FRESH YARN presents:
I Do Not Want What I Have Not Got
I was rolling coins when the phone call came. My ritual is to sit on the bed and play loud Motown while I separate the cold copper from the silver. Soon I have before me wealth untold, or at least enough to buy a pound of salmon or a decent bottle of Prosecco. My mother-in-law, Mother Drachma, was on the line greeting me in her parchment thin voice. It had been a decade since she had contact with us. Not for a birthday, nor a holiday, nor even after 9/11 blew up in our backyard did she inquire about our wellbeing. I quickly passed the phone to my husband, Alex, who pantomimed slashing his throat.
Three minutes later he informed me that Mother D had repented. Her conscience had gotten the better of her. She was about to return what was rightfully ours -- Alex's inheritance of almost two million dollars that she had swindled from his father ten years prior. She requested the pleasure of our company at the Las Vegas home she had moved to after her obviously despised husband's death. She said she would sign the appropriate papers and make everything right. Even for someone who believes in miracles, as I do, this was really astonishing.
When Alex's father, Stavros, died in 1995, nobody declared it a tragedy. Even professional Greek mourners could not work it up for a guy whose greatest act of courage had been to put out a cigarette on the rug of a fancy Manhattan restaurant. When we heard of his passing, we rushed over to her chateau in Astoria, Queens to comfort Mother Drachma. Like a ravenous vulture she feasted on the scrambled eggs that her only child Alex had cooked. While she "grieved" in her bedroom, Alex sorted through some papers lying casually on the desk. There he found a copy of his father's Last Will and Testament recently doctored to leave him nothing. And how did he know it was altered? Anticipating the worst, Stavros had given Alex a copy of his authentic will for safekeeping.
I will shorthand the grim details. We hired a lawyer who assured us that this was an ironclad case. (Do they all say that?) I should have gauged his power when I shook his hand. I've felt more passion in a slab of tilapia. He guaranteed that the opposing attorney who forged the will would die of shame before being exposed in a court of law. After an incomprehensible deposition and interminable wait, our lawyer then insisted that we take an out-of-court settlement. Our ironclad case had devolved into a lump sum of $16,000.
Not that it was a challenge to our lifestyle. We only cared about being artists. Our home was a one-room apartment overlooking the Hudson. Even in a phone booth-sized kitchen I could create kick-ass meals. Our dog didn't know she was any different from the billionaire dogs in Riverside Park. Health insurance came from Alex's part-time job in a neighborhood bookstore. We had bi-annual shopping sprees at Old Navy and bought ten-dollar bootleg watches in Chinatown. We didn't drive, didn't have one of those swell refrigerators with the ice machine on the door, and we summered on our rooftop deck. That's why it was especially chilling to learn that Mother Drachma had disinherited us because we "lived above our means".
Perhaps it was old age, a bad dream, a bout with her conscience, but something prompted her to return to the scene of the crime and reconsider her actions. She had spent ten years estranged from her only child. Old dogs can learn new tricks. Maybe her accountant had encouraged her to divest her fortune. It was not for me to determine her motivation, only to enjoy our rightful bounty.
With my new-found status as an heiress, I booked a suite at the Las Vegas Hilton. The spirit of Paris was guiding me. Then, I did the unthinkable. I bought a cell phone. An heiress, after all, would need to be in constant contact with her celebrated colleagues. Now, if someone wanted to chat while I flew first class to Sydney they would be able to find me.
Inebriated by my new-found projected wealth, I decided that I really didn't have to work my day job as a counselor. Never underestimate the power of thought. Within hours my phone stopped ringing for bookings. Now I had even more time to shop for non-essentials like plush towels, cloth napkins, and my most extravagant purchase, a $10 picnic hamper for dinners on the roof. I was living large and I loved it.
Alex watched while I burned bright. I stopped at the realtor's office window to ogle the $6 million brownstones. An heiress would need a palace worthy of her. I pre-mourned the friends I would leave behind as I ascended the ladder to prosperity. Yet they would always have a spot at my 12-seat dining room table. I would even spring for the $17/lb. shrimp. I envisioned the day that Mother Drachma would pass on, leaving us her gracious home in Vegas. I would be the Peggy Guggenheim of my generation. Instead of navigating the canals of Venice in my private gondola, I'd ride the gondolas at the Venetian Casino. Finally, my life would have meaning.
On the Sunday before our departure I had a bon voyage dinner. Our Inner Circle of friends was called to our rooftop manor for fried chicken and potato salad and a case of Perrier Jouet. One friend commented, "I hate Mother Drachma. She's changing your life, and your life was perfect." Yes, but it was about to become more perfect, I assured her. If my modest life was so enjoyable, my new incarnation would be stupendous. I would become a philanthropist and offer grants and stipends to artists of all persuasions. I would open my own publishing house. I would rebuild New Orleans. I'd stop ordering the cheapest thing on the menu. I would make everything right for everyone who had ever been wronged. Viva Las Vegas!
What Happens in Vegas, Stays in Vegas
to describe how a 4'10" woman weighing 80 pounds can inspire terror
in two adults, especially when she's 92 years old and on a walker. Mother
Drachma arrived to pick us up at our hotel chauffeured by her brother-in-law,
Serge. After the token air-kisses, she began.
"He died seven years ago." I thought she might respond with an empathetic, "Sorry for your loss." Instead she stamped her cloven hoof and demanded "Who got the house?"
"There was no house." My mother and her brother had lived together happily in a small apartment.
Sides had been drawn. Five minutes into this dramatic Mother and Child Reunion and I was ready to bash my brains out on the Elvis statue in our lobby.
Serge drove our happy quartet to Mother D's manse. After a brief tour of huge rooms stocked with pyramids of Advil bottles, and a wing devoted to her file cabinets filled with financial records, she sat us down in her designer kitchen and opened up a bottle of Courvoisier. It was 11 a.m. She forced shot after shot on us, while she abstained. She casually mentioned that she was sorry that she had no food to offer us, but she hadn't gotten around to shopping. (I remembered that when we returned to her house on the morning she buried Stavros, she offered us an apple.) She summoned her sister Clytemnestra and her niece Pandora to join us. Since they lived across the street, they arrived in seconds.
Pandora, aged 60, was a blonde sumo wrestler who bunked with her mom and
dad, and dedicated the bulk of her time to servicing Mother D. She hovered
over her with the grace of a linebacker, trying to separate us from our
After two foodless hours of cognac, we were officially starving. What had happened to the intimate tête-à-tête Mother D requested with her only child? On the phone she had made a point of saying there were many things she needed to discuss with Alex privately. But now the rabid Rottweilers were guarding her as if their lives depended on it, and in many ways they did.
We were finally taken to a restaurant for lunch. Pandora was clearly in charge. She propped Mother D up when her shrunken form left her chin level with the tabletop. Pandora told her what she was allowed to order and what was forbidden. I had been taught that when you can't see the beauty in something, you should look for the deficiency within yourself. But there was no way I could find beauty in this tableau vivant. The conversation covered riveting topics such as the escalating property values in Nevada, Pandora's plans to put an in-ground pool in her backyard, the gas/mileage ratio of Serge's new Porsche, and how it was a damn shame Alex didn't have a job that paid six figures. Pandora insisted that Mother D have a glass of red wine. Insisted.
Even though I had been starving through our high octane liquor reception, I had to fake an appetite during lunch. When did she plan to sequester herself with Alex and talk business? We were only in Las Vegas for the day. After lunch while we stood in the parking lot, Alex finally got a chance to separate Mommie Dearest from the pack. Pandora and I sat in her parked car and watched.
"Mom, what about the papers you brought me here to sign?"
"Oh! My head is spinning from the wine. I can't think."
"Then why did we make this trip?"
Dazed and glazed she responded, "If you find any papers, don't burn them." (What? Don't understand the comment? Neither did we.)
We returned to Pandora's house and watched in horror as Mother D planted herself on the couch and proceeded to sleep for the next five hours. With her mouth wide open and a death rattle gurgling in her gullet, she gave a good impression of someone with hours left to live. But we knew better. Serge, a retired cello teacher, took advantage of these five hours to describe to us, in no small detail, the joys and trials of each and every student he'd ever taught. While spellbinding, we couldn't help but be distracted by the cadaver on the couch. As if to underscore this travesty, every thirty minutes the bird came out of the clock to scream, "Cuckoo! Cuckoo! Cuckoo!"
At 9 p.m. the collective yawns of our hosts indicated that this rampage of good will was over. The cuckoo signaled the end of our abortive journey. There was no chance that Mother D would wake up with a clear head and desire to get down to business. The clock had run out. What hurt worse than the loss of our fortune was the fact that she had duped us once again.
Pandora gently summoned Mother Drachma to say goodbye to us. Mother D sleepily smiled and gave her benediction. "This is all like a beautiful dream." We were then briskly hustled out of the house before we could wake her up.
Pandora drove us back to the Hilton, and wasted no time with her terse farewells. I returned to our room where I officially parked my dream. We had been conned. The old biddie still had enough energy to torture her son. She must have planned this travesty with great glee. She used money as a lure because love wasn't possible; Alex had suffered her cold hatred for over fifty years. How foolish to think she could understand motherhood now. Still crazy after all these years.
With full closure I surrendered my life as an heiress.
There is no place more surreal than Vegas to nurse your wounds. In a culture built on despair, the fantasies are myriad. Look, there's the Eiffel Tower! There's the Brooklyn Bridge! There's the Temple at Luxor! We staggered from casino to casino, determined to make the best of our remaining time. Periodically, I popped into a restroom to cry. This was, after all, the formal retirement of my shopping sprees, the finish to my brownstone dream, the finale of my philanthropy.
We read the menus of the elegant restaurants in the casinos, then got in line with the other slobs at Fatburger.
Upon our return home we sent Mother Drachma a thank you card brimming with gratitude for her hospitality. Was she capable of appreciating irony? Months passed without a response, and the silence felt blessed. Ding-dong the witch is dead, at least to us.
God bless the Child who's got his own .
In October, four months after our trip, Alex received a birthday card from Mother Drachma. The card urged him to let bygones be bygones, and to look to the future. Along with the card was a check for $10,000. Oh happy day! Justice was semi-served! Alex raced to the bank to deposit his gift before MD could stop payment. Imagine his humiliation when the teller announced that it was not a real check, but an excellent photocopy.
When my mother died in 2004 she left me an inheritance. It was my 61-year-old developmentally disabled cousin, Terri, who had been living with her for decades. Terri functioned at a ten-year-old's level, so she needed me to watch out for her, pay her rent, and monitor her food shopping. It's ironic that someone as militant as I was about being childfree was now responsible for a dependent.
Terri had a refreshing take on life. She was a complete stranger to self-pity. She knew everyone in her neighborhood, got a kick out of each day, and found the most amazing treasures in her garbage dumpster. She also had a knack for fearlessly speaking the truth. After I told her of our misadventures with Mother Drachma, I said, "The woman is sick."
Terri didn't miss a beat. "If she's so sick, she should go to the fucking hospital."
The Sicilians have a saying, "Out of good comes evil, out of evil comes good." Mother Drachma's dramedy offered me the chance to play the heiress, with all the power and glory that the role enjoys. For a short time life loved me. My mantra was the line from a Patti Smith song, "I hold the key to the sea of possibility." But Mother Drachma can't take that away from me. Like most prized qualities, rare and immeasurable, my heiress is inner.
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