East on St James

by Rick Beck

Chapter 7

Reach and Grasp

Dury and Gary traded phone calls until Saturday, when Gary came to Dury's for dinner, conversation, and a planning session. They'd both covered a lot of ground that week. Each had covered it in an entirely different area. They were going to put the pieces together and figure out how to proceed.

Dury and Gary worked together twice previously over the twenty-five years they'd known one another. Dury represented Gary's construction company from an unscrupulous partner who was of the belief that, if you put something down you're throwing it away.

Dury pointed out, 'Not clutching something tightly to your breast doesn't mean you're giving up title to it to an opportunist. Mr. Milton built his company from scratch over the years and Mr. Winston came along and thought it was a nice company, so he stole it.'

The judge looked over the papers Mr. Winston testified Mr. Milton signed, giving him ownership of Gary Milton Enterprise, advising Mr. Winton, "You might want to consider talking to Mr. Milton's attorney in private. I'm not absolutely sure these documents prove your ownership in this case. One would ask oneself, Why would a man, Gary Milton, build a company over a decade and then walk away from it without so much as a parting gift?'

"'I'd hate to send these documents to my forensic expert for authentication and have him tell me the signatures are funny or that the signatures on these papers don't belong on these papers, but have been transferred off of some other document to achieve a fraudulent outcome. I must admit that's something I'd frown upon, even treat harshly. Under those circumstances, you'd have better luck dealing with Mr. Lane in my opinion."'

"'Let's take a morning recess and you go talk to Mr. Lane. If you can come to some arrangement that satisfies everyone, I'll be grateful. We'll take that recess now.'

"'Oh Mr. Lane, report any progress to me. Mr. Walden, I'd let my client do all the talking if I were you. Look pleasant and smile. We might get out of here at a decent hour today. This court is now in recess.'"

In private negotiations separate from the court action, but very much connected to it, Dury told Mr. Winston, 'If I don't go after your license, which is warranted, you'll need to put a substantial offer on the table that enhances the value of Mr. Milton's company. You've done him serious financial harm. He was forced to hire a very expensive lawyer in order to prevail. Since the judge has just called you a crook, I'd give up any claim to Gary Milton Enterprise and we'll move right to your license.'

Even Dury was surprised by the sixty prime acres of property Mr. Winston signed over to Gary. It was far more than Dury knew he had from his investigator's report. It put a smile on Gary's face. Having a few million dollars to play with, he immediately went to work on building Plantation Heights on thirty acres, after selling the other thirty acres. His struggles as a young contractor were over. Gary was far more cautious about who he associated with, but he could afford to be.

Gary knew the difference Dury made in his life and thank you wasn't going to do it. He immediately began planning to build Dury the house of his dreams in the same development where he was building his own house, planning another dozen houses to go in around them.

Dury almost never associated with a client, once the case was closed. Building a house together required quite a bit of communication. Both men believed in fairness and both believed you couldn't put a value on friendship or trust, while building a trust that had endured.

The two men hadn't worked together on anything since Gary built Dury's house, but they stayed close friends until Beverly died. Dury became increasingly more withdrawn after that, devoting himself to his work, which gave him little time for reminiscing or for friends.

During that period, Gary made all the calls to Dury. Dury never returned one, but that didn't put Gary off. He wanted Dury to know he was there if he needed him. Until now, Dury hadn't needed anyone.

In less than a week Dury's life took root again. He'd found joy in wanting to help someone. Out of that joy came purpose. When he reached for his phone, he wanted Gary on the other end, and in a half an hour they were standing together looking at the future.

Neither knew what the future was, but they knew they would build it together. It was the least they could do.

Keith was working on a lamb roast for dinner. Dury was having a martini, when Gary came in to get down to business.

"Went to the address where those eviction notices originated. I figured it might be a holding company. I have no idea where the legal documents go from there," Gary said. "There's no way to uncover the owner's name. Much business is done undercover these days."

"The court papers will go to that address," Dury said. "They'll notify whoever the owner is. They won't ignore court papers."

"The guy behind the desk was a classic enforcer type. Silver hair and a big cigar clinched between his teeth. He had to buzz me in after I identified myself. He looked at me like I was some hound that just pissed on his leg.

"I told him I'd seen the property on St. James. Being in the business of refurbishing buildings from that era, I looked up the owner at the records building in town. He looked at me like I was trying to put the pinch on him, and me in my best dress tee-shirt. I even wore my cowboy boots for authenticity."

"Nice touch. Dress the part," Dury said with admiration. "I wouldn't have thought of that. That's why you handle the real-estate end of the world."

"You could have played my part, Dury, but I don't think you own a tee-shirt, do you? I look good in a tee-shirt. Shows off my most excellent physique. It's effective with leather heads. Anyway, I handed him my business card. Says remodeling right on it. He said, 'read the phone number out loud.'

"I gave him my business number. It rings at my number at the house. He wrote it in inch high block numbers on the ink blotter on his desk."

"Efficient!" Dury said. "No silly cards to loose."

"I worried about him losing the ink blotter," Gary said. "I didn't stand at the door to listen, but I'm sure he was on the phone as soon as I closed the door behind me. I didn't see a camera, but a good front company wouldn't put it where you could see it. He probably made sure I left before he picked up the phone."

"Did he show any obvious interest?" Dury asked.

"No. If there's interest I'll hear back," Gary concluded.

"Once they know the evictions are being contested, they'll be looking at their options. They'll want to keep any unexpected legal costs to a minimum. We're about to see how serious they are about whatever plans they have for the St. James property," Dury said.

"If they go ahead with the evictions, I'll have Live 5 News filming sick men being thrown out on the street. That'll put a crimp in their style. Hardball gets rough at times."

"As well as a woman who just buried her mother," Keith said. "Lisa is just the woman to tell her story."

"I got that impression. I liked her. Putting her in front of a camera might be one of our better moves if we need to go public."

"You do play hardball, Lane," Gary said.

"I learned a long time ago, being a nice guy doesn't pay off when you're dealing with sharks. The best policy in such a case, cost them a lot of time and money. Lawyers are uniquely qualified to do that," Dury explained. "I learned that at Columbia Law School."

"You want me to serve you in the dining room?" Keith asked.

"Good grief, Keith, tell us what to grab and we'll take it to the table. Set up three places. You're my guest. You're nice enough to cook for us. You eat at the table with us and we'll help where we can. Just don't expect much there.

"Besides, you're the man we're going to bounce this stuff off of. Gary and I come from the business end of the world. You can give us the kind of perspective we don't have. I'm depending on you for that."

"What's on the menu, Keith?" Gary asked.

"Roasted lamb, asparagus, grilled potatoes, lightly glazed carrots, and green beans with mushrooms. Banana pudding for dessert," Keith told him. "Most people don't make it to dessert."

"Is that the one with vanilla wafers?" Gary asked.

"That's the one," Keith said. "I fix it with rum."

"I haven't had banana pudding since I was a kid, and I can assure you it wasn't made with rum," Gary said.

"The boy can cook, Gary. I look forward to dinner every night these days. It's been years since I've had an appetite," Dury said. "Keith has changed my life."

"Not to mention your waistline," Gary joked.

Keith carved the lamb, loading their plates as they passed the bowls to get what they wanted of the vegetables. The smell was awesome and the food got all the attention.

"The rolls still have a couple of minutes. They'll go nice with the lamb. I've got a nice gravy cooling," Keith said, going to get the rest of the meal before he could relax.

"Where'd you find Keith?" Gary asked.

"In the square across from work…. I mean my old offices."

"He's a keeper. This lamb melts in your mouth. My wife can't make lamb taste like this," Gary said.

"This is delicious," Dury said.

"I wouldn't mention that reaction to Fran," Dury said.

"You kidding me. She can kick my ass. I do nothing to rile up my woman. I know who the boss is at my house," Gary said. "You need to hire this guy. I can come to dinner a lot if you like. Fran likes to order from restaurants that deliver to the house. Not that I'm complaining, but this is some delicious food."

"Keith and I haven't figured out our arrangement yet. He was evicted from the St. James location. That's how I ended up over there in the first place. That landlord threw his stuff out on the curb, after he went into the hospital."

"I really want to get these guys," Gary said, taking more lamb from the serving platter.

"It all began with me thinking I could recover some money to repay Keith for what was lost. There's a storage room where his things could have been stored. There are only thirty empty apartments. Throwing his things out was a malicious act that wasn't necessary."

"If I ever sounded like I thought we ought to be fair to the owner of the apartment building, I don't want that. I want to take it away from them."

"We can't lose our heads. We go after someone and we're liable to lose our way. I'm starting to get a feel for what we can do there. I don't want any loose ends coming back to haunt us."

"That's why you're the lawyer and I'm the contractor. We don't mind it getting rough when it's necessary, but you're right, we want to be the ones who always do the right thing, even if the present owner is an asshole. We're going to build something on hope and dreams."

"I didn't know you were a poet. You make a good partner, partner," Dury said. "All this started with me meeting Keith."

"He looks like a regular guy," Gary said. "I'd never expect him to fix food that tastes like this."

"He was such a pleasant fellow, considering his circumstances, I couldn't leave him in at the square. He told me about the places he'd cooked. I asked him to come home to cook for me. It's the only way I could get him to let me help him."

Keith returned with the rolls and gravy and served them to Dury and Gary before he sat across from Gary at the top of the table.

"Oh yeah, the depression beside building one, it runs down past building two, it was a lake," Gary said. "I don't know how it figures into your plans, but it would be easy to plug up the hole Kurtz Door put there to drain it. The lake come back after a year or two of normal rainfall. It would be below the buildings and cover the area east over to the forest."

"That's interesting. Who owns the Kurtz property?"

"One point seven million dollar tax lien holds the property. That sum will buy some lucky owner all sixty-five acres along with three derelict buildings. The property is worth that much but bringing those buildings down will cost an arm and a leg if it's done the legal way. Being brick, I doubt they'll be falling down anytime soon."

"We won't bring them down then. You'll make something out of them. Look them over when you have the time. Well what you think. The owner is the state of South Carolina," Dury said. "Interesting. After all these years, Kurtz wouldn't have any say in the disposition of the property. There may no longer be a Kurtz Door."

"It's an interesting price," Gary said. "It would inhibit the buyer from spending a lot of money on it. Hard to get value back once you've started with a big deficit."

"Except it isn't done that way with a tax lien. All the state boys want is some income. I'll contact them and offer to take the property off their hands and start paying property taxes on it. I'll tease them with a promise of developing the property soon.

"As depressed as the market is, they might go for it. Depending on how that negotiation goes, we just might get title to that property at little cost.

"We need to secure the apartment building first. The Kurtz property is gravy. If we're going on a hope and a dream, we can dream the Kurtz property will wake up some ideas to create something we haven't even imagined yet," Dury said.

"Speaking of gravy, you don't mind if I have a little bit of that, do you?" Gary asked.

"Oh, I was afraid someone would eat it all. Help yourself," Dury said, handing Gary the gravy boat.

"There's plenty more in the kitchen. Eat up. I can keep it coming for a while," Keith said.

"Yeah, I know what you're doing. No wonder no one can eat your banana pudding after you stuff them with two or three pounds of lamb with side dishes. More potatoes, please. I can use gravy on those potatoes. Maybe a little more asparagus," Gary said.

"I prepared plenty," Keith said.

"Great!" Gary said, emptying the asparagus bowl onto his plate.

Dury laughed and shook his head. Keith took the gravy boat and empty asparagus dish back to the kitchen for refills.

"I've asked you this before and you didn't have a solid answer. Tell me if I'm repeating myself. We want all of St. James?"

"I admire a man who knows what he wants, Gary. Why didn't I think of that?" Dury said smiling. "Yes and no.

"We need to wait to see what shakes loose on the apartments, but go ahead and take a peek at who owns all those shops if you like. They're in surprisingly good shape. Just sitting there taking up space they aren't worth anything, but find a way to fill them up, and they become a center for residents of St. James."

"If we can get the apartments, I'll move on the Kurtz property immediately. That would be a big bite of the future, Gary, but if we can get all the shops by offering the owners money they don't expect to get, we control commerce on St. James. We can keep it people friendly and assure no one can get in to jack up prices to feed off of the residents who will shop there."

"Glad you mentioned them. Who are they? How do we get people to come to an apartment building with nothing around it? It's two miles down to the apartments from Jackson. The bus no longer goes down St. James."

"We will attract the people who used to live there. We'll find a way to identify the people who could most benefit from a community of friends and allies. It's a little early to be reaching out to the elderly, the disabled, and military veterans who need a friendly caring environment. We'll want people who want and need to depend on the people around them," Dury said.

"I like that. How do we assure we don't end up with… assholes?"

"We'll form a foundation that looks at perspective residents. The ones who are on some kind of supplemental income will get special rates. The same will be true of the disabled or military disabled vets. Because we'll subsidize rents, we'll be able to be selective."

"Lisa," Keith said. "She is dynamite with people. She'd make a good person to identify who needs what and get the right people together. She can draw anyone out of their shell."

"We make quite a team," Dury said. "I like that. I didn't know how we'd do it. I can set up the foundation to get it to do whatever we need it to do. Whatever we do will be owned and controlled by the foundation. In this economy and with so many people in need of some kind of assistance, we won't have any difficulty filling up that apartment building, starting with the folks already evicted. Then we've got to start planning to build a residential model that'll house the heart of the people who will live there."

"I just happen to know the guy that could build you anything you want built," Gary said.

"Hold your horses. This is all speculative until we know how much of St. James we can control. Patience will come in handy here. That doesn't mean we can't plan, change the plans, and make new ones to fit the situation.

"Nothing we do will be written in stone. If either of you have ideas, we'll put them in the hopper, while we're still early in the process.

"What I'm seeing is a self-sustaining residential community complete with all the services and shops that make easy, pleasant living possible for the resident, who will interact and help one another as part of the social compact we'll promote."

"That's a bit idealistic, isn't it? Do you think people will sign on for it?" Gary asked.

"I've seen it done on a lot larger scale than I'm talking about here. People will help one another if we provide the right setting for it. During the AIDS crisis, when I was trying to get Brenda to the right doctors, I was fascinated by what the gay people did, once they realized they were on their own and no help was coming."

"On their own?" Gary asked. "How did that work? I don't remember hearing that much about AIDS at all."

"It worked with the silence of a nation as the background music for the dying. We're not talking random dying, we're talking tens of thousands of deaths in a very specific small group of people. While a disease can't be accused of genocide, the silent majority might be.

"I didn't suddenly become well versed on the subject of AIDS, because for the longest time, and this includes while my sister-in-law was sick, the word AIDS couldn't be spoken if you knew what was good for you.

"Our most vocal media, opinionated on everything, didn't know AIDS was killing people. They thought it just killed the gay. Once we'd identified what was making Brenda sick, I had to dig out information on AIDS from medical magazines and papers published on the subject. "We knew immediately, after Brenda was diagnosed, AIDS was not a gay disease, but facts couldn't disrupt the delight preachers took over dying gay men.

"Brenda died in 1988. The cause of death was listed as pneumonia. We didn't want AIDS written on the death certificate.

"It was cowardly and wrong, but many people were buried with the cause of death listed as something other than AIDS. It was a common practice in the darkness of AIDS being a gay disease and gays were being demonized at every opportunity.

"It turned out that my best source of information became a magazine called The Advocate. It was from that publication that I learned about gay people. I had to go to a gay bookstore in Charleston to obtain a copy every two weeks.

"The first thing I learned was that a man fell ill with AIDS and by the time he was buried his lover was ill. When their friends buried the lover, all the friends were sick, and they died in short order. It's the way it was in New York City and Los Angeles in the first years. Most of the leadership in the gay movement died in the first year or two.

"Then there was the lone man in a group who did not get sick and he did not die, but he'd done all the same things his dead friends did. It was the first proof that AIDS wasn't always deadly. They suspected poppers and speed. Almost anything that was routinely used by gay men became suspect in expediting illness and death.

"It was always a virus. It was always in the blood and the semen, but it took years to know and prove. Anal sex was often the entry point for the virus, but always for the man receiving, seldom for the man giving.

"It was in saliva, tears, and urine, and the panic was on. 'Don't shake hands.'

"Yes the virus was present in body fluids, but not in the quantity it would take to pass the disease casually. A condom could protect from passing the virus. It was all very mysterious and took a long time to sort out. When no one cares, the wheels turn slowly.

"While I was reading to learn all I could about AIDS, Beverly was taking care of Brenda. She discovered a kitchen and a laundry that would help Brenda, even though she wasn't gay. The services were created and staffed mostly by gay men and women at first. Beverly began giving hours each week to help out in both, when she wasn't delivering food to mostly men with AIDS.

"She'd tell me about what she was doing, when she got home. I only half listened, thinking my approach was far more important than actually helping people.

"I've never been the social type. I was fine in school and in routine gatherings that had a script of some kind. I've never sat with men I consider my friends and talked the way we're talking. Beverly's way of helping then, is my purpose now. I see the point now."

"Dr. Marshall, Keith's doctor, came to Beverly's funeral. She died of breast cancer. I thought how nice it was for him to do that for the sister of a patient who died years ago.

"That's not why he came. He knew Beverly's reputation from her helping gay men in Charleston. Her name was known by a lot of people who respected her. She was one of the first outside the gay community to work tirelessly to provide what was needed to the sick. She blazed a trail at the time good people were no longer able to stand by and watch as gay men died without anyone caring who wasn't gay.

"She was one of the first to bury her heterosexual sister who died of AIDS. Beverly knew something the country ignored. Straight people were dying of AIDS out of view of the society in general.

"In the depth of dying, the gay subculture began building a support system for the sick and the dying. People helping people who could no longer help themselves.

"Imagine disabled vets with older adults, who have the wisdom of the years. Both groups may be unable to do the things they once did, but together they might figure out new ways to do things, helping each other at the same time.

"People with AIDS would have all the services they require on St. James Avenue. Imagine a boulevard with no traffic and with shops that are run by residents as part of the compact. Cooks cooking, coffee shops with free coffee ready for the strollers or a morning pick-me-up. Fresh bread at cost, sweets for the sweet tooth. A laundry, a dry cleaners, a grocery, and crafts shops for trading and barter. It's limitless, according to the skills and needs of the residents.

"One resident might teach another how to do something creative or artistic. None of it will be about money. It'll be about using time to benefit the individual. It won't be a residence as much as its an environment.

"Simply being fabulous makes things better whenever gay people are around," Keith explained.

"How come I don't associate you with fabulous?" Gary asked. "You're more like a regular guy, Keith. You do cook fabulous food."

"My fabulousness is on the inside. I was never much of a joiner. I don't mind seeing people having fun. I just don't usually have fun myself. When I cook and see people eat my food, that's my fun."

"Like me, observing is enjoyable and doesn't take a lot of energy," Dury said.

"I like to dance," Gary said. "Actually my wife likes to dance. I dance with her. I don't mind it. I guess I have fun if she has fun. It's great to let go every now and then. I better see if Fran wants to go dancing anytime soon. We haven't been in a while."

"What a group we are," Dury said. "Planning the lives of all those people who will live in Pleasant Valley, and we merely watch the fun. Seeing people smiling and greet one another would be fun. We can have dances. We'll have live music. Maybe music lessons."

"Maybe fun isn't the word. Peace and tranquility might be closer," Gary said. "Having everything outside your front door would be enough to make most folks happy not to need to jump out in traffic."

"It was like that in New Orleans. Everything was right there at your fingertips. Expensive though. If you didn't have dough it may as well be a million miles away."

"Speaking of a million miles away, I've got to go again. Does anyone want anything while I'm up? Don't say anything important until I come back."

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