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A Knock at the Door

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“We don’t like having to do this, believe me,” the uniformed man at the door said in a tone that implied he had no strong feelings about it one way or the other. “We’ll try to get it over with quick.”

He and another man wearing an identical uniform entered the house, once it was clear my mother had no choice but to let them in.

That’s when the process known as “the inventory” began.

I learned at an early age that when someone knocked at the door, it was almost never good. When they pounded, it was worse.

My family made a point of not being easy to find. We were often hiding. From bill collectors. The law. Landlords. Social workers. Neighbors complaining about the loud, violent fights or my father’s drunken middle-of-the-night tirades.

We didn’t get a lot of “company.” My father’s temper discouraged anyone who might have been tempted to drop by. And we moved so often that, even if someone did want to visit, they might not know where we were living at the moment.

So when someone knocked at the door, it was usually reason to panic.

I was about 10. My mother had just left my father and was trying to raise four kids by herself in northeastern Pennsylvania. We survived on public assistance, along with whatever she could make from occasional gigs as a cleaning lady or waitress. She must have owed someone money, probably a former landlord or a grocer.

Back then, in my town, if you owed someone money, they could go to the magistrate’s office and file a complaint. The magistrate would order a so-called sheriff’s sale. Deputies would come to your house and make a list of the items you owned that could be sold.

They would post a sale announcement at the sheriff’s office and publish it in the newspaper. It would catalog the inventory, along with your name and address and the date and time when the sale would be held. At your home. For the public.

On the designated day, people would wander through your house to pick through your belongings — and these strangers could walk out carrying your things in exchange for whatever the sheriff’s department deemed the right price. And there was nothing you could do about it. It was a nonvoluntary garage sale.

At 5-foot-7, my mother was way taller than me, but she appeared to shrink several inches when the deputies arrived at the door. We lived in the worst unit in a row of dilapidated homes. Ours was at the end, with vines and weeds creeping up the side, clinging to the crumbling cement. The ground floor had three dark rooms, as did the level above.

The deputies started walking through the first floor, armed with clipboards, doing their best to avoid eye contact with me or my mother. It didn’t take them long to realize this was going to be a challenge.

Even when compared with other poor people, we had very little. We moved often. Really often. Meaning we’d have to leave things behind, sometimes taking only what we could carry.

I trailed my mother and the deputies down the shadowy hall. The green-and-yellow linoleum was stained and sticky, peeling in some places. A few spots were missing not only the linoleum but the floor beneath it. I hated those holes. Mice or roaches sometimes emerged, startling me as they scurried toward the kitchen.

My mother lagged behind the deputies, the little bit of strength she had draining with every step. I followed along, a reluctant witness.

It was summer, so if I wasn’t barefoot — in which case the soles of my feet were likely leaving a trail of dark footprints along the linoleum as I went — then I was wearing the cheap flip-flops that my mom would buy at the five-and-dime store for around 50 cents. The kind that squished when they got wet and had the hard piece of rubber separating the big toe from the others, creating a blister if you walked in them too long.

When we arrived at the kitchen, I lingered in the doorway. My mother couldn’t look at the deputies. Or at me. Her pale fingers — bare since she had pawned her rings — trembled as they gripped the counter.

The shorter deputy, the one closer to the doorway, looked at the spot where a refrigerator should have been. Then he surveyed the rest of the room, looking for something to write on his clipboard. The stove belonged to the landlord, so that was off-limits. Aside from that, the kitchen was empty. It had always been empty, unless you counted the hunger — followed quickly by disappointment — that filled the room every time we entered it.

The kitchen was at the back of the house. The deputies had gotten all the way through the first floor and still hadn’t written down a thing. One of them gave me a look and asked: “Do you have any bikes? TVs?” It was such a ludicrous question that I nearly laughed.

Then a wave of panic hit me. I had a worn-out stuffed animal — a cat that used to be pink but had gradually transformed to a shade of gray — that served as a sort of security blanket for my constant anxiety. I ran upstairs, afraid they might decide to put it on the list and stashed it at the back of the closet.

Turns out, the toy was in no danger. The deputies took one glance into our room — containing an old folding bed that my sister and I shared and our few articles of thrift store clothing stuffed in a cardboard box — and didn’t bother inspecting the closet.

Once they were gone, my mother went to her room. I retrieved my stuffed cat and clutched it tightly.

The next day, my mother still hadn’t emerged from her room. My brother and I walked across town to the magistrate’s office, to see the sale postings. We spotted the one with our name and address on the top. The rest of the page contained lines where the list of inventoried items was supposed to have appeared. Instead, someone had written, in all caps, in bold red marker, “NOTHING OF VALUE.”

I took some comfort in knowing I still had my only material possession, one that had precious value to me. My beloved stuffed cat was safe. At least until the next knock at the door.

Bobbi Dempsey is a writer in Pennsylvania.

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