Marci Burdy was a plump woman with long grey hair that she wore in a loose ponytail on the crown of her head. The high ponytail implied a kind of Cyndi Lauper carefree, ready-to-party vibe, but Marci had narrowly survived breast cancer, she seemed riddled with ADHD and some biochemical issue, and her house just burned down. She was the opposite of ready-to-party.
The Burdys were emu farmers and temporarily living in a cramped RV on the corner of their property so they could watch over the birds. My plan had been to collect some lists Marci had been making that detailed their belongings, then to spend maybe a day or so tramping around the roofless remains of their home documenting what I could from the ash. Maybe I’d pet an emu. Simple enough. But when I stepped into their RV and shook Marci’s hand and asked for the lists, she yanked her hand to her forehead and let out a shrill wail. I looked at my palm to see if I had something sharp in there. Her reaction was that confusing. Then I looked to her husband Bill to see whether this was normal behavior. Bill didn’t seem the slightest bit embarrassed, just weary, so I knew it was.
Marci turned around and lunged at a desk covered in loose papers (lists?) and began tossing them into the air and batting at them as they fluttered to the floor. Red splotches bloomed on her face and her grey ponytail gyrated around her head like the propeller of helicopter about to crash. I stood stock still on their small welcome mat, like it was some kind of flotation device amidst this turbulent breakdown. Bill hung his head and muttered through clenched teeth, “Not now Marci, not now.” When Marci began to pound her fist on the table he pounded his fist harder, louder, and said “No!”
“Oh, Bill!” She howled, then began sobbing. “Get uh-waay from me!” Bill shook his head and turned to me, putting his hands up in the air as if to say I don’t know what to tell ya. I was already a member of this dysfunctional family, and I’d only been in the RV for a minute. I felt like a grown kid who’d been away from home long enough to forget how her parents fought but had come back to find herself right smack dab in the middle of the ruins. But unlike that kid, it was my strange obligation to help these older people solve their problem, which I was realizing wasn’t just the fire, but that fact that Marci was, perhaps, touched by it.
“I tell you what,” I said cautiously. “I’ll go inventory what I can of your home, and you guys can get your stuff together.” To make sure they didn’t take “stuff” the wrong way, I bent over and began picking up loose papers and piling them in a neat stack on Marci’s cluttered table, as if she’d just dropped some loose leaf and didn’t have a million loose leafs fluttering about in her head.
Sometimes I think my job isn’t so much inventorying people’s messes but ignoring them. An elderly man once walked in on me counting a drawer full of his dusty penis pumps. When we both realized what I was doing, I directed his gaze to his mattress and inquired as to whether it was a king or a California King. I’ve jimmied a client’s partially-melted dishwasher with a steak knife and began inventorying the contents: a high-heeled shoe, dozens of plastic grocery sacks, assorted pens and pencils and one crumpled-up poem. Once, a woman opened her silverware drawer, which rattled with rat turds, to make sure I’d seen her gold-plated pie server. Really, people—including me—seem quite grateful to overlook the obvious and embrace the mundane.
I found a metal rake leaning up against the Burdy’s chimney and began moving it across ashen clumps. The sound of whatever human thing was happening in the RV was drowned out by the scraping. I was soon absorbed in the emotionlessness of vinyl and ceramics. The detachment of made-in-China. The meaninglessness of fringed pillows.
An hour passed, or maybe two, before I caught sight of Marci coming toward me. She wasn’t feminine and she wasn’t masculine, but she walked like she was stepping through tires. Her brusque, almost military, movement combined with the ditzy flip-flopping of her high ponytail amounted to a confusing ensemble. It was like she was in charge but not in charge at all.
As Marci got nearer, I saw that she clutched a tubular thing. My brief history with her told me to expect the worst, so I imagined she gripped something that would make me want to run, yet paralyze me in shock: A rolled up note telling me I was fired, or, cylindrical notice that said I was bad person who needed to go uh-waay! Instead, she handed me a chilled bottle of organic white peach Honest Tea and told me she hoped I was wearing sunscreen. Next, she plopped down on the ash, her long grey ponytail flopping ridiculously down the exact middle of her face, and began manically digging through the rubble with her bare hands. When she uncovered fragments of her possessions, she playfully blew them off and set them on her thigh, like her former life was a fun sandbox full of forgotten Matchbox cars.
This childlike glee, or perhaps unpiloted flight into mania, put a wildness in her eyes that I didn’t trust. I went about my business measuring and inventorying and glancing over my shoulder, waiting for her to crash. But Marci seemed to thrive in the actual refuse. It was only in the rubble of her mind that she floundered helplessly, unable to say one factual thing about her life, like where she had bought her stove, or the exact location of all those inventory lists she had supposedly been compiling.
Bill always tried to help but it seemed that he was just in the way. The “Freaking gosh darn way! Get the hell outta here, Bill!” Bill usually allowed himself one dramatic hand gesture and clench-jawed condemnation of Marci’s behavior in my presence, then he’d storm off, a defeated man, only to return a short while later, ready to help. I don’t know how or where Bill pressed his refresh button, but he always did.
Despite the regular hysterics, I was fairly certain these two would only be parted by death. They had grown children they spoke of all the time. They’d had fun. I’d found pictures—sooty ones that I’d wiped off to see images of them standing next to historical markers, holding up fish and posed arm in arm, but naturally, as if the photographer had snuck up on their love. Also, Marci seemed to truly care for her husband. Or, maybe I got this idea because she made his lunch everyday. The cancer scare had made her a health freak, and she fixed Bill anti-oxidant rich salads, loaded him with Omega-3 fatty acid supplements, tenderly removed the caps of his Honest Tea. “Bring it on, Cancer! Bring it on, house fire!” she once said giddily while forking a heap of kale and quinoa into her mouth. Bill smiled and raised his glass.
And then there were all the emus. I think that sometimes couples stay together because they share a rare and specific thing, some collective obsession. Over my week’s time with the Burdys, I sat through about two hours worth of emu facts. Did I know that emus are technically ratites and that emu meat is extremely low in fat? That Marci slathers herself in emu oil? That emu young are nurtured by the males? This last fact Marci dispensed with a tender glance toward Bill. Then Bill noted that the females make a beautiful booming sound that males cannot. My mind flashed on several of Marci’s latest histrionics, but Bill blushed like he meant something else, so I found myself picturing their frenzied lovemaking sliding several editions of Emu Today off their bed.
At the end of the week, I had to leave without the lists. Every attempt at getting Marci to find them, or to try and remember what had burned out of existence, seem to threaten her very own. Her body would tremble, she’d sweat, her ponytail would sag. I started to feel like a well-intentioned doctor who bored a hole into a skull to relieve a temporary headache. Marci was happiest sifting through the ash for stuff that never added up to much: “The wing of my garden angel!” and “The lid to my juicer, wow!” or " Hmm… Oh! Change!
As they escorted me toward my car, a frivolous happiness seem to overtake them. This happens every time. I never take it personally. My departure means that people can go back to their lives. Or, some semblance of them.
“Next time you see us, it’ll be a party!” Bill exclaimed. “We’ll get this house rebuilt with a bigger deck and have a barbecue. You like burgers?”
“And beer!” Marci blurted while jumping and clapping, her ponytail flapping.
“Yay! We’ll have burgers and beer and I’ll ride an emu!” I shouted, dopily.
These are the kinds of things people say when they don’t ever plan to see each other again. We all knew this, so they laughed when I said what I always say at the end: “Well, if you’re lucky, you’ll never see me again.”
To be continued.