Moving Lila

A Novel

Julie Fleming

St. Martin's Press

One
It was the second Saturday in April. The spring air and light had the feel of outings and tasks and frivolities that she associated with such days. Families drove around in wood-paneled station wagons, fishing poles poking out of cracked windows like toothpicks out of frozen lips. Heads of households filed into Sears in search of washers, filters, studs. Debate Team and Key Club members mazed between vehicles at stoplights, wielding coffee cans, or poster boards for garden-hose car washes in nearby bank parking lots. Dotted lines of cars idled along residential streets, fathers and the elderly waiting while mothers scanned card tables of knickknacks at yard sales, the earlier the better to find bargains.
That her father, fifty-three and dying of multiple myeloma, would choose this day to read his will aloud to what was left of the family seemed fitting to Mira DeLand. She’d been born on a Saturday, suffered her only broken bone, graduated three times, had her only brush with fame, and written her only suicide note, all on a Saturday, and always assumed that she would die on one. She figured Saturday was her patron day, and when it came around, how she fared depended on its whim.
The drive from Little Rock to Mims, a town whose residents could and often did all fit in the bleachers of the high school football stadium, was two-lane all the way and had lost its novelty in the eight years she had been making it. An hour into the trip, the knobby hills—afterthoughts of the Ouachitas—faded into flatness and cropland. Along the roadside, crowds of stick-figure pines were replaced by sporadic clusters of silos, branded with family or company names. Quick bursts of wind swirled up off the dry land, turning the air opaque.
Travel grew slower the farther south into the delta she drove, more speed traps, more John Deere rigs straddling the right lane and shoulder, their drivers flooring the gas pedals but still going only thirty. For Mira, any annoyance was offset by their nods and demiwaves. She took these modest acknowledgments of her ant of a Honda to mean, ’Scuse the inconvenience, or All clear to pass, or, when she felt especially generous, We’re all in this together.
In early winter, an occasional field would be ablaze, farmers ridding their land of the skeleton of last year’s crop. At thirteen, Mira had seen her first field fire on a family trip to the Ozarks. The wind had forced the blaze into a slant so that it cut across their lane. Her mother had admonished her father to veer into the other lane for safe passage, but he’d already begun to do so, saying, “That beats all I’ve ever seen.”
A larger-than-life statue of Shelton Mims, the town’s founder, marked the northern town limit. Quarried in the northern part of the state, which was known for that kind of thing, the black marble took on a gray tint with its tiny streaks of white, like marshmallow swirls. Mims’s expression was smart and austere, suggesting more reflection than town folklore gave him credit for. The sculptor was local and had made a small fortune from his mail-order business, carving the likenesses of family pets. Mira remembered her mother calling him a no-talent one-man freak show, then striking a look of vindication at the dedication ceremony a dozen years ago. Once the statue was revealed, a murmur had swept wavelike through the crowd as the civic-minded and curious attendees realized that the head was too large in relation to the body. “He should stick to Pomeranians,” her mother had said.
A quarter mile from the house, Mira turned onto Duster’s Circle, named for a small landing strip and hangar just at the end of the cul-de-sac. The strip was owned by Drop Custers, Inc., whose ads described them as aerial pesticide engineers. Her parents—Wesley and Helen, short for Helena—had gotten a good deal on a duplex, one of only four in the circle, because of the sporadic plane noise. Helen had told the Realtor that that was fine, planes were romantic—Casablanca and all that—and they would take it.
At the end of the driveway, Mira turned off the car while it was still rolling. The sight of the duplex—the flesh-toned shutters, the brick, blond and speckled like beach sand—sent a wave of nausea through her midsection, enough to force her eyes shut for a few seconds. After it passed, the twitch in her eye started up again, a recurring thing lately, along with the looming sense that matters were coming around, that there were things to mull over. Her father had gone to great lengths to sustain normalcy since the diagnosis in December. Mira had suggested he join a support group, but he said it sounded depressing, and “Anyway,” he had said sweetly, “I’ve got my own in-house.” When she offered to take the semester off from teaching at the university, quit if she had to, he said it was too late, that her name was already on the schedule. Kearney, her older brother by a few years, had offered to quit his job as a bail bondsman, but Wesley said there was too much future in that to quit now. “If you knew you were gonna fall asleep and drown in the bathtub in a year,” he had asked one night over chicken-fried steak, “would you just go ahead and draw the bath now?” The tradeoff for his “act like nothing is wrong” strategy was that on days like these, when the cancer got top billing, its finality seemed harder to bear.
Mira sat in the car for a minute, one foot on the driveway, and listened to the even tick of the engine cooling off. The two sides of the duplex were like before and after shots in a landscaper’s ad. Wesley’s was all weeds and overgrown pampas grass, unruly evergreen shrubs webbed with pine needles, mangy patches of saint augustine sod fading into beds of rotten cedar chips. A garden hose snaked halfway into the yard, bulging from water trapped in it by the nozzle.
Rupert Biddolf’s half was as groomed as a show poodle. Ru, as he liked to be called, was an eighty-five-year-old retired golf pro who seemed to have redirected his flair for precision from his golf game to yard maintenance. As always, he had mowed in a circular pattern, beginning in the middle to ensure a clean spiral of tracks. The waxy green shrubs that edged his half of the house were trimmed perfectly flat on top, then rounded off gradually toward the bottom to the stem. Topiaries in terra-cotta planters sat on either side of his front porch, each one like three oversized green golf balls balanced on top of one another.
Wesley’s unkempt yard was as clear a sign as any that the cancer was having its way. Puttering with the lawn had been as much a weekly ritual for him as churchgoing was for some. Helen, who had died three years ago, had theorized that Wesley’s yard-work compulsion was just a quiet way of compensating for his lack of assertiveness. And to this, he would say, “I like a nice yard is all.”
The screen door was closed, the kind with the aluminum silhouette of a woman in a hoop skirt, a man in tails, the two in midembrace. Without knocking, Mira went inside and found her father sitting erect in a folding chair straddling the doorway to the kitchen, a neck stretcher hooked on top of the door frame, the leather harness cradling his chin. For some reason, her eyes shot to his veiny bare feet, flat on the floor and pointed straight ahead, then to an egg-shaped timer balanced on his thigh.
“Lookie here.” He smiled as well as he could in his sling. That he had lost more weight was obvious, the way his sky blue zippered jumpsuit looked deflated, not enough inside to give it shape. He looked older, his skin sagging in new places like an ill-fitting glove hastily wiggled on.
Mira set her bags on the floor and walked toward him. He pulled her down by the elbow and she sat on his lap—motions they had gone through a thousand times when she was a child, as much a part of his coming home from work as opening the door. To the cue of creaking sofa springs, she would wander out of her bedroom. With both arms and a grimace, she would pull his boots off, then sit on his strong lap, his legs like tree trunks. As he tapped baby karate chops into her knee, testing her reflexes, she would tell him he smelled like work, and he would tell her she smelled like play. Then from the kitchen, Helen would second that and condemn them both to baths before supper.
Now, his thighs wavered, and to Mira, they felt more like arms than legs. She leaned in to hug him.
When he caught her crying, Wesley skimmed her hair with the hand holding the timer, which ticked in her ear. “Get it over with,” he said, his voice grainy and higher than usual, like it sometimes got when he was tired.
From down the hallway, she heard the clap of Kearney’s cell phone closing. He was pushing its antenna down with his chin when he walked in the room.
“Mira, Mira, on the wall.” She enjoyed the sweet corniness of his ritual hello. He came over and she stepped up to hug him.
“My two best men,” she said, voice garbled. She rubbed her hand against the grain of Kearney’s honey-colored stubble. They would never be mistaken for siblings unless you looked at their eyes, and then it would be obvious, the way the green was peppered with spots of brown, the way their eyelids puffed and creased. As a child, she had always wished that they looked more alike. Now, having the same eyes was enough for her, enough of a reminder that they were connected in some out of the ordinary way.
Wesley began dismantling the setup. The neck stretching—Kat, her younger sister by twelve years, liked to call it “necking”—had been a necessary part of his daily routine since a pinched nerve years ago. Mira had always suspected he liked it, though, enjoyed the oddness of the apparatus itself, the way it horrified her friends when they came to the house. She could remember more clearly than she wanted the day Helen had caught Kearney and his shiny-faced, camouflage-clad friend swinging the neighbor’s basset hound in the sling. As a punishment, she’d forced Kearney to stretch his own neck for an hour, told him a few dozen times to cut the crap, then sent him numb-chinned to bed with no Tuna Helper.
Wesley reached for a duck-headed cane leaning against the wall—he hadn’t needed one when Mira was last here—and walked over to his recliner. There was a kink in his step, an awkwardness that hadn’t always been there.
“You look good, babe.”
Instinctively, Mira said, “You do, too,” then they both smiled, knowing it wasn’t true, knowing that the disease had caught up to him. He dug his hands into the armrests and pushed forward, trying to recline. The chair stayed put. He relaxed his arms, then tried again, this time until his elbows trembled slightly and gave way.
“Not too swift.” Wesley raised his eyebrows at some imaginary fourth person in the room. Kearney walked over and pulled back on the headrest as Wesley pushed again. Mira had heard the sound a thousand times, the thuddy knock of levers against wood, muffled by velour upholstery.
Kearney and Mira perched cross-legged on the brown shag carpet, a fifteen-year-old remnant from their parents’ brown period—brown cars, brown window treatments, all wood furniture, varnished any shade of brown. None of the browns had matched, but they had blended to create the look of a longhaired dachshund’s coat.
“Car take the drive okay?” Wesley asked. She nodded and smiled. “Should check the oil before you head back. This heat.”
It felt so familiar, the particular tick of the mantel clock, the alternating hum of the refrigerator in the next room over, her father’s concern, the way the light from the floor lamp cut his face in half at an angle.
Mira heard the metallic unlatching of the screen door and the sound of flip-flops slapping against narrow feet. It was Kat. “Hey, chickie,” she said, nudging her shoes off just inside the door.
“Prom night, is it?” Kearney asked. Kat snorted a sarcastic laugh. She was the summer tour guide at Shelton Mims’s birthplace, which meant wearing clothes that could pass as those of a nineteenth-century maid: a full-length flax skirt the color of pecans, white apron, high-collared cotton blouse, hair braided and wound into a tight bun on top of her head.
Kat had come as a surprise sixteen years ago, just as Helen and Wesley were converting Kearney’s empty bedroom into an office. That she’d been unplanned had never been kept from her, this being the decision of Helen, the self-appointed monarch of the family. Kat had been reminded of it a hundred times since she had said her first sentence, and the strategy had worked; it was like this innocuous fact she had grown up knowing, like her date of birth or her mother’s maiden name. Kat had taken the news of Wesley’s cancer reasonably well. The same had not been true of her mother’s death. In that case, Kat had lapsed into a morose low, severe enough to keep her out of school for weeks and, almost mercifully, distract the rest of them from their own version of the same.
Kat kissed her father on the forehead, then went over to hug Mira, who enjoyed the smell of antiques she picked up.
“Close your eyes.” Kat brushed her hand over Mira’s eyelids. Mira heard the rip of Velcro. “Open up.” A few inches from Mira’s face was Kat’s first driver’s license, hard and glossy. Mira smiled and took it for a closer look.
“Glamorous, huh?” Kat flashed her eyebrows.
“As Liza Minnelli.”
“It’s the lamination,” Kearney said, checking a reading on his Casio watch.
Ignoring him, Kat reached for the license. “I made the lady take another one.”
“No, you didn’t.”
“Yeah, I did.” Kat took off her apron. “She gave me no warning. I told her to ditch the first one.”
“Those damn civil servants,” Kearney said.
Kat mimed slapping him on the face, then sunk into the sofa, pulling her skirt up to just above her knees. Though her speech and mannerisms tagged her as a DeLand—the way she pronounced her double o’s and wiggled her jaw almost invisibly when she wrote—of the three children, she looked the least like either of their parents. It was as if the twelve years between her and Mira had made Kat from a different genetic mix. She was fairer than Mira and Kearney, her hair the color of raw pine, her skin pale—not sickly, but light enough to burn even on a cloudy day. Though Kat cringed at the word, she was petite and had the dimensions of a gymnast whose puberty had cut her career short.
Wesley fingered one of the half a dozen bottles of prescription pills on the TV tray next to his chair. One of his client’s file folders rested halfway on the tray. Wesley had retired from contracting a few years ago to start his own business assisting inventors with prototypes, patents, research, anything they would hire him to do, really. He had first gotten into the field twenty years ago while building a home for a fanatic gardener. He came up with the idea of funneling runoff from the garbage disposal to a compost through PVC piping that emptied into a shallow aluminum reservoir. The idea had made him a small truckload of money from a manufacturer and the subject of a feature article in Organic Gardening. From then on, he’d once told Mira, he viewed every bid as a commission, every bidder as a patron, and every house as an invention.
Mira could tell that her father was fumbling with what to say, the way he opened his mouth, inhaled a little, then closed it again. After a minute, he spoke up. “Won’t be news to you that I’m on the downhill slide.”
He sat forward in slow motion and glided his bare feet into his brown corduroy house slippers lined with faux fur. He had had the same pair long enough for the soles to be worn to a slant because of the way his feet bent slightly toward the outside as he walked. A dozen times Mira had heard him tell the story of Louis XVIII, who, en route to his Belgian exile in the middle of the night, had said, “What I regret most is the loss of my bedroom slippers, for they had taken the shape of my feet.” Wesley’s fascination with the French Revolution was either because his mother was French—her maiden name was DuChaillu—or because he had been told more than once that he resembled Napoléon; Mira had heard him offer both explanations. Whichever the case, they had had pets named for royalists, theme parties requiring everyone to come as their favorite revolutionary, and crêpes suzette every Bastille Day for as long as she could remember.
Her father picked up a manila envelope from the rolltop desk on the far side of the living room. He pulled out four envelopes and handed one to each of them. The will was on two sheets of unlined legal-size paper. The top of the first page read, “The Last Will and Testament of Wesley Chester DeLand,” then subheadings: “Revocation,” “Marital Status,” “Residuary Estate,” “Special Gifts,” “Special Instructions.” The executor was listed as Jack Scanga, his lawyer.
“No need in postponing this,” he said. The putter of a crop duster got louder as it descended to the airstrip nearby. He sat back down in his recliner, let the cane fall between his legs, and looked first at Kearney.
“The business’ll go to you, Kearn. The income’s modest and sporadic, I know. It’ll be a supplement is all.” As Wesley held his copy of the will, his hands shook, one of the side effects of the drugs. “You’ll get fifty percent of whatever profits there are. The other fifty’ll go into trust for Kat’s college.” He shifted his eyes to Kat. “Babe, when you’re done with school, same will go to you directly.”