CHAPTER 10: ROYAL CUPS
I waited until Edward left and then went outside in search of my grandmother. I found her in the garden draped in a veil of netting; luminous in the soft light of morning, tending to her bees. She was studying a tray of comb too intently to notice me, droning something soft and tuneless under her breath. She was the only person I’d ever seen who handled the hives with her bare hands. They seemed to recognize her touch, crawling over her fingers and wrists as if she too were a part of the colony.
“Got your hand in the honeypot, I see,” I said.
“Good heavens—Damen?” Dearie looked up, startled. “I wasn’t expecting to see you.”
“Yeah, well, surprise.”
It was stupid of me to have come. I was stupid. I didn’t belong here. But Grandma Dearie raised her veil to beam up at me with a smile like dawn breaking.
“It’s so good to see you! You should have told me you were coming—you’ve caught me quite out of countenance.”
“How are the bees?”
Dearie looked down at the tray of comb in her hands. “The queen is in decline. It’s to be expected—she’s quite old, after all.” She pointed to something too small for me to see from the distance. “These three little bumps? They’re called royal cups. The hive is growing virgin queens. When the old queen dies, they’ll hatch a new one to take over; it’s called supersedure.” She carefully slid the tray of comb back into the hive. “What brings you to town?”
“We—my band—got a call about Lollapalooza.”
“Lolla—” I realized the name meant nothing to her. “It’s a big music festival downtown.”
“Sounds like quite a feather in your cap.”
“I hope so.”
Dearie shed her veil to reveal a plume of silver-white hair. She was smaller than I remembered: thinner too, but she still looked pretty spry for a woman in her eighties. She waved away my hand when I reached out to help her up the steps and nodded toward the door instead.
“Would you? I’m quite sticky.”
I held the door open for her as she made her way up the steps taking them one at a time. I struggled to decide how to bring up the topic of Sam and Michael and her health. “How have you been?” I ventured, doing my best to sound casual.
“Oh, much the same as ever,” she rolled the question off her shoulders. “When you get to be as old as I am, it all rather runs together.” She made it to the top of the steps and smiled up at me with bright eyes. She smacked me in the stomach, very gently, with the back of one wrist. “You should have told me you were coming. I would have had the piano tuned. Will you play something for me?”
Dearie’s piano was a thing of beauty—a Steinway baby grand made out of gleaming, wine-dark wood and keys of real ivory: an heirloom, like everything else in the house. I coveted it more than I coveted anything else in the world.
“I haven’t played in months…” I mumbled, but suddenly the only thing I could think about was laying my fingers along the keys and bringing its voice to life. I caught myself cracking my knuckles.
Dearie was not prepared to take ‘no’ for an answer: “I insist,” she said. “You play so beautifully, and you’ve been away for so long. Please.”
Who was I to say no?
“As you wish.”
“Go on then,” Dearie nodded me toward the living room even as she turned toward the kitchen with her hands held high like a doctor headed into surgery. “I’ll catch you up.”
The living room was a dim mausoleum of antique furniture and Persian rugs. Dearie’s favorite wingback chair was drawn up to the window overlooking her garden with a dog-eared book of Yeats poetry resting on the cushion.
A framed family photo hung over the mantle: posed and formal. Grandma Dearie seated on a chair in the garden with Michael at her shoulder and Mom, Edward and Evelyn all arranged around her. Everyone was smiling. The chosen and golden.
I wasn’t in the picture.
But Dearie hadn’t forgotten me. My face stared back at me from a smaller frame standing on the mantelpiece below. The picture had been snapped for a magazine profile; neatly clipped and arranged alongside a formal portrait of my late grandfather, Enoch. Near to the family but not part of it. Me and the other departed.
The piano waited demurely in the far corner of the room beneath a quilted cover, which I swept off in a cloud of dust motes. It was exactly how I remembered it—warm and dark in graceful curving lines. I slid onto the polished bench and raised the heavy, satiny lid over the keys. It slid into the piano casing with a resonant thunk. The piano wires thrummed in sympathy.
I pulled my rings off, one by one, and lined them up on the music stand. The stones in the eyes of a silver skull ring gleamed at me as I stretched my fingers wide and laid my hands on the keys savoring the moment. Then I ran a few scales, picking out chords with my left hand until the voice of piano filled the room.
“What do you want to hear?” I asked Dearie as she entered and placed a plate of bread with honey and a glass of milk on the table beside me.
“Whatever you’d like to play,” she said. “I trust you.”
“Foolish mortal,” I winked at her and she laughed.
My hands took on the shape of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata—the first movement, famous and slow. The piano sang out in a rich alto—only slightly flat except for the middle G which was nearly on its way to an F.
I hadn’t played anything classical in ages. My fingers were stupid and slow and struggled to remember the motions. I fumbled through the first few bars until the music tangled and I had to stop playing. I resolved to find a piano to practice on as soon as possible.
“Sorry,” I mumbled. I tried to pick up where I’d left off but couldn’t find the tune. I floundered for a moment, aware of Dearie’s eyes on me, and then gave up.
“Never mind, then,” Dearie hugged my head to her chest and kissed the top of my forehead. “How I’ve missed you, Blue.”
Blue. Little Boy Blue: the detested childhood nickname. Coming from Dearie it managed to sound affectionate.
“I’ve missed you too,” I said, remembering why I’d come to the Big House in the first place and realizing with a jolt that the mere mention of the piano had been enough to put it out of my mind. “I went to see Sam.”
“Oh? How is he?”
“You should know, you went to see him not that long ago, didn’t you?” I noodled around on the keyboard trying my best to sound casual. Dearie tensed, but her expression stayed bland.
“Did he tell you that?” she asked, mildly surprised.
“No, I…overheard it.”
“Ahh. Michael.” Dearie leaned back in her chair, somehow intuiting the truth from the spaces between my words. “I didn’t realize the two of you were in touch.”
“We’re not,” I pounded a chord with more force than I’d intended and winced.
“Oh, Blue. I wish the two of you would work out your differences,” Dearie sighed. “It hurts me to see the two of you so at odds.”
“Yeah, well, that’s not my fault.” My mind flashed back to the look of revulsion that had crossed Michael’s face when he saw me in Sam’s office. I glanced toward the portrait over the fireplace; one big happy family. “I don’t belong here. Michael doesn’t want me.”
“That is absolute nonsense.” Dearie smacked her hand down on the piano and the force of it made me jump.
“God, fine…” I managed warily. I’d never seen Dearie snap at anybody, ever. “Something on your mind?”
Dearie softened and took a deep breath. “I’m sorry. I’m rather out of sorts these days.”
“Estate planning go you down?”
Dearie looked surprised. “Whatever would give you that idea?” she asked. “Did Sam imply that I was…? Oh, I must have a word with him…”
“Sam didn’t say anything,” I said. “And you haven’t answered the question.”
“No, I haven’t.”
I smoothed my hand over the wood of the piano where Dearie had struck it. A nick in the wood caught at my thumbnail and I worried it in silence. “And you’re not going to, are you?”
Dearie rested her hand on mine, forcing me into stillness, and curled her fingers into my palm with a gentle squeeze. “When the time is right, you will know everything you need to know. I promise.”
I felt my ears get hot. Of course she wasn’t going to tell me anything.
Stupid, stupid, stupid.
Outside the living room window, the familiar grumble of the Goat wafted up from the street below, and I got to my feet.
“I should go.”
“Oh, Blue,” Dearie stopped me before I could make my escape and folded me into an embrace. I breathed in her scent of Shalimar and cedar, feeling the ridges of her back and ribs beneath my fingers as delicate as china. I felt certain I would break her if I held on too hard. “Please, don’t let this keep you away. You’re always welcome here; you know that, right?”
“Fine, sure. Whatever.” I extracted myself at last and slunk toward the front door. Welcome or not, I didn’t belong here, and I never would.
Down in the street, Edward stood beside the Goat with the keys in his hand. He looked like he hated the idea of letting them go. I yanked the rabbit’s foot out of his with a surge of vicious spite and climbed into the driver’s seat without acknowledging him,
“I filled the gas,” he said. “Also, the oil. And I topped up the windshield fluid—”
I flooded the engine with a roar of gasoline to drown out the sound of his voice.
“The tires oughtta be rotated!” he shouted—or tried to. I revved the engine again.
“I can’t hear you!”
Edward pulled the passenger side door open and leaned inside before I could put it in gear. “The tires ought to be rotated,” he said. “I mean unless you had it up on blocks?”
“I know how to store a car, Ed.”
“I know, I mean, just I could rotate them for you—”
“Not today, Edebevic,” I said. “Things to go, places to do.”
“Where?” Edward wanted to know.
“Anywhere that’s not here. Shut the fucking door.”
Edward’s shoulders sagged and he pulled his hand back from his beloved car, clicking the door shut with a nudge. I gunned the engine and roared out onto the neighborhood streets leaving him alone and haloed in the low morning light.
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