(Short story originally published in Fiction)
I finally found Macy on the porch of the funeral home. She was sitting in a big rocking chair, rocking back and forth, kicking her feet up in rhythmic fashion. I had been looking for her, but finding her was usually like finding your worst nightmare.
Next to her, in another chair, rocked Tom Malone, Assistant Funeral Director of Malone’s Funeral Parlor. I knew this because it said Thomas Malone, Assistant Director, on a big brass tag on his black tuxedo jacket. It was a cold day, but he had undone his bow tie and collar. He looked like a boy, hardly out of his teens. Around Macy, though, he appeared comfortable and at ease. Everyone looked comfortable and at ease around Macy, even when they shouldn’t have.
“He’s the one,” Macy nodded to me. “I’ve found my man.”
“I’ve been looking all over for you,” I said. “Mom was getting worried.” It was an old, old refrain. I was four years younger than Macy, but would always be her parent. Or try, anyway.
We had come home for Thanksgiving. Our parents lived outside of Philadelphia in a decent middle-class suburb. I had a week off from college; Macy had come home to check out deals on caskets. Oh, she wasn’t dying at that very moment. But she was fanatical about getting the best deal. She was thinking ahead.
My sister had always been fanatical about deals. It had something to do with a real hatred for being “had,” for anyone having even one cent’s worth of power over her. Her life was some kind of zero sum equation which she forever balancing in her calculator of a brain.
“Not only is he inexpensive,” she was saying, “but he promises to look after things personally. Julie, he’s a doll.”
By this time, I had made it to the top of the stairs, and had taken Macy by her arm, which went rigid at my touch. I peered at Tom Malone and noticed he hadn’t even gotten his first shaving nick yet. He was cute and seemed uncommonly sweet. I knew then he was in way over his head.
After a moment, I also realized I knew him.
“Did you go to Dover High?” I asked.
“Yeah. You look familiar, too,” he smiled.
I didn’t ask why a boy like him, a good-looking boy from a middle class community, should choose to hunker down in the family death business rather than fly in the other direction.
Macy had always been wholly unpredictable about boys. They didn’t have to be handsome or even very intelligent. She probably thought of them in terms of bargains as well.
As I led her home, she went on about the caskets.
“He had two great styles, but my God, Julie, one was a thousand more than the other. Uh grand. In the end, I took the cheaper one.”
“You took it?” I asked. “What does that mean, exactly?”
“Bought it,” she shrugged. “That’s the beauty of revolving credit. That’s the American Way,” she said, wryly crinkling her nose at me. She made me smile in spite of myself.
“So, this coffin, it’s getting delivered to the house?”
“No, no. Of course not,” she stopped right there on the sidewalk and looked at me like I was an idiot. And maybe I was.
“He’s holding it for me. I mean, wouldn’t you rather I give you that money? Wouldn’t you rather¾?”
“That’s enough,” I said, beginning to walk again. “I can’t listen to this anymore, okay? Could you just stop?”
“You’ve got to face it some time.”
“No, I don’t.”
Macy just shrugged and began to run the last block toward home. That’s another thing: Macy never walked. She ran or stood still. And she never went anywhere, either. She was either there where you could see her staring at you with those pale wolf eyes or she was gone without so much as a perfume trace.
Macy sprinted into the house, but I was already out of breath after just one block and slowed to a walk. When I entered the house I found her at the kitchen table, helping herself to a handful of Mom’s oatmeal cookies.
I can’t say when exactly it was that Macy decided to stop crying about her melanoma. She cried, all right. Once, which is how I learned that she could cry. Everyone cried. Even her ex-husband broke down when he heard the news. She had been married, a teen bride, but had jilted Ronnie Edelman pretty badly for some other guy. Ronnie had wished her dead but even he couldn’t stop crying. No one could ever entirely stop loving Macy.
Our parents went crazy. She had lied to them, of course. First she said it was just a mole. Then she said they burned it off. Then, when they saw the hole in her thigh the size of a good pie wedge she told them her chances of relapse were only ten percent. She told me they were eighty percent. Survival rate over five years: twenty percent.
I think that might have been when Macy stopped crying for herself, when everybody else was doing it. After awhile, the emotion annoyed her. She found emotional outbursts laughable after about twenty seconds. Her main emotion was anger. Anger at not getting what she wanted.
One night, about a month after her diagnosis and surgery, she called me on the phone from Philly and said, “Julie, I’m done with playing by the rules.”
This frightened me greatly. I knew what her words meant: it meant nobody in the world was safe anymore. I’d seen her go AWOL before, with my own eyes. When I was eight or so she began escaping from the house in the dead of night, through our bedroom window. I recall the first time she escaped, to meet a boy. I said to her that if Mom and Dad found out, her goose would be cooked. That’s when she sicked those murderous eyes on me; when she’s angry, I could swear they cross just slightly, making more of you to annihilate. Then she actually grabbed me by the throat and squeezed until I could barely breathe.
“You tell Mom and Dad and I’ll slit your throat while you’re asleep. You understand?”
I understood perfectly, and while I didn’t think she’d actually do it, the truth was I wasn’t one hundred percent sure.
Once Macy wanted something, there was no stopping her from getting it. It didn’t hurt that she had the face of a little choir girl. Her mouth was red and puckered; her hair, wheat-colored; her lashes long and black; and her grey-blue eyes were large almonds. She had a way of making them smile at the corners just as if she were filled with the spirit of the Lord Himself. To me, she had the eyes of a cobra.
Our gym teacher said Macy should go out for track or cross-country, that she was a born runner. But sports bored her to tears. She found any organized activity farcical, any social group a joke. She used to pretend not to know things in class just so the teacher could feel good about herself by teaching her. “See, you could do it,” the teacher would say, and Macy would grin up gratefully at her.
“People just want to feel like you need them,” she told me. “That’s the trick to getting A’s. Getting anything, really,” she shrugged matter-of-factly.
Macy got accepted to Princeton on a full scholarship. The buzz at our high school was that she had a genius I.Q. But when counselors spoke about Macy, they somehow were never smiling. I didn’t think she’d last long at Princeton, and I was right. Macy dropped out of college after the first year, and I got calls from her from all over the country. She had schemes, plans, and she was always with some “great new guy.”
Now I had to pinch myself to realize that here she was, right beside me, in our old room. The night before, she had shown me the scar where the doctors had cut out her wedge of flesh. She told me how they still planned to remove skin from her thigh to repair the unsightly gap. They wanted to give her something called Interferon, but she said she’d think about it.
“Think about it?” I said. “You can’t think about it. You have do to what they say.”
“Why?” she said. “That stuff makes you sterile,” she said, and I looked over at her twin bed to see if it was a joke, but Macy wasn’t smiling.
“Have you told Mom and Dad about this? I think they have a right to know the truth.”
“Julie, you’d best just shut up right now. I don’t want to get angry at you, Julie.” Her voice was so calm it would have put a shiver down your spine.
I said nothing, but secretly, I vowed to tell our parents the truth before the week was out.
Later that night, I could hear her breathing in the dark. She was awake, thinking, plotting.
“Are you awake?” I asked, although I knew the answer.
“What are you thinking about?”
“I was thinking I’d skip the embalming. What does a body need to be embalmed for, anyway? I mean, if you’re dead, why do you need to be preserved? It’s not like we’re Egyptians. It’s not like there’s some afterlife we need to look our best for.”
“Sorry I asked,” I said. “Anyway, you’re not gonna die.”
She just laughed and said I was a moron.
I said nothing about the Interferon to our parents just then, but Macy grew more aloof from us anyway. Mom and Dad seemed not to notice. There had grown up around Macy’s melanoma a pact of silence. According to our parents, Macy’s melanoma was a thing of the past.
Mom was in the kitchen complaining that we weren’t helping enough. Her sister, our Aunt Germaine, was coming down from New York the following day with her kids, and she was nervous about all the stuff she had to do.
“So, why do you do it, then?” Macy asked her.
Mom just stared at Macy.
“Because they’re family, of course.”
“Then do it and don’t complain, if it’s your choice.” Macy shrugged, grabbed another cookie, and left. Mom was too shocked even to say anything. She never put Macy in her place, though I often wished she would.
That same day, I got my mid-term exam grades. Straight A’s. Macy had never been jealous of me before—why should she?—but something about this report upset her. She turned on me:
“You’ve always had it so easy,” she said.
The unfairness of her comment hurt me, but I kept my chin up.
“That’s a lie. I haven’t had it easy at all. You’re the one who got a scholarship. You’re the one who’s been everywhere and had all the boyfriends. You’re the one–”
But just as my arguments had built up some steam, Macy turned and looked me in the eye. There, in her right eye, was a second pupil. It was round and black. For a second I thought I was seeing double. Then I knew I wasn’t.
“Oh my God, Macy.”
But she turned away from me then, and her outstretched hand, fingers rigidly splayed, was like a celebrity’s in the lens of a paparazzo’s camera: Get outta my face!
On Thanksgiving Day, between raised voices and passing dishes, Macy disappeared and appeared. She played a sort of shell game with us. Once just as everyone began to arrive, the second time after the soup, and then again right after dinner. When she was at the table she kept her head down until our mother finally turned to her and said, “Macy, is something the matter?” But Macy shut her eyes and grinned, tilting her chin up as if drunk on the wine.
“No, Ma,” she said. “Just full. That was great.” Then she got up from the table. “I think I’ll go give old Tom Malone a piece of your great three-berry pie.”
“I’m sure Tom has his own mother’s pie,” said our mother testily.
I resolved to find out what her thing with Tom was all about. I would wring it from her physically if necessary. And I had decided to tell Mom and Dad about Macy the next morning, too. I couldn’t have her illness on my conscience. But the next morning, after coming back from a jog, I found she’d gone. Just up and left with all her things in the space of half an hour.
I ran into the kitchen, where Mom and Dad were just having their coffee.
“Hey, where’d Macy go?” I said, breathless.
“Macy?” Mom asked. “She’s gone?”
Apparently, my sister hadn’t even said goodbye.
Tom Malone disappeared, too. That’s when it dawned on me that maybe the whole coffin-purchasing business was just some morbid trick. Maybe it had all been a ruse to get Tom Malone. Why she wanted him, I had no idea. None at all. Unfortunately, when Tom went missing, so did $20,000 from his family business.
That same day, late afternoon, with Mom’s leftover pie between us but nobody touching it, two police offers began to ask me questions. It didn’t take more than a minute before I broke down sobbing. I confessed everything: her prognosis, her refusal of treatment, and the second pupil in her eye…
Mom ran to call the family physician. Dad walked up to me very quietly and, in the presence of the two officers, slapped me across the face.
“She said she’d kill me if I told,” I whimpered, holding my cheek.
But he just sent me a withering look and lapsed back into silence.
On Monday, I returned to school. There was nothing more I could do at home. I returned to my books and classes and part-time job in the library, and all my girlfriends with their boyfriend problems. I might have been able to forget about Macy for a day here and there were it not for the phone calls I got from Tom Malone’s mother and father. They took turns accusing first Macy and then me in the most venomous terms, certain I knew the fugitive’s whereabouts.
Personally, I believed it was Tom who must have felt he needed all that cash. A boy couldn’t just take off with a girl like Macy and have nothing to live on. Macy was no thief. Taking money outright would have gone against her peculiar brand of pride. No, I somehow didn’t think it was money she was after.
Then, just before Christmas, Tom showed up in town again, without Macy. He wouldn’t talk about where he’d been or what they’d done or anything. He seemed a changed boy, somber and grave. No longer a boy at all. He had even begun to grow a beard.
Everyone was after what he knew—his parents, my parents, the police. I went myself as soon as I heard the excited rumors that he’d come home. But when I saw him, I knew it was no use. He’d die before saying anything Macy had not wanted him to say. To me, Tom looked like he’d been to hell and back.
Rumors were, he returned most of the money he’d taken and been offered reinstatement into the family business, which he refused. There was no more badge on Tom Malone’s chest, no more Assistant Director for him. He got a job at the local Gulf station pumping gas.
When school let out in May, I came home to be with my family, although I didn’t really want to. Mom had become almost deranged in her zeal to cook. Every meal she made could have served ten, although there were just three of us. And she spent all day in a kind of artificial panic about not having the right ingredients. Dad never took his eyes off the television. As for Tom, I’d see him at the Gulf station, and I’d say “Hi, Tom” while he pumped my gas, and he’d say, “Hello, Julie.”
It was the phone call that silenced us. The phone call we hadn’t received. Tom gave up on it long before I did. I would never give up on Macy.
A year, then nearly two, went by. Twenty-three months since that horrible Thanksgiving when Macy bought her own coffin and when I saw the second pupil in her eye. I had graduated college with honors, and taken a job as an administrative assistant for a newspaper in Philadelphia.
For all that time, I had jumped every time the phone rang. I rushed to get it, breathless, heart thumping, wondering what news lay crouching in the receiver to spring on me. But it was always either Mom, or Dad, or a friend. Sometimes Mom, signing off, would simply say, “Any word?” And I always said, “No, Ma. You know I’d tell you.” And that was all.
I went through a depression. Now, there is no right place to put this fact, but I was born unable to have children. The parts didn’t all work. Tubes to nowhere, I thought of them. Now, the idea that Macy might die and that I’d be completely alone—well, I started sleeping around. It was almost superstitious, as if acting more like Macy might bring her angry spirit back. But sex without love didn’t suit me. It just made me feel lonelier than ever.
Then autumn came. It was the last weekend in October when the phone in my little studio rang, and somehow I knew it was her. I moved quickly, at the last minute thinking maybe it wasn’t her. Maybe it was this new guy, David. I liked him, but I’d been keeping him at arm’s length. I had met him at a party and hadn’t made up my mind about him yet. He was sweet and stable. He wanted a real girlfriend.
“Yo, Julie! You’re in.”
It was Macy all right, sounding exasperated, just as if she had been trying nonstop to reach me all this time. But I had an answering machine like everyone else.
“Macy,” I said, blinking away tears. “Where in hell are you?”
“Well,” she said cagily, “that’s why I’m calling. I sort of need you to come over.”
“Come over? Are you in town?” I got excited.
“No, no,” she laughed huskily, and then I heard her cough. It was a very deep, ugly sound. “No, I’m in Rio.”
“What, Nevada?” I asked.
“No, idiot. That’s Reno. I’m in Rio de Janeiro. Brazil. I need you to come over.”
She kept saying “over” as if I were five and not five thousand miles away.
“Are you in trouble?”
“I just need you. Christ, Julie, this isn’t easy for me. You know that.”
I couldn’t help thinking, maybe she was just pretending to need me. But I was afraid she’d hang up on me so I said, “Okay. Okay, I’ll come. I don’t have any money, but I’ll find a way.”
There was a pause. I could hear her thinking. Then she said, “You know my bed back home?”
“Well, go there. Look under the mattress. There’s a flowered makeup bag, and inside that–”
“Whoa, wait a minute.” I hadn’t been home all fall, and I didn’t relish the idea.
“Julie, listen. In the makeup bag, inside an empty lipstick case, there’s a diamond ring. Two-point-five carats. Sell it. Just go to the fucking Jeweler’s—you know, that old guy on the corner next to the ice cream place—and sell it. Don’t take less than eight grand.”
“Just do it.”
She stayed on just long enough to give me her address. Then she hung up the phone without giving me her number.
Five days later, I was on an airplane out of Philly going south. Way south. My parents were overjoyed when I came home unannounced and told them I’d heard from Macy, that she was alive and seemingly well. They had a million messages for her. My mom took an hour out of her cooking to write Macy a letter which I knew Macy would just throw in the garbage. She loved them in her way, but she had no use for them. And I couldn’t help but wonder, as I sold the ring for $8,000 exactly, to what use she was now putting me.
I wish I could say I noticed what Rio looked like, but I didn’t. At least, not much. Some of the views from the taxi, as we made our way into the city, were very beautiful. Tropical. There were Americans at cafes, men and women on cell phones. Well-dressed, cosmopolitan people.
She had told me nothing of her condition, or her situation, over the phone. I didn’t know what to expect, and as we arrived in her neighborhood, a place called Leblon, just past Ipanema, the taxi driver craning his dark neck to look at the house numbers, my heart started to pound like crazy.
At least we weren’t in a shabby neighborhood; no, this one was quite posh. Limos with idling drivers sat out on the streets; dark-skinned maids bustled in and out of doors with groceries in their arms. The neighborhood was too posh, and at this thought, I panicked. Maybe my sister had taken up with some South American drug lord. Maybe I would learn something I shouldn’t know, and then they’d find my body parts on some nude beach, mauled by sharks.
A young girl in a maid’s outfit answered the door. She pointed me into a dark hallway, which opened up onto a very large, very elegant, unlit living room.
The room, as I’ve said, was dark, so I didn’t at first see my sister. She was sitting in an upholstered armchair facing away from me. She heard me and stood up.
“Macy!” I ran to her. Her right eye was covered by an eye patch. I didn’t think there was any eye under there anymore. The other eye seemed to stare off blindly.
I hugged her, dread rising in my breast.
“We don’t have a lot of time,” she said.
“I just got here. What is this place? Are you married?”
Macy smiled, but I didn’t like her smile. I felt as if I were part of some diabolical plan. A plan so vast I might never see it in its entirety.
She didn’t answer, but just took me by the hand and led me into her kitchen. Another girl was in the kitchen, cleaning.
“Maria, duas cafes por favor.”
The girl nodded. Macy sat me down at the kitchen table. The top of the table was glass; the base was solid marble to match the island in the center of the room. It was red marble, with gold and white veins running through it. Expensive.
“This feels like a nightmare,” I said. “Pinch me, okay?”
She smiled again.
“No, Paulo has been very good to me. It’s his family’s house. He’s thirty-two. He’s away for the weekend. A business trip. When he comes home, I’ll be gone,” she added.
“What does that mean?” I frowned. “And this Paulo. Is he your husband? Where’d you meet him?”
She waved her hand as if to say that none of that mattered.
“What matters, Julie, is, what kind of life do you plan to have? Are you going to be happy or wind up like Mom, cooking fucking Turkey for people she doesn’t even care about?”
I was too shocked to retaliate. Just then, Maria came with the coffees. Macy reached for the sugar, missing it slightly. That’s when I knew she was blind.
“Sympathetic blindness,” she said. “You’d know about that.”
She felt for the spoon, stirred the sugar in.
I sucked in a sob of self-pity. Here I had flown five thousand miles to help my sister and she seemed to want only to put me down.
“I’m not here to talk about me. What’s happening with your eyes?”
“It’s not important.”
“Not important? Can you see?”
“No. Shadows. That’s all.” She turned away from me then.
“You should call Mom and Dad. They’ll help you.”
She calmly sipped her coffee.
“Mom and dad, help me? That’s a joke. They’re pathetic.”
Suddenly, I thought I heard a child crying. I thought it must be in the next apartment, but it was too close, too fresh a sound. Maria came into the kitchen and said something to Macy in Portuguese. Macy said something back, with perfect fluency.
“Come,” she said, taking me by the hand. “It’s time to meet Rosa.”
At the end of a dark hallway, in a small room lit by a big plastic rabbit night-light, a baby sat crying in her crib. She was very fair-skinned, like Macy. She was rubbing her little fists against her closed eyes. When she heard her mother enter the room she opened her gray-blue eyes and pulled herself up on the bars.
Maria leaned over the crib with Macy, guiding her to the standing child.
“Maaa,” the child said. “Maa, Rosa wann baba.”
“Oh,” said Macy smiling. “You see, she’s a genius like me. Only thirteen months and speaking sentences. Come, darling,” she picked up the baby. “Oh, come to your mama.”
I felt faint, and the room actually swayed. I plunked myself down in a rocking chair that stood in the corner of the dark room.
The girl stopped crying the moment Macy picked her up; she sucked her thumb and stared at me rather balefully, the stranger in the chair.
“That’s Aunt Julie,” said Macy to the girl. “Want to go to Aunt Julie?”
The girl clung to her more tightly, not wanting to go anywhere. She was where she wanted to be, in her mother’s arms. But Macy insisted.
“Come, darling, let your Aunt Julie hold you.”
Maria assisted as Macy held the girl out and placed her in my lap. She was hot from her nap, hot and sweaty. But she smelled sweet. A sweet, poopie-baby smell. I bounced her on my knee once or twice, awkwardly, but she began to cry and reached for her mother.
I could describe what Macy’s house was like, who Paulo was, what the doctors said. I could describe amazing Rosa in more detail. But instead I’ll just tell you what Macy said to me once Maria had left the room:
“Take her, Julie,” she said.
“Take the baby? Are you crazy?”
“I can’t take a baby. I’m only twenty-two. I don’t even have a boyfriend. I mean, I sort of like this guy David I met at a party, but–”
She leaned in to me, the baby happily sucking its thumb, draped over its mother’s shoulder.
“Take her or I’ll kill her.”
Her one roving eye strained on me for a moment, and I knew she meant it.
At some point, I found myself sitting on the airplane, heading back to Philadelphia with Rosa squirming on my lap. Something was happening to me, and it wasn’t just that I’d become a mother in the space of a day. I spent a good part of that plane ride laughing. I was crying, too, but part of that crying was definitely laughter, because it was all so insane, so ridiculous. Disaster, total disaster, had happened. I could stop watching for it at last. This fact set something in me free, something that had been held back a long, long time.
There were three other diamond engagement rings under Macy’s mattress. When I had gotten my bearings, I returned to my studio with Rosa, promising Mom we would visit often. I called up David and asked him if he wanted to marry me, Rosa wailing tragic-comically in the background. He laughed, said yes, and even sort of meant it. Soon, I got a new job. I was writing real pieces, earning a real living. I kept waiting for the Malones to sue me for Rosa, but they never did. I don’t think they wanted anything to do with the spawn of the Devil. I watched Rosa grow into a strong, long-limbed little girl. She had freckles, like Tom Malone. We, David and I, watched them carefully, the way I secretly watched for malignancy of spirit. But there was none. For me, from Rosa, as from her mother, there was only ever love.