By the time the TSA agent pulled her out of the x-ray machine and began to pat her down, Minnie had completely forgotten about the bullet in her pocket. She hadn’t been to visit Alice in half a lifetime, and nothing in the Mobile airport was where she remembered it. The bathrooms were hard to find and filled with children who looked nice enough but talked to you with filthy language when you said hello to them. The shoeshine boys were all gone, or maybe they were just old men now, stooped over mops or behind the register of the sad little newsstand where she’d bought a Crunch bar and a magazine, both of which were now in a bin at the end of the conveyor belt.
Any number of things could have set the machine off. Her charm bracelet, wrapped in tissues in her pocket, or the brass coin she’d had made at the U.S.S. Alabama, showing the battleship on one side and the bay on the other. Her hair. A couple of the women in her small group had said that frizzy hair sometimes got you searched extra, although the women who told her that were black and presumably subject to other, deeper indignities.
The TSA agent looked like Alice, but fifty years younger, and forty pounds heavier, and if she hadn’t fixed her teeth. It made Minnie’s heart rate go up for a second. But then not-Alice said, “Ma’am, this is a live round,” and held up the bullet like it was something that had come out of Minnie’s body, something that should be covered up and dealt with. “9mm, looks like.”
For a moment the gold object in the woman’s hand looked nothing like a bullet. It looked more like a tooth. But then it resolved into the familiar shape: flat back end, polished sheen, a point that was dull to the touch but could, Minnie knew, split you wide open.
“Oh yes,” Minnie said. “That’s my souvenir.”
The agent frowned and waited.
“From the gun range,” Minnie said. “My son and I went yesterday. He’s a big hunter.”
This wasn’t really true, but it sounded better to say that Chris loved going to the woods with his buddies to drink beer and shoot some bucks than it did to say that he just really loved guns, that he collected them in a locked cabinet in his basement that was fuller every time she visited. More than shooting them, he liked buying and polishing them, discussing their merits and the ways in which his right to own them was guaranteed. Minnie didn’t really go in for that kind of talk, but she hadn’t minded the range. Chris had taken her there to cheer her up, and it had worked. Usually, she felt invisible in public, but the men at the gun range, most of them at least thirty years younger than she was, seemed delighted by her presence, and helped her load her gun, and after they were done shooting bought her little bottles of beer at Doc’s Bar next door.
“Well, you can’t take it on the airplane,” said the TSA agent, opening a plastic baggie and dropping the bullet into it. By now there were several other bored guards milling around, trying to see what the hold-up was.
“Because you might be tempted to use it,” the agent said, waving her through.
Alice’s son picked Minnie up from Reagan in his Lexus. He was a teacher at a prep school where the students wore coats and ties to class and attended chapel once a week at the National Cathedral. He loosened his tie when he got out to help her with her bag, and seemed surprised at how light her suitcase was. She had been afraid he wouldn’t recognize her. “How long has it been?” he said, opening the door for her and closing it before she had a chance to answer. When she sat down she realized she’d left her neck pillow on the plane, but it was too late to say anything.
“It’s good your flight wasn’t late,” he said as they drove. “It could be any hour now.”
Minnie nodded. She could see the monuments and the Capitol across the river, looking like replicas of themselves. It amazed her that there was an exit on the highway for the Pentagon, that you could drive to it just as easily as you could a mall. She pointed to it and asked Brett if he’d ever been there, using his name because she’d just remembered it.
“It’s Brian,” he said. “And yeah, once. The Lower School had the Deputy Secretary of Defense’s kid like ten years ago.”
Minnie thought of asking Brian about the security there, so she could in turn tell him about the bullet at the airport, but before she could ask, she realized that she needed to apologize for getting his name wrong, and by the time she’d started to do that he was already talking again.
“…delivered the hospital bed last week. We put it into the study, where she wanted it for some reason. She’s asleep most of the time now.”
She hadn’t liked Brian the last time she’d seen him, maybe fifteen years ago. She’d tried to talk to him about her decades of work in the principal’s office, counting attendance and chasing down tardy kids as they came through the front door of Robertsdale Junior High, but he’d just laughed and said it was a lot different when you were teaching English to kids who knew Homer in the original Greek.
Now, though, he looked better, like something had been beaten out of him. He had dark circles under his eyes and a paunch that made him look kind. She tried to remember his second wife’s name. When his children with the first one were young, they’d all come down to Gulf Shores for a week, and his skinny daughter had made gagging noises because Minnie left her butter on the counter at room temperature to keep it soft.
“How are your kids?”
But he was honking at a taxi and didn’t hear her. They crossed the Potomac and headed towards Georgetown, driving very fast, and for a moment Minnie remembered the first time she’d come to Washington — she was sixteen, six months after Alice had been married, and she’d pranced around her sister’s townhouse like she’d done something to deserve it, pouring champagne into thin flutes every morning when it was just the two of them and the servant. A servant! Their mother had been a washwoman and their father had conducted a train to and from the mill, and yet there they were, eating breakfast with a full set of silverware and cloth napkins. As for the Senator? She’d had reservations, but she only saw him the last night of her stay — so they were easier, at first, to forgive.
“She asked for new shoes last week,” Brian’s second wife had said at the kitchen table, stirring her tea with an impossibly small copper spoon. Minnie could have sworn she’d never seen this woman in her life, but she’d accepted the dainty cup and saucer she held out. A brown labradoodle whose name Minnie had already forgotten was asleep under the table. “She hasn’t walked in a month but she said she wanted them. White Nikes, just like Grace and all her friends wear at UVA.”
Minnie spotted them the second she walked into the room where they’d put Alice’s hospital bed. They were on the vanity, next to the tray of serums and powders that had made Minnie look an indeterminate age in her Christmas cards well into her 70s. The shoes were bright in the dark room, and made of a stretchy material, like thick pantyhose. Minnie saw why her sister liked them. They were basically socks.
Her sister. Surely that thing curled up on the hospital bed wasn’t her sister. It was tiny, the size of a child, and a rasping breath came from it, faint enough that the sheet near its face didn’t even move. It was nearly bald, and though its mouth was closed, its teeth — false and white as the shoes — were bared in a grin.
Minnie was scared for a moment, but then the dog, which had followed her into the room, nuzzled her hand, as though to encourage her. She moved closer to the bed and let her hand fall on her sister’s foot, which had kicked clear of the blanket. It was surprisingly warm, and still had calluses at the heel. She started to cry.
“Alice,” she whispered. “It’s me.”
The thing on the bed didn’t move. If anything, its breathing got even quieter. It didn’t look like Alice at all. It looked — and Minnie knew this was unkind, but she couldn’t help it — like an animal, a small sick pet. A monkey, like the macaque Joe Boudreaux had kept in a cage in front of his gas station when they were girls, to get motorists to stop on their way down to the gulf. For a nickel you could buy a handful of scuppernongs and the monkey would grab them right out of your hand and eat them. Alice would do it but Minnie had always been too terrified. She hadn’t thought of that in years.
“Alice,” she said again. This time she thought she saw the thing’s eyelids flutter, but it was hard to tell, and when Minnie tried again she didn’t get a response. She wanted to leave but knew that Brian and his second wife would look at her strangely, staying only a minute or two with her dying sister whom she hadn’t seen in over a decade. So she sat and looked around her. The room had been the Senator’s study, and with the fireplace and the built-in-bookshelves and grey walls it still seemed like a place not meant for sleeping. It was odd of her sister to insist on being moved here, the smallest room in the house. Maybe she wanted to die somewhere out of sight, dark and small. Animals did that.
There was no television — just the vanity and the bed and a bookshelf filled with books by politicians whose faces Minnie could only faintly match to their names. The desk she remembered must have been moved out to make room. On the bedside table there were two bottles of pills, a baby monitor, and a book of laminated newspaper clippings, stories in which the Senator had appeared. She flipped through it so Alice wouldn’t think she was staring if she opened her eyes.
Most of the stories made the Senator seem like a minor player, and maybe he had been. But he hadn’t seemed like one when he’d first come to court Alice. Nobody in Robertsdale could remember a single thing the Senator had ever accomplished in the legislature, but they never forgot the way the sunlight bounced off his cherry-red Lincoln Cosmopolitan as he drove it past the cotton fields and the shacks for the day laborers, and then slowly downtown, with Alice in the passenger seat, like it was a parade and she was the queen of it.
He’d been to Harvard, and then the war. His parents owned half of Monroe County. They met Alice’s senior year of high school, at the Officer’s Club in Mobile. Alice had been dating some needle-necked sailor who’d gotten invited as a favor, and while he was vomiting Singapore Slings off the balcony and into the gulf, the Senator had trotted her all across the floor to “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy.” There had been a few appearances in town, a few stilted dinners in the family parlor where their mother had cooked things from recipes she found in cookbooks from the public library instead of the tomato gravy and shrimp they were accustomed to. No one knew what to say at the last of these dinners, when the election was over and the wedding papers were signed and Alice had packed her brand new yellow Samsonite for her first airplane ride, all the way to Washington. It had all happened so fast. Minnie was fifteen then and felt sorry for her sister, who looked excited in a miserable way, like she had when she’d gotten baptized in the creek behind the church. The Senator watched Minnie like a hawk all through dinner, and since she didn’t know what to say to him she’d just kept shoveling food into her mouth. Coq au vin, ratatouille, gratin dauphinois. All that unfamiliar food.
They put Minnie in Alice’s bedroom — her real bedroom, the one with her perfumes and her purses and her clothes. The last time Minnie had been there, the walls were a dusky pink, but now they were light blue. The full-length mirror where they had tried on Alice’s new clothes six months after the wedding, giggling like children, was also gone, replaced by a shoulder-high bookcase, its shelves filled with framed photographs. Alice’s children and grandchildren wearing pastels on a beach in Maryland; Alice wearing a white gown standing next to Bill Clinton; Alice on her wedding day, propped in front of First Baptist in Mobile, unused to smiling with her new teeth. Minnie could see herself on the far right of the photo, holding a bouquet of flowers. They were grey in the picture, but they’d been pink in real life.
Though the door was closed, she could hear the hospice nurse downstairs, watching a basketball game on television next to a blaring baby monitor, the other half of which was in the room with Alice. After dinner — roast chicken from someplace called Nando’s, a take-out salad, and most of a bottle of bitter red — Brian and his wife had gone home to Silver Spring, promising to return the next morning around ten. There was coffee in the grinder, milk in the fridge, and a full tray of fruit that one of Alice’s friends had dropped off earlier in the day. “What happened to James?” Minnie had asked, and Brian’s pointy little wife had frowned and said, “Who’s James?”
“The… help,” Brian had muttered, looking embarrassed, before telling Minnie that he’d retired in 1985.
Still, if Minnie squinted she could forget the hospice nurse’s scrubs and turn her sneakers into shining black patent leather shoes, and even make her a man, a man who came at the ring of a bell with a sly smile and would do anything she pleased. She felt restless, a little hungry, a little drunk. She put on a silk robe she found hanging in the closet and a pair of slippers so soft they felt like skin. She sprayed herself with Issey Miyake and Jo Malone and Chanel, each perfume on top of the other. She looked at Alice’s impossibly small pantsuits and patted her belly. She still had half the Crunch bar in her purse, and she unwrapped it and ate it standing up.
She had been the pretty one — everyone had said so. Three years younger, rounder, softer. Alice was flat-chested and thin, and, until the Senator had paid for a dentist, she had crooked teeth. But she was the one old enough to be at the Officer’s Club in Mobile on a Friday night just after the war, the one who had seen enough movies to know what to do when a young man with a rich family and political aspirations asked you what you wanted to drink. And then she was the one leaving, leaving and never coming back.
At the beginning, Minnie’s husband Harry had been curious about why the two sisters didn’t seem to talk. After Chris was born, and they were looking to buy something approachable, he’d asked Minnie to call her sister for a loan, and couldn’t understand why she wouldn’t. So they bought a trailer and he just came to think what her parents and most of the town thought: That Alice had moved on, that she’d gotten out, that she was — all ninety-five pounds of her, permed and starched — too big for her britches.
Minnie had made only one more trip to Washington, after the first. She couldn’t afford the flight and after the first time, Alice never offered. When Chris was finally old enough to be in school, Minnie had saved up money for a year for a plane ticket, only to have Alice stick her in a hotel once she got there, citing exhaustion from a long season of fundraising dinners. They met for lunch every day, Alice eating tiny salads and drinking large martinis before jetting off to a tea or a campaign function or women’s club and abandoning Minnie to the Smithsonian or the monuments. In the early years, when their parents were still alive, Alice had come back to Robertsdale for occasional visits, and once there were grandchildren, there was a trip to Gulf Shores about once a decade. But by then Alice seemed like a different person to Minnie, distant and friendly, like the Senator at a campaign stop. She never saw the trailer or, later, the house she and Harry bought in Magnolia Acres. Their phone calls were infrequent, and distantly spaced. Gradually Alice had receded from them, just like everybody else. She hadn’t even called to tell Minnie she was sick. Brian had been the one to tell her.
It was just one of those things, she had always said to Harry. People grow apart. Their lives go in different directions. She’d said it so many times she could almost believe it.
But now Harry was dead, and Minnie seemed to be going in a different direction than her life. The whole world — the new Dollar Store on 59, the x-ray of her swollen leg, the names of her nieces and nephews and grandchildren — seemed unconvincing to her. She’d fallen asleep before dinner, sitting in the chair in Alice’s sick room. When she woke up it had taken her a minute to remember where she was, and who she was sitting next to.
“Alice,” she’d said then, without thinking. “I feel like I need to confess something to you.”
But she hadn’t said it. She didn’t know how to say it. And wasn’t the point of a confession to tell somebody something they didn’t already know?
Now Minnie found a single Newport in a crumpled pack deep in the bedside table’s second drawer, opened a window, and smoked it, looking down on the next house. She still had half a glass of wine. It wasn’t sweet enough for her but she’d brought the bottle up to her room anyway. Alice had probably done this very thing hundreds of times over all the years since they’d last seen each other. Minnie tried to imagine herself as the owner of the slippers she was wearing, the owner — after the Senator’s death last year — of this house, the only one Alice had lived in outside of Alabama and the summer cottage in Maine. But she couldn’t really do it.
It could have been her, of course. In a way it had been, ever since the last night of her first visit here, when they’d had too much champagne and Alice had fallen asleep and she’d found herself alone with the Senator in his study. He was a big man, broad in the shoulders and going a little soft in the belly, and at first, when he pressed her against the door and breathed in her ear, she’d been afraid. But only of Alice waking up. As he unbuttoned her blouse she looked over his shoulder at the fireplace, at the bookshelf, at the window with its view of a row house across the street, a heavy crystal tumbler still in the sill, and then back at the man in front her, handsome and dull, and she decided that she wanted it. She wanted all of it.
At two o’clock in the morning she was out of wine, and she went back into Alice’s room. The thing on the bed didn’t move when she said its name. It was breathing, she knew that. But its eyes were closed.
It did not seem real, that this was her sister. She knew it but didn’t know it, like the name of the Labradoodle sleeping at the foot of the bed or how long Brian’s wife had been married to him or if Brian was even his name. It had been like this for years: The specifics of the world were slipping away, leaving the things as they were, isolated and nameless and somehow incredible. She picked up the pill bottle on the bedside table, and it too, seemed like something she’d left there, something she’d forgotten. The bottle was orange but looked black in the darkness. The pills rattled around inside it like teeth.
The top was hard to open but the pill went down easy. She didn’t even need water.
“Alice,” she said. “Look at me.”
Alice’s mouth moved slightly but it didn’t look voluntary. That whole area was caved in.
“Look at me, goddamnit,” Minnie said.
But the monkey in front of her was curled into sleep, breathing slowly. Its skull looked soft in the haze of the night-light, the hair finer now, silkier than it had been in the cage at the gas station. She still felt sorry for it. She was still afraid of it.
They’d walk down Highway 59 on Saturdays to look. The monkey lived in a cage made of chicken wire near the road, out by the Gulf Oil sign. There was a tree inside the cage, a dead pine still holding on to a few of its branches, and that’s where the monkey perched and watched passing cars. It was a mean animal, but it seemed thoughtful, too. Winona Boudreaux, who was Alice’s age, said her father bought it from a sailor in Mobile who’d taught it to talk, but no one ever saw evidence of that. In those days, gas stations needed a gimmick. The Gulf station three miles north on 59 had an alligator pit, the Texaco two miles beyond that had a live cougar, and there were rumors that a station near Auburn had a baby elephant, held in a straw-filled pen like an enormous calf.
Minnie began to feel unsure of herself on her feet. The room felt warm. She sat down on the bed and said, “Do you remember the day you got out?” She didn’t like the dog looking at her so she nudged it until it yawned and jumped off the bed, curling up on the rug. She felt self-conscious about the baby monitor, so she picked it up and twisted the knob to turn it off. She got dizzy then, and got into the bed with the monkey. There wasn’t much room, so she had to get very close to it.
“The day you got out,” she said. Or maybe she didn’t say it — she wasn’t sure if she was speaking out loud anymore. Her tongue felt heavy, coated in sorghum. And the perfumes she’d sprayed were mixing in her nostrils with the papery scent of the monkey in her arms, the brittle animal with skin like paper and sharp little bones. How odd it was to be back in the familiar posture, the roles reversed. She fingered the scar on the top of her head.
“We were in the backyard playing,” she said. “And Winona started screaming. You got out when they were cleaning your cage. You were perched on the fence watching us. Like you were curious? And then we started running. That’s what did it. When you run, they have something to chase.”
Minnie started to cry. She was in a bed in Washington, D.C., but she was also standing in the red clay in a backyard in Robertsdale, watching the other two girls run towards the house and hearing the monkey behind her get down from the fence, almost wearily, it seemed to her. She kicked her feet and tried to follow them, but her legs were too short to keep up. Alice and Winona were inside by then, behind the screen door, fitting the hook into the ring to lock it. She was almost to the porch, but they wouldn’t open the door, and then the monkey jumped.
She’d forgotten so much: how many stitches went into the scar on her head, covered now by hair; where the mechanic who brained the macaque with a hammer had come from; how long it had taken before Joe Boudreaux came out with his pistol to finish the job. But she’d never forgotten that screen door, and her sister’s hands curled around the lock. The blank set of her face through the iron grid of the screen. They’d never talked about it.
Now they couldn’t, because she didn’t know where her sister was. She was somewhere irretrievable, like Harry and the Senator and Chris as a baby and all the other people she had held in her arms. So Minnie buried her face in the monkey’s hair. She did not forgive it, weak as it was. She didn’t love it, either. Her mouth came open, the teeth coming to rest on the crown of its head. She bit down hard.
When Minnie woke up it was still dark. Alice was in the bed with her, turned so that their foreheads were almost touching. Her eyes fluttered behind the lids. Her breath was unexpectedly sweet, the smell of slightly overripe bananas. Her false teeth were smiling — who knew why she slept in them. Vanity.
Minnie felt sick to her stomach and tired. She’d had a dream about the Senator — he was back in her house in Magnolia Acres, telling her to clean it up, to get some of the clutter out of the dining room and the parlor. But he was old and soft and she’d left him bitching on the couch, watching himself on cable news.
Now, she said to her sister, “You heard us, didn’t you?” Alice’s ears seemed to be the only part of her body that hadn’t changed — the lobes long from earrings, not disease. Minnie remembered the Senator’s soft, pale belly; the surprising, skinny fact of his penis; his whimper against the door. How she’d gotten into bed with her sister immediately after, and slept face-to-face.
A lifetime for something so stupid.
Alice was snoring now, and Minnie sat up so suddenly that the room started spinning. She tightened the robe around her body and slid her feet into the slippers. Then she thought better of it, and grabbed Alice’s new white Nikes from the vanity. She’d need them on the pavement outside. Her purse was hanging on the doorknob of her room across the hall and there was nothing in the suitcase she’d miss. They could mail it to her, if they really cared.
She was at the door when she heard it. A kind of buzzing, with a hum underneath, then a rustle of the blanket. Alice was sitting up in bed, her eyes still closed, opening her mouth like she was about to say something. Minnie didn’t wait to hear what it was. She stepped through to the hallway. Then she shut the door behind her, quietly enough so that the nurse wouldn’t wake up.
Photo courtesy of Marie Loughin; view more of her work on Flickr