Aunt Dix was sweeping her front porch when Daddy Jude pulled our new black Cutlass into the driveway. "I'm not ready for ya'll." She waved her arm at us. "Go on back."
For a minute I thought she meant it. She wanted us to turn around and drive the fourteen hours back to Ohio.
"Mom," I said, and she said, "Oh, baby, that's just Sis having fun. Go on, Grace. Give her some sugar."
I ran across the grass and bounded up the steps to the porch, where I threw my arms around Aunt Dix's waist, and she said, "My, my, my, niece of mine. You've gotten tall."
Mama said I was a smart one, and even at the age I was—twelve—I knew that what she really meant was I'd never be pretty like her, and I might as well get used to it. She'd sung in the Miami nightclubs—Dorothy Hart—and here she was, back again, to show off her new man.
"This is Jude," she told Aunt Dix.
I felt the weight of his step on the porch boards. Aunt Dix's arms slipped away from me. I wanted to tell her everything. I wanted to tell her about the rubber hose he used on me until my legs and backside were puffy with welts. I wanted to tell her that Mama said I should try to be better so I wouldn't make him mad.
"Aunt Dix," I said, and I saw Mama give me a hard look.
She needn't have bothered because Aunt Dix was giving Daddy Jude a hug. "Hey, Jude," she said, and then she and Mama cracked up, laughing and laughing, because it was that year when that Beatles song was popular.
Soon, Daddy Jude was laughing, too, and I could see how badly everyone wanted to get along. They were laughing that kind of laugh that starts out shy and then goes along only because the people laughing force it to until it's clear there's really nothing funny at all.
But I can tell you this: it was enough to make my life real to me. I could hear birds calling, and they were like bird noises I'd never heard. Even the grass looked like plastic. I knew with that kind of knowing you know in your knower: I was in Florida, but I really wasn't going anywhere for a long, long time.
My own daddy was dead. "By his own hand," I'd heard more than one person say with a tsk of their lips and a shake of their heads. He was a comic and an emcee in the clubs. In the note he left behind—it would be years and years from that moment at my aunt's before I'd read it—he told one last joke, an old Henny Youngman one-liner: "Why do Jewish men die before their wives? Because they want to."
Ha! Ha!, he wrote. Ha! Ha! Ha!