Larry Gaffney has been a sportswriter, tennis instructor, and professor of English at Penn State University and Lock Haven University. One Good Year, published by Level 4 Press in 2007, was a finalist in the Indie Excellence awards for Best General Fiction. His short stories, poems, and satires have appeared in Rosebud, Light Quarterly, Opium, Chronicle of Higher Education, Underground Voices, YPR, Thieves Jargon, Eclectica, Rumble, and a few other places.
During a time of sadness in his life, Paul Juraska received news that might only have made things worse: the death of a relative. But this relative was distant. So distant, in fact, that Paul had never laid eyes upon him, nor exchanged one word with him either on the phone or in correspondence. Uncle Artie—his father's half-brother—had been the family eccentric, a hermit who vanished into Vermont's Northeast Kingdom. He went away while still a young man, and no one cared because Artie had been, by all accounts, a person without a single attractive quality.
Paul received the news shortly after Christmas, in an envelope bearing the return address of an attorney. Since he assumed the attorney represented a creditor, he set the envelope down until he could get a good dinner inside him. In his battered recliner, his clothing scented by the charred hamburger he had eaten with satisfaction, Paul discovered that this attorney's letter was a good thing. He had been named sole beneficiary of Uncle Artie's estate, which consisted of a house and some bank holdings. There was no mention of cash value, but a house in Vermont? It had to be worth something.
Since it was evening, the attorney's office would be closed. Paul dialed his elderly mother, who might have a sense of Uncle Artie's worth.
“He was always a cold fish,” said his mother. “He never got along with anyone.”
“I'm aware of that,” said Paul, “but do you think he had anything saved up?”
“How should I know? Your father and I didn't speak to him for fifty years.”
Through the phone Paul could hear the clacking of a hard mint against his mother's dentures. She sucked on these candies all day, hoping to keep her mouth occupied and away from the cigarettes she was trying to quit. Who quits smoking at eighty? But his mother was an optimist.
“Well, what about the house? Has anyone seen it? Are there any pictures of it?”
“Pictures of the house? There aren't even any pictures of Artie. Nobody ever went to see him. We weren't invited.”
Paul could imagine his mother sitting on the couch, bundled in a faded robe, a newspaper and the TV remote on her lap, surrounded by the aging furniture his late father had paid for. She lived modestly now, on social security and meager savings. Their family of three had never been rich, but as a child Paul had known unconditional love and support. Why, he wondered, had his life gone so askew?
“It might be worth plenty,” continued his mother. “This could be the answer to all your problems.”
Maybe so. Uncle Artie had been an eccentric. Why not an eccentric millionaire? If Paul was inheriting a fortune, his problems would indeed be over. In a brutal divorce he had lost his house, his savings, and most of his possessions. This newfound money would right the ship and quell the ravening cancer of his credit card debt. He would spend lavishly, and especially on his mother. New furniture, a trip to Florida, whatever she wanted. She was talking to him now about other things—neighborhood gossip, what she had eaten that day, who was on Larry King—but he found it hard to concentrate. “Mom,” he said, “let me get back to this Uncle Artie thing. Why me? It makes no sense.”
His mother hesitated. “I guess there was nobody else. Your father's family is scattered all over the place. But you never know, there might be somebody up there to contest the will. You should get a good lawyer.”
This hadn't occurred to him, and thinking about it now put a knot in his stomach. He would call the attorney first thing in the morning and get the ball rolling.
It would be a seven hour drive to Berkeley Mills, the small town where Uncle Artie had spent the last fifty years of his life. Paul chose a day with no precipitation in the forecast. He packed sandwiches, brought his suitcases and duffel bag down to the car, and surveyed the apartment for what he hoped would be the last time. He had not been happy within its bare, thin walls. Most of his neighbors in the complex were college students or young couples, and Paul had felt out of place. Fifty-three, twice divorced, childless and jobless, he had been a sour lump amid so much rattle and stir. Walking through the rooms, he decided that everything in the apartment was disposable, from the faux-mahogany coffee table to the saggy mattress and box springs he slept on. Unless Uncle Artie's house was a shack, he would never return.
Binghamton to Albany he dialed in a series of classic rock stations. By the time he entered Vermont he was tired of the radio. His car had a CD player but all of his CDs had been sold by his ex-wife. She had also plundered his baseball cards, comic books, LPs, and first editions. He had collected things all his life, but in the turmoil of his sudden leave-taking had neglected to throw them in the car. Now they were gone forever, dispersed on eBay. During those first awful days when his heart was breaking, nothing seemed to matter except the wife he had lost and perhaps might win back one day. A few months later, after her secret boyfriend had moved into the house, the focus of his agony shifted to the loss of all the other stuff, his treasures. And in the financial hardship that followed he especially missed them, knowing that they could have been sold for thousands of dollars.
No matter. He was starting a new life. Things, even rare old things, could always be gotten again, as long as one had money. The lawyer had been vague over the phone, but Paul felt certain that the property at least—it sat on twelve acres just outside of town—would be salable. He could move to a city. Boston, perhaps. He had been in management and despite these last two years of debilitating worry and sorrow, his people skills were intact. He would find a job. Maybe even another wife. He would be fine.
By the time he reached the Northeast Kingdom he was less cheerful about his prospects. The sandwiches were gone and he was hungry again. Hours of driving had made him stiff, and his bladder was achingly full. The sun, low in the west, threw a reddish tint upon the mountains, their queues of naked trees rising from carpets of snow.
At a convenience mart a sharp wind stung his ears while he put gas in the car. Inside, a teenager with a goatee and a stud in his upper lip handed him the men's room key, attached to an absurdly large rectangle of wood, designed, Paul decided, not so much to prevent theft as misplacement.
With a package of Drake's Cakes in his coat pocket and a cup of scalding hot coffee in his hand, he took a brief stroll upon the grounds of the convenience store. Behind the store a wooden bridge crossed a large and lively creek. Paul leaned on the railing and looked down at a gathering of ducks that stood on the hard ground of an inlet. The ducks, which he would have thought long gone to the south, seemed very much at ease, quackishly muttering at each other and burying their beaks into their feathers to preen. Suddenly two of them took flight, the aggressive flap-flap-flap of their wings carrying their plump bodies down the length of the creek until they veered left into a clearing. Paul watched them disappear behind a stand of trees; birds flying free never failed to delight him—hawks soaring high on summer thermals, the soundless glide of an owl, the heady rise and fall of a goldfinch.
In a somewhat better spirits, he walked back to the car for the last leg of his trip.
Two gas stations, a dying strip mall, and a rustic diner specializing in pancakes stood guard at the city limits of Berkeley Mills. After a stretch of private homes came the downtown section, all two blocks of it, distinguished, as far as Paul could make out, by a Laundromat, a pizza joint, and an IGA.
It was past seven, but the attorney, one J. Robert Carrolton, Esq., had promised to stick around until Paul's arrival. His office was the ground floor of a white clapboard house. Perhaps he lived upstairs. Carrolton himself was tall and heavy-limbed, like a basketball star gone to seed. He had a gray ponytail and thick black-rimmed glasses, and wore a red flannel shirt with a down vest. Seated at a big antique desk, surrounded by what amounted to a small museum of fly-fishing bric-a-brac, he produced papers for Paul to sign, then handed him a large Manila envelope stuffed with documents, and a much smaller one containing keys. While Paul signed the papers, Carrolton explained the financial situation. The house and all its furnishings were his, free and clear. No mortgage or liens. There was a late-model Dodge van, paid for. In a combination checking and savings account, there was slightly more than thirty-thousand dollars. That was it. No stocks or bonds. The house had not been assessed in some time, but Carrolton figured it was worth a bundle.
“Tell me,” said Paul, while the attorney fiddled with the signed papers, “how exactly did my uncle die?”
Carrolton looked up with raised eyebrows. “No one told you?”
“Well, he sort of lost touch with the family. Hadn't spoken to anyone in years.”
“Yes,” said Carrolton, with a sigh. “That doesn't surprise me.”
He filed the papers in a lower desk drawer and closed it with a thunk. “He froze to death. Set himself naked out on the front porch with only a blanket wrapped around him. The mailman found him the next morning.”
“No kidding. Did he have Alzheimer's?”
“No indication of that. Of course, he didn't speak with anyone much, so who could tell. Just the cleaning lady who did the house every two weeks, and she died six months ago.”
Paul nodded thoughtfully.
“It's a big house,” continued the attorney. “You plan to live in it?”
“My plans are unsettled,” said Paul. “I'll have to see it first.” He put the large folder under his arm and stood up.
“Let me know if you want to sell it,” said Carrolton. “My wife's in real estate.”
“Okay,” said Paul. They shook hands. Leading him to the door, Carrolton added, “There's an awful lot of stuff in that house. I can help you out there, too. My cousin's the best auctioneer in the county.”“I guess you've got me covered,” said Paul.
“Small town living, Mr. Juraska.”
In the large envelope were directions to the house. It was said to be a ten minute drive out of town, but it took Paul nearly half-an-hour navigating unfamiliar roads in the dark. At last he found Starr Farm Road and proceeded the required half-mile upon its nattering stones and crackling ice until he reached the driveway.
In the bright moonlight Paul could see that the house was a multi-gabled Queen Anne with a wrap-around porch and plenty of gingerbread. And it was enormous, the kind of place that, if in town, would have already been subdivided into apartments. The phrase “bed and breakfast” jumped into Paul's mind even before he rolled to a stop next to Uncle Artie's paneled van—now his.
He killed the engine and stepped out into the hushed night, thinking, this is all mine.
He walked up the cracked flagstones and rickety porch steps. There were no sounds other than his footfalls and breathing. The key worked, the large oak door swung open, and he stood in musty darkness for a moment while feeling the wall for a light switch.
A chandelier threw the faintest of light upon a large front room. The switch had a damper, and as Paul gave it a slow turn, all the objects in his view were transformed from blurry goblins and hunchbacks into the familiar shapes of antique furniture. The room was cluttered, but he found a pathway across the thick Oriental rug and moved toward the next room. Here he found more clutter—including boxes piled high against the walls—and the thermostat. He turned it on, and to his relief (for he could see the mist of his breath) heard the groaning and clanking of an ancient furnace coming awake under the floor.
For the next hour Paul inspected the house. There were more rooms than he could keep track of, each one bursting with furniture and boxes. He opened a few of these boxes and found them packed with books. Uncle Artie had been a collector. Good. There were plenty of antiques here for him to sell, and now the possibility of rare first editions presented itself.
Upstairs, in the master bedroom, he sat down in an overstuffed chair next to the four-poster bed that had supported his uncle's aging body for decades (he would not sleep in it tonight, he decided), and took stock of the situation. It was a windfall. He would use the money in the bank to pay off his debts and get settled somewhere. He had no wish to live in this ramshackle old mansion, threading his way through Uncle Artie's snarl of furniture and oddments. He would sell everything, move to a more manageable house, and begin a splendid new life.
Well pleased, Paul lifted a remote from a small table and pointed it at the television set across the room. The dark screen leapt to colorful life and he found himself looking at the combative face of Sean Hannity. Paul laughed out loud. So the old SOB had sprung for cable.
Paul surfed, enjoying the company of smart-mouthed sitcom players for a few minutes until he began to feel very tired. He looked for a phone and found it amid the disorder of a writing desk. He would sleep soundly at a motel and be fresh tomorrow for the start of inventory. On a box stacked high against the wall he spotted the yellow spine of a phone book buried beneath a pile of smaller books. But when he lifted the pile he was brought to a standstill.
In his hand he held a copy of Catcher in the Rye in a pristine dust jacket. He opened it and saw by the copyright page that it was a first edition. The second book was Salinger's Nine Stories, also a first. The other titles were The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and Atlas Shrugged. Tossing aside the phone book, he rooted through the box and found first editions of Gravity's Rainbow, The Town and the City, Memoirs of Hecate County, Captain Maximus, Invisible Man, and The Naked and the Dead.
He placed the books on the rumpled bed. There were five boxes piled against the wall and he went through them all. When he had finished, over a hundred books were stacked unevenly on the bed, each one a clean, dust-jacketed rarity. He sat down in the easy chair and contemplated this turn of events. Every room that he had entered contained dozens of boxes. Some of the smaller upstairs rooms had nothing in them but boxes. There was a large attic to which he had not yet ascended; for all he knew it too was filled with boxes. What if there were similar finds in every one of them?
Suddenly Paul was no longer thinking of a motel. The heating system wasn't half-bad, and the house was beginning to warm up. He removed his coat and decided which room to explore next.
It was two a.m. before Paul realized that his sight was going and that he would have to sleep. For the last four hours he had worked non-stop, impelled by a growing sense of wonder at his good fortune. Like a child surrounded by Christmas presents he had been unable to proceed systematically. From room to room he prowled, opening box after box and stacking the contents on the floor. He was creating an ungodly mess, he knew, but he didn't care; this was too much fun. Besides, he wanted to see if Uncle Artie had arranged the boxes in any kind of order. Alas, he had not. In a guest room down the hall from the master bedroom, for example, Paul had discovered boxfuls of old magazines, movie posters, baseball cards, and art books. Some of these items dated back to the thirties, while others were of a more recent vintage. Remarkably, the baseball cards were still in their wrappers. They were not in a cardboard box, but in an old wooden trunk. On impulse he opened a pack and the first thing he saw was the homely face of Yogi Berra. He recognized at once that it was a Topps card from 1960, probably worth a hundred bucks in its gem-mint condition. Literally panting, he rooted through the trunk like a man up to his elbows in pirate booty. From his youthful collecting days Paul knew baseball cards quite well, but he was not sure what the wrappers for each year looked like. Some of these might go back to the early fifties, when rookie cards—the most valuable kind—of great stars like Willie Mays and Hank Aaron had been issued.
During his frenzied explorations Paul built listing piles of books, magazines, and comics in every room and hallway of the upstairs. He had turned on all the lights, and now everywhere he looked were the bright colors and stylized images of a pop culture that spanned decades. On the covers of pulps and paperbacks, against vivid blue, red, or green backgrounds, bug-eyed monsters groped nubile space maidens of extraordinary beauty. Scowling hard-boiled dicks stood poised with pistols in hand, fedoras shading their brows. There was Donald Duck, Batman, Little Lulu. Here was Dracula, Fu Manchu, the vapidly grinning Alfred E. Neuman. On one table Paul had stacked copies of Famous Monsters of Filmland. Leaning against a door were movie posters and lobby cards he had found: Grand Hotel, Dragstrip Girl, The Haunted Strangler.
Everything Paul had uncovered was in mint condition. Bright colors, no thumb-prints or dog-ears, no wear of any kind. Uncle Artie had obviously bought these items for the purpose of collecting. But how had he guessed, fifty years ago, that the first copy of Famous Monsters, which Paul now held carefully in his hands, would someday be worth over a thousand dollars? Who buys baseball cards in 1960—when boys are attaching them with clothespins to the spokes of their bicycles—and doesn't even take them out of the wrappers? Uncle Artie had been a genius, prescient to know that the vivid icons of Boomer childhoods would become rare currency in the twenty-first century.
But his uncle had died before he could cash in. He should have sold this stuff sooner and moved to an island in the Caribbean. Paul would not make the same mistake.
He awoke in the gray hour of dawn, fully rested after a comatose four hours on the living room couch. Without even washing up he began a more thorough search of the rooms on the main floor. Within three hours he had found hundreds of beautiful old prints and lithographs (including some by Maxfield Parrish), a cache of 45s in crisp sleeves (many by Elvis and The Beatles), and a storage room devoted entirely to toys and games, all of them in original packaging and untouched by the grubby hands of children.
At nine, rumpled and unshaven, he drove into town and withdrew a thousand dollars from his new account. In a mall thirty minutes away he had a late breakfast and spent the rest of the morning buying toiletries, linens, groceries, and anything else he might need during his brief residency at the house on Starr Farm Road.
In the master bedroom, Paul flipped the mattress and covered it with new sheets. He cleaned the bathroom and took a steaming hot shower. Resting on the freshly made bed he called his mother to share the good news. At two o'clock he made a ham and cheese sandwich and brought it upstairs to eat while watching TV. Then he was ready to begin his final exploration. He would comb every inch of the house and make a detailed inventory of the most promising stuff. At the mall he had purchased magazines devoted to the listing and valuation of collectibles. In a few days he would have a fair estimate of his newfound wealth. He had also bought copies of Esquire and GQ. He wanted to look at vacation spots, fast cars, fancy duds, high-end electronics. Middle-aged, graying, and slightly corpulent, Paul Juraska bore little resemblance to a GQ model. But a deep-water tan and an Armani suit could make quite a difference.
Had a visitor arrived, two weeks hence, at the house on Starr Farm Road, he would have been appalled at the condition of both its interior and its lone occupant. The rooms stank of stale sweat and rotting garbage. Clutter was everywhere. Books, comics, ephemera, and all the other items Uncle Artie had collected were scattered haphazardly through the house. Empty boxes had been thrown in heaps, their flaps dangling, their vacant cavities suggesting rapine and abandonment. The visitor would have had trouble walking from room to room without knocking over one or more sloppy piles of printed matter, and he would have felt disgust at the sight of the disheveled, unshaven figure huddled over a laptop on the unmade bed.
But of course there were no visitors to the house. Carrolton's auctioneer cousin had called and been rebuffed. The dead cleaning lady's sister, herself a cleaning lady, had unexpectedly arrived one morning in the hope of carrying on the family tradition, but Paul had sent her packing. He had no time for visitors; there was too much work to be done.
Any thought of having a middleman come in to sort through Uncle Artie's stuff and peddle it for a hefty commission had vanished on the day that Paul discovered the best prize of all: a fine first edition of Ulysses in its original aqua-colored wrappers. Paul knew that this item was worth many thousands of dollars, so he got serious and bought the laptop and set up an Internet connection in the Master bedroom. Gnomishly, with piercing eyes and a tight, unsmiling mouth, he tracked down the current prices of his treasures and logged the information on the computer. After two days of this feverish activity he had amassed a dozen large piles of the most valuable items he had thus far unearthed, and tallied their cumulative worth at nearly two hundred thousand dollars. And still, at this juncture, there were more boxes to open.
In the days that followed Paul dove into every box he could locate, from cellar to attic, and grew dizzy with his findings: a limited edition of De Profundis printed on Japanese vellum; an exemplary copy of Carswell's Pathological Anatom; the first appearance of Superman in Action Comics; an eclectic gathering of letters that Uncle Artie had probably bought at a flea market, which bore the signatures of such disparate figures as Teddy Roosevelt, George Orwell, Gertrude Stein, Irving Thalberg; five shoeboxes filled with obscene mini-comics depicting the copulations and worse of famous film stars of yesteryear, from Mary Pickford to Clark Gable; Raum und Zeit, a treatise on the fourth dimension by Minkowski; and even a few items that appeared to be one-of-a-kind rarities, such as an original manuscript by Robert H. Howard entitled Forest of the Ghouls, for which Paul could find no references anywhere.
Finally, he rested. Two areas of the great house remained untouched. First, the northwest corner of the attic, piled thick and high with dusty, cobwebby boxes that seemed to contain mostly old primers and songbooks—somewhat valuable, but not very exciting. He would get to them in time. Second, a cavernous barn attached by a causeway to the back of the house. He had peered into the frigid, unlit structure on the first night and satisfied himself that no boxes were stored there, and then had forgotten about it.
After carefully locking up the house, Paul went into town and bought a pizza. He drove back in the dusk as heavy snow was beginning to fall. He ate the entire pizza and drank half a liter of coke, and fell into an exhausted, dreamless sleep.
One day Paul drove to Burlington with some boxes of books and returned with ten thousand dollars in cash. All the booksellers he visited had tried to contain their excitement even as they were pressing wads of twenties and fifties into his palm for the pristine rarities he offered. They all wanted to know if more suchlike items were available. They all thrust their business cards upon him and trumpeted their willingness to follow him home and assess his collection, and one of the booksellers actually had froth at the corners of his mouth while he spoke.
And then, two days later, he made yet another astonishing discovery. While exploring the causeway he found a switchbox. When all the switches were flicked the barn suddenly blazed into light. He had expected mounds of hay, rusty farm implements, rotting stalls. But the barn had been expertly cleaned and remodeled. There was a new hardwood floor, and the stalls had been varnished and converted into alcoves. Large glass cases had been fastened to the walls, and each of these cases had hundreds of slots in which collectibles could rest.
Uncle Artie had turned the barn into a museum, but had died before he could start filling it.
Through a wet spring, when torrents of rainwater sluiced down the muddy hills around the house, through a steaming early summer with furious clouds of insects and darting birds, through a searing July and a parched August, and then into the first days of autumn, with chilly nights and leaf smoke in the air, Paul Juraska left the house only to obtain supplies. He interacted with townspeople in a polite but coldly efficient manner. His phone conversations with his mother grew infrequent. Something bad was happening to him—this he understood. But he saw it as a trade-off and believed that he would come out all right in the end, after fulfilling his curatorial responsibilities. Unopened boxes still remained buried in closets and in corners of the basement and attic. These also would be pillaged, despite being filthy with the droppings of mice and bats, and so enwebbed by spiders that they gave off a daunting, bitter smell. Eventually the house would yield all of its treasure, and then, after deciding what should be sold and what should be placed in Uncle Artie's museum, Paul could move on. On the other hand, perhaps he would stay as the curator. He could charge admission. A person could end up in worse circumstances.
One day late in autumn, as he was in the attic unwrapping a series of paintings that had been covered in butcher paper and tied with string, he decided that more light was needed. Paul knew little about painting, but suspected that these works belonged to a genre called “Outsider Art.” Colorful and crude, they were filled with bizarre images dragged howling from the subconscious—green demon heads, robots with melting eyes, a squid wearing a top hat. Now Paul stood musing over two quite curious paintings he had unwrapped. These were not surreal. They were straightforward, but in very bad taste. Both had been done upon a background that simulated black velvet. The first was a portrait of Hitler, but in the style of Keane, with round, saccharine, staring black eyes. The other showed the upper bodies and heads of Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris, but not in their pinstripes and Yankee caps. Instead they were bedecked in full SS regalia, complete with death's-head caps and swastika arm bands. Paul had to admit they were a fine Aryan pair, but nevertheless recoiled from the concept. What sort of person would paint such things, he wondered. He could barely read the signatures, so he turned to a wall of boxes which he believed blocked an attic window he had seen from outside the house. But when the boxes had been moved there was no window, only a door.
Even after so many wonderful surprises, Paul had not become jaded. He stood for a moment with his hand on the doorknob, wondering if Uncle Artie had stored his most precious collectibles in this remote, hidden room.
The door stuck for an instant, then swung free.
The room was very small, with nothing in it but an easy chair and a bird cage suspended from a hook in the ceiling. The closed window had no covering, and the sunlight entered full upon the walls and floor, and the room smelled of baked wood and bat feces.
Paul struggled with the window until finally it opened with a sudden jerk. An autumn gust blew past him and set the cage to gentle swaying. On the floor of the cage lay the bleached skeleton of a parakeet.
The wind came up even stronger, roaring through the pines, moaning through eaves and gingerbread as the great house creaked and shuddered. Paul closed the window. Satisfying himself that there was nothing else in the room, he left.
The door remained open, and light streamed from the room into the attic, where Paul squatted among the paintings and unopened boxes, quietly doing his work.