by Noni Bird
Novel in Progress
The evening was ruined. Isabel had hoped to join Stephen and Henry at the St. Regis to celebrate afterwards. How naïve that now seemed! The possibility of the two half-brothers getting together happily ever again seemed as remote as the stars.
Never mind that Steve must have crushed Henry’s feelings while insulting Felix but he could have done serious bodily harm to him with that broken glass! Isabel didn't want to think about it.
Two days went by in uncomfortable silence. Maybe the family all had the same thought she did: give it time and let it blow over. Felix had gone back to bed, in any case, while Henry left the very next day for Key West. Whether his plane was scheduled to leave that day or he’d changed his flight, Isabel didn’t know; he hadn’t left an itinerary with her this time. As for Steve, he would have set his mind by now on recovering the two million in a business venture. At any given time, it seemed one of his companies was going on to the next stage of financing, allowing Stern Capital Partners to take their profits.
Isabel planned to spend her day reviewing the rest of the title-specific profit and loss statements she’d set aside recently. The audit was over and the financial statements were being prepared by E&Y. Neil had done a nice job keeping the accounts balanced and she was promised an unqualified opinion. It hadn’t been a great year, but better than she expected, with at least three or four titles that had put them safely in the black. She would let her father know.
Her phone rang.
“Hi, Isabel!” It was Joanna.
God, to be that young and carefree again!
Isabel smiled, hoping a happy face would translate to her voice. “Hi, Joanna.” Before anything else, she asked her, “Has Henry called in at all?”
“Not since he left for Key West, no.”
“I see. Is he planning to, do you know?”
No, Joanna didn't. “He didn’t give me the impression he was," she told Isabel. "He told me to take good care of you, though.”
Isabel jumped on that as though it were a life raft. “Oh, really? When was that?”
“Before he left this week.”
“Tuesday? Wednesday?” Isabel felt the need to explain herself. “I’m trying to pin something down…do you remember exactly?”
Joanna obliged her. “Sure, it was Tuesday night. He wasn’t in on Wednesday. His flight left JFK at eight in the morning.”
He’d given her his itinerary.
“What time Tuesday night?” I must sound desperate to her.
“Well, before he left the office. He said he had a meeting at six-thirty with your father. I didn’t see him leave..." Joanna paused, then asked, "Does that help any?”
“Yes, thank you.” Henry hadn’t changed his plane reservation, at least.
“When’s he coming back?” Isabel asked.
“Well, he’s due in Austin after that for...let’s see…til April sixth.”
“What’s in Austin?” Isabel felt herself frowning now, and could hear it in her voice.
Joanna didn't hesitate to respond, apparently reading off the itinerary. “The Texas Book Festival. And there’s a meeting with Barnes & Noble in Fort Worth. After that an author event here in town. So he’ll be back by Sunday.”
“Who’s the author?”
“Oh, the author? Um…he didn’t tell me that.”
“Never mind, that’s plenty. Thanks, Jo.”
“I know where to reach him if you need him,” Joanna offered. Without being asked, she told Isabel Henry would be at Casa Marina Key West. "It sounded romantic to me. Your grandparents had a house there, didn’t they?”
“You’ve been reading the journals, I see. Yes, they did. Many years ago.”
“He said he hadn’t been to Key West since then.”
Isabel wasn’t sure she'd heard right. “Since when?”
“Since he’d last stayed at that house, I assumed.”
“He never stayed at that house. It was sold in 1982 when my grandfather died.”
“There’s an entry here from April of 1982.”
“I’ll be right there.” She hung up.
Friday, April 23, 1982
The three of us went snorkeling this morning while Felix took the kids in the boat for fishing. HS first time ever in the coral reefs, or in a snorkel mask, for that matter. I think he’s in love with E already. If anyone can convert him, she’s the one. Just our rotten luck she’s under contract already. Tomorrow it’s the Hemingway house and museum before we head back to Miami and from there to NYC. E has an author event at the Brentano’s in White Plains on Tuesday. I promised HS he’ll have one on Fifth Avenue when his novel is published next year. I’m as anxious as he is! The weather’s been great here. Dad and Mom returned to NYC yesterday, as planned.
Isabel looked up at Joanna after reading this. “What do you think, Jo?”
“Seems he was there with your family in 1982,” she said. Your grandparents too.” Then it occurred to her, “But you were there too, it looks like. Don’t you remember?”
Isabel had no recollection of the trip. “No, I didn’t meet him until 1983 at the family Seder in Scarsdale, I’m sure of it.”
“You came home from Paris just for the Seder?”
Joanne certainly knew those journals! “Yes. I never missed the Jewish holidays at home, even when I was in boarding school. I think the school was closed for Easter, anyway. My father was always there to take me back and forth as a business expense. He had an office practically around the corner, on the Boulevard Haussmann.”
This wasn’t of any significance to Joanna. Isabel concluded, “The entry is irrelevant. Just ignore it, Jo.”
When she got back to her office, Isabel found an email from Henry. Her heart skipped a beat. Hallelujah!
From: Henry Stallings
Date: Thu, Apr 3, 2017
Subject: My story to tell
To: Isabel, Felix, Stephen
The most important things in a person’s life are usually the ones we can’t choose. Felix didn’t choose to father me any more than I chose Felix for a father. But if I could have chosen my father, I think I would have chosen Felix.
I love you, Felix. But I don’t agree that you should turn over the trust fund to me, certainly not as a means to right an injustice: there has been no injustice done to me.
I was the beneficiary of a silent trust that Fred Stern created when I was six years old. You say you didn’t know how he took care of matters, Felix. Well, this is how. Only when I turned twenty-five did the trust end and it was disclosed to me that my benefactor had been Fred Stern. He died only days later, before I could ever meet him, or thank him.
Fred made it possible for me to be educated at Princeton. I was an assistant professor of English there after graduating with an MFA. One day I got a phone call from an editor at Roth & Co. asking to meet me to discuss a book deal. I figured someone at Princeton had given her my name, since I’d mentioned working on a novel to some of my students. But I didn’t even have a first draft yet! I asked why she sought me out and she told me Fred Stern had asked her to.
If not for this introduction to Roth & Co., I might never have become an author, let alone a publisher. I have prospered greatly due to the Stern family.
I pray you will all accept my long-overdue gratitude.
With my deepest devotion,
“Wow,” Isabel murmured. She had no idea this was the case, but it certainly explained a lot of things. If Felix had just owned up to it sooner!
Isabel hurried to write back to Henry while she was in the mood.
From: Isabel S. Gold
Date: Thu, Apr 3, 2017
Subject: re: My story to tell
Thank you for your gracious letter to us following such an unpleasant episode not of your making. It broke my heart to witness such resentment from Stephen, and I hope you can forgive him, as I know my father and I will (eventually).
Fighting is a part of belonging to a family, I’m afraid, and for better or worse, you are a part of ours! No one gets to choose their relatives, as you so eloquently point out. You’d think after fifty years Felix would have thought out a more judicious way to break the news, but I chalk it up to his own excitement. Far from losing his mind in the hospital, our father seems to have finally come to his senses. It’s an occasion for great joy and a new beginning.
I hope you will enjoy your time in Key West and elsewhere over the next couple of weeks - Far From the Madding (Stern) Crowd.
Once she hit “Send” she saw an “Out of office” email appear in her inbox. That was OK. He’d see the message on his cellphone. There was no urgency in it.
She did wonder about that visit to the Roth home in Key West, though. He’d known Arthur before he died. He’d even met Elisheva at Arthur’s house. It was not too strange; publishers often entertain the authors of other publishing houses to woo them away, and famous personages are always turning up with them. Maybe even Ernest Hemingway had been to the house or gone fishing with Arthur; they were only eight years apart in age and less than a mile apart in Key West for several years.
Isabel didn’t remember the visit, in any case. She went back and read the entry again before she realized “kids” didn’t have to include her; Felix might have taken Stephen out fishing with a friend. Maybe some cousins were there. The entry was vague.
Was any of this relevant to her mother’s biography? No. After only a few weeks, Isabel had grown frustrated with the project. Her mother was an enigma. Her written entries didn’t provide any meaningful insight into her life, only more questions. She had kept her innermost thoughts secret, perhaps in other journals she’d destroyed. Isabel was losing interest in the writing project. She suspected Henry had given it up too. It could only lose the company money; no new owner would publish it, either. It was Joanna that Madelyn wanted in the first place, not a biography. Isabel was becoming more convinced of that every day. Joanna had served her purpose: she’d brought Paul back into the picture. They would try to hire Joanna when she graduated, if she was interested, but this internship had been a false pretense dreamed up by Madelyn.
The phone on her desk rang again.
“Isabel,” Stephen greeted her.
“Jesus, it’s you,” Isabel sighed.
“Let’s get together at the St. Regis. Paul’s in town.”
“You’re a bastard, you know...”
“You got the wrong brother, Isabel.”
“Oh, I hate you! How could you behave so despicably? You could have sent Dad back to the hospital – and Henry too! – throwing a tantrum like that! What kind of animal are you?”
“Grow up, Isabel.” He mocked her.
“Me grow up? You’re a forty-eight-year-old spoiled brat! I hope you apologized, at least!”
“I’ll think about it…”
She took a few breaths then told him, “I apologized for you in the meantime. You should be ashamed of yourself - a coward!”
“And what are you, Miss Big Four CPA, writing off four million dollars like it’s a shortage in the petty cash box!” He sneered, then coughed, then broke into a loud guffaw. He sounded out of control.
She listened to it long enough. “Shut up already, Steve!”
“OK, OK, I’m sorry.” A moment later he started in again, wildly, “Petty cash….for godsake…hahaha!”
He was actually scaring her now, sounding delirious, over the edge. She tried to calm him down. In a low, firm voice, she told him, “Cool, it, Steve. Cool it.” When he got quiet, she continued. “I’m not discounting the amount of money, it’s a lot. But you read his email, didn’t you? He’s not taking it.”
“Sure I read it.”
“I’m not sure...”
“You don’t believe he received a trust fund from Fred?”
“That part, yes.”
“That lawyer…the same one who administered that silent trust…wasn’t he? He acted pretty nasty in that office over the so-called half-secret trust, didn’t he?”
“According to Dad, yes…”
“He was scared shitless, that’s why!”
“What do you mean? Scared of what?”
“Being sued! He screwed up! He lost Henry a lot of money!”
“No, that’s wrong. Henry knew nothing about such a trust.”
“That’s right! Because there was no such trust!”
“Make up your mind, Steve..." Her brother was confusing her. He loves doing this to me.
“It was a big fraud. Fraud in the execution. The lawyer put that provision in the will. Only he didn’t figure on Dad disputing it. And when he did, he thought he could shame Dad into it.”
Isabel summarized, “So Fred signed it without noticing this sentence? That's hard to believe of Fred. And you're saying the lawyer was going to claim that money for Henry and keep it for himself?"
Steve agreed. “Doesn’t it make sense? He was already the trustee making disbursements to Henry. He knew Henry was Dad’s son; Fred told him. If this secret trust had held up, Dad would have had to cut a check to Henry, give it to the attorney, the attorney would have deposited it to the bank account, and then drawn a check to himself. Nobody would know. Fred would be dead."
“Dad would have known because he already knew Henry!"
“The lawyer didn't know that. He was banking on Dad not wanting anything to do with Henry."
“Why did Dad wait so long to tell us?"
“Only Dad can answer that.”
“I’ll bet Mother made him promise not to tell us!”
“You're forgetting...Mom didn’t even know!”
“You’re wrong! She figured it out. Ask Henry.”
“What are you saying now? You discussed this with Henry?”
“I figured it out just like Mother did.”
“So I’m the last to know?”
“Yes. Don’t you feel stupid now?”
“Look…Mom loved Henry, didn't she? Why wouldn’t she want Dad to acknowledge him as his son?”
“Because Mom was in love with Henry.”
“Jeezus Christ, Isabel! Do you hear what you’re saying?”
Yes, she did.
No more than other things that have taken place in this family.
“It's no more implausible than your theory. I mean, would Fred have put his trust in such a lawyer?”
“The fact of the matter is he did! You heard how Dad described the guy. He got caught doing something wrong, he knew it. Dad knew it."
“There’s only one course of action now. We go to Dad. He’s the root of it all. We go right to the beginning: who was Henry’s mother? She wasn’t just some girl he knocked up at a frat party. Did you hear how he described her? A beautiful young woman, he said. Almost with reverence in his voice.”
“Christ, Isabel! You're such a romantic. You had a crush on Henry yourself, I remember. Maybe you're still hot for him!"
Isabel heard him mutter under his breath before she hung up, "One big family cluster fuck."