Leo’s grandmother’s is as French a garden as ever existed in backwater Kansas. Leo will go to southern France in the coming year; his grandmother will likely never go to her ancestral home, but that has not stopped her from putting on Bastille Day in force every year. When he was little, the annual vacation was a family reunion that spanned Fourth of July and Bastille day. Streamers of red, white, and blue flew instead of flags for the Fourth so they could serve dual purpose ten days later, when hot dogs were traded out for croque monsieurs and light beers for table wines.
These days the beers are IPAs and Leo’s family gets either Bastille Day or the Fourth, but not both. They are in the garden on the long iron benches fitted with white cushions that come in from the rain so easily and hold up so well when they don’t make it in.
“Cristine’s getting divorced,” Mamie announces as she takes her seat, still leaning across the broad table to place a plate of croissants in her daughter’s reach. She picks up a dried grape leaf that has fluttered down from the trellis overhead and flicks it to the ground. The concrete patio floor slopes almost imperceptibly to a hole cut in the floor so the whole can be cleaned with a hose alone and the water neatly funneled toward the roots of the grapevine, as thick as Leo thigh at the twisting base.
“Oh?” Camille answers. A guarded cock of her head turns her better ear toward her mother, a gesture of intent listening so familiar it stands in for a prompt of “go on.”
“It’s about time, too,” her mother declares. Leo copies his mother’s attention turn, though his hearing is perfect. His grandmother’s way of talking in his presence changed when he turned 18 as decisively as his grape juice turned to wine. He’s still adjusting to this new Mamie who can say things her pastor could never. He wonders how he graduated from the kids’ table, if a calendar date is the right way to judge or if they should have waited for some sign that he could hold his wine, could fathom his grandmother as more than the heritage guardian.
Camille lets out a deep sigh. “Thank God.” Her husband reaches a hand to cover hers.
Leo looks at the older women. If he’s going to have a place at the table, he might as well get up to speed. “What’s everybody got against uncle Todd?”
“He’s not your uncle,” Camille states, bordering fierceness. “Nothing. Nothing against him. Well, maybe nothing. But Cristine never wanted… They were never a match.”
“And he pulled that stunt proposing in front of everyone.” Mamie’s gravelly voice, aged by smoking even beyond her advanced years, sinks lower with disapproval.
Camille, for just a moment frowns at her mother, inclined to remind her of her charm and blessing of that proposal and the pressure they added. Instead she smiles, vindicated after all this time and pleased to have her mother as an ally now that there might be a chance to mend the rift with her sister. She feels a surge of resentment well up within that she should be one trying to mend things, but manages to contain it. Because it’s Cristine, and no amount of anger or hostility could survive a single night of sitting across the table from her with her feet propped up on the bench, head back, mouth open with laughter. Like every night used to be. There’s an ache like hollowness in her bones when she looks online at the work Cristine is producing now--nevermind the prices they’re commanding--that she can’t congratulate her for, can’t throw her arms around her and tell her she always knew she had it in her.
The wind rustles through the grape leaves overhead, winding around the iron scaffold to make a living green roof for the garden. Along with the lemon trees in giant pots (store bought because they were too big for the kiln) and succulents hanging over the sides of wall-mounted baskets and pots Christine rated unsaleable, the ancient grapevine gives the whole patio a green smell and a freshness beyond just the shade it casts. Still it is July and the upper leaves have scorched dry and raspy in the breeze. The talk and the rustling sound take Leo back to a long forgotten summer.
First one bare foot shot through the window, followed by a long leg with sun-bleached blond hairs reflecting the light and loose yellow shorts, then its mate, as Leo balanced on his stomach in the sill and tipped his weight down onto the roof. It was hot, but not worse than the pavement he’d been toughening up on all summer, and he trusted his feet to keep him safe up there much more than his tennis shoes. The roof was a shallow slant with a good grip: it was the wall that posed the problem. Ten feet of brick, it had been built as a privacy wall around the neighbor’s pool before the Great Recession foreclosed on them and left the pool empty, rainwater in the bottom gathering black filth. It was two bricks wide with a lightly sloping white concrete top punctuated by short crenellations every six feet.
Leo proceeded slowly, arms out like airplane wings, feet in line, knees crooked to keep his weight low. The best grapes grew on this side, where the wall gave enough shade and shelter that they were neither dust-covered nor shriveled to raisins. When he pressed his belly flat against the top edge of the wall, he could reach a fat bunch of grapes hanging below and pull it through the canopy of hanging shade. He could sit on the wall in the kind of heat that’s only a pleasure in childhood memory and eat whole bunches without anyone knowing, just spitting the seeds over the wall with a satisfying thwup. No one would stop him from eating the grapes from below either, but at nine years old, the guiding principle of Leo’s life was that grown ups usually do stop most fun things, and the risk of the wall sat more comfortably than the risk of denial or scolding.
He was leaning back against a brick crenellation, one foot dangling at full length over the neighbor’s side of the wall when the report of the closing garden door put him on high alert. He stopped spitting seeds and tucked right down to lie flat on the wall so he could hear whether or not whoever was in the garden knew he was there. He expected them all to be taking a nap. It was too hot to be outside and there was too long a day left with the fireworks tonight not to take advantage of a siesta. Below, the voices of his mother and Aunt Cristine drifted up.
The next day, the Fifth of July, was the day the church celebrated. They poured out of the Sunday school rooms to the shaded lawn. Squeals issued from Leo’s classmates as they raced toward the playground equipment. His feet took off as if on their own, as if his friends were the lead birds in a flock, their motion alone an irresistible call. It took a shoe full of dirt and a sweaty hairline before he could impose his own decision to check out the food over the automatic run response.
He circled back to the tables of potato salad and sliced ham, the restaurant-sized serving trays of his grandmother’s grapes, cut from the decades-old vine and piled so high it took two men to carry it from the car. He approached just as Mrs. Marshall, his Sunday school teacher, stepped forward to put a palm on Aunt Cristine’s belly and squeak her congratulations.
For Cristine the whole light and mood of the picnic changed, and she could feel it like the camera moving in close on the haughty dignity of Scarlett O’Hara arriving in the crimson dress as the noise of merry making fell away, replaced by stunned attention to her. If she had not been so caught off guard, she could have denied it, but in her mind was not only the reaction of Stacy Marshall, who seemed to pass no judgment herself, and that of the pearl-clutching church biddies, but the presence of Todd at her elbow, and the betrayal of Camille, abandoning her in this spotlight like Rhett turning his back at the door. Camille, who should have been Mellie swooping in to save her from disgrace. But at her side instead was Todd, whose face flushed with pride and joy, accepting this new vista on life without even questioning how he’d arrived there.
And he was her Mellie, for his turn toward her immediately snatched her reputation from the fire, declaring them a family. As more eyes gathered around them, a murmur passing from person to person through the crowd, he actually picked up a serving spoon and banged it on the stainless steel side of the tray of white grapes glistening with their recent wash. It was a spur-of-the-moment decision born of thoughtless heroism, a drive to be the guy who will step up to the plate when his side is losing.
“No, no, no, no, no, no, no,” protested Cristine’s inner voice, desperately searching for Camille, the only person who could both think of a way to stop him from dropping to one knee and understood the urgency to do so. But she did not appear, and as the kindness of Todd’s smile, his boyish eagerness and sunbaked laugh creases disarmed the whole gathered flock and crumbled Cristine’s fortifications, she did what anyone would do. She tucked her shame away into a recess like a carrier pigeon’s tube and thrust it away to cast about for where to alight.
Where was the sister who had agreed to help her just yesterday in the garden, who had arranged the prescription with her doctor, who had been the sole guardian of her secret? But Camille had never approved of her lifestyle, had always urged her to rejoin church, had waxed rhapsodic about the joys of motherhood, brushing off her declaration that she would never want children.
Even as the gathered observers watched Todd produce a ring--not an engagement ring, a little ruby pinky ring he’d planned to give her to match the earrings he knew she’d bought for the Bastille Day party, a thoughtless gift for a potter in truth--and several began to wipe noses, moved by their misinterpretation of Cristine’s tears for joy, Cristine shooed the pigeon off her own heart and sent its message of blame to Camille.
They had never recovered. How could Cristine have it out with Camille for ruining her life while she was basking in the spotlight of being the beloved bride? Cristine walked out of private rooms Camille entered, made a point of approaching her when others were around so she could deny anything was amiss between them.
Camille received the message and tried to reply, but she was not fluent in the language of shame and tried such tools as phone calls and desperate text messages:
“You can still get out of this.”
“I have the pills. Call it a miscarriage, no one will know.”
And as the wedding approached, “Do not go through with this. I will be your co-parent.”
But what could Camille know about it? She came in town for two weeks of paid vacation and then flew back to Boston, where she went to the kind of church that flew a rainbow flag. Her colleagues were not people her husband would one day expect her to grow out of. For Cristine there was a fork in the road and down one side there was Todd and approval and her arms still elbow deep in clay, and down the other was a day job that put the all the pots unglazed on the shelf and still didn’t manage ease the gnawing stress of what she would do if that wobbly alternator ever actually gave way. A baby toddled in the grass beside both paths. The way back--to peacefully throwing mugs and ashtrays in her mother’s garden and taking them to craft fairs, where she learned knitting, whittling, and glassblowing from all the other creatives scratching a living out of the privilege of being a maker, where she touched and shaped the substance of earth into forms so quirky and whimsical she talked aloud to them like surprise but welcome visitors--that path was overgrown with briars. Her mother would not forgive her disappointing the church biddies, and she could not raise a child without financial support even if she did give up pottery, which was like giving up showers or sleeping indoors, too uncomfortable to even think clearly about.
After two years of scheduling events out of town in July, Cristine finally sent Camille a message: “I get Fourth of July this year. You can have Bastille.”
Camille’s thumbs hovered over the letters, three dots showing on the other end through texts written and deleted: “I didn’t tell anyone.” But how could she respond now Marie was a person, a tiny silken-haired angel who already stuck her hip out in photos of her wearing a dress, even while she still nursed at Cristine’s breast as she drifted to sleep at night?
It was unfixable. Camille’s was the unspeakable crime of knowing what she had intended at all.
Leo listens as the women gossip about Todd, cut out of their hearts now, though they repeatedly mention that he’s a very nice man. Loves Marie. A great dad. Just one with different core values from Cristine, one she should have known not to get yoked together with.
“She knew.” His dad has had enough both of the dancing around the topic and the wine. “She was just pregnant. The pills came too late.” Too late, too, comes his realization. His eyes dart to Leo, probing his place with the adults. But it’s already out there, and his dad gives a “what the hell” shrug. “And she’s never forgiven you for knowing.”
“I didn’t tell anyone,” Camille protests to no one.
The wind again rustles through the dry leaves, sending a little dust down to the tabletop.
“I’ll have to hose up there if it doesn’t rain soon,” Mamie is saying, but Leo is gone, lying belly-flat on the wall, only now understanding what he heard through the grapevine that day.
Those fragments that he understood from where he sat in the sun, now in a different light from the shadows beneath the trellis.
“I’m pregnant,” Cristine had said, but the note in her voice was despair, not joy.
“We’ll take care of it,” Camille had answered, comforting, yes, but not the taking care he’d understood. The voices were a little raised in service to his mother’s hearing.
“I love him but…he grew up rich. He believes in God. He just goes to work and gets a paycheck.” Little Leo, able to hear with his ears, but with no reference for what wealth, faith, work view had to do with values, heard the wrong thing.
“I get it. Things don’t have to be bad to be not for you,” Camille assured.
“I’m too scared to go through another breakup.” Cristine’s voice cracked thinking of the months of regret and lost productivity she’d gone through last time she’d gotten the courage to leave the wrong man. But Leo, of course, hadn’t known that.
“That can’t be a reason to start a family.”
“No. I’ll tell him.” Imagining it from down here, he can fill in the gestures, the sniffles and reluctant nods, and he knows only now that what she planned to tell Todd was goodbye. He knows only now what he did when he repeated the good news in Sunday school.
For a moment his shame begs to be tucked away in the dark, sent off on some other mission. Maybe his relationship with his aunt and cousin will suffer forever, it admonishes. He shifts uneasily on the white cushion, feeling the wrought iron through it, the uncomfortable risk of denial and scolding at the grown-up table. But his mother wears her grief for her estranged sister like a shoe she hasn’t broken in, something raw that makes her stop and readjust herself. Even now she’s running her fingers on her phone, asking “can I invite her for Bastille?” hesitating, “no, you do it, Maman.”
“Tell her it was me.” Leo says, leaning into his mother and urging her restless hand back to the phone. “Don't tell her I know anything about Marie, but tell her I remembered listening from the wall. Tell her I told the Sunday school class.”
His father starts off with “Leo how could…” before he hears Camille breathe out with no hint of blame. It is the sound of lowering a too heavy table to the floor after guiding it down tricky steps: relief alone. Mamie picks up her phone with a crooked look of pride at him. Cristine has declared her independence and she’s ready to storm Camille’s prison.