By Juliet Bashore
Our time had run out–or at least that’s what my father-in-law said. He was giving us two days to clear our stuff—my mom’s stuff really—out of his industrial garage. It was just as well. I knew most of the stuff was garbage anyway. I’d peeked into some of the boxes and found them stuffed with old TV Guides, wadded up newspapers, moth-eaten manuscripts, her assortment of evil eye amulets, a chicken wishbone collection, a real blarney stone, envelopes filled with lucky pennies (the date and location of each find carefully notated), fourteen cat figurines, a small packet of gold fillings and teeth…
I had tried hiring a professional organizer to help me sort through these things. I couldn’t go through all the boxes myself because of the dull ache that started up in the pit of my chest every time I opened a box lid. The organizer said she saw it all the time in clients of hers born during the depression: The Hoarding. The Clutter. A kind of “generational psychosis” was how she put it, born of the gnawing, unconscious fear of having nothing.
But now I had made the big decision: I was going to throw it all away. Badda bing. Time to let go of the baggage—literally—in my post-modern, post-psychoanalytic hope that the symbolic emesis might have a magical action upon the ghostly emotional double.
Yes, such a radical move might generate some collateral loss but losing that lifetime of burden would make the loss worth while. Besides, I knew where the real gold mine was. That bit I had stashed carefully away.
My husband and I had moved to Berkeley from Venice Beach when we found out we were having twins. Then when mom got sick again, there was nothing to do but bring her—and the rest of her stuff—up here, too. She only lasted about a week after the move. That was three years ago.
So there I was. Taking no prisoners. The big purge. Carrying box after moldering box of mom’s old things down and tossing them into the whining maw of the dumpster sight unseen. Over and over, trip after trip, like ducks on a cartoon conveyor belt, we dropped boxes into the bin. The hollow clanging echoed in the empty street outside the big cinder block industrial building. My father-in-law had bought up that whole West Berkeley block between 4th and 5th streets years ago, back when it was only thirty-eight dollars a square foot. That was before the Peet’s had gone in, and the expensive jeans stores. He had a nose for that sort of thing.
The truth is, I’d already let most of it go. By “it” I mean the boxes themselves, the literal baggage, not the ghost-image that would linger mysteriously long after the boxes were gone.
When Mom got sick the first time and we moved her into Ocean House in Santa Monica, that’s when we boxed up her stuff. I had to swear to her that nothing would happen to it. Only then were the Gentle Movers allowed to go in and hand carry the bulk of it out of her house and into a storage place somewhere in South Los Angeles. They said they’d never moved a load that heavy. Ten massive shipping containers. They said they were worried about the tires on their truck blowing out, they weren’t sure it could bear the weight. Ten containers in storage, at $50 a month each. $500 a month total. $6,000 a year. For the last five years.
Of course my husband and I stored as much as we could in our own house. But Mom insisted on keeping 47 special boxes with her at all times. I knew, therefore, that the really important stuff had never gone into storage at all—it was in the 47 precious bankers boxes that never left her side even while she was dying. Those were carefully tucked away. Her Rare Book Collection. The one thing she had not hysterically exaggerated. The books were real, and I had sworn to her that I would guard them. Kind of a deathbed promise.
My mother had collected books, hundreds of books. Thousands, even. In room after room, the walls were lined with books. When I was a child she never went anywhere without one. And when we arrived wherever we were going, she would usually sit in the car and read. And every book she ever read, she kept.
The collection had been carefully and obsessively assembled over the years from author’s book signings and bargain racks, from antiquarian booksellers and garage sales. No “Friends of the Library” bin went unsearched. The Books lined every wall of the living room and den of her fifties-style stucco bungalow, a place she loathed, and eventually they filled my old bedroom and then overflowed into the garage. Some were junk of course, as collecting was a compulsion with her. One whole wall of shelves filled with garish pink spines for example was the romance novel section. Another whole wall was for pop psychology: Gregory Bateson, R.D Laing, Richard Lowen…
But there were also the first editions: the Hemingway, the James Joyce, the T.S. Eliot. There were The Beats, and the sixties avante garde section, with the Richard Brautigans, the Allen Ginsbergs, the Kerouacs, and all the old Grove Press volumes stuffed in the back closet of the den. There was a massive collection of children’s books, “Now We Are Six,” “The Nonsense Verse of Edward Lear,” “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” fragile hand-colored editions of “Alice” and “Through the Looking Glass” and the Dr. Seuss—including signed first editions of “The Cat in the Hat” and “Green Eggs and Ham”—in their own section by the kitchen. She used to tell the story of the time we went to see Theodor Seuss Geisel reading at the Book Gallery in downtown Fullerton. The way she told it, I crawled up on his lap to have him sign my copy, but then screwed up my face and demanded: “Are you sure you’re a real doctor?”
There was a leather-bound, gilded set of Charles Darwin from the century before last, and a brown, disintegrating pioneer copy of “The Household Ladies Cyclopaedia” with hand engravings and instructions on everything from taxidermy to fancy stitching. There were secret bookshelves—a pair of them tucked out of sight on either side of an alcove in the den—devoted to books on her two most taboo subjects: madness and cancer. Alfred Adler and Harry Stack Sullivan on one side, Linus Pauling and Adelle Davis on the other, staring each other down.
There were old records, too—though those had mostly been my dad’s—including my childhood LP collection, with a battered copy of Stanley Holloway’s “The Elephant Alphabet” containing my beloved Gobbledygook Song:
When I was young and had no sense,
I crawled through a hole in the backyard fence.
I crawled right through and there I spied:
The same-sized hole on the other side!
I called my ma, I called my pa—
They said “My gosh! How brave you are!”
‘Cause they could see when they took one look,
That hole was made by the Gobbledygook.
And then there was the Bloomsbury collection. Her specialty was Virginia Woolf. But there were also the beautiful little hand pressed collections of Gertrude Stein and a ten volume set of the work of Sigmund Freud—the first ever published in English. And a blue marble-bound Hogarth Press first edition of The Waste Land. I can still see them in the den, the stained emerald satin of that ancient copy of “The Wizard of Oz” which for years stood sandwiched jarringly between “What Plato Said” and the mysterious and slightly terrifying “In Cold Blood.” It was from those books that I learned about concentration camps, and the developmental stages of adolescence, and how to make an amblongus pie. When you cracked them open they always had a dry, slightly musty smell—the smell of rare, old, esoteric, maybe even forbidden ideas. Taboos. The stacks stood there as proof, I guess, to anyone who might venture inside, that she was not just another Orange County housewife.
Now the Gobbledygook was a rare old bird,
He’s never seen but he’s always heard.
He listens to you speak and then,
He says the same thing back again.
He listens by night, he listens by day—
It doesn’t matter what you say.
He writes it down in a little book,
And reads it back in Gobbledygook.
She was a playwright, really. That was how she always introduced herself. She held local writers-group meetings in our living room. Pretty much everything she did, she did in the name of “developing dramatic material.” And she was dramatic all right. She surrounded herself with a circle of peculiar people, actors, directors, screenwriters—not the grossly commercial ones, always the artsy types—along with some washed-up up old Hollywood has-beens and a few permanent wannabees. I remember names like Ken Englund, Richard Beymer, John Cassavetes, Meade Roberts… Take Meade for example. Meade had written the screenplay for a Marlon Brando film called “The Fugitive Kind,” based on a play by Tennessee Williams. “He and Tennessee were friends, you know. You know what I mean by “friends,” Juliet? He was… Meade was much younger, much younger than Tennessee. That’s just how things work in Hollywood.”
She met Meade in 1973, at the funeral of William Inge, who had committed suicide with carbon monoxide poisoning. By the time she knew Meade, he was obese and chain-smoked and shuffled around like Alfred Hitchcock in a long kaftan, presumably because that was all he had that would fit around his huge stomach. I always pictured them at the funeral, standing alone on the lawn, off to one side, the Odd Couple, watching in silence as the hearse crept by. Despite his “extraordinary genius,” things hadn’t been going well for Meade. Cassavetes gave him a few bit parts for a while, to keep him going, but that ended. Finally he moved to a walk-up apartment somewhere in the East Village and scraped by, teaching occasional classes at the New School. He called a lot late at night. Then in the morning I’d see her writing a check.
Yes, she had worked in Hollywood with LaMamaWest a bit. Yes, she had a good New York agent, Lucy Kroll. But she made her living teaching—a fact that even as a kid I knew she was ashamed of. She was ultra secretive about her “real work,” and talked about using a pseudonym. As far as I knew though, she had never gotten anything of her own produced. And I think this galled her. Not even the Virginia Woolf piece, her magnum opus, “Silent Circles,” which I could never bear to read. Maybe because the first page opened with a nude woman running down the aisle holding an urn. This was before “Hair.”
In the end, she clung to Her Books. The most precious items in her collection, the crème de la crème, she had carefully sorted into those 47 bankers boxes before she moved—and they had traveled with her, even after she got sick. She never let them out of her sight. That’s why I wasn’t really worried about letting the rest of it go. I had the treasure. The Hogarth Press edition of “The Waste Land”—that alone, tucked safely away—was worth about ten thousand dollars by now. It had been hand typeset by Virginia Woolf.
Then one day about three years after she died, the pale old guy at the storage place sent what our old accountant Barbara referred to as a “nasty-gram.” We were in Fiji at the time, producing the ill-fated cartoon version of a forgettable video game called “Elf Bowling.” The Americans had all come down with tropical fungal infections and intractable diarrhea, which the Australian crew simply called “The Bog.” The nasty-gram announced that back home I had gotten “seriously behind” in the $500 per month fees I had been paying to store my mother’s stuff. The storage guy was threatening to auction it off.
I was staring at a withered palm tree at the time, and I thought: “You know what? You do that. Auction it off.” I envisaged a genteel, suited, Sotheby’s type auctioneer, like an English butler, carefully lifting the lid and peering inside, gently holding up each volume with a white-gloved hand while the audience oohed and aahed in hushed excitement. But the boxes were never even opened. In fact, the containers were sold sight unseen to “pickers” for a grand total of $649.43, which didn’t even cover the outstanding balance. Oh the guilt, oh the anxiety. I knew how Jack felt at the moment he made the deal for the Magic Beans. Only I didn’t get any beans.
But it didn’t matter. We still had the 47 boxes we’d been dragging around for years. When we got back from Fiji we brought those 47 boxes upstairs to the loft where I planned to sort through them, finally, one by one, and inventory what we had.
Before I opened the first box I called my oldest friend Aaron, the self described “Jewish Adonis.” I’d known Aaron since we were freshmen at that old letter-grades-optional countercultural hippie-haven, UC Santa Cruz—a university perhaps most noted for its annual 420 celebration. Aaron was by my side when I cracked the lid.
The first box was filled with junk: old cassette tapes. I opened the next box—more tapes. And another. Dusty, old cassette tapes. That’s when the dizzy feeling started. The next box, and the next, and the next—all were the same. My stomach undulated as I ripped open all 47 boxes. “Where the hell are the rare books?”
The precious treasure I had sworn to guard with my life, box after wretched cardboard box, were stuffed, all of them, to the brim, with plastic cassettes. The icy cold reality set in. The rare book collection had been auctioned off to pickers in South Los Angeles for $649.43. The boxes I had guarded so carefully were just garbage. “Damn it! I am so screwed. Crazy woman!” I picked up a box and headed toward the dumpster. “I’m throwing this out, too.”
“What! You’re insane. It could be great material!”
“Forget it. It’s more junk. It’s going in the bin with the rest of the crap.” I directed my husband to the other boxes. “Those too. All of them.”
But then I spotted a prehistoric boom box amidst the rubble and I dropped in a cassette. I sat. The tape player squeaked rhythmically. And then the voice…
“It’s a full moon tonight.” I hear the eerie lisping deadpan of Meade Roberts whining again across time and space. “Is it?” my mother says. “Yes, Irene.” Meade’s voice rasps, “a full moon.” I can see his eyelids, cracked half-open like a diva, as he takes a long disdainful drag on his menthol cigarette. He exhales. “And you know what that means.” My mother waits a full theatrical beat, like a therapist, luring him in. “No, Meade, explain it to me. You know how I’ve never really understood the moon…” Two misunderstood geniuses.
Box after box after box after box… Hundreds of cassettes, going back as far as 1975. My mother had secretly recorded her conversations, everything, her entire life, every phone call for the last thirty years; she had even recorded herself talking to herself as she drove down the street or woke up in the middle of the night…
This then was her precious treasure.
But sometimes now, so I’ve been told,
When the moon is high and the wind is cold,
Just listen close and you will hear
The Gobbledygook still prowling near…
I call him high, I call him low,
With a hay-foot, straw-foot do-si-do—
And sometimes from his secret nook,
He answers me in Gobbledygook.
Leo Israel, The Gobbledygook Song