Reversals of Fortune

Hindsight can mask the bizarre so as to make it appear commonplace. We take for granted what we never fully grasped in the first place, though the idea of even the most unlikely event serving up any useful lesson seems presumptuous at best.

I was seventeen when my father dug up a million dollars in currency and coin that my godmother’s husband had buried in their cellar. (Adjusted for inflation, the true figure would be more like two, but that isn’t precisely where I was going with this.)

My godmother, Martha, who was also my mother’s first cousin, lived with her second husband, Jay, in a nondescript rambler on the corner of Wilshire Boulevard and South Citrus Avenue in Central Los Angeles. Martha had been married once before, to what my mother described as a sweetheart of a man who had been run down in a neighborhood crosswalk while on his way to the post office to deliver some letters.

Martha and Jay were childless, Martha’s daughter from the earlier marriage having succumbed to diptheria at the heartwrenching age of twelve. My godmother lived an isolated, sterile existence. She rarely left the house and had no interests or hobbies, nothing she felt passionate about. She had no friends. Apart from her doctor and her priest, her only contact with the outside world was my mother, with whom she spoke on the phone religiously, bridging the five hundred miles between San Francisco and Los Angeles each Sunday.

My godmother’s hard life showed in her manner, which at best could be described as taciturn and reserved. She had delicate nerves and was easily flustered, though she was nice enough to me and was doubtless responsible for the twenty-five-dollar checks her tightwad husband reluctantly signed that I got at Christmas and for my birthday

Jay Talcott had worked for the L.A. city water department from the early days of the Depression, a job that paid comparatively well when few had any work at all. Not even his wife knew why he  chose to invest the entirety of their savings in a Las Vegas pig farm until that inauspicious forty acres of mud later became the parking lot of the soon-to-be fabulous Flamingo Hotel.

Their wealth brought them little happiness. Martha and Jay seldom dined out. They never traveled save for a handful of holiday visits in the early years. Neither of them drove. Martha’s first husband had had a car, an old Mercury that sat on flat tires in their garage.

My cousin Jay was an eccentric, abysmally racist Midwesterner, transplanted to the coast for reasons and by means never made clear, a man who hoarded electric motors, old radios, rolls of wire, pipes, vacumm tubes, rubber bands, paper clips, saw blades, fountain pens, and sheets of tin in an outbuilding he had had added onto his garage. He regarded Los Angeles as nothing more than an oversized Iowa hick town, and believed for the entirety of his adult life that the next great crash was just around the corner.

Along these lines, he distrusted banks and preferred to keep his money where he could have ready access to it when the national institutions collapsed. When I was a boy he used to take me to junk shops and war surplus stores on South Figeroa and farther west along Wilshire. Jay owned dozens of cameras, which he had purchased at auction or from thrift store bins for next to nothing. He loved to take 35 millimeter pictures, to shuffle the lenses and film types back and forth self-importantly. The only time I recall him smiling – other than when he was arguing for the wholesale ethnic cleansing of Blacks and Jews – was when he was cropping a shot, inauthentically urging us to say, “Cheese,” or to stand closer together in that dry, rattling Nebraskan accent of his.

Though my father was a good and honorable man, certainly one of the best I’ve known, I never saw him confront Jay as to the latter’s hate-filled rants. “Grind ‘em up for fertilizer,” my cousin would say with convincing vigor while puffing furiously on his pipe. I suppose I should have been watching my father to see his reaction on those occasions, but instead my gaze remained fixed on Jay as I studied the crinkles around his eyes.

Looking back on it, my father’s acquiescense on those occasions remains a puzzle. He had fought on Saipan, the bloodiest battle of the Pacific alongside men of every race and creed. His best friend was Chinese. He had enormous interest in and respect for other cultures. I never heard him say anything bad against anyone along those lines. Was he deferring because Jay was married to my mother’s cousin? Because he understood that to take issue with a boor is a waste of time? It couldn’t have been that he agreed on any level with the man’s abhorant views. If my father was a closet rascist, he kept those thoughts to himself and couldn’t have held them, if at all, with any sort of conviction.

Visiting my godmother and her husband always felt more like the discharging of an unspecified duty than a holiday. Meals were stultified, uncomfortable affairs. Pass the potatoes, pass the peas. I can’t say I much enjoyed those visits, though the summer of my fifteenth year, I spent a delightful few days immersed in Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House while curled up on Martha’s chenille sofa in the living room we were never otherwise allowed to occupy. In the language of the novella, “It was a house without kindness, never meant to be lived in, not a fit place for people or for love or for hope.”

We saw less of Martha and Jay as I grew into my late teens, though my mother’s and Martha’s weekly phone calls continued unabated. Jay’s views became more extreme, conspiracy theories and paranoid diatribes occupying more and more of his attention. In what could be considered a case of karma bestowed, he grew senile and ultimately too unpredictable for my godmother to handle. Eventually, she had him committed to a locked care facility in the San Fernando Valley. A month or two after he was taken away, he escaped and made his way home across the city dressed only in his bathrobe and bedroom slippers. The hospital was some distance away, and the weather had been especially foul. No one understood how my cousin had managed it, but somehow he had.

He arrived home to find the front door locked. Martha wouldn’t open it, wouldn’t let him in. Not after the six-plus decades they’d shared, not out of anything resembling affection or even pity. My cousin Jay stood friendless and thwarted on his porch, rain hammering down, unforgiving thunder reverberating across the sky. I’ve often pictured him there – a surly, diminutive little man who had finessed a fortune from a pig far – unheeded and unwanted as any penniless wretch, vainly hammering on his own front door, deploring his arsenal of offensive curses, kicking and and lashing out until the nurse practitioners arrived to subdue him and take him away again.

Jay never returned home. When he died in the care home a handful of years later, Martha asked my father if he could take some time off from his work to help her. She wanted him to search the house along with Jay’s storehouse behind the garage. She thought it possible that her late husband had buried some cash around the place, though he’d never precisely come out and said so. Using a curtain rod for a probe, working on his hands and knees for the better part of a week, my father unearthed fifteen war surplus ammunition cans from the little cellar under the kitchen, the cans measuring four-by-twelve-by-ten filled with currency and rolls of silver coins dating from the eighteen-nineties to the mid nineteen-sixties. I remember one larger can that held sixty, two-thousand dollar packets of twenty-dollar bills, the can’s lid soldered shut and sealed with paraffin.

The air in the cellar was stale and musty. The ammo cans were heavy, and my father wasn’t young. There wasn’t a lot of head room, and he’d had to lean over hunched on his knees to lift the cans out one at a time. He worked alone down there. My godmother took no interest in his progress. Contrary to what one might expect, the idea of there being buried treasure on the premises distressed her mightily. She worried that word would get out, that one or more unscrupulous desperados would break in and murder her in her bed. Even when Jay’s cache finally came to light, she washed her hands of the matter. “You take care of it,” she told my father. “I wouldn’t know what to do.” Luckily for her, my father was copiously honest.

Raised Catholic, my father had converted to Protestantism upon turning eighteen, but he had no particular fervor for that religion either. His only moral conviction, as far as I know, was his adherence to the Golden Rule, which my Italian Nona had instilled in him at a young age. Even as to that he didn’t proselytize. I only heard him refer to it once or twice in the entire time I knew him. I can’t remember him ever uttering the word God. I never saw him in church. Those few times my mother dragged me to St. Mary’s as a child – Easter Sundays and midnight mass on Christmas Eve – he stayed home.

At the time my father found her husband’s treasure, my godmother had no living relatives apart from my mother, to whom she’d been anything but generous. No doubt she was a racist in her own right, if only by virtue of her long-standing deference to her husband. It would have been easy enough to justify stealing from her.

She wouldn’t have known that my father had found the money if he hadn’t told her. He could easily have lied, explaining that he’d come up empty-handed, but my godmother had placed her trust in him, and he would never have considered betraying her. At her my insistence, my father packed the ammo cans into the trunk of his car and drove north to Lake Tahoe where we were living by then – he was postmaster in a little town up there – and put the money in a safe deposit box in Martha’s name.

I remember the night he and I counted the currency, the mountain of wrapped bundles heaped on the bedspread. It was an enormous amount of money for its day, enough for a stable of Rolls Royces, or a small a villa in the South of France. I was young and arrogant and self-absorbed, barely able to refrain from saying what I was thinking at that first turning point in the story: that my father had turned his back on the opportunity of a lifetime, a chance to transform our lives at no great cost to anyone, to right a longstanding wrong that was even then playing itself out before our eyes.

Notwithstanding her close relationship with my mother, Martha had long made it clear she planned to leave the vast majority of her estate to the Little Sisters of the Poor, a dubiously named charity we had never heard of that sounded at the time like a scam. (It wasn’t. Originating in France in the early nineteeth century, the organization provides housing and other assistance to poor Catholic women.) Her only living relative, my mother had been loyal to her, kind and indulgent on countless occasions when others would have turned their backs. It didn’t seem fair.

There was a silver lining, of course. My father was honest, but he wasn’t a fool. My godmother was in her mid 80’s by then and not particularly well. My father had the only key to the safety deposit box which he had opened for her. If the money went on sitting there in the bank until she passed, my parents would become the defacto heirs of that fortune.

The money stayed in my father’s custody for a couple of years, but then Martha’s doctor got into the act. He had been exerting more and more influence over her, advising her on business as well as medical matters. An evil, conniving bastard, he got her to change her will, effectively cutting my mother out of the pittance Martha had left her, sticking it to the Little Sisters of the Poor in the bargain. It was is opinion that the money should be kept closer to home, so that Martha’s estate would have an easier time dealing with it when she passed. Being her sole heir, he was the logical choice to take care of it now.

My father knew the doctor was a thief and a a fraud. (Martha wasn’t the only widow he’d romanced for personal gain.) Still, he didn’t protest or delay. As soon as Martha asked him to, he drove back to L.A. with the money again stashed in the trunk of his car.

He kept not a dollar, nary a dime.

I was more vocal that second time around, first questioning my father’s intelligence, then his sanity. Nobody in the world knew the full value of Jay’s stash. “We could at least keep part of it, couldn’t we?” I hollered as he was headed out the door. “Nobody would be the wiser. What difference would it make?”

It must have hurt my father to hear me say those things, though he wasn’t the sort to show it. He nodded wearily and shrugged, heading out the door. I told myself I’d never forgive him for turning his back on my mother and me, but in time I came to. I sometimes wonder if he himself ever regretted his honesty, seeing what little good it did him in the long run. My family never saw a dime of the money he found. Martha never offered him a reward for locating it, and he never asked.

Given time, villains generally find their comeuppance. The doctor died before he could inherit Martha’s fortune. His heirs, about whom we learned little, lost out to the charity with its battery of high-priced lawyers.

I find myself asking, from time to time, what I would do nowadays if I ever found myself in a position similar to the one my father had. Temptation has a way of beguiling even the righteous, not that I count myself in that camp. I like to think I’d do the right thing, but understandably I have my doubts. I question if I’ve grown, characterwise, all that much from the selfish and disputatious youth I was back then. Between us, my father was the better man – an inconvenient truth I’ve come to accept in the way lesser men are obliged to. Who among the currently living doesn’t look through a jaundiced eye? My father’s values might well seem quaint and anachronistic by modern standards. Perhaps it was worth a million dollars to him to set a proper example for his son.

I can’t help but wonder how much worse I would have turned out had he not done so.


Photography Credit: Jason Rice

George Smith’s previous work has appeared in “Catamaran,” “The Los Angeles Times,” “Chicago Quarterly Review,” “The Cafe Review,” “The Atlanta Review,” and elsewhere. The essay, “Ordinary Blessings” was anthologized in Fathering Daughters, Reflections by Men, Beacon Press, Boston. James Alan McPherson and DeWitt Henry, editors.