“Nonna, it’s me Jackie. I’m right here. Nonna?”
“She may be out for awhile yet. She’s had some trauma.”
I ignored the nurse, still shaking her.
“Nonna? Can you open your eyes for me?"
“Miss. Really, I must...”
“Look,” I said to the nurse. “Save it, okay? I plan on being here for a bit, so just…” I made a shooing motion with one hand, “toddle off would you?”
Thankfully, she was young. An older nurse would have lit into me. She exhaled noisily and left, shutting the door with a bang.
“Nonna? Wake up, okay? I have to talk to you.” And with that, she opened her eyes immediately. Faker.
“Jacklyn? Is that you?”
“Nonna. You know full well who it is. And why I’m here. I know Mom talked to you before your…episode.” I used air quotes on the last word. “So you know I know. But I want to hear it from you.”
“Oh Pish! Jackie, it was a long time ago. And I’m ill.” She motioned to the various monitors, giving off beeps and squeaks in her hospital room.
“Yeah, I’m aware.” I said dryly. “But I still want to hear it from you.” I leaned down and tipped the straw from the pink hospital mug toward her. She took a long pull of the water and smacked her lips as if it were whisky.
“Alright alright.” She dropped the act and pulled herself upright in the bed, scooching over and patting the empty side. I pulled myself in next to her, tucking in like when I was a kid.
“Spill,” I added and she rolled her eyes at me.
“Okay. Your father was a bastard. And by that I mean, he was an asshole, you understand?” I nodded yes. Nonna’s opinion of my father was a well-worn theme.
“Anyhow…I never liked him, not for a moment. Your mom, your beautiful mother was always too good for that man. Too good by half!”
I nodded and rolled my wrist out making a “go on with it” motion.
“He had a monkey on his back. A big hairy one…”
“Yup, got it. Heroin. Mom told me.”
“Well did she tell you that he drove my old station wagon headlong into a tree with you in the carseat?”
No, she hadn’t.
“No, I can see she didn’t. And he stole from your Mom and me. And our neighbors. And he left you in the car while he shot up behind the 7-11 and someone tried to steal the car, but thank God the piece of shit wouldn’t start. You were two then.”
Oh. I didn’t know that either.
“So, your mom. Was in looooove with him. And didn’t have the cojones to leave him.”
Jackie had also heard this tirade over the years. Nonna was big into cojones and the fact that most people (including her Mom), had nothing between their thighs where their balls should be.
“And?” I held my breath.
“Well, since they were never going to afford their own place, I had planned to salt his food until his damn heart gave out. That’s what I did with my first husband Charles. But when you were born I ran out of time.”
This was no revelation. Nonna had told me dozens of times that it took her 11 years to kill her first husband. According to her, she had “salted the shit” out of everything he put in his mouth, including his toothpaste. He had a massive coronary when she was just 29. She wore a hat adorned with a peacock feather to the funeral and cozied up to the new deacon, my grandfather.
“So, I took $1,800 out of my savings, bought all of the shit I could with that money, which was a lot, and invited him over for a fireside chat.”
I could picture her, 35 years ago, but just as bossy. Telling young thugs to give her all the drugs her money could buy. And not getting stabbed or ripped off or worse because she was harder than they were.
“I laid out all of the “works” onto the coffeetable in my back room. I told him he could have all of it, but he had to leave you and Kimberly that night and never come back.”
“What did he say?”
“Well,” she shifted her weight and a musty, dead skin smell rolled off of her. “He never looked me in the eye. I remember that. He just stared down at the powder, all in little envelopes, scattered here and there. He was sweating. And he asked to see my locket.”
The ER staff had taken it off, but I knew what was in it. Mom was on the left, her senior picture. And I was on the right, my first birthday.
“I took it off and passed it to him. He spent about five minutes looking at it. And he cried. Just a couple of tears. That’s all you were worth to him.”
“And then?” I kept my voice steady, not rising to the bait.
“Then he shoved all of it into his pockets and left.”
“So you didn’t…” I asked.
“No.” But she was lying and I knew it.
“Nonna, why not tell me the truth? You’ve about given it all up anyway.”
She shook her head side to side like a little kid in the throes of a tantrum.
I grabbed the arm with the IV and twisted it hard.
She grimaced and ground her teeth together. She glared out of one eye at me. A wild dog appraising a wolf.
She scowled and put up her hands in surrender. “Alright! Alright. Damn you. I set him up in the basement with some food, a TV and all the stuff. Then I locked the door.”
And there it was. Finally, after all these years.
“Did he try to get out? Did he bang on the door and plead with you? Did he at least try?” I asked.
“No,” she responded. And this time her eyes, the flatness of her voice, told me what I needed to know. There was no mistaking the truth there.
“Ah.” I said.
“I did it for you.” She said. And then added, “But it was a waste. You’re just like him.”
“Yes. Yes I am.” My drug was gin, but otherwise she was right. Could I walk away from a room full of booze, food, TV, blankets, no responsibilities? Not likely.
I grabbed my purse from her roll-away table and stood up to leave.
“You’re a cold bitch, Nonna.” I said. And then I reached down and gave her a hug. She murdered him for us. For love. And I wanted to hate her for it. But I didn’t. I just felt empty.