The ring sat on the kitchen table like a piece of kryptonite, and Flora stared. How had she not sensed it under her roof for all those years? How had she not felt its heat, smelled its stench of broken vow, because why else would Julian have hidden it away? The treacherous telltale heart.
When Flora was a young girl she used to try to “fix” moments in her memory. The notion that years of her life would pass and she would only remember snippets, seconds of the whole, distressed her. She came up with a plan and at various times— walking home from school or out with friends or just sitting at her desk she would think: This. Remember this. It’s 1978, 1981, 1993, and this happened: walking down Bay Ridge’s Third Avenue glistening with Christmas lights; sitting under a tree in Fort Hamilton Park in the shadow of the Verrazzano bridge; Sunday dinner, the table groaning with platters of spaghetti and eggplant parmigiana and stuffed artichokes. It worked, in a fashion, except she lost the specifics of the moment—the smells, the sounds, the people, her mood. She was left with a fistful of memories, containing her fierce desire to will a memory.
But this moment? This moment was one she knew was going to stick. How to make sense of the object in her hand? She wanted coffee. How odd, she never drank coffee after her one allotted morning cup anymore; it made her too shaky. As she got the grounds from the refrigerator and started scooping them into a filter, she realized what she was doing. She was conjuring her mother and her aunts, her protectors, all dead now. The surest way to get the attention of the Mancini sisters— even in the afterlife— was coffee in any of its stages: percolating, freshly brewed, stale and burnt, reheated in a microwave. The life cycle of a pot of coffee was the smell of her mother’s apartment. She didn’t know how they did it, those women. They lived on coffee and cigarettes and cooked food all day they barely touched. They ate two forkfuls of pasta, they munched on a crispy corner of breaded veal while standing at the stove poking at the cutlets simmering in a cast-iron pan of oil. They ate half a cannoli, the heel of a loaf of bread dunked in a pot of tomato sauce. They picked. But their appetite for coffee and cigarettes was bottomless. She wanted to feel them around her now, now that—
Well. Now that what?
If someone had put the photo from Stoneham in front of Flora and said, “Quick! What do you remember about that summer?” Julian’s lost wedding ring might not have made the list. She picked up the photograph and looked at Julian’s hand. Julian’s ringless hand. When he confessed he’d lost the ring in the pond, he was so upset that she’d ended up consoling him. It was only a thing, she’d said, just a band of gold. They’d get a new one. Even though they both knew it would be a while before they could squeeze a replacement into their budget. Every time that year she saw the tiny strip of pale skin where the ring had been, it made her sad.
Every time that year she saw the tiny strip of pale skin where the ring had been, it made her sad.
When she remembered that summer, she thought how it was only months before David’s stroke, and though they couldn’t know it at the time, it would be the last summer Margot would perform at Stoneham. She remembered it was the summer Ben insisted they stage The Crucible—in spite of everyone’s moaning and groaning that they weren’t high school sophomores anymore— because, he insisted, it was the perfect allegory for Guantánamo Bay. It was the year Ben had generously offered them the Little House for the entire summer and he and Julian had planted a few hemlock trees to give the front porch a little shade and privacy. Julian had strung lights on the one right in front that was the size of a small Christmas tree. Ben insisted Ruby flip the switch to light the tree every night at sunset and because it was also the summer Ruby became obsessed with the stack of Frank Sinatra albums in the Little House, she’d make the gathered crowd sing along to That’s Life. “Her Mancini blood,” Flora told Julian as they watched Ruby belt out her version of the lyrics: I’ve been a puppet, a parrot, a poem, a popcorn, a pong, and a KINGGGGG.
Flora remembered that it was the summer of the seventeen-year cicadas clinging to the tree trunks with their vulgar transparent wings and creepy red eyes—they terrified Ruby. It was also the year a million tree frogs took up residence around the pond (“What’s next? Boils?” Margot asked) and everyone who could would catch a frog and bring it with cupped hands to Ruby, who kept them all—unsuccessfully—in a big red pail. She remembered how Ruby lost her fear of swimming that year, and when Flora tucked her into bed at night, she’d bury her nose in the fatty folds of Ruby’s neck and smell the pond, clean and grassy with a slight undertone of rot.
That summer was also the summer of Margot and Ruby. One afternoon as Flora and Margot were watching Ruby play with two dolls on the front porch, Margot perked up and shushed Flora and said, “What is she saying?” They crept closer and listened and looked at each other in disbelief over what would become the summer’s best party trick, five-year-old Ruby reciting Margot’s lines from The Crucible: “‘John, I counted myself so plain,’” she had one Barbie doll say to the other, “‘It were a cold house I kept.’”
But Julian’s missing ring? It hadn’t seemed like a part of the story she needed to notice.
Flora wouldn’t know exactly what she was dealing with until much later today because Julian was going to the graduation straight from work and then they were all going to Margot’s. She wouldn’t call him on set; even if he could answer and was alone and able to speak freely, this was not a discussion to be had during one of his breaks.
Flora stepped outside because the walls of her kitchen felt like they were vibrating, contaminated by the presence of the ring. The room she usually took so much comfort in because of its wall of casement windows and tiny breakfast nook. She would sit there in the morning and read the news, and depending on her day, do her vocal warm-ups and exercises. Drink her hot water and honey. Watch the ridiculous pageantry of wildlife right beyond the glass. The delicate yellow butterflies that always flew around as a couple, darting in and out of one another’s path. The mellow honeybees hovering in the lavender along the side of the house. The fence lizards doing their show-off push-ups on the concrete retaining wall. The vivid pink-and-orange bougainvillea, the neighborhood libertine, intruding into every available space. It was like living on the back lot of a movie studio, only everything was real, all hers.
Her phone buzzed, and she ran back to the kitchen to grab it. She wouldn’t intentionally disturb Julian, but if he called her—
It was a text from Margot.
Where are you? You wouldn’t believe the day I’m having.
Well, that makes two of us, Flora thought.
From Good Company by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney. Copyright 2021 Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney. Excerpted by permission of Ecco, an imprint on HarperCollins.
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