Alexis was having fun smearing patches of wet slimy color over a piece of paper her mother gave her. Sitting cross-legged on the floor, Genevieve was busy providing an example for her daughter on the finer points of finger-painting.
“Mrs. Archie, should you be doing that?” asked Eileen as she passed through the living room.
“Don’t worry, Eileen, we won’t leave you a mess.” Genevieve assured her.
“Now it isn’t a mess that I am worried about. What I mean; is should you be down on that cold floor like that?” asked Eileen.
“Oh, really Eileen, stop treating me like an invalid. I am just fine!” said Genevieve, bothered more by her own reaction to being coddled than at being coddled.
Eileen tried to wipe the look of concern off her face, while she bit her tongue, and held her peace. “Well, anyway, don’t worry if you do make a mess. Cleaning up messes is my job after all!” she continued brightly.
Alexis was ignoring the two women, while she was listening to her father’s voice in his office, knowing that he was talking on the phone with the door open. He sounded excited, and as she smeared the paint around she wondered if his excitement indicated that something nice was going to take place.
Placing the phone back into the cradle, Kelly walked briskly back into the living room. Stopping at the old-fashion tree shaped coatrack, he put on his lightweight cloth jacket and placed his porkpie hat firmly over his bald pate, and announced to his wife, “Dear, I am going into town, the real-estate agent called and said he has a buyer for Momma’s house.”
Kelly was hoping that he might possibly be able to finally send his mother the money she needed to live comfortably in Florida. As things stood, Louise had to accept gifts from her son, to make her small income cover the mortgage on her new home and her basic living expenses. There was nothing left over for the niceties of life, which older women treasure. He knew that she truly wanted to get a cat or two, to replace the elderly cats that she left behind in the loving care of one of her few remaining friends in Misty fearing that they wouldn’t survive the move, but couldn’t afford veterinarian care for new pets.
“That is wonderful sweetheart,” said Genevieve, looking up from the floor where she sat teaching her little daughter how to finger-paint. “It will be good for you to stop spending all your time with the real-estate agents and to get back to work on your book. Just don’t find something wrong with them this time! Just accept the offer. Your mother needs the money,” she said remembering how he refused to consider an offer just because the man was wearing a white seersucker suit.
With plenty of time before dinner, Kelly came home looking somewhat less happy than when he left. Genevieve greeted him at the door with smudges of finger-paint still on her face where Alexis placed her tiny fingers, to give her mother makeup earlier. “Honey, what is the matter? Please don’t tell me that you turned down the offer?” she asked.
“Oh I accepted the offer,” he said, without enthusiasm.
“Did you have to take less than you were asking?” asked Genevieve, worried, hoping that she hadn’t pushed him into settling for a lesser amount.
“No, the offer was for much more than the asking price, but the buyers didn’t want to give their names. The deal was conducted through an attorney from Houston. It has me worried, after all there are just some people who you really don’t want to see move into your childhood home,” he said sitting down heavily in the chair near were Genevieve somewhat belatedly spread a canvass drop cloth to catch the by-blow of Alexis’ artistic efforts. Looking up at his wife he said, trying to justify his actions more to himself than to her, “I just couldn’t turn down that much money. Mom will never have to worry about little economies again.”
“You did the right thing,” she assured her husband. “You are looking out for your mother. That is the most important thing.”
Over the next few weeks Misty was abuzz with the doings at the old Archie home. As workmen came and went, updating the house, tearing down the high fence, replacing the old asphalt shingles with tiles, removing windows and replacing them with large airy ones, the townsfolk watched, until when it was done even Louise wouldn’t have recognized her old home.
One night not long after the renovation of the house seemed to be finished, Genevieve and Kelly sat on the front porch while Eileen was fixing their supper. Their conversation once again straying to speculation about who could have bought the home for an elevated price and put so much more money into it before moving in. The desultory conversation stopped mid stream, when they spotted Brother Milstead’s big black car raising a cloud of dust coming down their private road, the headlights shining weakly in the gathering twilight.
Genevieve and Kelly exchanged silent glances that spoke volumes. Genevieve retired to the kitchen to ask Eileen if there was enough dinner in the making to accommodate the minister. Receiving positive assurances from Eileen who volunteered to work late to finish the meal, rather than leaving the finishing to Kelly as usual, she returned to the porch where her husband and his uncle were exchanging pleasantries.
“Good-evening Uncle,” said Genevieve, “we were about to have a cocktail. It is going to be a while before we are sitting down to dinner, would you care to join us in both? I mean cocktails and dinner”
“Genny, my girl,” boomed the minster, using the nickname he made up, and that she loathed, “I would be honored to break bread with you, and I must admit I am more than a little parched”
The party moved into the sitting room where Eileen placed a tray with the fixings for proper cocktails. As Kelly took over the bartender duties, his wife took Milstead’s hat and jacket and went to the living room to hang them on the coatrack. Returning to the formal sitting room, she found Kelly pouring the freshly mixed drinks. With the drinks passed around with small cloth napkins, and coasters, Kelly sat and asked his uncle, “Well, why do we have the pleasure of your company tonight.”
“Far from it for me to gossip,” said Milstead, gearing up to pass on the gossip that was practically burning his tongue. “But, I heard downtown that the phone lines out here were down, because of that truck losing control and hitting the pole down the main road a bit, so I didn’t think you all heard the news.”
“No, we have heard nothing. But you have explained why we have been experiencing such a nice quiet day today. I’d no idea the phone was out,” said Genevieve, gearing herself up to try to act interested in some juicy bit of small-town news.
Taking a generous swig of his cocktail, Milstead announced, “The new owner of my sisters old house has moved in. I went over to greet the newcomers and was quite astounded.”
“Oh, dear, how bad are they? Who are they?” asked Genevieve in a worried tone, and glanced at her suddenly uneasy husband.
“Not them, Her! Dana bought the house,” said Milstead, waiting for the anticipated response.
“Dana? Who is Dana,” said Genevieve, sounding quite confused.
“Did you say Dana? Our Dana?” asked Kelly, as if he thought his uncle was playing a rude prank on him. “The name on the agreement to sell was a Mrs. Parker!”
“Dana Parker?” asked Genevieve, not liking the game the minister seemed to be playing.
“Well, it’s the name she is going by now. Mrs. Dana Parker,” said the minister, enjoying the effect of his news on his nephew and the stuck-up wife.
“My sister married?” asked Kelly in amazement.
“Your sister?” asked Genevieve in more amazement. “Where did a sister come from?”
“I am sorry my dear. She has been gone for so long that I really forgot to think about her. She must be about 40-years-old by now,” he mused. “She was a quiet girl so everyone was surprised when she took off with one of the farmhands, and went to Mexico with him, to participate in the Marxist revolution.”
“What? From Misty, Texas?” asked Genevieve aghast. This was something she would have expected from someone in San Francisco or New York, but Misty?
“Dana never really fit in around here,” said Kelly vaguely, having grown up being told that one didn’t talk about Dana Archie.
Throughout the rest of the evening, through dinner, dessert, and coffee, Kelly was distracted, wondering why his sister was acting in such an extraordinary manner as coming home when her manner of leaving should have been enough drama for one lifetime. Why leave Mexico where she lived for so many years without ever visiting Misty? Why come to Misty with such secrecy? Why buy their mother’s house that way? When did she get married? Was she really married? Where was the husband? Were there any children?
The next morning after they made their breakfast on yeast rolls, left over from Eileen’s excellent dinner, warmed in the oven’s warming drawer, and drizzled with the farm’s fresh honey. Genevieve took Alexis with her and drove off leaving Kelly alone at the farm, thinking about his sister, to run some errands that didn’t really need to be run. She was afraid that if she hung around the farm, she would get angry with Kelly again for not telling her about his sitter.
As Genevieve drove the sedan that had sat idle for so long while she was too ill to drive, her mind went back to the day she took her first solo drive with her daughter, on the day after getting her license. She was so frightened that day; now here she was driving off alone with Alexis to calm her own nerves.
A short time later Kelly found himself barreling down the road in his worn-out truck toward his family’s old home. He was so distracted by the old memories that he was almost surprised to find himself sitting facing his sister. Though uncomfortably warm as the air-conditioning struggled against the Texas heat, he felt a chill from the atmosphere of the room. This was not his sister’s room. This room was plucked from a magazine or a catalogue. Everything was perfectly matched. The hard sofa and chairs were tightly covered in transparent plastic slipcovers. They were such strange things for a woman with no children and no pets to own … slipcovers. The predominant color of the room’s appointments was lavender. The scent wafting up from small crystal bowls around the room was, again, lavender.
Kelly found himself missing Louise’s mismatched furniture, and the stuffy, dusty, air that predominates in old folks’ homes. He even found himself longing to be sitting in front of his meddling uncle, than to be in front of this woman who didn’t seem to be his sister, trying to make conversation with her.
Kelly looked at the woman sitting in front of him. He was 12-years-old when his sister left a note on her pillow and slipped out of the house to her lover. The note just read that she was okay and she would write again. The thought around town was that she took up with one of the men passing through town selling from door to door.
Things in 1936 were bleak in Misty, but the prosperity of the Archie family gave the children the leisure to read and be exposed to ideas outside of the day-to-day grind of getting enough food on the table and not losing the farm. While Kelly’s taste in books spanned the gamut from adventure to modern poetry, Dana’s tastes in literature tended toward novels that romanticized Marxism.
The family worried and grieved for Dana as the days passed with no word. They feared that she had run afoul of the sort of men that Kelly’s father read about in his true crime magazines. Finally a letter came, which sent their father into a rage. He ripped the paper into pieces and tossing them into the fireplace. When Louise tried to question Da he told her that Dana’s name was to never be spoken in their home again. Kelly learned just how serious the mandate was, some years later when he asked his father what was in the letter, and found himself on the ground with his ears ringing, staring up at his normally calm father, who was flushed crimson and shaking with rage. He never asked again.
Kelly tried to remember his sister in the days before she left. Gone was the rumpled hair, in the bobbed style of the day, which the bookish Dana never took time to comb. Now her hair was styled with the tips flipped out, the sides slightly puffed out, and the bangs pulled tight across her forehead and tucked under the side curl. Kelly was stunned to see that his sister affected two precise pin curls, just in front of her ears. Kelly remembered when his sister made fun of the then pastor’s wife, for affecting that same style. She called it backwater chic. At least she hadn’t marcelled her hair, like the pastor’s wife did back in the 1930s.
Gone were his sister’s trademark round, studious looking glasses, replaced by stingy little black-framed glasses that looked as if they were handed out at a mission clinic. Gone were the ungroomed eyebrows that once made bushy matching arches, Dana used to express her distain of capitalism, which she thought was the source of the world’s ills. Now they were even and well kept. The snapping green eyes that once raged with self-righteousness, were now a flat gray like a metal slug punched out of the side of a junction box.
“Why?” Was the only word Kelly could croak out, in a voice that was so filled with emotion it sounded as if it was unused for years. All the pain of his beloved sister leaving, which he hadn’t been allowed to express when he was a child, filled his man’s voice
“Kelly, I don’t expect you to understand, but I have been born again. I have come to accept Jesus Christ as my lord and savior,” said Dana, picked up the bible that lay on the table next to her and was patting it with her manicured hand as she spoke. “I realized the sinfulness of my ways following the false god of Marxism, and have come to Misty to live a quiet life of repentance. It is also my great hope that I can lead you, my beloved brother, to the light that is the Lamb of God.”
Kelly began to question his sister to find out why she left him and not come to visit for so long. Each question Kelly posed was countered with a biblical quotation from Dana, or a jingoistic phrase, until Kelly, exhausted with the effort, excused himself and drove home.
Genevieve wasn’t in her studio when he arrived. Being very tired, he slipped upstairs without checking into the kitchen to see how Eileen was getting on with cleaning up after dinner, though he could hear Eileen singing quietly to herself, and went straight to the bedroom. Though he missed having dinner with Genevieve and Alexis he didn’t find himself hungry. He sat on the bed, and listened to the sounds of the house until he heard the sounds of Eileen’s bicycle’s tires on the drive, heading home.
“Well, how did it go?” asked Genevieve when she found her husband sitting on the edge of the marital bed. She hadn’t heard him come in, as she was reading Alexis a bedtime story, in the big room down the hall, which doubled as Alexis’ playroom and bedroom. “Eileen told me that you went to visit your sister.”
“I don’t know how it happened, but my sister has become a Born Again Christian!” said Kelly blankly, with the same tone of disbelief that he might display if he found his sister was from another solar system.
“Kelly, is this some sort of elaborate joke that you and your uncle have come up with?” asked Genevieve, thinking it would be a terribly strange thing for the two to cooperate with each other on anything, much less a joke.
“It is no joke, Genevieve. I am sorry that I never told you about her, but I was young when she went away, and I was trained never to speak about her,” said Kelly, sadly.
“Tell me about it Kelly,” said Genevieve almost in a command.
“You know that my family had an easier time during the depression than most of the people around here?” started Kelly.
“Yes, you explained why, once back in New York when you drank a bit too much,” she said remembering how touched she was that he was afraid that she would think of him because his father was a criminal.
“My parents were very proud of how socially conscious Dana was. She spent a lot of her time helping people less advantaged than we were. Da bought her a camera and she documented what she saw and took the photos to politicians in the capital. There was even talk about her going with a delegation to Washington, before she disappeared. She read a lot and was quite taken with Marxism. No one thought it would lead to anything, so when she ran away, at first we all thought that she just met a man and ran off like any silly romantic girl. It wasn’t until much later I found out where and why she went, by that time, I would have no more spoken about her to anyone than I would have stripped down naked and walked through downtown Misty,” he said.
“Why did she go?” asked Genevieve expecting to hear something about Kelly’s father that would make his criminal activity seem like nothing at all.
“She ran off with a worker from one of the local farms, when he went home to Mexico to participate in the Mexican revolution. I found out that she was quite the folk hero down there, fighting alongside her lover. When I found out who she became, I felt I couldn’t tell anyone that my sister was the notorious Donna Güera. Who would have believed me? It would have just sounded like an unsuccessful poet trying to make himself seem more romantic,” said Kelly, still expecting that the statement would garner ridicule.
“Oh, wow! Kelly, this town never ceases to amaze me. I have painted canvases illustrating her life. Did you know that?” asked Genevieve, remembering how all the people in her set in New York romanticized the revolutionary.
“No, I didn’t, but she changed, not just the way she is acting and dressing. It is like there is no one behind her eyes any more. She reminds me of those men we met when we visited the veterans’ hospital. Remember how they just looked at you with no emotion, as if they were perplexed as to why you were still there?” he asked.
“Yes, they where shell-shocked,” she reminded him.
“That is the way Dana is,” said Kelly sadly. “She only talks in bible verses, not in the well thought out words she used as a teenager,” he said sadly.
“Don’t let your sister’s problems get you down. Just give her time. It sounds like something bad must happened in Mexico, beyond the murder of her lover. It must be something more recent. I think all you can do is wait and be there for her, if someday she wants to open up and talk about it,” she said. Reaching down to tilt his chin up toward her, so she could look into his eyes and he could see the love in hers. Kelly smiled up into her face and changed the subject, by asking. “So how was your drive with Alexis?”
“I was surprised at myself. Remember how driving used to make me so afraid? After a few miles along I realized that I was using the drive, not just to run my errands but to calm down. I am afraid that I let myself get a little two wound up about your not telling me about your sister. I am all confidence when I drive now,” she stated proudly.
“I told you that it was never too late to learn, even for a city girl who said she would never drive a car,” said Kelly, smiling.
“Kelly, I am surprised your sister hasn’t come to visit,” said Genevieve, one day as she and Kelly were out walking the fence line, not feeling like riding that day.
“Well, dear, you are younger than her and you are married to her little brother. I am sure she expects you to call on her first,” said Kelly, smiling at his wife’s lack of understanding when it came to small town manners.
“But she hasn’t invited me to visit. I wouldn’t feel right about visiting without an invitation,” said Genevieve, being raised in a city she was accustomed to honoring people’s privacy, waiting for an invitation.
“Your sister called today and asked me to bring Alexis over for a visit. Do you think I should go?” asked Genevieve her husband, not realizing that he told Dana that his wife was too shy to visit without a formal invitation. Peering at Kelly over the rim of her coffee cup she found herself halfway hoping that he would demand that she not go. She was having a hard time reconciling the woman she once revered with her newly discovered sister-in-law, and wasn’t sure at all if she wanted to meet her.
“Well, she is not just my sister now. She is a neighbor. I think if she were a stranger who just moved in, you would go to be friendly. The only thing you can do is treat her the same as any other Misty resident, unless she gives you reason to avoid her,” said Kelly thinking. “Lord knows I would love it if you could get through to her and find my sister inside that shell.”
“I would feel better about it if you came with me,” said Genevieve, wondering in the back of her mind, why her husband was avoiding going.
“Sweetheart, I am not ready to see her again. I am dealing with a lot of anger. I didn’t realize until I saw her the other day how angry I was. Suddenly I was that hurt little boy again; whose beloved big sister ditched to chase after some Mexican. I know it isn’t a nice thing to say, but that is how I felt,” said Kelly, feeling very guilty that he was pushing his wife to do just the thing he couldn’t do himself.
“I think I understand dear. You want Alexis to know Dana, even if you can’t deal with her right now,” said Genevieve, feeling better now she knew that her husband was seeing her as the stronger of the two.
Genevieve expended more than a little time apprehending her energetic daughter, getting her out of her cowgirl clothes, and stuffing her into a going-visiting dress.
“Mommy, I don’t want to wear a bonnet!” said Alexis, thrusting her lower lip out in the time honored expression of childish petulance, as she sat down on the floor with legs crossed, and plucking at the lacy socks she didn’t like.
“Alexis, the bonnet is part of the outfit,” explained Genevieve.
“I want to wear my hat!” demanded Alexis.
“No, your hat goes with your jeans. You know you can’t wear your jeans away from the farm, unless you are helping your father with farm pickups or deliveries,” said Genevieve, wondering how much worse the arguments over clothes were going to become with her daughter, as she got older.
“I DON’T LIKE BONNETS!” yelled Alexis.
“Now Alexis don’t you talk to your mother that way!” said Kelly, coming through the door being attracted upstairs by the sound of the argument. “Now say you are sorry!”
“I … I … I am sorry … Mommy,” mumbled Alexis, and then peering up at her father from under the edge of the frilly bonnet said, “Bonnets are for babies.”
Once dressed, and realizing that she was going to get to ride in Mommy’s car, Alexis calmed down and was ready to be a big girl and go visiting, in spite of the baby’s bonnet she was made to wear.
Genevieve enjoyed driving her car down the straight long Texas roads again after her long illness, with her little girl standing on her knees in the back seat. From time to time Genevieve glanced in the side mirror to see Alexis with her head out the side window, flying her flattened hand in the car generated wind, pretending she was flying. Genevieve made a mental note to comb Alexis’ hair and reset her bonnet before going into Louise’s … no Dana’s, house. Standing on the front porch of the house she visited so many times before, when it was a warm and welcoming place, her daughter’s tiny hand grasped in her own, Genevieve pulled on the old-fashioned doorbell, which somehow managed to escape the house’s renovation, and waited for her sister-in-law to answer the bell.
Genevieve was disappointed that the rumpled revolutionary girl, who she painted so many times, did not open the door. Though she had never met Donna Güera and didn’t know what the woman looked like in her revolutionary days, Genevieve painted her own mental image of what a dashing revolutionary, fighting next to her lover, should look like. Genevieve was surpassed at herself for expecting to see the imaginary woman looking out the door laughing at her big joke, made at her little brother’s expense. Instead an old woman opened the door. She looked so much like Genevieve’s mother-in-law that Genevieve was for a moment confused, knowing that Louise was in Florida. As soon as the door was opened a calliope of yaps and yips began sounding around Dana’s ankles, which where incased in thick sensible stockings.
“So you have pugs?” asked Genevieve, hoping to see a glimmer of humor in her sister-in-law’s dead looking eyes.
“Yes, I just got them. It is lonely in this house, without the family. I heard you and Kelly got a new car this year. Is that it? Well, that was an unnecessary expense. I bought the Harpers’ old sedan. I feel it is sinful to waste money just to have the newest and flashiest thing. If you were to buy a used car you could send the rest of the money to my uncle Milstead’s mission,” said Dana, flatly. “Come in and have a seat.”
Genevieve followed Dana into the house, horrified that this woman whom she had never met before was acting as if they possessed longstanding relationship were she could be so blunt in her criticism. She picked Alexis up to carry her in when the child showed resistance of movement, and realized that if she didn’t carry Alexis in, there would be a scene. Something made Genevieve fearful of upsetting her husband’s strange sister. She knew that though this woman might look like an East Texas church woman, she once stood on the wreckage of an overturned military truck and machined gunned approaching cavalry mindless of her own life.
Alexis squirmed rather than sat on the unforgiving plastic, not wanting to hop down to the floor, afraid of the small dogs. Her short dress rode up with her wiggling, leaving her legs uncomfortably exposed, allowing them to stick to the plastic surface. Her mother’s obvious stress, which she didn’t understand, made her even more anxious than the milling dogs. Alexis stared at the woman facing her mother. It looked like her grandmother, but didn’t. This woman’s face didn’t have the deep lines that years of happy smiles etched into Louise’s face. Alexis would have never been tempted to run to this woman and throw her little arms around her.
“Don’t you want to play with the puppies?” asked Dana. “I thought you would like to come and play with them.”
“I am afraid that Alexis is used to less excitable animals, like the farm dogs and the cats,” answered Genevieve for her daughter.
“How old is Alexis?” asked Dana, surprising Genevieve with her interest in Alexis. Genevieve reminded herself that not all childless women were indifferent to children as she and her sister were before Alexis came; this stranger was Alexis’ aunt, who should be interested in the child.
“She is four, she will be five in July. Why do you ask?” asked Genevieve perplexed.
“I was wondering if she was old enough to attend church with me,” said Dana.
“No, I am afraid not,” said Genevieve aghast. She expected someday to have some problems with the church going crowd in Misty about her family’s disinterest in attending church, but she hadn’t expected to get it from a stranger, even if the stranger was a blood relative of her child.
“Well, as soon as you think she is old enough, I would be glad to take her. I know that there isn’t much chance of you and my brother going,” snapped Dana, in a tone, which everyone in Misty would soon come to dread, almost as much as her braying derisive laugh. Dana already learned enough about her brother and his wife from the gossips who rushed to visit her on her return that she was beginning to think that God brought her home to save Kelly’s child from the damnation that was certainly the fate of her father.
After the brief interest in Alexis, Dana began to conduct a monolog on the missions of the church and how important her becoming involved was to the various causes, especially in light of her uncle’s new wife, whom she assured her sister-in-law, didn’t hold a candle to the sainted late Mrs. Milstead.
Finally when Alexis became fretful at the forced inactivity, and boring adult conversation, Genevieve excused herself and fled back to the safety of the farm and her husband. She was so glad to be out of the stifling atmosphere of the once happy house that she didn’t scold Alexis, who by the time they arrived back was sitting happily in the back seat dressed in panties, undershirt, and nothing else, her dress and bonnet lying on the floor on top of her shoes and socks.
“Well, I declare!” exclaimed Eileen, seeing the nearly nude child marching purposefully across the living room and up the stairs, her Mary Jane shoes making a clattering sound on the hard wood floors, which made her boots sound quiet in comparison. Eileen turned to Genevieve who followed Alexis, with her arms full of the child’s clothing. “What ever is going on?”
“Alexis has taken a strong dislike of what she calls, baby clothes!” said Genevieve, “I meet with a lot of resistance persuading her to put her shoes back on so that she wouldn’t get sticker burs in her feet when she crossed that patch of weeds Kelly fancies is a lawn.”
“Oh, dear, Mrs. Archie, here in Texas, if it is green and not too high, it is called grass. It is just so hard to grow green things just to be pretty. Of course you are right there are a lot of sticker burs out there,” laughed Eileen, glad that she hadn’t been Mrs. Archie’s age when she bore her first child.