by KD Miller
Adrian has many questions about the bizarre story he is hearing. (Adrian's POV- 1966)
Grasping a hold of my knife and fork, I stabbed the chicken on my plate, sliced it into bite size pieces, pierced one, and raised it into my mouth. I watched my uncles use their bare hands to eat the greasy food. I also knew Papi would reach over and smack my hands if I did the same. Since returning from Sicily, I had taken my meals in my room. I could hear Uncle Theodore complaining loudly that I was acting childish. Despite the fact that I was furious at Papi for keeping my adoption and royalty title a secret, I overheard his soft voice over-ruling his brother. Let the boy be. I know exactly how he feels.
I always thought I knew Uncle Theodore. He worked on the farms from sunrise-to-sunset beside George and Conrad tending the animals, planting the gardens, taking care of the expensive farm equipment. After supper, he would retire to the parlor and work on his oil paintings. He carried a faded-leather, art kit from the early nineteen-hundreds. Inside was a rainbow of tubes, and expensive brushes. I watched him squeeze globs on the paint board, and use his fingers to paint the bare canvas background, and switch to the brushes for the baby angel. He always painted the same thing, a petite cherub with golden hair, and blue eyes resting in an abandoned cemetery, in the forest, beside the river. I asked him about his fascination with angels. He responded with, I'm painting my dreams. He seemed to dream about angels a lot.
Sometimes Conrad would come over, and Uncle Theodore would give him that week's painting. Conrad's face would brighten, and he would thank him. He kept the photos all over his bedroom wall. I didn't know the story of how they first met as teenagers back in 1904 until a few moments ago. As Uncle Theodore told his story, I could see a young Conrad behind the drugstore counter, his bright eyes widening in amazement at the four children that Catrina Mueller had taken in. I could see Conrad reach up to nervously twirl his blonde hair as Papi and his brothers drank their hot chocolate.
The more Uncle Theodore told his story, the more Papi kept pulling me closer to him as if the truth would cause me to rush from the room. At first I believed the secret to be Papi and Uncle Dylan were twins. How delightful! I didn't say anything as Dr. Francis read over Catrina's diary. I wondered why it was such a mystery. Did Uncle Dylan reject the royal title? I still didn't understand that part of my life. The title meant nothing in America. Our ancestors owned a lot of land in Sicily, and centuries ago they owned a villa. Royalty only existed in England. All others were just titles and land.
Dr. Francis finished a chapter about the four of them eating their first breakfast at the Mueller home and Uncle Theodore smarting off to Catrina. I glanced over at him as Dr. Francis read Catrina's thoughts on first meeting the children. I could see my uncle laughing silently to himself. He seemed to be enjoying the story.
"Well, I guess it's my turn. One more before lunch," Uncle Theodore stretched out his legs.
Uncle Theodore might have been the oldest person in the group, but he was the shortest. I have never met a man as short as him, and I never questioned it until he finished his story.
Across the kitchen table, Uncle Theodore caught me staring at him. He calmly picked up his butter knife, and spread a glob of preserves on his biscuit.
"We not only raised you to be Liberal because it's the right thing," he said looking me dead in the eye. "We raised you to be a Liberal because we knew someday we would have to tell you my secret."
I stared back in disbelief. I still couldn't process it. It was impossible. Only God himself could have come down from Heaven and changed him. He had a man's body. He spoke like a man. Acted like one.
"You're confused, I can tell," Uncle Theodore smiled, and popped the biscuit in his mouth.
Papi reached over to pat my hand in reassurance.
"Don't scare him, Theodore, "he said. "I don't want him to run off again. He might not come back."
I lowered my gaze. "I'm not going anywhere." I didn't realize how horribly I had treated everyone, not just Papi.
"Good," Uncle Theodore swallowed his biscuit, and took a hold of his glass of ice tea. Despite Conrad and George's pleas of tea being bad for the human body, my and uncles and I drank it constantly.
Conrad and George were members of the Mormon Church and their religion forbid coffee and tea, except herbal. Conrad had been trying for years to convert Uncle Theodore, who was a proud atheist. He kept refusing. Me, Papi and Uncle Dylan were Catholic and attended St. Mary's Church in downtown Sherwood. Dr. Francis attended First Christian because Frank and Catrina were members until their deaths.
Conrad once belonged to that church, but converted to Mormonism the summer of 1931. He promptly became a missionary, and served a two year mission in San Francisco. Arriving back in Sherwood his father left him the drug store. He worked in the pharmacy alongside the man, until his parents passing a few years later. His only nephew had recently married and had a child on the way - George.
When George was about three years-old, his parents left him with Conrad while they went to Oklahoma City on a business trip with Conrad's brother and sister-in-law. While passing through Denison, a car ran a red light, and hit them head on. Both cars flipped over and landed on the railroad tracks beside the Traveler's Hotel. All passengers were killed instantly when a train crashed into them. Conrad became George's legal guardian, and it was revealed that the woman driving the other car was Isabella's mother, Rebecca Felix.
Despite her grandmother's fury, Isabella would end up marrying George. Unfortunately, the woman passed away before her only grandchild's wedding, leaving Benjamin Felix a widow, just like his son, Jeffery, whom never remarried after his wife was killed in the Denison car wreck. Isabella used to hint that her father believed himself guilty of his wife killing Conrad's family. He should have never allowed her to go driving after that argument they had.
Benjamin didn't seem to mind that his granddaughter was marrying George, and happily retired from his management position at the department store his family had owned for almost fifty-years,, gave it to Jeffery, and moved in with Conrad, George and Isabella to help take care of his grandchildren. They seemed to make his life worth living.
I once overheard Conrad saying to Benjamin that he could never understand why the car was heading east across town? That was not the direction to Oklahoma City. Benjamin responded that some questions were never meant to be answered. The fate of his daughter-in-law, and Conrad's family would remain a mystery until the end of time when the Lord told them himself. That was the last time anyone talked about that fatal accident. I wondered if they would bring it up tonight when they came over.
George used to tell me that his first memory was of Uncle Conrad taking him to Denison to Fairview Cemetery to visit his parent's and grandparent's graves every Sunday. It was the Lord's Day and it was for worshiping him, napping, eating a light lunch and genealogy work. You never purchased anything, or listened to the radio on Sundays. God allowed genealogy work because it was important for him and your family in the afterlife. That was why Conrad and George did genealogy research, and their vacations revolved around museums, libraries, cemeteries and visiting elderly relatives.
I continued to eat my chicken, while pondering the story that Uncle Francis and Uncle Theodore told me. This was the first time they had spoken of their real parents. I always assumed Frank and Catrina were their real parents. In the parlor, on top of Papi's Victrola player were two framed portraits. One was a photo of a family dressed in shabby clothing and the other of a family dressed in expensive, tailored clothing. A young girl with a boy's haircut stood in the center of the second photo holding the photo of the shabbily dressed family in her hands. And, who was that other man in the background of the second photo, with his hand on the smallest boy's shoulder? How come he stood in one photo, but not the other?
I never questioned the photos, even during the stormy nights when Papi would open the Victrola player, turn the crank and listen to every single one of his Sicilian Opera records. As Uncle Francis read Catrina's diary, and Uncle Theodore talked about his real parents, my gaze turned towards the Victrola player and I understood. The shabby dressed family was Papi and my uncles with their real parents, and the other photo was them with Frank and Catrina after they had been adopted. Another questioned nagged in my mind. Up until now I never cared, or was it that I never seemed to notice.
"How come the four of you never married?"
I instantly felt four sets of eyes on me. The clattering of Papi's fork hitting the bone china plate made me wish I hadn't said anything. There was an awkward pause for a few moments and I felt like running again.
"Well," Theodore pulled us all back to reality. "It's difficult to marry a man when you've been living as one for forty-five years."
The room filled with soft laughter. Papi cast me annoyed look. I responded by crossing my arms. Their story was swiftly turning into a soap opera. Forget the shows that Isabella and Papi watched every morning on the kitchen television while cooking lunch, our own family history was a lot juicier. I should send CBS a script.
Dr. Francis sighed and tossed his napkin on the table. I could sense Papi's look of disapproval at his brother's bad table manners.
"In answer to your question," His hand waved in the air, dismissing what he was about to say, "We could straight up tell you, or we could finish our story, and then tell you. It would make more sense if you heard the rest before casting judgment."
"I'm not judging anyone," I shot back. "I just never thought of asking until just now." My eyes traveled to my plate, and I shrugged my shoulders. "I understand that some men never marry, but it didn't seem odd that an entire family never married until just now."
Uncle Dylan stood from the table, his chair squeaked across the ancient wooden floor.
"Good, that means we raised you correctly."
Uncle Theodore rested his chin in his hand. I stared back and took note of every line, and wrinkle on his sun-burnt face. The way his two front teeth bit down on his chapped lips, as he pondered what to say.
"It's not odd. It's society that says it's odd." He stood up, took a hold of his plate, and made his way over to the sink. "After we clean up the kitchen, let's talk for a bit outside, shall we?" His head turned towards the large floor length windows. "I think the screened-in side porch should be good?"
Papi reached across, and brushed a few strands of hair away from my eyes.
"You'll understand soon enough," he whispered.
I nodded. I felt the annoyance and semi-anger in Dr. Francis' tone when he tossed his napkin on the table. The way Uncle Dylan pushed away from the table. The deep creases in the corners of Uncle Theodore's eyes. They weren't mad at me for asking the question. They were remembering the events that made them decide to never marry. In that moment I understood everything. They wanted to marry, but couldn't. Something had prevented them from taking wives...and by nightfall I would know.