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Authors: Timothy Schaffert

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The Phantom Limbs of the Rollow Sisters

BOOK: The Phantom Limbs of the Rollow Sisters
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The Phantom Limbs of the Rollow Sisters

The Phantom Limbs of the Rollow Sisters

Timothy Schaffert

This is a work of fiction. The names, characters, places and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

Unbridled Books
Denver, Colorado

Copyright © 2002 Timothy Schaffert

Originally published in hardcover by BlueHen
First Unbridled Books trade paperback edition, 2007
Unbridled Books trade paperback ISBN 978-1-932961-42-3

All rights reserved. This book, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.

The Library of Congress has cataloged the BlueHen hardcover edition as follows:

Schaffert, Timothy.
The phantom limbs of the Rollow sisters / Timothy Schaffert.
p. cm.
ISBN 0-399-14900-7
1. Women—Nebraska—Fiction. 2. Antique dealers—Fiction.
3. Nebraska—Fiction. 4. Sisters—Fiction. I. Title.
PS3619.C325 P47
2001056587
813’.6—dc21

1 3 5 7 9 10 8 6 4 2

Book Design by Marysarah Quinn
Cover Design by Kathleen Lynch

I would like to thank the Nebraska Arts Council and the writing program of the University of Nebraska–Lincoln for their great support. I also thank the following people: Rodney Rahl and Maud Casey, and my mentors Judith Slater and Gerald Shapiro, for their generosity as readers and friends; Hilda Raz and
Prairie Schooner
; Elizabeth Taggart, Andy Morkes, and the folks at Ferguson Publishing; Leslie Pris-bell and all the good people of
The Reader
, and Alan and Marcia Baer. And so many thanks to Greg Michalson and Alice Tasman for their commitment to this book.

F
OR MY PARENTS
, L
ARRY AND
D
ONITA

The Phantom Limbs of the Rollow Sisters

1.

IN HER SECONDHAND SHOP, MABEL
stretched out on the fainting sofa, feeling tipsy from the summer’s heat, not knowing, for a moment, if it was June, July, or August. She shook up a leaking snow globe, the white flakes settling in the laps of lovers on a gondola. Mabel had read in a book on antiques that the snow in snow globes was once made of sawed-up bone. Though Mabel was very young, she often pictured her demise, often hovered above her own Valentino-like funeral with women collapsing and broadchested men singing impromptu bass tremolo. She’d like to donate her skeleton to a snow globe maker, liked thinking of her remains forever drifting among the plastic landscapes of a souvenir.

Mabel watched her sister Lily put on lipstick in front of the mirror of the decades-old nickel gum machine. Sometimes Mabel wondered if she’d been separated at birth from
her
real
sister, for Lily and Mabel shared no resemblance. In a fairy tale, Lily would have been the fair sister of goodness, goldilocked and rosy-faced, and Mabel the nasty one, made up of pointy bones and thin skin and a hank of black hair.

Lily wore only a thrift-shop bra, a pair of jeans, and thick glasses, without which she was only a few blurs from complete lack of sight. After one last drag from her Virginia Slim, she ground the cigarette out in the palm of a mannequin’s severed hand.

“I don’t know how you can smoke in this heat, Lily,” Mabel said. “Everyone’s quitting.” It had been a terrible summer, and the heat had killed a fifteen-year-old boy in the fields; he dropped dead from a heart attack at eight in the morning cutting tassels from the corn for five bucks an hour. The black-eyed susan by the railroad tracks had blazed yellow for only a week before burning up from the sun. There had never been a better summer for running away to someplace temperate, Mabel thought, fanning herself with an old
Omaha World-Herald

TWISTER KILLS FIVE
—the whirling dust of yellow paper making her sneeze.

Mabel and Lily Rollow lived alone in this junk shop in the country. Tiny hand-painted signs along 1-80 directed motorists (
ANTIQUES 4 MI., ANTIQUES 3 MI
.) onto Highway 34, then off onto gravel roads past a stretch of corn and bean fields and pastures overgrown with tall musk thistle. The gray house stood next to a large, outdated satellite dish in the middle of eighty acres of farm land long left fallow, a few miles from the little nothing town of Bonnevilla (pop. 2,900).

Lily held a tissue to her lips to blot her lipstick. The tissue, marked with the red shape of her kiss, floated softly from the tips of her fingers to the floor. Her boyfriend Jordan had called to say he bought a car and wanted to take her for a ride. At nineteen, he was two years younger than Mabel and a year older than Lily. He was sexy in his tight concert T-shirts and with a clip-on silver hoop over his left eyebrow.

Nights, Jordan came to Lily with gin in the hot months and bourbon in the cold. Even before she noticed his one scarred wrist, Mabel had seen in Jordan an inadequacy for the rough-and-tumble of the world. His breath always smelled of the cheapest wine; Mabel could taste it when she smelled it, a remembered sip stolen as a child at a funeral, and she yearned for its vinegar sting at her throat. Should he ever reopen the wound of his right wrist and this time die, she thought she might fabricate a romance between him and herself and confess it to Lily at the peak of her mourning. Mabel could almost feel that lie waiting in her mouth, hidden beneath her tongue like an unswallowed poison.

“It’s not just any car,” Lily said. “It’s Starkweather’s. Sort of. It’s not the ’49 Ford Charlie owned, but the one he stole from the Lincoln couple he murdered—the ’56 Packard.” Jordan and Lily were fascinated with the stories of Charlie Starkweather and his fourteen-year-old girlfriend Caril Ann Fugate. Mabel’s grandmother had once told of how frightened she’d been those nights on the farm before they caught the killer. Everybody across the state was terrified, she’d said. All the teenagers were afraid to go to drive-ins or out in the
country to park and neck. Mabel’s grandmother stood those nights at the window hearing thousands of noises coming down along the still and empty country road.

Mabel went to the dilapidated vanity ($75) at the front of the shop to riffle through the mail Lily had tossed unopened across the top of it. There was a letter from their mother who wrote from time to time of broken engagements and new loves. Their mother had left Nebraska more than ten years before, abandoning the girls at their grandmother’s secondhand shop then driving southwest, then farther southwest, and farther, until she had tail-spun off the map.

The return address on this letter was new. Their mother’s address, though always full of Spanish words, was always in flux. Mabel tore open the envelope, curious to find out if she’d married the old codger who’d made his fortune from selling sea monkeys and trick pepper gum in the pages of comic books. Her mother’s life after her father’s death had long seemed to have all the romantic posturing of a magazine ad for scotch, all foreign locale and men with gray mustaches whispering into the ears of young ladies. Her mother never wrote much in her letters, but Mabel felt invited to read between the lines for the exotic intrigue and secrets.

Even this month, as Mabel read of nuns and worship, as her mother wrote of being lost then found, Mabel still envisioned lascivious Mexican priests (as beautiful as the young Ricardo Montalban in the old movies Mabel watched during the day) and virgins stuck through with stigmata. “Look,” Mabel said, handing Lily the photo from the envelope. In it,
their mother knelt at an altar, holding a candle in one hand, cupping its flame with the other, her face only a spot of pale white.
Little lizards
, their mother wrote,
crawl in through the windows sometimes. I throw lit matches at them, hoping they’ll leave the way they came in, but they never do. The sisters, though, charm the lizards into a jar and take them out to release them back into the bushes beneath the windows where they live
. In the letter, their mother told of her failed engagement and her new job in a desert vineyard owned by nuns near the border of Arizona. Their mother was still a rather young woman, having had Mabel much too early in her life. Mabel’s mother had been only fifteen, her father only eighteen, a couple of brats who thought they were in love for a few minutes. Mabel thought they’d been foolish to try to make a go of it; she would have had an abortion, plain and simple.

Lily held out her hand for the milagro—a tiny iron prayer piece. Their mother had often enclosed milagros through the years, the pieces shaped like body parts, little legs and arms and hands. A heart, a pair of lungs, an eye.
When you have pain
, Mabel’s mother had once written,
in your tooth, or your arm, or wherever, you leave the milagro at a site of prayer
. Lily never left the milagros anywhere; she hoarded them, and she acted like they were meant only for her, something secret shared with her mother. Mabel knew there were no messages for Lily in these tiny pieces of metal, but she was jealous nonetheless. Lily, with her distance and sly half smile and her way of not meeting your eyes, could take anything in hand and grant it mystery. As a little girl, Lily had tormented Mabel
by plucking the most meaningless of junk from the antique shop—a bunch of half-broken glass grapes, an ugly, naked porcelain doll, its head a mange of rat-nest human hair—and turning it desirable, making Mabel curse herself for not first recognizing the beauty of the poor, neglected things. Even just a few weeks before, Lily had laid claim to a dilapidated school bus without seats or tires that was parked in the back. Their grandmother had used it as storage, and Lily emptied it of its junk in order to convert it into a private room for the summer. She still kept all her things in her upstairs room, still had to come in to use the bathroom, and still spent most of her early evening hours in the shop next to the window air conditioner, but nights she slept in the bus on a thin mattress draped with mosquito net. Lily called it her apartment, and she had even painted its inner and outer walls pink.

Lily put the milagro in her mouth and knocked it around with her tongue. She looked through all the summery dresses on the rack in the corner, the wire hangers shrieking on the metal rod, and picked out a sleeveless dress with a cherry print. The dress reminded Mabel of the one Marilyn Monroe wore in
The Misfits
. Lily took off her jeans, then stepped into the dress that fit tight and wouldn’t zip.
But how pretty she looks
, Mabel thought. Lily wasn’t all that fat anymore, but she wasn’t thin either, and what fat she had she carried well. Many men liked Lily for her head of curls and her old-style horn-rimmed glasses. Mabel picked up a pliers from a toolbox and went to Lily to fix the stuck zipper.

“How’s Jordan able to buy a car, anyway?” Mabel said.
“His dad fired him last week.” Jordan’s father was the barber in Bonnevilla, and Jordan had done nails, buffing and inching back cuticles and gluing on tiny fancies, at a table in the back of the barbershop. Now Jordan only worked a few nights a week, playing his guitar for tips at the steakhouse in town.

BOOK: The Phantom Limbs of the Rollow Sisters
6.03Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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