Our house is an elegant, stately Victorian on a street of elegant, stately Victorians, the big, peak-roofed gingerbreaded fruits of an orchard with pretensions. The street is packed with cars and arriving guests.
The party fills the living and dining rooms and the foyer in between with future relations and 1930s high society. Jenkins and the special staff hired for today hustle back and forth, exchanging coats for canapes and flutes of newly-legalized champagne.
William introduces me to his son Elmo, a sunburned and handsome young jasper with wild eyes, who’s talking about something called “marketing” with “Old Elmo” and “Very Old Elmo,” his gray-haired and no-haired future counterparts.
Elmo’s wife looks daggers at her husband as she tries to soothe a crying baby, which is taken up and cuddled by a Chinese-looking woman named Denise. Denise is no nanny, though. She breaks off cooing at the infant and yells, “Behave, Alex, or I swear to God!” at a gangling pickle-pus who must be her son, Billy’s great grandson.
Alex hastily puts down a flute of champagne, which is picked up and downed by his bald and miserable-looking 52-year-old counterpart.
“Old Alex must have learned he’s destined to have a heart attack,” whispers William. “Must be quite a shock.”
For her part, Mother has enthroned herself on a davenport at the other end of the living room. She has on old-fashioned evening gown, her hair poofed up around her head. Mucha could have found a better model for an illustration of The Sin of Pride, maybe, if he visited the court of Kubla Khan.
William identifies the women and girl standing around Mother as “the Cheryls,” before he bustles off to go kow-tow at the matriarchal shrine. Billy joins some other young kids in a game that seems to consist of clinging onto and being dragged around by the robotic legs of “Very Old Denise.”
I manage to snag food and booze without giving up my coat and try to figure out how to avoid trouble while I wait for William to come back and dump his revelations on me.
Mother might be a withered old stick in the mud, but she plays the hostess as if her life depends on it, and she flies in circles so lofty that we could run Chicago from our living room. Besides the music and caviar, we’ve got the the O’Hares, the Rathjes, and the Adlers. They all looking awful important with their diamond-studded tie pins and sequined evening gowns.
Or, they would look important, if the 1930s natives weren’t so spooked by the future people, who are wearing just about anything. And, in some cases, almost nothing. A glance tells me suits are destined to stay dull, while dresses will mutate wildly, turn into brightly-colored togas, dissolve into fuzzy, amorphous clouds, and finally sublimate into a force that simply makes it impossible to look at certain places on the wearer’s body. Wardrobe by hypnotic suggestion. I like the idea, but I guess it must get chilly.
I goggle at the future people so much that I don’t immediately notice that they’re all goggling back at me. Politely, of course. No more than a glance here and a comment there. Worse, Mother is watching me too, and her face, as William whispers in her ear, is dismal. That’s no big change for her, but when she looks me in the eyes, I see something terrifying: sorrow.
I take a step toward them, but Mother shakes her head. She jerks her chin toward the corner of the living room next to the punch bowl, where Rudolf is standing at the edge of a huddle of frightened 1930s celebrities.
“Ugh.” I mouth at her. “Rudolf?”
Mother jerks her head more forcefully.
I consider simply leaving. I still have all my money on me, but my mind goes to William and those dark hints he laid out in the car. What if he remembers something from when his sister ran away from home? What if something is fated to happen to me in the spring of 1930?
I find a full champagne flute and beard Rudolf by the punch bowl.
He tells me I look lovely again. Maybe he was expecting me to get ugly in the last half hour? I thank him, put a cucumber sandwich in my mouth, and try to chew slowly. This passes the time, and also helps to avoid gasping in surprise when Rudolf says, “I was thinking.”
“Mm?” I encourage.
“I was thinking of a trip to Denver,” Rudolf says. “There’s still snow there. We can ski.”
I might like to ski. I never have tried it. When I do, however, I believe I’ll take somebody else with me. I would rather not die of boredom on a mountain in Colorado.
Rudolf looks as if he might expect an answer.
“I’d rather drive than ski,” I tell him. “And I can do that right here in Chicago.”
“What about flying?” he asks. “Would you like to fly?”
This time I can’t help but gasp aloud, and Rudolf gives me a tiny smile. The minute upward hoisting to his toothbrush mustache might indicate that he knows that I would sell my left arm for the chance to fly an aircraft.
I test him. “Billy would want to come.”
Rudolf shakes his head. “It would be better with just the two of us. More romantic.”
More romantic, he says, the wet sock. But all I say is, “My mother won’t agree to it.”
“She already has. I spoke with her. We can leave tomorrow.”
I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. Where Rudolf is concerned, Mother stops pulling me back and sets to pushing me forward. And I can always enjoy that flight to Denver before shutting my hotel room door in Rudolf’s face. Besides which, I’ll have my taser with me.
I say yes, and we stare at each other for a few more minutes, while I imagine my hands on the steering yoke and the plane banking under me. Rudolf imagines God knows what.
“Hey,” someone says behind me, “hi!”
I turn and look down to see a little black girl in a bizarre outfit. It looks as if she’s taken some boys’ clothes and splashed bright-colored paint all over them. She holds out a hand, bold as you please.
“I’m Kisha,” she says. “Are you Ruth? I’m your un-un-great-granddaughter!”
“You’re my what?” I ask, but a noise from the door makes Kisha jump and puts hands over her mouth.
I follow the little girl’s gaze to the beautiful blonde who has just stalked through the door, and who now surveys us from the folds of her fur coat as if she’s auditioning for the role of Evil Queen in a Disney picture. I’m just considering about how much competition she’s got in this family when she looks me in the eye.
“You,” the Snow Queen mouths. Or maybe it’s, “No.” Her high cheekbones go livid and she crosses herself.
I take a step forward and she turns away. “No. I can’t do this.” She has the same accent as the little girl and the mug who sold me the taser. “Kisha,” she calls. “Come here.”
Kisha frowns at the blonde. “But mom – ”
“Now!” she this woman who I realize must be my granddaughter. “Jesus, these awful people. I should never have brought you here.”
“Ginevra,” William’s voice rises above the party noise. “What are you doing here? I told you to wait an hour.”
Ginevra? What kind of name is that, even? Billy was right about future people and their screwy ways.
“I didn’t trust you,” Ginevra says. “I was right not to. You haven’t told Ruth a thing, have you? Why is she still fucking here, William? Why are you over there talking to your fucking mother?”
William doesn’t get a chance to answer. “You there,” says Mother. “Who are you and what makes you think you can speak so to my family?”
Ginevra’s eyes jerk wide. Her upper lip curls.
Kisha runs to her mother. “I’m sorry,” says the little girl. “We can go. I’m sorry, mom. Please don’t be mad.”
Ginevra nods slowly. Still glaring at Mother, she turns her head to the left and spits deliberately onto a potted palm.
“What was that all about?” I ask once the ruckus has died down.
“Search me,” says Rudolf, uselessly.
But no, the ruckus still has some life in it. The blonde, Ginevra, strong-arms past a trio of tall black women who must be the old, very old, and very very old counterparts of Kisha. Mother in heaven, that kid will live a long time.
My three great-granddaughters march up to Mother, William, and the Cheryls. One of them says something I can’t hear. I do feel the temperature drop, though.
“I wonder,” I say as I watch chill spread from this witches’ row. “Why are all my descendants so mad?”
I’m not expecting an answer from Rudolf, but he gives me one anyhow. “None of them would come with me,” he says. “I met them at the airport. Betty and Ginevra and the Kishas. I told them I was to fetch them, but they wouldn’t come with me. They wouldn’t talk to me, even.”
I’m about to ask Rudolf if my descendants hated him as much as William did, but there’s the old bird himself, looking me straight in the eyes.