Page 21 of Ford County

This was his moment, an opportunity that in all likelihood would never pass his way again. Mack finally convinced himself that he •wasn't dreaming, that the money was on the table. The math was calculated, then recalculated over and over.

A light snow began, flurries that melted as soon as they touched the ground. Even the chance of an inch or two thrilled the town, and now that a few flakes were falling, he knew that the kids at school were standing at the windows, giddy at the thought of being dismissed and sent home to play. His wife was probably calling the office with instructions to go fetch the girls. Freda was looking for him. After the third beer, he fell asleep.

He missed his 2:30 appointment, and didn't care. He missed his 4:30 as well. He saved one beer for the return trip, and at a quarter past five he walked through the rear door of his office and was soon face-to-face with an extremely agitated secretary. "Where have you been?" Freda demanded. "I went for a drive," he said as he removed his overcoat and hung it in the hallway. She followed him into his office, hands on hips, just like his wife. "You missed two appointments - the Maddens and the Garners - and they are not happy at all. You smell like a brewery."

"They make beer at breweries, don't they?" "I suppose. That's $1,000 in fees you just pissed away." "So what?" He fell into his chair, knocked some files off his desk.

"So what? So we need all the fees we can get around here. You're in no position to run off clients. We didn't cover the overhead last month, and this month is even slower." Her voice was pitched, shrill, rapid, and the venom had been building for hours. "There's a stack of bills on my desk and no money in the bank. The other bank would like some progress on that line of credit you decided to create, for some reason."

"How long have you worked here, Freda?" "Five years."

"That's long enough. Pack your things and get out. Now." She gasped. Both hands flew up to her mouth. She managed to say, "You're firing me?"

"No. I'm cutting back on the overhead. I'm downsizing." She fought back quickly, laughing in a loud nervous cackle. "And who'll answer the phone, do all the typing, pay the bills, organize the files, babysit the clients, and keep you out of trouble?"

"No one."

"You're drunk, Mack."

"Not drunk enough."

"You can't survive without me."

"Please, just leave. I'm not going to argue."

"You'll lose your ass," she growled.

"I've already lost it."

"Well, now you're losing your mind."

"That too. Please."

She huffed off, and Mack put his feet on his desk. She slammed drawers and stomped around the front for ten minutes, then yelled, "You're a lousy son of a bitch, you know that?"

"Got that right. Good'bye."

The front door slammed, and all was quiet. The first step had been taken.

An hour later, he left again. It was dark and cold, and the snow had given up. He was still thirsty and didn't want to go home, nor did he want to be seen in one of the three bars in downtown Clanton.

The Riviera Motel was east of town, on the highway to Memphis. It was a 1950s-style dump with tiny rooms, some known to be available by the hour, and a small cafe and a small lounge. Mack parked himself at the bar and ordered a draft beer. There was country music from a jukebox, college basketball on the screen above, and the usual collection of low-budget travelers and bored locals, all well over the age of fifty. Mack recognized no one but the bartender, an old-timer whose name escaped him. Mack was not exactly a regular at the Riviera.

He asked for a cigar, lit it, sipped his beer, and after a few minutes pulled out a small notepad and began scribbling. To hide much of his financial mess from his wife, he had organized his law firm as a limited liability company, or an LLC, the current rage among lawyers. He was the sole owner, and most of his debts were gathered there: a $25,000 line of credit that was now six years old and showing no signs of being reduced; two law firm credit cards that were used for small expenses, both personal and business, and were also maxed out at the $10,000 limit and kept afloat with minimum payments; and the usual office debts for equipment. The LLC's largest liability was a $120,000 mortgage on the office building Mack had purchased eight years earlier, against the rather vocal objections of his wife. The monthly strain was $1,400, and not eased one bit by the empty space on the second floor Mack was certain he would rent to others when he bought the place.

On this wonderful, dreary day in February, Mack was two months in arrears on his office mortgage.

He ordered another beer as he added up the misery. He could bankrupt it all, give his files to a lawyer friend, and walk away a free man with no trace of embarrassment or humiliation because he, Mack Stafford, wouldn't be around for folks to point at and whisper about.

The office was easy. The marriage would be another matter.

He drank until ten, then drove home. He pulled in to the driveway of his modest little home in an old section of Clanton, turned off the engine and the lights, sat behind the wheel, and stared at the house. The lights in the den were on. She was waiting.

They had purchased the house from her grandmother not long after they were married fifteen years earlier, and for about fifteen years now Lisa had wanted something larger. Her sister was married to a doctor, and they lived in a fine home out by the coun-try club, where all the other doctors, and bankers, and some of the lawyers lived. Life was much better out there because the homes were newer, with pools and tennis courts and a golf course just around the corner. For much of his married life, Mack had been reminded that they were making little progress in their climb up the social ladder. Progress? Mack knew they were actually sliding. The longer they stayed in Granny's house, the smaller it became.

Lisa's family had owned Clanton's only concrete plant for generations, and though this kept them at the top of the town's social class, it did little for their bank accounts. They were afflicted with "family money," a status that had much to do with snobbery and precious little to do with hard assets. Marrying a lawyer seemed like a good move at the time, but fifteen years later she was having doubts and Mack knew it.

The porch light came on.

If the fight was to be like most others, the girls - Helen and Margo - would have front-row seats. Their mother had probably been making calls and throwing things for several hours, and in the midst of her rampage she made sure the girls knew who was right and who was wrong. Both were now young teenagers and showing every sign of growing up to be just like Lisa. Mack certainly loved them, but he had already made the decision, on beer number three at the lake, that he could live without them.

The front door opened, then there she was. She took one step onto the narrow porch, crossed her bare arms, and glared across the frigid lawn, directly into the shivering eyes of Mack. He stared back, then opened the driver's door and got out of the car. He slammed the door, and she let loose with a nasty "Where have you been?"

"At the office," he shot back as he took a step and told him' self to walk carefully and not stagger like a drunk. His mouth was full of peppermint gum, not that he planned to fool anyone. The driveway declined slightly from the house to the street.

"Where have you been?" she inquired again, even louder.

"Please, the neighbors." He didn't see the patch of ice be-tween his car and hers, and by the time he discovered it, things were out of control. He flipped forward, yelping, and crashed into the rear bumper of her car with the front of his head. His world went black for a few moments, and when he came to, he heard the frantic female voices, one of which announced, "He's drunk."