This story is by Francesca Harrell and was part of our 2022 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Lakedale Drive is a gentle roller coaster of a street where the houses and trees appear to be pressed deeply into green frosting. The yards are soggy with overnight rain and new grass too tender to mow, grows long at the sides of the houses. In one soft curve, is Orla’s house. It is a pale yellow, vinyl-sided home with a tiny gingerbread porch. The yard is neat and a rosebush dies gracefully near the mailbox. Orla’s husband has had some business success which is reflected in a wrought iron, custom fence around the yard, a Mercedes in the driveway, and professionally installed playground equipment in the backyard for the grandkids. Although they could afford to move, Orla declares an aversion to spending money just because you have money.
Just out of view from the road, the side door is narrowly accessible behind a chaotic wall of faded appliance boxes, ice chests, two moldy child car seats, a child’s booster seat, an industrial vacuum, a vintage travel trunk, several bags of potting soil, several bags of sand, a still-packaged swing set swing, a deflated and sun faded wading pool, a rejected cat-tree, plastic planter pots, sand toys, seasonal decorations, stacks of rubbermaid tubs, and rinsed out laundry detergent bottles, all mortared together with numerous flattened amazon boxes.
Inside the house, Orla’s phone rings, waking her up. Her eyes open to her ceiling fan gently churning and the stacks of clothing and keepsakes, dimmed with dust, that she has stored, ceiling high, on top of her built-in cupboard. She flips her pillow up to sit higher and it crashes into something jingly. The windowsill is her headboard and stacked the entire length of the sill and two deep are fifty rinsed, glass yogurt jars. Each jar holds several quarters sorted to represent each of the 50 United States. Orla collected both the quarters and the glass jars with diligence several years ago, but she has forgotten to flip her quarters over lately and the collection is at a standstill.
The phone call is from Orla’s daughter who is commuting to work and calls at this time each weekday. It’s a call that serves as a personal morning show for each of them. They tick through benign observations about the traffic, inquiries into the health of pets, and some regular grooves of family gossip. An almost unvaried repertoire of remarks and topics anchors their daily mental postures.
Orla swings her feet to the floor with a languor rarely associated with Monday mornings. The bed is hoisted up on double risers to accommodate the immensity of what is stored beneath. It’s mostly in the category of papers and files, decades of Reader’s Digests, bundles of sewing patterns, and some tupperware storage boxes that were filled in long-ago panic when the table needed to be cleared for a holiday meal or a rare visitor. The surging admin of family life is captured in these boxes. They contain a mix of Pizza Hut and Blockbuster coupons, utility bills, faded receipts, letters, cards, grocery lists, appliance instructions, photo order forms, school crafts, and many items like chapstick, pens, promotional calendars, puzzle pieces, googly eyes, lego blocks, birthday napkins, friendship bracelets, buttons, keychains, magnets, screws, and medicine samples. A part of Orla’s mind is burdened with the knowledge that vital or precious items float among the flotsam in these boxes. She has not panic-filled a box in years, nor has she revisited the ones she originally placed, but she is faithful to the belief that she will one day sort them into orderliness.
With the phone to her ear, Orla moves down the hallway and through the dining room along a familiar path to the kitchen. Through the morning dimness in the small rooms, a sense of unseen, ballooning, magnitude presses in. Every cupboard and drawer is heavy with content.
Nestling the dirty dishes down into the sink to make room, Orla fills the tea kettle from the faucet. Her husband gently snores in his recliner. His life is a carved rhythm around her impervious ways. She tugs open the heavy silverware drawer and selects a spoon from the cacophony of designs and sizes inside. There are dozens of spoons, but you will not find six of the same style. The same is true for forks and butter knives. They overflow the boundaries of the silverware tray and weigh the hinges to a solemn roll.
Orla takes down a mason jar, fills it with water and stirs in a powdered vitamin packet. She is pleased with herself for being so consistent with her vitamin regimen. She uh hums on the phone as she makes a cup of tea and carries it to the living room to sit. The phone call cannot end before her daughter arrives at work. Orla stares idly at her bird feeders. It is chilly. She looks for something to cover her bare feet while she talks. The end of the couch is piled with things to be dealt with such as a rolled up map to give to her son, hats and bibs the grandkids have left, amazon returns, and tupperware of her daughter-in-law’s. She pulls a child’s coat over her feet. It has the sales tags on it. She wonders if she still has time left in the return window to exchange it.
Once her daughter hangs up, Orla begins to gather the things she needs to feed the birds. She opens a large kitchen drawer for the bowls she uses. Though deep and sturdy and built to hold heavy items, the drawer is a colorful stew of plastic. Plastic cups and bowls swirl among dozens and dozens of little plastic baby food pouch caps. Orla is saving these for an undetermined art project. Once the kitchen drawer is so full that plastic caps start bouncing out, she transfers the caps into two-gallon freezer bags and puts them in the playroom closet. She has been doing this all year. Both of Orla’s daughter-in-law’s help her out by collecting their caps, too.
Birdsong fills the room as Orla opens the deck doors. She lovingly arranges the birds’ breakfasts on the mossy railing and watches as the familiar birds sail down from the tops of the giant maple trees. She lets herself wonder what it would be like to live in a treetop.
Two hours later, Orla parks at the end of a long shopping center lot. She sits in the car for a moment listening with a concerned expression to the rest of the news about a local accident. Then she turns off the car, heaves her tote bag over her shoulder and walks towards the space where a mint green and white sign announces Happily Ever After: Stress-free Organization for a Happy Lifestyle that Lasts. Orla pushes through the glass doors into a blindingly white showroom where acrylic shelves hold white bound books, stacks of white mohair blankets, and tiny air-plants and cacti in pale pottery. A slender receptionist is subtly texting behind the desk and doesn’t speak as Orla passes behind the long glass wall that divides the showroom from the offices. She slips into the first office. It’s also blindingly white and monastically bare. A blond woman in a denim jacket sits in a white boucle chair.
Orla takes the swivel chair behind the desk and shoves her large tote bag into a white cubby. “I apologize for my lateness – it was really a Monday morning for me!” she says with a wave of greeting. She opens the ipad that’s on the desk and punches in a short password. “Mrs. Christie. I realize you are here to prepare to move to a new house?”
“No. Actually, no. We’ve learned that we can’t afford to move right now, and I thought let’s work with what we have instead and get organized and make it feel like a new home,” Mrs. Christie explained to Orla with faint pep.
“Well, good organization and good editing can make your home – and your whole life- feel new!” Orla quipped.
“Your house must be so super organized! I really want that, too. I want simplicity,” Mrs. Christie looked at Orla admiringly.
“Oh. My house is a project. They say the shoemaker’s children have no shoes.” Orla chuckled lightly, but Mrs Christie looked scandalized. Orla quickly added, “I love organization. It’s a journey…” She flipped open a logoed notebook and assumed her scripted tone. “Now I’m going to ask you some personal questions about how you envision your ideal day, your ideal year, and your ideal life. It’s this information that makes the consultation successful, so please reflect carefully. The responsibility for your Happily Ever After lifestyle is on both of us.”
Mrs. Christie nodded sincerely.
“Wonderful! Now.” There is a significant pause. “When you open your eyes in the morning, what would you…in a perfect world…like to see first?”