I’d spent the morning at a rock ‘em, sock ‘em, rah-rah sales meeting where my hotshot new manager did everything but balance a chair on his chin while singing the “Impossible Dream” to exhort us to increase our production. By the time he had finished, I was nauseated. Nevertheless, his performance contained a few ideas that stirred my competitive juices enough that I considered making some changes in my operation. I would weed my practice of the time-consuming, middle-class families I enjoyed so much and replace them with some deep-pocket types. “Do your social work among the rich,” my manager said. And so I would. About an hour later, my assistant, Sandi, interrupted my good intentions with a walk-in visitor.
He was an old man—scruffy white beard, red, bulbous nose. Melting snow covered his black knit hat and shabby gray overcoat. Sandi seated him across from my desk because she didn’t know what else to do with him. Though I couldn’t see his feet, I presumed that whatever he was wearing was puddling my new beige carpet.
Sandi handed me a printout of his records. His name was Michael Houlihan. “Something important must have brought you out into all this snow,” I said to Mr. Houlihan. “How much have we had so far? Eight or nine inches?”
“If I wanted to know the weather, I’d have stayed home and listened to the radio.” His lips spit out scratchy words like a stud driver. “I got cancer. Tried the policyholder service number. Push one for this; eighty-four for that. I thought I’d pass on before a human answered.” He shook his head and muttered, “Modern crap. Can’t get used to it.” He wiped his runny nose with the back of his hand.
“Can I take your hat and coat?” I asked.
“I’m all right,” he snapped.
As I scanned his records, I wondered what I’d be like at eighty-two.
He shoved three insurance policies across my desk. “Had some of these fifty years. Haven’t talked to a soul since Charlie Morten retired. Figured the company owed me some service after all these years.”
He was probably right, but why me? I never would make a dime on his business. That’s why the company had an 800 number.
“Charlie was the only helpful insurance peddler I ever knew,” he said eyeing me. “His breed’s all gone, aren’t they?” Before I could answer, he rambled on. “I’ve driven by this office a hundred times. Didn’t think there’d be that big sign without humans. Guess I’m about ready to find out. What’s your paper say I have, young man?”
Young man. I’d never considered 53 young. But, then I’d never looked at me from his perspective. “You have a $35,000 death benefit,” I answered. “Your wife, Thelma, is the beneficiary.”
He shook his head. “I need to change that. She can’t handle money.” He lowered his eyes to the floor and said softly, “She can’t … She just can’t, you know.” When he continued, the gruffness was gone from his voice. “We’ve been married 61 years. When I’m gone, who’s going to take care of her?”
I sure didn’t have any suggestions.
“We have two sons out west. They won’t care for her like I would,” he said. “They’re clanging gongs, and their wives are worse. They’ll throw her in some pigpen and let the state take care of her.”
I wondered. Was he venting his frustration or asking for help? “Mr. Houlihan, I’d like to help you. Would you object to my asking you a few questions?”
I saw the first hint of a smile mark his face since his arrival. “Why not?” he said. “You seem like a human. But first let me check on my wife.”
“I assumed you were alone.”
“She’s in your waiting room. I asked that friendly young woman to keep an eye on her so we could talk. Sometimes Thelma wanders off.”
“Oh,” I said and followed him to the door. In the reception area, the old lady was holding a coat in her lap and wearing a stocking cap over her stringy gray hair. As we approached, her eyes flitted between Mr. Houlihan and me. He bent and asked her softly, “You doing okay?”
She stuck her hand out to him and said, “I’m Thelma.”
He took it with both hands and patted it. Then he said, “I’d like you to meet someone.”
“He’s a nice man, sweetie.”
She stared at the ceiling and said, “I’m Thelma.”
Before we returned to my office, Mr. Houlihan took off his coat and hat, laid them on the seat next to his wife and said, “Watch these for me, sweetie. I’ll be out in a few minutes.” She was caressing them when I closed the door and called Sandi to make sure she kept an eye on Thelma.
I glanced at Mr. Houlihan. His predicament begged for my help. I had to relegate deep pockets to another time. When we were seated, I said, “It must be tough.”
“How long has she been like this?”
“Awhile,” he answered impatiently. “Now, what questions did you want to ask me?”
Over the next half-hour, I took notes on his will, life insurance and savings. He also had some investment income to supplement his modest pension and Social Security benefits. Every question I asked, he willingly answered. Then he said, “I’ve got, maybe, two more months before I die. I need to be sure Thelma is taken care of until it’s her turn to go. She’s accepted in the new assisted living section at St. Anne Center, providing I show them she has some money.”
“From what you’ve told me, Mr. Houlihan, that shouldn’t be a problem. But you do need to see an attorney.”
“I hate lawyers,” he said. “Every time I hire a lawyer, I spend a bunch of money for nothing.”
I stood my ground. “A trust is the only way you can guarantee your wishes will be carried out. Lawyers draw trusts.”
“I don’t know any good lawyers. Do you?”
“Sure. I know several who specialize in estate law. I’d be happy to set up an appointment for you.”
“Good. Make one for today,” he said directly.
“Today? First of all, because of the snow I doubt if I can reach anyone. Second, if an attorney is around, the chances are slim he’ll be available.”
I picked up the phone and dialed the office of an attorney I knew well. As it rang, I asked Mr. Houlihan, “Are you sure you want to go all the way downtown in this blizzard?”
“I have to drive home in the snow, anyway. Might as well go downtown first. I wouldn’t want to die without that trust thing.”
The storm worked in Mr. Houlihan’s favor. When I reached Charles Hayley’s assistant, she said he’d had several cancellations because of the snow. He’d see them in an hour. That was all Mr. Houihan needed to hear. He struggled from his chair, shuffled over to Thelma and helped her bundle up for the weather. When he was ready to leave, I offered to drive them to the lawyer’s in my SUV and bring them back when they were finished.
“No,” he said. “Just give me the directions. Been driving downtown too many years to get lost.” Then he took Thelma’s arm and opened the door to the lobby. Over his shoulder, he said, “Guess you’re a human after all, young man.”
I returned to my office and glanced out the window at the swirling snow. I couldn’t let them go alone. Trotting out to the lobby, I hollered, “Hold up, Mr. Houlihan. I’m riding with you.”
After throwing on my coat, hat and gloves, I buzzed Sandi and told her where I was going. Then I told Chris, my young associate, “I’m leaving my car keys on the desk. Come get me when I call.”
I climbed into the back seat of their old, dark blue Buick. As we plowed down the driveway and onto the street, I realized I’d made three mistakes: letting them attempt the trip, going with them and leaving my boots at the office.
As the old man spun into the main thoroughfare, he appeared as relaxed as I was worried. When the tires skidded, he made just the right correction to avoid sending us into a drift.
He began talking to Thelma. “We like driving in the snow, don’t we, sweetie? Remember the time we drove to Minneapolis at Thanksgiving and got caught in that freak blizzard? It was pretty exciting for a while, but we made it. Your brother was flabbergasted when he opened the door and saw us standing there singing Christmas carols.”
“Look at all the birds,” she said.
I rubbed the frost from the window and peered out. I didn’t see any birds.
“The feeder was full of birds wasn’t it, sweetheart. There were cardinals and blue jays and hundreds of little birds.” He said to me, “Her brother had a bunch of bird feeders. She remembers them.”
“I’m Thelma,” she said.
We were driving down Irving Street, two lanes shrunken into one because the plow had sealed off the cars parked along the curb. The houses, mostly older homes converted into multifamily apartments, looked ghostly through the falling snow.
Suddenly we fishtailed, sliding out of control. A panel truck was coming at us sideways, and I braced myself for the impact. Our wheels locked and we careened between two parked cars, jumped the curb and stopped with the Buick pointing toward the second floor of a residence. Our underbelly was resting on a drift made by the plow.
“That S.O.B. was going to hit us,” Mr. Houlihan said apologetically.
“Whew! I could see it coming.” Then I added, “That was a great piece of driving.”
“Glad you thought so,” he said.
I got out of the car to survey our situation. The snow was knee high. I motioned for Mr. Houlihan to roll down his window. I didn’t have much hope, but I said, “Try backing up slowly.” As I expected, the wheels spun. I tried pushing to no avail. We weren’t going anywhere unless he had a shovel so I could dig us out. He didn’t, so I said, “Hand me your cell phone. I’ll call for help.”
He looked at me like I was crazy.
I got back into the car, and we discussed our options. We could sit tight until someone discovered us, but the cold would make us pretty damn uncomfortable before long. I could try pushing us off the mound again with Mr. Houlihan gunning the motor, but I was sure that was hopeless. The best option, I decided, was to try to find someone inside one of the nearby houses who’d lend me a shovel or let me use the phone.
I left the Buick and tramped through the falling snow toward the house facing us. By the time I reached the porch, my feet were soaked and numb. There were two doorways and two doorbells. I pushed one bell and heard it ring. No one came, so I rang the other. Again, no answer. I trudged to the next house and got the same result.
I retraced my steps and continued on to the house on the other side of the street. When no one answered there, I began to feel panicky. I stared out at the frosted windows of the immobile Buick and thought about putting my elbow through the window to gain entrance.
Instead, I rang the other bell and heard movement inside. After a moment, the door opened a crack, and an elderly woman peered out. “What do you want?” she asked timidly.
I quickly explained about the old man and his wife, and the woman at the door let me into her tiny front hallway. The heat struck my face like a Florida breeze. She was a little thing, probably not five feet, trim and animated like an 80-year-old Debbie Reynolds. We introduced ourselves. Her name was Mabel West. Staring at my wet shoes, she said, “You’d better take those off or you’ll catch your death.”
As I removed the shoes and my wet socks, I thought about the Houlihans. “I wonder if you’d let the couple in the car warm up, too.”
She hesitated for a moment, then she opened her front door and waved them in.
While they were making their way through the snow, I asked Mabel if I could use her phone to call a towing company. As I expected, all the outfits I called were swamped. Finally, one promised to help but couldn’t guarantee anyone would be available for at least two hours. I then called the attorney’s office. Charles answered. His secretary was gone, as were all of the other attorneys. I explained why the Houlihans wouldn’t be coming and made another appointment for them. Then I called Sandi and told her where I was.
“I’m glad you called,” she said. “I’m going to leave before the snow gets worse.”
“What about me? I don’t think this lady will let me stay the night.”
“I’ll remind Chris before I go.” Then she added, “You’re either a real Good Samaritan or completely nuts.”
“I think the latter,” I replied. “Let’s keep this our little secret, okay?”
The Houlihans had settled in by the time I hung up. They’d shed their coats, and Mabel had placed their wet boots on the rug by the front door near where I’d draped my socks over the radiator. They sat on the paisley couch holding steaming cups of coffee. My reward? A turn-of-the-century coal shovel for digging out the car.
“Mr. Houlihan?” I asked. “What size boots do you wear?”
I chuckled. “Mind if I wear them to dig out the car?”
He rose from the couch and moved to where I was standing in the hall. “It’s hell getting old,” he said grumpily. “If you’d been driving, we wouldn’t have ended up in the drift.”
“I’d probably have hit the truck head-on,” I answered. “I’m glad I was your passenger.”
“Thanks for saying that,” he said.
Shoveling ice-hardened snow from under a car would have been tough in my well-muscled youth. At my age, dressed in a suit and borrowed boots, it was impossible. After a few back-breaking minutes and little progress, I gave up. We needed the wrecker. Turning toward the house, I decided to shovel my way back to the front door. My effort wasn’t entirely selfless. I’d be without boots on my next trip out to the street.
I entered the hall and removed my coat and Mr. Houlihan’s boots. Peering down the hall, I noticed the three older people sitting around the dining room table. Thelma was eating a bowl of beef stew. Mr. Houlihan and Mabel were pouring shots from a bottle of bourbon.
“A wee nip tastes mighty good,” Mr. Houlihan said when he noticed me. “Might warm you up, Mr. Insurance Man.”
I smiled and shook my head.
Mabel said, “I wasn’t planning on company today, but I’m sure glad you folks dropped in.” She went to the kitchen and returned with more stew for Thelma and handed me a clean glass, “Just in case you change your mind.” Then she left for a moment and returned with some men’s slippers for my bare feet. “My late husband’s,” she said when she handed them to me.
I listened as they talked. Since Mr. Houlihan was not much of a talker, Mabel did most of it. She was a widow. Her daughter and teenage granddaughter lived in Portland, Maine. Lack of money kept Mabel from visiting them, but they wrote to her often. She told scores of stories from her youth, her job at the bank and her long, happy marriage. She was a masterful storyteller. At intervals as she regaled us, I glanced out the window trying to spot the wrecker.
Before long, Thelma’s eyes drooped shut and she started to snore. Mr. Houlihan said, “I hate to talk about Thelma when she’s awake because I really don’t know what she understands. I would hate to say anything that would hurt her.”
“That’s so thoughtful,” our hostess gushed.
“We were married at 19 in a white, wooden church in the farming community of Adair—that’s down south from here. We had three boys. Our youngest died in a house fire when he was five. We never got over it. Neither did my other two sons. We scarred them with our grief, I’m afraid. Now they live long distances from us in many ways. We seldom see them. Or our grandchildren.”
“That’s terrible,” Mabel said, “but we have to play the hand we’re dealt, right?”
“I suppose.” He gestured toward Thelma. “It’s just as well. I’d rather they didn’t see their mother like this.”
Mabel poured more whisky into their glasses. “Poor thing,” she said.
“I just want to get her set so I can die,” Mr. Houlihan said. “It’s near time for both of us to go.” His eyes glistened, and he sighed. “It’s bad luck she won’t go first so I wouldn’t have to worry about her so much.”
I glanced outside again. The snow had stopped. I moved to the window just as the wrecker with its flashing light rolled slowly down the middle of the street. It stopped at the stricken Buick. I went to the door, opened it and yelled at the driver climbing out of the cab. “Can you get that thing back into the street?”
“Mister, this is the easiest job I’ve had all day. Have you out in a minute.”
I turned to Mr. Houlihan, who was already dressing for the cold, and said, “You’ll be on your way soon.”
“Get Thelma ready, will you, while I settle up with the tow guy?” he asked before he walked out the door.
After he left, I said to Mabel, “You’re a life-saver and a gracious hostess.” Then for some reason, I babbled on about the hotshot manager I had heard that morning. Before I met the Houlihans and her, I said, I was thinking of changing my practice and selling insurance only to affluent customers so I wouldn’t waste my time with people whose problems wouldn’t benefit me financially. But now, I told her, now I thought the whole idea stunk.
She took my hand and smiled. All she said was, “Thank you for visiting me.”
The car was now in the street and the two men were talking. I touched Thelma lightly on the shoulder to wake her. Her blank eyes opened slowly and searched my face. With Mabel’s help, I got her to her feet. We bundled her into her coat, hat and boots and waited for Mr. Houlihan. When he returned, he thanked Mabel and me. Taking Thelma’s arm, he guided her toward the door. I followed and said, “Can you make it home okay?”
“I have to,” he said resolutely. Then he shook my hand and said, “If I ever know anyone who needs insurance, I’ll recommend you. You’re a decent human.”
I held the door open for the couple. As they passed, I said, “Don’t forget to call the attorney.”
Later, while I waited for my office assistant, I tucked a 50-dollar bill into Mabel’s hand. She shook her head and returned it. “My treat,” she said. “Please come see me again, anytime.”
Three months later, I saw Michael Houlihan’s name in the obituaries, and it made me feel sad. Still, I was gratified because he’d followed my advice. The trust he set up guaranteed Thelma’s stay at St. Anne’s for as long as she lived. One time I visited her, hoping she might recognize me. She didn’t, of course. However, whenever I call or visit Mabel, she always has a different story to share with me.
Raymond L. Paul, CLU, ChFC, has been an agent and general agent with MassMutual for more than 43 years. His fiction has been published in several prose journals, and he has recently finished his first novel. His address: P.O. Box 15777, Rockford, IL 61132.