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The Sisters California

 

In New York we lived in a sliver of an apartment. We spent our time listening and following orders and feeding mother and her cats until they all died in the same week. We saw a doctor, a policeman, and finally, a lawyer with a large suitcase of money (like a movie!), and a thick pen whose ink scratched onto the paper he passed us. The last thing the lawyer told us was to relax; the terror and loneliness of our isolation was over. We should go somewhere, gain some color and while we were at it, some weight.


The bus my sister and I took was headed west and was crowded. It smelled bad. A woman with stringy hair hit her child on the back of the head. The girl pitched forward in her bus seat but didn't cry. At one of the transfers, the mother got herself cheese and crackers from a vending machine and the girl, who had a blubbery face and a wide middle, got nothing.

The meals we had in transit were disappointing. The best were some apples the bus driver passed out. They tasted fuller than any fruit weíd ever had before. Everything else we ate in diners and found to be largely similar to what mother used to say: America is drowning in mayonnaise.

Still, we were looking to eat our way across America. We tried tuna melts and French toast. We sampled something called a Dieterís Delight. The cottage cheese was terrible and mixed with pineapple, even worse. To be polite, we scraped it into the garbage when the waitress wasnít looking.

Even on the bus, we noticed some differences between the America we saw and the America mother had described. She told us all men wore a wild look in their eyes, that they were tortured by dreams of empty plains. She said they wanted to strangle animals and that we should always be careful that violent urge was never taken out on us. She said women toiled quietly, that America in apartments had a few more amenities than America in the pioneer days but that women still did housework without complaint. Indoor plumbing, she said, hadnít solved as much as people thought it would.

We recoiled from men, at first. There werenít very many animals around so we figured their urges were particularly strong. But when we looked again, we saw their eyes skate between dullness and hunger. Most of the men we saw on the road ate a lot and touched no one.

Everyone, the men and the women, had a cell phone. Everyone in the coffee shops we stopped at held a small computer close. Finally, somewhere in Kansas, a dusty bus transfer where everyone stood around bare-legged and dirty-ankled, a kind woman placed her hands on our shoulders. She told us about the sadness of technology. Trust me when I say this, she said, what you hold isn't a heart. It's plastic and the work of lonely, perverse men.

Roving across the country in busses took days and days. We transferred seats until the upholstery blurred into the same blue-purple-green color. We grew a little fatter, the waistbands on our skirts stretching and straining. We nestled into the bus seats and stared out the window. American highway trundled on by.

One of the bus drivers would get on the radio and tell us personal stories about the towns we passed. We slowed down near the birthplace of his first love. She wore flowers in her hair! This was long before the computer age, the Kansan woman informed us. These days, love occurred over an email or was spread over the internet. You made declarations for everyone to see. It was unromantic and ugly.

We were sure we could get the fattest in California. Before locking up the apartment, we looked up that state in the encyclopedia Mother kept. It was shaped like a bottom lip. We imagined the people flopped onto the coast there, lying beneath the sun, bloated with warmth and whatever food the sea washed up.

The woman from Kansas got off just before California. She furrowed her brow at us and said, Be Careful. In California, she said, people went to doctors when they weren't even sick. They asked the doctors to alter their appearances, turning them into freaks of nature because they were unsatisfied with what God gave them. She said you could fall in love in California but you ran the risk of falling into a sinful union. Who knew what those fame-glazed heathens had done in the past? It was unhealthy, she said, to see that much human skin. It polluted the brain and sent off too many unholy signals. God loved a humble person more than a prideful one.

We should remember our duty, she said. We should keep our mother and all the years she had cared for us close in hand.

Do not let that state change you, she said.


In California, we found ourselves in somewhere called San Diego, black dresses sticking to our spines. We held the coral-colored suitcases to our hips. We licked our lips. Mother had given us chapstick for when the winter air outside our apartment dried up our skin inside. We thirsted for that now. Places like California, Mother said, were too warm, would contribute to the downfall of America.

 

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JEN GANNís work has previously appeared or will in from Artifice Magazine, The Lifted Brow, Juked, American Short Fiction, and others. She is the author of the chapbook Back Tuck, available from Magic Helicopter Press. She lives in New York and can be found online here: jengann.com.


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