The Inheritance, Part II

by Karen Gsteiger

continued apologies to H.D.

Find the first installment here.

Needless to say, it took more than half a weekend to count all of the books, let alone determine what was in them. I'll spare you the details of the hours that I spent counting and sorting, hours that I should have spent studying or with my boyfriend at the time. (He and I became so estranged that semester that we broke up a few months later with little emotion.) It took weeks to go through it all because I had to make a special trip to my hometown each time. I would become preoccupied with Aunt Rosie's errands and outings with old friends and would realize with frustration that I only had perhaps half a day to spend at my mother's house, going through her books. Aunt Rosie wasn't much of a help during this process because she lacked the slightest bit of interest in the project and assumed that at any point, I would tire of the task as well.

Since Aunt Rosie had taken it upon herself to throw away or donate much of the furniture in the house, I was able to pile any books and papers that seemed related to them in the middle of the living room. Half of the challenge of the project was finding all of the materials, hidden away under beds and in closets and dresser drawers and laundry hampers, and physically carrying them out to be added to the collection. I was driven by a surprisingly intense fear that somehow I would miss a vital piece of the puzzle, even though I had no idea at that point what I was looking at.

I remember one Sunday afternoon, Aunt Rosie stopped by the house to find me standing in the kitchen rifling through the cabinets (I had found a few loose pages in one) with a jar of peanut butter in my hand. She just about had a conniption fit right there and unceremoniously ordered me home.

When I was convinced that I had it all, I plopped next to the mountain of books that had amassed in the living room. Looking through a few of them, I was thrilled to discover that my mother had written a date on the inside cover of each; the oldest that I found had been dated 19 years before her death, in October of 1977. Armed with packs of Post-it notes and a notebook in which to transcribe the dates that I found, I counted and tried to organize what seemed to be a library's worth of writing.

The blank journaling books that my mother seemed to favor had brown leather covers and 189 5"x 7" pages each. Based on receipts I had found scattered throughout the house, she purchased these books from her favorite chain of bookstore at a cost ranging from $5.95, when she started writing, and $9.99, just before her death. You can still find these journals in stock at the stores she frequented. The cashiers and manager certainly remembered my mother. One of the more gregarious employees informed me, "She'd faithfully buy one a month, at least. Sometimes more. Every now and then, we wouldn't have any in stock, and she'd buy a different kind of blank book, but she wouldn't be happy about it. We get a lot of turnaround in this place, but all the managers made an extra effort to make sure she'd get what she wanted. She was very nice and polite and very quiet. I'm sure sorry to hear about her passing."

Some numbers: in total, I had counted 502 books. Plus 364 loose 8 1/2" x 11" pages, sadly undated. She had therefore written approximately 95,242 pages over 19 years. (Every now and then she apparently skipped a page or two in the journals by accident.) That comes to about 5,013 pages per year. And about 14 pages per day, although I think it's safe to assume that some days she wrote less, some more; hopefully, she took a day off here or there.

Granted, her handwriting could be large, and not every page was filled from top to bottom margin with text, and she certainly didn't edit her work (having at the time of this writing read about 85 percent of her material, I can say that I have never seen a crossed-out word or any other sort of correction), but her prolificacy cannot be denied. She wrote the way some people chat with family members after a day at work. She wrote the way some people watch TV or listen to music or exercise or sleep. She wrote the way some people breathe.

I don't often think in terms of "what did I inherit from my mother?" or "how do I resemble her?" Most often I make those aggravated or alarmed comparisons between myself and Aunt Rosie. But I believe that my mother and I shared an artistic temperament, and I must admit a slight jealousy of her ability to give herself over so entirely to a creative endeavor. Most of the time, I will elect to do anything but write or paint. Although I'm afraid that she didn't really view it as "a creative endeavor," but I'm getting a bit ahead of myself.

Aunt Rosie was stunned when I gave her the final count and once again repeated her entreaties to transport it all to a landfill forthwith. I informed her that as my mother's only heir, these books and papers were my inheritance, and I intended to keep every page, even if I had to sleep on top of them or use them as a dining table.

"Well, you're not keeping them at my house," she declared.

Which created a bit of a quandary for me. I thought of my single dorm room, overstuffed with my clothes and CDs and posters and knick-knacks and even my favorite stuffed animals, and could not imagine housing even 50 of these books. I pondered asking Aunt Rosie to retain my mother's house and keep everything stacked in the living room until I could determine what I ultimately wanted to do with it all. The mortgage had been paid for, but I had no money for property taxes and did not have the time, money, or the energy for upkeep. Several of my mother's creditors were also clamoring to be paid off. We simply had to get rid of the house. I figured that the best thing for me to do would be to try to place it all in storage, but I dreaded the thought of bugs or rats or water damage.

So I talked to Dan, my boss at the library. He got very excited when I explained it all to him; a specialist in the fine arts, he immediately started muttering about "outsider art" before I could explain to him that I didn't think it would be considered very good in an artistic or literary sense.

"How many books did you say?" he breathed, interrupting his own monologue.

"Over 500. But..."

"Amazing! How is that even possible?"

"Well, I don't think she had much else going on. I really wasn't all that close to her, truthfully," I explained apologetically.

"Fascinating. Do you know what she's written about? Has she included any illustrations?"

"Uh, I haven't seen any. And I haven't really had a chance to look at them yet. I've spent weeks just counting them and sorting them out..."

"That's understandable. Where are you keeping them?"

"Well, that's kind of what I wanted to talk to you about...any chance the library could adopt them for a while?"

He sucked in his breath sharply. "Oooh, I don't know. I know the Fine Arts library is full up. Main doesn't exactly have a lot of space to spare. You know the building's sinking, right?"

"Because the architects didn't factor in the weight of the books," I finished.

"Actually, I'm playing with you--that's just an urban legend. But no, I can't imagine they've got space for 500 new books of questionable academic value. But let me call around to a few collections managers...I can talk to literature, gender studies...uh, psychology, if you don't mind me saying so."

"No, no. The woman was really out there."

"You know, May, I'd really love a chance to take a look at all of this. I know you don't think it's much, but I suspect it could be quite a discovery," he said.

"Well, I'm glad you don't think I'm crazy..."

"I think it's one for the record books, regardless. 500! And to think I've been sitting on my goddamned dissertation for seven years."

"I know what you mean."

A couple of weeks later at work, Dan pulled me aside.

"Hey, May," he said, "bad news. I couldn't get anyone to bite on your collection, although I've definitely generated some interest."

"Okay," I replied. "Don't worry about it. I'll figure something out."

"Listen," he began, clearing his throat. "I've got some extra space in my house these days...a couple of spare bedrooms and some room in the basement, if you want to keep them there until you make a more permanent arrangement..."

"Oh, Dan, I couldn't possibly ask..." I stuttered, as I realized that the reason he had such a surplus of storage space was that his wife, Shelly, and their one-year-old daughter had recently moved out.

"Well, I'm not being 100 percent altruistic, to be perfectly honest," he explained. "I was serious when I said that I really wanted to take a look at these. And I'd like to help you write a paper on it. A journal honors paper...a master's thesis...a dissertation. Wherever it goes. From what I know about this kind of work, I think it could get really big. And I'd like to ride on your mom's coattails. In return, your mother's books will be kept safe and dry and generally unmolested. And let's face it, at the rate my studies are going, I'm not really going anywhere for a year or two at least."

"Wow, that's Well, of course I'll take you up on it, although I could probably use a little muscle carting them around."

And that was how my mother's works came to be housed at my supervisor's home in Bloomington, Indiana. The rooms in his three-bedroom home that had been emptied of domesticity and warmth and life were now filled with cardboard boxes containing a dead woman's journals. I took the first 20 back to my room, intending to read through them during my rare free time, in between classes and studies and work and (not to brag) honor society activities and (I must admit) parties and other activities with friends. Dan was equally, if not more, burdened, and except for flipping through a few of the books just to see what they looked like, they largely remained, as he promised, undisturbed. He was waiting for me to get through the first few so that I could tell him what we were working with: inventive fiction, elaborate diary, or deranged scribblings. Now that Dan was emotionally and intellectually invested, I was really quite nervous that they would be nothing but grocery lists and weather reports and other obsessive-compulsive inventories.

One rainy Saturday night, I found myself alone in my room, bed-ridden with a sinus infection. Since my social life had been curtailed and since I was too groggy and ill-tempered to do any actual homework, I picked up Volume 1, allowing, in a way, my mother to tell me a bedtime story for the first time that I could remember. A passage that I had excerpted earlier was all dialogue, and much of what I previously had seen while working at my mother's house was all dialogue with an unknown person or persons, so I was surprised to find what appeared to be the beginning of a more traditional narrative on the first page. And even more surprised to find myself (or someone sharing my name) as a character:

And when the clouds started to cover the sky all over as far as you could see, I picked May up and went to the basement because I thought their was going to be a tornado. And the clouds were black and green and purple.And when the rain started falling, the raindrops where black and the weerdest thing was that birds started flying into the windows, big black crows mostly but some sparrows too. They flew into the windows and died. And I took May to the basement and we waited their while the rain got worse and the lightning and thunder shook the house. Then their was an earthquake that tore the house apart but May and I were safe yet. I could here the screams of the neighbors as they flew threw the sky and I knew that when they hit the ground there bones would be all broken or the lightning would melt didnt matter...women children animals men all were crushed under their houses and cars or were thrown around outside. And I knew that Mays poppa was dead or dieing but there wasnt nothing I could do about it except just hold on to May who was crying and crying. I couldnt even hear how loud she was crying because the thunder and the earth shaking was so loud. I could only see the tears on her little face and her mouth was open so wide. And I was too scared to cry.And then their was hail too...real big ones, the size of basketballs. Lateron when I looked outside I could see that the hail made huge holes in the sidewalk and one of them crushed the head of a little girl so that her brains were all over the sidewalk. I didnt look at her so long because it made me near sick to my stomack. And their was thunder and lightning and earthquakes and tornados and hail and many buildings were on fire but after a while you couldn't hear no sirens because all the police and all the fireman were dead too. For hours and hours and hours we waited in the basement and we didnt have nothing to eat then and the house was all broken up in the storm and the earthquake. Then finally it settled down and I walked outside and called for help and noone answered cus May and me was all alone...

As I read this passage, I heard a loud bang against my bedroom window, which startled me so that I dropped the book. I haltingly stepped towards the window and peered outside but could find no source of the sound. A little too jarred to continue reading my mother's apocalyptic tale, I put the book down, ran down to the vending machine in the basement to clear my head and watched some mindless television for the rest of the night.