When I saw the news I gulped involuntarily; a man riding a bike had been struck and killed by a hit-and-run driver not far from where I make the turn to head home from my Sunday morning ride.
This tragedy came close on the wheels of a near miss a few weekends before: a car had crashed through the front window of the little cafe that marks the halfway point of my ride, and I had been sitting there half an hour earlier sipping my coffee, thinking how life was good like the idiots say on those t-shirts the kids pay premium prices for.
It coulda been me!
It was beginning to seem that exercise had become a brutally-efficient middle-aged male herd thinning device, what with these accidents and the first Cape Cod shark attack in a century this year, and it caused me to take stock of my life. Iâ€™ve got two sons in their twenties, but no grandchildren. Both boys have long-term girlfriends, however, so the prospects are good that my DNA will, as my buddy Bill Faulkner puts it, not just endure but prevail. I like both girls very much, and while I want to live to a ripe old age, Iâ€™ve got to think about what will happen after Iâ€™m gone.
Thereâ€™s Maya, the free-spirit. She was all-conference wing deep on her college ultimate frisbee team, speaks three languages, Deanâ€™s List all four years. For her senior community service project she taught the polka to disadvantaged Chicago youth who had lost touch with their Polish heritage. Believe me, if anybodyâ€™s going to change the world, itâ€™s this young lady.
Still, I wonder sometimes whether her charitable tendencies might someday get the better of her. What if she starts a foundation to teach synchronized swimming to kids with Osgood Schlatterâ€™s Disease and blows a hole in my estate? I donâ€™t want to rule things from beyond the grave, but I donâ€™t want my assets squandered, either.
The other oneâ€“Sloaneâ€“is just as nice, but totally different. She grew up in a sailing family in Marblehead, Mass. Itâ€™s pronounced â€œmarble-HAY-Yed-duhâ€ by long-time residents, a shibboleth that separates old money from newcomers. The contorted sounding reflects the schizophrenia of the New England WASP: the first syllable expresses proper Puritan humility, while the 4-on-3 ending lets the working stiffs know youâ€™ve still got enough gumption to boss your vassals and serfs around.
Sloaneâ€™s been surrounded by money all her lifeâ€“her mom and dad have his â€˜n hers J 24 sailboats that they take out on weekends for â€œchowderâ€ races. I donâ€™t have the heart to tell them you can get chowder for less than the cost of a sailboat, and Iâ€™m somewhat concerned that their daughter has developed a taste for the luxe life.
The thing I want to avoid is a fight over my accumulated wealth. I donâ€™t want to see the two branches of the family square off in some kind of Jarndyce v. Jarndyce squabble that will enrich only asshole lawyers like myself.
So today, I invited the girls overâ€“without the boysâ€“to talk to them about my estate, and how Iâ€™ve made provision for both of them. I sit them down in the family room and, after superficial pleasantries are exchanged, itâ€™s time to get serious.
â€œGirlsâ€“or perhaps I should say â€˜galsâ€™â€“I want you both to know that if something terrible were to happen to me, both boys are going to be taken care of very generously in my will. I donâ€™t want either of you to be envious of what the other hasâ€“okay?â€
They look at each other, then back at me.
â€œIâ€™m not sure I know what youâ€™re talking about,â€ Maya says.
â€œMe neither,â€ Sloane says
Kidsâ€“theyâ€™re so innocent when theyâ€™re just starting out in life. I donâ€™t want to burst the little bubbles theyâ€™ve been living in, but before too long theyâ€™ll run smack dab into adulthood and real world responsibilities. Theyâ€™ve got to start learning the cold hard facts of life sometime.
â€œWell, for instance,â€ I begin. â€œTake my record collection.â€
I point over their shoulders, and the girls turn to the shelves above our â€œentertainment center,â€ which are filled with CDs, albums, even 45s.
â€œIâ€™ve made a special effort to build a collection that can be split fairly right down the middle so that you wonâ€™t have to liquidate it and split the proceedsâ€“after estate taxes, of course.â€
â€œThatâ€™s okay,â€ Sloan says diplomatically. â€œI . . . donâ€™t really like jazz.â€
â€œItâ€™s more than jazz,â€ I say reassuringly. â€œItâ€™s R&B, soul, spirituals. To give you just one example, I have two Johnny â€˜Guitarâ€™ Watson CDs, his Greatest Hits and â€˜What the Hell is This?â€™ Some people would say thatâ€™s not fair, the girl who gets the Greatest Hits comes out way ahead, but what they donâ€™t realize is the other album has â€˜I Donâ€™t Want to Be Presidentâ€™â€“which is not on the Greatest Hits CD!â€œ
They look at each other and I think the lengths to which Iâ€™ve gone to be fair are starting to register. â€œWow, thatâ€™s great,â€ Maya says.
â€œAnd â€˜Boogaloo Down Broadwayâ€™ by The Fantastic Johnny C? Whoever gets that, the other girl gets â€˜Funky Broadwayâ€™ by Wilson Pickett.â€
â€œThatâ€™s super that youâ€™re trying to be so fair,â€ Sloane says. For a moment there I thought she was stifling a yawnâ€“but I know sheâ€™s been afflicted with the Curse of Bruxism; probably just stretching to keep her jaw loose.
â€œMusicâ€™s been a big part of my life,â€ I say, â€œand I want my descendants to appreciate the best and highest products of American civilization.â€
â€œThanks,â€ Maya says as she starts to stand up.
â€œWait,â€ I say, not wanting to sound like a late-night cable TV come-on, but I canâ€™t avoid it; â€œthereâ€™s more.â€
â€œLike . . . what?â€ Sloan asks.
â€œWell, thereâ€™s literature.â€
â€œI like to read,â€ Maya says.
â€œThen youâ€™re going to love my collection of early 20th century comics.â€
â€œYou collect comics?â€ Sloane says, apparently incredulous at her good fortune.
â€œYep. One of you girls will get my Katzenjammer Kids.â€ I see blank staresâ€“perhaps Hans and Fritz are a bit too recondite for the girls, whoâ€™ve been forced to specialize early in their academic careers. â€œAnd the other will get Krazy Katâ€“see how it works out with each of you getting two capital Kâ€™s?â€
The girls look at each other, each with a little moue on her lips. â€œIt does seem awfully . . . fair.â€
â€œThatâ€™s the way itâ€™s supposed to be, thatâ€™s the way I want it,â€ I say with Solomonic wisdom. â€œNow you may notice that these comicsâ€“they contain a good deal of violence in them. Mice throwing bricks at cats, little boys setting their fatherâ€™s shoes on fireâ€“while their father is in them. Innocent stuff like that.â€
â€œAre they really something . . . we should let our kids read?â€ Itâ€™s Mayaâ€“sheâ€™ll make a great mom someday!
â€œAbsolutely!â€ I say. â€œIt was good enough for the boys and for me and for my father, a member of the greatest generation who had to have a deep capacity for violence in his heart in order to defeat the Nazis!â€
The greater seriousness of such a trivial aesthetic choice causes them to fall silent for a moment.
â€œGosh,â€ Maya says. â€œI never knew our basic freedoms could come down to such an apparently insignificant thing like . . . a comic book.â€
â€œThatâ€™s what our forefathers fought and died for, kiddo,â€ I say, giving her a wink that I hope she wonâ€™t take the wrong way.
â€œIs that . . . it?â€ Sloane asks. Probably wants to be alone with her thoughts for a while to ponder the gravity of everything Iâ€™ve revealed to them today.
â€œOne more thing,â€ I say. â€œLetâ€™s go out in the garage for a second.â€
We make our way out to our spacious three-car garage, where vehicles from model years 2011, 2008 and 2004 sit snug and cozy, protected from the depredations of the mean streets of our half acre minimum lot size suburb.
â€œTake a look,â€ I say.
â€œIâ€™m not really into cars,â€ Maya says. â€œWhichever one Sloane wants is fine . . .â€
â€œIâ€™m not talking about the cars, hon,â€ I say as I drape my arms over their shoulders. â€œTake a gander at that state-of-the-art recycling center over there.â€
The two of them lift up their eyes to the far wall, where separated neatly into brightly-colored bins are plastics, paper, cardboard, glassâ€“you name it, we recycle it
â€œIs that . . . yours?â€ Maya asks, obviously impressed that Iâ€™m such an earth-head.
â€œYep,â€ I say with pride. â€œNow count off the containers.â€
The girls count from left to right, and Sloane says â€œThereâ€™s ten, right?â€
â€œThatâ€™s rightâ€“five for each of you,â€ I say, perhaps a trifle smugly, but I am proud of what Iâ€™ve accomplished in life.
â€œSo someday,â€ Maya begins, â€œall of this . . .â€
â€œCrap,â€ Sloane says, finishing the thought her future sister-in-law left hanging out of courtesy.
â€œWill be ours?â€ Maya says.
â€œNo, just the bins and containers,â€ I say. â€œIâ€™m taking the crap to the dump next Saturday.â€