with the setting sun.
Whoever gets this house after us won’t know about any of these things that happened to us today. Who knows what they’ll think about us—maybe they’ll roll their eyes when they see all our earnest attempts to be eco-conscious, which isn’t really all that different from our wrinkling our noses at the ghastly wallpaper in the bedrooms and the crushed empties in the woodshed. That would be a mistake. Every life is far more than the residue it leaves behind.