The Hitman’s Protégé

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Also published in the Pearl S. Buck Literary Journal and www.onceaguard.com  

     

            You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories.

  If people wanted you to write warmly about them,

they should have behaved better.  –Anne Lamott

2004

They were fighting again, my father and the brain-rattling nuisance he married against the advice of all who knew her—and there were legions. The families who seeded the cluster of small southwest Missouri towns in Christian and Stone counties mingled and married into one another for generations. Our grandparents and great-grandparents had farmed and worshipped together, and some of my earliest memories involve going to her former in-laws’ nursery, where every spring, Mom bought mixes of brilliant marigolds to liven up the front yard and vegetable plants for our garden.

Cindy had little inspiration to work—that’s what husbands were for, as her ex-husband’s family said, openly discussing their experience with her. In that marriage, when her first daughter started kindergarten and she was under pressure to get a job, she got pregnant again instead.

Shortly after the younger daughter started school, she sent them both off one morning and left a note on the counter that read, “I’m sorry, girls, Mommy can’t take any more.” She drained the bank account and moved to Florida for three months.

Now she was forty-seven and married to my sixty-seven-year-old father, who became an over-the-road truck driver to supplement his pension after retiring from the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Money was still tight and the job was exhausting for him.

“She’s put on some weight, so I got her a credit card to order some clothes and she ran the damn thing up so high, dammit—I cut her off so now she says she wants a divorce. I guess we’re splitting the sheets, she’s flying the coop!”

“Do you want me to come back there and help with an attorney? Keep you company for a couple of weeks?”

“Well . . .yeah. Could you do that? And I don’t know what half this shit is on this bill. Do you know what a ‘match dot com’ is?”

In the background, Cindy screamed, “No! Noooooo!” A desperate, guttural bellow like an animal with her hind flank fatally caught in the clamped jaw of her predator.

“Hold on! Hold on!” Dad said and there were sounds of a struggle as he responded to her rushing him trying to wrestle away the phone.

“Dad? Are you okay?”

She continued to wail protests to prevent him from hearing my voice.

“Yeah, you there? What is this? What is ‘match dot com’?”

“That’s a dating service—is that really on your bill? She’s on a website to meet other men, Dad. You need to get out of this now!”

“I’ll call you back, Daph. I gotta go.”

Her shrieks became increasingly panicked. She was reacting not only to the cauterization of her spending but was furious that I now knew what she had done. She despised my sister and me for our interminable ties to our dad—a reality over which she held no leverage.

Not that she didn’t make the effort. Within the first years of their marriage, she tried to convince him that she was being poisoned at their home in rural Northeast Oklahoma while he was out of town driving the rig.

She alternately accused my sister, Lora, and Uncle John, Dad’s younger brother, and me. The three of us, she alleged, were trying to kill her by sneaking into their house and depositing poison.

It wasn’t just a one-off episode either. She retold the nonsensical yarn for the next twenty years every time any of us were together, be it Christmas dinner or an occasional afternoon visit. Much like Scheherezade lengthened her life by keeping the king rapt with continuous stories, Cindy kept her story alive by keeping it freshly aired.

I often pretended to believe her as she spoke. I reacted with Oscar-worthy expressions of feigned concern until one day the desire to exact a small degree of psychological revenge was too great to resist. Dad sat in a leather armchair and stared out a window pretending to be interested in a flock of crows pecking at the ground.

“So, Cindy, just so I remember right, how were you being poisoned?” I asked, having heard the story a hundred times already. But hell, what child doesn’t enjoy hearing the best part of a story over and over again?

“With arsenic,” she began in her soft Missouri hills sing-song tone. “I kept going to the hospital with heart failure and they finally figured out it was from chronic arsenic poisoning.”

“Mmm-hmm. But how was the arsenic getting to you?”

“They were injecting my Coke cans. They were getting into the house and injecting my Coke cans in the pantry.”

“And why would you drink flat soda? I mean, any puncture in a can and it loses its fizz. You can taste it in the first sip,” I persisted, poking the pathologically lying bear.

Her expression changed as she narrowed her eyes and pressed her lips, creating three thin, grim slits in her bloated face before she answered.

“It was the tiniest hypodermic needle,” she said, gesturing a pinch with her thumb and index finger. “It didn’t make it go flat. The hole was so small.”

“You guys lived in the middle of nowhere—I wouldn’t be able to find that house again if my life depended on it. Who would—why in the world would anybody do that?”

Her breathing quickened at my unexpected challenges. She stirred in the recliner perpetually affixed to her ballooning backside.

“How should I know?” lurching forward as she thrust her open palms skyward and shrugged her shoulders to her ears.

“And where does someone even get arsenic? Didn’t they take that out of rat poison some time back after a bunch of wives poisoned their husbands with it? Like when they put something bitter into antifreeze so it would be tasted?” That hit a nerve.

“I don’t know, Daphne!” She snapped, shifting in her chair as her fingers squeezed the armrests. Displeased with me, she scowled.

Delighted with myself, I smiled. Dad lowered his eyes to the floor, pretending not to hear any of it.

The day after the Match.com explosion, Dad called. Cindy defended her subscription to the online matchmaking with the contention that members of our family were stalking her, and she was using the site to try to entrap them. After I described the vastness of dating websites—like finding a needle in a haystack—he admitted the absurdity of her explanation and that he knew she was lying.

“She comes up with the damnedest, cockamamie things—but what am I supposed to do? She’s mentally ill and she’s my wife. I’m supposed to take care of her.”

2015                 

The isolation turned sinister when Cindy convinced him to sell the Kansas farm he inherited from his father. The poor girl from Spokane, Missouri, was flush with more cash than she ever dreamt possible. She found a house on eighteen acres neighboring her daughter’s secluded property sixty-five miles away and moved “to where family could help” with my father as he declined—without telling any of Dad’s friends or family. We only learned of the move when I requested a welfare check after he missed a meeting with a friend and couldn’t be reached on the phone.

The deputy reported that when Cindy came to the door, she said that Dad had nothing to do with us—that he hadn’t for years—and I was only trying to reach him now because he was dying, and I wanted money. It couldn’t have been farther from the truth; I had no knowledge of any illness and enjoyed a lucrative job traveling the world.

My stepsister Carrie’s response to my outreach was that her mother had gotten Dad a new phone and was setting it up—clearly a ruse to drop the numbers of everyone Cindy wanted to cut him off from: Lora, me, Uncle John, and my nephew.

I kept trying to reach him and just as I was about to give up, he answered, delighted to hear from me.

“Well, hi, Honey! Whereabouts in the world are you?” He loved aviation and hearing about my overseas trips.

“Dad, we had no idea how to find you,” I said, pressing him about the welfare check.

A door slammed behind him—she was home.

“Honey, I’ll—I’ll have to talk to you later. I’ll talk to Cindy and see if we can’t come up with some arrangement.”

“What do you mean, some kind of arrangement? You have to ‘arrange’ to talk to your daughter?”

He began to sound more agitated.

“I—I gotta go now, but I’ll talk to Cindy and see if we can’t make some arrangement. Let me see what Cindy says.”

He sounded torn and cautious, pained at the separation from his daughters and fearful of the woman who was about to erupt after returning home to find him speaking to one of them. I remembered an ominous statement he made during a conversation some months earlier.

“She’s already told me she doesn’t like for me to talk to any you out of her earshot,” he said.

“She’s gonna kill you one day, Dad.”

                                                ***

For someone who put significant efforts into silencing others, Cindy was a prolific storyteller and the stories she told planted the seed that eventually sprouted our outlandish suspicions. The Oklahoma Coke Can Caper was just the beginning.

In the brief period between leaving her first husband and marrying Dad, she worked as a ticket seller at the Wayne Newton Theater in Branson, Missouri, and from there a splendid narrative of hillbilly mafioso was borne.

One night, as the story goes, the theater seats were filled with vacationing veterans and retired grandparents, when local mafia members stormed through the doors and kept everyone trapped and terrorized for hours.

“They made me go around and collect everyone’s cell phones so they couldn’t call out for help. I had to go between the rows of seats where everyone was lying on the floor and keep them calm.”

There were obvious questions that I should have asked at this point like, were they wearing pin-stripe Zoot suits and shiny wingtips? Or had they gone for a more local look with Wal Mart overalls and Boxcar Willie T-shirts? And had they tried any of the backwoods stills? There are some lovely vintages.

But I didn’t ask any of those questions. I was trying to picture how in 1995, the Missouri Mafia imprisoned a theater full of 50-80-year-old Bible-toting, flag-waving, RV-dwelling tourists while my stepmother—the self-proposed comforter-in-chief—navigated an obstacle course of canes and wheelchairs to collect cellphones from people trying to lower themselves to the floor in bodies riddled with hip replacements and arthritic knees.

I never have figured out what she snorted with a moonshine chaser after that donkey kicked her in the head; there is no Branson Mafia unless you count the KKK, and in 1995 Branson, the person most likely to have a cell phone and Mafia friends was Wayne Newton himself.

                                               ***

During our final pseudo-congenial visit before their secret move, Batshit Nellie regurgitated her oft-told tale of stage IV uterine cancer, one of her more elaborate chronicles. The latest news was, alas, they could do nothing more for her but keep her comfortable with morphine.

She refused to allow my father to speak with her doctors but remarkably offered her own detailed account of what occurred during surgery.

“When they cut into me,” again with the saccharine-soaked lilt, “they found that the cancer wasn’t just in my uterus. It had spread all over my abdomen. They woke me up and asked me if I wanted to do chemo and radiation and I said no, no, I wouldn’t bother. So, they put me back under and finished the surgery.”

Gobsmacked, I looked at my father, who lowered his eyes to the floor.

“I—I don’t think they do that, Cindy,” I said, relishing a repeat occasion to wave the bullshit flag. “No doctor is going to allow someone so freshly under general anesthesia to make a decision like that.”

She snapped back. “No, Daphne! I said, they woke me up!”

“Right. So, you’re lying there on the operating table, with your belly splayed open, and they brought you around, and you felt no pain, and carried this conversation.”

“Yes. People with MS don’t feel pain normally like other people.”

Ah. Now she had MS. She also had a bad mitral valve and needed a replacement from a pig—what would have been a waste of a perfectly lovely swine—two brain aneurysms, thick blood, diabetes, adrenal tumors, and heart failure from arsenic poisoning.

“And my brother is sick with his lungs hardening, so since I’m in total organ failure—except my heart and lungs, which is really odd because I started smoking when I was eight—I’m trying to go ahead and donate my lungs to him.”  

There was a brief stare-down, each of us daring the other to flinch.

Finally, I said, “That is some of the looniest, damnedest shit I ever heard in all my put-togethers.”

 She glared at me through narrowed eyes.

With the Lord as my witness, I wouldn’t be surprised if she said she stood at the back door and watched a watermelon hatch a litter of three-legged kittens.”

2016

It was 3 AM in late April when I woke up in Washington, D.C., to a text from Carrie, my stepsister of 20 years, and I knew that it was going to be unwelcome news.

 “So, you need to message as soon as you possibly have time. Important.”

The last time I heard from Carrie, she didn’t know “what the f— was wrong” with her mother but that she was always sick with a new and worsening malady.

That was true and she often replicated someone else’s recent health trouble. As underwent tests that ruled out MS, she was diagnosed with it. Soon after Aunt June was diagnosed with breast cancer, Cindy said she had it too. When she professed that her cat detected her uterine cancer, a story was circulating on the internet about how a woman’s cat obsessively sniffed and obsessively kneaded her belly shortly before her cervical cancer was found.

But her most insulting, egregious hijacking of another person’s tragedy was as my own childhood best friend lay on life support with complications following childbirth. For two weeks, as neurologists ran electroencephalographs, her newborn was placed on her chest during the tests hoping to detect changes in her brain activity.

Deliriously jealous that Dad was also devastated, Cindy barked that she coded the day she delivered Carrie, but that when they put the baby on her chest, she “came to,” an account her former husband’s family vehemently deny.

  At the end of her email, Carrie promised that if anything happened to Dad or that he was unable to make a call himself, she would be sure to let me know.

But she didn’t. She didn’t let me know that in early March my seventy-nine-year-old father fell and broke his hip. He required surgery and a three-week stay in a rehab facility until he was strong enough to go home.

“And he was getting around really well with his walker—he could get up some speed!” she said with a laugh as I listened, stunned at her chirpy delivery.

“Mom said she didn’t really think he was hurt, but he just kept not getting up, couldn’t get up. So, she finally called the ambulance.”

He fell? He wouldn’t—couldn’t—get up and she delayed calling for an ambulance? How long did she stall? Once she did call for help, it would take over half an hour to reach them because of their remoteness. He was an hour away from the network of friends and providers he had known for fifty years.

“Anyway, he had been home for less than a week and one night after dinner he started

saying he couldn’t breathe. We just thought, ‘Oh, here’s Ivan again, saying he can’t breathe, he can’t breathe,’ but he kept getting worse, so Mom finally called the ambulance.”

“You were there? You were there seeing a seventy-nine-year-old man saying he can’t breathe, and you delayed medical attention?”

A few seconds of silence passed before she continued, ignoring my questions.

“He had pneumonia and after a couple of days in the hospital, he went to a nursing home. Oh, and he also has late-stage Parkinson’s.”

“Late-stage Parkinson’s, a broken hip, rehab? How long ago did all this start? Why are you just now calling me?” I screamed at her, no longer interested in holding my rage. “Your mother is a liar! I know she’s done something to him! I know it!”

There was again an uncomfortable silence before she said, “Well, she just told me that it was time to let you guys know.”

“How kind,” I said. “Carrie, thank you for that,” and hung up hoping the sarcasm was unmissable.

I dreaded telling Lora. Since she still lived in our hometown, the task of dealing with our noxious stepmother was likely to fall mostly on her. To better size up what we were about to walk into and better prepare her, my first call was to my nephew Denver.

As soon as he was off work that night, he drove the hour north to Bolivar to see his grandfather. Theirs was one in an extensive line of relationships fractured by Cindy’s slanderous allegations of theft, what Dad referred to as her “very active imagination.”  

He called as he left the nursing home and over the chimes of his truck’s ignition, sobbed as he described the painful visit.

“It’s so bad. I never thought I’d see him like that. He didn’t even know me at first but once he did, he wouldn’t let go of me. It’s happened so fast. He didn’t look like himself at all.”

“She’s done something to him. I know she has. First, she squired him away to the middle of nowhere without telling any of us—or any of his closest friends—now he’s in this condition.”

“He’s so frail, so pale. He’s just barely there,” my nephew wept.

“So, I need to come quickly?”

“Yeah. If you want to see him one more time, you need to come.” I booked a flight for that weekend.

Cindy knew that Dad had promised Denver at least two guns that held sentimental value—a pistol from his Marine Corp days and the old rifle that he taught his only grandson to shoot with.

A couple of days later, she called, asserting that the entire gun collection was stolen by a man who helped her and Dad move from Sparta to Fair Play, though she admitted she never confronted Clint with these accusations, nor did she file a police report. Instead, she alleged, multiple boxes of guns and ammunition—some still in their original packaging—vanished, and though she could have guided law enforcement directly to the individual she claimed took them, she declined to report a cache of stolen weapons.

The story fit a habitually absurd pattern; she often invented outlandish tales of victimhood, then aired them in a syrupy-sweet voice that she must have felt absolved her of the sin of the lie. The gun caper was quite a performance—I heard it. My nephew had the presence of mind to hit the recorder on his phone when she called and began to spin her yarn.

 She would be enraged—and terrified—if she knew that the recording still exists and could be easily shared. She’d be mortified to learn that Clint and I have mutual friends and that on one of my trips back to the area, we met for lunch and communed over some of her batshit crazy stories.

“I’d do anything for your dad, but I’d just as soon never see Cindy again. She’s crazy,” he said.

“I thought of something the other day that I think connects a few dots and may explain some of the things she’s done. I think she’s ripped a page out of an old story. She does that. She borrows other people’s lives and makes them her own. She knew what scared him, what got to him.”

“What happened?”

I told Clint about a grueling ordeal that my family went through when Dad was a young guard at the Medical Center for Federal Prisoners. It started before my birth and ended shortly after, but there were frequent references to it throughout my childhood. As the years passed and I grew old enough to ask for details, Dad shared much more—including media reports—about it.

 In the late 1960s, he got into a kind of kerfluffle with an inmate named Harold Konigsberg, a Mafia hitman from Bayonne, New Jersey. Konigsberg was the worst of the worst—he walked shoulder-to-shoulder with the operatives responsible for Jimmy Hoffa’s disappearance. When “Kayo” (a nickname he earned through his boxing chops) was mentioned, other mobsters winced—he was too vicious even for his own kind.

Dad tried to play it cool, refusing to wither under Konigsberg’s threats and attempts to intimidate him. Frustrated, the convicted murderer did what Mafia men do—he started making threats against our family. After a visit from his wife, the guard escorting him saw that he had a bundle of photographs in his hand.

“What are those pictures of?”

“Fail’s house and kids.” He had hired a professional photographer to take pictures of our house, the car, and of us, if possible. The guard reported it to the warden and the photos were seized during a contraband search of his cell.

Konigsberg saw my birth announcement in the paper. He asked Dad, as he walked him out of the exercise yard, ‘By the way, how’s your baby daughter?’

 There were prowlers and hang-up phone calls all through the night. Mom was only 23 years old with two baby girls and often home alone while Dad worked erratic shifts around murderers with contacts on the outside. They were terrified and for months left the upstairs bedroom and slept on the floor on a mattress in the living room to be closer to Lora and me. Dad kept a gun under his pillow.

The situation at the prison reached a boiling point. Life Magazine did an expose on Konigsberg and published it when he transferred to Sing Sing. The article included an inset story about Dad’s tangle along with two photos; one of him standing in front of the prison, and one of the pictures that the photographer took of our house with three-year-old Lora peeking around a bush to smile at the man with the camera.

“Cindy knows about that history. She knew what got to Dad, what really scared him—and I think she consciously borrowed Konigsberg’s tactics with the stalking, chasing, picture-taking.”

Horrified, Clint said, “I wouldn’t put anything past that woman.”

***

Dad was inconsolable throughout the summer, his first few months in the nursing home. Fatigued by the painkillers pushed at him, complained constantly of his head feeling full—not a headache, but like his head had been pumped full of pressure. It was cerebral edema and he had low blood sodium levels, so his fluid intake was severely restricted, leaving him miserably thirsty all the time, pleading for something to drink.

Allergy season always wreaked havoc and he used nasal spray all throughout the year, but this time it provided no relief. He begged for the cooling spray over and over again, but the tears never stopped rolling down his face.

“My sinuses are on fire. Can I have some nose spray?” he cried constantly.

It was supposed to only be administered by the staff, and Lora and I staunchly followed the rules, for Cindy had slandered us to his caregivers and we were in constant fear of being banned from visiting. We thought it odd when there was a bottle in his nightstand drawer.

The depression and dementia led him to fixate on the Kayo Konigsberg years. He cried and cried, confused and despondent. It wasn’t that he had regressed decades and believed it was his current situation, but I had to keep explaining to him how long ago it was—that Konigsberg is dead, his connections are dead, the danger is gone.

“Dad, those guys are all gone now—we’re safe.”

“You don’t know that!” he’d sob, his face reddened and anguished.

“You don’t know guilt until you know you’ve done something that’s going to get your family killed!”

He remembered everything and he saved everything, copies of the magazine as well as newspaper clippings, which he sent to me in more recent years. The local paper did a series of articles after the story came out, a “story behind the story,” series to explain how southwest Missouri found its way into a national publication.

It was the most horrific experience of his life, and I believe that my stepmother repeatedly triggered him over the years. I also believe that whatever happened in the spring of 2016 that initiated his rapid deterioration was every bit as traumatic as his tangle with Harold Konigsberg.

                                               ***

Cindy had dumped him in the nursing home with nothing but sweats and thin, stained tank-style undershirts, and he hesitated at mealtime, embarrassed by his appearance among others in the dining hall.

“I feel like I’m wearing pajamas out in public,” he winced.

Lora and I brought all the clothes he wore throughout the last three and a half years of his life—shirts, pants, slippers, socks, sleepwear—and reviewed his closet every time I made the journey from Pennsylvania to Missouri to visit him and attend court hearings.

The staff and other residents commented on his remarkable transformation when he appeared in his new “real clothes”—a long-sleeved western shirt, jeans with suspenders, and a trucker hat.

“Ivan, is that you? Why, don’t you look like you’re feeling better!”

He’d stop pushing his walker and break into a wide smile, lifting his chest to stand a degree straighter with a hand raised to shake the hand of a passing man or wave hello to a lady.

After they passed and he returned his attention to his walker and the hallway ahead, they quietly asked, “Are you girls his daughters? He’s just radiant! I can’t believe how much he’s changed. When he first got here—he didn’t look so good. . .”

When it became too difficult to work the snaps himself, the western shirts were saved for days that Lora or I could see him and spend the time that his caregivers didn’t have. We kept several in his closet but filled the rest of the space with comfortable polo shirts and lounge pants.

He needed replacement clothes due to an ever-fluctuating waistline. Allergy medications left him fatigued, diminishing his appetite and he’d lose so much weight that he needed smaller pants. When the only things I could find were basketball pants that spilled over his shoes and created a dangerous tripping hazard, my mother—his ex-wife of twenty-five years—hemmed them with elastic so they fit snugly around his ankles.

 I once came to see him after his weight rebounded. His waistband cut uncomfortably into his rounded abdomen.

“Dad, you’ve been eating too much pie!”

“I reckon. The chow’s good here,” he smiled sleepily.

“Well, these pants are too tight around your belly.”

With scissors borrowed from the nursing station and him sitting on the edge of his bed, I snipped a notch in the fabric below his belly button.

“How’s that?”

“Still a little tight. Can you do a little more?”

I snipped into the next line of stitching.

“They’re still a little tight.”

Another snip, then another.

Little by little, I cut into the wide band until he exhaled with relief.

“Oh, that’s better. Thank you, Honey.”

When he stood to get into the wheelchair, his pants dropped freely to the floor.

“I feel a draft,” he said, and we laughed

***

By August, his physical strength and mental acuity improved tremendously. Lora visited frequently, and the staff allowed them to use the exercise room. Dad pushed himself on the stationary bicycle, riding for longer times and with increasing resistance. He made future plans—and shocking statements.

“Lora,” he said one day as he pedaled, “I want you and Daph to get me a lawyer. I want a divorce. I want you guys involved, in my life. I think Cindy did something to me.”

She called me that night and described how she encouraged him to share without her prodding or bringing up specifics from the past. Whatever he had to say, we wanted it to come from his own memories and not be influenced by ours.

“He said she gave him something to drink one day that tasted so bad he spit it out. There was another time he got so sick after dinner that he couldn’t do anything for a week. He knows she’s been lying to him for years—that he always knew it—it’s just that now he knows it was all to keep him away from us and the rest of his family.”

It was vindication but could only be enjoyed for a moment. We now had a whole new crisis to deal with.

I hired Charlie and Jesse Ankrom over the phone from Pennsylvania because they were the ones who could get to the nursing home first. Together they took our case, and I was thrilled to later learn that Charlie had been a prosecuting attorney before opening the practice with his son. Jesse met with Dad was comfortable enough with his level of determination that he filed the petition for divorce.

Patty, the Ankrom’s paralegal, called to tell me that Cindy had been served with the papers.

“Our guy that served her said her elevator doesn’t go all the way to the top. She opened the door and tried to stare him down, wouldn’t take the papers at first. He said, ‘Lady, do you have an attorney?’ ‘Well, yes,’ and he said, ‘I guarantee you, he’ll want to see what’s in these papers.’ So, she finally took them. He said there were a lot of new, expensive cars at the house. And some major construction.”

An asset search revealed over $80,000 in new cars registered to Cindy’s daughters and granddaughter, with her name also on all three. She also closed the joint banking account that held the remainder of the farm sale—$400,000—just four days after he was admitted to the nursing home—and built an addition onto the house.

We couldn’t shake off the things Dad said. The thought of him being often sick after they moved to Fair Play, the isolation, disorientation. How miserable he said he was. He continued to offer fragmented memories that left us more and more unsettled.

On a day when he seemed particularly sharp, I asked him about the things he had begun to talk about.

“Dad, you told Lora some things that you think happened to you. Can you tell me?”

“I had a potassium supplement I used in my drinks. It was different one day. It wasn’t a powder—it was like granules. It tasted so bad I couldn’t drink it. I think Cindy’s been trying to do something to me. She wants me out of the picture, to be alone.”

“Why?”

“Money. She was always making me change all the money around, get her cash out of the bank. She didn’t need it—she never went anywhere. I don’t know what she did with it.”

“Do you want to be tested? There are tests, things to look for.”

He looked toward the window and sat silently considering his options.

“Yeah. Yeah, I think we oughtta. Yeah. It sure is good to see you, Honey. So proud of you, and Lora, and Denver.”

                                    ***

The arsenic test was indisputable.

Dad’s value: 306.

The marker for abnormally elevated levels: 80.

When the Ankroms got the report, Patty called.

“Oh, boy, Daphne. The prosecuting attorney wants you to file a police report so they can assign a detective to open an investigation. I have a name and email for you to send it to.”

Charlie Ankrom called me to suggest putting the divorce aside and immediately petitioning for a legal guardian for Dad’s protection.

“I’m very, very concerned for Ivan’s safety. His wife is going to fight this, and the judge will set a court date for ninety days down the road. He’s not safe. If we agree to bring a third party in, our chances are better that we get an order that day,” the former prosecuting attorney said. “Again, I am extremely concerned about his safety right now.”

Of course, Lora and I immediately agreed to whatever would the most quickly put a buffer zone around Dad.

Charlotte Haden, the Cedar County Public Administrator, became Dad’s legal guardian.

                                                ***

I filed the report with Lieutenant Roger Barron who responded that he immediately went to the nursing home administration to protect Dad. When he stopped responding to my repeated inquiries, I reviewed the report with Lieutenant Hendrickson, who assured me that he was going straight to Bolivar Police Chief Mark Webb.

As it became clear that the end of Dad’s ordeal was nearing with no further word from Barron or Hendrickson, I emailed Chief Webb, who replied:

“Thank you for your email, Ms. Freise. I have contacted

my current investigations Lieutenant and advised him

this is a priority to find out what has happened?”

He had never heard of my father’s case.

                                                ***

The funeral director used the underwear, socks, Wrangler blue jeans, and black leather belt that I folded neatly and left with them in a plastic Target bag. All that was missing was a pair of his cowboy boots, but no one was going to see his feet in the casket.

We didn’t bother asking our stepmother to bring a pair of Dad’s boots for his burial and never again asked for his guitar, banjo, or any of the other instruments that his hands made sing all throughout our childhood.

We had reason to believe there was nothing left.

Charlotte said that when she went to the house to get some records, she saw an area in the yard that “looked like someone had been burning things,” which was remarkable because Cindy once claimed to me that she caught Dad outside “burning things.”

It wasn’t the only time she projected. She often told on herself long before an alibi or explanation was even necessary, so when there was evidence of recent embers, I figured Cindy was destroying documents and correspondence.

We knew we would never see his stainless steel mandolin, his most cherished instrument. It was a gift from an old Kansas neighbor, Wendell Brant, whose mother was the teacher at the old one-room schoolhouse Dad attended as a young boy on the Kansas prairie. But what made the mandolin so beloved was that Wendell was at the battle of Iwo Jima when those soldiers raised the American flag. That made him worthy of a hero-worship eclipsed only by Uncle John’s service as a Marine in Vietnam.

She likely disposed of Dad’s possessions, destroying everything of sentimental value that would have been graceful for her to offer to disburse between his daughters and grandson.

There is no blood in her veins. Only venom.

He was so still. Gone was the shallow breathing that made me wonder if he was hurting. There were no more gasps that made me worry that he was scared and suffocating. No begging for nose spray. No tears poured from his eyes after what was supposed to be a cool, relieving spray of saline solution, but instead left his sinuses on fire.

Is that where I failed him? Why didn’t I think of it then? Mucous membranes? It was 306. 306. Once he was in the nursing home, there was no vomiting, nothing to alert the staff to symptoms caused by something he ate. But somehow it was there. Forensic tests don’t lie.

He looked nothing like himself. He was way too powdery pink, too pasty. But it wasn’t the mortician’s fault. His skin tone probably would have worked better with the formulas if preparations had been started the day he died instead of 4 days later.

But there was all that business with coroners and a prospective autopsy . . .

There is no blood in her veins. Only venom. Those were Dad’s words.

About Daphne Freise

I've enjoyed a great career in aviation that has given me the incredible opportunity to be a student of the world for many years and hopefully many more to come. Thought-provoking third world countries with ancient histories and literature appeal to me much more than a luxurious beach resort. Currently writing travel memoirs and an account of my father's career as a federal corrections officer and its connection to the last years of his life. Published in the Pearl S. Buck Literary Journal.

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