Early on Louise Palmer came to the conclusion that life was somewhat like a jigsaw puzzle. First you envisioned the picture. Then you assembled the pieces. Louise began when she was eleven. She started with a brown shoebox, then added snippets from magazines—a square of blue sky, smoke rising from a chimney, lace curtains, a red door, a wedding gown, a gold ring, photographs with obscured faces—images of what she saw as a picture-perfect life. Night after night she pulled the shoebox from its hiding place and spread the contents across the floor, arranging and rearranging the dog-eared pieces until everything was as she imagined it should be. By the time she was sixteen, Louise knew exactly what her life would look like.
Through the years she painstakingly slid those pieces into place—a loving husband, a house with black shutters, an oak tree in the yard, a baby boy, and then a girl. Once the youngsters had grown into a son and daughter she could be proud of, the picture was perfect. Louise could now sit back and enjoy the completeness of a well-planned life. In her mind she simply had no reason to scramble the pieces and start over again. Her husband, Clay, didn’t see it in quite the same way.
The long gray envelope from Horace P. Fredericks, Attorney at Law, arrived on the second Saturday in January, smack in the middle of an icy New Jersey winter. Had it been July or August, Clay might have approached things differently. But as fate would have it, that Saturday was the coldest day of the year. Icicles hung from the trees, six inches of frozen snow covered the yard, and a gusty wind that had howled throughout the night rattled a metal garbage can down the middle of the street.
When they first read the letter, it seemed a stroke of good fortune. Not the part about Uncle Charlie dying, but the fact that Clay would inherit the entire estate—a house in Florida, all the furnishings, a bank account, and a car to boot. It was unexpected, to say the least, for Clay hadn’t seen his uncle in fifteen years, maybe more. He called the old man on Christmas and wrote a note every so often, but one would hardly consider Clay a devoted nephew.
Louise craned her neck and peered over Clay’s shoulder as he read the letter aloud for a second time.
“In accordance with the Last Will and Testament of the late Charles Palmer, you have been designated sole beneficiary and heir to his estate.” Clay paused for a moment and let out a long, low whistle, a bit out of character for the stoic man seldom given to any display of emotion. “Estate,” Louise repeated. “Good gracious.”
“This estate consists of the single-family residence located at Seventeen Blossom Tree Trail, all furnishings, a Buick Century, and a First National Bank savings account in the amount of two thousand three hundred six dollars and thirty-nine cents.” Clay rambled past several other details then read the last line again, what Louise had been waiting to hear.
“Please advise if you plan to take physical possession of the property or would prefer that I make the necessary arrangements for liquidation to cash.”
For what seemed a rather long time, Clay stood there staring at the piece of paper and fingering his chin. Finally he dropped the letter onto the table and turned to refill his coffee cup.
Several minutes passed, and when Louise could no longer stand the silence she said, “Well?”
“Well what?” Clay replied.
“Aren’t you going to say something?”
“I’m thinking about it.”
“Thinking about it?”
“Yes,” he answered and said nothing more.
Louise, a woman who openly shared the thoughts inside her head, had little patience for such secretive thinking. At times Clay could be downright miserly with his thoughts, hoarding them as if they were something too precious to part with. He claimed he simply wanted to save her from needless worry, but she suspected otherwise.
Years ago at the Somerset County Fair they each paid two dollars to have their fortune told by a gypsy. The woman looked into a crystal ball and saw Louise’s future clear as day, right down to predicting how one day there would be a blue-eyed granddaughter. But when it came Clay’s turn, the gypsy had to give back his money. She’d looked into her crystal ball and found it as blank as the expression on his face. Not even the gypsy could zero in on Clay’s thoughts, past, future, or present.
After she’d waited a few minutes longer, Louise gave an exasperated sigh. “With news like this it seems you’d be excited.”
“I am,” Clay answered.
Clay ignored the whisper of sarcasm and shook his head sadly as a washboard of ridges settled on his brow. “I’m pleased about the
inheritance,” he finally said, “but I feel bad about losing Uncle Charlie.” “Well, of course you do,” Louise replied sympathetically. She hesitated a moment then gave a sigh, sloping the corners of her mouth and shaking her head in synchronization with Clay. Even though one could hardly expect her to bemoan the fate of a man she had never laid eyes on, she felt certain her performance appeared adequately mournful.
“At least Uncle Charlie had sense enough to enjoy the last twenty years of his life,” Clay said. “He knew how to live. He didn’t keep working until the day he died like Pop did.”
Clay’s father, like Clay, had been a quiet person, a banker who kept his thoughts private as he carted himself off to work each day and trudged home again in the evening. That was until the day he keeled over dead at his desk. A robust sort of man, barely fifty-six years old, swooshed off the face of the earth by a heart attack that came without a whisker of warning.
Louise waited for Clay to continue, waited for him to get back to their discussion of the estate he’d inherited. Instead, he began reminiscing about the time Uncle Charlie won a truckload of watermelons in a radio contest. For several minutes she tried to look interested, but when Clay segued into the story of a monster catfish Uncle Charlie once caught, Louise found it impossible to keep looking interested. When he paused between words she jumped in.
“This house of your uncle’s,” she said. “How much do you think it’s worth?”
“No idea.” Clay cradled his chin in the valley between his thumb and forefinger as if deep in thought.
Louise naturally assumed he was working up an estimate. All that property had to be worth something—maybe enough for a European vacation, a new car or a backyard pool. Maybe even… As she pictured a new bedroom set and burgundy-colored carpeting Clay announced, “The value of the house doesn’t matter, because I’m not going to sell it.”