Installment #4 /But I Didn’t Die / a fictional memoir by Tom Evans

The rest of the late hazy Kodachrome summer was a welter of activity consisting mostly of meeting all our new relatives. On Mr. Barnes’ side there was Aunt Annie, Uncle Bobby, and cousins, whose house we had driven by our first day here. On Mrs. Barnes’ side, her sister Aunt Johnnie (the origin of said nickname was never revealed- to us, at least) and husband Uncle Clyde, our cousins Candy and Cathy, and our grandparents, who all lived in Cleveland. We were extremely nervous, knowing they had come especially to meet us, not knowing what to expect, it being such unfamiliar territory for us, and never quite getting over the feeling that once more we were auditioning for a part.

To add to the pressure we already felt, we were told it was a very big deal to have our grandparents in town because they rarely traveled anymore. But when Mrs. Barnes deemed us fit to travel two days later, travel we did, to pick them up at the train station.

The train station itself was monolithic with more noise and activity than I’d ever experienced before, people frantically hurrying through the great vaulted ornate main concourse and up and down passageways as the loudspeaker blared times and destinations all over the country. There were people of all colors, clothing, and languages, the most exotic to me being a dark bearded man in a white turban but wearing a regular business suit.

We stopped at the passageway with CLEVELAND above its entrance and waited for Mrs. Barnes’s parents and Penny to emerge. I watched particularly carefully as the passengers from the seemingly endless train disembarked and streamed up the passageway to see if I could pick them out and thus be the first one to see them, but saw no elderly couple with a young girl in tow.

They definitely weren’t on that train, Mrs. Barnes said. Maybe they took another one. Mr. Barnes went to the information desk to find out what was going on, and came back with sandwiches and drinks for all of us.

The man at the information desk checked the passenger list and, sure enough, their names weren’t on there, Mr. Barnes said, but when he checked the list for the next train they were and should be arriving in a little while.

In the meantime we sat down on a nearby bench and ate our lunches. Just as we were finishing up Mr. Barnes cried, There they are, and perfect timing too!

I first saw them emerge from a group of passengers, a white-haired slightly stooped couple, and a girl tall for her age with dirty-blond hair.

Naturally a big fuss was made over us by Mrs. Barnes’ parents, but Penny just stared right through us like we weren’t even there, and said nothing when we were introduced, although I thought I heard a faint hmmmmph as we made our way to the car. I have to admit my first impression of her was not a good one, and I could tell by the look on his face that Rory agreed.  I remember thinking at the time she was too young to be acting like that.

Thankfully just the opposite proved to be true with Mrs. Barnes’s parents. With seven of us the car was packed, Mr. and Mrs. Barnes in front and Penny sitting between them, and Mrs. Barnes’s parents in back with me between them, leaving Rory to sit on Mrs. Barnes’s father’s lap.

Soon after we went over a bump and Rory ripped off a loud one but Mrs. Barnes’s mother, thinking it was her husband who’d done it, said, Ed, for lands sakes, and Mrs. Barnes’s father replied, Sorry, couldn’t help it, you know how those bumps get me every time.

Rory and I stared at him in disbelief but he looked over and winked at us, becoming an instant hero to us from that point on.

Mrs. Barnes’s mother asked me where I got the furrow in my brow that made me look like an old man, and that they would have to see if they couldn’t smooth that out, while Mr. Barnes’s father set Rory on his lap again when we got back to the house while he smoked a pipe, asking him what he knew about baseball, which was nothing, and proceeding to tell him about the Yankees, and how people often mistook him for their manager, Casey Stengel.                                                                                                                From then on we called them ‘Popsie’ and ‘Grammy’ per their request, and it seemed perfectly natural to us. They, too, brought us new clothes, also the same kind but different colors. They left the very next day with promises to come back soon.

—–o—–

In addition to coming to meet us for the first time, Aunt Johnnie and Uncle Clyde were also going to be sponsors at our baptism. There had been a big to-do over whether we had been baptized or not, everyone incredulous to think that we hadn’t, as though we had been raised among savages and our souls were in grave danger. I couldn’t remember if we had been or not, and no certificates could be located, but ultimately it didn’t matter one way or another, because it was Mr. and Mrs. Barnes’s fervent desire that we be baptized in the Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod. I did know one thing for certain, though, we were going to feel like fools walking up to the font to have the water poured over our heads. But there was no question it was going to happen and when the time came we would be marched straight up the aisle in front of those strangers to have our heads doused. Although the service seemed to take forever, and my throat was constricted the entire time, I was relieved that when the time finally came it was over fairly quickly, and went off without a hitch. I was grateful as well as for the closing words the soft-spoken, kindly pastor directed to us: Baptism is a drowning of the old man and the coming forth of the new man. And so, Rory, Wesley, on the day of your new beginning, we welcome you into our family. Then he shook our hands and the ceremony was concluded.

After the baptism everyone returned to the Barnes’s for a celebratory dinner. I was petrified at being the center of attention in the midst of these relative strangers at the long dining room table, as was Rory. I couldn’t eat very much I was so engrossed in the raucous proceedings. I knew it wasn’t polite to gawk, Mrs. Barnes had been very specific on that point in prepping us for the occasion, but all these new experiences made it difficult not to be. The tumult from the constant clinking and clashing of stemware and silverware, Uncle Clyde at one end of the table slicing ham and calling out in his booming voice more hayam anyone, while Mr. Barnes assiduously carved turkey at the other end, Mrs. Barnes, Aunt Johnnie, and Aunt Annie constantly replenishing salad bowls and helpings of potatoes and vegetables, Uncle Bobby presiding over the bar, mixing drinks and making sure everyone had a cold beer or a full wine glass, all this accompanied by endless toasts and ebullient laughter.

The din was overwhelming, making me even more nervous than I already was about spilling something, using the improper utensil, and minding my table manners, as (again) Mrs. Barnes had told us in no uncertain terms to do. I didn’t dare glance at Rory to see how he was coping even though he tried to get my attention by poking me several times. After all was said and done, it didn’t even seem like it was about us, but that was all right, I’d never hoped much less thought it would be.

Fortunately we had been seated between Popsie and Grammy, who were merely observing much of the goings-on. Every now and then Grammy would pat me reassuringly on the knee and Popsie playfully offered Rory a cigar first, then a pipe, and winked at us when Grammy said, Oh Ed, landsakes, stop teasing him.     When dinner was over, cigars, cigarettes, and pipes were brandished in earnest and after-dinner drinks decanted. We went out in the back yard with our cousins and played freeze tag. When it grew dark we were all called in because it was time for our Cleveland relatives to head home. Mr. Barnes tried to get them to stay over so they didn’t have to drive home in the dark but it seemed Uncle Clyde had one of his important business deal to conclude early the next day. We got hugs all around and Grammy promised they would see us at Christmas. As we waved to everyone from the front porch as they drove off I couldn’t help wondering if I’d passed the test.

—–o—–

How quiet, even empty, it seemed when everyone was gone. Mrs. Barnes told us to head upstairs and get ready for bed. We did so, and soon were lying in our beds, drained from all the excitement that day. I could hear the clatter of dishes coming from downstairs, and the murmur of Mr. and Mrs. Barnes’s voices. I must have dozed off because suddenly I was awakened by the creaking of one of the wicker chairs at the head of our beds. Instantly I was alert and, as my vision adjusted to the darkness, I saw Mrs. Barnes sitting there with Rory on her lap, Rory’s eyes big as saucers. She shrugged him off when she saw I was awake, looked over at me, waggled her finger and patted her lap, saying, Come over here, Wesley, It’s your turn. Ever so slowly I got out of bed and went over and sat on her lap. I felt funny about it, that something wasn’t right, and it wasn’t just that we’d never sat on her lap before. She smelled and acted funny, for one thing. Mrs. Barnes then commenced to ask me loudly three times in rapid succession, Do you love me, Do you love me, Do you love me,  not once giving me a chance to say anything even if I had had something to say. Feeling like I had to respond in some way I ended up merely shrugging my shoulders. That surely made her mad. She catapaulted me off her lap, saying tersely, Get back into bed. Then she stood up and moved to the foot of my bed and launched into a tirade: No one else wanted you, I was the only one- not your aunts, uncles, cousins, or grandparents- no one- they all thought I was nuts for adopting five-year-old twin boys! And this is the thanks I get? Even in the relatively dark room I could see how red and angry she was. I was hoping she wouldn’t come any closer but thankfully she suddenly turned on her heel and walked out unsteadily in a huff, slamming the door behind her.

We were both stunned into silence. Love? I doubt we’d ever even heard the word before. I asked Rory if she’d asked him the same thing and he nodded. As I lay there attempting to comprehend what had just transpired I got some comfort in noting that she hadn’t mentioned Mr. Barnes in her tirade, but I couldn’t believe Grammy and Popsie felt that way too, they just couldn’t, which meant she was a liar, something she had already accused us of doing several times before. It became very scary the more I realized this: she’d been caught in a lie as far as I was concerned which meant that all bets were off, all pretense gone. The day had been irreparably ruined, and I knew that not only wasn’t this the end of it, it was just the beginning. I whispered Rory’s name but got no answer.

I managed to fall asleep in spite of it all. I was pretty resilient in those days, I had to be, for both of us, even more so in the future.

—–o—–

We learned early on Mrs. Barnes wanted things done in a particular way (her way) and if they weren’t there would be hell to pay. For instance, one night we failed to roll up the toothpaste tube when we finished brushing our teeth, not knowing it was required of us. The next morning she let us have it, screaming, pulling our hair, scratching us, smearing the toothpaste all over our faces and forcing us swallow it. We wouldn’t soon forget to do that again, so I guess she’d accomplished her mission.

Another time I got up one night to go to the bathroom and, half-asleep, walked in on her while she was in the bathtub. I got an eyeful and she knew it, but all I remembered (and would never forget) was hair everywhere and wet pink nipples. Amazingly there didn’t seem to be any immediate repercussions but a few nights later when Rory made the same trip to the bathroom he encountered Mrs. Barnes, this time on the toilet. What he told me later I have a hard time believing to this day, even of her. He said she’d made him sit on the toilet with her and when she’d finished made him bend over the toilet so she could slam the toilet seat on his head! He had no idea why she’d done that and I didn’t have the heart to tell him the same thing had happened to me and, even though I wasn’t punished he might have avoided it if I had, or that I supposed that was her subtle  way of telling us to knock before entering when a door was closed.

There was another punishment during this time period, I don’t remember exactly what for (it happened several times) but she made us stand there while she beat us over and over with a belt, raining blows on our torso and shoulders. It’s a natural reaction to flinch or raise your hands to protect yourself but every time we did this she said we were raising our hands to her and she wouldn’t stop until we didn’t move a muscle. Then we were sent to bed without dinner with the promise that she would tell Mr. Barnes that we had threatened her as soon as he got home.

I daresay these things made us preternaturally wary of her, and we were constantly on edge. She had been so nice to us when we first arrived but no more, in fact the opposite. I couldn’t help but think this was in part the direct result of us failing to tell her we loved her, and that she would be our implacable enemy from that point on.

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