“If my calculations are correct, when this baby hits eighty-eight miles an hour, you're going to see some serious shit.”
– Back to the Future
The NBA playoffs were in full swing. On any given game night, crowds sat glued to the TVs, nursing beers. If the Bulls won, they stayed and celebrated. If they lost (and they only did that twice), they stayed and commiserated. The whole city was in thrall to its basketball team. Chicago was hungry for a championship.
But basketball games, unlike football, basketball or hockey, don’t lend themselves to heavy consumption. In basketball too much happens with too few breaks. Even during halftimes, the patrons were too busy dissecting the action thus far to order extra drinks. It’s in that way that even though the bar might be crowded, the bartender isn’t busy.
It was during such a halftime, when most of the bar was arguing whether John Paxson or Michael Jordan was more reliable from the key, that Will was relieved at his door shift and joined John Farebrother, Wally Cadwallader and Mary at the bar. Caleb leaned companionably against the back bar, sipping a cup of coffee. Mary was fending off another sales pitch from Wally. Farebrother was uncommonly quiet. He had a story to tell and was waiting for Will.
“Will,” said Farebrother, when Will sat down next to him. “I was hoping you’d join us here tonight. I have a story to tell you and I was hoping to be able to tell you amongst friends.”
“Sounds good,” said Will, expecting Farebrother to regale him with some juicy tale out of Chicago’s sordid political past. Will asked for a draw of Budweiser and settled in to listen.
“Um,” said Farebrother, starting off more hesitantly than was his wont. “You are aware that a man died in the L.G.E. offices last week?”
“Sure,” said Will. “Everyone knows that.”
Caleb, Wally and Mary were quiet, wary of what Farebrother was up to.
“Before his demise,” Farebrother continued. “He sat with me right here at this bar and told me some things.”
“Probably all lies,” said Wally. “You should stop chatting up the derelicts that wander in here.”
“Not lies, Wally,” said Farebrother. “I’ve done my due diligence before deciding to tell Will what was told me and what I hope, given Will’s blessing, to become a corker of a story in the Reader.”
“My blessing,” said Will. “What do I have to do with it?”
“Are any of you aware,” said Farebrother. “Of how Bulstrode got the capital to fund his rapid acquisition of this bar and the ones following it?”
“Before my time,” said Wally. “He’s always been loaded since I knew who he was.”
“I’ve heard rumors,” said Caleb. “Just rumors. And you know how bars are. These drunks are like high school girls when they get a sniff of some good gossip.”
“They are!” said Will. “The people here do gossip like cheerleaders!”
“Sometimes gossip is nothing but lies,” said Farebrother. “But sometimes there’s a kernel of truth in it. I’ve heard people talking about a woman that Bulstrode had an affair with. A married woman, older, who was politically connected and greased the wheels to get him started.”
“That’s what I’ve heard too,” said Caleb. “Sordid, but not criminal.”
“During my conversation with Karl Rafferty,” said Farebrother. “I got to understand that this is the barest bones version of what happened. He told me the whole story and, Will, this directly impacts you.”
Will looked at him skeptically. “Me?” he asked.
“The woman he had the affair with was your maternal grandmother, Will,” Farebrother continued. “Ellinore Ladislaw. She had an affair with Bulstrode back when you were a baby. She loved him. She trusted him. And when she got sick, she named Bulstrode the executor of her estate and asked him to make sure your mother got the money. Bulstrode said he couldn’t find her and kept the money. And there was money, Will. Money that should have gone to you.”
The four were silent for a few moments.
“Fuck,” said Mary.
“That about sums it up,” said Wally, looking concernedly at Will.
Will was quiet.
“Are you sure of all this, Farebrother?” asked Mary.
“I’ve been digging around all week,” said Farebrother. “James Bulstrode was the executor of Ellinore Ladislaw’s will. And there was a good sum of money that went to him. They’d kept their affair pretty quiet, but it turns out it wasn’t only Karl Rafferty who knew about it. I looked up some of Ellinore’s friends from those days. They’d known about ‘her bartender.’ It all lined up as Rafferty said, Mary. Will, this is all true.”
“Will,” asked Caleb, gently. “You understand that this could be good news. It sounds like Bulstrode owes you some money.”
“I don’t understand,” said Will. “My grandmother knew where we were. Roughly. I mean, I think she knew where we were. Why didn’t she just tell my mother herself?”
“She probably knew, like you said, roughly where you were,” said Farebrother. “But I think the only people who know why your grandmother didn’t find you herself are dead now. Rafferty says she told Bulstrode. Bulstrode might could make a convincing case that he tried to find you and couldn’t. Still, he’s been telling people for a quarter century now that he built this business up on nothing but savvy and hard work. And that lie in and of itself is pretty damning.”
“Maybe he did find my mom,” said Will. “She wouldn’t have wanted that money.”
“She would have wanted it for you,” said Mary. “Or, shit, she would have donated to some cause or other. Besides, if she’d turned it down, Bulstrode would have made sure she signed something.”
That was true, thought Will. He would have.
“Will,” Wally continued. “This is rough. But it’s also good news for you.”
Will was silent.
He went on. “Look, you’re in school on loans now. You could walk out of grad school free and clear. You could buy yourself a little condo and get started with your life. The money Bulstrode owes you can help you get started.”
“I guess,” said Will. “I just need to process this. I’m kind of confused.”
“Think logically about it,” said Caleb, gently. “Get organized. The way I see it, there are two issues here. The first is how do you get the money. And, you know, I’m not even sure you need to make a legal claim. My guess is that Bulstrode will just hand it over. Like Farebrother said, this story is going to expose Bulstrode for a liar. He’s not going to want to drag it out. The second issue is how do you feel about this story going public?”
“Yeah,” said Mary. “On the downside, everyone will know your shit. On the upside, everyone will know Bulstrode’s shit.”
“That’s a hell of an upside,” said Wally, repulsed by the story in light of Bulstrode’s unshakable attitude of moral superiority.
“I think I’m OK with it,” said Will. “But I think I need to talk to my cousin first. Right?”
“You talk to whomever you want to,” said Farebrother. “Get all the advice you can. But, remember, this is your story.”
Helluva story, thought Will, suddenly forced to rethink his whole history. All his life he’d been told that his grandmother had wasted her money; that she’d been foolish and spendthrift. He’d believed the whole of his mother’s family was careless, that he was loveless.
But maybe that wasn’t true. Farebrother had brought him evidence, of a sort, that Ellinore had thought of her daughter when she was dying, thought of him. Maybe this family rift wouldn’t have been so final if both his mother and grandmother had only managed to live a little longer, or had put their faith in each other instead of social movements and James fucking Bulstrode.
Will thought of his mother. He had loved her so much. And she’d loved him. He thought of sitting on the hospital bed with his mother at the end. She’d told him that it was OK leaving this world knowing that there would be someone left who loved her; that loving him and being loved by him was her legacy.
It made him feel so sad to think that Ellinore had died with only Bulstrode’s cheap promises left to anchor her soul to this world.
But even in these sad reckonings, he began to see one door suddenly open. Or, more to the point, he saw a door he was ready close.