Chloe looked at Big Daddy, huddled and quivering in her grandmother’s lap. Big Daddy, once a plump, nervous, annoying Chihuahua, was now a frail, nervous, annoying Chihuahua. Every so often he would snort and wheeze and gag, like an aging coal miner. Chloe’s Aunt Katie had owned him for fourteen years and they had grown old alike. Both were emaciated, foul-tempered, shriveled, and looked like they smelled a rotting mouse under the floorboards.
“You’ve always been my pretty girl,” Chloe’s grandmother said, trilling her r’s. “Now stand still and look into my left eye, the good one.” Chloe moved to within a few inches of her grandmother’s face and stared into the old woman’s left eye. “Yes, still my pretty girl,” the old woman said.
“Grandma, it’s so good to see you.” Chloe hugged her tightly around the shoulders. Big Daddy growled. “Are you taking your medicine? Watching your diet? Are you Dr. Finley’s best patient?”
“I’m as good as I’ll ever be,” the old woman said. Big Daddy jumped down from her lap. “I’ve lived for eighty-three years with a bad heart, vertigo, poor circulation, and an upset stomach. I’m still kicking, though not as high as I once did.” Chloe’s grandmother puffed delicately on a filter-tipped Winston. Her two-carat diamond, mounted high in a gold setting, caught the sunlight and shot it in a thousand directions. Chloe’s Aunt Katie, sullen-faced and slightly irritated, sat in the oak rocker.
Chloe realized — in a spark of illumination not unlike the auras that preceded her seizures — just how difficult this visit would be.
“You’ve only lived thirty-three years with a bad heart,” Aunt Katie snapped.
“How do you know?” the old woman said. “You’ve just been back for six.”
“Six years of waiting on you. I mix your drinks. I run your bath. I feed the dogs.”
“You feed ’em, but I love ’em. Come here to your grandma, Big Daddy.” The old woman patted her knee.
“If I weren’t always running around getting you everything you need, I’d have a few moments to give to my Big Daddy, my baby.”
“You don’t even know the meaning of the word baby.”
Chloe could tell they were headed for hard blows. She coughed and popped her knuckles.
“Chloe Ann,” the old woman said, “popping your knuckles can cause arthritis. You need to stop that habit. It’s irritating.”
“Yes, Grandma,” Chloe said. “It’s just that my fingers start feeling so tight, but after I pop them, it feels like they’ve been doing yoga for hours.” Chloe looked at her grandmother’s faded brown eyes and broad, hooked nose, and saw traces of the beauty the old woman always bragged about. She heard Azul singing in his bird cage and Cinnamon, her grandmother’s dog, barking outside.
“Chloe,” her aunt said, “take a look.” She held out her bony hands with their bulging blue veins. “Just look. The middle joints are like pieces of popcorn. I can’t even take off my rings. My fingers ache all the time.” Katie shook her hands like fans in front of Chloe’s face. “Is this what you want?” Chloe swallowed and her face turned pink.
“They don’t look so bad to me.” She knew the minute she spoke that she had said the wrong thing.
“They don’t.” Katie curled her top lip and showed her yellow teeth like Big Daddy did when he wanted to intimidate someone. “What do you know about ugliness and aging and pain? You were Brother’s pretty girl. Now you’re Mama’s pretty girl.”
“Don’t pay any attention to her,” the grandmother said. “She’s just jealous because she’s a washed-up old hag that no man would want.”
Chloe looked away, but in her mind she could still see hairless Big Daddy, her aunt’s yellow teeth, the bald spot on the top of her grandmother’s head, Azul’s bright blue feathers now pale as if he were gradually being bleached, the huge hole in the arm of her grandmother’s lounge chair, the empty spot on the bookshelf where her mother’s photograph once had been, her father’s portrait still above the organ. He looked tense and irritated, with only the flicker of a smile. The cigarette in his right hand glowed like a firefly. She looked at his dark oval eyes, then quickly turned away.
“The uglier I get,” said Katie, “the longer you’ll have me around to abuse. To listen to your boring stories about the past.”
“You’ll not make fun of my stories,” the grandmother said. “My past and my stories are all I’ve got left.”
Katie said nothing. Chloe saw the pecan trees through the window, etched against the blue of the sky. During the holidays, she had always wanted to wrap them in green and hang pecans, like decorations, from their branches.
Azul chirped. Cinnamon whined outside by the door. Big Daddy made gurgling noises and lifted his head. The grandmother began to cry. Chloe could see the tears on her cheeks. Sometimes a tear got caught in a wrinkle and traveled in tiny lines that disappeared into the rough texture of her grandmother’s skin. Chloe walked over to her grandmother and patted her back.
“There now, Grandma,” she said. “You know we love your stories. I could hear them a million times and never get tired of them. One day, I’m going to put them down in a book. Just the way you tell them.”
“But you’re not the writer,” the grandmother said. “My Boy did the writing in this family.”
Chloe swallowed. “But I can write, too.”
“You were too young,” the grandmother said. “You don’t even know what he was like.” The old woman turned her head toward her daughter. “Katie, I need a little drink. My heart is bothering me.”
“Jack Daniels and water?” the aunt asked.
“Yes, just a little one. Just for medicinal purposes.”
“I remember Daddy drinking beer every night,” Chloe pressed. “Just to get to sleep.”
“A beer is a far thing from hard liquor,” the grandmother said. “Your daddy never was a drinker.”
“I think I’ll make myself one, too,” Katie said. “Chloe, would you like some wine?”
“No, thanks. I’m on some medication and shouldn’t drink.”
“You sure?” the aunt asked.
“I’d better not.”
“It’s a nice Burgundy. A drop won’t hurt.”
“Doctor’s orders,” Chloe said.
“Have it your way.” The aunt stood up abruptly and headed toward the kitchen door.
Chloe watched the rocker move slowly back and forth. It had belonged to her great-grandmother Lillie. Chloe could still remember her cackle and the way she talked like an auctioneer. She could recall the green of her eyes — almost a fluorescent green, even at ninety.
“Chloe. Chloe. Where is your mind?” the grandmother asked.
“I was thinking about Grandmother Lillie.”
“I have a lot of my mama in me,” the grandmother said.
“Where?” the aunt said sourly as she walked into the den with a green serving tray. On the tray were two whiskeys with water and a small glass of red wine. Chloe remembered her mama’s rose-colored champagne glass, its border decorated with little white crystal balls. Her father had filled it with beer for her.
“I brought you some anyway,” the aunt said. “A little bit won’t hurt.” She handed Chloe the glass of wine. “Tell me if it’s any good.”
Chloe hesitated, then put the rim to her lips. With her eyes closed, she heard her father saying, Only one glass far you, Chloe. It’s too late for you to be up. But hell, I’m lonely, sugar plum, and needing some good conversation from a regular wit like yourself.
“No,” Chloe said firmly, “I can’t. I could have a seizure.”
“Fine,” the aunt said. “Brother never drank wine either. Not even at Christmas.”
“The Boy knew how to throw a hell of a good Christmas,” the grandmother said.
“Remember the trampoline?” Chloe asked. “That was the best Christmas we ever had.”
“Your mother made that oyster dressing and those stuffed celery sticks that I like so much,” the grandmother said.
Katie began to laugh loudly, through her nose. “When I walked through the door and saw Brother on that contraption — up and down, up and down — I thought I’d die.”
“I just knew he was going to kill himself.” Chloe could see her father jumping up and down on the trampoline: his faded brown-checked shirt, puffed up and ballooning around him like a parachute; his face red and contorted; the legs of his pants rolled up to his knees; his bare ankles, white and bony, appearing too weak to hold him up. Her father had died at thirty-nine, during the summer of her fourteenth year. “I thought he was too old to do such things.”
“Just how old is too old?” the aunt asked. “How old are you, Chloe?”
“He was a scholar and a gentleman,” the grandmother said. Her eyes glazed over, and she drew absentmindedly on her cigarette.
Chloe remembered hiding in the closet as a child, the books piled high around her, as she listened to her father’s voice, frustrated and angry, coming up the stairs. Chloe, where are you? Goddamn it, where are you? She remembered hovering over her homework and her father finding her and shredding the lined paper, page by page.
“Brother never put much stock in intellectuals,” Katie said. “He was no scholar.”
“Lord knows,” the grandmother said, laughing. “Almost didn’t get through high school. He was always betting with the kids, trying to see who could still pass with the lowest grade. Won that bet on graduation night. Scared me half to death. Boy had too much sense to take school seriously. There’s a lot of the Boy in me.”
“There’s a lot of half the people in this country in you,” the aunt said, swallowing a mouthful of whiskey.
“Yes, indeed,” the grandmother continued, “your father loved you kids. Had the patience of Job. He was determined to make a diving champ out of you that summer before he died.”
“I must have done that back flip for him at least a hundred times,” Chloe said. “I never did get it right.”
“Used to frighten the daylights out of me,” the old woman said. “You flipping through the air, right above that diving board.”
Chloe smiled. She saw her small body turning over, her daddy standing behind the diving board in his red-and-gray plaid trunks, lighting a cigarette, waving his arms above his head, imitating the right way to do each dive. Chloe, you got to work closer to the board. But your form, sugar — your form is next to an angel’s.
“When you won first place in Atlanta, he was as proud as a peacock,” the grandmother said.
“After he died,” Chloe said, “I never wanted to dive again.”
“When the Boy died, I died,” the grandmother said. “The night he died was the night I had my first heart attack. I’ve never loved anyone like I did your father.”
With two swallows a third of her drink was gone. “It’s amazing how much better a little whiskey can make you feel,” she said.
“And I bet you’ll drink more than just a little,” the aunt said.
“I’m old enough to drink as much as I want!” The old woman slapped the couch with her hand.
Chloe stared at the pine paneling on the walls. She inhaled deeply, recalling the stinging scent of pine needles when she broke them in half. “I love this pine paneling,” she said.
“Your father helped Smitty and me buy it,” the grandmother said. “If Boy had a dollar, he’d give it away. Didn’t have a stingy bone in his body. Not like your mother’s family.”
“He always said he wanted to be either rich or poor,” Chloe said, “not part of the boring middle class.”
“Brother never did fit into Vidalia’s middle class,” Katie said. “Not until the book came out. After the book and the play, everybody wanted to be his best friend.”
“People can always appreciate money,” the grandmother said. “And Katie here would be floating in it if she didn’t have so much false pride.”
“You wouldn’t have been so proud if I had slept with every producer and director on Broadway to get what I wanted.”
“I’m not talking about sleeping with anyone.” The old woman raised her voice. “Boy just wanted to help you.”
“Mama, I’ve told you time and time again that I wanted to make it on my own.” Katie popped the fingers on her left hand and sucked in her breath.
“You didn’t exactly make it, did you?”
“No, Mama, I didn’t,” Katie said. “I’ve turned into an old unmarried hag who drinks like a fish just to get through these tedious, miserable days with you.”
“At least you’re eating,” the grandmother said.
The aunt turned to Chloe. “I was Phi Beta Kappa. Who’s Who. I even won a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. I traveled with the Barter Theater. I was something.”
“Your life’s not over,” Chloe said, thinking of her own past, envisioning her future. “You could still be the best director around.”
“Direct the local yokels in Streetcar,” the aunt said.
“You could move,” Chloe said. “You and Grandmama could go back to Atlanta. It’s never too late.”
“Wait till you’re my age and then say that,” Katie said.
“We grow until we die. That is, if you’re willing to take chances.”
Katie almost snarled. “Chances? I took my share of chances and I’m the loser who lived through them.” She swallowed the last of her drink.
“You’re not a loser,” Chloe said, stubbornly determined. “You’re one of the original feminists. Your career came first.”
“Bullshit,” Katie said. “What career? I’m a basket case now. A wasted, self-pitying old spinster.”
“Bull’s-eye,” said the grandmother.
“No!” Chloe yelled. “That’s not true.”
“Well, I took lessons from you,” the aunt snapped, ignoring Chloe.
“Took lessons from me?” the grandmother said. “I never gave you dance lessons. You weren’t even born when I taught the Charleston.”
“My God!” Katie groaned, rolling her eyes back until only the whites showed. “She’s running on four brain cells.”
“I was a great dancer,” the grandmother said, speaking into the air, waving her arms gracefully above her head. “When I was young, I had spirit. ‘Maddie needs some taming,’ the townsfolk said, as if Papa would listen to them, as if Papa would tighten the reins. By damn, I was a beauty! Not skinny like the girls today, but full of curves. A big bosom and a tiny waist.”
“You were beautiful,” Chloe said, glancing at an old photograph of her grandmother that hung crookedly above the coffee table.
“The first to bob my hair. The first to smoke gold-tipped cigarettes.” The old woman puffed on her Winston, threw her head backward, and seductively blew the smoke into the air. “When I danced, they’d pull me off the floor ’cause I could shimmy better than anyone. ‘It’s obscene,’ Jenny Henderson would say behind my back. She was jealous.”
“To hear Mama talk, Clara Bow would have turned green with envy.”
“Maybe she would have.” The grandmother still stared into space. “If she had met me.”
“Now is the time for you to tell Chloe about your audition for the part of Scarlett,” Katie said.
“I almost got that part.” The grandmother shook her head. “They said I had the talent and the right look, but I was a little too mature. They wanted an eighteen-year-old and I was thirty-one. If only that book had been written a decade earlier!”
“She knows how much I despise these stories,” the aunt said. “She doesn’t have to live in the past.”
“If it’s all I’ve got, then it’s where I’ll stay. To hell with you.”
“Yes, to hell with me!” Katie said, rising from her rocker. She clasped the glass tightly; her veins were turning a dark blue. She stumbled against the coffee table and turned toward the kitchen door. “I need another drink,” she said.
“She’s drinking too much,” the grandmother said. “I worry about her.”
Chloe said nothing. She thought about her daddy: how he could crush a beer can with one hand; how he complained of having writer’s block; how she thought writer’s block was a rare disease, like elephantiasis, that only special people could get. She remembered his anger. The quick slap across the face. The machine-gun rattle of sarcasm. The closing and locking of doors. Doing homework under the porch light. The night, cold and starless. The nervous smile that came over his face when the anger was over.
“Daddy sometimes drank too much,” Chloe said. “And when he drank, he hit people.”
“Your daddy never touched you kids,” the grandmother said. “Anne did all of the spanking. Boy won the welterweight championship at Duke. So he was afraid to spank you children.”
Chloe said nothing.
“Your daddy loved you till the day he died.” She looked sadly at her son’s portrait above the organ.
Chloe thought back to the night he died. She remembered her mother in the hallway frantically dialing the doctor, the television blaring in the den, the shrill cry of the crickets, the July heat covering the house like a blanket. Chloe had heard the low moaning coming from the guest room. He was lying on his back on the pink bedspread, his legs over the edge of the bed, lifeless and limp. She could see the sweat on his forehead and the wetness of his shirt. His eyes were open and waiting. She inched toward him. Daddy, she whispered. Daddy? She touched his hand.
Little girl, why are you here? he said. His voice was strong. Goddamn you to hell and back!
“The night he died, I wanted to hide,” Chloe said. Her throat tightened.
“Chloe, you were too young to remember anything.” The grandmother yanked a bobby pin out of her gray hair. A thin strand fell over her forehead. She blew it away with a smoky gray puff. “These days, you’re confused,” she said.
“What do you mean, Grandma?” Chloe asked. The heat in the room was unbearable. The smoke washed the air in a heavy murky color.
“I’m talking about that place. Your second home,” the old woman said.
“You mean the hospital?”
“You certainly have embarrassed your family by being there. It’s a sure-fire way to get even,” the aunt said, carrying a glass filled with whiskey. Chloe could smell it across the room.
“You can meet nice people in the loony bin.” Chloe’s hands shook. “Honest people. You can learn a lot there.”
“I may have my faults,” Katie snapped back, “but at least I’m not crazy.”
“Yes, like Daddy wasn’t crazy,” Chloe said.
The grandmother jerked her head up and turned her body in Chloe’s direction.
“And what do you mean by that?” the grandmother asked.
“I’m his daughter,” Chloe said, restraining her voice, feeling a flash of heat in her body. “I was also his friend. His mother. His wife.” Her cheeks tingled and a faint pink colored the tips of her fingers.
“You’re seizing again,” Katie said.
Chloe carefully pulled back every finger on her left hand until each made a cracking noise. She looked up at her aunt and said firmly, “I knew him better than both of you. I saw it all.” Chloe stood up quickly. She could see her red wine among the empty glasses and overflowing ashtrays cluttering the coffee table.
“Katie, please,” the grandmother said. “Boy would find her attitude disgraceful.”
“Chloe,” the aunt said, “you’ve upset Mama. You’ll have to visit another time.”
Chloe got up. She looked slowly around the room. The pine paneling seemed too dark to be real. The oak rocker looked too new to have belonged to her great-grandmother. Her mother’s picture, Chloe now remembered, was put away long before she had died.