A few years ago, when Alex was four, he and I both found ourselves standing on our front porch staring at a locked door. Neither of us liked this situation, but we both recognized it as a Best Case Scenario. I had gotten on Ellen’s last nerve. Had we stayed in that house much longer, my wife might have been forced to murder me.
So I turned to Alex and said, “Why don’t you and I do something, eh?” as if this eviction was all my idea.
“What are we gonna do?” he asked.
“I have a plan!” I replied. I only say this when I don’t have a plan.
As we drove around aimlessly I racked my brain. It was mid-afternoon so a nice place that charged admission, Like Liberty Science Center, wouldn’t be worth it. The movies? Nothing was playing. A park? It was about 95 degrees.
I drove around looking for a sign. Then – quite literally – I found one. A sign! With balloons on it!
“Hey, Alex! How would you like to nose around other people’s stuff?” I asked.
Alex was intrigued, so I pulled up next to the Open House sign ready to explore.
“Hi, where are you gents from?” The chipper realtor asked. He had a smile suitable for toothpaste commercials.
“Six blocks away,” I said, responding with a toothpaste commercial smile of my own. Then, so my nosiness didn’t seem quite so obvious, I replaced my smile with the solemn face of a gen-u-wine serious homebuyer.
“You see, we’re looking to trade up,” I said. “Right, Alex?”
But Alex had discovered the candy dish Mr. Realtor had set out and was not interested in playing pretend with Daddy.
We puttered about, exploring the rooms one by one. As per my instructions, Alex and I could only say nice things about the house in a normal voice. When the comments weren’t so nice, they had to be whispery. This is good parenting.
Once we were done nosing around (and boy-oh-boy did we nose; we even checked out the crawl space), we hopped into the car to find another house to scrutinize. It turns out Open Houses were everywhere.
When Alex and I explored the first house, I asked the realtor a lot of questions about the people who lived there. By the time we reached the second house, I let the houses do the talking. It was fun to discover how much they revealed. Just by scanning my surroundings I could, with little trouble, imagine a family dynamic.
There was the house that contained over-indulged children, who were allowed to litter every room with their toys.
There were the ambitious social climbers, who lived in a tiny, tiny house that was stuffed full with Ethan Allen Furniture, home theatre systems, and his-and-hers jet skis in the overstuffed garage. (I also came across the other kind of social climber who owned a huge, expensive house but didn’t have enough cash left over to furnish it.)
There was the museum house run by, I assumed, a woman with control issues.
There was the man who still displayed his high school trophies who, I also assumed, peaked at 17.
With every new discovery, I marveled at just how many secrets a person’s stuff can reveal.
It was a kind of epiphany for me. From that day forward, whenever I create a character for a story, I always consider the types of things he or she might own. I have found that a well-placed tchotchke can speak volumes about a character – even before the character has an opportunity to say or do anything.
The day Alex and I wandered through those open houses also made me wonder a bit about what my own stuff says about me. Do my things reveal embarrassing parts of my personality? My fears? My regrets? My sins?
Is there some seemingly innocent item resting on my shelf that telegraphs to the world that I’m the kind of person who inadvertently pesters his wife to the point where she contemplates murder? That I’m that kind of person who goes to open houses with a child in tow because I’m too cheap to go to Liberty Science Center after 2 p.m.? That I’m the kind of person who wastes realtors’ time and passes judgment on complete strangers?
I sure hope not. Because, well, that would be very embarrassing.