The Legend of Potter’s Field
by John Haymaker
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3, 4
Auntie made a big deal of Marty and Cuz’s relationship, promoted it early on as two boys fated to be lifelong friends, great friends. Maybe because she wanted the pair perceived as a package deal, because she felt shortchanged by Marty’s birth. She married into the family and hoped to deliver the first grandchild for her in-laws, but she narrowly missed it by two weeks when her unmarried sister in-law delivered baby Marty. Suffering the indignity of being beaten out by a bastard grandson, Auntie perhaps felt vindicated that Marty ended up in prison; everyone would see her child had been the real deal.
It was true. Marty’s mother had been a flirty dancer, fond of jazz clubs and the glitz of nightlife. Rumors flew in the family that she was a favorite among well-dressed, dapper men who wore silk suits and boasted about their mob affiliations, if they were to be believed. That Marty turned criminal seemed to confirm his presumed pedigree.
The mother often left Marty with Auntie on Saturday nights. The first Sunday Marty attended church with Auntie and Cuz when he slept over, Marty grabbed a fistful of bills from the collection basket. Alerted by a churchgoer, Auntie marched Marty to the minister after service and looked on as Marty bawled and turned over the crumpled bills.
Thereafter, on similar Sunday mornings, Marty paid in guilt as Auntie handed him a dime before the service and then felt her watchful eye as the basket passed his way. “Sometimes I think she just wants me to know I am unequal to her own son,” Marty told them.
“Dude, you got other options and you know it,” Bishop said. “You got enough money. Get your lawyer to do it.”
“Paying a lawyer to make funeral arrangements? That’s like buying yourself flowers,” Marty said. “That’s about as impersonal as being cast aside in Potter’s Field. Wouldn’t nobody be there. Wouldn’t be no pallbearers, nobody mourning my ass.” Not even the lawyer, of course, who had been paid to make arrangements. Marty lighted a cigarette, inhaled deep, and then dropped his neck forward and blew the smoke out to the side.
“Write your brother again. He’s maybe cold enough to let you rot in prison, but surely not out in Potter’s Field for all eternity,” Bishop said. “He’ll come through.”
“It’s been a month since I wrote him already. He’s blowing me off,” Marty said, letting out another cloud of cigarette smoke. Thirty years had passed since he and Marty had talked or written. Thirty years was a long time. Lots of emotions and feelings, mostly buried, some ugly, resurfaced in droves when he thought back on it now.
Initially when Marty entered the pen, their letter exchanges were frequent. Marty sent his first letter with prison bars silkscreened on the envelope front, framing a pair of handcuffed fists dead center straining to break the chain. He’d penned in FREE MARTY above.
Joey’s return letter included a Ninja scaling prison walls sketched on the envelope back. But beyond simple images conveying their emotions, not a lot could be said, certainly nothing confidential, especially since Marty cautioned Joey that prison guards read and censored all his mail. The two played games, adding coded messages the guards wouldn’t notice: every first letter of every other line if on page one, every second letter of every other line if on page two.
Marty had started up the game, making an innocuous reference in his first letter to something only Joey would notice — a secret childhood riddle left unanswered in his script, an inside joke among the two brothers, always in cahoots as boys: When you’re thick as thieves and the thieves are thick, where do you find yourself?
In the thick of it! Hidden in the second letter of every other line, Joey found the answer, the answer he knew must be in the letter somewhere. Joey caught it and their game commenced over the years, until the retrial fiasco.
“There must be some kind of rancor between you,” Cooch said.
“It was my damn lawyer. He cast doubt on Joey at the retrial, trying to make it look like Joey framed me. It was just a Hail Mary pass — which my lawyer hadn’t discussed with me beforehand. Joey was sitting right there in the courtroom. He wouldn’t even look at me afterward.”
“So if your lawyer’s scheme had worked, Joey would be sitting here in Mad Max, and you’d be on the outside a free man?” Bishop asked.
“Exactly right. I agree it was underhanded, but it wasn’t my doing. Now Joey’s apparently taking it to the grave.”
* * *
The prison had a new inmate, Stan, a dark-haired, dark-eyed, steely-faced man, with round-framed eyeglasses: a lawyer behind bars, sentenced for forging wills, who even when incarcerated couldn’t stop his handiwork. Within the walls of Mad Max, he was all-business and fast to make money. Word about his talents got around the prison, and Marty overheard many inmates saying, “The man’s an artiste,” giving the word a French pronunciation.
Stan’s presence offered up new possibilities, and Marty lay awake in his bunk a few nights: He couldn’t leave his burial to chance, and he had a few ideas.
Marty stopped at Stan’s cell one day during a free period with cells open. Stan proudly showed him samples of his work — a will, a Power of Attorney and assorted cheques.
Marty agreed the will especially looked good. The document had fancy lettering, drop caps on first words in paragraphs and stamped seals meticulously worked with gold foil — “fool’s gold,” Stan called it: gold-colored foil he peeled off chocolate wrappers and rubbed smooth and flawless as gold leaf.
“Good? Better than the real thing,” Stan said. And in appearance, it was. The will had an authentic look.
“I can get any lawyer to write a will,” Marty said, and cocked his head back.
“Suit yourself,” Stan said and removed his glasses and squinted, “but I bet we wouldn’t be having this conversation if your will were legitimate. If you’re scamming somebody, and I know you are, what you need is a document that leaves the bearer’s balls dripping with greed, almost cumming, just thinking of the money to be had.”
“Maybe so, but what do I need the POA for?”
“The POA is the kicker, the clincher, the power play. In their eyes, you’re a con. So it’s kind of like what they say about Greeks and gifts: beware a con bearing wills.” Stan put his glasses back on and looked Marty right in the eye. “But you give somebody Power of Attorney, hey, they know you’re serious. You’re putting them in control of your life. They sense power, God-like power over another human being. The POA keeps them from suspecting the will is worthless.”
Stan began the tedious process of packing up his demo documents, folding the will in thirds and wrapping it with holiday ribbon saved from gifts. “You are serious, aren’t you? Don’t be down here wasting my time if you’re not,” he said, motioning toward the cell door. When Marty didn’t leave, Stan added, “Excuse me for sounding like a lawyer, but if I understand your case, you got nothing to lose. I can draw all this up in a few weeks.”
The will bequeathed to Auntie and Cuz all Marty’s holdings, money his real father had left him, reputedly from a string of bank jobs, at least that’s what Auntie and Cuz heard. Marty’s mother had pressured Marty to sign it over to her before he squandered it on drugs. She made a modest trust out of it for him so that he’d be well cared for after she passed away.
Marty had often bragged to Cuz that the trust account was big enough that he could live out a dozen life sentences. In fact, funds were low. The trust executor had perhaps skimmed off some for himself, leaving just a pittance, just enough to cover Marty’s needs for a year or two more.
* * *
Marty wrote Cuz at once, urging him to come visit. He needed to talk in person, he said, but made no mention of the will. He wanted to spring it on Cuz — without Cuz having time to reflect much.
Saturday morning, inmates filed through a secure door into the visiting room, a row of twenty cubicles partitioned by Plexiglas separating inmates and visitors. As Marty entered, a guard unlocked cuffs from his wrists. Cuz picked a receiver off the wall and laid a hand flat against the Plexiglas. Marty had a hand outstretched ready to pair with Cuz’s even before he took a seat. They were like two lovers, reaching back through time to their former selves.
The two looked nothing alike — Cuz was dark-haired and noticeably taller, but there was a sameness about the two, noticeable in body language, in their nods, their squints, arrogant and aggressive. And their hands: rough and red as if from heavy construction work; their gnarled, swollen knuckles, almost deformed from strain. Cuz closed his eyes as he started to pray, the usual opening salvo to their reunions, and he stretched a hand up to God as he recited gospel into the receiver.
Marty felt tears welling up in his eyes, but he shifted focus. Marty spoke gruffly into the receiver, “We ain’t got time for that right now. Honestly, I didn’t even think you’d come today; you haven’t written in a couple of months.” In that instant, he had Cuz on defensive.
“Marty, I’m sorry, but the kids and my wife have been sick. And I’m getting old, too. You know how that goes.”
“I know it’s tough. I understand,” Marty said, nodding, letting Cuz feel like he was off the hook, but then threw a sucker punch. “Look, my health is failing,” he said and let out a wheeze to emphasize the point.
Cuz looked at him overly worried, furrowing his brow. Expecting a cancer diagnosis, he scanned Marty’s face for a clue. “You never said.”
Marty softened again, saying, “It’s nothing specific, just a general feeling. Look, you may need to step in and take charge of things for me.”
Cuz took it in slowly. “What do you mean exactly?”
“I’ve been a burden to you and Auntie. I know it. You stood by me all these years, and I just want to do right by you guys. I’m putting you in charge of my financial and medical decisions.”
Cuz nodded steadily, looking directly at Marty. “You’re family. We’re family. Whatever you need.” Cuz gripped the phone. His knuckles whitened.
Marty knew he’d played offense perfectly — especially when tears welled up in Cuz’s eyes. Cuz was obviously moved that Marty trusted him to make decisions for him. “We need to pray,” Cuz said again, closed his eyes and began, “Oh Lord—”
But Marty cut him off. “Frankly, I don’t think a prayer is going to help right now. I think it’s God’s will I go sooner than later.” He made his point. “I’ve already got documents drawn up. I’m naming you as executor of my will. You know my dad left me some coin — regardless of how he come by it, it’s a lot of money.”
Cuz blushed at that last comment, but nodded and shrugged. Marty emphasized the POA was the most important. “Make sure you keep that safe when I mail you the documents — you and Auntie split the trust fifty-fifty.”
“Anything I can do for you, buddy, I’m there for you. And hey, I was almost sitting where you are once.”
Marty nodded, gave Cuz a steely-eyed nod as if to say, deep down at their core, they were they same.
It was true. Cuz had run off at age seventeen with his girlfriend and a handful of her daddy’s credit cards. The two charged thousands at hotels and restaurants, unaware that the vice squad could track their receipts even across the border into Mexico, where the pair were apprehended. Since then, let off lightly with probation, Cuz turned over a new leaf, renounced evil and turned to God.
“Listen, Cuz. You’ve got to make sure everything is ready. They’ll throw me in Potter’s Field for sure, if you don’t.”
Cuz shook his head vehement, and said, “No, they won’t. Not if I can help it.”
“That’s why I need you to start picking out a cemetery plot.”
“Back in Jersey, maybe. I was born there.” In fact, Marty knew exactly where, but didn’t say.
A guard nudged Marty, and the timing couldn’t have been more perfect — there was no time to clarify. Marty stood, compliant.
Cuz drew in a deep breath, rose up and nearly saluted as Marty filed out toward the exit. Seeing that, Marty walked away damned certain Cuz had bought the whole scam. Marty was also confident that Cuz knew exactly where Marty wanted to be buried: in an unused burial plot next to his grandfather and grandmother. They had bought it in case Marty’s mother never married. But she had married, and the plot remained unoccupied. Marty would like to be buried there, cozy, right up next to the most revered members of the family; he could rest easy there.
Auntie and Cuz would do it if they wanted to. He wouldn’t ask outright about it; he wouldn’t push too far. Just knowing they were beneficiaries of his will might soften them enough they’d think it a fitting place for him.
* * *
Copyright © 2019 by John Haymaker