by Robin Vigfusson
Patricia Barnes had reached an age when the dead people she loved had begun to outnumber the living. This fact crystallized when she lost her sister, Sandra. At first, Sandra’s death was hazy and liquid, something that couldn’t be grasped, but within a month the idea that Sandra was no longer on earth had hardened into immutable fact.
“I really thought we’d be old ladies together,” Patricia told her husband, Don. They were watching a rerun of Law and Order with wine in the living room, a nightly pastime, since they’d both retired. “I don’t know why, but it’s worse than when I lost my parents.”
“You expect to outlive your parents,” he said. “It’s different with friends or siblings. “
“It didn’t affect me like this when my brother, Jack, died. She wasn’t just my sister; she was my best friend,” Patricia said.
Don nodded, but remained implacably focused on the television screen. Men were not amenable to discussing misfortune. Tragedies were like problems that couldn’t be solved. You had to move on. Dwelling on them just became indulgent. It wasn’t just a quirk of his generation. Their two sons were the same way.
In the months preceding Sandra’s death from cancer, the sisters had become closer than ever. Sandra couldn’t drive anymore, and her daughter couldn’t be bothered to visit, so Patricia took her everywhere. She’d become too frail to do more than sit in a diner and eat half a grilled cheese sandwich or go to a drugstore and shop for birthday cards. Still, she was adamant about getting out of the house and Patricia supported her as if these errands were pilgrimages. They were shopping for azaleas at a nursery the day before Sandra sank into a coma and succumbed to what the doctor inanely termed ‘active dying.’
After Sandra’s death, the world felt darker and colder. When Patricia looked at people her own age, they seemed to have faded into shadows without knowing it. There was a dim sameness about all of them. They were even interchangeable no matter how much they tried to distinguish themselves with hobbies or travel or pretty grandchildren. She had the sense her own life was shrinking, narrowing down and becoming opaque like an image viewed through a telescope.
Some months later, Patricia had a startling dream, the colors and feelings more intensely realized than waking life. She was in a strange house that was huge, even cavernous, and sunlight flowed through walls that seemed translucent. The golden, rose and violet hues shone as splendidly as stained glass and the brown stain on the furniture was warm and consoling. The house seemed so infinite that the winding staircase was more like a bridge connecting one town to another.
The number of rooms were endless and Patricia wandered on different floors, not sure of where she was or what she was looking for. She finally entered a small yellow laundry room with dull white, antique appliances. It was the utility room in her parents’ house when she was a child.
Her sister, Sandra, was shoving clothes into the dryer. She looked young and radiant. Her hair was black, shining and wild. Patricia burst into tears.
“Sandra, you look so beautiful!”
Sandra seemed distracted. She had her hands full with mountains of laundry on the floor still to be done.
“Thank God, you’re here,” Sandra said. “You can help me with this.”
Patricia took no offense at Sandra’s offhand greeting. Her older sister had always been the alpha female. Patricia obediently began to separate colored clothes from whites.
“What’s it like here, Sandra?” she asked.
“Not that great. There are problems here, too.”
“Have you seen Mom and Dad?” Patricia asked.
“I haven’t seen anyone. I haven’t been out of here.”
“Is this where you live, now? This whole place is yours?”
“It’s a lot to clean, that’s for sure.”
“I can see that.”
“Could you just start folding?” Sandra impatiently handed her a hamper of clean laundry. “The sooner we finish, the faster I can finally go outside.”
“Whose clothes are these, anyway?” Patricia asked, laying a white blouse on a metal table. She could swear she’d owned this same blouse herself when she was in high school. She still admired the scalloped neck and pearl buttons.
“I have no idea,” Sandra told her.
They worked for what seemed like hours and when Patricia woke the next morning, she felt exhausted. She was supposed to help Don paint the kitchen. Much of their time was now spent refurbishing the house and seeing how cheaply they could do it.
Don had let her choose the color and she’d picked a light blue called Pale Lapis. She didn’t dare tell him she now thought the color was insipid. t wasn’t too late to exchange Pale Lapis for something warmer, but she knew that suggestion would irk him.
They were sitting on drop cloths on the floor, putting primer on the woodwork. Every inch and crevice of the kitchen walls had been meticulously stripped, washed and sanded down. Her husband had been a scientist at Hoffmann-LaRoche and was the kind of man who turned brushing his teeth into a ‘process’. He didn’t do things, he ‘executed’ them, always choosing the most tortuous method. “You’re being sloppy, Trish,” he said, noticing her listless brushstrokes. “You’re missing parts of the surface.”
“I didn’t sleep well last night,” she snapped back, not telling him about her dream.
They both worked in silence for a while.
“Didn’t you once call my sister a clotheshorse?” Patricia asked.
“Not me. You always did. Why are you asking that?”
“It’s weird because I know she spent a lot of money on clothes, but I can’t remember anything she wore.” Had those been her things they were washing last night? Sandra had always shopped compulsively, grabbing dresses off racks as if she’d regret it if she didn’t. She’d even worn a lot of Patricia’s clothes when they’d both lived at home, just taken them out of her closet without even asking. Patricia now recalled terrible fights they’d had over her sister’s flagrant disrespect.
Later in the week, in another dream, Patricia met up with Sandra again. She found her in a plush Victorian chamber with feces and hairballs all over the carpet. Both sisters sank to their knees with brushes, soap and water, and started to clean. It seems that’s all she did when she visited Sandra.
“This is disgusting,” Patricia said.
“Some goddamned animal got in here and shit all over the floor.”
“You never did like animals,” Patricia said, disposing of poop she’d wrapped in towel paper. She had to gag. “When we were little, you were mean to Princess.” Princess had been a childhood pet, a young tabby cat.
“That cat was a bitch,” Sandra said, unrepentantly. “She scratched me.”
“She was a kitten. She didn’t know what she was doing. You teased her.”
“Well, she scratched me up bad.”
“How badly do kittens scratch?”
“Look, Mom and Dad had her put to sleep. They didn’t do that for no reason,”
“You made them,” Patricia said. “You bawled your head off and told them what she did and Dad said, ‘Well, we can’t have this’.”
“Oh, bullshit!” Sandra yelled. “At least, I paid attention to her. You completely ignored her.”
“I didn’t play with her because you’d totally bent her out of shape. I was scared of her. She was unpredictable.”
“You ignored her,” Sandra repeated. “Don’t be surprised when she shits all over your carpets, too.”
Patricia hadn’t thought about Princess in decades. She’d only been five when they owned her. Sandra was four years older and Patricia had forgotten what a bully her sister was as a child. Doing these chores together was bringing out the worst in them. No wonder she’d never been friends with people she worked with. You associated them with a place you didn’t want to be and things you didn’t want to do. Probably if she’d met Sandra in an office and they’d been strangers, they would have loathed each other.
“Sandra, did you know you were dying?” Patricia asked suddenly. “Or were we both in complete denial?”
“Of course, I knew I was dying.”
“You always acted as if you thought you’d pull through. ”
“I wanted to make a graceful exit. Mostly, I was thankful that I’d never been tortured or homeless. The possibilities are endless. You just have to watch the news. On a grand scale, my luck seemed staggering. You start to think that way toward the end.”
“You were only seventy.”
“That’s not young. When we were little kids, most people were gone by then. Remember?”
“Are you trying to comfort me?” Patricia asked.
“Not any more. I already died. Thank God, I’m done with that.”
Patricia didn’t wake until noon the next day and Don had started priming the kitchen walls without her.
“I’m sorry,” she apologized to him when she came downstairs.
“Why don’t you just go back to bed?” he told her, irritably.
She unpacked the roller he’d put in a plastic bag and dipped it in a can of primer.
“I don’t understand why we have to cover the walls, anyway,” she told him. “I heard you just have to go over the smudges.”
“I explained to you. The paint will peel, otherwise. But as usual, you didn’t listen.”
There was a range of philosophies about house painting and naturally, he’d chosen the most exacting one.
Her shoulders and arms were tense from scrubbing her sister’s carpet, but she didn’t complain.
“Watch me, Trish. Watch how I roll on the primer,” he said referring to his poised, expansive strokes.
“Your arms are longer than mine,” she said, unimpressed. This was not the Sistine chapel. It was a wonder this man’s scrupulousness hadn’t killed her yet. They worked till evening and that night, she met Sandra in a desolate bedroom.
It was bitterly cold and windows were broken as if vandals had smashed them. The drapes looked mutilated and cobwebs hung from the ceiling as thick as matted hair.
“God, this is gross,” Patricia said. Sandra handed her a broom.
Sandra vacuumed, while Patricia swept up the broken glass and stripped the bed. The sheets were stained with blood like bandages of war casualties.
“You never knew I slept with my husband’s brother, did you?” Sandra said. She had turned off the vacuum cleaner and was facing Patricia.
“You’re kidding?” Patricia was aghast.
“It’s true,” Sandra said blandly. “I slept with Paul. We carried on for years.”
“Did Liz know?” Liz was Paul’s wife.
“She found out. Eventually.”
“How about Charles?” Charles was Sandra’s husband.
Sandra looked ashen and nodded. “It was a nightmare. You can’t imagine.”
“You never told me,” Patricia said.
“How could I?”
“I don’t know if I knew you at all, Sandra.”
“You knew what I wanted you to know.”
Patricia didn’t answer.
“Don’t act so high and mighty,” Sandra said. “I’m sure you didn’t tell me everything, either.”
“Is that why you and Charlie moved back to New Jersey?” They had lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts for most of their marriage, in the same town as Paul and Liz. Charlie had been an Assistant Professor at Boston University. Patricia hadn’t seen much of her sister during that time.
“Charlie was no angel, either,” Sandra said. “And neither was Liz.”
“Oh my God!” Patricia almost screamed. “Did you swap—were you into that?”
“Of course not! Charlie cheated on me with one of his students. Not to mention, quote, unquote,” she gestured with her fingers, “a few colleagues of his. He did it first.”
“What a bastard,” Patricia said. “I had no idea.”
“What can I say? It was the Seventies; we were young and benighted. Not to mention stoned.” Sandra had been a volatile girl, but she was quite unflinchingly remote now that her life was over.
She turned on the vacuum cleaner, again.
“Did Paul and Charlie stay in touch after it happened?” Patricia asked.
Sandra turned the vacuum off.
“Charlie went to visit him before he died. I didn’t.” Paul had died of a brain tumor two years before.
“And here I thought they were really close.”
“Fuck them both,” Sandra said tiredly. “I think Charlie just stayed married to me so he could torture me, afterwards.”
“Have you seen Paul, here?” Patricia asked.
“I told you, I haven’t seen anyone. And he’s the last person I want to see. I think when I finally do get out of here, I just want to meet all new people.”
Patricia took that personally and woke up.
She and Don couldn’t work on the kitchen, because it took twenty-hours for the primer to dry. They decided to go food shopping, then do yard work.
“Did you know my sister had an affair with her brother-in-law?” Patricia asked Don in the car, on their way to the ShopRite.
“With Charlie’s brother?” He looked shocked. “How long have you known this?”
“Never mind,” Patricia said.
He shook his head. “Poor Charlie.”
Patricia was silent. In her younger days, she’d been a pretty brunette and quite flirtatious, but adultery was out of the question. She was too shrewd and cautious for that. Still, her husband’s comment made her guilty. She could hardly fathom now why young people were so prone to stray, why it was an omnipresent danger like old people falling and breaking their hips. Maybe sex appeal was the single energy that made human beings unique. Once it faded, everyone seemed monotonous, no matter how smart or accomplished they were.
Patricia wondered if her niece had found out or if Sandra’s nephews knew. It seemed to qualify as incest. An affair that hazardous was more like a disease that could contaminate your whole family. No wonder Sandra couldn’t bring herself to tell her; her silence was a form of quarantine.
Patricia started to cry.
“What’s the matter, Trish?” Don looked concerned.
“I don’t know. I’m just very tired.”
“You never mentioned any of this before.”
“Mentioned what?” she asked.
“Your sister and Charlie’s brother.”
“I shouldn’t have said anything.”
“How long have you known?”
“She told me right before she died.”
Don looked solemn and shook his head.
“Poor Charlie,” he repeated.
“Charlie was no angel, either,” Sandra said. “He cheated on my sister. Maybe she did it to get back at him.”
“Well, it explains a lot. About Samantha.”
Samantha was Sandra’s daughter. She’d been diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder, which meant she had no boundaries. She’d had four children with four different men, made countless subpar suicide attempts, and was capable of doling out inexhaustible verbal and mental abuse on everyone around her, including waiters and cashiers.
Samantha lived on welfare supplemented by her parents. She’d wanted a fifth child before ‘the shop closed down’, but fortunately, her eggs were no longer viable and suitors had fallen away.
She’d been a beautiful girl, which had made her condition more treacherous. Now, she was missing some teeth and her figure was bloated from alcohol. The symptoms that had fascinated men when she was young, they lately found repellent.
“Samantha didn’t come from nowhere,” Patricia told him. All these years, she’d just thought Sandra and Charlie were unlucky.
When Patricia met Sandra that night, it was in her niece’s bedroom. The whimsical wallpaper looked as pale as ruined hope. Toys were broken and books torn apart, more in grief than rage. The pink coverlet on the bed was smeared with tears and even bits of flesh. Dolls lay on the floor, naked and dirty, like neglected children, surrounded by used syringes. Patricia knew she couldn’t help her sister clean this room.
“I don’t think I’m going to visit you anymore, Sandra,“ Patricia told her. “If all I’m going to do is clean your house, I might as well clean my own. The truth is I’m spent. Besides that, I really have no business being here.”
The tragedy of this wreckage was so intensely private, Patricia regretted intruding on her sister. There were reasons why borders between the living and the dead had been drawn.
“I really should be doing this alone,” Sandra agreed. “There’s nothing more personal than your own mess, is there? Nothing so uniquely yours. It’s why I got rid of so much before I died. I wanted to clean up after myself.”
“How long do you think it’ll take?” Patricia asked.
“Maybe six months. If I work really hard.”
“Then what will happen?”
“I never really knew what was going to happen when I was alive. Why should it be any different now?”
“What’ll you do?” Patricia asked. “What do you think is waiting out there?”
She was right, of course. Sandra had been a mean girl all through high school, a grand master of humiliating and ostracizing perceived inferiors to the delight of like-minded peers.
“You ought to come to terms with what you did to Princess,” Patricia said, seeing that the cat had even gotten in here. Her hairs were all over her niece’s nightgown.
“You’re right,” Sandra said. “I wronged her.”
The sisters embraced and looked at each other. A sense of stillness came over Patricia, the kind a hurricane leaves in its wake. Sandra had been a failed human being, but Patricia still loved her.
“God only knows what’s waiting for me,” Patricia said.
“I have no idea,” Sandra told her.
Robin Vigfusson earned her M.A. in Political Science from NYU, but her real love is fiction, especially short stories. Her work has appeared in Coe Review, The Blue Hour, Referential Magazine, Caravel Literary Arts Journal, Lunaris Review, Bookends Review, Junto Magazine, Jewish Fiction.net and podcast on No Extra Words.