Kith and Kin
by Diane Thomas-Plunk
The once-grand house now drooped in urban shabbiness, as did the rest of the neighborhood. At the turn of the century, the area had boasted Memphis’ carriage trade in graceful French Victorian homes. There had been glossy, black carriages, liveried servants, ships’ captains and cotton traders, ladies in velvet and silk who owned twenty pairs of gloves, elaborate parties, and spoiled children. Since that time, the gentry moved east. In the first wave of change, the houses remained neat, but clearly less than their former selves. They were occupied by large, noisy, extended families, multiple families or elderly remnants of the old life who were just hanging on to the pretense of long ago. In more recent years, some of the beauties were leveled for cheap apartment buildings. Others became boarding houses for the downtrodden. And some stayed in families who loved them despite their rapid decline. Seraphina’s house was just that.
Her family had occupied the now-weary house for decades. Seraphina’s grandparents were the first of her family to move in. They’d only been married a few years and were exuberant at the purchase. The house was pleased to welcome a younger generation when Seraphina’s parents married and joined the household. It was where her parents took her straight from the hospital and where the newborn would be showered with love. When the divorce came, Seraphina stayed with her father and grandparents and grew up in the drafty home she loved dearly. She bounded up and down the dramatic staircase, hid in the pigeon-filled attic and occasionally peeked into the spooky basement. Today, white wicker sentinels no longer stood post on the porch and a downstairs shutter shed slats like fish scales. The upstairs balcony sagged dangerously, but still it would always be her home.
Seraphina, now an adult, approached the ornate front door for her weekly visit. No need to fish for keys. It was never locked anymore. There was no need. Once inside, her dog plopped to the floor of the entry and yawned. His mistress didn’t need him here. Tendrils of peeling wallpaper caressed her hand as she trailed her fingertips along the wall for a few feet before reaching the living room door. She entered with anticipation and the room illuminated. There sat her grandfather as he always did, staring out the large window that was framed with ragged drapes. He wore the same pajamas and that ratty bathrobe now. For years, Seraphina had thought it looked like a horse blanket. His emaciated body barely made a bulge in the garment. His white hair needed trimming. His parchment cheeks were carpeted with white stubble. And still he stared, catatonic, through his clouded eyes. Once they had been blue, and he’d taken her on the bus to Court Square to buy bags of hot peanuts and feed the nearly tame squirrels. Long ago.
“Gramps, it’s me. I came to visit you. Will you tell me hello?”
There was no acknowledgement. She dabbed her eyes while she sat for ten minutes by the mute figure, then gave up and went back into the hall. She passed her grandparents’ expansive bedroom and stepped in momentarily. Memory and ritual served her well. There against the double windows to the east was the old, pedal sewing machine, the one that, in conjunction with Gram, had produced beautiful dresses for Seraphina and her favorite dolls for most of her young life. As a teenager she’d wanted trendier things and she hadn’t realized the disappointment that gave Gram. The machine had been idle for some time, and Seraphina smiled as she wrote her name in the dust.
Back in the hall, she saw her father come out of his room.
“My radio doesn’t work.”
“I’m sorry,” said Seraphina. “What were you listening to?”
“The same thing I listen to every afternoon. My opera.” His impatience flickered through the hall.
“Try jiggling the selection knob. Where’s Gram?”
“I think I heard her in the kitchen.”
Seraphina looked down the hall and glimpsed her grandmother before the old woman disappeared. Most likely into the kitchen. When Seraphina arrived, Gram was scrutinizing the pantry, hands on her meager hips. A foot tapped to a melody only she could hear.
“Hi, Gram. What are you doing?”
“I’m fixin’ to make biscuits.”
“Then I’m just in time. I’m starving. What else are you making?”
“We’ll have ham and gravy. Like you grew up on.”
“Red eye gravy?”
“Didn’t I raise you right? Of course not. It’s white gravy, child, like I make every time you come.”
“Gram, I stopped in the living room, but Gramps won’t talk to me. Why does he just sit there?”
“There’s not much tellin’ with him. Obstinate old fool. He can just sit for eternity for all I care.”
“I’ll check on Daddy and his radio. I’ll be back.”
Seraphina stepped into the hall and the old house inhaled deeply and exhaled roughly. It was dark, then light as she entered Daddy’s room.
She perched at the foot of the iron bedstead opposite Daddy’s worn easy chair and smoking table, which also held his prized radio. She heard the clattering, clanging and kitchen cacophony of pots and pans that Gram produced. No wonder the neighbors leave the house alone.
Seraphina asked, “Is it working yet?”
“No. It just sits there mocking me. Not even static.”
“What opera was going to play today?”
“Aida. One of my favorites.”
“Why don’t you tell me the story of Aida?”
“Don’t patronize me,” he snapped. “We saw that together when you were a child and you’ve heard the story many times. You could tell it to me if you wanted, but you won’t.”
“Daddy, are you pouting?” She laughed.
He laughed too in his melodious baritone that filled the room and rattled the windows with its own music.
“Daddy, why does Gramps just sit looking out the window? I can’t get him to talk or do anything.”
“I don’t know. That old man and I gave up on each other long ago.”
“I love you so much, Daddy.”
“I know, baby.”
“Sometimes I miss you terribly.”
“I understand, and that’s why I’ll always be right here for you, any time you need me. I know this house gives you light and that’s important, good for you. We’ll be here whenever you want us.” His aura turned to beautiful, soft colors. “I’m tired now. Go to your Gram.”
Seraphina returned to the kitchen, but Gram was no longer there. Reluctantly, she retreated back up the hall to the front door. The German Shepherd alerted and rose as his mistress approached. She scratched his head.
Seraphina took the handle of his harness and opened the old, front door.
“Gandy, forward,” she commanded the guide dog.
As they departed, the house was cold, dark and empty once again.
Diane Thomas-Plunk, a native Memphian, is a Pushcart Prize nominee and was recognized by NPR when her entry was selected as a “favorite” in their Three-Minute Fiction contest. In addition to previous publications in Deep South Magazine, Thomas-Plunk’s short stories and poetry have appeared in Belle Reve Literary Journal, The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, Steel Toe Review and China Grove Magazine. A story is also forthcoming in Steel Toe Review. Read her past stories in Deep South here.