Mike and I came home from court reeling over the bad news. The judge told us we had a week to “clean the mess up”. During the proceeding, the prosecutor, a tall woman with large black-framed glasses and red lipstick, presented photos of our stuff sprawled across the sea of our home. The city inspector sat in the witness stand, running his fingers across our family albums, our books, our clothes. I tried to focus on what he was saying but all I could hear was the stenographer’s fingers tapping — tap, tap, tap — the sound of my privacy becoming public record. Hoarding is not even my issue. Mike’s the reason our home has been condemned. Mike’s the reason I don’t have a closet anymore. But I don’t dare say that in court because we’re on one side of the “V” and the City is on the other.
At home, we sit quietly on the living room couch. “What do you think the judge meant when she said we must clean up everything?” Mike asks.
“I have no idea. She wasn’t very specific.”
“She better not lock me up again!” Mike’s been to jail several times for hoarding.
“Maybe we should focus on the yard. What do you think?” I ask, hoping he’ll agree. I need Mike on board with every step of the clean-up because If I remove anything without his consent, he’ll accuse me of betrayal worse than adultery.
“Fine.” Mike responds. Our neighbor has been calling the police on a daily basis to complain about our yard. The problem is that the cops bring firefighters, Mike’s coworkers, along on every run to our house. Every day, stigma and shame trail behind Mke like two shadows, from home to work to home again. Even when he carries a child out of a burning building, the stigma and shame linger on like fire soot. Even at his doctor’s appointment, while he awaits lab results on the status of his charred lungs, they share the quiet space with him, negating all the good work he has done for his community, reminding him that a hero who hoards is no hero at all.
“Can you please make some mint tea?” He asks.
“Of course,” I respond. There is comfort in doing small, nurturing things for him. It helps me get my mind off the more painful thoughts like the fact that our sons don’t come home anymore. I don’t blame them. Had I known how things would turn out, I’m not sure I’d have picked this life. It wasn’t like this when we got married. Mike was messy but crafty, and it was part of his charm. He’d bring home a broken thing and fix it. One time, he repaired a record player and surprised me with a slow dance to our favorite Dean Martin song, “You’re Nobody till Somebody Loves You”. Another time, when our sons were still young, he brought home scraps of salvaged wood from a fire site and let them paint it. Then, he made a seesaw out of it. The kids loved it. Our house was cluttered but functional. It probably wasn’t Code compliant even back then, but we could locate the stuff we needed and roam freely, using all appliances as intended. Nowadays, I can barely walk from one room to another. The more stuff I secretly throw out, the more he brings in. If we could just be functional again, I wouldn’t care what the neighbors thought or what the city inspector viewed as a violation. I’d give anything just to be on the fringes of what’s acceptable again.
I’m in the kitchen making tea. I turn on the stove top and watch the gas flame. I’m tempted to light a piece of cardboard on fire and throw it in a pile of old newspapers. I imagine no one would realize I did it on purpose even as I stayed in place to watch the flames spread. If I died, the coroner would probably not declare it a suicide, but rather a death by asphyxiation due to smoke inhalation. Everyone else would say it was a tragic, accidental fire caused by excessive hoarding. It wouldn’t occur to them that I played a key role of arsonist, engulfing our beloved home only to watch it burn down as I burned with it. Then, another thought captures my attention. Would Mike stay inside with me?
The teapot shrieks, scurrying away my wicked thoughts. I bring out a tray with tea and say, “Junior will help us, if we ask. I’ll give him a call. If we at least clean the yard, it’ll be a step in the right direction.”
Mike despises asking for help, especially from our children. He is too proud. But I’ve cornered him, so he shrugs and says, “Tell him to bring my boombox. I want to fix that old thing.” I roll my eyes for him to see.
That Sunday, Junior comes by. He is dressed in his Sunday’s worst — ripped jeans and a tattered sweater. He says, “Good morning, ma,” as he unhinges a dumpster in our backyard.
I kiss him on the cheek and exclaim, “You brought a dumpster! Who told you to do that?”
Junior retorts, “You think you can clear the yard without a dumpster? Maybe if you nuke it. The dumpster cost me $400, and it’s staying here until it’s filled to the brim.” He rolls up his sleeves and begins throwing bags of empty jars and plastic tupperware into the trash. We have tried this method before. A dumpster causes Mike anxiety and debilitating fear.
Mike peeks his head out of the kitchen window and says, “You made it, bud! Good to see you. Did you bring the old boombox?”
“No, I didn’t bring it.” Junior responds, withholding eye contact. Then, he adds, “ Actually, I threw it out years ago. No one uses boomboxes anymore, Dad.” Junior picks up an abacus off the ground. “This is actually pretty cool,” he admits quietly to me before throwing it away.
By the time Mike comes out, the dumpster is half full. With a shocked look on his face, Mike says, “What on earth are you doing?” as he begins taking stuff out. “My skis! Are you insane?” Tears fill his eyes.
“Sweetheart, they’re rusted and you’ve never used them.” I try to reason.
“Well, if you throw them out, it’s guaranteed I’ll never use them!”
“If you decide to ski, we’ll buy new ones!” I touch his hand but he pulls away.
Junior slams a metal rod against the dumpster and shouts, “Stop taking stuff out!”
At that very moment, our nosy neighbor, Piper, peeps through a missing section in our fence. “What’s going on here? What’s all this commotion?” She asks in a high-pitched voice tinged with disingenuous concern.
“Nothing!” All three of us howl at the same time. Piper lowers her head and disappears behind the fence.
With a deep sigh, Junior says, “Look, I don’t have all day. I’m taking the MCAT in two weeks, and I really need to study. I want to help you but you need to let me. How about this — you work the yard, and I’ll be inside. Sound good to you, Dad?”
“Sure.” Mike responds but quickly adds, “What exactly are you planning to do? You’re not going to throw my stuff out, are you? I need my belongings. Do not throw anything away.” Mike would rather have all of his teeth pulled out without anesthesia than his stuff discarded.
“I’m going to remove the fire hazards.” Junior responds, sparking a little fire of his own.
Mike’s eyes fill with rage as he says, “Fire hazards? What fire hazards? You don’t know jack shit about the Fire Code. Why don’t you shut your mouth and stick to your stethoscope.”
“It doesn’t take a firefighter to recognize a death trap!” Junior counters back as he picks up a moldy toaster and thrusts it into the dumpster pit, creating an echo all around. Then, he turns to me and says, “I don’t know why you put up with his garbage! Aren’t you embarrassed? Aren’t you sick of living like a rat? You’d be better off sleeping under a bridge. Why don’t you leave him like you did ten years ago? It was the smartest decision you ever made. Why would you ever come back?”
l feel my temperature rising as I cry out, “This man raised you. Do you need a reminder of that? Who taught you to read? Who took you to school every day? You should be glad somebody is taking care of him.”
Junior looks at me and scowls, “You are an enabler!”
I want to push my son into the dumpster, but instead, I calmly say, “Get out.”
At that moment, I realize at least one error of our ways. We stood outside arguing loudly on a peaceful Sunday morning. A police cruiser had pulled up to the house, followed by a fire truck. A young officer approaches us and says, “Ma’am, we’ve received a report of a disturbance.”
I do my best to smile and say, “Everything is fine. We’re just cleaning up our messy yard.”
The officer responds, “You’ve got your work cut out for you.”
“Really? Why do you say that?” Junior asks, sarcastically.
The officer continues, “Well, for one, it looks like there may be a dead body back there. Maybe two.”
“I find that offensive. My father is a hoarder, not a murderer.”
The officer’s face is pale. He says, “It was just a joke. Sorry, I didn’t mean to offend you.” He doesn’t realize Junior was joking, too. Then, the firefighters approach. John, Stew and Stanley whom we’ve known for many years. They don’t say anything, not even a “hello”.
Guiding them all away from the yard, I say, “No need to apologize. Thank you for your service. We’re working on it. Thank you, again.” I glance back at Mike. He is sitting on an empty litter box, looking at the ground.
Suddenly, Stew declares, “What a disaster.” All of them laugh. Then, they are gone.
Junior breaks the silence that follows by saying, “Don’t worry about them, Dad. Let’s get the job done.” He picks up a bicycle frame and asks, ”You want to keep this or discard it? We can donate it if you’d like.”
Mike quietly responds, “That’s fine.”
For several hours, they go through the yard, item by item, filling the dumpster back up almost to a halfway mark, as much as Mike would permit.
The following Tuesday, we’re back in court. The city inspector is on the stand again holding the most recent pictures of our house. The prosecutor asks, “Has there has been any work in progress?”
“Not really.” The inspector says.
“Your Honor, we made a lot of progress!” I shout in dismay.
The judge says, “Hold on. You’ll get your turn.”
Then, the inspector continues, “Yes, there is some progress with the yard. But the inside of the house is still not in compliance.”
When it’s time for us to speak, Mike and I present the judge with the before and after pictures of the yard. She looks at them for a brief moment and says, “What about the inside? I asked you to clean the whole place and you did not. Ma’am, this court has no choice but to order your husband to jail. We’ve run out of patience. Once the entire house is in compliance with the law, he’ll be free again.”
A deputy sheriff appears out of nowhere and handcuffs Mike. I kiss Mike’s cheek and begin to cry. “It’ll be okay.” I whisper several times.
“I love you.” He says.
“I love you, too.” I respond, wishing time would stop until Mike figured out how to fix our life. But he can’t. He doesn’t know how.
I leave the courthouse and call Junior. The two of us immediately resume our clean-up of the yard which takes two full days. Then, we figure out a way to wire ten thousand dollars to a bio-hazard cleaning company so they can clean up the interior of the house. The crew rolls by in head-to-toe gear and face masks. It takes them five days to finish. By the time they’re done, almost everything from the house is gone including the furniture which was infested with bed bug eggs, termites or otherwise had stains or water damage.
The judge finally lets Mike out of jail. We’re home again, even though the house doesn’t feel like our home anymore. We sit on the floor in the living room, observing holes in walls we hadn’t seen in years and catching newly-discovered natural sunlight. It’s quiet except for the sound of Mike sipping on his hot mint tea. We avoid talking about the obvious — the cost of the clean-up and the fact that he will find a way to fill our house again. It’s inevitable. The thought makes me sad but it also provides me a strange sense of comfort because my husband hoards and our life has always been a bit messy.