Ballad in Three Voices
Judith Schiess Avila
I picked up the painter’s pole, a rag wrapped around one end, holding it like a battering ram.
Livvie, my younger sister, laughed – a single burst of full, rich sound, a sound too large to have emerged from her slight form. “What’s that ridiculous thing for?” she asked.
“Since Mother died they’ve been everywhere,” I said. “Spider webs.”
One hung in the corner of the living room, spanning beams five feet above my head. My breath quickened. Were the spiders winning? Gritting my teeth, I steadied the pole and totaled the web with my makeshift tool.
“Woo hoo!” Livvie clapped, the five silver rings on her fingers flashing. “My big sister, the great white hunter.”
A slow search of the living room and dining area revealed three more webs. I annihilated them. Should I check the kitchen? Not now. I propped the pole in a corner.
Livvie studied the still-wrapped package sitting on my dining room table.
“For Mother’s birthday,” I said. “Only it arrived too late.”
Livvie looked up, dark lashes shrouding black-rimmed eyes. “You know, you looked just like Mom at the funeral. When you put that yellow rose on her coffin, your hair all curly with a life of its own, it was like seeing a ghost. Dad saw it, too. He looked like he’d been stabbed in the chest.” She scrubbed at one eye with an open palm, leaving a black smudge on her cheek.
I knew I resembled Mother, the deep-set brown eyes, dark hair, full lips. And like her, I pursued life like a puzzle that must be solved, researching everything from my choice of car, to refrigerator, to profession – an Economics Professor at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque.
Livvie directed her attention back to the white box. “We should open it,” she said. She scratched her upper arm, drawing my attention to the dragon tattooed there. It circled her arm, its slender shape somehow echoing my sister’s slender form. Livvie, wasn’t like Mother or me. I pictured her by the coffin, combat-style boots anchoring her too-thin form. Sky blue wisps peeked through her black hair, dyed back to its natural color for the day of the funeral. A long-sleeved blouse hid the dragon tattoo, and the visible portions of her multi-pierced body sported only an elegant pair of pearl earrings. Her musician’s eyes burned, a heat I sometimes found scary.
Now, looking at Livvie, her hair a bright turquoise, I thought, She is the one who will do something memorable. First, though, there were devils to vanquish. In the face of her incandescence, I knew my sister battled doubt.
I shook my head. “It’s just too sad,” I said, staring at the box.
It sat on the table, its white exterior smudged, the logo “Gourmet Dream” silk-screened in a flowery script. It had been sitting there all week.
Livvie pulled at the packing tape. It didn’t give. Her hands shook. “We need to face things, Jo. Get a knife.”
I found a sharp knife in the kitchen and returned to the dining table, armed.
Carefully I slit the box open and extracted bubble wrap, then some packing tissue, then a springform pan and several elaborately shaped cookie cutters, all wrapped in cellophane. Two expensive knives – one wide and toothed, one razor-sharp and narrow – sat at the bottom of the box.
“Mom would have loved this stuff,” Livvie said.
Sweat dampened the tissue wadded in my hand.
I unwrapped each item, examining by touch, handing them to Livvie. I let my mind wander back over the week since Mother’s death. The latch on the springform pan snapped open and closed, open and closed in my hands.
My father, a geologist, believed that death could induce strange tremors, seismic activity that changed the shape of your world. He was right. I already felt the topography of my life shearing and buckling. My humdrum existence. Would I still be able to live there?
Livvie reached for the angel-shaped cookie cutter. Sunlight bounced off its wings, which were opened in prayer. She held it out to me, and I took it.
“That’s you,” said Livvie. “The angel.” She pulled the box toward her. “Is there a devil in here?”
I pressed the warm metal to my cheek. Maybe before, I thought, when Mother was alive. Maybe this was me. I fought to keep my hands from shaking. New forces pulled at me. My old life no longer fit. Angel? I don’t think so.
Livvie slid the box to the center of the table. She stretched, her thin arms reaching out in a dancer’s stance. “God, it’s hot in here.”
Heat poured through the west-facing dining room window. I stood to close the blinds. Albuquerque spread before me like a gift, its colors baked clean by the constant sun – the muted brick-red of scattered tile rooftops, the patches of dusty trees, the brushed khaki of the West Mesa, the purple bruise of Mount Taylor.
I guess I stood there longer than I realized. Then the blinds closed, clunking against the window sill.
“You okay?” asked Livvie.
I shrugged. “I guess.”
How could I explain it – this deep restlessness – even to myself? I’d been content, married for twenty-three years, the first three exultant, the next few happy, all the others sliding along amicably under the reliable New Mexico sun. You could call on Roger and me in a pinch. We were steady.
Then Mother fell, and I hadn’t managed to save her. And now my world had veered off course, scraping and bouncing its way through the new and alarming territory of discontent.
“I just feel…different. Like I’m watching my life instead of living in it. You know?”
Livvie nodded. “Yeah. I’ve felt that too. Like this can’t be real. Mom gone and all.”
I repacked the box, feeling each sharp utensil in my hands, thinking of the dulled edges of my cookie-cutter life.
“When you get back to teaching, things will seem more real,” said my sister.
I shrugged again. “I hope so.”
“It’s better for me when I sing. Or play,” she said. She sighed, a sound that was almost musical emerging from my sister’s chest. She pressed a button on her hot pink cell phone and studied the display for a second. “Gotta go. Nick’s got the studio set up for practice.”
Livvie, backed down my drive, her dark green Cougar moving way too fast. Spiky turquoise hair glinted crazily through the dust-spotted windshield. I bit my thumb when she didn’t stop to look for traffic at the base of the drive, knowing I couldn’t face the loss of my remarkable sister. When she turned safely onto the road, I waved from the open front door.
Would things be better once I got back to teaching? The next day, Monday, would be my first day back after Mother’s death. I was a full professor at the University of New Mexico, a job I liked but didn’t love. I had published fourteen articles and one mildly successful book, all dealing with economics. Not life in the fast lane, but not bad.
My private life stalled years ago. It came to rest in an acceptable place, a place of near-contentment until Mother died. Roger was a decent, intelligent husband. Our two daughters, both in college, possessed brains and integrity, with beauty that raised twin flags of pride and alarm. We owned a good-sized custom house in the foothills of the Sandia Mountains, with a God’s-eye view of Albuquerque.
Maybe life had been too easy? Whatever the reason, my privileged existence had grown stale, the sense of predictability maddening. And now, just a week after my mother’s sudden death, I sensed it: I needed out.
Chill, Joanna. Livvie, called me the “pillar-of-the-community.” How, then, could I have this urge to run, to hide from my normal routine? But Mother’s sudden death drove home the fact that life can end precipitously, before you’ve glimpsed its forbidden underbelly, and maybe before you’ve really lived.
It was two o’clock. Sunday. I dialed Roger, hoping I wouldn’t disturb some urgent weekend meeting at the sporting equipment manufacturing company where he worked. Guess not. He answered on the first ring.
“Livvie and I opened the box for Mother today,” I told him. “Her gift.”
There was a slight hesitation, then, “The kitchen stuff?” Silence. Was he reading some report while we talked?
“I miss her,” I said, my throat going dry and croaky.
Roger changed the subject. “How’s Livvie?” When I hesitated, he continued, “I need to work late tonight. Don’t hold dinner.”
Working late. Again. “Couldn’t you try to get home?” I asked. “I’m lonesome.” Silence.
“It’s a new bid. Regulation lacrosse equipment. I need to crunch the numbers.”
“But it’s Sunday.”
“Yeah, but I took time off last week after your mom – ”
“Yes. Yes, I know. But … couldn’t you come home?”
The connection clicked, then hummed. I sighed and studied the backs of my hands. Sunlight cast the veins thick like cords. These hands were growing old, forty-three already. The gold wedding band and engagement ring had carved a shallow groove.
I glanced at the window again and noticed, from the corner of my eye, a smudge where window met sill. Another web.