Sister-in-Law

They blamed the house fire on the chimney and the brush fire on the wind, but knowing how it started didn’t undo the harm.  When the ground had stopped smoking, when the neighbors had wandered homeward, Vesta Marshall stood at the edge of the burn, looking at the only thing left standing, the long brick pipe that had made the mess.

At her side, her sister-in-law was crying quietly, her face dark and sooty, with clean, creamy rivulets marking the paths of her tears. She worried a hole in her sweater pocket and trained her eyes on her feet.  “It ain’t real,” she said again.  “It just can’t be real.”

Vesta shook her head.  “Well, it is, Katie.  Stop saying it’s not.”

She stepped away from the other and walked the burn line.  It was just a little amazing how the char met the tender spring grass.  Here is where calamity ran out of steam, she thought, and it was not so blurry a line.  What would they do now?  That house, a dried up tinder box after all, was all that she and Katie had in the world.  Until now, the two aging widows had twelve acres between them and a crooked tin roof to keep the rain off their heads.  Now all they had was the acres.

“There’s no money to rebuild,” she said to the field as much as to Katie.

Katie didn’t have words to answer, but Vesta hadn’t expected any.

She dug in her apron for her pack of cigarettes, then recalled she’d left the match book on the kitchen table earlier.  Staring down the barrel of her last smoke, she felt laughter welling inside of her.  Letting her head drop back, she opened her face to the sky and let it come.

____________

Back at Christmas time, they were invited to a party in town, at the house of Alan and Lena Metrie, whom they had known since childhood.  It was a time-honored tradition; the Metrie’s loved to have folks over, to hear their piano put to use, to serve rich foods and sweets.  The widows were dowdily dressed, but they always felt most welcome.  Lena Metrie had a gift for kindness that never smelled of pity.  Her husband was plump and pleasant, making little jokes that were never as funny the next day, but made for rounds of laughter in the moment.

A lady writer from Richmond who was a cousin of the hostess sat amongst the circle of old friends, smiling as they retold all their stories.  She found Vesta fascinating and watched her keenly through the night.  After the last guest had inched carefully down the snowy walk, she helped Lena clean up the kitchen while Alan went through the rooms, putting out lamps and gathering stray plates and glasses.

“The widow from out in the county,” the lady writer said. “She’s quite marvelous.”

“Katie?” Lena said, climbing onto a stool to put away the punch bowl. “She was so pretty when we were girls.  Such a softness to her, those long lashes.”

“Oh, no.  I meant the other one. The taller one with the widow’s peak and the black hair.”

“Vesta,” Lena said. “I always thought she was the prettier one, too, but not everyone can see it.”

“She has a strong, intelligent way about her.”

“Count you to notice that,” Lena said.  She put the stool back in its place under a table near the back door.  Taking up a cloth to dry more dishes, she said, “They are an odd pair.  Katie’s husband, Hargrove, had asked for Vesta’s hand first, but she turned him down and told him he ought to ask Katie instead.  As I heard it, he asked her why and she said Katie was sweeter and would make him happier.  I guess he wasn’t so much in love with Vesta, after all, because he took her advice.”

The cousin clucked, but said nothing.

“Then, within the year, Vesta married Katie’s brother, Reese.  Hargrove was pretty well off at first, but when the market crashed, he was soon as poor as most people around here.  He and Katie made an apartment of sorts inside his father’s old house.  It was too much to try to keep a grand old place like that warm in the winter.  They got thinner and thinner, which almost made Hargrove handsome for a while.  It didn’t make him any kinder, though, and most of the town knew the way he was treating Katie.”

“How do you mean?”

“He was beating on her, not that she would tell a soul.”

They were silent for a while, stacking plates on the counter, emptying the drainer one swipe of the cloth at a time. Alan came into the room with a jovial, foolish smile on his face, but sensed that something weighty was hanging between the two women.  He slipped a few glasses into the dish water as quietly as possible and left them alone.

Lena said, “When Reese found out, he was livid.  They’re family was as poor as dirt and a little ornery, too, at least if they got riled with any liquor in their bellies.  But they never mistreated their women.”

“What happened?”

“Hargrove got met by the Marshall boys in a side street one night, got taught what a kick in the ribs feels like, a boot in your back.  They worked him over good.  He got pneumonia soon after that, though no one said it was because of the beating.”

“Is that what widowed her?”

Lena nodded.  “Vesta insisted Katie come live with she and Reese out at their place on Coolidge Road.  Just a little cottage and a handful of acres.  They put up a wall to make her something of a room and she brought a bed from the old mansion.  I remember working my garden and watching Reese’s truck roll past with that big mahogany headboard dangling over the side.  If it didn’t fall off before he got up the mountain, I said to myself, it would be a miracle.”

“Vesta must have loved Katie a great deal to share her house with her.”

Lena shrugged, “It’s just what family does, especially if times are lean.”

The lady writer glanced away, an odd smile twisting her mouth.  “Well, I suppose that didn’t occur to me.  I’ve been taking care of myself for a long while and I am a little selfish with my privacy and my space.  What seems like a sacrifice to me is probably not a thought to other folks.”

Lena studied her cousin a moment. “Well, I can think of a lot of women who’d like that kind of life.  To come and go as you please and have no one to consider.”

“It’s lonesome at times, but mostly I enjoy it.”

____________

Katie wiped her face with the back of her hand and moved to stand nearer to Vesta.  Buttoning and unbuttoning her sweater pocket, she said, “Ray said we could spend a few nights with them while we sort things out.  We ought to start down now before it gets dark.  I don’t like his woods at night.”

Vesta smiled, “You child, you.”

Katie blushed.

“Well, I don’t care for them much, either, truth be told.  But I think we ought to stay only tonight.  I don’t care to owe Ray much.  You know how he likes to go on about people in his debt.  He had plenty to say about that plow last year, forgetting how many times Reese used to repair it for him.”

They turned away from the ruins of what had been their life earlier in the day.  In the slanting light, the oaks along the drive were burnished gold and rose.  A breeze flirted with the leaves, carrying still the scent of fire.  Folding her arms over her stomach, Vesta said, “What about that place of yours in town?”

“Hargrove’s place?” Katie sounded frightened.

Tensing for an argument, Vesta said, “Yep.”

“I can’t imagine we could save it.”

“It was built to last and the last time I saw it, the roof still looked good.”

“But the windows. The porch is rotting off.  I don’t think it’s a good idea.”

Katie paused, adding, “Reese always wanted me to sell it.”

“So you’d have some money.”

“But you always said no.”

“Because you’d never have made what it was worth.”

The sun lowered as they entered into the neighbor woods, but the path was well worn and well known, so the kept their pace. Vesta’s pale features shone in the shadows, a sturdy beacon as they had always been to Katie.  She hung her head, considering her sister-in-law’s suggestion.  It terrified her to think of going back to that house.  She found herself stifling a sob.

“Oh heavens,” Vesta said.

“I’m sorry.  I’m afraid it’ll be haunted.”

“Any ghost you find there, you’ll have brought with you.”

They walked on in silence as the woods lost the light.

“That wasn’t fair,” Katie said at last.

“I lived under that crooked, leaky roof back there for twenty years with plenty of my own ghosts,” Vesta said, scowling into the darkness. “I know what I’m talking about.  The ghosts are just ourselves doing the haunting.”

____________

Lena Metrie and her cousin were not sleepy after cleaning up the Christmas party.  They took saucers of cake up to the guest room.  It was a cheery little place, centered on a sloping dormer, with rosebud wallpaper and a pink chenille spread.  As they did in girlhood, they kicked off their shoes and settled in on the bed.  Leaning out to grab her purse off a chair, the cousin held up a polished silver flask.

“Will you have a pinch with me, Lena?”

Noting that the shades were already drawn, Lena smiled and took the flask.

They ate their cake in silence, letting the quiet spell of the little room charm them.

“My feet were killing me,” Lena said.

“You were at it all day. I’m not surprised.”

“We love having the Christmas party.”

“You have a lot of friends.  It makes a merry gathering.”

Lena smiled, letting her gaze list to the bedside lamp.  It gave a soft peach light.

“So how did the other one become a widow?”

Lena gave her cousin a glance.  “Well, Reese enlisted after Pearl Harbor.  He went over almost immediately and then one day they got the news he was dead.”

“How old would you say Vesta is?”

“I suppose she’s about forty.  She was a little older than me and Alan, but Katie was in our class.  I hadn’t thought of that – her being older than us – in quite a long time.  It used to stand out when we were kids.  In truth, we used to invite her and Reese along just because of Katie.  Not that we didn’t like them.”

She sat her saucer aside on the nightstand.

“Over time, it became like Katie and Vesta were one and the same.  They’ve come together every Christmas the same as all the husbands and wives.  Or I suppose like blood sisters.  One rarely says one name without the other.  You run into a person at the market and they ask how Katie and Vesta are getting along.”

The writer raised a brow, “It surprises me a bit they haven’t remarried.”

“Does it?”

“Doesn’t it you?”

Lena shrugged, “I suppose I never thought about it.  But, you know, there really aren’t as many men to choose from these days. I mean men of an age.  There are plenty of boys.”

“Well, as I said before, I think the tall one, Vesta, is rather interesting.  She’s more handsome than pretty and she has an air about her.”

“I’ll take note next time I see her.”

The cousin straightened her legs and rolled onto her side.  “You ought to,” she said. “Sometimes queens walk among us and no one is the wiser.”

____________

In the morning, they offered to feed the hogs and chickens.  The thin, sallow woman who was Ray’s missus watched them from her back porch as they carried buckets toward the barn.  Her hands made raw, homely fists at her sides.  Glancing back at the woman, Katie said, “She makes her husband look almost jolly.”

“Makes that place of yours in town look a little nicer, too, doesn’t it?”

Katie sighed.  “Yes, I think it does.”

After they fed the hogs, they stood in the shade of the barn for a moment.  Katie asked, “How would we make it work?”

“I think we see if old Collins will give you a loan against the house.  We could fix it up into apartments.  I bet we could get two on the ground floor and three more each on the second and the third floors.  You and I could live downstairs and collect rent from the other units. It would make us enough to pay on the loan and to make ends meet.”

“That sounds like a lot of work.”

“Well, there’s plenty of men we know we can trust to do it fairly.”

Vesta felt around in her apron pocket for a match she’d grabbed from the kitchen.  She struck it against the barn to light her cigarette, took a puff and handed the smoke to Katie.  They passed it back and forth a few times.

“It’s the right answer,” Vesta said. “I can feel it.”

“Well, I trust you.”

As they walked back to the house, Vesta said, “I’ll miss the air out here and the trees, but in town, we’ll find new things to cherish.”

The words made Katie feel hopeful.  It was a kind of magic Vesta had always possessed, a way of weaving dreams big enough for the two of them.  In that way, even when they each were widowed, they never really were left alone.  Last Christmas, after the party at the Metries, they drove home in Reese’s old truck.  The engine rumbled as they inched their way through the laying snow.  Vesta talked about things that were said at the party.

Emboldened by sherry, Katie said all in a rush, “Reese told me once you had a way of making people feel like you’d put them in your pocket.  I think he was right.”

Vesta paused.  “Wonder what he meant by that? What do you mean?”

“You make people feel covered and safe.”

Her sister-in-law never had known what to do with compliments; she stared out onto the snowy road, driving in silence.  Yet there was an air of happiness between them in the toasty truck cab.  It smelled of diesel and vaguely of perfume.  A deer wandered into their path, but Vesta kept her cool and eased off the pedal.  They just missed hitting it without having to trust the brakes.

Blind to Her Own Faults

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.

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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.