A loud wooden thump woke me. I reluctantly opened my eyes. Darn it, I saw the lone light bulb with the brown shoestring pull. My dream was over. I let out a big disappointed sigh. Didn’t get to kiss him. I was back in the real world and my reality sucked. I heard voices out in the rec room. It sounded like Spanish. Spanish…and…Tammy. Just great. I sat up. “Owww!” My pain rushed back with fury.
The closet door flew open. My sister asked, “What’re you doing…lurking back in there? Perry said you found the body. What, did ya spend the night in the closet? You’re so freaky, Oh-Donna.”
“Nice to see you again too, Sis.”
I looked at her. Tammy was about ninety-five pounds of tawny-complected toned muscle, makeup and satiny jet-black hair. Implants and Botox in just the right places. She really was gorgeous…on the outside.
“What time is it? And what day is it?”
Tammy screwed her little forehead up and said, “It’s after five p.m. on Tuesday. You look like crap. What happened to your face? Cut yourself shaving? Isn’t that Mom’s blouse? And what’s with the pants? Retro orderly? Ya look like a bag lady, Oh-Donna.”
I plodded past her into the rec room. Two men were occupied setting up the Dracula box. Daddy’s coffin. Daddy’s dead body was in there. Heat rose from my feet, up my legs, through my torso and into my face. Oh no. I knew this sensation. The room commenced spinning. My stomach went along for the ride. Shouldn’t have had those hamburgers. Wait a minute, that was just a dream. I didn’t have anything in my stomach to throw up. I tried swallowing it down. I was so hot. Everything around me was swirling and then everything went dark.
I came to, with cold water dripping off my face where Tammy had evidently thrown it. She hovered over me with a tea-stained floral plastic tumbler.
I wiped my palm across my face. “Why didn’t you just shove my head in the toilet?”
“Get up, Oh-Donna. Why’d you faint? You always were the little sissy-girl. I know you can’t be pregnant.” She shot a look toward the Latino men as if to humiliate me. “You need to vacuum upstairs and dust before the food gets here.”
I sat up, trying to sling water droplets at Tammy. “I can’t believe you’re having an Irish wake… And what’s Daddy doing here? Did they finish embalming him that quick?”
“Embalming costs money.”
I was so confused. “But-but didn’t the coroner order an autopsy?”
“He was old, it was his time to go.”
“But-but Perry made accusations about foul play. He said the police were coming to process the scene. Did they? If so, the coroner would perform a postmortem exam and prove Perry wrong. Was Daddy autopsied?”
“I don’t know anything about a police investigation. I haven’t seen or talked to any cops. And you know good and well that we Paynes do not believe in autopsies.”
If no autopsy had been performed and the body had been released to the family, then quite obviously the authorities thought he died of natural causes.
“Then you agree there was no crime. Daddy just had a heart attack.”
“Whatever. He’s dead.”
I lurched up, gritting my teeth on the pain. The men were gone. I shuddered and turned my back to the coffin. Tammy sashayed over to it. I hated that thing. It basically terrified me. I heard a creaky squeak as she opened the lid.
“Look at what a good job I did on his makeup.”
“No!” I bolted upstairs.
My sister chased me, laughing.
Tammy said, “I’m sorry, hon. I know you were his favorite.”
I was his favorite? Excuse me, but you are the one he gushed over, going on and on about all of your great achievements, how you did so and so’s makeup in the blockbuster movie du jour. And then after you switched careers, he’d gossip about Senator so and so’s abs you six-packed.
Tammy said, “The viewing is from seven until nine. You need to get the place spiffed up before the mourners arrive. And change your clothes, huh?”
“But-but the attendants left. They can’t legally leave the body.”
The doorbell rang. Tammy sailed down the three red-carpeted steps to the landing. She turned to me and said, “Of course not. Those were plumbers working on Mrs. Meddlestein’s place. I had them set up the Dracula box for me. Daddy’s not actually inside but the mourners won’t know. It’ll save us money. Let me and Perry know how the viewing went.”
Tammy opened the front door. A fast food deliveryman from Kentucky Fried Chicken gripped a large cardboard box. He had an orange turban, a long gray beard with a handlebar moustache and black basset hound eyes.
Tammy told him, “Take the food downstairs. The lady up over there will pay you.” Then she wiggled past him.
Grinning with bright yellow jumbled teeth, he turned his head and leered at my sister.
All right, that’s enough. I stumbled down the steps and grabbed a large side of mashed potatoes from the box. I lobbed it at Tammy. Whoo hoo! Potatoed her right in her pretty black ponytail. She screamed. Who was the sissy-girl now?
I shoved back inside and slammed the door in the poor delivery guy’s face. Okay, that wasn’t nice. I reached back through the wrought iron railing and felt around inside my orange plastic hospital goody bag. I fished out a five. I opened the door and handed it to the guy. “Sorry, but I didn’t order this food. Here’s for your trouble.”
He insisted, “You must pay!”
“Take it up with Mrs. Potato Head.”
I shut the door and locked it. I slumped down on the slate landing. My anger gave way to a tirade of tears. Daddy, oh Daddy… I love you. Why now? Why did you do this to me? I know you didn’t love me the way you loved Perry and Tammy. But that’s okay. I still loved you. I tried to come and referee the fight you had with Momma on Thursday. But I was in an accident and I couldn’t get to you any sooner than I did. I don’t even know what really happened. Did Momma really turn that deep freezer over on you? Is that what killed you or was it your heart? Momma wouldn’t do that, would she? Where is Momma? Oh Momma, come and hug me and make it all better. Momma, please Momma?
The doorbell forced me to my knees. I peeked through the waist-high peephole. Daddy had drilled it for me when we moved in, so I could see through it. I was about five or six years old at the time and frequently left home alone. Perry was a teenager, off on his own fun. Tammy had a special babysitter she went to, called Mommy Kay.
There was a cop outside. Perry’s technician probably. Bet he’d ask me more unpleasant questions about Daddy and Momma, investigate the crime scene and all that stuff. I was so tired. I didn’t want to deal with any more questions right now. I was in no shape to blindly defend Momma though I had no doubt she was innocent. There was no murder scene here, therefore no evidence that needed processing. I fled down the basement stairs. The Dracula box momentarily stunned me. I hid in the walk-in closet. No more Perry, no more Tammy. I just wanted to be left alone for a change. I could still hear the cop pounding on the front door. Just go and give me some space, will ya?
I breathed with my mouth open in the dark mustiness. My fingers were greasy from handling the potatoes. I laughed, enjoying the mental picture. Should’ve thrown the hot brown gravy too.
Hmm, no more knocking or ringing. I swatted in the dark and felt the soft shoestring. I yanked the light on.
Looking around, I realized Momma’s sable coat was missing. I knew I had been wearing it when I fell asleep. I opened the black steamer trunk again. After I’d rifled through layers of oddities, no coat materialized. So I opened the closet door and peeked into the rec room. Spotting the coffin, I decided to stay put.
This was just too creepy. Surreal, sad and sickening. Oh my God, Momma is in Saint Christopher’s Mental Hospital! I have to get her out. And if she really had been committed to the nut house, she would still be there because she didn’t escape and murder Daddy, because he wasn’t murdered. I couldn’t believe that Perry tossed his own mother into a mental institution. Well, okay, so his real mother was the slightly famous movie actress from the forties and fifties, Vera Blandings, but my mother had raised him lovingly as her own. She worked so hard, trying to do right by that boy. No, Momma hadn’t played opposite Cary Grant in a Hitchcock flick, like Vera Blandings had, but she was a darned good woman.
Wait a minute, I shouldn’t be so hard on Perry. He was an orphan now. His mother Vera had been murdered when he was just a teenager and now our daddy had passed on too. Maybe he wasn’t thinking straight in his grief and that’s why he accused Momma of murder. But that was no excuse for putting Momma away. And what was that stupid story of his, what happened on Thursday, when Daddy called me and said Momma was trying to kill him? Something about a bent cane.
And then, four days later, I found Daddy pinned underneath a deep freezer. His deep freezer. And it wasn’t that big. Just about four feet all ways, tall, wide and deep. A small chest-type freezer. Heavy though. It had a brown paneling finish, to match the paneled basement. Daddy had it plugged in at the end of the hallway. He was always putting food in there while Momma slept, telling me that she had the Alzheimer’s disease, buying too much.
She didn’t have Alzheimer’s. She just never accepted that her nest was empty. She always bought enough to feed a family of five. If anyone had a mental problem, it was Daddy. I strongly suspected he was a pathological liar. I looked up the definition once. It was a synonym for sociopath. Calling him a liar to myself was one thing. I would never believe my father was a sociopath though. That word was frightening.
Every time I came to visit, he’d always call me downstairs and try to load me up with bags of frozen lettuce, shredded cheese and meat that was three years past the “best if used by” date.
Frozen lettuce. The salad bowl incident. What a nightmare. Momma had taken her annual Palm Springs spa trip. She’d been treating herself to this yearly respite the same week every year for as long as I could remember. The first week in August. The day after she returned, I received a frantic call from Daddy. Asking me if I had the salad bowl. Momma accused Daddy of giving away her things to his girlfriend while she was gone. Nonagenarian Daddy had a girlfriend? What was Momma thinking? And what was the girlfriend thinking if she in fact existed? Momma threw him out, had the locks changed and burned his Army discharge papers, his medical license and his autographed photo of Marilyn Monroe.
Perry took him in for a night and then dumped Daddy on my front stoop. Daddy followed me around, crying and telling horribly twisted secrets of Momma’s past, which I didn’t want to hear and didn’t believe. Blackmail, booze, espionage, counterfeiting, crimes against nature, you name it. He was un-shut-up-able. I couldn’t stand the unrelenting emotional devastation he forced upon me. Trying once again to manipulate me into doing whatever master scheme he had in mind. I stuck him on a plane to California, where some of his people lived. And I felt immediate guilt. He was my father after all. I was duty-bound to love him no matter what. I kept thinking that if I loved him long enough, hard enough, he would someday realize that I was a good girl and be proud of me and love me the way he doted on Tammy and Perry. Why didn’t Daddy love me?
He made the rounds of his siblings in California. His youngest brother Howard finally had enough and flew Daddy back home. Momma let him back in. But wouldn’t give him a key.
I heard music. The melody of Dean Martin’s sixties hit “Everybody Loves Somebody Sometime”. Yeah, I guess they did. But why in the world did Chloe Lambert marry Dr. Nathan Payne? They bickered my whole life. Had separate bedrooms too. I never witnessed them kissing, not once. And how come they would never reveal the exact year they got married? I knew their anniversary was February twenty-ninth but what year? Leap day…
And why did they adopt Tammy? I was still a baby when they brought Tammy into our home. She was only fourteen months older than me. What, were they disappointed in me?
The music was getting louder.
And why did Tammy and Perry get everything they asked for, the never-grateful children that they were? And then there was me, their only biological child together. Or wasn’t I? If I were to believe any of Daddy’s salacious whispers, Momma had had affairs with Poppa San at the Chinese restaurant, the entire gang of Frank Sinatra’s “Rat Pack”, including Sammy Davis Jr., the “Negro” as Daddy called him, and even President John F. Kennedy when she was working in the White House. And lest I forget his latest mind game, telling me Momma wasn’t my real mother. As if I could be the natural daughter of a movie star who had died before I was born. Probably Daddy’s lifelong fascination with Marilyn Monroe had taken over his final moments… No, he was just trying to play one last trick on me. I ran my fingers over my face then shook my head.Daddy loved telling stories about when he met Marilyn. His first wife Vera had been cast together with her in a movie. Bus Stop? No, maybe it was How To Marry a Millionaire? Hey, perhaps I was JFK and MM’s love child. That’s why I never even received a pittance, I would be coming into my inheritance one of these days. I giggled. Oh it felt good to laugh, punch-drunk on emotion.