Tough Sell

Good deals. Bad behavior. Bygone lives. In the odd realm of estate sales Cynthia Abernethy is the queen

Photograph by Michael Kelley

Cynthia Abernethy wears a button pinned on either lapel to work. One reads I’m the boss, the other, No. When approached by customers seeking a deal or discount—queries she deems inane and unworthy of reply—she points an index finger to the second button and offers a smile. A woman who ventures, “I saw this bed for less on eBay—can I have a discount?” gets the button; so does a man holding out a blender, asking, “Will you sell this to me for a dollar?” Abernethy’s regular customers know the button is always waiting, and some try anything to make off with her merchandise cheap. They switch price tags. They hide items before a half-off sale, then return to retrieve them and the markdown. They lug boxes of goods to her register, stowing something expensive in the last, hoping Abernethy will shrug off the chore of addition and offer a bulk price instead. Caught stealing—even whining about a price—a customer risks public humiliation. “One day,” says Abernethy, “this really dirty, supercheesy guy was complaining for the fifteenth time my prices are too high. I said, ‘That’s it—you’re done. Get out and don’t come back.’ I noticed his fly was open, and while he’s leaving I yelled, ‘And another thing—your zipper is open!’ ”

Abernethy is an estate sale operator—someone who gets paid to enter the home of a deceased or downsizing person, clean, organize, and price the innards of the house, and then sell off everything to the public, usually in a day or two. The term “estate sale” can be alluring, and it is often misused. “A lot of people throw it out there because they think it sounds classier and upscale,” says Abernethy. Craigslist regularly features “estate sales” that are nothing more than driveways overstocked with children’s toys and ratty chairs. But the term is a legal distinction signifying that the entire contents of a home, sometimes 30, 40, even 50 years of accumulation, are for purchase.

No one knows how many individuals and companies stage estate sales in L.A., but the likely number is around 50. Any week of the year you can spot more than a half-dozen local sales advertised on Craigslist and Sometimes they are at fantastic Bel-Air palaces, with Louis XVI furniture, closets spilling out Gucci, and live koi with price tags in the pond. Rarely they are at the homes of the famous, like the weekend Artie Shaw’s belongings went for sale, including his clarinet, a pair of alto saxophones, one grand piano, and some pots and pans to bang on. Such sales can bring in as much as a half-million dollars. More often than not, they are at regular homes on everyday streets and net $3,000 to $10,000. An operator like Abernethy takes a third of the proceeds.

Industrious loners who make a living reselling on the Internet go to estate sales. So do average couples killing an afternoon, antiques dealers, record collectors, and those whose weekends seem to revolve around entering the vacant homes of strangers. (The typical profile is a goateed man who has been a lifelong member of the L.A. Conservancy, attends vintage paper fairs, and has a tiki bar built into his one-bedroom apartment.) They have mapped out the city and know what to expect from a sale’s address. Sherman Oaks and Encino are supposedly good for divorce sell-offs. In Beverly Hills and Brentwood you’ll see a lot of high-end stereo components and century-old divans that have been reupholstered a dozen times. Baldwin Park and El Monte are great towns if you want secondhand tools. West Hollywood isn’t worth the time—nobody lives there long enough. San Marino may not contain the finds of its past, but a special respect is still held for the rest of the San Gabriel Valley. It is there, particularly in foothill communities like Altadena and Sierra Madre, that the best estate sales are said to happen, in the homes of couples who haven’t tossed out a thing since the 1950s. Abernethy lives in Sierra Madre and stages most of her sales in the San Gabriel Valley. An operator might hold a dozen events in as many months and say she did well. Last year Abernethy put on 54 sales—more than one a week. She is called the “Queen of the San Gabriel Valley.” 

Abernethy is 51 years old, tall and slinky, with a big head of chestnut hair and a weakness for three types of footwear: black cowboy boots, brown cowboy boots, and red cowboy boots. She appears to own a pair of jeans in every color of the spectrum, wears black leather jackets, a bright shade of red lipstick, waist-hugging tops with intricate brocade designs, and because of all this, looks sexy and tough and pretty much like an ex-member of the Runaways now in semiretirement. (Men who have known her for years assume she is in her thirties.) She is direct and sometimes prickly, a woman seemingly born sure. In an old Howard Hawks movie she would have been cast as the straight-shooting heroine—say, Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday, breezy but intolerant of dunces, with a wry smile and a staccato tongue. Abernethy’s cadence naturally tugs on every fourth or fifth word—“My competitors are antique dealers, and some can be hoarders and want to keep and touch the stuff, but I just want to make money.” On a first listening it sounds like the patois of the San Fernando Valley, circa 1980, but it is more akin to Monument Valley, circa 1880—the tune of the west. “I’ve always thought of Cynthia as half Valley girl, half cowgirl,” says Charles Phoenix, the author and retro-slide showman. “She has a smirky attitude, but she’s kind of a salt-of-the-earth person. If I accidentally cut off my arm, I’d call her, because she’s practical and I could count on her to know what to do.”

Abernethy covets few things at her sales—lightbulbs, laundry detergent—but has many dislikes. She does not like people who ask to use a home’s bathroom. Once, at a sale where the line of customers outside was long and unmoving, a woman asked if her elderly mother could be let into the bathroom. “She’s the one who plugged up the plumbing last time!” Abernethy called out. “I’m not letting her into this house!” She dislikes women who bring big purses into sales, because of thefts, and has the same feelings for small children, because she’s never warmed to the idea of them. (“A condom could have prevented that,” she’s been known to say upon seeing a child.) Recently after an Abernethy sale, someone posted this comment on Craigslist: “You are soo rude. How dare you tell a small child not to play with a box of clothes and how you dont like children to come to Estate sales. You sure are one bitter person!!!” She hates dolls and a world where women collect them. “There is something really innately strange about adult women dressing up dolls and playing with them,” she told me one afternoon. At the time we were standing in a bedroom stuffed with dolls that Abernethy was busy pricing. “I hate everything in here,” she announced. “I don’t even want to deal with it.” Her favorite kind of client, she says, “is a dead person,” and the worst house she ever took on contained 50 cats. “Basically there are two kinds of people,” says Abernethy. “Dog people and cat people. Cats have been medically linked to schizophrenia. Think about it.”

Abernethy doesn’t advertise in the phone book and has no Web site. She will post an estate sale on Craigslist, but most of her customers have signed up to be notified through e-mail. About 3,500 names are on Abernethy’s current list, though she regularly removes people for bad behavior. One day at a Hacienda Heights sale, I watched as a woman who’d switched price tags on a bronze floral wreath attempted to get 

the sham past the NO button. “Take her off the list,” Abernethy shouted. “Right now!” Regardless of her temperament, Abernethy maintains a core following of devotees who admire or fear her and who recall her most memorable sales as if they were once-in-a-generation rock concerts. They say she can size up a home’s inventory like no one else. They say she never overcharges. They say that what appears at first glance to be intolerance is truly Abernethy’s unshakable sense of right and wrong—a morality forged from the job’s absurdities. Chris Green, a Pasadena graphics designer who has suffered the indignity of being kicked out of an Abernethy sale for bathroom use, says, “She can be mean. She teases me, tells me I’m cheap. But she’s very straightforward, and she’ll give you great deals. In a sense she’s a little like Simon on American Idol—it just makes your life more interesting to know her and go to her sales.”

Abernethy’s regulars nurture secret theories about her life. They believe she’s a member of the Elks (she’s not), think she feuds with the editor of Sierra Madre’s paper (she doesn’t), and have heard that her father was once mayor of the town (it was her father-in-law). The truth is, she lives in a modest 1920s single-story home along with her weimaraner, Gracie, and her husband, Stephen, a retired police lieutenant. She has spent her entire life around Sierra Madre and seems to know nearly every member of the leafy community. On a rainy afternoon Abernethy was preparing to leave a local coffeehouse named Bean Town. Almost everybody inside was appropriately outfitted for another coffeehouse—one on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley a few decades ago. Abernethy was cloaked in a striking black calf-length coat with a plush fur collar. On her way out she stopped short, saying, “Oh no—it’s Katrelya.” A small woman dressed in lavender came through the door, wearing a flapper cap and a large button that read FUR with a diagonal line crossed over it.

“Hi, Katrelya,” Abernethy drawled. “What’s the button for?”

“It means no real fur,” Katrelya replied, blind to the setup.

Abernethy smiled, ran the back of her hand over the fleece rimming the neckline, and said, “Oh, sorry about that!” Then she pirouetted on one toe like a runway model and was out the door.


A few days later I attended an Abernethy sale in the flats of Arcadia. A family of four was relocating to Peru and wanted everything they owned sold off to avoid the moving costs. (Abernethy had special instructions from the husband to get rid of his mother-in-law’s bed; price was no object.) The house was a standard model for the area, a four-bedroom suburban ranch, and it sat just east of Santa Anita Park on a quiet street that would have been unremarkable if not for a line of a hundred people waiting on the sidewalk as Abernethy set out her tables by the garage. Near the head of the line two women craned their necks to catch the action in the driveway.

“Oh no! It’s a Cynthia sale!” gasped the first woman, holding up her purse and looking like she was about to hyperventilate. “But I have a big purse today.”

“Yep,” her friend nodded grimly. “She’s not going to let you in.”

Abernethy was in tan jeans and a long-sleeved paisley shirt. She was giving last-minute instructions to her four assistants, who on that day were either blond and zaftig (Gilda, Linda) or small and brunet (Rita, Marcella). Part of Team Abernethy, they help her organize a sale, then police it and watch for anyone who might be a PITA, code for Pain in the Ass. At the top of the hour Abernethy strolled to the sidewalk, hitched her thumbs in her pockets to say hello, described the house’s contents, and then let 50 or so people through the door.

Instant mayhem ensued. What had been a family home yesterday was now a store with a discount tag on everything—the plasma TVs, the blue leather couches, the All-Clad set, children’s clothes, yard tools, cereal boxes, even a half-empty jar of Vaseline. People shot out in every direction like marbles, staking claims wherever they could. In the kitchen a woman wearing a beige jogging suit began yanking silverware drawers off their tracks, dropping them with a bang onto the countertop. Another woman, who sported a Betty Crocker cookbook under one arm, leaned over her shoulder and asked, “Are you taking that serving spoon?”

“I’m taking the whole set!” barked the first woman, slamming her palms onto the counter for effect.

Outside, in a corner of the patio, a large woman had body-blocked some sturdy-looking garden chairs and was speaking into her cell phone: “You know how our chairs are always breaking when guests come over? Well, we could use these for really fat people.” Beside her a woman in a Northwestern T-shirt and a black hijab was pulling leaves off a ficus, intently examining each like she was kicking the tires on a potted plant. An elegantly attired Chinese woman wearing a string of pearls zipped past, clutching to her chest an open box of kosher salt as if it were the find of a lifetime.

Everyone seemed to be wearing a similar expression—wide-eyed, hot, distracted. Before them, in any direction they chose, awaited a hallway or room or toolshed loaded with bargains. Yet wherever they looked they saw a dozen competitors milling about in the same predicament. Unlike the woman bagging up the silverware, most had arrived without a shopping list, meaning they were here for nothing and everything—magnetically pulled by each item and threatened by every attendee. A walker priced to move at $8? A garlic press big enough to smash a yam for $3? Several times I watched as customers handed their money to Abernethy, then held up a just-purchased item to ask, “What could I do with this?”

By their nature, estate sales foment feelings of anxiety and need in the customers—entwined emotions that are a boon for people like Abernethy. They are the cost-efficient equivalent of staging a store’s grand opening at 9 a.m., then putting out a sign at 10 that reads Must Go Out of Business Tomorrow! An excellent version is regularly produced by a competitor of Abernethy’s, Hughes Estate Sales. Hughes will cherry-pick the best items from three or four homes, and then—inside a small warehouse space—put together a one-off consignment store with a life span of, say, 72 hours, complete with coffee, doughnuts, and a woman in hot pants wiggling her hips on the highway median with a pointer sign. The morning I arrived at the Altadena operation, it was obvious the company had access to some better homes. On display were finely carved teak tables, Craftsman pottery, delicate Asian ceramics, and mission oak furniture—all laid out with the precision found in Melrose Place boutiques.

Nothing, however, was inexpensive. The prices seemed to be around what you would expect in any antiques mall, but dozens of people already waited near the exit with boxes of purchases. The profusion of smaller operations like Hughes’s and Abernethy’s over the last couple decades has placed pressure on the owners of collectibles stores. Dennis Clark, whose shop, Off the Wall Antiques, has been on Melrose Avenue for 31 years, says, “Let’s face it—the estate sale is a tremendous business model. But you don’t have to buy anything, you don’t have to warehouse anything.” Clark and his partners recently bought a spectacular piece from a Toluca Lake estate sale—a peach-colored art deco wall unit, 20 feet long by 10 feet wide. It was from a home that once belonged to Paul Mantz, a stunt-pilot partner of Amelia Earhart’s, and features a portrait etched in frosted glass of Earhart soaring through the clouds. Off the Wall will have to spend thousands of dollars to move and store the unit before it can be resold. “In the old days,” says Clark, “we just needed the shop to survive. Now we need the store, the warehouse, the Web site, eBay, Craigslist, and antique conventions to get by.”

In Arcadia a noisy fight over a fruit picker broke out behind Abernethy’s station. She ignored it. The woman wearing the hijab was at the cash box for a second time, carrying matching lamps. “I thought these were carved wood when I bought them earlier,” she said, hesitantly. “But I see now they’re hollow ceramic. I want to write a new check for a lower price.”

This was bona fide PITA behavior. “If you’re saying you’re returning them, that is going to make me very unhappy,” Abernethy told her flatly. “I will look unfortunately on you in the future.” (After the woman left, Abernethy said, “That really torques me—I’ve looked at her checks before, and the address is a community in the hills where the houses start at $3 million.”) Inside the garage a ruckus exploded. Gilda could be heard shouting, “You’re out! You are out! A tiny gray-haired woman shrouded in black emerged from the dark with an armful of knickknacks and a large owl statue. Gilda—hair flying, index finger pointed at the street—was right behind her. Everyone froze to watch the drama unfold.

“You do this every time,” said Gilda, almost shaking.

“No, I don’t!” protested the old woman, stroking the owl as if it were a wounded pet. “These are only worth $17, not $18. You’re cheating me!


Abernethy turned to me and smiled. “That one’s a millionaire, too,” she said. “Does this every sale. Once she approached me with six greeting cards and asked, ‘How much?’ I told her a quarter each. She bought one, hid the other five in the house, and returned the next day when they were half-priced at twelve-and-a-half cents. What a deal.”         


Cynthia Abernethy owns six cars. She drives a Crown Vic (for long-haul trips), a Jaguar (for going out to dinner), a Scottsdale pickup (for estate sale work), a station wagon (for shopping), a convertible T-Bird (for beautiful days), and a three-wheeled electric cart (for puttering around town). Following high school, she earned an art degree at Cal State Long Beach, but finding few illustration jobs, soon fell into remodeling cars with a boyfriend. “He was the youngest licensed car dealer in California,” says Abernethy. “He got his dealer’s license at 16. We’d buy cars, fix ’em, and flip ’em.” When Abernethy got bored with cars, she began remodeling boats, and when boats weren’t enough, she bought a small company that made fruit juicers. In 1991, after 13 years of partnership, Abernethy left her boyfriend, and life as she knew it ended. “That was like quitting your job, changing your house, and totally starting over,” she says. “All at one time.”

Her mother was a receptionist at an Arcadia real estate office. She kept a side business producing estate sales for clients of the company’s agents. “She didn’t really know what she was doing,” says Abernethy. “I started working with her for $5 an hour and thought, ‘I can do this.’ ” Abernethy learned how to appraise everything: a vintage bamboo fly rod, an 18th-century beading plane, a Sylvester the Cat Pez dispenser. Before the Internet, three annual publications held a monopoly on how antiques and collectibles were valued in America: Davenport’s Art Reference & Price Guide maintained indexes of the works of tens of thousands of artists, and for everything else—from old porcelain to circus catalogs—editions of Kovels’ and Schroeder’s were consulted. “You relied on those books,” says Abernethy. “Then the Internet came along and changed everything so profoundly, it’s frankly unbelievable.”

By the late ’90s, the old guidebooks had been superseded by eBay. Abernethy could instantly dial up the price of, say, a 19th-century chequer paperweight—the value of which fluctuated with the Web’s hourly pulses, not the yearly rhythms of the publishing industry. For everyday household items she learned what the market would bear. “After selling 500 blenders, I’ve realized that the standard price for one is eight bucks,” she says. “At ten bucks they don’t move.” Thus, an iron sells for $4, a pair of women’s gloves for $3, and a box of salt for $1, though the right address can boost the figure. “In Newport Beach,” says Abernethy, “people will pay twice what they will in Garden Grove for a box of cereal.” While she learned pricing, Abernethy used her design sense to arrange sale items on tables; she is fond of the color wheel, onyx statues giving way to purple stemware, blue china dissolving into red linens, and so on. “I liked the job because I could make order out of chaos,” says Abernethy. “I liked it because it was fun, it was social. Plus it stops me from getting fat.”

On a February morning Abernethy pulled the Scottsdale into the driveway of a shuttered La Crescenta home. She was followed by her team, who were ready to begin cleaning the house and organizing its rooms for a sale. Sixty percent of Abernethy’s work is referred to her by a pool of about a hundred real estate agents. Another 20 percent comes from repeat customers or people she knows, and the remainder is set up by court-appointed attorneys and professional trustees. Until recently the home in La Crescenta had belonged to a single 55-year-old registered nurse; in October she’d succumbed to brain cancer. As Abernethy searched for the door key, each woman began calling out her duties. “I’m a Windex and ammonia girl,” said Gilda. “I’ve got kitchen.” Abernethy opened the door and was met by a palpable odor. “Old-lady, closed-house smell,” she said approvingly. “I can now distinguish the smells of old lady pee, cat pee, dog pee, and rabbit pee. It’s true.”

All the drapes were drawn, but in the pallid gloom you could make out every clock in the house—each an hour late, still set to daylight saving. Sealed off for months, the house now lived on its own time. Homes of the deceased become time machines; they take us into the past. We learn, for example, that as much as we are fascinated today by midcentury design, families who decorated homes in that period were interested in American colonial and Victorian styles. For many estate sale goers, the draw of these homes is archaeological. “If thrift shops are the equivalent of a community college course in consumerism,” says Charles Phoenix, “then estate sales are university, where you get your doctorate.” Each is a window into the private warp of the faceless plain of mass culture. “These houses become museums of the dead,” says Phoenix, “their owners, the curators once they vanish. They’re fun, but they can give you a real sense of your own mortality.”

Abernethy moved through the rooms, opening the curtains, filling the house with sunlight. In her hand she carried a copy of the clutter-hoarding scale published by the National Study Group on Chronic Disorganization. It identifies five levels of household hoarding, from “Normal housekeeping” and “No odors” to “Human defecation” and “Pets dangerous to occupants.”

“A lot of people who work swap meets are hoarders,” she said. “They overprice the merchandise so it won’t sell, then stuff their homes with it. People who rescue pets they can’t give away? Smoke screen—hoarder.”

“I think this place is a two,” Gilda shouted from the kitchen.

“I think it’s a three,” cried Rita, who’d just found a dead mouse.

“Remember that house where we used a leaf blower on the living room?” asked Gilda.

“We’ve had bathrooms we could not enter and rotting food,” said Abernethy. “But this place is not bad. I’d say it’s a one and a half.”

In death the house’s former owner had become a mystery. All that remained to reveal her gone self were what knickknacks had been left on the credenza. Abernethy has made surprise discoveries: $22,000 in bills, once, stashed under the carpet; $100,000 on another occasion, hidden throughout the house. In La Crescenta Abernethy came upon wildly colored pairs of cowboy boots—green and purple, teal and pink. “I had heard she really liked to go country-western dancing,” she said, examining a boot.

“Those are some nice boots there,” said Gilda, entering the room.

Yeah,” Abernethy said. “Nice for little people with skinny size 8 feet. Us tall freaks need bigger boots to balance our bodies.”

A framed poster from Chez Panisse’s fourth-anniversary celebration was found (eight courses: $10), along with a riding award from the Southern California Half Arabian Association and a prominently displayed copy of Our Bodies, Ourselves. Abernethy held up a red, white, and blue bra and a pair of panties with a bright green-and-red Christmas ribbon sewn on the front panel. “Nurses are always around the flesh,” she said. “They tend to be on the kinky side.”

A stuffed Kelty backpack was discovered by the bed; for a novice it was easy to conclude that the woman had been a dancer, a foodie, an equestrian, a feminist, a sexually active holiday lover, and a hiker. Abernethy glanced at the Kelty and said, “Yeah, well, I started noticing after the big earthquake that old people kept stocked backpacks nearby, like they were ready to head for the hills.” Ascertaining who the occupant had been in life seemed impossible. Standing in her absence, surrounded by the forsaken sums of her life, I felt sad and a little crummy.

“Doesn’t being around all this death ever bother you?” I asked Abernethy.

She looked at me as if I was insane.

“No—it’s a job,” she said. “It doesn’t bother me at all.”


The origin and evolution of estate sales is murky, but no doubt they are an offshoot of the great English auction houses, Christie’s and Sotheby’s, and their now-defunct American counterpart, Parke-Bernet. Where Georgian furniture and Regency bric-a-brac were once hauled from country manors to city salesrooms for bidding, by the middle of the last century auction houses had initiated a shift. They bypassed the moving costs, selling off Meissen vases and tulipwood side tables in the grand halls of the villas themselves. From there it was a short jump to jettisoning the auctioneer and slapping a sales tag on a pair of ormolu wall lights.

In Beverly Hills a man named Lloyd Gordon invited me to see an estate sale he was organizing north of Santa Monica Boulevard. It was in a cute little number that Christie’s once might have taken on: 6,000 square feet of mansion built in 1925, a former residence of Chico Marx that sat beside the forgotten lair of the Menendez brothers. Gordon—diminutive, enthusiastic, and fiftyish—led me through the home, munching on a banana while pointing out everything his team had worked to price during the last three weeks: Persian rugs, wingback chairs, a library of leather-bound books, handwrought copper vessels (“There’s still a market for that stuff on Montana Avenue, where they’re into Laura Ashley,” he said). Gordon showed off 13 sets of china, hundreds of pieces of fabulous costume jewelry, and out by the pool, a 1983 Rolls-Royce with 32,000 miles on the odometer. We eventually halted inside the pool house, where Gordon stood beneath the mounted head of a sleek chocolate-colored game animal with spiraling ebony horns. “I’ve got to find out what that thing is,” he said, looking up. “An exotic name would really help with the price.”

The house was a stunner, making one aspect of Gordon’s job that much harder. “The best addresses in Beverly Hills get the most haggling in the city,” he said. “I have to throw people out all the time. We check handbags for theft, and we have armed guards at the door for a sale like this.” The next weekend, after someone in line began yelling to be let in, Gordon decided to prevent the man from entering the sale. The customer, in turn, called the Beverly Hills Police Department for a cruiser to intervene.

Gordon has found that what sells well in New York will not sell in Beverly Hills, and what people pay premium prices for in Beverly Hills will always go for less in Studio City. “All pricing is regional,” he said. “It’s amazing how different buying patterns are for people on either side of the hills.” Because of the Internet, however, everything at estate sales, no matter the region, is selling for a bit less these days. Abernethy must price items 10 percent below what they’re going for on eBay, and Gordon says, “A lot of collectibles markets, like ‘pressed glass’ and ‘occupied Japan,’ became saturated after eBay and tanked in value. Everyone watching Antiques Roadshow has raided their attics for what they can sell.”

Estate sale numbers have soared in the last two decades. But their aficionados—Abernethy’s fans who came of age collecting ’50s kitsch like boomerang tables before graduating to the elegance of Mies van der Rohe and George Nelson—have discovered that the gold rush is over. Most homes of the Greatest Generation have been mined out. The next time we see a collection that could furnish a John Lautner pad may not be for another three decades, when today’s devotees start dying off. By then no one will care. “What our parents collected,” says Gordon, “we don’t. And what we collect, our children won’t want.”

Still, one of the last sales of Abernethy’s I attended—on a eucalyptus-lined street in Claremont, two blocks north of the university—proved to be a midcentury trove. A single woman in her eighties was entering an assisted living facility, and the interior of her home was a timepiece stopped in 1964. In the cold Abernethy laid out impulse buys on her table while Gracie the weimaraner, tied to a chair, made little noises about the weather. “What are you squeaking for?” Abernethy asked lovingly.

Inside, people began scrambling for the I. Magnin cocktail dresses, the framed Chinese prints, the Yamaha organ and piano. Four decades of intellectual life were quietly being ignored—Mary McCarthy, Joseph Heller, Norman Mailer, Studs Terkel, Simone de Beauvoir, Angela Davis. In the kitchen a food diary from 1976 was opened randomly to June 11:

Bacon, toast, four ounces of milk
Chicken w/ mayonnaise, celery, and tomatoes
Rice, broccoli spears salad, cantaloupe
Snacks: martinis—naughty!

Other Abernethy houses could be depressing. “This is all a person can make of a life?” one wondered upon exiting them. We decorate our homes to inform ourselves who we are; when we leave them, their interiors—more than anything else—are monuments to our vanished existence. In the Claremont home, as several women ripped open the corners of the kitchen and an intimate story of a single year was cast aside, it was easy to think: “This is how an accomplished life is finally scattered? In a day? To strangers? Lost among a hundred anonymous hands?”

Outside, Abernethy was in a good mood, doing brisk business. A man dressed like a painter approached her with a builders level. “There was no price tag on this,” he ventured. “I think it’s worth a dollar.”

Abernethy shot him a look—everything had been tagged—then examined the level. “This is an American-made level,” she announced. “It’s five bucks.”

Caught, the customer grinned sheepishly. “You probably want to hit me on the head with that thing now,” he said.

Abernethy gave a wry smile and took his money. “Oh, that’s not precisely what I was thinking of doing with it,” she said.            

Dave Gardetta is a writer-at-large for Los Angeles magazine. He wrote about the California desert in the February issue.

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