The inside of Caroline’s home was a completely different story. The front room contained all the usual living room furniture you would expect to see. There was an overstuffed black leather sofa piled with shoeboxes and clothing, and a big screen T.V. covered in dust. Next to the TV sat a crimson red Lazy Boy recliner that had been sitting in that same position for quite some time, for the side facing the bay window was sun bleached gray. The chair held a mass of sheets and blankets, some folded, some just draped over the armrests. On the floor behind the chair, stacked up the wall were what looked like rolls of used carpet remnants. End tables sat on either side of the front door and on them were piles of paperwork and mail, some envelopes had never even been opened. There were pamphlets for free health clinics, menus for local restaurants, and spiral notebooks from cover to cover, without a single blank page. These were most likely dumpster dived, spotted with gunk and filled with the thoughts and ideas of complete strangers. They were certainly not garbage in Caroline’s eyes and she would save a lot more just like them, if she had any more room.
Her father used to like to shop at thrift stores and taught Caroline that most anything could be recycled. In her landlord’s opinion though, Caroline had taken the quote “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure,” far too literally. Her collecting began just after she lost her job and in only the few months following, the house was overflowed with stuff that Caroline insisted on saving. Fearing that she would not have the funds in the future, Caroline began to save anything she thought herself or her daughter could use.
From the living room you could walk a tight path between upturned furniture and grocery bags full off socks into the dining room. On the dining room table there were boxes stacked with the words “containers” and “lids,” printed neatly down the side with red marker. There were at least five lamps visible from the center of the room, but none were plugged in so it was rather dark. Caroline’s electricity had been shut off for a past due bill over a month ago. She did what she could with the curtains open during the day, and lit candles in the evening to see by. Though it was dark most of the time what you could see of the carpet was aged olive and shag. Originally installed in 1974, when Caroline moved in.
It was nearing the end of summer so at quarter to five the room was too dark to safely walk through. Caroline lit a few of her favorite candles. Vanilla, she loved vanilla. She had purchased a case of vanilla tea light candles from a trading store that had gone out of business. She had them set out all over the house so that when needed she could light them. She pulled a lighter from her pocket and lit the candles that were on the dining room table.
The landlord, a petite woman in her late seventies, had been by earlier that morning to collect Caroline’s rent, which was now two weeks overdue. She knocked on the door and after a few minutes of no response she opened it a crack and peeked in.
“Hello? Caroline, are you in? It’s Sue. I’m sorry Caroline but I’m here to collect rent. If you’re in there, I need you to come out and talk to me.” The little old woman called out. Her voice was rasp and tired, but friendly nonetheless.
Caroline was working in the dining room, sorting through a box of discarded lotions and body washes she found in a dumpster behind a discount drug store. She had not heard the landlord knock, and the sound of her voice startled Lauren. She dropped the bottle of expired Johnson & Johnson Baby oil she was holding and quickly made her way to the font door.
“I’m here. I’m here. I’m sorry, I was just trying to get some of this mess cleaned up.” Caroline gestured toward the endless piles of junk that surrounded her.
“That’s why I’m here, Caroline. I need to talk to you.” The woman turned as though she were looking for a place to sit.
“Here. Let’s go out onto the porch and have a seat.” Caroline suggested.
They sat across from each other on rusted folding lawn chairs, another dumpster score of Caroline’s.
“Can I offer you anything to drink? Water? Some Crystal Light, maybe?”
“No, no, but thank you. I’ve just come here to talk. I see you’ve gotten the yard picked up. Thank you, it looks much better than it did. See, the thing is, Caroline, you are behind on rent again this month. That makes it the ninth month in a row. I know you’re not working, and I’m just afraid that you wont be able to cover the bills anymore.”
“I’m looking for work, and I’m planning to have a big yard sale this weekend to pay you back. Look at all this stuff I’ve found. It’s good stuff. Some of it looks like it could be worth a lot. I’ve got to have enough to cover this month and the next half a year in rent.”
“That is the other thing, Caroline. The house is a mess. You’ve done great at cleaning up the front. It looks so much nicer without all the trashcans and shopping carts, but the inside is still unsafe. With this much stuff, in such a small house it’s dangerous. The fire marshal would have my head if he saw this place. I can’t continue to let you stay here unless you get rid off some things. I’m sorry, but I really like you Carloline, and I can’t stand to see you living like this.” Caroline became defensive, “I don’t have that much stuff. It just looks like it because it’s not straightened out. I told you I was just working on that.”
“It is a lot of stuff Caroline. It’s too much. I’m going to let you have until the first of next month to pay back this months rent and to remove a great deal of this junk. It’s gotta’ go, or you’ve gotta’ go. I really am sorry.” Sue rose up slowly from her seat and began down the stairs to her car.
This last statement really burned Caroline. She didn’t feel that any of her things were junk, even the bags of empty Bic lighters that she kept hanging on the doorknob to the hall closet. She planned to give them to her daughter to be used for an art project. She had planned this for a few years now, but still they sat. Her daughter refused to enter the cluttered house now that she’d moved out and begun college.
Caroline had plans for everything she saved. The problem was that she was running out of room to store her things. She wanted to work on the vanity desk she had spotted in a free pile. She had boxes of paint, sand paper, everything she’d need to refinish the thing, but she had nowhere to do the work.
Caroline pushed the pile of blankets off of the Lazy Boy and plopped down. Her short blonde hair was messy and one side of her glasses set higher than the other. She saw her reflection in the mirror across the room and squeezed her brow.
“It’s good stuff.” She mumbled to herself. “How can I just give it all away?” she imagined her stuffed animal collection being torn apart by an unruly toddler.
“How do I know that this stuff will go somewhere that it is appreciated?”
She decided to head to the kitchen to make a cup of Red Rose tea. Every box consisted of one hundred tea bags, and a half-dollar sized ceramic animal figurine. They ranged from exotic parrots to farm livestock like pigs. She had hundreds of these figurines lined up on her windowsill in the kitchen. Now, she felt like they were crowding her. They seemed to watch her every move. She put the kettle on the stove to boil water for her tea and leaned over the box of lotions she had been tending to earlier.
“What am I going to do with all of you?” she stared into the box. “What can I do with a box of lotions? Why did I bring this home?!”
Caroline picked up the bottle of baby oil and chucked it across the dining room, through the living room and square into the mirror. She heard it smash, and jumped a little. She didn’t care though, it felt good. She picked up another bottle. Aloe Vera Gel, for sunburns. Caroline threw this bottle too, with all her might. It crashed into a box marked “lids” on the table and knocked a few onto the floor.
She grabbed a bottle of Dove body wash and raised it over her head. Just then she heard the piercing whistle of the teakettle. She turned her back to the dining room and chucked the bottle backwards over her head. Then she opened the fridge for cream for her tea.
The bottle of Dove turned over in the air a few times before smashing into the line of candles set on the boxes nearest the bags of socks. One tea light fell down into the bag of socks and began to smolder. The bag crackled as it burned and the flames grew as they consumed more and more dry goods, which had all seemed to be stored together. While the flames dripped down to the carpet, Karen sat and rested her head on the kitchen table.
She closed her eyes and imagined leaving Eureka. She imagined hopping on a plane to Mexico and leaving everything behind, but because of her daughter, she knew she couldn’t. She set there for quite a while, until her tea had gotten cold. She stood up to microwave her cup and heard a crackling sound.
By the time Karen noticed the flames, it was too late. The fire had grown too big for her to put out herself. She hopelessly tossed her cup of tea onto the flames. She could feel the heat of the fire and it was only getting hotter, she was forced to climb out the kitchen window to escape. When she made it to the front lawn, the fire had reached the top of the house and flames were now escaping through the roof. A neighbor called out to her.
“Karen, are you alright? I’m calling the fire department right now.” She didn’t say a word. She just stood there watching her house crumble. She imagined all of her things turning to ash and somehow felt comfort in this.
“If I can’t have it, I guess no one else will either.” She replied to the neighbor. She could not remember his name.
“What? Are you hurt? Do you want me to call an ambulance?” the man shouted, a cigarette dangling from his lips. “I’ve already called the fire department.”
“I think I’m alright, but my house…I don’t know about my house. I guess I wont be needing that yard sale, now will I?”
“Uh, yeah. I’m sorry to say, it looks like it’s going to be a total loss.” He shook his head solemnly.
“I guess it depends on how you see it. It all had to go somewhere, I suppose,” they watched smoke billow above the power lines. “Excuse me, but do you think you could you spare a smoke?”
The man nodded and held out his pack of Camels and his lighter.
Karen took a cigarette, declined the lighter and instead lit hers from a burning support of the porch, which had begun to collapse. She could hear the sirens in the distance but knew they would never beat the ten-foot flames that swallowed everything she had saved.