Malcolm’s Things

Prose by Annabel Smith

Art by Alex Hoang

The blue dress was hanging on Lizanne’s wall across from her bed, the floaty one with the gathered waist that she’d worn to Mia’s wedding a decade or so prior. She would have to take it to the tailor and have it let out a touch if she wore it to dinner. It was so flattering, though, classy but not pretentious, expensive but not too showy. She would get her hair freshly coloured and wear it up, just so, with the silver earrings that made her green-speckled eyes flash. 

Yes, she would wear the blue dress when Eddie came over. First things first, though. The house had to be cleaned. And in order to clean the house Lizanne had to get out of bed. That was a never-ending battle. It was pushing eleven. She’d been awake for an hour and a half but had spent that time lying there as if paralyzed. Her limbs felt deadened, iron-heavy. Another five minutes passed while she debated the effort of wrenching herself over and out, until the need to urinate became pressing enough to compel her up and into her robe and slippers. 

Lizanne stood in front of the mirror and ran a comb through her hair. A pile of wet towels lay in a mouldering heap in the corner, in between a stack of old Vanity Fairs and the scale she hadn’t stepped on since Malcolm died. This would all need to be dealt with before Eddie came. 

It was strange, Lizanne remembered, how after Malcolm’s death her immediate thoughts had been of Eddie. It had seemed as though during all those years with Malcolm, thoughts of Eddie had formed an undercurrent in her mind, a thrumming of long-suppressed emotion that had suddenly burst to the surface. There was a tie there that had never quite been severed. When he left for Oregon all those years ago, when she was still in school, Eddie had told Lizanne that she would always be his girl, and, for a time, she had believed him. Over time, though, the wildness that had initially attracted her, his tendency to come and go from her life as he pleased, all became tiresome. “I want real things,” Lizanne had said when she sent him packing back to the West Coast. 

She took off her bathrobe and put on a blouse and green pants. When she went downstairs to make herself a cup of coffee, Randy was sitting at the kitchen table, eating a piece of plain toast. “What are you doing here?” she asked. “Where are my boxes?”

“Morning, Mom,” Randy said. He jerked his thumb in the direction of the coffee maker. “There’s coffee in the pot.” 

Lizanne repeated, “Where did my boxes go?” 

“I moved them into the dining room,” he said. “You never use it. Remember, you called last night asking about the shed? Me and Mia decided to tear it down a while ago, we told you. You got twenty-five years of moisture and structural damage out there. If we don’t get rid of it it’s going to collapse sooner or later and then we got a bigger problem on our hands.”

“I need to sit down,” Lizanne said.

Randy sprang up, vacating his chair, and she sat. “Careful, I don’t want you having another fall,” he said. “I’ll get you some coffee.” She could not recall falling, but she’d learned lately to accept what everyone told her with a smile on her face. Randy made his way to the coffeemaker, cleaving a path through the piles of junk on the kitchen floor, and poured Lizanne a cup. He cleared the pile of newspapers off the chair next to hers and sat down. “Anyhow, you got too much stuff in here to fit out in that shed. I think you should toss it, but that’s just my opinion.”

She sipped her coffee. It was too sweet. Randy had put in a heaping teaspoon of sugar, as was his habit, when he knew she took it with just a dash. “I know you think I’m just some crazy old lady,” she said, “but this is my house, and these are my things, and I’ll do what I want with them. Thank you very much.”

“I don’t think you’re crazy, Mom.”

“Eddie’s coming soon and I need to get the house cleaned up by then. You can help me or I can do it myself.” As she met her strong-willed son’s eyes, the little boy she’d known was disorientingly masked by the beard and crow’s feet. It was almost puzzling to think that he was this old, that she was older still. 

He closed his eyes and massaged his temples. “Not this again.”

“I know you think it’s wrong,” Lizanne said. 

Randy laughed, his beard twitching as he shook his head. “It’s not that I think it’s wrong, I just—never mind.” He stood up, pushing his chair in. “Look. You’re an independent lady and you can do what you want, and if you want to live in filth, that’s your choice and I wouldn’t dream of taking it from you. And if you want to get this crap out of the house Mia and I are happy to help.” Randy spread his arms, gesturing broadly around the kitchen. “But I’m going out to board up the shed, and as soon as I can get my guy out here we’re tearing it down. It’s just not safe.” He leaned in and pressed a scratchy kiss to her cheek. “This is for your own good, Mom.”

He stomped out of the kitchen, leaving his crumb-dusted plate on the table. Lizanne stared into her coffee. It was growing cold. 

It had been Malcolm who was the collector, accumulating clothes and books and bric-a-brac and refusing to part with any of it, even at Lizanne’s and the children’s years of subtle hints that escalated, when Randy and Mia were grown, into begging. She used to bemoan this to her girlfriends. “I used to be fun,” she’d say. “I used to be so idealistic. Now I’m someone’s wife and mother and my house is filled with stuff.” 

Malcolm had been neater than Lizanne, though, too fastidious for the word “hoarder” to apply. Everything had its place. When he got sick, it was as though the house began to sag at the seams, Malcolm’s things seeping out from everywhere until simply getting around the house became an exercise in bushwhacking. After his death, Mia had wasted no time in bringing up the issue, placing a delicate hand on Lizanne’s arm as they drove home from the funeral reception and saying, “At least we can get rid of all his old stuff now, huh?”

At first, Lizanne had readily agreed to dispose of the junk. But even after years of resisting the worst of Malcolm’s magpie-like tendencies, it had felt like a disservice when she, Randy, and Mia began to attack the living room with garbage bags and spray bottles of cleaner. In his own plodding way Malcolm had been something close to perfect, steady and grounded in a way she had never been, and the house had only begun to come to pieces once the responsibility to keep everything in its place had fallen on Lizanne’s shoulders. “I’m keeping it,” she’d announced, stopping her kids with a sweeping gesture of her rubber glove-clad hand. When Randy and Mia began to protest, she simply said, “You can get rid of your father’s things when I’m dead,” and that was the end of that. 

At least, until Eddie. She had found herself in a shaky world where nothing, moment to moment, felt contiguous, where the threads of her life were woven through and among each other with no regard for Lizanne herself. When Eddie had called her out of the blue, something had clicked into place and she’d jumped at the chance to invite him over for dinner. “I think it’s fate,” she’d murmured into the mouthpiece, feeling seventeen. It was the first time they’d spoken in years. 

Lizanne had made some half-hearted attempts to organize the house, but the fatigue that had gradually overtaken her these past weeks (months? years?) had left her lying heavy in bed some days until almost noon and filled her brain with fog. After Eddie called, she must have asked Randy for his help moving Malcolm’s things out to the shed and forgotten about it. She was always doing things like that. It had become surprising to see other people in her home. Quiet, a cluttered, cavernous quiet, was all she’d come to expect. 

Lizanne got up and padded over to the back window. She’d left her slippers upstairs and something wet from the kitchen floor soaked through her socks. She watched Randy hammering a sheet of plywood over the door to the shed out back. If he didn’t want her to see Eddie, that was fine. There are things that children are incapable of understanding. But she had already given up so much for her children. She would not give up control of her life, not yet. 


Eli stepped out of the truck and put the keys in the front pocket of his shorts. The house was squat and dingy white, the flowerbeds out front overgrown, bishop’s weed choking out dead irises and bleeding-hearts. He had been apprehensive when he’d gotten the call about this job. On the phone, the client sounded urgent, desperate even, in a way that he found almost unsettling. Eli had driven past the house the other day on his way home and, recognizing the address as the one he would be working, noticed the disrepair the house had fallen into. From what the woman, Mrs. Lamotte, had said, the inside of the house would be even worse. 

“You sure this is the place?” Ryan asked, sidling up to him. Will trailed behind, shielding his eyes from the sun. 

“She said it was a mess when I talked to her,” Eli said. 

He knocked on the door. The boys stood there for a minute, hands clasped behind their backs, fidgeting. Finally, after peering through the frosted glass panes, Eli knocked again. This time it only took a few seconds for Mrs. Lamotte to open the door. 

“Hello, Mrs. Lamotte,” Eli said. 

“No, no, call me Lizanne,” she said, her eyes fixing on Eli. They stood in silence for a moment, the old woman squinting at the boys. 

“You said on the phone you needed us to put some stuff in storage for you?” 

 “Oh,” Lizanne said. “My movers. Come on in.” Will and Ryan exchanged a glance. When they started their business they’d called themselves landscapers, but as word spread among the elderly folk of their little town that three teenage boys were going around doing odd jobs for relatively cheap, their operations expanded until they became the de facto people to call when you needed something done, quick and dirty and with an admitted lack of finesse. If movers were what she wanted, movers they could be. 

She shuffled into the darkness of the living room and the boys followed. Eli felt something squishy underfoot, sending a shudder up his spine. Lizanne held up a warning hand. “Stop,” she said. They obeyed. 

Lizanne switched on the lights. They were in what must have begun as a typical wood-paneled dining room, except now it was completely filled with what looked to Eli like junk. The table was covered with books and magazines and draped with men’s shirts, the floor piled with garbage bags and cardboard boxes, all filled to the brim. One of the bags leaked some kind of unidentifiable liquid. The room had a sweet, sweaty musk, as if the windows hadn’t been opened in years, which, Eli thought, they probably hadn’t. The light filtering in through the curtains was sickly yellow. 

He tried to keep his expression neutral as he surveyed the detritus. His ability to keep up his air of detached professionalism in all situations, to tell the old people and the weirdos what they wanted to hear, had made him the face of their business, handling all the customer interactions while Will and Ryan stuck to the grunt work. “You said you wanted us to move everything outside?” he said, voice level. 

“Everything goes in the shed,” Lizanne said. She was a small, slightly hunched woman with a round face and a gray-streaked brown bob, and her composure and fairly well-groomed appearance contrasted harshly with the scene of hoarder carnage that surrounded them. “I’m having an important dinner this weekend and I need the entire downstairs clean before then. I’d do it myself, but I get so tired these days.” 

She pointed to a closet, hidden behind not one but two toppled coat racks. “There are bags in there you can use to put things in. I’ll be upstairs if you have any questions.”

They watched her putter away, Will and Ryan’s jaws slackening as she left the room. Will let out a low, whistling laugh. “What the hell, man,” he said. 

“We’ll go fast,” Eli said uncertainly. They set to work, taking empty bags and filling them with the piles of things on the table. They threw things in the bags indiscriminately, making no distinction between trash and treasure. A silver bracelet. A half-full soda bottle. Multiple Bibles. The surface of the table was just becoming visible when they’d filled a bag each, and they took their loot out to the backyard, where the shed was just as squat and white as the house, and, with its boarded up door, even more unwelcoming. 

“What do we do here?” Will asked. 

Eli stepped up to the plywood boards blocking them from entry and slid his fingers under the slats, trying to pry it off. “Maybe we should ask her before we take it off,” Ryan said, putting a hand to the door. 

“Hm.” Eli stepped back. “I’ll ask her.”

He went inside the house and made his way up the stairs. The dark hallway was oppressive in the summer heat. He took slow, cautious steps, careful not to step on anything, dead or living. “Lizanne?” he called, his voice faltering a bit. A sweat broke out on his palms. 

“I’m in here,” he heard her say, her voice muffled behind a door to his left. “Come in.” 

He pushed the door open. Lizanne was lying in the bathtub, her knees twin mountaintops coming out of the water, and she looked up placidly when he came in. His hands sprang to his eyes. “Oh, my God,” he said. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t know you were—sorry.”

“Did you have something to ask me?” she said, as unconcerned as if he’d walked in on her fully clothed and reading a book. 

“Oh, it can wait. I mean, if you’d rather get dressed,” Eli said hurriedly, his eyes still averted. 

“Right,” Lizanne said, like she’d just remembered she was naked. Eli closed the door and tried to forget the image of the old woman, small and vulnerable, in her bathtub. There was something wrong here. He felt mortified that he had intruded on her like that, but even more so, it had felt private, intimate, like he had barged in on a story that he wasn’t meant to be a part of.

She opened the door a moment later in a bathrobe, her wet hair in a twist on her head. “I get so mixed up sometimes,” she said, Eli presumed, by way of apology. There was no embarrassment in her tone or expression, only mild annoyance that he’d interrupted her bath. 

“We just noticed that the shed was boarded up,” Eli said. He hoped he seemed composed. He was glad it was him who had gone to talk to the old woman and not Ryan or Will. “Did you want us to try and get in there anyway, or is it boarded up for a reason?”

Lizanne frowned. In the dark room her pale face and white robe took on a ghostly quality. “My son boarded up the shed,” she said. “You just go ahead and take that plywood down, honey. He’s trying to sabotage me.”

“He’s trying to sabotage you?”

“I’m having a man over to the house and he doesn’t approve,” Lizanne said. “He’s afraid I’m going to replace his father with Eddie, I believe.” 

She sat down on the edge of the bathtub and exhaled wearily. “He thinks I’m selfish. Maybe I am selfish. I don’t know. All I know is I loved Malcolm, so I gave him my life and my body and my house.” She leaned forward. “I’d like to take something, for once.”

“I understand,” Eli said, even though he didn’t. He reached for the door. 

“How old are you?” she asked. “You look a lot like Eddie when we met.”

Eli shoved his hands in his pockets. “Um, eighteen.”

She nodded. “We were seventeen when we fell in love.” She smiled and Eli muttered something vaguely polite. “You tell your friends that I’m done waiting, alright?”

“Alright,” Eli said, slipping out the door. He did not want to know what she was done waiting for. 

Outside, Will and Ryan were sitting in the overgrown grass by the shed. “What happened up there?” Will asked. 

“She says to break in,” Eli said. He shook his head. The little old woman’s plaintive face was burned into his brain. 

They tried to pry the plywood loose with their hands but it was nailed on tight. As they sent Ryan into the house to find a hammer to take the nails out, a black car pulled up to the curb and a red-faced, bearded man in his early forties got out. He came towards Eli and Will at a jog, panting. “I’m Randy,” he said. “Lizanne’s son.” He offered a hand to Eli and Will. They both shook. “Listen, how much do you boys charge?”

“Twenty per hour for each of us,” Will said. 

“And you’ve been here for what, an hour or so?” 

Eli nodded. Randy reached in his pocket for his wallet. “Tell you what,” he said. “I’ll give you thirty bucks each if you leave and never come back here.”

They looked at each other, Eli’s pulse quickening. “We’re just here on a job for Mrs. Lamotte,” he said hurriedly. “She wanted us to clean out the downstairs floor and put everything in the shed. That’s all it is.”

“Oh, I know.” Randy counted out bills as he spoke. “My mother has dementia. She doesn’t know how to act appropriately and she can’t recognize what’s right for her. I appreciate your compassion, boys, I really do, but you’re doing more harm than good here.” 

“She said she was having dinner with someone named Eddie,” Eli told him. 

“She told you, too?” Randy said, shaking his head.“Eddie was my mom’s high school boyfriend. He was good friends with my parents. When I was a kid he used to come over for dinner whenever he was in town. I always liked him.” He laughed, looking past the boys at the sad little house. “Eddie’s been dead for close to twenty years. I was at his funeral. My mom gets confused about what’s past and what’s present.” He clapped Eli on the shoulder. “Don’t talk to her anymore, alright?”

They thanked Randy and took the money. Eli found Ryan looking in the closet and grabbed him by the elbow, taking him hastily out to the truck. He heard Randy clomping up the stairs as they left. When Eli started the car, still wearing the gloves he’d put on when they started cleaning, he could just discern Lizanne’s white face looking out, frowning, from the upstairs window. 


She watched the truck pull out of the driveway. Randy was coming up the stairs, his tread heavy and rapid. She turned from the window to look at him, his expression apprehensive and his arms extended with the palms facing her, as if gearing up for a tentative embrace. “I don’t know why you can’t let your own mother be happy,” Lizanne said. 

He hung his head and let his arms drop to his sides. “I don’t know what I can say to you,” he said, voice breaking as if he were making some kind of admission of defeat. 

When he had left and Lizanne was alone again she went back to her room and took the blue dress off the wall. She knew Eddie would like it when he came by. Her prom dress had been blue and he’d liked it then. She had a Polaroid of the two of them that night somewhere deep in her closet. More than likely, she thought, it was buried in one of those bags of Malcolm’s things, in the kitchen or the living room or out in the shed. She took off her bathrobe and stepped into the blue dress. It didn’t zip up all the way but she zipped it as far as she could. 

She recalled with a pang the last thing that Malcolm had ever said to her: “Thank you.” She was holding his hand when he died and his gratitude had twisted something deep inside her, the words “you’re welcome” dying on her lips. She had put a hand on his cheek and whispered, soothing, “You have nothing to thank me for.” 

In the bathroom Lizanne ran a hand through her hair. She wondered what Eddie would say when he saw her. She imagined he would kiss her hand and tell her she looked lovely, exactly as he had been picturing her all these years. 


After the third or fourth time Lizanne called, Eli recognized her number and started declining the calls automatically. He took to avoiding her street when he drove through town and changing the subject when his friends brought up the crazy old hoarder whose house they’d been chased out of. Ryan told him one day that he’d seen a “For Sale” sign in front of the house. “That’s a real estate nightmare,” Eli said, noncommittal. 

He saw Randy in the grocery store once, years later, visiting home for the holidays. He didn’t think Randy would recognize him but he did, waving jovially when he approached him at the deli. “How’s your mother?” Eli asked. 

“She passed a couple years back,” Randy said. “It was a long time coming, though. You know how it is. But it was very peaceful.”

“Oh,” Eli said. “That’s always something.”

He drove past Lizanne’s old house on his way home from the grocery store. It had been repainted pale blue and two cars sat in the driveway, an SUV and a hybrid. No shed in the backyard and no sign that there had ever been one. He idled in front of the house for a moment, searching for signs of life, but only found all the lights out and the shutters half-closed like sleepy eyes.