Broken Heart Attack
March weather in Wharton County, Pennsylvania was as unpredictable as a cutting jeer from Nana D. Although bound to happen, the actual impact boasted an infinite range unlike any missile I'd ever seen launched. There might be a blizzard worthy of a Christmas snow globe furiously shaken by an over-eager child, or spring could be testing its feverish desire to burst through the frozen soil with an unparalleled zest for life. While thunder rolled above me in a murky gray sky, I read my nana's latest message for the third time wondering if she realized the extent to which she could confuse people and make them want to cry—all in a single, random meandering text.
Nana D: Can't stand these old whiners. Save me. You better not be late. Did you get a haircut yet? I've seen more attractive farm animals than you lately. Sometimes I can't believe we're related. Made you a special dessert. Why didn't you talk me out of this stupid race? I'm proud of you for coming back home. What's an emoji again? I need to find us both dates. Do I swipe right or left if I'm interested in a man? Hurry up. Hugs and kisses.
Since we enjoyed torturing one another in a loving yet competitive way, I ignored my grandmother's craziness hoping it'd lead to a conniption fit in front of her friends. That wind-up Energizer bunny desperately needed a case of extra-strength Valium while I craved the warmer, drier weather as my drug of choice. Instead, I stared depressingly at an over-stuffed storm cloud threatening to torture us again. We'd already suffered through a nasty four-day bout of torrential rain that made everything feel like soggy bread. And in case it wasn't obvious, no one liked soggy bread. Now that I thought about it, my entire week had felt like soggy bread mischievously sprinkled with a side of unrelenting and peculiar death.
Fresh off accepting a new job as a professor at Braxton and unravelling my first murder case, I was hopeful for some relaxation. Unfortunately, everything morphed into swiss cheese with holes the size of the Grand Canyon. No, I wasn’t a police detective or private investigator. I got lucky solving the murder of two colleagues before our county's crabby sheriff finally nabbed the misguided culprit, yet that wasn't the most scandalous thing about my recent return home after a decade's absence.
When I told my in-laws that I was leaving Los Angeles and moving back to Pennsylvania, I learned through an ordinary, everyday conversation that my supposedly dead wife, Francesca, wasn't really dead. Nearly two and a half years ago, I'd been led to believe she'd perished in a car accident when a drunk driver plowed through a red light at a dangerous intersection. No longer true! 'Alive today, gone tomorrow. Hey, I'm back again. The after-life wasn't too fun, so I changed my mind about dying. Just not for me!' Maybe things happened like that in the menacing world of my in-laws, The Castigliano Family, but definitely not in mine.
The car accident had been staged by Francesca's parents after someone tried to kill my wife as revenge for a multitude of mob faux pas. My in-laws sat at the helm of a ruthless LA crime syndicate, and somehow Francesca—who never told me anything about this aspect of her life while she was alive—had gotten caught up in their web of deception. The only way for them to protect Francesca and our young daughter, Emma, was to fake Francesca's death.
My emotions had been incredibly erratic and raw for the last five days since learning the truth. I couldn't tell anyone except my sister, Eleanor, who'd been present when Francesca showed up. And just as easily as my no-longer-dead-wife had materialized, she vanished again under the dark iron curtain that was the protection of her parents. Was there a handbook for dealing with a wife who'd come back from the grave? Had I been kidnapped and brainwashed by a cult performing some maddening initiation rite? Seriously, what did I do in the past to be saddled with the mother of all gut punches? Sadly, I had no answers but as far as priorities went, my presence was imminently required elsewhere for a different kind of brutal torture.
I was currently driving to visit my almost seventy-five-year-old grandmother, Nana D—known to everyone else as Seraphina Danby—who'd declared her intent to run for Mayor of Wharton County in a surprise press conference earlier that week. Five-foot-tall, less than a hundred pounds wet—mostly from her wild, henna-rinsed red hair taking up nearly half her height—and full of boat loads more sarcasm than me, Nana D was preparing for her first major campaign activity. I'd promised to organize all her 'old, whiny' volunteers for the mayoral race since none of them knew where to begin.
Although a proper tea would be served at Nana D's, I popped into The Big Beanery, Braxton's charming and crowded South Campus student café, and ordered an extra-strong, extra-tall salted caramel mocha to go. I drooled at the pastry counter despite knowing Nana D had baked something delicious I'd undoubtedly consume like a pig from a trough. I scanned the room searching for any of my students who might've been hanging out with their friends or reviewing class materials in study group but only saw one person I recognized who was not a student by any means.
What was Dean Terry doing on campus on a Saturday? While waiting for my overly complex coffee and assuming she sat by herself, I moseyed over to the table to brighten her day. That's the kinda guy I was. Although I was a mere three inches shy of a full six-feet, my colleague tipped the other side of the scale and unwisely chose to keep her hair extremely short. Built like a quarterback who'd recently eaten way too much salt, the dean had been using her thick, towering presence to intimidate students for nearly twenty-five years at Braxton. Once you got beyond the surface, she was truly a pussycat.
After getting used to the idea of being colleagues, I refrained from calling her Dean Terry and addressed her by her first name. With a smile, I said, “Good afternoon, Fern. Don't you ever take a break?” She'd almost been awarded the coveted presidency of our well-regarded institution last week. The Board of Trustees had surprisingly gone with someone else and instead offered her a leading role on the committee that would convert Braxton from a college into a university over the next two years. She was disappointed, but once we reconnected and realized we could make a huge difference together, Fern quickly got on board with the decision.
“Kellan, so nice to see you. I'm meeting my son for brunch. He's stepped outside to fix an issue with the school's King Lear production.” Fern's tone had more verve than I was ready to handle at that time of day. Although I'd always known her academic and disciplinarian side, I'd recently connected with the dean on a more personal level finding we had a lot in common. Between our mutual love of black and white films and traveling cross-country by train, we were destined to develop a stronger friendship. Where was that love when she'd raked me over the coals for something my frat had done while I was a student ten years ago?
As far as I recalled, Fern only had one son who'd graduated high school with me. Instead of going directly to college, he'd moved to New York City to become an actor before returning three years later to obtain his bachelor's degree. “How is Arthur? I haven't seen him in years,” I said pushing away wavy, unruly dirty-blond hair from my three-day unshaven face. Nana D had astutely remarked I was overdue for a haircut but since I hadn't been to a barber in Wharton County in a decade, I'd no idea where to go. Eleanor had tried to convince me to let her trim it, but that would never happen. A steady grip with a pair of scissors and erring on the side of caution were not her strong points.
“Arthur's directing Braxton's play this semester. Unfortunately, it means he's working for a tyrant, but he's dealt with far worse on Broadway, I'm sure.” Fern shrugged her shoulders, then offered me a seat. My mouth watered over the gooey cinnamon roll sitting on her plate inches away from my nimble fingers.
“No, I shouldn't. I have to be somewhere but thought I'd say hello,” I noted, preparing to leave while Arthur returned from his phone call and stormed up to the table. Hints of a ferocious dog came to mind when his alarming expression and cold, dark pupils centered on his unsuspecting mother.
“That woman is a miserable old cow, Mom. I don't know how you cope working with her every day,” Arthur snarled. He was tall with round and puffy features like his mother but instead of a gray pixie-cut, thinning, sandy-colored hair was combed over in a failed attempt to hide what was inevitably going to happen relatively soon. Although he was thirty-two like me, early crow's feet and cavernous lines had already begun to dominate his face. “Oh, wait… Kellan Ayrwick, is that you?”
I nodded. “I can only imagine you're speaking about my wonderful boss, Myriam Castle. I'd appreciate any tips you might have for dealing with that venomous barracuda!” It'd spilled from my lips before I could stop my verbal diarrhea. Myriam was one of my least favorite people. Ever. I'd barely known her for three weeks, but every interaction left me bristled and inflicted with a rash the size of Texas. Between her nasty, chirpy tone and inciting way of quoting Shakespeare, it often felt like a nails-on-chalkboard episode of Twilight Zone or a sinister case of Candid Camera. I waited for someone wearing a demon mask to jump out and yell surprise, but sadly, it never happened. I would've popped that charlatan right in the schnoz for messing with me.
“If only.” Arthur sat forcefully on the chair wiping wet hands across his jeans. He'd regrettably gotten caught in the deluge without an umbrella. “Run. That's all I can say when it comes to that—”
“Now, Arthur. We all know she can be difficult, but let's not say something you'll regret,” Fern interrupted while patting her son's forearm. “Remember, this is your opportunity to get into directing and away from acting. Isn't that what you said you wanted?” Fern fretted like a mother hen trying to calm her little chick. I'd rarely seen this side of her, but she handled her son with aplomb and tact.
“I know, Mom. Myriam's squashed the entire opening scene we'd been rehearsing for days. Now I have to re-block the stage before tomorrow's dress rehearsal.” He grunted and took an aggressive bite out of his grilled cheese sandwich. His canine teeth resembled a ravenous vampire's fangs.
Arthur answered an incoming call from someone named Dana on his cell phone. Since he and Fern were busy and my coffee grew colder on the counter, I excused myself to leave. I pretended not to hear Fern gasp when Arthur told Dana he also wanted to kill some woman for what she'd said at last night's rehearsal. I felt bad for Arthur who'd have to find a way to work with the corrosive woman, or she'd make his life miserable.
When Myriam had become the new chairman of our department, I suddenly took direction from her since I was teaching a full course load on broadcasting writing, television production, and history of film. We'd held our first supervisory meeting this week where she'd made things exorbitantly clear—once my father officially retired as the president of Braxton College in the coming days, I no longer had anyone to protect me. I might've been granted a one-year contract, but Myriam articulately clarified the new president—her wife, Ursula Power—could override it.
I grabbed my coffee and took off for Nana D's. She owned and operated Danby Landing, an organic orchard and farm in the southernmost section of Wharton County. At one point in the county's history it had the largest acreage of any homestead, but Nana D had sold off a large chunk after my grandpop passed away. As I turned onto the dirt path leading to her farmhouse, I quarantined thoughts of my back-from-the-dead wife and loony boss and focused on the next irrational mess I had to deal with.
When I pulled up at Danby Landing, my six-year-old daughter raced out of the house and jumped in my arms. I swung Emma from side to side and kissed her cheeks. She'd slept at Nana D's the previous night, so they could have a fancy slumber party—no boys invited apparently.
“Daddy! We made smores last night. I got to ride the tractor with Nana D's farmhand this morning. He has a daughter my age. Can I play with her? When are we going to the zoo?” Emma asked, unable to control her glee. Her crimped dark-brown hair was pulled into pigtails, and she wore an adorable pair of denim overalls Nana D had sewed the previous week. Emma inherited her mother's olive-tinted skin which made me unable to forget my wife's enchanting beauty.
“That sounds like fun, baby girl!” I sat her on the swinging bench next to me to spend a few minutes together before dealing with the old whiners. We played a few rounds of Cat-in-the-Cradle and discussed the sleepover before Emma decided to drag me inside the house. While she poured herself a cup of juice and turned on a video, I trudged into the den to be terrorized.
There were four others in the room besides my nana, all of whom I'd met in the past. It was a meeting of the founding members of Braxton's Septuagenarian Club: Nana D, Eustacia Paddington, Gwendolyn Paddington, Millard Paddington, and Lindsey Endicott. They'd formed the group years ago upon turning seventy to celebrate a revival of their youth. They'd initiated at least forty new members and ran amok trying to reclaim any remaining independence from their family who'd locked them in nursing homes or taken away their driver's licenses. Nana D was the ringleader and caused the most disturbances around town. 'Not my monkey, not my circus,' I often reminded myself when anyone begged me to stop her from whatever trouble she'd brewed up.
“If it ain't the little bedwetter,” taunted Lindsey Endicott, a seventy-six-year-old retired attorney whom Nana D and Eustacia Paddington were both dating. His bright pink polo was two sizes too small and revealed way too much of his rotund beer belly. As soon as he'd sold his law practice, he'd opened a microbrewery in one of the well-frequented downtown shopping areas. The only problem was that he was his best customer and had never learned when or how to cut himself off.
“Aw, he hasn't done that in years, right, Kellan?” said Eustacia. Her electric-blue track suit fit properly, but she obviously wasn't wearing anything underneath it. I shook my head in disbelief at the multitude of oddly-shaped age spots and diverted my sight anywhere but in her direction. She continued, “I remember when he had that awful problem. Poor Seraphina had to change the sheets whenever that boy stayed over.”
Could this get any more embarrassing? I'd been three years old and had a nervous bladder. I'd gained full control of the situation for close to three decades at this point. “Cut it out, you two. I'll toss your little blue pills down the garbage disposal, Mr. Endicott. How'd you like that?” His eyes opened wide sending two giant, bushy eyebrows in every direction like ants in search of a morsel of food. “And you, Ms. Paddington… I'll slice several inches off your cane and see how you like hobbling around.”
Millard Paddington, Eustacia's older brother—by less than a year, Irish twins as she often called them—blushed a shade of red I rarely saw anymore. He was the only truly gentle human being in the bunch. “Leave the boy alone, you rascals, or I'll swap Gwennie's high-blood pressure pills with Eustacia's gastrointestinal medication. Neither of you will know what hit you. Don't we have important business to attend to?” Millard was the tallest of the bunch, rail thin, and had lost his hair years ago. He'd grown a handlebar moustache and had almost perfected the curls, but the children at the library held a penchant for yanking on it when he'd read to them. Calling it spotty would be a generous description yet he seemed to enjoy all the attention from the boisterous toddlers.
Gwendolyn, or Gwennie as her fellow club members called her, had been married to Eustacia's and Millard's brother, Charles, who'd passed away the prior year. She was exceedingly prim and proper and had a habit of being hasty and judgmental. I'd luckily rarely been on the receiving end of it, but Nana D had to put the woman in her place many times in the past. Gwendolyn remained silent with her upturned nose looking as snooty as possible—old schoolmarm after tasting a rancid, sour grapefruit.
“As much as I'd love to keep getting roasted by the old timers' club, Mr. Paddington is correct. How can I help with Nana D's campaign?” I asked relaxing into the only remaining chair in the room which left me practically sitting inside the roaring fireplace. “What have you prepared so far?”
Silence. No one said a word, just looked back and forth at each other waiting for someone else to chime in. We continued like this for another five minutes until I finally got them to produce a list of the top ten changes they wanted to see happen in Wharton County. I was pleasantly surprised to discover at least six of them were pragmatic ideas others could get behind. The remaining four were not—free massages in the park by 'the hot little number at the Willow Trees Retirement Complex' and a new dating app called 'Let's Get Lucky' for the over-seventy crowd seemed a tad unnecessary and inflammatory to me. Then again, I might want those things in forty years, too. Whom was I to judge or put the kibosh on someone's late-in-life carnal desires? I won't even mention the other two ideas.