Sycamore Row

Page 7


They eventually gathered in the den and found seats. Lettie served them coffee and colas, then dutifully slipped into the shadows, into the open door of a bedroom just down the hall, a spot she often occupied when she listened to Mr. Seth on the phone in the den. From there, she could hear everything. Ramona cried some more and went on about how unbelievable everything was. The men just listened, agreeing, occasionally uttering a syllable or two. They were soon interrupted by the ringing of the doorbell. Two ladies from the church arrived with a cake and a casserole, and they were not to be denied. Lettie hustled around and took the food to the kitchen, and the ladies, without the benefit of an invitation, plopped down in the den and commenced trolling for gossip. They had seen their brother Seth just yesterday at church, and he had looked so good. They knew about the lung cancer and all, but, heavens, he seemed to have conquered it.
Herschel and the Dafoes offered nothing. Lettie listened from the shadows.
The church ladies were about to burst with all manner of inquiries: “How’d he do it?” and “Did he leave a note?” and “Who gets the money?” and “Any chance of foul play?” But, it was painfully clear such nosiness would not be well received. After twenty minutes of near silence, they lost interest and began their good-byes.
Five minutes after they left, the doorbell rang again. The driveway was being watched. The three cars were attracting attention.
“Get that, Lettie,” Herschel yelled from the den. “We’re hiding in the kitchen.”
It was the neighbor across the road with a lemon cake. Lettie thanked her and explained that Mr. Seth’s children were indeed there but “not taking company.” The neighbor loitered for a while on the porch, desperate to get inside and stick her nose into the family’s drama, but Lettie politely blocked the door. After she finally left, Lettie took the cake to the kitchen where it sat untouched on the counter.
At the kitchen table, it didn’t take long to get down to business. “Have you seen the will?” Ramona asked, her eyes remarkably clear now and glowing with intrigue and suspicion.
“No,” Herschel said. “Have you?”
“No. I was here a couple of months ago—”
“It was July,” Ian interrupted.
“Okay, July, and I tried to talk to Daddy about his will. He said some lawyers in Tupelo had written it and that we would be properly taken care of, but that was all. Did you ever talk to him about it?”
“No,” Herschel admitted. “It just didn’t feel right, you know? The old guy was dying of cancer and I’m asking about his will? I couldn’t do it.”
Lettie was lurking in the hallway, in the shadows, catching every word.
“What about his assets?” Ian asked, in cold blood. He had good reason to be curious since most of his own assets were so heavily mortgaged. His company built low-end shopping centers and strip malls, every deal loaded with debt. He worked frantically to stay one step ahead of his lenders, but they were always howling.
Herschel glared at his brother-in-law, the leech, but kept his cool. All three suspected trouble with Seth’s estate, so there was no sense in rushing things. They would be at war soon enough. Herschel shrugged and said, “Don’t know. He was very secretive, as you’ve seen. This house, the two hundred acres around it, the lumber yard up the road, but I don’t know about his loans and such. We never talked business.”
“You never talked about anything,” Ramona shot across the table, then immediately took it back. “I’m sorry, Herschel. Please.”
But such a cheap shot from a sibling can never be left alone. Herschel sneered and said, “Didn’t realize you and the old man were so close.”
Ian quickly changed the subject with, “Does he have an office here, or a place he kept his personal papers? Come on. Why can’t we look around here? There’s bound to be bank statements and land deeds and contracts, hell, I’ll bet there’s even a copy of the will, right here in the house.”
“Lettie should know,” Ramona said.
“Let’s not involve her,” Herschel said. “Did you know he was paying her five bucks an hour, full-time?”
“Five bucks?” Ian repeated. “What are we paying Berneice?”
“Three fifty,” Ramona said. “For twenty hours.”
“We’re paying four and a half in Memphis,” Herschel reported proudly, as if he and not his mother wrote the checks.
“Why would an old tightwad like Seth pay so much for a housekeeper?” Ramona mused, knowing there was no answer.
“She’d better enjoy it,” Herschel said. “Her days are numbered.”
“So we’re firing her?” Ramona asked.
“Immediately. We have no choice. You wanna keep forking over that kinda money? Look, Sis, here’s the plan. We get through the funeral, tell Lettie to get things in order, then cut her loose and lock up the house. We’ll put it on the market next week and hope for the best. There’s no reason for her to hang around, at five bucks an hour.”
In the shadows, Lettie dropped her head.
“Maybe not so fast,” Ian said politely. “At some point, and soon, we’ll see the will. In it we’ll find out who’ll serve as the executor of the estate, probably one of you. It’s usually the surviving spouse or one of the kids. The executor will run the estate according to the terms of the will.”
“I know all that,” Herschel said, though he really didn’t. Because Ian dealt with lawyers daily, he often acted like the legal expert in the family. One of many reasons Herschel despised him.
“I just can’t believe he’s dead,” Ramona said, finding a tear to wipe.
Herschel glared at her and was tempted to lunge across the table for a backhand. To his knowledge, she made the trip to Ford County once a year, usually alone because Ian couldn’t stand the place and Seth couldn’t stand Ian. She would leave Jackson around 9:00 a.m., insist on meeting Seth for lunch at the same roadside barbecue hut ten miles north of Clanton, then follow him home where she was usually bored by 2:00 p.m. and back on the road by 4:00. Her two children, both in middle school (private), had not seen their grandfather in years. For sure, Herschel could claim nothing closer, but then he wasn’t sitting there crying fake tears and pretending to miss the old man.
A loud knock at the kitchen door startled them. Two uniformed deputies had arrived. Herschel opened the door, invited them in. Awkward introductions were made at the refrigerator. The deputies removed their hats and shook hands. Marshall Prather said, “Sorry to interrupt you all, but me and Deputy Pirtle here were sent by Sheriff Walls, who, by the way, sends his deepest condolences. We brought back Mr. Hubbard’s car.” He handed the keys to Herschel, who said, “Thanks.”
Deputy Pirtle pulled an envelope out of a pocket and said, “This here is what Mr. Hubbard left right there on the kitchen table. We found it yesterday after we found him. Sheriff Walls made copies but thinks the family needs to keep the originals.” He handed the envelope to Ramona, who was sniffling again.
Everyone said thanks, and after another awkward round of nodding and handshaking, the deputies left. Ramona opened the envelope and pulled out two sheets of paper. The first was the note to Calvin in which Seth confirmed his death as a proper suicide. The second was addressed not to his children, but To Whom It May Concern. It read:
Funeral Instructions:
I want a simple service at the Irish Road Christian Church on Tuesday, October 4, at 4 p.m. with Rev. Don McElwain presiding. I’d like for Mrs. Nora Baines to sing The Old Rugged Cross. I do not want anyone to attempt a eulogy. Can’t imagine anyone wanting to. Other than that, Rev. McElwain can say whatever he wants. Thirty minutes max.
If any black people wish to attend my funeral, then they are to be admitted. If they are not admitted, then forget the whole service and put me in the ground.
My pallbearers are: Harvey Moss, Duane Thomas, Steve Holland, Billy Bowles, Mike Mills, and Walter Robinson.
Burial Instructions:
I just bought a plot in the Irish Road Cemetery behind the church. I’ve spoken with Mr. Magargel at the funeral home and he’s been paid for the casket. No vault. Immediately after the church service, I want a quick interment—five minutes max—then lower the casket.
So long. See you on the other side.
Seth Hubbard
After they passed it around the kitchen table and observed a moment of silence, they poured more coffee. Herschel cut a thick slice of the lemon cake and declared it delicious. The Dafoes declined.
“Looks like your father planned it all rather well,” Ian observed as he read the instructions again. “Quick and simple.”
Ramona blurted, “We have to talk about foul play, don’t we? It hasn’t been mentioned yet, has it? Can we at least have the discussion? What if it wasn’t a suicide? What if someone else did it and tried to cover it up? Do you really believe Daddy would kill himself?”
Herschel and Ian gawked at her as if she’d just sprouted horns. They were both tempted to rebuke her, to taunt her stupidity, but nothing was said during a long, heavy pause. Herschel slowly took another bite of cake. Ian gently lifted the two sheets of paper and said, “Dear, how can anyone possibly fake this? You can recognize Seth’s handwriting from ten yards away.”
She was crying, wiping tears. Herschel added, “I asked the sheriff about that, Mona, and he’s certain it was a suicide.”
“I know, I know,” she mumbled between sobs.
Ian said, “Your father was dying of cancer, in a lot of pain and such, and he took matters into his own hands. Looks like he was pretty thorough.”
“I can’t believe it,” she said. “Why couldn’t he talk to us?”
Because you people never talked to each other, Lettie said to herself in the shadows.
Ian, the expert, said, “This is not unusual in a suicide. They never talk to anyone and they can go to great lengths to plan things. My uncle shot himself two years ago and—”
“Your uncle was a drunk,” Ramona said as she dried up.
“Yes he was, and he was drunk when he shot himself, but he still managed to plan it all.”
“Let’s talk about something else, can we?” Herschel said. “No, Mona, there was no foul play. Seth did it himself and left notes behind. I say we go through the house and look for papers, bank statements, maybe the will, anything that we might need to find. We’re the family and we’re in charge now. Nothing wrong with that, right?”
Ian and Ramona were nodding, yes.
Lettie was actually smiling. Mr. Seth had taken all his papers to his office and locked them in a file cabinet. Over the last month, he had meticulously cleaned out his desk and drawers and taken away everything of interest. And, he’d said to her, “Lettie, if something happens to me, all the good stuff is in my office, locked up tight. The lawyers will deal with it, not my kids.”
He’d also said, “And I’m leaving a little something for you.”