Not quite. Howard’s accountant, Martin Gray, had said it was urgent that I attend the meeting. And then there was something Howard had said over dinner sometime in the previous year. He mentioned a tax audit: “I won’t bother you with the details, and I’m not really supposed to talk about it. But you don’t need to worry. It’s bad, but I have a plan.”
The statement was unremarkable because whenever Howard mentioned audits—not uncommon with small businesses—they were nothing more than 24-hour storm clouds that always passed. When Howard told me not to worry about something, that he had a plan, I didn’t think any more about it.
“Hello, Carol.” An attractive woman walked toward me wearing a silk blouse with a bow at the neck and a straight skirt. She introduced herself as Julie Davis, one of Howard’s lawyers. She ushered me down a hall and into a conference room. When I walked in, all I saw was the large, dark table. It reminded me of the first time I walked into a bedroom with a man and all I saw was the bed. I took a deep breath to relax.
Several men stood around the table. Only one wore a tie, and that was Martin, the accountant. One by one, the men introduced themselves. There was a moment of almost Japanese politeness as we nodded toward one another. The men offered their condolences, hoped Spencer and I were doing well, and said they knew this was a hard time for us. “We don’t always dress this way,” one of them added. He explained that it was “casual Friday.”Because I was meeting with Howard’s lawyers, I let myself believe they would be acting toward me on his behalf. So although I had approached this meeting with anxiety, I’d also expected it would be like visiting friends. The lawyers, as Howard’s surrogates, would wrap their arms around me and make me feel safe.
That wasn’t how it happened. All of the men—and the woman—squared their shoulders, adjusted the papers in front of them, and fixed their eyes on me. The needle on my fight-or-flight instinct suddenly moved to flight.
Cono Namorato, the lead lawyer, spoke first. He said that when Howard died, he was under investigation for federal criminal tax fraud and that the case against him covered both our personal taxes and the taxes of the business. As Mr. Namorato detailed Howard’s legal transgressions, I nodded as if I understood what he was talking about. Here was this tax lawyer with a sculpted face and a crisp manner telling me my husband was under investigation for tax fraud. What happened to the simple audit Howard had mentioned? What happened to the warm arms of lawyerly love? And why was it taking so long to get to the part where I signed whatever documents I had to sign so I could leave?
“Of course, as his will is written, with you as the sole heir, the case is now your responsibility,” Mr. Namorato said. “You are the defendant.” I froze. It was difficult to comprehend the trouble Howard was in but impossible to absorb that his mess was now mine. I felt as if I were in a slow-motion car crash.
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