There was an antique wicker chair with a torn cushion and a frayed quilt over the back. No one had ever used it but the cat. Ray backed into it because it was the nearest place to sit, and for a long time he sat there across from the sofa, waiting for his father to start breathing, to wake up, sit up, take charge of matters, and say, "Where is Forrest?"
But the Judge was motionless. The only breathing at Maple Run was Ray's rather labored efforts to get control of himself. The house was silent, the still air even heavier. He stared at the pallid hands resting peacefully, and waited for them to rise just slightly. Up and down, very slowly as the blood began pumping again and the lungs filled and emptied. But nothing happened. His father was straight as a board, with hands and feet together, chin on chest, as if he knew when he lay down that this last nap would be eternal. His lips were together with a hint of a smile. The powerful drug had stopped the pain.
As the shock began to fade, the questions took over. How long had he been dead? Did the cancer get him or did the old man just crank up the morphine? What was the difference? Was this staged for his sons? Where the hell was Forrest? Not that he would be of any help.
Alone with his father for the last time, Ray fought back tears and fought back all the usual tormenting questions of why didn't I come earlier, and more often, and why didn't I write and call and the list could go on if he allowed it.
Instead, he finally moved. He knelt quietly beside the sofa, put his head on the Judge's chest, whispered, "I love you, Dad," then said a short prayer. When he stood he had tears in his eyes, and that was not what he wanted. Younger brother would arrive in a moment, and Ray was determined to handle the situation with no emotion.
On the mahogany desk he found the ashtray with two pipes. One was empty. The bowl of the other was full of tobacco that had recently been smoked. It was slightly warm, at least Ray thought so, though he was not certain. He could see the Judge having a smoke while he tidied up the papers on his desk, didn't want the boys to see too much of a mess, then when the pain hit he stretched out on the sofa, a touch of morphine for a little relief, then he drifted away.
Next to the Underwood was one of the Judge's official envelopes, and across the front he had typed, "Last Will and Testament of Reuben V Atlee." Under it was yesterday's date, May 6, 2000. Ray took it and left the room. He found another diet soda in the refrigerator and walked to the front porch, where he sat on the swing and waited for Forrest.
Should he call the funeral home and have his father moved before Forrest arrived? He debated this with a fury for a while, then he read the will. It was a simple, one-page document with no surprises.
He decided he would wait until precisely 6 P.M., and if Forrest hadn't arrived he would call the funeral home.
The Judge was still dead when Ray returned to his study, and that was not a complete surprise. He replaced the envelope next to the typewriter, shuffled through some more papers, and at first felt odd doing so. But he would be executor of his father's estate, and would soon be in charge of all the paperwork. He would inventory the assets, pay the bills, help lead the last remnants of the Atlee family money through probate, and finally put it to rest. The will split everything between the two sons, so the estate would be clean and relatively simple.
As he watched the time and waited for his brother, Ray poked around the study, each step watched carefully by General Forrest. Ray was quiet, still not wanting to disturb his father. The drawers to the rolltop were filled with stationery. There was a pile of current mail on the mahogany desk.
Behind the sofa was a wall of bookshelves crammed with law treatises that appeared to have been neglected for decades. The shelves were made of walnut and had been built as a gift by a murderer freed from prison by the Judge's grandfather late in the last century, according to family lore, which as a rule went unquestioned, until Forrest came along. The shelves rested on a long walnut cabinet that was no more than three feet high. The cabinet had six small doors and was used for storage. Ray had never looked inside. The sofa was in front of the cabinet, almost entirely blocking it from view.
One of the cabinet doors was open. Inside, Ray could see an orderly stack of dark green Blake & Son stationer's boxes, the same ones he'd seen as long as he could remember. Blake & Son was an ancient printing company in Memphis. Virtually every lawyer and judge in the state bought letterheads and envelopes from Blake & Son, and had been doing so forever. He crouched low and moved behind the sofa for a better look. The storage spaces were tight and dark.
A box of envelopes without a top had been left sitting in the open door, just a few inches above the floor. There were no envelopes, however. The box was filled with cash - one-hundred-dollar bills. Hundreds of them packed neatly in a box that was twelve inches across, eighteen inches long, and maybe five inches deep. He lifted the box, and it was heavy. There were dozens more tucked away in the depths of the cabinet.
Ray pulled another one from the collection. It too was filled with one-hundred-dollar bills. Same for the third. In the fourth box, the bills were wrapped with yellow paper bands with "$2,000" printed on them. He quickly counted fifty-three bands.
One hundred and six thousand dollars.
Crawling on all fours along the back of the sofa, and careful not to touch it and disturb anybody, Ray opened the other five doors of the cabinet. There were at least twenty dark green Blake & Son boxes.
He stood and walked to the door of the study, then through the foyer onto the front porch for fresh air. He was dizzy, and when he sat on the top step a large drop of sweat rolled down the bridge of his nose and fell onto his pants.
Though clear thinking was not entirely possible, Ray was able to do some quick math. Assuming there were twenty boxes and that each held at least a hundred thousand dollars, then the stash greatly exceeded whatever the Judge had grossed in thirty-two years on the bench. His office of chancellor had been full time, nothing on the side, and not much since his defeat nine years earlier.
He didn't gamble, and to Ray's knowledge, had never bought a single share of stock.
A car approached from down the street. Ray froze, instantly fearful that it was Forrest. The car passed, and Ray jumped to his feet and ran to the study. He lifted one end of the sofa and moved it six inches away from the bookshelves, then the same for the other end. He dropped to his knees and began withdrawing the Blake & Son boxes. When he had a stack of five, he carried them through the kitchen to a small room behind the pantry where Irene the maid had always kept her brooms and mops. The same brooms and mops were still there, evidently untouched since Irene's death. Ray swatted away spiderwebs, then set the boxes on the floor.
The broom closet had no window and could not be seen from the kitchen.
From the dining room, he surveyed the front driveway, saw nothing, then raced back to the study where he balanced seven Blake & Son boxes in one stack and took them to the broom closet. Back to the dining room window, nobody out there, back to the study where the Judge was growing colder by the moment. Two more trips to the broom closet and the job was finished. Twenty-seven boxes in total, all safely stored where no one would find them.
It was almost 6 P.M. when Ray went to his car and removed his overnight bag. He needed a dry shirt and clean pants. The house was filled with dust and dirt and everything he touched left a smudge. He washed and dried himself with a towel in the only downstairs bathroom. Then he tidied up the study, moved the sofa back in place, and went from room to room looking for more cabinets.
He was on the second floor, in the Judge's bedroom with the \\indows up, going through his closets, when he heard a car in the street. He ran downstairs and managed to slip into the swing on the porch just as Forrest parked behind his Audi. Ray took deep breaths and tried to calm himself.
The shock of a dead father was enough for one day. The shock of the money had left him shaking.
Forrest crept up the steps, as slowly as possible, hands stuck deep in his white painter's pants. Shiny black combat boots with bright green laces. Always different.
"Forrest," Ray said softly, and his brother turned to see him.
Forrest stopped and for a moment studied him, then he gazed at the street. He was wearing an old brown blazer over a red tee shirt, an ensemble no one but Forrest would attempt to pull off. And no one but Forrest could get by with it. As Clanton's first self-proclaimed free spirit, he had always worked to be cool, offbeat, avant-garde, hip.
He was a little heavier and was carrying the weight well. His long sandy hair was turning gray much quicker than Ray's. He wore a battered Cubs baseball cap.
"Where is he?" Forrest asked.
Forrest pulled open the screen and Ray followed him inside. He stopped in the door of the study and seemed uncertain as to what to do next. As Forrest stared at his father his head fell slightly to one side, and Ray thought for a second he might collapse. As tough as he tried to act, Forrest's emotions were always just under the surface. He mumbled, "Oh my God," then moved awkwardly to the wicker chair where he sat and looked in disbelief at the Judge.
"Is he really dead?" he managed to say with his jaws clenched.
He swallowed hard and fought back tears and finally said, "When did you get here?"
Ray sat on a stool and turned it to face his brother. "About five, I guess. I walked in, thought he was napping, then realized he was dead."
"I'm sorry you had to find him," Forrest said, wiping the corners of his eyes.
"Somebody had to."
"What do we do now?"
"Call the funeral home."
Forrest nodded as if he knew that was exactly what you're supposed to do. He stood slowly and unsteadily and walked to the sofa. He touched his father's hands. "How long has he been dead?" he mumbled. His voice was hoarse and strained.
"I don't know. Couple of hours."
"A morphine pack."
"You think he cranked it up a little too much?"
"I hope so," Ray said.
"I guess we should've been here."
"Let's not start that."
Forrest looked around the room as if he'd never been there before. He walked to the rolltop and looked at the typewriter. "I guess he won't need a new ribbon after all," he said.
"I guess not," Ray said, glancing at the cabinet behind the sofa. "There's a will there if you want to read it. Signed yesterday."
"What does it say?"
"We split everything. I'm the executor."
"Of course you're the executor." He walked behind the mahogany desk and gave a quick look at the piles of papers covering it. "Nine years since I set foot in this house. Hard to believe, isn't it?"
"I stopped by a few days after the election, told him how sorry I was that the voters had turned him out, then I asked him for money. We had words."
"Come on, Forrest, not now."
Stories of the war between Forrest and the Judge could be told forever.
"Never did get that money," he mumbled as he opened a desk drawer. "I guess we'll need to go through everything, won't we?"
"Yes, but not now."
"You do it, Ray. You're the executor. You handle the dirty work."
"We need to call the funeral home."
"I need a drink."
"No, Forrest, please."
"Lay off, Ray. I'll have a drink anytime I want a drink."
"That's been proven a thousand times. Come on, I'll call the funeral home and we'll wait on the porch."
A policeman arrived first, a young man with a shaved head who looked as though someone had interrupted his Sunday nap and called him into action. He asked questions on the front porch, then viewed the body. Paperwork had to be done, and as they went through it Ray fixed a pitcher of instant tea with heavy sugar.
"Cause of death?" the policeman asked.
"Cancer, heart disease, diabetes, old age," Ray said. He and Forrest were rocking gently in the swing.
"Is that enough?" Forrest asked, like a true smart-ass. Any respect he might've once had for cops had long since been abandoned.
"Will you request an autopsy?"
"No," they said in unison.
He finished the forms and took signatures from both Ray and Forrest. As he drove away, Ray said, "Word will spread like wildfire now."
"Not in our lovely little town."
"Hard to believe, isn't it? Folks actually gossip around here."
"I've kept them busy for twenty years."
"Indeed you have."
They were shoulder to shoulder, both holding empty glasses. "So what's in the estate?" Forrest finally asked.
"You want to see the will?"
"No, just tell me."
"He listed his assets - the house, furniture, car, books, six thousand dollars in the bank."
"Is that all?"
"That's all he mentioned," Ray said, avoiding the lie.
"Surely, there's more money than that around here," Forrest said, ready to start looking.
"I guess he gave it all away," Ray said calmly.
"What about his state retirement?"
"He cashed out when he lost the election, a huge blunder. Cost him tens of thousands of dollars. I'm assuming he gave everything else away."
"You're not going to screw me, are you, Ray?"
"Come on, Forrest, there's nothing to fight over."
"He said he had none."
"You can read the will if you want."
"He signed it yesterday."
"You think he planned everything?"
"Sure looks like it."
A black hearse from Magargel's Funeral Home rolled to a stop in front of Maple Run, then turned slowly into the drive.
Forrest leaned forward, elbows on knees, face in hand, and began crying.