My mind kind of shorted out when the 70-year-old woman in Sequim, Washington grabbed a charred swath of cloth off her front lawn, held it in front of her wizened face and shouted, “If you’re the expert on my stuff, then what’s this?” My neurons cast out into the murky waters of memory and snagged some correct answers from pop quizzes of yore: Mitochondrial DNA, Hydrophilic, Diffusion, John Keats, Ten.
This wasn’t good because the woman shouting at me was flanked by a group of nervous looking men in suits who had flown up from one of our company’s California offices to oversee the transition of the job from the corporate office to me. This woman was very wealthy, meaning the company would make a lot of money taking even ten percent of the total value of her things—one of which dangled in front of me and was beginning to resemble the remains of…
“A dress?” I asked in a flat voice to mask the tremble in my throat.
The men in business suits quickly agreed through practiced smiles that, yes, it was a dress. Quite a beautiful dress!
“This isn’t a dress!” the woman shrieked as she flung it onto her lawn and began spreading it out with her cane. The youngest of the men got down on his hands and knees and began helping her. She was silent while the dress was spread and silent while she sorted through a nearby pile of burnt clothing, where she found a beaded sash and tossed it across the dress’s charred waistline.
“Now, tell me….Stephanie?”
“Stephanie, how would you inventory this since you’re the expert.”
I’m not an expert on anything. I know a lot about dinosaurs, but no one who has had their house burn down has needed someone who knew a thing or two about the Apatosaurus or the Cretaceous period. I heard one of the guys clear his throat and another assure her that she was the expert on her stuff and that I was here to make the process easier for her, but I was someplace else. I was picturing having taken different paths in my life, small choices in the moment that would have me standing in a totally different place. Maybe right now I could be a doctor. Maybe right now I could be a painter padding barefoot around my studio wondering where I put the cobalt blue. Maybe right now I could be flat on my stomach digging up dinosaurs. But all the choices I’d made in my life had led to me standing exactly where I was: in some rich lady’s lawn telling her how I’d describe a burnt piece of cloth.
“Well, I’d note that it was a high-end gown, I’d look at the tag and record what it was made of and who it was made by— "
“This is a balloon bottom dress! I wore it to La Scala in Milan! Don’t you know what a balloon bottom is?”
I could have been a million things, at least that’s what my parents said, and I believed them. Now the sum total of my worth, at least for this woman, hinged on whether I knew what a balloon bottom was. I didn’t. I also didn’t give a shit, and I had a lot more to contribute to the world than the ability to recognize one. But the woman didn’t know or care about this. She’d hired me hoping I could prattle off spaghetti-strapped, pleated, and houndstooth. Part of me hated her and part of me didn’t blame her. Part of me also looked at the lower half of the dress and saw that it looked rather like a deflated air balloon. One that caught fire.
“It’s not just extremely expensive, it’s irreplaceable!” The woman started crying. “And, my husband, who’s dead, whose ashes are in there …” she flung the end of her cane toward the hole in the ground where her house once stood, “… had it specially made for me. Now, how would you know that?”
“I wouldn’t,” I said. “You would tell me. That’s how this works.” Thankfully, right then, the men escorted the woman over to a private conference by a pile of her burnt cookbooks, and I could let some tears that had welled in my eyes fall to the ground in relative privacy. After a couple minutes, one of the guys came over and said they were taking her to lunch to explain the process. He pulled me close and whispered, “This crazy bitch doesn’t want you touching any of her clothes while she’s gone. I mean, seriously, don’t touch them. But she said her husband had all these gold coins…so you could look for those. Or you can break for lunch.”
I spent the next minute of my life trying to imagine what gold coins looked like after they were in a house fire and then five more kicking my foot around in the ash looking for them. I found some anti-embolism stockings and an unopened three pack of men’s underwear. I took a photograph of myself retrieving the men’s underwear from the ash and texted it to my new girlfriend along with the message “this is what I do for a living,” and then I went to lunch.
I decided on a Mexican restaurant because I didn’t see any cars in the parking lot which meant the guys and the balloon-bottomed dress weren’t there. I ordered a margarita and chips, and when my waiter asked what I was doing in town, I told him I was looking for gold coins. He looked at me funny, but it was the goddamn truth. All roads I’d taken in my life had led me to Sequim, Washington to look for gold coins. Melted ones.
When I returned to my temporary place of employment, no one was there. It was just me and a big hole in the ground that used to be a woman’s home. I grabbed a rake and climbed down into it in search of someone else’s treasure. The hole started perhaps in the Pleistocene epoch and faded with a slight difference in soil colorization into the entire history of modern humans and was dusted with a thin layer of ash that would be documented only by me, then carried away by the wind. I raised my rake and plunged its tines. I raked and raked. When the dust cleared I found two circular metal pieces. Gold! I bent down and scraped away the blackish smudge and stacked them carefully on a rock. A half hour later I had found five more and was almost having fun when I looked up and saw a man standing at the edge of the hole, carrying a cooler. He looked a lot like the woman only younger and with bluer eyes.
“Hey,” he said.
“Hi, can I help you?” I asked nervously like I was the proprietor of this mess and he was about to rob it or worse.
The man swung a rifle to the edge of the hole and said, “I’m Dan, Jean’s son. I thought you should have this gun because there are a lot of mountain lions around here. Do you know how to shoot?”
“Yeah,” I lied as I climbed out of the hole and into the driveway.
“Cool,” he said, and laid the rifle against my rental car. He shoved his hand with the wedding ring on it into his pocket and reached his other hand into the cooler and put a beer in front of my face.
I did. In fact, I not only wanted a beer, part of me wanted to fuck Jean’s son just so I could claim that I’d touched something she valued without her consent.
“No, I’m fine,” I lied.
Dan hung around for another ten minutes swigging his beer while I pretended to busy myself with my Dictaphone, then my iPhone. Finally he gave up, kicked the rifle on his way to his pickup and said, “I’ll be back in a bit. Don’t be afraid to use that gun.”
I was relieved when Dan left but also alone. And now afraid of mountain lions. I forced myself to go back into the hole to look for more gold, but I was at the whim of my surging adrenaline. I started to hear growls between my raking. I stopped and held the rake in the air to make sure it was just the wind blowing through the pines, through the tines. I continued raking. Rake. Rake. Growl. Rake. Rake. Rake. Growl? Finally convinced that my life was in danger, I threw down the rake, scrambled out of the hole, ran for the gun and locked myself in my car faster than any human had ever done so on that particular spot on Earth.
My breath fogged the windshield. When I wiped it off and stared through it, I was certain I saw a cougar-like form stalking the edge of the hole. I put the rifle in the passenger seat and pushed the automatic door lock three times just to be sure. Where was Dan? Where were Jean and the guys? Where was anybody? All the turns and not turns of my life had lead me to this moment—sitting in a rental car with a loaded gun I couldn’t shoot at a mountain lion that probably wasn’t there.
Five years earlier, I was working on a popular reality show. Before the holiday break, the executive producer pulled me into his office and said to call him in January because he was moving to another show and wanted to bring me with him and make me a producer. I bragged about it to family and friends. I think I even bought a blazer. When I was back in Los Angeles, I called him but the line got all fuzzy when he answered.
“Hello? Hello?” He’d said. “HELL-O-O-O? Who is this?”
I told him it was me several times then hung up, and feeling nervous and embarrassed, waited a week before I rang him again. I called him from a laundromat because it seemed less scary to crowd the phone call with the sounds of strangers instead of the silence of my apartment and hope.
“Hi Todd, it’s me…”
“Hello? Who? I can’t hear you. Hello?”
The line crackled and got fuzzy, so I hung up and never called him again. I convinced myself he had changed his mind about me. But quite possibly the only reason I’m not a reality TV producer right now is because of bad phone reception. I think I’d hate being a reality producer, though. I’d rather have the freedom to document people’s lives as I see them instead of getting network notes to cut and paste their thoughts, splice their boring humanity with B roll footage of them doing something dramatic.
I reclined my seat and waited for the script to unfold as it would. However boring. However dramatic. However scary. I drifted off to sleep and dreamed my father had pulled his RV over so he could go pee in the woods and then got chased by a mountain lion. My mother and I watched helplessly from our seats as my father became a cartoonish India ink silhouette of a man running up a mountain with a large cat behind him. Just when a band of wild horses started to surround our RV, I awoke to the buzz of my phone. It was the adjuster letting me know that Jean had decided to do her own inventory. I was fired from the job. And that was that. As I was pulling out of Jean’s driveway, I stopped the car. I seriously considered getting out and touching as many of her clothes as possible—the ones closest to the car and furthest from whatever it was that I was afraid of.