“Why didn’t we just stay with Rudy to begin with, Vater?” Aria said, following her father to the gate.
They had stayed with Elias for a total of three days.
“I needed to feel things out.” Her father examine the large, stone home. His eyes roved from the porch to the roof then to the yard.
“Why are we going now?” asked Aria. Elias seemed safe and cordial. She knew what ever his secret, it was not a dangerous one to anyone but himself.
“Things are good enough between Rudy and me, plus the house is bigger, more comfortable and it belongs to all of us. It’ll be fun, I promise,” motioning her to move further into the gate.
“But aren’t you afraid that you guys are still mad at each other?” She stopped to look up and down the street before making the commitment to enter. Trish lived here, and as far as Aria could tell she was in control of Rudy.
“Naw, if he’s mad he’ll have to get over it.” He looked around, “This is the house that I grew up in,” he said seeming satisfied with his statement.
“What about The Turkey?” she asked feeling that maybe she and her father had a common enemy.
“Aria, I am assuming you are referring to Trish. Even if you don’t like her, you need to be respectful.” Scooting her through the gate, he clasped her hand and guided her forward.
“Sorry. How can she not like a me? She didn’t even give me a chance?” Aria asked.
“Don’t worry. She doesn’t like anyone that’s not like her. I’ll take care of it.”
Aria wondered if he understood there was no consolation in what he’d just said to her. His history of keeping promises, and keeping her safe was inconsistent, and even that was a stretch.
They made their way to the side yard. New spring crocuses in the process of pushing soil from tender swan necks still withheld their colors.
“It’s different. These little houses surrounded by big ones and tall skyscraper. Most other houses around here are all crammed together with little yards and sometimes a square patch of green,” Aria observed.
“A pit. Those square green patches in yards are pits.” He looked at one of the eves that needed repair. The house was old.
“I like this one though. It even has wishes.”
Plucking an old dandelion with several seeds still hanging on from the ground, she held it in both hands with the stem about two inches from her nose. She concentrated and blew hard. Thanking the remaining stem, she then laid it on the ground.
“Bird, you sure are serious about your wishes. What did you wish for?” he asked.
“Nothing,” she whispered. In truth she had wished that she was back in Berlin with her mother and Oma, and that she’d be safe.
He gave her shoulders a gentle squeeze. She was grateful to feel the warmth from his hands even just for a moment.
“Yeah, it’s special and uncommon to find a place like this in the city. That’s why we held onto it.”
They meandered to the back where Rudy busily cut the young spring grass.
“Look at that cute house. Who lives there?” Aria asked pointing.
“Rudy, does Kiev still live out back? Her father yelled over the noise.
He released the handle of the mower and flipped his plastic safety glasses up. “Yes, he does. Would you like to see it, Aria? This used to be your grandfather’s workshop.” He pointed to the little house.
They floated through the fragrance of fresh-cut grass to Kiev’s home.
His house consisted of a kitchen, a small living room, a bathroom, a bedroom and smelled of salty earth, sparsely furnished and simple. It was, however, cluttered with clay statues and color. Blue, red, and orange glass hung in the windows. Rays of light threw kaleidoscope-like fractures of shades throughout. The chairs and couch seemed positioned so hues stained and bathed them, creating false textures. His bedroom held a nightstand, a lamp, and one framed poster of an opera called La Traviata by Giuseppe Verdi.
“We pop,” a gently greeting from Kiev.
“Oh, hi Kiev,” Rudy turned around, surprised.
‘What a magnificent oddity Kiev is. Mama would love him,’ Aria thought, enviously admiring him against this perfect backdrop of psychedelic colors. She seemed to love things that weren’t all the way right. Kiev was a soul mismatched with his body, his rigid gait awkward. He kept his arms bent while he walked, his fingers pointing downward. His head was imperceptibly turned to the right or left which gave the appearance of limited mobility and always peering slightly to the side. When his arms were straight, he held them five to six inches from his body, elbows slightly flexed. Even touching himself seemed foreign. He spent much of his energy creating a psychic cocoon, she thought.
She remembered a pet cat they had in Germany when they were still a family. They fed and watered it, accounted for its whereabouts, and stroked it occasionally. She thought that Rudy supplied Kiev with all he needed to live like a domesticated animal. Maybe the brothers were comfortable with Kiev being mostly invisible.
“Let’s give him some space,” Rudy suggested.
She followed her father towards the back of the house. This view was not obscured. It almost looked like a court house or some other official looking building. She immediately thought of a graying man, bumpy and irregular. Old moldings and discolored areas from English Ivy on the outside walls gave it historic appearance. The home, surrounded on all sides by eight feet of lawn, was contained by an eight-foot, black wrought-iron fence. The fence had been painted over so much that you could dig your nail into its lacquer and make an imprint. Tall evergreen shrubs lined most of the perimeter.
She, her father, and Rudy climbed up to a small concrete porch and entered through the back door into a linoleum-floored kitchen. It smells like a museum. Aria looked around wondering where all the items accounting for the ancient odors were. Maybe there were dioramas in the living room, she giggled to herself.
“Ha! It’s still yellow with red trim. You didn’t change it, huh, Rudy?”
“No. I wouldn’t dare. Mama would come back from the dead and have my hide.”
A combination of old and new appliances populated the large kitchen. In one of the corners an old singer sewing machine waited for use, next to a modern stainless steel refrigerator that dispensed filtered water. A scarred old wooden cutting block on wheels rested close to a six-burner gas stove. Several cast iron skillets hung over a chrome double sink. Besides the “old” smell of the house, rosemary, garlic, and onion scented the cheerful kitchen. The cutting block and kitchen aromas made Aria miss Oma and Germany. But she was curious to see more of these people related to her.
They made their way past the open pantry filled with preserves, cans, flours, and pastas in glass containers, through a small hallway, and pushed past a swinging door into a formal dining room. The table looked enormous. Twelve chairs sat comfortably around the mahogany perimeter, waiting to be occupied. Cushions on the chairs were indented with fat “U” shapes that opened to the legs of the table. The center was dressed with an ornate silver candleholder. On one side of the wall a matching china cabinet held several old sets of dishes, delicate glass eggs, small porcelain dolls, glass and finely sculpted statues all spotlighted by a strategically placed light in the cabinet. To Aria the china cabinet looked like a shrine to Saint Anastacia with all its items decorated with flowers and placed so intentionally. The floor had changed to a honey-colored wood. There were no windows, but natural light flooded in from the neighboring living room and study area.
“This is where it all began, Aria, Sunday family dinner for the last thirty years.”
He walked over to a small serving table on the opposite wall to the china cabinet. “Pops made this. Nice, huh?” The bow-legged table sported a white doily and a silver punch bowl.
Moving from the dining room into the foyer, which held several more of her grandfather’s crafted furniture, they passed a large staircase into the living room. The room looked and smelled slightly musty, slightly dusty, slightly old. She wondered if it was her grandmother’s perfume she faintly smelled lingering in the antique furniture.
“Was this the furniture here when you were a boy?” she asked, taking in a panoramic view.
“As a matter of fact it was. Mama used to cover most of this up with plastic, including a pathway on the rugs. We had to peel ourselves off of the furniture in the summer,” her father chuckled.
“Wow,” said Aria.
“She didn’t really want us in here when we were young. The plastic came off only when company came over.”
The living room walls were filled with paintings made with cobalt blue and apple red and sun yellow, signed by an artist by the name of Jacob Lawrence. These shared the space with dainty black and white drawings of churches with tall steeples and crowded neighborhoods drawn by Piotr Konchalovsky. There were world maps and black–and-white family pictures on a light green wall with gold moldings. An old phonograph, an upright piano, a large stand-alone globe, a mauve colored velvet couch and love seat, and several cloth-covered chairs were arranged in almost a semicircle around an inlaid marble fireplace. The grand columns went from floor to ceiling framing the area.
“And this is where many folks got to stand up and pontificate to a small audience.”
“You mean the salons?” Aria asked. Her father had told her about them on the plane. She’d imagined him as a wide-eyed boy sneaking in to see and hear the shows.
“No, come downstairs. I’ll show you where that happened.” He tugged her arm in the direction they needed to go. She wondered if this was also where the event happen that tore the brothers apart, made her father leave for Germany.
Traipsing after him, she descended into the basement. The large room ran the length of the house and was for the most part two separate areas. On one side were couches, books, and photo albums and generally a more domestic feel. On the other side of the room hung a large dark green velvet curtain, crates of vinyl records, old floor lights and several rows of old metal folding chairs against the wall. Her father eyed the vinyl records.
“I forgot these were down here,” he said with a spark.
Imagining scenes of people coming to hear singing, listen to speeches, to see acting, made the room come alive. My grandmother. My grandmother must have been so in love with life. She would have the Saint and the Saint her.
“Let’s go upstairs. I’ll take you to the room you’ll be staying in. Its Mama’s old sitting room. Think that’ll be okay?”
“Sure.” She contained her curiosity and excitement. The boards of the old stairs complained and expelled what was left of their resinous gases when stepped on.
They emerged from the basement and proceeded to the foyer, then up the stairs to the rooms.
“This is it, Bird.”
The notably tall window in the room looked out to Kiev’s house. A queen-sized bed with four large wooden posts had a mattress almost three feet off the ground with a colorful quilt covering a down comforter. Sitting close by was a large, amply stuffed chair, next to the window. A dresser and Singer sewing machine similar to the one in the kitchen shared a corner. Next to the bed, a nightstand supported a lamp that gently cast a silver light on the picture of a woman in a frame.
“Is this my grandmother?”
Holding the picture close to his face, “That was her,” his eyes moist. “Isn’t that hat something?” her father choked.
Mildred Rhone wore a close fitting olive colored dress and a matching colored hat. Tilted to the side, it had an assortment of flowers crowding the six-inch brim. The photo caught her playfully wrestling the wind for control of it.
“She looks like quite a person,” Aria said, studying the lines of her face. Playful, full of life, a truly free spirit, Aria thought.
“Check this out, Bird.” His strides had a little bit of lift in them.
He walked over to the closet and opened it.
“Come over and look at this.”
Her eyes fell on what looked like rows of barrels that multiplied as her eyes roved.
“They’re all hats,” he said.
About fifty round boxes stacked on the top shelves and on the floor under the hanging clothes. The same perfume from the living room lingered, more potent, along with the scent of cedar. A dim light illuminated the wardrobe and other stored items.
“These are all hats,” said her father.
“All hats? Grandma’s?”
He slid a blue and white box off the shelf. The lid opened with a slight pop as if vacuum sealed. Casting the top onto the floor, he lifted the hat out and extended his head back slowly, inhaling. He closed his eyes recalling.
“This one she wore when she had those opera singers here. You know she hosted the salons and was known for the hats she wore.” He got up and handed it off to her. “People used to gift them to her. Some folks got really crazy trying to outdo each other. Mama played along and wore every single one she ever was given. Take a look. I’ll be back with your luggage.”
Aria marveled not only at the beauty of the hat, but the life it must have lived. Dazzled by the ornate cluster of gems that bejeweled the front of the turban, her eyes followed the layers of white satin that overlapped like a wedding cake.
Each round hatbox had a different color and pattern. She reached for one with a pink and blue plaid print, she cracked the box open. The faint smell of cigars and perfume rushed out and in her mind, into the blue mood of a late-night club. Orange silk fabric covered the headdress. Slowly, folding back the drape, she revealed a gold lamé hat. She held it up, turning it around for inspection. The front sported a spectacular gold and black hat pendant. It was about six inches across and looked like a snowflake. A square black gem sat in the middle. She wasn’t afraid to draw attention. Carefully, Aria wrapped the hat back up and placed it next to her.
A fractal of light and golden glimmer caught her eye from deep in the corner of the closet.
Plain stiff clothing took up most of the wardrobe space, but in that corner, garments with sequins and golden threads worked to catch light and give voice to their beauty. She pushed herself up. Walking over, she skimmed her hand over the shirts, vests, and dresses, making them dance a bit.
She returned to the hats. The next box was big with a floral pattern roses and small daisies on a light green background. Anticipating the mystery of smells, she closed her eyes and found the edges. Cologne and the same smell of perfume that lingered in the house slipped out. Breathing in deeply.
This hat, wrapped in a white silk cloth, was adorned with clusters of silk flowers. She examined each then brought it close to her nose and inhaled the brim. The headband smelled like hair oil, the kind her father used when he tried to slick his hair down. She was here. Her finger followed the perimeter. A small irregular bump interrupted the path. Looking to the source she found a small paper pushed inside the brim ribbon. “I’ll wait for you always. You make my life worth living. J.” Probably grandpa.
Pushing herself up to her feet, Aria walked over to the nightstand and looked at the picture. She swept her hair back and placed the hat on her head. Picking the picture up, she turned to the mirror that hung on the back of the door.
One thing became clear. Mildred Rhone was still alive in this closet, in this room, just asleep waiting to be roused.
She said aloud, “I guess I’m your girl, grandma.” She looked at the hat. “I’ll take care of them. Promise.”
Elias was right, she was a lighter version of her grandmother. Her nose was a little more angled and her lips weren’t as full. Their body types were similar: narrow hips, boyish builds.
“Come in, Vater.”
“Hey, hey, that looks good on you! I think Mama would be happy her granddaughter is using her hats. Just take care of them.” He set the luggage next to the bed.
“Okay. I will.”
“You ready to eat?”
“I’m not too hungry. I think I’ll skip dinner tonight.”
“Well, if you change your mind I’m sure there’ll be leftovers.” He kissed her on her cheek. “I’ll come in later and check on you.”
Aria continued to go through the boxes of hats, ritualistically closing her eyes, then opening them to see the mystery they carried.
She moved on to the bookshelf. Most were biographies of jazz artists but some visual and literary artists as well: Ornette Coleman, Miles Davis, Bessie Smith, Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes.
A small stack of old photos held together by a yellow ribbon rested on top of the dresser. She slid the pictures out without untying the bow. Two were pictures of her grandmother with another woman dressed similarly in a fancy hat and A-lined dress and heels. The other woman in the picture had a wide, gap-toothed smile. The two women
leaned their faces together and wrapped their arms around each other. The rest of the pictures were of her grandmother and a man who bore a resemblance to Elias. Why couldn’t I meet them? I think she would have liked me; maybe she would have wanted to know me.
She lay down on the bed and stared at the picture of her grandmother on the nightstand. Mildred’s eyes stared back. Her tears began to soak the pillow case.
That evening her father tucked her in for bed. If she were in Germany she would have resisted what seem like a ritual for little kids, but under the circumstances she welcomed her father’s touch.
“Still nervous?” His hands enfolded her dancing fingers, forcing them to rest.
“I still wonder why we are staying here. Does Trish like us? She seemed to perk up a little when you started to argue the other night at dinner,” Aria observed, wanting him to admit to his intentions.
“Trish, well, just between you and me, I don’t particularly care for her. She doesn’t seem to get along with too many people.”
She let this soak in for a moment, and then moved to the next thought. “Why didn’t you bring Mama here or send my baby pictures?”
“I wasn’t ready for contact with them, yet.”
“You weren’t ready for them to see my pictures, yet?” she paused, “Did she get mad because you didn’t bring her here?”
“Bird, I didn’t want any contact with them. Something happened with my family. I needed time to get over it. Your mother left for her own reasons that only she knows. We’ve talked about this a hundred times.”
“Because of me, Vater?” She was trying to tell him, but the complete truth was dammed from tumbling out. If she told, maybe one of those little pieces would be revived enough to give her courage to leave New York on the next plane, or to stay and complete the Batizado, or to figure out what it was she needed to figure. But maybe if she told him, he’d leave her too.
“No, Bird, not because of you.” Her tears felt warm.
Her father slapped both hands on his thighs lightly. If anyone is to blame it is me, definitely not you.” She wanted to believe him but she couldn’t.
“Oma wants me to come home.” She threw it out as a possible bargainning chip.
“Your home is with me,” he grumbled, “Me and this family now. I’m your father and as soon as I make some things right with my family, we’re going to have a great life.”
And how long would that be, she wondered and which thing wasn’t right with his family? He owed her answers. Was it the problem with the music teacher Mr. Young, or a big issue with Rudy that kept them snipping at each other, or the way he and his brothers treated Kiev, whom Aria was growing very fond of, or why he virtually erased their existence for years.
“How come you ignore Kiev?” she asked, “Mama hated it when you ignored her. Have you always ignored him because he’s different?”
“I guess I hadn’t thought about him caring if I do or I don’t.”
“He cares and he feels. Everybody does. Can’t you see that?”
“Time for you to stop asking questions. Go to sleep.” Her father kissed her on the nose, “Don’t fly away into the night, okay?”
She wrinkled her face at him as she watched his figure exit. He hadn’t kissed her on the nose since she was very young, and he rarely took a slight pause to listen to her as he did tonight. Guilt, she figured.
The room stilled, save for a slight breeze from the cracked window. “Birds don’t fly at night, they hide,” she mumbled, then remembered owls, who reminded her how flawed her thinking could be.
The tip of the white envelope peeked from the pocket of her carry-on. Slipping it out, she examined the different angles, finally laying it on the nightstand. Her hand fished out the picture of herself and mother. She hugged it to her chest. Berlin was so far away, but she had options, just not the courage.
The soft rug hugged her feet as she moved toward the window and the stuffed chair. Her eyes cut through the windowpane and glass, resting on the tenderness of the night. “That’s how Mama used to hold me.” She sat, jealous of the crescent moon cradling Venus. A movement in the dark caused a motion-activated light to illuminate her father making his way into Kiev’s living room. She saw him and his brother sitting quietly, then saw her father repeatedly mouthing a phrase.
“Kiev is not deaf or dumb,” she silently scolded, shaking her head, disappointed in her father. “You have to try harder, Daddy; try harder before everybody leaves us.” Her eyes raced to the white envelope on the nightstand. The knot in her stomach loosened.