I am a flower—sometimes a tea rose, occasionally a purple iris, often a long-stem tiger lily.
* * *
Mostly we discovered her moods by what she played on the piano. She’d carry a vase of freshly-cut yellow asters and a glass ashtray to the Baldwin in our music room. Typically she napped and lighted a cigarette before walking down the wine-carpeted steps. She remained careful of her cigarettes despite seeming to be always a little off course, gently bumping tables and wainscoting or tripping on Oriental rugs. Often we noticed faint blue bruises on the elbows and forearms she used as fenders.
Though able to, she never performed classical selections. She preferred the old romantic ballads like “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” and “Deep Purple,” the sort of tunes popular during the era before World War II. She still visited Pastor’s, Richmond’s antiquated music store where clerks wore ties and starched smocks, the listening booths were dusted daily, and a person could buy a golden harp whose strings children loved to sneak to and twang.
I, her son, watched. We all did—my grandmother, my sister, and our maid Viola, who crossed town each morning on the city bus. Viola and Mother sometimes smoked together at the kitchen table on which biscuit dough was rolled. My grandmother purchased Gold Medal flour in 50-pound bags, it dumped into a wooden barrel that had a special compartment beneath a trap door of the long stainless-steel counter. Viola dipped from it, her blackness powdered when she rose holding the sifter.
Mother no longer drove. If the weather were wet or cold, she called a taxi. She liked to walk, especially spring and summer. She gazed at flowers and plantings along the brick street. Frequently she brought home bouquets purchased from the colored woman who sold them on the corner of Strawberry and Grace, Whenever she left our stone Victorian house, she wore a large garden-party hat as well as gloves, hose, and heels. She’d been sent to a horsy Warrenton girls’ school run by a severe French headmistress who drilled into her charges that a lady unless properly attired never allowed herself to be touched by the light of day.
Mother had her hair dyed black and wore it longer than the current fashion. She was conscious of her posture, yet her body became askew like a person who feels the ground under him tilt or meets an obstacle in the road. Perhaps in her mind memory was a rock that had to be stepped around, a puddle avoided, a ravine leaped. We’d all in our various rooms listen to her play—my grandmother upstairs by her window, Viola in the kitchen, my sister and I wherever we happened to be around the place.
If it were one of Mother’s better days, she’d play everything allegro, hitting the notes correctly from the first try. She liked to sing, her voice girlish, though she often stopped in the middle of phrases to reach for cigarettes. She never let a cigarette dangle as popular pianists do in the movies. She considered that common. Her favorite brand was unfiltered Lucky Strikes.
When the tempo of her music slowed and became confused, we quit whatever we were doing to look at each other through walls. She might touch her temple and transform “Blue Orchids” into a wandering, chaotic dirge. If we peeked through a gap of the mahogany sliding doors that had brass latches, she didn’t seem unhappy or distressed, yet her fingers clawed keys, causing dissonances she apparently didn’t hear. Her voice changed, no longer innocently girl-like but more the throaty chanteuse, husky and lots of vibrato. She knew French, had been trained to speak it as if her natural tongue.
We waited for packages. She carried many home herself. Delivery trucks arrived, a few at first, then some days half a dozen—from department stores, gift shops, bakeries. At Sears she ordered a set of tools she had no use for we could divine. She did keep the canaries she purchased for her bedroom— the same in which she’d grown up, it still maidenly, though smelling of Lucky Strikes. Recently pastels drawn by my sister of blooms from our garden had been framed and hung on walls: sweet william, Shasta daisies, red and purple peonies.
“I’ve made up a new list,” my sister said, she three years older than I and an art teacher at William and Mary. Slim and blond, her actions quick and precise, she didn’t favor Mother. Mother was dark-eyed, flowing, languorous. She couldn’t draw a line while my sister as a child had been able to take a piece of yellow chalk and scratch out horses, giraffes, and elephants on the concrete driveway. Now my sister had a particularly fine hand with pond scenes, the willows drooping boughs into greenish benign waters and leaving shadowed furrows.
The list she spoke of lay in the drawer of a small cherry table by our house’s front entrance. The table held a rectangular silver tray used in days when people still presented social calling cards, my grandmother’s day, who sat most of the time in her upstairs den. She suffered from rheumatoid arthritis and positioned her rocking chair by the window so she could look down to the lawn, birdbath, and street beyond the red oaks. She needed a cane to move about. Whenever my mother left the house, my grandmother leaned to the window and peered as intently as if searching for a long-sought shore.
Grandmother, too, had been a pretty woman. A closeted album held snapshots of her during a European tour. Flanked by costumed guards holding halberds, she stood before the Tower of London, gloved fingers at her throat, a hand steadying a great round yellow hat. Her hair then had been coppery. Now it was thin and gray, almost a skullcap. Her pale blue eyes were still good, and she liked to read all the newspapers, including the Wall Street Journal. She’d gotten in the habit through my grandfather, who’d been a partner in a Richmond investment house that dealt primarily in trading municipal bonds.
“How many today?” Grandmother asked. She still wore stylish clothes and rings on crooked hurting fingers. Alma, her dressmaker, came to the house. Through the window Grandmother looked to the street to see my mother returning from downtown carrying packages. Once when I entered the den so softly Grandmother didn’t hear, I found her weeping quietly, crippled fingers touched to her powdered brow. Becoming aware of me, she straightened and said nothing but turned away her face.
“Only three,” I answered. I’d already entered deliveries on the list.
“Ten days more or less,” Grandmother said. “Perhaps two weeks.”
My sister and I returned packages, those my mother hadn’t already given as gifts. She loved giving. We’d wait till she was out and slip into her bedroom to remove them. She never noticed. My sister drove Grandmother’s Lincoln downtown. The mission was no longer embarrassing. Clerks at the stores knew and made no fuss about exchanges for credit. Kindly people after the Southern fashion. They loved my mother, smiled fondly at sight of her, sent cards on her birthday.
My sister alerted Dr. Richard Winston. He’d danced with Mother during his courting days. He told me he’d never seen a lovelier woman. She’d been standing, he said, in a field of daffodils, the sun beaming on her and acres of blinding yellow blooms. He said it was as if she’d grown among them, been one of the flowers, out of the earth, her face itself a bloom, bees buzzing around her, the sun golden on her laughing face.
* * *
I’ve always loved gardens. Times I’ve knelt among forget-me-nots, collected their fragrance, felt we’ve sprung from the same black rich loam. I’ve been fed upon by bees. I’ve lain in soothing grass and become part of it. I welcomed ants who crossed my breasts. I placed them gently upon the ivy-covered sundial. My bare arms wave in the sultry wind like weeping willow boughs. I am the vine, the rose, the nectar.
“Rachel, no!” they call to me.
Even later they scold, after they’ve no right, seizing me from the succulence of daphne, the hummingbird’s visit. Always calling. I stop my ears. I drip my fingers onto piano keys and ride bursts of color. Voices always nibbling at me. I make a garden of quarter notes. I climb music as if it is a rose trellis reaching the sky.
“You are indeed something,” Richard Winston says, he, too, lying in the sun, a pliant male flower on a white blanket, he perhaps Monk’s Cap. I spread my petals and see him feed from me. His skin is slightly salty, and I love salt. I do not understand how salt harms growing things. Mother pours it to kill grass edging the walks, but Richard’s salt is sugar on my tongue.
“You may not!” my father tells me, his refrain. He is tall, courtly, his face long, and he wears a Phi Beta Kappa key across his vest. As a child I reach to it when he dangles it over my eyes. I grasp too tightly and tear loose a black button. He is disturbed and pushes at the fabric as if it will join and heal itself.
“You must never!” Mademoiselle says to me, a lady of burnished ivory, spectacles, a gray shirtwaist closed at the collar, her raisin-like eyes rarely blinking. Her permed darkish hair has been set so hard it might chip. “We’ve grounds for dismissing you. Climbing from a window! It is only out of respect for your family that we do not!”
Flowers sheening in sunlight. There are always gardens. Up and down every street, on windowsills, in narrow alleyways. If you look carefully when people gather, they are also blooms among the box bushes. Women give off nectar to the bees. It is so obviously a part of nature’s plan you wonder why everyone doesn’t see we are all gardens. I am the mimosa, and hummingbirds dart to me.
I cover my eyes. Winter howls and ice cracks. I hate the redness of eyelids. I do not like blood. Screams, shouting, the sounds of hate. I have told them I possess rights. I am an adult. I make my own decisions. They examine me. People forever have their hands on me.
When the deep purple falls, Over sleepy garden walls . . . is the best time. I know deep purple. I am Spanish iris. My body hardly touches sheets till blazing yellow butterflies light on me. Music starts in my breasts and lives in my fingers, though I sit not at the piano. Even in darkness I feel sunshine as if I’m an opening oriental poppy. You must not! they say.
The first piano lesson. Mrs. Bennett Flournoy is my teacher. She comes to our house and sits beside me on the bench. She has been touched by winter and lost her full flower, a wilting hyacinth. “Think of your fingers as rain upon the keys,” she says. I picture a summer shower in the garden.
No! people call. What does a garden understand about no?
I love rain. I grow in rain. I luxuriate. I lie eyes open and offer my tongue to the darling drops. I am a living tree. I think of my roots drinking rain. I imagine fruit growing along my arms, and men picking from me. I am a pear, a plum, a Georgia peach. Men feed off me.
But always the winter, the ice, the red shrieking wind which rends the blooms, dashes them into swirling night. Words are often wind. Pleas and threats. The first rule is never trust any wind. Voices speak of God. God is the sweet morning mist and summer sun.
I build a high wall around my perfect little garden. It is deep within me where wind cannot enter, my private place. Only a riot of blooms, the bees, the music. We twine as the deep purple falls.
* * *
They don’t know what I’ve learned about my mother Rachel. More than my brother, kind and smart for a boy, smart and dumb. I’ve been hateful to him. I shoved him off his roller skates as we played in the garage during a thunderstorm. I realized early I was more devious. He accepted everything he’d been told. I once explained that the reason we have rain is that clouds weep for the pain we caused God. He looked up at the sky and cried. Nobody could ever fool me that way.
So many times I watched my mother touch a finger to her temple, the tiny new moon hidden by the curl of her dyed hair. Grandmother never told us. My brother and I’d lived with her since a time she won’t speak of. I asked, and Grandmother stared as if my voice hadn’t reached her ears. She slept rarely and never switched off the Tiffany lamp of her bedroom.
What and who were we? Unlike my good little brother, I questioned. I wanted to know about my father. Grandmother told us the war killed him. Where was his grave? I asked; I told her I’d picked mums to lay by his headstone. He never came back, Grandmother said. He was a naval commander whose submarine plunged to the sea’s bottom and never rose. He rested in an unreachable dark canyon of the Pacific.
Yet where were his pictures? Why was there no photograph around the house or in the album? We are not people who put stock in pictures, Grandmother said. I’ll ask Mother, I said. You must never cause her pain, Grandmother said, feet drawing together and hands tightening on her chair arms. But I do. I found vacant patches on album pages. I sat beside Mother as she played “Blue Orchids.” She told me to drip my fingers like rain upon the keys.
“Did they try to find the submarine?” I asked. She drew her hands from the keys and let them fall to her lap. Her dark eyes became moist and luminous. Mother? I asked. Mother? She lifted a pink dahlia from the Chinese vase and offered it to me on her palm. That night Grandmother had to phone Dr. Winston.
My cousin Wendy and I attended Camp Sail each summer, the green cottages located on bluffs above the Rappahannock. She was prettier but I the stronger swimmer and won the racing trophy. I knocked her off the dock and ducked her till wailing and choking she told me what she’d heard from her mother. He was never that, she said. I held her under, and she became limp in the strong tidal flow. That same night she called her parents to come fetch and drive her home.
I barely remember moving to Grandmother’s, a rainy day which had a chauffeur named Hubert carrying in baggage. Mother wasn’t with us. She came and left, came and left. I began to sense a rhythm to it. Grandmother provided the money. Once a quarter an elderly man from the bank sat with her in the parlor to go over finances. Grandfather, a faceless shadow from my child’s mind, had left her rich.
During my 14th year Grandmother sent me away to school, not the fashionable place my mother went, but St. Helen’s in South Carolina. I knew none of the girls. I asked why I didn’t go where Mother had gone. Grandmother told me that Mademoiselle had died and the school’s standards had slipped.
I learned the terrible things from Alfred, a second cousin once removed. We hated each other. He had red hair and a prissy mouth. When canoeing on the lake, he used his paddle to splash my new sunsuit. I stuck a yellow-eyed puff adder in his bed. He screamed like a girl. For what he told me his father spanked him hard, but I heard the words. I found out.
I could very nearly set my watch by the regularity of their calls. We had a procedure, a routine to deceive, if in truth that’s what we did. I thought of Rachel browsing among the arbor, blue juice on her scarlet lips. Bees attempted to drink from them. She wore black hair to her hips, and grape bursts had stained her white pinafore.
I dated her before med school, that wonderful Christmas of my senior year at Hampden-Sydney when invitations gathered along the mantel. She was the first girl to bare her breasts to me. She unbuttoned a ruffled blouse, jerked up her brassiere, and took my head between her palms. She laughed when I proclaimed my love for her.
“You love Rachel’s ripe apples,” she said and became shockingly ardent. I didn’t know till then girls could be.
I rarely saw her after I entered Duke. I phoned several times, but she was usually away on trips with her mother—to the Homestead, Italy, west to New Mexico and a dude ranch. I saw a photograph of them in the society section of the Richmond Times-Dispatch. They wore sombreros and sat astride sad-looking burros. Cactuses bloomed around them.
I made a last date with her during a steamy summer break. I believed then she was considering me, thinking of casting her net for me as my mother put it, the future doctor who would earn an income allowing Rachel to continue living the graceful life. That idea turned out wrong. She had no understanding of how to use people. She simply gave herself to those she liked.
Her mother watched as we left the house. We drove to the bay where I’d borrowed the use of my uncle’s Cal 30 sloop. No wind crossed the water, and we weltered becalmed in the lower Chesapeake. Rachel lounged under shade of the listlessly flapping mainsail, her long, tan body oiled and voluptuous, water beading her skin, her black hair shiny wet from a dip.
“I hate clothes,” she said and stretched toward the sun. “I hate being bound. Clothes are a sham. They are trickery. Would you love me naked?”
“I’d love you anyway anyhow,” I told her and meant it.
“Poor Richard,” she said. “I do cause him terrible yearnings.”
And she removed her black-and-red striped bathing suit, a slow sexual ballet, and we settled to the blanket on the cabin, all the while the sail swinging and snapping above us, bay water splashing against the white hull. She was soon married, and I now believed that last afternoon a gift to me, her way of saying farewell and thanks for my admiration, presenting me the best of what she had, and what she had more than anything was the gift of love.
* * *
I never done anything to cause it. I had my job gunning the backhoe when we laid the new water mains down the old brick street lined with three-story mansions. They was dog days, the August sun blood red and out to blister the working man. Hot glare reflected in sweat along my brown arms.
Those awninged houses made me think of fussy old women who sniffed at you when you was dirty. I walked to a corner pile of stone big as a church to fill my water jug, knocked at the back door, and asked permission to use a yard spigot. The yard had a fountain, a pond with goldfish, and a million white lilies. Water dripped from the mouth of a green iron frog. Sprinklers whirled above grass as level and trim as a pool table. I never saw her beside the iris. She’d been sunning among purple blooms, and when I walked past I didn’t know she was lying there till she sat up and stared. She had on yellow halter and shorts. Her dark eyes ate me up.
“Take all the water you want,” she said. “We have our own deep well. Wait! You’ve hurt yourself!”
It weren’t no hurt, just a scratch from a lug wrench which slipped while I was tightening the blade. She come toward me, this tall woman who set on a yellow straw hat. She was barefoot and bare-legged. She laid fingers on my arm. I never felt volts travel so hot from a woman.
“Anytime you need water,” she said, and those fingers with red-painted nails slid along my skin, leaving rows in the sweat. “I know what it is to be thirsty.”
I filled my jug and got the hell out of there. Sometimes when I was gunning the backhoe, she’d step out among columns of the house porch and stand holding her hands behind her back. A black maid cared for a couple of kids. As we worked on down the street, I never believed I’d see her again even from a mile off till just at dark when we quit early on Friday before Labor Day. As I swatted gnats, flies, and skeeters and climbed into my Ford pickup, the big Chrysler drove up beside me and stopped. A light clicked on when she opened the door.
“Just as you are,” she said. We’d parked out west of Richmond on a country road among loblollies. She licked my sweat. She called me earthy. I’d been among women, but none like her. I was a big man, strong, yet she wore me down. She took to driving to my rented room south of the river, always at night. I asked about her husband. She said he’d gone to war. In a crazy way I guess I kind of loved her till her father come charging in the door. She screamed, and her father just collapsed like a rag without me hitting him. I never touched him. Blood shot from his nose and mouth. They threw me in jail, and I had to prove to the police I never hit him. The old lady’s lawyer brought money for me to leave town. I come down to Carolina, hell yes, where I got me a good woman and a boy. But I remember Rachel laying her fingers on my arm. I don’t know. I’ve never been able to figure things out, yet I know it was a kindly act.
* * *
She said love can’t be contained. “Can foxglove or hibiscus?” she asked. I told her anything can be contained except death and even that held in abeyance a while. I fled. I became certain of nothing. Who did I see when I looked at the children? She didn’t act guilty. There was no shame. Rueful, yes, slyly saddened, but no remorse that led to repentance. I had a name, a position in the community, and she treated me as if those attainments were trifles.
She caused me to doubt my own manliness. I worried I might be homosexual, though I’d experienced no desire for male flesh at Woodberry Forest when some of that ignobility made the rounds. I kept an appointment with a Charlottesville doctor. I’d arranged for it secretly.
“You’re dwelling on it too much,” he said, tapping a Cross pen against his golden watchband.
“I have to think about it. She’s beautiful and makes me think about it.”
She seemed always to be eyeing me. A terrible thing to be constantly under the gaze of judgment. I was a normal male. Tests proved that. Yet she devoured me with her dark eyes. Nights I’d wake to find her lying with them open and staring. Dim light from the bathroom lit smudged embers in her irises.
I moved to Florida. I’m an attorney, remarried, and the father of a daughter I can be sure of. I never understood Rachel, I think she loved love, or what she took it to be. When I discovered she’d been with Bobo Gaines, my old roommate from the university, at a Virginia Beach motel, I didn’t confront him but her.
“He was so nice to me,” she said. She pulled strands of hair before her face and stroked them with a long-handled silver brush. “He’d just come from the ocean, water dripping from him, a leaf of sea lettuce on his tan shoulder. I found it difficult not to let him take my hand.”
“Your hand hell!” I said. “If you want to save this marriage, it has to stop!”
“Bobo looks so dashing in his hunt attire,” she said. “No man in boots has better legs.”
It did not stop. She was the wayward one, yet I experienced the guilt. I felt despair more than anger. How could such loveliness be so wanton? The children I’ve not seen since I left Virginia. When toward the end I became frantic, she gazed at me from those bottomless nocturnal eyes, shook her head, and lifted a palm as if to indicate who would know.
“We are all flowers, and they are beautiful children,” she said maddeningly. “Who serves best, the bloom or the bee?”
Why should I continue to carry guilt?
* * *
God keeps score and never forgets. We do not escape. I saw that article of His justice when the perfidious part of me gave way only once in my life—a scratching at the door of my London hotel by the sleek sinuous Spanish pretender while Henry shot grouse in Scotland. I believed I’d buried the lie deep till I witnessed Rachel’s openness, her trust, the innocent giving of herself. She loved every cur dog who strayed into the neighborhood. She never passed a panhandler she didn’t wish to open her little pocketbook for. She dug a cemetery at the rear of the garden where she laid to rest a sparrow that flew into a broad parlor window. Grown, she had a heart too soon made glad. What is love if it doesn’t seek the good of other? I’ve always sought the good for Rachel.
Joseph, the teenage boy from south of the river, his skin undoubtedly darkened by a strain of Negro blood. Summers he rode his bicycle to the house and cut the lawn. I missed her. When I quietly opened the door of the white shed where garden implements and the mowers were kept, a flash of flesh broke shadows. Their bodies slanted across stacked bags of bone meal used to nourish the box bushes.
I slashed Joseph with a trowel. Blood seeping among his fingers, he ran never to return. Rachel rushed crying to her room. I followed and found her pressed back among fragrant dresses of her closet.
“Was he inside you?” I demanded. “Dr. Shokley will tell.”
I drove the Packard. Dr. Shokley had been our family physician since I was a girl, a rumpled, lumbering man whose skin was like fresh cream. His white hair straggled down over the rear of his high stiff collar.
“She has been penetrated,” he told me, his voice little more than a whisper. “After such a short interval, a douche should suffice.”
The douche did not. Rachel had to be sent to Chattanooga where my sister Emily kept her till the thing was done. Henry, my good and trusting husband who had no eye for suspicion or the delving of secrets, became half crazed. He didn’t go to his office, and it was the only time during our marriage I saw him lose his dignity and become falling-down drunk. Yet when Rachel returned, she was as lovely as ever, if anything more beautiful, stunning for a girl so young. She’d been in the house less than ten minutes before boys rang our bell. I sent them away. Father Alex, our pastor, counseled her. She simply smiled at him. God punishes us for our sins by letting us see their ugliness in those we hold dearer than life.
Henry and I watched. We hoped to save her from herself. Rachel attended private schools which provided discipline. She never traveled alone and was allowed to be escorted only by boys whose families we approved of. Still, as she grew older, we couldn’t keep her caged. Gaps of time existed she wouldn’t account for. When she came in late, she didn’t answer our questions or heed our rebukes. She passed by us and glided up the steps to her room. We’d hear her singing to her canary. Henry lowered his face to his hands.
We wanted only a safe marriage for her, a loving protective husband, and when Charles Fontaine proposed, we believed our prayers answered. It wasn’t she didn’t love Charles. She loved everybody. She didn’t know where to stop loving—as if there was no difference among people. Then the night of terror Henry surprised her in the arms of that brute of a common laborer. I had no choice. After the funeral, arrangements were made. I hated God for His using beauty to inflict the greatest punishments of all.
* * *
People are so foolish. I wipe the curl of hair from my temple and watch my fingers lower to the keys like a gentle spring rain. Often my fingers seem separate from me, to live their own lives—tiny people going about their business. They make the notes, little workers creating melodies for me. I have nothing to do with them, and music rises to form bouquets of the most amazing colors.
I never stop hearing music. Colors are music, the scent of lilacs. The music is a wall, though sometimes howls intrude like wild dogs in the night. She watches me. She is upstairs in her chair by the window but sees down through walls. My children eye me. They listen. When I kiss them, they stand stiffly and try not to show their wish to draw away. They’ve never cared for my embraces. She has told me my lips are too profuse.
Yet many have desired my kisses. I gave them away on grassy terraces, weltering boats, and darkened rooms above the Atlantic. I remember looking over a quivering muscled shoulder and seeing gulls soar at dawn. Dazzling white, they rode air currents and cried freedom. I sailed with them on the ocean wind.
I have been used. I am a tea rose, a purple iris, and often a long-stem tiger lily. I scare men. I see fright flare in their eyes. I try to explain the nature and completeness of my gift to them, but they do not want completeness. They expect possession as if I could disassemble myself, present them a leg, a breast, a vagina. Occasionally my petals fall.
Mother watches. She has always watched. If I sunbathe in the garden, she peers from shadows behind the window. She does not allow me my own breath. Yet many times I’ve eluded her, drifted from the house like smoke in the night. My father too spied on me. When I attended dances, he followed in the Packard. I weep for my father and all flowers that have withered and died. Many, many flowers. My fingers are busy little people on the keys who play tunes which are wings and wines of color. I have been chiefly a flower. It is the great truth I’ve perceived.
* * *
I dressed in -my summer dinner jacket and drove to the house, my medical bag in the trunk of the Buick. I hadn’t understood till her mother came to the office, the chauffeur waiting at the front curb in a No Parking area.
“It’s time again for her to leave,” she said, her brittle body curved to the ebony cane. “Did not Dr. Shokley inform you?”
Dr. Shokley lay in his grave. He died while sitting in his back-yard workshop repairing an antique clock. Old clocks were his hobby. I inherited his medical practice. Such was our understanding when I agreed to become his associate. After her visit I checked files. There were two sets—one on the ground floor, the other in a locked basement area. Dr. Shokley had left keys for me. I found them while going through his desk drawers. The embellished penmanship on the envelope read: Be above all discreet and forgiving.
I studied Rachel’s files. At a time people believed her to be on an European tour, she was a patient in a Philadelphia clinic. The first time I examined her and fingered the rigid curl off her temple, there waited the scar hardly larger than a caraway seed. My hand flinched as if I’d touched fire. The operation which had seemed to offer so much promise in those years was now judged barbaric, a horror seized upon in panic. Then a second act of surgery which ended life’s renewal.
At the house ancient, uniformed Viola opened the door. I sat in the dusky parlor, its dimness hardly penetrated by light from the teardrop chandelier, till Rachel descended the steps, this time wearing a black silk gown and pearls. She would’ve appeared regal except she listed slightly and an arm bumped the carved oak railing. I offered my hand. She took it, righted herself, and kissed my cheek in lingering fashion. I pinned to the shoulder of her dress the orchid I’d bought. Her lipstick had not been precisely applied. We sat on the blue divan to smoke and drink exactly two manhattans each Viola served from a silver tray.
Her son and daughter approached to say good-by. They spoke words and kissed her, but they’d be relieved when she left the house. Rachel gazed at them as if they were articles in a shop window. Viola opened the door for us. She and the children stood on the stone porch. As we walked to my car, I carried a covered canary and knew that if I looked back at the upstairs window Rachel’s mother would be watching.
During the trip to Baltimore, Rachel smoked Luckies and chattered. Headlights reminded her of fireflies. She liked to remember the year she’d been a member of the Water Maidens, a swimming team at the Warrenton girls’ school whose members formed floral patterns in the gym’s turquoise pool. Her fingers moved as if a keyboard lay across her lap. She could become excited. She might suddenly cry or attempt to kiss my mouth. When her agitated hands fluttered, I’d capture her fingers and hold them till they quieted against my palm.
Entering between the ornate iron gates, she straightened, touched her hair, and smiled at floodlit flowers planted inside the concrete circle before the brick, partially dark main building.
“Coralbells,” she said.