House for Sale
There’d been a storm that evening in St. Louis. Water was standing in steaming black pools on the pavement outside the airport, and from the back seat of my taxi I could see oak limbs shifting against low-hanging urban clouds. The Saturday-night roads were saturated with a feeling of afterness, of lateness—the rain wasn’t falling, it had already fallen.
My mother’s house, in Webster Groves, was dark except for a lamp on a timer in the living room. Letting myself inside, I went directly to the liquor shelf and poured the hammer of a drink I’d been promising myself since before the first of my two flights. I had a Viking sense of entitlement to whatever provisions I could plunder. I was about to turn forty, and my older brothers had entrusted me with the job of traveling to Missouri and choosing a realtor to sell the house. For as long as I was in Webster Groves, doing work on behalf of the estate, the liquor shelf would be mine. Mine! Ditto the air-conditioning, which I set frostily low. Ditto the kitchen freezer, which I found it necessary to open immediately and get to the bottom of, hoping to discover some breakfast sausages, some homemade beef stew, some fatty and savory thing that I could warm up and eat before I went to bed. My mother had been good about labeling food with the date she’d frozen it. Beneath multiple bags of cranberries I found a package of small-mouth bass that a fisherman neighbor had caught three years earlier. Underneath the bass was a nine-year-old beef brisket.
I went through the house and stripped the family photos out of every room. I’d been looking forward to this work almost as much as to my drink. My mother had been too attached to the formality of her living room and dining room to clutter them with snapshots, but elsewhere each windowsill and each tabletop was an eddy in which inexpensively framed photos had accumulated. I filled a shopping bag with the haul from the top of her TV cabinet. I picked another bag’s worth from a wall of the family room, as from an espaliered fruit tree. Many of the pictures were of grandchildren, but I was represented in them, too—here flashing an orthodontic smile on a beach in Florida, here looking hungover at my college graduation, here hunching my shoulders on my ill-starred wedding day, here standing three feet away from the rest of my family during an Alaskan vacation that my mother, toward the end, had spent a substantial percentage of her life savings to take us on. The Alaskan picture was so flattering to nine of us that she’d applied a blue ballpoint pen to the eyes of the tenth, a daughter-in-law, who’d blinked for the photo and who now, with her misshapen ink-dot eyes, looked quietly monstrous or insane.
I told myself that I was doing important work by depersonalizing the house before the first realtor came to see it. But if somebody had asked me why it was also necessary, that same night, to pile the hundred-plus pictures on a table in the basement and to rip or slice or pry or slide each photo out of its frame, and then dump all the frames into shopping bags, and stow the shopping bags in cabinets, and shove all the photos into an envelope, so that nobody could see them—if somebody had pointed out my resemblance to a conqueror burning the enemy’s churches and smashing its icons—I would have had to admit that I was relishing my ownership of the house.
I was the only person in the family who’d had a full childhood here. As a teenager, when my parents were going out, I’d counted the seconds until I could take temporary full possession of the house, and as long as they were gone I was sorry they were coming back. In the decades since, I’d observed the sclerotic buildup of family photographs resentfully, and I’d chafed at my mother’s usurpation of my drawer and closet space, and when she’d asked me to clear out my old boxes of books and papers, I’d reacted like a house cat in whom she was trying to instill community spirit. She seemed to think she owned the place.
Which, of course, she did. This was the house where, five days a month for ten months, while my brothers and I were going about our coastal lives, she had come home alone from chemotherapy and crawled into bed. The house from which, a year after that, in early June, she had called me in New York and said she was returning to the hospital for more exploratory surgery, and then had broken down in tears and apologized for being such a disappointment to everyone and giving us more bad news. The house where, a week after her surgeon had shaken his head bitterly and sewn her abdomen back up, she’d grilled her most trusted daughter-in-law on the idea of an afterlife, and my sister-in-law had confessed that, in point of sheer logistics, the idea seemed to her pretty far-fetched, and my mother, agreeing with her, had then, as it were, put a check beside the item “Decide about afterlife” and continued down her to-do list in her usual pragmatic way, addressing other tasks that her decision had rendered more urgent than ever, such as “Invite best friends over one by one and say goodbye to them forever.” This was the house from which, on a Saturday morning in July, my brother Bob had driven her to her hairdresser, who was Vietnamese and affordable and who greeted her with the words “Oh, Mrs. Fran, Mrs. Fran, you look terrible,” and to which she’d returned, an hour later, to complete her makeover, because she was spending long-hoarded frequent-flyer miles on two first-class tickets, and first-class travel was an occasion for looking her best, which also translated into feeling her best; she came down from her bedroom dressed for first class, said goodbye to her sister, who had traveled from New York to ensure that the house would not be empty when my mother walked away from it—that someone would be left behind—and then went to the airport with my brother and flew to the Pacific Northwest for the rest of her life. Her house, being a house, was enough slower in its dying to be a zone of comfort to my mother, who needed something larger than herself to hold on to but didn’t believe in supernatural beings. Her house was the heavy (but not infinitely heavy) and sturdy (but not everlasting) God that she’d loved and served and been sustained by, and my aunt had done a very smart thing by coming when she did.
But now we needed to put the place on the market in a hurry. We were already a week into August, and the house’s best selling point, the counterbalance to its many defects (its tiny kitchen, its negligible back yard, its too-small upstairs bathroom), was its situation in the Catholic school district attached to the church of Mary, Queen of Peace. Given the quality of the Webster Groves public schools, I didn’t understand why a family would pay extra to live in this district in order to then pay further extra for schooling by nuns, but there were a lot of things I didn’t understand about being Catholic. According to my mother, Catholic parents from all over St. Louis eagerly awaited listings in the district, and families in Webster Groves had been known to pull up stakes and move just one or two blocks to get inside its boundaries.
Unfortunately, once the school year started, three weeks from now, young parents wouldn’t be so eager. I felt some additional pressure to help my brother Tom, the executor of the estate, to finish his work quickly. I felt a different kind of pressure from my other brother, Bob, who had urged me to remember that we were talking about real money. (“People knock $782,000 down to $770,000 when they’re negotiating, they think it’s basically the same number,” he’d told me. “Well, no, in fact, it’s twelve thousand dollars less. I don’t know about you, but I can think of a lot of things I’d rather do with twelve thousand dollars than give it to the stranger who’s buying my house.”) But the really serious pressure came from my mother, who, before she died, had made it clear that there was no better way to honor her memory and validate the last decades of her life than to sell the house for a shocking amount of money.
Counting had always been a comfort to her. She wasn’t a collector of anything except Danish Christmas china and mint plate blocks of U.S. postage, but she maintained lists of every trip she’d ever taken, every country she’d set foot in, every one of the “Wonderful (Exceptional) European Restaurants” she’d eaten in, every operation she’d undergone, and every insurable object in her house and her safe-deposit box. She was a founding member of a penny-ante investment club called Girl Tycoons, whose portfolio’s performance she tracked minutely. In the last two years of her life, as her prognosis worsened, she’d paid particular attention to the sale price of other houses in our neighborhood, writing down their location and square footage. On a sheet of paper marked Real Estate guide for listing property at 83 Webster Woods, she’d composed a sample advertisement the way someone else might have drafted her own obituary:
Two story solid brick three bedroom center hall colonial home on shaded lot on cul de sac on private street. There are three bedrooms, living room, dining room with bay, main floor den, eat-in kitchen with new G.E. dishwasher, etc. There are two screened porches, two wood-burning fireplaces, two car attached garage, security burglary and fire system, hardwood floors throughout and divided basement.
At the bottom of the page, below a list of new appliances and recent home repairs, was her final guess about the house’s worth: “1999—Est. value $350,000.00+.” This figure was more than ten times what she and my father had paid for the place in 1965. The house not only constituted the bulk of her assets but was by far the most successful investment she’d ever made. I wasn’t a ten times happier person than my father, her grandchildren weren’t ten times better educated than she was. What else in her life had done even half so well as real estate?
“It’ll sell the house!” my father had exclaimed after he built a little half-bathroom in our basement. “It’ll sell the house!” my mother had said after she paid a contractor to redo our front walkway in brick. She repeated the phrase so many times that my father lost his temper and began to enumerate the many improvements he’d made, including the new half-bathroom, which she evidently thought would not sell the house; he wondered aloud why he’d bothered working every weekend for so many years when all it took to “sell the house” was buying a new brick walkway! He refused to have anything to do with the walkway, leaving it to my mother to scrub the moss off the bricks and to chip away gently at the ice in winter. But after he’d spent half a month of Sundays installing decorative moldings in the dining room, mitering and spackling and painting, he and she both stood and admired the finished work and said, over and over, with great satisfaction, “It’ll sell the house.”
“It’ll sell the house.”
“It’ll sell the house.”
Long past midnight, I turned off the lights downstairs and went up to my bedroom, which Tom and I had shared until he went away to college. My aunt had done some cleaning before she went back to New York, and I had now taken away all the family pictures, and the bedroom looked ready to show to buyers. The dressertops and desktop were clear; the grain of the carpeting was neatly scalloped from my aunt’s vacuuming of it; the twin beds had a freshly made look. And so I was startled, when I peeled back my bedspread, to find something on the mattress by my pillow. It was a bundle of postage stamps in little waxed-paper envelopes: my mother’s old collection of plate blocks.
The bundle was so radiantly out of place here that the back of my neck began to tingle, as if I might turn around and see my mother still standing in the doorway. She was clearly the person who’d hidden the stamps. She must have done it in July, as she was getting ready to leave the house for the last time. Some years earlier, when I’d asked her if I could have her old plate blocks, she’d said I was welcome to whatever was left when she died. And possibly she was afraid that Bob, who collected stamps, would appropriate the bundle for himself, or possibly she was just checking items off her to-do list. But she’d taken the envelopes from a drawer in the dining room and moved them upstairs to the one place I would most likely be the next person to disturb. Such micromanagerial prescience! The private message that the stamps represented, the complicit wink in her bypassing of Bob, the signal arriving when the sender was dead: it wasn’t the intimate look that Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty exchange in Bonnie and Clyde an instant before they’re both shot dead, but it was as close to intimate as my mom and I were going to get. Finding the bundle now was like hearing her say, “I’m paying attention to my details. Are you paying attention to yours?”
The three realtors I interviewed the next day were as various as three suitors in a fairy tale. The first was a straw-haired, shiny-skinned woman from Century 21 for whom it appeared to be a struggle to say nice things about the house. Each room came as a fresh disappointment to her and her strongly cologned male associate; they conferred in low voices about “potential” and “additions.” My mother was a bartender’s daughter who never finished college, and her taste was what she liked to call Traditional, but it seemed to me unlikely that the other houses on Century 21’s list were decorated in substantially better taste. I was annoyed by the realtor’s failure to be charmed by my mother’s Parisian watercolors. The realtor, however, was comparing our quaint little kitchen with the hangarlike spaces in newer houses. If I wanted to list with her, she said, she would suggest asking between $340,000 and $360,000.
The second realtor, a handsome woman named Pat who was wearing an elegant summer suit, was the friend of a good family friend of ours and came highly recommended. She was accompanied by her daughter, Kim, who was in business with her. As the two of them moved from room to room, stopping to admire precisely the details that my mother had been proudest of, they seemed to me two avatars of Webster Groves domesticity. It was as if Pat were thinking of buying the house for Kim; as if Kim would soon be Pat’s age and, like Pat, would want a house where everything was quiet and the fabrics and furniture were all just right. Child replacing parent, family succeeding family, the cycle of suburban life. We sat down together in the living room.
“This is a lovely, lovely home,” Pat said. “Your mother kept it up beautifully. And I think we can get a good price for it, but we have to act fast. I’d suggest listing it at three hundred fifty thousand, putting an ad in the paper on Tuesday, and having an open house next weekend.”
“And your commission?”
“Six percent,” she said, looking at me steadily. “I know several people who would be very interested right now.”
I told her I would let her know by the end of the day.
The third realtor burst into the house an hour later. Her name was Mike, she was a pretty, short-haired blonde about my own age, and she was wearing excellent jeans. Her plate was overfull, she said in a husky voice, she was coming from her third open house of the day, but after I’d phoned her on Friday she’d driven over to see our house and had fallen in love with it from the street, its curb appeal was fantastic, she knew she had to see the inside, and, wow, just as she suspected—she was moving hungrily from room to room—it was adorable, it was dripping with charm, she liked it even better from the inside, and she would love love love love love to be the one to get to sell it, in fact if the upstairs bathroom weren’t so small she might even go as high as $405,000, this neighborhood was so hot, so hot—I knew about the Mary, Queen of Peace school district, right?—but even with the problematic bathroom and the regrettably tiny back yard she wouldn’t be surprised if the house sold in the three-nineties, plus there were other things she could do for me, her basic commission was five and a half percent, but if the buyer’s agent was from her group, she could knock that down to five, and if she herself was the buyer’s agent she could knock it all the way down to four, my God, she loved what my mother had done, she’d known it as soon as she’d seen it from the street, she wanted this house bad—“Jon, I want it bad,” she said, looking me in the eye—and, by the way, just as a matter of fact, not to brag, truly, but she’d been number one in residential real estate in Webster Groves and Kirkwood for three years running.
Mike excited me. The sweat-damp front of her blouse, the way she strode in her jeans. She was flirting with me broadly, admiring the size of my ambitions, comparing them favorably to her own (though hers were not insubstantial), holding my gaze, and talking nonstop in her lovely husky voice. She said she totally got why I wanted to live in New York. She said it was rare that she met somebody who understood, as I obviously did, about desire, about hunger. She said she’d price the house between $380,000 and $385,000 and hope to start a bidding war. As I sat there, watching her gush, I felt like a Viking.
It shouldn’t have been so hard to make the call to Pat, but it was. She seemed to me a mom I had to disappoint, a mom in the way, a nagging conscience. She seemed to know things about me and about the house—realistic things—that I wished she didn’t. The look she’d given me when she’d named her commission had been skeptical and appraising, as if any responsible adult could see that she and her daughter were obviously the best agents for the job, but she wasn’t sure if I could see it myself.
I waited until 9:30, the last possible minute, before I called her. Just as I’d feared, she didn’t hide her surprise and displeasure. Did I mind if she asked who the other realtor was?
I was conscious of the taste and shape of Mike’s name as it passed through my mouth.
“Oh,” Pat said wearily. “OK.”
Mike wouldn’t have been my mother’s type either, not one bit. I told Pat that the decision had been a very hard one, a really difficult choice, and that I was grateful that she’d come over and sorry that she and I weren’t going to be—
“Well, good luck,” she said.
After that, I got to make the fun call, the Yes-I’m-free-on-Friday-night call. Mike, at home, confided to me in a low voice, as if to keep her husband from hearing, “Jon, I knew you’d go with me. I felt the connection between us right away.” The only slight complication, she said, was that she had long-standing vacation plans with her husband and children. She was leaving town on Friday and wouldn’t be able to start showing the house until the very end of the month. “But don’t worry,” she said.
Excerpted from The Discomfort Zone: A Personal History by Jonathan Franzen. Copyright © 2006 by Jonathan Franzen. Published in September 2006 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.