I wasn’t going to go to Galveston, but the whole family acted like they would fire me if I didn’t. On my way, I stop at a town, get gas, and ask some hick behind the counter if there’s anywhere good to eat.
“Um… whaddya mean, good?”
“I don’t know. I guess I mean, Where do you go?”
She shrugs and I’m about to leave when she says the Pizza Hut is pretty good.
I sit in the hard, pew-like booth. I wait for about half an hour for a small pizza. But I have my book. I’m reading a Buddhist book about how to be more compassionate and comfortable with your life. The thing being to accept everything and everyone, which I have trouble with, I guess. One part of me is trying to understand why it’s a problem, while the other part is forcibly demanding that I adjust my attitude.
I try to tell myself I should be grateful for the small greasy pie in front of me. I will take grateful bites. It kinda works until I feel numb and ungrateful. And then I pay, leaving off the tip.
When I get to the shore in Galveston, a strange sight: A woman in football defense stance, holding a seven-foot fishing pole, just a mini triangle of blue cloth covering her heiny. This is my sister, Serena.
I call to her, but she doesn’t hear me. Her car’s there, in front of the beach house. A gold Lexus SUV with Florida plates. My sister doesn’t fly. She would fly, she says, only if she were the pilot. She must be the first. She likes being the first. When we were growing up she’d demand it, and my mother, weak and distracted, always relented. Bean and I would whine about it when we had the energy, but mostly we avoided going up against Serena. I was comforted by this deep-down belief that she was headed straight for a brick wall. Somebody someday would withhold. But you see, it never happened. She’s still wrangling it all to her favor.
I park and walk down the beach. Holding my shoes in my hand. I call again, and this time she turns. Enough for me to see that she’s at least wearing a top, although, you know, I wouldn’t have been surprised if she weren’t. She got them done about a year ago and they’re now, I kid you not, a size F.
“Another one, Di!” she says, putting her impressive biceps to use against the reel.
“Here it is, baby. Hold this.” She hands me the pole. I take it while she retrieves a little fish from the end, a mullet. She throws the thing—one dazzled eye—into an Igloo, where it’s welcomed by its dead and dying brothers.
She hugs me, and I have to hold the pole out so the line doesn’t catch in her hair. “This is dinner. Wait til Pops sees it.” She squeezes my arm and smiles in a mischievous way.
“You can’t eat those.” I say, cause I’ve never in my life heard of anyone eating a mullet. You’re supposed to catch them for sport, throw them back.
“Sure you can! Quick pan fry is all it takes.” There is no room for doubt in my sister’s head. No room for much more than, What I’m Doing Now and What I’m Going to Be Doing Soon. Screw what you’re doing. You might have believed her, but, remember, you don’t know her like I do.
This is the house we’ve been coming to forever. A place, our parents said, to escape the heat, but that’s a laugh, because I tell you, it’s just as hot down here as it is in Houston, and the water’s the same dull temperature as the air, only thicker and with a smell of potato chips. But come the end of June or first part of July, and we all have to slog down here and make family.
Mother opens the door before we get to the top of the flagstone steps, some unnamable and brilliantly blue flower in two identical pots. These pots, round as latent bombs.
She squeezes a hand from each of us, hers more bone than flesh, but strong as a crab’s claws. It’s not a pleasant feeling. We drink appletinis and watch Pops eat a lamb chop. They haven’t brought their help this time—scaling back my mother says. Too many investments down the tubes. Pops used to work for an oil company that’s no longer—they got caught baking the books. And I don’t even have to wonder whether he did or didn’t in his time there. There’s things you don’t know about your parents, but there’s things you do—things looking them straight in the eyes only they don’t see them. He, a former CFO, probably thinks he’s innocent.
Serena lives in Miami. Her tan comes half from the time she spends by her pool and half from a spray-on. She makes a big deal about the kids who live next door.
“We have the best best times together,” she says. “I bought them these rafts: alligators, boats, dolphins. I bought them rings and these squishy balls. 8 a.m. the doorbell rings and I have to tell them to go home till noon. At noon they’re back and we go straight to the pool. When Roger gets home we’ll still be out there!” There are two things to take from this: 1) My sister is on permanent summer vacation, 2) Every little thing she does convinces her she’s by leaps and bounds improving this poor world.
She says after she has her drink she’ll gut those fish. Mother hasn’t eaten dinner yet. Pops eats when he will, but he’ll sit at the table with us no doubt. Manners are not an issue to consider, he’s just been beaten down into particular grooves.
Mother brings him an appletini. It’s green, nearly neon.
“And what is that?” Pops says.
Mother cocks her head at us to show how indulgent she is. “Don’t be silly,” she says.
“It’s an appletini, Pops,” Serena says, and kisses him on the cheek.
“I need a nap,” he says. We are surprised. He has never once missed dinner except for on his club nights. Serena helps him to his bed. He’s 84 after all, and a few months ago he tried to off himself by guzzling a vial of mother’s antidepressants. He’s not allowed anymore to be in a room that contains pills. Mother bought a safe for her stash. A stash any pharmacist would admire. I know because I’m a pharmacist.
The gutting of the fish is an ugly thing. There are about twenty. The marble countertops are slick with skin and blood. This is not something you want to watch, my sister in hot pants and bikini top chopping off fish heads.
My mother is listening to Paul Taylor, which is what she listens to when she says she needs a calming effect. North Carolina in my mind… Has she been to North Carolina? I met a girl who knew a girl who lived in a trailer in North Carolina and made her clothes from animal pelts. I have not been to North Carolina nor do I want to go.
Serena has asked me to help, but I’m too drunk now that I’m on my second appletini. She asks me about men.
There are none, I tell her.
“How am I supposed to believe that? You’re young and cute. You have a job.”
“I’m not young,” I say. “I’m 38.”
“Young,” she says. “Younger than me!”
Since my divorce four years ago, I vacillate from frustration over my manlessness to a nice weightless feeling that I would not very much like to give up. The truth is I don’t try very hard. I figure he’ll find me when he does. If he does.
This is not the way Serena works. She wanted a husband, she got herself one. She wanted him rich, childless, and capable of holding his liquor, and she got it, then she kept it. Is she happy? I suppose she is. I’ve never not once seen her unhappy.
My mother, I hear, has had deep bottomless periods of unhappiness, but I never saw it in her either. She’d just turn the TV on, call in Jean, our maid, and take off in the car. Then she’d come back smiling, bags from Nieman Marcus hanging from her arms.
My father, he has always been unhappy.
Tchict Hat Nanh says unhappiness is the fourth of the Buddha’s principles and that it is the air we breathe. There is no happiness without unhappiness. There is no growth without pain.
I spend a lot of time around unhappy people. People, most of them, who go to pharmacies are unhappy. They are in some kind of pain, psychic, physical, or more likely, both at once. There are plenty of pills to take for everything, and so you’d think they should be the happiest people—the people who frequent my pharmacy. But they are not.
The fish are fried. A salad is made. I make the salad. My brother Bean with his children arrives in time for dinner without his wife because he recently left her. We twink glasses and smile at each other in a very convincing way.
We each take small bites of the soppy fish. This is what it tastes like: the lung of a smoker, a soldier’s infected wound, the breath of a person about to die. Bean spits his bite out and because he does, I do, too.
My mother is horrified—both because of the spitting and the secretions in her own mouth. I watch her swallow.
Serena eats it right up—she can’t get enough, eats three then moans about how full she is. She hasn’t noticed our response—scratch that, she does, but doesn’t care. We are wrong, she is right. At least she’s wearing a shirt. The shirt says, I’m Cuter Than Your Girlfriend.
That night Pops wakes yelling in a string of mash-mouthed gibberish. I go to him. My mother does not sleep in this room. His bed is movable by remote control and no one bothered to move the head of the bed down. So he’s curled on the lower half of it. You’ve never seen anyone so skinny.
“Pops,” I say, and cautiously touch his clenched fist.
“Di?” he says.
“Yes, Pops. You were having a nightmare.”
His hair, which he hairsprays, is standing straight up like a tsunami from his forehead. He would be horrified if he knew. He’s shivering, but his skin is hot. I go to the hall closet and come back with a thermometer and a blanket. He’s at 103.4.
I wake Serena and tell her we have to go to the ER. She’s game.
Bean is charged with carrying him to the car.
The doctors say he has to stay the night. They’ll tell us that every night for the next few weeks, until he comes home with a new diagnosis: congestive heart failure.
When Serena walks down the hall for a soda, I sit by his bed. He’s knocked out, tubes up his nose. Did you do terrible things? I ask in my head. Did you think you deserved more than anyone else? Remember when you paid me to come back from Mexico and go back to college? Did you know I loved it there? The bougainvillea and even the starving dogs on the beach. Did you know I started writing poetry and loving a man who spoke no English? Did you know I was poor and loving it, that I went whole days without eating because I was poor and living on another sustenance altogether?
That I was depressed, too, when I wasn’t loving, but that this was beauty, too—this depression like the ocean at its calmest? Did you know that I never not once wanted to be a pharmacist? Did you want to be a CFO? Did Mother want to be a housewife? Serena a sop? Bean, stunted and hunted by hungry women? I want answers now to all of it. I want to know why we even have to live if this is what living has to offer, a ball of yarn tangled, a stuffy, sucked out feeling.
Tchit Hat Nanh would say the answer is in the question, and this is what Pops seems to be saying too, as he breathes slowly in and out. But I’m no Buddha. I run to the bathroom, where I shove a stall door so hard it pops back so I can shove it again, over and over and over again bwhawk–bwhawk–bwhawk, until my breath is nicely depleted, until water from the sink takes the stink from my face, until the mirror above is a graphic timeline for my life, my dot inching to the right and inching to the right. How to even measure the smallest increments?
We’re driving along Sea Wall road on our way back from Saint Something’s Hospital, and Serena says she needs to stop for one. I tell her I’m exhausted and in no way feel like a drink, but even as I say it, I know that’s what I’ll be doing.
Juju Bee’s is a fish place and bar by the bay. It’s the kind of place that worships Christmas lights. It’s 1:13 a.m. but it’s as lively as if it were 10. They’re doing the two-step in the back. There are men here who want to dance with my sister. There are always men somewhere who want to dance with my sister. Two-stepping looks a lot like galloping to me, but not like the kind horses do. It is not so graceful, nor so swift, and with two heads bobbing while four feet are stepping you think the analogy is more to a chain gang. But she’s liking it. You can see it in their eyes, Those boobs! And no one cares whether they’re real or they aren’t.
I go out to the deck, sipping at my green margarita. How so, another green drink? Under the deck there are white lights in the water, and in the lights you can see the silver backs of mullets. They have a muddy, mottled look to them, even in the water. Three fins along the back, two at the side. But at least they look better alive than dead.
For some reason they are attracted to the light, maybe because it’s where the bugs like to be. I heard once that the reason bugs fly into lights is because they are trying to fly past the light into even darker space, they just have to make it through the light first, then they’ll be drenched in black.
“Come off it,” my sister says. “You ought to be dancing.”
“Those men are not good looking,” I say.
“You just don’t know how to appreciate a man in a cowboy hat,” she says.
“Serena, what’s that?”
There’s a crusty and oozing lip of blood edging the top part of her shoe. She unslips her mule and then the other one.
“See, I didn’t even feel it. That’s how much fun I was having.”
I’m not having fun, but I’m not all that sad either. Should be. It would make sense to be. I’m not. My father’ll die and he’ll be happy when he does. I know because I’ll be there to watch it in about a month.
She’s going to ride the bull, she says. It turns out they have a room here with a mechanical bull. There it is, loping front to back and spinning in arcs. The room is blinking hoots and catcalls when she sets astride it. She holds her arms up, tilts her head back, as if in prayer.
Freedom, it is said, is an absence of desire. There is nothing of course that I can do. All I can do is hold her drink. All I can do is be witness to her disasters.
When the bull throws her, colliding with the wall, it makes a sound loud enough to hear above the music, her neck bent to navel. I take a step toward her and then I take a step back. She’s moving one leg as if to stand. I don’t want to watch her make her comeback, both hands waving as the men in the bar clap and call her some girl. I don’t want to watch it, but I do.
Front page image by ErgSap.