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The view from the attic bathroom always broke my heart a little, for it told the story of my family's own fall: our lost property and standing, our dwindling. The land, as far as I could see, had once belonged to us, to the Harris family. Gran said this had once been fields and meadows surrounding her family's house. Estate back then, she said, when our house was the hub of Sans Souci. But now Sans Souci was a city-swallowed town. The shopping malls and 7-Elevens, billboards and neon signs, reached for us. The city of Palmetto lapped at the shore of our home.
In the distance, I could make out Sans Souci Mill, where it lay sprawled, monstrous and deserted, some kind of thick brush sprouting from its red brick chimneys. My great-grandfather had established the mill in the last century, had built the neighborhood there on mill hill, had financed the pharmacy and soda shop, the jeweler, the motel, the shoe store-most of downtown. A lot of the storefronts were boarded up now, as if they'd been waiting out a hurricane for thirty years. The houses that remained were mostly rentals; we'd heard some outfit up North owned them. And scattered among them were smaller houses, decaying or already gone: stone steps stopping abruptly, eerily, above a grassy lot; the brick remnants of a chimney strewn about a weedy yard like children's blocks in a playroom.
But on our street, the houses were still standing and faintly grand-gussied up with fish-scale roofs, cupolas, and spires-although our kinfolk and neighbors had long abandoned them. New groups had taken residency: there was the home for retarded men across the way, and the Pinkerton and Colleton homes had been divided into apartments, which seemed to attract Palmetto University students, harried single mothers, and older, grim-faced people who had turned a corner in their lives, who cooked on the hot plates in their rooms and attended twelve-step programs at night.
Our house sat at the end of Gerard Avenue: coquettish and tattered, on tippy toes, it seemed, from the encroaching world. In the backyard, our family cemetery guarded its weed-choked dead beside a two-lane highway that should have been four. There had been talk from the highway people, but there wasn't much they could do about moving a graveyard, and so our cemetery remained, a fort that withstood the city's attacks. The headstones were broken or toppled or unrecognizable; one hundred-year-old marble lambs looked like small terriers. And some of the graves were marked by nothing more than gray, worn-down rocks that poked up in a semicircle like neglected, decaying teeth. Only Gran's grave was new, still unsodded after six months. Home will keep you rooted through the black clouds of living! she'd told us. You might dawdle out there in the world for a while, but you'll need a dwelling to protect you.
I believed her.
The minute they ventured out in the world seeking love, seeking more, the women in my family found nothing but trouble. Now my sister Ginnie was going to college, taking classes over in Palmetto. Escaping is how she put it. My sister said I was the crazy one, rattling around the three-story dilapidated mansion our great-grandfather had built before he died of syphilis, wondering how I was going to pay the light bill.
But I knew better.
I'd found Ginnie's pregnancy test that morning.
What happened was, I'd set my mind on a morning bath. I'd donned my mother's white eyelet lace gown from the cedar closet downstairs, the gown Gran had hand-embroidered special for her honeymoon. It was dingy now, the color of coffee-stained teeth, and it puckered around my chest and strained a little around my hips. But it floated elegantly about my ankles as I walked up the stairs to the attic bathroom.
I drew my bath and scattered dried rose petals in the water. I stepped into the tub, pinned up my hair, dipped into the bowl of mayonnaise that had been mixed with fennel and rosemary and soaked secretly in the refrigerator for two days. I patted it on my forehead, my cheeks, across the bridge of my nose. I reclined.
That's when I saw the glossy pregnancy-test box sticking out of the old copper wastebasket. I made it across the floor in two big wet steps. The little color-coded stick was pink. You're going to have a baby! gushed the back of the package. I stood for a while, naked, dripping, with the shock of it. Then I heard her.
The slam of the front door, the heavy thunk of books, and a tinkle of keys hitting the dining room table. I got back into the tub. I slathered on more of the mix, smoothed it on my ears, down my neck. I heard the grating of the kitchen's swinging door as it scraped the paint from the doorjamb. I listened as Ginnie walked through the bedrooms on the second floor, calling for me. It was easy to track her, even three stories up. The house, like a faithful servant whispering secrets, relayed her sounds to me. I felt for the cucumber slices and placed them on my face. When the third step up to the attic screeched, I submerged. Water filled my ears. The cucumber slices eddied and drifted. After a minute, I sensed the light shifting and her shadow falling over me. "What in the hell? Cutter, what are you doing? It is you, isn't it? Behind all that stuff?" She was standing over me now. "I'm celebrating," I said, squinting up at her. "Can't you tell?" "This is celebrating?" She paused, a little out of breath from racing up all those stairs. "I just want to say that I'm sorry-I'm really sorry-about not showing up last night." This was a practiced answer, without the remorse I required. The day before had been my twenty-fifth birthday, and no one had remembered, not even Ginnie, my own sister, my Irish twin, eleven months younger than I. "So, did you do anything special?" I shook my head. "C'mon. Didn't anyone remember your birthday?" "Oh, yeah," I said. "There's a happy birthday postcard from the dentist with a coupon for free mint floss." She sighed.
I had the satisfaction of seeing her mouth tighten to a line. Since Gran had died, we were both in limbo. Also, drifting apart. Ginnie kept telling me that we would have to sell the house. But packing up and selling three generations of our family's leavings felt like betrayal. I still couldn't bear going into Gran's bedroom. The fine, fragrant talc dusting on the dresser, the brush webbed in silver hair, the fifty-year collection of black handbags stuffed in the top of the closet-it was all too much, too much. "Your face looks like a salad, you know that?" She dragged over a stool from the corner, sat down beside the tub. " 'It's certain that fine women eat a crazy salad with their meat.' " Her voice was patient, like a teacher's. "Who said that? Julia Child?" "Yeats. William Butler Yeats." I made a face, felt the cucumbers shift a little. Ginnie reached out and touched my arm with her fingers, left a track in the glob of white on my arm. Her fingernails were bitten, the flesh raw, bleeding a little around her thumb. "What gave you the idea for this?" she asked. Gran's old beauty books. But I would never admit that to her. "Cosmo. Last month's."
I had discovered the recipe in a book in the basement just last week, had devoured its advice and warnings about beauty, and instructions for potpourri, herbal masks, and beauty soaks. The stern Victorian words, capitalized and underscored: The Young Lady is advised to retire to the Privacy of her own toiletry with only the company of her Maid to assist in the Beauty Episode. When I had leafed through the yellowed, musty pages, a pressed pansy, as brittle and brown as a moth's wing, had zigzagged to the floor in a papery flurry. "I brought beer," she said. "It's downstairs in the fridge." "Why?" "For you. To really celebrate." "I don't drink beer." She walked over to an alcove window, stood with her back to me. I wondered if she would even tell me. I glanced over at the wastebasket in the corner where the pregnancy-test box was crammed out of sight. I pulled the mildewed shower curtain between us. She cleared her throat. "I'm going away this weekend." "Well," I said, "that's not news."
I spread more of the mix on my shoulders, across my collarbones. "I mean I'm not just staying away over at Susan's or Penny's-I'm going away. I'm going away-with Him." Him. Capitalized, as if He were in red like the print in Gran's Bible. The starring parts, where Jesus spoke. "Your teacher?" I peeked out from the shower curtain and she turned to face me. She nodded, walked over, and sat down on the stool again. Her face was soft now, damp from the steam of my bath and the heat of her news. Her eyebrows were as white as cornsilk, her eyelashes clear. My sister had a certain pale, bright beauty, while I was an almost blonde, a shadowy hybrid. Ginnie was willowy and golden, I was shorter and freckled. I imagined our in utero tug-of-war. How she had seized all those pale, paternal Scandinavian genes, pulled at those chromosomes until they stretched like taffy. "We're going to a conference today-all day with a stopover in a log cabin tonight in the mountains." She tried to keep her face blank.
"And you're going as his"-I searched for the term, then held it with tongs-"student assistant?" "Well . . . yes." "Doesn't he have a family? I mean, how can you forget that?" "Believe me, I don't forget Wife." "What if she finds out about this?" "Wife doesn't go out. Anywhere. Daniel does everything for her. She's like an invalid or something. But there's nothing wrong with her. Wife is just real sensitive or something." She shrugged her shoulders. I sunk back in the water. I looked down at my knees poking out of the gooey, white water like identical pink islands. "Cutter, this is important, so listen. If anyone calls me this weekend, I don't care who they are or what they want, tell them I'm at the library."
Ah. So that explained our chat. An alibi. "I'm not going to lie," I said. "It's Wife, isn't it?" It was the first time I used the nickname, and I felt its power to distance, to make fun, even as I felt ashamed for using it. "She knows." "No, she doesn't. But there's been . . . some gossip." "I'm shocked."
"Don't, Cutter. Sarcasm is derived from the Greek for 'tearing of the flesh.' Did you know that? It means 'to wound.' " I rinsed off and wrapped myself in a towel. When I finished she was sitting on the stool again, looking down. "If Gran weren't dead, this would kill her," I said, shaking my head. "Kill her." "Who cares about the past? I'm talking about the here and now. And the future. I'm talking about reality." I detected the slightest wobble in her voice. If I thought she'd listen to me, I would have reminded her that our family's motto could be "Love goeth before the fall." "I have to pack now. He's coming to pick me up." My sister wrapped her arms around herself, her gaze softened. I knew she was gone from me, then. Love had snatched her away.
It's hard to say even now, two years later, what came first-Ginnie's passion for Daniel Byers or her love for literature. They'd seemed to arrive together. For months, since she'd announced that she was changing majors from business to English, Ginnie had doted on him. She'd taken to delivering rambling lines of poetry and then reciting what Daniel Byers said about that poetry. It was too much for me. "Look," I'd asked one day, interrupting her midsonnet, "have you got something going with your teacher or what?" "No," she said, looking shocked and a little peevish. "But we're together." I'd never met Daniel Byers, but I knew some things about him. I'd heard about his prodigious memory. The previous fall when the lead and the understudy for the university's showing of Hamlet had got salmonella poisoning from the chicken salad sandwiches served at the opening night cast party, Daniel Byers had volunteered to step in with only an hour's notice, and he never forgot a line. He'd performed flawlessly, Ginnie said, and she kept repeating that. Flawlessly, she'd whispered, shaking her head. Also, he was a cyclist. One of those serious ones, Ginnie told me, with a tear-shaped helmet, fingerless gloves, and tight, shiny shorts. And he believes in making what he teaches come to life, she said. If you took his class, you would not be bored. He was known to stand on his desk and recite lines of poetry or prose when he saw his students stifle yawns or prop their heads on their books, usually in the middle of something like The Waste Land or Walden. I could hear Ginnie in her bedroom drying her hair now, getting dressed. I went downstairs to water the fern out on the porch. A red Toyota pulled in our drive, and I knew it was Daniel Byers. He got out of the car when he saw me on the porch. He had a limp, a catch in his pace like an extra beat in a song, a little flourish in a dance step, so practiced and smoothed over, I knew he'd had that limp all his life. And I thought, Oh good Lord, another thing Ginnie didn't tell me. She's taken up with a cripple! And then he drew closer and smiled, and for a minute-a sweet, forbidden flash of time-I knew what it was like to be wanted, to be the single, sharp focus of another's attention. That was before he squinted at me, confused. I was used to it. From a distance, my sister and I looked similar enough to give people a start. People would call me Ginnie, then pause, take in the darker hair, the freckles, and apologize for the mix-up. I'd come to think of myself as Ginnie on a bad day. "You must be Cutter." He knew my name and that surprised me. But I refused to be flattered. "That's me."
He came over to the porch steps. He had on khakis and a denim shirt. Dark hair receding around his temples and a little too long in the back. The ordinary facade did not fool me. There was something pent up, an energy humming below the surface that my sister had tapped into. You could see it in the way he rocked on his heels as he stood on the walkway. He was nervous. He knew that I knew about him and Ginnie. When he smiled, the sliver of space between his front teeth showed a narrow slice of tongue, gave him a puckish grin. I stared for a minute at his outstretched hand until I realized he meant for me to take it. Shaking his hand made me feel stodgy and formal, like a chaperone.
"Your sister told me about you." "What did she say?" "Just that you are . . . industrious." He meant my two jobs. I said nothing. The way he talked was clipped, abrupt. Chopping off the ends of words. Around here, we did not do that. Around here, we let our words linger a little in our mouths like mints. "I guess she said she wanted me to get back in school." He nodded. "She mentioned that, yes." "Well, somebody has to pay the light bill and buy groceries." He put his hands in his pockets, glanced up at the windows. He took a few steps back. The For Sale sign leaned against the porch. "Had any offers on the house?" "Nope. None." I waved to Father Bob across the street. He reached into the mailbox and divided the mail into two piles and handed it over to the men trailing behind him. Daniel turned to see who I was waving to. "It's a group home. Father Bob's Home for Men, we call it. They're retarded-" "Mentally disabled?" "Yeah." I looked at him sharply. He wasn't my teacher. "Unfortunately, I guess a home like that might scare off buyers." "But they're good neighbors. I know them all over there. If Pinky doesn't take his medicine, he thinks his hands will fly off, and Richard wanders away sometimes. Stan has Down's syndrome, he's real easy, and he's affectionate. Alfred's my favorite. I'm trying to have him hired on down at the newspaper where I work. I get a kick out of him." Silence. Daniel was looking at his watch. "So, how much land do you have here?" "Three acres or so. Of course, part of that is the dead garden." "Dead garden?" He met my eyes. I tried not to smirk. "The family cemetery. That's what we've always called it." There. See? We're as crazy as hell. "The family cemetery?" Goddamn him, he was amused. "Actually, it makes a nice buffer zone. Keeps the city away back there." "It's not used anymore, is it?" "My grandmother was just buried there," I said. "If you stand right over there behind the house, you can see her grave. It's got a new stone." I expected him to look uncomfortable, to look away, but he met my eyes. "Are you trying to spook me, Cutter?" "Spook you? Nah."
The screen door banged, and I didn't have to look at Ginnie to know she was furious. "You didn't tell me Daniel was here." A hissing whisper from behind my right shoulder. "We were just talking till you got ready," I said. "I can't help it if you're up there primping all day. When will you be back?" "I'll call you tomorrow."
"I'd be honored."
Daniel cleared his throat, and Ginnie's eyes locked on to him. He was standing at the bottom of the steps, staring up at her. It was like I wasn't even there. Like I had been vaporized from my own front porch. I wondered if Daniel Byers was different. Not just a brief stop for Ginnie after all. Not like all the others. And there'd been lots of others. In high school there'd been a parade of lanky runners, a couple of strapping football stars with cropped hair and powerful necks, a German soccer player. Later, a biker named Slick showed up for a while, with a do-rag and raging, tattooed biceps. Then there was the doctor she'd met in the ER where she'd taken Slick after he'd wrecked his Harley. Next was Glen, a social worker from across the street at Father Bob's. Smitten, all of them. Mauled and bruised and besotted by Ginnie, who was amused at their fixation, then irritated, and, eventually, bored. The sharp, clean smell of shampoo and bath soap drifted over to me as Ginnie stepped down. She carried a haphazard stack of books and files, an overnight bag slung across her shoulder. She must have grabbed everything at once when she looked out and saw Daniel's car. When she took a step down, three giant textbooks tumbled across the porch steps, their covers spreading open indignantly, white pages revealed like petticoats.
The O of her mouth broadened into a smile while Daniel scrambled to gather them. By then I had stepped back behind the screen door. "I wasn't sure how much reading time I'd have," she told him. "I brought everything." "Did you squeeze in a toothbrush?" he asked. Laughter. "Of course." "Well, that's what matters. Books and a toothbrush-that's all you need in life." Daniel took Ginnie's bag and tossed it in the trunk. Inside the car, the shadowy silhouettes of their heads merged for a minute, before they drove off, Ginnie not even looking back.
I went inside and got the six-pack that Ginnie had left me. I wasn't one to drink. But on this Saturday morning I sat on the porch in the old mildewed, peeling wicker rocker sipping beer, and pretty soon I'd drunk three of them pretty fast. I stood up and wiped my hands on my sweatshirt. The place looked too good for a Saturday. That was dangerous. Mrs. Worthington would very likely come by with prospective buyers, flinging her "excellent first home," "a real fixer-upper," "stunning potential" phrases around like confetti. I needed buyers to see more than benign neglect; I wanted them scared away by a mean dilapidation. A week ago, when Mrs. Worthington had brought an older man to "have a quick little walk-through," I could tell the clutter in the house and the patchy lawn had gotten to her. A few days later she had sent a pamphlet filled with tips for home sellers. "Make some cookies or cinnamon buns and let the aroma waft through the house," it said. "Keep your lawn lush and trimmed and your yard well maintained. Keep closets organized and keep all personal items out of view." Now I found the pamphlet useful. It was a blueprint for sabotage. Barry, my older brother, was stationed at a marine base four hours away. He was pushing for the house to be sold, dreaming about the candy-red Corvette he was going to buy with his share of the proceeds. Ginnie preferred living in the clean emptiness of the carpeted condos of her college friends to spending the night with me in her own home. But the day was coming when she would need me, when our home would be a sanctuary again.
I put the For Sale sign in a plastic leaf bag and set it out back with the garbage. I walked around the backyard. Bed linens, a bra, two dish towels, and a tablecloth hung out on the clothesline, snapped in the wind impatiently. I buried my face in a sheet. Well, I would leave the laundry out; it added a certain atmosphere of neglect, as did the lily pad pond overtaken by ivy, the roses choked with weeds. A few hydrangea blossoms hung brown and dry on the shrubs, rattling sadly in the breeze. It was well hidden, the splendor of what had been, and that was fine with me. I could still remember Gran's garden out back the way it used to be-goldfish in the pond; hydrangea blooms heavy and blue, the color of the sky; sunflowers bent down upon themselves.
When Mrs. Worthington figured out that I wasn't going to allow this house-Gran's house-to be sold, she would try to talk to my brother about it. Barry was hard to get a hold of, but Mrs. Worthington would do it eventually. Thank goodness Ginnie was too caught up in her love life to worry about the house. But I needed to sock away money. I needed to find a way to buy out Ginnie and Barry's shares. And with my two jobs, maybe I could find a bank that would let me take out a mortgage. Maybe. I sighed. The remnants of last summer's kitchen garden-yellow squash, runner beans, cucumbers, tomatoes-were withered, left wild. I got out the hose, watered, and found myself standing where my grandfather had turned mad one day more than half a century earlier at a company picnic he had hosted. As Gran had explained it, his madness wasn't a gradual kind of edging away from reality, it was a sudden release-like a beam breaking. One day he was ringing horseshoes right here, the next day he was shattering every pane of glass he saw. No one's house on Gerard Avenue had been spared. The police finally found him in Sans Souci First Baptist Church scribbling in the Bibles, scratching out the name Jezebel, then writing in my grandmother's name above so that they read ". . . the woman Myrtle Ann, which calleth herself a prophetess, does teach and seduce my servants to commit fornication . . ." He ended up in the State Hospital, where he died years later. "I have no idea, no inkling of what brought that on," Gran would tell us all our lives, her voice still full of surprise and sadness. "It was like the man I knew was there one moment, kissing me on the forehead, smiling and holding your mama, and waving to the workers out there, and the next moment his soul just disappeared." When my grandmother found herself raising a daughter alone, she said she began to realize that as far as husbands, the Harris women couldn't pick 'em and shouldn't pick 'em. Hadn't her own mother nursed her father through the late stages of syphilis? Held the camphor-soaked cloth to his temple as he foamed at the mouth like a stallion run too hard? Gran warned my mother to wait for a strong, sensible specimen, one that luck looked fondly upon. My mother picked one U.S. Navy Lieutenant Gerald Johanson, shipped out to Nam, serving two tours before being lost in foreign waters, presumed dead at twenty-three. My mother picked one that left her with two babies and a toddler, a man that left us half orphaned before she, running out for a pound of sugar, a box of Ivory Snow detergent, and a pound of snap beans three years later, finished the job when her car collided with an eighteen-wheeler.
Inside, I got myself another beer, my fourth. I was light-headed and giddy. It was a new experience. I like it, I thought, then realized I'd said it out loud. I walked through the house trying to see it through the eyes of a stranger. I tried to forget all the years of my life that lay curled up like cats in the sunny corners, on the stairs, memories that winked and purred as I passed. My parents were married here, at the base of the stairs. I'd studied the portrait showing ivy-draped banisters, my father in his uniform gripping my mother's waist as she clutched white roses. There, in front of the fireplace mantel, Ginnie and I had posed in tutus and tiaras for our dance portraits. And in the parlor, behind the heavy French windows, Gran had huddled weekly with her ever-shrinking group of women friends, murmuring recipes, Bible verses, and gossip over iced tea. I started to scramble eggs then changed my mind and made egg salad. It would really stink up the place. I made a mental note to buy broccoli later today: I could use its stench, too. While the eggs boiled, I sat down on the couch and reached for the hair necklace I was working on. At the Ripley's Believe It or Not Museum at Myrtle Beach, I had seen an exhibition about the Victorian custom of weaving jewelry from the hair of dead relatives. I didn't have a dead loved one's hair, so I just had six inches cut off my own hair and started crocheting. It wasn't easy. A hair necklace is hard to make when the hair is slick and unwieldy, so I settled on making a hair doily. Ginnie refused to be around when I worked on it. That gave me an idea. I would leave my hair doily out for Mrs. Worthington.
I started knitting but I couldn't concentrate. What a bad day already! I pictured driving Ginnie to the abortion clinic in Palmetto, that anonymous metal building behind a high wooden fence, a constant knot of protestors in front. I'd read TV Guide and Reader's Digest in the waiting room. Or hold her hand back in an examining room. Or sign up as her Lamaze coach.
I heard a car drive by slowly, turn around, and drive by again. I froze, listened hard. The whizzing traffic on the highway out back made a steady roar like the ocean, but this was a car right out front. I darted over to the door and peeked through the sheer curtains. Mrs. Worthington's silver Mercedes was nowhere in sight. Instead, I could see a woman hunched over, motionless, in a brown Honda Civic parked at the curb. A potential buyer, maybe. Or another Realtor. Nothing good, that was for sure.