In 2016, I became a bureaucrat of death, a dementor, an on-call will-witnesser for a law firm that managed estates.
It was Mia’s suggestion – Mia, my roommate, who worked for the firm.
The hourly rate was extravagant and even if it wasn’t, I would have taken the hour’s train ride to Queens to meet the septuagenarian couple that brought out rainbow cookies and put names to every photo in the living room, before sitting us down at the kitchen table. Jim, the lawyer, began: Are you X years of age? Are you of sound mind and body? The old woman has a crack about not being 76, and being TWELVE instead! And then one about being of a very unsound mind. Her husband joins for this one but Jim’s already passing the wills like gravy and four signatures are scratched.
Mine – an X that trails into whatever spasms of the wrist – becomes famous around the firm. “It’s so fast!” Jim says. Then in an email, he writes, “you’re our favorite gun,” and invites me to another signing in the Upper East Side.
I’m sent to an elegant doorman building – the lobby’s all dark wood, crown molding, and a white glove pointing me to the waiting area. But the apartment itself is littered with shopping bags. Dior stacked with mail, Valentino filled with mugs. “We’re in the middle of a move,” the man says, rushing us to the dining room while raising his Blackberry to his nose.
Then he calls in Lisa, his wife, who comes in slow, like she just happened upon the room, and smiling. Even saying her name softens this man who laughs when Lisa laughs, first at the question about her age and then about her sanity. “Wait till you see Stela’s signature,” Jim says and I get red.
A few months later, when I come to see them again, the designer clutter is choking the entryway. “Lisa’s gotten worse,” the man tells Jim, and I pretend not to hear. This time he walks her in and she’s smiling very sweet, so sweet that I feel evil for fantasizing that a family scandal, some fantastic betrayal, has necessitated the urgent re-signing.
More months pass and then, in an apartment so new, so clean, and so high over the East River, Lisa’s even worse. Are you of sound mind and body? “Donno!” she says.
Then there are two trips to Westchester – first for a lively divorcee and then for a dead woman. “The project involves gathering jewelry from a safe deposit box,” Jim writes. In all of our professional time together, he has never stopped speaking my language.
So we drive up there, me and Jim. Jim telling me about the Westside Highway, and finally about my task, which is to videotape the opening and closing of a deposit box to satisfy two brothers – vultures, from what cinematic cliche has taught me – who are certain their mother stored valuable jewels in these Chase bank coffers. So covetous and suspicious of everyone, these two, that Jim was compelled to hire me to film the entire thing.
We are let into the vault and the teller pulls something like a mailbox from the wall, takes it to a closed room and finally Jim opens it, narrating what he’s doing for the folks (two greedy brothers) watching at home: “marriage license, death certificate, deed closing statement, one pearl necklace,” he raises and shakes the box, “There’s nothing else in here.”
“That’s what I suspected,” Jim tells me later, dropping me off in midtown.
When I was a kid, I learned about the legend of my very own family jewels – also a bitter disappointment, but with a communist twist. My dad’s grandfather, Galo, a rich man with leather shoes and frequent trips to Napoli, was jailed when the communists came to power. The party eyed Galo and accused him of hiding gold abroad.
“Horrible, horrible accusations! He was heartbroken!” my dad says. Still, years later in 2013, when a cruise ship dropped anchor in Port Napoli, my dad and mom sashayed past the piers carrying a photo of Galo. They did a tour of every bank in town and asked if there was anything for a Mr. Xhiku.
Of course, there was no gold, but my dad did get stuck going through a large revolving door and tried everything before finally being pushed out.
After the disappointment at Chase’s Westchester branch, I myself retired from witnessing – each gig felt like trespassing into private homes and private griefs. But I can’t deny something about it reeked of slapstick: pens without ink, Dr. Oz on the TV, gags about dementia, death. Ha ha ha!
It was the same kind of slapstick when I first visited a grave – my grandparents’. There were Poland Spring bottles by the headstone full of moonshine, or “raki.” Sharp, strong stuff. I guess grandpa liked raki? Whatever – a year later, I’m back at the cemetery, already warm with tears, and I grab a bottle for a small sip (raki is strong) but immediately start to choke, having actually ingested cleaning solution. I hack into fake flowers, into the dirt, ‘round and ‘round the grave, looking for somewhere to spit. When I come to, I recognize a Mister Clean taste from when I was a kid, back when Mister Clean was still “Mastro Lindo.”