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From Inside the Flap
Two men sit facing each other across a short expanse of dark oak desk in a secondary office of an East Texas funeral home. The older of the two is an attorney, Gordon Beaudreau. He is bespectacled and wears a three-piece, charcoal gray suit with a faint blue pin stripe. The suit accents his eyes that seem the color of new steel.
Sitting across the desk is Neal Marston, the 28-year-old heir to the estate being settled. His clothing is less formal: faded jeans, a short sleeved mint-green collared T-shirt with a dog-tag chain peeking from beneath. The attorney pushes a stack of documents across the table to the younger man who signs where indicated without really inspecting them.
The lawyer views the signature and asks for some form of identification. His voice carries a faintly French accent that hints of Cajun country. Neal produces a military ID card. Beaudreau compares the card signature block to the signed documents. He then checks the photo before he nods.
Gordon Boudreaux separates the client copies before he shuffles the remaining papers into their original folder. The folder then goes into a slim-line briefcase. From a lid pocket of the briefcase, he produces a sealed #10 envelope. He slides both the duplicate documents and the envelope across the desk to the client.
"These are yours," he offers. "I have the balance of your inheritance in my car. We have been holding certain items since the woman entrusted with their keeping became ill and transferred them into our custody." The two men leave the room through an outer door that emerges into the parking lot. "I gather you were not in close contact with your mother?"
"No, I was given up for adoption at a very young age. I never knew her."
"Too bad," the lawyer offers. "She was quite a woman. Do you know anything about her?"
"Only her name and that only recently," Marston informs. "Your secretary told me that she was ill and in a hospice. I left immediately to go to her, but by the time I arrived, she had died."
The attorney stops behind a white Lincoln Town Car with a beige interior. He opens the trunk. They stand looking down at an unfinished oak chest. The container is impressively bound with hammered brass straps and round head rivets. Two massive hammered brass hinges hold the curved lid is held in place. A padlock secures a matching hasp. Emblazoned across the top of the serpentine shaped lid, deeply carved into the wood in Old English letter style, is the solitary word Mannheim. The chest appears to be quite old. The exterior bears scattered dark spots, the result of moisture contact with unfinished oak. Here and there, the scars of heavy use track irregularly across its surface.
Boudreaux announces, "This chest is yours. Where is your car?"
Neal indicates the red and white pick up truck with a white camper shell parked two spaces to their left. Each man grasps an ornate brass handle at opposite ends of the chest. They proceed to lift the sturdy container from the trunk. The attorney sags forward under the unaccustomed weight; it is amazingly heavy for its size. Once out of the trunk, they move in rapid short steps to the rear of the truck. Neal unlocks the camper shell, and with the tailgate lowered, they lift the chest into the truck-bed. The brass lock securing the hasp displays the initials U.S. deeply etched in the side.
"The key is in the other chest in my car." Boudreaux offers, as he returns to the Lincoln.
Neal places his hands on the oaken chest. A sense of great loss courses through his body as he stands in contact with the only family legacy he has ever known. Tears stream down both cheeks to be wiped away on a naked forearm. It is one thing to not know who your parents are, but quite another to never know any of your own people. The absence of relatives makes the world seem hollow.
Perhaps now I can fill in some of the blanks.
Boudreaux returns with a miniature chest the size of a shoebox, identical in shape and structure to the larger chest. The attorney also carries a bronze urn in an open topped cardboard box. A wide blue rubber band secures the lid of the small chest although there is an empty hasp for a padlock. The attorney hands both items to Neal.
"I believe that concludes our business," the lawyer offers. "If later there are further questions, you may reach me here." He hands the young man a simple cream-colored business card engraved with the name Gordon Boudreaux and a phone number. The attorney extends his right hand. "I was privileged to know both your parents. I regret that you did not."
They shake hands before Boudreaux climbs into his car, slides it in gear and glides out of the parking lot. Neal places the cardboard box containing the bronze canister bearing the cremains of his mother in the cab before he returns to the rear of the truck. He removes a bone-handled pocketknife from a front pants pocket before sitting on the tailgate.
Using the knife, he slits the end of the envelope the attorney gave him. Inside is a certified check in the amount of $236,000.26. He stares at the cashier's check, much larger than any he's ever seen, bearing his name. He glances around to see who might be coming to claim it from him. When nobody appears, he returns the check to the envelope, folds it in half and places it in his shirt pocket.
He picks up the smaller chest, places it across his lap, removes the rubber band and opens the curved lid. Inside is a brass key in a red plastic holder and a lock of golden hair in a zip-lock plastic bag. Underneath rests a bundle of envelopes tied both ways with a pink ribbon. Another solitary envelope lies atop the pile, the flap secured by a glob of red sealing wax impressed with the letter 'S'.
Neal slits the sealed envelop at the end before blowing into the opening to expand the cavity. Within is a single sheet of rich looking, cream-colored bond paper. He unfolds the document and stares at a letter inscribed by an incredibly delicate hand using an ink pen, the kind rarely seen anymore. The letter reads:
My beloved son,
I have lived with the knowledge that I gave you up for adoption at the age of two months and that you will not remember me. For this act, I remain eternally regretful; I beg your forgiveness. That action was extremely difficult for me. Please do not take that statement lightly. I gave you up for the very best of reasons: your health and well-being.
You are my only heir. I have but one request of you. I ask that you take my ashes and scatter them on the Hundred-&-Forty-Foot-Hill above Oliver Marsh near where the town of Amerada once stood. There will be a stone tablet there to mark my final resting place. You will recognize the place by the inscription on the last page of the last entry in my journal.
Your inheritance will accompany this letter in the form of money and a chest containing a manuscript that tells the story of your father and some other very special people. I hope you enjoy reading about our lives as much as we enjoyed living them.
~Mom's name or initial? S or Sarah
The tears arrive again as he removes the key from its container. He opens the lock securing the large chest. Inside are thin cardboard boxes stacked one atop the other. Each is of a size to contain a ream of paper. He opens the top box and stares numbly at the first page.
The writing is calligraphy, with each letter precisely drawn and legible. He thumbs through an inch of paper. The ornate writing continues throughout the entire box. His senses blur at the hours of concentration required to draw each letter of each word on each page. The effort expended to write in this fashion would demand the devotion of the medieval monks who created the first books ever written. The first page is an introduction:
As I write this letter, I am leaning against the base of a very large red oak tree. Over the years, I have come to regard this place as mine. From somewhere in the distance comes the insistent cawing of a crow. Below me in the tall marsh grass are mysterious trails that twist and turn like some elusive living thing to vanish in the distance. To the east, Canadian Geese wheel and honk in a bronze sunrise as they return to the marsh from a night spent in a rice field somewhere. Your father loved this place at this time of day when everything is fresh and clean and ready for a new beginning.
The first unaccustomed chill of fall arrived last night. The air here at dawn is cool enough to raise gosling bumps. I waded through frost-covered grass by flashlight in order to be here before sunrise. Today will be my last journey here. My health is in serious decline. I have come to this place every day for the past few months when my strength and the weather permitted. This is an inspiring place for me. My idea has been to finish the last few pages of the story here where everything began and ended.
Amerada no longer exists. When the fires of revenge finally finished with it, one of God's cleansing hurricanes arrived to complete the job. Thankfully, your father wrote everything in diary form. I have transposed from his many journals in an effort to put the story into readable form. In the Manheim chest, you will find recorded the significant moments that formed our lives. Some of those recollections are insinuated in my memory like open sores.
The morning has turned from chill to this delicious hour. The sun and the wonderful embrace of an old sweater now warm me. Time grows short for me. Perhaps today I will finish writing the last few pages that tell of your father's many adventures that shaped his life. Perhaps you will come to understand something of who and what we were. This accounting is written in his words but in a sense, the first story is ours together because we shared the entire occurrence. The following quote is from the beginning of your father's first journal:
'In the beginning, my family was lost in a joyless sort of fog while we marveled at the huge sum of money we could earn merely by gathering information. The amount offered by the Ironstone Group for our participation in this project far exceeded any other opportunity in my parent's lifetime.'
The final entry in his first journal recorded on his last day in Amerada, is as follows:
'The Amerada Project has cost us dearly. I consider our entry into the proceedings to be a very subtle and perhaps little understood form of insanity.'
May God hold you in the palm of his hand.
Sarah Grace Woodling-Graves
Neal Marston removes a stack of pages from the first container. He begins to read in a parking lot in a small town in Texas, The Song of Mannheim.
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