After that, Lucinda and Susan spent every recess together. They hung out on the monkey bars with Piper, or sailed on the swings with Trisha, or invented their own complicated games and dramas, with frequent guest appearances by Cassie, Piper, and occasionally even Trisha. Cassie played with them more often as it grew too cold to read comfortably outside. Cassie hated the cold, and it was easier to keep warm while leaping around, pretending to be one of the X-Men, rescuing Susan from Lucinda, the evil sorceress-queen of the Zargon Empire. They continued to be objects of scorn and contempt in the eyes of Ashley and the Barbie Dolls, especially now that the little group of oddball misfits were having so much fun together. But Lucinda hardly noticed what the cool girls were up to anymore.
Susan went home from school with Lucinda at least once a week. Susan was not allowed to have friends in the apartment when her mother was not home, but one Saturday morning Lucinda walked over and got to see Susan’s room and meet her brother. Susan’s brother, Sean, was very cute, Lucinda thought, though he barely glanced away from his computer screen to acknowledge her.
Susan’s bedroom was painted a beautiful, clear, pale blue, like a robin’s egg. There were white ruffled curtains on the window and a braided rag rug on the floor. Her bed was an old wooden four-poster, with knobs carved to look like pinecones. It was covered with a patchwork quilt and about forty-seven stuffed animals. In the corner near the window was an easel holding the watercolor Susan was working on, a picture of the potted geranium on the windowsill. The room was crowded with a desk and a drafting table, both littered with drawings and pads and notebooks and art supplies. A large corkboard hung on the wall near the drafting table; pinned to it were dozens of drawings and sketches and little half-finished watercolors.
Lucinda stood right in front of the corkboard, looking with interest at Susan’s work.
“Oh, that’s just. . .stuff,” Susan said, blushing.
Susan’s drawings were either of very ordinary, everyday things—a coffee cup, an armchair, a pair of shoes—or they were fantastic imaginary visions of unicorns and fairies and castles and dragons. The watercolors were mostly flowers and different views of the courtyard outside her window, which was green and grassy and nicely landscaped.
Lucinda turned to look at her friend.
“Susan, these are really good,” she said, her voice full of respect.
“Oh, well. . . really? You think?” Susan was as pink as the geranium in her watercolor.
“Yes. Really. I mean, I knew you could draw, from watching you doodle at school. But this is--” Lucinda gestured toward the corkboard and shrugged in bewilderment. “Amazing. How did you learn to do this?”
“My dad taught me to draw when I was little. He said I had a gift for it. He was an artist—a designer.”
“That is so cool,” said Lucinda. “You are so lucky to have a talent.”
“Everybody has a talent,” said Susan’s mother, standing in the doorway. She was wearing jeans and a flannel shirt. Her long, straight, sandy hair was tied back in a pony tail. She looked relaxed and cheerful, Susan noted with relief. She worried about her mother. She got pretty stressed out sometimes.
Lucinda smiled. “Do you really think so?” she asked.
“Yes. I really do. The trick is to find out what it is. Then, once you do—go for it! Do it! Follow your bliss!”
“Oh, brother,” said Susan. “Mom, please.”
“All right. I know when I’m not wanted. I’ll just go back to folding laundry.” Susan’s mother gave a great, long-suffering sigh and walked away. Susan rolled her eyes and shut the bedroom door. She moved a small bentwood rocker close to the window and started moving and adjusting her easel.
“Come over here and sit in the light,” she told Lucinda.
Lucinda sat in the rocker and looked out the window at the green courtyard while Susan drew her in pastels. Lucinda could sit very still. Still as a stone. She stared out the window without really seeing; just quiet and blank, thinking of things. Remembering things. Hearing the scratch of Susan’s pastels on the paper, some crows squawking outside, the soft thud of her own blood, beating inside her ears. Motionless as an ancient statue.
Susan’s fingers moved swiftly. Lucinda was a wonderful subject—her strong, dramatic features were easy to draw, and she held so still! Susan marveled at her uncanny stillness. She seemed very far away; her eyes were focused somewhere in the distance; she was alone in her silence.
The drawing was quickly finished. Susan looked at it critically; she hadn’t gotten it quite right. The nose was a little off, and the forehead seemed a bit wide. But it was pretty good. She had done a nice job with the eyes. They were big and dark and brooding, with tiny little sparks of light deep in the bottom of them. Lucinda’s hair had been fun to draw. Lots of big soft curly swoops and spirals, black as night.
Lucinda held the drawing in her hands and stared at it in fascination. Was this what she looked like to Susan? This was more or less what she saw in the mirror, except for the forehead, and the nose was a bit odd. There was something so dramatic and intense about her features as Susan had drawn them. Was it just some random expression that passed across her face while she was daydreaming out the window? Or was that the way Susan saw her? Full of fierce emotion and deep thought? That seemed strange to Lucinda because she didn’t feel that way at all. But she could see that the eyes were just like hers, and the shape of the chin was perfect. And the hair was very nice, though Lucinda doubted that in reality her crazy hair looked as decorative as Susan made it in the picture.
Lucinda looked up at Susan and smiled.
“May I keep this?” she asked.
Susan blushed. “Sure,” she said. “If you want.”
Lucinda kept the drawing in a manila folder with a sheet of tissue paper over it to protect the pastels. The folder was in a special drawer in Lucinda’s desk, where she kept important papers and other things of value. It was where she kept all the old letters she had gotten from her father when he was travelling for his music, and the poems she had written after he died. There was a cigar box full of photos and clippings, and other things she wanted to keep—small seashells and polished stones, a keychain that had been her father’s. She hated to put the drawing away in the dark—but it seemed vain to hang a portrait of herself on the wall. So she kept it in her special drawer, and took it out several times a day to look at it, and to try to imagine herself as others saw her.
On a warm, breezy Friday evening in October, Susan went home after school with Lucinda, her overnight things in her backpack. Lucinda’s mother had called Susan’s mother, inviting Susan to sleep over, and after chatting and laughing on the phone for several minutes, Susan’s mother had given permission. The two friends walked down the leaf-littered sidewalk together, not talking much, both just enjoying the sunny fall afternoon and each other’s company.
“Uncle Stefan scrubbed his grill with the wire brush and got the propane tank filled,” Lucinda said. They shuffled through a particularly thick carpet of leaves as the sidewalk passed under the spreading branches of a huge oak tree. “He even got new lava rocks.”
“What does he like to barbeque?” Susan asked. She had an idea that Uncle Stefan might cook some exotic and scary kind of food, like blood sausage or goat meat or something.
“Chicken. Uncle Stefan calls himself the Chicken King. He’s got it marinating right now.”
There was a woman reading a magazine in the waiting area when the girls walked into Lucinda’s mother’s office. She looked up briefly at the sound of the door chime, then looked back at her magazine and turned away from them a little. They took the hint and walked quickly through the waiting area without talking. As they passed the closed door to Sophia’s office, Susan noticed that there was a small wooden sign hanging on the door. There were no words on it, just a picture of a crescent moon, beautifully painted in delicate detail, in pearly white and pale blue and lavender. The moon had a feminine face, with long, downcast lashes and a gracefully curving mouth. Susan stared at it in admiration. It was really good.
Lucinda tugged at her hand and leaned her head toward the back stairway, indicating that they should keep moving and not disturb her mother’s work. When they got up to Lucinda’s apartment, Susan asked about the moon picture.
“On the other side of it is a picture of the sun. It’s our code for whether it’s okay to disturb her or not. The moon means no, she’s with a client; the sun means yes, it’s okay to bug her. Usually the door is open when the sun is up.”
“It’s a beautiful thing. The moon picture, I mean,” Susan said.
“I know. The sun is nice, too. Very jolly. I’ll show it to you later if you remind me.”
Lucinda found a bag of potato chips in the cabinet to keep them from starving before it was barbeque time. She took a bottle of ginger ale out of the refrigerator and poured them each a generous glassful, straight up. The girls sat down at the kitchen table with the open bag between them.
“Our assignment,” Lucinda said, “once we’ve regained our strength, is to make the salad.”
“Oh, good. I love to make salad.”
“Wait till you see all the beautiful vegetables we have for it. Uncle Nick brought them from his garden this morning.”
“Your uncle has a garden?” Susan asked in surprise, thinking of the shiny white and gold Cadillac, the gleaming shoes and gorgeous shirts. She could hardly imagine him with dirt under his fingernails.
“Yeah. He and my aunt love to garden. Aunt Millie especially. You should see her herb garden.”
They ate potato chips and drank ginger ale and talked about school, and television shows, and books they were reading, and what color nail polish they liked best until they felt like making salad. Then they got up and turned the radio on; Lucinda’s mom had it tuned to an oldies station, and that was kind of fun, so they left it there and bopped around the kitchen while they washed and peeled and sliced and tore up mountains of glorious fresh green lettuce and peppers and cucumbers and scallions. It was a magnificent salad.
As they finished, and were stretching Saran Wrap over the two huge bowls needed to contain the salad, they heard Lucinda’s mother coming through the door.
“Oh, my goodness, girls. Do you think you made enough salad?” she asked.
“Hey, we’re going to need a lot of salad,” Lucinda said. “Remember, Uncle Nick’s whole clan is coming.”
“How big is Uncle Nick’s clan?” asked Susan.
“He and Millie have four boys,” said Sophia rather grimly. “The oldest is twelve.”
“And they eat a lot of salad, believe me,” said Lucinda.
Susan nodded. She’d been watching her brother eat for years.
Sophia went to the oven to check on her contribution to the feast. It was a casserole dish of some sort, made with rice and beans and tomatoes and garlic. It smelled wonderful.
The girls went to Lucinda’s room to look down on the patio, where Uncle Stefan had just lit his gas grill. He had brought out some additional patio furniture—some chairs and small tables. The CD player was out and already playing some of that wild dance music he liked. Susan had to admit, she liked it too. They met Uncle Stefan on the stairs.
“Hey, you two—I got a job for you.” He handed them several bills and some change. “Go down the street to the store and get two bags of ice.”
They gladly accepted this mission, and were soon back again, with cold, heavy bags which they dumped into waiting coolers on the patio. Uncle Stefan appeared with an armload of 12-packs of soda and beer. They loaded up the coolers. Lucinda’s mother brought out chips and salsa. Pretty soon a mini-van, every bit as white and shiny as Uncle Nick’s Cadillac, and with just as much gold trim, parked in the lot. The side door slid open and out trooped four dark-haired boys. They charged across the parking lot and descended upon the chips and salsa like ravenous animals. Uncle Nick and his wife followed at a more sedate pace. They were carrying food. Uncle Nick held a tray with two pies, and Aunt Millie had a big basket full of loaves of fresh bread.
Susan was introduced to Lucinda’s aunt and cousins. The boys didn’t stop stuffing chips in their mouths, but they did nod politely in her direction to acknowledge her. They looked so much alike, they reminded Susan of a canister set; the same boy in four different sizes.
They were named Nicky, Steve, George and Angelo, but Susan had no clue which was which. Aunt Millie had glossy black hair which she wore up on top of her head in a bun, with soft, fluffy wisps sort of puffing out. She had large, dark eyes, like the rest of Lucinda’s family, and a beautiful smile that completely changed and lit up her face. She looked at Susan very carefully with her piercing black eyes before she gave her that smile. Then she went to Sophia and kissed her on both cheeks.
Uncle Stefan put the chicken on the grill and closed the hood. Little tendrils of smoke from the wet hickory chips he had scattered on the lava rocks piped out through the cracks. He turned away from the grill and beckoned to his brother.
“Help me move this table,” he said, starting to lift one end of the picnic table. “We need to clear the dance floor.”
“You can’t move the table, it’s full of food!” said Lucinda’s mother, moving quickly to stop the bowls of salad and casserole that started to slide down the tilting table. Uncle Nick picked up the other end of the table, leveling it, and he and Stefan moved it to the side of the patio.
Uncle Stefan turned up the CD player and in moments the four adults were dancing. Nick and Millie moved together eagerly, as if they had been longing for a chance to dance. And of course, Uncle Stefan and Lucinda’s mother danced together as if they had been doing it all their lives—which they had. To Susan’s surprise, Lucinda’s two oldest cousins, George and Angelo, immediately abandoned the chips and salsa. They had the courtesy to wipe their hands on their jeans before George grabbed Susan’s hand and Angelo latched on to Lucinda. Before there was time to think about it or get embarrassed, Susan was dancing with a boy her own age; it was fun, and she pretty much knew how, because Lucinda had taught her the steps and they were coming back to her easily now. George danced effortlessly, obviously enjoying himself. Susan felt relaxed and comfortable with George; dancing was just something to do for fun, after all. She glanced over at Lucinda and Angelo. Lucinda was very beautiful when she danced. Her cheeks were pink and her eyes sparkled.
Lucinda liked dancing with her cousin Angelo. Angelo was one year younger than Lucinda, and he was named after her father, who had been great friends with Uncle Nick. Angelo was tall for his age, so he was a good height to dance with, and he moved well. They had been dancing together at family reunions and barbeques and camping trips since they were little kids. Nonna said that in the old days they could have brought in a lot of money. Lucinda’s mother laughed when she heard that.
“Listen, they’ll bring in a lot more money when they finish school and become doctors or teachers or lawyers,” she said. Everybody had respect for the old ways, but Lucinda’s mother was a realist and she believed education was the secret to life. She didn’t like the idea of her daughter dancing for money.
They danced till the chicken was cooked. By then it was getting dark. Millie and Sophia lit candles in jars and placed them on the tables and among the potted plants. They all sat at the long picnic table and ate barbecued chicken and spicy rice and beans and fresh bread and lots and lots of salad. They boys were quiet at the table, concentrating on food. Lucinda was hungry, too. Dancing always gave her an appetite. Even Susan, who never seemed very interested in eating, was tearing into a chicken leg with gusto.
“Great chicken, Uncle Stefan,” Lucinda said. A chorus of grunts chimed in from people with their mouths too full to agree verbally.
Uncle Stefan bowed gracefully, without spilling a drop from the bottle of red wine he was holding. He poured some into Millie’s glass, then Sophia’s. He looked at Susan.
“How about it, Susan?” he said. “Vino for you?”
“No thanks,” she said, blushing.
“I won’t offer Lucinda any,” he said. “We all know what an awful lush she is.”
The food was good, and Susan enjoyed the easy, affectionate arguing that passed as dinner conversation. Lucinda’s family made her laugh and treated her as one of them. Susan felt safe and comfortable with these people. She wondered why that was. Usually she was shy and anxious, especially around people she didn’t know very well.
After apple pie and coffee, Uncle Stefan moved to one of the chairs and sat down with his mandolin. He strummed it lightly, looking expectantly at his brother.
“Well?” he said.
“Well, what?” said Uncle Nick.
“Did you bring them?” Uncle Stefan looked at Millie. “You did bring them, didn’t you?”
“Bring what?” asked Aunt Millie innocently.
“Oh, come on. Quit jerking me around.”
“Yeah, Nick, quit jerking him around and go get them,” Lucinda’s mother said, as she started to clear the picnic table. “Girls, boys, if everybody grabs an armful and carries it up, we can do this in one trip.”
“What are they talking about?” Susan asked Lucinda as they walked up the stairs together, carrying leftover salad and chicken.
Lucinda grinned. “You’ll see,” she said.
When the girls came back down to the patio, Uncle Nick was sitting on top of the picnic table, his feet propped on the seat, a guitar cradled in his lap. Aunt Millie sat on the seat beside his legs. She held a guitar, too. They were tuning while Uncle Stefan leaned back in the deck chair, showing off with his mandolin. The way he could make it cry sent shivers down Susan’s back. Lucinda’s mother came out and sat on the picnic table next to her brother. All at once three of them began strumming and singing in harmony, Sophia coming in with the melody. The music was wild and exotic and foreign to Susan—but she loved the way it sounded, and the way it made the hairs stand up on her arms and the back of her head. She could not understand the words; they were sung in a language she didn’t recognize. She looked around at Lucinda and the boys and saw that they were singing along.
When the song ended, Susan clapped her hands, then blushed when they all looked at her.
“That was beautiful,” she said softly to Lucinda. “What language was that you were singing?”
“It’s called Romani.”
“Romani? Is that like Romanian?”
“Is that what you are, your family? Romanian?”
Lucinda scowled. “We’re Americans. We come from all over, like you.”
Susan thought about her mother’s family, which was Dutch and German, and her father’s family, which was Scots-Irish; she saw Lucinda’s point. Anyway, it seemed to Susan that her friend was a little touchy on the subject, so she dropped it.
Another song had started, this one sung by Uncle Nick with the rest supplying harmony. It was raucous and fast and involved rhythmic hand-clapping and foot stomping. Lucinda and Angelo got up to dance, and Susan was just looking back at George when a car came squealing into the parking lot. The car was a convertible. There were three young men in it. They threw beer bottles at the patio. One of them shouted, “Dirty Gypsies!”
The car spun around in the parking lot, which really was not big enough for that sort of thing. It barely missed the bumper of Uncle Nick’s gleaming minivan. The car made black tire marks on the pavement and the smell of burning rubber blew across the patio.
Before Susan even had time to be frightened, the convertible had roared off down the street. One of the young men yelled, “Go back where you came from!”
There was a moment of silence on the patio, after the car had gone. Millie and Sophia scurried about, sweeping up broken glass and making sure no one was cut. They made little jokes about rude neighbors and litter bugs, trying to cheer up the little kids, who were scared. But George and Angelo and the men just shrugged their shoulders and gave each other knowing looks.
Susan did not understand any of this and completely forgot to be shy when she asked, “Why did they do that?”
Uncle Stefan smiled at her, and the relaxed, amused expression on his face made her feel better. He didn’t seem to take it very seriously.
“They probably didn’t like Nick’s singing,” he said. He chuckled at the look his brother gave him.
The glass was cleaned up and the guitars started again. Somehow, the car and the beer bottles were forgotten, and there was music and dancing until the little kids got too sleepy. Then Uncle Nick and Aunt Millie packed up the minivan with guitars and leftover food and tired kids. They drove off, their tires crossing the rubber streaks on the pavement.
“Come on girls, it’s time you were settled down for the night,” Lucinda’s mother said, blowing out candles. “Say goodnight to Uncle Stefan.”
Lucinda went to where her uncle sat in the deck chair, apparently relaxed, still plucking idly at his mandolin. She planted a kiss on his cheek, and hugged him briefly around the neck. He set his mandolin down to embrace her, kissing her on both cheeks.
He looked over at Susan, and extended his hand to her. When she took it, he turned her hand and placed a very proper, courtly kiss on the back of it, right by the knuckle.
“Goodnight, ladies,” he said, as he leaned back in his chair and picked up his mandolin. Susan looked back over her shoulder at him just before she walked inside. He was strumming softly, gazing off into the distance. He seemed far away and still. It was a look like Lucinda’s.