“Hey, how’ve you been?”
I’d decided not to venture into any tricky territory, to keep the conversation light, to do anything but alienate her from me, which might make her disappear.
“Well, I just wanted to check in and make sure you’re doing okay.”
“I’m okay.” Her voice was cowed. I told her I’d like to keep in touch, and said goodbye.
She hasn’t returned another call from me since.
Yesterday, I called all three of my cousins who were in Chicago with me. No one called me back, which led to internal theories of familial conspiracy that included everything but black helicopters.
When I rolled out of bed today, I was grouchy, disturbed by the lack of answers I’ve been able to gather about my dad’s life, and what I’d like to think of as a financial misunderstanding among my dad’s relatives regarding the funeral costs.
I dialed my Aunt Ruth, a savage little lady bent over from osteoporosis with a taste for Jim Beam and cigarettes. There’s little small talk from Ruth, and we were immediately engaged in the mystery. We went over the facts, well worn after they’d been rolling around our heads for the past week, and then she said something new.
“There was a woman who came up to Evelyn and me outside the funeral home. She said she was a special friend of Sheila’s mother’s. She asked for our addresses. I thought that was strange.” The word “strange” came as punctuation, one with its hands on its hips.
“Was she black?” I asked because I hadn’t seen a black woman other than Sheila at the funeral.
“No. She was white. She said she knew Sheila’s mother for a long time. And I’m wondering if she’s the one that Sheila’s mother left Walter for.”
“Wait. Sheila’s mom left her father for another woman?” In the distance, I’m certain there was circus music playing.
“A white woman. That’s what made Walter so angry.”
“You mean Sheila’s mother was a lesbian?”
“Yes!” Ruth sounded annoyed that I couldn’t connect the dots, but this was a whole new wing to the house of cards I’d been assembling. “Her name was Evelyn, and she asked for our addresses.”
“Hang on. Let me get the register book from the funeral.” I dug it out of the bag I’d taken back with me on the plane, the bag I’ve been avoiding since my return. Thumbing through it, I stopped. “There’s an Ellen Dove.”
“That’s it. I wonder if she knows anything.”
“I didn’t see a woman there other than the one who worked with my dad.”
“Not her! She met us outside of the funeral home. Ellen. That’s her name. Not Evelyn. It was Ellen.”
“Let me call you right back. I’m going to see if 411 has a number on her.”
“Find out something.” I promised Ruth I’d try. Information only had an E.R. Dove listed in Oak Park. I called the number, letting it ring about twenty times, and hung up, frustrated.
“There was no answer and no answering machine. I don’t understand people who don’t have an answering machine.”
Ruth laughed a husky laugh. “Well, I don’t have one either.” We spoke of my dad in reverent but furrow-browed tones for some time, wondering the same hows and whys that have haunted the family since the harsh spotlight lit up all of my dad’s secrets, but allowed the answers to continue to hide in the shadows.
“I just can’t give up trying to find out, Ruth.”
“I don’t want you to. You have to find out.”
“I don’t know if we ever will—“
“Then it won’t be for a lack of trying then, will it?” She wasn’t going to let this go any faster than I was. I told her I was going to call Aunt Evelyn next.
“Oh, I am so happy you called. I got out your number yesterday to call you, but I guess you beat me to it.” Evelyn’s speaks in softer tones than her sister, almost a song with every sentence spoken. We covered the same ground, nothing new from Evelyn other than the confirmation of an Ellen Dove, my newest lead.
“You know, we’d like to help you with the expenses, but…” She spilled an uncomfortable laugh. I was relieved that finally someone in the family spoke of it.
Coloring in her pause, I said, “I just thought we’d share the expenses, you know, three ways or four ways or five ways. I just can’t—“
“I know. We’ll help as much as we can. Ruth doesn’t have any money, and we’re just old retired people.”
“That’s okay, Evelyn. Whatever you can do is very appreciated.”
“I know this is a hard time for you, so soon after losing Billy. Your dad told me how hard you took it.” At that moment, any anger I had at anyone wisped away. Dad spoke to her about Billy. I told her an abbreviated version of what happened until my words caught in my throat.
“I can’t imagine…” Her tone was a delicate wind chime.
We looped back into speaking of my dad and what an amazingly fun guy he was. I told her how similar Billy and he were, and my examples made her laugh. I could tell she was nodding her head in her own fond memories of her little brother while listening.
“I just can’t understand how this happened to your dad.”
“Me either, but I’m going to find out.” My response was steadfast. I felt stronger for speaking with the sisters who loved my dad so much.
I’ll keep calling Ellen Dove, the white woman who may have had a relationship with Sheila’s mother, who still may be involved with her. I’ll pursue Sheila. I have her father’s address. There’s enough gumshoe in me to pursue the truth.
I’m just afraid there really isn’t a truth to discover, but some answers would help. Even if I don’t find out everything I need to, as Ruth directed me, it won’t be for a lack of trying.