Mules in the Wilderness

Barry Gifford


Bruno and Lily had moved to a new house since Roy had last seen them, which had been at the funeral of Grandpa Joseph, his dad and Bruno's father, five years before, when Roy was fourteen. Roy's uncle and aunt had not made an effort to keep in touch with him since his dad died, two years before the death of Grandpa Joseph. Roy had been living in Europe for the last two years and was visiting his mother in Chicago before continuing on to the West Coast. He decided to stop by Bruno and Lily's just to say hello and see their house. He had always liked his aunt Lily, a lively, attractive woman who at one time had been quite friendly with his mother, even after his parents divorced. "Give my best to Lily," Roy's mother said to him.

Bruno was another story, as were Roy's cousins Daria and Delilah. Daria was a year younger than Roy and Delilah five years younger. Ever since Roy could remember both Daria and her father seemed always to be in a bad mood, and Delilah uncommunicative, keeping very much to herself. Roy's mother told him that his Uncle Bruno had wanted sons, not daughters, and made his feelings obvious in his behavior toward Daria and Delilah; he remained cold and distant, leaving Lily with the responsibility of raising them. Besides this and catering to her husband, Lily devoted much of her time to work on behalf of Mother Wolfram's Mission for the Misshapen and other charitable organizations.

When his uncle answered the front door, he did so by peering through a narrow slit. Not recognizing Roy, he asked who he was. Roy identified himself, which caused Bruno to pause for several seconds before informing him that there were too many locks to undo on the door and instructing him to come around the side of the house where he would be admitted through the servants' entrance.

It was Lily who admitted him. She smiled and seemed pleased to see Roy. His aunt had worn heavy pancake makeup ever since he'd known her and dark red, precisely applied lipstick so Roy was not surprised when she air-kissed him on both sides of his face. Lily guided Roy up a winding staircase and through an enormous kitchen into a den that he could see connected to a livingroom. Daria and Delilah, she informed him, were away at boarding school in the East. Bruno was sitting in a high-backed chair and motioned with his right index finger for Roy to sit in an armchair across from him.

"Is your mother still alive?" Lily asked.

"She is," said Roy.

"Say hello to her for me," his aunt said, then left the room.

Roy looked around. There were paintings on the walls of older men in suits, none of whom Roy recognized.

"What do you want?" asked Bruno.

Roy's father's only brother was a large man, a couple of inches over six feet tall and he weighed in excess of 220 pounds. Bruno wore his pants fastened just below his chest, a blue dress shirt and dark brown tie; he had a bushy mustache and a full head of gray-brown hair that stood up like a stiff brush.

"I came to say hello to you and Aunt Lily," said Roy. "I've been living abroad for two years."

"Do you plan to stay in Chicago now?"

"No, I'm on my way to California."

Bruno was an auctioneer; he handled sales of restaurants, automobile dealerships, private estates and business properties. Roy recalled his mother once commenting that Bruno could for the right price acquire anything anyone wanted. He was Roy's father's older brother by four years but he seemed to Roy to belong to an earlier time, a Biblical epoch when kings ruled unchallenged. Bruno scrutinized his nephew as if Roy were a freak in a carnival.

"I can have the maid make you a sandwich if you're hungry," he said.

Roy shook his head. "Who are the men in these paintings?"

"Mules in the wilderness, ones who survived."

Roy and his uncle sat in silence until Roy stood up.

"Use the servants' door," said Bruno.

When Roy returned to his mother's house she asked him if he'd seen Bruno and Lily.

"Lily says hello. She wasn't sure you were still alive."

"Does she still look the same?"

"Like a Kabuki actress," said Roy. "She still wears more makeup than Lon Chaney."

"What did Bruno have to say?"

"He asked me what I wanted."

"And what did you tell him?"

"Nothing. We didn't talk much. He asked me if I was hungry. He said the maid could make me a sandwich."

Roy's mother was sitting on a couch in the livingroom. Roy sat down in a chair on the opposite side of the coffee table.

"You know that was my father's favorite chair," she said.

"I remember Pops sitting in it in the afternoons reading the Daily News when I came home from school. I sat on the floor next to him and he read to me from the sports section."

Rain streaked the windows behind Roy's mother.

"Looks like I got home just in time," he said.

"When your father died he didn't leave a will. Intestate, it's called. He left Bruno in charge of all of his affairs, but he told me you would be taken care of. Bruno said your dad didn't have anything to leave, that he had to pay off his brother's debts and there was nothing left for you. My brother knew Bruno was lying and so did I. Your dad kept money in safe deposit boxes in hotels and God knows where else. He didn't want the government to know what he had and he never trusted the banks. Your Uncle Buck talked to Bruno about it but there was nothing he could do. If your dad left a will my guess is that Bruno burned it."

"Why didn't you tell me this before?"

"You were twelve years old, there wasn't any point. What was done was done."

"He acted like I'd come there to kill him."

Roy's mother gave a little laugh. "Bruno was afraid of you, that you knew he'd stolen whatever your father had."

"Did Aunt Lily know?"

"Bruno never told her anything about his business."

A year after Roy saw his uncle, Bruno died. In a letter Roy's mother told him an article in the Chicago Tribune said the police suspected foul play, that Bruno had been poisoned and that Daria and Delilah were being held in protective custody on suspicion of murdering their father. In her next letter Roy's mother enclosed a newspaper clipping featuring a photograph of Lily that said she had committed suicide by ingesting an overdose of sleeping pills and that she had left a note confessing that she, not her daughters, had poisoned her husband. Her estate, she instructed, should be divided equally between her children and Mother Wolfram's Mission for the Misshapen.

In her second letter Roy's mother wrote, "Your dad told me that when he was four years old and Bruno was eight, Bruno hammered a nail through one of his fingers into a piece of wood on purpose to test himself to see if he could do it and not cry. I asked your dad if Bruno cried and he said yes but that his brother promised him if he told anyone he would nail your father's fingers to a tree."