Years before my mother died, my sister was prepared.
Ilana arrived home one weekend, clutching two packs of Post-Its. “It’s time,” she said, handing me a yellow stack. She unpeeled a bright orange sticky note, and slapped it onto a pint-sized terracotta warrior that guarded the living room, a gift from our great-grandmother.
The industrious chemists at 3M invented the sticky notes to free people from the tyranny of paper clips and staples. The jaunty curl of paper wound up on all kinds of never-before-possible surfaces: in a choir book to mark various hymns, on an eyes-only memo from your department head, and on the kitchen counter, as a Dear John note. Or on your inheritance.
“Let’s not worry when Mom goes,” she said. “You hear about those families fighting over nothing at funerals, because there’s no will. It’s easier to divide it up now, when we’re not so emotional.”
She slapped another Post-It onto a wooden radio, the big heavy kind they made copies of at Restoration Hardware. I looked over at my mother, who curled up on the couch with a mug of green tea. The vulturing of her property did not perturb her.
“It’s okay with me,” she said. “Whatever you kids want to do.”
Her attitude was typical. My father was killed when I was a baby. A pizza delivery truck in on-coming traffic hit a deer, flinging the buck into the windshield of my father’s Buick. After that, my mother saw no use in getting in the way of what was supposed to happen. Fate interrupted the mundane.
I flicked the Post-Its like a cartoon flip-book under my thumb. It would be different if Mom were hooked up to life support, or fading away in a rest home. But she’d had us young, sometimes mistaken for a big sister when she dropped Ilana and I off at elementary school.
Now she ran her own country antiques store in Sutter Creek. She wore sleeveless tops that showed off her strong and tanned arms. When I helped her with pick-up and deliveries, she had no problems holding up her end of the oak dressers and teak armoires.
Five years earlier, I had moved from New York back to the foothills of the Sierra Nevada to finish my dissertation on Civil War folk songs. I had never been comfortable in the city, with its endless squirming crowds and heaps of garbage left for pick-up each night.
Despite the change in habitat, I had trouble writing. The chunk of fool’s gold, the poster of constellations that glowed in the dark, and the wrinkled 1987 Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue in my bedroom placed me in childhood, the wrong century.
“Go ahead,” I said. Ilana, three years older, had always used her head start over her little brother to her advantage. She laid down the rules, and I would hold back, trying to figure out how to catch up.
She plopped Post-Its on more than she’d be able to fit in her tiny condo, and even on items that clashed with her sleek decor. She didn’t have a husband, or a house, or kids, but was already staking claim to the accessories of her future life.
Ilana was a San Francisco attorney who specialized in lawsuits to prevent what could happen. She came home rare enough to make her visits a production–ones that justified my mother cooking my sister’s favorite biscuits, each time–but often enough to avoid guilt.
Soon, the living room looked as if a flock of monarch butterflies had touched down, the orange notes fluttering at times in the hot breeze. I held off. There wasn’t much I wanted, wasn’t much I could see in my future. But that afternoon, I hid what mattered in the crawl space of the garage, under a crate of encyclopedias and a pile of wooden tennis racquets.
The next morning, the camera I’d stashed was sitting in the coffee table, tagged with an orange Post-It. I cradled the Rollieflex in my right hand. I’d found my grandfather’s camera when I was a teenager.
Its twin lenses looked liked an odd pair of spectacles mounted on the rectangular case, which rested on the small end. The camera had a large square viewfinder on top. People couldn’t tell when you were taking a picture.
She’s done it again, I thought. Taken what I wanted, without even knowing, without spite. Ilana had the present and the future all wrapped up. I only had the past.
“I was looking for my old cheerleading uniform in the garage, and found this,” Ilana said, sweeping the Rollie away from me.
“Don’t you think it will make a cool decoration, for when I get a guest bedroom? I wonder if it works.”
“It does,” I said, tugging it away.
“You’ll have to show me how. Maybe I’ll take it now, instead of waiting,” she trailed off, even she unable to say “when Mom dies.”
I considered Solomon’s choice, and let the camera slip out of my fingers.
The lenses shattered against the tile floor, and a large crack shot through the case, over-exposing the photos I’d taken of bleary newlyweds stumbling out of a B&B, of my unsuspecting mother, beautiful, at the shop counter, of a gold mine tower silhouetted at sunset.
We stared down at the smashed pieces.
“Ouch,” Ilana said. Then again, I just got a digital camera, so maybe I didn’t need more junk to clutter up my place.
I picked up the Rollie and looked through the viewfinder: nothing. Nothing plus me.
Staking Claim by Vanessa Hua appeared in Issue 5 of Fiction Attic: The Journal of Elegant Wit.
Vanessa Hua is an award-winning journalist. Her fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in the Atlantic Monthly, ZYZZVA, Calyx, American Literary Review, River Styx, and Hopkins Review. She received first place in the 2008 Atlantic Monthly student fiction contest. She received scholarships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. She also won the 2005 Cream City Review fiction contest, received an honorable mention in the Stanford magazine contest, and was a finalist in the 2008 Asian American Writers Workshop/Hyphen magazine short story contest. Visit her at vanessahua.com.