Sisters - Baltimore Post-ExaminerBaltimore Post-Examiner

Sisters

Five more minutes and Emily is leaving.  It is already quarter past 12.  She told her sister noon.  Where is she?

A line by the entrance to the museum’s cafe has formed.  There was none when Emily first looked for Barbara.  She has forgotten to eat breakfast and now Emily is almost sick with hunger.  Her head will start to ache and as she thinks of it; it does.  The pulsing by her right temple is faint.  She should just eat something.  But Emily is past the cash register now, searching the tables.  She thinks she sees her sister in a dark green quilted jacket – pretty — and moves closer.  The woman has Barbara’s hairstyle; outdated “’80s” puff and dyed too dark to be natural.   A man in a beard pulls a chair out from the opposite side of the woman’s table.   He looks like Emily and Barbara’s father.

Nope.  That’s not them, she blinks.  Her eyes sting.  Emily’s fingers shoot up to wipe tears.  Her father has been dead for a month and a half.

The woman in the green jacket catches Emily’s eye.  Emily glances away, out the wall of windows.  The stones outside are dry.  She remembers water falling over them, but there is none today.

Emily circles around to the entrance again.  Floor to ceiling dark wood, curved in a frown between the entrance and the exit.  She stands, watching people greet each other.  Smile.  Hug.  Kiss.  The men pat each other on the back.  The children look up, fingers in mouths, searching the faces of the adults.

Emily has a vague memory of looking up like that at her father.  They were at a zoo.  A large buffalo stood in a dusty pen; his huge back crusty with dirt.  Scary.  There is a photograph of Emily and Barbara her dad took that day.  The sisters stand in the same white shirt waist dresses near that buffalo’s pen.  Barbara, 8 years old, has placed an arm along her sister’s shoulders.  Emily, 3 years old, is not smiling.  Her arms are rigid, stuck to her sides.

Outside the café in the museum’s lobby, is a display advertising an artist named Fritz Scholder.  Emily studies it: a pair of Native Americans in faded watercolors on horseback, Indian Riders.  The foreground looks like a leopard’s skin; yellow with watery brown spots.  The spots are the color of dried blood.

She heads for the elevator.  As she waits, Emily turns around scanning the lobby area for her sister.  No Barbara.  Exhilarated, she climbs the curved stairs.

Thumbing a brochure about Scholder, Emily walks through the first large room to a graphic painting:  Massacre at Wounded Knee.  The snow topped hill — painted in bold brush strokes — reminds Emily of her father’s grave.  She had to wipe the snow off his name when she was there the day before yesterday.  His new marker had been planted in the ground.

Scholder’s painting has a cleanly cut rectangle of earth with swirling pink, red, orange abstract corpses painted inside. Vibrant.  Harsh.  The ache on the side of Emily’s head grows, like a pebble rippling in a pond of water.

She reaches up and covers it with her palm.  Cooler, the throbbing decreases for a few moments.

The museum had been her idea.  Emily had always liked the water that fell outside the café windows and she had envisioned herself watching it as she sat with her sister.

Riding the train to DC from Baltimore, Emily kept thinking of Barbara’s voice on the telephone.   “OK, we can meet someplace in DC.  You pick,” Barbara had said.

The train passed bare trees that thinned and gave way to dead grass — beige colored — covering large areas of the ground.  She spotted a dark green swamp just beyond the train tracks.  It spread in a wide circle.  A pin of bright sunlight pierced its surface.

-o-

Remembering the dead, beige grass near the train tracks, Emily thinks of the street on which she’d grown up – winter bare — the last time she saw it.  Her father had been dead two weeks and Emily stopped the car in front of her house – shocked — her fingers growing cold on the steering wheel.  A dirty white moving van was parked under the black branches of her parent’s sycamore.   Her sister’s red Volvo, with Virginia license plates, blocked the driveway.

Walking into the front hall, harsh mid-day light bathed the familiar Oriental rug that had been rolled up in the middle of the floor.  Though the house was cold inside, a sweating pair of black men were packing boxes.   Their caramel colored t-shirts, with a logo over the left breast that Emily could not read, were deep brown under their arms and down the front of their chests.

“What’s going on?”  Emily’s voice had been shrill.

“Hello?  Who’s there?”  her mother called, but Emily couldn’t see her.

Barbara appeared under the wide arch that separated the dining room from the hall.  She wore a man’s oxford cloth shirt, blue.  Dirty and torn. Against her chest Barbara held large sheets of brown paper, “C’mon.  Help me pack up this china cabinet.”

“What?”  Emily followed her sister into the dining room, their steps echoing in the empty hall.  A knot in her chest, “Barbara why are you …”

“Oh, Emily!”  her mother said.  She wore a bright green and pink striped silk scarf on her head.  Sitting on one of the dining room chairs, her mother had crossed her legs, in pressed black wool slacks.  She wore make-up on her face that was the wrong shade, a dark rosy beige.  Emily could see places on her chin and the sides of her nose where the make-up was missing.  The skin there was a grayish white.

Frail, 80, her mother was six years older than her father.  She also wore a man’s oxford cloth shirt.  White.  Emily realized they were her dad’s shirts.

The rest of the chairs were crowded into the far corner of the room.  The space where the large dining room table had stood – with a big silver Paul Revere bowl filled with fruit or flowers between twin candelabras — was empty.  It felt like a wound.

-o-

Emily sees two more rooms of Scholder’s paintings.  Reaching into her purse, her fingers find her cell phone.  The slim, black rectangle displays the time in a small window.

Punching her sister’s number, she thinks of her mother’s voice the night her father died, “Em-i-l-e-e-e!  Come quick.  Your dad fell.”

Emily’s fingers had grown numb as she gripped the telephone’s receiver.

Her throat had closed.  All she remembered about the moment was the darkness.

In her earliest memory of her dad, she is trailing him around the front yard.  He mows the lawn and she can still see the back of his white shirt, sleeves rolled up his arms.  She can hear the sound of the blades clinking as they slice the grass and their voices, singing “Happy birthday.”  She is 4 years old.

The grass smell is still sharp, clear.  There is a lightness to her spirit.  Joy.

-o-

Her sister is not answering.  Emily closes her cell phone.  She is standing in front of  skulls, the size of her fist.  They are colored with Scholder’s blood and Diet Coke. Emily catches her breath, thinking of her father’s skull. Does it look like this now? An ugly brown. Slightly orange.

Emily’s cell phone rings.

“Where the hell are you?”  her sister says.

Emily’s headache cascades down her face.  “I’m here in the museum,” she replies.  “I just tried to call you.”

“Well, for Christ’s sake, why did you tell me you’d meet me here if you can’t even do it?”

“I’ll be right down,” Emily snaps her cell phone shut, her headache pulsing.  She does not take the stairs and the elevator is slow.

When she steps off the elevator, Emily walks toward her sister.  Barbara is wearing a suede jacket made of hides that are stitched together.  Under it, a beige cable knit sweater peeks from the opening of her jacket.  Barbara’s sweater hangs below her jacket and it ends at her knees, which are covered in yellow leggings in a spotted animal pattern.  Barbara is too big for the stretchy tights that resemble the foreground in Scholder’s Indian Riders.  Emily focuses on her pock marked thighs, dimpling in the fabric, instead of Barbara’s crossed arms, her tapping foot.

“About time!”  her sister has bleached her hair and the effect is striking.  It hangs about her face, ragged and sparse.  Emily can see dark roots.  It looks like wheat growing out of the ground.

Emily keeps her arms at her sides, hands clenched in fists.  She feels the weight of her backpack, sweating under it in her dark blue parka, “They have buffalo burgers, here.  Are you hungry?”

“Yuck!’ Barbara says.  “Where’s another place?”

“No, c’mon,” Emily’s head is pounding.

Once inside the café, Emily asks, “Want a little strawberry or blueberry tart?”

“Yes, OK,” Barbara’s voice softens.

Emily notices that several people are surveying her sister.  Barbara stands with one of her arms stretched out, holding a tray against her hip.   One side of the tray is buried in her suede jacket.  With her free hand, Barbara spreads her fingers and rakes them from her forehead over her scalp to the nape of her neck, grabbing her white hair in a hunk and fanning it out over her back.  Her chin is lifted as she does this.

They find a table by the wall of windows.

“So?”  Barbara says, spreading a paper napkin over her lap.  She raises her eyebrows as she looks at Emily.  Barbara has expertly drawn a line of brown, the same hue as her eyes, along the top of her lids.

Emily glances out again.  No water.  The fountain outside is dry.

“I thought we could talk,” Emily says, unzipping the small pocket in her backpack where she keeps her Excedrin Extra-Strength.  Placing three aspirin on her tongue, Emily gulps water.  She takes a chewy lump of her buffalo burger.  Tasteless.  She has a hard time swallowing it.

Emily remembers that she did not have any aspirin the day they packed up her family home.  She felt pin pricks of pain in her forehead as she spotted a porcelain eggcup in the china cabinet.

“This is mine,” Emily said, taking it off the shelf.

“Don’t start,” Barbara said, “That’s mine, not yours.”

Royal Doulton Bunnykins.  Cream colored with a tiny chip out of the bottom rim of the cup. Emily remembered the Easter when the eggcup with Peter Rabbit was in her basket.  Strutting with a drum that hung from a strap around his neck, Peter Rabbit was swinging spoons, instead of drum sticks.  Barbara’s eggcup had a pair of bunnies; the male was in red coveralls and the lady bunny wore a blue and white dress.  She held a white muffler as they strolled under a red umbrella.

Excited, 5 years old, Emily had taken an Easter egg – dyed lavender – and placed it in her eggcup.

Barbara had watched her struggling with the shell and “tisked,” saying, “Here, let me do it.”

“No, it’s mine.”

“I’m just gonna’ help!”

“NO!”

Emily’s eggcup passed between them.  Once.  Twice.  It slipped from Emily’s hands when she grabbed it back and shattered on the floor.

Their father, blaming Barbara, had told her to give Emily the bunny pair eggcup.

Emily twirled the eggcup she had snatched from the China cabinet.  The bunny pair was indeed painted on it.

“You gave this one to me,” Emily told her sister.

“No, I didn’t!”

“Girls!  Stop!” their mother stomped her foot on the bare wood floor.  It echoed, startling Barbara and Emily.

“Give the eggcup back to your sister, Emily,” her mother said.  The force in her voice was familiar.

Emily tightened her grip on the eggcup.

“These are all Barbara’s things now,” her mother snapped.

“What?”  Emily felt warm.  Her forehead pounded.

“Mom made me executor of the estate,” Barbara said.

Emily’s armpits were moist, so was the skin on her face, her neck.  She could hear one of the men in the hallway humming something she did not recognize.

“Keep it then!”  Emily cried, throwing the eggcup at the hole in the room where the table had stood.  It made a light, almost musical sound as it hit the floor.

-o-

Barbara has a streak of blueberry on her chin and Emily says, “Uh-hem.”

“What?”  Barbara asks.

“You need a napkin.”

“Oh!” Barbara says, picking it up off her lap and wiping her chin.

“You know, Dad wasn’t all he pretended to be,” Barbara says.

Emily shakes her head, “What?”

“You remember the day he took you and me to lunch?”  Barbara asks.

Twenty years before, at a table with a white cloth, their dad sat, his hair falling into his gray eyes.  Boyish.  He was handsome.  The best looking man Emily had ever known.

He told Emily and Barbara he was in love with a woman he had dated in college.  They’d met again at the high school where Emily’s and Barbara’s mother worked as a secretary.   The woman’s daughter was a student at the school.

“You’re leaving mom to marry this woman?”  Barbara had asked.

“I can’t help it.  I’m in love!”

Emily had said nothing; feeling conflicted.  Happy for him, she was also jealous of her father’s glee.

A few weeks later the whole family — their parents, Barbara, her husband and Emily — had all gone back to the same restaurant for dinner.  Their mother had drunk too much.  She kept touching their dad’s shoulder, his hair.  Their mother took his face in her hands, turning him toward her and kissing him.

“Christ, Mary Alice, you’re drunk,” their father had muttered.

-o-

Barbara’s beige sweater has a blue smear on it.  Emily glances at it and smiles.

“That woman changed her mind.  Not Dad,” Barbara says, following Emily’s gaze and glancing down at her sweater, “Shit!”  She dabs at it with her napkin.

“What?  The woman didn’t want Dad?”  Emily asks, watching Barbara rub the stain.

The stain spreads along the cables of Barbara’s sweater.

Barbara continues to rub at the spot, frowning, “She decided she didn’t feel the same way about Dad after all.”  She reaches for her suede jacket, which is hanging on the back of her chair.  Barbara pulls it on, buttoning it.

“I looked her up in the parents’ names in the school directory.  She was the only ‘Lark.’  So I went to see her,” Barbara says.

Emily wipes her eyes.  Her headache deepens.  She feels dizzy

“Pretty woman.  Blonde,” Barbara continues, “I could see what Dad saw in her.  She was an artist.  Her daughter was a ‘love child!’  Not Dad’s, thank God.  The girl was in the 11th grade at the time.”  Barbara folds her hands on top of her suede jacket, smiling at Emily, “There was another one,” she adds.

“Another what?” Emily asks, thinking of her father’s voice.  Low, deep.  His smell.   Clean.  She remembers how his shoulder blades felt the last time she hugged him.  Slight.  Old.  Tears sting her eyes.

“Lover!  There were probably lots of them,” Barbara says, tossing the crumpled napkin on the table.

Emily’s head throbs.  She places her palm on her forehead.

“Your head hurt?”  Barbara asks.

“Yes.”

“Sorry,” Barbara says, watching Emily.  Some of her white hair creeps over her left shoulder.

“How do you know there were other women?” Emily asks.

“Mom told me,” Barbara says.

“When?”  Emily shifts in her seat.  It is hard.  Uncomfortable.  She cannot eat her burger.

“Oh, she told me that day we packed up the house.  After you threw the eggcup and left.”  Barbara reaches down to lift one of her legs– encased in the stretched yellow and brown spotted tights — onto the chair between them.  Emily thinks of the blood colored spots of Indian Riders.  The orange/brown of Scholder’s skulls.

“I’m sorry I threw the eggcup,” Emily says.

“Yeah, well.  No harm done.  Forget it.”

Emily stands up.  “I can’t eat anymore.  Do you wanna’ go check out some exhibits?”

“No, thanks,” Barbara picks up Emily’s tray from across the table.  Dumping the trash from Emily’s tray onto hers, Barbara slides it under her tray.  “I’m gonna’ pass.  I need to get back.”

“OK,” Emily says.

They walk out together; glances from the other diners follow them.   Barbara heads outside and Emily climbs the stairs again.  She passes the floor with Scholder’s exhibit and walks along the hall of the top floor.  There is a full length window at the end of the hall.  In front of it is a sculpted pine as large as a real one.  Under it — in bronze — are three figures, George Washington, an Oneida chief and woman.   Emily circles the statue and stands in front of the window, searching for her sister.

Barbara’s leopard legs ripple as she scurries along the path in front of the museum.  Emily watches her sister cross the lawn of the Mall until she cannot see her anymore.  She turns from the window.  In front of her is a sculpture of a little girl in long braids, clutching a doll.  She is hiding from the adults behind the pine tree.


About the author

Caryn Coyle

Caryn Coyle writes about arts, culture and food for the websites CBS Baltimore and Welcome to Baltimore, Hon. Her fiction has been published in a dozen literary journals including Gargoyle, JMWW, The Little Patuxent Review, Loch Raven Review, Midway Journal, The Journal (Santa Fe) and the anthology City Sages: Baltimore from City Lit Press. She won the 2009 Maryland Writers Association Short Fiction Award, third prize in the first Delmarva Review Short Story Contest, 2011 and honorable mentions for her fiction from the Missouri Writer's Guild (2011) and the St. Louis Writer's Guild (2012). Contact the author.
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