My sister Eileen always has to take things personally. Some might say she’s a narcissist. Like when that twelve-year-old girl got abducted in Salt Lake City some years ago, she went into a meltdown for days—trembling, crying, and ruining the third wedding of our other sister by staying outside in the car during the ceremony to get updates on the radio. Then, around the first anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, she was supposed to drive up to my place near the city, to go with me for a surgery I needed. She canceled on me. She said it wasn’t safe. With the next big attack coming, she said, none of the hospitals would be doing unimportant elective surgeries. They’d be way too busy trying to treat all the bodies that got blown to bits. Neither did she want to get close to the city where she might get hit by a terrorist missile or be killed by the dirty bomb that was surely coming.
Now my sister’s living with my mother because since her divorce she can’t afford her own place anymore. Although some of us wonder how come she drives a brand-new SUV, has a huge flat-screen TV, and flew out to Dallas to pick up a pedigreed cat she ordered on the Internet.
Now she’s all bent out of shape because her boyfriend from forty years ago calls the house looking for her.
She has her own phone number and all, but Edward calls on my mother’s line, the same number she’s had since 1958. So of course it’s the same as when Edward used to date Eileen and it’s in the phone book anyway. About three years ago he started calling, even before Eileen got divorced and moved back in. But my mother kept the information to herself, except for telling me. She knew Eileen would go crazy if she found out. Plus my sister has a weak heart and is not supposed to get excited. Lately, though, my mother is going downhill, with my father gone, and she’s lost her sense. So she told Eileen she suspected Edward had called again, and in fact had been calling for years. Of course my mother can’t hear very well besides, so she can’t stall Edward anymore or even be sure that it’s him on the line.
So Eileen is watching the Caller I.D. on my mother’s telephone. She sees a number that comes up “Bergen Medical Center.” This is what they now call the old Bergen Pines Mental Hospital. It’s totally illegal what she does, but she’s a nurse and she knows another one at Bergen Pines, and she gets her friend to divulge that Edward Benziger is a long-term patient on the mental ward. So she knows it’s him trying to get hold of her.
My mother tells her, why don’t you talk to him. Tell him, look, Edward, it’s over. But my sister won’t talk to him and tells my mother to say Eileen doesn’t live there and that Edward shouldn’t call any more.
She wants my mother to change her phone number but she’s an old lady who shouldn’t have to change her number after fifty years. How could she remember a new one?
My sister is talking to a detective. I say, hey, Edward is locked up so what do you have to worry about? But mental hospitals aren’t like they used to be. Patients can come and go from this place. Which is only about two miles from my mother’s house, two miles and one left turn past the Parkway overpass.
So I say, look, he’s been calling for years and has never come over. He doesn’t have the guts.
But my sister can’t sleep at night, convinced he could be watching, perched in the bushes or even inside the empty house next door that the neighbors abandoned in the middle of a big renovation when they crapped out on their loan.
My sister’s chest hurts and she has big black circles under her eyes. She hardly eats, just toast dunked in tea. She can’t swallow anything else. When she comes back from her job at the retarded people’s home she yells at my mother and screams at the cat. Then she starts to sob.
So when she asks me to come with her in her big SUV, I say okay. I can’t let her go by herself.
The detective says the old boyfriend gets out on Saturdays to go home, which is on the other side of town from my mother’s house.
Eileen puts on big sunglasses and a blond wig she found in the attic and a scarf hiked up to her nose. I don’t bother because I haven’t seen the guy since I was four years old. I figure I look different. It’s near freezing out and my sister has the heat blasting in the SUV because the cold is bad for her heart. The seat warmer is burning my leg so I turn it down.
The ride is a few miles. We pull up across from a 1950s postwar ranch house on a quiet street near the town park, a dirty-mustard-colored place that has never been built up to a McMonster like most of those houses have by now.
After a while we see a figure moving around the kitchen. Eileen grabs the binoculars and puts them down quickly.
You sure that’s him? I ask. It’s been forty years.
I’d know that vermin anywhere, she says.
When they were going out he hit her a few times and once threw her off the porch so hard she broke her arm.
We watch from across the street as the afternoon goes by. It’s winter and the dark comes early. In this neighborhood the streetlights have a pinkish-yellow shine to them, like a bad infection. Lights come on in the kitchen of Edward’s house, the curtains sweep closed. There’s a blue TV glow in the front room.
I think soon it must be time to leave, she can see he’s not coming after her tonight. She can sleep easy. But I hear her start to sniffle and then come the choking little sobs she tries to catch in her throat. She tries to wipe her face with the bunched-up scarf and I hand her some tissues I get from the glove compartment.
I try to calm her down, convince her it’s time to go. Edward is just a broken old man toasting Pop-Tarts in his kitchen.
But I can tell she’s not listening. She’s working herself up, all bitter and hateful. She keeps going on about how she can’t take it any more, and what did she do to deserve this?
She makes me go ring the doorbell and pretend I need help with a flat tire. I say I’ve tried at three houses and no one will help me.
The man is tall and slumped, but not much taller than me. He’s got a fringe of gray hair and a speckled beard. He has a kink in his nose and deep lines etched across his forehead. I try to remember him as the young man who used to carry me on his shoulders and dangle me upside down till I screamed. He used to fold up his hands and say, here’s the church, here’s the steeple, open the doors and see all the people.
He blinks and repeats my words slowly, trying to understand what I want. I start in again about my bad tire and how I don’t have Triple A because I can’t afford it and I have to get home to my sick mother with her medicine. I can tell I sound kind of desperate. If I don’t do what I promised I’ll never hear the end of it. I’ll never be able to visit my mother again because Eileen will always be there, shrieking and crying and scaring my mother and abusing the cat. I just want her to stop.
She claims she doesn’t want him dead. She just wants to make it so he isn’t exactly ambulatory. I do what I’m told. I lead Edward down the street till we get to the driver’s side of a car that is supposed to be mine, an old sedan the tires of which Eileen pushed a nail into a little while earlier. Then I pretend that I can’t get the trunk open to get out the jack. My sister’s truck is idling, set in drive with her foot on the brake. Edward straightens up and heads toward the rear of the car. I hear the growl of the SUV’s engine maybe ten houses down the block. It’s not very far to get up to speed but we figure it will be enough to ding him in the side so he goes down.
But when the tires squeal he’s two arm lengths away from me and a funny thing happens. I reach for his arm and pull him hard. The SUV swerves and clips his backside anyway and he goes down head-first. I must’ve been screaming or something because around five neighbors appear and someone drags Edward onto their lawn and somebody calls 911 and somebody calls the cops.
I have to testify against my sister in order to lessen my own sentence as an accessory to assault with a deadly weapon. Eileen’s lucky her lawyer got the charge reduced to assault from attempted murder.
When my sentence is up I fire my mother’s home health aide. I move my stuff into the master bedroom. I bundle up Eileen’s things for Goodwill and put them out for pickup. I get rid of all the cheap furniture I had at my place and put my sheets on Eileen’s plush pillow-top bed and my clothes in her sachet-lined oak dresser. I’m thrilled with the roomy closet and the revamped bathroom that she had my mother pay for when she was living here.
I look after my mother now, make sure she takes her medicine. I don’t mind watching TV with her, not even Judge Judy or her Korean soap opera. I manage her accounts and go with her to the diabetes doctor and the foot doctor. I drive her to the grocery store twice a week, to the hairdresser’s and the diner once in while. I let her order pancakes with real maple syrup for a treat. I play with the cat. It sits on my lap and purrs, and is happy not to be screamed at.
And my sister is much more serene now. They give her lithium or antidepressants or something at the facility. She’s safer than she’s ever been. She doesn’t have to work. She has decent medical care. Her chest rarely hurts. She can swallow her food. She has lots of time to crochet and surf the Internet at the prison library. It’s what you call a win-win situation.