This house was too small for six people, woefully so, but it’s too big for one; the empty rooms fill up with spirits. My father’s parents, who built the place from loam in the forties, turn up in the kitchen every so often to tut about the oven mitts I leave on the countertops. Every time, the same tired confrontation: That’s what the hooks are for, they say. They were lanky people, arms much longer than mine, and I keep telling them the damn hooks are too far from the stovetop to be any help when I’ve got something sizzling. Once I hurled a blistering wedge of apple at the opposite wall with my burned-up hand, just to prove the point, and got the sort of tongue-lashing you can only get from a Club Harlem barfly beyond the reach of retaliation. Fay, you lazy so-and-so, they said. Can’t even walk three feet for an oven mitt. Cackling like witches while I cussed and fumbled for ice.
If I run into Mother anyplace, it’s in the first-floor powder room, where she spent even her last days hollering instructions: This room is for company. No nasty business in here, just hand-washing. A rule I’ve kept to through twenty-some years of almost no company. Use the powder room only to wash your hands, then tidy it back to pristine conditions and skedaddle, because company could turn up anytime. Mother gets firm about this and not much else, probably because she gave up on me forty-five years ago. Fay, you sure is ornery, but maybe you’ll listen to me about this one thing.
On the other hand, Daddy doesn’t limit himself to a single room. He’s in all of them, or sometimes out front considering the skyline, ready for a talk day or night, his smile gleaming like new parquet. It’s years now that I’ve been chatting with Daddy nearly every day, not idle chitchat but those real conversations that go deep and last all night, and I’m always refreshed by his vigor. He’s young enough to be my son, now, his close-cropped hair eternally the color of a well-traveled penny. Fay, Fay, Fay, he sometimes says, and he raises his glass toward me with a wink and a grin sweeter than the spiced rum inside it. Cassandra might have inherited his vulpine brain, and lucky Lela holds this generation’s monopoly on that hair of his, but I’m the only one of us whose glass he ever clinked like that on Earth, and I don’t ever let anyone forget it.
For example, this one Monday morning in the boil of July, here came this girl up the walkway on black leather boots with their heels worn down to shit. I heard her coming from a block away and found her from the master bedroom’s bay window, watched her clackety-clack her way toward the rowhouse in broad daylight with the uncertainty of a person on two-foot stilts. A heavy-looking duffel bag hung from her shoulder, half unzipped.
Lord, I said to Daddy. If that isn’t a beautiful mess.
She got a little closer and I saw that she was prettier than what the Borgata usually spits out at 10 a.m., but every bit as bleary-eyed, tugging and hiking to keep her bag and her miniskirt in place. She collided with my mailbox and whipped her head around as far as it would go in either direction, obvious shame all over her keen little face.
I said to Daddy, If I didn’t know better, I’d think we knew this child from somewhere.
Downstairs, I had the front door open a half-second too soon, thanking God I’d had the presence of mind to have my cuticles pushed just that week. She stood there poised to knock, blinking fast. “Oh, hi,” she said, lowering her delicate fist with its chipped turquoise nails. “Are you Felice Collins?”
Up close, her face crackled with Suzette’s prettiness, the same features arranged just a little bit differently on a canvas that same shade of sugared pecans. I could see that she had slept on her hair funny, her high-piled bun ringed with fuzz, and she had pulled a trick Lela used to call the whore’s beat: dabs of new makeup right over the old. She smelled fine, though, notes of vanilla and powder rising from her July-dewy skin. Even on heels, she stood barely taller than I did in my slippers. “I am,” I said.
She smiled a perfect how-do-you-do smile and stuck out her little hand, all manners and teeth. “I’m your sister Suzette’s daughter,” she said.
You think I don’t know that? I managed not to say as she told me her fancy little name, gave me a finishing-school handshake.
“Sorry I look a hot mess,” she continued. “I was up here with friends for the weekend and I just now missed my bus back to DC.”
DC, how about that, I said to Daddy, who was looking her over with frank curiosity from his perch on the porch railing. “There are buses every hour or so, I think,” I told her. “Do you need a ride to the Port Authority?”
She shifted her duffel from one slender shoulder to the other, dipping a little under its weight. She had her father’s inky eyes, not Suzette’s saditty amber ones; and now they darted from side to side, trying to see around me into the house. “I could probably walk to the Port Authority, though,” she said. “I was actually thinking more along the lines of, um …”
Daddy was pleased with her, present condition notwithstanding. Even when she faltered like that, too shy to ask outright to come inside, we could hear her tongue was silver and had been all polished up in high-end District schools. The kind of diction we four girls used to practice for hours upstairs in our bedrooms, trying like hell to wring out all traces of western Mississippi—a place we’d never been but that flowed all through the house in our parents’ speech. Cassandra did the best at exorcising her accent and Lela just stopped trying when she realized no one was more than half-listening to her anyway. Suzette, by the time she left Atlantic City, spoke to me so little that until now I couldn’t have guessed how it had turned out for her. Now Daddy was nodding at his granddaughter like she was telling him the answer to a question he’d been asking for a long time.
“The thing is more that I’ve never actually seen this house,” the child continued. “Or any pictures of it, even. And they keep telling me my mom’s stuff is probably still here—and also that you’re still here, so …”
Fay, said Daddy. You’re going to invite her in, aren’t you?
“But I get it if this isn’t a good time. I just Googled to find the address. I didn’t have a phone number to call or anything.”
And they didn’t give one to you? I managed not to say, thinking wasn’t that just precious of Cassandra and Lela, setting the child up to think I was out here curating the goddamned Collins family museum.
“Also,” she added, switching her duffel back to the original shoulder, “if you don’t already have lunch plans, maybe we could go someplace on the strip?” To which she added, when I didn’t immediately reply, “Or I could walk to the grocery store and cook for us, or something?”
Just as I was thanking God that Mother was tucked safely away in the powder room, unable to offer up an opinion on the audition I was putting this child through, Daddy jumped in with one of his own. Fay, he said, crossing his muscled arms. You invite the child into my house.
She lifted a cell phone from a pocket in her bag and thumbed vainly at its dark screen. “If I could even just charge my phone for a few minutes,” she tried, finally, her voice thin with desperation.
I found my company smile where I’d packed it up and put it away years ago and stepped aside, opening the door wide. “Don’t be silly,” I said, nodding her in. “I don’t mind a surprise visit. We used to have them around here all the time. I’d love for you to stay for lunch. I have steak medallions marinating, but I suppose you’ll tell me Suzette didn’t raise you on red meat.”
“I eat red meat!” she all but shrieked, and her happy expression nearly sliced me in half with its familiarity. Had buttoned-up Suzette ever beamed like that, a full-bodied smile that pinked her cheeks and curled her slender fingers? Not in my memory; but it reminded me at least a little of Daddy in life, how when he grinned he appeared as if onstage and floodlit from behind. This child had a bit of that in her.
In the foyer, she carefully released the heft of her duffel bag, and I heard the ring of glass against glass as she lowered it to the wooden floor. She stood there for a moment, taking everything in, the goddamned Collins family museum I never meant to curate. Daddy had followed us inside and stood watching her with his chin on the shelf of his fingers, just as tickled as could be.
I left them there and went to see that the powder room was company-ready, an unnecessary trip that put me face-to-face with Mother. Your granddaughter is here, I told her crossly as I straightened out the seawater-colored soaps, smacked the dust from the hand towels. One of Suzette’s. Looking like you wouldn’t believe what a mess. Like she just left last call ten minutes ago.
You see what I mean about the powder room? was all Mother had to say.
Back in the living room, Suzette’s daughter had found the row of paintings that hung gallery-style on the far wall. All the ones I’d never sold, not so much for lack of interest as because I’d simply gotten used to their being there, staggered entries from a series that had swallowed up my free time for a couple decades. “I had forgotten Auntie Lee said you liked to draw and paint,” she said, running her unwashed fingertips over one painting’s raised acrylic ridges.
“That’s right,” I said. Thinking wasn’t that just typical Lela, Miss Casual Understatement, reducing all my higher learning and my life’s great passion to the insignificance of a childhood hobby. As though she’d ever learned to do anything a person could do standing up, in front of an easel or otherwise.
Suzette’s daughter stood right up close to the first painting and stroked each of its four faceless brown-and-gold figures in turn, lingering especially on the smallest. “This is you four,” she said with real wonder. “The four sisters. Right?” She considered the others in the row, their slight variances in composition. “Oh, they all are,” she murmured, a hand at her slender throat. “Right?” She turned to look at me, more interested than Suzette had ever been.
“If you please,” I said. “But I try not to talk about it as literally as that.” Families all over the city and beyond, people who knew nothing about any four sisters, had purchased my paintings throughout the years and hung them in their homes for their own reasons. One buyer had spent her weeklong blackjack winnings on a piece I’d done using a nylon brush frayed beyond repair and told me she planned to hang it in honor of her four dead angora rabbits, to which I’d had no response other than, You hear this, Daddy? I relayed some of this, now, to Suzette’s daughter. She laughed a laugh like Daddy’s, loud and a little destabilizing, but she covered it up with one hand, like Suzette. “They may have started out being about us four,” I concluded. “But they’re easier to sell if I don’t say so.”
“Oh, you sell them,” she said, nodding at the canvases with admiration.
“Right,” I said, thinking how also very irritating of Cassandra, Miss Bottom Line herself, to fail to mention there was monetary value in how I spent my days.
“Does this one have a title?” she wanted to know, her fingers still griming up the brown-and-gold painting at left.
“I don’t name things,” I told her, and reached out to straighten the frame so her hand would fall away. “But you can see there are these four figures, you know, one for each of us. Your Aunt Cassandra, and me, your Aunt Lela, your mother.”
“I guess when you’re one of four girls, that’s something that matters a lot to you,” she murmured.
“Sure. Especially four girls that came one right after the other like we did. It’s something people mention a lot, part of who you are.”
That’s because you were all just so lovely together, called the ghost of a neighbor, the nosy spinster who was born and then died in the rowhouse just west of ours and who in between used to keep Mother company as she hung our little-girl pajamas from a clothesline in front of the slatted porch. If she ever resented Mother’s fecundity, or that the signs of it flew like flags out there in the form of many garments in stairstep sizes, then she managed through admirable restraint never to say so. Instead complimenting us, playing with us, bouncing Lela on her knee while Mother nursed Suzette in a rocking chair in the corner. That spinster gave me my first set of fingerpaints and taught Suzette violin after schooldays. When my parents’ club opened up the block, she happily took over the nightly four-way bedtime duties, reading us to sleep before pouring herself a glass of Daddy’s rum and settling into her own untroubled sleep on the Bèrgere sofa.
None of this seemed worth telling Suzette’s daughter, who’d moved on to look at the next painting, a study in blues and greens inspired by a composite of Boardwalk memories. Once Cassandra was ten, we four were allowed to go up the walk on our own as long as we stayed together, holding hands, which we did till we were around the corner and out of the spinster’s sight. A textured, fiery sun hung in the corner of that painting, directly above the littlest figure in the back, and naturally Suzette’s daughter reached up with those fingers in need of a manicure and touched all over it. You don’t know how to look with your eyes, child? I managed not to say, turning my back on her to resist the temptation.
Isn’t it nice, challenged Daddy with his arms folded, those things being appreciated finally? Instead of just hanging there?
Real nice, I shot back. What I want to know is what kind of finishing school taught her to touch all over artwork like that.
Fay, said Daddy. Fay, Fay.
You just like her for what she looks like, I told him. There’s more Grey Goose in her than there is Suzette.
Easy, Fay, said Daddy. She’ll stay awhile, and then you and I will have a nice chat about it out on the porch. You be nice to her until then, Fay, you hear me?
“How about this one?” came her voice from behind me.
I found my company smile again, turned around to find her drifting toward the one with the four figures rendered all in white, surrounded by black shapes vaguely suggestive of musical instruments. “That one is about your grandparents’ club,” I forced myself to say.
“Ohhhh, right,” she said. She grinned, touching it, bobbing her head a little like she could hear the tsk-tsk of a hi-hat. “Little Suzette’s. Right?”
“Well, but usually we just called it the club. And it’s called something else now, anyway.”
“Because they sold it?”
“Right, your grandmother sold her part of it. Your grandfather’s partner bought her out in the early seventies and redid everything. Trying to lure in some white people. But that took a while and it changed hands a few more times before then. Anyway, though, your grandmother got what she needed from it.”
Suzette’s daughter smiled bemusedly, as if at the quaintness of what I’d said. “Did she buy this house with the money from that?”
I snorted a little, thinking how between the two of them Cassandra and Lela could have done a much better job of laying all this out for the child, offered up more details besides just the club’s goddamned name. “Not at all,” I said. “She sent us to college with it. All four of us. She didn’t want us throwing cards in a casino or sitting backstage at a show somewhere doing go-gos’ hair and makeup. That’s what they did at first, while we were small. They saved and saved and bought the club with what they earned, doing that.”
“Grandmother did hair and makeup? Wow. That’s just so not what I imagined, from what they told me. I always pictured her like a—like a schoolmarm or something. Real proper, real organized. That’s how I imagined her.”
Of course you did, I managed not to say, unsurprised they had wiped Mother clean of any whiff of hair grease, of cheap perfume, in their retellings. When in fact until she didn’t have to any more, Mother had continued to operate as the club’s de facto stylist-in-chief, dipping her whole hand into vats of pomade before night shows so she could walk around smoothing down the go-gos’ edges. Wearing an apron that bulked up her trim little figure, a great sacrifice for someone like her, just so she had a place to store clean makeup brushes and jars of foundation powder in hard-to-find shades of every skin tone from high yellow to sable brown.
Any night they let us four come to watch a show, she’d keep a little toothbrush in her pocket, constantly wetting her fingers on her tongue so she could slick our fine little baby hairs across our foreheads with its soft bristles. She ended every night soaked to her skin, her face flushed, wearing a bit of every go-go’s perfume.
Proper and organized. Well, all right, she was that too, thoughtful enough to dress us all four in white before trips to the club so we’d be easy to round up right at 10 p.m., before anyone got drunk enough to mistake Cassandra for a baby-faced go-go in street clothes. Proud enough to keep our block-away rowhouse fastidiously clean at all times, because in those days company really was constantly possible. Women who’d fought with their dates and couldn’t find their way home till morning. Men who got so drunk they couldn’t have found their own car keys even if Daddy, acting as manager and bartender, hadn’t snagged them for safekeeping. A black-owned club that got that joyfully noisy, you did what you could to keep the AC Police at bay. Even if it meant stretching the limits of your own hospitality sometimes.
Someone overserved this Negro, Mother would tell us if we four woke up in the wee hours, crept out to the stairs to watch Daddy guiding some brown man onto the Bèrgere sofa. You girls get your behinds back upstairs before you wake him. That led to the implementation of Mother’s favorite rule, the one she enforced with a switch: When there’s an overnight guest in this house, you never open the bedroom doors. You lock up and wait till I come get you in the morning, she said. In our rooms at night, we’d dutifully turn the locks while downstairs Mother started the bustle of setting out blankets and guest towels. And at dawn we’d wake up one-by-one and wait patiently in our little pairs, Cassandra and me twittering over magazines in one room, Lela and Suzette playing dolls on the floor in the other, till Mother’s officious knock sounded on our doors in turn, signaling that an overserved Negro had safely departed.
Of course, there were those occasions when someone didn’t listen. That time Lela flooded the toilet in the shared bathroom between our little-girl bedrooms and marched resolutely out into the hallway for spare towels against Mother’s orders, earning a switching she said was worth it to peek over the balcony and lay eyes on the handsome, sleeping man on the sofa. I mean it, you four, said Mother afterward, slapping Lela’s switch into the palm of her small brown hand. Y’all keep your behinds in these rooms until I come get you, and ask Lela if I’m kidding about that.
(You all just wouldn’t believe how handsome, said Lela later, rubbing her raw behind.)
“Mother was organized,” I told Suzette’s daughter, after a moment’s thought. “But she still did hair.”
“What about Granddad?” she asked now, looking again at that bright red sun hanging over the painted Boardwalk.
“What about him?” I asked, suddenly exhausted.
She faltered. “Just—anything, I guess. What was he like? I know he was good-looking. That he loved music. Auntie Cassandra and Auntie Lee, though, most of what they say is that he was strict. About school, about boys.”
I laughed aloud. “Do they really! Well, he was, with them.” Cassandra, who to her great mortification hit puberty just a beat too early, so that for the next two years the rest of us referred to her exclusively as Miss Tits. Lela, who was born with a terrifying sparkle in her eye and hair like a matador’s flag, who at six would march up to a grown man at the club in her little white pinafore and ask whether she could see what was behind the front flap of his trousers. Of course Daddy had to deal with those two a certain way, developing hawklike vision and a tone of voice that could snap them to attention from fifty feet away.
He had none of those troubles with me, his helper behind the bar, stirrer of cocktails and squeezer of lime slices. The only one of us who never bored of watching him pour shimmering liquids into snifters and highball glasses. He only had to tell me once not to steal nips of things from the bottles at the club. This here is for guests, Fay, he said that one time. People who come here to pay us for it. It’s our job to give it to them and to keep our wits while we do it. You understand me, Fay?
I was ten, then, and I did understand, and was shamefaced enough about it that he smiled and laid his palm on the crown of my head to show that all was forgiven. On his next night off, he poured a little bit of his rum into my juice cup, shook in a few sweet brown spices, and took me out onto the front porch to watch night fall over the skyline. To good drink and good talk, he said, clinking the rim of his glass against mine, and there we sat, chatting in moonlight.
Had Suzette known him as strict? If so, you had to think it was because she herself was that way, inside-out strict, all abstinence and precisely placed hairpins. Even when she was still practically a baby, she wept under Mother’s stylist thumb, miserably submitting to the indignity of having her baby hairs smoothed down with a graying communal toothbrush. Some years later, begging Mother to press her out with the hot comb instead, so she’d look fancy when she took the club stage to perform on the violin in an immaculate white linen dress. Daddy never even had to beg her to play; she wanted to accompany the band to some esoteric bebop interpretation of a Debussy piece that the crowd first twitched at and then hollered for. Just a little goddamned prodigy, her tiny fingernails painted primrose pink because she knew there’d be people watching her draw that bow across the strings of her child-size instrument. Daddy and the spinster cheered loudest of anyone, but the whole club went bananas for her. After it was over, she looked down with surprise at the litter of dollar bills around her feet, gathered them up into one hand, and skipped right offstage to deliver them to Daddy. My little Suzette, he whooped with a grin just about too big for his face, as the crowd whistled like worked-up wolves.
“I wouldn’t have called him strict,” I told Suzette’s daughter. “He was a good man, a good father, and a good business owner. There isn’t a lot else to say.”
She nodded, her fingertips already on the next painting. The one on the midnight background with the inverted heart shape at the center, three brown figures all around it and the fourth one, the smallest, tucked shrunken in the corner. She stared at that little figure and I saw the next question bubble on her tongue, knew what it was before she’d formed the first word. “And,” she said. “Sorry, I’m sure this is hard, but what about my mom?”
“It isn’t hard,” I said.
She looked over at me. “Oh,” she said. “Well, okay.”
“Pretty. Obedient. Sweet. Easier on our parents than the rest of us were.”
Suzette, Suzette, Suzette. Not as smart as Cassandra, but still got straight As nearly every term. Had nothing close to Lela’s natural sex appeal, but could steal your boyfriend without trying. Preferred Debussy and Ravel, but somehow got a jazz nightclub named after her. The kind of person who threaded every needle on the first try. Who tattled on me for saying I’d heard spirits through the Ouija board, working our parents up into thinking I was playing with the devil’s tools. They cut the board in half and threw the planchette into the trashcan, spooked by the words of the youngest person in the house. I popped the head off of her favorite baby doll in retaliation, and somehow only I got spanked.
“She scared easily,” I added, now. “Didn’t like my Ouija board. That’s basically what this painting is about.”
“To the extent that any of them is literally about anything,” supplied Suzette’s daughter with a wink.
“Exactly,” I said. “Which, as I mentioned before, I try not to say is the case.”
She suddenly needed a midmorning nap, she said, and asked if a bed was available in her mother’s old bedroom. The sclera of each eye nearly as red as the sun over the painted Boardwalk.
“This house isn’t as big as you think,” I told her. “Three bedrooms, two for us four girls. Suzette and Lela shared.”
Her eyes brightened at this. “She shared with Auntie Lee,” she said. “Must have been fun.”
“They didn’t think so,” I told her. “Grab your things.”
We climbed the stairs, her bag jangling with heavy bottles, and stood at the mouth of the upstairs hallway. The older girls’ bedroom to the left, younger girls’ to the right. Daddy frowned at me from straight ahead, in front of the bathroom we’d all shared. Ignoring him, I pushed open the door to Cassandra’s and my old room.
“Here you go,” I said.
She stepped inside, let her bag fall a little recklessly to the ground. “This is it?” she asked with wonder, approaching the reclaimed wood furniture, roughly flinging open an armoire that had already been old when Mother bought it for us.
“This is it,” I said, making sure not to look in Daddy’s direction.
She reached into the armoire and pulled out the sleeve of Cassandra’s faded denim jacket from high school, lifted it to her nose and breathed in. Without letting go of that sleeve, she did the same thing with the hem of a shift dress the spinster next door knitted for my thirteenth birthday. She held them for a moment against her face, then turned around. “These things were my mom’s?”
I managed not to lie: “You think Lela would wear anything that classy?”
She smiled at that, pulled the dress off of its hanger and sat with it on one of the twin beds, slid her feet—bare, no socks or pedicure—out of her leather boots.
“Sleep as long as you want,” I told her. “I’ll just be painting across the hall and then I’ll start lunch.”
She swung her body horizontal, still clutching onto my shift dress. “Thanks, Aunt—” She hesitated. “‘Aunt Felice,’ is that okay?”
I said, “Fay is fine.”
“Thanks, Auntie Fay,” she said around a yawn, eyes already falling shut.
The oven mitt hooks are TOO DAMN FAR AWAY, I groused at my grandparents, who just rolled their eyes at me. Minced garlic and aromatics sizzled in the hot, hot oil.
Smells real good, Fay, said Daddy. But what did those mushrooms ever do to you? You trying to wake up my granddaughter?
She could stand to get up by now, I said crossly, but I didn’t let the knife fall quite so heavily after that.
You should be kind to her. You can see what kind of weekend she’s had.
Into the pan went the sliced mushrooms, the bay leaves, a little more rosemary. I wiped my hands on Mother’s old apron and took a long sip of my spiced drink.
You could give her a little more than what you’ve been giving her. You could let her have one of your paintings.
Ha! I told him. I could send her home with that whole armoire, too. I could let her just move right into this house, while I’m at it.
Fay, he said, shaking his head. More than just that her mother scared easily, is all I’m saying.
I poured in the beef stock and cooking wine early, sending the whole dish up in a fragrant hiss, just to drown him out. I took my spiced drink to the porch while it simmered, and naturally Daddy followed. Persistent as always about seeing our chats through to the end.
There are a hundred things you could tell her about Suzette, he went on. And she’s here, asking.
Of course he was right, but she’d have to go to Cassandra and Lela for a report on the fullness of Suzette’s transcendent humanity. Myself, I didn’t have much more to say than that she scared easily, hollering down the house about the witchcraft I was trying to do on my two-dollar Ouija board. That she wanted everything cleaned and shined over, company-ready like the powder room, and that you could just see in her little face that she was pretending the club was Carnegie Hall when she took to the stage with that uppity violin.
Or maybe my niece wanted to hear that her mother had an ugly side too. That she eventually got too big for her little white britches and started faking sick on club nights, claiming she couldn’t play the violin because her stomach hurt. Obvious as any little child pulling that gag. They left Miss Carnegie Hall home with the next-door spinster a few times, and would you believe the only thing anyone ever said to me on those nights was Where’s the little one who plays the violin? While I ran around on my tiptoes squeezing lime into two drinks at once.
Finally admitting she wasn’t actually sick, just scared of the men there. Which she had no reason to be, until that last one. We’d been going there for years with no funny business, Daddy’s hawklike eye watching over any interaction that took place between a grown man and a girl in white. And by that point three of us were technically women by biological standards, only Suzette still a baby, and she had the nerve to be scared of the men there.
We have to go through this again, Fay? She knew. The littlest children see what we don’t.
I downed my drink and walked back to the kitchen for a refill, to stir the thickening pan sauce. Daddy, Daddy, Daddy, I said. You’re never going to convince me that simple child knew a thing. She just thought she was too good for all of it. She was always like that. Too good for us, too good for everything.
Where’s the little one who plays the violin? some overserved Negro slurred in my ear one night, just after Daddy slipped his keys from his pocket with expert fingers. HOME SICK, I yelled back at him, at my peak of irritation from saying that all night.
Later, we four listened from our beds as they laid him on the Bèrgere sofa, noisier and chattier than surprise guests usually were. Jesus, said Cassandra in the dark. It’s like he’s giving a speech down there. Would he just pass out already?
Right after that, we heard our mother's key turning in our lock and then, echolike, the same sound from across the hall—an extra precaution for our extra boisterous guest. Cassandra was asleep again instantly, dreaming her big-brained dreams, but I was awake to hear the creak of footsteps on we girls’ hallway. I broke Mother's favorite rule, unlocked the door from the inside and peeked out at him, our overnight guest, who had his back to me and was fiddling with Lela and Suzette’s doorknob. First carefully and then wildly, like maybe he could just pull the whole thing off, screws and all.
Suzette broke it too, Mother’s rule. Little Miss Model Citizen just opened the door without a thought and looked up at him, her eyes bleary under her silken headscarf, simple and not understanding shit. He put his hand on the shoulder of her nightgown and bent down to her eye level and she just kept standing there, dumb as a plastic doll. Daddy, I called out, because someone had to, while she just stood there like all the noise that followed—the crack of a fist on bone, of bone on the brick wall—just rolled right off her. Like she didn’t even hear it.
And would you believe that? Cassandra was the one we called Miss Tits for years, I smiled beautifully at everyone I fixed a drink for, Lela at six marched right up to grown men and asked them to unzip their trousers. All that, and Suzette was the one that man came for, later insisting that he just wanted to hear her play the violin. Not that I spent much time trying to work out what was going through his short-eyed mind that night. Some things will just never make sense, Mother said later, and a man like that is one of them. We just walk forward in faith and we thank God he didn’t get his hands on our little Suzette.
We do, Fay, Daddy said now, reminding me, like anyone ever said I did otherwise. We thank God for that.
My chat with Daddy ended when the steak medallions turned savory brown. I ladled pan sauce over each plate and was just about to call upstairs for my niece when I found her already at the dining-room table, in a new outfit and with her hair refreshed, smelling of the pomade she must have found on Cassandra’s old nightstand. She’d brought down her duffel bag and laid it by the front door. Cleaned up like that, and with some sleep behind her, she looked more like Suzette than ever. She had found my downstairs Bible and had it open to the inside cover.
“Lunch is ready,” I said, setting a plate in front of her.
“Smells great,” she said absently, tracing her finger across the hand-drawn lines of the Collins family tree.
“The earlier handwriting is your grandfather’s,” I said. “Up through your mother’s generation. After that, it’s mine.”
“He died young,” she murmured, touching the dates beside his name. “They told me it was an accident. Kind of a weird story.”
Wasn’t that just like Cassandra and Lela, I thought. Power-washing all the ugliness off of it, like a press release. But of course you had to do that, scrub away all traces of any connection between Daddy’s death and the club, like what we’d done back then because nobody wanted any mess from the AC Police.
“A car accident?” she asked. “They never specified.”
“A house accident. He got his skull cracked open in a fistfight with someone from the neighborhood.”
She raised an eyebrow. “Drinking rum at the time?”
Daddy chuckled in the corner; I frowned. “No,” I said, stabbing at a steak medallion with my knife. “He wasn’t a drinker. Rum was his drink, but not to where he’d get into fistfights because of it. The other guy was drunk. Your grandfather was stone-cold sober, which didn’t help. Drunks don’t fight fair.”
She held my eye for a beat and then looked back at the book. “I want to add something,” she said.
She went to the door and unzipped her duffel bag, pulled out a pen. I stiffened as she scribbled for a second on the family tree. “Look,” she said, turning it to face me.
I took a bite of steak, chewed, and swallowed it slowly. “I see,” I said. “I had your name wrong.”
“It happens a lot.”
“I thought that was a boy’s name, actually,” I said, nodding at her edit.
She shrugged. “I assume they were hoping for a boy the second time around. They got all the daughter they ever needed with that first one.” There was a familiar coldness in her voice, something that made me ache. Daddy reached over like he wanted to stroke her hair.
I studied her revisions again, the vertical line she’d drawn down from her older sister’s name. Married some time ago, a wedding I dimly remembered avoiding, and apparently the union had been fruitful. “They didn’t tell me the news about your sister,” I said. “Isn’t that just like Cassandra and Lela.”
“Why not, I wonder. She’s due this winter,” said my niece. Finally she set fork and knife to her first medallion and began cutting it into perfect, evenly sized pieces.
“No good reason,” I said. “At some point, they got it into their heads that I couldn’t be happy for anyone who had something I didn’t, like a big mansion or a husband and babies.”
“When in fact?”
“When in fact of course I can. My best to your sister.”
I never understood it, why they tiptoed around trying to hide their triumphs and joys like I wasn’t having a fine time watching with Daddy from the sidelines. Even after Mother was gone, they all came back to the rowhouse for holidays, to pluck old belongings from their bedrooms and use them to feather their nests in new cities. Leaving behind only the entirely obsolete.
Cassandra turned up unexpectedly one Christmas on the arm of a white behemoth and Daddy studied him carefully from the corner. I knew one of you would go that way, he said. I just figured it would be Suzette. But his natural distrust dissolved as the man revealed himself to be solicitous and nearly just as smart as his fiancée. Lela married a man she said reminded her of her days at the club, a moody musician who let her see behind the front flap of his trousers whenever she wanted. Suzette, of course, married not the football player she pulled out from under me while I was away at college and helpless, but someone even better than that, a man it almost hurt to look at, who naturally kissed the ground she walked on and gave her perfect children.
Years of staggered visits, each of them throwing me a sorry look if ever she forgot herself and rubbed her round belly or kissed her child’s face. Like anyone asked them not to do that. Lela turned up once with babies loaded under her arms and in infant carriers, looking like the punchline to a joke. You’re in the wrong place, I told her. You should be looking for a shoe to move into. And by the way, couldn’t you have tried to make one with red hair? She gave me a self-deprecating laugh and made her little joke. I really don’t know how this happened, she said. You could say it was one too many chats with Daddy lately. Too much fun with that husband of mine and we just weren’t careful.
Like any of it bothered me. Sometimes, early on, I’d meet a man for drinks at the place the club had become, but invariably he’d want to follow me home, and it was just too crowded here. Sometimes I painted the child I might have had, or my best guess, but I could never get the brush to do what I wanted it to. That’s why I returned instead to the comforts of my famed four figures. It was what I knew.
We owned the house in four parts, Mother having seen to that, and one day Cassandra rounded everybody up and said, Fay, it’s all yours. Her big lawyer husband had drawn it up in writing; only signatures were needed. As if to say that since I couldn’t get a man to stick, maybe I’d like playing wife to a rowhouse. A kindness, for sure, but the worst type of kindness: a pitying one. Still, I never forgot the generosity underneath it, never took for granted that I got to paint my life away in a paid-off home. That I didn’t have to sell any pieces I didn’t want to.
And so then I didn’t feel cruel joy when Cassandra’s children finished growing up, each one just an unimaginable mess even after an expensive childhood in a mansion, all riding lessons and tutors. When the younger one renamed himself The Heavenly Sky and took to dancing around in dresses and wigs, which Cassandra never mentioned but which I learned anyway from running into the child on the strip while he was in town for a show. I bought a ticket, afterward making sure to call up Cassandra and tell her how much I enjoyed myself.
Nor did I smirk, privately or otherwise, when Lela had to throw out her hot-blooded musician, who for all the liquored-up fun they were having had apparently never stopped chasing strange. I cooked her weeks’ worth of meals and took them to her along with an extra set of hands willing to scrub her bathtub, rock her fussy babies. Teasing her only a little about how she’d been born with a taste for hound dogs.
And of course, devastated about poor Suzette. Sick so suddenly and then gone before I ever got around to replying to any of her letters. Before I got to compliment her on the photos of her pretty, pretty daughters.
My niece offered to help me clean up after lunch, but I turned her down, worn out from the togetherness. To think six of us would all sit packed in one room, I told Daddy in the kitchen. And now, one visitor and I’m crowded. I was kind to her, though. You saw me. I was kind.
And I’m glad for it, Fay, he said. I still say you might think about it, finding something to send home with her.
I lingered over the dishes, scrubbing the lipstick from the tines of my niece’s fork by hand. She’d consumed every mushroom and every last drop of pan sauce, but had left her cut-up medallions untouched, spreading the pieces around her plate. An old trick of her mother’s from the days when she decided she didn’t have the stomach for root vegetables or fried food or anything otherwise impure. I tilted the plate and pushed the wasted meat into the trashcan.
She’d gone from the dining room when I returned there, leaving her duffel bag unzipped and open wide, her tiny, bright garments and two half-drunk liquor bottles exposed. I found her on the front porch with her feet in my chair, sipping something golden from her lunchtime water glass. A bottle of bottom-shelf rum, pre-spiced, sat on the floor in front of her.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“Just thinking about everything,” she said, and lifted her glass. “Having a little chat with Granddad.”
Even in the July heat, my blood flashed icy. “Are you, now.”
“It’s just that this morning has been surreal. Meeting you, sleeping in my mom’s old room …”
I walked up close enough to smell the rum in her glass, cheap and syrupy. “Who told you to call it that?”
Daddy had followed me outside and was in the corner shaking his head. Fay, he said warningly.
“To call what what?”
“Out here drinking alone at noon. That’s a chat with Granddad?”
Her dark eyes narrowed. “It’s one-thirty, actually. And the rum, is what I meant. That’s what they call a rum drink. Auntie Cassandra and Auntie Lee. My mom used to say it too, my dad told me.”
Well, wasn’t that just precious. Wasn’t it just perfect. Already Cassandra and Lela had tested my patience with their liberal use of that phrase. Cassandra booking herself one ticket for an island cruise because work was stressing her and she needed a few days to chat with Daddy. Lela blaming him for her prolific maternity, when surely in life he would have told her not to go near that husband of hers with a ten-foot pole.
Saintly Suzette, meanwhile, using the term to make fun of all of us, to elevate herself above it, never touching a drop of anything, and anyway least able of all of us to remember what a real chat with Daddy had been like.
The spinster next door chuckled to herself. Her nose as far in Collins family business as it always was.
“I wanted to ask you something about those paintings,” said the child, Suzette’s daughter, bringing her glass back to her lips. “The ones in the living room.”
Fay, said Daddy warningly. He looked on her fondly, still charmed somehow by the sight of her, those bare toes hanging off the front of my chair.
“Yes?” I said quickly, before her liquid courage could take hold. Before she could ask to take what was mine. “What about them? Those ones in the house, they’ve all been sold. I just hold them here till the buyers can come for them.”
A pause. “Oh,” she said. “Well, that answers that, then.” She lifted her glass to her lips and tossed back the rest of her drink. Her hand went for the bottle.
“You don’t need another one,” I told her, taking her glass. “There’s a bus at two and I need to get back to painting. You still prefer to walk yourself to the Port Authority?”
Back up the walkway she went, still wobbling under the weight of her ridiculous duffel, minus a few ounces of rum. Fay, said Daddy as we watched her go. Really, now. I don’t know what I’m going to do with you.
I left him on the porch and went upstairs with her left-behind bottle under my arm, looked in Cassandra’s and my old bedroom. The child had stripped the linens and tidied up after her nap. She’d also helped herself to Cassandra’s denim jacket and my old shift dress, so I helped myself to a swallow of her cheap liquor. Artificial spices crackled on the back of my tongue.
I left the room, shutting the door behind me, and crossed the hallway, let myself into the younger girls’ bedroom. There sat Suzette on her old twin bed, shadowed by all my easels, her usual look of disapproval tinged with a particular sadness. I don’t believe you sometimes, Felice, she said as I picked up a brush and situated myself in front of my latest. That you would treat my baby that way.
I don’t know what you mean, I told her. You heard me offer the child a ride.
She just shook her head at me, her hands in her lap, judgmental and uppity as ever. As though she never ran out of patience for unexpected company. As though Mother didn’t slick down her baby hairs with the exact same old toothbrush she used on mine.