This is the sixth installment of the series, “The 12 Days of the Tilley-Blandin Coronavirus Christmas.” More stories about the Tilley-Blandin family universe can be found here.
Silver, Olympia, Hopper, and their parents received an unexpected message from Mia Gottschall, a New York attorney who represented mostly artists and writers and their families. Gottschall is not an integral character in this episode, and therefore not worthy of being designated as a goose, but it’s worth knowing that she had been a frequent guest at pre-pandemic soirees thrown by the Tilley-Blandin art/writing power couple. The family had a small apartment in the Meatpacking District; the real glamour at these parties was found in the hallways and stairwells. Gottschall had been introduced to at least half of her clients by one or more members of the Tilley-Blandin family. However, she handled the personal affairs of no member of the Tilley-Blandin family (“You’re either a client or a friend,” she explained to Olympia at one of the parties. “It would be bad for my business to lose your friendship.”).
Among Gottschall’s clients was the singer Fiona Apple, whom Silver and Olympia called “Mother Apple.” Silver had named her Shinba Inu after the singer. Fiona Apple rates a being designated a goose in this episode.
In the email each of them received from Gottschall, the lawyer stated that Fiona had contracted COVID-19 and passed away shortly after arriving at a hospital to seek medical attention. It all seemed mysterious to them. The details seemed sketchy, but the email contained a hyperlink to a private YouTube video that Fiona had recorded shortly before dying. In the video, she addressed all the members of the Tilley-Blandin family. It was clear that she had made this video exclusively for them. The lawyer did not state whether other videos had been made for anyone else.
All members of the family watched the Fiona Apple video within a 30-minute time frame. The lawyer instructed each of them to respond to her message when they had seen the video. She then sent all of them a link to join a Zoom meeting.
“Thanks everyone for joining the Zoom on such short notice,” Gottschall opened. “I know everyone wants to talk about Rudy Giuliani contracting the coronavirus…just kidding.”
“Stop right there, Mia,” Silver interjected. “What is going on?”
“I think what my daughter means,” Silver’s father interrupted, “is why did Fiona feel the need to say those things to us…about us?”
“It almost sounded like she was trying to settle scores,” Olympia said, “where there were no scores to settle. Whatever issues we had with each other never touched Mother Apple or affected her in any way.”
“I don’t know that I’d go that far, sis,” Hopper responded.
“Hopper, son,” his father said, “there was a lot of hurt in that video.”
“It was clear that our dear Fiona was reading that damn blog from the spring,” Hopper’s mother added.
“As well as what’s being written currently,” her husband said.
Olympia and her parents were hunkered down for the pandemic in what they referred to as the “Tilley-Blandin Fortress,” the family’s vacation home/retreat/conference center near the Delaware Water Gap. Olympia and her parents watched the video together. Hopper was staying with Olympia’s ex-boyfriend Huey at the apartment near American University that she had Huey had shared before the pandemic. Hopper and Huey had been sequestered with everyone else at the Fortress, but both had found themselves exiled. Silver had declined the invitation to join her family and instead stayed about four miles from Huey and Olympia’s apartment in a DC hipster neighborhood. Silver’s boyfriend Louis had moved in with her.
Between her regular phone calls, messages, emails, texts, and Zooms with the Tilley-Blandin’s, along with the added resource of the blog, Fiona Apple may have possessed the best outsider’s appreciation – other than this blog — of the Tilley-Blandin’s agony, ecstacy, and self-sabotage. However, having their situation-slash-plight laid out for them by a dear family friend who had just died caused some overreaction(s). In the video, Fiona Apple appeared to be alone in an apartment none of them recognized. She was dressed in Marshawn Lynch’s Seattle Seahawks jersey. When she walked around in front of the camera, it appeared that her legs were bare. A couple of cats moved in and out of the frame. She drank from a can of Diet Mountain Dew.
“I just don’t see why she felt the urge to lecture us about our parents’ marriage,” Hopper said. “She was never so sanctimonious with any of us. Dad sleeps with other women. Mom knows it. We all know it. So what?”
“I think perhaps Fiona did not approve of our father trying to sleep with your ex-wife,” Olympia pointed out. “Dad may have crossed a red line for her.”
“I’d rather we not discuss that chapter,” Olympia’s mother said.
“OK, mom, but Fiona had some choice words for you, too,” Hopper said. “Particularly how you engineered the whole sequence of events leading to my ex-wife living under the same roof as me during the pandemic.”
“But it wasn’t mom’s fault that you ended up sleeping with your ex-wife,” Silver said. “Before dad tried to, that is.”
Everyone could see that Mia Gottschall was taking notes. Hopper told himself that she had her lawyer’s face on. He had seen this expression on her once, at a bail hearing when Hopper was a teenager. Hopper and a friend had broken into an apartment in the Dakota by mistake. The police got involved. The Tilley-Blandin attorney got Hopper out of jail; Mia Gottschall handled the friend, who was related to one of the band members of the Velvet Underground. A series of donations to the Guggenheim were made and the charges were dropped and records expunged.
Hopper also found himself studying his sister Silver. After he had left the family fortress, he had landed at Silver’s doorstep the same time as Louis. It had not been planned that way, and it had not worked for him to crash their party. He was hurt by Silver’s lack of loyalty to him as she eagerly accepted his offer to decamp to Huey’s apartment in favor of an interloper. He watched Louis walk around in the background of the Zoom. Louis was not hiding the fact that he was listening to the family’s Zoom. It felt strange to have someone other than Fiona Apple and his ex-wife Ingrid puncture the normally impervious Tilley-Blandin protective shell. Yes, Hopper thought, Louis was clearly an interloper.
Silver’s mother whispered in his husband’s ear, “Silver looks much better. She’s put on some weight and obviously is wearing laundered clothes. I think that Louis is having a positive impact on her.”
Silver sent a private message in the chat function to Olympia: “Mom thinks that I can’t hear her whisper in dad’s ear.”
Olympia replied, “She’s right, you know.”
Silver: “But still.”
Meanwhile, Olympia scanned her brother’s frame, looking both for evidence of Huey and her stuff. When she and Huey had moved to the Tilley-Blandin Fortress in spring, they had packed light. They thought that a national strategy to contain the coronavirus would be rolled out and that, by the end of summer, they would return to a life somewhat resembling what they had enjoyed before. Teaching at Sidwell Friends and brunching on weekends. They had brought their school-issued technology and teaching tools, warm-weather clothes, and not much else. She had not returned to the apartment. Also, she had not planned to break up with Huey. She thought they were solid. He thought they were solid, too. It turned out that solid wasn’t enough for Olympia. She wanted more. And now she was trying to figure out if Hopper would help her retriever her belongings at the same time that she tried to remember if she had crossed Hopper in the months they had lived under the same roof. She was pretty sure that Hopper paid almost no attention to her while he and Huey had become the broiest of bros.
Silver was worried about the secrets she shared with her sister as well as the secrets they kept from each other. They both had written things down that should not be written down. Things that were locked away. However, she and Olympia kept secrets the same way most people eat and breathe. “It’s how you keep your identity, your sense of self,” Olympia had told her years ago. However, the pandemic was wreaking havoc on everyone’s relationships. People had become corrosive ingredients. Trust was eroding. How many of her secrets would be revealed, intentionally or otherwise?
Silver did not think that Fiona Apple appeared to be dying. In the movies, when people are on the verge of dying, they wheeze and gasp and attach significance to every vowel they utter. Their gestures are grand and dramatic. Mother Apple seemed almost disinterested in the words coming out of her mouth, as if she were just riffing with friends at a cocktail party. She allowed herself a couple of rueful chuckles while speaking. She even played the piano and sang “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” Maybe it was just that, even when healthy, Fiona Apple always seemed to be on the verge of death.
“Mia, could you detail for us the bequests Fiona mentioned?” Hopper asked.
Fiona Apple had money, but she was “artist rich,” not “producer rich.” In the video, she had mentioned bequests for the Lillie-Blanton children. Was there money? they all thought to themselves. Why would she leave us money?
“Hopper, dear, can you show some respect?” his mother said. “She has not even been buried yet.”
“Oh, yes, she has, in a manner of speaking,” the lawyer interjected. “She was cremated. Her sister has her ashes.”
“Wait…why are we just hearing about this now?” Silver asked. “I have seen nothing in the news about her passing.”
“She wanted friends to learn about her passing before reading about it in some public venue,” the lawyer responded. “And about the bequests, they are personal effects. Clothes. Silver gets the Seahawks jersey. It’s been laundered. You all get some of her books. You each get a guitar. There are also photographs and paintings. Just to be clear: there is no money. She told me that you were all rich or going to be rich soon enough.”
“Rich soon enough?” Olympia shouted. “I work as a teacher and Silver has one of those bullshit media jobs that wouldn’t pay the mortgage on the duplex that our parents bought for her. Hopper’s the only one on a path to make something of himself.”
“Oh, sister, be careful,” Hopper responded. “We know that you have plans to achieve world domination. Breaking Huey’s heart was only the first step. Your well-publicized charms will work wonders for you once you shed your delusions of trying to be a do-gooder educating the spawn of the Washington DC military-industrial complex.”
“Christ, can you hear yourself talk?” Silver said. “Who appointed you the archbishop of virtue?”
“Silver, honey,” Hopper responded, “we all know that you are going to stab all of us in the back when you finally get around to writing your novel based on the torture that has defined your upbringing and adulthood so far. We know that you are already plotting to write the screenplay with mom. Olympia and I are just good material for your writing. Very good material, I might add. You will be well-rewarded.”
“What about the screenplay mom and dad are writing based on the book you wrote about our childhood?” Olympia shouted.
“My book was not about our childhood!” Hopper shouted back. “Our childhood was only a small part of the book.”
“But mom told me that the movie is going to focus on the Tilley-Blandin family,” Olympia said. “Charlize Theron has been cast to play mom and Edward Norton is playing dad. How utterly Oedipal it must have felt for you to be Charlize Theron’s boyfriend.”
“Yeah, Hopper, there are no more secrets in this family,” Silver said. “You, too, Oly. And anyone who dares get close to us. Hopper’s right. We are all just material. And we’re all going to get paid for it.”
“Children!” their mother clamored. “Children!”
Hopper, Olympia, and Silver stopped shouting at each other. They noticed that their father was no longer sitting next to their mother. He was in the background, in the open-plan kitchen apparently making himself a sandwich. And they could see not only that he was not wearing pants.
“Anyone have ideas for Christmas?” their mother asked.
Her children all looked away from their cameras.
“Our family’s dearest friend has died, and we are just bickering about the truths she spoke to us about our misbehavior,” she continued.
“Are we supposed to be ashamed of ourselves?” Silver asked.
“Yes, mom, this is just the way we roll,” Olympia said. “You pushed out three self-absorbed, brilliant…jackasses. Do you want us to stop acting like jackasses just because Mother Apple died?”
“Yeah, not going to happen,” Hopper piped in. “And I presume that we will do the same thing on Christmas that we are doing this very moment. We’ll be sitting in front of some goddam computer screen, opening boxes from Amazon, playacting surprise and joy, speaking words resembling gratitude, and picking over the carcass of our grievances with each other. Oh, the best present will be our discussion on the subject of Ted Nugent, because how can we avoid it?”
“Yes, mom, it’s the way we express love and affection for each other,” Olympia said. “Do you even remember last Christmas?”
“What do you mean, dear?”
“Mother Apple spent Christmas with us last year in Westbeth,” Olympia continued. “She stormed out of our apartment. She called us ‘spoiled, pointless little cannibals.’ And then we spent New Year’s Eve together and she laughed about it.”
“Mom, you and dad have no idea what monstrous acts we have committed in the name of love,” Silver said, “because we have such…incredible… fucking… manners.”
It was only then that they noticed that Mia Gottschall had left the Zoom.