(“Giantess Bride.” River Styx The Monster Issue 2002: No. 62, Pages 36-54. Big River Association: St. Louis.)
It just seemed to Virginia like the best thing to do, dipping easily behind a tent, and waiting patiently while her dear aunt’s voice faded into the noises of the crowd. The chatter continued, diminishing, unaware that its audience had departed, the final audible topic being that grapes were simply overpriced this summer, and wasn’t it a disgrace?
Breathing now. She held her arms straight down at her sides, clenching and unclenching her fists, her eyes shut tightly. Counting: one, two, three, four, five. Breathing in and out, Virginia could feel the anxious panic fade perceptibly. Her brow was beaded in sweat. August. The fair swirled around her, voices and laughter, smells of bratwurst, popcorn, and spilled beer. Six, seven, eight, and yes, she would be okay now. The noises faded, only a distant song now, a melancholy wash.
Her eyes slowly opened.
Earlier that Saturday, Aunt Lottie had driven around and around the neighborhood, searching for a parking space near enough for comfortable walking. She had finally settled on squeezing into a tight spot under the Bellerive Bridge, there on Broadway, even though Aunt Lottie didn’t care for parking on busy streets, “on account of the car might get side-swiped.” At any rate, it was close enough for walking to the Carondelet Days Fair. Aunt Lottie carried their lunch in a sack, sure there’d be no healthy offerings, although Virginia had protested weakly, “But I like barbecue, Auntie.” One would think Virginia almost a child, but she was a grown woman in her early thirties. Yet, still naively trusting, still a child in many ways. Aunt Lottie reminded her that they were economizing, but in fact had been economizing for as long as Virginia could recall.
“Pensions don’t stretch very far, dear.”
But Virginia’s neck did stretch far — a long, graceful neck atop a tall, athletic body. Especially tall, almost six-and-a-half feet. Crowning that frame was a plain face, sallow, with lusterless eyes partly hidden by a mop of thick, dishwater-blonde hair. Aunt Lottie, just a pinch over five feet tall, always trimmed Virginia’s hair into a short, neat bob. It was serviceable enough. It allowed the lovely neck to peek out.
So Virginia craned that magnificent neck of hers, taking in the throngs at the fair, all the locals and visitors, wearing their August nothings: tank tops, cut-off shorts, platform sandals and sockless athletic shoes, all fleshy and breasty and oiled. She longed for such audacity, as she sweltered in her button-down blouse, her long walking shorts, the decent tan bucks on her feet with the lacy anklets above. Virginia looked above their heads, studying the people, not at all regretful of her majestic height. And there, at the far end of the fair, a good city block away, she saw other tall ones. A man, a bear almost, hairy and thick, and bigger than Virginia herself, was flanked by two big women, curvy and dark, their arms linked in his. The threesome strolled casually, parting the crowds before them, seemingly unconcerned, or at least oblivious, of the stares and comments they elicited.
Virginia saw this, and was surprised at her sudden envy. In that moment, the warm sun stopped shining on her, and its ray focused to a point, beaming only upon the threesome, appearing so content, so happy and insular. One of the women pointed in a direction, perhaps at a display of handmade quilts, and they looked briefly, then turned inward again for comment, words, some laughter, and smiles for one another. Virginia knew then that she had always been in a country of her own. Her carefully constructed, I-am-a-rock façade began to vibrate under the weight of the realization. If she was not an island, did she need them? Want to be with them?
Aunt Lottie did not notice the giants. She was so small, she could barely see above the heads of the regular-sized people, and the only time she bothered to look up was when she needed to reclaim her ever-dawdling, abandoned-at-childhood niece, perhaps to instruct Virginia to carry packages, or to eat, or that it was time to go home again, back to their ancient flat on Alaska Street, with the tall ceilings. She was full of direction, and Virginia was always in need of it, ever since Virginia was a girl, and when Virginia was in college, and when Virginia could never find a job, either for lack of trying or lack of people skills. It all worked out in the end; Aunt Lottie’s heart started acting up, and it only seemed right for Virginia to be her constant companion. What else could the child do? There was so much to take care of, anyhow. So much detail. Aunt Lottie was busy, always busy and rattling about.
The giants were looking back at Virginia. She could feel the piercing dark eyes boring into her. She looked away and to the ground, bending her neck, willfully shrinking, and listened intently to her aunt.
“Lookie here, Virginia,” Aunt Lottie chattered as she pointed at a placard. “This here oompah band is performing again at two o’clock. We’ll have lunch then, while we watch. You’ll be hungry by then.”
“Okay,” she said. Her voice was hoarse, a whisper. Her mind was far away.
“After that we’ll go on home. Nothing here I need. Maybe a bottle of jam. We’ll see. Come on, there’s a fruit stand up ahead. Maybe their grapes are cheap. Grapes are so high this summer. It’s a disgrace. I was telling Jolene the other day…”
Virginia had at that moment ducked behind the tent.
Aunt Lottie would leave quickly, impatient, aggravated at Virginia’s meandering ways. Virginia could certainly make the one-mile walk home safely. She was a big girl now. Or, perhaps Aunt Lottie would assume Virginia was eager to leave the crowded fair at first opportunity of escape, and would be waiting for her at home, and impatient, tired, or cranky. Niece could be a strange girl at times.
Minutes later, peeking out from behind that same tent, Virginia witnessed her aunt standing near the entrance of Bellerive Park, wringing her hands, grapeless after all. Aunt Lottie pulled a handkerchief out of her handbag and blotted her sweating, reddened face, then patted down her wiry gray curls. The tired, elderly woman scanned the crowd a few more times, shrugged, and turned to go. It was no use looking hard; Virginia would be easy to spot if she were there.
Virginia wandered to another portion of the smallish park, where there was a children’s playground with benches. She sat on a bench facing the river, and waited an eternity, sustained by a new determination. She grew hungry, but had no money of her own to buy food. When the shadows became long, and the crowd began to disperse, the trio of giants came to her.
“That’s going to be a nice sunset,” one of the women said simply, looking out across the water. “We watch it every night, usually from the verandah.”
Virginia moved over, giving the woman room to sit. She placed herself daintily on the bench, despite her height and feminine, heavy figure. “Thank you,” she offered politely. “My name is Rosa. I’m the oldest sibling.” She wore rough-hewn clothing, but nice, in classic cuts: blouse, skirt, scarf. Her heavy, dark hair was pulled into a bun. Rosa’s eyes twinkled with kindness.
“I’m Maria, the youngest.” Maria said this with a slight bow. Maria was dressed in a more contemporary vein: jeans, cowboy boots, and a filmy white blouse. Her posture and carefree demeanor suggested a baby-of-the-family status. Virginia turned to the man.
He only grunted, and continued to watch the sun. Dark, curly hairs peeked up from his shirt collar. His back would be covered, Virginia thought. It was hair everywhere, in fact: his face, in a thick, although short, beard and bushy eyebrows; his long, wide fingers, too. She found him grotesque.
“This is Merrin,” Maria offered in his silence. She playfully elbowed the man. He elbowed her back. “He’s in the middle.”
“Have you enjoyed the fair, Virginia?” Rosa asked her, in a mothering tone, fulfilling her role of matriarch.
Virginia nodded, shrugged, knowing indifferently that she hadn’t told them her name. “Would you like a bit of dinner? You must be starved,” Maria asked. “Our home is just up the road a bit.”
“Yes,” Virginia croaked, her long-silent voice failing her. She cleared her throat and said more firmly, “That would be fun.”
Just off Broadway, at the end of High Street and overlooking the river, stood a decrepit old mansion. It’s once-pink, cut stones were now a muddy gray, stained by ill-matched and cheap mortar seeping out and down over the fine stone. Some of the panes in the tall windows were broken, and taped into place. The grass was patchy, almost muddy, with no gardens. The group passed under the empty driveway overhang and continued to the back grounds, which faced the river.
“We mean to restore this place,” Maria said airily. “But it’s so hard to find a good man about the house.”
Merrin ignored her jibe, and after Rosa’s instructions, he disappeared into the house for whiskey, tumblers, and cold cuts. Rosa reached for a blanket lying on the porch step, and the ladies continued out to the lawn, where Rosa spread the blanket. They sat down on it and basked under the sun’s fading brilliance. It was an impromptu garden party. They plied Virginia with endless questions which she didn‘t mind answering. The attention flattered her.
“And you live with your aunt only?” Maria asked, gingerly wiping her mouth with her finger, after downing her second whiskey. “Is your aunt a giantess, same as us?”
“No, my aunt is a little person. You saw her.”
“Did we?” Rosa queried.
Merrin was standing several feet from them, looking away, his hands behind his back, his expression tight, face twisted into an uncomfortable grimace.
“Yes, at the fair.” Virginia had declined their offer of whiskey, but had accepted a glass of water, which was delivered straight from the tap, with no ice. “Before, you were starting to tell me about Manayunk. What part of Philadelphia is it in?”
“West. By the Schuylkill River. That’s why we bought this place. We like to be near water, although I have to say, you locals just don’t appreciate your river. Riverfront property like this in Philadelphia would be at a premium. We couldn’t have afforded it. You funny locals, completely landlocked in the Midwest, and still not impressed with what little water you have.”
“Yes,” Virginia agreed.
“Manayunk has steep hills,” Maria chimed in. “Treacherous in the winter. They have steps in some places, instead of sidewalks.”
“Driving must be scary.”
“We wouldn’t know,” Rosa said.
Virginia studied Merrin, his frozen face, his hair blowing slightly with the breeze. “Doesn’t he talk?”
The sisters laughed uproariously over the comment. Merrin grunted and stormed away into the dark house. Although Virginia enjoyed sitting like that, her long legs stretched out before her, at ease with her tall, new friends, she felt the tug of familial loyalty and announced her intention to leave. After the sisters extracted Virginia’s promise to return, she started out, striding home quickly in her awkward gait.
There were frequent, long afternoons at the Broadway house. During Virginia’s first return visit, Maria and Rosa initiated a game of croquet. On the expansive lawn, theyd placed the wire arches here and there, in a mad zigzagging pattern. Maria had insisted on the red mallet, because it suited her fiery temperament; Rosa was solid blue, a deep, still ocean. They offered Virginia the orange. Virginia was all orange to them, they said: burning life, sunshine, fresh fruit.
“A tangerine, am I?” she’d returned, trying to match their aggressively playful tone, and hit her wooden ball too hard. The ball rolled through arch number four, yes, but it had kept rolling, slowing only slightly before tumbling down the bluff. The ladies peered over the edge, shaking their heads.
“I won’t be getting that,” Rosa said.
“Maybe Merrin will get it.” Maria turned back to the house, cupped a hand over her eyes to blot out the blinding sun, its sharp angle like a javelin to the eyes. She squinted. “No Merrin. Maybe he’s fixing the drinks. It’s time for tea anyway.”
With some regret, Virginia watched the ball as it bounced down the rutted hill, ricocheted off clumps of wild grass, and continued its journey down into the stones and tall weeds on the edge of the lapping Mississippi. The sad ball found a resting spot near a rusted tin can, amidst other river debris, clean and out of place.
“Can I be yellow now?”
Virginia returned again on Tuesday, and after a late lunch of baked brie cheese, bread, grapes, and a few carafes of red wine, she was spent. The heat outside was oppressive. In the sparsely-furnished dining room, Maria and Rosa set up two floor fans, aiming them at the old country table in the middle of the room. They let Virginia have the good armchair — it still had nice stuffing in the seat cushion — and they opted for the hard, straight-backed chairs. On that day, they played Parcheesi. It would have been poker, but Virginia didn’t know how to play. The sisters were happy to accommodate her. Merrin did not play.
On Wednesday, after a heavy squall, the temperature dropped for a few hours, into a comfortable 80 degrees, so they decided to walk to the nearby grocery store. Merrin joined them to carry the bags home. He conspicuously walked next to Virginia, but said little. At one point, he cleared his throat, drew a heavy intake of breath, and asked, “Do you like Scrabble?” Perhaps at Virginia’s silence, or surprised expression, he clarified his question. “The board game.”
“I used to play competitive Scrabble back East.” He let it go at that.
Time was suspended for Virginia, and yet it went too fast. She’d been preparing for this always, she knew, this wonderful family, this coterie of friends. She treasured every moment, and looked forward to the next. But on Thursday, Virginia could not visit them.
Because on Thursday, Aunt Lottie insisted that she needed help in the apartment. The back porch ceiling needed painting, and Virginia was best for these things, because of her height. She didn’t mind painting. Virginia’s long arms easily passed the paint brush back and forth over the wooden ceiling, and she was not frustrated, or angry, or cornered, her life having been spent in a passive, docile state. The tiny yard outside the windows looked sweet, in its way, with its little wildflowers along the fence, its tiny magnolia tree. The enclosed porch was cool; Aunt Lottie, although frugal, kept the air conditioning running — she had little choice because of her allergies — and she kept it remarkably cold in their flat. Virginia had never found this remarkable before, but the heat of the Broadway house had begun to seep into her bones, settle into her joints, and make her sluggish. Aunt Lottie’s air conditioning was refreshing.
And then there was the television. At the mansion, Rosa saw no need for a television. Maria had her radio, yes, and plenty of music cassettes, but she didn’t seem to care for the television, either. Merrin had once grunted about “that idiot box,” and Virginia hadn’t replied. She liked television. If not for television, she would be even more cloistered. She and Aunt Lottie had enjoyed many evenings in front of that idiot box, some of their best times together, watching what the rest of the world was up to, while they shared a bowl of air-popped corn.
The phone rang in the kitchen, not twenty feet from the porch. Virginia was startled. The Broadway house, where she’d been whiling away the hours, had no phone service, so the noise was almost unfamiliar. Aunt Lottie’s voice chirped away back in the kitchen, her gossiping voice, cheerful and excited. Not all that bad. A comfort maybe. Virginia painted, the rhythm of the motion lulling her into daydreams, and she thought longingly about Maria and Rosa. She decided to bake them a banana bread loaf. Aunt Lottie had a bunch of over-ripe bananas, and she wouldn’t want them to go to waste. Maria and Rosa would like the loaf, and hug her, perhaps.
Virginia made her way back the next day.
“A pack of Puritans, the whole lot of them,” Rosa scoffed, uncharacteristically angry, and took a gulp of her gin, straight up, room temperature. She softened her words with a curt laugh and a toss of her head, as if to comfort Virginia’s sensitive ears. She and Maria were telling entertaining stories about life back in Manayunk, and Virginia sat near their feet, rapt, as the fireflies came out, and the mosquitoes went after her ankles. When Rosa drank, boisterous stories followed.
“The locals never got so bold,” Maria chimed in, “until after poppa’s death. They didn’t dare look at him cross-eyed.”
“He was seven feet tall — bigger than Merrin, and meaner!” the sisters answered, punctuated by peals of laughter.
“Papa was a force,” Rosa explained. “He ran his restaurant like a bulldog, but he could be tender-hearted, too. And he cared about that stupid place. Would shovel snow before dawn, clearing the whole block so people could get around. I guess they liked Papa at least.”
A barge crept slowly downriver, a shadow in the fading day, its lights the only guarantee that Virginia was actually seeing it. The moon was emerging, a bright, pregnant orb. Virginia lounged on the top step of the verandah, overlooking the lawn, the bluff, the river. Rosa and Maria were behind her, sitting on old wicker chairs, nibbling on the remains of the banana loaf. Merrin stood behind them, leaning in the doorframe, hands in his pockets. Somehow, Virginia could feel his eyes on her, his heavy brows furrowed above them. She wasn’t sure, but she thought she heard the sound of his licking his lips repeatedly, a small, intense gesture. When she stole a glace at him, the saliva on his red mouth would glisten slightly, then disappear. She shuddered, repelled.
“Why didn’t you come yesterday?” Rosa asked her gently.
“I had to paint Aunt’s porch. Then we had a fight, and I had to make up with her.”
“Why did you fight?” Maria asked.
“I painted sloppily, I guess.” Virginia heard the sound of Merrin’s lips smacking, and she quickly averted her eyes, looked out at the river, told herself she’d heard something else. He might have grunted as well.
“Did you fight about your new friends?” Merrin asked suddenly, his voice heavy and flat. He cleared his throat. Virginia did not answer his question.
“But why did you come to St. Louis exactly?” Virginia asked instead, looking only at Maria.
“Our great, great, great uncle,” Rosa chimed in, as she smoothed the strands of her loose, dark hair back into the bun, “was the street planner in Philadelphia. He’s the source of the old money. He relocated, and worked on the city planning commission here in St. Louis, and set up downtown like Philadelphia’s. Market Street. Walnut Street. Chestnut Street. Etceteras.”
“Really? I didn’t know that.”
“It was reason enough,” Maria said, shrugging. “And the property was cheap.”
Rosa angrily slapped her hand on her thigh, a sharp, intrusive noise. “Merrin, for the love of God, go to bed,” she shrieked at him. “I can’t stand you rubbing against that door frame anymore.” She glared at Merrin until he was a shadow, disappearing into the dark house. Rosa poured herself another shot of gin, and began speaking again, in her calm and measured way, as if she hadn’t just humiliated her brother. “We had to leave anyway, after Merrin’s scandalous behavior. We couldn’t keep the seafood restaurant open anymore. The locals shut us down, basically chased us out. It’s good that poppa died before he saw it. That place was his life’s work.”
Virginia watched the darkened doorway for some time, wondering if he was still hovering in the shadows, wondering just what he‘d done back in Manayunk.
Virginia left for home later than usual. It was past nine o’clock, her self-imposed curfew, and she ran frantically all the way, pausing only to rub her aching side, and continuing on. The exertion wiped out the bad feeling of being late, at least a bit. The city was alive that Friday night in the summer: residents were outdoors, parents sitting on porches drinking cans of beer as children played in the street, cars cruising and slowing, drivers checking out the scene. Some boys in an alley were lighting fireworks, one of which got tossed Virginia’s way, but she didn’t slow down. She was certainly a sight, loping down the sidewalk in a run all elbows and knobby knees, but she had to make haste.
The apartment was dim and cool. Aunt Lottie was in her La-Z-Boy recliner, the remote in her hand, which she jabbed repeatedly, surfing through the local channels, irritated at the selection. Her gaze was fixed on the television.
“Hi Aunt,” Virginia offered. “Sorry I’m so late. Lost track of the time.”
“Dinner’s on the stovetop. Fixed you a plate.”
“Thank you.” She went to the kitchen and found the cellophane-wrapped plate of meatloaf and mashed potatoes. She warmed them up in the microwave, got a can of soda out of the refrigerator, and set herself up with a living room TV tray. The news was on. The heat wave would continue, soaring into the high nineties for at least another week. A man shot another man over a woman. The schools needed to pass a bond issue to buy air-conditioning. Angry mothers protested summer school in this kind of heat. It was inhumane.
“Virginia,” Aunt Lottie started. “You know I want you to have friends, child. So don’t take this the wrong way.”
“They’re nice people.”
Aunt Lottie sighed. They watched the news some more. Virginia could feel her skin prickling in anticipation of an argument. She devoured the food, ravenous. When had she last eaten? She could feel sauce on her cheek, but she hadn’t brought a napkin. She wiped at it with her fingers.
“Be that as it may,” Aunt Lottie finally continued. “Maxine has told me some stories.” Her old friend Maxine was certainly the gossip of the neighborhood, with nothing better to do but spy on other people’s business and report it back at the beauty parlor. Aunt Lottie enjoyed the details with a shameful rapaciousness, but never before had her own dear Virginia been the topic of conversation. It unnerved the caring aunt.
“Maxine Shmaxine. What does she know?” Virginia tossed casually, and pretended to study the television.
“She knows Jerry Hill, who lives in the high rise on Broadway, just across the street from that place where you’ve been spending so much time.”
“So? What’s he say, that I’m dancing around buck naked?”
Aunt Lottie laughed. She knew her niece better. “Course not. He just says they’re strange is all. Got funny ways.”
“Yup. Can’t disagree. But they’re still nice people.”
“Probably not. So?”
“You know Jerry’s a snoop.”
“Takes walks middle of the night. Snoops.”
“Aunt Lottie, just get it over with. What’s he supposedly seeing?”
“Well, Virginia, ain’t they supposed to be brother and sisters? Ain’t they?”
“It’s not right the way they act. Not natural.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Maybe Jerry’s wrong. Maybe they’re not brother and sisters. Maybe that explains it.” She gathered herself and made as if to go to bed. Virginia could hear her muttering as she walked out of the room, “Kissing like that. Shame.”
And yet it didn’t matter to Virginia. She only knew that her world was shinier for their being in it. She returned to them the next afternoon, and found them drinking wine on the verandah, sitting closely together on a damp, castaway sofa that she hadn’t seen before. She wished they wouldn’t drink, but still, look, Merrin was gregarious and laughing. He wasn’t angry with Rosa’s upbraiding, his humiliation. Maria wore a skimpy top, like a bikini bra, and Virginia saw for the first time the large tattoo that ran across her pale stomach, under her armpit, and over her shoulder. It was a design of green ivy, with occasional scarlet blooms. Virginia touched it lightly with her finger, and Maria shrugged her away, dismissing the tattoo. “A youthful indiscretion.”
Virginia’s breathing came deeply then, as if she’d never breathed before. She held herself limply, and closed her eyes shut tightly, falling into the couch with the others. Counting: one, two, three, four, five, as the rest of the world faded away. Her brow was beaded in sweat. Still August. The place on Broadway swirled around her, the distant boat horns, the voices and laughter of her dear friends, smells of murky water and berry wine. Six, seven, eight, and yes, she would be okay now. She would drink wine with them, if that was what they desired. Anything. Just let them not dismiss her.
After their dinner, Virginia fell asleep alone on the porch sofa, losing time yet again, as if the wine drugged her and stole hours from her. She dreamt about demanding kisses from the sisters, and she dreamt of their saying that they wanted her to be part of their family, part of their beautiful blood line. Or maybe it had really happened? Was some deal struck? Had Maria been playing her stereo loudly, and dancing, dancing, dancing on the grass? Or was that part of the dream?
She didn’t report home that night, but stayed on the verandah.
In the morning, hung over and faintly uneasy about her aunt — just why couldn‘t they have a phone so she could call? — she went to the bluff with lovely Maria. Maria was telling more about Manayunk, speaking in low tones, “She was so young, and absolutely foolish.” They sat on the curve of the earth, feet pointed down to the river, out of earshot of Rosa and Merrin. Strong gusts of wind whipped up from the river. “That was the problem.”
Maria betrayed no concern over the activities of the day before; in fact, she was perfectly at ease sitting close to Virginia. Perhaps nothing had happened, and it had been only a dream. Virginia waited to hear more of Maria’s confidences: the truth of Merrin’s scandalous behavior in Manayunk. Maria’s eyes glittered, black jewels. Her dark brows arched up and away, wings, a raven. Her tangled hair blew about in the hot, humid wind. Virginia ached for Maria’s beauty, and she hoped, if she reached out to touch it, Maria wouldn’t mind. Did she ache to be beautiful, like Maria, or did she ache to devour the beauty? She couldn’t be sure that there was a difference.
Maria continued her tale, “A particularly small girl, still young — a teenager! She was a waitress at our restaurant. Strange looking girl, with remarkably pale blue eyes, like ice. Rebellious as it gets. Perverted, really, to go after a troll like Merrin!” Maria laughed, her voice husky, her laughter a warm bark. “Well guess what! She got pregnant. Her folks found out. Made her get rid of it. Turns out, her daddy had friends in high places. They always said we were monsters.” Maria grew quiet. She pulled at some grass. “Not monsters. Just big.”
She looked away. Stood. Walked back to the house and left Virginia there on the lonely bluff, and the sun shone on her then. A focused pinprick of light on Virginia now. She really was orange. Maybe even yellow. She fancied that she was now becoming the center of this family, its focus, its heat source.
Virginia decided it was time to begin moving a few things into the house: toothbrush, change of clothes, some books. She wouldn’t be moving in, no, even though they encouraged her: “Our home is your home.” She was just being practical, considering all the time she spent at the house on Broadway.
After wandering the giant house, she chose a corner bedroom on the second floor, one with a turret that offered a good view of both the river and Broadway. Merrin found her a mattress and unceremoniously dumped it in the middle of the floor. Virginia thanked him with a small smile. She made a mental note to bring clean sheets.
“Virginia, please don’t go back there,” Aunt Lottie pleaded with her. Virginia had a duffel bag packed with her belongings to carry over. “I’m sorry I’ve been so hard on you. We can be like before. You’re like a daughter to me, Virginia.”
Virginia’s shoulders dropped. “Aunt, I know. You’ve been like a mother to me. It’s not that I don’t love you. I’m not moving out anyway. Just taking a few things over.”
“But the drinking. I know they’ve got you drinking. I can smell it on you. What else goes on? Drugs? They got you on drugs?”
“That’s ridiculous. They aren’t on drugs. Aunt, they’re just lonesome and I’m lonesome.”
“You have me, Virginia.” Lottie hesitated a short moment. “I can’t keep you here by force. It would be best for you to stay, but I can’t make you see it. You’re a grown-up now.”
“Aunt, look at me!” Virginia was trying not to get too emotional, trying not to get into shouting match. “If you haven’t noticed, I’m a freak! I’m too tall. No one has ever wanted to be my friend. Rosa and Maria want me for a friend. Is that so bad?”
“Are you sure that’s it, Virginia? Are you sure it’s not that man? Maybe he’s done fooling with those ladies, maybe he’s onto you now.”
“Those ladies are his sisters. You’re sick, I think. You just don’t want me happy. I don’t want Merrin, trust me. I finally have some best friends, can’t you understand that? Rosa and Maria are my very dearest friends in the whole world.”
Virginia stomped out, a teenager in all manners. No different from that rebellious girl in Manayunk. But no. Virginia wasn’t a pervert. She didn’t want that. She just wanted companionship, peers, after all these years, after so long on her island. She barely heard her aunt’s farewell, good wishes, the promise that she’d pray.
Virginia was not a simpleton. Virginia always did well in school. Book-smart, a boy called her once, in study hall, in the eleventh grade. But lordy, could you use some street smarts! He’d smiled, a crooked grin, and she dismissed him, half-expecting his offer to be her teacher, but no. Offers didn’t come to Virginia.
In her new room on Broadway, when she opened her eyes, there was a jungle of darkness, so unlike her bright room at Auntie’s, situated near a street light which crept inside her blinds, a determined lamp. Her eyes tried to adjust to the unfamiliar darkness, and eventually small patches of light appeared through chinks in the wood. The windows were boarded over. How had Merrin climbed up to the second floor to do that? All was quiet then, and Virginia knew, the way it’s simply known, that it was early morning. Her head throbbed angrily. She remembered falling onto her mattress, the room spinning, her stomach churning. She remembered dancing in the ballroom of the house, laughing crazily, the four of them switching partners repeatedly. They talked of restoring the old place someday, replacing the crystals in the chandelier that were missing, like teeth knocked out of a beautiful woman’s smile. Rosa had made Virginia feel at home, like a big sister would. Maria showed her fun and beauty, like a best friend would.
“I love you with all my heart,” she told them, no longer even an adolescent, but a child, desperate and clinging. She’d staggered, fallen. Laughed and cried.
But Merrin. How could she reconcile her affection for the sisters with her loathing of Merrin?
As the morning’s light intensified, Virginia could make out the faint ceiling patterns on the old wallpaper, peeling and yellow. If she lay very still, she wouldn’t be sick. She made a promise to herself that she would help her new family rid themselves of their scourge: the drinking. They needed but a little guidance. She could be their little angel, urging them to sin no more.
In the washed-out recesses of her drunken memory, she recalled the loud click of the door bolt, its sharp sound standing out, inflamed, a petite wound.
Faint traffic sounds from Broadway drifted in. Her eyes followed the curlicues around the perimeter, studied the paintings of urns with roses overflowing from them, and the cherubs peeking out from behind them. Had she ever seen Maria or Rosa in the morning? What time did they awaken, anyhow? It could be hours. Maybe Merrin would get up soon, and help Virginia cook them all a big breakfast with the food she’d sent him to fetch the day before. She would make omelets with veggies, sausage links, steaming coffee, waffles. She would squeeze fresh orange juice. She would pick wildflowers from the bluff — they seemed to be eternally in bloom — and put them in vases for the table, and maybe turn the radio on to the classical station. It would be like a dream out of a Victorian novel. A fairy tale come true. They would laugh and talk and decide where to venture out. Perhaps play cards. It would be the beginning of their charmed life together!
There she rested, and recovered. A buzzing feeling in her stomach, like trapped fire or love, but not unpleasant. She kicked off her shoes and socks, let her feet have some air. Stretched her arms high above her head. She remained for some time, waiting in the dimness, hoping Merrin would come unlock the door to her bedroom and let her out.
It was all so funny, really. She laughed out loud several times. They didn’t want their “pet” to run away, they’d said. The sisters could be so funny. She adored them.
But when the sun no longer slanted into the room through the chinks in the boards, she realized it was noon, or later. She was thirsty. She eventually went to the bathroom in the corner. What choice did she have? She was starting to get angry. Were they still passed out? That was the only explanation.
“Maria?” she called through the door. “Come on, Maria. The jig is up. Let me out now, okay?” There was only silence in the house. “Rosa? Roooosaaaa!“ Virginia fell back asleep.
When the light slanted in again, from the other side, she awoke to the sounds of movement in the house, whispers. Laughter. Merrin’s low rumble of a voice, but Virginia couldn’t discern what they were discussing. What else?
“Rosa? Rosa? Please let me out. I’m hungry. I need an aspirin.”
Darkness again. She wept. They really meant it. The music started playing.
“Maria? Rosa?” she called, banged on the door. “Come on, you guys. Please let me out. I won’t be mad. I just want to be your friend. I just want you to love me.”
Counting still: one-thousand-one, one-thousand-two, one-thousand-three, one-thousand-four, one-thousand-five. Breathing in and out, Virginia could feel the anxious panic come to her. Her body was slack with sweat. No air moved through the room. It smelled bad. She had thrown up. Fifty-two-thousand-six, Fifty-two-thousand-seven, Fifty-two-thousand-eight, and yes, they would let her out soon, she knew. Her emotions ran from the desperate, to the humiliated, to the angry, to the fearful. Did they think Aunt Lottie wouldn’t send the authorities over? She wouldn’t — Aunt Lottie had relinquished control. Did they really think it acceptable to hold her prisoner, make her give in to — what? Merrin? Could she bear the price?
And then finally, the next afternoon, Virginia smelled the maddening aroma of food cooking, onions simmering, meat frying.
“Yes,” they whispered through the door to the weeping and humbled Virginia. “Of course we will stay with you. What’s it to us?”
“You do understand, don’t you Virginia, dear?” Maria offered, scratching her long nails on the rough wood, her voice teasing. “We’re from a long line of wonderful people. We can’t let it go. We wouldn’t have pulled you into this if we hadn’t failed at it ourselves.”
“Virginia, we promise we’ll always love you,” Maria cooed. “We’re your family now, we’re your country now, Virginia. Forever.”
Virginia sat on the other side of the heavy door, her breath a wheezing in and out. It was so hot in the room. And she was weak, starving. “Promise to love me?” she asked.
“Yes, yes, certainly, darling yes, we’ll be your sisters forever,” were the responses, and the excited shuffling of feet. “And you won’t go back to your aunt? You’ll be ours, and Merrin’s sweetheart?”
“We know he’s a beast,” Rosa added. “But he’s family. We all pay a high price for family. You can pay yours, yes? He can be very sweet when he tries.”
The bolt slid open, and Virginia blinked her eyes in the brightness.
“Okay,” she said, her voice a whisper. “Just feed me first.”
The sisters literally cheered, whooped, and very nearly carried Virginia down to the dining room, where they placed her at the head of the table and began plying her with delicious food, like a princess, a goddess, a sacrificial lamb. She devoured everything, drank wine, ate cake, sloppily, urgently, and glared across the table at her groom-to-be. Her price. But the sisters were sweet, her very best friends. And she liked it.