I hadn’t wanted to have an office law practice, figuring it would be boring after doing litigation in Houston most of my professional life. Especially boring and tedious would be estate planning, a nice title for will-writing and setting up trusts. Nevertheless, here I was, waiting for an appointment with an elderly couple in my new office in Blanco to talk about that very thing. Early autumn in the Texas hill country made up for my career shift. The grass was turning brown, and a few cooler days had blown in from the northwest, providing relief from the long summer heat. The elms and Spanish oaks were turning colors early this year, perhaps a harbinger of an early winter. Today it was hot, though. Indian summer.
“Hello?” the voice on the other side of the ten-foot door called out.
I had snuck through my private back door into my law office in the old Blanco Court House. Earlier this year I had figured that if I was going to move my office from Houston permanently, Blanco was a logical place to go. The Blanco court house had been built for the usual purpose, but in 1890, the state had moved the county seat to Johnson City and abandoned the court house. After many different uses, including being the local hospital, it now was mostly a visitors’ center, with the downstairs rented out to various lawyers and real estate brokers. In fact another fellow lawyer, another refugee but from Beaumont, had an office next door to mine, and I could always go talk to him if I was bogged down in a matter I didn’t understand.
The location was picturesque, the court house sitting right in the middle of the town square, as in most small Texas towns. The square itself looked like a relic of the past, with all but a few of the buildings around it dating back to the early 1900’s. As in most towns, the tempo was slow, with residents filling the square to go to the one bank, the post office, one of several shops, or one of the four restaurants. The big news in town last week was the opening of a coffee shop.
It had been a long road to Blanco the past year and a half. First the arguments, then the exhausting and emotional divorce from Mary, followed by the amicable and poignant separation from the small litigation firm I had co-founded in Houston. My law partners all thought I was crazy to give up my lucrative litigation practice in Houston, but I was totally spent intellectually and emotionally and needed to get away, permanently.
The Houston traffic, the humidity and heat, and the eighty-hour work weeks had all taken a toll on me on top of the stress of my divorce. I liked the slower pace in Blanco. The only traffic problem here was that everyone drove under the speed limit, as opposed to Houston, where you risked being run over outside the rush hours if you weren’t going ten or fifteen miles over the speed limit.
Of course my good intentions to start a new life had a few setbacks. Once I got to Blanco to stay, about six months ago, I ate too much, drank too much, and slept too much. My mid-life crisis in Houston had created an earth-shaking set of changes that made me feel I was dragging around a mental ball and chain. I had felt guilty and eventually resolved to clean up my act—but to do it away from my environment there.
Getting started was the problem. I had not counted on being lonely. Sure, there were plenty of friendly people in Blanco, but being new in town, I had no close friends yet, especially of the female variety. If I died today, I doubt whether there would be more than ten or twenty at the funeral. At least now I was making a new start in my life, two hundred miles west of Houston, in my office, ready to build a new law practice. I laughed to myself, thinking that I had now abandoned big city life for a small town, having run off to college at eighteen from my small town of Paris, Texas, to get away from small town life, where everyone was either related to you or knew all about you and your family. I had learned, though, that small-town living had its virtues. I’d had normal hard-working parents, my father the local bank president, and my mother an English teacher in middle school. Being an only child, I was spoiled growing up. My parents did enjoy cocktails and parties, and in that respect I had done a good job emulating them in the big city.
Nonetheless, I wished that I could forget about the wreckage I’d walked through to get here . . . an irate ex-wife who wouldn’t cut down on her drinking and smoking, a couple of twenty-something kids who had kept their distance from both their parents, and several law partners who had been sad to see me go, but seemed to understand on some level. I guess no one completely understands when a person voluntarily cuts off a relationship. Anyway, I had left behind all of my past life except my two kids, who I dearly wanted back.
In my idle moments I remembered the good times that Mary and I had had during my twenty-six years with her, and I wondered how it was that she and I had changed so much. Part of the reason, I was sure, was the long, stressful days I spent working. I couldn’t remember when I ever had taken more than a few days off when I was in Houston, and I am sure Mary and the kids felt that.
On the other hand, I had often felt that I was no more than a meal ticket to them, not realizing that the kids felt differently and wanted something else, a dad they could spend more time with. I had known why I had wanted the divorce, but it had taken me a while to understand why Mary wanted it as well. She was lonely. She wanted something more than the life of comfort that the money from my work could provide. More than anything she needed companionship, a partner in life. At some point I had thought that I needed to re-connect with Mary and see if she, too, had resolved to start a new life, but she had quickly remarried, so there was no going back.
I could count on what I had been able to keep after the divorce—a year or two of money to live on and a modest income from my part-time job as city attorney, a job I took on when the old city attorney, hounded by unhappy clients, had left town without resigning. Rumors, always robust in a small town, had indicated that he had had many of the same troubles as Mary and I had.
My pride and joy was my place southeast of town, off 32 going toward San Marcos. It’s only fifty acres, so I couldn’t call it a ranch, but it was a half mile off the highway and nicely isolated. I had gotten a good contractor to build a nice three-bedroom house on the hill at the back of the property. Originally I’d wanted property on the Blanco River, but I’d heard too many stories about the river going on the rise periodically and didn’t want to get flooded. Below the house was a gently sloping lawn, and about fifty yards down I’d had a large tank, or pond, built to collect rainwater. Finding the rains too sporadic, I had the contractor run a water pipe from my well to the tank to keep the water level of the tank high enough to stock the tank with catfish and perch. On the shore of the tank I had built a gazebo, where I could rest, linger, and disconnect.
I’d sit in the gazebo and experience absolute quiet. If you live in a big city, you don’t appreciate that a city has a great deal of ambient noise. Only in the country can you sit in absolute quiet. And then there’s the air. Clear refreshing air, different from the air in cities. The best part of this place was that my nearest neighbors lived about a half-mile from my house. I had built and then upgraded the house to be comfy but not extravagant, and two of the bedrooms reflected my hopes that my kids would come to visit me once the pain of the family break-up wore off.
What I wanted more than anything, though, was enough business to keep me solvent and feeling useful. Maybe all this would bring me a little personal redemption, too.
The door opened slowly, and the Clifts shuffled in. I greeted them warmly and asked them to sit down. My furnishings were not lavish, but they were familiar. When I left Houston my partners had allowed me to take my desk, chairs, bookcases, and rug. All the furniture showed a lot of wear and tear, but I figured that my new clients would consider that a good thing. The one exception was a new Aerilon chair I’d bought for me. Since I would be sitting in the chair for extended periods I figured I should be comfortable, but the new chair looked quite out of place with its black frame and mesh seat and back.
The Clifts would be one of my first Blanco clients. Before now, I had
spent most of my time moving and finishing up the housebuilding and such. And, as I said, I wasn’t taking good care of myself. Building a new law practice wouldn’t be easy. There were two other good lawyers in town, one next door in the court house, and more in Johnson City and Dripping Springs. I had to try.
George, the voice behind the greeting at the door, was of average height, about sixty, with bright blue eyes and snow-white short hair. Like all of the men in the hill country, it seemed, he had a nice paunch, blue jeans, big ears, and a faded blue-patterned short-sleeve shirt. The Clifts were typical of the reason I moved here. They were recently retired, had a bunch of cash in the bank, and had built a nice house on twenty-five acres north of town, in a big subdivision called Brushy Top.
George was the first to talk. “Sure is going to be a hot one today for this time of year. We could use some rain, but I guess this is September.” I nodded. Then he got right down to business. He leaned forward in his chair and rested his arms on my big desk. “I figured it was time to update our wills. I have no idea where our other wills are. We did them probably fifteen years ago when we lived in Corpus Christi. I hope you know about wills. Our daughter Dorothy lives some distance away, in Corpus Christi, and we’re concerned about not having anyone to care for us as we age.
“Of course, there is our son Dan. He lived with us until about a year ago, but now he has a job on a big ranch north of Johnson City. It’s in the middle of nowhere, and we don’t know what he does. He’s had a lot of challenges. Drugs and alcohol and such, so we can’t count on him.
George sighed and looked down morosely. “Our nightmare is that someday we might have to go into a nursing home like the broken down one here in town, and God knows what would happen to our nice house and all our money. My grandfather was in a nursing home, and at one point he tried to give away all his furniture to a nurse who befriended him. Don’t want that to happen to us. Our biggest worry, though, is that if we leave anything to the two kids, Dan will fritter away his share.” He looked up and leaned back in his chair.
Vi Clift had listened intently as George talked, poised and erect, with her hands neatly clasped on her lap. “Well, George,” Vi said. “You’re right about Dan, but I think Dorothy would rise to the task and look after us and make sure we were in the right place if we couldn’t decide things for ourselves. She’d make time.”
I could tell Vi was the sort of person who always tried to think the best of people, especially her kids. I liked her. She reminded me of my mother—kind, soft-spoken, and open. She was small, trim, and of course gray-haired, with nice hazel eyes and sharp features, maybe a little younger than George. She must have been a beauty three or four decades ago. Now she wore modest jewelry and a pretty green blouse, with blue jeans that looked more like the designer kind than Wranglers. “Dan’s basically a nice boy. He just has a tendency to get mixed up with the wrong people.” I’ve heard that many times.
What the Clifts didn’t know is that neither I nor a will or two could solve their family problems with Dan. As Mark Twain said, “It’s too hard to predict things, especially in the future.” Dan surely seemed as if he’d be a problem down the road.
I took notes for a standard set of wills, with the kids to share-and-share alike. For what it was worth, I suggested adding a “second spouse” trust for both Vi and George. If one of them died, the deceased’s half of their estate would be in a trust for use if necessary by the survivor, but, if not used, the trust money would go to the kids. That way if the survivor re-married or became deranged, the survivor could give away his or her half, but not the deceased’s half. At least that part would go to their children. I suggested that they leave Da n’s share in trust, to be doled out by his older sister on a ‘need money to live on’ basis, but they thought that wouldn’t work. Dan would be angry about the arrangement and would end up hating his sister and his parents’ memory.
I told them how much it would cost, and, after they had recovered from the shock, they said I should go ahead. For some reason everyone thinks lawyers should be cheap, but $250 an hour seems to be the going rate around here. Seven-hundred-fifty dollars didn’t seem out of line.
The Clifts said their goodbyes, and I began to work on their wills. I felt good lawyering again, even though most of my previous lawyer time had been spent in court rather than typing up documents. I felt especially good since the effects of the Crown Royal of last evening had begun to wear off, but I did wonder whether I’d get bored doing nothing but documents and little stuff.
I needed another cup of coffee. One impressive thing about my office was that it used to be the county clerk’s office more than a century ago. It had one big room, about nine hundred square feet, with a gigantic closet in a corner where the clerk must have kept county documents. The closet even had a huge safe. I made the closet my kitchenette, complete with a mini-refrigerator, microwave, and coffee maker. The safe held wine, Crown, and beer for special occasions. Fortunately there was no combination needed to open the safe, so I didn’t have to worry about getting to my liquor locked up and inaccessible.
While I brewed a cup of coffee to wipe away the fog in my brain, someone knocked on the front door.