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The Heir

Paul Robertson

1

I couldn’t take my eyes off the casket. It was expensive, and it glowed, resting among the candles and the heaps of flowers. It so perfectly expressed the man inside.

The dignitaries droned, and I didn’t hear them. We knew it all. We knew what he had done with his life. If a man knows his purpose, then everyone else will know it, too.

They’d been told what to say and to keep it short, and they obeyed. They’d all gotten where they were by doing what they were told.

It was tribute by catalog listing: achievements, philanthropy, and Senate career. The real man was never mentioned-the companies he inherited, the rivals he crushed, the cold blood behind the politics- but everyone knew. Was anyone else listening? It’s easy to eulogize a man who knew why he lived his life.

I just stared at that gleaming box and wondered why I was living mine.

We sang a hymn, and that brought me back-words obscure enough to drive any clear thoughts from a man’s brain. A voice behind me sang off-key.

I watched the man’s wife instead. Her name was Angela, and she was sitting between my brother, Eric, and me. I might have given her a hug, but she had always objected to my familiarity. It was nothing personal; she objected to anyone. Her brother and sister were not at the service.

She was his second wife. The other one died young of cancer, which had been worth a lot of sympathy in his first election. If he had grieved for her, I wouldn’t know.

I looked back. The off-key voice behind me was another senator, a man I’d never liked. He had no speaking part. It was probably a snub.

For a moment it seemed a pity the whole thing was going by so fast. The church was flawless, and the funeral was such a good use for it. Now I even knew the true purpose of candles: to reflect off that casket. They were going to look tacky anywhere else. And there I was staring at it again.

Candles knew their purpose, but I didn’t have a clue about mine.

The governor said his few words about what he had felt when he heard about the accident-the shock and sadness, the great man cut down in his prime, what a loss to the state. He shook his head at the whole sad mystery of life and death and checked his watch.

“Jason?”

I pushed past Katie and got up to the pulpit. Now the box was right in front of me, shining like a waxed floor. I needed something else to look at.

The back wall of the place had a row of statues in it, saints or angels, and one had his hand up waving at me. I never had written anything to say.

“Why am I here?” The little saint seemed friendly, so I figured I’d just talk to him. “I wish I knew.” Maybe it was a her, not a him. They all wear robes.

“I think he could have told me. He knew why he was here, what he was doing. He never doubted anything he did.” Somehow, I was staring at the casket again. I found my friend on the wall. “Maybe he is now.”

They were all watching me, but I watched the back of the church. “The one thing I ever really knew for sure in my life was that he was there. I only saw him a few times a year and I won’t miss him for that. It’s more like a mountain is gone-one you’d see off in the distance.”

Katie wanted me to be impressive for the assembled personages. She knew they’d be measuring and calculating, putting me in their equations. After three years of marriage, she also knew me enough to know I didn’t care. I did hope she wasn’t embarrassed. Her mother was sitting behind her and she’d be embarrassed enough for all of us.

I wouldn’t inherit anything anyway. It was all going to his foundation. Eric and I would just get our monthly checks, as we always had.

The saint’s stone hand was palm up, as if it had been holding something that had just flown away. “Anyway, he’s gone and we’re still here, so we’ll get by without him.” I finally got myself to look at the people. What a well- dressed crowd. “And everything he knew about life is gone with him, so I’ll get by without that, too.”

I didn’t have anything else to say. I smiled at Angela, and then I nodded at Eric on her other side.

I waited at the end of the pew as Eric got out, and he patted me on the back. Katie gave me a tight smile as I sat. She was annoyed, but not mad.

Eric was tall, dark, and clueless behind the heavy wood pulpit. We look alike, especially with him wearing one of my suits. For all the money he has, he’d never figured out how to buy clothes. It was loose on him, and maybe that was why he looked so young. Or maybe it was because he was so young. There were no questions about life beneath that spiky black hair.

But he kept his eyes on the audience the whole time and told them what a loving father the man had been. He did a good job. I appreciated him because he did the right thing, what I should have done, and maybe he thought what he said was true.

Then the priest said whatever he had to, and it was over. When I got out into the light of day, I was so glad it had lasted no longer than it did.

The rest of the festivities went about the same. In the limo, Katie chattered and Angela sighed about how nice the service had been. Eric was watching boats in the bay.

I watched them, too. I prefer water to land because land is unmoving; the water is never still and has nothing fixed. Long Island Sound, Nantucket Sound, Block Island Sound-we were surrounded by silent waters named for the lands that confined them.

Eric turned to me. “What did you mean, you wouldn’t miss him?”

“That’s not what I said.”

“And what were you looking at?”

“Nothing.”

He turned back to the boats and I did, too. I would rather have been out there. Anyone whose ancestors lived on these coasts would feel the same pull.

Across from me, Katie was glaring, so maybe she was mad after all. She had her hair down straight, over her shoulders. Her simple, dark blue dress with the string of pearls was as perfect as the church. She had me done up just right, too, with the black suit she’d picked out a year ago for weddings and funerals. She had a tailor come every six months to keep all the suits fitted. That’s why it hung so loose around Eric’s shoulders.

Change the subject. “He really was a great man,” I said to Angela.

She smiled, and it was genuine. The funeral had penetrated the pink plastic armor. She wasn’t even fifty. Her husband had been fifteen years older, but she’d still expected a lot more years with him.

They’d been married for nineteen.

Katie smiled at me, and I was out of trouble. I pushed my luck.

“What do you think he would have been most proud of?”

“Most proud?” Angela always spoke so quietly, like a kitten. I’d wondered if it was an act, but it was no asset to a political wife, being so fluffy. She wasn’t striking or brilliant. Why did he marry her? He must have actually loved something about her. I wouldn’t even recognize her without the platinum hair and bubblegum lipstick. “He did so much. He didn’t enjoy Washington, but he accomplished so much there. He was happier here at home. And he was proud of his foundation. I think that’s what he was most proud of.”

Not of his sons. Not of his oldest son, anyway. “I hope it will keep going,” I said.

“Mr. Kern will run it. He’s always done such a good job there. And now he’ll have charge of all of Melvin’s companies.”

Melvin. The name of the deceased hovered in the air for a moment like cigarette smoke, and Nathan Kern’s name was the smell of stale beer that went with it so well. I was not a patron of that saloon. I’d get my little

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