Tin Trashcans

I stand in my parents’ bedroom and run my hand over the pile of New York Times Magazines sitting beside the bed. Their puzzles—finished, half-finished, or just begun–mark the progression of my mother’s illness. The last four magazines haven’t been opened.

Downstairs I hear the murmur of voices and know I should go help my father greet the relatives and friends who have gathered to pay their respects. Instead, I linger here the bedroom, searching for traces of my mother in the detritus of her life: the piles of magazines, the stacks of books, and the old flowered bag that held her knitting projects. I can still detect the faint aroma of her Chanel No. 5 beneath the cloying odor of sickness and the sharp bite of antibacterial cleaners.

Her perfume always made me think of summer nights.

It’s fitting somehow. My mother slipped away in the silvery blue twilight just as the garden came alive with the flickering of fireflies and the whirring of cicadas. It was a beastly hot day, and the humid air hung thick and heavy until in the late afternoon a cooling breeze began to rise. My mother, who hated the central air, asked my father to help her sit up in bed for a moment.

“Isn’t that lovely? I can smell the roses.” She smiled and settled back with a small sigh, her spirit separating from her broken body to slip out the window. I like to think she has finally managed to break the chains and wander free, but knowing my mother, she worries too much about those she left behind to wander far.

Today the window is shut, and thanks to the air conditioning, the room seems unusually cold. I look down at the garden. My mother’s beloved roses have grown leggy, but they sport magnificent blossoms of deep pink and yellow and coral. I should cut them or fertilize them, but I’ve never been much of a gardener. The Sold sign stands proudly on the front lawn.

I hear a movement outside the room, and look up to see my sister lingering by the door. She wears a baggy black dress with grease stains down the front. Her eyes are circled with thick black liner, and her red mouth turns down in a belligerent scowl.

I realize my hands have turned icy. Roslyn still has the power to unsettle me, but then my first memory of her is feeling her hand pushing against the small of my back a moment before I tumbled down the uncarpeted front stairs. I remember feeling a bit like a rubber ball bouncing off the hard edge of last step, the blood from my nose dripping over my blue dress with the dancing elephants. I was somewhere between three and four.

“So what’s going to happen to the house?” she says in a voice that seems too loud.

I grasp the windowsill. “We’re selling the house. You know that. Dad can’t manage it any more. It’s too big.”

“Me and Malcolm can help him.”

I shake my head. Malcolm is her son, and his father is missing. Malcolm is only twenty, but he’s already been in trouble with the law for drinking and drugs. My husband has bailed him out and found him jobs, but Malcolm keeps getting fired. Malcolm doesn’t help; Malcolm makes problems.

“Dad can’t keep up the house,” I say, but I think, Dad can’t deal with you.

“You could help.” She walks into the room and heads for Mom’s jewelry box. Dad has already given me all the good pieces. “Where are the diamonds?”

“I have them.”

“I should get first choice. I’m the oldest.”

“You stole your share.” I didn’t expect to have this fight so soon.

Roslyn looks like she wants to challenge me, but she doesn’t. “It isn’t fair.” She takes a step closer. “You take the jewelry. You sell the house.”

I try to step back and realize there’s no place to go. “I’m sorry. Dad’s coming to live with us.”

“What about me? What about Malcolm? Did you think about us at all? You’re rich. You could take care of us.”

How do I explain to my sister that I’m not rich when life is so much about perception. My sister can see that I wear good clothing and drive a Lexus. She doesn’t understand why I can’t be my mother. My husband reminds me at least once a week I have my own family to think of now.

“Roslyn can’t live with us,” John says. “We’ll use the proceeds from the house to get her a place and set up a trust.”

He’s right, of course. I don’t want either of them around my kids. I am not going to bring that up now though. Roslyn has me at a disadvantage for the moment. I don’t really think she’d hurt me, but with Roslyn there are no guarantees.

I think of how she used to chase me around the house with a butcher knife when I was eleven on the few occasions when we were left alone together. It’s a suitably macabre memory, one that summons up visions of Anthony Perkins hacking at poor Janet Leigh in Psycho, but my memory always has an almost comic undertone, possibly because Roslyn never caught me. I’m not entirely sure that she would have used the knife; though, she did seem capable of it at the time. Then again, if her heart were really in it, she probably would at least have hacked off my arm or left me with a sucking chest wound.

I ran. She laughed. The cycle repeated itself until I learned to fend her off with an umbrella. Roslyn, as it turned out, was afraid of choking, so I would threaten to shove the umbrella down her throat. She’d drop the knife, run outside, and tear around the backyard like some kind of wild animal. I’d lock the door and watch from the safety of the kitchen until my mother came home from work.

I should have been more alarmed, but by then it had become an adventure of sorts, which probably says more about the warped condition of my mental state than my sister’s. I don’t know why I didn’t tell my mother about the butcher knife and our peculiar game. Possibly because I enjoyed outsmarting my sister in a small, mean way, but I also had some sense that I didn’t want to add more to my mother’s troubles. Roslyn was already difficult.

That’s what you called children like Roslyn back in the ‘70’s. Who wanted admit to having a schizophrenic sister? You didn’t stand up and proudly announce at school, “Hey, my sister is crazy!” It was better to say she’d cooked her brain on drugs. At least that had an element of cool. Bad trip at a Stones concert, or sometimes it was an overdose at a boyfriend’s house.

As I got older it became easier to say, “I have an adopted sister.” After all, we didn’t look alike. I was the cheerful blond; she was the scowling brunette. Light and dark. It was fitting.

Of course, I had to tell John the truth. I could hardly marry someone and not tell him about the crazy sister, if not in the attic, in the third floor bedroom. He only said, “I’m marrying you, not Roslyn.”

Now that there are new treatments, she won’t pursue them, though I can’t say I blame her. She’s been through so many. None of them have worked.

I say to Roslyn, “We will take care of you. We’re putting the proceeds from the house into a fund for you and Malcolm. John and I have found you a place to live.”

She gives me a scornful glare, one that sums up our unhappy relationship. One that says you got everything and I got nothing. It always makes me feel guilty.

“I’ll bet you did. Some shithole or group home. I’m not going to some home for crazy people. I’m going back to school to be a dental technician.” Roslyn puts her hands on her hips as if to dare me to contradict her.

I don’t, even though every few months she has some new scheme. She’s going to become a physical therapist or an x-ray technician. She’s starting beauty school or computer school. She’s always about to embark on something that never comes to fruition. I don’t know if she really enrolls or believes she’s going to enroll.

“It’s not a group home. It’s a house,” I say. “You’ll be able to live with Malcolm, and it will be private. It just isn’t as big as this place, so it will be easier to keep up.”

“But you don’t want us living with you. We used to come visit you, but you don’t want us around you or your precious kids.” She waves her hands at me. “We aren’t good enough for your neighborhood.”

“We don’t have enough room,” I say.

The last time she and Malcolm visited, my son ended up in the hospital with fourteen stitches above his right eye.

“It wasn’t Malcolm’s fault,” Roslyn said.

If Malcolm had swung the hockey stick any harder, David would have lost that eye. We were lucky Malcolm’s aim was slightly off, and the plastic surgeon was on call that night. But it wasn’t Malcolm’s fault.

It isn’t anyone’s fault.

We always said that about Roslyn. She heard voices, though not the ordinary sort of voices one associates with schizophrenia. Her demons didn’t tell her to do anything. They simply shouted “Who” and “What” all day long. She would hold her hands to her ears, her mouth open as strangled whimpers and stifled screams forced their way out.

“She can’t help it. She doesn’t want to be this way. Who would want to be this way?” My mother would say over and over as each calamity occurred. The day Roslyn attacked the Thanksgiving turkey and pies as if they were living things, my mother stood among her roses and cried. The following Sunday she went to visit Father Dailey. The priest told her the Lord loved her especially because he had given her such a large cross to bear. My father said the priest was full of shit.

“We’re doing the best we can,” I say. It sounds lame.

“Your best sucks,” Roslyn says. “You always do what’s best for you.”

Roslyn told my parents it wasn’t fair when I went away to college. It wasn’t fair when I got my own apartment. It wasn’t fair when I married.

“She gets everything,” Roslyn said. “Everything. She always does. It isn’t fair. She’s five years younger.”

When I was a teenager I took to putting a tin trashcan in front of my door, so I would hear if Roslyn tried to enter my room. She’d taken to wandering the house late at night, and she liked standing outside my door at one in the morning. I would lie in bed clenching my fists, my nails digging into my palms, and the sweat trickling between my breasts, until Roslyn would eventually shuffle off to bed.

When I left for college, I found myself for the first time in a room where I didn’t have to listen for footsteps outside the door. This was the normal world where people could go to bed without fear of being butchered in their sleep. I didn’t know what to do. For a while I couldn’t sleep at all.

I suppose in some way growing up with Roslyn saved me from doing many stupid things: drinking too much and running around. I was the good girl, after all, and I was afraid of disappointing my parents, of taking too many chances, of becoming my sister. Fear was endemic to my personality.

While we were searching for pictures of my mother, I came across two shots of Roslyn and me as children. In the carefully posed black and white photographs, we sit together on a lounge chair in the back yard. I am the short blond with bangs and a ponytail, and I smile a gappy smile. Roslyn is taller and dark. Her smile looks forced, her eyes unhappy. I wonder now if she understood that something inside her mind had gone awry?

My sister is forty-seven. She used to pose naked for artists, but she no longer is in demand. She has lost so much weight her skin hangs in loose folds over her skinny frame. Her hair is now the color and consistency of straw, and dark roots frosted with gray sprout in an inch-long stripe from her scalp. I know I should feel sorry for her, and when I’m away from her, I do. She can’t help the state of her mind. She is my sister, and my responsibility.

It is easy to pity in the abstract. It’s in the up close and personal and everyday muck of life that pity turns to fear, and things that should be forgotten rise up to choke you. That’s when I still hear the sound of those footsteps outside my door.

The voices from below rouse me, and I take a breath. I’m grown up now. I have a husband and three children of my own. I have responsibilities. I can’t remember what dreams I had when I walked away from my parents’ house, but I never thought I’d be circling back to this spot again, to be facing my sister and her anger and illness. Nothing has changed, yet everything has.

My sister has grown old and fragile. My childhood demon has lost her power. I should feel strong, but I don’t. What a coward I am.

“What’re you gonna do?” Roslyn rubs her hands on the front of her dress, and I notice that her fingernails have been chewed down to bloody stumps. 

“There’s nothing to do. It’s been decided. We have a buyer,” I say.

“It’s not fair. You shouldn’t get to decide. Mom always said—“

“Mom’s dead.” I push past her and walk downstairs. I half expect her to chase after me, but she doesn’t.

I go to my father’s side and give him a kiss. “Holding up?”

He gives me a shaky smile. “I’m fine. I just wish . . . Mom could be here.”

I squeeze his arm. Life cuts in a thousand little ways.

Late that night I hear the screams of a rabbit trapped by one of the many predators who roam the perimeter of our house. I lie twenty inches apart from John in our king-sized bed with hands clenched, nails digging into my palms until silence once more descends.           

Sometimes I believe I am the rabbit.