I’m not the least surprised that all the houses in Huckleberry Hills are perfect. The grass is cut to just-so height. The landscaping is so tasteful, a weed wouldn’t even consider making an appearance. Each of the two-story Victorian-looking homes with wraparound porches and quirky little details are like an idealized dollhouse that was supersized. The cars parked in the driveways are shiny. The men and women outside now are totally put together. The kids look Instagram-worthy, and their pets are probably all AKC registered.
I slowly turn back to Aunt Maggie’s house and idly wonder how someone didn’t “accidentally” torch this eyesore before now. Hell, I’m half tempted to do it, and I’ve only been standing here for five minutes.
It’s obvious the other homes were built years later around Aunt Maggie’s, which was grand itself when originally built, but now, with peeling paint, the overgrown lawn, and a giant tree in the middle of the porch—well, it needs more than TLC. It needs mouth-to-mouth.
I’m considering getting in my car and going back to…where? My parents’ house? Sweet baby Jesus in the manger, please no.
Okay, I have two choices—give up or get to work. So I need to do a little yard work and cosmetic stuff before I can tackle the requirements in the four-inch-thick HOA bylaws Thad gave me that are now sitting on the front seat of my car. I can handle that. It isn’t like the inside could be worse, right?
Delusional? Me? Probably. But I have to hold on to something.
Walking around the tree limb and across the front porch is like taking my life in my own hands. The boards are splinter city and jagged, and every squeak grows more B-movie-soundtrack ominous the closer to the front door I get.
I haven’t been back to Sutton, New Jersey, in probably twenty years. Surely two decades isn’t enough time for all of this to happen. Why didn’t Aunt Maggie say anything to me when we met up in the city—always in the city—for a show or to gawk at all the shop windows or to take a spin on the ice in Bryant Park?
Yeah, well, why didn’t you mention the fact that you were married to an asshat who made you cry on the regular?
Good point, self.
I take a deep breath, turn the key in the dead bolt, and walk inside.
The place looks like a haunted mansion on acid. The furniture is covered by sheets in eye-searing blues, greens, purples, and pinks. I flip up the corner of one of the sheets and discover the kick-ass vintage stereo system encased in oak is still where it always was. There is a God—and she has great taste in music, because all of Aunt Maggie’s records are in the attached cabinet.
The trip through the dining room and kitchen is pretty much the same. Each room is crowded with knickknacks, piles of books—including five copies of The Joy of Sex—and more furniture than needed, all of it in shades that never once were found in nature, but there’s nothing a little elbow grease won’t fix.
Then I get to the staircase.
It’s built to be wide enough for two people to walk up side by side, but that isn’t gonna happen until all the stuff stacked up on each step has been moved. There are teapots and egg cups, an entire set of encyclopedias, and magazines—so many magazines—from Cosmo to Good Housekeeping to what look like twenty years of Sports Illustrated swimsuit editions. There are rain boots and snow boots and go-go boots. There are industrial-size cans of ketchup and several issues of the Sutton Daily Times, including one dated two years ago that states it was the paper’s final printed edition.
Turning sideways, I make my way up the cramped stairwell that’s wallpapered in old movie posters, total cult classics like Blue Velvet and Rocky Horror Picture Show, then pause at the landing only long enough to count at least fifteen coffee mugs where the only thing that matches is the chips they all have. The second flight leading to the upstairs bedrooms is one-foot-in-front-of-the-other territory.
There are four bedrooms upstairs and two bathrooms. And three of the bedrooms are filled, floor to ceiling.
At the first door, I have to press my shoulder to it and really shove to get it open. It’s like a consignment store the size of my favorite bodega was squashed into a room barely big enough for a twin bed and a chest of drawers. There are shirts and pants and more—is that a wedding dress?—piled almost to the popcorn ceiling. I chicken out before walking in farther. If I get lost, no one will ever find me.
The next room isn’t as hard to get into, but let’s just say I’ve never seen that many VHS tapes in my life. There’s a stack of Chinese takeout fortunes in Ziploc bags, and hanging on the walls are dried flower after dried flower pressed between sheets of wax paper. The third room is home to more chipped china, more magazines, and empty glass bottles of nearly every size, shape, and color imaginable.
By the time I walk down the hall, with its starting-to-fall-down floral wallpaper, to the last bedroom, I’m mentally placing bets on what will be inside. Stuffed animals? Will this be where all the world’s Beanie Babies went? Or maybe I’ll find enough costume jewelry to make a mini crystal palace. The suspense is getting to me—also the fact that I didn’t eat breakfast.
I open the door and find what must have been Aunt Maggie’s bedroom.
The theme, without a doubt, is “go wild.” There are neon zebra-striped curtains, the bedspread is hot pink, and the wallpaper is leopard print—but only if leopards glowed in the dark and probably hung out at a rave held at an abandoned industrial site.
The stacks of stuff aren’t as high in here, but there’s definitely a lot of it. Programs from high school plays, takeout menus, a Thunder Down Under calendar signed by each of the featured dancers. It’s a mishmash of the kinds of things people find at the bottom of their purse or in the pockets of their winter coat when they pull them on for the first snowfall.
But the bed is clear, the pillows fluffy, and the room filled with light. Yeah, I can make this work—at least until I figure out how to remove wallpaper.
How hard can it be?
A thousand YouTube searches on my phone later, I find out that it would be a pain in the ass, because of course it would. By then, my stomach is grumbling, and I know I need to go eat one of the two sandwiches I got at Target on the way here. Doing the side shuffle down the stairs, I go back to the main floor and let out a pent-up breath.
I make my way to the kitchen and start shuffling through drawers, looking for scissors so I can open the little mayo packet that came with my turkey club, and that’s how I find it. Every kitchen has a junk drawer, the place where single batteries, out-of-ink pens, and random USB cords go to die. Well, Aunt Maggie had that—and she also had a nastygram drawer.
It’s the drawer right next to the cherry-red fridge covered in magnets from every state in the Union. I open it up, hoping to find scissors or at least a halfway sharp steak knife, and instead find a two-inch-thick stack of HOA violation notices. Driveway violation. Grass height violation. Paint code violation. Upkeep violation. Shutter violation. Garage violation. Some of them are stamped third notice.