The house the Hurley’s built was named Primrose. Folks called it ironic because the Hurley girls were neither demure or pretty. Alice was broad across the back, her mouth an angry pen stroke under a nose that begged a full pair of lips. The older sister, Tansy, was as grey and crooked as a melting snowman. Even in youth, when her grey was brown, she’d never had a bloom. She had a laugh like a cat who lost its breath and she found things funny when no one else did. They were inseparable, the Hurley girls, not that anyone had ever wanted to break the set.
Tansy kept up the house while Alice earned their living looking after an estate up the road. It was a job she fell into nice and easy. The Washingtonian lawyer who owned the place was rarely out except a few weekends a year. He got to talking to Alice one Sunday in the pub where she was manager. The tall homely woman wasted no words and she asked good questions. He’d been impressed with her manner for years, since she came on as a barmaid. People said she was given the run of the pub because no one could stomach fish and chips from a woman with a pie hole that sour, but if they’d been fair, they’d have admitted she kept the place tight.
The lawyer offered her five dollars more a week than she was getting and she took the job at once. When she hung up her long apron for the last time and walked down the pub garden to the street, someone said the dead lilac outside the kitchen bloomed again for the first time in twelve years. The folks in town loved ugly jokes about the Hurley sisters.
The favorite one was about the new preacher, who went to have tea at Primrose before he found out they wanted no god over or under their roof. He said they served him out in the back yard under a battered sycamore that held up one end of the clothes line. While they were sipping, the older one suddenly grabbed her arm and said, “Oh, Alice, a snake bit me.”
And the preacher said Miss Alice cried out, “Why, Tansy, he’s got me, too.”
The preacher looked down and saw the snake writhing on the ground. He never had to sully his pious mouth with the punchline. Instead he’d pause for affect and let someone else beat him to it. “You know them Hurley girls is mean enough to kill a snake.”
Alice hadn’t much to do out at that estate. She toured the grounds each Monday to make sure the gardener did his work. Every Wednesday, she walked the house through. If it smelled like piss, she set mouse traps. If it smelled like mold, she had a plumber check the pipes. If the lawyer wired he was coming out, she hired in a few girls from Front Royal. She liked the black girls best. They worked the afternoons straight through and they were cheap enough she could skim some of the allowance.
They took all the dust covers off the furniture and the chandeliers, gave everything a good rub with beeswax, and sprinkled the rugs with lemon water after vacuuming them. She never had Tansy out to help, though her sister was good at house work. Just once, at the beginning, she let Tansy walk the house with her. That decided it.
Alice knew they might quarrel about it, so she waited until Tansy made her supper before she broached it. They were listening to jazz records and killing a bottle of moonshine on the back porch when she said it plain. “I can’t have you in that lawyer’s house. You’re too embarrassing.”
“Oh, hang you.”
“Always picking things up and wondering how much they cost. You ain’t got no pride, Tans, no pride at all. You think he’d have offered me that job if I was always mooning over him out at the pub? Batting my eyelashes like an ignorant Smoot, saying I bet his sports car rides smooth?”
Tansy blinked at her sister, then got up to change the record. Leaning on the side of the house to take the pressure off her longer leg, she rifled through the box of albums. “What the hell are you on about, Al?”
“I’m just saying that man gave me the keys to his house because he knows I don’t give a rat’s ass about all that fancy old furniture. You walking through there today, picking stuff up and saying things like, ‘Oh, I bet that’s from England.’ No, ma’am. I don’t need that around me, making me nervous. Besides, you’re supposed to play it cool.”
Tansy rolled her eyes, dropped the needle.
“Who cares?” she asked the porch ceiling. The chipped boards were silent. “The problem with you, Al, is you care too much about folks. Whether they think you care, that’s what you’re always going on about. ‘Don’t make so much noise about how much the cabbage costs, Tans! You want them to think we can’t afford it?’ Stuff like that. Who cares?”
Alice got so mad she almost threw her drink in Tansy’s face. Instead, she clamped her jaw closed for a moment, mulling over revenge. At last she let out a little laugh, delighted with herself over the tack she’d chosen. “Well, maybe you care some, too. I see you putting on lipstick before the iceman comes.”
Tansy just threw her face heavenward and hissed out a good laugh. She was hard to figure, the crooked thing, her hide thicker than her skull. Alice ought to have known better. When she recovered, Tansy gave her sister a leering glance, said, “Well, what you think, Alice? Ain’t you seen the arms on that man?”
Alice cast her eyes out over the yard, tempted to spit her booze on Tansy’s begonias. Instead, she swallowed the lightning and burned on its fumes for a silent minute. Her sister was laughing again.
Tansy caught her breath, picked up the topic again.
“The way that man walks, manly like, you know he’s in charge of his woman.”
“Tries to be, more like,” Alice said. “He’s not that manly. You seen that wife of his? Sickly little thing with a flat ass. Looks like the runt of the litter. But she’s got them big sad eyes, too. I bet she’s got your man all trussed up; gives him those weepy cow eyes whenever he steps out of line.”
That made Tansy laugh some more. “Well, you’re probably right, Al. Still, I could look at that man all day long.”
Alice shook her head. It crossed her mind to say, plain honest, that Tansy ought to throw out the lipstick and save herself the trouble. She knew they weren’t the beauty queen types, but not Tansy. Even when they overheard comments – and they’d overheard plenty – Tansy shrugged them off. It was like she was blind to her own faults. Times aplenty Alice wanted to make her sister see things straight. She always bit her tongue in the end. Maybe they were all broken, herself and the whole world, too. Maybe being handsome was something to do with being simple and happy with yourself. Besides, as much as Tansy deserved it now and then, Alice would never side with the rest of them by holding up a mirror and trying to make her sister crack it.