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Mother of Pearl
By Edward Swift
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1989 Edward Swift
All rights reserved.
The elderly McAlister sisters, Pearl in khaki pants and Wanda Gay in an organdy dress, sat on the wedding porch of their family house swinging and arguing over the placement of the new rose bushes that had arrived in the afternoon mail. The argument had begun as soon as the mailman, who always approached the McAlister residence with caution, had delivered the package, which required a signature. Both sisters had been determined to sign for it, and both had been determined to open it. With two signatures on the delivery slip—one written with the delicacy of a spider's web and the other with a heavy hand that sliced through the paper—the postman had left the sisters, each brandishing a pair of scissors, to open the package the best way they could. Together they had attacked it with scissors and clawing fingers until the string and wrapping was strewn about the porch and the rose bushes had tumbled into the yard.
"The one labeled Blood Red is mine," Wanda Gay said, going for the bush of her choice.
"You have always gone for blood, Sister." Pearl, whose hair was winter white, cradled a bush marked Pink Beauty in her arms. "I prefer softer colors myself."
Then came the argument over ownership of the third bush, as well as the proper place for planting. Wanda Gay favored the backyard, but Pearl preferred the front. The argument would continue, their neighbors knew, into the afternoon and possibly the night.
As expected, Pearl, rawboned, and Wanda Gay, round and heavily powdered, carried their planting dispute through supper, the feeding of the cats, and the washing of the dishes. Famous for their perpetual spats, each sister hardly ever had a kind word for the other, yet both were easily angered by any suggestion of hatred between them.
This was their last spring together. Wanda Gay, a diabetic, was to take ill in late summer and die in the Morehope County Hospital, and Pearl, accused of her sister's death, was to last no longer than St. Valentine's Day the following year. But that early spring evening when the fireflies were swarming about their bare legs, and the candle moths were clinging to the screen door, neither sister thought of dying. Into the night they sat on the porch where their parents had been joined in wedlock and argued vociferously over placement of the Tyler roses. Their neighbors across the fence listened to every word.
"I intend to plant one of them under my window and the other two on either side of the sidewalk." Pearl held a cigarette she had just rolled herself between her tightly pursed lips and spoke around it. "I also intend to have my way, Sister. It's my green thumb not yours."
"You'll get your way over my dead body." Wanda Gay spoke in the most threatening tone her lack of energy would allow. "I will not have those rose thorns ripping my fine dresses when I decide to take the sidewalk."
"Then perhaps, Sister, you will not be taking the sidewalk any time soon," Pearl said, attempting to read the planting instructions by a shaft of light from the nearest window. "After the roses are planted you will be expected to change some of your daily habits. For example, when leaving or returning to the house you will be expected to remind yourself to use the driveway instead of the sidewalk. That won't hurt you, will it?"
"I don't see why I, a sugar diabetic invalid, should be the one to alter my daily routine," said Wanda Gay. "That doesn't make sense to me."
"If you don't wish to ruin your dresses, it makes sense," said Pearl. Giving her total attention to the planting instructions, she abandoned the argument while Wanda Gay sulked.
Presently Wanda Gay opened a can of mixed nuts. She picked out the Brazil nuts and threw them into the street. Then she amused herself by wondering out loud what they would be doing if their brother Frank were still alive.
"Oh he's not dead," Pearl said, slowly lifting her cigarette to the center of her lips. "Not to me."
Many years earlier, while sitting on another porch in another place, she had been forewarned of her brother's death but had never been able to accept it. To Pearl, Frank was still alive and her husband Teddy was alive as well.
"Some people don't really die," she told her slightly older sister as they sipped their evening tea on the porch swing. "They go on living someplace else and not all of them in the same place either. Sometimes you have to go to a lot of trouble to find them. Sometimes you have to go to a lot of trouble to keep them alive. Sometimes there's no choice. Oh, there's so much confusion on this subject, but it's perfectly clear to me."
"Sister!" exclaimed Wanda Gay, "don't talk like that. It upsets me. Lately it has become impossible for you to answer a simple question. I asked you what you thought we'd be doing if Frank were still living and here you go talking about something that's not necessary to think about. I'm tired of your morose thoughts. You must learn to answer the questions asked of you or none at all. People ask questions for a reason, Pearl, and that reason is not very complicated: they merely want a sensible answer."
"Well what do you think we'd be doing if Brother were still alive?" asked Pearl. "Your answer is the only one you'll accept, so let's hear it."
"Thank you," said Wanda as she stirred her tea into a whirlpool. "This is my answer: if Frank were still living today we'd be trying to get him out of jail again. How many years has it been since we made that trip to get him out of jail, Pearl?"
"I'm not going to count up the years, Sister. I don't want to know things like that. You, on the other hand, like to stir up discontent within yourself and everyone else by counting the years that have gone by, but I'm not going to give in to this insidious little game of yours."
"Well how many years has it been since Frank died, then?" Wanda Gay asked. "I count twenty-five, Sister. Is that right?"
Pearl refused to answer. She was wondering how many times her brother had been married. The number had escaped her memory. She wondered if he had loved any of his wives even half as much as she still loved Big Teddy.
From somewhere within the ruffled neckline of her dress Wanda Gay brought forth a cube of sugar and slipped it into her tea.
"I saw that," said Pearl. "You're just like Mother, always professing your illness and denying it at the same time. Sugar will eventually kill you, Wanda Gay."
"It didn't kill Mother," Pearl's diabetic sister answered.
"No, it didn't," Pearl replied. "And with Mother it probably never would have. In spite of the fact that she was always saying she was ready to die, her will to live was very strong. People who have such strong wills are determined to live and live and outlive. There's usually some meanness in them that adds to their longevity too. You, Wanda Gay, seem to have inherited Mother's meanness, but I have come to discover that you haven't. I know this is going to come as a shock to you, but it's the truth: you're not really mean. You're just confused. But Mother was mean, and she enjoyed being mean. Wherever she is right now she's being mean to somebody, and if I were there with her I would be saying all kinds of hateful things to her face because she always needed contention to stimulate the mean streak that kept her alive in spite of her sweet tooth."
"But what did you admire about her?" asked Wanda Gay. "Surely there was something. I, as you must know, admired Mother's beautiful hair, especially when she was young and wore it long. Now don't say you admired the same thing, Pearl. I don't want you to copy me."
"Sister, you are the last person on earth I would take as a role model," Pearl replied. "What I most admired about Mother was certainly not her hair, it was her natural, uncultivated meanness, for which she felt no remorse. She viciously protected herself and nobody else."
"Then do you think it was an accident, the way she died?" Wanda Gay asked. "I always wanted to know what you thought about that, Pearl. Was Mother's death accidental?"
"Was Frank's death accidental?" Pearl asked, preparing to roll another cigarette. "Was Daddy's? Did Perdita Fane kill herself accidentally or on purpose? Is there such a thing as an accidental death? Teddy's death. Was that an accident?"
"Oh you make everything so complicated, Pearl." Wanda Gay frowned. "If Big Teddy had lived he would have divorced you long ago. I know he would have because you didn't really love him, you just thought you did. You didn't know him long enough to love him, that's how I think. I, on the other hand, loved my husband very much, but only after I got used to him."
"After he died you suddenly decided you loved him," said Pearl. "I'll bet I know why too."
"You have always tried to make me believe that you know everything there is to be known," said Wanda Gay. "But I've come to find out that you don't know very much at all, Sister. Your complicated answers are devised to hide the truth. That's why if Big Teddy had lived he would have divorced you on account of all these complex motives and reasons and solutions you're always dreaming up. The two of you would have come to a falling-out over some very simple little problem that you would have made into the world's most complicated issue."
"I don't think so," said Pearl. When speaking of Teddy her voice became very serious. "Teddy and I had what Frank and I had, but we had something else too, we also had what Frank and I could never have."
"Sister, I hate it when you talk in riddles!" Wanda Gay shouted. "You and Frank always had a way of talking that nobody else could understand. You know how that aggravates me."
After a spell of silence, Wanda Gay spoke out again. "I sometimes wish we had another brother or sister still living don't you, Pearl? I'd like a choice of somebody else to talk to."
"Listen, Wanda Gay." Pearl flicked her ashes into the yard. "We're lucky to be here and I don't mean just on this porch swing either. Given our parents' relationship, it's a miracle that we were ever born."
"Birth is a miracle," said Wanda Gay.
"In this case I'm thinking about conception," Pearl said. "How many nights do you think Mother and Daddy slept together in the entire time they were married?"
"Pearl, I don't think that way," said Wanda Gay, slipping another cube of sugar into her tea. "I wouldn't dare."
"You should every now and then," said her sister. "It would do you some good to change your ways." Without explanation she walked inside the house while Wanda Gay pushed off in the porch swing. The chains squeaked against the ceiling hooks and the noise drifted into the yard and down the street. While Wanda swang back and forth, Pearl was in the attic searching through an old box.
"Pearl, what are you doing up there?" Wanda shouted. "I can hear you bumping around. Please don't be smoking in the attic, Sister. You know that worries me." Pearl didn't answer.
"I'm going to have to turn the porch light on now," Wanda said. "The bugs are getting too bad."
She flipped a switch and the porch was bathed in yellow light. Yellow, Wanda Gay had read, would keep the bugs away. "Pearl," she shouted. "Come back down here, I miss you when you're gone."
While she sat on the porch sipping her sweetened tea and waiting for Pearl to come back, tennis balls landed like hail stones on the front lawn. "It's tournament time again," Wanda Gay remarked. She had been saying this since the first warm day of March when the courts opened for the season. "I hate tournament time. It's my least favorite part of the year."
The tennis courts located directly behind the McAlister house had been in existence for five years, and only recently had floodlights been installed for evening games. Wanda Gay hated the courts. The noise of the balls bouncing off the roof at night threw her into fits of anger. Pearl's outrage, although somewhat calmer on the surface, was equal to that of her sister. She had already replaced three windows, doing all the work herself, and was suing the independent school system for building the courts too close to their family home.
Only Teddy III, Pearl's grandson, enjoyed having the tennis courts practically in the backyard. On his visits he would practice his serves, often with his grandmother on the other side of the net. "I hope to God Almighty no one recognizes me out here," Pearl would say. People were accustomed to seeing her in a pair of pants and a man's shirt, but when accompanying her grandson to the tennis courts she would wear a disguise: an old gingham dress and a sunbonnet. "I will lose my lawsuit if people see me out here seeming to enjoy this hideous recreation," she would remind Teddy. "In the future if anyone should ask you the identity of your attractive tennis partner, be sure to say that you do not know who I am, as my legal case against these courts is pending."
Pearl's grandson was finishing his freshman year at the state university, where he was studying architecture, but he spent most of his time playing tennis. "Why do you have to slam the balls over the net?" Pearl asked on his recent spring break. "You know I can't retrieve them when they are that fast. You must slow down. Speed is not the most important thing in our lives. It's taken me an age to discover this."
"Why was your driver's license revoked?" Teddy asked as he served another ball. "My father wants to know."
"This is not a suitable topic of conversation for a tennis court." Pearl raised her voice. Wanda Gay could hear her all the way to the front porch. "Therefore I intend to change the subject. If your father wants the answer, let him ask. He has an educated mind, or is supposed to. Allow him to use it."
"He doesn't want me to be an architect," said Teddy.
"Allow that to be your father's problem, not your own," said Pearl. She swung at a ball and missed. "Your great grandfather was a mechanic and a carpenter as well as an architect." With her tennis racket she pointed to the McAlister house. "He built our house with his bare hands, but please don't ask me how he learned to build a house or repair a car. I cannot answer that, and neither can your learned father. Albert McAlister knew how to do a lot of things most people need to go to school to learn."
After Teddy had returned to the state university, an unavoidable loneliness crept through the McAlister house. Wanda Gay and Pearl wandered from room to room searching for something Teddy had left behind, just anything that would remind them that he had been there. What Wanda Gay hated about Teddy's visits was the emptiness she felt afterward.
"I feel like we've had another death, Sister," Wanda Gay said, while waiting impatiently for Pearl to return to the porch. "When is Teddy coming back to visit us?" She stared at the ceiling and shouted. "Are you still up there? Can you hear me? I said, When is Teddy coming back, Sister? I don't like having to make these emotional adjustments every time he leaves."
"You should have gotten used to making adjustments a long time ago," said Pearl. Her voice drifted through the house and onto the porch. "Nobody likes to adjust their ways, but sometimes it's necessary. Tomorrow you will be forced to take the driveway instead of the sidewalk. That, for you, will be another emotional adjustment."
Wanda Gay did not catch her sister's words as they floated across the porch and into the warm evening where the crickets were competing with the swing.
"Sister, do you hear me?" asked Wanda Gay. "I said, When is Teddy coming back: I like it when he's here. I wish I had a grandchild half as smart as Teddy. All Demeris has given me is heartache and grief. You should be thankful, Pearl, that your grandson has turned out so well. Can you hear me? I said, You should be thankful your grandson has turned out to be a good boy."
"Yes, I can hear you," Pearl shouted through the floor of the attic, but again her words did not penetrate the crickets, the squeaking of the swing, or the noise of the passing cars.
"I think he's a good boy," said Wanda Gay, pouring another cup of tea and talking more to herself than her sister. "But at the same time I don't think you should have taught him how to roll cigarettes. His father is going to get mad at you for encouraging him to smoke." She raised her voice, "Sister, why does Teddy want to roll cigarettes when it's much easier to buy them already rolled up? Can you hear me?"
Excerpted from Mother of Pearl by Edward Swift. Copyright © 1989 Edward Swift. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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