• New short fiction, every week.
    The words you know and love . . .
    in a totally different order.

  • 26. Broken Star

    By Jennifer Haigh

    Jennifer Haigh—author of the novel The Condition, out this week in paperback—has been generous enough to share this exemplary story. There is a reason that some of the world’s best stories concern family, and Haigh’s narrative demonstrates it: that our families follow us everywhere, whatever our plans and choices.

    I met my aunt Melanie in the summer of 1974, an August of high bright days, so dry that my father had to oil our front lane to keep the dust down. I was fifteen, midway through high school and deadened by its sameness. I could scarcely remember what had preceded it, or begin to imagine what might follow.

    “You don’t remember me, do you? You were so little when I left.” Melanie climbed into the front seat of our station wagon, next to my father. This was my mother’s usual place, surrendered out of courtesy since Melanie was a guest. She had arrived with her stepdaughter Tilly on the Greyhound bus from Pensacola, Florida. Tilly, who was eight, shared the backseat with me and my mother.

    “Not exactly,” I said, though I had heard about Melanie my whole life: my mother’s sister, the youngest of seven, the midlife baby who’d surprised my grandmother after two miscarriages. I was an ‘oops,’ Melanie would tell me later, a confession that shocked and thrilled me. I’d never heard an adult allude to such matters. We were not that kind of family.

    There was a rustling sound as she rifled through her shopping bags. “For Regina,” she said, handing me a small unwrapped box. Inside was a pair of earrings, the dangling kind I admired, decorated with tiny seashells. These were made for pierced ears, so I wouldn’t be able to wear them.

    “They’re beautiful,” I said. “Thank you.”

    My mother glanced at the earrings. She didn’t care about jewelry, but feigned interest to be polite. “Very nice,” she said. “But Melanie, you shouldn’t have.”

    She greeted all presents this way—you shouldn’t have—no matter how worthy the occasion or how trifling the gift. It was a habit born of embarrassment. No gift—even one she’d always wished for—was worth drawing attention to herself.

    Melanie seemed not to have this problem. On the ride home she talked nonstop: the difference in weather from Florida to Pennsylvania, the assortment of characters she and Tilly had met along the way. She imitated the bayou accent of the bus driver, so thick that the names of cities they’d stopped in—Savannah, Georgia; Raleigh, North Carolina—were completely unintelligible. My father chuckled appreciatively. My mother giggled like a schoolgirl, covering her mouth with her hand.

    *

    Melanie had been gone for twelve years, the only one of my relatives who lived away. “Away,” in my family, meant anywhere outside central Pennsylvania, the quiet stretch of country, bordered by highways and Amish, where we’d farmed for four generations. Philadelphia was away. Pittsburgh, a grimy city of immigrants and steel mills, was, emphatically, away.

    Melanie had left after graduating high school. She attended secretarial school in Washington, D.C. and worked as a typist at the Department of the Interior before marrying Uncle Dan and moving to a naval base down south. I knew her face only from photographs, the half-dozen that decorated my grandmother’s parlor. One in particular impressed me, her high school graduation portrait: Melanie in an off-shoulder blouse of glamorous black, a color nobody much wore in those days, certainly not young girls. “It’s a drape,” my mother explained. “They made all the girls wear it. Don’t ask me why.” She said it in the impatient tone I recognized, the one that meant I was interested in the wrong things.

    I never mentioned the drape again, but I thought about it a great deal, Melanie being draped by someone, a photographer presumably. It seemed a reverent gesture, exquisitely romantic. In the photo Melanie’s dark hair was spread across her shoulders, her chin tipped at the unnatural angle favored by school photographers. The whole presentation was rather theatrical, and Melanie smiled as though she knew this but was simply playing along. Her attitude, though I didn’t yet know the word for it, was ironic, and it was this quality that delighted me.

    Now, in person, Melanie looked much the same as she had in the photo, though she had just turned thirty, an age I did not consider young. By thirty my female cousins were stout matrons: large bosoms firmly corseted, hair cut and permed into helmets of tight curls. Melanie’s hair hung nearly to her waist, and she wore the kind of wide-bottomed blue jeans I saw in magazines but didn’t own, being impractical for farm chores. She looked the way girls my age were supposed to look, while I—in my sleeveless blouse and homemade skirt, the flowered pattern not quite matching at the seams—looked like a younger version of my mother.

    Night was falling as we left the bus station, an amenity which, until then, I hadn’t known the town possessed. I went to high school in town—this involved a half-hour ride on a rickety school bus—but apart from the main streets, I’d spent little time there. The bus station was located on a dark side street behind a tire factory. My father had escorted us at my mother’s insistence, though he grumbled that this was unnecessary. The neighborhood was perfectly safe.

    I was beginning to notice how often they had such conversations: my mother asking for protection, my father reluctant to provide it. At home she was a model of efficiency, a take-charge housekeeper who structured my free time around endless daily chores; but in the outside world she was rather timid. My father had taught her to drive early in their marriage, but she refused to go any further than the grocery store. She drove slowly, nervously, and only on the back roads. The Pennsylvania Turnpike, with its three lanes in each direction, scared her witless.

    Back at the house, my father carried Melanie’s suitcase upstairs to the sewing room, whose couch opened into a bed. Tilly would sleep in my room. “Give your cousin the bottom bunk,” I was instructed, though Tilly wasn’t really my cousin, being Uncle Dan’s from a previous marriage. This was how my mother said it: “from a previous marriage,” as though there’d been more than one.

    I helped Tilly unpack her shorts and T-shirts. She was a skinny little thing, red-haired, with a sharp chin and a dark band of freckles across the bridge of her nose, so that from a distance she seemed to be wearing a Band-Aid. “Why do you have bunk beds?” she asked.

    “For sleepovers,” I said, though technically this had never happened. In the third grade, I’d been allowed to invite Donna Holtz to spend the night. Homesick, she had cried all evening, until my father drove her the twenty miles back to town. After that, no more sleepovers.

    Tilly considered. “Maybe,” she said judiciously. “Or maybe they wanted to have more kids.”

    “Nah,” I said, as though the idea had been discussed and dismissed. In fact, the possibility had never occurred to me.

    “Anyway, it doesn’t matter,” she said, climbing into bed. “They’re too old now.”

    I turned off the light, and in a few minutes I heard Tilly snoring in the bunk below. I lay awake a long time thinking about what she had said. I couldn’t imagine my mother pregnant, let alone doing what was necessary to get that way. Like any farm girl, I understood the mechanics of reproduction. I had once snuck into my uncle Wilmer’s barn while Lassie, a beautiful little mare, was being bred, a polite term that doesn’t convey the brutality of the operation. I was squeamish about applying that model to any human couple, let alone my parents. At that age I was more interested in the runway leading up to such intimacies, the kissing and ardent glances, none of which I had experienced myself.

    Drifting off to sleep, I found myself thinking of Melanie and Uncle Dan, who had met on the beach at Ocean City, Maryland. I’d been to the shore only once, on a rare family vacation, but I still dreamed of it. Not the ocean itself, but the human tableau running alongside it, the hundreds of strange, bare bodies on display, decorated with bright bathing suits. It was easy to place Melanie on that beach. I’d never seen Uncle Dan, not even a picture; but I imagined him tall and dark, with a hairy chest like Burt Reynolds.

    I was nearly asleep when I heard Tilly sniffling.

    “What’s the matter?” I whispered. “Did you have a bad dream?”

    “I miss my dad,” she wailed.

    This surprised me, because Tilly seemed older than her years. In fact she was the same age Donna Holtz had been at the time of our sleepover, and much farther from home.

    “It’s just temporary. You’ll see him soon enough.”

    “No, I won’t.” Tilly inhaled wetly. “We’re never going back.”

    “Don’t be silly,” I said, because that’s what my mother would’ve said.

    For a long time Tilly didn’t speak.

    “Why would you think that?” I whispered. “Did Melanie say that?”

    “No,” Tilly said. “I just know.”

    *

    I kept quiet about what Tilly had said. It was easy to do, since I rarely saw my parents during the day. August is busy on a farm, and we were each occupied with separate chores. I would see my mother at suppertime, and my father not even then; most nights he had meetings at the Grange hall, to prepare for the county fair. That year he was a judge in two categories, Swine and Youth Dairy Cattle. He felt out of his depth with the swine—we hadn’t raised piglets in years—but with the calves he was more than confident. I’d heard it said my whole life, by neighbors and uncles and men from church, their grave inflection giving it the weight of a proverb: Albert Yahner knows cattle.

    The fair had been a fixture of my childhood, as thrilling as Christmas, as anticipated and beloved. For six days each September there would be crowd and commotion, the Ferris wheel, the sweet greasy aroma of frying potatoes and funnel cakes. As a little girl I’d walked the midway flanked by my parents. Holding their hands, I kept up a steady chatter, enjoying their nearness, their protection from the unaccustomed crowd. When I got older, I entered animals in the youth competitions. I showed rabbits three years in a row, and at twelve, a Jersey calf named Buttercup, who took second place in her class.

    Three years later, my father still pestered me to raise another calf. “Someday,” I told him. The truth was, I had no intention of doing this; given the choice, I would skip the fair altogether. I was embarrassed, now, by the cowboy music, the livestock smell, the farm boys in their stiff new dungarees, hair slicked back as if for church. Last year I’d stayed close to the booth where I sold raffle tickets to raise money for the 4-H club, keeping a nervous lookout for my schoolmates, the town girls in their sundresses and pretty sandals. How I coveted those sandals! I loved them precisely because they were so impractical, bound to get ruined in the gravel and muck. The girls came in groups of three or four, whispering and sometimes breaking out in loud laughter. They might have been laughing at anything, but I felt with a deep certainty that they were mocking people like my parents. My mother in her housedress and dark lipstick, flushed with excitement, clinging to my father’s arm.

    “It’s about that time, isn’t it?” Melanie asked at supper. “The fair. God, I used to love the fair.”

    “It’s a lot of aggravation, if you ask me,” my mother said, passing a platter of fried chicken. “Bert will be relieved when it’s over.”

    “I think he likes it,” I said.

    “It’s too much for him. Since his heart attack.”

    “What about you, Gina?” Melanie had taken to shortening my name, which delighted me. I’d never had a nickname before.

    “I probably won’t go,” I said, avoiding my mother’s eyes. “I’ll have homework then. It’s the first week of school.”

    “You’ve got to be kidding.” Melanie took the platter. “Won’t all your friends be there?”

    My mother stared at me in bewilderment. “I don’t know what’s come over you.”

    “Don’t listen to her, Peg.” Melanie heaped her plate with potato salad. For a small person she had a huge appetite. “She’s going to the fair.”

    *

    Melanie was a late riser. It was ten, ten-thirty by the time she wandered into the kitchen in her nightgown. Even Tilly slept until nine. My mother tolerated this for two days. The third morning she enlisted them to work in the kitchen, putting up bread-and-butter pickles. She and Tilly picked the cucumbers, brought them in from the garden and scrubbed them at the sink. Melanie had the best job, slicing them into thin rounds, and I had the worst, sterilizing the Ball jars. Using metal tongs, I placed them four at a time in a huge cauldron of boiling water, a steamy, miserable operation that kept me in front of the blazing stove in the August heat.

    “Your mother runs a tight ship, Gina.” Melanie sat perched on a high stool in front of a breezy window. “Jesus, you’ll be glad to go back to school.”

    “Ten more days,” I said, grinning. I’d forgotten—it was easy to forget—that Melanie had been a farm kid too.

    “Do they still make you write that essay? ‘What I Did on Summer Vacation?’”

    “Some vacation,” I said, mopping my forehead with a towel.

    “My vacation was just super,” Melanie said in a simpering voice. “I watered two hundred head of dairy cattle.”

    “I hauled manure a quarter mile to the garden,” I added.

    “I sat by the highway all day in the blazing sun,” said Melanie, “and I sold six ears of corn.”

    I laughed so hard no sound came out, a feeling both delicious and frightening. Through the open window I saw my mother come up the garden path with another bushel of cucumbers.

    “I put up a million quarts of bread-and-butter pickles,” Melanie continued. “For God’s sake! Does anybody like bread-and-butter pickles?” Then she noticed the expression on my face. “Gina? What’s the matter?”

    My mother stood in the doorway, her cheeks flaming. The screen door spanked shut behind her. She glanced around the kitchen: the steam rising from the stove, the counters, covered with old towels, where I’d set the jars to dry.

    “You don’t have to help if you don’t want to,” she said, an odd tremor in her voice.

    “Peg,” said Melanie, turning to face her. “We were just having fun.”

    My mother set her basket on the table. “Don’t bother with these. I guess we have enough.”

    *

    “How long is Melanie going to stay?” I asked my mother.

    We were preparing Sunday dinner—roast beef, potatoes and carrots, a relish plate of pickled beets and my mother’s vinegar cabbage, what we called “chow-chow.” This was the standard menu for when the relatives came to dinner. For summer visits like this one, a platter of cut vegetables was added, whatever was ripening in the garden; but otherwise my mother made no concession to the season. Even today, maybe the hottest of the year, she didn’t consider a barbecue or cold supper, to avoid firing the oven all afternoon.

    “You never know with Melanie. You can’t pin her down.” She opened the oven door. A wave of heat smacked my bare legs.

    “But doesn’t Tilly have school?” My own classes would begin in a week, an event I looked forward to with a mix of excitement and dread.

    “Not for another month. The Florida schools start later. The heat, I suppose.”

    The screen door slammed and my father appeared, still dressed in his church clothes. His sleeves were rolled above his elbows. Sweat rings showed under the arms of his white shirt.

    “Makes sense, if you ask me.” He turned on the faucet and scrubbed his hands and forearms, streaked with farm dirt. My mother frowned but said nothing, just watched the filthy water pool in the sink.

    I persisted. “A month, then?”

    “Goodness, no. I’m sure Dan will want her back before then. A week at the most.”

    My father raised his eyebrows. “A week is a long time.”

    “Don’t be silly. She’s my baby sister. Who knows when we’ll see her again?” My mother arranged tomato slices on a plate. “It won’t kill Regina to share her room for a week. When I was a girl we slept three to a bed, except for George.”

    This was not new information. I’d heard my whole life that I’d been spoiled by having my own room. (My uncle George, the one boy in his family, had been similarly pampered, a privilege he’d apparently paid for by being killed in the war, long before I was born.) I was often treated to sermons on the value of sharing, wearing hand-me-downs and waiting in line for the bathroom—lessons I, the first only-child on either the Yahner or Schultheis sides of my family, had failed to learn. I didn’t have the nerve to protest that I hadn’t chosen to be an only, that my parents, who’d married late, were to blame. An eldest son, my father had spent his younger years running the Yahner farm, supporting his siblings and widowed mother. Even if he’d wanted to marry, my mother often said, where would he have found the time? Her own reasons for waiting were less clear, and more delicate. Plain and awkward, she had always been a homebody. Because of her shyness, school had been torture; when she dropped out of eleventh grade, her sisters were amazed that she’d lasted so long. My aunts agreed on this point: Peg was lucky to have found a husband, even one twenty years older. This was repeated throughout my childhood, so often that it never struck me as cruel. Peg is lucky to have a husband at all.

    My aunts—Rosemary, Velva and Fern—were brisk, no-nonsense women who’d married in their teens and raised large families. Their children were grown now, with babies of their own. These grandchildren were the subject of much discussion. Two and half, and still in diapers. JoAnn lets him sleep in bed with her and Doug. I can’t see why he puts up with it. Occasionally, one of the aunts would notice that I was listening, as I stirred the gravy or fetched bottles of root beer for the men. Remember this when you have babies, Regina. Before you know it, you’ll be toilet-training your own. These comments thrilled and perplexed me. To my knowledge, no boy had ever looked at me twice. What made my aunts so certain that, before I knew it, one would want to marry me? Explain this, I wanted to say. Explain how it happens.

    It seemed to me then, and still does, that my aunts were made by marriage, that every defining feature of their lives—the children and grandchildren, the canning and cooking and crafting skills each possessed—was intimately connected to that long-ago moment of being chosen. My uncles Wilmer, Dick and Bill were like all the men I knew, soybean and dairy farmers who spoke rarely and then, mainly about the weather. Yet unlikely as it seemed, I accepted that these men had the power to transform. My aunts had been pretty, lively girls—one stubborn, one mischievous, one coquettish, according to my mother. Yet somehow all three had matured into exactly the same woman: plump, cheerful, adept at pie-making and counted cross-stitch, smelling of vanilla and Rose Milk hand lotion. That I would someday become that same woman terrified me. My only greater fear was that nobody would choose me, and I would become nothing.

    The aunts and uncles arrived promptly at two, a strange time to eat a large meal—too late for lunch, too early for supper—but this was a Schultheis Sunday tradition. After spending all morning in church, the hostess needed a few hours to get the cooking underway.

    “Hi stranger,” said Aunt Velva, giving Melanie a squeeze. “Didn’t you look pretty this morning? I just love that white dress.”

    “Thank you.” Melanie winked at me over Velva’s shoulder. She had borrowed the dress from my closet, after coming to the breakfast table in a printed sundress that tied behind her neck like a halter top, leaving her back and shoulders bare.

    “Melanie, you can’t,” my mother had said when Melanie came down the stairs.

    Melanie shrugged. “It’s this or blue jeans. It’s the only dress I brought.”

    “Wear something of mine,” my mother suggested, though nothing in her closet was likely to fit. She wasn’t fat, but tall and large-boned, with broad hips and shoulders. “Or Regina’s.”

    “I don’t mind,” I said. “You’re welcome to wear anything you like.”

    Melanie followed me upstairs. “I forgot all about church,” she said with a conspiratorial laugh, as though this were a private joke between us. “Honestly, I haven’t been in years.”

    I stared at her in wonderment. It’s hard to credit, now, how exotic I found this. It was if I’d just discovered that Melanie could fly. “Really? Never?”

    “Nope. And God hasn’t struck me dead.” She threw open my closet door and rifled through the dresses and blouses, stopping to admire a skirt I’d made that summer. “This is pretty, but I don’t think it will fit.”

    “You’re skinnier than I am,” I said, though that didn’t describe it. Melanie had small breasts, a narrow waist, sharply curving hips. My body had the same features, or was beginning to; but these were recent developments. I wasn’t used to seeing myself that way.

    She gave me a playful shove. “No, silly. We’re the same size. You wear your clothes too big.”

    I blinked. My mother bought patterns in size fourteen when she could have worn a twelve. I’d never realized I did the same thing.

    Melanie chose a simple white dress I’d never liked, feeling exposed by its plainness. I turned my back politely as she untied her sundress. “You’ll need a slip with that,” I told her, digging through a bureau drawer. I couldn’t bring myself to say, You’ll need a bra.

    Now she had changed back into blue jeans, though the rest of us were still in Sunday clothes. Even Tilly wore the dressiest outfit Melanie had packed for her, a denim skirt and blouse.

    “And who is this little princess?” Aunt Fern asked, patting Tilly’s head. “Honey, we’re so happy to have you here. We’ve been hearing about you for ages.”

    This was a blatant untruth. Though Melanie’s name came up often in family conversations, no one ever spoke of Uncle Dan, let alone his daughter.

    Tilly blossomed under the aunts’ attention, guzzling cream soda and eating Velva’s lemon drop cookies. Watching her, I felt lonely for my childhood, when the aunts had been at the center of my small universe. I had especially adored Elsie, the oldest aunt, who until she died of kidney failure had spoiled me with small presents—knitting needles, beautiful buttons—prompting protests (“You shouldn’t have”) from my mother. Recently, though, the aunts had become less interesting to me, their company less dear. They had always fussed over me, the youngest of the girl cousins; but it was no longer the type of attention I craved. I wanted them to notice the ways I differed from JoAnn and Prudence and Theresa and Ruth: my love of reading, my high marks in school. Of course, those differences weren’t visible, and I was too shy to speak of them. But at the time, that didn’t occur to me.

    *

    The fair opened on a Monday, with a horse show and equipment expo, nothing I cared about. Tuesday would be barn games and harness racing; Wednesday, the milking contest and tractor pull. This year I begged off, complaining—in whispered tones, to my mother—of menstrual cramps. “I’ll be better by the weekend,” I told her. The most popular events would be held then—the Beef Cattle judging, the aerial show. Saturday night was the grand finale, an outdoor dance with a live band on the stage behind the Ag Hall.

    We drove there in the pickup, my father, Melanie and I. My mother had gone ahead of us, taking Tilly with her, to sell baked goods at the Church of the Brethren tent. My father left us at the main gate and we wandered into the Ag hall, past booths showing pies and needlecrafts, macramé and ceramics, hooked rugs and intricately pieced quilts.

    “Wait. Look at that,” Melanie said.

    The winning quilt hung against a makeshift wall, a blue ribbon pinned to its corner. The pattern was classic, an eight-pointed star on a white background, surrounded by a jagged border. It was the border that was most difficult to execute: sixteen sharp points, folding out from the original star like a paper snowflake. The design was pieced with snippets of blue fabric—ginghams and plaids and paisleys and sprigged muslins, all in shades of blue.

    “It’s beautiful,” Melanie said. She ran her hands over the quilt, admiring the delicate stitching. Only then did I notice the name on the entry tag.

    “That’s Mom’s. She makes one every year. It’s a very old pattern. Broken Star.” I stared at the quilt, ashamed I hadn’t recognized it. For most of the summer, my mother had spent evenings alone in her sewing room. She’d been working on the quilt for months, and I had never bothered to take a look.

    “Peggy’s amazing,” Melanie said softly. “She can do anything.”

    This stunned me. I had never thought of my mother that way.

    Over Melanie’s shoulder I saw a group of boys trotting through the expo hall. “Pretend like we’re talking,” I told her.

    “We are talking.” She lowered her voice to a whisper. “Why? Did you see somebody you know?”

    “Those boys are in my class. Don’t look.”

    “I won’t.” She leaned toward me as if whispering something in my ear. Then she laughed loud and bright, a perfect imitation of the town girls in my class.

    The boys approached us. “What’s so funny?” said the tall one, Darren Wolf. For two years he’d sat in front of me in homeroom, the luck of alphabetical order. I knew all his shirts, how the rear seam followed the shape of his shoulders, how his blond hair curled over the collars. I couldn’t recall him ever looking at me, or saying a word.

    “None of your business,” Melanie said tartly. “Gina, don’t tell them.”

    “Hi Regina,” said the other boy, Philip Schrey. We were in the same geometry class, but I was surprised that he knew my name.

    “Regina,” said Darren Wolf. “Is this your sister?”

    “Kind of,” Melanie said, giggling.

    “Do you go to Central?”

    “Did,” she said. “I graduated.”

    Darren Wolf nodded as though he’d suspected as much. “You girls going over to the dance?” he asked, though he was clearly asking Melanie.

    Yes, I thought. Just say yes.

    “In a minute,” she said. “We’re waiting for some people. We’ll see you over there.”

    “Okay then,” said Darren Wolf.

    “See you,” said Philip Schrey.

    When they were safely away, Melanie grabbed my hand. “Do you go to Central?” she asked in a gruff voice.

    We both shrieked with laughter.

    *

    August cooled into September. A dusting of yellow appeared on the trees. Each morning I trudged down the lane to wait for the school bus. Still Melanie didn’t leave.

    One morning I woke to find Tilly’s bunk empty. Downstairs I found my mother at the stove, frying bacon and eggs. Fresh coffee bubbled in the percolator.

    “Where’s Tilly?” I asked.

    “She’s spending the day with Fern. Melanie, breakfast!” she called, scraping eggs onto a plate.

    I heard loud footsteps above, the clatter of Melanie’s wooden sandals on the stairs.

    “Good morning!” she said breathlessly, giving my shoulder a squeeze. To my astonishment she was fully dressed, a poncho slung over her arm. She sat at the table and tucked into her breakfast.

    “Regina, drink your milk,” my mother said. I noticed, then, her high color, her cheeks flushed with agitation or excitement.

    “What’s going on?” I asked.

    “We’re going to Philadelphia,” Melanie said.

    “You and mom?” To my knowledge, my mother had never been to Philadelphia in her life.

    “Yep.”

    In my half-asleep state I watched Melanie eat, stung by the unfairness of it all. Once, as a little girl, I’d been allowed to stay up until midnight on New Year’s Eve, to watch the celebration on television; but I fell asleep before eleven. I awoke hours later in my own bed, where my father had carried me. I lay awake until sunrise, fuming at the injustice, heartbroken that I had missed my chance.

    “Can I come?”

    “Regina, don’t be silly,” said my mother. “It’s a school day.”

    “I don’t care.” I felt suddenly alert, shocked awake by my own bravery. “We never go anywhere.”

    She stared at me in astonishment. I held my breath, because there was more I could have said: Because you’re afraid of everything. I’m stuck here because of you.

    Melanie took her plate to the sink. “Peg, let her come. She can go to school any time. There are more important things.”

    My mother started to speak, but Melanie interrupted her. “Please, Peggy? I want her to come.”

    Then a remarkable thing happened. My mother relented. I couldn’t imagine why. I would wonder, later, about her reasons; but at the time I was too excited to care. Maybe I thought that with her fear of crowds and strangers, she felt safer with an extra body along.

    We set out in the station wagon, driving east into the blinding sun. The air had turned cold overnight, but the ground was still warm. Steam rose from the Yoders’ bean fields on either side of the road, a ghostly haze that parted to let us pass. Melanie drove, with a speed and joyful carelessness that exhilarated me: the windows open, her long hair billowing in the breeze. She sang along with the radio, an AM station crackling with static: You can’t talk to a man with a shotgun in his hand. My mother sat beside her, clutching the door handle. If my father had been driving, she would have scolded him: Bert, slow down. You’ll get us killed. But to Melanie she didn’t say a word.

    We approached Philadelphia at just before noon, which surprised me. I’d imagined it much farther away. The city itself was a revelation—the tall skyline, the Schuylkill busy with boat traffic. We exited the highway and made a series of turns down busy boulevards. As we neared the city center Melanie pulled over to look at a map.

    “Let’s stop here,” I suggested, staring out the window. Across the street was a small public park, crowded with people enjoying the midday sun.

    “Sure,” said Melanie, cutting the engine.

    “Melanie, really,” my mother said.

    “There’s an ice cream stand.” Melanie pointed. “I want an ice cream.”

    We got out of the car and crossed the street, my mother hugging her purse to her chest.

    “Three strawberry cones,” Melanie told the man at the window. She reached into the pocket of her jeans.

    “Save your money,” my mother said, opening her purse.

    I spotted an empty park bench and Melanie sat in the middle, her legs tucked up under her. I did the same.

    “Sit like a lady,” my mother told me. “Melanie, you’re a bad influence.”

    Melanie laughed. “It’s comfortable this way.”

    We sat watching people pass: men in suits, smoking cigarettes; well-dressed women toting shopping bags; black maids in uniform, pushing baby carriages. They were the sort of people I didn’t see in everyday life. I could have sat there for hours.

    “It’s getting late,” my mother said.

    Melanie licked her fingers. “I could eat another one,” she said. “Gina, could you eat another one?”

    “Definitely,” I said.

    “We could, you know.” She laid her head on my shoulder. “We could eat ice cream all day long.”

    “Melanie!” my mother said, so sharply that heads turned in our direction. Her anger startled me. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d heard her raise her voice.

    “Just kidding,” Melanie said, rising. “Jesus, Peggy. It was a joke.”

    We crossed the street and got into the car. Melanie drove down a narrow street, and then another, barely wide enough for one car. The closeness frightened and delighted me: the houses and store fronts abutting, with no space between buildings, the pedestrians—a different crowd now, young and longhaired—crossing at random, mere feet from our car.

    “Where are we going?” I asked for the first time.

    Melanie didn’t answer. Finally my mother spoke. “Your aunt has an appointment.” Something in her tone, her way of referring to Melanie—your aunt—warned me. I didn’t ask again.

    “Look for number one-twenty,” Melanie said. “It should be on the left.”

    I was the first to spot the building, a narrow brick house with a dilapidated porch. Melanie parked and we went inside. We climbed a graceful old staircase to the second floor. The steps were covered in hexagonal tiles no bigger than quarters. The spaces between the tiles were filled in with grime.

    At the end of the corridor we went into an office. A brass plate on the door read INTERNAL MEDICINE. We stepped into a dilapidated waiting room: mismatched chairs covered in green vinyl, outdated magazines—McCall’s, The Saturday Evening Post—piled on a table in the corner.

    I’m not sure how long we waited after Melanie’s name was called. My mother paged through a Ladies’ Home Journal, from front to back. Then she started over again, reading it back to front.

    *

    Outside the air had turned colder, the sky darkly clouded, as if the brilliant morning were something I’d dreamed. Slowly we crossed the street to the car, Melanie leaning heavily on my mother. I followed behind. They seemed to have forgotten I was there.

    I watched as Melanie lowered herself into the driver’s seat. When she turned the key in the ignition, the radio came on, a patter of muted trumpets. My mother reached to turn it off.

    “No,” Melanie said. “I like that song.”

    She drove us out of the city and onto the Turnpike. No one spoke. Then, suddenly, she pulled over to the side of the road.

    “I’m bleeding.” Her voice sounded strange, low down in her throat. “I can feel it. Peggy, you’ll have to drive.”

    My mother stared at her wide-eyed. “Melanie, I can’t.”

    “Why not?” Melanie turned to me, her eyes pleading. “Gina?”

    I shook my head mutely, shamed by my uselessness. I wouldn’t be sixteen for two months. My father had promised to give me driving lessons, but so far I hadn’t so much as turned the key in the ignition.

    “Peggy, please.” Melanie got out of the car, her hand low on her belly, and opened the rear door. I climbed out and took the passenger seat up front. I will never forget the look on my mother’s face as she took the wheel. She found the lever beneath the seat and slid herself forward, so that her face was inches from the windshield. Then she shifted into first gear and we rolled into the right lane. A shrieking sound as the car behind us slammed its brakes. My mother gasped.

    “It’s okay,” I said. “Just give it some gas. You’re doing fine.”

    In the left lane cars whizzed past. My mother didn’t answer. She kept a tight grip on the steering wheel, her eyes on the road.

    ”It’ll be okay, Mom,” I said. “Just keep driving.”

    For a long time neither of us spoke. Once, twice, Melanie moaned softly from the back seat.

    “Is she all right?” I asked.

    My mother shifted into third, grinding the gears. An eighteen-wheeler screamed past us, its headlights blazing. She shielded her eyes.

    “It’s hard to look,” she said. “Regina, I’m so scared. I just want to close my eyes.”

    *

    It was dark when we arrived back at the house. My father’s truck was gone. Melanie went immediately to bed, my mother to the kitchen. She filled the percolator and took carrots from the refrigerator, a couple of pork chops.

    “I’m not hungry,” she said suddenly. “Are you hungry?”

    “Not really,” I said.

    When the coffee was ready she poured me a cup, something she had never done.

    Across the kitchen table she explained how Melanie felt trapped with Uncle Dan, who had a terrible temper and sometimes hit her.

    “Why?” Whether it was the news or the caffeine I can’t say, but for the first time in my life I felt my heart.

    “He’s an animal.”

    I was as shocked as if she’d spoken an obscenity. I’d never heard her say an unkind word about anybody.

    “That’s no way to raise a child,” she said haltingly. “Can you imagine? Seeing his father behave that way.”

    “It’s for the best,” she said softly, the last words I’d hear her say on the subject.

    My father’s truck pulled into the driveway then, and my mother busied herself at the stove, laying the pork chops in a pan. I poured my coffee down the sink. The smell nauseated me. I have not drunk coffee since.

    When I came home from school the following day, Melanie and Tilly were gone.

    *

    It was time, my mother explained. They’d been staying at our house for nearly a month.

    A change came over her after Melanie left. For two days, three, her bedroom door was closed when I came home from school. “She’s feeling poorly,” my father said when I asked. “A humdinger of a headache.” Baking and canning seemed more effort than she could muster. The last of the tomatoes rotted on the vine.

    I could have lent a hand in the garden, but I didn’t. I was preoccupied with my own concerns. Most nights I had long conversations with Philip Schrey, who’d asked for help with geometry homework and begun calling me on the phone. These phone calls—the waiting and planning, the delight when they occurred and the crushing disappointment when they didn’t—culminated in our first date, to see The Towering Inferno at the Regal Theatre in town. After that we ate lunch together in the school cafeteria. We went to football or basketball games on Friday nights. This new dimension of my life occupied me completely. My mother’s difficulties didn’t interest me at all.

    We never spoke of the trip to Philadelphia. My mother didn’t mention Melanie for months. A card arrived at Christmastime, with a Florida postmark. Inside was a single handwritten line: Thanks for everything. Love, Melanie, Dan and Tilly.

    *

    Years passed, and I stopped thinking about that summer. Soon the slow August days were lost to me forever; it seemed, often, that I had no time to think. I went to college, worked, married a much older man and moved to a different country—feeling always that the world moved too fast for me, that I’d been raised to live at a gentler pace. In my late thirties I looked up and noticed that my parents were gone, the farm sold. Each year I considered sending a hundred Christmas cards, via airmail, to the dozens of Yahner and Schultheis relatives; but I never actually did this. My reasons were laziness and lingering guilt: I had neglected to invite my aunts to my wedding, a slight that, if they’d known about it, would have hurt them. I understood this, just as I understood that nothing—certainly not a secular City Hall wedding—could have induced Velva or Fern to travel to New York. Thinking of them made me sad and ashamed, so I stopped thinking of them. It wasn’t hard to do. My interest in family had died with my mother. Without her I didn’t see the point.

    My first book was published the year we returned from Sweden—a slender collection of short stories that seemed, and was, destined for the remainder bin. My publisher made a brief effort at promoting it, with a handful of signings at bookstores in the south and northeast. It was at one of these signings that I saw a familiar face, though I couldn’t place it immediately. The woman was slight and red-haired, my age or a bit younger. “Regina,” she said. “Do you remember me?”

    I looked at her closely. Through her heavy makeup I could discern a dark band of freckles, crossing her nose like a bandage.

    Could it possibly be?

    Tilly lived in Atlanta now, married to a linesman for Georgia Power. They had two daughters. She’d seen my photo in the Arts section of the newspaper and recognized me immediately, despite my unfamiliar last name. “I’m so proud of you,” she said. “Melanie would be so proud.”

    Melanie. After all these years it affected me strangely, like the name of my first love. “How is she?” I asked. “Are you still close?”

    “She died,” Tilly said.

    Over tea in the bookstore café, Tilly told me how Melanie had battled polycystic kidney disease, the illness that had killed my aunt Elsie. “It runs in the family,” said Tilly. “You should have yourself checked.”

    I nodded, not trusting myself to speak.

    “I’m sorry to lay this on you,” she added. “She was ill for such a long time. We looked everywhere for you. We thought maybe you could help.”

    “I was living in Sweden,” I said automatically, not comprehending her meaning. “With my husband. I got married,” I explained.

    “I guess that’s why we couldn’t find you. We didn’t know your married name.” Tilly stared off into the distance. A bookstore employee was making a racket, stacking plastic chairs. “We tried her aunts, but Rosemary was too sick. And Velva wasn’t a match.”

    My aunts,” I corrected her. Tilly wasn’t really part of the family; it was understandable that she’d get confused. “They were Melanie’s sisters.”

    Tilly covered her mouth with her hand.

    *

    And so it was Tilly who told me that Melanie was not my aunt. She was my sister. Melanie, dying, had needed a kidney, and the family had tried desperately to find me. They were certain that I’d be a match.

    “I’m sorry,” Tilly said that day in the book store. “We all assumed Peg had told you.”

    But Peg, my mother, had not.

    Melanie was born in August, the year my mother turned seventeen. A few years before, Gone With the Wind had opened in theaters, with Olivia de Havilland in the role of Melanie, a beautiful woman who also died young. It was my mother’s favorite film. She saw it four times at the Regal Theatre. That was before she quit school and became a homebody, canning and cooking and helping my grandmother with the new baby.

    I imagine a boy from a neighboring farm, in love with my mother—a girl who lived for the movies, tall and red-haired and less shy than I’d been led to believe. Who was that boy, I wonder, and who was that girl? I have pieced together as much as I can. My mother and my aunts are gone now. There is nobody left to ask.

    I remember Melanie that day in the Ag hall, the odd gentleness in her voice as she admired our mother’s quilt.

    Is she your sister? the boy had asked me.

    Kind of, Melanie answered with the smile I now think of as secretive. Did she know the truth then, or find out later? I missed my chance to ask her. I was in Sweden for three years with my husband. I wasn’t here to help.

    *

    “Broken Star” © Jennifer Haigh. First published in Granta 103, Autumn 2008. Used by permission of the author.

    Read The Condition, Haigh’s luminous and compassionate novel of family and love.



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