By Sarah Minor
Featured art: American Rural Baroque by Ralph Steiner
The landline clapped as Dinah set the phone in its cradle and saw five new mini-Butterfinger wrappers in the can beneath her desk. There was a drizzle going on in the office parking lot—Giant lake weather. Billy Lloyd the Tobacco King, her Grandad, had finally died. Dinah stared into the gray matter of her cubicle, calling up the blue-frosted window in the fifth-floor bathroom, weighing whether at this hour she could finish an organic cigarette in there before someone noticed her shoes.
Dinah hadn’t spoken to her father in five months and then there he was, Billy Lloyd Jr., pronouncing emphysema, crying blubbery on the phone. Today and tomorrow would be for the examiner. The Lloyds didn’t embalm on account of a fear initiated by Lincoln’s rail-traveling corpse, though most of them had forgotten why by now, and with the heat they wouldn’t want more than three days for a body, even then. If Dinah went, she’d have to fly in the morning through Hotlanta or Dulles to land in time.
Outside, the regular dome of clouds diffused sunlight like ornamental water. Three stale cigarettes rolled in the trough of her desk drawer. Dinah cradled one in her palm and clopped down the airy hallway that smelled like rain. The art school occupied the old Ford factory, a concrete slab with no basement, and the glass blower upstairs had told her the poured floors contained ground up bones of a hundred mob victims from the ‘30s, which had stopped Dinah from lying down beneath her desk when the need arrived. Before he died Billy Lloyd had spent his life flying Business to Cuba and Panama with American Tobacco, and then farther afield to sell Carolina Leaf in Singapore and Hong Kong and other cities with names her family still wouldn’t recognize.
The bad uncle would be there and the grim Sunday School ladies, some weird business suits. Daisy, too. Dinah made it out the back exit where Charlie, the woodshop guy, was staring at his breath beneath the overhang. He was a big man and almost a decade older but last week, after some hasty retirements, Dinah had become his boss.
“Hi Charlie,” Dinah said before the door made its suction sound.
“Yo Miss Lloyd,” he said, leaning back to see behind her, “Something you need?”
She folded both arms to keep her cigarette hand out of the wet rising from the ground, “Just seeing the weather. It’s cold.”
“Yep,” said Charlie, “Sun comes out again in June.” He looked at her for an extra beat and Dinah couldn’t tell if he wanted her to leave.
At the end of her first year and before a period of avoidance, Dinah had accidentally kissed Charlie when it struck 2016 at the staff party, about an hour after his wife left, which was what it usually took for Dinah to find out she didn’t want to do it again. He’d sent her two drunk emails since. Today Charlie didn’t seem to be doing anything but getting his beard wet. Dinah relaxed as he pulled the weed pen from his pocket and a siren fishbowled through the traffic out front. The only thing for them to look at were the tendrils of rust spreading like wet ink across a concrete wall. The raised train tracks ran along top, behind the school, underscoring Erie and framing the building’s parking lot. Five months ago, Dinah knew, a woman leaving a night class had been taken from that lot, but Dinah hadn’t learned about it until months later, in the paper. The woman escaped, but it was the third story Dinah had read about a woman in this city who had escaped capture by fleeing a car or jumping from an upper window stark naked, like Red Riding Hood. Dinah had made a mental note.
“Charlie,” Dinah asked, “Would you go to a person’s funeral because they were famous, if you were invited?”
Charlie coughed through his fist, “Who are we talking, Michael Jackson? And where’s his funeral?”
Dinah made a single, actual laugh, “Not that famous. North Carolina.”
“Don’t like funerals,” Charlie said, and exhaled a parcel, “They’re like a play. People know their lines but someone always decides to mess up on purpose.”
“Right,” said Dinah, sensing that he was trying, “That seems accurate.” She gazed at a spot between her feet where a soft lip of asphalt spatulaed over the concrete, feeling like she might need to pee or scream. Twice in the past year the evening train had passed behind the building in the exact moment Dinah was walking out to her car. The mars beam caught Dinah in the middle of the lot with her arms hanging as if she’d left something at her desk and she held that position, dimly illuminated, aware of a rail bat flitting somewhere above her head, a genuine question rising up in her mind until she realized she was staring directly into the eyes of the train conductor who returned her look squarely from the engine room as the train kept coming either faster or slower than it seemed, the distance reliably diminishing while Dinah’s elbow bent to lift the hand not holding her tote and lowered it again as the conductor blared the train’s long whistle once, twice. Was it against the rules? The engine room was beside her then, yellow with a painted flag and the operator had to turn his head to keep looking and Dinah could tell it was not the direction his neck was used to turning and for a moment his face passed into the light with a drinking nose but not ugly and then she didn’t know how much time had passed. It was just the slow train of shipping containers stacked double from far away.
Two months later, the greasy dust blowing off the tracks. Her tote, a something-bat, a red sky, the unscheduled whistle. Dinah was frozen in the parking lot again. She thought it was all déjà-vu, but then it was the face of a different operator.
Charlie was looking again. “You need a light?” he said.
“Thanks, I’m heading in,” she told Charlie as her shoes began their clopping sound, “I’ll see you at the chairs’ meeting.”
“Peace,” he said, a little mournfully, which she didn’t like at all.
Had she been invited? Dinah leaned into her wrists in the vinyl kitchen, staring at her horizonal screen. Billy Jr. had called the office, where he knew she’d pick up, twice thirty minutes apart, the first time saying Grandad wasn’t Doing So Hot, Not At All, and would Dinah like to talk to Billy from the speakerphone in the den? Dinah could see them all together, leather chairs pushed against the walls, the hospital bed unfolded before the TV. Their mother raised her and Daisy in Ohio but they spent their summers in the little town that made Arby’s, where her father and his brothers wore rattails to cotillion. Above the couch in Billy’s den hung a blurry, depthless painting of five faceless natives on horseback waving thin sticks in the air. Grandad was selling tobacco to New Markets in those years so it was just Nanny swallowing the consonants in their names, yelling through the house so big it seemed designed for hiding. And that was it. Dinah had killed Billy, because fifteen minutes later her father had called again crying with the date and time of the funeral and the news that there was no room at the house. Her stepmother was there, and Nanny too. Daisy didn’t pick up during working hours and it occurred to Dinah that Billy Jr. had no one else to call. And no room at the house.
The number on screen arrived as if she’d willed it. Above the oven, the red clock said nine. Her sister had forgotten the time change again—
“Hell-o?” Dinah answered, lifting the vowel.
“Hell-O?” said Daisy, parroting the lilt they had as kids, “What’s up?”
“What is up?” Dinah mirrored, but Daisy broke first.
“Finished up for the day, getting off the computer,” she said, being direct, “Cavs doing it this week?” Last year Dinah had told Daisy she needed to ask people more questions.
“Right, yeah,” said Dinah, “We heard fireworks at work.”
“Dan just finished that table on the deck,” Daisy said, “We’re eating out there tonight with the house.”
Dinah looked out the kitchen window at the dark. “I saw the pictures. It’s that warm already?” People who moved west had to lie about the weather to reassure themselves. Dinah had assessed Daisy’s house on Instagram—a steeply graded suburban that her sister shared with several other ex-athletes up in Boulder. Daisy’s roommates wore what they called “Pradagonia” and took MDMA on the weekend, and none of them had laid eyes on a cigarette in years. In their living room stood a sound system and a compact stage laser that could be triggered by a sonic beat.
“Yeah,” said Daisy, “We did a massive hike last weekend. Went down to T-shirts and drained our Nalgenes so we had to turn back.”
“Nice,” said Dinah, but she couldn’t help it. “Hey. Did you talk to Pop yet today?”
“No,” said Daisy, searching, “I had a missed call though. You’re talking again?”
Dinah knew Billy Jr. liked to tell the family about how Everyone Was Worried About Dinah as a means of confirming that he wasn’t to blame. On alternate Fridays in the ‘90s, Billy Jr. and their mother had each driven three hours of Indiana highway to exchange the girls at a gas station they could see coming for miles, the one lined with slot machines, on court-ordered visitation. Dinah had once been her pop’s favorite, but at twelve she sat shotgun while their mother drove the first leg and then the girls made a complex maneuver when they touched down briefly on the pavement between vehicles, switching Daisy to passenger before they climbed into Billy Jr.’s pickup.
“Yeah. Well, no. He called the office today,” Dinah let two beats land. “He called to say Grandad passed this morning and he’s there now with Moira. It sounds like the funeral is Friday at the church.”
“Oh” said Daisy. She had once expressed to Dinah that people only used phone conversation to gain advantage, which was why she preferred texts. “Do you think you’ll go?”
“I think no,” said Dinah, counting the kitchen tiles, “It’s a big ticket and late in the week.”
“Right, that makes sense,” said Daisy, brightly, but suppressing it. “Let me call him back? I should? Call you after?”
“Okay. It’s 8 there. Talk after.” said Dinah. She hung up and stared at the phone. Then Daisy sent a text.
The connection to Raleigh was delayed by two hours so there was free Wi-Fi on the plane. The air sounded like a dentist’s chair. Dinah would have said it had been eight years but when she counted it was twelve. The aircraft rocked gently as the man in front of Dinah reclined his seat all the way, giving the backrest final bang with his shoulders. Dinah was good in a crisis. A point of focus was always good among family. The thing inside her that was a bit off switched on whenever circumstances tipped towards shit. Dinah pried a fun sized Mars bar from her tote, laid her phone on the tray table and googled “Billy P. Lloyd,” then added “Sr.” A series of links came up right away, which meant the papers had been prepped. Dinah bent over the vertical screen—An obituary from Gay & Chia funeral home, a story in the local paper, an early announcement in the Gazette, and an article in Raleigh News & Observer ONLINE from several months before her Grandad’s diagnosis. Dinah tapped the final headline and it took a moment to load as she skimmed.
“Councilman Dismissed on
UPDATED: Raleigh Durham
–“The former head of the NC
International Trade Division
state human resources offici-
Robert Lloyd Sr., previously
a CEO of International Trade
for American Tobacco…………
……………………… “I said, Lori
that’s making you stand out.’
that..……………I was trying to
think, what do you hang clo-
thes on? ………………………
So I said, ‘That’s a nice rack
to put them on.’ And I walked
away, I thought, ‘Oh, (shit).’”..
suggested more serious……….
Lloyd added that the investi-
gation played no role in his
decision to step down.”…….
Dinah’s seatmate turned his head and she realized she’d made a snorting sound through her nose. Then she lost a little time. She couldn’t feel bad for Billy but she was out of the loop, that was certain, and it hurt despite everything. She wondered if Daisy knew—not likely. The story would have been a blow to Nanny, to their legacy in town, not something to share. Grandad always said You Make Your Own Luck, usually from the end of the dinner table, which Dinah knew someone would repeat too many times at the funeral. Dinah’s cousins had told her that Nanny kicked Billy out a year ago, but she hadn’t known why. Nanny Had Lost It but not in the usual way she took pills to correct. And since then Billy had been traveling in-country, crashing with friends and cousins at 78, and then this news story had broken, apparently, and soon after he had to go to the doctor, got diagnosed, and Nanny wouldn’t even pick up the phone, but then she had to let him back in.
Dinah had almost forgotten the tall, hard-shadowed pines but there they were spreading in every direction, lakes like the eyes in faces with Carolina beneath. During the summers, Nanny told Daisy and Dinah stories about the pale, Moon-Eyed people who had once lived in their woods before they were chased underground by the native people of the terrain. The Moon-Eyeds were pale as worms and moved only at night because they were blinded by regular sunlight. Nanny told them this had all happened long before their family had arrived and stolen the land by making everyone sick with pocks. But the Moon-Eyeds had escaped below ground and Nanny said they still lived on, down beneath the long, zigzagging stone walls, what Billy called locks, they had once built deep in the woods.
The old house was full of candy and Dinah was finding it hard to breathe. Her feet were sweating in the humidity and when she stepped out of the cab the churring of insects began vibrating the small bones inside her nose. She’d forgotten about the bugs, and allergy pills. There was a blast of cold air and Hershey kisses in decorative bowls covering the side board. Dinah looked out the back windows at the narrow, man-made pond and identified a plate of sweet tarts and sour gummies on the coffee table. She stepped through the entryway quietly and her reflection stepped into the long hall mirror where she saw Moira, her stepmother, standing at the kitchen island around the corner. Moira felt her eyes and looked up. “Dinah!” she said, sweetly but extra loud. “You look a mess. Billy’s still here. Be respectful and wash up—we’re at the table.”
Still here? Daisy had insisted on separate hotel rooms. When Dinah arrived the inside of her shirt was damp with plane sweat, sour and sanitized, and her forehead shined. She told Daisy she was getting in the shower. But Daisy knew how much hair Dinah had to wash and didn’t want to be late for dinner, so she texted from the cab to say she’d gone ahead.
Billy Jr. came wide around the corner before Dinah could get to the powder room.
“Die!” He said, holding his arms wide, “Thanks for being here for me.” Billy Jr. hung on too long. Was he shorter than usual?
“Hi Pop,” Dinah said, her feet slipping around in her shoes.
“Your sister’s here, and everything’s set for tomorrow. You bring something black?” Billy fixed a hand to her shoulder as he guided her into the dining room and away from the den. The dinner table was mirrored and the walls and floor were yellow-white. Moira kept her face on her plate as four scythelike noses turned to point at Dinah.
“Hi y’all,” Dinah said, forgetting to smile in time. Nanny’s empty chair was distracting.
Uncle Danny raised stick-em-up-hands, keeping hold of his napkin, “I didn’t vote!” he cried, showing the dark pits of his t-shirt.
Only Billy Jr. laughed. He let Dinah go in the direction of a chair between Daisy and Moira. A half-empty six pack was crammed between damp serving bowls on the runner. Dinah scuffed her chair across the carpet, put a napkin in her lap and smiled at Daisy, who was dressed in smooth athletic wear. A deeply tanned white-haired man was smiling harder across the table.
“Hi Dinah, aren’t you pretty? I’m your uncle Manny!”
It took Dinah some effort to reach across and shake his hand, doubled in the glass. He was her second-cousin once removed, flown in to fill the family pews. Manny shook hard.
“Almost everybody’s here now,” Billy Jr. said, “Then Sarahbeth and Jimmy tonight. Warms a hard heart.”
“Jim better fit those Cubans in his suitcase,” said Danny, “He smoked my last set when Aggie passed.”
Ring, the oldest, was sitting beside Nanny’s chair across from no one, wearing a full suit and chewing steadily. He waved a silver fork at Dinah. Before she could respond, Moira pressed a metal bowl against her shoulder.
“Butterbeans. Honey chicken for your bones. The top ones, anyway.”
“Thanks,” said Dinah. She received the bowl awkwardly and her thumb slipped into the beans.
Second cousin Manny leaned down the table to bother Uncle Ring. A numbness was spreading along the bottom of Dinah’s feet—shock from the temperature shift. That high sound in her ear would be the thunderous AC. Billy Jr. began talking in her direction, trying to scare silence from the room. Moira stayed quiet. In her tote, Dinah had three cigarettes, the one from her drawer worse for wear, and it soothed her to think about stoking the chemical ember and breathing it into the old trees.
“…talking about you and Daisy when you played upsidown-face as kids. I still have pictures of y’all laughing your heads off and your faces so red. You girls had so much fun out here. Woods and birds. Ideal summer for a kid. When Ring and I was kids all we had was those gutter toads and their legs cut off to scare Lady Hawkins. You remember that, Ringer?”
Uncle Ring took a full moment to swallow and spoke to no one particular.
“May Hawkins lived on Saltines and Tuna.” Ring stabbed towards the floor with his tines and took another big bite, “She put my sneakers out when Bill lit the laces up.”
Billy Jr. laughed too long and Dinah recalled suddenly that Moira and Billy Jr. only ever spoke in private. Dinah angled her head to look at Daisy, who shrugged her eyebrows. Daisy had once told Dinah that Dinah made the whole family nervous. A year and a half younger, Daisy had just turned 29 but didn’t look it yet with her hair in a knot and dangles in the shape of raindrops. Billy Jr. was still talking.
“Danny you never laid eyes on her. She kicked the big one before you could walk.”
Daisy recalled that until he’d married and had some of his own, Billy Jr. hadn’t known any children. In the years before he went back to work for his own father, the years when he met their mother, Billy Jr. was a rising medical scientist who authored a paper at Dartmouth in 1996 called “The Beneficial Effects of Nicotine and Cigarette Smoking: The Real, the Possible and the Spurious,” which included a section about the benefits of nicotine during pregnancy:
“Several possibilities have been proposed,
……………………plasma expansion during
hypotensive effects of cigarette smoke……
………suggests initiation of the habit at an
early age may be required for this effect.”
Their mother had once said Billy Jr. was so dumb it made him smart in concentrated ways. But before Daisy was born, Dinah’s Pop still didn’t always know his daughter’s exact age or what it meant. When Dinah had first asked how her parents met, Billy Jr. told his first born that he had Followed Jane’s Whale Tail Right Up The Stairs. Her mother slapped his arm then, a little too hard. “What, Janie?” he said, a little put out, “Babies don’t understand.” Dinah’s mother had looked a long way down at her with wide eyes and a chain of knowledge passed between them, layers of things Dinah didn’t know the words for yet. The dissolution of her mother’s marriage had been the beginning of their friendship.
At the table, Billy Jr. kept on. “…there tomorrow. After those singing angels go down the aisle, sweet girls, Dan and Ring and I go up to read from the book, oldest first, right Ring?”
Uncle Ring nodded at the seat across from him.
Danny set his beer down and recited the strategy—“Then we go through the door where the priest come out. Then break out any Cubans. I don’t wanna see anybody talking to folks with pens and paper.” He flicked his eyes at Dinah. “I’ll hit the first buzzard that comes up to a Lloyd.”
Dinah noticed there was a bright light at the end of the hallway to the bedroom.
She could feel Moira looking at her cheek for an expression, and then Billy Jr was looking too. He coughed dramatically, “Our family don’t support the papers.” Daisy concentrated on her last green butterbean, sitting straight as usual.
“We won’t talk about what’s not true, said Moira, beginning to stand.
“And the mayor’s with us,” said Billy Jr., ”Nanny still owns half his town.”
“I’ll clear supper,” said Moira, “Daisy set, so Dinah’s on dishes.”
“So the man said ‘blouse’ too many times!” said Danny, “So what? Those girls knew what they were doing. That don’t make him an old moon-curser.”
Uncle Manny knocked twice on the table and whistled a tiny, round note, perhaps in agreement.
“Cool it, Dan,” said Billy Jr, “There’s no runners in this family. Save that juice for the cigars,” as he cracked a beer smoothly and passed it over.
Dinah’s feet were beginning to ache from the cold. “I think I’ll step out for a second,” she said.
There was a car idling down the street. Uncle Ring closed the sliding door behind him and stood beside Dinah, but the sound from the dining room made it through.
“Came to see the show,” she heard Moira say, projecting, “No respect.”
Danny picked it up—“… never so strange. And every hair out of order. Bet in her skirt she’s got a cigarette, naked as Nanny, and actin’ like she’s gonna smoke. As if we’re bating our breath—Ha!”
Billy Jr. breathed a laugh at the near-pun and Dinah heard Daisy stand to clear.
Ring was wearing sneakers at the bottom of his suit. Above them, the sky wasn’t the low white dome Dinah was used to but a long blue fender streaked with pink. There was the high pine forest with swaths cut out for miles to let power lines through, the sinking stones, the woods cold at their depths.
Ring didn’t turn his head, just lit up and held the Bic out the way you’d hold a feather by the tip. Dinah wrapped it in her palm and let her uncle look her over from clomping shoes to pleated shirt dress.
“Well,” he said, “You look like a Principal.”
In high school they used to call Dinah “CFTF,” cute from the front. Like all the Lloyds, Ring was handsome-faced from straight on but in profile he reminded Dinah of the hook end of a lure. The bell on her phone rang and the preview flag showed the first lines of a message from Charlie: “How’s Michael Jackson? You famous yet?”
At the far back of the woods were the old tracks and a clearing with a mess of grasses where, if you kneeled down low, you could see the web of pathways worn by deer, mushroom caps crowded between wet roots. The insect noises were folding over each other in a sound that was almost a chord. The cicadas were loudest, like blood pumping in her ears.
“Billy’s in there,” Ring said, pointing with his filter end to a set of glass doors on the short side of the house. Dinah looked at him and then held the lighter out in her palm. Ring followed at a distance.
The bedroom was painfully cold. Dinah’s grandmother was sitting upright in the king bed and the bright light was coming from the bathroom. Perfume flavored the air around her, but when Dinah bent to kiss Nanny’s cheek she smelled layers of something beneath it, like dental floss—antiseptic, then rotten. Nanny swayed a bit and looked around meanly. Her hair was longer than usual but still dyed to the roots a reddish black, like old blood.
“Dinah Beryl God forgive you. You kids heard of a locked door?” There was a heap of cellophane caramel wrappers on the carpet at her bedside. Nanny couldn’t get up.
“I ain’t doing no intervention. Take your goddamn shoes off, Ringwalt.”
Nanny’s quantum eyes had gotten bluer with age. When they were very young her sisters used to call her sky-tinged, a name that came back around cruelly when, as a teenager, Nanny Acquired Her Affliction. That’s what they called it. The family had it under control by the time she met Billy, and he hadn’t heard one thing about bi-polar until they lost the first child. Ring was seven and Billy Jr. just five. But this afternoon Dinah could tell Nanny was clear. When she was taking her medicines, Nanny was sick in a way that seemed ladylike, part of a tradition of corsets and daybeds. Parasols. Beauty sleep. Frailty was becoming, or Nanny made it so, and in the summer she was always opening the windows, Cooling Off in her nightgown, sunbathing naked on the back porch until the ladies across the pond called the police, or else she was turning the heat up high in the winter, blasting Diana Ross and cooking dinner in a sundress. When Billy was away Nanny’s children had liked her bright and unhindered, days when she didn’t make them go to school, until it started to make them afraid. Nanny’s rages always gathered gradually and then landed with a thud, like an old dog lying down. Dan and Billy Jr. were still the best at noticing the signs—though they rarely spoke up. Whatever this was, it was something else.
“Says she won’t see a doctor,” uncle Ring told Dinah as they passed in front of the bed, heading for the bathroom door. He opened it and Dinah wasn’t sure at first what she was seeing. At their mother’s funeral, both girls were asked to speak in front of the casket and Dinah wrote a speech. She didn’t know when everything got so competitive, but this was her talent. The mourners laughed at the beginning of it and cried at the end. Jane’s brother was smiling wetly in the aisle seat and Billy Jr. had to go hide in the kitchen. But afterward Daisy wouldn’t look at her. She exited shortly after the service ended, leaving Dinah to clean up the food and box flowers with the ladies of the Spiritual Center. Her mother’s was the only body she’d seen, and it hadn’t looked like this.
“Your pop helped with the paperwork, so this here’s all legal,” her uncle said, gesturing to the Jacuzzi. The actual body of Billy Lloyd Sr. was sunken in the bathtub. He was closed up inside a plastic bag. A big red camping cooler sat on the tile and sharp chunks of ice wrapped in more plastic crowded in on top of him. The blue light was coming from somewhere under the water, so bright she couldn’t look for long, and a high note accompanied whatever it was doing. Someone had decided to leave Billy’s head clear and even through the plastic his face was grey and sunken, openmouthed. Dinah had to turn away.
Ring was still smoking. “No one else’s come to see him, so I figured I’d show you.”
Dinah’s uncle was doing the kind of thing he was known for and Dinah knew it. But if Ring expected this scene to disturb her in one way, it did in another entirely. This was the tub where she and Daisy had played Pirate Queen, empty, full of dust. They’d used the ledge to stand up and see themselves reflected in the medicine cabinet, smeared wild with Nanny’s lipstick. Once, she’d pushed Daisy hard back into the porcelain and Daisy had hit her face on the tap and had to get stitches around her right eye. Dinah didn’t even think the faucets worked anymore.
“Billy hated baths more than anything,” Dinah said, and left Ring to chew on that.
Nanny made a sound in her throat like judgement as Dinah pressed a Twix into her clammy hands and went back out the way she came.
Dinah had wanted to tell Daisy about Billy’s blue body, but instead she made her sister cry first thing, around 6am. It had started in the hotel hallway when Dinah was running late and Daisy was swinging a pair of heels from in her fingers, stage-whispering into Dinah’s doorway.
“It’s not just that you’re here,” she said, “You always have to say something to Pop. You act like no one else can hear it.”
Dinah struggled with the zipper on the side of her dress and paused, breathless, “Daiz, you see how they act and you can’t even back me up. You let him say anything out loud.”
When they were kids Jane and Billy Jr. could signal their preference for each daughter by calling them “Dinah and Daisy” or “Daisy and Dinah,” respectively. Back in those days the girls were unstoppable at charades. They had a language with their hands that helped them slay at “taboo” and “scrabble.” Their best sign was a palm over the left eye—Don’t Look Now, But… Which had helped them through a lot until it didn’t help them make any friends. In high school people called them “D&D,” like Dungeons & Dragons, which was popular at the time and which Daisy had played in a basement with the twin brothers of Dinah’s first boyfriend, Trevor Lender. Later, the Lender boys called them Double D because the sisters were flat-chested on account of their involvement in long distance running, basketball, weight-lifting, and volleyball, all of which kept them together after school and all of which Dinah had quit once she hit sophomore year. Around that time, and several months before she died, their mother had both breasts removed in an attempt to stop the spread. That very week, Billy Jr. had met Moira at the hospital when she checked them in at reception in Oncology.
“Sorry but I’m not responsible for you?” said Daisy, “I only handle myself?”
“But that makes everything harder?” Dinah came out with her hair pulled back and her collarbones showing. “I have no buffers with them. If you act like a child, they think you agree with everything they say.”
“Wow, yeah. Make this about yourself.”
“My self. You’re saying you’d be here if Pop didn’t fly you?”
“You don’t even have to be here? No one asked you?”
Dinah fixed a bobby pin in the mirror on the open door, trying to hide where it hurt, “Let’s just hope no one’s banking on you for funeral clean up.”
Daisy’s face crinkled. “I’m not doing this. Get your own cab.”
Dinah took two full breaths in the mirror and then wrapped a pair of opaque tights around her hand. She locked the door and jogged down the carpeted hall after Daisy.
When they pulled up to the house Daisy made for the front, leaving Dinah to settle with the driver. The pee/scream was back. The air in the yard was so heavy Dinah could have grabbed it in fistfuls and stuffed them into her mouth. Daisy closed the door behind her and Dinah directed her feet toward the cool dark of the garage where someone was moving furtively. Uncle Danny. Blasting AC through Billy Jr.’s truck emptied of its folding seats. Dinah had never seen the back seat separated from its carapace. She felt strange looking at it on the concrete, thinking how much space it had carried her across.
Danny was sweating out his beer, wearing a line across his forehead from the ball cap he’d slept in, peeling wet trash from the floor of the truck. Dinah startled him.
“The fuck, D?” he said, “You better get the hell outta here or your pop’s gonna come for us both.”
Dinah couldn’t read Danny’s expression. He kept his distance as he moved quickly behind her to shut the truck’s passenger door, the one with the window stuck open. She peered in anyway and saw the plastic spread out across the truck. Then Dinah stopped her breath until she was sure there wasn’t any smell. Her grandad looked less like a body now, prostrate on the barren carriage floor, soggy. Some of the cold bath water had gotten into the bag with Billy. Danny shooed at her with his hands and Dinah started backing out of the garage until Moira yelled through the inner door to the kitchen.
Danny turned to Dinah with big eyes and mouthed “Git. Out.” showing her his teeth before stepping inside with a finger angled to his lips. Dinah listened a moment and then re-approached Billy Jr.’s truck. She raised her head to face the door that had closed behind the bad uncle and slipped her long hand through the car window to rest on Billy’s swollen foot. Even through the plastic, his body was so cold it burned. Weird science.
A pocket of water had collected in the lower corner of the bag. Dinah bent her biggest knuckle and pressed the hard edge of her thumbnail against a crease in the plastic until it gave way. She kept her eyes on the door, letting the trickle of cool fluid make its way onto the carpet of Billy Jr.’s truck. Once the pocket was almost empty, she tucked the pricked edge under the bag and crossed into the sunlight, crushing the grass beneath the bay window as she plodded into the house where Moira reigned.
Years later Dinah could see that Nanny’s old stories had been designed to prepare girls for life without a mother, but they hadn’t been enough. As a teenager Dinah had been A Terror. Demonic. Mad As A Hive. Nothing stoked it and nothing put it out. It had started after the first funeral during fights with Billy Jr., with Daisy on the other side of the Jack-and-Jill door. No One Could Fight Like Dinah. At night she’d drive anywhere, push Moira out of the way, pull the red safety rope from the garage door’s crank to stop it from closing. When she came back Billy would lock her in her room and she’d scream herself hoarse. Then Dinah left at 18 and the feeling had nowhere to go. She had lived nowhere, gone back to school, fought her way through three towns. 20 years and Dinah lived alone. In her closet she kept work outfits and cheap, tight, going-out clothes. She liked no one.
Dinah shut the front door silently and made straight for the powder room, where she put the lid down and sat. The wallpaper was the same—scenes of an antebellum lord and lady curtsy-bowing under drippy trees ad nauseam. On the rim of the sink sat a tiny golden cat with one jeweled green eye and the white face of a clock where its fat belly should have been slung. The object was from the family albums—Nanny’s only favorite thing.
There were summer days when Nanny had stopped her meds and decided to wake D&D hours before dawn to go “bird watching.” They learned quick that Nanny didn’t know her birds, and that watching was less about seeing than listening. Daisy was often in a dark, whiny morning mood and Nanny’s way of keeping the girls quiet and from wandering off was to scare them with stories of the woods.
Once, before the war, a lady who was their ancestor was engaged to a man who owned several fine racing horses. Race day came and from high up in the stands the lady ancestor saw her fiancé down in the betting box, wrapped in the embrace of another girl. The lady ran straight down to the track and, after the gun sounded, threw herself before the horses where she was instantly beheaded by an iron shoe. The girl the lady had seen turned out to be her fiancée’s sister and, after learning of her death, the man killed himself by hanging. The fine couple had been buried together on this land in their sporting clothes, though the grave markers had of course long sunk into the earth. Sometimes, Nanny said, folks still saw the figure of a white woman wandering out here, looking for her head.
Dinah flushed the toilet for effect and found Daisy sitting on tile in the hall outside Nanny’s room. Her sister had her knees tucked up to her chest, scrolling through pictures of mountain sunsets. She looked up at Dinah.
“You ready?’ Dinah asked.
Daisy sighed and used her Pilates quads to slide up the wall, letting her screen go black. “I guess,” she said.
Moira came around the corner on cue, balancing a plate of pigs-in-blankets, “Girls better hop-to—your Gran needs dressed.” She lifted the plate, “Try a pig?”
Daisy kept her hands still and blinked. “Dinah’s still a veg,” she said.
“Well,” said Moira. She popped a whole one in her mouth and smiled, “Can’t Cook For Picky.”
Dinah turned to open the bedroom door. “I’ll follow you girls in,” said Moira, “your Gran asked me to watch for sticky fingers.”
The old woman was in the same position in bed, wearing a blue nightgown backwards and with a new pile of wrappers—foil peanut butter cups—this time along her coverlet. Their grandmother squinted at them and spit brown fluid into a plastic cup in her lap.
“Nanny, we’re here to dress up for the church,” Daisy told her, not unkindly.
It took Nanny some effort to pull the top coverlet back, scattering wrappers, and lift one arm to point at the closet, “Daisy May. Get me them big beads.”
Nanny didn’t like black. Her shelves were full of white and camel, peach and pale pink. Shiny pocketbooks, hats, and yellow shoes. In the back corner hung the dark beaded dress, blue if you knew to look. Nanny was raised with no money and then she had been made of it when Billy took an office in Manila. The spokesmen for healthy smoking had failed in the American market, so Billy had taken American tobacco to places where word hadn’t traveled. The beaded dress was from those days, and now it would hang from Nanny like a wet envelope. Moira sat on a chest in the corner, pulled a huge Sony phone from her pocket and started crushing candy.
The girls dressed Nanny in her bed. Daisy held one hand as Dinah rolled and unrolled fabric, peeling layers from papery skin while Nanny shivered and groaned behind her teeth. The pantyhose took fifteen minutes. The girls had both seen it in their mother, the loose jaw and the hollow place beneath the ribs, but no one had said “cancer” in this house yet. Daisy found safety pins and Dinah a shawl, not dark but warmer. Nanny asked for the atomizer bulb until they tasted it hard at the back of their throats.
In the limo they tucked Nanny between Billy Jr. and Danny, both wearing loud, choking ties. Moira was driving Nanny’s white car with all the flowers, and Manny was somehow catching a ride, pressed in beside Uncle Ring, so Dinah sat on the weird carpet at Daisy’s feet. They took the back way out of the property—the scenic route through the woods.
As they bumped slowly over the tracks, Ring bent across his lap and spoke into Dinah’s ear, “You hear they found her out this morning showing God and the ducks everyth—” Billy socked Ring in the chest faster than Dinah thought he could move.
Everyone but Nanny went stiff as Ring stared back at his brother. Then Ring grinned and laughed for the first time Dinah had seen, sending Manny into a fit of conspiratory giggles until they’d made it to the church. Billy Jr. looked very much like he was going to cry.
There were more suits in the back than Dinah had expected, but because no one knew who Billy’s partners were, they could have been half Press. Billy looked puffy from the waist up but decent in makeup, considering his thaw. Billy Jr. sobbed into his beard at the church microphone, turned up too loud, and the pastor had to step in to finish the verse. Danny read from the big book afterward and Ring stayed in his pew. Then there was burnt coffee and potato pie and Danny got in a tussle with a man who held a microphone to his face before retreating to the parking lot. Nanny began dozing in her chair, the big dress sliding until one of her shoulders was bare. No bra strap. No pills today. Whose job was it? The ladies who taught Sunday school hovered, eyeing her disarray before they tittered and filtered outdoors. Across the foyer, Daisy caught Dinah’s attention and nodded towards her limp grandmother, touching a finger to her eyebrow, using the old sign. Dinah expected that Nanny was now too frail for the surge of mania that followed a slump, but she couldn’t be sure.
Soon, Moira was escorting Nanny to the limo to send her home. Nanny woke and spit vitriol the whole way to the car, but Moira promised her mother-in-law that the family would pick her up in the funeral caravan on their way out to the plot where every Lloyd joined the worms without chemicals—dust to dust.
The funeral crowd kept growing post-service, pre-interment. Before he retired, Billy had bought up most establishments in the town, including all the land between here and the graveyard, and the tacky development that had spread out around the family house, which Dinah supposed Nanny owned once again. Her grandmother had told the girls about their Czech family, the first settlers here who built their homestead right where the narrow pond now stood. One winter the family had grown hungry and the youngest daughter was sent out foraging. It began to snow and the girl came upon an old churchyard where a pile of bones was scattered on an overturned grave. In her pocket, the girl carried one back home, saying it was the bone of an animal and her mother, asking no questions, made it into a soup. That night the family was haunted by a spirit who shook the high rafters and carried a bare flame high in the air, calling for its bone. In her terror, the youngest daughter confessed to her father who, with his paring knife, lopped the girl’s thumb off and threw it out the door. The spirit never returned.
Ring found Dinah on the curb, tapping an email into her phone, and sat down in the same suit and sneakers he’d worn for days. Ring’s bent knees reached above Dinah’s chest. The heat from the asphalt was rising through her shoes. He held out an amber pocket bottle and she took a sip that made a beeline for her temples.
“I bet you know what he was in trouble for,” said Dinah.
Ring smiled as if he’d gotten one of his wishes. “Daddy was a pirate of the sky,” he told the pavement, tipping out a smidge of his bottle.
“What does that mean?” Dinah asked, “Billy moved something? Why are we hearing now?”
“They found paperwork,” said Ring, smiling at the brown rim, “But not all what they need.”
“What was it?” asked Dinah.
“What was it?” repeated Ring, singsong, “Don’t know.”
“Liar-Liar Devil’s Pants,” said Dinah, something he taunted them with as kids.
“It was about a little extra. That’s all,” said Ring. “Don’t be an idiot.”
“Cigars then.” Dinah said.
Ring frowned approvingly and nodded, “Not sure why it matters. Far as I can tell you’re not acting like family.”
Dinah laughed harshly. Her eyes began to sting and she stood up too fast, tipping a little, catching the unfortunate attention of a camera crew stationed in the parking lot. It occurred to her that the rest of the guests were climbing into their cars as the man with a portable mic began to make his quick way towards them. Ring stood and placed one big hand on her hip and another around the back of her neck, “Let’s kick off the parade, shall we?”
The hearse was maroon. Ring guided Dinah to Nanny’s sedan with its back seat crushed by limp flowers and its funerary flag sticking out like an ear. He was drunk, but pressed Dinah into the passenger seat, buckling her in himself before he started the car and pulled up behind the coffin on wheels.
There were Snickers wrappers mashed into the cupholder. When was the last time Nanny drove? The camera crew frantically packed their van and drove up at the back of the line of cars that fell in gradually behind Ring. The rented family limo came last, slow on the uptake, following the News. In the rearview Dinah saw Daisy climb into the limo holding onto Billy Jr.’s elbow as engine heat blurred the pavement. Ring followed the hearse into the trees and the chain of flagged vehicles fell in slow behind as he pointed his mother’s car back the way they’d come.
Dinah was going to be sick. Longleaf, Pitch and Loblolly Pine. Cardinals, Catbirds, Pine Warblers. Scream/pee. The car windows were down and cicadas were pumping. Dinah couldn’t see the sky through the trees.
The road narrowed and the yellow lights of the rail crossing blinked as a candy stripe arm dipped across the road and halted the caravan. Up ahead the bell was ringing at the tracks. Back here, at the end of their family’s property, Daisy had once found a fawn sleeping by itself in a nest of cool grass not far from the crossing. Dinah smelled a good cigarette coming and her gut settled down. She looked over at Ring who was holding the wheel with one hand, slowing the car, letting his eyes rest at the stop. Something was moving in Dinah’s periphery past the heat shimmering off the road. She leaned closer to the side mirror, squinting, and saw something walking along the wide rim of the woods. Dinah craned her neck to follow the figure, pale between the trees.
A low cloud. A deer.
Nanny walking the back of her own property.
Nanny in the nude.
Dinah cupped a hand over her mouth as her live grandmother tottered between pines, naked as she came but for the pantyhose. Smoking a cigarette. Nanny made a thin, white, silhouette but even from this distance Dinah could see the waistband of the tights cutting into her midline in a manner that must have pained her. She and Daisy had pulled the top of the hosiery right up beneath the old woman’s breasts. Now Nanny was freed of her dress, going for a walk along the public road? Cooling off? Edging close the trail of mourners. Nanny stumbled. Had no one else spotted her? Mrs. Lloyd was almost to the end of her husband’s funeral procession and the ground shook gently as the train approached.
Dinah opened her car door and stepped into the grass. Ring grabbed for her arm but missed. She directed her feet towards the tracks, avoiding the scene over her shoulder. Vehicles in the caravan began honking. Someone stepped from a car and yelled “Hey!” but not soon enough. Dinah turned to face the back of the procession and held a hot palm to her eye. Don’t Look, But. The driver behind them looked at her through his windshield, confused.
On a spurt of intuition, the cameraman exited the van’s driver’s seat at the back of the line and jogged towards Dinah with his lens aimed high. He’d gotten some photos of her looking incensed outside the church and he could almost see the headline, Estranged Granddaughter of Billy Lloyd Takes Her Life on Family Property.
Dinah took a step closer to the rail and the camera guy slowed. Then she raised her hand and waited. Hot air from the tracks lifted stray hairs from her shoulders. The long whistle called out once, then twice. People wearing black stepped out behind car doors, shielding their eyes to see the display up front. Dinah turned her head once to see the end of the long line of cars where she made brief eye contact with Billy Jr., looking stunned as he held the limo door wide and Daisy stepped out from the woods, ushering his gleaming mother into the vehicle.
The tall conductor was coming fast now, gazing fiercely down at Dinah over a mustache. He shooed hard at her with one hand just before she dropped out of sight. Dinah smiled into the engine room.
Sarah Minor is the author of Slim Confessions: The Universe as a Spider or Spit (Noemi Press, 2021), Bright Archive (Rescue Press, 2020), and the digital chapbook The Persistence of the Bonyleg: Annotated (Essay Press, 2016). Her work appears or is forthcoming in places like Denver Quarterly, Fairy Tale Review and Gulf Coast, among others. Minor co-directs the Cleveland Drafts Literary Festival and teaches as Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at the Cleveland Institute of Art.