There were these things I saw through the window: our parents'
coffee table, askew, furrows in the carpet from where it usually
sat--that's how well I could see, how clearly. The light was on,
dim light but enough--it was dark where I stood in the backyard,
outside the living room window. So: there was the table, the couch
of nubby plaid, my sister on her back, head hung over the armrest,
blonde hair brushing the floor, and on my sister was a boy whose
name I've since forgotten, jeans crumpled to his knees, skinny
hips, white ass, rocking himself into her like that.
Then I was fifteen, old enough to know enough to watch--that would
be me in a year, I thought, standing in the backyard, waiting
for the dog to finish, cold wet grass and weeds scratching at
my legs. I moved closer to the window, to the side, my cheek almost
against the brick of the house, angling, squinting. Watch, I thought
then: this is a thing I need to know.
This boy on my sister, on her pretty white skin. We'd slept together,
my sister and I, curled into her narrow bed after our mother turned
out the light. After she shut the door I left my own bed, fit
myself against my sister like a snail to its shell, my face in
her tangled hair. She smelled like yewberries then, at eight or
nine, still taller than me and thin, dirty feet, hands stained
red from berry paint.
I pressed my face against the house, shooed the dog away, watched
this boy on top of her. I watched the shadows on the ceiling,
shaped, humped, moving in almost even time, sharp above the lamp
and blurry farther out. I watched my sister's hands on his back,
gripping the cheap fabric of his shirt and my own hands I know
now were clenched, fisted tight against my legs. I was afraid
to open them. I watched until I saw the last thing, the thing
I saw before they finished: beyond the couch, up three steps to
the doorway of the kitchen, the wall there covered with pictures
of us, straw hats, sunburns, sand, our father lifting us both
above a wave, one on either hand, tracking the steps up to the
kitchen landing, to where our father stood.
If my sister had lifted her head, had opened her eyes enough to
see, their eyes would have met. I watched our father watching
them, my sister in between us with her hair dragging the carpet
and her arms twisted above her head in her tangled sleeves.
I cannot, now, imagine his face, shadowed, outlined, nothing more.
I thought he must have had no face, not then, not watching that--how
would that face look? Mouth set or slightly open, eyes bleary
or not, hooded, red-rimmed, shot through with gin-soaked veins.
His little girl, his darling--I knew who he loved best.
My sister taught me this: that our father could be charmed, teased,
bought--with drinks at the door when he got home, with kisses
to the back of his neck as he bent over the paper, with perfume
behind our ears at dinner. Our mother was no competition for her.
Our mother, who had been beautiful, had woken one morning in a
house that was no longer hers, had woken to find it given over
to her oldest daughter while she slept. Walls, windows, doors,
fingerprinted and smudged, strands of my sister's hair like voodoo
trails all over.
They slept in separate beds, our parents, the reach of a nighttable
between them, their door open across from our closed one, and
in my sister's bed I smelled yewberries, faint, bitter and early
in August. We mashed them in the backyard into paste, striped
our cheeks and foreheads, sharpened sticks the length of babies'
arms into spears. My arms were mapped with scratches, scabbed
and then picked clean. We had the same hands, thin-skinned, backs
traced by veins in winter, dark with dirt and sun in summer, too
smooth yet to be leathery then. Our feet, too, the same, narrow
and bony, toes like monkeys had said our father, long and grasping.
My sister could write her name with a marker held in her curled
My sister's husband, the first time we were together, said to
me She told me the two of you were the same. He wrapped
his hands in my hair, darker than hers and not as long, never
quite as long, wrapped his hands and pulled until my head rocked
back, until I thought my breath would stop. He licked the sweat
that slicked my throat, that ran between my breasts. We were in
my bedroom which was hot and oven-close, windows facing an alley,
the back lot of a church. There was a festival: the bingo hall,
the wheel of fortune, the priests who sat at paper-covered tables
and ate sausage wrapped in dripping napkins and foil. There were
the smells of grilling meat and fried dough, burnt sugar, sweat
and sweet perfume.
My sister's husband told me things about her I already knew. He
told me he loved her and he told me how much.
Yewberries are poisonous. Our mother scrubbed our hands and faces
with soap and disinfectant. She dusted tables and polished mirrors,
served us dinner. She never wore an apron. On her dresser were
jars and bottles, makeup I never saw her wear. We used this, then,
after the berries, warpaint first and then done right, lips red,
eyes lined, practicing. We sat for dinner one night like that
and our mother said Get that garbage off your faces. I will
not have that at my table.
For our mother, it was that simple: the protocol, the rules, the
things we could not do. We knew not to set the table with napkins
laid on plates, with goblets upside down.
Later, through the bedroom wall: Your daughters run wild, Richard,
like trash. And our father's voice, indistinct, not soothing,
and the clink of ice on glass. When the lights were out I heard
him walking, his tread uneven, one step heavier than the other.
He limped, a fracture badly healed, his car accordioned a year
before. I knew when he stood in our bedroom doorway: that tread,
the creak of door, the smell of cigarettes still on his shirt
from work. This was a smell I hated, a smell I pulled away from
when I hugged him every night, the smell of where he'd been. I
didn't think of this until later, until after my sister had gone
and I stood waiting by the side of the road for a car that didn't
come, waiting for that boy to come for me like he had come for
her, lighting one cigarette off the end of another.
Now, I time myself. A cigarette on the hour, every hour: not even
a pack a day. There are lines around my mouth, at the corners
of my eyes. Suck, pull, squint. I am aging by the clock.
The boy that night was Joe, or Jim, I think--the name on the patch
of a shirt I'd seen him wear before, the kind mechanics wear.
But those are shirts got used, a quarter from a bin at the back
of a thrift store, wrinkled and stained. Our father watched that
inside his daughter, a boy in a shirt with someone else's name
on it, and I waited outside the window, how long? Only minutes,
I think now, with the dog whining at my ankles, waiting. Ten years
later I stood next to the altar, watching her on our father's
arm, coming almost crooked down the aisle, almost lurching our
father was by then, and I thought the limp was hers, that by the
time they reached the altar I would have to hold her up. Across
from me the groom cleared his throat, coughed, looked down at
his shoes. Our father's eyes up close were yellowed, and I thought
for just one moment that he would stop, refuse to take another
step; that he would pick my sister up and run with her, back up
the aisle and out the door.
Her husband called me on a Sunday, after how many months? Not
even a year. He called and said Please, meet me, I need to
talk to you.
It would be a lie for me to say I didn't know then. I dressed:
nothing special, not outright, and black silk underneath. He would
tell me there were problems, he would say they were her fault,
and I would believe him because it would be easy, because I would
have no reason not to. I put on lipstick and perfume and got into
my car, thinking. I would say: She is difficult, she has always
been difficult. You are not to blame if she lies to you, if she
hides things from you. We all know. I would put my hand on his
and speak quietly, make him lean to hear me. Do you want me to
talk to her, I would say.
As it happened: I bought him a drink and listened to him talk
about her, things I'd heard before in my mother's voice. Anything
that happens to her will be your fault, Richard, do you understand
that? We sat in a bar for an hour before leaving. He followed
me back, parked in the back lot of the church. I thought as I
walked up the steps, opened my door, and let him go in first:
This is the worst thing I've ever done, the one unforgiveable
thing, and there will be no witnesses.
And I waited for someone to stop me. I stood in front of him and
unbuttoned my shirt, stepped out of my pants, waiting for him
to say Don't do this, stood in that underwear I'd bought
with my sister, let her pick out and never worn because I didn't
wear things like that. I stood, waiting, waiting for anything,
for my father's voice in my ears, for his face I couldn't see
from where I stood that night. My sister's husband put his tongue
in my mouth and I thought I tasted her.
Once, not long after my sister had gone, I climbed from my window
and ran down the street, ready to spread my legs in the back of
a stolen car. I walked two miles. I stood at the locked gate of
a park by the road, I leaned up on chainlink fence and smoked.
I waited an hour before turning back, before walking home thinking
There was an accident, he got caught, got arrested, and
wanting these things to be true.
When I got home every light in the house was burning. Stupid
little whore, my father said at the front door, my mother
behind him, shaking. He caught me by my hair, pulled me in, his
bad leg dragging, catching on the carpet's edge. His glass was
on the coffee table, the ice cubes melting, condensation puddling
on the wood already shadowed by old water stains. When he slapped
me his hand was cold and wet. I should take your pants down,
he said, but that's been done already.
All right, I thought, think that, it's the easy thing, the thing
you've gotten used to.
He hadn't stopped them, that I know. I didn't watch them finish.
I sat down in the grass, the dog's head in my lap, wet nose quivering,
snapping at nightbugs. I didn't hear them finish, but if I had,
would I have known the sound--a choke of breath, a long exhale?
I didn't hear our father walk away--it must have been so hard
for him, to be that quiet on his leg, to balance all his weight
on the sloping kitchen floor. There was no sound that night until
the boy's car pulled away, and even that was not so loud; distant,
low in the humid air, giving out to crickets and the whining of
There was, at the festival, a wooden pole, twenty-five feet high
and covered in grease that dripped and ran in the sun. Men lined
up beneath it, shirts off and given to their mothers or wives
to hold, and dipped into a pile of sawdust at the base of the
pole. They covered their bare chests with it, slapped it onto
arms and legs, rubbed it between their sweating palms, and each,
in his turn, attempted to climb. There was a cloth affixed to
the top of the pole: this was what needed to be gotten.
From my bedroom window I could see them climb: the tops of their
heads, hair matted with sweat and sawdust, faces tilted back or
pressed to the slick wood, eyes squeezed shut to the glare of
sun. The best came close, gripping with chalked knees and bare
feet, taped hands, shoulders bunched and knotted, sunburnt, gaining
inches, half a foot then slipping, praying for a rough spot where
the grease had melted off. Some bled before they fell, each allowed
three tries before moving to the side.
There was a band as well, and majorettes around the pole, girls
eleven and twelve, most of them heavy, their wide dark nipples
showing through the bodysuits, or else in bras that held up nothing,
the flesh of their legs jiggling as they tossed and dropped batons.
We had never looked like that, never been so soft and doughy.
Our mother would not have had it. She starched and ironed t-shirts,
made sure our nails were clean before we went to bed.
Our father took us on his lap until we no longer fit, even with
our legs curled tightly to one side, and even then my sister kept
on, twisting herself, tucking her knees up under her shirt until
it was stretched and torn. In the summer, he held her there on
the back porch, both of them watching my mother and me kneeling
in the garden, digging rows for lettuce and for mint. If someone
had seen us then, he would have smiled, thinking only of our parents,
how lucky they were with their two girls, their garden and their
My mother taught me to pile dead leaves around the lettuce to
protect the soil from the scorch of sun. She worked with heavy
gloves on, her fingers moving through the earth and leaves, faster
than I could barehanded. With me, though, she was patient; she
had learned that much.
If someone had been watching he would have imagined our table
at night: tomatoes and cucumbers piled, fresh mint and basil,
the kitchen door opened onto our backyard, and peach souffle for
after, because our mother's hands could do that, could coax up
eggs and milk and fruit, suspended, quivering, impossible to figure.
Her silence I only heard in relief, I only recognized when I heard
her voice at night, rising up through the vents in our bedroom
floor, or coming shrill from across the hall, and I thought What
has my mother said today, what has she said before now? I
heard my sister's name, enunciated, drawn out, my mother's voice
insistent over her husband's slurring. My mother had been to college.
What are you teaching her? I heard my mother say, as clearly
as though she were in bed next to me. Do you have any idea
what will happen to her after you're done with her? I won't let
you do this with the other one, Richard. Not with her, not both
of them, not both my girls.
I had never heard her call us mine.
My face was to my sister's back, scratched by brambles from the
woods behind our house, drops of drying blood on her nightgown,
bits of bark still in her hair our father's brush had missed.
When he came up to our room he knelt beside the bed, laid his
head on the flowered sheet. I didn't move or turn: I could hear
my mother moving in their room, the clink of jars on the dresser,
the creak of closet doors, and our father's catch of breath in
a haze of gin and lime. My sister slept on, turned away from me
beside our father's hands.
There is no one thing that I remember, not before I watched that
boy on top of her, nothing even after. She circled my father like
some small moon, kept at no great distance by any force of gravity
on either side of that night--before, after, no difference I could
see. When she packed to leave, my mother and I sat at the kitchen
table, waiting. The kitchen door was open, the grass outside high,
brown-tipped towards the field behind our lawn where my father
never watered. There was forsythia and pussy willow edging the
garden, there was a vase of them on the table. The dog lay between
our feet. We drank iced tea with mint.
I thought: If someone gets to the top of the pole, manages to
snatch the cloth from it, one quick turn before sliding down and
he would see us, would see my sister's husband pulling me to him
by my ankles across the bed.
After my father slapped me my mother followed me to my room, closed
the door behind us and took me in her arms. I wore no makeup,
I had no money, my hips were narrow like my father's. The window
I'd climbed from was still open. She turned down my sheets, took
my clothes as I stripped. She brought her pillow in from her bed,
propped it against the wall and sat.
The next morning she had not moved, not that I could see. My clothes
were folded on my sister's bed.
The festival ends today. The crowd is denser, men pressed around
the stalls. My sister's husband leans from my window, naked, visible
to the line of his hip for anyone who wants to know. His back
is slick, his hairline almost dripping. I think he could climb
the pole: if he were my husband I would want him to.
He has told me, these past days, that he does not know what to
do. He says this over endlessly, as though by saying it he will
somehow come to understand. I can't make her hear me, he says.
I have no explanation. I think of her, of sleeping at her back,
of the paint striped on her skin. I tell him: I don't know her,
I say, I only know the things I saw. She has her secrets.
But this is not enough. I could say to him: Did she tell you what
our father saw? Did she tell you what she let him see?
I could say: If it had been me, he would've beaten me until I
couldn't move, torn my hair out by the roots. I have no doubts,
Or I could say: she planned that, she wanted him to see. She brought
that boy into our house and she saw the lights were on. Your wife
was on her back, her arms bound up in twisted sleeves, her legs
locked around his hips beneath the fabric of his shirt, of someone
else's shirt, and her father stood and watched.
We are not the same, I tell him
In my garden, I would plant tomatoes and cucumbers, I think. Peppers
and lettuce, dark green and leafy. There is no room here for that,
for mosquitos and caterpillars, forsythia. But I would fill it:
parsley, mint, small shoes, plastic shovels, dolls, tiny arms
and legs on climbing vines, sun-warmed and fleshy.
Outside my window I can see the procession: the pastor of the
church in gold and crimson robes and behind him the other priests,
the extraordinary ministers and their wives. The last, finally,
are the nuns, habits billowing in the hot wind, rosaries tristed
through their fingers. They walk behind the float, a statue of
the Virgin Mary crowned with plastic dimestore flowers on a wheeled
plywood frame. They walk and parents push their children forward
with money clenched in greasy fingers, bills the nuns attach to
money clips that line the edges of the float, and their faces
shine with rapture.