It was more than she’d imagined, the loose ends of the dead. Julia had set aside this Saturday morning to meet her younger sister—finally, they would go through the last of their father’s possessions before the house and all within was surrendered to the church. Julia hoped to salvage a few valuables, the Waterford vases inscribed with the family name, the photo albums, of course the paintings by Albie Kohn, the Santa Cruz artist their father had adored. She didn’t care about anything else. She just wanted it all to be over.
As she sat on the porch, picking at a loose screw, Julia frowned at her sister’s tardiness. Julia had eight years on Nat. Their father, a retired marathoner, had always stressed manners and good health – to Julia. He’d exhorted her to do household chores, put her in various sports after her sister’s birth, her mother’s death. Julia knew it’d been his way of remaining distraction-free so he could focus on the business, and it’d worked; he was dead and she’d hardly known him. Had he imparted any traits to her, to her sister? Health, maybe. Discipline and organization, at least for Julia, but certainly not with her sister. Nat had been raised by a succession of Guatemalan housekeepers more than by their father.
He’d died golfing. Julia’s husband Rick was supposed to be there, too, but a city meeting had come up, so her father had golfed alone, died alone on some fairway. Her sister thought it was just awful, a miserable end. But Julia imagined him lying there, balls softly thudding the grass around him, blue sky above. He’d been a quiet man; maybe it was ideal.
A green Kia passed the house, did a neat u-turn, and parked snug to the curb. Nat got out, shielding her eyes from the sun. “Your cell phone’s not on, dummy. I called like ten times.” She exited the sunlight, shaking her head. A month out of college she was still impressed enough with her looks—she was beautiful, athletic-seeming, idle—to not yet worry about facing the future with only an art history degree. She crossed her arms, frowning. “The house, the car, stocks. And we get nada. It’s total bullshit, Jules.”
“It’s what he wanted,” Julia said. “We have to honor that.”
“Right. Like anyone knows what Dad wanted.” Nat stepped back. “You been dieting?” She made her scrunched up pig-face, her oversized hipster glass frames pushing up her nose. “Too skinny, Jules. Come on, let’s get this over with.”
As her sister pressed into the house, Julia checked her cell phone. On. No calls.
They considered what items to keep and finally Julia took only a burr coffee grinder and three paintings; her sister took the other Kohn paintings, the vases, old photo negatives, a toaster oven, and their father’s best suits, all while complaining what a shame it was, throwing out so much. But that’s what happens when you die, Julia thought, when your daughters hardly knew you. At noon, the pastor arrived. They walked him through, showing him a few more items Nat would get in the next few days, when she had more room in her car. In a quiet moment, he touched Julia’s shoulder. “He was a great member of our community, Julia. I’m sorry for your loss.” He paused. “It’s been awhile since we’ve seen you.”
Julia nodded politely. The pastor started to say more but across the room, rummaging through her father’s bureau, Nat snickered. “You’re really trying to gather the flock now? Of all times?” The pastor smiled tightly. Nat, the heathen. Their father had lost religion once Julia began junior high; Nat never suffered church services, Sunday school. Now she yawned and went to the porch. “What am I missing,” she said, tapping her elbow.
Julia touched the pastor’s arm. “I’m sorry, too.”
He nodded and led her to the backyard and they all stood where the loveseat used to hang. The yard, the lush grass their father had insisted on keeping though Montclair had been in drought the last decade—the grass was gone, the ground churned into a dark humus. The pastor said that surely they had so many memories here. “His garden parties. So wonderful, the quartet, the cordials.” But Julia didn’t remember any garden parties. All she knew was sitting in the creaky loveseat, avoiding splinters and reading Kate Chopin for school while her father was inside, in his office. Cordials? Quartets? What else had she missed?
Nat looked at the porch ceiling. “Hey, the bolts from the rocker. Cool if I take them?”
The pastor coughed and gestured at the yard. “Yes, well. Girls, we did a soil test. It’s very rich, actually, and what we’d like to do is, we’d like to put in a community garden.”
“I love gardens!” Nat said from atop a tiny step-ladder, unscrewing a bolt.
Julia thought about it. “Can we have plots, too?”
Rick opened a second beer. “Damn right,” he said. “I’m giddy!”
They were waiting for Nat and her boyfriend for their first Friday night family dinner. Lately Julia needed to be closer to her sister; she and Rick hadn’t entirely ruled out children. Maybe Rick’s job would calm. Maybe Julia would feel the deep urge. Then she’d want her kids to come into a real family, loving, communicative, with a happy aunt, not just a lonely mother. She ladled stock into the risotto and stirred. “Only not so much,” Rick said over her shoulder. “You’ll want to release the starches later, with the butter and the cheese.” She looked at him. He held up a hand, don’t shoot!, and sat at the kitchen bar. “So if we incorporate – the name is Montclair Heights – we’ll have a clean slate, no muddy bureaucratic history. Sheila Klaussen thought I was brilliant.” He paused, eyed her stirring again, but only sipped his beer. “I’m excited, Jules. It’s progress.”
“Great, but can you progress your way to slicing the squash? I need help here.”
Two crookneck squash sat in a steel colander in the sink. Rick lifted one, sniffed it. “They look like runts.”
Julia shook her head. “Nat’s are like twice as big.”
The front door opened. “Hide the silver, we’re here!” her sister shouted from the entryway, holding a bottle of wine. Standing beside her frowned a thin spectacled man in a red t-shirt that read Hogwarts Waitlist. “What’s that smell?” he said. “Something burning?”
After dinner, Rick poured four glasses of port and passed a plate of dark chocolate.
“See?” Nat said to her boyfriend, whose name was Adam. “I told you they’re fancy.”
They all laughed, but warmly. “Really, it’s nice of you to let me come along,” Adam said. “And this port is great. Grown-up. Remember being young? Those big awful jugs?”
“Carlo Rossi!” Rick said. “That’s the worst!”
Adam said, “Do I spy the new Xbox over there, Rick?”
Rick grinned. “The Cadillac of gaming systems! Want to see the new GTA?”
Julia took the port glasses to the kitchen and poured Nat a gin and soda, paused, poured her own. In the living room, the two men squirmed in their seats and smacked controls. Rick asked Adam what he did for work. In a hurt voice, Adam said, “I’m a film professor. Really, Nat didn’t tell you?”
“So, film, what, you write movie reviews?” Rick asked.
“Right. That’s what film professors do. We write movie reviews.”
Julia wandered the house until she found her sister in the guest room.
“You can’t possibly like this one very much, can you?” Nat asked.
Julia handed her sister the drink and considered the Albie Kohn painting. Oil on white paper, minimal, a few swipes of black and gray that formed a geometric face-like shape. But the lines didn’t quite intersect, and it almost seemed as though a second smaller face were emerging from the first. It was chaotic, ill-defined. It was Julia’s favorite.
“Well, actually Nat, I think I do. I like it quite a bit, in fact.”
“Dad hated it. He kept it in storage, did you know that?”
“It was hanging in the hall, we found it in the hall, remember?” Julia said. Then she wondered if she liked it only because she’d thought her father had liked it. It was sort of ugly.
Nat yawned. “Well I’m totally sick of mine. We could swap every month or so.”
“But Adam seems great, doesn’t he? Not too much older than you.”
“He’s intense.” Nat lowered her voice. “Getting wine tonight, at Trader Joe’s? This bum was asking for change, not pushy, and this lady ahead of us yells at him like he’s scum. I mean, Adam’s face just goes screwy. He follows her to her car. Doesn’t say anything. Just stares her down. She freaked, almost hit another car backing out.”
Julia nodded. “But, I mean, that’s pretty weird behavior on his part, isn’t it?”
Nat rolled her eyes. “Says Miss Nonconfrontation. I haven’t forgotten last week.”
Julia blushed; Nat had wanted to impress Adam with her cooking and they’d gone to the garden for cilantro. When they arrived, a church woman was in Julia’s plot, a broad woman in loose pants, happily twisting away Julia’s favas, handful after handful. Stunned, the sisters spied from the car. The older lady looked so content as she kept plucking stolen beans. Julia wondered what kind of person would do that. Who could be so brazen?
“Dad would shoot her,” Nat had whispered. She was greatly amused by it all. […]
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Sean Bernard holds degrees from Arizona, Oregon State, and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He directs the creative writing program at the University of La Verne, where he also edits Prism Review. Bernard’s first novel, Studies in the Hereafter, is forthcoming from Red Hen Press, and his collection Desert Sonorous won the 2014 Juniper Prize and is forthcoming from UMass Press. Bernard’s fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in journals including Glimmer Train, LIT, Cutbank, Gigantic, Front Porch, and Quarterly West, among others.