My father’s wife died. My mother said we should drive down to his place and see what might be in it for us.
She tapped my nose with her grapefruit spoon. “It’s like this,” she said. “Your father loves us more, but he’s got another family, a wife, and a girl a little older than you. Her family had all the money. Wipe your face.”
There was no one like my mother, for straight talk. She washed my neck and ears until they shone. We helped each other dress: her lilac dress, with the underarm zipper, my pink one with the tricky buttons. My mother did my braids so tight, my eyes pulled up. She took her violet cloche and her best gloves and she ran across the road to borrow Mr. Portman’s car. I was glad to be going and I thought I could get to be glad about having a sister. I wasn’t sorry my father’s other wife was dead.
• • •
We’d waited for him for weeks. My mother sat by the window in the morning and smoked through supper every night. When she came home from work at Hobson’s, she was in a bad mood, even after I rubbed her feet. I hung around the house all July, playing with Mr. Portman’s poodle, waiting for my father to drive up. When he came, he usually came by two o’clock, in case there was a Fireside Chat that day. We listened to all the Fireside Chats together. We loved President Roosevelt. On Sundays, when my father came, he brought a pack of Lucky Strikes for my mother and a Hershey bar for me. After supper, my mother sat in my father’s lap and I sat right on his slippers and if there was a Fireside Chat, my father did his FDR imitation. Good evening, friends, he said, and he stuck a straw in his mouth like a cigarette holder. Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. He bowed to my mother and said, Eleanor, my dear, how ’bout a waltz? They danced to the radio for a while and then it was my bedtime. My mother put a few bobby pins in my hair for curls and my father carried me to bed, singing, “I wish I could shimmy like my sister Kate.” Then he tucked me in and shimmied out the door. Monday mornings, he was gone and I waited until Thursday, and sometimes, until next Sunday.
My mother parked the car and redid her lipstick. My father’s house was two stories of red stone and tall windows, with fringed lace curtains behind and wide brown steps stacked like boxes in front of the shining wood door. Your father does like to have things nice, while he’s away, she said. It sure is nice, I said. We ought to live here.
My mother smiled at me and ran her tongue over her teeth. Could be, she said—you never know. She’d already told me she was tired of Abingdon, where we’d been since I was born. It was no kind of real town and she was fed up to here hostessing at Hobson’s. We talked a lot about finding ourselves a better life in Chicago. Chicago, Chicago, that toddlin’ town . . . I saw a man, he danced with his wife. I sang as we got out of the car and I did a few dance steps like in the movies. My mother said, You are the bee’s knees, kiddo, and she grabbed the back of my dress. She licked her palm and pressed it to my bangs, so they wouldn’t fly up. She straightened her skirt and told me to check her seams. Straight as arrows, I said, and we went up the stairs hand in hand.
My mother knocked and my father answered the door in the blue vest he wore at our house during the president’s speeches. My father hugged me and my parents whispered to each other while I stood there, trying to see more of the parlor, which was as big as our whole apartment and filled with flowers. (Maybe my father said, What the hell are you doing here? Maybe my mother cursed him for staying away, but I doubt it. My father had played the gentleman his whole life and my mother must have said to me a hundred times that men needed to be handled right and a woman who couldn’t handle her man had only herself to blame. “When I say men are dogs,” she’d say, “I’m not being insulting. I like dogs.”) Behind my father, I saw a tall girl.
“My daughter Iris,” my father said. I could hear my mother breathe in.
“Iris,” he said, “this is my friend Mrs. Logan and her daughter, her lovely daughter, Eva.”
I knew, standing in their foyer, that this girl had a ton of things I didn’t have. Flowers in crystal vases the size of buckets. Pretty, light-brown curls. My father’s hand on her shoulder. She wore a baby-blue sweater and a white blouse with a bluebird pin on the collar. I think she wore stockings. Iris was sixteen and she looked like a grown woman to me. She looked like a movie star. My father pushed us to the stairs and told Iris to entertain me in her room while he and my mother had a chat.
“Picture this,” Iris said. She lay on her bed and I sat on the braided rug next to it. She gave me a couple of gumdrops and I was happy to sit there. She was a great talker and a perfect mimic. “The whole college came to my mother’s funeral. My grandfather used to be president of the college, but he had a stroke last year, so he’s different now. There was this one girl, red hair, really awful. Redheads. Like they didn’t cook long enough or something.”
“I think Paulette Goddard’s a redhead,” I said. I’d read this in Photoplay last week.
“How old are you, ten? Who the hell wants to be Paulette Goddard? Anyway, this redheaded girl comes back to our house. She’s just bawling to beat the band. So this lady, our neighbor, Mrs. Drys- dale, says to her, ‘Were you very close to dear Mrs. Acton?’”
The way Iris said this, I could just see Mrs. Drysdale, sticking her nose in, keeping her spotted veil out of her mouth while she ate, her wet hankie stuffed into her big bosom, which my mother told me was a disgusting thing to do.
“I’m twelve,” I said.
Iris said, “My mother was like a saint—everybody says so. She was nice to everyone, but I don’t want people thinking my mother wasted her time on this stupid girl, so I turn around and say that none of us even know who she is and she runs into the powder room downstairs—this is the funny part—the door gets stuck, and she can’t get out. She’s banging on the door and two professors have to jimmy it open. It was funny.”
Iris told me that the whole college (I didn’t know my father taught at a college; if you had asked me, I would have said that he read books for a living) came to the chapel to grieve for her mother, to offer sympathy to her and her father. She said that all of their family friends were there, which was her way of telling me that my mother could not really be a friend of her father’s.
We heard the voices downstairs and then a door shutting and then the piano, playing “My Angel Put the Devil in Me.” I didn’t know my father played the piano. Iris and I stood at her bedroom door, leaning into the hall. We heard the toilet flush, which was embarrassing but reassuring and then my father started playing the “Moonlight Sonata” and then we heard a car’s engine. Iris and I ran downstairs. My mother’d left the front door open and just slipped into Mr. Portman’s car. She’d set a brown tweed suitcase on the front porch. I stood on the porch holding the suitcase, looking at the road. My father sat down in the rocker and pulled me onto his lap, which he’d stopped doing last year. He asked me if I thought my mother was coming back and I asked him, Do you think my mother is coming back? My father asked me if I had any other family on my mother’s side, and I lay my head on his shoulder. I’d seen my father most Sundays and some Thursdays since I was a baby, and the whole rest of my family was my mother. I was friendly with Mr. Portman and his poodle and all of my teachers had taken an interest in me, and that was the sum of what you could call my family.
Iris opened the screen door and looked at me the way a cat looks at a dog.
We sat down to meat loaf and mashed potatoes and the third time Iris told me to get my elbows off the table, this isn’t a boardinghouse, my father said, Behave yourself, Iris. She’s your sister. Iris left the room and my father told me to improve my manners. You’re not living in that dreadful town anymore and you’re not Eva Logan anymore, he said. You’re Eva Acton. We’ll say you’re my niece.
I was thirteen before I understood that my mother wasn’t coming back to get me.
Excerpted from Lucky Us by Amy Bloom. Copyright © 2014 Amy Bloom. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of The Random House Group, a Penguin Random House company. All rights reserved.