The door rattled, “Aria, wash up and meet me downstairs. The bathroom is to your right,” her father ordered from the other side of the door.
Spittle hung from the corner of her mouth. How long have I been asleep? She emerged from under the pile of pillows, finding the afternoon sun had made its way out of the room.
She wiped her mouth on the sleeve of her hoodie and smoothed her mass of curls, tucking some stray coils into the elastic holder. So far, the relatives seemed harmless, almost pleasant. Her father did have a tendency to scramble the truth. Retrieving the camera from the nightstand, she stumbled down the stairs wondering what time it was in Germany and what Oma and Opa were doing. She missed them, and her Oma’s garden of fresh herbs and the orange poppies. It wasn’t hard to recall the smell the garlic and cilantro smothering some delicious dish Oma had made.
The sounds of voices and laughter guided her towards the kitchen. At the archway of the dining room she halted her pace. A round woman in three-inch heels pushed open the swinging door from the kitchen. She wobbled in, trailed by Rudy-the-solider-like uncle. Her head jutted forward and back with each step she took.
Clasped hands rested on a shelf of ample bosom. Aria momentarily saw talons painted with red fingernail polish. This was part of Aria’s knowing that were making a prominent appearance. This woman is surrounded by turmoil Aria was compelled to think.
“I am your Aunt Trish, your Uncle Rudolf’s wife. Um, can you please lower that camera? Manners.” She looked down her nose and wagged the demand with her head.
Aria didn’t budge. She hadn’t remembered her father talking about any female relatives fitting the grim description, but here, before her, was one of them. Trish reminded her of a groomed turkey: waddle, bulging eyes, and naked neck. The knowing had made itself clear in having Trish appear as a turkey; she was all show, aggressive and irritable towards strangers.
Kiev stood in the dining room gathering sparkling objects from an antique china cabinet: a crystal, a piece of amethyst, an extra shiny penny, a single earring with rhinestones and a key chain with a small disco ball of mirrors. A notable tension ran from his neck to his fingertips. He curled his fingers around the objects and brought them to his chest. While looking towards the corner of the room he moved between Trish and Aria. He reached his arm and hand to Aria. In turn, she reached out her hand, into which he placed the disco ball.
Again, he made an audible “Wee pop.”
If her mother were here, Aria would have plucked all the nastiness out of this woman. The warmth of her father’s fleshy palm in her other hand surprised and relieved her, an uncommon moment of solidarity. She maintained her position in silence.
“Is anyone going to take that camera away from her?” Trish’s voice screeched. The room now held all the men except Elias. Trish peered around Kiev, then gently pushed him aside.
Continuing their migration towards the dinner table, they ignored her request, except for Rudy. He nodded at Trish, who proceeded to the table and whipped her napkin open while still staring at Aria. She watched to see if Trish would shred the cloth with her fingernails.
“Why don’t you sit right here?” Rudy made a nest for the camera on a folded placemat next to a setting at the dinner table. “You can put your camera right here.”
“Thank you,” said Aria, placing her camera on the mat. She kept an eye on her father and snuck occasional looks at Trish.
“Cool accent,” said Sasha. His voice was flat. She realized it was the first time she had spoken to any of them.
Elegant Elias appeared at the kitchen door in an orange and yellow apron with butterfly motifs and a matching mitt, “Dinner is ready,” he sang.
There it was again, definitely. Elias had an alligator tail. Aria had seen it the first time she met him, but it was more clear this time. Yet another knowing showing up. First Trish and now Elais with some turmoil or problem. This family has issues. Aria could not decipher what the heart of the issue was with Elias, except that it had something to do with a deep sadness and fear. It wasn’t any of her business anyway, she hoped to be back in Germany in no time, so no need to waste her time.
He paraded various plates and casserole dishes and placed them on the table, announcing the name of each: orange-glazed duck with apricot stuffing, steamed snow peas, rice with chanterelle gravy, and green salad. Elias moved his arms like a ballet dancer. Displaying dishes, each movement was smooth and continuous through the tips of his fingers. He reminded her of one of her father’s French-African friends in Germany.
“Just a minute everyone, I have a surprise, in honor of our big brother returning with our precious niece.” Elias returned to the kitchen. He rolled out a wooden cart with a large cake sitting on a white porcelain plate.
“Oooh, no you didn’t—its Mama’s coconut pineapple cake!” her father exclaimed.
Elias clapped his hands in a circular round of applause.
The room testified, the mood shifting toward whimsy.
“No butter was left behind in making this cake. Now let’s bless the food and the cook and eat,” he said as he whipped off his apron and hung it on a hook. Elias seemed to be a very confident chef.
In the bright, sunny dining room the base of talk centered on family laced with stories of old friends, gossip, arts and entertainment, questions about properties and marriages. The breeze from the open window occasionally blew a breath through the sheer white curtains, freshening the air.
Aria observed the faces and gestures of her uncles, noting how their voices seemed to meet in the middle of the table and dance, how their sentences were relayed and tagged, and how they pronounced the other’s name. Intonation and resonance, her close friends, deflected the timbres of fear she often felt.
Kiev seemed engrossed in separating the food on his plate into distinct piles. He lined up the snow peas side by side and then divided them into groups of three. He arranged the stuffing in a square and then sectioned it off into several inch portions, same with the rice, on which there was no gravy. He seemed perfectly content and an expert with his procedure. Murmurs of “wee pop” intermixed in the conversation.
“Vater, are we Russian too? Why do some of your brothers have Russian names?” Aria quietly interrupted.
Laughter filled the room, and hit Aria in the chest with a thud. She felt her eyes stretch, her heart thrust. .
“It’s okay.” Sasha hovered his hand lightly over Aria’s back.
Her hands danced next to the plate until she moved them under the table, hoping no one had noticed or thought too hard about what they saw.
“This is not the first time the question has been asked,” he added gently. There was almost something soothing under the flatness of his voice, his eyes having a knowing of grief. Sasha, though the quiet and flat one not adding too much to discussions, seemed to hold some necessary stillness, maybe sadness, for the family.
It was a feeling she had.
“Nor will it be the last time Rudy will recount the story,” Elias said, resting his elbows on the table beside his plate. His fingers were long, his nails neat and polished.
“Must you kick up the dust from those old stories?” Her father screwed his lips, “Here we go, Old Man River.” He gave her the look and wink meaning, “You’re okay.” She wanted to believe him. She found the camera and steadied both her hands.
“Sometimes you’ve got to return to the past to move on with the future,” said Elias, “Go on Rudy,” he whisked his hand in the air.
Camera readied, she moved it subtly toward storytellers, except for Trish.
“When our parents, Mildred and Wilson Rhone, arrived in New York around 1960, they first came to Harlem, which is uptown, and stayed with some friends who they had grown up with in Mississippi. Miles does she know we’ve got roots down south?” asked Rudy.
“Yes, I’ve mentioned it, but it’s hard to understand unless you’ve been there. Just go on, please,” her father answered in short.
“The friends had made the move some years before. They were introduced to some underground jazz clubs at a time when John Coltane and Miles Davis were emerging talents. Your grandpa was more of a traditionalist, meaning that he stuck to the music he grew up with in the south—mostly gospel and some blues. He couldn’t stand jazz, but your grandma, she was surprisingly open,” Rudy said, nodding his head.
“What made her like the music so much?” Aria asked her father. Music was an integral part used in the teachings of Saint Anastacia.
Sasha answered, “I think it wasn’t that she liked the music so much. It was that rebellious streak in Mama. She loved it when black folks ventured outside the box, doing something totally taboo, at least for folks from the south.” Sasha’s stray eye drifted towards the corner of the dining room as he talked.
“Well, yeah, the new music and her departure from Mississippi were the two most daring and virtually naughty things she did in her life. That’s what she admitted when she was older,” Elias said, slicing duck off a bone.
Rudy continued addressing Aria, “Your dad was born four years after they arrived in New York. He was named after Miles Davis.”
Aria quickly turned towards her father. “You never told me that, Vater.” How many other basic things didn’t she know about him. Her father smiled and shook his head in agreement with Rudy.
“Remember Mr. Young?” Sasha asked focusing on her father. “Your old music teacher? The women swooned over him and that trumpet.”
“Only thing was Mr. Young wasn’t interested in women, he was gay,” said Rudy playfully.
“No, he wasn’t,” her father chimed in firmly. His mood had changed to something bridging on irritation, “He pretended to be gay.”
Everyone looked up from eating to observe the change in her father’s emotion. She felt unsettled and embarrassed.
“You’re telling me that he pretended to be gay?” Rudy took on a voice sounding somewhat like a politician, again, challenging her father’s mood and also statement. “Why on earth would anyone pretend to be gay?”
“He had something to lose. Just trust me, I know,” her father said, shoving food around on his plate. “Excuse me, I need to get a glass of water.”
He left the table and entered the kitchen. Aria drew a sigh of relief.
“You know? Right, you always know and you’re always right,” Said Rudy.
“Well, maybe he went both ways. Let’s call it even, and continue with the story,” Elias added, clapping his hands one time and lingering on the ‘s’ sound of story for several seconds.
“Both ways, that’s utterly disgusting,” said Trish, twisting her face as if smelling something foul.
Elias shot her a glance loaded with daggers. It appeared to be a reaction, rather than to be noticed. Trish tucked in her chin and frowned.
Rudy ignored Trish and took Elias’ advice. “Sounds good to me. Let’s move on. Pops was working as a cabinetmaker and he earned a good reputation. Because of it, he was pretty busy and successful. We were lucky.”
Aria filmed him as he alternately interlaced and released his fingers while telling the story. The lines of his brow formed hieroglyphics as he spoke.
“In Mississippi he got his training from an Italian man, Marco Picci. He felt just as much out of place in the south. Pops said Marco hated how people were treated down south. Here’s a secret, Bird: the Italian guy may have been his biological father, that means your great grandpa, but it was never confirmed and the man died before Pops had the courage to ask him,” Rudy took a deep breath in and shrugged his shoulders.
“So you never met your grandfather on your dad’s side?” inquired Aria of Sasha the closet person to her.
“Nope,” three of the brothers said in unison, shaking their heads.
Up to this point in time, her paternal grandparents were faceless ghosts. She had no evidence of their existence except for her father.
“Pops started working for small department stores but moved into the restaurant industry as his style, Venetian, was appealing to the higher classed establishments. See those two chairs in the foyer as you come into the house? That’s Venetian style. In fact, Pops made those chairs. He was very successful. Mama worked as a seamstress in Harlem.”
“But when she was pregnant with Miles she stopped. They moved into their own apartment in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, right before Miles’ birth and two years later made a down payment for $1,200 on this house.”
“Go ahead and get to the part about Russia,” Elias urged, clearly enjoying the story.
How comfortable could he possibly be sitting on his tail? Aria she resisted wondering, but his turmoil was about his discomfort with something within himself.
“In the years following one of our neighbors, actually one of the last Russian Jews living in the neighborhood that was friendly with the mama, gave her a novel by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov. “Oh man did that book change Mama. It opened a personal revolution for her. That’s exactly how she put it.” Rudy paused to let Miles interject.
“Pops thought the government was going to tag them as communists. He said Mama would go around questioning interpretations of the Southern Baptist scripture. Asking questions about joy and who should be entitled to happiness. He didn’t want to hear any of it. But Pops was a good man, and he loved Mama,” her father said to his brothers firmly.
She got the impression her grandmother was a bit of a rebel. She would have been an excellent disciple of Saint Anastacia. Miles sat back down at the table with a full glass of water. He looked more relaxed.
“Well, she began thinking that Russians and Russia were associated with intellectual and personal freedom. What I mean is that she thought Russia treated their people better: more opportunities, and maybe more acceptance. She’d go over to Coney Island, Brighton Beach, with her Russian neighbor to visit relatives and former neighbors who had lived in Bed-Stuy and get a taste of Little Russia. I think she really romanticized their culture. You’ll see when you come to the house in Kensington, Aria. There’s still a lot of books and art around the house. Anyway, the next two pregnancies, Rudolf and then the twins Sasha and Kiev, were her Russian period.”
Aria thought it was odd that Kiev and Sasha were twins. They did appear to be the same age, but Sasha didn’t seem to have any regard for Kiev, not like he was mad at him, but more like Kiev was invisible to him.
“By the time Elias came, a couple of years after, Mama had moved on to the Old Testament, but not necessarily for religious purposes,” Rudy continued. Her father averted his eyes upward to the ceiling and released a sigh.
“Mama would have been something else as an academic,” Sasha commented. The brothers all nodded in agreement, her father a bit more reluctantly.
“Mama would have majored in history an historian or been a anthropologist, if given the chance. But with what she did have, she tried to created solid opportunities for us.” Rudy glanced at her father, whose eyes had shifted to the middle of the table then continued on to the scars along Sasha’s right wrist. Aria’s stomach dropped at the site of the knotted, smooth skin. She snatched her eyes away, but the image hung in her mind.
Rudy cleared his throat and continued, “Your dad and I started out in public school in Brooklyn, but three years later we were moved to this experimental magnet school in Manhattan that emphasized intellectual exploration, music, and performance,” Rudy said.
“What’s a magnet school, Vater?”
Her father looked at her and said, “Schools that were new, unique. Not traditional.”
Trish’s voice piped in, her image remaining outside the camera frame, “Weird schools, and strange children.”
Rudy gave Trish a quick smile and continued, “There were these white progressive teachers fresh off the Civil Rights movement whose quest it was to save young black boys through education and the arts at the school. Pops protested but since he was at work most of the time and Mama was the head of domestic affairs he had little say in the ultimate decision. Mama was big on self-esteem in addition to academics.”
“Mom was something else.” Elias repeated shaking his head as if remembering numerous stories. “She never stopped pushing us, even Kiev.”
Aria wondered who’d do the same for her, since her mother was gone. She wished she could change what happened, make her mother proud somehow, maybe then she wouldn’t regret that Aria was her child. She felt sorry for her father, too. He was so uncomfortable and irritated, almost like he was ready for a fight at the drop of a pin.
“Miles, the last time you were home was for their funerals. What happened in between?” asked Rudy. “We would have loved to see some baby pictures of Aria and heard about your life in the military with your wife whom we still haven’t met.”
Aria also wanted to know the answer.
“I was going through some hard times there for a while and checked out.”
“What, a phone call was too much for you to handle?” Rudy dug with his fork at some small pieces of duck remaining on his plate.
“Pop, pop,” Kiev vocalized.
The slightly aggressive tone Rudy used to question her father was a bit startling, but also comforting. She’d never seen another man directly confront him on his behavior. “Maybe, at the time,” her father said coolly.
“Just like you, things don’t change much.”
Grinning, Trish bobbed her head. Sasha remained calm and detached, Elias discussed food preparation, and Kiev collected the sparkly objects he’d placed beside himself at the table. Sensing unrest, Aria repositioned herself deeper behind the camera. Rudy and her father surveyed the table.
“Your grandma could make a delicious cake. Shall we?” Rudy asked.
Her father seemed to dip into his anger and sulked.
“Cake, Miles?” Elias inquired.
“Sure.” Her father stepped out of pouting to answer.
“Why did you come home?” Rudy interrupted her father’s thoughts.
“Long story. I’ll tell you some other time about Germany,” he answered looking at Aria who was drifting off into her own reverie, contemplating the same question, and wondering when her father would leave, who’d she be stuck with, and how she could reach July seventeenth.