Emily Mitchell

Lucille's House


Her mania for wallpaper reaches its apotheosis inside the walk-in closet off the bedroom. Silver, with the giant white outlines of magnolia flowers sketched across it. Its surface reflects, so she can see her own movements, the warmth of her arms, as she reaches up to shuffle through the racks of dresses and shirts, but it’s not so smooth that the image is clear. Looking at it, she can see just enough of herself to be certain she is really there. And then for the interior of the bureau: a textured foil, also silver.
     Charming, the designer says. Not many people make such bold choices, Mrs. Armstrong. But then not many people possess your impeccable, inimitable style. Lucille just looks at the woman blankly. This is not the first time she has embarrassed them both with her overly lavish compliments.
     When the room is finished, the flowers on the interior doors don’t match up with the flowers on the rest of the wall. You’ll have to redo this, she tells the designer. I want the pattern to be continuous across all the surfaces.
      She met Louie when she was dancing at the Cotton Club. The Ebony Rose she was called, the only dancer on stage whose skin was so dark that she had to wear it all the time, couldn’t slip out of it to pass for Italian or Greek when that suited her better. He was there, fronting the Hot Seven with his photographer’s flash smile and that voice that seemed to come from the soles of his feet, from some other, richer world. She finished her last number and came off stage, and he was there in the wings, grinning and looking at her like he could have eaten her up in one bite if he were so inclined, but, as a gentleman, he’d refrain and instead consume her slowly, piece by marvelous piece.
     “Glad to see they’re finally letting real women dance here,” he said.
     “What do you know about women that you can tell the real ones from the rest?” she countered.
     “A few things.” He hadn’t left off smiling. “I married three of them just to make sure.” And then he reached up and cupped her chin in his hand and ran his thumb along the arc of her cheekbone and down to her lips. She thought it was the gentlest touch she had ever felt. She shook her face free of his grasp.
     “What would I want with a man who’s already gone and got himself married to three other women?” she asked him. He laughed.
     “Oh, no. Don’t worry. At the present time, I’m only married to one of them.”
He is in Chicago the following winter to play a gig, and he figures he might as well get his divorce while he is in town. He is making his statement before the judge when he glimpses Lucille sitting in the back of the courtroom. She is wearing a dark blue coat with a high collar and a hat of the same shade with a small feather on the side. She is trying to be inconspicuous and failing. The eyes of the men in the room swing toward her like the hands of a compass to north.
     After the proceedings are finished, he comes to where she is sitting.
     “What are you doing here?” he asks her.
     “I’m making sure you are really getting a divorce.”
     “Well, I did it,” he says. “You saw me.” He looks at her hard. Then he offers her his arm, and together they walk from the courtroom. As they are going down the steps, he glances over the balustrade and sees a line of people waiting outside an office on the ground floor. They are chattering happily; a marked contrast to everyone else in the building. It is the office that issues marriage licenses.
     “Lucy,” he says. “Honey.” He indicates the line of waiting couples with a soft movement of his head. “Want to get married? I mean, since we are already here.”

     “Buy us a house,” he tells her on the telephone from San Francisco.
     “What kind of a house?”
     “I don’t know what kinds there are to choose from. Just find one you like.”
     The house on 107th Street is a three-story clapboard affair on a small lot. The street is quiet. Most of the residents are Irish or Italian. Their children are playing kickball in the road when the realtor ushers her up the front steps and opens the door. She follows him around the three floors inside: the bedrooms, the study, which lets out onto a balcony overlooking the street, the big basement. She likes it at once.
     She looks out the backdoor into the yard. There is a single broad-trunked plane tree shedding its spiky globes of seed onto the thin winter lawn. She remembers a tree like that from the end of the street where she lived as a child. She remembers crushing the pods under her shoes . . .
     “I’ll take it.”
     “Mrs. Armstrong, are you certain you don’t want to see a few more properties before you make up your mind?”
     “Yes, I’m sure. This is the one I want.” She doesn’t tell him that she has never lived in a house of her own. Throughout her childhood, her family moved from one rented room to another to another after that. If they left before the rent was due they called it Beat the Rent. It was a game, like Catch the Hat or Go Fish, where winning meant you were gone before the landlord came around on the first of the month to collect. And then in New York she lived in a ladies’ rooming house: one small room, clean, easy to understand.
     Looking at more houses, she thinks, would only clutter her head with too many kitchens, too many front porches and backyards and basements and staircases. She doesn’t like confusion.
     Louie arrives at his new house in the middle of the night. He has just come from the station, and before that from engagements in Cleveland, St. Louis, Detroit. Lucille sends a driver to meet him because he doesn’t even know the address yet. She sees the car pull up by the curb outside, sees him in the back, his trumpet case on the seat beside him within arm’s reach. The rest of his luggage is in the trunk, but his trumpet he always keeps close by him when he travels. She says, you act like it’s your pocketbook, the way you clutch onto that thing. He says, it is my pocketbook. You get money out of your pocketbook, right? Well, I get money out of this . . .
     He leans forward and says something to the driver and then sits back against the seat. He doesn’t get out. He remains seated where he is in the back of the car. Occasionally he shades his eyes with his hand and peers up at the house through the car’s side window. What is he doing? The car is still sitting at the curb, its engine running, but he shows no sign of moving.
After a couple of minutes, she puts on the porch light and opens the door. She waves down at the car. He waves back and then climbs out and goes around to pull his cases from the trunk. The driver goes to help him, but Louie tips him, then waves him away. He comes up the steps.
     “What were you waiting for?” Lucille asks when he gets to the top.
     “Well, I wasn’t sure this was the right address,” he says. “I didn’t want to go knocking on someone else’s front door in the middle of the night, scaring them half to death. What would you think if some strange black man came to your door in the middle of the night in this neighborhood . . .”
     “I would think he probably needed a cup of coffee.”
     “You know what I mean.”
     “Sure, but I gave you the correct address, baby. I can see you’ve got it right there.” And indeed, he is holding the piece of paper she gave to the driver. It has the address written on it in her own handwriting.
     “I know. But, honestly . . .” he is looking past her now into the front hall. His eyes look like a child’s at Christmas before the presents are opened. “I didn’t believe that a house this nice was mine. Is it?” She sees that he is crying. He has never had a house of his own before, either.
     “It is,” she says. “It’s yours. I promise.”

       When they are in Paris, a man they meet at a party insists that he wants to paint Lucille’s portrait. He trails Louie around the room, conversation to conversation, explaining that his wife’s is the most marvelous face he’s seen in years and he must be allowed to render her likeness. Such perfect lines. Such wonderful tones. They can have the painting as a gift when it is finished.
     She isn’t sure she wants a big picture of herself hanging in her house; there is something that unnerves her about the idea of her own face preserved in paint while she grows older watching it. But Louie loves the idea, and, before she knows what has happened, he has arranged for the man to accompany them around Europe so she can sit for him every day. She shrugs. It will give her something to do during the long hours when he is rehearsing and performing. And when the picture is done, it can go in his study, she thinks, somewhere she won’t have to see it all the time.
     In Morocco, she sees a carved wooden screen in the bazaar, which she realizes would look perfect by the front windows of the living room. In Berlin, there is a vase glazed blue and gray, all hard angles and geometry, which she finds in an antique shop on Keithstrasse.
     “For the shelves in the breakfast nook,” she tells him, when she unwraps it on the coffee table in their hotel suite.
     “Looks like you should put square flowers in that; flowers with sharp edges.” He turns it around in his hands.
     “Well, you find me some flowers like that to go in it,” she says to him. “But in case you can’t, I think ordinary round flowers would do fine.”
     In London, in the window of a shop on Kensington High Street, she sees a child’s mobile made of wood and painted in bright primary colors. It plays a tune when it turns. She watches it through the glass for a while. He comes up beside her quietly, and puts an arm around her waist.
     “You want that?”
     “Not for me,” she says. “No, I don’t want it.”
     “If you want it, get it. I’ll go in and get it for you.”
     “I told you I don’t want it. What on earth is the point of having something like that . . .” She trails off, annoyed at herself for having been caught staring, annoyed with him for pressing the point. He has no children. None of his other wives ever conceived as far as she knows.
     “Let’s go,” she says, turning away from the window full of toys. “I think I’m ready for some lunch.”
     That evening he brings her a dozen roses in all different colors, red, pink, white, yellow.
“Flowers with sharp edges,” he says, pointing to the thorns. She smiles, and puts them in the blue vase.
     In Ethiopia, they are given a painting done on leather stretched over a wooden frame, of Moses receiving the commandments on Sinai. The sepia-colored figures have huge deer-eyes and muscular-looking halos. They look content.
     She thinks that it is time to go home.

    When he is away she keeps busy. She has lots of friends and acquaintances in New York. She dines out often and she has her women friends over for bridge. She volunteers for the Urban League. They talk on the phone from wherever he is, out on the road. She says, Tell me what you can see out of your window. I can see the Seine, he says, or, I can see the Nile. I can see Hyde Park Corner. I can see that damn wall and all the barbed wire they’ve got to stop people getting from one side to the other. And the guard towers that they shoot people from.

     She decides to renovate the kitchen. Louie will be on tour for another couple of months, so she can get most of the work done before he returns. She decides on an ocean blue for all the cabinets. She tells the designer she wants the doors to curve: no corners, just a smooth undulating front. And she wants certain things built into the counter so they disappear, folding away when she doesn’t want to use them: a bread box, a can opener, cutting boards.
     When the room is done, she feels like she is on board a ship whenever she steps into it, because no space is wasted, there is no clutter or inefficiency. The feeling pleases her, and for a few days she finds herself drawn into it repeatedly just to admire its clean simplicity, to run her hands over its smooth new surfaces, to inhale the fading odor of fresh paint and varnish.
Louie calls her from Amsterdam.
     “I will have to do another couple of nights at the end of this. Another week or maybe two on the road. You want to come out here and join me, honey? We could go to Nice for a while when it is all done.”
     She shakes her head insistently no, and it is only after a moment that she realizes that, of course, he can’t hear this gesture over the phone lines. She doesn’t want to go back to Europe. She has had enough of traveling.
     “You just come home as soon as you can,” she says.
     “I will, honey. Just as soon as we’re done recording . . .”
After they hang up she goes down to the kitchen and opens the cabinets slowly, one after another. The next day she calls her designer in and begins picking out molded wallpaper for the front room and the hallways. Mirrored walls for the bathroom downstairs. She likes the idea that each room will have its own texture.
     “If I go blind,” she tells the designer, “I want to be able to tell where I am by touch.”

    He comes home and the house is full of people. The grownups sit in the living room and drink cocktails. Louie takes his little niece on his knee and teaches her how to burp on purpose until her mother makes him stop. Or some afternoons, he will stand out on their upstairs balcony and play his trumpet so the sound carries up and down the block. The neighborhood kids know that this is the signal: there will be a movie in their den that night, cowboys and Indians. There will be popcorn and soda served by Lucille. Louie runs the projector and then sits among them in the big, sagging leather armchair in the middle of the room. Sometimes he will show a reel of cartoons before the main film, just like at a real movie theater. At the end of the evening, all the children go home and the house is quiet and empty. They make their way upstairs to bed.
     From one of his trips, this one to California, he brings her a glass tumbler, hand-painted with sixteen positions from the Kama Sutra. Stick figures of a man and a woman engage in coitus from every angle that she has ever imagined, and a few she can honestly say she never has.
     “What do you think?” he asks, barely able to keep a straight face as he watches for her response.
     “I love it,” she says, her voice flat. “I love it so much that I may have to break it so I don’t have to share the privilege of seeing it with anyone else.”
He puts it on the low bureau in the front hall and stands back to admire it, hands on his hips, hamming it up for her benefit.
     “Oh no,” she says. “Oh no. You aren’t going to keep that thing there, not with all the children we got coming and going through this house all the time. No way.”
     “They won’t know what it is. They won’t even notice it. Perhaps it will work its way into their unconscious minds and help them out, you know, when they get older . . .”
     “Well, that is thoughtful of you. But no way. You put that thing upstairs, somewhere out of sight.”
     “Okay,” he says slowly, turning to look at her. “Okay. I’ll do you a deal.”
     “What deal?”
     “That picture of you, the painting that crazy French man did, the one you’ve got stuck away up in the study where no one but me ever gets to admire it?”
     “I know the one you’re talking about.”
     “You let me bring that down here. Hang it in the living room. Where everyone can see how beautiful you are. And then I’ll move my pornographic liquor glass up to the study and put it on a back shelf where no one under the age of twenty-one is ever going to know it’s there.” He folds his arms across his chest, satisfied. “Deal?”
     “Okay. Deal. But with one more condition.”
     “What is it?”
     “You have to move that damn picture down here yourself if you want it on display so badly.”

     Sometimes a journalist or, more rarely, one of their guests (who is afterwards never, ever invited back) will ask about the things that some of the younger musicians have started to say about him. It always begins the same way: People say that your music has become too popular. How do you respond to that? Or: You know, it has been said that your stage persona is too . . . friendly. Lucille particularly hates this one. What does that mean, “too friendly”? She knows what it means; she heard the comments in their original, uncut form. They say he is clownish; that his good humor lacks dignity; that it panders to white notions of what a black man should be.
     Louie always fixes the person with a direct look. What do you think? he asks. The answer is usually deafening silence. He never gets angry about the questions, or not so as anyone could tell. He leaves that to Lucille.
     “So let me get this straight,” she says after one of these occasions. “Before it was a problem for a black man to be too serious in public, and now it’s a problem for him to be too funny?”
     “That seems to be the size of it,” he says. They are sitting at either end of the breakfast table, drinking their morning coffee. The sun is coming through the gaps in the blinds making frets on the floor. She rises and comes over to him, taking his head in her hands and cradling it against her belly.
     “How does it feel to be a problem?” she asks quietly, speaking to the air around her as much as to him. Being a problem is a strange experience—peculiar even for one who has never been anything else . . .
     She isn’t with him when he has his first collapse. He is in the studios over in Manhattan, and suddenly he feels lightheaded. Hot and cold waves undulate through his body, and he sits down, abruptly, then falls. He is rushed to the hospital.
This is where she finds him, propped up in bed on a pile of white pillows looking pale but not frightened. She comes and sits beside him:
     “Baby . . .”
     “I’m all right,” he says.
     “You gave me such a scare.”
     “They say I got to take it easy for a while. No more touring. No more playing or recording for a while. Get some rest.”
     “Well, you better do what the doctor says.”
     “Yeah, I suppose so. They say I might not be able to play like I used to.” He sighs and then looks down at his hands, which are lying on top of the sheet as though they don’t belong to him, as though they are something someone else left behind when they came to visit. In his face, for perhaps the first time in all their years of being married, she sees a deep seam of sadness that stretches down, down, out of sight. And she knows it goes all the way through him, back to New Orleans, to Storyville, to when he was a child, to the sound of women laughing from upstairs rooms with locked doors, the sound of women crying for their lovers who’ve left, the smell of men getting drunk in the afternoon. She remembers those things, too, from another city but the same. Suddenly, he looks up at her, looks into her face. His eyes are wide and serious.
     “I got to show you something,” he says.
     “I can’t tell you. I’ve got to show you. You ready?”
     “Yes,” she says, straightening her posture. “I’m ready.”
     He reaches down beside the bed. There is a loud mechanical buzzing sound, and she realizes that he is slowly tilting away from her, the top half of his body moving steadily downward until, with a click and more buzzing, it begins to move back up.
     “Check out this bed!” he says. “The bottom part moves too, you know, the legs. Look.” He presses a different switch and his legs begin to elevate slowly until they are nearly level with his chin. “Is that great or what? Come on. You can have a go too.” He lifts up one side of the covers and pats the mattress. She hesitates, then slips off her shoes and climbs into bed beside him, laughing while he moves the levers so the bed rises and falls beneath them.

     After a while, he can’t manage the stairs, and she has an electric chairlift put in so he can get up to the second floor.
     “Better than that bed,” he says. He rides up and down in it for fun. He is restless, wanting to do more than he can handle. He records the conversations of people who visit them, the sounds of their street, sometimes. He sits in the garden when the weather is nice.
     She makes food for them and they eat supper out on the patio. He is on a new diet.
     “I can eat fish and rice and salad,” he tells their guests. “Or I have the choice of rice and salad and fish. Or sometimes on special occasions, salad and fish and rice. But no liquor. Isn’t that a terrible injustice?”
     One evening, she finds him standing out on the balcony of his study upstairs. The day has been especially golden and now the light is slanting among the low buildings as the sun makes its way from the sky. He has his trumpet out of its case for the first time in some weeks. He puts it to his lips when he sees her and plays, something slow and beautiful that she doesn’t recognize. It must be new. She sits down at his desk and listens to him.
     “I think I’m ready to get back to work,” he says. “I feel good. I’m going to call up the band tomorrow.” He inhales deeply, holding onto the railings and looking out at the street where they have lived for thirty years.
     That night Lucille wakes up suddenly and opens her eyes in the darkness. When she listens, she cannot hear him breathing anymore.

     She knows it is not a healthy impulse that is making her insist that the closet needs to be wallpapered all over again. She understands perfectly well that it is neither necessary nor appropriate for her to demand that the flowers match up. But she doesn’t care. She is angry, she realizes after the designer leaves, politely promising that the men will come to strip and repaper the walls before the end of the week. She is angry because here she is in this house and all she has left is money. It is not that she objects to money as such. She is not sorry to have it. But by itself, it is something of a disappointment.
     She papers the interior of the bureau herself, pasting and smoothing the foil into place in each of the twelve drawers, top, bottom, and sides. Sometimes when she is working, she forgets that this is anything more than another temporary absence. It is not that she thinks it: once she begins thinking again the game is up. But she feels it, fleetingly, that he will call, from Cairo or Los Angeles or Hamburg. That he will be on his way home any day. She is going to finish fixing up the house just as though he was still there to come back to it.
But at a certain point there is nothing left to do. She walks from end to end of the place and every inch of it is just as she envisioned. She sits down on the couch that faces the bay window in the living room and watches the street shift quietly in its bed. Some time later, it might be hours, or months, or even years, she isn’t sure, there is a ring on the doorbell. When she opens it, a young man is standing there. He asks if he can come in.
     He says: “I used to come here to watch movies sometimes. My family lived on this street but they moved away. The Harris’s, Sharon and Roy. I’m sure you don’t remember . . .”
     But she does. “Terrence, right?” she asks.
     “No,” he says, “Terry is my older brother—lives in Chicago now. I’m Jake.”
     “That’s right,” she says. “You wanted to play baseball when you grew up.” Terrence and Jacob. They were as alike as twins, but cast from different size molds, she recalls, though both had these astonishing legs that stretched practically to their chins. Terrence was the noisy one, the natural performer. Jake was the reader.
     “Do you ever have movies here now?” he asks, a little later, over a glass of tea. “For the kids that are around here these days?”
     “I haven’t done that since Louis got sick,” she says. It hadn’t occurred to her to do it without him. She can’t really even imagine a room full of children without him in the middle of it.
     “Well, that’s too bad. Those are some of my best memories, sitting on the floor downstairs here, watching cartoons, getting my fingers all covered in butter and salt. You should think about starting that up again.”
     When he goes away she forgets about what he has said for a while, and then, one day, it is there in her head, this idea, as though it has simply been waiting for the rainy fall weather to come back. She thinks, today is the day for a film. But she realizes that without Louie she doesn’t know how to tell people what is going on. For a while she is stuck, and then she has an idea.
     One by one, she takes the speakers down from where they sit on the shelves of his study. Each one is encased in a solid wooden frame and they are heavy to lift. Where they have been standing on the shelf, there is an outline marked in dust, and she tuts to herself—she thought she’d kept the place neater than that. She opens the French doors and carries them carefully out onto the balcony so that they are pointing out into the street. Then she goes to the cupboard where he kept all of his recordings.
     She thumbs along the spines of the eight tracks and chooses one. Something from one of the sessions he did with Ellington, she isn’t sure exactly what is on there, but she has a feeling about this one. She slides it into the machine and presses play and listens. And out over the street, his voice goes like a flag, like a banner, like a story of what is to come.