Louis held the hand-written pages gently, as if fearing they were as fragile as their author had been. He glanced up at his parents, then at his aunts and uncles, and finally at Salvador, whose placid expression made him smile.
"Well--go ahead," Linus Jr. stammered.
Louis hesitated. "Should I read it out loud, Mr. Salvador?"
Salvador shook his head. "Not if you don't want to. It's your choice. If you'd prefer to keep it to yourself, I can explain the conditions of the letter to your family later."
Louis looked back at his grandfather's children. Linus Jr., whose face was growing redder. Janet, whose severe posture threatened to snap her back from the strain. Howard, whose fingernails were chewed almost to the quick.
"I'll read it myself. You can tell them."
"Oh, for God's sake!" growled Linus Jr. "Just read the damn letter, so we know what the hell's going on!"
Stacey grabbed her husband's arm. "Linus, please, you're making a scene."
He shook off her hand. "If anyone's making a scene, it's him. Dramatic little punk."
Daniel spoke up. "Now, hold on, Linus, that's entirely uncalled-for--"
"Shut up, Dan. This is family business."
"My son is my family. So get off his case."
Salvador's placid expression had disappeared. It was replaced by pursed lips and narrowed eyes. He picked up the paperweight and began smashing it against the desktop, over and over, until the yelling stopped. When he let go, he saw that the stone had split in half. "That's enough! I see now why Mr. Taylor made the decision that he did."
"I'll read it."
All heads turned. Louis felt the heat from every person's glare and immediately wanted to take it back; but it had already escaped his lips.
Salvador took a deep breath and smoothed back his hair. "Are you sure, boy?"
"Then go ahead and begin, when you are ready."
December 18th, 2004
If you are reading this, then I've finally kicked off. I wish I could say I was sorry to go, but that's not the case. The last few years have been hell.
No doubt you're shocked that I've left you the house. I will admit I wish I could see the look on everyone else's faces when Salvador read them the bad news. But, at least this way, I won't have to listen to Linus Jr. bitch and moan about it, so it's an even swap.
You must be asking yourself, why would the old man do something so nice? It seems so out of character. Well, I'll tell you--it feels out of character. But, at the risk of sounding like some kind of dribbling, sentimental jackass, I realized that I ought to do something decent for someone who deserved it, here at the end of my life. And the only person I could think of doing it for, aside from your sweet mother, was you.
Why you? Why the hell not. I'm proud of how you've done over the years. I don't think I've ever told you that before. But I am. Your mother sent me every newspaper article you wrote up at Northwestern. She even mailed me a copy of your commencement program. In her letters, she kept me up to date with your academic progress over your years there, as she had when you were in high school. You're the light of her life, boy. Don't take that for granted.
But I'm a little pissed off at you too. Since graduation, you seemed to have crapped out. No full-time job, no initiative. Living off your folks. That's shameful. You should be creating a life for yourself by now, not moping around your mother's house. I know all about Eva, too. But shutting your life down over some damn broken engagement is idiocy. You're from better stock than that.
I was trying to think if there's anything I could do to help you out, give you a boost into adulthood. But I realized that giving you money or property would only choke out your desire to make something of yourself. Any form of welfare would give you more reason to do nothing.
Then I figured it out. The best thing I could give you is motivation.
I instructed Salvador to tell you that the house was yours, but under certain conditions. Here they are.
One: Your mother has often told me of your desire to make it as a writer. I always thought it was a fool's dream, but a fool's dream is better than none. Hopefully, that English degree they gave you is actually worth something. Your first requirement is that you must write your first book, submit it, and have it accepted by a reputable publisher, within one year of taking up residence at Taylor House. Salvador has compiled a list of publishers that he will provide you with, when the time comes.
Two: While living at Taylor House, you must also hold down a full-time job. The wages from this job will be used to pay for your food and sundry needs. I won't foot the bill for your life, boy. I have made provisions for a small monthly stipend, which will cover the costs of maintenance and utilities for the house and grounds, as well as the salary of the caretaker, Mr. Cross. All else, your food, clothing, personal frivolities, and other lifestyle expenses, will fall squarely on your own shoulders.
Three: You must refrain from illegal activities or drug use, and you must not keep company with those that engage in such habits. Breaking this rule voids our agreement and relinquishes your rights to occupy the house.
Four: Though I am well aware of the supposed 'needs' a young man has, I am also requiring that, for the year of your writing, you do not invite any members of the fairer sex to 'play house,' no matter if for one night, or for many. This may sound like a ridiculous hardship, but you will thank me in the long run.
Five: You (and your heirs) must maintain sole ownership of Taylor House, while you live. You must resist the pull of those meddlesome Historical Society matrons with their insulting offers to buy. This is my house. I'm passing down to you, my blood relative. I expect you to follow suit.
If you fail to fulfill any of these requirements, you will forfeit any right or claim to Taylor House or anything found therein. I have taken care to make sure these requirements are followed. Salvador will be the sole and final arbiter in all charges or disputes regarding your adherence to these regulations.
If you abide by and fulfill these five requirements, Taylor House, its goods, and its property will be wholly yours. Take care of them. They are my legacy, given to you.
You will have thirty days, from the reading of this letter, to accept my offer, under my conditions. Once you accept them, your residence at Taylor House will begin. Salvador will answer any other questions you have.
Good luck. I am fully confident that you will rise to the challenge I have given you.
Tell your mother I love her. Though I'd never admit it in life, I can say now, she turned out to be my favorite.
"This is ridiculous!" Linus Jr. growled, breaking the moment of silence that followed his father's final words. "This can't be true! He's a child!"
Salvador smirked, "He is 21 years old, and of legal age for such a contract."
"I'm challenging this in court! There has to be a judge that can see the idiocy of Father's wishes. He was clearly going senile!"
Salvador gestured for Linus Jr. to go ahead. "Feel free. But I can guarantee you that you will lose. Mr. Taylor went to great lengths to ensure that his decision could not be overruled."
"What if he doesn't want to do it?" Howard asked. "I mean, some of that stuff is fine, but giving up women for a year is torture." He turned to Louis. "No one should have to put themselves through that."
Salvador replied, "If Louis chooses to decline Mr. Taylor's proposition, the house and its contents is to be auctioned off, and the money will be divided evenly among Mr. Taylor's children."
Linus Jr. and Howard both turned toward Louis. "Come on, pal," Linus Jr. said, fake smile firmly in place. "You don't want to move down here. Your home is in Chicago. This is just too much hassle. Just let this one pass you by, and your folks will get a nice slice of the pie. You want to help them out, don't you?"
Marie fumed. "Don't you dare use us against our own son, Linus! That's low, even for you. Louis, honey, it's completely your decision. None of us--none of us--should enter into it. Your grandfather is making you an offer. You should weigh the decision carefully, and whatever you choose, your father and I will support you."
The room seemed to draw tighter around Louis. Everyone was looking. The sunlight felt like the heatlamp used in those noir crime dramas--the one the detectives put in the face of the perp they wanted to break. Louis' mouth went dry. He couldn't swallow. His throat constricted. Everyone looking. Sweat poured off his face. He couldn't breathe.
"I need time to think about. To decide."
Salvador nodded. "Very good. I'll expect an answer within thirty days. Well. That concludes our business. My office will be in touch with you all, to work out disbursment of your monetary inheritances. Mr. Cross, if you would be so kind as to show everyone to the door." Louis looked back at the older man in the brown suit, who nodded and opened up the door to the main hall.
Louis bolted out the door and into the roomy hall. He took a seat on one of last stairs of the long staircase. Everyone started filing out. His aunt ignored him. Stacey was doing her best to rush Linus Jr. to the car before he could speak again. Howard took a step toward the door, stopped to look back at Louis, and said, "Just think it through, kiddo. Think it over carefully." Louis nodded, and Howard smirked and walked out.
Louis' parents and Salvador walked out of the study together. Salvador handed Marie his business card and a few papers, then walked over to Louis. "I would like to say again, congratulations, young man. This is an interesting opportunity for you."
"Do you think I should take it?"
"Oh, that is not for me to say. Just make sure that once you decide, you are willing to follow through. Whatever your decision, I am at your disposal. Good day." Salvador stuck out his tan hand, which Louis timidly shook.
As Salvador walked away, Daniel passed him, pausing for a handshake and a goodbye. He walked over and sat down on the step next to his son.
"Some house, huh, Lou?"
"I just don't know what to do."
"There's time, kiddo. Don't worry about it now. Let's just start with the next small choice."
"Lunch. Then we'll go home."
The two stood up, joined Marie, and walked out together. As they passed Mr. Cross at the door, Louis looked at him, and said, "Thank you, Mr. Cross. Nice meeting you."
The old man's perpetual scowl softened, and the faintest hint of a smile creased his mouth. "And you, Mr. Fielder. I hope to see you again." Louis again noticed the roll of Cross's spoken "r".
"We'll see," Louis replied.
The Fielders walked away from Taylor House. The mansion loomed over the street, tall and austere, impervious to the blinding sunlight, casting its own long, cold shadow that blanketed the grass like a shroud. When Louis looked back through the retreating car windshield, the house appeared to be mourning its lost master.