May 25, 1906
Van Sant & Wilson
There was a knock at my office door.
The door opened slightly. Miss Delp stuck her head in.
“Mr. Van Sant to see you, Mr. Wilson.
“Please show him in.”
The door opened wider to admit Nick, who started a bit when he saw me. His pleasant expression turned to concern immediately.
“Hello, Nick,” I said, standing up slightly from behind my desk.
I hadn’t gone out of my office all day, and I’d had nothing but the pot of coffee that Miss Delp had brought in this morning, which was also still on my messy desk. I’d drank most of it; there were coffee rings on some of the legal documents stacked up in front of me. I guess I still looked pretty bad from earlier this morning.
Nick turned to the hovering Miss Delp, who stood just beyond the door to my office.
“Miss Delp, please don’t worry about locking up behind you this evening. Mr. Wilson and I will close up.”
“I just have a few things left to do for Mr. Wilson,” she started.
“Can I have Miss Delp send out for refreshments, Nick?” I asked.
“I don’t want anything, thank you, Emmett.” Nick then politely turned to Miss Delp and said, “It is all right; you may go on home.”
Both Miss Delp and I were slightly taken aback at Nick’s smooth dismissal — only Miss Delp’s expression showed it. She quickly assumed her typical blank expression, then simply nodded at Nick, said, “Of course, Mr. Van Sant,” and closed the door behind her.
As Nick came over and sat down in one of the leather chairs in front of my desk, we heard Miss Delp moving about quickly, then the outer office door open and close.
“Well,” I said, sitting forward and shifting a few of the briefs around on the desk in front of me, moving one or two of the files into a stack to hide the coffee-stained folders,”I have several things I need to get to before I head home. I have the Johnson shipping contract here for you to review, and a few less pressing cases. The garnishment case from last week…”
“I’m not here about the contract, or any of the cases,” Nick said, quietly.
“Oh? Well,” I said, nervously moving the stacked folders to the side of my desk, and taking out a pencil and a notepad. “What would you like to go over?”
My hand shook a little, and Nick saw it. I sat back in my chair and knitted my fingers together in front of me, so as to hide the trembling. I tried to be as nonchalant and at ease as possible.
“I’m jumpy as hell,” I said. “All that coffee.”
Nick just looked at me.
“So, what would you like to discuss?”
“Emmett. I want to talk about you.”
I raised my eyebrows in what I hoped was a successful feigned expression of surprise.
“Me?” I gave a slightly nervous laugh.
“Yes,” Nick said, quietly.
“One of the qualities I’ve valued about you most of all, ever since we met back at Stetson, was your unwavering sense of integrity. Also, it is clear that you have superior grasp of jurisprudence over many other lawyers your age — and somewhat older — I daresay. It’s why I chose to open a law firm with you, and no one else, even though I did consider a few other lawyers, some of whom were local.”
“Thank you,” I said, cautiously.
Nick paused a moment, then sighed. “Emmett, you, yourself once said in one of our mock trials back at Stetson that one cannot dispute facts in a case, that it is never anything personal when one is confronted with evidence. Either the evidence is correct or it is not. Do you agree?”
A warm breeze blew through the open office window; but I felt a chill and a sense of dread — the shade in the window behind me moved slightly, flapping softly against the wooden window frame, and I turned to look at the movement. Then I glanced at Nick, who was watching me, without expression.
“Do you agree, Emmett?” Nick repeated.
“Yes,” I said quietly.
“Here,” Nick said. He reached into his suit coat pocket and took out a thick envelope. He handed it to me.
I opened the envelope and unfolded the thick document within, and began to read. I felt my face flush as I turned the pages — the words swam in front of me. I blinked to clear my eyes; I was careful to keep my expression neutral as emotions washed through me all at once: Embarrassment, anger, shame.
When I turned the last page, I didn’t look up, and I sat there for several moments, just staring at the back of the last page. The silence grew uncomfortable for me, but I wasn’t going to say anything. What could I say? Frank Heflebower had done his homework. It was detailed, noting that I was a regular patron at Ryan’s, and that I bought the same brand of Scotch — two quarts — on every visit. There were transcripts from receipts showing missing and/or late deposits to the law firm’s bank accounts, and the creative accounting I had used to cover it up. The report included statements from witnesses — the Annings, two lawyers and the judge in Morrison, and even Godfrey Long — God only knows what Long said to Heflebower, and then, to Cephas —
— for a moment I admired the report. It was logical, orderly, organized. A beautiful example of discovery, as we say in the profession — except that it was about me — and I was the defendant. Nick had enough here to bring charges against me, including disbarment proceedings. I was caught. My head swam.
A feeling of desperation and failure washed over me — suddenly, I felt my stomach churn at that moment — I had a desire to throw up. Instead, took a deep breath and swallowed hard. I was not going to lose composure in front of Nick; I had no choice but to face this head on.
“When do you plan to file charges?” I asked, hoping that I did not sound as strangled as I felt.
I looked up at Nick, astounded. “You must be kidding,” I said.
“No, Emmett. Aren’t you going to ask me about the audit? As partners, I should have warned you about it, or at least told you that I was going to review the books. I’m not proud of going behind your back, Emmett. Partners don’t do that.”
I shook my head. “I think you know the reason already, Nick,” I said, shakily. “I’ll repay the imbalance, Nick. I will not draw a salary until it is paid in full.”
“Emmett. I don’t care about the money right now. I’m more worried about you.”
“Me? I’m fine. Really…”
“Emmett. This is about your drinking.”
“So I have a few drinks now and then, Nick. So do a lot of the fellows.”
“Emmett. People I’ve known for decades, people I’ve done business with in Whiteside County, were coming to me back in February, concerned about you. I didn’t say anything at the time, because I didn’t see any problems. If you chose to drink, that was your business. But it is interfering with your professional and personal life. It is causing irreparable damage to your reputation — and to this firm’s reputation,” he added, in a more quiet tone.
Nick leaned forward and pointed to the open report still in front of me, on the desk. “Witnesses, Emmett. All of this started sometime in February. Things seemed fine that first month — what happened after January?”
“Everyone drinks,” I said again, defensively. “Even the judge in Morrison whom you claim to be a close friend, and who hosted the dinner that I attended.”
“Yes. That was the first time you lost the client fees, was it not Emmett?” Nick asked, evenly. “Or was it at the brothel in Morrison, that same night?”
I said nothing; instead, turned away slightly; on my left, I could see the glow of the Dietz & Maxwell saloon; men on the street walking by the swinging saloon doors; a few men slapping each other on the back and talking as they walked in together.
Nick got up and walked over to the window to see what I was looking at. He stood there for several moments, also watching the traffic on the street below, and the customers coming and going into the saloons across the street.
Nick said, “I know what goes on with young men. I hear stories from the fellows at the YMCA about the local goings-on; there are some of the young men who live at the YMCA and still drink at the bars around town. Most of the young men tell me that the reason they turned to liquor was out of desperation to feel good, and to escape whatever problems bothering them.”
I didn’t react. I just continued to look out the window.
“Emmett, you are like a son to me. I care more about you than the money. We can always make more money; it’s your well being that matters. You see, I look at you as the future, someone I can turn my legacy over to when I’m gone.”
I looked up at Nick; startled. Nick nodded at me seriously, a concerned look on his face.
He continued: “I think of you as my heir apparent. Ella and I don’t have children; we’ve come to consider you part of our family. I want to help. Something obviously is bothering you for you to have gone to such contradictory behavior, something so unlike you. Won’t you please talk to me about what’s going on?”
“Nick. I am truly grateful for your concern for my well being — but I don’t have a drinking problem. At least, I don’t believe I do.”
“I see,” Nick said, without expression.
“I’m — I’m homesick. I miss Florida. I miss my friends and family. And, yes, I admit that I went overboard on a few occasions — with the drinking. I do remember waking up in the hotel in Morrison, and my wallet was empty. I had too much to drink the night before, and I believe I was robbed. I don’t remember how I lost the client fees in Morrison.”
“And you said nothing to anyone about being robbed, not even the authorities,” Nick said.
“And the client meeting in Rock Falls yesterday? What about the receipts from that meeting?”
I opened my mouth, and then closed it.
“The funds are lost, are they not?”
I swallowed hard, and then nodded ever so slightly.
“Were you drinking before or after you collected the fees?”
Both, I said, barely audible.
“And you don’t remember what happened afterwards.
“Yes,” I whispered.
Nick sat regarding me for a few moments. Then, he reached into his suit coat pocket and produced a brochure. He put it in front of me, on top of the Heflebower’s report.
I looked at it — the Bedal Gold Cure Sanitarium. “A Cure Guaranteed,” I read out loud.
“I’ve made some discreet inquiries, Emmett. There’s a space ready for you there; Mr. Graham who is the manager there, is a friend of mine, as is Dr. Keefer, who would be in charge of your treatment. Everything would be handled in strictest confidence, and you would receive the best of care.”
I looked up at Nick, surprised and shocked as I read the brochure: “’Patients were cured in four weeks’ time.’ Four weeks? Nick? A month?” I shook my head. “That’s impossible.”
“No, Emmett. It’s not,” Nick said, watching me carefully.
“How can I be gone for four weeks, away from the firm, with these cases? I can’t just walk away for an entire month! And what if someone discovers I was there?”
I knew what that would mean for my professional reputation — not to mention the firm’s reputation. But I wasn’t thinking about our partnership. I was caught — and I was thinking only about myself.
“No one will know,” Nick said. “We can tell everyone that you’ve decided to visit your family in Florida. As for Miss Delp, I’ll work part of the time from this office, and she’ll be told what everyone else is told: You’re visiting family and will return soon after. You need not worry about anyone finding out that you were at a sanitarium.”
“I don’t know,” I said, feeling panicked, apprehensive, trapped. I turned agitatedly in my seat. God, how I wish I could just go over to my bookcase and take out my bottle of Scotch —
“Nick. I don’t think I have a drinking problem. And I can’t afford this — especially with the missing client fees —”
“I will pay for your treatment, Emmett. You don’t have to worry about that. All you need to do is to get well.”
“I don’t know.”
“At least go for an evaluation. I think that’s the least you can do given the” — he paused — “circumstances.”
I knew Nick had every reason to prosecute. If I resisted, outright, God knows what would happen. He said he didn’t want to prosecute, but that didn’t mean he would change his mind.
I stared at my desk for about a minute. I was caught. Afraid. But I looked up at Nick, and his expression was kind, sympathetic. It eased me somewhat.
“What do you say, Emmett?”
“Can I think about this?”
Nick nodded. “Yes. Certainly. But I’d like to know your decision in a few days, so that we can make plans for covering the office and court responsibilities.”
“And if I choose not to go to — this place?” I said, indicating the brochure on my desk with a slight nod.
“Then we’ll have to part ways. There may be complications. And I have the integrity of my business reputation, and of this practice, to consider, Emmett.”
I nodded. “Yes,” I said. “Of course.”
Nick got up and I didn’t move; I was still looking at the brochure and the report on my desk.
“Son, I only want the best for you. I hope you know that. You mean a lot to me. What I’m offering can work out for everyone’s benefit. I hope you come to see it that way too.”
He turned, walked out of my office to the waiting room, and closed the outer office door behind him.
I sat at my desk for about an hour. I didn’t go over to the bookcase to take a drink; I was too worn out psychologically and physically to even get up at that moment.
Nick. He wanted a father and son relationship — I’d not realized that. I’d not felt it either; I’d not even considered it. I trusted him, I liked him. But I looked upon Nick as a mentor, not a father figure.
I had a father already. I didn’t have a close relationship with him — certainly not like what I had with Nick. I’d have liked to exchange Nick’s feelings with my father’s feelings for me, but I doubted that would ever happen.
My head was pounding again; I pressed my temples. I was not going to take out my hidden bottle. I was not going to drink tonight. I was in control. I was not an alcoholic. I would prove that to Nick, to everyone, to myself.
I can live without a drink.
I can live without a drink.
I turned around in my chair and looked out the window onto the street again — business was brisk across the street — no. I wasn’t going over there.
I turned back to my desk and looked at the Bedel sanitarium brochure. I opened it; read it briefly. At $75 a week plus board, this was an expensive place to dry out, especially over four weeks. I shook my head. Word would get out that I didn’t go to Florida; some clerk or housekeeper would talk, and that would be it for my professional reputation, no matter what Nick said or promised about confidentiality. I have no doubt about that.
I threw the brochure into the trash, then thought better of it: Instead, I put it into my top desk drawer, and locked it. I didn’t want to think about this anymore. The only thing I wanted to do was to go home and get a good night’s sleep.
As I walked out of my office, I noticed that Miss Delp had left today’s mail piled up on her desk. Usually, she distributed it as soon as it came in; opened, neatly stacked into order of importance (current cases first, bills second, general client correspondence third, anything personal unopened and at the bottom).
Irritated, I picked up the stack of envelopes and quickly scanned them. I put the stack of mail down on Miss Delp’s desk, and hunted about for the letter opener — and that’s when I saw it:
Another envelope, Van Sant & Wilson stationery addressed to me, was on top of Miss Delp’s typewriter.
I put down the stack of mail and picked it up. Ripped it open.
The enormity of my situation came crashing down on me. I sat down in Miss Delp’s chair.
I realized, at that very moment, that I had nothing.
All of the work, the office, the plans, the opportunities, even Miss Delp were provided to me by Nick. I didn’t bring anything to this partnership except lofty hopes and dreams, and a trunk of clothing that mostly was inappropriate for the harsh Illinois winters, law books from Florida that had no application to my practice in Illinois, and a scrapbook full of a former college student’s accomplishments. The only thing really useful I’d brought with me was one of Cephas’ bottles of 20-year-old Scotch. And that was long gone.
And the only thing I had truly earned on my own, the entire time I’d been in Sterling, is a full blown addiction to alcohol.
I was just as Miss Delp said — a hopeless, obvious inebriate.
And I was truly on my own, just as I had always secretly wanted to be.
But I didn’t want it now.
I closed my eyes. I wept.
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