“The gate’s open?” Joy gasped. She slammed her sneakered foot hard against the brake pedal of the old Rover. Her torso lurched forward against the tight strictures of the seatbelt.
“Jesus, mom! What the hell’s wrong with you?”
“What the hell’s wrong with your mouth, Brooke?” Joy snapped at her teenage daughter without turning her gaze away from the open gate. “And why the hell is this gate open? Poodle has a fit when the gate’s left open. It’s not safe!”
The driveway stretched far beyond the wide-slung, wrought iron double doors into the tree-shaded distance. Scores of southern live oaks and elm trees with broad, evergreen crowns dotted the landscape, like a lush congregation of church lady hats. Beneath the canopy of trees, the grove was cluttered with gnarly underbrush, twists and tangles of ugly growth sturdy enough to withstand the violent extremes of North Texan weather.
Poodle’s house wasn’t visible from the gates. Joy leaned toward the windshield, her mirrored aviators sliding down the bridge of her nose as she squinted into the distance for answers, explanations. Joy crept her old SUV down the cracked concrete of the paved, tree-lined path. It only took a couple of minutes to make it to the house, but it felt like an eternity to Joy. As if the Texan landscape had the power to slow the track of time to a crawl, no matter how fast you tried to move forward.
“I can’t believe we’re still in the city.” Brooke stretched her lean forearm out her open window and waved at the pecan trees whose fallen nuts she scooped into the skirts of her sundresses when she was little.
Joy wondered how her sixteen year-old sophisticate would endure the radical change from a two-bedroom, Manhattan apartment to a six-bedroom farmhouse on ten acres of mostly forest. Even though her grandparents’ homestead was only a fifteen-minute drive from downtown Dallas, it looked and felt like the East Texas woods Poodle and Paw left behind some seventy-odd years ago.
The house needed a fresh coat of paint. Its wide, clapboard planks were worse for wear, patches of peeling white paint speckling the entire facade like liver spots. But it still felt grand. The wide, wraparound porch and ornamental columns hinted that the old Queen Anne was quite the beauty in her heyday, and still hadn’t lost her good looks or charm.
A tall metal ladder leaned against the porch roof. An upstairs bedroom window was open, the sheer lace curtains flailing in the wind like the wave of a hanky.
“Stay here.” Joy motioned to Brooke like a crossing guard signaling stop. Joy hurried out of the car and jogged up the porch steps to the front door. It opened wide with the lightest touch of Joy’s palm.
“Poodle? Chris?” Joy yelled, as she raced into the hallway. She pressed open the pocket doors to the parlor and stopped at the sound of Poodle’s voice.
“Joy, close those doors quick now, sugar.”
Joy shoved the sliding doors shut behind her and gazed at her grandmother. Nestled into her favorite, rose silk armchair, and propped up by a sea of little pillows, Poodle resembled a red-headed version of her favorite monarch, Queen Elizabeth. With a full face of makeup and cradling a small glass of rose, Poodle was all done up and ready for company in her pink satin “dress pajamas” and robe. Her teacup chihuahua, Maverick, was curled in a tiny ball on her lap. The dog was decked out in pink bows and a crystal collar, his sleepy eyes exuding the security of his situation. Poodle’s satin-slippered feet were propped on a small, embroidered ottoman with carved wooden legs. Joy noticed the slide-proof strips on the bottom of Poodle’s slippers.
“Marguerita bought me these,” Poodle said in her craggy soprano, rendered rugged by 90 years of life and kitchen sherry. Poodle’s eyes, grey as fog, met Joy’s dark brown gaze. Poodle’s eyes noticed everything, even inner thoughts, though they clouded her own. Paw called her “Stormy,” after his favorite song from the Sixties. A joke and a compliment to the woman whose temperament matched the old adage about their native climate. “If you don’t like the Texas weather, just wait a minute.” Poodle’s natural ability to shift seamlessly between genuine charm, razor wit and the cold stealth of a North Texas ice storm kept folks entertained but always cautious, prepared to skid. No one messed with Poodle, which caused her grandchildren to always feel safe within the gates of the sanctuary Paw and Poodle created a mere eight miles southwest of the “grassy knoll.”
“Poodle, what’s going on?” Joy scanned the high-ceilinged room with its tall, lead glass windows overlooking the front drive and the rose garden at the side of the house. All seemed normal, nothing awry. Poodle typically enjoyed her first cocktail at about noon, just like the Queen, while she scanned newspapers and magazines with a small magnifying glass. Poodle clipped articles “to keep” with a pair of gold-toned sewing scissors. Next to her chair was a pile of today’s midday reading, and a small stack of careful cutouts.
“What do you mean, sugar?” Poodle raised her myrtle green wine glass to her lips, cradling the clear, crystal stem between her cotton-candy-painted fingertips.
“The gate’s open, the front door’s open, there’s a ladder up against the house … where’s Chris?”
“That’s just cuz of the possum, sugar. Where’s my Brookie?”
“The possum?” Joy asked.
Poodle continued between sips. “I saw a possum in the hallway there, so I closed the door. Christopher’s lookin’ for ‘em.”
“Don’t open the door.” Poodle shrugged and set down her glass. “Possums ‘r some ugly buggers, but they’re good. They eat up the ticks. Did you leave Brooke outside in the heat? Tell’er to come inside and get her some iced tea before she burns up out there.”
On cue, the pocket doors slid open, and Brooke bounded past Joy in a beeline to Poodle.
“There’s my princess!” Poodle beamed. Her petal-shaped mouth broadened into a pink-lipped smile, revealing all of her dentures. Poodle didn’t believe in indiscriminate toothy grins. She reserved them for appropriate moments of genuine joy. Rings on nearly every finger, Poodle stretched her tiny jewels in the direction of her great-granddaughter, her favorite person in the world.
“You’re so pretty! What’s that on your head there? Is it Jamaican?”
“No, Poodle, it’s just a head wrap.” Brooke leaned into Poodle’s arms for a hug. “It’s the style. I can wrap your hair sometime. We can be twins.”
“She’ll love that.”
Joy swiveled at the sound of her younger brother’s voice.
Chris winked at Joy with the stormy eyes he inherited from Poodle. Chris’s dark curls had turned completely silver, but he retained the lanky limbs of his youth. Clutching a corn broom, he tugged to pull up his worn Levi’s, which slouched at his waist. Dropping the broom, he moved in for a group hug with Brooke and Poodle.
It was a beautiful sight to behold, but Joy couldn’t understand what was wrong with these people. The false security of a gate and a shut door and an old woman’s steely temperament in the face of vermin and Lord knows what other menaces made no sense to her. As much as Joy hated the sky-is-always-falling anxiety of New York, she equally hated the pie-in-the-sky ennui of her fellow Texans. Unless you were talking about guns, bbq or Black presidents, nothing seemed to phase anyone around here, to a fault. How could she hug folks and chitchat and sip summer beverages when a potentially rabid animal was skulking about the house?
“WHAT ABOUT THE DAMN POSSUM?!” Joy yelled.
“You need a glass of wine, sugar,” Poodle commented. “You look tired. Have a seat there and rest yourself.”
“I don’t need wine, Poodle. I need for there not to be wild animals roaming around our house!” Joy grabbed Christopher’s discarded broom and headed out of the parlor, slamming the doors shut. The wooden panels shuddered, and a low rumble lingered from the impact.
Joy hiked up the curved wooden staircase two steps at a time, clutching the mahogany banister in one hand and the broom in the other. She jogged into the generous master suite at the end of the upstairs hallway, her new room. She scanned the room, lonely with neglect but still a dream for someone who had spent her entire adult life in small-ish Manhattan apartments. She stepped cautiously toward the fireplace, clutching the broom handle with both hands, close to the whisks. She drew the broom back like a baseball bat and swiftly swung it forward, giving the metal fireplace grate a series of strong whacks.
Joy swiveled the broom around and stuck the whisk up the fireplace flue. She wriggled it back and forth, uncovering a cloud of murky soot, but no marsupials. She dropped the broom and drew back, coughing into her hands, as she covered her nose and mouth from the dark powder that wafted through the air.
“I think you could use this now.”
Still choking, Joy turned to see Chris striding toward her, holding two of Poodle’s wine goblets. He softly kissed her hunched, wheezing figure on the top of her head.
“But…” Joy whispered.
“I already called an animal control company,” Chris said in his low, slow drawl. I left the gate open for them in case they came while I was searchin’ the house. No use giving yourself cancer over a critter that’s probably scareder of us than we are of him.”
He was right, but Joy didn’t say so. She wiped the tears from her coughing spell with the edge of her top and took the goblet from Chris’ outstretched hand.
“Come on,” he said. “Let’s get back downstairs before Poodle passes out. She’s on at least her second glass of wine.”
“I think I’ll join her on that front.” Joy followed Chris out of the room and back down the stairs. Just as they reached the parlor door, the front door of the house creaked and slowly swung open, exposing the front porch and tree-lined drive beyond.
Joy and Chris stopped and stared in the direction of the opening.
“The wind?” Joy asked.
As if to answer her question, a young man slowly moved into the door frame. White, likely mid-twenties. He clutched a trucker hat in his ruddy, scarred hands. He held no workbox or implement of capture. Just a worn, bibbed cap. The young man had a reddish tan, the ochre of East Texas clay, and a head full of dark, thick hair. His long bangs shaded his eyes until he gave his head a shake, like a pup waking up from a nap. His eyes were a softer shade of grey than Poodle’s, more cashmere than steel.
“You can come this way.” Chris motioned toward the parlor doors. “Our grandmother will tell you more about this phantom possum she claims she saw.”
“But …” the young man stuttered.
“This is our grandmother,” Chris announced as he slid open the double doors. “Poodle, tell this young man about the possum.”
Poodle abruptly ceased her chitchat with Brooke. Her eyes locked on the young man like a guided missile to a target. Maverick’s tiny alien head snapped up from his slumber, and he began yapping frenetically in Poodle’s lap. He wasn’t fond of white men. Poodle examined the young man with the frozen stare of someone who has spotted a weaving rustle in tall grass that might produce a snake.
“Cousin Peggy?” he whispered.
Joy, Chris and Brooke traded rapid glances back and forth, but didn’t dare speak.
Poodle’s tone was even, almost cruel. “Am I supposed to know you?”
“Yes ma’am, I mean, no … I’m Howdy. My granddaddy is Hank. Cousin Hank. He sent me up here from Avinger.”
The dusty young man whose face matched Poodle’s more than any of her grandchildren seemed to be a key to a trove of either treasure or contraband that had been locked away and buried long before they were born. Poodle’s life before Paw had always been a mystery. She always shut down any discussions of her East Texas upbringing. All she revealed was that her mama died when she was young, just like their mother. Poodle was so pale that Joy and her siblings always presumed that, like so many older Black folks, she had an absent-in-plain-sight white papa she chose to purge from her reality, acknowledging only the family she had created for herself on her own terms. But they never knew for sure.
“You’re Hank’s boy?” Poodle drawled.
“Yes, Miss Peggy. I’m Hank’s grandson.”
Joy was almost as stunned at the sound of Poodle’s original nickname, Peggy, as she was at the revelation of “cousin” Hank and his grandson.
“Hmmm,” Poodle murmured. “You best tell me what you come here for. So you can head on back to the country. Back to Avinger.”
“Well, ma’am, I come here to tell you about cousin Emmett. Your brother, Emmett. I come to tell you cousin Emmett is dead.”
The storm clouds faded to fog. Poodle’s eyes softened ever so slightly. But her pink-glazed lips remained locked tight, holding back God knows what from her grandchildren and mysterious new relation.
Maverick, on the other hand, held nothing back. The fancy little dog leaned back on his haunches and flared his tiny teeth at Poodle’s long-lost cousin. He shook his small head, prisms of light bouncing off his sparkly collar as he unleashed a torrent of squeaky “arfs” in the young man’s direction.
Joy hurried to Poodle and grabbed the Chihuahua from her lap.
“Brooke, take Maverick outside,” Joy said. She held out the dog, legs dangling and still yapping, in the direction of her daughter. “Howdy? Is that what you said? Howdy, why don’t you have a seat there, and I’ll fetch you some iced tea.”
“No need for that.” Poodle said. “He did what he come here to do. Now he can go back where he come from.”
“Poodle,” Joy pleaded. “He’s come a long way to talk to you. He’s … ” Joy hesitated. “He’s family.”
“Y’all’s my family.” Poodle said, still staring at Howdy. “All the family I need.”
Howdy’s voice was a whisper. “I don’t mean no harm, Miss Peggy. It’s just you’re Cousin Emmett’s closest kin. He didn’t ever have no wife or children of his own. Just you. His sister.”
Poodle continued to stare but said nothing.
“He left you everything, Miss Peggy.”
Howdy studied his hat, while everyone else stared at Poodle, who remained stoic. After a long, frigid silence, Chris finally broke the frost.
“And to think we always thought you were just light-skinned.”