Fearful of going further, Renny remained in the doorway after Jimmy burst into the house and began shouting to his wife. She waited by the door, taking the entire picture in, amazed that her brother, her brother, lived this way.
Pushed to the wall, underneath a window wrapped like a gift in aluminum foil, was a long, hideous couch upholstered in the kind of floral pattern the likes of which she’d seen only on bad television shows. Neon colors, almost; blues and pinks and greens; the flowers so grotesquely overbearing that it hurt to look at them. Filling one corner was an easy chair, more of an uneasy chair, she grimaced, a used La-Z-Boy draped beneath an offensive red-and-black crocheted afghan. The rest of the room consisted of a few occasional tables in a Mediterranean style popular decades ago.
Plastic milk crates, stolen from the back lot of the Dairy Queen in town, used as storage, held everything from toys and books and records, to a collection of tabloids; a National Enquirer shrine. For extra storage, several filthy cinder blocks, along the wall, had thick lengths of bowed plywood stretching between them. Renny couldn’t believe people actually lived like this anymore, unless they were in college somewhere; state college, at that. Renny, herself, hadn’t lived in a place as awful as this since Patrick, and that was two lifetimes ago.
“C’mon in, Ren,” Jimmy said gleefully, before apologizing. “Sorry it’s a mess in here, but with a kid—.”
“It’s okay.” She spoke softly, moving through the doorway, out of the fresh air and sunlight of the front porch and into the dark and stale living room. When the door closed behind her, she became instantly claustrophobic. “It’s…nice.”
“Emma!” Jimmy barked down the short hall and Renny looked beyond her brother, into the hallway itself, which lead to a back door, slightly open to reveal a green patch of hillside and the promise of blue sky and untarnished air.
Instead of Jimmy’s wife answering back, there was a stabbing shriek, followed by the staccato sobs of a child crying. Jimmy raced to the back of the house and disappeared into a side room, leaving Renny trapped in this crypt like room. She stepped back to the door, ready to open it and step outside, when she heard the crying stop, and listened to her brother cooing and laughing. Before she could move, Jimmy was back, with a red-faced boy whose eyes had only begun to dry.
“This is Lyle,” he said proudly, walking his son into the living room to meet his Aunt Renny who, knowing to prepare for the worst, considering her surroundings, put on a false smile. As Jimmy brought Lyle out of the dark hallway and into the slightly brighter living room, her mind spun with what she might say, precisely chosen words that wouldn’t show her true feelings, but she grew mute looking into the faces of a boy and his father.
In spite of his obvious crying fit, she could see that Lyle was gorgeous. He had the same eyes as Jimmy, as the whole Seaton family, Renny realized, ice blue and clear, like the sky reflected in the clean chrome bumper of a classic car. Long eyelashes, dripped with tears, fluttered and he smiled at her. Jimmy tousled Lyle’s curly blond mop, as iridescent as the silk from a fresh stalk of Sloughhouse corn. While everything else she had seen since coming in the house reminded her of trash TV, this child looked like the star of a pricey ad campaign for baby food or diapers…even luxury cars.
“This is your Aunt Renny, Lyle,” Jimmy told his son, nudging the boy closer. Renny was stunned as he came to her, unsteadily, but without his father’s helping hand. He stared at her face, and she got the impression that he knew she was family by the way he smiled so sweetly. At that moment, Renny stopped caring how Jimmy lived, and where, about his grimy fingernails and dirty clothes; everything vanished behind the silly grin she wore as Lyle teetered across the room.
“Hi there…Hi Lyle.” Renny purred, dropping to her knees and intuitively holding her arms out to him; she felt like crying when he snuggled in next to her, giggling and playfully grabbing at the necklace she wore. Swooping him up in her arms, she began to dance with him, spinning and giggling. “Oh, Jimmy. He’s absolutely beautiful.”
Turning away from her nephew momentarily, it struck Renny that he was the spitting image of his father. They had the same eyes and pudgy cheeks, the same round face and the same wonderful grin. Lyle was definitely his father’s son, and his father was ecstatic at his big sister’s approval. On the rare occurrences when she had ever been near the boy, Barbara would only pat his head and then hand over a check for Christmas or birthdays.
“He’s precious, Jimmy,” Renny said again.
“Yeah.” A voice, ragged from sleep and cigarettes, agreed. “He is.”
Everything stopped, and the room became, if possible, darker and colder. Gazing beyond Jimmy, who instantly tensed at the sound of the voice, Renny stared into the black tunnel of a hallway, at the woman leaning against a door jamb; the dishwater blonde wiping sleep from her eyes so that she might better glare at Renny; Emma. She walked slowly, in bare feet, into the living room, all the while searching the pocket of her crumpled corduroy bathrobe for the pack of Salem’s she kept there. Shaking her hair from her face, she sucked on a cigarette and lit it with a lighter she scooped off a table. The robe fluttered open and Renny saw that Emma slept in a Pearl Jam T-shirt and a pair of pull-on shorts.
“Uh…this is, uh, Emma,” Jimmy said abruptly. “Em? This is my sister…Renny.”
Renny couldn’t believe the change in her brother once Emma joined them. The life vanished from his eyes, and the smile that had been there only a moment before, the laughs he shared with his sister and his son, quickly faded. He seemed somehow less than he was before, shorter, even, with his shoulders slumped forward and his gut drooping further over his belt. His eyes dropped to the floor.
“Hello,” Emma uttered in a shrill, nasal tone Renny immediately remembered from the phone message. Her arms folded, a cigarette dangling from pursed lips, she inspected her sister-in-law; eyeing Renny’s clothes: the pants, black, a precise crease from waist to ankle. Emma snarled a little; she had seen women like that. Her eyes narrowed at the black leather boots, and the white shirt, a man’s shirt, crisp and spot-free, with the collar upturned and the two top buttons undone to reveal a slender, tanned neck and a sterling silver chain with a black pearl suspended from it. Renny had recently colored her hair—Emma could tell—a honey blond, and cut short so it framed her face. Two silver clips held it back, and a pair of earrings that matched the necklace, studded her earlobes.
“You ever return phone calls?” Emma asked, and when Renny looked confused, she explained. “I called? The day we found the body? You never returned the call.”
“I’m sorry.” Renny toyed with her necklace, as Lyle had done moments earlier. “I didn’t think…. I just got in the car and drove…and came home.”
“Hmmph,” Emma wheezed. She walked to the refrigerator and grabbed a bottle of Coke from inside; she popped the lid and drank right from the bottle, tilting her head back, guzzling nearly half the contents, and staring at Renny. She ran a hand through her own recent dye job—Strawberry Blond in a box—and snarled at her husband. “I’m working again tonight, Beam, so you’re staying home with Lyle. I don’t want him going to Bessie’s. She let him play outside all day and he was covered in mud when I got home.”
“Sure, Em.” Jimmy’s eyes waffled from his wife, who stayed in the kitchen and opened another Coke, to his sister who held his son and stared wide-eyed at his wife.
“Beam?” Renny murmured. “Why does she call you Beam?”