Jean, 1948 | Change Seven Magazine | 1 March 2016
I swung Joe’s navy blue Ford SuperDeluxe into a spot out front of The Wilmingtonian. A kerchief held my hair. My sunglasses were big. In pictures of me from back then people look and say there is a glamorous woman.
My little sister Wynne rode shotgun, looking petite in a tropical green suit set, cat-eye glasses, and black slouch hat. She got out then leant in, said she’d be a minute, before clicking the passenger door shut. She pushed into that motel office without hesitation. I kept the motor idling, pulled out the lighter and puff… puff… puffed a cigarette to life against the glowing coil. I corrected the rear-view mirror after checking my lips. I waited. Three minutes later, the office door bumped and jingled. Wynne emerged, made a motion with her green left sleeve that meant go all the way that way, and then flashed her right four fingers at me twice. So I undid the brake and let the tires crunch along the shell and gravel drive. In the way I held my cigarette, I motioned Wynne: just wait a moment while I park. She was on a march to burn Atlanta. I turned the car to find a spot nearer number eight. Just cool your engine, I thought.
The trip, owing to Wynne’s husband going off for a pack of smokes and loaf of bread two Fridays ago, allowed only a short rest in Ruther Glen, Virginia, on the way from Orange to Winnabow. The embarrassment of her husband Brad’s tom cat desertion scratched at Wynne, who was told by an anonymous note in her letter box that Brad had gone south, with her, to his uncle’s. Wynne had a lot of pride, but we were good Irish. She needed a driver; I went.
My husband Joe and his friend Foxhole volunteered to take Skinny’s kids on an adventure to Lake Wallenpaupack. Wynne hated being called Skinny, but she was constantly pregnant for three years, and everyone got a kick out of calling her highness a nickname in private. Guarantee: the first thing Joe will ask me upon return is, “How’s Skin?”
Joe, Wynne said he was uncouth, loved me. I loved him. His name was really Jozef, and mine was really Regina, but Joe and Jean, that’s us. He loaned me his waffle-weave seat cushion. Joe liked it for himself on long drives. He offered one to Wynne, too, but she got in a snit and said my sister would do, and please don’t offer me things better suited to truck drivers. Piece of work, my sister. That cushion, with its diamond pattern and interior springs, had a nice bounce to it that allowed for air circulation. Wynne fussed and complained, punched herself in the stomach once or twice, and sweated out the long drive. Six hundred miles, it was. I tutted at Wynne but lifted my eyes and mouthed thanks to Joe. It was a long drive, man how.
In a smooth half-k, I backed in, parked catty-corner to number eight. I watched a moment from this distance to see what Wynne would do. She was fuming: ground a fresh cigarette underfoot, snapped her compact, fiddled shut her purse. She had fussed with her makeup for the last fifty miles, cursing me and Henry Ford for every bump and bend in the road as she commandeered the rear-view mirror, applied lip liner and lipstick, cake rouge and thick mascara. She looked good and unhappy. That’s her.
I clamped my cigarette between pursed lips, turned off the ignition and reached down to set the brake; in that same instant, Wynne hitched the handbag up her arm and rapped on the door, twice and loud. We’d speculated for most of the ride if it would be the lady or the tiger to open the door, but I thought to myself the horse’s teeth or the horse’s ass would be closer to the truth, but here and now Wynne was springing to swing so I said Joe-Joe-Joe under my breath, grabbed the keys, shouldered the driver’s door open, stepped onto the gravel. I smoothed my skirt and bumped the door closed. Brother, my shoes felt tight after 600 miles of Wynne.
And then, wal-lah, door number 8 opened. Here she goes.
Brad was tall, trim, and even though his tie was loose, his shirt was tucked. As ever, his dark eyes lorded about. Good looking man. Nothing but trouble.
I heard him say what I guessed he would: “You look beautiful today.”
Wynne allowed him to take her hand, which she rotated that he might kiss the air over the back of her glove. Wynne’s Emily Post is pretty dog-eared, you might guess.
Walking, I closed the distance enough and heard Wynne fire the first volley.
“Is she here,” Wynne demanded, clutching her pocketbook across her stomach.
“Who?” Such a dodger.
“Her. That accountant’s daughter.” Brad broke eye contact with Wynne, squinting over her shoulder. His angular jaw was working. I took a step upward.
“Jean,” his eyes widened with civil acknowledgement. “Looks like you’ve had a hot drive. Let me fix you something stiff. Whiskey sour house drink, and I’ve got a ladies’ special this afternoon.”
Brad beckoned me forward, stepping out to allow my sister and me some measure of welcome, but Wynne calculated a moment before proceeding. I followed. Brad kissed my cheek. I wished he hadn’t.
Wynne seethed. Brad ignored.
He asked me, “Did you hear the ball game on the way down? No radio here. What was the final score?”
Wynne scanned the room without moving her head, and saw everything I did: his sport coat lay at the end of the unrumpled bed, golf clubs. Valise. L&Ms. Lighter. A vase of pink roses, its water just begun to cloud, sat on the wet bar, as did half-empty bottles of Hiram Walker Rye and mixer, a jar of maraschinos, a half-filled ashtray. If I knew her, my snoopy sister was keen to see that ashtray.
“Make a drink. Make one for me as well. I can deliver that score,” Wynne said.
Brad looked down at her. “Oh, it was a big loss, I’m sure.” Then, to me: “By the way, welcome to Winnabow. I think Winnabow is an old Indian word meaning a place of friendly squaws and strong tobacco.”
Knowing what little I do of the Leggetts, I know this much: In Winnabow proper, Brad’s Uncle directed the family in all legal matters concerning nephew Brad’s divorce. Brad had all the power of his kin here, all their tobacco money behind him, and his coins of family history were stored there, burnished by recounting until there was nothing left but shiny fingers.
Brad said, “Not to bother, Jean. I’ll make the drinks. Keep your sister company. Here,” he grabbed the pack of L&Ms and laid them on the table in front of me, “have a smoke. I didn’t realize I had such a thirst. You girls sit. The couch isn’t comfortable as the bed, but it’s good enough.”
We sat. I whispered to Wynne. “It looks like he’s alone.”
At the wet bar, I realized later that Brad saw the ashtray: two tamped-out cigarettes with his hussy Sonsie’s lipstick on them. He must have smiled.
Wynne sat in the center of her cushion, bolt upright as if someone cared. As if Emily Post were watching. She would not deign to look at me, and said: “Don’t be a dolt. He went out of his way to mention the bed. Of course she’s here.”
I looked at the ceiling, looked at the carpet; divined smoke curls in shafts of sunlight, which thanks to an oscillating fan, fate never intertwined. “Let’s go.”
Wynne scooched forward to show some leg, while practically spitting at me, her own sister and chauffeur on this cruise to nowhere. “Go? cHuhhhhthT!”
“…. Okay. I’m only the driver.”
“This is fine…. This is fine.” I could see her leg muscle dance.
Brad stepped over to where we sisters sat, like two old price tags from last season’s sale we must have looked, although Wynne looked wound up in that way that tempted Brad. I French inhaled without looking at him. He deviled Wynne, placed the dirty ashtray near her. “You might need this,” he said, and went back to bartending. I saw the lipstick. Rat.
Wynne blew smoke, also ignoring Brad. Her eye caught, and then inspected, what he placed there. It was an expensive shade, Red Carnation. Wynne’s cigarette trembled.
The sound of a metal arm being drawn back to crack cubes loose from an aluminum tray splintered the air, softened by the clink and schuss of chips being added to highball tumblers. Brad was hum-singing that Dorsey number, about a warm and pretty girl….
“Brad was always handy to have at parties,” I offered. With my right arm resting up on the sofa, and my head resting against my hand, I counted twenty Timex ticks. “What are we doing?”
“What do you know.” She was paralyzed in anger.
I kept count with the second hand in my right ear. In the left, the sound of metal caps twisting on bottle necks: five ticks; ice cracking under fast-melting pours: five more; a knife on Formica, Wynne’s angry breaths, the brusque vortex of a swizzle. Lost count at thirty. I thought, Oh, Joe. I wish you were outside that door.
Looking at the lipstick-stained butts in the ashtray, I put two and two together and realized Wynne was inclined toward the bedroom, but I kept at the job I’d hired on to do. I’d be the sister soldier, the one that Joe loved. I said to Wynne as much as anybody: “This is all all right. You know what to say to get him to come home. We practiced the whole way down.”
The three kids, Brad Jr., Jo, and Louis needed more than Wynne in their lives, I thought, and then — oh what the heck why not — I gave her some sisterly counsel: “They deserve a father, you know. Even rotten him.”
“What do you know?” she carped. I let pass her reminder of my barrenness.
“I’ll sit in the car.” I was looking forward to a cold drink. Wynne was a goner. I called around the L-shaped room. “Brad, do you have any peanuts or crackers? Anything to go with a drink.”
Wynne wanted me to be quiet, and snipped, “Only someone common would drink in a parking lot.”
I held my tongue, but I guess she forgot about getting knocked up at Eagle Rock. I heard Brad, still humming Dorsey…. He said, “Hold on Jean. Be right with you.”
I stared at the pin on Wynne’s smart suit jacket, and declaimed my final advice to her with one word: “Now.”
Brad entered earshot with three drinks clustered in his two hands, set them down on the table. “Here we are, three rye sours.” He stood upright, his own in hand. “Jean, I still haven’t found someone to invent that little lifesaver for your maraschino cherry, but I’ve given you a spoon. I’m sorry I’ve nothing to eat on offer, but you get three cherries. Cheerio.”
I kept polite, hedged neutral. “I’d be a millionaire. Like the guy who invented the frilled toothpick.” I accepted my drink, took a sip off the top, approved with a grimace, and alley-ooped myself to stand on the level with Brad. “Well, oogy wawa,” I said in pretense of cheer, tapped glasses with him. “Wynne. I’m going to sit in the shade outside. I’m no use. I need a stretch.”
I got out of there. I can still see, as I walked across the odd-shadowed lot to a picnic table, my figure added another long tine to the sun’s rake.
Brad called at me; he poked his head out, watching me cross the lot while I’m sure he scanned for Eleanor’s return in that ’49 convertible. “Oogy wawa,” he called. “Oh. And, if you hear me scream, send the cavalry.”
I had to stop and turn into the full sunlight for that exchange, and gave a scant nod. All I thought, looking at Brad as he was about to get in one more alley cat screw with my sister, was how right Joe was about them all. Brad was a horse’s ass. Those three kids though. Joe didn’t survive the Battle of the Bulge to see his own kin suffer. Joe worried for little Louis the most. The older two, eh, they were their parents’ own two scheming peas in a pod. The little guy looked up to his dad, always looked out for the rescue mission that Brad would never launch. I took a sip and kept on toward the picnic grove. I heard the motel door grunt shut.
The drink was stiff. I decided to let the ice melt, the cherries soak. Cavalry, he said. A load of nerve. I chose a bench, a seat in the shade, and pushed off my heels. I brushed my feet over the grass. I closed my eyes, and a car driving past sounded like ocean breakers. Mmm.
I swirled the drink, then held the spoon in the crook of my index finger, and took a long cool look at the closed door of number eight. My sister: poor kid, I thought. I had a sip.
I stretched my legs out straight and taut until my thighs ached that extra second, tsk’d at my bunion, and thought of my good life 600 miles north in Orange. I raised a toast. Oogy wawa, Joe. Foxhole, too.
I took a draught, savored the dying day, and thought after all this: God bless Brad. That horse’s ass could mix a drink.
Anne E. Weisgerber has recent stories published or forthcoming in New South, The Airgonaut, Tahoma Literary Review, Vignette Review, and Jellyfish Review. She is a freelance fiction editor, and has been nominated for Best Small Fictions 2016. When not teaching, she’s working on a novel that spans five generations, or hanging out with the #fishtankwriters. Follow her @AEWeisgerber, or visit anneweisgerber.com.