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A Staging by Bonnie Ditlevsen

I’ll be Oregon-bound, baby, once I sell this house.

Once I sell this house and sign the papers and have a yard sale and pack up what’s too precious to sell, I’ll drive west with my six-year-old and four-year-old boys and their car seats and portable DVD players. I’ll cross the Continental Divide and then it’ll be downhill all the way, at least continentally speaking, to Oregon and the Pacific coast.

This house. Too sparse in furnishings, too bland in color, too cluttered with kids’ toys, Lego bits under your bare heel on a stair step, old drawings under twin beds collecting dust bunnies, cheap frying pans and Corelleware filling faux-birch cabinetry in the kitchen. Outside, a yard that has suffered for four years under my—its owner’s—black thumb.

And the showing is in 24 hours. Saturday at 10 a.m.

Deb comes over. My old work friend. I’ve quit the job so as to get this house ready to sell. So far, the decluttering process has stalled. I go to pack a box up with things we own that would never appear in a “staged” house, and I pause, nostalgic. The light blue teddy bear head with the neck and body of a light blue infant blanket. The photo albums from my mother, who died in the late 80s. There is a Polaroid of her from the late 60s wearing a long sleeveless dress made of paper. Fancy paper, mind you, but still…rippable. Dangerous. There are my yearbooks, now as faded as the Polaroid, filled with faces I have since never seen and joys I have never known.

Deb lives on five acres, cans her own spaghetti sauce and salsa out of what she grows in her garden.

“You’ll never be ready for tomorrow at this rate,” she chides. Then she builds four cardboard moving boxes with strapping tape and lines them up in the living room.

“Wow, are you ever fast,” I say.

In Oregon last year, on our week-long “reconnaissance” visit, I snapped a photo of my kids standing on the stump of a Douglas fir tree. The stump was twice as wide as the two of them hugging, and nearly as tall. “See, boys?” I said afterward, once the pictures were printed. “If we move to Oregon, nature will always be bigger than you.”

Deb’s arranged for five high schoolers to come help us. Ten bucks an hour, and they’re here. I’ve bought baby shrubs in buckets that sit outside, and annuals to plant in beds. Three wiry boys wave to me, then follow Deb out to the side of my house, the place she has decided has the least curb appeal. “You’re a corner property!” she told me when I first asked for her help. “Why have you never landscaped?” “Black thumb,” I insisted.

Inside, I meet Andrea and Paul, the two high schoolers Deb has designated as my “interior people.” Paul says he’ll go out to Deb’s truck to retrieve the black-framed mirror she’s lending me for this sale. According to Deb, if you have a mirror right in your entryway, a prospective buyer will receive that subliminal message that she or he already owns and lives in this house. Walking in and seeing yourself right away is everything—according to Deb—because people, at the core, are vain. To sell your house, you have to tap into the buyer’s own vanity. And she knows, because before the five-acre farm, she and her husband bought and sold several different houses, always upgrading. “You upgrade. That’s what you do,” Deb insists.

“Will you come visit me when I live in Oregon?” I ask her.

“Not during the school year,” she says. “Too much going on with the kids’ high school sports.”

“What about in the summer? It’s really nice there, they say. No rain at all.”

“Well, I have to tend the salsa garden. And then there’s canning.” I notice her hands, which are red and rough. She only paints her nails in the wintertime.

Andrea and Paul and I figure out a height for the mirror in my entryway that will be level with the average buyer’s chest and head. A hook goes up and so does the mirror.

“Visualize yourself living in this home!” Andrea chants at Paul. I think they’re dating, or perhaps toying with the idea of it. They lean together and look at their reflection.

Next, Deb’s other mandate: my master bedroom walk-in closet. It is to be decluttered down to only my newest, cutest size 6 clothes and my best footwear. Once I have it pared down to her satisfaction, we are to paint it a brighter color and clean up the trim. Paul is given some cabinets to pack in the kitchen while Andrea shuts my bedroom door and sits on my bed. She will be deciding what items go into the “Yea or Nay” pile.

“You know something?” Andrea says. “Why don’t you just get rid of whatever I tell you is in the Nay pile? If it’s a “Nay” for the showing, it’s gonna be a “Nay” for the rest of the year. Don’t you think?”

Forty-two-year-old me, getting this advice from a sixteen-year-old. She has a point, though. “Okay, sure. I can streamline. How about this?” I hold up a long blue skirt and matching blue-gray speckled blouse.

“Nay. Defintely nay.”

She’s right, of course. If I move to Oregon, I will wear something outdoorsy, something more fun.

“Are you going to be a school secretary out west?” Andrea says, as I show her my various school secretary outfits.

I make a face, then add things to the Nay pile.

In the space of an hour, Andrea has nayed a whole lot of other clothes I would never have had the guts to part with. She hasn’t gone through what I have: two pregnancies, an accordion-like collection of slacks, an alphabet of brassieres, an arsenal of cotton tops fielding infant spit and toddler drool, an array of shoes to support my tired, expanding feet.

The thirty-six hours of labor leading up to my son’s birth in 2000 had me standing there, rocking from side to side in pain, sucking on laughing gas, trying to laugh at this agony, this concept that a human being would be pushing right through and out of me. After an eventual C-section and a week of recovery, I got up to find that there were almond-sized, deep-deep blisters under both heels. They didn’t dissipate for two whole months.

Clothes out of the closet, Paul joins us for a cramped blue taping session in the walk-in.

“Why do you want to move to Oregon?” he asks at one point, fingers fumbling with the tape.

“I just…” How to explain this to these Ohio kids? Nice kids who are everything I’d want my own two kids to grow up to be, but I just can’t stand how flat and boring and predictable Ohio living is? How to say what I want to say without it coming across as insulting to them, that this town, Columbus, Ohio, bores me to death with its scarlet and gray fandom, its lack of any notability outside of Ohio? That everywhere I’ve traveled outside the U.S., people barely know Ohio exists, and if they do, they never mention Columbus? How, when Ohio State loses a football or basketball game, the people in my office are tangibly nasty the whole following day, sometimes even whole week?

“I just want a different backdrop for the three of us,” I say. “You know…mountains and ocean and a different entire scene for me and the boys.”

On our recon trip, I secured their two car seats in the economy tin-can car, then proceeded to take them on a six-day, 1000-mile clockwise loop. The Columbia River Gorge, stopping in Hood River. South along Highway 97 through rolling hayfields cut by deep river gorges all the way down to the high desert area and Bend. Into forested land with dirt access roads on both sides, then up, up, and twisting our way to Crater Lake. Down again, no guardrails where there should have been some, and across the state westward along Highway 138, more of a two-lane country road, that follows the Umpqua River, passing through a town actually called Steelhead. Over the Coast Ranges with their “Elk Crossing” signs to the Pacific coast and the huge sand dunes at Florence, then up to the Sea Lion caves, the harbor at Newport, the cheese factory in Tillamook, and the old cannery town of Astoria. I could feel every nerve ending in my body tingle as I scanned the scenery, taking in all the variety and the hugeness of it. They boys probably watched a Spongebob DVD while I drove and gasped and marveled at all these things you’d never see in the Midwest.

“Come see your new yard,” Deb shouts from the garage doorway. I walk out to an array of geraniums in beds. The three boys are working fast, adding dirt, then flowers, then black mulch.

“You know, your soil is all clay,” one boy comments.

“Ten dollars an hour, Brandon,” Deb says. “Come on, put your back into it.”

“I love it,” I tell them. “Thank you so much. Gosh, it almost makes me not want to sell the house now.”

It’s true. I could stay here and deal with the boredom. I could tell myself that my kids have their friends and that although I’ve quit my job, it’s just as well. I can get another job, right? And I hated that job anyway. I hated the overpaid administrators I worked for, how they had six figures and Lexuses and this smug attitude about their role in the school district. All their meetings I sat in were just a bunch of babble about “achievement” and “benchmarks” and “committee” this and that, while I took notes for the minutes and wondered if these men and women would ever do what they once did—teach actual kids. No, this was a way for them to dodge the year-to-year grind of having to educate the rising generation. I took the secretarial position because I needed the insurance—my cobbled-together part-time jobs just weren’t going to enable me to parent two small kids in the evenings and on weekends. I needed a solid nine-to-five with benefits, and this job provided that. Little did I know that I’d come to hate listening to them form committees to schedule more meetings to form even more committees to “look into the problem.” The problem? It was them. I began to want all of the levies to fail. Then I took a week’s vacation and flew to Oregon and drove around, and knew what I really wanted.

Paul is using my blowdryer to speed up the paint drying on the walls of the walk-in closet while Andrea peels off blue tape, then gets to cleaning the dusty skirting boards.

“Wow, this room is completely transformed,” I say, poking my head in. Why didn’t I declutter when I first moved in here? Oh, yes. I felt I might need that extra ugly blouse or pair of black slacks. I might run out of shirts with shoulders to spit up on.

Deb is reorganizing my living room and making it look as if no child ever set foot in the house. Tonight, my kids and I are sleeping over in Deb’s converted barn so that the showing tomorrow will require no cleanup ahead of time.

“You will come out to see us once we’re settled in Oregon,” I tell her. “Right?”

“We’ll see,” she says, angling my couch parallel to the TV. “You’re not taking this set to Oregon, right?”

“No way. I’m scuttling everything. Why?”

“My kids need a TV in the barn.”

“Alright. Consider it sold.”

“How much you want for it?”

“Deb. Are you freaking kidding me? It’s yours. Just have it.”


Later on, we have pizza boxes everywhere and soda. I’m going through boxes of files, making a huge pile for shredding. I’m telling Andrea and Paul which kid toys are part of the yard sale, and which other ones are “mission critical.”

“Oh my God, a bear with no body!” Andrea says, holding up the light blue teddy-plus-blanket.

“That one’s ‘mission critical.'”

“Elmo’s electric guitar?”

I wince.

“Dumpster pile. I wouldn’t wish that thing on my worst enemy.”

This goes on until nine p.m. I pay everybody out of a stack of twenties and tens in a bank envelope. Deb is exhausted. She cleared out my entire basement and cleaned the dryer filter and behind the furnace and water tank, places I never bothered even to think of. She dabs at her nostrils with a tissue then stacks up empty pizza boxes.

“We’ll take off now. You come back tomorrow on your own and set up that walk-in closet. It means everything that it looks just right. I’ll give you those flower arrangements I was telling you about for the dining table and kitchen counter.”

“Can I have a beer at your house?”

She finally cracks a smile. “You and I are going to have several at my house.”


The next morning I leave the salsa farm and head back to my neighborhood. I’ll miss these people. I’ll miss Deb. It took forever to make connections as a solo mom of small kids. I remember when I first moved here, how the married couples were reluctant to meet me. The lady in that corner house, the one whose husband died in a car accident. This was even said out loud to me once, by one clueless woman four doors down: “Oh, you’re that lady on the corner, the widow with the small kids! The house with the little boy in the Spiderman costume.”

“Yep,” I said. “I’m that widow on the corner with the kid in the Spiderman costume. Nice to meet you.”

The school district was hiring secretaries, a rarity in the current economic situation in central Ohio. Eighteen bucks an hour, and you had to have a high school diploma, type 45 words per minute, follow district policy, and be 18 or older. I fit all those criteria, along with the 304 others who showed up to take the civil service examination. I remember scanning the crowd of applicants, an ocean of adult heads in a high school cafetorium that could barely fit everybody. “Eyes on your own paper,” the HR director announced in nasally tenor. The fifteen of us who scored highest were called in for interviews the following week. There were only two positions open. Another woman and I beat out 303 other people. The health coverage. The secretarial union that meant we couldn’t be fired for no reason.

I remember how much this mattered to me, as it mattered that I give my children a house to grow up in, a neighborhood. Now, I will be putting them in a station wagon and driving west to whatever we will find. No job lined up, not even a city or town picked out. We will just drive and see.

I fill my closet with cocktail dresses I haven’t worn since before kids. Beautiful blouses, cute slacks, all evenly spaced on velvet hangers like in some boutique. I line up my shoes underneath them. I straighten my lingerie boxes and double check that all of the uglier bras are at the bottom.

The house is so quiet. No screaming, nobody in a preschooler-headlock, no one asking for scrambled eggs. Outside, Deb has created an angled patio seating area and added tiki torches from her own back yard. I never thought of angling it. Or getting tiki torches. It looks great.

At 9:49, I close the door and drive off.

At 10:00, Jason Davies from Clements Real Estate shows his client my place.

At 10:30, Jason calls my agent with her offer. I counter by seven thousand, my mind on the meticulous work that went into that walk-in closet.

At eleven, they counter with an offer five thousand higher. I accept. She loved how it showed, my agent says over the phone. You did good.

After I sign a bunch of papers, it’s time to grab the kids from Deb’s and move back in. The buyer, a divorced woman in her mid-fifties, wants a quick closing—30 days. Yes, I tell my agent. Yes, we can be out in 30 days. I see the glaze of July heat blurring the yellow lines, us flying along Highway 80 west, a kind of fast-moving, modern-day Oregon Trail. Only with chicken nuggets in the back seat, not tinned beans over a fire.

Yes, we can be out in 30 days.

“You want me to help you with that garage sale?” Deb says, grinning.

Fiction4ADay Bonnie


3 comments on “A Staging by Bonnie Ditlevsen

  1. I could smell the new paint as I read this! Nice details.

  2. Jennifer Courtney
    November 28, 2013

    So much beautiful detail! Love it!

  3. Pingback: F4AD – A Staging by Bonnie Ditlevsen | Postcard Poems and Prose

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This entry was posted on November 20, 2013 by .


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