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Peaches and the Gambler
A. T. Hicks
Peaches and the Gambler 5
“She took advantage of me and I was fine with it. Got to see my granddaughters for a while. Which is more than I can say about your girls.”
“Daddy. She was wrong,” she said, simply. “I have a feeling she acts just like our mother.”
It was a low blow. Their beautiful mother had abandoned she and Viviana as children, running away with the trumpet player in her father’s band. Peaches allowed the words to hang suspended in the air.
The light in her father’s eyes dimmed a little.
“That was just ugly.”
“It’s probably also true,” Peaches mumbled, feeling like a heel.
“Why do you always see the worse in people?”
“I see in people what they put on display,” she shot back, annoyed. “Why is she coming to Lenny’s funeral anyway? She didn’t even like him.”
“I asked her to come.”
“Yeah. But you ask her to come around all the time. She only visits when something’s in it for her.”
“Your sisters not like that,” her father said. But there was no conviction in his tone.
“She wants to put on a show,” she said, suddenly. “She wants to show everybody how fabulous she is.”
Her father had fallen silent. For once having no jovial, happy-go-lucky comeback to the hard, ugly truth.
He would see just how right Peaches was sooner than either one of them thought.
Throughout the funeral ceremony, Peaches could barely keep her eyes open, this despite a rousing chorus of ‘I Love the Lord, He Heard my Cries’, sung by an enthusiastic elderly choir with, bless their hearts, voices that were hoarse and rusted out.
After the singing was over, Pastor Michael Clemmons practically ran to the podium, rubbing his hands in excitement. He was a middle-aged, balding man, prone to eruptions of agitation over minor things. He had a slow left eye which, if he drank more than his share the night before, appeared completely shut.
“We gonna stray a little from the program ‘cause we got a very special person that wants to sing in honor of Lenny Richards, who has gone to be with our Lord, Amen.” Pastor Clemmons, electrified by emotion, rose a bit on his tippy-toes when he said ‘Amen’.
There was a murmured ‘Amen’ that fluttered from the lips of the congregants in an automaton’s reciprocation of the preachers words.
“Without further ado…The Diva…” Pastor Clemmons sermonized.
Peaches eyes snapped open.
“…known as the Voice of a Thousand Angels…”
She glowered at the empty stage with narrowed eyes, slowly sitting up.
Oh my fucking God.
Out of her peripheral, her father slumped surreptitiously in his seat.
A voice more perfect than anyone could imagine rose in a perfect mezzo-soprano, floating on the air, suspended. It hung there for several breathless moments. Then Viviana swept out, bosom gloriously exposed, sumptuous figure encased in haute-couture mourning gear that was probably all the rage on the red carpet.
Whispers swept through the room, then abruptly fell silent as she inhaled every molecule of air in the church into her impressive lungs. Throwing her head back, she abruptly jerked it back up, impaling the enraptured audience with piercing eyes, expelling powerful opera in fucking Italian.
When she was finished, there was a thunder of applause. There wasn’t a dry eye in the room. Even Cynthia’s hardened eyes looked suspiciously moist.
One thing was for sure…
…her sister knew how to make an entrance.
It’s ok to be angry at a funeral when someone has been violently murdered or died too young. People understand that. They get it.
It’s not ok to be angry at a funeral because your baby sister came in and stole the show.
Peaches was very angry. Not because Viviana sang. Not even because she showed up. She was angry because Viviana wasn’t sincere. She used Lenny’s funeral as a cheap and vulgar display of her talents. That, in Peaches eyes, was much the same as going to church just so you could show-off your newest outfit or to troll for a new fuck buddy.
She would patiently bide her time, but Viviana was definitely going to get an earful when this thing was all over.
Finishing her number, which if the thunderous applause of the audience was anything to go by, had been fantastic; Viviana caught a glimpse of Peaches furiously stony countenance. She decided right then and there that she would stay backstage for a while before making a hasty exit.
More than an hour had passed since Viviana’s performance of a lifetime had taken place on the stage upstairs. During which time, Lenny was buried.
Burying him was a fairly quick affair that took place on the grounds of the church a few short steps out the rear door. His coffin had been led out on the shoulders of cousins and friends. A quick prayer had been uttered and Lenny Richards the third was placed in the ground beside his father’s headstone in the family plot.
Peaches was ashamed to admit she had been distracted rehearsing satisfying, one-sided arguments with her sister in her head, all of which she came out as the uncontested victor and all around wise elder council.
However, with no Viviana in sight, none of her pre-rehearsed arguments would be heard.
How inappropriate and tacky could a person be to show up at a funeral, create a stir, then not bother paying respects at the actual burial?
But inappropriate and tacky were Viviana’s middle name.
She and her father were currently in the church basement waiting in line for food being ladled out by plastic gloved church personnel. The post-funeral reception being held in Lenny’s honor consisted of a makeshift buffet set up against the far wall and long plastic tables arranged side by side, coupled with dozens of folding chairs.
“I’m sorry, did I overhear you asking about Viviana, that wonderful opera singer that performed earlier?” asked a tall thin woman with spectacles perched on her nose.
“She left a while ago. Something about being jetlagged and coming all the way from Italy. I know because me and some of the other ladies went backstage to get her autograph,” she said, giggling girlishly and waving a napkin around, Viviana’s signature scrawled across its surface.
“Is that so,” Peaches said, eyes narrowing.
“Umm-hmm. Pastor Clemmons like to ran out to get her a few plates of food before she left—nothing fried—said it was bad for her skin,” she whispered past her funeral program. “Then she left in a fabulous white limo that was parked in the back. So exciting! I never met a bona fide celebrity before!”
The woman’s sickening gush of Viviana flavored fandom continued, annoying Peaches to no end.
Not only had she swept in with little or no warning, she swept out the same way.
“Now, now—she said she was jetlagged. That makes sense,” her father said in a sorry attempt to once again defend Viviana’s outrageous behavior.
Peaches would get to her later. Viviana could run but she couldn’t hide. At least not for long.
After eating, Peaches and her father made the rounds, chatting with neighbors and old friends for more than an hour before making their way out of the church.
Once on the church steps, they were flagged down by Ms. Penny, the prune faced usher at her elbow; a panoramic scowl on her face.
“Ya’ll mind helpin’ me move a few of Lenny’s things into my garage,” she asked. “I would sure appreciate it.”
Peaches wanted nothing more than to take her ass home and catch up on some of the sleep she had missed the night before. As if reading her guilty thoughts, prune face’s frown grew even more unfriendly, if that were possible.
Before she could open her mouth, her father, treacherous human being that he was, spoke for her.
“Peaches would be more than
happy to help,” her father was saying amicably. “But you know my back is so bad. I wouldn’t be able to do more than lift a few very light boxes. I’m sure between the both of us we can rustle up some people to pitch in.”
Peaches looked at her father disbelievingly. He smiled as if all the angels of heaven were perched upon his shoulders. But that couldn’t be possible because he had a ‘bad’ back.
“Wonderful,” Ms. Penny was saying, smiling. Prune face was also showing her teeth in what may’ve passed for a smile amongst vultures. “I’ll meet ya’ll at the house in thirty minutes or so.”
As soon as they were out of earshot, she rounded on her father, glowering. “You have some nerve, daddy!”
“What do you mean, sweetie?” he asked, innocently.
“You have a bad back?” she snorted. “Since when?”
“Since I didn’t feel like moving a bunch of stuff, that’s when,” he said, eyes glinting playfully.
Leaving shortly thereafter, Peaches expertly navigated streets she knew like the back of her hand. She made a left on East Littleton Road, turning down Roanoke Avenue, heading to West 4th and Kemp Avenue. Within ten minutes they were on the small, cozy street her father’s home was on.
She quickly pulled her Ho Bag—a bag containing all the essential items a girl might need for an impromptu night out—from the trunk of her car, dressing in her former bedroom. The old-fashioned, floral patterned curtains and twin bed she had slept in throughout middle and high school were still there. This despite urging her father to get rid of all that old crap and turn it into a den. He wouldn’t admit it, but he was very nostalgic and couldn’t bring himself to toss out all the old teddy bears and other junk she had accumulated during her childhood.
Grabbing a bottle of water out of the fridge, she walked next door, waiting on the porch of Ms. Penny’s neat little blue, vinyl sided bungalow.
Viviana and the girls were nowhere to be found.
Not much had changed in the past twenty years. The houses were still small and neatly tended, the neighborhood firmly blue collar. Only the odd lawn or two had grass that crept past the ankles. Other than that, folk kept gardens small and flowers colorful. The roar of a distant lawnmower fired up and the figure of a man in overalls could be seen slowly pushing the machine.
She sat in the same swing she and Lenny used to sit on talking late into summer evenings. It overlooked a small garden filled with blooming dahlias, daffodils, flowering bushes and day lilies. He had once told her his mom wanted him to be a lawyer, but his plans were to become a mathematician. Peaches eyes grew moist as she took a deep breath.
Exactly twenty minutes to the second, Ms. Penny tootled up in her ancient Cadillac DeVille. Why couldn’t her dad be that punctual?
A light wind kicked up and the pungent odor of the paper mill over at Keystone Paper and Packaging assaulted their senses. The smell was a cross between rotten eggs and soured collard greens.
Wrinkling her nose as Ms. Penny walked up on the porch, Peaches said, “Yuck! Even on Sunday Keystone is on the clock.”
“Yeah. Mr. Johnson, one of their shift supervisors, said they went to round the clock shifts to compete with overseas competitors. It opened up a few more jobs for folk which I guess is a blessing, but now I can hardly smell my roses!”
“So, where are Lenny’s things?” Peaches inquired.
Peaches watched in dismay as a large U-Haul truck drew up to the curb, a grim faced Cynthia at the helm.
Her father chose that moment to walk out onto the porch. He settled into one of the Adirondack chairs, a plastic tumbler of suspiciously purple liquid sloshing around inside.
“How much stuff is in there?” Peaches asked, gazing at the truck in alarm. She had envisioned a few paltry belongings. Not a full sized moving truck filled to the brim.
“Most everything that was in the house,” Cynthia announced, succinctly as she stepped down out of the truck. “I didn’t want none of it. My insurance settlement will be arrivin’ any day now. Don’t need none of this junk.”
Ms. Penny, sitting on the porch swing, listened stone-faced to Cynthia’s words.
Peaches, heart hurting at the expression on Ms. Penny’s kind face, walked down and confronted Cynthia.
“Could you be a little more sensitive? She just lost her only child.”
“Her son was a bum,” Cynthia said, bluntly. Her two sons appeared at either elbow, glaring at Peaches. “That’s why he ended up dead. But I was smart. Got me half a million in insurance money comin’ to me.”
Peaches was shocked and appalled. Maybe that’s why she surprised everyone by saying: “Sounds like half a million dollars worth of reasons to make sure your husband ended up dead, huh?”
Cynthia’s jaw clenched, her eyes narrowing with fury. It was at this moment that one of the heretofore silent minions spoke up: “Oooh…mama mad now!” His voice was unexpectedly high and squeaky. Peaches would’ve laughed if she hadn’t been so nervous.
The large woman loomed close, fists clenched, purple tresses flowing in the rancid smelling breeze. “What the fuck you tryin’ to say?”
“I’m not tryin’ to say anything.” Peaches forcibly kept the taller woman’s gaze. “It’s just interesting is all. He’s dead and you’re rich. Hell—even I might kill my husband for that much cash.”
Her father stood up, slowly walking down the porch stairs to stand behind Peaches.
“Everything alright over here?” he asked, calmly sipping from his cup.
The woman stood menacingly over her, splitting the force of her glare between Peaches and her father for a long, tense moment. Then all the guff seemed to leave her and she stepped back, shaking her head.
“Lenny wasn’t no prize,” she said, quietly. “But he paid the bills and he treated me and my boys good. I wouldn’t never do something like that to him. I loved him, but I knew his lifestyle. People like Lenny don’t live that long. My father and two of my uncles was dead before they were forty years old from too many women, too much liquor and hard partyin’.”
Her father, satisfied the situation was under control, ambled back up his porch stairs and sat down, keeping a vigilant eye on Cynthia.
“Here’s the keys,” she tossed them to Peaches. “Tell Ms. Penny I’ll call her tonight.”
With that, she left; she and her sons getting into a minivan that was idling behind the moving truck.
Peaches stared after the minivan, a pensive expression on her face.
Luckily, when they flung open the doors of the moving truck, most of the items were large pieces of furniture so it wouldn’t take as long as Peaches had initially thought.
After rustling up three truculent looking brothers who appeared too intimidated by Peaches bossy demeanor to say no, everything moved along quickly.
Ms. Penny, directing their movements, had turned from the kind, sweet woman she knew, into a brisk, no nonsense, drill sergeant. She shouted when they put something in the wrong place, carped when an old cracked pot she probably hadn’t used in years, fell from a rickety shelf and broke and fretted when one of the boys tracked dirt on the carpet in her living room.
Two hours in, Peaches was hot, sweaty and thoroughly exhausted.
As Peaches and the three boys sweated and toiled, moving items from the truck to Ms. Penny’s small garage, a champagne colored stretch limo slowly drew up to the curb in front of her father’s house.
Once the limo was perfectly aligned alongside the curb, the uniformed driver hurried around the hood, opening the rear door.
The three boys, Peaches and Ms. Penny paused as the door opened.
Smooth, flawless legs ending in an expensive pair of pumps, slowly extended themselves out the door, followed by Viviana. Perfectly arranged curls tumbled around creamy, freckled shoulders. She had changed out of the dramatic gown she had worn during her shucking and jiving earlier, into a form fitt
ing red dress which fit her voluptuous curves as though it had been specially tailored.
A pair of oversized sunglasses hid her eyes, completing the well put together ensemble of a starlet doing the small town circuit. She delicately sipped from a bottle of the imported mineral water she never left Europe without. She had claimed some years ago that tap water was ‘too harsh for her palate’.
Instead of stopping to speak like normal people would’ve, using just her fingers, she cast a little wave their way, smiling beatifically. Sauntering the rest of the way up the porch stairs, she kissed their father before gliding inside.
Paris and Adriana exited the car once Viviana was inside. Much like well-trained dogs following at their master’s heels, Peaches thought uncharitably. Twelve-year-old Paris, dressed in tight jeans and a shimmery, body hugging tee-shirt, was scowling. Her pouty lips were generously slathered with gloss, her eyes covered with sparkles and her long, curling reddish hair cascaded down to just above her waist. A pair of earphones were in her ears, her whole body fairly quivered with suppressed anger.
Grown. Too damn grown, Peaches thought, frowning disapprovingly at the too tight shirt and large boobs no preteen girl had a right to.
The three boys goggled, too awe-struck noticing her other traits to acknowledge the fierce scowl marring her beauty. What teenaged boy wouldn’t?
The only somewhat ordinary person in this glamorous triumvirate was little eight-year-old Adriana. But even she was decked out in a glamorous flounced skirt, lovely leather ballerina slippers and striped leggings, hair pouffed out in curls all over her head. She sucked her thumb, hurrying along by Paris’ side, clutching the teddy bear she bought with her everywhere she went.
The two disappeared inside with barely a glance in their direction, each shyly hugging their grandfather before following their mother indoors.
Watching this little spectacle, Peaches slowly shook her head, snapping a mouth she hadn’t known was open, shut.
“Your sister sure do know how to shake things up,” Ms. Penny drawled in slightly amused tones.
“Doesn’t she though?” Peaches said, sharing none of her amusement.
An hour or so later, they had placed the last of Lenny’s belongings in Ms. Penny’s garage. Taking pity on the hardworking boys, Peaches reached in her wallet, handing each of them ten dollars. Looking grateful, they shyly thanked her, smiled and headed back to their respective homes.