“What was that?” he asks, plunging his index finger into his ear. “What did you just say to me?”

“I said I’ll get to it, Uncle Mike.” Nic forks up the last of the pasta.

“Told you about it last month, Nico.” Dad grabs his bag again, dumps his laundry out on the kitchen floor near the washing machine in the closet. “A man tends to his own.”

My cousin scrapes back his chair, rolls his shoulders back, stretching, then clangs the plate into the sink. “Going to work.

Then Vee’s. I’ll be back late.” He directs his eyes only to me and Grandpa.

“Too hard on the boy, Mike,” Grandpa says in the silence that follows the clap of the screen door.

“He’s not a boy anymore. He should be thinking first about pulling his weight, not lifting those.” Dad points to Nic’s dumbbell. “Where’s Luce?”

“Where is she always?” Managing to look dignified despite the towel wrap, Grandpa heads for the refrigerator. He takes out a grapefruit, setting it on the cutting board. “Working.”

Brows lowering, Dad looks at him sharply, but Ben’s face is innocent as the cherubs painted on the ceiling at St. Anthony’s.

Dad says, “You get a hammer and some wood glue, I can fix that door right now.”

“Why aren’t you after me to fix it, Dad? The ability to hammer a nail isn’t just for Y chromosomes.”

“Like I said, it’s the job of the man of the house.”

Grandpa draws himself up straighter, clears his throat.

“The young man of the house. You’ve fixed your fair share of doors, Ben. No one’s taking that away from you.” Dad reaches for the hammer I’ve pulled from the tool kit in the kitchen closet.

He gets the door fixed in about twenty seconds, all the bet-ter to slam it slightly when he leaves a few minutes later.

What was that about? I’m not even sure who provoked who more. Grandpa Ben reaches over and pats me on the shoulder.

“Seja gentil, Guinevere. By Nico’s age, Mike owned a business, was about to be a father, pai.”

His dark brown eyes look old, watery, full of too much sor-row. “Then with two little babies. He didn’t have much chance for horsing around.”

I know every child of divorced parents is supposed to secretly hope their parents fall back in love and reunite. But I never have. Dad’s leaving removed a buzzing tension from the house, like a downed wire that might be harmless but could suddenly shock you senseless if you tripped over it. Grandpa Ben, Mom, Nic, me, Em . . . we’re peaceful together. É fácil ser gentil. Easy to be kind.

The Ellington house is eerily quiet when I arrive. I knock on the door, tentatively call “Hello!” but am met by nothing but silence. Do I just march in?

After several minutes of knocking, I kick off my shoes, head into the kitchen. The teakettle’s whistling on the stove, there are breakfast dishes on the table, a chair pushed back. But no sign of Mrs. E.

She’s not on the porch. Not in the living room or any of the downstairs rooms. Now I’m starting to panic. It’s my first day and I’ve already lost my employer. Did she go off to the beach alone? I’m right on time . . . wouldn’t she be expecting me?

Then I hear a crash from upstairs, along with a groan.

I take the steps two at a time, panic rushing up as fast as I do, calling Mrs. E.’s name.

“In here, dear,” she calls from a room at the back corner of the house, following that up with what sounds like a muffled curse.

I dash into the room to find her sprawled on the floor in front of a huge open closet door, covered with dresses and skirts and shirts. Seeing me, she lifts a hand in greeting and gives an embarrassed shrug.

“Guinevere, I must say, I am not enjoying being incapa-citated! I was reaching for my beach hat with my cane, overbalanced, and took half the closet down with me. Just trying to get a hat. How I shall contrive to change into my bathing suit, I cannot imagine. And the ladies will be here any minute.”

I take her hand and try to pull her to her feet, but she’s too wobbly for that to work. Finally, I have to put a hand under each arm, haul her upright.

“Dear me,” she mutters, swaying, “this is pure bother. I’m so sorry, dear Gwen. How undignified!”

I assure her it’s fine and, limping, she makes her way slowly to a green-and-white sofa in the corner of the room. I walk behind her, which is awkward because she keeps stopping, so I bump into her back three times in the short distance.

Luckily, she gives a low chuckle instead of getting angry or falling over again and breaking her hip. Reaching the couch, she sits down heavily, grimacing and rotating her ankle, shov-ing aside a big green leather case. It’s flipped open to reveal what looks like our junk drawer at home crossed with Pirates of the Caribbean—a crazy tumble of diamond rings, pearl necklaces, gold chains, silver bracelets, coral pins, an emer-ald necklace. I can’t help noticing this enormous diamond, so large, square, gleamingly clear that it reminds me of an ice cube. That thing could choke a pony. I would be afraid even to touch it. What would it be like to be so used to priceless things that you don’t set them carefully against the velvet, just toss them in like we do to the jumble of pens that don’t work, takeout flyers, flashlights, Grandpa Ben’s old pipes, discarded plastic action figures of Emory’s?

Mrs. E. gives another little groan, rubbing her ankle with a grimace.

“Should I get some ice—for your ankle? Or something to rest it on? Are you okay?”

She reaches out to pat my cheek. “My dignity is slightly sprained, but I shall recover. My wardrobe is in far more need of assistance than I—” She jabs her cane in the direction of the spill of clothing. “If you would be so kind?”

Rehanging the closet is like traveling through time—there are sequined dresses and wild seventies prints, sheaths Audrey Hepburn could have worn to Tiffany’s, full-skirted, tight-waisted outfits, bell-bottomed pants. Mrs. E. has evidently never parted with a single outfit. I have a flash of an image of her trying them on in front of the mirror like an aging little girl playing dress-up. When I finally rehang the last of them, I turn around to find her completely nude.

Before I can stop myself, I let out a little screech. Mrs. E., who was bending over, picking something up off the floor, sways and nearly falls. I rush over to steady her, and then don’t know where to grab hold. Luckily, she catches herself on the arm of the couch as I wave my hands ineffectually behind her.