(Scholastic Gold Key Recipient: Fiction)
The Weekly Progress
Juniper Springs, California
May 4, 2013
“Mrs. Justine Weisblatt, formerly of Juniper Springs, died suddenly at the age of 76 on July 13, 2012. She had been a resident of San Francisco for the past 40 years. She is most remembered for her extensive acting career. She appeared in many independent films and is best known for her starring role in the blockbuster, In Winter Lake. She retired to Paradise Valley, Arizona in 2004. She is survived by her three children: Peter Weisblatt, Sophia Jordan and Rebecca Weisblatt; and five grandchildren. She is buried in Juniper Springs next to her husband Dr. Wayland Weisblatt.”
* * *
As Peter rang the bell of his mother’s house, he thought about how death brings out the best and worst in people. He braced himself for the arguments from his financially impractical sisters; Sophia’s insistence on their mother’s fame and Becky’s need of a home. After the death of their mother, Peter, Rebecca and Sophia reunited at their mother’s house, which was also Rebecca’s home. Rebecca answered the door and started to cry.
“How have you been doing, Becks?” Peter asked her as she led him up the stairs to the guest room.
“I’m fine. Sad of course,” her voice cracked. “You know I was here at the end, and I had to see—,” her words were lost. Loud sobs penetrated the muffled air of the upstairs. Peter was suddenly acutely aware of just how full the house was. Of furniture, carpet, and dust. It sounded full. Noise simply stopped the moment it was released into the air. He put his suitcase down and awkwardly patted her shoulder, while she stood hunched and sobbing on the landing. Peter looked around the room and wondered if any of his mother’s old creaky furniture could pay off the debt on the house. Really, he wondered if there would be anything left over to make a dent on what he owed to the bank from last year’s miscalculation.
“We’re all here now,” he said. “Where is Sophia by the way?” He asked, referring to his other sister.
“Downstairs, I think,” her voice was still shaky.
“I’m going to go back down. Start dinner,” she mumbled, tip toeing from the room.
In her absence Peter patted the railing and took another look around. There was a mug on the table in the bedroom, dangerously close to the edge. Dust motes drifted through the ray of sun that he could see had faded the duvet and carpet. There was a stack of envelopes on the bedside table. Peter picked them up. Gas bill. Electric bill. Phone bill. Funeral bills. Mortgage. Taxes. Why was this all just sitting here in his mother’s bedroom? They crinkled in his grip as he ran down the stairs. Becky looked up as he stormed into the kitchen. When she saw the pile of envelopes in his hand her eyes widened and she put down the knife she was using to chop the carrots.
“Sophia! I thought you had figured out a way to take care of this!” Peter threw the bills down on the counter. Sophia, his older sister, was pouring a glass of wine. Her hair was dramatically piled on top of her head and tipped from side to side as if it were about to drag her over.
“I’m… in the process of figuring it out.” She finished pouring and sat down, not bothering to put the bottle away.
“This is tens of thousands of dollars! In debt! Do you understand that? Debt!”
“I know what debt is, Peter,” Sophia drawled.
“How can you be so calm?”
“Let’s just focus on getting the house cleared out this weekend and then we will think about how to pay off the debt. Does that sound reasonable?” Sophia dangled her nearly empty glass of wine from her fingertips as she stood up.
“I’ll tell you how we are going to pay off the debt. We are going to sell everything.” Peter slammed his hand down on the counter.
“No!” Becky said from behind him. “We are not selling anything. This is my home, this was mom’s home. We’ll just clear out the junk and that’ll be it.”
“Rebecca, you can’t afford to live here. You have a part time job and no husband, how do you plan to pay for anything,” Peter’s voice was very quiet. Becky sat down at the table, tears coming to her eyes again, and stared at her hands.
“It’s just not right, she’s our mother. We can’t sell her things, donating them would be better.”
“What we are going to do,” Sophia poured another glass of wine, “is auction everything off. How does this sound: ‘The Life of Justine Weisblatt.’ That’s what we’ll call the lot.”
“Very imaginative,” Peter deadpanned. “But I don’t think that’s going to bring in much of a profit. She was famous too long ago, and not even that famous. We’d do better to sell online.”
“The money doesn’t matter. It’s the publicity. Hardly anyone mentioned that she died. Selling her things is bound to attract some attention. Let her leave this world as the star she was, Peter. Just because you ignored her doesn’t mean we all have to,” Sophia tossed the bottle into the trash.
“Stop!” Becky jumped up, “God, both of you!” Peter and Sophia turned to look at her. “This is our mother you are talking about. Peter, you were never here, so how dare you come in here and say what is and isn’t going to happen. And Sophia, I saw that obituary in The Progress this morning, Uncle Bruce sent me the link. I’ve never seen anything describe mom less accurately. You didn’t mention any of her philanthropic work: her efforts for the Hydrangea Children’s Foundation, her support for our troops. You didn’t mention how much she loved her family or how educated she was. She went to Juliard, Sophia. And all you mentioned was the film that no one has heard of. You know how much she hated attention; she hated that part of her life, why are you trying to sustain it?”
“The obituary was expensive, I had to get the important stuff in.”
Becky groaned in exasperation just as Sophia’s husband walked into the kitchen with their two sons. They froze in the doorway.
“Becky, we know you are upset, but the house is not just going to sit here.”
“Is dinner ready? Or should we come back?” Mitchell and his two sons were still frozen in the doorway.
“Well, Mitch, now doesn’t really seem like a good time does it?” Sophia snapped.
“Mitch, stay. This is a ridiculous conversation. I’m going to start sorting her clothes. For donation,” Becky snatched a tissue from the box by the door as she bolted from the room, Mitch and the boys jumping out of her way.
“I’ll go,” Peter said to the room and followed her out of the kitchen.
“Peter,” Sophia called after him, “We have to get this all figured out by Monday. I’m supposed to shoot a commercial in Phoenix on Tuesday.”
“A commercial? For what?”
Peter shook his head and went to find Becky. She was in the living room, kneeling down on the carpet next to the basket of records. She asked him if he wanted any of them and he said he didn’t have a record player.
“Don’t you miss her?”
“Of course I do.”
“Then how can you want to sell her things? You know that isn’t what she would have wanted. She would have wanted everything to go to charity.”
“That may be true—“
“It is true.”
“Okay, but we simply cannot afford to give everything away. There is so much debt, Becky. Mom really wouldn’t have wanted us to try and pay for it all out of pocket. I’m not sure that any of us could afford that anyway.”
“I guess. I mean, at least your point of view makes sense. Sophia is just being irrational.”
“She’s compensating…” Becky looked confusedly at her brother, “she’s shooting a yogurt commercial on Tuesday…”
“She’s still insane.”
Peter nodded, then stood up from the chair and went to find a notepad to write down all of the things that might be worth anything.
Two days later the three siblings stood in the hall around a pile of their mother’s things and their familial tension. They had not yet agreed on what to do with the remainder of Justine’s belongings. Peter had taken his mother’s antique pistol and a piece of artwork; Sophia had set aside some of Justine’s jewelry, all costume; Becky had found pictures throughout the house and some of Justine’s journals and letters and placed them in a pile for herself.
Sophia stood with her arms crossed in the foyer, her phone in her hand and the phone numbers for the auction house and the Actors’ Museum of Los Angeles on a sticky note in front of her. She stared at it. Peter was on the phone with a real estate agent discussing the salability of the house and whether or not it had 3 full bathrooms or two and a half and was there a wood-burning fireplace and how old was the kitchen. Becky sat on the stairs like she had when she was seven and had wanted to read her book in peace while Peter was blasting his boom box and Sophia had her loud, chattering friends over. She watched her two siblings, backs to each other, on their phones, selling away her home and her mother.
“Sophia, please don’t do this,” Becky whispered. “Are they even going to want any of this stuff, it probably isn’t worth anything.”
“The most value is in those letters and journals, Becky,” Sophia snapped. Her sister just stared at her open-mouthed.
“You know what?” Becky began to pick up the things in her pile, “I’m done. Just, absolutely done. I refuse to sit here while you reduce my mother to a public figure who can make you a buck.” She moved to go out the door. Peter had hung up the phone. He asked her where she was going to go.
“Now you ask me. After you have been on the phone for thirty minutes selling my home, you ask me where I am going to go. Thank you, Peter. I’m going to Aunt Celine’s while I find myself an apartment.”
Her sister told her she was being ridiculous.
“My bedroom is the second door on the right. Don’t sell anything in there, okay? I’ll be by tomorrow to get the rest of my things.”
No one moved to stop her.
Becky gently placed the journals in the back seat of her car before climbing into the driver’s seat. Her phone rang. For a second she thought, or rather hoped, that it was one of her siblings calling to apologize. It wasn’t. She answered.
“Becky, hi it’s Grace, Grace Hilden!” Becky recognized the name of one of her high school friends. “Listen, I’m so sorry to hear about your mother, I know you two were very close. I can’t believe I hadn’t heard. But listen, that was a lovely obituary in The Progress. Just a lovely representation of her…the picture was beautiful, how old was she there, 25? …Becky?”
“Yes, I’m here. Thank you, Grace. Thanks for calling, I’ll talk to you soon, okay?” Becky’s throat felt tight.
“Of course, bye-bye!” The silence changed from the openness of not being alone to the muffled stillness of the car.
The phone made a clattering sound as it fell into the cup holder. Becky started the engine and slowly pulled away from home.