For the past seven years, Laurie had worked as an international brand consultant. She had advised companies big and small around the world that were looking to market their products to the US. Mostly, this involved setting them up with official websites that were readable in English. She couldn't count the number of times foreign entrepreneurs presented her with amateurish homepages swamped with cheesy animated graphics and headlines featuring, "SALE! ONLY50 DOLLAR! BUY NOW!" So, she'd get them set up with something crisp and fresh – or rather, something that a business would use rather than a preteen trying to jazz up their MySpace – and then tracked their revenue before and after its implementation. Sometimes she had to contract graphic artists to help with logo design or modification. Other times she placed orders with the print department for brochures or business cards or whatever other materials her clients thought were necessary to spread the word for their brand. But that was pretty much it.
Maybe it wouldn't be so dull if Laurie worked for people in cosmetics or fashion. She loved that kind of stuff – which was evident from her pomegranate-colored hair, cut razor straight at the shoulder and then just above the eyebrows for stylish bangs, her plump glossy lips, her lace-patterned leggings, her acrylic French-manicured nails, and her sequined black blouse with the cowl neck.
But Laurie did not work for the beautiful people of the makeup industry. Mainly, she worked with European food groups. She had never asked to be assigned to these programs; somehow, someway though she always ended up assisting some random business get its dried noodles, bottled condiments, and cured meats into the US market.
Currently, she was helping this Hungarian guy, Tibor, with his growing business "Vállalot Fűsezerés," or what he told her meant "The Company of Seasonings." He had actually sent her a free sample in the mail after their first phone call. Laurie, by no means a chef, had torn the packet open and tossed it all on some chicken. It tasted alright, she supposed. Nothing out of the ordinary, but Tibor was convinced these seasonings would take off in the American market.
"Your seasoning come from scientist," he had told her. "Your seasoning make children fat. My seasoning come from good, clean land – no chemicals! Perfect safe. I sell for good price too."
Sure, Laurie made her money to buy her leg wax and her lip stick…But it was still a 9-5 desk job, a 'sit at your computer and talk on the phone and type emails without much privacy or refuge' job. Upper level management occasionally sent emails down to remind them all of the company's strategic visions and upcoming conferences, and once a year Laurie met with wacky Sandra to discuss her "progress."
Really, the only kick Laurie got out of her day was annoying Terri.
Suddenly, Laurie had an idea – a brilliant idea. An awesome and colorful and absolutely radical idea. An idea that would literally change the face of this dull and dreary office. She glanced over at Terri, who was still jabbering away on the phone in his fake, 'business professional' voice, and she grinned mischievously.
"You might want to stay at home tomorrow, Terri," she whispered under her breath giggling. "Neat freak or not, I've got a surprise in store that'll shake up everybody's cubicles!"
Terri was in for a surprise when he got back to his apartment that night. As soon as he walked in the door, before he even had a chance to set down his brief case or unbutton his coat, he was nearly assailed in the skull by a flying stiletto heel, spinning round like a loose bowling ball at the alley. With a lucky duck, he dodged the airborne shoe and picked it up when it fell against the screen door.
"It's all your fault!"
A young woman, probably in her late twenties or early thirties, came raging from the hallway. Her face was bright red with anger and there was a sheen of sweat on her forehead, as if she'd been working out. While she was clearly making her way over to Terri to confront him directly, she was obstructed by piles of stuff on either side of her.
Indeed, the moment Terri stepped into the house, he too could see the piles and piles of things laying around. Stacks of magazines and mail-order catalogues, storage bins filled with collections of plastic miniatures, kitchenware, automotive tools, bathroom products, and craft supplies, heaps of laundry –both dirty and clean –and opaque garbage bags, tied and dumped on top of each other, filled with anything from the lost treasures of Atlantis to discarded pizza plates from last Friday's dinner, melted cheese and grease still stuck to the folded edges.
The sprawl of belongings didn't stop in the entryway either. While it was difficult to see over a mound of raggedy teddy bears in the front hall, the even higher tower of dirty dishes, cardboard boxes, and outdated electronics in the kitchen still managed to rise into view.
Somehow, in spite of this colossal mess, the young woman managed to climb her way over to Terri. Like an intrepid spelunker, she was deliberate in her every move. No foot or hand went down in the swamp of miscellaneous items until she was sure she had a steady, secure place to ground it – even if it meant hearing the crunching sounds of breakage beneath her or the toppling sounds of unbalanced columns falling at her sides.
Terri stood where he was, albeit awkwardly posed. After crossing the threshold of the front door and hearing the young woman's cry, he had been torn between two competing desires: one, to climb over the mountain of stuff himself and assist her, and two, to dart back out the door and run as far as he could in the opposite direction. Unable to make a decision, he ended up with one hand on the door knob and the other reaching half-heartedly for the woman.
When she did reach him, the dark-haired lady slapped his outstretched hand and promptly commenced shouting in his face.
"I am sick of this!" she shrieked, flailing her arms out and gesturing at the mess that threatened to consume their small square of space. "This is ridiculous! I don't want any of this shit here anymore. Tomorrow, I'm finally going to call a dump truck and we're throwing it all away. Everything!"
Terri's eyes widened. He held out his hands as if he were pushing back a brick wall.
"Woah, woah, woah! Let's not go crazy here. Slow down and calm down… What the hell is going on here? Why are you throwing shoes around?"
"Oh my God, do you even need to ask?" Again, the woman pointed behind her with a straight arm and a shaky finger. "Do I even need a reason to be upset? Look at this, Terri! Look around you! I've had enough. That's it. I'm done!"
Terri's brow furrowed. "What?" he said, not noticing as his volume doubled with his heightened emotions. "It's not like all this stuff is mine!"
The woman raised her eyebrow. "Maybe not all of it," she said, sneering, "but a good, oh… ninety-nine percent of it is. And even if some of it does belong to me, it's not like I could find any of it or put it away because chances are it's sitting fifteen tons of your crap. Just like… just like…" Her face twisted and, as if there were a dial for her emotions, the wheel spun from "protest with rage and fury" to "break down into sputtering tears." She cried, "Just like my genuine Louis Vuitton designer purse!"
Terri took a step back – or, as much of a step back as he could take between his enraged entryway companion and the door.
"That's what this is all about?" He snorted. "Big deal. You have like thirty purses. Pick another one to use."
"Uh—no!" Tears were staining the young woman's cheeks. She jabbed an accusing finger at Terri's chest. "That was not just any purse. That purse cost me four hundred dollars. It is a real Louis Vuitton. Louis frigging Vuitton. And I am not leaving here without it."
"Whatever." Terri grabbed his briefcase and stepped around the woman. He started climbing through the piles of junk. But the woman whipped on him like a hi-tech military security camera.
"Where do you think you're going?" she exclaimed, throwing up her hands.
"Upstairs to my room," Terri grunted, accidentally stepping on a sleeve of crackers, the cellophane and bread crumbs crinkling and crunching respectively underneath his foot. "In case you didn't notice, I just got home from work and I've had a long day, and I really don't feel like putting up with your temper tantrum right this minute."
"Oh, that's nice," she said sarcastically. "You're just going to walk away. I wish I could do that when I had a problem. In fact, I wish I could do that with all of this stuff. I wish I could just walk away and I wish that when I came back all of this stupid, mother… mother-fluffing crap would be gone!"
Terri wasted no time in pointing his finger back at her and then towards the door.
"There's the door," he said. "It's not like I'm hiding it. You're free to leave at any time. Nothing's stopping you." When the woman didn't move, Terri sneered. "Go on! Go! Be free!"
Terri knew as he said this though that he had stepped into his own grave. He might as well have given the gal a cream pie, stood back in a clown suit, and said, "Hit me."
As expected, the young woman rose to her full height, her chest puffing out like a predatory grizzly bear, and she roared. "Don't you dare suggest that I leave this house. Don't you even dare. Because you know – YOU know- and I know that Mom and Dad left this house for both of us – hear that, BOTH of us—and if they knew how you filled this place with all your garbage, they would have had mother-fluffing simultaneous strokes. Mom kept this place neater than a mother-fluffing English dowager's mansion – and this is what you've done to it. This is how you show your respect. This is how you honor their mother-fluffing memories!"
Tears were really streaming down her face now, and her cheeks were so red she looked like a strawberry and a tomato had gotten in a brawl in a blender. Terri evidently felt bad – his own face had turned the chalky pallor of a ghost.
"Amy," he started to say, but he was too late. Wrought with too much frustration, the woman – his younger sister, in fact – left the house and slammed the door behind her.
With a sigh, Terri gave up on his trek to the bedroom and simply plopped down on the steps, his posterior cushioned by an empty rectangular box for a board game, a deflated beach ball, and a previously smashed CD case. He looked out at the living room – filled with stuffed toys, pop cans, and other miscellaneous things – and noticed, not for the first time and certainly not for the last, the portrait of his family still visible (just barely so) from behind all the hodgepodge.
The picture was in need of a good dusting; that was for sure. Its wooden frame was covered in cobwebs, and a layer of dust covered the plate of glass. Contained beneath was an image of four people: a tall, auburn-haired man with a Greek aquiline nose and a wide grin, a small keen-looking woman with half-moon glasses, Terri as a middle school student wearing dirty sneakers, shorts, and a wrinkled T-shirt, and Amy, still a growing child, gleaming with a missing-toothed grin at the camera while wearing a pink jean jumper, butterflies embroidered on the front.
The picture had been taken nearly fifteen years ago, back when he was a scrawny sixth grader and his sister was still starting elementary school. His parents hadn't arranged for them to have this photo taken; they actually almost never took photos together since cameras back then were expensive and both of his parents, die heart accountants, were patented penny-pinchers. They happened to be at a friend's barbecue, though, and one of their neighbors was eager to get photos of every one. After he had developed the film, he shared a couple copies with Mr. Emory and so he decided, with Mrs. Emory's consul of course, that a frame would be a wise investment.
At least once a month, the Emory's would sit down at the kitchen table with a pot of coffee to share between them, two giant calculators each, and a spread of receipts to go around. They would spend an hour or two altogether, and then once they finished they got some kind of bizarre buzz from the mathematics and headed upstairs. Despite Terri's best attempts to block out this memory, he still could recall their moans of pleasure after they finished their tallies.
Amy was right, though. As he looked around now, he saw a home – if it could still even be called that – which his parents would never have tolerated. His mother was not only meticulous about her budget, but also the state of her house and she cleaned at least two or three times a week, even if it meant coming home from work and exhausting herself before going to bed. He really couldn't even picture how she would react if she were still alive that day.
Sadly, both Terri's father and mother had passed away –Mr. Emory three years earlier from a heart attack and his mother – well, it must have been almost fifteen years since she died, since she was diagnosed with cancer shortly after they had their picture taken at that barbecue. He could easily recall being in the hospital room when she took her last wheezy breath. Despite being only forty years old at the time, her face was covered in spots and her hair was falling out from the chemotherapy. She was hooked up to any number of tubes or monitors at the time. Terri didn't need to hear the long, endless drone of the heart monitor when she died. He felt the pulse leave her hand as he held it in his own; he saw the soul leave her eyes as they slipped shut; he felt his heart drain and his eyes water as he realized his mother was gone.
Terri shook his head slightly and took a shaky breath. He avoided looking at that picture now. He missed both his parents dearly. The older he got, the longer time stretched and passed the dates on their tombstones, the more he felt like he was one of his many lost cell phones, buzzing faintly in the midst of all his crap as Amy accurately referred to it, ringing softer and softer until the battery died and there as nothing left to hear.
He knew Amy was right – deep down in his heart, he knew there was something not right about keeping all this junk. But somehow, he just couldn't throw any of it away. Even the thought of giving something, just one cheap pen with dried ink, just one flattened penny from the zoo, just one puzzle piece from an already incomplete set, gnawed at him horribly.
He could sense his eyes watering and his throat swelling, when suddenly he sputtered with a chuckle. It wasn't the kind of chuckle one gave when one was amused, like at a funny joke or while riding an amusement park ride. Rather, it was harsh and pitiful-sounding, like a farm animal wheezing for air.
"Oh, Laurie," he said to himself, still chuckling weakly. If she could see him now, if she could see his home, the way he lived, would she still tease him for being a neat freak?
Finally, he broke down into sobs and released, if only slightly, the emotional plight he secreted along with his mountains and mountains of things.