The Epperson sisters lived across the street from us in a huge clapboard house that went entirely uncared for from the moment their father died to the day the roof collapsed and the fire department decided to burn what was left for practice. Daddy told me Mr. Epperson had been in commodities but had done so poorly at it that he had to take a job at the FCX on the side where he was given a pickup truck and was employed delivering salt licks to the surrounding farms. He died three years before I was born. Daddy said he was nailing a shutter tight against the siding when he was taken by a stroke.
I don’t ever remember seeing Mrs. Epperson except when they carried her out of the parlor all bedecked with flowers and greenery and loaded her into the back of the hearse, and I couldn’t see her then. Momma said she was a mousy woman. Daddy said he’d always suspected she was mute, but Momma told me that wasn’t so. Momma and Daddy both agreed that she was nobody’s pretty child, and I didn’t need anybody to tell me that her daughters were three of the homeliest women I’d ever laid eyes on. They looked like old photographs of sodbuster’s wives—shapeless figures, plain manly faces, and heads full of thin brown hair drawn back tight into buns.
When their mother died, they were all three still fairly young women. Eustace was near 40, which was a good seven or eight years older than Cora and Annie, whose ages were indistinguishable from each other since sometimes Cora looked older than Annie and sometimes Annie looked older than Cora, depending on the light. I’d usually see one or the other of them a couple of times a week pulling a metal shopping cart off to the Big Apple, and whichever one of them it was would always say, “Hello, little Louis Benfield.”
And I’d say, “Hello, Miss Epperson.”
And she’d come back with, “It’s wonderful to be out of doors, isn’t it?” which Mrs. Epperson must have taught all three of them to say since they all three said it and which they probably would have still insisted on saying even if it were raining hot lead.
And I’d always answer, “Yes ma’m, it is nice to be outside.”
And whichever Epperson it was would unfailingly leave her regards to my Momma and Daddy, which I would usually deliver at the supper table. “An Epperson said hello,” I would say.
We never suspected that the Eppersons would ever be anything but kindly spinster women, so all of us were a little shocked when Annie got married, or anyway when she ran off with a man. He wasn’t from Neely but somewhere else, had to be from somewhere else since there wasn’t a man in Neely desperate enough to take up with an Epperson. He’d been in the area three or four days before he got down to our end of town. He was selling rhyming dictionaries, which came in a handsome two-volume set and for a very slight charge the owner could have his name tooled in gold across the front of each volume. When he arrived at our house, Momma had to field him since Daddy always refused to do that sort of thing, and she said he was a handsome enough gentleman and that he had entertained her by talking in couplets. She said he promised to make us all more poetical than we ever dreamed we could be, but Momma said she told him Daddy was an actuary and had no desire to be poetical, and as for herself she was too busy a homemaker to engage in such frivolity, and her son, God bless him, suffered from a brain deficiency which left him with no hopes of ever being an accomplished rhymer. Momma said he told her he was extremely sorry about my condition, and Momma told Daddy that made her feel mean and low. Daddy said better mean and low than poetical.
The Epperson sisters bought three sets of dictionaries. For almost a week solid we saw the salesman come and go from their house, and we assumed that he was merely working out the details and delivering the merchandise. But on a Friday evening when he left for the last time, he took Annie with him. Eustace and Cora acted like there’d never been anything but the two of them, and Annie was gone for the better part of a month before she came back to town one afternoon on a bus from Martinsville, Virginia. She walked all the way home from the bus station carrying her suitcase and a paper sack, and I stood on the end of the sidewalk and watched her come from way off down the opposite side of the street.
When she got abreast of me she said, “Hello, little Louis Benfield.”
And I said, “Hello, Miss Epperson.”
And she said, “It’s wonderful to be out of doors, isn’t it?”
And I said, “Yes ma’m, it is nice to be outside.”
Daddy imagined that salesman thought Miss Annie rich, resourceful, or potentially beautiful and then discovered she was just an Epperson.
That summer the Epperson sisters would sit out on their porch in the evenings, and one of them would read interesting bits out of the Neely Chronicle to the other two. Then autumn set in, and winter, and they shut themselves up in the house until spring. Something happened to the Epperson sisters that winter, and Daddy said it was probably Eustace’s idea and that it must have just stewed there with the three of them all closed up together. He called it a certifiable case of simultaneous insanity, which he said was certainly rare and probably unheard of.
They had decided they were triplets.
One morning in early April when it was still a little cool and breezy, a hired car pulled up in front of the Epperson house and Eustace and Cora and Annie came parading out the door and down the sidewalk, each one of them dressed in the same identical sky-blue frock, and the same black heels, and the same elbow-length gloves, and the same little white hats the shape of an aspirin tablet, and each one of them carrying the same black patent clutch purse. They were gone for most of the afternoon, and the news of where they’d gone to and what they’d gone to do got back almost before they did. They had traveled to the county seat of Eden, which was just a few miles down the road, and had paid a visit to the county clerk there, a Mr. Woodley. Carl Browner was sheriff of Neely then, and he said Mr. Woodley called him along about midafternoon sounding decidedly agitated and distraught. He said there were three Neely Eppersons in his office who had come to declare themselves triplets. Sheriff Browner told him he was surprised to learn that the Epperson sisters were triplets, and Mr. Woodley replied that they didn’t appear to be triplets as far as he could tell, that they didn’t even appear to be the same age. Sheriff Browner said no, he didn’t believe they were, and Mr. Woodley said that Eustace—he called her the mature one—wanted him to search the records and draw up a document certifying their triplethood, and he wanted to know from Sheriff Browner just what he was to do about that.
“Search the records, I guess,” Sheriff Browner told him.
The sheriff dismissed the hired car when he got to Eden, and he said he found Mr. Woodley at his desk neck-deep in official papers and with Eustace and Annie and Cora Epperson hovering over him from behind. Mr. Woodley was tracing the Epperson migration from the banks of the French Broad River to the east and then to the north toward Neely. He was still a hundred years and more than two hundred and fifty miles out of the county when the sheriff arrived, so Sheriff Browner suggested the Epperson sisters give Mr. Woodley a little time to do his work on the matter, which the three of them thought altogether reasonable, and they made an appointment for the following week. The sheriff said he feared Mr. Woodley might leap up from his desk and kiss him.
Once he got them in the car, Sheriff Browner turned to Eustace who had taken the front seat and told her he had no idea the three of them were triplets.
He said she bristled a little and drew her purse up tight against her chest. “We have discovered that we are,” she said.
When Mr. and Mrs. Epperson moved to Neely, they came complete with three more or less full-blown daughters, so we only had our suspicions about the attachments from Epperson to Epperson and were probably more surprised at what Mr. Woodley dug up than Eustace, Annie, and Cora were. The Epperson sisters weren’t triplets; one of them wasn’t even an Epperson. That was Cora and she was her Momma’s brother’s child, which made her a Greene. Mr. Epperson had taken her in after Mrs. Epperson’s sister-in-law had died and Mrs. Epperson’s brother had turned out to be no-count. Cora must have known all this at one time, since she was five when it happened, and Eustace certainly knew it, but Cora told Mr. Woodley it was a bald-faced lie and Eustace said yes indeed it was a bald-faced lie and Annie said it absolutely had to be a bald-faced lie. Sheriff Browner, who had driven the three of them to Eden, said it was a sad sight to see those women, all of them in identical scarlet dresses, wailing and moaning at poor Mr. Woodley, who the sheriff said looked as if he might be willing to strike up a compromise and recognize Annie and Cora as twins in exchange for some peace and quiet. He said the news had put all three Eppersons in a kind of indignant but still moderately polite rage, since they were respectable ladies after all, and the sheriff said he was so pained by their predicament that he suddenly suffered a massive lapse in good judgment. In an effort to offer some sort of comfort the sheriff told them he would consider recognizing them as triplets if they were able to get 50 adults in Neely to sign a petition verifying their claim. It was a tremendous mistake. The sheriff said he had temporarily forgotten what people were like.
They collected the names on an ordinary sheet of lined white paper, and for three mornings only at nine o’clock they came out of their house and set out toward town. On the first and the third day they wore their blue frocks, and on the middle day they wore their scarlet outfits which were quite a hit with the ladies of Neely and got them no end of comment. Eustace always carried the paper in her purse, and when they visited homes and shops and stopped folks on the street, the three of them would take turns explaining their situation. People said they were gracious and altogether level-headed, and I suppose with nothing more than their manners and show of good sense they managed to inspire among the citizenry of Neely the general impression that they had been victimized by some sort of terrible prenatal injustice. Nobody who was asked didn’t sign. The three church deacons signed. The ladies of the garden club signed. All of the icehouse employees signed. Every shopkeeper on the boulevard signed. The mayor signed and the mayor’s wife signed and the mayor’s 93-year-old blind and bedridden aunt signed. Miss Pettigrew signed and Miss Willa Bristow made her mark. And Mr. and Mrs. Pendzinski, who were passing through on their vacation from Ohio with a earful of little Pendzinskies and who qualified by virtue of being adults in Neely, signed and then took turns having their pictures made with the Epperson sisters.
Cora carried a dainty gold pen that she produced from her purse as Eustace drew the petition out of hers. Annie made her back available for a writing table if one wasn’t handy. Always before she handed over the paper, Eustace would clear her throat and read the terms of the proposal which the three of them had devised and one of them had scrawled across the top of the page:
Then Eustace would determine whether or not the prospective signee understood the terms of the document and Cora would offer the pen to whoever it might be signing, and whoever it was surely must have looked up to take the pen and seen Cora and Annie side by side before him, the two of them related more by pure homeliness than anything else, and then Eustace, off a little to herself, and a half dozen years older than the both of them and already beset with long ironcolored strands of hair lying in with the brown, and whoever it might be would take hold of the gold pen, which was so slight and delicate as to be almost impossible to get a grip on, and he would sign anyway, probably not because he saw any advantage in being triplets over being just sisters or over being just two sisters and one cousin, but because he couldn’t see any harm in it either.
By order of Sheriff Carlton Benjamin Browner and as testified to by these 50 below written people, Eustace Joy Epperson, Cora Simpson Epperson, and Annie May Epperson are hereby officially and forevermore recognized as the three triplets they are and always have been ever since they were born into it.
By the afternoon of the third day the Epperson sisters had filled the 50 slots, and we all thought they’d bolt directly for the courthouse while the ink was still clammy on that last name. But Eustace put the paper away in her purse and Cora put the pen away in hers and the three of them strolled home very leisurely and shut themselves up in the house for the better part of two hours. It seems they had gone to change and freshen up. Me and Momma stood at the front window and watched them when they finally did corne out away from the porch and into the late afternoon sunlight. Momma said they were dazzling, just dazzling. It wasn’t blue frocks this time or scarlet ones but three awesomely elaborate ivory white dresses, and three pairs of long ivory gloves, and three lacy ivory hats garnished on the backside with peacock feathers. We thought a car might call for them, but they walked all the way to the courthouse and all sorts of people fell in behind them as they went so that the crowd of us spilled out of Sheriff Browner’s office into the corridor and partway down the marble courthouse steps.
Somehow Sheriff Browner didn’t seem at all surprised to find himself host to half of Neely. He just sat a little uneasily at his desk not quite looking at anybody, which was his way, while Eustace removed the petition from a pearl-laden purse dangling from her forearm and flattened it out on the desk top in front of him. He picked up a pencil from off the blotter and began to check off the names, which resulted in the document being momentarily voided when it was discovered that Daddy had signed it twice. But the sheriff, a sensible man, just scratched out one of Daddy’s signatures and put his own in place of it. The jubilation was general and immediate. Eustace, Cora, and Annie accepted our congratulations with extreme modesty and thankfulness, and a courthouse clerk along with Mr. Singletary from the five and dime helped Eustace up onto a chair from which she delivered a brief speech directed mostly toward Sheriff Browner without whose assistance, she said, none of this would have been possible. That unleashed a fearsome ovation in the sheriffs honor, and he moved away from his desk, still refusing to look entirely at anybody, and made his way out of the room without ever offering to say a word.
Three days later, in the fat part of the morning, two men in a state-licensed station wagon followed the sheriff to the Epperson house. I suppose we knew they would come or that somebody like them would come since we all knew that the state would not allow two sisters and a cousin to parade around as triplets. Sheriff Browner assured us they were kind men, gentle and competent men. He promised that they would treat the Eppersons with respect and dignity, and we were satisfied. Me and Momma watched them bring Eustace and Cora and Annie out from the house and load them and their luggage into the car, and it struck Momma as an odd thing to see. She said everybody was a little too happy, a little too quick to laugh, everybody but Sheriff Browner, who just looked all around himself at the treetops and the sidewalk and the hubcaps on the state-licensed station wagon. His coloring was funny, Momma said, and he was slightly more hunch-shouldered than usual. She thought he might be ill and I thought he looked it myself, but then we’d never seen shame on Sheriff Browner before so there was no call for us to recognize it.
The Epperson sisters were taken to the Dix Hill mental facility in Raleigh, where they were tested for traces of sanity. We heard nothing from or about them for nearly a month until a very brief article appeared on the state news page of the Neely Chronicle. A committee of two doctors and a clinical psychologist had concluded that the Epperson sisters were “disoriented as to reality.” It seems they were a little more afflicted than we had imagined since the doctors judged them disoriented enough to have all three of them committed and their belongings auctioned off and their house put up for sale when a statewide search produced no heir. But nobody would buy the Epperson house. The realtor couldn’t even get anybody to look at it, and it was boarded up and sat empty for a year and a half. Then the roof collapsed in November, and people said it was a good thing the Epperson sisters had become triplets; otherwise they probably would have been crushed and mangled. In December the fire department burnt the remains in a training exercise and put on a less than encouraging show of firefighting; they managed to save the concrete footings.
It got to Sheriff Browner, at least that’s what people would say when they would talk about him after he was gone, and they would hardly ever talk about him, but when they did, they would say it was the Epperson sisters that started it. Momma didn’t think so, and Daddy said no, it wasn’t them exactly. It was more than them, he said. I was seven years old when the Epperson sisters decided they were triplets. I was nine and a half when we got word of their transfer, which was the last we heard of them and which came to us in the form of a banner headline across the front of the Chronicle:
TRIPLETS FIND HOME AT BUTNER
Momma wrote them letters and sent them cards but left off the practice when they began to return to her unopened. So by the time I was eleven we had not heard much worth hearing from the Epperson sisters in more than three years, and Momma said it wasn’t them, and Daddy said no it wasn’t them exactly. He said three and a half years was a long time. Momma said it was a very long time.