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Winter Solstice

Winter Solstice


Gary slowly made his way up the 101 freeway north of Los Angeles as a steady December rain pelted the dry Californian landscape. He was on his way to meet a friend for lunch in Ventura and was already tired of the drive. Gary arrived in the beach city just before noon, turned off the freeway and made his way towards the ocean where he found the restaurant and parked the car.

The restaurant, a bar and grill specializing in seafood, was located in an old building on a quiet side street not far from the empty beaches. Always crowded during the summer, the grill survived the off-season by serving good food and drink to a varied and loyal collection of local customers. One of those regular customers was James, a Ventura resident who sold insurance out of the local office of a large underwriter. James and Gary had known each other since their childhood days growing up in Oak Park near Chicago. James left home at 18 for a tour in the Navy and spent much of his time in San Diego. When his six-year enlistment was up in 1986, he decided to stay in Southern California. Gary came to California 10 years later.

As Gary walked down the sidewalk towards the bar, he passed the faceless shapes of several people bundled against the December storm; the rain felt cold against his face. He reached the small awning that sheltered the entrance and went inside, removed his dripping jacket and hung it on a hook near the door. On the left was a small bar and lounge; to the right was the dining area where several patrons sat around small tables eating and quietly talking. Gary looked in at the lounge and saw James sitting alone at the bar, drinking a beer and lost in his thoughts.

Walking into the lounge, he stood next to the seated man and put his hand on an empty stool. “This seat taken?”

The figure turned to look at the man standing beside him and a smile appeared on his face. “Hey, you’re here. Man, it’s good to see you.” The seated figure extended his hand in greeting.

Gary clasped the offered hand. “You, too. Beer?” A bartender appeared and Gary ordered a beer for each of them. “That seemed like a long drive today, in the rain and all.”

“Man, it’s wet out there,” said James. “First big storm of the season.”

“Before I forget, Becky says hello, says she wished she could have made it.”

“Thanks, tell her I was asking for her. By the way,” continued James, “I’m planning another winter campout this year. February, probably, out in the low desert. You guys game for that?”

“Most definitely, let us know when you finalize the details and we’ll try to set some time aside. Becky had a ball last year.”

“Will do,” said James. “You guys still looking to get out of Los Angeles?”

“We are,” answered Gary. ”Becky talks more about it every day. Besides my job, the LA scene is getting us down. We’d like to find a job up here on the coast or down in San Diego. We’re open to Orange County, too, if an opportunity presents itself there.” He took a long pull off his beer. “But it’s almost Christmas and I don’t think anything will happen until the holiday is over, and it can’t be over soon enough to suit me.”

“Man, I know how you feel,” said James. “Every autumn I go into the same funk, the days get short and then it’s Christmas. Every year I find myself in the same dark hole, waiting for the Winter Solstice and the days to start getting longer. Know what I mean?”

“I most definitely do. Here’s to longer days and summer sun,” said Gary, and they clinked beer glasses and drank.

They sat quietly at the bar for a moment, drinking. Once the holidays held a special glow but those days now belonged a receding past; today’s celebrations seemed more stressful than joyous. James made a motion with his hand and the bartender appeared with two more beers.

“How are the kids?” asked Gary.

“They’re doing fine, thanks. Things couldn’t be better, knock on wood,” said James as he rapped the bar twice with his knuckles. “The guy the ex married seems a decent sort; he’s friendly enough to me. I know she’s happy and if she’s happy, I’m happy.”

“Not paying support anymore must feel good.”

“Let’s just say it’s a bigger raise than I would ever get at work. How’s your family?” asked James. “Anything new?”

“My uncle Nigel died,” said Gary. “Did I tell you?”

James shook his head. “Was he the painter?”

“Yeah. He died of a stroke in Chicago. Do you remember him?”

“I do. I met him back in Oak Park when we were kids. Nice guy. Funny and smart. Good looking, too.

“That’s him. He was 84. He had a good reputation among the retired set up there and made a decent living selling his original work and teaching Art at the local community colleges.”

“If I recall, you wrote a long piece about him that appeared in a Los Angeles magazine a few years back, a critical piece that generated some West Coast buzz for Nigel, and gave you some good publicity as well.”

Gary nodded in agreement and raised his glass. “To Nigel.” They both drank.

“Well, I’m sorry to hear that. I know you told me years ago that his wife had passed. That’s too bad; I understand that he was a great guy.”

“He was my favorite Uncle and we were the best of friends. I remember the holidays, how I waited for Nigel to arrive on Christmas Day, how the house came alive with laughter, the fun we always had.”

“Well, 84 years is a good long life; there’s nothing sad in that,” offered James.

“So true, he led a good long life and we were always close. Through the years, we always kept in touch. After Becky entered my life, they became friends, too. Every year she’d bake her traditional holiday treats and send Nigel a big package of them as a gift. He’d always send a basket filled with Wisconsin cheeses and salamis. Every year.” Gary paused and sat silent for a moment before continuing with his story. “You know, James, I never thought about a will, never expected anything from Nigel. Actually, he lived such a humble life that it never occurred to me that he might amass any wealth or have a large estate. But after his death, I learned that there was a will, and that he had recently changed it. He had lowered the amounts that my brother Gordon and I were to receive. Even though I never contemplated receiving anything, when I found out about the changes, I was hurt.”

“Why the change? Do you know?”

“Well, he never had children and after his wife died, he started aging. My brother, Gordon, who still lives in Oak Park, helped him out as best he could. Over the years, Nigel became more dependent on Gordon’s help, asked for more and more of Gordon’s time. You know, errands and shopping, upkeep, all the minor emergencies that pop up.”

Gary paused for a drink then continued with his story. “When Gordon protested, Nigel made a financial commitment to him. Paid Gordon some money occasionally, small monthly amounts here and there, with a promise to leave him a substantial amount in his will. I know this is true because Nigel made the same offer to me, said he would take care of me if I returned to Oak Park and assisted him during his last years of his life. I told Nigel that I lived in California now, that I had a wife and a new life and wasn’t interested in dealing with the snow and cold of Chicago anymore.”

James shook his head. “Man, I can’t imagine anyone being upset with that."

“There’s more. Towards the end,” Gary added, “Nigel’s demands became incessant; he got belligerent as well. He was becoming just an old rude son of a bitch. I believe he was beginning to feel the effects of dementia. When Becky went in for surgery a while back, Nigel sent a check for two hundred dollars. He told me to get my wife some flowers and do something nice for her, so I deposited the check and did just that. Several days later, the check came back; it turns out that the account had been closed. So, I ended up eating both the two hundred dollars and the penalties that my bank charged. It wasn’t a lot of money, but at the time, it hurt. It was money I didn’t have to spend. Other incidents came up as well. Gordon dealt with him as best he could, but Gordon had his own life to lead, his own responsibilities to live up to.”

“I can see where this is going,” said James as he raised a beer to drink.

“When Nigel died,” continued Gary, “Gordon found out about the changes to the will; he’s the one who let me know. Gordon got a small amount, pennies really, and I mean that Gordon had helped him faithfully for almost seven years. Other cousins got 5-figure bequests. I got a few dollars more than Gordon got, but that did not make me feel any better. Actually, I felt worse, dirty somehow. I really didn’t expect anything from Nigel, but when I learned about the snub to both of us, I was hurt.”

“But why?” asked James.

“Good question,” replied Gary. “As for Gordon, I think he just pissed Nigel off. Near the end of Nigel’s life, Gordon refused to cater to every command that Nigel threw his way. Gordon could never do enough, nor do it fast enough, to suit Nigel. I know they argued over some really strange demands.”

“And you?”

“In my case, it was more subtle. For the last months of his life, Nigel would forward me these email chain letters. You know what I mean; we’ve all seen it online, this vile internet crap. Homophobic jokes and the worst kind of racist drivel directed at the President and other prominent blacks, things that were never part of Nigel’s life and personality. I had the temerity to stand up to him. Told him to stop sending that crap; that those emails were neither funny nor trenchant and anyone who said they were was not his friend, did not have his best interests at heart. I asked him how he wanted other people to remember him, if this is what he wanted for his final legacy. He was plenty pissed at me for saying it,” confessed Gary. “I know he was, yet I argued with him anyway. I was right and let him know it. But that didn’t change how I felt about him. We did not have much contact in the last year of his life but every time I did talk with him, I told him I loved him, and I meant it. As for the other cousins, I don’t hold much for them one way or the other. Gordon told me about one cousin he contacted for help with Nigel, all he got in return was a laundry list of more things that the cousin thought Gordon should do. None of them ever raised a finger to help, never did anything to make Gordon’s plight any easier to bear,” said Gary, a hint of annoyance evident in his voice.

“Nothing surprises me anymore,” said James, prophetically.

“Gordon talked with a lawyer about contesting the will. The lawyer said there was nothing Gordon could do, except spend a lot of his own money and time contesting it. It was all legal: signed, sealed, and delivered. The lawyer said such things happen all the time to families, it was Nigel’s money and he could do what he wanted with it. To prove Nigel was not of sound mind was virtually impossible and without a signed contract, Gordon could not make any sizeable claim stand up against what Nigel had bequeathed in his will. It’s like a person reaching back from beyond the grave to shame and ridicule someone in the family. I can live with it, but I feel so bad for Gordon. I still do.”

Gary motioned to the bartender and the bartender returned and placed two fresh beers on the bar in front of them. After a few moments of silence, James spoke.

“Gary, my father did the same thing to me. Only he left me with nothing.”

“What?” Gary exclaimed. “You’re kidding me. I knew your mom and dad for 50 years. Peter loved you. What the hell is this about?” Gary couldn’t believe what he had just heard, He had known James’s parents, Peter and Dorothy all his life and had always been fond of them. He was saddened by Dorothy’s death five years ago, and Peter had passed away last year. They had retired to Southern California to escape the Chicago winters and to be closer to their children and grandchildren.

“It really sucks,” said James. “I haven’t shared this with anyone, really. I’m so goddamn angry, it just eats me up inside.”

“You were their best and closest friend, let alone their son,” said Gary. “I’m speechless.”

“It’s unbelievable,” said James in a quiet voice. “For the past 20 years, especially after my divorce, I did everything for my folks. Ran errands, mowed the lawn, worked on the house when things fell into disrepair. You name it, I did it. Hell, you know firsthand.”

“Yes, I do know what you did for them, most definitely I do,” offered Gary, “and I also know how much they loved you.”

“When mom died, things were different, kind of like what happened with Nigel. Dad missed her terribly.” James rubbed his hands together, took a swig of beer and continued. “He started changing, slowly at first. With her gone, there was no longer any regularity in his day-to-day activities. He changed sleeping times and ate meals at all hours. He lived on the computer, playing games and using email. And just like with Nigel, my father made more and more demands on me. He was always asking me to run an errand or take him to the doctors. And you know what? I did them, I did them all; it was a labor of love and I was okay with it.”

“So what happened?” asked Gary.

“His driving became erratic and I was concerned about it. Concerned wasn’t the word; I agonized over it. I knew him better than anyone, I knew his eyesight was poor and reflexes slow. I asked him to consider surrendering his driving license, to turn it in for his own good before something bad happened, either to dad himself or to someone else. Man, he got pissed with me over that. Actually, things were never the same between us. In fact, they quickly got worse. He said I was plotting against him, trying to steal his house, trying to get him locked up. He began to be paranoid and questioned everything I said or did. Eventually he would not see me or talk to me. We did not have meals together or see each other on the holidays; he wouldn’t allow it.”

Gary shook his head, “I had no idea.”

“After he died,” continued James, “the will was entered into probate and that’s when I learned the truth. You can’t imagine how I felt. I was out, totally, nothing. My derelict older sister inherited half of the estate, she’s married to that idiot salesman from Wisconsin. The remainder went to my younger sister and her family in Long Beach. She’s a good kid and I like her and her husband. But both of them took plenty from mom and dad over the years, and never did anything in kind to repay them, nor did they ever help me care for mom and dad in their last years for that matter. Let’s face it, the money in a will equates to the amount of love and respect that the dead person had for the living. I talked with a lawyer about contesting the will, just as your brother Gordon did. Basically, he told me the same thing, that I had no real recourse. My mother must be rolling over in her grave. If she were alive, she would be so damned mad at Peter for doing this, she would never have allowed this to happen.”

“Unbelievable. So bloody awful, what a terrible thing to experience.”

“There’s more,” said James.

“Tell me,” replied Gary.

“Dad met a neighborhood kid before he died, a young girl named Jessie. She came by Dad’s a couple times and made lunch for him. He left her two thousand dollars in his will. Can you believe that shit?”

“No, no I can’t,” replied Gary. Visions of open graves and the voices of angry old men flashed for a moment in Gary’s mind. “What a shame.”

“These goddamn lawyers,” said James, “it might be legal but it sure ain’t right. What kind of lawyer helps a person like my dad remember a pretty face that made lunch a few times, and helps him shame me in front of the entire family, the person that loved him, warts and all, the person that cared for him during the most painful and trying decades of his life. I wonder what the hourly rate for that is.”

“You are right on, my friend,” said Gary. “Most definitely, it might be legal but it sure as hell ain’t right. Neither my uncle nor your dad had all their wits about them when these things happened. Each had lost some connection to the past. Is that part of dementia? If it’s not elder abuse, what is it? The law and the courts say everything is legal. Remember the lawyer I mentioned earlier, the one Gordon talked with? He said this happens to families all the time; that the dead extend their reach from beyond the grave to pluck at the very heart of the family. I’m so sorry”

“It certainly hurts,” said James.

At a signal from Gary, the bartender appeared with the tab and set it down on the bar. Gary looked at it, threw two bills on top of it, and pushed it back at the bartender. “Thanks, that’s good,” said Gary. The bartender nodded in reply.

“I tell you what,” said Gary, standing. “I’ve got my heart set on a plate of scallops. What say we get a table in the other room and I’ll buy you lunch. And even though I have a pretty face, I won’t expect you to remember me in your will.”

James slid off his barstool and placed an arm around Gary’s shoulder. “You’re an asshole, always were, but I still love you.”

The two old friends stood looking into each other’s eyes and shared a long laugh. Then they turned and walked out of the bar and seated themselves at a table in the dining room.

Outside, the cold December rain continued unabated.