My younger sister Daisy lives in New York City, and big whoop. You can tell she thinks that fact makes her special, like she believes she’s risking her life just by getting up in the morning every day. She’s an actress, but nobody that I know has ever heard of her.
“How can you stand to live out here in the middle of nowhere, Iris?” she asks, as if this wasn’t at one time her hometown too. She waits, but I am not going to play. She studies me. “Oh, I get it,” she says. “You guys think you’re safe.”
She has started right in with it, the minute she’s off the plane. The smell, the heat, the double-bacon-cheeseburger-with-fries fat family pulling their bags off the belt at baggage claim, the Bush/Cheney sticker on the bumper of a mud-spattered pickup, the fish emblem on the broad backside of a new minivan, the flags in the yards, and the yellow ribbons on the trees.
“God, how much do I hate this fucking place,” she says, and then smiles at me. “No offense.”
When we get in the car Gene makes my sister pay him five dollars before he’ll roll up the windows and turn on the air for her, and then he calls her a hypocrite for asking him to waste the gas.
The billboard standing in a cornfield: “God is Pro Life, Are You?” Daisy muttering, “Life is choice, you freaks.”
Gene’s hand moves to my knee and stays there.
* * *
Of course, Daisy is free to believe whatever she wants to believe, and she can say what she wants to say, then go on and tell the whole world all about it too—put it up on a billboard by the highway, if that’s what makes her happy—but the fact is, Gene and I have made a real good life for ourselves together here, and I don’t know why we should be expected to feel guilty for that. Or less than adequate or stunted or stupid or weak or selfish or dishonest or criminal, or whatever it is that my sister wants to try to make me feel about myself.
She stands on the front porch, studying the street while Gene gets her bags out of the car. We moved into the Paradise tract two months ago; this is the first she’s seen of it. Everything’s brand new, even the trees. The community is in such high demand; she has no idea how lucky we were to get in.
“Jesus, Iris,” she says, “this place looks like a movie set.” At first, it’s hard to tell whether she means this as a compliment or not. “It’s like it isn’t real.” Most likely not, and I can feel my face heating up, but Gene’s wink reminds me not to be so sensitive. He shoulders past her into the house, flashing his teeth. “You want real, Daisy. I’ll show you real.”
When she laughs, it’s in a way that gives out more breath than sound. Her lipstick shines. “Dream on, big boy,” she says, because she is aware of my husband’s condition. I know now that I never should have confided in her, but I was drunk that night on the phone, and I was feeling sorry for myself, and who else do I have to talk to about something like that? Not Mom. Not Rose. “Get a vibrator, Iris,” she told me then. “You have some lubricant. Get him some Viagra.”
* * *
Rose has been waiting for us in the kitchen. She’s at the table working on her squares, and the dog sits at her feet, panting. Square after square my big sister knits from scraps of yarn—she doesn’t care what color or what kind—and then she pieces them together into blankets for the needy. Sometimes she gets fancy with the stitches, but mostly she just goes back and forth and they all come out close enough to the same. She once tried to get me and Daisy to join her in this endeavor, but Daisy didn’t have the time or the inclination, and I don’t have the patience or the skill. The finished blankets come out a little uneven and mixed up, but they’re plenty warm and that’s all that counts.
If Daisy is the pretty one and I am the smart one, then Rose is the large one who looks the most like our mother, as if something has rubbed off on her because it wasn’t until she was well into her thirties that she had a home of her own, and even then only a block-and-a-half away. She blames her weight on the time when her appendix burst and she almost died, which was more than twenty years ago now, but never mind. Rose says that the antibiotics they gave her during that time changed her metabolism and that’s why at thirteen years old she grew out of being a small pixie girl with short bangs and a long braid down her back to become this slow-moving, slow-thinking woman that she is now—dressed in big shorts and a man’s shirt, with a helmet of graying hair, cropped short to save herself the bother of having to do anything much to take care of it.
Gene fixes Daisy a vodka tonic. Greasing the gears, I know, because he likes to get her talking. Waving her arms around and such, working up a sweat. He tells her she’s a beautiful woman as it is, but she’s even prettier when she’s mad, which only makes her madder to hear it said, which only makes her prettier, and so on. She wears a stack of gold and silver bracelets on her left wrist, and she can’t take them off because they’ve been soldered into circumferences that are smaller than the width of her hand. This is to remind her of her mortality, she says. She describes it as an act of self-love. Gene and I both are watching her breasts bounce around inside her sheer white blouse—something delicate and expensive—and Daisy is aware of this too, it seems. She gets fidgety, lifting her shoulders and pulling her hair up off the back of her neck to cool herself down. This is Iowa and it’s summertime, humid and hot as ever.
Gene is at the counter cutting up limes while Daisy fans her face and tells us about the melting icecaps and receding glaciers.
Rose is oblivious of all that. She keeps to herself mostly anyway, but for sure, she won’t join in a conversation that might have turned to politics. It’s all just talk to her, and she considers having an opinion to be a waste of time. You can’t just watch the news and get mad about this or that or whatever and then imagine that means you have some part in what goes on. It isn’t enough to just think and talk, she says, you also have to do.
“Do what?” Daisy asks. “Knit blankets?”
But Rose will not be baited. You cannot get to Rose. She is as placid as a puddle. Medicated, is my guess.
Gene finds a reason to squeeze around Daisy, reaching for a bowl to fill with cocktail nuts. His eyes follow her as she moves out of his way, and then they turn to me.
* * *
Daisy ought to know that we are not greedy people, Gene and I. We have always had just what we need and not so very much more. I have made it a point to take care of myself, and so my health is good, and I am a burden to no one. I recycle, even if my husband doesn’t. I don’t drive one of those big gas-guzzlers —my Saturn gets me wherever I have to go, which is never very far. I keep our thermostat low when it’s cold and high when it’s hot. I remember to turn off the lights when there’s nobody in the room, and I make it a point to run my appliances on the off-peak hours when I can. If we have a nice house, that’s because together Gene and I do whatever needs to be done to keep it clean and in good repair. We pick up after ourselves, we do our own chores, and we don’t have to hire foreigners to come in and help us out with the dirty work. The place is all paid for. We have some good investments. We try to pay with cash, we don’t like to use credit, and we do not live in debt.
My whole life, I have done my best to be responsible. Accountable. Reliable. Sensible. Strong. I have always tried to do my part.
I would like for Daisy to understand: this is our world. It’s peaceful. It’s quiet, it’s clean, and it’s neighborly. We care about each other here. We look after our own. And if it comes to it, we are willing to do whatever it takes to protect ourselves against those people who hate us for being who we are and for having what we have. We have gates, we have walls, and the security car passes by our house regularly, day and night.
* * *
Daisy settles in at the table across from Rose. “So tell me what happened.”
Rose smiles. “Well, I’m just fine Daisy. Thanks for asking. It’s good to see you too.”
“I’m sorry. This is hard for me.”
“It’s hard for all of us.”
Daisy nods. Her eyes fill with tears.
Rose watches her swipe at them with the back of her hand. “She’s anxious to see you.”
Our mother is in the hospital again; that’s why Daisy is here. Last time it was pneumonia, and it was something about her lower intestine the time before that. Over the last couple of years, these incidents have become so common as to seem routine, and we follow the patterns of our own behavior in such circumstances as if they’ve all been laid out for us already.
This time it’s a fall. She missed the bottom step into the back yard, and was down on the ground for a couple of hours before Rose found her, sunburned and delirious, with her pelvis cracked and her left leg broken in two places.
Daisy asks, “How’s she doing?”
Rose says, “Oh, she’ll be all right, I guess. She’s looking forward to seeing you.”
“First thing in the morning.”
“She can’t stop apologizing.”
“For everything. For being a nuisance. For being old. For not being able to take care of herself. For making it so you have to interrupt your busy life and spend all that money to come back here because of her.”
“That’s crazy.” She’s digging in her purse for a cigarette, although she must know that she’ll have to go outside to smoke it.
Through this, Rose has not stopped knitting. Her needles flare in the lenses of her glasses. “You know how she is. She even blames herself for falling down. Clumsy. Bad shoes. Should have had her glasses on. That sort of thing. She doesn’t want to be a bother to anybody.”
“What she should have had is a cell phone, or one of those emergency medical beepers. Jesus, what if it had rained?”
Rose just shakes her head.
“Where were you?” Daisy wants to know. “Where the hell was Bear?”
He hears his name and stands up, wagging his tail and rolling his eyes, showing their whites. While Mom was out there on the ground, Bear was inside the house throwing himself against the door and chewing through the linoleum in the kitchen. He yelps when Daisy pushes him away.
* * *
Outside on the back deck, Gene has fired up the grill, and I’ve got the citronella candles lit to keep the bugs at bay. The day has started rolling over into night, the trees that separate our lot from the one behind us are thickening into their own shadows, and the fireflies have started to come out. Rose is down on the lawn playing fetch with Bear. She makes him wait, winds him up, watches him hop and turn, yelping with impatience, before she lets go, and then he flies, crashing into the bushes and skidding back out again, grinning around the tennis ball held softly in his teeth. Daisy eyes the hamburgers I’ve brought out and shakes her head.
“I don’t eat meat, Iris,” she says.
“Since when?” I ask.
“And neither should you,” she adds.
Gene asks, “Why not?”
She counts the reasons off on her fingers while Gene lays the patties out on the hot grill. Animal suffering, rainforest destruction, energy consumption, topsoil depletion, world hunger, clean water, clean air, mental well being, and personal health.
“In that order?” When Gene smiles the skin around his mouth cracks and folds in on itself, and his face goes all to pieces.
Daisy ignores him, and turns to me. “Did you know that if we reduced our consumption of meat by only ten per cent, we could save enough grain to feed the sixty million people on the planet who die of hunger every year? Think about that, Iris, next time you’re at the store. If it weren’t for our government subsidies, that burger there would have cost you thirty-five dollars a pound.”
“You’re in farm country here, Daisy,” I tell her. “Cows and pigs and corn are what we do.”
I lean in closer to my husband and feel the heat surging up from the grill. When I reach for the meat platter his fist moves to the small of my back, and I let him run his thumb along the bumps of my spine, twanging at me like stretched string. He nods toward Daisy’s empty glass. “How about getting your sister another drink, Iris.”
She rattles the ice and begs, “Yes, pretty please? I’ll be good, I promise.”
* * *
When I come back outside, Gene is holding a candle and Daisy is bending toward him to light her cigarette from its flame. She throws her head back on the exhale, exposing her throat. She props an elbow on the deck rail, fiddling with the cigarette pack and looking over her shoulder to eye Rose and Bear still at their game down in the yard.
“So you smoke, but you don’t eat meat?” I ask.
“I’m not perfect,” she says, as she takes the glass from me. “No matter what anybody says.”
Gene laughs at this.
Daisy waves her cigarette at him. “It’s nice to hear you laugh. You should do that more often.” She turns to me. “You know what we need a little less of in this world, Iris?”
I shake my head. “What’s that?”
“Suffering. We need less suffering.”
I nod. “Okay.”
“Less suffering and more love.”
“And you know how we get more love?” She smiles and opens her arms as if she would embrace us all. “Empathy. We get it with empathy.” She lets this sink in, then goes on, “I know this is true because that is what I do.” The bracelets skitter and chime with each sweep of her hand. “Acting, you see.”
Gene laughs again, but this time she ignores him. She is talking to me now; she is explaining.
“My job ” She tosses her hair. “ My job is to be whoever they tell me to be, and to be any good at that I have to make it real. Even if it isn’t me, even if I don’t believe what the character believes, I have to become her anyway.” She leans closer. “I have to erase myself, all right?”
“And to do that I have to find in myself whatever it is about her that is also in me.” She peers at me to check that I’m paying attention. “Because what happens is, after a while you realize” She pulls back. “You realize that we are really all the same.” She looks at Gene; his eyes flick to me. She taps her ashes over the rail. “We all have the same feelings and thoughts and dreams and everything, when you come down to it. And we all want the same things.” She ticks them off on her fingers. “Food, clothing, shelter. That’s it!” She pauses, then: “Okay, and entertainment. Something to keep our minds busy. I’ll grant you that.”
We wait. She looks at me again.
“Okay, and safety, too. We want to be safe. We want our kids to be safe. We want all our loved ones to be safe.” She nods, agreeing with herself. “But really, we should want everybody to be safe, and if we realized that we are all the same, we would. If we could just get it that there is no difference between you, Iris, and some woman in Palestine who is trying to hold on to her little patch of dirt or sand or whatever it is that they have over there. well, if we realized that then there would be no war. No war! You know what I mean, right?” Now she’s talking to Gene. “We all just want to be able to go about our business, whatever our business is. That’s all. Everybody wants that. Every single person. You, me, everybody. Nobody wants to die.”
Gene nods. He flips the burgers, one by one.
“Not even the animals, Iris. Not even the cows and pigs.” She takes a swallow of her drink, grits her teeth. “Not even me,” she says, then adds, “anymore.”
She knows that I know what’s under the bracelets. I start to respond, but she cuts me off.
“Don’t bother.” She waves me away. “I know what you’re going to say.”
Gene sniffs at this. “Well, hell Daisy, we’re all ears,” he says. “Show us some of that empathy you’ve got. Erase yourself, like you said.”
My sister smiles. Ever since she was little, she has loved to perform. She takes one last drag and then stubs her cigarette out. She pulls her hair back from her face and wraps it into a knot. Rubs the lipstick off her mouth with the back of her hand. Puts her fists on her hips, plants her feet. Lifts her chin, scowls hard. “We’re all going to die,” she says. She coughs, suppresses a smile. She rolls her shoulders, stretches her neck, and takes a deep breath. “There’s nothing I can do.” She coughs again, clears her throat, and shakes her head.
Gene’s hand is on my arm. His fingers squeeze. He is holding me in place.
She has folded her hands together now. “I don’t understand why they have to hate us so much,” she whines. “It’s not MY fault. I never did anything to anybody.” She looks at me and raises her eyebrows, questioning, then pulls back and goes on, reciting: “They’re always picking on me. I’m not as smart as they are. It’s not fair.” She’s getting stronger. She pounds her fist into her palm. “They have NO right to treat me like that. They are SAVAGES! They aren’t HUMAN! It isn’t ME! I didn’t do ANYTHING! There’s something wrong with THEM! They’re CRAZY!”
She’s no longer herself. She has become me. She leans close, whispers: “Somebody has to stop them or else they’re going to wreck everything. That’s what they want. We have to destroy them before they can destroy us.” She turns away. We wait. Gene’s grip on my arm has tightened and it’s painful, but before I can pull away from him, she whirls around and is upon us, on her toes and looming. Her voice cracks, spills words: “We’ll hunt them down we’ll never stop we’ll smoke them out we’ll make them bleed We’ll catch them we’ll cut them we’ll hang them we’ll kill them. They will be OBLITERATED!” She opens her arms, throws back her head, thrusts out her hips, bends her knees, swings her pelvis, and shakes her belly and her breasts. Her whole body rises like a wave, bearing down on us as she bellows: “Ka-a-a-a. BOOM!”
I cling to Gene and close my eyes, but when I open them again it’s only Daisy standing there, diminished, panting and flushed. Her blouse clings to her skin. She shakes her hair loose – it’s matted, soaked. She fingers a cigarette from the pack, and her hands tremble as she lights it. She sinks onto the chaise. She puts her head back, shuts her eyes, and lets her arms hang loosely at her sides. She is a monster made of rags.
Gene brings his hands together, and he heavily applauds. “Was that as good for us as it was for you?” he asks.
Her smile is weak, so maybe so.
While down in the yard, Rose’s throw is powerful, and Bear’s passion for it is unrelenting.
* * *
“It’s called Canine Separation Anxiety,” Rose says.
Daisy frowns. She’s reapplied her lipstick, and it gleams. “Maybe he should see a psychiatrist.”
Gene laughs at this. “Jesus.” He snaps his fingers. Bear lifts his head. Alert, he watches Gene.
Rose goes on, “He doesn’t like to be alone.”
Daisy takes a last bite of salad and then pushes her plate away. “Yeah, well, who does?” She raises her wineglass to the light, eyes it, and flashes a smile at me. She waggles a finger at the dog, jangling the rings around her wrist. “I’m one hundred per cent with you on that one, Bear.”
Rose smoothes her napkin over her empty plate. “It’s not just what he did to the kitchen, Daisy. He destroyed one of the good chairs, too. He’s chewed the wood on the back door right down to the glass. He ripped up the floor in the bathroom and dug a hole in the mattress on her bed. He’s gone into her closet and shredded all her shoes. The whole house is a mess, and it’s going to cost a lot of money to have it repaired.”
Daisy puts her glass down, serious now. “So what are you going to do?”
Gene says, “Put him down.”
“You can’t put him down.”
Rose says it again, slowly, “He can’t be left alone.”
“No. Mom’ll go nuts. She won’t allow it.”
And then it’s my turn. “You know she isn’t going home this time, don’t you Daisy?”
Rose backs me up. “Mom can’t be left alone anymore either.”
Daisy lets this sink in. “Where will she go?”
“We’ll have to find a place for her.”
“A home,” I say. “Managed care. There are lots of them around. Some are very nice.”
Daisy shakes her head.
“You want to take the dog back to New York with you, Daisy?” I ask.
“You know I can’t do that.”
“All right then,” Rose says, “do you want to move here and take care of both of them together?”
That shuts her up, just as we knew it would.
* * *
Once the table is cleared, and the dishes are done and put away, Gene and I will find my sisters curled together on the sofa in the darkened living room. Daisy’s eyes are closed; her head rests on Rose’s shoulder; and she abides in the cradle of her older sister’s arms. Bear lifts his head, his tail thumps the floor, and we’re hushed by Rose’s finger to her lips.
I follow my husband up the stairs to our bedroom at the top. This is our life together; this is our routine. We undress separately and silently, in the dark. My nightgown is hanging on the back of the closet door. I put it on, then take it off again. In the bathroom, I brush my teeth and wash my face and avoid the look I get from my reflection.
I slide into my bed beside Gene. The sheets are cool, his skin is warm. He reaches behind me, draws me in, spreads my body flat against his. He knees apart my thighs, he cups me in his palm, and he opens me with his hands. His weight shifts, he hovers then sinks, and I fold myself around him, hold him there, sturdy and strong. We stay still; we wait; we don’t move. Clasped together, skin to skin, we have become one body and one being. The world cracks apart, the abyss opens, we fall into the void and are gone.
Beyond the yard lights, the night is black, the wall is high, the gate is locked, the security car prowls, and this is how we will keep ourselves safe, from any and all harm.
Susan Taylor Chehak is a graduate of the University of Iowa Writers Workshop and the author of five novels, including Smithereens, The Truth About Annie D., and Harmony, as well as a book of nonfiction, Don Quixote Meets the Mob: The Craft of Fiction and the Art of Life. She is Executive Editor of ZinkZine, an online literary journal at www.ZinkZine.com and teaches fiction writing in The UCLA Extension Writers’ Program, as well as at Antioch University, Los Angeles and the Summer Writing Festival at the University of Iowa.