When her father died, Granny couldn’t afford a casket. She refused everyone’s money, and in the end, when she could think of nothing meaningful to do with the ashes they brought her, she poured what was left of my great-grandfather into the kitchen trashcan. “He’ll get where he’s going, anyhow,” she told us. For a long time after that, I believed everything we threw away was taken to Heaven.
On my eighth birthday, we had a party just for family. Mom and Uncle Larry set everything up in Granny’s yard, a modest patch of grass that had once been much bigger, I’ve been told, before the city paved over half of it to expand Jessamine Avenue into the major thoroughfare through Washburn, Kentucky. Mom had dressed me in a sailor suit with a wide navy blue collar, knotted at the throat, and a short matching skirt, one of the few numbers she hadn’t bought secondhand. More than one person that day called me Little Eddie, after my great-grandfather, who had worn a man-sized version of my getup.
There were pink helium balloons tied to the branches of the pussy willow by the fence and to the posts of the swing mounted in the middle of the yard. A long table against one side of the house had been stocked with chips and dip, half a dozen two-liters of pop, a cooler of ice, and the crowning glory: an enormous white layer cake topped with a trail of pink ponies, the words HAPPY BIRTHDAY KADYBUG iced in the perfect cursive I would learn that year.
If not for those details, you’d have never known the day had anything to do with me. The women played Shanghai Rummy and debated whether to cut sweet tea from their diets and discussed the finer points of perms. Uncle Larry drank can after can of Coors and aggravated the women by pretending to talk about perms, fussing prissily over his own bald head. Someone had hauled Granny’s recliner out into the yard and pulled it up to the card table. The skirt of her green muumuu hung draped over one arm of the chair, and though I never knew her to smoke, she had clenched between her lips a fat brown cigar. The others declared her the “Queen of Shanghai” that day—she won both games—and someone took a picture of her posing in the plastic crown from my dress-up chest.
I was all too happy to have everyone’s attention focused elsewhere: I had just snapped the A-string on Granny’s ukulele.
The ukulele had come back from Hawaii with Great-Grandpa Eddie, who had been stationed on an aircraft carrier there just before the attack on Pearl Harbor, and though it mostly stayed on a shelf in the living room, Granny sometimes liked to take it out when the family came around. I had thought I was doing a good thing, tuning it for her so that she could play “Five Foot Two, Eyes of Blue” for Great Aunt Louise’s new video camera. Granny was as good as anybody I’d seen on television, and it was for the sake of her superstar potential that I sat on the guest room bed, strumming one string at a time and repeating a chorus of “My Dog Has Fleas,” the G-C-E-A ditty that Granny always sang to tune her strings.
While I was tuning up, my cousin Ryan sulked just outside the doorway, rocking his heels back and forth on the kitchen linoleum and reminding me every ten seconds that we weren’t supposed to touch the ukulele without asking. Ryan got hung up on rules. He was also stupid, and so stupidly eager to make other people happy, even me. I was almost a whole two years older, so it hadn’t taken much prodding to get him to play lookout. While Ryan wrung his hands and did his boy scout best to convince me to put away the ukulele, I went on plucking each string with a violence I should have turned on him just then.
“You know you ain’t singing it right, Kady,” he whimpered while I fiddled with a tuning peg. “If you don’t sing it right, you ain’t ever going to get them strings worked out.”
I glared at him as witheringly as I could manage and gave “My Dog Has Fleas” another go. What did Ryan know about music? I was the one taking piano and voice lessons while he went off to his pee-pants daycare every day after school. Of course I was singing it right, I told him, because ‘My,’ ‘Dog,’ and ‘Has’ all sounded now just like they were supposed to sound. It was ‘Fleas’ that was giving me the trouble; the A-string that wouldn’t quite make it to A. No matter how many times I turned the peg, I continued to come up short.
“That means the note’s flat,” I told Ryan, twisting the peg again. But at that moment, anything would’ve sounded flat to me, and so I kept twisting and twisting and singing “Fleas! Fleas! Fleas!” with mounting frustration, my mouth screwing up just as tight as I had wound that string. I gave the next firm pluck. “Fleas!” came out as a screech from my own lips. Ryan shrieked even before the string warbled and whipped free and lashed the back of my hand, and then I knew something was done for. Probably me.
You’d have thought I’d set the damned thing on fire the way Ryan screamed and sobbed and collapsed into a heap of trembling limbs, or you’d have thought he was the one with the red-hot welt across his hand, swelling up like a speed bump.
“Oh, no! Oh, Kady! Kady! Kady! No!”
No one was in the house to hear him, or we’d have both been given a good whooping—me for breaking the string, him for whining like such a damned sissy. As long as nobody opened the screen door, we had time. I sprung up, scooped all forty pounds of Ryan into my arms, hurled him onto the bed and straddled him, slapping a hand—the one I’d lashed—over his mouth.
“You just shut it!” I hissed, and he did. “Listen to me. I’m gonna put the ukulele under the pillow here ‘til we can figure what to do about it.”
His eyes were wet and pink and horrified.
“You gonna quit acting like a big baby, then?”
He whipped his head out from under my hand and tried to sit up. “I ain’t a baby,” he grunted. “Get off me, Kady!”
I shoved him back into submission, squeezing my thighs into his bucking hips. “And don’t you go telling Granny or nobody else, you hear me? You keep your big trap shut. You’ll be in just as much trouble as me!”
He did promise after a minute. I made him lock it with a pinky swear before I let him up. We put the ukulele under both the bed sheet and comforter and laid the pillow on top, glad to have the broken thing out of sight, if only for the moment.
For the first time in six years, Aunt Cindy was coming home. Aunt Cindy was my mother’s baby sister, and she worked as an actress with a theater company in Cincinnati. We’d expected her home for Christmas the year before—“Her first Christmas away from all them swishy fellers,” Granny had said with tight-lipped satisfaction to anyone who asked after Cindy that December —it seemed like holidays were the only time anybody ever asked after Aunt Cindy—but then she had to stay in Cincinnati. The girl cast as Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady came down with pneumonia and Cindy was called to fill in. At the video store later that week, I had begged to rent My Fair Lady, but it was checked out, and I settled for The Sound of Music for the sixteenth time.
Later, there had been talk—though not much of it, and hardly ever to me—of Baby Madeline. A cousin, I rejoiced, and a girl! I imagined a future of dance routines and pretend-beauty pageants in Granny’s living room, an ally who would find Ryan as dull and bothersome as I did. But I also knew where babies came from, and I wondered who had done a thing like that with Aunt Cindy.
“Was it one of them swishy fellers who done it?” I asked Mom one day over breakfast.
Mom had nearly choked on her orange juice. “Just eat your damn Fruit Loops.”
Ryan and I had moved from the bed to the kitchen and were pecking at a plateful of Ruffles, still hung up on the ukulele, when Mom called in from the porch to tell us that Aunt Cindy’s car had pulled up. Ryan was wide-eyed and on his feet in an instant, but the business with the ukulele still had me too confounded to find his excitement anything but foolish.
Ryan grabbed my hand and tugged me out of the chair, and I gave in. We walked through the living room and huddled close together in the dark foyer, watching through the screen door as a thin, beautiful woman with coppery hair like my own mounted the porch steps to greet Mom and Aunt Janice and Aunt Louise. In one hand, she carried a large carpet bag that made me think of Mary Poppins, and in the other arm was a swaddled pink bundle: Baby Madeline. The other women shuffled closer in an uncertain, polite sort of way to pat her back. Aunt Janice took the carpet bag from her and sat it down on the porch. I saw Mom gaze down into the pink bundle in Aunt Cindy’s arms. She smiled, but only with half her mouth. Then she motioned toward the door, toward us, and when Aunt Cindy’s eyes peered through the screen and into the darkness and found me out, my stomach hitched.
I glanced at Ryan, who was beaming and waving with the all the joy and expectation I had meant to feel that day, and he backed into the living room as Aunt Cindy opened the door. The others were returning to the yard now, back to their card game. I felt like I’d been abandoned on my birthday, and Ryan, still stupidly grinning and now scrambling to join me in the living room as Aunt Cindy came through the door, was no relief at all.
“Well, let me get a good look at the two of you,” she said, stepping into the living room light. She was so tall. It was more than that, and more than her poise; she had a long, white neck that made the low cut of her blouse seem too sexy, sexier than anything Mom ever wore. She lifted her free hand and tousled Ryan’s hair.
“Boy,” she sighed. “Haven’t seen you since you were still sucking milk from your Momma’s tit. What a handsome little mister you’ve grown into. Better looking than your daddy.”
Ryan giggled and looked really impressed, probably because she’d said “tit.” Aunt Cindy rapped his fat cheek with an affectionate knuckle.
“And Miss Kadybug.” She eyed me now. She touched my hair, but she wasn’t rough with mine like she’d been with Ryan’s. Instead, she plucked one curl free from the bunch and fingered it like a piece of ribbon. “Another redhead,” she said, like it was the most important thing in the world. “And a good thing, too. Too many blondes in this family.”
“Granny’s got white hair,” I said.
Aunt Cindy winked. “Didn’t used to.”
The pink bundle in her arm was silent and unmoving. Aunt Cindy caught me staring. She peered down into the blanket and frowned. “Do you want to meet Baby Madeline?”
I wasn’t sure, but Ryan said, “Yes, oh yes!”
Aunt Cindy nodded toward the couch, and we tumbled onto its cushions. She settled herself gingerly between us and peeled back the edge of the blanket. Wrapped inside, I saw, was no real baby at all, but a doll, though it was more lifelike than any doll I owned. Baby Madeline appeared to sleep, and there was a faint crease between her brows, as if she were dreaming of something she didn’t understand. I reached out and held one of the tiny hands in my own; the doll’s skin felt soft, like human skin, like baby skin, and when I turned the hand over, I could see the lines in her palms, the unique pattern of loops and whorls. Fingerprints.
“But Aunt Cindy,” said Ryan. “That ain’t really Baby Madeline, is it?”
Aunt Cindy smiled and rubbed his hair again. “Real as she’ll ever be,” she said, then added, “For now, at least.”
He still didn’t understand, and neither did I, really. When Aunt Cindy turned to me and asked if I would like to hold Baby Madeline, I answered without thinking twice, “Nuhuh. No way.”
She stared at me for a long time, perhaps waiting to see whether I’d change my mind, but then she nodded. “That’s okay, baby,” she said. Aunt Cindy stood and started toward the back of the house. “I’ll just put her on the bed in the guest room, for now,” she called over her shoulder.
Ryan gripped my arm. “Aunt Cindy’s nutso!” he whispered when she’d left the room. I didn’t answer but I must have agreed, because when he leapt from the couch and ran to the screen door, I wasn’t far behind.
We dug a hole beneath the card table. The women were still at their game of Shanghai and had no time for us. I only wanted to see how deep I could go before Granny hollered at us to quit tearing up her yard.
Cindy had gone to the guest room, and if she returned, I hadn’t stuck around to find out. I wondered if she’s found the ukulele and its broken string in there, if she’d tell Granny what we’d done. But she didn’t come out. I wanted the others to deal her in. Playing cards would be better than sitting in that boring old house, and there was room at the table. I’d seen the grownups play Shanghai with as many as ten people before, though never with me. The game was too hard for a kid, they said. I wasn’t sure I wanted to learn. Games often lasted an hour or longer, and you had to do a lot of math. One day I’d play too. You didn’t grow up in our family without learning Shanghai. Aunt Cindy must have known how to play.
“I think we made her sad,” I told Ryan.
He shrugged and rammed his plastic shovel into the hole, sending up a spray of dry gritty dirt. He tugged on Granny’s muumuu. Granny lowered her hand of cards and frowned at him.
“Why’d Aunt Cindy bring a baby doll?” he asked. “That’s kid stuff, ain’t it?”
Aunt Louise shook her head and drew a card. “That poor girl.”
“She talks about it like it’s real, but it ain’t,” said Ryan. I saw Aunt Janice and Granny exchange a look before returning their eyes to their cards. Neither answered.
“It was her doctor who gave her that thing, she told me,” said Mom, though not to us. “To help with the grief and all.”
“Weren’t no doctor,” Granny mumbled through her cigar. “Some egghead shrink up there in Cincinnati, that’s who it was.”
“Therapist,” said Mom.
“Poor girl,” said Aunt Louise again. “Plenty of grief, too, losing a baby like that. I miscarried one in the sixties, you know.”
“What’s ‘miscarried’ mean?” I asked Granny.
She blew a puff of smoke in my face and swatted me away. “Quiet, girl. This ain’t none of your business. Just grownup talk.” Snorting, she turned back to the others. “You ask me, that baby got lost on purpose. You ask me, that baby lost out to young, dumb, and selfish.”
I gave the card table a shove. The discard pile sailed across the table, and half of it landed in Aunt Janice’s lap.
“Kady!” my mother pleaded. “What the heck’s gotten into—”
“I don’t think it’s very nice,” I snapped, “talking so mean about Aunt Cindy like that and not letting her come out here to play cards. If you ain’t got something nice to say—”
But I didn’t get to finish imparting my eight-year-old wisdom to the grownups, because all three hundred pounds of Granny bounded up from the armchair, twisted my arm behind my back and frog-marched me off the lawn.
“You can join her then.”
I clenched my fists. “It’s my birthday!” I shouted at Granny’s retreating back, but she ignored me.
“That poor girl,” I heard Aunt Janice sigh again as I stomped up the stairs to the front door. “That poor, poor girl.”
Inside, Aunt Cindy sprawled on the couch, a damp tissue crumpled in her hands. I waited for her to say something about the ukulele, certain she’d found it. Instead she lifted the tissue to blot her red, wet eyes and sniffled.
“What you doing in here?” she asked. “It’s your party, Miss Kadybug.”
“Nothing out there to do,” I said, inching closer.
“At your own party?”
“Just grown up stuff.”
She reached out for me hand and clasped it in her own. “Mm, I know what you mean.” And then, as if thinking of something really wonderful, she cocked her head and gave me a smile, small and bright. “Your momma says you like to watch musicals. Is that right?”
She may as well have been asking if I liked ice cream or the color pink. “Oh, yes! Very much! I’ve seen Sound of Music the most times,” I said. “But Phantom of the Opera is the one I like best. I haven’t seen it before, though. I just have a tape with all the songs.”
Aunt Cindy laughed–musically, I thought. “But I’m doing Phantom at Christmas!” she exclaimed, clapping her hands together. “I’m going to play Meg. Do you know Meg?”
I nodded; I liked to sing along to Meg’s part best of all, because even though it wasn’t a big role, Meg’s notes weren’t as high and impossible as the other girl parts.
“Are you musical, Kady?”
This time, I didn’t speak up immediately. I didn’t know if I should, because I knew what she would ask for next: a song. People always did when they found out I liked to sing. My shyness was creeping back now, slowly but unmistakably. Aunt Cindy was a really good singer, Mom had told me, and I was terrified she’d laugh if my voice cracked and I missed a note like I sometimes did. Sometimes Mom laughed. Sometimes even Granny, whose mouth still half-drooped from her stroke the year before. But I fiddled with the knot of my sailor’s collar and answered, barely, “Yes.”
Aunt Cindy dipped her head and tried to meet my skittish eyes. “Will you sing for me, please?” Her voice was low and kind, and I knew any song would be a secret between us.
It didn’t occur to me to choose a show tune, something Aunt Cindy would know well and perhaps have sung a hundred times before. Instead I thought about the ukulele and Granny’s song, the song I had stolen from her despite my best intentions, and I began:
Five foot two, eyes of blue
But oh, what those five foot can do
Has anybody seen my gal?
My voice trembled. It wasn’t my best effort, but Aunt Cindy had chirped happily to hear the first line, and the way she’d begun to bounce her knees in time with my singing gave me confidence. Louder then,
Turned up nose, turned down hose
Never had no other beaus
Has anybody seen my gal?
It was going so well! I could almost even hear the ukulele playing in my head, and I swished my skirt back and forth in time with the imaginary instrument’s jangling rhythm, daintily box-stepping across the shag carpet.
Now if you run into a five foot two
Covered in fur…
Aunt Cindy was singing along now—quietly, not trying to steal the show from me—and slapping her hands against her thighs.
Diamond rings and all those things
Betcha’ life it isn’t her!
But could she love? Could she woo?
Could she, could she, could she coo?
Has anybody seen my gaaaaal?
My arms were stretched wide to welcome her wild applause; the adulation of a packed playhouse couldn’t have pleased me more. I took a low, dramatic bow and sprung into Aunt Cindy’s lap. She folded me into her and covered my hair with kisses.
“What a brilliant show! What a really, really brilliant show, Miss Kadybug.” She settled back into the couch. “A rising star! I can’t believe your Momma never told me what a little performer you are. And to think, I lead a children’s theater camp in spring.”
I wasn’t sure if this was an invitation, but I knew it didn’t matter. Mom got so mad the time she’d had to drive as far as West Virginia to meet with my father’s lawyer, and that was just thirty minutes away. Cincinnati may as well have been Neptune.
“Aunt Cindy?” I asked softly, when all our excitement had passed enough. My cheek was pressed to her shoulder, my nose nestled against her bare neck; she smelled like powder and lipstick.
“What is it, baby?”
I sat up, and I gave her my bravest face. “I think I’d like to hold Baby Madeline now, if that’s okay.”
Aunt Cindy looked at me for a long time. I could tell by her sharp eyes and small mouth that she was trying to be as brave as I was.
She nodded. “Of course it’s okay. Of course it is.”
We walked through the kitchen to the guest room. Aunt Cindy lifted Baby Madeline into her arms and sat on the bed, motioning for me to take the place beside her. She lowered the doll, still wrapped in her blanket, carefully into my arms. The weight of her frightened me, the same way I’d been frightened when I’d been allowed to hold Ryan years before. But Ryan hadn’t been this still. I tried to imagine Madeline as a real baby. I closed my eyes and tried to feel her small chest expand and contract in my arms, but I couldn’t. When I looked down at her sleeping face, I could even see the gap separating the brows from eyelids that would pull open to reveal Baby Madeline’s eyes if I sat her upright. I didn’t want to see her eyes.
“What happened to her?” I asked. “The real one?”
Aunt Cindy sniffed and pulled us close to her. “It just wasn’t time for her here,” she whispered, stroking my shoulder. “So she’s somewhere else for now.”
“When will it be time?”
She shook her head. “Never can tell,” she said. “But till she comes, I have this Baby Madeline. To keep me company.”
I sighed and turned my head away, and then I saw the lump under the pillow.
“Can you keep a secret, Aunt Cindy?” She had shared one of hers; I knew I could trust her with this, at least.
“Sure I can, Kadybug.”
I handed Baby Madeline over to her and reached under the pillow. When Aunt Cindy saw what was in my hand, she gasped.
“Is that Grandpa Eddie’s ukulele? I haven’t seen that thing in years.”
I nodded. “Except look,” I said, holding it up by the fret board so she could see how the A-string dangled like a cooked noodle from its tuning peg.
“What happened here?”
“It was me,” I told her. “Just before you came. I didn’t mean to, but now Granny won’t be able to play it anymore, will she?”
Aunt Cindy ran a thin, polished finger along the ukulele’s curving body. “Oh, baby,” she sighed. “All you need is a new string for it. I bet that you and Granny could fix it up good as new.”
I hadn’t thought of that, and I felt a little silly. But there was another snag. “Where do we get the string from?”
There wasn’t a music store for miles, certainly not one in Washburn. The kids in junior high, I knew, had to order their band instruments all the way from Lexington. Aunt Cindy must have known that. She had once lived in Washburn, too.
“How about this?” she said, after a long minute of hard thinking. “How about I find some strings for you when I go back to Cincinnati tomorrow? Then I can mail them to you and Granny. How would you like that?”
I nodded. “That would be good, Aunt Cindy. That would be a big, big help.”
Aunt Cindy never did send the string—I checked the mailbox every day for weeks after she left—and when Granny finally found the ukulele, she chucked it to heaven through the garbage can. But on that day, there in the silent dark, Aunt Cindy and I just leaned our red heads together and cradled our things—Baby Madeline, the ukulele—with purpose and care, as if they were the living ones.