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The Discomfort Zone: A Personal History

Chapter One

House for Sale

There'd been a storm that evening in St. Louis. Water was standing
in steaming black pools on the pavement outside the airport, and
from the back seat of my taxi I could see oak limbs shifting
against low-hanging urban clouds. The Saturday-night roads were
saturated with a feeling of afterness, of lateness --- the rain
wasn't falling, it had already fallen.

My mother's house, in Webster Groves, was dark except for a lamp on
a timer in the living room. Letting myself inside, I went directly
to the liquor shelf and poured the hammer of a drink I'd been
promising myself since before the first of my two flights. I had a
Viking sense of entitlement to whatever provisions I could plunder.
I was about to turn forty, and my older brothers had entrusted me
with the job of traveling to Missouri and choosing a realtor to
sell the house. For as long as I was in Webster Groves, doing work
on behalf of the estate, the liquor shelf would be mine. Mine!
Ditto the air-conditioning, which I set frostily low. Ditto the
kitchen freezer, which I found it necessary to open immediately and
get to the bottom of, hoping to discover some breakfast sausages,
some homemade beef stew, some fatty and savory thing that I could
warm up and eat before I went to bed. My mother had been good about
labeling food with the date she'd frozen it. Beneath multiple bags
of cranberries I found a package of small-mouth bass that a
fisherman neighbor had caught three years earlier. Underneath the
bass was a nine-year-old beef brisket.

I went through the house and stripped the family photos out of
every room. I'd been looking forward to this work almost as much as
to my drink. My mother had been too attached to the formality of
her living room and dining room to clutter them with snapshots, but
elsewhere each windowsill and each tabletop was an eddy in which
inexpensively framed photos had accumulated. I filled a shopping
bag with the haul from the top of her TV cabinet. I picked another
bag's worth from a wall of the family room, as from an espaliered
fruit tree. Many of the pictures were of grandchildren, but I was
represented in them, too --- here flashing an orthodontic smile on
a beach in Florida, here looking hungover at my college graduation,
here hunching my shoulders on my ill-starred wedding day, here
standing three feet away from the rest of my family during an
Alaskan vacation that my mother, toward the end, had spent a
substantial percentage of her life savings to take us on. The
Alaskan picture was so flattering to nine of us that she'd applied
a blue ballpoint pen to the eyes of the tenth, a daughter-in-law,
who'd blinked for the photo and who now, with her misshapen ink-dot
eyes, looked quietly monstrous or insane.

I told myself that I was doing important work by depersonalizing
the house before the first realtor came to see it. But if somebody
had asked me why it was also necessary, that same night, to pile
the hundred-plus pictures on a table in the basement and to rip or
slice or pry or slide each photo out of its frame, and then dump
all the frames into shopping bags, and stow the shopping bags in
cabinets, and shove all the photos into an envelope, so that nobody
could see them --- if somebody had pointed out my resemblance to a
conqueror burning the enemy's churches and smashing its icons --- I
would have had to admit that I was relishing my ownership of the

I was the only person in the family who'd had a full childhood
here. As a teenager, when my parents were going out, I'd counted
the seconds until I could take temporary full possession of the
house, and as long as they were gone I was sorry they were coming
back. In the decades since, I'd observed the sclerotic buildup of
family photographs resentfully, and I'd chafed at my mother's
usurpation of my drawer and closet space, and when she'd asked me
to clear out my old boxes of books and papers, I'd reacted like a
house cat in whom she was trying to instill community spirit. She
seemed to think she owned the place.

Which, of course, she did. This was the house where, five days a
month for ten months, while my brothers and I were going about our
coastal lives, she had come home alone from chemotherapy and
crawled into bed. The house from which, a year after that, in early
June, she had called me in New York and said she was returning to
the hospital for more exploratory surgery, and then had broken down
in tears and apologized for being such a disappointment to everyone
and giving us more bad news. The house where, a week after her
surgeon had shaken his head bitterly and sewn her abdomen back up,
she'd grilled her most trusted daughter-in-law on the idea of an
afterlife, and my sister-in-law had confessed that, in point of
sheer logistics, the idea seemed to her pretty far-fetched, and my
mother, agreeing with her, had then, as it were, put a check beside
the item "Decide about afterlife" and continued down her to-do list
in her usual pragmatic way, addressing other tasks that her
decision had rendered more urgent than ever, such as "Invite best
friends over one by one and say goodbye to them forever." This was
the house from which, on a Saturday morning in July, my brother Bob
had driven her to her hairdresser, who was Vietnamese and
affordable and who greeted her with the words "Oh, Mrs. Fran, Mrs.
Fran, you look terrible," and to which she'd returned, an hour
later, to complete her makeover, because she was spending
long-hoarded frequent-flyer miles on two first-class tickets, and
first-class travel was an occasion for looking her best, which also
translated into feeling her best; she came down from her bedroom
dressed for first class, said goodbye to her sister, who had
traveled from New York to ensure that the house would not be empty
when my mother walked away from it --- that someone would be left
behind --- and then went to the airport with my brother and flew to
the Pacific Northwest for the rest of her life. Her house, being a
house, was enough slower in its dying to be a zone of comfort to my
mother, who needed something larger than herself to hold on to but
didn't believe in supernatural beings. Her house was the heavy (but
not infinitely heavy) and sturdy (but not everlasting) God that
she'd loved and served and been sustained by, and my aunt had done
a very smart thing by coming when she did.

But now we needed to put the place on the market in a hurry. We
were already a week into August, and the house's best selling
point, the counterbalance to its many defects (its tiny kitchen,
its negligible back yard, its too-small upstairs bathroom), was its
situation in the Catholic school district attached to the church of
Mary, Queen of Peace. Given the quality of the Webster Groves
public schools, I didn't understand why a family would pay extra to
live in this district in order to then pay further extra for
schooling by nuns, but there were a lot of things I didn't
understand about being Catholic. According to my mother, Catholic
parents from all over St. Louis eagerly awaited listings in the
district, and families in Webster Groves had been known to pull up
stakes and move just one or two blocks to get inside its

Unfortunately, once the school year started, three weeks from now,
young parents wouldn't be so eager. I felt some additional pressure
to help my brother Tom, the executor of the estate, to finish his
work quickly. I felt a different kind of pressure from my other
brother, Bob, who had urged me to remember that we were talking
about real money. ("People knock $782,000 down to $770,000 when
they're negotiating, they think it's basically the same number,"
he'd told me. "Well, no, in fact, it's twelve thousand dollars
less. I don't know about you, but I can think of a lot of things
I'd rather do with twelve thousand dollars than give it to the
stranger who's buying my house.") But the really serious pressure
came from my mother, who, before she died, had made it clear that
there was no better way to honor her memory and validate the last
decades of her life than to sell the house for a shocking amount of

Counting had always been a comfort to her. She wasn't a collector
of anything except Danish Christmas china and mint plate blocks of
U.S. postage, but she maintained lists of every trip she'd ever
taken, every country she'd set foot in, every one of the "Wonderful
(Exceptional) European Restaurants" she'd eaten in, every operation
she'd undergone, and every insurable object in her house and her
safe-deposit box. She was a founding member of a penny-ante
investment club called Girl Tycoons, whose portfolio's performance
she tracked minutely. In the last two years of her life, as her
prognosis worsened, she'd paid particular attention to the sale
price of other houses in our neighborhood, writing down their
location and square footage. On a sheet of paper marked Real Estate
guide for listing property at 83 Webster Woods, she'd composed a
sample advertisement the way someone else might have drafted her
own obituary:

Two story solid brick three bedroom center hall colonial home on
shaded lot on cul de sac on private street. There are three
bedrooms, living room, dining room with bay, main floor den, eat-in
kitchen with new G.E. dishwasher, etc. There are two screened
porches, two wood-burning fireplaces, two car attached garage,
security burglary and fire system, hardwood floors throughout and
divided basement.

At the bottom of the page, below a list of new appliances and
recent home repairs, was her final guess about the house's worth:
"1999 --- Est. value $350,000.00+." This figure was more than ten
times what she and my father had paid for the place in 1965. The
house not only constituted the bulk of her assets but was by far
the most successful investment she'd ever made. I wasn't a ten
times happier person than my father, her grandchildren weren't ten
times better educated than she was. What else in her life had done
even half so well as real estate?

"It'll sell the house!" my father had exclaimed after he built a
little half-bathroom in our basement. "It'll sell the house!" my
mother had said after she paid a contractor to redo our front
walkway in brick. She repeated the phrase so many times that my
father lost his temper and began to enumerate the many improvements
he'd made, including the new half-bathroom, which she evidently
thought would not sell the house; he wondered aloud why he'd
bothered working every weekend for so many years when all it took
to "sell the house" was buying a new brick walkway! He refused to
have anything to do with the walkway, leaving it to my mother to
scrub the moss off the bricks and to chip away gently at the ice in
winter. But after he'd spent half a month of Sundays installing
decorative moldings in the dining room, mitering and spackling and
painting, he and she both stood and admired the finished work and
said, over and over, with great satisfaction, "It'll sell the

"It'll sell the house."

"It'll sell the house."

Long past midnight, I turned off the lights downstairs and went up
to my bedroom, which Tom and I had shared until he went away to
college. My aunt had done some cleaning before she went back to New
York, and I had now taken away all the family pictures, and the
bedroom looked ready to show to buyers. The dressertops and desktop
were clear; the grain of the carpeting was neatly scalloped from my
aunt's vacuuming of it; the twin beds had a freshly made look. And
so I was startled, when I peeled back my bedspread, to find
something on the mattress by my pillow. It was a bundle of postage
stamps in little waxed-paper envelopes: my mother's old collection
of plate blocks.

The bundle was so radiantly out of place here that the back of my
neck began to tingle, as if I might turn around and see my mother
still standing in the doorway. She was clearly the person who'd
hidden the stamps. She must have done it in July, as she was
getting ready to leave the house for the last time. Some years
earlier, when I'd asked her if I could have her old plate blocks,
she'd said I was welcome to whatever was left when she died. And
possibly she was afraid that Bob, who collected stamps, would
appropriate the bundle for himself, or possibly she was just
checking items off her to-do list. But she'd taken the envelopes
from a drawer in the dining room and moved them upstairs to the one
place I would most likely be the next person to disturb. Such
micromanagerial prescience! The private message that the stamps
represented, the complicit wink in her bypassing of Bob, the signal
arriving when the sender was dead: it wasn't the intimate look that
Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty exchange in Bonnie and Clyde an
instant before they're both shot dead, but it was as close to
intimate as my mom and I were going to get. Finding the bundle now
was like hearing her say, "I'm paying attention to my details. Are
you paying attention to yours?"

The three realtors I interviewed the next day were as various as
three suitors in a fairy tale. The first was a straw-haired,
shiny-skinned woman from Century 21 for whom it appeared to be a
struggle to say nice things about the house. Each room came as a
fresh disappointment to her and her strongly cologned male
associate; they conferred in low voices about "potential" and
"additions." My mother was a bartender's daughter who never
finished college, and her taste was what she liked to call
Traditional, but it seemed to me unlikely that the other houses on
Century 21's list were decorated in substantially better taste. I
was annoyed by the realtor's failure to be charmed by my mother's
Parisian watercolors. The realtor, however, was comparing our
quaint little kitchen with the hangarlike spaces in newer houses.
If I wanted to list with her, she said, she would suggest asking
between $340,000 and $360,000.

The second realtor, a handsome woman named Pat who was wearing an
elegant summer suit, was the friend of a good family friend of ours
and came highly recommended. She was accompanied by her daughter,
Kim, who was in business with her. As the two of them moved from
room to room, stopping to admire precisely the details that my
mother had been proudest of, they seemed to me two avatars of
Webster Groves domesticity. It was as if Pat were thinking of
buying the house for Kim; as if Kim would soon be Pat's age and,
like Pat, would want a house where everything was quiet and the
fabrics and furniture were all just right. Child replacing parent,
family succeeding family, the cycle of suburban life. We sat down
together in the living room.

"This is a lovely, lovely home," Pat said. "Your mother kept it up
beautifully. And I think we can get a good price for it, but we
have to act fast. I'd suggest listing it at three hundred fifty
thousand, putting an ad in the paper on Tuesday, and having an open
house next weekend."

"And your commission?"

"Six percent," she said, looking at me steadily. "I know several
people who would be very interested right now."

I told her I would let her know by the end of the day.

The third realtor burst into the house an hour later. Her name was
Mike, she was a pretty, short-haired blonde about my own age, and
she was wearing excellent jeans. Her plate was overfull, she said
in a husky voice, she was coming from her third open house of the
day, but after I'd phoned her on Friday she'd driven over to see
our house and had fallen in love with it from the street, its curb
appeal was fantastic, she knew she had to see the inside, and, wow,
just as she suspected --- she was moving hungrily from room to room
--- it was adorable, it was dripping with charm, she liked it even
better from the inside, and she would love love love love love to
be the one to get to sell it, in fact if the upstairs bathroom
weren't so small she might even go as high as $405,000, this
neighborhood was so hot, so hot --- I knew about the Mary, Queen of
Peace school district, right? --- but even with the problematic
bathroom and the regrettably tiny back yard she wouldn't be
surprised if the house sold in the three-nineties, plus there were
other things she could do for me, her basic commission was five and
a half percent, but if the buyer's agent was from her group, she
could knock that down to five, and if she herself was the buyer's
agent she could knock it all the way down to four, my God, she
loved what my mother had done, she'd known it as soon as she'd seen
it from the street, she wanted this house bad --- "Jon, I want it
bad," she said, looking me in the eye --- and, by the way, just as
a matter of fact, not to brag, truly, but she'd been number one in
residential real estate in Webster Groves and Kirkwood for three
years running.

Mike excited me. The sweat-damp front of her blouse, the way she
strode in her jeans. She was flirting with me broadly, admiring the
size of my ambitions, comparing them favorably to her own (though
hers were not insubstantial), holding my gaze, and talking nonstop
in her lovely husky voice. She said she totally got why I wanted to
live in New York. She said it was rare that she met somebody who
understood, as I obviously did, about desire, about hunger. She
said she'd price the house between $380,000 and $385,000 and hope
to start a bidding war. As I sat there, watching her gush, I felt
like a Viking.

It shouldn't have been so hard to make the call to Pat, but it was.
She seemed to me a mom I had to disappoint, a mom in the way, a
nagging conscience. She seemed to know things about me and about
the house --- realistic things --- that I wished she didn't. The
look she'd given me when she'd named her commission had been
skeptical and appraising, as if any responsible adult could see
that she and her daughter were obviously the best agents for the
job, but she wasn't sure if I could see it myself.

I waited until 9:30, the last possible minute, before I called her.
Just as I'd feared, she didn't hide her surprise and displeasure.
Did I mind if she asked who the other realtor was?

I was conscious of the taste and shape of Mike's name as it passed
through my mouth.

"Oh," Pat said wearily. "OK."

Mike wouldn't have been my mother's type either, not one bit. I
told Pat that the decision had been a very hard one, a really
difficult choice, and that I was grateful that she'd come over and
sorry that she and I weren't going to be ---

"Well, good luck," she said.

After that, I got to make the fun call, the
Yes-I'm-free-on-Friday-night call. Mike, at home, confided to me in
a low voice, as if to keep her husband from hearing, "Jon, I knew
you'd go with me. I felt the connection between us right away." The
only slight complication, she said, was that she had long-standing
vacation plans with her husband and children. She was leaving town
on Friday and wouldn't be able to start showing the house until the
very end of the month. "But don't worry," she said.

Excerpted from THE DISCOMFORT ZONE: A Personal History ©
Copyright 2011 by Jonathan Franzen. Reprinted with permission by
Picador, LLC. All rights reserved.

The Discomfort Zone: A Personal History
by by Jonathan Franzen

  • Genres: Fiction
  • paperback: 208 pages
  • Publisher: Picador
  • ISBN-10: 0312426402
  • ISBN-13: 9780312426408