It is early evening. The heat of the day is beginning to settle, leaving the earth parched and the sun ready to rise and sear the earth tomorrow. But for now the absence of heat is like gratitude.
Annie is stretched out on her belly on the grey slats of wood that comprise the deck behind her house. She is watching red ants crawl over the rotten figs that have smashed down just over the edge of the deck. The boards cover half the yard and surround the tree that grows through a hole cut close around its trunk. The tree has always been there–before the deck, or the house, or her, for that matter–and it will always be there. And where will she be? Far, far away. Though she really can’t imagine being anyplace else, unless it is her Aunt Mabel’s house in Baton Rouge, or make-believe like the sultan’s tent in Arabian Nights.
Sighing, she feels the roughness of the wood against her chin. She has been watching the ants forever. They are always in the yard whenever figs are in season. That’s why she helps Merle wash off the deck every morning. They mop off the fruit that has dropped during the night so the deck doesn’t become a fig graveyard.
“Ants in your pants,” Merle sings in the mornings as she throws water out onto the deck.
“Ants in your pants,” Annie sings back.
Still, the ants are interesting: so delicate, almost a translucent auburn with antennae that they wave at her like wands. But she knows to be wary. Ant bites hurt something terrible. She watches now as the ants crawl over the browned places where the light green skin has rubbed off a fallen fig. It has split open, revealing the white flesh inside. Some ants have already found the center stuffed with unripe seeds and beaded with a white liquid. The ants enter singly or in groups, eager and cautious. The groups don’t seem to be cooperating, Annie notices, although they back off politely when they bump into each other.
“Annie?” Merle speaks gently so as not to startle her.
Annie looks up and sees her, the generosity of her in a gaudy apron zigzagged with yellow and red ribbon. Merle is perspiring standing at the screen door, but the housekeeper doesn’t open it. One of the springs is almost busted already from the girls shoving it two ways at once.
“Get yourself cleaned up,” Merle says. “Your daddy will be home in one shake of a lamb’s tail.”
In the bathroom she shares with Zoe, Annie steps up onto the little white stool by the sink. She can see herself in the mirror now; her hair is sticking up like a Fiji Islander. First, she washes her hands with a thick bar of soap, admiring the grey trickle of dirt that runs off her fingers. Then she opens the medicine cabinet and takes down her little yellow duck nailbrush. She scratches it along the back of the soap and scrubs hard under her nails. First her left hand and then, more awkwardly, her right, until the grey crescents under her nails give way to pink. She stretches her fingers under the water, pleased.
Her face isn’t very dirty, but she washes it anyway, and behind her ears, because Merle always tells her not to forget. She gets down from the stool and goes to her room. She keeps her hairbrush there so Zoe won’t borrow it when hers goes missing. It’s round with real boar bristles, just the right size for her hand. Annie sits on the edge of the bed, her feet dangling; she leans forward and a tumble of curly hair falls in front of her eyes. She brushes her hair vigorously from back to front, determined to make it shine tonight.
She sings as she strokes: “One-two-three-four, five-six-seven, eight-nine-ten and eleven.” And then she starts all over again, singing to keep her arm from getting tired. She can hear her mother in her bath down the hall, the slosh of the water as she shifts and sighs. It is a special night. Soon her mother will come out wrapped in her white robe wearing her chenille slippers and the aqua turban that makes her look like a gypsy. She will sit in her robe at her dressing table, and if Annie hurries she will let her sit on the floor and watch as she paints on her lipstick with a tiny brush that she pushes out of a small protective tube. “Painting on my mouth,” her mother calls it, though of course she already has a mouth.
Annie can hear her mother humming in the tub. She knows that it will be a good night.
* * *
It is not often that the girls are invited into the sitting room. The room is really not for sitting at all; it is where Annie’s mother receives guests on the rare occasions that there are visitors. Between these visits the furniture is covered in stiff plastic that crackles if you sit on it, and the sofa and chair arms are always covered with antimacassars. But tonight she and Zoe have been invited. It is a special occasion. Her mother’s new furniture has arrived, shipped all the way from Chicago, delivered to the dock this morning and un-swaddled in the sitting room this very afternoon.
Annie sits up very straight in a new high-backed wing chair. She is wearing her favorite blue blouse, the one with little flowers, clean white socks, and she’s perched on the edge of its plump pillowed seat. She’s afraid she will have to squirm her way out if she falls back into its enveloping softness, and Daddy and Zoe will laugh the way they always do. They always seem to have a joke going. But Annie is still pretty sure she is his favorite.
Annie’s feet don’t touch the ground, so she crosses her ankles carefully. The chair is plush, covered with plum velvet and fringed with twisted gold tassels. She is in awe. She has never felt anything as soft as the brush of the velvet on the backs of her knees. She swings her legs just a little to feel the nap of the cloth tickling her skin.
“Don’t put your feet up, girls. This furniture’s got to last ‘til you get married,” their daddy says. He has already taken off his good shoes and sits relaxing in his stocking feet. He lifts his glass of bourbon, letting the liquor roll on his tongue; the ice slides against his lip.
Daddy is a handsome man, as handsome as Clark Gable. That’s what everyone says, except when he lets his beard grow in red. Then he looks like one of Jean Lafitte’s pirates. At least that’s what their mother says. He works for Stuart Title and he buys acreage for his own account, though the land he owns over on Bolivar is so dry it can only be used to grow watermelons. But it’s the owning that counts, Daddy says.
He swallows now, rattling the ice, and salutes Annie’s Mama with his glass. She smiles back, raising her glass in answer. “Thank you, Daddy,” she says. “No one in Galveston has anything like these. They’re so distinguished.”
“Whatever you want, Mother,” Daddy smiles.
“What I want is to have a dog,” Annie suggests, though no one has asked her.
“No canines need apply,” her Daddy shakes his head.
“I saw puppies over near school. They had them in a box on the lawn. They were so cute, and they were giving them away,” Annie says, talking fast. “If I had a dog I’d love it to death.”
“You couldn’t take care of a dog,” Zoe scoffs.
“I could! I know how. Merle’s let me feed her dog, and she said I did a good job. She said that hound loves me better’n her own kids.”
“Whatever were you doing at Merle’s?” her mother asks suspiciously, and Annie remembers that she is not supposed to walk Merle home.
“She does whatever she sets her mind to,” Daddy says. “But no dog.”
Annie sighs. The subject is closed, her daddy always has the final say. But she needs a dog. If she could just make him understand. She yearns for something, anything, of her own that she can scorch with her fierce love.
“Can I refresh your drink?” her mother says, half-rising and inclining her head as if she’s some fancy hostess.
Annie’s father laughs appreciatively, holding out his glass, but her mother doesn’t actually get up. She is wearing her lilac silk dress, the one she wears to parties with the sleeves that fall away from her shoulders, leaving her collarbone bare. She is wearing the perfume and pearls that Daddy gave her for their wedding anniversary. There are red spots of excitement in her cheeks, and she has rouged her lips. But her green eyes, long-lashed and turned down in the corners, give her face a shade of melancholy, no matter how happy she is, like one of the heroines of the soft-back novels she favors.
She holds her glass up to her forehead. “I need ice,” she says. “Zoe, sugar, go ask Merle to chop up some more ice and put it in a bucket, be a sweetheart?”
“Sure, Mama,” Zoe says, slipping out of her chair. “Then can I be excused?”
“Don’t want to sit with us?” Daddy asks. “More important business calls?” He wrinkles his nose and gives Zoe that look he has, as if he knows every bad thing she’s ever wanted to do. “I think I saw that little Adele loitering out back when I came in.”
“When was that?” Zoe asks innocently. At nine, she is already adept at dissembling.
“Nothing escapes my evil eye.” Daddy winks.
“Oh, leave her alone.” Their mother leans back wearily, fanning herself with her hand. “Just get the ice, honey, and then all right. But change out of that dress. And don’t get dirty, or go wandering off.”
“I never do,” Zoe says.
“You never,” her Mama mocks. “I should never let you play with a child like that. You’ll acquire bad habits and lice.”
“Does that mean yes or no?” Zoe narrows her eyes.
“Get that ice,” her mother says, and Zoe disappears into the kitchen.
“Come on over, sweet pea,” her daddy beckons to Annie. He is relaxing into the bourbon, his jaw softening. He takes off his tie, opens up the first three buttons of his white shirt, and rolls up his sleeves. Dark hair curls out of the scooped neck of his ribbed white undershirt.
Annie hops down and crosses the room. He puts down his drink and lifts her up on to his lap. She holds onto his forearms, feeling the pop of muscles under her hands.
“You got any sugar for me?” tickling her behind her knees until she is squirming, pink and breathless.
“Quit it. Quit it, Daddy!” She falls onto the floor with a bump.
Her mother studies the two of them, sipping from her glass. “You spoil her,” she remarks.
If her mother was a cat she would purr, Annie thinks, and suddenly she feels very lucky. She hears the swing of the kitchen door now and Zoe enters the room, carrying a white and blue China bowl. She is still wearing her short blue pants, but she has added Annie’s slippers, the soft ones embroidered with Indian beads. They’re too small, she’s stepping on the backs and she shuffles to keep them on.
“My slippers!” Annie protests.
“I’m only wearing them for now,” Zoe says calmly, walking carefully toward her mother, balancing a tray and a bucket of ice. “Don’t worry about your precious slippers, I’m going out barefoot.”
“You’ll do no such thing,” their mother’s voice rises.
“Get worms going barefoot,” Annie declares, triumphant.
“Shut it,” Zoe kicks off the slippers dexterously, still balancing the tray. She holds it up close to her mother, who takes the three-tined tongs and slips the crushed ice into her drink.
“I won’t have a child of mine speak that way. Now take that ice over to your father,” Mama says.
Zoe lowers her eyes angry, but she manages to stay quiet. Annie knows why. Adele is waiting for Zoe in the back alley. She makes a face at her sister, flaring her nostrils from behind her father’s legs and sticking out her tongue. Zoe ignores her. She has crossed the room and is holding the tray in front of her father now like she’s a waitress.
Daddy picks up the tongs and winks at her, conciliatory. He starts to whistle a song she likes about razorblades and soda pop. Zoe begins to smile, but then she looks afraid. She winces and lets go of the tray. There is the sound of china shattering as the bowl hits the floor. Zoe’s left arm hangs stiffly in front of her bent at an angle. The other twitches robotically by her side. Her eyes roll up. The irises disappear and her sister is gone, snatched away by a creature from a horror movie.
Annie hears herself screaming. Zoe teeters, then collapses, falling rigid, her head hitting the edge of the coffee table with a thump.
Their father leaps to life, stooping and cradling Zoe’s head in his big hands. “Baby,” he says, brushing the curls away, running his thumb over the bump that is already rising out of the smoothness of her forehead. Zoe has passed into some kind of sleep, inhaling deeply, her body limp. There is an acrid smell of sweat and urine.
Annie blinks. She is waiting to see if the scene will run backwards. But Zoe is still on the floor.
Annie prays for her sister. She promises she will believe in God all the way and give Zoe all her marbles and never tell on her and go to church every Sunday and never try cigarettes. She will always and forever be good. She sobs, her face in her hands.
Across from her, their mother watches the scene. “Stop blubbering like a baby,” she looks at Annie with disgust. “Get yourself under control or go on into the kitchen.”
“Call the doctor,” her father says.
“I’ll do no such thing.” she answers.
“Call the doctor, Ida, she’s sick.” This time it’s the voice he uses on the dock with the riggers.
“Don’t use that tone with me,” Mama warns. “What she needs is the belt, not the doctor.”
“You know what this is. It’s some kind of fit. Your brother had fits.”
“There’s nothing like that in my family. I’d be the one to know about my family.” She swirls the ice in her glass and takes a sip.
“Your daddy told me,” he says, cradling Zoe’s head against his chest.
“Must have been one of those conversations lubricated by bourbon.” She gives a little laugh. “All excuses for a man who has never amounted to anything. And if you indulge Zoe, she’ll twist you around her little finger. She’s a fine little actress, and don’t I know it.”
“That was no act,” Daddy answers, but he sounds less sure.
“You leave the girls to me. I know how to handle young ladies,” their mother nods sagely, and he looks away.
He places a pillow under Zoe’s head and gets up slowly from the floor. They sit in silence, except for the clinking of ice in her mama’s glass. Zoe opens her eyes. She sits up, looking around confused, tossed into a strange land with no familiar landmarks.
“Daddy?” she asks.
“You see? She’s fine,” Mama declares. “Go get Merle to clean up this mess, Annie. And stop that crying. Get.”
“Leave her be.”
“The girls aren’t your concern.”
Zoe looks at Annie, and then at her mother.
“I don’t want you going out now,” their mother says softly. “Just go up and get a little rest before dinner.”
Zoe stands, steadies herself with a hand on the back of the couch, then walks out. Her bare feet make no noise on the stairs.
“I’m going up too.” Annie says, standing up.
“You’ll do no such thing,” their mother answers, shaking her head. “I won’t have her spoiling our evening with her shenanigans.” She looks at her husband now. Neither one speaks. Annie knows her parents have forgotten her but she’s still afraid to move. The fan creaks the way it always does on high, stirring the air.
“I won’t cross you,” Daddy says finally. “But that child needs a doctor, not the switch.”
“It’s her age, and she is a willful child. You mustn’t indulge her or you’ll lose all control. She’ll be running wild.” Mama gestures now, opening her hand. It’s like some kind of a card trick.
Their father is silent. He picks up his drink, looking into the dark liquor. “Ida,” he begins.
“Honey,” she interrupts. “Don’t you worry. That’s all she wants, but don’t you indulge her. Can I freshen your drink?” This time she really does get up and goes to the sideboard. She brings back the cut crystal decanter and fills his glass. “You look like a sultan, or a potentate in that chair.”
“She didn’t do that on purpose.”
“Oh, your daughter. She’s knows how sweet you are and she takes advantage.” Mama walks behind his chair now, leaning down so that her cheek touches his and her breasts press against his back. “If she knows she can scare you, she’ll just be doing it more often.”
“I’m going upstairs to wash up,” Annie says. Neither of her parents looks up when she leaves. Upstairs, she tiptoes into Zoe’s room. She expects Zoe will have escaped, out the window, over the roof and into the alley. But Zoe is there, lying across the bed fully clothed, eyes closed, breathing deeply. Her cheeks are rosy, loose curls cling to the side of her face. She looks like a princess in her hundred years sleep awaiting the kiss of her prince.