My sister, Stella…
Before I tell you about Stella shooting the minister, I think you should know a little about me and perhaps that will help you to know her. The first thing I want to do when something goes wrong is to cuddle between Mommy and Daddy in their huge king-sized bed. It is the only place I feel safe, and I am thirty seven, married, with three children.
My parents, or Mommy and Daddy, as I still like to call them, are seventy-nine now and the king bed is long gone, as they both have hospital beds, side-by-side in the assisted living home. Yet that’s where I want to be, even though I can’t and I’m sure if they knew they would laugh for days about it. They have a pretty good sense of humor. I’m Charles. I’m a middle school math teacher. I have a pretty wife, Lydia, although I have never told her about yearning to return to the space under the covers between Mommy and Daddy.
Lydia, I believe, married me because of my father’s reputation as a beloved professor of philosophy at Adelaide College. She thought his charm would rub off on me, but I am a dullard especially at cocktail parties. I am not taken to small chatty talk and isosceles triangles do not make fascinating or humorous party conversations. I fix a bemused expression on my face and stand around holding the same drink all evening and whatever the topic I am bemused. Even about the death of one of Lydia’s colleagues. Yes I heard about that. “Get that god damned look off your face for a change!” she berated me into the wee small hours of the morning. I knew at the next party I would have to suck in my gut, squeeze into my best gray pin-striped suit and red silk tie, comb whatever strands I can find over my bald spot, clip those pesky nose hairs, roll on double the deodorant and corner unsuspecting party goers into making trapezoids out of the white cocktail napkins.
Stella, my sister, lives alone as a librarian should. She is thirty and unmarried and has never had a date. I think she resembles Sophia Loren, not the sexy part, unfortunately the not-so-good-looking part. She does have the long dark hair and long legs, hairy I’m afraid, and she is overly bosomed, but not in a good way, if you know what I mean and her stomach is huge. But I’m crazy about her. She’s a good sister. She has a great bellowing laugh and she doesn’t mind saying what she thinks without any thought of tact.
Stella is a first rate librarian. And she keeps a mean library, that is to say she’s been known to rip patrons to shreds with her sharp tongue. You DO NOT make noise in Stella’s library. She’s bright, innovative, but she is also insecure, feels weird among people, and not good at parties like me.
Stella is an artist of sorts. Not oils. Not charcoal. Well sometimes charcoal. She does caricatures. I think she uses black acrylics. She paints people on white sheets, drapes them over her chairs and sofa, or lays them on pillows on the gold rug. Just walking in to her apartment, it appears as if she is surrounded by friends. Sometimes the friends look like Billy Joel or Rihanna or Frankie Sinatra. She sits amongst these “friends” and eats with them, drinks with them, talks with them--not anything she’d have to be committed for, but when she shot the minister, they said they had to put her in jail.
Not sure how Mommy and Daddy deserved us. They were such great parents. They were like co-joined twins, did everything together and their friends were long standing, actually from the cradle roll. These were Stella and my friends too, and maybe that’s why Stella and I didn’t actually have friends of our own age.
Lydia, my pretty wife, wears her chestnut hair in a long braid that falls down her back and is secured with a butterfly clasp made of dark brown Austrian crystals. She is an associate English professor at Adelaide and she is determined, truly religiously determined, to become a full professor with tenure before her nemesis, Bunny Winslow. Our children take after Lydia in looks, thank God, and they are healthy. There are the two older boys, Rob and Steve. Their interests are computers and cars. Rob is the computer geek and Steve is the car crasher. I’ve told Steve he has got to pay for his own car insurance as it is killing me. But they’re great boys. Never begged me to play ball with them. It’s not my thing or theirs. Now our girl, Katherine, who is three, well she’s all girl, and only wants to be a mommy when she grows up.
What happened to the minister…
Pastor Williams only lost a leg. He knocked on Stella’s front door and that was his mistake. Stella only lets family in her apartment. So she shot him. She said she was aiming for his private parts, but she had never seen a man naked, so she wasn’t sure where the equipment lingered.
We didn’t know she had a gun. But she went hunting with Dad and me one autumn when we were hungry for venison. She took to a gun right away, but we didn’t think she’d go out and buy one. She got the buck for us that day and she took a real liking to dicing it up too. Luckily she didn’t do that to the pastor.
The women’s prison is about ten miles out of town. The prison is gray, typical for prisons I assume; the inmates are tattooed, brazen, foul-mouthed, greasy-haired and crass. Yet Stella doesn’t mind. She became something of a prison star when they found out she could draw famous people. Now, with the sidewalk chalk I bring her she draws the other inmate’s favorite celebrity to share their cells; James Franco, Mick Jagger, Colin Farrell, Sylvester Stallone and Sandra Bullock. Stella has many requests, but the ones she does not honor are pornographic drawings; Stella is a shy and proper lady.
The warden, Ann Muldoon, is a young red-haired woman barely out of college and she was quite willing to make the prison as happy a place as possible so, she allows Stella lots of leeway in making the prison artistic. Because of this, Stella requested some books from her library. Books like THE ART TO DECEIVE and TROMPE L’OEIL MADE EASY, and ADVANCED TROMPE L’OEIL and FOOLING THE EYE and ULTIMATE TROMPE L’OEIL, and an old novel called, THE GIRL WHO DREW TROMPE L’OEIL.
“Here’s your Trump Oil,” I said as I presented the books she ordered. They thumped onto the table between us.
Of course she corrected me. “Tromp loey,” Stella instructed.
“Louie, Louie, Louie,” I sang to tease her.
“LOEY!” she said, about to lose her temper.
After studying trompe l’oeil for several weeks, Stella began to practice it. She told me that in the novel, THE GIRL WHO DREW TROMPE L’OEIL, Marie was able to leave and enter through the deceiving art into and out of buildings, into and out of army camps (for lovemaking), into and out of castles (for espionage), and even into and out of countries.
“Well, it’s a novel,” I said.
Stella got a strange look on her face as if she was not at the prison’s visitor center with me. Then she blushed, laughed, and agreed, “Yes, it’s a novel, of course, I know that.”
The first successful trompe l’oeil Stella drew in her cell was a large castle-sized door, an open door which led to a beautiful green grassy area full of maple trees and pink and yellow lilies. The drawing showed great talent and certainly fooled my eye. It looked like you could walk right through that door and be in that charming yard.
The assisted living home…
I visit Mommy and Daddy once a week in the assisted living home. Mostly they don’t know I’m there. Their hospital beds are side-by-side. White pillows, blue blankets, pale green walls, yellow-specked linoleum floor. They both sleep with their mouth’s wide open, reminding me of halibuts in the Alaskan seas.
“Do they ever wake up?” I ask an aide in an aqua uniform. I think her name is Rebecca.
“Yes, we wake them to take their meds.”
“That’s not exactly living, is it?” I ponder, but Rebecca is gone on her rounds.
I turn on their radio to beautiful music, the kind they loved when they were in their twenties. I hope it helps them sleep, but probably the meds do a better job of it. I listen to the music and watch them breathe in and out, in and out, in and out, and after an hour of ins and outs, I take my leave. My duty is done for the week. I am a good son.
The phone call…
The warden from the women’s prison called one Tuesday.
“Stella is missing from the jail.”
The inmates were questioned and some said she escaped by climbing out of the open trompe l’oeil castle door in her cell. Others said that Stella got “taken care of” by some bad inmates (the punk girl gang) but nothing could be found of her in the jail. There were rumors as to how it was done, like she was stuffed down a toilet, or she was thrown alive into the prison furnace or her throat was slit and then she was cut into thousands of one inch cubes and tossed into the prison stew. It was also rumored that her huge breasts were being tossed around in the volleyball court in the exercise yard.
And yet how to explain the trompe l’oeil of broken bricks that had been drawn with colored chalk on the outside of Mommy and Daddy’s assisted living home. I couldn’t help wonder if she somehow slipped between the bricks and got inside to kiss them goodbye. I searched the outside of my house for days, but found no trompe l’oeil. I was quite sad that Stella chose not to visit here but then several weeks later Lydia called to me, “Come look in Katherine’s room!”
And there behind the white drape was a branch and bird’s nest on our daughter’s wall, complete with a mother and father brown sparrow and three baby blue eggs. Stella, you came!
A letter to my sister…
Dear Stella: I don’t know if you will ever read this (I will leave it in our secret place for childhood notes) but I must tell you Daddy has passed away. He went in his sleep. As you know he slept away the last year at the home anyhow, but this time the sleep is permanent. I was able to tell the funeral director that I needed time alone with Daddy before they closed the oak casket. It was all very private and I did climb in and cuddle with him. It was warm and wonderful like those times they would welcome us into their bed in the mornings. I had longed for many years to repeat the wonderful, safe feeling and I will do the same with Mommy when it is her time. I did find out the funeral home did not put on Daddy’s navy slacks, just his red plaid jockey shorts! I was outraged and did speak to them and they corrected the situation as I watched. Apparently they do this all the time, thinking family will not peek under the white blanket! He might have got cold in the grave.
I wish you could have been at the funeral. Of course you know the whole town adored Daddy and they all showed up, thousands, or so it seemed. Mommy wasn’t well enough to be there and she does not understand that he died--just as well.
Going through Daddy’s effects, I have learned some rather startling things, Stella, prepare yourself. Sit down. Calm down, Stella, we have quite a few, in fact, maybe tons of half brothers and sisters. Oh not what one would first think--Daddy was loyal to Mommy--but he did contribute regularly to a sperm bank. And now, keep sitting, more news. You and I are adopted! Now I know why I never looked like Daddy or could ever be compared to Daddy. I assume Mother was sterile. Why didn’t they ever tell us? Yes I have asked myself that too! In Daddy’s notes, he said he wanted to have children of his own even though he would not know them or raise them--thus the sperm bank thing--but he went on to say that you and I were everything he could ever dream of in children, and we must take solace in that. I do believe him. He was a great Daddy.
I hope I see you again, dear Stella. I dream that you are traveling the world, making orange, yellow and purple murals or some such thing. Come home when it feels right.
Much love, my dear sister, your devoted brother, Charles.
P.S. No, we don’t have the same birth parents but who cares?
After Stella went missing from the prison, that’s all I thought about. I did not give a second of my time to the minister that she shot, how he fared, what he was going through—nothing. I couldn’t have cared less. But one day, when I left the teacher’s lounge, there he was on crutches with one blue-jeaned pant leg pinned up near his hip. His shoulders were slumped. He couldn’t look me in the eye, but it was obvious he had been waiting for me.
“Wanna go to Starbucks?” he murmured.
“What?” I said, hoping I had not heard him correctly.
“Feel like getting coffee?”
Oh God, I thought. What is this about?
“Sure,” I said. But I was not at all sure, and right away sorry I had said it. I had just had coffee in the teacher’s lounge. God damn, I am too nice.
I helped him into my car. I had no idea how he had arrived at my school. I placed his crutches on the back floor. He filled the passenger seat. Even with a missing leg he must have weighed 250 pounds. He had a wispy brown beard and thin gold-framed glasses. He was dressed in regular clothes, jeans, blue tee shirt and didn’t look like a pastor. He looked pale--maybe he had the flu--as he was sniffling. His eyes seemed to be studying the floorboard of my Chevy.
“Nice car,” he muttered.
What? He wanted my car because my sister took away his leg?
“It’s been nothing but trouble,” I lied.
When we got to Starbucks, I retrieved his crutches and helped him out of the car. We got situated at an outside table and ordered our coffees. Then he said, “I’m your brother.”
I thought he was being philosophical--but no.
He continued. “When your father died, my mother told me she had used the sperm bank he contributed to and your father was my father too.”
Our coffees arrived. I could not speak. My sister had shot our brother.
In time I found my voice--not much of one--I think I said something like, “Thanks for letting me know.”
I took him home. I hoped that was that.
But several weeks later we started to do guy things together. Ben (Pastor Benjamin Williams) had a boat. We went fishing and we went bowling--not so easy for my brother on crutches. I chauffeured him to the specialist for fittings of his prosthesis the day when it was ready. I introduced him to Lydia and the children. Lydia and I began to attend his church services. Ben accompanied us to cocktail parties and he and I gabbed together all evening while Lydia chatted up her colleagues.
It was a happy familial three month period before Ben started moving me in a bad direction. Sure, he was single but I was very much married to a lovely gal. He liked visiting naughty lingerie shops and getting in communal hot tubs with hot girls. Yeah I succumbed and felt like crap because of it. Then he wanted to go to bars in the next town where he wouldn’t be recognized and drink himself into oblivion. I did that too.
One night we were really socking them down at a sports bar in Estacada when Ben said, “Some women sleep with their bedroom windows open.”
“Oh?” I replied.
“You gotta be choosy,” he advised.
“Really?” I said. I was bombed and bleary-eyed.
“It was my mistake,” he said.
“What?” I asked.
“I mean who in their right mind would fall into her bedroom because she is such a dog! She didn’t have to shoot me. All she would have had to do was bump me with that humongous stomach or bop me with that hanging ass and I would have been down for the count. She didn’t have to shoot me!” Ben was laughing hysterically. “Did you ever see such a dog?” he asked.
I laughed and nodded my head in agreement and I kept nodding and agreeing, and then I got nauseous--not from the whiskey--but from realizing he was making fun of my sister. How could I have participated in the denigration of Stella?
My agreeing sounds got quieter and less convincing and soon I was whimpering like a piglet that can’t find his mommy. There was only one thing I could do. I pulled Ben off the bar stool and onto the floor where I de-panted him and then I took off his prosthesis, hailed a cab and went home.
The next day I mailed his prosthesis back to the church.
I deceive my brother…
At the party for the nemesis Bunny Winslow’s getting tenure (which left poor Lydia with a permanent frozen smile), I bumped into the police detective who came to Stella’s apartment when she shot the minister. Detective Bledsoe, Bunny’s cousin, made a reference to my sister, saying he was sorry to hear what happened at the jail because Stella was from such a good family, but they just had to arrest her, and “besides she confessed to the shooting.”
I replied, “Well, what would you do if some bloke crawled in your bedroom window at one a.m.?”
“Oh no, you’ve got it wrong,” Bledsoe said. “She said he knocked on the front door!”
“And I say you are wrong, my friend. Stella told me he came through the bedroom window, falling in fact on the floor, and she didn’t know who he was and she shot the devil out of him as anyone would do, don’t you agree?”
“Are you sure?” he asked. “The bedroom window?”
“Oh my god,” he said and left the party as if he was late for something.
I use my brother…
As it happened the bedroom window entrance rang a bell with Detective Bledsoe. That was the modus operandi of the infamous bedroom bandit that had evaded the police for five years. So the detective got a search warrant for Pastor Williams’s house and I’ll be damned--they found his attic, his rooms and the garage full of stolen items. Flat screen TV’s, computers, diamond rings, Ipods, cell phones, silverware, antique rifles, fuchsia lipsticks, pink nail polishes, bedroom slippers shaped like bears, ladies’ panties and bras, and lots of panty hose. The items were listed in the newspaper. Apparently my brother, the minister, stole everything that wasn’t bolted to the floor.
Now at the cocktail parties that Lydia drags me to, I begin all my sentences with “My brother, the one-legged thief….” and I regale the small crowds that gather around with stories about my bad boy brother.
I am suddenly quite popular. Sometimes Lydia looks at me as if she doesn’t know who I am.
This story originally appeared in print in The Sheepshead Review.