She got out and liberated Lola from her crate, hooking her leash to her collar. She paid Mr. Brown and he deposited her luggage at the foot of the steps, meaning she would have the pleasure of hauling it all up the steps and into the house and then up another two flights to the second floor.
"Thanks," she said and gave him five dollars instead of the ten she would have given him if he had taken her bags inside.
Mr. Brown shrugged his shoulders, got back into his van, put it in reverse and backed out of her life.
Lola was nosing around, sniffing the Lantana and the Pittosporum when a screen door slammed against its frame. Thwack! Beth looked up to see her mother and Aunt Maggie hurrying down the steps to greet her.
"He-ey!" Aunt Maggie called out in a singsong. "Come on and give your auntie a kiss, you bad girl!"
"I'm not bad," she said and smiled.
"Yes, she is!" Mom said, "Come here, Lola baby!"
"What about kissing your daughter?" She said.
"After I scratch my granddog," she said, gave Beth a slap on her bottom and scooped up Lola from the grass. "Look at my precious widdle baby!" Lola proceeded to wash Susan's face, one slurp at a time. "Come see, Maggie! Our Lola's got your nose and my chin!"
"Well, look at that! Would y'all look at this little bit of a fur ball? Hey, darlin'." Aunt Maggie allowed Lola to lick her hand, much like you might kiss the Pope's ring, and then she turned her attention to Beth, narrowing her famous blue eyes. "All right now, Missy. Want to tell your aunt what in the world you did to your hair?"
"I merely enhanced the red."
"I'll say! Whew! Well, hon', it's just hair, isn't it?" She sighed so large Beth caught the fragrance of her toothpaste.
Aunt Maggie, the self-proclaimed matriarch of the family did not like Beth's hair. Apparently. Beth did not give a rip what she thought. She was there to do them a favor, not to get a makeover. She was immediately annoyed but hiding it pretty well. She deemed it unwise to arrive and start bickering right away.
"Don't you pick on my child," Mom said to Maggie and gave Beth a dramatic hug, fingering her ringlets. "I happen to love red hair!"
Beth took Lola back from her. As usual, her mother had read her mind.
"Let me help you with the bags, kiddo." Aunt Maggie said groaning under the weight of her duffle bag. "Lawsa mercy, chile! What you got in here? Bricks?"
"Books," she said, "and more books. Sorry. This one's worse."
Everyone took a bag and they grumbled their way up the stairs, across the small back porch and into the kitchen.
"Where do y'all want me to sleep?"
"Take your old room for now but when we leave you can rotate bedrooms if you want." Aunt Maggie said. "You must be starving. I made lunch so why don't you go wash airplane and dog off your hands and we can eat?"
Airplane and dog? She was almost twenty-three years old. Did she really need someone to tell her to wash her hands?
"Sure," she said, kicked off her flip-flops and took two of her bags up the steps to her old room that had never really been hers.
The bedroom where Beth had spent so many nights, housed her parent's four-poster bed which had come into their hands when her grandparents went to their great reward. When her mother and stepfather sold the house on Queen Street and moved in with her Aunt Maggie and Uncle Grant just as they were moving to California, her mother had sold most of their belongings in an undistinguished yard sale and brought only the most important pieces of furniture and some other things with her. Those things that mattered to her and those she thought mattered to Beth and yes, that was another issue Beth had with her. How could someone else decide what was important to you?
The big mirror was the first artifact to arrive, followed by an old grandfather clock that chimed when it was in the mood. But the mirror was the thing. The Mirror, the curious and well- used doorway for those no longer of the flesh, was firmly installed in her Aunt Maggie's living room the week before her mother married Simon Rifkin. So her mother's exodus back to the island had actually begun before Beth realized what was going on. Maggie had always wanted the mirror back, saying it was original to the house. She had whined about that thing like it was made out of the skin of her children. But that's how Beth's Aunt Maggie was―acquisitive to the tenth power. Her mom didn't mind returning it saying she didn't need the deceased walking around her house at all hours anyway. This made her mom happy and Aunt Maggie happy and Beth well, not so much if she had recognized its departure as a sign of the times.
So, in addition to house arrest, Beth would have the company of every dead person the family had ever known, if you believed in that stuff, which she did, because she knew it to be so from first hand experience.
This was the moment of Beth's return and moving into the house required considerable energy. After twisting her spine in every conceivable direction, Beth finally managed to get her luggage upstairs and opened her bags. She took Lola's dishes and a Ziploc bag of her food downstairs―after she washed her hands―and placed it on the kitchen floor in a spot that was out of the way. Lola began to drink, lapping the water in such an anxious way that everyone remarked she was just adorable. Maggie had produced a spread of tuna salad sandwiches with no crusts, pickles, celery and olives, iced tea and sliced watermelon. This was the hallmark hot weather lunch of their childhood.
"This looks great," Beth said, determined to be pleasant.
"Good honey, why don't we say grace?" Maggie said and sat in her usual spot at the head of the table. She snapped her linen napkin in the air and pulled it across her lap, bowing her head, mumbling some words in a voice she never used except for serious prayer and holiday toasts.
"Amen," they all said.
"My sister can make tuna salad like nobody's business," Susan said, taking three sandwich wedges, a load of pickles, celery and olives. She passed the platter to Beth. "Salt shaker?"
"Hungry?" Maggie said, pushing the salt toward Susan and winked at Beth.
Beth took three wedges and more pickles, celery and olives to support her mother's healthy appetite and passed the platter to her aunt.
"Don't we have any potato chips?" Beth said. She couldn't stop her inner-devil from having a word.
It was well-known within the family that Maggie thought everyone should act like an anorexic at meals. In her mind, it was unladylike to fill your plate, even if you had been stranded out in the ocean for ten days, eating nothing but raw sea gull and just came home from the hospital blistered and starving, barely recovered from life threatening dehydration.
"No, darlin'. Sorry. I don't keep that kind of thing in this house."
Maggie scanned everyone's plates, corrected her posture and gingerly took two wedges for herself, two slices of Mrs. Fannings Bread & Butter pickles and one small stick of celery. Then she smiled her smug little smile of superiority, the one that had irked Beth all her life.