“Sister,” by Sarah Elizabeth Schantz

Because all the silverware is dirty, Krystal uses an aluminum tablespoon to smear the yellow glue into the plastic bag. The same kind of bag she uses for Baby Girl’s bologna sandwiches on those days when she packs a picnic and takes her little sister to the park. Krystal likes to go. She likes the sound of the running water, how the creek carries the air, the way this air feels cold as she stands on the rocks watching Baby Girl play. Krystal watches making sure this sister gets to be a little girl.

The tablespoon is rectangular, the shape of a bulldozer scooper, only smaller and more shallow. The glue acts like honey, thick and impossible. Krystal transfers it to the bag from the blue tin with the three black Xs on the label. Industrial strength: Tandy Leather Glue. Krystal stole it from Preacher’s shop—dropped it in her bag when no one was looking. The same bag that carries everything she might ever need.

Preacher is her sister’s boyfriend. Her oldest sister, Jewel. His shop is along Highway 6, a converted orange caboose he sleeps in the back behind a curtain. The shop smells like rawhide, leather dye, cheap Mexican weed, and the inside of new cars. Preacher works leather. Makes jackets, chaps, custom saddle bags, belts, and even whips. His signature is fringe. He sells the gear to the bikers who pass through town late summer. August smells like motor oil and coconut suntan lotion. And sounds like Harley Davidson motors, long whistles, and chirping cat calls. Krystal loves to sit on Preacher’s deck and watch the bikers drive by. Chewing her Big Gulp straw, Krystal sees herself hitching a ride. Sees the day she stands on the side of the road with her thumb stuck out. And once she’s gone, Krystal sees how she’ll never come back. This is why she carries a bag with everything she might ever need.

Preacher rides a vintage maroon Indian. A bike with slender contours and curves like the egg-filled abdomens of an insect Krystal once saw on TV when she was stoned. Preacher proposed to her sister five years back but Jewel still hasn’t given him an answer. Krystal sits on the counter in the kitchen wearing the black fringed leather vest Preacher made for her this year—a gift for her fourteenth birthday. She wears it over her favorite shirt, a white tank with airbrushed roses splattered across the chest and spaghetti straps. Krystal hides the lump on her shoulder with the vest just like Preacher thought she would.

The kitchen sink is no bigger than a large-sized Tupperware tub, overflowing with dirty dishes, and half-eaten grilled cheese with cigarette butts put out in the greasy bread. The rest of the trailer is clean because a small space has to be.

Krystal sits on the narrow counter and keeps from falling by stretching out one long leg. She pushes her bare foot against the built-in table to steady herself, to keep from going down. The table folds out of the wall and was made to look like chrome, but the chrome is a mirage. Just cheap contact paper beginning to wrinkle and peel from years of the Minnesotan bipolar seasons. Sacred Heart is either sweaty hot or bitter cold.

The trailer is the only home Krystal’s ever known. Born inside the flimsy walls on a floor without foundation, she took her mama by surprise. Third babies come real fast. With Gemma on the phone with 911, and Jewel poised to catch the newborn, Krystal was delivered in the tiny bathroom slash hallway, sliding doors on either side to separate the back bedroom from the living area. Jewel, with her ring-laden hands and sharp fake finger nails, not only caught Krystal’s slick body, but was the first to discover the odd lump. Over the years, the men who are never really fathers, but her mama’s men come and go, building the additional rooms in attempt to make space where there isn’t any room. Methamphetamines, skunk weed, rye whiskey, hammers, saws and screws, these men never find a way to fit.

Haphazard, un-insulated and made from bowed plywood, three tiny make-shift bedrooms cling to the side of the trailer like a Midway funhouse. Covered with sheets of slanting tin, the bedrooms get too hot and too cold and always leak. The door that was meant to be the backdoor is now the door that opens onto the narrow hallway leading into these rooms occupied by Krystal and her older sisters.

Krystal has the last room with the big round window salvaged from a mansion that was torn down somewhere in the Twin Cities after a tornado. Double-pane, something is wrong with the seal. When it rains the water collects between the two sheets of glass and smears the outside world Krystal likes to look at. The window sweats and the water evaporates. Then it rains again, and the process repeats itself—like everything in Krystal’s life, forever looping.

Baby Girl sleeps with their mama, but when Mama has company, she sleeps with Krystal. As soon as Jewel says yes to Preacher, Baby Girl will get her room. There isn’t any room left on the lot for another addition. Everyone knows that Jewel will come around and marry Preacher who is good to her, who is good to them all. They know this like they know the SSI comes on the third of every month just in time to avoid any late fees on the lot rent. Jewel just struggles when it comes to accepting anything nice someone else has offered her.

Tonight Krystal put Baby Girl down in their mama’s bed. Even in the summer she insists on sleeping in her footed pajamas—the ones with the plastic soles all cracked from too much washing and too many bodies handed down. When she sleeps, Baby Girl sucks on her arms. She’s covered in red welts like she’s been sucked on by leeches. Red welts that keep making Social Services come around for yet another look.

Everyone else is out for the night. Mama playing bingo, Gemma on a date with a new guy, and Jewel working the graveyard shift in the sugar warehouse at the beet factory over in Renville. All night long Jewel sweeps sugar from one side of the warehouse to the other. When she works inside the factory she squeegees the molasses from one side to the other, the wide pipes overhead dripping more of that dark sweet gunk.

Krystal says she will never work the factory. It is her mantra. Runs the words through her head every night as she stands in front of her circle window, looking out at another world—“I will never work at that factory.” She makes this promise to her ephemeral reflection in the glass or the girl she sees in mirrors. For now, Krystal’s job is to take care of Baby Girl who sometimes slips and calls Krystal, Mama.

Using the plastic baggies like a glove, Krystal works the glue off the tablespoon and doesn’t get any on her thumb. There is more than enough glue on the inside of the bag. It’s a waste because glue dries so fast, but not as fast as paint.

This is her second bag tonight. She pinches the opening with her thumb and forefinger, and her heart-shaped mouth blows into the bag which inflates like a third lung. She holds the see-through, make-believe balloon in the air and studies it the way a person might study an aquarium or a curio cabinet. She sees animals inside: deer bodies with rabbit heads and rabbits with antlers. Winged fish and alligator men ride on trolley cars pulled along by clouds instead of cables. Sometimes she really can see the rest of the world—the world where she is headed. The texture and color of phlegm, the glue is attached to the inside of the bag the way a tumor attaches itself to a body. This is what glue does; it makes things stick together.

Krystal forgets she’s holding her breath until the air forces itself out, rushing into the atmosphere it smells like cigarettes and spearmint gum. She shakes the strange balloon like a little girl shaking a snow globe, but the glue sticks to the plastic wall and does not come undone. There is nothing pretty, no snowflakes or glitter confetti, and nothing settles. Krystal and the bag exhale together the way lovers do. Or twins.

Krystal’s twin died when they were still inside their mother. The doctors said it happens more than you might think. Krystal absorbed her sister. All she has left of her twin is the lump on her left shoulder covered in long, soft hairs that grow there like the windblown grass on the beach by the lake. The lump is pregnant with the remains of a sister. The X-rays show bits of unformed bone and teeth, and even though the surgery is considered cosmetic, Medicaid has agreed to pay for it. But Krystal refuses. She’s already lost so much.

With lips puckered as if to kiss, Krystal brings the baggie to her mouth again and breathes. Breathes in, breathes deep, and as she does her eyes close. Her eyeliner is perfect, thick along the rims of her eyelids the black lines slip off at the corners, cat-like. Her eye shadow, blue with silver flecks, is a color Maybelline calls: Metropolitan Midnight. Her eyelashes flutter, and like baby doll eyes, Krystal’s eyes open too. Like baby doll eyes that are busted, Krystal’s eyes roll back and don’t match up, rolling upward the way people sick with God look up.

The bag inflates and deflates as Krystal exhales and inhales. The glue burns her throat and the inside of the trailer is humming from all the appliances that are turned on. The electricity buzzes and the constant whine of the window fan as it whirls. Pink Floyd sings on the stereo: just two lost souls . . . and the cells inside Krystal dilate, then contract: swimming in a fishbowl . . . and the cells go “Pop!” They pop the way light bulbs pop when they burn out: year after year. . .

Krystal practices death; she practices not breathing and this makes her begin to turn blue. Periwinkle, she is the color of the one gods—the gods with all the extra arms and legs, the ones she saw at the Mall of America. The gods who were fucking each other in the shop window and made Krystal and her friends all giggle. The crazy girl gods who straddled guy gods who looked more like girl gods but couldn’t be unless they were lesbos wearing strap-ons. Images clear as pornography because everything is what it seems and isn’t trying to be otherwise—Krystal’s skin is that shade of blue. Her hand drops from her mouth, falls to her side—an involuntary motion, as if that arm didn’t belong to her. Long fingers, plastic bag, glob of glue, crumpled in her left hand. And then Krystal opens her eyes, breathing again.

She focuses on the mirror behind the boy who sits across from her. Krystal watches herself in the mirror where she’s framed by other reflections too. Reflections of the door they’ve always called the front door even though it’s on the side of the trailer the way all front doors on trailers are. The mirror is held to the wall by little pieces of ridged plastic, but the upper right hand corner is broken off revealing the thin film of silver-black that turns glass to mirror. The mirror is flecked with flakes of what is supposed to look like gold. This makes Krystal also flecked in gold. She watches herself. When she arches her eyebrow so does the girl in the glass. When Krystal shrugs her shoulders, so does the mirror-girl. But when Krystal shakes her head no, Sister nods yes. It is simultaneous, and it doesn’t just happen when Krystal sniffs glue.

The boy across from Krystal sits by the table. He sits on the chair backwards, his armpits cradled by the furniture, turning his shoulder blades into gargoyle wings. His lazy arms hang down, thick blue veins bulging like rivers running the atlas of his body. He holds his own baggie with one hand. His knuckles, stick and poke tattooed: EVIL on one hand, DEAD on the other. The boy watches Krystal the way everyone does: like she’s not real, about to disappear. Krystal likes being watched.

Feathered blond hair, tan skin—a lion boy. Krystal calls him Leo. She says, “Leo,” and when she does, she says it louder than she should especially because his name is Troy. She likes to turn people into other people. Her eyes burn green, a color that only comes from being plugged in. There are true stars in the emerald of her eyes and the boy can see them, but he thinks they’re from sniffing glue.

Krystal sings: So you think you can tell, Heaven from Hell? She scream-sings the song like it’s metal. When it’s metal she’ll sing it like a lullaby. She scream-sings although the song is over, she starts it over. She scream-sings over the static and the clicking of the tape player which means the tape needs to be turned over or taken out. Krystal scream-sings, and then she laughs—a sound like waterfalls.

There is a ghost inside of Krystal. Full of envy and vengeance, she spills out sometimes. Krystal is learning all the warning signs—like the way her pores and other holes begin to open. The places where a body leaks.

Krystal jumps down, knees bent for the impact she is suddenly standing barefoot on the linoleum. She grabs the boy by his face, wrapping him with all those long fingers, and even if he were standing, she’s still taller. She has to bend forever just to get to him. He wants to look at her, but he can’t. He wants to look forever—strawberry blond hair that falls like water, and legs that go on forever, the way her arms go on, forever—and her fingers and toes, forever. She goes on forever, and he wants to look forever but she is like the sun, if he looked he’d go blind.

Krystal kisses him, which means he can close his eyes, and look with his hands instead. Hands that slide up those thighs, fingers snaking under the ragged edge of her stonewashed cut-off jeans. And Krystal kisses him to keep from spilling over. She kisses like she is breathing—the kind of breathing after almost-drowning, she drinks him in. But when she tries to give him back, she can’t. A tiny cyst is forming on the lining of her stomach feeding into the lump on her shoulder. Just from kissing, he sticks to her like glue and this makes her cry.


Printed with permission from Sarah Elizabeth Schantz, copyrighted by Sarah Elizabeth Schantz @ 2012. This piece originally appeared in Issue No. 13 of the Los Angeles Review.

Author: A Room of Her Own

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