They’ve made some questionable design choices. Not that Mom didn’t in her day. I smile as I look through Mr. and Mrs. Merkle, peering years into my past: the wood paneling on the walls, the blue-checkered wallpaper, the pink fixtures to match the roses in the guest bathroom.
That’s all gone now, almost twenty years later. The walls are painted a shade of beige that’s so inoffensive it offends me. The Merkles have whitewashed the mottled oak kitchen cabinets and the red bricks around the fireplace. Just as well. Both oak and exposed brick are dated now.
But the vaulted ceilings in the family room are lower. In the wide room, the flat acoustic ceiling has a suffocating effect, like a sky that hangs too close to the earth on a humid day.
“Did you add the drop ceiling?” I ask the Merkles.
“Oh, yes. Almost ten years ago,” the husband, Christopher, says, his face lighting up. “It makes the room so much easier to heat and cool.”
“Well, that’s...thoughtful.” I feel my cheeks stretch deeper into a professional smile.
“And did you fill in a window?” I ask, looking at the expanse of beige interrupted only by a collection of framed photographs arranged in a grid—children at different ages, school pictures, prom pictures, standing in front of what used to be my swimming pool. The Merkles had added some statues, I notice—some neoclassical-inspired cherubs that felt out of place with the otherwise bland, contemporary decor.
“We did!” Mrs. Merkle—Elyse—exclaims. “We closed off two windows on the south wall here. How did you know? I hope you can’t see the seams!” She moves toward the wall and lays a hand on it, as if she’s feeling for imperfections.
“They were casting a lot of glare on the entertainment center,” Mr. Merkle adds.
“It looks fine,” I assure them. “If I were new to this market I’d never notice. But I’ve been practicing real estate in this town for more than twelve years. I have a trained eye. I’ve probably even seen this floor plan before.”
There it is—the truth is disguise. I don’t tell them about the birthday parties I had in this room, helium balloons floating fifteen feet to the top of the vaulted ceiling, kids jumping at strings that dangled just above their extended fingertips, or the way my sister and I would sit backwards on the couch watching raindrops parade across the now-missing windows. This meeting is not about me; it’s about the Merkles and what price I can get them for this home, and where I can help them relocate.
“There! You see, that’s why we called you. We’ve seen your face on bus benches for I don’t know how many years. You were the first person we thought of,” Mrs. Merkle said. “I told Chris, let’s get Leonie McLeod.”
I think back to that call, the way my stomach dropped when Elyse Merkle gave her address as 154 Gateway Circle. If I’m honest with myself, I have to admit I’ve fantasized about this—about maybe someday being able to list my old house. Maybe even buy it myself. I would walk in and be hit with the smell of mom’s tuna casserole, which never seemed to go away after dinner was cleared. I’d feel the warmth of game nights in front of the fireplace, hot showers that cleared away the pressure of a long day at school and rehearsals. The heavy stained-wood door would be open to me again, and I’d see our ghosts wandering down the hallway—Mom, Dad, Bert, Mariella and me, sitting together at the kitchen island—a heat signature or some other part of ourselves we’d left behind.
Instead, this house is just another one full of other people’s things. Despite the Merkles’ clutter (they’ve done a decent job cleaning things up and I can work with them on the rest), the house feels as empty to me as it did the day we moved the furniture out, Mom’s to a smaller house on the other side of town, Dad’s to an apartment two towns over, closer to the office.
I’ve been looking for home since that day. I tried to recreate it in my new bedrooms, hanging the same picture collages and posters on different-colored walls. It never worked, but I learned a lot about homes. I started watching HGTV, thinking maybe a custom-upholstered storage banquet or some DIY modern art could do the trick. But I was never able to create any place that felt just like our old home. I hung soft, gauzy curtains and flower garlands over the yellowing blinds of several dorm rooms and apartments, bought art from local up-and-comers at the farmers’ market in shades of purple for my own downtown condo. I painted walls, bought throw pillows. Maybe I should have just put up blue-checkered wallpaper.
Dad used to say, The shoemaker’s kids go barefoot.
“Thank you for your confidence,” I tell the Merkles. I can still help them find a home. I can still help another family find their home here, as warm and welcoming as the one I used to know. There are tricks of the trade—staging and onions in the oven.
I smooth invisible wrinkles from my slacks. “Maybe you can show me the bedrooms now?”
Bert’s room was at the front of the hall. He chose a wallpaper laced with sketches of airplanes. The three of us kids helped Dad put it up. I was responsible for smoothing the seams, following Dad with a roller over the damp paper. I can almost smell the adhesive. I wonder if the Merkle children worked together to pull it down, six hands making quick work of the sheets that fell to the floor like old skin.
Now the room is the same inoffensive beige. A few ribbons and medals hang above a neatly made green bedspread. I think of the way Bert hated team sports.
Mariella’s door is next, after the bend in the hallway. Her rainbows are gone, too. The Merkles have erased us under a blanket of beige.
“You’ve really been preparing for this sale,” I note.
There’s a bookshelf in Mariella’s room with none of the knick-knacks my sister used to collect—ceramic pigs or dolphins that as far as I know still decorate her shelves out in Arizona. The bookshelf holds only a few textbooks with creased spines. I consider how I might add some personality during staging. Maybe just a colorful rug?
“Yes, I watch Designed to Sell,” Elyse Merkle says.
“We want top dollar for our home,” Mr. Merkle says. "Our oldest just had a baby down in Orange County. We’ll need every penny we can squeeze out of this place to afford something there.”
“Though I’ll tell you, it wasn’t easy painting over our past,” Mrs. Merkle says with a slow, wistful note in her voice.
I look her in the eyes—green eyes shining over full, round cheeks, and a wave of sympathy hits me. “No, that can be very hard. Not every client is so cooperative. Sometimes I have to really work to convince people to let go. A new buyer will almost always want to leave their own mark, even on a turnkey house.” I pause before venturing, “You were very happy here?” My question comes out as more of a statement. I can tell they were.
“Yes, very happy,” Christopher Merkle says.
“But it’s not the same without the kids,” Elyse adds. “It doesn’t feel so much like home now that they’ve all moved out. It’s not the place, so much as the people who make a home.”
Christopher crosses the tan carpet and wraps an arm lightly over his wife’s shoulder. “That’s right. We decided to leave the place and follow the people.”
This house held my family together for a long time. I didn’t even see the cracks in the foundation until everything crumbled.
I wonder, as I stand before the closed door to my old bedroom at the hall’s terminus, if that smaller house across town would have felt more like home if we’d all moved there together—if, along with half the furniture, we’d packed our warm sentiments, our happy history, our status as a family into the moving van. I always felt like we’d left those things behind. Maybe we did. The little house across town never felt like home. Maybe the Merkles absorbed it; or maybe they just painted over it.
Elyse Merkle opens the door to my old bedroom and it’s as beige as I expected. No more border of stenciled-on cats. There’s no ghost of my fifteen-year-old self sprawled across the Merkles’ single bed with its floral pastel duvet.
“Sorry, honey. You can’t go back,” Dad told me as we packed my bookshelf into a box. They didn’t ask me to get rid of anything more than they’d already taken away. “You don’t want to go back. Life is a river that moves in one direction.”
His direction was east, to promotions, to Florida, to his new wife and new baby. Yes, life is a river—a fast-moving one that erases things and sweeps them away. I didn’t have a direction of my own; I just thrashed around in the churning water until I could grab on to a life raft that would carry me down the river safely: custom-upholstered banquets, piles of paint chips, piles of contracts—the ability to create home for hundreds of people every year.
“You have a very lovely home,” I tell the Merkles. I take a deep breath and almost drown in the scent of roses. I want to say thank you for trusting me with your home, but my voice is stuck in my throat. I had almost forgotten about the roses in the front planter, the way their perfume would drift into my room on summer days. I breathe in again and let the smell wash over me.
“Isn’t that nice?” Elyse Merkle asks. “I’m going to miss my roses. I set my craft room up in here after Nicole moved out, just so I could sit here and smell the roses. I packed it all away already, but I’ll miss it.”
I take one more deep breath before I grab on to my life preserver and pull up to the surface of my life. Piles of contracts. I smooth my slacks. “I think I can get you an extra five thousand for that smell,” I tell her with a smile that doesn’t feel forced.
“That’s the right spirit,” Mr. Merkle says. “I like you, Leonie. You want to go to the dining room table and hammer out some details?”
I follow the couple down the hall, to the table they’ve set up in the space we used to use as a sitting room. It doesn’t matter. It’s a seller’s market. I’ll hold one open house and get five offers. Someone else will be happy here for as long as it lasts. I will see to it. That’s where life has moved me.
I take the Merkles through my standard listing contract. We settle on a list price of $445,000, though I know it will go for closer to half a million in the end. The Merkle Family will reassemble in Orange County. Mrs. Merkle will probably set up her craft room where orange blossom and jasmine smells waft through her window. Someone else will paint over the Merkles. I will earn the diamond award and place the trophy tastefully on the narrow ledge of my mosaic-covered mantle in my condo downtown. Home. We are all moving forward.
I shake hands with the Merkles on my way out the heavy stained-wood door and watch it close behind me again. “Thank you for trusting me with your home,” I manage to say as they walk me down the driveway toward my Lexus. I take one more look back at the row of rose bushes under my bedroom window.
“Oh, Leonie, would you like to take some blooms home with you?” Elyse Merkle offers.
I could put them on the nightstand next to my bed. Maybe, in that quiet space between awake and asleep, I could go back, just for a few days, to a place that only exists in my memory.
“Thank you,” I say. “That would be lovely.”