Mother lives in a small wood-frame house in one of the older neighborhoods of East Austin. My brother, Goeff, and I grew up there. I remember it as a place where people watch out for each other, and gather in the street to discuss the looming specter of gentrification. When we were young, we played in the street, and our neighbors sat on their front porches in the cool of the evening and waved to those passing by. Even now, 40 years later, the neighborhood still retains some of its friendliness. Mother says that was why she will never leave.
Mother looks healthy for her age even though she walks with a slight limp. Each time I visit I notice small indicators that her age is catching up with her. A minor blood clot blinded her in one eye; her poor hands are crippled by arthritis, and she is deaf enough to need a hearing aid. Of course, she doesn’t have a hearing aid which often makes communications difficult. I don’t think that she is lonely because she has her white cat Fluffy. Personally, I don’t like cats, and I hate Fluffy. I can never recall a time when Mother didn’t have Fluffy, or one of her predecessors, perched on her lap taking a place where I wished to be.
Apparently Mother’s neighbor, Alice who lives across the street, is the first to notice that something was amiss. The house is dark; newspapers pile up on the drive, and mail begins to overflow the mailbox. When I go there she meets me and tells me her story. She has clearly already repeated it many times. To my surprise, she doesn’t ask me in but chooses to tell me her, oft repeated story, as we stand on her porch. She is agitated and closes her eyes from time to time as if she is attempting to relive her adventure.
“I approached Molly’s front door cautiously. I paused, to admire her geraniums and lantana blooming profusely on either side of her stoop. I rang the doorbell and getting no reply; I knocked. Still no reply; I called,
‘Hello, Molly, …Anyone home?’
I turned the door knob; the door wasn’t locked. I entered, and shouted,
‘Hello, Molly, …Anyone home?’
“I was getting anxious, but continued my search. Fluffy, your Ma’s cat, rubbed herself against my jeans, I could see white cat hair being deposited on them. The house had an ominous eerie feeling. It smelt vacant; I kept shouting,
‘Hello, Molly, …Anyone home?’
I didn’t wish to intrude but when I saw no one in the neat and tidy kitchen where a half drunk cup of tea stood on the table, I become more concerned and passed quickly to the master bedroom, still calling as I went,
‘Hello, Molly, …Anyone home?’”
At this point, in her narration Alice pauses, dabs her eyes and looks at me. I nod to reassure her that I wish her to finish her story. She sighs and continues,
“I saw her lying curled up on the bed. Of course, when I entered the house, I suspected something like this. I’ve seen death before, it has an odor, or presence, which emanates and pervades the air long before the, once live, body starts to decompose. Even with this ominous tell-tail warning, I wasn’t sure. I stepped up to the bed and touched her outstretched hand. It was cold. For a few moments, the universe seemed to stand still. Fluffy jumped onto the bed and started to mewl. That was the end for me; I grabbed Fluffy in my arms and left as quickly as possible. Of course, I called 911 and then your brother, Goeff.”
It pains me that she called Goeff rather than me; after all, I am local and Goeff isn’t. I may be the younger son, but surely proximity counts for something. I am angry and hurt on top of the sadness at Mother’s death. I want to shake Alice. I ask,
“Why didn’t you call me; I’m local after all?”
“Simple, you never gave me your contact information; Geoff did.”
I dislike her response. It is another example of how Geoff always does the right thing. I wonder how he manages. Alice offers to take in Fluffy and I agree. I secretly hope that she will be a nuisance and keep Alice on her side of the street. I retreat to Mother’s house and turn on the television; I need time to face what has happened.
It is amazing how quickly Goeff arrives fresh from the airport. He is pulsating with energy. He turns off the television, clears up my mess in the kitchen and opens beers for us both. We sit at the kitchen table and discuss what to do next. Soon we begin a systematic dismantling of their Mother’s possessions.
We rummage through Mother’s papers and find her Will. No surprise here except Goeff is the executor not me. Actually, I am hurt, not surprised – goody-goody Goeff, always the preferred one. It turns out that there is little estate. Mother’s house which we estimate is worth $400,000 has a $300,000 reverse mortgage against it. We uncover $100,000 in investments. We discuss what to do. I tell Geoff that I want the house. I tell him it’s for sentimental reasons and because my present apartment is so awful. He nods as though he understands but I know that he doesn’t. After all I suspect that he has all the money he needs while I am up to my ears in credit card debt and need some easy cash. Goeff must suspect my financial straits because he says that he understands about the house but says that the math just doesn’t work. I know that he is right. So, when he suggests that I take the $100,000 cash, I agree. He says that he will pay off the mortgage and either keep the house or sell it to recoup his $100,000. I hate it but agree. What else can I do with my credit rating?
We sort through Mother’s things agreeing as we go which things each of us will keep and which things we will dispose of by; garage sale, charity, or estate sale. I smart when we get to the photograph albums. There are three covering Goeff’s first year of life while my whole childhood is stuffed into one album in which most of the photographs are loose.
The kitchen and garage take forever but when they are cleared, we think that we have finished until Goeff suggests that we check the attic. It is a cramped space. We know that Mother didn’t like climbing the access ladder; and so, we assume it to be empty. It is almost so except for an old suitcase of our Father’s, a portfolio of etchings which he collected years ago and a box of his clothes. The suitcase is tattered and goes to charity, the clothes moth eaten with the elastic rotted by the heat; we trash them. We sit at the kitchen table and look at the etchings. They are black, or sepia, and white on scrappy pieces of paper. We recall how much Father loved these images of old buildings, of animals and of ancient people in old-fashioned clothing. I don’t want to keep any of them,
“Throw them out.”
“No,” says Goeff as he fondles the ancient paper, “Father was no fool, if he liked them so much they may be too good to toss. If it is okay with you, I’ll take them back with me. You never know they might be worth something.” I acquiesce. I marvel at Goeff’s persistence.
My birthday rolls around on April 1st and I find a letter in my mail box. The return address on the envelope is Goeff’s. I hold it up to the light and deduce that it is a birthday card. That Geoff always sends a birthday card every year, but as I am still seething with anger and jealousy, I place the envelope on my kitchen counter among my other papers. Perhaps I’ll open it one day but now my birthday makes me feel too dejected to do so.
I drive over to Mother’s place and park outside. The vacant house looks forlorn, the grass in the front long and un-kept. There was still no “For Sale” sign, which makes me wonder if Goeff has had a lapse in efficiency. Then it hits me, Goeff hasn’t been inefficient he has decided to keep the house for himself. Yep, he is keeping house that I so wanted. I know that he keeps it to spite me. I still have a front door key, and so I go inside. The empty rooms echo as I walk across the floor. I can almost feel the ghosts of the past whispering to me. That house ought to be mine. I am the one who should be living there. It crosses my mind that I don’t want anyone to enjoy this place, especially not Goeff. Over the next month, I make it a point to make a detour and go by every day on my way home. During that time, nothing changes except the house continues to beckon to me casting its spell.
Each visit I bring in miscellaneous flyers and papers, which have been delivered to the house. I place them on the kitchen counter next to a small stack of Goeff’s cards which he left on the counter. One day, I remember; it was May 1st, exactly a month after my birthday; I notice that we forgot to pack up Mother’s fancy toaster. It sits next to the pile of papers and winks at me. I decide to toast a couple of Goeff’s cards. It is good to see them burn. I take to toasting a couple of his cards each day. Each time they smolder and emanate a burnt paper smell along with a whiff of smoke. If I do more than four they give off a flame. Then, one day, about a week later, I place a few of the papers against the toaster, put in Goeff’s cards and push down the lever. I leave. I drive around the neighborhood and cannot resist returning to the fated street. When I see a small plume of smoke seep from the roof, I feel a pang of regret and then a sense of justifiable release. I drive back to my apartment.
For the first time since Mother died I am at peace. I am almost happy. Tomorrow I’ll drive by again. I’m sure that Alice will call Goeff and give him the news. I go to my refrigerator, pour myself a beer and take up Goeff’s birthday card. I am now ready to open it.
“My dear brother;
Happy, Happy birthday.
Good news, Father was right; the etchings were valuable and included several unique originals. I managed to sell them for $700,000 bringing Mother’s total estate to $900,000, I delayed telling you this great news as I wanted to give you a very special birthday surprise. For this birthday, I have thrown in $50,000 of my own money so that I can now enclose the deeds to Mother’s house. It is yours.
Since you love the place so much my hope is that you are able to live there, but it is yours, so do what you want with it.
One caveat, I took temporary insurance out to cover it through April. Come May 1st it is your responsibility. You have a whole month to do it -please don’t forget; insurance is important.
No need to call, I know how much you hate the phone.
May the house bring you much happiness!
Your loving brother,