Dust hangs in the feeble yellow light of the bare bulb in the attic. Around me are towers of boxes, stacked magazines, a folding bed, and some suitcases that would look more at home in a black-and-white movie. The residue of decades in the lives of people I know nothing about, except that they were willing to part with this house for a curiously modest sum.
My job is to sort this junk into two piles: garbage and garage sale. Where do I even start? I walk over to the only window and pull at the shades, trying to get them unstuck. Something falls to the floor with a thud. I pick it up and wipe off the dust with my sleeve. Whatever this is, someone made sure to wrap it in a lot of brown packing tape. It's about the size of a paperback, but stiffer, and its weight is uneven. One side is completely discolored; it must have been facing the window. And on that side, with a pen whose ink has almost faded but whose indentations still remain, someone scribbled "NEVER SELL."
I lift it closer to my eyes trying to discern any other markings, but the dust gets to me and I'm caught in a savage fit of sneezing. It's a miracle that I don't lose a couple of limbs as I stumble down the attic stairs, through the freshly vacuumed hallway, and into the newly IKEA-d living room.
"What's wrong?" asks Carrie, her forehead rising with that look of concern that is so uniquely hers. I remember glimpsing that expression on the day we met, and three years later it still makes me feel like a knot inside my chest is coming undone.
I lift the box towards her and try to speak, but as soon as I take a breath, the sneezing returns and knocks it right out of me. My vision now blurry, I drop the box on the coffee table and scamper to the bathroom to wash the dust off.
When I return, Carrie is sitting on the sofa with a puzzled look on her face. Her fingers trace over the faded inscription.
"Coke," she decides. "Was there a suitcase with money, too? And some big guys with expensive suits, black shades, and machine guns?"
"You watch too many bad movies," I reply, my voice raspy from all the sneezing.
She lifts the box to her ear, hears it rattle, decides that the powder hypothesis is unlikely. I curl up on the couch by her side, nestling my head on her lap, right next to her swollen belly. She looks down at me and smiles, then turns my forehead a few degrees so she can balance the box on top. It feels cool to the touch.
"Maybe we should call Mr and Mrs Rodahl?" she asks quietly.
I raise one eyebrow in a "Do we?" expression. The box almost falls, but she catches it.
"I mean, they said we could toss out whatever's left in the attic, that it would save them a trip to the landfill," she muses. "But what if they forgot something really important? Something so valuable that they would never sell it or throw it away?"
I raise my other eyebrow, and the box teeters off balance again. She lifts it off my forehead and puts it back on the coffee table.
"Don't you want to know what's inside?" she teases as her fingers gently push my eyebrows back into their normal position.
"Curiosity killed the cat," I quip.
"And satisfaction brought it back!" she laughs.
"Yeah, but only eight times."
"How many do you think we have left?"
"I don't know; I'd have to check my cat diary."
"Are you sure it's not a lab notebook?"
"I wouldn't know; it's written in cattish."
"Well, does it have diagrams?"
"Some fishbones here and there."
"Is your cat named Ishikawa or something?"
"Okay, you win."
In full dimple mode, she watches me as I shuffle to the kitchen, open five wrong drawers, and return at last with a paring knife. The box is on the coffee table in front of us, its secrets not safe for much longer.
After a careful cut, the layers of packing tape start peeling away with an indignant sound. Carrie is holding her breath. Where the tape ends, there's cardboard. I tear open one side with my fingers and see a row of smooth black rectangular buttons. Above them are six small symbols that I remember from childhood, when I knew their order without having to look: Record, Play, Rewind, Fast Forward, Stop/Eject, and Pause. Man, I haven't seen one of these in years.
I pull the cassette recorder out of the box and place it gently on the table. There's a tape inside. Carrie and I look at each other. She presses the Play button, but nothing happens. After turning the device around and fiddling with its back, she reveals an empty battery compartment.
"Do we even have double As in the house?" I ask.
Carrie produces two out of the TV remote, then walks over to the kitchen counter and takes two more from the carbon monoxide alarm. She hits Play again. There's a scratching sound, and then the tentative whimper of a violin being tuned. After a few false starts, the room fills with the unmistakeable opening notes of Iron Lady's Caprice in Four Strings. Except it's broken somehow; it climbs to a climax and then stumbles, drops off a steep ledge, shatters, recovers, restarts. It has all the components of the masterpiece, but none of its effortless grace.
"Iron Lady," Carrie whispers. "Imagine that. Didn't the Rodahls say something about a daughter? They seemed skittish when I asked them."
We listen in silence for a few minutes. The piece ends. I rewind the tape and press Play again.
"Her real name is Ellen Rodahl," I recall, looking up at the walls and the wooden ceiling with newfound appreciation. "This could be the house she grew up in. I wonder why they never told us." The gears in my head spin like a slot machine and land on the jackpot. "Do you know how much the Wessons paid for the recording of her first concerto? Of course it's nothing to them; they're billionaires."
Carrie frowns. "They're completionists. They want to own Iron Lady and everything she's ever created. It was in the Post last week. They even bullied her middle school into selling them the tapes from her fifth grade recital."
"Sounds like their complete collection is not so complete."
My throat feels dry, like when my dad and I talked about money the day I left for college. I swallow hard. Carrie sees the dollar signs in my eyes and looks unhappy.
"We should really call the Rodahls," she says.
"You know, this tape could pay off the house! We could even have a second baby! And take that trip to Scotland that we've been postponing! Just think about-"
"You want to sell this thing?" Carrie cuts me off, her voice like cold water. "It's not even ours to begin with."
"It's ours now that we bought the house! They left us all the crap in the attic. We have the paperwork; they have no claim to it now."
"You want to sell a piece of her childhood, something her parents wanted to hide from the world and keep for themselves? You want to sell it to some psychopathic billionaire sons-of-bitches with a fetish for adolescent violin-playing girls?"
I open my mouth to speak, then pinch my lips back together and try to remember what I learned about conflict resolution. Take a deep breath, step back, find common ground...
"We don't have to decide this today. Let's sleep on it and see how we feel about it tomorrow."
I force myself to relax and nudge closer to Carrie, blinking slowly at her like a peace-loving cat. Her face softens as I put my arms around her. These days when I do that, I can barely reach one hand with the other. She is soft and warm and most of all mine, and I must never forget how lucky I am.
The fridge in the kitchen clatters to life and fills the silence with an insistent rumble. I must've been so distracted, I didn't even notice the Caprice playing a second time. Carrie pushes the Stop button and a little red light goes off. She rewinds the tape and hits Play again. There's a scratching sound and a click.
"Her real name is Ellen Rodahl," the tape says. "This could be the house she grew up in."