In my father’s will, under SURVIVORSHIP, it reads, “any aforestated beneficiary of this will who dies within 30 days after my death shall be considered to have failed to survive me.” My god, I think. Maybe he had a sense of humor after all. For a jarring, fleeting second, I entertain the possibility that within my father lurked some latent scrap of self-awareness. It’s only legalese, yet it’s apt. This is a test, a competition. Something I can fail. And I’m afraid I will. Driving the perilous curves of the 110, I see sparks and collisions, mangled metal like a premonition. Victory is tantalizingly close, but my grip is still tenuous. I clamp my hands tight on the wheel, worried that some part of me cannot be trusted.
His will leaves me everything there is to leave. “I’m an heir,” I say, half-laughing, to my roommate, who calls me an heiress instead. I glower, but not for long. My roommate is refreshingly unfazed by my newfound half-orphan status. Absent heirs shall not inherit, I think, trying to remember the Latin. But I have, in my absence, inherited.
Thanks to something called a Ladybird deed, his house is mine the second they declare him dead. I am a property owner—an incongruous thought; I feel like it should be accompanied by a new accent. I wonder if the deed is named after the song, the one about the ladybug, with her burning house and imperiled children.
I’ve never been in the house. Haven’t set foot in Michigan in years, not since well before he bought it. My roommate and I look it up a dozen or so hours after his death, open wine bottle on the table before us, clicking through photos from the last time it was for sale. Antlers on the wall, sunlight in the bedroom, snow in the yard. A little white clapboard house camouflaged against the snow. Quaint the way nothing in California could ever hope to be.
“Holy shit,” I say, looking at the price, knowing I’ll sell it and something close to that sum will be mine.
“Holy shit,” my roommate says, because around here that wouldn’t buy you so much as the burnt-out carapace of a shack.
The house isn’t the only thing that’s mine to dispose of. His body is mine to do with what I will. They tell me he wanted it donated to science, but they need my consent. Now it matters if I say yes, if I say no. I could bulldoze over his wishes, stick him in a coffin, and plant him in the ground. I could burn him to ash and chuck him in the wretched concrete trickle of the L.A. River.
But I don’t. I agree. The concept is faintly reassuring. I can’t get it out of my head that capital-S Science is taking custody of him, and will determine what his fucking problem is. Was. I know, of course, that it doesn’t work like that. Everything quantifiable has already been quantified. Plenty was wrong with his body. Knowing what it was never helped me any. Still, I can’t shake the idea of Science, white-coated and objective, wielding scales and calipers, staring down the problem until it’s tamed, reduced to nothing but the neat march of numbers.
On the puddle-jumper from O’Hare to Grand Rapids, I envision the wings of the plane snapping off; de-oxygenated, high-altitude air rushing in; the water of the Great Lake swallowing steel and flesh alike. But I’m calm. There’s nothing I can do to stop it, yes, but there’s also nothing I can do to make it happen.
Assuming the plane lands, I have four days ahead of me. I didn’t go to the funeral because there wasn’t one. I braced myself for hostile stares from strangers who share my DNA, ready for that familiar bubble of space and silence around me. I’m ashamed to admit it, but I feel like I’ve been denied my martyrdom. Instead, I’m out here to settle his affairs—namely, to sell his house, which is no longer his, but mine.
The plane doesn’t crash. This doesn’t seem like much of a reprieve when I emerge into the Gerald Ford International Airport. The “international” component strikes me as unlikely, but, on the other hand, presumably the natural reaction to finding oneself in Grand Rapids is to attempt to get as far away as possible. It’s certainly how I want to respond. But what I want and what I do are two very different things. Instead of fleeing, I rent a car for the first time. I’ve been old enough to do so for thirteen days. My father’s death was an early birthday present, though I honestly expected him to will himself into dying on my birthday, just to ensure it would always be about him. But he hadn’t. Four days from now, I will have survived him, officially, like he is a hurricane, or typhus. Four days, I remind myself at the car rental kiosk, when the woman behind the counter glances at the collection of pins on my backpack, her gaze landing on the centerpiece, a button declaring that, “I gave my love to Jesus, but now He never calls.” Only four, I repeat once I’m behind the wheel. Like when the window is up I’ll be safe, no longer responsible for my own well-being. After I win, who gives a shit? I’m the victor.
Around me, the license plates read “Pure Michigan.” Initially, I laugh, blink like I might be hallucinating. But I keep seeing it—car after car, even on a billboard, amplified. The message sinks in: I am not sufficiently pure. I am not prepared for what I’m getting myself into, waltzing east with Californian bravado, like these people are all too bland to hurt me. I should know better. My decision to come here was an ill-considered confluence of whim and obligation; only now does the reality sink in. I’m driving east from the airport when I should be fleeing the fuck back to the West Coast.
My concern over the figurative wrong direction I’m going in swamps my mind, and I’m slow to realize that I’m also going in the literal wrong direction. I tell myself I know this, like I’ll snap a roadmap onto childhood memories of brief, tense visits, or head to my father’s hometown by instinct, like a salmon.
No instincts are forthcoming. I start seeing signs for Muskegon and have to admit I’ve fucked up. After trying in vain to start directions on my phone one-handed, I pull into a grocery store parking lot. It’s a Meijer, and the glow of the sign seems both an affront and an omen. I’m out of my element. The sight of a Wal-Mart would be welcome, Target virtually cosmopolitan. With shamefully tremulous fingers, I divest myself of pins and buttons. It had seemed so easy to be steadfast, to raise both middle fingers at them all, but I’d forgotten that I’d be alone. Alone, feeling like the entire state is scrutinizing me through narrowed eyes. I’d forgotten how little being right matters, sometimes. Maybe this is the wrong approach. Maybe defying them is only another way of giving them what they want—an excuse to shake their heads. I should’ve scrounged up some suitable spouse, a beige blob of respectability. The shock on their faces might be worth it. Not that I have a suitable candidate on hand, but that’s why Craigslist was invented. Though to really sell it, I’d need a baby, and those must be considerably harder to procure, though I’ve always had an intrepid streak, so—
I cut myself short. You hate these people, I remind myself. You hate them back, glare for glare, sneer for sneer. You don’t want to be what they want you to be.
Still, I leave the pins scattered on the seat and follow the GPS to the house, which is grayish in the fading light, the lawn around it reduced to dead patches and bare dirt. I get the key from the obviously fake rock sitting conspicuously on the otherwise-empty doorstep. As soon as I open the door and flip on the light, I know I’ve made a mistake. I’d expected the house from the real estate photos, not this husk. It isn’t empty like an ad, a blank slate. That would be better. There’s some furniture crowded together in the middle of the room. It gives me the impression that the objects have huddled together for warmth. But that isn’t what convinces me that I’ve fucked the fuck up by coming here. It’s me. Or, rather, it’s my face. I’m already here, snapped and shot and framed and nailed to the walls, too many versions of my face smiling the same tense, unwilling nod in the direction of a smile—the pained crook of my lips as they fight a snarl, a sneer. Trapped deer eyes, dark glint of anger deadened by the paper’s gloss. I’m already here, haunting this house. My father has been keeping me here. I count nine photos, nine me’s, staggered at various ages, clone-like Von Trapps gathered to watch him.
He’s dead. I’m alive. I’m the only part of him that’s still living. Suddenly, this feels like his victory. My cells are half his, encoded with what he was. My mouth turns sour, and I swallow saliva that feels more his than mine.
Cramming the key in my pocket, I barrel out the door, fumbling to get the car unlocked and started. I pull out in a careless squeal of tires, making turns that would be dangerous if there was anybody around for me to crash into. But there isn’t, and I make it to the grocery store unscathed. Another Meijer, smaller than the first. I can’t remember if they sell alcohol in grocery stores here, but I walk purposefully, afraid to give off a lost aura—permission to approach, offer help that isn’t the sort I need. I assess my options. I want something that burns, but I’ll take what I can get, so I grab a bottle of wine by the neck. The label is vaguely Goth, which is good enough for me. My skin crawls as the cashier studies my I.D. Seeing, I’m suddenly sure, wrongness. Otherness. An outsider with a familiar surname.
Telling myself I should preserve my sanity by getting a hotel room, I drive back to the house. I tear through the living room, bypassing the crowd of my staring faces. The kitchen, at least, is unlikely to have my likeness plastered all over it. But I don’t know the floorplan and loop—dangerously, it seems—towards the bedroom before reorienting myself and landing in the kitchen. No copies of me here. No utensils, either. The cupboards are empty, standing open. I close the nearest one by instinct, a pinched, uninvited voice from childhood echoing through my head. If you leave the cupboards open, people will talk about you. I’d never known if this was a superstition, like throwing salt over your shoulder or not giving knives as gifts, or meant literally—neighbors whispering behind cupped palms about your slovenly ways. Asking felt too risky, so I didn’t. It doesn’t matter, anyway. In this town, they’re talking about me behind my back, no matter the state of the cupboards.
His sisters have gone through the house. I was informed; it isn’t supposed to be a violation and I’m not supposed to be surprised. I just hadn’t anticipated that they’d empty all the drawers, all the cupboards. That they would take the forks, whisking them off to wherever the forks of the dead go.
Maybe he never had forks. I could believe he lived like that. What I can’t buy, however, is that he didn’t own a corkscrew. I glance at the bottle in my hand, fleetingly optimistic, but it confirms what I already knew: not a screwtop. I check the empty drawers, the vacant cupboards with liners peeling at the edges, blue flowers under dust. Empty, empty, empty. They’ve been thorough. I’m thorough, too. I can feel the absence, the bottles I know they’ve taken away. One of the few images I can conjure of the time I spent around my father. Empties, the recycling piled high, white-yellow labels on clear plastic.
Taking a deep breath, I try to strategize. My overstuffed backpack sits by my feet, and I grab it, thinking I might be able to extract the cork with a pocketknife. My hands are already rooting in the bag when I remember: the fucking TSA. All my weapons laid out on the bed before I left. I’ve been disarmed.
“I’ll go back to the store,” I say to the ransacked kitchen, but my breathing is unsteady. My skin burns preemptively at the thought of walking under those fluorescent lights, weaponless, where they can see me, where in any crowd of more than a dozen there’s probably a second cousin of mine lurking.
My hands keep digging in the backpack. Reflex, instinct, something. They come up, not empty, but holding a jumbo sharpie. I eye the marker, the bottle. My hands, like this is a plot they’ve hatched.
Sinking to the floor, I peel the foil from the bottle’s neck with my fingernails. I have the inexplicable sensation that I’m buying myself time. Removing the foil soothes me, but not enough. Lining the end of the sharpie up with the top of the cork, I press tentatively. Nothing. I draw back, then try again, putting some weight into it. Just when I’m ready to withdraw, I feel it start to give. Invigorated and hopeful, I lean harder, but the bottle skids sideways, tipping over. I catch it, one-handed, before it hits the floor. My travel-sullied hair clings to the back of my neck; it feels greasier than it did when I started. I resettle the sharpie atop the cork, which may have sunk a centimeter or two. Pinning the wine bottle between my legs, I shove the sharpie against the cork with all the force I can muster.
It moves slightly, and I have just enough time to think “holy shit” before the cork plunges into the bottle and I lose my balance, slipping forward as wine sprays up at me. I sit back, blinking wine off my eyelashes as it trickles down my cheeks and forehead. My legs and the linoleum are equally splattered. These are the only jeans I brought, so I guess I’ll be spending the rest of my time in Michigan smelling like halfway-decent grocery store wine. Lifting the bottle, I drink, only slightly impeded by the cork, which is trapped inside and bobbing unhelpfully. My front teeth clank against the glass. Wine sloshes out, missing my mouth and landing on my neck. I imagine the sight I make, what they’d all think if they could see me. Slowly, a grin overtakes my face, until I’m beaming into the dark of the hallway, like everyone really is there to watch. Like he’s watching, too. Here, I think, taking another swig. Take my fucking picture now.
Phoebe Blanding works at Powell’s Books and has a longstanding aversion to making biographical statements.
This was beautifully written. I struggled to read it. So many conflicting emotions. Mostly sadness though. Your dad was funny. He couldn’t have used a corkscrew. I know that’s not really relevant. For some reason I feel the need to tell you still. I’m you cousin. I don’t hate you. And I wish you hadn’t been alone for this.
Phoebe, you are obviously talented. You have a way with words. So did your dad “before.” I know you never knew him “before” and I’m so sorry you never got to know the person he truly was. When our family came across this we were obviously filed with all sorts of emotions. Yes, we are strangers who share your DNA, but we also are living breathing actual human beings with actual human emotions, and believe it or not, I think you’d actually like us and find that we have more in common with you than you know. But you came to your father’s memorial with no intention of building a relationship with any of us. I look at the picture of all us cousins smiling, so happy to be together, and you look as if you wish you were anywhere else. I wish you knew how much your father wanted nothing more than to leave a legacy for you. You were the only thing that mattered. I wish you knew how much his siblings sacrificed to care for him. It wasn’t easy, and it certainly wasn’t anything they signed up for. But they did it unfailingly and without complaint. You know yesterday was the third anniversary of his death. It’s sad… his life was sad. Maybe if you knew how sad his life was you would have made the trip to say goodbye. You’ll regret it one day, and I’m sorry for that. But we’re still here, and if you ever feel the need to hear a story about your dad, or learn about your history (because like it or not, we’re part of your history) we’ll be here in Michigan waiting.