Joy’s eyes were stinging from the stench of urine. She was hoping it was from her mother’s three tiny dogs, but suspected the mutts weren’t the only ones who’d been incontinent.
“Hey, you won’t believe this, but guess who was the favorite?”
Her brother came around the corner from the kitchen, holding a coffee cup. Brown paint was glopped on in the shape of ears, black nose and creepy green eyes. It had been his 7-year-old version of a teddy bear. Terrible then, simply awful now.
“Jeez, chuck it, will you?” She turned back to her work, digging through the mound of unorganized papers, searching for her mother’s will. She sat on the same beige couch that her parents bought when she was in high school – more than 30 years ago. The foam cushions, nearly visible through the frayed fabric that covered them, had deteriorated, sagging and lumpy in the most uncomfortable way.
“No way,” Jeff said. “This is a work of art.”
“Please. Let’s just get this done and get out of here.”
He stood there a moment watching her flip through the pages on her lap.
“You know there’s no will, right? Look around. There’s nothing here.”
Joy sat back and sighed heavily. Her mouth turned down naturally from decades of practice. Combined with two weeks of intermittent sleep, the look wasn’t a good one.
“She told me it was here,” she insisted.
Jeff spread his hands, gesturing around the small trailer.
“Where then? We’ve been here an hour already. Sis, there’s no will.”
She looked down at the papers on her lap. A 5-year-old electric bill, expired credit card statements, an undated Christmas card, scores of invitations to visit senior care homes.
“You’re probably right,” she conceded.
Jeff tossed the coffee cup up in the air and caught it behind his back with a flourish.
“I’ll find some garbage bags,” he said. “Let’s clear this stuff out of here and go home.”
It was heartbreaking that this is what life came to. Alone, arthritic and senile in a decrepit single-wide trailer. It’d been three years since she last made the trip to visit her mother. Each time, she’d notice further decline and suggest the possibility of moving to a senior facility.
“They’ll cook and clean for you,” Joy had said. “Watch out for you.”
“Would that make you feel less guilty, dear?” her mother would respond in her trademark biting way.
The stroke came suddenly, as they usually do. Joy flew out immediately, in time for a few labored communications with her mother in the hospital until a follow-on stroke finished the job.
“Do you have a will?” she asked at her mother’s bedside.
The left side of her mother’s face sagged grotesquely and they’d had to prop her up with pillows all around so she wouldn’t fall over. Joy felt sorrow and an urgent desire to escape.
“Where in the house, mom?”
Her mother’s face twisted terribly in her effort to speak.
Death came the next morning and the week was consumed with the obituary, mortuary, phone calls, and the service. Jeff was useless; Joy had to do everything. She was surprised how many people showed up at the service, how many who stood up and said something nice about her mother. She stayed glued to her seat next to her brother, Jeff, who didn’t rise to speak either.
“Hey.” Jeff’s voice interrupted her thoughts.
“Oh wow. Joy. Come check this out.”
She was sure it wasn’t anything important. But there had been something in his voice – a serious tone that made her heave herself off the couch and go into the kitchen. She heard a bag crinkle in the adjacent utility room, and found him there.
“$180. All in twenties. Guess where it was? Hidden in the dog food bag. I spilled it by accident.”
Joy looked at the twenties, dusty with kibble powder. She’d heard of old people getting paranoid, hiding money. Her mouth took another downturn, dragging her cheeks with it.
“I bet there’s more,” Jeff said.
She was startled by the idea. Jeff picked up the laundry detergent box and upended it into the garbage. Two one-hundred dollar bills dumped out with the granules.
“This is crazy,” she said.
Jeff handed one to her.
“One for you, one for me,” he said with a wide smile.
He grabbed the box of dryer sheets and pulled out the cloths. At the bottom was a $20 bill. Taped to the bottom of the dog’s water dish, they found two $5 bills. Behind the washing machine was an envelope with $510.
They split up. Under the lumpy couch cushions – $340. Buried in the rice sack –$120. In the silver-plated coffee urn –$1,800. Tucked inside an adult diaper box –$460.
Following an instinct, Joy got a pair of scissors and snipped at the seams of the old lumpy couch. She whooped and Jeff came running. They pulled out rolls of bills.
“This is crazy,” she said again, a smile twisting at her face. “Mom was crazy.”
“She said her will was in the house, right?” Jeff laughed and riffled through the bills.
Joy looked around the room, her lips now tight together again as she thought.
“We need to look everywhere. Everywhere. We need to tear this place apart.”
Jeff took up the carpet – revealing $14,740 in five separate envelopes. Joy ripped into pillows and the mattress and box springs, sliced apart comforters and pulled backs off pictures – $8,376. A flash of inspiration led her to dump out plants onto the bare floor – $418 wrapped in plastic bags was among the roots.
They tackled her car and the garage, hesitating slightly before devastating car seats and doors, running fingers inside the spare tire and pulling off the floorboards – a heartbreaking $450, considering the car had been worth more. Determined to make up the loss, they returned to the house where Jeff pulled wallboard panels down while Joy unscrewed outlets. They searched light fixtures and braved the shadowy crawlspace under the trailer.
It was late in the day when they fell exhausted to the filthy floor, the money in rows before them.
“One hundred thirty thousand, five hundred and sixty-two dollars,” Jeff said.
Joy stared at the money, her brain working furiously to do the math.
“$65, 281 each,” Jeff said. “All tax-free, baby.”
In that moment, Joy wished she hadn’t asked Jeff to help her find the will. $130,000 would pay off her house and leave a bit for a vacation she hadn’t had in years.
Jeff raised his index finger.
“What?” she asked, annoyed.
He bobbed his finger up and down and then she understood. They hadn’t looked in the ceiling crawlspace. They both looked up and then scrambled to their feet, fatigue forgotten.
The attic access was in their mother’s bedroom that had been ruthlessly pillaged and trashed by Joy. She stood amid the feathers from ripped pillows while Jeff popped open the access panel from his perch on a chair. He stuck an arm in and felt around.
“What’s there?” Joy noted that he was holding something. “What have you got?”
Jeff wiped that something against his shirt and then stepped heavily to the floor.
He held up a plastic sleeve. In it was a thin pamphlet. His hand was trembling.
“Joy,” he said. She heard his voice quiver and she stepped closer. His face was ashen. The thought crossed her mind that he was having a stroke.
“Jeff?” She came over to him and put a hand on his shoulder.
“Superman versus Hitler,” he said, tilting the comic book toward her.
She stepped back, dropping her hand. It had been too long of a day for this.
“No money up there then?” she asked.
“First edition, pristine shape. No folds or tears in the cover. And Hitler! You know how desirable Hitler is?”
He looked up from the comic book and registered her annoyance.
“Joy,” he said. “This can be valuable. Like, really valuable.”
“These go for thousands, tens of thousands at auction. A first edition of Superman went for over $1 million recently.”
Joy stared at the book with renewed interest, her mouth turning up. She was in her mid-50s, divorced, paying on a mortgage, and driving a 10-year-old car that she’d raided her paltry retirement account to buy. It was hard to admit, but she’d always hoped there would be some kind of inheritance to rescue her.
She put her hand out. Jeff shook his head.
“We need to be careful with this. We need to keep it sealed.” His voice rose and his demeanor turned serious for the first time. “I’ll put it in my safe so it’s locked up – until we find a buyer.”
He raised his eyebrows at her tone.
“Do you have a safe, sis?”
“No, but it should go somewhere neutral, right? It belongs to both of us. Halves.”
“I know. I’m just trying to make this easy. I have a safe. I live close by. You have to travel – it could get bent or lost.”
Joy put one hand on her hip.
“Now you’re interested,” she said. “How often did you visit mom in the last couple of years? I talked to her at least every couple of months or so.”
“From three states away,” he said.
“What choice did I have? I had to find work. I’m all alone.”
“No wonder,” Jeff muttered.
“I want to keep the money then,” she said, gritting her teeth against his comment.
The divorce had been painful and divided her children against her. She hadn’t talked to her daughter in the five years since Jessie invited both her parents to that disastrous peacemaking dinner.
“If you’re taking the comic book, I’m taking the money. We’ll sell the book and then split everything.”
“No way. Money’s different. We can split it now.”
“So you want to take half the money and all the comic book? No way.”
They stood amid the mess, a standoff.
“It could have been one of mine,” Jeff said softly. “I had a pile of them in a box. Where else would it have come from?”
Joy shook her head at him.
“Don’t even try,” she said in a warning tone.
“You didn’t even know this was valuable. If you found it, it would’ve been hauled away with the trailer.”
They stood glaring at each other. Joy positioned herself firmly in the doorway, blocking her brother in case he decided to make a run for it. He was taller, but she figured she outweighed him by 50 pounds.
There was a rap at the door and they flinched. Joy looked fearfully over her shoulder toward the sound and, as she did, took in the full ruin of her mother’s house. Every inch of the floor was coated in plant soil, chunks of cushion foam, and strips of carpeting. Outlets were dangling from walls, lamps were broken and furniture demolished. Her mother’s one nice piece of furniture – her china cabinet – had been dismembered, its contents smashed. The odor of urine was now covered by the odor from the slurry of pantry items opened and dumped in garbage cans and the sink. There wasn’t a single item their mother had owned that they hadn’t pulled apart. They’d been more than thorough.
In one corner of the room, $130,562 in mostly small bills was stacked in orderly piles.
“I’m not answering it,” said Joy.
Jeff tucked the comic book under his shirt, his eyes wide and fearful.
The doorknob jiggled, followed by another more insistent knock.
“Hello? Hello there!”
“Our cars are in the driveway,” Jeff said. “They know we’re in here.”
Joy grabbed what was left of a comforter and dragged it over to cover the money. She looked a warning at her brother.
“Don’t you leave,” she said.
He tucked the comic book more securely into the waist of his pants and adjusted his shirt over it. He nodded at Joy and they walked to the door together. She opened it a crack.
“I’m sorry, we’re busy,” she said firmly.
A short brown man stood there, his frizzy hair speckled black and white and cropped tightly against his head. Joy remembered him from the funeral. He’d spoken at some length about her mother, rambling about her love of hazelnuts and reality TV. She and Jeff had traded glances. Their mother hadn’t exactly been a bigot, but it was unlikely she had been all that friendly with this African-American man.
“You must be Joy,” the man said. “Irene always hoped we’d meet. I’m Michael.”
He stood waiting for something and Joy realized he wanted to be invited inside. A condolence visit.
“Hello,” she said crisply. “Thank you for coming by but we’re very busy right now.”
“I have Irene’s dogs,” he said. “She was always worried about them – where they’d go, if something ever happened.”
“Oh,” Joy said. “Keep them if you want. We don’t mind.”
“I was just letting you know, in case you were wondering,” he said. “I took them the night Irene had her stroke. I called the ambulance, you know.”
Joy felt silly talking through the small door opening. She opened it and squeezed through quickly, closing the door on Jeff behind her. Michael stepped back.
“Thank you,” she said, understanding that he was there to explain his role in her mother’s aid. “We really appreciate it.”
He stood there, a puzzled look on his face. He pulled a rolled piece of paper from his back pocket and his hands worked the paper a moment.
“This is awkward, I suppose,” he said.
“Well,” Joy said pointedly, “we are pretty busy.”
“This,” he said, waving the paper in his hand. “The will, I mean.”
The door opened behind Joy and Jeff squeezed out.
“The will?” Jeff said. “Mom told you about a will?”
“You must be Jeff,” Michael said.
“We looked,” Joy said, ignoring her brother. “Turns out there’s no will.”
Michael waved the paper again.
Joy and Jeff stared at it.
“I didn’t want it getting lost,” Michael said. “So I retrieved it the night Irene had the stroke. She kept it in the knife drawer. Under the liner paper.”
Joy snatched up the paper and, unrolling it, bent her head close to read it. Her eyes narrowed.
“I don’t think so,” she said, forcing a laugh.
Jeff took the paper and she waited for him to finish.
“This some kind of bad joke?” Jeff asked. “Who do you think you are?”
“Probably best to lock the place up until this gets settled,” Michael said evenly. “I’m the executor, as you see there. I should take all the keys too.”
“Not likely,” Jeff said quickly. “We should call the police.”
A thought came into Joy’s head. This man must have befriended their mother, gotten her to draft this will. Didn’t this happen to old people?
“Yes,” she said. “We’re calling the police.”
A picture of the interior of her mother’s house flashed through her mind. Torn to bits, trashed, garbage strewn about. How would they explain that to the police?
“We can work this out between the three of us,” Michael said. “Maybe we can go inside? Sit down and talk?”
“I’m sorry to sound this way – I’m not racist – but my mother simply wouldn’t have that kind of relationship with you,” Joy said.
He gave a short laugh.
“I wouldn’t think so,” he said. “I really think we should talk. Would you feel better coming to my place? I live three doors down.”
“Look, fella,” Jeff said. “This was our mother. Hate to be rude, but we’re grieving here. You got the wrong people this time.”
“My mother too,” Michael said in a low voice.
Joy’s mouth dropped open in its downward curve, fully executing a theatrical tragedy face.
“That’s a stretch, don’t you think?” Jeff said.
“I’m six years older than you, Jeff. Three years older than Joy. Mom wanted to tell you but she knew you’d be upset.”
“Don’t call her mom,” Joy said, remembering him at the hospital, pacing the corridor. “That’s crazy talk.”
“No,” Jeff added. “Never. I mean, you know, she married our dad. He was white.”
“She wouldn’t leave everything to you!” Joy shouted now. “She married our dad, not yours.”
Jeff whirled on her, his expression stunned.
Joy looked out at the street, at their cars in the driveway, at Michael’s shoes – anywhere but the two men related to her.
“She might have said something once,” Joy said. “But she was getting senile. She said a lot of things. I mean, look at all that money she hid – in the cushions, under the carpet – she was crazy.”
“She was hiding money?” Michael asked at the same time that Jeff gave Joy a hard nudge.
There was silence and then Joy made a break for the door – and the money. The knob wouldn’t turn.
“Automatic lock,” Michael said flatly. “It was a safety feature we put in for her. She kept forgetting to lock up at night. I have a key back at my place.”
The next hour was painful. Michael retrieved his key and entered the trailer alone to get Joy’s purse. When he came back out, he looked at them in amazement. Joy didn’t meet his eyes when he handed over her purse. She didn’t say goodbye to either one of her brothers.
It wasn’t until Joy was halfway to the airport that it hit her. By then, of course, it was too late. One brother had the money. The other brother had escaped with the comic book – maybe worth $1 million. Neither one was likely to share the loot with her at this stage.
She was heading home with what she’d always gotten. Nothing. Her mouth settled ever more securely into its comfortable downward grooves.