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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

The Peacock Feast

A Novel

Lisa Gornick

Sarah Crichton Books

MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK

1

New York, 1935


Shortly after Prudence’s twenty-third birthday, now more than three-quarters of a century ago, her mother told her the story of Louis C. Tiffany dynamiting the breakwater at Laurelton Hall—his fantastical Oyster Bay mansion with its columns capped by brilliant ceramic blossoms and the smokestack buried in a blue-banded minaret—so as to foil the town from reclaiming the beach for public use. Prudence’s mother was only weeks from death, and as she told the story, she wept. She wiped her nose on her bed-jacket sleeve, eyes pinpointed from the tincture of laudanum Prudence had given her.

Prudence had been born at Laurelton Hall, her father one of a battalion of gardeners who tended the glass genius’s 588 lavishly landscaped acres, her mother one of a squadron of maids who cleaned the eighty-four rooms. They’d left when Prudence was four, her father assuming a position at the Tiffanys’ Madison Avenue mansion, but she still recalled the fountain with a color wheel engineered by Mr. T so the water could be rendered different hues, the peacocks strutting across the lawn, the totem pole with a whale atop marking the bend in the drive.

Her mother, always tiny but by then the size of a girl, reached a frigid hand out from the bed. She rested it heavily on Prudence’s arm. “I was in the largest of the third-floor bedrooms. No one slept there, but still, every week, they made me polish and sweep. When I lifted the window to shake the duster…”

Her mother shuddered. “Whitecaps and a terrible smell. Like bananas gone bad.”

She retracted her hand and picked violently at the nubby coverlet.

“Stop. You’ll make a hole.”

“The explosion was so loud, I thought it must be the Germans come.”

Like a faded photograph at the bottom of a box, the scene seemed to Prudence already known: The crackle of dynamite along the breakwater Mr. T had built to expand for his own family’s use the strip of sand that lay like an ermine cuff between his gardens and the sea that had once been the favored bathing spot for the residents of Oyster Bay. The plume of spewing water over the granite rocks, flooding the beach on which the town had planned to erect thirty-five cabanas on land Mr. T believed was his and his alone.

Why was her mother telling her this?

Because there was no one else to tell: Prudence’s brother gone now for more than a decade; Prudence’s father dead the following year.

Her mother pulled the coverlet up to the tip of her chin. “June sixteenth, 1916. That was the cursed date.”

2

An April Sunday, 2013

At Prudence’s age, three weeks past her hundred-and-first birthday, the phone rarely rings, so that when it does, a little after two, she is startled, only realizing then that she has slipped into a doze in one of the wingback chairs by the library table where she’d been drinking the Earl Grey tea Maricel leaves in a thermos, always with the strict instruction Mrs. P, you are not under any circumstances, not even Jesus showing up in this kitchen, to light that stove. A section of the paper has slid onto the rug, and as she blinks into awareness, she remembers it is Sunday, Maricel’s day off.

The phone does not ring most days because nearly everyone she has known is no longer alive. And for those who are, as she witnesses on her outings (she remains a surprisingly strong walker, though she does accede to Maricel’s insistence on holding her arm), talking as a means of communication seems to have fallen out of fashion.

“Hello,” she says, disarmed, as she so often is when she hears her first words of the day, by how like an old recording she sounds, scratchy and faint.

“Hello,” she hears back. A woman’s voice. Gentle but with a backbone to it. “I’m Grace O’Connor.” The voice pauses, as though aware that Prudence’s breath has halted on the inhale. “My grandfather Randall O’Connor, I believe, was your brother.”

Prudence does not blink, as stilled as if she’d met a black bear on a path. She stares at the knobby knuckles of what had once been, she’d been told, lovely hands, at the highway of raised blood vessels visible through her parchment skin. No. No thank you, I have no need of that are the words she hears in her head.

“I think I am your great-niece.”

There is no tacked-on silly laugh, and with this, Prudence senses a grown woman, which makes sense; her own grandchildren, had she had children, might have been, as she’s often calculated, grandparents themselves. But her mind is not making those idle calculations now. Rather, wild impetuous animal, it has leaped back to the day, a rare pocket of vivid memory, when they received the first letter from Randall, then only fourteen. A letter, it appeared from the postmark, that had taken three weeks to travel from his lodgings in San Francisco to Hell’s Kitchen.

That Randall had written at all had dwarfed the content of the letter, which contained little news save that he was staying with Charlie, a boy he knew from New York, and that he’d found a job as a florist’s assistant. After her mother read the single page aloud, her father wiped his eyes with the back of his hand. “Well, he knows about flowers from me,” he said, and her mother sucked her lips into her mouth, holding back, Prudence imagines, Go to hell, Eddie, it’s because of you, stupid drunk, that he’s gone. Her father had not been a stupid drunk, but when he did drink, he could get sloppy and mean, as he had the night Randall left. A night when he’d shoved her mother, and Randall, who boxed at the place around the corner and had a quick right jab, made fists, and her father, who had never hit them, swung at Randall.

Grace? Is that what the woman said?

Folded inside the letter to her parents was a separate one for her. Pru, you’re the smartest of us all. Just stay clear of our father when he’s had a few. He’s not a bad man but the whiskey makes him, well, I don’t want to cuss. There were a few lines about how Randall would see her soon, maybe not this Christmas, but Christmas the next at the most. But then Christmas and Christmas the next had passed without Randall’s coming back and the spans between his letters grew longer and longer. When her father died the following year and her aunt sent a telegram to Randall’s rooming house, his landlady cabled back Moved. A decade later, after her mother died, Prudence did not even know where to send a telegram.

But now the woman, Grace, is explaining that Randall, her grandfather, has been dead for nearly twenty years. That he had one child, her father, Leopold.

A shock passes through Prudence. Of course, she’s known her brother must be gone by now, but hearing it, hearing how long it’s been … She closes her eyes so as to do the arithmetic in her head. Randall was three years older than her. Twenty years ago, he would have been eighty-four.

“I am wondering if I might see you,” the woman says.

See her? See a photograph of her? Pull yourself together, Prudence admonishes herself, by which she means gather up her thoughts, with their inclination of late to wander off like toddlers willy-nilly wherever they want. “Have a visit? You are wondering if we might have a visit?”

“Yes. Would you be willing?”

The No. No thank you returns. Dorothy Tiffany, the daughter of her parents’ employer who’d once told Prudence, “We must shoulder failing those we love,” would have come right out and said it: a firm No. But she, Prudence Theet, née Prudence O’Connor, cannot, cannot do that.

“When will you be in New York?” Prudence asks.

There is a pause, and for a moment Prudence thinks perhaps the line has gone dead.

“I’m sorry. I should have said this before. I am in New York now.”

Prudence’s heart pounds wildly, as though the black bear has reared onto its hind legs.

“Actually … Actually, I’m outside your building now.”

“You’re outside my building now?”

“Yes.”

To Prudence’s amazement, the bear turns and saunters into the trees, leaving something she hasn’t felt in a long time. Something she would have to say is closer to elation than fear. Such a long time since she has done anything more spontaneous, more rash, than stopping with Maricel on one of their walks to buy an Italian ice from a cart.

She hears Maricel’s scolding: Mrs. P, it could be someone come to rob you. Or worse. Worse than that. There are evil people out there, they prey on elderly persons …

But this is not people. This is her brother’s grandchild. And if it is not, if it is someone come to do her harm, what difference will it make? She is in her final passage. There is no arguing about that. The only question is, a passage to where? Her mother, with her cries in her final days of “Eddie” and “Oliver,” had believed to heaven. The latter name, Prudence had not recognized—an early love? A late love, such as she, Prudence, once had?—but her father, Eddie … Prudence had not reminded her mother that if there was a heaven, he might or might not be there.

“Well, then, please come up.”

After the doorman calls to announce a Miss O’Connor, Prudence grips the arms of the wingback chair and pushes herself to her feet. Usually, her afternoons are dotted with catnaps, the outcome of her invariable 4:53 awakenings: nature’s timepiece set in her brain stem with the exactitude her husband, Carlton, had once described to her of a school of salmon’s return to the very waters where they’d been born so as to spawn and then die.

She rests for a moment, holding the edge of the library table and looking out at the great expanse of the Hudson, the West Side Highway hidden behind park foliage thick as bunches of broccoli. The New Jersey waterfront was largely undeveloped when she’d moved here from Park Avenue a few years after Carlton’s death. Now high-rises are visible from her fifteenth-floor window and a driving range that from this distance might be a leprechaun’s kerchief smoothed over the ground. Only the river is unchanged. In winter, there are ice floes and wind-whipped waves; in summer, skies dressed at sunset with plum and papaya stripes. A vista, it saddens her to think, that has brought her more consistent pleasure, provided a more enduring connection, than anything human or animal.

When Carlton died, she’d been thirty-seven, childless, her parents long gone, Randall drifted so far away, it was as if he’d disappeared. A few months later, on the insistence of Harriet Masters, in whose interior-decoration firm Prudence had worked prior to her marriage, she consulted the psychiatrist Harriet had seen after her husband—presumably heartbroken from one of the torrid affairs he’d conducted with the wives of his fellow club members but, Harriet claimed, more bored than distraught—hung himself in the attic of their Tuxedo Park home. When the psychiatrist asked about Prudence’s friendships, she told him about Ella, with whom she’d briefly been intimate, and Elaine, with whom she’d worked at Harriet’s firm. On occasion, she reported, she and Carlton had socialized with Carlton’s business associates and college friends and their wives, most particularly Alfred, Carlton’s mountaineering partner. Their most regular dinner companion, however, had been CCB, for whom Carlton had become a surrogate son after his own son, married to Dorothy Tiffany, had become debilitated from manic-depressive illness. At the end of the meeting, the psychiatrist diagnosed Prudence as suffering from an overwhelming loneliness that predated the loss of Carlton. The problem, he gently explained, was not a lack of companions, but that there was not a one with whom she could talk about anything not found in a newspaper, much less, God forbid, cry.

She picks up the fallen papers and the cold cup of tea, considers going to the bathroom to tidy herself, then dismisses the thought. She has never been vain, but it is unsettling to see herself in the mirror: the voluptuousness she’d once found so embarrassing on her diminutive frame now eroded to loose skin draped over bones and sinew, her formerly pumpkin hair still thick but now stripped of color, her milky skin now too fragile for soap or cosmetics.

Instead, she makes her way to the kitchen, where she turns on the tap and waits for the kettle to fill. How had this Grace found her? Maybe through that thing called Google, a ridiculous word, like something out of a children’s limerick. If the Google device had existed during the years when she’d still thought she wanted to find Randall, would she have used it to do so? Or would her fear about what might happen if they saw each other again have prevailed as it had with Carlton’s offer before they married to hire a private detective? “Perhaps after we’re settled,” she’d mumbled, but what she’d thought was if the detective was to locate Randall, what could she say to him? You never came home the Christmas next? You left me to bury both of our parents?

She puts the filled kettle on the stove and lights the burner. As always, there is the guilty pleasure of defying Maricel, guilty because she knows that Maricel’s injunctions—the stove, the front door, the shower, what clothes to wear so as not to catch “the cold in your chest”—come only out of concern for her. She listens for the sound of the gas igniting, then adjusts the flame under the kettle. Well, if this is a murderer ascending now on the elevator, she can console herself that on her last day she did not add to the collection of small cowardices that have constituted her adult years. Cowardices that have seemed in their sum almost evil: the sins of someone too tepid, too bland, or perhaps simply too self-righteous for passionate crime.

Yes, if this is a ploy, she will be at peace with having risked her life to meet Randall’s granddaughter.

Do not hold your breath, Prudence reminds herself as she unlocks the door. You do not want to faint.

Before her is a wiry woman with chapped cheeks and chestnut hair pulled back into a too-short, too-severe ponytail. She smiles, tiny lines webbing out from her eyes and a mouthful of perfect teeth.

Her brother had a son and this son had a daughter. Prudence leans on the doorjamb as she absorbs the astonishment of it. A daughter whom someone must have taken regularly to a dentist but is dressed now in pants a size too large and shoes too sensible for her age: early forties, Prudence guesses. A woman who—to Prudence’s decorator’s eye, accustomed to seeing beneath the finishes of a place to its bones—looks as if she shoos away beauty. A person for whom a renovation would be possible but who has no desire to undertake it.

She did not kiss the girl. Should she have? But now the kettle is whistling. “Come in.” Prudence gestures toward the living room. “I’ll bring us some tea.”

Less than a minute, but already so much roiling that it is a relief to have this retreat to the kitchen, the distraction of the transgressive thrill of pouring the steaming water into the teapot she never uses now that Maricel leaves her tea in an aluminum thermos. She places the pot and teacups on a tray and takes out the shortbread cookies Maricel keeps in the cupboard, more for herself than for Prudence, who has lost her appetite for sweets.

The tray. Can she carry it? But the girl—she is not a girl, but with what must be nearly a sixty-year age difference between them, it’s the word that comes to mind—is now in the doorway to the kitchen. Without asking, she takes the tray.

Prudence trails behind her guest to the living room. From the rear, with her slender hips and flat backside, she might be mistaken for a boy. A quiet is nestled in her movements. It may be that she has spent time with people who are unwell. Or old people, it occurs to Prudence, like herself.

“By the window, if you don’t mind,” Prudence directs.

She watches Grace’s gaze alight on the vase of dahlias, the blood orange and kingly purple having called to Prudence when she spotted them a few days ago in plastic bins outside a Korean market, a touch of color in the otherwise moon-toned room. Perhaps Grace learned about flowers from her grandfather—Randall had written that he worked for a florist—and now Prudence wonders if Grace knows furniture too, if she recognizes the chrome-and-glass tables as Eileen Gray, the slipper chairs in creamy leather as Mies van der Rohe.

Grace sets the tray on the library table. She waits for Prudence to lower herself into the wingback chair before taking the matching one.

How strange, Prudence thinks. No more than fifteen minutes since she was napping here, and now the room so dizzyingly occupied.

Grace reaches for the teapot.

“Let it steep a bit longer. Another two or three minutes.” Prudence smiles to soften what she fears landed like an old-person’s bark. “So, Grace, it is Grace, yes?”

“It is.” Grace looks at her warmly but not insistently, as though gauging her approach. “How funny that we both have virtue names.”

Prudence must have a quizzical look on her face because Grace adds, “Prudence, Grace.”

“I quite hated my name growing up. I thought it suggested that I was prudish or, even worse, prunelike. My brother, your grandfather, called me Pru, but that doesn’t solve the ugly prrr sound. But Grace, that is lovely. It brings to mind the graceful Grace Kelly.”

“Thank you. My namesake, though, was Grace Slick. A very different woman.”

“The name rings a bell, but I’m afraid I can’t say from where.”

“A rock-and-roll singer. My mother saw her perform early in her career, with her band The Great Society. I suppose I should feel lucky she didn’t name me Great.”

“That would not have been nearly as charming.”

“They named my brother Garcia, after Jerry Garcia. Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead.”

“Even I know about them.” Prudence gathers the shawl she keeps on the back of the chair around her shoulders. “So, Grace and Garcia?”

“People thought about us as a unit, our names connected with an ampersand.”

“He’s younger than you are?”

“By three minutes. We were twins.”

Twins. Whenever Prudence hears of twins, she thinks of Dorothy Tiffany, who’d once told Prudence that she’d been obsessed with twins on account of her twin sisters, Comfort and Julia. She’d followed them around so incessantly, they’d taken to calling her Me Too. “That must have been interesting.”

“It was like having a live-in best friend, though we were kind of opposites. Garcia was open and exuberant. I was cautious and bookish. He had what they would call now a learning disability, but I think it was just that his brain needed some extra time to develop.”

Grace bites her lower lip, then swipes at it as if to stop herself. “My grandfather might have been more relaxed about it if there hadn’t been such a contrast between us. For a long while, I hated that school was so easy for me. It seemed that it only made things worse for Garcia.”

Prudence wonders what color Grace’s hair was as a child. There’s no hint of the Irish coloring she and Randall had inherited from their mother in Grace’s olive skin, and she doubts that Randall’s and her red had filtered down to Grace. Still, Prudence can see the family resemblance in Grace’s small bones and in the trace of a curvaceousness that appears otherwise to have been beaten out of her.

“Did you spend a lot of time with your grandfather while you were growing up?”

“He raised us. He and Angela, our housekeeper. My father dropped us at his doorstep. Literally. He arrived in the middle of the night with Garcia and me not quite a year old—sick, wet, and hungry, my grandfather said—carried us into the foyer, and left. The story we were always told was that my grandfather took care of us himself that first night and was so worn-out by the morning that when Angela arrived, he lay on the kitchen floor and fell right to sleep.”

“He must have really trusted her.”

“She’d worked for him since the day he was married. My grandmother had hated the way her mother treated her household help, and she swore she’d never have anyone work for her, but then her parents gave my grandfather and her a house as a wedding present and it was too large for her to take care of herself. Rather than hiring what her mother called a ‘colored woman’ or ‘a nice Irish maid,’ she hired Angela, who was sixteen and just arrived from Mexico.”

A nice Irish maid? Does Grace know that her grandfather’s mother had been precisely that?

“My grandfather said that my grandmother treated Angela like a little sister. Instead of a uniform, my grandmother bought her six weekday dresses and two for Sundays, with matching ribbons for her braids. She took her to pick out the curtains for her room, taught her to read and to play basketball. It would have been impossible for anyone to adore my grandmother more than my grandfather did, but Angela came close.”

Prudence pictures Angela’s room: the flowered curtains a girl from Mexico who wears ribbons in her hair might choose. An orange bedspread with red fringe, the wooden cross she would hang over her bed.

“When my father was born, Angela became his nanny. She lived in until he left home, and then my grandfather bought her a studio apartment a few blocks away. The day we arrived, she packed up her things and moved back into her old room on the fourth floor.”

“She sounds like a wonderful person.”

“She was. She and my grandfather were totally loyal to each other, but they could be like oil and water. Angela was always singing and hugging us and it felt as though she understood us completely, whereas my grandfather was reserved and meticulous and so insanely protective of us…” Grace sighs.

How, Prudence wonders, does one find the balance between too few and too many questions? So precarious, like a seesaw. Too few and Grace might think that Prudence is not really listening. Too many and Grace might feel she is being grilled.

What Prudence wants to say is, You don’t have to tell me everything.

What Prudence wants to say is, Tell me everything.

“Where were your parents?”

“My father was off. Colombia. Hawaii. Thailand. Anywhere he could get drugs cheaply. First pot, then hallucinogens, then more pot, then more hallucinogens, and finally smokable heroin. He was the poster child for what they called when I was in nursing school the ‘gateway-drug theory.’ That less addictive drugs lead to more addictive ones. It’s not always or even mostly true, but it seems to have been for him.”

Nursing school. So she’s a nurse.

“A few years ago, I requested his records from the detox center where he’d gone. Reading them, I saw that his history was more complicated. All mixed up with a lot of mystical ideas he had about drugs.”

Prudence nods. During the sixties, she’d read about people who believed that drugs could open a door to creativity and higher consciousness. Even Harriet, by then old enough to collect Social Security, had tried marijuana, though she’d reported afterward it had only made her feel silly and too sleepy to do anything more than curl up on her couch.

“When I was five, my father came back to San Francisco. We’d see him every few weeks, but I was too young to know that he was strung out on heroin. If he wasn’t wasted, he was in withdrawal, shaking or sweating, unable to sit still. At the end, my grandfather wouldn’t let us be alone with him. Either he or Angela always stayed in the room.”

Grace looks at Prudence as though apologizing in advance. “He overdosed when I was nine.”

The wave of grief Prudence felt when Grace told her that Randall has been dead nearly twenty years now returns, this time, though, sharper and more intense. She envisions her brother holding his head in gnarled hands and children quietly playing in their rooms and a woman with long black braids crying as she stirs something over a stove.

“My grandfather didn’t tell us, though, until we were ten.”

“How could he not tell you?”

“He buried my father without us there and forbade Angela from talking about him. I was too young to be able to put into words that something was wrong. Angela lit candles all over the house, even the bathrooms, and on the Day of the Dead, she made an altar with my father’s poetry books and drumsticks and a photograph of him as a baby with my grandmother.”

“You must have thought that was very odd.”

“Everything felt odd. It was as though the house had been put under a spell.”

“And your mother?” Prudence asks.

“She had what they called then a breakdown but would probably be diagnosed today as a postpartum depression. Her parents brought her back to Houston around the same time my father left us with our grandfather.”

Grace smiles, a rueful smile that seems intended to communicate, This is a very old story. You don’t need to feel badly for me. It’s a smile Prudence remembers having pasted on her own face when she first met Carlton’s family and the people in his social set, who she feared viewed her as the orphan match girl.

“I think at first she believed that she’d get herself together and come for us. I remember her sending us letters and drawings and cassette tapes with children’s songs when we were very little, but then we stopped hearing from her.”

Grace glances at the teapot and then at Prudence, who nods.

“My grandfather told me that when my father died, he called her parents. They said she’d been in and out of hospitals and was living in a group home. He wasn’t sure if they’d even tell her about my father overdosing, but she called him that same day to say that she was coming to the funeral.”

Prudence raises her eyebrows.

“She never made it.”

With Grace now pouring the tea, Prudence senses a curtain having been drawn on the past. Come back, come back to this room, this April day, Prudence admonishes herself. Back to the girl adding cream only, as you requested, to your tea. “I haven’t even asked you what brings you to New York.”

“I’m a hospice nurse, and I’m giving two papers at our professional association’s annual convention. It’s at the Sheraton Midtown.”

Grace places the cup and saucer within Prudence’s reach. “The truth is, I’ve been thinking for a long time about trying to contact you. I’m embarrassed to say how long. My grandfather died in 1993, and I thought about trying to find you then, but he’d been out of touch with you for so long. I gave in to inertia…”

Was she wrong about the curtain? The tea merely a pause?

“It was the sister of one of my recent patients who made me think about it again. Herman, my patient, was eighty-nine, and his sister, Rose, was eighty-five, and I saw how strong their bond still was. A few days before he died, she told me that he knew her better than anyone else ever had.”

Grace looks at Prudence as though making sure she understands that this is the nature of Grace’s work: all her patients die. “Rose showed me a very old photograph of Herman seated on a chair, holding her, the day she was born. She’d been born at home, and that afternoon a photographer had come to their parents’ house. Herman was so small, so young, but he was gazing at her with this radiant love.”

Prudence feels a heaviness in her chest, a thickness in her throat. She was born at home too, in the gardener’s cottage at Laurelton Hall. Randall must have been there. But she’s never seen any photographs of that day, heard any stories about it.

“Herman had been with Rose the day she was born, and she was with him the day he died. It made me think about you and how sad it was that my grandfather never saw you after he left New York.”

Prudence’s eyes tingle. Were her tear ducts not so dry these past few years, they would fill.

“Wondrous things sometimes happen in the hours after a person dies. In my more spiritual moments, I think the veil between life and death is for that brief span porous: the body still warm, fluids still flowing, but the soul escaped.”

With the word soul, Prudence feels a chill. She thinks of the man, so long ago, who’d looked into his soul and seen the truth about her.

“A lot of families want to whisk the body away, but Rose and Herman’s son asked if they could have a few hours before we called the funeral home, and then Rose asked if I would sit with them. It was late afternoon and the light was waning, but there was a kind of brilliance in the room. Herman’s son was holding his father’s hand and crying a little, but also smiling at his aunt Rose, who was talking about when she and Herman were children. Herman had loved their grandmother’s apple cake and the first thing he ever built—he was a civil engineer and spent his whole life making things—was a wooden stool so his grandmother could reach the cake pans she kept on the top shelves in her kitchen. He painted it apple red, Rose said, to remind his grandmother to make the cake.”

Grace drops a sugar cube into her tea. “When Rose told that story, I was overcome with wanting to find out what had happened to you.”

“You must have been surprised to learn that I am still alive.”

“I was. Surprised and happy. I only found your address the day before I left. Otherwise, I would have written you first.”

“I’m so glad you did. Find me.”

Grace stirs her tea. “Can I ask … did you have children?”

Prudence shakes her head no. Even now, so many many years past that turn in the road, it’s hard to talk about.

“I think, then, that you are my only living relative on my father’s side.”

“Except for your brother.”

Grace takes a long breath, then wipes her mouth with a napkin. “My brother died two years before my grandfather.”

Prudence averts her eyes, not wanting Grace to see how stunned she feels. How can there be another death? Three generations: Randall, his son, his grandson.

“I want to tell you about Garcia, just not today,” Grace says softly. “Perhaps I could come again? I’m here all week. Until Saturday.”

“I would like that very much.” Prudence chides herself for sounding stiff, a caricature of politeness, but it is true: She would like to see Grace again. Very much.

“When I went through my grandfather’s things, I found a box of mementos in his study. He’d shown me the box many times when I was a child, but it had been at least ten years since I’d opened it and looked at what he kept there: things he brought with him when he came to San Francisco, newspaper clippings he collected afterwards, a packet of letters from you and your mother.”

Most of Prudence’s past is shrouded with the shapes of events no longer distinct, or faded with the emotional color gone. Now, though, the memory of the evening when Randall’s first letter arrived balloons. She sees herself cutting a square from the drawing paper Dorothy Tiffany had given her and writing her brother back. Carefully printing the address for his rooming house on an envelope, walking on her own to the post office to ask how many stamps were required, after which there’d been the waiting, day after day, for the mail to arrive, despite knowing it would take two weeks for her letter to cross the country and, even if her brother responded immediately, another two for his to travel to her.

“I brought the letters in my suitcase. Actually, I brought the entire box. I could show you everything.”

To Prudence then, it had felt like years, but most certainly several months before she received Randall’s response … A white space … And then her mother crying as she composed a letter to Randall at the florist shop where his former landlady, having sent the one-word Moved telegram, had later written he worked. Crying because not only did she have to tell her son that his father had died, she could not say that his father had in his final hours asked about him. All she could write was that his father had fallen from a ladder at Mr. T’s Madison Avenue mansion, crashing fifteen feet to the ground and bringing down with him the glass orb on the chain to which he’d uselessly clung.

Grace glances at her watch. “I’m so sorry, but I have to go. I’m meeting with the other people on my first panel. Could I come on Tuesday around six? Perhaps I could take you out to dinner?”

“I’ll have Maricel, the woman who helps me, make us a light meal.”

“I hate to trouble you…”

“She will be delighted to cook. With me, her culinary skills are a waste. What do you like to eat?”

“I’m afraid I’m a bit of a bother. I’m vegan.”

“Is that vegetarian?”

“It’s even more restrictive. I don’t eat any animal products. But I could bring something…”

“Maricel could make us her rice and beans and her okra and a salad. Would that suit you?”

Grace stands. “That would be perfect. I’ve been vegan since my brother died. It was physical at first. I couldn’t swallow anything that had been killed or taken from an animal. Then, it became political. It drove my grandfather crazy. He was a meat-and-potatoes man.”

Prudence pushes herself up from her chair. She senses Grace watching her, not wanting to offer unnecessary help. “That’s how we were raised,” she says once she’s squarely on her feet. “Corned beef and cabbage and always potatoes.”

She’s thankful that it’s not the Sunday when Thomas, Harriet’s grandson who is now Prudence’s lawyer, takes her out to dinner. She wants to sit in her chair and look out at the water and absorb these snapshots of the man her brother became. When he’d leaned over to kiss the top of her head and then slipped away while her mother was berating her father for being a drunken fool, he’d been a boy. Not yet using a razor. Absorb that he married, apparently a wealthy woman if they were given a house as a wedding present, had a son who became a drug addict, raised his two grandchildren with the help of a Mexican housekeeper named Angela, ate meat and potatoes his entire life, died two decades ago.

While Grace waits for the elevator, Prudence stands, half in, half out of the hall, propping her door open with her back. The two of them smile and nod at each other until the elevator arrives and Grace disappears inside. Then, thinking of Maricel’s instruction “You bolt both locks, Mrs. P, but not the chain. That you have to leave off so I can let myself in,” Prudence, for the first time all day, does as directed.


Copyright © 2019 by Lisa Gornick