Willa — Present
The rain renders the sky grey and bounces off the water like a rave in some sort of rhythmic score as the world around me grows dark. The distant roll of thunder wanders across paths and finds its way vibrating the walls around me. I stand small at the inordinately large windows watching the rain dance indirectly with the lake. A crack of lightning splits the sky white and charges the air. The boat house lights flicker and fixate before going dark. Here, inside this house, the somber sounds of piano from Beethoven do not die so easily. The chords fortify and swell, embrace and empower nature in a breadth of misery that echoes from the occupiers within. The escalation of a world amidst a gradual Machiavellian and turbulent metamorphosis. This isn’t the beginning though. This revolution started long ago.
“Beethoven’s Sonata No. 14, how … appropriate,” Grayson pushes a chalice of red into my hand and sits down into one of the many empty and expensive chairs and sofas in shades of cocoa and caramel colors that littered the wide living area. The overly large matching and multi-stoned fireplace flares and folds the coolness of the room in a shallow warmth that disappears up into the high naked beams. The eight tall thirty-foot windows border the front silhouetting the interior against the gust outdoors and the lines of an unending lake.
“There is hardly a moon for a moonlight sonata, Grayson,” Maxina adds sitting opposite him next to Grace, placing two more glasses of red in front of them on the smoked top glass table with the ornately thick pink ivory bear legs detailed down to the perfectly manicured claws.
Grace stares out into the black. Her face blank besides the strong lines of melancholia. Her eyes lost but for the flash of lightning and fire and phantoms of sacrifice. Her feet, tucked under her, hides under the long dress she pulls tight around her curves while her hands, absorbed by the shade, sit idle in her lap. She descends smaller into the sofa, like our hope. Evidence of a surrendered mourning and a flash of vulnerability, her face disappears into the shadows of a dangerous peace.
“I always thought that tune had a funereal sound to it,” Grayson mumbles taking a sip, closing his eyes in what looks like a painful swallow, probably not so much from the wine, but from the drag of grief in his chest. His dark blonde hair, heavy with shades of grey, cut close to contain the curls, usually cropped and orderly, rests leisurely in a bed head of chaos while a couple weeks’ worth of shadow creeps across his face.
“Shut up, Gray.” Parker stews silently in an obscure corner suppressing massive amounts of rage. Sparks of fire in his eyes and the tension in the grip of his glass of scotch denote a bitterness and misery. His long legs sprawl in front of him like a lazy exclamation point of defiance.
Maxina watches us closely, as does Alison—our guides in grief.
“Where’s Miss Dandria, Max?” Alison asks walking around the room gazing at the artwork.
“She’s in Charlotte working. She can never simply relax. Even in grief.”
Dandria is Max’s wife, Nik’s guide parents, the secular vernacular for godparents that both Grace and Nik insisted on renaming.
Alison glances at her then Grace and decides to change the subject. “This house is … obscene. It’s so … big. I feel so small here,” she says.
“I feel small, period,” Grace adds, so soft I barely hear her.
Grace, normally a quiet person, has been more subdued than usual. Unlike Parker and Grayson, her mourning sits behind a wall of stoicism; a cold indifference that will seep into you, if you allow it. Not that my grief hasn’t taken hold of me and spread like a slow-moving virus; it has, but Grace’s grief? Scares me. It’s a dangerous quiet grief, a precipitating force. Her anger, I gather, will build into something unflappable and grandiose enough to dismantle and reconstruct all in her wake. This, I have no doubt. I aim to be there when that happens standing right next to her.
“How did we get here?” Alison asks.
“A friend of a friend of a friend,” Parker says.
“So, not really a friend?” Alison replies.
“No, not really.” He looks around, “Isn’t it obvious? More like a social media friend.”
“You have those?”
“No, not really and I cannot believe the most misanthropic of you has social media. I thought none of you did? That it was a horrible invasion of privacy? And the scourge of propaganda circulating within was the end of democracy and intellectualism?”
Parker, silent for a long minute, answers. “Nik set it up for me … before … everything. For a project.” He looks into his glass avoiding the room. “And … it’s a part of the … job.” He hesitates further: “I was… wrong. Or not. I’m still deciding.”
“Baby boomers,” Alison mumbles under her breath while rolling her eyes and shaking her head.
I glance over my shoulder at Alison giving her a frown. She’s exceedingly familiar with the West’s digital footprint, I thought. I’m not sure why she’s playing dumb. Redirecting thought? Instigating discussion? Averting grief? Her attempt at elevating the room falls short. She forges forward though. It’s what she does.
“There are friends in social media then there are social media friends. The kind that wave at you in your parade float as you drive by.”
“Sometimes they wave,” I mumble.
“Sometimes they throw stuff.”
“And it ain’t rotten fruit.”
We look at each other: “Hardly,” then “maybe,” simultaneously with small ghostly smiles. We shrug and I go back to my melancholy and her off to meander some more.
“Why are we here again?” Grace asks after several unearthed minutes of silent entropy, reflecting almost absently to nobody, the softness of her voice not disguising the bite of her contempt. I see her grief disorient her like some ripple in reality. She quickly recovers.
“To strategize. To hide from the paps.” Max pauses. “To mourn,” she says taking a sip of the red and I sense the subtext of what she’s not saying: a concern that this place was Grace’s idea. Why she’s questioning it now is discomfiting. Only briefly. I see Max dismiss it with a quick shake of her head and move onwards.
“A chess match,” Parker, between thin lips, grunts staring deep into the now empty glass. He refills from the bottle, half full, of the thirty-year-old Macallan sitting next to him on the floor. He lifts the glass to them in an artless toast. “And who says we’re not making our next move?”
“Isn’t that the expensive scotch?” Alison, changing the conversation, walks over and picks up the bottle avoiding his earlier statement. “Yes, I’m pretty sure this was the one with the unconscionable price tag still on the box. I thought it was tactless to leave price tags on anything you buy? Especially something with a $45,000 tag?”
“Not among these people, love,” he mumbles finishing the glass and refilling. “I don’t care about their ridiculously large estates and their overpriced scotch.”
“That’s mature, Parker, and a bit hypocritical coming from you.”
“I’m a rich white American male, hypocrisy is our culture.”
Alison grunts and nods without comment. She moves towards the fireplace. I feel her eyes on me briefly searching before she turns and begins examining the inordinately large piece of art to the right of it. “This painting is grotesque and I don’t mean aesthetically, but materialistically. I remember when they purchased it. It made the front page of The Times.”
“Yes, if only the long dead penniless artist were alive to bank in the glory of their $180 million masterpiece.” Max sits her empty glass down and waves towards the piece in a flourish of presentation. “They buy and sell art and real estate to launder and hide their dirty money.”
“Banks too?” Alison asks eyeing her directly. “Their?”
Max, with a tired resigned sigh, takes a beat to answer: “Yes, banks too and not just in Cyprus and Germany. And Russia. Yes, their,” she barks.
“This $45,000 scotch too,” and Parker takes another big drink finishing off an additional glass and refilling.
There is almost a second of clarity at that hypocritical awareness of what they’re haphazardly saying. Recognition disappears the moment it arrives leaving us all struggling for more serious and sincere efforts to curtail the dishonor of being the bearer of ill-gotten goods. Specifically, billions of dollars in money and assets. Can we define the greyness of messy money when its ancestry dwells in theirs, now ours? Can we deviate course on hundreds of years of vile cycles of corruption and a social disease that elevates only a few? Then what? Is there a point in being rich when one looks at the amount of your worth and thinks: Is this too much? I somehow doubt it. I haven’t seen it thus far in my years of hanging out with this crew and amongst their ilk. Even though I love them dearly and I think their contributions are somewhat sincere, they still reek of wealth, of greed, of superiority, a shallow understanding, and a bubble of avoidance. I suppose the same can be said of anyone with a self-awareness and approach of confidence with a few dozen banks filled with money behind them. I haven’t gotten used to it. I’ll probably never get used to it. When you spend the first forty years of your life poor, that feeling never goes away. It’s like a stray hair caught in the back of your throat that you cannot swallow.
“Her breasts are too perky, too perfect. She’s actually quite lovely, but not worth $180 million,” Alison says still gazing at the oil painting of the slender pale model lounging in the nude. “If she was a Rubenesque black woman, it’d totally be worth it. Can you imagine an oil painting of a Rubenesque black woman selling for $180 million? Better still, a Rubenesque black transgender woman.” She pauses, an idea crawling across her face into her mind. “I have a sudden need to create art. An acrylic with raspberry and chartreuse colors. Willa, you’re the artist. Aren’t those colors complimentary?”
I look back at her arching a brow. Really?
“All I see when I look at it is what we could do with that money at the foundation,” Grace says, her lip curling in distaste shuffling the conversation yet again. Both Ali and I do a double-take at her then each other.
“Harmonia Rosales, Elizabeth Catlett, Edmonia Lewis, Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller, Lois Mailou Jones…” I say softly.
Grayson nods veering away from the exchange: “I say we divert a quarter of the foundation funds towards bringing them down in any way we can.”
Max, her voice taut, sits up looking at him. “That’s $75 billion dollars, Gray, and ultimately, isn’t that what we’re doing?”
“It’s just money, Max.” The low casual draw and crack of tone hints at a longing, a longing I share with him. Isn’t bargaining one of the stages of grief? Why can’t we take them down and take them down hard? I want to destroy them. I want them to ache with pain for a long time before death. Then, I want them gone from this planet. My anger could crush souls and burn bridges and I didn’t really care.
I watch Grace and the others. The sounds of their voices shift into a drone of fading tones, a murmur of mantras insisting on a path of reprisal, intensifying in an indecipherable high pitch. All of us at our own stage of grief, swimming through quicksand, pulling us in many different directions, including down. We all grieve differently. Is that what I’m supposed to take away from his death? Long hard tainted landscapes of pain that spoil the future and character of those affected? Thinking of it pinches the spot in between my eyes, a dull ache that occasionally penetrates the rest of my mind. Dullness becomes a blunt roar until the prick of anguish pierces brain matter and body leaving me gasping and dazed, standing adrift in a sea of doubt and chaos.
Why today after several months are our emotions in such tumult when we’ve been numb for so long? Why have we forsaken our long-term plans for vengeance, hate, and emotions that we cannot control? The rage floods our brain and fills our blood. Birthdays of murdered loved ones do this. Thoughts of what if do this. This day of all days. We lose sight of reason and cling to emotions as if they were the raft of a capsized ship sunk long ago and long gone beneath our feet. Our buoyant bodies in the shadows of an ebon abyss, emotions empower us to descend towards that edge where reason ceases to live. A blind fervor can send us staggering where rationality precariously shifts and we plunge deeper.
An echo chamber of memories bounce around my head and invade my thoughts.
“His estate is now yours, Willa, Alison.”
I grunt from the recall and find myself drifting through in a daze attempting to find ground. “I’m sorry?” I asked Max. I sat with Grace, Parker, Grayson, Miss Dandria, and Alison as Max, in a scratchy worn voice, discussed Nik’s will. This, in the days after his death, now what seems a lifetime ago. I don’t even remember where we were or what day it was. I do remember the smell of new furniture. And flowers. So many flowers. That powerful floral scent of death that comes with the regular funeral package; it stays with you, long after like a scar.
“He left everything to you and Alison. He trusted you both. He … loved you and trusted you to do what is right for both of you and your friends, the people and charities you support, and ultimately … your support in his family’s foundation.” She paused before saying the thing that made me run. “He left a video will for each of you …”
I remember hearing and understanding little of what she said after that at the time. I felt my face turn ashen and the bile rise. I excused myself with my hands outstretched in front of me to ward off the pain, backing away horrified, knocking over a chair in the process, and walked out of the room in shock eventually running from, seeing, or even thinking about Nik saying goodbye to us.
“Willa?” Alison’s voice drags me from the past. She looks at me with care and an open ended vague question in mind. Nothing really solid that I can wrap my head around in this state. My mind hums in trauma and I sway trying to find ground.
“I’m tired,” I say quietly fingering my coffee colored metal Kenaz rune—a gift from Nik—on a black leather cord; pulling at it cuts into the sensitive flesh around my neck like a dull knife. They hush and look at me. “I’m going to bed.” I set my glass down. The common thunk falls flat over the reverberations of storm and sunder.
Gray starts to say something when Parker interrupts. “Let her be, Gray,” He sits forward, elbows on knees, refilling his glass, again.
“I need sleep.” I turn and leave the room as twilight looms and a jolt of lightning branches across the sky and lights the room.
They continue talking after I’ve faded into the deep shadows of the estate. I close the door on the present and their conversation and sink into the yawning nonexistence of slumber and dreams of a lived past.
© 2018 Pamela Gay Mullins