I saw that they would have a jousting match until they found their footing. But it wasn’t a real battle cry; not yet, anyway. Karen and I flanked either side of the hospital bed. I took one of my mother’s hands and Karen took the other. I noticed how we were suddenly connected like a strip of paper dolls, the three of us holding hands again. We used to cross the city streets like this, our tripled shadow spilling across the concrete in a whimsical zigzag.
Karen felt the connection, too. She’s trying, I thought. This will work out. But Karen’s childhood is like one of those meteor craters that formed at the bottom of the ocean. Scientists like to calculate how the world was different before and after the impact. My sister’s disappearance was the linchpin event of her childhood, and mine.
In my family, girls disappeared before their coming of age. As in the story of Snow White, our mother banished us as soon as we reached our sexual maturity. Our new, womanly bodies upset the apple cart. Having been abandoned by her first husband, she felt threatened by other women, even her own offspring. When Karen left home, I knew that I, too, would be shoved out of the nest. It was just a matter of time.
Once, I took a part-time job grading tests for a firm called National Educational Testing. The famous Iowa Tests were distributed to grammar-school kids nationwide, and the scoring was done by college students who assembled in three shifts at an old, abandoned A&P where they had set up Formica tables, Xerox machines, and coffee urns. We were grading a fifth-grade essay exam which asked students to describe what was happening in a line drawing. The picture showed a hot-air balloon floating beside a two-story house. The balloon had a basket for passengers, but the basket was empty as it tipped against the eaves of the house.
Some children wrote that the balloon had arrived to take the family to a picnic; some wrote that it had just delivered a new baby, or a puppy. But others wrote that the balloon had crashed into the house and the mother had been killed, or the baby kidnapped, or that police were inside the balloon and had come to capture the father who owed money. Some even said that the balloon was really a bomb dropping onto the building. I might have answered, "The balloon took my sister away." Karen might have written, "The balloon came to rescue me from my empty house."
Why Karen Ran Away
I noticed our mother’s eyes looked strange. She had once had gorgeous glass-green irises, rimmed in topaz with gold flecks. Our father called her "Green-Eyes." But in her last hours, her eyes were flat slate buttons, leached of color. Karen recognized the change, too. Whatever physiological aspect of the death process it was that had stolen her vivid eye color, the vixen at the center of our lives was, at last, neutralized.
After Karen ran away, I maintained my neutrality in my mother’s kingdom by acting like a tomboy or a stable urchin. As a saddle bum, doing chores and whitewashing fences, I masked my gender so as not to be identified as a threat to my mother.
When Karen became an overnight bombshell, Veronica sent her to the doctor to get diet pills to reduce her bustline. She bought her unfashionable jumpers that hid her figure. She sorted our Halloween candy and gave me all of Karen’s booty. At 12, I was still the "cute one," still flat-chested. By the time Veronica started seeing me as a threat two years later, Karen had become an authentic FBI case. She had walked off without a word; we later learned that she’d met a man at the Bowl-o-Rama. He took her across state lines, where she worked at a porn theater and brothel in Virginia Beach. Once, she was raffled off as grand prize at Shriner Nite. My parents left it up to the authorities to try to find her, and I watched my mother to see if she seemed guilty. She’d sip her scotch and turn the pages of a new mystery novel. Veronica was hiding behind her normal routines, maybe for my sake.
The Last Supper
A nurse brought a dinner tray. Tepid chicken goo, and a bowl of fruit salad. The peeled grapes reminded me of a childhood game where Karen blindfolded me and told me to hold "eyeballs" in the palm of my hand.