I quickly checked my phone for a missed call from Mama. Still silent, but I turned the volume up on the ringer so I would hear it when she finally did call. “So what ever happened to Ryan?” I asked Grandma.
“Nate’s son.” When she continued to give me a blank stare, I added, “You said you married him because you both had kids. His first wife was already dead. Then he died. What happened to the kid?”
“Nothing happened to him, dear,” Grandma said, “but his name’s Rick, not Ryan.”
“Rick?” I said. Immediately, a light bulb went off in my head, and I blurted, “As in Uncle Richard!”
“The one and only.”
“Uh-oh, looks like another family secret has been revealed.” Thomas rocked back and forth in his chair, grinning like the Cheshire cat.
“I’d hardly call it a family secret,” Grandma said.
“I thought he was like a brother to Mama,” I said. Uncle Richard was Mama’s childhood best friend. He wasn’t around much when I was growing up, but those times he did visit, it was like a family event. Grandma would cook BBQ ribs and home-style potato chips—not too crunchy, not too soft—just the way he liked it, and we’d sit on the patio, licking our fingers and tossing sucked-dry bones to the stray dogs that roamed Grandma’s backyard while she reminisced about the shenanigans Mama and Uncle Richard used to get into when they were kids.
During my years in high school, Uncle Richard became a father to me. He gave me the sex talk when Mama, the doctor, made herself too sick to even teach me about body parts. When my date stood me up at prom, Uncle Richard’s was the shoulder I cried on, and after I’d cleaned myself up, he took me shopping so I could come to school that Monday looking like the girl next door and make everyone jealous.
My real dad was never around. He and Mama dated as undergrads, but he bailed when she got knocked up. Since then, I’d seen him only twice a year on holidays, but his sporadic visits and phone calls suddenly stopped after I’d turned eighteen. Maybe he thought he’d done his job as a father and wasn’t needed anymore, or, if Mama had the same luck as Grandma, maybe he was dead. I didn’t know the man well enough to care either way. Uncle Richard and Pawpaw were suitable replacements.
“He’s not her actual brother, but they grew up brother and sister,” Grandma said.
“So you raised him as your son, all the way up until Pawpaw?” Something still didn’t sit right with me. It made since that they grew up together, but nothing about Uncle Richard and Mama’s relationship indicated that they were raised as siblings. I always had the idea that they used to date, and after realizing they were better friends to each other than lovers, they broke things off and had been thick as thieves ever since.
“By the time I married your Paw, Rick was already grown and in college. So he only adopted your mom.”
“Excuse me,” I said, taking my purse and speed walking to the exit once again. I couldn’t wait for Mama anymore. If she was in surgery, it could be another hour or more before she called back. I didn’t have that kind of time. Grandma had already revealed so much, I was desperate for someone to tell me it was all lies before I lost my mind like the drifting patients at the nursing home.
Uncle Richard answered after the second ring. “Baby girl! How are you? Haven’t heard your voice in a minute.”
I cut right to the chase. “When were you gonna tell me you and Mama didn’t just grow up together, y’all were brother and sister.”
There was a long pause. Then Uncle Richard said as calmly as flowing waters, “So Millie’s finally telling you the story about her twenty-six marriages, huh?”
“Should I believe any of it?”
“Well, I don’t know about the ones before I came around,” Uncle Richard said, his voice cool like a New York street thug from the ’50’s, “but my dad and everybody behind him, yea, sure she married them.”
He sounded so aloof, I wasn’t sure if he was telling the truth or just playing with me, but I continued with my interrogation. “What about my grandfather? My real one.”
“Aw, you’ll have to ask your Ma or Millie about him. That’s not my place to tell you.”
“Grandma said his name was Lindell.”
Another long pause. “That sounds about right.”
I dropped my shoulders in defeat. I was hoping he’d say something different— that everything I’d grown up knowing wasn’t a lie— but it became evident that I was the last to learn everything, and that realization cut so deeply that I began to feel physical pain in my gut.
Uncle Richard must have heard my sigh on the other end. “Cheer up, baby girl. Your pops is still your pops, no matter what the records show. The same goes for your real dad. Would you want your kids to grow up knowing their grandpa was a deadbeat, or would you rather them have a relationship with someone who actually cares?”
“But that’s different. Lindell is dead.”
“Exactly. Why fuss over a dead grandpa when you had a living one who loved you?”
He had a point, but I still wasn’t ready to accept it. “I just wish I had known before.”
“Well, that’s understandable,” he said. I relaxed under his smooth voice. It felt like he was there with me patting me on the back. “I’m here for you if you need me. Ask me anything.”
I quickly jumped down his throat with question after question. “What happened to your dad? Who came after him? And the husband after that? How did they die?”
“Slow down, now! One question at a time,” Uncle Richard said in his mellow voice. “First off, I hated my dad. I don’t doubt he had something to do with my mom’s disappearance.”
So she had actually disappeared. Maybe “serial killer” was a more deserving nickname for Nate than Grandma had even realized.
“He slipped and fell, fighting with Millie in the bathroom, and cracked his skull on the side of the sink. The police looked at all the bruises on Millie and ruled it self-defense.”
I remembered how nervously Grandma scratch at her neck when she talked about her marriage to Nate, the frightened, distant look in her eyes. How close had she been to death before gravity took control? She should’ve been used to it by then—with so many of her husbands dying unexpectedly—but witnessing death and experiencing it were two different things. Even witnessing it could be traumatizing. Not all of her husbands’ deaths were comical or relieving. I could only imagine how earth shattering it was for Grandma to find Lindell hanging from a tree—and when she discovered she was pregnant, all of those emotions rushing back to the surface.
Uncle Richard continued on. “Next was Oscar. They’d only been married a couple months when he died. Asthma attack. It was partly me and Linda’s fault. We liked to hide things. Millie beat the shit out of us when she found his inhaler buried in the backyard.”
“Y’all killed her husband!” I gasped, then quickly covered my mouth when I realized the reception desk nurse was watching me, her hand hovering over the landline phone in front of her.
“It was my idea, but I didn’t know the cat was gonna die! I was nine. I only wanted to shake him up a little. I kinda had a crush on Millie then.”
“Oh lord,” I said, then rolled my eyes exaggeratedly so the nurse would see. It was all a joke. Nothing to worry about. Please don’t call the police. But my overenthusiastic body language ceased when I heard what Uncle Richard said next.
“Pete’s a different story, though. That one was all on Millie.”
“What do you mean?”
“Maybe you should ask her, just to see if she says something different.” His voice had the same smooth tone he carried our entire conversation, like he didn’t care on way or the other, but his words insinuated that Grandma did something that wouldn’t just cause the nurse to worry, but everyone who knew and loved her too.
I turned my back to the nurse, stood next to ficus tree in the corner behind the entrance doors, and whispered into the receiver. “What do you think happened?”
“I think she poisoned him.”
© 2016 Nortina Simmons
A to Z Challenge theme: 26 Husbands–26 Unusual Deaths
Read next: “P” is for Poisoned Pete.