“Joe still lives here,” is the first thing Jacy tells her, before hello or are you hungry or isn’t this so fucking hideous, this thing we have to do. “Across the street. I saw him washing his car.”
“Really?” Grace blinks. Joe was her boyfriend in high school. She is thirty-nine years old. She drops her suitcase on the carpet and gazes around at the mess in the living room, the mail and the knickknacks and the leaning paperback towers of books. Their mom, she liked to collect.
“Really.” Jacy sits cross-legged on the gutless couch like some kind of thin, blonde Buddha, two of the cats fast asleep in her lap. Grace has no idea how many cats there actually are.
“Okay,” she says slowly, and goes upstairs to wash her face. “All right.”
She sees him two days later, while she’s taking some garbage bags out to the curb–she’s salvaging what she can to bring to St. Vincent de Paul but a lot of it’s just trash, catalogues, stained t-shirts from vacations taken in 1974 by people who weren’t even her mother. She slams the lid down on the plastic bin with more force than is perhaps necessary and when she looks up Joe is standing in his driveway across the street, jeans and a t-shirt, one hand raised in a greeting. He looks like she remembers.
Grace waves back.
The whole place is caked with a layer of grit and dust, storm clouds of it in every crevice, under all the rugs. The cats pee in the bathtub. The cupboards overflow with ancient cans. “How the hell did she live like this?” Grace asks finally, halfway to tears and something sticky and unidentified dripping down her arm. They haven’t been able to get the air-conditioner to work since they got here, and sweat beads along the rising of her ribs.
“Well,” Jacy points out, pulling some cloudy-looking jars off the shelves in the refrigerator, tossing them into the trash. Jacy is only twenty-five, a miracle baby. Grace thinks she mostly raised herself. “She didn’t, in the end.”
In the closet behind a bundle of yellowing bed linens is a shoebox full of costume jewelry, plastic brooches, pop beads. Grace and Jacy sit on the moth-eaten oriental carpet, matching up broken pairs of clip-on earrings like little girls playing memory. “Where did she wear these?” Grace wonders out loud, pulling a rhinestone and enamel comb from the from the pile, its teeth broken like a prizefighter. “She never left the house.”
Tangled in a long, tarnished silver chain is a thin band of diamonds and sapphires, delicate, a gift for someone loved. “It’s real,” Jacy says, holding the bracelet up to the window, dust motes swimming in the light from the sun. “I’ll be goddamned.”
Grace reaches for it, hesitates. “Do you–”
“No,” Jacy says immediately, handing it over. “Take it.”
The clasp snicks shut, like the closing of a storm door. The stones shine on her wrist.
That night she wanders outside to get some air and he’s sitting on his front steps like he’s waiting, face bathed in sherbet-colored porchlight. “Hey, Grace,” he calls, when he sees her. His deep voice echoes up the empty street.
“Hi,” Grace says. She crosses slowly, looks both ways even though there’s nothing to see. Grace is cautious. She takes her time. She walks up the path and sits beside him, quiet. Cicadas call high in the trees.
“Was sorry to hear about your mom,” he says eventually. He’s less lanky than she remembers him as being, like he’s settled sturdy into his skin. There’s a glass bottle on the ground between his feet, a precarious thing.
“Thanks,” Grace says. “We were, you know.” She shrugs a little. “Estranged. So it’s odd.”
“I always thought that was such a funny word, estranged,” Joe says. “Clinical. And whatever else anything like that is…well.” He rocks forward a little, laughs softly. “It’s not clean.”
He gets her a beer and another for himself and they talk about all kinds of things, the kids they used to run with and the movies that they’ve seen, catching up, relearning each other. He’s a carpenter; he’s out of work. The flagstone is baked warm beneath her thighs.
“How are you?” she asks finally.
“Me?” Joe asks, ducks his dark head a little. “I’m okay.” Grace waits, and then: “I’m not so good.”
“That’s a pretty bracelet,” he tells her, and she kisses him to say, thanks.
They dated a summer, that’s all, seventeen and making out in cars and behind buildings and on couches in the middle of the day. She hasn’t been back home in a decade and a half, but here he is. It feels familiar and strange. He inherited the house from his parents; it smells like cigarettes and recycled air but it’s immaculate inside, everything in its place, like a hotel room.
Joe takes her to dinner but his card won’t run, so Grace pulls some cash out of her purse. She climbs onto his lap in the parking lot, her knee up against the door.
Oh, she gets it, she’s not an idiot.
The radio hums.
“Are you kidding me, Gracie?” her sister demands, catching her arm on her way out the door the third day in a row; Jacy looks exhausted, blue hollows under her eyes. They’re supposed to start the basement this morning. It’s possible Grace hasn’t been pulling her weight. “Seriously, come the fuck on.”
“I’ll be back,” she calls over her shoulder. The screen clatters shut behind her, a thin-sounding wooden racket. “Start without me, okay?”
“No problem,” Jacy replies, sighing. “Take your time.”
Joe smiles, offers her a drink even though it’s eleven-thirty in the morning, lays his capable mouth over hers. She falls asleep in his bed and dreams of home.
Later she thunders back down into the basement, blinking at the darkness, catacomb damp. “What’ve we got?” she asks cheerfully.
“Christmas decorations,” Jacy says, over the blare of an ancient boom box. “And two dead mice. So, thanks for your help.”
“I’m sorry,” Grace says. “I’m here now.”
They work mostly in silence, men’s shoes and broken appliances. She’s reaching for a cardboard box at the top of a stack in the corner when she notices a naked lightness on her wrist. She glances up. “Fuck,” she says.
“What’s gone? The bracelet?” Jacy shakes her head, disbelieving. “Oh, well done.”
“You haven’t seen it?”
“Me? Seriously?” Jacy laughs. “Ask your boyfriend,” she advises. “Maybe he could tell you where it is.”
So she retraces her steps, careful, looking for the telltale glint of sparkle in the light. She imagines her mother dressed up for dinner or a movie, a satin dress and pumps. Her heart labors. Grace stands on the front lawn, searching. She hardly knows where to begin.