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Authors: Terry Gamble

Good Family (26 page)

BOOK: Good Family
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“But the religion?”

“Oh, Maddie. Don’t we all get religion when we’re in trouble?”

I think of Ian, our tight-lipped refusal to say the Lord’s Prayer at the close of AA meetings. An uncomfortable urge to laugh rises like gas in my chest. Just as I clamp my hand to my mouth, someone with movielike timing clangs the triangle for dinner.

I
f Sedgie was brilliant in the kitchen before, he’s a genius when partnering with Ian. Together, they’ve done something fantastic with chicken involving tuna and capers.

“And mayonnaise,” says Ian with a flourish. “Only it’s homemade.”

Sedgie is serving us like an Italian waiter, a towel draped over his arm, his sleeves rolled up, hair slicked back, his accent impeccable as he describes
il tonnato, e pomodoro, e mozzarella
, and so fourth.

I should find it funny, but I don’t. “This is Michigan,” I say.

“MaddieAddie,” Ian says under his breath. He knows I can spiral into a crankiness that takes days to dissipate. The rest of the cousins seem oblivious, pleased to have abdicated anything culinary to Sedgie and his new assistant. Even Dana seems perky, as if she’s confessed, repented, and atoned.

Did Mother know about your abortion?

Dana had smoked like a fiend that summer and sobbed in her room. We drove out the shore and picked up an Indian woman. Elton John’s
Yellow Brick Road
was our favorite album, and it was the first time we’d seen Edward since Vietnam. I had flirted with Derek on the beach while he took peyote and talked about rocks. It was the summer of dented moons and dented hearts.

Yes. But not Dad.

“Adele,
what
are you doing?” says Sedgie, looking appalled.

Adele looks up guiltily from her plate, where her chicken lies barren of sauce.

“Oh, God,” says Sedgie, “you’ve scraped off the
tonnato
.”

“It’s mayonnaise,” says Adele.

“You’re anor-EX-ic,” says Sedgie. He looks around at the rest of us. “Please, somebody. Confirm this.”

“Delicious chicken,” says Dana.

“Mmm,” says Beowulf.

“Mmm,” says Jessica.

“She
is
anorexic,” I say darkly. “She used to throw up when she was a teenager.”

Adele’s eyes narrow. “I used to
what
?”

“It’s the truth.”

Beo looks from me to Adele. “You barfed?”

“I didn’t…barf.” Adele looks at me. “You’re a fine one to talk about barfing. As I recall, you spent a whole summer barfing.”

I meet her gaze. “Mitigating circumstances.”

“You were a lush.”

“That’s true. Lush, drunk, sot, juicehead—”

“Stop it!” says Dana. “Eat your chicken.”

“I feel better,” I say.

Across the table, Adele sits with her uneaten food, her eyes tearing up. I want to attribute my testiness to the pressures of a deathwatch, a near relapse, or too many family meals, but Adele’s smug self-starvation and spiritual chauvinism have annoyed me for years. She is her own version of Aunt Pat—dogmatic, righteous, trembling with virtue. Now, seeing her tears, her despair around food, it occurs to me that, balancing on the fulcrum between malnutrition and vigor, she, too, has been tyrannized by expectation.

“Can we have a little prayer?” says Dana. “Hold hands and go around and say what we’re thankful for?”

“Oh, Christ,” says Sedgie.

“Yes!” says Ian. “A twelve-step meeting right here in the Aerie!”

We awkwardly take hands. No one says anything. We wait for a de facto leader to present him- or herself, but everyone is staring at their plate and waiting. Finally, Philip clears his throat and says, “Well…”

“State your name,” says Ian.

Philip looks at Ian questioningly, but says, “Philip?”

“Hi, Philip!” Ian and I bark in unison.

Philip looks nonplussed. He seems to have forgotten what he was going to say.

Silence descends, only to be broken by Adele, who says, “How about we send some energy to Aunt Ev? Let her know it’s all right to go.”

Oh please
, I think, but everyone else agrees this is acceptable, so, with eyes closed, we hold Mother in our minds and hearts. It’s one of those moments that make me ache with discomfort. I peer through slit eyes, but the whole group—even Ian and Sedgie—has their heads bowed, and I feel a wrenching inadequacy due to my lack of solemnity. I wait for a sign—the squeezing of a hand, a cough, but the only sound I hear are cousins breathing. Then Dana’s stomach rumbles—the great gurgling rumble she used to produce as a child.

“A sign if there ever was one,” says Sedgie. “Let’s eat.”

No one else seems inclined to confess anything or speak the truth—mercifully, since I’m still reeling from the news of Dana’s terminated pregnancy twenty-five years before. Letting go of one another’s hands, we pass the tomatoes and mozzarella and move on to other subjects like film and politics and who’s doing the dishes.

“I have to leave in a couple of days,” Sedgie says. “Ibsen calls.”

Four or five days at the most
, Dr. Mead said.

“You can’t leave now,” I say.

“Truly,” says Jessica. “We’ll have to start eating takeout again.”

“I have to work, you guys.”

Everyone shifts uncomfortably. No one talks about work in the Aerie. We park our vocations and our everyday lives on the other side of the channel so that we can give our full attention to games and sports and conversation.

“It’s only acting,” says Dana, poking at her chicken.

Right, I think. It’s not physics. Or banking. Or law. “But it’s what he
does
, Dane.”

“What I was going to say,” says Philip abruptly, “before I was so rudely interrupted”—he looks pointedly at Ian and me—“is that it behooves you all to discuss the fate of this house once Evelyn goes.”

This pronouncement seems even more intrusive than Sedgie’s mention of work because (A) it presumes Mother’s death, and (B) we will have to talk about money. Dana rolls her eyes; Derek sets down his fork; Beo and Jessica look at each other blankly; Sedgie groans; and Adele says, “Count me out.”

“Excuse me?” I say.

“It’s a nonattachment thing.”

“You’ve run out of money?” says Sedgie morosely.

We all turn to Adele for confirmation. Her head is high and handsome. “I haven’t ‘run out.’” She makes quotation marks with her fingers. “I’ve dispensed with it.”

“Oh, that’s rich,” says Sedgie. “Well, two ex-wives, and I’ve done my share of ‘dispensing’ as well.”

“It was mine to lose.”

Philip sighs a long, deep sigh, and I realize I’ve never thought of it as “mine to lose.” I was raised to dip into the font, but not drain it lest the next generation ends up railing like Blanche DuBois about the kindness of strangers. We’ve stretched our dollars, hoarded our airline miles, done our best to live within our means, but taxes, alimony, and issue take their toll.

Seeing our glum faces, Ian looks alarmed. “But this
house
!”

“We could turn it into a B&B,” I say, aiming for irony, “like they do in England.”

“Or a retreat?” says Adele, sounding more upbeat.

“Sedgie could cook,” says Jessica.

“In that case, I have dibs on Louisa’s old room,” says Sedgie the way he used to call dibs on the bunk room.

Obviously, no one realizes I was kidding.

Dana looks at Philip, then at me. “Well?”

Suddenly Philip takes on a new significance in our family hierarchy. We turn to him as if to an oracle. “There’s some money in a trust, right?” I say. “To keep it up?”

“It’s my understanding,” says Philip, “that all the remaining principal gets distributed along with the shares of the house. In other words, it’s up to each of you to commit to ownership or not.”

“You mean we have the
option
? Why wasn’t this explained?” I say.

“I believe your father thought he was going to live forever.”

“So what
does
it cost?” asks Beowulf.

Philip clears his throat painfully. There is something sage and grave about his expression. “The taxes alone will be exorbitant.”

“You take my
house
when you doth take the prop that sustains it,’” says Sedgie, quoting
The Merchant of Venice
, more or less.

Philip folds his hands together and begins to hold forth about taxes, assessments, maintenance, and upkeep. I can see why his client employs him. His air is as authoritative as Ralph Feingold’s about the transient-dimensional plasticity of space. We are transfixed and confused. Even divided by a factor of six—no,
four
without Adele and, presumably, Edward—the reality of the transience and plasticity of our net worth smears like numbers on a chalkboard.

“This is horrible,” says Jessica. “Grannie Ev is dying, and you’re talking about money.”

“Oh, lofty one,” says Sedgie, “do you suggest a bake sale?”

“It seems disrespectful.”

Philip looks at his daughter with the same gratified expression that used to cross my father’s face whenever one of us demonstrated some semblance of virtue. Clearing the table. Speaking politely to our elders. Manners were so much the social currency on Sand Isle that I had since dismissed them as anachronistic, but nine years in New York have made me long for their company as for that of an old and familiar friend.

“You’re right,” I say to Jessica, while wondering if Philip has ever considered electrolysis for that hair on his shoulders. “It seems crass. But it’s important. If we never talk about money, we won’t have any left.”

“So what are we going to do with the house?”

We all look at one another. The question, as disputable as the origins of the universe and the meaning of life, hangs in the air.

W
ake up.”

I rustle, groan, turn over as if I was dreaming, but Ian gives me a sharp shake and tells me to get up.

“We’re heading out,” he says.

In the dark, Ian is invisible, but a floating glob of pale hair implies that Jessica is with him. “C’
mon
,” she says.

Yawning, I say, “What do you want?” which comes out
wa-wee-won
.

“We’re on a mission,” says Ian.

“A little art project,” says Jessica.

Minutes later, we are heading down the bayside, Ian in some kind of Chinese lounge outfit, Jessica in boxers and a T-shirt, me in my white flannel nightie. I glow like a ghost. In the lamplight, our shadows grow long on the sidewalk. Fractured moonlight splits the lake, but most of the houses are dark. Jessica is carrying an old can of white paint and a brush. She skips along, so suspiciously comfortable with the task at hand, I wonder if she has actual graffiti experience.


Where are you going?
” she sings. “
Where are you going?
” The paint slops cheerfully in the bucket.

“Some things, Maddie,” Ian says, “are unacceptable.”

In a daze, I follow. The whole thing is as unreal as a dream. In fact, it occurs to me that I
am
dreaming, and that Ian hasn’t come to Sand Isle at all. Ian on Sand Isle seems incongruous; my half-Vietnamese niece with a can of white paint seems downright subversive. As if in a dream, I glide above the sidewalk, my feet not touching the pavement. Any minute now, we could spread our arms and fly—Ian, Jessica, and me—like the children from
Peter Pan
, a book I find disconcerting given its subject matter of lost children, Never Never Land, and parents who entrust their offspring to a dog.

“I’m flying!” I say, my nightgown swooping around behind me.

“Why aren’t you wearing shoes?” says Ian.

“Shhh,” I say. “We’re on a mission.” But I have no idea for what, and Jessica has stopped singing.

We arrive at the Swansons’ house. It is pillared in an antebellum style, although all of the houses on Sand Isle are decidedly postbellum, having been built by fortunes made during the Civil War. Nevertheless, the Swansons’ tries to evoke nostalgia for mint juleps on the plantation porch, ladies in wicker swings, darkies in the field.

No light comes from the Swansons’ house. It is about three in the morning, and the only stirring comes from waves and a few malingering crickets. Surely, the Swansons are asleep and have no idea marauders are standing on their lawn. I look around nervously for Mac or one of the security guards who might be patrolling.

“We’ve got to act fast,” says Ian. He jerks his head toward the lawn jockey and says to Jessica, “Get its face and hands.”

“You’ve got to be kidding,” I say. “This is vandalism.”

“It’s racist,” says Jessica. “We’re painting.”

“Actually,” I say, holding out my hand before she wields her brush, “I don’t think it is rascist. Weren’t these things used in the Underground Railroad or something to signal escaping slaves?”

“You’re thinking of quilts,” says Ian. “This”—he jerks his head at the jockey—“demeans black people and trivializes the horrors of slavery.”

“Remember that fat mammy cookie jar that was in the Aerie kitchen?” says Jessica.

“Now
that
was definitely slave art,” I say. “Louisa told me.”

“Those are
very
collectible,” says Ian, his acquisitive inclinations momentarily trumping his urge toward social justice.

“So what are we going to do with the paint?”

“Hmm.” Ian strokes his chin. “Is it racist or not?”

“Totally,” says Jessica.

“Shall we ask the Swansons?” I say. “We could knock on their door and say, ‘Excuse me, but do you intend your lawn ornament to be a symbol of white supremacy and the oppression of blacks? Or is it merely an artifact, reminiscent of our once-divided nation, the wounds of which have never healed, but without its manifest tensions, our struggles would be meaningless? Even futile?’”

“We
could
ask them that,” Ian says slowly while Jessica dabs away at the lawn jockey until it bears a creepy resemblance to a mime. I start to freak out. I am nearly forty, dressed in a nightgown, engaging in an act of defacement, the significance of which is debatable. My bravado evaporates. I know security is on its way. “They’re calling the cops,” I say. “Let’s go.”

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