hidden stories house

Illustration: Gayle Kabaker

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The Small Stuff

I entered the abandoned house of the late Don Fletcher with a great sense of pity. Don (a pseudonym, by the way) had died of cancer in his mid-60s without leaving any children. The place had sat empty for several years by the time my friend Laura moved in next door. She said his junk was still there, rotting.

Some of the pity was for myself: Like Don, I had no heirs, and I had no heirlooms. Occasionally I worried that after I died, strangers would behold my beloved but inconsequential possessions—cheery melamine plates, little vases of sea glass—and decide I'd led an inconsequential life.

But Don's house, despite its primordial ooze of trailing vines and sodden carpet, was no sad-sack mausoleum. As I poked around, I discovered it was the Museum of Don Fletcher. According to his bookshelves, Don had been a seeker: The Bhagavad Gita, The Road Less Traveled, Cosmos. A stack of fliers told me he'd taught Greek folk dancing. He'd been a lover of vegetarian cooking; also a lover, given his modest collection of earthy '70s sex manuals. And tapedto his desk was a diagram illustrating where taste receptors live on the tongue: bitter, sour, salty, sweet. Was it some kind of handy reference, or had it just delighted him?

I love you, Don Fletcher, I thought. I bet you had a moustache. If only we could have broken plates together, Greek-style. No exquisite heirloom could have made me feel that way. An heirloom is a synecdoche, one small thing meant to memorialize us when we're gone. But Don's collection of worthless objects told the story of a whole life—not bitter and sour, but salty and sweet—and left a stranger sorry she would never know him. I hope my stuff will do the same. I can't imagine anything closer to immortality.

—By Amy Maclin