What was she seeing besides a backyard lit up with red and blue Christmas lights, though it was July and so hot in Biloxi the seagulls abandoned the beaches along the Mississippi Sound and pecked at Sweet Mama’s display windows trying to get inside where it was air-conditioned? Was Emily seeing a six-year-old son who needed a daddy? Was she seeing a little boy born out of wedlock and tagged with ugly rumors by a few vicious gossips Sweet Mama had run out of the café with a broom? Or was she seeing what Sis did, an endearing little boy in an outgrown Superman suit who was thriving in a family of women? Even that worried Sis. Get too complacent and bad luck would hunt you down. The bite of Amen cobbler went down hard and sat in Sis’s stomach like an accusation.
“I’ve gotta get going or I’ll be late.” Glad for an excuse to push aside the cobbler, she hugged her sister then hurried out the door, climbed into her sturdy, black Valiant and headed toward the bus station.
Sis whizzed along the beach road, replaying the evening two weeks earlier when Emily had walked into Sweet Mama’s Café on the arm of a stranger and announced, “This is the man I’m going to marry.” Then she’d gone to every table and booth to show off her engagement ring, a stone so big it was bound to be a cubic zirconium.
Many of the diners were regulars who had watched Emily grow up, mostly at the café, shielded by the wide skirts and fierce heart of Sweet Mama. They knew how Mark Jones had got her pregnant then run off to join the army to get out of marrying her, and they were happy she’d finally found somebody who would love her back.
Sis tried to be, too, but she was not the kind of woman to be swept off her feet. Emily’s fiancé was handsome in the too-slick way that made her skin crawl. Every time Sis glanced at him, he was checking his reflection in the Coca-Cola mirror behind Sweet Mama’s soda fountain.
Still, Emily had obviously seen something in her fiancé that Sis missed, so she’d trotted over to her future brother-in-law, determined to learn more about him.
“Larry, I guess you already know I’m the watchdog of the family.”
“You don’t do yourself justice, Sis.” His smile was wide and easy, this pharmaceutical salesman named Larry Chastain, who had swept Emily off her feet six weeks earlier when she’d gone to Walgreens to get some Pepto-Bismol for Andy’s upset stomach. “I’d call you Emily’s guardian angel.”
He oozed sincerity, and in spite of her reservations, Sis found herself smiling back.
“Tell me about yourself, Larry.”
“Ah, the dreaded inquisition.”
His smile was still in place, but Sis thought she’d seen a flash of irritation. Or maybe she was just looking for reasons to keep her trusting sister from racing to the altar with the wrong man.
“I’m blunt, Larry. Maybe too blunt. But I need to know my baby sister is going to be in good hands.”
“I love your sister and make more than enough money to give her and Andy everything they want and need. Emily tells me you’re a worrier, but rest assured, you have nothing to worry about, Sis.”
Emily had walked up then and whisked him off to the kitchen to meet Beulah. It wasn’t until they’d gone that Sis realized Larry Chastain hadn’t told her one single thing about himself. She stood there looking down at the floor as if she expected to see a greasy spot where he’d been standing.
What was it about Larry that set her on edge? Sis hadn’t been able to put her finger on the cause during that meeting two weeks ago, but driving along the beach road to pick up a brother who had received a Purple Heart, she wondered how Larry had managed to avoid the draft. The very idea of a draft dodger in a patriotic family where the men had served and sacrificed for their country made her want to snatch Emily up and run.
By the time Sis parked her Valiant at the bus station, she had to deep breathe in order to collect herself. It wouldn’t do for her brother to see her in this shape. She adjusted the rearview mirror in the off chance her reflection would show some magical transformation. Unfortunately, there she was-plain and chubby with a perpetual worry line creasing her forehead, and hair so curly it always looked like it had been styled by an egg beater. Still, she tried to pat it into place, and even dug around in her purse to see if she could find a tube of lipstick, as if a little slash of red could turn back the clock. It had been two long years since she’d seen her brother, and she liked to think the sight of her would remind him of catching fireflies on summer nights and fishing off the pier and playing baseball in the backyard.
She turned up nothing in her purse but a wallet, a wad of tissue, two pieces of bubble gum and the stub of a pencil. Sighing, she pinched her cheeks, bit her lower lip to add some color and then put on a smile she hoped would make her look like a woman who had everything in the world she’d ever wanted.
As she stepped out of the car, Sis held out hope that her brother would be the one to turn her hornet’s nest of worry into something manageable, a funny story they’d all laugh at a dozen years from now when Andy was graduating from high school and Emily was baking a celebration cake at Sweet Mama’s. But Jim was leaning against the wall on his crutch, blowing smoke from a Lucky Strike into the humid evening air, his face as closed as a fist.
“Jim. Oh, my God, Jim!”
“Sis,” was all he said, and when she wrapped her arms around him, she understood that’s all he could manage. His flesh had vanished from his bones, and with it the buoyant spirit that used to radiate from him in waves that made him almost hot to the touch.
Without another word, she led him to her car and headed back to the café. He stared at the Gulf as they barreled down Highway 90, the breeze from his rolled-down window blowing his yellow hair straight back from eyes turned as glassy and unseeing as the blue china plate Sweet Mama had picked to serve his welcome-home cake. Sis’s hope flew right out the window. She imagined it sailing across the water like the favorite kite she’d loved and lost when she was six years old, before Emily and Jim were born, before their pink Victorian house across from the seawall became a place where a little girl had to grow up too fast.
“Jim, I know it must have been awful for you over there.”
He didn’t say a word, and who could blame him? Awful could hardly begin to describe it. The prosthetic leg he’d tossed into the car along with his duffle bag was a testament to the horrors he’d endured.
“If you want to talk about it, I’m a good listener.”
“Give it a rest, Sis. I don’t want to talk about it.”
“That’s okay. Maybe some other time.”
That didn’t seem likely. As she turned her attention to the radio, Sis tried to keep her despair from showing. She found a station where Elvis Presley was crooning “If I Can Dream.”
Were there any dreams left in that car? Sis quickly switched to a station that wouldn’t remind both of them of all they’d lost.
“You won’t believe how Andy’s grown. And Sweet Mama’s still feisty as ever. She wanted to invite everybody in town to your homecoming, but I finally talked some sense into her. I thought it would be easier for you with just family.”
Jim turned her way with a shut-down face full of sharp angles and shadows, then swiveled toward the window to stare at the water. Was he watching the whitecaps? Remembering Vietnam? Wishing on the moon?
“Do you want to hear about Emily’s fiancé?”
“Well, you ought to. He’s a jackass.”
“They run the world.”
“Not my world, not while I have breath.”
Sis had been taking care of her family since she was fourteen and that awful accident took their parents. She didn’t plan on stopping just because Emily was trying to outrun her past by racing toward the altar. And maybe that was Sis’s fault. She’d always encouraged her baby sister to be the fairy princess in a fairy-tale world.
Sis took a sharp left in order to avoid Keesler Air Force Base. No sense giving Jim any reminders that the military had mowed the Blake family men down like ninepins, leaving only him behind to pick up the slack. Not that Sis held out any high hopes of that happening. A man who wouldn’t even carry on a conversation about his family was as likely to see after their welfare as Sis was to have somebody stop her in the street and tell her she was beautiful.
Just look at the pair of them. She was an old sourpuss and Jim was still in the killing jungles somewhere on the other side of the world.
It was a pure relief to see the café, a fine, old building of moss-covered brick, reflecting the style of the Gulf Coast’s Spanish history, shaded by a couple of hundred-year-old live oaks and lit up like a rocket ship on blast-off. Christmas lights and silver tinsel circled the plate-glass windows where gold lettering proclaimed Sweet Mama’s Café, and underneath in red was etched Home of the famous Amen Cobbler!
Beyond the front window was Sweet Mama with her coronet of silver braids and a pearl brooch on her green linen dress, laughing at something Emily had said. That was a talent Emily had-making her grandmother laugh, making everybody around her smile. Everybody except Sis, who hadn’t found much to smile about since she discovered she hated the idea of spending the rest of her life selling pies, Amen or otherwise.
The flush on Emily’s cheeks could have been excitement or summer heat. With blond curls escaping from her ponytail, she looked sixteen. A strap of her yellow sundress had slid off one shoulder, and the blue apron she still wore was dusted with flour. Even disheveled, Emily was beautiful.
Sis would never be beautiful, with or without a dusting of flour. She would never look sixteen, even if she could get her frizzy, brown bob into a ponytail. She would never be the kind of woman men wanted to sweep off her feet.
Envy ambushed her, so unexpected she almost crashed her car into a live oak.
“Watch out!” Jim grabbed for the steering wheel, but Sis slapped his hands away.
“I’ve got it. I’m just excited, is all.”
How could you envy the sister you’d dressed and fed and soothed at night with silly, made-up stories so she’d sleep with the lights off?
Perhaps it wasn’t envy but longing fueled by the perspective of age. How could Sis have known at fourteen that once you set out on a path, it can take you so far from your dreams you’ll end up at the age of thirty-four not even remembering who you once wanted to be?
She’d given up everything for her family, even her name. Beth. Nobody called her that anymore. Everybody just called her Sis, as if she were nothing more than the role she played.
The sign on the door of Sweet Mama’s read Closed for a Private Party. There was nothing private about it, of course. Tomorrow, word would be all over town. Sweet Mama would tell the breakfast regulars, and Emily was too gentle to refuse details to anybody who asked. By ten o’clock, everybody in Biloxi would know that Sweet Mama had made Jim’s favorite red velvet cake, and Emily had forgotten to take off her apron and Jim had refused to wear his leg.
There it lay on the backseat of Sis’s Valiant, another piece of sand in her craw. What do you say to a brother just returning from the hell of Vietnam? Why don’t you let me strap on your prosthetic leg so you’ll look normal and Emily won’t cry? Or do you just stand there with sand drifting into your sandals while Emily races out the front door, already crying before she gets close enough to hug her twin, the Gulf breeze blowing both of them sideways?
Maybe the Gulf was blowing all of them sideways, and had been for so long Sis didn’t know what normal was anymore.
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