The best friend I ever had pulled the dirtiest trick of my life on me, and he was dead when he did it.
I’m sure he never meant me any harm—just a little inconvenience as owed by one friend to another—when he handed me that manila envelope. It wasn’t even sealed; the metal tab clasp was simply bent closed. It had my name on it handwritten in black ink from a felt marker, “Michael Kidd,” and under that, “To be opened immediately upon my death.” Under that, still with the felt marker, were his signature and the date. The date was that of the very day he gave it to me. That would be a little over a year ago.
It was January, overcast and dreary but not very cold. Through Vince’s hospital window I could see the wind gently toying with the limbs of the live oaks growing in the plaza three stories down. The other trees were in their winter nakedness, their skeletal arms unable to grip the mild wind.
“You’re kidding,” I had said, and tried to give the envelope back to him. He wouldn’t take it.
“No, keep it,” he said. “I’m serious.”
“You aren’t going to die for a long time. You’ve come back from worse shape than this before.”
“Let’s cut the bullshit,” Vince said. He sounded more annoyed than sad, not downcast at all, as if he were talking about a bill that was a little too high but had to be paid anyway. He was partially elevated but not quite sitting up in the hospital bed. A tablet computer lay beside him, displaying a solitaire chess game. He was wearing a moustache of clear plastic tubing. I’d never seen him with a real moustache, and his head, bald from chemotherapy, told me he wasn’t likely to grow one soon.
“Vince,” I said, “You’ve been about to die for the past ten years. You’ve always bounced back when a new treatment was tried. This has been going on ever since they just sewed you up after that first surgery. You’ve been on the verge of death so many times that it’s old stuff.”
After his operation years ago, exploratory surgery to see just what that palpable lump in his abdomen was, they took a good look at his internal organs, saw how the cancer had spread, and just sewed him back up without removing anything. I wrote him off as a dead man then. I had learned to associate “inoperable” with “incurable” and imminent death. But in a few months he was back playing softball and managing his small research and development company.
In about a year he started down hill again and became so weak and emaciated I wrote him off again. He talked his doctor into trying some new treatment and made another spectacular recovery. Then the cancer regrouped and made another attack. Again Vince recovered. But each recovery brought him back not quite to his previous peak, and each recurrence reached a new low.
I don’t know in how many hospital rooms I had visited him—different hospitals and in different rooms in the same hospital. This room displayed several flower arrangements, including one from me. Vince had many friends and a large family, and his employees liked and respected him. I don’t care how many flowers are crammed into it, a hospital room never smells good; but this time, for the first time, Vince’s room held the smell of death. No, Vince would not grow a mustache soon. Or ever.
“I’ve used up my options. There aren’t any more treatments.”
“Not even experimental ones?”
“None that I can qualify for. When your blood count gets as bad as mine, they won’t let you participate in any more trials. So I repeat, let’s cut the bullshit. I’m depending on you to open that envelope and do exactly as I say in the note inside. That’ll mean you’ve got to hang around town until I die, because you won’t have a lot of time to do what I’ve set down for you to do.”
I only nodded. That was because I could hardly keep the tears out of my eyes as it was. If I tried to say anything I was afraid I would choke up and give the game away. The cancer would win all right, but as much as it had ruined his body, it never laid a glove on Vince himself. The real Vince, the part that transcends the body, the part where character and courage reside, was undiminished.
Over the past years I had driven him several times the two hundred miles from Tyler to Houston and as many times the one hundred miles to Dallas, for treatments. I had never heard him voice resentment at his fate or shed a tear or a groan when I knew he was in extreme pain. The cancer had won all right, but it hadn’t humbled Vince. His head was bloody but unbowed. I looked at the scrawny body the cancer had left him with—he was once a fine athlete—and thought I would be proud to be half the man Vince Talbot was at that moment.
So I took the envelope and went home to wait for Vince to die. I figured I would see him a time or two before he cashed in his chips, and maybe I would find a way to say “I love you, Vince” without embarrassing both of us. But it turned out that was the last time I saw him.
It was just a few days later, at eleven o’clock at night that I got the call from Vince’s sister Myra. I got out the manila envelope and stared at it for several minutes before I opened it. It’s hard to describe what I felt, but somehow I didn’t want to know what was inside. It was as if Vince was still alive somehow, and opening the envelope would kill him. I guess it was because this would be the last communication I would have from him, and I didn’t want it to end. As long as I didn’t look inside, I could postpone the final goodbye.
After awhile, of course, I did open it. Inside were a key, a note, and a copy of Vince’s will. I put the will aside as not really being any of my business and unfolded the note. It was handwritten.
To Michael Kidd, The enclosed key is to my house. Immediately upon my death, go to my house. In my bedroom closet find a locked black valise on the floor in the corner. Remove it, and without opening it or discussing it with anyone, as soon as practicable take it to a secluded area and burn it completely with all its contents.
That, along with his signature, was all there was.
With a population of about one-hundred thousand, Tyler, Texas, is more a small city than a big town. It’s full of money and pride with a slightly pretentious veneer of culture. It was made by the oil boom of the 1930s, which turned hard scrabble farmers into rich people overnight and their children into millionaires when they inherited the farms. The children moved into town and built big houses on the little rolling hillsides west of downtown and competed with one another through their gardeners in growing azaleas.
Nowadays the new money was mainly high-tech or medical, and it built mostly south of town in gated neighborhoods fenced with brick and containing golf courses. When Vince’s company started raking in the chips, though, he decided he wanted to live among the old money with their huge lots. So he bought an old place, a show piece in the fifties, and remodeled it.
Vince had said to go immediately to his house, but it was midnight by the time I adjusted enough to the fact of his death to function well so I decided to go early the next morning. I didn’t fall asleep until almost dawn, so I didn’t get up as early as I had planned.
As usual, Buddy was already up and, as usual, he had buttoned his shirt wrong. While I was fixing his shirt I told him about Vince. It’s always hard to predict how Buddy will react to important news. Sometimes it has no effect on him while at other times he gets unduly excited. This time his reaction was the same as you would expect from a normal person, he started crying softly, just as I felt like doing.
“Vince is dead,” he said, and every once in a while he would stop crying long enough to repeat, “Vince is dead.”
I put my arm around his shoulders and we both sat there for a long time, he sobbing while my tears went without vocal accompaniment silently down my cheeks. After awhile he stopped crying.
“Listen, Buddy. I’ve got to go out. Let’s just have some cereal for breakfast and I’ll bring back some hamburgers for lunch. Will that be all right?”
“Vince is dead,” Buddy said.
“Yes, we’ll miss him. He was a good guy.”
“His phone number is 903-534-2568.”
“That’s right, Buddy.”
“His cell phone number is 903-985-2569.”
“That’s right, Buddy.”
“His birthday is February 16. How old was he?”
“He was forty-three”
“Then he was born on a Tuesday.”
“If you say so, Buddy.”
I’d stopped checking Buddy for accuracy years ago. He never missed.
He seemed to be his usual cheerful self by the time we’d finished our Grape Nuts. As usual, I made him promise not to try to cook anything while I was gone. I prefer a gas range, but we had an electric one because you couldn’t fill the house with gas by letting something boil over and put out the flame.
I watched while Buddy turned on his computer and went to the Gutenberg Project site. They have thousands of books that you can read online. Unfortunately, they are mostly novels and he prefers non-fiction. What he really enjoys is a text book, high school or college, on just about any subject, and he had a goodly collection of them. But he reads one in only about two hours, and I couldn’t afford to keep buying them. Before I discovered Gutenberg, every few days I used to swing over to the Tyler public library and check out some biographies or how-to-do-its for him, but he really liked to possess them. I’d always have to explain why I had to take them back.
His private collection was neatly shelved and he would cycle through them, turning them upside down when he was finished with them. He wouldn’t necessarily read them again—he had them memorized—but he would take one off the shelf, flip through a few pages, and just sit and hold it for maybe half an hour. Every ten minutes or so he would open it and turn rapidly to some page that was in his mind and reread that page. When he was finished with it he would replace it on the shelf with the title on the spine lined up with the books on its left and opposite to the ones on its right.
It was another typical winter day in East Texas, overcast but the high was predicted to be in the fifties. It turned out I didn’t need Vince’s key to get into his house. When I got there at nine a.m. there was a family reunion in progress.
Vince’s note said I should immediately go to his house. I cursed myself for not going at once on receiving word of his death from Myra. Maybe no one would have been in the house then, but I had waited until morning, letting several hours go by, time enough for relatives to come in from out of town and out of state. Of course, Myra could have called them before she called me. For all I knew they could have been there for days waiting for Vince to die.
Now I wondered if I would encounter resistance in removing the briefcase. There was no doubt in my mind that I would leave with it; the question was would I be able to do it without rankling these people? They were, after all, Vince’s heirs and they could resent a stranger walking out with what could be a part of his estate.
Myra opened the door for me. It turned out she and her husband were the only persons that I knew in the house. They lived in Dallas, about two hours away, and I had met them when Vince was in Dallas for treatments and a few times at Vince’s house. Myra was dressed as if she’d just come from a party. The times I’d seen her before she had also looked as if she had just come from a party. She was wearing a black dress, but a string of pearls kept it from looking like mourning clothes. Raymond, her husband, came up to stand beside her. He was wearing khakis with a striped knit shirt, short sleeves so I assumed he wasn’t going out of the house for awhile.
We exchanged condolences and Myra drew me inside and introduced me to her father. The resemblance between Vince and his father was startling. When the old man held my hand and looked into my eyes I saw Vince—not the Vince as I had known him before his sickness but the Vince of his last few months, tall, gaunt and bald. It struck me that old age is also a disease, invariably fatal, a sort of slow motion cancer, with symptoms of progressive weakness, exhaustion, and pain. Maybe someday they’ll find a cure for it.
“Vince spoke highly of you,” he said.
“He loved you,” I told him, and I knew that was true. He looked as if he was going to choke up, so I patted his hand and let Myra lead me to the next relative.
Myra introduced me to the others one or two at a time as “Vince’s closest friend, Mike Kidd.” I had never laid eyes on any of them, but they all seemed familiar with my name. There were four relatives and their spouses and kids plus a single woman, Vince’s younger sister, Vanessa, still in her twenties and a looker. She was the youngest of the family—Vince must have already finished high school when she was born.
Vince’s two brothers and their families had driven down from Missouri, all in the same RV. Vanessa was from the same area but had come alone in her own car. The oldest of the siblings, Jacob was tall, like Vince and his father, and soft-spoken. He had the same unruly, straw-colored hair that Vince had before the chemotherapy although Jacob’s was beginning to thin. He was friendly enough but I can’t say the same for the younger brother, Paul. He was about my age, that is, thirty-six, or maybe a year older, and I soon picked up an air of hostility. Paul was tall like the rest of the Talbot men. He had a couple of inches on me and was about my weight, but not as muscular though he looked as if he could take care of himself. He had the same hair as his brothers, and probably his father until baldness stole it.
Vince and I had spent a lot of time together, but he hadn’t talked much about family. Vince liked to talk about ideas, not people, so I knew little about any of his relations. On the other hand, Vince knew all my family—both members, Grandpa and Buddy.
I was standing by Vanessa when Paul gestured for me to accompany him. “Are you as much into games as Vince was?”
We went into Vince’s game room and Vanessa tagged along. Vince had collected games. He was more fascinated by them than anyone I had ever known. Pinball machines lined one wall of the huge room, and there was a row of electronic games with laser driven interactive features. A full-size pool table occupied the center of the room.
“No,” I said. “But Vince and I did play many a game of scratch or eight ball on this table. Vince usually won. I was never much interested in pinball or these other games.”
“Monopoly was one of his favorites back home. I see he has a set here,” Vanessa said, pointing at a shelf where Vince had kept his board games. “Did you play that with him?”
“Only once,” I said. “There were four of us. He won.”
“Only once,” Paul said, “Since you were such close friends I would think you played many games with him.”
“Vince was too serious about it for me. When the game began to lag I wanted to swap property, or roll dice for it—anything to get some action going. Vince wouldn’t do anything to shorten the game unless he could see a real advantage for him in it. It could take all night to play a game of Monopoly the way he played.”
“How about poker? Vince loved poker. I bet you played regularly with him, being his best friend and all.”
“Sometimes,” I said, ignoring what I took to be sarcasm. The octagonal poker table where Vince had hosted weekly games was still set up in the room although it must have been unused for the last several months. “Vince was one of the best poker players I’ve ever seen. He could have made a good living at it.”
“Better at it than you?”
“Absolutely, especially when the stakes were high. Vince had the knack common to all really good poker players of dismissing from his mind the value of the chips. With high stakes I always had trouble not reminding myself that the bet was a month’s income. It’s just chips to the professionals, just matchsticks. No matter what the stakes, with Vince it was always just a game and he played all games to win”
“In short, he was better than you at just about everything?” His smile looked to me like a smirk, and I told myself to remember he was Vince’s brother.
“There’s a ping-pong table top that can be set on top of the pool table,” I said. “I could hold my own with Vince on that.”
“I should think so, given his physical condition.”
I had been trying to like him but it wasn’t working. “Of course, I was referring to the time before his decline. As you know, Vince was an extraordinarily intelligent person with considerable athletic ability and a fascination—you could almost say an obsession—with games of all kinds. Naturally he was good at them, and I’m not ashamed to say he could beat me at most of them. As for poker, he was better than I was but I play a pretty good game. My weakness is I tend to call just to see if somebody is bluffing.”
Vanessa decided to enter the conversation. “Vince said he met only one person who could beat him at chess. Was that you?”
“We used to play a lot,” I said. “He won his share of the games.”
“But you won the most, didn’t you?”
Vanessa smiled at her brother, and he walked out of the room. I couldn’t see much family resemblance in her. She was about medium height whereas the other siblings and Vince’s father were tall, and she was darker, her hair almost black and her eyes were large and brown and almost luminous. She probably took after her mother who I knew had died a few years ago, but I couldn’t be sure because I’d never seen a picture of her.
“I apologize for Paul’s manners,” she said. “Sibling rivalry, I guess. They were the two closest in age and he always acted as if he was in competition with Vince. Because Vince could outdo him at everything, he doesn’t like to think that anyone was better than Vince at anything. Somehow it annoys him. Vince made him feel second rate. Anyone beating Vince makes him feel third rate.”
“There’s always somebody better. Vince played a good chess game, I played a better one. We both played much better than the average casual player, but neither of us could have put up a real fight against a professional. Even the local chess club probably has several members that could make me look sick. Paul needs to learn the old cowboy saying, ‘There never was a horse that couldn’t be rode and there never was a man that couldn’t be throwed’.”
“Yes, he does.” She smiled.
I smiled back. Neither of us seemed to have anything more to say. Some of the houseguests wandered in and out of the game room while we stood there looking at each other. When the silence became awkward I said, “I need your help.”
“I need to pick up something from Vince’s bedroom. He left me a note asking me to. It’s something he didn’t want anyone to see. I’d hoped to do it without calling attention to it, but with all the people here I don’t think it’s possible.” I had Vince’s note with me but I didn’t want to show it unless I had to. I didn’t think Vince would have wanted me to.
“I’ll go with you,” Vanessa said. She didn’t have the classy look of her older sister, the tall blonde. Myra always wore something stylish and looked like she belonged at a cocktail party. This girl was dressed in jeans, sneakers, and a size XL T-shirt. I guessed that was for comfort during the long drive. I could imagine her in something fashionable giving Myra a run for her money, although she still wouldn’t have that patrician look. Pretty rather than beautiful, she struck me as somebody you could have a beer with and relax.
She went with me to the master bedroom and watched me as I opened the closet. The valise was just as Vince had described it, sitting just where he said it would be. I picked it up and walked back over to Vanessa.
“I’m going home now,” I said. “I’m the only one in the house that’s not related to Vince, and I don’t want to intrude any more into family matters.”
She nodded and we walked back down the hall to the foyer. We said a few words about the funeral arrangements. I took her hand briefly, smiled and moved toward the front door.
“Where do you think you’re going with that briefcase?’ Paul called out. He came up to me and reached for the valise. I stepped away from him. This was exactly what I had been trying to avoid but I had given my word to a dying man, my best friend, and I was going to leave with that valise no matter how many relatives tried to stop me.
He took a stand between me and the doorway, and crossed his arms in front of his chest. His face was red, and he was breathing heavily. I could hear more people moving into the foyer. He appeared to be too excited for someone used to fighting, and I didn’t want to hurt him, mainly because he was Vince’s brother and I liked the rest of the family. But better to go ahead before Jacob and the other men got involved and I wound up hurting people I respected.
I have a knack of tailoring my speech to blend in with whatever group I’m with. I’m an oral chameleon. It’s not intentional. I do it without thinking. Put me in an Irish pub and in a little while, damned if I don’t develop a brogue. When I’m in a gathering of intellectuals, my grammar and pronunciation just automatically scale up and my accent becomes hard to pin down, American but not regional. But in my fighting mode my language reverts to the pure East Texas dialect I learned growing up on my grandfather’s farm.
“You’re standin’ where I’m fixin’ to walk,” I said.
There was a change in Paul’s eyes. It was the kind of change that happens when you take a stick to poke at what you think is a chicken snake and it suddenly moves into a coil with a spear-shaped head at one end and a rattle at the other. I’ll give him credit; he swallowed audibly but he didn’t move out of my way. To get out the door I would have to go through him, and I was leaving with the briefcase. And I was leaving now.
I was afraid the briefcase might fly open if I hit Paul in the head with it, spilling Vince’s secrets all over the parquet floor. At the same time I didn’t want to set it down. I wasn’t going to let it out of my possession even for a moment. So my plan was to kick his shin and ram the corner of the valise into his gut. I hoped that would be enough to clear him out of my path. Out of respect for Vince, I didn’t want to do any serious damage to his brother.
“Don’t be an ass,” Vanessa told her brother. “You know he has a perfect right to remove that briefcase.”
“Maybe so, but not until I see what’s inside.”
“He’s got a note from Vince telling him not to open it.”
Paul unfolded his arms. “Did you see the note?”
“Yes. He showed it to me.” That surprised me.
“Did you read it?”
“Yes.” I fell in love with her.
Paul moved aside, and I opened the door. Just before I stepped out I turned and nodded to the group. I climbed into my red Toyota pickup, started it, and headed out. I turned on the radio and pushed buttons to pass over several commercials and political talk shows searching for some soothing country music. I had to settle for a mariachi band. Thanks, Vince, old pal. Nothing to it. The sheriff will probably be at my house by the time I get there.
I really didn’t think the sheriff would be waiting for me at home, but I headed east out Highway 64 toward Grandpa’s farm. I was going to get this business of briefcase burning over with in a hurry. I stopped at a convenience store and bought two pint cans of charcoal starter fluid and a box of matches. After turning onto a county road and following it north for a couple of miles, I turned off at Grandpa’s gravel driveway and went over his cattle guard and eventually pulled up at his house.
Grandpa and the house were built in the same year. I guess he was the cause of the house being built, because he came first, in October, eighty-eight years ago. They both are of solid construction, and it’s anybody’s guess which will last longer.
Grandpa always surprises me by being shorter than I remember him. I guess my mental images are from when I was a kid, shorter than he was; now he’s just over five feet and I’m just under six. He has shrunk some, as old people do, but he was short even when I was a kid, short enough for someone to occasionally call him Shorty. He would allow a man to call him that only once. “My name is Tom he would say,” making sure he had the fellow’s attention. Then he would wag his finger and say, “Don’t ever call me Shorty again.” Once warned, a repetition of the offense, even if good natured, would trigger an instant fast and powerful punch that would usually be both the start and the finish of a fight.
Grandpa had been an amateur boxer in his youth and more than one trainer had urged him to go professional. He didn’t because he valued intelligence and was smart enough to know that he would be progressively less smart after each punch to the head. He had given me my first boxing lessons, and they were sound.
In his prime, Grandpa was the strongest man for his size I ever saw, and he had been quick and graceful in motion. Considering his age, he still was.
When I pulled up to the house he was standing in the yard talking across the corral fence to his favorite riding horse, a big bay mare with a white blaze on her forehead. He was wearing a blue jean jacket and a black cowboy hat. I got out of the pickup and walked over to him.
“Well, boy,” he said, “Glad to see you. How have you and Buddy been getting along?
“Just fine. I would have brought Buddy along, but I’m in kind of a hurry.”
“Well, then, what brings you out here in the cold?”
“I need a place to burn a briefcase, Grandpa,” I said.
“You want to burn a briefcase?”
“Well, take it down by the creek at the edge of the woods. You can find some nice dry limbs laying around there to build a fire with. Or you can take a few pieces off the woodpile and burn it right here if you want to.”
“I’ll take it down by the creek. No point using up your cut wood or making a mess in your yard.”
“Mind if I go with you, Mikey.”
“Glad to have you. Hop in.”
He didn’t exactly hop in, but he got in without any trouble, and I drove to the suggested place with the briefcase sitting on edge between us.
We got out and, sure enough, found enough windfall to gather a nice pile of dry limbs. I built it up in a bare spot and got it going with a generous portion of starter fluid. When the fire was burning well without my help, I brought the briefcase out of the truck and squirted the remaining can and a half of starter fluid over it. I let it soak for about a minute, and then I laid it on top of the burning logs. I had to jump back as the flames flared up from it.
Grandpa and I stood there and watched it wrinkle and shrivel in the flames. He drew as close as the heat would let him and peered at the burning valise as the fire ate it up, but there wasn’t much to see because the contents seemed to have been mostly papers and they burned like crazy. I also caught a glimpse of some CDs. They could have been music, videos, or computer files. I guessed the last would be most likely.
Everything burned so fiercely that I suspected that Vince had packed wax or some other accelerant inside to make sure of complete destruction. When there was nothing left but the latches, hinges, and other small metal parts of the briefcase, I started kicking dirt on the fire and kept at it until it was safely out.
“We could have easy brought a shovel from the tool shed,” Grandpa said, “I didn’t think of it.”
“Neither did I,” I said, thinking I’d need to wipe my shoes when I got home.
When I stopped the truck at the house, Grandpa opened the door but hesitated before getting out.
“Mikey,” he said, “I don’t want to be nosey, but what was in that suitcase?”
“I’ll be damned if I know.”
He got out, shut the door and waved as I drove off.