I GLANCED DISCREETLY at the wall clock above the ballet barre. Estella Baker had been holding me imprisoned in the YMCA dance studio for the past half hour, talking about everything from her grand-nephew to her gout. Every week after class she'd thank me for the lesson, and then reminisce about some scene from her youth that the taped music had brought to mind. I let her because I assumed she had no one else to talk to, and I knew what sort of poison loneliness could be.
Five-thirty. Shit. By the time I got home it would already be dark out, and I hated walking in the dark. Walking alone at night was like lying in bed waiting for sleep: there was nothing to distract you from yourself.
"Hessie's always been narsistic," Estella said. "Narsistic, is that the word? I seem to be losing my vocabulary lately. You know she's had her breasts done." She pulled a tissue from the arm of her leotard, dabbed at her nose and then tucked it back inside.
I gave her a polite smile. When I'd come up with the idea of teaching dance, I'd pictured a class full of women who looked like belly dancers, with long dark hair and perfect waists, women who, like me, had once imagined they'd grow up to be dancers but had never managed to get past the imagining stage. Instead what I got was a class of ladies in their sixties, wearing leotards that bulged in odd places, who had about as much grace as overstuffed sofas. It was okay, though. They were very appreciative.
"Well, they sure don't look done," I said, since she was obviously expecting disdain. "Maybe they're a work in progress."
"I know!" Estella said. "They're so tiny. You know she had her arms done, too? Her arms!"
When she'd gone I threw a dress on over my leotard, pulled on a pair of sneakers and jogged the twelve blocks home. The streets were crowded with tourists deciding where to eat, mostly young couples alone or burdened with strollers and diaper bags. Cities were made for couples. Go to a restaurant or movie and I'd be stared at, whereas on the island single people were embraced, befriended, invited to join. Here I didn't even like calling for pizza; I was sure the delivery boy pictured me scarfing down the whole pie, wallowing in grease.
I climbed the stairs and locked the inside of my apartment: doorknob, deadbolt, chain. After thirteen years, I still hadn't gotten used to the idea of such surplus safeguards. On the island we'd leave home with our windows and door open wide to vent the dead inside air. In this city you weren't safe unless you fastened a trip wire to the entrance and connected the other end to a hydrogen bomb.
The message light was blinking on the answering machine. I was pretty sure I knew who was calling. Seth Powell lived downstairs. We'd met in the elevator last month and he'd latched onto me immediately, and since he was a single man in a city without any single men, I'd let him latch. He was funny, and cute enough, and we kissed on the first date because sometimes you just want to be kissed by a funny, cute enough guy. But he was also the type of man who called me "babe" and wore red and blue makeup to Patriots games. A prototype of too much testosterone, who in cave days would've pounded his chest at cave women and fathered hundreds of cave children. I sighed and poured a glass of wine.
I wanted to be alone. I'd been out all week attending a training seminar for my "real job" at U.S. Trust Investments, basically just videos and exercises teaching us how to scam strangers. We'd tell them we were born in their town, had graduated from their alma mater. We'd hear a baby in the background and use this to direct our next line of attack: A boy or a girl? How old is he or she? You know I have a son or daughter just exactly that age? And how wonderful it is for me knowing I've already invested in his or her future.
I was real good at casual lying. I'd had skillful teachers in my past. "So sorry," I'd tell Seth, "but I'm seeing someone else." And the truth was I did have plans with this Chianti: full-bodied, Italian and dependable. All you could ask for in a date.
I turned on the CD player to Norah Jones, who, regardless of reality, always managed to make me feel better about myself. We're alone, the music seemed to say, and we're all we have, but also we're kind of cool. . . . So armed, I started the answering machine. I listened to silence for nearly a minute as I studied the buttons, sure I'd done something wrong. But then came the voice.
The glass slipped from my hand and shattered, leaving a full-bodied, Italian, dependable stain on the rug.
"It's your number, isn't it? I mean, of course it's you." He cleared his throat, spoke slower, deeper. "
This is Justin . . . Caine. I need to speak with you about something important, something I can't leave in a message."
I backed away, staring at the machine.
"Look, this isn't easy for me. You have to understand how hard it was even looking up your number. I know it's been so long, but there's things happening, something you need to know."
Deep down part of me had been waiting to get this call. Part of me knew he'd figure out the truth about Eve, see what she really was. I'd played it over in my mind so many times, even practiced how I'd react, how I'd steel my shoulders. I'm sorry, I'd say, but you're ten years too late. Go back to your wife. In my mind the words sounded strong and indifferent and slightly accented, like a British aristocrat. But hearing Justin's voice, older maybe, with a new edge but so much the same, everything loosened inside me. My legs felt like putty. There was no strength, no indifference, only the loss.
"Listen, I need you to call me back. I can't tell you through a recording, this is way too important."
I shook my head, looking through the bars on my front window. The window had been barricaded by the last tenants, who'd owned a cat and a small child. I'd never taken the time to remove the bars, even though they made me feel like I was living in the type of place where people drank from unbreakable glasses and made license plates. But even without the bars I'd still feel it, looking down at the lights that flickered day and night: neon pizza, laundromat, the sign that flashed red letters, C-R-E-D-I-T, each in turn, bright enough to stain the walls I'd painted sage green into a sickly brown.
"She's dying, Kerry," he said suddenly. "That's why I'm calling. It's just a matter of time now. She's dying."
I stopped the machine and blinked, blinked again. Nuh-unh. No way. I knew the truth. All these years I'd been able to close my eyes and see it, see her with Justin, with their child, living my life. And always, always happy. I would've felt it if there was anything wrong. I would've known.
I swallowed hard, rewound the machine, listened again.
She's dying. The words smacked me in the chest with the pain of a broken rib. "What?" I asked the machine. "What? What?"
"You need to come down here, really as soon as you can make it. She needs you here." His voice hitched and there was a beat of silence before he continued. "The number's the same. I'll talk to you soon, right? I'll talk to you."
I stopped the machine, my hand trembling so much that it took two tries, then stood with my eyes closed, palm flat against the telephone. "Dying," I whispered, then pressed my lips between my teeth. I turned off Norah Jones and replayed the message, hearing the tone rather than the words. "Justin," I said. "Justin?" I had to see his face. If he was lying, I'd see it in his face. I went to the bookshelf and pulled out one of the thin novels I'd read so many times I knew the words by heart. I stared at his face on the back cover, noises rising from deep in my throat like a hurt kitten or a pleading dog. Justin wouldn't lie about this. Even Justin wouldn't.
Justin Caine, the blurb read, is one of America's best-loved children's writers. His magical Canardia series, named for himself and his wife, Eve Barnard-Caine, have become bestsellers in three countries. He and his wife and daughter live in their childhood home in Rhode Island.
The photograph on the back cover was of Justin with Gillian. She had his sandy blond hair, my square chin, his cocky smile and my gray-green eyes. She was the child we would have had, and she was Eve's.
She's sick, Kerry, she's dying.
I stared down at the faint scars on my wrist, two lines intersecting, jagged and angry. LoraLee had said long ago that sheer wanting could make things happen. I'd thought once that I wanted this. I'd tried to make it happen. And up till now I'd thought it would be a release.
OUR DADDY ALWAYS LIVED on the edge of two worlds, between the present and the past we never talked about. It was what made life so hard for him, and in the end it was why death came so easily. I think we understood this all along, but on this day, his dying day, it was the last thing on our minds.
It was one of those late summer days that always come way too soon, slapping you in the face with all your June plans (Let's learn how to drive! Let's get dreadlocks!) that never got past the planning stage. Last night the temperature had managed to touch fifty before changing its mind, and this morning had been cold enough for sweatshirts and wool socks. Sun and moon shared the sky, twin gray spheres behind the haze of clouds. It was the summer of our sixteenth year.
We slapped down Water Street in our flip-flops, hand in hand, past the swanky hotels with their mansard roofs and attitudes, the not-so-swanky shops below them with their doors flung open to plead for end-of-season business. It was always a little weird in summer not knowing the faces we passed, all versions of the same stereotype with their sunglasses and pasty legs. The tourists made me and Eve feel lucky as we watched them cooing over flowering bushes and ocean views. They made us remember that not everyone lived this way.
We ran down to the jetty with its week-too-old-fish smell and sat with our legs dangling above the water, listening to the boats clock against their moorings and waiting for Daddy to come back from his last charter. Sunday afternoons were our time; at four o'clock when the day-trippers were drying off and changing to hop on the five o'clock ferry, Daddy would fold his sign down early and take us for a run. It had been that way every summer for as long as I could remember.
After a minute of sitting, Eve crossed one leg over mine and began combing her fingers through my hair. "What kind of mood're you in?" she said.
I shook my head. "Hunh?"
"It's just if you're in the wrong mood you overreact to things."
"I'm not in a mood. I mean, you're annoying me a little, but other than that I'm fine."
She was quiet a minute, and then she said, "Okay, I think today's Mom's birthday."
I felt an aching stretch, like my lungs had grown too big for my ribs. "How do you know?"
"His calendar. D B-day, it said. Diana's Birthday, it has to be."
I watched a wave lick against an algae-stained hull, dimly felt Eve pulling my hair back into a braid. "It could be anything, an appointment with Dr. Bradley or . . . a day to Drink Beer."
"Right, Kerry. He needs a reminder to drink." She peered into the distance at a departing ferry, the people waving like they were setting off on a journey that mattered. "You know I can't even remember her face? I remember her hair was dark and real long, past the waist. I remember she was tall and she could blow smoke rings with her cigarette, but that's it."
I fingered the birthday bracelet at my wrist. Our mother had given us the bracelets soon after we were born, and we wore them always, had added links to them when they started to pinch, and gave each other tiny charms to dangle from them, a new one for each birthday. Other than our thick brown hair and ability to tan without burning, they were the only things she'd ever given us that were worth having. "I think she was a dancer," I said.
Of course I had no idea if she was a dancer or a plumber, but I'd always imagined her in ballet shoes and swirly skirts. Since Daddy danced like a spastic turkey, I thought that must be where I'd gotten the genes for my one talent. In my heart I was a dancer, even though we couldn't afford real lessons. When I was eight the instructor of my Modern Movements class had told my father I was destined for greatness if he wanted to ship me to ballet school. Which of course he didn't, so the only type of dance I knew was Modern Movements, which tended to make one look like a flat-footed hippopotamus. But I was painfully sure that dancing stardom was one of those things I would've had, if only.
"If she dances, it's in a strip club," Eve said.
I didn't react to this, so she added, "On men's laps."
"You're so full of it," I said, but the image of our mother (still in ballet shoes) doing a lap dance was now lodged firmly in my mind. "I have this dream sometimes," I said to shake it, "Mom out on a boat somewhere, and she's writing in a journal about everything that's going on, and she's thinking about when she'll come back and show us."
Eve pulled my hair so tight I felt strands popping from my scalp. "Don't be an ass, Kerry."
I bit the inside of my cheek. It was dumb, sure. Obviously. But part of me still believed it, since it upheld the two basic tenets of childhood, that mommies don't leave, and daddies don't lie. Daddy told us when she first left that she was sailing round the world and would be back before we knew it. And for years we'd believed him, had stood for hours at the New Harbor dock waiting for her to emerge from a ferry with a book's worth of stories and piles of exotic gifts (castanets! berets! jalape–o condiments!). We'd speculated on what she was seeing: African tribes with bongo drums, beautiful geisha girls wearing red kimonos and chopstick-fastened buns.
But even though we never talked about it, inside we knew something darker. We remembered fractured images of spat words, a thrown vase, and darkest of all, bloody sheets washed in a sink, red water spiraling down a drain. We didn't know what they meant. We had chosen not to know.
IT WOULD’VE BEEN EASIER, I think, if we’d had an older sister to lean on, or a younger one to take care of. But as it was, there was only Eve and me, and we were no more comfort to each other than we were to our own selves. We held each other wordlessly, slept in one bed like we had years ago. Each morning before I opened my eyes I expected to hear Daddy clattering in the kitchen, hear him whistle “Sweet Molly Malone,” fuzzy through his beard. I lay in bed disoriented, like you feel when you wake in an unexpected place. And my head would swirl and slowly rearrange.
People came and went around us. All of them came, from Ginger Dean’s six-week-old daughter to Emmeline Sugar, locally believed to be the oldest woman on earth. I imagined them standing in a line that stretched from our door down the street, all dressed in black and carrying umbrellas like the nannies in Mary
Justin came and sat with us, not asking questions or offering meaningless platitudes. He just sat with his arms around our shoulders, and we stared at the wall and thought of nothing, diluting the pain between three. Letters came, first sympathy cards and then money left by our doormat in mystifying, unmarked brown envelopes.
Twenty dollars here, ten dollars there; we pictured a neighbor, one of the older women with watery-pale eyes, scuttling up our front steps, full of pity and self-pride. Our grandparents came from West Virginia, our grandparents who hadn’t approved of Daddy’s marriage or later of his divorce, who hadn’t seen us for nearly ten years, who wanted us to call them Bert and Georgia. Without asking our consent they’d determined we’d return with them to West Virginia, once the shock wore off and things settled down. Perhaps as much as anything,
this kept us clinging to each other, as if it could hold us in place.
We heard them talking, Bert and Georgia, heard their whispers and this was how we learned the truth about Daddy’s death. The words they used were reckless and carousing. He’d been in his boat. He’d been drinking. And they blamed it all on us, we knew they did, saw it in their appraising eyes and heard it in their voice. They also told us they’d hired a PI, that they were searching for our mother. And for weeks, until time erased illusion, Eve and I clung to the certainty that now, when we really needed her, she’d come back.
The day after the funeral, the First Warden came with a manila envelope holding Daddy’s belongings. Eve stared at it, eyes wide with fear; these things had touched our father after he was dead! But I opened the envelope and pulled out Daddy’s Timex, held it against my cheek and slipped it loosely over my wrist. Then his wallet, leather bleached by ocean water, holding two crumpled bills (one printed mysteriously in a child’s handwriting with the words Wheat Noodle) and his boating license. At the bottom of the envelope was a thick silver chain
strung with a small key, cylindrical with carved notches. I fingered the grooves, rough against my skin. This was Daddy’s but I’d never seen it before.
I slipped the chain over my head and felt it slide cold between my breasts. From that time on I wore the necklace day and night, tried it on every keyhole from the
front door to the rolltop desk. Every step I took, it swung heavy on my chest, like a question. I knew there was something, a locked journal or jewel box that held some kind of answer to Daddy’s sadness and maybe his death. All the time I wore it, until the day we discovered what it meant, I never told Eve.
Eve and I didn’t talk much about Daddy. I guess we thought that by not talking about it we could keep from blaming him or blaming ourselves. But of course his
death and the accountability were always there behind it all, like the coppery smell of winter or damp in the air. One day I came home to find Eve on the front step, her smile still and unnatural as a wound. I stood watching her, uncertain. “You know what happened?” I said. “I’m walking downtown and there’s Ellen Harte, she sees me and she gets all teary, and just like that she wraps her arms around me. So I’m standing there with my head in her boobs and what am I supposed to do?”
Without speaking, Eve reached into her back pocket and handed me an envelope. It was made out to our mother with an address in New York, which had been crossed out and labeled Address Unknown. It was postmarked
three days before Daddy’s death.
“It was in his desk,” Eve said. “He couldn’t find her. He died because of her.”
Something shivered in my chest. I dropped the letter.
I shook my head.
“Open it!” She snatched the envelope from the step, pulled out a card and threw it at me, its corner smarting against my cheek.
I caught the card against my neck, examined it. It was sketched with a cake and poetry: a birthday card. Inside, it was lettered in Daddy’s flat script.
Well I guess I don’t have much new to say to you this year. Except the girls are fine and growing up to be women so fast you wouldn’t hardly believe it. They’ll go off in a couple years, I’m sure of it, and it’ll be just me again. Hasn’t been just me for so long, I can’t hardly imagine what it’ll be like. You know how it feels, how they’re part of you under separate skin and then where does it all go? Out in the world with them maybe, even if that’s not something I can see. I know they’ve turned out good, and that’s what matters. But it doesn’t mean we still don’t wish you were here all this time.
I reread the card without wanting to, and then again until the words blurred in my head.
“ ‘This year,’ ” Eve said. “Nothing new to say to her ‘this year.’ ”
“He was writing to her the whole time. The whole time?”
“Fucking liar.” Eve’s voice was dark, hollow, coming from somewhere deep inside her. “She’s sailing around the world, he says. She’d be here if she could, he says. And yeah, we knew that was bullshit.”
“But she knew where we were.”
“The whole time we were waiting she knew. We’re like these imbecilic pet dogs or something, thinking any day now she’ll come home and walk us.”
“We could find her, Eve. I’m sure we could get a forwarding address.”
“Are you kidding? How pathetic would that be, having to chase after our own mother?”
“Maybe if she knew about Daddy . . .”
“She’d what, decide she really does give a damn? To tell you the truth I’d rather stay with Bert and Georgia. At least they’re pretending to be grandparents. At least they came.”
I watched Eve for a minute, then sat on the step beside her. I looked out over the gravel drive, spinning inside like a child who’s stared too long at the sun, hurting, burning from it but still not willing to let go. I took Eve’s hand and made the hope flicker out again. “You’re right,” I said without turning to face her. “Okay.”
I knelt in LoraLee’s front yard, helping her pull the pansies that had been bitten by last night’s frost. LoraLee had been my confidante since a time before I’d needed a confidante. She lived near the junkyard in a two-room cabin with no plumbing, decorated with odd findings from the trash heap. The islanders said she was a witch. I remember watching before we’d ever met as she sat
in her garden, brown skin and thick black braid beneath her wide straw hat, hands resting over unopened flower buds. I’d stood there listening to the clink of wind chimes made out of soup can lids, bent forks and green sea glass that hung from the roof and tree branches. LoraLee’s eyes were closed, lips moving in a silent chant, and I thought I could see the buds brighten and swell. I was six
at the time and in love with fairy tales, and standing there I’d remembered how Seth Morgan said he saw her sitting on a broomstick one night looking up at the full moon. Janie Cross told me that LoraLee gave her dog the evil eye for peeing on the lawn, and the next week her dog came down with liver disease and died. I remembered, and I watched her flowers grow, and I knew for sure I was witnessing true magic.
One day I hid behind LoraLee’s stone fence, watching her spray cabbage with an antique perfume bottle. Straightening, she’d looked my way as if she could see (witchlike!) through brambles and stone. She didn’t seem at all surprised, just smiled and waved me over. I’d peered back at her, thinking about Hansel and Gretel, but then I’d steeled my shoulders and let her invite me
inside for tea.
Her cabin was a warm kind of dark, the color of cedar wood. One wall was hung with an orange blanket she told me was woven in Kenya; the tiny figurines she
carved and sold watched from broken tables and ladderback chairs missing their ladders. She whittled a new figurine that day, a little girl wearing a daisy chain who I thought was too brown and wood-veined to look like me but was maybe more like the girl I wished I could be, strong and rough-edged, perhaps of African descent. LoraLee explained to me about flowers, about roots and buds and blooms, growth and destiny, and seeds planted in my soul. They were concepts a little beyond me at the time, but I liked the sound of them all the same.
From that time on she was the one I turned to when I had nowhere else to turn. I’d come to her door and she’d be waiting with spice cookies and tea. She’d sit in her rocker with her whittling and listen, and then she’d tell me the truth about the world, her voice smooth as molasses. I usually left with answers. I always left feeling better.
That day, three weeks after Daddy’s death, I knelt in her garden and eyed the fading flowers. It hurt my heart to kneel there among the endings, and so after a while I brushed off my hands and sat on the front step. LoraLee nodded without looking up, and after a minute came to sit beside me.
I lifted the stained hem of her skirt and held it as if it could give me comfort. “If my father could see us, he’d die all over again,” I said. “He’d want to come down and make things right.”
“Well I’m sure he wish he could,” LoraLee said.
“Do you think he can? See us, I mean.”
“Why yes, I do. I think he see you in his heart jus’ like you sees him.”
“Daddy didn’t believe in heaven. He believed in God, but he didn’t believe in heaven.”
“That right?” LoraLee looked out across the yard, didn’t speak for such a long time that I dropped her skirt, embarrassed. Immediately she took my hand and
squeezed. “Your daddy were a very smart man,” she said.
“What?” This was worrisome. Of course she couldn’t really know for sure one way or another if there was a heaven, but when LoraLee said something it was usually true.
“If you believes in that sort of heaven, you gots to also believe in hell, and I think there ain’t nothin’ so bad a body could do to deserve an eternity shovelin’ and
I stared down at the chipped concrete of the front step. LoraLee looked at me a long while, then squeezed my shoulder and lifted the pail of dead flowers we’d
pulled. She led me to the back of the house, where she emptied the pail on the compost heap and stirred the rich soil over it.
“See this?” she said. “Everything go back to the earth in time. All this here were alive and now it dead, and now it goes back to the earth. And comes spring I takes that earth which is full up with goodness, and out of the goodness come new life. That’s how it works.”
Looking into the pile of weeds and rotting vegetables, it molded, changed, became my father’s face. I suddenly remembered the dull shiver of earth I’d sifted onto his casket. I flinched away.
LoraLee made a hushing sound and pulled me against her bosom. “Oh, chile, don’t you unnerstan’? S’like when you lays on your back on a summer’s eve,
and the stars so bright they reach down to you and you reaches up to them. They pulls you inside till you is them and they is you. That’s what happen, Kerry, what I thinks. You don’t go to heaven, you becomes it.”
I pulled away and looked down at her hands, that strange wooden ring she always wore. The pads of her fingers were wrinkled, like they’d been soaking in water for hours. LoraLee touched the tear snaking down my cheek and shook her head.
“The troubles is bad, Kerry, but it’s the sadness what take away your life. You needs to put your heart at rest and feel the hope of what come to be.”
“I know,” I said, but what I really knew was that there was no hope. There was the darkness of a West Virginia cabin that smelled like old age. There was the bleakness of no ocean and no tourists and a winter that lasted well into spring. And there was the loneliness of grandparents we hardly knew, who didn’t have the faintest idea how to love us.
Excerpted from PIECES OF MY SISTER'S LIFE © Copyright 2012 by Elizabeth Joy Arnold. Reprinted with permission by Bantam Books. All rights reserved.
Pieces of My Sister's Life
- Genres: Fiction
- Mass Market Paperback: 480 pages
- Publisher: Bantam
- ISBN-10: 0385340656
- ISBN-13: 9780385340656