I'm joking but she runs with it. "Just like the Collyer brothers! Oh, they are the example to keep us going, aren't they? How dreadful, to die in one's home, buried beneath one's belongings." Her speech is measured and correct as she sits surrounded by garbage. I vaguely remember two elderly brothers in New York City found dead in their apartment, buried beneath mountains of clutter.
She's tracing through the book with two fingers, maintaining a running commentary about the Collyers and her own downfall. Image 1 is of a tidy house, no clutter, her dream. Image 2 shows a lot of stuff about, but it's easily walkable. Her fingers stroke lightly across the photos, landing on number 9. She lifts the book, holding it close to examine every corner, every concealed table top in the image. Is her house this bad? Is it worse?
Her father was at Iwo Jima in World War II, his prized possession a large framed newspaper photo of the planting of the flag at Iwo, dated 1945. The once beautiful art deco frame surrounding the faded newsprint is flaking away. Rain and weather have damaged it beyond repair. Linda is proud of her father, thinks her brother might want the picture. "Isn't it something? Do you think it's worth a lot?"
Digging through her woven Colombia bag, she offers a book, scrabbling through pages to find the dedication. "Emilia Rosita Ankasia, in memory of our beloved."
"My daughter," she says proudly, tapping the words with her fingers. "My grandmother was a great lady. She put my name on all of these things so I could have them when she left us. I don't know about antiques, what are they worth?"
I look at the Heisey cobalt bowl, the RS Prussia cream pitcher, the tankard from Germany. "Do you think I'll be able to make a thousand dollar donation to my daughter's hospice?" She holds up a shattered Royal Bayreuth vase, "If I glue it back, what could I get for it?"
It pains me to see her, surrounded by her treasures, so filled with hope. I can tell that the house is full too. The windows are covered, but not with blinds or shades. There are stacked boxes and bags pressing against the glass. Linda sees me looking and explains. "I was sick for so long and now I might have liver failure, but talking to you, it helped me. I got a gift for you. Well I didn't get it, but I thought of you because it's what you said."
She digs through the bags, the clink of glass on metal accompanying her burrowing fingers. A cheap blue mug tumbles out and shatters on the sidewalk. She cries out and gathers the pieces, trying to fit them back together with shaking fingers. "I know I can fix this, I got this for my daughter, she loved this shade of blue."
"What do you want for these things, Linda?" My heart actually aches standing here on this sidewalk, watching her touching her beloved objects, the treasures left from her grandmother, each one threaded to a memory.
"Oh, I have no idea, no idea! It's just that I'm overdrawn at the bank and I need to make a donation to hospice. I called my sister and told her about you coming. She asked if I would get the thousand dollars I wanted for the hospice donation and I said I just don't know, I don't know. What are they worth?"
I don't know what they're worth, except not much. I know furniture and I know collectibles like antique canes and potlids, compasses, opera glasses, eyecups. I don't know what these bits and pieces of old china are worth on the market. I know they're worth nothing close to what she expects.
She gazes up at me, long, salt and pepper hair framing her face, her faded brown eyes beseeching me to help her. I don't know what to say. I don't want these things. I wish I'd never agreed to come. I felt sorry for her, my downfall.
"Oh, here's the present I got for you. Well, you know, I had it, but it is what you said to me this afternoon on the phone." She digs and uncovers a motto plaque, a poorly done calligraphy of sentiment in a cheap frame.
"The Love You Give Will Come Back To You." I never said that, yet that's what it says, this thing she hands me. I can't refuse it. I can't refuse the sentiment. I take it from her hand and ask again what she wants for the three pieces standing in the muddy flower bed.
The question is distressing her. She's hugging herself, clasping and releasing her hands over and over, agitated. "I don't know, I just don't know." I decide to spit it out so I can escape. I can't save all of these people, I can't.
"Linda, if I were at auction and saw these pieces in a box lot, I wouldn't pay more than $20 for them."
"Oh nooooooooo! Oh no, I wouldn't dare part with them for that, they are worth so much more than that, I can't part with them. I don't even think I can let you have them at any price. I just can't let them go."
I'm moving to my car, saying all of the nice getaway things, "call me," "we'll talk again," "it was nice meeting you." But I only want to get back in my car so I can be free of this house of pain, of the clinging, grasping woman my age sitting on the front porch, surrounded by junk, by trash.
I crank up my music and open the sunroof, roll the windows down. The spring air washes me clean, blows away the last vestige of the desperation that passed between us. I swerve into a gas station, roll up next to a dumpster. I've got the plaque in my hand, this sad, trite motto from a woman I don't even know. "The Love You Give Will Come Back To You."
I want to throw it in the dumpster but I can't let go, I can't. That's the thing about these people, these injured, damaged souls who find me over and over. The intrusion is forever. A tiny part of me forever bound to the wounded one. I drop the plaque in the back seat and drive on.