Holding on to Everything
a short story by
PHILIP HANSON | Professor + Writer
ELSTON CAME OUT OF THE KITCHEN with two beers. He put one in front of William. He figured William had hoped to find no one at home, probably having heard what Inez did to him this time. He took a deep breath and tried to fake a little confidence.
“She’s impossible to manage,” Elston said. He was working up some new righteousness, which he was now trying out on William. Elston did not dare to come out and say, why didn’t you warn me. He wanted to imply something, persisting in ignoring that thirty years ago he had married William’s mother, Inez, against all advice.
“She’s crazy,” William answered.
“Not when I married her.”
William insisted, “She was always crazy, then and now.” Everyone had told Elston not to marry William’s mother, Inez, but Elston had plowed right in. Was he going to pretend he had just now discovered her as she was? William remembered how thirty years ago Elston’s school teacher aunt, the one they all respected, had driven up to Minneapolis all the way from the farm in Tennessee somewhere and tried to reason with Elston. William had interpreted Elston’s account his own way, ignoring all the posturing and self-serving digressions. He could tell the aunt had choked back a lot of her disgust at the whole idea, the twenty-plus years age difference, concentrating on the craziness, the meanness, the things no one but Elston disputed. Now Elston was trying to wiggle out of that by arguing she had hit a new level of craziness. So she was not-so-bad before, but now she was crazy.
“Didn’t your Aunt Avis say that way back?” William asked.
“Avis was prejudiced.”
“She was as black as you and Inez.”
“Maybe on paper, but you couldn’t tell by looking at her. She could always pass. She had the racism of the high yellow.”
William did not want to feel sorry for Elston. He was tired of it. But he couldn’t ignore how the veins stood out on Elston’s hands and most of his hair was gone. They had been young men together. And he could see the fear, bordering on terror, in Elston’s eyes, so stupid had Elston been and now so screwed had he become. He was still trying to wheedle, though.
After William left the big old house that Elston shared with Inez, Elston fumed over how William had been so blunt with him. It cost William nothing to expend a little sympathy. William had benefited time and again from Inez’s having cheated Elston. He owed Elston sympathy, more, comfort. Elston’s anger swelled and he thought, William owed him money too. William knew Inez had cheated Elston and given the money to William. Still Elston shook with an internal fear that threatened to overwhelm him. Had he been nothing but stupid all those years ago−and now? Lately he spent all of his time trying to puzzle it out, pouring over the past to find some clue.
Pitch black night was the best time for puzzling, lying alone on his back in bed in his room. They hadn’t slept in the same bed for maybe fifteen years. She was down the hall in the big bedroom. He kept a gun in his room, an old twelve gauge, loaded. He drew a little comfort from that. He had the dog in there, too, though CG, who had a two-hundred pound mastiff himself, belittled the terrier Elston kept. He told Elston to quit being cheap and get a pistol, retire that old shotgun he inherited from Uncle Lasly. “It might just blow up when you pull the trigger,” CG, had told him. Inez had some wicked relatives, drug dealers, gang members, one a murderer. That nephew, Ellis, had gone to prison more than once. Elston hadn’t been afraid of Ellis after his first prison sentence for burglary. He had heard some interesting things from Ellis. Elis had told him every old black guy in prison was in the Panthers back in the day. “If you believe these guys,” Ellis said, “there must have been millions of Panthers out there.” When Ellis went in for assault, Elston decided to avoid him. Inez had once come into his room several months back at about three a.m., woke him up, and smiled sadistically when she whispered in his ear, “They’ll kill a person for money.”
In the darkness he could concentrate on the past, examine every detail, every development. He forced himself to blot out the present, to concentrate on the beginning, back in ‘79. He was twenty four then. She was in her mid-forties. He insisted as he lay in the dark on his back with his hands locked behind his head that she was beautiful, sexy, exotic. And “she was intelligent!” he said aloud, particularly piqued that his own brother, CG, and William on top of it, scoffed every time he said so. His brother said she only had a haughty way of talking, a conceited attitude that by dense people could be mistaken for brains. His oldest brother, Dean, had disowned him for marrying Inez. Dean pretended it was because the Lowry Street Church had booted Elston and Inez out years ago, but Elston knew that it was all about Inez. Dean thought Inez was crazy and the whole thing was repulsive. CG likely thought so too, but he was more of a liberal. It would have gone against his grain to condemn anybody. So CG’s liberal views had come around to bite him in the ass, since Inez didn’t limit her craziness to just Elston. She had taken to calling CG long distance in the middle of the night too, telling wild lies about Elston, that he was a cross dresser, that he had stolen money from Inez, that he had stolen Inez’s clothes. Well, liberals asked for it and this one got it.
It started all those years back when Elston had stopped by Inez’s house, the one she had with her first husband, looking for William. Only Inez had been home. This was around the time Elston had been dating the Rowens’ daughter, Kate, from church. Inez hadn’t entirely stopped showing up at church, but she had sputtered some in her attendance. She surprised Elston by inviting him in. He knew her, but he was really her sons’ friend, mostly Vernon’s. As quick as she could cross the kitchen, she had a glass in her hand, then a bottle. Whiskey. She poured it in with such force, some slopped over the side. “Have one,” she said, handing him the glass. Elston drank, even back then, but not whiskey. In the time it took him to take a couple of sips, she had knocked back a couple. She wore a short skirt, a holdover from the sixties, and she pushed her foot up against a kitchen chair so that her skirt rode up. Inez watched Elston watch her. “I don’t think William will be back for a long time,” she said. Her younger son, Vernon, already had his own place.
Afraid, Elston asked, “So how’s Andrea?” referring to Inez’s longtime friend. “I ain’t seen her down at church for a long time.”
“We don’t go that much anymore,” Inez told him. “You know Andrea looks a lot younger than she is. She’s picked up guys in their twenties in bars.”
Elston had no response to this news. It meant something to Inez. He could tell. But that time he just let it die. Afterwards, though, he thought about it.
He decided he wouldn’t drop in on Inez at all anymore. William and Vernon would not like what would happen. And it would be too weird, climbing into bed with your friends’ mother. But he could not stop thinking about it. The idea that people didn’t want him to do something always made Elston want to do it. Then William moved into his own place. Vernon already had an apartment with that girl from Africa. He’d gotten her green card for her by marrying her. Looking back, Elston remembered how that had not turned out so great. Once she had it she ditched him, but not before she was pregnant. He paid for that for nearly twenty years. And the kid had turned out to be no gift from god, mouthy, always in trouble with the cops. Elston wasn’t the only one who made mistakes. With William out of the house, Elston thought about Inez all the time. He was probably too indecisive to do anything about it, but then Inez called him. She had been hearing noises out around her garage. She was frightened. It was pretty childish. His mother belittled him maliciously, but he didn’t care. Anyway his mother was right. He wasn’t going there to check on intruders.
On that visit he stayed a week, never even left her house. Inez drank so heavily she fell down the basement steps and bruised herself all over. William and Vernon never showed up once. He lost his part time job at the bread factory downtown, but the place was a hell hole anyway, a hundred and ten degrees where Elston worked. Inez said she could get him on at the post office. She said he should move in. Years later CG told him he moved in with Inez because he wanted someone who would tell him what to do. Their parents had been so rotten at parenting that Elston was still waiting for a mother to come along. “Maybe you’re just talking about yourself,” Elston told CG. “And what about Dean?” “We never dated people mom’s age,” CG said. “We got our own jobs.” Dean and CG had both gone to the U. Elston started but washed out. But they couldn’t stop him from seeing Inez, and knowing they didn’t like it excited Elston. He would do what he wanted.
When the first of Inez’s aunts died, she left Inez a house down on Franklin, “where the Indians all lived,” Inez had said. That was the neighborhood where Bellecourt and Banks started AIM and where now Native American businesses and a tiny museum had emerged where once there had been a red ghetto. The house wasn’t worth a lot, but Inez decided to rent out the house she got from her divorce and use the money from selling the Franklin house to put down money on a new place in south Minneapolis, in the lake neighborhood. “People down there have class,” she told Elston. “I’m tired of these blue collar ditch diggers on the north side. My ex was too stupid to notice. He probably liked them. He was so stupid he thought it was a good idea to move into a solid white working class neighborhood. We’re lucky they never set the house on fire.” Elston really didn’t know what she was talking about since he had lived on the north side his whole life. But he also knew that it wasn’t all that long ago that black people had burned Plymouth Avenue down. He knew Inez sounded like CG. But he also knew she worked at the post office. When she worked, that is. She had a chronic back problem and she was on disability as much as she was on the job. He figured the back problem was why she drank so much. Later he wasn’t so sure. When AIM leaders and Black Panther leaders and anti-war leaders were in their forties and fifties, they started using the Freedom of Information Act to see whether the government had spied on them back in the day. Inez got it in her head that they had spied on her because of her disability and her political views. Elston pretty much knew that in the sixties and seventies nobody knew or cared about Inez’s political views. Protest movements came and went and she had no role in them. But she got her records and found out that post office officials had watched her to see if her disability claim was faked. On one report the guy practically accused her of being a prostitute because of the way she dressed when she went out at night. Elston and Inez had a good laugh about that since she was likely on her way to the Lowry Street Church when they were watching her, but it hurt her feelings that they thought she dressed like a whore. Later, though, she bragged about how the FBI watched her and called her a whore when she went out to protest for her people.
Throughout the eighties and early nineties, Inez’s aunts kept coming through, dying and leaving their houses to Inez. “How come the other relatives never get the houses?” Elston asked her. “Oh, my aunts wouldn’t leave anything to those thugs,” Inez told him. “They knew that whole wing of the family was a bunch of drug addicts and bums.” She picked up a total of four houses. None of them was all that great, but she sold them and used the money to buy properties around the city. Elston never came out and said it to Inez, but since they had gone down to Chicago and gotten married a few years back, half of everything was his. I own property, he liked to tell himself. I’m not as dumb as Dean and CG think. I’m probably worth five times what Dean is worth. He’s nothing but a small time minister.
They bought a fourplex by the lakes, a condo by Lake Calhoun, a house in Mound, and they still had her old house on the north side and the house they lived in in a neighborhood where Walter Mondale lived only a few blocks away. He could see now that she had been right about it being classier down there on the south side. Instead of being a couple of post office small timers they had money, rents. It was a small fly in the ointment that Inez regularly got into it with the renters, often for no reason that Elston could see. They wound up in court with renters every so often. Either they would sue a renter for something that ticked Inez off or the renter would sue them. She had done the same thing at work, getting into it with management, then pulling the union in on her side. Later she got into it with the union. It had made Elston pretty unpopular on the job.
By the early nineties the properties began to be a significant source of contention between Elston and Inez. Elston glowed at the fact that after he retired he wouldn’t have to make it on a post office pension and social security. He would have rental income. And Inez’s being significantly older than he was meant it would likely all be his at some point. Whether he telegraphed this feeling or she just started feeling it, he didn’t know. But she started talking a little at first and then a lot about how she wanted her sons to benefit from the property. Inez started making a point of referring to their property as “the property my family gave me” or “my family’s property.” She ignored the maintenance work Elston had had to do on the properties and the times he had to smooth over some renter’s ruffled feathers after Inez insulted him. She treated his part as nothing. She was getting older anyway, but she cut down on the physical contact. She became terse with hm. And one day she showed up with a paper she had had some attorney draw up. In it Elston promised that if she died first, half the property would go to her sons. She wanted him to sign it. Elston stalled. He tried to romance her, partly because he missed attention from Inez. But the marriage was going sour, and Elston suspected it wasn’t just because of the property. Inez had grown tired of him. Sometimes when Inez wasn’t at home he would shout at her as if she were there. “That’s a laugh,” he would shout. “You’re old. I could have married Kate Rowen. She’s twenty years younger than you.” Or “I’ve practically saved the properties a hundred times. The way you talk to people, there wouldn’t have been any renters.” But until later, when it really became bitter, he didn’t say these things to Inez. Sometimes he stripped off his clothes and paced naked around the house and shouted these things. It made him feel powerful, though he could not have explained why. Elston was like a man who had caught a fish too big to haul in. The fish was pulling him out to sea. Even though it was in his best interests, he would not cut the line.
Although Dean would have nothing to do with Elston, over the years CG and his wife Ilsa had consistently included Elston in their family gatherings. CG had three children. Christmases, Thanksgivings, trips to Florida with their kids, trips to Disneyland, Universal Studios. Elston had never been out of Minnesota, he’d barely been out of Minneapolis until CG moved to California. CG had gone through law school and pretty soon had an office in San Francisco that looked out at the Golden Gate Bridge. When CG called Elston to tell him he had a job in a law firm and he was moving to San Francisco, Elston changed the subject. When CG took Elston up to his office to show him the view, Elston remained silent. Ilsa was white. CG had a white wife and job in San Francisco as a lawyer. On one thing Inez and Elston were in agreement. Affirmative Action was at the bottom of it. Year after year, CG invited Elston to visit his family. Inez refused to visit them. Even though CG had long ago broken ties with the Lowry Street Church, Inez hated anyone who had ever been associated with it. She specialized in manufacturing reasons to cut people off. So Elston made his visits alone. At the end of these visits, CG would often try to persuade Elston to move to San Francisco. “I have property in Minneapolis,” Elston would insist. CG would become sentimental and talk about their being brothers. “He’s a sentimental fool,” Elston would tell Inez when he returned from these visits, usually laden with jewelry and lingerie for Inez.
When Elston at last confessed to CG that the marriage had gone sour, CG advised him to get a divorce. “At least you’ll have half the property,” CG said, intuiting the core problem. But Elston would not let go. The bitterness in the marriage deepened. Then Inez went silent on the property split she wanted. She made some investments on her own, moved Elston out of their bedroom while he was at the store. He came home to find his things in one of the small bedrooms down the hall. Inez criticized and belittled him, but Elston remained silent. She started telling him she would divorce him and get half his salary. He decided to take an early retirement. That way there was nothing for Inez to gain by divorcing him, plus he was angry she had soured everyone on the job toward him. They had the rental money. That was all now. She said she wanted to sell the fourplex, the jewel in their holdings. Elston said no, but she sold it anyway. It was a year later before he told CG about the sale and learned that legally she had needed Elston’s signature. She must have forged it. After years of deriding religions, she began to talk about how she was waiting for the rapture. He lay in the dark in his new bedroom and cried. At some point he realized that Inez had sold all the properties. She’d taken out a second mortgage on the house they lived in. She’d bought a house for William, one for Vernon. She’d given them large sums of money. William would be employed for a while then he would lose his job and drift. He had been that way for years. Now he could drift for a long time on Elston’s money. The marriage, the business, was all in a funk. Inez wanted him to move out. She wanted a divorce. But she had managed the money so badly she could not even pay the mortgage on the house they lived in without Elston’s contribution. Now they needed each other just to hang onto that. And she was truly old now: retired on a tiny pension and tiny social security. Still she kept up a hate campaign against Elston. It had peaked a week ago. Inez knew he slept with his shotgun by his side. At about three one morning she came into his room and shook him awake. “There’s someone on the porch,” she cried, her hair wild, her eyes wide. In his groggy state he thought perhaps this could be a turning point. She needed him against intruders. He would show her that he could protect her. Wearing only a t-shirt he seized his gun and rushed downstairs. He burst onto the porch where four policemen barked orders at him to drop his weapon and get on his knees. He wound up spending half the night explaining that Inez was crazy. When they finally let him go and left, Inez said, “It’s because you look white that they wouldn’t help me. If you didn’t look white they would have shot you or thrown you in jail.”
Afterward he lay in his bed shaking. What could he do? He was entirely alone. He could remember Inez ogling him back when he was twenty-something. He had fed her sexual appetite. Was that all? Was he in this spot now because he had failed to see it? Was he stupid, as William obviously thought? At last he decided he would call CG. He would manipulate CG into getting sentimental and blubbery about brothers. CG would say nice things, as he always did. He would call CG and he would feel better. If he felt better, he would be strong enough to hang on to the property.
Photograph by Quin Stevenson