Four of the Times My Sister Cried

Learning Our Lines: 1952

Mommy is dying. There is a lump growing inside her and it takes all the food. Mommy sleeps alone now and Grandmother sleeps on a cot next to Mommy’s bed so she can hear if anything happens or she’s needed. Daddy sleeps in my bed and I sleep with Sissy in her bed. Sissy says, “I sure hope there’s no fire. The firemen won’t know who’s who, we’re none of us in our right bed,” but Grandmother tells her please not to talk. Sissy talks all the time.
In the mornings Daddy goes to work at the grocery store and Grandmother gives Mommy a bath. Grandmother puts baking soda in the tub so Mommy won’t itch. She leaves the door cracked so she can hear Sissy and me or if any company comes. Then Grandmother dresses Mommy in a good dress and puts her on the couch for practice. Mommy lies there with her eyes closed and Grandmother tells her she was the best daughter in the world and how much she loves her. Then Sissy and I say how much we love her and then we begin. We practice things backwards pretty much to how it will really be. We start by being the choir and sing some hymns. Then Grandmother welcomes Sissy and me like we’re the congregation and she’s the preacher. She cries out:
“And I, John, saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a great voice out of heaven saying, Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and He will dwell with them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself shall be with them, and be their God. And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain; for the former things are passed away.”
Grandmother throws her arms out over the couch and cries, “If any man be in Christ, he is a new creature,” and Sissy cries, “Old things are passed away,” and I cry, “Behold, all things are become new.”
Then there’s parts. Grandmother says, “I’ll be old lady Whitaker,” and then says, “Oh, you are such good children. Mind your poor Daddy and be a comfort to him. I pray for you all every day,” and we say, “Thank you, Miss Whitaker, God bless you.”
I say, “I’ll be Deacon Parker,” so I say, “What a loss for us all. Everyone loved your mother so much. Our thoughts are with you. Please let us know if there’s anything we can do for you folks.”
Grandmother says, “Thank you so much. It’s hard but we must bear up to the Lord’s will,” and Sissy says, “Thank you, Deacon Parker. God bless you.”
Then Sissy says, “I’ll be Mommy.”
“Sissy!” Grandmother snaps.
“Mommy’s being Mommy,” I say. Sissy makes me so mad. She can’t do anything right.
Grandmother says, “I think that’s enough parts,” and that’s the end of the funeral.
Next is preparation of the body. We fill Mommy’s mouth with Q-Tips. Grandmother whispers, “Be careful.” Once one of the ends broke off and Mommy coughed and coughed before she could hawk up the safety swab.
Now we’re to the beginning. To death. Grandmother gets out the box of birthday candles, pink and blue and white. She lights one with a match and tells Mommy to look at it. Mommy opens her eyes. Q-Tips stick out her mouth. Grandmother holds the candle over Mommy for a minute and then blows out the candle. Smoke floats from the hot wick. Sissy is crying behind me and Grandmother covers her own face with her hand. My eyes fill with tears and everything is blurry. I can hardly see as Mommy lies on the couch, practicing how to die.

Getting Ready for Later: 1955

Each night at nine after Daddy closes the grocery store, Sissy and I enter through the loading-dock doors in the alley. We walk through the back stockroom and push through the swinging doors to the front part where the food is. Our thongs echo in the dark store and Daddy calls to us as we pad past the pet supplies, the vegetable stall, and the dairy case. Against the closed Venetian blinds there’s the outline of the quiet cash registers. When we get to the butcher’s counter we stop and take all our clothes off. Daddy pulls out the big can of oleoresin from behind the compressor where he keeps it and we smear ourselves with the thick orange wax. Daddy says, “I know what it’s like in the world and it’s hard to believe it’s bad as it is. Everything you love can die and then you don’t have anything of your own. All you can hope is that you’ll be able to get away someplace safe where no one will know where you’re at. That’s what love does. It teaches you to be invisible.” Then Daddy kisses our waxy faces and lifts us up and sets us in the meat case.
We start at the cured-meat end—bologna, pickle loaf, and salamis. I go first because I’m a boy. I dig under the smoked meats and start crawling the long distance. “Stay down,” Daddy hollers. “Son, I can see you. Move smoothly. If the meat heaves up and down you’re not hidden.” I try to reach under the Styrofoam trays wrapped in clear plastic the meat’s in without making them move. It’s hard. The wrappers stick to me even though I’m greased and the meat wiggles and wants to slide off my back and expose me. I concentrate on being steady because it’s so cold and the metal grate my belly presses against is full of holes that blow out refrigerated air. My legs go numb and I’m scared they’ll jerk and give me away.
Daddy grabs my hair and jerks my head out of the meat and slaps me as hard as he can. He’s crying. He grabs a pack of franks and hits me in the face with them. “If these weenies were bullets your face would be blown off. You’d be a goner because you gave yourself away,” and he dunks me back under the pink lunch meats and I get back to work. I slowly feel my way along the perforated grates for the aluminum ribs that hold them up, and use them for a handhold to pull myself along. I have to be especially careful not to knock over the pyramid of canned hams. With their round edges if one goes they all go and they’re heavy and hurt when they hit you.
Finally I get to poultry. The chickens are easy to crawl under because they don’t fit together too well. The curved breasts and pointy legs leave big spaces and the birds can be shifted around pretty much without it being noticeable on top. You should never jar anything. At most it should look like a gentle wind, a breeze blowing in the meat counter. It must never look like you.
Behind me I hear Sissy yelling, “I can’t breathe,” She has asthma but Daddy says if she got herself killed she really couldn’t breathe. What if there was war and she had to crawl under dead bodies to get away? Sissy screams when Daddy gooses her with a feather duster he uses to tidy up with. She’s always been real scared of feathers and so she dives back under the meat and crawls like she’s supposed to.
The worst part’s beef. There are things that feel like boogers but are long as shoelaces and made out of blood all at the bottom where we are. They stink and stick to you. All you can think about then is them and the cold and buzz of the cooler and fan. But just when I think I can’t go any farther I’m at the end. My hand touches the closed deli section and I’ve made it. Daddy fishes me out and kisses me on the mouth and hugs me while we wait for Sissy to finish. Then we get in our family circle and all cry about how the world is that makes learning such hard lessons necessary.

Hurricane: 1959

What is my true face, I wonder. I’ve been thinking about that a lot, even now as I cut open cases of Spam with an X-Acto knife. A hurricane is coming. They closed school today and most stores in town are already locked and the windows boarded up. Before a hurricane is one of the busiest times at the grocery store so we’re still here. Everybody stocks up their emergency supplies and buys bottled water and batteries and canned goods like vienna sausages and pork and beans and stuff like that that’ll keep if there’s no electricity and you can eat right out of the can.
It’s exciting, everybody hurrying around buying everything and getting stuff done, and everyone’s excited and off work so it feels like Christmas even though it’s almost summer, but I keep thinking about my face. When I look in the mirror it does not look like me. I don’t know how to say it. It feels funny like at Christmas when you don’t really care what you get but you want to look grateful and happy so the people who give you presents won’t feel disappointed. Then you have to talk louder than you would normally because you need to act as happy as your face looks.
I don’t know, but there’s something the matter with the way my face is. And I don’t think I’m alone. When I look at pictures of people I know, those aren’t their true faces either. All the pictures of my mother have her smiling and her gums show all on top but they never did when she smiled in real life. Last year Uncle Charles took Grandmother to the Grand Canyon right before she got too bad to be able to travel. She said that would be her personal favorite place in all the world to go to on a trip. There’s a picture of her with the Grand Canyon in the back but it doesn’t look real. It doesn’t look like Grandmother and the Grand Canyon looks like a lake with a cloud in it. It’s not the true face. I’m not sure why this bothers me so much but it sure does.
Behind me I hear somebody call my name so I turn around to look. It’s a lady and she’s pushing a grocery cart with a little redheaded baby in the seat. I set down my X-Acto knife and stand up so I can smile at her since she knows me. She says my name again so I smile even bigger and go over by where her basket is. She says, “My word, how you’ve grown,” and I say, “Thank you, ma’am.”
She says, “Don’t you recognize me?” and for all the world I don’t but I don’t want to say so, so I look like I’m thinking for a second and then I beam at her and say, “Oh yes I know you,” even though I don’t. Now I can’t let her know I don’t know her since I just said I do, so I think of a good plan and figure if we start talking about her baby I’ll get off the hook. So I look at the baby that has bright curly red hair and I open my eyes wide and clap my hands and say, “What a darling precious baby. I must hold that baby this minute,” and I reach over to scoop the baby out of the basket.
I reach under his arms and give a tug and the strangest thing happens. The baby feels light as a feather as I raise his arms and little sailor shirt out of the basket, and when they pass his hair it snags off too, so I am holding his arms, shirt, and hair up against my chest but the baby is still sitting way over in the basket. I look at the baby that now has no shirt on and it’s armless and bald. Then I look in my hands. It’s a little leather harness with two bright pink plastic arms hooked to it and the curly red hair is a tiny wig.
I don’t know what to do. The woman looks at me and I hold out my hands some so she can take back her baby’s arms if she wants to but she doesn’t make a move. She just looks at me. I wish I could slink off, I’m so embarrassed by what I’ve done. She says, “You’re very awkward, aren’t you?” and I nod. She doesn’t do anything or say anything so I just stand there nodding and holding out the little arms. After a while she says, “This little baby was born without any arms.”
I don’t know what to say to that so I keep nodding and try to look thoughtful. She says, “And he has to wear a wig because he doesn’t have a lick of hair anywhere on his body.”
I think for a little and decide maybe the baby has cancer. They give people with cancer medicine that makes their hair fall out, so I try to look sad and say, “Cancer?”
She says, “No. This baby was born without a single follicle in his body.” I don’t know what that means at all. I figure it couldn’t be bad as cancer so I make a little smile to show that’s good, but that poor baby is in awful shape with no arms and whatever else is wrong, so I squint my eyes to show I’m sorry for the baby and I try to bend one side of my mouth down some to show I’m sympathetic. I want to be polite and friendly like you’re supposed to be. And I look down at the shirt and wig and arms in my hands. It looks like a hairy red bird with two bald plastic wings that are starting to droop, like the bird’s tired.
I stand there clutching that bird and I don’t have any true face.

That night after Daddy and Sissy and I get home we have to run around and get our house ready for the hurricane. Daddy fills up our bathtub so we’ll have that water to use since pipes always get contaminated if it’s a flood. Sissy and I are putting masking tape on the windows so if the wind breaks them the glass won’t shatter. I do what looks like spider-web patterns like everyone else does because it’s the right way to tape windows but Sissy does groups of crosses. First she does a big cross that’s Jesus and then a bunch of little crosses that’s thieves. Sissy saw a movie about a nun and wants to be a Catholic and grow up to be a nun that’s a nurse in Africa and minister to sick colored people and headhunters. She has glued marbles to an old belt to be prayer beads and she crosses herself like Catholics do whenever she thinks nobody’s looking.
We shut our house up good and tight and make pallets for ourselves in the hall. That’s the safest place to be in bad storms. Sissy safety-pins a pocket flashlight to her Mickey Mouse ears so she can be spotted if she’s swept away. Then she makes us bow our heads and she prays that God will save our lives and Daddy turns out the lights and we lie down on our pallets.
Daddy plays his good transistor radio so we can hear weather reports from storm headquarters. Sissy grabs the radio and holds it up to her face. She likes to look at the little dial that glows in the dark. Daddy says to put that radio right back where she got it but Sissy doesn’t do it. She holds it to her like it was her baby.
I drift to sleep listening to the man on the radio talk about precautions. “Be sure to bring your garbage cans and lawn chairs in the house,” he says. “They can hurt people, the winds are that bad.”
Outside I can hear the storm blowing. The hurricane is coming.

I wake up when I hear a squawk and loud pop. Daddy hollers, “What was that?”
I can hear Sissy start crying. She says, “I’ve wet the bed.”
Daddy says, “Turn on your flashlight,” so Sissy does. She looks like a coal miner with her little flashlight shining on her head.
Daddy goes over to her. “Look,” he yells. “Look what you’ve done. You’ve peed all over the radio and made it get a short.”
Sissy is already crying but she stops for a second when Daddy slaps her the first time. The beam of her flashlight leaps across our hall and then Sissy starts to cry real loud. Daddy says, “I told you to put that radio back.” The thunder is loud outside and the wind has really picked up. Daddy drags Sissy out from under her wet covers and the circle of light from her flashlight dances on the walls. Then Daddy starts slapping Sissy over and over and shaking her, he’s so mad. “What did I tell you?” he keeps saying. “What did I tell you?”
Sissy is crying her eyes out. The circle of light flies all over the hall. It looks like it’s everywhere. A storm of falling stars.

Later it gets very quiet. Our hall is perfectly dark. I hear Daddy and Sissy breathing and can tell they are asleep. In this dark place I can tell where everything is. Outside it is the eye of the hurricane, the secret center where there is nothing there.
I pull my covers over my head and I know it’s me. I bring my hands to my head, rest them on my face. I am warm and underneath is bone. I know. This is my true face and it feels like nothing in the world.

Sunday Afternoons at Home: 1966

Every Sunday I watch ABC Wide World of Sports at Daddy’s house in DeRidder where he and Sissy live together. I sit in the recliner in front of TV while Sissy cooks supper and Daddy lies on the couch and plays with his parakeet named Blue Hawaii. Sissy has gotten huge gobby fat and seldom dresses anymore. “I guess I’m just a homebody,” she says. “I want it to be nice here and I’m not interested in anything but Daddy and our home.”
Blue Hawaii sings, “Vissi d’arte.”
“I hate that bird,” Sissy says.

The bird was Sissy’s idea. She bought it for Daddy when she first moved back in. She had lost her job at Service Tire and Supply and got high blood pressure and was way behind paying Daddy back the money she’d borrowed for her trailer. She was glad to sell it, she said, because it was expensive and lonesome and she could help Daddy out and now he wouldn’t have to be alone.
Sissy said, “What we need is a pet or two.”
Daddy said, “I don’t want any pets here.” But Sissy snuck down to Kress and bought a parakeet. “I don’t want a bird,” Daddy said.
“Sure you do,” Sissy said. “Its name is Blue Hawaii and if you poke it with a pencil it’ll do the hula.”
Daddy taught Blue Hawaii to sing the songs he loves and they listen to Texaco opera on the radio Saturday afternoons and sing arias to each other.
Daddy sings “Nessun dorma” to Blue Hawaii and the parakeet sings “Un bel di” to Daddy. “I love you, Blue Hawaii,” Daddy says.
“I love you,” Blue Hawaii says.
“Get a pencil and make him dance,” Sissy says but Daddy won’t let her.
Sissy says, “It’s just a bird. It wouldn’t hurt. They like to dance,” but Daddy says no.

Sissy called me and said, “You need to drive down and visit every weekend. Your poor daddy’s so lonesome he’s talking to a bird all the time and you should be ashamed of yourself for it.” So I hop in my car every Sunday and drive from Baton Rouge to DeRidder and sit in the living room while Sissy cooks and Daddy and Blue Hawaii sing songs to each other.
Daddy sings, “You are my only pleasure,” and Blue Hawaii sings, “You are my truest treasure.”
Daddy sings, “If death will ease our sorrow,” and Blue Hawaii sings, “Then I am content to die.”

In the kitchen Sissy sings “Bringing in the Sheaves.” Generally she fries chicken patties for our supper and the room fills with blue smoke and the sizzle of fat drowns out TV. Or sometimes she will bake a ham with a dried-up pineapple wedge sitting on it like a wrinkled hat on a big pink head. “It’s nutritious and tasty,” Sissy says but Daddy seldom eats anything anymore. “I think you got a disease from that bird, Daddy,” Sissy says, “and it’s affected your appetite. That’s how a lot of disease gets transmitted. By birds.”

Blue Hawaii sings to Daddy:
How well in thee does heaven at last
Compensate all my sorrows past,
and Daddy sings to Blue Hawaii:
O fairest of ten thousand fair
Yet for thy virtue more admir’d
Thy words and actions all declare
Thy wisdom by our God inspir’d.

One afternoon I’m sitting watching table tennis broadcast from China while Blue Hawaii sings to Daddy:
To your good spirit alone I owe
Words that sweet as honey flow,
and Daddy sings:
Were all the world lost to me,
All the world your love would be.
Then Sissy rushes into the room and sings:
I’m never nervy.
I’m just lovey dovey
And I’m going to make you
Love me. Love me. Love me.
She dances as she sings love me over and over, and she lifts her blue nightie over her hanging stomach so we can see her panties and bra. Her legs are big as clouds and white with green bruises where her things collide. “I love you,” she sings, “a bushel and a peck and a hug around the neck.” She pumps her bare belly against Daddy but he is kissing Blue Hawaii and his eyes are closed and he pretends not to notice.

One Sunday I am watching soccer matches in Australia on TV. Daddy and Blue Hawaii are singing to each other on the couch and Sissy is in the kitchen frying salmon croquettes because she is trying to reduce. I say, “Daddy, I may miss some Sundays. I’ve been seeing somebody lately and probably will spend some Sunday afternoons with her. Of course I’ll bring her down some weekend so you can meet her but I wanted to tell you I’ll probably miss some Sundays and that’s why. But I’ll still visit you a lot. I—well—I love you.” Daddy just sits humming and brushing his lips against Blue Hawaii’s beak.
Sissy runs into the room and shouts, “What? What?”
I say, “I was explaining that I may miss—”
“Everybody does as they damn well please,” Sissy cries. “Nobody thinks of anybody but their own self except me. I try and make this a nice family and a home but nobody understands you got to give up things for love. Nobody ever gives up anything but me. Nobody,” and she stomps back into the kitchen but loses one of her blue terry cloth houseshoes on the way.
The Australian national team is playing well and scores. The applause is loud as frying salmon. Sissy is crying in the kitchen so hard she gives herself hiccups and gags between sobs. Daddy is humming to his parakeet. And floating over all the sound in our house is Blue Hawaii’s slender voice, skinnier than its pink scaly toes wrapped delicately around Daddy’s finger, pledging its happy heart, its willingness to die for love.