If you missed the first, second and third segments, you may find them here:
Beth sucked up some air, appearing to try to gather her senses, before lumbering back to the table. Wringing her hands, she said, "Okay then, why don't we have some dessert? I have chocolate cake and---"
"Chocolate cake's not going to change my mind, Beth," I said. "I want to discuss this."
"You know, leave it you, Laura, to cause problems. Eric hasn't said a blessed word about selling the house, but then you have to pick now when we're having a wonderful dinner---"
"It was very good, Beth. And I don't mean to start trouble, but I can't go on like this. I just can't."
"Why?" she said. "Why can't you just live here with me? We are sisters, after all."
Jenny picked up the stack of dishes and headed to the kitchen. Jenny, the sister-in-law. Friends of Dad's who came to the wake thought we were sisters, the two of us five feet four with the same high cheek bones and similar straight hair, except mine was blonde while hers was brown. However, I always thought of Jenny as someone resigned to what life had to offer her. Me? I'm always ready for battle, my skin a veritable coat of armor. I don't know, though; because sometimes I feel I'm going to shatter, snap, crumble into myself.
"Beth," I said, getting up from the table, "it's a lovely idea, but we'd drive each other crazy. I'd drive you crazy. I mean, you were annoyed with me because I left that picture over there." I nodded toward the living room. "I did plan on taking care of it."
"What picture?" Eric said.
"Oh," Beth said, flipping her hand in the air, "it's this silly picture of old tap shoes."
"Ballet slippers, Beth," I said. "They're ballet slippers." As a little girl, after I returned home from church, I'd pretend my Sunday dress was a tutu and hide in my room, making believe I was a ballerina. I twirled very quietly because Mother said God didn't approve of our bodies moving in anyway that wouldn't glorify Him. Still, I was hiding more from my mother's eyes than the Almighty's. Years later, when I discovered the framed poster in a head shop, I bought it and then hung it in the square of space that was my bedroom in the loft.
"Slippers. Tap shoes. Whatever," Beth said, "point is, I didn't want the deaconesses having to look at it the whole time they were here for our meeting."
"Exactly," I said, "which is why we can't live together."
"Because you can't have your poster in the living room?" Beth said.
"No, because I wouldn't want to have to deal with Bible studies and deaconess's meetings going on all the time. And sometimes I'd want to have my friends over."
"Your friends? Well, I suppose long as they abide by the rules---"
"Rules? Beth, we're not children anymore."
Eric cleared his throat and said, "It does seem as if selling would make more sense."
"More sense?" Beth walked over to the bookcase brushing her hand along the spines of Bibles, concordances and devotionals. "Mother spent her life making sure this house honored God."
I went over to the closet, opening the door, and snatched the belt that was hanging on a hook, carrying it into the living room. Beth and Eric were silent, their expressions uneasy.
"This was part of the house, too." I held out the belt. "Or have you forgotten? And why is it still in there?"
Beth turned her head, refusing to look at it.
"Because you're too damn afraid to throw it out!"
"Don't curse!" Beth said.
"Oh, it's fine what this belt was used for, but I can't say damn?" I walked over to the bookshelf and said, "Well, if I stay, Beth, then these have to go." Then I glimpsed the plaque at the foot of the stairs and headed toward it. "And this will have to come down."
"Don't touch that!" Beth screamed.
Her strident protest stopped me. I backed away from the wooden plaque, stenciled with the verse: As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord. Joshua 24:15
"Could everyone just please calm down?" Eric came over to me and took the belt out of my hand. He held it for a moment, seemingly unsure where to put it, but then brought it back to the closet, tossing it in and slamming shut the door. It was the first time I noticed graying around his temples and a slight paunch.
"Why are you taking her side?" Beth said, her whole body trembling.
He took a handkerchief from his pocket and wiped his forehead. "I'm not taking anyone's side. I just don't see any other way than selling the house that'll make sense."
Beth gaped at him, her eyes filling with tears.
I walked over to the couch and dropped down. I knew it was going to be a difficult conversation, but I had too much riding on it to let it go.
"Laura, I wish you wanted to stay," Eric said. "I'd like for us to be close again."
I could tell that he was sincere and it brought back memories when he and I clung to each other for support. We'd hide under either his or my bed and whisper strategies of how we were going to escape. The recollection brought my guard down and without having planned to share my biggest news of all, I blurted, "I would love that. My baby would have an uncle." I hesitated, then added as an afterthought, "And an aunt."
Both Eric and Beth gazed at me, their mouths dropped open.
"What are you saying?" Eric said.
I paused, then said with resolve, "I'm going to have a baby." It was the first time I'd said it aloud and it sounded wonderful, a statement filled with hope, until the sound of a dish smashing to the floor came from the kitchen.
Beth sputtered, "A baby?" She put a hand over her mouth.
Eric's eyes wide, he said, "You're pregnant?"
I caught him looking at my mid-section. I wanted to say yes. I wanted to have felt the quickening of life growing inside me. However, I was forced to tell the truth. "Not yet," I said.
"Excuse me?" Beth said, taking a step closer.
"I don't understand," Eric said.
I gazed at the newspaper that was opened on the coffee table, at the picture of the women gathered at the rally. In spite of my own needs, I was rooting for those women. Babies should be wanted, planned; not happenstance.
"I was under the impression that you weren't dating anyone," Eric said. He turned to Beth, "You said she wasn't dating anyone."
Before Beth could reply, I said, "I'm not. And I have no intention of getting married."
"You want to have a baby without marriage?" Eric said.
I nodded, letting them soak in the information.
"Won't you be ashamed?" Beth said, her voice shaky, her eyes enormous in her ashen face.
"I don't understand how you plan to go about this." Eric said.
I didn't reply; couldn't, because I didn't have a clear cut answer. Not yet. Just the night before I went to Zanzi-Bar with friends from the city and began an irresolute culling. Early in the evening things looked promising, with many of the patrons being professors and other erudite types. But as the night wore on, I discovered nothing more than a bunch of slurring drunks eager to skip the preliminaries, telling me I was "one groovy chick." The "groovy chick" came home feeling defeated.
"Well, maybe we should get this house situation straightened out first," Eric said.
Beth lunged toward him. "You're encouraging her to do...that?"
"No," Eric said, "not at all." He turned to me, scowling. "But why, Laura? Don't you want to fall in love, get married and then--- I just don't understand why you'd want a baby first."
Actually, when my therapist had asked me the same question, I said, "I need to understand some things."
"What kind of things?" she said.
"This is wrong!" Beth said, rushing to the picture window where a spider plant hung with hundreds of shoots suspended from it. She began to pick off the brown leaves, but then stopped and turned to face me.
"Maybe," she said, "maybe you're just upset. Maybe losing Dad--"
"I am upset, but my decision has nothing to do with Dad."
"You need to think about this more clearly, Laura, before you jump into anything so...so..."
"I've been thinking about this for years, Beth. Years."
She threw up her hands. "If you want a baby so bad, why don't you adopt one instead of getting, you know---?"
"You have to be rich to adopt." Jenny appeared, a dishtowel in her hand. "Or patient. They place you on a waiting list. Five years later you haven't even budged from the bottom."
I sat up straighter, realizing for the first time what Jenny was implying. I'd always just assumed that she and Eric forfeited parenthood for the ministry.
Eric walked over to Jen and put an arm around her. "Well, there is foreign adoption, but you have to be quite comfortable financially, if you want to do that."
"And if you're single," I said, "they won't even look at the application."
"See!" Beth said, "A baby needs a mother and a father!"
"Really?" I said. "Mom certainly didn't think so."
"What do you mean?" Beth said.
I didn't want to get into how Mom ignored Dad's feelings simply because he wasn't the zealot she was, so I just replied, "I mean, I need to do this on my own."
"It's not how God had planned it!" Beth shrieked.
I raised my hand as a warning. "Let's not go there, okay?"
"Beth's face turned bright red. "Mom would be so destroyed."
"Of course she would be," I said.
Eric said, "I know Dad was waiting for a grandchild."
Jenny's face began to break up, tears coming to her eyes.
I jumped up from the couch. "Jenny," I said, "I'm so sorry. I don't mean--"
She pulled away from Eric, dropped the dishtowel on the floor and fled up the stairs. Eric pressed his eyes closed and sucked up some air before running after her, taking the steps by twos.
"I hope you're satisfied," Beth said.
"I didn't know," I said. "No one ever said anything about it."
"Well, if you attended prayer services, you would have known."
I look up the stairs. "Maybe I should go talk to her."
"Don't you think you've said enough?" Beth took off toward the kitchen.
I followed her, pushing through the swinging door. "It still doesn't change the fact we need to sell the house."
"And provide you with a means to do something so sinful?" Cleaned and dried dishes, minus one, were stacked on the table. Beth grabbed them and went to the cabinet.
"I have a right to my share," I said. "What I do with it is my business."
She put the dishes in the cabinet with a clatter and slammed the door. "Why must you always test my faith? Just like you did Mom's." She dashed back through the door and into the living room with me behind her. "But," she sputtered, "I will not let you frustrate me into getting cancer."
I stopped, wondering if I'd actually heard right. I'd been accused of many things in the Sumner household before, but murder wasn't one of them. I ran back into the living room and found Beth sitting on the couch. I stood over her, looking down at her. "Are you saying that I gave Mom cancer because I wouldn't fall into lockstep? You really believe that?"
She kept her eyes down, fiddling with a loose thread on her sleeve.
"Mom thought that, didn't she?" I began pacing, shaking my head in wonder, cursing the tears that were streaming down my face. "Of course it was my fault. Of course!"
There was a spell of silence, a collection of tempers. I didn't know whether to leave or stay, but knew that leaving wouldn't bring us any closer to a resolution. I sat down on the couch next to Beth. "I guess you think Dad's heart attack was my fault, too."
"No," she said, "you could never disappoint him, no matter what you did."
But I tried, didn't I?
"His sweet little Laura," Beth said, smoothing the folds of her blue polyester dress.
Sweet? Hardly. True, it was never a question whether he favored me, but it wasn't because I was sweet and docile; no, quite the contrary. I was the entertaining rebel giving his sanctimonious wife a constant challenge while he took pleasure watching.
"Mom loved you, Laura," Beth said. "You were the one she prayed for every night-on her knees-begging for you to change your ways."
"I'm not sure what I did that was so horrible."
"And Dad," she continued, "well, he barely gave me the time of day." She wiped her eyes with the palm of her hand.
If anything, I had to agree, and it made me feel like squirming.
"You were the one he taught to swing a golf club and play chess," she said. "You and Eric."
I reached over and rested a hand on her shoulder. "Well, you were busy with other things, Beth. I mean, look at all the trophies you won memorizing all those verses. And then you went to that retreat."
I didn't think I was being hurtful, but without warning Beth's hand came up and smacked me hard across the face. It took a moment for me to realize just what had happened. I gaped at her and saw that she was just as surprised.
Dazed, I got up and went to the closet to get my purse and keys. I wanted to call up the stairs to let Eric and Jenny know I was leaving, but then thought better of it. The belt that Eric had tossed back in the closet was lying on a pair of boots. I picked it up and put it in its rightful spot on the hook before walking out the door.
Dear Readers, Please let me know if you're interested in knowing more about the Sumner family and the disturbing news (at least to her siblings) Laura shared.
There are eleven more pages left to Chapter One, which I'll be sharing.