[This is both in lieu of a conventional op-ed essay and something of an early Christmas present to my readers. It’s the final “Origins” segment of Statesman. If you haven’t read both earlier segments, it won’t make much sense. (Hint! Hint!) I don’t know whether you’ll enjoy it, in the conventional sense of that word. I didn’t enjoy writing it. But here it is -- FWP.]
She jabbed at the recorder’s stop key with a stiffened finger.
“You think that reflected well on him?”
He nodded, eyes perfectly serious.
“A man who makes light of women’s highest issue—”
He snorted a laugh. “Higher than her right to life? Higher than rape or the sexual abuse of her children? Higher than her abandonment by the father of those children? Higher than women’s desire to be accorded ‘equality’ with men—an equality that bitch chose to undermine with false accusations of harassment and discrimination?”
Her mouth dropped open.
“I’ve been telling you about the best man I’ve ever known. I can’t imagine improving on his mind, his conduct, or his morals. He ate at our table dozens of times. It was a privilege to have him there. It was an education, even an ennoblement, just to engage him in a little small talk. Violet Hochberg was willing to ruin him professionally because he’d made a judgment—an accurate judgment, as it turned out—that she wasn’t good enough, that she hadn’t earned what she was demanding, and that it would cost the company to indulge her ambition and her pretensions. Imagine if he’d lacked the moral fiber to refuse her. Imagine if he hadn’t defied the grievance committee—a committee that had never before exonerated anyone. Imagine what would have become of her future once she’d been allowed to demonstrate that she wasn’t good enough, right out in front of God and everybody, by crippling the AAR project.” He shook his head. “None so blind as those who will not see.”
It silenced her. He waited.
Presently she said. “I suppose you have a point. But I still want to hear about the woman he finally hooked up with.”
“Ah!” He smiled. “How I love modern jargon! ‘Hooked up.’ Sounds a bit like having your car towed away. I’m not sure you know what you’re asking, but...all right. Though I’m surprised at the intensity of your interest.”
She snorted. “Why wouldn’t I be?”
“I thought you were here to talk about me.”
“But this is about you, isn’t it?”
His mouth tightened. “In a way, I suppose. But it’s a complicated story. Perhaps we should save it for tomorrow.”
“I have time.” She smirked. “Do you have something pressing?”
His jaw tightened. “No.”
She started her recorder.
Sumner had just shed his jacket, taken his seat at his desk, and addressed the topmost of the memoranda before him when there came a brief knock at his office door. He donned his “professionally insincere” smile and braced for yet another of the seemingly endless procession of self-styled dignitaries that hoped to persuade Onteora Aviation to gratify some whim wholly disconnected from its business. As his gaze rose from the memorandum he’d been scanning, the false smile was displaced by a wholly sincere one.
“Louis!” He charged out from behind his desk and wrapped Louis Redmond in a hug. “It’s been an age! How the hell are you and where are you working these days?”
Redmond did not reply. Sumner released him, stepped back, and looked closely at his face. It was then that Sumner first sensed that it was not a pleasure call.
“What’s wrong?” he murmured.
Redmond smiled wanly. “Nothing that time won’t fix. I do need help with a legal matter, though.” He clapped Sumner on the back, and Sumner released him. “Are you still in that line of work, or does the rubber-chicken circuit take up all your time nowadays?”
Sumner pretended embarrassment. “You heard about that, did you?”
“I do pay attention to the news, Steve.” He gestured Sumner back to his seat and took the guest chair immediately before him. “How did it happen?”
Sumner reseated himself and flipped a hand. “Anders got a call a few days back. It seems Governor Wriston isn’t happy about the performance of ‘his’ lieutenant-governor—that’s how he refers to Marcus Burrell, believe it or not—and wants a new one for his next term. He asked Anders for a name, someone who wouldn’t necessarily bring great glamor to the ticket, but who wouldn’t weigh it down with baggage. In other words, a safe nonentity who’d take orders and not talk back. Anders suggested me, the fink, and he fixed it so I couldn’t refuse” He smirked. “I haven’t yet figured out how I’m going to repay him, but I will.”
“I’m relieved to hear it wasn’t your idea,” Redmond said. “I assume you and the governor have met?”
“Oh yes. I’ve been a Republican all my adult life, but I’ve got to tell you, Louis, if Wriston represents what the party is coming to, I won’t be one much longer.” Sumner shook his head in disbelief. “If he’d been one of Lincoln’s advisers, he’d have told him not to be too hasty, there’s some good aspects to this slavery thing.”
“But you agreed to be his running mate anyway?”
Sumner nodded. “Anders made it clear that it would be in the company’s best interests. Besides, it’s a chance to speak my mind from a high pulpit, maybe get some people thinking. Whatever Wriston thinks he knows about me, he can’t stop me from doing that much.”
“How did Adrienne take it?”
“It troubled her at first,” Sumner said. “She knew it would mean time apart, time in preparation, time campaigning, and assuming Wriston wins re-election, a lot of time away from Onteora.”
“Did Rosalie or Allison register an opinion?”
Sumner shrugged. “If they did, I haven’t been told about it.”
He’ll tell me what he’s here for sooner or later...won’t he?
“So even with all that, might you have the time,” Redmond said at last, “to help me with a legal problem?”
“I suppose it would depend on the problem,” Sumner said. “You’re not in trouble, I hope?”
“Not with the law,” Redmond said. “At least, I hope not. But I have a need.” He paused and grimaced briefly, as if he were fighting some interior pain. “And I don’t know what part of the law applies to it.”
I don’t like the way he’s been carrying himself. He is in some sort of difficulty, and he’s straining not to tell me too much about it.
“There’s a piece of property...a house and grounds,” Redmond said. “I own it free and clear, and I need to give it to someone without notifying that someone or involving her in the process. Is that possible under New York law?”
“You need to do this?”
Is his trouble financial? Can’t pay the property taxes? But that would hardly compel him to give away a piece of real estate that’s got to be worth tens of thousands of dollars.
“I think it’s possible,” Sumner said after a moment’s reflection. “As far as I’m aware, all that’s required for a transfer of title to real property is the expressed desire of the current owner, payment of the recording fee, and an unambiguous identification of the new owner. But sooner or later the new owner has to be informed of the conveyance. Do you have a method in mind?”
Another nod. “That’s the second part.” Redmond paused, breathed once deeply, and smiled. “I need help drawing up a will.”
What Redmond asked of him required little. The simplicity of his bequest, married to the standard form for a Last Will and Testament, made the composition of the will a matter of minutes. Redmond’s signature, Sumner’s signature as witness, and OA’s in-house notary’s seal immunized it to judicial dismissal.
Next, Sumner composed a carefully worded statement of intent to transfer all right, title, and interest in the house and grounds at 633 Alexander Avenue in Foxwood to Christine M. D’Alessandro, currently resident at that address, for no return consideration. Redmond and Sumner affixed their signatures, the notary affixed his seal to it, and the thing was done. As far as Sumner knew, he only had to deliver it to the county clerk to effectuate the transfer.
The whole matter seemed to be simplicity itself. When Redmond thanked Sumner and departed, it was barely 9:00 AM. Yet he stared at the surface of his desk, focused on nothing, for several long minutes more.
I’ve never heard of anyone willingly ceding title to a house and its plot the way Louis just did. It’s probably been a century since it happened last.
Who on Earth is this Christine D’Alessandro? He never mentioned her before this morning. She shares his address and he’s leaving her all his worldly goods, so she’s got to be pretty special. She’s his first girl ever, unless there’s a hell of a lot he hasn’t told anyone.
But why doesn’t he want her to know about the title conveyance?
Redmond’s unanticipated desire for a will, a subject Sumner had never before heard him address, was especially troubling. The engineer was most emphatic that it be ironclad, such that probate was unquestionably averted and no one could possibly contest it.
Is he sick? He didn’t look it. Then again, there are diseases that don’t show on the outside. Some of them are pretty damned serious.
Adrienne won’t be happy to hear about any of this.
Adrienne Sumner had adopted Louis Redmond as the son she’d never had. For several years she’d been relentless in her attempts to match Redmond up: hopefully with her sister Rosalie, but failing that, at least with one of her single friends. Lack of success had never daunted her. Learning that he was “off the market,” linked to a woman neither of them had met, would frustrate her all the more.
Should I tell her?
Without complete information about Redmond’s current circumstances and the reasons for his requests, it would be more than difficult.
Maybe not just yet.
He rose and shook himself, donned his jacket, and set forth for the county center.
Onteora County Clerk Ames Bradford had occupied the office for some eighteen years. He was of that species of civil servant that regards civility as discretionary and the rendering of actual service as an unpardonable imposition on his time. No doubt it helped that the Onteora Republican Party had selected him personally for the position. It helped even more that he’d thrice run for re-election unopposed. He looked at Redmond’s carefully worded, signed, and notarized intent to transfer his property as a cobra might view a mongoose.
“I’ve never seen such a thing before,” Bradford said. “I don’t think I can accept it without first consulting with the county’s attorneys.” He pushed the document away and started to turn back toward the monitor of his desktop computer.
“Mr. Bradford,” Sumner said, “New York real property law is explicit on this subject. All that’s required to effectuate the transfer is a clear, witnessed statement of intent and the identification of the beneficiary. Had Mr. Redmond delivered it to you in person, what would your response have been?”
A smirk started to form on Bradford’s features. He took a moment to suppress it.
“I’d have questioned his sanity. I drive past that address several times per week. It’s worth three hundred thousand dollars at the very least. And he’s giving it away to his girlfriend? What could he be thinking?”
Sumner felt his blood pressure rise. He calmed himself with an effort.
“Are you rejecting the statement of intent, Mr. Bradford? Prepared by an attorney in good standing before the New York bar, signed by the property’s current owner, witnessed and notarized as the law requires? Because if that’s what you’re doing, I’ll require you to state your grounds for doing so, and to cite the legal provision under which you’ve done so.” He smiled. “Before witnesses.”
Bradford glared at Sumner for a long, silent moment. Presently he smiled and sat back, fingers interlaced behind his head.
“Well, Counselor,” the clerk said, “before you inconvenience any hypothetical witnesses, would you please tell me why Mr. Redmond isn’t here with you?”
Sumner frowned. “I’m his attorney of record. He’s paying me to handle this for him. Why should he be here when he could be earning his living?”
“Including whatever sum he’ll need to meet your invoice, of course,” Bradford said. “Then how do you propose to prove that this...intent wasn’t composed, signed, and notarized under duress? Or for that matter, that Mr. Redmond was of sound mind when he signed it?”
Sumner started to reply, halted himself.
What would constitute proof? There’s no requirement in the law that a man prove himself of sound mind; the burden of proof lies with those who allege otherwise. But duress? When the transaction at issue is this large, and this unusual? Louis could be standing next to me, and there’d be no way to prove that he or someone he loves hadn’t been threatened. Where does the burden of proof lie then?
I have to step out onto a narrow limb.
“Mr. Bradford,” he said with all the confidence he could muster, “the burden of proof that a man has acted under duress lies with those who claim that to be the case. Otherwise I could bring Mr. Redmond, his confessor, and the pope here to testify to his freedom of will, and you could still reject his intent because you harbor a reasonable doubt. The county’s attorneys will confirm that.” He pulled out his cell phone and laid it on Bradford’s desk. “But if you prefer, I could contact Governor Roland Wriston in Albany and have him read New York’s laws of testimony and bequest to you.”
Bradford’s eyes widened. He slid forward on his seat and assessed Sumner afresh, like a detective whose assistant had just burst into an interrogation with a new and devastating article of evidence.
Sumner nodded once.
“If I accept this intent as correct and uncoerced,” the clerk said, “open the records, and enter a new owner for—” he leaned forward to glance at the document—“633 Alexander Avenue, Foxwood, New York into the tax rolls, what assurance can you give me that I won’t come under fire for it later?”
Sumner shrugged minutely. “None, I suppose. But isn’t that just one of the hazards of public service? You know, like a charge of nonfeasance for the willful refusal to discharge a stated duty of your position?”
Bradford stared at him with unconcealed distaste.
Presently the clerk leaned forward, snagged Redmond’s statement of intent, and said “I’ll execute it this afternoon.”
Sumner shook his head. “You’ll do it right now, with me watching. And I’ll want a transaction receipt, with all details, signed by you in my presence.” He tapped his cellphone’s screen with an index finger. “Now, will you attend to this immediately, as I’ve requested, so that I can get back on the campaign trail before lunch, or must I call the governor?”
Bradford merely grunted assent.
Sumner returned to his office to find Anders Forslund waiting there.
The CEO of Onteora Aviation was sitting at his ease in one of Sumner’s guest chairs. The trade magazine on his lap was open to a spectacular aerial photograph of a Navy warplane engaged in a high-g maneuver. He started as Sumner arrived, closed the magazine and rose.
Sumner shook his head. “A favor for a friend.”
Forslund shrugged. “I suppose between the campaign, and your other responsibilities, I should count myself lucky to find you in here.” The observation carried no trace of reproach. “Is the friend someone I know?”
Forslund’s eyebrows rose. “Professional, legal, or social?”
Sumner grimaced. “Legal. I’m not sure I should talk about it.”
“Then don’t. Is he all right, generally speaking? Working for someone that appreciates him?”
“I don’t know, Anders.” Sumner slipped behind his desk and seated himself. “It’s the first time I’ve seen him since he resigned. He didn’t look right, but I can’t put my finger on why not.”
And I can’t say any more about it without breaching his privacy.
Forslund’s gaze rested on him for a long, uncomfortable moment. Presently he said “Well, when you see him next, I’d appreciate it if you’d let him know that I’d pay him twice what he was getting if he’d agree to come back. The software department—”
Sumner held up a hand. “I doubt he’ll be coming back, Anders. Not because he’s happier...where he is.” He looked away as he fought his reluctance to state his conjecture, as if by so doing he might transform it into immutable truth.
“I think he’s dying.”
“Hello Louis, it’s Steve Sumner. I have your documents ready for you.”
“Already? Excellent. Were there any problems?”
“The county clerk was reluctant to process your property transfer.” Sumner smirked. “I straightened him out before he could become...tiresome.”
“Great. Well, what do I owe you?”
“For this? Nothing. It’s a pleasure to do a favor for a friend.” Sumner hesitated. “I’ll have your papers with me if you’ll meet me for lunch. Can you spare the time?”
“Of course I can, Steve. How about Costigan’s at noon?”
“I’ll see you there.”
Sumner delicately returned the handset to its cradle.
It lacked five minutes of noon when Sumner arrived at Costigan’s Pub. He made it just in time to secure the last unoccupied booth. He seated himself, spread Redmond’s legal documents out before him, and examined them one last time to assure himself that all was as it should be. There were no errors or ambiguities in either that he could detect.
Whatever the reason he needs to do this, it’s done and done properly.
At exactly noon Redmond appeared at the pub doors. He spotted Sumner at once, deftly threaded his way through the maze of tables, slid into his seat and extended a hand. Sumner shook it.
“What’ll you have?”
Redmond smirked. “A modest slice of middle-class poverty, New York style, with a side of legalese.”
Sumner snorted. “Your own doing, if so. I suggest you put these in a safe place.” He pushed the papers across the table, and Redmond gathered them in. A pretty young waitress appeared at their side.
“What can I get you gentlemen?” she said.
Sumner smiled. “A burger and fries, medium-well, and a stein of whatever Pat has on tap today. Louis?”
Redmond turned toward the waitress and produced a devastating, wholly unprecedented smile. It transformed his face, pleasant enough but normally unremarkable, into a vision of something beatific, the visage of a creature who knew beauties and joys from the realms beyond time.
The waitress’s face went slack. Her lips parted and her hands fell to her sides. She seemed to slide involuntarily closer to the table, as if under the compulsion of an unseen force.
“Patricia,” she murmured.
Redmond’s brow furrowed. “Hm?”
“My name.” She laid a hand on his and edged closer still.
“Oh. Well, may I have the same as my friend, Patricia?” He squeezed her hand almost imperceptibly.
Whatever spell Redmond had put upon the waitress, his words and subtle gesture seemed to break it. She straightened with a jerk, smiled professionally as she jotted down their orders, and moved smoothly away.
What the hell was that about?
Redmond turned back toward him as if nothing much had happened. “So the clerk gave you a spot of trouble?”
Sumner collected himself. “Uh, yeah. He questioned your sanity.” I’m not sure he had no reason. “Who’s this Christine you’re leaving all your worldly goods?”
Redmond flipped a hand. “A charity case.” The waitress returned with their beers and set them down on the table. Redmond thanked her with a nod. She reciprocated expressionlessly and left at once. “How are things going at OA?”
“About as usual,” Sumner said. “Dick Orloff is still heartbroken about your resignation. Anders stopped by a little earlier, said he’d double your salary if you’d agree to come back.”
This Christine person shares your address. She’s got to be more than one of your charities. Why aren’t you willing to talk about her?
Redmond grinned. “They’ll get over it. The department is full of good engineers. They don’t need me.”
Sumner sipped at his beer. “Actually, the TPCA has put a hurtin’ on the whole Engineering building. There haven’t been any conscription warrants served on us yet, but everyone is on edge.”
Redmond nodded. “I can imagine. It’s one of the reasons I left.”
But not the only one?
Sumner tried for a casual tone. “So what’s been going on with you these past couple of months? Adrienne is dying to know. Another job, or just doing some consulting?”
All trace of pleasure faded from Redmond’s countenance. In that moment a pall seemed to descend over the restaurant. The bustle of waitresses, diners, and scattered conversations muted to nothing.
“Neither, Steve,” Redmond said. “A little chemotherapy, some surgery, and a lot of prayer.” His mouth twitched in a simulacrum of a smile. “Spinal cancer.”
The words lanced through Sumner with the impact of a spear. “Are you...will you be...?”
“No.” Redmond lowered his gaze to the table. “It’s terminal.”
The waitress arrived with their lunches.
Sumner could not bring himself to return to his office.
The doors to Our Lady of the Pines were unlocked, as usual. He slipped silently into the church, hoping not to be noticed by whoever else was present. It proved unnecessary; the nave was without other human presence. He went to the communion rail, knelt, and fixed his gaze on the Tabernacle.
Lord Jesus, I’ve been thrown for a loop. In the space of a single morning, I’ve learned more about loss than I ever expected to know...or to need to know. Yet the loss is not mine, at least not principally.
I don’t pretend that I have a right to know Your mind, but I can’t help asking: why, Lord? Why must the world lose the finest creature ever to grace it, apart from Yourself, at so young an age? Why must we who love him be deprived of him so soon? Is it Your will? Do You need him beside You more than we need him here? Has he already earned his reward, and need no longer suffer the trials of fleshly existence? Or is it just...one of those things?
If this truly must be, Lord, then Your will be done. But please, spare him any further suffering or sorrow. Let his last days be joyous. Let him have love and companionship all the way to the end...and let that end be gentle, just a falling asleep to awaken in Your radiant presence. For if I know anything, it is that he is Your beloved, just as he is ours who have known him here on Earth. Take him to Your bosom and forever hold him close.
He remained on his knees long after all words and thought had deserted him.
Sumner returned to his home a few minutes after five PM. Adrienne’s face fell as her gaze lit upon his countenance.
He set his briefcase down in the hallway and nodded.
She went to him and took his hands. “Is it anything I can help with?”
“Afraid not.” He took her in his arms. “But I do have some news.”
“Louis is...has himself a girl. Christine somebody.”
“Damn!” She grimaced. “I mean, not that I begrudge him, but...”
“Believe me, I get it. You begrudge her.” Though maybe you shouldn’t.
“Well...yes. Rosalie will be seriously pissed.” She shook her head. “She thought she’d finally made some progress with him. The last time they were both here, he actually touched her.”
“Really? After all those years of careful avoidance?”
She smirked. “Really. It wasn’t even accidental.”
“Maybe we should keep this to ourselves, then.” He shed his jacket and hung it in the hall closet.
“Should we invite the two of them for dinner?”
“Hm? Louis and Ro?”
“No, silly, Louis and his girl. We haven’t seen him in months. And we should give her a proper inspection.”
Sumner’s heart clenched. “I don’t think that will be possible, sweetie. He’s...kind of busy these days.”
Her eyebrows rose. “Too busy for dinner with us?” Her tone made her displeasure plain.
“Something like that.”
“He told me to tell no one else,” he said. “He didn’t want it to become common knowledge. I’ve never worked out why he told me.”
She was unable to speak. He noticed and smiled sadly.
“Handling Louis’s property conveyance and preparing his will was about the last bit of legal work I ever did.” He smirked. “And it didn’t have a blessed thing to do with the corporation or the law.
“After that I saw him only once more, at Mass,” he said. “I wanted to be with him at the end. I even asked him for the privilege. I can’t imagine that I was the only one. He wouldn’t have it. He said he had to face God alone. He was certain God would refuse him, because his faith had been riven by doubt. I’d guess that no one who knew him would agree, though I haven’t exactly conducted a survey.”
“He was that unanimously admired?” she said.
He nodded. “Even by his enemies, and before you ask, yes, he did have a couple. Did that make it any clearer why I consider him the most important of my...how did you phrase it? ‘Formative influences?’”
“Yes,” she murmured. “Clearly. And your bodyguard turned out to be Christine? I mean, his girl, the one he left everything to?”
He nodded again. “And dearer to me than anyone but Adrienne and Louis himself.” His mouth curved into a grin. “I should tell you her story, too, but not just now.”
They shared a moment of silence. It was sundered by the opening of the door behind him. She looked up, but he only smiled.
“It appears we’re done for today,” he said.
“May I come back tomorrow?”
“Of course,” he said. “And the day after, if you like.”
She nodded. “Then I will.”