Sister, Sister, Full of Light
By Eric Day
Followed by Q&A
No one knows why she’s gotten fat. No one’s even asked. She goes to work keeping books at our family music store wearing the same dress, day after day, a pink cotton affair with white lapels and matching heels. She always eats—her Beetle’s filled with the wrappers of every chain. She tells me, on nights other than Friday, which is our Dallas night, that on the way home to her apartment she makes multiple drive-thru appearances. I glance in the back and see everyone is duly represented—boxes, sacks, and straws. It smells rich, the tang of catsup, the sweet of deep fry. I laugh, then she laughs. I stop, then she stops. I say burgers, and she turns right in.
In the shade of bamboo beside the bank of ivy, my sister is in ankle-deep inlet water. She’s lean and tall, wearing a yellow two-piece, talking with our dad, a man with a steak and beer gut, an 80’s mustache gone awry, and a pair of too-small Hawaiian trunks. A towel is flung over his shoulder. The other side of the river is the public side, and this side, our side, is private. We can dress any way we want, and it shows. I’m far out in the shallow sandy pool where the carp come at night to blink in the moonlight. I am hiding. I am always hiding.
Volume carries over water, my sister’s arms crossed over her top, a hand leaving on a regular basis to wipe away a face that doesn’t want sympathy, only a steadfast appeal to reason. From where I’m at, her face can’t stand still.
Our dad’s words are hard, my sister’s quavering. She’s graduating with a 4-point GPA and he has chosen this moment at the base of the steep steps that wend up the high ivy bank to the concrete patio above (where I imagine our mom mixing lemonade) that she is going nowhere. The store is what she needs. It is, after all, a family business, he says, like she doesn’t know.
Her hair is wet, combed back like Bo Derek’s, her haunches sandy from tanning. She’s been trying to look beautiful. Wind rustles the bamboo leaves and our dad’s towel slips off his shoulder which he catches in a deft movement, like it never happened. His glasses have gone dark, lending him an even greater air of authority. Suddenly, my sister seems naked. It is summer; she isn’t going back to school.
She blurts, “But…” and bites her lip.
“What?” is the immediate challenge. In the water, a crawdad begins pinching my knee. I am still.
My sister looks away. My sister looks at me, an inch out of water, a soldier on reconnaissance. I could wave my arms and our dad wouldn’t notice, but she always sees me. With my forefinger I poke at the crawdad and he vanishes into the stirring clay. She looks square at him with streaming tears. He says she does not own a hair on her body and that she will work at the store no matter what. She scurries up the wending path. Father looks right past me, over me, to the roiling rapids beyond, maybe at the public side to see if any of the partiers in cut-offs have heard his loud decree. He goes down shore, towel draped still. He skirts the hanging branches, and out onto the white sands: he’s right, he’s on top, he’s heard. He tries not to look like a kid as adults always do when they tread the soft sands, and he succeeds.
Fridays my sister leaves work early and comes over after balancing the deposit and dropping it off at the bank. With the money she pinches she takes my brother and me anywhere we want. He’s seventeen, I’m fifteen. We get off the bus and she’s there, rain or shine and engine running, her smiling and waving behind the Beetle’s smallish windshield. We rip around the rural neighborhood in her yellow Volkswagen. Either my brother or myself man her boom box. The same tape is always inside. Huey Lewis and the News. We convince her to let us crank it, and soon she’s peeling out on shoulders, running stop signs, splashing through puddles, blasting “The Heart of Rock N’ Roll is Still Beating,” which we hate anywhere but here. My brother and I bob and bounce in the black vinyl seats, half mocking, half joy. We don’t even know. My sister flies through the streets, honking at pedestrians and people raking their yards, passing on the right, screeching and cawing out the window. Her voice wears to gravel.
We end up at a café. We always end up at a café, sucking on waters. The floors are wood and so are the tables and chairs. Red and white tablecloths. It’s Red’s Café and it looks like a saloon out of a western movie on the outside—sitting by itself with the roof slanting low toward the parking lot, its eaves covering a porch of planks, a rail running down like you’d hitch a horse to. There’s no one in the café but us and this guy, this skinny guy who takes our order and goes back to the kitchen to cook it. The guy is sad. The guy is Red. We giggle at the fact he cooks our orders. I pour packs of sugar in my water. My brother yawns loud like it’s taking a long time. He chucks an ice cube against the wall, and it lands in a tray of spoons. We try not to laugh as our food comes.
The place is done up like a western—ropes and spurs on the wall—but this guy, this waiter, this Red, wears penny loafers with jeans. He goes back to the kitchen. We’re not really hungry but we eat anyway. The fries are unpeeled, long and greasy, and he’s given us a heap so we’ll remember and come back. We throw a few against the wall and watch them slide down. My sister is in stitches, which is where my brother and I had wanted to get her, food and catsup in her smile. My brother tips back in his chair, says “whoops!” and falls to the floor. I lift my plate and squeeze the catsup on the table until it’s almost empty. My sister can’t breathe. She is choking. The guy comes out to fill our waters and I cover the catsup with my plate, my smile with fries, oozing out the sides. My sister works on her mouthful of food, and begs to be let alone by waving us back. The guy, this waiter, he’s tickled. We have made her laugh. People are having a good old time in his place. Filling our waters, he laughs, too, until his laugh gives over to a terrible coughing fit. He hasn’t even seen the French fries plastered on his wall yet.
As we get into the car and peel away, I try not to imagine the look on his face when he lifts my plate and it kind of sticks there and he sees the pool of catsup I have left. Realizing he’d been taken as a fool. I think of him coughing before, and being alone with all the food prepped and ready, and it makes me want to cry. My brother, who I know is feeling the same, turns the tape over to “I Wanna New Drug,” and I begin to laugh instead, laugh so hard I do cry. Laugh so hard the windshield is nothing but blurry rural scenery. Beside me my sister laughs, the car spinning in the shoulders and flying through intersections as though no one’s behind the wheel at all.
We have to get back from carousing at about 6:00 to make a show of being home for our dad when he will arrive at 6:30. As a family, we eat steak and talk of our days until eight. The three of us tear out of there in the dark to the 7-11 for snacks to eat while we watch Dallas at nine.
My sister snags a six-pack of regular Pepsi. Even though my parents want her to buy the diet kind. But it’s Friday night—she doesn’t care what they think. I grab a Sara Lee cheesecake and Mark two-fists the Hostess rack while holding a carton of chocolate milk under his chin. Our sister buys the stuff and we play Ms. Pac Man until the big hand is ten minutes before nine. We arrive as the guy says, “Last week, on Dallas.” Our mom has made sure.
Our dad, eating his crackers, laughs at us, and it pleases my sister—you can actually see it in her face—that she has made him laugh. He laughs at J.R. once, which makes us revel in the show even more, and then falls asleep in his chair with his mouth open. It occurs to me, as I consider the number of Saltine crumbs he’s left on his very own chest, that he is my sister’s boss, has always been my sister’s boss. She has three Pepsis before the first commercials.
She hangs around after Dallas is over and we have fought about what next week’s show might be like. Mark calls his girlfriend, who he will talk to until Friday Night Videos comes on at 1:00. I play my Tudor electric football game that always makes my sister laugh because once during a power outage I tapped on the tin board with my nails to make the little plastic men move. My enthusiasm for the game outlasts her amusement, and she submits to Falcon Crest. Later, when I get up to go to the bathroom and stretch my legs, I see the glow of her taillights flood in through the beaded glass.
The flowers come just after the “Bon Voyage” cake is cut. My sister’s replaced her party hat with the gray stocking cap she’d finished knitting the night before from the last spool of wool that my grandmother had left behind and had spun herself from her ancestor’s Danish herds. Every time she’s near me I smell sheep. That, with her tattered pink cotton dress, results in physical manifestations of repulsion—strange screwed up looks as she passes from everyone.
We are at the music store, employees and family standing around a card table with the cake on it and among all the high-ticket grand pianos of the main showroom. I am out of high school and working under our father in sales. Mark’s here; he delivers pizzas now. The days of Dallas and our neighborhood tears have come to an end. She’s become a nuisance in our quests for money and sex. Her ship leaves in a matter of hours. No one knows about the ship. She’s testy about it. There is no stated destination. Only our mom knows the particulars and she doesn’t want to set her off, to “rock the boat,” in our dad’s words. She wishes the mystery to remain large; I know this because sometimes mystery is the only card we hold.
The cake’s been cut, causing damage to its frosted hull. We hold paper plates with napkins underneath. No one, not even the non-family members, have asked her why she’s leaving to be a volunteer on a medical ship. She knows nothing of medicine or the sea. I feel this question mounting as though someone’s about to ask it, someone not familiar with explosives. Then the front bell breaks the silence and heads turn toward the welcome distraction.
“Flowers for…?” the guy falters as he rechecks the card.
Everyone turns away as my sister steps forward maybe a beat too fast to accept the flowers. A stampede of sheep gallops after her. She takes them to the front counter where an empty vase with water is already waiting. No one’s watching, except me, and only secretly. How could she be so dumb, I wonder, to have the vase waiting there? Plus to all but accept the flowers before the recipient’s been announced? But then it hits me. She’s not trying to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes. She’s trying to rip it away. She’s trying to show us what she’s sunk to, here in this place.
It’s gotten extremely quiet. Light chewing and plastic forks on hard paper. By now her heels have worn to nothing, the armpits of her pink dress torn. Most days she wears the required cardigan, but not so today. She makes a show, up at the front counter, of reading the card, registering the name and her face lighting up. It’s like she’s giving a demonstration on bad acting. She pops her eyes over at us by the cake, and in that brief glimpse I know without a doubt she’s sent the flowers to herself. She is checking to see the effect of it, the same look she gave me as I eavesdropped in the river—shame with a dash of camaraderie, as though to say, “Yes, we know the depths we sink to.”
The aged bookkeeper with yellow hair becomes aflutter. Perhaps she knows, perhaps not. Maybe she’s done the same thing herself. It doesn’t even matter. She wants to lavish envy and help arrange the blossoms. The woman looks at the card, which my sister’s left lying open.
“John?” we hear her say. After all, the building’s built for acoustics. “Why, who’s John?”
My sister reddens to her nose. “Blanche!” she squeals, as though trying to shut her up, but obviously not. “A girl never tells.” She’s looking right at us, a traffic light with teeth.
As he holds his cake, Mark sounds some chords on a piano, and, gaining assurance, puts down the plate and soon is off on For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow and we’re happy to fill the silence and gather round. He’s got flour on his blue pants, a strong musk meant to penetrate pepperoni. My father, holding his plate high, chimes in with the words, and we join in, switching the he to she. I turn now and again to see my sister by her flowers from John, making a show of admiring the card. She’s blushing in a gray stocking cap made from a dead woman’s leftover yarn ball, seemingly at the end of her script, and the image vanishes with the unexpected and unwanted filling of my own eyes.
My brother somehow gets out of going to the actual Bon Voyage, just me and her in the backseat with Mom and Dad up front. The drive is silent, my sister wiping her eyes with a positive smile fixed on her face, her gaze straight ahead to the future. It takes an eternity for S.E. Portland to give way to industrial concrete, hitting red light after red light. Another decade before the gleam of water, the ship.
On the wharf we hug, we all hug. I’m hugging our dad, our mom. They’re hugging each other, a little slapstick to shake the gloom. The scent of sheep has been replaced by the brackish Willamette. There is a log jam at the ramp going up to the ship. She turns and hugs me once more and it feels like a real one, one she’s held in special reserve for me. Clouds gather over the water and gulls stand on the gunwale cables. It’s humid, over eighty, and by the water it’s like standing in sweat. In tears, I think. Something salty and unwanted. Yet the gray stocking cap persists.
The horn blows, and soon the land cables are reeling. There are no streamers of confetti like on Love Boat, and no smiles. Not many people, either, just a few waving back at their families. My sister is not among them, but we watch it sail out of port and disappear into the bright clouds.
My grandfather’s home movie collection arrives on my front stoop. I’m married now and miss my sister sometimes. The ship docked in D.C. and she didn’t get back on board, they say. Her exact whereabouts have remained murky, a mystery. Once in a while I receive a late night phone call. I pick up and no one is on the line, just a man in the background yelling like Apollo Creed, streams of husky abuse. I don’t know if it’s from my sister. I don’t know if she’s in a bad place and secretly dialing and setting the phone down is the only way she knows how to tell me about it. If so, who am I to judge? If she’s found a duplicate for our dad, I’ve found someone to make his duplicate out of me. I am too busy fighting, using much of his old lines, to think about my sister much. I need saving, some part of me knows this, maybe it’s why I pick up the late night calls, but I’m focused on military matters now, the next aimed finger, the smuggled bottle. I am happy to receive boxes. I imagine they contain part of the outside world, where great expanses of unarguable truth exist, of hope, of light.
Inside the box I find: one Kodak Brownie regular 8mm projector, one Gaf Dual-8 projector, an armful of cameras—wind-ups as well as sound—an Argus 800 motorized editor viewer machine, a Sears tripod movie screen, and a Sunkist orange crate full of plastic reels each containing 200 feet of home movies, 1951-1982. I do not care to view these films again, being that I own a copy of the videotape transfer already, but I do find, at the bottom of the Sunkist crate, a margarine tub full of 35mm slides. The lid is marked “Baby Christen.”
The images play against the window of my study. They are all of Christen, a toddler, maybe one. She’s sitting in a bed of bleached gravel playing with a yellow shovel, and atop a white car hood, simply put there to take pictures of her. There are cacti in the background and the sky is an immense blue—my grandparents’ mobile home in Glendale, Arizona. Our dad is not in the pictures; he’s most likely taking them. I can hear the German shutter’s precision as older folks, my mom’s parents, and my mom herself, stand around admiring this new being in the world. The desert sun surrounds and suffuses this little person, and at the very center there is a face I have never seen before. She’s loose-lipped, accepting, and full of wonder. Wonder at the world around her, and at me, it seems, who, holding each slide up to the sun for more light, sees that there is more light, a vast and punishing new light.
Eric Day teaches and writes in Phoenix, Arizona, where he lives with the best family under the sun. His novel, Finding May Wonken, has been selected as a finalist for the Bakeless Prize in Fiction. He is presently working on his 5th interesting mistake, a collection of essays about growing up in Oregon called Raised by Trees.
Q: What was the origin of this piece?
A: I wrote this in one sitting, then spent weeks and weeks revising it.
Q: Why are you a writer?
A: Because I’m generally very boring
Q: What musical instrument are you?
A: Farfisa in a cathedral
Q: What's your favorite part of the writing process?
Q: What are you working on now?
A collection of essays about growing up in Oregon.