“Look!” She took a deep breath and held it, then encircled her waist with her hands. Their mother did this often, touching her middle fingers in front and her thumbs in back.
“If your hands were a bit bigger, they’d get all the way around,” he said. “You are becoming a young lady before my eyes.”
Kay let out the air from her bursting chest.
“And you know who you look like?” he said.
“Elizabeth Taylor,” she said by rote.
“That’s right. You’re a beauty.”
She’d heard this often before and it always shot right past her. But this time the arrow that carried Gran’s remark, instead of whizzing by, threatened to tear her from her post. She turned her back on him and, pushing her palms on the railing, hoisted herself off the ground. “I hope I can catch a rabbit this summer,” she said.
“Me too. I love a juicy piece of flitch with my fried tomatoes.”
She laughed. “Flitch and ketchup!”
“You know me, my girlie.”
“But you can’t eat my rabbit. He’ll be my pet.”
“You’ll have him eating out of your hand, will you?” He reached over to the horsehair chaise and picked up the book she’d been reading. The cover showed a drawing of Lincoln, and behind him a battlefield.
“A house divided against itself cannot stand!” Gran banged his fist on the wicker.
Kay banged her fist on the arm of her chair. “Ditto! Now what time is it?”
Gran looked at his watch. “Close to six-twenty.”
“Maybe Elva will be late with dinner,” Gran said.
Kay slapped at another mosquito, this time on her leg. “She never is.”
“Maybe you should go around to the kitchen and see if tonight she might be a little tardy.” Gran gave her a look of complicity and inclined his head toward the driveway—the outside way around to the back stairs.
It was worth a try. Kay slipped down the front steps and walked quietly on the other side of the house from where the kids were, so close to the cement wall that no one above—their mother or her grandmother—could look down and see her. The back porch was screened in. Damp bathing suits from both morning and afternoon hung on the old grey line, weighing it down to her height. Kay swiftly cut through it. The old stone sinks stood opposite; above them, an ancient mirror hung suspended from a rusty chain looped over a crooked nail. She never consulted mirrors, but now she couldn’t help but see her reflection. The image didn’t match up with her sense of herself. She looked away quickly and stepped into the steamy kitchen.
“Kay Riven, what are you doing?”
Elva was slim as a broom and had good posture. She wore her black and white hair curled into a bun and a gray uniform with a small white apron tied around her waist. She lived in the black section of town in a very old house that had been in her family for generations.
“You know you’re not allowed out here while I’m cooking.” Yet she beckoned Kay in.
Kay followed the scent of flounder cooking in butter and stood next to Elva at the stove.
“Is dinner ready?” Kay asked.
With her spatula, Elva pointed to the browning fish. “I have to be careful not to break it apart. Flounder is delicate.”
“Daddy’s not here yet.”
“Your grandmother will be expecting her meal on time.”
“I think he’s close. We’re going to plan our trip to Gettysburg.”
Elva pointed Kay toward an apron hanging from a hook. Kay put it on.
“I have ancestors who fought in the war,” Elva said. “Not one of us was ever a slave. We were always free people.”
“That’s good,” Kay said. “My father’s ancestors fought in the war, too, on both sides.”
“Brother against brother,” Elva handed Kay a potholder. “People like to fight. Stand aside while I move this pot.”
Kay glanced out the window. Only the neighborhood kids were still running around. Elva lifted the corn from the boiling water with her bare hands and placed it carefully on a platter, setting aside two cobs to strip into kernels for Gran. She handed Kay two and she put them on top of the others.
“If he doesn’t come in time, I’ll save him a plate,” Elva said. “Vanilla ice cream and fresh peaches for dessert tonight, I’ll save some of that too. You should go now.”
Kay left the way she’d come. The kitchen and the back stairs were forbidden to her and her brothers. That her grandfather had encouraged her to go talk to Elva was unusual, so unusual that Kay wondered about it. She became pensive, and tripped on the thick edging of the grass but righted herself before she fell. Still no sign of her father.