Found: Fiction & Poetry Anthology
 

The Inheritance

by Lucille Gang Shulklapper

 
  Fall 2012 Fiction & Poetry Anthology  |  Contents  |  Authors  |  echapbook.com  |  Roommates by Lucille Gang Shulklapper

 

Leah Blume belonged to The Will of the Month Club. In the one year of our actual relationship, she threatened to change her will (I’ll cut you out of it... I thought you were such a bright girl) every time I wouldn't visit her instead of my mother. She dangled butchered relatives before me to demonstrate her razor-edged skill.

“Look at my cousin Mildred,” she'd say, “So what if she has trouble walking. She doesn't have to walk to California. I needed her to take care of me. I'm the one in so much pain. I cut her right out when she stopped visiting me. She doesn't fool me with that arthritis story.”

At times Leah clutched her heart when she spoke. It looked like theatre to me, the classic motion to engender guilt, but it wasn't, it was real... cramping that shut out blood, left her gasping. The cramping pinched her face; surprisingly, the skin was smooth, even soft, as it fell back onto its own familiar lines. The eyes were sharp, focused clearly; the voice plosive, unfailingly clear.

As for me, I thought I’d been written out a long time ago. I don’t mean written out of her will. I mean written out of her life. She was pretty surprised to see me, her brother's child, when I turned up in Los Angeles a year before she died.

I wanted to tell her how much I needed some connection to the father and family I sorely missed, and how I yearned for photographs and stories. Would it matter to her that I was expecting my first grandchild, that I was in my early fifties, and still felt like the “girl” she called me?

I glanced around the room and didn’t see photographs anywhere. Aunt Leah’s eyes drilled through me.

“I don’t know why you're here, Joanna. It's seventeen years since I've seen you. I'm leaving all my money to charity. You're too late. You're not getting a penny.”

“I didn't come here for money,” I stammered. It sure was hard to believe she even had any, looking at the threadbare brocaded chair, the worn slipcovers.

“Where were you when Uncle George was dying? Didn't you know he was ill? I had round the clock nurses for him. Didn't your mother tell you he died?”

“No,” I answered but she went on as though I hadn't.

“I never thought I'd see you again. After all I did for you... giving you all those beautiful things from my home... the damask tablecloths, matching napkins. Your sister told me you never wanted to see me again.”

“I never said that. I never understood why I didn't hear from you after my sister died. I never said that. Ardyth told you I never wanted to see you again?”

“Yes.”

Anger filled me like air pumped into a flat tire. “Did you know Ardyth was institutionalized?” I shot at her.

“What are you talking about?”

“Did you know Ardyth lost touch with reality? Mad,” I yelled into Leah's stunned face. “She went mad. You know, craaaazy.”

“No,” Leah protested.

“It happened in early March. It had been raining all night and into the next morning. Ardyth, was wearing a thin nightgown when she got out of bed, walked out the front door, and stepped barefoot into the puddles all the way down her street. The police...”

“Not Ardyth. She had so much promise. She had...”

“The police picked her up. She spent six weeks in the psychiatric wing of the local hospital.”

“What about her children? Her husband?”

“Oh, God. Stuart! Cheap bastard! Never bought her a thing. Used to count the meatballs when we ate there. And love.... he... wouldn't sleep in the same room with her when she needed him most. I never saw him kiss her.”

“Why didn't...”

“I can't talk about it anymore. Too painful. I'm only telling this to you now because Ardyth lied to you. I never said I didn't want to see you again. She was sick when you saw her last.”

“I didn't know.”

“She died a year later,” I said, reaching desperately into the deep pocket of my skirt for a tissue. “Suddenly. On a bus in New York. “

“ I... didn't know.”

“ And I didn't know why I hadn't heard from you. I felt so alone. Didn't have the strength to pursue my relationship with you. Too grief-stricken. But, I've looked for you many times.”

“Where? Not here. You never called here.”

“Last year, when Florence's daughter Beth was married, I looked for you at the cousins' table. I never said I didn't want to see you again.”

Leah turned her head away, then, back again.

I met her gaze. “Aunt Leah,” I said softly, “ I've always wanted family and you're all I've got. That's why I'm here. I want to hear stories about my father, what he was like when you were children. A young man. I want to see photographs. I was hoping you might even give me a few.”

“I don’t have many photographs. Don't even know where they are.”

“O.K.,” I said, angered by her coldness, her measured tone, and by my own need to know, “I'll tell you something else. “I always wanted to know if... you would have given Ardyth and me a home... after my father died... when I thought my mother...”

“That selfish child,” Leah muttered under her breath.

“Might abandon us.”

I had revealed my deepest childhood fear. Her response revived my anguish. A little child, again. Abandoned, again.

“How is your mother?” she asked.

“Going blind. Walks with a cane. Sometimes she needs a wheelchair.”

“I hear she has emphysema.”

“That, too.”

“Does she have money? “ Leah asked. “Joyce married my brother for his money.”

“She has enough to live on. Her last husband left her with a comfortable income.”

“Your mother always lived it up. Wouldn't make lunch for your father. He'd eat that greasy food at the luncheonette when he had a bad heart. I used to come all the way from Brooklyn to bring him lunch. He loved the way I made chicken soup. And she had a maid, too. My poor brother. I don’t know why he married her.”

I caught my breath. “Maybe he loved her,” I said.

Leah didn't hesitate. “She was a good lay, even in those days. Everybody knew it. Charlie Sonderman told me, ‘Leah,’ he said, ‘Arnold doesn't have to marry her.’ And Charlie was your father's best friend.”

Her anger fueled my feelings about my mother but I remained silent. She continued, “Maybe he married her because she told him she was pregnant.”

“I never thought of that. It's possible,” I answered.

“Yes,” she added, confirming her own idea, “Your father was too good. He fell for every little story.”

“It wasn't easy for Ardyth and me after his death. We couldn't understand why our mother left us alone so much, always traveling, going out with different men.”

“I just told you why, didn't I? Anything for money. A common slut.”

“Maybe I'm like my father. I felt sorry for her... widowed... no income... constantly worried about money.”

“No money for you but whenever I heard about her, she was gallivanting all over the world.”

“And where were you when Ardyth and I had no one?” I asked.

“Once,” Leah responded, “my father and I came to visit your father when he was in bed, recuperating from a heart attack. I’ll never forget your mother, blocking the stairway. I don’t know what made her so angry. She just stood there, hands on her hips, refusing to let his own father see him. Not wavering before a heartbroken old man pleading to see his son.”

“I remember when my father was sick. Bedridden for two months.

I didn't tell her how I could still hear him crying. How one morning when I was nine, I ran into his room and tried to comfort him; but, I didn't know how. “You never came to see Ardyth and me, “ I said. You never even sent me a birthday card.”

“Your mother was too much for me. Not even his own father would she let him see. I tried. Too much...”

Aunt Leah looked directly at me, her hawklike eyes probing. “What's the good of all this talk, anyway? I'm an old lady now. My money's going to charity.” A sly smile broke out, then disappeared. “Tomorrow's my birthday...91. My doctors don’t give me long to live.”

new part

I sent a huge bouquet of flowers for her birthday.

“They're beautiful and I should thank you,” she said over the phone when I was back in New York, “ but what an extravagant girl you are, Joanna.”

I smiled. “Ardyth was the practical one. I've been called extravagant all my life, just for wishing. My father understood. He bought me a doll I longed for. ' She's too old,' my mother said, 'it's a waste of money.' But I cried when he bought her for me, my very own baby to love.”

Leah heard me, a little girl in the presence of her father, again.

“Your father was like that to me.” Her voice softened.” My big brother. Always looked after me. Thanked me for living at home after I married Uncle George. I took care of my mother for almost five years. There weren't any nursing homes, then. That's why I never had children. I never wanted to take care of anyone again.”

new part

Several months passed. I sometimes wished Ardyth and I could have been her children; yet, in those very moments, the adult in me reclaimed itself. A fragile love grew between us. While she kept threatening to cut me out of her will, I threatened her with flowers and phone calls.

At times, when Leah felt up to it, she drove the rusted Buick she kept in a space she paid extra for; sometimes she asked the doorman to bring it around. She'd drop off one blond wig to be washed and set, wear the other one to a luncheon. She liked driving. Once she drove out of the bank's parking lot and ran right into a tree. “Imagine some dope planting a tree there,” she said.

When she wasn't making bank rounds, (she had opened accounts in every bank which gave her a set of dishes or a television set) she was home polishing her jewelry, playing a mean game of bridge, or totaling the estates her family had left to her.

But her bad heart got worse. “I was up all night in pain, Joanna. Last night, they rushed me to the hospital but I insisted on going home. I don’t know what I'm going to do. I can't live in such pain.”

A few weeks later, she had a second heart attack. I flew down to be with her while she was in the hospital. As soon as she opened her eyes, she complained. “You'd think for all this money I could get hot coffee.”

“Thank you, darling,” she said when I brought it to her.

I fed her. Put her dentures in and took them out of the water. Watched her sink in and out of consciousness. Listened to her talk to Uncle George, dead six years, her shrill voice girlish and sweet. She opened her still sharp eyes, smiled at me. Told me to drive to her apartment and get the pearl cluster necklace she always wore. I was to wear it unless she came home from the hospital. I hooked the clasp, rubbed the pearl as though its glow surrounded me, and wore it to sleep.

A few days later, I put it back.

new part

Leah phoned me in New York to say “Good-bye” the night she died. When I entered the apartment after the funeral, I saw a half-empty bottle of scotch on the bathroom sink. Leah didn't drink. An empty pill bottle had tipped over and fallen against a can of roach spray on the cold tile floor.

Feeling like a thief, I went into her bedroom and opened the closet door. Old handbags hung from hooks, change slid out from side pockets, used and unused tissues wedge themselves into corners. Behind a faded beach umbrella stood a chest of drawers.

The photographs were in a worn brown grocery bag jammed underneath an old toaster. I sat down on the closet floor and wept until my nose began to run and I fumbled for her purse and reached in and found a tissue.

There were two pictures of Ardyth and me when we were children. We stand next to one another but do not touch. Neither do we smile.

And here is Leah, young, smiling into the camera, an arm enfolded around my father's waist. He grins. I see my mother, staring straight into the camera, tight-lipped, almost grim. My father's arm is around her shoulder. In that jumble of photos, my mother never touches my father, never smiles.

There is one photo of Leah standing at my father's grave. Her lips are etched with acid in a straight line. Dark glasses cover her eyes. Her clenched fists rest on the headstone as though they could never let go.

end of story

© 2012, Lucille Shulklapper. A version of "The Inheritance" appeared in 2005 in Oasis. Roommates