Last year, Jacqueline Guidry’s stories appeared in Compose Journal, the Cumberland River Review, China Grove, and Still Point Arts Quarterly. Other works have appeared in the Arkansas Review, Rosebud, Southampton Review, Spitball, and elsewhere. She is addicted to KenKen, chocolate, and baseball, not necessarily in that order.
By the end of my first month of piano, Miss Harry pretty much pronounced me void of rhythm and close to tone deaf but tried to be tactful in laying out my faults, not wanting to offend my mother. She would’ve gladly forfeited me as a student. It was those planned lessons for my sisters, also marked for music when they reached fifth grade, she didn’t want to lose.
No matter my miserable abilities, every Thursday found us at her piano and wishing we were elsewhere. She was taller than me but not much heavier so there was plenty of room on her bench for both of us. Her wrists were thick and bony, unlike her skinny arms and the rest of her skinny self, and her fingers were as narrow as mine but longer, stretched from being made to reach across nearly two octaves, a trick Alice, fourteen months younger than me and up next for lessons, refused to believe without seeing for herself.
I don’t know who suffered more, Miss Harry or me. She clapped and demanded I strike the keys in that same pattern. She played five notes and looked to me for the sixth. The key I selected almost always produced the same rapid click of tongue against the roof of her mouth. Not that she intended insult, but when you’ve been clicking most of your life you don’t hear yourself any more.
“How’s the family?” She started every lesson that way and maybe really wanted to know whether Alice had gotten in trouble again for ignoring another critical fourth grade assignment, whether my youngest sister still hated our cousins, whether I’d gotten another perfect spelling score. More likely she was grabbing at any excuse to delay my hands touching her piano, a sensitively tuned instrument, she’d explained on my first day, responsive to the most delicate of strokes. Not how anyone would ever describe my playing.
“Fine,” I always told her. My family wasn’t lively these days. Boring really.
“Fine.” I drew out the word just short of her calling me on it.
“Still in Houston, I suppose.” When I had nothing to say to that, she reluctantly let me start the scales. My family was as much a disappointment as I was and she probably regretted taking us on as a musical project.
. . .
We weren’t a family who could afford many luxuries and I would’ve gladly sacrificed my lessons, an unnecessary expense if ever there was one. My daddy and I were of the same mind on that, but Mama had always wanted musical children. With luck, she might get that with one of my sisters. Why she couldn’t skip over me to get to Alice, I couldn’t say, but when it came to those lessons my mama was dug in deep.
Daddy, especially after he snagged the Houston job, got credit for a big share of the money Mama used to pay bills, piano included. She wasn’t selfish when it came to giving credit and there was never any arguing on that score. “The check arrived,” she’d say during a weekly phone call and then say whether she used the money for clothes, gas, or something else. When the something else was food, I chewed extra slowly at the next meal, reminding myself every bite came courtesy of my daddy. Alice chewed regular and gave me the look that said we’d eaten fine before Houston. She was right, but I liked finding reasons to think about our daddy, off in that new state of his.
“We’ll be rolling in dough soon,” he’d said as he packed for the crossover from Louisiana to Texas and the job that promised life on easy street. I’d been in third grade then and even now, two years later, had yet to see anyone rolling in dollar bills in our house. The only changes were the rented spinet and my lessons. That plus lots of ordinary days with my daddy gone missing most of the time.
If he’d still been with us, I’m sure Miss Harry would’ve been more pleased with my weekly reports because he was a fine one for kicking out ideas. There was the time, back when it was just me and Alice, that we filled the tub with ice from the Winn-Dixie and took turns cooling off. Mama got home from work and declared this his most ridiculous idea ever. Didn’t Glen realize how dangerous summer pneumonia was? Did she always have to be the one taking care and watching out? That was his cue to say no family needed more than one ferocious watchdog, eyes glued to every misstep, and weren’t we lucky to have Bea doing that job?
What she’d missed was that while everybody else complained about the August heat, we three took turns, naked except for our underpants, cooling in a bathtub filled with water, ice cubes floating all around us. Anyways, Alice and I didn’t get sick. Daddy neither.
There was also the time he came home with chicks someone from work was giving away. Four yellows and a black. We were going to learn responsibility raising those babies into full-fledged chickens. Mama pointed out we didn’t have a fenced yard or a coop and she was not having chickens in the house. She didn’t raise her voice when she told him this and that told us the chicks would be gone by morning. They were. I hoped she found a good home for them, but when I asked, she refused to say.
My mother got like that sometimes. Ask the same question a million times over and if she didn’t want to answer, she didn’t.
. . .
Within three months, most of my lessons were punctuated by a ringing phone. I didn’t think I was paranoid to suspect a plot afoot, Miss Harry arranging for someone to call. “Keep playing, Penelope,” she said before leaving me for the caller she’d roped into dialing today.
If I were lining up Miss Harry’s virtues, calling me Penelope would lead the list. My first grade teacher had decided no student in her class had any business with such a long name and I was going to be Penny in her room. I was too young and dumb to object, so that became my name at school and, soon enough, at home too because my mother decided she liked it, said she wished she had a cute nickname and I was lucky to have found one so early in life. Her own name and my daddy’s didn’t lend themselves to shortening and she seriously regretted that, as if finding nicknames might’ve made all the difference.
Anything at all was liable to get labeled “cute” by Mama. Alice and I rarely agreed with her, the exception being our baby sister with her curly brown hair and two dimples any doll would envy. “She came up with that curly hair all on her own,” Tante May, Mama’s sister, liked to say. “Didn’t you make that gorgeous hair all on your own?” she was always asking. According to her, our baby sister’s first word was “own.” Mama disputed that, certain no child ever said “own” as a first word, but May insisted.
Kathleen wasn’t quite four, yet already her name had been whacked to Kay-Kay, a much worse nickname than Penny. If someone threw Al or Ali at Alice, she’d throw the name right back and that would be the end of that. I liked to think I would’ve done the same if I hadn’t been caught off guard. That’s the burden of being oldest: You’re the first to catch everything. The sisters who follow, duly warned, can ready themselves unless, of course, that sister is a baby still in diapers. By the time I realized the Penny mistake, I was in third grade, Daddy in Houston, and the chance for grabbing back Penelope gone, likely forever. But Miss Harry reminded me who I’d started out being and I appreciated that.
I wondered whether anyone ever called her Harriet or whether her full name had also been lost for good. Did she wish someone called her by the name that carried more possibilities than plain Harry? I’d oblige if I could think of a good reason to say her full name out loud.
“Can’t talk but a minute,” she said after the initial phone greeting. “Penelope is having her lesson,” she explained as if the caller didn’t already know.
I stopped playing as soon as she got past “hello.” She was in the parlor, the room where most people kept their pianos, but hers was in what had been her front bedroom. With her son grown and her husband dead, she had no need for a second bedroom and plenty of need for extra cash, or so said my mama.
Miss Harry’s sister came over most days around noon and the parlor was where they watched their favorite shows. Some days, when no one called to interrupt my lesson, Miss Harry had me doing finger stretches and while I stretched—anything to keep me off her piano—she told me what she and Donna had eaten that day and caught me up on the latest goings-on in her soaps where everybody had messy lives but good jobs that paid plenty. Neither of us could figure out how any of them found time to practice law or medicine or run a business given the state of their home affairs, complicated enough to keep a person occupied morning to night.
Today’s call covered one of my favorite topics. Eloise Gautier, president of the Ladies Altar Society no less, spent more time with Father Murphy than any of her predecessors. Never one for daily Mass, she’d been spotted at six o’clock services every morning since the start of last summer. With this being the end of March, that was too much devotion to be considered normal. She’d been widowed close to four years and that much time alone just naturally gave a person ideas. Miss Harry and her caller knew all about this and I waited for an explanation, but none came.
After services, Father Murphy greeted parishioners at the door. He asked about a grandmother’s arthritis, a son’s deployment, a baby’s due date, a lady’s new hairstyle and sounded interested in all of it. A priest interested in actual lives was a new one on us. Our former pastor, an elderly German, had wanted as little to do with his flock as possible. No wonder a number of church ladies found themselves with greater need for spiritual guidance, though Eloise looked to be the only one robustly pursuing her interest.
None of the other ladies approved her bold tactics and there’d been talk of asking her to step down as president. She was giving the Altar Society a bad name. The problem was the by-laws made no provision for kicking out a duly elected president. How could the by-laws committee have anticipated this?
That’s where things stood when my mother pulled up and Miss Harry trotted back double time, calling, “Play, Penelope, play.”
I banged those keys for all I was worth, guaranteeing another check for her and another installment in the story for me. Here’s what I was wondering as I let my fingers choose their keys: Were Eloise and Father Murphy thinking of running away? Where could a priest run and not be found? People’s troubles always interested me. Too much so, according to my mama.
I didn’t think I could be the only student who needed phone breaks and was certain there was all manner of interesting news getting dished out when I wasn’t around. I hoped Alice proved as tone deaf as me, though I knew that even with both of us listening, we’d never learn everything.
. . .
On Thursdays I walked from school to those lessons and about half the time walked with Yvonne Lunde, the Swedish girl in my class and worth knowing if only because she was so different from the rest of us. She took violin at the music studio a few blocks past Miss Harry’s but only twice a month.
“Miss Harry says the studio charges too much.” I shifted my book bag from one hand to the other. I was ready to be done with school and wished summer wasn’t a full two months away.
“Mother doesn’t mind.” She spoke with an odd accent and never said Mama, though by now I was used to that.
“No one wants to pay extra,” I said. “We pay twenty a month even when there’s an extra Thursday. Twenty for four Thursdays, twenty for five, depending on the month.”
“Good deal, okay.” Yvonne was always okaying things. I didn’t know how she’d decided it was the best English word, but she had. When you asked how she ended up in this country and made it all the way down to our tiny southwest Louisiana town, not a single Swede to be found, she said her mother decided. Okay? Okay by me.
“Miss Harry doesn’t know violins.” I pointed at the case she carried in one hand, book bag filled with the same dull assignments as mine in the other. The best part about piano was you didn’t have to lug the instrument everywhere you went.
“If you want to stick with violin, you have to stick with the studio.” Like my daddy, I didn’t like the idea of paying too much for music or anything else. Once, in Ashe’s hardware, he’d pulled me and Alice aside, pointed at a set of screwdrivers, the most expensive on the shelf, and demanded to know who’d choose that overpriced item over its cheaper sister products. “Fools,” Alice and I called out at the same time and that had gotten all three of us hee-hawing like donkeys on the loose, loud enough to earn us suspicious glances from the clerk dawdling in the aisle.
“If you switched to piano, Miss Harry could give the lessons,” I told Yvonne. “Twenty a month,” I added to remind her what a good deal she’d be getting.
“Mother says violin is best.”
I’d never met this mother of hers. She never brought treats for a class party, chaperoned a field trip, acted as parent monitor on the playground, or even went to the Christmas concert, which most parents and grandparents knew they were obligated to attend. I imagined her as a stretched out version of Yvonne, tall and big-boned, blonde and blue-eyed. But whatever she looked like, she was more extravagant than I could imagine my family being. Mama was set on music but if drum lessons were cheaper than piano, I’d be a drummer.
“Violin is a good instrument,” she said.
“Piano’s not bad.”
“You hate piano.”
“I never blamed the piano. I just have no talent.” How could I forget Miss Harry’s pronouncement back in the fall?
“No talent.” She’d never heard me play and I didn’t appreciate this quick agreement.
“Hear from your daddy lately?” While I’d never seen her mother, I had no doubt as to her existence. Jessie Domingue had spotted her registering Yvonne for school last September and had said good morning and received a good morning in return. Jessie wanted to be a game show host and was always practicing her greeting skills. At least she didn’t pretend to have had an actual conversation with the lady.
Yvonne’s father? He was a horse of a different color as my daddy, the Texas man, might say. When he first left us for Houston, Alice and I were united in our demand that he come home every weekend. “All that driving? You girls crazy? All by myself with no one to pass the time, mile after mile? That’s not like hopping to the grocery store and back. What you have here is a horse of a whole different color.” When he said that, we were equally confused over what horses had to do with his coming home. Later, we came to understand that was Texas talk.
He’d rented a studio, though he never mentioned having Texans over to practice Texas talk with him. Except for the bathroom, closed off from the rest of the apartment, he lived in a single open space. I was sure I wouldn’t like that, bedroom and kitchen and parlor squeezed together, but my daddy thought different. “You can hardly imagine the quiet when I walk into my place,” he’d told me over the phone.
How much noise had we made? Not that much, not really. Even if we’d been loud some days, didn’t he remember how much of the noise had been coming from him?
I had a list of things to say when anybody pushed me about my daddy, but if you asked Yvonne about hers, all she did was speed up until words tumbled out of her mouth faster and faster as she raced away from your questions and, I was pretty sure, away from the truth. Father? No one knew whether she had one.
According to Jessie, a know-it-all like most game show hosts, lots of kids in Sweden don’t live with their fathers. They have them, of course, just don’t have much to do with them. If we were in Sweden most of our class wouldn’t be living with their fathers, she told the group she’d gathered around herself soon after Yvonne’s arrival. No one gave me sideways glances when she said that and I was grateful they were too absorbed in her story to think of Houston. “In Sweden, fathers disappear,” she said. “Nobody knows where they go. They just disappear,” she said again, leaving the rest of us to imagine a caravan of Swedish fathers buried under an avalanche or skiing smartly across the country, eluding detection in the wily manner of Swedish fathers.
While I’d never been to Houston, I knew exactly how far it was from Ville d’Angelle. At the start of the school year, I’d checked Mrs. Joubert’s atlas during a free period and kept the number in my head. Ville d’Angelle to Houston: 218 miles. That might be off by a few miles, 210 or 225 being the number from our house to Daddy’s apartment, but I saw 218 as close enough. I doubted Yvonne knew the same about her father’s whereabouts. If a father was in Houston, right around 218 miles away, he didn’t count as disappeared.
We were only a couple of houses from Miss Harry’s when I asked the father question and felt bad as soon as the words left my mouth but couldn’t come up with anything to pull us away from what I’d said.
“My father, he is well. Working hard. Important job. Not Houston. Okay?” Each word fell out of her mouth faster than the one before.
“Okay,” I said and turned up the walk to Miss Harry’s.
My playing was especially poor that afternoon, my fingers landing on one wrong note after another, Miss Harry’s tongue clicking more desperately than usual. When the phone finally rang, we were both relieved.
“I won’t be but a minute.” She didn’t tell me to keep playing and I took that to mean either she thought I needed a break from the noises I was making or that even from the parlor, the disjointed notes would be too much for her to bear.
As soon as she left, I slipped off the bench to stand near the doorframe between piano room and parlor. I didn’t recognize the person she mentioned. Addie was someone’s cousin in Bunkie. A shortened version of Adelaide? Adeline? Or was Addie as much name as she’d ever had? Would an Adelaide have moved away while an Addie was doomed to a humdrum life in Bunkie?
Alice said I wasted too much time thinking about nicknames, but she’d never had one foisted on her. No telling the girl I might be right now if I’d held on to Penelope. Somebody with rhythm and tone? Somebody who wasn’t always poking her nose into other people’s business? Somebody whose daddy didn’t move to Houston where people talked funny and probably acted that way too? Maybe yes to all of that and more.
I wandered to the end table, where Miss Harry stacked her True Confessions, and flipped through the pile. The issue from last week was gone and that was too bad. Cindy, whose lesson usually followed mine, had a doctor’s appointment so we’d switched times. I’d sat on the rocker, the room’s only seat besides the piano bench, grabbed a magazine, and read about a lady who didn’t realize she’d married a serial killer until his hands were around her throat and tightening. Lucky for her, right then her sister walked in and put a stop to matters. I pictured Alice in the role of savior, the matter-of-fact way she’d put an end to serial killing.
“Doesn’t she play nicely?” Miss Harry said. There hadn’t been a single click the whole time Cindy played.
As soon as I struck the first note, the clicking started. I wasn’t sure I could finish a piece at her piano without that accompaniment. I wanted to urge Cindy to finish the story, which I’d left open on the table. Was the woman set free or shackled to a jailbird because she loved him no matter his serial killing ways? But each time I glanced at her, she was watching out the window, ignoring the magazine. Mama says not every child feels compelled to read any old thing that presents itself and Cindy proved her right about that.
. . .
When weather permitted, Miss Harry waited for me on her red porch glider. A person who didn’t know better might think she was eager for my arrival, but I knew any eagerness was all about getting on with the lesson so she could be done with the lesson.
Until this afternoon, she’d never given any sign of noticing Yvonne but now clapped twice the way she did when she called her toy poodle, Madame, to her side. That was a really obedient little dog. Smart too, Miss Harry said, and I didn’t doubt it. If Madame had fingers instead of paws, I’m sure she’d play a fine piano.
But today there was no Madame and I didn’t need a special summons. Those claps could only be meant for Yvonne.
“Okay, okay,” Yvonne said to calm herself before turning with me and walking up the short walk to the porch.
Miss Harry stood as if we were guests, not children rarely greeted by adults. “Penelope, I thought you’d like to introduce me to your friend.”
I looked over at Yvonne standing so close, our shoulders touched. We stayed put, didn’t climb the single step needed to get us on the porch. The thought of an introduction had never occurred to either of us, but I straightened my back and tried to look the way an introducer should. “This is my friend, Yvonne. This is my piano teacher, Miss Harry.” When I called out their names, both of them gave quick little nods and I decided I’d do the same if I ever got introduced, though I couldn’t imagine when that might happen since I pretty much knew everybody.
She pointed at Yvonne’s case. “A lovely instrument the violin. My favorite next to piano.”
“Okay.” She was shy with adults and that favorite word of hers might be the only one Miss Harry was getting this afternoon.
“There wasn’t any music studio when I was your age. If you had talent, it was the piano or the church choir. That was it.” She glanced my way and I was sure we were thinking the same thing: A no-talent like me didn’t need a music studio in her town.
Yvonne grabbed the chance, with Miss Harry focused on me instead of her, to take a baby step closer to the curb.
“I imagine you’re past the squeaking stage.” Her eyes were back on Yvonne, probably wishing she was already at her lesson, though she’d skipped practice three days these past weeks and knew she’d be in trouble. Like Miss Harry, Yvonne’s violin teacher was a fiend for practicing. If I practiced half as much as Miss Harry wanted, I probably would’ve found myself some rhythm. “Beginning violinists always squeak.” She covered each ear with a palm to demonstrate what she’d do if a violin started squeaking nearby. Point for piano. Even I couldn’t make it squeak.
“Yvonne’s from Sweden,” I said, thinking we’d spent more than enough time on instruments.
“That right? I’m sure Sweden’s a lovely country.”
“Okay,” Yvonne said.
She waited to see if Yvonne wanted to add more, but I could’ve told her the chances of that were slim. “You don’t want to be late for your lesson, Penelope,” she said and opened her front door, pointing me inside as if I’d been the one causing the delay.
With Miss Harry right behind me, I didn’t have a chance to say goodbye but heard Yvonne’s footsteps hurrying away.
After our telephone break, Miss Harry settled back on the bench and decided we’d spend the last several minutes reviewing sheet music. “Think the notes,” she said. I couldn’t play them so how she thought I could think them was beyond me. Then again, thinking notes was a big improvement over hearing them.
“Your friend, she looks like the violin suits her.”
Did pianists also carry a certain look, one I most definitely lacked? “Sometimes her teacher says she plays well, but I’ve never heard her.” Neither of us was much interested in thinking notes.
“It’s just her and her mother. That’s what Donna says.” Her sister, also widowed, knew just about everything there was to know in Ville d’Angelle and what she missed, Miss Harry caught. Between the two of them, Tante May said, they had the town covered. “No father in the picture.”
I stared at the sheet music on the stand, frowned to show how hard I was concentrating on thinking the sounds, on not thinking about anything else.
“Nobody knows what happened to him,” she said.
I could’ve shared Jessie’s take on Swedish fathers but kept quiet. The less said about fathers the better.
. . .
The next day, Yvonne and I were partnered for math. We zipped through the first two worksheets and would’ve done the same with the third, but then we’d have no blanks to show Mrs. Joubert when she leaned over us and she’d throw more work our way. Instead, we took turns tapping our pencils on the edge of the table we shared and looking puzzled over those blanks.
“Keep thinking,” Mrs. Joubert said, buying our message of being stumped. “You’ll figure it out.”
When she was past our desks and stooped next to other partners, Yvonne and I exchanged grins. Math was easy for both of us, but this wasn’t something our teacher needed to remember every second of every day.
“Miss Harry. You like her?” She spoke in a low voice. During partner work, you had to be quieter than regular indoor quiet. Otherwise, there’d be a racket and if there was one thing Mrs. Joubert hated as much as idle hands, it was rackets.
“I don’t mind her.”
“Me neither,” she said, though she’d only met her that once.
I bent over worksheet three when Mrs. Joubert glanced over.
“She calls you Penelope.” She tapped her pencil twice to underline how challenging the worksheet was proving. “Your long name, it’s okay.”
“She waited twenty years for her husband to get back from war.”
“Twenty? Miss Harry?”
“Penelope. She was Greek and spent twenty years waiting.”
“Twenty is many years.”
“I don’t think I’d wait that long for anybody,” I said.
“Not for anybody?” she asked as if not waiting could be a big mistake.
Were Swedish fathers known to reappear after absences of twenty years, even longer? Did a family, children graduated from high school and working regular jobs, look up from the supper table one night to see a father slipping into his chair as casually as if he’d never left back when they were in third grade or second grade or even still in diapers?
. . .
Alice plopped next to me for the bus ride home. She usually sat with Nora, but her friend had been off sick since Wednesday and the only other fourth graders on our bus were three boys Alice didn’t like and a girl who didn’t like Alice. My own usual bus companion must’ve caught Nora’s disease. According to Alice, that consisted of a sore throat, stuffy nose, and temperature. Since getting the information, I’d been monitoring my throat, testing my swallows every so often to see whether I detected the start of pain. So far, nothing.
“Nora’s better, but her mama still made her stay home,” Alice said.
“Lucky for her.” We both knew our mother would have us back at school as fast as a fever broke or one nostril opened enough to let in the thinnest stream of air.
“She’ll be back Monday.”
Nora was the only girl Alice liked in her class. There were several others she tolerated, but who wanted to spend recess with someone no better than that? “She’ll have a lot of make-up work,” I said.
“Sometimes you don’t have to do it all.” Alice hated worksheets and her teacher used them much more than mine did. She was looking forward to fifth if for no other reason than to escape those worksheets. The bulging book bag at her feet was close to overflowing with them, some blank, others half completed, many with dragon drawings instead of the answers her teacher wanted. Dragons, the more savage the better, had been her specialty since Daddy left. Unlike Alice, I understood how to fill out worksheets, avoid trouble, and not let boredom drive me crazy.
Tante May had declared Alice, poor student that she was, the smartest of our entire family, adults included. My mother had said she was certain all three of her daughters were budding geniuses. May said nothing to this, but the look on her face told the world what she thought of Bea’s idea and told me, in particular, that good grades weren’t the final word on smarts. We all agreed on Kay-Kay being the prettiest and if Alice was the smartest, where did that leave me?
I had no musical ability and suspected other shortcomings and that made me ask Mama to set out my special gift. I was looking to balance my failings with a virtue, but she didn’t see it that way. The first time I asked, she said she didn’t know where I came up with these questions, no answer at all. By the end of the day, when even I knew I’d asked too many times, she told me to stop fishing for compliments, meaning she couldn’t come up with my special gift any more than I could. If my father came home more than twice a year, a week at Christmas and another in late July or early August, I would’ve gotten his opinion. But if my mother, who saw me every day, couldn’t come up with an answer, how could he?
. . .
When we got off the bus, Kay-Kay sat cross-legged at her regular spot at the end of the drive, looking as if she’d spent her entire day there. Not so, we knew. She’d been two doors down with Tante May and her twins, identical boys six months older than Kay-Kay and so alike even their mother had trouble telling them apart.
“Fudge bars,” Kay-Kay called out. An announcement of the afternoon snack waiting in the kitchen was her standard greeting. She jumped up and ran into the house, eager for first dibs at those snacks. Today that was a waste of time because one fudge bar tasted the same as another, but my baby sister had her routines and if you tried to talk her out of them, she burst into screams or tears, depending on her mood. Unless something serious was at stake, Alice and I left Kay-Kay to her habits and avoided the commotion.
Mama would arrive in about an hour from Prejean’s Pharmacy where she wasn’t a pharmacist but more than a cashier or clerk. If a customer asked, she was ready to dispense advice. What was best for acid indigestion? Was this pain reliever better than that one? Did she believe generic tissues were as good as more expensive brands? Although her answers to medication questions changed as new products rolled out, she always said the same about tissues. Brand names were much softer than generic and worth the extra nickels. My daddy kept his eye on price, my mama on quality. Sometimes their views met but oftentimes not.
Though she’d been at the pharmacy for as long as I could remember, stopping for only a few months when Kay-Kay came along, all those recommendations she handed out never stopped annoying Daddy. What gave her the idea that working in a drugstore made her an expert in anything? She could have an opinion, couldn’t she? Not if the opinion was garbage, based on rumors and nothing scientific. What did he know about scientific? As much as she did. No one needed a degree to name the best kind of tissue or the pain medication customers preferred. Eventually, they grew tired of drugstore arguing, but he still stuck to his position as she did to hers.
They should’ve done the same all the other times he said yes and she said no, just mutter about certain people being blind to plain facts then let it go. But most times neither my mama nor daddy could resist the temptation to let the world know how right they were.
On those nights, Alice and I sat on our beds, faced each other, and hoped for the latest upset to settle. If that didn’t come soon enough, one of us called out, “Fools.” The other answered with the same word and soon the room was too full of our voices to leave space for any competing sound. We were usually loud enough to distract them and either they called to us to get quiet or else turned quiet themselves. When they turned quiet we didn’t know what was happening in the parlor. For a girl like me, who liked to know everything, not knowing was the most worrisome of all.
When too many minutes of quiet passed, I asked Alice, “You hungry?” We might’ve just finished supper, but I still asked and she still said yes.
“You want to split a banana?” I asked.
“Might as well.”
That’s when we stepped into the hall and headed to the kitchen though getting a single banana didn’t need two of us. We pretended we weren’t checking on Mama and Daddy, were just set on that banana and that was all. The TV was on low so it wouldn’t wake Kay-Kay. They needn’t have bothered because the girl had proved she could sleep through dynamite. Some of those nights, they’d be cuddled next to each other, Mama’s head tucked under Daddy’s chin. On those nights, Alice and I forgot all about the banana and joined them on the sofa to watch whatever was playing. Soon, Daddy would say he sure wouldn’t mind a bowl of popcorn. Mama’d say she wouldn’t mind a bowl herself. Then they went to the kitchen, Daddy’s hand on the small of Mama’s back or across her shoulders, to cook up that popcorn, more complicated than grabbing a banana but not complicated enough to need two people.
Other nights, TV on, Mama and Daddy, faces stiff and hard from struggling to hold back on what they wanted to yell out, hugged their separate corners of the sofa. Banana nights for me and Alice. We went back to our bedroom but didn’t bother peeling the fruit until the next morning.
Since Houston, Mama’s reports about the pharmacy advice she was handing out had expanded considerably. Alice and I weren’t sure what to make of that. Had she been promoting toothpaste brands and mouthwash, this type of bandage instead of that, honey lozenges over cherry all along, preferring not to goad Daddy with all she knew? Or had his departure expanded her expertise in a mysterious way we didn’t understand? If Daddy stayed in Houston twenty years, who could guess how much she’d end up knowing?
. . .
As soon as Alice finished her fudge bar, she was on the phone. Every day after her snack, she called Nora and they spoke for exactly ten minutes, all Mama allowed. What if there was an emergency and someone was trying to call? No one had ever called to report an emergency of any kind, but Mama thought this might be in our future and wanted the phone line free to receive it. She never inquired whether Alice exceeded her allotted time because when my sister promised, you could count on her. Those few times her teacher wrangled a promise out of her to finish one of those worksheets, my sister did as she’d said she would. A promise from Alice was gold, Daddy said. That was why if she did go past her ten minutes, she promptly reported both the excess and the explanation for why extra talking had been necessary.
While Alice talked, I listened to Kay-Kay’s complaints about the twins. The litany was the usual—pulling her hair when she refused to give up the only dump truck in the sandbox, grabbing more than a fair share of chips from the bowl Tante May set out at lunch, refusing to move when she asked politely and told them they were blocking the television. “Jack and George,” she said and shook her head with disgust in the way that made her look a lot older than three going on four.
“Jack and George,” I repeated to let her know I understood exactly what she was dealing with every day.
After she got done complaining, Kay-Kay set up the three dolls she’d selected for today’s styling, lining them on the parlor floor in front of the set. She combed and watched cartoons while I did homework, getting rid of the weekend’s obligation.
Alice hung up then went to our room to work on her dragon village. When Mama’d brought home a three-pack of posters, damaged by an out-of-control child and given to her by Mr. Prejean, Alice had claimed the whole package for herself. Since I didn’t have any use for the things, I didn’t raise a fuss. She’d been needing large sheets of paper for a village of dragons, she said, but posters were even better. I asked how long she’d been wishing for those sheets, which she’d never mentioned before that afternoon, and she said close to five weeks. This made me wonder what else my sister wanted but never bothered saying out loud. She might have a long list of wants and the first I’d know of it would be when another gift fell into her lap.
If Daddy walked through the front door right now, declared himself done with Houston, would Alice’s wishing be the reason? Maybe the dragon pictures she mailed him were reeling him back to us. I wouldn’t mind giving her credit and neither would our baby sister who was out of sorts for days after one of his visits. She hadn’t celebrated her second birthday when he moved to Texas, so how could she miss him that much? Alice and I decided Kay-Kay was somebody who didn’t need to hold a fluffy chick against her cheek or spend a hot afternoon in a tub of ice water for love to plant itself.
Days like today, when she’d had an especially trying time, she closed her beauty shop early, left the dolls on the floor, and curled next to me on the sofa. Fighting those cousins took it out of her. She sucked a thumb and snuggled closer while I read a science chapter.
. . .
Next Thursday, Yvonne and I walked slower than usual. If we were a few minutes late for lessons, who cared? The sidewalk took us past the pharmacy where Mama, busy advising a customer, waved from her window. Most of the yards we passed had flowers, this being April, and I called out the names I knew—Easter lily, azalea, rose, pansy—and then Yvonne called out the names she knew but those being Swedish, nothing she said made sense.
When we reached Miss Harry’s block, Yvonne slowed even more. “Miss Harry,” she said. “She might clap for me?”
“I don’t know.”
“Okay.” She didn’t sound okay.
Unless Miss Harry stepped off her porch and walked down to the sidewalk, she couldn’t see us at the far end of the block. I stopped and Yvonne did the same. The fenced yard in front of us had two willows and a myrtle but no flowers. We exchanged tree names then went quiet.
“Everybody wants to know my father,” she said after a while and reached a hand over the picket fence to touch the bark of the myrtle, the tree closest to us.
“Some people want to know everything.” Didn’t I know this too well? Jessie at school. Miss Harry and her sister. Who knew how many of her regular callers? When’s Penelope’s daddy coming home? I had no trouble seeing the topic regularly featured during other kids’ lessons but liked to think no one eavesdropped as carefully as I did.
“My father working important job, I say. Okay?”
“Even after they know my daddy’s in Houston, they keep asking.”
“Your father coming to see you? They ask and ask.”
“Soon. That’s what I tell any busybody who won’t leave me alone.” I put my hand next to hers. The myrtle’s bark was rough but not painful.
“That is true?”
When too much time passed without my answering, she said, “Okay.” The single word told me there was no need to ask whether she expected her father in Louisiana any time soon.
Only two days earlier I’d discovered the postcard and nothing seemed to have changed. Here was Yvonne still okaying the world. Alice had her dragons, the village growing bigger every day. Kay-Kay had her cousin feud, Mama her advice giving, Daddy his Houston life. I was sure I looked the same to everybody else too, but when I closed my eyes, there was that postcard, the Texas longhorn staring straight at me with evil intent in its eyes.
The night table drawer in Mama and Daddy’s bedroom had been hanging open and all I’d planned to do was shut it. Mama liked things neat and in order. But when I saw the longhorn ready to stampede off the card, I had to pick it up and then I had to turn it over and then I had to read what my daddy wrote with his loopy letters, loops squeezed together to fit all the words in the small space. The postmark showed he’d sent the message only a week after leaving us the first time and I wished I’d found it earlier. Either that or not found it at all. Not as much money as I expected. He started without a greeting as if this was the continuation of a long-running exchange.
Jumping in the middle of someone else’s conversation should’ve been a warning, told me to put down the card, close the drawer. But I’ve never been a girl to heed every warning. Alice and I are true sisters in that way and maybe Kay-Kay will be the same when she’s older.
I looked up from the card, but no one was at the door, come to get me.
It’s all best this way, Bea. Okay? That last reminded me of Yvonne. Okay? Okay? For you, for me, for our little fillies. Already he’d turned into a Texas cowboy with new ways of thinking about his daughters. Did Swedish fathers announce their departures this way?
I thought about showing Alice the card then decided against it for now. When you’re the oldest, you have to warn your sisters about what’s coming, but sometimes you can’t expect them to carry as much as you do. Sisters can be the smart ones or the beautiful ones or the ones who see the world exactly as it is. If you’re that last sister, no matter how hard you hope for something different, the world doesn’t change shapes for you.
Maybe Daddy would be back in twenty years. Maybe not. Twenty years was a long time to wait and I wasn’t sure a girl called Penny was up to it.