It was in the designing of a home that was destroyed in a devastating fire that Robert first met Susan. One sunny afternoon she strolled into his architectural office in downtown Oakland looking for someone who would draw up plans to her exact specifications. She wanted a modern house on the inside, yet traditional enough that it blended into what she hoped would soon return to forested hills.
As soon as Robert saw her chin-length gray hair, he fell in love. Susan claimed to do the same when she looked into his deep blue eyes. Week after week they bent over plans, discussing the merits of this and that, until the house finally came together. And during it all, Robert learned to respect Susan’s intelligence and charm, while she loved his ability to think steps ahead, almost like seeing into the future.
Within a year of the completion of the home, they drove to Reno, married in a quaint chapel, honeymooned in Paris and then settled into the home, expecting to spend many happy days together. And then she was diagnosed with a rather aggressive form of breast cancer.
It was painful watching her willow away. Each day she grew smaller and grayer, slowly disappearing into the silk sheets of their bed. Then one morning when he awoke, Susan did not.
Robert made the appropriate calls to known friends. It was not easy telling people that Susan was dead. While Robert was able to choke back the tears while he was on the phone, at nights he sobbed like a baby. Unable to sleep in the bed they had shared, he moved into one of the many empty bedrooms.
Because Susan had never mentioned close friends or family, Robert expected a smooth transition, especially since he thought he was the sole heir. If he hadn’t been, he would never had sold his condo or consolidated their accounts. But there was never any doubt that Susan was giving everything to him, just as he was giving everything to her.
While his life, although forever altered, would continue on. He would walk the halls where Susan had walked, eat his meals at the same table and watch the same programs that they both had loved. The only thing that worried him somewhat was the young woman who lived in the apartment above the garage.
Robert had never met her, yet Susan had told him much about her. Nanette had been Susan’s chauffeur and confidant for many years after her first husband had died. Since Nanette had been living in a sketchy neighborhood before the fire, when Susan rebuilt her home, she had demanded that Nanette move into a guest room she had built over the garage expressly for that purpose.
Robert also knew that Susan had paid Nanette’s college tuition all through her undergrad and graduate school years at Berkeley. Because of Susan’s generosity, Nanette had her MBA, and once Nanette was no longer needed as a chauffeur, she had gotten a job in a high-class accounting firm in San Francisco.
Because of how close the two women were, Robert expected some kind of inheritance to go to Nanette. A financial stipend, for sure, but also the ability to continue on in the apartment, if she chose to do so. Robert spoke to Nanette when Susan died and found her to be charming, polite and extremely intelligent.
A week after Susan’s death the attorney demanded that Robert come in for the reading of the will. Robert dressed in his best black suit, slipped into his polished loafers, straightened his blue tie, and drove downtown to a starkly furnished office, done in blacks and grays, fitting for a somber meeting.
As soon as Robert was seated, the attorney read a bunch of legal mumbo-jumbo with a lot of albeits and heretofores. When he got to the distribution of assets, Robert perked up. Susan had led him to believe that was the sole heir, but once the words had been read, Robert understood that in fact, he had inherited absolutely nothing. No property, no money, no stocks, bonds or life insurance.
Robert was shocked. It was inconceivable that Susan could have deceived him so.
The attorney sat back and crossed his arms over his chest. He watched as Robert’s face turned a deep crimson. “Are you okay?” he asked.
“What am I to do?” Robert asked as he wrung his hands. “I have nothing left in my name. I gave Susan everything, just as she supposedly gave me everything.” He wiped his eyes with his hands. “So, since I have nothing, when do I have to move out?”
The attorney picked up the papers. “Susan stipulated that you be allowed to live on the property until either you died, remarried or moved out of your own accord. The only exception is that if you move due illness, then you would be entitled to a monthly pension not to exceed the cost of your care, until you die.”
Robert stood and paced about the office. “So what does Nanette get? After all, she was just a chauffeur!”
“You obviously weren’t listening. Nanette gets the property, the life insurance, the bank accounts, stocks, bonds, in fact, everything. And since this is a community property state, and you had added Susan’s name to all your accounts, Nanette also inherits a good portion of that.” The attorney smiled in a way that grated Robert’s nerves. “Susan told me that she felt closer to Nanette than anyone that she had ever known. Apparently even you, Robert.”
“My god, we loved each other!”
The attorney neatly stacked the papers and put them in a yellow file folder and leaned back in his chair. “Any questions?”
“Can I contest it? Go to court and demand a reevaluation?”
“The will was duly witnessed and filed. It is considered to be Susan’s final wishes.”
“I don’t like it, but I understand. Can I have a copy? Do I at least have the right to that?”
“Yes,” the attorney said. He pushed a button on his phone and when his secretary entered, he asked her to make one copy. “Would you like to wait here while the copy’s being made?”
Robert nodded. “Can I stay in the house?” he asked.
“That will be up to Nanette,” the attorney said. “If Nanette wants to live in the house, then you can have the apartment.” He stood and walked to the door. “You should also know that Susan stipulated that Nanette be the first one to hear the terms of the will. She was here this morning, so Nanette already knows. If there’s nothing else, I have another meeting to attend,” and he walked out, leaving Robert all alone.
Once he had his copy, Robert left, feeling quite bereft. Not only had his wife misled him, but the only things he could call his own were his clothes and any future income he might receive. He was sure that he would never qualify for a mortgage and that no one would hire him at his age. His only option was to be Nanette’s minion for the rest of his life.
When he returned home, he put in his key to unlock the door. It did not work. When he knocked, Nanette opened the door with a smirk on her face. “I was expecting you. Come inside.”
Robert stepped into the wood paneled front room that he had designed. Instead of the warmth he had associated it with when Susan was alive, now it felt cold and imposing.
Nanette pointed to a stack of boxes in the hall. “I had your stuff packed up. I think you’ll find everything here. And just to ensure my privacy, I changed the locks, both front and back.” She reached into her pocket and pulled out a key. “This is to the apartment. I’ll leave the front door open for an hour. I’m assuming that you’ll be finished by then.”
“Why are you being so mean? I don’t understand.”
“Susan love me like the daughter she never had. She once told me that when she died, I was to protect myself. That men would want to move in here just because of my new wealth. I’m not being mean, Robert, I’m just following Susan’s orders.”
Robert sighed. There was nothing for him to do but to haul his possessions away. “Can I use the dolly?”
“It’s on the back porch. When you’re finished, put it in the garage.” She turned and sauntered away.
Robert got the dolly off the porch and two-by-two, moved his boxes. Just as he was putting his last ones in place, Nanette returned.
“If the steps are too tough for you, old man, I can have a lift installed.”
Nanette’s words rankled Robert so much that he simply walked away. There was no way he would stay in a place where he was treated like dirt. First thing in the morning he would visit an attorney for a second opinion and then find a real estate agent who would help him find a rental unit he could afford.
Robert was deeply hurt by what he saw as Susan’s deception, but there was nothing he could do about it except sigh.