The Heirs’ Story
Rockburg, September 2013
Julie and the other heirs stood on the street corner outside the bank and looked up and down Main Street for a place to talk. The town, population 926, wasn’t as much a town as a hamlet with pretensions, Julie thought. Main Street itself was only two hundred yards long. Other than the bank behind her, she could see five stores, four taverns, a barbershop, two feed mills, and a café on Main Street. Several commercial buildings displayed their 1880s date of construction, molded in concrete and set in the false front, while the narrow storefronts and small size belied the age of the remaining stores.
Seth stood in one place, but his hands, fingers, and elbows were in continuous motion.
“We need to talk. This codicil crap. God! If Dad had something to say to us, why didn’t he just say it? He was never shy before.” He looked at the signs above the nearby taverns.
“Where can we get a cold drink and go over this?” he asked the others.
Julie looked up and down the street again. “You know, I didn’t appreciate this street when I lived here. I’ll bet it hasn’t changed in seventy years. There isn’t a parking lot in town. The storefronts are out of the nineteenth century—all dark brick and wood-framed glass. It’s like a Hollywood set.”
“It was one for a couple of months,” Jed reminded her.
Julie remembered. She’d been away at college when a Hollywood director used the town to film a period movie. Letters from Josh had kept her informed. The backdrop for the climactic scene of the movie was to have been the hand-carved 1882 vintage bar in Johnny’s Tavern.
The director’s mercurial temperament was ill suited to working with the locals who didn’t do lunch and whose weekends lasted four hours, from the end of Sunday services to the start of evening chores. Their outlook on life was unfathomable to the director, and California-speak indecipherable to them. Alcohol and pharmaceuticals helped the director cope with the novelty, until the studio pulled the plug and he went into rehab. His prolonged treatment became the town’s dubious claim to fame. Even girls on the same floor at Liz Waters, her dormitory at the UW-Madison, had asked Julie about it the following year.
Wally announced he was more hungry than thirsty and led the group to the Coffee Cup Café across the street. The dining room was small and narrow, with stools and the counter on one side and booths on the other. The heirs slid into a booth where Julie rediscovered how different small-town life was to what she’d grown used to. Dinner was served at noon, and widowed and bachelor farmers had already taken their places on stools at the counter. Julie was the sole female patron in the restaurant. The only waitress, stout, white haired and ancient, took the orders and traded insults with her regulars before attending to the heirs.
Finished at the counter, she moved to the booth. “I haven’t seen you kids in, gosh, it must be twenty years.”
Julie was taken aback at being called a kid. She was about to object, when she recognized the lady as the same waitress who served her when she was in kindergarten. The lady had looked a lot taller to her then, younger, too, with smooth skin and dark brown hair.
“The special today is an open-faced beef sandwich, gravy,mashed potatoes, and string beans, or you can have it with chicken or ham. Coffee, pumpkin pie, and whipped cream goes with the
meal. Who wants to start?”
Seth gulped. “Could I get a garden salad with—”
“This is the noon rush, kid. I don’t have time for special orders. I didn’t take any guff from your grandpa or your dad—my condolences by the way—and I’m sure as the daylights not going to take any from you. Beef, chicken, or ham?”
“Ah, start with him,” Seth pointed to Wally.
The waitress pivoted to Wally. “How’s Linda? Haven’t seen her in ages.” She turned to answer a question from one of the men at the counter, told him to stuff it, and yelled something to the cook, as her regulars guffawed. The cook nodded, and she turned back to Wally. “Tell your mother that Gert said hello.”
Wally was speechless for a moment. “How did, ah . . . Mom isn’t well. She—”
“Sorry to hear that. Beef, chicken, or ham?”
“Chicken. Can I split it with Julie?” he asked.
“You look just like your mother, Julie. Your dad talked about you all the time. Coffee?”
The orders were taken, and the food was promptly delivered—bread covered by slabs of meat crowded mountains of mashed potatoes, all swimming in what seemed like lakes of gravy. The plates were so full the vegetables had to be served on a side dish. The waitress talked as she handed out the plates. “Just let me know when you want the pie. I figure you want to talk about your dad’s will and that stupid codicil, but this is my rush hour, and I can’t let you tie up the booth.” She nodded toward the back of the café. “We’ll serve your pie in the back room, first door past the restroom. Your dad always got a kick out of eating there; it was where old Doc Rohr did surgery until 1925, or so I was told.” She didn’t wait for an answer.
Seth leaned toward the middle of their table. “Goddamn it! How the hell does she know about—?”
Julie glanced around the crowded room, put her hand on Seth’s and a finger to her lips. “Shh. We can talk about it later in the private room.”
As they ate, Jed put into words what Julie thought. “Isn’t it freaky?” he said. “It seems everyone recognizes us, and I haven’t recognized anyone. I wouldn’t have known Al if I’d met him on the street.”
The others agreed and hashed it over as they ate. Twenty minutes later, Julie felt stuffed on her half-portion of dinner. The other heirs sat behind plates that were cleaner than she suspected any of them had intended. The canned and reheated vegetables were largely untouched, but the meat and potatoes had disappeared.
Josh looked at Seth. “I thought you weren’t hungry?”
Seth glared at him briefly and suggested they take their meeting to the private room. The heirs left the booth, the men stretching as they stood. A few groaned softly as Julie led the group into the back room. The room was modest and the table an old, nondescript folding table, possibly from a church or school, Julie thought. A window at the rear of the room looked out over railroad tracks a few feet away.
The coffee and slabs of pumpkin pie slathered with mountains of whipped cream arrived as soon as they sat down. “Is there an extra charge for the private room?” Julie asked.
Gert, on her way out of the room, paused at the door. “No. Your dad took care of that before he died. Paid your bill for lunch, too. He said you kids would be upset about the codicil and come over here to whine. ‘When they do,’ he said, ‘tell them to quit bellyaching and start working together.’
“Now, if you kids have what you need, I’ve got customers to serve. You’ve got the room until closing if you need it.” She closed the door behind her as she left.
Jed was already eating. “This pie is great, and the whipped cream, it’s real. My god, it’s good.”
Seth gave him a disgusted look. “Isn’t anybody else bothered that we’re the only ones who don’t know what the hell is going on? The waitress knew about the codicil. She’s even been paid ahead of time for our meal and this room.”
Julie was chewing thoughtfully on the pie. “Jed’s right. This is the best pumpkin pie I’ve tasted since Mom died.” She kept her face a mask as she checked Seth’s expression. His face was red, his brows furrowed, his jaw clenched. Knife inserted, wait . . . wait . . . twist, she thought. “I wonder if she’d give me the recipe.”
Seth dropped his fork, picked up his napkin, and threw it on the table. “Goddamn it. Will you guys pay attention? I don’t have time for this shit. How the hell do we satisfy terms no sane man can understand?”
Josh and Wally exchanged smirks, irritating Seth even more. “What the hell do you guys think is so—”
“Seth, take it easy. Think a minute,” Julie said. She toyed with the pie and whipped cream with her fork. He needs to learn patience. “Dad and Aunt Linda set up an elaborate game to bring us back home, bring us together, and make a point.”
Seth slouched in his chair. He pushed the dessert plate away and held his cup of coffee in both hands.
Julie continued. “Since they both loved us, let’s just ride with it, and see what happens. You can take some time off for $400,000.” She had another bite of pie. “I earned the first 50,000 for you, so you have nothing to gripe about. None of us have even opened our envelopes.”
Jed, Seth, and Josh brought out their envelopes and tore them open, as Julie fished for hers in her purse. She pulled out the letter, opened it and took a moment to read. Another riddle, she thought. Jed and Josh scowled at their letters. Seth slammed his letter on the table. “Aw, Christ. More damned riddles. Mine says, ‘Ideas are important, but most of them are bullshit.’ What the hell is that supposed to mean?”
“You’re the big city detective, Seth,” Josh said. “Quit your bitching, and let’s put these together. Mine is, ‘Truth doesn’t depend on the profit to be made or the number of people who believe.’”
“I’ve got, ‘Grow a large garden, but weed like hell, and thin the growth often.’ That sounds like Dad.” Julie giggled. “He didn’t like vegetables, but Mom made him eat them to set a good example. Remember how he’d take a tiny helping and push it around his plate?”
“According to mine, ‘Your most important tools are the measures by which you test truth, and they will always be wrong, sometimes, especially at the extremes.’” Jed put his letter down, sat back in his chair, and looked at the others. “Did you notice that each of these fit the recipient? Seth’s used the language Seth uses. Julie, a plant scientist, was given a clue couched as advice about gardening. Josh’s fit business and marketing, and mine is true for every lab test I ever developed or used.”
Julie reread her letter and looked at her brothers. “These seem to fit together, but—I’m not sure how. Let’s sleep on it and compare them again tomorrow.”
The others agreed, though Seth continued to sulk. Jed and Josh finished their desserts, and Julie saw them eye Seth’s abandoned slice. They glanced at each other and nodded almost imperceptibly toward Seth. Julie shook her head and silently mouthed, “No,” at Jed. She’d seen this act before. Over a million dollars at stake and these guys are angling for a free piece of pie.
Seth slid the untouched slice of pie across the table to them. “Jesus, you guys are garbage hounds. Don’t you think of anything but your guts?”
Josh intercepted the plate, split the pie, and gave half—well, almost half—to Jed.
Julie guessed that Wally missed the nonverbal communications between the brothers, as he looked, in turn, confused and thoughtful. “What are you thinking, Wally?” she asked.
“Remember the attorney’s expressions when we asked questions about the codicil?” Wally asked. “He was clueless, if I read his face right. Our waitress knew more about the codicil and what Mom and Doc meant than he did. I say we cultivate the old lady and see if she can help us figure this out.”
Josh finished his half of Seth’s pie. “Right, and the first thing we need is a copy of Dad’s book. It’s the key to this puzzle and these letters.” He shrugged and looked at the others. “So let’s check Dad’s computer. Who has the keys to the house?”
Jed raised a hand. “I do.” He wiped whipped cream from his upper lip and pushed himself away from the table. “Let’s go.”
Wally didn’t move. “Guys, IT is my job. Every computer I’ve ever seen has a password. How do we figure out your dad’s?”