by Tina Egnoski
Here’s what the real estate agent didn’t tell me about the mushroom-colored stucco ranch at 51 Pinewood Drive: one bright afternoon in March of 1996, a woman named Bernice Lyle brought home a box of long-stemmed, peach-colored roses and inside the box, nuzzled among buds and leaflets, was a shotgun. I knew about the gun and what happened next. I had grown up in the neighborhood.
Mrs. Lyle, like all our moms, kept house, ironed her husband’s shirts, and raised four sons, a daughter, three teal parakeets, a cat named Scout, and a box turtle one of the boys had recently rescued from the paws of a pugilist mutt. Raina, her daughter, was my friend. We were twelve and liked to do weird stuff like inhale glue from her brothers’ model airplane kits and have séances at midnight in her closet, the Magic 8 Ball our talisman.
It was just three days before Easter and the florist was busy. Granted, everyone wanted lilies, but still, there was a line and Mrs. Lyle arrived home after the children had returned from school. They clambered, wanted a piece—all the pieces—of her. She got a glass of milk for Benjy, signed a fieldtrip permission slip for Gabe, and then shuffled them out the door. Go on, get out of here. Go play.
Our neighborhood, a quiet suburb, was known as a good place to raise children. The streets were full of kids playing stick hockey. Backyards were havens of fort building and hide-and-seeking. We bounced in and out of houses, grabbing lemonade or popsicles. Raina’s house was as familiar as my own, smelled the same way: pine mulch tramped in on tennis shoes, hamburger fat left overnight in a frying pan, Lysol. With only three bedrooms, there was never enough room, so kids had to bunk together. Jinx with Gabe. Raina shared a room with the youngest, Benjy. He was deaf, the result of repeated, untreated ear infections, and relied on Raina. When Marshall moved out, someday, Raina hoped his room would be hers. At my house, I shared the bedroom with my younger sister, while my oldest sister had the other all to herself. Like Raina, I dreamed one day to have a place for just me.
It must have been heavy, that box. Did Mrs. Lyle, I’ve wondered, hold it close, tucked in her elbow the way a mother does a newborn while tending toddlers? Or did she set it down to pour the milk? If she had, one of the older boys, Jinx probably, would have grabbed it and untied the ribbon while her back was turned. He was like that: rash, meddlesome. Out behind the shed I had kissed him and he slid a hand up my shirt to feel my nothing-yet chest.
In the language of roses, I now know, yellow signifies friendship; white, purity. Peach is the color of desire. Did Mrs. Lyle, for the sake of the children, feign excitement, as if her husband had sent the flowers and she was rushing to open them in the privacy of her bedroom? Illogical—why would she bring them home if Daddy, away at work, had ordered them? Was it shotgun or rifle or revolver or rumor?
Alone, behind the locked door of the master suite, she ran a bath, turning the hot faucet all the way up. It took forever in those houses for the too-small water heater to heat up, but it did and once the tub was steamy and full, Mrs. Lyle slid in and opened her mouth, front sight clipping her teeth. It was rumored that water flooded the hallway. Rumored that when police pulled the stopcock, an eyeball circled the drain.
When I purchased the house—years, years later—I was married but didn’t have any children. Yet. This was still a good neighborhood and my parents still lived nearby, as did my sisters. We were a family who didn’t stray. My husband and I knocked out a wall and opened up the kitchen to the dining room. We replaced countertops and cupboards. We painted, wallpapered. Appliances got upgraded one by one, ending with the water heater. Our belongings fit nicely into the 1,500 square feet: Shaker armoire, all that wedding china, sofas and armchairs, a mahogany bedroom set.
One day Raina came to the door. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t expect her. Not long after her mother’s death, Raina’s family moved across town to live with her grandparents. We saw each other only at school. I admit I didn’t talk to her much. I didn’t know how. I had too many questions. Rude questions I was told never to ask. We lost touch after high school. I went away to college. I had no idea where she went. But, at some point, in some way, don’t we all return home? I had.
She was a waitress, a mother of three children. Soccer and ballet and guitar—shuffling from one lesson to the other, that was her real job. Ketchup and coffee stained her uniform. None of the kids were with her and she didn’t mention a husband.
I offered to show her around, to see the renovations. We stood in her old bedroom, now my husband’s at-home office.
“I love the wallpaper,” she said, tapping the glittering, gold pinstripe that wove through the black.
I hesitated at the closed door of our bedroom, once her parents’ room, the one with the master bath which now held a spa-style tub. The bed was unmade, the dirty laundry in piles on the floor. That was my excuse for not turning the knob.
We ended in the kitchen. I put the kettle on for tea.
“Please,” I said. “Have a seat.”
She did, on a stool at the island we had installed. Her elbows on the counter. Not the counter where her mother had, perhaps, set down the florist box. If it had been a shotgun, could she really have reached the trigger? I’ve tried to imagine dimensions and angles; the necessary arm span. And the color, peach? How did I know this? Did I know this? It was possible my childhood bedroom was that color, a peachy blush. Or maybe Raina’s room.
That long ago afternoon, Raina had pestered her mother, begged to come play at my house and her mother—I hate her, I hate her, I hate her—had refused. She wanted the kids outside, but to stay in the yard. Jinx, of course, ran off. So did Gabriel. To play in the woods, miles away. Benjy wanted to spin, so she and Marshall took turns. Each time Raina let him down, the earth dipped until she caught her balance. Of course Benjy didn’t hear a thing.
She told me Jinx—his given name was Jason—had spent some time in jail. Benjy and Gabe both still lived in town, each married with two children. Marshall lived in Mexico. He was an anthropologist or archaeologist.
“I always mix those two up,” she said. Her hair was a snarl rubber-banded at her neck. I-don’t-have-time-to-brush-it hair.
“Me, too,” I said, even though I didn’t.
“May I use the bathroom?” she asked. “I have a long drive home.”
“Of course,” I said.
We stood. In a vase by the stove, I had a red gladiola picked from the garden. Raina stopped and fingered a petal. I thought she said, “No, my mother didn’t cradle the box or set it on the counter. She placed the gun, butt-down, in a tall vase, stood back and smiled, satisfied with her new arrangement.”
But really what she said was, “Pretty.”
“Thank you,” I said.
The garden wasn’t mine, I explained. I mean, yes, I owned it now, but the widow we bought the house from had cultivated and nurtured it. She was known in the neighborhood by the nickname Blossom. She had lupines as tall as ponies. Leopard lilies—raging, blazing. Fat-faced dahlia charmers everyone stopped to admire. I lived in fear that by next spring, all would be dead. From neglect.
For now, though, the plants flourished and the house, my house, or in a way our house, was bright and airy. That gladiola, here in the kitchen between us, could have been but wasn’t a single Gypsy Curiosa in a wash of blood.