Read an Excerpt
MAY 21, 1980
I bought Mother a new car. It damn near killed Aunt Louise. Those two have been fighting like banty roosters since 1905, the year Mom was born. The first big blowup that both recall involved a multicolored hair ribbon, 1909. Juts (Mom) says Celeste Chalfonte gave it to her because she was such a pretty, sweet little darling. This made Louise jealous. Things have been sliding downhill between them ever since.
Louise trumpets a different version of this earth-shattering event. She says Celeste Chalfonte made a present of the ribbon to her because she was such a pretty, sweet little darling. Juts, that jealous devil, snatched it clean off her head, getting some hair by the roots in the bargain. Being seven, Louise refrained from beating her younger sister to a pulp. Instead she reported the theft to their mother, Cora Hunsenmeir, in the hopes she’d do it. Cora, justice personified, returned the ribbon to Louise. Ever since that day Juts has been eaten up with green envy. Louise swears this for a fact.
In May of 1980 I still can’t untangle victor from victim. It changes regularly like night and day as each sister revolves around the other. The front door just slammed. It’s Aunt Wheeze (Louise).
“Juts, you steeping pickled eggs, I see.”
“You see fine. Want one?”
“No, you put in too much sugar. I like my eggs a bit more tart.”
“Hells bells, I can’t say anything around you—or that damn kid you picked off the streets in 1944.”
“Louise, she’s my daughter sure as if I bore her.”
“Ha! You never will know what it is to be a mother. You have to give birth. Blood of your blood, bone of your bone. It’s all so mystical and spiritual—but then I don’t expect you to understand. You wouldn’t listen to me in 1944 and you won’t listen to me now.”
“Piss on your teeth! Walking around like a bloated toad don’t make no woman a mother. Mothering’s in the raising up of the child.”
“Well, a fine job you did of it. Nickel left the church, left the town, left you, and now she writes books that disgrace the whole family.”
“If you don’t want no one to know your business, keep your mouth shut.”
“How was I to know that brat would remember everything?”
“Wheeze, the last thing to die on you will be your mouth. You don’t just tell Nickel stories—you now got a goddamned CB radio and tell anyone who tunes in.”
“Liar, liar, your pants are on fire!”
I can’t stand it. I’m going out to referee. “Are you two at it again?”
Aunt Louise whirled around to greet me. “You got gall, Nicole Smith, showing your face in this house.”
“Why? It’s Mom’s house.”
“Writing stories that make fun of me, Grand Regent of the Catholic Daughters of America for the Great State of Maryland. I’m so embarrassed I could die.”
“I doubt we’ll be that lucky.”
“Nickel, don’t you talk that way to my sister.”
“Jesus H. Christ on a raft.”
“See, Juts, see—that’s what comes of her leaving the church. Just throwing Jesus’s name around like it was salt.”
“Your Aunt Louise is right. Show a little respect.”
“I am going back to the sunroom. You two are impenetrable. Mom, can I have a pickled egg?”
“Get it and get out. Me and Louise are talking business.”
As I shut the door behind me I heard Louise ask in a deafening whisper, “Impenetrable? What’s that mean—that we’re dumb?”
“I never know if I’m being insulted or not. It’s hell having a daughter that went to college.”
Two pairs of feet hurried over to the big dictionary Mom keeps stashed under the coffee table. I heard the pages rustling.
“Louise, look under i, not e.”
I can picture those gray heads bending over Webster’s. Once they find “impenetrable” they’ll soon start in on each other with renewed vigor. Seventy-five years is a long time to love and hate. MARCH 6, 1909
Celeste swirled in the kitchen like a fragrant tornado. Louise and Julia Ellen looked up from their picture book.
“The birthday girl! Julia Ellen, here is something for your pretty head,” Celeste handed the child a bright ribbon.
“Thank you, Miss Chalfonte.”
“Miss Chalfonte, don’t forget my birthday’s in three weeks.” Louise wanted to make sure.
“I know. How was school today?”
“Yashew Gregorivitch got a whipping.”
“How exciting.” Her right eyebrow arched upward. “You two play. Mother will be here as soon as she’s done with the silver.” Celeste disappeared through the kitchen door, leaving her scent behind.
Julia attempted to tie a bow smack on top of her head, toothache style, but her little fingers weren’t nimble enough. “Wheezie, help me.”
Once the ribbon was secure in her hand, Louise began trading. “I’ll tie you the best bow ever if you let me wear this to school tomorrow.”
“I’ll let you play with my glass beads.”
“No. Gimme my ribbon.”
“Don’t grab, Julia. It’s so unladylike.”
“You tie a bow or gimme my present back.”
“I am not selfish. It’s my birthday.”
“Think how happy you’d make me if I can wear this tomorrow.”
“You can be happy on your own birthday. Gimme my ribbon.” Julia grabbed Louise’s arm and rubbed her hands over it to make a burn.
“Gimme my ribbon.”
“Don’t you know nothing? We’re Christians. That means we gotta share.”
“Gimme my ribbon.”
“Do you want to go to hell and have a red tail stuck on your heinie?”
This threat caused Julia to let go. “On my heinie?”
“A bright red tail like the devil.”
“Louise, you are making that up.”
“I am not. Ask Mother.”
Julia tore out the kitchen door and found Cora polishing the last of the forks.
“Mother, Louise says if I go to hell I’ll have a red tail stuck on my heinie!”
“Are you planning on leaving anytime soon?”
“Is it true? Do people have red tails?”
“Child, don’t worry me with this stuff. How do I know what fashions are in such a warm climate?”
Perplexed, Julia walked back into the kitchen. “She don’t know.”
Louise seized the moment. “Because she don’t know don’t mean it ain’t true. You don’t want to go there, do you?”
“No—now gimme my ribbon back.”
“You’ll go straight to hell. Let me wear it tomorrow.”
“No.” Juts went for her again. Louise dodged.
“You gotta share. It’s Christian.”
Reinforced by theology, Louise spied a knife by the sink. Before Julia could stop her, she cut the lovely ribbon neatly in half. “There, I’ve saved you from eternal torment.”
Juts took the pathetic remnant held out to her. She sat right down on the floor and cried. Her anguish reverberated throughout the cavernous house.
Cora, with purpose, strode into the kitchen. “What goes here?”
“Wheezie stole my hair ribbon.”
“Liar, liar, your pants are on fire.”
“Stop that, Louise. Did you steal her hair ribbon?”
“No, Mother, look—she has it in her hand.”
“Such as it is.”
“Waagh. She cut it in half.”
“What’s that behind your back? Gimme that hand.”
Louise reluctantly volunteered her hand.
“Open your fist.”
There in the middle of her palm rested the other half of the ribbon, wrinkled.
“Mother, Jesus said: ‘Ask and it shall be given unto ye.’ ”
“What does Jesus have to do with your sister’s birthday present?”
“I asked and she wouldn’t give it to me, so I took half. This way Julia won’t get in trouble with God.”
“The Lord moves in mysterious ways, Louise Hunsenmeir, but I don’t.” Cora walloped her bottom. “There, smartypants. That’ll teach you to spoil your sister’s birthday. Since your birthday’s coming up in three weeks, I’ll divide everything in half between you and Julia Ellen.”
“No! No!” Louise screamed.
“It is better to give than to receive,” Cora calmly pointed out to her.
Juts, refreshed from the sight of Louise’s discomfort, threw her ribbon at Louise. “Momma, she got all my ribbon. Now can I have all her birthday presents?”
Louise emitted a piercing squeal. “Never!”
“My God, you’re as bad as the other one. I’m done with both of you. Now get your coats on. We’re going home.” MAY 21, 1980
What the hell’s she doing out there?”
Juts sauntered over to the window to see what her sister was bitching about. “Turning cartwheels in the dandelions.”
“That girl’s thirty-five, ain’t she?”
“Be thirty-six come November.”
“Juts, call her in here before the neighbors see.”
“Oh, hell, Louise, our dear mother turned cartwheels past fifty.” “Our dear mother wasn’t educated. Nickel is.”
“Go turn on the TV, then she won’t bother you.”
“By God, you always stick up for that brat.”
“She’s my daughter.”
“You know how I feel about that.”
“Yes, and let’s not go into it again. All of town knows how you feel about Nickel, Jesus, FDR and Amelia Earhart, to say nothing of Sonny and Cher.”
“Mebbe they know what I think, but they don’t see my all. You went down to the square yesterday in hot pants. Orrie Tadia told me.”
“Seventy-five is too old for hot pants. And them glasses you got on your nose are a disgrace—granny glasses.”
“I’m old enough to be a granny—you said so yourself just this minute. I heard you with these ears.”
“Don’t get smart with me, Julia Hunsenmeir. You know what I mean. All the young people wear those glasses. Why you don’t get something conservative like me and act your age, I’ll never know.”
“Your glasses got so many rhinestones on them, when the sun hits you, people are blinded by the light.”
“You’re so immature. I don’t know why I bother to discuss anything with you.”
“Louise sucks green monkey dicks!” Juts relished this childhood insult. Never failed to fry her big sister’s ass.
“I didn’t come over here to be insulted.” Louise peered out the window again. “She’s still at it. Juts, make her stop.”
“I will not. I think I’ll give it a try.” Julia opened the screen door and hollered to Nickel. “Wanna watch an old lady make a fool of herself?”
“Julia, don’t you dare. You’ll break something.”
“Julia, when our dear mother died she told me to watch over you. Don’t you dare go out there and show your bottom.”
“Want me to change into my hot pants? Then my skirt won’t flare up.” Juts charged out the door. Louise followed two steps behind, mouth rattling nonstop.
“Julia Ellen, I take my responsibilities seriously. Those were Mother’s last wishes. Don’t you dare turn cartwheels out here. You’ll break a hip.”
“Mother, are you really going to turn a cartwheel?”
“Damn right I am.” And with that, Julia Ellen took a hop, skip and a jump and over she went—not a perfect cartwheel, but a cartwheel all the same.
Louise screeched at the top of her lungs, “She broke something, I know she broke something,” and ran over to a flushed but triumphant Juts.
“Mom, that was terrific.”
“I ain’t dead yet, kid. Wanna see another one?” Over she went.
Louise smacked her hand to her head, the other hand outstretched to heaven for divine intervention. “Mother, she won’t listen.”
“Criminetys, Wheeze, Mother can’t hear you. She’s been dead since 1962. Shut up.”
“That’s right. Insult our poor dear mother. Insult me. You’ll miss me just like you missed her, when I’m gone!”
“Aunt Wheeze, Mom’s having fun.”
“Don’t you tell me what my sister’s doing, you big-mouthed brat. She’s out here acting a fool and it was you put her up to it.”
“Me? What did I do?”
“Out here turning cartwheels. A grown woman. Old enough to have children.”
“Christ, don’t start that again.”
“Well, I can see I’m not wanted. I’m going home. Julia, when you feel like apologizing, you know my telephone number. As for you, Nickel Smith, I’ll light a candle for you.” Puffed up and twitchy as an old broody hen, Louise stalked to her 1976 Buick, put the key in the ignition and then peeled out.
Juts smiled and waved good-bye. “Sucks green monkey dicks.”
“Mother, you’ll give her a hemorrhage.”
“It’s her own fault. She’s got nose blisters from sticking it where it don’t belong.”
“Those were sure fine cartwheels you turned.”
Julia beamed. “Life in the old girl yet. Come on, let’s sit on the front porch. I’ll fix you a Coke. We can put out the pickled eggs, too. I feel like celebrating.”
I raced to the kitchen, put the eggs on a tray, got out some saltines, cheese and pretzels. Juts loved her pretzels. She soaked them in beer. Julia fixed me a Coke and herself a Rolling Rock beer. The little green cans got cold fast. Since they were little she could knock off a few and tell herself it wasn’t the same as drinking a Budweiser.
The front porch sported a big swing. All around it shrubs bloomed. Spring came late. The lilacs opened full a few days ago. Sweet air curled into Julia’s nostrils, reminding her of all the spring of her life, a sum of springs, the essence of spring. Oh, she felt glad to be alive, and the hell with people who make fun of old folks.
“How’s your Cokey?”
“Delicious. What would I do without Southern champagne?”
“Be a fallen woman like me and drink beer in public.”
“But you’re a real lady, Mom—you are drinking it out of a glass.”
“Ha. Do you know when I was a girl, women weren’t supposed to drink, period? I remember Celeste Chalfonte, and you know what a great lady she was.”
“I know you told me about her,” Nickel replied.
“Momma worked for her, you know. I never once saw Celeste that everything, even down to the buttons on her gloves, wasn’t perfect. She was the greatest beauty I ever saw. Where was I? Oh, juice. Well, now, as I started to say, a woman couldn’t drink. I remember as a girl watching Celeste and her bridge gang sneak gin in the afternoons. By the end of the afternoon the great ladies was three sheets to the wind and dishing dirt like the rest of us.”
“Bet you had fun.”
“Yes, I did. When times were rough or smooth, I always managed to find a laugh somehow. You know, I truly believe that’s why Louise gets so wrought up over me. She resents me.”
“Yeah. I can see that. She doesn’t seem to enjoy herself.”
“Enjoy herself! She peddles uplift and relishes downfall. Ever since she got sent to Immaculata Academy, that’s when all this started. You know, her being a religious nut.”
Mother and I turned. The lilacs shuddered. Louise flew out of that bush like a steel ball released in a pinball machine. “Religious nut! Religious nut!”
She scared Juts so bad she spit out her pickled egg.
I dropped my crackers and cheese. “Shit!”
Julia recovered and was now royally pissed. “What the Sam Hill are you doing jumping out of my lilac bushes?”
“I knew as soon as I turned my back you’d talk about me. And to her. You know she’ll put down everything you say in another book.”
“No I won’t, Aunt Louise. No one would believe you.”
“That’s right, that’s right. America goes the way of Mammon. No one would believe me. They are all worshipping the golden calf. For once we agree.”
“Now that you’re here again, would you like a beer, Sis?”
“You know I never reek of strong waters.”
“Pulease, Louise.” Juts rolled her eyes while drawing out the “please.” “I remember when you made bathtub gin.”
“I never did no such thing. Nickel, don’t you listen to this. Not a word. You know how Juts likes to embroider stories. Yes, Juts, I will have a little refreshment if you put it in a glass kindly.” A long sigh.
“I’ll get it.” I went into the kitchen and could hear Louise boring into Mom. “So what if it’s true? That don’t mean you tell.”
I came out with a tall frosted glass so passersby couldn’t guess the contents. “Here, Aunt Louise.”
“Thank you, dear. You always had beautiful manners.”
We three sat there for a quiet moment. Louise needed to recover her breath. She had parked the car a block away and snuck into the lilacs. The excitement of it had worn her out.
“Honey, it’s nice to have you home.”
“Thank you, Mother.”
“If you had any sense of responsibility you’da never left your mother in the first place.” Louise licked her lips to get the foam off.
“Aunt Wheeze, there are no colleges in Runnymede. I needed to educate myself.”
“So you got a Ph.D. and can’t get a steady job. A waste of time and money, it was.”
“If I put my money in my head no one can ever take it from me.”
“I’d rather have a new car myself,” Louise smarted off.
Juts pounced. “Nickel bought me a new car, or did you forget already?”
“How can I forget? You roll down your window at stoplights and yell at total strangers, ‘My daughter bought me this car!’ ” Louise was disgruntled that she had walked into that one. Why did she have to mention the word “car”?
“As I was saying, honey, it’s nice to have you home.”
“How long are you planning on staying?”
“I’m not sure. I want to talk that over with Mom.”
“Before you go, I want to set the record straight about me being a ‘religious nut,’ as Juts puts it. You know I was sent to Immaculata Academy because I was very musical. Celeste Chalfonte, a good woman in her fashion, sent me there. Paid for it herself.”
“I don’t remember it being quite that way,” Julia countered.
“What do you remember? You were six years old at the time. I was ten and very talented.” Louise crossed her legs in order to look talented. She stuck her little finger out from the glass, too.
“Celeste sent you there because her sister, Carlotta, ran the school.”
“That don’t mean I wasn’t talented.”
“I still play my organ that Pearlie bought me before he died. God bless him.”
Uncle Pearlie died on Louise’s seventy-fifth birthday, four years ago. Mom swore he did it out of revenge. Wheeze bossed her husband same as anybody else.
“That’s wonderful that you kept up your playing, Aunt Louise.”
“Thank you. It’s about time I get a little appreciation around here.”
“Play! All you do is switch on the banjo effect and strike a few chords.” Juts devoured another pickled egg.
“Shut up, Julia. Me and Nickel was having a meaningful conversation. Like I was saying, Nickel, Celeste sent me to Immaculata Academy to study music. And it’s true it was run by her sister, a very holy woman. When she died she sat bolt upright in her casket and made the sign of the cross. That’s how all of Runnymede knew her for a saint”—she cast an eye at her nibbling sister—“in case they missed her glory whilst she lived.”
“That ain’t how I remember it.” Julia took another slug of beer.