Old man Mawson was a timeworn, craggy giant of a man who was older than the hills and who had been the second man to settle in that part of the country.
Who was the first man? It was Mawson’s older brother, reportedly murdered by the third brother after a mix-up of who chopped down a certain bloodred-barked dogwood tree in the third brother’s yard. Mawson, the real culprit, buried his older brother in his front yard and kept all secrets and the grave tended for the next seventy years.
Mawson had huge beady eyes and ears that stuck straight out, reaching farther than his flyaway hair did. He’d been in the military and had the morning rising time to prove it, up with the full summer sun in a hazy pre-dawn sky, and he’d once had the hair, too. But lately he couldn’t reach his head as well and now his thin white hair just grew haphazardly.
He lived alone and has not seen his son for thirty years. He said nothing and kept to himself. Paid his bills, tended his brother’s grave, watched the people blow past outside his window like flighty dogwood blossoms in a green wind.
The dogwood people muttered about him. Always, even as he entered and stood not a few feet from a man’s bent back. Even as he clumped through the tavern, as he did every night.
“Hey, Mawson, when’re you goin’ta kick it and let Harold have the inheritance?”
“They say he left his wife.”
“Never goes to church.”
“Poor Harold, run off by his own father.”
Mawson tramped to his usual spot in a dark corner of the pub and growled for his hot rum. He drinks it and it fills him with butterscotch and pumpkins and starlight—he thinks. It fills him with warm green winds and syrupy crushed dogwood blossoms and the smell of the graceful myrtles at dusk—he thinks. It fills him with life—he thinks. It brings him joy—he thinks.
Mawson downed his rum after a few minutes and stayed in the corner, his gnarled hairy hands on the table out in front of him, his head low like a watchful dog, his teeth gleaming in the dim light, as he sat and sat and sat alone and looked around, watching, just watching. Mouth closed. Tasting the rum still as it drifted toward his belly.
No one noticed him, but he noticed them. He saw them and he watched them, like he watched the sweet grassy wind in the myrtles and the half-dead dogwood petals on the dusty ground.
He thought, Where is Lois? I need her. I need to talk to her. Where is she?
And then he remembered, She is dead.
Mawson got up, paid for his rum, and looked at the woman behind the bar. She was wearing dark pants and a black shirt, thin black hair pulled away from a thin face. He thought to himself: I like that face.
“Name?” he asked her. “What’s your name?”
“Lois Florence,” the woman said, pouring gin into a glass and sliding it deftly across the polished counter. “I’m new here, just moved to town.”
“Lois,” Mawson mumbled to himself. “I should remember that.”
Lois Florence raised her eyebrows.
“My wife was named Lois,” Mawson said, looking her straight in the eye.
“Oh,” Lois Florence said. “And you’re a widower?”
“Most people say ‘I’m sorry,’” Mawson said, eyes smiling. “You didn’t. Good for you. I’m Mawson.”
Lois Florence grinned. Her teeth were slightly yellow in forgotten places. “Well, it’s a pleasure to meet you, sir, and an honor to share your wife’s name. Anything else I can get you?”
“No, thanks,” Mawson said. He turned away, hesitated, and turned back. “You know—you’re the only person in this damn dogwood town that’s nice to me, even at all.”
Lois Florence raised her eyebrows again, gave him a thin, sad smile, poured herself a jam jar of ice water. “Cheers, Mawson,” she said. “Strength to you.”
He nodded to her, turned away again, and left the pub. There was snow and quick hoarfrost on the ground, stretching in spidery sugary webs across hard dirt, and the white wind was whistling gently about his bent form.
Mawson went home, sat at his bare wooden desk with a pen and his will, and tried to remember the bartender’s name. Lois. That was it. He signed his name one more time and looked. The cold wind outside whipped fiercely, holding out slender frosty fingers, calling his name.
He walked outside, he stumbled down, he held out his fingers to the dusting of snow falling like a death-shroud around his shoulders. As gentle and soft as the hugs Lois used to give him with her pale, thin arms, in the days before she died. Mawson thought of her face, one last time, and then the arms of the wind and snow wrapped itself around him, and kissed his face white and cold, carrying him into death. The snow on the ground was picked up by the wind and thrown around and around, and finally rested on the still, unmoving body on the ground.
The next morning, the snowplow found Mawson’s body. The man driving the plow yelled in fright and jumped off the machine and ran to find the chief of police.
There was nothing for it. Frostbite, or frozen heart, was declared cause of death. The dogwood people kept their mouths closed but thought to themselves he was better off dead, the cold old geezer. The mortician was called and the death certificate signed and the casket buried in the farthest corner of the graveyard. Harold Mawson was telephoned and train tickets arranged and a lawyer hired for the examination of the will.
The lawyer was an oily beanstalk of a man, and he was named Mr. Escheat. The dogwood people around town, talking like the syrupy crushed blossoms that deserved nothing but a good kick into the dustpan, said:
“Got what he deserved, grouchy old coot.”
“That’s no way to speak of the dead!”
“I’ll speak of the dead the way I want.”
“And you’ll take the consequences at Judgement Day how you want, too.”
“That’s exactly right.”
“I wonder how much money Harold’s going to get.”
“Loads and loads.”
“Oh, man, I wish I were Harold right now.”
“Nah, money can’t make up for a cold-hearted geezer father like Harold had till now.”
“You got me there.”
The will was on a long sheaf of paper, tucked away in a narrow drawer in Mawson’s bare wooden desk. The paper was yellowed and wrinkled, and Mr. Escheat took it in his slim slippery fingers and his brow furrowed. A thin film of grease formed between his eyebrows.
“Hmm,” he said softly.
“What is it?” Harold took it from Escheat’s hands.
Escheat took it back. “There is no mention of you on here.”
“What!” Harold cried. “There’s got to be! I’m his only kid! He knows no one else! I’m inheriting within the millions. My name’s on there somewhere. Look again.”
They looked and they looked and saw nothing that said, My house and money goes to my son Harold, or My bonds in the bank are all for my amazing son Harold Mawson.
Escheat shrieked aloud and shouted, “Here! Look! And the watch I promised to my son…”
“Yes, yes? That beautiful lovely gold diamond-y pocketwatch?”
Escheat sank. “…Is to go to auction and the proceeds to the local Child Charity House.”
“What?” Harold yelped. “Who was my father?”
Escheat shook his head and beads of liquid flew off. “There seems to be a recurrence of this person, Lois. It just says Lois Florence, as if it were obvious the lawyer viewing it would know who Lois is. She must’ve been important to your dad. Do you know who this is?”
“Huh. Well, he’s bequeathed the house and all—all? What?—yes, all—his money to her.”
Harold turned around in circles with his hands yanking his hair. “Why-why-why-why?”
“I only see the word Harold once.”
“Ooh, where is it? What?” Harold shot forward and touched the paper tremblingly as Mr. Escheat read aloud.
“Uh, it just says, Nothing is to go to my son, Harold Mawson, for the priceless years of a tampered youth and the idea that one’s fortune must be made oneself.”
Even the folks down the road could hear Harold yelling. That afternoon the entire town—that dogwood town—was talking about it.
“You hear, Old Mawson didn’t leave Harold nothing?”
“Yeah! Gave all the inheritance to Lois.”
“Lois! Lois Florence?”
“The very one. What a wonder.”
“You got that right.”
The grizzled men at the tavern counter swallowed their beer and nodded their heads in agreement. They drank their beer and forgot any lesson that Mawson’s will might have taught them.
Lois Florence, letting dead and frozen blooms scatter across the packed dirt on Mawson’s grave, threw her head up into a whirling snow-dust storm and laughed as loudly as the winter wind. She knew, just like the blustered, trembling frozen dogwood blossoms knew, scattered on Mawson’s grave, that after so long with clamped, grizzled lips never letting a laugh escape, Mawson had finally gotten the last laugh.