At the cemetery Aunt Muriel made her way over to where I stood feeling appropriately somber. She elbowed her way between Uncle Bubs and me and with minted breath asked if I might take her to Great Aunt Alberta’s for the repast. I’d gotten the news of my great aunt’s death as I was heading back to Chicago from Tuskegee where I’d interviewed the son of one of the victims of the Tuskeegee Syphilis Study. It was summer. I was freed from teaching and now writing a play for my theater group about the three hundred ninety-nine black sharecroppers in Macon County, Alabama who were denied treatment for syphilis so the Public Health Service could document the natural course of the disease.
I was at the end of the research phase and now biting at the bit to begin my first draft. I looked forward to getting back home to my sweet little apartment in Chicago and re-acclimating to the abundance of city life.
My mother, who’d broken her ankle slipping on an acorn, of all things, asked if I might attend her aunt’s funeral and thereby, represent. I agreed to do it, but was irritated. This was going to alter my timeline. I was reeking with attitude.
Now in the late afternoon, as some returned to cars lined along the curve of the drive bordering the cemetery, Aunt Muriel hobbled along next to me. We got to my mud splattered subcompact and while I tried to get the seatbelt out from the depths of the front passenger seat, she stood in the hot sun, slowly pursing her lips with displeasure.
“Sorry,” I said over my shoulder, though I really wasn’t.
“Take your time,” she said studying the low seat probably deciding how she was going to sink her large frame into it. When she plopped down, the car gave out a muffled but distinct groan.
Once we were on our way, she turned toward me as far as her seat belt would allow and said, “You think it was right for them folks to keep me out of the limousine?”
I had no desire to get in the middle of that one—what she had done to piss everybody off—so I said nothing. She wasn’t really looking for an answer. She was just building her case. “How long has Zack Jr. been here?” she asked.
Zack Jr. was Great Aunt Alberta’s wayward son. The baby. He’d been born when she thought that part of her life was over. When he was young everyone had put a lot of stock in his handsomeness. But he’d turned out to be a disappointment.
“I think he came this morning,” I said. I’d arrived in the night.
She snorted in response and pretended that was the last she had to say on the subject, but as soon as I pulled up in front of Aunt Alberta’s and turned off the motor, she piped up with, “Well, they made sure he had a place in the limousine. Mr. Johnny-Come-Lately. Every body should know he’s only come to steal the safe. Even Ray Charles could see that.”
I smiled. That was an old tale. Aunt Alberta’s safe. I’d been hearing about it for years. It was probably full of family recipes.
“Let’s not go in yet,” she said.
“Why?” I asked.
Ignoring my question, she folded the tissue in her hand and daintily patted her forehead from one side to the other. She attended to her neck as well and then stuffed the used tissue into my ashtray. I glanced at it thinking I’d have to get rid of that at some point. I couldn’t drive all the way back up to Chicago with that thing winking at me.
Just then we heard the gentle hum of a motor creep up behind us. Aunt Muriel gave me a look. “Phoebe, check in your rear view mirror and see who that is.”
I sighed. She’d called me by my given name. I sat there stewing in that for a while and wondering why it was so hard to say Kha-di-jah? I checked the mirror and saw the limousine. “It’s the limousine.”
“Why aren’t they getting out? Why are they just sitting there behind us with the motor running?” she asked. She looked over at me, her eyes lighting on my headcovering, and then she settled her chin in her hand as a preamble to the thoughtful question to come. “Phoebe, let me ask you something.”
Oh Lord. Here it comes.
Aren’t cha hot? With all that stuff you got on your head?”
“Not so very,” I said lightly. A lie. I was burning up.
I checked my reflection in the rearview mirror, remembering the litany of questions I’d had to endure the first time I appeared with my head covered. Uncle Bubs settled it: Well, Phoebe’s from Chicago, doncha know. They get into all kinds of strange things up there.
Abruptly, the limousine’s motor quit and now it sat there quietly, doors shut.
“Let’s let them folks go in first. As soon as I get out the car, they gonna be raking me over the coals.”
I looked over at Great Aunt Muriel. That was probably true.
“Gosh Alberta had a nice piece of property,” she said with a definite covetous tone. She swung her head back and forth slowly—carefully assessing it through narrowed eyes. “And look at that pretty lobelia all along the walk way. I bet that was the last little touch she was able to do.” She stared at the house, lips parted with wonder.
Zack Jr.’s old Camaro sat between two eastern white pines as if on display. The Ford Fairlane was next to it. After his marriage had broken up he moved back home and bought those cars (with Alberta’s help was the word). It was for his new business. His plan was to restore them and then sell them for a huge profit. They were his money in the bank. That news had filtered up to my mother, somehow, and she imparted it to me. Of course he soon lost interest in that scheme. Next thing we all knew, he’d wandered off.
He stayed a little while, but soon wandered off.
Great Aunt Alberta’s daughters, Roxie and Peach, had remained in their college towns, married classmates, and finally late in their reproductive lives, produced one son each. Peach moved back a year ago right after her husband left her but Roxie stayed put. I’d heard she and her husband had bought one of those sprawling garden homes in a new development (with land). Nothing I’d want. Though I could see the appeal.
I had to admit, Aunt Alberta’s new house was stunning. Long and regal, sitting way back from the black top road, with a portion on the end reaching up toward the sky like a church steeple. Twenty yards from her new house was the old house. Now it looked sad and abandoned, with a fan propped in the living room window and a metal chair on the porch. Peach and her little Evan had been staying there but, now she’d probably move into the big house since it was going to be sitting empty.
I checked the limousine again in the rearview mirror and was surprised to see two doors on opposite sides had swung open. As if on cue, a caravan of up-to-date, freshly washed cars turned off Prescott onto Stagecoach and rolled up to Alberta’s show place home. People had been at the graveside and now they were ready to eat.
Doors opened and cars began to unload. Folks made their way up to the stained oak door with the beveled glass window. Alberta’s neighbor Pearline, who’d stayed behind that morning to get everything ready, opened the door and the screeches of recognition and acknowledgement began. I loved Pearline. As a child during my visits south, she’d let me pick green tomatoes out of her garden and help her make a delicious relish called cha-cha. She let me help her put up pickled peaches, too.
“Aren’t we going in?”
The hugs and wet kisses began as soon as I walked through the door from the neighbors who’d been a part of the scenery during my childhood visits, aunts and uncles, my mother’s cousins who were really strangers and their offspring. “I see you still skinny,” one cousin named Tiny said. She was pretty hefty and I knew that simply not being fat made me skinny to her. I was happy when I’d gotten through the gauntlet.
The new house was full of touches of home décor: a flock of brass quail taking flight on the wall above the couch; wall sconces filled with plastic flowers with fake dew, a framed black and white photo of John Kennedy, and the wistful gallery of prom pictures and graduation pictures---the girls with their wrist corsages, Zack in his cap and gown looking as if he were going places.
Pearline had draped the dining room table with a bright yellow plastic tablecloth. It was covered stem to stern with every kind of deadly southern dish: macaroni salad swimming in mayonnaise---fat, glistening hush puppies, great mounds of potato salad and fried chicken, a big casserole dish of greens garnished with salt pork. There were funnel cakes dusted with powdered sugar, a ring of sock-it-to-me cake, candied yams, and a huge ham with a thick slab cut halfway down so that it drooped in what was meant to be an inviting way. I’d be giving that and the greens wide berth. Cans of store brand pop poked out from a cooler of ice under the table. Someone had made monkey bread.
The line had already formed. I took up a spot at the end, planning to put just a tablespoon of a few things on my plate: candied yams, a chicken wing, a bite of potato salad, maybe a little monkey bread. More people had come through the door, strangers in this batch---at least to me. They moved in behind me, the vibration of their hunger creating a buzz in the air. Everyone was starving and pretending to not to be. The air was electric with anticipation. In this part of the country food was like entertainment.
Pearline stuck her head through the door, and surveyed the scene. She ducked back into the kitchen. I hadn’t had a chance to speak to her yet so I left the food line and slipped into the kitchen.
“Hi Pearline,” I said to her back. She was looking out the window at her own house across the road. I went and stood beside her and she hugged me from the side.
“Little Phoebe,” she said. “Oops. How do you say it again? Kha…
“Khadija,” I said and almost felt myself tear up at her effort. Her eyes skirted my scarf and she smiled wistfully.
“It’s going to be so lonely without her,” she said. She had a little smile of acceptance and I thought about the resiliency of folks who’d reached her age. They’d had to deal with so much.
“Zack Jr. didn’t even come until this morning,” she said. “I know that hurt Alberta that he’d stayed away.”
I considered that for a moment. “Maybe she didn’t know.”
“It’s gonna be so lonely out here,” she said again.
Much had occurred in my short absence. It seemed a friend of Zack’s had arrived. He had the look of someone either fresh from prison or on his way there. It wasn’t the short blond crew cut or the built up biceps showed off by a tight t-shirt with rolled sleeves. It wasn’t the tats that swirled around his thick bull neck. It was the dead look in his blue eyes. He looked like he had a beef with the world at large and his vague scowl was to let everybody know.
People were going on with their conversations, but you could feel discomfort in the air. He stood next to Zack, both keeping to the periphery. Every once in a while they stopped their private conversation and that prison guy seemed to aim a jeweler’s eye at some target in the room: the stained glass replica of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. hanging inside the living room window; the skylight over the table of food. His eyes were as cold as the eyes of a beast on the attack.
Uncle Bubs, emboldened by the few nips he’d probably downed in the limousine (Alberta didn’t allow alcohol in her house and he was known for his flask), marched over to them and clapped Zack on the back. Bubs would be the one to bell the cat.
I studied them. I decided not to go over to Zack, though he just then raised his chin at me in greeting. He considered me an ally. Not a role I wanted. He probably felt he meshed more with a city like Chicago. Repton, Alabama had made him a misfit.
I fluttered my fingers at him and turned toward the food once again. I ignored the look of suspicion that passed over his face at my delay in coming over. Years ago, during college on one of my rare summer visits he’d taken me out to the yard to look at the Camaro he was restoring. He’d really just wanted to explain himself in an indirect sort of way. Why he didn’t quite have a job yet. What he was planning to do with his life. For some reason, he seemed bent on me not seeing him in a poor light. I’d oohed and aahed but all the while I remember thinking: This, too, will not work out. And it didn’t.
I found a spot on the raised flagstone in front of the fireplace and polished off my wings and potato salad. I was famished. When I finally moseyed over to Zack, I was careful to position myself on Zack’s right side, away from his friend.
“I was wondering how long it was going to take you to come over here and say, ‘Boo,’ ” he said.
I laughed. “Sorry.” Zack had put on weight, I noted. And, his hairline had drifted until there were deep inroads at the sides of his forehead. His lids sagged a bit in the corners giving him a forlorn look as if he were slowly losing the capacity to put up a brave front.
“I want you to meet my good buddy, Glen. We were in the army together. He’s just passing through.”
“Nice meeting you,” I said. Glenn started to shake my hand but stopped himself. He moved his hand back to his side.
“Whatcha up to?” Zack asked.
The now gregarious Uncle Bubs piped up with, “This young lady? Why she’s up to a lot. Every time I turn around she’s running here and running there…”
Glenn’s eyes remained flatly uninterested. Zack feigned interest. “Is that right?
“I see you’re still Muslim.” His eyes took in the scarf I’d wrapped African style.
I watched his friend wander off toward the food.
“Yeah,” he said. He was obviously at a loss.
“What are you up to?” I asked, changing the subject. Uncle Bubs made his exit just then. He’d done his duty.
Zack’s smile remained fixed, but something flitted across his face just beneath the radar. I saw discomfort in his quick frown. But he soon recovered.
“Oh…a little this, a little that.”
“Do they involve that guy?” I nodded toward Glenn piling food on his plate.
Zack laughed. “I guess you don’t like ol’ Glenn.”
“I don’t like his looks.”
Zack looked over at Glenn, trying to see what was it about his looks that could repel me so. “What’s wrong with his looks?”
“He looks insane,” I said straight out and felt a little angry that Zack would bring him here, to this gathering. “What’s he doing here?”
“He’s just passing through and I hadn’t seen him in a long time. Just killing two birds…” His voice trailed off realizing how that must sound. “Anyway, he’s got a good heart.”
I doubted it. Glenn was now perched on the arm of an easy chair, diving into his food like someone with a mission.
We were silent. I could either escape now or think up another topic of conversation.
“Let’s go out on the porch,” Zack said out of the blue.
Oh, why me? I thought following him out the door.
He started explaining as soon as we settled on the porch swing facing the road. All he wanted was peace. The last thing his mother needed—according to him---was the drama that had been going on between Aunt Peach and him for the past five years.
I listened to all of this absently while trying to appear as if I were paying attention. I didn’t like being out there with the mosquitos. I was exhausted, I discovered. It had been a long hard slog, detouring to Repton from Tuskeegee, then arriving on Peach’s doorstep during the wee hours. I was given the lumpy sofa on the screened back porch of the old house for some reason, but was too tired to put up a fuss. Nearly all night, under a symphony of crickets, and frogs inhabiting the man-made pond, Aunt Alberta’s husband, Uncle Ralph, had installed, I thought about my two deadbolts at home, and obsessed about Peach’s flimsy screen door with the single latch. When morning came, I didn’t know if I’d slept or not.
“See,” Zack was saying as he raked both hands through the last of his hair and looked off at his old “collection” of cars, “these people have never given me a break. They always jumpin’ to conclusions. When they see me down, all they can do is step on my back.”
“You mean, Peach?”
“And, the rest.”
He squinted as if he was remembering other wrongs, as well. “I knew I couldn’t just hang around here and not get on with my life. I told Mama if she could find a buyer for the cars, sell them and keep the money. I didn’t want it. She’d done enough for me. But she wouldn’t sell them. She promised she would but I knew she’d never get around to it.”
“How’d your friend get here?” I asked. I was curious, suddenly.
Zack was a little bit taken aback by this interruption in his obviously rehearsed account. He frowned. “We came together,” he said, then glanced over at me and cocked his head so that I almost thought he could read my mind.
There was a pause. “His pick-up. It’s parked out back. My idea,” he added quickly. “I didn’t want his ol’ pick-up marring the landscape.”
“So you didn’t come in the limousine.”
“Naw…. With Peach? Why would I do that to myself?”
We both glanced toward the collection of solidly built American cars arranged in front of Aunt Alberta’s new house. We passed the next few seconds staring at them. Then he piped up with, “Anyway, back at the ranch… I didn’t want to deal with any drama. So, I stayed away.” The last was said with a little defensive edge.
I stood and stretched to signal my time out there with him had come to an end. “It’s too hot out here. I can’t take it. What about you?”
“I think I’ll stay a while.” He shook out a cigarette from a pack he’d taken out of his shirt pocket. Unbelievable, I thought. And he smokes too. I started toward the front door.
Aunt Muriel blocked my way as soon as I got in the door. “Where have you been? I was looking all over for you?” she said in a stage whisper. She cupped my elbow and led me to the short hallway between the living room and Aunt Alberta’s sewing room. “Listen, they’re trying to get the safe.” She looked past me, her eyes skirting the crowd for potential eavesdroppers.
“Oh, Aunt Muriel.”
“Don’t believe me, then. You’ll see. I saw that guy Zack brought walking around like he was looking for the bathroom. In fact, he asked where it was. When I went back there, the bathroom door was closed but Alberta’s sewing room door was closed too. You know that’s where she keeps her safe. It seemed about right. Keep the mourners out.” She stopped to take a breath. “But he was slow coming back. So, I snuck and tried Alberta’s door and it was locked. Where’s Zack?” She peered about with round, startled eyes.
“I left him on the porch. He was out there trying to explain his side of the story…
“Hmm,” she snorted.
“Pearline probably locked the sewing room door for some reason,” I said.
That did not set Aunt Muriel’s mind at ease. She brought her hand up and fanned out her fingers over her mouth. Thinking. “I don’t know.”
“We can’t knock on the door, Aunt Muriel.”
“Yeah, we can too, if someone has to use the bathroom.”
“Okay, I’ll do it but let’s give it a few minutes.”
I returned to my spot on the little ledge in front of the fireplace. I could leave in the early evening as opposed to first thing in the morning and be back in Chicago by the tomorrow afternoon, allowing for a couple of stops. No, I was too exhausted. I jiggled my foot to the beat of seconds passing. Aunt Muriel found an empty folding chair and set there like an Irish setter waiting for the signal. Head forward, eyes watchful. The room had thinned a bit but it was still bustling with an almost party atmosphere. Uncle Bubs now sat among the picked over platters of food on the dining room table. Most had been pushed out of the way and now Bubs and Roxie’s husband and two or three other mourners looked to be deep in the kind of gossip exchange these gatherings often encouraged.
Aunt Muriel caught my eye and nodded toward the bathroom. Sighing I got up to perform my duty. I approached the door. I knocked on it very lightly. I had my speech ready. Sorry, just checking to see if this is in use.
No answer. I knocked again. Nothing. I tried the door. It was unlocked. Easing it open I discovered the bathroom was empty. I stood there mulling this over. Aunt Muriel was not going to be happy. I tried the sewing room door. Still locked. I made it back to Aunt Muriel, knelt beside her and said in a low voice (meant to be calming): He’s not in the bathroom…
“Oh Lord, I knew it!” She made no attempt to keep her voice down. Bub’s and party looked over at us, their heads swiveling almost in unison. “Get outside and see if Zack’s still here! Hurry!”
I didn’t hurry. Of course Zack wasn’t out there. But, just so I’d be able to give Aunt Muriel a full report, I walked around to the back of Aunt Alberta’s house. I saw nothing back there but empty field.
“What do you mean?” Aunt Muriel said, voice raised, as soon as I walked in the house and gave her an open palm shrug. Now we had the attention of the entire room. “Go get Pearline,” she ordered.
Pearline was washing dishes and listening to the baseball game on the radio. She was in a zone and I had to call her name a couple of times.
“Hmm?” She turned the radio down.
“Pearline, you didn’t happen to lock Aunt Alberta’s sewing room door did you?”
“Why would I lock the door?”
I sighed, feeling suddenly weary. “It’s locked now. Do you have a key?”
She dried her hands on her apron. “I think I have a key at home.”
“Can you get it, Pearline. Aunt Muriel’s got this wild notion…” I stopped, knowing how ridiculous it was going to sound. “Aunt Muriel seems to think that Zack had his friend go in there to get the safe out the window or whatever---into his pick-up. Now both are gone.” As I was relaying this, Pearline seemed to be stifling a smile. “Really,” she said, not as a question but as a statement. “I’ll be right back.”
She soon returned with the key. By then everyone still present had been let in on the drama and waited in the hushed atmosphere as if they had an investment in the outcome. Peach plucked the key out of Pearline’s hand and with head held high, walked to the door with a decisive air. She unlocked the door, threw it wide open and strolled to the closet where Great Aunt Alberta kept her safe. She opened the door, stepped back, and folded her arms across her chest. She seemed to be enjoying the moment --- the little pause before she let us in on the situation.
“It’s gone,” she said.
Murmurs of disbelief started in the hall and flowed in a wave to the back of the living room. Flo Mohorn, president of the women’s auxiliary at Abundant Life AME, bellowed like someone in one of those black theatrical church productions. “I can’t believe that boy only come today to steal from his mama!”
“I ain’t surprised,” said the one who’d recently moved down from Detroit. “I could tell you stories.” Several of us looked toward her waiting. She went no further.
I noted the men had less to say. Maybe sharing the gender had them feeling they were slightly sharing the guilt.
“We should call the sheriff,” Peach ventured.
“Now hold on,” Uncle Bubs said. “Let’s not be too quick bringing the sheriff into this.”
We--- me, Aunt Peach, Aunt Roxie, Great Aunt Muriel and several others---turned toward Uncle Bubs expectantly. We were curious to see just what he meant by that. How had his sentiments led him to wanting to not call the sheriff? This was a burglary.
“He’s Alberta’s son, after all…” he said almost apologetically.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Aunt Muriel said inserting herself into the discussion. She was not to be left out.
“Well… Let’s think about it.” Uncle Bubs invited us to do this with a kind, encouraging smile---eyebrows raised, chin thrust out. He truly believed in his own wisdom and gave us each a pointed look. “Let’s think about it.”
We waited. Think about what?
“Now the boy might be supposing that,” he paused here and dropped his voice. “That he’s entitled…”
“Entitled!” Peach said not letting Uncle Bub’s finish. “Everything my mother left belongs to the three of us---except what she might have provided in the will.”
“There was no will,” Pearline said quietly from the kitchen doorway. She always said her girls would know what to do.”
“See there,” Uncle Bubs said as if vindicated. “That boy probably was afraid things wouldn’t be divided fairly. Maybe he’d be cut out.”
I stood there looking from one to the other. This was better than a movie.
“That don’t sound right, Uncle Bubs.” Peach’s voice was raised a notch. “What you tryin’ to say? Come on now, spit it out!”
“Peach…” Roxie put a hand on her arm.
Peach shook it off and the gathering turned to Bubs. What was Uncle Bubs trying to say?
“Well, now,” he started slowly. “There was that problem with your daddy’s ring.”
“And, what about my daddy’s ring?” Peach asked. She had a smile on her face but it looked more like a grimace.
“Now you know Zack Jr. thought it should go to him.” I knew Uncle Bubs was sticking his neck out here. This had caused a volatile mess a while back with everyone in the family giving their opinion and taking sides.
“That ring was willed to my husband,” Peach said, “and everybody knows it.” Though the divorce was nearly final she hadn’t let go of referring to her ex as her husband.
“But Peach, everybody knew your father had always promised it to Zack Jr. since he was a boy and he only said Cap could have it after he died ‘cause he was mad at Zack Jr. You know your daddy didn’t have a will.” This threw light on the fact that Cap—the ex—hadn’t bothered to come to the funeral. The silence that followed seemed to be filled with everyone to taking a moment to note that. “You knew that was going to be a temporary thing,” Uncle Bubs added.
“Well, well, well. It sure is nice to know where I stand in your eyes, Uncle Bubs.”
“Now Peach…” he started.
“Now Peach nothin’. You need to stick to your own business. Please don’t say another word to me. I don’t know what I’m liable to do if you say one more word—to me.” She stood there, nostrils flared, arms crossed, looking like she was about to cry.
I don’t know if those were the words that started everyone towards the exit but in the heavy, charged silence that had descended, folks found their way to the door one by one. They gave their good-byes to Pearline, who was, after all, the official hostess, and hugged Roxie and Peach, then got out of there.
Eventually, Peach marched upstairs in a self-righteous huff. Aunt Muriel left with Uncle Bubs. Roxie stayed downstairs and began to clear the living room of stray paper plates and cups. Her husband had found a game on the television in Aunt Alberta’s finished basement. There was supposed to be a fifty-two inch flat screened tv down there.
Peach and Roxie’s ten year olds were sprawled on the sofa, their eyes on the screens of some kind of hand held device. Roxie and I worked on the dining room table until everything had been carted to the kitchen.
“Go lie down, Aunt Roxie, I know you’re whipped,” I said. “I’ll help Pearline from this point.”
Roxie, looking uncertain said, “Are you sure?”
Relieved she took her cue and went upstairs.
Someone had put their can of soda on the mantel with the family pictures and it had overturned. Red pop had pooled around the photos. As I wiped the mantle, I had to look at the images and my eyes filled with unexpected tears. Everyone looked so full of hope and expectations of success not knowing life would intervene.
Funny, I noted. Zack shared the same thick, straight brows with our great-great-great grandfather Conrad Jones who’d come over from Wales to be a slaveholder. I’d done the research and come across his photo years ago. We were his descendants through his black concubine, Nessie. Family.
I planned to tell my mother every detail of this trip. I knew she was going to wish she’d been here. I actually, at that moment, wished she were here as well.
Pearline pushed a bowl of warm peach cobbler in front of me. We were sitting at Aunt Alberta’s lovely cook island with the granite counter and ceramic cooktop. “Where was this?” I said. “I must have missed this.”
Pearline laughed. “I never brought it out. I figured them folks had enough food to pile on their plates.”
I dug in. It was delicious. After a few mouthfuls, I stopped and sighed. “You think they should have called the police on Zack and that friend of his?”
“It’s the sheriff in these parts and for what?” Pearline asked.
“Well it was stealing.”
Pearline shrugged. “They didn’t steal anything but a safe. There weren’t nothin’ in it.”
I looked over at her, confused.
Pearline laughed. “Alberta took all the money out of that thing ages ago and she wasn’t one for jewelry. What she’d saved, she put together with Zack Sr.’s life insurance and had this house built. Plus all the rest went into decorating it.” She looked at me sideways to see how I was taking this, a smile still on her face.
Poor Zack, I thought. Think of all the planning he’d done. How slick he must have thought himself. I thought of Peach, so worried that a nickel might not come her way and the ring that she should have just given to Zack.
I said this out loud. “Peach should have given that ring to Zack.”
“Yeah, she should have,” Pearline said licking her spoon, “but you know Peach.”
Actually, I didn’t know Peach, but as I sat there some part of me wished I did. And all the rest. I was nearly a stranger and I was suddenly mourning that fact—sitting across from Pearline’s familiar smile with the gold molar flashing in the back. My visits always led me to re-meeting everyone and finding them reassuringly the same.
I thought of Peach, taking such a stand on Uncle Zack’s ring when it was probably now tossed in the back of some dresser drawer in her ex-husband’s bedroom, forgotten. And Aunt Muriel… She was probably still smarting over her exclusion from the limousine for whatever reason. Over time that slight would grow and morph into something else entirely, but it would keep her company through the years.
I smiled at Pearline over the heaping seconds she was spooning onto my plate. She probably thought it was a smile of complicity, but it wasn’t. It was a smile of sorrow. I was glad that I lived somewhere else and sad at the same time.
I thought of my car and the bittersweet feeling I’d have getting on road at first light, swinging by the local drive-thru for coffee with excitement in my stomach. Counting the hours, counting the miles until I got back to Chicago.