Since our apartment complex is a tight-knit bunch of people, we all decided to get together and have a pre-Thanksgiving potluck before everyone flew to the four winds for the holiday. Last night we all got together in the courtyard, each of us bearing delicious trays that we had prepared for the occasion. Since we have a huge ethnic diversity in the complex, we had everything from Hungarian food to Filipino food to Mexican and even good, old-fashioned gumbo, a Louisiana favorite. I ladled up a spoonful of the hot, savory stew over some brown rice and inhaled deeply; the aroma is something I haven’t smelled since I was a teenager in the deep South.

As I took a large mouthful of the gumbo, I was suddenly assaulted by a string of memories I had thought buried; I was very nearly emotionally overwhelmed.  As it was I spent the rest of the night getting highly drunk, trying to scrub the memories away, but now, a day later, I’ll try to recount in some kind of calm manner the story of the time my aunt murdered my uncle.

I have -or had,- two uncles when I was a kid, my mother’s brothers, Dale and Danny. Shortly after my father committed suicide when I was six, my mother took my sister and me all the way across the country to go live with her parents in California. I remembered meeting my grandparents once or twice over the years, and was very excited about going to live with them. I was still too young to properly comprehend just what had happened to my dad; the concept of suicide just didn’t click in my head, and wouldn’t for another two years. On the plane ride out to California a nice French lady made me a balloon Ninja Turtle, Donatello to be precise. She made my sister The Little Mermaid. This was obviously in the days before 9/11 and the stupidity that’s trailed in its wake ever since; this woman was making balloon animals left and right for kids on the plane with nary a raised eyebrow.

Our grandparents picked us up at the airport, about midnight local time, and we drove to their two-story house in Riverside. The next morning I met my Uncle Danny for the first time.  A red-haired man with a mustache and a constant smile, he looked a little like my mom and was a cool surfer guy. He was in his early thirties and had a bedroom just down the hall from my mom’s new room. My sister and I got a spare bedroom further down the hall from her, where we bickered over who got the top bunk for a while before unpacking.

Over the next year I got to know the area pretty well, playing with neighborhood kids in the cul-de-sac and once even venturing down into the giant storm drain at the end of the street, by the school bus stop. I grew to love my Uncle Danny and vowed to grow up to be a cool guy like he was. Eventually, my mom landed a job back on the east coast with General Electric, and we moved back to Virginia again, leaving my grandparents and my uncle behind.

Then I met Uncle Dale; he was a biker who would swing through the area two or three times a year, stopping in for a few hours to visit with us. I thought he was a WAY cool dude, with a long, flowing red beard, a black leather bandana holding his ponytail in place, and a worn, comfortable black leather jacket over jeans and boots with metal clasps. I thought he looked like a pirate.

My mom later explained to me that Uncle Dale was a wanderer; he had up and disappeared when he was 17, just walked right out of the house one morning and spent the next decade or two on the road, hitchhiking, working this or that job, falling in with various biker gangs, and crisscrossing the continent more times than even he could count. He broke his parents’ hearts when he left, but the wandering bug has bitten our family again and again down through the generations and Dale was just one more in that long line. Every now and again, as I’m driving the long drive to work, I’ll look out over the mountains and wonder what would happen if I just ditched the car and hopped a freight train going east or north. Some day I’m afraid I might even follow through with it. Once when I was 20, I wandered out about fifteen miles on foot into the Mojave one weekend, just me, a canteen, and something resembling a death wish.

Anyway, Uncle Dale would stop by every now and again, even after we moved to South Carolina, but his visits began to get less and less frequent. Eventually, my mom took my and my sister on a road trip of our own, to where he was supposedly living in a commune in Virginia, just to find out if he was still alive or not; we hadn’t seen or heard from him in about five years at this point. We drove the six and a half hours to Virginia and through the rural area leading to the commune, and when we arrived there, the men told my mom that Dale had lit out about seven months back and no one had seen him since. Dejectedly, my mom took us back home to South Carolina, not expecting to hear from him again.

What a surprise it was, then, when he showed up the next year with a new wife in tow.

She was a Creole from Louisiana, and she was one of the warmest people I’d ever met. “We need ta get some meat on dem bones, bai,” she’d tell me, and then whip up a pot of gumbo for me and her to eat. I’d ask her what she put in it and she’d wink and say, “Oh, you know, somma swamp watta, somma gata meat, somma coan,” and we’d eat the delicious stew over rice and then go out on the back porch, where she’d smoke a corncob pipe and I’d sing for her, oldies like the Beatles and the Mamas and the Papas; her favorite was always “Kansas City,” and she’d ask me to sing that for her, chuckling, “I wanna hear how you gonn’ go t’ Kansas City and get you a feisty little wooman!”

I quickly fell in love with her; she was a great aunt and I loved hanging around with her. My uncle, meanwhile, had gotten a job on a local construction crew, helping to build an elementary school nearby. He’d come home in the evenings and eat some gumbo and then join us on the porch, chewing on a plug of tobacco and staring out into the deepening night at the fireflies circling overhead, occasionally humming along as I sang.

They moved to another town a few months before I started my senior year of high school, but I’d still regularly drive over to see them.

One evening, I was working in the Bi-Lo just across the street from my high school, stocking bleach and other cleaning supplies, when the store’s PA buzzed for me. I headed back to the stockroom phone and picked it up. My mother was on the line, almost in hysterics; her voice was so choked with tears I couldn’t understand anything she was trying to tell me. I quickly hopped in my ’89 Celebrity and sped home.

The official report indicated that my Uncle Dale had gotten highly drunk, and had fallen asleep with a cigarette in his hand, which caught the trailer on fire and burned him alive inside of it. I knew that was bogus, as did my mom and my step dad, since my uncle didn’t drink, had been sober for years, and the only tobacco he used was chewing tobacco, but the investigation didn’t indicate any foul play and there was nothing to go on. My aunt had simply disappeared into the night; a missing persons report was filed with the county, but that’s the last anyone ever saw of her.

Eventually my step dad managed to get the case looked at again and the investigator remarked that it did look suspicious, and after a lot of analysis, it was decided that foul play was the cause of the fire, with my aunt as a prime suspect. Further investigation revealed something remarkable: my aunt was not who she said she was. Her identity was a flimsy fake, and her description turned up someone who was suspected in the deaths of two other men over the last decade.

It seemed my uncle had married a black widow.

I could have sworn I once saw the woman out West, at a truck stop in Texas, but I couldn’t get a good look before she got into her truck and drove off.

Chances are I’ll never know what happened.

Image via Wikipedia.