Read Good Family Online

Authors: Terry Gamble

Good Family (9 page)

BOOK: Good Family
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In the doorway stands a cape-clad figure, starkly silhouetted. Sedgie, his voice no longer bold, says, “Jesus Christ!”

“Close,” says Adele, throwing back her hood to reveal a shockingly hairless head. “At
least
,” she says, her billowing cape reminiscent of countless dramatic entrances, “you could have met me at the ferry in this bloody rain.”

M
y grandmother Bada died in the autumn of 1964. Aunt Eugenia and Uncle Halsey moved into Bada’s bedroom the following summer. Aunt Pat and Uncle Jack took the Schooner Room; my parents were in the Lantern Room. We younger cousins slept in the back bedrooms that had been added, twin beds stuck any place they could fit, bunk beds built into the eaves.

“I call the single bed in the bunkroom,” said Sedgie, who was the loudest, brashest of the cousins, but everyone knew he was afraid to sleep alone.

After Bada died, my mother surveyed the living room, cast her eyes on the decomposing ship model on the mantelpiece, and said it was time to brighten the place up.

“What do you mean, ‘brighten’?” my father asked.

She slapped the back of the couch, sending up a poof of dust. “I mean some color other than menopause green.”

After dinner, the grown-ups sat on the porch drinking, smoking, plotting change. We could hear their voices, but not their words. The smell of tobacco crept into the living room, a smell unknown in my grandmother’s time. I wondered if the fabric festooning the card room in the tower would
come down. The walls were draped like a fortune-teller’s tent with silk damask acquired in Turkey by my great-uncle who had ridden around on a camel. It had been a scandal in the family—not that he brought back the silk (along with several carpets and a hookah), or that he had been in such proximity to WWI without actually
fighting
in it—but that he’d been in so unseemly and unchristian a country in the first place. To my great-grandmother’s horror, he insisted the silk be used in the summerhouse, and there it continued to drape, a swagged indictment of the family pariah.

“Louisa,” I said later as she helped me brush my teeth, “what do you think will change?”

“Oh,” said Louisa in her lilting drawl, “nothing much changes around here.”

Being the youngest, I was to sleep in the nursery. It was a tiny room in the farthest reaches of the top floor, big enough only for a twin bed, a crib, and a bureau. For the first years of my life, Louisa had slept in the bed, me in the crib. But my mother, feeling it was time for me to sleep alone, decided to promote Louisa from nurse to cook and move her to the help’s quarters beneath the stairs.

“Sleep with me, Louisa,” I begged. “Just tonight.”

“Say good night to your mama,” Louisa said sternly, but I could see she was pleased.

Later, she lay next to me on the narrow bed, talking in her slow sentences about her life in Ohio. She had left two daughters—“love children” she called them—with her own mother when she came to work for my parents in California. “Summer nights in Ohio was heavy cream, baby girl. And you knew God was watching you. You knew ’cause you could see His eyes.”

“What do God’s eyes look like, Louisa?”

“Have you ever seen fireflies, child?”

Soon, Louisa was snoring, and I, too, must have drifted off because I jerked awake to a sound in the room. Thinking it was my mother coming to evict Louisa, I pretended to be asleep, but the room seemed to fill with
the scent of lavender. I slowly opened my eyes. The moon-brushed trees pressed against the window in front of which I made out a form bending over the crib.

“Mommy?” I said, but the woman who turned to me was not my mother. Her narrow face and deep eyes looked familiar, but her clothes were strange. She was wearing a long, black dress, cinched at the waist, ruffled at the hem, and puffed at the shoulders. Louisa was pressing against me, making it difficult to breathe, so I shoved her away, sat up, and said, “What?”

The woman turned and left the nursery.

Barefoot, I followed her. Her skirt rustled against the floor and, oddly, I wasn’t scared. Perhaps it was her Addison features (the mouth turned down at the edge), perhaps it was the sadness of her face, but it seemed natural to tag after her as she went from room to room, gazing in on my sleeping parents, drifting through the sour-milk smell of the bunk room, gliding downstairs. We went from one bedroom to another, pulled along in a cloud of lavender. She spoke to me, and I knew what she was saying, even though the words, when I tried to make them out, sounded like the beating of moth wings against a screen. “Ta, ta, ta,” she said, telling me who slept in each room and why it was built, the guest who had visited, how long they stayed. Weeks. Months. “Ta, ta, ta.”

Finally, we came to the living room. The old damask in the card room cascaded exotically, conjuring windswept deserts on moonlit nights. The woman strode over and began to tear down the silk. I could hear the fabric shredding.
Stop
, I wanted to say, but nothing came out.

The next morning, I told Louisa what had happened. “It was a dream,” she said, shaking her head.

When we came downstairs for breakfast, I looked into the card room to see if the silk had been torn down, but it remained. Then I saw the crumpled wreck of the ship model lying in a box.

“What are you doing?” I said to my mother, who was drinking tea at the dining-room table.

Bleary-eyed, she set down her cup. “That awful relic.”

I did not tell her about the woman I’d seen. Louisa, however, told my mother I wasn’t sleeping well, that I seemed fussy and disturbed. My mother relented in letting Louisa stay with me, but moved us to another room down the hall.

The upholstery and curtains in the living room were replaced by flowered chintz. The Turkish silk and the hookah in the card room, however—once controversial, now revered as tradition—stayed intact. Three years later, Uncle Halsey was diagnosed with cancer. After my uncle’s death in 1969, my father took over as head of the family even though his sister, Aunt Pat, was older. Aunt Eugenia eventually remarried. Screens were added to keep out the bugs. My mother insisted we get rid of that ghastly light fixture in the dining room. Every three years, the house was repainted the same dark green. The boardwalk down to the beach was repaired. It was a huge shock when one of the oaks had to come down, but other than that, Louisa was right about nothing much changing, although by the time I stopped coming to Sand Isle, Louisa herself was gone.

E
v. Evelyn. Ev the Elegant. The line of her throat as she lifted a cigarette to her lips. She was a small-town girl who wore bobby socks—a fourteen-year-old smoker who went on to become a glamour puss who loved martinis and who threw up in a revolving door at the Ritz. She had grown up alongside the Missouri River in a house that had stood on stilts. Every house on her street, she told us, was waiting for the river to rise.

My mother’s pride was her nails—sharp red talons totally unsuitable for manual labor. When she and the aunts took up decoupage, they would spend days with manicure scissors, littering the floor with clippings as they pored and snipped through illustrated books with an eye toward a compelling image—a tendril of campanula from
The Flowers of the World
or a little girl holding a bucket from
A Child’s Garden of Verses.
I would watch, fascinated, waiting for the shellac to dry so Aunt Pat and my mother could go to work buffing. No speck of lint, no air bubble was too small to escape their scrutiny. My mother was especially zealous. She would pick up whatever she was working on, hold it up to the light, take a drag on her cigarette, and say,
Hmmm.
The she would set down her cigarette, pick up the sandpaper, and begin to rub in a frenzied fashion as if the Holy Spirit itself was moving her.

“There. You see?” Aunt Pat had said when the sandpaper chipped the nail on my mother’s right ring finger. “And you’re denting the varnish with those claws.”

The truth was, my father’s family didn’t approve of makeup. My mother’s red polish alone was something of a scandal, not to mention her jazzy California fashions that were in sharp contrast to the demure wraparound skirts, the monogrammed blouses, and circle pins of my aunts. My mother liked to try different styles—orange-and-pink shifts in geometric patterns. Wide-brimmed hats that tied beneath the chin. Huge, square sunglasses that came with matching plastic bracelets. In the midsixties, she even tried to wear a frosty white lipstick, but she tossed it aside after my father told her she looked dead.

I remember one night Dana, Sedgie, Adele, and I were sitting on the floor in front of the fireplace playing war. In the card room, our parents were deep in a game of bridge with Aunt Pat and Uncle Jack. Below the card table, disemboweled of their images for decoupage, the books were stacking up. My father had raised the bidding to two hearts, Aunt Pat passed, and it was my mother’s turn again. My mother fingered the corners of her card, looked hard at my father, who stared back at her impassively, then waved her fingers and, with a shrug, said, “Pass?”

“The contract is two hearts,” said Aunt Pat, briskly smacking down a card. Our aunt was known as a “mean bridge player,” but whether that meant she was clever or cruel, I couldn’t be sure.

My parents were facing each other across the table surfaced with a nautical chart. My mother had her hair pulled back in a grosgrain bow and was wearing an oxford-cloth shirt with the collar turned up, fastened at the wrists with cuff links and tucked in at the waist. She was, I decided, more beautiful than the other aunts. She had what one of my uncles described as a Greta Garbo profile, legs that went on forever, and glossy black hair that later would turn suddenly, almost violently gray. She laid her cards down on the table, faceup, crossed her arms, and beamed proudly at my father.

There was lovely tension in the air as the grown-ups went on to play
their hands. The fire sputtered as a breeze came down the chimney and thunder rumbled from the horizon. Somewhere out on the big lake, a storm was moving toward us. The skies had turned crabby that afternoon, making the air so electric, our hair stood on end. In the tented card room, the edges of the Turkish silk were fraying.

Earlier that week, the riots had started in Chicago, and now the cops were beating the protesters. There was no TV in our house. My father disapproved of television in the summer and, besides, reception in northern Michigan was poor. The neighbors, however, had put an antenna on their roof just so they could watch the convention.

“Can you blame the cops?” Sedgie said. “I mean, if someone had thrown piss in your face?”

“They’re protesting the war,” said Derek.

“I’d kill ’em,” said Sedgie.

Adele got up and put on Bob Dylan. The record player and the shiny new rack that held the albums looked odd and out of place in this room of dark wicker. Anything that had been brought into the house after the forties had that air about it—a temporary feeling as if it were a slightly embarrassing houseguest.

“Jesus H. Christ,” Uncle Jack yelled, “turn off that racket.”

My father shot Uncle Jack a look. My father had a very clear position on swearing. Never, never, never was swearing permitted. If he caught any of us using bad words, he would wash our mouths out with Addison’s Astringent Rinse that was touted for its ability to cure sore throats, canker sores, and, as far as we knew, obscene language. For years, I couldn’t swear without the sensation of that sharp, minty taste.

Adele lifted the arm of the Victrola, sending a loud scratch across the vinyl. My cousin Sedgie, owner of that particular record, said, “Shit, Adele!”

All eyes turned to my father, but he didn’t seem to have heard. The wind had picked up the way it does before a squall rushes in. My father’s jaw worked tightly. He was looking at my mother.

“Evelyn,” he said flatly, “my bidding two hearts was forcing.”

The lightning was coming faster now, the thunderclaps close together. “I had an ugly hand, so I passed,” my mother said lightly, flinching from the thunder. She reached for her drink.

My father continued on in his low, tight voice, snapping down each word the way he would a card. “You had a
void.
” The way his lips were quivering, we knew this was significant. “I could have slammed this hand against the wall and made four hearts.”

I recognized the tone in my father’s voice. It was the tone he used with all of us if we parked the bikes incorrectly or sloppily folded the sails.

My mother’s red-tipped fingers tightened around her glass. I fixed my eyes on her face as she tried to keep smiling, wanting her to pitch her cards or her drink, stare my father down, and say,
Don’t speak to me as if I’m a child.

But she said nothing.

The rain beat harder. Lightning lit up the room, and the cousins shrieked. Aunt Pat put her hand on my father’s arm and, in the preening older sister voice she often used with him, said, “Now, Dickie, at
least
you made your contract.”

It turned into a whopper of a storm—a real “lollapalooza” as Louisa would say. Late that night, woken by thunder, I left my room, heading to the Lantern Room, where my parents slept. I could hear voices and what sounded like my mother crying. My father was saying something like, “If you’re going to play bridge, do it right,” and my mother said, “Fine, fine, fine. Just don’t lecture me in front of your sister.”

I was sure she was in her nightgown, pacing and smoking, the wind rattling the windows. The vein in my father’s neck would be pulsing, his mouth drawn into a crowbar of disgust. No doubt they were avoiding each other’s eyes.

And then my father said, “Damn it, Evelyn!”

I couldn’t wait to tell Dana. My father had not only sworn, but sworn at my mother. But then to my surprise, I heard my mother’s rich, low voice.

“You Addisons,” she said. “You think your shit doesn’t smell.”

The floor creaked, and I froze. Right then I decided it was better to tell no one, to pretend I hadn’t heard. I tiptoed down the hall. Through the window, the strange blue light from the neighbors’ TV hovered ghostlike in the trees.

The next morning, my mother came down to breakfast and held up her naked hands for everyone to see. With her nails shorn, she looked as defenseless as the hairless Samson. There would be one less thing for my father and Aunt Pat to criticize.

“Happy?” she said.

The following summer, my father bought a television to watch the Eagle landing on the moon, and my mother took up needlepoint, stitching pillows with slogans like
Where there’s a will, there’s a relative
and
Golf is a good walk spoiled.
After the decoupage period, she began to dress more sedately. No more plastic jewelry. No more unseemly polish. The chichi Mexican skirts gave way to Lilly Pulitzer pants in the seventies. She gave up on fashion in those years after the moonwalk, surrendering to the belts decorated with silhouettes of whales, the matching sweater sets, the strand of pearls.

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