James Houseworthy the Second sat back in his home office chair, nursing a brandy—the third of the past hour. He gripped the glass tightly in his hand, his other hand clenched into a fist hanging at his side.
Ann would come in and coo and tell him he’d had too much to drink if she were there. It would be irritating at best, but when he knew she didn’t even care for him and was only buttering him up to try to stay in his good graces, it was absolutely more than he could take right now.
Even in spite of the way she tried to strongly influence matters, her husband Clyde was running the Houseworthy business into the ground. He wasn’t presidential material, but then again, who was? James certainly wasn’t, either.
Some of the board members had come to him today, wanting his help and his agreement to take over as president if they voted Clyde out and James in. James knew about the business, even though he hadn’t had any desire to become involved with it, and they were desperate for someone new to take over.
He had scoffed and laughed at the very idea. “‘Desperate’ doesn’t even begin to describe your state, Gentlemen!” He had wanted money since he was a child, and his inheritance from his father had given him plenty of it without him even having to work for it. He could spend all of his time golfing and partying and enjoying life. Why would he want to do anything different?
In fact, he thought bitterly, why did they even want him to try? They knew what he was, what he had always been. Why did they think he would be any different than Clyde? It seemed more likely to him that what they really wanted was to bring him in as a figurehead while they set about running things in the background.
He downed the brandy and went for another.
Using me . . . everyone’s always using me.
He was sick of it. His mother had been the only one who had really cared about him and she was dead. He had tried to fool himself into thinking his father had loved him, but had he really? Maybe he had instead given him such a large inheritance because he had known all of the problems that went with such a nest egg and had wanted to torture him with that. The man certainly hadn’t been happy, in spite of all his wealth.
Was that why he had killed himself? If so, James was beginning to understand.
“Oh . . .” He leaned back in his chair, staring at the ceiling.
Sometimes he had thought of getting someone like Miriam to be with him. But she would only want his money. That was what everyone wanted, so it was no wonder that he had continued his policy of not needing anyone. He was sick to death of all the people after his money as it was.
The only one who wasn’t was Cousin William, shamed in the will by being given an 8 ball. James had barely heard from William since then. Oh, he checked in on holidays, but he wasn’t on the greatest terms with Ann and Clyde, and James had always looked down his nose at the renegade of the family.
Now, oddly enough, James wondered if he wouldn’t welcome William’s presence. At least for once, for once, he could have a conversation with someone who didn’t have dollar signs in his eyes. Oh, Willie wanted money, alright, but he was ambitious and wanted to earn it himself. He had never asked Ann and Clyde for a cent since he had struck out on his own.
Ah yes, Willie was proud. He would be good presidential material, actually. Maybe the board members should have gone to him.
The door opening brought him up with a start. “What is it?” he snapped half-drunkenly at the butler.
“I’m sorry to bother you, Sir, but your cousin is here to see you,” the butler announced in a very awkward tone.
“What?” James nearly snorted brandy out his nose. “Cousin William? What on Earth for?”
“I’m not quite sure, Sir. He said he wanted to tell you himself.”
“Very well, very well. Let him come in.” James gestured in the air.
Willie walked into the room in the next moment, the butler quietly closing the door behind him. “Hello, Cousin,” he greeted. “You’re looking about how I expected you would.”
“I am, eh?” James set the glass down on the desk. “You thought you’d come and find me drunk?”
“Or well on your way to it.” Willie came closer and stopped near the desk, close enough to see James smirking at him in the dim room.
“The high and mighty William, the black sheep of the family,” James grinned. “Or would that be the white sheep?”
Willie sighed, looking like he wanted to retort. Instead, his hands dropped to his sides. “I want to talk with you, James,” he said. “I mean seriously.”
“About what?” James grunted.
“About the company . . . about your father, mostly.”
“Oh, wonderful.” James reached for the decanter again. “And what do you know about my father?”
William drew a deep breath. “He thought you were beyond saving. I’m not sure that I do.”
Now he had James’ full attention. “Beyond saving?” Incredulous, he set the heavy glass container down without pouring. “Saving from what? Or for what?”
“From . . .” William gestured helplessly and began to pace. “I don’t know how to put it! From his fate, I guess.”
“From his hopelessness and suicidal thoughts? I don’t know about that.” James leaned back and watched him, draping one arm behind the blue leather chair. “And are you sure you’re feeling alright, Cousin William? You almost sound like you’ve had a long and engaging conversation with dear old Dad after his passing.”
William flushed. “You know we talked sometimes.”
“He didn’t even care about you enough to give you anything of value,” James grunted. “Then again, there are times lately when I wonder if he gave anything of value to anyone.”
“He didn’t want me to be corrupted by being like him,” Willie said. “He said . . . he said you’d become just like him as it was.”
“And so he hated me like he hated himself. What a comforting image.” James switched to leaning against the arm of the chair and picked up the decanter, swirling the brandy around inside it.
“That’s not it!” William exclaimed. He stopped pacing, clearly unsure how to proceed with the conversation. “Oh, I’m just stupid. I came in here just like he came to me, thinking I could make a difference. And I can’t do anything!”
“Well, you’ve certainly managed to sound more drunk than I am,” James giggled. He poured the brandy but then leaned forward on the desk with his elbows, lacing his fingers. “So, this ‘saving’ business. Let’s break it down and talk about that. Why do you think I can be saved?”
“I don’t know,” William said helplessly. “Because you’re still alive. Because you’re not happy. Mom and Dad and even Griswald have told me what you’re up to—always out late partying, or getting drunk here, or golfing. . . . Of course, Mom and Dad are just trying to rub it in my face that I’m not living that kind of life. Griswald’s worried about you.”
“Dear, considerate Griswald.” James didn’t fully sound sarcastic and he really wasn’t. It was strange, perhaps, but if anyone thought anything of him and was capable of worrying about him, he could imagine it would be the family lawyer.
“He said sometimes when you get drunk, you go into some kind of lament that your life is going nowhere and no one cares about you and you’re not happy. The last time it happened, he said you started talking about suicide and you wondered if your father had the right idea.”
James didn’t confirm or deny it. “And do you know the secret of happiness, William?” He propped up his chin, looking honestly interested.
William’s shoulders slumped. “I used to think I did. I thought being successful and making money would make me happy. Maybe it has to an extent, but . . . I think it’s taking responsibility for things that’s made me the happiest, whether it’s with work or life or anything else.”
“Oh, responsibility,” James intoned. He leaned back, drinking from the brandy glass. “You’ve been talking to the board members, haven’t you?”
“Griswald also told me something about them wanting you to take over,” William replied. “I figured you probably wouldn’t want to.”
“Don’t you want your father to continue running the company?” James asked.
“Not really,” William frowned. “He’s interested in Miriam and Mom’s interested in power and . . . for crying out loud, this family is just a big mess!”
James threw back his head and laughed. “Ha! And it’s taken you this long to figure that out?”
“No, I’ve known it for a long time,” Willie retorted. “I guess I was just hoping things could stop being so pathetic somewhere down the line. But when I don’t know what I’m doing, how am I supposed to help anyone else? Ugh, stupid! I’m just like your dad!”
“You keep referring to some little meeting between the two of you,” James said. “When was this? When he refused to give you a position in the company, you went away angry and perhaps hurt and barely spoke to him at all after that.”
“If I tell you, you’re going to think I’m crazy,” Willie mumbled.
“I’m already well on my way to thinking it right now,” James pronounced. “Maybe if you get that out of the way, something will start making sense.”
Willie started to pace again. “That weird provision in the will, the one about spending seven minutes with his body? He set that up because . . . well, because he wanted to talk to me and tell me how he’d screwed up his life and beg me not to be like him, or something like that. So when I went into the room, he got up out of his coffin and no one else could see him or hear us and we talked and . . . oh boy, it sounds even worse saying it out loud than it did in my head!”
James actually looked thoughtful. “He set up something like that for you and you alone?” He set the glass on the desk again. “Maybe Ann was right, then. You’re the one he loved.” He grimaced. “I wasn’t worth seven such minutes of his time.”
“Would you have listened at all?” Willie wondered. “. . . Or any better than I did?” He stopped pacing, surprised by the other young man’s reaction and somewhat guilty for his prompt judgment.
“I really couldn’t say. I’ve never had a dead person want to speak to me. It sounds . . . fascinating, to be loved that much.” James looked to him. “Am I correct in assuming that you were not terribly receptive?”
“You can say that again. I was belligerent all the way along. Bitter and hateful. . . . And then he comes out and says he loves me and it’s just so overwhelming and so much to take in after all the feelings that’ve been building up inside me for years. . . .” Willie shook his head.
“At least he said it to you,” James grunted. “He never said it to me. I suppose if I was turning into him and he hated himself, that explains it. He couldn’t stand the sight of me.”
“He really felt awful about it,” William said lamely. “About you becoming like him, and about him killing himself. . . .” He frowned. “He said he’d murdered you and Mom and Dad and Miriam all at once when he did that. You were all dead and you didn’t know it yet.”
“Well, here’s to dear old Dad.” James raised yet another glass, this time in a toast. “I believe he was right. In any case, I have been starting to notice it. Griswald was right as well.”
“But that’s just it!” Willie cried in desperation, slamming his hands on the desk as he leaned forward. “You’re not dead yet! You still have a chance. You don’t have to take the same dead-end path your father took!”
“And what do you propose I do instead?” James returned. “Accept the board members’ offer? Take over the company?”
“If that’s how you can really make something of yourself, then yes,” Willie said. “Your father realized money wasn’t everything after he’d slaved for years to make it. You’re starting to realize it after just having his money around to spend. But just having money or a company or anything like that isn’t bad in and of itself; it’s how you use it. Maybe you can make something of yourself with the company, instead of tearing yourself down, like he did.”
“How would I do that, I wonder?” James mused. “Become a philanthropist? Give money away left and right?”
“I don’t know,” William sighed. “It sounds cheesy and everything, but there really is a big need for money in the world. Maybe if you’re using it to help others, it’ll help you too.”
“Is that what you do, William?” James wondered. “Or are you just living hand to mouth, like you were before?”
“I’m a little better off than I was then,” William grumbled. “Sometimes I’m able to give a little.” He hesitated. “. . . Your father told me that neither of us wanted to accept what we are.”
“Oh? And what’s that?” James asked.
“Ambitious . . . craving success . . . in my case. A financial success, but a failure in pretty much everything else . . . someone who tried to say that all of his facades and all of his wrong actions weren’t really the real him . . . in his case. I guess I finally accepted the truth about me. Maybe that’s why I came. Once I accepted it, I thought I could help someone else.”
James looked down, considering those words. “. . . So you really believe I can turn my life around.”
“Yeah. Maybe because you’re not as big a hypocrite as Mom and Dad. You don’t put on airs like they, and especially Mom, do. You don’t try to butter people up if you don’t like them. And you don’t fall for it when they do it; you recognize what they’re after. I’ve talked to Mom and Dad and they’re in denial about what they’re doing, just like your father was.” Willie came closer to the desk. “I guess I’m hoping that if you take over the company responsibly, your example might still touch their hearts and change them in a way that I can’t just by talking to them.”
“Ah, so now we get right to the heart of the matter. That’s quite a burden you’re putting on my shoulders.” James toasted him. “Before you came, I was just thinking how everyone I know uses me. You’re no different.”
“I’d be sharing the burden,” Willie answered. “I just don’t want to accept that your father’s pessimism is the truth. I want to believe there’s hope for you and Mom and Dad. Griswald’s phone call freaked me out. I came to try to stop it from coming true. I still wonder if I could have done something for Uncle James if I’d just known he felt that rotten. I don’t want to get any more phone calls about family members killing themselves!” He slammed his hands on the desk.
“Why?” James countered. “You’re not close to any of us. Would it really make much difference to you?”
“Yeah, it would,” Willie insisted. “You’re still my family.”
“By bloodline only,” James replied.
“No; it goes deeper than that. Maybe it started because of bloodline, but now there’s a bond there.”
“Maybe for you. I prefer to choose my own family,” James said.
“You haven’t had much luck with that,” Willie retorted. “Your friends just want your money, don’t they?”
James nodded. “Just like our dear family.”
“Friends come and go. Family stays around.”
“To plunder and pillage throughout our lives instead of just for a season. Another good reason why friends are better.”
“Oh, for crying out loud!” Willie exclaimed. But with a sinking heart, he knew James was right. Especially when it came to their family. It really was a piece of work.
He sighed, trying to compose himself. “Okay, so if not for Mom and Dad, what about for yourself?” he tried again. “You said your life was going nowhere. Do you really want to keep going on in the rut you’re in?”
“No,” James admitted. “Alright, so suppose I do what you want and take over the company. What if I run it into the ground the rest of the way? What then?”
“I don’t know.” Willie turned away. “At least you’d know you tried?”
James snarked. “Bravo, Cousin William! Bravo!” He sat up straight. “You have made a fair and valiant effort to convince me not to be a directionless playboy all of my life.” He smirked. “And while I can’t say your arguments have all been particularly effective, you’re lucky to have caught me at a moment where I am sick to death of my life and want something different. Maybe I’ll regret this when I’m sober again, but right now it honestly sounds interesting. I’ll take you up on it.”
William turned back, blowing out his breath in frustration. “You’re just mocking me.”
“No, I’m quite serious.” James set the brandy glass down again and this time did not fill it. “Maybe you’ll regret bringing the idea to me someday. I’m sure it won’t change their hearts at all, but will instead ignite a war between us.”
“I’m sure it will at first,” William sighed. “It’s the future I’m thinking about.”
“What if Clyde is so upset that he decides to kill himself? Or worse, me?”
“I don’t think he’s that unstable,” William frowned. “Or despairing. He seems to really like ‘living in sin’. Maybe if he lost his position, Miriam would get bored and leave him and he’d finally start to shape up. And maybe that would start to work on Mom and she’d start to change too.”
James shrugged. “That’s a lot of maybes. But anyway, when at this point you honestly want me to take the company, I’m starting to be intrigued.” He looked at his cousin with sincerity in his eyes. “But all nonsense about family aside, why are you investing so much in this?”
“Because . . .” Willie threw his hands helplessly in the air as he considered how to say it. “Well, I told you I don’t want anyone else in the family to go killing themselves. In spite of everything, I care about all of you. Mom and Dad and you. . . . I love you.”
James stared at him. “Now who sounds drunk?”
“Look, do you think it was easy growing up with parents like them?” William snapped in frustration. “They were never much different than they are now. But they’re still my parents and I feel something for them.”
“What about me?” James countered. “We never had much interaction and I was never terribly congenial when we did.”
“Oh yeah, I know. Part of me isn’t even sure why I care about you. Maybe I just feel sorry for you because your father didn’t love you. Everyone should have someone.”
“So you adapted yourself to love me. How nice.” Now James was sarcastic.
“I don’t know what it is!” William yelled then. “Maybe it’s just because you’re family and that does make an automatic bond there, at least for me.”
“And either way, it’s not really that you care about me personally,” James said.
“I don’t really even know you very well,” William said wearily. “But I wonder if anyone does.”
“Good point. I doubt it.”
“And Uncle James. . . . I said for years I hated him. I said it right to his face, repeatedly. But I loved him before that. I only started to hate him when I started to realize that there were other women in his life besides Aunt Gloria. And when he wouldn’t let me work at the company, that was the topper.” Willie sighed, sitting on the edge of the desk. “I wonder sometimes if I really hated him at all or if I was just hurt.”
“Probably some of both. Me, I’m not sure I felt much of anything for him. He was only around once a week, and only because he was being very dutiful. It’s rather hard to feel much of anything for someone under those circumstances. Perhaps if I’d really thought he loved me, I would have been more interested in him as well as his money. All that insisting he loved me was more me trying to convince myself than anything else.”
“And now you’ve ended up being so much like him.”
“Yes. Ironic, isn’t it? And you yourself, you said that he told you the same thing would have happened to you, had he given you the taste of power you longed for.” James leaned in conspiratorially. “So tell me. What was the meaning behind the 8 ball? Of all the idiotic things to leave someone!”
Willie scowled. “You wouldn’t understand.” He pushed himself off the desk, but then paused. “No, wait. I’ve told you all this other stuff. He left me the 8 ball to remind me not to be afraid of losing, like he was. And to remember to stand up and fight to win, but not just where it came to work. He wanted me to be a winner at life the most.”
“A winner at life.” James gazed off into the distance. “That’s a nice thought. For what shall it profit a man if he shall gain the whole world but lose his own soul? Hmm.” Suddenly he snapped to. “Do you believe every person has a soul to lose?”
“I guess I kind of have to, after talking to Uncle James,” William grumbled.
“True. But regardless, it’s an interesting sentiment anyway. Very fitting for our little mixed-up family, don’t you think?”
“Too much,” William growled.
“Perhaps we should have it framed and positioned in every room of this house and the office,” James remarked. He wasn’t even sure if he was kidding or where the thought of the scripture had even come from in the first place. Probably from long-ago memories of attending church with his mother. She had not only been the sole person he could swear had loved him, she had been the only real stabilizing force in his life. When she had died while he was still in his youth, he had been left with people such as his father and Ann and Clyde for examples. Was it any wonder he had turned out warped? Even William, the most normal of the bunch, still carried a great deal of anger and resentment over the family’s actions.
“Cut it out with the gags,” William snapped now, interrupting the soliloquy. “I’ve been serious!”
“So have I,” James retorted. “Alright, sweet William. I still say you’re using me for your own purposes, and I seriously doubt that you truly have any feeling for me even if you care for your parents, but you convinced me to try this out regardless.” He stood. “I’ll go talk to the board. They should be meeting right now.”
“Are you really sober enough to go now?” William asked doubtfully.
“I’ll have some coffee on the ride over,” James said dismissively.
The board was indeed meeting when the cousins arrived. James stepped into the conference room, briefcase in case, and smiled calmly at the surprised group. “Well, Gentlemen, does your offer to me still stand?”
They looked at each other and then back at him. “Yes, Sir,” said the general manager.
“Then I accept.” James slid into a vacant chair at the table. “Let’s get started.”
William surveyed the meeting for a moment, smiling to himself as he turned to leave.
“You did good, Willie,” he almost thought he heard Uncle James say to him as he walked up the corridor. “Maybe I was wrong about him. Maybe I was wrong about all of them. We’ll see.”
“That’s right, Uncle. We will,” William replied aloud. “We will.”