“Three hundred thousand dollars. That’s quite a lot of money, young lady.“ He’d waited to speak until after all the other beneficiaries had left. He’d asked her to stick around for just a moment, singling her out for what? Some special, secret behest?
“Yes, it certainly is.” The desk made her feel small, inadequate. It was polished wood of some kind––definitely imported from someplace where desks were important the way corn was important here. The chair she sat in was plush, soft, and she sank down into it so even though it looked as if it was at the same height as a regular chair, once she was in it she had to look up to see his face, past the nameplate that reminded a visitor that he––or in this case she––was being granted an audience with Lewis Black, esq.
“With all due respect, you might benefit from having someone to help you manage it.” He looked appropriately somber, concerned.
“I suppose I might.”
“Good. I was hoping you would say that. I’ve drafted up a document…“ Like a magician, he conjured a single sheet of paper which he slid across the desk toward her. “I just need your signature here, at the bottom.” She raised herself out of the chair to collect the paper and as she did, he pressed a pen into her hand. A heavy pen. A pen with weight.
She sat back and lifted the paper in order to read it. Even the paper felt heavy. Maybe it was. It felt more like cloth than paper, but then most of the paper she knew was either newsprint or construction paper, not the finely crafted stationery that was used to draw up binding legal documents.
She tried to read the document, but she only got as far as the second heretofore, just past the third insofar as, before her eyes got fuzzy and refused to go any further.
She placed the paper back down on the desk. “I am going to need to give this some thought.” She said, weary from the effort.
“I’d be happy to explain it to you,” he offered. “I know sometimes legal language can be confusing to a pretty little missy such as yourself.”
She didn’t reply. Didn’t know how to reply. She’d never known how to reply when men said things like that. She knew how she was supposed to, of course, but that was an entirely different thing.
She looked at the ring on his pinky finger. Gold, with a sparkling diamond embedded in its bulk. It matched his tie pin. And his cufflinks.
Daddy never wore jewelry. The closest thing he had was his John Deere ball cap. Something George had thrown in as a giveaway when he’d sold him the tractor, making a joke––she remembered––about how he might as well take it seeing as he’d already given him the shirt off of his back.
There wasn’t a contract, then. No legally binding document. The two men sat at the kitchen table, she in her father’s lap and Mama at the sink, doing the dishes, while Daddy and George worked out the terms, concluding with nothing more formal than a handshake. That had to be something like 14 years ago. But from that day forward, Daddy put the ball cap on every morning before breakfast and didn’t take it off until after dinner.
In 14 years, the only time she remembered ever seeing Daddy without that John Deere cap on his head was at Mama’s funeral. But that couldn’t have been true. He went to church most every Sunday. Did he wear the ball cap to church?
Only dead a week and she already couldn’t remember.
Then, and his own funeral.
Mr. Wagoner wouldn’t let him be buried in the ball cap and there was nobody who would take her side on that. In the end, she had to sneak the ball cap into the funeral home and while pretending to grieve at the casket––okay, while really grieving, but at the casket for no other reason––she waited until Mr. Wagoner had left the room to tend to some issue that had come up, pulled it out of her purse and shoved it into the casket, as close to Daddy’s cold, stiff fingers as she could reach without calling attention to herself.
Lewis Black, esq.’s voice interrupted her reverie. “Your daddy was a fine man. Fine man.“ She trembled, wondering if he could hear her very thoughts. And then wondering how he would actually know.
“Yes, he was. Did he ask you to put this together?”
“I took it upon myself, in my capacity as the steward of his estate.”
“It is my sworn duty to protect his estate,” he explained.
“But it’s not part of his will.”
“Well, no. This is an extra added layer of protection.”
“But not one he specifically asked for.”
“Not as such. But you must remember, young lady, your father, bless his soul, was a farmer, and not entirely well-versed in the ways of the law.”
“Which is why he trusted you.”
“Which is why he trusted me.”
“He trusted you. And yet…” She knew she should look him in the eye as she said this, but she couldn’t bring herself to. Instead, she spoke into the paper, the heavy, elegant paper, “And yet, I can’t help but wonder why his signature doesn’t appear anywhere on this document.”
“Ah. An excellent question. It’s because this was only drawn up just recently, upon hearing the news of his passing.”
“As an extra layer of protection.”
“Exactly. There are vultures everywhere.” She couldn’t help but wonder just what kind of experience Lewis Black, esq. was speaking from.
Three hundred thousand dollars is a lot of money, she thought, even to a man like Lewis Black, esq. With three hundred thousand dollars she could buy a new tractor and still have plenty left over for a pinkie ring.
She wouldn’t, of course. That would be frivolous. The tractor they had, the one George had sold them, had another good 25 years in it.
“May I take this with me? So I can read it over and give it some thought before I decide whether to sign?”
“Of course, my dear!” He rose, indicating that the generous gift of his time had unfortunately reached its limit. She rose, too, taking up the magnificent piece of paper with her. He gestured toward the door in a way that felt as if it was meant to be magnanimous. “Take whatever time you need. Just…”
She raised an eyebrow. “Just…?”
“Just don’t take too long. Inaction is a form of action.”
As he came around the desk, he put his arm around the small of her back to usher her toward the doorway. Like she might not be able to find it on her own. She almost had to stop him bodily so that she could retrieve her handbag, which she had draped over the shoulder of the chair when she’d first come in.
She passed through the doorway into the hallway, but he stopped, as if unwilling, or unpermitted, to cross the threshold. When she turned back toward him, he lowered his head, like he was about to intone a prayer.
“Please remember, I am always here for you.”
“I will remember.”
“I cannot say it is my pleasure, but it is my distinct honor.” How many times had he done this before?
She nodded her thanks, walked down the hallway toward the receptionist. She could feel his eyes on her until she’d turned the corner and pushed open the heavy oak doors, into the sweltering heat of Main Street.
As she walked down the sidewalk to where she’d parked the pickup, she slipped the pen into her purse.
Brian Belefant has won more than three dozen awards for stories he’s written. Most recently, his screenplay Nobody Dies Until The Very End (And Even Then It’s Okay) was a finalist in the 2021 Page Turner Awards. In addition to several short stories, Brian recently completed the third draft of a novella and the fourth draft of a novel.