The Scarlet Woman by Gabriella Herkert

by Gabriella Herkert

Marty wore whorehouse red to the funeral. The cold December wind sliced at her but she refused to take refuge behind crossed arms or slumped shoulders. The muddy ground sucked voraciously at her three-inch high heels but she walked erect, striding toward the waiting limousine. The dark mustached chauffeur offered a helping hand and a leering glance as she slid onto the rear-facing leather jump seat. Marty rolled her eyes. That’s for you, Gram, wherever you are. Annabelle and Louise sat next to each other on the back seat, matching crows with scowling faces.

Trust you to be completely inappropriate,’ Louise said with barely a slur, ice tinkling in a crystal glass filled with clear liquid. Vodka. Wine was for dinner, Scotch for dessert, but vodka, heaven be praised, could be adapted to any social occasion, no matter how painful. No odor. No taste. No hard proof, forgive the pun, that it was anything but socially acceptable water. The funeral libation of choice.

Marty helped herself to a Diet Coke from the little refrigerator as the limousine started the short ride to her grandmother’s house, ignoring the remaining glassware to drink from the bottle.

‘I would have hated to disappoint you, sister dear. I know how much you rely on me to bring a little color–pardon the expression–to your drab existence.’ Marty crossed one leg over the other, tapping a suede red pump with a mud-encrusted heel.

‘Please, there’s no need to fight, not today. Grandmother wouldn’t want us to fight.’ Belle’s little girl voice held a tinge of whine. You’d think Belle had never met their Grandmother. Graveside fisticuffs would have suited the old lady fine. Marty stared at her younger sister, taking in Belle’s black dress. Marty was no expert but she’d bet her last buck it was a knockoff of Louise’s designer original. Ah yes, Belle’s world always came in a pretty package. The box might be empty but it came with a ribbon. Even if financial reality required a cut-rate one.

‘The lawyer is going to meet us at the house. Perhaps you could try not to cause a scene for that short interval out of respect for Grandmother.’ Louise reached over to refill her glass. The vodka bottle was already half empty.

‘Efficient as always, Louise.’ Marty lifted her Coke bottle in tribute. ‘The Queen is dead. Long live the Queen.’

‘Always the comedian,’ Louise snapped. ‘You’re hardly in a position to take shots at me. Must I remind you I had to shoulder the responsibility for this family for the last few years? Who was at Grandmother’s bedside when she died? Me, that’s who. And where were you, Martina? Somewhere else, like always.’

Martina smiled and forced her hands to unclench.

‘You’re right. You’re always right, Lou. You’re the dutiful daughter with the standing florist order. You’re the thirty-minute Sunday visitor. You’re the toilet water gift-giver. I’m the ghost. Whispered about but never actually seen. Used to scare countless nieces and nephews into blind obedience with the threat of ending up ‘just like your crazy Aunt Marty.”

‘Louise, Martina,’ Belle whimpered.

‘Please call me Marty.’ Marty gave Louise her most simpering smile. ‘All my friends do.’

‘We’re family and we shouldn’t fight,’ Belle said.

‘Where is that written?’ Marty laughed harshly.

‘I am not fighting with her,’ Louise said, ‘I’m merely refusing to rise to her bait.’

‘Well, I suppose there’s a first time for everything, Lulu. For the record, I’m not baiting you. I’m just not playing by your rules.’

‘You play by the rules? I wouldn’t be so ambitious.’

‘Really? I can’t think of anything more ambitious than controlling everyone around you. Just think, if Gram left you in charge of the family fortunes, you’ll have an endless stream of somebodies who will fetch and carry and salaam three times a day.’

‘And you? You managed to find your way home easily enough to hear the will read.’

‘You’re right again. I did. I think of it as the lottery. You can’t win unless you play.’

‘That’s a horrible thing to say,’ Belle cried.

‘Truth often is.’

The limousine slid to a stop outside their grandmother’s house. Marty opened the door and stepped out without waiting for the chauffeur. It looked smaller than she remembered. Marty hadn’t been to the house in more than ten years. Not even for her beloved grandmother would she willingly return to the family homestead–ten minutes with them and she was twelve again, twelve and miserable and mean.

Louise stepped out beside her and then Belle joined them.

‘Would it kill you to keep your version of the truth to yourself for once?’ Louise asked. ‘We needn’t burden our friends with your tales.’

‘Couldn’t we just get along today? We’re sisters.’ Belle’s lip quivered.

‘Why should today be any different?’ Marty squared her shoulders and walked up the path, opening the door and entering the house like she’d done hundreds of times as a girl. Taking a walk she’d rarely chosen to make as an adult. Did you understand, Gram? Did you know I could love you even though I couldn’t be here, with them, anymore? Was it enough to meet me at hotels and restaurants and pretend we’d run away from it all? Did you hate me for staying away from this house? From them?

The hall was dim, the smell of lilies nearly suffocating. Marty moved through the living room with its funeral wreath and black ribbon around her grandmother’s portrait. Martha Stewart’s guide to dying, no doubt. Marty kept walking until she went through the double doors to the kitchen, coming up short when she nearly walked into a white-jacketed waitress. Marty should have guessed that Louise would cater the funeral. A personal touch to the bitter end.

‘Can I help you, ma’am?’ The Latino woman hesitated. She was dark and short and smiled with genuine warmth, this stranger offering the first real sympathy Marty had seen all day.

‘Er, no. Thank you.’ Marty started to back out of the kitchen.

‘Please accept my condolences for your loss.’

If she was offering it by rote, Marty couldn’t tell. She thought she saw real empathy in the chocolate eyes. Marty blinked rapidly and swallowed around the lump in her throat.

‘Thank you.’

‘Here you are.’ Louise was right behind her. ‘Try not to get in the way. These people have jobs to do.’

The prickle of tears drained from Marty and cold anger took its place. She just had to get through this, then she could go back to her house, safely and sanely across the country from here, and be herself again.

‘The lawyer’s waiting.’

‘Well, let’s not keep the man on the clock one second longer than necessary,’ Marty said. ‘Where is he?’

‘The office.’

Marty climbed the stairs and strode to the office. The door was open. The lawyer was brown-haired and brown-eyed, with a familiar face.

Belle stood up. ‘This is Grandmother’s lawyer, Joe Roth.’

He held out a hand. Joe Roth. They’d gone to school together. ‘Hello, Martina. It’s good to see you again.’

It was a ridiculous sentiment given the occasion but matched her vague memories of him. ‘Hello, Joe. Your dad must be proud, following in his footsteps and all.’

Joe smiled. ‘He’s getting ready to retire.’

Right on schedule, Marty thought. People like Joe and his father were always on schedule. College, marriage, little Joes and a Volvo in the driveway followed by the hand-off to generation next and a retirement party at the Elks Lodge. Maybe they got a calendar at birth with all the milestones written in ink. Thanks for the white out, Gram.

‘Let’s sit down, shall we?’ Joe motioned to the sofa where Louise and Annabelle staked out opposite corners. Marty sat in an armchair facing her sisters. Joe took a wingback chair perpendicular to her.

‘Well, the will is quite short for a woman of your grandmother’s means. She was very specific in her wishes. Ahem,’ Joe donned half-moon glasses and began to read. ‘To my eldest granddaughter, Louise, who has taken on the responsibility of keeping our family history, I leave the family Bible. To my–‘

‘Wait a minute. That’s it?’ Louise sounded outraged. ‘What about the rest? The house? The cars?’ A body in a box was cold, morbid. Her grandmother taking last shots felt real, alive. For the first time, Marty was glad she’d come. Louisa was never going to be satisfied with a moldy old book. Power was her God, money her religion. Gram might not have said anything, but she knew them. Really knew them.

Joe Roth cleared his throat again, not making eye contact. He was a sacrifice to an old lady’s last laugh but he didn’t act as if he knew it. It would be easier to sympathize with him if he weren’t so humorless.

‘To my granddaughter, Annabelle, I leave my diamond gecko brooch.’

‘Ooh, diamonds.’

Marty stifled a laugh. The brooch was hideous, with strange emerald eyes that bugged out of its head. A burglar had left it behind with the costume jewelry when he’d robbed the house back in 1982. Gram always said she admired a thief with good taste. Annabelle would gild her lily, never realizing that the price tag wouldn’t make it anything other than pug ugly. Two for two, Gram. Marty wondered what was in store for her. She knew she wouldn’t have long to wait.

‘To my granddaughter, Marty, I leave the blue felt hatbox and the hat inside. Think of me when you wear it.’

Joe reached down next to his chair and came up with the box. He handed it to Marty. She set it on her lap and waited for the other shoe to drop.

‘I hereby leave the remainder of my assets in equal shares, half to the battered women’s shelter and half to the, um, Clown College of Cleveland.’ Roth mumbled the last bit but the news still penetrated.

‘That’s ridiculous,’ Louise jumped up. ‘You don’t leave millions to the circus.’

‘It was her money,’ Marty said. The battered shelter was a good cause but part of Marty wished her grandmother had left everything to the bozos. She bit back a laugh.

‘It was family money,’ Louise bit out.

‘When can I get my brooch?’ Belle asked, radiating happy pleasure. Marty wondered when it would hit Belle that instead of buying diamonds by the bucket load, she’d be able to take her kids to see twelve clowns pile out of a new Volkswagen. It might never register.

‘I’ll sue. She was clearly deranged.’ Louise was spewing venom directly into the lawyer’s bland face. Marty guessed that three hundred bucks an hour bought endless patience and he’d hear her out until her checkbook ran dry.

Marty carefully lifted the lid of the hatbox, tuning out Louise’s diatribe. Smoothing back tissue paper, Marty’s breath caught. A smile started to work its way up from her toes, pinched by two hours in the uncomfortable shoes. She stood and walked to the fireplace with its oversized mirror above the mantel. Marty placed the hat on her head, tilting it to a rakish angle–it was a touch more wine than the scarlet dress but not altogether a bad match. Tears ran freely down Marty’s cheeks. She moved toward the door.

‘Where do you think you’re going? We can’t just let this happen. We have our heritage to think of, our legacy.’ Louise was shrill. Belle clutched at Joe’s arm, still asking about the brooch.

Marty hesitated at the door. They were strangers. They didn’t understand each other and they never would. That was okay. Gram had understood. There was never going to be enough time or energy to waste on things that wouldn’t work.

‘I got what I came for.’ With that, Marty walked out. The world according to Gram, chapter one–life is short, wear red.

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