Masks of Morality

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Chapter 19

The look on Clarence’s face when he heard Bryan’s words was heartbreaking. Bryan got it. He had to let it go. The whole childhood thing. Making a fairy-tale playroom for his twins was the only way his dad knew how to make up for what had happened. He was a man of action. Not a man of words or emotion. And it was up to Bryan to grasp the apology and to accept it.

“Thanks, Dad, we really appreciate all this,” he said. “Hey boys, go tell your Grandpa how considerate this all is. How happy you are with what he did to please you. Thank him. Go on, give him that hug he didn’t get at the airport!”

Neither boy made any indication that they had heard Bryan. They were intent on putting together more of the Lego sets.

Charlotte almost felt like crying, looking at Clarence. He was wearing his heart on his sleeve, the obstinate jowls softened, eyes focused lovingly on his grandsons. Come on, boys, she thought. Come on!

OMG her heart couldn’t take it anymore. She spoke up. “Boys…did you hear your Daddy? C’mon, go over and give your Grandpa a great big hug and kiss! Look what he did for you!”

The boys got up and walked slowly, awkwardly, towards Clarence, and put their arms around him. Instinctively, Bryan and Charlotte moved towards them. Then all five of them were hugging. The adults hugging and crying.

“Mommy and Daddy, why are you crying like that?” asked Keenan.

“Oh, these are good tears son, no worries!” Bryan responded.

Barbara appeared in the doorway, clearing her throat nervously and addressing Charlotte. “Ahh…I…I’ve set up the boys’ room with all their things, and would like to show you and Bryan to your room,” She remained at the door’s edge and kept her distance from the family hug. “It has a spa with an open view of the golf course and a fireplace. It’s just one of those ‘eco-friendly’ fake fireplaces. But the maid lit it for you. We hope you will feel comfortable.”

“Barbara doesn’t like my new bio-ethanol design for all our fireplaces,” Clarence added.

“That’s not entirely true!” Barbara snapped. “I just miss the smell of burning. To me, it’s part of the ambiance. Why can’t we have real fireplaces? I just don’t get it.”

Bryan remembered the marriage never being happy. It was a marriage of convenience. This tension felt so familiar. It usually preceded a full-on blow-up. He hoped there would be no awful fights like the ones he had been subjected to growing up. He wanted to spare his boys that experience.

As it turned out, there were no fights between Br
yan’s parents. They barely spent any time together. Barbara mostly kept to herself, going out to the yacht club, meeting her friends for lunch, spending a lot of time pampering herself for herself at the spas.

Charlotte was beginning to see why Bryan’s dad had been able to mistreat him so badly growing up. His mother was too self-absorbed to stop it.

Nonetheless, over the next week Charlotte, Bryan, and the boys had a wonderful time with Clarence. They went out a couple of times on his magnificent yachts and played golf, even if it amounted to a miniature golf style putting around the greens.

They spent a wonderful full day at the Nature Center, which the kids loved, especially the new solar greenhouse. They went to the Children’s Museum. They hung around the house, which had more to offer than most of the village hot spots.

It ended up being a bit too cool for the beach, which was ok with the kids. They had so much fun swimming in Grandpa and Grandma’s heated pool they never missed the beach. And they never made it into NYC, which was fine, as Charlotte realized the glimpse into her husband’s childhood arena was more important.

One night near the end of their vacation, Barbara came into the boys’ room when Charlotte was sitting with them, reading them stories.

“Charlotte dear,” she asked. “Would you and Bryan like to have a night out to yourselves? I fear I’ve neglected to spend as much time as I’d have liked with the boys…and it’s dawned on me the week is nearly over.”

Charlotte’s mind raced.

How would Barbara treat the boys if she left them with her? Would she even make sure they ate dinner, brushed their teeth? Would she read a bedtime story to them, tuck them in, and kiss them goodnight?

As if sensing Charlotte’s hesitation, Barbara said “Oh, Clarence will be here as well, after his time at the yacht club. I just thought perhaps you two would like a night out. Go to dinner or a show? The boys would be in good hands. I’m not the wicked witch of the east, you know.”

And with that, she showed her teeth. Her mouth was smiling but her eyes were cold.

Charlotte detected the phony smile, but she softened a bit. This is what a politician’s wife has to do. It was so ingrained by now, after decades, that she didn’t know how to smile a real smile. Poor thing. And really, what could it hurt, leaving her boys with Grandma? Why did she feel so protective? She had to admit it was because Barbara had mistreated her own son, had been too weak to stop her from abandoning him as a teen.

But that was then. This is now.

“Well, that is kind of you Barbara” Charlotte felt hesitant to commit alone. “Let me talk to Bryan. Maybe we’ll take you up on your offer.”

When Charlotte brought it up with Bryan, he got angry.

“Why would you even question it? Of course, we should go out! Why would you not trust my mother?” His arms crossed, and he clenched his fists.

Charlotte’s eyelids narrowed, and her lips tightened. “Oh, I don’t know, maybe the fact she has not seen you for what…twenty years or so? And her part in allowing her own eighteen-year-old kid to be thrown out of their rich household with not a dime in his pocket? Sorry Bry, but she is not exactly overly friendly with the boys. And she doesn’t even go out of her way to talk to you, her only son. I don’t know, there are a lot of reasons not to trust her.”

Bryan remained silent, his nostrils flared.

Charlotte continued. “She has not once, during this entire week, done anything with us. We went everywhere with your father, helping him in and out of his wheelchair. Which, by the way, had to be exhausting for him. Where was she? At the spa?”

He paced back and forth. “My mother has never been the one to be involved in anything … that’s just her. It’s how she is. She’s fiercely independent,” Bryan stopped pacing and took a deep breath. “We can’t change who she was then. But she can now. And now she’s trying. And we can leave her with our kids—she’s their grandmother!”

Charlotte’s eyebrows pulled downward, as she shook her head. “So how ‘independent’ was she when your Dad insisted you leave the house and never come back just because you chose not to follow his fucking career footsteps, huh?” .Seriously. Where was your ‘independent’ mom during all that? I could not imagine treating my boys like that when they turn eighteen!”

“She’s my mother!” Bryan shouted. “Back. The fuck. Off!”

Charlotte looked over in horror to see the boys now in the doorway. They were both standing there, toys in hand, frozen in place.

Kevin began to cry first, then Keenan. “I don’t want to stay here with Grandma! I want to go out with you!” Kevin wailed.

“Now look what you’ve started!” Bryan yelled. “Great, just great! You’ve turned my sons against my mom! Great job Charlotte! So she isn’t perfect, who is? This was her way of reaching out to us, to them!” Bryan’s face was red with anger as his arms reached out towards his sons.

“Shh…quiet Bryan,” Charlotte said, her voice lowered. “Your parents must be wondering about us. Oh…oh come here boys, I’m sorry. It’s all right, everything’s all right. I didn’t mean to say those mean things about Grandma. Your dad and I were just…just…Oh! It’s not your fault.”

“I don’t want Grandma to watch us! We want to go out with you guys!” Kevin cried. Keenan just stood there crying softly, his favorite stuffed Teddy, which went everywhere with him, clutched to his heart. His brother was the warrior. He was the peacemaker. “Me too,” he sniffled.

“Charlotte,” Bryan spoke very softly, lovingly now. “Listen, honey. Listen, boys. I know that Grandma and Grandpa have not gotten real close to you guys. And that was my fault, not theirs. But now she…they…want to. Oh, come here, all of you!”

Bryan hugged his boys, and Charlotte squeezed into the family hug. They were all crying again, especially Bryan.

“Listen, boys, why don’t you two play with these Legos and things, while Mommy and Daddy go talk to your grandparents? It would be nice for you to hang out with Grandma tonight. It’s Grandpa’s night out to play cards with his friends…and Grandma is going to make it super fun for you guys.”

Charlotte and Bryan ended up going out to dinner at a delightful wine bar and restaurant, which was just around the corner from the French bistro they had gone to as a family their first night in Connecticut. The best thing was, they didn’t have to drive. The limo driver dropped them off and said he would wait in front of the restaurant for as long as they needed.

When they had finished their lovely meal, Bryan waved to the waiter, who came right over. “Check please?” Bryan said.

“Oh, no Sir,” the waiter shook his head. “You’re all set. Your father called ahead.”

Bryan and Charlotte exchanged grateful glances. “Well,” Bryan said, smiling, “that was very generous of him. So I will leave you a generous tip.”

The waiter smiled back. “No, sir, thank you. But that won’t be necessary. As I said, your father called ahead. He takes very good care of the wait staff here. And I wouldn’t offend him by taking your money. Why don’t you buy your lovely wife a nice gift at one of our many boutiques?”

Now Charlotte was smiling. “I like that idea, honey.” She turned to the waiter “You’re a very wise man. Are you married?”

He showed her his ring. “I sure am. Happily married for many, many years.”

“Not surprised,” Charlotte winked at him.

Since the bill was taken care of and their waiter had made a brilliant suggestion as to what to do with what they would have spent, Charlotte and Bryan went for a walk around the quaint streets. Not many shops were open, so there wasn’t much opportunity to buy Charlotte a gift. But she found herself riveted to the window display at the Ski and Sports Center.

“We need to buy new ski jackets for the boys this season. They have outgrown the ones they have now,” she told Bryan, glancing at the stylish jacket in the window she would just love to have for herself.

“Yeah, well we won’t be buying them here, look at those price tags!” Bryan joked. But he was watching her eyes and he took note of where they landed. With the money they had saved from what would have been a very expensive meal, he had the money to surprise her with the jacket, and he planned to go back the next day and get it for her.

“They likely put the nicest stuff on the window display. We could maybe find something cheaper in the store,” Charlotte was saying.

“We are NOT spending our last two days here stuffed up in a store, Charlotte. I’d rather do anything else,” Bryan said, high-fiving himself on the inside because now Charlotte would never suspect he was going back there to get her the jacket she wanted. “Let’s keep going, honey. It’s a beautiful night.”

As they walked on, Bryan’s bright mood changed, and he grew more and more silent and pensive. Charlotte, always sensitive to her husband’s moods, picked up on it right away.

“What is it Bry?” she asked. “Is there something you’re not telling me? Something about growing up?”

Bryan stopped walking and turned to face her.

“My parents, they were…well my mother was anyhow … violent. She would lash out at my Dad, lash out at me. I remember screaming once as a kid … what, maybe nine years old…after seeing my mother bloody up my dad’s face with a spatula, frying pan, whatever her choice of weapon was at the time. I couldn’t take it anymore…I screamed once “Hit her the fuck back, Dad!”

Charlotte stood transfixed, silent, just listening. She was speechless with shock over this new revelation. But she also didn’t want to speak. She just looked him straight in the eyes, oriented her torso toward him and nodded her head. She wanted Bryan to get this out. She knew it would be healing for him. Therapeutic.

“The next thing I knew, my mom had turned around and screamed at me ‘Don’t you ever use that foul language young man! Where did you learn that?! The gutter? We don’t talk like truck drivers in this family!’ She swung out with that metal pan and smacked me on the head so hard I was unconscious for hours. My dad had to call 911. He thought I might die. That happened so many times. I have scars not only all over my body but also my heart.”

Charlotte remembered the scars on Bryan’s back and legs and cringed. She had always assumed they were a product of his days of crazy risk taking…rock climbing the steepest terrain without a harness, flying off the river rafts in waterfalls slapping against rocks.

It was as if Bryan could read her mind.

“The reason I took all those wild risks was I went through life feeling dead anyhow. Those were my ways of finding myself, trying to feel alive. My rich-boy abusive childhood messed me up something bad.”

Charlotte felt tears coming. she came back to the present moment.

“Oh my God Bryan! The kids are with your mother now!

“Don’t worry, honey. My mom would never hurt the boys. That was then. This is now. She would not hurt them Charlotte. I just know it. I can see the regret in her eyes each time she looks at me. That’s why it’s hard for her to spend time with me. She feels so guilty.”

“Okay, honey,” Charlotte grabbed him by the arm and started pulling him toward the limo. “You trust your mom now. But I don’t. Let’s go.”

When they arrived at the house and the chauffeur had handed them out of the limo and driven away, they caught a glimpse of the scene in the living room as they walked up to the front door.

The boys were giving Grandma a lesson on how to complete Lego missions. The three of them were sitting close together on the floor in front of a roaring fire in the fireplace. Fresh mugs of steaming hot chocolate with a mountain of whipped cream on each were sitting on a tea tray on the coffee table. In front of them was a partially constructed King Arthur and The Round Table set.

Grandma was raptly listening to Kevin, who was demonstrating something with two of the pieces. Her face was unusually soft, and radiant in the firelight.

Charlotte squeezed Bryan’s hand, and he squeezed back. They entered the house quietly and tiptoed up to their bedroom. It was Grandma Night. Their boys were in good hands, and Grandma was in good hands.

Time to continue their date in a more private way, in a more private place. With their own radiant firelight.

The next two days went by quickly, and as it turned out, it rained both days so they did not do much outside. Charlotte spent most of her time organizing and packing. It was helpful having the house maid do all their laundry.

Bryan used the opportunity to go back to the ski shop and buy Charlotte the jacket she loved. When she had finished packing the biggest suitcase and was otherwise occupied, he carefully slipped it in under everything else so that when she unpacked she’d find it. I’m a genius, he thought with glee. A total genius.

On the morning they were to return home, Clarence called them into his library for a chat.

“Bryan, I thought you and Charlotte…might accept a little gift from us. I know this doesn’t make up for all the years…”

He choked up and couldn’t speak.

“What kind of gift, Pops?” Bryan asked. He knew it would be a gift of money and no small sum. It always came to money.

He didn’t know when his family would see his parents again. But they could always come through with money. Bryan knew money can’t buy you love, but he also knew, and finally accepted, that this might be the only way his parents knew how to show their love. And their love was genuine.

“Well…I…well you see,” Clarence stammered and fidgeted with something in his hand. “There is something I haven’t told you. Not that this has to do with the gift…oh…heck son. I have Parkinson’s. My doctor says it’s progressing quickly. I will rest much easier if I finally give to you what you deserved as my son long ago. That trust fund is still yours. Not as big as it was then, but still. Twenty-five million. I hope you will accept it, with my deepest most heartfelt apologies for how I failed you.”

Clarence hadn’t told Bryan why he was in the wheelchair. He would merely laugh and say “It sucks getting old, son.” Bryan had thought…or hoped… it was some mean case of arthritis and that his dad simply preferred not to walk as much because of the pain.

But he had known deep inside it had to be more. The symptoms he saw but tried to ignore. Slight tremors and shaking with slower and more rigid movement. His dad’s balance was uneven getting on and off the yacht. And he could barely do his golf swing—at times his arms just didn’t move at all.

Bryan wanted to say “I don’t want your money, Dad, just your love.”

But then he thought of his boys. Of their future. College was expensive in this country without the free tuition other nations have. He didn’t feel the need for a life of luxury. Quite the contrary. He was happier without it. At one time Charlotte had been obsessed with Prada, Gucci, Chanel, and Hermes, but she had changed. She wanted her boys to work hard at something they loved the way their dad did, and build confidence and pride in themselves that way. She wanted them to be happy.

But still…Twenty-five million dollars!

Bryan realized he hadn’t said anything. He’d just left his Dad hanging. He was about to say something when Charlotte spoke up. It was as if she had read his mind.

“Wow Clarence,” she said. “That’s so generous of you. Twenty-five million dollars is more money than we ever imagined having, or managing. But it sure would help to have plenty enough put away for the boys’ college. Maybe put them into private school now. Pour some into Bryan’s business. Put money into the house…” Feed the hungry, she thought to herself not knowing if Clarence is among the immoral rich that don’t support the needy.

She wasn’t so much talking to Clarence as she was thinking out loud. She knew Bryan would never want to stop the work he loved, the business he had worked so hard to build. Regardless of how much money they had now.

Charlotte realized the best part of this. She would not have to work and could spend lots of time with her boys. That’s what was more important to her. Time with the boys. Not the big house or fancy cars. She just wanted to buy newer, safer vehicles running on clean energy to drive the kids around in... She had no desire for flashy status symbols.

But would she feel differently if this money had come to them through hard work? Earned rather than handed to them?

The sound of laughter interrupted Charlotte’s thoughts. She glanced over to see Bryan and Clarence belly laughing about something. The only thing she had heard had something to do with taking up golf again and being able to afford all the crazy golf bets now.

Father and son needed time alone. To reconnect. If it’s money that brought them closer, that’s better than nothing at all.

Then it struck her. It wasn’t money that drew them together. It was Bryan’s dad being faced with a horrible disease and possibly dying.

She quietly left the room, glancing back as she passed through the doorway. The two men were engrossed in each other, talking, laughing, touching. What a beautiful sight. What a beautiful, beautiful outcome. She silently blew them both a kiss, and sent up a thank-you to everything Divine.

She went back to the guest room she and Bryan had slept in that week. The eco-friendly fireplace was lit, a scented candle was burning, and something else smelled great. Then she realized the bath tub tap was running.

One of the many house maids came out of the bathroom. “I’ve run a bubble bath for you, Ms. Charlotte. I thought you’d like to relax a bit before you’re taken to the airport.”

Charlotte thanked her and stepped into the bathroom. What a delight! Candles were lit and the scent of lavender and jasmine filled the air. She threw off her clothes and slipped into the just right, hot scented bubbling water. Heaven! There was a cup of tea steaming off to her left, and she took a sip. It was a calming herb…maybe chamomile. Man, she would miss this!

Maybe not, she reminded herself. We have twenty-five million dollars now! I can have as many bubble baths, hot teas, candles, and as much relaxation as I want. And in a mansion, if I want, with servants. We could own several properties. Let’s see, a Colorado ski house, a Tahoe ski house, heck, and a beach house in Hawaii.

This daydreaming was fun, especially since she knew all of these dreams were now well within her reach. Maybe she would never even work again. Or at least not for money.

, Charlotte felt uneasy. She sat bolt upright in the bathtub. “But I don’t want to change my lifestyle! I love my simple life as it is!” she said out loud. I…I don’t want to ever stop what I’m doing in ecology! I’m proud of my Ph.D. I worked hard for it! Fuck! I don’t want to stop my efforts at saving the planet, the people! Our next generation!”

Bryan had come back to the bedroom to grab his cell phone and overheard Charlotte’s bathtub ramblings. Curious, he stuck his head in the doorway. “Umm…honey, are you ok?”

She had teary eyes, bubbles on her head, mascara smudges. “I don’t even care what I look like!”

“Oh, sweetie, you always look beautiful to me, even right now with your raccoon eyes!”

“No, no! That’s not what I mean! I mean…as a rich woman now, am I not expected to turn shallow, get preoccupied with my looks? Wear Valentino, get the boob job, have Botox, the works? Oh…forget it! It’s not even that. It’s just that…” Charlotte thought about what she was trying to say.

After a moment, she continued. “I think about what makes me happy, and it’s the simple things in life. You, our boys, my job, our modest home. I don’t want a bigger house, I don’t want expensive cars. And I love what I do—I feel so good about it. I feel like I am doing something to help our kids have a planet to live on! I help curb cancer, and a top problem in our nation, which is unsustainable environmental practices.”

“Then don’t change anything honey,” Bryan said. “Coming into all this wealth all of a sudden doesn’t mean our world needs to be turned upside down. We don’t all of a sudden have to think of selfishness as a virtue. Just because we’re rich now doesn’t mean we have to start thinking like rich people. I don’t want the boys to all of a sudden have so many changes either. Although I wouldn’t mind switching them to a private school—our public schools are too crowded and chaotic.”

Two hours later, they were in the limo on the way to La Guardia airport. The boys were busy playing with a Lego set in the back seat. Charlotte felt compelled to broach the subject again with Bryan.

“Hey Bry…like we were saying. Let’s not change too much about our current lifestyle just because your dad is forking over that fortune of a trust fund to us.”

“I told you already Charlotte, I agree,” Bryan responded. “Why must you harp on this?”

“I’m not harping…just thinking. So how about we donate fifteen million or so to some of the top humanitarian charities? But not for ‘developing’ nations. Our own country has enough problems. I mean, half of our own people live in poverty. We are slowly becoming like a third world…”

Bryan cringed inside. Fifteen million? That would mean a big chunk of their trust fund. Perhaps that’s too much of it to donate. But he surprised himself with his answer.

“You don’t have to explain, honey. I get where you’re coming from. And I agree. Let’s give the majority of our inheritance to the disintegrating country our kids need to survive in—unless we move to another country to give them a better life the way our ancestors did!”

“Yes! Oh yes, honey!” Charlotte responded. “Oh, I love this! We’ll do our real duty to our country! Help our schools, healthcare, environmental disasters, our crumbling transportation and infrastructure, food…”

Bryan held up a hand. “Wait a minute, sweetie…hold on. That’s a tall order! We can’t fix everything! We need to set aside a little for ourselves! But yes, let’s seek out foundations that nurture positive interactions between community, the environment, and the economy. We’ll put our money where our children’s future is concerned…to improve the world they live in.

“And, well, we don’t have to think about this right now. And as I mentioned, we can switch the boys to private schools. Look at what seems to be happening with public education. It’s all test and punish. And middle school years are frightening.”

Charlotte looked over at her husband. She loved him so much, and she was so glad they were partners. She trusted his judgment and she knew he trusted hers.

Together they would make the best decisions about what to do with the unimagined windfall.

And the world their boys would grow up in would be better because of their choices.

She reached over and took his hand in hers. Their fingers twined together.

The limo pulled up to the curb and the chauffeur said “We’re here folks. Mr. Gafferty has already cleared you through security and your bags will be expedited. Have a safe trip home.”

Charlotte stepped out of the limo onto the curb. I could so get used to this! But first…?

Change the world.

**In the end, Bryan and Charlotte did exactly what they planned, giving equal amounts of their windfall to each humanitarian cause.

Bryan invested a little in his struggling business, knowing there was only so much he could do to increase demand for landscaping services in an economy where people were losing their homes to dishonest banks. But he would never close shop, it was his pride and joy. What he had worked so hard for.

They found satisfaction giving back to our very own nation’s communities first—being starved of resources while selling out our neighborhoods to developing worlds. In capitalism, money is the life blood of society. But charity is its soul.

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