by KD Miller
Adrian agrees to listen to the story of his ancestors. (Adrian's POV 1966)
Uncle Theodore finished his story, as he turned the Cadillac into the gravel drive. A cloud of geese squawked at the noise and scuttled off to the ponds behind our house. He killed the engine, and I turned toward him in disbelief.
"I know what you're thinking," he cast me a sly smile. "I'm not finished, not by a long shot."
"The four of you were adopted?" I stammered, trying to digest what he had just told me. "But -but, Catrina and Frank are your parents."
I watched my uncle grasp a hold of the door handle.
"My dear," he pushed the door open. A warm breeze floated into the car.
"They were not the first people who adopted us."
I unfastened my seat belt and exited the car. I could smell fried chicken as we walked up the brick steps, and I knew Isabella had brought over lunch. Papi usually cooked, and it wasn't country food. He liked to roll homemade pasta, soak it in olive oil, boil it in lemon-scented water, and stir in chopped onions, garlic, and tomatoes from our gardens. I knew I was in trouble because Papi hadn't prepared our traditional Sunday lunch. He had spent the afternoon after church in a panic over my whereabouts that he refused to cook. Isabella must have felt sorry for us.
I felt my stomach twist in knots, as Uncle Theodore held open the screen door for me, pushed the front door, and called out, "Look who I found at our Crystal Lake cabin!"
Closing my eyes, I followed my uncle into the parlor of the former grand plantation home. The sounds of two sets of feet scampered over the wooden floor.
"Oh, thank goodness," Dr. Francis greeted me with a massive hug. "Your Papi is throwing a fit. He assumed you ran away."
I buried my face into my uncle's neck and inhaled the sharp scent of Hermes soap. I felt terrible. I hadn't spoken to him in over a week.
Uncle Dylan grasped hold of my arm and pulled me away. I could see the ancient grease burns on his hands from the decades he worked repairing airplane engines.
"I knew you wouldn't be that foolish," he gave me a quick hug. "Your Papi has always been quite emotional and has panic attacks easily. Thank goodness Isabella saw you walking towards the filling station this morning."
I pulled back. "She wasn't at church?"
Isabella and her husband went to the Mormon Church with Conrad and Benjamin. They woke up two hours early on Sunday so they could catch the train.
"Isabella has been sick since we came home from Sicily," Dr. Francis plopped down in his chair before the fireplace. "She called me before church and told me to come by after I got home." Dr. Francis's eyes seemed to rise to his forehead, as he shook his head in amusement. "I examined her. Their seventh child will be here in early spring. George was in such a daze, that he halved the lunch they prepared and gave it to me to take home. I had it heating up in the stove while Theodore went to find you."
"That still doesn't explain how you knew exactly where I was," I settled down beside Uncle Theodore on the couch, while Uncle Dylan took the chair beside Dr. Francis. It was Papi who answered my question.
"I called up Otto's Filling Station," his aristocratic, well-spoken voice filled the air. I shivered despite the boiling heat waves outside.
"He informed me that you used their telephone to call the local taxi service. I then telephoned them, and since you're a minor, they had to tell me that one of their drivers gave you a lift to our cabin at Crystal Lake. I was going to bring you home myself, but Theodore snatched the keys from my fingers, told me to go lay down, and that he would do it himself."
I pointedly ignored Papi as he stood in the entranceway to the parlor. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see that he hadn't changed out of his church clothes.
"Aren't you supposed to be asleep," Dr. Francis asked as Papi cautiously walked into the room, his silk slippers seemed to whisper over the wood. "That sedative I gave you was supposed to knock you out for a few hours."
Papi paused behind me. I could feel his hands resting on the back of the sofa.
"I seem to recall the last time you gave me a sedative," he said in a crisp, clear tone. "I slept for two days straight, and woke up with no memory of what happened."
Dr. Francis snorted. "That was fifty-four years ago."
Papi's fingers tightened on the upholstery. I could smell the expensive, Italian aftershave he wore. He had ordered me a bottle and gifted it to me on my fourteenth birthday. I remember shrinking back. I was far too young to shave. Or, so I thought. A month later, I was stunned to find out that I would be the first boy in my eighth-grade class who would start shaving.
"I will always remember the day my brother stuck a needle in my arm," Papi continued, "and I slept for two days straight."
Uncle Theodore gazed up at his brother. "Well, you were having a massive panic attack, and your brother had just graduated from medical school. What was he supposed to do? We were all afraid that you would harm yourself. Thank goodness the next time you had a panic attack, you handled it by running off and living in the mountains of Ireland for six months with no contact with anyone."
I heard the sarcasm in my uncle's tone and remembered, "You're so much like me, it's scary." For a brief moment, I forgot I hadn't spoken to Papi since the night in our hotel room in Sicily. You're lying... you're lying... I screeched at him, raced to my bedroom, and ignored his pleas to come back. The following morning, Uncle Dylan knocked on my door and told me to pack my bags. We would be leaving for Texas by lunchtime. At that moment I knew Papi hadn't lied, and he wasn't my real father. I sat in the co-pilot's seat on the journey back home. At every stop to refill with fuel, I ignored Papi's voice in the cabin to join him. Uncle Dylan finally answered by saying I was far too tired to talk to anyone.
"You lived in the mountains by yourself?" I stared up at Papi. Those were the first words I had spoken to him in almost two weeks. A hush fell over the room. I couldn't see it. My Papi, couldn't sleep on anything but silk sheets. My Papi had a manicure. My Papi who took the train down to Dallas to purchase tailored clothing from Neiman Marcus... had at one time lived in the mountains for six months.
"I--I--," he stared down at me. The smudges under his eyes told me he hadn't slept much since our unexpected trip back to the States. I watched his mouth tremble, and his long eyelashes flutter as he remembered. "I lived in a sanctuary with the monks. I was thirty-five and my uncle recently passed."
I felt Uncle Theodore's calloused fingers on my elbow. It was quite a shock from Papi's soft hands.
"I haven't told him about your uncle yet," he said. "The only story I told him was the one about us leaving the orphanage and being placed on the train to Sherwood. He doesn't know anything about our real parents, Mr. Woodrow, Frank and Catrina, Mr. Tuscano, my surgery, Jasper Clinton's disappearance, your sixteenth birthday party, or our move to Ireland."
Papi looked down at me, and I squinted back. Who was this man before me? I couldn't see my elegant Papi living with a group of monks in a sanctuary in the mountains! He gave a few slight shakes of his head as if he were contemplating what to say.
"My uncle," he stammered. "Is your grandfather. He's the boy wearing the sailor suit in the tintype photo on my dresser."
"Millen, sit down," Uncle Dylan's voice called out. "You're skipping far ahead. It's best to start at the beginning as our mother wanted. I believe that is why she wrote our story down in the third person."
I turned around and saw Dr. Francis pull a book down from the fireplace mantle.
"I have it ready for you, Adrian. If you wish to hear it? We can read a chapter or two before lunch."
I glanced back up at Papi. In my entire life, he looked sophisticated, and elegant, carried himself like royalty and his use of the English language could make the Queen of England burn with jealousy. He was proud of his Sicilian and Irish heritage. We had shelves and shelves full of handwritten books about our heritage up in the attic. George, who was into genealogy because of his Mormon Church, would look through them in awe. Every single person in our ancestry tree was well documented and researched. In two weeks, I learned that Papi was not the man I thought he was. Who was my real father? Why did Papi and his brothers, who are my great-uncles, adopt me? Why did they wait until my sixteenth birthday to tell me? Most puzzling of all, how come the two of us have a royal title?
"Who are you?" I found myself unexpectedly whispering.
Papi's throat contracted as he swallowed. His eyes darted nervously over my head, as they searched his brothers.
"I am the man that was chosen to raise you," he said, his eyes coming back to stare deep into mine. "In the course of my life, I would be raised by five different men, one of which would be revealed to be my real father."
I must have stared back with wild, crazy eyes.
"Millen, calm down," Uncle Theodore snapped. "You're confusing the poor child. Go pour us all a cup of coffee, and we'll start the story from the beginning. Francis will read a chapter from mother's diary, and I will add my version."
A giant sigh escaped Papi's mouth.
"As you wish."
"Good, boy," Uncle Theodore reached up to pat his arm, as Papi made his way to the kitchen.
I stared at his tall frame as he walked cautiously across the floor, with exquisite posture. He held his head as if an invisible string were pulling it upwards, as he seemed to float from the room. None of my uncles walked like him. None of my uncles had me and Papi's olive skin coloring. My stomach tightened, and I felt my skin prickle with sweat. How come I didn't notice it before? Papi went by the name, Millen Tuscano, and his brothers used the last name, O'Conner-Muller. In my entire sixteen years, I never questioned their choice. I vaguely remember asking Papi once why his brothers had a last name different than his. He responded, I legally changed my name to the last name of our ancestors because I felt a deep connection towards them. Then wouldn't my last name legally be, O'Conner-Muller? Who were the O'Conners? Who were the Mullers? I didn't understand.
I glanced around the room. Dr. Francis and Uncle Dylan were skimming through what they said was Catrina's diary. Uncle Theodore kept patting my hand in reassurance. I felt trapped like an animal. In the Sicilian hotel room, I was alone with Papi as he poured us both a glass of red wine. I shivered on the silk couch, my hair still damp from the baptism. Arise, Count Adrian Joseph Viktor Tuscano II. When Papi revealed that my real parents passed away when I was a toddler, and he legally adopted me, I screamed at him and called him a liar. I remember him begging me to come back. I locked the door to my suite and turned on the record player that came with the room. I put on the headphones and blasted The Rolling Stones. Here comes your nineteenth nervous breakdown... I had all nineteen of mine in the last hour.
Soft footsteps on the rugs told me Papi was coming down the hallway. He entered the room holding a silver tray with five coffee cups, each topped with whipped cream and cinnamon. Uncle Theodore made whipped cream from our cow's milk. The herbs we didn't grow in the greenhouse, we purchased from the Farmer's Market in Dallas, or Papi ordered them from the Italian grocery stores in downtown Dallas.
"I apologize for not preparing our weekly pasta lunch," he whispered, as he handed out the cups. I diverted my eyes and reached for mine. Uncle Theodore snorted.
"Don't worry about it," Dr. Francis said with a slight wave. "George and Isabella were glad to share the news of their unexpected pregnancy. They were in such a daze that George fried way too much chicken. We can go one week without pasta."
Uncle Dylan took a sip of his coffee and placed it on the side table in between his and Dr. Francis's chairs.
"How are Conrad and Benjamin handling the news?"
"Well," Dr. Francis stirred his coffee with a chocolate cappuccino stick, mixing the cream into the liquid. "They're extremely excited to welcome their seventh great-grandchild into the world! It's a good thing we had that house built with ten rooms, and an attic that can be transformed into at least four more."
"You mean the house wasn't already there when ya'll moved into this one?" I asked, leaning forward. I could see Papi's eyebrows frown over my use of Southern slang. Despite the man's constant corrections of my grammar, I still talked like a true Texan.
"Dear, you're skipping way too far ahead with the story," Uncle Theodore reached out to pull me back onto the couch cushions.
I gave a slight sigh, at my uncle's response, and the fact that Papi had slipped into the empty seat beside me. I was officially trapped between my sarcastic uncle who wouldn't hesitate to reach up and grab me if I started to run and Papi who I had caused to go almost two weeks without a proper night's rest.
"Theodore," Uncle Dylan crossed his legs. "It's not that big of a secret."
He turned towards me. I always liked Uncle Dylan. He would drive me to the airport on Saturdays, and take me on rides in his vintage airplane. He shook his head at Uncle Theodore.
"When we first moved into this house, Conrad lived here with George, who was about seventeen. George's real parents passed away when he was little, just like yours, and Conrad took him in. The man never had time to date and marry because he was busy raising a child. When we arrived, George was engaged to Isabella, who is the granddaughter of Benjamin Felix. About a month, or so later, Benjamin's wife passed away, and he became quite lonesome with his son and daughter-in-law living in McKinney. George said that both Conrad and Benjamin could live with them if they agreed to help raise the many children they planned to have."
Uncle Dylan paused to take another sip of coffee. He swallowed and continued.
"That autumn we left for San Francisco to adopt you, and when we returned their house was finished, and everyone moved in. "
"Well," Uncle Theodore interrupted. "I still think we should go in order, and answer the many questions we know Adrian will have, especially..." A strange look passed over his face as he trailed off, causing everyone in the room, except me, to burst out laughing.
A bit of curiosity crept over me. For the first time in my life, I saw my uncles laughing over a lifetime of family secrets. Papi and Uncle Dylan were almost seventy-five, and Uncle Theodore and Dr. Francis were almost eighty. Looking at them in a new light, and the fact that Catrina wrote down their story in the third person like she wanted to publish it intrigued me. Orphan Train, alleyway, Civil War, disappeared, suicide all came back. My family's history seemed like a Southern Gothic novel.
"Should we read a chapter from mother's diary first, and have Theodore fill in the following chapter from his point-of-view in the third person?"
"Why my point?" Theodore reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out his cigarettes. "And, why the third person?"
"You pretty much raised us until we became young adults. It's best if you take over the first part of our lives." Papi said. "When we reach my sixteenth birthday, I think we should all tell our own story. I'll talk about that life-changing moment, Dylan you tell your coming-of-age story, and Francis you talk about how you became a doctor, then Theodore you should mention your..."
"Moment of truth," he smiled and inhaled. Once again, everyone in the room laughed, which prompted my curiosity. Uncle Theodore caught me staring and laughed as he exhaled smoke into the room. "It's pretty shocking, and I believe we raised you Liberal enough to handle it."
I nodded. Papi and my uncles raised me to respect everyone regardless of race, sex, skin color, sexual orientation, politics, and so forth. The Civil Rights Movement swept the nation, and they fought on the right side of history. The right for anyone, regardless of skin color, to have equal rights. When I was young, Uncle Dylan came out of retirement and took a job at the local airport to teach the student pilots from the Soviet Union how to fly because so many hometown pilots refused to do it. For months after, people we knew all our lives wouldn't stop and say "hi" to us when we crossed them in town. We had a large talk about doing the right thing. I couldn't wait to hear Uncle Theodore's Liberal story.
"Good," Dr. Francis opened Catrina's diary.
"What about Conrad and Benjamin," Uncle Dylan asked. "Not to mention Jasper and Thomas's diaries."
"Conrad and Benjamin will be here tomorrow to tell Adrian their story and how it connects to us." Dr. Francis responded. "I have the diaries that belonged to Alex Woodrow, Thomas, and Jasper. We can slip their story in when the time comes. With that being said, everyone ready?"
His eyes flicked over the room, and we all nodded. He reached up to smooth back his snow-white hair. "Up until our last decade in Ireland, my hair was bright red, and Dylan's too, Theodore's, and your Papi had hair as dark as midnight."
Papi crossed his arms and smirked. "Don't remind me."
"You went gray first," Uncle Theodore teased. "I still remember that meltdown."
"As I said, don't remind me," Papi repeated. "I cried in my uncle's arms, as he tried to reassure me that all Tuscano men would go gray before forty."
A look of disbelief and disgust at my short-lived black hair crossed over my face. Then it dawned on me.
"Wait," I looked at Uncle Theodore, "You're the oldest, wouldn't you have gone gray first?"
I watched my uncle crush out his cigarette in the ashtray on the antique side table. "It's all making sense, isn't it?"
"I think so?" I squeaked, scared of what they were hiding.
Dr. Francis looked down at the diary, as he reached to push his reading glasses up.
"Let's us begin," he started. "Catrina Muller throws her fox fur wrap over her shoulders and races across the snow-covered streets of Sherwood, Texas. Her boots made slapping sounds as they made contact with the melted water. Once a week, at precisely ten to noon, she meets up with her husband at his floral shop and they take the train one town over for lunch. With a deep breath, she inhales and exhales, revealing white puffs in the air."
I settle back down and instantly lay my head on Papi's shoulder. He responds by taking hold of my hand. I'm ready.