Monday, October 3, 2011

family gone south.


Uncle John is a murderer.

He hasn’t always been this way.

As a child, he’d come for summer visits to New York from his home in North Carolina. The first time he’d ever visited, I was playing in my room when a southern drawl boomed from downstairs.

“Where’s my welcome wagon at?!”

I raced down the steps to greet the mysterious Uncle John. Dad had been bragging of their childhood antics for the last week. He must’ve been important with all the preparations that were made. The guest room, usually used for storage, was cleaned immaculately. The kitchen refrigerator was filled with huge steaks and a lager that neither of my parents enjoyed. Most importantly, dad was in a suit and mom was in a dress. This was a rare occurrence.

Uncle John stood in our doorway with a bright blue suitcase, huge farmer boots and dirty jeans that didn’t do his clean plaid shirt justice. My parents smiled and shook his hand ferociously, leading him to the living room. I sat at the bottom of their steps listening to their conversation.

“John, we’re really glad you’re here. It’s been so long.” My mother mused.

“I’m glad to be here. Glad to help with your situation and all.”

Father smiled, “Listen we’re not going to need much; just what we were going to receive from the farm, a bit early.”

Dad was referring to grandma’s farm. Uncle John was the only one who stayed behind to take care of grandma and the farm’s small cotton export. Grandma was dying of cancer and didn’t have long. I didn’t know her or Uncle John, because of a family feud—ten years ago—at grandpa’s funeral. My mother and father left NC for New York and I was born soon after. They never wanted to discuss why.

I assumed they were trying to receive their cut of the will, before my grandmother’s passing.

Uncle John laughed, “Don’t worry, I’m here to give. But first, where’s Rebecca? I’ve been waiting to meet my niece!”

My parents yelled for me and I ran up a few steps and back down, so they wouldn’t figure out I’d been eavesdropping the whole time. Judging by my mother’s face as I entered the living room, she already knew. I greeted my Uncle John with a hug. He was a pale peach with a fierce brown mustache. As he kissed my cheek his hairs prickled the skin on my face. This made me laugh.

For the next two weeks, Uncle John told me the other side to father’s stories. We stayed up late, sitting in the firefly illuminated sky. He told me that grandma was a mean old lady, my father was a bad kid and the farm was the green on the other side. While my parents were at work, I showed him my favorite parts of the neighborhood. He disclosed his favorite book with a boy named Holden at the library. I showed him my favorite swing at the park. He laughed at my infatuation with pickles in the huge bodega jars on the counter. I taught him what the word bodega means. Uncle John became my best friend.
 ___________________________________________________________________________________
Grandma didn’t die till seven years later. Even though my parents were able to pay their back mortgage, they never went to see her. I was eighteen now and in my freshman year of college at Rutgers in New Jersey. Our red Volkswagen pulled up in front of my dorm and honked. I signed out with my resident advisor. In the “where to” box, I wrote “North Carolina.” In the “Reason” box, I wrote “funeral.”

When we finally reached the farm, my heart pounded with excitement. It’d been almost a decade since I’d seen my precious Uncle John. I was also excited about finally being able to see a piece of my family’s history. The farm was adorned in green fields with a small red house at its center. The wheels of our car fought with the stones that led up to the path where an older and tired Uncle John stood.

He greeted us in a crisp plaid shirt and the same dirty jeans. I was surprised they’d lasted this long. He seemed somber as my parents stepped out of the car and walked to the back to take out our luggage. I jumped out the backseat and ran to hug my uncle.

Mid-run I noticed two things:
 
1) The look Uncle John wore on his face had suddenly turned into a sly smile. 
2) The smile was not that of an uncle.

He confirmed this with his next words.

Uncle John pushed me away from him, with his hand on my shoulders, to have a closer look at me.

“Damn girl, look at you all grown up and stuff.” He licked his lips. My parents were too occupied with our belongings to notice.

I smiled uncomfortably in my short almost-summer dress, “Uh, thanks Unc. I’m looking forward to a tour of this place. It looks so awesome out here.”

He gave me another glance up and down, “I’ll most certainly give you any kind of tour you want.”
Still, my parents failed to notice this.

We took a tour of the farm after an amazing breakfast served by Uncle John’s farmhand, Mary. Mary wore a plaid shirt and dirty jeans too. She was young and beautiful, long flowing blond hair and a perfect smile. She showed us the cows, the chicken coops and the old and unused contraption that used to turn cotton into cloth. I hoped that being alone on the farm with Uncle John, meant she was his love interest. I was disappointed when her fiance, another farmhand named Gideon, came to pick her up after work.

In the evening, after my parents went to sleep, I sat in the foyer and worked on my humanities paper that was due the next day by email. Uncle John came out, with his sly smile, to join me.

“Hey Unc, you have wireless Internet here?”

He laughed, “No ma’am, but there is a café in town that does that kind of stuff.”

“Oh okay thanks. I’ll head out there tomorrow.”

“How’s school anyway? Giving them boys a hard time? Or are you too giving?”

I sneered, “I’m not giving anything Uncle John. Let that be the last time you ask me anything like that or I’ll certainly tell my father.”

I slammed close my laptop and headed upstairs to my room, where I locked the door behind me. I was thankful the funeral was scheduled for tomorrow and then we’d be on our way.

The funeral was small but a beautiful send off. Grandma asked to be cremated and her ashes to be scattered in the fields. A few friends, neighbors and even the town mayor came to say their goodbyes. Apparently our family owned the oldest farm in the state of North Carolina. Today, they would also deem it a historical landmark.

During the repast, Mary, Mom and I helped bring out the food to the guests.

Mary picked up a plate with pigs and blankets, “Your mother-in-law was a strong one. It wasn’t over till it was over with her.”

Mother smiled, “Yeah, she’s always been that way. Seven years after diagnosis is incredible.”

Mary paused, “Seven years? Diagnosis? She’s had several sicknesses and was tired, but she just died of plain old age dear.”

My ears were suddenly perked.

Mother asked, “Didn’t she die of the cancer?”

“She didn’t have cancer hun. I don’t know what John told you, but I’ve been here on the farm with them for five years. For four of those years, John’s momma was out there farming and healthy as the horses in the stables.”

My mother made a mad dash out of the kitchen to my father. I soon followed to find out they were headed out to the yard where Uncle John sat alone. Mary came out soon after.

My father demanded an explanation as my mother pleaded for him to calm down. Uncle John sat and listened to my father rant and rave for a few minutes. There were spurts of “no good” “always lying” “truth” and “family.”

The word family seemed to finally get my Uncle’s attention.

“Family Dylan? Where the hell have you been the last eighteen years? Not with family that’s for sure.”

My father groaned, “You know why I haven’t been here John. You know damn well. That doesn’t mean I don’t deserve to know what went on with my momma.”

“You don’t deserve anything! I took care of momma these last years. You don’t think I hated her for what she did too? You don’t think I wanted to leave too?”

“Then why didn’t you John?”

Everyone stood at an eerie standstill. The neighbors and friends who were inside eating were all on the porch, waiting for Uncle’s answer.

Uncle John stood his entire six feet and bellowed, “I didn’t leave because I know what family really is. Did you know we were about to lose this farm John? I couldn’t let that happen. I couldn’t lose what great –great granddaddy started and daddy continued. This place is legacy.”

“Legacy! After what that man did to us John? Forget his legacy!”

“I can’t forget. I didn’t forget a thing. Not him touching us—“

“John shutup!” Father interjected.

“—not the way momma knew and never said a thing. I didn’t even forget you leaving me here with the bitch after the one person who’d ruined our lives, could never do it again.”

Uncle John’s words were puzzle pieces clicking together in my mother’s eyes. This explained everything.

“I couldn’t stay. There were too many memories.”

“There were good ones too Dylan.” Uncle John lamented.

“I’d have helped you save the farm John, but this isn’t my legacy. It’s yours and momma’s. I couldn’t forgive her ignorance.”

Uncle John sighed and resigned to his seat, “I know, neither could I. That’s why she had to go. I poisoned her slowly these last few years. I had to save this farm. We weren't selling crop anymore. Something had to give. I had to see what was left of my family again. That's why I lied about her having cancer. It was the only way I could see you Dylan. You're my legacy. She drove you away after papa died. All she and papa did was take from us. It was time she gave something back to this family.”
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