Lucy can’t hold the secret any longer. Twenty-six years ago, her sister did the unthinkable.
Portland, Oregon, 1989: Lucy Mustin, living somewhat happily, pumping out wedding cakes for starry-eyed heterosexuals while she, a lesbian, can’t legally marry, is called upon to travel to Santa Cruz to help her autistic sister, Alice, care for their Alzheimer’s-afflicted mother. She knew the call was coming sooner or later. She’d just hoped it would be later. Mother issues. The possibility that resolution might be lost to dementia is a heartbreak she doesn’t feel like feeling.
Santa Cruz, California, one week later: a trip to the family bakery ups the ante tenfold when the Loma Prieta/World Series Earthquake, racking up a whopping 7.1 on the Richter scale, traps the sisters below ground. There, Alice reminds Lucy of a promise made to their mother many years ago, a promise she plans to keep.
As a child I had this terror of the night. It would kick in after Alice nodded off. I’d lie in bed and listen for the moment her breathing changed from the quick, light breath of her wakefulness to the long, peaceful sucking and blowing of her sleep. Next, I’d listen for my dad wearily plodding in from the garage, my mom putting up the last of the dishes, straining my ears for the click of the lights being switched off as they trundled to bed, imagining the house growing darker with each click. Kitchen. Click. Outside porch light. Click. Living Room. Click. Hallway. Click. The small standing lamp at the end of the hallway. Click. Water would run. The toilet would flush. Depending on the house and on how much they’d been drinking, I would hear my parents’ muffled conversation or argument or the soft thump-thumps of their carnal roughhousing, my father’s rhythmic grunting, my mother’s, Oh…yes… oh…oh…ohhhhh! A door might slam. A peal of laughter might ring out. Under no circumstances were Alice and I allowed to disturb them once their bedroom door was closed. My mother’s rule. “It could scar you for life, trust me,” she’d say. I didn’t trust her, but knew better than to go against her. So I’d lie there imagining the terrifying hush of the darkness wrapping itself around the throw pillows on the couch, around the ankles of our kitchen table, creeping its way up the stairs to where I lay, wide awake, frightened out of my mind. I’d feel as though I were the only person alive.
Old enough to understand the difference between sleep and death, I was still unable to calm my racing heart, and would tune my ears to the outside world, seeking comfort in the random stoppings and startings of the traffic outside, the slam of a car door, an eighteen-wheeler on a distant freeway, a neighbor’s dog barking—anything to assure me that, somewhere, life continued on, that I wasn’t really alone. Blankets pulled up to my nose, my feather pillow pulled down over my eyes, I’d focus on the suck-blow suck-blow of Alice’s breath. Try to match it.
Some nights I was so scared I had to wake her. I hated doing it. She was my little sister and should have been the one scared and waking me. But, unlike me, Alice took refuge in the night, when the complicated social demands of the day were finally finished.
“Alice! Alice! You awake?” I’d whisper, then listen for her to blind reach past the little Scottie dog lamp standing sentinel on the nightstand separating us, past the meticulously placed ChapStick Alice always kept on her side of the nightstand so she could coat her lips before going to sleep—God forbid, I should ever touch it!—finally landing on her thick black glasses with the rubber headband. What purpose she supposed those glasses served her in the dark, I cannot tell you. Understanding the reasoning behind Alice’s decisions was like trying to understand an appliance manual printed in a foreign language. The one thing you could be sure of, whatever choice she made was thought out, in triplicate.
I’d roll onto my side, prop myself up on my elbow, hoping to give the impression of the untroubled, slightly annoying, big sister I so wanted to be, my eyes dissecting the shadows until I could make out her knees tenting the blankets of her bed, her elbows poking out as she adjusted the elastic strap of her glasses.
“What?” she’d grumble.
“I just wanted to see if you were sleeping.”
“Obviously, I was. What do you want?”
“I heard Mrs. Kearin say that they’re closing down the school library next week for renovations.”
This might or might not have been true. The point was to get Alice talking, and if there was one place Alice loved, it was the school library. Anytime she wasn’t required to be in class, you could be sure to find her at the library, even during recess. Whatever new school we were thrust into—and we were thrust into a great many, we moved a lot—she’d immediately stalk the librarian until the poor woman had no choice but to befriend her, which would activate the second step of Alice’s campaign: to gain early morning and recess access. I suspect this was to bypass the cruel teasing she invariably endured in each new schoolyard, but, as I said, one never really knew with Alice.
Alarmed, and shifting around in her bed, she’d respond to the news of the library closure just as I’d hoped, with a good dose of wide-awake adrenaline. “What?! Why didn’t she tell me?”
“I dunno. Guess she forgot.”
“She wouldn’t forget to tell me that,” she’d say. Or something along those lines. “Mrs. Kearin doesn’t forget things like that. Then again… she’s been busy. A whole bunch of science books got donated; need to be catalogued, they do. Or maybe it’s because her dog’s been sick. She told me about it Wednesday when I was helping her restock books…”
If I chose my topic wisely, Alice might go on for some time, weighing out the possibilities and consequences of this new bit of information. I’d pretend to listen, yawn a few concerned huhns and ohs, her muttered gripings lulling me to sleep.
Now she is gone.
Seventy-seven years old and she just had to climb that ladder to clean our leaf-filled gutters. From the looks of it, the earth was at fault, not Alice. No surprise there. It gave way under a leg of the six-foot aluminum ladder, sending her toppling into the stucco garage where she slammed her head against its sharp corner. Probably due to a collapsed gopher tunnel. Alice hated gophers. I’m horrified to admit that last week, when she was setting a trap, I called out to her, “These gophers are going to be the death of you!” I was annoyed with her at the time. I can’t remember why.
I’m the one who found her, sprawled out on the cement path between our small yard and the garage, her head resting in a halo of congealed blood. I’d just come back from my daily beach stroll—the only thing that keeps my bad hip from seizing up. I didn’t find her right away. Went first to replace my sneakers with house slippers, as I always do, then wandered out to the yard to ask if she wanted lunch. A pointless question: we always lunch after my walks.
For all I know, this dramatic death was part of her plan. In the past months, the ever-practical Alice seemed to be intentionally putting herself in harm’s way—no doubt to avoid the nuisance of a slow, excessively needy death. She straddled the pitched roof to replace some rotted-out shingles; did some rewiring of the garage; rescued the neighbor’s mewling kitten from our old, non-bearing, avocado tree; each task seemingly begging karma to drop that final calling card.
I confess, karma is my thought, not Alice’s. Alice did not—would not—buy into the concept of karma. Cause and effect, sure. Cosmic scorekeeping? Way too hocus-pocus for Alice.
I had misgivings about moving in with Alice. She is—was—not the easiest of people. Nor was she wild about me moving in, but I expected that. She never welcomed change; it wasn’t programmed into her DNA, which is what I’d counted on four years ago when I lost Kim, the love of my life, to pancreatic cancer: a healthy dose of Alice’s rigidity to anchor me back to life. I reminded her that the house where she was living, once our parents’ house, officially belonged to both of us. Promised not to mess with her studio in the garage. Promised not to leave dishes in the sink. Promised not to rearrange things without her approval. Promised not to make her try new foods. She relented, at last, and we made it work, she and I, and in the end, I think she was happy to have me.
Now she too is dead and I have officially outlived everyone who cares about me: my childhood nightmare, in earnest.
My name is Lucy Louise Mustin. I am seventy-nine years old and occupy the last branch of our family tree. It’s October 23, 2015, 1:59 AM, in Santa Cruz, California. Exhausted as I am, I can’t sleep. The day was unseasonably warm and breezy. We’re four years into a terrible drought. Fires rage in the hills up north—at least one of them believed to be the work of an arsonist. When the wind is up, the foul odor of smoke blows through my open window. I am settled into my favorite Morris chair with a cup of hot, chamomile tea on the small, cherry table next me; on my knees, my favorite of Kim’s crocheted blankets; on my heart, a secret that’s been harbored there too long.
Alice killed our mother.
Or maybe we both did.
This unresolved distinction has been rattling around in me for twenty-six years.
Actually, that’s not quite true. There have been periods of time when I put the whole horrible episode to rest; however erroneously, I convinced myself that I’d come to terms with what happened that night. But tonight, left with only my nit-picking inner critic, whose sole goal seems to be to make sure I meet my maker with an uneasy conscience, I am experiencing a troubled wakefulness, much like that of my childhood.
If you are reading this, I ask that you refrain from judging me, or Alice, too harshly. Then again, for all I know, no one will ever read this. But that’s of no consequence to my purpose. I need to tell the truth of what happened that night.
Outside, the barking of restless sea lions, reminds me that life does, indeed, go on.
* * *
When All We Had Were Land Lines
October 9, 1989, Portland, Oregon. I was sitting in my small kitchen with my best friend, Toi. My second-story flat sat right under where the aerial tram is now. Like many photographers, Toi made a good portion of her living shooting weddings. I baked custom cakes. We were both single lesbians and, ironically, got much of our business from Dune, a wedding planner, also gay. He was every bride’s dream: a screaming queen who could talk tulle and shrimp canapés until even the most eager of brides howled uncle. Called his business Fabulous Weddings. I’m not kidding. We were quite the outfit: middle-aged, single, homosexuals preying on the happily-ever-after dreams of young, starry-eyed heterosexuals, at a time when we couldn’t legally marry.
“I’m dreading Sunday,” Toi said, topping off her glass of Cabernet. Toi loved her Cabernet. Tall and muscular, she cut a striking presence. Her skin, a gorgeous olivey cocoa, had an amazing sheen, and she moved like a professional athlete, hopping over chairs, slaloming through tipsy guests and tables covered in fancy fingerfoods to get the perfect shot. “The bride’s mother has called me a gazillion times,” she continued. “She’s an amateur photographer and worried about the light. Thinks we should move the gazebo. I keep telling her I know the park. I’ve shot weddings there before.”
I pulled a tray of chocolate chip cookies from the oven. “Pass her off on Dune. That’s what he gets the big bucks for.”
I was a few years into being single, and its perks were starting to wear thin. As for Toi, she was in one of her I’ll-never-date-again phases, which is to say we were both more-or-less happy hanging out in our sweats on a Monday night, drinking cab and feasting on homemade chocolate chip cookies.
Toi peeled a molten cookie off the pan. She had asbestos fingers, that one. “Think I should get my hair cut?”
She carried her cookie over to the small round mirror above my kitchen light switch. I had little mirrors positioned all over my second-floor flat, an attempt to feng shui myself into abundance and well being, and, while I hadn’t noticed a dramatic change in either category, I hadn’t given up hope.
Toi fussed with her shoulder-length dreadlocks. “I’ve been thinking of shaving my head. Just to shake things up.”
“Shaving your head at our age smacks of mid-life crisis.” I cranked open the window to fend off an oncoming hot flash. “That, or people will think you have cancer.”
“I told you about that dyke zygote that called me a Whoopie Goldberg wannabe.”
I’ll admit, I’m embroidering the scene a little. While it’s true Toi was always calling young people zygotes or embryos or guppies, I have no idea if she’d just done so when the phone rang. I’m just giving you a taste of the carefree life I was living at the time. I’m sure I waited for the answering machine to pick up. I wouldn’t have picked up with the cookies just out of the oven. When your home phone also serves as your business phone you have to draw the line somewhere. I’m equally sure, when I heard who it was, I picked up immediately.
“Emma, I’m here. Is everything okay?”
Emma Buswell lived across the street from my mom and Alice in Santa Cruz. She was a noseypants, but I appreciated her immensely. She called when the ambulance hauled off my dad. Called when my mom tripped on the curb and sprained her wrist. Called when Alice was using a leaf blower at 6:00 AM on a Sunday morning. Okay, so I didn’t appreciate that call so much. But, in general, I welcomed her communications. A middle-aged, self-proclaimed Earth Mama, she wore scads of jewelry: rings couched in the fatty pillows of her blunt fingers, an army of silver bangles that jangled at her frequent gesticulations. I could hear the bracelets over the phone. Clinkity. Clink. Clink. “You need to come.”
“Why? What happened?”
“I haven’t seen your mother or Alice outside for weeks. Not since the middle of September when Alice hauled a bunch of furniture out on the street and stuck free signs on it.”
“Wait. What? She gave away Mom’s furniture?” I glanced at Toi. She knew Alice, knew how uncomfortable I felt leaving her and Mom living alone together.
“Not all of it. But a stack. You know that nice couch? That walnut roll top desk?”
“Mom’s leather couch?”
Toi shook her head and chuckled. “Hoo boy.”
“I’m going to give Alice a call,” I said, by way of closing out the conversation. “Thank you for calling.” The woman would talk your ear off if you let her.
Toi topped off my wine glass. “Trouble in Surf City?”
“Do you mind if I…?”
“Of course not. Go at it. But no guarantees there’ll be any cookies left by the time you get off the phone. And say hello to that nutty sister of yours.”
I took the phone into the small alcove off the kitchen, and gazed down onto the mossy, postage-stamp yard where my downstairs neighbor was trying, unsuccessfully, to grow pot. What had I been thinking leaving Alice and Mom alone in the house after Dad’s heart attack? I’d known Mom was starting to lose it, even then. The truth was, I’d let Alice convince me that everything would be fine. “We’ve lived cheek by jowl this long, Sis. I’m sure we’ll do okey-doke.”
She picked up on the second ring. “Mustin residence. How may I help you?”
I pictured her in the cramped hallway between the bathroom and her bedroom using the mustard-colored phone with the long cord. It was the only phone she’d use, despite my having bought her and Mom a new cordless one. She saw no point in it. Why would she want to walk while talking on the phone? I pictured her wearing one of her kilts and a light sweater or t-shirt, knee socks, and a clunky pair of shoes or boots. I pictured her gray-hair pulled back in a ponytail, her thick Clark Kent glasses pushed up high on the bridge of her nose. She had a wide selection of kilts, collected them from all over the place; it’s all she ever wore.
“Alice, what’s going on? Emma says you haven’t been out in months.”
“Pretty much housebound these days, sis. Mom’s short-term memory is pushing up daisies. She’s packed her bags and returned to years gone by. Got her a walker, I did, but she refuses to use it. Thinks I’m Aunt Evockia half the time. Getting her out of the house is more trouble than it’s worth, it is. Can’t leave her alone, I can’t. No. No. No. Unless we want all hell to break loose.”
I tried not to panic. With Alice, “all hell breaking loose” could mean anything from a light left on to a four-alarm fire. She was born with Asperger’s Disorder. Or, that’s what I believe. She might have just had a monster case of OCD, or some other syndrome they have yet to classify— the Alice Syndrome—but she was never diagnosed as a child, and refused to be as an adult. Unless you counted one of the many diagnoses my mother gave her over the years: inhuman, devil child, stupid little goat… Or the one the small town doc gave her, which was actually a diagnosis of Mom. He called her a “refrigerator mother,” said Alice’s behavior was a result of her “lack of maternal warmth.” While it’s true that Euvonda Mae Mustin was not the nurturing type—If you came in crying from a busted open knee, she’d point toward the bathroom and say, “Don’t go bleeding on my good carpet!” Followed by, “I swear! Somewhere, in a Louisiana swamp, there’s a tree stump with a higher IQ than you!”—it stands to reason her lack of maternal warmth would have similarly affected me. It is also true that other mothers might have shown a bit more patience with Alice.
“If you can’t leave the house, how are you grocery shopping?” I asked.
“Found a grocer that’ll deliver, Sisteroo. Everything is fine. Shipshape. Aye, aye, captain.”
I ignored Alice’s attempt at humor. “Could you put Mom on?”
“Put her on what?”
Thanks to what I like to call Mom’s Hollywood Therapy, which basically consisted of forcing Alice to watch hours of TV and movies in the hope that she’d learn to, at least, give the impression of being normal, listening to Alice was much like listening to a bad actor recite lines. She’d emphasize the wrong words, would go up in pitch when the sentence wanted to go down.
“Alice, I’m serious.”
“Okay. Let’s do it. Get on with it. Make it happen.” There was a pause on her end. “Be right back.” Another pause. “A slight caveat, Sisteroo: since her bladder infection, she hasn’t been the Mom you know and love.”
“Bladder infection? When did that happen? Why didn’t you call?”
There was no response. Apparently, Alice had already gone to get Mom. I scrolled through my mental calendar. How long had it been since I’d visited? Five months? Six? I tried to get down as often as I could. Dad’s death had accelerated Mom’s mental decline and I didn’t think it fair for Alice to have to go it alone. I’d stay a couple of nights, do some cooking. I worried that taking care of Mom was too much for Alice. Mom’s dementia made her even more impatient than usual, but Alice always assured me she had things “under control.” I can’t tell you how many times I cooked up something special only to have both of them dislike it. I think they were relieved each time I left. So was I. My relationship with my mother was strained long before she started losing her mind.
Gripping the phone, staring down at my neighbor’s sickly pot plant, I could feel my comfortable life in Portland shifting beneath my feet. I returned to the kitchen for my wine.
Toi shook her head. “That bad, huh?”
I didn’t know how to answer. Just tossed back what was left of my wine, poured myself another glass, grabbed a cookie, and headed back to the alcove.
I was two bites into the cookie when Mom came on the line. “Hello?” She sounded like she was holding the receiver to her neck. I could hear Alice instructing her to put it to her mouth. “Hello?” she said again, her voice all warbly.
“Mom. It’s me. Lucy. How are you doing?”
“We had breakfast for dinner. Used up all the eggs.”
“Two weeks ago,” Alice interjected. “That’s when.” I got the feeling she was holding the phone for Mom.
“I told you I wanted soup!”
“O-kay,” I said. “Besides that, are you feeling all right?”
There was some shuffling on the other end.
“She left,” Alice said. “Got distracted, she did.”
“Alice, what’s going on?”
“Told you. Since her bladder infection, she’s been more confused than usual.”
“Has she been to a doctor?”
“Yes indeedydoo. Didn’t offer too many helpful hints, if you know what I mean. Antibiotics. All that. Infections gone. But she’s still confused.”
“Well, what did they say? Tell me exactly, Alice.”
“Hardening of the arteries. It’s natural. She’s old.”
I walked past Toi to the calendar in my closet-slash-office where I had a desk wedged in next to my sweaters. I was supposed to deliver thirty-six birthday cupcakes to Johnny Slattum’s third grade class on Wednesday. My thought was to drive down after dropping them off at the school, stay for a couple of days, see what was what, then tank up caffeine and make the eleven-hour drive back for Sunday’s wedding cake—two cakes, actually, a lemon-poppy-seed cake with butter cream frosting and a bizarre groom’s cake too (his mother’s recipe). It would be exhausting, but I could do it. During wedding season I’d been known to pump out up to three cakes a day, but in fall the jobs were few and far between. I really needed the money.
“Okay, look. I’ve got a few things I need to take care of, but then I can come down for a couple days. Can you get the spare room ready?”
“Will do, Sisteroo.”
I didn’t wind up leaving until Thursday.