The Riverport Savings and Loan was located in front of a mostly-abandoned strip mall, perched like a squat, rectangular bird on a large and sterile expanse of weathered concrete. The last two stores which were apparently still in operation – a hair salon and a consignment shop – each had hand-written signs posted in their front windows announcing their respective “Going Out of Business” sales. The construction equipment — bulldozers, cranes and the like — which took up a considerable area of the parking lot, conveyed the fact that these sales were quickly coming to an end if they hadn’t already, and likely explained the lack of customers.
A much larger, temporary sign staked in the small patch of grass adjacent to the bank declared the future of the site: “Coming Soon: Royal 10 Cinemas!”
Harold Millhouse glared at this sign from his parking spot in a completely abandoned lot across the street. He had strategically chosen the spot, situated in a cracked and weed-infested patch of asphalt in front of a building which had once been an Arby’s, and then a cigar shop, and then a church, and then, inexplicably, an Arby’s again, and which now sat empty (looking every bit, one would surely notice, like a twice-abandoned Arby’s).
“Cinemas,” he scoffed, mostly to himself. “Like there are any pictures worth seeing these days. There’s nothing worth spending money on. Nothing. Not anymore. Yet, here they are, building cinemas. A place to watch…” He took one hand off the steering wheel and raised it, palm up, as if he were invoking a blessing on the hood of his car. “Nothing,” he finished.
“Judy saw Titanic with her granddaughter. She said it was a great movie. Said it ‘brought history alive.’ Said it was three hours, but really flew by. Didn’t seem like three hours at all.”
“Three hours! What a waste of . . . Three hours?!” The scowl on Millhouse’s face deepened. “And, why are we glorifying one of the worst maritime disasters in modern history? What’s next, a musical set during the Tet Offensive? The Titanic, for crying out loud.” Harold gripped the wheel as if, at any moment, he might drive the car straight across the street and into the sign. “In my day, people went to the cinema to see actors and dancers and singers, the lot of them first-rate. People who knew how to put on a show worth watching. Talent is what it was. None of these ‘special’ effects, and kids who wouldn’t know acting if it bit them on the. . .”
“Ok, Harold. No need to get upset. Don’t forget, ‘your day’ was also my day.” She patted his hand. The coolness of her skin against his still managed to surprise him, even after these long months. “Don’t get all worked up before we meet with Davey. In fact, we literally can’t afford for you to get all worked up.”
Harold’s grip on the wheel loosened, but his gaze still could have boiled water at a hundred yards. “You know, he’ll probably not appreciate you calling him ‘Davey.’ He’s a big shot banker now. Got a fancy degree from some ‘poison ivy’ college.”
She didn’t have to look at her husband to know that he was smiling slightly at his little joke. “It’s Ivy League, and you know it. Yale, I think. And don’t forget, I knew his mom since we were kids. Whipped that boy’s behind more times than I care to count.”
“Let’s not bring that up today, either, huh?”
His wife turned slightly in her seat and looked at him over the top of her glasses. “Do you really think we need to worry about all of the things that I might bring up today?”
Harold did not reply, but shifted his laser-gaze from the sign to the bank. The building was dated, if well-maintained, betraying a style from the early 50s. Unlike most of the other buildings in this area, this one had always been what it was now. And in a time when financial institutions seemed to change hands cards in a kids’ game of Go Fish, it was fairly amazing that Riverport Savings and Loan had always been Riverport Savings and Loan. For nearly 50 years, it had been a staple of a quiet community, and this building had been its home.
Harold knew that, like its neighbors, this building was slated for demolition, and soon. However, the bank as a business was headed for a much happier fate than were places like the salon and the consignment shop. Like everyone else in town, he knew that construction was nearly complete on a brand new, multi-story “banking complex” in downtown Riverport. When he had first called David Udolph to set up this appointment, Udolph had suggested they wait a couple of weeks until they were in the new building, claiming that it would be more comfortable and that he would “love to show you the new place.”
Harold suspected that Udolph just wanted to flaunt the bank’s success in as many faces as possible. This was one golden apple that fell far from the tree in Harold’s humble opinion; in fact, he would say that Sr. and Jr. were not even of the same variety of fruit. David Udolph Sr. was as humble a man as they come, not to mention honorable and hard-working and all of the other salt-of-the-earth attributes that Harold admired. Good stock. He would have found the whole thing distasteful.
As he stared at the building, he began to stew over the fact that the bank owned the property the strip mall sat on, as well as most of the other defunct or near-defunct properties in Riverport. So, while the sign announcing the new cinemas was likely a pronouncement of death for shops like the salon and consignment store, it meant nothing but more happy prosperity for the bank. The bank was, in a sense, evicting itself, but in the same way one might kick oneself out of one’s modest ranch-style home and into a 10,000-square-foot mansion uptown.
“Ok,” Harold said. “Let’s go over this one more time. The business is doing fine, just look at all this paperwork.”
“I hope it’s not going to depend on the paperwork,” Jean commented, still mussing through the envelope jammed with overflowing slips of paper.
Harold appeared to ignore this comment. “Customers are steady. We just need to increase the line of credit to expand. He doesn’t need to know what that means, just that I have a plan. ONLY as a last resort do we mention the bison. We’re a local institution, one of the oldest accounts at the bank, and that should be enough. Has ALWAYS been enough.”
“Harold, I know I’ve lost this battle with you, but I’ll say it one last time before we head down this road. Maybe it’s just time to cut our losses and sell to someone who can do something more. Someone with more energy.” She reached over and grabbed his hand, squeezing weakly. “Someone who isn’t pushing eighty with a sick wife.”
“Stop it, Jean!” he screeched, and the sound of his voice seemed to vibrate momentarily in the cloistered air around them, tinny and sharp. He closed his eyes, rubbing them with thumb and forefinger, instantly regretting the outburst. Behind his eyelids, as anxious blood began to rush and pulse and eddy there, small specks of light flashing on the fleshy canvas, he recalled, not for the first time that day, frantic images from the past, both recent days as well as years, until very recently, out of mind: His wife’s same frail hand resting on a sterile grey armrest as a nurse replaced an empty bag of poison with a fresh one; the blood which gushed from the neck of the first heifer he ever witnessed his father slaughter, the way the viscous dark-red liquid seemed to pour from the skin, not in a spurt as he had expected, but as if the knife was simply unzipping it from its fragile container, like water released from a plastic bag; the pale, waxy cheeks of his brother lying in state at Gerber Brothers’ Funeral home, how he found himself alone with the casket the day of the ceremony, how he had reached out a tentative hand and touched his brother’s face, his hand slow and trembling, the instant regret and shame as his fingers brushed his brother’s brow and felt the cold and plastic quality of it; of the thousands of nearly-illegible numbers scribbled on hundreds of scraps of papers and carbon copies, the receipts and records and notes from decades of business, numbers which somehow was supposed to prove that the business existed and was viable, numbers he never imagined he’d have to think about again, much less organize and bring to a bank in order to convince some kid to let the legacy his father built continue as it should.
Opening his eyes, he looked at his wife with a mixture of desperation and heart-sick love, a love born of nearly 60 years of marriage. “You are going to be fine. I know it. And, I’m not giving up the business that my father built.”
“But, Harold. My love. Jesse . . .”
“Jesse will come around. He’s finding himself. He’s mourning, and he’s chasing something in the city, but I know he wants a quieter life, and I know he understands what’s important. He just doesn’t realize it yet. Or hasn’t remembered it. And before you say it, I know we are not his parents, and that he has no obligation. But we’re family. And he wanted the business, and I know he still does. When he finds what he’s looking for, or more to the point realizes it’s not there, well, I plan to make sure the plant is still here for him.”
His wife sighed but decided to let it drop. Perhaps for the last time, she realized with a sudden and unexpected pang. She had come to peace with all of this – the sickness and the inevitability of what it meant – weeks ago. So this moment of sharp melancholy was a strange sensation. Ignoring it, she said, “It’s 9:03. Are you ready?”
Harold exhaled a long breath but did not answer. Instead, he opened the door and stepped out. Jean did not follow, for she knew her husband was coming around the car to open her door, something he had done in all the years they were married. Even when they were fighting and he was so mad he could not look at her, he opened her car door (even if he sometimes closed it a little too forcefully). As he opened the door and helped her to her feet, she felt again that wave of sadness and fought it back with a smile.
“Always my knight,” she said. “Let’s go save the world,” and she kissed him on the cheek.
See previous chapters in the life of the Scientist here. Thanks for reading!