Mattie hasn’t seen Laura since their father’s funeral in March and before that it was more than a year, but she still thinks of them as Laura and Mattie, The Townsend Sisters, and fantasizes a bony old age in which they will rock on the porch of the summer house, staring into New Hampshire sunsets with rheumy eyes. They will rock in tandem the way, 25 years ago, the Russell sisters, Mary and Dorcas, rocked on the porch of the clapboard house on the edge of town, while they dickered with Laura and Mattie’s father over the sale of the two cow pastures on the lower slopes of Bald Mountain. In 1968, lakefront property would have been the wiser investment, but Mr. Townsend wanted a high vista of the hills he’d been coming up from Philadelphia to hike in since the age of 17.
The summer of her father’s patient negotiations with the Russell sisters, Mattie was engaged to be married. She, her parents, and Laura were staying in a cottage at the local inn and Paul came up for two weeks late in August. Becoming engaged was the first thing Mattie had ever done that Laura hadn’t done first. The newness of going first terrified and excited her. She and Paul pulled the sofa from the tiny living room out onto the screened porch and necked in desperate silence while her family slept. The excema on Laura’s hands raged that summer. She wore a pair of their mother’s white cotton gloves night and day, but Mattie’s hands were naked in new ways. At night her fingertips became ten hungry mouths. They tasted Paul’s long torso, the down of hair on his chest, the jutting hipbones. They rubbed his penis beneath the thin cloth of his shorts. He slid his fingers up under her panties. They unhooked, unzipped, unbuttoned but did not undress each other. Mattie was 21, and her innocence was ferocious.
Later, she undressed in the bedroom she shared with Laura. Guided by strips of moonlight filtered through Venetian blinds, she folded her clothes neatly over the back of the wicker chair. Laura slept on her side in the bed by the window, one gloved hand tucked beneath her cheek. Be happy for me, said Mattie’s heart.
The five-passenger commuter plane from Boston appears in the distance, curving in smooth and low over the Lebanon, New Hampshire airport. Mattie is afraid of flying, especially afraid of small planes and this one is small enough for the wings to tilt when the passengers climb in or out. Laura, however, is afraid of nothing. Laura personifies courage. She will be tired, though. First the long flight from Minneapolis, the wait at Logan, now the hippety-hop to Lebanon. Had it been too much to ask? She had called Laura in June, to discuss what to do with the property on Bald Mountain which now belongs to them. The rest of their father’s estate went to their mother, but the fields and the house marching up the side of Bald Mountain he willed to his daughters.
“Do what you like,” their mother says. “He wanted you to have it, for the grandchildren’s sake.” She seems suspicious of both of them. “I realize you hate trees,” she says to Laura, as though Laura’s move three years before to Minneapolis were an affront to every mountain her father had climbed. “You’ll probably sell to a trailer park,” she mutters to Mattie, “but it’s up to you and Laura, I wash my hands of the whole thing.”
“Mother hates being sad,” Mattie said to Laura on the telephone. “She’s being impossible. Look, this really isn’t something to talk about long distance. Let’s go to New Hampshire in July, see what the house says to us. We’ll have fun. We haven’t been together just the two of us for ages.”
A young man in overalls strolls from the hangar and stands beside Mattie on the tarmac. He shades his eyes to follow the path of the incoming plane.
“You got someone on the puddle-jumper today, ma’am?”
“My sister.” Mattie says. She wipes her brow. The heat radiating off the tarmac is making her dizzy.
Laura is the last to deplane and the young man smiles as she approaches them. “That one sure has to be your sister,” he says.
“We look more alike than we used to,” Mattie replies and for a moment sees the child Laura, thin and blond and solemn. I mustn’t crush her, Mattie thinks. Which breast? She remembers it was the left. “My favorite,” Laura said with a sigh on the phone. “I didn’t even know I had a favorite until the doctor told me the mammogram showed a lesion.” As Mattie holds out her arms, she feels the vertigo again and the by now familiar sense of incredulity.
“Laura had a mastectomy in May,” she told Paul after the phone call. Her voice was shaking. “And now she’s on a regimen of chemotherapy and can’t come East till August. The doctor said the tumor was small but aggressive and recommended chemotherapy. Why didn’t she tell me right away? I don’t believe this. My God, if I was diagnosed with breast cancer, Laura’d be the first to know. I’d have called her IMMEDIATELY.”
“Before you’d have told me?” Paul asked
“Well of course, you first,” Mattie said impatiently. “And I can see why she didn’t want Mom to know. Mom’s too vulnerable right now, but I’m her SISTER.”
Paul put his arms around her, stroked her hair. “Laura’s gutsy,” he said, “Laura’s strong.”
Mattie pulled back. “I’d have gone to her right away,” she wailed. “I’d have been on the next plane.”
“Hey,” Paul said. “This isn’t about you, Mattie.”
“That’s what Laura said.” Mattie’s voice quavered. “She said, it’s my cancer, Mattie, not yours.”
Mattie holds her sister gingerly, then reaches for Laura’s suitcase. She wonders what the young man saw that made him smile and supposes that family resemblances become more striking as people age. She looks into her sister’s large, wide-spaced dark eyes. That too, he might have noticed. They have the same eyes.
Mattie drives north on Interstate 91, faster than is safe because she is in a hurry to bring Laura back to Bald Mountain and the red timbrel roofed house in which summer after summer, until Laura moved West, they visited their parents, while the children grew older, stopped silting the floor with sand from the beach, began asking to borrow the car to go to the Mill Stream Bar and Grill on the left or “seedy” side of the lake. The last to borrow car keys had been Brian, Laura’s son, now a freshman at a college in San Francisco that doesn’t give grades, just comments. Brian is Jimmie’s age, almost Jimmie’s twin, but Jimmie doesn’t drive, and in any case, wouldn’t have been interested in the girls at the Mill Stream. When Jimmie and Brian were born a week apart, Mattie had hoped they might be more than first cousins to each other. Instead, because of Jimmie’s long years in special schools, they have been much less. Her older children, Laurie and Michael enjoy at best a wary, respectful rivalry and Brian has no siblings. None of them has what we had, Mattie thinks.
The next morning, she decides to cook a big breakfast which she will not eat herself, since she is watching her weight, but which will signal to Laura how much Laura means to her. Laura has always been a breakfast person. She peruses the cupboards for pancake mix and maple syrup.
The kitchen of the summer house has been designed with a view to aesthetics, not function. Mattie pads back and forth in bare feet and a shortie nightgown gathering up implements and ingredients. It’s a kitchen where nothing connects, as if the point is not to prepare food but too look out of the windows—a kitchen for feeling the sun on her arms as she watches a morning mist curl and lift in the folds of the hills across the lake. The lake itself is invisible in the summer because of the tall trees in the lower meadow, but the hills roll back, ridge upon ridge, until dissolved by sky. “Seven shades of blue,” their father said of the hills which he always called by name, Ragged and Sugarloaf, Big Bear, Little Bear, and the granite shoulders of Stetson with its abandoned fire tower, tiny as a tinker toy but visible on days of windless clarity.
Stetson is a barely discernible outline this morning, shrouded in haze. Beads of sweat prickle at Mattie’s hairline. Suddenly, she dumps everything in her arms onto a counter and places her hands on her breasts. She takes hold of each in turn, through the thin material of her nightgown, then runs her fingers over her nipples to make them stand up. She imagines Paul’s hands tracing the ridge of a long scar. Why wasn’t she told?
She has given Laura their parent’s bedroom with the attached bath and now hears water running in the shower. She tiptoes down the hall and opens the door to the bedroom. Laura has not yet unpacked. Her suitcase yawns beneath the windowsill where a stream of light angles down and flows over the rug. Dust motes dance crazily in its path. A tawny chestnut wig sits on the bureau on top of an overturned cereal bowl balanced on an empty aerosol can of Raid. Mattie imagines Laura in the shower, face uptilted to the water as it streams over her bald scalp, her remaining breast. The swath of sun widens on the rug, and Mattie places one bare foot into its radiance. She can feel the increased heat on her ankle. For a split second she thinks of calling Laura to come in and stand with her in this path of light and warmth. They could pretend it had healing powers. But as soon as Laura turns the shower off, Mattie flees back to the kitchen, busies herself at the stove.
“Dad’s bathrobe is hanging on the back of the bathroom door,” Laura says when she comes in to breakfast. She is dressed in khaki shorts and a workshirt with the tails hanging out and Mattie can’t tell if she’s appreciably thinner.
“I know. It still smells of him. I can’t bear to take it down.”
“He loved you best,” Laura says in a neutral tone. “He couldn’t see me, only you.”
Mattie is stunned. “That’s not true. He loved us both the same. I just loved him back more, that’s all. I was more demonstrative.”
Sitting at the oak table, Laura looks at Mattie as if she were one of her students who has said something foolish. “Parents can prefer one child over another. It happens all the time. I had Mother, you had Dad.”
“No!” Mattie is shouting now. “We both had them both and we had each other.”
Laura begins to stroke the fingers of one hand with the other, a gesture Mattie hates, left over from the years of excema. “You get so emotional, Mattie. It’s impossible to talk to you, really.”
Mattie lowers her voice. “Why didn’t you tell me about the mastectomy? How could you go through all that alone?”
“I wasn’t alone. I have friends in Minneapolis. They were with me.”
“Friends,” Mattie spits the word out. “It’s not the same as family. You and Derek are divorced and Brian’s in California. I should have been there, I should.”
“Mattie, I’m sorry if this hurts you, but I was taking care of myself, not you,”
“Of course, it hurts me. I want to be with you, that’s what sisters are for. Don’t you want that too? Don’t you want to know me when I’m 80?”
“It’s not even 9:00 yet,” Laura says wearily. “I haven’t had breakfast and I didn’t sleep well. I can’t get into all this right now. To be honest, I don’t know if I’ll want to know you when I’m 80.”
“It’s inconceivable to me that some day I wouldn’t love you.” Mattie’s heart pounds in her chest so hard it hurts.
Laura’s eyes close. “What’s inconceivable to you, is that / might not love you. Not the way you want. You can’t conceive of that because you couldn’t bear it.”
There is a sound in Mattie’s soul as of a series of doors closing. She listens to it: click, click click. “Sometimes I don’t know what gets into me,” she says at last. “Have some pancakes. I’m sorry I was so intense.” She sets a plate down in front of her sister, noting the relief that washes over Laura’s face.
In the afternoon, they drive into the village for groceries, past the clapboard house that belonged to the Russell sisters and has recently been painted a brilliant yellow. A sign in the front yard announces “Toaster dolls” and Mattie has a vision of thin bread dolls, something like gingerbread men, popping up in toasters, but Laura says they’re toaster covers, like tea cozies. In the grocery store, Mattie asks her, “Do you remember the paper dolls?”
Laura was ten the year she drew the sets of paper girls. She drew them two by two and the first pair had heads that sat directly on their shoulders, but soon after that they acquired necks, waists, and matching outfits—dresses, jeans, pajamas, school uniforms. The blond one wore her hair in braids or pony tails. The other had short dark curls. Mattie cut them out and laid them tenderly in a shoe box and whenever Laura was willing to listen, she brought them to life. They had names like Mona and Randy, Alison and Missy and lived lives of perilous adventure.
“I remember I couldn’t do fingers,” Laura says. “I drew hands that looked like mittens.”
Before supper, they sit on the porch. There is no break in the heat wave and none forecast. Laura reaches for a can of light beer from a cooler by her feet. It is her third since returning from the village. “I didn’t think you liked beer,” Mattie said. She is startled because Derek and Laura had been serious about health foods. They bought hydroponic vegetables, sprinkled bran on yogurt, balanced the yin and yang elements of their meals.
“During the treatments, beer seemed to help,” Laura says. “When the nausea got really bad, I’d take one or two bottles with me to work. My doctor says everyone works out his own system to beat the upchucking.” Upchucking is a word from their childhood. Mattie tenses. Tell me. But Laura is silent and a few seconds later the telephone rings. In a low, somewhat lugubrious voice, Jimmie says “Hi Mom, I miss you. How’s Aunt Laura. When are you coming home?” and Mattie tells him she’ll be home soon, Aunt Laura’s fine and will he put his Dad on?
“Are you making any decisions?” Paul asks. His voice is kind but tired. He doesn’t like it when she’s away. He says the house stays on hold when she’s not in it, that Jimmie forgets to feed the dog.
“We haven’t decided anything,” Mattie says. “We’re just being together here.” She looks over at Laura, who is knitting a sweater for a woman friend in Minneapolis. Several times Laura has measured the sleeves against Mattie’s arms which makes Mattie sad. She wants to tell Paul that Laura’s cancer has burned her all pure and white and clean as bone inside so that now she is able to say terrible, hurtful things. Jimmie comes back on the phone and asks to speak to Aunt Laura. Laura listens, her brow furrowed, because Jimmie can be hard to understand if you’re not use to the way he runs his syllables together.
“Yes—I am bald,” she says. “But I have a wig . . . No, it’s not real hair. It’s Dynel. . . . Well, because real hair is very expensive and mine’ll grow back, soon. . . . Yes, next time you can come up here with us. . . . I love you, too Jimmie.”
Laura puts the portable phone down and takes up her knitting again. “We ought to discuss the property,” she says when she comes to the end of a row. “That’s why I came.”
“The children want us to keep it. It’s been part of their lives from the beginning.”
“It doesn’t feel like our house, Mattie. It feels like Dad’s and Mother’s.”
“I don’t mind that. I think that’s nice, actually. I don’t see how you can talk of selling. Dad loved this place so.”
“I need the money,” Laura says. “And I won’t be getting back here that often.”
Mattie takes the phone into the living room and hangs it up. Her conversations with Laura run into walls that frighten her. She casts about for something the two of them can do together. A puzzle. Their father had put out a puzzle each summer. She begins to rummage through the cabinet below the built-in bookcase.
“Come choose a puzzle with me,” she calls to Laura.
In the cabinet, they find round ones with birds, flowers and fish radiating from their centers, pop art puzzles with Marilyn Monroe faces and giant hamburgers and several reproductions of famous paintings. Pieces of paper in their mother’s handwriting have been slipped under the lid of each box. “Two edge pieces missing, 1978.” “Complete, 1985.”
“Mother likes knowing where things are,” Mattie says. “Where we are.” She selects a puzzle of a Peter Breughel canvas entitled “Children’s Games” (“One piece chewed by dog, 1980.”)
“What’s this?” Laura holds out a small rectangular box that fell from the shelf when they pulled out the puzzles.
Mattie takes the box which has a slot in one side and a series of perforated holes in the other and turns it over in her hand. “It’s Dad’s Audubon BirdSong player,” she says. “Mother bought it for him after the heart attack. There’s cards to go with it. If you stick the card with the bird’s picture into the slot in the front, the box plays the bird’s song. The only one Dad could recognize was the rufus-sided towhee. I’ll find it for you, the cards are here somewhere.” She dives back into the cabinet and comes up with a card which she sticks into the slot.
The box produces a raspy mechanical warble and Laura starts to laugh.
“Mother tried to make it easy for him.” Mattie continues. “She said the rufus-sided towhee went drink your tea-ea-ea, drink your tea.”
“No self-respecting towhee would sound like that,” Laura is laughing outright now.
“Drink your tea-ea-ea,” Mattie trills again. She loves the sound of Laura’s laughter. If they sell the summer house, she is afraid Laura will disappear forever into the wide, rectangular, Midwestern grids of the city of Minneapolis, which isn’t on the way to anywhere Mattie might go.
She will never understand why Laura and Brian followed Derek to Minneapolis. By 1990, Derek wanted out of the marriage, that much was clear. It was why he’d accepted the offer from the University of Minnesota. Couldn’t Laura see that?
“Your sister’s going way out there arid all I see is the big D,” Mrs. Townsend muttered to Mattie. Divorce was not a word to cross their mother’s lips. “I never liked him,” she added, banishing her son-in-law into the past tense. “Neither did your father.”
In fact, Mrs. Townsend had liked Derek for many years, as had Mattie. Derek was a slightly built, dark and brooding intellectual tortured by childhood memories of Catholic priests and dim confessionals. She believed Derek liked her too.—”You and I are both hysterics,” he said once, and Mattie was pleased until he gave her the psychiatric definition of hysteria. Derek was in analysis throughout most of his marriage, but Mattie couldn’t see that this brightened his outlook on life, any more than did the success of his books. It surprised her to learn from Laura, after the divorce, that Derek had never liked any of the Townsends and, in a flash of revelation, she understood that her father had sensed this from the beginning, that despite the long, erudite conversations they exchanged during the summers at Bald Mountain, he had felt Derek’s refusal to become a member of the family.
As for Mattie, as far as she was concerned Laura might as well have climbed into a Conestoga Wagon with her best china and her beloved poetry so completely was Minnesota a land beyond her ken, a foreign country of harsh winters and endless prairies where Swedes worked from dawn to dusk with bland, blond competence and cities like Minneapolis rose belter skelter from the plains.
Laura and Derek moved in June of 1990, as soon as Brian’s school let out.
In August Mattie herded Paul and Jimmie out to visit.
“We’re not set up for guests, yet,” Laura said. They were briefly renting a furnished split level near the University. “There’s boxes everywhere.”
“It’s only the three of us,” Mattie insisted. “Michael and Laurie think they’re too old for family vacations.”
“Brian’s making new friends,” Laura said. “He won’t know how to include Jimmie. It’s not a good time, Mattie.”
“We’re driving across the country this summer,” Mattie said. “I need to see where you live, Laura. I need to get the feel of it. One night, two at the most. You’re practically en route.” (She had in fact poured over maps, engineered the entire vacation to put Minneapolis in their path.)
In Brian’s room in the small rented house, Mattie and Paul slept chastely in narrow twin beds, while Brian and Jimmie camped on the floor of the basement family room in sleeping bags. A swamp-like miasma composed in equal parts of Derek’s withdrawal and Laura’s anger penetrated each corner of the house as tangibly as fog. “God,” Mattie whispered to Paul, “this is awful.”
Jimmie was the only one untouched by the pestilence. He was fascinated by Brian’s earring and wanted one of his own. “No,” Mattie said. Jimmie had a hard enough row to hoe without earrings.
“What do people do when they’re in Minneapolis for a day?” Paul asked at breakfast.
“They go to the Mall of America,” Derek said. “By the thousands.”
“The Mall of America?” Mattie repeated. “Is that a joke?”
“No, it’s cool,” said Brian. “It’s not finished yet, but they had a grand opening anyway.” He looked uneasily at Jimmie. “There’s an amusement park right in the center and a train that kids can ride.” He and Jimmie were 16, but Jimmie towered over him. “How are you, Brian?” Jimmie had said when they arrived, and proceeded to wrap his cousin in a bear hug that lifted Brian’s feet from the floor.
“Right now, I’m feeling short. Relatively speaking,” Brian answered, and everyone laughed.
“Will you come to the Mall with us?” Mattie asked Laura.
“Count me out,” Derek said.
“Well that leaves the rest of us,” Paul said. “Let’s go to the mall.”
They flowed through the East portal of the Mall of America on a wave of families who, once inside, repeated themselves as in fun house mirrors. Teenagers in stone-washed jeans and Reeboks multiplied when no one was looking. Babies in strollers, for whom it was all legs and noise anyway, slept heavily or sucked on pacifiers.
“Let’s stay together,” Mattie begged.
“That’s unwieldy,” Paul said. “Why not break up men and women? We can meet back here in two hours.”
“There’s a Martial Arts store on the third level—it has neat posters,” Brian said. He was taking lessons in T’ai Chi and got up every day at six to do his exercises. Mattie had watched him from the window that morning as he moved in slow motion down the empty sidewalk in front of the house. He was lithe and wiry, like his father and his hands made deliberate, graceful movements in the air. He told her, when she asked, that T’ai Chi was not really a martial art. More of a meditation in self-defense.
Paul put an arm around each boy and they moved off together.
“Paul makes me feel safe,” Laura said. “He’s like the center tent pole, and we all flap around him in the wind.”
“Umm,” said Mattie. She didn’t ask how Derek made Laura feel. The way he moved quickly and furtively from room to room in the rented house reminded Mattie of a caged ferret.
“Do you want to shop?” Laura asked Mattie.
Mattie shook her head. “Let’s find a place to sit.” The roar of noise buffeted them up escalators and down corridors the length of several football fields. When they found a free table at a coffee shop wedged between the paws of a giant Snoopy, Mattie collapsed onto a molded plastic chair.
“Do you do this often?” she gasped.
Laura began to shred a discarded paper napkin lying on the table. “Derek wants a separation,” she said.
Mattie sucked in her breath. “Good.”
“How can you say that?”
“Because it hurts me that he’s hurting you so.”
Laura brushed the pieces of napkin to the floor. “Hurt,” she said. “I don’t think you know what hurt is. Last week, I was waiting at the curb to cross the street and I understood how a person could step in front of a truck just to stop the pain. Not that I’d do that,” she added quickly, “but I understood why.”
“Oh, Laura,” Mattie cried. “Talk to me. Tell me what’s going on.”
“I don’t want to,” Laura said. “I don’t have the strength.”
“Try,” Mattie said. “I’ll listen.”
Laura stroked her fingers, shook her head. “I don’t trust you.”
Mattie flinched. “What do you mean you don’t trust me? I trust you.”
“You’re not me,” Laura said. “We’re very different, actually.”
“We’re not. We’re close. We’ve always been close.”
“Not for the past couple of years,” Laura said. “Perhaps not for a lot longer.”
“Well I feel close to you,” Mattie insisted. “And I think you should come home and be with the people who love you.”
“Not right now, I want to keep my distance from the family. I’m seeing a therapist.”
“Who? What’s he like?”
“She,” said Laura. “She’s important to me. I can’t leave.”
Rage gathered in Mattie’s throat like bile. Some woman Laura paid money to talk to had displaced her. “What do you talk about? Do you talk about the family? Are we wearing the black hats now?”
“I talk about everything,” said Laura. “Mom and Dad, Derek and me. I talk a lot about me.”
“And me?” Mattie asked.
“I don’t think I’ve brought you up.” Laura said.
Mattie reeled. “Does she even know I exist? Does this woman who’s so important to you even know you have a sister?”
“Oh I’m sure she knows that,” Laura said. “You’re just not an issue right now, Mattie.” She pressed her fingers to her temple. “I have too much else to think about.”
“If you’re not ordering anything, please, you should give up these seats.” A fat Latino father and mother and two startlingly beautiful children, pressed in on their table, clutching dishes of frozen yogurt.
Laura stood up. “We’re leaving now,” she said.
Mattie glared at the Latino family. She glared at her sister. If she ever went to a therapist, Laura would certainly be an issue.
That evening Derek showed slides of the canoe trip in Northwestern Ontario he and Brian and Laura had taken in July. He was going out of his way to be charming, a good host. It’s because we’re leaving in the morning, Mattie thought. Because Laura’s told him we know they’re separating.
Derek was a skilled photographer and presented the slides with a flourish. “This will be a Son et Lumière production,” he said, slipping a Sierra Club cassette of loon calls and lapping waves into the stereo player. Jimmie, who was now wearing a T-shirt that said “I was a (picture of a loon) + a (picture of tick) in Minnesota,” helped him set up the projector and screen.
Mattie sat on the floor, her back against the sofa. “How could you let him buy that shirt,” she hissed to Paul under her breath. “It’s disgusting.”
“He wanted to buy something and I had to get him past a Pierce Your Ears Here Pagoda.”
Jimmie turned from the projector. “Are you mad, Mom?”
“No,” said Mattie.
“Yes you are,” Jimmie said. “Are we ready, Uncle Derek? Can I turn the lights out?”
Mattie stared glumly at Laura who was eating from a dish of popcorn on the coffee table. How could Laura say she didn’t know what hurt was? Her head ached and after a while she closed her eyes. The recorded lapping of the waves and the repeated loon calls raised goosebumps on her arms. There were loons on the lake in New Hampshire also. Paul’s first summer, he and Mattie took the Inn canoe out at dusk and listened for the eerie warbling that echoed across the water. “It’s such a sad sound. They shouldn’t call it laughter,” Mattie said and showed him her forearm with its dimpled flesh and the upright hairs.
The summer Mattie was engaged to be married, Laura had completed her second year of graduate school and was writing a thesis on T.S. Eliot. “I guess when you get married you’ll be a doctor of philosophy,” Mattie said. “And I’ll be your Matron of Honor.” Mattie spoke of marriage for Laura that summer as if she were casting a spell, willing it to happen. Her father had said (though not of course in Laura’s presence) that it was a good thing Laura was preparing a career, since she didn’t have much sex appeal. That was ridiculous. Marriage was out there, waiting for Laura. As soon as her hands cleared up.
Laura’s hands first flared up when she was 14. Twelve-year-old Mattie thought of the excema as Laura’s Affliction and felt obscurely relieved. Laura’s body didn’t look like hers any more and Laura’s friends talked about dating and played Elvis records. Mattie was grateful to The Affliction which made Laura shy and socially awkward. It gave her time to catch up.
Now she had done more than catch up.
“I grow old, I grow old,” Mattie quoted dramatically. They were sunning on the Inn beach. “I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.” She dribbled a few grains of sand onto the book Laura was reading. “Prufrock is my absolutely favorite Eliot poem,” she said.
Laura flicked the sand off the page. “That’s like saying your favorite Tchaikovsky piece is his First Piano Concerto.”
“That is my favorite piece,” Mattie responded. “Why do I have to outgrow the things I love?” She turned away, discomfited. Would she one day outgrow her love for Paul? A man she had not even met a year ago.
He’d never asked Laura out. They’d been friends, nothing more. He knew Laura first because they lived in the same apartment building in Cambridge, Paul in his last year at the Business School. Mattie came down from college over the January break and the three of them drove to the Boston suburbs to go ice skating at an outdoor rink. It was cold, the stars icy white and brittle as bits of glass. She remembered the piles of snow pushed back behind the roped off area, the waltz music from the overhead loudspeakers, and the glass enclosed snack bar where she and Paul and Laura warmed their hands around cups of hot chocolate. “Maybe I’ll apply to graduate school too,” Mattie said. “Then next year we can all be in Cambridge together.”
But he wrote to her as soon as she returned to college and now she was going to be his wife.
In the hot, windless nights on Bald Mountain, Mattie dreams of her sister and wakes frequently. In one dream Laura is dressed in gray overalls with a carpenter’s belt of tools about her waist. She has lost the elfin look of her childhood and become the rangy, athletic Laura of high school. She holds nails in her mouth which she removes with a white gloved hand and hammers one by one into the boards of a stage set. Mattie watches from a distance. She doesn’t know how to construct a stage and in any event she has no tools. When Laura has finished her stage, she climbs upon it. “Good,” the dream Mattie thinks and clambers up beside her. She elbows Laura slightly to the side. The stage lights come up bright and she thinks they will sing a duet, but Laura sits down and puts her hands up to her hair which Mattie recognizes for the first time as a wig. “The trouble with Dynel is that it doesn’t breathe,” says Laura. Mattie looks out into the audience. All the spectators are elderly men and women, some with walkers, others canes. Their mother sits in the front row, widowed and grieving. “For heaven’s sake,” she calls out to Mattie. “Get down from there and give your sister some room. She can’t breathe.”
Mattie speaks this dream out loud so as not to forget it. Laura has told her she writes her dreams down and tells them to her therapist. She says it was unnatural, the way their mother wanted them always to be together. “I tell her about our portraits in the dining room,” Laura says. “About the five-year-olds.”
They took their portraits with them when they married. When Mattie hung hers in the living room of her first house, she thought how wise of her parents to have had them painted as each turned five, before they became self-conscious. Mattie visualizes the little girl, Laura, seated in a wing chair, in a white blouse with puffy sleeves and a red plaid skirt with matching suspenders. Her light blond hair is caught up in a red ribbon and she cradles a furry toy fox in her arms. Luminous eyes look out on the world with direct candor.
“I don’t trust you,” Laura had said in Minneapolis.
And again the day after their father’s death as she, Mattie, and their mother sat in various stages of exhaustion at the dining room table, designing the memorial service.
“Dad loved Oh did those feet, in ancient times, Laura said. We could use that as a recessional. Would you like that, Mother?”
Mrs. Townsend put her hand on Laura’s arm. “You’re taking charge so beautifully,” she said. “It’s as if your father were here. You’re just like him.”
She had flowed into her older daughter’s arms with a little bleat when Laura and Brian arrived from the airport and Mattie had let her breath out in a long sigh. The unbearable knot of tension in the pit of her stomach relaxed.
Now she reached across the table for Laura’s notes on the service. “I’ll type these up for us,” she said.
Laura snatched them back. “Leave them alone. I don’t trust you. You’ll make changes.”
“I don’t trust you, I don’t trust you!” Mattie voice spiraled upwards. “You keep saying that and I don’t know what I’ve done.”
“Oh girls, be quiet,” said Mrs. Townsend. “The minister’s in the living room with Paul. This is no time to be fighting.”
“We’re not fighting,” Mattie pounded her fist on the table. “I just want to type up your notes, Laura. I won’t change a word, I promise.”
“You will.” Laura’s voice was thin and tense. “It won’t be mine anymore.”
“Mine, yours, what are you two raving about. I won’t have it,” said Mrs. Townsend. “How can you shout like this today? Why can’t you be kinder to each other? I’m going into my room now to lie down and the two of you are to stop this constant bickering.”
Mattie looked guiltily at Laura when they were alone. “Constant bickering,” she repeated. A bubble of laughter tickled the back of her throat.
Just before morning, Mattie dreams Laura is Cordelia and she is King Lear. She staggers about a blasted, rain soaked heath with Laura in her arms and howls like a dog. When she wakes, it is to a real storm with lightning zipping everywhere over the mountains, the staccato of thunder drawing nearer and long lines of rain falling from the eaves, thick as ropes.
By midday they are marooned. The rain, which refuses to let up, has carved a deep gully in the dirt road that leads up from the blacktop, but has not brought any relief from the heat wave. The air is heavy as damp sheets and the barometer in the kitchen is stuck on the ornate curlicue “F” of “falling.”
“Nothing we can do, till the storm’s over.” Mattie says.
The road has washed out before. One summer, long ago, it rained so hard Brian and Jimmie could sail their bathtub boats in the meadow puddles. The boys were three then, with Brian accelerating past Jimmie at warp speed.
Laura grows increasingly restless. At dinner, she makes a complicated pasta dish, banging pots and pans together.
“This wasn’t exactly how I’d planned it,” Mattie says. “I wanted to seduce you with blue-gold mountain days.”
“It’s okay,” Laura says. “We don’t have to do anything about the property this year. Too much is happening all at once.”
“It’s all happening to you,” Mattie says sadly. “Is that why we’re estranged?”
“What a funny word to use,” says Laura. “Do you want onions in the spaghetti sauce or not?”
Mattie thinks estranged is exactly the right word. In its formality, there is no hope. She sits at the oak table while Laura chops and grates.
“Lord,” Laura says. “You do stare at me. What are you thinking?”
Mattie passes her hand slowly over her face, but her expression doesn’t change. “Tell me what you see,” she says.
Laura giggles. “We used to get hysterical when you played that.”
The year she was nine, Mattie practiced long hours in front of her mirror. “Read my face, Laura,” she’d say. “Tell me what you see.” She passed her hand across her face. “Is this Hate, Love, or Fear?”
“What on earth are you doing?” Laura asked,
“I’m running the full gamut,” Mattie said.
“What full gamut?”
“The Full Gamut of Human Emotions. The trick is not to move your face. You do it all with the eyes. Look, now its hate.”
Laura laughed. “You’re nuts. Nothing happens. You look just the same.”
“I can’t do it very well yet,” Mattie said. She passed her hand across her face again. “Now it’s fear.” But she too had begun to laugh and soon they were rolling on the floor, holding their stomachs, shrieking like banshees until their mother walked in and told them laughter like that ended in tears nine times out of ten.
The lights go out briefly after dinner. Laura and Mattie sit in the dark on the enclosed porch, watching the rain lash the trees. When the lights come back on, Mattie stands up. “We need a project,” she says. “Choose something we can do tonight.”
“Let’s work on the puzzle,” Laura says, then she flushes crimson. The color flows across her face and neck like some photographic special effect in a film. She doesn’t do much more than brush her hand across her forehead, but Mattie suddenly realizes what is happening. “You’re having a hot flash,” she exclaims, and Laura replies, “It wells up, Mattie, like a wave.” Laura is 47, and the chemotherapy has thrown her into instant menopause. Mattie thinks how hot her scalp must feel beneath the wig and half expects Laura to whip it off, but Laura only bites her lip and repeats that it might be fun to finish the puzzle.
They settle into chairs at the card table in the living room, and Mattie hides the lid of the box which shows the finished painting. My sister is at risk, she thinks. The pain stabs at her, but it is her own pain, not Laura’s. Laura and she are not paper doll twins, and not five-year-olds staring down at the family gathered round the dining room table. The child with the red-ribbon in her bright hair who holds the fox in her lap and looks upon them with that interested, level gaze, is a woman whose breast has been removed and the one with the dark, dreamy eyes, the one imagining what that must be like, can’t imagine what that must be like.
Hours pass as Laura and Mattie work their way in from the edges beneath circular pools of light from the standing lamps they’ve pulled up close. The puzzle is a chaotic assortment of little people in contorted postures. Laura works by shape, Mattie by color. Laura gets up once to turn on a small radio permanently oriented to a classical music station received through waves of static. The hissing music pleases them.
Towards midnight, Mattie goes to a cupboard and returns with a bottle of Chianti and two jelly glasses. She attempts to work a piece into Laura’s corner.
“Any fool can see that doesn’t fit,” Laura says, but her voice is sweet and sleepy.
“Right color, wrong doo-hinkies,” Mattie agrees. “Let’s look at the picture on the lid.”
“Nothing doing. We can finish without cheating. The laws of probability are bound to kick in soon.”
Mattie fills the jelly glasses with more wine. The symphony is followed by a fuzzy Star Spangled Banner, then silence. Neither the ticking of the clock on the mantel, nor the sound of falling rain can penetrate the island of light in which she and Laura sit hunched over a puzzle with one piece missing, chewed by a dog in 1980.
Trickles of perspiration run down the side of Laura’s face.
“You’re hot,” Mattie says quietly. “Why don’t you take it off?”
Laura lifts the cap of chestnut hair from her head and places it carefully in her lap. She raises her jelly glass of wine in a salute. “To hair that grows in again,” she says. A short fuzz covers most of her scalp, but sparsely. Mattie can see the shape of Laura’s skull,
“I was worried,” Laura says. “I was worried there would be knobs and things, but it’s not so bad.”
Mattie wants to get up and caress Laura’s head, hold it against her breast. “Laura,” she says and her voice flows into the golden space without disturbing it. “Aren’t you scared?”
Laura hesitates. She looks down, but Mattie sees something flicker for an instant, light and fast as hummingbird wings. I was right, she thinks. It’s all in the eyes.
“After the first month, I had my period right on schedule,” Laura says. “I thought how brave of my blood to defy the doctors like that. But then, the next month, nothing.” She reaches for more wine. “Are we making any headway here?” When she yawns, Mattie is reminded of a baby bird, opening its beak for food.
“We’re doing fine,” Mattie says. She studies the puzzle. She’s been searching for a mostly red piece with a thin diagonal of yellow across its foot. “Any minute now, any minute,” she singsongs. She suspects she is a little drunk.
“Any minute what?”
“The laws of probability . . .” She focuses on Laura’s hand as it wanders over the surface of the puzzle. She wants to take the hand and lay it against her cheek.
Laura picks up the little box with the perforated holes which has been pushed to the edge of the card table. “Drink your tea,” she warbles.
“No self-respecting towhee,” Mattie replies.
Laura cradles the little box as though the towhee were nesting inside. “Ah, Mattie,” she says softly, into her cupped hands.
The rain sprays against the window like surf and Mattie leans across the table. The island of light trembles rosily. “What was that bit of Eliot you used to quote all the time, the summer I was engaged? Something about a bird?” She reaches far down inside and the line of poetry floats up.
Go go go, said the bird. Human kind cannot bear very much reality. She pounces on the red and yellow piece, fits it into place. “I guess the laws of probability just kicked in,” she says. Little blue veins are visible on Laura’s scalp. Her wig sits in her lap like a small spaniel.