Serpent's Tooth

"Go home, Violet," said Uncle Cornelius when he opened the door. "I haven’t heard from a single one of you in over ten years." His eyebrows were storm clouds in his craggy face, just as she’d remembered.

"I shan't," she said calmly, lifting her chin.

"Shouldn’t you be off at college?"

"I flunked." She’d avoiding practicing this conversation in her head too much, so her responses would be more natural.

He snorted, but the glimmer of a smile crossed his face. "Do people still use that word?" She shrugged. "So they sent you off to good old Uncle Cornelius for what?"

"To take a semester off and find myself?"

"Try again. Or, go and catch the last train."

With effort, Violet kept from rolling her eyes. "It isn't late enough for the last train. Maybe they expect my Great Uncle Cornelius to help me study up and focus on a new major in the fall?"

"More plausible, but you're still lying." He looked past her into the hallway at her laptop bag and wheeled suitcase. “Get out of here.”

“I got my first tattoo,” she said in a rush, as the door started to swing closed. “I want you to teach me.”

The door stopped. Violet counted her breaths through the pause. "The real reason, then." Cornelius retreated into his apartment, leaving the door ajar behind him.

"Where should I put my things?"

"Leave them in the entryway. You don't mind sleeping on the couch, do you?"

"You have a spare room."

"You're right, I do." A cigarette fumed in a cut glass ashtray on the coffee table, and Cornelius enthroned himself in his worn brown leather armchair, a stack of magazines slumped across the floor next to it. Thin afternoon light spiked through half-drawn curtains. Books were everywhere, lining the walls, piled on end tables; paperbacks, leatherbound tomes, hand-stapled zines with esoteric symbols on the covers. “Luna?” he asked, raking her over with his gaze. “Brimstone?” Nearly everybody got brimstone first. Violet left her bags and arranged herself on one end of the couch.

“Salt, actually,” she said with a smile, extending her left wrist for his approval as she looked around. The furniture had been expensive once, and could be considered shabby chic now with little stretch. There was a high water mark for smoke on the walls. All in all, it was everything she remembered. Or almost everything. “Where’s Bathsheba?” It was impossible for Bathsheba to have been the same dog for Violet’s entire life, but she couldn’t remember a time Cornelius didn’t have her.

“She died last month,” he said. He exhaled smoke and gave a short nod as he looked at her tattoo.

“I’m sorry.” And because she couldn’t help herself “Will you get another?”

“No. No, I’m old, and there will never be another Bathsheba.” He ground the cigarette out with one of his square fingered paws, and Violet watched, picking out his tattoos, Brimstone on his index figure, the all-seeing eye on the back of his hand, black ink faded into ashy blue, encroached upon by age spots. There were more, up both his arms. She’d never fully seen. “I suppose you think you’ll live here rent free. Learn here.”

"I can help around the house, I'm sure."

He sighed heavily. "I don't need a personal shopper, Violet."

She laughed. "I'm sure we'll figure something out. And I’m a very fast learner. Maybe you’ll like having me around after all.” Violet let that thought rest for a full minute. "Do you want me to make you a drink?"

"Scotch. Neat." He shook out the paper and immersed himself. Violet set the drink on a warped cardboard coaster at his elbow, then collected her bags and went to the spare bedroom. It was also full of books, and a little musty, but the sheets seemed clean. She opened the curtains and looked out into the gray alleyway; it was hard to tell how much light she'd get during the day. But his books…for the moment, this would do nicely.

Never a morning person, Violet set her phone alarm to vibrate at an ungodly dawn-like hour and snuck out of the apartment before Cornelius left his room. By the time he came out to the kitchen, she had croissants out on a plate, and bacon, and was frying eggs. "I hope you like scrambled," she said.

"Eggs are bad for my cholesterol," Cornelius said. "Where's the paper?"

"I didn't know if you wanted the Times or the Wall Street Journal, so I got both. And eggs are not bad for your cholesterol, that idea is sixty years old."

"I didn't know you were a doctor." He picked up the New York Times. "Is there coffee?"

"Yes. How do you take it?"

"Black." He watched her select and fill a mug. "Is this part of earning your keep?"

"It's not like I expected you to make breakfast," she said.

"You can't get blood from a stone." Cornelius shoveled most of his breakfast in silence, paging through first one paper and then the other. Violet flipped through one of the zines from the living room, her coffee sweet and light, occasionally tracing a symbol on the tabletop with her finger to try it out. Once they'd finished eating, she cleared the dishes and loaded the dishwasher, thanking God there was one. "Where did you get the keys?"

She blinked at him serenely. "I'm sorry?"

"To get back into the building, and the apartment. Where did you find keys? Mine are in my pocket." He pulled them out and shook them for emphasis.

Violet tilted her head just a little, coffee cup between both hands. “I may know a thing or two already,” she said lightly, which was not untrue, but lock-coaxing was not one of her charms. "You gave me a set, don't you remember?”

Cornelius studied her a moment. "I must have." He cleared his throat and finished his coffee. "What are your plans for the day?" She got up and poured him another cup.

"Oh, I don't know. I thought I'd make the rounds, see if anybody was looking for a personal shopper. You do always have such wonderful suggestions."

"Go do that, before you rot my teeth. Maybe I’ll have a lesson for you in the afternoon.”

“Thank you, Uncle Cornelius.” She dropped a kiss on his cheek and left before he could grumble about it.

Violet went to the library and spent hours in the stacks. Her phone rang around noon, drawing dirty looks from the other patrons. "Hold on, I have to go outside before they start throwing books at me." She stuffed the notebook into her bag, phone tucked against her shoulder.

"Where are you, Violet?"

"The library, Mother. I thought you'd be happy." A librarian approached her rapidly, and she beelined for the door. "Hold on, I said."

"Yes, but what library?"

"Oh. The New York Public Library. I'm staying with Uncle Cornelius for a few weeks, to help him out."

"Help him with what? He invited you?"

"Well, not in as many words, but when I talked to him before leaving school, he understood that I might not want to go right home." Violet shuffled through a crowd of pigeons and flumped onto a vacant bench, purse in her lap.

"I have a hard time believing that. And I really don't understand why you would take a leave of absence in the middle of your senior year. What happened? Your father and I worry about you."

"Nothing happened! I'm fine. I just feel like he needs somebody here, all right?"

There was a pause, and Violet smiled. "What do you mean, needs somebody there?"

"Well, it isn't like he's getting any younger."

"Is Cornelius okay? What happened?"

"Nothing happened. Why do you always ask that? He just seems kind of...vague. Forgetful. I don't want to leave him alone without knowing he's all right." A hopeful pigeon pecked around her feet and she kicked it away, but bent to pick up an ashy blue-gray feather it left behind..

"Your father and I will come down and check in on him, see if he needs in home help. Or maybe he can't even live at home anymore. That isn't your responsibility to figure out."

"No, are you kidding? He'll never trust me after that!"

"Does he even trust you now?"

"Yes, he trusts me. We get along great." He’d let her in, anyway, and eaten that first meal. He hadn’t watched her closely.

Her mother laughed. "Fine, if you want to take a semester with that mean bastard, go on ahead. Springtime in New York is the best season, anyway. Just be careful. I don't like all the smoking he does."

"I don't either, but try talking to him about it."

"No thanks. You're the one who volunteered." There was a pause, and Violet crossed her fingers and broke the feather. Her mother hung up.

She took the long walk up Fifth Avenue to get back to Cornelius' building, ducking into the Metropolitan Museum of Art to collect a visitor badge and museum brochure. Beautiful pictures, glossy paper. She slid the brochure carefully into her bag and walked around the cloisters for a bit before continuing on her way.

Cornelius wasn't in the apartment when she got home. She tucked the museum brochure into the space between the arm and the cushion of his accustomed chair in the living room, and then she went into his room, looked out his windows. The view there was much better, Central Park. Still brown with the memory of winter, but green edged, trees budding and the grass coming back. The curtains in the room were decades-old polyester, and the smoke grime was heavily entrenched. A silver urn stood on the windowsill, where Bathsheba had always rested her long muzzle. Violet picked it up, feeling the contents shift delicately within, thoughtfully watching the traffic pass by for several moments before setting it down again. A glass-fronted cabinet contained all the pipes Cornelius had collected over the years, still smelling sweetly of the vanilla blend he favored when he decided to engage in the richer ritual. More books, these ones locked behind the glass, and when she got her face close she could see the teensy circles etched in the corners of the panes. Her fingertips hummed when she got near. Protective. Bathsheba’s bed was still in the corner.

A clawfoot tub dominated the master bath; unimaginable floor space, black and white tiles. She pulled some of his hairs from the brush in the bathroom before going to look into the other rooms: library, office, a closet equipped with stacking washer and dryer. Violet dropped the M initialed visitor button the museum gave out, and toed it under the edge of the machines.

When Cornelius returned, he had takeout from the Thai place around the corner. He'd also bought wine to go with their meal. "What's the occasion?" Violet asked.

"I didn't exactly welcome you with open arms," he said gruffly. "But sometimes it's nice to see my favorite niece."

Violet laughed. "I'm your only niece."

“I do believe that’s the joke." When she was small, and their parents still had an apartment on the Upper East Side, Violet and her brother Harry visited with Cornelius often. They rode carriages in Central Park, and played hide and seek around the Alice in Wonderland statue, drew big chalk sigils on the sidewalks, innocuous things for sunny days and squirrels for Bathsheba to chase until her tongue lolled out. It was Cornelius who taught them about the wonders of takeout, and to eat with chopsticks. It was Cornelius who made them get their New York Public Library cards. When they moved away, Cornelius took what little they knew from them. He had no children of his own, had never taken any students that Violet knew about. All that knowledge, going to waste.

It was a few days before Cornelius found the museum brochure, by then creased and smelling like cigarettes. "When did you go to the museum?" he asked Violet, waving the trifold at her as she crossed the living room.

She paused, her hand on the apartment door, and came a few steps back into the room. "I didn't, Uncle Cornelius," she said in a level tone. It was important not to overdo it. "You told me you went the day we had Thai."

He scowled. "I did no such thing."

"I only know what you tell me."

"Why would I tell you a lie for the sake of it?"

"Maybe you just forgot. Though I thought I saw a visitor button somewhere. Tuesday is green, right?" Violet went to the laundry closet and pulled the button from under the machines. "This must have fallen off your jacket and gotten kicked under the door."

Cornelius took the green disc from her and turned it over in his hand. "Tuesday is green," he repeated slowly.

"Remember? You thought it was garbage that they had a punk culture exhibit there?" She started to sit on the arm of his chair, and he elbowed her off.

"That's right, Chaos to Couture they're calling it. I had enough of toilets as art fifty years ago, but I thought you might have been interested, with your fashion obsessions." Cornelius tossed the button on the coffee table and lit a cigarette, not looking at her. "Now leave me alone, I want to listen to the symphony broadcast."

"Your house, your rules. I'll be late, so don't wait on me for dinner." One of her college friends was in the city, one of the real friends, who understood what Violet had gotten into. One with some of his own tattoos, and a dog, and a mentor. One who hinted at rituals, but wouldn’t tell her the whole story. Her life was full of people not telling her the whole story.

"I wouldn't dream of it."

It rained for a week straight, plastering the park's cherry blossoms flat on the concrete. The petals were everywhere, in cabs, on the train, tracked into the apartment; they languished on the carpet like damp crepe paper reminders of a party everybody would rather not talk about. Their light sweet smell clung to the edges of things. Cornelius took Violet for a walk, no umbrella permitted, and once she was soaked through and spitting mad like a cat, he handed her a brand new chrome Zippo lighter, its side etched with a seal of Solomon, and taught her the words and gestures to be dry again, woven into the commonplace ritual of lighting a cigarette. They stayed out in the rain hours more, until she got it right, thumb raw and stinging from flicking the wheel on the lighter over and over again.

One night, once Cornelius dropped into his log-sawing sleep, Violet sprinkled a circle of ashes, both from the ashtray and Bathsheba’s urn. Then she took some papers at random from the cabinets in the office, a copy of his will, a magazine subscription, and spread them on the dining room table. Grimacing, she smoked three of his cigarettes which she’d meticulously drawn symbols on with a fine tip Sharpie, flicking ashes onto the papers and filling the ashtray. She wrapped one of his hairs around the fourth cigarette before lighting it and setting it in the groove of the ashtray, watching it burn into an intact tube of ash before going to bed, phone alarm set.

"Uncle Cornelius, what are those papers?" she asked the next morning from the stove, as soon as he emerged from his room. The carpet was old white wool, with brown and black designs she didn’t know the meanings of swirled into it. If they had meanings; what was important was the ashes weren’t visible on it. Another of Bathsheba’s beds was in the corner.

"What papers?"

"On the table." Violet pressed a cup of coffee in his hand and pointed him at the table. He stood there for a long time, long enough for the toast to pop, and she watched him from the corner of her eye. She was careful and her old teachers called her talented, but he was wise, and very practiced.

"None of your business," he said finally, gathering them up.

"Like I said, I didn't want to move anything in case I was interfering."

"I appreciate your concern." Cornelius disappeared into his office with the papers, and his cup of coffee, and did not come out while Violet was still eating. She scrolled through Pinterest on her phone, deciding on her next tattoo, and set a plate of scrambled eggs, bacon, and toast in the oven to stay warm.

Violet called her father that weekend. "Ready to come home yet?" he asked.

"No, Daddy, I don't want to leave Uncle Cornelius."

"He's spoiling you that much?" Violet could imagine her father rocked back in the chair on his desk, feet up on the corner, looking out the big windows onto their lawn.

"Well, not exactly."

"Sweetheart, what's wrong?"

"I know you told me the credit card was only for emergencies, but I wanted to double check if it was all right before I bought groceries."

Her father laughed. "You're in New York City, you don't really buy groceries."

"You know what I mean."

"I guess I should be happy you aren’t just clearing out Sak’s Fifth Avenue, but what's the matter? Cornelius isn't feeding you enough?"

"Yes, he's feeding me. He just does better when I take care of the meals."

"You?" Violet smiled at the high note of incredulity, imagined him sitting up and putting his feet on the floor. "What have you done with my daughter?"

"You keep saying I should take more responsibility. Well, I am. I just didn't want you to get upset when you saw the bill."

"I appreciate that. You know, your mother and I were talking about you staying with Cornelius like this, and we thought--"

"I won't listen to you say bad things about him. He might seem like a mean old man, but he's really hurt that all of you turned your backs on him for so long. He's only got so much time left, and likes having family around."

"He said that?" Violet bit her lip. Too much?

"He wouldn't say anything like that, and you know it. And Bathsheba died, did you know that?”

“Did she? No I didn’t. He’s had that dog forever.” How was her family so oblivious? Cornelius had his own talents, obviously. One of them was obfuscation.

“Exactly. So I can tell he's happier with me here. Anyway, I have to catch my train now. Love you Daddy."

"I love you too, Violet. Tell Cornelius hi for me."

"I will."

Fire extinguishers were far heavier than Violet ever guessed. She hefted several at the store before making her choices. For the first time, she wished for one of those wire carts with wheels on it that people used to bring home groceries and laundry. Any other time, she would have considered them too bourgeoise. She managed anyway, double bagging them and taking a cab.

"What's all that?" Cornelius asked when she came through the door, out of breath. Her bangs stuck to her face, and her new sandals had blistered both her heels and her little toes. They'd given her nothing but trouble. Wouldn’t it be nice, to know a trick to keep your sandals from blistering? She’d just have to develop her own; men never think of that kind of thing.

"Fire extinguishers. I noticed we don't have any. I also got new batteries for the smoke detectors."

"What, are you going to work for Smokey the Bear?"

"No! But I thought it would be nice to have something on hand, in case of an accident."

"An accident? Young lady, I got along perfectly well in this place for decades without your intervention. I imagine I know better than to burn myself up in bed."

"I'd rather be safe than sorry, especially without Bathsheba to wake you.” She paused very briefly as his frown deepened. “And anyway, I paid for them. I'll bring them with me when I leave, if they offend you that much."

He cleared his throat. "When you leave? I didn't realize the end was nigh."

"No, but I imagine I'll have to reapply to school for spring semester, or Daddy will get too antsy to bear."

"Spring, not fall?"

"Still so eager to be rid of me? The deadlines have passed already for this fall." Violet paused in the hallway. "I'll put one in the kitchen, and one in the closet with the washer and dryer."

Cornelius waved a hand. "Do what you want. You will anyway."

"Uncle Cornelius, I just have our best interests in mind."

"I'm sure you do." He scowled and turned the page in his book. She noticed he still hung his free hand to the side, unconsciously waiting for it to be filled by the smooth head of a dog.

Spring gave way to summer, and Violet discovered the building's super would let her up onto the roof to sunbathe; apparently it was a common pastime. She bought some Audrey Hepburn sunglasses and read Cornelius’s books, though to her chagrin, the locked cabinet stayed locked. She wasn’t sure those books had come out a single time since she’d arrived in the apartment. Cornelius taught her things; how to never miss a train, how to make the attention of a mugger slide right off of her. But he wasn’t taking her seriously enough; lessons came on his own time and he treated Violet like she’d get tired of it soon, like she had with ballet or horseback riding.

Sometimes she just sat on the roof and looked out over the city, staring south at the missing teeth in the skyline, the newly-grown replacement. She repeated the process with the documents and the cigarettes once more, this time with a bank statement, a college reunion letter, and some junk mail. Cornelius banged the ashtray into the garbage with no comment, stone faced. She vacuumed the ashes out of the carpet when he left, and straightened the piles of books on the coffee table.

Harry came to visit once, when Cornelius was out. "No, you can't come in. He doesn't like visitors."

Harry laughed, disbelieving. "I won't touch anything."

"He'll know, and then he'll get agitated. It's always worse in the evening."

Harry’s smile faded. "Violet, does Cornelius have Alzheimer's? Is that what's going on?"

She rolled her eyes and steered Harry towards the roof stairs. "Like I can get him to go to the doctor."

"Where is he now?"

"I don't know. The museum. Brighton Beach. The house he grew up in."

"Did he even grow up around here?"

"Do you think that matters?"

"I guess you're right." The heavy fire door banged against the wall, and Harry whistled. "There's a nice view, anyway."

"Of course there is. This is the greatest city in the world."

"You said that about Paris once."

"I was sixteen, I'm allowed." She watched Harry take out a pack of Marlboros and put one between his lips. "I wish you wouldn't."

"What, smoke? Wall Street is stressful, sis."

"I know, but Cornelius smokes all the time, and it's making me a little gun shy." She pushed some hair behind her ear, laughed a little. Nevermind the Zippo in her pocket. “Oh, I guess it's all right."

Harry put the cigarettes back in his pocket. "I can wait. Are you really worried it isn't safe here? What do we need to do to, I don't know, get him put somewhere?"

"Get him to see a doctor. I think in this case, the doctor talks to him and has little memory tests to run."

"You've been reading about this."

"Of course I have." Violet sighed. "I'm glad you came by, anyway."

"I should have sooner. We used to hang out all the time, with or without Cornelius."

"We were little kids then."

"Yeah, well I'm still your big brother. You call me if you need anything."

"I will." They hugged briefly, and Violet followed him down off the roof.

Harry called the elevator. "Why don't you just leave? Go home, or go back to Cornell?"

"I don't feel like I can leave him now. I've got to see it to the end." She wanted to shake him. There’s magic, Harry, how can I care about Cornell? How can you not remember? But she didn’t. None of the rest of the family had shown interest or aptitude in Cornelius’ teachings. They didn’t even have the ability to notice.

The elevator dinged, and the brass doors slid open. "Just take care of yourself."

"Bye Harry." He hadn’t noticed her tattoos, delicate filigreed brimstone now on her middle finger.

When Cornelius came home, he went into his room for a time, and then came out with one of his pipes and a box of wooden matches. "I've always loved how your pipe tobacco smells," Violet said from the couch. She sat against the arm, legs tucked up, flipping through a leatherbound Shakespeare from the bookshelf.

"I never told you this, but a girlfriend picked it out for me."

"A girlfriend, really?"

Cornelius smiled, the pipe smoke disappearing into his mane of white hair. "A girlfriend, yes. I used to have those. When I was in graduate school, I dated a sorority girl. She thought cigarettes weren't distinguished and writerly enough, and got me my first pipe." He looked at the one in his hand; the wood was rosy red, the stem black. "She loved vanilla."

"She had good taste." Violet marked her place with the ribbon and shut the book.

“I got Bathsheba around that time as well,” he mused, looking into the middle distance, before turning to Violet. “I wonder if we should get your dog. I suppose you want a puppy.”

Violet smiled. “What girl doesn’t want a puppy? But for now, what shall we have for dinner?"

Around midnight, the ancient clanging fire alarm in the building sounded. In various states of dress, the residents crowded down the stairwells, coughing on. Out on the sidewalk, Violet found herself standing next to the building's superintendent. "Have you seen my Uncle Cornelius?" she asked. She was barefoot, in a tank top and yoga pants, phone in hand.

"We need to get further from the building. No, I haven't seen Cornelius. Could he still be inside?"

"Oh God, he might have fallen asleep with his pipe or something. You need to get them up there." She started to turn back, and pushed against the super when he tried to stop her. "Uncle Cornelius!" she screamed as he got an arm around her waist and half carried her the rest of the way across the street.

One of the firefighters came over. "What's the problem here?"

"There might still be a resident inside. Twelfth floor, apartment 7. He's elderly and a smoker." The firefighter and the superintendent exchanged a glance they seemed to think Violet wouldn’t notice.

"We're on it, just keep back." The firefighter walked away, on the radio.

Violet chewed her left thumbnail, other arm wrapped across her stomach, and waited. Smoke billowed from upper floor windows. She had to trust Cornelius’ charms to protect the books. What luck Bathsheba had already died before she got here. The superintendent shrugged out of his cardigan and put it around her shoulders; it smelled sweetly of shaving cream and fresh bread. The smoke started to settle as firemen trickled out the front doors.

One last group of firemen came out, black-covered stretcher rattling. Violet stepped from the superintendent's side and started across the street. "Oh sweetheart, you don't want to go over there," said one of the older firefighters, moving to intercept.

"Is that my uncle?" she asked, digging her nails into her palms to start tears in her eyes. From the look on their faces, she already knew the answer.

"We're very sorry, we did what we could," The firefighter from earlier said, steering her to sit on the bumper of the nearby fire truck as she released her first sob. His eyes were very blue. “You’re lucky you got out. Sometimes these old folks, they get careless, and the people they live with suffer the most.”