Keeping Them Happy Ch. 7

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Arnold said he’d think about it and let Mason know his decision in the next few days. As they ended their phone conversation, Mason concluded that Arnold would seek opinions from his wife and friends and maybe even another attorney, if he could find one who would talk with him in person without charging a fee.

There was a knock and someone tried the office door, which Mason habitually kept locked. He got up and opened it a few inches. It was Jane Moss, his first wife. She was an attractive brunette who looked about ten years younger than her forty-four years and who spent significant amounts of money on clothes and cosmetics to maintain that look. She did this, in Mason’s estimation, without realizing it, a natural narcissist.

He showed her in, noticing immediately that she was wearing an ingratiating smile, an indication that she wanted something. He hadn’t seen her since her last visit, about three months earlier, when she told him she needed more child support. She had threatened in a subtle manner to take her request to court if he didn’t raise the monthly stipend voluntarily. Knowing that she genuinely was hurting for cash and that his support payments were artificially low, being based on levels set at the time of the divorce twelve years earlier and not adjusted since then, he voluntarily agreed to twenty-five dollars more per month for each of their two children. He knew that the increase he offered was about what the court would order if she took it to a hearing; and Elizabeth, the older daughter, was already eighteen and probably would not last long in college. She had her mother’s interests, despite Mason’s inducements. He had promised to pay for all of his children’s college costs, even though he had been ordered to pay only until they reached eighteen. He had added that he would stop support if they did not stay in college, but he still wondered if he would ever really be able to cease paying support.

Jane sat down where his students and his clients sat, providing Mason with some meager reassurance that in his office, with him literally in the seat of power, he might be able to exert some control over this encounter. Her visits usually started this way. He always got the same feeling of being manipulated and he always gave in anyway.

He was scarcely able to listen to Jane’s attempt at friendly conversation as he tried to perceive what motivated her visit. He identified deep within himself the still smoldering contrary feelings of desire and guilt that blossomed with any exposure he had to Jane. She was pretty; her smile was warm and genuine, even if he had gradually come to realize that she was shallow and perpetually naive. They had been young when married, in their early twenties, and she had endured his years in school, the poverty and irregular hours of a student, followed by their travels up and down the west coast as he sought jobs that would advance what he had then considered to be his ultimate career target, legal counsel in a distinguished corporation. He had treated her with contempt and probably would have gone on unhappily forever if she hadn’t left, one of her few inspired decisions. He believed now that he could never have been happy with her, but he disliked the part of himself that had refused to recognize that fact while he lived with her. He had tried to make her a part of his “career”, the sweet wife and the two children that any junior executive in the era of the early 1960s was expected to be able to display, before the culture shift attributable to Viet Nam. He came away from that marriage with a distrust of his own emotions that was only exacerbated by his second marriage.

“I made Wayne leave,” she told him. Wayne and Jane, not so poetic in the end. She bowed her head and looked as though she might begin crying. He was afraid he might not be able to restrain his own tears, which in recent years had come to flow at unpredictable moments that surprised him.

“That’s too bad,” Mason said noncommittally. “I’m sorry you’re having problems.” He knew the problems with Wayne had been escalating for at least a year. Wayne had been drinking progressively more and more and his small business consequently deteriorated in proportion to his inattention to it. He manufactured hot tubs. Mason believed that Wayne could always be counted on to be at the forefront of any passing fad.

“We tried separate rooms for awhile,” she sobbed, “but it didn’t seem to make things any better, so I asked him to leave.” With her fingertips she brushed away the tears that had begun to stream down her cheeks.

“Separate rooms,” Mason repeated, for want of any better response.

“Yes. He was in the party room in the basement.”

Mason was interested. “He was living in the basement?”

“Yes. He had his own entrance from the patio. That way the kids and I didn’t have to see him come home from drinking. I told him that he could come back upstairs when he improved. But he never did. He said that living in the basement only made things worse for him.”

“How long did that go on?” Mason’s curiosity was still unresolved.

“I don’t know. I mean I wasn’t keeping track.” She was a little impatient with Mason’s interrogation. “Not long. Maybe six months or so.”

“No kidding?” Mason said, unable to disguise his fascination with the prospect of Wayne living in a basement for six months in a state of perpetual drunken disarray. It was medieval.

She stopped sobbing. “Well of course I’m not kidding, Mason. This is very serious. Wayne hasn’t paid the mortgage in four months and I got this letter from the bank.”

She handed Mason a form letter notifying Mr. and Mrs. Wayne Moss that previous notices had been ignored and that the bank regrettably would be forced to institute foreclosure proceedings if payment was not made within ten days.

Mason stared at the notice for several seconds before sighing deeply and handing the paper back to Jane. “What happened to the previous notices?”

She sighed. “I didn’t have any money. What could I do?”

“Haven’t you told Wayne about this?” He saw what was coming and knew it was futile to try to pass it off to Wayne, who was probably at that moment trying to find relief somewhere in the bottom of an empty glass.

“I told him,” she acknowledged hopelessly. “He sent me a money order for seventeen-fifty.”

“Seventeen dollars and fifty cents,” Mason said to be certain.


“I wonder why it was that particular amount. Do you know?” Mason could not help but feel slight admiration for a person so eccentric and irresponsible that he would buy a money order for $17.50 and mail it to his wife to resolve a debt of about $2,400.

“I don’t know why that amount,” she said impatiently. “But I know that Elizabeth and Richard and I are going to be put out of our home if somebody doesn’t do something fast.” The tears resumed. “We could end up living on the streets, your kids and me. I need that money, Mason. You know I’ve never bothered you for stuff like this, but I need a loan. Just a loan.”

Mason took a deep breath and let it out slowly as he tried to determine the appropriate response. It wasn’t true that she didn’t bother him with “stuff like this.” He had made many unsecured loans to her over the years, but never in amounts greater than a few hundred dollars. He had never seen a penny of it returned and never expected to. He even felt unburdened by those “loans” in the way a faithful Christian does when dropping money into the “poor box” in a church. But what she was asking now was a giant step forward. He knew he could not refuse her; but he also knew that his own conscience would not gain $2,400 worth of consolation for committing what some might identify as a selfless act. Beyond that, he was concerned about creating more dependence on his money than he had already allowed to develop.

While he pondered, she became a little more desperate. “Please, Mason.” She began to cry again. Then her chin dropped to her chest and she muttered, “I don’t have anyone else I can ask.”

“OK. OK. Don’t cry. We’ll work out something. How much of the $2,400 can you scrape together from other sources?”

“I’ve got $200 from my job, but we need that to eat on.” She worked part time as a counselor at a private school. Mason knew that the job did not pay much but that she was dedicated to a career of helping children.

“And what will you do next month, when another payment is due?”

He was surprised to hear her talk about getting another job with higher wages. She had heard about some openings. And Wayne had told her he expected to be paid on some commercial spa installations for a couple of adult motels. He had promised to give her money from that. It was all vague.

“You might be better off not counting on Wayne. He hasn’t done too well by you so far.”

“Well, that’s my mistake, isn’t it,” she said, anger creeping into her expression for the first time. “I’ll just deal with that myself. Are you going to help me or not?”

Mason realized that if he said the word “no” at this point she would probably leave in a more conspicuous fit of anger, which might represent the end of her begging, although it was more likely she would try again within the next day or two. He could see she was truly desperate. He didn’t want to have to deal with such unpleasantness more than necessary.

He asked her questions about the value of the house and the existing balance on the mortgage. She answered agreeably because she realized that his questions meant he was going to work a deal for her.

She and her current husband had purchased the house about five years earlier and it had appreciated substantially in the meantime, so that their equity was now about $40,000 by Mason’s loose but conservative mental calculations. There was no second mortgage and no outstanding liens. He took a deep breath and offered his terms.

“I’ll give you the money in exchange for a lien against the property at twelve per cent per year interest.

It was not exactly what she had expected. “But that’s like a bank loan. You’re treating me like I was some kind of business customer. This is very demeaning, Mason.”

“It isn’t like a bank loan,” he explained patiently, “because no bank would ever make the loan. If the mortgage holder files foreclosure, my lien’s no good. In the meantime, the interest rate I’m offering is less than any commercial lender would charge. However you cut it, Jane, it’s not a good deal for me. I’m only offering it as a favor to you – with a little incentive to treat it like a loan and not a gift. Remember, we’re divorced.”

She stared at him for a few seconds. He was not sure whether she was thinking about his terms or imagining what kind of physical attack she could launch against him.

She took a deep breath, dropped her chin to her chest, and accepted. He knew she had no choice. He also understood that she had withheld her decision until he had revealed the serious risk of him getting burned on the loan. He knew she would be comforted by that. They arranged for her to return the next day with the latest property tax statement, so he could draw up the papers for the lien. She thanked him profusely and suggested that they should meet for lunch some time soon. He feared that she was on the prowl for a replacement for Wayne and he did not want to encourage any interest. He told her that he was usually busy at mid-day and often did not eat lunch at all. She thanked him a couple more times, kissed him on the cheek, and left.

Alone again, staring through the narrow spaces in the slanted window blinds, he remembered the anxieties of a young married couple living in cheap student housing that creaked in strong winds. That feral innocence had consumed itself. Now he and Jane met and spoke with the shameless familiarity of two old men who hated each other but played checkers together every day. He had sacrificed something important by the life he had chosen for himself and it saddened him to think that he probably would not be able to regain it, whatever it was.

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