by Debbie Weingarten
The summer that Daddy rode in a crop duster airplane, he counted 63 corn silos and seventeen for holding soy. He saw white houses that looked like toys, barns with wide rooftops painted with confederate flags, and rolling tractors small as grasshoppers leaving behind them great clouds of dust. He told my sisters and me, who were gathered around him in awe, that he had circled twice around our green house. He had even seen our kitchen window. There were long stretches of corn planted in impeccable rows, the new grocery with a parking lot full of gleaming cars, and our lazy tributary of the Blanchard River lined with tall oaks and maples.
In our part of Ohio, there are a million things the bullet could have hit.
It is dusk on the Fourth of July, and I can see the red tips of cigarettes and the dark outlines of the adults connected to them. Daddy is holding his cigarette between the fingers of his right hand, the hand he is also using to dramatically accompany the story of how Joe Basset fell asleep on his new John Deere.
“Old son-of-a-bitch knocked out his wife’s rose bushes,” he says, the glowing cigarette twitching in his hand like a dizzy firefly. There is gurgling laughter from our uncles when Daddy gets to the part about how Mrs. Basset packed a bag and threatened to leave.
“Those were old rose bushes,” I hear my mother say sharply. “If you drove a machine into my roses, I’d do more than just leave you.”
The uncles laugh again. Daddy remembers his cigarette and takes a drag.
We are three skinny sisters in cotton nightgowns waiting for fireworks to explode across the summer sky. Everywhere there is the sound of firecrackers and the whooping choruses of drunken teenage boys. Our parents have been drinking scotch since dinner and have let us sit out in the yard by ourselves instead of on the porch.
Susan, Donna, and I are giddy at being free from our adult relatives. As far as we can see, there are green fields sprouting Ohio corn as straight and proud as knee-high pageant ladies. Out in the road, four black crows are circling a dead raccoon that is baked to the asphalt. The wild summer grass has begun to fray into foxtails at the ends, and my sisters and I are sitting cross-legged on a blanket and pulling it from the ground. The green blades groan and squeak in our hands before they break off to sweet white ends. Susan, who is older than Donna and me, puts a long piece of grass between her lips and blows a fake ring of cigarette smoke. She imitates the way our mother holds her Camels, and Donna and I explode into a fit of laughter.
Susan is twelve, two years older than me, but we look alike. She likes sea horses. She can find Italy on the map. She has been kissed. In the spring, Susan had come home from sixth grade having learned the names of clouds. Every morning at the breakfast table, she peered through the window and announced to us the state of the sky. “Cumulus. Stratus. Cirrus.”Now Susan leans back on her elbows and names the clouds drifting aimlessly across the summer sky. They are low shapes with orange-pink bellies slowly turning gray.
“Stratus clouds!”Susan sings, her hair in a yellow pile beneath her head.
“Stratus clouds,”echoes nine-year-old Donna, trying the words on her tongue.
It is 1965, and the nighttime news has been buzzing with draft card burnings and civil rights marches. Every evening, our parents stare at the television from their respective chairs, cigarette smoke building and hovering in a fog above them. We watch our mother's blonde eyebrows knit together at the TV images of black people marching. Daddy whistles through his teeth. He says, “Some people just can't let things be.”
To my sisters and me, the world seems as endless and clear as a summer swimming pool. We are infatuated with The Sound of Music, which came out three months ago and which we have already seen seven times. We’ve begun begging our skeptical mother for pageboy haircuts, and everywhere we go we pretend to be Julie Andrews.
Suddenly, the lawn is illuminated by a burst of light. The firework resembles a silver jellyfish in the sky, and we shriek excitedly from our places in the grass.
Aunt Jo’s voice floats across the lawn. She says to our mother, “Geraldine, did you see that one?”
“Course she saw it,” Uncle John snaps, “We’re all here lookin’ at the same damn sky.”
From the porch comes the clinking of ice cubes in glasses. Even in the dark, I can tell which gray shape is my mother. Her cigarette is the one traveling in a straight line, from her lap to her mouth, mouth to lap, and all over again.
Above us the smoke from the first of the fireworks is clearing. The clouds have lifted higher until they are white streaks against a black sky.
“Cirrus clouds,” Susan announces.
“The wispy kind,” I say.
“The ones that look like ghosts,” says Donna.
What I remember is Susan jolting against the ground and then going limp in the grass. Out of the corner of my eyes, a spattering of fluorescent colors leap like electric fish across the black sky. Susan’s head is thrown back like she is laughing at a joke, and beneath it, a black puddle is forming. And then Donna’s mouth is open, wide open, and there is chewed up grass on her teeth, and she is screaming so loud that the grown-ups are turning over their chairs and running towards us. Ice cubes fly from glasses. An uncle trips in the dark and curses as he picks himself up. When they reach us, they are on top of Susan, ears against her chest, listening at her mouth, peeling back her clothes to find the source of the blood. My mother is saying Susan’s nameover and over again. There is blood on her dress. Someone runs to call an ambulance.
Donna’s sobs are coming in hiccoughs, and we are sitting frozen in the grass. Aunt Jo reaches down with two strong hands to yank us up.
“What in the hell happened?”She is yelling, but I can’t make sense of her words. She holds us out in front of her and peers at us through the dark. Above us the sky is glowing fire truck red. Our Aunt looks at us with enormous eyes, but when I open my mouth to speak, nothing comes out except for a long strange laugh. Aunt Jo runs to crouch beside Susan.
The night air is heavy, and Donna and I stand sweating in our nightgowns. On the ground, Susan is surrounded by a sea of clambering adults. Between their feet, I can see the ends of her blonde hair and the strange dark pool building on the blanket beneath her. Another firework explodes, and Donna grabs my hand. Her hand is clammy and warm, and it tugs at my own. Suddenly, we are four bare feet pounding in small footsteps against the driveway. I feel a rock pierce my heel. Next to me Donna is panting hard. We run until we arrive at the end of the long driveway, as far as we are allowed to go by ourselves, and we collapse in the warm summer dirt. From the next county over, a siren yelps and begins to wail.
The next day, the radio news announces that a bullet shot from the end of a .22 rifle, which has been pointed at the sky in celebration of our great country’s independence, can travel a mile and a half. Furthermore, if pointed upward, the bullet will not lodge itself into a passing silver cloud or the pockmarked skin of the moon. Instead, it will come torpedoing downward, spiraling past corn silos and massive old trees. It will sail at lightning speed past silent cars to find a green yard and three sisters in cotton nightgowns watching a fireworks display. Without hesitating, it will pick a sister. This is how Donna and I learn that sisters are precarious things—taken without any notice at all.
I am walking along the river. Susan has been dead for two days, but in my mind I have made her come with me. We are walking along rocks slimed with algae and stepping over wet branches that have fallen into the river. The current is slow, and water pulls gently at our ankles.
In the shade of the trees, Susan’s hair is backlit and blooms like forsythia from her small head. Susan is walking in front of me and twirling her headband around two skinny fingers. Her neck has a hole in it the size of a quarter.
“Does it hurt?” I ask.
“Sometimes.” Susan reaches up to touch the bullet wound. She stops walking and turns to face me.
“What?” I say, stooping down to poke a crawfish with my finger. It skitters back beneath a rock.
“Have you ever thought that bodies are like houses?”
“No,” I say. “I haven’t.” I pick up two flat rocks perfect for skipping into the river and put them in my pocket. I have a collection in my room.
Susan makes a face like she is thinking hard. “Mine’s a mansion,” she says, lifting her chin. The light catches the hole in her neck, and I can see pink inside. “My body has big staircases like in the Von Trapp house.”
I pause, thinking this over, remembering the fat wooden banisters from the movie.
“What does yours look like?” Susan says. She is staring at me. Her eyes are the dull color of the river.
I concentrate and try to picture furniture and rugs inside my chest. A bunk bed. A TV playing episodes of Lost in Space. A family with three sisters eating dinner at a long wooden table.
“I don’t feel anything,” I say to Susan, and sit down on a wet rock.
“Well, maybe you’re empty inside,” she says, and shrugs.
Susan is standing above me when blood begins pouring from the hole in her neck. I start screaming. She gasps and tries to cover it with her hands, but the blood runs through her fingers.
I turn and clamber up the riverbank, sending pieces of dirt and moss raining down into the water. Sobbing, I sprint between the tall trees, the skipping rocks scraping together in my pocket. When I reach the backyard of our green house, I stop to catch my breath. Through the kitchen window, there are the moving shapes of sad relatives, who are busy baking casseroles for the funeral. The back door is open. Wiping tears from my eyes, I take a deep shaky breath and start towards the house. I leave my sister in the river.
The funeral procession is a line of shiny cars. They smell of wax and oil leaks. We are riding in one from the funeral home that is sleek and black with giant fins. Donna and I sit together on the long bench seat, our hands in fidgety piles in our laps, looking out the window as we move slowly past driveways and yards of playing children. We are quiet, except once when Donna says to turn around. When I do, there are hoods and windshields as far as I can see, cars stretched into a winking metallic caterpillar.
Donna and I are dressed in matching gray dresses and black Mary Janes. Aunt Jo has fastened identical black bows to our blonde heads. In the car, Donna keeps clicking the toes of her shoes together and humming to herself.
“Stop it,” I hiss. “They’ll scuff.”
“Stop trying to be the oldest,” she snaps.
“Stop being a brat,” I say.
Donna glares at me. “I hate you,” she says, and continues humming.
Susan is riding in a different car. She is also riding in a box lined with pink satin, but Donna and I are not supposed to know this. The day before the funeral, Donna and I went with our parents to the funeral home. Inside the towering foyer, a man in a black suit showed Donna and I some coloring books and a basket of worn down crayons. Then the man led our parents down a hallway. Donna and I sat down on the rug and began flipping through the pages of the coloring books. They were all Christmas themed and scribbled on by other children.
“I’m bored,” sighed Donna, halfway through her first picture, and stood up.
“But we’re supposed to stay here,” I protested.
“I want to see what they’re doing,”she said, hands on her defiant hips, and started down the hallway. It smelled like old leaves and something as rich and deep as church burning.
The door to the room was open. Our parents stood, their backs to us, in front of a small shiny casket. The inside was pink. So were the tiny pale nose and lips of our sister. Susan was dressed in something blue with a high lace collar. Her hands were folded gently over her chest, which was quiet and still as a frozen lake.
When we reach the cemetery, there are the sounds of car doors politely closing. The air is heavy with gasoline and old lady perfume. Someone has recently mowed the lawn. We stand around a hole in the ground that is dressed with a green tent. There are adults everywhere, all in black, fanning themselves with the funeral program.
Our aunt is standing behind Donna and me, squeezing our shoulders. She bends down occasionally to whisper encouraging things into my hair. Then she bends down to Donna and does the same. Donna and I are standing in a clump of adults, staring at their backs. I am distracted by the necks, how they manage to hold up heads that are so heavy with sadness. My mother’s neck is a pale bottle, held straight and made of glass. My grandmother’s neck folds like a fat bird. My father’s is thin and tired, bent like an old dog, his salmon pink Adam’s apple shifting every time he swallows.
When I look at Donna, she is staring up through the trees and fingering the bow in her hair.
“Pay attention,” I say and nudge her in the ribs with my elbow. She looks at me and smiles.
“What?” I ask, annoyed.
“Cumulus,” Donna mouths silently, pointing to the sky.
Above the funeral, giant white cotton balls float quietly past. The sky is the color of blue algae. In the middle of the adults, Donna reaches for my hand, and I take it.
“I don’t hate you,” Donna whispers.
“I love you,”I say too loudly, and we are shushed from behind by an uncle.
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