The second floor of the garage smells like wood chippings and a dead thing. The garage looks better without everything my family can’t fit in the house. Everything my family can’t fit in the house looks better without a quarter-inch layer of dust. The garage smells better without the dead thing. Or so I assume. James and I can’t pick it out anymore. In the morning we could detect it, a distinct odor emanating from behind a rotted desk chair, and tried to guess what it was.
“Squirrel. It’s gotta be a fucking squirrel.”
“How the hell does a squirrel get in here?”
“You’re joking, right?”
“It’s a bird.”
“So Rockin’ Robin can flutter his way through to die alone in the rafters, but Rocky can’t ditch Bullwinkle to end it all in the corner of your moldy-ass garage?”
“You have a way with words.”
“You have a moldy garage.”
“It’s not mold. It’s a dead bird.”
“It’s a fucking squirrel.”
And so on. It takes six hours before the second floor is clear enough for filming. An ornate wooden desk, an anachronism from 1907, is a viable set piece, so we keep it where it is. The record player has to move though. So does the broken chair, the busted card table, and the fifteen boxes of “Closet Stuff” leftover from house number seven. When we finish, the second floor of the garage hardly looks any different, but the clutter engulfing the center of the room is losing a foothold. Bar stools that once sat proudly with dust-covers are now refugees in the corner, slumming with forgotten board games. A crate of picture frames shares a nice piece of heaven with old test scores that aren’t mine. The shipping box full of love letters stays in the same place, by the rotted desk chair and dead thing.
James and I sit on small milk crates and watch dust particles upstage each other through the glow of an exhausted lightbulb. The lamp is isolated in the center. The room isn’t empty. But we work hard to pretend it is.
There are four windows, matching the points of a compass. North is small, cracked, and covered with a stack of “Basement Stuff” from house number six, territory delineated by broken boxes and a fortress of spare wood. South is wide, part of a screen door that opens exactly six inches above the basketball hoop hung outside. It’s half-covered with a misshapen piece of MDF we found on the roof. East is inconsequential. ‘Here there be monsters’ is scrawled in sharpie on the frame, but it’s already covered by stacks of “Christmas Stuff” from house number two. West is a broken double door with tiny broken frames for tiny broken windows. It’s covered with the card table.
The floor is bare, the tiny territory between the boards gives razor glimpses into whatever reality exists downstairs. It seems miles away. The dust dances.
Our bones creak with the wood. I’m pretty sure I pulled something and we’re both pretty sure we broke something and something still smells dead. Our hands are bleeding from small fiberglass cuts and splinters, and James looks like he’s about to pass out. I smoke a cigarette indoors. It’s how I tell time.
“You smoked for two years without telling me.”
“That’d be a fair point, if I knew what you were driving at.”
“I’m your best friend. Just figured you would tell me.”
“Do you mind?”
“Does it matter?”
“Smoking? No. Trust? Significantly.”
“James, I trust you like I trust Nick to flake out.”
I put out my cigarette on the 1907 anachronism. No, it doesn’t seem like a good idea. I consider how one wrong move would send James and me to meet Rocky the rotting squirrel. Assuming it’s a squirrel. Though I don’t think it would matter much. The spark would set some dusty boards into a roaring blaze and catch on eighteen years of collected shit. James would laugh at how goddamn stupid I was, I would agree, and we would lock eyes as men who understood and didn’t care. Then the garage would light up like a goddamn Roman candle and be on the 7 ‘o’ clock news for the entertainment of all. Bye-bye to seven houses worth of trash, the best script we’d ever written, and the dead thing in the corner by the rotted desk chair. Bye-bye rotted desk chair.
Unfortunately there’s no spark. James and I still sit on milk crates. Our bones still creak. Our hands still bleed.
I look over at the door to The Walkway that connects the shitty, musty, humid garage to the shitty, musty, humid house. It’s one of many defining features I simultaneously loath and love.
“Let’s go to WeberMart. We’ll get some Jones and wait for him to show up?”
“Fuck it. But you’re buying.”
James is my best friend. He’s a nerdy Irish kid with an abrasive sense of humor who moonlighted as a cage fighter. The only things we have in common are film, video games, and an ex-girlfriend, the worst mistake of both our lives. I met him during my first year at my second high school. He was a 102lb dweeb in a grey zip-up with bad braces and a slight overbite. Little has changed in four years.
He stands up slowly, his lanky shadow distorts into something comical on the east wall. ‘Here there be monsters.”
“Go first, I’ll hit the light.”
I stand up as best I can, legs still shaking from hours of shuffling my family’s life to different corners of a room it shouldn’t be in. I pass the stacks of boxes we moved, now in some semblance of chronological order on the outside edge of The Walkway. It smells just a shitty, musty, and humid as everything else, as if Rockin’ Robin had fluttered his way into every rafter. I call the smell “Chanel no. 8.” It’s house number eight.
Well I think it’s funny.
The Walkway is the most conspicuous part of the 40-year-long home-improvement project owned by my parents’ wedding officiator. His name is Bob. He lives on the third floor where the central heating isn’t a coin toss and all the outlets have caps. Where the walls are up to fire-code and nothing smells like fiberglass and sawdust. Where nothing needs a new coat of paint and all the light switches work. He is not a bad man, just a perpetually busy one, with a house perpetually in need, and therefore, perpetually under construction. Like The Walkway. Perpetually under construction.
It’s littered with tiny baubles, trinkets, toys, tools, a broken violin, two paintings, and a motherfucking piano. No one knows how it got up there. Bob doesn’t remember. He doesn’t remember lots of things, like outlet caps. But he remembers everyone’s birthday, so I call it square. The Walkway stretches over a makeshift courtyard, playground, and a walnut tree that’s out for blood. I once called it Willow when I was a stupid kid with no elementary knowledge of dendrology. After Willow made inappropriate advances on the façade of the house, Bob taught him a lesson with the business end of a Home-Depot chainsaw and some sandbag counterweights. Willow lost a lot that day, and the shade over the playground was never the same.
The playground is a homemade slide and monkey-bars placed over a sand-pit where neighborhood kids spend lazy days. Next to it is a tire swing that hangs from what’s left of Willow. The courtyard is stonework with character, uneven and mismatched, that claims whatever territory left open by the sand pit and tire swing. You can see it all from The Walkway.
Instead of going through the house, James and I get out the way we came. There’s a hole in the wall where The Walkway meets the main house. Somewhere the union is less than complete and if you squeeze through damp boxes of “Grandad’s stuff” from house number three you can make it onto the second floor balcony. From there we flip ourselves over the safety rails and climb with our hands to the fire escape. Then it’s a five foot drop onto the mismatched stone, in front of the sandpit, under the shadow of a mutilated walnut tree named Willow.
“Nick’s not going to show up, is he?”
“Well, he has an hour, then we have to either start shooting, or put everything back.”
WeberMart is only a block from my house. They recently rebranded themselves as a high-end liquor store, catering to granola Moms, and Dads who look like wimpy lumberjacks. But they still sell Jones soda.
From outside, house number eight almost looks normal. Its history is something of a local legend. Poor idiots who know no better claim a crazy lady lives alone with seven cats and the souls of dead children. Wrong. It’s a sane man with seven housemates and the perpetual odor of dead somethings. I can understand the confusion, they’re almost the same thing.
The true story? It was a foster home. Bob used to run it, before the kids grew up and his wife left him. Fire-code for foster homes dictates that each floor have a separate stair case, each child have their own room, each room have a clear means to a fire escape (hence each floor has a balcony), and each floor have its own fire extinguisher. This, naturally, required Bob to make significant additions to the house. And he did. He just forgot outlet caps. He managed the place for over twenty years. He was managing it when he met my mother. He was managing it when he met my father. He was managing it when he married them in front of two-hundred eye witnesses and six bodyguards (provided, at no charge, to protect against the unlikely appearance of my Mom’s father, a strong Macedonian man who worked for the CIA and has a history of hating Black men). He was managing it when my family lost house number four. It wasn’t until recently that it had fallen into disrepair. I assumed it was his divorce.
The house itself is a dilapidated tan, with worn brown gutters that deposit their load into rain barrels, and grey-speckled shingling that looks like it doesn’t remember better days. The windows are placed at mathematically random intervals and make enough intentional confusion to satisfy no one. There is a bright blue tarp covering the front corner where Bob started another addition. It was supposed to be a sunroom. My twin brother and I helped pour the concrete. He broke ground on it ten years ago. He planned to complete it within the next ten. It’s good to have dreams.
“Okay, so we shoot the bunker scene here, and if we can get that done, we can head to the quarry next weekend.”
“I already called off work.”
“Good. I should have the revisions to the script done by then.”
“So long as Vasco still dies.”
“Oh don’t worry, you kick the shit out of him.”
James writes movie scripts for fun. Sometimes they’re good. Myself, and a select crew of ambitious, starry-eyed, ignorant idiots, do our best to film them. We make a lot of plans that fall through as if they were orchestrated to do so. Last week it was a sickness, the week before it was the weather. God doesn’t want this movie made. We told ourselves that was our tagline. I’d make the posters. James imagines a giant hand crushing a film reel on a red background with bold black letters. I imagine plain text. I feel pure typography has a stronger Impact.
James doesn’t get my font joke either. I don’t blame him. He only knows courier. Always the screenwriter.
“Did you call him?”
“Yeah, he didn’t pick up.”
“Maybe he died.”
“No way he got off that easy.”
No one had waded through the eclectic collection of life chippings stuffed in the garage for almost fifteen years. Not out of any choice. It wasn’t taboo. But Mom and Dad assumed that the next time we’d ever have to collect the scraps was when we got ready for house number nine. They thought living here would be temporary. I never even unpacked. I just figured I’d live out of my favorite duffle bag until someone reflated the mortgage bubble or some shit. I had no idea how that stuff worked, but I thought if it took us four years to lose the house we were supposed to stay in forever, it should take us significantly less time to lose the house we planned on losing anyway. House number eight was supposed to be temporary. Little has changed in four years.
We make our way back, and sit in the courtyard, staring at the piles of boxes visible in The Walkway. Whatever we couldn’t move aside, we had moved out, and whatever we couldn’t move out, we had moved down, until piles of memories littered the ground like empty candy wrappers. I don’t complain. There is nothing sentimental about rolled up carpets and broken desk lamps. I just wish it was all gone. Or that I’ll never have to touch any of it again. Whichever.
“Why do you have so much shit?”
That, James, is a good question. A better question is how the hell we are supposed to move it back into the garage. If Nick doesn’t show up we’ll have too. Orchestrated to fail, that’s James and I. God doesn’t want this movie made. Or maybe God doesn’t want 2,000 years of dust accumulation to be disturbed. I have no answers. But I do have a Blue Raspberry Jones Soda, and that’s almost the same thing. I sip it absent-mindedly, pretending I’m thinking of anything else. James knows, but doesn’t say.
James and I spend three more hours lugging everything we can back where it belongs, hands still bleeding. The goods from houses one-through-seven are brought in piece-by-piece until the collection is complete. We have fun tweaking the script as we go along, altering character dialogue as we shift boxes of trash to where we found them nine hours ago. All in all, the script improves, and James and I decide Nick would have been a shitty Vasco anyway.
It’s dark by the time we finish. Raccoons slink across the alleyway, bathed in orange light. James and I smoke cigarettes and drink soda on the roof, satisfied with a job well done. Behind a derelict smoke stack, on the north corner, a squirrel gives a convincing illusion of sleep.