Authors: Nita Prose
I walk home briskly, full of energy and butterflies from my time with Rodney. I think back to Mr. Preston’s uncharitable comment about frogs and princes. It occurs to me how easy it is to misjudge people. Even an upstanding man like Mr. Preston can sometimes get it wrong. Minus the smooth chest, Rodney entirely lacks amphibious qualities. My chiefest hope is that while he is not a frog, Rodney will turn out to be the prince of my very own fairy tale.
I wonder to myself what the etiquette is around wait times before I dial Rodney’s phone number. Should I call him immediately to thank him for our date or should I wait until tomorrow? Perhaps I should text him instead? My only experience with such matters was with Wilbur, who despised talking on the phone and used text messages for time- or task-related correspondence only: “Expected arrival time: 7:03,” “Bananas on sale: 0.49 cents. Buy while quantities last.” If Gran were still around, I’d ask for advice, but that is no longer an option.
As I approach my building, I notice a familiar figure standing outside the front doors. For a moment I’m sure I’m hallucinating, but as I get closer, I see it really is her. She’s wearing her large dark sunglasses and carrying her pretty yellow purse.
“Giselle?” I say as I approach.
“Oh, thank God. Molly, I’m so glad to see you.” Before I can say anything else, she opens her arms and hugs me tight. I’m at a loss for words, mostly because I can barely breathe. She releases me, tips her sunglasses back so I can see her red-rimmed eyes. “Can I come in?”
“Of course,” I say. “I can’t believe you’re here. I’m…I’m so pleased to see you.”
“Not as pleased as I am to see you,” she says.
I rummage through my pockets and manage to find my keys. My hands shake a little as I open the door and invite her into my building.
She steps in gingerly and looks around the lobby. Crumpled flyers litter the ground, surrounded by muddy footprints and cigarette butts—such a filthy habit. Her face registers disdain at the mess, so much so that I can read it clearly.
“It’s unfortunate, isn’t it? I do wish every tenant would participate in keeping the entrance clean. I think you’ll find Gran’s…
apartment much more sanitary,” I say.
I guide her through the entrance and toward the stairwell.
She looks up the looming staircase. “What floor are you on?” she asks.
“Fifth,” I say.
“Can we take the elevator?”
“I do apologize. There isn’t one.”
“Wow,” she says, but she joins me in marching up the stairs even though she’s wearing impossibly high heels. We make it to the fifth landing and I rush ahead of her to open the broken fire door. It creaks as I pull it. She steps through and we emerge onto my floor. I’m suddenly aware of the dim lighting and burnt bulbs, the peeling wallpaper and the general tattiness of these corridors. Of course, Mr. Rosso, my landlord, hears us approach and chooses precisely that moment to emerge from his apartment.
“Molly,” he says. “On your good Gran’s grave, when are you going to pay me what’s owed?”
I feel a blast of heat rise to my face. “This week. Rest assured. You’ll
get what’s coming to you.” I imagine a big red bucket full of soapy water and pushing his bulbous head into it.
Giselle and I keep walking by him. Once we’re past, she rolls her eyes comically, which to me is a great relief, since I was concerned she’d think poorly of me for not keeping up with my rent. Clearly, that’s not what she’s thinking at all.
I put my key in the lock and shakily open my front door. “After you,” I say.
Giselle walks in and looks around. I step in behind her, not knowing where to stand. I close the door and slide the rusty dead bolt across. She takes in Gran’s paintings in the entry, ladies lounging by lazy riversides, eating picnic delicacies from a wicker basket. She spots the old wooden chair by the door with Gran’s needlepoint pillow on it. She picks it up in both hands. Her lips move as she reads the Serenity Prayer.
“Huh,” she says. “Interesting.” Suddenly, right there in the doorway, her face contorts into a grimace and tears fill her eyes. She hugs the pillow to her chest and begins to sob quietly.
My shaking gets worse. I’m at a total loss. Why is Giselle at my house? Why is she crying? And what am I supposed to do?
I put my keys down on the empty chair.
There’s nothing you can ever do but your best,
I hear Gran say in my head.
“Giselle, are you upset because Mr. Black is dead?” I ask. But then I remember that most people don’t appreciate this kind of direct talk. “Sorry,” I say, correcting myself. “What I mean is I’m sorry for your loss.”
“You’re sorry? Why?” she asks between sobs. “I’m not sorry. I’m not sorry at all.” She puts the pillow back in its place, pats it once, then takes a deep breath.
I remove my shoes, wipe the bottoms with the cloth from the closet, and put them away.
She watches me. “Oh,” she says. “I guess I should take these off.” She removes her glossy black heels with the red bottoms, heels so tall I have no idea how she made it up those five flights of stairs.
She gestures for me to hand her the cloth.
“No, no,” I say. You’re my guest.” I take her shoes, which are fine and sleek, a delight to hold, and I tuck them away in the closet. She takes in our cramped quarters, her eyes traveling up to the flaking living-room ceiling, where circular stains bleed through from the apartment above.
“Don’t mind appearances,” I say. “There’s not much I can do when it comes to how those above conduct themselves.”
She nods, then wipes the tears from her cheeks.
I rush to the kitchen, grab a tissue, and bring it to her. “A tissue for your issue,” I say.
“Oh my God, Molly,” she replies. “You’ve got to stop saying that when people are upset. They’ll take it the wrong way.”
“I only meant—”
“I know what you meant. But other people won’t.”
I’m quiet for a moment as I take this in, storing her lesson in the vault of my mind.
We’re still in the entranceway. I’m frozen in my spot, unsure of what to do next, what to say. If only Gran were here….
“This is the part where you invite me into the living room,” Giselle says. “You tell me to make myself at home or something like that.”
I feel the butterflies in my stomach. “I’m sorry,” I say. “We don’t…
don’t have company very often. Or ever. Gran used to invite select friends round from time to time, but since she died, it’s been rather quiet here.” I don’t tell her that she’s the first guest to pass through the door in nine months, but that’s the God’s honest truth. She’s also the first guest I’ve ever entertained on my own. Something occurs to me.
“My gran always said, ‘A good cup of tea will cure all ills, and if it doesn’t, have another.’ Would you like one?”
“Sure,” she says. “Can’t remember the last time I had tea.”
I hurry to the kitchen to put the kettle on. I peek at Giselle from the doorway as she strolls around the living room. I’m glad that it’s Tuesday, as I just washed the floors last night. At least I know they are clean to perfection. Giselle walks over to the windows at the far end of the
living room. She touches the frilled trim on Gran’s flowery curtains, curtains she sewed herself many years ago.
As I place tea in the pot, Giselle moves to Gran’s curio cabinet. She crouches to admire the Swarovski menagerie, then takes in the framed photos angled on top. It makes me slightly uncomfortable but also a tad giddy that she’s here in my home. While I’m confident that the apartment is clean, it’s not appointed in the manner to which a woman of Giselle Black’s station would be accustomed. I don’t know what she’s thinking. Perhaps she’s horrified by the way I live. It is not like the hotel at all. It is not grand. This has always been fine by me, but perhaps it’s not fine by her. It’s a discomfiting thought.
I pop my head out of the kitchen. “Please rest assured that I maintain the highest level of sanitation at all times in this apartment. Unfortunately, on a maid’s salary, I’m not able to purchase extravagant items or keep up with modern décor trends. I’m sure to you this home appears dated and old-fashioned. Perhaps a little…worn?”
“Molly, you have no idea how things appear to me. You don’t really know much about me. You think I’ve always lived like I do now? Do you know where I’m from?”
“Martha’s Vineyard,” I say.
“No, that’s just what Charles tells everyone. I’m actually from Detroit. And not the nice side of town. This place actually reminds me of home. I mean, home from long ago. Home before I found myself all alone. Before I ran away and never looked back.”
I watch from the kitchen doorway as she leans in to inspect a photo of Gran and me taken over fifteen years ago. I was ten years old. Gran enrolled us both in a baking class. In this shot, we’re wearing comically large chef hats. Gran is laughing, though I look very serious. I recall being displeased by the flour dusted on our pantry table. It was all over my hands and apron. Giselle picks up the photo next to it.
“Whoa,” she says. “Is this your sister?”
“No,” I say. “It’s my mother. It was taken a long time ago.”
“You look exactly like her.” I’m well aware of our resemblance,
especially in that photo. Her hair is shoulder-length and dark, framing her moon face. Gran always loved that photo. She called it her “twofer,” because it reminded her of the daughter she lost and the granddaughter she gained.
“Where does your mom live now?”
“She doesn’t,” I say. “She’s dead. Along with my grandmother.”
The water is boiling. I turn off the element and pour the water into a teapot.
“Mine are gone too,” she says. “Which is why I left Detroit.”
I place the pot on Gran’s best and only silver serving tray alongside two proper porcelain cups and two polished teaspoons; a double-eared, cut-crystal sugar bowl; and a small antique pitcher of milk. All of these items store memories—Gran and I foraging in secondhand shops or picking through boxes of discarded items left outside the row of austere mansions on the Coldwells’ street.
“I’m sorry about your mother,” Giselle says. “And your grandmother.”
“You have no reason to be. You didn’t have anything to do with it.”
“I know I didn’t, but that’s just what you say. Like you did with me at the door. You said you were sorry about Charles. You offered your condolences.”
“But Mr. Black died yesterday, and my mother died many years ago.”
“It doesn’t matter,” Giselle says. “That’s just what you say.”
“Thank you. For explaining.”
I truly am grateful for her guidance. With Gran gone, much of the time I feel like a blind person in a minefield. I’m constantly stumbling upon social improprieties hidden under the surface of things. But with Giselle around, I feel like I’m wearing a breastplate and am flanked by an armed guard. One of the reasons why I love working at the Regency Grand is that there’s a rule book for conduct. I can rely on Mr. Snow’s training to tell me how to act, what to say when, how, and to whom. I find it relieving to have guidance.
I take the tea tray into the sitting room. It rattles in my hands. Giselle
sits down on the worst part of the sofa, where the springs poke through a tad, though Gran has covered them with a crocheted blanket. I sit beside her.
I pour two cups of tea. I pick up mine, the one rimmed with gold and decorated in daisy chains, then realize my error. “Sorry. Would you prefer this cup or that one? I’m used to taking the daisies. Gran would take the English cottage scene. I’m a bit of a creature of habit.”
“You don’t say,” Giselle says, and picks up Gran’s cup. She helps herself to two heaping teaspoons of sugar and some milk. She stirs the contents. She’s never done much housework, that’s for sure. Her hands are smooth and flawless, her manicured nails long and polished blood red.
Giselle takes a sip, swallows. “Listen, I know you’re probably wondering why I’m here.”
“I was worried for you, and I’m glad you’re here,” I say.
“Molly, yesterday was the worst day of my life. The cops were all over me. They took me to the station. They questioned me like I’m some kind of common criminal.”
“I was worried that would happen. You don’t deserve that.”
“I know. But they don’t. They asked me if I got too eager as a potential heir to Charles’s estate. I told them to talk to my lawyers, not that I have any. Charles handled all of that. God, it was awful, to be accused of such a thing. Then as soon as I got back to the hotel, Charles’s daughter, Victoria, called me.”
I feel a tremor jolt me as I pick up my teacup and take a sip. “Ah yes, the forty-nine-percent shareholder.”
“That’s what she owned before. Now she’ll own over half of everything, which is what her mother always wanted. ‘Women and business don’t mix,’ Charles says…said. According to him, women can’t handle dirty work.”
“That’s preposterous,” I say. Then I catch myself. “Apologies. It’s rude to talk ill of the dead.”
“It’s okay. He deserves it. Anyhow, his daughter said way worse things to me on the phone. Do you know what she called me? Her father’s Prada parasite, his midlife mistake, not to mention his killer. She
was raging so much, her mother took the phone away from her. Calm as anything, Mrs. Black—the first Mrs. Black—says, ‘I apologize for my daughter. We all react to grief in different ways.’ Can you believe it? While her lunatic daughter is yelling in the background, telling me to watch my back.”