On a gusty July Thursday, my telephone reverberated to the tune of “We Wish You A Merry Christmas”. I shuddered because I knew who was calling. I had set that distinctive ring tone to my father’s number. I was screening his calls because he always had something vile to say about my mother and I had listened to too many of his outrageous lies. My stomach churned while I waited for him to hang up after the fourth ring like he always did when the automatic answering machine kicked on. I held my breath, hearing with relief the click of the machine.
The robotic voice said, “Hello, no one is able to come to the phone. Please leave your message after the tone.”
When I heard the beep, I swallowed the big wad that clogged my throat.
“Oh-Donna, she’s trying to kill me!”
I ran to the portable handset and punched the talk button. “Dad! Daddy! Who’s trying to kill you?”
In a strained breathless whisper, he said, “Your mother.”
“Right now!” he whimpered.
I overheard Momma’s voice in the background. “Nobody’s going to care about you. You damned old fool!”
After a dull thud, the line went dead.
Oh my God. I detected my breath echoing out in audible pants. I couldn’t believe this. What was I supposed to do? Call the police on my own mother? Not an option. No way! I shook my head. This was just too bizarre to wrap my mind around. Momma was a good girl through and through. She might get furious with Daddy once in a while but she’d never ever hurt him. But what if she was really trying to kill him? Lord knows, he’d manipulated, stifled and belittled her for decades. Had he finally done something so dastardly to drive her across the line of sanity? Or perhaps he’d just pulled another one of his everyday mind games and Momma just reached her breaking point? What if she really was trying to kill him? Think, Donna, think! The Meddlesteins! Yes! I would call the Meddlesteins.
Pressing the end button on my phone, I automatically plucked the number of Gloria and Roderick Meddlestein from the cobwebs of my childhood. They’d been my parents’ across-the-street neighbors for more than thirty years. When I was little, I could always count on them to help me when I was home alone and needed an adult to relight the furnace or check out a strange noise that had me frightened. They were such good people. I prayed they hadn’t changed their number. I felt a flush of heat rise up and envelop my body as I dialed with trembling fingers, agonizing in the seemingly slow motion.
Gloria Meddlestein answered on the second ring. “Hello?”
“Mrs. Meddlestein?” My voice sounded unnaturally shrill.
“This is Donna Payne. You know, I used to live across the street from you?”
She cheerfully said, “Yes, of course. Hello, Donna, how are you, dear?”
“Listen, I just received a phone call from my father. He said my mother was trying to kill him.” I faked a laugh. “Will you please go over and check on him?”
Without much of a pause, she said, “I’ll send Roddy over. You want to give me your number so I can call you back?”
“Thank you so much, Mrs. Meddlestein.”
I gave my phone number and ended the call.
My mind was racing. Tammy works close by, she can zip over and talk some sense into those two. She is their favorite kid and has them wrapped around her pretty little finger. What is the name of that gym where she works? I frantically punched in the numbers of the telephone directory. A prerecorded voice told me to state the party’s name and city.
“Rocky’s Gym, Washington, DC.”
I waited and waited.
Finally a live person came on the line. “Ma’am, we only retrieve Virginia numbers. You have to hang up and dial one, two–oh–two, five–five–five, one–two–one–two.”
Shoot! I ended the call and tried again. Tears streamed down my face. Big almond-sized drops. This time a computer-generated voice revealed the phone number for the gym.
The surly employee who had answered the phone at Rocky’s Gym had deserted me in the purgatory of hold. Five minutes passed as I waited on the telephone line for my forty-three-year-old adopted sister Tammy, personal trainer to the Capitol Hill pork barrels, all those congressmen, senators, lawyers and lobbyists who thought they ruled the universe. Come on, come on already. Tammy, you’re three minutes from their house. It might be a matter of life or—
I wouldn’t let myself think the last word. My stomach churned and I tasted a burning sourness in my throat. This was taking too long. I punched the button to end the call and then pushed redial. Wedging the house phone in between my right ear and shoulder, I picked up my cell phone and dialed the Meddlesteins. The tiny blue phone on my left ear just rang and rang.
I couldn’t stand this inactivity. I had to do something. I furiously wiped imaginary crumbs off my pistol gray granite countertops. Stomping into the utility room, I threw the damp rag in the empty laundry basket on top of the dryer. As I grabbed the broom and glanced around, I realized there wasn’t anything to clean. I had sterilized the place last evening in preparation for my trip to the writers’ conference in New York today. I didn’t want to get killed in a plane crash and then be embarrassed at the mess I’d left. What impression would that leave behind? No, I was a good, clean girl. I shoved the broom back up into its holder and shut the door.
My neck and shoulder ached from squeezing the portable handset to my ear. Never realized how heavy my head was. I grabbed the house phone and erectly speed-walked into the hardwood foyer. I stumbled over my yellow backpack. Next to it, my pink overstuffed duffel bag leaned lopsidedly against the etched glass front door. A defiant beep pounded in my right ear. I ended the call to Tammy and slapped the phone down on the teacart, beside my purse and plane ticket to New York.
I closed the never-ending ringing of the Meddlesteins’ call on my cell phone. Thunder cracked outside. The rain commenced its devilish needle pricking on the cedar shake roof of my end-unit townhouse. I folded the cell phone and clipped it onto the canvas belt on my sleeveless khaki shirtdress.
I shuffled into the powder room and yanked tissues out of the box to blow my nose on. Looking in the mirror, I tried touching up the black rings around my powder blue eyes but the mascara kept running through the tears. Blue eyes. How come I was the only one in my family with blue eyes? Momma’s eyes were green. Daddy had brown eyes. Oh God, Daddy! What’s going on between you two? I knelt on the floor, grabbed my curly blond hair back and lost my breakfast. Momma used to hold my hair back when I threw up. I remember when Tammy had her tonsils removed and was so sick afterward. Momma made me hold my sister’s ebony black hair back. I thought it was so gross and mean at the time but now I knew she was teaching me compassion and nurturing. Eventually calming down, I cleaned myself up.
After strapping on the backpack, I slung my crocheted purse strap over my right shoulder, maneuvered the overstuffed duffel away from the front door and opened it. The wind gushed in. I flinched as I watched lightning strike the field behind the townhouses across from me on Spyglass Street. Heaving the bag over the threshold and onto my brown brick stoop, I propped it against my foot, shut the door and locked up.
I pressed the automatic key twice and listened to the doors unlock on my black Chevy Suburban. As soon as I stepped out from under the portico, I was drenched. Running to the vehicle, I opened the rear cargo door and heaved in the duffel. Struggling to free myself from the backpack, I pulled one of those unthought-of muscles in my side. Grimacing and wincing, I stowed the luggage, slammed the cargo door and raced to the driver’s side, climbing in as another bolt split the Bradford pear tree in my front yard. The little hairs on the back of my neck stood up. I really loved that pear tree.
I started the engine, shifted into overdrive and accelerated through the narrow winding, private streets of my planned community. After switching the front and rear wipers on, I fumbled in my purse to make sure that I’d remembered my ticket. A paper cut cinched that mystery. I sucked on the index finger of my right hand as I stopped at the red light. I spun the dial to defrost while trying to see through the fogged-up windshield. Soaked and shivering, I slid the temperature lever to high. I switched on the seat warmer as I floored it through the intersection on Route Seven.
Darn it, Daddy. Why do you always have to pull one of your stunts just when my life is going so well? Am I not constitutionally entitled to “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness”? And if Momma is trying to kill you, I can’t say she wasn’t provoked by all your years of manipulation. I don’t have time to run over and referee. I’m going to miss my flight.
As furious as I was at him, I knew there were shuttles leaving for New York every hour. I’d just have to pay a fee and stand by for a later flight. Damn it, Daddy, you’re costing me extra money and I’ll miss early registration. I hated attending conferences without a name badge identifying me as one of the group. If I was late today, I wouldn’t be able to get mine until tomorrow morning.
I tensed up even more as I approached the exit for the Dulles Toll Road. If I turned here, I might be able to make the next shuttle flight to New York. Or a few more miles down the road, I could squeeze onto the conveyer belt they called Route Sixty-Six, the road to the Nation’s Capital, Washington, and the misery of my parents’ house.
Before I had made up my mind, my cell phone rang out. I fumbled, unable to unhook it from my belt. I unlatched my seat belt and wrestled to get the phone loose.
Simultaneously, I heard a thud and then glass shattering. I shielded my face with my hands as a deer hurtled toward me. I felt the air bag inflating against me and the sharp stab of the antler piercing my right shoulder. I slammed on the brakes with both feet. The vehicle skidded to a lurching stop as the air bag deflated. Impaled on the deer, I was ejected out of the Chevy.
The buck and I bowled down a prickly embankment. The searing pain in my shoulder was alternately overwhelmed by the weight of the beast when he reigned on top. I felt the antler breaking loose from my shoulder just before my world somersaulted into darkness.
Hearing a thumping whir, I blinked my eyes open. I struggled, unable to move. Someone was holding me down. I focused on his thickly haired brown arms and then down to his blue latex-gloved hands.
“She’s coming to.”
I screamed. Screams of fright, frustration and burning agony. Screams that I couldn’t hear.
“Calm down, Miss. You’re gonna be all right. We’re flying you to Fairfax Hospital. We should be landing momentarily. What’s your name?” The man removed the oxygen mask from my face.
“I’m so sorry, sweetheart. You’re really beat up. Can you tell me your name?”
“Donna? Good. Do you know what today is?”
Teardrops spilled. I didn’t know. The rhythmic whoop of the helicopter distracted me.
“It’s okay, sweetheart. You’ll be just fine. The trauma team will take good care of you.” He replaced the oxygen mask and wiped my tears with gauze.
Four days later, when my HMO deemed me no longer in need of hospitalization, through their healing by statistical curve, I was discharged on a sunny Monday morning. My bloody muddy clothes had been cut off me and destroyed. So I left the hospital dressed in scrubs and slippers, duly charged to my inpatient bill. I had to sign a form promising to pay for non-covered items such as the television, phone and scrubs.
I never even used the phone. Who could I call? Who would care about me? Not my family. They always had their own urgent crises. Clan emergencies. And I didn’t want to call. I didn’t want to hear any more bloated lies and bizarre accusations from Daddy. As if Momma would have killed Daddy. It would’ve been all over the news. I could hear the sound bites in my head. Retired Secret Service agent Chloe Lambert Payne suspected in the murder of her blind helpless husband, the saintly doctor Nathan Payne.
An octogenarian volunteer helped me into a wheelchair and placed a plastic belongings bag and a fruit basket in my lap. The girls I worked with in the file room of the health insurance company had sent apples, oranges and bananas. That’s right. I worked for my own HMO and they still booted me out too soon. Fruit. They knew I was on the Atkins diet. No fruit allowed during the induction phase.
The wizened portly volunteer groaned and wheezed as he shoved my torture chair down the corridor. Why couldn’t the hospital invest in an ergonomic chair instead of this folding low-end ouch-maker?
We went down the elevator and he propelled me through the lobby to the curb. He waited until a taxi arrived and opened the back door for me. I stood, sore and stitched, on shaky legs. I eased into the backseat.
The driver asked, “Where to, lady?”
Where to? To the writers’ conference at the Hilton Hotel in New York, four days ago. To the red carpet, where I’ll stroll in my strapless champagne silk evening gown, with matching opera gloves, to accept my trophy and cash prize. To the appointment with the acquisitions editor of the romance publisher…
“Lady, the meter’s running. Where to?”
I sighed New York goodbye, “One–two–four–oh–six Nixon Court, Southwest.”
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.
I slumped in a chrome and yellow vinyl dinette chair in Mrs. Meddlestein’s perky kitchen, numbly sipping mango ice tea. She talked and yammered about Daddy running out into the street on Thursday and Momma standing at the door waving his cane and screaming obscenities. I had no reason to accuse Mrs. Meddlestein of lying but it was really out of character for Momma to have argued in public with Daddy.
I tuned her out. A booming parade of dusty sunlight filtered in through the pink Swiss-dotted curtains in the bay window. My bleary eyes ached. I didn’t for one minute believe that Momma turned the freezer over on Daddy.
Mrs. Meddlestein fussed around, tidying this and that. With her old-fashioned bottled-platinum hairdo, red lips, drawn-on mole and white halter dress, she was every bit a plump sexagenarian Marilyn Monroe. Marilyn Monroe. Had Daddy really said that she was my real momma? Just before he… Oh my God!
“They’re gone now, dear,” Mrs. Meddlestein finally said, in her own nasal Jewish mother voice. Definitely not Marilyn-ish.
I left her. I shuffled across the street and into the house. I dreaded telling Momma when she got home.
Crying in a curled-up ball on the brown leather couch in the living room, choking on my own mucus, I had to get some toilet paper from the bathroom to blow my nose on. I’d used up many plies when the telephone rang. Oh Momma. What will I say to you? I stumbled into the living room and picked up the princess rotary dial phone. “Payne residence.”
“Who’s this?” my half-brother Perry gruffly demanded.
“Perry, it’s Donna.”
“Where the frick have you been? I’ve been trying to call you since Thursday.”
I had to swallow the wad in my throat. “Perry, Daddy died today.”
“He’d fallen, the freezer toppled over on him. I don’t know how long before I got here. He had a heart attack. They tried to revive him but the paramedics arrived too late. He’s dead. Our daddy is dead, Perry.”
“She escaped and killed him.”
“Your mother murdered him.”
“How dare you? She’s not even here!” Escaped? What was he talking about? Escaped from where?
“You have no idea what’s been going on these past few months.”
“Momma is not a murderess!”
“I’ll be over in a little while. We need to go over some things. Have you notified Tammy?”
“No. We’re not on speaking terms,” I growled.
“I’ll call her on the way. Stay put.” He hung up on me.
I dropped the heavy ivory receiver onto the gaudy faux-gold filigree phone. I felt wetness oozing through my bandaged shoulder onto the teal scrub shirt. I wandered down the hallway and found some bandages and hydrogen peroxide under the blue bathroom sink. I peeled off the shirt and yanked the tape off the dressing. Raw, hairless skin screamed from the cruel adhesive the hospital had used. It hurt so bad.
I poured hydrogen peroxide on the sutured puncture wound. It bubbled into a cold white and pink fizz. I dabbed it dry with toilet paper and squeezed treatment solution on. I patched it up with a large Band-Aid.
Topless and braless, I left the shirt and bloody dressing on the floor and trudged to Momma’s bedroom. I removed one of her lavender floral blouses from the closet and gingerly slipped it on.
“Oh-Donna? Where are you?” I heard Perry’s voice summoning me.
Oh-Donna. I hated my nickname. My full name was Orpha Donna Payne. Momma named me after her lifelong friend, Secret Service agent and registered nurse Orpha Livingston Blair. My family nicknamed me “Oh-Donna” after the late Ritchie Valens song “Donna” from the fifties. To me, it had always been a faux term of endearment, more like a snide little inside joke to all of them. Even Momma. They all knew it bothered me. So that’s why it stuck. It wouldn’t be fun to tease me if I wouldn’t get my feathers poked sideways.
Of course, the “Donna” song, about searching for the girl that got away, was beautiful. But it embarrassed me when they called me Oh-Donna in front of outsiders. And it also made me feel like the outsider. Like I didn’t really belong to this family but by some ridiculous blunder of nature, my spirit plopped down in their sticky glue.
I plodded back into the living room where my over seven-foot-tall and seemingly seven-foot-wide half-brother Perry stood, dressed in his black judge’s robe. He was holding a briefcase.
“You okay? Jeeze, it must have been horrific finding the body.”
“He wasn’t dead when I got here.”
“Why didn’t you do CPR then?”
“I…I called for an ambulance.”
Perry opened his black briefcase and removed a legal type document. “Well, here’s the old boy’s will. Everything is in order. He named you as executrix. You need to put the house on the market, get the tax assessor in, arrange an estate sale and close out their bank accounts. Insert just a tiny ad in the legal notices section of the Post to notify his creditors. When the year is up, whatever is left gets split evenly. Between me and Tammy.”
Of course it would be. I was nobody. I snatched the will from him.
He grabbed it back before I could read it. “Don’t goof it up, Oh-Donna.”
“Goof it up?”
Hot tears streamed down my face. “Why are you always humiliating me? How could I goof it up by just holding it to read? Why do you treat me like a retard?” He didn’t love me at all. I had only fooled myself all of my life thinking my brother really did love me deep down. I wiped my nose on the hem of the blouse I was wearing. “Daddy didn’t leave everything to you and Tammy. What about Momma?”
“Don’t worry about her. I had her admitted to Saint Christopher’s for a psych evaluation on Thursday. They’ll take her on as a charity case if she doesn’t go to jail.”
“You did what?”
“I received a message from Dad that she was trying to kill him. When I arrived here, she had chased him outside. He was shaking. She was inside with his aluminum cane in her hand and it was bent where she’d beat him upside the head with it.”
I remembered Mrs. Meddlestein claiming she saw Daddy run outside and Momma cussing at him and waving his cane. “Did you actually see her hit him with it?”
“If you really thought she’d hit him, then why did you have Momma locked up and leave Daddy home alone with a head injury?”
“I had to get back to court. I gave him a couple of aspirins and made an ice pack for him to put on the goose egg bump on his head.”
“So in other words, you didn’t think he was seriously injured.” I didn’t buy the ice pack bit for one minute. Perry wouldn’t even know how to make one. Daddy didn’t have a head injury.
“Not at that time. I made sure to lock up Chloe before she had a chance to do him in. A fat lot of good that did. She escaped and finished the job.”
“Escaped? A little old lady escaped from the mental ward? You’re being ridiculous, Perry. Come up with a better fairy tale.”
“Keep living in never-never land, Oh-Donna. Just watch your back before she kills you too.” Perry stashed the papers in his briefcase. “I’ve called the Metropolitan Police. They’ll send technicians over to process the crime scene. Let ’em in, will ya?”
“Crime scene? It was an accident! The freezer toppled over on him and he had a heart attack.”
Perry looked incredulously at me. “Oh-Donna, open your eyes and see the truth. Dad was murdered.”
I panted, trying to catch my breath. I would not accept that Daddy had been murdered. Especially not by his own wife. And there was absolutely no evidence or witnesses to make me believe otherwise. I couldn’t believe Perry had talked the cops into accepting there was a crime. Surely the autopsy would clear everything up. I had never been so angry in my entire life.
Perry grumbled, “Tammy said she’d do the funeral arrangements. You wanna give me one of your credit cards so she can charge it to?”
“Where’s your purse?”
“Don’t you talk to me that way, Oh-Donna.”
“Why do you and Tammy always assume I am rich? You are the ones with the college educations and high-paying jobs. Get out!” I shoved him down the three stairs. He clunked his shaved bald head on the white wrought iron railing.
“What the devil got into you?” He took off.
I locked the door tight and rushed down the basement stairs. I flung open the big wide door to the walk-in closet under the stairs. I reached in the dark for the shoestring and yanked the light on. I shut the door. It wasn’t quiet like I needed. A melody faintly emanated from around the switchback corner underneath the stairs. It sounded like Perry Como’s “Some Enchanted Evening”, a beautiful love song from the forties.
The walk-in closet was immense as far as closets go. Since the house was a split foyer, the stairs were turned in an L-shape. Three down from the living room, a wide landing at the front door and then a turn and nine stairs down to the basement. Daddy extended the width of the closet so it made a U-shape with a switchback under the basement stairs. There was an overhead storage area with a hatch underneath the foyer landing and the stairs that led up to the living room.
Daddy’s eight-sided Dracula coffin was in there. Not that he was a vampire but his family had weird burial rituals. He came from a poor Irish-American family that was among the first settlers in Sacramento, California, during the gold rush. They were known to pack a pistol while standing guard with their loved one to prevent an autopsy, the body was never to be left alone, someone had to stay inside the open grave all night, an Irish wake thrown at the house…things like that.
The back of the closet was stuffed with boxes full of Daddy’s old medical files and research papers. Neatly lining the walnut-paneled closet walls were two dozen plastic grocery bags filled with used novels. Momma read when she couldn’t sleep. She’d told me she liked books with a little mystery, a little danger and a little sex. So here was the New York Times bestseller list for the past few years. She preferred the thick ones. Daddy always whispered it was an obsessive-compulsive disorder, Momma reading so much.
There was one bag stuffed with photo albums. I rooted out the white one. Beautiful sepia prints were displayed in little gold corner mounts on heavy black paper. Momma in a bathing suit, on the beach, with palm trees. Must’ve been in the forties sometime. In one, she was cuddled up to a very handsome bearded man. Definitely not Daddy. In another, she wore a full-length fur. I remembered that fur. She always kept it in the big black steamer trunk that I was leaning on. I eased off it, undid the latches and opened the lid. There it was, along with the aroma of mothballs. I slipped the full-length sable on and drew it tight.
The melody became louder. I crept back and peeked around the corner under the basement stairs. I moved some boxes. Blackness swirled. Wind whipped. The music had laughter. I felt an irresistible forward force propelling me deeper.
I blinked. Sparkles. Rainbow-colored sparkles dazzled my eyes. People danced cheek to cheek. Lots of soldiers in old-fashioned uniform. The women were wearing white gloves and fancy hats. I found the exit and escaped outside into the night.
A chilling wind stung my cheeks. Something was very not right. The cars were all jalopies. Really old ones, older than the ones at the classic car nights at the fast food restaurant I always went to. The kind of cars you had to turn a big crank on the front to start. I proceeded along. Passing a newsstand, I picked up a paper. The headline read President Roosevelt’s New Strategy For the Philippines. The date was February 16, 1945. I dropped it and ran. All right, this was spooky. Where the hell was I?
Freezing rain pummeled my face. I stumbled in a grate, breaking a heel off my blue stiletto shoe. Blue stiletto shoe? What happened to my hospital slippers? I must be dreaming. Midway across the Fourteenth Street Bridge, gateway back to Virginia, I stopped. I leaned over the concrete railing and gasped for breath. I stuck my right hand into the deep silk-lined coat pocket and extracted a pearl-handled pistol. I screamed and dropped it over the rail. I watched it slide on the surface of the frozen Potomac River.
Frozen river? This was July! I stuck my hand into the left pocket and pulled out a hundred-dollar bill. An icicle fell from the lamppost above me. I examined the note in my hand. Benjamin Franklin’s portrait adorned both sides. It was bloody. I felt a tap on my right shoulder. It didn’t hurt.
I turned…and saw a man.