Ann has not been back to her childhood home in over two years, not since the death of her father, but her brother, Jimmy, has updated her on all the changes he and his new wife have made. Ann has not met the new wife but could tell from the pictures Jimmy sent at Christmas that she looks a lot like the ones before her: short, blonde, young, some pedigree or another Jimmy will find worth telling. Ann’s luck with lasting relationships has been just as bad as his, the difference being she hasn’t married all of hers. “That’s because I’m honorable,” he said during his last divorce when she pointed this out. “Or stupid,” she responded, falling into the sarcastic sparring that had long ago become their way of communicating. Her first and only wedding ring was then in place on a finger she hoped might some day plump around it, claiming permanence, as she’d once admired on an older neighbor who, after forty years, couldn’t get hers over her knuckle. The trapped ring reminded Ann of a photograph she once saw, a tree grown around and embracing a tombstone, both recognizable for what they were and yet now joined and inseparable in the most natural way. But now she is returning, post-divorce, to collect Jimmy’s I told you so in person or maybe to see if she can return. Call it tired of running. Call it an exorcism.
Right after her mother’s death, when Ann and Jimmy were kids, their dad had dated somewhat indiscriminately. Therapists might have suggested he do things differently but he was a therapist and assumed he knew best. “Besides,” he said at the end of his life, hospice care and their stoic stepmother and her polished professional children in the kitchen planning the details of his funeral as well as her move to a condo in Atlanta, “your mother was dying for so long. Did anyone ever look at it from my point of view?” He was a frail abbreviated version of himself by then and yet he talked more in those last days than he had ever talked. Still, there was much left unsaid.
Their dad was a reasonably nice-looking man and when their mother died, he was only forty-three, five years younger than Ann is now. Jimmy had manifested his looks, the long lean legs and nonexistent ass, which looked fine on a young guy in Levis but kind of pitiful on a grown man. Still, he had a head full of thick gray hair he kept cut close and he kept himself fit by nightly sit-ups and walking the golf course from sunup to sundown every Saturday and Sunday that he could. If there was anything that appeared unattractive about him, it certainly didn’t stop the calls and indications of interest—things he said began happening the year before their mother died when Jimmy was in fourth grade and Ann was in first. He never revealed their names but it left Ann with a sense of distrust for many of those who arrived with arms full of food and sympathy and, later in her life, of those who wanted to hover too close and comfort her during a difficult relationship. When their dad headed out on a date, Jimmy said things like: At least pick one with a vertebra and opposable thumbs. One not beaten up by the ugly stick. One who won’t steal Mom’s things.
Their mother was the real beauty of the family or so everyone said and she had grown more and more beautiful in these decades since her death, forever preserved in the family portrait that had hung in their dad’s waiting room, where depressed and troubled people had to sit and look at the perfect image of a perfect family. Autumn day—Pongo Lake—idyllic picnic spread: a wicker hamper draped in antique linen, bone china plate with deep-purple grapes and a thick crust of bread. Ann has often imagined the scene, striving to recall every little detail as if studying one of those hidden pictures, looking for the missing piece, the explanation that must be housed there, the bit of insight that has the power to pull her whole childhood together with a secure snap so that she might move forward once and for all. All that she has pulled from memory though is that when she lifted the basket lid, it was empty. And when she bit into one of the grapes, it was soft and rubbery, part of the artificial fruit that graced the milk glass bowl always centered on the mahogany sideboard of their dining room. When she said she was hungry, her mother said they were just there for the photograph and promised they would stop somewhere on the way home. Ann begged for the E&R Drive-In, a place famous for foot-long hotdogs and the little order boxes like parking meters at each spot. But she can’t remember if they stopped or drove straight home. She can’t remember what happened beyond sitting there in itchy church clothes, her mother’s thin cool fingers pressing Ann’s leg to keep her from jiggling while an affected man in tight black clothing posing them like mannequins and then insisting they relax and look natural and happily joyful on this exquisite and delicious family outing.
Their dad had a few sleepovers in those early years. He thought he was being discrete but it would have been hard to miss the parade of women tiptoeing to the front door between midnight and dawn, traces of their fragrances lingering behind, on the living room sofa and on their dad’s bedspread, the one their mother had custom made complete with shams and window treatments because she hadn’t been able to find exactly what she wanted in any of the stores. The women were probably only thirty or forty at the oldest, but in Ann’s memory, they were all old, and they all ran together, dark, light, plump, thin like funhouse mirrors, only not fun at all. Their voices went all singsongy when they saw Ann, speaking to her the way people talk to babies and kittens, sweet and fake and sometimes with gritted teeth like they could just as easily squeeze her to death like a boa constrictor.
“Major dog fight,” Jimmy often reported with a bark or a growl, Ann relying on his every thought and belief. “Hope she was fixed.”
If either said anything about the women to their dad, he blinked in a way that was distant and dismissive, like a robot being charged before quickly shifting topics. “How’s football?”
“Football sucks,” Jimmy said. “And I hate school.” Jimmy had been a star athlete in the Pony League but nothing seemed to matter anymore.
“Well, it will improve.”
“That’s what you said about Mom two years ago,” Jimmy started laughing then—nervous, loud laughter—and as always Ann joined in. It was true after all. Their dad had never been able to tell them the truth about how sick their mother was and instead they learned from a neighbor who wasn’t even close to them but was aggressive and nosey enough to think she had the right to try and make them face reality. She said it was her Christian duty to share the truth, and she used words like incurable, terminal, and heaven, her breath sharp with the spearmint gum clenched in her teeth. Then with a loud burdened sigh and sympathetic smile, she patted their backs and handed off a long rock-hard loaf of French bread Jimmy later used for a Wiffle ball bat.
Back when their mother was sick in her darkened room, they were obsessed with scary stories and movies. There was not enough manufactured fear in the world to erase the pain and sense of dread that filled their own house, but it was a way of forgetting, if only briefly. They rose early on Saturday mornings for Shock Theatre, imitating lines from The Fly—help me, help me—or walking like Frankenstein’s monster. Jimmy liked to shine a flashlight under his chin, lower jaw thrust forward like a skeleton, or pull his buttoned shirt all the way up so he looked headless. They loved Hush . . . Hush Sweet Charlotte and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? and they scoured the TV Guide for any mention of Hitchcock’s Psycho or The Birds. They liked the reruns of his television show, too, but their favorite show of all was The Twilight Zone, and in between times when they actually got to watch, they entertained themselves by recounting the episodes that scared them the most: a goblin on the wing of a plane making a man go nuts, and the Talking Tina doll that murders Telly Savalas, and the little girl who goes under her bed and rolls through an invisible hole into another dimension. That episode reinforced every fear Ann already had, darkness, being lost, the maniac under the bed story Jimmy liked to tell, the one where the girl keeps putting her hand down for her dog to lick her because if her dog licks her then everything is okay. But of course, everything was not okay and in the morning the dog was dead and there was a note that said “Maniacs can lick, too.” It was so horrible that, when she thought of it, she forgot the way her mother looked there in the other room, the way she could barely lift a hand to touch Ann’s face, the way the room smelled heavy and overripe with bad things to come.
Ann had to leap in and out of bed for years because of the maniac and the other dimension, and even as an adult, when making the bed, she is still aware of how vulnerable her feet look there at the edge of darkness beyond the dust ruffle and spread. Sometimes she can’t help but fall to her hands and knees and look, to see whatever is lurking there before it sees her.
“What will you do if you find something?” her husband had asked a year into their marriage. The question surprised her. She had not even been aware of looking, and yet there she was crouched on all fours and peering into the dusty darkness, looking for the invisible hole where she might disappear, so aware that she was already looking for a way out, that the loose ring on her finger had not made her feel safe and connected at all. If anything, it had left her shocked and numbed by how conditional her life felt.
Not long after their mother died, she and Jimmy saw a Twilight Zone episode where children who have lost their mother are able to pick parts to create a robotic grandmother: the eyes, the hands, the voice. It was hard to watch because the girl’s name was the same as her own, so she distracted herself by the reality beyond the show, how really the girl was Angela Cartwright, known best for getting to be a kid in The Sound of Music and the daughter on Lost in Space. “And look,” she told Jimmy, “the dad is really Larry Tate from Bewitched.” But Jimmy started crying when they were sifting through what looked like marbles, picking the right eyes, searching for those most loving and motherly. He screamed at the television that he couldn’t remember her eyes anymore, that he sometimes couldn’t remember her face or her voice, and then got furious, threatening to beat the shit out of Ann if she ever told she’d seen him cry.
When Jimmy was in the sixth grade and Ann in the third, there was one woman their dad really liked being with. She was nothing like their mother and nothing like all the others they’d seen in what Jimmy called the “Country Club Dog Parade.” The woman was average looking, little to no make-up, frizzy dark hair yanked back in a loose ponytail, and a silver ankh around her neck. Her car was littered with thrift shop finds and good grocery store deals. She was always appearing with things just out of style or not the real thing that she gave freely to kids who came into the restaurant where she worked: Babette instead of Barbie, Soldier Jim instead of G.I. Joe. She always had bags of rings like you might get at the dentist office or in a gum machine, wax lips and those little wax bottles filled with sugar water. They called her “Dime Store Dodo” and then “Rosemary Looney” because she was always playing her records and singing along, “Hey there, you with the stars in your eyes,” when she came over to cook dinner, which got to be more and more often. She even did the little talking parts of the song when she thought she was all alone and staring at herself in the chrome of the toaster or the reflection in the kitchen window. She loved Doris Day, too, so Jimmy often mimicked a falsetto “Que Sera Sera” while answering the questions: “Will I be pretty?” Hell no. “Will I be rich?” Only at Pine Cone Manor (which was the county home over beside the Methodist church). He said she was Doris Day on the darkest night of her life, and though Ann laughed and went along with him, the truth was she had started looking forward to seeing Rosemary Looney and hearing her corny songs echoing through the house, smelling the familiar scent of her coat by the door like bread just baked or fried chicken. Ann practiced how to look like she was feeling nothing at all so Jimmy wouldn’t read her thoughts and get angry at her.
Rosemary worked at a restaurant downtown known for calabash seafood and hushpuppies, which is where their dad said he met her, though Jimmy insisted late one night that really Rosemary Looney was one of their dad’s patients and he’d gotten her from the state hospital the same way they’d gotten Bingo, an unruly beagle mix, from the pound. They still told their scary stories late at night, but it was getting harder and harder for Ann to listen; the images stayed with her longer now and kept her awake. Now that she could no longer wander into the room beside hers and find her mother still breathing there, it was hard to calm away the scary parts. She tried to picture her mother other ways, but like Jimmy, she found it getting harder and harder, and instead what she saw when she closed her eyes was what was left of her mother’s body closed in the dark coffin. And Jimmy wasn’t always there anymore. He got phone calls and closed his bedroom door. He spent more and more time with his friends. She wanted to think of funny stories, happy stories, but she didn’t dare tell Jimmy for fear that he wouldn’t spend any time at all with her. She just listened to his whispered stories and held tight to Bingo’s collar so he wouldn’t jump off and venture under the bed.
“We bonded over a FryDaddy,” Rosemary liked to tell. “Your dad is such a healthy eater otherwise, so I felt like the devil of temptation. And I wondered, did he come to see me or did he come to eat deep-fried sweet batter?” She put a hot ceramic crock of chili on the table and then did a funny little dance, moving her hips and pointing to the chili like she had magically made it appear. She was wearing a T-shirt that said, I Can’t Believe I Ate the Whole Thing” like the Alka-Seltzer commercial. Their dad grabbed Rosemary’s hand and did a little dance himself, looking like an offbeat turkey in corduroy, and Ann felt both embarrassed and thrilled, like the time she dove into the lake and her suit bottom slid right off her ankles. It made her want to jump up and dance with them, beside and between, with, but Jimmy gave her a look that let her know that was not a good idea.
Their dad laughed at everything Rosemary Looney said and did. He laughed in a way that they had never even heard and that they didn’t hear again in all the years left of his life once she was gone.
Rosemary Looney sewed the letters of Jimmy’s name on the back of his junior high football uniform and hemmed and fixed Ann’s dance costumes, attaching the golden leaves to her leotard when she was a magic tree and adjusting her Polichinelle clown suit for The Nutcracker. Rosemary went to all three performances and then delighted in Ann’s tales about how bad it smelled up under Big Mother Ginger’s skirt—feet and butt smells—and on top of that Mother Ginger was a man. Rosemary said that Mother Ginger ate at the restaurant all the time and that he didn’t smell good then, either, not even that one time he asked her for a date. Rosemary held her nose and crossed her eyes as she told it, then leaned forward and whispered in Ann’s ear, “I told him I have a boyfriend.” The words, the secret, Rosemary’s warm hand on her cheek made Ann’s chest pound with the fast beat of the music on the stereo and filled her with a giddiness that left her no choice but to run and jump on the sofa, then from chair to chair, singing along with Rosemary at the top of her lungs “Come on-a my house, my house, I’m gonna give you everything.”
Rosemary had a youthful face when you got right up close, something Ann liked to do more and more often. Rosemary’s eyes often teared up in laughter when Ann told her what had happened at school or some corny joke—Do your feet smell? Does your nose run? You’re built upside down! Rosemary knew lots of jokes like that from her own son. He was already in college, which she said was the reason she worked as many hours as she did. That and because she loved to cook. “You know,” she told Ann one day after showing a photo of the boy—shoulder-length curly hair and love beads—“I was way too young to have a baby when I did, not but sixteen, but I wouldn’t take anything under the sun for him. Best thing I ever did.”
Ann wanted to love her, but Jimmy was determined to break it up. He told Rosemary how their mom had made a threat against any woman who ever tried to take her place. “It’s a curse,” he said. “You can pass through but you can’t stay.”
“I don’t believe in such,” she said and glanced over at Ann, maybe in hopes of some help Ann wasn’t able give. She was having to concentrate hard to keep her face without a feeling. “I’m gonna ask your dad what he thinks.”
“He doesn’t know. Because see, the bad stuff will happen to him, so it’s not like you’ll get your head sliced off in a wreck or get shot. You’ll just make it all happen to him.” There had been a time when Jimmy was obsessed with Jayne Mansfield’s death, the details of her decapitation in the car wreck. Jimmy had found many deaths far more horrific than their mother’s slow skeletal disappearance to fixate on—heads severed but hearts still beating, a man conscious while lions ate his legs and arms, the man who woke up in a crocodile den surrounded by decomposing bodies and had a heart attack while trying to swim away. He knew of drownings and fires, falls from high buildings and elevator shafts, and slit throats. Jimmy had taken Ann through the big trailer up at Crown Shopping Center that housed the car Bonnie and Clyde were killed in. It cost a quarter a look, and they had looked twelve times, each time getting lost in the bullet holes and rusty-colored blood stains, the place where they said Bonnie’s head lay when all the shooting was over. Ann had memorized much of that song “The Ballad of Bonnie and Clyde”—People let me tell you they were the devil’s children”—but after seeing the real blood it made her sick to think of them. Bonnie didn’t look anything like Faye Dunaway and Clyde didn’t favor Warren Beatty at all.
“At least Mom isn’t all bloody,” Jimmy had said. Ann tried to hold onto his arm but he wouldn’t let her. Some of his friends had come along and there was a girl he liked waiting to go on the Tilt-A–Whirl, which along with Bonnie and Clyde’s car, a Ferris Wheel and pony ring with three very old and tired ponies, constituted the whole carnival.
“Here are the signs to watch for” Jimmy told Rosemary and then listed things their dad had always done, mainly things that got on their mother’s nerves. The way he studied and picked at his fingernails or jiggled a finger in his ear when he was nervous, the way he stroked his nose while thinking, the way sometimes you would talk to him and he wouldn’t have heard a single word you said because—he always said—he was rethinking what someone else with a problem had said earlier in the day.
“I’ve seen all that,” Rosemary said and laughed. “I actually like all that about him. Shows he’s human.”
“But he’s cursed,” Jimmy said. “And he’ll die if you stay with him. He’ll die because of you.”
“He’s human,” she said, “and you really need to think about what you’re saying before you say it.” She didn’t smile as she usually did. She knocked wood and crossed herself and then ran a nervous hand up and through her hair as Ann had seen her do the day their dad got a surprise visit from one of their mom’s old friends, who was all dressed up and smelling like she was on her way to someplace fancy. Their dad’s favorite kind of pie, a lemon chess, was cradled in her long thin arms and she handed it and some cut flowers to Rosemary like she was a maid and asked her to take care of them, maybe make a pot of coffee while she visited. She was one of those women with perfect posture and talked without moving her mouth much. Rosemary’s face was as blotched red that day as it was while she stood there staring back at Jimmy like they were doing a blink contest. He stomped out and slammed the door and Ann waited a little too long before following. She didn’t want to leave at all, Rosemary was looking at her, and the large mixing bowl of pound cake batter she’d promised Ann she could lick there on the counter. By the time Ann got outside where Jimmy was pounding a tennis ball up against the garage door, he was calling her traitor, Judas, pussy, and that same night he took her Chatty Cathy doll and pulled her head off, said she looked too much like Talking Tina and he was afraid she’d murder their father if Rosemary didn’t do it first.
Ann cried and threatened to tell. She said it was just a stupid show like the stupid show that made him cry over an old woman put together like a robot. “It wasn’t even real,” she said, “but you cried like a little tiny baby. She knew as soon as she said it that she shouldn’t have, and she immediately begged his forgiveness, begged him to please not be angry at her. He said he would forgive her if she did everything he told her to do, including ignore Rosemary Looney. So she did. The most frightening thing he made her do was to venture down into the basement to get the dog food. He let her get all the way down and then she heard the door shut and the lock click into place. “Jimmy?” she called with the click, but he didn’t answer. Then he turned out the light.
She froze waiting for him to help her and then she panicked. She screamed his name but got no response and then all the images were there, the talking doll and the child lost through the watery wall and flocks of birds smothering and pecking people to death. She saw them carry her mother from the house, a big green bag zipped up on a stretcher. She wanted to see her one more time but all her mind could conjure was a skeleton. She was crying then, feeling her way up the dirty splintered steps to pound on the door, pulling on the knob and begging. She thought of her mother closed up in darkness and of the maniac under the bed stabbing Bingo and licking her hand. She pictured Bonnie’s bloody body and the psycho man dressed up like his mother. She screamed until she couldn’t breathe and then he pushed the door open and she lost her balance, bumping and tumbling down the rough steps, a crack of pain up her arm as she hit the concrete floor and rolled into a stack of old magazines and papers. Then the light was back on, everything grainy in the brightness, and Jimmy was beside her, already making light of it all, what a baby she was to think he’d leave her there, she was okay, it was a joke, just a joke. They stared in amazement at her bone piercing the pale skin of her forearm. At first it hurt too much to cry and Jimmy looked and sounded so far away, and then she was screaming. All she remembered was screaming and then Jimmy running for help. The next thing she remembered, Rosemary was there and had her in the car. Rosemary wasn’t singing and she never even turned the radio on. She just kept telling Ann that it would be okay, everything would be okay.
All the way to the hospital, Jimmy told how Ann had gone into the basement even though he told her not to, that Ann told him to turn out the lights so she could pretend she was the girl in The Twilight Zone episode. Rosemary Looney looked over at Ann, eyebrows raised in question. Ann had confided her fear of the dark one night, weeks before, just the two of them in the car while her dad cleaned the windshield and checked the oil. Rosemary and her dad had a dinner date and at the last minute no choice but to take Ann with them because the sitter canceled. She remembered Rosemary saying, “That’s okay. It’ll be fine.” And it felt so good there in the car with her, the Mobil sign glowing in the window of the small cinder-block service station. Ann stared at the winged horse while she told Rosemary how the stories and movies scared her more than they used to, how some nights she couldn’t sleep at all for thinking about all the bad things that could happen. It made her cry to think of Bonnie and Clyde gone so wrong—“the devil’s children”—their bodies twitching and flinching with bullet spray. “The basement is worst of all,” she whispered. She told how it reminded her of a grave, her mother’s grave, and what it must be like for her in the dark dampness. She watched the winged horse, gone filmy, hooves raised and pawing the air, and she felt Rosemary’s hand on her own, warm and firm in its hold and squeeze. Rosemary didn’t tell her that she was being silly or that there was nothing to be afraid of. She said, “Sometimes our fears are there to protect us.” She said, “What we can’t afford to let them do is cripple us.” She told Ann it felt good to talk, that she had really missed her lately, and Ann just nodded and leaned in as close as she could, no need to hide the relief she was feeling. “I hope you’ll always feel you can talk to me.”
“Ann?” she asked. They were almost at the hospital and Ann could feel Jimmy’s gaze on her. “You did that, honey? You wanted to be in the basement without the light on?”
“Trying to beat her fears away,” Jimmy said. “So she won’t be crippled by them.” The word on his tongue was ugly and harsh and Ann was sorry she had told him about the night in the car with Rosemary. How when her dad got back in, the three of them laughed and sang “Aba Daba Honeymoon” and then went and got hotdogs at the E&R and then ice-cream at the Dairy Queen. They even rode out to see where the new Holiday Inn was being built on the interstate. It was going to have a pool twice the size of Howard Johnson’s, and Rosemary knew somebody who worked there and could get them in to swim. “We’ll all go swimming, right?” Rosemary asked and her dad reached and touched Rosemary’s cheek. He said, “Yes.” His hand dropped to her neck and pulled her closer. He said, “We will all go swimming.” Ann told Jimmy everything, because she wanted him to like Rosemary, too. He loved swimming and he loved hotdogs. There was no reason not to want Rosemary to be their new mother and stay forever. The robot grandmother had done that. She stayed until Larry Tate’s children were all grown up and had learned how to love.
“I’m so sorry, honey,” Rosemary kept saying as she pulled into the hospital lot. “It’s going to be okay.”
It was in the emergency room that something else happened. When Rosemary went to the pay phone to call their father, Jimmy allowed the doctor to think that someone might have done this to Ann. Locked her in the basement or grabbed and twisted her skinny white arm, pushed her down those dark stairs. Jimmy stammered and paced as he told how he came home to find his sister that way and that Rosemary was in the kitchen. He said he didn’t know how to tell their dad, their dad would be so hurt. He acted afraid and stopped talking when Rosemary reentered the room. She was wearing what she called her “work clothes”—old dirty white Keds, gray sweatpants, one of their dad’s old shirts with an ink stain on the pocket too bad for him to wear to work.
“What?” she asked. She was reaching for Ann when the young doctor asked her to wait at the door. “What is it?” she asked. Jimmy had told Ann in the brief second the doctor took a phone call to flinch and cry when she saw Rosemary. “She’s the devil’s child,” he said. “The goblin, the maniac under the bed.” And though Ann knew it wasn’t true, she couldn’t help but sob when she saw her. She couldn’t look at Rosemary’s face so she looked at her father’s stained shirt instead and then at Rosemary’s silver necklace against her flushed throat and chest. “It’s Egyptian for life and water and all kinds of good things,” she had said that same day they danced all around the living room, throwing pillows and accidentally breaking a vase. “It’s kinda like a cross but a lot softer.”
The doctor said he needed to speak to Rosemary alone. A young nurse with bright orange hair took Ann to be x-rayed and then stayed with her the whole time. Open fracture and a greenstick fracture. The orange-haired nurse kept talking, keeping Ann’s face turned away from the doctor bending over her arm and giving explanations of it all. How the open break was a doozy, but of course would heal just fine. And little greensticks happened all the time to kids. “Get it? Like a green stick? A little twig? You can stop crying,” the orange haired girl said. “It really will get better.”
“What were you doing, skydiving?” The doctor laughed and the orange-haired girl moved just enough that Ann couldn’t see her and then he didn’t say anything else except that he bet Ann had lots of friends who would be begging to sign the cast. By the time Ann was ready to leave, her dad was there waiting, one arm around Jimmy’s shoulder with a promise of E&R hotdogs and whatever she wanted for dessert. She looked around for Rosemary but she had already left.
“Anyone who needs me gone this bad,” Rosemary said, pausing to swallow and take a deep breath, “deserves it, I guess.” She said this to the two of them when they got home from the hospital and found her in the dusk-lit kitchen, their father outside explaining to a neighbor what had happened. Her eyes were red and swollen. She had started wearing mascara not long after the fancy pie lady showed up, and now it was all smudged on her flushed cheeks. Her shoulders rounded as she opened the pantry without a sound to reclaim the big silver mixer she had left there, a gleaming promise of more cakes and bread and homemade pimento cheese. “I just hope you will tell your father the truth.” She walked to the door without looking back at either of them.
Late that night, Jimmy made Ann swear never to tell. “It’s a graveyard secret,” he said. “It goes with us down into the ground and we never mention it again.” He paused then, jaw clenched tight as he tried not to cry himself, the anger that always accompanied his weak moments there on the horizon. He had gone over the story of what happened so many times—she locked you in the basement for punishment—she was feeling confused. “If we do break the graveyard secret,” he said and reached as he normally would to clench and twist her arm but stopped just shy of her cast, “then it’s like saying you never loved Mom. It’s like hating Mom. And she’ll know. She’s listening right now and something really bad will happen to dad.” Ann was crying then, half listening to him, half wanting to run into their father’s room and beg him to never die. “Take the vow,” he said, and then she did, heavy promise poured and sealed in a concrete vault. And they never discussed it again, not even the times Ann wanted to, like whenever she thought of the way their dad and Rosemary had looked at each other or the way their dad had laughed during that little bit of time, a way she has yet to find in her own life, though God knows she has tried. She wanted to say something before their dad remarried, to speak and not hold her peace when the minister made the request, but she wasn’t able. Later she put it off, ever distracted by her own struggle to find a friendship she could trust and believe in—the equivalent of stumbling along a dark corridor in search of a light—but it became a journey with its own momentum, a runaway train, incessant daily activities turning weeks to months and then years.
Still, she had thought of Rosemary Looney often, like anytime she saw George Clooney featured on the cover of a magazine or when the legendary singer died and Ann saw photos of her as a young woman, the same photos that had stared out from the albums their Rosemary brought into the house to play while she cooked. Sometimes one of the old melodies, “Hey There” or “In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening” got stuck in her head for days on end. It had been easier to fight against memory when living in Oregon and then Chicago, far removed from the South, where she wouldn’t stand a prayer of running into anything deep-fried in that sweet calabash batter or waking to the suffocating humidity she associated with her mother’s illness. She could fill her mind with new foods and places and people in a way that blocked and scrambled everything that hurt, everything except an arm bone faithful as an obedient dog when it came to predicting damp weather.