I remind myself as I enter the coffee shop that it’s actually a good thing I sold my house and, for that matter, almost everything in it. Sure, some may find my situation pitiful --- a thirty-nine-year-old woman reduced to sharing a bedroom with her best friend’s preschooler daughter. But for purposes of this particular job interview --- I pause to look around to see if anyone is looking around for me --- it makes me even more of an expert. Will Meier is going to be downright impressed that the woman he’s thinking of hiring to clear out his mother’s home barely has a possession left of her own.
Not that I’ll mention anything about it to him.
A man at the counter orders one of those ridiculous coffees that sound as if you should get a cake with several people around it singing “Happy Birthday” rather than something in a paper cup. Then he turns his attention to me. “You must be Lucy Bloom.”
This is my guy. “Hi, and you’re Will Meier! Nice to meet you,” I say, shaking his hand. He’s tall, fortyish, clean-cut, and wearing a business suit with the sort of ease that makes it clear he doesn’t usually waste his mornings hanging out in coffee shops.
“I recognized you by your book.” He points toward the copy of Things Are Not People that I’m clutching. “What can I get you to drink?”
“Coffee, black. Thanks.”
Maybe my spartan drinking style will be another check in the yes column for me. The woman is amazing! Even her beverages aren’t cluttered!
The coffee shop is only half-full this late in the morning on a Tuesday. We grab a table near a window.
“So what have you been told about the position?” Will asks.
I take a sip of my coffee to buy myself a few seconds to think. Then I list off some of what the woman at the referral agency explained to me. “You need someone to help you clear out your mother’s home. I’d be supervising crews and working directly with her to determine what stays and what goes. And it’s important the job get done in a timely manner.”
What she said that I elect not to mention: Your mother, besides being renowned artist Marva Meier Rios, is a monumental pain who has either frightened away or turned down every organizer they’ve referred to date. Also, the contents she’s managed to cram into one house could in fact supply an entire third-world nation if there were a way to ship it there . . . that is, if most of it weren’t junk.
“It needs to be done no later than May fifteenth,” Will says.
Just shy of two months. “Sure.” It seems like a generous amount of time, and I can’t help but wonder what the catch is. “Of course I’ll need to see the house first,” I say in a tone that I hope disguises how desperate I am to get this job. “May I ask why your mother wants to do this now?”
He gives a shrug. “Don’t know.” Pulling his cell phone from his pants pocket, he snaps it open. “Although she’s had health issues. Smokes like a chimney. Diabetes. Been hit with some chronic infections --- miracle she’s hung in there this long.” He looks at the screen. “Hold on a sec. I need to return this text.”
It’s all I can do to hide the disgust I feel. Could the man be any colder? Talking about his mother’s failing health as if he’s commenting on the weather! It’s weird how quickly Will Meier morphed from being a man who’d initially struck me as rather good-looking in aClark Kent sort of way to one who could be but isn’t due to an apparent lack of a heartbeat.
Tucking the phone back in his pocket, he says, “I assume the agency described the pay structure?”
I nod. Although I’m supposed to charge by the hour, Will is offering a weekly salary that, truthfully, isn’t great. But there’s a big, fat bonus if I bring the job in by the deadline --- enough to make my eyes roll in my head and make that cha-ching sound like an old-fashioned cash register.
More important, it would be enough to start my life over again.
Will smiles, but I see there’s a challenge in his eyes. “Tell me, Lucy, why should I hire you?”
My mind immediately flashes to the list of credentials I’d mapped out while preparing for the interview.
1. I’ve always been good at letting go of things. Back in grade school when they were collecting toy donations to raise money for the starving babies in Africa, I didn’t give them old, broken junk (like some brothers of mine I could name) --- I even fixed up my outgrown Sting-Ray bike to add to the pile.
2. On a recent trip to see my parents in Arizona, I managed to talk them into throwing away their entire collection of empty margarine containers, which took up two cupboards.
3. Anyone who can convince her nineteen-year-old son to go away to a drug rehab will have no trouble strong-arming some lady into giving up stuff.
4. I really, really, really need the job --- rehab costs a fortune --- so I’ll work hard out of sheer desperation. . . .
I pull out the copy of Things Are Not People that I brought. “You should hire me because I’m organized, efficient, and an expert in the field of de‑cluttering,” I say as I hand it to him. “This is for you. I would have autographed it, but that seems so pretentious.”
“I’ll admit, I was intrigued when the agency mentioned you’d written a book on clutter. Interesting title.”
“The book is part how-to, but it’s also an exploration of the way people tend to get attached to things --- you know, if Susan gives you a mug, and then Susan moves away, you can’t let go of the mug because it reminds you of Susan. The mug becomes Susan.”
“What inspired you to write it?”
“It started as an article on assignment for a magazine --- I did a bit of freelancing when I worked for a PR agency, before I opened my own organizing business.” I fish my résumé from my bag and hand it to Will. “The article was supposed to be tips for de‑cluttering your home, but as I researched it, it grew into something different. The editor liked it so much, he suggested that I shop it as a book.”
“How’d it sell?”
Why do people always ask that? Can’t they just be awed by the fact that I got a book published at all? Does success always have to be based on how many copies it sold? “Quite well . . . for that type of a book.”
Truthfully, after I got laid off from the PR agency, I’d hoped that writing a series of books about organizing would become the next step in my career. That idea hasn’t panned out since the first book was such a flop. A few months ago, with my unemployment and much of my savings having run dry, I earned a possibly bogus online degree as a professional organizer and decided to try my hand in a new field. My first client was a former neighbor who needed help running a garage sale, which I did for the fee of him helping me run mine. Then, unable to drum up any other business --- and too broke to rent office space and hang my “open for business” sign --- I stumbled across a referral agency that specializes in placing organizers. Will Meier is the first nibble I’ve had from them.
He sits back in his chair and levels a look at me. “You know who my mother is?”
“I’m familiar with her work, of course.” Originally, I’d planned to gush a bit at this point --- mention how Marva Meier Rios practically pioneered the neo-Expressionism movement back in the 1970s, how one of her paintings, Woman, Freshly Tossed, is considered one of the greatest works of art of this century, how she used to hobnob with celebrities from John Lennon to Liza Minnelli, and other fun facts I’d looked up on the Internet (never having heard of her before). Given Will’s chilly attitude toward his mother, however, perhaps understated was the way to go.
“You’re aware she can be difficult,” he says.
“Who could blame her? She’s sick. She’s elderly.”
“You want to see how difficult she can be, try calling her elderly to her face.”
“I’m only saying I can roll with the punches.”
“There might be a few of those, too.”
“You’re joking. I get it.”
He leans in. “Look, here’s the deal: I don’t have time to babysit this project. I’m out in Hinsdale, and the drive here is a hassle. Meanwhile, I’ve got a crew of guys ready to work, and everything’s at a standstill because the client --- my mother --- is being uncooperative. They can’t get rid of a thing unless she says so. I need somebody in there who can make it happen.”
“I can definitely do that.” I feel a strange urge to leap to my feet and salute.
“She’ll need to meet you first, give her okay, before I can say ‘you’re hired.’”
“Well then” --- he stands, tossing his cup neatly into a trash can --- “let’s go face the firing squad.”
As I follow Will Meier’s car the two or so miles from the coffee shop to his mother’s house, I find myself humming along with the radio to calm my nerves. It’s playing one of those cookie-cutter pop songs that my son, Ash, and I used to make fun of --- him because he was far too hip for pop music, and me because I wanted him to think I was hip, too.
It’s been a month since Ash left for rehab in Florida. Rough deal, huh --- Florida? Staring up at palm trees sure sounds like more fun than looking up at this gray, drizzly Chicago sky. Almost makes it seem ridiculous that anyone could feel sorry for him.
But I do. Feel sorry for Ash.
Or at the very least, feel sorry about him --- that his life got so horribly derailed --- that instead of being at college pulling all-nighters and playing pickup soccer, he’s sitting in a circle, sharing war stories with a bunch of other drug users.
Plus he’s fair-skinned and burns easily --- I know he won’t always remember to wear sunscreen. The sun there is so much stronger than it is here.
And, yes, I do realize how stupid it is to worry about something that minor, considering the circumstances. At least I didn’t call his therapist at rehab to ask if he could remind Ash to use an SPF 30. Although I don’t believe an e‑mail on the subject would be entirely out of line. Anyway, I would say that sending my son away was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do, but I’ve officially stricken that phrase from my vocabulary. Hear that, Universe? I am no longer making proclamations as to what has or has not been the hardest thing. You can quit upping the ante now. The first time I was foolish enough to say it was twelve years ago when Ash’s father and I divorced. I naively thought that was the height of my bottoming out, so to speak. “This is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do,” I sighed to myself again, years later, as I explained to an eleven-year-old Ash that his already infrequent visits with his dad were being suspended altogether because they made the new family “uncomfortable.” By the time Ash and I had battled our way through his later teen years, I’d worn the phrase down to a nub. I’d hardly felt a thing these past couple months while selling my home and cashing in my savings to pay the rehab’s outlandish fees.
It’ll be worth it, though. I gave up everything, and I’d do it again if it means that I’ll have my sweet boy back, instead of the pasty, sullen, almost unrecognizable one I sent away. The one who refused to let me accompany him and the interventionist to the airport.
Like that song, Ash said he didn’t need rehab, no, no, no, but nonetheless he went. It was with checkered Vans sneakers digging into the ground all the way . . . but he went.
And now here I am.
As I drive down a densely tree-lined street, I can’t help but get excited about the prospect of working in this neighborhood. Oak Park is one of those eclectic, artsy areas of Chicago where you can have a funky bungalow right next to a house personally designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. It’s about a thirty-minute drive from where I’m staying now, depending on traffic, which of course in Chicago you can never depend on.
Will pulls into a curved driveway and parks his car, and I follow. Like the other houses on this block, Marva Meier Rios’s house is set back from the road, with plenty of yard and foliage surrounding it. It’s Craftsman-style in a warm brown with absolutely gorgeous woodwork on the windows. From the description the agency gave me, I half-expected there to be a couple of cars on the lawn jacked up on cement blocks and a refrigerator on the porch.
“Looks perfectly respectable, doesn’t it?” Will says as we get out of our cars and walk toward the porch.
“It’s nice. Is this the only property?”
He snorts a laugh. “This is it. My mother would never invest in anything as bourgeois as real estate. She inherited this from my grandparents.”
“Did you grow up in this house?”
“I grew up in a lot of places.” He pulls out his phone, punches in a number, and says, “We’re here. I’ll give her the tour.” A look of annoyance crosses his face. “Let’s see if she runs screaming before we get into all that.”
My stomach does a flip. That doesn’t sound promising.
Will starts to unlock the front door, then turns to me. “I feel I ought to say something to prepare you for this.”
“Don’t worry about it. I’ve seen messy places before. I have a teenager.”
“The mess. Right. Yes, it’s bad. I meant more to prepare you for meeting my mother.”
Okay, now I’m definitely nervous. “I’m sure she’ll like me.”
“No, she won’t. But she doesn’t need to. She only needs to be willing to tolerate you.”
“She won’t like me? Why won’t she like me?”
The question was meant to be rhetorical (I mean, everybody likes me!), but Will gives me a slow once-over. “You’re too . . .” I can tell he’s searching for the right words to express my inadequacy. I’m tempted to supply some --- just toss out a few random adjectives --- but I find myself intrigued to see what he might come up with on his own. “You look like you used to be a cheerleader,” he says finally. “You know, too blond. Too girl-next-door. Your clothes color-coordinate. I guess that’s what it is.”
I cross my arms, the ones warmly covered by the brand-new on‑sale J.Crew sweater set I splurged on for this interview (because it went so well with my favorite pants). “I wasn’t a cheerleader.”
“Forget it, I shouldn’t have said anything.”
“I happened to have been in the National Honor Society, thank you very much. Yearbook editor. Student government.”
“It’s just . . .” He lets out a sigh, then does that thing that my ex-husband used to do, squeezing the bridge of his nose to collect himself. “Marva would like nothing better than to hire someone exactly like Marva, only that person could never get the job done. I am moderately confident that you can.” Another sigh. “I am so sick of dealing with this. The only reason I got involved in the first place is because I don’t trust her to be discreet if she handled the process herself. The last thing I need is for the media to get hold of this and start reporting on how the great Marva Meier Rios is living in squalor. It would turn into a circus.”
I pause to consider what he’s said. “That would be bad.”
“Exactly. I’ve got a business and a reputation to think about. In this crap economy, I don’t need that kind of negative publicity working against me.”
Ah, your reputation. “I see. Got it.”
“All right. Let’s do this.” Will pushes open the door and we step inside.
I’m braced for what I might see, but what hits me before anything else is the smell. Although that’s probably because it’s so dark that relying on my sense of sight is pointless. The smell isn’t horrible. We’re not talking rotting corpses or anything. It smells . . . dense. As if I need to breathe in deeper to get enough air. I wonder how long it’s been since anyone’s drawn the drapes and thrown open the windows.
As my eyes adjust to the light, or the lack thereof, I see what I’m about to be up against. I swallow from the shock of it. How does the woman move around in here? We’re standing in what I assume is the living room, but I’m basing this only on the room’s proximity to the main entrance, not on any furniture I can identify. It’s probably there somewhere --- a couch and love seat, maybe a coffee table --- beneath mountainous piles of bags and books and vases and papers and knickknacks and framed art and sculptures and boxes and who knows what else. It’s impossible to take it all in, much less categorize.
“Okay,” I say, trying not to sound as shocked as I feel. “This is . . .um . . . not that . . . um . . . okay.”
Will merely replies, “This is the living room. Through that way is the kitchen and dining area. Let me show you the upstairs first.”
There are stairs? Right in front of me, as it turns out, and I couldn’t see them. We pick our way along a twisty path. I wonder if Marva left this path or if it’s been previously cleared with a machete by her son.
“Bedroom . . . bedroom . . . bath . . .” He rattles off the names of the rooms, barely giving me enough time to peek into each one. Doesn’t matter. Every room is much the same. I can’t see the beds in the bedrooms. Or a toilet or bathtub in the bathroom. It’s as if I’m walking through a storage facility --- everything is mishmashed together with no sense of order or purpose, other than to cram it in to the rafters.
I stall to get a better look at the last of the rooms. Like the others, it’s a floor-to-ceiling jumble of boxes and trash bags, mixed in with loose objects of every size and type. There are silk pillows, religious artifacts, what appears to be a sculpture constructed of bicycle parts, a disco ball, lamps, baskets, suitcases, a guitar, frames, a ceramic duck with a giant crack in it, and stacks upon stacks of loose paper --- enough to fill a dozen filing cabinets if they were filed, which of course they aren’t. I get the impression that Marva started out with proper intentions. I see plastic bins with lids and labels --- as if at one point she decided to organize. Then I imagine how she needed to find something --- could be anything, a photo, a pair of scissors. She did a bit of rifling, things got shifted, boxes were opened . . . moved . . . toppled . . . and next thing you know, it looked as if people had ransacked the place. Only instead of stealing, they brought in even more stuff.
“So there are four bedrooms and a bath and a half up here,” Will says. “There are another two bedrooms downstairs that are much larger. One is where my mother sleeps, and the other she uses as an office.”
I nod, trying not to let my slipping confidence show. The more I see, the more I worry about working for Marva Meier Rios. My only real experience as a professional organizer was writing the book --- and that was advice for managing ordinary clutter, such as messy closets and overstuffed cupboards. Being here in her home, I realize I’m out of my depth in more ways than one. Because Marva doesn’t need an organizing expert --- she needs therapy. Seriously. It’s not normal to have so many things. That she’s been willing to squeeze herself into a tiny space so her belongings can take over makes me wonder how hard it will be to get her to let go now. I mean, she has a box of doll heads! What could she possibly be saving them for? And why would she have them in the first place?
We make our way back downstairs, through a dining area. Or at least that’s what room Will tells me it is. “Now around this corner here is the kitchen. . . .”
I steel myself. The kitchen. Surely it’s going to be crammed with congealing food and trash and, I shudder, possibly bugs and rats and . . . “Hey!” I say, not hiding the surprise from my voice as we walk in. “This room isn’t so bad.” Granted, stuff is piled up on the countertop, and the kitchen table is buried beneath clutter --- but the mess is nothing like I’d feared. The stovetop is covered with stacks of magazines, and costume jewelry dangles from the ceiling rack where pots and pans would normally hang. “Guess she doesn’t do much cooking, huh?”
“There’s a part-time housekeeper. She brings in my mother’s meals. Special diet. So you ready?”
I’m busy imagining what a housekeeper could possibly do in here --- if you dusted the place, it’d create a sandstorm --- and then I realize Will is asking me if I’m ready to meet Marva. “Sure,” I say, and turn to head down the last hall before I can lose my nerve, but Will doesn’t move.
Instead, he pulls out his phone again. All he says into it is “We’re out here.”
After he hangs up, I say, “I won’t be seeing the last few rooms?” “You can see from here the mudroom that leads to the backyard, and there’s a laundry area through there.” He points to a door off the kitchen. “All that’s left is a bedroom and a bathroom. An office. Bungalow out back. More of the same.”
With that, I hear a door slam, followed by the sound of steps, and a thumping noise. Grumbling . . . words like “damn knees . . . taking forever . . .” More steps, more thumping.
I straighten, ready to meet Marva --- then remember how cheerleaders are known for their posture, so I go for more of an attentive slouch.
Will leans close. “She’s going to try to intimidate you. Grill you down. It’s how she operates. Don’t let her or it’s over.”
Marva Meier Rios emerges from around a corner, leaning heavily on a cane. As soon as I see her, I feel like a fool for having imagined her elderly and frail --- especially since I knew from my research she’s only in her midsixties. In her heyday, she was quite the striking brunette. Now the hair is peppered with gray and tugged into a careless bun, and the once-smooth olive skin carries some wrinkles and sags a bit, but she has the sort of strong bone structure that defies time. While not much taller than my five feet four inches, her air is imposing. She’s wearing a brightly colored cape that on anyone else would look like a superhero costume but on her seems regal, and her black eyeliner and red lipstick are expertly applied. The crazy-lady appearance of the house does not extend to the woman herself.
Will does the introductions --- I notice he calls his mother Marva. Weird . . . I can’t imagine Ash calling me by my first name. Then again, when the drugs were talking, he called me lots of things.
“It’s an honor to meet you,” I say.
“Lisa is it?” she says.
Irritation flickers across her face. “Luuuuuucy,” she says, and draws it out to make it clear how inconvenient it is for her to shape her mouth into the u sound. “Tell me. Are you easily offended?”
I barely pause to wonder why she’d ask such a question before I think, With what I’ve been through in the past year? Is she kidding? Ialmost have to laugh.
“I prefer to think I’m easily amused.”
Marva stares at me without expression. I swallow over the dry lump that’s formed in my throat. I’ve blown it. Why did I have to be glib? I couldn’t have simply said, No, I’m not? I want to explain to her that’s what I do when I’m on edge. I crack stupid jokes. Please don’t take it seriously. Please understand that I need this job, even if I am entirely unqualified for it --- even if I’m only a laid-off PR writer and hack author parading herself as an organizational guru. Give me this chance and I swear I’ll --- Marva turns away, and the thump of the cane makes it clear she’s going to leave.
I’m still silently pleading when Marva says, “Fine.” She flicks a hand dismissively toward Will. “I suppose this one will do as well as any other.”