My dad tensed.
At the wake, I organized food over the counters and kitchen table. Spiced rum cake, cubed ham, deviled eggs, sugar cookies, ambrosia salad, fried chicken. I sliced lemons for the sweet tea and found an extra reserve of napkins in the pantry. Nobody directly acknowledged the horrible service, especially not to a family member, but when I passed my father’s study with a vodka tonic in hand, I saw two old ladies slumped like rag dolls in the oversized leather chairs, gossiping with hushed voices and wide eyes. The bookshelves were full of binders that organized the entirety of my dad’s construction company. The building codes were endless: fire code, plumbing code, mechanical code, electrical code, energy conservation code, and so on. I wished a couple of those binders would fall on top of the ladies’ heads. They had picked junk mail from a pile of letters on the desk, flyers pinched between bony thumb and forefinger, and were leisurely fanning themselves. The smell of rosewater perfume drifted into the hallway.
The fatter of the two said, “What an embarrassment.”
The waif leaned in, as if to expose a dark secret, and added, “The priest might as well have mentioned the infidelities.”
“Don’t forget the bankruptcy.”
“The way he harped on Nick…”
“Harped, he did.”
“He was living in squalor, you know.”
“Outside the city limits.”
“With the rednecks.”
I polished off my drink and shook the ice cubes, unsure if I was subduing my anger or encouraging it. I stepped into the doorway and with a prize-winning smile, said, “You shouldn’t speak ill of the dead,” which shut them up.
Of course, later that evening, when guests finally left and the heat subsided and a single bat looped through the backyard, there was plenty of bad-mouthing. My dad and his sister, only two years apart, sat on the patio with a dish of salted peanuts and a jar of whiskey that my dad bought from a drywall man for ten dollars. They sipped and coughed and told stories with their tongues covered in shredded nut meat, as was my grandfather’s habit. He was dead but he was everywhere.
In 1965, he started a bank that flourished, then fizzled. In 1972, he purchased an entire city block in downtown Greenville that became a vacuum repair store, insurance office, and ice cream parlor, all of which burned in an electrical fire. In 1980, he traveled abroad and began collecting European girlfriends. In 1981, he pursued a young beauty in Cypress and was stabbed by a competing suitor. In 1990, he began teaching economics at Clemson University. In 2005, he took gold in every track and field event at the Senior Sports Classic, and when he couldn’t breathe anymore, he gave up jogging and played competitive ping pong at the YMCA. He coughed into a handkerchief. He lost muscle, then color. He put his portable oxygen tank in the basket of an electric scooter at the grocery store, piled fruit and pastries and cheeses in a pyramid over the cylinder, and charged everything to a credit card that he never intended to pay off. Asleep one night, the oxygen tube fell out of his nose. He turned blue. He lay unconscious next to fields of black cows. Maybe he dreamed of milk and sugar, mind melting like ice cream under a bright star. In 2012, he died.
Most of those stories were new to me. I didn’t know that he lived in Cypress and was stabbed by a fisherman in a dark courtyard and would have died if a stray dog didn’t keep him awake with yipping and licking until morning, when someone finally found him thirsty and soaked with blood. Nothing so exciting had ever happened to me and even though it wasn’t fair to compare one life against another, I felt like the most boring person alive.
My aunt recounted a family beach trip in which my grandfather snuck away every night to pick up women. “To that grimy bar that sold crab legs in buckets,” she said, drunk and misty. “That was the summer Betsy died at Lake Hartwell.”
I looked away.
She said, “I’m tired of talking about Nicholas the Ridiculous.”
My dad nodded.
She made a gun with her hand and pretended to shoot herself. Then, sighing, she asked, “What are you doing these days, Rebecca?”
“Living here,” my dad answered for me, “and assessing her next step. There’s nothing wrong with that. The job market isn’t kind to young people these days. A college degree doesn’t guarantee you anything.”
I slapped a mosquito on my leg, both surprised and embarrassed that the conversation had turned to me. I wasn’t prepared to talk about my joblessness. It was one thing to fill out applications and prepare for interviews and face rejections, and it was another thing to sleep and read and look out the window for hours without seeing out the window.
“And your mother?”
“What about her?”
My aunt reached for the jar and sipped, even though it was empty. “I don’t know. She’s a bitch is all I want to say, not even sending a condolence card.” She smacked my father’s arm and shouted, “God, you were married for ten years. I go to all the family funerals for both of my ex-husbands. They didn’t show up, either, but at least the bastards called.”
She yawned and stumbled inside. Through the window, I watched her drink an entire glass of water then head to the guest bedroom, resting and drooling and probably wetting the linens with tears through the night. In the morning, she would drive back to Richmond and drop off her funeral dress at the cleaners and wipe her hands clean of all this. She wasn’t the executor of the estate and didn’t want to waste time culling through photographs and furniture and silver, and she certainly didn’t want to untangle the complicated web of finances, which included $80,000 worth of debt, a huge investment portfolio, and properties that were tied up in a family trust.
My dad and I swatted bugs in the dark.
“How did Betsy die?” I asked. I knew I’d heard the story before, when I was younger, but the details had gone fuzzy over the years.
“She was learning to waterski and Nick, your grandfather, was driving the boat. I don’t remember it very well but he made a wide turn, and when Betsy fell she hit her head on a tree underwater.” He snapped. “Knocked out. Just like that.”
A few houses down, neighbors lit fireworks leftover from the Fourth of July and they exploded in groups of three. I counted aloud and said, “It’s like a waltz.”
My dad had withdrawn into his own mind. “There’s a lot to do,” he said. “I’m going to need your help.”
“I’m glad you’re here.”
I smiled a little and began to collect glasses and plates from the patio and bring them inside. Being home meant that I was available to help, but it also meant that I didn’t have anywhere else to be. I changed into my pajamas and got in bed, switching off the lamp and listening to my aunt snore in the next room.
Vicky cried when my dad gave her the eviction notice. She lived in the garage apartment beside my grandfather’s house and hadn’t paid rent for five months. She didn’t have a job or a car. It was hard to get your life together, she said, when you’re on parole. We stood at the bottom of weathered wooden steps that rose to meet the apartment door. Stone figurines of frogs and snails scattered the ground. Rain gauges held murky water. My grandfather’s old BMW sat in the garage with a mound of dog towels in the passenger seat from a springer spaniel that had died years earlier. Washington Taylor was his name.
Vicky’s long trembling fingers reached for my dad’s shirtsleeve.
He stepped away.
She wore high-rise blue jeans and a ribbed tank top. She let out a silent sob, shoulders heaving, and saliva strung between her dry wrinkled lips. There was a wide empty space where her two front teeth should’ve been. She handed me her glasses, tiny oval-shaped frames that a librarian might wear, and wiped her dark eyes.
She said, “My specs,” and I returned the glasses.
“I don’t wanna stay here anymore,” she said, arms crossed over her small chest. “Don’t get me wrong, but I feel bad about everything that went down. Nicholas did a lot for me. He forgave me when nobody else did and I can’t repay what I owe. I don’t have enough time left for that,” she said. “I’m only fifty-seven but it was the partying that made me look so dang old.” She rubbed her nose with the back of her hand, then dug a soft pack of Camels from her pocket and lit one. “Feel bad that I couldn’t get to the funeral. I would’ve asked a neighbor for a ride except they’re not the kind of people I wanna mix with, not anymore. I’m on the straight and narrow.”
My dad asked, “Do you have anywhere to go?”
I figured anywhere would be better than that garage apartment. The surrounding woods were humid in the summer and desolate in the winter. Trees were full of silky white caterpillar nests in spring and autumn brought sheets of falling acorns and chestnuts. Owls hooted all year long. Wild turkeys and woodpeckers galore. The property sat on a floodplain and rainstorms flushed the little creek with stinking orange water that left behind dead fish and plastic bottles and mounds of displaced clay. There was a quarter-mile driveway that hit a country road full of reckless drivers. I couldn’t figure out why anybody would live there, except it was cheap and out of the way. It wasn’t quiet, though, not between frogs in the woods and engines revving on the road.
Vicky said she had a parole hearing in a week and if all went well, she’d be free and clear, and could move in with her sister in Helen, Georgia. “It looks like a German town with the buildings and everything,” she said. “Kind of like gingerbread houses.”
“Sounds nice,” I said.
“It’d be like living in Europe,” she said. “That’s a big step up from prison.”
My dad said, “I expect everything will work out then, if it’s true that you’re staying out of trouble.”
She said, “Oh yessir, I been a good girl.” Smoke drifted through the gap in her teeth when she smiled. “It’s better this way, leaving soon. People around here are nothing but trouble. There’s one guy, he’