Ruth answered the telephone on the second ring. “Good afternoon, Mrs. Lashbrook. My name is Conor Murphy, your late husband’s banker at Trenton Trust Company. May I stop by this afternoon? To discuss your accounts?”
He spoke with professional courtesy, yet his words frightened her. She paused before responding. “Of course, Mr. Murphy. When should I expect you?”
“Three thirty? You’re a short drive from our office on West State Street.”
“I’ll see you then.” She returned the receiver to its cradle. Ruth stood, unable to move, grateful Tommy’s friends treated him to an A’s game at Shibe Park.
The grandfather clock in the living room chimed twelve, snapping her trance. Ruth tightened her apron and set about preparing the kitchen. She scrubbed the floor, polished the appliances, baked molasses walnut cookies, filled the percolator.
Hours passed. Then a car pulled into the driveway. She planned to change out of her gray dress into one suitable for company, but time ran out. She hurriedly fixed her hairpins in the entry way mirror.
Mr. Murphy knocked twice. She collected her wits and opened the door. Mr. Murphy greeted Ruth with a businessman’s friendliness. He removed his brown fedora, revealing an Ivy League haircut.
Ruth drew in a small breath. She had never met Mr. Murphy, but imagined what an experienced banker would look like. Older, bald, round. Mr. Murphy was just the opposite. And quite handsome in his three piece tweed suit.
Ruth welcomed him into the kitchen, took his hat and hung it on the pegboard.
He looked around. “You have a lovely home, Mrs. Lashbrook.” She motioned for him to sit. “I’m so taken with these grand houses on Greenwood Avenue.”
“Thank you,” she said. “My husband chose this neighborhood purposefully. His portfolio included the pottery factories. So many of their executives lived here. He thought it a natural fit.”
Ruth set a plate of cookies and a cup of coffee on the Formica and chrome table. She sat in the opposite chair, her hand reflexively pushing back imaginary strands of loose hair.
“We’ve had dealings with Trenton Trust Company all these years. Our mortgage and checking account. Maybe others. Frank always handled them,” Ruth said. “But, then, I suppose men usually do, don’t they?”
“Usually,” Mr. Murphy said. “But since the war, many women manage their family’s responsibilities. I find most wives to be better than men actually. I suspect Mrs. Roebling bears credit for that.” His lips curled into a slight smile as he spoke.
“Yes, perhaps so. A woman in charge. So modern. Mr. Lashbrook considered switching banks when Mrs. Roebling became president.”
“I’m pleased he stayed on with us,” Mr. Murphy said. “The truth is, Mrs. Roebling is very capable. We’re growing every year.”
Then, remembering the reason for his call, he put on a somber expression. “Please accept my condolences for your loss, Mrs. Lashbrook.”
His words sounded sweet and sincere. His tone pleasant, sensual in another setting. She liked him.
“Thank you.” She swallowed back a mixture of dread and fascination. She clasped her hands on the table. Bracing herself.
Mr. Murphy cleared his throat, a nervous habit he hoped Ruth did not hear. He withdrew several documents from his briefcase.
Mr. Murphy paused, then began carefully. “What did Mr. Lashbrook disclose to you about your finances?”
A numbness washed over her. Ruth heard in his voice a struggle to share bad news tactfully. It would do her no good to lie, though she briefly considered it.
“We did not discuss such matters,” she said. “Frank said from the beginning that I would never fret over money. A relief to me, especially since we wed in 1933. My parents lost nearly everything at the start of the Depression. They were so happy when Frank asked me to marry him. Imagine. A girl like me, only eighteen, fifth child of Irish immigrants, marrying an attorney. A corporate lawyer at that. In charge of the biggest potter companies in Trenton.”
She caught herself reminiscing and apologized. “I trusted him, Mr. Murphy. As a proper wife should.”
He tilted his head like a concerned friend. Mr. Murphy studied Ruth’s features. The worry lines creasing her forehead, the strands of gray highlighting her dark hair. Yet he found her comely, delicate.
Ruth noticed him examining her. She cast her eyes to the plate of cookies before him. “Those were Mr. Lashbrook’s favorites. Please have some.”
He followed her attention. He bit into one, chewed slowly. “Delicious,” he said, observing her more closely.
Ruth bit her lower lip. He finished the cookie, then chose another. She stole a glance at him while he ate. Polished manners. Clean hands. No ring.
Mr. Murphy sipped his coffee, then cleared his throat once again. “Now that Mr. Lashbrook’s will has been probated, I’m free to discuss matters with you.”
“And what matters are they?” she asked.
It was Mr. Murphy’s turn to bite his lip. He ate another cookie, drank more coffee. Stalling.
“Mr. Murphy?” Her voice quivered. “Please tell me.”
He drew in a breath to fortify his strength. “There’s nothing left. Not in any of the accounts. Foreclose proceedings on the house have started.” He took another breath. “I’m so sorry, Mrs. Lashbrook. I felt it more dignified to tell you here rather than at the bank.”
Ruth’s hands clutched the edge of the table. Blood drained from her face. Mr. Murphy rushed to the sink and ran a glass of water. He placed it in her hands.
She blinked, looked up into his eyes. Comforted by his compassion. “Thank you,” she said. She swallowed, licked her lips. Mr. Murphy took the glass from her hands, his fingers brushed against hers. Goose bumps dimpled her arms.
Mr. Murphy returned to his seat. “It was the drink,” he said after a moment. “And the horses.”
Ruth understood. She found the empty whisky bottles. The marked up Daily Racing Forms. How Frank withdrew, declined.
“And youth,” Ruth said.
Mr. Murphy frowned. “I beg your pardon? Mr. Lashbrook was approaching fifty.”
Ruth smiled weakly. “Not his,” she said. “The firm hired new men, home from the war. The G.I. Bill aiding them. Passionate to prove themselves.”
Ruth remembered the early years of their marriage. The bounce Frank had in his stride. In time that faded to a trudge. Then dropped to a limp.
She continued. “Mr. Lashbrook was charged with their training. As the senior associate. Their eagerness threatened him. He never confessed that to me directly. I just suspected,” she said. “His whole personality seemed to shrivel up. I didn’t know how badly until much too late.”
Mr. Murphy felt her anguish. Caused by an egotistical husband.
“He lost the pottery accounts,” Mr. Murphy said. “True, some factories closed, but you’re correct about young men’s drives.” He paused, gauging her reaction. “They fired him six months ago.”
Ruth studied Mr. Murphy’s face. “He told you?”
Mr. Murphy nodded, his chest clenching as if he were culpable in some way. “A man needs a good banker, Mrs. Lashbrook. For his business interests. And as a confidant.”
Ruth swallowed hard and smoothed her hair again. “Then why not entrust his concerns with me?”
She’s just a wife. Frank Lashbrook’s exact words, told to Mr. Murphy directly. Frank Lashbrook saw a woman as a commodity, no different than an asset or an acquisition he negotiated for his clients.
But Mr. Murphy refused to be cruel. He said, “I believe he loved you, Mrs. Lashbrook.”
“Did he?” A challenge, not a question. “Loved me so much that he gambled away all his money, drove drunk into a tree, not giving his wife or his son a single thought? Do you consider that love, Mr. Murphy?”
“No, Mrs. Lashbrook,” he said quietly “Not at all.”
She drove back tears, touched by his kindness. Or was it pity? She couldn’t be sure.
Mr. Murphy cleared his throat one more time. “Have you any employable skills?” he asked. “Typing perhaps? Shorthand?”
The numbness returned. “No,” she said, the meaning of his question clear.
Mr. Murphy directed his eyes onto the papers he brought. He cursed this part of his job, but it could not be avoided. He slid the foreclosure order across the table. “My supervisor said two months. As a measure of sympathy.”
She stared at the notice. “And then?”
He shook his head slightly. “I wish I could offer you more.”
She nodded, using all her strength to remain calm in front of Mr. Murphy. It seemed very important. But her mind swirled with despair.
He had nothing left to say, his business finished. “I’ll leave you then,” he said.
Ruth pushed herself up from her seat, handed Mr. Murphy his hat, then walked him to the door.
“Thank you for your hospitality,” he said. He wanted to add something, but words failed him.
She watched him go. He reached his car, about to leave, when Ruth called to him. Mr. Murphy stopped and looked back. Ruth hesitated.
“Yes?” he asked hopefully. “Did you want something more?”
She stood straight, keenly aware of what she was about to do. The boldness of it. “What cookies do you like? Conor?”
He turned fully. His chest swelled. “Oatmeal raisin.”
“I have a wonderful recipe for them. Perhaps you could pay another visit? For cookies?”
Conor beamed. “I would enjoy that. Ruth.”
Matthew McKeown, a Trenton resident, wrote a short story for last year’s Summer Fiction issue based on the National Ceramic Company of Trenton, where he once worked.