There was that photo still kept in his Great-uncle Robert’s study, propped on his desk with everything else left untouched. She was outrageously attractive, you could see why he had kept it there, yet she was more wild-seeming than the foolishly attired chimpanzee–an impulsive gift from Robert but whom (which?) didn’t manage to make the wedding guest list; he was soon packed off to a chimp rehab sanctuary. She’d cried at that, but briefly, they said. And there was the MG, a beast of a sleeker sort which had long remained one of her joys. This was how people tended to think of her even still, he imagined. Even Andy, her great-nephew, thought of her like this despite physical evidence to the contrary. It was a fiery essence tamed by simple elegance, the kind of classiness that can’t be taught. The qualities stayed with her, reaching everyone, reflecting off everything. But the toil and trials of life had finally worn down the luster a bit.
Due to growing up around the world with nomadic parents, he’d only met her when she was well past generous middle age. It had been a happy meeting that became an inter-generational friendship. He’d grown up to work in business while she’d been a linguistics researcher. Built her life with Robert in Roxwood, more commonly referred to ( not quite with ill intent) as the “Devil’s Triangle”, a neighborhood fond of tall iron gates and streets jutting here, there and back on themselves amid copious trees and a palpable scarcity of activity. Only the well initiated could get in or out in under thirty minutes. Some had to summon help; even the GPS got confused. This had been the required design, of course. Andy had gotten the trip in and out down to fifteen minutes– less if he sped through annoying roundabouts.
The visits had gone on, soon a pleasant if obligatory act, a direct result of cosmopolitan and mannerly upbringing: one did the right thing out of a primed social conscience, first of all. This included visits to an ancient great-aunt who lived a couple of hours and lifestyle away. But he liked her far more than anyone else in the family from the start. He also had appreciated right off the hammocks she had hung here and there, shocking Robert at first. She had told all that it was the best way to nap, even deeply sleep; she’d had one in her bedroom until she fell out–one of many times–and broken an ankle last year. But she kept the others–in the front yard and back garden, in the study and screened sun room. Robert had grown to enjoy them on occasion, as well, though kept it secret.
And there were bright, artful flowers in most rooms, though often blossoms drooped and scents had begun to sour after they’d stood there, tired, in huge vases too long. He changed them out for new bouquets cut from her garden if Nora, her housekeeper, hadn’t gotten it done. Nora was quite good and affordable but just for two days a week. The house had slowly betrayed the wear of forty years’ life in Celeste’s (and one ought to add, Robert’s) hands and a good fifty of its own before that.
It had been some time since Andy had visited. About eight months. He made it twice a year since his software business had taken over his life. So he tried to prepare for the worst as he pulled up to the fancy, heavy gate. He opened it with a remote’s click, and drove up a semi-circle drive, parked, got out and stretched. Yes, it was true what Mother had said, the painters had not been yet been contracted and the once creamy white with smart Wedgwood blue trim had finally given in to a dim blue and a brownish-green of creeping organisms showed on the white in spots, lots of peeling going on.
He was meant to persuade Aunt Celeste to allow them to help out if necessary. A delicate undertaking, to say the least. She could be so close with money, though maybe she had much less of it now, and cared less and less for appearances, it seemed. He tucked the lavender sport shirt into his grey shorts and combed back his dark hair; he would brook no comments on slovenly dress, even in such summer heat.
He rang the sonorous chime although he’d called her a week ago to remind of the visit. Before he could open it, Nora answered, her graying topknot askew on her head, mouth betraying a remainder of ice cube that she liked to crunch, and quickly smiled at him. A dribble of water eked out and she blushed but he was sympathetic to her quirks. She was good to Celeste and the house was all shined up inside.
“Mr. Demart, so good to see you. She’s in the sun room, ready and waiting.”
He passed lively flowers on a half table under the foyer’s oval mirror, strode through shadowy lengths of hallway past a formal living and dining room–she seldom used these now–around brightening corners and past large kitchen and down another hall, finally coming to the sun room. The blue and green parakeets began to jabber, likely because Andy was there. He did not like them much but they had always been there, one bird or another. Another eccentricity you took along with Celeste.
“Finally, there he is!”
She rose in one practiced movement then put a steadying hand on the armchair beside her. Then stood taller, held arms open to him. What an amazing sight, he thought as always and moved toward her–the silvered wavy hair cropped close, her signature cut; three glinting necklaces roped about her long, wrinkly neck; rose-colored, silver-trimmed caftan drifting about her smallness in a waltz of silken beauty. He inhaled her soft amber fragrance. The same as ever– how long? Did Robert buy it long ago because he loved it on her? Did she splurge on it herself and found it so alluring she forsook all other elixirs on her dressing table? It warmed up any atmosphere. She was seventy-nine and all the etchings in her loosening skin proved it, yet she seemed to most above and beyond a set age.
“Aren’t you smart today with your purple shirt. And flip-flops? Well, suitable for taking to the hammock,” she said gesturing to stretched yellow fabric on the spare frame waiting in a corner. “I can hear from here if you want to avail yourself of the fun now.”
“They’re leather, I’ll have you know, quite good ones. It’s summer! But I have to stay awake part of the visit, don’t I? First a good catching up, later a hammock, Auntie.”
Celeste smirked at him, hand fluttering at her throat as vivid memories came forth. He liked to try every hammock when he first came to visit her, acting a child despite being eighteen, lanky and a it whiskery. She’d had one in nearly every room until Robert had finally confessed to being embarrassed by them when guests came. She was not entirely persuaded; they were made of gorgeous fabrics and such a practical thing. He’d indulged her whims most of the time, and now he wasn’t there to offer exasperated opinions or sweet compliments. Though she could still hear him at odd moments.
“I thought you’d forgotten me. What do you do all the time you’re not around besides run a business? Not that this doesn’t count but aren’t there a few days off? You’re looking a bit peaked about the gills, strained around the eyes. Premature aging, watch out. A sure sign of money madness and sleep aversion. Don’t forget to water your spirit. perhaps yy need a pet to slow you down.”
He nodded at her in vague agreement, picked out almonds from the nut mix nestled in a coral ceramic bowl, popped one, two into his mouth. He’d often considered a dog but they required serious attention. “Not that you would know anything about these topics, Auntie. And I do take a day off occasionally–I’m here now, for instance. Just got back from Venezuela but that was more business than footloose fun.”
He shrugged and snapped up more smokey almonds, ten in a palm that he bounced before tossing them back. This was what he’d hoped, relaxing in the airy sun room eating almonds and chatting easily with Aunt Celeste. Working up to that paint job. She fiddled with her necklaces, an old habit, and one with the large blue stone caught light. He’d always liked that one, hung on a long silver chain. He wondered briefly if it was a blue topaz or an aquamarine or what. Andy liked jewels but knew very little; later he’d ask. She always had interesting information.
“Well, Andrew, I assume no good, steady woman in your life yet?” she asked.
“Right to the point!”
The dating update couldn’t wait today. He stretched out long, muscled legs, leaned back. Nora brought a carafe of iced water and glasses on a tray, settled it on a coffee table and left again. How did Aunt Celeste always get to his business before he got to hers? He abruptly sat forward, forearms resting on knees.
“Tell me what you have been up to, how you’re feeling lately. I’m here to keep an eye on you, of course.”
“That’s an easy report. My annual check-up documented me as still ticking, with moderate to good energy levels. My steady vitals bored the doctor nearly to tears. It seems I shall live a very long time if I keep this up–a life of perhaps ill-gotten leisure punctuated by occasional bursts of industry, a few worthwhile efforts. I had my annual garden party about two months ago with forty well meaning, tiresome, well-combed ladies who came to donate money to our orphanage in Thailand. And the sprinkler system was finally repaired, not so bad as expected but rougher on the pocketbook than wished. And I have my usual book club meeting once a month though it gets harder to read fast and find the wit and will to offer intelligent comments. I may graduate to audible books and forego the group. Do something else. Ride a bike, for instance, there’s a thing I always planned to do more often.”
Her eyes were a clear bluish-grey and she winked at him. She could be disarming; that was her intention more often than not. But he didn’t anticipate her next words.
“Why are you here this time, Andrew? Beyond the usual great fondness bit, I mean.” He started to protest but she waved it away. “Is it that the house has gotten too big for me with Robert gone three years now? That the peeling paint is a debacle for my neighborhood? That I should get out more via the ole senior shuttle– or get home bound meals brought in, for heaven’s sake? Or that I need a keeper other than Nora since I am fast making the approach to eighty? And you are coming to my birthday celebration, aren’t you? It’s November in case you forgot. I must have you here, dear, you are the only relief in our crowd!”
She fiddled with her necklaces, an old habit, then her hands fell to her lap and she sat still, eyes coolly ablaze. The parakeets had begun to hop about again, all four of them enjoying a elaborate white penthouse of a cage, chittering at each other and then at the humans. She watched them and relaxed a tad. Such a mood she was in lately.
“Sorry, I just seem to be noticing I am getting older lately.
Andy was startled by that outpouring since this was mostly not even what had crossed his mind. The paint, yes, the shrubbery trimmed again, perhaps. The roof–had he checked the roof in a while?
“Why all this? Who has been bothering you with such ideas? My adamant but unreachable mother? Oh–Clarence?” He knew her neighbor wanted to buy the house, probably to demolish it and annex the land for his own expansion. A lot of that was going on in the area. She’d get a mint, even as things were. “You cook okay still, right? No one is worried much. Nora says nothing, she’s a trusty one but maybe you’ve threatened her with more dusting in dark corners or polishing each floor on hands and knees…” Andy wanted her to smile, damn it, he didn’t want her to feel such anger or fear. And he still had to address the need for an expensive paint job. And he longed for a stiff drink already. Though he adored her, life was complicated and it wasn’t easy to get away to see her here. And he hadn’t even told her about Eva.
“Well.” She touched the faceted blue stone, index fingertip alighting on it as if she sought reassurance from its heft and beauty. Her shoulders loosened, eyes softened. “Alright then. I have too much spare time to worry, I suppose. Or not about the right things. Well, I never was one for fretting the day and night away– until I hit 77. And then I woke up and thought: life is moving too fast and here I am after Robert has died and yet nothing can be remotely the same, either. Your partner is gone and you are the sparest one, not a hearty two. Not the pair who faces the world together and then each other, one a mirror of sorts for the other. I didn’t like to speak of it back then; life and death are inevitable hurdles, at times. More so as you dig your heels in and stick it out, I’ll tell you what, Andrew Alger Demart, and you have to stay in good form. Top form, I do say. But it is a strange feeling all the same to feel such singularity. And life’s tempo, so fast and yet slow. It is enough to make my head spin some days.” She ran a hand through her waves. “And it’s good of you to be here and withstand my words each time.”
Andy thought about it, this ton of things. So much she kept to herself and yet barely a moment of doubt ever shown to others. “Yes, but Auntie Celeste you are certainly a marathon runner of sorts. I’d hate to get in your way, would not think of it… I only want to be of help.”
Celeste’s sparse, arched eyebrow’s lifted high as she took in a deep breath. “There really is no helping at this stage, darling, other than being a dear and seeing me from time to time. I can pay for other things to get done, but not the acquisition of kindness, laughter and love. My, doesn’t the rest seem so much nonsense in the end.”
She looked wistfully at her birds, two of which looked back obligingly, perhaps with good will. He wondered if she or they ever wished they could be freed; he certainly would but knew the consequence would be perilous. Like the chimp, they were not meant to be kept indebted to human company.
His throat tightened as he reached for the carafe and a glass, offering her the first one, which she took, drank quickly as she sputtered a bit, then asked for more. She smoothed back her cap of gleaming hair–mostly white but not thinning much, she thought, thank goodness. A touch of vanity was good for the soul on those days when nothing seemed to stay in the right places, anymore. But she did agree that she wasted too much time on vanity as a younger woman. It got her Robert, perhaps, but it wasn’t what kept him. Only patience, appreciation and her natural fire managed to do that. He did take good care of so much. He did have such a fine way with conversation when all was well and she loved his jaunty walk, even when that hip had trouble, the way he tossed his tweedy hats onto the back door coat tree and….
“Andrew, when are you going to find a wife? Or a partner, whatever you might call her?”
“Well, I– I’ve dated quite a few. I might know someone, we will see. But first, we must discuss–”
“Oh yes, I know, the house, this relic of a house, Andrew! Let’s sniff out a prime company or two, it’s been a decade or more, and we’ll entertain the best bids and get on with it. I still have money enough. Well, not perhaps ever enough, but enough, overall. One needs to protect one’s material goods, we are told, whatever they may be. One needs to be smart about getting old–is that even possible? Does it not arrive unexalted as well as uninvited yet demand you give its way? So I must have the painting done, too.”
“And I thought this was my great mission today! What a relief. You are full of surprises.”
He got up and looked out the windows to the garden. The light was shifting, burnishing petals, greenery, all blunt and soft edges. He felt his own smallish garden could use such warm and tender light but he had no time to address those sorts of things. He feared he would fail at it, too. He was better with numbers than sentient things, he believed.
Celeste joined him, hand on his shoulder. “Aren’t I? Of course, you were charged with that duty, your mother thought I would never cave and spend the cash.” She flashed a grin, the tiny overbite lovely in her once-again friendly face.”I might even sell it sometime, who knows? But not yet, not yet.”
Nora rapped on the French door, then stuck her head around. “Done with me for now? I made lemon bars if you’d like them before I go.”
“Yes, please,” Celeste said. “They’re to die for, Andrew!”
“Please don’t say that, Auntie…I can be superstitious.”
She rested her head against his upper arm, then patted his back, moved to the bird-cage to check on the parakeets’ antics. She poked her finger in a cage and a bird nibbled at it.
“Tell me what it is, darling. What it is you mean to say to me.”
For a minute, he thought she was talking to her absurdly adored birds. But no, she could feel it, all that he was carrying.
They took the plate Nora brought, thanked her and said farewell, then went outdoors. The garden was cooler and quiet, the humming of insects and chatter from the treetop aviaries softer as the sun slipped down, so they took to the heavy white iron chairs with fluffy green cushions at the koi pond. A miniature waterfall emitted slippery sounds that eased the chronic ache in his mind, that lodged in his shoulders. Everything smelled abundant, sweet in this oasis. He could not imagine Celeste no longer right here; she was the central part, the axis of the wheel he valued deeply.
And so he told her.
“I met a woman in South America almost two years ago.” He stared at the fish, orange-gold and white with black markings. “She works for a company I’ve done much business with and we got to know one another over each week we had together, here and there.”
He fell silent. How did you tell an elderly aunt who married very well and did most of the right things in life this sort of thing? And yet it was his Auntie Celeste. She had lived through decades, learned much. She was right then looking at him, maybe past him, ready to wait all night. She had that flaring fire, yes, but it also was a flame that burned long and steady.
“Her name is Magdalena. I thought maybe I was falling in love, just a little. Enough to tell her so. But she…had other plans, not including a long-term anything with me.”
The fountain had begun to sound louder, the koi swam under the darkening surface of the pond quite fast now. Andy wanted to take it all back. Celeste stretched out her legs and the kaftan rustled a little.
“She has had a meteoric career, she is VP of…well, anyway, the point is.” He stopped and looked above. Venus was there, sparkling like brand new. Always Venus could be counted on. “The point is, she is not in my life, anymore, not really. It was impossible, the the worst when she left. I had to avoid you awhile. But that isn’t all of it.”
He took in a breath and it was a slow sharp knife that lodged in his heart, all he wanted to say and feared to tell and how it made life harder. How could any sort of love be like this?
A fish tail flipped above surface; the koi ran to the bottom. Light fell across the dark emerald lawn, its veil of dimmer gold changing into slower silvery light resting inside summered air.
“What is the child’s name, Andrew? When do we meet?”
His head fell forward, his hands covered his face. “Oh…!” he said between splayed fingers.
She hummed tunelessly, a new thing she liked. “I’ve been waiting for something. Don’t be afraid. We’ll set things in good motion, it will be alright.”
“How do I set things right when a child is here because of irresponsibility?”
She blew out air between her teeth, making a dismissive sound. “Don’t you think that’s often the case? Or it was when I was of age. No one knew what was smart or best though they thought they knew–life often just happens in ways one never expects.” She shooed away a moth that liked her necklaces. “I had a child once.”
He turned in his chair. “What?”
“I was, after all, the young woman in that photo, Andrew. Not restrained about living an adventurous life. And I got pregnant. And I didn’t keep it. Her. My mother said the cruel reality of a motherhood would not bring comfort, good fortune or lasting security. That I was too smart and pretty to be a mother yet if at all. So the baby was taken. And a couple of years later I met Robert. But we couldn’t beget children. By then, that child was long gone if not forgotten. This was before birth control was legal, Andrew, don’t look so shocked, girls got pregnant often. Adoption was the solution then. I was not ungrateful. But, too, confounded and fearful, ashamed. But I was very sad later…”
“I never would have guessed. I’m sorry. You never spoke of wanting children. But, then, I never have, either.”
“Sometimes you don’t even know what you need or want until it is there before you. Or gone.”
Her voice had become a whisper and he ached for her as much as for himself. And lately for all the children who had no one or who had someone, then suddenly no one. It was new and too much sometimes, he had no noble words to encompass all such as these.
“Her name is Eva. She is one year old. And I want her with me but I don’t know how to do this, yet.”
“Okay. Me, either.” She turned to him, eyes clear, radiant with energy. “When can Eva come here?”
“Magdalena moved to LA. I might be able to get partial custody. I’m working on it, Auntie Celeste. Will you… can you help me?”
She sighed but it became tremulous laughter. “Look at us, Andrew. We thought we had everything, can you even imagine? But that was not the most of it, not even close. Now comes a miracle. Bring little Eva to me. Of course I will help you and love her!” She smiled at Andy, and touched the large blue jewel at her chest like a brilliant, voluptuous star fallen to earth. “And I have part of an inheritance for her already, right here, saved for this little one.” She crinkled her brow. “Oh, I need a new hammock, a lovely small one!”
He wanted to weep or perhaps giggle but remained in barest control. “You’re the first to know, Auntie. I had so hoped I could count on your generosity of spirit. To be there for me. Thank you… so much.”
Andy rose then bent to hug her but she stood up, too, and they held on as the air grew tender with night greenness. He had to hurry things up. Eva must have time to enjoy this wonderful great-great-auntie and Celeste needed time to properly adore her. But he felt better armed for any fight ahead, quite ready now. For fatherhood, yes, but for all the life that would come next. Still, he pulled away from Celeste to locate the garden hammock. He wanted to lie back, swing at will, take in the grand evening sky.