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Teenage Holland and her younger sister Geneva, having always lived under the shadow of siblings who died before they were born, struggle to establish separate identities and escape from the ...
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Teenage Holland and her younger sister Geneva, having always lived under the shadow of siblings who died before they were born, struggle to establish separate identities and escape from the oppressive weight of their parents' continuing grief.
Annie's identity and the direction of the plot are obvious; the premise is haunting and poetic, but is squandered in Holland's fairly conventional blossoming relationship with a boy and Geneva's neuroses. The awkwardness of Holland's narration is compelling at first; she and Geneva act more like tenants in their parents' lives than beloved members of a family. Then a more pretentious tone emerges: "They will continue to meet in the twilight kingdom of their dining room, and their grief is a feast of pain I can not touch." A brighter fate for the girls is promised, but whether this devastated family has a real happy ending isn't answered in these pages. (Fiction. 12-14)
"Oh, yes, fine. She's fine."
"Don't look so good. Your sister?"
"Yes. She's fine. It's elevators. She hates them."
Geneva hears us but her eyes don't move from lighted button number nine, its glowing promise of escape.
"Hard thing to hate, living in Manhattan." The man's smile rests on Geneva, who stretches her mouth into a straight line. I smile back at him instead, as I squeeze the tips of my sister's sweating fingers.
The elevator pings to a stop on the fourth floor. The man gets off and a largish woman steps on, candy-coated in perfume and eating into our space with her sturdy backside and pocketbook.
"Five more floors and we're done," I say. Geneva blinks. A dew of sweat breaks at the hairline above her pulsing temple.
"My neck is closing in on me," she whispers. "I can't breathe. I need to find a bathroom." The woman cuts her eyes at Geneva. I know my sister feels the stare by the way she scowls and shrivels into her coat.
"Is that White Rain?" I say to distract the woman, although I know it's not White Rain because that's Mom's scent.
Her eyes soften. "Rose water," she answers, touching two fingers to her collarbone. "It's just rose water, dear. I've worn it since I was young."
I nod. "It's really nice."
"You could get some for yourself at Bigelow's."
Using just enough voicefor me to hear, Geneva whispers, "Thumbkin." Then she begins mouthing the Hail Mary at hyperspeed. I frown hard to close up my smile, now that it strikes me how the woman does resemble Thumbkin, a stern, pointy-faced elf from one of our old bedtime stories. Geneva has a terrible knack for fitting the perfect word onto a person, neat as a hat to a head.
"Is she all right?" The woman tilts her Thumbkin chin toward Geneva.
"Oh, she'll be fine. Elevators make her tense."
I look over at Geneva, who is racing through her words—"Artthouamongwomenblessedisthefruit"—and my mind thumbs through bathroom possibilities. Carr's probably won't have one for customers, but there's one in the lobby, except you have to get the key from the grumpy doorman, who I didn't see on the way up. But isn't there a Chinese restaurant right across the street and down half a block? I have to be sure. I don't know much about this Flatiron district building, except that it's mostly gallery space and some specialty shops, and I can't just spin Geneva up and around these breathless heights and spaces. I pounce to a decision.
"We'll get Mrs. Motahahn to help us."
As the elevator opens, Geneva flings herself free, galloping to the end of the hallway, where she heaves open the glass door inscribed with a whispery frost of cursive announcing CARR'S ARTISTIC EXPRESSIONS. I follow more sedately, betting myself: if you can walk only on the diagonal patterns of the wood without stepping out of line, then Geneva gets a bathroom.
Mrs. Motahan's eyes entreat me as soon as I've opened the door. Geneva's head turtles into her shoulders. "I'm sorry, Geneva, but you'll have to use the one in the lobby. You should have thought ..."
"We better go now, Holland," she says. "I need to go."
"Oh, please, Mrs. Motahahn, she's very sick!" My voice unhinges to a squeak. Customers' heads stiffen, listening. "She really needs that bathroom. It's the flu. She's been sick all week. My parents didn't want me to take her out today, so this is all completely my fault. I'm such a dummy, dragging her uptown."
"But ... I don't think, and with Mrs. Carr not here right now ..." Mrs. Motahahn draws her pen from her cap of silver hair and taps an uncertain beat against her palm.
"Please. It's all my fault. I don't think there's time to take her downstairs."
"I mean, it's just for, it's not really for, but if she might be sick, we do have, ah, have, um ..." Mrs. Motahahn scrutinizes Geneva, then shakes her head. "Wait here, girls."
"She's getting the key," I say under my breath as we watch Mrs. Motahahn wriggle out from behind the counter and disappear behind a back door. "Another few seconds and you'll have a room all to yourself. Then you can do whatever, run water, whatever."
Geneva's bathroom emergencies depend on her illness. Sometimes she needs the toilet, or at least needs to be near it; other times she has to wash her hands and face until she feels calm and sanitized. She usually performs her water rituals alone, although I have stood by her in more than a few public rest rooms, glaring off onlookers as my sister repeatedly splats a cupped hand with the pink or lemon-yellow liquid soap, then rinses herself into a sense of calm. Not even the professional help our parents have employed over the years can make sense of Geneva's problem; her explanation that water "fixes me" is all we have to go by.
I rest my hand lightly on her arm, over the rough boiled wool of her car coat. I wear the same style coat, the same color gray. We wear berets to match, and beneath our coats, identical gray and yellow plaid kilts: the colors of Monsignor Ambrose, our school on West Thirteenth Street. The only difference is that I wear a yellow sweater, to show that I am in eighth grade, while Geneva is outfitted in the (uglier) gray vest of a sixth grader.
"What if she won't let me? What'll I do, Holland? If she says no? If I'm sick all over the floor?" Geneva's voice is a sprinkling of sound. I once read that blue whales communicate with their kin by sending out low-frequency sound waves that extend for thousands of miles. Sometimes I believe that this is the way I must hear Geneva's voice: sneaky tremors reverberating under my feet, shinnying up my spinal cord to my brain.
"Stop, you'll only work yourself into feeling sicker. We'll get the key. Here comes Mrs. Motahahn now. She's waving for you to follow her. Go ahead, it's okay." I steer my sister behind the counter to where Mrs. Motahahn beckons. Geneva hesitates, then darts off.
Alone, I can relax into being a regular customer I trail up and down the aisles, peering into glass-fronted cases. It was my idea to cab up to Carr's after school to find Mom's birthday present, but I didn't tell Geneva about my plan until lunchtime, which probably wasn't enough warning. Although I would have been happier to come by myself and let Geneva take half credit for the gift, she insisted on joining me. She always insists.
"I'll be good," she promised from her solitary perch on the windowsill of the gym, her favorite position during indoor recess. "I'll help."
"Are you sure?" She was chewing her lip, and I knew that she was not sure, only stubborn, but it would bruise her to think I'd rather go shopping on my own.
Now I wish I hadn't told her.
"You said flu?" Mrs. Motahahn squints worriedly at me from behind the counter. "Holland? A flu?"
"Oh, yes. She's been terrible all week."
"Poor girl, it's going around. You keep drinking that orange juice, or your parents'll have their hands full. So there's a little bud vase we just got in, third shelf from the bottom, right side, Holland, right side, Art Deco but not too arty, soft-paste porcelain, very sweet. Reminds me of your mom. When you phoned earlier, it kept running through my head all afternoon what would be right." Mrs. Motahahn lowers her voice. "And it's reasonable, cost-wise."
The vase is pretty, a celery-green teardrop, and a quick flip-over confirms that Mrs. Motahahn is right about the price, too.
"This is perfect, Mrs. Motahahn. She'll love it. Can we get it gift-wrapped? I'll pay the extra." I pretend to scratch my knee and stealthily remove the chunky billfold wedged in my sock. Money is something I'm more comfortable saving than spending, and as soon as so much as a dollar leaves my music box bank, I need to feel it pressed up against my skin until it's time for us to part.
"Oh, aren't you a sweet thing. Gift wrap's complimentary. Not like at the big stores." Mrs. Motahahn takes the vase from my hands and begins stuffing its insides with tissue paper. "How's Macy's treating your mom these days? It seems like eons ago I left."
"She's in bedding now," I say. "She switched out of housewares last year. She likes it, though. She says it's a nice change of pace."
"Well, I don't envy your job, honey, having to figure out a present for a mother who works in the world's largest department store."
"She'll be glad we came here, to catch up with you. She always says how she wishes you were still at Macy's." Mrs. Motahahn smiles, and I can tell that she's forgotten about Geneva, but I haven't. What will I do if she decides to stay in that bathroom all afternoon? She did that once before, last summer, at an Olive Garden restaurant in New Jersey.
I help Mrs. Motahahn choose a silk ribbon and a tiny gilt-edged card. I ask about Percy, Mrs. Motahahn's Siamese, and she tells me a funny story about how Percy chewed a hole in her favorite wool sweater. I am almost finished signing "love, Holland and Geneva" on the card when my sister emerges from the bathroom, and the "va" of her name is a flourish of relief.
"All done," I say, trying to be brisk but sounding irritated, which I am. Why does Geneva even bother trying if she knows she's never any help? Her drama only makes life difficult for everyone, excluding herself, of course.
"Elevator again," she dares to whine.
"Oh, come on. You're always better at down. Say good-bye to Mrs. Motahahn."
My sister gives a limp wave and watery wedge of smile. I yank her through the doors and down the hall.
"Think of an elevator being like a cool ride in a spaceship," I say, knowing exactly how the horror of this idea will ricochet through Geneva's phobic little brain. Sometimes my patience gets eaten up by meaner urges, but it doesn't seem fair that I always have to be the older, responsible one. For just one day, I'd like to see Geneva try being the big sister while I make the embarrassing scenes.
"Brett and Carla are coming for cake tonight," Mom told me at breakfast this morning. "And they're bringing the baby. Please try not to be an Ick." Ick is Mom's special word to describe anything that is overly touchy or sentimental.
Mom does not realize that my Ickness is inborn. Whether I am trailing my fingers across the surface of freshly folded bed sheets, savoring a mocha-chip ice-cream cone, or dabbing on some of my favorite perfume (Woods of Windsor's Lily-of-the-Valley), my senses of touch and taste and smell are overwhelming delights. Mom prefers air kisses and thank-you notes: a look-but-don't-touch kind of politeness.
"Freddie?" My mouth and fingertips were prickling, already itching to kiss and rub baby Freddie's head, soft and warm and bald as a dinner roll. "Do you think they'll let me hold him or change him or feed him or anything?"
Over her tea mug, Mom's eyebrows shifted like wary antennae. "All I ask is that you don't make people feel uncomfortable."
Geneva is the opposite of Ick. She inches through her day inside an invisible plastic bubble. She shrugs off the hugs of overfriendly relatives and teachers. She hates participating in sports because they force you to smell other people's sweat. She even flinches at television kisses. When people say Geneva and I are alike, what they mean is that we are close, the way spring and summer melt together but are separate and distinct.
On the drive down from Carr's, Geneva sits up straight in the cab, her hands stapled together in her lap, her spine a tilted axis from the green-black plastic seat back, her face uplifted, her eyes closed. I know she is worn out from her earlier dramatics, upset that she didn't have a say on Mom's gift, and probably faintly nauseous from thinking about cab germs. I feel sorry for her, and I relent.
"Mom will like how we bought her present from Mrs. Motahahn, especially since Carr's salespeople work on commission," I volunteer. "And did you know Brett and Carla are bringing baby Freddie tonight?"
There is no visible reaction from her brittle body. "I bet he has some teeth by now," I say after a few more blocks.
We turn off Fifth Avenue on Ninth Street, nosing west through the crosstown traffic. Tight green buds are beginning to appear on the dogwood trees. Soon they will unpack into friendly white blossoms, softly loosening along with the pink, tongue-shaped blooms of our window box bleeding hearts. Spring in the Village. Nowhere else in the city looks or smells more luscious.
"I hate it when Brett comes," Geneva says abruptly. "It'll be weird. The parents get strange."
"I like Brett."
"I like him, I hate the visit." Geneva turns and her eyes are like a pair of tacks, pushing into me. "Last time he was here he told me I looked like Kevin. Spitting image, he said."
"What? No, you don't. You look like me and I look like you. Everyone says so. Medium sized, reddish brownish hair, blue eyes, kind of freckly. That's us."
"Dad once said I looked like Kevin, too," Geneva muses.
"Kevin? Ha, Kevin was short and round and had pink skin. Pink as a shrimp. I bet he always got sunburned."
"Watch out how you talk, Holland," Geneva warns. "Kevin can hear every word. His feelings might be hurt."
"He was pink. It's no insult."
Geneva slides her gaze to the ceiling of the cab and mutters something.
"You better not be apologizing to Kevin for me. Are you?"
"Mom always tells us how angels can hear everything. Plus, the Bible says they answer straight to God. If you do or say something bad, the angels have to report you."
"Geneva," I say, exasperated, "heaven isn't like the principal's office."
"I didn't know you were such an expert," she retorts airily. "By the way, don't tell Mom or Dad about Carr's. Mom thinks I'm getting better. Don't tell."
"I wouldn't. Why would I? And I think you are getting better."
Geneva shakes her head. "Nobody else acts like me. Nobody's scared like me."
"You're being very dramatic." I nudge a leg closer to knock it against hers. "Let's get out here and walk to the flower shop. Then we can get a couple tulips for our vase. You pick the color."
The three-story brick townhouse on 176 Waverly Place in Greenwich Village has been my home ever since I was born, only a few blocks away, at St. Vincent's Hospital, and my parents' home for twenty years before that. They bought the entire house during a time when the Village was cheap, since anybody with a regular paying job preferred to live higher than the Forties.
The parents were young and poor, perfect downtown candidates. They met at a bookstore on Bank Street, closed now, that specialized in detective and crime novels. Dad always begins the story of when he first saw Mom by saying, "It was a dark and stormy night," but then confesses that it was actually a cool summer morning and that Mom was working behind the register.
Although they are often praised for their good investment in buying the house, the Village itself does not suit either of them, since they both work in midtown: Mom as a buyer for Macy's and Dad as a research scientist for Biotech Labs, which is an off-campus part of New York University. And whenever they go out, which is rare, it is usually to see a play or a ballet—never to the jazz clubs and poetry corners of our neighborhood. Leaving 176 Waverly, however, is not an option. The house is inlaid and overworked in memories too precious to sell.
Every Saturday morning since I can remember, tour groups have strolled down our street, part of Historic Manhattan, and 176 Waverly's official history has been long overboiled inside my head. "Designed by a student of the popular architect James Renwick, this Victorian Gothic style building—note the leaded-glass fanlight over the door, the wrought-iron stair railing, the open-box newels—was built in 1883. During prohibition, Waverly Place was lined with speakeasies." (A speakeasy is a place where people could sneak off to buy and drink alcohol during prohibition, which was a law in the 1920s that banned liquor from public and private establishments. After years of hearing the bullhorn-wielding tour guides yak about this, I finally looked up both words.)
The tour always winds up with the story of New York mayor James John Walker's mistress, an actress who lived in our house during the Roaring Twenties. It is rumored that some nights the furtive but well-dressed ghost of "Beau James" can be seen sneaking down the short flight of steps to the sidewalk, where he dissolves into mist as soon as his foot hits the pavement. I have never caught sight of the mayor's ghost, although not for lack of trying. Geneva maintains she's seen him on several occasions, wearing a swirling opera cape and a top hat. She says his eyes are more bashful than you might expect, all things considered.
Waverly is a bent, quiet street, where the most commotion on a given day is the yips of two sparring poodles. In the summer, the poplar and ginkgo trees provide a spangled shade from the sun, although the crushed ginkgo berries under our shoes smell like vomit.
Geneva snuffles at the yellow tulips as she waits for me to unlock the front door. "They don't smell," she says. "Maybe we should have got roses or lilies."
"Tulips are more cheerful. Besides, you're allergic to roses."
"And don't tell about Carr's."
"You already said. And why would I tell?" I try to bite back the snap in my voice, but I'm tired and distracted, thinking about how I should start digging into my French homework, which tonight means correcting the test I flunked.
"Someone's here," Geneva whispers. I follow my sister's gaze to the dining room window.
"No, no one."
"Someone," she insists. "A lady."
"Ooh, maybe it's the mayor's mistress," I say. "Waiting for one last afternoon of illicit love." But I watch the front windows as I jiggle my keys impatiently at the slide and dead bolt locks. A lady? The parents almost never have visitors. Certainly no one unexpected. I can tell from Geneva's breathing that she's curious, too.
"Hello!" I make my voice brave, like a returning hunter, as we enter the house. "Who's there?"
"No one, just me. Annie. Annie the painter."
It was not fear, exactly, that stirred inside me when I heard her voice, although I have lived in New York City my entire life, and know its many terrible tales of intruders and muggers and worse. I probably should have spun right around and hustled both of us out into the safety of the street. But when my sister tugged at my elbow, stepping past me and walking through the swinging doors into the kitchen, I remember feeling mostly surprise. It was such a strange thing for her to do. And I wondered if Geneva had read my mind, and was trying to be the big sister for a change.
The only thing I could think to do was to follow her.
|three the other shepards||35|
|four louis littlebird||53|
|five geneva and annie||69|
|six mr. de pass and miss pia||90|
|seven louis and mom||106|
|eight vincent and aaron||122|
|nine saint jude||144|
|ten saint germaine||157|
|eleven the hubbards||180|
Posted September 17, 2003
Posted July 9, 2001
This book really was a great read. It left you thinking what was fantasy and what was reality after you read it. The book also taught me a lot about what should be valued in life. It really was excellent and i recommend it to anyone who is interested in ghosts or the posibility of ghosts.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted July 31, 2000
This book had great details and the characters were well developed. If you read it, answer this---Do you think that Annie, in a way, was Geneva and Holland's Guardian Angel? This was a great summer read--I really enjoyed it.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted March 9, 2000
I loved this book. It has lots of twists and turns. It is like walking in a maze then all of the sudden finding the end fall out onto your lap. But then you look again and you don't see all that is there. It is intriguing! I don't know how to classify this book. Personally, I like fantasy but this does not classify with any certain type of book. I'm afaid to say anything about this book because it may spoil it, that's no fun! So if you like a good book to read and are not scared by fantasy or mysterious books I recommend this one.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.