By Anelas Viz
[This story first appeared in Forbidden Fruit]
People called her Miss Understanding, and they called her youngest sister, who had given birth to and was now bringing up an illegitimate child, Miss Conception. It was an unforgiving, sharp-tongued community. The middle sister, whom her sister’s fatherless pregnancy had so upset that she took to her bed for a week and still wept over it sometimes at night though the boy was now two years old, was known as Miss Demeanor. They lived together in a small town in Middle America in the large house where they’d been born and where they’d grown up – Vera, Doreen and Tammy, three women ranging in age from their mid-thirties to early forties and well set in their ways.
Only one member of the household seemed likely to marry, their kid brother Randy. He kept to himself as much as the others, but appeared quite as relaxed making casual conversation as Tammy, who did it all the time in her job as waitress, and he was a lot younger than the others. Men do marry at a later age, after all. An unexpected arrival who came into the world a dozen years after the youngest of his sisters, Randy had been born while his eldest sister was away at college, the same school where the next sister would matriculate two years later, so Vera didn’t get to see him until he was already a toddler, for she visited Europe that summer and stayed on another year to take courses in Heidelberg. The grown-up Randy had specialized in information technology at college and was considered a computer genius. That and his distinctly effeminate mannerisms had earned him a nickname like his sisters’: Miss Information. Doreen pretended not to notice this side of her brother, and Tammy steadfastly refused to acknowledge that his settling down some day as one-half of a happy, loving couple might well depend on same-sex marriage becoming legal in their State (God forbid!), a dubious and far-off eventuality.
Certainly none of their neighbors favored the idea of men marrying men or women women. After all, who in their proper, God-fearing little community would want to enter into such a union? Randy they tolerated, and they liked to engage him in a friendly chat, though they could make neither heads nor tails of his techno-babble. Nobody ever breathed a word like “gay” or “homosexuality” in those conversations. Randy probably didn’t do “those things” anyway, they concluded. He was a loner, and had been since high school, when the way he walked and sat and moved his arms was first noticed and the other kids started bullying him for it. No, they were almost one hundred percent sure he didn’t, just as they had been sure that his sisters were chaste until Tammy began showing. Who would he have done it with? He never went anywhere, never left town, and hardly any men ever visited the house, and none spent the night there, not ever. Nobody came to stay with them except Annette, a second or third cousin on their father’s side they told everyone. Of course no one ever saw Randy’s credit card bills and the motel room charges that might tote up to a dozen a month.
It was always the same motel, a vaguely disreputable truckers’ stop two exits down the Interstate, whose owner, though a churchgoer, was not quite respectable enough to mix with the rest of the townsfolk. Even if he had been, the man was discretion itself, and not just because his livelihood depended on it. Randy was not the only local who occasionally spent the night there, nor were the gentlemen who shared a room with him. The charges appeared on Randy’s credit card, but his sexual partners chipped in half. Out of consideration for his sisters, Randy would never have dreamed of sneaking anyone up to his room, nor would any of the men in town risk being seen there or risk having Randy over at their place. Most of them were happily married.
All four siblings worked and pooled their resources, reserving about a third of their income for personal use, such as Randy’s motel stays. He was the big earner in the household, working a half-dozen or so jobs on-line out of the home, where he could look after his nephew. Vera taught second grade at the local elementary school. Her pupils adored her as a second mother. Doreen was a clerk-cashier at City Hall and one of the town’s part-time librarians. Tammy, who had the looks for it, worked at the café. As for her little boy, no child was ever more coddled and pampered and doted on than Alex.
None of the good citizens of that little town expected Vera to come back when she finished her degree, much less to stay. Hardly any of the few kids who went to college came back to live there, and Vera was exceptionally bright, and she’d lived in Europe too! But she returned, and Doreen also came back to stay and live with their parents. Vera had come back the same, but Doreen came back changed, sullen and morose, she, who had been such a tomboy! Tammy didn’t go to college. She was more like the other girls who grew up there, popular and always giggling, not like Doreen with her disapproving glower or the bookish Vera. All the children in that family were bookish except Tammy, but Vera most of all, always reading something. You never saw her without a book in her hand. On the surface, Vera and Doreen, the serious sisters, seemed two of a kind, and Tammy their exact opposite, but Tammy had never been the happy-go-lucky girl she gave the impression of being; she was a worrier. In that way Doreen was much like her younger sister, however different they seemed, for despite her outward reserve one could sense the tension that was eating away at her from the inside.
Vera was calmness itself, unflappable. Doreen fell apart at the news Tammy was expecting and stood there with clenched fists saying over and over again, “I knew it, I knew it”. Vera faced the situation practically, guided her sister through her pregnancy, coached her through her labor as if she had been through it all herself, and pretty much oversaw Alex’s care as a newborn too. She even bustled Randy into getting involved, telling him, “Now you’ll have someone like a little brother to be your ally in this house full of women.”
“Nephew,” Randy corrected her.
“I said like a brother.”
Doreen had trouble adjusting to the idea she would be an aunt, and it took her a couple of months to get used to having him around. “One would say you’re positively ecstatic that Tammy went and got herself knocked up,” she told Vera.
“Well, I’m never going to have children of my own, and I missed out on Randy’s infancy,” she answered. “Besides, it’s summer, and I’m off, and can do it.”
By the time Alex had begun walking and talking, Doreen had warmed to him.
For the most part, Tammy was content to coo and smile at him as she nursed. She had a head on her shoulders, though. She may have moved straight from high school to waiting tables, but after fifteen years of working there, she understood the café better that its owners. Unlike her sisters, she had a keen business sense, and it was only the submissiveness that she felt was incumbent on her as a woman that kept her from running the place. In that way she was more like Randy, with his computer and dozens of money-making projects.
* * *
One particularly rainy spring, rivers all over the Midwest crested higher than ever, and the bedroom community where Cousin Annette lived found itself under four feet of water. She was lucky. Her house stood on slightly higher ground, and the water in her living room came less than six inches up the side of the walls. The mud left behind when it receded lay only an inch deep, but her carpets and most of the furniture was ruined and the water had poured into the basement, and it stank of mildew, so she hired a contractor and moved in with her cousins for the rest of the spring and what turned out to be the hottest, driest summer in decades – and they had no air conditioning.
Alex, now old enough for a room of his own, had taken over the guest room where Annette used to stay. On her last visit, just for Easter weekend, he’d slept with his mother. To make room this time they moved his new bed and all his toys back into Tammy’s room, but it was a very crowded arrangement and by the end of the first week Tammy was more than frantic, she was going crazy. She started snapping at her customers at the café, and one or two complained about it, so it was clear to everyone that they’d have to work something else out.
Randy offered to pack up his computer equipment and move to the motel for the rest of the summer. “I wouldn’t mind, really. At least the place has AC.”
Doreen wouldn’t hear of it. “Absolutely not. You spend enough time there as is.” It was the first indication he had that she knew more than she let on.
“We can buy a cot for her and put it in my room. It’s the largest, and the only one that’s cross-ventilated.”
“Are you sure?” Annette asked. “Maybe I could rent a room from one of the neighbors.”
The other four vehemently protested that idea. They were homebodies, very closed in on themselves and protective of their privacy, and if Annette went to live anywhere else it would inevitably give whoever took her in too uncensored a glimpse into their lives.
“Do you think we should, Doreen?” Annette insisted. “Do you think we dare?”
“Dare what?” Vera asked, but Randy gave the two of them a knowing smile. Tammy was too relieved to think anything.
Fred moved back to town the same year, washed out of the big city downriver by the same flooding that had sent Annette packing. He arrived almost two months after her, but people had been expecting him. They heard he’d bought a house and was just waiting for the deal to close and the previous owners to move out.
Tammy was thrilled he’d returned. They’d been high school sweethearts, but had lost track of each other after left for college. It thrilled her even more to find out he was unmarried, though she accepted the fact that her bringing up some unknown man’s child would make him think twice about renewing the relationship. Fifteen years of living in the big city must have had its effect, however, because when they finally ran into each other he knew all about it already – how could he not in their town? – and didn’t seem to mind at all. In fact, he asked her all about Alex and had her show him pictures.
“Cute kid, adorable. He looks just like you.”
Tammy was still very pretty. She’d filled out since high school, and the pressures of an unwanted pregnancy showed in her face, but her shoulder-length, curly blonde hair still had its sheen and her manner was as vivacious and sprightly as ever. Fred had kept his good looks too – strong, athletic – and his easy-going ways made him look all the handsomer. Fifteen years ago people had thought them the perfect couple.
The connection between them was immediate; it was as if they’d taken up where they’d left off. They stood talking in the street for over half an hour that seemed more like five minutes, and when they had to move on Tammy invited him to come for dinner. No outsider had ever eaten dinner with them before.
“Oh no, not tonight. Annette does the cooking now, and she must have bought the groceries already. But soon. Let me have your number. I’ll ask tonight and call to tell you what night will work out best. Do you have anything planned for the rest of the week?”
“Me? Not a thing. What about you?”
“Are you kidding? I’m a mother now, you know.”
“What difference could that make with four live-in babysitters?”
“That makes no difference. Who is this town would go out with me?”
“I would. How about a movie tonight?”
“Really? Don’t you care what people are going to say? You should. You’re new here in a sense, and you’re going to have to prove yourself all over again. You know what they’re like.”
“I repeat, how about a movie tonight? How long has it been since you’ve gone to a movie?”
“Not that long, less than a month. With Vera.”
“You’re not answering my question. How about a movie tonight?”
“Okay, if it doesn’t matter to you. But the late showing, after supper.”
“But it does matter to me. Eight o’clock then?”
“Eight o’clock is good.”
Because Tammy told her not to, Annette didn’t prepare something special. Vera, the eldest by nearly five years, presided at the head of the table, and Randy sat across from her as man of the house. Doreen and Annette sat next to each other on one side, and Fred and Tammy on the other, with Alex’s highchair in its usual place between Vera and his mother. That put Fred next to Randy. Tammy usually brought the food to the table (as the professional waitress – an inside joke), but since Fred was her guest, Doreen took on that responsibility for the evening.
Vera expected it to be a silent meal, and it took a while before the conversation got going. As a rule none of them spoke much at supper except to pay constant attention to Alex, and no stranger had taken a place at that table since their parents died. They were unaccustomed to dinner-table chit-chat. Doreen and Annette were reserved, uncomfortable at having him there, and Tammy, embarrassed now that he really was there, turned her full her attention to her son, chattering nervously to him and to no one in particular. It fell to Randy to break the ice.
“So this is the Fred we’ve heard so much about!”
“You’ve seen him before,” Vera said. “I know it was years ago, but you must remember him. How old were you? Seven?” Randy nodded. “And we haven’t heard ‘so much’. Don’t embarrass the man, Randy.”
“I’m not embarrassed. I know that’s just an expression.”
“But Tammy’s told us about him, all nice things of course. What I meant, Fred, is hearing about you from other people. Coming back has made you a minor celebrity.” The neighbors talked to Randy more than any of the others, except when Tammy was working at the café or Vera had parent-teacher conferences.
“I’m sure I won’t be one for long. I’m not that special.”
“It doesn’t take much to be special in this town,” Annette said. She sounded bitter.
“Just be glad you don’t have to live here,” Randy told her.
“Why do you?” Fred asked, and Vera looked up at her brother with a worried expression on her face.
His sisters were surprised how quickly and easily Randy opened up to Fred, talked about his dreams and frustrations without a hint of shyness, told him things about himself they themselves hadn’t heard till now, none of it all that scandalous. It was as if he sensed in Fred a sympathetic listener and experienced man of the world who was above the small-town pettiness he’d learned to live with, and a kindred spirit too. Fred said nothing to encourage or discourage him beyond showing an interest in all he heard. Their talk drew Tammy into the conversation, her liveliness returned, and she gave her full attention to the men on her left, leaving Vera to see to Alex. Soon the three were talking eagerly about themselves, something never heard before at that table, and Doreen and Annette joined in too. They kept up their end of the conversation, though neither revealed anything very personal about herself.
Vera, who had spoken the least, was very pleased with how the evening turned out, and urged Fred to come again, “at least once a week. We’ll have dinner early, so you and Tammy can go out together afterwards.” The siblings kept to themselves so much that one movie was enough to convince her that he and her sister were seriously dating. Doreen and Annette showed less enthusiasm for the idea, saying only, “Yes, do” and “That would be very nice”, but Randy was all for it, already wondering if his future brother-in-law (he didn’t call him that, he only thought it) was interested in computers, and ready to ask him up to his room and show him everything, though it was clearly time to go home.
Fred, who, being a single man, ate most of his meals out, started having lunch at the café every day, and it didn’t take long for the whole town to figure out that he was pursuing a certain waitress. Contrary to what Tammy expected, they didn’t think he just saw her as an easy lay and approved of them getting together, the sooner the better. They knew Fred; he was a good kid and had turned into a solid man, solid and steady. Pity for Tammy he’d moved away after college; she might not have gotten into trouble if he’d hung around. Some predicted the wedding would take place by the end of the month, but it didn’t, and the talk about Fred and Tammy lost its excitement and came close to tapering off altogether, for they’d found something else to whisper about, something a lot more titillating.
How anyone could have known about it remains a mystery, but overnight Doreen and Annette became an item. Doreen, of all people!
Why should their being seen together often arouse suspicion? No one could have known they were sharing a bedroom. They never held hands or kissed or anything like that. Was it all that unusual for two women to meet for coffee at the café almost every afternoon, especially when one was the sister of one of the waitresses and the other her cousin? Doreen had never taken her breaks there before though City Hall was right across the street, but what did that matter? And is there anything wrong with a woman spending her evenings quietly reading in an armchair in the library, or surprising that she walks home with the librarian after closing when the two lived to in the same house? Do people just naturally wonder about spinsters? Not that being still unmarried in her mid-thirties made Doreen a spinster exactly, and her cousin was a year younger.
Vera sensed that people’s attitudes had changed, but couldn’t figure out why. Doreen and Annette were aware that people had begun talking about them, but refused to acknowledge it. They didn’t mean to brazen it out; they simply considered it beneath them. And much as they would have loved to, none of the neighbors would have dreamed of saying anything to Randy out of fear he might reveal a thing or two about himself that would make their hair curl. (The reason they gave themselves, however, was that he was too sensitive.) Tammy worried that the scandal would come between her and Fred, but then she’d think, “What scandal?” There wasn’t any, just a lot of talk, and she didn’t know for sure how much. Anyway, it was all a pack of lies. “You don’t think there’s anything to it, do you?” she asked Fred. “Do you think they’re…”
“Why are you asking me? You live with them.”
“Well, you come over for dinner a lot, and you’ve seen them together. And you’ve lived in the city, so you must know a lot more about those things than I do. Is it really possible to tell?”
“Fifteen years of living in a large metropolitan area means I don’t care,” he answered. “If you really want to know, ask Randy.”
“Randy’s a lot sharper about people than anyone gives him credit for. I’m not going to hazard a guess until I’ve spent the night in your house.”
His words made her feel all warm inside. “I’ve thought about that too, but Vera wouldn’t allow it. And I wouldn’t dare.”
The motel owner was surprised when Tammy walked into the office early one night in mid-August. She hadn’t come there in over three years. He’d been expecting someone, since the room had been reserved a couple of days in advance, but not a woman, and Tammy least of all.
“Is Fred here yet?” she asked.
He gave her the key. “Not yet, but soon, I’m sure.”
He arrived about ten minutes later. “She took the key already,” the motel owner told him. He never commented on his customers’ goings-on, but he smelled potential trouble and asked him point blank, “Does Randy know?”
“Of course he knows. Tammy told him. There are no secrets in that house.”
“And he said?”
“Are you really asking me that? You know him better than anyone.”
“Not that way.”
“You know what I meant. No one can keep a secret better than Randy.”
“So much for them not having secrets,” the owner thought.
Randy knew about Tammy’s assignations well in advance, so there was no chance of their paths crossing. Vera urged her sister to be cautious. Her reputation was well on the mend, but still precarious. Doreen and Annette remained tight-lipped about her affair, as they were about everything else that went on around them.
Rumor has a way of getting out of hand and accruing details that have no basis in fact, and word spread quickly in that uptight, dirty-minded little town. In no time at all, the Annette and Doreen saga, of which no one knew anything certain, had lost its aura of delicious speculation and turned downright vicious. Randy was labeled a fag again, and Fred’s popularity went way down. No one respectable would go on eating dinner in a household like that once a week, and they had no trouble guessing why he did – Tammy was putting out for him, why else? No doubt she had back in high school too. People assumed they were seeing each other at the motel, but no one came right out and said it or suspected he met anyone else there.
It got to the point where Tammy’s boss told her that she’d better start being more discreet about her boyfriends if she didn’t want to lose her job. It devastated her. “Boyfriends,” he had said… in the plural!
Fred shrugged it off. “It’ll pass. You’ll see, Annette’ll be gone in a month and they’ll find something else to talk about. And if they don’t, I’ll sell the damn house and we can move away somewhere together.”
He didn’t mention marriage, but she took it as a proposal.
The general disapproval engulfed everyone except Vera. Alex too, that goes without saying. But who could say how he’d turn out, growing up in that house and with a mother like that?
That’s how things stood on the night one of the local pillars of society drove off the road on the way home from the motel. When the police came to write up the accident he discovered he’d left his wallet in the room. He told them he must have forgotten it at home, but they phoned his wife, who said it wasn’t anywhere there, and was pretty shaken up when she realized how late it was. He said it must have been stolen, and asked to file a report, but since he’d taken the back road home, the cops figured he must have spent a couple of hours at the motel with a prostitute, so they discounted his denials and drove him there to make sure it hadn’t been left in the room.
Local Pillar had been stupid enough to sign the register. Sooner than let the cops see who else had signed it with him, the motel owner showed them to the room, assuming the other two had already left, since their cars were parked in back where no one would see them. He opened the door on Fred and Randy having sex together, with the third man’s wallet lying in plain sight on the dresser.
The was no doubt they were having sex, though none of the four who walked in on them had ever seen or imagined anyone having sex that way before: stark naked, only seconds away from orgasm, locked together like statues in an Indian temple in a position only a contortionist would have thought possible; Fred seven inches into Randy and grunting like a pig, his palms cupping Randy’s scrotum and his thumbs working the underside of his penis close to the glans; Randy braying like a jackass. Fred tried to pull out when the door was flung open, but Randy had the advantage of position and defiantly held on to him till they climaxed.
Nobody moved. The lovers lay panting as they recovered from their coitus; Randy didn’t even bother covering up. The pillar of the community stood leaning like a dejected Tower of Pisa against the door frame, the two policemen just inside, one unsure of what they were supposed to do and trying to remember what the law said and the other more concerned with hiding his erection, while the motel owner waited on the walk outside. He wondered if his monthly payoffs were about to go up , calculating how much he could afford to shell out. A wide band of light stretched from the room out across the parking lot. Had any loiterers been hanging around after three in the morning, only the motel owner’s lanky frame would have stood between them and a full view of the bed.
“If you’re expecting a flip-flop,” Randy said, “come in and close the door. You’ll have to wait a few minutes.”
“You’re under arrest.”
“Indecent acts in public. Anyone who walked by could see what you were doing.”
“You’re the one who held the door open,” Randy shot back. “We have a witness.” The owner of the motel nodded.
“We’ll see what the judge has to say about that.”
“Don’t count on it. It won’t be tried here; our lawyer will see to that.”
And the pillar of the community whispered, “No trial.” His voice sounded weak, but he said it as if he was laying down the law, and the officer with the erection agreed.
Tammy was crushed. Her boss fired her the next morning, which is how she heard about it all. All and more. Randy had locked himself in his room as soon as he got home, wasn’t saying a thing, and showed no sign of coming out. He didn’t suspect that the story already put his sister into an incestuous, no-combinations-barred three-way with Fred and himself. He didn’t credit his neighbors with the ability to think up something so lewdly original.
It took a few moments to sink in. Then Tammy burst into tears in the middle of the café with everyone staring at her and had to run to the restroom to throw up. She’d thought that if anything like that happened – like it, not that, but anything else – she’d move away with Fred and that would be the end of it, and the rest of them could go to hell. But how could she marry a man who’d been screwing her brother, and for all she knew was being screwed by him too? How could she even bring herself to see him again, if only to throw his filth back in his face, much less marry him? What woman would, no matter how desperate her situation? She came home looking haggard and couldn’t stop crying.
Vera couldn’t imagine what could have happened. She gave her sister a sedative and put her to bed, and for the rest of the day had her hands full with Alex. Luckily, there was no school in summer. She learned the details that afternoon, when Annette came home with no shopping bags. She’d been snubbed worse than usual at the supermarket, and asked her please to do the shopping and let her take care of Alex. When she got there, Vera felt the hostility directed at her too.
Determined to brave it out, Doreen went to the library the library that evening, but Annette stayed home. Vera came to her room, red-eyed and weepy.
“Annette, please don’t tell Doreen I said this to you – she’d kill me if I did – but wouldn’t it be better if you left? Do you know how things are progressing with your house? I mean, is it fit to move back in yet, even if it’s not quite finished?”
“I don’t see what good it would do. The damage has been done already, and nothing’s going to fix it. Not that I’m the one who did it, mind you. It’s always the men who make the trouble, and it’s always us women who get kicked for it.” She didn’t mention his name, not to her, but she didn’t get why Vera was asking her to leave instead of her brother out after what he’d done to Tammy. It didn’t make any sense.
Annette swore she hadn’t told her, but Doreen found out anyway and came storming into her sister’s room. “Fuck you, Vera! I never thought you could be such a bitch!” She slammed the door behind her and stopped speaking to her.
Tammy couldn’t have confronted Fred even if she wanted to. By the end of the week he was gone and his house up for sale. The State’s sodomy law had been struck down a few years earlier, so he wouldn’t have to face charges, nor was Local Pillar’s divorce likely to be contested, so he wouldn’t have to come back to answer a subpoena.
Besides his wife suing for divorce and the shame he had to endure, the man who’d forgotten his wallet got off pretty easy. He made a full and tearful public avowal of his terrible human weakness, and the sincerity of his repentance left no room for doubt. Somehow, word of the buckets he wept and the ruthless breast-beating he gave himself at the theoretically confidential interview he had with his minister got around, and his wife was stunned by an article on the opinion page of the local newspaper that urged her to forgive him; it was unchristian of her not to when everyone else had, after she’d had promised to love him in good times and bad. She would not relent. The divorce went through anyway.
One would have expected his wife to see Tammy as a natural ally, a sister in misfortune, but hurt has a logic all its own; her instinct for self-preservation was stronger. It didn’t occur to her to thank them, but some of the fallout would surely have been deflected onto her had it not been for the family, all four siblings and that woman they passed off as their cousin. They didn’t have the luxury of confession and atonement. Randy wouldn’t stoop so low, nor would it have done him any good it he did. He wasn’t weak, he was a fag; not the same thing at all. Doreen and Annette had been staring the world down too long to make a one-hundred-eighty degree turn, something they could only do if they gave each other up, which would have been insanity. They were the only two who weren’t utterly alone. Tammy had nothing but lies to apologize for, while Vera was only guilty of being their sister, nor was she the kind of person who’d cut herself off from them to prove her virtue to people who were clamoring for their blood.
It all happened so swiftly. Since she worked at City Hall, Doreen was among the first to find out that some charitable Christian souls had taken it into their heads to contact Child Protection to get the boy away from his slut of a mother before she involved him in her orgies. The closest agency was over a hundred miles away, so it was far from certain they’d act on it, but Tammy disappeared with Alex the same day somewhere out of state. Annette, who had nothing but sympathy for her least favorite cousin now that a man had hurt her twice in a row, found a place for her to hide out for the first week. After that no one ever knew what became of her except Vera, who would have rotted in jail forever sooner than open her mouth to Social Services, if it ever came to that.
Then Vera received a letter from the school board saying that her services would no longer be required as of September. She protested and asked for a hearing, at which she pointed out that no one had accused her of doing anything improper. They said that they’d made the decision for her sake. What if the children heard something from their parents and started asking questions? Their severance package was a generous one, they’d made sure of that, and her pension from the State was secure. She threatened to sue, but they knew she wouldn’t.
The family no longer ate together. Doreen hadn’t said a word to her sister since the night she called her a bitch. Annette begged her to, but she wouldn’t budge.
“Why should it make a difference to you?”
“You’ll regret it later, and you’ll blame me for it. Besides, I like Vera.”
“Well I don’t, not any more. And if I change my mind, she’ll take me back, and it wouldn’t occur to her to reproach me for anything, so what would I have to blame you for? You know what they call her here behind our backs, don’t you? Miss Understanding. She didn’t get that name for nothing.”
“She’s still your sister, and she’s suffered worse than any of us. She’s lost her job, which is just about all she has to live for, and she hasn’t done anything that any rational person could hold against her. You’re still working.”
“Rational people don’t live here. Or haven’t you noticed? And Tammy lost her job too, and she almost lost her son as well. Don’t make Vera out to be the martyr. We all are.”
They moved away shortly after Labor Day, and only Annette kept in touch.
Vera no longer had the strength to go out in the garden, and the weeds started taking over. Randy still mowed the lawn once a week, but no one stopped to talk to him. He hardly ever left his computer screen. He didn’t go back to the motel till after Christmas, and after that never more than once every month or so, and he always came home early.
* * *
One evening toward the end of winter, Vera came and rapped gently on Randy’s door.
“What is it, Vera?”
“There’s something I want to show you. Tammy sent me this.”
It was a photo of her with Alex on her lap next to a balding, slightly overweight man who looked over fifty.
“Who is he?”
“Her new husband.”
“That was quick, wasn’t it? Well, I’m happy for her. You know I am. Can you tell me where they’re living?”
“She doesn’t want me to.”
“No, I suppose she wouldn’t, after that business with Fred. And my mouthing off to the police must have made it worse.”
“It was the only detail I believed outside of the basic facts of what happened, and the stories people were telling didn’t lack for detail. It was the only one true to life. It must have felt good, finally being able to throw it in their face.”
“But it must have hurt her terribly. I know I hurt her terribly. Do you think she’ll ever forgive me?”
“Of course she will. Fred’s the one she’s angry at. Furious, worse than furious. But she’s not ready to see you yet, and she doesn’t want to hear from you.”
“I knew it was wrong, and I felt terrible about it, but I kept telling myself that if that’s how he was then she was better off without him and I wasn’t really taking him away from her. He came on to me first, honest he did. I knew she’d find out sooner or later, and if she didn’t I was going to tell her myself. Only how could I, when we were sleeping together? You knew about him too?”
“No, not about him.”
“I wasn’t the only one, not by a long shot. You must have figured that out for yourself. There were three of us in the room that night. Anyway, I kept praying he’d get caught. I just hoped it wouldn’t be with me, but it was, and I never looked her in the eye again. It wasn’t just that I’d done it with him. I knew she was anti-gay. You must have too.”
“She’ll come round and see things our way, now that she has to face it. You’re her brother. That makes all the difference. It only disgusts her because she hasn’t thought about it, only about how it disgusts her. She never really thought about love either. Only marriage.”
“You sound like you’re blaming her.”
“Blaming her? I’m excusing her.”
“You’ll send her my love? And Alex too, of course.”
Vera nodded, hesitated a moment, and went on. “I also wanted to ask you something.”
“Not a question; a favor.”
“I said, shoot.”
“May I come in and sit down?”
He nodded and pointed to the bed. “Well?”
“I want to ask you not to go away. Please. Stay with me. I know it’s a lot to ask, and I know you’ve been thinking about it.” He waved his hand in protest. “No, I can tell. You’ve been thinking about it for a long time, before any of this happened, and now you have all the more reason to go.”
“I know what you’re thinking; I know without your saying anything. I have eyes. I’ve been reading my second graders like a book for years.”
“I’m not in second grade anymore.”
“No, but you’re my brother, and I have no else to look at, so how could I not see? You don’t have to deny it. I’m not angry that you want to get away. No, hear me out. I’m not angry you want to get away. I’d go away myself if I could, only where would I go? My whole life has been here. It wasn’t much of a life – I see that now – but it’s the only life I know, for whatever it’s worth. You never had a life here. You made a life for yourself in that machine of yours and in the places it takes you. Oh, I knew all along you had your men friends. I could name most of them. I only pretended not to know because… because of my life here, or my non-life, and also because I thought you wanted it that way.”
“I wasn’t fooled, Vera. I only wanted it that way because all of us were here then, and that’s how we lived. But I’m not going anywhere, not just yet, and if I ever do – and I can’t see that happening for a long, long time – you can come with me.”
“No, I’d just be a burden. That wouldn’t be fair. You’ve never been a burden to me. The others were sometimes, you know, but you, never.”
“You’re just saying that to be nice.”
“Not any more nice than I always am, I hope. But it’s true.”
“Couldn’t you go live with Tammy, if it came to that?”
“Tammy? I’d be a burden there too.”
“How so? You could take care of Alex.”
“She’s married now, remember? Anyway, about what I was saying, about not going away… I’m not asking for any promises, I just want you to remember. Just in case.”
“In case you meet somebody someday. That’s what you want, isn’t it?” He waved the thought away. “Well, isn’t it? And I hope you do. So I just wanted to say that if you ever find a steady man… a partner… he’s welcome to move in here with us. More than welcome. I want to be a family again, if possible. A family is people living together who care for each other. They don’t have to be related. And those who get to… to do things in bed together are the lucky ones, whether they’re the same sex or the opposite sex. I’ve always believed that, you know.”
Randy nodded. “What about Doreen? Do you think she’ll ever forgive you? I’m not saying she has anything to forgive, but…”
“Doreen? Our Miss Demeanor? Why look at me like that? I know in about our nicknames too, Miss Information. What? Don’t tell me you never heard that one! Well, now you have. Lovely, isn’t it? Do you like it?”
“It’s divine,” he answered in a flat tone. “I must use it if I ever play the drag queen circuit.”
“I thought you would. I like mine too. I always thought it was flattering, however you took it. One hundred percent wrong, of course, but that’s how flattery usually is. I understood very well about all of us, even about me, but I pretended… to us, to them… and yes, to myself too. Pretended I wasn’t pretending.”
“They made them up to be cruel.”
“They do everything to be cruel. I only hope Tammy never found out what they called her. She had to know what people were gossiping about working at the café, but she picked up on less of it than the rest of us. It just reached us later. What Doreen thought about hers, if she knew it, is hard to say. She keeps everything bottled up.”
“So did you.”
“No, I only kept my mouth shut.”
“You don’t have to stay here. We don’t. We… you could sell the house, find another town, move there. I know how much you miss your work. You’d have no trouble finding a teaching position if we move. They’ll give you glowing recommendations. They’re not about to let on to anyone about this shit.”
“I told you already, my life is here.”
“And you said yourself: ‘What life?’ It’s time to move on. Take losing your job as a sign.”
“A sign? Do you believe in signs, Randy? I wouldn’t have thought so.”
“I’ve been wanting to bring it up a long time, I just didn’t know how. It’s funny. Here I was thinking of us leaving together, and you were worried about my leaving without you. Won’t you at least consider it?”
“It would have to be a small town, like this one. It’s what I’m used to. But then, if you found yourself a man, I’d really be alone. Not just alone, but an exile too.”
“You don’t have to hold on to me, Vera. I’m not going to cut you off. Not a chance.”
She sighed. “But you were asking about Doreen. Doreen will come round too in her own good time, as Tammy will for you. I’m surprised she hasn’t already. She wasn’t really mad at me, you know, though I’m sure she still thinks she is. Doreen was mad at everybody else, had been for years, and when this all happened she just had to let it out on someone. She’ll come round, I’m certain of it. But she won’t come back.”
“It’s no wonder Doreen’s full of hate. But not you; you don’t condemn anyone. Not me, not Fred…”
“You, Randy? How I could I possibly condemn you? And as for Fred… No, you’re right. I don’t condemn a single one of them. It’s them as a group that make me angry.”
She stood up to go. “You’re so good, Vera,” Randy said. Why is it you never married? You were meant to be a wife and a mother. I don’t mean a traditional stay-at-home mom, but really, you should have married. Why didn’t you?”
She took so long to answer he thought she was avoiding his question. “Well,” he persisted after some time had gone by, “is there a reason?”
She kept silent a little longer as if to collect her thoughts and said, “I suppose now is when we say things we haven’t bothered telling anyone. I did.”
“Get married. In Germany, towards the end of the summer. That’s why I stayed on for a year. I still have the ring in a little box in my drawer. Would you like to see it?”
He shook his head no. “A whirlwind romance? You met and fell in love and married him all in just a few weeks? That’s so unlike you. But I didn’t know you as a girl, did I?”
Vera sat back down to tell her story. “It wasn’t like that. I met him here, at school. He was an exchange student. I followed him there.”
“But you didn’t stay; you came back here. Why?”
“To tell my parents, to tell my sisters. To let them know I was moving to Germany. You see, they didn’t know I’d got married. For some reason I thought it was something I should tell them in person, with my not so new husband there with me. Silly of me, wasn’t it?”
“Not all that silly. But you came back without him.”
“Yes, and I never told them either, otherwise Doreen and Tammy would know about it. But there was no one to go back to. He died a week before I was coming home, in a stupid accident. They drive like demons on the Autobahn. So there was nothing to tell anyone.”
“And you kept your pain to yourself. How like you!”
“Like me now, not then. That was when I learned.”
“But why did you stay?”
“At first because I needed time to recover. Then for the others, who I could see would be stuck here, Doreen, Tammy… and for you.”
“You were going to have to grow up here too. I thought that maybe if I were here you’d grow up and leave. Mama and Daddy didn’t exactly bring up their children to leave the nest, did they? I took what happened to me as a sign I was needed here. I believed in signs in those days, and acted on them. Not any more.”
“Jesus! What a secret to keep all these years!”
“It wasn’t a secret. It was just the past. Our only secrets were what everyone knew. Let’s leave it at that, shall we?”
She got up to leave. “You know, Randy, if I do find a position somewhere else, maybe I could teach high school. I used to wish sometimes that I’d become a high school teacher instead of teaching second graders. I’d like to think that I’d have told my students that.”
Randy looked at his sister, puzzled, as if to ask.
“What I said before, remember? – the thing about families. Yes, that’s what I would have told them, if they asked.”
He gave her a hug. “Vera, you’re a darling. But you’d’ve been out of a job years ago. You know that. Besides, what makes you think I’ll ever find a man to fall in love with, someone I’d ask to live here – or anywhere – with us, somebody worthy enough to live with you? Does such a man exist?”
“Yes. The question is, would he have the courage to move in?”
“Why so down on us, Vera? Why so down on yourself? If he exists, he’d have that courage. I wouldn’t consider him good enough if he didn’t, not for me, and certainly not for you.”
“You’re right. You won’t find him here.” She was thinking: “He can’t stay.”
“Finding him anywhere is a matter of chance. Pulling up stakes is a decision. Make that decision, Vera, for your own sake. I could give you so many reasons!”
“You don’t have to; I know what they are. I said I’d think about it, and I am thinking about it. I stayed here for your sake, and I can leave for your sake, too.”
“I said: ‘for yours.’ How long has it been since you’ve done anything for yourself?”
“I’ve always done for myself. This family is the only thing I’ve ever cared about.”
Vera realized immediately she ought not to have moved the conversation in that direction. She felt like weeping at the thought that her family had broken up so completely, that even if they made peace it would never be the same. She’d wept every night in secret for nearly two weeks after Tammy and Doreen left. Time had only accustomed her to their absence; it hadn’t consoled her.
“It’s late,” she said. “Good night. We’ll talk more in the morning.”
When the tears stopped, she lay in bed thinking of what she’d say to him. How could she have been so selfish as to try to hold on to Randy? He was half her age, and had a right to happiness. She’d urge him to leave. He had to. She’d hate herself if he didn’t.
Randy guessed what she was thinking, and had made up his mind to refuse. He’d get her to come with him. She would, if he could convince her he needed her. A burden, she’d called herself. She needed to feel useful again. Well, he’d see to that easily enough. Alex’s birthday was coming up. He’d make it Vera’s job to get Tammy to accept the present he meant to send.