Blood Money

By Susan Knox

t’s Saturday morning, cleaning day, and Elaine takes her housekeeping seriously. She is armed with Windex, Pledge furniture polish, Clorox wipes, an Electrolux with attachments, paper towels, and dustcloths, and she whirls around the living room straightening, disinfecting, dusting, vacuuming, polishing, all the while keeping one eye on her daughter-in-law, Shelby, who’s sitting on the sofa. Elaine is a small, trim woman with sharp facial features. She was widowed twenty-two years ago and still wears her wedding ring, a slim gold band, and a gold necklace with a half-moon suspended from a cable-link chain—a gift from her husband, Clive, when Jonathan was born. Clive had said he was over the moon about having a son. Only her hair reflects her middle age, and she colors it every other Saturday night with Clairol’s Auburn Flash.

Elaine stares at the side table piled with unopened letters, sympathy notes, and bills. The frown lines between her eyes deepen. “Shelby. You’ve got to go through this mail. Some of it’s been sitting here for weeks.”

“I’ll get to it tomorrow,” Shelby says. Shelby, Jonathan’s widow, is staring into the dark fireplace, an afghan pulled around her shoulders. She is a plump, twenty-year-old college student with creamy skin and hazel eyes. Her long black hair needs a shampoo. Shelby’s wearing the same brown sweats she wore yesterday and the day before that, and she’s hardly spoken a word this morning. Elaine is certain if Shelby took a shower, dressed up, and moved around, she’d feel better. She looks down at her own pressed jeans, plaid shirt, and woven leather belt with approval.

When Jonathan left for Fallujah in June, Elaine agreed to take in his bride of three months. It was her duty. Their marriage had been a surprise to Elaine. Jonathan, nearly thirty, was her only child, and she expected it would be just the two of them for the rest of her life.

Elaine remembers standing in a summer drizzle under Arlington National Cemetery’s massive maples as the six-man honor guard carried Jonathan’s body to the grave site. She watched as they held the American flag above his casket during the service, then, with care and precision, folded it to a tight triangle and presented the flag to Shelby, saying, “From a grateful nation.” There was no flag for her, his mother; no words of gratitude.

Jonathan should have been buried in Ohio beside his father in the Pickerington County Cemetery, where Elaine could visit and tend the graves, but Shelby insisted he be buried in Virginia, and Elaine learned that a mother’s wishes did not count. The twenty-one-gun salute made Elaine jump; the recorded taps irritated her; the expanse of marble headstones depressed her—so many headstones, so far from home.

Elaine moves to the mantel and whisks a feather duster over ceramic figurines. Stepping into Elaine’s living room is like going back in time—beige shag carpeting worn down to the jute backing in traffic areas, cinnamon-colored colonial maple furniture, pastel-green walls trimmed in white, and faded pink chintz slipcovers and drapes. The fireplace holds white birch logs, but Elaine has never lit the logs. And every surface—coffee table, end tables, mantel, bookcase, windowsills, even the fireplace hearth—holds Elaine’s crowded collection of cat and dog ceramics, purchased over the years at garage sales, gift shops, and Goodwill. Elaine believes that more is better, that quantity bespeaks luxury. She thinks of the china figures as her art collection.

Shelby shifts in her seat, pulls the afghan tighter, and grips the edges at her neck. She’s thinking about her husband and his mother. Johnny was a sweetheart—steady, funny, calm. He must have taken after his father because Elaine is a flighty woman, worried only for herself. Johnny had said he knew, even as a little boy, he would always have to take care of his mother.

Shelby understands Elaine is upset about burying Johnny in Arlington National Cemetery instead of next to his father, but she wanted a grand funeral for Johnny, not some small-town laying-to-rest funeral. Shelby rests her head on the back of the sofa and closes her eyes.

Elaine is biting her cuticle, looking at Shelby’s mail. “Shelby, would you like me to open your mail and see if anything needs to be done right away?”

“OK,” Shelby says.

Elaine takes the mail to the dining room table and makes individual stacks of sympathy notes; bills from Visa, Capital One, Huntington National Bank, Macy’s; bank statements; official-looking correspondence from the U.S. government and the Ohio National Guard; catalogs from Victoria’s Secret, Saks, and Sears; People, Us, and ARTnews.

“Shelby.” Elaine holds up a fistful of papers. “There are bills to be paid. Do you want me to write the checks for you?”

“If you want to.”

“I think you would feel better if you didn’t have to worry about them.”

“OK.”

Shelby expected Elaine would be difficult to live with—Johnny had warned her—but it seems like his death has pushed Elaine to a new place. She can’t sit still, can’t relax. She is constantly cleaning, tidying, clearing out closets. She mutters about her mortgage, how she’ll never be able to retire, that she’ll end up on the streets a bag lady. Shelby has yet to see her cry, express grief over the death of her child. It’s all about Elaine.

Wondering if there’s enough money to pay the bills, Elaine opens the bank statement. There must be some mistake. She double-checks the addressee. She examines the transactions. Two deposits made after Jonathan’s death stand out: $100,000 and, later, $400,000. How could this be? Elaine searches through official letters. Survivor’s benefits. Life insurance. All to Shelby. Elaine feels like screaming.

Elaine remembers the pain of being widowed with no life insurance, no savings. Clive was a carpenter working a construction site when he fell, breaking his neck. Elaine thought the construction company was at fault and sought compensation, but they blew her off, saying Clive was careless. Elaine tried to find an attorney to represent her, but no one would take her case without a large retainer. She was left with a small boy, a mortgage, and no means of support. It was a miracle she was able to hold on to her little rambler in Westerville.

Shelby opens her eyes and observes Elaine going through her mail, opening envelopes, making neat piles of paperwork. She should be taking care of her own finances, but even though she sleeps all night and much of the day, she is exhausted. It’s as though a filmy, gray shawl has been thrown over her head and she can’t shake it off.

Elaine sits at the table staring at the bank statement. Surely Jonathan meant for her to have some of this money. He knew how she worried about having enough in her old age. She doesn’t have enough in middle age, let alone old age. Shelby isn’t capable of handling such a large sum. She will fritter it away. Elaine is an experienced bookkeeper. She should take charge. She ponders possibilities as she writes Shelby’s checks. If she got her fair share, she wouldn’t worry about being old and poor. She could pay off the mortgage, get the roof fixed, buy a nice piece of jewelry to commemorate Jonathan’s life. Why didn’t he name her co-beneficiary? He was an actuary, for heaven’s sake—he dealt in details. He must have been so focused on going into battle he forgot the financial part.

Elaine considers how to get her rightful share. She could tell Shelby about the money, appeal to her good nature, her sense of integrity. This seems chancy. She’d probably say she needed it all. Elaine could petition the military, but they hadn’t honored her at Jonathan’s funeral, why would they listen now? She is writing checks for Shelby to sign. Why not include a check to pay down her mortgage? After all, Shelby’s been living here rent-free and she’s practically comatose; she wouldn’t notice the extra check. Elaine taps the table with her pen, thinking.

*   *   *

Shelby is home alone when the doorbell rings. An older woman with white hair, dressed in a slim, black suit, is standing at the front door. She introduces herself as Linda Hart, representing the Guard’s spousal assistance unit. It is a sympathy call, the only one Shelby has received. Shelby is touched. She welcomes Mrs. Hart and brings her into the living room.

They settle onto the couch. Suddenly Shelby is talking about Johnny, not just thinking about him. “I can’t believe he’s gone. They told me it would be best not to look at his body, so I didn’t, but what if they made a mistake? What if he’s still alive? I know it’s silly but I keep waiting for him to come home. I lost my family when I was sixteen. Johnny was all I had.” Shelby starts to cry. Mrs. Hart pulls a pack of Kleenex from her bag and puts her arm around Shelby’s shoulders. “And there’s Elaine,” Shelby said. “I thought we might develop a relationship when I moved in. I hoped we’d be close, that I could be a daughter to her, but she doesn’t seem to like me and since Johnny died, she’s been so cold.” Mrs. Hart listens, holding Shelby tightly. After she quiets, Mrs. Hart goes to the kitchen and returns with a pot of chamomile tea, shoving figurines aside to make room on the coffee table.

“Be careful! Elaine doesn’t like anyone to touch them. Johnny used to say she took better care of her knickknacks than she did of him.”

As Shelby holds the warm mug in both hands and sips the tea, Mrs. Hart begins to talk about her future. It’s been two months since she lost her husband. Would she like to have a grief counselor, a person who understands loss, someone to help her? Does she have a trusted friend or a family member to turn to? Has she considered going back to school?

Shelby pulls her hair over to one side and lets it hang down over her breast. “I was a fine arts major.” Her face brightens. “I wanted to be a portraitist, and Johnny always told me to follow my passion, but I don’t see how I can make it on my own. It’s hard to earn money as an artist. I can’t even afford to go back to school.”

“Surely you’re not worrying about money,” Mrs. Hart says. “The insurance will see you through school and give you a good base. Maybe you should consult a financial planner. The Guard can provide one for you.”

Shelby stares at Linda. “Say that again?”

“Johnny signed up for military life insurance—five hundred thousand dollars—before he was deployed. You’re the sole beneficiary.”

“Sole beneficiary?” Shelby says slowly as if they are new words.

“Don’t you remember signing the insurance forms requesting the proceeds? The funds were deposited in your joint checking account last month and letters were sent confirming the details.”

“There must be some mistake. Elaine’s been handling the money. She’s a bookkeeper. She would have noticed. The past weeks are a blur; I don’t remember signing anything; I can’t remember much except standing beside Johnny’s casket.” Shelby twists her gold filigree wedding band around her finger.

Mrs. Hart suggests they call the bank. They listen to a banker on the speakerphone who confirms deposits were made into the account, but Mrs. Hart thinks the balance he gives them is lower than it should be and asks for more details. He tells them a large check cleared the account six days ago: $94,198 to Columbus Mortgage.

“Elaine,” says Shelby as Mrs. Hart hangs up the phone. “Elaine must have written that check.” Her hand trembles as she puts her mug on the coffee table.

Mrs. Hart and Shelby talk together for the rest of the afternoon. They discuss Elaine’s embezzlement—Mrs. Hart’s word; Shelby can’t bear to say it—and whether Shelby wants to have Elaine prosecuted. They talk about Shelby’s future, her options, what she wants to do next. Mrs. Hart grasps both of Shelby’s hands in hers. “Call me anytime you want to talk.”

After Mrs. Hart leaves, Shelby walks back to the couch, the words of their conversation reverberating in her head: life insurance, beneficiary, proceeds, money, embezzlement, tuition, future, Johnny. A new word fills her head—blood money. Is this what is meant by blood money? she wonders. Money for Johnny’s spilled blood? For a moment she considers giving it away and reporting Elaine’s theft to the police, but she thinks of her sweet Johnny and what he would want for her. He would tell her to go back to school, follow her talent, think of her future. And Elaine. What would Johnny advise her to do about his mother? He didn’t name her as a beneficiary and Shelby knew him to be a careful man when it came to money. If he had wanted Elaine on the policy, she would have been named.

*   *   *

That evening, Elaine drives home at her usual time. There is a full moon, one of those orange autumn moons that hangs at the edge of the horizon and threatens to smother the earth before it rises. She fingers her half-moon necklace, remembering Clive. She’s more relaxed than she’s been in a long time; today she got some good news.

Elaine had received a phone call from Jonathan’s boss at Abbott Corp. It was lunchtime and the office was empty. Elaine was eating a chicken salad sandwich at her desk.

“Elaine. It’s Bob Nash. I need to talk with you about something. I thought you would call me when you were ready and I’ve waited, not wanting to bother or upset you, but HR is anxious to get this settled and I said I would get in touch.”

Elaine got prickles all over her body. She gripped the phone, bracing for bad news.

“I’m sorry to talk about money after all that’s happened, but we should get the paperwork started.”

“Money? Is there a problem?”

“No, no. It’s his life insurance. Jonathan must have told you about the life insurance he had through the company. I know he married, but he never changed the beneficiary, so it all goes to you. You may want to give his wife some of the money or maybe all of it. We can advise. It’s a substantial sum.”

“Substantial? How much?”

“I don’t have the exact number, but it’s around half a million.”

Elaine lets out a long breath that she had been holding. “I didn’t know,” she says. “Shelby got Jonathan’s life insurance through the Guard, so there’s no need to share this information with her. Can we keep it confidential?”

“Certainly. I’ll do the paperwork myself. Why don’t we meet for coffee tomorrow at the Polaris Grill and we’ll get this moving.”

Elaine replaced the receiver. Jonathan had not abandoned her.

Elaine is thinking about the conversation with Bob as she turns into her driveway. The whole house is ablaze with light. What’s going on? Shelby never bothers to turn on any lamps. Elaine always arrives home to a dark house. She steps into the kitchen, where Shelby is standing by the sink, finishing a sandwich. She’s dressed in jeans, black boots, and a red sweater. Her hair is pulled back in a ponytail. Elaine smells bacon.

“Shelby! I’m surprised to see the lights on and you in the kitchen.” Elaine looks around the room.

“I was hungry,” Shelby says, wiping her hands on a tea towel. “Why don’t you sit down. We need to talk about the money.”

“The money?” Elaine drops into a kitchen chair.

“I had a visitor today. Linda Hart from the Guard. She was kind and sympathetic and we talked about how I’m feeling and how to work through my loss and how to handle my financial issues. She helped me feel a lot better.” Shelby walks toward Elaine.

“Financial issues?” Elaine follows her movement.

“The life insurance money from Johnny.”

“Jonathan,” Elaine corrects. “Life insurance?” Elaine juts out her chin and peers up at Shelby.

“I know you know about the money, and I know you’ve already spent some of it.”

“But…”

Shelby holds up her hand, silencing Elaine. “What you did was despicable. You stole from me. How do you think Johnny would take that? Were you ever going to tell me about the money? Or were you going to steal the rest of it?” Shelby’s face is red, but her voice is controlled. “I’ve thought about reporting your theft to the police, but I’ve decided not to. Johnny wouldn’t want you to go to jail.” Elaine’s face pales at the thought of jail. “I’m going upstairs to pack. Winter quarter starts soon and I’m going back to Columbus. The only thing I want from you is to never see you again.” Shelby turns away and leaves the room.

Elaine stands up and starts after Shelby. She wants to explain, tell Shelby why she took some of the money, make her understand. As she walks into the living room, she sees the displaced figurines and thinks, how dare she move my collection. Elaine begins picking up the china figures. As she arranges an assortment of dogs on the coffee table she suddenly remembers her eight-year-old son’s pleas for a puppy after his father died. How he begged her; it was weeks until he gave up. She recalls telling him he could play with the ceramic dogs. She should have gotten him a real one, not these silly things. She leans back into the sofa and begins to sob.

Drained, Elaine dries her face with her hands and looks up. She feels adrift in the world, forlorn. Her eyes focus on the china dogs and cats scattered throughout the room. They do not give pleasure any more. They look like clutter, not a collection. She goes to the kitchen and returns with a black plastic bag. She sweeps the ceramics off the table into the bag; she drops each piece from the mantel into the bag; she grabs the cats and dogs from the windowsills, the end tables, the bookcase; she carries the bag to the garage and dumps the contents into the garbage can. The ceramic pieces crack and clank against each other and break in the galvanized can. She stands there, staring into the wreckage.

Elaine leaves the garage and walks back into the living room. She sits on the sofa, wondering if she should try to talk to Shelby. But Shelby seemed adamant about not seeing her again. Shelby has left her bank statement on the floor beside the coffee table. Elaine picks it up, sees the large check she had written to Columbus Mortgage, and thinks about paying back Shelby.

She should give Shelby the money. She knows what she did was wrong. But she didn’t think she was getting anything. And what if the Abbott life insurance isn’t enough? What if Bob was mistaken about the number? She doesn’t want to be poor any more. She was cheated when Clive died and she’s not going to be shorted now. She’s alone. There’s no one to take care of her when she’s old. She has to look out for herself.

She will wait for the check, make sure it is substantial, and then she’ll think about Shelby.

___

After obtaining a BS in business administration, Susan Knox served as assistant to the Provost and Associate Treasurer at Ohio State University. She later opened her own accounting firm, Susan Knox & Associates, and lectured on students’ financial issues at national and regional collegiate conferences.

In recent years she has turned her attention to writing, polishing her skills at the Richard Hugo House in Seattle and the Pacific Northwest Writers Association conferences. Her book, Financial Basics: A Money Management Guide for Students, was published by the Ohio State University Press in 2004. Other works have appeared or are forthcoming in CALYX, Melusine, Monkey Puzzle, Pisgah Review, and Sunday Ink.


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