Three sisters were seated on a veranda facing a small and bountiful garden and, beyond that, a busy suburban street. A straight concrete driveway separated the house where they sat from the
neighbour’s. The sisters were all of a robust build and each held in her hand a sweaty glass of iced tea.
Stella, the oldest, was quite clearly dominating the conversation. “He was dancing with all the women,” she said, recounting the Baton Rough Veteran’s Ball she had recently attended. “He was swinging this way and that. Hell, he thought he was Fred Astaire!” She slapped her leg and chortled maliciously. Then, lowering her voice and straightening her back, she said, “He didn’t dance with me though.”
Vera stared at Stella, her eyes wide and blue through the thick glasses that sat unevenly across her prominent nose. Until recently, Vera has been a sister at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Catholic School but had left the order under mysterious circumstances. Vera’s voice was deep and resonant as a man’s; she sounded, in fact, like a man trying to sound like a woman. Despite this, Vera was girlish in manner and as innocence as a child.
“Why didn’t he dance with you, Stella?” Vera’s husky voice dipped in sympathetic inflections.
Stella held up one lurid red fingernail. “Moons,” she said. Vera looked questioningly at Katherine, the youngest, who shrugged in reply.
“He had moons in his fingernails,” Stella said impatiently.
Katherine snorted. “Here we go.”
Vera cocked her head, her glasses balancing more uneasily. Katherine looked away from Vera’s face, feeling strangely embarrassed as if she were seeing the frayed seams of Vera’s underwear rather than her ill-fitting spectacles.
“Don’t you know anything?” Stella nearly shouted. “Moons means mixed blood. He ain’t one of us,” Stella patted her pile of blonde hair with satisfaction. “Anyhoo, he didn’t even bother to ask me to dance. He knew I knew.”
Katherine picked up a book of crosswords and murmured, “Jesus Christ.”
Stella shot a glance at her youngest sister and said, “You ain’t been in Louisiana in 30 years, Cookie. You don’t know how much things have changed. Everyone’s so mixed up, you don’t know who you’re talking to. You’ve got to be careful.”
Vera rose slowly and went to the kitchen. Under the window, where her sisters could not see, she quietly poured gin into her iced tea, and returned the bottle to the back of cupboard. “Well,” she said, pronouncing her words loudly and clearly through the screen window, “I think Louisiana’s much better than it was 30 years ago. It’s much more tolerant.”
Vera grunted. “Well, I guess if you like cavorting with I-talians and whatnot, you can do that in Louisiana now too, if that’s what you mean.”
Katherine had stopped listening to her sisters and missed the remark that was meant for her. She was watching a hummingbird, effortlessly slipping its beak into a hibiscus flower. The bird’s iridescent wings shimmered like mist in the sun.
Vera returned the veranda, iced tea in hand and her face somewhat flushed. Stella held out her tanned, wrinkled hands, admiring her perfectly polished fingernails and Katherine watched the hummingbird until it flitted away. The sun was on the horizon and a cool breeze blew through the veranda.
“It certainly was a beautiful day,” Vera said, nodding approvingly at Katherine. “I think I could enjoy California. Yes, indeed.”
Stella said, “I prefer Louisiana myself,” still inspecting her outstretched hands. “The humidity at home is good for my skin. I look like a prune here in this dry heat.”
In the silence that followed, each sister considered possible topics of conversation. Stella was frustrated that her sisters didn’t appreciate her role in organising the VFW ball and the thousands of dollars she personally raised for the hospital. Vera searched her mind for neutral shared experiences that might bring the sisters together in pleasant and sterile nostalgia. Katherine darkly despaired, feeling bound to these women by no more than an accident of birth.
Looking at the garden, Vera ventured, “Daddy would have liked it here.”
“Why?” Katherine asked, suddenly alert.
“My, he loved flowers, sunshine – and birds,” Vera said, sweeping her large knuckled hand over the dimly lit garden below. “Oh yes, I can just see him sitting here, enjoying this sweet place, Cookie.”
Katherine imagined her father. She saw him in a thin undershirt, sweat beaded on his brow, hands on hips, grim-lipped. She rose and flicked on the porch light. The three women blinked dumbly at one another in the glow from the yellow fixtures.
Stella took in a deep breath and her breasts rose like missiles. Her voice was low but tremulous with emotion. “How do you know what Daddy liked?”
Strengthened by her iced tea, Vera said pertly, “Don’t you remember his flower garden, Stella? How he tended it? He was always trying to grow bee balm for the little ruby-throated hummingbirds, but the plants died, always, in the summer. They just couldn’t take the humidity. Finally, Daddy gave up and planted sage and when the hummingbirds came - oh, he was so happy! Don’t you remember, Stella?”
Katherine’s face brightened. “Yes, yes, I remember! The buckeyes and azaleas and camellias and the night-blooming jasmine. I always think of home when I smell night-blooming jasmine. How could I forget that Daddy planted those things?” Absorbed in her recollections, Katherine slowly shook her head. She did not notice Stella’s fierce stare.
“Yes,” murmured Vera, gently placing her hand on Katherine’s arm, “that’s right.”
“The two of you don’t know a goddamned thing about Daddy.” Stella rose, turned her back to her sisters so that she was facing the sliding glasses doors that led to the living room. From inside the house, the tick of the wall clock seemed suddenly to thunder on the veranda. Katherine glanced at it and mentally counted the hours until her sisters’ departure. She wished Angela would come sooner.
“Not much of a sunset,” Stella said, returning to her seat.
“No clouds,” Vera returned, by way of forgiving the evening. Katherine placed a hand tightly over her mouth.
Stella sniffed. “Now Mother appreciated beauty,” she announced, “She could have been a professional opera singer, you know, if she hadn’t married Daddy.”
“She certainly liked the dogs to look beautiful. Didn’t she look after those spaniels?” Vera said vaguely.
Katherine was suddenly filled with energy, something alive and real. “Mother was a son-of-a-bitch,” Katherine glared triumphantly at the shocked faces before her. “She was. I never heard Mother sing. Mother loved those damned dogs more than she ever loved anybody. All I remember about her is that she was angry and short-tempered and unhappy. She was a son-of-a-bitch.”
“Well, seven children . . . “ Vera began.
Katherine looked hard into Vera’s enlarged eyes until Vera looked away. From the neighbour’s house, the dull thud of a bouncing basketball was heard. A few cars hummed leisurely down the street, returning from workplaces or from picking children up from school.
“Little Cookie, you were Daddy’s favourite,” Stella said softly into the twilight. “Cookie got everything. You got a bicycle, we never did, you got roller skates, new dresses, a puppy of your own. You were Daddy’s little girl, no doubt about it.”
“I don’t remember,” Katherine’s brow was furrowed.
Vera reached over again and patted Katherine’s hand, “You were the baby, our baby.”
A faded Volvo station wagon turned slowly into the driveway. The three sisters silently observed two small children emerge from the car and the air was filled with bright chatter, slamming doors, scuffing feet. An attractive dark-haired woman herded the children up the veranda stairs. All three sisters stood in greeting.
The children went to their grandmother who hugged and kissed them. “Dominic and Sofia, these are your great aunts, Aunt Stella and Aunt Vera.” The children twisted their bodies awkwardly and murmured their hellos. Their mother, standing at the top of the stairs, smiled tentatively. Katherine took her daughter’s hand and led her to the centre of the veranda.
“And this is my Angela.”
“Why, you are as beautiful as a Botticelli Madonna,” said Vera, taking Angela’s face in both of her large hands and kissing her.
“Was that the father’s name?” Stella whispered to Katherine.
Katherine threw her head back and laughed, “No, Botticelli was an Italian painter!”
“Well,” said Stella, looking Angela up and down, “there’s no doubt she’s half I-talian.”
Vera gathered both children up in a large embrace and held them hard against her breasts.
“It’s nice to finally meet you,” Angela said, her arms crossed in front of her. The children disentangled themselves from Vera and stood at their mother’s side. Sofia held her mother’s hand and stared openly at the two large strangers.
“Aren’t they just beautiful, Stella?” asked Vera, placing her hand over her heart.
“Yes, they are.” Stella face went soft with smiling. “Why did we wait so long to meet you’all?”
Katherine’s expression tightened. “It was your choice, as I recall.”
The children began to tease and play with each other. Angela sent them to the breakfast nook inside the house and the four women remained standing on the veranda.
“It’s getting chilly. Why don’t we go inside?” Katherine flicked on the living room lights. The small house was crowded with plants, photographs, and bookshelves. Katherine felt a surge of comfort and pleasure. The children’s voices from the next room filled the house like music. Katherine looked at her daughter, grateful for her presence, her beauty, her children. She even felt thankful for her sisters, both of whom were beaming at Angela.
Vera was saying, “You are very lucky to have two so close together – they entertain each other. How old are they, dear?”
“Four and five, born exactly one year and one day apart.”
“Really?” said Stella, “you didn’t waste any time, Mary Jo’s birth was so hard on me, it took me five years to get the courage to have Billy.”
“Angela just got it over and done with,” Katherine said, proudly, “much easier that way.”
The three women smiled at Angela, who smiled shyly in return. In the next room, the children began quarrelling and Angela went to them.
“Does Sofia look like Angela when she was young, Cookie?” asked Vera.
Katherine relaxed her broad shoulders and laid back into her armchair. “Angela was a living doll. Not that Sofia isn’t gorgeous but Angela was really beautiful as a child, with that jet black hair and pale skin and her blue eyes.”
“It’s a shame we didn’t see her then,” said Stella.
“It certainly is,” Katherine replied tartly. Stella sought her gaze but Katherine kept her profile to her elder sister.
Angela returned to the living room with a triumphant Sofia and Dominic in tears. The three sisters cooed over him and he tried to hide his pleasure behind his hands.
“It couldn’t have been easy for you, having no family and all,” Stella peered at Angela.
Angela lifted her chin, “I have always had family.”
“Of course you did, darling! I’m sorry – I meant us, the southern family. Shame on us,” Stella looked softly at her youngest sister, “She’s your girl, no doubt about it. Such pride. My, my!”
“Damn right,” said Katherine, chuckling.
“Silly things folks do,” Stella said, watching Angela as she lifted Dominic to her lap, “To miss times like these.”
“Too true,” Vera said from the kitchen, where she had returned to refresh her iced tea. Katherine prepared a small spread of cheese and biscuits, fruit and olives. The women nibbled and discussed the sisters’ flight details and the route to the airport. The children ate macaroni and cheese in silence and with full concentration.
Sated, the small group returned silently to the living room when Sofia spontaneously performed a little dance. Her audience was enthralled and impressed by the final flourish of her rapidly blinking blue eyes. Sofia glowed under the applause. Stella reached out to her and the little girl wedged herself in the woman’s substantial breasts.
“My, look at the time,” Stella addressed the clock. “Suppose it’s time to pack up, Vera.” She embraced Sofia warmly and then stood.
Vera said, “Oh, no, there’s still so much time, Stella.” But Stella had already swept into the guest room and emerged moments later, with her small pink suitcase. She stood in the centre of room with the bag rigidly at her side. Vera sat down on the couch, a fresh iced tea in front of her. Angela went to the breakfast nook to tidy up after the children.
“Well, it was real good of you to come,” Katherine said, rising from her armchair.
“We will have to do it again,” said Stella, again looking at the clock.
From the couch, Vera spoke slowly, pronouncing her words very carefully, “Whose fault is it?”
“Lordie, now she’s drunk,” Stella dropped her suitcase and stamped her foot impatiently.
“No,” Vera said deliberately, “I am asking the question. Whose fault is it?”
Katherine moved to the edge of her chair, alert.
“Get your things together, Vera,” Stella said in an exasperated tone. “Angela is ready to take us to the airport.” She nodded to Angela and the children standing near the sliding glass door.
Vera put her glass down carefully and slowly raised herself from the couch, her startled eyes staying on Stella. “There’s not much time now.” Vera stepped into the guest room.
Angela and the children headed for the car, leaving Katherine and Stella alone in the living room. Over the sounds of their breathing, the wall clock ticked loudly.
“We always loved you, Cookie, even if we didn’t always show it,” Stella’s voice was almost a whisper.
“It hurt so bad,” Cookie was crying, “You abandoned me. You abandoned my daughter.”
“Stupid things folks do. We thought you’d come on home if . . .”
Vera entered the room and, seeing Cookie’s tears, held her tightly. Stella’s body began to shake with sobs and at the same moment, the three women encircled each other’s waists, forming a knot. They were all crying and not saying a word.
Finally, Stella pulled away. “We will do this again. In Baton Rouge.”
Katherine nodded, brushing the tears from her eyes. She was a little girl again.
Vera kissed Katherine’s cheeked, smiled brightly and said in her husky voice, “We have so much time, sisters.” Stepping through the sliding glass door, Vera took Stella’s arm and led her down the veranda steps.
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