Arriving at the Harrison Heights section of the District of Columbia, in front of a scaled-down imitation of George Washington’s colonial mansion at Mount Vernon, I dug my wallet out of the orange plastic bag of belongings retrieved from the wreckage. I paid the cabby and stumbled up onto the cracked sidewalk. Marijuana and charcoal lighter fluid steeped in the air. A pit bull barked ferociously from the chain-linked fortress next door.
I turned around too quickly and gasped. My whole body pulsed in pain. Gloria Meddlestein stood across the street holding open the metal bars on her front door.
“Hello, Mrs. Meddlestein. How are you?”
“Where on earth have you been, Donna? I tried and tried to get you on the phone. Are you having problems with your line because of the storm the other day? Did the roads wash out? What happened to your face? Got another one of those boyfriends? You really should—”
“I need to go in and see my parents now. I’ll chat with you later. Um…we’ll have tea.”
I climbed up the Zoysia grass hill, staggering on the crumbling concrete steps winding the way to my childhood home. A mildewy white gutter had torn loose from the two-story-high porch roof. It dangled over the front door. I winced as I ducked under it. I never knew that every muscle in my body was attached to my shoulder.
I pressed the yellowed doorbell button. And waited. I knocked. And waited. I tried to turn the knob and it did. I shoved the colonial red door open and stepped onto the slate landing.
“Hello? Momma, Daddy?”
I shut the door behind me and agonized up the three cherry red carpeted steps to the living room. It hadn’t been vacuumed since I had done it on Christmas Eve. That was seven months ago. There was white furry dust on every stationary object. I dropped the fruit basket and orange bag on the floor between the white wrought iron railing and the comfortable oxblood leather tub chair in the living room. I searched the house.
My hospital slippers made a suction noise as I trudged through the sticky kitchen. A skillet with potatoes congealed in grease occupied the front burner of the electric range. The table was cluttered with grocery receipts, two aromatic black bananas, a nitroglycerine pill, toast crusts and grape jelly goo.
I moved into the adjacent formal dining room. The carpet was littered with crumbs, spills and dust. The French doors to the balcony were locked. The blinds hung shut. As were all the blinds and drapes in the entire house. Daddy had cataracts cut out of his eyes in 1972, before lens replacements were invented. He had no lenses to filter out the bright light, so he had to wear a wide-brimmed hat outdoors and dark bottle-thick cataract eyeglasses indoors. This had abruptly ended his career as an obstetrician/gynecologist at the age of fifty-eight. Some days his eyes went out completely and he couldn’t see at all.
I veered down the hallway. Daddy’s blue bathroom was empty. His bedroom was empty too, nothing but disheveled bedding and the plastic milk jugs he used for urinals.
Momma’s bedroom was vacant as was her lavender bathroom. Her mattress sported a deep depression on the side closest to the door, where she always curled up. The bed was made and loaded with throw pillows.
The third bedroom was empty. Postage stamps, pictures of their great-nieces and nephews, old bills and linens were strewn about the white and gold French provincial bedroom suite that my adopted sister Tammy left behind when she last departed the nest. She flew back during her divorces. Was it five now? No wait. Six. I forgot Abdul, the drummer in the President’s own Air Force band who seemed to be wealthy without a visible legal source of extra income. Perry and Daddy had always whispered Abdul was involved in a smuggling ring.
Passing back through the living room and down the three steps to the landing where I had arrived through the front door, I pivoted and opened the dark wood door to the basement. I listened to the grandfather clock down there, chiming twelve times. I switched on the light, not that it illuminated much with a twenty-five-watt bulb. I gripped the loose handrails on both sides as I maneuvered down the rust-colored sculptured carpeted stairs to the dark walnut-paneled basement. I looked around. Still no sign of either Momma or Daddy. I squinted at the clock, next to the rectangular stone fireplace. The face only had one hand on it. The small hand.
Everything was neat. Daddy usually vacuumed down here and always kept the place tidy. He refused to clean upstairs or do laundry. Probably due to her clinical depression, Momma wasn’t much of a housekeeper the past few years. I checked the sliding glass door behind the heavy cream-colored leaf motif drapery. It was locked, the stick was wedged in the track and the white steel grate was bolted into the white bricks of the house.
Momma’s red Corvette convertible was parked in the carport. The hatch to the outside attic was open. The exposed light bulb on the ceiling was lit. I switched it off and fixed the drapes open.
I checked the downstairs bathroom. It was empty. As I peered down the hallway, I spotted Daddy, on the floor, pinned under the deep freezer.
I rushed to him. “Daddy! Daddy!”
He turned his head and groaned.
I tried to heave the small freezer upright and screamed in agony. It fell back on me. I shoved it in place. Squatting down, I kissed Daddy’s forehead. “I’ll go call an ambulance. Where does it hurt?”
“You’re not dead.”
“Your momma…killed me. She just didn’t…understand. I tried so hard to keep my promise to her. I gave you a good home.”
“Daddy, you’re not making any sense.” I dashed to the phone in my old underground bedroom. I picked up the receiver on the blue rotary telephone and spun the emergency number, nine-one-one.
“DC Fire and EMS, what is your emergency?”
“I need an ambulance. A ninety-two-year-old male has fallen and was pinned under a freezer.”
The cranky female dispatcher demanded, “Your name?”
“Donna Payne. The address is—”
The dispatcher cut me off. “We know the address. Is the patient conscious? Is there any bleeding?”
“Yes, he’s talking. No blood.”
“Is he breathing?” the dispatcher demanded.
Of course he’s breathing if he’s talking, imbecile. “Yes.”
I hung up and hurried back to Daddy.
“Donna, make sure you find my veterans’ life insurance policy, it’s in the bottom drawer of my dresser. It’s forty thousand dollars and all for you. And up over the carport,” he gasped for breath, “there’s a few boxes. Unmarked. My memorabilia of your momma is in there. Your real momma. It’s worth a lot…to the right buyer. I don’t want the others to have any of it. They’ve gotten too much for too long.”
“I don’t want your money, Daddy. Don’t talk like that.” I squeezed his arthritis-ravaged hand and rubbed his brown-spotted wrist. What was he talking about? My real momma? I knew he had two big boxes of Marilyn Monroe memorabilia in the attic. Did he think she was my mother? She died before I was born. The poor man was losing his mind. “What happened? What made the freezer turn over on you?”
“She did it.”
“Your momma. She hates me.”
Would that be Marilyn or Chloe then? He really made no sense. Perhaps he was hallucinating. He must be. I couldn’t wrap my mind around Momma doing such a horrific thing to Daddy. There had to be a rational explanation. I noticed he wasn’t wearing his cataract eyeglasses. He was legally blind without them.
“No, Momma would never hurt you.”
“Oh yes, she did. And she is as strong as a man too,” his voice cracked high.
My mother was eighty-three years old. Granted, she had been trained by the Secret Service to subdue men but no way was she in that physical shape at her age.
“Daddy, I don’t understand. Why would she attack you?”
“She demanded the money and I will never give it up.”
He had a coughing fit. I knelt down to help him sit up, bracing his shoulders on my knees as I cradled his head against my chest. When he’d cleared his throat, he launched into a stream of tasks for me to attend to and he kept saying that after his death, I would get all the riches that he’d preserved for me.
He kept going on and on about his coffin stowed under the stairs. That always gave me the creeps. And I’d heard this all before. So many times he’d promised me money but the others always needed it and I never received a penny. I never asked for any either. Not since that day when I was sixteen and all excited about college.
I had wanted to attend George Washington University and major in journalism or political science. I’d get a newspaper job at The Washington Post and run all over Capitol Hill. Maybe even get on the White House press staff some day.
Momma had told me then, “Oh no. Just forget about it. I can’t do that again.”
Momma had to train for a second career after retiring from the Secret Service. She worked sixteen-hour days, seven days a week as a private duty-registered nurse putting my father’s son Perry through law school. And then she had to pay tuition for some fancy makeup artist academy in Beverly Hills, California, for Tammy who’d dropped out of high school.
I understood. I really did. I was the one at home eating tasteless leftover homemade vegetable soup, two meals a day. I watched the toll it took on Momma to work so hard and sacrifice so much for the others. It broke my heart to see her so exhausted. She’d come home from work, fix a tall glass of vodka on the rocks with a bent straw to sip while she lay on her side on the couch with her varicose-veined legs and bunioned feet propped up on pillows. I wouldn’t add to her misery. I never asked for anything again. Nor was it offered.
I interrupted Daddy’s rambling. “Daddy. Daddy. Where is Momma?” I heard the ambulance siren. “I’ll let them in.” I gently laid him down then bolted up the basement stairs and threw the front door open. A fire engine had stopped out front. The imbecile had dispatched a fire engine. I angrily waved at them to leave. Four men slowly emerged from the vehicle and made their way up the steps.
I yelled, “There isn’t a fire! I need medical help!”
A guy in a sooty white helmet that had Lieutenant written on it spoke. “Listen, lady, do you want help or not? There are no ambulances available. You District residents abuse the system, using them for taxicabs. We just ran an ingrown toenail. Where’s the patient?”
“Down the stairs and make a left.” I followed the white helmet. Three yellow helmets trailed me. One was carrying a first-aid kit. Another fireman toted an oxygen bottle.
The lieutenant started examining Daddy. “Joe-Joe, get the paddles, he’s in full arrest.”
“Get a bag on him!” The lieutenant began chest compressions on Daddy. A fireman placed an oxygen bag over my father’s face and began squeezing rhythmically. The lieutenant said, “Enrique, switch on three… One and two and three.” Firefighter Enrique took over doing the chest compressions. The lieutenant rose to his feet and squeezed the microphone on his lapel.
“Communications, this is thirteen engine. Be advised our patient is in full arrest. Request the nearest medic unit.”
Joe-Joe returned with the defibrillator. They cut Daddy’s blue plaid cotton shirt open and his white V-necked undershirt.
The lieutenant shoved me back into the rec room. “How old is he?”
“Any history of heart problems? How long ago did he fall?”
“No, but he has high blood pressure and a history of TIA’s…mini strokes, you know? I found him on the floor with the freezer on top of him about ten minutes ago. I couldn’t get a straight story out of him about what happened. He wasn’t making much sense. He told me that—”
Mrs. Meddlestein appeared at the top of the stairs. “What’s going on?”
The lieutenant glowered at her and said to me, “Ma’am, take her and go outside. Flag down the medic unit when it arrives.”It arrived. Forty-five minutes later. The paramedics found Dr. Nathan Lucifer Payne dead. They called for the coroner.