I inherited Delia by default. My younger sister works the night shift at Hamby Furniture Factory. Furniture is big business in North Carolina. Delia, however, lives a small life. But it is often the small life that brings the rest of the world to its knees.
Delia and I grew up in the house owned by my father, who inherited it from my grandfather. Poppy stole it in a poker game. We are of the age–our late twenties–when most sisters lay down their feuds and settle for an equitable peace. But Delia, not one to go quietly into the rules of southern female engagement, failed to recognize my white flags of surrender. Long after I had burrowed myself into a love match with a Wilmington pilot, Delia continued living a life of discontent. I managed to move around enough the first three years of our adult life to curb her phone calls to me and send her running back to my father to bail her out. He bailed her out of simple crises, like when she ran out of gas or was about to be evicted.
I was artful in avoiding my sister’s dirt. That was why Delia seldom called me, especially before eight in the morning. “It’s Delia, Gaylen. Daddy’s doctor, Doctor Weiss, has called in the family. You best get on the road to home. Weiss says Daddy won’t be long on this earth.”
Home. Boiling Waters, North Carolina. Population 2,972, including quite a few Sylers, some living and some dead. Some of the living counted among the dead. Not a town that wooed me back.
Boiling Waters was slow in coming out of the chute, so to speak, like the Sylers. It is part of the town’s oral history that the main drag of Fifty Lakes Drive did not see real pavement until the last day of 1959. Technology, pavement, and integrated schools all came late to Boiling Waters, the residue of change seeping across our sleepy borders.
Color TV, it was believed, sent radioactive waves straight into the body. Accompanying the thrill of talking heads, Amity once told me, was the intoxicating gossip that circulated whenever a Boiling Waters family snuck a color television into the house. Then word spread from Raleigh that color TV was not radioactive at all, but quite nice for seeing Lucille Ball in flesh tones and electric red hair.
My mother loved Lucy reruns. Fiona Chapel Syler. My mother. She grew up in the town next to Boiling Waters. I never knew the name of that town, but it was called The Bay, a spot on Highway 17 rowed by bungalows and a divergence of snaking dirt roads, no mailboxes.
On the porch, a washtub and sundry pots kept for starter plants like begonias. The letter carrier delivered house to house, perhaps twice a week, but it was a surprise to the family when a letter arrived, according to Mother.
Our house in Boiling Waters imitated that house on Highway 17, minus the washtub. Begonias were loved like children. My mother worked at insulating the days of my childhood in as much sentiment as she could muster while describing her own childhood as bleak as bleak could be.
Down in a bureau drawer, when I was on one of my many sleuthing expeditions as a curious girl, I found a photograph that time had sifted to the bottom. A group of neighbors living close to my grandmother gathered for that photograph: ladies in checkered blouses and faded jeans, sunburned around the eyes, and children perched on their mothers’ hips. My mother looked to be about five. She was shyly hugging a porch pillar, standing next to no one in particular.
Her eyes carried a perpetually surprised look, hair pulled back into a braid that encircled her head. One hand was grasping a finger on the other hand, as if she was unsure of whether or not she was supposed to be in the picture.
My mother described herself as spirited and strung high like a kite, the opposite of her sister-in-law, my Aunt Amity. Mother often compared their differences, along with the things they held in common, suggesting a sisterhood had silently formed between them.
Both Amity and Mother joined their flesh to the clan of Syler unwittingly. By that I mean that before the I-do’s were said to each respective husband, neither of them knew firsthand about the tomcat-like fighters making up the clan of Syler. But Amity caught on to her in-laws and each woman’s divisive nature by watching the criticism that followed my mother into her marriage to my father.
Amity overcame my aunts’ speculations about her through charm. Mother could have benefited from such a talent. The Sylers hated her, though, and she returned the sentiment.
After her stroke, Mother was never herself again. She passed away a year before Amity. When people die, things get shaken loose. After my mother died, my father fell ill too.
I drove my aging Neon to Boiling Waters. Braden’s Dodge truck, still parked next to my space, the one marked “Resident Manager,” needed new tires, and I couldn’t pay for them until my next paycheck.
Daddy had squirreled away some money to leave to Delia and me, but even after his mind was touched with the dementia initiated by painkillers, I would not touch a penny of it, not a single penny for myself.
I stopped for gas and to call home. Aunt Renni answered and said, “Fanny is here already,” and then added in that up-and-down voice so characteristic of southern women, “They’ve upped your father’s morphine.” Fanny was Renni’s daughter and a trusted cousin.
In the Syler clan, a trusted relative is rare, like Flamenco-dancers-in-Arkansas rare.
“Is Delia holding up?” I asked.
Whatever Delia blurted out, Fanny stifled with a laugh. I had not spoken to Delia or heard her low, grating voice in over a year. Perhaps that was the reason that my sister’s voice was frozen in that instant, in midair.
Memory foamed up like waves washing to land: the algae stink of Sharon Creek and how the two of us squatted on the creek bank behind my father’s house, watching ants straddle boat leaves.
How do I describe my sister’s voice? Low like our mother’s, an embarrassed alto, at least her speaking voice was. Mother had an uncontrollable vibrato. She sang an octave above her range, her tiny hands poised in front of her, red from dish soap. Not once did I ever hear Delia sing. I recalled how she sighed on Sunday mornings when Mother sang. She pushed one foot out of the sheet, allowing it to drop down from the mattress over my head. We crawled out of the bed on our knees, shuffling across the hardwood floor, peeking around the corner to watch our mother stage a performance in front of the gas stove.
Mother sang every Sunday morning. In winter, she warmed in front of the gas stove my father installed in our living room. Daddy was not a good fix-it man, so our house functioned through the primitive inventions and screwed-together widgets, air ducts outside of the Sheetrock, a bathroom sink hanging off the wall with naked pipe elbows perched perfectly so that Delia and I could stand tiptoe on them to brush our teeth.
Delia and I slept in a bunk bed in my mother’s bedroom across the hall from Daddy. The quiet of Sunday was always wrecked by the Sunday Morning Jubilee,
a gospel-music TV show populated with a cast of family quartets, most from the Carolinas or Tennessee.
Mother threw back her head, her hands on her hips, her small elbows drawn back like wings. TV was substitute church for my mother. Mother turned it up loud, singing, “I’ll fly away, oh glory.” Delia wanted to know who was Glory. She watched our mother, grinning. But her small, bowlike lips never mouthed a single lyric. Not to the eighties Top 40 and not to “I’ll Fly Away.” Mother took us to a Church of God service when I was five, a Baptist church when I was seven or eight. Once we visited a Mormon church, a trip she said was a mistake–she’d taken a wrong turn trying to find a Catholic mass.
Her mother warned her that she was bringing up the spawn of Satan if she neglected her children’s religious upbringing. We ended up back home on Sunday mornings, singing with the Greenes.
Delia threw off my mother’s religious accouterments as fast as our little toy dog threw off the jingle-bell harness we fastened to him one Christmas. As soon as Delia turned fourteen, she flatly refused to go to church. When the visitation committees paid a call following our respective visits, Delia rejected Mother’s cues. Mother sat poised in her brown chair as if she herself was from the women’s missionary committee. But when she cued Delia to say something nice about church, Delia would say, “WE NEVER GO TO CHURCH, PEOPLE, SO WHY LIE LIKE THE DEVIL?” I couldn’t blame her. Mother thought of religion as something you lay in front of children like a doormat.
To Delia that was the same as a suspicious option she was glad to walk around. My sister never left Boiling Waters, its small department stores, the town boys growing up to drive bread trucks, girls coming of age and congregating on Saturday nights at the Blue Water Café and Raw Bar.
Some people believe that you can come back and relive your life until you get it right. I assume that “right” is what you get free of regret. If I could relive my life, saying that I was given a choice, push this button to return to age seven, what have you, I’d relive high school. But not the bad grade I got in Mrs. Juarez’s algebra class or the first time I got felt up by an ugly eleventh grader underneath the water’s surface at the city pool. I would rewrite my life with Delia.
People talked about Delia for saying the wrong thing in polite company or impolite company. She could take an average conversation down to English language’s bottom-most parts. If my classmate Ellie and I waited out in front of BW High for the bus, talking about Gilda Freeman’s new push-up bra, Delia said things like, “I think I have a brain tumor.” I got mad at Ellie for laughing, not because it might hurt Delia’s feelings. I didn’t want to advance Delia’s campaigns.
Laughter was affirmation to keep up the antics. Delia was an affirmation addict. She fabricated wild fictions, but in a manner so subtle that the unwary bystander might stop and give her a serious listen. Ellie laughed at Delia, the same as our cousin Fanny or Aunt Amity did. Delia made people laugh when she responded to the misfirings of her disorderly neurons. She did believe a brain tumor grew on the left side of her cerebellum.
Mother got a call from the school counselor saying that Delia complained that her family was neglecting her tumor and why wouldn’t our family take her for treatment.
I believed that Delia could be fixed the same as me. If I made an asinine statement that caused all eyes to look away or, worse yet, to stare, I composed a new thread to lead the listeners into a more sobering topic. Then I returned quietly to the herd to graze on teenage silage, the things we pretended to like so we’d coalesce: a boy making it above the popularity blip or beautifully wrecked jeans. I blended.
Delia followed her own voices. She raised her voice twenty decibels in a hushed room. If the topic was clothes, she blurted out, “I WEAR THE SAME T-SHIRT EVERY DAY, PEOPLE. CAN’T YOU APPRECIATE WHAT YOU HAVE?” She brought the conversation to a frozen state, all eyes fastened on her and our mouths hanging open.
I rehearsed a conversation I might have with her after I arrived in Boiling Waters. I was gassing up the car, so I practiced. “How is work?” I imagined the wink I would give her when she answered, “I think someone is putting cocaine in my coffee.” I practiced laughing.
A woman across the fuel island averted her eyes. Delia was not a trophy sister, the one I asked God for when I found out my mother was pregnant. She was the girl my father called “a brick shy a load.” One nut shy a pie. When school was in session, she was not my worry. But summer’s lottery with Delia fell to me, her personal guide through and around the small troubles she elevated to tragedy.
One June when we were girls, we collapsed on our backs in clover. While I wistfully looked for four-leaf ones, she picked three-leaf specimens and handed them to me, at first with glee. Then she tossed them at me until I screamed. She had no sense of what was common and what was rare.
I topped off the gas tank and hurried back into the warmth of my car. I checked my phone for messages. Braden still hadn’t returned the call I left him about my father. His suitcase was missing, but I was almost certain he stored it outside in the apartment storage closet.
He wasn’t really leaving. What a joke to act like he really meant it! He was funnier than Delia. Raleigh was gray like Wilmington. As the Neon coasted onto the interstate ramp, white tufts blew across the interchange and stuck to the window glass. The sky unrolled like a towel, shaking snow onto us mortals.
Excerpted from Painted Dresses by Patricia Hickman. Copyright © 2008 by Patricia Hickman. Excerpted by permission of WaterBrook Press, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.