Excerpt from Chapter One “Bearing Gifts”
The day I first met my sister Anne, twelve years ago, is stitched into the lining of my memory as clearly as my name. When I left the house that Sunday, it was chilly outside and great gray clouds hung low in the November sky. I laid the presents I’d wrapped for Anne in the back seat of the Jeep, then pulled out of the driveway. The car was frigid as an icebox inside, so I turned the heat on full blast, and by the time I was on the expressway, heading south toward Baltimore, I’d begun to warm up. I drove fast—more out of habit than anything else—as the clouds were darkening, quickly, into a gunmetal shade of gray that matched the blacktop.
Anne was thirty-five years old. I was thirty-eight. Though she lived only a half-hour from my house, I’d never seen her before—not even a photograph. I’d never touched her hand, never heard her voice. I didn’t even know the color of her eyes, but I imagined them to be green like mine. All my life, Anne had been a family secret, and I’d pretended she did not exist. What would she be like? I wondered over and over as I took the Northern Parkway exit and headed toward Belvedere Avenue. Fumbling for cigarettes in the small, worn knapsack that accompanied me everywhere, I drove by Gilman School, the private school my older son attended, and then through Roland Park, one of Baltimore’s exclusive neighborhoods where stoic mansions were the norm, immaculate gardens the rule.
The smell in the air smacked familiarly of old money and blue-blooded gentility. Although I had grown up outside of Baltimore, in the country, the atmosphere there was just as rarefied as in Roland Park. Our house, a large Victorian, dated back to the turn of the century and sat like a dowager atop a hill overlooking a vast sweep of valley. The closest neighbor lived half a mile away. Stern-faced box bushes fronted the house, and flower gardens were everywhere. With rose bushes lining the long driveway, a wraparound porch that comfortably accommodated a hundred guests at summer cocktail parties, a living room the size of a ballroom (and more fireplaces and rooms than a family of four could ever use), the house evoked a Gatsby-like era. But the air inside whispered of the civilized restraint and discipline my mother still believes come from good breeding and good boarding schools. A place where human smells were largely absent, home felt like a museum to me. Anne, too, spent her childhood outside of Baltimore, in a secluded country setting, but behind the barred windows of Rosewood State Hospital, a mental institution. At the age of twenty-three, she was transferred to a supervised group home run by the Baltimore Association for Retarded Citizens, or BARC, and that’s where I was headed.
Excerpt from Chapter Four “Institutional Child”
“What would you say if I told you that you have another sister?” my father asks Laura and me. It is 1967. I am thirteen, Laura is ten. We are staying overnight at a motel somewhere in California’s Death Valley. On summer vacation, we’ve just driven from San Francisco and will spend about a month driving home cross-country, visiting the Great Salt Lake, the Grand Canyon, a dude ranch in Montana, and other places I imagine would thrill most any child.
My parents and Laura and I have almost finished dinner in the motel restaurant. Tired after being in the car all day, my mind is swirling with images of the desert. From the car, basins of sand surround us beneath the hot iron of sun. My mouth watering for a cold Coke, and in between bouts of my hogging the Barbies and leaving Laura one of those flat-staring Ken dolls, as much fun to play with as an ice pick, I watch the mirages that glisten and steam off the ribbon of road sizzling ahead. Every now and then, my eyes fasten on the desert’s huge greenish gray cacti that sprout pale pink blossoms from thorny tendrils. I wonder how such a prickly plant could grow such delicate, soft things.
But what I will remember most clearly about this drive is the stifling heat. Relentless, it hangs heavy in the air. The station wagon we rented in San Francisco, like most cars back then, has no air-conditioning.
“Open your window, Brad,” insists my mother, fanning her face with her hands. “Girls, you too.” But Laura and I ignore her. Dice has already explained we’re better off with the windows closed, and Laura and I still believe that his judgment is infallible. “You’ll only be letting more heat in,” Dice tells my mother again, more firmly this time.
When finally in the late afternoon we stop at the motel, Laura and I clamber out of the backseat and race to the pool. We beg Dice to take us swimming before dinner –which he does, while our mother settles into a chair by the pool to read one of the library books she has brought on the trip.
Now Dice’s question hovers above our small round table like some strange desert bird bewildered among the plastic potted plants. This is one of Dice’s jokes, I think, glancing over at him to read his expression. But no, he’s serious, I sense at once. I see it in the steady, concentrated look of his green eyes which are fixed on nothing in particular—just the air in front of him—in the scissorlike rigidity of his fingers holding the cigarette he has just lit, and in the grave set to his lips. What could he mean? What is he getting at?
Excerpt from Chapter Nine “Counterparts”
Like every other Barnes & Noble I’d ever been in, this one was the size of a football field, or a cathedral, and had the high-ceilinged decor of a well-kept lobby in an expensive retirement home. The perfectly geometric layout of fake Oriental rugs and brand-new armchairs, and spotlessly gleaming tables with shiny, clean lamps, insisted upon silence, and made me want to scream. When we stepped inside, Anne’s eyes went straight to the glossy magazines lined up against the wall. “Magazines, Brucie!” Heads turned at this disturbance: eyes leaped from books cracked open, and narrowed upon us. “Shhh…” I said, steering Anne toward the magazines.
Anne grabbed a Washingtonian and clutched it to her chest, her gaze jumping onto one magazine after another. I told her she could have two more. Her face lit up. The first magazine fell to the floor, and she promptly snatched up two more Washingtonians. Same blue cover. Same issue. “I’ll take these, buddy!”
A tall, purposeful-looking man with his beaklike nose buried in a newspaper glanced up and gave us a frown of disapproval.
Anne was now studying a Cosmopolitan that featured “Find Your G-Spot Today.” The cover girl, a Barbie doll look-alike with a come-hither expression in her eyes, sported a cleavage like twin cantaloupes. Did she want the Cosmo? Anne, nodding uncertainly, reached for the magazine, brought it to her nose, and sniffed. “Ummmm…this smells good.” Then she added it to her collection.
A few minutes later, I was glancing through some books and keeping an eye on Anne at the same time. She flopped into an enormous leather armchair nearby. The Washingtonians crushed against her thigh, the Cosmopolitan splayed open in her lap, she began muttering to herself, punctuating her words with little yelps of laughter. Oblivious to the curious stares of passersby, she seemed to have drifted into some other dimension. But her gaze was on me. She was as watchful of me as I of her.
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