خواهر زاده

کتاب: زندگی در چند بخش / فصل 61

خواهر زاده

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Nephew

I heard from my aunt Sunday most often by snail mail. Postmark: Woodland Hills. A nice community close to my childhood home in Canoga Park. She and my father’s brother Eddie had no children, no pets, no great friends. Aunt Sunday’s adventures were vicarious ones she took on her La-Z-Boy recliner. Every time I was mentioned in TV Guide—“Agent #3,” “Obnoxious Dinner Guest”—she got out her scissors. An inveterate clipper, she sent me every clipping, carefully folded into an envelope. I appreciated the thought. Which didn’t stop me from throwing the clippings in the trash. I can’t bear clutter.

I didn’t see much of Sunday, nor of Uncle Eddie. My brother ran into Eddie at the Motion Picture Hospital when my mom was in intensive care. But Eddie wasn’t there to visit Mom. If he hadn’t bumped into Kyle, I don’t think Eddie would have known or thought to ask after his former sister-in-law. That was 2006.

Three years later, I’d wrapped a season of Breaking Bad and was back in Los Angeles. It was late at night and the phone rang. “Your dad,” Robin said.

My dad still had stars in his eyes, but they were different stars. Not acting stars. Producing stars. I remember he produced a variety show. The New Sounds of Country! He had six or seven country music acts. They were pretty good. One fresh face popped and he sold that show into syndication. And many years ago, he came up with a precursor to the Country Music Awards. His version didn’t stick, but the CMAs did. He was ahead of his time. Over the years, he sold one or two things, but it wasn’t enough. He was constantly behind. Money was a daily struggle.

I hated that whenever he called I assumed he needed something. I always braced myself for the inevitable question: “Hey, buddy, do you think you can loan me a few grand?”

“I’m here in Woodland Hills,” he said, his voice shaking. I knew right away it wasn’t about money. He told me it had been a few months since he’d heard from Sunday and Eddie. For weeks he’d been calling. Nothing. They had a Winnebago and used to travel a lot, so it wasn’t unusual for them to be gone for stretches.

He went over to their place to check on them and the yard was overrun with weeds. He knocked and knocked. Nothing. He got spooked and called the police. He had a bad feeling.

The police found two bodies inside, one male, one female. Approximately my dad’s age, in their eighties. The lady was next to her walker in the living room. The man was in the bedroom. The description fit. Eddie and Sunday were dead.

The police told my father, “We have to call the coroner and do an autopsy because of the rather . . . odd circumstances and the length of the time they were dead.”

My dad said fine. And he said he didn’t want to see the bodies. The police told him to go to a coffee shop and come back in an hour. He called me from the coffee shop.

The next day I picked my dad up and we drove to Woodland Hills. The bodies had been removed and the evidence gathered. My dad had somehow forgotten that he owned a set of keys, and he gave them to me and said he’d wait outside while I got the lay of the land. For a pugilist who saw plenty of blood in the ring, my dad was squeamish.

I unlocked the door and tried to push it open but it barely moved. Drifts of mail on the floor were blocking it. I shoved the door open enough to slide in. And right away there was the smell. Oh the smell. Not only rancid and putrid but chemical and toxic and sickly sweet like rotten fruit. A cocktail of decay. I held my breath as best I could. The room was pitch black. My eyes adjusted: stacks and stacks and stacks of stuff—stuff from QVC, stuff from yard sales, stuff from Christmases gone by. Clothing, furniture, newspapers neatly wrapped in twine, piled almost to the ceiling. I knew from infrequent visits years ago that there was a sliding glass door at the other end of the living room. I had to get there and open it and let in some air and light. But how? It was an obstacle course of garbage. I passed by a walker and a large rectangular cutout of the carpet and padding where Sunday had been found.

I hoped she hadn’t suffered, but I saw the stain on the plywood subfloor and I knew from my limited police studies that she probably had. A body doesn’t secrete fluid (other than urine) if it’s only dead a few days. Full-body decay: she had been there a while.

I saw two beat-up La-Z-Boys with doilies on the arms. I saw a half-finished crossword puzzle on a soiled chair. I saw a nightstand in between the chairs, with an electric clock radio, blinking. Across from the chairs were three TVs stacked on top of each other. The broken sets on the bottom propped up the working one. I saw a gooseneck lamp on the nightstand and I went over to turn it on. A tangle of extension cords all led to one dusty, overloaded power strip.

With a little more light I managed to make my way to the glass doors. Boxes fell. I pulled the drapes. They hadn’t been touched in years. They were brittle. Eons of dust and dirt showered down on me. But no light came through the glass; a wall of cardboard covered it. I ripped the cardboard off.

I was sweating now. My pulse raced. I needed air. I tried to open the glass door, but a wood dowel was in the track. I got the dowel out. The latch was jammed from years of disuse. I found a brass lamp and used it as a hammer. Slowly the latch slid. Now there was a screen door, caked with dirt, and as I tried to force it open, the dirt cascaded onto me and stuck to my sweat. I felt buried alive. I was wiping my eyes, panicking.

At last I busted down the screen door and stepped into the backyard. Close to passing out, I found a hose and poured water on my head and drank and drank and drank. It had taken me half an hour to hack through this hoarder’s maze—it couldn’t have been more than twenty-five feet across.

I went around to the front and got my dad and told him what to expect. He was aghast. He hadn’t known. No one had. I imagine no other person—except for maybe a pizza deliveryman—had peeked into the house in the last twenty years. We saw Eddie and Sunday on some holidays. They’d always say, “We’ll meet you there.” We’ll meet you there. We never thought twice about it.

My dad didn’t want to go in, but we needed to know: Was there a will? Was there a safe deposit box? I’d described how hard it was to squeeze through the door, and my dad suggested we try getting in through the garage. It was so full of junk that they could just wedge their car in. I flashed on my mom’s garage full of old furniture and dusty, cracked dinnerware, and boxes of other people’s discarded clothes. We shimmied alongside the car and went in.

My dad retched. I told him to keep going. I wasn’t doing this alone. In the kitchen, the fridge was filled with mostly condiments. The stove was dust-covered and stacked with papers and knickknacks. The oven was a storage locker for still more junk.

Empty bottles of champagne were strewn about. The microwave was caked with food.

I opened up the freezer. Towers of frozen dinners.

In the second bedroom, another cutout on the floor. Half a man’s length, probably about four feet long. Eddie. Oh, poor Eddie.

Boxes and boxes covered their bed. They must have slept in the La-Z-Boys out in the living room. I went to the window and I saw a glow of light through the pull-down shade. I pulled the shade down and let it roll up. There must have been fifty flies crawling on the windowpane, trying to get out. I knew how they felt.

Covering our mouths, my dad and I grabbed whatever papers we could easily find and loaded them up to examine later, elsewhere. They weren’t ultimately the papers we needed, so we would have to return. Meanwhile, the autopsy results came back. Eddie and Sunday both had alcohol in their systems. Prescription drugs. But nothing illicit. No foul play. Eddie died of blunt force. We were told he was found with one trouser leg on, one off. He was trying to put on his pants and fell and hit his head. Sunday, we guessed, was trying to get to him with her walker. She fell and broke her hip. Probably lay there for three or four days before she died.

We finally found a will. Handwritten. We were all mentioned, as was a guy named Dale with a Texas number. I called. “Who are you, Dale?”

“I’m her son,” he said.

Her son?

It turned out Sunday had a son from a previous relationship. Who knew? Certainly not my dad or any friend or relative. Sunday was a devout Catholic. There must have been a scandal seventy years ago when she’d been a teenager. She must have given the child up for adoption.

Dale said: “How do I know you’re being fair about this?”

“Excuse me?”

Dale continued: “How do I know you’re dividing the assets up fairly?”

“You’re welcome to take over,” I said. “I invite you to take over.”

He didn’t, but to safeguard his interest, he called the county. They then took over the estate and sold everything that was worth something, including the house, taking 5 percent as a fee. Before we learned the county would take over, we did a search to make sure we’d found all the important papers. We found a box labeled Empty Arrowhead Water Jugs. We opened it to find four empty Arrowhead water jugs. Taped, closed, stored. Madness.

My sister Amy found a paper bag neatly wrapped in twine. Attached to the twine was a label that read: Two Bras Too Small. Amy pulled the neat bow off and opened it up. Two bras Sunday must have outgrown. Truth in advertising.

Robin found a box labeled: Eddie’s Old Underwear. Inside? Sure enough.

Another bag was labeled: Keys to the Old Cars. None of the keys fit the car in the garage or the abandoned vehicles parked on the dead grass in the backyard. So. They kept keys to cars they hadn’t owned in years.

All of this felt like the end point toward which all clutter leads. The end point to which all disordered thinking and living lead. And it struck me how sad their lives were at the end, how dark and chaotic, how devoid of reason. I spent weeks and weeks trying to put those images from my mind.

And just when my own life seemed so good, so full of light.

In a way Sunday and Eddie had not only caused their deaths—they’d staged them. But why? I’d spent my life puzzling over human motivations, and I had trouble cracking this mystery. What is it that makes a person want to keep and curate garbage? Is it some kind of security blanket? Some hedge against time and loss? Some notion that the past might be resurrected—through things? That those old cars might be driven again?

My brother said: “It was mental illness.”

Dad said: “Nah. It’s just nuts.”

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