Charles gave three sturdy raps on the oak door, then stepped back and folded his arms behind his back. His young wife Carlene stood behind him, dressed in her finest mink stole. “Gee, Charlie,” she drawled as she filed her fingernails, “You never told me you was so rich.”
Charles glanced over at her. He considered a speech about how difficult it had been to make his own way in the world after leaving home at sixteen. That he’d managed to succeed through his own blood and sweat—without his mother’s money. That he’d built his business from the ground up, brick by miserable brick. But he knew such speeches were lost on her, so he kept silent.
The door opened slowly, revealing an elderly servant struggling with the weight of the door. Charles greeted him with authority.
“Good afternoon, sir. I am Charles Griffin IV. I am in receipt of a letter from the offices of Pemberton, Sheffield, & James stating that my mother, Constance Griffin, has passed on. I have been instructed to appear here to collect my inheritance.”
“Sure,” the old man said, “Young Mister Charlie. Your mother said much about you in her day, she sure did. Please come in. You too, young missus.”
The servant opened the door wide, and Charles entered his boyhood home for the first time in three decades. The entryway was adorned with faded portraits of previous generations of his father’s family, stretching back 150 years. Not a single hand showed signs of labor or worry. Charles massaged his own calloused mitts with pride.
Beyond the entryway was a spacious foyer with marble flooring and a winding staircase to the dank upper floors. Charles handed the servant his jacket, and Carlene handed him her coat. Charles noticed fraying seams on the sleeve of the old man’s jacket, and asked, “How long have you been working here?”
“Long time now, sir, long time. Come to work for your mother in 1934. Dark days those were. Took everything she had to stick out that Depression, but do you know what? She built an even larger pot than your old man did, yes sir. Oh, she used tell me stories of you and your old man all the time. Sometimes long into the night.”
The old man stared into the warm, dusty front room with its ornate stone fireplace, and continued. “Best times of my life, those hours around the fire, just me and your mother.”
He stirred as if from a dream and smiled, “But look at this old fool go on. Upstairs is what you’re after, ain’t it?” He laughed.
“Well, I believe…”, Charles began, but the servant interrupted.
“Yes, here we go. Upstairs. It’ll all make sense after we go upstairs, young sir.”
The servant led them up a creaking staircase. At the top of the stairs was a large painting of Constance in her youth.
“Wow,” said Carlene, “she was a real living doll in her time.”
Charles grunted. “That’s the thing about portraits. They can be whatever you wish them to be.”
And yet, as Charles looked at the portrait, he noticed his mother’s face was different than he’d remembered. She looked demure, kind even. His face softened. In spite of all, she had been his mother. In her way, he supposed, she had loved him. He suddenly felt stubborn for holding his grudge for so long.
The servant interrupted his rumination, and pointed to an open door. “Mister Griffin? It’s just this way, please. Everything will be clear real soon, sir.”
The room was pitch black. Charles stepped forward into the darkness. He spotted a form in the black, and gasped in horror. His mother’s corpse sat tied to a chair in front of him, her head lolled back and her mouth agape. Flesh had flaked off the body and lay in curdled strips at her feet.
Charles heard Carlene scream, and whirled toward the noise. The old servant stood in front of the door, massaging a length of rope twisted around his hands. “Thirty years gone and come back here for what—for money? Ain’t you tasted enough of that in your lifetime for three men? Well, you gonna get your money, Mister Griffin, you surely are. But you gonna have a talk with your mother first.”