For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.
When my father died, he left two letters in separate envelopes, both marked “To be opened at my death.” One is addressed to my brother and me. The other is to his wife. Since she died three years before him, I know he wrote it a while ago. Whatever he wanted to say to her, he expressed at her deathbed. But he made a big show of telling me about the letters anyway.
“They’re in the blue suitcase,” he said solemnly, like a sea captain revealing the map to the buried treasure.
In my mind there were really no secrets to be revealed. His will was clear. I knew who to call. And for two months, as he lay dying, just shy of ninety-five, his love for my brother and me was obvious. It might have been tested when I nearly dropped him while getting him to the portable toilet or when I forgot to empty his catheter bags, but it was never in doubt.
Which is why I put the letters to the side after he died a month ago. I had — and have — too much to do, and I don’t want to be swallowed up by reading his love notes from beyond the grave.
My brother, who was living with my father in California for the past two years, also has bigger concerns. His pet snake, Samantha, isn’t looking too good. He’s worried that the hustle and bustle of the estate sale has given her “the willies.” She refuses to eat the dead mouse he has placed in her aquarium, which sits beside his inflatable mattress on the floor. I am bedded down in the living room on a pair of pool-chair cushions laid end to end. Our father’s house is otherwise empty. Everything that didn’t sell in the estate sale is in the garage awaiting pickup by Habitat for Humanity, as per the agreement with the estate-sale team of Mrs. Cuckoo and her assistant, Mary the methhead, from whom I’ve yet to receive payment.
The landlord has given us three days to clear out. My brother still needs to move the rest of his furniture from the garage, and I have a lot to do: visits with lawyers and trips to the bank and selling Dad’s old Lincoln.
Before I can start on all of this, the doorbell rings. It’s an Asian kid.
“I’m here for the clock on Craigslist?”
I hear Mary’s muffler-less meth-mobile coming up the street before I see it. She parks and slams the door. The kid and I watch her hustle across the lawn.
“Sorry,” she says, wheezing. “He’s here for the clock.”
We all look at one another, waiting to see who knows what’s going on.
“I’ll back my car up,” the kid says.
I go to open the garage door.
“We put a few things on Craigslist to see if they might sell,” Mary explains, grinding her teeth the way meth-heads do, as I learned during my time in Narcotics Anonymous. It takes an addict to know an addict. “We should have a check for you tomorrow after the Habitat people show up.”
I ask where Mrs. Cuckoo is, and Mary says she’s on vacation. I envision the addled old woman back at the sanitarium where Mary likely found her when she concocted this whole estate-sale scam. I hired them because an antique store had recommended Mrs. Cuckoo, who showed up with her “assistant.” But while Mrs. Cuckoo nodded and cooed about what a big job it was, Mary was talking a mile a minute and probably calculating the take in grams instead of dollars. But what do I know? They promised to handle the sale, and they did. And now I’m helping this kid fit a grandfather clock into the back of his Jeep Cherokee, feeling a little bit like I’m helping burgle my father’s house. I can only hope that Mary gives Mrs. Cuckoo enough of the cut for her to get in on the sanitarium’s Friday-night jackpot bingo. Only time will tell, but time’s being hauled away in the back of a stranger’s Jeep, followed by the receding sound of Mary’s busted muffler.
My father was a fire-and-brimstone capital-B Baptist preacher until the scandal of a cheating wife ended his career. But even after the divorce, even after he left the pulpit, he still loved the soft, soul-soothing hymns of solitude that had closed his sermons. Maybe that’s why I now find myself humming “I Come to the Garden Alone,” one of his favorites: “And He walks with me, and He talks with me, / And He tells me I am His own.” And as I ponder the lyric about intimacy with Christ, an old red pickup pulls up. The elderly couple who get out look strangely like Mr. and Mrs. Santa Claus. The man has a cane; the woman uses a walker. They hobble toward me with expectant smiles, as if they have won something.
My brother appears at the front door, his dirty blue bathrobe undone to proudly display his bulging belly and tighty-whities. He hawks phlegm and spits in a rosebush.
“I’ll be right out!” he yells to the couple.
“Take your time,” the man says, and he gives me the hippie handshake. He’s really more Jerry Garcia than Santa, I realize.
“Your brother is so sweet,” the woman says with the faint smell of cookies on her breath. Her floral muumuu sways with each lurching step she takes toward the garage, where Santa-Garcia is already pulling drawers out of the nightstands and desks no one wanted.
Inside the house my brother, an unemployed fifty-five-year-old with a master’s degree in wildlife biology, is brewing tea from weeds he pulled in the backyard and stroking his Fu Manchu mustache thoughtfully.
I ask what’s up with Kris Kringle.
“The people in the garage.”
“Oh, yeah.” He pours the weed water through a strainer into a Mason jar. “They’re old hobo friends of mine.” Hobo is code for stoners. “John’s gonna help me move some of my stuff to storage.” He blows on his tea and sips. “I told them they could cherry-pick what’s left of Dad’s junk.”
I peek through the window and see they’ve already set aside two boxes of adult diapers and some of the gag gifts that Dad bought in bulk. You can never have too many mounted trout that sing “Take Me to the River.”
I remind my brother that I’ve got a meeting with Dad’s attorney at noon, and I can’t take the Lincoln because someone’s coming to look at it; I’ll need him to be back with the car by then.
“Riiiiiiight,” he replies, which means he’s already forgotten what I said and doesn’t comprehend the significance of a meeting that will determine his finances for the rest of his life.
So I shouldn’t be surprised when I’m ready to go and find Dad’s car is still gone. I call my brother, but when he answers, all I can hear are guttural grunts, as if he were having a heart attack rather than moving furniture.
Finally he arrives, drenched with sweat, six minutes before the appointment.
“The lawyer charges 350 bucks an hour, bro,” I say.
“Well, I didn’t know I was going to have to fill out a mountain of paperwork at the storage place.”
I suggested he put his stuff in storage last week, but my brother characterized my advice as another example of my “overanalyzing everything.”
I leave for the meeting with the attorney, which is nearly as confusing as my brother’s stoned logic. Peggy Lee Jones-Rosario-Hernandez doesn’t seem like the legal “bulldog” my dad described, but she’s no poodle, either.
“There’s only one problem with the will,” she says.
I immediately envision a loophole that swallows every cent my father had.
It turns out Dad’s wife left him 750 acres of Louisiana farmland. Now he’s leaving it to us. I have no clue about farming, but my brother does have some experience with marijuana cultivation, to which he pleaded guilty a while back to avoid hard time.
“The problem is . . . ,” Peggy Lee says.
We aren’t gentlemen-farmers just yet.
In essence, my dad never closed his late wife’s estate. And since he never closed the estate, ownership can’t be automatically transferred. “Didn’t your dad tell me there was an attorney working on that back there?” Peggy Lee asks.
“Colonel Hawk,” I say. “He’s ninety-nine.”
Dad tried to tell me about this, but I just shrugged. It was all boring, a half-listened-to fairy tale about a pot of gold at the end of a very distant rainbow. And now, through zero effort of my own, I’m about to inherit a $2 million chunk of real estate — or, at least, Peggy Lee assures me I will once the legalese and Louisiana accents are translated.
On the way home I’m muttering a little prayer for calm and clarity when I pass an unfamiliar man out for a test drive in Dad’s blue Lincoln Mark VII. I’m almost hoping he doesn’t come back. Dad insisted we sell the car for five grand, but the Blue Book says it’s worth half that. “It’s a classic with low mileage,” Dad said. But an ’88 isn’t a classic, it’s just old. And the automatic windows don’t work. And it’s leaking oil — hence the heart-shaped spot in the street where it’s sat since Dad got sick. We’ve had nary an offer. The car is just one more loose end, and time is running out.
My brother is standing in the driveway when I pull up.
I ask whether the test-drive guy left any identification, but before I can “overanalyze” the possibility that my brother just handed the keys to a car thief, the man pulls up and asks, “How much?”
I hold up three fingers.
“I can live with that,” he says. “Let me go to the bank.”
After the buyer leaves, my brother says I should have asked for four. I tell him I would have sold it for two.
The man returns and counts out thirty C-notes in exchange for my dead father’s pink slip. On the heels of the day’s stress and worries, the transaction feels suspiciously divine, like God is slapping me on the back.
Later I sit poolside in the setting sun and try to explain the farm situation to my brother as he sucks on his medicinal-marijuana pipe and pets his sick snake.
“If for some reason it doesn’t come to us,” I conclude, “then that’s just how it’s supposed to be.”
He exhales a plume of smoke and nods, looking sleepy.
At the bank the next day there’s a door inside the door. The second door doesn’t unlock until the first door is closed. A light flashes red while someone in authority — presumably a manager eyeing a surveillance monitor — judges the entrant’s potential criminality. Since I’m not wearing a clown mask, the light flashes green, and the door unlocks.
“May I help you?” says a young Latino teller whose nameplate reads “Eli Martinez.”
I ask if Mercy is working, and he tells me she’s off today. Dad introduced me to Mercy, his favorite teller, back when he was still shuffling around, and she told me a teller named Grace worked there, too. And they used to have a Hope, but she transferred to another branch.
Which leaves me with Eli, Hebrew for “My God,” though this guy is from the tribe of Martinez.
Eli’s eyes light up when I mention Dad’s name. People liked my dad because he was always ready with a joke, like the one about the man with dementia who walks into a bar, orders a drink, turns to the woman next to him, and asks, “Do I come here often?”
I tell Eli that Dad is gone, and there’s a collective groan from several tellers.
“What was it your dad said?” Eli says. “ ‘Treat every day as a holiday and every meal as a feast.’ ”
“Yep. That’s him.”
It’s an old Marine Corps saying, but even worn-out expressions sound original coming from the mouth of a nonagenarian.
I hand Eli the three grand from the car sale to deposit into a dual account for my brother and me, then tell him I need to empty Dad’s safe-deposit box, which sounds suspicious the second I say it, but Eli says no problem and jingles a ring of keys. Feeling like a bank robber in the guise of a mourning son, I sign a shaky signature to a piece of paper and hand over my ID.
“Wait here,” Eli says. And for two minutes I stand at the counter, feeling certain they’ve flagged my request and expecting the red laser sights of the SWAT team to hit me in the forehead.
Eli returns and escorts me into the vault. He looks at me like it’s my move, but I’m new at this.
“The key,” he says.
Oh, yeah. I pull a little red envelope from my shirt pocket. The key inside confirms the box number.
Eli starts to leave, to give me some privacy, but I say, “Check this out,” and I show him the ten-thousand-dollar gold watch my dad’s wife gave him when they were “courting.”
“When it didn’t fit,” I say, “it cost him a grand for an extra link. And then he never wore it because he was afraid he would get mugged.”
I put it on my skinny wrist, not that I’ll wear it. I’m about to ask Eli what he thinks I should do with the watch when he offers me a zippered bank bag. I drop in the watch and a pair of antique rings I’ve never seen before and zip it closed. Then I tell Eli one of my father’s jokes: A preacher on his deathbed calls for his banker and his lawyer. The banker and lawyer wonder what’s up; all the old man ever did was preach to them about greed and avarice. When they go see the preacher, he just lies there. Finally the banker says, “Why did you ask us to come?” And the preacher says—
“ ‘I wanted to die like Jesus,’ ” Eli jumps in: “ ‘between two thieves.’ ”
He’s heard it before, from my dad. The joke’s on me for not realizing that this is my real inheritance: not a bag of gold, but Dad’s spirit, his gold-toothed smile. “A smile costs nothing,” Dad used to say, “but it creates much.” And, “Nobody needs a smile so much as those who have none to give.”
When I pull up to the house, I see Mary the meth-head standing in the driveway, the sun’s last rays lighting her hair like a haloed saint’s. She waves and holds up an envelope. The garage is empty. Birds chirp.
“The Habitat people just left,” she says. “So that’s everything.” She hands me the envelope and lights a menthol, teeth grinding. Mary reminds me of one of my old coke dealers handing off a bag of baking soda. I can’t help feeling I’ve been suckered and there’s nothing I can do about it.
I open the envelope and look at the check: $4,208. After her 20 percent cut, it’s still twice what I expected.
“I’m having surgery on Friday,” she says, “so this works out good for me.”
I don’t ask.
“TMJ,” she says shyly — a painful disorder of the jaw. It’s why she’s always grinding her teeth. And here I assumed she was a meth-addicted con artist rather than an ailing woman with a difficult job and a crappy car. I’m the real thief, robbing others of the benefit of the doubt; judging, projecting, condescending; basically doing everything Jesus told us not to do. And I’m robbing myself, too — of joy, of blessings.
I tell her I’m sorry, and I take her hand.
“Thank you,” she says, flicking her cigarette into the gutter. “Let me know if you want a steam cleaner for those carpets.”
I tuck the $4,208 check into my back pocket and wave farewell as the sun goes down on my shame.
Inside, my brother’s in his underwear, brewing weed tea in the kitchen again.
My dad died with one year left on a three-year lease. Given his history with the elderly Colombian landlords, the Rojas, I assume we are on the hook for the remainder of his rent. I’ve made phone calls, sent certified notes, but the Rojas are incommunicado, which seems intentional, like some game of slumlord hide-and-seek. Or maybe it’s payback for having to deal with a grouchy old gringo. My father liked to say of his landlords, “The only English they know is ‘Where’s my money?’ ”
In desperation I call a number on the lease I hadn’t noticed before, and I reach the Rojas’ son Gilberto.
“They’re just really old,” he says apologetically.
We chat, and he asks me if Dad died “on the property.” Thinking it will cost me the $2,500 security deposit if he did, I answer, “He died in hospice.” Which is true. Home hospice. On the property.
Gilberto explains that, by law, they’re required to let future tenants know if there was a death in the home. And now my concern over the security deposit is replaced by concern I am going to jail for lying. So when Gilberto arrives to check the house, I confess that Dad did die in his room, adding, “of natural causes,” as if a nonhomicide will soften the blow. Gilberto doesn’t seem to mind. His hard-soled dress shoes echo through the empty rooms. My brother, who worked through the night clearing out the remains of his junk, introduces Gilberto to his snake. “She’s been sick,” my brother says, as if Gilberto might confuse the snake’s docility for rudeness. Gilberto tells a story about the mysterious deaths of his pet rabbit and the rabbit’s replacement. Something to do with toxic bedding. My brother nods with the contemplative expression of a zoologist.
In the kitchen Gilberto stops to fill out paperwork on the counter. He says “protocol” requires a landlord-supervised cleaning and paint touch-up, which will definitely cut into the cash we’re getting back.
My brother puffs up officiously and says there were several items that were never fixed.
“I’ll send you a check,” Gilberto says, deflating my brother like a pro.
In the awkward pause I ask Gilberto if the hand- and footprints in the cement of the back patio are his.
No, he says. He grew up in Bogotá. We get to talking about our childhoods, and the subject of corporal punishment arises; Gilberto experienced it at Catholic military school.
“Tell me,” he asks, “when did spanking stop in America?”
My brother and I both laugh. “Not before our time,” I say.
“Yeah,” my brother adds, “these days our dad would be in prison.”
At the door Gilberto says, “Again, I’m sorry for your loss,” and he shakes our hands.
One day soon someone will say the same thing to him. And maybe he’ll feel like he’s sleepwalking, too.
“Sorry about the misunderstanding!” I yell after him.
But his Mercedes is already rolling away.
Among Dad’s attorneys down in Louisiana, Colonel Hawk’s name rings most antebellum. Dad just called him the Colonel, as if he were a fried-chicken magnate or the protagonist in a musical about a riverboat gambler. When I dialed the lawyer’s office and his secretary politely put me on hold, I half expected to hear “Ol’ Man River.”
Like the Mississippi running just down the road from him, Colonel Hawk was always in the background of my stepmother’s affairs. My dad admired his loyalty and stuck with him to handle her estate, but at some point the Colonel fell asleep at the helm, leaving the ownership of 750 acres of farmland in legal limbo.
“Oh, honey, the Colonel’s nearly a hundred years old now,” the secretary finally told me, sounding pretty old herself. She told me he doesn’t come in anymore. In fact, they’re in the middle of closing the office. She gave me his home number and wished me luck.
When I called his house, Colonel Hawk was literally out to lunch, according to a woman who identified herself as his “housemaid.” She asked me to leave a number and promised to make sure he called me back.
Luckily Dad hired a second legal eagle to assist the Colonel: Mr. Jubal Bowden, who’s ninety-four. But he’s the one who told me to call Colonel Hawk in the first place. I tried calling his son, Jubal Bowden Jr., and left a message. I heard back from his daddy’s secretary, who informed me that all calls should go to Senior.
Around that time I bought a six-pack and read some Mark Twain.
That was yesterday. Today my brother is in a panic. He’s got a dentist appointment later to fix the tooth he broke eating corn nuts at Dad’s memorial, and his bank cards don’t work because they are all in a dead man’s name.
“How would you normally pay for it?” I ask.
“The bills would come in, and I’d just pay Dad back.”
Meaning he would give Dad the money Dad had given him. My brother hasn’t worked in two years, not since a “massive anxiety attack” forced him out of teaching. Which brings us to his next problem: he rattles his little brown bottle and realizes he’s down to his last three happy pills.
“Now I’ve got to go to the bank, go to the dentist, return the cable box, and get a prescription.”
He hawks a phlegm ball into the pool.
“How long do you think you’ll be on those?” I ask.
“For the rest of my life!” he barks, as if the significance of Dad’s death has just hit him. Of course, his inheritance will provide him a lifetime of enablement, but the forest is hard for him to see among the trees of society’s “hassles.”
My phone rings. It’s the Colonel’s “housemaid.”
“Colonel!” she yells. “I got the man on the phone.”
I hear the receiver being handed off, followed by several minutes of mumbling.
“I’m in a wheelchair,” Colonel Hawk announces by way of hello.
When I ask if he had a nice lunch yesterday, he says, “What?” I get right to the farmland, but he cuts me off.
“Jubal Bowden is handling all that now,” he says. “Jubal is competent,” which I assume is high praise coming from a soon-to-be-centenarian. He concludes by saying it’s all a “routine procedure” and “shouldn’t cost too much,” which is what the Confederates said at the start of the Civil War.
I hear the phone tumble, followed by a receding squeaking noise and then a very distant “Did you hang that phone up?”
“I don’t know.”
Step, step. Click.
Over lunch at a diner I explain to my brother that taxes and legal fees will suck up what’s left in the bank. I lay out the division of Dad’s investments, which will grow, but he isn’t listening, focused as he is on eating a taco in a single bite. He asks if he can cash out Dad’s IRA, since the money’s not invested. I wonder where he’s gotten this plan, and then I remember his earlier phone conversation with someone from his cast of unusual suspects: the weed-dealing chicken farmer, the thrice-divorced Mormon, the former Screen Actors Guild member — all “advisors” drawn like moths to the flame lighting a bowl of sinsemilla. My brother was bragging like a big shot on the phone about how he’d invest his inheritance. I know his buddies will be more than willing to help — for a percentage.
I tell him he can do what he wants. It’s his. But once the money’s gone, it’s gone.
“What about the farm?”
“I’m still working on it,” I tell him. “It’s kind of complicated.”
At the end of the family business luncheon, my brother leaves me with the check.
Later, with the credit cards fixed — something to do with zip codes — my brother leaves a thousand-dollar dental receipt on the kitchen counter and says, “I’m going to smoke some weed, if you don’t mind.”
“Would it matter if I did?”
“Riiiiiiight,” he says, firing up a bowl, inhaling deeply, and holding it. “I really had a hard day.”
Aiming for something special at dinner, I suggest a celebratory steak at the Magic Lamp, Dad’s favorite joint out on Route 66, but my brother nixes it in favor of an all-you-can-eat buffet.
“Dad loved this place,” he says, sitting down with two plates of meat entrees.
I could be snooty about it, but I know he’s right. Something about a buffet made Dad happy, put a little extra punch in his prayer when he said grace: “And bless this delicious food to the nourishment of our bodies. Amen.” Collard greens, corn bread — the more country, the better, while he laughed and talked to total strangers with his mouth full.
Before I can finish my carrot salad, my brother stages his second assault on the dessert bar. Round one: strawberry-gelatin-covered bananas with some sort of tapioca-pudding dipping sauce. Round two: chocolate-syrup-covered ice cream with gummy bears. Finally he’s sated. This is normally when he’d go outside for a cigarette, and Dad would complain, “Can’t sit longer than fifteen minutes without having to smoke.” But my brother forgot his pack at home, which would’ve been a pleasantly symbolic moment if it weren’t for all his cussing.
On the way back we stop at the pharmacy for Camel Lights and antidepressants. I wait in the car.
“They asked about Dad,” my brother says when he returns, lighting up. “I told them he caught the westbound.”
I’m sure Dad’s pharmacists were sorry to hear that, after they checked their handy hobo-lingo dictionary to see what it meant.
The next day, before we leave for the airport, I kneel on the spot where Dad died and whisper goodbye, kissing my fingers and touching the carpet in farewell. It’s over — at least, this part of it. The house is empty. The bags are packed. We’re done.
My brother will drop me off at the airport before hitting I-40 east with his snake riding shotgun. As we drive, the hazy midmorning sunlight doesn’t do the scenery any favors. It looks two-dimensional, like a movie-set facade of strip-mall suburbia, the people in cars all searching, like us, for the right exit. The air from the cracked window smells of fragrant cow dung, a hint of greener pastures to come. But for now the car’s full of cigarette smoke, and my brother’s droning on about how much he hates cops.
I decide it’s time to read Dad’s letters, and I pull them from the backpack at my feet. The first, to his wife, isn’t dated. It’s written in Dad’s big, looping cursive on yellow legal paper. I don’t know why I always thought his handwriting was childlike or unsophisticated. It’s nearly floral, the capital Is and Ts like sunflowers and the lowercase letters leaning like poppies in a breeze.
He tells his wife he loves her and apologizes for “being so harsh of late, but I have felt real bad.” He calls her a good woman, “the best any man could have.” It feels invasive reading it, like eavesdropping. But it’s sweet, too, exposing his soft side. He’s basically thanking her for putting up with him. And she did. Then he got better, and she passed away, leaving the letter unread until now.
The apologetic theme continues in the second letter, to us. It’s dated April 4, 2007 — eight years ago, presumably around the same time he wrote to his wife, when he thought an intestinal problem was the prostate cancer catching up with him. I read out loud:
“ ‘I want you all to know I have loved you both with all my heart and always will. Maybe somewhere along the way I seemed a little harsh but I thought it was always for your best. You both have been my whole life since your mom left us.’ ”
I stop, choked up.
“ ‘Always live for God, for that is the only life that really matters. I have done my best to serve Him and I know I have let Him down and failed Him many times but He has always been there for me. I will never leave you or forsake you was the words of Jesus. He is a friend.’ ”
It’s a Christian mea culpa: screw up, but don’t give up. His failed marriages and broken ministries and foul-mouthed sons weren’t indications of a wasted life but proof that Jesus heals all wounds if we let Him. That’s the balm: belief beyond self, in spite of self, all the way to the ever-forgiving arms of the Lord.
I try to keep my tears from staining the pages while my brother flicks his cigarette out the window and drives, blank faced, as if I were reading the newspaper.
Dad gives a few funeral directives, underlining, “No alcohol at all at my passing.” I laugh because he eventually amended that to a cash bar at the memorial for his poker buddies. He wanted a crowd.
“ ‘I hope you don’t have to read this letter for a good while,’ ” he writes, “ ‘but who knows. I hope it’s later rather than sooner.’ ”
My brother drops a triple F-bomb when he misses the airport exit, and I skip the part where Dad writes, “Always keep in touch with each other. Don’t forget you are brothers and should always be there for each other in time of need. I know you both love each other very much.”
But when we get to the terminal, I have a change of heart and grab my brother’s wrist. He recoils until he realizes I’m praying, asking God to keep us close and protect us, and thanking Him for Dad, for this beautiful life. In Jesus’s name. Amen.
A car honks behind us. A whistle blows. I hug my brother and tell him I love him.
“Riiiiight,” he says.
Three days later my brother texts me with the sorrowful news about his snake:
“Last night I discovered Samantha caught the westbound. The same thing as with my iguana: being on the road takes its toll on reptile pets, and she was on the road with me many times in her young life. I honored her spirit right after I placed her remains in the dumpster behind the hotel. Sorry, Sam, but it was the best I could do.”