Monday, October 11, 2021

The Family Reunion, fiction by Tom Barlow

reprinted from Odds of Survival


Dave Bradley hadn't been this close to losing his sobriety since his last high school reunion three months earlier, where he was drawn to the small cadre of drunks with whom he had first discovered his thirst. But, predictably, his father Johnny had made no move to declutter his house before he passed, leaving Dave to clean out his crap, including a liquor cabinet full of top-end alcohol. His sponsor had volunteered to help him pour it all down the drain, but Dave had laughed him off, confident of his ability to withstand temptation. Now he wished he hadn't. Retirement and the loneliness that accompanied it created a vacuum that pulled him toward his old torment.

Putting off dealing with the liquor, he was working his way down the drawers of an old dresser now in the basement, one that served Johnny as a catch-all. In the bottom drawer he found a rubber-banded set of photos, all of Johnny in his military garb in Korea, hands on the shoulders of two other soldiers, squatting for a card game on the ground, standing on the runway in front of an F-80 Shooting Star. He wished, not for the first time since his father passed, that he'd asked him more about his war experience. Perhaps he'd missed an opportunity to see the son of a bitch as a hero.

To his surprise, there was also an aged envelope with "David" written on it. Inside, he found two more photos. But they were not war scenes.

One of the old black and white snapshots showed his father in front of an apartment building Dave had never seen before, holding hands with a woman and a small child. The woman appeared Latino, short with a dark complexion, a cascade of black hair, deep-set dark eyes, bold chin, and prominent breasts. She looked much younger than his father. 

The child, who appeared to be no more than four, was a thin girl with a star-shaped strawberry birthmark on the side of her throat. The broad grin she wore suggested she was having a marvelous time posing for the photographer.

In the other photo, a large, gnarly oak formed the background for a country graveyard, in which a freshly disturbed patch of earth lay before a new headstone for a Harold Reimer. A shovel stood upright in the dirt. There was no person in the shot, and it must have been taken shortly after dawn as dew hovered above the cornfield in the distance.  

Unable to account for the photos, Dave called his Aunt Grace, his last remaining relative. She told him to bring the photos over, and they'd talk. 

***

His aunt had an apartment in a retirement village on the outskirts of Topeka. The place always gave Dave the creeps, never knowing what terminal illness might be on display that day. Since he had witnessed Johnny fight the Alzheimer's that ran in his family, he had come to dread his visits as glimpses of his future. However, a steady drizzle meant there were no wheelchair-bound elderly smoking in the flower garden around which the units were arranged. 

He was struck again by the odor that permeated his aunt's rooms, something medicinal tinged with bleach and lilac. His aunt's skin had taken on the same smell, which he inhaled as she kissed her on the cheek.

She had made iced tea, which she knew he drank by the gallon when he was on the wagon. When they were settled on the couch, she said, "Now, let's see those pictures."  

He took the pair out of his shirt pocket and handed them over. "I have no idea who these people are."

She slid her glasses down her nose before peering closely at the one on top. "Oh, my." She placed it on the arm of her chair and looked at the second, which he too had puzzled over. "Who is Harold Reimer?"

"I have no idea." 

She went back to the first shot, her lips a grim line. "Your mother asked me to never tell you about these people. Do you still want to know?"

"I'm 61," Dave said. "I think I can handle about anything."

"Except the booze, right? Anyway, here goes. Your father was working for the railroad back then."

"I thought the pictures were older."

"No, it would have to have been around 1957 or so. He always worked the same trains, from here to Columbus over in Ohio and back. He had layovers on both ends, with time to kill, so he started messing around with this Mexican girl on the Columbus end. She was the housekeeper at the section house where the railroad workers slept. When she got pregnant, he went ahead and married her, although he already had a family back here. Your father was a fool in so many ways."

Dave took a large gulp of his tea, shocked. His father had always been the strictest parent, tolerating no misbehavior, and had nothing but disdain for people of color. "Did Mom know?"

Grace took his hand in hers. "She's the one told me. He used another name, but she found out anyway; the railroad guys had no secrets from one another, and eventually, one of the other wives whose husband had confided in her squealed on him."

"What happened then?"

"Your mom threatened to divorce him and tell the authorities about his bigamy. What convinced him to leave this woman, though, was when Maggie told him she was going to tell his friends he had married a Mexican. There weren't many at the VFW hall that would let him live that down back in those days."

"So he divorced the Mexican?"

"I think he just abandoned her. He bid on a new route and never went back to Columbus. And the woman would have known about his temper, so I'm guessing she never pursued him. Maybe she even went back to Mexico. At least, your mom and dad never heard from her."

"So I have a sister out there somewhere?" As an only child, Dave had longed for a sibling right up to the day his mother told him she'd have another child when hell froze over.

"Half-sister. Maybe. Johnny never acknowledged the kid, so she might have a different father. Now don't go looking for her on the off-chance you're related. I know you, and I know how lonely you've been since your dad passed. Having no family is a burden, for sure, but that doesn't mean you have to embrace Johnny's catting about."

***

But Dave was too excited to follow his aunt's advice. He had to rein in his imaginings of what having a sister might mean, the camaraderie, the love, mostly based on what he'd seen in television shows. He could even have nieces and nephews by her. And Johnny must have wanted him to make the connection after his death. Why else leave the photos with his name on it?

That was the central question. Johnny had been a complex character, mercurial when he was drinking, and imperious when sober, so Dave was never quite clear how he felt about his father. When Johnny passed there was relief in his grief, nothing like the despair he'd felt when his mother Maggie died. Was it repentance that caused Johnny to leave the photos for him to find, or simply the tidying up of unfinished business?

Still of two minds, he went back to work sorting through his father's things, but now with a purpose. In an old army locker among the lapsed insurance policies, diplomas from grade school, high school and catechism, and appraisals for his mother's jewelry that Johnny sold shortly after her death, Dave found an Ohio driver's license issued to a John Green. The license was from 1955, before any states started adding photos, but the height and weight were the same as his father's, and Green had not needed glasses to drive. Neither had Johnny.

The license listed an address on Bryden Road in Columbus. He pulled up Google Earth and checked out the address. It was now a vacant lot.

***

Since his retirement a year earlier, Dave, an introvert with unlimited free time, had spent many a drunken hour poking around on the internet until he was proficient. He used it to check the marriage license issues in the archives of the Columbus Dispatch. After pouring through month after month, he found a John Green marrying Paula Garciaparra on April 2nd, 1955. 

Dave was born only 10 days later. 

Further investigation revealed that a daughter, Carole Green, was born to the couple six months later. He spent a couple of bucks on a personal-search internet site which told him there were no Carole Greens in Columbus but delivered the addresses and phone numbers of three C. Greens. As he sat there staring at the phone, trying to screw up the courage to cold-call each to ask the question, he felt that tickle in the back of his throat that, from experience, he knew only vodka would quench. However, the thought of finding new family helped fight off the urge. 

He took a deep breath and picked up the phone. The first two were duds; one Carl Green, one Celeste Green. Neither ever heard of a John or Carole Green or Carole Garciaparra, nor was interested in discussing it further. The third landline had been disconnected, which didn't surprise him; many people were going cellular. Having nothing better to do, Dave decided to drive the twelve hours from Topeka to Columbus and knock on the door of the last Green. 

Knowing that a change in routine presented new temptations to his sobriety, though, he copied down the phone number of the local AA group in case he needed to find a meeting.

***

 Columbus was a bigger town than he expected; he had thought it was mostly Ohio State University surrounded by supporting housing. The address for the last C. Green was in the suburb of Westerville. He waited until early evening, when most people would be home from work, before driving there. The November weather was chilly, but he had brought only a jean jacket and shivered as he walked up the driveway of the bungalow. The house was in need of paint, with sagging gutters and the original leaky aluminum windows. There was little landscaping to disguise its shortcomings. 

 He cleared his throat a couple of times and wiped his damp palms against his jeans before he rang the doorbell. When no one came to the door, he was about to knock when the porch light came on, although it was not yet dark. A beat later, the door opened to the extent allowed by the chain, and a pair of lips appeared in the crack. 

"What do you want?" The voice was raspy.

"My name is Dave Bradley. I'm looking for a lady who was born Carole Garciaparra, might have grown up as Carole Green. Would you know her?"

"What do you want with her? You a bill collector?"

Dave saw his mistake. "No, nothing like that. I think Carole might be my sister."

A pause. "What makes you think she would be interested in meeting you?"

He took some hope from her reply. "Her father died a month ago. I thought she might want to know." 

"That's the best news I've heard all day." When she shut the door Dave thought he'd been dismissed, but she was merely pulling the chain. The door opened, revealing a woman he guessed to be about his age, thin but sinewy, with rampant hair the color of a dirty mop. There was a hint of Johnny in her face, thin with a wedge-shaped nose and a narrow cleft chin, but her complexion was definitely not Irish. She was wearing a mock turtleneck, above which he could see the last bit of her birthmark. 

She appraised him with a scowl. "Yeah, you look a little like the bastard." She nodded for him to come in. He followed her into the living room, which looked much like his in that no one had spent much time cleaning recently. The smell of cigarettes reminded him all too strongly of the bar where he had spent many an unhappy hour. 

She nodded toward a chair and he took a seat. She sat on the couch, crossed her arms. "So you're the asshole's boy?"

"You mean Johnny? You knew him as John Green."

"I barely knew him at all. All I know is he and my mom ran away when I was four. Is she still alive? Not that I care."

"Your mom? Paula Garciaparra?"

"Yeah. You look a little like her too, you know." She circled her face with a pointed finger.

"I'm afraid there's a misunderstanding. Paula wasn't my mother. I never met the woman."

A look of confusion came over her face. "I don't understand."

"My mom was Maggie Boyd."

Carole slipped down onto the couch. "Let me get this straight. Your dad is Johnny Green, but you had a different mother? When were you born?"

"1955."

"I was born in 1955. So the asshole was seeing your mom on the side?"

"They'd been married for six years by the time I was born. In Topeka. And stayed married until she died three years ago."

"Holy shit. So what happened to my mother?" Carole cupped her hands and ran them down her face. "They both disappeared on the same day, July 5th, 1959, about a week after my fourth birthday. I always assumed they ran away because of me. I was a pain in the ass as a child, and slow, and too dark to pass as Anglo. I figured my dad was embarrassed by me."

"I suppose you've looked for her."

"Children's Services looked for a while after they abandoned me but never found them. The first Army check I got, I hired a skip tracer, but he never even got a hint of a lead about where she went."

Dave's mind went immediately to the last photo in his pocket. 

"Jesus," she said. "I need a beer. You want one?"

He needed six but didn't want one. But Dave had spent decades convinced that a man who wouldn't drink with him was not to be trusted. And he so wanted her trust.

She noted his hesitancy and said, "What? You too good to drink with me?" 

He could always start over on his sobriety again tomorrow. "Not at all. I'll join you."

Carole returned from the kitchen with a pair of cold Coors, his favorite. He forced himself to sip and could have cried as the cold liquid coursed down his throat. So good. 

"So you were in the army?" he said, looking to distract himself from his shame.

Carole polished off half her bottle in one long pull, then belched. "I did my twenty years training marksmen. You?"

She was wearing an oversize flannel shirt, and he wondered if it concealed a pistol. "Never served."

"Lucky you. Still, I got to retire young, so that's something."

"Marksmen, that's surprising. You must have been one of the first women in that job." His bottle was half empty already.

"I was driven. Once I got away from the houses I grew up in, I couldn't face the idea of going back."

"So you were adopted? After your parents left?"

She laughed bitterly. "I wish. It was all foster homes. No one wanted a beaner kid. So I ended up as a toy for foster parents’ real sons. You?" 

Dave sipped his beer, angry that he was treasuring each swallow. "I can't complain. I was an only child, and my mom believed in education. I got a degree in history and taught at the local high school." Until he was encouraged to take a buyout and ended up sorting packages at UPS.

"Are you married? Kids?"

"No. Almost got married once." If only he hadn't shown up for the ceremony crocked.

She reached into her back pocket and produced a pack of Lucky Strikes and a lighter, tapped one out of the pack, and lit it. "I could have married a soldier, but we would have ended up killing one another."

"Tell me about your mother." He held out two fingers, held apart, and she handed him the pack and her lighter. He pulled out a cigarette, remembering the last time he'd smoked one in 2001. Johnny had smoked right up to the day he forgot that he did. 

He lit it, took a drag, and it was as if he'd never quit that too. He was going to have quite the tale to tell at his next meeting. 

"Mom? Not much to say," Carole said. "I barely remember her, except that she tried to protect me from your father, who was always smacking me if I didn't behave."

"That was Johnny." He was slightly light-headed from the beer and smoke. He pulled the graveyard picture out of his pocket. "You have any idea who this is?"

She took it between her ring and little fingers so that her cigarette was undisturbed and held it near enough her face that he suspected she needed glasses to read. "What's this?"

He explained how he found her, the photos. "That one, I can't account for."

"I can read the headstones. Harold Reimer died June 11th, 1959.  A month before Mom disappeared. You check findagrave.com?"

"What's that?" he said.

"A registry of graves and locations. I learned to find missing persons while looking for my mother. Now I do some skip tracing for others, part-time. Enough to keep me in cigarette money.  Wait here."

She placed the photo on the arm of the couch, disappeared down the hallway, and returned a moment later with a laptop. He watched, longing for another beer, as she did the search. "Here he is," she said a minute later. "Union Cemetery in Plain City. That's about ten miles from here." She flipped the photo back to him. "You thinking what I'm thinking?"

His thought was too dark to express. He avoided her gaze.

When he did not respond, she said, "I'm wondering if maybe he killed my mom and buried her in a newly dug grave. The dates work. You think the bastard was capable of murder?"

He remembered all too clearly the time their dog Spot, who had lived chained in the backyard, had barked once too often while Johnny attempted to sleep after working a night shift. He'd heard the shot from his bedroom. 

"I'm afraid so," he said. "You got another beer?"

Dave quickly came to conclude his sister shared the family taste for alcohol. She not only had one, she had a fresh case, and they spent the rest of the evening working through it, sharing stories of their childhoods, his mundane, hers dark. At ten p.m. they ordered a pizza, but when it came neither had an appetite. The photo lay face up on the coffee table and he noticed her eyes returning to it as often as his own. Finally, around one in the morning, when they had run out of beer and were thoroughly drunk, he said, "We're never going to know if we don't."

"What do you mean?"

He knew she knew what he meant, but somebody had to speak the words. "Dig up the grave."

"And why would we do that?"

"That's one way to hide a body, right? Find a grave that's just been filled and dig it partly out, dump in your body, and refill it? Who's going to know?"

"Jesus, you're ghoulish."

"So was Johnny. You got a shovel?"

***

Dave drove, pleased to find he still had the ability to stay in his lane while shit-faced. They picked up a twelve-pack of beer at a drive-thru on the way. The night was cold but not bitter, and the alcohol and cigarettes provided an inner warmth that he'd almost forgotten. 

They parked his car on a side street and approached the cemetery on foot. Johnny understandably had chosen a grave as far away from the street and its lights as possible, and there were no nearby houses to disturb then. He had expected the air in a graveyard would have some quality that reflected the setting, but it was as clean and crisp as any, suggesting winter was imminent.

"We going to take up the turf, try to replace it?" Carole said.

"That's the plan."  He laid out the plastic tarp he'd found in Carole's garage before grabbing the shovel and beginning to peel up the grass. "She shouldn't be too deep; Johnny was always lazy."

The beer didn't help the work, as he quickly broke into a sweat that the chill November air turned into shivers. It took him about 30 minutes to reach knee depth in a hole about wide and long enough for a body. Carole took the shovel from him and pulled him out of the hole.

"It's my mother we're looking for," she said, taking off her jacket. "Let me finish." 

He opened another beer as he watched her go to work. Her arms, while thin, were muscular, and she shoveled as though she'd made a career of it. 

The only sounds were the rasp of the shovel and the rain of soil landing on the tarp. His stupor was broken only by fantasies about a future in which he and Carole could function like brother and sister, each having the other's back. The alcohol thing was going to be a problem, though. He'd been counseled against socializing with a drunk, and he'd lost many friends over the years when they went sober. Maybe they could dry out together.

Carole stopped once for a beer and a smoke. Since she massed maybe half of what he did and had matched him drink for drink, he presumed she was at least as smashed as he was. He was suddenly struck with the pathos of what they were doing and began to laugh. 

His sister scowled. "What's so funny?"

He regained control with difficulty. "This is as close to a family reunion as I've ever had."

"One brother and he turns out to be a comedian," she said and jumped back into the hole. 

It only took another 15 minutes before, at a depth of three feet, the shovel bit into something that crunched. Carole knelt in the dirt, and with her gloved hands, began to pull the clay soil aside, revealing the mouth of a skull. Dave shone the flashlight onto it, and both upper front teeth gleamed with gold. 

Carole sat back. "Oh, shit. Mom had those teeth. She always joked they were her nest egg."

He squatted next to her, reached out to place his hand on her shoulder. "I'm so sorry." He began to cry as though it were his loss too. He always was a weepy drunk.

She handed him the shovel and pulled herself out of the grave. She was crying too as she picked her jacket up from the ground. He assumed she was going to put it on, was waiting to hug her after she did, but instead, she pulled a pistol out of her pocket and leveled it at him. 

"What?" he said, raising the shovel blade to his chest. "You can't kill me. I'm your brother."

"Like hell you are." Her eyes were wide, fierce. "I look at you, all I see is Johnny. It's too late to make him pay for what he's done, but I can at least make sure there's no trace of him left in this world." He could tell she was about to shoot, and with a quick jerk, he raised the shovel to shield his face. 

The bullet bounced off the shovel with a loud peal, knocking the blade into his face. He could feel the snap as his nose broke, and he doubled over in pain.

Through his anguish, though, he heard Carole collapse at his feet. He looked down to find her lying face-up, trembling uncontrollably, and he could see where the reflected bullet had entered her head through her left eye. One hand to his bleeding nose, he kicked the gun away and searched her pockets for her cell phone to call for help, but by the time he found it, she had stopped breathing. 

He knelt between her and the skeleton for a long time, a handkerchief to his face. There seemed to be no reaction to the shot from the houses closest to the graveyard, so he figured he had time to bury Carole with her mother and getaway. He wasn't sure the cops would believe his story, the words of a drunk. 

But there was that twelve-pack of beer to finish first, so he sat next to his sister working on it and staring at her body. He held her pistol in his hand, wondering if he shouldn't just join her. 

He tried to imagine what his father must have felt that night. He could only think of what he would not have felt. Compassion. Regret. Love. None of these had been in Johnny's vocabulary.

When he finally heard the caretaker arrive at his office shortly after dawn, he put down the pistol, took his sister's hand, and waited to be discovered. 

His thirst was worse than ever, and it was just as certain as a bullet.


Tom Barlow is an Ohio author of short stories, novels and poetry. Many of his best noir short stories have been collected in Odds of Survival and his crime novel Blood of the Poppy, is available on Amazon. He enjoys visiting the dark in his writings but is grateful he doesn't live there. Learn more at tombarlowauthor.com


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