As Seen From the Distance
I heard the creak and then the slap of the screen door as it flew open hitting the side of the house. My sister came flying out the door, hooting and jibbering, followed closely behind by my mother. It was a familiar enough sight in our neighborhood. It was early summer-- June, I think. The sky was a boundless blue assailed by mountainous clouds of perfect white. School had ended a few days before and now I stood at the park at the end of our street next to a boy I had only just met. His family was moving into a house on the other side of the park. To get there by car, you would have had to drive down the street where I lived and around the block. From where we stood, however, it was just a short walk across a field and through a small stand of trees. I could see the moving van through the trees. In an attempt to get him out of the way while the movers emptied the truck, his parents, unlike the more anxious parents of today, suggested he go out and explore the neighborhood. His name was Kevin. He wore denim cut-offs and a striped t-shirt and he would be my best friend throughout junior high and high school. On that clear June day, though, we were only ten-going-on-eleven and high school was still a lifetime away. Kevin had just been showing me some rocks from his pocket that had been polished as smooth and shiny as gemstones. He was explaining to me about the rock polisher his dad had when we heard the door and both looked up.
As I said, seeing my mother chase my sister through the neighborhood was hardly a new thing for me. In my early childhood my sister had been to me some sort of a god. She remained untouched by the concerns of mere mortals. There were very few things that could discourage her from any path she might chose at any given moment. She could make her voice go very high and then move it up and down so that she sounded just like a police siren. I have yet to meet another living being who can do that. She enjoyed making noises and even more so if she knew they annoyed my mother. In fact, she enjoyed anything if she discovered it annoyed my mother. My sister's hair was always a tangled mop of curls that my mother managed by some amazing feat of will or subterfuge to keep short, because, I think, it was easier to have one giant fight every other month or so to get my sister's hair cut than it was to have the daily wrestling match to get it brushed. When she was in an especially obstinate mood my sister would go into a frenzy where she would simply begin doing everything and anything to be destructive. She pulled books out of shelves, wiped dishes off of the counter, pulled pictures from walls and clothes from hooks. The latest thing she had discovered to drive my mother crazy was taking off all of her clothes. She did it once after climbing into the shower fully clothed. When she came out and realized that she was completely soaked, she began to strip right in the middle of the living room. My mother tried to gently coax her into the bathroom or one of the bedrooms to change, but when she saw my mother coming, she took off running around the house throwing off sopping articles of clothing as she went. After that, stripping became a regular part of her repertoire. I never understood what she had against my mother, and neither, apparently, did my mother.
My sister always thought up the best games. One day when I was four and she was seven, she began throwing the dog food into the air just to watch it rain down. It looked like so much fun that I began doing it too. We managed to empty the larger part of a 50lb. bag of dog food before my mother discovered us. We both received spankings. My sister just laughed defiantly. I couldn’t help producing the requisite tears.
There was also the night when I woke at 3 a. m. to catch my sister creeping down stairs. As it was near Christmas, I thought she might be going to look for Santa. I followed her. Down stairs in the glow of the lights on the tree, I could see the wheels in her head turning as she considered the scene before her. She prowled around until, in the kitchen, she discovered several plates of cookies my mother had made for some church function the next day. She pulled one of the plates from the counter, tossed the plastic wrap and began eating one of the cookies as she carried the plate into the living room. She sat down on a chair and began swinging her legs back and forth as though she were on a playground swing while starting meditatively on her second cookie. As she ate the second cookie she began picking up cookies with her free hand and crushing them. She sifted the crumbs through her fingers, watching them fall to the floor and then ran her tows back and forth through the resulting pile, working them into the carpet. But what are cookies with out milk? She went back to the kitchen and took a half-full gallon jug from the refrigerator and proceeded to slowly pour it’s contents into the cookie mess she had begun. When the jug was empty she danced and jumped in the goo, splattering cookie mess everywhere. I think it was pulling down the Christmas tree that finally woke my parents. The tree was only decorated near the top where the ornaments were too far up for my sister to reach. This was the night she discovered that she could reach the ornaments if she pulled the tree down to meet her. Naturally, the tree landed with a crash. I’m certain it was the crash that woke my parents, launching my father into a string of expletives as he and my mother came running down the stairs that would have made the saltiest of sea captains blush. My father was the one to dole out the spankings that night. My mother just sat on the stairs and wept. I was six and that was our last Christmas tree until I turned 11.
My sister was afraid of my father. When he spanked, she screamed. While she would often ignore my mother’s requests, she would glower at my father’s commands, but she would obey. Looking back, I think the difference was that my father was gone so much with work and other things that she simply did not have time to find the chinks in his armor as she long ago had with my mother. She behaved well enough with strangers, until she got to know them. We never kept babysitters long. Their first night on the job they would report that everything went fine, but with each succeeding visit things would get more and more out of control until after their third or fourth visit-- some truly stalwart souls even made it to five-- they would either find some excuse why they couldn’t watch us or simply refuse to ever come again.
My mother was constantly worn out. On Sundays we went to church, though. She put on a nice dress and make-up and insisted that I put on a tie and go with her. My father, who was never much for attending church, stayed home with my sister. On Sunday mornings, my mother was a different person. She was calm and relaxed. She was not my mother but a lady. People smiled, greeted her politely and spoke to her in tones that were acceptable in public settings. To this day I’m not entirely certain that my mother was particularly faithful. I think she attended church simply because she missed being treated like a human being. By mid-afternoon she was again as worn and haggard as an old dishcloth.
My father could never understand why my mother had such a hard time keeping a handle on my sister. Even at a young age I could see that it was a source of contention for them: my father insisting that my mother should keep a tighter reign on my sister; my mother insisting that it was more than a one person job. They would speak together about my sister, their words and their faces growing tighter and tighter like a rope in a tug-of-war, until, realizing that they had an audience, they would step inside the nearest room and close the door.
Until that day in the park, standing there with my new friend, I had never thought about the fact that my sister went to a different school than me. Nor had it ever occurred to me that she was so different from everybody else, just as it had never occurred to me just how sparsely our home was decorated until, coming home from school during my sixth grade year, I would begin to notice pictures hung on walls, books on shelves, new furniture. By the time I was ten my sister was no longer a god but just a fact of life. Two weeks after that bright summer day my parents would send me, for the first time, off to summer camp. My sister, they said, would be going away, too. By the time they told me that, I think I already knew. The day that I stood there in the park watching my mother chase my sister, was the first time I really found my self standing back from them both. At the distance from which I stood, they and their whole dance had nothing to do with me. I was safe. It was some remote diorama like the ones we made in shoe boxes the previous year and I was just watching the spectacle. In that moment I began to see my sister the way others saw her. As I watched my mother chase my thirteen-year-old sister down the street, I was uncomfortable noticing the breasts that were forming and I turned away. Kevin couldn’t take his eyes off the sight. Apparently, where ever he came from, a woman chasing a naked teenager down the street was not a common occurrence.
“Who is she?” he asked, “Some kinda retard?”
I glanced back at the sight nervously.
“I don’t know,” I told him and looked away again.