I Have Come for what Belongs to me

 

for Elizabeth

 

I was driving, though Beth could still drive at that point, and although we didn’t say it, we wondered if it might be our last road trip. Up Route 5 from Brattleboro to Bellows Falls, through Putney, Vermont, everything around us was buzzing and green, as it is in Vermont in July. All of our road trips took place in the summer, and most had happened nearly twenty years before: the 1994 trip to New Orleans, when Beth had drunk too much Ginseng tea and we drove past Graceland, twice, without seeing it, because we had been looking for leopard-print gates and spangled walkways, and when we finally got there, Beth bought an ashtray with a picture of Elvis and Nixon shaking hands on it, even though she had never smoked. Then the bus ride from Boston to the Lizzie Borden house, where I bought a pen with an eraser shaped like an axe handle, the trip that cemented our certainty that Lizzie was guilty. When the layout of your home requires your entire family to walk through your bedroom to get to basically any other room, killing them makes its own kind of sense. Beth had bought me a pillbox from her tour of the Winchester Mystery House one summer; we had planned to go together someday, the two of us climbing up steps that led into walls and opening doors that led into other doors, in a house created to appease the dead.

Our plans had changed when Beth had been diagnosed with ALS two months before. “It serves me right for making fun of that ice bucket challenge,” she had said, and we laughed, because having ALS did not mean that she wouldn’t continue to find the phrase “I’m raising awareness” a great, all-purpose smartass answer to any question. When I had seen her the previous winter, she had lost some fine motor function in her fingers, and she could no longer work on the wiring for the radios she enjoyed building when she wasn’t writing or teaching. Her voice had become gravelly and weak (“vocal fry,” she told me, like the Kardashians.) Her handwriting was shaky, like an old lady’s, and later like my three-year-old daughter’s, and when she ate, food would sometimes go down the wrong pipe, forcing her to take breaths from the inhaler she now carried everywhere. She who had made her living teaching writing and writing about bodies—mostly women’s murdered bodies, crime scene photographs, Elizabeth Short’s mangled corpse. A famous author we knew once called her “the nicest death-obsessed person I’ve ever met,” which, as one-line characterizations go, is spot-on. That spring at a writer’s conference, as we sat in the building where Mary Tyler Moore had been filmed and watched a group of blonde Minnesotan theater kids dancing up and down an escalator, she had showed me the scar from the muscle biopsy, upon which she had drawn a picture of a pig (“because drawing a pig on something makes it easier to look at”) but at that point we were hoping it was Parkinson’s or MS, which is like hoping for a hurricane when it might be a tornado. When my phone buzzed while I sat at a meeting a month later, I knew it was bad news. I asked Beth what she needed. “I just want to see you,” was her reply.

 

We both loved the Guinness Book of World Records as kids, Beth and I.  Our memories of the 1970s editions remained fresh, because even though she lived in Illinois and I lived in Massachusetts and we didn’t yet know each other, we liked the same things even then.  I remembered that the best-selling postcard of all time was of a joke I didn’t get. It was a cartoon. “Do you like Kipling?” A woman at a cocktail party asked a man. “I don’t know. I’ve never kippled,” was his reply. Beth remembered the obese twins in cowboy hats, the ones who rode motorcycles and were buried in piano boxes. We both remembered the tiny Victorian lady, about as small as a water canteen, and the longest fingernails, which didn’t grow up and straight, but curled like tentacles. Of the two of us, I was the one who remembered Hetty Green.

Depending on whom you ask, Hetty Green was either a feminist trailblazer for women in finance or the 1ate 19th century’s answer to Mr. Burns from the Simpsons. Her nickname was “The Witch of Wall Street,” and biographers have called her “America’s first female tycoon,” “the first lady of capitalism,” and “a female Citizen Kane.” In equal turn, she is labeled a miser, an eccentric, a genius. She was both notoriously rich and notoriously cheap, worth in 1916, the year of her death, what her biographers estimate was the equivalent of between 1.6 and 2.5 billion dollars today. For a while, she was wealthier than the entire city of New York. Her secret, in her own words, was this: “When I see a thing, going cheap because nobody wants it, I buy a lot of it and tuck it away. Then, when the time comes, they have to hunt me up and pay me a good price for my holdings.” She also valued thrift and felt that the road to wealth lay not in extravagance but in never borrowing money. Her own son nearly lost a leg because she refused to pay for his medical care after an accident, lamenting that she would “have had to pay (the doctor) even if he didn’t do anything.” She would go to the doctor’s office in threadbare clothes to avoid paying for her son’s care. An anecdote in Janet Wallach’s The Richest Woman in America: Hetty Green and the Gilded Age describes Ned screaming in pain after reinjuring his leg. She wouldn’t take him to a doctor, but she would stay up all night with him while he cried.

 

Hetty Green’s grave was not on our original agenda. Our plan was to visit an abandoned amusement park on Route 5 in Putney, one that had been closed down due to drug violations and, more tragically, the deaths of eighteen animals who lived at the park. I had been to Santa’s Land with my young daughter; it was a shabby, crumbling but strangely enchanting place, angular and glittery with round-faced dolls staring from behind glass in dioramic Christmas scenes, like an episode of Davey and Goliath come to life. The best part was a little train that ran through the park, which was charming until it sped through a tunnel. The shadows of stacks of garbage all piled up in the dark were the first hint that something was not right, but at least then they had bothered to hide the trash. Although the park had been shut down and cordoned off, Beth wanted to see the place, and I could not refuse her. She was writing some new poems about the culture of the roadside attraction, she said, but we didn’t need any kind of excuse at all.

 

Our first stop: The Hetty Green Motel, which has the worst online reviews I have ever seen, and that is saying a lot. From “vomit urine and feces on the bathroom walls and floor! to “mouse droppings all over the beds” to an owner with a habit of “peeking through windows” and “walking into rooms unannounced” but who is also, apparently “very rude” or “extremely rude,” depending upon whom you ask, what you have is a biohazard. According to reviewers, the rooms have no phones, no working televisions, and are heated (in Vermont, no less) by small space heaters. On top of it, the owner won’t let you use the office phone, and the rooms are too small.

 

It is hard to know what Hetty herself would think of this motel. On the one hand, it is the very picture of a “budget” hotel, and she would dismiss amenities such as televisions, phones, and housekeeping as wasteful extravagances. It is exactly the sort of property she might purchase, renovate, and sell at a profit. However, she would not have named it, or any building, after herself. Unlike Donald Trump, she seemed to have no desire to create properties or build structures in her own name. Her grave, just up the road in a small church cemetery, is plain and unremarkable. “Well, that was anticlimactic,” Beth said, as we walked down the steep downtown streets and back to the car, though it seemed fitting memorial for a woman who died of a stroke while arguing with a maid in defense of skimmed milk.

As we drove to Santa’s Land, Beth looked up anecdotes about Hetty Green on her phone. She could still press the numbers relatively easily then, and as she bent over, reading aloud, I nearly pulled over from laughing so hard. It was roadside freak show gold. One of them told how Hetty Green had suffered a hernia, for which she had constructed a do-it-yourself poultice to treat. When she went to see the doctor, finally, she balked at the cost of surgery, jammed the stick back into place, which must have caused no insignificant amount of pain, and took her leave. The richest woman who ever lived, who made her own money, travelling these same streets in secondhand dresses and dirty underwear, her innards secured by a rag and a stick.

The Santa’s Land parking lot took up at least an acre, and the signs still stood, as though the park remained open, and all of the scandals about dead animals and drug dealing were just unpleasant rumors. Only the police tape and the “Keep Out” sign indicated that there had been a problem. The winter before, after neighbors had reported a lack of activity at the park, investigators discovered several dead fallow deer, a dead potbellied pig, a pheasant, and a number of other hungry and neglected animals, and reported that the owner’s boyfriend had been suspected of dealing cocaine. This news was hard to take in, mostly because I had seen the animals, who looked healthy enough, though the trees in the fenced area where the fallow deer had lived were all bare of bark, which should have been a clue. The donkeys and goats, placards told us, were on loan from local farms—how were we to know that they wintered at the park, that they would be neglected? Still, I remember some discomfort when seeing the small cages for the birds, with no shelter, and also when the underfed Santa had, in my daughter’s words, “creeped up on us” when we posed in front of the fun mirrors. Something was off, but wasn’t it good that the place hadn’t been modernized, Disneyfied? The children’s rides still operated, by a young woman, shivering in a parka, who was a mother to a child my daughter’s age. She was the only person working there who seemed normal, who looked you in the eye, and as we talked about our children and how verbal they were, I wondered how it was to stand out there all day, in the cold, running the same three rides when there were fewer than five families in the entire park at once. I wonder what happened to her when the park closed for good.

 

We only hesitated a moment when we saw the police tape. “I can always tell them I have ALS,” said Beth, “And that I came all the way from Illinois to see this.” We knew that we were trespassing, but it seemed more important to continue on. It was hard not to think of one of Beth’s favorite movies, Carnival of Souls, in which a young woman dies after driving off a bridge yet believes she is alive. She feels drawn to an abandoned amusement park, which also repels her. We could not stop until we had seen it.

The entire place looked as though it had been raided and abandoned on a usual business day, and then ransacked later; a Styrofoam coffee cup and a Dunkin donuts bag sat on the train platform, and the Santa statue at the ticket counter was leaning to the side as though drunk. Since the place had been in operation since the late 1950s and most of the attractions had not changed much, the abandonment did not feel recent. We were interlopers from the future. Although the only traces of the dead and neglected animals were the abundant feathers and droppings still covering the floors of the bird enclosures, I saw a fox emerge from one of the buildings after I opened a door to one of the cafe buildings to see what was inside. Big mistake: almost immediately I was knocked off my feet by the smell of rot and garbage.

Right before we left, I insisted that we should at least try to peek inside the gift shop. I don’t know what made me tap on the door; perhaps it was open a crack, and I could not believe that it was not locked, or that no police tape blocked the double doors. It had been a strange, depressing gift shop when the park was open; ornaments in one section, dollar store and Wal-Mart toys in another, mugs and magnets in another, but now it looked like someone had torn though it, desperately looking for something before fleeing. Piles of garbage littered the front register table, and dirt and trash lay all around. Some of the toys sat, untouched, on display racks, including a snowman puppet I considered rescuing. Children’s books and trinkets, potpourri holders and even an abandoned wheelchair were visible in the shadows. From the fireplace, a doll stared out at us, as though willfully refusing to accept that it was over and done.

 

We drove back to the only place it seemed right to go, back to Bellows Falls, with the antique store with the chandelier made of bones and the Opera House featuring the No-Film Film Festival and where, near rocks by the Vilas Bridge, you can see petroglyphs that look like faces. Here, where the living and the dead kept comfortable company, the details in the stories of our past road trips were greater than the sum of their parts:  the vintage shift dresses Beth and her sister had worn at the Lizzie Borden house where I had taken their blurry pictures, the linguiça we had eaten in the empty diner, the bottles and jars in the old apothecary shop in New Orleans where Beth had bought headache powders and we tried to find a bar where we could order absinthe, just because.

It was only after we returned in the setting sun and the heat of the car that Beth started pulling items from her purse: plastic cups with the Santa’s Land logo, a postcard with a looming, menacing 1930’s snowman, two Christmas ornaments. She handed me the one with the name “Monica” on it. I presented her with a pen containing a moving Santa and sleigh.

“Just a little light looting,” I said, and we laughed about what our husbands would say if we had called them from jail, about how crazy it was that we were two middle-aged English professors acting like the kids we had been in graduate school. Once in the car, we did not even bother to take out my daughter’s Ramona the Pest CD, so as we drove Stockard Channing read us the story of how Ramona asked her teacher how Mike Mulligan, who dug the foundation for the new town hall all day and night with his steam shovel, Mary Ann, went to the bathroom. As the highway opened up to us and Beth lay, half asleep, on the passenger side, her hands resting on her lap unnaturally, with the palms up, I had to stop myself from sobbing aloud as it occurred to me that a person could dig all day and all night without stopping, and all anyone would remember is how you went to the bathroom.

 

 

Hetty Green kept all of her most valuable possessions in one building—74 Broad Street in New York City. Her son Ned’s secretary, Walter Marshall, said that as they stepped into the room “grotesque shadows arose above a great clutter of objects” and he felt faint in the heat. Hetty, who, according to biographer Charles Slack, stood chewing a raw onion to keep cool, went through each object: a dress she had worn to dance with the prince of Wales, a buffalo robe from her father’s sleigh, paintings, glassware, and dance programs. Marshall saw tears in her eyes as the robe fell apart in her hands.

As I write this, Beth is confined to a hospital bed in what was once her dining room, Law and Order: Special Victims Unit playing endlessly on cable. Her pill organizer is divided into twenty-eight separate compartments. Her bed moves up and down in three different ways, and so does the chair next to it, and the oxygen cart wheels wherever you need it to go—everything is made to move in ways a sick body cannot. Soon, she will be given a device that will allow her to communicate using only her eyes. It’s a miracle that something like this exists. The gifts I have brought her I also opened for her:  three new colors of nail polish, a figurine of Homer Simpson, season four of Little House on the Prairie, all stacked on the end of a table like bribes.

“Let’s go outside,” I say, gesturing to the wheelchair in the corner. “It feels like spring out there.” It would take at least half an hour to get the motorized chair ready, to move Beth into it, and to navigate her outside to the porch. My chirpy enthusiasm sounds stupid, so I’m almost relieved when Beth indicates that she would rather not. Special Victims Unit is almost over, but another episode will almost surely follow. Beth knows them all by heart. She always knew how every story was going to end, sometimes even after the first few lines. “He’s dead,” she had announced in the theater during the first ten minutes of The Sixth Sense. I didn’t even have the chance to watch it one time through, or to watch it a second time to pick up the clues I had missed. She couldn’t even give me that.

 

It is 1977, and two little girls are on summer vacation. The smart one, the one who always knows how things end, has brought her book into her Springfield, Illinois backyard to escape the ceaseless crying of her baby sister. A storm is coming. The sky is hazy as she sits in the swing, marveling over the largest collection of lip balms, or fishing lures, or sheep-related memorabilia, or about conjoined twins Chang and Eng, or the world beer drinking competition back when drinking alcohol was allowed to make the record books. The other little girl, from her bedroom in Lowell, Massachusetts, surrounded by the crumbling remains of a glorious planned city of industry and prosperity, reads about Charlie, the world’s fastest tortoise, and the heaviest vehicle pulled 100 feet by one woman, and the longest hair. The American dream on amphetamines: the tallest buildings, the most stuff, the fastest planes, and oh, the bodies, growing out of control, growing hair, going numb, dying, decaying, and all for our boundless and ravenous consumption.

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