©Mimi Wolske, December 2013
All Rights Reserved
“What if I sued you? Huh?”
“Go ahead. I passed that serious rite of passage before my twenty-third birthday.”
He knew I wouldn’t. He knew I couldn’t.
I just don’t have the kind of money to battle someone like him in a court of law. His lawyers would be offering all kinds of deals to my lawyer, who in turn would strongly suggest I take the offer.
Johnson sat facing the window; the light from the late-afternoon sun came through slightly ajar blinds and sliced parts of his body, giving him a surreal photographic appearance. I watched as he inserted a replacement nicotine cartridge into his electronic cigarette.
He assured me it was safe; how could it be safe if it was still nicotine? I didn’t waste my time asking him for proof. He wouldn’t have any. I wouldn’t be able to change his mind.
He turned it on, took a drag, and exhaled vaporized poison into my air.
He didn’t cough. I appreciated that.
I didn’t cough. I appreciated that more.
“So, who is it this time?” I asked.
My back was at the window as I sat across from him sipping my Green Fairy, assured by the FDA it was safe. I would never see the tulips associated with Oscar Wilde’s hallucination of seeing them on his legs as he walked out into the morning light after a night of drinking absinthe in a local bar. I wondered, as I sipped, if that really happened or whether to chalk it up to creative license. Seven years ago, the United States lifted its one-hundred-year long ban on Absinthe and provided that it was free of the poison thujone.
“You mean the one you introduced me to last month?”
“Seriously. You’re saying the woman without any arms?”
He nodded; his mouth was being vaporized by electronic smoke.
My fingers caressed and stroked the stem of my glass. Was he serious?
“Are you serious?”
“Yeah. What’s wrong?”
“Well, there’s a problem.” And, oh, what a problem.
He adjusted himself on the seat of the chair and scratched behind his ear.
“What problem? You think it’s too soon or is it because she sells her services.”
My hand stopped stroking.
“Well, there are those. But, no, that’s not what I meant.”
My name’s Hattie J. I’m a divorced, forty-three-year-old prosecuting attorney on Johnson’s retainer. I live alone, work one case at a time, seldom date, and am the mother to a handsome, intelligent high school senior.
Johnson always paid my monthly bill on time. I could more than easily live on such a sum of money. It was more than my annual salary as an attorney. Last year, after two months of agreeing to be his personal attorney, I did a financial investigation on him. Graham Walter Johnson the Third inherited more money than Croesus could imagine existed.
What I liked about working with clients who came from old money is that if you didn’t know who they were, you would never know they were mega rich. Their furniture sags and they don’t apologize; they call it fashionably comfortable. They’ll order a hamburger and enjoy as much as anyone they are dining with; or at least seem to. They’re too polite not to pretend.
What I liked about having Johnson as a client is the one thing he didn’t do…talk or complain about the price of anything or how much money he had. He explained that he (and other wealthy society names often found in media print) was taught from the time he could remember that it was ‘gospel’ to never discuss his or his family’s or anyone else’s money. It’s not polite to talk about it. More than impolite, it’s inappropriate. It’s tacky. It’s like there’s this big taboo always lurking under the surface, he told me once.
I supposed that was why he was also reluctant to talk about his background when we first met. Johnson, like my other clients, had more public recognition than he wanted and had very little to gain by receiving more.
Since knowing him, he, on various occasions, offered me his candid perspectives on subjects ranging from life’s philosophies and trust funds to prenuptial agreements and career choices, ultimately, and more recently, revealing his struggle (common to his wealth peers) to discover is own identity. He knew he would never be able to level the playing field between what he inherited and what others did not have no matter that he donated millions to charities each year.
His grandfather had sunk himself and his family into the kind of problems mastered only by the very rich; ugly estate battles, bitter divorces, brutal publicity, and family ties undone by business rivalries.
“My father told me,” he said one day, almost as a confession, “that I could do whatever I wanted. He said I could even be a pro golfer…’As long as you do something.'”
Well, that satisfied one of the questions I had about the peculiarities of my clients, especially Johnson.
“So, I won’t, I cannot, give you an actual figure, but I’d say, in attainable assets, the figure would be around thirty billion. And, that’s estimating low,” he said sheepishly, almost apologetically, once he opened up and began expelling all sorts for rules he, the rich, had to learn to live by. “But, let me add that I was also told that if I didn’t go to college, at least earn some college credits, and work, I would get nothing.”
That answered another unasked question, and with what he was paying me, I was going to work to the best of my ability and I wasn’t going to question or challenge him.
“You said the same thing about Juanita. Remember?” The blue light at the tip of the electronic stick in his mouth brightened as he inhaled.
“The Hispanic little person who wanted a house and furniture that was designed and build for his size was one thing, but—”
“Never mind. I know the rest. It’s the reason he was my fifth…”
He paused as if he were trying to find the correct word choice.
I offered one. “Victim?”
He couldn’t hold back his bark of laughter. I smiled, took a sip of my green liquor, and watched his vaporized smoke rise over the table.
“You refused two times before you finally agreed to take care of number four,” he said.
“What are you planning to do? Enumerate?”
“I can…we can, but I guess that would be a waste of time.”
Nervous, wondering if he expected me to describe how I took care of the others again, I stood and walked into the kitchen. My fourteenth-floor condo slash apartment had an open floor plan, so, if he turned one hundred eighty degrees, he could observe me opening the rippled-glass cabinet door and remove the decanter of absinthe and refill my glass.
“Look, Johnson, it’s getting late. My son will be home from his tutoring job soon. Just tell me; how do you want it done this time?”
“I’ll come another time.”
I brought my glass with me back to the table. He liked sitting at the table. Said sitting at a table and talking reminded him of his visits to his grandmother. When his grandfather divorced her, he left her with no money, so she was poor. Not destitute, but maybe part of the working middle class he thought.
“Like hell. Just lay it out for me. If I have questions—”
“You’ll ask. I know. But, Jeanette is different and I want to talk to you about her so you will understand and not doubt my sanity this time.”
“I like that. When have I ever doubted you or your sanity?”
I knew the answer. Every time he came to me with another name.
“Every single time, Hattie. Every single time.”
I learned to sensor my words sometime around the age Johnson learned he was rich. I did doubt his sanity. What did he expect me to do? Drop it around her neck?
“What do you want me to do, Johnson? Drop your physical apology around her neck on your yacht just before I drop her overboard?”
“Don’t be crude!”
It was crude.
“Well, she doesn’t have arms or hands or anything to accept the satchel full of a million dollars I will offer her just before…”
“Your imagination is too limited.”
“And your time is just about up. My son will be home any minute and I know you didn’t forget.”
He ignored me. Naturally.
“I never knew I was rich. That is to say, growing up in the country, I thought everyone was had the same things we had,” he said. “Mom and dad never sat me down and said, ‘You’re rich.’ Truth to tell, dad never told me about his inherited wealth at all. I only became conscious of it by the way people treated me.”
He paused, toked on his electronic, vaporized nicotine, and let his chin fall to his chest. He sat that way for a full minute.
The air undisturbed.
I didn’t interrupt his thoughts. Eventually, he continued.
“It wasn’t my money. I didn’t have money. I was just a kid. But, once the other kids in my class read my dad’s name in Forbe’s magazine, in a list posting the wealthiest in the U.S., and realized who I was, they treated me differently. That’s when I found out my dad’s secret. That’s when I learned people with money don’t discuss their money. So, I couldn’t defend myself. I couldn’t defend my dad.”
He turned off his electronic poison stick and looked me straight in the eyes.
“Because of how I was treated then, I think it’s why the major qualities I look for in a friend are sincerity and trust. There’s a lot of insincerity and mistrust out in the world. I never saw it until I was older, but it was there. I was sheltered from it.”
His monologue halted and he chuckled and shook his head.
“Johnson,” I said, “it’s getting late. Can we do this another time?”
He heard me. He refused to look at me, as if I were his therapist or someone like that; and then he began again. I listened.
“My mom always told us we were just average people. Maybe we’re even poor, she would say. And, we never got a whole lot of presents for birthdays or Chanukah. She would poke her index finger at my head, when I was a teenager who finally knew we were rich, and she’d say, If you ever lose it all, then all you have is this? Do you understand what I am saying to you?“
“So, what happened to Jeanette?” the interviewer asked.
I picked up the electronic cigarette Johnson had left that last day, remembering the lonely man who didn’t know how to trust. Glancing at the seasoned newspaper writer, I said, “I think you have enough.”
Johnson hadn’t had enough…not of life, anyway.
He died never knowing what he could have accomplished, what he did accomplish, and never knowing there was one woman who loved him…even if all the other women I had to pay off once they vowed to go to the scandal sheets and tell everything if he didn’t give them money.
The interviewer turned off his recorder and gathered his things together.
“Let me add one more item of import before you walk out the door.”
He gave me a questioning stare.
“Johnson used his inherited wealth to make a difference. Not just for the few I mentioned, but he also invested a great deal of his wealth in medical research that most of the population of the world will benefit from.”