Miles Davis’ “Autumn Leaves” piped through the Wellsworth 7 bedroom home as Vivian Wellsworth poured her 3rd glass of Pinot Noir of the day. She sat on a velvet chaise in the parlor. The bay windows framed by a hand carved border allocated the perfect amount of late afternoon sunlight to grace the furnishings. She had been brooding since morning, perched behind the half open silk drapes peeking every hour in expectation. Vivian’s heavily creamed coffee skin, small nose and soft hair gave her the Eurocentric features she esteemed so highly. However the large mole above her top lip always tipped the scales and kept her humble. She wore a pink and yellow kimono, a gift from her son on his Bangkok study abroad trip, it flowed over the edges of the chaise like a gushing waterfall.
Hilda, their housekeeper, appeared in the parlor doorway and anchored a cup of lemon tea on the end table before turning back to the kitchen. Over her tenure Hilda learned to read Mrs. Wellsworth’s subtle mood shifts with hawk precision. She knew by the teeming shrill in her voice over breakfast to stay out of the way.
When she found Mrs. Wellsworth sobbing on the living room floor after lunch, Hilda, began brewing tea without being asked. Mr. Wellsworth equally read his wife’s demeanor and knew exactly why she was upset but had neither the energy nor patience to deal with her antics so he holed himself in his study and pretended to be preparing for a case.
Vivian saw Hilda as the quintessential sounding board. She seldom clouded their discussions with nonsensical talk rather listened intently then offered the truth.
“I shouldn’t worry should I?” Vivian joined Hilda in their newly remodeled kitchen returning the empty teacup.
Hilda paddled her calloused hands in the sink of soapy dish water.
“No, you shouldn’t. I believe this evening will go just fine,” Hilda said, measuring her words against the glint in Mrs. Wellsworth eye.
Vivian huffed and sat at the kitchen island. She looked at the time then counted the wine bottles on the butler’s pantry and examined the polished silverware resting on cloth napkins. Her thoughts circled back to Jacob’s first semester at Yale, four years flew by, another three was doable, as long as he promised to practice in Michigan.
Hilda began to chop carrots and onions on a wood block, the sound ushered in a buzzing orchestra that spliced Vivian’s thoughts into tiny afflicting bits. She rose offering Hilda a forced smile before mounting the stairs.
Vivian’s mother was a pecan farmer in Georgia, her skin was the color of oil with a forehead so wide kids often yelled out “Miz’ watermelon head” in the direction of their house while kicking up dust on their way to school. She never knew her father but people assumed he was white.
She was ten when her mother died suddenly. After spending 3 years with a distant aunt and uncle with 7 kids, her sullen disposition made them all suspicious and eventually they sent her away. Family members took pity on Doreen’s only child so a few scraped together money for a train ticket up north. Her ascent from there could only be attributed to good fortune and an act of God.
She migrated to Detroit a week before Martin Luther King Jr. was killed. After enduring 6 months in an overcrowded orphanage, a bed at Mrs. Foster’s Finishing School for Negro Girls opened. Despite the wide chasm between she and the other girls Vivian assimilated quickly, borrowing cues and idiosyncrasies from her peers. Her hair was deep conditioned, hot oiled, pressed and cut into a dainty style. Her tattered wardrobe, replaced with respectable linen and satin dresses with heavy buttons and Peter Pan collars.
After four years of mastering proper posture, subscribing to the appropriate placement of dinnerware and shaving off the prickly edges of southern dialect, she strutted down Madison Avenue on a warm October day and caught the eye and heart of an ambitious young lawyer.
The doorbell reverberated through the house. The moment of truth brimmed. Viviam hadn’t seen her son since Christmas. With college graduation 2 weeks away he was on the cusp of deciding between two law schools. The University of Michigan 45 minutes away or Connecticut at Yale. Vivian knew Yale was the better choice but hoped against hope he would decide to move back home. When he called 2 weeks prior to say he would be flying in for a visit a knot lingered in her throat.
After months of volleying evasive phrases and cagey tones over the phone, she knew this visit was about making his allegiance known. Vivian closed her eyes and pretended to be napping. Hilda opened the door greeting the young man she used to change the diapers of. He towered over her, his kind eyes and bald head identical to his father. Jacob then walked to his mother. With half open eyes she feigned a yawn as he kissed her temple.
“Oh my baby—“ her voice cut out as she rubbed her eyes and the sight of a young woman trailing behind him came into clear focus.
“Mom, this is Zara,” he said. He took two steps back and let Zara come into full view.
Vivian stumbled to her feet and clinched her stained tumbler near her chest.
“What a surprise”, her words were brittle “Jacob didn’t tell us about a guest,”
“It won’t be a problem, Hilda make one more place setting,” Malcolm offered as he walked in the parlor.
“You knew about—“ Vivian’s voice cut out again.
“Jacob mentioned possibly bringing someone the last time we spoke,” Malcolm offered.
“I see, well I’ve been preparing all day I barely had time to get dressed. I’ll be back in a few minutes,” Vivian announced.
Vivian wanted to walk past and ignore Zara , but didn’t want to give the satisfaction of looking thrown off. She stared at the young woman briefly, her dark skin and natural twists took up the whole room. Vivian extended her arms and offered a stiff hug. Zara smelled like mango shea butter and rosemary. Vivian was careful to tilt her head over, fearing her earring would get caught in the girl’s hair.
“Nice to finally meet you Mrs. Wellsworth,” Zara’s voice was confident and calm.
“Same to you, dearie,” Vivian said as she moved out of the room, toward the hall.
“Aww I knew you two would get along,” Jacob chuckled.
Vivian paced back and forth in her closet leaving deep imprints in the plush carpet. Why had he brought her? Is this why he wanted to visit? Were they engaged? No. She made sure to look at her hand.
Vivian rummaged through a drawer and pulled out a flask. She took a swig of whiskey enjoying the burn travel down to her belly. She planned to wear a simple pants suit but suddenly that seemed dull, she pulled a forest green velvet pencil dress from its hanger. After curling her eyelashes, spritzing perfume and taking two more swallows of whiskey, she was ready for the evening to begin.
Charlie Parker’s “I’ve Got Rhythm” purred in the background as Vivian rejoined everyone.
The dining room’s high ceilings and white walls gave the room a heavenly, airy feel. The room’s focal point was a wedding anniversary gift,“Self-Portrait Dedicated to Leon Trotsky”, an original Frida Kahlo painting. A long oak table was set for 4 and complemented by tufted ocean blue chairs that guided the arch of backs.
Hilda strolled in with a platter of bruschetta topped with mozzarella and smashed fresh favas. Vivian snatched two before buzzing toward Jacob and Zara in the corner.
“So Zara, where did you meet my son?”
“I work at Starbucks and he used to come in everyday to study,”
“I was working up my nerve to talk to you,” Jacob laughed.
“Oh—are you in school or just working?” Vivian cut in.
“Oh yes I’m a student as well, not at Yale. I go to a Central Connecticut,”
“I see, a state school?”
Yep, it’s about 30 minutes or so,” Zara said with no trepidation.
“What are you studying?”
“Jeez mom, are you going to give her the fifth degree?”
Vivian’s face was hot.
“I don’t mind—honestly I started out undecided but I’m thinking about English, I want to teach high school,”
Hilda reappeared with plated spinach stuffed mushrooms cueing everyone to sit.
Vivian’s thoughts pecked at her like a callous raven. She spent the better part of a month worried about whether or not her Jacob would move back only to be confounded by a completely separate issue.
“Any closer to picking a school?” Malcolm asked looking up from his plate.
Vivian had the strong urge to kiss her husband for unknowingly doing her bidding.
“ I am, but I want to discuss that after dessert,”
“So Mrs.Wellsworth, Jacob tells me you play the violin,” Zara asked from across the table.
Vivian gave a plastered smile that annoyed Jacob.
“Yes, but I haven’t played in ages,”
“Zara actually plays the violin too. She’s really good,”
“Oh really?” This statement did not intrigue Vivian at all, it sounded contrived at best.
Malcolm perked up, “What a coincidence! Of course you’d find someone like your mom,”
What did he mean by “find someone?” Vivian was beginning to suspect everyone knew something she did not.
“Oh Malcolm, don’t put pressure on these kids, I’m sure they are just getting to know one another,”
“Actually Zara and I are pretty serious,”
Vivian couched her rage between concentrated bites of red dragon arugula. Her son was so fickle. He said the same thing about his freshman girlfriend, at least that girl came from good stock.
Vivian tilted her wine glass back pouring the remaining amount in her mouth. Her words partially slurred. “Serious? How? She just told me she didn’t even have her major declared.”
Zara’s eyes narrowed, she squeezed Jacob’s hand under the table.
Jacob’s eyes solicited his father’s aid. But Malcolm Wellsworth sequestered in a two decades old vortex of unconcern or unawareness dodged the grasp of his son’s plea. Instead he wielded a spoonful of Salmoriglio sauce on his flounder with a confident ease. Somewhat satisfied, Vivian summoned Hilda to bring another bottle to the table. Then a twinge of nausea evaded Vivian’s airway when she noticed the joining of Jacob and Zara’s hands near the platter of asparagus. Her antics were only bringing them closer.
“Listen I’m sure you like each other but there’s no sense in getting serious until you’re firmly rooted in a successful career, Vivian moved her arms around in a sweeping motion pointing to the furniture and space around them “as you can see love doesn’t pay the bills,”
Jacob slinged back in his chair. Zara, completely unscathed, took a sip of wine, her first of the evening and let it coil her tongue.
“We actually have some news,” Zara blurted out.
John Coltrane’s “Slow Blues” rounded its decrescendo. It’s cadence was a thin veil wafting above their heads. Zara began rummaging through her purse. Vivian’s heart sank already picturing the glinting engagement ring soon to emerge. Vivian searched her husband’s eyes for confirmation but he looked on in genuine suspense as well. Zara’s hand finally came to surface but it did not bear the promise of marriage, instead in its grip was a roll of pictures, from an ultrasound.
Vivian’s glass slipped. An oblong shape pooled on the hand stitched fibers of their Persian rug.Hilda scurried in and doused the rug with an unlabeled cleaning solution. Her gray hair bun bobbed near Vivian’s leg as she blot out the stain. Unable to utter a single syllable, Vivian studied the pictures that laid before her. The last one showed a little hand curled up next to the baby’s wide forehead. Jacob, full of steam and pride, cut through the room’s silence and said,
“So to answer your question dad. I will be attending Michigan in the fall and Zara and her mom will be moving here as well,”
Jacob would be coming home. A small victory, Vivian thought, a small victory indeed.
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