I walked to the end of the property and waited. My backpack on one shoulder, a small carryon next to my feet. I looked back at the old farmhouse, a two-story, twice-restored home to three generations of Malcolms, once thriving with livestock and farmhands, a healthy amount of life and chaos; it now rests quiet and weathered, showing signs of deterioration, signs of transformation, the dangerous kind. A wooden fence, four planks wide with connecting posts, line the two acres. Leaning and rotted, it struggles to remain upright but persists, a testament to my grandfather’s craftsmanship. A long, curved and rocky path, tire grooves mark the earth; weeds grow in short clusters but with intricate and pervasive root systems. The path leads to five concrete steps, a long, once-screened, porch still with two rocking chairs side by side, one for my grandmother, one for my grandfather. I can still hear their rocking, wooden legs knocking against wood flooring in unison, love’s heartbeat. When I wasn’t running around the yard with my twin sister and cousins, I sat next to them, comforted by what felt so permanent, so peaceful.
Inside the double doors is a beautiful foyer decorated with two matching blue-grey upholstered benches, a hanging light with crystal draping, two tall bamboo plants in dark brown, clay stoneware. To the left is the kitchen and an adjacent formal dining room that seats ten, still elegant with its long, wooden dinning table, chairs with plush cushions and arms; a china cabinet carefully arranged with expensive floral dinnerware, shiny silverware and cutlery, and contrasting cups and serving dishes. To the right a living room—three sofas, four armchairs, end tables, a piano, and religious decorations just the way my grandmother placed them—down the hall a library, the walls still lined with my grandparents’ books and a long desk facing the window with a lamp and a bible opened to Collosians 3:5-6, the last scripture my grandfather read. The next morning Elsa Jamison knocked on the door, grandfather shot himself in the barn, graduation was a week away, and Lauren called to say she was getting married.
Up the carpeted staircase are six small, cozy bedrooms, brought to life with long, light-colored silk curtains, a four-post bed, each topped with one of my grandmother’s handmade quilts; my old bedroom—the one I shared with my twin sister, Lauren, the corner one facing east now boarded up from the inside–and four bathrooms with white tiles, one stained-glass window, detached shelves, and a functional shower and tub.
From the outside, its once massive stature now seems small, sunken. I imagine that if the house were human she’d be a little old lady, shrunken by time—married fifty years to an adoring man with whom she raised ten children and shared twenty-five grandchildren, twelve great-grandchildren she knew only through a fragmented mind that succumbed to forgetfulness and longed more and more to be set free.
A yellow taxi rolled slowly down the road, its frame yielding to the bumps and dips, a trail of dust following behind. The driver, a tall, dark-haired man, mid-thirties, stepped out and opened the back door.
“Bus station? In Harrison?” he asked.
“Yes,” I nodded, reaching for my carryon.
“Let me…” he picked up the carryon and popped the trunk. “Backpack?”
“Oh…sure.” I handed him my backpack, and he put both in the trunk.
Aside from the noise of the door closing and the soft hum of the engine, we rode in silence. I looked back, the outlying trees engulfing the property in its thick forest. The sun hung just above the horizon, ready to trade light for darkness. I leaned my head against the headrest and watched as the dirt road disappeared and a two-lane highway appeared, the river’s companion that stretched thirty miles to the nearest town, Harrison, home of the Harrison Honeycombs, a baseball team known most for its losses, Percy’s Ice Cream parlor known for having the biggest cones, and the bus depot, a small building that stayed empty since people rarely left, and even fewer found their way to the city of frogs.
Now I was leaving. Leaving to see my nieces in the hospital, my twin sister Lauren’s daughters. The driver walked me into the station, set my backpack and carryon next to a seat, collected his pay, and was off to his next trip. I sat in the first seat in a row of eight, all conjoined, bolted to the floor. The bus was scheduled to arrive in thirty minutes. I opened my backpack and pulled from it a photo album, turning to the first page: There my grandmother and grandfather stared back, sitting in their rocking chairs—my grandmother holding Lauren, my grandfather holding me, his hands worn from years of labor, dirt and grime permanent in the layers of his skin. Our mother and father stood behind us, big grins on their faces. We were just a few weeks old in that picture, swaddled in identical pink blankets, with identical pink onesies, our fine, dark brown hair brushed the same to cover the same bald spot. I skipped ahead a bit to a picture of me and Lauren. We sat on the front steps, Lauren leaning in, her hands cupped, whispering a secret in my ear. My face is bright with laughter, arms wild in the air. In another picture we stood in matching yellow dresses, hands clasped, front and center in our Kindergarten class photo. Another at the county fair, the two us sitting on a bale of hay with our backs together, both wearing matching jeans, white I Love Henderson County Fair t-shirts, and boots a size too big. Our faces still the same, but our insides were changing. Neither of us knew the ease of our bond would soon weaken and in its place an unreconcilable divide, an injury that would shatter one and live on in the other like an incurable infection.
At sixteen Lauren left us and came back at seventeen with twin daughters, Tabitha and Tillia.
“I’m so sorry,” she begged our grandfather for mercy. “I don’t have anywhere else to go…” He didn’t forgive her, but he gave her two days to make other arrangements for her and her “bastard children.”
My grandmother, mother, and I took turns with the babies. My father tended to my grandfather, kept his blood from boiling over as sin entered his house and claimed his family. And soon we all stood, except for my grandfather, on the porch waving as Lauren left the way she came, in a silver Dodge station wagon, with two babies in the back, in search of sympathy.
Bus 11279 pulled into the bus lane, its doors screeching open. I put the photo album back into my bag, picked up the carryon, and headed towards the bus.
“You’re welcome to come on in, but we’ll have to wait a few minutes…Mrs. Clark will be here soon…to go see her daughter-in-law who’s in St. Joseph’s Hospital. She’s got a tumor the size of a grapefruit.”
“Yes, sir,” I said and walked towards the back of the bus, taking the fourth to last row on the right. The same seat Lauren last sat when she came to visit before her wedding. Mother helped grandmother make the funeral arrangements, and I drove grandfather’s truck to Harrison, relearning how to drive a stick as I drove.
Lauren was a stranger but with my face, skinny, withdrawn.
“Where are the girls?” I asked her.
“With my fiancé…” she followed me to the truck. “I’m not getting in his truck,” she stopped.
“This was the only way to get to you…and he’s dead now.” I tried to calm her down. “…it won’t take long.”
She took out a cigarette from her purse and smoked in silence, her head shaking with resistance as she mumbled to herself. And when the cigarette was short enough to burn her fingers, she tossed it, yanked open the door and hopped in.
I didn’t see much of her that week, mostly her back as she walked out of the kitchen when I entered, out of the bathroom when I knocked to see if she was okay, down the porch steps every time she left to “find herself.” Grandmother, mother and aunt Bertha, her twin sister, Uncle Steve, and Uncle Joe, didn’t even know she was there, often repeating the question, “Did you go and pick up Lauren?” Each time I responded with “she’s here…somewhere.” Their faces would wrinkle with confusion for a moment, and then they’d go back to planning, mourning, and denying that life had revealed an awful plot twist.
There wasn’t just one moment, one shift that sent us crumbling; there were many: lies–a buried ex-wife, sealed court records, forged financial documents, a home built with bloody hands. Indiscretions—Mrs. Hensley’s son, Richard, born with Malcolm DNA; Avery Peabody, the girl who lived in the woods, her cries a nightly song, also a Malcolm; and Janet Riley, the slow-witted girl my mother went to high school with, a Malcolm twice. There were compromised beliefs—a tug of war between man and God that ended with a knock on the door, a gunshot to the head, and the exposure of an adulterer, a thief, a coward; it could only be described as a natural disaster, so fast, so powerful, so encompassing we were left holding our guts, watching them dangle, wither; everything we believed in—love, family, joy, God—now the center of our sorrow, our angst.
The night before the funeral, I knocked on Lauren’s door, our old room. She let me in and told me to sit on the bed.
“Look at you…a high school graduate, getting ready to go off to college,” she pulled me in for a sloppy hug. “I’m proud of you…I want you to know that.”
“I know,” I agreed and then hesitated. “Why don’t you come around more? Why don’t you call me…or write me back?” I held on to her though she squirmed and pulled away. “I just want to know…because I miss you…really miss you. You’re my best friend.”
“One day you’ll know all the details; I wish it didn’t have to be this way.” She stood up and climbed on the bed behind me. “Let me brush your hair, for old times’ sake.”
I let her. At first I thought about what she said, my mind racing with questions, searching for clues. Then I relaxed, lost in the feel of the bristles climbing up and down my scalp, her soft fingers on my ears, the sides of my face, as she collected the hairs and pulled them back again and again.
When I left her room that night she hugged me hard, tight. “Stay with me tomorrow,” she whispered.
“But the funeral…”
“Stay with me instead…think about it, at least.” She let go of me and closed the door.
The bus driver aided Mrs. Clark up the steps, her cane hitting the side as she climbed. At the top of the steps she looked at the empty seats and found me huddled against the window.
“Full house, huh?” she laughed and winked at me, taking the first seat behind the driver’s.
Soon we were inching down the road, the bus clanking and moaning until we got to the highway when it settled into a strong, steady roar. I closed my eyes. The sound and the soft vibration filled me. But I could still hear the urgency in the babysitter’s voice, asking me to get to her, to the twins.
“This is Helen…Helen Schafer,” she yelled into the phone. “I have the girls and…please come,” she wept. “They’re in the hospital.”
“What happened? Where’s Lauren’s fiancé?”
“Uh…Lauren doesn’t have a fiancé…Lauren was admitted to Lynfield Psychiatric Hospital last week because…um…she um…tried to kill herself. I’ve been taking care of the girls and now…” she broke down again.
Over 300 mourners attended my grandfather’s funeral. I sat with my grandmother, mother, and father. My aunts and uncles sat in the rows behind us, with their spouses and children. Before leaving that morning, I had knocked on Lauren’s door, told her I was going to the funeral, but that I’d be back soon.
“I should be there, for moral support.”
“There’s nothing moral about this.”
“I don’t know what else to do…will you be here when we get back?”
She didn’t answer.
“I’ll bring you back something…a strawberry malt? Your favorite? Right?”
The funeral was long. So many wanted to express their condolences, shower us with compassion, and honor a man they believed to be kind, upstanding, faithful. We sat there and listened, too afraid to face the truth, too afraid to unravel the lies, too afraid to let go and see what was on the other side of the illusion.
Back at the house mourners poured into the living room and the kitchen. I raced upstairs, a melting strawberry malt in my hand.
“Lauren?” I knocked on the door. “I brought you a strawberry malt…can I come in?” I waited for a minute and then cracked the door. “Lauren…it’s me.”
Outside it was dark now. Just the small, orange lights on the bus floor, and a quarter moon hanging low in the sky. I was on my way to St. Joseph’s Hospital to see my nieces, Tabitha and Tilliah, who were suffering from a blood disorder. I had lost my sister three times: when she was sixteen and ran away, at seventeen when she returned unwed with twin baby girls, and at eighteen on the morning of our grandfather’s funeral when she hung herself in the closet. In her letter she asked me to forgive her and begged me not to blame myself. She understood my allegiance and didn’t regret shielding me from the dangers that lurked in the old farmhouse. It was her responsibility she said, being three minutes older.
“I trust that you will look after my baby girls. The sickness of sin pours through their blood.”