by Nancy Smith Harris
People called Patty and me twins, even though we were five years apart. Peas in a pod, they said, when they looked at us. Everybody got our names mixed up.
When the Scarlattis came to town, Patty said look, they drive Cadillac Coup Devilles; they don’t fit in.
They bought the only decent house around and up went iron fencing and security cameras.
What for? We asked ourselves.
Marilyn Scarlatti swooped down gull-like, reclining at our kitchen table, thick dark lashes, carmine lips and nails, one leg draped over the other. She wore cashmere wraps and patent leather boots; her perfume was Chanel No. 5. Marilyn said her husband Bruno was in sales, but what kind of sales was never mentioned.
Marilyn was a goldmine. Mom cleaned her house and Patty looked after her poodles. I washed the dust of our shale-studded road from her hub caps and swept the pool patio. She took me along on errands and we’d fly down Route 39, the scent of her Chanel blending with that of the crème-colored custom leather, Dean Martin serenading us from the radio: Your love has given me wings. She always called me by my name and never Patty’s.
Once, she let me smoke a French cigarette outside the State Store while I waited in the caddy.
I watched her come to me, clicking across the parking lot on pink stilettos, and thought of the fragile webbed feet of birds. Look at you, she marveled, hugging a handle of Smirnoff’s to her chest, as I exhaled through the tiny oh of my mouth, holding the cig as she did, sculpted hand in the air, ring and pinky fingers casually curved.
What’s that smell, Mom asked later.
Marilyn, I said, humming “Volare,” imagining her vivid red lips hugging the syllables along with mine.
Your love has given me wings…
One afternoon, Marilyn frowned into her coffee and asked for something stronger.
Stronger? Mom was mystified.
She started carrying a bottle of Amaretto in her bag, trickling the liqueur into her coffee. Once, she talked Mom into having a little Amaretto with her. Mom ended up on the kitchen floor, her big varicose-veined legs splayed out, her eyes like a doll’s, glazed and dull. Evidently feeling muttish to Marilyn’s pure breeding, Mom swore off the booze.
The accident was on a Friday. Marilyn was driving Bruno home from the airport when she cruised right into the utility pole at the intersection of our road and Route 39.
When the police arrived, Bruno asked Mom to say he, not Marilyn, had been driving.
She just cleared a DUI, he explained.
But Mom was a church lady and church ladies do not lie.
What’s a DUI? Mom asked later.
Patty chauffeured Marilyn around in a rental until she could get her coupe and license back. Bruno was out of town a lot and as soon as she could drive again, Marilyn resumed her shopping trips to New York, leaving Patty with the poodles. Patty got to spend the night and I lay awake, imagining her in Marilyn’s round bed with the white velvet spread and satin sheets, clicking through stations on the color tv embedded in rococo-inspired cabinetry that filled an entire wall. It must have been on one of those nights when Patty got bored and started rooting through boxes in Marilyn’s basement, finding the diamond tennis bracelet she slipped into her pocket.
Patty was sitting on the kitchen counter one afternoon, swinging her legs, telling us about a kid at school who drove an Italian sportscar, when Marilyn flew into the kitchen to show off her new Pierre Cardin mini skirt. My sister must have forgotten she was wearing the bracelet because she didn’t budge.
Marilyn was chatty before she went silent. Without taking her eyes from Patty’s wrist, she said Madge, please ask your daughter to return my bracelet.
Patty struck a look of surprise so genuine I believed she would one day win an Oscar.
This, she said, holding her wrist in the air, is mine.
Patty’d obviously done some quick thinking. The counter was pretty far away from Marilyn, who had terrible vision. (She’d slip rhinestone-rimmed glasses over her cocoa brown eyes when signing checks or counting out bills from her wallet. Once she’d handed me a twenty instead of a five after I’d cleaned the hubcaps. I returned it.)
Mom’s head turned from Marilyn to Patty and back again. I held my breath. Marilyn rose, chin in the air.
I’ll be back with Bruno, she announced with a coolness I’d not heard before.
The next day, the week’s dirty laundry swamped the cellar floor unmoved, the dishes went undone, and the three of us drove all over the county until we found a cheap replica of Marilyn’s bracelet at a drugstore jewelry counter in Kutztown.
In my eleven-year-old imagination, I saw Marilyn following Bruno into the kitchen, Mom, Patty, and I trembling like little pink pigs. Perhaps he would be slapping the barrel of a revolver against his palm, speaking in a rough Jersey accent even though he was from Philly.
Turn over the goods or accept the consequences, he might say.
Marilyn didn’t flit in unannounced when she returned. She stood on the porch, knocking quietly, like a Jehovah’s Witness, and she was alone. Mom hollered downstairs for Patty to meet them on the porch with her bracelet. I hung back inside next to the open window.
Oh…I, Marilyn murmured, …must have been mistaken, her voice cold and sad.
Patty lasted three weeks on her promise to go to church every Sunday. The Scarlattis moved back to Philadelphia a couple of months later and some fat lawyers with a cross-eyed kid moved into the house. The day after Marilyn left our place for the last time, I asked Patty where the real bracelet was.
Like to have that, would you, she ventured, an unsettling gleam in her eye.
That’s when I knew we were different.
* * *
A native of rural Pennsylvania, Nancy Smith Harris lives in the San Francisco Bay Area where she writes short fiction. A few of her stories have appeared most recently in Passager Journal, Calliope, and Fleas On The Dog Magazine.