Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Wednesday, December 04, 2019

Strange Plots 19

Two more installments left. Thanks again to M.L and brother Bill for the medical assist, and do believe that all errors are my own.



I don’t know how you’d feel if, after 85 years, you learned your true birthday. Grandpa cried like the day he was born, zooming in again and again on the photo of the baptismal register to see the date, his name, and his parents, A.M and T. And to my teary astonishment, Mom cried too, rocking with him and laughing and blowing her nose loudly.

“It’s too late to change it on my birth certificate,” Grandpa declared. “I’m just going to have two birthdays from now on. Two parties, two cakes.” He sniffled. “Two parents.”

“I hope you aren’t going to need another daughter to round out the pairs,” said Mom, and they cackled together as if the joke had even been funny.

My mother and I had reached a sort of truce, which meant that we didn’t talk so that we didn’t fight. I could live with it, I guess. Being ignored, as I’ve said before, irks the living daylights out of me, but not fighting did have its upside. For one thing, I started seeing more of Dad. He’d often been tucked away in his office when he was home, but one night he sat and watched Christmas movies with me and mom, even though he had no stomach for that kind of sap. It was as if he liked being with us when we weren’t tearing it up.

I hadn’t gotten fired from my job yet, which was a good thing because I needed the gas money. The route to Titusville had become a strange sort of pilgrimage for me. I was climbing the mountain to go to the holy temple — Sacred Hearts. Vin wanted to go sit at Mass again, and I wanted to go sit with him. And God. Of course. I wanted to sit with God. But I didn’t seem to pray all that well myself, so it was interesting to watch Vin. I mean, I probably would have watched Vin anyway, because I’m an irreverent heathen. But I was captivated by his natural ability to focus and be silent and get the significance of things that whizzed right by me. And when he shook hands with Father Leonard after mass, he asked him questions about the words of the long prayers that I’d heard all my life but not not marked, and the actions that I’d seen all my life without noting.

Vin and Father Leonard seemed like they were becoming best pals too, and it took an effort on my part not to be jealous because they went to the diner during the week and talked about life, the universe, and everything.

“I’m going to mass on Christmas,” Vin told me as we drove out of town after mass. “I was hoping you’d come up here with me.”

I was flabbergasted. “Oh my gosh, Vin. Your mom is already always on the edge about tradition. What are she going to say if you skip going to her church on Christmas Day itself to go see the Catholics?”

“What do you mean?” he asked. It seemed to be our constant refrain in any sort of religious discussion. “We’ve never gone to church on Christmas day.”

“Never?” I wasn’t sure I was hearing him right. “Are you even Christians?”

“Of course we are, but church on Christmas isn’t really our thing. Even ministers like to be with their families on Christmas day.”

“With their families at church,” I said. “I’ve never heard of anything so insane. You mean it’s Jesus’s birthday, and to honor it you skip church because it’s too much fuss?”

“Well, and so where do you think I’ll be going to church this Christmas?” Vin asked. “Sacred Hearts. With you, I hope.”

After that, I couldn’t really say no.

We were driving out of town because we were going to see a ruin. Not too far down the main road was a gate I’d passed every time I came to Titusville, a sagging mess of wire and rails blocking a rutted drive. We turned into the drive, and Vin got out to wrestle with the rusty latch.

“Aren’t we trespassing?” I asked, for once the good law-abiding citizen.

“Technically.” Vin maneuvered through the narrow opening and got out to push the gate to again. “But it’s abandoned. I don’t even know who owns it now. Kids come out here sometimes on Halloween to creep each other out.”

Frozen grass and mud and gravel squelched under the wheels as we crawled down the overgrown drive. Perhaps once the path had been broader, more spacious, but  now shrubby, twiggy brush almost scraped the sides of the car. It felt like we were driving in a tunnel. I resolutely pushed away any thoughts of claustrophobia.

“How long has it been since anyone lived here?”

“I think it’s been abandoned since it burned.”

The drive opened up into a clearing of sorts, once a farmyard. A stark, blackened shell of a house was shrouded in vines. In some places the walls were no more than charred framing, in others, window sashes remained. Several chimney stacks teetered unsupported. Roofless, eyeless, the house was deader than dead.

My curiosity was blunted by my desire to stay in the warm protection of the car, but Vin refused to be oppressed. He ushered me from the car and swept a grand gesture of invitation that took in the whole desolation. “Welcome to my ancestral home, where family feuds come to die.”

“Hm. A bit of a fixer-upper.”

It was hard to get too close to the house because of the defensive thicket, but the front porch was still barely walkable. In the most useless precaution ever, the door was boarded up.

“What’s the point?” I asked. “There are huge holes in the walls.”

“Want to go in?” Vin asked, not moving. “I’m sure the bodies are long gone.”

I pulled my jacket tighter around me. “Not surprised this place was left to rot. It feels unhealthy.”

We picked our way around the back, trying to avoid icy puddles or patches of slick leaves. There stood, or used to stand, a barn. Unburned but unwell, the whole structure had collapsed to the side. Here too, nature was reclaiming its own. The effect was not comforting.

“I’m trying to compose the real estate listing,” I said. “So far, I have ‘American Gothic.’”

“Well, it probably didn’t always look this bombed out.”

“I wonder what it looked like before the fire? Was it ever a happy home?”

“We might be able to find out. The Historical Society has a lot of photos of Titusville going way back. Andrew Titus must have been important enough to have been caught on film at some point.”

“And your grandma has a picture of Lavinia, so they must have had cameras up here.”

Vin laughed. “It was the 1930s, not the 1830s. Even the mountain yokels had Kodaks.”

I started back toward the car. “If I had to pick between Titus farm and the corn maze on Halloween, I’d definitely go with the corn maze.”

Vin caught up with me. “So what you’re saying is that I shouldn’t have bought this place for our honeymoon cottage?”

“Don’t be an idiot,” I said, willing him to be at least a bit idiotic. “You couldn’t afford something this glamorous.”

“Oh, it wasn’t much.” Vin opened my door. “I got it at a fire sale.”

I buckled up, and he started maneuvering the car to get back out of the driveway. We were halfway up the driveway when I shouted. “Fire sale? No, you did not just say that. Get out.”

“I’m already burning up the road.”


“Don’t pour cold water on my puns.”

“I hate you.”

He smirked. “No you don’t.”

Around the side of City Hall, an unobtrusive door proclaimed itself the entrance to the Titusville Museum and Historical Society, open Sundays from 1-4. An elderly docent, scrolling on her tablet, waved us in.

“Your tax dollars at work,” I said. “Have you ever been here?”

“Maybe?” he said. “It’s the sort of place you go on a grade school field trip. But field trips are wasted on the young. When I had to go to a museum or a play back then, it was just a chance to get out of the classroom. I didn’t learn anything. Now I’m old and I wish I had back the time I spent not learning when I had the chance.”

“Here’s your opportunity, Gramps,” I said. “Let’s reform your fourth grade shiftlessness.”

There were a few early Indian artifacts, some antique documents and deeds, a pencil sketch or two of the first settlements, even a preserved dress, shawl, and boots. Vin wanted to lean in and read all the labels, but I wandered over to an aerial photo of downtown from the 1930s.

“What’d they take it from, a hot air balloon?” I wanted to know. “Look, here’s Sacred Hearts. It’s tiny, isn’t it? All the businesses are noted, and even some of the houses.”

“‘Mayor Sanders’,” read Vin. “He had the biggest house in town. I know where this is. I’ll take you by sometime. It’s pretty.”

“Let’s buy that for our honeymoon cottage,” I said. “We can kick the mayor out. He can go live with the little people.”

“The current mayor lives in a McMansion he built on his own property,” said Vin. “I doubt he’d live downtown if you paid him…”

“You do pay him.”

“… because the water pressure is terrible here.”

The docent glanced up from her electronic babysitter. “If you’re interested in Mayor Sanders and his house, there’s a photo in the 1930s album of him on his front porch.”

We weren’t interested in Mayor Sanders, but we trooped politely to a table of photo albums, each embossed with a decade. I opened the 1930s volume and paged through it, Vin leaning over me with his chin on my shoulder. The pictures were mildly interesting. There were lots of locals in old-timey outfits gathered in various locations for various occasions. Vin recognized most of the places, and even I could spot some familiar scenery. We didn’t know exactly what we were looking for, but there was no harm in flipping through the book with Vin warm and attentive behind me.

“I think this is the photo she was talking about,” said Vin, pausing at a family trio on a roomy porch. “That’s the old mayor’s house, anyway.”

“Vin,” I breathed, jabbing him with my elbow. “It’s him. It must be him.”

Standing at the far edge of the house, segregated from the family, was a black man, rake in hand, who might have seemed subservient except for his bold gaze directly at the camera. Caught in wonder, we gaped at photographic proof of the presence of a black man in Titusville in the 1930s. And Vin, Mr. Eagle Scout himself, slid the museum’s photo out of its plastic sleeve as if he owned it, and turned it over to check the back.

1933. Clayton Sanders (mayor) and Mrs. Tamar Sanders
Demetrius (son of T.)
Negro Gardener (Aaron Moore?)

“Aaron Moore,” I whispered.

“And T.”

I was nearly hyperventilating, but Vin, cool as a cucumber, put the photo back. He carried the album over to the docent, smoothly scanning the “Doris Smith” on her name tag

“Mrs. Smith,” he said, like the nice mannerly young man he was. “Can you tell us a little about this photo?”

“That’s Miss Smith to you,” said the single lady, not putting down Words with Friends. “I told you, that’s Mayor Sanders on his front porch.”

“Yes, but who are these people?” I demanded. The docent, not about to be hustled by the kids these days, pulled out the photo in her turn and took her time studying the back.

“That’s the mayor,” she explained, “and that’s his wife, and that’s her son, and that’s the gardener.”

“Ah,” said Vin, keeping me patient by squeezing me, “I see. Do you know anything about them?”

Miss Smith chewed on her thoughts for a moment. “He died in the Titus house fire. And she might have died in childbirth. Or, no just after childbirth. Or maybe she was in the fire too?”

“Childbirth?” Vin was killing me with how casual he was being, but he at least he was getting results. “That’s quite a spacing between her children.”

“She was a widow, you know.” Miss Smith was now ready to be obliging; she got up out of her chair. “We have a portrait of her over here.”

“I didn’t know Titusville was important enough to have artists,” I murmured to Vin, recovered just enough to be snide.

“All humans deserve art,” said Miss Smith, whose ears were sharper than she let on. “But not all humans ought to have their portraits painted. Mrs. Sanders was an exception, I think you’ll admit.”

Several undistinguished paintings of past dignitaries were clustered in a small gallery. We didn’t need Miss Smith to point out which canvas we were looking for. Even the artless style could not disguise Mrs. Sanders’s personality. She was a woman of decided character and decided jaw. And decided hair, red hair, red as Vin’s as he stood with decided jaw reading the label.

“Tamar McGrath Sanders.” He jerked up his head to look at Miss Smith. “McGrath?”

“Yes, she was one of the McGraths. The McGrath, in my opinion.”

“But her son, Demetrius,” I said slowly, over the sounds of wheels turning in my head, “was he a McGrath too?”

“I told you she was a widow.” Miss Smith shook her head at our obtuseness. “After Andrew Titus killed her son, she married the mayor to get back at him. But — I told you wrong before — then her baby died, and they decided to bury the hatchet, and then the whole house burned down and killed them all while they ate dinner. So there was no one left to feud in the end.”

“But what about the corn maze?” The effort cost me a few years of my life, but, clinging to Vin’s example, I played it light. “The legend about the feud and the pact and the lynching? The black man in the photo?”

Miss Smith glared at me. “I told you they had a peace dinner. People don’t end feuds by burying innocent men in fields. The gardener wasn’t from around here, and he went back to wherever he came from.”

“But why is there even a corn maze legend?” I pressed. “Was there really a body?”

Miss Smith refused to be pressed. “Because people are simple, that’s why. Likely some local farmer killed a tramp in a cornfield for stealing, and didn’t want to get in trouble so he made up a fantastic story.”

I was deflated. “That’s… not very exciting.”

“No,” said Miss Smith with satisfaction, “but it’s probably the truth. No photos, young man!” she said, startling Vin who was focusing his phone on Tamar McGrath Sanders. “This is a museum, not a free-for-all. Come back again if you’d like to look at Mrs. Sanders. Please put that book away when you’re done.” She settled back down with her tablet. “If you’ve enjoyed your visit, you can leave a donation in the offering box.”

“I don’t believe her,” I snapped outside. “I’ve been to plenty of museums where you can take pictures of the art. Your tax dollars at work indeed.”

“I need to sit down,” said Vin. “I need paper and pencil. I’ve got to see this all written down.”

“The diner?”

“No. I can’t deal with everyone in Titusville right now. Let’s go to my place.”

“Let’s,” I said, my heart skipping a beat at the unexpected invitation. “I’ll follow you over there.”

Vin lived up a set of icy steps in the second floor of an old house. His apartment was nothing much to write home about. The paneled wallboard screamed “cheap 80’s renovation” and and the brown paint of the trim suggested that the designer had never seen a real piece of wood. I thought with real envy of how small his rent check probably was. The furnishings were bachelor spare and the kitchen mostly bachelor clean, but there was nothing wrong with the place that the aroma of coffee wouldn’t smooth over.

One mug and several sheets of paper later, we had a rough chart.

“My line is easy.” I traced up the family tree. “Me, to my mom Linda, to my grandfather, Aaron Moore, born 1934, to his father, Aaron Moore, and T. his Scots-Irish mother, who could be Tamar McGrath Sanders.”

Vin took his turn. “Me, to my dad Dan, to his mom Kay, to her mom Helen, born 1934. Mother, Lavinia. Father, unknown”

“Aaron Moore is connected to your grandmother by his mother. Tamar had a child who died in 1934.”

“Your grandfather shows up at an orphanage out of town in 1934.”

“Aaron Moore the father disappears in 1934.”

Our eyes locked across the table. The air was electric with the thrill of discovery.

“Aaron Moore is connected to the Tituses through his mother.”

“Tamar, possibly his mother, has a son, Demetrius.”

“Who is roughly the same age as Lavinia Titus.”

“And Helen Titus is born in 1934, out of town.”

“And everyone else dies in a fire.” Vin sat back in frustration. “It doesn’t make any sense. They go to have a peace dinner, and everything burns down. That’s pushing the idea of accident too far.”

“It has to be an accident, right?” I said, uncertainly. “Why would it be deliberate? What would they still be feuding about?”

“If the mayor knew about Tamar and Aaron, he’d be mad,” Vin said, and I couldn’t disagree. “But no one in Titusville ever knew about Aaron Moore’s son with T. — except Father Walsh. Which means that no one, including the mayor, talked. Which could make sense if you think of a missing baby. Is the mayor going to want everyone to know that his wife had an affair with a black man?”

“But how does Andrew Titus come into it? Why would he care if Tamar McGrath shamed herself with a black man?”

“He might care a great deal about his daughter, though.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean that there have never been any rumors in town about a Titus girl and a McGrath boy, which you’d expect if they were simply a pair of star-crossed lovers.”

“Not necessarily,” I said, thinking hard. “What if she got pregnant and Andrew Titus was angry and beat her so badly that she had to go into an institution? And he covered it up so no one would ever know.”

“And Demetrius McGrath wouldn’t publicly denounce him, or just elope with Lavinia in the first place? No, that doesn’t sound right to me.” He couldn’t sit still anymore with  the speed of his speculations. “I think it’s worse that that. What’s been the running theme of the Titus-McGrath feud?”


“That’s right. And what would Andrew Titus want revenge on the McGraths for now? Tamar McGrath wasn’t really bothering him anymore. She was busy with the mayor, and she had her side piece going on.”

“Hey now!” I was indignant. “That’s my great-grandfather you’re talking about.”

“It may be my great-great… great-grandmother I’m talking about.” Vin would not be deterred. “Is it Tamar who strikes the next blow in the feud? Or is it Demetrius?”

“Oh my god.” His meaning began to dawn on me. “You mean you think Demetrius was the one who messed up Lavinia so much she was paralyzed in an institution?”

“Not just paralyzed,” said Vin grimly. “Pregnant.”

The ugly apartment, Vin pacing, the lamplight — everything about the situation felt remote and unreal, as if I was watching from outside myself. “That’s sick,” I said, trying hard to keep myself from floating off away from this conversation. “I’m going to be sick.”

Vin knelt down and chafed my shaking hands. “Don’t you see? Demetrius covers it up because he doesn’t want to get caught, and Titus covers it up because he’s a man of strict honor and it’s shameful for his daughter to lose her virtue.”

“It’s not her fault! You can’t blame her!” I protested.

“I don’t. And it sounds like Titus blamed someone a lot more than he blamed Lavinia. After all, she’s the only one who survived.”

“No.” Now I couldn’t be still, not with the pounding in my head and the horror clogging up my nose and eyes. “You don’t know any of this. You’re just making this all up. Stop it, Vin. This used to be a fun family mystery game. Why do you have to ruin it?”

“I’m not making up the family tree,” Vin said, trying to sound sensible and only getting as far as pedantic. “Track back the degrees of connection on the DNA report and it will suddenly make sense that Kay’s grandfather is the half brother of your grandfather. We are all kinds of messed up, cousin.”

“So what? It doesn’t mean anything!” I sobbed. “It means nothing to us. It means nothing about you and me.”

“Easy for you to say,” Vin retorted. “You aren’t descended from a rapist.”

“You do not know that!”

“But I believe it.”

He stood trapped in anguish generations in the making. It broke my heart to see him so oppressed. Since he would not come to me, I went to him and laid my head on his heart and tried to pull him back into the present.

“Listen to me.” I would stop crying; he would understand me. “You are you. You’re not anyone else in your family tree, not Demetrius, not anyone else. Your ancestors don’t define you, or me. We don’t have to make their mistakes. We can start fresh.”

“Start fresh.” Misery made Vin motionless. “What does the Bible say, about the iniquities of the fathers being visited down to the third and fourth generation? My whole family line is dysfunction and absence. Then at last my dad managed to get married, and you’ve seen how that turned out. I wouldn’t inflict that life on anyone, wife or child.”

You are not your father.

But he sighed and gently removed my arms.

“It’s presumptuous of me to think that I can somehow straighten the twisted family tree. Maybe it’s better if we leave it be.”

“‘Leave it be.’ What’s ‘it’? You mean us? Because that’s not an ‘it’ to me.” He kept trying to turn away, but I made him look at me. “I am not an ‘it’. I am Erin Moore Ramirez, and you are Vincent Titus, and I am telling you that right here, right now, we can end the Titus-McGrath feud. Don’t you see? We’re the descendants. We’re the end of the line. It stops with us.”

“It stops, yes.” Vin retreated and wrapped his arms around himself to hold everything together. “If we walk away from each other now, and you find someone else, and I… I just stay alone.”

“Why don’t you make a better family instead?”

“No more generations. No more curse. I’m sorry.”

The familiar fire of temper, that I’d tried so hard for two weeks to tamp out, flared up as hotly as it ever had at my mother, and this time I let it blaze. “If there was anything I’d be glad to walk away from, it’s you saying you’re sorry, again. Stop apologizing. Own your cowardice for once. Just say you’re afraid.”

I stomped to the table and grabbed my purse. Let the neighbors downstairs get an earful. I hoped they complained to the landlord.

“Erin, I really am sorry,” Vin begged. “But it just makes sense this way.”

I yanked my coat on and wrenched the door open. “It’s the fifth generation.”


“If you count Demetrius and his iniquity as the first generation, you’re the fifth generation. So you would have been out of it anyway.”

A hearty slam for the people downstairs, and a good furious trounce down the stairs. And then there was even more noise, as I went flying on the ice and slammed my outstretched fingers into the wall of the house and yowled in pain.

Vin clattered down behind me, pulling on his jacket. “Erin, are you all right?”

I cradled my hand. “Go away.”

“Are you hurt?”

“Only my dignity. And not even that. ” I was not going to go into hysterics about the crazy ache and the freaky way my middle finger was bent. I was not. “My dignity is fully intact. So is my integrity.”

“Can I see?”

“No. I’m going home.”

“So you’re going to drive down the mountain at night in December with one hand?” He took it anyway and pressed gently on the nail, and I hummed and choked in spite of myself.

“How about this. Can you feel me touching your fingertip?”

“Don’t touch me, you asshole,” I hissed, white hot both with fury and because I could indeed feel it. “You tell me to go live my own life because you’re incurably diseased, and then you come running to rescue me when I go boom down the stairs? As if that hurts more than you turning away from me?”

“I don’t think it hurts more than walking away,” said Vin, messing with the wrong angle of my joint. “Not if the way I feel is any indication. I just think that this, at least, I can fix.”

“Absolutely not,” I moaned. “I’m not going to be stuck in Titusville a minute longer at whatever cut-rate medical facility sees patients at this time on Sunday. Ow! Vin! Motherfu--!”

With a pop, the pain was only an echo. A window flew open downstairs and a choice stream of profanity accompanied a request for us to be quiet.

“What did you do?” I asked, weak with relief.

“A closed reduction.”

I wiggled my finger tentatively, waiting to see if it would stay normal. “I called you an asshole, and you fixed me anyway.”

“‘Asshole’ seems pretty mild for you, to be honest,” he said, pressing my nail again. “And for me, too. You should still see a doctor, just to be sure, because you’re going to be pretty sore. And it is entirely outside protocol for me to perform a reduction, so I’d appreciate it if you didn’t mention my name.”

He pulled a roll of medical tape from his jacket pocket and wrapped my middle and pointer fingers together.

“You carry tape in your pocket?”

“Who doesn’t? Here.” He pulled out a little bottle and shook two pills into my hand. “You want some water?”

“Ooh, are you prescribing me the good stuff?”

“Certainly not,” he said sternly. “I can’t prescribe anything. This is just ibuprofen, friend to friend.”

“Okay, friend.” I knocked back the pills like I’d seen people do in the movies.

“Let’s get you up.” He put his arm around me and helped me up, and I put my arm around him and pulled him into a soft, snuffly, cold-nosed kiss.

“That,” he said, once I’d released him and he’d released me, “was not fair.”

“Nothing about this is fair,” I replied, and walked stiffly to my car.



Christine said...

Geez, guys, I know you just realized a lot of traumatic family history and all, but at least take a moment to appreciate the fact that you just figured out that you’re half-second cousins two times removed. I mean, I know your relationship is experiencing problems at the moment, but you know what else it is? Eighth-degree consanguinity in the collateral line! [] Which means that, since it’s well over the five degrees necessary, you’re good to go to get validly married in the Catholic Church. (…Yes, I know they could probably just assume that they’re distantly-related enough by looking at the DNA report, but where’s the fun in that?!)

By the way, this is hands down my favorite of the stories I’ve read by both you and your husband (with the exception of the unfinished The Great War trilogy, probably). I like mysteries, and I love logical analysis and genealogy (as should be obvious), so this story is right up my alley. It has a good balance of happy romance novel and depressing but fascinating backstory, and I’ve been hooked since early on.

Anyway, I almost never comment on here, but I’ve been reading off and on for years now, and as a (now-)graduate of FUS, I enjoy hearing your guys’ take on things. (I actually just recommended this blog to an FUS grad student on Thanksgiving.)

To close, here’s a bit of a parody of Dear Theodosia, since thinking about Aaron Moore singing that song to his son was what made me finally realize that the reason his name sounds familiar is that it reminds me of Aaron Burr. (As a side note, I actually heard about Hamilton for the first time from you guys mentioning it.) Actually, it got too long so I’m just gonna leave it under the last installment of the story, since that’s where it belongs anyway.

Christine said...

*I meant to add ', so thank you and keep up the good work!' to the end of the third paragraph

mrsdarwin said...

Thanks, Christine! I've never tried a mystery-style story before, and now I know why I've shied away: they're so much plotting work! But it's been fun, and I'm really glad you're enjoying reading. And thanks for Dear Aaron; I'm overwhelmed and so pleased.