News center
Comprehensive experience and advanced methodologies

That Particular Sunday

Apr 18, 2024

There are times when a family has an aura of completion. Remembering such a time feels like gazing at a masterpiece in an art gallery. You might find yourself taking one or two steps backward to absorb the harmonious perfection of the entire image. Or you may be lured by it, drawn to it, inching closer to study every fine detail of composition, the faultless poise with which each element confirms the necessary presence of the others. Take the figure of the son, who hurtles into the foreground of the picture, claiming his position in a web of femaleness, affixing himself to the very center of its adhesive heart, because he belongs there, or so he believes with the wild unblemished certainty of a boy’s imagination. Like everything else in the image, he never changes. Yes, that is my mother, his presence announces. And those are my aunts, he seems to say. And this — of the girl closest to him, her expression as breathless as his own — this is my cousin. My companion. My closest friend. Her soul is the identical twin of mine. The absence of the father doesn’t matter one bit. The absence of the siblings doesn’t matter much either, even though the son will love them hopelessly. Recklessly. They belong to a different elsewhere, a time yet to come, with another father to come, and the circumstances of their lives will frenzy the family, purpling it, cloying it until it is spoiled. Then it will be no different from any ordinary clan. Unpleasant to regard. An eyesore.

The apartment building is now in a state of ruin. Last month, on a Sunday too recent to be called the past, my cousin Mary stood with me on Adelphi Street, in front of the place where my mother and I lived when I was a boy. It was a brisk autumn Sunday, unusually seasonal, the afternoon bleared by a thick, dun blanket of cloud, by the livid shadows of new high-rises.

Mary’s infant daughter, comically bundled, stirred in the stroller, chaotic even in her sleep.

“Come on,” I repeated.

“Do we have to?” she asked. “It’s so silly.”

“I’ll beg, you know I will. Don’t make me do it.”

“Fine,” Mary said. “Let’s just get it over with. Lord knows I don’t want you to sound any more pathetic than you already do.”

On the count of three we sang together, the way we used to on Sundays, literally music to my ears: “Four-B, that’s me!”

Mary frowned and shook her head. “I don’t know why you’re grinning,” she said. “I really don’t. We sound awful.”

I laughed at her.

“Well we do. Like a couple of strays in heat.”

“Two cats, caterwauling,” I said, indulging myself.

“And the song — if that’s what you want to call it — it’s so embarrassing. It’s just . . . a nothing. Less than nothing.

Is that all we could come up with?”

“We were children.”

“Oh, were we?” she teased. “Like that justifies it. We must have been two of the dumbest kids who have ever lived. I pray Nina doesn’t take after me, if that’s the case. And if that’s the case, that means you might be a bad influence. So maybe it turns out to be a good thing that my baby’s grown cousin, who claims to love me, and who has all the time in the world, makes absolutely zero effort to spend time with her, much less help out.”

“Grown going on geriatric.”

“That’s your excuse? What, you have some infirmity I don’t know about? What is it, arthritis? Dementia?”

“I don’t know,” I said lazily, lawlessly. Underneath the canopy of the stroller, the baby continued to dream. Her sinister little fists contracted, two knots spasming at the ends of her coat sleeves. I looked at the cracked stoop of my old home. The peeling paint on the facade giving it the appearance of scales. “Kids just aren’t very fun at this age,” I found myself muttering. “I didn’t even know you were bringing Nina along.”

“I’ll be bringing Nina along pretty often for the foreseeable future. Doesn’t matter how I or anyone else feels about it. It’s kind of a part of the bargain.”

“Don’t get me wrong. I’m not unhappy to see her. It’s really nice to see her. A really nice surprise.”

“Oh don’t get all earnest on me. You need to loosen up, Aaron. Relax.” Mary observed me closely for a moment and then added, “There it is. Your other expression. Yeah, that’s it for sure. There’s the grin, and there’s the grimace. They look so much alike . . . ”

Feel alike too, I thought, the sensation of each slicked onto my face. “But you could always tell them apart.”

“Not even remotely true. It’s as clear as day to me now, but when we were young I had no idea.”

“That can’t be right,” I said. “You knew me better than anybody, better than my own mother did.”

“How is she, by the way?”

“I don’t know,” I said, loudly for some reason, nearly stentorian, the blast of my own words like a protest in my ears. Then more quietly: “I sent her some cash last week.”

“Yes, moneybags, I’m aware. Your mother told mine. Told me too, as a matter of fact. I talked to her on Thursday. You should give her a call too.” Mary crouched down to decipher Nina’s fussing. She spoke softly to the baby, sounding almost, painfully almost, like her old darling self. “And how are your brothers?” she asked, looking up at me.

My spine felt rigid, rusted into the shape of a question mark. On its own, my right hand rose, smoothed the lines of my forehead, concealed the show of my teeth. “I don’t know,” I told her. The images that include my brothers and their troubles aren’t ones I’ve ever cared to examine.

The sabbatical nature of Sundays had everything to do with the time I would spend with Mary, time which never had to be announced. My mother would simply watch, pleasantly at a loss, as I dressed in a clash of color, down to the mismatched socks, and, soon after, I would throw my small body into her arms and we would leave without saying a word. Or, more rarely, our intercom would buzz. On those Sundays, Mary and I played or read or watched television together in 4-B, or maybe we romped in the local park, but more typically my mother and I would leave the neighborhood behind. What I’m referring to now is the actual past, the genuine past, the Sundays which had the patina of the golden age, time’s verifiable signature. My mother displayed almost no confusion then. Matters were simpler. She didn’t call me by the name of one of my younger brothers, that casual error she makes now. She couldn’t. It was years before Keith or Rashard would even be born.

We lived in the neighborhood before it was a real estate agent’s dream. The historical record describes that era of Fort Greene with words like abandoned, poverty-stricken, crime-ridden, and with references to crack, words that are impossible to believe or even tolerate given the form and mood of my memories. As my mother and I strolled through and away from the area on a typical Sunday, toward the subway station that would take us to the part of Brooklyn now called Little Haiti, the corners, windows, and stoops were florid with faces and brilliant patterns of clothing. Far from abandoned, everything was proudly and ostentatiously claimed. Sometimes Leora, the liveliest of my aunts — dead now — would be with us, jutting her mandible out at catcallers, teasing my mother for telling me to “talk proper,” calling her “girl” in twelve different tones, tapping me on the shoulder to point out a squirrel spiraling up a tree. Walking between Aunt Leora and my mother I had to step double-time to keep up, but I made sure to go slowly enough not to interfere with the delicious sensation of being drawn along by them, the dampness of my palms like a glue that stuck my hands to theirs. As long as I live, I will never forget the tug and pulse of that neighborhood feeling, that family feeling. Here it is, and here I am.

My mother and I would emerge from the Newkirk Avenue station, turn three corners, left-right-left, and arrive at Mary’s apartment, where she lived with her mother. Mary’s father lived there too, as a matter of fact, but in my memory he was always away at one of his jobs, even on Sundays, so I hardly ever saw him. Though he didn’t appear in the picture, he was an essential source of its warmth, its cadmium-yellow light. Even then I understood that the quality of the light in their home, which could be dimmed or brightened at will, had an essential connection to the fact that he was never there. So did the abundance of rooms it contained. So did the pure fleecy whiteness of its furniture and carpeting. Aunt Arlette was the virtuoso of their home, which she didn’t hesitate to remind my mother of during our visits, but I knew, even if I didn’t have the word for it yet, that my laboring uncle was the patron. While Mary and I were in her playroom, we could hear her mother’s voice speaking about her latest acquisition, a new wall hanging or set of curtains, a vintage lamp, a coffee table topped with an oval of glass, a Christmas spruce that they would keep for years and that was also white, a color so enchanting that I laughed in confusion during a subway ride back when my mother told me to stop running my mouth about it. “I can see why you would be so impressed,” she said, “but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s artificial.” It was my mother’s tone that confused me. Her judgment rested on a word that made me understand it in the Latin sense, a way of praising the tree as a work of art.

It’s difficult to say how many years they lived in that apartment, but not because of a failure of memory. I could state something like Mary and her mother (and her father) lived just off of Avenue D in Brooklyn for eight years, from the time I was four until the time I was twelve. But this kind of boiled-down nonsense might as well be in a newspaper clipping, or an obituary. It’s the kind of thing I find difficult to bear. It doesn’t mean a thing. It doesn’t capture what it felt like to be there. The depth of feeling that was reliable and unvarying. There, Mary and I would kneel to drive our talons into the plush of their carpet and watch them disappear. There we would puppeteer her dolls through dramas so improvised we would stun ourselves into contemplative silences. There we eavesdropped on our mothers, who sat in two of the dining chairs, opposite the white sofas and glass table. As they sipped coffee they would parley, Aunt Arlette’s word — “It’s not gossip,” she said to us, “if you’re actually interested in people” — and sometimes, or so Mary told me once, the coffee would be spiked with rum, though only now and then, according to Mary, and only a nip, because their father — our grandfather — was an alcoholic back when he lived in his ancient time. Mary and I would peek in on our mothers shortly before dinner, which was earlier at their apartment, and we were purposely bad at our spying. We wanted to be caught. Without fail they would call us over, and I would sit on my mother’s lap and Mary would sit across from me on Arlette’s. They would groom us — licking a fingertip to wipe away a smudge or a patch of ash, picking nits of lint from our heads, tucking in any stray feathers of hair, checking that the seams of our clothes were intact — and then their parley would evolve into something else, a maternal show-and-tell in which Mary and I were the exemplars of girlhood and boyhood. They would take turns, emphasizing Mary’s charm, or my intelligence, her way of making people laugh, my way of never causing trouble, the brightness of her smile, the length of my eyelashes, her lovely teeth, my lovely hands, her love of reading books, my love of telling tales, her curiosity, my gentleness, and so on. “It’s too bad the two most sublime Negro children ever to appear in God’s universe are related to each other,” Aunt Leora said once when she was also there, probably on one of those spiked-coffee Sundays. “Otherwise you could just go ahead and marry them!” As far-out as the comment was, it was still entirely consistent with the feeling of being there, though whenever I’ve brought Leora’s joke up with Mary, she says she doesn’t remember it. “If it happened,” she told me recently, “I’d bet every penny I have that you and Leora were the only ones laughing.” But it did happen — I know for certain that it did — and I know without a doubt that there was no division among us.

That Sunday unfolded the way every one of them did. The show-and-tell eventually had to end because Aunt Arlette had to get up and make sure the food in the kitchen didn’t burn. When she stood and Mary slid from her lap, I scooted from my mother’s at the same time. The two of us returned to her playroom consecrated, and we played another quick game before dinner was served, vibrating like little gods. That day we shook from the raw sugar of curiosity. She was sublime and so was I — whatever the word meant, that part of Aunt Leora’s joke sounded too good not to be true — but sublime examples of what? What was a girl anyway? And what, for that matter, was a boy? We knew where the answers, under lock and key, were supposed to be kept, so we also knew what had to be done. Mary hiked up her dress and I unzipped my pants. We each slid our thumbs into our own waistbands and rolled down the front of our Underoos, but only so far. Our pre-dinner game that week was simple, quick, conclusive: she poked twice at the smooth skin over my bladder and I poked twice at hers. That’s all it took for her to state what was obvious. “Boy and girl are garbage words,” she said, and I agreed. We took down her hardbound dictionary and neatly sliced both terms and their definitions out with a pair of safety scissors. And as Aunt Arlette began calling us back to the dining table to eat, we turned pages by the handful in search of the word sublime. As far as we were concerned, what we had done with the scissors had pruned the English language itself, and improved it. Still, I’d been hesitant to bring up this particular detail of that Sunday with Mary, who is quickly becoming the queen of contradiction, but I finally did and was surprised when she nodded in response, clearly amused. “I remember that foolishness,” she went on to say. “The things children do . . . We thought — the two of us actually thought — that we were the same.”

But we were the same. We fell out and shrieked at the same jokes, and the convulsions of our whole-body laughter made us sink deeper and deeper into the white carpet. We were bored or repulsed by the same things: most cartoons, car chases in movies, almost all commercials and ads. Neither of us was interested in having a pet, and we found the fact of domesticated animals itself sort of sad. Though we were purposely bad at spying on our mothers during their parleys, we both had a keen interest in our other aunt, Thérèse, and made sure to pay special attention to any talk of her. Thérèse was the oldest of the sisters, and her appearances were even more irregular than Leora’s. She was on the very edge of the picture, and receded pretty far into the background, virtually out of the frame. You might not have noticed her at all if it weren’t for her triangular bush of shoulder-length Donna Summer hair, complete with a sturdy fringe of bangs that nearly covered her entire forehead. During the parleys, her hair was sometimes referred to as a wig, and our mothers seemed to suggest that she had many wigs, possibly dozens of them. Mary and I never saw any of these, which made us think our mothers were fabricating lies about her hair in the interest of sibling fun, and maybe out of sibling jealousy, but that didn’t stop us from wanting wigs of our own. For at least a few years, we both put them on our Christmas lists. Neither of us ever got one.

I don’t remember Aunt Thérèse ever being at Mary’s apartment. She must have known that her younger sisters needed time and space to make their harmless jokes at her expense. Or she might have suspected that during the Sunday parleys our mothers referred to her as Theresa, the name our alcoholic grandfather insisted on giving her when she was born. “Thérèse” was her own modification, a gift she had given herself when she turned eighteen. Our mothers honored her preference when she was present. Only Leora called her Theresa to her face. This would happen on Adelphi Street, in apartment 4-B, which lacked the dazzle of Mary’s place but had a more subtle magic of its own. The fact that it could hold all of the sisters at once, even Leora and Thérèse, was proof of this magic. This usually happened two times a year, once in June or July for a “cook-in” and then again in November for Thanksgiving, which we celebrated, of course, on Sunday. Thanksgiving belonged to my mother. She would roast a turkey and bake macaroni and cheese, which everyone would eat with polite appreciation, but what everyone really looked forward to was her fried chicken, which Aunt Thérèse would tell Mary and me was the best. “The absolute very best,” she said to us the year she stopped eating turkey, when twice as many chicken bones ended up on her napkin. It must have been the following year that she declined both the mac and cheese and the chicken, when she looked around sort of helplessly at everyone else fixing their plates and quietly asked, “Is there any sal-mon?” She pronounced the l. My mother seemed to panic and was initially unable to speak, because, I thought, of that l’s unwelcome presence. But I realized it was because of the apparent absence of any food her sister could eat. “I — I’m absolutely sure I have something here that you’d like,” she said, and opened the door to the freezer. Aunt Thérèse stood beside her and they both stared as the vapor cleared and revealed all the crammed-in containers of goods. “Ah,” my aunt said after a moment, still staring blankly into the compartment, “ just a little sal-mon would be perfect.” At this point, Leora jumped in. “Theresa, you’d never go around demanding sal-mon if we were back home in Suf-folk,” she said, fondling both l’s with her tongue, “so what makes you think it’s okay to do it here?” Thérèse’s eyebrows shot up and retreated behind her bangs. I’ve told Mary that this expression, which we saw so often, seemed to communicate any number of things. Fear, longing, happiness, curiosity, surprise. But she said I was overthinking it, and that it happened simply as a result of anyone alluding to the small town in Virginia where they were born.

I don’t know about that — causation, correlation — but it is accurate to say that the mention of Suffolk was directly followed by the vanishing eyebrows. And that wasn’t the only disappearance. For a few moments, something seemed to vacate the room. Judging from my mother’s eyes, its escape route went along the ceiling, through the hanging maze of Boston fern and devil’s ivy, and out the living room windows. All the women gazed there silently. I’ve had to tell Mary what happened next, because she didn’t remember.

“You said, ‘What are you all looking at? Is somebody out there?’”

“Is that what I said?”

“Well, you’ve always been a breaker of silences. You never could tolerate them for very long.”

Aunt Thérèse said nobody was there. My mother said, “Everybody’s here.” “Of course everybody’s here,” Aunt Arlette added. “So what are we waiting for? I’m hungry. Who’s saying grace?”

Leora gave each of her sisters a curious look and then made a space to sit between me and Mary. As Aunt Thérèse said grace, praising God for the bounties of food and family, the two of us watched her and her plate piled high with iceberg lettuce and candied yams. During the meal, we observed how she held her fork between bites, balancing it lightly among her fingers, how her elbows and forearms never touched the table, and then we tried to imitate her. The way she ate, with unhurried relish, strikes me now as the image of her authority, illustrating all the pride and elegance she had fashioned for herself throughout her life. She made that peculiar salad seem like the most mouthwatering dish in the world.

Not long after that Thanksgiving gathering, during an early weekend in December, the first snow of winter arrived. By Sunday morning, what had started as a shy dusting became a steady concentrated fall. The flakes looked so large and finely detailed as they slipped past my window that I was sure I could name every single one of them if I tried. I was excited as always to see Mary, to show off the new socks and snow boots I had gotten for my birthday. I wasn’t dressed yet though, because my mother hadn’t come in to watch me. When I called out to her, she stormed into the room and asked why I wasn’t ready yet. “I was waiting for you,” I said. “You’re getting a little too old for that, Aaron,” she told me. “Now hurry up and get your clothes on.” The edge in her voice rattled me, and sometimes I think of it as the seedling instance of a sound that would start to recur years later, though by then it would become sharper and more tremulous, and she would have called me Keith or Rashard, if not both, before correcting herself. It’s easy for me to dismiss that thought, however, because back then things were so pristine. My moments of doubt are pebbles compared to the mountain of what I know to be true. Here’s a truth I’m almost certain of: She smiled her usual Sunday-morning smile at me before she walked away. She must have heard how harsh she had been, and so she offered an apology. Wanting to please her, I rushed to put on my green pants and my orange-and-gold-striped turtleneck. I pulled on my socks, one each from the new pairs. Just as I began to wedge my heel into the socket of a boot, our intercom buzzed. So Mary was coming to our apartment this week! I was more than fine with that. In fact, I preferred it. It meant we could go to the park and play in the snow.

I ran in my socks to greet her, but was surprised to find not only Mary and her mother, but Aunt Thérèse and Aunt Leora too. The four of them were crowded together just outside the doorway, the slush that rimmed their boots melting onto our welcome mat.

“I just need to grab my coat,” my mother said.

“Why is everybody here?” I asked.

My mother looked back at me. “You’re still not ready? I told you to hurry up.”

“But why are they all here?”

Mary erupted with laughter, but not in a teasing way. She was delighted that she would get to share the surprise. “Didn’t anybody tell you? We’re going on a trip today. To see our other aunt. Do you hear what I’m saying? We have another aunt!”

I couldn’t begin to understand what she meant, but I went outside with everyone else, somnambulating behind the rest of them. We piled into a minivan and Aunt Leora, the only one of the sisters who was both willing and able to drive, sat at the wheel. We sped past Fort Greene Park within the first thirty seconds of the drive, and I think I was the only one who turned to look at it as we went by. Sitting next to me, Mary faced directly ahead, squinting a little, beaming softly and warmly. She seemed happy about this radical change, this break in our routine. Calmly expectant. Her demeanor began to rub off on me, and when she blindly reached her hand across and took hold of mine, I told myself not to think in terms of something broken or twisted. Instead I thought of my mother’s bush lily, which had been in her care almost as long as I had. Late the previous year, she had repotted it and had stopped watering it so often. In the new place she had given it, with less direct sunlight, it cooled and settled, and in March it flowered for the very first time. I imagined us all as a cluster of those orange winter blooms, and now there would be another bright flower.

Mary scoffed when I reminded her of that drive. “You mean to tell me you were sitting there thinking all those fancy thoughts? Well, let me assure you that we were none the wiser.” She claimed I was actually terrible in the car — “fidgety, whiny, carrying on like a child possessed” — but the truth is I was excited and probably just a bit more demonstrative than usual. “You can’t spell demonstrative without demon,” she joked when we were together last month, and after she said it I had the revelation that while adulthood had changed her perspective, motherhood had gone further and shifted her allegiances. I could see it in the way she acted in response to Nina. In Mary’s bleary, darkly encircled eyes there was anticipation of trouble and the frightened assumption of the worst. My cousin is now a mother, an exhausted mother who will likely raise her daughter on her own, so I know I’m not being totally fair. Exhaustion can drain your willingness to entertain the marvelous. But that unwillingness can provoke exhaustion too.

I remember asking, maybe more than once, “How long does it take to get there?” I really wanted to know. Aunt Leora’s reply, however, was “Nine million years.” She didn’t talk much during the drive. None of the sisters did. They sat in front of us enclosed in their own mostly uninterrupted silence, and what they did say hardly even rose to the level of chitchat. A word was spoken now and then, but for all it meant or inspired in response it might as well have been a sneeze or a cough. They must have been as anxious as I was to get there, wherever we were going, wherever this new addition to the family was, and it couldn’t have helped that the drive was slowed and hushed by the weather.

I had been afraid to ask where there was, afraid I would discover that Mary knew infinitely more than I did about the mystery of our new aunt, and that I was the only one entirely out of the loop. But when we finally arrived, she seemed just as perplexed as I was. We had parked between two brick buildings, a small one and a much larger one that reminded me of some kind of school. If I had encountered it later in life, I would have said it was like an administrative building on the campus of a liberal arts college. It had eight stories and was topped by a white clock tower, which could be read easily because we had traveled to the very edges of the snow. Gazing up through the thin powdering, I saw that it was nearly three o’clock. The drive hadn’t taken nine million years; it had been about four hours.

“Where are we?” I asked.

Aunt Thérèse said, “I believe we’re in Maryland.”

“Not quite,” Aunt Leora said. “This is still Pennsylvania, though we are really close to the state line.” But that wasn’t what I meant.

We went inside the larger building and down a hall until we met an official-looking white lady behind a panel of glass. As Aunt Leora spoke to the uniformed woman, Mary and I stared at a series of plaques on the opposite wall. Mary’s lips moved as her eyes scanned one of them, and I read alongside her, only partially comprehending the words. I imagine that the statement you can find now is the same as it was back then:

In 1903 the Bluestone Recovery Center began as Camp Blue Ridge, a sanatorium for patients with tuberculosis under the leadership of Dr. Gerald K. Hamilton. Camp Blue Ridge was renamed the Hope Sanatorium in 1906, Bluestone Sanatorium in 1919, and the Horace B. Wilson State Hospital in 1958. The Department of Health closed the Wilson State Hospital as a sanatorium in 1970, and under the Department of Human Services it reopened as the Bluestone Recovery Center to serve persons with histories of psychiatric illness and persons with histories of incarceration. Residents of the Center have exhausted other placement alternatives, are considered psychiatrically stable, and do not exhibit any behaviors that would put themselves or other residents at risk of harm. The Center is committed to maintaining the highest standards of compassionate long-term care for our residents in order to assist in their recovery. The ultimate goal of the Center, as much as possible, is to help every resident return home to their family or their community.

I’ve asked Mary about this. She tells me that what has stayed with her much more than the wording on the plaque was how painfully lit that hall was. “It felt like the kind of light that burns through everyone’s skin and exposes your bones,” she said. “It made me scared for her.” Though it’s true that there was a radiant intensity to the place, what Mary misses in her memory of that light, I’ve thought, is the people walking slowly through it, so slowly that they may as well have been floating, and it seemed too as if all of them wore the most serene smiles on their faces. They raised their hands to welcome us, or nodded their heads to acknowledge us as they passed, and they said hello to us in thick whispers, as though their mouths were lined with felt. They whispered it so often the word rang softly through the hall like an echo of civility. So my impression isn’t of the light itself, but of what it illuminated. An emphatic, empyrean bliss.

Aunt Leora stepped away from the panel of glass and led us into a room with many chairs. There were no other people there. We took off our coats and she gave us each a sticker that read visitor to affix to our sweaters. “We can all go in,” she told us, “but only two at a time.” As soon as she said this, I took Mary’s hand and began swinging it in the space between our seats. When she turned to look at me, I winked at her with both eyes. Soon the other door in the room opened. A different uniformed white person, this time a man, stepped in and said, “All ready for you.” Aunt Leora and Aunt Thérèse stood up.

“I guess we’ll go first.”

“Lead the way, Theresa,” Aunt Leora said before they went through the second door. “Age before beauty.”

While they were gone, it was just as quiet as it had been in the minivan. The room we were sitting in was windowless, a bit faded, a bit grubby, and less brightly lit than the hall. The geometries of the wallpaper held my interest more than the landscape paintings did. Sweetened air seemed to be pumped into the room but I couldn’t figure out its source. I swung Mary’s hand faster, arced it higher, hoping it would be our turn next. The door opened after a while and Aunt Thérèse burst through it. More calmly, Aunt Leora followed. Aunt Thérèse sat and then immediately stood again.

“I think I need some fresh air,” she said.

“Since when are you a woman of the outdoors?” Aunt Leora asked.

Aunt Thérèse drove her arms into her coat. “You don’t always have to have something smart to say. It’s not always the right time for your sass.”

This banter amused me. I imagined they behaved exactly the same way as little girls, briefly squabbling in the middle of a game.

When Aunt Thérèse left through the first door, Aunt Arlette stood over me and Mary. She watched our hands swinging, swinging, swinging. “Will you stop playing around?” she said. Then she grabbed Mary’s other hand and pulled her away from me. I watched as my cousin, walking stiffly on her heels, was taken through the second door. For some reason, she didn’t look back at me.

“How was it?” my mother asked Aunt Leora. “How do you think?”

“That good?”

“Oh, even better,” Aunt Leora said. “You don’t even have a clue.”

“Well this was your idea.”

“And I don’t regret it at all. This is what a family does.”

I realized they weren’t going to say anything about Aunt Arlette’s unnecessary cruelty, taking Mary away from me, so I stopped paying attention. I lost myself in the wallpaper. I filled my lungs with the room’s sweet air and went back and forth about whether I liked it.

When Mary returned, her face held an expression of awe. Her mother, walking behind her, guided her into the room by the shoulders and sat her down in a chair that wasn’t close to me. Mary didn’t look at me or speak to me. But I got to my feet quickly. It was finally my turn.

“You got a child too? You?” This was how my mother and I were greeted when we went through the second door. The voice, which was loud, even shrill, belonged to a woman seated in a peach-colored armchair. Other than the uniformed man, who observed from a far corner, she was the only person in this new space. It was larger than the one we had been waiting in, with many arrangements of various armchairs, sofas, and tables, like a showroom’s display of furniture. If there had been lots of people, they could have sat in clusters of three or four, pretending they had achieved some privacy.

The first flash of thought I had about the woman as my mother and I sat on the sofa across from her was, This is my enemy. I was on high alert, ready to protect my mother and myself, to defend our authenticity as parent and child, but I reminded myself that this person was supposed to be my aunt, and there was something about her appearance that caused my feeling to dissolve. She was wearing a floral-green housedress and kept running her hands up and down her bare arms. Her short hair was braided into flimsy cornrows. Like the people in the hall she maintained a smile, and she rocked forward and back slightly as she watched us with her active eyes. She reached toward the warped magazines on the table between us, but then drew her hand back and started rubbing her arms again.

“Are you cold?” my mother asked.

“It’s the other building that has the haints. This one is fine,” the woman said.


“Ghosts make you cold, Tweety. Everybody knows that.”

I immediately turned to my mother, but she didn’t say anything about being addressed as Tweety. All she said was, “You’re right. I had forgotten all about that.”

“So you’re a pharmacist.”

“I work in a pharmacy.”

The woman’s smile widened. “Just tell people you’re a pharmacist.”

“Are they taking proper care of you here?” my mother asked.

“I’m doing okay.”

“You’d tell us if you weren’t getting proper care.”

“What’s proper? What’s improper? I’m doing fine.”

“I’m relieved,” my mother said breathlessly. She took a long look at the man in the corner and then said, “Isn’t that Mama’s dress you have on?”

“Pretty sure it’s mine now,” the woman mumbled. Still rocking, she looked down. Wide lanes of her dandruffy scalp were exposed between her braids. She fingered the hem of her dress, and I could see now that it was in a shabby condition.

“What’s your name?” I asked.

Her face flew open and stabs of keening laughter cut through the room. It sounded like she was remembering pain. “What kind of manners have you been teaching him? A true Southern gentleman would offer his hand and state his own name first before asking for mine.”

“He’s not a Southern gentleman,” my mother said.

But suddenly I did want to be a gentleman, Southern and true, and there are times I think I’ve never lost this desire. As instructed, I offered my hand and told my aunt my name.

“That can’t be right,” she said. “You don’t favor any Aaron I’ve ever known. You look more like a Buster to me. There you go. Tweety and Buster. Now that’s something. That has a nice ring to it.”

My mother stiffened and drew her shoulders back. “Aaron,” she said, “this is Claudia. My sister. She’s the baby of the family.” Claudia’s laughter shot through the room again. In the image of our family that I hold most dear there are tiny spatters and slashes everywhere, but you have to get very close to the canvas to see them. To the untrained eye they might look like flaws, errors, but they are the marks of Claudia’s laughter, and there is a design.

The two of them kept talking as my mother sat stiffly beside me. Her posture seemed to alter the sound of her voice, muffling it, and everything she said seemed patient and thoughtful and civil, full of the courtesies she used when she spoke on the phone to people she didn’t personally know. Meanwhile I made the necessary adjustments in my mind. Leora wasn’t the youngest of four sisters. Claudia was the youngest of five. Claudia. My aunt Claudia. Mine. Once I had worked things out, I was ready to join the conversation, but my mother suddenly announced that we should go. “Before it gets dark,” she said. “Y’all just got here,” Claudia replied. “I know,” my mother insisted, “but we have a long drive.”

It was beginning to turn dusky outside, the sky the color of lavender, and the snow came down more heavily than before. As we walked through the parking lot, I made Mary watch me catch the flakes on my tongue. During the ride back, Aunt Arlette, Aunt Thérèse, and my mother kept saying over and over how nice the visit was and how glad they were that we did it. And they kept saying we should plan to come again sometime. Through this litany they forged an agreement, and I couldn’t help but grin in response. Mary was staring at me. She held her hand out across the seat and I took it. No one said anything about when Claudia might return to the family. Silently, Aunt Leora drove on.

Aunt Thérèse was the first to be dropped off, and my mother and I were next. When we got to Adelphi Street, Mary and her mother stepped out with us to say goodbye. We exchanged hugs and then Mary and I looked up at the windows of the apartment. We concluded the visit the same way we did every Sunday. “Four-B, that’s me!” we sang, though the words were a bit dampened as the snow continued to fall. It’s this version of our singing, in the shifting white shadow of that particular Sunday, and its augmentation of our family, that I desire to re-create whenever Mary and I return to Adelphi Street. I told her this when I saw her last month, and I asked her if she remembered. “I do. I remember every detail, or practically every one. I’ll tell you this though,” she said. “I’m fairly sure that’s not how it happened.”

But what else would she say? She has a baby to think about, and the idea of a future better than the past to put her faith in, no matter how bleak it is now, when the country and the world seem to be unraveling, and when the nerve-shock of an autumn day is that it actually feels like autumn. My cousin can argue with me all she wants — on some level I understand that she has to, she has no choice — but she can never deny the affinity we had or the perfection of the many Sundays we shared. And she can’t deny what happened that evening after my mother and I went up to apartment 4-B. Mary can’t deny it for the most obvious reason. The twin of my soul simply wasn’t there.

My mother went directly to her room. I locked the front door and followed her. When I came in she was on her hands and knees, dragging various items from under her bed in the dark. I turned on the light and the floor was a mess of shoeboxes and dust bunnies, the cookie tins where she kept her needles and thread. Finally she pulled out a photo album with Happiness in golden sentimental cursive embossed on its worn maroon cover, though all but the first two letters of the word had been faded by time. She sat with it on the bed and I sat there too, beside her. As she flipped through the album, which I hadn’t ever seen, she would take out certain photos, many of them Polaroids, and set them aside. She wasn’t explicitly showing them to me, but she wasn’t hiding them either. Eventually I figured out what made them special. They were all photos with Claudia in them, as a baby, a little girl, an adolescent, a young woman. It was difficult to recognize her at first, but once I found her face in one of them I was able to identify her in all the rest. Some included all the sisters, all five sisters, others included combinations of just a few of them, and some featured Claudia alone. At some point there were no more of these pictures for my mother to remove, and she flipped without interruption through the rest of the album, humming pleasurably until we got to the pages without any images. I could hear the snow, threads of it striking and melting against the window, causing the panes to sweat. What I could see of our neighborhood was beautifully abstracted by the misted glass. My mother reached an arm around and told me she loved me. She drew me in so close I could feel the rapid beating of her heart. Tweety and Buster, I thought. I was grinning so hard my face hurt. She closed the album and swept every loose photo into a pile.