The tires of a taupe Cadillac Eldorado traveled over the stones and overgrowth along the broken driveway, crunching and gnawing at years of neglect. A woman in the rear seat peered over the bridge of her dark glasses, watching the nearing structure with growing unease. Before the car, looming at a short distance was the house she'd not seen since her childhood.
The neatly groomed privet she had only sub-consciously admired as a young girl, was brown and wilted now. The branches twisted and tangled in deformed shapes that cast foreboding shadows where she had once played jacks and alleys.
In the rear view window, she could see the driver's eyes as he looked upon their destination. She felt it then, the tightening in her stomach and the prickling at her cheeks. She wished she were alone, but Mr. Onassis had insisted she be chauffeured. It didn't matter anyways. It was all public now. The story had reached the printed press before anyone had been able to stop it.
The worst part was that she hadn't feigned ignorance. It was in full disclosure that she admitted to not knowing the living situation of her Aunt and Cousin. How had she not known? She could understand the public feeling of disbelief.
How had members of the Bouvier family fallen so far from society's gentle graces? It was a question she could easily answer. Her own life had gotten in the way. There had been her duties as First Lady, the children and the assassination. A second marriage to Mr. Onassis had followed and it had been far too late that she'd discovered how two members of her close family had been living.
Edith Bouvier Beale, her Aunt, had been a role-model in her younger days. Mrs. Beale had been charismatic, beautiful and with a spirit that challenged anybody to disapprove. Summers at the house in East Hampton had been filled with music in the parlor and garden parties filled to the brim with highly recognizable names and faces. Aunty Edith's daughter shared her mother's name and had always been called (with great affection) Little Edie.
While Jackie and Little Edie had never been close due to a large age difference, Jackie had always been intrigued by her. Even as a young woman, Little Edie had demonstrated a mind of her own. She'd been a reflection of her mother certainly and not of her absentee father who'd never been more than uninterested in his daughter's affairs.
Little Edie had taken adversity in her stride. With a mother that aimed to keep her tied down and husband-less, and a father that wanted her married off as quick as could be arranged, the young debutant had managed to at least begin a life on her own. She'd moved to New York City and had become a model, defying both parents in a bid to take charge of her own destiny.
Guilt, Jackie had heard, had been the same menace that had drawn Little Edie back to Grey Gardens from New York City, all of those years ago. The very same emotion that presently closed around her insides and made her wish she could go back in time and save both her cousin and aunt from their sordid destiny.
There was no going back - only forward and Jackie found her stomach turning in somersaults when the driver put the car in park before the front porch's broken steps. He had only just hooked his fingers in the door latch when Jackie spoke, extending a white gloved hand, "Thank you, but I'd like to greet the Beales alone."
"Your door, M'am?" the man said.
Jackie's delicate fingers hovered just above the plush velour of the driver's seat, "No, thank you. Please return in two hours..." but as her eyes moved towards the house's dark windows and the wind scratched at the panes, she corrected herself, "One hour."
The driver's chin dipped into an affirmative nod and he returned his hands to the steering wheel.
Jackie opened the car door and settled a black patent leather pump into the gravel. As she rose from the back seat, the cool air stung her cheeks. Her tweed skirt seemed suddenly too tight at her knees, the slim cut constricting her movement unlike the short pants Aunty Edith had allowed her to wear during the summer.
The heels of her shoes made hollow sounds on the old wooden steps and the boards creaked and groaned in protest beneath her mild weight. She wondered if the sounds alone would alert the occupants of the house to her presence, but silence remained the backdrop to her slow and deliberate steps.
Her gloved knuckles rapped lightly on the door frame, then more loudly when no response came. Finally there was some rattling from the floor above and then the unmistakable voice of Little Edie.
"Just a minute." the woman called out and Jackie felt her fingers stiffen. Through the broken screen door she could see the entryway, cold and dark... the floor dirty but not as badly as she had imagined it to look by now.
An orange cat padded by the door, apparently uninterested in the guest awaiting admittance. Jackie couldn't help but smile at even this small amount of anonymity.
There was more noise finally, footfalls on the stairs and then a woman's figure came into view. Edie wore white shoes, scuffed from years of wear. She couldn't guess at the designer though she was sure that in their height of fashion, the shoes would have carried a lofty price tag.
Edie's legs were clad in fishnet stockings with a few catches in the fine fabric creating large pale shapes where they lay. The red dress that covered her slender frame was pinned to fit, gathered and tied in places where the years had worn away the material. Perhaps it wasn't the years at all, perhaps it might have been from the raccoons, though Jackie didn't want to think about it.
Little Edie's fingers were working at knotting the scarf that covered her whole head, decorated by a gold brooch of flowers and vine. She stopped when she saw her visitor then tossed the knot over her shoulder, "Oh it's you."
Jackie offered her cousin a gentle smile, still watching through the screen net that separated the two worlds.
"Hello Edie... I'm glad to see you." Jackie tried, and Edie didn't smile back. Instead she crossed her bare arms over her stomach and looked past her.
"I thought you were the grocery man. He said he won't leave them again without cash because mother's cheque didn't go through. It's terribly inconvenient." Edie said and picked up the orange cat that was nuzzling against her leg.
The orange feline waited as it was scratched beneath its neck and Jackie tried to fill the silence, "Did you not expect me, Edie?"
Edie leaned down but the cat jumped from her arms before she could let it go, running a few steps before licking its paw and cleaning the bare whiskers.
"I didn't want you to come," the older woman stated honestly. Little Edie was never dishonest, nor was she known for mincing words but Jackie still found that the bluntness made her uncomfortable. She was used to being in the company of sycophants.
"Mother wanted to thank you for the new stove and everything, I guess. " Edie still hadn't made a move to open the door.
Jackie twisted her white gloved fingers together, "You don't have to thank me."
Edie's blue eyes fixed sharply on hers, "I'm not thanking you."
Jackie nodded once to show her understanding. The purse that was tucked into the crook of her elbow felt heavier than it should.
"May I see Aunt Edith?" she asked willing to be anywhere but in the direct path of Edie's glare.
The older woman adjusted the safety pin at the hem of her skirt and refastened it as she spoke, "Mother darling's not well, you understand. She told me to thank you for coming and to give you lunch."
Jackie frowned. She knew her Aunt's health had been rapidly declining over the years and one newspaper had suggested that without proper medical care, she was not long for the world. Jackie had tried to have a doctor come to the house but her ailing Aunt had sent him away before he'd even gotten inside. She wondered if the same was about to happen to her.
Finally, Edie reached forward and opened the door, "Watch that you don't step on a cat," she warned and headed off towards the dining room which led into the kitchen.
Jackie stepped inside the house that still clung to her memories and jumped when the screen door automatically slammed behind her. The smell of animal was so overpowering that she wanted nothing more than to press her kerchief against her nose and inhale the scent of lavender and rose petal. Deciding against the gesture which would come across as rude, she did her best to breathe through her mouth as she followed Edie's footsteps to the kitchen.
By the time Jackie reached the kitchen, Edie was prying up the key on a silver tin with a faded label. It cracked when it opened and Edie began spooning the sickly smelling contents on to a few broken crackers. Jackie looked towards the kitchen table, covered in old cans and the floor littered with garbage. She didn't want to sit but she chose the closest chair and did so out of politeness.
Edie set the crackers on a chipped saucer and sat it down on the table in front of Jackie, "Liver pate... I think. The label's gone."
Jackie smiled weakly, "Thank you."
Silence fell between them and Jackie wished to do anything but lift the cracker to her mouth and bite into it. It tasted disgusting and she had to swallow back her gag reflex under Edie's careful gaze.
"Edie, would you like one?" she asked, extending the saucer to her cousin. Edie shook her head, "I'm on a diet."
Jackie's face softened. Edie wasn't bone thin, but she looked sickly as one would imagine a malnourished person would look. If the pate and the other tins strewn about the kitchen floor were any indication, she was hardly getting enough nourishment.
A pregnant pause fell between them and there was absolute silence. Jackie had not made a move to consume another cracker.
Quite suddenly, Edie closed her fingers around the backing of a kitchen chair and pushed it across the floor where it skidded and collapsed on its side.
"If you hadn't interfered, they would have condemned Grey Gardens and I would be free of it!" Edie stammered, her face red and her eyes shining brighter than Jackie had ever seen them.
Jackie remained speechless, watching Edie like one would watch a rabid animal as it prepared to strike. The older woman crossed the room towards one of the windows, standing in the stream of daylight that shone through, illuminating the trillions of dust particles and cat hairs that tried to settle in the Grey Gardens air.
Then, surprising Jackie most of all, Edie crumpled forward at her midsection, her arms wrapped tightly around herself with her head bowed towards her chest.
Jackie rose to her feet and approached her cousin carefully, noticing as she neared, the way Edie's back trembled beneath the red fabric and knots of headscarf. Her fingers hesitated a moment before extending against Edie's shoulder.
Edie jumped at the gesture of sympathy and spun around too quickly, the silk of her head scarf catching on Jackie's fingertips and pulling free from her head.
Jackie's eyes widened as she saw the patchy white tufts of hair clinging to Edie's almost bald scalp. She had known that Edie had suffered from a nervous condition her whole life but had never seen her cousin without her signature scarf, or the beautiful thick dark locks she'd sported in her youth.
Edie's cheeks blazed with embarrassment as she snatched the scarf back and draped it over her head, tying it tightly beneath her chin.
"Edie I'm sorry -"
"It will grow back, you know. Mother says it won't but I know it will." Edie hastily insisted, though Jackie was unsure if her cousin even believed it herself.
"It's late, you'd better go." Edie made her way towards the door and Jackie had nothing else to do but follow, although her car was not due to return for another half an hour.
"I'd like to come again, Edie, if I might." Jackie said and then lowered her voice when it echoed off of the bare walls, "When your mother is well. Perhaps we could go to dinner in the village."
But Little Edie didn't respond. Jackie was embarrassed that she'd even mentioned the dinner when speaking to a notoriously reclusive woman, but she'd never been sure that Edie hadn't become reclusive merely out of affection for her mother.
With the door held open, Jackie stepped back outside and breathed deeply through her nose, clearing the acrid stench from her nostrils. The door shut behind her and she turned around to see Edie watching her through the screen.
"I could have married Ted Kennedy, you know. Then maybe you'd be in here and I'd be out there." Edie's eyes weren't any sadder then they often were, but her lips were set in a firm line, challenging Jackie for a response.
But before a reply could form on Jackie's reddened lips, Edie had vanished back into the walls of Grey Gardens leaving no reminder of her presence behind.
Above, the trees rustled and the leaves danced in the cool grey air as Jackie made her way down the stairs to wait for her driver. On the railing of the front porch, a bird preened its red feathers and Jackie couldn't help but be transfixed by it. There it stood, bright and alive before the towering twenty eight room house, a picture of beauty in a scene of depreciation and decay.
And in that bird Jackie saw Little Edie, a thing of beauty in a sad story, waiting to take flight.