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Broken as Things are
THE DAY MY ninth-grade year ended, the official beginning of our summer, the first thing I did was go to the tree house to see Billy. By the time I finally got to Aunt Lois's, she was already preparing dinner.
"Hello," I called to our aunt, who was sitting in her dining room snooting string beans, pinching each head between two beautifully manicured nails. The beans dropped once, once, once, against the bottom of her large aluminum pot.
I hadn't even closed the front door before she sat bolt upright in her chair to look at me, suddenly aware of the hour. "You're late," she accused, the red curls sculpted to frame her face, her lips a trembling heart. She shook her pot of beans, but she did not ask where I'd been. I kept my visits with Billy secret, which was why I never met with him morethan once a week, forty minutes each time, but the first day of summer was sacred. "Now, help me get things ready. Go on and set up. We need to straighten," she declared, leaning forward to scrutinize the living room. There had once been walls to separate the dining and living areas, but Aunt Lois had them removed after studying large glossy photographs from one of her magazines that featured an airy and welcoming living-and-dining-room combination. "Get the kits set up. Go on, now. I've got clients coming in a half hour."
I never obeyed Aunt Lois right away. She looked at me as I stood, not budging.
"I'm done. The beans are ready to go," she said, her violet eyes shuttering down to the white leather chair where Ginx sat with his Time magazine, humming and turning the pages with a slap. It was a special issue about the threat of nuclear war and what President Reagan was doing to prevent it. Ginx had just finished a report on this issue for school.
"There will be a big explosion," my brother said. "And he's doing nothing and nothing." Ginx read a lot about nuclear war.
"Hi, Ginx," I said. My brother paused, looked around the room as if he had forgotten something, then returned to reading, making it clear that I should not have been late.
"He could sit somewhere else," our aunt grumbled.
Aunt Lois had paid a lot of money for that chair because she loved the thought of her red hair against its cream-white leather. When someone complimented her hair, she'd say, "Iuse a natural heightener made specifically for me by a woman out in Dallas." No one who heard this knew what a "heightener" was, but the way she'd say it, and the way a curl would lie precisely just below each ear, put a stop to any questions.
"Can I watch tonight?" Dana asked, coming out of the kitchen where she'd been stuffing marshmallows into sweet potatoes for a second batch of candied yams. I looked at my sister. A few weeks earlier, she'd moved in with Aunt Lois. "I'm moving in for good," Dana said. "Momma's always tired anyway, and I'll be better off." She was watching our aunt, waiting for permission to help with the makeup session. But Aunt Lois did not answer immediately. Perched on her stool, she wiped her fingers on her apron and swept her gaze over the entire living room in the way she must have learned to appreciate a crowd on her Beauty Queen's float back in high school.
The cooking yams loaded the room with their warm, tender smell. Ginx bent toward his magazine. In her slow, royal gaze, Aunt Lois enjoyed her own plush carpet, the white linen curtains, and the delicacy of the porcelain statuettes on their stands. I went to the dining room and knocked into a chair, which banged against the table but did nothing to interrupt her joy.
"That there really is a beauty," Aunt Lois said in one exhale, as she pointed to the small brass desk lamp she claimed to have bought at an estate sale. One evening during dinner, she'd gone on with some story about how she'd grabbed thelamp out of another woman's hands and slapped down her cash. She had talked about that lamp until Uncle Pete finished gnawing at the bone of his pork chop. "You're a piece of work," he spat out. She stopped to smile at his compliment, which was the only reason she'd told the story in the first place. We all knew there had been no estate sale, no woman, no grabbing. But it didn't matter. Our father declared, "What a find! Of course you had to be insistent." Dana asked our mother why our family never bought nice things. Only Ginx accused Aunt Lois. "Lie," he repeated again and again until Uncle Pete slammed his big hand against the edge of the table, clattering the coffee cups in their pink-and-white-saucers. Ginx knew there were things he was just supposed to let go, but he could not help it. He hated lies of any kind. Lucky for us all, Aunt Lois chose to ignore my brother. Uncle Pete's compliment was still tickling the air, and for the remainder of that dinner our aunt's face glittered, a small, sucking, chewing planet hauled down to sparkle before us.
Aunt Lois picked up her big pot and shook it again, rattling the beans. Her lips pressed to a fine point; then she consented. "Yes, Dana, honey, of course you may watch. You can help me with color."
"Christ," I muttered, bending to open the bottom drawer of the large china cabinet where Aunt Lois kept all her makeup supplies. She did not like the Lord's name taken in vain, but she needed my help too much to criticize. She frowned once and gave a firm twist to each of the pearlearrings Uncle Pete had given her for her forty-third birthday. Ginx looked away from his magazine and up at me, his fingers working against the leather of the armrest. I was forgiven. He enjoyed my small triumphs.
Aunt Lois brought her beans to the kitchen, chin cast over her shoulder. "Two!" she sang out. "We need two cleansing kits and two bowls of water. You can then make coffee, Morgan-Lee."
"I can make that," Dana offered, clanging the yam pan on the counter. "And I'll also get the water." The telephone rang luxuriously, not like ours at home that just sputtered out a series of thin rattles. Dana had begged our father to buy a phone like Aunt Lois's for her bedroom. For years he'd promised Dana that she'd have one as soon as she started eighth grade. If she decided to move back home again, then come September she would cash in. Aunt Lois scurried to answer.
"Yes?" our aunt asked brightly into the receiver. "Oh, sweetie." There was a long pause. I put each pink kit squarely in front of a stool. "Okay, baby ... . Well, we'll have dinner for you when you get home. That's okay." Stretching the cord, she turned to watch me. "We got the kids tonight. Marion wanted a little break, you know, as usual. Dana's going to help me with a session before dinner. In fact, they'll be here any minute now." She snapped her fingers. I looked up, and she mouthed "two" at me, as if I hadn't understood the first time. She blew a kiss into the receiver. "I know. Bye-bye."
Dana put the water bowls on the table, and I arranged the four long-backed chairs neatly in their places. Those dining room chairs were also a creamy white, supposedly to match the living room chair, but they were made by a different company and their color had disappointed Aunt Lois, who claimed, only after they'd arrived, that the creaminess of the white was not rich enough. "Nuances are everything," she had instructed the two deliverymen, who stood staring at the chairs, muttering in awkward agreement.
Aunt Lois straightened the tablecloth and looked down at Ginx, who immediately shifted his gaze to the bottom of the page, then glanced up, saw she was still watching, and looked down again. He hated to be watched. But she watched. Ginx was fifteen years old, and still our aunt refused to reconcile his beauty with his strangeness. She did not know how to look at him. "Please don't look at me," he finally told her, then stretched his legs, which he could retract so quickly he sometimes looked like a child again.
Aunt Lois sighed in response. "I will most likely have to ask you to move, Ginx." She spoke to my brother as little as possible, but when she did I understood why it was that, when he was little, it had taken her so long to teach him "Momma" and "Dadda."
"Why must I move?" he asked, but she knew better than to answer.
Aunt Lois continued, "We'll have to shut the sliding doors so the clients don't see into the kitchen. Oh, Dana,sweetheart. Those yams're smelling so fine." She quickly exchanged her cooking apron for the pink-and-white striped one she wore during makeup sessions. I was standing near the table, arms folded. My sister dried her hands and doused them with lotion. Dana's fingers were chubby, the tips forming five perfect domes, thick as link sausages. She hated her fingers so much that she'd shut them into fists whenever she thought someone was looking. The rest of Dana was full and well proportioned: tender skin, solid arms, arched eyebrows, and dark hair that slipped through fingers as easily as water. She had small brown eyes that skipped casually from place to place, as if in constant search for the prettiest people and brightest objects.
"The yams're almost done," Dana said, flipping back her hair. She had begun to select soaps and shampoos with care and smelled cleanly of spearmint, a smell that promised her commitment to roomfuls of jabbering, laughing, shiny-haired girls.
The doorbell rang, and I leaped through the living room to open it.
"Oh, not yet!" Aunt Lois chirped as she quickly slid the kitchen door closed, shutting Dana in.
"Wait!" Dana complained. But Aunt Lois was already dimming the lights and scooting behind the table to perch her fingers on its lace cloth. I waited by the door until she was completely ready. "Okay, open up. Go on, now."
"Hello! Hello!" I called out ceremoniously into themuggy pink of the evening. The two women on Aunt Lois's stoop could only have been mother and daughter with their identically startled smiles and vague, moon-wide faces.
"Tone. Plum. Roll," Ginx said, when he saw them.
"Come in," Aunt Lois cooed, promising safe harbor.
"We've come for makeovers. Is this the right house?" the mother asked, her eyes pushing past me to search for Aunt Lois. I figured the daughter was around my age, and I smiled, imagining that the women had journeyed a long way for a rare and forbidden elixir.
"Yes," I answered loftily, stepping aside to let them in. Daughter first, then mother shuffled past, and I thought, You will be given beauty but must leave your souls with me at the door. My brother pulled himself straight and laughed for no apparent reason, a choppy haw-haw that Aunt Lois covered by beckoning more loudly. "Come, come."
Still holding the door, I turned to look at our aunt. The cool from the air conditioner mingled with the outside heat as she spread her arms wide, the pointer finger of each hand graciously indicating two chairs. The kitchen door slid open, and Dana appeared in one of Aunt Lois's spare aprons. My sister looked at the women, obviously disappointed. Dana always hoped for beautiful clients. Aunt Lois, on the other hand, tittered; the plain and unassuming were her favorite. "Good." She brought her arms back down, allowing her fingers to flutter through the air. "Good." I looked at my brother, whose eyes retreated, turning slender as arrows. He'd beentold that it was not polite to read in front of guests, so he closed the magazine and promptly folded his hands.
"I don't know if you remember us from the church potluck. We only came that once, but we're ..." the mother began. The daughter studied us somberly.
Our aunt brightened. "Yes, of course. Please sit, Mrs. and Miss Mulvahill." The daughter looked around, tugged at the black velveteen belt holding up her jeans, and refused to be impressed. She was thick-boned and pale, her mousy hair jolting as she aggressively pulled back one of the chairs. Ginx could not help himself; he started to smile and slid a finger over his well-drawn lips: back and forth, back and forth. He looked at me only after both Mulvahills were sitting at Aunt Lois's table.
"Mother and daughter," Aunt Lois confirmed to herself, speaking low through the dimmed light. "Wonderful. How nice you could come together."
The mother nodded in a shy mixture of awe and gratitude, like an overgrown girl. The daughter grumbled as the mother slid her fingertips against each other, positioning them next to the pink kit that I had set for her. "We just wanted to treat ourselves," the woman confessed. Aunt Lois clapped her hands twice.
Had she been twenty years younger, our aunt would have plucked up that girl of a woman and eaten her for lunch. As it was, she just smiled.
"Christ Jesus," the daughter muttered, rolling her eyes ather mother's smile but not looking at any of us. She was not there to make friends.
Aunt Lois straightened and frowned. "Please," she complained, "no one in this house takes the name of the Lord in vain." But her tone changed as she touched the mother's arm and whispered, "You sure deserve a treat." Bending at the waist, our aunt hovered over the mother to adjust the mirror on her kit. Aunt Lois's hands were slender and efficient as blades, experts on faces, smoothing coolly over eyelids, perfecting skin. Dana sat by the dresser, ready to be of use.
"Circles," Ginx said. I smiled. Normally, Aunt Lois would have ordered us upstairs, but she hadn't even told me to close her front door, so I stood there, enjoying the mingle of hot and cold air.
"Jolie ... . Très jolie!" our aunt exclaimed, over a variety of color squares she selected, the pink heart of her mouth pulsing around the French she'd learned in high school and perfected by studying Deena Fae makeup labels. Then she began as she always did: "It's nice to be women together for a while. There are so few times in our busy lives for intimacy, but this evening we can just be women together." Her violet eyes slid greedily over the mother's pale lips, which provided a marked contrast to the Belle Rose of her own. Aunt Lois was good at intimacy. "Now, dab your cotton into the cleanser on your left and apply it to your skin in small quick circles." Mother and daughter obediently dabbed their cotton balls, then raised them to circle their cheeks. Ginx nodded.
"Circles! Circles like this," Aunt Lois sang joyously, a finger darting up to cut the air in small circles. I was getting bored, so I pressed my back against the edge of the door and, with one hard push, sent it flying shut, slamming an end to whatever world those women had come from. I'd made it my personal duty to pay homage to the lives women left behind them when they entered the house for Aunt Lois's makeovers. I'd told her this once. She'd laughed in her up-and-down roller-coaster way.
Our aunt looked up. "We close, we do not slam, the door," she scolded, as if I were a little girl. "You and Ginx go upstairs now." Dana shrank against the wall so that Aunt Lois wouldn't include her with us.
"I'm being good," Dana whined when Aunt Lois turned in her direction.
"You may stay."
Ginx rolled up his magazine and hit it once against his knee. "Good-bye," he said, senselessly and to no one, as he got up from the big chair.
When I was small, Uncle Pete and Aunt Lois's house next door was exactly like ours in its construction. The upstairs had consisted of four bedrooms, a big bathroom, and a long hallway, but when they redid the house, Aunt Lois had the wall dividing two of the bedrooms knocked out for a Master Suite, as she liked to call it. Whenever we spent the night, I stayed in the Guest Room, Dana in the Baby's Room, which was the room she'd moved into, and Ginx slept in the livingroom. Throughout seventh grade, Dana had been sleeping at Aunt Lois's more than she slept at home. To encourage her to stay, Aunt Lois had given her exclusive rights to the Baby's Room, with its bright yellow walls, blue wainscoting, and light pink curtains. It had been fixed up many summers back for the baby Aunt Lois had claimed was growing inside her.
"That woman and girl are not attractive," my brother said, as he followed me into the Baby's Room. He thought for a little bit. "That's too bad. It is unfortunate."
"Wish we were going home for supper tonight," I told him. Ginx had slipped to the floor and was leaning against Dana's bed. "Sure wish we didn't have to stay here," I said. But I, too, was getting ready. I had moved to the window, which looked out onto the side of our house. My back was turned to my brother, but I would know. When he was ready, I would begin.
"Momma's tired," Ginx told me. "That's all. She's just too tired." He began his slow rock against the bed frame.
"I know, Ginx," I said, "she's always tired."
I listened to the bed's rhythmic creaking and fixed my stare on the side of our house.
Then I went down.
Past the muffled voices from downstairs, Aunt Lois's laughing, Mrs. Mulvahill's cooing, past our own silent house across the way where our mother slept, past the failing light. Down below lay the Luccas' lush green field, which I watched for a while on my own. Then I took a breath and began the story.
"Momma Lucca does not want to move. She is on her porch swing, her legs crossed. She's got her hat on her knees," I said. It would be a story about what happened once when a boy fell in love with Sister Lucca.
"Oh, hmmmm," Ginx said.
"She takes out the large flowered fan Sister Lucca brought home from church."
It was true that Ginx was too old for stories, but he did not understand what being like other fifteen-year-olds entailed, and his difference shimmered inside him, a black stone in clear water. Although the stone hurt, Ginx insisted on guarding it close, examining it with the force of someone trying to understand light by staring at the sun.
"Rocking back and forth, Momma Lucca raises her hand." I tried not to pause over the scene but couldn't help myself Down there it was a humid late-August afternoon, all the hazy grief of day collected, stretched and hanging, particularly golden on the narrow ledge joining field and sky. I turned so I could see Ginx, because when Momma Lucca raised her hand to slip his stone away, hiding it in the pocket of her deep fist, Ginx would smile, his lovely face losing its anger, and in those moments our future happiness seemed assured.
Right after I'd turned eight, we started sitting in our mother's room on hot summer days. She would close thecurtains to shut out the light. Dana started off sitting on the floor, leaning against the bed where my mother rested while I sat on the carpet near the dresser; Ginx sat at our mother's tiny desk. "I want you kids to always be able to tell me everything," she said one day, her face full of enthusiasm over the thought. "Not like I was with my mother. I didn't tell her a thing." As usual, and without our mother's seeming to notice, Dana eventually slid herself onto the bed. "People can become sad from years of not talking to each other. I mean of not really talking," our mother told us. The gray light of the room kept me fastened there. Ginx studied our mother's face as she spoke. By the time he was ten, his stare had turned hard and serious. He'd memorized the area codes for every major city in the United States, including Anchorage, Alaska. I remember Uncle Pete quizzing him and breaking into rough laughter because he never got a single one wrong. Dana was lying on her side, an elbow propped on one of our mother's white pillows. My sister didn't look comfortable, but she could not risk lying down completely or our mother would tell her to go lie down in her own bed.
Ginx watched me while our mother explained to us that time was passing, that we must use time wisely and be efficient in our progress. "That is what you need to learn," she said, glumly capping the palms of her hands over her knees. "I've not been very efficient." I pulled in my legs and sat Indian style.
"How do we learn that?" Ginx asked. He was grateful forany prescriptions with rules that were easy to follow so he could use his concentration for what actually mattered to him. "How do we do that, Momma?"
"I don't really know," she answered with a laugh, which was even more confusing. "You probably should not be spending a beautiful summer day indoors with your old mother."
"You're not old; you're only thirty-four," Ginx cut in. "Thirty-five is middle age, and seventy is old age, so you still have more than half your life left before you're old, if you think about it. Really." Ginx sat straight, and I hugged my legs closer to my body even though my knees hurt. After these discussions, our mother would sleep, and Dana would allow herself to lie down fully alongside her, but Ginx and I never did. We would wait in our positions, sometimes two hours, sometimes longer.
Before our mother went to sleep, she told us it was healthy to spend some time just sitting and thinking. She was wearing white cotton pants and a white blouse--her yoga outfit. "Few children do that," she explained, "but maybe there would be less violence in the world if they did. In India, everyone meditates." She told us, "Too many kids in this country watch television. Now that is really a waste of time." Then she stretched her arms upward and moved slightly farther away from Dana. My sister immediately sat up in order to use less space on the bed.
"What about the news or nature shows?" Ginx wanted to know. "Are those a waste of time?" Our mother raised onearm at a time toward the ceiling, as she'd been taught to do in her yoga class.
"People have different ways of learning," she said. "I am not necessarily right, but I think people should spend more time learning about one another, figuring out relationships. That might make the world a better place," she said. "Imagine if we didn't have to hide so much, could open up more."
"After I have kids," Dana told our mother, "I plan to have a babysitter at least twice a week so that me and my husband can have a candlelight dinner alone. I'll dress up for it, too."
Our mother paused and then, as part of her stretch, leaned forward and grasped her ankles, dropping her head between her knees. "After you have kids, chances are you won't have energy for candlelight dinners." She raised her head, gave a brief laugh, and turned back to Ginx. "My own parents, your Aunt Lois's parents and mine, well--you know they died before you were born--they had nothing at the end of their lives." She curled her feet and burrowed them down into the folds of the white bedspread. Dana put her hand on the headboard behind where our mother was sitting. If her hand accidentally slipped, it might well have brushed against our mother's hair and down her back. "To hear Lois talk about it, you'd think our parents were these active, creative people, but they were just sitting there, you know, waiting to die."
Ginx started humming and playing with his earlobe. Hewanted words chosen according to their sounds rather than their meanings, and the bulky descriptions of our mother's mother--our grandmother--sitting on the sofa in the dim light, filing her nails while her husband nodded in and out of sleep at an age when other people were still playing golf or even, for God's sake, hiking, aggravated him. It could have all been wrapped into a few words repeated three or four times. Ginx supplied Rowling and Disaster, the sounds barely distinguishable from his hum.
When she was done with her story, our mother asked him, "What did you say?"
Ginx stopped humming. "Rowling and Disaster," he repeated. The sounds included our grandparents' large living room sofa and all their waiting.
"That's right," encouraged our mother, smiling, "that is perfect." She scratched her big toe.
Dana asked, "What's perfect?" but our mother just repeated Ginx's words.
I knew full well that other children were outside playing in the sun. Our mother continued watching Ginx as though waiting for more, as though eventually he might supply a sound to match all the episodes of her life, including the disappointments that would otherwise remain locked inside her. But maybe it wasn't the sounds she cared about; maybe what relieved her was his hard stare and the attention he burned into whatever interested him. Perhaps she thought that, since the three of us were still so young, if we sat withher together in the dark long enough, she could teach us where to turn our focus, and then she'd no longer be alone. "You can't just tell your own parents, 'Get up off the sofa and make something of yourself,' can you?" she asked. "I mean, people end up being who they are at a certain point."
"No," Ginx countered, "people do not usually end up being who they are. Not usually. That is not true."
It was my turn to add something, so I quoted one of our father's favorite lines. "Life is what you make it."
"Momma," Dana began, but our mother interrupted her.
"Oh, God, you all spend too much time with Lois." Our mother laughed. I laughed too. Ginx lowered his gaze and joined in, and our mother said, "Isn't this nice, now," which is when I looked back to Dana and no longer felt like laughing. I wished our mother would lean to her right, even if it were just part of her stretch, and caress my sister's cheek. I wished our mother had some leftover need that would drive her to comb our hair before school or ask for a hug sometimes, or occasionally linger when kissing us good night.
These sessions with our mother ended when I was twelve and my brother thirteen. The day was particularly hot, the kind that made the pavement all warbly, so I didn't mind being inside. Dana was ten at that point and was spending most of her summer days at her friend Myra's house. As usual, Ginx sat at the desk and I sat on the floor. Our mother's back curved against the headboard of her bed like the body of a question mark. Ginx had begun to grow what Aunt Loiscalled peach fuzz on his upper lip, and he was constantly pulling at the hairs.
"You know," our mother said, "I have something to tell you." She pushed herself up and sat Indian style, gently pushing down her inner thighs. Of course, she was looking at my brother. He shrugged up his right shoulder to shield himself. Aunt Lois had taught me that the perfection of a face lay in the symmetry of its proportions. "I once took a ruler to that boy's face," Aunt Lois said. "Did it when he was sleeping. Completely symmetrical. A good many people would give their eyeteeth for such features. God sure does work in mysterious ways."
"It's got nothing to do with God," I snapped back. "Ginx takes after Momma!"
"Oh, now, your momma's attractive, but she's no beauty--not to the trained eye, anyway," our aunt countered. I did not ask Aunt Lois how or when she measured Ginx, because of course she was lying, but I also knew she did not need a ruler to size up a face. He rarely cut his light brown hair, so it was always hanging in his eyes, meaning he was constantly having to split it apart to see anything well. His eyes verged on black. "I'd name that color après minuit," Aunt Lois said. His cheekbones were high and finely drawn right down to his jaws, which jutted out for the single purpose of carrying his mouth, as though it were a well-cut ruby carefully placed in the center.
"Oh, Ginx," our mother said, after she had closed thecurtains and we had taken our usual positions. "You are gifted. A gift deserves great respect, a red-carpet treatment, doesn't it, Morgan-Lee?"
I didn't answer. The comment made Ginx shrug his right shoulder up to his ear; our mother closed her eyes. Sitting there with her eyes closed may have made her forget that we were only children, her children at that.
"Sometimes I wake up in the morning and think of how Lois and I used to talk about being married when we were girls. Of course, she was four and a half years older and was always silly about it, but I have to admit I thought ... I thought, too, that marriage would be different, that--" She stopped here, but she did not open her eyes. She smiled. "Pete tried to get me to go steady with him even after he'd been on a few dates with Lois. 'Oh,' I told him, 'you have no idea who I am!' Of course you can guess what he really wanted ... but can you imagine?" Our mother opened her eyes, her face enlivened as if, finally, she had rested enough. "He was handsome--I mean, by most people's standards--so I gave it two seconds of thought, but of course I said no. Oh, God, I could hardly keep from laughing! I told Lois about it a few years later. She didn't take it too well."
I waited, twisting my hair and sucking on the ends, which were dry and limp. Aunt Lois wanted to trim and feather my hair along the sides so that I'd wear it the way other girls my age did. I looked away from our mother and concentrated on finding Sister Lucca, who was resting onher birch ready to pounce. I did not want to know about marriage, not how she was telling it anyway, so I focused on Sister, the long stretch of her body in the warm sunlight and the simple heat of her white birch branch. Ginx was covering his ears and humming more loudly than usual because he'd been caught off guard.
"That's enough, Ginx," our mother reprimanded, when he began to rock. "Bring it to an end." But she seemed to be speaking more to herself. She was angry. "If we can't talk openly we should just forget it!"
Ginx kept humming and rocking, not looking at either of us. He put both hands behind his head.
"Okay, that's it," our mother declared. "It's over. No more." She shot herself off the bed and onto the floor. She walked right past us and out her bedroom door, leaving us there. On that day in our mother's dark room, I told Ginx about Sister and B.J.'s pact, how they would always be together, how they would never leave each other. No matter what happened, Sister and B.J. would always love each other more than anyone else.
I could hear, the women downstairs moving into the living room for their Polaroid pictures, which meant the makeup session had ended. It was time to conclude my story. "Momma Lucca is on the porch smiling, all those freckles dancing inher face like the Fourth of July. She slaps her old hat on her head and puts both hands on her hips as B.J. and Sister approach. They are dragging Adam, who had stupidly fallen in love with Sister so she was forced to pounce and smother him in the tall grass. Momma touches the brim of her hat the way men used to do when they wore hats and tells them to wash up for supper. Sister Lucca looks from Adam's carcass to Momma, carcass to Momma, wishing that love were a whole lot easier and didn't include all the kicking and wriggling and fighting. In the morning, Sister will hammer down Adam's bones till they are smooth, flat, and clear. Smooth, flat, and clear so she can cut them in patterns and hang them with the other leaves on the money trees."
I looked at my reflection in the window. Every morning, I rigidly pulled a comb through my hair, parting it exactly in the middle, so two dark-blond flanks dropped evenly to my shoulders.
"Portent. Bilous. Mustard. Enough," Ginx muttered.
I smiled. They were soft words with sounds that absorbed and comforted.
"Plop. Comma. Through," he added.
"Soft," I qualified, as the dining room light in our house went off again. I wondered if our mother was going back to bed or had just decided to sit awhile in the dark.
"Wonder. Marvelous. Redolent." He held his knees and looked up at the ceiling. I closed my eyes as he went on. I thought about Billy, about the letters I had to write and taketo him before Thursday. I no longer looked forward to Ginx's chatter as I once had.
"Push. Plunder. Carnival. Roar."
Our mother knew about the Luccas. She had walked in on us more than once over the years, catching enough snippets of stories to piece together some idea of what I told Ginx, why he occasionally burst into a flood of his words. "Morgan-Lee and Ginx," she had reprimanded, leaning her thin hip against the doorframe. "Stop with that. It's time you grew up."
"We're not growing up," I had shot back.
"Rhombah. Pollo. Prawn." Now Ginx was rubbing the side of his face with the entire palm of his hand.
"Enough!" I admonished, still not moving from the window. But he was not finished.
"Oohlahoolahoolahooo!" he howled, in imitation of Sister's scream.
I wondered if the women downstairs could hear the noise. Ginx slowly drew his imitation of Sister's yodel to an end, and for a little while there was silence.
"Kids! Kids! Come down and see what we've done here." Aunt Lois was calling us.
"Come on, Ginx," I said, turning to him, though I knew he wasn't finished. He spread his long fingers over his knees. In almost every way, Ginx was the opposite of Uncle Pete, whom Aunt Lois called "a man's man."
"Let's go downstairs," I said, but my brother didn't move,absorbed once again in his chatter. I walked right past him and out of the room, letting the door close quietly. Ginx's words became harder as I started down the stairs without him.
"Tuck. Crack. Ribbit," he said.
I wanted to hear anything but his chatter: the women talking about their new colors, the way Aunt Lois had chosen exactly the right ones, Dana's giggle, the TV news. I got to the bottom of the staircase and paused. Mother and daughter were sitting next to each other, their chairs now in the living room. They were facing me. Aunt Lois was kneeling before those two, her Polaroid camera to her face as she hurled the question at me over her shoulder: "Aren't they just beautiful?" Only I knew that, on the floor above us, Ginx's eyes were shut, his lips moving quickly over his words but never stumbling.
"Hi," the mother said, her blinking eyelashes freighted with mascara. Her eyelids were shadowed a combination of Vert sur Vert and Extase Jaune. Rose du Jardin blossomed generously on her cheeks. Aunt Lois's camera clicked. "Your aunt has just fixed us up so nice, now," the lady gloated, with a skittish glance at her daughter. "Hasn't she, honey?"
"Yeah, Momma, fine," the daughter snarled. I was sure the daughter had chosen the gray eye shadow herself, because our aunt only gravitated toward pastels for the unattractive. Both mother and daughter had selected Très Rouge for their lips, a red much too bright.
"Here we are," Aunt Lois said, pulling out the pictureand waving it back and forth to dry. "The two of you are absolute naturals before the camera. Plain naturals!" Aunt Lois handed the mother their snapshot. I moved next to the door so I could let them out when they were ready. Ginx was now standing on the landing upstairs. I could see his fingers gripping the banister. He was perfectly still. I looked at the big girl in front of me and thought of the beginning to a love letter that some boy might order for her: "Your moon face shines tonight ... ."
"Dana has wrapped and bagged your purchases all nicely," Aunt Lois declared, as my sister came into the living room, offering two pink-and-white bags. "Now, promise you'll come back and see me," Aunt Lois chirped out as she skirted the women toward the door. "You promise?"
The mother nodded and promised they would; then she turned just enough to look imploringly at the daughter, as if wishing that she could for once draw words of gratitude up from the girl's heart and out her throat. Maybe then, she wouldn't have to work so hard at her own politeness. "We certainly will."
"Y'all come back in at least a month for a checkup so we can be sure you're following the correct cleansing procedure," Dana instructed loudly. I hopped to open the door as wide as it would go. Both daughter and mother scuttled past without looking at me. The mother focused on the back of her daughter's head as they stepped over the threshold. I didn't shut the door right away because I imagined announcing, "Your firstbreath in this new womanhood." The daughter walked quickly down the two stairs and through the yard, but the mother stayed rooted to the stoop a few seconds longer.
"Well, it's gonna be just all right," I heard her mutter. "We'll be okay," she said more clearly as she stepped down and into the yard to join her daughter. I stood there, planning to note down later this small insight into how other lives went on--the kind of yearning involved.
"Good-bye!" I said to the woman and the girl as they stood blankly on the curve of the cul de sac for a few seconds before unlocking a white Chevrolet. I waved in the sad, exaggerated way of a movie mother watching her sons go off to war. "Good-bye!" I called again, after the women were already in the car. The mother sheepishly returned my wave. Then I shut the door and leaned against it, the palms of my hands flat on the wood. I looked hard at Aunt Lois and waited there only a second before whispering, "How much?"
"Sixty-four dollars and twenty-eight cents in cash," Aunt Lois announced, fanning out those bills in her smooth white fingers. She winked at me. When it came to money, we understood each other perfectly. "Set the table, my babies, it's suppertime!"
I obeyed, skipping to clear the cleansing kits. There was something beautiful about money, even when it wasn't mine. My brother was coming down the stairs, counting each one as he stepped.
"Thirteen, same as always!" Dana told him, as if he wereactually looking for an answer, as if he had forgotten the number of stairs since the last time he counted.
"That's correct," he said. "Thirteen."
I took extra care while placing the silverware on the mats: knives on the right, forks on the left. The tiny dessert spoon lay perpendicular to the wineglasses, which Aunt Lois insisted upon setting out, though she never filled them with anything other than Welch's grape juice. But when Dana looked at the table and smiled, I regretted having done such a good job. I knew my sister was comparing it to home, where the knives and forks lay dully side by side on their paper napkins.
Uncle Pete did not return when he said he would, and he did not call again. "Let's go ahead and eat," Aunt Lois suggested, an hour and a half later, trying to sound cheerful. She lit the candles and dimmed the lights.
"It's beef stew," Ginx confirmed, once Aunt Lois pulled back the aluminum foil. Dinner had gotten cold, so Aunt Lois heated it up.
"Stewed beef!" I announced. My brother circled his fingers around the bottom of a glass vase, the opposite forefingers and thumbs almost touching.
"Don't get the roses too close to the flame there," Aunt Lois warned.
He looked up. "No," he said, shaking his head, "I sure won't."
"When will Uncle Pete be home?" Dana wanted to know.
"Okay," Ginx was whispering, as he pushed his fingers more snugly around the vase.
"Later," Aunt Lois cut in. "He's got houses to show. People aren't always on time, you know. It's impossible to have a schedule when you're in business." Our aunt looked at me, and I nodded. It was my job to remind her of how deeply she was loved and, of course, that a man would not be late for her unless it was beyond his control.
Aunt Lois had taught me about love. When I was ten years old, she'd begun bringing down her collection of love letters, graciously untying the satin bow and picking out a letter. She would read to me from across the dining room table. Later, I would scrawl certain words into a journal to create love letters of my own: Want, Blush, Roses, Lips, Charm. I sounded them out till one day I came to realize that they were dull words, which is when I began to combine them: The Bloses of your Charmlips. I'd even written a love letter from a pretend girl to a pretend boy. One day, I showed it to Billy, who said it was okay but that I needed practice.
I stopped writing after that, but I still listened to what our aunt told me about her past loves. I'd close my eyes and try to picture younger versions of Johnny Johnson, the mechanic, or Burt Hope, who sold hardware downtown. I'd think of Newton George, who had no job at all but to sit in the tinystation near the railway tracks in West Hillsborough and watch the trains pass by, freighted with old car parts or bales of raw cotton. Head in my hands, I'd try to refigure those men smart and handsome, the way Aunt Lois described, not at all how I knew them. I imagined them, years back, in the candlelight of romance, pen in hand as the thought of our aunt cracked open their hearts, love words spilling recklessly over the pages.
"I can do nothing but think of you" or "Your kiss last night left me staggering all the way home," our aunt would read with a trembling voice, her eyes moistening as she swallowed down the sob that threatened somewhere deep in her throat. During these readings she was always on the verge of emotion. "I am on the brink of just breaking down and weeping!" she'd exclaim or "I'm on the brink of laughing myself silly over how foolish I was back then." Although Aunt Lois complained that I was neither sentimental nor sympathetic, she never spoke of what I was, the kind who could carry a secret to the grave, who did not need instruction on what needed to be kept unspoken.
Our aunt taught me that Hillsborough was not at all what it seemed. It was a town full of apparently ordinary men capable of harboring extraordinary feelings. Trip Wallace, the postman who was always on time every morning, who, if it was raining, carried the mail to our front door; Jay Bridgett at the drugstore; even Paul O'Keefe, who sold used cars near the town dump--all of them had once taken partin the collective passion for our aunt. In those years before my existence, there had been so much raging, pillow kissing, screaming, ecstasy, threats, and jealousies over her that any other town would have combusted, gone up in smoke, ripped toward heaven like a shooting star. But Hillsborough remained quiet, smoldering love, turning its young men old and simple, giving them families and routines. "Oh," Aunt Lois would sigh, "Morgan-Lee, you should have heard all the hearts breaking when I married your uncle Pete. I can't even tell you--it was one large crack. The composite grief of those poor men!"
There was always a pause that followed a reading, our aunt's face silently confronting the shadows in the room while I remained perfectly still so as not to remind her of my existence, of how much time had robbed, how things had changed. "That's how it was," she sometimes stated. "That's what things were like back then, Morgan-Lee."
"Yeah," I'd say. "Different."
"Different, I'm telling you."
I never read the letters myself, and she never offered to show me one. I was her listener, and in exchange she appreciated my stillness and discretion, which I believed to be my only true talents.
"Those women were fat," Dana said, referring to the mother and daughter.
"Oh, now," Aunt Lois instructed, resisting a smile, "they were pleasantly plump."
"Not so pleasant," Ginx stated. "The young Mulvahill was not pleasant at all," he added upon reflection.
"That's not what matters," I said. Aunt Lois swallowed a forkful of candy yam. She licked the fork clean, her indication that she'd eat no more. "What matters is that they paid."
"Well, tomorrow I'm going shopping so I can bake some pies for the fellowship supper. The church elders asked me if I'd do my special lemon meringue," Aunt Lois said, then paused, tracing the rim of her plate. "With extra meringue." I looked at my brother, who had caught the exact note of the air conditioner and had begun to hum. Ginx was so good at humming to machinery that, unless he slipped from the one long flat note he was practiced at attaining, only I could hear him. He hummed without swerving throughout Aunt Lois's chatter and Dana's questions.
Under that steady, familiar sound, I went down: beyond the breathing and Dana's giggles, under the switching clink of Aunt Lois's wedding ring against the wineglass as she swallowed her grape juice. I passed through various afternoons: slight rain, blazing sun, pockets of cloud, lingering light in bare winter, the horizon etched with tree branches, a dark that falls too early. Finally, I arrived at a warm, still day, a thick arm of light stretched around the edge of the deep green field in front of the small house. And there was Momma Lucca leaning a large shoulder against her half-cocked screen door, smelling the heavy air, thinking it was surely going to rain. She peered out into the field a long time, until nightsettled in, and there was Sister Lucca, raising her skirt and peeing straight as a moon ray.
"Supper!" Momma called, walking onto her porch. Sister Lucca jumped up almost as high as her birch branch. She was long-legged and fast as she bounded home toward Momma, who stood there waiting, arms spread. Sister laughed to see those arms, yelped and laughed and jumped up into them, her legs wrapping around Momma Lucca's waist, head against her shoulder. Night fell in one thick curtain.
"Look at this night sky, Sister," Momma Lucca said quietly, holding her daughter as if she were just a baby girl again. But Sister did not look up. She was young, and to her the sky without sun was no more interesting than a steel-black shade that other people could go on and on about. Besides a few bright points, the night sky was just plain sad.
"It's sad," Sister announced, so Momma burst into a private laughter over that still uncrossed boundary between childhood and its end, which has everything to do with learning the romance of the stars and darkness. So Momma swayed on her porch while a breeze picked up, the moths swirling around that single bulb, the whole of Sister's talk rising up warmly against her chest, riddled with misunderstanding, maybe, but true nonetheless. Momma could listen to Sister for hours.
I had glimpses of the Luccas that Ginx would never know about. Mornings, evenings, afternoons, times I went down for myself alone: quiet moments on the porch, lonelyinstances watching Sister by herself in the field, whole hours in which Sister lay stretched on her birch branch, just thinking. There were parts of the Luccas' lives that were all mine.
"Come fall, you'll be an eighth-grader." Aunt Lois smiled at Dana, then threatened, "You're nearly a woman. Maybe you'll be just like your mother." Dana winced, and Aunt Lois patted her wrist.
"And come September I will be a junior, and Morgan-Lee will be a sophomore," Ginx said. "A wise fool, wise, wise fool."
"Maybe when I grow up I'll be like you, Aunt Lois," Dana suggested.
Our aunt considered the possibility. "Well, then, you'll certainly get less sleep," she said. "I suppose I could just run off to bed anytime I felt like it, but somebody's got to watch after you kids." Aunt Lois sighed. "Anyway, a body gets accustomed to shouldering the burden." I coughed, plopped another candy yam onto my plate, and passed them on, fat, orange, and glistening.
I once asked our mother why she was so tired. "It happens as you age," she said. "You lose something," she tried to explain. At her best, our mother was able to defrock the world of its mystery. She could make Ginx happy. When our mother used to push me on my swing and sing, it was clear she knew things that other people did not, and I trusted that she would protect me, that I'd be okay. But as I grew, she got into the habit of rising early, squinting out the window, andthen heading back to bed. She quit her teaching job and asked fewer questions. Even making dinner or eating it could sometimes be too much. It seemed that whatever mystery had once kept her intrigued had changed shape and eluded her. And because I still believed that she understood what other people could not, I dreaded growing older.
BROKEN AS THINGS ARE. Copyright © 2004 by Martha Witt. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address Picador, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.