The Final Gift

The very same day I moved into the small condominium apartment in Bal Harbour, I was told about my neighbor, Priscilla Levy Clark, who was a millionairess of eighty-plus, four times widowed and three times divorced. She occupied two front apartments and employed two maids and a nurse, one of whose duties it was to walk Priscilla’s little dog, Snooky, a poodle. Although it seldom gets cold in that climate, Snooky had her own chinchilla coat and alligator booties. Her gold collar was studded with pearls.

Months passed without my meeting my wealthy neighbor; she suffered from arthritis and seldom left the house. But one day she invited me to visit her. It seemed she had read one of my stories in a magazine. I took exactly two steps to my left and a black maid already held the door open for me in anticipation.

I was received by an elderly woman—small, thin, with a semibald scalp dyed orange and a wizened face that was a hodge-podge of rouge, powder and mascara. She wore a gold-embroidered kimono and over scrawny wrists, bracelets hung with many jingling, jangling charms. Priscilla Levy Clark spoke in a thin, aged voice and a Southern accent. She extended a bony little hand, and I scratched my fingers on her pointed nails and elaborate rings. She told me to sit next to her so that she could hear me better with her hearing aid, and said, “Your writing evoked something in me I assumed was already lost forever. My eyes are such that, unfortunately, I can no longer read myself, but my good Mary Ann is my reader. She is herself a lover of literature. You see, she’s waiting impatiently to tell you how strong her—”

After Mary Ann had paid me her quota of compliments, she went to fetch liqueur and cookies. The living room was overfurnished with pieces that were all antique; the walls densely covered with old paintings; the floor carpeted with two layers of Oriental rugs. Although the air conditioner was working, the moldy aroma of age permeated the apartment. Priscilla said, “I see that you come from Russia or Poland. My people came here from Germany some hundred years ago. My great-grandfather, David Levy, didn’t go out peddling with a pack on his shoulders like the other immigrants. He was a saddlemaker by trade and he settled not in New York or Philadelphia, but in New Orleans. During the Civil War, he enlisted in the Confederate Army and worked himself up to the rank of officer, no small feat for a Jew. He became wealthy and he was elected president of a synagogue. A great part of our family later converted, but I’ve remained a Jew, although I’m not really religious. My maternal grandmother came from Frankfurt, and from her I heard stories similar to those you write about . . .”

She wouldn’t let me leave until she had shown me her treasures. In some of the rooms, objects lay in piles nearly to the ceiling. She told me that what I saw was just part of her possessions. She had two more houses—one in Atlanta, and the other in New Orleans—both filled with rare objects, as well as a Park Avenue apartment in New York City, where she spent no more than two weeks out of the year. In the past two years, she hadn’t been to New York at all.

She said, “I’m ashamed to say it, but such is my luck—or maybe it’s a character fault—that I’ve been married seven times and four of my husbands left me money in addition to what I inherited from my parents, various aunts, and a cousin. I am at an age now when you can’t enjoy much, but the passion for acquisition still isn’t extinguished within me. When I see a rare object, something inside me lurches. I tell myself often that this is senseless, vanity of vanities, but so long as the heart keeps beating—regardless if it’s with the help of pills and injections—and so long as the eyes see—be it through a mist—one isn’t dead. In years gone by, I kept on writing wills then adding codicils, but I’ve become convinced that once you lie in the grave, others do with your estate just as they please, not according to any instructions put down on paper. The result is that I’ve neglected everything. I no longer know what I possess, nor do I care to know. I have one daughter in California and forty years already she’s been warring with me because I allegedly wronged her father. She herself is already in her sixties and a widow. They steal from me and I can’t do anything about it. Tomorrow, a fire or a flood can come. All I do is seek means to prolong death another year or two. I envy the writers. That which they create remains—if it has any value.”

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