The Peacock Feast

Lisa Gornick

Barnes and Noble

The Peacock Feast opens on a June day in 1916 when Louis C. Tiffany, the eccentric glass genius, dynamites the breakwater at Laurelton Hall—his fantastical Oyster Bay mansion—so as to foil the town from reclaiming the beach for public use. The explosion shakes both the apple crate where Prudence, the daughter of Tiffany’s prized gardener, is sleeping and the rocks where Randall, her seven-year-old brother, is playing. Nearly a century later, Prudence receives an unexpected visit at her New York apartment from Grace, a hospice nurse and the granddaughter of Randall, who Prudence never saw again after he left at age fourteen for California. The mementos Grace carries from her grandfather’s house stir Prudence’s long-repressed memories and bring her to a new understanding of the choices she made in work and love, and what she faces now in her final days.

An April Sunday, 2013

Do not hold your breath, Prudence reminds herself as she unlocks the door. You do not want to faint.

Before her is a wiry woman with chapped cheeks and chestnut hair pulled back into a too-short, too-severe ponytail. She smiles, tiny lines webbing out from her eyes and a mouthful of perfect teeth.

Her brother had a son and this son had a daughter. Prudence leans on the doorjamb as she absorbs the astonishment of it. A daughter whom someone must have taken regularly to a dentist but is dressed now in pants a size too large and shoes too sensible for her age: early forties, Prudence guesses. A woman who—to Prudence’s decorator’s eye, accustomed to seeing beneath the finishes of a place to its bones—looks as if she shoos away beauty. A person for whom a renovation would be possible but who has no desire to undertake it.

She did not kiss the girl. Should she have? But now the kettle is whistling. “Come in.” Prudence gestures toward the living room. “I’ll bring us some tea.”

Less than a minute, but already so much roiling that it is a relief to have this retreat to the kitchen, the distraction of the transgressive thrill of pouring the steaming water into the teapot she never uses now that Maricel leaves her tea in an aluminum thermos. She places the pot and teacups on a tray and takes out the shortbread cookies Maricel keeps in the cupboard, more for herself than for Prudence, who has lost her appetite for sweets.

The tray. Can she carry it? But the girl—she is not a girl, but with what must be nearly a sixty-year age difference between them, it’s the word that comes to mind—is now in the doorway to the kitchen. Without asking, she takes the tray.

Prudence trails behind her guest to the living room. From the rear, with her slender hips and flat backside, she might be mistaken for a boy. A quiet is nestled in her movements. It may be that she has spent time with people who are unwell. Or old people, it occurs to Prudence, like herself.

A quiet is nestled in her movements. It may be that she has spent time with people who are unwell. Or old people, it occurs to Prudence, like herself.

“By the window, if you don’t mind,” Prudence directs.

She watches Grace’s gaze alight on the vase of dahlias, the blood orange and kingly purple having called to Prudence when she spotted them a few days ago in plastic bins outside a Korean market, a touch of color in the otherwise moon-toned room. Perhaps Grace learned about flowers from her grandfather—Randall had written that he worked for a florist—and now Prudence wonders if Grace knows furniture too, if she recognizes the chrome-and-glass tables as Eileen Gray, the slipper chairs in creamy leather as Mies van der Rohe.

Grace sets the tray on the library table. She waits for Prudence to lower herself into the wingback chair before taking the matching one.

How strange, Prudence thinks. No more than fifteen minutes since she was napping here, and now the room so dizzyingly occupied.

Grace reaches for the teapot.

“Let it steep a bit longer. Another two or three minutes.” Prudence smiles to soften what she fears landed like an old-person’s bark. “So, Grace, it is Grace, yes?”

“It is.” Grace looks at her warmly but not insistently, as though gauging her approach. “How funny that we both have virtue names.”

Prudence must have a quizzical look on her face because Grace adds, “Prudence, Grace.”

“I quite hated my name growing up. I thought it suggested that I was prudish or, even worse, prunelike. My brother, your grandfather, called me Pru, but that doesn’t solve the ugly prrr sound. But Grace, that is lovely. It brings to mind the graceful Grace Kelly.”

“Thank you. My namesake, though, was Grace Slick. A very different woman.”

“The name rings a bell, but I’m afraid I can’t say from where.”

“A rock-and-roll singer. My mother saw her perform early in her career, with her band The Great Society. I suppose I should feel lucky she didn’t name me Great.”

“That would not have been nearly as charming.”

“They named my brother Garcia, after Jerry Garcia. Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead.”

“Even I know about them.” Prudence gathers the shawl she keeps on the back of the chair around her shoulders. “So, Grace and Garcia?”

“People thought about us as a unit, our names connected with an ampersand.”

“He’s younger than you are?”

“By three minutes. We were twins.”

Twins. Whenever Prudence hears of twins, she thinks of Dorothy Tiffany, who’d once told Prudence that she’d been obsessed with twins on account of her twin sisters, Comfort and Julia. She’d followed them around so incessantly, they’d taken to calling her Me Too. “That must have been interesting.”

“It was like having a live-in best friend, though we were kind of opposites. Garcia was open and exuberant. I was cautious and bookish. He had what they would call now a learning disability, but I think it was just that his brain needed some extra time to develop.”

Grace bites her lower lip, then swipes at it as if to stop herself. “My grandfather might have been more relaxed about it if there hadn’t been such a contrast between us. For a long while, I hated that school was so easy for me. It seemed that it only made things worse for Garcia.”

Prudence wonders what color Grace’s hair was as a child. There’s no hint of the Irish coloring she and Randall had inherited from their mother in Grace’s olive skin, and she doubts that Randall’s and her red had filtered down to Grace. Still, Prudence can see the family resemblance in Grace’s small bones and in the trace of a curvaceousness that appears otherwise to have been beaten out of her.

“Did you spend a lot of time with your grandfather while you were growing up?”

“He raised us. He and Angela, our housekeeper. My father dropped us at his doorstep. Literally. He arrived in the middle of the night with Garcia and me not quite a year old—sick, wet, and hungry, my grandfather said—carried us into the foyer, and left. The story we were always told was that my grandfather took care of us himself that first night and was so worn-out by the morning that when Angela arrived, he lay on the kitchen floor and fell right to sleep.”

“He must have really trusted her.”

“She’d worked for him since the day he was married. My grandmother had hated the way her mother treated her household help, and she swore she’d never have anyone work for her, but then her parents gave my grandfather and her a house as a wedding present and it was too large for her to take care of herself. Rather than hiring what her mother called a ‘colored woman’ or ‘a nice Irish maid,’ she hired Angela, who was sixteen and just arrived from Mexico.”

A nice Irish maid? Does Grace know that her grandfather’s mother had been precisely that?

“My grandfather said that my grandmother treated Angela like a little sister. Instead of a uniform, my grandmother bought her six weekday dresses and two for Sundays, with matching ribbons for her braids. She took her to pick out the curtains for her room, taught her to read and to play basketball. It would have been impossible for anyone to adore my grandmother more than my grandfather did, but Angela came close.”

Prudence pictures Angela’s room: the flowered curtains a girl from Mexico who wears ribbons in her hair might choose. An orange bedspread with red fringe, the wooden cross she would hang over her bed.

“When my father was born, Angela became his nanny. She lived in until he left home, and then my grandfather bought her a studio apartment a few blocks away. The day we arrived, she packed up her things and moved back into her old room on the fourth floor.”

“She sounds like a wonderful person.”

“She was. She and my grandfather were totally loyal to each other, but they could be like oil and water. Angela was always singing and hugging us and it felt as though she understood us completely, whereas my grandfather was reserved and meticulous and so insanely protective of us . . .” Grace sighs.

How, Prudence wonders, does one find the balance between too few and too many questions? So precarious, like a seesaw. Too few and Grace might think that Prudence is not really listening. Too many and Grace might feel she is being grilled.

What Prudence wants to say is, You don’t have to tell me everything. What Prudence wants to say is, Tell me everything.

What Prudence wants to say is, You don’t have to tell me everything.

What Prudence wants to say is, Tell me everything.

“Where were your parents?”

“My father was off. Colombia. Hawaii. Thailand. Anywhere he could get drugs cheaply. First pot, then hallucinogens, then more pot, then more hallucinogens, and finally smokable heroin. He was the poster child for what they called when I was in nursing school the ‘gateway-drug theory.’ That less addictive drugs lead to more addictive ones. It’s not always or even mostly true, but it seems to have been for him.”

Nursing school. So she’s a nurse.

“A few years ago, I requested his records from the detox center where he’d gone. Reading them, I saw that his history was more complicated. All mixed up with a lot of mystical ideas he had about drugs.”

Prudence nods. During the sixties, she’d read about people who believed that drugs could open a door to creativity and higher consciousness. Even Harriet, by then old enough to collect Social Security, had tried marijuana, though she’d reported afterward it had only made her feel silly and too sleepy to do anything more than curl up on her couch.

“When I was five, my father came back to San Francisco. We’d see him every few weeks, but I was too young to know that he was strung out on heroin. If he wasn’t wasted, he was in withdrawal, shaking or sweating, unable to sit still. At the end, my grandfather wouldn’t let us be alone with him. Either he or Angela always stayed in the room.”

Grace looks at Prudence as though apologizing in advance. “He overdosed when I was nine.”

The wave of grief Prudence felt when Grace told her that Randall has been dead nearly twenty years now returns, this time, though, sharper and more intense. She envisions her brother holding his head in gnarled hands and children quietly playing in their rooms and a woman with long black braids crying as she stirs something over a stove.

“My grandfather didn’t tell us, though, until we were ten.”

“How could he not tell you?”

“He buried my father without us there and forbade Angela from talking about him. I was too young to be able to put into words that something was wrong. Angela lit candles all over the house, even the bathrooms, and on the Day of the Dead, she made an altar with my father’s poetry books and drumsticks and a photograph of him as a baby with my grandmother.”

“You must have thought that was very odd.”

“Everything felt odd. It was as though the house had been put under a spell.”

“And your mother?” Prudence asks.

“She had what they called then a breakdown but would probably be diagnosed today as a postpartum depression. Her parents brought her back to Houston around the same time my father left us with our grandfather.”

Grace smiles, a rueful smile that seems intended to communicate, This is a very old story. You don’t need to feel badly for me. It’s a smile Prudence remembers having pasted on her own face when she first met Carlton’s family and the people in his social set, who she feared viewed her as the orphan match girl.

“I think at first she believed that she’d get herself together and come for us. I remember her sending us letters and drawings and cassette tapes with children’s songs when we were very little, but then we stopped hearing from her.”

Grace glances at the teapot and then at Prudence, who nods.

“My grandfather told me that when my father died, he called her parents. They said she’d been in and out of hospitals and was living in a group home. He wasn’t sure if they’d even tell her about my father overdosing, but she called him that same day to say that she was coming to the funeral.”

Prudence raises her eyebrows.

“She never made it.”

With Grace now pouring the tea, Prudence senses a curtain having been drawn on the past. Come back, come back to this room, this April day, Prudence admonishes herself. Back to the girl adding cream only, as you requested, to your tea. “I haven’t even asked you what brings you to New York.”

“I’m a hospice nurse, and I’m giving two papers at our professional association’s annual convention. It’s at the Sheraton Midtown.”

Grace places the cup and saucer within Prudence’s reach. “The truth is, I’ve been thinking for a long time about trying to contact you. I’m embarrassed to say how long. My grandfather died in 1993, and I thought about trying to find you then, but he’d been out of touch with you for so long. I gave in to inertia . . .”

Was she wrong about the curtain? The tea merely a pause?

“It was the sister of one of my recent patients who made me think about it again. Herman, my patient, was eighty-nine, and his sister, Rose, was eighty-five, and I saw how strong their bond still was. A few days before he died, she told me that he knew her better than anyone else ever had.”

Grace looks at Prudence as though making sure she understands that this is the nature of Grace’s work: all her patients die. “Rose showed me a very old photograph of Herman seated on a chair, holding her, the day she was born. She’d been born at home, and that afternoon a photographer had come to their parents’ house. Herman was so small, so young, but he was gazing at her with this radiant love.”

Prudence feels a heaviness in her chest, a thickness in her throat. She was born at home too, in the gardener’s cottage at Laurelton Hall. Randall must have been there. But she’s never seen any photographs of that day, heard any stories about it.

“Herman had been with Rose the day she was born, and she was with him the day he died. It made me think about you and how sad it was that my grandfather never saw you after he left New York.”

Prudence’s eyes tingle. Were her tear ducts not so dry these past few years, they would fill.

“Wondrous things sometimes happen in the hours after a person dies. In my more spiritual moments, I think the veil between life and death is for that brief span porous: the body still warm, fluids still flowing, but the soul escaped.”

With the word soul, Prudence feels a chill. She thinks of the man, so long ago, who’d looked into his soul and seen the truth about her.

“A lot of families want to whisk the body away, but Rose and Herman’s son asked if they could have a few hours before we called the funeral home, and then Rose asked if I would sit with them. It was late afternoon and the light was waning, but there was a kind of brilliance in the room. Herman’s son was holding his father’s hand and crying a little, but also smiling at his aunt Rose, who was talking about when she and Herman were children. Herman had loved their grandmother’s apple cake and the first thing he ever built—he was a civil engineer and spent his whole life making things—was a wooden stool so his grandmother could reach the cake pans she kept on the top shelves in her kitchen. He painted it apple red, Rose said, to remind his grandmother to make the cake.”

Grace drops a sugar cube into her tea. “When Rose told that story, I was overcome with wanting to find out what had happened to you.”

“You must have been surprised to learn that I am still alive.”

“I was. Surprised and happy. I only found your address the day before I left. Otherwise, I would have written you first.”

“I’m so glad you did. Find me.”

Grace stirs her tea. “Can I ask . . . did you have children?”

Prudence shakes her head no. Even now, so many many years past that turn in the road, it’s hard to talk about.

“I think, then, that you are my only living relative on my father’s side.”

“Except for your brother.”

Grace takes a long breath, then wipes her mouth with a napkin. “My brother died two years before my grandfather.”

Prudence averts her eyes, not wanting Grace to see how stunned she feels. How can there be another death? Three generations: Randall, his son, his grandson.

“I want to tell you about Garcia, just not today,” Grace says softly. “Perhaps I could come again? I’m here all week. Until Saturday.”

“I would like that very much.” Prudence chides herself for sounding stiff, a caricature of politeness, but it is true: She would like to see Grace again. Very much.

“When I went through my grandfather’s things, I found a box of mementos in his study. He’d shown me the box many times when I was a child, but it had been at least ten years since I’d opened it and looked at what he kept there: things he brought with him when he came to San Francisco, newspaper clippings he collected afterwards, a packet of letters from you and your mother.”

Most of Prudence’s past is shrouded with the shapes of events no longer distinct, or faded with the emotional color gone. Now, though, the memory of the evening when Randall’s first letter arrived balloons. She sees herself cutting a square from the drawing paper Dorothy Tiffany had given her and writing her brother back. Carefully printing the address for his rooming house on an envelope, walking on her own to the post office to ask how many stamps were required, after which there’d been the waiting, day after day, for the mail to arrive, despite knowing it would take two weeks for her letter to cross the country and, even if her brother responded immediately, another two for his to travel to her.

Most of Prudence’s past is shrouded with the shapes of events no longer distinct, or faded with the emotional color gone.

“I brought the letters in my suitcase. Actually, I brought the entire box. I could show you everything.”

To Prudence then, it had felt like years, but most certainly several months before she received Randall’s response . . . A white space . . . And then her mother crying as she composed a letter to Randall at the florist shop where his former landlady, having sent the one-word Moved telegram, had later written he worked. Crying because not only did she have to tell her son that his father had died, she could not say that his father had in his final hours asked about him. All she could write was that his father had fallen from a ladder at Mr. T’s Madison Avenue mansion, crashing fifteen feet to the ground and bringing down with him the glass orb on the chain to which he’d uselessly clung.

Grace glances at her watch. “I’m so sorry, but I have to go. I’m meeting with the other people on my first panel. Could I come on Tuesday around six? Perhaps I could take you out to dinner?”

“I’ll have Maricel, the woman who helps me, make us a light meal.”

“I hate to trouble you . . .”

“She will be delighted to cook. With me, her culinary skills are a waste. What do you like to eat?”

“I’m afraid I’m a bit of a bother. I’m vegan.”

“Is that vegetarian?”

“It’s even more restrictive. I don’t eat any animal products. But I could bring something . . .”

“Maricel could make us her rice and beans and her okra and a salad. Would that suit you?”

Grace stands. “That would be perfect. I’ve been vegan since my brother died. It was physical at first. I couldn’t swallow anything that had been killed or taken from an animal. Then, it became political. It drove my grandfather crazy. He was a meat-and-potatoes man.”

Prudence pushes herself up from her chair. She senses Grace watching her, not wanting to offer unnecessary help. “That’s how we were raised,” she says once she’s squarely on her feet. “Corned beef and cabbage and always potatoes.”

She’s thankful that it’s not the Sunday when Thomas, Harriet’s grandson who is now Prudence’s lawyer, takes her out to dinner. She wants to sit in her chair and look out at the water and absorb these snapshots of the man her brother became. When he’d leaned over to kiss the top of her head and then slipped away while her mother was berating her father for being a drunken fool, he’d been a boy. Not yet using a razor. Absorb that he married, apparently a wealthy woman if they were given a house as a wedding present, had a son who became a drug addict, raised his two grandchildren with the help of a Mexican housekeeper named Angela, ate meat and potatoes his entire life, died two decades ago.

While Grace waits for the elevator, Prudence stands, half in, half out of the hall, propping her door open with her back. The two of them smile and nod at each other until the elevator arrives and Grace disappears inside. Then, thinking of Maricel’s instruction “You bolt both locks, Mrs. P, but not the chain. That you have to leave off so I can let myself in,” Prudence, for the first time all day, does as directed.

Lisa Gornick is the author of Louisa Meets Bear, Tinderbox, and A Private Sorcery. Her stories and essays have appeared widely, including in The New York Times, Prairie Schooner, Real Simple, Salon, Slate, and The Sun. She holds a BA from Princeton and a PhD in clinical psychology from Yale, and is on the faculty of the Columbia University Center for Psychoanalytic Training and Research. A long-time New Yorker, she lives in Manhattan with her family.