The aunts toyed with their food, silent and formal with one another beneath the littles’ shouts. Granddad leaned back, folding his hands over his abdomen. “You think I should renovate the Boston house?” he asked.
A silence followed.
“No, Dad.” Bess was the first to speak. “We love that house.”
“You always complain about drafts in the living room,” said Granddad.
Bess looked around at her sisters. “I don’t.”
“You don’t like the décor,” said Granddad.
“That’s true.” Mummy’s voice was critical.
“I think it’s timeless,” said Carrie.
“I could use your advice, you know,” Granddad said to Bess. “Would you come over and look at it carefully? Tell me what you think?”
He leaned in. “I could sell it, too, you know.”
We all knew Aunt Bess wanted the Boston house. All the aunts wanted the Boston house. It was a four-million-dollar house, and they grew up in it. But Bess was the only one who lived nearby, and the only one with enough kids to fill the bedrooms.
“Dad,” Carrie said sharply. “You can’t sell it.”
“I can do what I want,” said Granddad, spearing the last tomato on his plate and popping it in his mouth. “You like the house as it is, then, Bess? Or do you want to see it remodeled? No one likes a waffler.”
“I’d love to help with whatever you want to change, Dad.”
“Oh, please,” snapped Mummy. “Only yesterday you were saying how busy you are and now you’re helping remodel the Boston house?”
“He asked for our help,” said Bess.
“He asked for your help. You cutting us out, Dad?” Mummy was drunk.
Granddad laughed. “Penny, relax.”
“I’ll relax when the estate is settled.”
“You’re making us crazy,” Carrie muttered.
“What was that? Don’t mumble.”
“We all love you, Dad,” said Carrie, loudly. “I know it’s been hard this year.”
“If you’re going crazy it’s your own damn choice,” said Granddad. “Pull yourself together. I can’t leave the estate to crazy people.”
LOOK AT THE aunties now, summer seventeen. Here in the Japanese garden of New Clairmont, Mummy has her arm around Bess, who reaches out to slice Carrie a piece of raspberry tart.
It’s a beautiful night, and we are indeed a beautiful family.
I do not know what changed.
“TAFT HAS A motto,” I tell Mirren. It is midnight. We Liars are playing Scrabble in the Cuddledown great room.
My knee is touching Gat’s thigh, though I am not sure he notices. The board is nearly full. My brain is tired. I have bad letters.
Mirren rearranges her tiles distractedly. “Taft has what?”
“A motto,” I say. “You know, like Granddad has? No one likes a waffler?”
“Never take a seat in the back of the room,” intones Mirren.
“Never complain, never explain,” says Gat. “That’s from Disraeli, I think.”
“Oh, he loves that one,” says Mirren.
“And don’t take no for an answer,” I add.
“Good lord, Cady!” shouts Johnny. “Will you just build a word and let the rest of us get on with it?”
“Don’t yell at her, Johnny,” says Mirren.
“Sorry,” says Johnny. “Will you pretty please with brown sugar and cinnamon make a fucking Scrabble word?”
My knee is touching Gat’s thigh. I really can’t think. I make a short, lame word.
Johnny plays his tiles.
“Drugs are not your friend,” I announce. “That’s Taft’s motto.”
“Get out,” laughs Mirren. “Where did he come up with that?”
“Maybe he had drug education at school. Plus the twins snooped in my room and told him I had a dresser full of pills, so he wanted to make sure I’m not an addict.”
“God,” said Mirren. “Bonnie and Liberty are disasters. I think they’re kleptomaniacs now.”
“They took my mom’s sleeping pills and also her diamond hoops. I have no idea where they think they’ll wear those earrings where she wouldn’t see them. Also, they are two people and it’s only one pair.”
“Did you call them on it?”
“I tried with Bonnie. But they’re beyond my help,” Mirren says. She rearranges her tiles again. “I like the idea of a motto,” she goes on. “I think an inspirational quote can get you through hard times.”
“Like what?” asks Gat.
Mirren pauses. Then she says: “Be a little kinder than you have to.”
We are all silenced by that. It seems impossible to argue with.
Then Johnny says, “Never eat anything bigger than your ass.”
“You ate something bigger than your ass?” I ask.
He nods, solemn.
“Okay, Gat,” says Mirren. “What’s yours?”
“Don’t have one.”
“Okay, maybe.” Gat looks down at his fingernails. “Do not accept an evil you can change.”
“I agree with that,” I say. Because I do.
“I don’t,” says Mirren.
“There’s very little you can change. You need to accept the world as it is.”
“Not true,” says Gat.
“Isn’t it better to be a relaxed, peaceful person?” Mirren asks.
“No.” Gat is decisive. “It is better to fight evil.”
“Don’t eat yellow snow,” says Johnny. “That’s another good motto.”
“Always do what you are afraid to do,” I say. “That’s mine.”
“Oh, please. Who the hell says that?” barks Mirren.
“Emerson,” I answer. “I think.” I reach for a pen and write it on the backs of my hands.
Left: Always do what. Right: you are afraid to do. The handwriting is skewed on the right.
“Emerson is so boring,” says Johnny. He grabs the pen from me and writes on his own left hand: NO YELLOW SNOW. “There,” he says, holding the result up for display. “That should help.”
“Cady, I’m serious. We should not always do what we are afraid to do,” says Mirren heatedly. “We never should.”