Part Two: 1925
Amelia screamed against the light of the room, the smoke and the chill. As her small hands curled tight and she attempted to fold into herself, away from the world that didn’t seem to want her, two arms reached out. Large breasts pillowed her cheek. She settled into the warmth of her grandmother who whispered softly, “You are loved, child.”
Although Kay was never overly maternal with Gene, her first born, she’d felt an instant connection with him. At the time of his birth, she had been a wife who felt hope for the future. The boy had fiery red hair like his father and the same confidence verging on arrogance. Everything at that time in her life had felt, if not perfect, at least right.
But Amelia was born with a full head of dark brown hair and an eye that was left of center. Everyone had assumed Kay’s pregnancy—which revealed itself mere weeks after her husband died—was a blessing. And she couldn’t set such a thing straight, of course, by admitting an affair with a factory worker, a man who had been in the right bar at the right time, who had taken advantage. The grimy fling was all Kay could see when Amelia came into the world screaming. It was as though the baby arrived eager to reveal her mother’s infidelity.
“Babies need touch,” a nurse had said as she tried to hand Kay her child first, but Kay couldn’t stomach the child and asked the nurse to kindly take her back. The baby had curled into a tight ball, the shape of a snail. Maybe it was not meant for this world, Kay thought, and she would be let off the hook. She would mourn the child, of course, but it would be best for them all. Thoughts such as this would have been guilt-filled and unbearable at one time, but life had proven no fairytale, no fairytale at all, and in this moment Kay’s ability to feel guilt was gone.
“Give that beautiful little bundle back to me,” Greta Grove had insisted. Greta was a grandmother twice over now and happy for it. Sure, the child barely resembled anyone in the family; but she’d worried over it enough already and resolved to love the precious little girl no matter what. Baby Amelia was at home in her grandmother’s arms.
“When can I have a cigarette?” Kay asked.
The nurse retrieved one from her pink and blue uniform and told Kay to enjoy. “You might be surprised how unremarkable that first cigarette is,” the nurse said. “You know, I’m thinking of giving them up. I heard that they’re adding a two penny state tax per pack in Iowa. It’s only a matter of time before Ohio follows along with such madness. Ohio will probably add three pennies.”
“Are you saying you want some coins for this?” Kay asked, motioning to her purse.
“No, no, I was just trying to make small talk.”
“Well thank you for the cigarette, but I’m a bit too exhausted for small talk.”
Kay couldn’t think about cigarette taxes. What a silly thing. Hell, she loved to smoke and would continue until they were a full dollar a pack. As her mother rocked the new child and her son looked on, awestruck, Kay felt nothing more than gutted and betrayed by life. The night of the affair played in her mind in a pathetic loop. She’d had a few too many cocktails that night. Who hadn’t done that? Her husband had been late. He was always late. How was Kay supposed to know what had happened?
No one would care that Tom Grove had been cheating. No one would care about a curvy woman who lived down the street, yet to be married, and how Tom would sometimes smell of her tart perfume. Kay refused to allow any man to cheat on her without paying for it.
Tom had been smug. “You’ll never leave my side no matter what,” he’d say with a grin as he pulled her by the waist until she was flush against him; he would hold her there until she went limp, which she always did. When he’d release her though, she’d start right in again with, “Oh yes I would! Don’t you test me,” and the two of them would devour each other.
But in the end, Tom’s charm could only do so much. He was unfaithful, and he flaunted it then denied it. Kay had planned innocent revenge that night. She’d decided to go out for a nightcap and flirt a little because flirting and having a cocktail always made her feel better, but she hadn’t planned to take things further. She just wanted to be out late, later than Tom, to show him how it felt. It was a moment of weakness, the only time she remembered feeling so easily broken, and yet it was real. It was one bad decision that would change everything. But who could understand a thing like that? If anyone found out, she’d be a disgrace to her mother and a source of shame around the neighborhood, an evil woman who was in the arms of another man as her poor husband bled to death on the street. Hatred begins with the self, but it can grow legs and journey outward, Kay thought.
The night of the affair, as Kay lay next to a man who processed scrap metal at a factory but told her he was an artist, a man who smelled like beer and pickles, her sweet-faced husband was being stabbed in the chest and side. He was stabbed twelve times behind the post on Clear Street while he was walking home from work. The police said it was because he refused to give up his wallet—they gathered this from the fact his knuckles were bruised. The police were still looking for the muggers, now speculating they weren’t kids as originally thought because a series of similar attacks had happened over the last six months, and no one had been apprehended. The criminals were good at what they did, professionals.
Kay sucked hard on the smoke, enjoying the cutting sensation in her throat.
Gene was intrigued by his new sister. He sat on the hospital bed and waved at the baby girl who was quieting down in her grandmother’s plump arms. “I want to hold her,” he said, but Grandma Grove told him to wait. “But I just want to touch her feet, to see if she’s real. She’s too tiny to be real. Look at those feet!” He pulled away from Kay and rushed to his sister’s side.
“Gene, come be with your mother,” Kay said. “Come back here. The baby will be around for a long time. I need you to hug me now.” The boy didn’t move. “Gene, what did I say?”
Gene started backing away from Amelia, but he kept his eyes on her.
“You’ll get to babysit,” Grandma Grove said.
“Really?” He hopped up on the bed beside his mother and watched his baby sister’s every move. “I’ll take really good care of my sister. I know it. We’ll be best friends.”
When Kay signed her release papers the next morning, she insisted that they’d given her the wrong child. The squinty-eyed woman at the desk pulled Greta Grove aside and advised her to watch Kay closely, but also said some women just are not themselves after giving birth and may even get violent with their newborns, especially when the babies are girls. She said she was happy for the child’s sake that she was born in a hospital.
The nurse who’d given Kay the cigarette offered Greta one now while another nurse went over the hospital’s procedures and assured Kay that such a mistake of identity simply could not occur. Amelia was wrapped in a pink blanket, staring up at the ceiling as Grandma Grove cupped her small head in a plump, pink hand.
“This sort of hysteria is normal,” the nurse said, “but I recommend your daughter take some alone time to recover—perhaps her husband could arrange something in a more suitable institution if this mood doesn’t wear off in a day or so.”
Kay, who was baffled that this woman thought she couldn’t hear or understand, shouted: “Hysteria? My word! You people here are running a sham of a hospital. You are indecent and ludicrous, and God will get you for treating me this way, hear? God will get you and you, and you.” She pointed at each of the workers then pointed to the sky for emphasis.
Just before leaving, Kay looked as though she might take the nurse by her neck, but Grandma Grove cupped her daughter-in-law’s chin with her free hand and gripped hard. In a voice that quieted everyone, she said, “You settle down right now. Right this second! And you take this baby girl. You are acting like a child yourself, and a woman with no husband cannot afford to act in such a way. Come! Today is about the baby, this beautiful baby that belongs to you.”
As they walked out, Kay caught the nurse with her narrow gaze, and under her breath added, “You heard right. There is no husband. You shouldn’t assume these things.”
Amelia was stoic as all this went down. She remained so as she was carried out of the hospital safely, in her grandmother’s arms; Kay watched the child’s face; Amelia seemed to have a strange, satisfied smile as she looked toward her mother. To Kay’s mind, it was as though the child knew its ability to destroy her life and couldn’t wait to get started.
By the time Amelia was school-aged, Kay had earned a reputation around the neighborhood. People referred to her as a “refrigerator mother” because she was never around, and no one at church or at the children’s school had ever seen her pick the kids up or drop them off. The other mothers, those with husbands and no need to work, would sometimes ask the children where their mommy was. It was hard not to notice that it was Grandma Grove who was always there to provide them with praise or discipline, to hold their hands when they crossed the street. If Kay was ever seen with one of the children, it would be Gene alone, when they went downtown to buy new school clothes or have the occasional chili dog at Phil’s on 6th Avenue where Kay worked as a waitress until she was fired for insubordination.
One day, while Grandma Grove was dropping Amelia off at school, Mrs. Jamison, the minister’s wife, asked if Kay was okay. Although her question was vague, her tone was probing, and Amelia was now old enough to want to hear her grandmother’s answer. She waited and watched. Grandma Grove stood straight and gave the slender woman a tough stare, assumed her lowest voice, despite a fixed smile, and said, “If you must know, she’s just fine.”
“Oh, wonderful” The woman said breezily. She took a few steps back, and Amelia noticed that in her pinstripe skirt and with those fish-belly pale legs and shallow heels in the snow, the woman appeared to be floating. Amelia began to feel badly for the woman, and she wanted to tell her to watch out. It was a strange, cold feeling. The woman seemed fine. She was saying, “I know it’s been some years, but we all care about her, what with her being single still, and she often seems so sad. She’s never at church or any of our gatherings. If I had lost a husband like that… the way she lost Tom.” She stopped short. Grandma Grove was becoming the color of a cooked beet. Quickly, Mrs. Jamison regrouped. “Please do invite Kay to our book club. We meet at the church on Sunday evenings. And little Amelia, aren’t you looking lovely today! Bridgette says you’re her best friend in first grade, is that right?”
“Bridgette is swell,” Amelia said. The floating woman was kind, she could tell, and since she was Bridgette’s mother that made her swell, too. “You should be careful today,” Amelia added.
“I’ll tell her you said so,” Mrs. Jamison said. “And I’ll be plenty careful.” She seemed perplexed by the girl’s comment but unperturbed. “Good day to you both.” She gave a silly little curtsy, but Amelia thought it was very sweet. She watched the woman walk away on those pale legs, and she had to fight the urge to run after her. All the other girls had mothers like this one: so plain and kind, wholly invested in everything their children did. They were angels, these mothers. This day wasn’t the first time that Amelia had heard about her father, but hearing it said outside of the house was different. It made it all seem real. She knew he’d been attacked, but that was all she knew. By who and why, no one would tell her. Not even Gene.
That night, Amelia brought up her father at dinner. Kay had called to say she’d be out late, so it was just the three of them.
“Dad gave me a wallet with a cowboy star on it. I still have it. Want to see?” Gene said, not waiting for his sister’s answer to run to his room.
“Your father is watching out for you, and that’s all you need to know,” Grandma Grove said.
“Mom says he died because he was unlucky,” Amelia said. “Does that mean, I’ll be unlucky, too?”
Grandma Grove had become accustomed to the child’s unorthodox questions. She took them as a sign of intelligence. “We all have bad luck sometimes. There’s a lot of evil on this earth, but there’s also a lot of good.”
Gene ran into the room and held up the leather wallet. “Mom doesn’t like me having it out, so hurry and look.” He shoved the thing in his sister’s face.
What hit her first was the smell. It was musty and rich with a vague hint of licorice. When she went to open it, she heard a shriek. “What on earth?” It was Kay.
“Welcome home, dear. There’s a plate waiting for you,” Grandma Grove said. She walked slowly to her rocking chair in the front room, causing it to creak as she settled in.
Kay ignored her and made her way to Gene. “I told you to keep this safe. The last thing I want is the girl here to destroy one of the last things we have to remember your father by.” Kay grabbed the wallet and held it out. Gene took it back sheepishly then retreated with a bowed head.
“He’s my father, too,” Amelia said.
“Of course he was your father, too, but you didn’t know him. You are too young to touch something so precious.”
“Stop it, Kay,” Grandma Grove called out without looking up. She was uncoiling some red yarn. Amelia ran to her, trying to hold back her tears.
“See what I mean?” Kay snapped. “Too young. Still a baby, a cry baby.” She removed her white heels and rolled her neck a few times, all the while watching her daughter sob into her grandmother’s legs. Kay, with an exhausted sigh, narrowed her eyes at the girl, wondering how anyone could believe she was related to Tom. “Alright now, stop the crying. Come here.”
“I’m sorry, Mother.”
Mother and daughter traded a weak hug. Kay whispered, “Don’t do it again. Promise?” Amelia nodded. “In that case, follow me.”
Amelia wasn’t ordinarily allowed near her mother’s room. The open invitation was exhilarating. She stood up straight, tried to absorb the moment. Kay’s room, like Gene’s, had peach walls. There was a vanity at the center of a wall that was framed by two windows that looked out on the neighborhood. All of Kay’s things were meticulously placed. There wasn’t a trace of dust or a stray sock, which was a far cry from the rest of their house. Even though it seemed Grandma Grove was forever cleaning, their house was messy with Gene’s balls and trains or Grandma’s knitting to trip over, and dust that seemed to hide from the duster only to reappear the second they were done cleaning. Kay seemed never to lift a fingernail, and everything about her and her space remained flawless.
“This is for you, Amelia. It’s a handkerchief that your father owned. I’m sure he’d want you to have it.”
“He wore it in his pocket, like in the magic show?”
“Yes. He owned a blue suit, and he always wore that particular handkerchief with his suit, see? This is how classy men dress—with a handkerchief that complements the suit.” She pulled a small picture from the drawer in her vanity and held it up. Amelia held the soft, pale blue fabric loosely in her hand. It belongs to an angel, she thought. She looked at a picture of a handsome man, dressed precisely, smiling precisely, who looked so much like Gene it was eerie. She wanted to ask her mother if she could hold the picture, but she knew better. Instead, she said, “Thank you. Thank you so, so much.” She pressed the handkerchief to her heart.
“I’m glad you’re pleased. Now get out of here.”
“Mother, do you think he would’ve liked me?”
Kay considered this. She looked doubtful. “I think he’d like you just fine,” she said at last. Amelia ran out, holding tight to her new treasure.
Two days after Amelia’s eighth birthday, Kay announced that she and Gene would be visiting some of her old friends in California. “We will take a few months to travel after, so we’ll be gone quite a while,” Kay said. She dropped two ice cubes into her vodka gimlet.
Beef and vegetable stew thickened the air; the rich, salty meat intermingled with the pungency of mustard seed and red pepper. Grandma Grove made this stew every weekend, often with Amelia’s help. In fact, when Grandma nudged the girl out of the kitchen that day, Amelia knew something was going on. She walked into the living room and saw her mother’s thin fingers tapping the couch beside her. When Amelia hesitated, Kay continued to tap, faster, harder, as though she were testing the cushion’s thickness. There was a dreamy urgency to Kay’s normally-distant gaze. She wore the look she got on the rare occasion she would tell her children stories. Her stories were of a mother and her two children who traveled the world and had great adventures in jungles with lions and on ski slopes where they would see bears and have to rush away. When Kay would tell a story, it would come to life in Amelia’s mind. As she listened, Amelia could sometime see the walls turn to ice and their gray-white solidity would break apart into hard sleet and fluffy snow. She’d look down and imagine the skis on her feet and would actually begin to feel their weight—heavy but invited.
These stories always came on Sundays like today, because this was when Kay played the numbers and drank her vodka gimlets; she truly believed she would win each week, so she was always energized by the nights out. Her stories were fictional, she said, but would one day come true. She felt it was due. A regular loser at the game, she had a genuine belief that, each time, it was her time—or, if not, it was nearer her time. “I’ll win for sure next week. It’s the law of averages,” she’d say, her faith renewed by the thin paper full of numbers: possibility, hope. Amelia would sometimes memorize the numbers and rewrite them backwards and forwards in her notebooks, thinking if she got the right pattern, she could make her mother win.
Amelia had listened to her mother tell these stories about leaving so often that she knew the day would eventually come. She willed it to happen. But today, she learned that she hadn’t earned her cameo appearance in the real life version of the story. Kay had won what she called a small pot, and she only had enough money for two train tickets.
“I have to take the oldest. It’s only right.”
Amelia wanted to run upstairs and destroy her notebooks, reverse the spell and make her mother give back the money. It seemed her own doing that she would be left, not only without a father but without a mother or brother. She would be like an orphan; it would lead to even more awkward conversations at school when parents were supposed to visit—not that Kay ever had, but at least she’d usually send some excuse with Grandma Grove.
Amelia refused herself tears, though she felt them flowing in her veins. Gene, who had been sitting in the other room, worrying his pale, freckled hands, walked over and kissed his little sister on the cheek, told her to buck up and challenged her to a game of Rummy.
Amelia avoided her mother over the next few days; she couldn’t stomach being downstairs, where suitcases were slowly collecting by the door. She couldn’t understand her mother’s high spirits, her unwillingness to consider that Amelia should be with them. Then the day came, and Amelia watched in silence with her tiny arms crossed over her chest.
“You really need to talk to your mother before she leaves,” Grandma Grove said, pointing her thick index finger dead-center of Amelia’s forehead. “She’s really hurt by this silent treatment.”
Why should I? Amelia thought, but she nodded dutifully, earning her grandmother’s curt nod.
There were three suitcases and two Macy’s shopping bags lined up at the door. Gene and Kay were in coats and scarves. Amelia walked from the dining room to the living room, still with her arms crossed. She eyed her mother and felt her body recoil when those pale green eyes found hers. She looked over to her brother’s freckle-covered face. He was smiling, as always, but he seemed unhappy beneath it; he had joked last night that he would sneak his sister into the luggage, and had laughed, but he knew how this whole scenario was breaking Amelia in half. She rushed to him.
“Don’t leave me, brother,” she whispered. He ran a hand through his thick, red hair and watched the floor; the sun was so intense that summer that even his eyelids were spotted with light brown freckles. She looked down, too, her eyes tracing the dull yellow flowers that were lined up at the edge of the rug as though they were marching laps around the inner square.
Brother and sister waited like that, heads down. Kay rushed in and out of the room with such flourish that her movements seemed choreographed; she checked the luggage and twirled around, rushing out of the room again and returning with a silver-backed brush and a favorite hat. “Gene, dear, do you have everything? Do you have your soap and extra shoelaces? Your books?” she asked.
Gene nodded. He looked up at his sister’s puffy face. Tears were going to erupt, she could feel it, and she didn’t care to hold them in. He turned to Kay and said, “I don’t want to go,” matter-of-factly as he surveyed their home with a distant expression—his look seemed a retrospective appreciation that outweighed the prospect of leaving. Kay laughed it off, said she’d forgotten something, she knew it, and she was off to do a final check.
“How could I be so batty?” she asked herself and ran out of the room again.
Gene offered his sister a close-lipped smile, a shrug, as if to say, what’s one to do? Brother and sister embraced. The moment was surreal, a million moments long but also over too soon.
Kay ran back in, checked and double-checked the bags. She announced that the taxi would soon be there. She threw her hand up dramatically. “It’s time at last,” she said. It was as though she was acting; Amelia was merely her audience. She spoke so loudly, announced the time, and with a wide smile said, “Amelia! Dear, come tell your mother goodbye.”
Amelia sat in her grandmother’s chair, curled up like a cat, watching the flowers march around the carpet that warmed the creaky wood floor below it. She felt like that floor: forgotten, cold. When a car horn sounded out front, Kay’s stockinged, high-heeled feet appeared in line with Amelia’s gaze.
“Fine, don’t hug your mother goodbye. Little girls who act the way you do deserve to be left behind. You’re proving my point. But I won’t let you win.”
Amelia looked up.
Now Kay’s arms were crossed tightly across her chest. She wore long white gloves, far too formal for daytime.
When Amelia revealed her face with tears rushing down her cheeks, Kay sighed and bent over to hug her daughter weakly, the lace of her blouse sticking to the girl’s wet face.
Gene approached Amelia next, offering a kiss on the cheek and a whisper: “I’m not leaving you, kid. I’ll come right back. I’ll bring you a present. This is just one of those things. We’ll push through.”
A moment later, they were gone. Grandma Grove was on the front porch, waving goodbye.
Kay called on weekends to chatter on about all her plans. She promised that it would be all of them in the future tense; it seemed to Amelia that no adventure had yet been realized. Kay spoke of a new gentleman caller, it seemed, each time. He was always well-off and mysterious, dark and handsome. Then she’d put Gene on the phone, and he’d talk about how boring it was and how he worked a lot, moving things or fixing things, and how Kay seemed to have already spent all her money. Amelia would hear Kay rushing him off the phone after only a few moments.
After a few weeks, the tone of the calls changed. Kay started bringing up some new investments or schemes, a new home and a new group of girls that she went out with who knew business, whose husbands were living large; she spoke of the fashions in California and the businesses in Chicago—her next stop.
Amelia never had news to share, or maybe she did, but she couldn’t think of a thing to report from school that would hold her mother’s interest, so these calls exercised her listening skills. Sometime she mentioned whether Grandma Grove had sold one of her knitted scarves or hats. Mostly, she sold baby blankets. Amelia didn’t mention those.
Kay would say, “That’s nice, dear. Talk soon,” and then hang up before Amelia had the chance to say goodbye. Her mother sounded happy, which she supposed was good. Her brother sounded miserable, which kept her heart halved.
Gene wrote his sister short letters, which arrived in tiny, sharp print on thick paper and recounted little more than the weather and the dullness of his life in California. He was looking forward to the end of summer, he wrote. One month passed, then a year; each month was the last month they’d be gone. But it never seemed to end. Eventually, Gene’s postcards stopped and in their place, he began sending Amelia books by Agatha Christie, books that seemed too old for her at first, too disturbing to read alone before bed. But as the years passed, she became addicted to them.
By high school, Amelia had read all of Christie’s books, all of them numerous of times, trying to figure out how the author was able to keep everything straight. Each book was inscribed with something similar to: You are my light, little sis. Happy Reading! – Gene.
Amelia believed she’d never see him again, and so the books made a sort of shrine on the top shelf of her bedroom closet where she also kept her handkerchief, a portrait of Grandma Grove at Kay and Tom’s wedding, and the numbers she had written and rewritten the day her mother won.