by KD Miller
Adrian runs away from home after learning he was adopted. (Adrian's POV. 1966)
For as long as I could remember, I lived a normal, boring life in an old farmhouse with my elderly Papi and his three brothers. Papi was the youngest and about fifty-five when I was born. I never knew of my mother, and he never spoke of her. My uncles consisted of Theodore, who was an artist; Dr. Francis, who still delivered babies up at St. Paul’s Hospital, and Dylan - a retired WWII pilot. None of my uncles ever married, and it was just the five of us. Our only neighbors, George and Isabella Hicks, lived in an identical farmhouse down the road.
George’s great uncle, Conrad Hicks, a life-long, confirmed bachelor, and Isabella’s widowed grandfather, Benjamin Felix, moved into their house to care for the children when Isabella first announced she was going to be a mother twelve years ago. Their children kept multiplying like rabbits. Every morning before school, I would walk down the dirt path with Uncle Theodore to help George tend the animals. This was how I was raised - a boring life.
Growing up, Papi always said the summer I turned sixteen he would take me to Sicily. I was to be baptized in the same church he was baptized in when he was sixteen back before World War I. I never understood the connection we had with Sicily. Papi kept a silver Tiffany’s framed portrait of an 1800s Italian couple on his dresser. “This is our family” he would say when he caught me staring. I kind of resembled the young child in the background wearing the silk, sailor suit. I knew there was a connection somewhere, but at the time, I didn’t care.
Papi also liked to play his old Victrola phonograph player. He had a cracked album full of Italian opera records. On stormy nights, we would sit in the parlor, and he would turn the crank on the vintage machine and we would listen to the records. Papi was the only person in the room who understood what they were singing about.
Uncle Theodore would start a new oil painting, Uncle Dylan would settle down with the newspaper, and Dr. Francis would read over his patient records. I liked to tease Papi and say that I would gladly run down to Sears and buy him a brand new record player, and some Beatles records to go with it. His upper lip would curl up in disgust. “I’ve had this Victrola since 1910! Bought it with earnings from my first job at Warden’s Department Store on the square, and I will listen to it until the day I die”
I also knew Papi and his uncles had money, and it wasn’t from farming. When the Beatles first came to Dallas a few years ago, Papi surprised me by taking all of us, including George, Isabella, Benjamin, and Conrad to the concert. I assumed we had back-row seats. To my astonishment, we were in the front row! I still have the album The Beatles autographed, framed, and hanging on my bedroom wall. That was the first, and last time, I witnessed my sophisticated Papi listening to rock and roll music.
The following day, I found Papi’s checkbook lying on the kitchen table. I snuck a peek. Our concert cost him almost a hundred dollars! My trembling fingers skipped through the pages, and I almost passed out when I saw the six-digit figures he had in the bank. After that moment, I knew they were keeping a secret from me, I would learn it when I turned sixteen. Unfortunately, it was more heart-wrenching than a mysterious amount of money.
My life changed a month ago, and I haven’t spoken to Papi since we returned from Sicily. Early that morning, while everyone was attending church, I slipped from the house. I walked a mile to the filing station, called a taxi, and had him drop me off at the abandoned Crystal Lake Amusement Park. I fought my way down the overgrown path to the deserted pier. I slipped off my shoes and socks, rolled up my jeans, and submerged my feet in the cool water. I sat there watching the turtles sunbathe on the rocks.
Crystal Lake had been closed a few decades ago, and the property was sold off to wealthy residents who wanted the lakefront property. Papi and his brothers used to spend their summers at Crystal Lake, so naturally, they snapped up a small lake house. The only bad thing was the neighbors who lived in the area. They kept a careful eye and tended to not mind their own business. That’s why I wasn’t surprised when I heard heavy footsteps emerging from the grass and onto the pier. It was either Papi or one of my uncles. I kept my gaze on the water and cursed the nosey neighbor who called them to come to fetch me.
As the footsteps neared, I smelled the rich Marlboro tobacco and recognized Uncle Theodore. Papi only smoked foreign cigarettes, and Dr. Francis and Uncle Dylan gave up the habit a few years ago. When Uncle Theodore was in his early twenties, back in 1910, he had an operation on his throat. An old Sherwood doctor by the name of Dr. Alexander performed the complicated surgery. It had something to do with his vocal cords.
To this day, when Uncle Theodore talks, his voice suddenly skips to a higher octave. For a slight second, he sounds feminine, and then his voice returns to a lower register. When he fully recovered from the surgery, he began smoking. He hoped the tobacco would help correct his voice and lungs. For five decades he smoked like a chimney.
“We had a feeling you would be here,” his rough voice called out, pulling me from my reverie. I responded by childishly crossing my arms over my chest and glaring out into the water in annoyance that I had been found. Closing my eyes, I tried to imagine what Crystal Lake Park looked like in its heyday. Carnival rides, the smell of popcorn and cotton candy, Papi and his brothers running around wearing Victorian bathing suits, women in high-collared dresses, and hats filled with fresh flowers.
Opening my eyes, I saw only a rundown lake. The water hadn’t welcomed swimmers or boat races in decades. The old bathing houses were rotting away. No Trespassing signs littered the grounds where at one time there were colorful advertisements announcing circuses, horseback riding, canoe rentals, and dancing.
“Ya know,” Uncle Theodore said, as he gingerly sat down beside me. “When I was about sixteen, I had quite an embarrassing episode happen to me at this same spot.”
I knew my uncle was trying to cheer me up after Papi’s surprise announcement in Sicily, so I promptly ignored him, and started swinging my feet in the water, splashing cool droplets on our arms. I felt his eyes on me, as he continued.
“I went into the bathing house to change into my swimming suit, and when I came out, my mother pulled me aside. It seems I was growing up faster than I expected.” He laughed at the memory. I saw him glance at his watch. “Good lord, that was sixty-two years ago! Speaking of unexpectedly growing up, I keep forgetting I’m almost eighty!”
I faced him, as he blew a ribbon of smoke from his mouth.
“How were you unexpectedly growing up?”
A slight smile brightened my uncle’s face. His eyes traveled over mine. A cool summer breeze tousled his silver hair.
“If you come home, I’ll tell you,” his voice teased. “Your Papi wishes to continue his story. As do I and my brothers. We all have something to add, including Conrad and Benjamin.”
My head snapped around.
“Don’t tell me, we’re related to them as well,” I spat sarcastically.
Uncle Theodore inhaled and exhaled another cloud of smoke.
“You’re so much like me, it’s scary.” He ground out his cigarette on the pier and flicked it into the water. “When my brothers and I first arrived in Sherwood, I was quite sarcastic to my mother and father. I used it to hide a lot of personal problems.”
Gingerly, I scooted back onto the planks, careful to avoid splinters from the ancient wood, and pulled my feet from the water.
“Does your story start when you were sixteen?” I asked as I turned to gather my shoes.
“For the first sixteen years of my life, I was boring old Adrian Tuscano, son of elderly Millen Tuscano. My mother was as mysterious as my family. A month ago, Uncle Dylan flew us all to Sicily on his private plane. I go into the same church Papi went into when he was my age, slip into a ridiculous baptism gown, and go to the fountain. I go into the water boring, old Adrian Tuscano, and emerge and suddenly I’m Count Adrian Joseph Victor Tuscano II. Papi takes me back to the hotel with me in stunned silence, and informs me that he is not my real father! My real parents were run over and killed in front of the Cecil Hotel in Los Angeles when I was a toddler!”
By now my voice was growing more hysterical. Uncle Theodore continued to sit beside me in silence.
“The man whom I always assumed was my real father is, in fact, my great uncle, and the two of us have a royal title! A royal title!” I screeched, my shoulders heaving. “Which I don’t understand. How come the two of us have titles but you, Uncle Dylan, and Dr. Francis do not? Are the three of you blood-related to us?”
By now, I was sobbing. Uncle Theodore reached into his pocket and pulled out a handkerchief. I wordlessly accepted as he patted my head.
“We’re blood-related,” he reassured with a smile. “If you return home, the six of us will be glad to tell you our story. Did you know my mother wrote down our story as well? She was once a school teacher and actually wrote down her version of the story in the third person, which we found upon her passing. We had no idea.”
I absentmindedly wiped my face and returned the cloth to my uncle.
“Why would she do that?” I asked.
“Well,” Uncle Theodore shrugged and slipped the handkerchief back into his trouser pockets. “Mother and father were quite elderly when Millen adopted you. We assumed that she wanted all of us, especially you, to know her version of the story. Why she wrote it down in the third person is a mystery.”
I slipped my shoes on over my socks, tied the laces, and continued.
“My story starts when I was sixteen, Papi’s story starts when he was sixteen, and the four of you came to Sherwood when you were sixteen. Is that the magic age in this family?” I laughed, as I stood up and reached down to help Uncle Theodore to his feet. Despite his age, the old man didn’t walk with a cane and still boasted a full head of silver hair.
A slight chuckle escaped his lips, as we retraced the winding path to his car.
“In my day, the trolley would drop you off where my Cadillac is parked now.”
He paused and turned back to the water as if he were saying a final goodbye.
“I sure do miss this place when it was an amusement park. My brothers and I visited every summer until the year we moved to Ireland.”
I paused and stared at my uncle in silence.
“You lived in Ireland?” My mouth dropped in disbelief.
His mysterious smirk reappeared.
“My dear, we all lived there, including my parents from about 1920, until the early 1950s. We returned home to Sherwood a changed family, both inside and out, and immediately were reunited with Conrad and Benjamin. Although we were all thirty years older, Conrad immediately recognized us, and invited us to live with him, instead of the Sherwood Hotel where we'd taken up residence.”
I paused with my uncle on the trail. I could feel the tall grass grazing against my elbows. I'd never in my life experienced a chigger bite, but I knew Uncle Theodore bathed his legs in calamine lotion before coming to fetch me. The powerful aroma tickled my nose, and I stifled a sneeze. My uncle looked me dead in the eyes and winked.
“You were a baby living with your parents at the Cecil Hotel when we moved back to Sherwood,” he said, studying my face for a reaction. “My brothers didn’t know you existed at the time. Looking back on it, we thanked God we decided to move back to Sherwood and Conrad was nice enough to invite us to live with him.”
Uncle Theodore spun around and continued his ascent up the hill.
“But, but,” I continued, my mind racing a mile a minute. “Conrad told me he moved into his great nephew’s house after the man married Isabella.”
“That is true,” my uncle continued, as we spotted his Cadillac emerging in the distance. “The house we currently live in was Conrad’s old house. When George married and started to have children with Isabella, Conrad wished to be with his nephew, to help care for them. He signed the house over to me and my brothers. My parents lived upstairs in the attic bedrooms.”
I closed my eyes and vaguely remembered my grandparents. Catrina would sit me on her lap, and brush my hair, as I watched Saturday Morning Cartoons. She smelled heavenly like lilac flowers, and rosewater soap. I don’t recall much of her husband, Frank, except he would sit at the kitchen table with my uncles and snap beans. We grew our own food, and after school, I would come home from kindergarten to find them talking at the large table.
One day, I woke up, and he wasn’t there. I couldn’t have been more than five years old, A few days later, Papi dressed me in an itchy suit, and we went to a large outdoor park with rows and rows of stones. Years later, I learned Frank died, and we attended his funeral. Catrina passed away in her sleep about two years later, and I was old enough then to realize they were buried in what was called a mausoleum. It seems several people I am related to are entombed in this tiny house in the middle of the cemetery.
We reached the car, and Uncle Theodore graciously unlocked the passenger door for me.
“In answer to your question,” he pulled the door back. “Our family’s story starts at many different points.”
He leaned against the hood and glanced up at me. I was slightly taller than him.
“Well,” he sighed. “Our story could start when my brothers and I were placed on an Orphan Train of sorts back at the turn of the century. Our story could start in a Brooklyn alleyway. Our story could start when Millen traveled to Sicily in 1911 to be baptized. Our story could start when Catrina pulled on her fur coat and raced down to the train station that winter’s day back in 1904 to meet her husband for lunch. Our story could start at the end of the Civil War when our then sixteen-year-old grandfather’s older brother, Jasper, vanished without a trace. Our story could start when I was a depressed junior in college and almost killed myself. But, we all like to think our story started that Christmas morning when my brothers and I nervously crept down the stairs for breakfast. That was the day our lives officially changed.”
I stared hard at my uncle. Orphan Train, alleyway, Civil War, vanished and suicide all swam through my mind. I was in a daze. Uncle Theodore could sense and see my confusion.
“It’s time to come home, darling,” he whispered. “Your Papi has been extremely upset because you haven’t spoken to him in days. He wants you to see why we kept this secret, and many more from you, and why we waited until you were sixteen.”
I nodded. I knew what the Orphan Train was. Poor and abandoned children from New York and Chicago were placed on these trains and sent out to cities to be adopted by either wealthy couples or farmers for free labor. There was no way Papi and his brothers were adopted. They had real parents. I remember them. I stared hard at my uncle and nodded. An unseen force was telling me to grow up and accept my fate.
“Good,” he nodded. “We all have a story to tell, me, my mother, my brothers, as well as Conrad and Benjamin, and it's best if I start first.”
I settled into the leather seat, as Uncle Theodore slipped into the driver’s side. As the engine purred to life, we left Crystal Lake and made our way to the far opposite side of Sherwood where our old farmhouse stood. Closing my eyes, I settled back, as Uncle Theodore began his story.
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