Ties That Bind, Lies That Break
Grampie stared blankly at my hand, "say yes?" His question sounded more like a melancholy statement tinged with bitterness than a question.
"I'm wearing the ring, aren't I?" I quipped, hoping humor would help. It WAS supposed to be a happy occasion. The love of my life just asked me to marry him. I was thrilled. I knew he wouldn't share my enthusiasm, but I was hoping for better than nothing with a side of hate.
Grampie Ed hated Josh. It seemed he hated him for even existing. He never gave me a reason, at least one that made any sense. Sure, Josh was 6 years older than me, and he wasn't educated. But he ran his own successful contracting business, and he loved me and treated me like a queen.
Josh, at 34, had that weathered handsome look you'd imagine an old-time cowboy having after years of riding in the sun. He was kind, sweet and quick with a smile and a joke. He was smart too, easily smart enough to go to college, but life had other plans for him.
I still remember when he graduated from high school. I was only 12, but I had already developed a crush on him. My cousin, David, maintained a sort of secret friendship with him, hanging out in town together away from Grampie's disapproving eyes. Josh had won a scholarship to NYU. Then the accident happened.
Josh's father, Raymond Jenkins, locally known as Ray-Ray, raised Josh alone, in a run down trailer at the edge of town. He was something of a local legend. A former football hero, he descended into a life of boozing and womanizing, something that, in the end, took his legs and, along with it, his livelihood. One too many drinks at Chip's Roadhouse, he got on his motorbike to head home in the wee hours of the morning.
He didn't get far, they say. Less than a mile down the road when he lost control and wrapped himself, bike and all, around a tree. He survived, minus his legs and a traumatic head injury that made work in construction impossible.
Much to Ray-Ray's protestation, Josh turned down the scholarship, stayed home and went straight to work, first taking over his father's job as a labourer and later learning the trade and finally, buying the former owner, Freddy D'Angelo, out.
Some people thought he was stupid to stay, that he should have taken the scholarship, lived his own life, and let Ray-Ray wallow in the mess he created. I thought it was selfless and admirable. It made me love him even more. His father was all he had.
I understood that feeling more than most. I think it's one of the things we bonded over. Josh never knew his mother. He had been the product of a teenage fling between Ray-Ray and a local girl who had been turned out of her own home and left town when she revealed she was pregnant.
The baby somehow ended up with the Jenkins’ and she went on with her life, eventually marrying someone else. She never looked back, never wrote, never asked about Josh.
I never knew my mother either. She died when I was about 2. I'm not sure how. A handful of theories had been floated, none of which made much sense. Some people said she died in childbirth while having my little brother, Curtis, but that made no sense, unless her labour was almost 3 months long. Others claimed it was some sort of medical misadventure, or an infection that wasn't treated properly because the only doctor in town was unreachable on the golf course. I don't know. I'd probably never know. All I do know is that my father couldn't cope and we landed on Grampie's doorstep. Funny, he never looked back either.
He and Grannie gladly took us in. They did the best they could, but they were too old to deal with us. They were set in the ways of the past, holding firm to ancient notions of strict obedience and observance. Children seen and not heard and all that. But they were loving and kind too. They could have let us fall into the system, but didn't. We always had a roof, food, and mostly a good life.
I looked at Grampie hard as he sat across from me. He looked so small, so defeated. Yet there was this spark, this angry, white-hot hate that seemed to keep his 83-year-old body propelling toward another day.
He placed his withered hand on top of mine, covering my ring, "Dana," he began, "you know I love you..."
"Then be happy for me," I pleaded.
He shook his head, the one strip of white hair he still had left moving with it, "quiet child," he ordered, "you have to call this off, trust me."
I stood up, "no," I said softly, trying to remain calm, "I will not. I love you, Grampie, but this has to stop."
"Damn, child!" he slammed his fist onto the kitchen table, " you can't marry..."
I started for the door. I was tired of hearing it. He thought Josh was no good. Not our kind, mostly because of his father, who was also no good in Grampy's books. "Josh isn't Ray-Ray!" I shouted as I put my hand on the doorknob, pausing slightly in the faint hope he'd see sense.
"No, but he is your brother!" he yelled back, taking a couple steps toward me before sinking back in the kitchen chair.
I stood, stunned for a moment. I wasn't sure whether to cry or let the rage inside me take over. I walked over to the table, sitting down, as if in slow motion. Grampy," I began, taking his hand, "this isn't funny."
"You think I don't know it ain't funny?" he looked at me, his blue eyes glassy with a mix of age and sadness, "you think I don't know? The stories in town I've had to live with. The shame." He told me the story, how it was my mother that had gotten pregnant by Ray-Ray and left town to start her new life. Josh was my brother and Ray-Ray was my father.
It couldn't be true, I told myself. My head was swimming. I felt like I couldn't breathe, I was caught somewhere between running as far from Josh as I could and saying I don't care who he is, I'm marrying him regardless.
Grampy interrupted my thoughts, "I don't expect you'd take my word," he shook his head, "I mean, I'm just an old man; an old man that took you and your brother in when you had nobody, raised you, gave you a home, fed you proper..."
There really was no need for the guilt trip. I knew he wouldn't lie to me. Grampy was a lot of things, old-fashioned, strict, rigid, judgmental, but he was a decent, honest man, a salt-of-the-earth type. But his words still just didn't sit right. "We can get a DNA test to be sure," I told him. It was 2015, these things could be easily settled.
"I ain't got money for that," he shook his head.
I didn't have the money either, at least for a private test. A teacher's salary didn't leave much for extras. "We can get one of the ones off the internet, Grampy," I said, allowing the enthusiasm of his being proved wrong to replace the sickness inside me, "it's only a couple hundred dollars, I can manage that." I could, barely, but for my future with Josh, I'd have paid all I had in my checking account, which was, at that time, about $450.
"Over the computer?" he asked, "is it proper science?"
I nodded. Grampy agreed it would be the best route to go after I explained the entire process to him, how we order the kits, put saliva into vials and send them back to them to process and in a few weeks, we'd know for sure. I agreed to put any planning on hold until the results came in. That was the easy part. Breaking this all to Josh was going to be more difficult.
We sat in Ray-Ray's trailer sobbing in each others arms. The news seemed to be a cruel lie and the mysterious truth all wrapped in one. It couldn't be true, it just couldn't. But the questions crept in. Why were we so close? I mean instantly close, as if we'd known each other for a lifetime or more. Why did we finish each other's sentences and spit out the exact thing the other was thinking just before they said it? Why did people occasionally ask if we were siblings? Josh agreed to take any test, any place at any time. I told him what I decided.
Ray-Ray, sauced as usual, took the news worse than either Josh or I. He insisted it was all complete rubbish. He admitted he and my mother had dated in high school, but claimed she cheated on him with a boy from out of town, some college boy. He said he broke up with her immediately and started going with some other girl, the one he claimed to be Josh's mother. He denied ever having slept with my mother at all.
I didn't believe him. He wasn't exactly known for honestly. I asked some of the older people I knew around town. They couldn’t say for sure, apparently 1981 was a big year for scandal. Some seemed to have some recollection of something, but couldn’t place exactly who was involved with whom. Others just clammed up completely.
We did the test, and sure enough it came back. Josh was my brother. I was devastated and after seeing the results right in front of me, in the soft blue glow of the computer screen, I knew it had to end. I had to give up the one person that meant the most to me. I sped to Josh's house before I lost the nerve. Thank goodness the only traffic light in town was green, because I wasn't looking really and could have easily taken out anyone else on the road that day.
He begged and pleaded. He insisted he never took the test. I knew what he was doing, he couldn't face it either. I had to be the strong one, and I was.
I walked away from Josh. He married someone else a couple years later, and I moved a few towns over and married a fellow teacher. He's nice, steady and honorable. He's easy to love, but not in the same way I loved Josh. He held my hand at Grampy’s funeral and stood beside me at Curtis' bedside as cancer stole his life.
My brother's last words to me sit like a bitter pill in my stomach to this day. Not only because my baby brother was being taken from me in the prime of his life, but because of what he said. He took my hand, weakly, and began, "That DNA test," he whispered, "Josh never took it. I did. Grampy begged me."
I pulled away. He grabbed me, desperate to relieve himself, "he couldn't let you marry him. I knew it was wrong, I knew. He was terrified you'd leave him all alone. You’d have to look after Ray-Ray!" His eyes were full of tears as he pleaded with me, "don't hate me, please! We got both tests and I made up a profile for Josh and took the test. He wasn’t right for you anyway."
I stood there trembling. I wanted to slap him. Anger welled up inside of me. I swallowed it, kissed his forehead, told him I loved him and left him with his peace. He died that night never knowing how much I hated him in that moment.
That was my lie. I figure I was entitled to one.
About the author
Retired legal eagle, nature love, wife, mother of boys and cats, chef, and trying to learn to play the guitar. I play with paint and words. Living my "middle years" like a teenager and loving every second of it!