The old professor had been out of the country, so I had to wait a few days before I was officially allowed to proceed. The realtor had left me with the a code to open the house, so I drove back and planted myself there with my cell phone the day the old professor was due back. That way, I figured, I could get started the moment he uttered the first sound of approval. Before I called, I ran-through a few different ways to explain, tactfully, that his home décor was so violently abominable that no potential buyer would make it past the "unique four-season entry room" before rearing back all the way to his car as if struck. As I paced around waiting to call I found myself rearing back mentally from nearly every stimuli--I wrenched my head away from a green wooden figurine of a Christmas tree only to land my sights on a pastel-colored poster of flowers advertising a women's poetry series, only to pull back to a dun-colored velveteen-clad sliding rocker…The experience was comparable to being attacked by a circle of thugs--every time you leapt back either in response to or to avoid a blow, you inevitably landed within striking distance of another attacker. Finally, I found myself immobile in the center of the room, looking down at my cell phone and trying to temper my adrenalin enough to sound sane.
"People aren't coming because the house looks outdated. And it's too cluttered. "
The best way to say it, I figured, was with brutal objectivity. People were less offended, I reasoned, by a firm blurting of something rather than a delicately phrased and re-phrased delivery. The latter would make it appear as if I knew I was delivering hurtful news, while the former would make it appear as if I were stating a elemental fact, beyond the range of what tact can temper. The weatherman doesn't try to soften the blow of a bad forecast.
"A homebuyer wants to be able to envision himself living here but your décor is simply too distinct. It gives such a distinct impression that no one can imagine living here. We need to deal with that first. "
"Really? I guess I could see that…I know I love books but I guess I need to acknowledge that not everyone does."
"It's not that" I began, emboldened by his pliability, "it's that the books are too chaotic to the eye. They overwhelm the rooms."
I tried not to get into the specifics of my criticism, knowing that all I needed was to secure permission and hammering home my disgust was unnecessary. There was, however, a part of me that wanted more than just a passive agreement. I wanted to see if he understood. Did he see the problem and had simply been too overwhelmed to cope with it? Or did he truly not see--could it be this was news to him?
"The place looks old. The T.V., the clocks…" I said, choking myself back from elaborating, hoping against hope that he would interrupt with a statement or a confession that he got it, something like "yeah, I hear you. I hit some hard times and I guess I let those old and ugly things just ride roughshod over me ."
Instead, he responded with "Do you want that TV? It works great. Maybe you'd want it for your place?"
After I demurred, probably too forcefully, he asked what I proposed.
"Well, there's three levels. Level one is I merely rearrange your belongings . Level two, I rearrange your belongings and get a small budget--200 or 300 dollars--and buy a few key items to update it. Level three, we move out the books and bookshelves and perhaps repaint."
I went on to explain the sublevels of these levels, and with every murmur of attentiveness, I'd elaborate more and more, far beyond what was needed to make such a simple proposal. But I was so certain of the helpfulness of my advice--and so certain of the benefit of carrying out the "levels"--that I simply wanted to luxuriate in explaining as long as I could. Finally, he broke in with "I think we should try a combination between level two and level one."
I was particularly pleased that he referenced the levels in his response. My mind's eye was becoming so powerful that not only could I envision the house revived, but I apparently could also create "levels" solid enough to which another person could refer.
Driving back, after an intense shopping trip to Target and Big Lots, it seemed that I had lost all concept of my original goal. As I drove towards the house, $200 dollars poorer but with the promise of reimbursement, the 3K check that should have been looming in my mind had been replaced by the thought of the serene and contemporary space I was going to create out of sheer will. No longer was I thinking about actual buyers, or real estate websites, or being three thousand dollars richer. All I could think of was shoving figurines out of site, removing books from the shelves to create accent nooks, and rolling out the new bamboo rug over a discolored patch of wall-to-wall carpeting.
When I arrived, I typed in the code and bolted into the foyer to do a quick reassessment before bringing in my bounty from the car. I looked on approvingly at the changes I had already made, and felt my ire rising as I looked at objects that had gone untouched in the first round. An arm chair looked as if it had hunkered more deeply down into its dent in the carpet, as if smug at being spared. A photograph of an overstuffed library (a postmodern touch--the place was an overstuffed library!) had permitted another day of sun to bleach the wall around it. Hopefully they didn't get the false impression that they could look forward to another thirty years of uninterrupted existence.
Anxious as I was to assert myself on each of these blithe and noxious objects, I felt myself hesitate. I had such a firm image in mind of what I wanted to create, that I almost felt offended that I had to go through the legwork to make it happen. Wasn't the vision powerful enough? Did I really have to deign to touch these items? A fatigue came over me--suddenly the supreme rightness of my vision seemed like a burden. Maybe all visionaries feel the same impatience with living through the present to get to a future of which they're already sure. As I began the dull labor of hoisting up objects, of carefully walking down the basement stairs, of yanking books off shelves, it seemed like I was fulfilling an obligation to time. The past of the décor was set, and its future was just as certain. But to satisfy time and its stubborn insistence on continuity, I had to go through the motions of creating the link between past and future with my own sweat. I resented that.
I was also getting nervous. I kept peering out the windows, expecting to be interrupted. Though I had permission to be there, the realtor had asked me to call him and tell him when I was going to be working so he wouldn't interrupt me. I purposely ignored this courtesy. Any moment now the realtor could appear, the neighbors could appear asking who I was, some serviceman might appear thinking I owned the place. I became more and more agitated at each car I heard out the window. I could not be interrupted at this critical time. It was as if I created the threat of interruption just to add another level of gravity and intensity to my task. At the same time, I felt a kind of exhilaration each time a car went by and didn’t turn in. I had the breathless feeling I was getting away with something.
There was certainly a criminal air to my redecorating. I was doing it quickly--scuttling here and there as if loading up on booty in a department store after hours. I was also handling objects like a breaker-and-enterer. It took every ounce of my will not to shove things aside too violently, not to slam plastic clocks into the drawer so hard their gears flew out, not to hear the "ding" of agony from an ancient phone dropped from a great height. Occasionally, I gave into whatever monstrous part of my nature had taken over, and felt a thrill when I "accidentally" banged a rocking chair into a doorjamb.
The more closely I became involved in moving tiny objects, the more daunting things became. Walking into the place, I experienced an intuitive recoil from the interior as a whole. But by trying to fix it, I had to become painfully intimate with every little thing that was wrong. The figurines themselves were not the only ones to blame for their ugliness. The way they were angled, the shadows that fell on them, how badly they played against other objects…I saw it all. It was like looking at a lesion or a sore, wincing, and then being forced to look at it under a microscope. The close-up of swarming bacteria, though smaller than the lesion itself, seems an infinite vista of infliction. Insurmountable in its dominion over the tiny and unseen. So it was with the details of the décor. The more nooks and crannies I tried to fix, the more aware I was of just how deep the ugliness ran. Behind every figurine there was a rich context to support its tackiness--a room that seconded it with plaid pillows, mini-blinds, blotchy carpet, a place in the weak yellow spotlight of a kindred floorlamp.
Order and beauty--two things my mind never had an excess of--now depended on me as their sole representative. It was like being the ambassador of a country from which you are an exile. Even so, the place was coming together. So much had been moved, shoved aside, hidden from sight, that the things that remained began to reach a kind of visual truce, much like a few castoffs on an island would eventually break down and work together. The couch, once so oppressively leathern and heavy, had become more neutral without the support of the five rocking and lounge chairs that once circled it. Now, it pitched in to create a pleasing relationship with the only chair left. Other objects--like two red vases--seemed to eagerly pick up on the new spirit of the place. They shed their past as citizens of hideousness and assimilated into the new order as if they had never been anything but tasteful accents.
Though the place was much improved, I couldn't enjoy it. I became obsessed with the tiny deviations from what was in my mind's eye. It was like overlaying a transparency on an image and the two not quite lining up. It was like a cap that seemed to fit but never quite stayed down. It was like a phrase that begged for a word you didn't know and thought you did. It was a representative of everything that wasn’t quite right and the grand frustration those "almosts" seemed to revel in producing. Great ugliness, mediocrity, wrong--those things never bothered me as much as that which stubbornly sets up shop on the verge of beauty, right, the sublime…Why is it that everything falls short so close to the mark?
(A favorite touch.)
But surely, with another's day time, I could get close enough. Some of those books still needed rearranging, There was finishing flourishes that would create an ultimate coherence, and an ultimate break with the décor's past…It was with these idealistic thoughts that I finally packed up and headed off to teach.
When I got to school,. I checked my email to wind down from the intensity of the day. I was surprised to see the address of the house in a subject line of an email from the old professor.
"Great news!" The email began obliviously, "There's been an offer on the house! I think I'm going to take it!"
I felt suddenly flushed--panicked--the house was going to sell out from under me! While my horror should have been due to the fact that now my compensation was unclear, the heat and panic came from the certainty I would never finish. Never would I get the chance to clear the bookshelf in the study and set up the bowls and candles I had set aside. Never would I get to freshen up the bathroom sinks with minimalist stacks of soap, like mini Donald Judd installments. The could've beens, should've beens were followed by a rush of possessiveness.
It seems there were visits to the house over the last couple days. People had been there, and walked through the house in this most vulnerable period of transition. Who the hell did they think they were? The thought of that blustery realtor and a stampede of interested buyers stomping through the house disturbed me. Did they have any idea what they could have been clomping through, the might-have-been the old realtor was so absurdly talking up?
From this point on, the absurdities and ironies piled up and up until they were about as overdone and ornate as the décor once was. The money situation worked out okay--I offered to help the professor move out for a fair price. However, this put me in the heartbreaking situation of having to see the new owners' response to my handiwork. As they strolled through what would soon be theirs, I was horrified to hear them comment fondly on the carpet that was now gone:
"There was a beautiful red carpet in this room in the photo," the women remarked as she looked out at the new living room--the very room I had got closest to the ideal. Nothing about her expression registered the slightest pleasure at the space I created. Instead, she merely looked puzzled and slightly disappointed that room was so bereft of ugliness.
The old professor made some mention of my redecorating. "Oh…" She looked at me with a gentle pity, as if my "redecorating" was cute only in that it was so amusingly misguided.
"Well, it looks nice."
The new owners went on to offer to buy half the stuff in the house, even going so far as to search down the now banished figurines to comment on how adorable they were and to ask if they too could be bought.
From then on, my job was to systematically dismantle my own unfinished creation. Now and then, as I was packing up books , I would pause and arrange them just so, just for its own sake. I tried to tell myself that what I had done was a triumph of art for art's sake, that my whole effort was made more pure by the fact it was never appreciated. The problem was, though, that I had enough experience with private, pointless obsessions that I justified as art-for-art's-sake. This was supposed to be my big chance to break from all that and become the calculating--perhaps even slightly shady--deal-maker I knew I could be. I had tried faking being a decorator, but quickly found myself in the obscure, outermost reaches of the redecorating experience. I had become intimate with the decorator's world of miniscule triumphs against the oppressiveness of objects. If this is fakery, it is the useless kind--I seem to be capable of faking the private passions and petty obsessions of other fields, but none of their practical purposes.