The Inheritance, Part III

by Karen Gsteiger

continued apologies to H.D.

Find the first installment here.

Find the second installment here.

You may have noticed in the passage quoted earlier a brief reference to my "poppa." I too was intrigued, as the subject of my paternity was one that Aunt Rosie could not or would not discuss to my satisfaction.

When I was a small child, I naturally wondered why my playmates and other neighborhood children had fathers and I did not. "He's in Heaven," Aunt Rosie would assure me. Later, when I discovered that my mother wasn't quite whom I had assumed, I asked Aunt Rosie again about my father. To which she sighed deeply and responded, "I don't know where he's at or whether he's still alive. As far as I'm concerned, he's dead because he sure hasn't come looking for you or supported you. I forget how she met him--through some friends or at a party. Men hadn't taken much of an interest in her up to that point, so of course she just threw herself headlong into a relationship with him. When she met him, he didn't even have a job. But she married him anyway, and don't think your grandparents and I didn't try to warn her. Your mother and that man went out to Illinois for a time. I think he found himself some kind of machinist's job somewhere, but that didn't work out so well, and they came back here." Aunt Rosie paused for a moment while I looked back at her in rapt attention, my mouth agape, despite the fact that she was making my mother's only apparent love story as bland as humanly possible. "His name was Robert, as I recall, Robert Marshall, although when I took you in, I changed your last name to our family name. You don't want that good-for-nothing's name on your shoulders...because he was nothing but a good-for-nothing. He worked at the mills, sure, and he fed and clothed your mother (and you, for a while), and he got her that house, but when he was home, he sat on your mother's couch and drank day and night. I don't think he was abusive, but the times I had met him, he was about as interesting as a moldy potato. You couldn't talk to him about books or movies or the weather. I don't know how your mother lived with him long enough to bring you into the world, but when you were just a little baby, he left for good. He left her with that house and a little money in the bank, but nothing else. I know your mother couldn't have been easy to live with either, but right is right, and wrong is wrong."

That was all the information that Aunt Rosie would impart about my father. She herself had never married and seemed to view men as rather useless creatures when they weren't "providing."

When looking through my mother's house after her death, I found a single copy of her marriage license that confirmed that on September 28, 1975, she had married Robert Marshall (b. December 19, 1945 in Irvine, CA) in Crown Point, IN. But any attempts I made to locate his current whereabouts were fruitless. And, I felt, Aunt Rosie did have a point.

So as I read the passage in which my mother left my father to die--in a way--there was a part of me that was eager for a reappearance of his character, but another part of me thought that it didn't matter much either way. As far as I have read, "poppa" is never mentioned again in my mother's work.

Dan was excited when I told him about my mother's vision of the end of everything. "May, that's fantastic! Do you understand what this means? This is a work of art. A work of fucking art."

"Well, I wouldn't get too excited yet--it's kind of repetitive so far. Blah, blah, blah, thunder and lightning and death and destruction. For like the first 40 pages. She had a real thing for dead birds, I guess."

"Weird, huh?"

Dan was referring to what would seem to be an odd coincidence. At the time that we were having this discussion, birds in our area were suffering from some sort of relentless disease; their shriveled-looking bodies were all over campus. Not a day went by when I didn't hear one of my fellow students shrieking after accidentally stepping on a carcass. As I gingerly hopped over their remains, I would see their open beaks, their twisted postures, their open wings, as if they had suddenly expired in mid-flight, and I would shudder for a moment before distracting myself with one of the day's trivialities.

But Brother Fred was certainly worked up about it, to the delight of the student body. Brother Fred was a local fire-and-brimstone preacher, not attached to any church that anyone knew of--a freelancer of sorts. He spent his Thursday afternoons at a spot strategically located between Woodburn and Ballantine Halls and across the street from the Union, condemning us all to hell for our ceaseless fornication and drug abuse and rap music and "ho-mo-sexuality." Some students made it their hobby to debate him with great amusement on matters of biology, political science, sociology, or psychology.

"Hey, Brother Fred, do you believe in evolution?"

"That is a LIE dreamed up by those agents of SATAN who would want to DEBASE our holy and NATURAL forms and DENY that we are made in GOD'S likeness. They want to make ANIMALS of us to try to excuse their SINS--their fornication, their BLASPHEMOUS words and deeds, their ho-mo-sexuality. Believe in that FILTH, and you will be made an HELL."

"Brother Fred, I'm Jewish. What do you think about the Jews?"

"Well, sinner, as you know, JESUS was born a Jew before he RENOUNCED the error of his ways and showed us ALL the path to RIGHTEOUSNESS. I respect the Jewish people for being the kin of JESUS, and I will feel PITY when they are made to suffer in HELL for their stubborn rejection of the LIGHT."

"Fuck you, Brother Fred!"


And so on. The day after I had met with Dan for coffee to chat about my mother's writing, Brother Fred got so excited about the fallen birds as a sign of the Second Coming and our certain and deserved destruction, he picked up what was left of a robin that was lying near his feet and threw it at a young female student who was patiently trying to explain the concept of a "virus" to him. He was escorted off campus by the police that day, and angry letters were written to the editor of the Indiana Daily Student, and there was a lot of hand-wringing about student safety and the First Amendment and about how those dead birds needed to be picked up sooner anyway. In the end, Brother Fred returned to his usual spot the following Thursday, and there were no further disturbances worth noting.

My mother, however, did not seem to attribute the chaos of her narrative to a vengeful God or the wages of sin. Everything was destroyed, and everyone except for her and me died for no apparent reason. There was no God in the sky, no angels with flaming swords, no rapacious red-eyed demons with flickering tongues. The planet just seemed to throw an enormous tantrum, and she was left alone with a squalling infant. Or so it appeared.

And it didnt seem to me that nobody or nothing was left alive but I was still afraid to leave May by herself. So I had to take her with me every time Id go look for food and things. It made it hard to carry a lot of things at once. We were staying in Franklin, the school that was a few blocks away from our old house. It was only partly destroyed, so it would keep us dry in a storm but it didnt have no running water or working toilets or lights or nothing. The good thing was that there wasnt anyone else around so I could walk to the grocery store and take whatever I could get that wasnt ruined. Id take a shopping cart and put everything I could find in it and take the cart with me all the way to the school. Sometimes I felt like I was stealing and I didnt feel right about that but there wasnt no one there to take my money and my baby was hungry. So Id take all the formula and baby food I could find and Id get a lot of canned foods and things that wouldnt go bad and Id make a little fire in a metal garbage can to cook them with. For a while I could eat fruit and vegetables but they got rotten. For a while I could eat bread but it soon got really moldy. I didnt trust to eat meat and I didnt know what I would do when May got old enough to eat real food because I dont think I was eating so healthy. I took all the diapers I could find for May. We had more than enough of those. But the toilets werent working so after a while I'd just go outside but I felt embearased about that. And I really wished I had some company. I was so glad that May was with me but she was just a baby and all she did was scream and cry. I just wished I had someone to talk to, someone who cared. Someone who would protect us. Cos I thought we was all by ourselves but I also thought that there was evil left in the world.