If I ever write a book, which is doubtful, because most days I don't have time to sit down for any extended period to accomplish such an undertaking, but if I did, I suppose I'd have to make my big sister one of the main characters. Probably she'd have to be the villain, since my entire life I've been regarding her as some sort of evil Maleficent with a malicious side about her or maybe a Bette Davis mean-to-the-core sort of ruthless girl who'd just as soon leave you in the lurch to perish rather than lift a finger to help you.
I used to tell myself my sister wasn't really as bad as I made her out to be sometimes, that the fact of the matter was I was just jealous of her because she was smarter and prettier than I was. But as the years passed I came to the sad truth that what I'd ascribed to her from girlhood was absolutely the truth.
Caroline will be forty her next birthday, and I'm two years behind her, but it isn't hard to see which one of us is aging the best. Caroline, as far as I can see, doesn't look a bit different than when she was twenty-five, while if I don't watch it and take great precautions I can give the Wicked Witch of the West a run for her money in a race. Of course, it's always been that way with me and Caroline. She's always been the pretty one, and I'm the little sister.
She's the one who's been out there in the world doing things too. Oh, I went to college like a good little coed and graduated in four years with a teaching degree, did my student teaching and got my certificate and found a job teaching English at one of the public high schools in Nashville. That was all well and fine, but it wasn't like I was in the mode of Caroline and went off to school at the University of Florida and partied down for four years and was a member of the biggest sorority on campus, went to all the football games and social events and dated about a hundred men and broke every one of their hearts there over four years; no, I dated one guy, Jeff, for my last two years at Tennessee Tech and married him as soon as we graduated, and that's about the extent of my bio so far. While my life has been a gentle breeze one hardly notices, Caroline is a long gusty storm bordering on a hurricane, and everyone knows she's around even if they're safe inside a shelter. There's always the realization that she's out there moving things around, getting ready to cause a lot of turbulence and ill winds.
"I think the novel of today is concerned more with making a social statement than plot and character, as it once did in the past. These days the reader wants the writer to get to the point and entertain him, not bore him and put him to sleep with facts and character analysis. There's just not a market for all that brooding anymore, because everyone is in such a damn hurry."
I was finishing up my last bite of dinner salad, waiting for my entrée to arrive from the kitchen, so I knew there was plenty of time left for me to hear further theories from this week's visiting writer before Jeff and I could leave and Caroline could take him to her house or his hotel room and screw his brains out before he left for home, which I'd come to recognize was her own personal hobby she liked to while away the hours with.
"What if not everyone in the world wants to read a book with fast cars and lethal weapons and serial killers in it?" Caroline asks him.
"Then I guess they have to go back to the classics," Gatlin Shrum, the famous detective author said. "They'll have to take a step back into the past because that kind of literary environment just doesn't exist today."
"Do you mind if I eat your crackers?" Jeff asks Caroline. He doesn't really want them, I know this for a fact, but he likes to mess with Caroline's plate for some reason. He knows when he reaches over and takes something it bothers her, and Jeff likes bothering her anytime he can. I'm not sure if it's because he doesn't like her or if this is just his way of flirting. Like I say, Caroline is one fantastic-looking woman.
"This time you can have them," Caroline smiles. "Next time there'll be a nominal charge."
"See, I just hardly ever read anything current," I say. "I find myself going back to Daphne du Maurier and Agatha Christie all the time. Maybe some James Herriot if I'm having an earnest attack of wholesomeness."
"You have to understand my sister," Caroline says. "She's not quite ready for the twenty-first century yet."
"Oh, I understand you completely," Gatlin Shrum says, looking right at me like he's trying to figure out if Caroline and I are actually related or not, since Caroline's so devastatingly beautiful and I'm merely Debbie Reynolds-cute, and she's worldly and outspoken and I'm just me and keep things mostly to myself. I get that a lot, not just now but all my life, people wondering how two sisters could be so different in just about everything, but that's the way it's always been, Caroline up at the fore mouthing off, and me following along making small comments here and there with a trace of a smile on my face, allowing her to pave the way with her scythe of a wit and bombastic voice while I use her footprints to make my way through the jungle of the world behind her.
"I read James Herriot a long time ago," Gatlin Shrum muses, "back when I was in high school. At the time, I thought he was pretty boring. Now when I think about him, he told a pretty good story. It goes to show how your tastes change over time."
We're driving home along Forestwood Boulevard, lit up in that pale-yellow way the city council likes it to be, like some off-color from white makes the whole street look more elite.
"Was it me, or did you also think Gatlin Shrum was the creepiest of Caroline's paramours so far?"
Jeff, as usual, was trying to hold a conversation while he was listening to a sports event on the radio at the same time, this time hockey with the Predators.
"I wouldn't say he was the worst of the bunch, but he was right up there."
"Do you think Caroline seeks out weirdos on purpose?"
"I don't think she has any particular pattern. She just goes with the flow and grabs up what's out there."
"It's good your parents aren't still around to see how she acts. If they weren't in the grave already she'd be working hard to put them there."
"She's no different now than she was growing up. She's pretty much always been this way."
"Yeah, but she wasn't going to bed with everybody back in the second grade."
"How do you know? You weren't around to see."
"I was curious, so I asked her."
"If she had, she wouldn't have told you. If she hadn't, she would have made you think she had. That's Caroline. You just can't tell about her one way or the other."
I was accustomed to having conversations about Caroline with Jeff. It was like once he got started talking about her he couldn't get attached to anything else.
We were in bed, and I needed to get to sleep, but he kept on chatting away. My guess was, by his line of conversation, he was in the middle of another one of his cases of projection.
"Do you ever find yourself being drawn toward any of Caroline's author hookups?"
He was wanting to know if I had any temptations or urgings toward any of Caroline's partners, while at the same time I figured he was silently conjecturing over how it would be if some of that rubbed off on him and Caroline.
"I haven't seen one yet," I yawned into the pillow. "I haven't really thought about it before. But I'll let you know if one of them ever happens to light my fire."
This wasn't like it was any kind of earth-shattering discussion. I'd known about Jeff's fascination with Caroline for a long time. It was no big deal. The truth of it is Jeff wouldn't even be considered a real guy if he didn't look Caroline over every time she appeared, because I haven't seen a male of the species yet who's been able to keep his eyes off Caroline when she plops down in front of them all cleaned up, made over, and fixed to a tee, and I don't expect to run across one anytime soon.
* * *
He ambles into the faculty meeting like he's hoping we've already concluded doing business and he can turn right around and go back to his classroom, although I -- along with every other female member of the faculty at Forestwood High School -- already knew that if the time was right to leave for the day he would be the first one out the door and on his way across the teachers' lot to hop in his Porsche and take off up the road. The question was, and believe me, it had been much discussed over the past month and the first two weeks of school, was where Mr. Willis Carrington traveled off to on his early departures from school. We knew he wasn't married, or at least he didn't wear a ring, but he'd offered no insight to anyone much on how he spent his free time and where he'd come from before this and how he'd ended up teaching Senior English at our school when a goodly number of prospective others had coveted the position and applied for it for months and been unsuccessful.
There was something about Willis Carrington I didn't trust. Maybe trust is not the proper term; maybe I should just say that he made me uneasy. It wasn't like I was going to work closely with him during the coming year, because I taught Sophomore English and our curriculum didn't cross or connect very much with Senior English. I taught Great Expectations and Catcher in the Rye and he concentrated more on Hemingway and Fitzgerald and a good dose of William Faulkner. I'd heard he was really into Faulkner and liked to pace up and down quoting passages from The Sound and the Fury and A Light in August. Someone said he was working on a novel and spent his spare time away from school working on it, but I didn't know if that was true or not.
It didn't hurt his case that to go along with the Porsche and the air of mystery and the possibility he was writing The Great American Novel that Willis Carrington was a nice-looking fellow to top it off too. He wasn't Brad Pitt, but he certainly wasn't Quasimodo either.
"I hope this isn't going to be one of these please volunteer or I will appoint you for this committee kind of meetings," he whispered to me. "I've got enough going on after classes to keep me busy other than hosting neighborhood discussions and flipping burgers for the concession stand on Friday night."
These were the first words he had ever spoken to me, and I didn't know what to say back at first, so I just smiled and wiggled my eyebrows like I was all with him in our secret conspiracy against Stuart Sadler, our principal who was about to bring the meeting to order.
It turned out he was halfway right in his assessment. Mr. Sadler was soliciting help from his faculty in the form of sending forms home with the students on attending College Night at the school the next month. He wanted to get the word out to the parents and the seniors and the lower grades who were just beginning to plan on if and where to attend college after graduation, so he wanted volunteers to distribute information and make phone calls and encourage a big turnout. We were even being asked to sponsor booths and man the refreshment stand so the night would be not only a big success in turnout but successful in helping the students take the next big step on the road to higher education.
"I wonder if it hasn't occurred to our higher education-yearning students that they might sit down and fill out a few applications and then work hard on their grades and earn some money toward college tuition, sort of the same way thousands upon thousands, including myself, have done in the past before they came along? I distinctly remember sitting at the kitchen table for hours filling out questionnaires and sending them off to whatever school that might be foolish enough to take me."
"Me too. My parents were split on me going to college in the first place. My mother wanted me to go meet some nice doctor and my father wanted me to get a job at city hall and not run off and get knocked-up by some hippie who was addicted to marijuana."
"Glad to see you can talk. I knew your name was Elizabeth Stewart, but I didn't know if you were a mute or not. I sort of had the feeling you taught your class through sign language."
"I come from a long line of introverts. I never speak until I'm spoken to."
"Good. Consider your cage rattled. We're on speaking terms now." He reached out his hand and we shook. "Pleased to meet you, Elizabeth Stewart. I'm Willis Carrington." He grinned and his smile was as warm as his hand. "I'm the new guy in town."
Goodness, I thought. For a little bit I could get in trouble here.
Willis got to where he started showing up in my classroom after dismissal, just ambling in with two cups of coffee from the faculty lounge to sit on the corner of my desk and interrupt my paper grading with his questions and his presence. How long had I been teaching? Where was I born? Where did I go to school? He never asked how long I'd been married or if I had any kids, like that was an area of my life he wasn't the least bit interested in. Funny thing, I didn't much feel like talking to him about such things as that either. I was more interested in asking him the same questions back.
I wasn't the only one who got visited by Willis those afternoons after classes. There were other teachers Willis got into the habit of dropping by to see during those first weeks of school, and when he didn't show up in my room I found myself growing inquisitive (yes, and jealous), wanting to know where he was that moment. Several times I found myself wandering down the hallways like I was on a mission to find something, the teachers' lounge, the office, the school library where I could stop and talk to Nancy Cox, who was my best friend at school, and who hadn't received any visits from Willis like me and a few others, mainly because Nancy was the size of a Ford Bronco and wasn't what you might call fetching to the male eye.
Sometimes I would run into Willis, coming or going from wherever he had been other than my classroom. That's what happened on a Friday afternoon in October, at four in the afternoon when the school had emptied out with everyone wanting to get home for the weekend. Some of the teachers went downtown to an Irish bar and had drinks for a while before heading home for the night. I was always invited but never went but once. That one time I sat at the table feeling like I was the only one of the crowd who was married, and away from school and professional discourse I had very little to talk about with the unencumbered set.
"I would have bet money you had already driven away screeching the tires on your car by now," I told Willis. "I didn't have you pegged as one of those teachers who are so faithful to their profession that they'll spend their cherished weekend moments striving to raise their performance level another notch. The Board of Education is going to take note of this and be pleased with your sacrifice."
"I got called into the office for a little confab with our principal. It seems Mrs. Baker is going on maternity leave a little early via advice from her physician. One of those get off your feet and stay in bed or you're going to lose this baby kind of things is what I gathered. I got smiled at and patted on the back and told how they knew I'd do such a fine job with my new expanded duties with the Senior English kids that would be added into my classes, since there's no time to get a replacement on such short notice."
"So the honeymoon is over for you, huh? Now it's into the salt mines with all of us other common laborers."
"I guess so."
"Poor baby. I hate that you have to enter into the real world so soon in your career."
"It's going to require some reflection, that's for sure. I may have to resort to a few drinks to soothe my spirit for the long haul ahead. Why don't we retire to a bar somewhere and commiserate over our futures?"
"I can't be going out painting the town with you," I smiled. "I do have a husband and child awaiting my presence at home and hearth."
I didn't mention how Jeff was working late this night, his turn to close up the Produce Department at the store, or that my son was off to the football game at his school and to spend the night with his friend.
"It's not like I'm trying to kidnap you forever," Willis said. "I just want to get a few drinks in you and see if you'll put out."
"I take that as a challenge," I said. "Anyway, who knows? You might just get lucky. You can't really tell what will happen on a Friday night after a long week's work."
I told myself I was kidding, but maybe I wasn't. It was hard to know what I was thinking.
"Why don't we go in my car?" he asked. "I don't see much need in us taking separate cars, especially since I really don't know where to go to. I'm new in the neighborhood, you know. It would probably be best for you to choose the destination."
"It's not like I pub-crawl all the time," I told him, "but there's a couple of places down on Main we could try out."
I didn't really know much about what kind of place any of these establishments were, but all at once I felt like giving one of them a try. I also really wanted to ride in his car. I'm thirty-eight, but I'd never been in a Porsche before. I thought they were the type of cars one only saw on the movie screen and never really figured on being a passenger in. It was like being invited to take a ride on the Space Shuttle or something.
We picked this bar called Sunset Boulevard, which had nothing to do with us being in California -- which we weren't -- but more to do with the lady owner's fascination with the movie and William Holden. My guess was she was an old bag who used to covet him back in her salad days, since there were pictures of old William all over the place, over the bar and on the walls and a big picture of him and Kim Novak dancing together from "Picnic" in the women's room. I guess you were supposed to look at it and salivate while you were in there doing your business.
We grabbed a booth off in the shadows, which I picked out because I thought it would be the least likely location I could be spotted if someone I knew happened to come in the door. Boy, talk about feeling guilty right from the get-go. You would have thought that I'd been doing this clandestine, back-alley type of romancing all my life.
But it wasn't like I was really doing anything tawdry or wrong. I can honestly say that right there from the start I didn't really have any designs on Willis whatsoever. He was just this smiling, mysterious character who I, along with most of the other females on the faculty staff, had a hankering to figure out, who he was beneath it all, where he'd come from, what exactly he was after in life, and all that other sort of soap opera jazz that people seem to get into because they have no real life of their own to occupy their time.
But right this minute I had Willis all to myself, so I decided I wasn't going to waste my time worrying about my hidden agenda or what anybody else might be thinking. For certain I wasn't going to worry about Jeff, since I already knew that after he clocked out tonight, he and his two pals from the store would go to his favorite bar and watch some sporting event on television while they downed cheeseburgers and draft beer. I could take my time with Willis and not worry about such things as husbands and sons, which seemed like a variable paradise of rewards to me right then.
And I was going to my reward riding in a Porsche. Who would have thought?
"So you've been Susie Homemaker, tending house and cleaning and cooking for your tight-knit family for how many years now?" he asked me. We were on our second round of drinks, wine for me and bourbon and water for him. He leaned back in his seat and looked me right in the eye, like it was of the utmost importance for him to know the answer to this question. "Did you like get married in the middle of your college career and have to go to classes with child, or were you able to hold off on marital bliss until you got your sheepskin?"
"Sixteen years we've been married at last count," I said. "I've been out of school all that time and teaching for fifteen, so it wasn't that hard to get my domestic life and teaching career properly aligned. What about you, though? Nobody seems to know if you're perpetually single or divorced or what the deal is with you. Heck, you could be married, for all any of us know. Maybe you are and just don't wear a ring. I could have some jealous wife come in here and shoot me any minute now, and I wouldn't know why I was on the floor bleeding to death."
Willis laughed at that.
"Fat chance of that marriage stuff happening. It'll take one wealthy woman to come along before you ever hear me say I do. I'm holding out for somebody like Oprah Winfrey or Martha Stewart, somebody who's loaded and just looking for somebody to leave their money to when they croak. In a case like that, I'm their man. If they've got an early expiration date and I'm the sole heir, count me in."
"Oh, I can see you with the thatched cottage and the picket fence out in the suburbs now. I think you'd fit in fine in such a picture."
"You're the only one. I've made a promise to myself that I'm never going to spend a weekend cutting a yard or painting a bedroom or cleaning out gutters while I'm balanced on a ladder there on the precipice of falling and making myself into a paraplegic."
"There are lots of single teachers at school," I teased. "I've already heard tale of what a great catch you'd be for someone."
"Tell them to show me a copy of their bank account first. If the balance is in excess of half a million bucks, then we can begin discussions. Until then I'm more than fine. I'll take them to a movie and buy them a pizza. We can hit the sack together as long as I can get up first thing in the morning and take off before there's time for any idle chatter. If any of them are interested in that kind of relationship, tell them to drop by my classroom. We'll talk. Maybe we can come up with some kind of agreement."
He drummed his finger on the tabletop like a drumroll.
"What do you say?" he said. "Are you ready for another drink?"
I want to make it clear that there was never anything physical going on between me and Willis Carrington during that early time, not that I wouldn't have invited it if it had been left entirely up to me. Ours, sorry to say, was merely a matter of friendship. Willis, I believe, needed someone to talk to and run ideas by, and since he didn't particularly get along with men too much, he preferred to have a woman as his sounding board, and I was the one who assumed that role. Don't ask me why it turned out this way. It wasn't my idea. Like I say, I hate to admit it, but I would have cheated with Willis Carrington in a New York second.
Whether I was guilty or not, it didn't matter to the rest of the female faculty members at school. Everyone thought I was having an affair with Willis for sure, even if most of them never acknowledged it out loud, or at least where I could hear it. I'm sure any one of them would have been happy to exchange places with me and be the one doing the dirty deed with this dashing new English teacher, so in spite of my reputation getting soiled and being regarded as a shameless hussy in private conversations, I still sort of enjoyed the unspoken notoriety I received as being Willis Carrington's partner beneath the sheets. It was enjoyable to be the recipient of their stares and whispers and glances whenever he walked down the hallway to my room, or what I imagined they might be thinking on those occasions when we would leave in his Porsche to go to Sunset Boulevard for one of our bull sessions. All I worried about was hoping the talk wouldn't spread from the school campus and spill over to where Jeff might catch wind of it. I didn't think he had it in him to get jealous and come looking for Willis to have it out, but I did think it might hurt his feelings somewhat, and I didn't want that. Jeff was still my husband and I did love him in a way; I was just having a harmless little adventure at school, something I could think about years down the road and crack a smile about.
My big mistake was mentioning what was going on to my sister. I should have known better than to ever bring it up in her presence. Caroline was just so damn competitive when it came to matters of the heart and men and such that dropping a line about it when she was around was like sounding a bell at Sea World to let the sharks know it was feeding time. You might as well jump in the pool and let them go at you.
The next thing I knew after I let slip the mention of Willis to her was Caroline paying me a visit at school. This was in the afternoon after dismissal when she should have been at the bookstore performing all her administrative retail duties, but obviously things were slow for a Wednesday afternoon at the mall and she'd handed over the reins to one of her assistants and made the trip out to the suburbs to my school. I looked up and there she was in my doorway with a smile on her face, dressed in her red power suit, overwhelmingly gorgeous as always. The first thing that crossed my mind was the wish that for just this once on this afternoon after school Willis would stay in his own classroom or go visit one of the other teachers who were dying for him to come their way, or get in his silver Porsche and drive off by himself and do whatever it is strange and mysterious men do in their moments of solitude, go home and take a nap, drive aimlessly upon some winding mountain road listening to the engine purr, or go to some drinking spot and meditate alone with a glass in front of him until some woman takes notice of him and can't keep herself from approaching his table.
"What's up, Lizzie?" she asked. Caroline has called me Lizzie for as long as I can remember. If she ever called me by my given name of Elizabeth I wouldn't have known if she was angry with me over something or if dementia had come upon her and she didn't really know who I was. "I thought I'd come by and see you in action," she said, "maybe see for myself if you were earning your salary or if our county was overpaying people in prominent positions the way they tend to do these days."
"Just grading some papers," I said. "Book reviews of the authors of choice as picked by my students. I'm sorry to say there's very little of merit in their selections so far. I haven't seen a Fitzgerald or a Hawthorne or a Melville theme yet. Everything is either Romance or Fantasy or Harry Potter. Those seem to be the only genres that are popular these days."
"From what you've let on," Caroline smiled, "I'm surprised you're being left alone long enough to get any kind of work done whatsoever. The way you described it I thought you and your teaching paramour would be down here on your desk going at it tooth and nail."
"Not exactly the kind of relationship we have going on," I assured her. "Ours is more of the professional bordering on palsy-walsy type of bonding. There hasn't been any of the roaming hands and brushing up against each other type of interludes just yet. I seriously doubt such goings-ons are in the cards for us."
"If he's as close to a dream as you say it wouldn't take five minutes for me to get him interested."
It was about this time, as if the stage manager had given him his cue to appear, that Willis stuck his head in the door and smiled.
"Am I interrupting anything?" he asked.
"No. We're just visiting is all." I felt like I was signing my rights away, but it wasn't like there was any way for me to get out of it. I couldn't ignore Caroline standing there beside me. Obviously, with the way Willis was looking at her, he wasn't ignoring her either. I could see it was hopeless already and I had no choice in the matter. "This is my sister," I said like a good little go-between. "This is Caroline. Caroline, this is Willis Carrington."
"Mr. Carrington," Caroline purred like the domestic cougar she was. "We finally meet. Lizzie has been telling me all about you for days now. So much, I feel like I know you already."
She had already left her position by the desk and was moving toward Willis, like a cat circling her prey. I don't know if he was transfixed and unable to move, or if he simply wanted to stand his ground and wait for her arrival, but whatever the fact, it didn't take long for the two of them to get close to each other. They were looking into each other's eyes, studying, deducing, waiting for the next tick of the clock.
I was reminded of that poster on the wall at Sunset Boulevard, William Holden and Kim Novak reaching out to each other like there couldn't be anyone else in the world.
All that passion trembling on the brink.
Well, it appeared it was all over for me as far as any chances with Willis Carrington after that. It was like the story of my life once more, anything I came across or saw that I desired even the smallest little bit there was always the impending presence of Caroline to shatter that tranquil wish and take it away, make it seem like the impossibility it was and not the promise of something better to come. My chance at having a flaming illicit backstreet passionate fling with an utter stranger was over, and so I took my usual deep breath and relegated myself back into the real world and went back to being a mother and wife, trading in a passionate bedroom for a kitchen and a seat in a sexy Porsche for my Honda Civic. It was a seat at a table I knew quite well, one where I didn't have to search for a placard to know where I should sit.
I did my best to let it go, to ignore the situation as it was and try to make myself unavailable to see or hear anything about what was going on between Willis Carrington and my sister. It didn't help for me to have to ponder the fact that in the beginning I had been five or six years older than Willis, and since Caroline was older than me, I didn't have the luxury of thinking that the reason I was now on the sidelines was because Willis had gravitated toward someone younger, someone closer to his own age, and because he had made such a choice it was not really my fault things had worked out the way they had, because one of the truisms in the world is men will always go after pretty young things in the end, and if I'd been left behind because of that fact there was nothing I could do about it, because a girl can't make herself any younger than she is when it all comes down to it. But I didn't have that balm in my grasp to make me feel better about Willis. The fact was he'd abandoned my presence for a closer proximity to an older Caroline, which was like another one of those reminders I'd been receiving from Life since I was a little girl. Your sister is prettier than you, it told me once more. You are never going to measure up to her in anything no matter what you do, no matter how long the both of you live. It was a good thing I was so well-versed in this fact of living by this time, else I'd have been miserable over losing my one chance to be a bad girl and a tragic romantic heroine. But I was used to it by now.
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