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Lizzie St. Claire has had just about all she can take. Her marriage ended on a sour note after her husband, the music professor, had a duet with a violinist half his age. Her beloved grandmother, Celeste, went and died on her without so much as a goodbye. And now she must face her family, and the emotional riptide they can churn out, in her hometown of Willow Row, South Carolina. Not only must Lizzie endure the fallout after the death of the family matriarch, but Celeste has graciously decided to haunt her.
My grandmother wasn’t one to pamper any of us. Tight as Dick’s hatband, Aunt Virginia’s husband, Uncle Murray, would mutter under his breath. Celeste figured if you had the St. Claire name it should be enough to get the ball rolling for you. After all, her life certainly took a turn for the better once she became one.
Celeste wasn’t born into wealth and social acceptability. The Covington’s aren’t listed anywhere on the social register. According to Mama, great granddaddy on that branch of the family tree was lucky not to have swung by his neck from it. Evidently he made a mean home brew, and folks knew he was the go-to-guy for a snoot full. The one thing Celeste’s mother did have to offer her only child was the determination my grandmother would do more with her life. And that could mean only one thing.
Marry up, darlin’!
Celeste being the cigarette girl with legs up to her pretty neck at the Willow Row Country Club was no coincidence. She said choosing from the well to do young men always trying to gain her attention was easy. My sweet granddaddy was the only one who took her to fancy restaurants where folks would see them together and actually wanted to have a conversation. With her.
It worked out well for everyone. Celeste’s mother approved of the heir to St. Claire Textiles, granddaddy got a wife he loved as well as liked, and Celeste got to be a St. Claire. Nobody…and I mean nobody was, is, or will ever be a St. Claire like my grandmother.
She moved into the big house long before my great grandparents passed on. The Family says there was talk of Granddaddy building her a home closer to her parents in Charleston, but Celeste liked the big house just fine, thank you very much. By the time twin girls, Virginia and Caroline, arrived my great grandparents were laid to rest, and Celeste had accomplished every dream her mama ever had for her.
Slowly but surely she began to put her own spin on century old family traditions. She faithfully attended the First Baptist Church of Willow Row, but didn’t hide the bottle of whiskey on her closet shelf, swearing it was strictly for medicinal purposes. She was known to frequent places usually reserved for… Well, let’s just say places no well-bred young lady would be caught dead. She didn’t only hire African Americans to work in her home. She invited them to charity dinners, to sit with her at church, and to her annual Memorial Day cookout. She talked Rudy Marshall, the first African American man to run for political office in Willow Row, into campaigning for a seat on the city council. And he won.
Celeste made sure of that.
She didn’t wear conservative suits and a hat to church every Sunday. When Emily Henderson suggested she might be too old to be wearing hemlines above the knee, my grandmother showed up at Daddy’s law school graduation in a miniskirt and black thigh boots. Mama says Aunt Virginia and Aunt Caroline fainted, but Aunt Beth secretly enjoyed every minute of it.
When Granddaddy died was the first time I ever saw Celeste cry. Not just the polite tears swiped from a cheek when a member of The Family we hardly know dies. These were tears of cold, clawing grief. The sight of them still lingers in my memory. I saw them only one other time. The day I packed my Mustang for Tennessee, she slipped a check for five thousand dollars into my hand. Those tears nearly had me unpacking, and fulfilling Daddy’s dream of his firstborn treading the campus of the University of South Carolina. I’d come home on weekends with the young man of Mama’s dreams, and live the life folks said I deserved whether I wanted it or not…
That wasn’t what Celeste wanted for me. I knew she was betting on me, so I got into that Mustang, and drove until the big house grew smaller and smaller behind me.
There were visits that grew less frequent as she got older, and didn’t much like to travel. And there were the rare times I’d come home out of sheer remorse. But, every Thursday evening my phone rang. We’d spend exactly an hour discussing what I thought to be a fairly ordinary life. Somehow Celeste never found me ordinary in any way. It was years before I realized what my grandmother found so fascinating about my life was the choices were mine. Good or bad, the choices were my own.
Most of them anyway.
I stop my Explorer in the driveway, waiting for the screen door to fly open. Of course it doesn’t, which is exactly why I can’t believe she thought I would want this. There are tire tracks all over the front lawn, and stacks of sheets of plywood in front of the four-car garage that was once a carriage house. It houses two Lincolns and an old beat up Ford truck, but Mama and Aunt Virginia insist on referring to it as the carriage house.
Ashton says while enjoying a good drunk once, Daddy admitted I was conceived in the carriage house. For no other reason, it is a carriage house to me. I did the math as soon as I was old enough to subtract. Mama was no blushing virgin on her wedding night either.
I decide the dock will be as good a place as any to get a glimpse of what in the world Celeste could have been thinking. In the backyard bright blue tarps are stretched over more stacks of wood, saw horses scattered here and there. The worn path to the greenhouse winds around withering orchids and tomato plants in old pots littering rickety tables lining a cement slab. Past a hedge of forsythia and a crumbling stonewall hardly visible beneath honeysuckle vines, the path leads to a dock and a pond with catfish big enough to mount and brag about.
The dock sways as I step onto it. I wonder briefly if it will hold. My brother, sister and I would fish here with chicken livers for the catfish, and fried bologna sandwiches and cherry cokes for us. Well, Ashton and I would fish, and Cassie would bitch about the mosquitoes.
And there under the willows dancing at the water’s edge, I believed Matthew Olsen when he said he would marry me no matter what Mama said. I thought I’d become a woman that hot summer night with the crickets singing and fat frogs croaking on the bank. It was seven weeks later I learned I’d become so much more.
Of course, Mama took care of that.
Kicking off my sneakers, I roll up the legs of my jeans to drop my feet into the cold, murky water. I gently press the envelope between my hands like a priceless jewel as minnows nibble my toes. I might as well get it over with. Nothing in this envelope can undo that big house being empty, but I like to pretend for a moment it can.
“Good God, Elizabeth, just get on with it.”
I freeze, the envelope fluttering to the rough, gray planks of the dock.
I refilled my prescription before I left Georgia, but was optimistic I wouldn’t need one until exactly an hour before supper. As I try to remember if I put the bottle of Xanax in my purse, I stare at the glimmer of her on the water. Now I know I’m hallucinating. Celeste would never sit on the dock in her best ivory negligee.
“It’s all right, honey. I suppose you’ve already had a hell of a day, so you just take a minute to get your wits about you.”
I can hear the water gurgle as she sticks her toes in. The feathered mules fall against my thigh as she drops them. “This cannot be happening,” I murmur.
“Damn, this water is cold,” she chuckles.
“I’m in mourning.” I close my eyes, and lay a hand over my stumbling heart. “This is nothing more than a manifestation of my grief.”
“Seeing a shrink every week has done you some good hasn’t it, Lizzie?” She tosses her silvery curls over one shoulder. “I never saw much point in it. It doesn’t take somebody with lots of degrees on the wall to tell me how screwed up we all are.”
“Oh, my God.” Opening my eyes, I press a fingertip to her cheek. “I can touch you.” I narrow one eye. “Did you stage your own death?” It’s not like I haven’t thought about it.
“I suspected life held no more surprises for me, honey. And it didn’t. But, death… Now there’s a surprise.” Celeste’s blue eyes sparkle as she lets out a throaty laugh.
“Did you go toward the light?” I ask lowly.
“Something like that.”
“Then why aren’t you in heaven?” My eyes widen as I clutch my heart again. “Don’t tell me you’re in hell. I knew it!” I exclaim triumphantly. “Willow Row is hell.”
“It’s not as simple as they say, sugar. I can’t be anymore specific, but it isn’t just about heaven, or hell.” She eyes the envelope between us. “You going to take a peek at that?”
“I don’t know.” I gnaw on a fingernail as I stare at the envelope.
“Want me to tell you what it says?” She cocks a painted on brow as if she’s only asked what I want for supper.
“You’re supposed to haunt Aunt Virginia, Celeste.” What a gift. I was sure I’d never hear her laugh again. “Okay, what does it say?” This should be good. She’ll give me the proof I need to later assure myself I did not see my dead grandmother.
“Let’s see.” She runs a fingertip over the envelope with a wicked smile. “First of all, it says I know Virginia is going to be madder than a wet hen. Then I go on to try to make you understand how important this is to me.”
“It’s important to you they draw and quarter me at dawn?” I drawl. “I don’t want your house, Celeste. I don’t want the pearls, or the china, and I certainly don’t want to be present when Mr. Calloway tells The Family that’s what you want.”
“How’s Richard doing?”
Her amusement vanishes. I see the same sorrow in her eyes I saw in his. “Go ask him yourself.”
“I wish I could.” Looking out over the lake, she pats my back.
“He’s sad. I didn’t realize the two of you were…”
“The two of us were what?”
“Richard was in love,” she corrects. “I was lonely. There was only your granddaddy for me, Lizzie.” Her face lights with another coy smile. “Now, let me tell you why I’ve put you in the most precarious of positions.”