The Matchbook Diaries


#11 Huge Messes

A few days after my boys leave for Qatar, I uncover why my mother is stuck and broke.  The long term, legal tenants on my mother’s Montauk estate, Joe, who found me, and Mark who helped me continually, tell me about Dusan.  Yes, that’s his real name.  I did not sue him (my brilliant attorney said it was unlikely to be worthwhile), but I won’t hide him either.

My mother met a young, handsome Ukrainian man, Dusan, sometime around 1999 in Oakdale, NY.  He lived as a student in her home, with my mother and her husband, and then left, reappearing 2 years later at her estate in Montauk where she’d relocated in the intervening years.  The relationship between my mom and Dusan resumed surreptitiously under the nose of her second husband, Howard, a good man my mother verbally and physically abused for the duration of their marriage.  My mother believed Dusan was sexually interested in her, and that she was engaged in an affair.  In reality I think Dusan probably just talked nicely to her and met her on the sly, but sex, I think not, just the cruel secret of meeting another man would thrill my mother.

Two perfume bottles I found on the beach in Dar, one real and the other counterfeit. How can I not applaud the audacity of the second?

My mom ran a bed and breakfast, Green Hedges, in Montauk, at least in theory, in the same whimsical manner in which she did everything.  Her customers were more like personal guests she allowed in.  If a guest pissed her off, as one did when he made a racist comment in front of Mark, her long-term Jamaican tenant, she threw them out.  That time,  she jumped up and said, “I don’t want a racist in my house!  Get the fuck out.”  He left.  The Jamaican man, Mark, lived in one of her two legal apartments, and was very kind to her.  He volunteered as my bodyguard whenever I came into the estate and all throughout my work as I recovered the property from the many illegal tenants.

In 2009, my mother’s marriage with Howard came to an end, and she found herself alone. I have no idea how Howard escaped her; perhaps his family intervened.  I saw her punch Howard in the face.  My mother torments people who get helplessly stuck in her orbit until she hurls them off with some insanely violent incident. I knew Howard loved my mother as I had, helplessly and hopelessly, like a slave, not like a lover.  He was a devout Jewish man; he’d inspired my mom to learn Hebrew better.  I found Sabbath cheat sheets tucked into her worship tableware.  Howard made my mother’s life work by intervening whenever she made a huge mess.  Without him she was lost.  She certainly could no longer run her bed and breakfast.

I read a review of her hotel by one unlucky guest after Howard was gone.  Apparently my mother fetched the high end guest from the train station in Montauk.  The guest was appalled by the unsanitary condition of my mother’s van.  By the time I saw the van an indigent person was living inside, but I know my mother, and I can only imagine what her van was like for a hotel guest who’d traveled hours from Manhattan in the hopes of bliss on the cold, vacant beaches of Montauk.

Dody often made huge messes. Howard was great at keeping track of her customers and at generally making her appear more normal than she is.  He was a happy man who, according to his dentist, joyfully belted out Jewish liturgy whenever he was under gas.

By the time Joe found me, Dusan had conned her out of four hundred thousand dollars in cash, secured power of attorney over her assets and placed himself into every sentence of her will.  His coup de grâce, though, was getting her to take a mortgage out on her unleveraged million-dollar Montauk estate.  Then he pocketed $600,000.  This was a big dent in my mom’s wealth.  Over 50 years, my mom squandered her inheritance.  Had she had any skill at all in making money she ought to have been loaded.  Any competent broker could have doubled or tripled her assets in 50 years.  Instead she was thrifty and careful and screwed up a bunch of small businesses she started and couldn’t make work.  She did her own investing.  She sued tradespeople regularly over ridiculous sums.  I found business cards for several businesses she tried to make fly, but she is neither coherent enough nor polite enough to engage in any sustained commercial activity.  So, in the end, the million or so dollars Dusan got from her was 2/3rds of her money.

Dusan cycled 500,000 dollars through my mother’s Suffolk County Bank accounts into a myriad of HSBC accounts via two other banks, ING and Capital One.  I’d never heard of him, and neither had her physician who treated her continuously since 1986 for her chronic and escalating COPD as well as her many imagined maladies.

Her attorney, Robert, was suspicious upon meeting Dusan.  Soon after introducing Dusan to her attorney, my mother fired Robert, who’d worked for her for most of her life.  My mother is a consistent woman about some things – banks, Costco, peanut butter – so her sudden choice to leave our trusted lawyer is shocking; she never switches brands or banks, and then she did.  She opened up, online, lots of bank accounts.  My mother doesn’t use the internet, or a computer, or a cell phone; she doesn’t know how.  Yet now someone claiming to be her was doing just that.  All the large transactions moving money from her to Dusan took place online.

During those early weeks, I look up the con artist, assuming he’s disappeared now that he has her money.  Strangely, Dusan pretends to be legitimate, and works for an established banking enterprise in Nassau County. I debated calling him for lunch and then, at some point, near the end of our cozy, get-to-know-each-other meal, leaping over the table and strangling him.  Alas, I didn’t find the time.

The big problem was to disentangle her from Dusan before he could absorb the rest of her money.   I have to rescue her from the system that can only treat her as a helpless indigent.  If I cannot get all the legal paperwork in line before the hospital moves her out, she will be a ward of the state.  There are a lot of legal papers to undo.  The hospital calls Dusan repeatedly to no avail and simultaneously urges me to somehow undo what he’s done so they can wash their hands of my mother.

And then, if I get her out, what will I do with her? She can’t move to Qatar.  Even if she could, I have a sheer terror of allowing her in my home.  I’m unreasonably afraid of her, though at the time I couldn’t say why, other than that she is unpredictable and capable of absolutely any social or emotional atrocity.  She can’t go to her foreclosed home, either.  I must find a safe spot for her, a place to tuck her in so I can leave the country without worrying that her life is rough or dirty or scary.

I unearth a paper trail amid the mountains of papers in my mother’s flooded Montauk basement.  Every other day I take the papers to Bay Shore, dry them out, wipe them off, and read them.  Right before Dusan got my mother to mortgage her home, she tells him in writing that she can’t afford the cost of the refinance.  Dusan then volunteers to give her the money to refinance.  He pays many, many thousands to help her pay for the refi.  (My mother photocopied all of her correspondence.)

After the refinance, my mother didn’t pay the mortgage Dusan took out, and was flabbergasted when she started getting delinquency notes.  Then she began bouncing checks on her own accounts.  She wrote tragic letters to state officials about her situation, a situation she did not understand.  Disoriented, she got herself arrested twice for driving uninsured and finally, in desperation, her tenants Mark and Joe took the car batteries out of both her cars so that she wouldn’t drive.  This went on for two years.  She did not appear to understand that she’d given Dusan the vast majority of her fortune and had lost her own home.

My mother’s yard man stopped in mornings to bring her a fried egg during those dismal two years.  She took to sleeping (and defecating) in the living room and meanwhile Mark rented out every room in her downstairs to the Jamaican laborers who work in Montauk during the season.  Joe and Mark, her legal tenants and unpaid caregivers, made her life work.  They defended her from people who wanted to rob her.  They protected her home.  They paid her bills with their own money and the money they raised by using her home as a low rent apartment building.

My mother tends to be popular with working people.  By the time she slipped out of her regular life permanently, these two men adored her and their devotion to her never changed.  Particularly Joe loved my mother, and she loved him in return as purely as she loved anything.  When she spoke of him her whole face brightened; Joe is a good man, my mother thought.  I agree.

Then, because my mom did not pay her bills, she lost oil service to her home, and therefore, heat.  Finally, that last winter, she lost the plumbing capacity in her home because the pipes burst in the freezing stone walls.  That January she lived in an unheated house without clean water surrounded by electric heaters.  Her tenants took her to the police station to use the toilet.

This was the worst case for her COPD.  Her breathing deteriorated quickly while the man who held health care proxy never visited her but did use her money to travel around the world.  Postcards come from Dusan posing against static foreign backdrops in really awful clothes, his messages to my mom so obviously insincere I wince.

One day during this time a nurse comes by to see my mom at her house.  Apparently this woman is a friend of my mom’s though I have yet to come across her name, and now, years later, I have never met her. I never got to thank her.  (The two social workers who checked on my mother earlier that year felt she was fine.)  This anonymous nurse friend calls 911.  EMS picks her up that day and she never returns.

When the EMS people find her, my mother’s hair is matted, she is sleeping in fecal matter; she is routinely hiding wads of cash in her home.  Four months later the hospital has no idea what to do with her; she’s not sick enough, nor does she really have dementia  She’s not solvent, and can’t afford anything but public care.  Dusan finally tells the hospital that he’s newly married, with a baby coming.  He is breezy and then downright rude.  Then he stops taking their calls.  It’s going to be up to me.

Throughout the process of disentangling her all I could think was that if God could get me through it, it would be like attempting, without any practice, to perform some kind of septuple, backwards, twisty jump from the parallel bars in the Olympics and then, miraculously, landing it perfectly.  And that is exactly what happened.