But . . .
Her husband, Joe Stone, was in his office at the opposite end of the building, a pair of matching Persian rugs and a long hallway of beaten oak boards distant, his door shut, their sweet cur dog, Brownie, probably dozing tail to snout on a chamois pad beside the heat vent, and Joe was no doubt explaining every boilerplate detail of the umpteenth will he’d prepared for his mercurial, crackpot client Lettie Pauline VanSandt, who, only a few minutes ago, had tracked red mud across the nice carpets and into his office, heedless as always. Nothing but a damn millstone, Lettie. For sure, neither she nor Joe would tend to the mud.
Lisa Agnes Kennedy Hotchkiss Stone and Joe had been married almost twenty years. She had five names, whereas he had only two, lacked anything in the middle. “NMN” was how it appeared on his driver’s license. Joe NMN Stone. She and Joe had been law partners for practically all those years, just the two of them and their various secretaries, as well as an office manager they’d been able to afford once the money became consistent. This very November morning, watching him pour a cup of black coffee in their kitchen, she’d appreciated—again—what a graceful and handsome man he was: tall—right at six-three—but not gangly or a beanpole, thick hair that held its dark color and several waves at age forty-four, and a face full of fierce calm that was laid in deep and precise, difficult to budge. She loved him, absolutely she did, she loved her husband.
A Virginia Code volume was open on her desk, but she’d gotten sidetracked and wasn’t reading it. A single page had cowlicked away from the rest, floating betwixt and between. Lately she’d felt a bit stuck, preoccupied with the flat patches in her life, mulling and noodling, flummoxed by how she seemed to have wandered across an insidious boundary and been shanghaied into a dull land of earth tones, Scrabble games, paint-by-number vacations, Cinemax replays of A Star Is Born, monthly potlucks, Lean Cuisines, cobwebs, dust bunnies, marital conversations retarded by a mumbled “Huh?” or a distracted “What, sweetie?,” community center Zumba classes, flannel, mismatched silverware, lukewarm champagne and box steps every December 31, matted fleece bedroom slippers and sex so mission control she could count down the seconds between her husband biting her neck and squeezing her breast. She worried that her entire world, from alpha to omega, was nothing more than a stupefying loop, a big, whopping white-bread bonanza, comfort and familiarity their own worst enemies.
A sizable part of her delicate mood was rooted in the past summer, June and July, and its cause was obvious and easy to understand—she’d lost both her parents with no real warning, just unfair as hell. Her momma was killed by a monstrous clot and never woke up from a noon nap, the laundry still wooden-pinned to an outside line, a pound of shrimp thawing in the sink, a candy dish filled with pink, yellow and green butter mints on the dining room table, ready for Wednesday bridge club. Her darling dad was gone a month later, walloped by a massive stroke, so tough he’d held on for almost a week before he died, barely seventy, paralyzed and grimacing in a hospital bed and unable to speak, and it was impossible to sit through two sweltering Baptist funerals and not wonder when her day was coming, whether she was wasting her own precious time.
Also, and she tried not to be hateful about it, but bless his heart, some of Joe’s quirks and habits had become a pain for her, and this wasn’t helping her disposition, either. The charming cowboy boots she’d cottoned to back in law school now struck her as Henry County hayseed if he wore them off the farm. Naming their shaggy black puppy with the single white spot on his flank Brownie was genius, but then came Katrina and New Orleans and Joe hit his own endless jackpot, and every time . . . every freaking time . . . the mutt would roll over or shake hands or fetch his tennis ball, as predictable as a cuckoo clock at half-hour intervals, Joe would crucify her last nerve with the “heckuva job, Brownie” line, and yesterday, in 2010, he’d repeated it again, praising the dog for scratching at the kitchen door, the same slobbering ruckus every Tuesday, the pooch eager for the front yard, where he could bark and greet the garbage truck.
Joe would absolutely ignite and go Full Lewis—her term, after Jerry Lewis’s spastic Nutty Professor—whenever he heard the opening riff of “Black Coffee in Bed” or Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes’ “Bad Luck.” No matter how many times he’d listened to the intro, no matter how dated and old-hat the songs.
At work, there was the trite shave-and-a-haircut knock despite her begging him not to do it ever again, please.
He would make her sit in his office and he’d “call the shareholders’ meeting to order” and they’d vote on replacing the gutters or buying a new computer, even though it was only them, Joe and Lisa, husband and wife—they were the entire law firm.
She was weary of his corny “great googly moogly” and, at the other end of the spectrum, his crass, indiscriminate use of the word fuck.
Worst was his riding a motor scooter—not a motorcycle, mind you—to town in warm weather, this huge man putt-putting down Starling Avenue, an embarrassing big-ass helmet strapped underneath his chin so that he favored the Great Gazoo, the crazy cartoon alien from The Flintstones, and, yeah, of course he knew the whole deal was goofy, but she was unable to convince him that even a maximum dose of self-awareness and a tongue-in-cheek penumbra can’t save some choices from coming off as idiotic.
To be fair about it, she realized that some of her failings had to bother him, especially how she often forgot to completely close the dresser drawers and occasionally spilled nail polish on the bathroom tile and never returned the living room phone to its base, and there were probably heaps of other irritations that he was too decent to mention. He kept things in check much better than she did.
She loved him though, she did, loved him in the fashion, she supposed, that you love a spouse hamstrung by two decades of marriage, loved him with most of the shiny paint scrubbed off, the gloss long ago weathered away, her affection down to the solid girders and nuts and bolts and sturdy welds, the steel guts of the arrangement.
But . . .
She stared at the taupe grass cloth they’d selected from a ritzy 1990 sample book as they finished refurbishing what had formerly been a hometown department store in the era of Perma-Prest and fancy petticoat displays. They’d not changed the walls since, and now the fragile threads and stiff, strawy weave were frayed and broken in places, especially at the corners and above the baseboards, and a few loose lengths of grass cocked out from their bindings like crippled insect legs. A vertical seam had separated, and Joe had tried to repair it with a specialty glue he’d discovered at Walmart, but the fix wasn’t what it should’ve been, so there was a bulge not far from the ceiling, an obvious sag that needed attention.
Joe’s voice came over her phone, very formally asking if she could walk down the hall and witness Lettie’s will, his words sounding tinny and off-pitch through the speaker. “Sure,” she said. She noticed the numbers on the phone’s square metal buttons were getting harder and harder to see, eroded by thousands of pecks and taps, almost to the quick. “No problem.”
She knocked and entered his office without pausing, and Brownie raised his head and thumped-thumped-thumped-thumped his tail, an arrhythmic beat that caught both cloth and the hardwood past the edge of his pad. The dog’s welcome didn’t last long, soon ended with a collapse and a sigh, a lazy tongue sloshing over his teeth and slight lips. The lips were black, matched his fur.
Lisa traced the muddy shoeprints to a chair where Joe’s most persistent visitor sat. Fortyish and spectacularly tattooed, “Petty Lettie” VanSandt hadn’t quit at simply inking her pale skin and matchstick limbs; she’d also gussied herself up with three nose rings and a gigantic gold front tooth just in case the needle painting needed accessorizing or wasn’t overwrought and sideshow enough. As a final baroque flourish, she’d recently added a tongue piercing, a tiny silver barbell she could rattlesnake out from behind the fake tooth. Lettie claimed she’d done the job herself, with an ice cube and free-clinic hydrocodone tablets to numb the meat.
“My gracious,” she exclaimed. “It’s Della Street. The coffee made and plants watered and paper clips ordered?” There was a pet carrier beside her on the floor. A cat was inside.
“Don’t start with Lisa,” Joe warned her, his tone firm but mixed with a tiny undercurrent of amusement. “You know the rule.” He was behind a video camera, a Stone and Stone Attorneys at Law acquisition that made possible his latest service, a no-frills recording of people as they read their wills aloud. The fifty extra dollars also purchased the chance to say your piece and have the last word; every syllable and cadence, whether praise or grievance, rebuke or forgiveness, was captured on a disc Joe placed in the client’s file along with a copy of the signed final papers. Testators often came dressed to the nines and most took the event quite seriously, fashioning their sentences carefully and soberly, as if they were mouthing church creeds or the Pledge of Allegiance. More important, the DVD also memorialized the maker’s competence and clear mind in case there were any challenges or questions later on, a genuine twofer, as Joe put it.
“Hello, Lettie,” Lisa said coolly. “Is that a cat you’ve brought with you to our office?”
Lettie’s three acres and ramshackle trailer were home to innumerable cats and dogs, strays and discards all, so many that anonymous do-gooders periodically called Lee Orr, the animal control officer, and asked him to check on the poor things’ welfare, and he’d grumble and curse and drag out to her place, easing the county truck along her rutted dirt drive, and he always found every single creature well fed and kindly treated and granted free run of the premises, inside the double-wide even, bedroom, den, kitchen counters, it didn’t seem to matter. But make no mistake, Lettie had her tolerances and kept her sanctuary reasonably clean, once using a broom to thwack a careless hound—right in front of the officer—when it commenced to squat and was too near the jackleg wooden deck.
“Yeah. So? You got a problem?” Oddly, Lettie grinned large and showed her gold tooth to full effect.
“Not really. What’s the cat’s name?” Lisa pasted on a phony smile. Maybe she could suffer through this.
“Why the hell would I name it, Della?” Lettie asked. “Huh? It’s a damn cat; it don’t speak English or understand nothing ’bout no name. Like every other animal, it just comes to my voice and knows the sound of a lid peelin’ off a can of food. I suppose you’d give a name to a parakeet? Goldfish? A skunk?”
“That’s twenty-five more added to your bill, Lettie,” Joe intoned. He’d finished adjusting a tripod so the camera was aimed squarely at her.
“Yeah. And I been thinkin’ about that, your little ‘rule.’ If it’s twenty-five bucks to be insultin’ to your secretary there, how much would it cost me to just slap the bejesus out of her?”
“Now you’re at fifty. Lisa isn’t my secretary. You know as much. I’ve told you a hundred times over. She’s a lawyer. Probably a better lawyer than I am. She was law review at the University of Virginia. Meaning, Lettie, she’s smart as a whip. Hey—look at how much money she’s making for us right this instant. Fifty bucks in three minutes by merely walking down the hall.”
For some reason, before she spoke, Lettie tapped her garish tooth with her index finger. Several of her nails were painted green. She wore rings with colored stones. She popped the barbell into view. Withdrew it. “Probably the only pay Della will collect the whole week,” she remarked, giggling, her head bobbing atop an attenuated neck.
“Yeah,” Lisa said, “now maybe I can finally afford that rose tattoo I’ve always wanted. Or a snazzy nose ring.”
She and Lettie had gotten crosswise a couple years ago, when Lettie had inquired about obtaining a patent for “having trucks and bulldozers and whatnot beep when they go in reverse. A safety feature.” Impatiently informed that this technology was already in place and had been for a long while, she threw a hissy fit because Lisa refused to help her “sue the bastards who stole my idea.” Joe, though, always politely listened to her ramblings about perpetual motion machines, alchemy of every stripe and grade, poultices, miracle cures, inventions and contraptions. He’d set up a corporation for her and her nutty schemes, created pointless trusts and foundations, drafted a medical directive that she tinkered with almost monthly, prepared numerous limited liability companies and devoted hours to discussing her feuds with neighbors, magazine sweepstakes, the county landfill and the local board of supervisors, usually without charge, not so much as a penny, and his patience infuriated Lisa, this nitwit eccentric wasting Joe’s time, he mollycoddling her for no rational reason. At least he really would ding her for the extra fifty.
“Wait. So how is it she can say any nasty insult to me for free?” Lettie complained. “She’s makin’ fun of me.”
“I think you look great, Lettie,” Lisa offered. “Primed for a star turn on the midway. Or to hoist the Jolly Roger above your very own ship.”
“We’re ready,” Joe announced, almost before his wife finished.
Copyright © 2015 by Martin Clark. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.