THIS IS NOT MY BEAUTIFUL HOUSE
by Caleb Bouchard
What does one wear to the estate sale and auction of a well-regarded Atlanta attorney turned wife-murderer? This is the question I ask myself at six-thirty on a Saturday morning in August. I’m facing my open closet in my underwear. The open blinds letting in the pale morning light fail to faze me, despite the fact I’m almost fully naked. In my groggy, caffeine-deprived state, I’ve become absorbed by this issue of attire. Pictures from a Facebook album entitled “The Estate of Diane & Tex McIver” flash through my mind. An enamel wall plaque of a poorly drawn John Wayne is the first of the items to brand itself in my mind’s eye, followed by a set of three country western themed throw pillows, and a set of five identical blue denim shirts with the words Noddin’ Down Saloon in ropey script over the breast pocket. Since I’ve never been to an auction before —let alone an auction in the south — I consider the possibility that my subconscious is giving me fashion advice. I could take a hint from Tex’s red, white and blue wardrobe — from what I’ve seen online, he owned more than a few shirts colored with a Texas flag motif — and assume the majority of the visitors at ranch today will be sporting attire appropriate for a square dance. Cowboy boots, leather chaps, brown suede jackets with fringe tassels. Were I a strategic dresser, I would pull out my blue denim shirt, but what to pair it with? I don’t own a single pair of leather chaps, and I’d rather not water down the cowboy aesthetic by wearing a pair of my khaki shorts or corduroy slacks.
But then, another auction lot pops into my memory: the wedding dress worn by Diane McIver on the day she married Tex. Should this be my cue to wear my Sunday best? Can I expect to be turned away if I don’t arrive at the auction donning a black tie and jacket? I have no idea, but I suppose it’s possible. The sprawling eighty-five acre ranch brings to mind visions of Jay Gatsby’s mansion, had Gatsby considered himself a “good old boy,” instead of an “old sport.”
The smell of coffee which I’ve brewed wafts into my bedroom. Growing impatient with myself, I snag a white and grey striped t-shirt and a pair of shorts. Since the auction is to be held outside, under the minimal comfort of an open air tent, I figure it would be unwise not to dress for the hellish summer day ahead, which, I suppose you could say, is strategic dressing in a nutshell.
The grass is still dewey as I sidle up to a heather gray Chevy Impala outside the front gates of the McIver ranch in Eatonton, Georgia — a twenty minute drive from my apartment in downtown Milledgeville. Two middle-aged women in large brimmed hats sit statuesquely in the Impala. We’re the first customers on the second day of this three-day long affair. According to everything I’ve read online, a tag sale of household items began yesterday at 10 AM and will run through Sunday afternoon at four. Items of significant value, though, will be auctioned off today. These lots include fine art, furniture, accent decor, china, jewelry, Tex’s farm equipment, and, the biggest of the big ticket items, the estate itself. A large sign by the pokey two-lane country road advertises the real estate auction will take place on Saturday, August 4th, at High Noon. Considering the grisly circumstances that led up to this event, it’s hard not to cringe when I see this. Like many, I’ve only followed the TV and radio reports on the McIver case with a passive, cursory interest. Yesterday, when I first saw a newspaper headline that read “Visitors see inside McIver ranch,” I scratched my head and tried to remember where I had seen that name before. At home, I googled the name I had seen on the front page of the Eatonton Messenger. “Tex McIver sentenced to life in prison for killing his wife,” read one of the top results, an article from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Within seconds, I had my friend Darian on the phone.
“Oh my gah-ha-od,” Darian said. I could almost hear her jaw falling on the floor. “This can’t be real life.”
It should be said that Darian is the curious type of person that can binge-watch hours of Forensic Files and Dateline, then drift off to a sleep so deep and unperturbed it makes me wonder if these people actually take comfort in hearing about torturous trips down dark country roads, meticulously executed dismemberments, mold-speckled fridges stockpiled with human heads, bathtubs cleaned with bleach, and bed sheets stained with viscous mixtures of semen, blood, and tears. My mother, incidentally, is the same way. As a child, I was often lulled to sleep by the sultry voices of Keith Morrison and Ann Curry describing macabre crime scenes involving electrical tape and chloroform. I suppose you could say I’m also a member of this screwy tribe, if only by proxy. That said, I’m only interested in murder on a circumstantial level. I don’t care to hear about how the bodies were cut up, or the anarchist pap scrawled on the walls in the victim’s blood. These details make my stomach turn, and I avoid them at all costs. Rather, I’m interested in context, as well as the mundane asides that tend to get left out the history books. (Forget Helter Skelter; I want to know more about Manson’s perplexing connection to Dennis Wilson and The Beach Boys.) Darian knows this about me, and she was able to cater to my interests, mainly by focusing on the investigation and court proceedings following Diane’s death.
“He told investigators, ‘Guns aren’t really my thing.’ Can you believe that? He kept a revolver in the console of his car!” Just then, I received a Facebook message from Darian that led me to a photo album posted by the auction house handling the McIver estate. There, I had my first look of the items that would be up for auction.
“This is too rich,” I said, chuckling. “Did you see the wall plaque that reads ‘Honest Lawyer’?”
“Oh, that’s nothing. Wait until you see the door sign that says ‘We Don’t Call 911.’ I’d love to have that.”
At 8:10, there are close to twenty people milling around the front gates. Our cars are parked in janky angles on either side of the driveway. Men in ball caps grip onto Yeti coffee mugs and grumble to their wives, who clutch their purses and smooth out their colorful summer dresses. Everyone seems ticked that the gates haven’t opened at the advertised time.
“The website said the gates would open at eight for public parking,” one of the ladies with a large-brimmed hat reminds a security guard in smug tones. The guard, a young guy with spiky black hair and a well-defined jawline, says there’s a glitch with the remote that is keeping the gates from opening permanently, to let multiple cars in.
“We’ll have the problem fixed very soon,” he says, “I appreciate your patience.”
“I’m just reading what the website says,” the women retorts, swiping at her cell phone.
This complaint offers an easy segue to other frustrations and perceived slights that will be in store for the day ahead. The 18% buyer’s premium, for one, which will be applied to all auction items in addition to the hammer price.
“I don’t understand it,” says a woman in dark sunglasses. “Do they need that extra money? Really?”
Someone who was here yesterday for the tag sale mentions how awful the weather was. “Hotter than the devil’s armpit, but that’s Georgia for you. At one point it rained, so it was humid on top of that.” This person, a frail-looking woman with deep lines etched into her flat, bronzed face, brings up the Porta-Potties that visitors are required to use. “I hope they cleaned them since yesterday. The smell in there is unholy.”
At a quarter past eight, the gates open. We jump into our cars and a guard directs each driver to park on the grassy field surrounding a man-made pond. I peer into the brown water as I walk toward the house and spot a large catfish milling around the sandy edge of the pond. It grazes its back along the water’s surface, then slivers back to the pond’s muddy depths.
Underneath the shade of the expansive front porch, I take a seat on a white wicker chair that is most likely meant for a child. A heavyset black woman sits across from me in a larger, adult version of my chair; a woman I presume to be her sister stands beside her. She looks at me with kind eyes. She wears a stylish white pants suit and maintains a bob haircut with caramel highlights.
“Are you from Smyrna?” she says, sidling up beside me. I’m taken aback by her greeting words, though not necessarily in a bad way.
“No, I’m not,” I tell her. “But I’ve spent a lot of time there.”
“You look like one of my grandson’s friends,” she says. The heavyset woman in purple smiles contentedly at me, as if my face is a framed watercolor you might hang in your dining room.
“Are y’all from Smyrna?” The y’all is a new thing I’ve picked up since moving to middle Georgia for graduate school. The southern drawl spares no one in Milledgeville, even in the upper echelons of academia.
The woman gives me a look as if I’ve just challenged her to a game of Twister. This is a look I’ve seen a lot lately, when asking this a native middle Georgian. To be from anywhere else is an insult to them.
“We’re not, no, sir,” the woman with caramel highlights says, patting me on the shoulder. “We’ve lived in Milledgeville our whole lives. My daughter lives in Smyrna.”
We get to talking, and she tells me she and her sister — the woman in purple — worked on the grounds of Central State Hospital as file clerks in a detention center. “We saw men like Mr. McIver day in and day out. So sad. She’s dead and he’s in jail. It’s very sad.”
I tell her I can’t argue with that.
The middle-aged sisters pick up a new conversation between themselves, and I stand up to stretch my legs. Everything on the front deck that is not part of the house structure bears a red price tag, I notice. A life-sized driftwood horse sculpture. An antique dinner bell bolted onto a beam at the top of the front steps. Patio tables. The child-sized wicker chair I was just sitting in is one of a set of four. $85 is the asking price. Although nobody says it, nor is it printed on a banner in bold lettering, the message is clear: Everything Must Go.
It is not yet high noon, but outside it feels like it. The blinding yellow sun climbs higher and higher into the sky, sucking up the shade provided by large oak trees. Unseen cicadas buzz in their monotone, dread-inducing way. A bald man with narrow eyeglasses approaches the growing crowd on the front porch. He is wearing blue jeans and a fitted white dress shirt that exposes a tangle of silver chest hairs.
“That’s the man in charge,” someone whispers to their neighbor. “I’ve seen him on TV.”
The bald man waves and introduces himself as the owner of the Montgomery & Marple Auction Gallery. He gives a brief run-down of the day’s events.
“Please keep in mind that there are two lines. One for auction registration,” he motions to a white tent behind the house, “and one for the tag sale. If you know you want to register for the auction, do so as soon as possible. We’re expecting a big crowd today, and we have a small staff, so it might be a bit of wait, but we will be sure to take care of everyone. Thank y’all. We’ll be opening up the house shortly.”
The bald man walks off, and we split into two lines. Wives mumble to their husbands, unsure if they are in the correct line. A few bold souls wander around to the rear of the house, giving up their spot in line for the tag sale. A chrome food truck serving barbecue is stationed adjacent to the house; beside it, a man and women are in the process of pitching a rainbow-colored tent advertising Sno-Cones.
A skinny guy with tousled brown hair and green eyes smiles at me. He looks familiar, but I can’t quite place him. His white denim jacket and pockmarks aren’t characteristic of anyone I regular see. Perhaps I’m friends with his older brother or sister? I pull out my phone and pretend I don’t know him at all. It’s a low move, and it backfires immediately when he files in line behind me and says, “What’s up man?”
“Hey!” I exclaim, overcompensating for my ignorance. “What brings you out here?” I assume he’s enrolled at the same college I study at, but he isn’t. He tells me he’s grabbing audio for the Atlanta morning radio show he helps produce. I hit my forehead with my palm, remembering our mutual friends at the dive bar we used to frequent for karaoke.
“Trevor!” I blurt out, a complete non-sequitur.
Trevor chuckles. “Yeah man, it’s me.”
We move past my gaff, and I ask him how are things at the radio station.
“The whole McIver thing has been a big story at the station,” Trevor tells me. “The hosts love to make him the butt of their jokes.”
The line inches forward. The house is open for business. A white-haired police officer stands at the front door, counting heads as people enter. He holds up a large hand just as I’m about to cross the threshold.
“Only thirty-five at a time,” he says. His face is the color of salmon. His eyes are black buttons, so perfectly round and stitched in. A doll’s eyes.
While waiting, Trevor interviews the woman behind us in line, who says she is interested in picking up some “Indian artifacts.” She also complains about the weather.
The officer pokes his head into the house. “Okay, five more.”
Trevor and I shuffle into the foyer, followed by the woman on the lookout for Native American artifacts. The interior is like any other McMansion one might stumble into, however, here is the place has been halfway disemboweled. China cabinet doors and kitchen cupboards are wide open, their contents marked with orange price tags. A sign posted on a mahogany bookcase in the study informs shoppers that hardcovers are two dollars, paperbacks are one. RARE BOOKS: INQUIRE. In the living room, married couples sit on couches and chairs, testing for comfort. My eyes glaze over as I realize most of this stuff fails to fit into my obscure sense of style.
“There’s nothing for me here,” I tell Trevor, considering the overpriced china and outdated art prints. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I spot an animated Hank Williams Jr. action figure, decked out in dark sunglasses and lipstick red cowboy boots. I go over and press the button at the figure’s base. It jumps to life, rigidly shaking its hips while singing “All My Rowdy Friends.”
“Perhaps I spoke too soon,” I say, transfixed.
Upstairs, we wander into a child’s woodland-themed bedroom, furnished with a log cabin motif bunkbed and desk. Smiling bears and joyous moose fill the walls. Stuffed woodland creatures sit upright on the beds, price tags hang from their fuzzy brown ears. Later, I will learn this room belonged to Tex and Diane’s godson, whom they treated like their own child. In court recordings, his name is evoked time and time again by the Bruce Harvey —Tex’s defense attorney — as a means to shut down the prosecution’s case that Diane’s killing was intentional. Tex loved his godson more than anyone else in this world — the only exception, arguably, being Diane. Why would a rational man go out and do something that would jeopardize such a special relationship?
A strange, sad feeling coils in the pit of my stomach as I cross the hallway into the master bedroom. I hardly notice the bedroom itself, for I am drawn to the expansive open wardrobe on the far side of the room. Here, Tex and Diane’s everyday clothing are up for grabs, from their silk underwear to their horse-riding gear. Picking through the tops and bottoms, the gravity and general surreality of the scene fully sinks in: the estate sale of a couple who is only half-deceased. It feels intrusive and vaguely pornographic to be here, fingering sports jackets and ogling neck ties and sampling perfumes — participating in the dismantling of a family, the commodification that resulted from a horrible crime. I feel culpable, guilty in my own right. Just because Tex was convicted to be a cold-blooded murderer doesn’t mean Diane deserved to have strangers pick through her bras and jewelry. Cringing, I squeeze my way out of the walk-in wardrobe and dash downstairs. Talk about airing out your dirty laundry.
Half an hour later, Trevor and I sit in foldable plastic chairs, underneath a large, white, Methodist-revival-style tent. The air is sticky and stifling as the August morning unfolds into afternoon. Many fan themselves with their bidding paddles. High noon—and the house auction—is almost upon us, but first there is the business of the regular auction.
Not a minute after eleven, Mike, the bald auction gallery owner, steps up to a lectern, accompanied by a athletic fellow with a trim red beard and watery blue eyes. He is dressed in a slim fit Oxford shirt and jeans of a hue so blue they inspire patriotic sentiments. He, too, appears to be bald underneath his mesh baseball cap — albeit, his look seems to be cultivated, while Mike doesn’t seem to have much of a choice. After a few welcoming words, Mike introduces Ronnie, the athletic fellow: the auctioneer. It is Ronnie who sets the ground rules and expectations. Only raise your paddle or hand if you want to bid. The last person who raises a paddle/hand at the drop of the hammer is expected to pay for their item(s) that day, either by card, cash or check. There will be no waivers for the 18% buyers premium whatsoever. He’s not mean, per se, but there is an undeniable intensity about him that tells me he’s ex-military. Marines, probably. In his hands, the microphone appears to be less of an amplification device and more like a baton.
Once the crowd has been verbally domesticated by Ronnie’s stern monologue, the bidding commences. The first few lots are nothing to write home about. Wooden duck decoys. A crystal decanter. Hungarian silverware. Trevor bids on a stuffed armadillo and I bid on the country western themed throw pillows. We’re both respectively and swiftly outbid. When a series of firearms comes up on the lot list, I tune out. Guns aren’t really my thing, and unlike Mr. McIver, I mean this sincerely. My eyelids flutter as Ronnie The Auctioneer spouts impassioned locutions during a heated bidding war over a single barrel musket, or a pair of 19th century dueling pistols. I can’t remember which.
“350! Ain’t no friends at an auction — even if it’s your mamma! 375! It’s only money, folks! 400! Last chance, hoss…”
Soon after this exchange, a gumball machine Trevor has been eyeing comes up for bid. We sit up in our seats.
“Alright,” Ronnie says, “we’ve had a lot of folks asking about this one.” He contemplates the screen displaying a picture of the nondescript red machine. He strokes his red beard. “Let’s start the bidding at $100. Can I get one-hundred-un-dred-that’s-one-hundo-hhh-one…” Trevor lifts his paddle. Ronnie acknowledges him.
“Yessir!Gimme-one-twenty-five-ive-yyy-one-two-five…” Ronnie’s attention shifts to the other side of the tent. His eyes light up as he points out another bidder. “Now it’s one-fifty-iddy—a fine piece of machinery, folks!—kick-‘er-up-to-one-seventy-five—yessir, thank you, sir—TWO-hun’ed…”
“I’m out,” Trevor says, rising from his chair. “I’m gonna grab some more audio.”
We shake hands, and as Trevor walks off, Ronnie shouts, “Sold!” The hammer price is half of my monthly rent.
A few minutes before noon, a group of men in blue polo shirts crowd around the edge of the tent. They all share the same high-and-tight haircut, the same taught lips and predatory stare. Their leader, a tall man with a beefy chest and hard blue eyes, has the build and machismo of a WWE wrestler, or a mechanic. Take away his business casual attire and put him in a jumpsuit, he would also fit in well at a body shop, barking orders and replacing transmissions at lightning speed. I mentally dub him “Motor Head.” Compared to him, the other polo shirts are just goons, cronies, yet intimidating all the same. They’re not here to play games. They’re here to fuck shit up.
They’re here to sell a house, goddammit.
When the clock strikes noon, Motor Head sends over one of his men to whisper something in Mike’s ear. Mike nods, and Ronnie, without acknowledging Mike or Motor Head’s crony, introduces Hartfield Auction Company for the handling of the real estate auction. Motor Head and his men march forward as Mike and Ronnie fade back. The big dogs have arrived. Motor Head takes the mic, looks the crowd over, and begins with general remarks and ground rules. This, I assume, is pure spectacle. Before the auction, I heard, prospective house bidders were required to fill out enough paperwork to make an IRS auditor’s head spin. There have also been mumblings of credit reports and background checks. Perhaps Motor Head and his men personally collected blood samples and birth certificates? All of this is to say that when Motor Head lays out the terms and conditions, he’s mostly preaching to the choir: an elite, invisible few of us who can afford an eighty-five acre ranch, even at auction. Those who need to know about the small print are already in the loop.
“We’re here to represent the seller,” Motor Head states for the public record. “We’re here to sell this farm. We’ve met an awful lot of good folks out here. We’ve heard a lot of things. We know the good, the bad… but I’ll tell you this the good far outweighs the bad on this property.”
At this, the woman in front of me shifts uneasily in her seat, then leans over and whispers something in her husband’s ear. Someone standing at the back of the tent asks Motor Head about title insurance. The air feels heavy, and not from the humidity.
“A’ight. I’m gonna turn it over,” Motor Head declares. “I’ve preached, and I’ve prayed. And now it’s time to pass the plate. Here we go, boys.”
Motor Head plods off with his clipboard and the auctioneer, a rotund man with a goatee, takes the stage. The men in blue polos wade out into the crowd, whooping it up, serving as the auctioneer’s brash cheerleaders.
“Heyyyyy! What d’ya say?!”
“Hey hey hey hey!”
The bidding begins at $700,000. Not a minute later, Motor Head screams “QUARTER! QUARTER!” He yanks his fist in the air as if trying to start a chainsaw. The auctioneer acknowledges the $725,000 bid, then promptly nabs bids for $750,000 and $775,00. A one-two punch. A few feet behind me, a portly old man who bears a vague resemblance to Motor Head cries: “Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey!” His voice is reedy and shrill and cuts right through the swampy air. Motor Head points him out from across the room.
“Whatcha got, Pop?”
Heads swivel toward Pop. A pregnant pause envelopes the crowd. The persistent cicadas fill the silence as the old man catches his breath.
“Goodness me,” he finally gasps. “One million dollars!”
The crowd explodes with cheers and applause. A blue shirt with a white mustache does a little jig. Motor Head bears his teeth and roars, “Yee-aaaah!” The scene is downright primal.
The auctioneer continues his feverish bid calling, first asking for a million and a half, then a million and a quarter. His eyes scan the room for any signs of interest from the previous bidders, but it seems they’ve all bowed out. “A million-twenty-five-twenty-five going ONCE…”
“Hey! Hey!” The portly patriarch barks. “They know the swimming pool goes with it?”
“The pool does go with it. We’re giving ‘em the swimming pool! Million-twenty-five going TWICE!”
“Last man bidding will own the property!” Motor Head reminds the crowd.
The auctioneer echoes this statement, then adds: “You know what’s gonna happen, John?”
“I know what’s gonna happen!” Motor Head hollers.
“Six months, eight months, two years from now you’re gonna ride by this road, you’re gonna ride by this farm, and you’re gonna say ‘I should’ve, I could’ve…’ but it’s too late!”
“IT’S TOO LATE!” Motor Head shouts in this Come to Jesus moment. But no one approaches the proverbial alter.
“Million-twenty-five!” Sweat cascades down the auctioneer’s plum-colored face. “All in? All done? All satisfied? Last and final call, Burt, ya comin’ in? A million-twenty-five…”
“Just give it to him!” Pop pleads.
“All in? All done?” The Auctioneer waves his finger one final time over the crowd as Judgement Day approaches… “Sold! For one million dollars!”
An edifying applause fills the tent. Blue shirts swarm the back corner of the tent, joining Pop as he jumps up and down like an elated child on Christmas morning. I turn in my chair to spot the new homeowner, but in the hustle and bustle of handshakes and hugs it’s hard to see who is congratulating whom.
An exodus of people get up from their seats and wander off to the food trucks, leaving the tent half full. Those who remain are the seasoned, serious bidders, I gather — the ones who aren’t here for the spectacle, but rather for the sport of the occasion. Their auction lists are heavily marked in pen, their legs are crossed at jaunty angles, their craggy poker faces betray nothing about their intentions or desires. Sitting among them, I feel a surprising sense of camaraderie, though distant. Unspoken. These are the men and women still playing the slot machines at three in the morning, the barflies who have to be shooed out of the pub after last call. The relentless romantics, the persistent, patient dreamers, the handful of humanity that keep their butts in their seats and their eyes tilted upward, waiting and hungry for the next thing up on the auction block. It may not be a big, beautiful house with a cobblestone swimming pool and the country western saloon erected by a calculating wife killer. It may not even be an eighteen karat diamond ring, like the one that is now being presented (starting price: $2,000). But are these the things that truly matter in life? Or is it simply having the courage to raise your paddle, nod your head, or look up to the man with the hammer and give him a knowing wink: the sort of small but meaningful gesture that says, unequivocally, I’m in.
About the Author:
Caleb Bouchard is a first year fiction student in the MFA program at Georgia College. His nonfiction has recently appeared in Foliate Oak Literary Magazine. He is a Georgia native.