Episode 5 - The House Where It Happened
Like a song, forgotten
until the melody is suddenly renewed,
and all the lyrics are coming back to me now.
I breathe it in. I sing the chorus, listening
to its echo fill these halls, and even
rooms that had long ago been shut…
- from the poem “houses” written by me, k.b. marie
And this is the true story of “Who Killed My Mother?”
My mother’s body is still chilling in the medical examiner’s freezer when Katie asks me about her estate. She doesn’t have anything, I tell her. Review with her the list of meager possessions I wish Joe would send, and know he would not. My stories, books, photographs. The cross necklace.
But there’s no car. Nothing that could be called an “asset.” There was her dog, Biscuit, but it was taken along with the other two, Willow and Stella, to animal control the same day Joe was arrested and her body was carted off to the morgue.
“If she has anything, it’s probably debt.”
“Let me do a search. You never know,” Katie offers. I would think she’s tired of doing research searches, as often as she’s required to do them for her work, but I appreciate her generosity nonetheless.
Not long after she texts me a single, ominous….uhhhh…
A second text comes through. For a moment, I’m not sure what I’m looking at. Map & parcel. My mother’s address.
And my grandmother’s name and mother’s name printed beside “Current Owner”.
“What is this?” I ask her. “What am I looking at?”
“It’s the property record for the house.”
“But it only has nana’s name and my mother’s name.” I admit I sound a little dumbstruck to myself. “Where is Joe’s name?”
She sends a second text with a quitclaim deed from 2008, when Joe did “hereby bargain, sell, remise, release, quitclaim and convey unto my grandmother all of his interest in the estate.”
“Am I reading this right?” I ask her. “Does this house belong to my mom? Oh god, is this my house?”
Two seconds ago, I was lamenting not getting a box of photographs and now, I have to deal with the real possibility that my mother has an actual estate which I need to resolve. I’ve heard horror stories about probates and lawyer fees. How it can take years to settle in the courts and get everything squared away. Nothing about this sounds appealing to me.
“But if you sell the house, you can pay off your student loans,” my wife reminds me.
Ah, the small glimmer of hope. Until I remember the mortgage.
“Oh wait. I don’t think they paid the mortgage after my grandmother died. Does that mean it’s my mortgage now? Am I defaulting on a mortgage right now?” It takes a few minutes more to search the property record. The record shows that the property taxes were paid by a bank in Michigan. I take down their name and number. After making a sandwich, I give them a call.
I try to explain who I am, the situation with the house, and my uncle. But they can’t tell me anything about the mortgage. It’s in my grandmother’s name and my uncle Joe is the only listed contact point.
“She’s dead,” I tell them. “She isn’t going to pay anything. And he might not get out for years.”
“Ma’am, if that’s true. If you are to inherit the house, you will need to make a payment on the house in order to keep the loan from defaulting.”
“A payment? You haven’t even told me what the payments amount are. Can I pay anything? $100? $500?”
“No, ma’am, you have to make a full-payment.”
“And a full-payment would be…?”
Silence on the line.
I take a deep breath. “All right. What do I have to do to gain access to this account?”
“We need death certificates for your grandmother and mother. Or if the court appoints you as the executor, we can tell you that information then. Or if you find a bill, the account information will be on that.”
If I find a bill, as if I’m going to drive from Michigan to Tennessee and root around in the house. A new possibility shivers through me.
“A bill,” I say. “Would it show how much is owed and what the minimum payment is?”
I try to imagine returning to the house I hadn’t seen since I drove away in 2005, leaving my mother at the end of the driveway with her garbage bag of clothes and all my dreams of a fresh start dashed like a bottle on the concrete.
I look at the property record photo again. Then at zillow, and google maps. The latest photo was taken by google in March 2019, within weeks of my mother being strangled. The house is how I remember it.
A single-story brick ranch house. With its white door and shutters. Chipped metal railings in a front garden bed as well as along one side of the concrete steps. In the photo, the front door is open and I strain to see inside, for maybe a face or a glimpse of my mother smoking a cigarette. But its only a streaked blue light, the bright sky reflected in the glass.
The large maple I loved to climb as a child stands proudly erect in front, though its limbs still bare. I remember tumbling down the slope, rolling, and laughing until I collided with the ditch. I picked sickly sweet purple irises along the roadside. How, when the hard summer rains came, I would run out into the storm, singing, twirling with my arms out, splashing in the puddles and howling like a wolf—until my exasperated grandmother came out with a towel and dragged me inside.
There is one difference in the photo, that variant from my memories. Behind the house sat a standing three-car garage, set apart by the large concrete driveway and patio. One of the garage doors is missing in the photo. In its place hangs a silver tarp.
“What the hell happened to the garage door?” I wonder aloud. To Katie, “What the hell am I going to do with this house? I don’t know what kind of condition it’s in. If there’s drugs in there. Of all the things to inherit, I get a drug den. What am I supposed to do? Where do I even start?”
To which she says, “This is what lawyers are for.”
Someone recommends avvo to me. If you haven’t heard of it, this is a website where you put in the type of lawyer you need (in this case probate) and the zip code of where you need it. I do a search and settle on a well-reviewed guy in the Nashville area.
I leave a message with his assistant and he calls me back the next day. I tell him my situation and he has questions. Don’t we all.
“So it was your grandmother’s house,” the repeats. “But she died in March.”
“And she had two children, your mother, and your uncle that were living in the house with her.”
“But they didn’t file the probate for the estate in the four months between your grandmother’s death and your mother’s.”
“Is that strange?” I ask.
“Not unheard of,” he tells me. “But it means we will have to file probate for both your mother and your grandmother in order to get the house transferred to you and Joe.”
“Me and Joe?”
The lawyer proceeds to explain to me that when my grandmother died, if she didn’t have a will, her estate would have been split 50/50 between her surviving children. Since my mother died, that means I get her half.
I would wonder later if Joe overlooked this detail. If he’d hoped that with my mother out of the way, he would gain the house without contest.
“But his name isn’t on the property,” I tell him. “It’s only my mother’s name.”
The idea of having to work with Joe, to collaborate with him for any reason at all.
“In that case, it means the house would be 75% yours and 25% his because the home was jointly owned between your grandmother and mother, and he would’ve inherited your grandmother’s half when she died. Either way, he still has claim, it’s just a matter of how much claim.”
“I don’t want to work with him,” I say and know I must sound like a spoiled brat. “You don’t understand.”
I explain about Joe being in jail. I explain that even if he wasn’t, there would be no going over and talking to him. That he was violent, unpredictable. That he couldn’t be trusted.
What the probate lawyer thought of all this, I don’t know. He probably dismissed me as a hysterical female, I’m sure. But there wasn’t a house in this world walk into if Joe was there.
“You could always walk away,” my wife tells me. Other friends tell me the same. They say the ordeal—of two years of talking to Joe, working with Joe—wouldn’t be worth the minimal financial payoff.
One went so far as to ask “what is the price of your peace of mind?” And when I said, “priceless” she said, then let the damn house go.
And yet, I found myself digging in. I found myself thinking Joe didn’t deserve that house. If he really killed my mother over money, over the property he stood to inherit—then no. He shouldn’t get to keep it. His plan should completely and totally fail.
I couldn’t save my mother, but I could do this.
This still left me with the matter of the looming mortgage. Now that I’d made the mistake of calling the bank and telling them I stood to inherit, that Joe would remain in jail for the indeterminate future, they had a new target.
Every two or three days I would get calls. They would ask me for an update. Press me for a payment which I politely refused. What I needed was to find out what was owed, what the payment was and so forth.
“I’m sure there’s a bill in the box,” Katie suggests. “Or at least in the house.”
“That means going into the house,” I say. And a tremor runs through me. Excitement or fear, I can’t be sure. “I don’t know that I can do that.”
“Why?” Katie asks. It’s your house.”
I tell her about the videos on youtube that show you how to wedge a screwdriver under a sliding glass door and pop it off its track. I imagine trying to do this in broad daylight without having a heart attack. I’ve never broken into anything before.
Okay, this is a lie. I broke into the public pool with some friends so I could swim skinny dip with this guy I had a crush on at the time. What can I say? I wasn’t great at risk assessment.
But I’m an adult now. Jail is a thing.
Katie is way ahead of me. She’s already making a shared checklist in Trello. There’s two lists actually: What we want from the house: the mortgage documents, my grandmother’s death certificate, important papers like my mom’s health records, social security number, pictures and photos, and the necklace, if I can find it. She’s also written down the self-addressed envelopes, because my mom had only written me back once, but I’d sent 5. That means there were four in the house, and I’d rather he not have my address printed so plainly for him.
And the second list is what we need to bring to the house to accomplish this search: gloves, masks, packing boxes, Kory’s birth certificate, kory’s marriage license, Kory’s ID and a flathead screwdriver.
But surely there’s an easier way to do this.
I call Detective Barnes and ask him if they’d locked the house when they took my uncle away. Best case scenario, it’s unlocked and I can just walk in. Unfortunately, Detective Barnes confirms that they locked up when they left. That the only set of keys to the house would be in the county lockup with Joe’s possessions. I would have to ask Joe to give me the keys and he would have to give me permission to have them.
This isn’t happening.
So I explain what I found out about the house, what I’m trying to do with my mother’s estate. “It sounds like a civil matter,” he says to me which I take as a polite way of telling me that he doesn’t have time to deal with this. But then he surprises me by adding, “You may be able to get a locksmith to let you in if you show them your mother’s death certificate and explain your situation.”
A locksmith. It sounds like a viable option. And after a few calls, I find one in the area that who says that if I can show the certificate and my ID and paperwork proving I’m my mother’s daughter, he’d be happy to let me into the house.
The idea of traveling during a pandemic isn’t ideal. But it would give me a chance to pick up my mother’s remains and find the mortgage information. To go through her personal effects, and box up what I wanted to keep for myself.
My wife is working long hours now that her teaching job has moved online, but Katie volunteers to go with me every step of the way. Whether we need the locksmith or a screwdriver, she’s in. And I love her for it.
As I go through the motions of filing out probate paperwork, fielding calls with the lawyer, and manically refreshing Joe’s court record, confirming again and again that his court date was still weeks away, that the charges against him hadn’t changed—I think a lot about my grandmother’s house.
I’d loved living in that house. Mostly because I loved my grandmother, but also because it was the most stable home I’d had thus far.
My grandparents had purchased that brick ranch house in the seventies and the interior was fascinating. The kitchen was wood paneling and yellow appliances, but the front room, The sitting room / dining room had grecian statues and glass china cabinets and enough plants to give the impression of a forest.
My grandmother had an aloe plant in particular that I loved. It was so old, so grotesquely large that it looked like something out of jurassic park.
The carpet was this thick gray-blue shag that I felt like I was sinking into whenever I walked on it. My bedroom was in the back, northeast corner, next to theirs. It was overrun with stuffed animals and art supplies. Books of all kinds.
On most days, my grandmother would shove me outside in the morning and not call me in until lunch. I would play with the little girls down the street who had two great danes as big as horses and when they got bored, or I was sent away, I would spend the rest of the day climbing trees, rolling around in the dirt.
Now that I think about it, no wonder I have an imagination. I literally played with trees and dirt for hours every day.
One of my favorite non-dirt activities was to go with my grandmother down to the Salvation Army store—which smelled strangely of plastic and old lady perfume—and search the bins for new books, which she would buy as long as they were a quarter or less and I could get up to four. What was my salvation army store budget - $1. And I could get as many as ten books with that if I was careful.
Arms full, I’d come home and flop onto my Rainbow Brite bedsheets, shove away the mound of stuffed animals and spend the rest of the day reading.
My grandmother was tall with thick black hair and dark hazel eyes. I’d never known her to have a job, but as she sliced the skin off apples and salted the slices for me to eat, she would tell me stories about how she’d gone to cosmetology school and had liked it, until my grandfather, in a jealous rage, had driven her car into the river with her cosmetology kit still inside. And that had been that.
She was very active in her church, and had somehow become a pastor, often traveling around and giving sermons as a visiting pastor. Her favorite kind of church was the holy rolling kind. The pentecostals who would jump up and run around the church, forming a sort of frenzied congo line. This was unfortunate because I always had to go with her and I’m a little bit lazy, so I didn’t like running around in circles shaking my hands above my head.
But I had a plan for avoiding this. There was always a part early in the sermon where people could be healed. The pastor would call out, “Is there anyone here tonight that wants to be touched my the hand of god? Who wants to feel the holy spirit running through them?”
I would hop up immediately and get in line, sometimes feeling my grandmother make a desperate swipe for the big bow on the back of my dress, knowing full well what I was up to. But she couldn’t try too hard or everyone would know she didn’t want me to feel the holy spirit, so it was pretty easy for me to squirm past.
Once I got to the front of the line, the pastor would call out. “Sweet Jesus! Will you move through this child tonight?”
“Yes, sir!” I would say because I thought I had to. Jesus wasn’t hear so who else was going to answer this guy.
Then there’d be a bit of speaking in tongues and he’d strike me straight in the forehead. This was my cue. I’d go stiff legged and fall straight out. Demonstrating to my grandmother, and everyone else in the congregation that I’d been so full of the holy spirit, I’d been rendered unconscious.
Of course, I couldn’t do this if my grandmother was preaching because she’d give me a stare so stern, I’d be scared to close my eyes, let alone fall down and pretend to sleep.
But she didn’t preach in her own church often. So passing out was perfect. It excused me from the running around and the sitting and the speaking in tongues. I could just take a nice nap and my grandmother would scoop me up of the floor at the end of the night, her bible under her arms if she was feeling generous. If not, I’d get a rough toe in my ribs and a short “The holy spirit left. Get up.”
My grandmother was there day in and day out in a way my mother hadn’t been. By the late 80s my mother’s alcoholism was full blown.
No matter what was going on around me, Nana was there. Rolling oranges along the table before cutting a hole in the top for me to drink. Showing me how to make biscuits, cutting the circles with an overturned water glass and flour on my cheeks.
Asking me to brush her hair and joking that the mole on the back of her head was her third eye. “To keep a better eye on you.”
More than that, she took me seriously. When I told her I couldn’t sleep because the mouths in all the photographs in my room kept moving, she helped me to take them down. When I said that I couldn’t fall asleep because there was a demon who stood in the demon. A figure with red eyes that I called The Quaker Oat man because of his tall brimmed hat, she began to sleep with me.
She hid bright plastic eggs in the yard every easter. Bought me new clothes for every holiday. Threw me birthday parties with big cakes. Ran my baths. Took me to school.
She had to be the one. When my father went to prison and my mother moved us back to Nashville to live with her parents, my mom got worse. The drinking was nearly nonstop. She would disappear for days.
Once, when the officers came to my grandmother’s house to arrest my mother for Driving under the influence of liquor, I’d been outside and so I had a front row view of the spectacle.
It was the end of July. I’d been running around the yard all day in the endless Tennessee heat—chasing dragonflies and the new dog—when I spotted the black and white patrol car rolling up the long driveway.
My mother had been standing on the patio, smoking, talking to my aunt when they asked her name, and called her over. She would’ve been 26 at the time.
As they began to cuff her, she resisted. She pushed one of them, adding an assault charge to the DUI.
Because she was drunk when this was happening her resistance increased in proportion to their efforts, until she devolved into something like a wildcat, screaming, hissing, and twisting in their arms.
At the sound of her scream, I’d bolted barefoot across the yard trying to reach her. Her screaming as it always did, caused a terrified, visceral reaction in me.
I had to reach her. I had to make sure she was okay.
I’d covered a lot of ground, making it all the way to the patio before someone grabbed me.
I looked up, “No baby,” she said. “You stay with me.”
I went slack in her grip, unable to do anything but watch the car back out of the driveway, and take my mother away.
Then I was released.
Pulling grass from my hair, Nana told me not to worry, that my mother would be back.
She had to tell me this because I’d seen my father arrested, hauled away, and he hadn’t come back. And she knew not knowing where my mother was made me restless, that putting me to bed that night would be nearly impossible.
But she would try. She would lay down beside me if she had to. And that mattered.
It wasn’t always good between us—my grandmother and I. There were many years when she and I didn’t talk, throughout my twenties mostly when I was angry, furious, that she kept taking Joe’s side. Kept excusing him, no matter what he did, or who he hurt. The ashtray incident had been a deal breaker for me.
Yet in the last years of her life, I’d softened. I would ask to talk to her when I called my mom, ask her how she was doing.
Four months before she’d died, I’d called her on her birthday, just to tell her I loved her. I’m glad I did.
It’s July 24th and I’m trying to pack for Tennessee. I’m looking at my list, trying to decide which suitcase I should take. It’s Friday and Katie and I are texting back and forth. I’m telling her that Kim and I will arrive on Monday. That can go to my grandmother’s house on Tuesday and get whatever we need, whatever we find.
And I wonder aloud what it will be like, walking through those doors after nineteen years of being away.
All of this is barely decided when I get the notification on my phone. A simple text that says, “Inmate release alert” With the day’s date and time on it.
And my uncle’s name.
Almost two weeks before his trial date, Joe has been set free.