“It’s high time you got out of the house,” Darrell said, taking his mother’s dark, lined hand in his own. She gave an affectionate squeeze.
“You know I don’t like goin’ out without your daddy.”
“Daddy’s been gone five months now. You’re sixty years young; you can’t just stop living.”
“I’m perfectly content to stay here and crochet blankets for the kids you and that wife of yours better have.”
“Her name is Hannah Beth, Mama.”
“I’d know that if you’d had a proper wedding instead of eloping.”
Darrell sighed. That was always going to be a sore spot with his mother. She had been the first one to meet Hannah Beth when Darrell started dating her three years prior, but that made little difference now.
“Hannah Beth’s parents have invited you to their Labor Day barbecue.”
“Do they need someone to serve drinks?” Betty Jackson asked.
“Mama! They’re not like that.”
“Maybe you’ve forgotten what happened to your grandaddy.” Betty looked at her son disapprovingly over the rims of her glasses.
Darrell let out another sigh; he had not forgotten. His daddy bitterly told the story every time Hannah Beth had invited them to meet her family. It didn’t matter that it had been over forty years since his grandaddy had been beaten to death. That violent act had scarred his daddy, a violent act perpetrated by Hannah Beth’s grandfather and his cronies. It didn’t matter that her grandfather was long dead; his resentment extended to all of the Beaumont family.
“I won’t forget about grandaddy. But, Mama, Hannah Beth’s parents didn’t do it. They’re not like her grandfather. They want to meet you."
“A family like that never wanted to meet me before.” Betty’s voice had an edge to it, sharp enough to take the skin off a grape.
“What kind of family is that?”
“Those fancy folk from North Hills.”
“Living in North Hills doesn’t make you a bad person, Mama. They’re just like everyone else.”
“Everyone else don’t got horses, highfalutin garden parties, and servants.”
“No one in North Hills has servants,” Darrell said, starting to feel exasperated. “Some of them have hired help. And close your mouth, Mama, because I don’t want to hear you say that they’re taking advantage of poor black people. This isn’t the 1960s. Hannah Beth’s parents have a housekeeper, who is a charming white lady, by the way. And a gardener who comes once a week.”
“Gardener ain’t white though,” she accused.
“He’s an Indian.”
“I raised you better than that, boy. It’s Native American, and they’re just as exploited as us.”
“Indian from India, Mama. And they’re not taking advantage of him either. He’s studying at the University of Georgia to be a botanist. He wants to work with plants. Now, her parents want to meet you. Please say you’ll come. You’ll see that their family is normal like we are, like our neighbors.”
“You better be right about these people,” Betty said, begrudgingly agreeing to go.
Betty dressed in her best sundress. It was yellow and worn, but it had been expertly fitted. She was prepared to walk into that North Hills house like she belonged. She tucked some scathing retorts into her handbag in case others didn’t treat her that way. Darrell and Hannah Beth picked her up at noon. Betty sat stoically in the car. Her silence unnerved Hannah Beth who compensated by trying to pre-introduce her to the various members of the family that would be at the barbecue.
“My sisters Charlotte Rose and Lila May will be there with their husbands Patrick and Sebastian. Charlotte Rose has two kids, Savannah and Virginia. My brother Jack will be there. Uncle Sam and Aunt Beatrice will—”
Darrell interrupted, “Hannah Beth, slow down. You’re going to confuse her. Just let her meet them.”
Hannah Beth gave a nervous laugh. “Sorry. I’m just excited you’re coming. And my mother is really looking forward to meeting someone like you.”
“Poor? Or black?” Betty asked sharply.
“Oh, no, Mrs. Jackson,” Hannah Beth stumbled. “I meant talented. She’s started exploring her ‘artistic side’ as she calls it and wants your opinion on her work.”
“She what?” Betty was completely taken aback. What use would a pretentious, wealthy woman have for her opinion? Unless she had maybe misjudged the woman.
“She wants your opinion. I showed her a picture of one of your paintings,” Hannah Beth said cautiously. “Should I not have done that?”
“It’s fine, dear,” Betty said from the backseat. “I was just surprised.”
“Darrell told me what you’re worried about. They don’t look down on you.”
The rest of the car ride was silent as Betty mulled over her preconceptions about the Beaumont family. By the time they arrived in North Hills, she couldn’t say that she’d changed her mind, but she was more willing to consider changing it depending on how the day progressed.
Darrell parked on the crowded edge of the half-circle driveway. Betty stared at the residence before her: it wasn’t so much a house as an estate. A sweeping porch dotted with rockers ran the length of the building. Tall columns stretched upward, supporting the balcony on the second floor. Manicured hedges lined the drive, and the path leading to the front door was lined with carefully tended beds of roses, tulips, and flowers she couldn’t name. They skirted the house on a gravel path that lead to the back yard which was more vast expanse than enclosure. A woman rushed over as soon as they appeared.
“You must be Mrs. Jackson. I’m Helene Beaumont,” she introduced herself. “I’m so glad you could come. My husband Clifton is around here somewhere, no doubt talking golf with someone or other. Between you and me, I can’t think of a more boring pastime.”
Betty smiled and held out her hand. She had expected a perfectly styled woman with blonde hair fashionably pinned up and fancy jewelry dangling from her ears and around her neck. Helene Beaumont was not like that at all. Her dark hair was cut at shoulder length and looked slightly wind-swept. Her ears weren’t pierced and the only jewelry she wore was a wedding band on her left hand. She shook with Helene, noting a blue polish where she had expected a muted pink.
Helene started to mention artwork, but excused herself quickly to tend to an elderly woman who was attempting to get up from a round white table.
“That’s my great aunt Marietta,” Hannah Beth explained. “She has a walker but refuses to use it in front of company.” Betty nodded like she understood. In reality, she thought it was stupid. It did, however, line up with her expectation of North Hills vanity.
She was introduced to Charlotte Rose and Patrick de la Croix. “It’s so nice to meet you.” Cousin Clarisse came over looking as out of place with her purple hair as a biker at a Barbie convention. “We love Darrell around here.” Uncle Sam and Aunt Beatrice gave Hannah Beth a kiss on the cheek and muttered a perfunctory “Hello.” Hannah Beth excused herself to powder her nose.
“It looks like Uncle Clarence is struggling with the cooler. I’m going to go give him a hand. Mama, why don’t you go get something to drink. That’s Sebastian in the red shirt going into the house over there. You can follow him into the kitchen.”
Betty frowned at her son’s back as he rushed off to help Clarence. She followed Sebastian, married to Hannah Beth’s sister Lila May, if she remembered correctly. He had disappeared into the house before Betty had crossed the lawn. She hoped her destination was right inside the door.
She entered into a sunny kitchen. It had beautiful dark cabinets and stone countertops. The bar counter held an array of pitchers. Each had a neat little card sitting in front of it, identifying the contents. Betty poured a generous helping of sweet tea into an ordinary red party cup. She took a sip, unsure what to do with herself.
With the exception of Sam and Bea, who were as stand-offish as she had expected, the Beaumont family was quite surprisingly pleasant. Despite that and the bravado she felt before leaving her house, she was uneasy alone in the posh house. This was not her world. Her thoughts were interrupted as a large dog pushed through a swinging door, exposing briefly a view of a Sebastian kissing a red-head in a short skirt.
Betty thought it was a bit improper for a girl to hideout with her husband at her parents’ party, but if the Beaumont family was going to be like everyone else, they may as well have a hormonal young couple romping around in a laundry room, or whatever was on the other side of that door.
“Jackson Daniel Beaumont,” Helene said, dragging a young man in by his arm. “Go upstairs and sleep it off. The can smell the bourbon on you at the neighbor’s house.” She shoved him toward a staircase. He stumbled, caught himself on the rail, and swayed up the steps. Helene caught sight of Betty and looked embarrassed. “I can’t control him anymore,” she said. Betty nodded. The following moments were awkward silence.
“Hannah Beth says you paint,” Betty ventured.
“I do. Well, I’m trying. My studio is upstairs. If you wouldn’t mind…”
Betty thought about her arthritic knees and the stairs, but agreed to follow Helene out of a dutiful sense of politeness. Helene led Betty through the house to a front staircase. They ascended slowly. Betty took in the plethora of family photos hung on the wall. It looked like they went back generations.
The studio was a converted bedroom. The double doors leading to the balcony let in a lot of natural light. Tubes of paint littered a table in the corner, a stack of blank canvas propped against a leg. Betty stood in front of an easel, taking in a half-finished landscape. It was…a good start? She took a sip of her tea to stall as she thought of a tactful way to offer some advice.
“Lila May,” Helene called to a passing figure, “come meet Darrell’s mother.”
Lila May popped her head in. Betty spilled a bit of tea on herself in her surprise: Lila May was not a red-head.
“Oh gosh,” the dark-haired girl said. “I didn’t mean to startle you.”
“That’s ok,” Betty said. “Is there a restroom I can use to clean up?
Helene directed to around the corner to the third on the right. The hall around the corner was a line of closed doors. The first door was narrow, like a closet. Betty wondered if that counted as part of the three. She gambled on yes. The third door wasn’t closed all the way, and she pushed it open gently. The light inside revealed not a restroom but a man doing a line of cocaine off a dresser. He did not seem to notice Betty as she closed the door.
The fourth door, third room, was the restroom. It was smaller than Betty expected. Everything else in the house was so large. She blotted at the tea stain on her dress. She took advantage of a hair dryer plugged in on the counter to dry the spot. Good as new, she stepped back out into the hall.
“I was looking for you,,” Darrell said as she emerged.
“You were right, baby. Hannah Beth’s family is just like everyone else’s. Her brother’s a drunk, her brother-in-law is having an affair, there’s a man in a suit doing drugs, and I saw a girl with a nose ring.
“That’s not what I meant, Mama.”