The young woman sat in the leather chair before the huge mahogany desk, her hands clasped tightly in her lap. Her right leg was crossed over the left knee and right foot wedged behind the left ankle; her shoulders were curved forward as if in self-protection, as the man across the expanse of polished wood explained the process by which she would inherit the estate of her widowed mother, who had died two weeks earlier.
Regina Stallworth, called Reggie, was a petite woman of twenty-seven, with the honed body of a runner, and cropped, straight, nearly black hair. Her small face was dominated by large brown eyes, her nose and mouth were delicately shaped. At her best she had an elfin charm, but today she was far from her best. Her olive skin, under the fluorescent lights of the office, looked sallow, her dark brows were drawn together in a worried pucker. She was biting her lower lip.
Given the formality of this meeting she had dressed as she had for faculty meetings at the school where she had recently taught – navy blazer and black skirt, white blouse, black flats on her stockingless feet. But the clothes hung loose, clearly bought when she was a size or two larger; the blouse needed ironing; the shoes were scuffed.
By contrast, the appearance of her mother’s executor’s spoke of wealth and fastidious attention to detail. His ruddy face was set off by neat silver hair, his manicured hands rested on the copy of her mother’s last will and testament. A heavy gold watch was visible beneath the cuff of his dress shirt which bore an embroidered monogram.
“I must say, Regina, your parents left everything in excellent order,” he said. “I don’t often see such care taken. They must have loved you very much. Except for their church and the orphanage, you’re their sole beneficiary.”
“Thank you” was the only response Reggie could think of. The orphanage was her mother’s pet charity, the place from which Susannah and Richard Stallworth, both in their late forties and having given up hope for a biological child, had adopted her at birth. In truth, she had never felt loved by her parents; she had always felt like a disappointment and an inconvenience. But in material terms they had amply provided for her, paying for her excellent education and now leaving this astonishing legacy to her.
That legacy, as described by this lawyer, included the mortgage-free house in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, that she had grown up in, built by her parents on five acres that sloped down to a private waterfront on a six-hundred-acre lake. “Now that the Berkshires have become such a tourist destination, the value of that property has skyrocketed in the past thirty-five years,” the lawyer said, “and the taxes have gone up accordingly. But it shouldn’t be a burden to you.”
There was an investment account that, the lawyer said, “should continue to generate enough income for you to live on and meet all your expenses, provided you keep your spending modest. And that’s a conservative approach, based on preserving principal. I could also help you prepare a plan that would enable you to slowly draw down the principal, if you find that your needs exceed the interest income alone.”
She realized how hard she was gripping the arms of her chair and made a conscious effort to relax her hands. “No,” she said, “thank you. I’m used to living frugally.” Frugal – it had the sound of joyless, even punitive, self-denial.
He picked up a sheet of paper and passed it to her. “Here’s a summary of the account.”
The figures made her shrink back a little, feeling dazzled as if she had gazed directly at the sun. Though, as a former math teacher, she was comfortable with numbers, what she saw on that paper momentarily immobilized her.
She handed the paper back to the lawyer. “I can’t really take this in right now.”
“Of course,” he said gravely. He went on to tell her that there was also a life insurance policy; checking and savings accounts; the contents of a safe deposit box. “There will be estate taxes,” he said, “quite significant given the value of the total inheritance. But when all is said and done you will still be very well off. A very fortunate young lady.”
His voice faded in and out like a transmission from a radio station with a weak signal.
“Do you have enough to live on while the estate is being settled?” the lawyer asked her. “It usually takes six to nine months. I can arrange a loan to cover expenses for the next several months.”
“That would probably help,” she said. Newly unemployed, she had accumulated only the meager savings that a low-paid private school teacher could afford.
“I’ll take care of that right away,” the lawyer said, “if you’ll send me a list of the household expenses and the monthly stipend you think you’ll need.”
“Thank you, Mr. Sager.”
“I am happy to help,” he said, his face expanding with self-satisfaction. “Your parents were fine people. It was my privilege to handle their affairs for the past thirty years. And now, however I may be of assistance to you, just let me know.”
She thanked him again and rose. He walked her to the elevator and shook her cold hand with his warm, pudgy one. Alone in the elevator car she slumped against the wall and gripped the brass rail behind her, feeling her new fortune weighing on her like a leaden overcoat. She wasn’t sure she was capable of handling it. The one thing she was sure of was that she felt totally unworthy of it.
That evening, carrying a bundle, she walked down the gentle hillside to the lake. No other houses were visible to the west; the imposing brick house of the Stallworths’ nearest neighbor stood behind a thick stand of evergreens. To the east, a line of smaller houses curved up Hillside Road; she could see their lights shining amid the newly unfurled leaves on the trees that marked the edge of her parents’ – now, unthinkably, her – property.
The May evening was mild enough to require only a fleece jacket. The sky was clear, with a few stars beginning to glitter against the deepening blue-gray of the sky. She deposited her bundle, wrapped in a paint-stained drop cloth, beside the stone fireplace that her family had always used for barbecues. She opened the cloth and took out three short lengths of wood and a few sheets of The Berkshire Eagle that she crumpled up and put at the bottom of the fireplace, stacking the logs in a pyramid above the paper. To ensure that everything would burn completely, she had brought an ancient bottle of charcoal lighter, probably untouched since her father’s death ten years earlier, and squirted the liquid liberally into the fireplace. She lit the newspaper with a long wooden match and the flame leapt up with a whoosh.
She picked up the other objects she had brought, holding each for one last look before burning it. A gold satin tank top. A pair of black velvet pants. Black lace underwear. A pair of ridiculous shoes with pointed toes and high heels, that she had been able to tolerate for just an hour before taking them off and going barefoot at the faculty Christmas party, half a year and another lifetime ago.
It took a while for the various synthetic materials to catch; she poked them with a stick to keep them from smothering the flames as they shriveled into clumps of goo, only the white struts of the high heels’ inner supports remaining, looking like bones among the black cinders.
Next on the pyre was a letter on a sheet headed “The Milbank School.” A fragment of its opening paragraph drew her reluctant gaze like a grisly accident scene impossible to look away from: “terminated, effective immediately, in light of the recent incident that has compromised your ability to serve as a sound role model . . . ”
Another letter, handwritten in bold, dark print, followed it into the flames so swiftly that she caught only a glimpse of “deserved better, Reggie. Please forgive me. David” before it shriveled into a curl of carbon.
She picked up and gazed for the last time at a photograph of a young man, tall and lean, with wet black hair, smiling triumphantly in nylon shorts and a tank top that bore his number placard from the New York Marathon. Looking directly at the camera, his eyes seemed to be fixed on hers, and, in the months after he gave the picture to her, had conveyed conflicting messages: from -- at first -- You gave me the strength for this achievement, to -- after the end -- I’m a winner and you’re a loser. She thrust it into the fire.
Last was a small book, a collection of inspirational aphorisms for runners; she opened the front cover to look at the inscription handwritten there in the same dark hand as the letter: “To Reggie, Christmas 2017: ‘Run when you can, walk if you have to, crawl if you must; just never give up.’ Love, David.” She doused the book with lighter fluid, then threw it into the heart of the flame where it ignited with a thump.
Darkness gathered around her as she sat crosslegged on the grass and watched the fire die down. She poked and crushed the live embers with a stick to disperse them safely, then stared, mesmerized, at the traces of orange that pulsated within the blackened fragments of wood, cloth, plastic, and paper, intensifying whenever a stray breeze blew over them.
When the glow had faded and only a smoldering bed of cinders remained, she stood, and headed up the hill on legs that felt too weary and stiff ever to run again, or even crawl.