I only vaguely remember walking out to the mailbox one Spring day several years ago, and finding a yellow slip for a certified letter; the only one I’ve ever gotten. I knew it wasn’t a bad check, or was pretty sure, anyway. I guess it occurred to me it could be from someone in my estranged family notifying me of my being disinherited. I had to drive to town that day anyway to sink some more money in the local hardware store that was siphoning off our disposable income for a protracted home renovation project. I stopped at the post office and picked up the large Tyvek envelope, and knew instantly what it was by the name of the legal firm in the upper left corner: Kaltman, Kaltman, Feuerwald and Bumpass. They were handling my recently deceased mother’s estate.
“Excellent!” I thought. “I’ll take my wife to dinner and still have enough left over for a power stapler.”
It turned out to be a notice of the sale of her father’s home. Her elder sister, the last resident of the house, had been declared non compos mentis. Once the house was sold, my father, my siblings and I would be entitled to our mother’s share of the proceeds.

Hey. A hundred dollars is a hundred dollars.

I put the notice in a desk drawer and forgot about it, not least because the list of beneficiaries included not only my ever acquisitive sibs and their drab, weary spouses, but my mother’s surviving sister, her husband and her children, nearly as greedy as they were bone stupid, and I’m talking “Franklin Roosevelt was a com-you-nist !” stupid. People who purchased Ray Stevens records stupid.
Maybe it was the speech impediments delightfully paired with the look of freshly hammered livestock, or the fact that Nixon’s resignation got up their asses so bad they just about needed psych meds to get back to being their ordinary bush baby selves. Maybe it was because at family gatherings, my Uncle Red would haul out his wallet, open it, wave it around and say “Hard work done paid off this month!”
From the time I was forced to accept that I would be compelled to see him on occasion, I wondered if it would be worthwhile, or even possible, to try and club him to a deeper level of unconsciousness with a heavy glass bottle.
Christmases his children showed up at the grandparents with their higher-end toys, and my jealousy was only mildly tempered by the fact they would break off pieces of them and put them in their mouths. Even without Major Matt Mason’s rubber body swinging from his lips, my cousin Mark had early symptoms of agonic sentence syndrome.
He was the closest in age to me, but he seemed much, much older, an early hominid adrift in a world beginning to be polluted by concepts of taste and judgment utterly alien to a class for whom lard was still a miracle fluid.
“They ought to give that boy shot John Lennon a medal! He hooked American kids on marijuana.” His father told me once, as Mark honked and salivated in assent.
I tried to rationalize it away as the ravings of a used car dealer exposed to too many nasty solvents while assiduously packing gearboxes with sawdust, but it turned out there were a few million of him, and they voted in a bloc.
My mother and her sister would be in the kitchen, smoking, while my step-grandmother dipped snuff and hovered over the potato salad. I only ate prepackaged food while I was there, and only then after careful inspection. My father would always eat anything anyone set in front of him, and he was always the first one to get the shits once we got back home.
Back in the den, Aunt Helen was hunched forward in her simple straight-backed oak rocker, watching whatever was on television, her thick legs bulging against orthopedic hosiery. She’d been in and out of mental hospitals from early adulthood and endured heroic treatments for various misdiagnoses.
Now when I think about her swinging that large gray head in my direction, and simultaneously looking at and through me, I’m tempted to believe she was an undiagnosed schizoprenic. Impossible to know. I remember she smelled strongly of vinegar, which indicated they were treating her with paraldehyde. Sometimes her medications caused her tongue to swell and dry so she couldn’t speak. When she could speak, it was in utterly unnerving, clipped fragments at an inappropriate volume.
It was that desperate, breaking sound people make before they start to cry.
There had been a violent incident early in her marriage, and she’d been hustled off to a date with a leucotome.
Her husband Norman had been a competent amateur photographer, and they lived in the Florida Keys. They must have had a bit of money.There are pictures of Helen from the late 1940’s when she was young and movie-star attractive, even a shot of her standing with Harry Truman on his fishing boat. Harry wouldn’t have let Norman snap the picture otherwise, and told him as much.
Nobody really discussed what happened to Helen: what caused the marriage to break apart, what happened that required her to be strapped down, pumped full of Thorazine, or wound in a freezing sheet, but I suspect a lot of her troubles originated with the old bastard sitting right there beside her in his recliner, dribbling brown spit into a mason jar.
In his dotage he played the role of a sort of patriarchal gnome, but my mother’s insistence we visit there was palpably from a sense of decorum and nothing else. He’d beaten them all, at one time or another, within inches of their lives, with a skillet.

Helen was just trapped there with him, in a two hundred year old house that had sprawled from its original core of a dogtrot cabin to a respectable Federalist imposition, among a host of others a couple of streets away from where Billy Strayhorn grew up.
In the seventies they wrapped it with yellow vinyl to try and trap some of the greenhouse heat required to keep old Mr. Boone’s blood circulating while he lay in the recliner and watched the US Open Golf Tournament or whatever else “didn’t have no nigras in it.”

From one of my various attempts to fictionalize the two:
They sat there together day after day watching that television until the test pattern came on. Helen left briefly at times to prepare a simple sandwich or stiffly run a dustcloth over the furniture. Sometimes her medication was adusted incorrectly and she’d just stare at the screen, palsied, her tongue thickened and almost black from God knows.
Her sisters sometimes stopped in to help. The old man was too feeble to beat her anymore, so if he felt a touch of rage bubbling up in him, he dressed himself neatly and wandered out for what little drink he could stand. He died right there in his recliner, in his sleep, during a football game. Helen finished watching the game before she hit one of the preset dial buttons and got hold of my mother.
“I need you to call the ambulance. He’s not breathing anymore.
Redskins by seven.”

After he was dead, helen rode it out alone in the house for a couple of years while the family figured out the best way to dislodge her. Folks from my father’s side of the family as well as her own had been eyeing the property for a few years, especially since a whole lot of rich retirees had been moving into Hillsboro’s historic colonial-era district and snapping up the mansions of the Tories who’d prosecuted the war against the Regulators.
None of them had a clue as to the value of the house itself. There was termite damage, so my father’s brother volunteered to raze it.
I told my father it was a colonial era house that had survived and mutated through successive architectural periods, one of which was slightly underrepresented in Hillsboro, and what he and his idiot brother were contemplating was vandalism. It was about this time I began to recognize the comic element had disappeared from their bovine stupidity. They’d ceased to be merely a mortifying embarrassment and crossed the threshold into anomie. I didn’t know who the fuck they were anymore.
It was the possibility of some free money that did it. A couple of dollars loose somewhere that they might not have to shift their asses for.
After I got the notice of the pending sale, they left a few messages on my machine, offering either to buy out my part, or confiding some slippery dealings among others named in the will. I considered making a compilation tape of them and mailing them out to everybody concerned, in addition to all the local papers.
Instead i just told them they could all split my part as long as I never had to hear from any of them again. I would sign and have the necessary documents notarized in the presence of my attorney.
This shut them up long enough that the flood of voice messages stopped completely. Lulled by the thought they might have slaughtered one another in the interim, I glibly answered the phone one day, assuming it was someone I might have a shred of interest in speaking with.
It was my sister, chiding me for not playing along, and telling me they’d done me a favor and gone ahead and worked out my part. I’d made them out to be bad people, and they’d managed to sell the place and got a good price for everybody. I should be ashamed.
I really wasn’t in the mood for her sermonette, or more properly, trailer queen gloating, and temporarily lost sight of the fact I.did.not.give.a.fuck.
“If you don’t mind my asking, how much did the Montagues and Capulets snake out of this boondoggle? Our attorney used to do a little real estate law up that way. She says says you should have cleared at least four or five hundred grand.”
Silence on the other end for awhile.
“She…Wha? Hundred grand?”
“Four or five. Quit calling me.”

I could have listened to the phone ringing off the wall all night. It was an opiate. It reminded me of what angina sufferers say they feel when the med tech puts a nitroglycerine tablet under their tongue.
The sweetest, most liberating medicine.

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