At our last writer’s group meeting we talked about doing a collection of short, interrelated stories. Here’s the premise: All of the stories have to take place within 72 hours of 97 year old Sidney’s funeral. There’s a viewing, a memorial service and a scattering of ashes at the beach, although you don’t need to place your story at any of these events. There’s an open casket, but Sidney will be cremated. Set in Laguna, mid October, the weather is warm. You have to read the previous stories to make sure your story jives, but other than that – create your own characters, situations, etc. Feel free to use other’s characters; once they’re out there, they are public domain. And no getting huffy if a fellow Fictionaire turns your sweet grandma into a zombie.
We’ll take turns writing a story (beginning with me, since it was my idea) and commit to having it posted by the next meeting.
This is what we’re doing… and this is what I wrote. I like it so much, I might make it into a novel. My critique partner doesn’t think it answers enough questions to be a short story. I’m not sure it has the legs to carry it another 80k. words. I’d love some feedback. Opinions wanted.
The hot Santa Ana winds blew in from the desert carrying the odors of the nearby wildfires, death and disappointment. An eastern wind carries more than dust and ashes, Rainie’s grammy had told her; it uproots secrets. And everyone knows once one secret was told, no secrets were safe.
Rainie paused in front of the Top of the World Chapel doors. The sun, a faint pink glow over the eastern hills had yet to shine, but Rainie hadn’t any doubt that it would rise scorching hot and blistering. She looked out over sleeping Laguna. The dark gray Pacific Ocean stretched away from her. On the horizon lights of distant ships bobbed.
She turned her back on the ships, on any dream of sailing away and inserted the key into the heavily carved wooden doors. They slid open before Rainie turned the key. Odd. The chapel, built in the 1930s, had a musty, empty smell. She stepped into the cool shade of the foyer and the door swung shut, closing with a click that echoed through the cavernous room. The morning sounds -- birds, crickets and insects -- disappeared when the door closed. Rainie’s sneakers padded across the terracotta tile, her footsteps loud.
She had thought she’d be alone, which is exactly why she’d chosen to come at near dawn. Not that she’d been able to sleep. She hadn’t slept for weeks. Which may explain why, at first, she’d thought the girl standing in the nave, facing the pulpit, her face lifted to the stain glass window, might be a ghost, or even, given her surroundings, an angel.
Although Rainie couldn’t see her face, the way the child’s head moved, it looked as if she was having a conversation with the Lord trapped in the glass, or one of the sheep milling about His feet, giving Rainie the odd sense of interrupting. The meager morning sun lit the glass and multi-colored reflections fell on the girl, giving her an iridescent glow. Slowly, she turned and Rainie realized she wasn’t a child, but a woman with a scowl and angry eyes.
“Well, where is he, then?” the girl-woman demanded, placing her balled fists on her hips. She had yellow blond hair, cut in a curly bob, and wore a pale blue sleeveless dress that fell straight to her knees and yet hinted at curves.
“I’m sorry, who?” Rainie tucked her hands into her pockets, feeling inappropriately dressed. She’d thrown on Ian’s sweats, one of the few sets of clothes he’d left behind. Perhaps he didn’t exercise at the hotel, or, more likely, he’d just bought himself a new pair of running clothes. Now that Poppa Sid had died, making Ian The-Man-In-Charge, he could afford new running clothes, the hotel suite, and room services of all sorts. Which didn’t explain, really, why Rainie wore his cast-offs. Just because he’d left them behind didn’t mean Rainie should wear them. And yet, she did. Frequently.
“Sid!” the woman spat the name. Her gaze raked over Rainie and Rainie tugged at the drawstring holding up the sweat pants.
“He’s still at the funeral home.” Rainie swallowed. “They won’t bring the casket here until tomorrow morning. There’s the viewing tonight…” Her voice trailed away and she heard her own sadness.
“Then what are you doing here?” The woman’s eyes matched her dress and as she drew closer, Rainie saw she wore a necklace of the same steely blue. Rainie’s hand instinctively crept to her own necklace, a gift from Poppa Sid, an emerald that he’d said matched her eyes.
“I’ve come to practice the organ.” Rainie shifted her feet. “What are you doing here? Pastor Markham gave me the key.” Not you. How did you get in? She wanted to ask, but years and years of social training held back her questions.
The woman looked from the massive organ and then back to Rainie. “Why are you playing the organ? I’m sure Georgie could spit out the money for an organist. No need for freebie-family members to play.”
Rainie opened her mouth to ask how this woman could possibly know her father or her relation to Poppa Sid, but then remembered her family had never lived a quiet life. Well, except for her. Her own life had been, until now, ungossip-worthy. Her breath caught as if a valve inside her windpipe had been opened and then closed. She took a deep breath and braced herself. She’d get through this weekend. She’d weather the rumors and chit-chat. She could be strong.
Although in nearly forty years, she’d never been before.
“I wanted to play,” Rainie told the woman, lacing her voice with resolve she didn’t feel. “As a gift to my grandfather.”
The woman snorted. “Not much of a gift, that.”
“Yeah, well, it’s something I want to do.” Rainie let a little of her training slip, and brushed past the woman. Her footsteps tapped out an angry rhythm as she marched up the aisle towards the organ. She lifted the massive cover, turned on the switch, and adjusted the bench.
“A gift to your grandfather or an excuse not to sit by your husband?”
Rainie squared her shoulders and bit back a rude retort. She’d have to get used the questions. Even if they weren’t asked so bluntly, they’d still be asked. Maybe not to her face, maybe behind to her back, but the questions would be there, either in people’s eyes or on their lips. And Rainie didn’t have to answer.
The woman appeared at her elbow. “If you’ve come to practice, where’s your music?”
Rainie gave the woman a tight smile as she settled onto the bench. “I memorize.”
“If you already know it, then why you practicing?”
For the first time Rainie caught a hint of the woman’s French accent. “Who did you say are again?”
“I didn’t say and you didn’t answer my question.”
Rainie sighed and began adjusting the stops. “Every instrument is different. A peddle may be broken, the bench could wobble… I’ve just learned from sad experience it’s best to give every instrument a test run. I mean, an organ’s not like a violin. You can’t just bring your own.”
The woman cocked her head. “Sad experiences, you’ve had a few?”
Rainie gave a humorless laugh, because most people would say her life was charmed, but if she lived such a fairytale, then why was she so sad? Because the prince she’d been kissing for nearly thirty years had turned into a toad.
Her social graces training slipped completely away. “I’m sorry. I don’t know you. And because I don’t know you, I don’t feel I need to share.” Rainie hit the keys, a D minor chord, and the music reverberated through the deserted chapel.
“Good for you,” the woman chuckled and hitched herself up on top of the organ. She had reed thin legs, pale as porcelain and covered with silky hose, and she swung them back and forth, like a child pumping a swing.
Rainie lifted her fingers, horrified. The sudden cessation of music filled the room. “You can’t sit on this organ.” Rainie’s words echoed.
The woman cut her sideways smile. She wore bright red shoes with ribbon ties on the ankles and the red heels bumped in time against the organ. “No?”
“No. It’s a 1930’s Wurlitzer. Solid Walnut, it’s extremely valuable and you’re kicking it.”
“You’re very rich.” The woman smiled, but didn’t budge or stop swinging her legs. “You could replace it.”
Rainie groaned. She hated being reminded of her money. It made her feel guilty and dirty. She supposed that’s why she worked so hard at the foundation. She pounded out the first line of Pie Jesu and said, through gritted teeth, “Get off!”
And to her surprise, the woman did. Rainie almost stopped playing, but after watching the woman wander down the aisle, her hands trailing along the pews, Rainie turned her full attention to the music swirling through the chapel and, for a moment, she felt better than she had in weeks.
Rainie smoothed down her black wool skirt and pulled her blazer close, as if by buttoning the blazer she could hold in all her broken pieces. The suit hung on her. She’d had to pin the back of the skirt to keep it from sliding off. At least wool breathes, she told herself, refusing to consider that wool, heat, nerves and sweat could, and most assuredly, would cause a smelly combination.
When had she lost so much weight? How had that happened? Had she discovered the miracle weight-loss regime? Could she market it? The lose your guy, lose your gut diet.
Because she’d walked, she’d worn her flats, but stopping at the gate, watching her relatives, friends and business associates climb from the cars in their suits, dresses and heels, she considered going home and changing into something less worn. It’d seemed ridiculous to drive such a short distance, ridiculous to walk the three hilly blocks in heels and of course, it’d be equally ridiculous to walk back and forth.
I’m stalling, she thought. Her eyes flicked over the cars lining the tiny street. This was supposed to be a private viewing, family and close friends only, and yet, somehow, her stepmother had managed to turn it into a celebrity photo shoot. She told herself she wasn’t looking for Ian’s Mercedes, but she stopped counting cars when Ian pulled up.
She stepped behind a mammoth bougainvillea and through the petals and thorny branches she watched him climb from his car. Despite the suit and graying hair at his temples, from a distance he looked nearly the same as he had in high school. Which just wasn’t right. She’d aged, why hadn’t he grown old beside her? The sprinklers had recently shut off and Rainie’s flats sunk into a patch of mud. She slipped slightly in the muck, and felt off balance, unsure.
A voice spoke in her ear. “Why are you hiding in that bush?”
Rainie jumped and then put her hand on her heart to slow it’s beating. She turned and scowled at the tiny woman at her elbow. “You!”
“You’ve got mud on your shoes and plant debris on your jacket.”
Rainie looked down at her muddy shoes and brushed twigs and petals off her blazer.
“I thought that your outfit this morning was perhaps the ugliest thing I’d ever seen, but now,” her gaze swept over Rainie, “I can see I was wrong.”
“What’s wrong with my suit?”
“You mean other than it’s filthy, ugly and must be incredibly itchy and hot? Well, for one thing, it doesn’t fit you. Where did you find it?”
“In my closet.”
“That explains a lot.” The woman clucked as she fingered the pleats on her own blue silk dress. She’d changed her shoes. The red heels had been replaced with a pair of black pumps that would have been sedate if not for the faux diamonds on the toes. “You obviously need a new closet.”
“This is a viewing, not a fashion show.” Rainie folded her arms, studied the tiny woman and used the voice she only trotted out when donors tried to renege on their pledges. “Who are you? Did you work for my grandfather?”
The woman looked sly. “Sometimes.” So, that’s who she was, one of her grandfather’s girls. Rainie didn’t deserve abuse from one of her grandfather’s ladies. Maybe Poppa hadn’t been a paragon of virtue, but Rainie had tried to live her life by a strict code. Insulting grieving granddaughters at funerals breached that code.
“Oh hello!” Ian called.
Rainie’s head snapped up. Even from a distance, the timber in Ian’s voice made her quiver. She’d thought he’d seen her, thought he was speaking to her, but now she saw him cross the grounds, his arms open, his eyes kind, warm and generous -- he could afford all those emotions now -- as he approached a girl in a white sheath dress. Mary or Marie somebody from the reception desk. So much for family and close friends. But, then Rainie remembered, vaguely, something about Mary or Marie being related to Denis Openheimer, of the Openheimer Weiner fame. Of course, her stepmother would invite an Openheimer.
“Who wears white to a funeral?” the woman asked, before bringing her gaze back to Rainie. “Although, it’s better than wearing a frumpy old suit.”
Rainie turned away from Ian, not wanting to watch him embrace Mary or Marie, and looked at the tiny woman just in time to see a fistful of mud flying.
“Hey!” Rainie called out as the mud splattered across her chest. Clods of dirt stuck to her blouse as Rainie pulled it out of her waistband, trying to prevent the mud from running down her skirt.
“I think the proper response would be ‘thank you’.”
“Thank you?” Rainie flinched.
“You’re welcome.” The woman brushed off her hands, spun on her heel and headed towards the back entrance of Poppa’s house. “Now, follow me.”
Rainie looked down at the disaster of her shirt. “I will not follow you.”
The woman stopped in the driveway by the white catering van. “What, you’re going to walk three blocks to change into something equally dowdy? You’re going to risk being late or possibly even not showing your face at your grandfather’s viewing? Think of the gossip, the rumors. Everyone will know for sure that he’s left you. He will think you weren’t brave enough --”
“Stop it!” The words and emotions flew out of Rainie’s iron clad control.
A teenager holding a large pink pastry box stepped from around the corner of the van. “Ma’am?” He had freckles dotting his nose and he looked hurt and surprised by her outburst.
“Not you,” Rainie said, her voice sounding lame and weak. “I wasn’t talking to you. I was talking to --”
She looked around, but the tiny woman had disappeared.
The kid edged towards her, as if she were a wounded Doberman in need of help and yet still capable of doing serious injury. “Can I help you?” the kid asked. “Get you some water or something?”
Rainie sighed and put her fingertips on either side of her temples. “Look, I hired your company. I’m the one who will pay your boss’ bill.”
The kid backed away from her. His hands clutching the pastry boxes turned white around the knuckles.
“I just…” Rainie swallowed. “There’s a short, blond woman hanging around here. She’s about this high.” Rainie held up her hand so that it was even with her chin. “If you see her, I want you to come and get me immediately.” She’s going to pay, Rainie thought, for at least my dry cleaning.
The mud seeped through her blouse and felt cold and oozy. What to do? Totter home, change into something, anything, clean? Go into town and buy something? She didn’t have her purse. She glanced at Poppa’s house. It had rooms and rooms and closets full of stuff.
She looked out over the lawn. Ian stood on the front porch, pumping hands with Uncle Lester. Ian had on a dark, well cut suit, custom-made by a little Asian tailor named Kim. Even as a teenager he’d been fashion conscious. Other girls had shopped with their boyfriends, selecting their clothes, dressing them as if they were the Ken to their Barbie. Rainie had always been too busy studying, working on the student council, organizing the next fundraiser. Even then, she’d been raising money for somebody, or something else.
Rainie stomped into her grandfather’s kitchen and the catering staff, who had been bustling around the counters and mammoth oak table turned to stare at her, their conversations and chatter coming to sudden and stunned stop.
“There’s a crazy short lady here,” Rainie said. “If any of you see her, I want you to notify me immediately.”
Most of the staff gave her blank stares, but a few turned away, smirking. Short, crazy lady, Rainie thought as she climbed the back stairs. Yeah, right. Short and crazy were both subjective adjectives.
Rainie kicked off her muddy shoes, ran up the back stairs and turned into what was once her Aunt Claire’s room. The room still smelled of violets, her aunt’s smell, and Rainie’s heart clenched with the sudden memory. Softly, she closed the door behind her and went to sit on the bed. The room hadn’t been redecorated since the eighties. Tiny yellow and blue flowers covered everything, the walls, the bedspread, the host of pillows, the dress of the Cabbage Patch doll resting against the pillows.
What would happen now to Poppa’s house, to Claire’s things? Why hadn’t she thought about this? Had anyone? Perhaps her stepmother and her dad had plans but thinking and planning had never been their fortes.
Ian would now officially run the company. He’d been Poppa’s puppet for years, until slowly, almost imperceptibly, he’d begun pulling the strings as Poppa had aged. No one had expected Poppa to live to ninety-seven, especially not his string of ex-wives. He’d outlived all his spouses and two of his children.
Thinking about spouses, exes and current, Rainie unfolded from the bed and went to the closet. She had known her Aunt Claire as a fussy old lady and didn’t expect to find anything other than flowery muumuus, Aunt Claire’s favorite daywear, in the closet. A muumuu or a dirt crusted suit? Rainie had to find something without mud clinging to it and she didn’t need a whole suit. Her suit was fine, thank you very much. She just needed a blouse.
She glanced out the window and saw Ian talking in a circle of her employees from the foundation. Debbie laughed and placed her hand on Ian’s sleeve. White heat flared through Rainie and she closed her eyes against the pain and anger.
When she opened her eyes she saw the dress. Black lace over taffeta, strapless under bodice, pleated band at waist. The sort of thing she’d never buy.
She looked back out the window. Debbie had on an impossibly short skirt, the sort of thing no one over the age of thirty should ever wear. Allison, a mother of four children, had on a blouse that lifted when she moved her arms and exposed a bright strip of white belly. In a world of inappropriateness, Rainie, the good daughter, the philanthropist, could wear a black lace dress.
She took off her suit and kicked it into the closet’s corner and stepped into the dress. To her surprise, it didn’t smell of violets or mildew, but of Chanel 5. The lining felt luxurious against her skin and the lace clung slightly as she moved.
She couldn’t wear the muddy flats and she tore into the shoe boxes on the closet shelf. Black lace shoes. Pearl buttons. Three inch heels. She couldn’t. She wouldn’t be able to walk. With the shoe box tucked under her arm, she padded over the bed, sat down and slipped on the heels. They fit perfectly. Oh yes. Oh yes, she could.
As she looked at herself in the mirror, she wondered when and where her aunt had bought the dress and matching shoes. She tried to imagine the aunt she’d known, the wearer of muumuus and of the collector of Cabbage Patch dolls, wearing such a dress, wearing Chanel 5 perfume. There’s so many things we don’t know about each other, she thought, and we pass so quickly through our lives, bumping into and against each other before sailing away.
On an impulse, she reached up and took the pins from her hair. Her curls spilled down her back. She smiled at her reflection, braced her shoulders and left the room.
The door clicked behind her.