(at the moment called Amy Among the Serial Killers)
Amy was at the eastern edge of old age and death was ever present in her thoughts, though not yet in a frightening way. She found herself tidying up a lot, tossing out old clothes and mismatched plates and teacups, painting and otherwise sprucing up the inner and outer walls of her house , her penultimate resting place. Once every couple of months she brought to the Good Will a cardboard box loaded with videotapes, kitchen gadgets, small appliances she had not used more than once, and uncracked hardbacks foisted upon her by blurb-seeking agents. Her impulse not to leave a mess was odd, since when she died she would also leave no survivors. Still, there it was, and she honored it.
Amy centered “Leaving a Mess” at the top of the blank page and double-spaced twice.
An old woman, Lucy, watches television at night when her eyesight is blurry from reading. She mostly watches old CSIs and true crime reenactments, but one evening she chances upon a program about hoarders being buried alive. She sees another old woman living in spectacular squalor, surrounded by objects with which she refuses to part. She nests beyond mountains of Chinese take-out cartons, newspapers, dirty clothes, boxed dress shirts, glass bottles, bicycle parts, radios, pizza boxes, pizza, open bags of cat food, Hummel figurines, plastic Christmas trees, six mummified cats, and a three-quarter ton of National Geographics. When asked about this or that hoarded object, the old woman explains its purpose in detail. The pizza, for example, is still edible if warmed in her microwave, which abides beneath an eight-foot mound of souvenir throw pillows. She is led protesting offscreen by a posse of TV people, disaffected daughters, therapists, and moonlighting crime-scene technicians, all of whom stage-whisper about rat feces and stench. Lucy shuts off the program and inventories her house. Since she can easily move from room to room without displacing mounds of garbage, she must not be a hoarder. In fact, the rooms look neater than they did when she was younger. But she does have a lot of books. Every room contains bookcases, all overflowing, unshelved books piled in front of the shelved ones due to lack of space. She remembers a CSI where somebody was killed by falling bookcases, but this was not likely here, since none were freestanding. Still, she does not want to leave a mess. The following afternoon, seeking Good Will donations, she begins with her reference books, starting with her great-grandfather’s Farmer’s Almanacs from 1847. She bundles these along with her husband’s books on structural steelwork and carpentry and volumes K, M, N, and XYZ from the 1964 World Book Encyclopedia. Loading one box so fast fills her with optimism, but the task soon becomes daunting. For every book she lays to rest, she finds herself leafing through another, boxing it, changing her mind, taking it out, reading some more. How had she come into The Moldavian Book of Root Medicines? The handwritten inscription on the inside cover uses an alphabet unknown to her. She can remember noticing the book from time to time; it seemed always to have stood there on the middle bottom shelf in the hall. Here is The Short History of the World by H.G. Wells: She does recall buying that second-hand since it was short and cheap and by H.G. Wells, but his history stopped with the formation of the League of Nations, which happened long before Lucy was born, so she hasn’t yet got around to it. She shelves it between Birds of the Northern Plains and the Physician’s Desk Reference she bought when her husband was dying. Which is of course outdated and useless and would not again be opened but apparently functions as some sort of monument, or else she would be able to toss it out now. Frowning, she places it beside her on the floor. It becomes the foundation of a pile of other curiosities, books she should discard but can’t quite. Orange sunset deepens to crimson all about as she explores shelf after shelf, book after book, and by moonlight the shelves are half-empty with more than enough room for Shakespeare and Tolstoy and Lardner and Woolf and all the other respectables, and she sits amid stacks higher than her head, mountain ranges of etiquette manuals, idiot’s guides, ghost stories, Yiddish folktales, biographies of Mary Astor, Petroleum V. Nasby, Horatio Nelson, and Davy Crockett, How to Avoid Probate, Girl of the Limberlost, Fun with Stunts. Is she a hoarder? She thinks not. If anyone asked the purpose of keeping The Wonderful World of Salt, she would, unlike the crazy old woman on that show, have no answer. She found this comforting. Rising, she surveys a mess of piles and boxes and admits that the whole project was ill-advised without a game plan. She’d return to it later. Sighing, she reshelves everything except for the oldest Farmer’s Almanac, which she takes it to bed…
[A couple of chapters later, Amy’s working on the title “Empty House” and coming up with no story ideas, so she goes back to “Leaving a Mess”]
–Maybe Lucy, the old book hoarder! She’d never finished that one.
“Leaving a Mess”
…Lucy goes to bed with the October 1847 Farmer’s Almanac and starts to read.
Amy searched fruitlessly online for text from the 1847 Almanacs.
…Lucy goes to bed with a collection of classic ghost stories and starts to read. She settles in with an old English one set on the windswept moors. Nine-year-old twin sisters share a room containing a locked teakwood armoire with a missing key, and they spend idle hours alternately trying to pick the lock and outdo each other with predictions about its grisly contents . One of them goes mad and murders the other. In another story, a widow is haunted by her husband’s shade, which keeps popping up in his favorite armchair, on the front lawn viewed through her picture window, at her bedside in the dead of night. Lucy shuts the book. Lucy would not care what was in that armoire even if it were right here beside her and her house had a history of homicidal lunacy. She cannot imagine malevolence, or for that matter benevolence, attaching to a physical object, nor can she imagine being spooked by visions of dead people. How would she respond if she turned on her left side and found her husband stretched out beside her, his head inches from hers on the pillow? She tries a thought experiment. There he is, his hair is mussed, he’s wearing his favorite L.L. Bean pajamas. She can see his fine gray hair and starched striped pajamas, but his face is wholly obscured by fog. In words, she can describe each feature in detail, and she tries this now, but no matter how exhaustive her description, his face remains hidden from her. His image, such as it is, is neither frightening nor reassuring, and when she blinks it away, it leaves nothing behind. Lucy can recall his voice, hear it clear in her inner ear whenever she likes, which is often, but the sight of him began to evaporate almost immediately upon his death. If there are ghosts, which of course there are not, they must feed on visual memory. How shallow of them! With that thought she sleeps, and, as sometimes happens, she does not wake up. After her grandnephew has flown in to deal with the settling of her estate, he stands alone in her house, having completed almost all the necessary preparation for sale. His great-aunt was a hermit; her body lay undiscovered for weeks, and he’s had to hire professionals to deal with what was evidently a mess, but none of that remains. As her only heir he has claimed the best pieces of furniture for himself and dealt with the rest, so that nothing is left but these large bookcases, eight of them, each shelf so tightly packed that books need to be pried loose. A conscientious man, a family man, he takes a moment now to summon up some memorial reflection, some childhood memory of her, but all he can recall is her face in the family albums, and he never really knew that woman, let alone the old one who died here. He wanders through the empty house, its bare walls and floors hollowing the sounds of his footsteps, trying to work up energy to pore through a thousand books to see which are worth keeping. Sighing, he begins. He carries in Good Will boxes and starts packing one with useless reference books, setting aside the occasional curiosity, like the ancient Farmer’s Almanacs. He fills that box in good time; he should be able to finish up today. But as he proceeds, the pile of keepers grows, topples, so he has to make a second pile, and then a third. Some books he sets aside because they look valuable, but most for reasons unclear to him. Why did she keep a Moldavian study of root medicines? Why doesn’t he want to give it up now? What is he going to do with a biography of Mary Astor? The day lengthens, the sunlight deepens through uncurtained windows, the bookcases slowly surrender their burden, some of the boxes fill, but the keepers pile up around him, he won’t finish today, he may never finish at all, and with this thought he stands and walks around to clear his head, and now he hears that his footsteps are no longer hollow. The house is no longer empty. He summons the will to pack up those mountains of keepers and empty the house; he knows he can and must do this. But before he does, he stands among the books and remembers her.