First Chapter: Welcome back to town, Delia.
From Bowling Avenue, copyright © 2012 by Ann Shayne. Buy your very own copy here.
Day 1: April 14
The burglar alarm is wailing like a wounded child, and I have no idea how to turn it off. There’s a horn honking, a shrieking sound on top of that, and it’s all bouncing off the neighboring houses back at me—echo upon echo. On top of that there’s a recording of the Voice of God announcing that the police are on the way, looping over and over. Jebus, it’s the apocalypse! The neighbors must hate this house. They’re not exactly rushing over to help.
I shut the kitchen door that set off this mess, drop my bags, and come around to the front of the house to wait for the police. I sit down on the broad flagstone steps. The Voice of God is so convincing. I know! I freakin’ know it! I’m glad they’re coming!
The din from the alarm is amazing. I dial my phone, covering my head with my down coat to muffle the racket.
“What? I can’t hear you.”
“I’m at Ginna’s.”
“Do you know the code?”
“THE ALARM CODE. FOR GINNA’S HOUSE?”
“WHERE ARE YOU?”
I hang up, hopeless, and peek out from under my coat. Too hot for this thing down here. The view from Ginna’s front steps is lush, with the spring-green trees glowing in the late afternoon sun. Her deep lawn is a velvety fairway, so smooth that it looks fake. How did she keep this place going? How do you find someone who can make grass do this? Her maples are an almost fluorescent green.
“The police are on the way.”
“So where are they?” I yell back.
A chunky woman in a pale blue nylon tracksuit swishes past the driveway, staring openly at me. Skinny people run, fat people walk. That was the meanest thing Ginna ever said, but she knew I loved it when she was snarky, loved hearing Nashville gossip. Whenever I came to town, we would wander the neighborhood, this leafy suburb with no sidewalks, and I’d make up stories about the walkers we passed. “Desperate,” I would whisper. “Blackballed by the Garden Club of Nashville.” “Sleeping with the minister but is actually hot for the organist.” “Has hemorrhoids the size of grapes.” “Likes peeling dead skin off her heels.” Making Ginna laugh was so easy.
I don’t believe in ghosts, I really don’t. So the prospect of staying at my dead sister’s house is not daunting in terms of worrying that I’m going to run into a spectral Ginna wandering the hall in her Lanz of Salzburg nightgown. Actually, that would be terrifying. She wore those things all her life: eyelet trimmed, flannel, hot as fiberglass insulation. I always joked to her that a Lanz nightgown was the quickest path to divorce. When Bennett left her a year ago, after sixteen years of marriage and two kids, I had the hateful thought that a peignoir or two might have made a difference.
I need to get away from the racket to call Mother again. She must have the code. I’m about halfway down the curving, pea-gravel drive when a police car turns into the entrance. I stand, sort of at attention, trying to look responsible and not sketchy. Does this skirt look hippieish? I wave limply at the officer as he stops beside me and climbs out. He is paunchy, with a fat Village People moustache and a gun belt with a hell of a pistol in there. A twelve year old’s face on a fifty year old’s body. I’m suddenly nervous.
He comes unnervingly close to me, but I realize he’s just trying to get near enough that I can actually hear him. “Are you the homeowner?” he says loudly.
“No. Her sister. The homeowner’s sister. I am—I mean, Ginna Schwartz. Is my sister. Was. I’m Delia. Delia Ballenger.” I hold up my phone. “Trying to get the code from my mother—how long do these alarms go off?” I shake my head, smiling, trying to get him to share in the absurdity of this situation.
“Seventeen minutes. Metro ordinance.” Officer McDaniel—his badge is right at my eye level—looks at me with a flat, neutral expression. No solace coming from this guy.
A jitter starts in my hands. “May I call her?”
He nods. They must give these guys lessons in deadpan.
“Mom? It’s me. I’m here. At Ginna’s. Do you have the alarm code for her house? It wasn’t supposed to be set.”
“Oh, dear, goodness no. Can’t imagine. Never did like those things—”
“MOTHER. The policeman’s right here.”
“No. I don’t have it.” Her voice is louder, as if she’s holding the phone closer and paying better attention. “Wonder how that happened. Never even used to lock the house. When will you be—”
“Come see me.”
“Right,” I say as I end the call.
The age-old twang of annoyance rises in my chest. Always after me, Mother is. Officer McDaniel shifts on his feet. I aim for a grave expression. “Here’s the thing. My sister died. Six months ago. I just got into town. We’re selling the house. I’m selling the house. I’m supposed to sell the house. You know.”
“Do you have any ID, ma’am?”
I nod, then remember it’s all in the tote bags by the kitchen door. I’m suddenly exhausted by the noise, by the cop, by the reason that I am in this irritating situation.
I see a man coming up the driveway, waving. He looks like a neighbor in this neighborhood would look: khakis, a button-down shirt, dark sweater, mild face. There are a million men like this in west Nashville. Fifty or sixty? I can’t tell how old people are anymore. Everybody looks tired, mostly. “Hello,” he semi-yells. He’s quite tall, gangly. “I have the code, if you need it.”
I don’t know who this man is, or how he would have the alarm code. He’s looking closely at me. “Oh,” he says, as if he’s just spotted a strange bird. “What are you doing here?”
Officer McDaniel is watching Khaki Man. “Do you know each other?”
Khaki Man studies his shoes, uncomfortable. “I know her. Ginna’s sister,” he says in a sour tone. He looks up, brightening as if he has just figured out something. “She can’t go in the house, officer.”
I give him a hairy eyeball, mystified. Who is this guy? Officer McDaniel turns to me. “Are you authorized to be here, ma’am?”
Authorized? Now there’s a good question, but unfortunately, I don’t have a good answer.
“Like, a piece of paper? I don’t have that, but I am supposed to be here. I have a key. I mean, the executor of the estate wants me to be the one selling this house.”
“And who might that be, ma’am?”
Khaki Man is now chewing the inside of his cheek, agitated.
I don’t want to complicate all this, but there’s nothing to do but lay it out. “The executor is Bennett Schwartz. Ginna’s husband. Her estranged husband, I mean. They were separated, when she died. He wanted a divorce.”
Officer McDaniel is thinking very hard. “Okaaaaaaay, so let’s get this Bennett Schwartz on the phone.”
Ugh. I knew this was next. When Ginna died, six months ago, she and Bennett had been separated for six months. Ginna, eternal optimist Ginna, would not give Bennett the divorce he wanted, because she felt that he was suffering from Physician’s Lust Syndrome and would snap out of it, given enough time. She saw no reason to let go, she was patient, and she loved him. Ginna’s will, therefore, was the will of a woman happily married to an orthopedist. Except for one confounding little page that she cooked up a month before she died.
This isn’t going well. Yelling over the alarm is so stressful. All I want is to take a nap, and I don’t want to deal with Bennett. I text him, because he is impossible to reach by phone. “urgent!!! at ginnas. police wont let me in. call me asap”
I turn to Khaki Man and say hotly, “What’re you talking about? Why can’t I go in the house?”
There is something very strange about this guy, a sagging about him, a wholesale droop of someone who is having trouble getting a day going.
“Your sister,” he says, in the rich Nashville accent common to those families with old insurance company fortunes. “Your sister wouldn’t like it. That’s all. I’m sorry—but she had such strong feelings. About you.” He looks horrified to be saying something so direct. So southern, this guy.
Ah. Khaki Man knows about me. I shake my head, frustrated. “She was fine—”
The alarm stops, shockingly. It’s as if a vacuum has sucked up all the sound in the world, and we are left with the scruffle of robins rooting through dry leaves. I turn to Officer McDaniel and suggest that we sit on the front steps to wait for Bennett to call back.
Strong feelings. That’s one way of putting it. “I’ll get my ID,” I tell the officer. I’m hit with a wash of sadness about my sister. So stupid, all this. I wish Bennett would call back so I can get inside and get some sleep. Officer McDaniel is right beside me as I head for the back door—what does he think is going on here? I’m going to pull a pistol out of my L.L. Bean Tote Bag?
Next to my tote bags, beside the back door, is a bucket still filled with Ginna’s garden tools. Folded neatly on top are Ginna’s leather rose gloves, with long cuffs to protect against thorns. Ginna’s rose garden is one of the many things about this house that seems impossible. I reach down, slide my hand into a glove, and feel the shape of her hand in the worn leather. “Gauntlet,” I say as I hold up my hand in a knightly salute.
Officer McDaniel is not playing. I point toward the rose garden, the broad formal circle, now in heavy spring bud, on the verge of beginning its extraordinary display. “She was an amazing gardener.” He nods, minutely. I sigh and hand him my driver’s license.
Exactly at the moment that I decide Bennett is never going to call back, I see a gleaming, white Cadillac pull into the driveway.
This poor cop has no idea what is coming his way. Mother drives around the police car, onto the grass, across the yard, basically, so that she can park directly in front of us. It’s her upbringing on a farm in Columbia coming through. If you want to get somewhere, drive there. Road optional.
“Still waiting?” she says as she emerges, wearing a taupe evening gown with a lace jacket and her strand of whopper pearls. Taupe is one of Mother’s colors. I always forget how striking she is: all angles in her face, strong in the chin and a stern brow. If Abraham Lincoln were a beautiful woman, he would be my mother. “How do you do, officer? I’m the mother of this one here. Grace Ballenger. Judge Ballenger. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. This is my daughter’s house—my other daughter, who died a few months ago. There’s no problem here. Delia here has just come into town. We have a house to sell, unfortunately. I know you understand.”
This is all delivered in a matter-of-fact way, fast and with no room for discussion. Mother’s way. Officer McDaniel is dazzled by this white-haired woman, but also stumped. “Yes ma’am—your honor—I’m sure it’s all fine, I just need—”
“We’re fine. You run on, officer.” Mother’s pale rose perfume has wafted over us all. That scent is one of the most potent memories I have about this woman. I’m pretty sure it’s why I never wear perfume.
Khaki Man chimes in, “I do have the code, officer.”
Mother looks at Khaki Man, confused.
“Well,” Officer McDaniel says warily.
“Thank you for coming. You’re a beacon of security in a world of trouble, sir,” Mother says. She actually reaches out and pats him on the shoulder. It’s as if she has broken the spell, and he realizes that he can go home now.
I should have known that calling Mother would activate her. There is no way she would have sat at home, knowing that I was a tantalizing four miles away. We watch the police car come around the curve of the driveway and exit through the other entrance.
Mother turns to Khaki Man, extending her hand. “How do you do? I’m Grace Ballenger. And how exactly do you have the code?”
A brilliant pink creeps into Khaki Man’s translucent face. I’m embarrassed that he’s embarrassed.
“Angus Donald,” he says. “Neighbor. Ginna gave me the code a while back when she was … when she wanted to make sure somebody nearby could,” he shrugs, “turn off the alarm. If it went off. She hated the thing. A bit much.”
Mother gives him her best superfakey smile and says, “Well. That’s just wonderful. Perhaps you could share this code with us?”
Angus looks troubled. “You don’t have it? I shouldn’t even have it. But when I heard the alarm going off for so long—I almost let it go, but then I figured—”
“Angus,” my mother smiles in her most ferociously cordial way. “We’re family. Honest.”
“Yeah,” I chime in, holding up my phone. “And I’m waiting to hear from her husband. Who has it. Obviously.”
His eyes narrow, wary. “Well, OK then.” He pats his pockets for a pen.
“Memory like an elephant,” Mother says, impatient. “Lay it on me.”
Angus is embarrassed all over again. “Right.” He squints at Mother. “Six eight eight one one. To turn it on. Six three three one two to shut it off.”
Mother is studying Angus. “Your wife was Augusta Donald.”
Here we go. Mother cannot resist the impulse to connect every single person she knows to every other person in the universe. Angus admits that yes, his wife was Augusta Donald, and for the next three minutes, Mother rhapsodizes about Augusta and their experience together on the Metro Arts Commission six years ago, and how desperately sad she was when Augusta died, and what a lovely thing it was for Angus to help with this silly alarm.
Angus tries to be game about it all, but he keeps crossing and uncrossing his arms as if they’re tangled, absolutely avoiding eye contact.
“I’m exhausted,” I announce. “Mother, I’ll call you.” Being definite with Mother is pretty much the only way to communicate with her. Every conversation with her is a sort of argument.
“Delia, you just got here.”
“I need to talk to you.”
Angus watches this tennis match with quick eyes. Mother sighs in that theatrical way I really despise, and says as she roots around in her little taupe evening bag, “Well, I have a dinner.” She looks like the mother of the bride in that get-up, rail thin and as comprehensively groomed as ever. She shakes her head in a tiny way, this quiver of disapproval. “I know. I know exactly how this goes. How about you call me when you feel like it, OK?” She pauses. “Delia.” I know she is not happy about this, but I also know that she understands exactly how unproductive it would be to push it. She pulls out a handkerchief and wipes her nose. “Go on and get settled in your haunted house. Can’t imagine why you’re not staying with me.” She evaporates in her white Cadillac as quickly as she came, her special-issue Tennessee license plate announcing, as ever, “Judiciary.” As if she’s ever going to need to peel off to court like a fireman. I wonder how many traffic tickets she’s avoided with that thing.
Angus creeps down the driveway. “OK, then. I’ll be going,” he says and turns to go.
“It’s my house,” I say weakly, half hoping he won’t hear me.
Angus turns back. “What?”
“The house. It’s my house. Ginna left it to me. I’m ‘allowed’ to be here,” I say, hooking my fingers into quotation marks.
Angus’s pale face looks aggrieved. “That’s not it,” he says. “You shouldn’t be here, that’s all.” He troops down the driveway, legs like stilts, suddenly animated by his disgust.
Auspicious. Welcome to 603 Bowling Avenue.
I finally make my way inside my sister’s dim house, feeling guilty to be there after that welcome by my new neighbor Ichabod Crane. I find the alarm system control panel by the kitchen door, but I’ve already forgotten the code. Mother may have a mind like a steel trap, but numbers slip out of my head like noodles off a fork.
However annoying she is, Mother should have at least stayed with me long enough to turn on some lights. No, I don’t believe in ghosts, but I do believe that an empty house can be full of creepy, especially one that has been vacant for six months. Let’s just say that there are fourteen lamps downstairs at Ginna’s house, and it takes about five minutes to turn them on. When a person is moving fast.
So dusty, so uninhabited. Ginna always kept things so fresh and polished, the constant touching of every surface in a house, over and over. Rub scrub polish paint. Back in Chicago, I do as little home maintenance as possible. A can of Comet will cover just about any emergency. Just shake some of that stuff on there.
This is a big house by Nashville standards, gigantic by mine, built in the twenties, a brick colonial revival, sturdy as a ship. It’s in an old trolley car neighborhood right off West End Avenue, which is pretty much the Amazon River for the natives who call Nashville home. Never mind the fact that the metropolitan Nashville region covers ten counties—there are people in Nashville who live their entire lives within a mile of West End Avenue. You can grow up in Belle Meade, go to elementary school, high school, and college without leaving the long artery that is West End Avenue. Ginna was pretty much one of those people, and if I had been as careless as her, I could have had the same gruesome fate.
It’s hard to know where to sit in Ginna’s house. The living room. The library. The den, the study, the nook in the kitchen, the screened porch, the terrace, the nest at the top of the front stairs. Each room is a world, carefully and carelessly pulled together. Ginna’s house feels exactly like Ginna: welcoming, soft, so filled with beautiful things that you can’t reach out without touching something lovely. The curved leg of a side table. A bowl of marble eggs. None of the fabrics in the living room match, but they are all friends: blues, creams, greens. She told me that once this room was finished, her decorator took a look around and said, “Good. It doesn’t look like a decorator has been in here.”
My apartment in Chicago would fit inside Ginna’s living room. Literally. I live in a room, though they call it a loft because that sounds better. I’m fifteen floors up, with a minuscule balcony that whistles with cold in the winter, suited only for jumping to your doom. I can go weeks without setting foot on grass. I don’t crave a yard; I crave the absence of one. In the time I’ve lived in Chicago, that apartment has been all I need: a pied de terre, a foot off the ground.
I give up and sit in the breakfast room.
It’s the ruins of Pompeii, this breakfast room. Nobody’s lived here since Bennett took the girls the day of the accident. There’s a Tennessean from last October on the sideboard, folded to the middle of the Living section, a Sudoku half worked. A pile of Amelia’s geometry papers. Flip flops under the table. What are the girls up to? It must be miserable for them right about now. I don’t really know them. Another thing to feel bad about.
My phone rings. Bennett.
“You got in?”
“Right. Got a hip to do.”
“OK, bye then.”
Typical. Bennett is a man of few—actually, he’s a man of no words. He’s a beady-eyed rodent, with two front teeth that he sinks into his lower lip all the time, gnawing at himself. He’s dark haired and pale, a creature of the operating room and subterranean hospital passageways. Exhausting to talk with him—I can’t imagine how he and Ginna managed to sustain a marriage on such a thin diet of conversation. Every word is an event with Bennett, a nugget, a hard-won prize. Who wants a chatty surgeon, right? With Bennett, chatty is not a problem.
I keep thinking about that Angus guy. “You shouldn’t be here.” He reminds me of a character in a fairy tale. The Doomsayer. Nose like the prow of a sailboat, permanently aloof.
Maybe he’s right. What am I doing here, anyway?
I tick through the plan that I’ve figured out over the past few weeks. I’m in town to sell this house. It actually is mine. Ginna left it to me, in this stark little addendum to her will. Notarized, witnessed, everything, dated about four weeks before she died. Her attorney wouldn’t or couldn’t say a word about how it came to be. I don’t know why she would do something like that. At one point I wondered if she did it as a cosmic joke: here, sister, here’s some lifestyle for ya. Here’s the life you left behind—it’s time for you to come take care of Mother.
Ha! As if Mother needed one iota of help. She is the least helpless woman I know. I can’t count the number of people who rhapsodize about my mother: so brilliant, so inspiring, such a trailblazer for women. A treasure, a beacon, name a bridge for her. What they never say is how great a mother she is, because I’m guessing that no one ever saw her do anything maternal. Sweet is not a word you hear about Mother. Her extravagantly lame rearing of us resulted in two very different daughters: warm and cool. Ginna had a giant, warm heart, and she was always the great uniter, operating with a strong sense that personal happiness would come from being a part of a family. I had a highly developed sense of Get Me Outta Here.
My only guess about why I’ve ended up with this house is that Ginna wanted to be sure her daughters wouldn’t end up living in her beloved house with her husband and his slutty surgical nurse. I can’t blame her a bit.
The phone call from Bennett when he told me about the will was a classic one-minute revelation. I had a million questions. Did she write it out on a napkin? She owned the house singly, not with him? What about the girls? Why would she do such a thing?
Bennett had no insight into what Ginna had done. He told me that she had paid most of the down payment, thanks to an infusion from the Grace Ballenger Buy Your Daughter’s Love Fund, so he had wanted her to have the house in her name. He said he had no interest in the house anyway, and that Ginna’s codicil had saved him the awkwardness of dealing with his daughters about it. The thing he couldn’t figure out, though, was the timing of it all.
It’s a horrible, depressing lottery prize, this house. Congratulations! You’ve just won your dream house! The only catch is that your sister has to die for this to happen. And you can’t afford to have a house like that. And, by the way, it’s in Nashville.
Oh, Nashville. I worked pretty hard to get out of this place. Have you ever been to a party that you hated, where you spent half the time working on the excuse for why you were going to have to leave early? That’s what Nashville is like—that cloying thing, that thing where everybody is having a great time, and you think you ought to be right in the mix too, except you suddenly notice that they’re all talking about football and church and their spring break trip to Rosemary Beach. That’s Nashville. From the time I was in high school, I knew I had to get out of there. Nobody was thinking.
And Mother. I guess that was part of it, too. A large part.
So. My plan is pretty simple. Next week, the house officially becomes mine. I’m going to sell it as fast as I can, then give most of the proceeds to the girls—there’s no way I would take something that obviously should have been theirs. I will, however, keep some of it. An embarrassing fact in all this: I kind of need the money. Money is one of those hot topics in our family. It’s not that there isn’t money floating around; it’s just that it floats my way only when Mother is rowing the boat. It is available only with many, many strings attached, so I decided a long time ago that I’d just as soon make my own way. I guess I have only myself to blame, but I blame Mother anyway.
I figure if I divvy up the proceeds, then everybody will come out ahead. By selling the house myself, I’ll save the six percent real estate agent’s fee, which with a house like this would be in the neighborhood of $120,000. That’s considerably more than I’m making at my own job. I’m thinking of this as moonlighting. I can keep doing my travel agent stuff, such as it is, while I deal with the house, so this is going to work out great. It’s such a desirable neighborhood, and such a choice house, that it won’t take long to git r done.
It’s late. I’ve finally decided which bedroom of the five to use. I knew I couldn’t deal with Ginna’s bedroom, with its little patio outside the bedroom where you can sit and presumably have coffee brought to you by someone whose job it is to bring you coffee. That king-size bed screams “empty,” and there’s no way that I’m going to find comfort amid those shams and goosedown duvet. The juju coming out of that maritally challenged bed could be big trouble for me. It’s already bad enough, the man situation.
Incredibly, on her dresser, there’s an eight-by-ten photograph of Ginna and Bennett, bride and groom. How could she possibly stand to look at that thing? If my husband ditched me for a nurse, I’d make a bonfire in the back yard for stuff like that. Her wedding day? I wonder what she saw when she looked at that childlike pair.
I didn’t want to stay in the girls’ rooms, either, because they might come over at some point and find me camping out amid their drifts of crap. Cassie’s looks like a pink bomb went off, and Amelia’s is covered in Tibetan prayer flags and posters of poorly nourished singer-songwriters. I don’t know why they didn’t take more of their things to Bennett’s. Sad. It looks like they were airlifted from this place, judging by the amount of stuff still here.
That left the guest rooms. One is the Official Guest Room, looking much fancier than the last time I was here, now covered in a crazy amount of $300-a-yard dun-colored linen that a decorator talked Ginna into last year. It feels like an expensive hotel, and I’ve never been one to care about thread count. The other is on the third floor, a secret hideout up a set of narrow back stairs, with tall attic windows stuck into the three dormers across the front, and a half-moon window down low to fit some outside symmetry. Maybe it’s a little spare, and leftover, and not really a bedroom at all.
If the wi-fi makes it up the steps, that’s where you’ll find me.
I go downstairs, hungry, though it’s going to be a stretch to find anything to eat. I take the back stairs, steep and tunnel-like. It’s a breathtakingly crappy kitchen by west Nashville standards. The cabinets are plain sheet metal, pale green, at least forty years old, from the days when the cook did the cooking. They’re so out of fashion that they’re almost back in style: a brutally efficient space. The linoleum isn’t ironic linoleum; it’s lazy, tired linoleum. It’s funny to me that Ginna resisted the pressure to have a dreamy kitchen like all her friends do. A few months after moving in, she decided that it was a perfectly OK kitchen, and she liked it.
I hear a rustle in the pantry, and I figure that mice must be having a fine time in this uninhabited house. A cat meows, and I just about jump out of my skin. Mr. Serious comes lumbering in from the sunroom. Such a huge animal, like a Thanksgiving turkey, too much body for not enough head. A threat to no mouse. Ginna loved that cat. I’d forgotten that Mr. Serious was still here. And I’d forgotten that Shelly was still coming to take care of the poor orphaned beast. Bennett claimed that he had developed an allergy to cats, that asshole, and the girls were adamant that Mr. Serious could not be given away. So Shelly—mother’s steady, loyal housekeeper—took on the responsibility of feeding and scooping Mr. Serious as part of her caretaking duties at the house.
I wonder when Shelly will turn up. I think of her on occasion, so fondly, but we’ve lost touch since high school.
The pantry is crammed with kid food: Skittles, Cheetos, Cool Ranch Doritos, Dr. Peppers, Sprites. Did Ginna never hear of the food pyramid? I unearth a box of Brown Sugar Cinnamon Pop-Tarts that by my calculation can be no fresher than six months old, and I slide a couple into the toaster. Dinner.
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