“It’s all gone, El,” Lillian Grace said to her long-dead husband and carefully picked her way up the driveway.
The aroma of burnt—like a backyard barbeque times a hundred—clung to the insides of her nostrils. Though normally sure of foot, the charred, uneven terrain left much to be desired. She stooped down and picked up a long, gnarled stick, black with soot. She grasped it in both hands and gave it a good whack on the ground, then leaned on it. “You’ll do,” she muttered to herself.
“Darlin’,” she said, switching back to her husband, “all I need is to rush and turn an ankle out here all by myself. Oh, Ellie, you’d be so proud of me. I’ve slowed way down—just like you told me I should. I still get stomachaches, though. Mother says I should drink more milk. What do you think?”
Ellie remained silent on the topic, leaving her to her own thoughts. The smell of something burning triggered even more memories of their time together. A fretful Harper on one hip, she’d stood over a pot of overcooked rice. Harper began to wail as smoke filled the tiny kitchen. The acrid smell should have been a warning, but she’d been too distracted to turn down the burner. Trying to scrape the sticky, brown goo from the bottom, she’d bounced the baby, hoping to quell his cries, all the while wondering whether the rice was still edible and, if not, what in the world she was going to serve for their evening meal. In that instant Ellie had called out to her from the living room where he’d set up his study area.
“Lil, darlin’, you okay in there?”
Long and lean, Ellie appeared at the kitchen doorway, his blue eyes dark with worry as he’d looked her up and down. “Give him here. I’ll finish up dinner. You go rest. Okay?”
Too mortified to respond, she’d simply handed over their son into his waiting arms and had fled to their tiny bedroom. Later, over a delicious dinner of onion-and-gravy-smothered hamburger steak over her burned rice, Ellie had chatted away as if nothing untoward had happened.
“I could have started a fire.”
“But you didn’t.”
“But I could have! Don’t you see? I could have. Oh, Ellie, I don’t know. I just don’t think I’m good at this.”
“Good at what, darlin’?” He’d put down his fork and turned in his seat to face her.
“This!” She’d gestured around the room. “I’m not good at being a wife or mother. Harper’s no better, no matter what I try. I can’t even keep a decent house or make a meal. Remember the Wednesday Surprise? You said it wasn’t fit to slop a hog. And you were right.”
“Hold your horses, darlin’. What I said was the quality of the meat at that corner store you go to wasn’t fit to slop a hog. It was never meant to be a critique of your cookin’. It’s a commentary on the way food gets distributed. We get the worst quality of meats and produce while the fat cats in Georgetown get the best of everything.”
Ellie’s voice receded, leaving her alone with the landscape. She shook her head. “Just look at this mess. California. Pft! Don’t know why everybody and their momma seems to love it out here. Personally, I don’t get it. If the earthquakes or wildfires don’t get you, some other wild thing might.”
As if on cue, just yards ahead of her, a large gray coyote trotted across the path. It stopped, lifted its triangular head, and stared right at her, slanted eyes showing no sign of fear. Even though her granddaughter, Apple, had reassured her time and again that coyotes, though a nuisance, were generally of no harm to humans, this one looked mean. “Scat!” she yelled.
The animal didn’t move. She raised the stick. This time the coyote loped off, disappearing into the brush.
“Well, that was fun,” she said, pausing to make sure the beast didn’t make a reappearance.
While she waited, she lifted her left foot. Using the end of the stick, she pried free a big wad of black goo that had attached itself to her sneaker’s tread. Just as she lifted her head, a gust of wind rattled the palm fronds overhead, or what was left of them. The scent of burnt things filled her lungs and tightened her chest.
“Ellie,” she said, “how in the heck do people with lung problems live here? Air’s so dry folks get nosebleeds just trying to breathe. Seems like every other week some natural disaster or another rains down holy hell. And if it’s not that, it’s the freeways. Sweet Jesus, here they have car chases every day! Cross my heart, it’s true. Can’t turn on the TV without seeing a helicopter flying overhead, bringing us breaking news about another car full of young people racing up the freeway, a line of cops chasing ’em. I tell you, this whole town is Betsy-bug crazy. I wish I could convince Apple and Scotty to leave, but I know I’m never going to convince them, even after the fire.”
She reached into her backpack, pulled out a water bottle, and took a big swig. “Apple says it’s a total loss. But you know how young people are. They tend to exaggerate. That’s why I’m here—to see for myself.”
Spritely stepping, she made her way forward past the final bend in the charred driveway, then stopped short. Both hands atop the stick, she used it to steady herself as she gazed out at the Pacific Ocean, glistening clean and white in the distance. She let out a low whistle. What used to be the front of the estate had been replaced by a breathtaking view of the horizon line, due west.
“Apple’s right, darlin’, it’s all gone. Nothing left but rubble. Rubble is an overstatement.”
A slightly familiar voice called out from behind her. She swung around and came face to face with Rolland, the Scott family’s majordomo. The man’s warm smile offset his commanding presence. Tall, with dark-brown skin and gray-flecked, closely cropped hair, he oozed charisma, a fact her granddaughter had repeatedly pointed out to her over the past year and a half. The girl’s voice immediately popped into her head.
“He’s fine as shit, Gram.”
“Apple Grace, you watch your mouth!”
“It’s Apple Scott now and you know I’m right.”
Despite herself, a smile curled at the corners of her mouth.
“See, I knew it!” her granddaughter continued. “You’re crushin’ on him.”
“I am not crushin’ on him, whatever that means.” She paused. “But he is good-looking. No arguing that fact.”
“And you two have so much in common.”
“Sweetie, we have absolutely nothing in common,” she replied, slightly annoyed by her granddaughter’s refusal to leave alone the subject of her love life. “Rolland is a nice man,” she replied. “Period.”
“Nice? He’s a catch, Gram. Tall, dark like me, handsome as fuck—”
“Oops, that one slipped.” A sly smile curled the young woman’s lips. “Movie-star handsome. Looks like he was a baller back in the day.”
“I think Esther said he played soccer as a boy, before he went off to college, then law school.”
“See? There’s something else you two have in common. Grandpa Ellie was a lawyer too.”
She nodded. Helpless to stem the onslaught into her past, she took another sip of coffee and hoped against hope one of the two sleeping children in the adjacent bedroom would wake from their nap and put her out of her misery.
“And did you check out Rolland’s feet and hands?” Apple continued. “They’re huge! You know what that means, right?”
“You know you need to quit.” She chuckled.
“So you’ll do it, right? You’ll invite him over?”
“No, honey. I can’t do that.” Lillian rose, gathered up her empty mug and Apple’s plate and headed for the sink.
“Why not, Gram?” Apple, asked, right on her heels.
She shrugged and shook her head. Growing more frustrated by the second, she bypassed the stainless-steel dishwasher and turned on the spigot. Tuning out the girl’s jabbering, her thoughts swirled as she hand-washed and rinsed the dishes, then put them on the rack to dry.
“Give me one good reason!”
Apple’s demand snapped her back to attention.
“I’m not fitna’ let this go until you tell me.”
“Fine, I’ll tell you.” Lillian looked her granddaughter straight in the face. “It’s because I’m not about to get involved with another man who’s not over his wife.”
“Wait—what? Did you say another man?” Apple sputtered.
“Oh, baby. You young folks think you invented love. Pft!” She sank back down onto the sofa and folded her hands in her lap.
“Wow, Gram,” Apple replied, eyes wide. “I—I thought Grandpa Ellie was your only…”
Lillian shook her head.
“I had no freaking idea,” Apple continued, joining her on the sofa, folding limber legs underneath and curling up next to her like a kitten.
“Of course you didn’t.” Lillian reached over and swept the girl’s wild, springy, brown curls up and off of her forehead. “You’re no different from any other young person, so swept up in your own busy life that you don’t have time to think about anybody else’s.”
“I’m a moron.”
“No, baby. Just young.”
“Want to talk about it—um—him?”
“Huh? Why not?”
“Because, trust me, some things are better left alone.”
“But nothing. You need to put down your head and catch yourself a nap before those two babies of yours get up and start raising a ruckus.”
“Okay, but just answer one question, please? Was he good, you know? In the sack?”
“I cannot believe you asked me that,” she replied, laughing out loud.
“Yep, he was. You’re blushing.”
“I am not.”
“Black women don’t blush.”
“Bullshit. You’re red in the face, so stop trying to deny that you hooked up with some hottie. Oh, my God. Tell me you didn’t cheat on Grandpa Ellie.”
“No, nothing like that. Your grandpa was already gone. I met him years after Ellie passed.”
“Whew, you had my heart racing for a minute. So where’d you meet the new guy? Or did you already know him?”
“No. I met him later.”
“So spill. What’s his name? Do you two still…I mean is he still in your life? I can’t believe you’ve kept this secret from me all this time!”
“I haven’t been keeping him a secret. There’s just not much to tell. It was over almost as quickly as it began. End of story.”
“I don’t think so.” Apple grinned. “Kids are asleep. Scotty’s out doing God knows what. Got nothing but time. Start at the beginning. Tell me everything.”
“You’re not going to let me slide out of this, are you?”
“Nope. Now start talking, Gram, or else I’ll have to tickle it out of you.” Apple reached out as if to pinch her super-sensitive side area.
“Okay, okay.” Giggling, she squirmed away. “I’ll tell you,” she continued, regaining her equilibrium. “But you’ve got to promise not to repeat anything I’m about to say.”
“I promise, but why so serious? You said it was over long ago, right?”
“Now I’m really confused.”
“Join the club.”
She paused and stared out through the windows, over the treetops to the San Gabriels. Though miles away, today the mountains seemed closer than ever, uncharacteristically green rather than their usual burnt-toast color. Like a favorite novel left open on a table, the stiff breeze of time flipped the pages of her memory to the wholly unexpected chapter of her post-Ellie life.
“Well? What happened?”
Apple’s insistent voice snapped back her attention.
“It all started,” she shrugged, “because I changed my seat on the plane.”
© Pasadena Shakes
Eve Montgomery Riley is a retired judge writing under the pen name Pasadena Shakes. Her nonfiction book, Reaching the Top, a study of African-American women executives in the Fortune 500, was published by ProQuest in 2006.