Sylvia, on the Night Shift

Evelyn Somers Click to read more...

Evelyn Somers has been an editor for The Missouri Review for many years, and she has also edited some thirty books, many of which have received awards.  Her own stories have appeared or soon will in Georgia Review, Crazyhorse, Many Mountains Moving, South Dakota Review and others.  She received a Barbara Deming Fund grant for her first novel, Preacher’s House, which is currently under submission.  She has also completed a collection of short stories and is at work on a second novel.

The people who think they know best rarely do. Sylvia Fitzgerald, who thought she was smarter than everyone, should have known better than to take her younger sister, Peregrine, out driving. Sylvia’s best ideas always led to trouble. The more brilliant it sounded at the beginning, the more trouble it led to. Sylvia had learned this from experience. She was always getting brainstorms, and they were always going awry. From the age of four, “Hey, what if . . . ?” had been her mantra; but while the boring ideas worked out, the really good ones always flopped.

And still she got them—the brilliant ones, the kind that in elementary school history texts were sometimes signalled by pictures of light bulbs. In Sylvia’s opinion, often expressed to those who knew her, these ideas had gotten better and better, until they approached Edisonian radiance. Which is why Perry had once teasingly called her “Sylvania”—after the light bulbs.

One of the worst ideas so far had been not going to college.  She’d gotten a job right away, but it was at Buy-All, and it was going nowhere. She was still living at home; she’d signed a lease and paid monthly rent. She had her own apartment in the basement with a microwave and a sink. She’d bought a ten-year-old Honda Civic. She’d been exempted from chores and curfew.

She was on her own, almost, and she wanted Perry to be impressed, but Perry wasn’t. Perry, the beautiful nerd: all brains and no risk-tolerance. She hadn’t even learned to drive, or so they’d all thought until recently. Seventeen years old, and she still rode her bike wherever she wanted to go. Or their mother drove her. It was just sad, Sylvia had said. And that—the absurdity of her smart and capable sister still biking to the library like a ten-year-old—was what had first given Sylvia the idea.

Prior to that, Sylvia had been trying to curb her imagination. But teaching Perry to drive had sounded like a safe idea: useful, surefire, harmless. How could she have guessed that a simple driving lesson would lead to the trouble the Fitzgeralds were now dealing with? But it wasn’t just the driving lesson.  That was only the start of things.

Two months ago, her younger sister had only seen Springfield from her bicycle or the back seat of Mrs. Fitzgerald’s Lincoln, en route to one branch library or another, or a bookstore or lecture—the only places she ever went. But she’d never seen it, not by moonlight, not the best parts, not from the driver’s seat. That was what Sylvia had wanted to show her.

Now Perry had had a glimpse of Sylvia’s inky night world. She’d cruised the city with her sister at three in the morning. So what if they’d had a close call? No one had gotten hurt or in trouble.  You would think it would make Perry want to go out and see more, but Perry showed no inclination to go anywhere.  She just paced around their new house, moaning.

The new house was a brick split-foyer, in one of those select developments that is going to be all turf-managed lawns someday but for the time being is all mud flats. The Fitzgeralds’ half million-dollar home was adrift on a sea of mud, and if Perry had stepped out the front door, descended the fieldstone steps and walked around the house, she would have come back with two clumps of mud where her shoes had been. But instead of going around outside, Perry circled the interior: upstairs, downstairs, smaller circuits of the landing or family room. Several weeks of her sporadic pacing, and the pile carpet was showing wear; it was that cheap. “We should put her in a tub of grapes and let her make wine,” said Sylvia.

But she didn’t really think it was funny.

It wasn’t the first time Perry’s behavior had puzzled them. When, at two and a half, she still sat on her diapered bottom, crawling only to escape Sylvia, (who liked to pinch her to make her cry), their parents, referred by the girls’ regular pediatrician, had consulted a pediatric orthopedist. Margaret explained to the doctor, “She doesn’t even pull herself up on furniture yet. We’re concerned about developmental delays.”

The doctor palpated Perry’s legs and arms, watched her crawl for few minutes, percussed key tendons with a reflex hammer, watched her crawl some more. Even before he examined her, though, he seemed to have formed his opinion: “There’s nothing wrong with her. She just doesn’t want to walk.”

Perry had been fishing in the lower drawers of the exam room supply cabinets, and before she knew what he was doing, the doctor grabbed her, put her on her feet and let go. She stood steadily for a moment, then carefully sat down again.

“I’ve seen this,” he said. “With certain kids you have to induce walking. Have you tried the old carrot on a stick? What does she want that’s off limits?”

“My toys,” growled Sylvia. She had come along because she’d whined and tantrummed: preschool “gave her headaches,” she insisted.

“Sibling rivalry,” the doctor murmured. To Sylvia he said, “I bet you teach your little sister a lot of things, don’t you?”

Sylvia shrugged.

“Well, I’ve got an important job for you. Take one of your toys, one she really wants, hold it in front of your little sister—and don’t let her have it. See if you can teach her to walk.”

It worked. At home later, Perry walked without a wobble to the book Sylvia held out. But then Sylvia was forced to give it to her. “You never read it,” said their mother.

It was true that Sylvia was not intellectual.

Later, when Perry continued to toddle around without falling, they figured she must have been rehearsing secretly. That was the difference between the two girls: Sylvia was impulsive, fearless. Perry was cautious. Sylvia was transparent. You always knew what she was up to. Perry was close-mouthed. And she never did anything badly—probably because she’d always practiced in secret first. When she first talked, she talked in paragraphs. The first time she sat down at the Fitzgeralds’ new laptop, she knew the password and logged on without hesitation. Over the years they’d all learned that it was best not to push her. She’d do things in her own time, and excel when she did. She was named for the falcon that had glided through one of Margaret Fitzgerald’s dreams during her second pregnancy. Of the girls’ parents, Margaret was more like Sylvia: mystical and impulsive, though these qualities had been largely beaten out of her by motherhood. She was what you might call a transcendentalist-manqué. She sensed that there was, or ought to be, something more. Which was why she’d named her second daughter after a dream.

And another difference: Perry brought out the best in everyone, while Sylvia got a mixed reception, more often rude than polite. Men especially liked her sister. Something about Perry’s strawberry-blonde seriousness made them want to protect her. Like the young door-to-door salesman Sylvia called  “the Aztec,” who for some months before the driving lesson had been going house to house in the subdivision selling cemetery plots and prepaid funerals.

He wasn’t really an Aztec, but he was obviously part Indian, and judging by his accent, his first language was Spanish. Perry, book in hand as usual, answered the door when he came to their house, and Sylvia, on the way up from her basement apartment to shower, witnessed a small portion of the interchange from the lower stairwell. He held an open briefcase in his brown arms and was using the top half like an easel to display a flyer that said: SEE IT BEFORE YOU NEED IT—BUY BEFORE YOU DIE. His eyes had been locked with Perry’s, but when he heard Sylvia and glanced toward the lower steps, Sylvia stared him down. He blanched and stammered out in accented English, “I’m sorry. I must have the wrong house.” One last, lingering glance at Perry with her precalculus book, and he fled. But Sylvia saw him around the neighborhood weeks afterward, still going from door to door with his briefcase.

And there was the mailman, a thirty-five-year-old creep, who leered at Sylvia because a couple of years ago, before he’d been their mailman, he’d seen her buying condoms when she was getting off work. She hadn’t had anyone to use them with, but it was typical of Sylvia to get the idea to buy condoms just in case. A few months later it paid off when she started going out with her big crush, Brady Hadfield, and had sex on an air mattress in his garage. The next day she smelled of gasoline and was miserably hungover and sore. It hadn’t quite been the tender event she’d envisioned; but she was on a cloud: another rite of passage checked off, another step toward adulthood—sex with a guy she liked. That was what she’d boasted to Perry when Sylvia told her about Brady: “You don’t know really know anything about life until you’ve had sex with someone you love.” Perry, who was just fifteen then, looked up from her perusal of The Fountainhead long enough to ask sarcastically, “So you learned the meaning of life from screwing Brady Hadfield?”

The mailman hadn’t forgotten her or the condoms, and now that he delivered their mail, he treated Sylvia like a slut. But if he encountered Perry, he practically bowed and gave the bundled envelopes into her hands as if she were royalty. He called her “Peregrine” from the name on the recruitment letters she got from colleges. It was because of the mailman’s gossip about the neighbors one day that Mrs. Fitzgerald first wondered if their new home might be Perry’s problem.

“Are we happy here? Do you think it was a mistake to move?” Margaret said the next morning, as she and her husband were getting dressed. She had just pulled up the wooden blinds in the bedroom and was gazing out at the back yard, which was like the back yards of all the other homes around them: muddy. The development was optimistically named Woodland Meadow. There were a few straggling oaks and sweetgums around the edge of it, and a legion of wan-looking seedlings poking out like bristly leg hairs. They were the “woodland,” while the vast expanse of mud was the “meadow.”

The Fitzgeralds had been there six months, long enough to hear the recent stories of which the mailman had reminded Margaret yesterday: Jan Szymanski, on Willow Grove, had gone to bed one afternoon and not gotten up again or bathed until she was finally admitted to a psychiatric hospital. There was the twelve-year-old down the street who’d hanged himself and been found by his cousin; Margaret couldn’t stand to think about that. Or the family of the hospital CEO three blocks over; he’d vanished without a trace, leaving a family of five unsupported and stunned. And McPherson, the hermit widower next door. In the six months they’d been here, his garage door had never once whirred open; his blinds had never been raised. A square of brown paper taped on the interior kept solicitors from peering through the diamond-shaped pane in his front door. The only evidence that he hadn’t joined Mrs. McPherson yet was his environmental consciousness: he put out his beer bottles and newspapers every Tuesday for recycling.

Margaret had heard of whole towns inexplicably riddled by cancer. Here it was morbid depression and malignant agoraphobia. Could there be something undesirable in the ambience—something to do with the tainted history of the subdivision? First there’d been a decade-long feud about zoning. Then the original developer, plagued by cost overruns resulting from the drainage problems, had gone bankrupt during the construction. Subsequently there was a lot of trouble about building codes, and implications of bribery—though they had never been proved.

Now, in answer to Margaret’s speculations, Kevin Fitzgerald said he didn’t think the new house was the problem. He was like Perry: logical. “It’s just hormones,” he said. “She’ll grow out of it. She hasn’t stopped doing her schoolwork, has she?”

“Not yet, anyway,” said Margaret ominously.

It was true. Perry continued to read, sucking in words, inhaling information. She’d always loved to read; she was more than a bookworm; she was obsessed. Lately she’d been into general reference books: dictionaries, encyclopedias, indexes, yearbooks. In one un-Perryish confidence she’d explained her project to Sylvia: “I’m getting ready for the ACT.”

How stupid could you get? thought Sylvia.

Though actually, not so stupid.  It was Sylvia’s poor showing on the entrance exam that had made her decide to apply for the job at Buy-All.

***

Perry’s pacing, which had begun right after the driving incident, disturbed the whole family, but it bothered Sylvia the most because it was worst in the middle of the day, when Sylvia was trying to sleep. Since moving to the new house, Sylvia slept days and worked nights as a supervisor at Buy-All Discount City.

A narrow strip of Sylvia’s bedroom was under the front hallway. The rest of it was right below the kitchen. Until recently, she’d never had trouble sleeping, and she’d never heard Perry, who was always either at school or quietly studying; if she ever went out, Sylvia didn’t know about it.  But now the sound of Perry’s footsteps as she made the big loop of hallway, living room, kitchen, hallway kept her awake.  It was even louder in the downstairs apartment than it was when you were right in the room with her. Perry often moaned some kind of grievous lament as she paced, but it was hard to understand her emo litany, in which the note of hopelessness was utterly chilling. Sylvia felt bad that the driving lesson had gone so sour, that her little sister had had a shock.  But suck it up,  she thought.  Sylvia had gotten over Brady.  And over screwing up her life by not going to college. Perry was just being ridiculous.

The Fitzgerald parents had no clue what Perry was wailing about. Sylvia, having been present at the driving lesson, knew, but she was still confounded by her sister’s drama. The first time Sylvia heard her sister crying, she thought, Who died? Working nights at Buy-All and eating Pop-tarts in the basement, she sometimes missed things. Had Perry lost a friend or classmate? Was it a relative Sylvia hadn’t heard about?  When she realized that no one had died, Sylvia wracked her brains for an insight. The despair in Perry’s voice instantly made Sylvia think about necrosis, mortality.

***

The house before the house in Woodland Meadow had cost sixty thousand dollars. It had a mole-infested lawn, a rusty wire fence in back and a row of stunted yews out front. Soon after they sold it and moved “up” to Woodland Meadow, Sylvia transferred to the Buy-All on the south side and started working nights. As supervisor, she was responsible for keeping an eye on the stockers and making sure they got their job done and didn’t steal anything. At Buy-All, the customer was king. Returns were his royal prerogative. This was the philosophy expressed by Clement Byal, founder of Buy-All, in a series of TV ads in which he spoke to the public from his oak-panelled office lined with original oils and Americana.

More often than not, returns had to be sent back to the manufacturer, so it was part of the night supervisor’s job to write them up and ship them off. It was a job she enjoyed because she could vent her creativity. Under the “comments” part of the return form Sylvia could say whatever idiotic thing she liked about the defective item. On dull nights she used rhyme, and if she was really bored, bad puns: Shoe needs glue. Scale weigh off. Bra cup busted. Gloves not very handy.

Sometimes, driving home just after dawn, Sylvia reflected on another of her less comfortable duties: to instill in the night crew the platitudinous ideals of Clement (“Clem”) Byal, whose autobiography, Byal, they were all supposed to read. However, Sylvia couldn’t see the connection between abstractions like “excellence,” “accountability,” and “cheerful service,” and the dreary concreteness of slaving for groceries and car payments on the graveyard shift. For that reason, as she piloted her cranky Honda toward Woodland Meadow, she shoved Buy-All to the back of her mind and let her thoughts roam. Occasionally they roamed to the old house with the lumpy lawn, where, in her memory—was it true?—they’d all been happier, and she and Perry had been true sisters. More often they just drifted at random, and from time to time, while in this free-floating state, she had brief glimmers, like the glimmers of heat lightning she sometimes saw in summer, in the morning sky. Pefectly lucid when they flashed through her mind, these flitting notions grew hazy and evaporated by the time she settled down for a day’s sleep. But occasionally one stayed, and crystallized as she snored; and by the time she awakened, it had taken on flesh.

Teach Perry to drive one of Sylvia’s glimmers had said—it was soon after the Aztec had knocked on their door. Who cared if her sister didn’t have a permit?  It had come to Sylvia one morning in late July, when the summer humidity was waning. Soon the dawns would be foggy and gray, beautiful in their own way, but not soft and green and freedom-kissed, as they were in summer. Perry really should see this.

Sylvia was getting into bed when she’d heard a car start up outside. With certain kids you have to induce driving. Try the old carrot on a stick. The sound of the motor had made the idea stick. It gelled as she snored, and later that evening she’d gone upstairs to find her sister. “Hey, Perry,” she’d said. “I’ve been thinking about how you’re going to get back and forth to college. . . .”

The following week, on one of Sylvia’s nights off, the two sisters had backed stealthily out of the driveway in Mrs. Fitzgerald’s car. Sylvia wasn’t supposed to drive the Lincoln, but Perry had balked at learning a stick. In the back seat was a sack from the Red Barn that Sylvia had brought along. In it was a bottle of beaujolais, for later—nothing better than seeing the sun rise with a mild buzz on.

Perry, in the driver’s seat, hadn’t known it was there. Sylvia was energized by the sweet deceit that permeated the Lincoln. The engine was turned off; the headlights had been extinguished, so as not to wake their parents. “Here we go!” said Sylvia.

“Shhhh,” Perry had whispered.

“They can’t hear us,” said Sylvia.

“I can hear her.”

And so she could, Sylvia had realized. At that very moment, the stillness was broken by a sound from an upstairs window. Margaret Fitzgerald was singing.  In her sleep?  She never sang while awake now. Sylvia hadn’t heard her mother sing since the old house, where Margaret had sung all the time. She’d hummed and whistled her favorite folk songs, and opened the windows wide in spring and played loud Beethoven on the stereo. What happened to Mom’s music? thought Sylvia.

There were nights at Buy-All when nothing needed returning and there was little stocking to do. Then Sylvia didn’t earn her pay. The inside of the store was an island of florescence in the tar-black pond of the south side of the city. Sylvia was so acclimated to the island that she forgot about the black water, except on slow nights, when she had time to look out the window. Superimposed on the night was the bright reflection of the empty checkouts behind her. After Sylvia had looked out for a while, she would remember her other responsibility—the one that made her uncomfortable. Still, it was part of her job, and she wasn’t without a sense of duty. So she sought out her stockers, and if she found them lazing around, she asked if they’d read Byal. The Buy-All staff were not great readers, and they were annoyed at being told to go to the break room and read. Sylvia had slogged through Byal. From knee-high to a grasshopper, wrote Clem Byal in the opening sentences, I had my heart set on owning a store. Not just any store. A department store, bigger than the downtown Woolworth’s. Kids these days are too doped up to have ambitions. That’s the trouble with this country. That’s why we drug test every single employee before we hire them. Back in the day, things were different. Kids had dreams, ambitions. I started out going door to door, selling laundry soap. And look where it got me. I’m bigger than Woolworth’s. This is the story of how I did it . . .

Sylvia felt guilty about making her staff read what wouldn’t do them any good. And that, she’d reflected as she and Perry had rolled onto the street on the night of the driving lesson, was a little bit of what she felt now. All around them was blackness, and there was nothing much she could teach Perry because, as she should have foreseen, Perry already knew how to drive. The minute they were out of the driveway her sister had switched on the ignition. They’d driven along smoothly, no jerking, no nervous swerves. They flashed under a streetlight, then another, then a dark stretch.

“Turn your lights on,” said Sylvia.

“Sorry,” Perry had apologized.

No sooner had their headlights illuminated the well-paved street ahead, than there was the blip of a siren and a light show to their rear. In the affluent subdivision of Woodland Meadow, people who drove around at two in the morning with their lights off were suspicious.

Shit, Sylvia had thought, for there was Perry, unlicensed, at the wheel. But once again her younger sister had known what she was doing. She’d braked expertly, put the car in park and rolled down her window without the slightest hesitation.

The policeman got out of his car and came over.  He looked at the two girls and asked for Perry’s license.

“I’ve got a learner’s permit,” she said, and she pulled it out of her wallet and handed it to him.

Now where did she get that? wondered Sylvia.

“Your license too, ma’am,” said the cop to Sylvia.

Minutes later, Sylvia was still searching for her license. There was a little pile of paycheck stubs and gas credit-card receipts beside her on the seat. The driver’s door had somehow been opened, and the policeman squatted next to the car. As was typical, he’d barely acknowledged Sylvia. His whole attention was focused on Perry. Sylvia had seen it before, in the mailman, in the “Aztec” pre-need salesman. Men were idiots for her sister.

“I’m trying to do some advance preparation for college,” Perry had told the policeman when he’d asked where they were going at that hour. He seemed amused but also impressed when she explained. “It’s very time-consuming. My days are pretty full. Do you believe this is the only time I have for driving lessons?”

When Sylvia couldn’t immediately find her license, Perry had pulled out her cell phone. “No reason to just sit around wasting time,” she’d said to the policeman. “I read every minute. If you want to get into a really good college, that’s what you have to do.”

Soon they were looking at something on the Internet—an online academy with lectures about everything from Michelangelo to bacteriology.

“I never heard of this,” the police officer said. His identification said Charles Morton. He’d looked to Sylvia to be twenty-eight or nine.

“I found it,” announced Sylvia, extracting the license from her front pocket, where she’d just remembered she’d stuck it earlier. She withdrew it carefully, the way Brady Hadfield had carefully pulled out of her, holding the condom by its rolled edge. Afterward he’d knotted the open end like an expert and thrown it in the trash barrel. Perry was right. Sylvia hadn’t learned the meaning of life from Brady Hadfield. Maybe if she hadn’t bought the condoms—if she’d had a baby. But she’d been sore and sick, and Brady never called her back. If she’d had it to do over again . . . She didn’t, though, and she wasn’t going to let a Brady Hadfield ruin her life.

Sylvia had handed the license to Officer Morton.

“I better go check this out,” he’d said. He’d disappeared to his car for his laptop. Perry  had continued to stare at her touch screen, quoting bits of trivia from another site she’d lighted on.

“Malawi has a thirty percent literacy rate.”

So does Buy-All, thought Sylvia.

When Morton came back, he’d eyed Sylvia with the same look the mailman always gave her. He’d handed the license through the window to Perry, who gave it to her sister. “This car is licensed to your parents?” he’d asked Perry.

“Yes.”

“They know about this?”

“Absolutely,” Perry lied.

“Well, girls,” he’d said, “I’m going to let you— Then his gaze had fallen on the paper bag, half open in the back seat.

“What’s that?” he’d said.

***

In the side yard of the old house with the rusty fence and the yews stood a towering walnut tree, with a board swing on which Sylvia and Perry had sailed through childhood and a good part of adolescence. Before Perry was old enough to pump herself, Sylvia had pushed her, sometimes gently, usually not. She both loved and hated Perry, and when her hatred got the upper hand, she gave her sister a rough, jerky shove. Then, invariably, Perry went flying off the swing and got the wind knocked out of her or skinned her knees.

When she saw her sister hurtling through the air, Sylvia was horror-stricken. Sick with fear that Perry would be killed. And deeply thrilled. But when Perry landed, Sylvia wanted only to run to her and comfort her. She flung herself down on the ground and hugged her sister and cried, too. Afterward, Margaret had trouble figuring out which of her daughters was at fault, especially since Sylvia often fell on the ground so violently that she skinned her own knees. “Who pushed whom?” Mrs. Fitzgerald demanded, slinging up a girl on each hip and lugging them into the house from which Dylan rasped and Beethoven thundered.

Later, Sylvia would ask herself a similar question about the events that followed. Was it her own fault for buying the wine, or Officer Morton’s for telling them to go return it? Or Perry’s for allowing herself to be seduced by the Aztec?

“Want to know where I learned how to drive?” Perry said as they headed to the Red Barn.

“Where?”

“From Clem.”

For one crazy minute Sylvia thought she meant Clem Byal.

“Clemente,” explained Perry. “He’s the guy who was selling funeral plans. It’s a good deal.  With a package, you get a complete funeral at a level price.  It will never increase, even if you live sixty more years. And you get to choose it yourself: ‘See it before you need it . . .’ Clem really cares about helping people make the plans they want for their ends. It’s the way he talks, the way he looks into your eyes. He’s perfect for pre-need work. He can actually make you see.”

“See what?” Sylvia had asked.

“The end,” said Perry.

“You mean. . . ?”

“Yeah.”

“Really?” said Sylvia.  “Who would want to see that?”

Perry shrugged.  “‘See it before you need it.’  It’s not a bad idea.”

And so Sylvia discovered where Perry had learned to drive, and what her secretive sister had been up to every afternoon for the past few weeks, while she’d been asleep. Perry had been driving around suburban Springfield with the Aztec. Sylvia wondered if he was what had somehow infected their subdivision—but no, that was absurd.

“Some people don’t trust Clem because he’s Indian. A lot of times they won’t even answer the door. But I helped him. Once I started going around with him, he was doing better than ever,” said Perry.

“What kind of Indian?” said Sylvia curiously.

“Zapotec. He’s from Mexico.”

Then Sylvia thought of something. “What about birth control?”

Perry blushed.

Which was how Sylvia established that in between the driving lessons and the soliciting, and the visualization of final scenarios, “Clem” had been teaching her sister the meaning of life.  And death.

***

The night manager of the Red Barn was not quite deformed, but his odd conformation marked him as a jerk. He had bleached hair. Sylvia wondered what had possessed him. Did he think blond would get him laid? He had a sallow, homely, scarred face. “Can I help you?” he snarled, as Sylvia set the bottle on the courtesy booth counter.

“I’ll handle things,” Sylvia whispered to Perry. Perry went off to the all-night bakery for donuts.

“I’m returning this,” said Sylvia to the manager. “It’s not opened.  My sister bought it here, and she’s underage. Officer Morton of the Springfield Police Department assured us you would take it back. Do you need me to fill out a form?” That was the procedure at Buy-All.

The night manager shook his head. He looked at the bottle. All at once he grabbed the screw-cap and twisted.  He looked defiantly at Sylvia. “You opened it!”

“At Buy-All,” Sylvia countered, “we never cheat the customer.”

“This isn’t Buy-All.”

““Don’t dick around with me, Blondie” snapped Sylvia.

The night manager articulated his stance stubbornly: “No returns, no exchanges.”

“Screw you,” sneered Sylvia and grabbed the now open bottle and went off to find her sister.

They were on their way through the OUT door, when the manager grabbed her by the sleeve. “Hold it,” he said. “Do you have a receipt for that?”

There was a struggle. Sylvia lost, and the bottle crashed to the floor and wine flooded the exit.

“Perry!” shouted Sylvia. “Run! I’ll meet you outside!”

But Perry stood like a stone, staring at the IN door, which was opening to admit a tall, handsome, dark-skinned man with long, black hair. A woman accompanied him—red-blonde, like Perry, but thinner and harder. Sylvia had mostly seen Clemente from afar, but from her sister’s expression, she knew it was him. He and the woman were laughing.

“Clem!” said Perry. Her face crumpled, and she started to cry.

Clemente’s gaze went to the wine on the floor.  To Sylvia—who thought she saw a flicker of recognition in his eyes.  To the Red Barn manager. Then he strolled on past, nodding coldly to Perry.  The woman followed, her thin fingers laced in his belt loops.

Ever since, Perry had been keeping Sylvia awake with her pacing and her unintelligible complaint. Sometimes Sylvia caught pieces of it: “I paid. . . .”  “Can’t . . . take. . . .” “. . . thousand”  “. . . . back.”  What was that about?

One afternoon as Sylvia was jamming a pillow over her head, her mind lit up.  BUY BEFORE YOU DIE. It was so obvious. She already knew Perry had been driving around with Clem.  She knew he’d seduced her sister.  That Perry had fallen in love—or thought she had.  He was selling, and she was buying: that was it.  She’d “bought” not just his profession of love—she’d bought a funeral, too.  She’d looked into his eyes like all the other suckers; she’d seen her demise, and she’d bought a prepaid funeral with all her money that she never went anywhere except the bookstore to spend. Any dimwit could have figured it out. Why hadn’t Sylvia?

Of course it was still really a man Perry was upset about.

Or was it?

Poor Perry was in denial, thought Sylvia sympathetically—but what was she denying?  Heartbreak?  Betrayal?

Or what had been revealed to her in the Aztec’s eyes?

See it before you need it.

Soon afterward, on a slow night at Buy-All, Sylvia looked out into the black water at the unpeopled checkouts and felt her blood freeze. Was that what Perry had been wailing about?

Ordering the employees to read Byal that evening, she suddenly believed it would do them good. Because if you could look past all the rants against drugs and gun control, Clem Byal had a valid message: things used to be better.

That same morning, driving home through October fog, her mind wandered to their comfortable old house with the swing in the yard. She could buy it; she’d been saving her money, too. She could get a first-time homebuyers’ loan. Live there with Perry. No Clems, no Bradys. No morbid neighbors, no funeral salesmen, no mud. And when Kevin and Margaret got old, they’d move in with their daughters. It would be like before, only with alternative country out the windows. But when one of them died— Sylvia hoped it would a hundred years from now (and that it wouldn’t be her)—Perry had seen to it that they would be ready.

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