Kimberley Idol

Catholic girls who fail their families learn to lie to their loved ones and tell the truth to strangers. My grandmother shared her secrets with cast offs and drifters who bunked at her place, pawned her knick-knacks, and forgot to let the dog out until it shit on the carpet. She lived in that kind of company because finding caretakers for aging addicts is a grueling chore. She would drink all day then drive through town in her big blue Thunderbird looking for spies or dead husbands or houses she no longer owned. If we hid the car she called the cops and blamed her minder. The cops didn’t respond, but the calls made them testy.

The last time we visited, Grandmother had not answered her phone for days. I tripped across a rocky surface to get to the light switch, and then had to sweep a passel of turds onto the porch. She was wizened and pale and had not washed for a while and she sat on the couch and talked about her father while Meg and I cleaned house. It took us three days and then we left promising nothing. Sobriety infused Grandmother with a stunning meanness and never lasted, so we didn’t bother. It wasn’t as if there was some great life waiting for her if she kicked. Protective Services forced us to put her in a home. The home dried her up and she died within the year, a babbling mess. My mother decided to bury her in the desert, which meant a long drive for Meg and me.

The night dropped in on us while we were in a store buying snacks and ChapStick. We coasted away from Baker towards Death Valley into pitch black. The stars were high and the moon was out but neither cast much light. Keeping tight to the white line, Meg shifted into fourth and revved to 80 miles-per-hour. Thanksgiving night was probably not one patrolmen would spend sitting on a dark desert road.

I had agreed to come because Meg asked, because I was supposed to help but I felt like a visitor rather than a relative. I reached for the chips in Meg’s lap. She moved faster than I did and tossed the bag out the window. I wedged the sodas behind my seat, where she would have to ask for help if she wanted another.

“Where is it?” I asked.

“Somewhere in the back,” Meg said.

I rummaged through the bags in the back until I unearthed the urn that held grandmother’s ashes. It was slick and cold with the look, but not the feel, of pebble stone textures. Meg had picked it out and tried to dun me for half. I would have picked something cheaper. I posted her request “return to sender.”

“It doesn’t seem like much.” I shook the container.

“She weighed seventy pounds when she died,” Meg said. “That seems like more than it should be.”

“If we hucked it into the desert, no one would know,” I said.

“Don’t you dare.”

“Mom should be doing this.”

“Mom can’t.”

“What can Mom do?”

“Tell us to do it,” Meg said. “Bree, put it back.”

I sympathized with my mother’s impulse. Grandmother had been an enduring affliction. She was wild and witty when she was sober and younger but my good memories of her were clobbered by the bad ones and, in the end, I was sorry to have known her. I returned the urn to the footwell where it nestled among the groceries. I wished there were two other granddaughters who could bury it. Grandmother had grown up in a place much like Death Valley and had hated it. She would have despised our decision to bury her in the desert.

“I’m not sure this is a good idea,” I said.

“We’ll bury her, we’ll eat, read and drink, and we won’t talk about anything unpleasant,” Meg said. She pulled her sunglasses from her pocket and put them in the glove compartment.

I realized that I had forgotten to stow mine and felt around. “Like what?”

“Did you talk to Mom before we left?” she asked.

“I love the way the stars shine once you get out of the city,” I replied.

“You do get my drift.”

“Do you know—” I started to ask until I saw the remains of my glasses, black shards, at Meg’s feet. “Those were new,” I said.

She ignored me or could not hear my voice. She had the music turned up high. And even though it was freezing, we had rolled the windows down because we both liked the wind and didn’t mind knots in our hair.

“Girls like you two are the reason I sympathize with Medea,” my mother had said once. She kept our hair trimmed short. Meg hid whenever it was time to visit the barber. I just cried. Once we both got older, we grew our hair long and let it knot.

“Poor Mom,” I said.

“What?” Meg yelled.

“Do you still leave your drawers open just a little?” I asked.

“What?” She turned down the music.

“I still leave my closet door cracked,” I said.

She laughed. “I never put my things away.”

When my mother could not sleep, she roamed the house, righting all the household details she hadn’t the time to attend to during the day. I remember that she wore a velveteen dressing gown, walked in bare feet across cold hardwood floors and moved so quietly that she never woke us even if she entered our room to tidy what we would not.

“Why didn’t you make Mom come?” I asked.

“Why didn’t you speak to her before we left?”

“She makes me feel thoughtless.”

“You make yourself feel selfish,” Meg said. “She doesn’t say a word.”

“She can’t stay in a room with me alone,” I said.

“You make decisions for us without permission.”

“Neither of you make any decisions at all.”

We let the conversation die.

Dead ends are easy to spot, harder to avoid. Meg fiddled with the tuner. I searched for a sweater. When enough time had passed, we tried again.

“I bought a copy of Omega Man the other day,” Meg said. It was her third copy. Meg lost DVDs and CDs like other people lost socks and pens.

“Instead of Road Warrior?”

“I like Omega Man better. In the end, he dies a hero,” she said.

“I prefer Road Warrior,” I replied.


“In the end, he has no family.”

The staff called me when Grandmother arrested. Mom was in Ireland and Meg had aborted the DNR order. I resurrected it and Grandmother died. It was not the first time she had nearly expired. My grandmother had lived her life carelessly. Neither Meg nor Mom agreed with my decision. If there was a right or wrong to these things, I didn’t know what it was. I managed my grandmother’s details but I never visited. Meg visited but never made decisions. Two parts of one person created a kind of grandchild for the crazy old broad who had endless insatiable needs. It wasn’t the booze that made my grandmother crazy, it was enduring selfishness that made her a bitch and cut her loose from the rest of us. You can’t save what you can’t succor. She craved attention but insisted on privacy. She phoned at all hours then vanished for days. She wanted a servant, not a caretaker. She could not see well but wanted a car, not a driver. She wished we would visit, but made a scene when we did. She flirted with our dates, fought with our friends, and only phoned when she was drunk. She lied when she was sick and told her friends we didn’t care and every Christmas she threatened to kill herself usually just as company was arriving for dinner. She also gave odd gifts that we stowed in closets so we could display them when she asked.

She adored her father until he evicted her. After that, I am not certain she loved anyone again. I saw him once, a mean bundle of bones clustered under hospital sheets in a white room. Snotty men sometimes raise ratty daughters. Grandmother cared for him in his declining years. She also cleaned out his bank accounts on cruises to Mexico before anyone noticed that there was no money left to pay his bills. I think that was the first time I saw my mother cry and I recognized the same fragile mindset staking its claim on the next generation. If it was as easy as changing your name, I think I would have liked to have been an astronaut. I would pass overhead in a speeding shuttle and watch my family cope and never touch ground.

“Grandmother left you the jade,” Meg said.

From time to time, Grandmother would tell us about the things we would inherit when she died. She’d make a list and ask us which items we wanted. I refused to play. Shiny things were Meg’s purview.

“Did she have any left?” I asked. “I thought we spent everything on the hospice.”

“She kept the jade. She wanted you to have it.”

“I don’t want it.”

“Then I want you to give it to me.”

“No.” I replied on instinct, not knowing why. In theory, Grandmother had owned a heavy jade necklace with matching earrings. No one had ever seen them except in pictures. Shapeless and pale, the pieces were ungainly lumps. Grandmother said she wanted us to have them. Her offerings angered me.

“I need you to give it to me,” Meg said.

I heard her but pretended that I didn’t.

“I need,” she said, louder.

I waved my hand at her to indicate that I understood. As we raced through the vast dark space I could imagine infinity for a moment. I was feeling edgy; infinity seemed a comforting thought, like a weightless place where the past anchored no one to the ground.

Grit pelted the windscreen and skittered away. Too late to save ourselves from the burst of debris cast by a wind devil, we rolled up the windows. Meg palmed a pack of cigarettes and shook one out into her lap.

“Don’t,” I said.

“Cause you say so?” She felt around for her lighter.

“Cause it’s shitty for you,” I replied.

She laughed. When she did, she turned her head so I could see the scar on her chin. Seven stitches closed the wound.

“I believe I told you that bouncing downhill on a Hippity Hop was a shitty idea, too.”

“I remember thinking that you don’t get to tell me what to do.” She crushed the cigarette and let the pieces drop to her feet by my glasses.

“You giggled when they sewed you up.”

“You belted Kitten Lawrence with a stick when she tried to tease me afterwards.”

“I don’t remember that.”

“Maybe I made it up.” She loaded Rick James into the stereo and then lit up. We had sixty miles to cover before we would arrive at the road that cut from the highway into the desert. There was another forty minutes to go after that before we crossed onto another dirt track that led to the house, if the trail hadn’t been washed away by winter rains.

We called it the ranch. Jo and Harry, my mother’s friends, raised Arabians there until Harry died, then Jo let the place rot, which happens in a heartbeat in the high desert, where the constant elemental battering weathers everything to a wizened remainder. Mom leased an acre of sand from Harry and set a mobile home there when Meg and I were kids. It became a refuge, a place to be happy, sad, angry and scared, out of sight of the rest of the world. It was a place where you could sit and reflect without having that reflection cast back at you.

“Super Freak” blared from the speakers and filled the car with a masculine shriek. To me, it was one of those songs you endure, but I knew someone somewhere found it melodic.

“You don’t like it?” Meg asked.

“Love it,” I replied. I had a CD of bagpipe music in my bag. Stolen from an old boyfriend who had been taking lessons, I kept it to remind me that there were things about my lost love that I could do without. Meg and I would be listening to it later. I hated it, but so did Meg. Every win is a tradeoff. A pair of high beams dimmed on the road up ahead. Meg flicked ours off in kind. Travelers leaving Vegas sometimes preferred this route instead of Interstate 15. I thought of them as interlopers on our road. This highway was the way to our home. Rabbits drawn to the lights but wary of the noise skittered along the edges of the road. One or two crossed the road in an uncertain, skippy fashion. It had been a rainy season, and both the rabbit and snake populations had blossomed. The insects had flourished too. Our window screen was smeared with a hatch pattern of broken wings and smashed bug bodies.

The China Ranch Date Farm whipped by on our right. It marked a halfway point between our ranch and Baker. Presaged by a stand of palms, the orchard remained hidden from the road but signs indicating the wealth of souvenirs for sale lined the driveway. The logo for the farm was three trees. They looked like oaks to me. Oaks don’t grow in Death Valley.

“I only poisoned five trees between my condo and the bay.” Meg said.

The sign of the trees put us both on the same track.

“Did your neighbors ever sue?” I asked. The story had hit the papers and Meg was famous for a few weeks.

“You’d have thought that I’d been peddling children.”

“You actually killed the trees?” I had an image of her in a terrycloth robe and pink mules spraying the tree trunks with a machine gun. Wind whipping through her hair and a cigar chomped between her teeth while she considered her new view.

“Drilled holes in them and injected pesticide with a turkey baster,” she said. “They threw dog shit and rocks at my windows afterwards. And I had to fucking buy five new fucking trees.”

“Why do it, though?”

“I want what I want, and I wanted to be able to see the bay from my balcony.”

We spun into the first turn off and bucked off the asphalt. The car canted to the right. We fishtailed then dropped into a wash. The road, covered with a fine sandy finish, was still passable. Dropping into the wash cut us off from the skylights and I realized that we had not been traveling in the dark at all by comparison. The only view we had now was narrowed to the scope of the headlights and that light was a dimming glow in the wafting dusty way ahead of us. Shades of shadows and a grey, filtered landscape sped by. Scrub and cactus scraped paint off the car. Meg’s Scout loved this kind of terrain, dug this kind of abuse. She did not slow much once we dove into the wash. I jammed my feet against the floor board and wedged my elbow against the door.

“We should bury Grandmother by her husband,” I said.

“Which husband, there were five.” She took wide swings from one side of the wash and the other, trying to avoid boulders and ditches. An awkward spin slid the back of the car against a loose wall of sand and ignited a silted spray.

“Ted,” I replied. I felt around for my pills. Paxil, one a day. I took it with a huge swallow of Coke because the car jounced when I pulled from the bottle. Then I capped the soda and set it in the bag next to Meg’s vodka. The bag rolled over my gun case in which the gun traveled that was not supposed to be loaded but was.

“Number five was Ted, the trumpet player,” Meg said. “He sat on the porch and shot squirrels and stray dogs with a BB gun.”

“Shot at, he was a piss poor shot.” I had been horrified, but was too intimidated by the blowsy old man to say so. The man he might once have been had been scrubbed away by a lot of back road travel and poorly paid gigs by the time I knew him. What was left settled on a porch step with a can of soda when it was warm outside. At night, he watched T.V. and argued with his wife about histories neither of them could remember clearly.

“He told me that a snapping turtle lived in the water barrel out back,” Meg said.

“What’d you do about it?”

“Stood outside with a stick and tried to stab the thing.”

“You should have asked Ted for his BB gun.”

“Like he would have trusted me with a gun, look at what I did with sticks.”

We bashed into something spiky and mashed it in passing.

“Why not let me have the jewelry?” Meg asked.

“It doesn’t exist.”

“She would’ve kept the jade. She wanted you to have it.”

“You imagine I had a relationship with Grandmother that didn’t exist. I don’t have the jewelry.”

“It wasn’t in the house, I looked.”

“Then it was never there.” I replied.

Meg swung us around a bend at a fierce pace and, as the rear wheels spewed sand, it occurred to me that she was driving too fast.

“I need it,” Meg said.

I heard her but pretended that I didn’t.

“I need it,” she said, louder.

I ignored her again.

We rolled up the path that led to the house. Shut down for months, it was a dark shell. A hallway ran the length of it. With the bedroom doors open, you could see straight through to the windows on the opposite side. The house seemed more like a passage than a place to stay. The wind was picking up but we were sheltered between the house and a stand of trees my mother had nurtured for years.

“You said we wouldn’t discuss unpleasant things.” I remembered that the hard part about raising these trees was the fact that, out here, trees tended to bush.

“I lied.”

“I didn’t believe you in the first place,” I said. You had to keep pruning the trees to keep the branches growing from a single trunk instead of into multiple smaller shoots.

“Did you know Mom’s been feeding the coyotes out here?” Meg asked.

“That doesn’t sound wise.” I looked for figures but was as successful as the times when I look for shark fins on the ocean’s surface. Even when I did not see danger, I sought it out. My mother never woke us, but the next morning, evidence that she had been in my room unsettled me. What had she taken, what had she moved? What would I miss now that she had come? Rabbits along the highway reminded me of bobcats, mice reminded me of snakes. There was always some hunter bigger than you wandering the planet. I tried to keep focused on the real. Like my mother, I have spent many of my nights wandering from room to room, fixing things that did not matter in order to feel better about the things I could not fix.

“She wants a dog,” Meg said. She had not pulled the keys from the ignition.

“She could buy a dog.” I tried to open the door but Meg hit the auto lock.

“She can’t care for a dog.”

My mother had a penchant for collecting pets but no talent for keeping them fit. She had a boa constrictor that died in its own urine. Apparently reptiles are susceptible to infections. One cat was lost in the desert, one was dumped when it couldn’t be housebroken, and two died when we fumigated the house. Of course, my mom couldn’t buy a dog. She could keep inanimate objects in their places but the care of living things was a cipher to her. Except for plants. My mother was good with plants.

“I’m tired,” I said. The wind skipped little things across the landscape.

“I didn’t want to worry about Grandmother anymore so I told them to keep her alive. It was the easiest choice,” Meg said.

“If you don’t want to make the decisions,” I said, “then I don’t think you get to win the prizes.” I had my hand on the door handle that I was not going to be allowed to use until she was done. I pulled at it anyway.

“I had to sell my home. I now have a home with no view. I’m living with Mom.”

“You live indoors, buck up.”

“Do you remember when Grandmother locked us in the attic because I spilled a glass of milk?”

“Wasn’t no Flowers in the Attic. It was a fully furnished bedroom.”

“She called a priest when I said I was scared of mirrors in the dark. She took us to confession when she found out you were left handed. She was a nut.”

“Much like her granddaughter. They find my frozen body here in the car, my hands will be, in my last living act, wrapped around your throat.”

“You liked her. Maybe that’s why she gave you the jade.”

“Like is a strong word.” I liked learning to play poker. It made me feel like a grown-up. I liked watching old movies and making penny bets. I liked smelling her cigars on my clothes late at night. I stopped talking to her at sloppy drinking scene number one thousand and one.

“Grandmother liked you better,” Meg said. “And I don’t like living at home with Mom.”

“Do you like it here inside the house? I’ll turn all the mirrors to the walls.”

“If we bury grandmother here, she will always be here,” Meg said. “And I’ll still be living with Mom so she’ll make me come here with her and I won’t like coming here anymore. So I want to leave. I want to take the jewelry and leave.”

“You’re asking a lot from a handful of jade.”

“You can care for Mom. She’s feeding coyotes because I won’t let her have pets. You take care of her. You’re better at it. It’s making me nuts.”

That familiar family word. I had read about people who died not because they were shot, but because they had believed they were fatally shot. I had read about survivors who endured bad places for hours then died once they were safe because they gave up once they were rescued. Their minds killed them once they let go. Madness made what could not be true, real. I was tired of catering to madmen. I no longer pitied them. A large shadow detached itself from others and then wafted back in place. The wind blowing the tress apart no doubt.

“I’ve never seen any jade jewelry in Grandmother’s possession,” I said. “Why do you believe it exists?” It took Meg a moment to answer because she decided to fish for the sodas, much to my relief, as I had the feeling she was looking for the vodka.

“I know she had them. She said one of her rich husbands gave it to her.”

Rabbits with huge ears shot from bush to bush, keeping to the darkest shadows. Somewhere in the same scrub were predators but, for some reason, the bigger animals are harder to pick out at night.

“Will you give it to me if I don’t shoot you?” Meg asked. I looked over to see my gun lying in her lap. It was a .44 Magnum, a gift from the man of the bagpipe music.

“If you shoot that thing in here, you’re gonna end up deaf and blind.” Once the fool has the gun, you have to decide whether showing fear will save or hurt you and commit to the decision.

“Think so?” She was not holding the gun, she simply cradled it in her lap.

“You remember the things Grandmother said better than I do,” I said. “But you’re making up the jade. It never existed.”

“I was paying attention. You were playing cards and learning to smoke.” Meg was the girl sitting in the corner at parties, the one sitting in the back seats. She never participated but never missed a thing. Like a librarian who does nothing else with life but read books and live indoors, Meg collected data about the human race without putting it to good use. She didn’t share, she didn’t write, she didn’t learn about the people she studied. She did not connect the dead trees with their effect on her neighbors, she did not connect a gun with the consequences. She wanted something, that’s all she knew, much like my grandmother.

“Fucking trees,” Meg said. “I’ve always hated Mom’s goddamn trees.”

“I think the trees you assassinated know that.” She grasped the gun butt but did not touch the trigger. She did not aim it at me, instead, she hefted it and set it on the seat between us.

“You won’t help me.”

“I can’t help you. As usual, I don’t know what you or Mom or Grandmother were, or are, or will be talking about in your private ghost language, about the things in the world that don’t exist.”

“Shit, then.” She put the gun back in its place and took the keys from the ignition. “Sorry about your sunglasses,” she said, unlocking the doors.

“If the stones existed,” I said. “I would throw them into the Pacific Ocean before I gave them to you.” Outside, the wind had stopped. Mountains have regular afternoon rains. The ocean has tides. The desert wind has a schedule of its own. It blows until it’s done and, since the gusts are not accompanied by storms, there is no telling what that schedule is nor how hard the storming will last. But if you stand long enough in the sand, you begin to see patterns others miss. Weather is easier to read than people. The sky was dark and crisply outlined in stars and, if you paid strict attention to the horizon, you could see the lights of the towns 60 miles away. I stared at them until Meg had taken her things and gone inside. Meg went straight to sleep. I put away the groceries, stowed my things, replaced the linens on my bed, then sat in the living room at a sagging dining table my mother used to set for guests with pewter candlestick holders and napkin rings and lots of forks. I set the urn in the center of the table, displacing a mirrored plate. Then I pulled the stones out of their pouch. I have no idea why my grandmother was so attached to her ugly pieces of jade.

“You’ll just sell them if I give them to you,” she used to say.

“I don’t care about jewelry,” I would reply. “I’d rather take the money and go on a trip.”

“You’ll be sorry when you don’t have anything to remember me by. Why would you do that to me?”

“Give them to someone who wants them. Give them to Mom. Give them to Meg.”

“They are mine I can give them to anyone I want. You should want them.”

I pulled the stones out of their pouch and hefted them. Apple green lumps shot through with white, headstones for the grave of a woman who lived her life always bathed in the harshest light. The pieces belonged to my mother who couldn’t come to bury her mother. They belonged to me and I didn’t want them. They didn’t belong to Meg who never earned a thing in her life.

Weighted with a history of lost causes, they were as ugly within as without.

They didn’t remind me of anything good.

I put them in the urn and went to bed.

Kimberley Idol is a graduate student matriculating at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. She has been published in The Portland Review, Danse Macabre, and will be included in Jarrett Keene’s upcoming anthology out of Stephen’s Press. Her work has also been selected by her department for submission to the Kulka Best American Voices anthology. E-mail: writtenword6[at]

Painting Naked

Kimberley Idol

“Look, look, look.” The boyfriend turned to show me a strip of masking tape attached to his dick.

“Don’t get primer on that,” I replied. I think I have painted more than a hundred rooms in my life. I attack the task as I do all tasks, like line drives. Painting in the nude was the best way to avoid washing acrylic off another T-shirt, even if I have dozens. If you travel to Amsterdam and you can not afford the Renoir or the Natchez triple dresser, a T-shirt emblazoned with green people boffing doggy style can substitute as a souvenir. Plus, I run in a lot of 10Ks. This activity nets you shin splints, free orange juice and free T-shirts. Allison and I run them once a month. We go to class together, bar hop together and run together. Last week we entered the Santa Anita Run. Someone miscalculated the length, the race was .75 miles longer than it should have been. When you strategise for 6.2, 6.95 takes a toll. You’ve spent all you had before the last mile and so you dodder along in the end, like a rented pony. They still owe you the T-shirt however, no matter how late you cross the finish line.

The boyfriend isn’t a precise painter. He gets easily frustrated and slashes the white trim and cabinet corners with orange streaks by mistake. This frustrates me but watching him try to keep from dangling into the quart of Sunny Melon Misty makes up for the stress. There is only one paint can and we keep it near him. He can not dip his brush and carry it across the room without leaving a trail and I can. Every time he bends down he risks immersion. I paint in clean lines and I cover all cracks and crevices with a thick coat of paint because I don’t like to be reminded of the past. Chinks of old paint remind me of jobs not well done and I never let those go. I am still in recovery over a marriage that crashed two years ago because it seems that unless you die I can’t let you go, even then, come to think of it. My grandfather died when I was seven and I cried for about a year. Decades later I still believe that my life would have turned out better had he lived although I have no experiential proof of this. Better than what I can not say. Better than what is. The boyfriend doesn’t like my ex-husband, who lives a block away and shares custody of the dogs with me, but then none of my friends ever did.

I come to a wall plate that the boyfriend neglected to remove when we were prepping. Shit. Then I pull open three drawers stuffed to the gills with unrelated objects until I locate a screwdriver. It is too large to fit the screw heads so I press hard and make the tip do the work of a smaller driver. Then I toss it back into any drawer and it lands on a faded picture of three kids in shower caps sharing a bath. I was the oldest and Molly the youngest and in that space we found fewer reasons to compete than did Andrea and Molly who shared a room and fought over everything, and me and Andrea who likened one another to vipers, and kept our distance. Following a wicked impulse I crumple the picture and try to toss it into the trash. It bounds off the rim and falls into the bucket by the boyfriend’s naked ass.

“Why throw it away?” The boyfriend recovers it.

“Old picture,” I said. “It can’t be repaired.”

He wants to ask who the subjects are but he knows better. Instead he stuffs it in another drawer for the day I want to frame it.

I have no pictures of my sisters on my walls. Last year I took all my family pictures and threw them away. This is an engrained habit. As a child I used to scour the family albums and remove pictures of me from the pages. I can’t tell you now if I was wiping me or them from a combined existence. The pictures didn’t make sense to me. I didn’t know who the skinny girl with the long braids was and the pictures pretended intent were there was none. We didn’t love each other though we wished we did. The girl that was me was always smiling. There’s a picture I have kept. It was taken on Circus Day at the beach club when Grandfather had hoisted me onto his shoulders. I had gotten my face painted like a clown. I hadn’t read Stephen King yet; clowns were still fun. I looked like a little girl and I have always wondered who that girl was. I always suffer vertigo when I see the old pictures and so from time to time I remove all traces of the pretense from the family albums. No one looked at them until we had all grown so no one noticed the lack until years later and by then no one wanted the albums. My family was like a kelp bed in which things get trapped but never grow. There’s a holdfast but it keeps no one to center, provides no comfort from the salted tides that keep us drifting.

The picture I tried to toss shows Molly, Andrea and me, Cammy, sitting in the tub on a Saturday night. Andrea drifted out of my life like a brown blade separated from the kelp bed and sent to sea. Molly drowned thirty-five years ago. A stone sinking to the base of the shallow end of the pool and I remember that I never said a word although I watched her go because I did not believe in dying when I was eight although I had already been to one funeral by the time Molly sank. She didn’t struggle, that was the other thing. I saw her drift. Then I saw bubbles and then I looked towards my parents and their friends who were camped out by the pool in bright suits and sunning slickly underneath a boiling sun. Someone with thick gold rings wrapped her hand around a tall glass with a pink drink in it, someone else searched for her sunglasses. A man I disliked because he called me “Punkin” and hugged me whenever he visited was telling a story and no one made a fuss when the baby first dropped off the steps.

I took my cues from the adults; when they were afraid I was afraid. When my teacher showed our class pictures of lung cancer and told us about dying I went home and filled a trashcan with my father’s cigarettes and matchbooks then ran a hose into the result so that nothing could be saved. My mother said that I was overreacting. The first time I saw my dad beat Mom they told me not to make a fuss so I pulled out a coloring book and tried very hard to stay within the lines until they stopped fighting. When my Grandmother staggered to the living room window and stared in at us looking like a Grimm’s ghoul, Mother told us to keep eating while she went outside, pried the shrieking meemy from the window and called the caretaker who had abandoned his post for Happy Hour down the street. When Dad pulled the clerk over the counter at 32 Flavors because there were no bananas, we were told to “get a grip.” Afterwards we all piled into the back of the station wagon in silence and waited while Daddy decided whether he wanted to put Paint Your Wagon or Johnny Mathis into the 8-track and I don’t think anyone mentioned the incident to my mother.

When I was eight Andrea set the garage on fire. She had been dropping matches into the high wild grass that grew in the back and stomping out the flames until the flames overcame the power of the stomp. I wasn’t worried until the maid began to scream; neither was Andrea come to think of it. We were watching Hogan’s Heroes on a Saturday afternoon and if my mother had known she would have taken the television set away again. Andrea stopped to get caught up on the storyline before she went into the kitchen to get a drink and pretend to notice the flames. My parents went crazy, but no one was hurt so why were they crying? When I was nine I set my bedroom on fire; I put it out and didn’t get upset until my mother discovered the damage, a big black hole in the carpet and three singed stuffed dogs, and yelled at me. By the time I saw Dad kick a beggar sitting outside a football stadium I knew to keep moving through the line until it was time for the ticket taker to turn my ticket into a stub. No need for a scene unless someone said so. Given all these confusing cues how was I to know, when I was ten, that Molly sinking to the bottom was cause for concern unless an adult said so? I figured she’d hold her breath until she could breathe again. I knew people died but the dead seemed retrievable to me. Grandfather had died, so they said, but I’d had no proof except for his absence. People vanished when they died; that didn’t mean they couldn’t recover.

“Susan,” the woman with the rings said. The rest of the men were soaking in the jacuzzi at the other end of the pool and did not hear. Without a word, my mother launched into the water and pulled the baby onto the deck. Molly didn’t look dead, just still, like a stuffed animal. She drooled when they turned her over. Someone ran to the house to phone a doctor. The others pressed her chest and called her name. The adults waved me away while they tried to make her breathe and then forgot about me altogether once the ambulance arrived. My mother climbed into the ambulance, my father and the other four drove the station wagon after it and they left me by the pool with water lapping up the steps, sounds drifting in from the next door neighbors and our German Shepherd, Edel, who knocked the imported cheese tray to the ground so that he could polish off the pepperoni and jarlsburg slices. He was in a hurry and made the table with the drinks jiggle and I noticed sweating glasses and ice still floating in a pitcher of a concoction I was told never to touch because it was bad for me.

So they took my sister away and like the other times when people had died we kids were set aside, sent to our rooms to play, until the grieving was done. We were judged too young to attend services and then too much trouble to tend while my mother recovered and so we were sent to a friend’s for two weeks after which we returned to find all traces of the third girl removed from the premises. All her things gone, all her colors revised. I suspect that my parents’ purposes were two-fold. They wanted to protect us from the loss and wanted to avoid being required to share their loss with us. But the effect was stunning. Andrea and I obeyed the unspoken edict and we never talked about Molly but there were spaces in the house that missed her. Molly’s bed was gone but not the space in which it stood. There were two instead of three toothbrush holders by the sink, two places at the table, and the child seat was gone from the back of the car but that didn’t mean the room we had made for those things went with Molly. Still if our parents meant us to forget we could pretend. Andrea and I became concerned at how easily one could be excised from life. I took to hiding objects all over the house so that if I died my parents would never be able to find everything and throw it away. Andrea began scoring the walls and the furniture with fork marks. Branding the house with her presence, she picked both obvious and obscure places to damage so that they could never erase her entirely even if they wanted, even if they spent days scouring the rooms with caulk and sandpaper. Hiding things was fun and I started everybody else’s belongings as well. I presumed I could make a family stay if they could never find all their things. We would never move, and no one could leave because no one could ever completely pack.

“This is just making things harder,” my mother said to me. It was Friday night. She and my father were going to a party. He was dressed and angry and she had spent the past hour searching for her shoes, black leather pumps that matched her dress. She’d put on her phony braid tonight, the one that draped down her back. When she pulled the last shoe from the living room cupboard she noticed three scratches in the wood. She rubbed them with her fingers as if to erase them and then shut the door.

“I don’t know what you mean,” I said. The cupboard held my collection of Crypt Keeper comic books so I made a big deal of reopening it and shifting through the pile. My mother pulled me away and slammed the door shut. I opened it again.

Then she closed it and held it tight while I waited for her to give up. “You have to stop,” she said.

“I don’t.”

“You have to grow up.”

“I don’t.”

“This is your fault.” She brandished the shoe at me. “That,” she pointed at the pool, “is not.”

My mother stopped taking us to the barber after Molly died so Andrea and I grew our hair long. Molly never got to that stage. I never saw her in anything but a pageboy. They made clay heads of us all when we were little, the same three girls with page boys, elaborate bows in the back and eyes scored to make pupils. They were aligned in the living room on three bronze pedestals and reminded me of goddesses and witches and the fates depending on which book I was reading at the time.

The busts were staged on the piano, an instrument that I doggedly played badly for years. I was talented, to a point, but I never like to practice. It wasn’t that I lacked discipline but that I was afraid to be heard failing to play the pieces perfectly. I would wait until the house was empty and then try. But the house was rarely empty. The maid lived in and my parents liked to socialize. I allowed Molly to sit nearby and listen to me play unless I was in a bad mood, then I called her names and made her leave. She was afraid to be alone and so sometimes I even had to hit her until she hid from me. Neither of us liked to be alone come to think of it. I had been known to crawl into the closet with the dog and sleep when all the adults were out because I was frightened of burglars, although I had never seen one and knew no one who had ever been robbed. After Molly died when I played the piano because I wanted her near if only to explain the change and I realized in retrospect that her presence had been comforting.

Because I was the oldest, I was taught to change Molly’s diapers and was supposed to help out when she was toilet training. It was fun for a while, until it was not. I never lost my taste for baby food so I didn’t mind feeding her until she refused assistance, by launching handfuls of muck into the air. She slept with me when Dad got loud and never got over her fear of either of her grandparents. Grandfather was too big and Grandmother smelled like gin and Virginia Slims which Molly claimed reminded her of poop. Poop was the coverall word for anything icky. Icky was bad smells, bad tastes, scrapes, bad table manners and people she didn’t like. She was still small enough to be carried and guests liked to try their hand at it, whether she consented or not. She learned, like me, to hold her tongue and endure. Eventually we escaped and hid under tables and in the big fireplace behind the iron mesh until the adults got soused enough to forget we existed. Andrea liked the attention. When she wanted to be ignored she turned mean. She didn’t need to hide ever.

We wrestled with one another at the drop of a hat. For us the world was all about defending territories. To cut down on fights my Mom color-coded our possessions. Rooms, bed sheets, furniture, even tennis shoes. Each child was issued a bottle of nail polish so that they could tag their belongings. I was orange, Andrea was purple and Molly was pink. I wanted purple but didn’t have my sister’s aggressive edge and she reached for the bottle first. Orange was my second choice. My boyfriend and I were in fact painting my kitchen orange although the label insisted it was a fancier shade.

“Goddammit.” The boyfriend was being conquered by the octagonal configuration of the bay windows. He used a soft rising pitch when he was annoyed, a tone I have had to learn because in my family when we are pissed, we bellow. I suspect the boyfriend is the kind who could never draw within the lines when he was little and I am annoyed at his incompetence but I cut him slack because I feel badly. I left the Gynol on the counter last night and in the dark he mistook it for toothpaste. He had come home late and had left the lights out as a thoughtful gesture and I had told him to feel around for the Crest, a brand name I always use because my mother bought it for us when we were little.

I set the brush down and fish the picture of me and my sisters out of the drawer. It’s turning blue and curling with age. It reminds me of the camera shop two blocks from our house where my grandparents had all their film developed and then it reminds me of Saturday nights at my grandparents’. My parents let us stay over on Saturdays so that Grandmother could take us to 7 a.m. mass. My parents were atheists but had no argument with their children being informed. I went to mass, learned the prayers and all the proper responses to liturgy and enjoyed Sunday school but never took to the notion of life after death. Again, no one could ever prove it to me. For a while after Molly died I had a nightmare that she had been buried alive. I was worried she would suffocate and I knew damn well that she was scared of being alone and of being alone in the dark. “It doesn’t work that way,” my mother tried to explain. “Dead people don’t need to breathe.” Ah, only living people need air, like little babies sitting in water I thought but did not say. Anyway the bible stories were entertaining and I was proud of my ability to remember and recite scripture but as for faith, I required proof. When it was explained to me that faith existed without it, I lost interest. You can’t fill holes with faith, you need dirt and someone to swing the shovel. Grandfather never went to church. When I asked him why he said that he was a Methodist and that they never attended services, instead they read the papers on Sundays and made pancakes afterwards. There’s another picture of us somewhere with all of us in bathing suits perched on the back of the couch reading the comics with Grandfather. We look happy. I hide some things even from myself and I bet if I looked around my house I might find that one still exists.

Andrea and I had less in common after Molly died. I can’t say I know why. We passed in the hallways but never crossed paths. We didn’t share clothing, didn’t share friends, didn’t share secrets except for the ones about our parents and those we knew well enough never to repeat. If we talked at all, the conversations always turned into arguments but since we never knew each other well I still can’t imagine what we had to fight about except that for whatever reason anger was our chosen dialect.

Molly died a sudden cardiac death. She was dead possibly before she dropped off the step. They make bad hearts in my family. Everyone is afraid of dying. My grandfather died on the golf course and my father died during dinner while waiting for someone to bring him a spoon so he could serve the mashed potatoes. When I got older I asked my mother where she was buried and it was then I was told that they had scattered her ashes overboard and that there was no where to visit, except the ocean and that did not satisfy. Molly dying sudden made every day seem suspicious. No one had told us she was sick maybe we were sick and now that I say this I know why Andrea and I stopped talking. Who wanted to see another sister go. Best to leave while they were breathing. And it was not my fault but even as the years go by and I know I did not kill my sister with disregard I know I felt nothing when I saw her sink. It frightens me no end to believe that I did not care and being raised in a place where the plot was hard to follow did not explain what I did that day nor does it excuse my failure to speak.

“Shit.” The boyfriend says again. I have to look up. He has trailed a vein of paint across the microwave.

“Stop,” I say, hoping to forestall the mess he will make if he tries to clean up. The house was painted pink when I bought it. Little by little I have been recovering the walls from that tainted tone.

“Save the picture at least,” he says and I see that he had pulled it out again and it has a drip on it.

“I am a graduate student matriculating at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. I have been published in the The Portland Review, Danse Macabre, and will be included in Jarrett Keene’s upcoming anthology out of Stephen’s Press. My work has also been selected by our department for submission to the Kulka Best American Voices anthology.” E-mail: writtenword6[at]