A memoir of an young man's identity crisis following the revelation of a family secret.
| “What does the paper say, Peanut?”, Rick asked after hitting the speaker button on the phone console and turning to sit next to his wife, Marsha, a short, blonde woman with blonde hair. The six members of the Wilkerson family were crowded around the land-line phone in a small room of a large guesthouse that served as a temporary housing unit for new arrivals to Fort Hood, Texas. It was early October and strangely warm. I say strangely because they were natives to Kentucky; where October is usually met with bare trees, a cool autumn wind, and maybe even a frosty morning. October in Kentucky was ushered in by the blackbirds leaving and heading south to warmer weather; and a change in scenery. The Wilkerson family also left and headed south. Not realizing that those damn blackbirds were going along with them.
“Hell, I don't know. It's got your name on it.” A twangy voice spoke through the speaker from the other end of the line. It belonged to a 76 year old man sitting in his living room chair on the outskirts of the downtown area of Louisville, Kentucky. He was “Peanut” to everybody that knew him. Peanut. Nobody never discovered why he was called that or how he even earned that nickname. There wasn't anything peanut-like about him. But, by the time the phone call was made his nickname was less of a concern to Andrew, Rick's oldest son. At 11 years old, and already experiencing the identity crisis of adolescence, he could only think of one thing: his last name. What was he going to do about his last name?
“Alright, well, is there anything other than my name on there? Are there any numbers?” There was a tension in Rick's voice that was reflective of the tension in all of their minds. The six of them had to huddle each other while sitting on either of the two queen-sized beds that were provided by the guesthouse. They each had some level understanding that Peanut was elderly. Even Brenton, Alicia, and Aaron, Andrew's younger siblings, understood that “Uncle Peanut” was old. They all had accepted that somewhere between reading a blood test and communicating through the phone there would be unavoidable suspense. Numbers are cruel things, though; they are cruel, cold, and calculated. Numbers show no remorse in their results and they are no respecter of status, rank, or lack thereof. It may have been the 17 years in which Rick lived in 17 different houses throughout his childhood because of the lack of a steady income; or the 1,000 miles that separated them and their extended family back in Kentucky; or it was just the six people that sat in the guestroom waiting to see what the numbers would tell them.
“Yeah, there are. Next to your name. Hell, I don't know what this shit means, Rick.” Ignorance was what held the Wilkerson family together. For thirty years there were no conversations about the dark secrets that hid in the sheets of Alice and Don Wilkerson's bed. There may have been the occasional hushed gossip at a family reunion, joined with the quick glances in Alice's direction. But, nobody ever brought it up. Especially when Don was around; nobody wanted to air their dirty laundry. There was still a ghoulish respect for the Southern decorum that established a “hush-hush” rule regarding family matters; no matter how dark or how horrid those family matters might have been. The Wilkerson family's truth...Rick's truth...Andrew's truth; it was all brushed under a proverbial rug weaved with the threads of the lust and lies of a small town affair. The truth lay hidden in plain sight for the majority of Alice and Don's marriage, but by the 1980s the strains in their marriage became obvious. The threads we starting to unravel. Publicly, their divorce was accepted by the extended family as a feminine independence that Alice had stumbled upon as the result of an ever-changing and ever-progressing world. But, Alice and Don knew the truth; everyone else, especially those to whom the truth would matter most, were left in the dark, under the rug.
“Dad, what do the numbers means?”, Andrew asked out loud as Rick put his finger over his mouth. At 11 years old Andrew had no clue what was about to happen. Rick was the typical father to Andrew and his three other children. Explaining the difficult truths of life just seemed come naturally to Rick. When he had “the Talk” with Andrew he was kind of surprised how easily the conversation flowed. This had made it easier to explain to Andrew what had occurred between Peanut and Alice and how Don Wilkerson may not be his father, or Andrew's grandfather, after all. But, easier didn't mean simple and even though Rick knew on the surface what the numbers would mean he also knew what he didn't know. How it would affect everything else.
“Okay, it says Richard Allen Wilkerson...”, he paused. “Okay, Peanut, what next?”, Rick prodded after about thirty seconds. What next? Andrew asked Rick this same question multiple times growing up. When he would try helping his father with a project, or when Rick would coach Andrew through the steps to get Mario to beat Bowser on the Super Nintendo. It's a natural thing for a child to look for guidance from their parent. For a son, though, there is something mystical about this guidance coming from his father. Rick never had these mystical experience and this may have been the very first moment that he was able to ask this question; and expect an answer.
“...the numbers are 99.998”, and it was over. Rick not only turned out to be a bastard son, but wasn't even a guaranteed bastard son. He was more of an illegitimate child now than before; even if only by a sliver of a percentage. Bloodlines don't always flow, sometimes they trickle. This trickle meant that Rick was less of a son than he wanted to be and that his children were lesser grandchildren than they deserved to be. The trickle was the only thing that mattered in the end; the last number decided it all. Like the free-throws in a basketball game, the one missed shot will always come back to haunt the losing team. They were the losing team.
“What are the kids doing?”, that twangy voice again rang through the speaker on the land-line phone. “Your grandkids are sitting here around the phone with me and Marsha.” Andrew could hear Peanut chuckle, or what he thought was a chuckle, at the other end of the phone. He was caught up in a momentary euphoria. Yes, he was less of a grandson than he wanted to be, but was still Peanut's grandson. Andrew wanted to capitalize on this moment before Peanut had time to pick who his favorite grandkids were anyway. Andrew and his siblings all got their turns saying, “Hi, Grandpa”. It urged on by Rick, who himself seemed to be forcing himself to swallow this moment in one mental gulp. Andrew just could not let that chuckle go. It echoed in his brain like the kind of laugh that a villain laughs when they knows they were off the hook. In this case, though, the criminal got away with adultery and kidnapping.
“Bye, Dad.” Rick would like to say that he was having a breakthrough moment when he finally was able to make this statement to someone who really was his father. But, while not visible on the outside, on the inside he was having a breakdown. For thirty years he was lied to and for thirty years Peanut sat by and watched him suffer as he was forced to move from house to house. When mayonnaise sandwiches were breakfast, lunch, and dinner; when a bucket was the only toilet available; when grocery shopping meant that Don and Alice stocking up on coffee and cigarettes. Peanut did nothing to help his own flesh and blood, although Alice's argument was that he would buy real groceries for them. In fact, that's the reason that Alice gave for feeling obligated to have sex with Peanut: as a way to show her appreciation for those small thing. Maybe it was Peanut's own inner guilt, but he made the trip to Texas to visit his newly claimed family. But, only twice in those four years did he come down. The final time after Andrew had turned thirteen. Oh, how life is interesting, Andrew thought, being the son of a prodigal grandfather.
“Hi, Grandpa.” It was sort of ironic, borderline poetic just, that a man who spent his whole life lying about who he was to his own children would be diagnosed with Alzheimer's Disease. As time went on Peanut began to forget who the Wilkersons were and that they were ever his family, that Rick was ever his son, or that he himself was ever a liar. For him it was a gentle death. He was absolved of the responsibility of having a conscience. His mind deteriorated and he had forgotten the sins of his past, even while the fruits of those sins would sit next to him in a nursing home for a few hours every week. The last day that Andrew visited him was the day when Peanut didn't even recognize who Andrew was anymore. From his perspective he never knew Andrew and he would never be able to understand how right he was in his ignorance.
“Are you going to his funeral?” Peanut had died. Some said that the only reason that Andrew lacked emotion was because he had already accepted that Peanut was going to die. But, he knew why he lacked emotion. It was hard to feel true grief for the death of a complete stranger. Andrew was 20 years old and he had no grandfather. He declined the invite by Rick to go to the funeral. He didn't want to be surrounded by the mourning of an anonymous man. Peanut never wanted his father. He damn sure didn't want me, Andrew thought to himself as he stood looking out the storm door. It was Spring in Kentucky and the small Bradford Pear was blooming with its foul-scented flowers. And those damn blackbirds were back again.