The rabbit is laid out on the driver’s side floor, not yet stiff, just cool and solid in the early August morning. I discover it when I wrench open the door of my mother’s old white station wagon, borrowed for the night and parked just down the street from my last-summer-in-Bakersfield apartment, my 1975 way-station between high school and college. I probably had not locked the car when I’d pulled up to the curb late Saturday night, probably never locked it: this neighborhood on the outskirts of downtown is that deserted. But someone has killed an animal or found one dead and chosen my car, our family’s car, to dump it in.
Maybe whoever did that somehow already knew what I’d just learned. The morning jangle of the phone, my mother’s tight voice on the line: There’s been an accident. My sister Merry in the passenger seat, her over-age boyfriend behind the wheel, crashing through construction barricades into a concrete embankment. Her 16-year-old body trundled into the hospital an hour after midnight, and now it’s 7 am. She hasn’t regained consciousness. My mother needs a ride home from Mercy.
I grab the rabbit’s hind legs, dredge it up out of the well under the steering wheel and fling it as far as I can. It lands with a thud in the dusty oleanders poking through the auto supply store’s chain-link fence up the block. I force my eyes away from the lump it forms in the bushes and get into the car, start the engine coughing. As I pull away from the curb I check the rearview to see if I can still see it, and by the traffic light on 23rd Street, I can’t.
Merry is a twin. Merry and Melody, brunette and blonde, taller and smaller, pointy and soft. They’re 17 months younger than I am, and for a good run of childhood we are lumped together in the middle of the family like an accidental archipelago. In photo albums, our mom’s captions say “the triplets.” Above me by four years, sister Adrian, our babysitter and stand-in mom, and five years older still, brother Mark, who heads out early to join the great wide world. Later, below the twins by five years, our baby brother Matt, a reminder of what it’s really like to be a little kid.
As infants Merry and Melody are said to have their own twin language, all jibbers and chirps like cartoon chipmunks, but by the time they are three in 1962 and we move from Oregon to the first of many houses in California, they have become fully distinct from one another. Golden-haired, round-faced Melody, temporarily the bigger of the two, is tender and already a little dreamy. Merry, dark and quick, is like a spider monkey, all wiry energy, brown eyes tensely watchful above a tiny grin. She is not easy. She’s got her own terms.
The first house we live in, off a Highway 99 frontage road just south of Sacramento, has dozens of rooms. Mom calls it “The House of a Hundred Doors,” all perfect for angry slamming. Our father, a newspaperman with a new big city gig and a minor flair for the grandiose, no doubt saw the huge pool out back surrounded by louvered guest quarters and thought, this is our California due. Mark and Adrian already know how to swim and waste no time jackknifing off the diving board, doing handstands in the shallow end. Dad straps water wings on us three little ones and plops us in, too. Melody paddles around, puppy-like, laughing. I struggle to maintain my five-year-old dignity, which is directly connected to keeping my face out of the water. Merry screams and screams, flails for the ladder, grabs Dad’s arm and will not let go until he pulls her out like a plug from a bathtub and deposits her on the warming cement. There she scrunches her face and limbs into a ball of fury and will not be moved.
Melody and I look at each other and back at her. We sense the big kids’ sudden stillness as well: They are watching our father, his balding head reddening in the sun.
He stands over Merry, casting her in shadow. “Come on, now,” he says. “We don’t have anyone in this family who’s afraid of something new.”
“No,” Merry says.
“But it’s like walking on air — right, kids?” Dad looks out at us, and I, for one, am nodding as hard as I can without getting my hair wet.
“No,” Merry says. She locks her thumb into her mouth and stares at nothing.
Dad peers down at her for a minute, then shrugs. “Okay, then,” he says. He runs his hand over his head, then makes a slow show out of pulling a Marlboro out of his front shirt pocket. “Now it’s your brother and sisters’ job to see you don’t drown.” He waves his unlit cigarette in our direction. We can hear the plink of his lighter as he walks back through the screened-in passageway to the house.
Merry meets our gaze then and flutters the fingers of her thumb hand once, twice. Her other hand finds its way into her wet hair and starts winding a strand. Otherwise she does not move until dusk comes and we all go indoors, wrinkled and chilled, Melody and me dazed from floating and paddling under our older siblings’ direction. Merry holds out for another year before she consents to the same lessons.
The downtown apartment in the summer of 1975 was my best friend’s idea. Michele and I were graduating Bakersfield High School and about to diverge. I would be leaving town, forever I hoped, going east to Smith College, a place no one around here had ever heard of except the displaced Wellesley grad I babysat for. “Betty Friedan went to Smith,” was all she needed to tell me. I was going sight unseen. I’d begun assembling a trunk of whatever winter clothes I could find in a town where the temperature was above 70 degrees most of the year, and 115 was the summer standard.
Michele planned to do a couple of years at Bakersfield Community College, work on her portfolio, then head up to San Francisco for art school. She was the only one who knew I depended on the Sudafed bottle full of uppers I carried in my shoulder bag, or that I went through half a pack of cigarettes every time we had coffee at the diner down the street from school. I was the only one who knew she cried the first time she had sex, her face wedged against the steering wheel of her VW bug, everything all wrong. We’d have one last shared adventure in our summer apartment, staying up late drinking and talking and having lovers over, practicing for the Bohemian existence we knew awaited us somewhere far away.
We’d found the perfect place, in a tired, half-timbered two-story building surrounded by commercial properties and empty lots, hard by the traffic artery that marked the northern boundary of downtown. Our apartment was upstairs, two and a half rooms with a Murphy bed and balcony out the window, shrouded by cobwebby cypress trees that kept the place dark all the time. There were rust stains below the grimy tile in the bathtub and a bad smell in the kitchen from the food the previous tenants had left behind in an unplugged refrigerator. It was the kind of apartment you’d imagine someone drinking themselves to death in. We loved it.
And then just before move-in day, Michele tells me she can’t swing the apartment after all. She needs to save every penny this summer. She’s already on her real-life track. It’s only me that has a cul de sac to hang out in.
I decide to take the apartment anyway. My financial aid is already arranged, and I am about to start a good summer job in the classified ad department at the local newspaper. I had been angling for a cub reporter gig, being the editor of the high school paper and all, but as the Bakersfield Californian publisher reminded me in a favor-to-the-principal interview, everybody starts somewhere. The newspaper office is less than a 10-minute walk from the apartment, there’s a nice supermarket 10 minutes the other way, and my mom lets me convince her it will be good for me to be on my own before I move into a dorm in September. She may just be looking forward to a solo summer herself: Mark and Adrian long out of the house, Melody and Matt up in Alaska visiting Adrian for the summer, and Merry not due back till July from her school year with Dad and his latest wife in Carmel. Mom even offers me the occasional weekend use of her car, a 1967 Belvedere station wagon that had brought us to Bakersfield seven years earlier and suffered patiently through my learning how to drive. “Old Nellie Belle could use a little excitement in her life,” Mom says.
Merry moves fast for four and a half. Short and skinny, she slices through the fields of tall grass behind the house, through the old graveyard the rest of us are too timid to cross, and smacks her pennies down on the counter of the gas station store on Frontage Road. She might share her candy or she might not, but she always gets there first.
At family outings, Merry is often a blur, racing out to the edge of everyone’s vision and back again, always finding something to alarm: a mud patch soft as quicksand, a field of broken glass, boys with BB guns. Melody is usually a few steps behind, already torn between competing with her twin and trying to protect her. I let them run. After a month of kindergarten, I was skipped right into first grade, so now will always be two full years ahead of the twins in school and far too wise for their foolishness.
That’s why I am perched on a picnic table listening to the adults on Fourth of July, 1964. My parents have invited several other families to join us for hot dogs and fireworks, including, with barely disguised self-consciousness all around, a black couple my father knows through the newspaper. The grown-ups must have been talking about Freedom Summer, about the signing of the Civil Rights Act that had been all over the TV news. My father says something about “that wily redneck LBJ” and raises his beer can as Merry races by with a sparkler in each hand.
Just then the world begins exploding, rat-tat-tat-tat like machine gun fire and the scream of missiles, blinding flashes of light in red, green and blue. The adults without children duck for cover while the parents in the crowd race toward the blaze, screaming their kids’ names. As the black wife pulls me down behind the picnic table, I can see Mark running in an arc towards us, Merry under his arm. “The box!” he is shouting. “She dropped her sparkler in the box of fireworks!”
Almost as quickly as the barrage starts, it is spent, leaving nothing but smoke and the smell of gunpowder, the occasional fizzle of a spark falling back to earth. We gather slowly around the charred remains of the Deluxe Uncle Sam’s Fireworks Collection. No one speaks.
“That’s some little warrior you’ve got there, Dick Revenaugh,” the black husband says, tilting his head toward Merry, who is still clamped tightly to Mark, thumb in mouth, expression equal parts terror and pride. “The world had best watch out for her.”
In my shabby summer apartment, I try to cultivate fearlessness. I’ve always been confident, but that’s not the same thing. My nerve is built on being the iconoclastic wonder kid, the straight A student who flouts a few rules but never gets caught. Now school is out and I’m just one of the “ladies in Classified,” one of the dozen with teased or tired hair in line at the sandwich shop at lunch hour. This one is going through a bad divorce, that one has a kid in juvenile hall, none of them care what my GPA was or that I won a tall gold trophy for debate (Resolved: The drinking age throughout the United States should be lowered to match the voting age). Once a week after work, I walk west along 23rd Street to the Safeway and feel all the eyes of the world on me as I squeeze tomatoes and pretend to care about brands of bread.
My solitude is deliciously terrifying. After 18 years in a scrum of siblings, always elbowing for space and attention, it’s suddenly just me. I no longer need a padlock and key to keep my sisters from borrowing my clothes when I’m not home. There’s no one in the shower whenever I want to take one. My coffee cup is always where I leave it on the kitchen counter, and when there’s shouting somewhere in the building, it’s none of my business.
I hang out with Michele a few times that summer, go to a party or two. I also spend a couple weekends playing love-nest with my sort-of boyfriend — the one I met at a debate tournament too late in my senior year, the one who lives a 90-minute Greyhound ride away, the one who makes a half-hearted attempt to convince me to switch to Berkeley for the fall.
“Shouldn’t we even try to stay together?” he asks one Sunday morning. We don’t yet know that it’s the last day we’ll ever see each other. We are tangled in sheets I bought at Sears. At the end of August, I planned to fold them neatly and ship them off in my trunk to meet me in Massachusetts. I stare at the ceiling and shake my head. I’m already relishing talking about us in the past tense, the little twinge that will bring, and I sense he feels the same.
One night in late July, a ring wakes me just after midnight. I don’t have a bedside table, so the white princess phone Ma Bell installed is on the floor below my head. I scramble in the dark to answer it. When I pick up, I hear the sounds of a raucous party, music mixing in the background with gleeful shouting in Spanish and English. “Hey sister girl, time to come out and play!” a woman hollers after I say hello. I’m pretty sure it’s Michele, though not positive: she’s drunk and hoarse and I’m half asleep.
“Not tonight, too late,” I say, and hang up.
Half an hour later, I wake to the sound of pounding. Less than five feet from where I lay on the Murphy bed, someone is banging fists and what sounds like drumsticks against my apartment door. “Come on, Mic-Mic, open up, Mic-Mic,” a man is sing-songing loud enough to fill my apartment. “We bring the party to you!” A woman laughs like a trumpet, and the man starts in again. “It’s the party of your dreams, Mic-Mic!”
I make myself as still and quiet as I can. I have, in fact, dreamed of such parties, of having this place be my stage for crazy characters and wild abandon. But with the reality just an arm’s reach away, I am petrified. I pray someone in the building will call the cops, hold myself immobile awaiting the incoming siren, but instead the pair outside just loses interest.
“She must not be home after all,” the man says, his voice dimming as he heads away down the hall.
“Oh, she’s there all right,” the woman answers. Her voice is familiar, but I can’t quite place it. “She’s just playing too smart to get.”
By the time the twins start school, we have moved to another rambling house even further out in the country. There’s no swimming pool, just acres of corn, thousands of cows, a dense orchard — we are tenants in the middle of someone else’s working farm. Dad takes an apartment in Sacramento where he stays the many nights the paper keeps him late. I stand at the edge of our backyard, looking out over the fields toward the road and, beyond that, the highway and the city, and miss a life of sidewalks and storefronts that I haven’t yet lived.
To get to the school bus stop, we trudge past the milking barns and turn left down a quarter-mile gravel road, carrying our bag lunches and churning up dust with our school shoes. I am a bossy second grader, resplendent in my Brownie uniform and beanie, my Pee Chee folder full of neatly finished homework, my eyes fixed on the end of the road by the mailboxes where the yellow bus will not wait for us if we are late.
Come ON, you guys, I say out loud and in my head to the twins dawdling and squabbling behind me. Melody is mesmerized by a cloud of monarch butterflies hovering on a stand of horseweed. Merry darts into the orchard and picks up hard fallen pears to lob at ripe ones still on the trees. Melody forgets her lunch by a favorite cluster of rocks dredged from the fields, and has to run back and get it. Merry leaves hers behind a fence post on purpose. I turn my back to them both and march ahead. Come ON, we’re going to miss the bus.
Five steps before the final blacktop, the air behind me changes — becomes still somehow, suspended. I turn and see Merry on the ground a third of the way back up the road. She is on her side, half on the gravel, half on the grass, facing away from me. Melody is kneeling on the other side of her, both small hands on her twin’s shoulder, rocking. I clench my lunch and folder tight in my fists and run toward the two of them, but it’s like running through water — slow and silent. Finally Melody’s voice breaks through, “Get up, Merry, get up!” And I am there, crouching next to her.
Merry’s eyes are open and her face is chalky under her brown bowl-cut bangs, her sprinkle of freckles. Her arms and legs are curved like a side sleeper’s. “I can’t move,” she is saying. “My arms and legs won’t work.”
I peer down. “Did you trip over something? You never watch where you’re going.”
“Something’s really wrong,” Melody whimpers. Her eyes have not left Merry’s.
“Maybe you hit a wasp nest?” I look toward the buzzing pear trees.
Merry shakes her head. “I was standing up and then my legs fell down.”
I look up the road the way we came. Sometimes a farm truck will drive out while we’re waiting for the bus, but there’s nothing now but shimmers of September heat over the gravel. “We need to get you back to the house,” I say. I put my stuff down behind me and gesture for Melody to help. We slip our hands under Merry’s top arm and try to lift it, but it’s like a sleeve filled with rocks, heavy and limp. I look at Merry’s face again and see she is crying. She’s never done that silently before.
“Melody,” I hear myself saying, “You need to run as fast as you can to get Mom.”
Melody hesitates, still locking eyes with her twin.
“I have to stay here in case something else happens,” I say. “You two are too little to be by yourselves.”
Melody rocks back onto her heels, then pivots and starts to run, picking up speed like a golden pony. I watch for a minute to make sure she doesn’t waver, then turn back toward Merry. “Here,” I say, shifting to sit cross-legged Scouts-style as close as I can to the top of her. I tuck my Pee Chee folder under my seat, smooth out my brown uniform skirt, and lift her head onto my lap. Her arms sag around my left knee, so I cup them with one hand, and put my other hand on her forehead. She is shivering.
Soon Merry will be in the pediatric hospital in Sacramento where the doctors will decide she has Guillain-Barré Syndrome, an ailment so rare that no one seems to have ever heard of it. My Dad’s colleagues at the paper, the principal at Franklin Elementary, our neighbors on the farm, none of them seem quite convinced we haven’t invented the whole thing. The kids in my class give me a wide berth for a few days, as if I might be carrying some new strain of polio you can catch from mutual contact with a tetherball. I whack that rubber orb on its chain around the pole all by myself until one of the class outcasts, a chubby girl from a house down the street from the school, steps up and slams it back, and becomes my best friend for the year. Meanwhile, Melody spends most of kindergarten solo while Merry recuperates. It’s the last time either of them will experience school as a not-twin until their sophomore year.
But that’s all in the future. Right now Merry is breathing raggedly in my lap, so I try to stroke her hair the way Mom does when we’ve had a bad dream. She pulls her head away from my hand and strains left, and suddenly I understand. I slowly bend her top arm onto my lap and then round my hand over hers to bring it toward her face. She reaches with her lips toward the comfort she knows is there but can’t quite feel, so I roll her fingers into a loose fist and guide her thumb into place. She sighs then and goes heavy in my lap, her eyes never moving from the dangling tips of my burnt orange Scout neckerchief.
My summer 1975 apartment has no television, no stereo. The walls are bare other than the sepia smudges and stains of prior lives. It’s a temporary place, so I resist adding anything I won’t be able to pack into the trunk at the end of August and send away out of town. I have a little transistor radio that I turn on when the silence settles too heavily, mixing with the damp summer air and making it hard to breathe. I try to read the copy of The Second Sex that someone gave me as a birthday present my senior year, but each attempt makes me worry that I’m actually not as intelligent as I’ve led people to believe; soon I just position De Beauvoir atop the pile of Ms. Magazines and purloined newspapers at my bedside, under my white phone, in case anyone intellectual should come to visit. I spend hours instead poring over a guidebook called Cheap Chic that I buy at the mall during one of my stocking-up-for-college campaigns early in the summer. Between its mustard-yellow covers are thousands of tips for finding treasures at thrift stores, buying tights in bulk, investing in leather and wearing all black. Fran Leibowitz grouches about pastels and clothes with words on them while wearing a tuxedo jacket and holding a long cigarette. Betsey Johnson hand-letters a photo sequence showing how she assembles a tutu skirt. A nameless young woman who “works in a New York publishing house” sips a languorous drink on a fire escape wearing a silk sarong she made from an antique fringed scarf. I look up from studying five timeless finds at the Army surplus store to see that the sun has set, one more day gone from my temporary life, one day closer to the real one.
Several nights a week I walk three blocks from my apartment to the Fox Theater, a downtown movie palace whose glamor days are long behind it. You can smoke in the balcony, so that’s where I go, making my way through a dozen Marlboros and a tub of popcorn by myself in the dark. I see Nashville and Shampoo four times each that summer, and feel wise and sad on the way home through the desolate streets.
Merry gets Puppy when we move to Sacramento in 1967, the final, operatic year of our parent’s marriage. Merry’s arms and legs are long now, fully functioning: whatever laid her low in kindergarten is now past, barely a note in the clamor of family history. She’s suddenly taller than Melody, on her way to being taller than me, skinny and fast again. She’s also acquired a sly edge to her smile, which even in third grade makes her look like she could stir up some mayhem if she chose.
Puppy is a pint-sized mutt, pitch black with white paws and muzzle, and a crotchety disposition. No one quite knows how he ends up as Merry’s pet, since Melody is the one connected to animals, collecting parakeets and cats and sea horses and hamsters enough to drive her twin crazy. Maybe that’s the idea: to balance the scales, to open the heart. The whole Sacramento house is a Puppy-style experiment: eight kids, three parents, all we need is love and understanding. Puppy is still with us when Mom moves us out, first across town and then down the valley to Bakersfield.
The twins and I arrive at Roosevelt Elementary School as new kids with a month left before summer. Mom finishes up our paperwork in the principal’s office and races off to take Matt, now a wide-eyed four-year-old, to pre-school on the other side of town. “You three be sure to meet up somewhere to walk home together,” she says. “You remember the way?”
I consider it my job to remember, and I do: Right out of the schoolyard gate, left on Holtby Road for two blocks, right on Buena Vista for one, then left on Oleander to home. I may or may not wave to Merry and Melody as they’re escorted to the little-kids’ wing while I am walked to the fifth grade portable, but I am waiting for them at the gate after the last bell rings.
“Hey, new girl, what street do you live on?” A boy from my class approaches. He’s the tallest of a cluster in the back row of the classroom that snickered and made mouse ears at each other when the principal introduced me as “Mickey from Sacramento.” Now several of his friends join him at the gate.
“Yeah, let us walk you home,” one of them says.
I say I am waiting for my sisters, searching behind the boys for some sign of the twins.
“Are they pretty like you?” a third boy asks.
“No — what?” I’ve never been called that before. I am short and flat, with teeth too big for my face and wispy brown hair that hugs my head like cobwebs. Half the girls in my new class are already developing, their breasts framed by training bras visible through their summer blouses, and the other half are blonde.
I narrow my eyes at the knot of boys, who’ve added a few members. My face feels like I’m looking into an oven with the door wide open. My sisters are just little kids, I say too fast. They’re my responsibility.
“We’ll make sure you all get home safe,” the first boy says.
I spot the twins making their way across the blacktop, flanking a taller girl with bushy curls who swings her head left to right to left as the three of them chatter and skip toward us. “Come on, you guys!” I shout as they get within range. Please hurry, I think.
“What, are they both in the same grade?” one of the boys asks.
I say they’re the kind of twins that don’t look alike as I grab Merry’s wrist with my right hand and Melody’s with my left, and drag-walk them out the gate.
“Let me go,” Merry hisses as I hustle them to the first corner. She pulls her arm free. “I don’t want to walk with you, I want to walk with Bernie.” Their new bushy-haired friend saunters forward, a smile like a razor.
Melody jerks her arm away too. “Yeah,” she says. “Bernie lives on our street.”
I look over their heads and see the group of boys, maybe ten strong now, emerge through the gate and turn our way.
“Can we please, please get going,” I say just loud enough for the twins to hear, if they were listening, but they’re not. I turn left and start walking fast. There are no sidewalks on this street, only patchy front yards and low slatted fences and a culvert on either side in case it ever rains. The boys are right behind me.
“There’s a real mean dog at that yellow house,” the first boy says, coming up beside me and pointing left. I turn away and step out into the street. There are no cars, just the distant-seeming yellow bus back beside the school. I cut diagonally across the asphalt and the phalanx cuts with me, Merry and Melody somewhere near the back.
Another boy pulls up next to me on the other side. He wants to know why I’m walking so fast.
“Maybe that’s just how stuck-up girls walk in Sacramento,” his friend says as I round the corner onto Buena Vista.
“You mean Crap-ra-mento,” a boy just a few feet behind yelps as we reach Oleander.
The others double over with laughter, bumping shoulders and nearly causing the rear guard to collide. I look past the huddle of plaid shirts and sweaty cowlicks to see the twins cutting across lawns, locked in three-way conversation with Bernie, who clearly knows where she’s going. I spin on the heel of my white Keds and start to run, thankful that at least Oleander Avenue has sidewalks.
I don’t look back to see if the boys run after me, or if the twins notice me racing past the stately houses and stylized lampposts toward the painted-blue steps of the white bungalow where we live now, flimsy amid its brick and stucco neighbors. I fly up the stairs, fling open the door and slam it fast behind me, leaning back against it with my eyes closed. Puppy races out of the twins’ room and starts barking, his small-dog yap accented with the sound of his nails against the wood floor. He’s darting all around me, strategizing his line of attack, when I feel the door push against my back.
“Open up, dummy, it’s us,” I hear Merry say. I turn and swing the door open, pulling the twins inside before I slam it shut again.
Merry kneels down to scratch her dog under his chin. “Shhhh, Puppy,” she says, “everything’s okay.” She turns to look at me, braced against the door. Her brown eyes and Puppy’s meet mine for a moment, and then she shakes her head. “Come on, boy, let’s get a snack,” she says as they head away with Melody into the kitchen.
I crouch low and move to the windows looking out onto the porch and beyond. I force myself to raise my eyes above the sill to peek, but the sidewalk is empty for as far as I can see.
On the Monday of my last week in Classifieds, I walk down the front steps of my apartment building before the hum of traffic grows steady on 23rd Street. I turn south along G Street, keeping my eyes straight ahead as I pass the auto supply parking lot and the dry cleaner and the firehouse behind the Fox Theater. If there are dead animals along the way, I do not want to see them. If I cover each slab of sidewalk in exactly four paces and step over any cracks, everything will be fine. If I get to the Californian office before 8, I’ll be sitting at my station behind the walk-up counter and fielding my first phone order before anyone has a chance to ask me how my weekend was.
I don’t want to tell them about Sunday morning, my mom waiting out in front of the hospital when I arrive to pick her up. Her face is stony in profile as we drive out of the parking lot, then she lets out a long sigh, like she’s been holding her breath for a few hours. “Your father just got here,” she says. “I’m coming back after I clean up a little and check on the kids. She’s still unconscious.”
“She’s going to be okay, though?” I ask. We’re driving Chester Avenue, the main drag through downtown, and it is Sunday silent, businesses dark, sidewalks empty. “How bad is it?”
“It’s bad.” Mom nudges her glasses up and rubs the bridge of her nose between her thumb and forefinger, something she does only in those moments when raising six kids mostly alone with too little money and too many disasters feels particularly exhausting. “There were no seatbelts and the car didn’t even have a windshield. The little shit.” She closes her eyes and leans into her hand as we turn off Chester for the last few blocks before home.
By the time we’ve pulled up in front of the house, her face is composed again, her glasses back in place. “As long as her heart is still beating, anything can happen,” she says, not opening the door quite yet. She’s rehearsing. Then she turns to me. “This is going to be especially tough for Melody, they just saw each other for the first time in months.”
I tell her I’ll stay with Mel and Matt today, though a very large part of me wants to be back in my apartment, finishing packing my trunk and reading about how a New York City poet adapted a French sanitation worker uniform into a nightclubbing outfit. I am afraid that once I walk up those blue stairs and take my place at the kitchen table, where we Revenaughs always gather, I may never leave.
Melody and Matt are already sitting there, still brown and mosquito-bitten from their Alaska summer. Melody has her hand deep in the fur of her big shepherd-collie mix, new to the family menagerie last year, now stationed by her chair, with Puppy hovering nearby. Matt is staring at the glass of Tang someone has put in front of him.
“Hey you guys,” I say, sitting down to face them. I slide my hands across the table, palms up. Melody takes my left with the hand not connected to her dog, and Matt puts both of his in my right. His hands are a little grainy. He’s mixed his Tang himself. He’s a month shy of 11.
We’re still sitting there after Mom has bustled out in her lipstick and social worker pantsuit, which she never wears on weekends. She is fully armored. She promises to call when she gets to the hospital and figures out the best time for everyone to visit Merry. Thanks for holding down the fort today, she says on the way out the door.
The Bakersfield heat soon hugs us too close. I get up to put the window fan on, and turn back to see Melody is weeping. “When we walked down to 7-11 yesterday afternoon, she looked so happy, like this beautiful new person I could get to know,” she is saying. “She kept talking about her stupid boyfriend, how she bikes over to his house every morning with fresh-squeezed orange juice.”
Matt moves his Tang to one side. “Last summer Merry let me sit with her and her friends over at the park,” he says. “They braided my hair.” He’s looking down at his fingers making patterns in the orange dust on the walnut-print tabletop.
Late afternoon, we hear a shave-and-a-haircut knock on the front door, and it’s Dad. None of us have seen him since Merry went up to live with him, and now he seems shrunken, the pouches under his eyes almost green-black, his beard fully gray. He folds us each in a hug and keeps Melody in hers an extra minute.
“Your mother wanted me to come make sure you three ate something,” he says. “You want some dinner?”
We all shake our heads.
“Well then, let’s sit upon,” he says. It’s one of those things he’s always said to get everyone in earshot gathered around the table to drink and talk and smoke, and it makes us feel less numb. “Your mom still keep her Gallo jug under the kitchen sink?” he asks Matt. Dad lines up juice glasses on the curling Formica counter and pours a few fingers of red wine for Melody and me — “Just this once,” he says — then fills his own tumbler near the top.
“It’s a hell of a thing,” Dad says. He looks down for long enough that Matt comes close and leans against him, then Dad raises his glass. “To Merry,” he says, and we say it back.
The next morning at the Californian, the Classified supervisor waits for me to finish my first call, then asks me into her office. The guys in the newsroom heard about the accident on the scanner yesterday, she tells me. Shouldn’t I be home with my family?
I’ll be back over on Oleander this evening, I tell her, making a plan as I speak. There’s not much we can really do.
The supervisor nods. She’s got lots of gold jewelry and a hot pink manicure. She graduated from my high school 10 years before me. “Are you thinking about holding off starting college, then?”
I freeze: So this is what is expected. I wrinkle my forehead as if in thought. “We’ll see what happens,” I say. “As long as Merry’s heart is still beating, you know, anything is possible.”
Sometime in 1974, a year in which Merry seems to be perpetually grounded for sneaking out of the house at night and smoking pot in the park across the street, there is a Renaissance Guild Faire in Bakersfield.
The Faire is held in Central Park, a sliver of green straddling the irrigation canal that runs through downtown to the farms beyond. Within the park, the concrete waterway widens to form a small lake ringed with rushes. A family of swans lives there, taking shelter from the heat under the covered bridge that doubles as a bandshell. Most of the year, Central Park is home to winos and drifters seeking a soft place to land after jumping off the trains a few blocks away, but the Faire has transformed it into a tapestry of ersatz velvet and silk.
My best friend Michele and I are the ringleaders of our little booth, where she and Melody sell their artwork and I am prepared to write poems on demand (for $2 per), with a peacock feather pen on paper stained with tea to look like parchment. Our costumes are elaborate as only teenage girls can make them: Melody and Michele in bejeweled and corseted wench-wear, me making like Merlin with my entire unicorn collection arrayed just so around me, and Merry in leotard, tights and a belled hat as the Jester.
Merry’s not pleased to be here, not at all happy to have been talked into playing the fool in public this early on a Saturday morning. She leans drowsily on her beribboned staff, scowling as we arrange and rearrange our displays, and sighing theatrically as we crane for attention from passersby. She picks at her white face paint. Then she spots a boy she knows from ninth-grade detention and darts off to share a slug from his wine skin. Michele and I see her long, lean form wobbling back under her jingling headpiece and exchange a look.
We don’t yet know that Merry will run away from home that October for two full weeks — barefoot with Bernie of the bushy blonde hair, just for the hell of it — and that the sheriff’s department will be called out to look for her. We don’t yet know that once she returns, she’ll demand to go live with Dad for the rest of the school year, like Mom’s the problem. But we remember what it’s like to be fifteen and flirting with trouble just because you can.
Melody’s already a step ahead of us. “Think you can drum us up some customers, Merry?” she calls out. “Think you can make these straights at least stop and look?”
Merry stares hard at her twin. Then she pounds the pavement with her staff three times, and turns to start a slow-motion, full-body jig. “Step right up, ladies and gentlemen,” she sings out, planting herself in the middle of the flowing crowd. “Don’t miss the fairest of the Faire!” Her bells are jangling and her arms sway our way. “Come see yon magical, wondrous gifts of the muse! Step right up!”
Soon there is a knot of customers in front of our table, and Melody makes the first sale. I peer between the bodies and catch Merry’s eye. Her pout eases into a ruby curve against her white makeup, and she bows deep, the belled tips of her jester cap kissing the Bakersfield dust.
Melody is afraid to go into the room. Merry has not opened her eyes, has not taken her own breath since they brought her in three days ago. Mom and Dad have been at the hospital ever since, but have stalled the rest of us. The doctors are still figuring out next steps, they told me on the phone Monday afternoon. They’re waiting to see how she is in the morning, they told Melody on Tuesday. Now it is Wednesday, and we’ve been summoned. We’re clustered together in the hallway.
“I’m not sure I can,” Melody says.
Dad pulls her close, and she buries her face in his vest. “I’ll be with you,” he says as they walk through the door.
Matt is leaning into Mom who is leaning against the wall, arm tight around him. He’s almost as tall as she is and solid as a tree, but he’s her last kid, unafraid to be afraid. His eyes don’t move from the doorway to Merry’s room.
I pace the hallway. When we’d first arrived at the hospital I told Melody and Matt to wait by the nurses’ station while I figured out where to go, and almost passed by Merry’s room before I saw my parents inside, standing on either side of the bed. They were staring down at a white cocoon of gauze and tubing and did not look up when I stepped in to stand at the foot of the bed.
“We have to decide tonight,” Mom says.
“Once everyone’s had a chance,” Dad says.
This is not the family of legend. We do not actually defy gravity. I look at my parents’ hands gripping the bed rails, their bowed heads, Merry’s closed eyes barely visible in the white wrappings, and I know I should cry, but I cannot.
“Melody and Matt are outside,” I say.
My parents and I file out of the room, me last, and I see that Dad has one hand on Mom’s shoulder. I can’t remember the last time they touched each other.
One by one, while I wait in the hall, my siblings go into the room. Afterwards I drive us all home to Oleander Ave. We sit together at the kitchen table for a while, and then drift off into various corners of the house to pretend at sleep. When our parents walk together up onto the porch just before dawn, we know Merry is gone.
The rest of the day is a blur of phone voices and airport runs. Adrian and Mark are summoned from points north and south. Dad and Matt set up my old IBM Selectric on the kitchen table so Dad can craft Merry’s obit, while Mom and Melody search through albums together, heads bent close, for just the right pictures for the memorial we plan for Sunday. I write a poem for the ceremony about Merry as a cool/hot spark, a child of frenetic sunshine. I can’t tell whether it’s the truth or not.
Late that evening I ask my Dad to drop me back off at my apartment. I still have a few more boxes to pack, I say. Dad’s Chevy Nova is bug-spattered outside and strewn with ashes inside from his race down from the Bay Area and back and forth across Bakersfield. I ask him for a cigarette and he hands me the pack without comment.
“So this is it,” he says as he pulls up in front of my building. He looks past me to the dark cypress making vertical shadows on the half-timbers, the small explosion of glass and gold liquid where someone’s dropped a beer. “Good place to write?”
“My plane ticket is for the day after Labor Day,” I say.
He grips the steering wheel and then lets go, bracing his palms against the hard blue plastic. “Your mother and I were talking,” he begins. “With everything that’s happened, you might feel like you should stay here in town —”
He lays his hand on the side of my face to stop my answer. “It would be okay if you put off going back east,” he says. “But I don’t — we don’t — think you should.”
I reach up and cover his hand with mine. “Thanks, Dad,” I say. I slide out of the car, drop my cigarette butt in the gutter and run up the steps of my building, turning back just in time to wave him away.
I don’t tell him that it never once crossed my mind to stay.
The cars snake slowly up Kern River Canyon near sunset, Mark leading in Mom’s white station wagon and Dad’s beat Nova close behind.
“Here,” Melody says. Mark pulls over onto the shoulder. We step out onto the pocked ledge, dust filtering the last sunlight like rays through a steeple window. There’s the whisper of the river below, beyond the rocks we’ll climb down to sift Merry’s ashes into the wind.
Mom didn’t come. She’s sitting and waiting in the kitchen, by the window, cigarette in hand. Now Mark leads the way and Dad follows, the container tight in the crook of his arm. Adrian gestures for Matt to fall in ahead of her; she snags the tail of his T-shirt as they climb, heads bent at the same angle. That leaves Melody and me, shoulders just touching, standing together at the foot of the grey granite rise.
Mickey Revenaugh developed “Triplets” as part of her dual-genre MFA in nonfiction/fiction at Bennington College. Another of her essays was recently named as a finalist for the Diana Woods Memorial Award in Creative Nonfiction from Antioch University of Los Angeles. Mickey’s work has also appeared in Louisiana Literature (forthcoming), Lunch Ticket (forthcoming), The End of the World, One-to-One Journal, Threshold, and New York Newsday. In addition to the MFA, she holds a BA in American Studies from Yale University, and an MBA from New York University.