Laughing Heir


Photo: Tuulikki Abrahamsson

He had never heard the term laughing heir and so the lawyer, someone on the phone named Morrison or Morrisey, he didn’t quite catch it, explained that it was a person who didn’t personally know the deceased and so could inherit an estate without grief.

"Apologies if I’ve caused any offence,” said the lawyer. “The business makes us a little insensitive at times.”

“None taken,” Jerry said. “I only met my great-aunt once. She came for a visit when I was maybe seven years old. All I remember is that she told me off for wearing my shoes in the house.”

“Well, I’m relieved to hear it,” said Morrison.

“And you’re in Vancouver?”

“That’s right. Our office was convenient for her.”

“So you’re telling me that I’m her heir.”

“Well, not the entire estate, but part of it.”

He wouldn’t have thought it likely. Aunt Bessie didn’t have children but there were several other cousins. Besides, she couldn’t have had much money. He imagined that she had left each of them a few hundred dollars or maybe some peculiar possession, such as a samovar or umbrella stand. Still, it was kind of her to have remembered that he even existed.

“Yes?” Jerry prompted.

“Let me see. The investments and other monies have been disposed of elsewhere. She left you her house.”

“You’re kidding.”

“Her own house, yes. A very small house. Single storey bungalow, eighty years old or so. She lived in it until the day she died. Passed away there, actually. Not renovated and in need of some repairs. But it’s in Kitsilano.”

“I’ve never been west of Hamilton, Ontario.”

“A very desirable neighbourhood. It was considered rather artsy at one time but by now it’s become pretty gentrified. A lot of original homes have been knocked down to put up big ones. Your aunt’s house might not be much but even a small plot is worth a fortune.”

“I see,” said Jerry, although he wasn’t sure that he did see. He felt his heart pounding. “And you say it’s in poor shape?”

“I haven’t seen it personally but by all reports it has seen better days.”

“What I mean,” Jerry said, trying to sound calm, “is whether or not I could live in it.”

Jerry Ryan was living temporarily in a furnished apartment in the Academy Arms. It had been used for decades by newly separated Toronto men who would spend a few months there getting back on their feet. These days the residents were mostly in town for business but Jerry, like the forlorn of old, had recently split with his wife. The ending had been at Natalie’s insistence for what he had to accept as a credible reason; Jerry wouldn’t agree to having children.

The paperwork for the divorce turned out to be relatively simple, given that their only asset was the condominium that had been a gift from Natalie’s parents and belonged solely to her. Jerry kept his twenty-six-year-old Chevy Caprice and his vinyl record collection. She had stood watching him put the last box of records into the car. If there was a tragedy, Natalie had said, it was in their both still loving one another, which was the last thing she said because she started sobbing too hard. Her tears gave him a sliver of hope that she would change her mind. Jerry had wanted children when they’d met seven years before but told her that he had changed his mind because the world had changed. This wasn’t a joke or an excuse, for he’d become terrified of the future—rising temperatures, tsunamis and drought, unbreathable air, political anarchy, random violence—and couldn’t see himself condemning someone to live in such a world to fulfill his need for fatherhood. When he told Natalie all of that she had slapped him, missing mostly, and then apologized. She said that human beings couldn’t live without hope.

He’d closed the trunk. Natalie took his hand and led him back up to make love one last time, but she was crying too hard and so they just sat on the bed holding each other. After that he had no choice but to get into the car, start the engine, and drive away.

Jerry’s career plan had been to work for others until he figured out a business of his own. But padding around in his furnished rooms, feeling as if he ought to be wearing a smoking jacket, he saw how vague and unrealistic that plan had been. His current job was in the promotions department of JapaStick, a Houston-based chain that sold tempura-coated sushi on Popsicle sticks. The company had bought the idea from a Tokyo restaurant, turning it into a fast food, and now had eighty-two outlets in the US and nineteen in Canada. The most profitable were all near schools, a fact that Jerry had pointed out, impressing management. He was hoping that good feeling would translate into a job in the Vancouver office.

He could have sold Aunt Bessie’s house (worth about a million and a half, he’d checked) and bought his own place in Toronto with cash to spare. But the end of his marriage and the realization that he wasn’t the creative entrepreneur that he’d believed himself to be led him to want a larger change. Unfortunately, there weren’t any openings in the Vancouver office at the moment. The highest position available was manager of the Richmond outlet and Jerry, the boss said sympathetically, wasn’t about to count cartons of napkins and make sure the fryers would pass a health inspection.

“I’ll take it,” Jerry said.

“Are you serious?”

“It’ll give me a real understanding of the business. The kind that most executives don’t have. And then when a position does open up, I’ll be ready.”

“You do realize,” said his boss, “that you’ll have to wear a hairnet.”

After a commerce degree, he had spent a year working in Hong Kong and then four months travelling in Asia. But he’d seen almost nothing of his own country. He arrived in Vancouver on the first Sunday in February, after four days driving, black smoke huffing from the Chevy’s exhaust. He saw the water, the yachts, the tall glass condos, but the mountains (“the supposed mountains” he found himself saying) were invisible behind solid cloud. Across False Creek was Granville Island, not actually an island as it turned out, and behind that was the neighbourhood of Kitsilano. The Kitsilano shops were on West 4th Avenue—Urban Outfitters, Whole Foods—but there was also a folk music club still hanging on. Kits (as people seemed to call it) had its own sandy beach, nearly deserted on the February day that Jerry arrived. He pulled up to the address and saw a tiny bungalow darkened by the shadow of the new three-storey single-home monstrosity next door. No doubt in the mornings it was made just as dark by the new house on the other side.

Bessie’s place was set back. A spindly tree out front, spruce or pine or something, rose almost three times higher than the roof. A cry drew his gaze upwards and he saw an enormous eagle near the top, its weight causing the branch to sag. It called again and then unfurled its tremendous wings and rose.

When he opened the Chevy’s back door, an avalanche of belongings spilled out. He picked up an armful and then had to struggle to find the key in his pocket. The house was airless and dusty. He switched on the frosted globe light and saw a cracked linoleum floor and wallpaper that might have been Victorian. The small front room had a stone fireplace and an oak floor with the finish worn around the edges, showing where the rug must have been. For furniture there was an armchair with a patched seat and a Formica table in the kitchen with chairs. One of the two narrow bedrooms was occupied by a bed with a tarnished brass headboard. The house was smaller than some apartments he’d lived in, and certainly in worse shape: missing baseboard, cracks in the plaster, discolorations on the walls. Even so, its charm showed. I’m sorry, Aunt Bessie, he thought, feeling a vague guilt for having left her, even if unknowingly, to live in near-squalor.

He walked to the nearest store for supplies, then cleaned every surface, cupboard, drawer and basin. He unloaded his records, stacking them against all four walls of the empty bedroom. He set up the stereo in the square dining room and put on Etta James. From hooks on the kitchen wall he hung the pans that his distraught mother had bought for him after the divorce. The evening was cold but he hadn’t arranged for the oil tank to be filled and so he swiped a couple of logs from his neighbour’s pile and built a fire in the front room. He ordered a pizza and ate it sitting in the patched armchair, drinking from a small carton of wine. Through the window he could see the tree’s moody shape in the dark.

Staring up from bed, he considered the fact that his aunt had lain alone for the forty years of her widowhood. He hoped, for her sake, that she had died in this bed, and for his that she hadn’t.

A pattering over his head. Not snow but rain. A pleasant sound to fall asleep to, he thought, closing his eyes. And then he felt the first drop strike him on the forehead like a cold nail.

There was a leak in the bedroom, another in the kitchen and two in the living room. He could discern ghostly circles on the floor, where Bessie had put buckets—all except in the bedroom, where the bucket must have sat on the bed. There was no point in buying furniture or rugs until the leaks were fixed, so he went to the Starbucks on West Broadway to use the wi-fi and found A-A-A Plus Roofing. He called the number and the woman on the other end made an appointment for “the boss” to come by after that day’s job was over.

He had been told to report to the west coast JapaStick headquarters, a suite of offices above the Robson Street outlet. The car’s muffler was shot and the engine was making a sound like an old man clearing phlegm so he took the number 7 bus, enviously watching the bike riders pass him by. At the JapaStick counter there was the usual line of people ordering the BreakyStick (egg, avocado, salmon). The stairway up to the offices was lined with innocuous travel posters of Japan. He was ushered into the office of Craig Rombauer, who made an impression as friendly and vague, in a Devil Makes Three T-shirt and sandals.

“Don’t worry, Jerry, we’ve had good reports of you. Something will open up in the office before long. People around here are always heading for Thailand or deciding to become massage therapists. I think it would be best if you got some training downstairs before taking over Richmond. The manager has to be capable of stepping into any job, in case an employee buggers off. By the way, what’s your shirt size?”

His back ached and he had fry burns on the backs of his hands and he smelled like fish. At English Bay he looked out at the distant oil tankers and then took the little boat across False Creek. He picked up groceries at the Granville Island Market and walked home, thinking that for a city, Vancouver was pretty damn quaint.

A pick-up truck was idling in front of his house, aluminum ladders protruding past the roof of the cab. The name on the side—Danny Ryan and Sons Roofers—didn’t match the one he’d phoned. A man got out of the driver’s side: bulky, bearded, a striped toque on his head.

“This your miniature mansion?” he said, holding out his hand. “Sean Ryan.”

“It is. And I’m Jerry Ryan. A nice coincidence, that.”

“There are no coincidences in life. We must be relatives. All Ryans are related if you go back to Ireland.”

“We don’t, actually. Our name was Rozinsky. When my grandfather came from Poland he changed it.”

“I always give a family discount,” Sean Ryan said, either not hearing or choosing to ignore his words. “Good thing, too, Jerry. Because I’ve been up on your roof already and it’s half a step from disaster. You’ve got four ancient layers of shingle, all turned to shit, if you’ll excuse my language. I pulled a few up and found wood rot underneath. Now you can get some fly-by-night, unlicensed hack to slap down a new layer over that festering mess or you can get the proper surgery done and actually heal the patient. That’s the only way I do it, pull the old shingles off, replace all rotten wood, lay down a waterproof membrane, put in a vent.”

“How much are we talking about?”

“I can only guess until we’ve pulled everything off but let’s see. Fortunately, it’s a small house. Eleven. Maybe twelve.”

“Twelve thousand dollars? That’s the family discount?”

“Of course, cousin. And if you want to pay cash I won’t charge tax.”

Jerry rubbed his jaw, which had clenched from stress. He’d have to go to the bank and take out a loan. “How long will it take?”

“Two days. And you better pray for dry weather so we can get this done, which would be a small miracle this time of year. So are we on?”

“Maybe I should get another quote.”

“Sure, go ahead and take it to some stranger. Then come back to me and I’ll try and fit you in.”

But you’re a stranger, Jerry wanted to shout at Sean Ryan’s back, for the man had turned around to return to his truck. “All right,” he called. “Let’s do it.”

The man turned back, grinning. “I’ve got three crews, but me and my sons will do your job ourselves. They’re good boys, at least most of the time, and they mean well. Their mother has brought them up to value family. She’s fierce on that score, Jerry.”

His brother in Ottawa emailed him a photograph of snow blocking his front door. Here in Vancouver it was eight degrees, the sky still the colour of smoke. He put on his backpack and helmet and wheeled out the Norco hybrid that he’d bought off Craigslist. It was supposed to take thirty-five minutes to get to the CF Richmond Centre but he hadn’t been on a bike for a few years so he gave himself extra time. The traffic was more unnerving than he expected and he found himself panting for breath, but he made it with ten minutes to spare. Chung and Eileen, both under twenty and wearing their uniforms, were waiting for him in the food court. They brought the trays of fish out from the freezer and got the fryers going, telling him about the rest of the staff. Most were ski bums who lived four to an apartment and spent their free days on the slopes in Whistler. The exception was Horace Kinney, who was fifty-seven and had taken early retirement but found that staying home all day drove his wife crazy.

Jerry did not sit once in nine hours. He smelled of fried food. Riding home seemed impossible, but once he was on the bike the cool air revived him. Gliding onto his own street, he saw somebody standing on the roof of his house. He was tossing old shingles into a waste bin wedged between the front porch and the tree. A power saw began whirring in the backyard.

“Hey,” Jerry called, walking his bike up to the porch.

“Hi!” The guy answered. “You must be Jerry. I’m Liam.”

“How’s it going?”

“It’s not pretty under there.”

The saw had stopped and someone else came round from the back, maybe a couple of years older than Liam. “I’m Sean Jr.,” he said, holding out his hand. “The rot’s worse than we thought. The good news is that it’s still only going to take us a couple of days. My dad will have to talk to you about the additional charges—wait, I think that’s him coming up now.”

The pickup was pulling up the street. Sean parked against the curb and got out with a groan. “My fucking sciatica, excuse my language. Hi, Jerry, glad we caught you. I went to get some tarps. You meet my sons?”

“I did. And I hear my bill’s going up.”

“By six hundred bucks. Nothing to do about it if you want to keep the roof from falling in. Hey, boys, it’s quitting time. Put those tarps on, will you? Might rain.”

“Okay,” said Sean Jr.

“Thirsty work, Jerry. You don’t happen to have any beer in the fridge?”

“I bought some yesterday. Hold on.”

“Beautiful, cousin. I’ll just help tie down those tarps.”

Inside, Jerry changed out of his fish-streaked clothes and into jeans and a flannel shirt. He could hear them scrambling overhead like giant mice. The beer was stocked in the round-shouldered Philco refrigerator and he brought four cans to the front porch. Liam was sweeping up debris and Sean was tying a cord around the porch column. Sean Jr. clambered down the ladder.

“Seems like pretty hard work,” Jerry said, passing out cans.

“But steady. I raised these galoots and their sister on it. And in Vancouver you can pretty much work year round. What do you think, boys, will we get her done by tomorrow night?”

“No problem,” said Sean Jr, taking a swig.

“I gotta finish by six, anyway,” Liam said.

“A hot date?” asked his father. “Or is it one of those—what do you call it? Hook-ups? Not like when we were young, Jerry, I can tell you that.”

The sons rolled their eyes. They drank their beers and put the cans down on one of the column pedestals.

“Thanks, Jerry. We better get home before the wife sends out the Mounties. By tomorrow you’ll have a snug little place. I like these original houses. They’ve got a sense of modesty. But hey, maybe you’re fixing up to sell. Whatever you need to do.”

“Dad will stand here talking all night if you let him,” said Liam.

“See how they speak to me? Keep praying for good weather, Jerry, and we’ll see you tomorrow.”

Each in turn shook Jerry’s hand. He watched them walk to the truck, the sons joking with one another, the father taking out a cotton handkerchief to blow his nose.

It rained for four days. The roofers stayed away and Jerry gave up biking to work. And then on Friday he woke to sunlight and the discovery that there really were mountains. He took his bike out again and, returning from work, saw grey-blue shingles sparkling in the late afternoon light. A note had been stuck in the screen door.

Hey, Jerry, looks good, don’t you think? You can sleep soundly tonight. I can come by to pick up the rest of the money but why don’t you drop over to our place tomorrow? We’re having a barbecue starting at five. 67 Hamlyn. Jenny’s looking forward to meeting you. Sean.

Was this guy for real? On the other hand, Saturday was one of his days off and it would be nice to have something to do for a change.

He followed his now usual Saturday morning routine, walking to Granville Island for a coffee and bagel at the Blue Parrot where he read the morning paper and looked out at the moored boats. He left his phone at home so he couldn’t check Natalie’s Facebook page. Surprisingly, he didn’t hate working in the mall, mostly because the staff was likeable. They were always giving him tips about living in Vancouver, like visiting Stanley Park, which he had done with pleasure, at least until he got lost as the light was fading. But they were too young to be his friends outside of work, all except for Horace, who claimed that he went to bed every night at nine. Jerry sometimes had to remind himself that moving here had been his choice and that he could always sell up and head back to Toronto. But he liked to imagine that Aunt Bessie had looked into his face when he was a boy and had seen that one day he would need this fresh start.

In the afternoon he stripped off the hall wallpaper while spinning early Stevie Wonder records. Then he showered and shaved, dressed in a new shirt and black jeans and took the SkyTrain to Burnaby. Guided by his phone, he walked to a pleasant street of good-sized homes that looked to have been built in the seventies. Sean’s driveway was parked up with cars; a note on the door sent guests around to the back. He heard music and voices and as he opened the gate a gaggle of kids ran up and one tried to hide behind him.

“You didn’t get me, you didn’t!”

They took off again. And there on the patio was Sean, the picture of an aproned father at the barbecue, spatula in one hand and beer in the other.

“Jerry, you made it! Hope you’re hungry because these burgers are ready. Honey, put one in a bun and give it to Jerry.”

The woman beside him had shoulder-length grey hair and what his mother would call a good face. She put the burger on a paper plate and he met her halfway.

“You must be the newly rescued Ryan,” she said.

“I wish we were related, but there’s not much chance.”

“As if that matters to Sean. I know it’s a bit chilly out here but whenever the sun comes out, we eat in the backyard. I hear you’re divorced. Sorry, I’m a blunt sort.”

“I guess that’s what I am now. Before I forget, can I give you the rest of the money I owe?”

“Just step inside and toss it on the kitchen counter, will you? Listen, we’ve got a bunch of bachelorettes here so you better eat this and work up your energy. Let’s get you some coleslaw and potato salad and corn.”

People came up to introduce themselves, half of them making jokes about how much he’d been overcharged for the roof. A man brought out an ugly black guitar and started singing Neil Young. Some of the younger kids went out front to skateboard on the sidewalk and the teenagers, shivering without jackets, headed inside.

Contrary to Jenny’s threat, no woman tried to claim him. After an hour or so he was standing awkwardly alone and wondering what excuse he might use to leave early when a woman came up with two beers. Her name was Key-rah, spelt Ciara, and she was actually from Cork. “Do you know that Sean’s never been to Ireland?” she said in her bluntly poetic accent. “I think it might be better if he never went. It’s bound to be a disappointment. Except the countryside and the beer, of course.”

“And you live here now?” Jerry asked, clicking bottles.

“Twelve years. Came for a lark after graduation and stayed. It’s a lot freer than back home. They get you pegged early. But here you can be what you want.”

“So what do you want to be?”

“Tricky question. I’ll have to get back to you when I figure it out.”

She had, in fact, figured it out quite well, being the head pastry chef for the Fairmont Waterfront Hotel. On her days off she didn’t ski or snowboard or any of that “dangerous stuff” but liked to walk and when he mentioned that he hadn’t seen much of the outdoors, she offered to take him up Grouse Mountain. They exchanged numbers and Jerry, not wanting to press his luck, said his goodbyes feeling remarkably lighter than when he’d arrived.

Grouse Mountain, Stawamus Chief, then St. Mark’s Summit. This last was the first time he stayed over at her Pendrell Street apartment, the balcony catching the March sun and tossing it across her kitchen table. He learned that she had three older sisters, had once been engaged for three weeks, never went to church but couldn’t quite escape her Catholic “superstitions,” was allergic to bee stings, read the winners of the Canadian book prizes every year, loved Dolly Parton, and dreamed of owning a summer home on one of the Gulf Islands. She preferred joints to expensive restaurants, refused to go to Irish pubs, would see any movie that wasn’t about superheroes.

Meanwhile, a management position opened up at JapaStick. It put him in the office for three days of the week and on the road for two, inspecting outlets in Surrey, Victoria, Calgary and Edmonton. He began to play racquetball with an office mate named Cecil Amaranthe and on the first of the month the office went out for pizza and beer and darts. A Toronto friend stopped over in Vancouver and Jerry steered him around town like a native.

Perhaps what people said about owning your own home was true. Jerry found himself caring a lot more about his surroundings. Ciara helped him to paint—pale yellow in the sitting and dining room, white everywhere else. Sean gave him the name of someone to refinish the oak floors and when it was done he held a dinner party: him and Ciara, Sean and Jenny, their sons and girlfriends, Ciara’s friends Reed and Louisa with their significant others, Cecil Amaranthe and his husband. The dining room couldn’t hold a table large enough so they had to eat buffet style, sitting or standing in the two front rooms and the kitchen.

He pulled up the kitchen linoleum himself and laid down checkerboard tiles. Ciara took on the task of replacing the fusty curtains with blinds. For now he kept the wheezing appliances, although he bought some furniture. On the mantel leaned a framed photograph of Ciara and Jerry on Mount Cheam.

He was turning onto Robson, heading for work and whistling “Me and Mrs. Jones,” when his cell rang. He didn’t answer it but waited until after he was off his bike to listen to the voicemail.

Jerry? It’s Natalie. Shoot, I was hoping to get you. I wasn’t going to leave a message but here I am. I just wanted you to know—I didn’t want you to hear about it from anybody else, now that I’m showing. I’m… well, I’m pregnant. It’s crazy, I know. But I couldn’t wait to meet someone so I just went ahead—it’s just my baby, is what I’m trying to say. And I’m really happy. Anyway, I wanted you to hear it from me and I hope everything is fantastic in Vancouver and you’re skiing all the time or whatever and I’m not going to say that I miss you but I do and maybe if you come back to Toronto we can have a drink—well not a drink, obviously—or who knows, maybe I’ll be out west with my kid some day. Anyway, that’s it, you don’t have to phone back, I know you’ll be glad for me and, oh I’m running on too long, you take care of yourself…

He listened to the message three times, and then he carried his bike up to the office. He got no work done and late in the day he sent a text to Ciara begging off dinner without giving a reason. He left his bike and took the ferry across the strait and walked into Kitsilano. Instead of home, he went to the beach and sat on a bench as the sun set.

The days were already starting to get warmer. Someone had left a plastic shovel and pail in the sand. When did a person start showing? Four months or so, he thought. Which meant that the baby would be born in the fall. He stayed on the bench until the sun was completely gone and the fire in the clouds had darkened and his shadow was cast over the sand. He was shivering now and walked the few blocks to his house, unlocked the door and turned on the light in the hall and hung up his jacket. He felt a little sick and had skipped lunch so he went into the kitchen and took out a carton of eggs from the refrigerator. He put a pan on the burner and sliced a tomato and beat the eggs, adding salt and pepper. Then he poured the eggs into the pan and moved them around with a plastic spatula and laid in the tomatoes. Another minute and he pushed it all onto a plate and stood at the counter, not eating but looking out the window into the dark backyard. He didn’t know whether or not he should go back to Toronto. Whether he should ask Natalie to accept him back and see if they could raise the child together, or whether he should ask Ciara to move with him and they could somehow help Natalie, be like godparents—but he knew that idea was completely insane. Would Natalie consider moving out here? He had absolutely no idea what to do but he wished that he could see her belly, put his hand on her and feel it moving.

A sound startled him. He took a step and turned so that he could see out the kitchen to the front door. The door opened and Ciara came in, carrying a mesh bag of groceries.

“Hi,” she said. “I thought I’d surprise you.”



Cary Fagan is the author of four story collections, most recently The Old World (House of Anansi). His recent novel, The Student, was a finalist for the Governor General’s Award for Fiction. He lives in Toronto.


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