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n.m. kelby


Eden and Bob. They never touched in public. She drove. He didn't. She was big. He wasn't. She had a wall eye. He had bad teeth. Her good eye always seemed to be searching for a deal-something dented, something beyond its expiration date, a little bulge. He wrote the checks.

Eden and Bob and us. We couldn't afford a car. Eden and Bob couldn't have kids. Perfect set-up. That's what Mother used to say. "A little duce coupe." Learned English by listening to rock and roll. I knew what she meant. In Florida, in the summer, buses were pressure cookers. A station wagon with faux wood panel sides was Top 40.

Met them in the summer of 1969. My Mother was Paris personified: wrap-around Ray Bans, ice blonde hair, Pall Mall halo. A blue angel, chain smoking her way through my youth. My sister, Maggs, was two. Had that baby smell. A roller coaster laugh. Sparks. Doesn't matter how old I was. I was just too old, that's all. Pink with fat. Stub brown hair.

Every Saturday they'd come. Eden, her wall eye driving. Bob sitting in the back. On his lap, a quilted tote bag held their two Chihuahuas-Pepe I and Pepe II. Champions in their own small world. Classified as "tea cups." Tiny yellowed cups. Chipped barks.

At 9 A.M., sharp, Eden and Bob and the Pepes would honk the horn twice. We were always ready.

The grocery store was a cool dream but Bob never came in. He'd sit in the car and talk to the dogs. "Oh babies, I won't leave you in the big hot car all by yourselves! No way, Pepes! No way!" He'd say it over and over again. It was the only time I can remember the dogs silent, their secret eyes watching him, unblinking.

Inside, we all knew our roles. Mother steered the cart, added up the bill as we went. The beans, the small bit of cheese. Eden carried Maggs and made cooing sounds. I just was. Every now and then, Eden would slide something into the cart. Cab fare, she'd say. "You don't mind, do you?" she'd ask and toss in a package of chicken breasts. Skinless. Boneless. A Porterhouse. "Just like Monopoly money, right, Gigi?" Food stamps were orange and blue. Colorful. I guess that's what she meant.

Mother never answered. Recalculated our total in silence. Readjusted her list according. Hated that name, "Gigi". Reminded her of Maurice Chevalier. He always seemed happy, no matter what. "He ain't nothing but a hound dog," she'd say whenever an old movie of his was on the late show. Didn't turn the channel. She'd sing along "Gigi, that funny little..." something...something... Hard to make out the words. When she sang in French, her voice grew thick like bread.

My Mother's name is Gisele. It was her grandmother's name. Her grandmother was a lucky woman. She was old, the Germans had no need for the elderly.

We met Eden and Bob at the public pool, our fifth summer in America. Four months after my Father died. The pool was a chlorine dream. Maggs and I, bobbers in the shallow end, diving for pennies. A wild toss over the shoulder sent us scrambling. Mother's laughter, a waterfall. Maggs was our Koi, mother said, our fish of luck. Graceful in curved blue of the pool. Bob circled her. Silent. We didn't notice until he snatched the penny from her hands.

"Mine, now!" he said. His eyes, overripe. Maggs didn't cry, just blinked. He picked her up, high over his head, a prize. My mother, her mouth open, trying to find the right words. English not French. Not song titles. Something a stranger could understand.

"Put the baby down, Bob," Eden appeared from the deep end of the pool. Startled us. The water flowed over her. Looked like she belonged at Sea World.

"Would she jump for a fish?" I wondered, then felt bad. Wondered how many times somebody thought that about me.

"Bob likes babies," Eden said to my mother, her stray eye, gray as sleet, watching me. A storm crossed over my mother's face, heat lightening. Maybe she didn't understand or maybe she did. "Would you like a beer?" Eden asked, pulled herself out of the pool.

The rush of water flowed hard, I was caught in the undertow. Bob still held Maggs. "Tidal Wave! Tidal Wave!" he screamed, laughing at the casual havoc Eden left in her wake.

I was swallowing hard. Chlorine and air. Couldn't touch bottom. Coughing. Red-faced. Feet scraping the rough concrete. My mother's hand caught me, her wedding band cut into waterlogged fingers.

"Looks like a bottom feeder." Bob laughed. "I'd throw it back."

"Suzette, behave, " my mother scolded, pulled me to my feet. No Koi. Carp. Gray with nicked scales. "Take care of your sister."

But Bob had already seen to that. Held Maggs in his chicken bone arms. "Aren't you a perfect baby?" Eden asked her softly. Amazed. Reaching to touch the peach of her cheek.

"No!" Maggs shouted. Kicked.

"Magdaline, be nice to the lady." Mother was frowning, looking for a cigarette.

"No!" Maggs squirmed. Mother mumbled apologies. Introductions were made. Bob bowed graciously, kissed my mother's hand.

"Sit down now, Bob," Eden said. "Please."

"You're no fun," he frowned, pretending to pout. Spread sunscreen, thick as Crisco, over his pink chest.

"Suzette, watch your sister," Mother said. I was dismissed. Sat on the edge of the pool, feet dangling. The toe of my right foot, bleeding, just a bit. No scar this time. Maggs swam wild, rudderless.

Eden and my mother talked pool side, beer poured discretely into paper cups. Their words like sand, eddied back and forth. Swift currents. After a few drinks, Mother told the story. My father. His Aqua Velva smell. Eyes like blue velvet, bluer than velvet. Our house. The busy street. Dangerous. I was goofing off. Supposed to help. The bus swerved. Swept him from his feet. A concrete angel. Should have been me. Groceries scattered like dice. Maggs ran from the house, a box of bandages in hand. I couldn't move. Wouldn't. Didn't go to the funeral. Wouldn't speak. Not one word. Three months. Only ate rice.

"Just rice? " Eden said. "That's strange."

"She went crazy," my mother whispered, her English almost perfect.

The sun baked my skin red.

That night, Mother told us Eden and Bob would drive us to store every Saturday.

"Why?" I asked.

"Because they want to," she said. Sang to Maggs, "We'll have fun, fun, fun 'til her Daddy takes the T-bird away." Danced in circles. The Peppermint Twist. The Hully Gully. I just watched. Maggs fell over, laughing.

The last time we ever saw them things went bad right from the start. 9 a.m., sharp. "We're having lunch," Eden said. "At the house."

"It is not time for lunch," Mother said.

Eden opened the car door, held Maggs close, a runner in starting blocks. "You smell like mothballs," she said squirming.

Eden brushed the front of her pink housecoat, as if the rid herself of the smell. "If you're coming, get in," she said quietly.

"Come on, Gigi. We bought some wine!" Bob yipped. "We'll liquor you ladies up, won't we, Pepes?" The dogs chipped in unison. Squeak toys. Bob had dressed them up in little Hawaiian print shirts. On their head, small sombreros.

"Yip! Yip!"

We'd never been to their house. Ever.

98% humidity. No milk. No choice.

"We just ate breakfast," my mother said, lit a cigarette, slid in the back next to Bob. Eden hated smoking, didn't say a word. My Mother puffed hard as we passed the supermarket. "Could we not stop for milk, just a moment?" she asked, high-pitched, exhaled tight between her teeth. Eden didn't answer.

Bob winked. "It's lunch time in Paris, isn't it?" he began to sing, "Lunch time in Paris...." The Pepes looked away. Eden turned up the radio until the car vibrated Country Western.

"I'm crazy, crazy for feeling so lonely..."

I hated that song.

"It's Pasty Cline," Eden said to the rear view mirror.

Bob sang louder, "Lunch time in ..."

"I really like Patsy Cline," Eden shouted over him. The dogs snarled. Yipped. Nipped at his fingers. He kept singing.

"Those dogs don't like you, Bob." My mother said, mostly to me.

"Sure they do," he laughed. "Everybody likes me. I could sell ice to Eskimos." Smiled. His teeth, bruised. Eden drove faster. Twenty minutes later, we pulled up the winding driveway of a squat house. Ocean view.

"Gigi," Bob said, "play your cards right and this could be yours." Winked.

"It is too early for lunch," My mother said slowly. Maggs stuck her tongue out so far it touched her nose.

"Feisty!" Bob laughed, slung the Pepes over his shoulder. The bag swayed. The tiny balls on their sombreros bounced like popcorn.

Inside the house, the air was heavy with velvet. Leather couches swirled like vines. Oriental carpets. I asked Eden were the bathroom was. "The Pepes will show you," she smiled.

"I've seen this trick a hundred times," Bob said. "We'll be in the kitchen." Took Mother by the arm.

"You'll like this, Maggs," Eden said, removed the Pepes' hats, gaudy nylon shirts. "There, that's better isn't it, Pepes?" The dogs licked her cheeks. She made cooing sounds. Kissed the top of their heads.

I looked away.

"Where are the bathrooms, Pepes?" she placed them gently on the ground, as if they were indeed, made of china. The Pepes yipped into action. Tiny toes skittered across the wood floor. Maggs and I followed close. We turned the corner, sharp. The dogs wiggled as they ran. We were out of sight. And then we saw it.

A room just beyond the bathroom. The end of the hall. The door was open. Hundreds of dolls. Boxes and boxes, balanced like jigsaw pieces. Prices slashed. Reduced 50%. Clearance! Barbies with broken pink sunglasses. Baby dolls with without arms. Missing. Dented. Maggs didn't care. A tornado of desire, she dove into the center. Plastic wrap flew like farm yard fences. It happened so fast. The first box tumbled. Then others, like water down a drain.

I don't remember the exact sound of the crash. Maggs' tiny hand. The jumble of boxes. That's all I remember. I ran into the kitchen, the room was filed with balloons, crepe paper streamers. A sign read, "Welcome Future Amway Distributors." Boxes of detergent, soap and solvents fanned the table like a hand of cards.

"Amway is the answer to your mother's prayers," Bob said to me, poured Mother a glass of wine.

"Where's your sister?" she asked. Could see it in my face. Knocked over the glass. Ran down the hall.

I just stood there.

After a while Eden came back. "A bump," she said, the Pepes riding in her pockets. Heads bobbing. I could see myself in the dimes of their eyes. "They're still cleaning up," she cleared her throat. "Lot of them got broken." Didn't look at me. Humming something. Patsy Cline. Crazy. Put the Pepes on the table. Two huddled pears. A still life.

Wanted to say I was sorry but couldn't. Hated that song. Crazy. What do they know? People get different sometimes, it's like a cold. They're not crazy.

"Rice is quiet," I said. "Makes you feel invisible." That's why I ate it. Wanted her to know that. Nothing wrong with me.

"I just like rice" I said. "You know?"

Eden's face turned like rain. She smiled. Thought. Put the two dogs in my hands. I never touched them before. Like twin teacups. Bone china. They shook.

"They're scared," Eden said. "but they'll let you kiss them." She leaned into me. Waiting. "Everybody needs to be kissed," she said. Waiting. The Pepes trembled, licked my fingers. Never noticed their eyes were blue. I could feel Eden's breath against my cheek. Waiting. She smelled like Irish Spring and mothballs. "Everybody has needs," she said. She tasted like Sweet and Low. Two drops is all you need.

I'm not sorry about the next part. I ran. Dogs in my pockets. Just ran. I don't know where.

It was almost dark when my mother found me. Street lights shone like fat stars. She was patch-faced, as if crying, dragging Maggs behind her, bruised as fruit. I told her the story. Eden. The Kitchen. Irish Spring. Mothballs. I didn't know why I took the dogs.

"They look like rats," she said hands on her hips.

"Finders keepers," Maggs said. Kissing the top of their tiny brown heads. She was laughing like the Fourth of July.

"What are we going to do?" Mother asked me, clucked, picked up the dogs, one in each hand, holding them away from her like old fish.

"Can't we keep them?" Maggs asked, nearly crying, her face an overripe tomato.

"The doggies are not ours, Bijou," My mother shook her head. The dogs were silent. Watching my mother closely.

"But they have blue eyes," I said, as if to explain. I took a Pepe from her hand. "See?" I said. Holding the dog under the streetlight, the night rising around us like the tide. I held the dog so close to my mother's face, she could have eaten it with one bite.

"Blue eyes," I said again, wanted to say more, wanted to say I was sorry, sorry for it all. Wanted to say that I was lonely, lonely for the smell of Aqua Velva and the gentle blueness of eyes. I wanted to say all that, but I didn't want to make her cry.

"Their eyes are real blue, see?" is what I said.

But my mother knew what I meant. She gave me that look. Took a deep breath. "Bluer than velvet," she said.

"Don't cry," I thought. The moment hung between us. Everywhere around us the world was blue. The blind blue of twilight. The blue brine of tropical air.

And then it happened.

The dog licked her nose. My mother laughed. He licked it again. She began to laugh harder, kissed the top of his head. Then kissed his brother's head.

"Can we keep them, please?" Maggs started to kick.

My mother smiled. "Do you like the name 'Elvis'?" she asked the dogs. "We call you Elvis I and II, okay?"

The dogs yipped in unison.

"Yippee," Maggs joined in, clapping her hands. I howled for good measure, too old to yip.

On the long walk home, the moon shone above us like a silver teaspoon at a garage sale. Maggs and I, laughing, fed the former Pepes, now Elvis I and II, stale animal crackers from a crushed box found in the bottom of my mother's purse. My mother serenaded us. "You ain't nothing but a hound dog," she sang, stopping every now and then to explain the difference between the Peppermint Twist, made famous by Chubby Checker, and 'the plain old' twist.

All around us the world had become bluer than velvet.

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