My mother’s will was read on a Saturday morning during one of the largest snowstorms ever recorded in Lansing. Snowdrifts piled against houses and parked cars as if the break of a perfect wave had frozen, decayed, and reconstituted itself into an endless white ocean.
I pulled over at the corners of Kalamazoo and Pennsylvania. The rental – a black sedan – listed to the right as its tires lost their grip, briefly, and then regained traction. I wondered if the car was playing a small, amusing game with me. I could hear the crunch of the snow packing beneath the tires as my chariot eased to a stop. It was easy to forget through the passage of time, that with enough pressure the benevolent snowpack could become a scythe, an instrument to death’s ambivalent hand.
After grabbing the key from the ignition, I cupped my bare hands to my mouth and exhaled in three short bursts: Hah – Hah – Hah. I took one final breath of the rental’s warm air as I pulled the door handle and stepped into Satan’s version of Narnia – Cap City in a blizzard.
My left foot punched into the snowpack like a piston, and I felt only the slightest chill around where my knee was hidden. Fuck me, I thought, this blows. I waded through the heavy pack like some ancient human miraculously escaping the La Brea tar pits – like Atreu in the forest of despair.
The roads were empty. The city was barren. Abandoned buildings that I remembered from my last visit, eight years ago, had remained empty. Houses leaned. There was an absence of life. No other vehicles were parked at the gas station, and no cars had passed me on the road. Tracks and prints lacked strength and longevity. Everything was white, and those things that had held out from the blanketing were slowly losing the war of attrition as the wind changed with every gust, and nooks in windows on abandoned buildings and dry triangles of concrete under the awnings of storefronts began their assimilation into the fold.
I opened the door to the Quality Dairy, the bell chimed, and I stepped onto the mat. I removed my wet hat and brushed my arms and shoulders, and then beat at my thighs with the soggy knit cap. I stomped each foot three times onto the doormat (that read “Thanks!”), and then I nodded to the clerk who sat behind a thick slab of bulletproof glass, and I walked over to the coffee machine.
There wasn’t any coffee going.
I turned, scanning the isle for maybe a second machine, or anything that looked like it might produce the warm, dark liquid that contained caffeine and was suitable for human ingestion.
“Where’s the coffee at?” I said.
“Huh?” the clerk said.
“Where’s the coffee at?” I said, louder. “You got the machine…” I pointed, “… pot’s here but no coffee going.”
“Yea…” he shrugged his husky shoulders. “I didn’t make any today.”
“Didn’t make any?”
“Why the fuck not?” I said.
“Look man,” the clerk said, “you’re the only person other than me that’s walked in here today, and I don’t drink that shit.”
“You still shoulda put some on, you know. In consideration for the potential customer that might, just might be interested in some coffee at eight-thirty in the morning when it looks like that outside.”
I gestured towards the front windows that spanned the length of the storefront. You could barely make the outline of the rental that sat, fifteen, twenty feet away. The clerk shrugged his shoulders, again and said, “You can put a pot on if you’d like.”
“Oh, so now I gotta do your job?” I said, grabbing the decanter and placing it on the machine’s port.
I took a filter from the stack and smashed it into the metal drip pot and scooped up three cups of grounds into the filter. I flicked the black switch at the top and the machine began to whirr. Praise Forseti, there would be coffee.
Turning to the clerk, I raised my arms out like Christ hung out to dry.
“Jesus, that was excruciating,” I said.
He looked at me, and he fucking shrugged, again. Couldn’t be bothered. And at the distance I was standing I couldn’t be certain, but I’m pretty sure the fat, lazy sod rolled his eyes. The clerk turned his attention back to the small TV set next to the register.
As the coffee continued to brew, I walked up and down the three isles looking at the packaging of candy bars, beef jerky, chips, cookies, crackers, nuts, gummy bears and worms, and the wall of fridges, opposite the clerk’s bulletproof enclosure (his stationary, pope-mobile), filled with more sugary junk – sodas, energy drinks, fake juice, fake “real” juice, sports drinks, smoothies, diet juices, milkshakes, Starbucks frappé bullshit.
The masses enjoyed the convenience of obesity. They enjoyed poisoning themselves, slowly, but in a socially acceptable manner. All the while growing bigger, growing weaker. You could seriously get your fill at the gas station these days. Everything in bright, alluring packaging; as if the contents were cause for celebration. This is a nation of molasses. I can’t stand it. I want them to keep eating. I want them to suffer from their unyielding penance. Let them draw it out as long as they can, until that last meaty breath. Why not? They’re doing it to themselves. I offer no sympathy.
I considered stealing something, to show the clerk, in some petty way, how I felt about him, but I heard the whirr of the coffee pot come to a halt and decided against the whole vengeance through theft thing (although I’m certain that if I had taken a five-fingered discount on a few items, Hermes would have watched over me). Pouring the coffee, I paused while watching the piping-hot, liquid tar fill my cup. I popped on a lid, grabbed the decanter, and made my way to the clerk’s Plexiglas window.
“Hey, man, “ I said. “I’m sorry about that, I’ve just had a rough morning you know, one of those kind of days.”
“Don’t worry about it,” he said.
“What?” he said.
I raised my arm above my head, brandishing the decanter of freshly brewed coffee, as if it were Thor’s hammer, and I was the God of Thunder himself.
“Your insufferable inaction has disappointed me, human!” I said, my voice roaring with false righteousness.
And then I swung my arm and hurled the decanter, and it shattered against the wall opposite the exit. I ran for the door as the clerk was calling me an asshole.
An eye for an eye, I thought, opening the door to the calamitous winter. The blizzard wind bit into my face like a hundred frozen piranhas, not that the piranhas were frozen; but that when they bit into me they… forget it.
I held my coffee at arms length as I high-stepped through the snow to the rental, spilling a bit of coffee with each lunge – a trail of caffeinated evidence leading to the scene of the crime, or from the scene. Snow forced its way into my boots and stuck to the fibers of my jeans like frozen magnets.
I tore open the door to the rental and threw the store clerk the finger before getting into my seat. I jammed the coffee into the cup holder and cut on the ignition. My heart was racing. I yelled come on, come on as I deliberately pulled the car out of its parking space. After all, it was the blizzard of the century, and I wasn’t going to risk getting in some dumb accident because of a hasty getaway.
The rental lurched, crunching over the snow, and I made my pathetic five-mile-per-hour escape.
I arrived at the lawyer’s office seven minutes before nine, and I waited, drinking my coffee in silence. I hadn’t seen my father in eight years. My mother had come down south a couple of years ago, to Savannah, where I’d resided for the better part of a decade.
The last time I’d been back to Lansing was to pay my respects at my uncle’s funeral – my mother’s brother. Uncle Rob had died from what the doctor had called a “massive heart attack,” but what we just called a heart attack. The doctor told my mother it was as if someone had placed a grenade in his chest, all the vessels and arteries had burst, she’d said, they looked like frayed wires, like a dog’s old chew toy.
Uncle Rob was a good guy, a decent man. Somebody that you might not exactly aspire to be like, but you also wouldn’t be too upset if, when it was all said and done, you ended up resembling. After Rob went, my mother just kind of holed up in her house and let the months pass.
She divorced my father that year. He had it coming. Dad was a drunk – a real piece of work. He’d usually start around noon, taking a swing from his stash in the garage or down in the basement, and by the early evening he was gone. Sometimes he’d pass out on the couch, or if he got pissed or frustrated he’d make a scene, yelling, threatening, acting tough, and then he’d storm outside like a ghoul. His body would be crumpled, crippled by the booze and a lifetime of repressed whatever it was that he’d been holding inside for all those years. Growing up, those times were the worst. I was maybe fifteen or sixteen. I’d come home from school when dad had already been at the bottle for three or four hours, and he’d tell me to sit with him a minute, “talk to me,” he’d say, staring off into space. So I’d sit, and I’d talk to him how I imagined normal kids talk to normal fathers. When that didn’t work, I’d speak in accents. I’d act Russian. I’d be Hercules. I’d let my imagination roam, and whoever came out was whom dad got. He hated when I did that.
I remember thinking how pathetic he’d look, how sad. The man was toxic. Dad wasn’t much for talking, and even when he tried his jaw would clench, and he’d bite his lips, as if his muscles were at war with his brain’s synapses. I’d leave him there sitting on the couch, alone, his body all locked up.
I never thought dad would outlive mom, but after Uncle Rob died mom just shut down. She quit her job at the law firm, after thirty years, she divorced dad, got a small apartment downtown, and she just stopped taking care of herself, I guess. Stopped living.
When she visited Savannah, she was thin and weak – she looked worn out, tired. It was the cancer. We spent most of that week on the balcony of my apartment, overlooking the square filled with Spanish moss below. With our feet up, we allowed time and the brutal humidity to wash over us. Accepting fate and circumstances, alike. Mom liked the trees, she said.
And that was the week. Then Mom went back to Lansing, where she held on for another five months, and then she died, and I packed a bag and flew to Detroit, rented a car, drove to Lansing, broke that coffee pot on the wall of the gas station, made my slow getaway in this apocalyptic blizzard, and as I sat in the rental with my hands waving figure eights in front of the heat vents, and I thought about my mother.
My mother had worked for Müller, Lipin, and Camus her entire career. The same firm was handling her will, holdings, and any other postmortem wishes she’d had.
I got out of the rental and stomped through the snow to the entrance, which had been both recently shoveled and, more recently, snowed over. I opened the door and stepped inside, brushing myself off with my hat and pounding my boots before passing through another set of doors and into the reception area.
“How may I assist you today, Sir?” the receptionist said.
She was in her thirties – her blond hair was pulled back into a bun thing that rested just above the nape of her neck. She wore a suit that struggled to make her look unremarkable, and it would have succeeded if it weren’t for her natural beauty – neutral business attire betrayed by the body within it. You couldn’t put Aphrodite in a pantsuit and expect it to hide anything, I thought.
“Hi…” I said. “I’m… uh… here for my mother’s will.”
“And what’s her name?”
“Helen J. Davis.”
“Oh,” she said, “You’re Helen’s boy?”
“Yep. That’s me. I’m me. I’m Rich.”
“I worked with Helen,” she said. “I’m Cynthia, it’s very nice to meet you.”
You bore me with you innocuous formalities human.
“Likewise,” I said.
“We weren’t very close, your mother and I,” she said, “but nonetheless, we’re all very sad to have not have her around anymore.”
She smiled, revealing a set of perfectly white and shapely American teeth.
“Thanks,” I said.
“Anyways,” she said, “I think your father is already here.”
“And where would here be?”
She pointed down the hall.
“Thanks,” and I walked that way.
I knocked on a door, and a man on the other side of that door said, “Enter.” I could’ve sworn he wanted to say, ‘Enter the chamber of lawyerly pursuits,’ but he didn’t.
“Rich, I assume,” he said. “My name’s Leonard Lipin.” He extended his hand to me, and I took it. “My father’s the one whose name sits between Müller and Camus on the side of the building.”
Your namesake means nothing to me peasant.
“Please, have a seat,” he said.
He sat on the edge of the table and motioned with his right hand at a seat across the table from my father.
I looked over the old man. He was in a bad way. He looked wiry, and he was trying to hide the shakes by keeping his right hand in his lap. I could see his elbow twitching, though. He stared at the table, moving his left hand across the surface of the stained wood with a purpose, preoccupied with the grain. He looked ugly – all picture, no Dorian. I see the test of time has brought you little grace, father. He stayed focused on his hand passing over the table. I walked down to the opposite end of the long table (a sizeable slab that sat at least twenty), and I took my seat at the head, opposite from Lipin.
“This seat will work just fine,” I said.
“Suit yourself, Mr. Davis,” he said, and he took his seat.
I placed my elbows on the table and rested my chin and cheeks on the knuckles of each hand.
“Let me start by saying,” Lipin said, “that I had the pleasure of working with Helen for the entirety of her career.”
Lipin scanned my father’s face, which existed in a sort of mauled transience, and then Lipin’s eyes met mine.
“And I can say,” he continued, “Unequivocally, that Helen was one of the sharpest legal minds in the business…
He paused for, I don’t know, effect.
“Her capacity for legal strategy, for research and planning, for cunning, courtroom preparation, and background investigation was unlike anything I’d ever seen before her and unlike anything that I’m likely to see from this day forward…
“And I know it’s not my place, but after things got rough with the marriage and all that, I’d like you two to know that Helen showed incredible character during those years of turmoil by working harder than anybody else here, at this firm…
“She truly gave everything to this place, and on behalf of my father and his partners and myself, I’d like you two to know that she was truly a wonderful woman of purpose, intelligence, and character.”
Lipin clasped his hands together at the edge of the table, proud of his words.
“She was a cold-hearted bitch,” my father said.
I gestured towards Mr. Lipin. See what I’ve been dealing with my whole life, Lipin? What we’ve been dealing with?
“Can we get this thing over with?” my father said. “Hey look, listen, I mean, if this is the end of the road, then I want to get on with it.”
“Excuse me?” Lipin said.
“He just wants to know who’s getting the money,” I said. “Tell you what dad, I’ll save you the time and the worry and all that. Lipin.”
“Yes?” Lipin said.
“I’m assuming my mother has given me all of her assets, her wealth, is that correct?
“Yes, sir,” Lipin said. “That’s right.”
“I don’t want it,” I said.
“Regardless of what’s read, it doesn’t matter,” I said. “I’ve made up my mind.”
I looked at my father, his face red and bulbous.
“I don’t want it,” I said, shaking my head.
“What?” my father said.
“You can have it,” I said. “I don’t want it.”
“You sure you want…” Lipin said.
“Yeah yeah,” I said. “I don’t need it, I don’t want it.” I pointed at the old man. “Give it to him. I know what he’s going to do with it, and I’m okay with it.”
“You’re going to have to sign some papers,” Lipin said.
“Yeah, sure,” I said. “Whatever.”
I signed on the various dotted lines, shook Lipin’s hand, and left the room. I passed Cynthia the receptionist on the way out and smiled at her.
As I opened the doors, I gazed outside. The storm had worsened. The blizzard seemed to be raging from every direction, chaotic ill will. Snowflakes so large you could hear them land, like fat bumblebees smacking into kitchen windows. Everything was white now.
Wading into the glacial fluff, I tucked my chin and ear against my right shoulder as the wind and snow bit into my cheeks. I jumped over a berm of snow that had recently blown into existence and blocked the path to the rental. The snow was heavier now, wet, and it tugged at my knees.
I looked at the rental, parked a few paces away. A small triangle of black that sat under the side-view mirror betrayed the rest of the rental’s new winter coat. You could hear the wind. You could hear the snow. I could see my breath. I looked up at the sky, and then all I saw was the white. My eyelids fluttered as they tried to protect their inhabitants from the onslaught.
I allowed my legs to go. I shifted my weight and fell back, back to the ground. My body thumped into the thick layer. The pack enveloped my head, and at first there was silence. But then all I could hear was the snow, pieces of snow, avalanches of microscopic proportions slid and eventually settled next to my ears – like a mouthful of Pop Rocks that had fizzled out, the sounds and sensations lingering.
Then there was silence, and the only feeling that cut through all that cold as the snow suspended me, weightless in my isolation, was warmth.