Today's Reading



Six Months Earlier

Lipstick melted fast down here. Last night, I'd left my Fire & Ice on the windowsill, and by morning it was fondue-y. I dabbed a bit on my lips anyway. I put on pedal pushers and a sleeveless blouse, and then, with a wad of TP, tried to squish the lipstick back into an approximation of a bullet.

Nattie was foraging for cereal when I got to the kitchen. The guesthouse was tiny. According to my little sister, who was precise about such things, it was eighty-seven steps from the bedroom, which we shared, through the living room, where Mother slept on the daybed, to the foyer, where the telephone sat on the table, to the kitchen.

"Don't even ask," I said, standing the lipstick up in an ice-cube tray and hoping for the best. The freezer was full of Pyrex dishes, the neighbors' pity casseroles piled like a lopsided wedding cake—turkey tetrazzini, tuna noodle, chicken divan, and something labeled "Momma's Surprise."

"About what?" Nattie shoveled cornflakes into her mouth. She didn't care if she faced the day without a lick of makeup on, which was the advantage of being eleven. It wasn't like I troweled on the stuff or anything, but there was power in the perfect red lipstick. According to Mademoiselle magazine, red draws attention to both your mouth and your words.

I made coffee, because I lived for coffee—for coffee and two stirs of cream and an avalanche of sugar.

Before I finished my second cup, the doorbell rang the first few lines of "Dixie," an old southern song Fontaine said was the anthem of the Confederacy, even though it was written by a New Yorker. Since we'd moved in, "Dixie" had been announcing the arrival of southern hospitality in the form of casseroles and such.

On the other side of the door stood a woman in white gloves, no casserole in view. "Well, hello, hello," she said. "I'm Mrs. Eleet."

Frooshka, our enormous poodle, jingled over for a look-see.

"Elite?" I said. It was a name begging for wordplay. I was what my father had called a words girl. He'd always been on the lookout for a good line. "We're crossing into Georgia," he'd said when we'd made the annual drive to visit Mother's family. "Set your watch back thirty years." But then he died 127 days ago on Forty-Ninth and Park—a heart attack after a business lunch—and the rest of us set our watches back permanently and moved down here, poodle and all.

"We're all 'e's. E-l-double-e-t," the woman said. Her dress was a shade of piercing pink not found in nature.

"I'm Ruth." I held my hand out for a shake.

"I'm Natalie." My sister slid in on her skinny legs wearing a no-nonsense navy-blue bathing suit. That was one good thing about Fontaine and Mr. Hank's place: They had a beauty of a pool. The main house was a beauty, too. Fontaine had grown up inside its brick walls.

With the tips of her gloved fingers, Mrs. Eleet touched my hand. To Nattie, she smiled and said, "Pleased to see you."

"Say hey, I'm Gracie." A girl around my age—sixteen or maybe seventeen—leaned against the doorframe.

"Hay is for horses," Mrs. Eleet said.

"Neigh," the girl said back. Her blond hair flipped up at the ends like the hook of an umbrella. A baking dish giftwrapped in foil was balanced in her hands. There was Pyrex after all.

Frooshka trotted over to her, aligning herself with the more glamorous of us.

"I'm so sorry to hear about your daddy," Mrs. Eleet said. "Is your momma here? I'd love to offer our sincerest condolence." She took a step forward, her pointy pump an arrow on the white carpet. "We're acquainted from way back."

I dug my bare feet into the pile. "My mother is . . . out."

"She's at work," Nattie piped up. "Her first day at the newspaper."

"Of course," Mrs. Eleet said after a slight hesitation. "Poor dear. Of course."

"Here's chicken à la king," the blond girl said with the kind of sky-wide smile you don't see much of in Manhattan. "I'm sure there's nothing in this world you've been craving more than chicken à la king."

I laughed as I accepted the casserole. "Who is this king, though? The king à la chicken?"

"Elvis, maybe," she said. Her flowered skirt had the perfect pouf.

"Good," I said. "Elvis is someone we don't have in the freezer."...

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