Renowned author Timothy Schaffert’s celebrated debut novel, reissued here in an entirely new paperback edition, chronicles two sisters on the cusp of womanhood as they struggle to understand their father’s suicide as well their mother’s abandonment of them many years earlier. On graduating from high school, the sisters are once again set adrift, this time by their grandmother who leaves them for Florida. In order to survive, and perhaps even thrive, on their path to adulthood, they must learn to reconcile their pasts and discover how to depend upon themselves as well as on each other.
In a story that rises out of the spare Nebraska landscape, Schaffert delivers a redemptive tale about two young women searching for wholeness and love.
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About the Author
Timothy Schaffert grew up on a farm in Nebraska and now lives in Omaha. He is the author of The Swan Gondola as well as four previous critically acclaimed novels, which have been among Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selections, Indie Next Picks, and New York Times Editor's Choices. Schaffert teaches creative writing and literature at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
Read an Excerpt
In her secondhand shop, mabel stretched out on the fainting sofa, feeling tipsy from the summer's heat, not knowing, for a moment, if it was June, July, or August. She shook up a leaking snow globe, the white flakes settling in the laps of lovers on a gondola. Mabel had read in a book on antiques that the snow in snow globes was once made of sawed-up bone. Though Mabel was very young, she often pictured her demise, often hovered above her own Valentino-like funeral with women collapsing and broad-chested men singing impromptu bass tremolo. She'd like to donate her skeleton to a snow globe maker, liked thinking of her remains forever drifting among the plastic landscapes of a souvenir. Mabel watched her sister Lily put on lipstick in front of the mirror of the decades-old nickel gum machine. Sometimes Mabel wondered if she'd been separated at birth from her real sister, for Lily and Mabel shared no resemblance. In a fairy tale, Lily would have been the fair sister of goodness, goldilocked and rosy-faced, and Mabel the nasty one, made up of pointy bones and thin skin and a hank of black hair.
Lily wore only a thrift-shop bra, a pair of jeans, and thick glasses, without which she was only a few blurs from complete lack of sight. After one last drag from her Virginia Slim, she ground the cigarette out in the palm of a mannequin's severed hand.
"I don't know how you can smoke in this heat, Lily," Mabel said. "Everyone's quitting." It had been a terrible summer, and the heat had killed a fifteen-year-old boy in the fields; he dropped dead from a heart attack at eight in the morning cutting tassels from the corn for five bucks an hour. The black-eyed susan by the railroad tracks had blazed yellow for only a week before burning up from the sun. There had never been a better summer for running away to someplace temperate, Mabel thought, fanning herself with an old Omaha World-Herald-twister kills five-the whirling dust of yellow paper making her sneeze. Mabel and Lily Rollow lived alone in this junk shop in the country. Tiny hand-painted signs along I-80 directed motorists (antiques 4 mi., antiques 3 mi.) onto Highway 34, then off onto gravel roads past a stretch of corn and bean fields and pastures overgrown with tall musk thistle. The gray house stood next to a large, outdated satellite dish in the middle of eighty acres of farm land long left fallow, a few miles from the little nothing town of Bonnevilla (pop. 2,900).
Lily held a tissue to her lips to blot her lipstick. The tissue, marked with the red shape of her kiss, floated softly from the tips of her fingers to the floor. Her boyfriend Jordan had called to say he bought a car and wanted to take her for a ride. At nineteen, he was two years younger than Mabel and a year older than Lily. He was sexy in his tight concert T-shirts and with a clip-on silver hoop over his left eyebrow.
Nights, Jordan came to Lily with gin in the hot months and bourbon in the cold. Even before she noticed his one scarred wrist, Mabel had seen in Jordan an inadequacy for the rough-and-tumble of the world. His breath always smelled of the cheapest wine; Mabel could taste it when she smelled it, a remembered sip stolen as a child at a funeral, and she yearned for its vinegar sting at her throat. Should he ever reopen the wound of his right wrist and this time die, she thought she might fabricate a romance between him and herself and confess it to Lily at the peak of her mourning. Mabel could almost feel that lie waiting in her mouth, hidden beneath her tongue like an unswallowed poison.
"It's not just any car," Lily said. "It's Starkweather's. Sort of. It's not the '49 Ford Charlie owned, but the one he stole from the Lincoln couple he murdered-the '56 Packard." Jordan and Lily were fascinated with the stories of Charlie Starkweather and his fourteen-year-old girlfriend Caril Ann Fugate. Mabel's grandmother had once told of how frightened she'd been those nights on the farm before they caught the killer.
Everybody across the state was terrified, she'd said. All the teenagers were afraid to go to drive-ins or out in the country to park and neck. Mabel's grandmother stood those nights at the window hearing thousands of noises coming down along the still and empty country road.
Mabel went to the dilapidated vanity ($75) at the front of the shop to riffle through the mail Lily had tossed unopened across the top of it. There was a letter from their mother who wrote from time to time of broken engagements and new loves. Their mother had left Nebraska more than ten years before, abandoning the girls at their grandmother's secondhand shop then driving southwest, then farther southwest, and farther, until she had tail-spun off the map.
The return address on this letter was new. Their mother's address, though always full of Spanish words, was always in flux. Mabel tore open the envelope, curious to find out if she'd married the old codger who'd made his fortune from selling sea monkeys and trick pepper gum in the pages of comic books. Her mother's life after her father's death had long seemed to have all the romantic posturing of a magazine ad for scotch, all foreign locale and men with gray mustaches whispering into the ears of young ladies. Her mother never wrote much in her letters, but Mabel felt invited to read between the lines for the exotic intrigue and secrets.
Even this month, as Mabel read of nuns and worship, as her mother wrote of being lost then found, Mabel still envisioned lascivious Mexican priests (as beautiful as the young Ricardo Montalban in the old movies Mabel watched during the day) and virgins stuck through with stigmata. "Look," Mabel said, handing Lily the photo from the envelope. In it, their mother knelt at an altar, holding a candle in one hand, cupping its flame with the other, her face only a spot of pale white. Little lizards, their mother wrote, crawl in through the windows sometimes. I throw lit matches at them, hoping they'll leave the way they came in, but they never do. The sisters, though, charm the lizards into a jar and take them out to release them back into the bushes beneath the windows where they live. In the letter, their mother told of her failed engagement and her new job in a desert vineyard owned by nuns near the border of Arizona. Their mother was still a rather young woman, having had Mabel much too early in her life. Mabel's mother had been only fifteen, her father only eighteen, a couple of brats who thought they were in love for a few minutes. Mabel thought they'd been foolish to try to make a go of it; she would have had an abortion, plain and simple.
Lily held out her hand for the milagro-a tiny iron prayer piece. Their mother had often enclosed milagros through the years, the pieces shaped like body parts, little legs and arms and hands. A heart, a pair of lungs, an eye. When you have pain, Mabel's mother had once written, in your tooth, or your arm, or wherever, you leave the milagro at a site of prayer. Lily never left the milagros anywhere; she horded them, and she acted like they were meant only for her, something secret shared with her mother. Mabel knew there were no messages for Lily in these tiny pieces of metal, but she was jealous nonetheless. Lily, with her distance and sly half smile and her way of not meeting your eyes, could take anything in hand and grant it mystery. As a little girl, Lily had tormented Mabel by plucking the most meaningless of junk from the antique shop-a bunch of half-broken glass grapes, an ugly, naked porcelain doll, its head a mange of rat-nest human hair-and turning it desirable, making Mabel curse herself for not first recognizing the beauty of the poor, neglected things. Even just a few weeks before, Lily had laid claim to a dilapidated school bus without seats or tires that was parked in the back. Their grandmother had used it as storage, and Lily emptied it of its junk in order to convert it into a private room for the summer. She still kept all her things in her upstairs room, still had to come in to use the bathroom, and still spent most of her early evening hours in the shop next to the window air conditioner, but nights she slept in the bus on a thin mattress draped with mosquito net. Lily called it her apartment, and she had even painted its inner and outer walls pink.
Lily put the milagro in her mouth and knocked it around with her tongue. She looked through all the summery dresses on the rack in the corner, the wire hangers shrieking on the metal rod, and picked out a sleeveless dress with a cherry print. The dress reminded Mabel of the one Marilyn Monroe wore in The Misfits. Lily took off her jeans, then stepped into the dress that fit tight and wouldn't zip. But how pretty she looks, Mabel thought. Lily wasn't all that fat anymore, but she wasn't thin either, and what fat she had she carried well. Many men liked Lily for her head of curls and her old-style horn-rimmed glasses. Mabel picked up a pliers from a toolbox and went to Lily to fix the stuck zipper.
"How's Jordan able to buy a car, anyway?" Mabel said. "His dad fired him last week." Jordan's father was the barber in Bonnevilla, and Jordan had done nails, buffing and inching back cuticles and gluing on tiny fancies, at a table in the back of the barbershop. Now Jordan only worked a few nights a week, playing his guitar for tips at the steakhouse in town.
"You'd know just as well as I would," Lily said, pushing aside a collection of scarves to see into a full-length mirror. "Considering you and him have been so chummy lately."
"What do you mean?" Mabel asked.
"You talk to him a lot when I'm not around. I mean, when he comes here, and I'm not here, I know you two talk to each other."
"What are you trying to say, Lily?" Mabel asked, coaxing. She felt a blush hot in her cheeks and throat, anticipating a scuffle. She didn't like arguing. Dispute and confrontation made her throat swell shut and her eyes run. But she felt so much closer to Lily when Lily was provoked. Mabel and Lily were just orphans, really, like Orphans of the Storm. In the shop was a box of glass slides for projecting on the screen of movie theaters. Though Mabel had seen only a few of the silent movies featured on these coming-attractions slides, she'd often cast the pictures onto the wall with a flashlight, imagining the stories behind the strange titles: The Sibyl's Handmaiden; Chinatown Wastrels; The Yellow Piano; The Phantom Limbs of Captain Moore. The satellite dish in the backyard piped in some old-movie channels that Mabel watched religiously. She most longed to see all the movies of the Gish sisters. She loved the pictures of them holding hands or of them both sweetly gazing upon a common object, their peaked cheeks pressed together, their rouged, puckered lips tiny like black pansies. Why must Lily be so distant? Mabel wondered. Why couldn't we be sisters famous for our devotion?
As Lily spoke, she tied up her curls in a ponytail with a souvenir scarf of the Niagara Falls depicting honeymooners going over in barrels. "What am I trying to say?" Lily said. "Well, Mabel, I'm trying to say that when I'm not here, you and Jordan talk. That's what I'm trying to say, and I think that's pretty much exactly what I fucking said. What I said is what I'm trying to say. The fucking end. I think a better question would be, What the fuck are you trying to say?"
"You know exactly what I'm trying to say," Mabel said, though not sure herself. She pinched the pliers onto the head of the zipper and gently closed Lily's dress, careful not to catch Lily's soft pink skin in the ragged teeth.
"I don't have the first mother-fucking clue what you're trying to say to me," Lily said. Before Mabel could speak again, Lily continued. "Is what you're trying to say to me that I'm accusing you of trying to steal Jordan away?"
"Yes," Mabel said, looking at Lily's reflection in the mirror. "Yes. That's what we're talking about, isn't it? Why can't you ever just say what's in your head? What are you so afraid's going to happen?"
"Look," Lily said, "you may feel guilty . . . you may have a guilty conscience about the time you spend alone with Jordan, or the feelings you may have for Jordan, but that's your own thing. I'm not accusing you of anything."
There are photographs of us, Mabel thought, evidence of two sorrowful and frightened sisters, and there are notes we wrote to each other. Complete and utter orphans, she thought. "Why don't you ever talk to me about things?" Mabel said softly, fussing with the back of Lily's dress, smoothing out a wrinkle. She was so worn out by her own complaint. Lily's absence was an old absence. "I talk to you," Lily said, walking to the stairs. Her voice built as she went up to her room. "I talk to you all the time. Don't you ever listen?" This was Lily's way of turning everything around, Mabel knew, her way of trying to come across as the one sorely misunderstood.
Mabel thought of a retort, and she ran over to stand at the bottom of the stairs. "Who are you trying to convince, Lily?" she called up. "There's no one here but us." Think of us old, she would have said if Lily hadn't slammed the door. Think of you in your wheelchair and me with a rat on a platter, me all Bette Davis late-career screech. Mabel picked up a dusty perfume bottle and pinched at the bulb of the atomizer, misting her throat with a fragrance that somehow suggested flappers and Gatsby. The thing was, Mabel hadn't spoken much to Jordan lately or to Lily. She'd been spending most of her hours driving up and down the gravel roads across the state looking for abandoned farmhouses to pillage. Mabel had been running the secondhand store on her own since the day her grandmother packed one shallow suitcase and booked a flight to Orlando, Florida, only a few months before. Her grandmother's sister lived there in a condo in a retirement complex near a beach, along a street called Seashell Circle. "Now that Lily's out of school," her grandmother announced the night of Lily's graduation in June, "you girls can look after yourselves." Though Mabel and Lily were sad to see her go, they were mostly shocked to see her emerge from her room at all, let alone smiling and wearing a brand-new red dress. She also wore a Raquel Welch wig she'd ordered from an ad in a tabloid sometime before but never removed from its box. It was as if the undertaker had crept in with brush and makeup palette to make her grandmother look exactly as she had looked in life. For a long time, Mabel's grandmother had been nothing more than a squeak of the floorboards and a thin stick of light beneath her shut bedroom door.
So Mabel took to the roads and salvaged anything she could from the old places, finding something to steal from even the emptiest of ruins-steam-heat radiators, cement gargoyles, the drawer pulls off built-in wardrobes, antique keys left in old locks. As the banks foreclosed on the area farms, rich people from town, the bankers and lawyers, bought the land for their dream houses and a few horses and maybe a Zen garden of fountains and imported rock. These people liked to fill their new luxury homes with artifacts of old farmhouses. They haunted the junk shop for doors of ornate woodwork or squares of stamped tin or ball-and-claw foot tubs.
Mabel loved her solitary drives across the counties, though all she had was a beaten-down Jimmy that frequently clunked to a complete stop on a back road. Deep in the country there wasn't a junction every mile, and the highways, though marked on a map, were often nothing more than weed-choked paths of broken pavement that dead-ended no place special. In the daytime, Mabel didn't mind the search for help. She'd jump a fence and cross a feedlot to drink from the pipe of a windmill. She'd watch the hawks circle then land in the trees planted for windbreaks at the edges of the fields. She'd eventually scare up a farmer who'd probably make fun of her lack of mechanical know-how, but the mocking was usually playful and flirty and Mabel enjoyed it. The fact was, Mabel had taken a few courses in mechanics from a community college, but she liked getting lost and needing help. She liked kicking up new people from a landscape so forsaken.
With Lily in her bedroom, Mabel returned to the fainting sofa. "Eat me," Mabel mumbled, to Lily maybe or to no one in particular. "Bite me." You're much too easygoing, Mabel remembered her mother telling her, back when Mabel's father was still alive. People will stomp all over you, if you're not careful. What kind of a thing was that to tell an eight-year-old girl, Mabel now wondered. "Kiss my rosy red," she said. She picked up a fedora from a hat stand, spanked off its dust, and put it on. Size 71/8. She felt a static electricity working out from the brim of the hat, lifting strands of hair from her skin. She used to think that snap of shock was her father having become some short-wired ghost, giving her a little smooch. Sometimes Mabel saw her father's reflection in the corners of glass or caught scent of the clove gum he constantly chewed, and she knew he remained watchful and curious about the ways of her life. Mabel wasn't at all religious, but it only made sense that her father kept near. His blood was still inside of her, after all.
Jordan drove up just as all the old clocks for sale on the wall began their fractured chiming. "Anybody got the time?" Jordan said, smirking and stepping in. The shop's light glinted on the key he wore on a shoestring around his neck. Mabel and Lily first met Jordan a year or so before when he'd come out to sell some torn-up Louis L'Amours. Mabel bought everything he brought out over the months. She paid much too much for the metal ribs of an old barrel and the red tailfin of a wrecked '57 Chevy. Jordan's teeth were already yellow and broken from too much nicotine and sugar, so he had a shy, tight-lipped smile Mabel and Lily both fell for.
He leaned over the back of the sofa and Mabel touched at the key swinging from the end of its string. "What's that key to, anyway?" Mabel said.
"Some lock somewhere," Jordan said, shrugging. "But I got this deal I've got to strike up with you. Think you'll buy this?" He held out a silver egg-shaped container, and he twisted off its top to show her the green stains inside. He said, "In this, you'd cure your betel nuts in lime."
"I don't know," Mabel said, suddenly tired of contemplating the price of junk. Jordan set the betel-nut thing next to Mabel on the sofa, and he shouted out for Lily. He took a swig from a little bottle of Vicks Formula 44 he carried in his pants pocket. "Oh, Lily," he sung out.
He loved Lily very much, Mabel knew, but Lily was devoted to no one in her life. She was only moved by the attention of strangers, particularly strange men in their late twenties, men who maybe had a divorce already, or at least some well-earned disillusion. Lily worked nights at the steakhouse and days at the counter of a bakery in Bonnevilla. The bakery was across the street from a Texaco station and down the street from the police station and the library. Mechanics and cops and mustached librarians in tweed would come in to buy stale pastries at half price and to tease her about the coffee as black and nasty as bilgewater.
It did seem to Mabel, as she watched Lily come down the stairs, that Lily wore their father's suicide almost seductively. Maybe the men sitting alone in the bakery, leaning in toward her as she poured her awful coffee, would smell her perfume, a perfume as uncomplicated, as unoriginal as White Shoulders, and remember some other's throat, some other's wrist. They'd notice her looking vaguely wrecked-her lipstick smeared a little or an earring gone or a button gone from her blouse-and these men would love her for a sadness they hadn't caused.
--from The Phantom Limbs of the Rollow Sisters by Timothy Schaffert, Copyright © May 2002, The Putnam Publishing Group, a member of Penguin Putnam, Inc., used by permission.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I got this book on sale and hadn't given it much thought until yesterday. I couldn't put it down. It was so good and really held me the entire time. And it's on sale!
Years ago in Nebraska, their father committed suicide and their mother abandoned them to their grandmother. Now their grandmother has left the two sisters by themselves to live in and eke a living out of her antique shop that most people would call a rural junk store. The Rollows, twenty-one year old Mabel and nineteen year old Lily, struggle with the latest renunciation of the two of them. This leaves both sisters emotionally stunned and looking introspectively as to why adults leave them. Though rather different in appearance and demeanor, the siblings concur on two things that parents desert the young and that gin guzzling Jordan is cute but in a destructive way. Lily persuades Jordan to accompany her to confront her mother somewhere in the southwest. This leaves Mabel feeling further abandoned, but seeking solace and understanding by using a medium to attempt to communicate with her deceased dad. The powerful cast makes THE PHANTOM LIMBS OF THE ROLLOW SISTERS into a strong angst-laden reading experience. On the other hand, Timothy Schaffert provides so much insight into the Rollow sisters, he slows down his plot and sends the reader into character overload requiring the reader to deliberately simmer over the tale. The story line remains perceptive and intelligent enabling the audience to observe two wounded young struggle to understand the meaning of at least their lives. Harriet Klausner
Schaffert, Timothy: The Phantom Limbs of the Rollow Sisters