Season 1 Episode 10: One More Secret
The ghost in our attic was angry
we’d put planks over the window,
to keep the wood from rotting.
He woke the house when the wind
burst in, or maybe it wasn’t a ghost.
- from the poem “the looking glass” written by me, k.b. marie
And this is the true story of “Who Killed My Mother?”
My thumb hovers over the green call button on my phone. On the screen, the medical examiner’s office number sits framed. My heart races, rabbiting high in my throat. I exhale slowly and make the call.
“You’ve reached the office of the medical examiner. Please listen as the following options have changed.”
I run a hand down my face, trying to pull myself into a functional human.
I’ve almost managed it when a kind voice says, “ Medical examiner’s office, this is Sienna. How can I help you?”
“Yes, hello. I’m calling for an update on my mother’s autopsy results.”
“Your mother’s name?”
I give her the name.
“Her date of death.”
I give her the date of death.
And listen to fingers race efficiently across a keyboard, the typing sound familiar and reassuring.
You would think this would get easier with time or practice. After all, I’ve been calling every week to ask for an update on my mother’s case. And before you think I’m harassing these people, I am not. I was told to wait eight weeks from the date of my mother’s death, which I did, and then to check in weekly to the updates.
But now that we’ve reached the twelfth week, I know I’m going to get an answer soon. If not this week, or the next, certainly the one after.
The answer is coming, and I’m terrified I won’t like it.
The line crackles and I brace myself for the response.
“Yes, ma’am, it looks like your mother’s case is still pending. You can try back next week.”
My heart unclenches.
“Okay, thanks. I’ll do that,” I say. And end the call.
I place the phone face down on the table and scratch out the words “Call the ME” in my planner. I flip the page to the following week and write the words again.
The doorbell rings and my little pug perks up, his ears erecting in the picture of vigilance. He trots after me, close on my heels as I go to the door, seeing the mailman walking back to his mail truck as I pass the kitchen window.
On the porch is a box with my name on it. I use kitchen shears to cut it open, removing the excessive tape.
And my heart drops.
I remove the small black container with the white sticker.
It has my mother’s name on it, and the name of the funeral home.
The container, made of simple black plastic looks like a trashcan I’d put in my car.
Inside, there’s a plastic bag of ashes, tied off, with a metal tag. It has numbers written on the metal tag which I don’t understand, but that’s it.
This is all that’s left of her.
I’m not sure what I’m supposed to feel now, with what’s left of my mother, no more than five pounding resting in my lap.
When our pug Napoleon died of cancer, I’d had to pick up his remains from the veterinarian office in a gift bag. Something about receiving him in a little tin, in a bag that looked like a gift had been so sad. I’d cried the whole way home, wiping my snotty face with my sleeve uncouthly.
But here is my mother, sitting in my lap. The long and complicated history stretching out behind us has come to this. And I feel nothing.
The blue jays are bathing in the bird bath outside my window.
Two squirrels are fighting over the feeder, trying to knock one another from the pole.
And I feel…nothing. I’ve done numb.
What an unceremonious end to such a life.
I put my mother back into the plastic container and put her on my version of an offrenda. The top shelf of my office bookcase already houses the remains of our beloved pugs who passed Napoleon and Josephine, and I think it’s a good as place as any for my mother.
My mother loved animals. I don’t think she minds one bit to have such company.
As I did for Josephine and Napoleon, I add a picture of her to the shelf.
Stepping back, looking at the three of them like that, I still can’t cry. I thought maybe some great release would come when I finally had her with me, but there’s only a cold darkness, a timeless winter night, resting somewhere in my chest.
I text Katie and thank her again for picking my mom up, for ordering the special box twice, that she had to be shipped in, (because apparently you can’t ship dead people in just anything) for all of her help.
“How does it feel to have her finally?” she asks.
“I don’t know,” I admit.
I do know that she would be glad to be with me, at least.
But concentrating on this doesn’t make the tears come either.
Katie tells me a certain degree of numbness at receiving your mother in a ziplock bag is to be expected.
Sometimes I lift my mother’s remains off the shelf, feel the weight of them.
How are you now? I wonder. Where are you?
I think about how many times she told me I was beautiful, the most beautiful girl in the world.
“All I ever wanted was a baby and I wasn’t even supposed to have kids,” she told me. “But I had you and you’re perfect. You’re perfect.”
When I would call her and tell her I was worried about my writing career. When I’d say I wasn’t sure I could do it. It was too hard.
“Are you kidding me?” she’d say. “Look at you. You’re the most talented person I’ve ever met. Baby, your so smart. If anyone can do this, you can. Look at everything you’ve already overcome. I have no doubt in my mind you’re going to succeed. Honey, you’ve got this.”
My mother struggled in many, many ways. But she left no doubt in my mind that I was loved.
It’s true that she didn’t love herself, and yet somehow, that hadn’t impeded her from affirming my strengths, my gains. She always always quick to acknowledge that I’d succeeded in spite of her, not because of her.
That every win was my own.
She believed in my worth so strongly, that I began to believe in myself.
And here finally I manage my first tear.
At the thought I will never hear her reassurances again.
I’m surprised that my uncle Joe would call Shay. It’s true that Shay was the last real friend my mom had. They would call each other and chat every few weeks. And as far as I know, this is the only person my mother talked to on the phone, checked in with regularly, in the last few years of her life apart from me. But still, what would Joe possibly have to say to her?
They’d never been friends.
Hell, Shay hated him and trusted him about as far as she could throw him.
“So what did he say?” I ask her, more than a little curious.
“He called to tell me your momma was dead,” Shay says, “As if I didn’t know!”
“Did you tell him I’d already told you?”
“No, I just let him carry on. And did he ever! He was crying and boo-hoo’n the whole time.”
“About what? Momma’s death?”
“He was telling me he ain’t got nobody and how he’s all alone now. How everyone is up and gone. I said, you’ve got two sons!”
While this is true, I don’t think he’d spoken to his kids in years. I suspect they don’t want much to do with him.
“Did he tell you what happened the day she died? Did he say anything about how it happened or what he thought killed her?”
“Said he thought it was an overdose. That he came home from work and found her in the floor.”
My heart kicked.
“From what job?” she laughed. “He ain’t had a job in quite a while. Can’t keep one.”
I think again of my mother’s last letter, the one outlining her compounded stress about Joe’s joblessness. How acutely aware she was that they couldn’t survive on her $800 income alone.
“Maybe he got a job,” I offer weakly. “But if he’s telling you the truth about finding her in the floor, then it means he lied to me. He told me he went into her bedroom to check on her that morning and found her.”
“Not what he told me. Told me that he came home, found her collapsed in the floor, and put her in the bedroom.”
I try to imagine this brotherly scene. Him picking her up off the floor, carrying her into the bedroom, laying her down on her bed. Maybe even adjusting the pillow under her her, pulling a cover over her body.
Later when I find out what her body actually looked like to the police, this image will be shattered.
“What else did he tell the police?” she asked.
I recount for her the variations of his story, which dissolved and shifted under the detective’s scrutiny.
There was the version that he entered the room that morning and simply found her, completely unsure how she died, but thinking it looked like an overdose, given the color of her skin.
There was also the version where he came home and found her collapsed and had taken her to the bedroom in hopes that she might recover by the morning. This version being closer to what he is now telling Shay, though it leaves me with questions.
“He’s trying to tell me he was at work that day,” Shay said. “But who works on the fourth of July?”
A lot of people, I think, but that isn’t my problem with this story.
It’s the timeline of the last twenty-four hours of my mother’s life and the fact that this “work” statement doesn’t fit.
Shay is under the impression, by the way he’s talking, that he was at work during the day on the 4th. But that can’t be true. It would’ve had to be earlier—if he was at work at all.
At 10:10 in the morning on July 3, I received that surprise call from Joe, in which he told me to speak to my mom. When he handed the phone over after this brief announcement, I’d been confused, she’d been confused. I asked her if she was okay, trying to discern the reason for the call, but we both came up short. He’d seemed to orchestrate this call for no reason other than for us to talk.
The call lasted six minutes and it would be the last time I would hear my mother’s voice.
The next morning, on July 4th, at 8:58 a.m. Joe called and left the voicemail demanding that I call him back immediately. That it was about my mother. And though I called him back at 9:41 and 10:01, he didn’t answer.
I didn’t hear back from him until 10:06.
We spoke on the phone until the police arrived, hearing the dogs yapping excitedly in the background.
And since we know that he was arrested on the outstanding strangulation charge at that time and spent the following weeks in jail, it’s impossible for this “coming home from work” to occur any later.
So when could he have gone to work. The window is between 10:30 am on Friday, July 3rd and 8:50 a.m. Saturday, July 4th.
So if he found my mother collapsed in the floor, it would’ve been on July 3rd. Either that afternoon or evening.
If that’s the case, that means that he spent hours in the house with her—either alive or dead. And that for whatever reason, he’d chosen not to call anyone.
That hours and hours had passed without him calling an ambulance, or the police, or even me. Why had I got a respectable 9am phone call instead of a middle of the night call?
Why might he have chosen not to inform me of her death until the next day?
Or was the word “job” code for some other nefarious activity?
Was he out buying or selling drugs?
Did he come home late—two or three a.m. from such a deal—and that’s when he found her collapsed?
That’s still six hours of not helping her. Six hours that he spent doing…what exactly?
Or was it all a lie?
Is it possible that he was home with her the whole time?
That not only did he give her the drug that would end her life, but that he waited, watching, doing all he could to make sure that his plan would work.
That it wouldn’t fail.
Because we know he lied—but which truth is he trying to conceal?
Where he was?
Or what he’d done?
His story keeps changing, Detective Barnes had said. He says he thinks she got into his heroin, but I think he did something to her. I just don’t know that I can prove it.
My stomach clenched.
“Well I don’t know why he called me, crying and carrying on,” Shay continued.
Maybe he’s lonely, I wonder. Or maybe he’s trying to find out what we think.
What we know.
To gauge if he is yet out of the woods…
That night I finally get a hold of David #3, my mom’s third and final husband, and update him on what little I know. This is the first time I’ve managed to catch him in a few weeks.
Every time I’ve thought to call him he was working. Whenever he’d called me, I hadn’t seen it until it was an obscene hour, and too late to call back.
My mom met David when I was nine months old. They’d joined my aunt at the lake with some friends for a day of frivolity. He tells me that at first impression was shy, quiet.
That she’d drank a couple wine coolers but that was it.
She’d been an attentive and loving mother.
And though David remained friends with my aunt for many years, my mother hadn’t gotten involved with him romantically until I was a teen.
As I was graduating from high school, they were boarding a plane for Vegas to get married, a marriage that would later be annulled.
Despite their short lived union, he’s always tried to do what is right by me. He’d showed up for me more times than I could count. He’d always helped me without expectation or complaint.
When my car broke down and I was stranded on the side of the road, or stranded anywhere for that matter, he’d come and get me.
When I got pickpocketed in Barcelona, lost my cash, credit cards, and passport, forced to bum money from my friends until he could wire me some money to Rome. There hadn’t even been a question as to whether or not he would do it.
And I’d needed money during college, he’d been the one I’d called.
He’d showed up for my graduations. My wedding. And though he stopped talking to my mother many years ago, he still calls me to check in. Asks how me and Kim are doing.
He listens to me recount Joe’s varied stories. To the implied alibis as thin as graphene.
He takes a deep drag on his cigarette and says, “I think he killed them all. Hank. Your nana. And your momma too.”
I settle down on the porch outside my house. It’s chilly, but that’s to be expected for a fall night in Michigan.
“That escalated quickly,” I joke. But I can understand his reasoning.
My uncle had something to gain with each of their deaths. My grandfather’s money and a quarter of the house. Everything…apparently… when nana died. And my mom…well, that still remains to be seen.
Because I’ve put in an application—for the second time—to the Social Security Administration office for my mother’s social security number. With it, I can search and see if Joe took out any insurance policies or anything like that. This is my last avenue since her social security number wasn’t on the death certificate.
Though the SSA seems to be taking its sweet time.
“You’re not the first one to say so,” I tell him. “Shay thinks he did Renee too. He was there at her place when she died. He’d been trying to put clothes on her when the police showed up to apartment. She’d overdosed naked or something.”
I’m hesitant to bring up Shay. She and David hadn’t gotten along. In fact, they’d fought in the front yard outside Shay’s trailer one night. I’d watched as they’d swung around and around like kids on a playground, fighting over my mother no doubt.
But he says nothing about this.
“I hadn’t known about Renee,” he tells me.
“Yeah, apparently they’d been getting ready to go to Renee’s girlfriend’s mom’s funeral or something. Guess her heart gave out before she got fully dressed. Anyway, Joe told me himself that he’d been trying to put clothes on her before the cops arrived so they wouldn’t see her naked.”
It’s a strange image, my uncle trying to dress a corpse.
David exhaled. “Is that so?”
“But I don’t think he killed her. It doesn’t fit the pattern.”
I watch my breath fog in front of my face. A neighbor walks past with their dog. I flash a smile, lift my hand in a wave.
“He got stuff with every other death, money or property, but for Renee I don’t think he got anything.”
Or maybe he did it for the pleasure, a dark voice whispers in my mind.
Maybe the rush is a enough, a way to soothe some pained and powerless part of his psyche, knowing that he can reach out and end a life whenever he wanted.
“Maybe you’re right,” David agrees. “But I still think he finished off Hank and Nana.”
“Well, if he did kill my grandfather, we can’t say he didn’t have it coming,” I admit to him. “After what he did to my mom.”
It’s hard to feel sympathy for your mother’s rapist.
Emphysema or poison are both terrible ways to go, regardless whether or not Joe is responsible, it seems like just desserts. I wonder what my mom felt about it, watching him slowly die.
I think it would’ve been hard either way.
“Not just what he did to your mom,” David says. “Renee too.”
“Oh god, did he rape my aunt too?” I say. A woman with a stroller looks my way. I force another smile and lower my voice. “Didn’t he have enough going on with my mom and the freaking whorehouse? Did he really need another victim? Christ.”
“No, not rape,” he said. “Renee was fat back then. And probably a good thing cause no body wanted to bother with her.”
I don’t open an argument on the subject of body politics with him—or point out that fat people are far from unrapeable.
But I know whatever he’s telling me is probably true.
David and Renee had been friends first, long before my mother had come back from Illinois with a baby on her hip. It seems my aunt had been friends with everyone in the Nashville scene in the late 70s, early 80s. An exaggeration, I’m sure, but to hear Shay and David tell it, you’d think this were true She went to bars at night and the lake during the day.
But I’m sure she was popular. She was funny and good company. At the very least, she always had weed.
“Once we got close, she told me some things,” he said.
My heart skips a beat. “What kind of things?”
Another long drag on his cigarette. “About how she had to watch.”
My blood ices.
“She’d wake up, see what was happening and be powerless to stop it.”
“You mean…you mean she was in the room when it happened?”
“Yep,” he said. “That’s what she told me.”
And what reason did my aunt have to lie?
I do a quick, pathetic calculation and realize he must be right.
The house had three bedrooms. The one my grandparents shared and two to be split among the four children. It makes more sense that they’d been divided two and two by gender.
Why in the world had I assumed my mother had been alone?
All this time I’d been picturing one terrified little girl lying awake at night, waiting for the worst to happen. But in fact, there had always been two.