Monday, August 01, 2005

Ellen

My sister was in her bed, a comforter pulled up to her chin, a ceiling fan whirring, the AC wafting in refrigerated air. It was a big bed, and her husband, Mark, was beside her, the two bathed in the blue glow of the TV, muffins in a tin. My sister was wearing a light robe made of white quilty stuff. It zipped up the front, the sort of garment I had only seen on my mother, although my mother's robes were faded and frayed. She had arrived at an age where she couldn’t throw anything away or buy new things. Her thinking was: “It’s good enough for me, because I’m old, and nothing matters when you’re old.” Also: “I’m afraid I’ll run out of money before I die, so I better not spend an extra cent.”

I looked at my sister’s profile. She was pretty. Her skin was scrubbed. Her skin looked red when it tanned. Her eyes were closing, but she was resisting sleep. I was wearing a cotton camisole and black tights, the outfit I go to the gym in and lounge around in. I peeled back the covers from my sister’s shoulder and snugged in beside her, my head on her pillow. Now we were three muffins, except I didn’t like what was on, CSI. Mark tossed me the remote. “Pick what you like.” I flipped to Touch of Evil, and for fifteen minutes we watched Orson Wells, Charlton Heston, and Janet Leigh scowl around noirishly. My sister and I hadn’t slept under the same roof for more than 40 years, but feeling the curve of her hips and breasts next to mine required no border crossing. We got that from our father. Our mother was sick from smoking. My sister was quitting cigarettes, and I was helping her cross the smokeless divide.

We went to a bookstore, and I bought her a copy of The Corrections. She put it in a cabinet beside her bed and didn’t start it while I was there. She said it was hard to concentrate while she was quitting. She worked on a jigsaw puzzle on the dining room table, a scene with lots of sail boats, identical looking masts and ropes and boaty-looking pieces, and the pieces all had the same shape. I helped her a little, though I couldn’t do it for long. She filled in crossword puzzles from the NY Times every day. She disliked the hot weather, but one night I asked her to walk with me around the development where she lives. That meant taking off her robe thing and putting on shorts and a shirt again, a process she almost never reverses once the robe is on. We looked at the townhouses, all rather similar. It was peaceful and the air smelled of honeysuckle, although the fragrance came from a tree we didn’t know the name of.

She put out lavender bath oil and Skin So Soft and said I could use her tub. “No ass but mine has touched it in 17 years.” I massaged her feet. She said she would see a chiropodist about pain in her metatarsals. We had manicures and pedicures. The woman who does my sister’s nails looked at us and said, “Sisters?” My sister said we were. The woman said, “Which one older?” My sister said she was. I thought my sister must really be giving this woman huge tips for her to ask that question. Ellen offered to treat me if I handed out the tips. I said I would, following her instructions. My sister was generous, like our father. There was a picture of our parents when they were young on her wall. She took it to Walmart to make a copy. She said it was the only time she went to Walmart. I told her to use witch hazel on her eyes when they were itchy. She bought a bottle and cotton pads.

We went to a mall to walk around in the air-conditioning. Before we got there, I said I didn’t want to shop, just walk. Ellen said okay, though she wanted to look at shoes in a department store. I said she should have told me ahead of time, so I could have brought a book and read while she looked. I calmed down and said she could do what she wanted. When we got inside the mall, I saw lots of things I wanted to buy, so the idea of not shopping flew out the window. She didn’t object, even though I was the one trying on clothes and asking people to hunt for things and write up the receipts and wrap stuff. The next time I came into her bed, she said, “You can put on anything but Touch of Evil.”

“I thought you liked it.”

“I didn’t.”

My sister is used to being the most competent person she knows. The one who takes care of problems, steps in to trouble shoot during emergencies, gets the job done. My sister is the older sister, the one my mother turns to. My sister was prepared to keep being the one my mother called on. “Just help me out,” she said. I showed her how to turn on the gas grill Mark used to cook his food and then I grilled us a steak and onions. By day fifteen, she had not lit a cigarette.

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