The Dead

Despite his wishes, Robert Collins’ wake was a black-tie affair likely because anyone who had ever imagined the wake of a billionaire would simply expect it to be and had dressed accordingly. Unbeknownst to those in attendance, however, Robert Collins had not been a billionaire for quite some time. In fact, he had been down to his last seventeen million dollars which, to a billionaire, was equivalent to bankruptcy. His accountant, Samuel Eldridge, who had recently become wealthier than him due to his generous salary and disciplined spending, was, to his knowledge, the only person aware of this. Finding himself in such a position, Mr. Eldridge secretly outsourced the work to another accountant fresh out of school and for a fraction of what he himself was being paid. Likewise, the accountant he’d hired had no idea it was Robert Collins’ account at all and would not have believed you if you’d told him so.

“So?”

“So, what?”

“So, who’s going to get all his money?” the young accountant asked over a glass of brandy.

    “Charities mostly,” answered Mr. Eldridge. “The man needed his name engraved somewhere besides his headstone.”

     “But what about his wife?”

     “You mean Bridget?”

“Whoever the current one is.”

“She’s likely to get the house and the cars. The two Benz’s, I mean. Not the Ferrari. That one will go to his son, Jerry. She’s also got an allowance set aside for the next several years, though I’m sure she’ll blow through that in six to eight months. Then she’ll have to find a new mine to dig her gold from.”

    “They were only married a few years, right?”

    “That’s right.”

“She’s young, too, isn’t she?”

“Younger than any of his children, and his son Michael hasn’t even left the damn house, yet.”

“Awkward,” the young accountant shuddered. “I wonder what that must be like.”

    “Well, just look at her. I’m sure he figured out a way to cope,” Mr. Eldridge said with a smirk.

    “You mean…”

    “Wouldn’t you?” They snickered together, relishing illicit thoughts as their eyes fell upon the dead man’s pretty wife. 

    Bridget Hanson-Collins was across the banquet hall still shaking hands and accepting condolences nearly an hour into the wake. It was, of course, all a formality. No one besides the old gardener and her husband’s second wife was truly sorry to see him go, not even her. Sure, she’d loved Rob, but much in the same way that she loved high heels or spa days or weekends in Boca Raton. It was also in this same way that she was experiencing the vacuum of his absence. However, such a vacuum would not be filled so easily were anyone to realize how little Rob had actually been worth at the end. Bridget still maintained the advantage of their accountant’s discretion, but without her husband’s employment, that discretion was surely approaching its expiration. The money—real or otherwise— was her dowry, and she must flaunt it like a hooker with her tits out.

    “Mrs. Collins, my deepest sympathies to you and your family.” Howard Leach, the rich, elderly CEO of a company that was apparently revolutionizing cellular computing technology, patted her hand. “What an incredible loss.”

    “Yes, quite incredible.”

    “And yet, an incredible gain, perhaps?” He paused for effect. “You must be under quite a lot of pressure taking over his estate. Have you considered assigning a trustee?”

    “I have, though one doesn’t simply assign just anybody to be a trustee,” said Bridget. “That sort of thing requires… well, trust, and as we both know, that is a rare commodity, especially in this room.”

“Well then, for the sake of commodity, allow me to give you some words of advice that I actually received from your husband not so long ago. We were out on the golf course, and he turned to me and said, ‘Howie,’ he said, ‘if you want to beat the other vultures, you don’t have to be the strongest; only the hungriest.’” Bridget nodded slowly, and Mr. Leach moved closer. “Vultures, Mrs. Collins. Do you understand my meaning?”

“I believe I do.”

“Your husband was a good man. If there’s any way I can assist you, don’t hesitate to call. I’d hate to see his legacy lost to the wolves.”

“The vultures, you mean.”

“Yes,” he nodded with a smile. “The vultures.”

“Thank you, Howie. I’m sure I’ll be calling you very soon.” She shook his hand once more before he moved on.

“He’s got potential,” said Michael over her shoulder.

“All this vultures and wolves talk… he’s nothing but an ass.” Bridget wiped her hand against her thigh.

“Precisely.”

“This is bullshit. If your father hadn’t been such a fool with his money and given it all away, we wouldn’t be in this position.”

…‘if you want to beat the vultures at their game, you don’t have to be the biggest vulture playing. You just have to be the hungriest.’”

You wouldn’t be in this position,” Michael corrected. “Be glad you’ve got me on your team. The others would’ve left you high and dry.” Bridget stepped to the side and stared him down.

“Let me make one thing clear to you, Michael, because it seems there’s something you’ve overlooked. The house you live in, the bed you sleep in, the luxury car you drive, the ridiculous allowance you spend, it all belongs to me, now. I might be at a loss because your idiot father found Jesus, but I am not high and dry. I may be young and play the damsel in distress, but trust me,” she said, leaning in toward his ear, “I am a wolf. I know how to survive. So, if you try to fuck me, I will rip that pathetic cock off your little boy body and shove it so far up your ass it’ll give a whole new meaning to the term ‘deepthroat’.” Michael gulped, and Bridget returned a satisfied smile to her face. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have hunting to do.”

Michael listened to her heels tap behind him as she walked away. Who the fuck did she think she was? If it wasn’t for the fact that he started believing it to be a sin, his father would’ve divorced her a long time ago. She was nothing but a stupid floozy. No, not stupid. Bridget knew exactly what she was doing. If only she’d been able to keep the old son of a bitch from giving almost everything away. Imagine if he hadn’t died. Michael realized what a stroke of luck it was for all of them. His brother Jerry had also acknowledged this, as had their sister Maurine. Their sister, Lisa, however, had chastised them for such a thought, apparently giving the three of them more evidence in the “Lisa was adopted” argument. It was a discussion that dug under Lisa’s skin, and the recollection of it forced a quiet laugh out of Michael as he approached his siblings by the French doors to the veranda. 

“She’s really turning it up today, isn’t she?” asked Maurine. “Like a bleeding shark in a school of sharks.”

“Sharks are solitary animals.”

“Sharks are solitary animals,” Maurine mocked. “Shut up and eat your shrimp, Lisa.” Lisa, armed with an overloaded salad plate, shut up and ate her shrimp.

“What did she say to you?” asked Jerry.

“Just how grateful she is that I’ve been there for her,” said Michael, taking a cocktail from a passing tray. “I think she’s going to crack soon. Could be any day now.”

“Just make sure you have those documents ready to go,” said Jerry. “I don’t need any setbacks. I’ve already got investments lined up, so the sooner I get my cut, the better. Two million dollars isn’t much, but I can make it work.”

“I can’t believe he wasted all that money on a bunch of dirty, old poor people,” said Maurine. “Ridiculous.”

“Better than wasting it on a bunch of dirty, old rich people.”

“Shut the fuck up, Lisa.”

“You guys are assholes,” said Lisa. “All you care about is money. It can’t buy any of you happiness.”

“No, but it can finance it,” said Jerry into his glass.

“There’s more to life, you know,” she argued. “I should just get up and tell everyone here the truth.”

“Go ahead, Lisa,” said Michael. “I’ll take your two million, and you can give out samples at a grocery store for a living.” Lisa stuttered for a moment, then ate another shrimp. Turning back to the others, “You know, I’m surprised Mother hasn’t said anything about any of this. I think I saw her shed a tear earlier during the service.”

“It was probably just trying to escape the cold-hearted bitch,” said Jerry. “Mother doesn’t cry for anyone or anything. Not even when Lex died.”

“Goddamn.” The four of them stood somberly together for a moment. “Imagine if he was still here. We’d all be out half-a-mil each.” The three of them laughed while Lisa leered disgustedly.

“Four hundred thousand,” she muttered under her breath.

“Would you shut the hell up, Lisa?” Michael asked. “Who invited you here, anyway?”

“Mother,” said Lisa.

It just so happened that Mother, despite how long it had been since she’d played the part, still retained the uncanny ability of hearing her child speak her name in a crowded room, and so, she turned her eyes toward the four of them. How grown they were, she thought, and how she wished she’d summed up the courage to use a coat hanger instead of always falling down the stairs. It never worked.

“Carol, what is it?” asked Denise, Mother’s thirty-two-year-old personal assistant and off-and-on-currently-on lover.

“You know I like you, Denise, and sometimes I even feel that I love you, maybe,” said Carol, “but it’s become increasingly clear to me that I should have never left Robert all those years ago.” Expectantly hurt, Denise withdrew her hand from Carol’s who subsequently rolled her eyes. “Oh, don’t be such a fucking baby.”

“I would do anything for you,” Denise declared. “I would die for you.”

“Yes, well unless you have millions stashed around somewhere that really doesn’t do me any good, does it?” Denise blinked in shock. “They say you can’t take money with you when you die, but that’s only ever poor people who say that; poor people who disguise their deficiency of ambition as an abundance of frugality and humble pride. But they’re no different than anyone else. They’d choose money in a heartbeat if you offered.”

“I love you, Carol,” said Denise earnestly.

“Love,” she chuckled. “Now there’s something worth leaving behind.”

“I need some air,” Denise sighed, rising to her feet.

“Oh, please, don’t get your panties all in a bunch.”

“I don’t wear panties. I wear boxer-briefs.”

“Yes, I know,” Carol frowned. “Well, then, if you’re going to go sulk, at least come back with a bottle of that merlot.” Denise rolled her eyes and turned to go until Carol said her name in that sweet, strangely intoxicating tone she hated admitting an affinity for.

“What?…”

“You know you’re my favorite.” Denise smiled and walked away towards the bar where Sam Eldridge was chatting with a young man. He and Carol made eye contact, nodded, and turned to face opposite directions.

How grown they were, she thought, and how she wished she’d summed up the courage to use a coat hanger instead of always falling down the stairs. It never worked.

Gloria, Robert Collins’ second wife, approached Carol leaning heavily on a cane. Her hands were wrinkled and spotted, and her face, with no more than a bit of rouge and lipstick, was unashamedly aged according to her years. “I can’t believe he’s gone,” she said, her head shaking unsteadily. “Can you believe it?”

“When was he ever here?” Carol responded.

“I know you two didn’t have many good years, but is it so difficult to refrain from speaking ill of the dead? Of someone you loved?”

“I never loved Robert,” said Carol. Gloria nodded and took a tired seat beside her, wandering her gaze across the faces in the room.

“Robby loved you.”

“Yes, I know he did. It was disgusting.”

“But you had five children together. You must have loved him at some point.”

“If you believe that the pussy and the heart are interminably connected then you’re no more of a woman than a man decides you to be.”

“Five children,” Gloria persisted. “Five. That’s no small thing to give a man.”

“Says a woman incapable of giving any,” Carol shot back. “Just look at my return of investment. How commensurate.” Gloria looked at her for a moment before lowering her eyes.

“You’re rotten, Carol. You know that?”

“Yes. I am rotten.” Carol looked at Gloria with a startling expression of pride. Gloria rose slowly and turned away to leave her.

“Nothing rotten was never once sweet.”

As Carol stared ahead silently, a salad fork dinged gently at the side of a glass, and the din of conversations ended abruptly. Samuel Eldridge and his employee, Bridget Collins, the four children, and the two ex-wives looked together at an old man who stood at a corner table preparing to speak.

“Good afternoon, everyone. My name is Henry Koper. Most folks call me Hank, at least, Bob did when he was alive. I don’t know if saying things about the dead matter much. Seems to me that if you had something to say about someone, you should’ve said it before they died. That’s a hard lesson you generally don’t learn but the hard way. Bob and I, we grew up together over in Port City, just a couple of troublemakers playing hooky, chasing girls, tying sparklers to cats… good times. Then we grew up, went to war… after that was over, he went his way, and I went mine.

“I become a lawyer. Bob became a billionaire.” The room laughed for a moment without Hank. “He became a billionaire…” Hank hung his head before inhaling to regain his voice. “Bob wrote a letter a long time ago. He gave it to me in ‘Nam for me to send home in case anything ever happened to him. We didn’t die, obviously, and I forgot all about it until I found out he’d passed. Never even read it until yesterday… I’d like to share it with you now, because, well…” Hank Koper reached into his jacket pocket and produced a dirty, yellowed letter and a pair of bifocals. After clearing his throat, he read the following:

Dear Mother,

If you’re reading this, it means either they got me, or I got me. I don’t really understand what this is all about, and I don’t expect you to, either. Regardless, you’re still here, and I’m gone. I once heard somebody say that even after you die, you’re still alive as long as someone is thinking about you. If there’s any truth to that reasoning, it seems to me that it should work the same in reverse. So, wherever it is that I am, I hope I’ll miss you there, because then, you’ll still exist for me, too. If there’s anything I’ve come to realize, it’s not that you lived that’s important, but that you remain alive after it’s all said and done.

Well, I guess there isn’t much else to say, now, except that I love you, and thanks for the socks.

Love always,

Bobby

Hank folded the letter and returned it and his glasses to his pocket. A grin bloomed on his face as he looked around at the crowd and said, “I get the feeling you folks will keep Bob alive for a very long time, and well, that’s just something you can’t inherit from the dead, now is it?”


OTHER SHORT STORIES
BY STEPHEN DANIEL RUIZ

Enter: OBLIVION

Studies In gray.

THE SALESMAN

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