At the height of the building boom, Mark Brandon crisscrossed the state and closed deals daily. • He helped secure mortgages for eager buyers. He wore suits as he signed off on sales. • Now the 41-year-old Riverview resident — a descendant of Brandon's founders — wears T-shirts and shorts on the job. Banks call him and ask for help. And this is how his days begin: "I walk into a house and think, 'Man, what happened to them?' " Then he gets to work. • The stench of rotten meat hangs in the humid summer air. Brandon stands beside stacks of trash bags covering the garage floor of a three-bedroom stucco house. As a field supervisor for his family's company, Total Clean & Restore, he secures and cleans up foreclosed properties so banks can put them back on the market.
And he sees what owners leave behind.
"There are some goodies waiting for you in that pile," his uncle, Al Collier, says.
It seems sweet on the surface. Butterfly pillowcases and Velcro shoes. But after a half-hour of hurling items into a trash bin, one member of the cleanup crew rushes outside and vomits.
"I can't handle that smell," says Mike Patterson, 30, who worked as a carpenter during the building boom.
Outside the garage, Trish Brandon — Mark's mom — looks on and offers advice.
"Definitely make sure you guys disinfect your feet," she says.
Underneath the garbage bags, they find packages of rotten turkey and chicken, with a dead snake beside them.
A morning jogger stops on the sidewalk and asks what happened.
"It was a foreclosure, so we're cleaning it out," Trish Brandon says.
The jogger watches the cleanup crew. He shakes his head. "Wow. They didn't take care of much, did they?"
• • •
Beside half-full bottles and cracker boxes on the kitchen counter, there's an Easter card with a photo of a smiling couple.
"I wonder if that's them," Trish Brandon says.
The ones who left behind tike-sized tents and a tiny New York Yankees lunch box, stuffed with baseball cards and felt-tip pens.
The ones who owned a Glenn Miller record and a magic wand filled with glitter.
The ones who took the refrigerator, left its contents beneath a pile of garbage bags on the garage floor and closed the door behind them.
"This is one of the worst ones I've done," Mark Brandon says. "This is a big one."
• • •
Sometimes owners leave homes in model condition.
Sometimes they rip out ceiling fans and stove tops.
Sometimes they leave an angry message, like a jam-packed refrigerator full of maggots or a chicken carcass with pins in its eyes.
The company charges a flat fee of $500 to $600 for basic cleanups but puts in a higher bid if more work is required, such as rebuilding pool fences or significant interior cleaning.
After a bank contacts them, they have 24 hours to secure the property and five days to clean it.
Business is booming, Brandon says. Since starting in November, they've handled about 150 homes.
It's a far cry from the work he did as a mortgage broker, real estate closer and notary.
"I don't think I ever want to do that again," Mark Brandon says. "This is my future. We just need to go where the market takes us."
In a back bedroom where the floor shines and the air smells like lemons, he flips a light switch and snaps a photo with his digital camera.
A Realtor stands outside, where the faint smell of rotten meat lingers.