This call was as odd as it was unexpected. The coroner informed that after purchasing about $197 worth of Gladware disposable containers, my uncle had died of an apparent heart attack in the bathroom of the Dollar General. Um-m-m-m. After dropping that nugget of information on me, he asks if he can put me on hold while he takes another call, and as I wait, my mind harkens back in time.
Ah, Harley Shelnuttas is the tradition of all things Southern, there is quite a tale to tell here. Harley, though three years her junior, was my mama’s unclemy great grandmother’s “late in life” baby, as they called him. Great Grandmother Shelnutt was 55 years old when he was born, so the raising and disciplining of Harley frequently fell to his older sister, my grandmother. Because of their closeness in ages, my mama and Harley were reared as pseudo-siblings; sharing toys, vacations, and the family’s affections. From the time he was just a little tyke, Harley yearned for the best life had to offer, and since he was born during the Great Depression, he was perpetually disappointed. He was strikingly handsome, and he possessed a lovely singing voiceonce even appearing on “Stars of Tomorrow” with Dinah Shore. That one brief appearance became his only claim to fame. However, since his penchant for song was taking him nowhere, my uncle joined the Army. When the Korean War ended, so did Harley’s army career. He was now free to indulge his love of travel, taking to the open road. He once told me that his life’s goal was to visit every state in the continental United States at least twice before he died.
We saw him sporadically until I was in first grade or sothen his visits just ceased. I was left to wonder if some kind of a falling out within the family had occurred. I never knew for sure, as his name was only uttered in harsh whispers that coincidentally ceased whenever I entered a room. I probably thought that his penchant for traveling kept him too busy to visit us, however, Harley loved to write, routinely sending letters, postcards and pictures documenting his treks. I returned the favor, (I love words, ya know!) sending cards and letters to the P.O. Box number my uncle provided, keeping our tenuous bond intact through the years.
The coroner returned to the line, his voice startling me from my trance into yesteryear. He inquired as to what I would like to do with the body of my uncle. Huh? I told him that my uncle had no immediate family and, as the out-of-town great niece, I was out of my depth here. He advised me that cremation would be most appropriate in this case, and that I could pick up his cremainsyes, that is the official termin two days. Okay. I asked him if I could give him my credit card number to expedite matters (yes, I really talk like that), and when we were done with the transaction, he wanted to know if I had any questions for him.
After a slight pause, it occurred to me that I couldn’t fathom how he knew to contact me for the notification. He gave me a quick explanationwell, the Reader’s Digest condensed version of it anyway. Seems that after Harley died in the bathroom of Dollar General, he was taken to the county hospital to be pronounced DOA. After the pronouncement, the coroner went back to the store to ask the employees some questions and go over the scene. The cashier informed him that they assumed my uncle was a homeless man or was down on his luck as he was dressed rather tatteredly, appeared to have no teeth, and perhaps, lived out of his car. Oh no, I thought, not my gorgeous Uncle Harley! She, Pattie the cashier, did remember him buying a crazy amount of disposable containers and a bottle of aspirin. He proceeded to pay in cash, and then carried his sacks out to his car, placing them in the trunk. She saw him get in his car and sit in the driver’s seat for a few minutes before coming back in and heading for the bathroom. When he didn’t come out for quite a while, they knocked and received no answer. Opening the door, they saw him slumped in the floor and called 911.
After hearing her story, the coroner and the store manager went through my uncle’s car and discovered basically every letter and card I had ever sent to Uncle Harleyall filed in a laundry basket in the passenger front seat. They noted my return address, Googled me and got my number. I offered a silent thank you to Al Gore for inventing the Internetotherwise I would never have gotten such a timely notice of my uncle’s death! One thing I took note of as the coroner spoke; he seemed almosthow shall I say thismildly excited.
He was a little breathless, and his words tumbled out, one over the other, like a waterfall of words. Well, maybe that’s just his style, or maybe they don’t get many people keeling over dead in the Dollar General bathroom, I pondered to myself. His final words just confused me more: “Ms. Love, I can’t wait for you to get here. You are never going to believe everything I have to show you. Never in my life have I ever seen anything like this," he said, "Heck, I’ve never seen anything like this in a movie either, come to think of it.” Huh? He tells me to be there Saturday and to be prepared to pick up not only my uncle’s cremains, but also his car.
I immediately hung up the phone and telephoned Dianemy best friend, quasi-sister and partner in crime for over 40 years. When she answered, I yelled into the receiver, “Road Trip!” Without missing a beat, she replied “Heck, yeah.” I’m sure there was mild disappointment when she found out we weren’t headed to Hilton Head or Vegas, but instead, we were going to pick up my dead uncle, but hey, she’s nothing if not a good sport!
She and I started our four-hour pilgrimage to south Georgia at about 6:00 A.M. on a beautiful Saturday morning. The air was crisp, the cruise control set and the GPS activated; this would have felt like a Thelma and Louise adventure (minus careening into the Grand Canyon, of course) if we weren’t bringing home the cremated remains of my long-lost great uncle. We chatted, we sang with the oldies, we ignored the GPSit hates when I refuse to follow its directions to the letter. A side note herewhen I first got the GPS, I programmed it to speak with a male German accent. It makes me giggle to be corrected by Colonel Klink from Hogan’s Heroes“Recalculate, recalculate, Fraulein!”
We reminisced, as much as we were able to, about my great uncle. Since my last visit with him was when I was six, it made for rather slim pickings on this walk down memory lane. But I DO remember a few thingshe was absolutely breathtakingly handsome, when he sangif you closed your eyesyou would swear it was Frank Sinatra, and most importantly, he didn’t treat me as if I was invisible. You know what I mean. Typically, adults have a way of looking past a child in the room for someone more worthy, more interesting to talk to. Not Uncle Harley. He would sit beside me on the sofa, throw his arm around my shoulder and actually CHAT for hours! He was so warm and funny with me. I adored him. We would talk about such inconsequential silly things really, but it was delightful to a little girl. Once he looked at me, very seriously, and whispered conspiratorially, “Lisa, how do you manage to get your finger up your nose to pick it?” I have always had the tiniest of noses, and he picked (ha, ha) right up on my lifelong dilemma. I scooted up close, proudly proclaiming, “I have to twist my finger up my nose like a corkscrew, Uncle Harley.” I then demonstrated my technique to him and he laughed until he cried. Gross, perhaps, but he had endeared himself to meoh, and the chocolate-covered cherries he brought with each visit never failed to delight a little girl. And to think that sweet, dapper man had died alone in a Dollar Store bathroom. Sigh.
We hit MaconDiane’s turn to driveand I brought out my manila envelope chock full of the old photos Uncle Harley use to send us from his cross-country adventures. There were snapshots of the Golden Gate Bridge, the St. Louis Arch, the Blue Ridge Mountains, the Grand Canyon, the beaches of Floridashot after shot. As they never failed to do, Harley’s pictures brought a smile to my face once again. Through my growing years, these pictures had fueled my own wanderlustI dreamed of a day when I would hitchhike cross-country and experience all the beauty my country had to offer.
As we slowed down to find a gas station, I flipped through each photo again, one by one. As I intently studied the pictures, something struck me. How had I failed to notice this all these years? I looked, and I looked again. As we pulled into a Chevron station (angering Colonel Klink once again, “TURN AROUND NOW!"), I spread the pictures out on my lap and asked Diane to take a look. “Notice anything odd about these?”
She perused them a while and shook her head, “They look like ordinary vacation shots.”
I laughed, “Not exactly. Look again. Not one of these picturesand there were SO MANYwas taken outside of the car. EVERY shot was from the inside of Uncle Harley’s car. You could see a side mirror here, a rear view mirror there. Oh look, a steering wheel in front of the Golden Gate Bridge. WOW!” It occurred to me that Uncle Harley may have spent his life traveling the country, but it would seem he never set foot out of his car. Seeing America kinda like a drive-by shooting, I guess. It reminded me of what the coroner said about it looking like my uncle lived in his car. Maybe he did. Can you say eccentric? No, on second thought, if you are quirky AND rich, then you get to be eccentric. If you are a regular Joe and quirky, you merely rank “odd.” Odd, indeed.
We left our pit stop at the gas station, and got back on the road. In a little more than an hour, our friendly German tour guide announced that we had arrived. Yep, there was the Smallville mortuary before us. Diane asked, “You think this is the right one?” I’d think the chances are pretty slim that there’d be TWO funeral homes in this little town. The parking lot was deserted, so we parked right next to the entrance.
As we exited the car, the front door swung open, and I heard, “Are you Lisa? Glad to meetchaI’m David.” I was taken aback; I don’t know what I expected. Jack Klugman as Quincy, I presume. This boyexcuse methis manhad to be twenty years my junior and was decked out in full University of Georgia regaliaBulldog cap and sweat shirt. He would have made Vince Dooley proudGo Dawgs!
With an offer of coffee or bottled water, he ushered us into the inner sanctum of the funeral home, his office. As he sat down, he broke into the biggest “cat that ate the canary” grin I had ever seen. He was positively beamingI was positively frightened. This was the coroner? Shouldn’t he have been a bit more somber? He leaned forward and whispered, “I have been dying to talk to you!” Wow, bad choice of words from a coroner. I furtively glanced at Diane. We both leaned back in our chairs, teetering away from him, very wary.
He smiled bigger and continued, “Ms. Love, today is your lucky day.” Considering that we were having this conversation in a funeral home, I could have begged to differ, but he went on. “Your life will never be the same.” Dave the Coroner nearly leapt across the table as he burst out, “I couldn’t wait to get you here today! I almost called you and spilled the beans, but I didn’t think you would believe me without the proof.” GET ON WITH IT, MAN!
“Ms. Love, when the paramedics were trying to revive Mr. Harley Shelnutt, they removed his jacket and threw it on the floor of the bathroom. Later, when we were trying to get an I.D. on your uncle, the store manager and I went through his jacket’s pockets.” He halted for a nanosecond, looking into my eyes to gauge my understanding, prolonging his dramatic “Lifetime Made-for-Television Movie” moment. Just as I was about to jump out of my skin with impatience, he said, “Ms. Love, in those pockets were papers, lots of papers. There was paperwork, documenting your uncle’s ownership of over $10 million worth of CD’s in about 50 different banks throughout the Southeast. Harley Shelnutt was loaded. God rest his soul, and no disrespect intended, of course.”
"What?" I stammered, “I thought you told me he looked like a homeless man, raggedy, no teeth. Lived out of his car? I don’t understand any of this. WHAT ARE YOU SAYING?” I quickly scanned the room, looking for hidden cameras, just knowing Alan Funt was going to jump out and yell, “Smile, you’re on Candid Camera!” Oh that reference really dates me. Okay, ratherAshton Kutcher jumps out and shouts, “You’ve been Punk’d!” There, hip status officially restored.
As I raked my hand through my hair to smooth it for the non-existent TV cameras, Dave the coroner deftly pulled out a calculator, spread the bank documents in front of me and set out to do some calculatin.’ Page after page, he punched in the numbers with the skill of an accountant and an expression that was pert near jubilant. This must have been the most exciting thing to happen in this town sincewell I don’t know of anything exciting that ever happened in Smallville. But I digress…after twenty minutes of adding the reams of papers, he slid the calculator across the table to show me the total: $12.3 million dollars. I was flabbergasted. He winked at me and whispered, “Lisa, you just won the lottery.”
Aside from noticing that I was “Lisa” now, I noticed something else as well. Right before my eyes, Dave the Coroner transformed into Dave the Estate Planner! “You know, Lisa, your life is going to change after today. First, I’d keep this to myself, if I was you. Fewer people that know, the better. Don’t want ’em coming out of the woodwork, trying to part you with this money. Now, I’m pretty sure a guy with all that money would have a will put away somewhere. And you seem to be the relative with the most contact with him, through your letters and such. I would bet dollars to donuts that you are his heir. But, worst case scenario, and you can’t find a will, you’d just divide it with any living heirs. Now, you said that there wasn’t any wife, children or living parents when I called you Tuesday. You’ll need to contact any of your kinfolks related to Harley. First, go home and get you a good lawyer. You are gonna need it, girl.”
Wow, he had said all that with barely taking a breath. As I rose from my chair, my legs were trembling like a new foal trying to stand for the first time. Still not totally sure I wasn’t being “Punk’d,” I crammed the bank files in my purse and headed for the exit door, shell-shocked. I heard his voice call out, “Don’t forget your uncle.” Dang it, I forgot Uncle Harley.
The coroner approached me with a white cardboard box and placed it gingerly in my hands. Wow, Uncle Harley was heavier than I thought he’d be. I patted the box and offered a silent goodbye to my uncle as Dave guided me out the side door of the funeral home to my uncle’s white Taurus. To get his car home, Diane and I had previously decided that I would drive Harley’s vehicle, and she would follow in mine. But, as David walked me to the car and opened the passenger side door, I saw (and smelled) immediately why he assumed that my uncle might have lived out of this car. With the exception of an index-card sized empty spot on the driver’s side seat, the car looked like an episode of “Hoarders.” Only worsemore like “Hoarders Gone Wild!”
And the smell! What can I say about the fragrance? Imagine a cat litter box that no one had ever bothered to clean. Well, I wished the car smelled that good. And, that wasn't the only issue; in addition to the smell, there were piles and piles of STUFF from the floorboard to the roof of the car. In the front and back seats were bags of groceries and baskets of clothes, and boxes of books and papers were crammed into every available space. Diane and I popped the trunk only to find more of the same, PLUS Uncle Harley’s last purchase at Dollar Generalbags of Gladware containers. You know, earlier I mentioned that if you are peculiar and a regular Joe, you are just “odd,” but if you are unconventional and rich, you are eccentric? Well, after seeing this car, I decided that if you looked up eccentric in Webster’s Dictionary, it would have Harley Shelnutt’s photo. Now, back to that odorwhere was that smell coming from? I was (and this was very unusual for me) at a loss for words. It had been a long, eventful day. I was tired, couldn’t think straight, and wouldn’t even know how to begin to put the pieces of this puzzle together.
As I shoved into the driver’s seat, I contemplated the long drive home, just as David crouched by the driver’s window and handed me a zippered leather satchel containing all of Harley’s personal effects. I hastily flipped through the contentsrings, watch, wallet and a motel key. A receipt from the Dew Drop Inn, a motel in town, fell out of my uncle’s wallet. It looked like he rented a roomRoom 222six days before. Hmmm.
Dave took it from my grasp, looked it over, and told me that this place rented rooms by the week and was only about four blocks from the funeral homehe thought I should go there and see if there were any more important papers in Harley’s room. I knew he was trying to hint that I should begin hunting for the will among Uncle Harley’s possessions, but I was exhausted. I tried to formulate some kind of a plan. I thought that perhaps Diane and I should just stay there for the night, do some looking around, and start back home to Atlanta fresh in the morning. Plus, I would have given anything for a hot bath and a comfy bed right about then. When I mentioned this to Coroner Dave, he looked horrified. “I don’t think you’ll be wanting to stay overnight there. Promise me, PROMISE ME you won’t stay the night,” he warned ominously.
Okay, ’nuff said. He gave me quick directions to the motel, as well as his cell number in case I ran into trouble. Another ominous warning? I thanked him profusely for taking the time to find me. He truly had gone above and beyond the call of duty, even to the point of advising on my next steps in this Uncle Harley saga. I believed this coroner was one of the last of the Good Guys. I put the car in drive, threw him a smile filled with gratitude and told him, “Dave the Coroner, if there’s ever anything I can do for you...” As I pulled out of the parking lot, I spied him waving his Bulldog cap in the air as he yelled, “Season passes to the Georgia games, PLEEEASE!”
As I tried to maneuver the unwieldy Taurus (which we affectionately dubbed “The Tenement on Wheels”) out of the parking lot, I glanced at my side mirror (the only mirror I can see through) to make sure Diane was right behind me. Catching a glimpse of my uncle’s cremains box teetering on top all my letters to him in the old laundry basket in the back seat, a thought hit me and I abruptly slammed on the brakes. I was NOT going to carry my beloved Uncle Harley around in what basically amounted to a white cardboard cake box. It was absolutely undignified and did nothing to honor his memorybesides, in just the short walk to the car, I found the box heavy, cumbersome, and difficult to carry. I got out of the car and headed back to Diane. She shrugged a silent “huh?” and I motioned her to roll down the window. “Hand me our insulated lunch cooler sacky thingy,” I told her. (It was actually a red retro Roy Rogers insulated vinyl lunch tote.) She said if I wanted a water, couldn’t I have just waited two minutes until we got to the motel? I just smiled at her and proceeded to unload the water bottles into the front seat of my car as I told her, “I want Uncle Harley to go in here. That box he’s in is depressing and flimsy. Let me go try this out.”
She gave me that look that I know so well after all these years. It was her “Fine, here we go again with me playing Ethel to your Lucy” look. I walked back to Uncle Harley's car with the red insulated vinyl lunchbox in hand. Picking up the pitiful white cremains cake box with both hands, I squeezed and maneuvered it into the bag. He just barely fit, but he did fit, by golly! It wasn’t a great solution, but it was a timely one, and at least it looked cheerful. Proud of my ingenuity, I squeezed myself back into the car and headed for the motel.
On the short drive to the Dew Drop Inn, I found myself building castles in the sky…I dared to dream that Coroner Dave might be right. It appeared that Uncle Harley was a MILLIONAIRE! Wow! AND he did keep every letter I had ever written him beside him on the front seat of his car. That had to mean something, right? What in the world would I docould I dowith all that money? I mean I was no financial expert, and I’m sure a lot would have to go to cover estate taxes, but even so, I would still have more money than I could have ever dreamed about having. I could build a girls’ school in Africa with my name emblazoned across the front of it and then have the media take pics of me in front of it to let the world know what a selfless, humble philanthropist I was. NoOprah beat me to that. Well, I COULD donate to all the worthy causes I already supported, and do even more for them. I could pay off mortgages for members of my family, help out dear friends, buy a new car and maybe take a cruise or two to somewhere exotic, AND still have enough left over to be financially secure for the rest of my life. I could hear my Mama’s voice in the back of my head telling me not to count my chickens before they hatched; heck, I wasn’t only counting them, I was building them a fancy four-door chicken coopwell, technically, four doors would make it a sedan, but that’s neither here nor there. Point is, IWASTHISCLOSE to being a Southern Belle Socialite.
Four minutes later, with Diane right behind me, this Southern Belle Socialite wannabe pulled into a place that would have made the Bates Motel merit a substantial upgrade. Decrepit wouldn’t begin to do it justice. People were loitering outside their rooms, sitting in lawn chairs and swilling bottles of beer. They eyed us suspiciously as I parked Harley’s car in front of Room 222. Diane pulled into the spot beside me. We simultaneously rolled our windows down and stared at each other, telepathically transmitting that we both wished to heck we were packing heat right about now. If it looked this bad from the outside, I could only imagine what lurked behind that door. Locking Uncle Harley’s caras I noted that some of the fine residents of Dew Drop moving in a human convoy towards the TaurusI made my way to his room, put the key in the lock, and pushed the door open.
OMG! The smell knocked us both back a foot; it was almost like running into a wall built purely of Landfill stench. It smelled like rotting milk left out in the sun on a summer day surrounded by dirty diapers, with a hint of mildew and mustiness thrown in just for fun. I wish I had “scratch and sniff” technology available here just to share. Anyway, as I walked in, a roach scurried over my feet and I shrieked. Looking around, I couldn’t tell if the place had been ransacked, or if this is just how Harley left it. Half-eaten food on the dresser had become a banquet for ants and roaches. Clothes were strewn everywhere; papers were on every horizontal surface. So much for a hot bath and a comfy bedCoroner Dave’s warnings were now fully understood. Would we find anything of import in this disaster zone? Yes, that’s what it looked and smelled like. A disaster zone! And I couldn’t forget that I still had to search through the contents of Uncle Harley’s car, as well. Where to start, where to start?
After a quick look around the room, I then took my time to really examine the surroundings and many things hit me at oncea half-eaten cup of Ramen Noodles and saltine crackers on his nightstand sat by a tepid cup of water in a Styrofoam cup. Behind his last supper, propped up by the phone, was a banged-up picture frame with a photograph of me and my MamaI believe I sent this to him three Christmases ago. Tears stung my eyes, and for a minute, the room was but a blur. I wiped at my eyes with the hem of my shirtthe only clean thing in Room 222. I crouched down by the side of the bedstill not wanting to sit on anything in the roomand looked at papers strewn across the unmade bed. Pamphlets, flyers and brochures covered the sheets. Before I picked up one to read, Diane returned from my car with handfuls of Latex gloves, plastic garbage bags and liquid hand sanitizerI never go anywhere unpreparedmy Girl Scout training, I guess. Diane looked around at the filth that was this room and proclaimed, “Honey, Latex gloves aren’t gonna cut it here. We need way more protectionI’m thinking head-to-toe, full-body condoms!” I laughed, but certainly couldn’t argue with her logic.
I spread a garbage bag on the bed like a tarp, put on the gloves, then reached for one of the pamphlets. It was a shiny, glossy ad for a Lifestyle Lift. A facelift at 78 years of age? The second brochure (with prices handwritten all over it) was for dental implants. Another brochure was for the Hair Club for Men. Well, it looked like Uncle Harley had some plans to renovate, so to speak. Then I noticed interspersed with the brochures were mapsCalifornia, New Mexico, Floridaabout 20 to 25 state maps. And then I saw the picturesmore photos of landmarks, all taken from the confines of his car. My heart broke. Was he too ashamed of his appearance to get out and socialize? Had he become a hermit (albeit, an isolated hermit that loved to travel)? I studied his bed with all the evidence of the new life he planned. New teeth, new hair, new face, more travelingand yet he lived in filth, existing on Ramen noodles and water? Surrounded by all this misery, I started crying again. When Coroner Dave told me about the money Uncle Harley left behind, I was already planning cruises and LASIK and lipo (oh, did I fail to mention those in my earlier dream sequence?), yet my uncle, with all his apparent wealth had chosen to live as a pauper. I felt dirty and greedy and tremendously sad. I needed to get out of that room. IMMEDIATELY!
“Diane, let’s just grab everything and shove it into the garbage bags and stuff them in my car. We’ll go through everything when we get home.” For the next hour, we put papers into suitcases that we found in the closet, and took all of his clothes (after checking the pockets, of course) and offered them to the male residents of the motel who were still surrounding Harley’s car (and who, by the way, had been watching us through the room’s blinds for the past hour). I made the executive decision that they were just harmless, curious men, down on their luck. They were greatly appreciative of all the pants and shirts we handed them. We stuffed my car to the gillstrunk, front seat, back seat. It now bore a familial resemblance to Uncle Harley’s car. As Diane started my car, I went back into Room 222 for the last time. With one final glance around the room, I whispered, “I’m sorry”to whom or for what, I’m not exactly sure. I laid his motel key on the nightstand, quickly scooped up the photo of Mama and me, and rushed back to the awaiting Taurus.
As I quickly programmed my GPS to get us home, Diane and I began our convoy back to Atlanta. While adjusting my seat belt, my cellphone rang. It was Diane. I glanced in my side mirror to see if she was all right. “We brought the stink with us,” she screamed. She told me that the smell from the motel room was now permeating my car and she was going to throw up.
I racked my brain for a solution. “You know, it’s 6:00, and we haven’t had a bite to eat since dawn.” I told her, “Why don’t we stop someplace, eat dinner and take a minute to regroup in a place that doesn’t reek of dead animals on the side of the road…” She readily agreed, and when I spotted an IHOP a half mile up the road, I turned into the parking lot. Since this wasn’t a part of our driving plans to Atlanta, my GPS went wildI now thought I knew what Hitler sounded like during a hissy fit. Holy Schnitzel! I turned it off, grabbed Uncle Harley and we headed in to eat. Diane wondered aloud if the stink had possibly attached itself to us, so we first headed for the rest room and washed our hands with scalding water and as much hand soap as we could pump.
We ordered coffee and pancakes and started to talk strategy and make lists. We are notorious list-makersif it’s not written down, it ain’t gonna happen. Diane knew a lawyer I might want to use, so she Googled him and got his phone number from her cell. I then called him and left a voicemail, giving a cursory explanation of what I had encountered in Smallville and asked him to call me. Okay, one down. The waitress brought our meals, refilled our coffee and noticed my insulated cooler on the bench beside me. “Oh, you brought your own bag for leftovers. How smart of you!” Hmm. So I smiled and said, “No, that’s my uncle and he didn’t get out to restaurants much, so I thought I would bring him to IHOP as a treat!” She went whiteyeah, I thought, I’d better leave her a really good tip. I then went on to explain our situation, and finished with how we really just stopped in to breathe some fresh air AWAY FROM THE CARS!!!
She excused herself for a minute, then came back and said, “My manager said why don’t you girls drive around back to the dumpster and pick through the cars here. It’s still light enough to see, and if you’re there much later, the streetlight is right by the dump. That way, at least you can get the trash part thrown away and not have to take it all home with you.” God bless small towns and their residents! You forget how great people can really be when they see a need. We thanked her and took her up on her offer. After leaving a very generous tip, Diane, Harley and I headed to the cars and pulled them both around back. We put on the gloves and decided to start with Harley’s car firstit seemed to smell the worst.
One by one, we lugged out boxes and laundry baskets, methodically going through everything, piece by piece. The papers had mildew on them as if perhaps rain had found its way into the Taurusthey seemed to be the source of the moldy, musty smell. I started to sneeze, and my eyes watered. Wishing I had brought Benadryl with me, we decided to file the important papers in the cleanest of the boxes we could find. There were bags of garbage in the back seatreal garbagethat looked like it had been there for weeks. What was clearly trash was thrown into the dumpster, papers were studied before they were filed. Slowly, the piles got smaller and smaller.
After about 45 minutes of our search and rescue mission, we found a white garbage bag loaded with full Gladware containers. These weren’t the new ones he had just bought that were in his trunkthese were clearly full of something. It seemed that the odor in the car might be emanating from this sack and these containers. Maybe he had food in them that had spoiled. I carefully popped the lid to one, to peer inside. BIG MISTAKE! Diane’s earlier idea of needing a head-to-toe body condom wasn’t far off the mark. Actually, what was needed now was a haz-mat suit and an enclosed breathing apparatus, because inside that sealed Gladware container, and yes, in all of the Gladware containers, were Uncle Harley’s soiled underwear.
Okay, I was done. I just wanted to go home. My pancakes and coffee nearly made a re-appearance in the Smallville, Georgia IHOP parking lot right then and there. Uncle Harley, WHY??? I am reassessing that “eccentric” label once again. I don’t care how much money he was sitting on, this wasn’t “odd,” nor did it qualify as “eccentric.” Keeping your dirty drawers in airtight sealed containers (that are supposed to lock the freshness in, by the way!) just ranks as “BIZARRE!”
Diane started chucking all the sacks with the dirty underwear containers into the dumpster. We then started a flinging frenzy. If it was paper, we put it in the file box; everything else was dumped. We then went through my car with all Harley’s possessions that were in Room 222. It was now past dark, and we huddled under the streetlight that illuminated the parking lot. In the paperwork from his motel room, we found title deeds to land he used to own, starting as far back as 1951, and the bills of sale to the same lands when he sold them. It appeared that he had owned property in McDonough and Decatur, Georgia, as well as quite a bit of property in Florida. These papers explained much. I knew traveling the country didn’t pay well, so turns out Uncle Harley had invested in real estate. I was proud of himthough admittedly still thrown by the fact that he saved his nasty underwear in Gladware. Shesh.
It was way past 10:00 P.M., and after going through every paper with the upmost care and attention, we still had found no will. Knowing we still had a four-hour drive home, we called it a night and put the three boxes with the papers we wanted to keep back in Harley’s trunkalongside all that new Gladware he had bought right before he passed. I shudder to think about the plans he had had for those containers. Anyway, before we left IHOP, Diane and I popped back in for a quick thank-you to our waitress and her manager for the use of their dumpster. They handed us coffees in to-go cups and told us to drive safely. Sweet!
After a day I will never forget, we finally headed homeHarley and me in the lead, and Diane behind us, listening to the oldies station all the way home. I didn’t even turn the GPS on; I thought that being yelled at would have been the straw that might have broken this camel’s back. It was peaceful, the drive back home with my uncle sitting beside me in the red retro Roy Roger insulated vinyl lunch tote. He was resting on letters I had written him when I was just a little girl, and he was my singing, dashing uncle who brought me chocolates and conversation. That night, we were where he loved to be the mostin his car, traveling the open road. It occurred to me that, for the first time ever, I was traveling with my Harley.
On Monday, the attorney, Mr. John Thompson, returned my call, and we agreed to meet the next afternoon. He instructed me to bring all the paperwork that I found in the car, the motel room and at the coroner’s (I also took Harley with me, just to make it official). When I met him, I liked him immediately. Mr. Thompsonhe kept telling me to call him John, but I am just too Southerninquired about known living relatives, and I gave him the list of the two cousins in North Carolinathey too, were both a great niece and great nephew to Uncle Harley. Mr. Thompson said that his assistant would notify them of Harley’s passing, and of my intent to retain him as counsel in this Estate matter. He went on to say that after he received the official death certificate, he would seek to be appointed Administrator of the Estate. This would give him the power to have all of Uncle Harley’s banks open any and all safe deposit boxes he might have rented from them to possibly find the will. But he told me if there is no will found, my uncle will have died “Intestate”without a will, and the laws of Georgia would govern how the money would be divided. Because he had no immediate family, wethe nephews and nieceswould divide the estate equally.
Mr. Thompson’s paralegal, Amanda, took tons of notes during our meeting, then looked at me and smiled. “We have never dealt with a case as interesting as this one. This is quite a unique situation you have found yourself in, isn’t it?” If she only knewas in all Southern families, we don’t air our dirty laundry in public (although, it would appear, some of us like to store it in Tupperware for safe keeping). Obviously, I had not shared the more, shall we say, CRAZY aspects of Uncle Harley’s life with the attorney. My Nana used to say, “If it ain’t pretty, don’t put it on your front porch.” So, I had chosen to tell them the wonderful things I remembered about my uncle and just to gloss over the rest. As our hour came to an end, I signed the retainer papers and turned over all of Harley’s documents to Amanda. Mr. Thompson came from around his desk, put his arm around me and told me, “Your life is never going to be the same, young lady.” Wow, I thought, he’s been talking to Coroner Dave.
It was a long four months of waiting, and waiting some more, for news from the attorney’s office. It wasn’t his fault per se, it was just the red tape and bureaucracy of death. There were death certificates to file, and a probate judge to find. No judge wanted to oversee this case, because jurisdiction was an issuemy uncle had no permanent address, only a P.O. Box, thus no city or county to call his home. Finally, after weeks of wrangling, Mr. Thompson got the judge in the county where Harley had died to adjudicate his Estate. Also, weeks and weeks of searching all the banks for safe deposit boxes seem to prove fruitless, and the lawyer prepared me to be ready to have the Estate divided three ways. Well, it wasn’t going to be $12.3 million, but I decided I could happily live with a third. I would just downsize my dreamsgive to charity first, of course, then HELP my family with their mortgages, get a nice used car, maybe one cruise and the liposuction will just have to be put on hold indefinitely.
I went about life as normalwork, church, and outings with family and friends. No one knew what was going on just under the surfaceI had kept Project “Uncle Harley’s Estate” close to the vest; any info about it was on a strict, need-to-know basis. Diane knew, of course, because she had been in the trenches with me, and I trusted her with my lifealways have, always will. I had already decided that she would definitely be going on that cruise to Alaska with me. (Oh, didn’t I mention that earlier?) I had gone ahead and booked the cruise, because it was less expensive if you got the tickets early. Uncle Harley would have been proud (I am such a bargain hunter!). I decided that even when I became a millionaire, I would continue to cut coupons, shop at discount stores, and use my Kroger card to save my ten cents on gas. I was determined to be the same me that I have always been, just a more financially secure me.
Six months after this whole journey began, I got a phone call from Mr. Thompson’s office. Great news! THE WILL HAD BEEN LOCATED!!! It was in a safe deposit box in a small homegrown bank in St. Augustine, Florida. “It was several years old,” Amanda said breathlessly over the phone, “And it’s yellowed and wrinkled, but it’s legal." The will would remained sealed, she told me, until they received it, notified the next of kin (me and my cousins) and filed it with the court. Amanda went on to say that it would take about a week to get all this done, so we scheduled a date and time to gather at Mr. Thompson’s office for the reading of the will. She sounded so excited, she could barely contain herself. I sat down to catch my breath. I reminded myself that Uncle Harley could have still requested that his Estate be divided amongst us all. And that was okay. $12.3 million, split three ways, after taxes was still nothing to sneeze at. No matter what, it would be a win-win situation!
My cousins called me to get the scoop. We decided that they would stay at my house the night before the will was to be opened and after the reading we would go to Ruth’s Chris Steak House toI don’t know the right word herecelebrate? For the next few days I went to bed dreaming of all the new opportunities that this money would afford mewould afford all of us, really. Coroner Dave was right. Mr. Thompson was right. My life would never be the same.
Finally, the big day arrivedthe reading of the will. The cousins and I gathered into Mr. Thompson’s office, each one jockeying for position around the conference table, as if sitting closer to the attorney might translate into a bigger share of Uncle Harley’s estate. CRAZY, huh? The atmosphere in the room was a weird combination of Mardi Gras merriment and Memorial Service somberness. The dichotomy of emotions played across all our faces. On one hand, the money would make such a big difference in our lives. But, on the other hand, we realized this gift comes to us only through the death of an uncle who refused to let any of us close enough to really know or love him in his latter years; one who appeared to have postponed all his dreams until that elusive “someday” came along. Well, time ran out, leaving us, his distant relatives, as the beneficiaries of a life not lived, and dreams never fulfilled. So with emotions churning, we sat before the lawyermerrily somber.
Mr. Thompson thanked us for our patience, while he searched through his files and proceeded to lay the official-looking documents out before him. I was truly dizzy with expectationI had to remind myself how to breathe. Inhale. Exhale. Inhale. Exhale. As he started to read, a wave of pride and love washed over me as I glanced around the table. My cousins and I have handled this whole matter with as much dignity and grace as we could musterno fighting or backbiting. We were in it, all for one and one for all. Uncle Harley would have been so proud of us all. With a sense of peace and satisfaction that we can handle anything the future holds, I zoned back in on Mr. Thompson and focused with laser-like concentration.
“So now that we have all of the formalities out of the way, I must inform all of you that Mr. Harley Shelnutt’s estate will not be divided in any way, but, as per his wishes, will go in totality to one beneficiary,” Mr. Thompson said soberly.
I couldn’t believe my luck! After all, I was his favorite. It’s all mine!!! I tried so very hard not to glance at my cousins for fear that they would see the “Sorry, Suckas” look in my eyes!!! YES!!! YES!!! No, no, oh Lisa, try to be a good sport, please. But visions of the Girls’ school in Africa with my name emblazoned across it and my beach house in the Hamptons flashed before my eyes once again! Stop it, Lisa. Listen to the lawyer. I attempted to gather my senses and rein in my inner child.
Taking a cleansing breath and offering up a silent thank-you to both God and Uncle Harley, I leaned forward in my seat with a grateful smile beginning to form on my lips and listened as Mr. Thompson carried on. “I, Harley Shelnutt, being of sound mind and body do hereby bequeath my estate in its entirety to my life partner, Ray Fernández Pueblo.” Clipped to the will was a faded picture of a handsome young cabana boy with a hotel nametag that read, in broken sans serif letters, “Ray.”
Re-calculate, re-calculate, re-calculate!!! Nein! Nein! Nein!!!
After the reading, we said our polite goodbyes and I slumped off to the parking lot and crawled into my car. I then realized that a quick reassessment of the situation was in order. First, it appeared that Uncle Harley DID get out of that car on occasion. Perhaps that was an understatement. And above all, a twist on another old adage came to mind and seemed to fit to a tee: Where there’s a will, there’s a Ray...
The Ultimate Punk’d, indeed.
Lisa Love, a talented and insightful writer with a skewed sense of humor, looks for, and often finds the absurd masquerading as the mundane.