The Mirrors (part eleven)
Always it had been, until that year his going away became the end…
No more the glamour of travel and return, her father’s familiar absence. Always, a sort of stupidity. She could charge herself with this and forgive. For being sheltered, terribly poor, thought richer than others, knowing nothing of either condition, or of what the adults fretted themselves over day long, money. Before the riot, Charmante had seen fabulous things: Yellowstone, Niagara Falls, Indian chiefs in their regalia, cowboys on horseback, caves with tinted pink and blue stalactites.
“Spell that word,” Daddy teased.
She could, and could tell him they hung from the roof, not like the others, stalagmites…and she could spell that word too.
And he would turn to her mother, mischief in his smile, because she’d said, “Oh, that’s crazy,” when he’d brought the stereoscope back with him from Tennessee. Every neighborhood child had come to look at the picture show; biding their time, every adult.
Charmante had not got a bicycle. “Girls don’t need to be riding bicycles.”
Her mother said that, too…and possibly to want one was wrong, money wrong. Her father went to Nashville, the medical school he could. He worked at jobs to live. But now and then, tips, untied earnings, tempted him to greet his little girl bearing prizes. Not many children on their street had bicycles. She would have lost it, a rough boy taken it from her, her mother knew that.
There had been a celluloid doll. Wiry red hair, dimples, blue eyes painted with a saucy roll. Her dress stiff papery velvet, green with a yellow sash. Her name (she’d told Charmante) was Sandy. Sandy bounced across the bedspread in her white buckle shoes, lording it over her ragdoll comrades.
Neither the doll, nor the people in the pictures—the man and woman dwarfed by a giant redwood, the survivors of the Johnstown flood, posed before a house intact and upside down—had dismayed Charmante. They were magic, these beings. They were of some grand world out there. Her mind hadn’t expected them to stand for anything.
Bored while her father sat dozing, asked to keep an eye on the cork so he needn’t keep an eye on her, she would edge away looking for turtles…or run up the road spinning and giggling, fighting a cloud of mosquitos; or tiptoe into the pines, far enough to bang a stick on the trunks, her grandfather’s remedy for bears. She hadn’t thought of this time as the only time, all there would be. Or known the grand world belonged to Dumains and Robacks. It was true in some way…her father had died for those people.
Brasher’s boat smacked an underwater stob.
“Don’t dunk me, William.”
“I apologize, ma’am.”
A little byplay, a little conscious gallantry. But Veronica was sporty with everyone. Charmante noted only that she noted this, and a non-jealous woman would not.
“That, Miss Roback, that’s the place I’m aiming for?”
“Yes, but I hadn’t thought about…trash. Don’t try anything that doesn’t feel right to you.”
William said under his breath: “Huh huh.”
There was trash, quite a lot of it, floating oil cans and tires, medicine tins; a little raft of soaked cardboard signs, opposition work from the coroner’s race. And driftwood, that fenced in everything.
William poled them onwards; after a time of this, remarking: “There ain’t gonna be a beach, ma’am.”
“Don’t trouble. Get me up to that bank, and I’ll jump, like I told you. So we call all get out.”
The getting out remained a business. Veronica snugged them close as the rope could be tightened. She locked forearms with Carolee, who skidded onto a knee, streaking her shin with mud. Veronica helped Marian; Marian shooed her away and reached for Charmante.
“Best we get the boat on shore and turned over. I don’t know that driftwood won’t keep slamming and knock a hole in it.”
We, William did not mean. They made room for the man of the group to solve this.
“Do they keep up the house at all?”
“Not so much there’d be electric, or phone service. Or, I don’t think so. It belongs to the government, Charmante. I don’t know what they get up to.”
“Why don’t we walk this road,” Veronica said. “And I’ll tell you an old story, one you’ve heard before. A boy and a girl get married, and after a while they have a baby. The husband sees the color of the little child’s skin, and thinks his wife is guilty, of the most shame-making sin he knows. He locks his door against her…she goes and drowns herself. Or takes up her husband’s shotgun, I’ve heard it that way. The baby turns out their own natural born. The poor wife was innocent…but she was a little bit colored. And he was a little bit colored. And the young couple’s generation had never been told the old family secrets. White folks like to scare themselves with that one…
“Now let’s talk about two little boys. They were three and two years old. One looked like a little white boy, one had a yellow skin and wooly hair. Leonce wasn’t wanted. Old Duman had just one son himself, one that counted, and Joseph… When his wife gave birth, and the baby didn’t live, and the wife didn’t live, and Joseph told his father he would never marry again, Old Dumain saw his estate going to…”
“Godfrey.” Carolee said it. “My half-brother. My cousin.”
The path dwindled and pitched up, roots of trees making stairsteps. Heavy vines fell, tangles of wild grape that Marian, leading as William brought up the rear, buffeted back with a stick. One by one, they bent and passed through. And here the acreage showed, a good broad stretch, the house on a built-up rise a few hundred yards distant. Rectangle after rectangle of a different weediness, dryer, deader grasses, burdock and deer-browsed brambles…
“Where the tents was,” William said.
“Is there a guard?” Charmante asked Carolee.
“Not a soul I know of.”
“And nothing left that has any value now… All the furniture gone?”
“No, I don’t think so. But in a minute we’ll see.”
Leveled out lower than the lawn was a path, the bricks herringboned, a pattern frayed in shaggy seedheads. The outer walls looked brittled, bleached, netted over with dead grey vines…someone had poisoned the foundation, walked the perimeter with a spray pump to stop creepers fingering back. But little green trails slithered through the lawn.
All the glass was either intact, or the window boarded over. Porch columns peeled, lead white to pencil grey. The roof was streaked rusty from its nails. Where a greenhouse must have stood were stacked parts of one, broken frames, shivered panes, pots decomposing into a mound of terra cotta crumbs.
Are you sad, Carolee? Charmante wanted to ask it.
“We’ll go inside. I think there’s rain coming.”
And so they were to climb those stairs, that Esta had stood at the foot of.
The scrolled slabs of doors sat brass plate to brass plate, shut firm. Carolee strode past them, past the curve of the veranda. Steps led down to a wall between architectural outcrops, the second of these a clapboard double porch.
(2020, Stephanie Foster)