My Sister Moses

Family BBQs can be great summer fun, until someone finds a dead body under the back porch. Then it’s time to bust out the cedar chips. James McLaughlin brings us a story of lawn maintenance, abusive parenting, and hot Marines.

Just last week my sister Carol hosted a wedding reception in her backyard. Our dear family friends Laurie and Dave had gotten hitched at City Hall months before and this gathering was for their close friends and family who didn’t make it into the city that day.

Though I was happy for Laurie and Dave, and equally happy that I was going to be sent home with a week’s worth of leftovers, I wasn’t necessarily looking forward to being around other people. I have never been terribly social and, as the years pass, I become more and more like that white muzzled, half-blind shepherd mix living in everyone’s neighbor’s yard. The kind of dog who takes 30 minutes to slowly find its way back in the house by following its own shadow on the ground. It is best to maintain a certain distance from such a dog. He is easily surprised and quick to quarrel. It is always wise to let such a dog come to you.

When I arrived in the early morning to help set up, there was a small group of older women prepping food in the kitchen and laughing.

“Oh, Jim! Did you hear your mother’s message? It’s absolutely priceless! The funniest thing I’ve heard in some time. You just have to hear this message. Carol, did you save the message for your brother?”

My sister was busy tying her son’s shoes and clearly disturbed; whatever my mother had said on the answering machine had to have been monumental for her to have retreated so far into herself in a kitchen so full. “No,” she said. “I think it got erased.” Carol wasn’t laughing. I didn’t press the issue.

I spent the morning with some pretty important chores, including blowing up party balloons and spreading cedar chips under the deck. Something had crawled under my sister’s newly finished deck and found it peaceful enough for dying. A faint sulfur smell was seeping from the boards and polluting one of her artfully arranged seating areas.

Luckily I was accompanied through the morning by Laurie’s cousin Steve the Marine, who showed up on a Harley smoking a cigar and had volunteered to lend a hand. Steve, whose specialty in the Marines is Supply and Demand, was a geek all grown up; his awkward adolescence had made him kind and attentive, a perfect gentleman full of empathy. Steve was strapping and he was hanging tough. Passing him balloons, I tried letting them go, so he had to reach up to catch them, and in doing so his Metallica t-shirt rode up on his sizeable shoulders and revealed a soft hairy trail over his taut and ample stomach. As I kneeled on the gravel and threw cedar chips under the deck Steve hovered over me and asked what I was doing.

I said, “It’s supposed to cover up the smell of something that died under the deck,” He was impressed at my sister’s “resourcefulness.” I wanted to knock him down and have sex on the lawn in front of our parents.

My Marine was sweet relief for a sore spirit intent on being alone that day. Part of my disinterest in spending time with others has to do with my present financial situation. I’ve been working very hard and without pay for some time now in a venture that hasn’t panned out, and in my efforts to focus on work I’ve pushed aside all meaningful relationships. On a few occasions my sister and mother have both expressed angry concern at my unwillingness to get out while the getting was good, but I haven’t determined that time has come, and when it does I’d rather face my failure privately, or perhaps with Steve.

Seeing that I didn’t have the first dime to buy a gift for the married couple, they graciously asked if I would be the unofficial photographer.

Laurie wanted candid shots, and she couldn’t have picked a better person to invade the small circles of guests and click away unseen; it was a perfect assignment for someone with nothing to say. And though it pained me to keep leaving my future husband’s side throughout the day, I couldn’t pass up the chance to avoid borrowing money to buy them a gift. So I kept busy. I avoided potentially meaningful conversations by pretending a photograph-able moment was happening only a few feet away. All that darting and dashing, however, was tiring work. At one point I gave up the charade and just sat in a lawn chair, staring at the party through the camera’s viewfinder. For a good three-quarters of an hour no one bothered me.

Early in the evening, as the sun softened my sister’s backyard, the small party splintered into even smaller groups. Those with children stood in the center of the lawn, intermittently putting out a yielding arm or leg to slow down their wilding, sugar-high kids. Those over 50 found refuge on the cedar-freshened deck. The Marine was making time with a lady friend of mine (that’s cute, Steve, I thought, let’s keep up the façade) and through the viewfinder I found my mother sitting under the reception tent beside my sister, holding her grandson Jonathan in her lap, talking softly. The light was too low for a good shot, but I tried to hold as still as possible, in hopes that something of the moment might show up.

My mother growled about paying for a plumber and with flailing arms she stormed out of the bathroom. It wasn’t clear to my brother and me what we were watching, but my sister knew too well. This wasn’t happening for Carol. She had already retreated to a very private place. No doubt one that was dry.

My mother and sister didn’t always sit so close. From the moment she could speak it was clear that Carol was bestowed with a super-human intellect and cursed with a distinct self-awareness. My mother was likewise blessed, but with super-human rage whose flames were fanned by the sudden and tragic death of my father, and a firm belief that nothing ever goes well. Beside herself in grief, my mother lost the power of speech and resorted to communicating via objects. Not so much puppet theater, more along the lines of flying shoes, wooden spoons, belts or anything within reach that could be used to express a thought. She whooped the hell out of us, and we each had our own way of responding. I would hide behind the house sobbing and praying for God to strike her dead. My brother, at the first hint of a conversation, would put up a screaming defense, and his bleating, “No Mommy! No!” always worked like a charm. We hated him for it. My sister’s tactic was to stand still and never let anyone see her affected, and after a time, seeing my sister unmovable, my mother would give up. She saw my sister as a lost cause. By the time Carol entered puberty, they had little left to say. As the eldest daughter, she was obliged to assume a grown woman’s responsibilities including childcare and housewifery, and like any put-upon child she eventually rebelled by taking the adult role a step further through chain-smoking, dating, carousing, and drinking. I’m not sure my mother ever felt the need to tell my sister about her impending womanhood, but I do remember them discussing it briefly, one time.

My sister, like other girls of her generation, entered the full flush of maidenhood when it was something to be avoided, hidden and tucked away in a corner. These days, feminine hygiene commercials are filled with positive energy and girl power: Rock-ish music underscores moving images of commiserating, giggling girls rolling their eyes and lolling about on big comfy couches. Today’s message is, “Your period gives you power.” The older-school commercials came in low and soft with Satie or Bach, and spoke to you quietly as you convalesced. They offered more comfortable, private alternatives for the next cycle. Yesterday’s message was, “Your period leaves you prone.”

So I can understand when, one particular day, my sister overloaded the toilet with paper. I recall my mother’s shouts from the bathroom. My brother and I raced down the hall to witness the whooping (when one of us was assaulted we all wanted to watch; no one wanted to feel like the beatings were exclusively theirs). When we peered through the door my sister was staring at the floor. She stood in a shallow sea of toilet paper and her own menses. My mother growled about paying for a plumber and with flailing arms she stormed out of the bathroom. It wasn’t clear to my brother and me what we were watching, but my sister knew too well. This wasn’t happening for Carol. She had already retreated to a very private place. No doubt one that was dry.

In a flash my mother reappeared, and above her head she held not the plunger we expected but my sister’s twirling baton. It was meant for the dam, but my mother first used the baton to make a point: With all her force she brought it down on my sister’s skull. Mercifully, the baton took some of the force and bent in the shape of my sister’s head. I watched her shrink as her vertebrae collapsed.

The thud made me shudder. It’s safe to say my brother did not have the same empathetic response; Kevin was of the school of thought that says when someone is down, you are obliged to kick them, if only to remind them of how far they’ve fallen. He chimed in with something appropriate, like “Yeah, she told you so.” My mother handed the baton to my sister, told her to clean up the mess, and closed the door to leave my sister alone.

My mother should be commended for preparing Carol for a life so fraught with bludgeoning. Very little has happened to the rest of us in comparison to Carol’s life: The years after my sister left home were littered with hard times and unspeakable sadness. She has been locked up, abandoned, implicated, hungry, alone, childless, divorced, and radiated. Somehow, though, Carol has kept enough grace around to offer my mother a place at her table. Capturing the moment in the reception tent, though the picture was faint, was proof. And as they sat together, my mother gently cradling her grandson, stroking his hair smooth, I couldn’t help but wonder how thin his little skull must be.

I spent the evening avoiding my mother, and she sensed it. As the party slowly broke up and with each group shaking hands and promising to keep in touch, I turned to see the trio in the tent. Each glance offered up my mother, staring back at me confused. Seeing them together, my sister grown up, my aging mother and this red-headed newcomer who had taken my place, broke my heart. I was swollen with love for them, and for my mother in particular. Resigned to spend the day away from myself, I was suddenly too present.

I wanted to apologize to Steve for manhandling him in my mind, but alas, while I was in the bathroom, Steve left without saying goodbye. Before I also headed out my sister waved me over to the answering machine. She hadn’t erased the message, and hit “play”:

“Carol, it’s your mother. I’ve been thinking about that smell from the deck and do you remember when Sam Boyd’s sister shot their mother in the head on Thanksgiving Day and then hid the body in the U-Store-It place? Well, no one found her body for five months because they couldn’t smell her. The sister had wrapped the body in cedar chips to mask the odor. So I was thinking, why don’t you go out and get a bag of cedar chips and throw them under there! I bet they’ll work. OK. Just wanted to let you know that I was thinking of you. We’ll see you later on today.”

My sister looked at me, bent at the waist, and finally began to laugh. “That’s our mother. Can you believe it?” she asked. I couldn’t believe it, actually. I was disappointed in myself. After all this time, all any of us had ever needed was an empty trunk and a few bags of cedar chips.

James McLaughlin is perpetually single (fellas?!) and enjoys various Neolithic pastimes such as digging, stacking, and light animal husbandry. He is a regular contributor to And Baby Magazine and also irregularly posts “stuff” at More by James McLaughlin