The Duties of a Sister

By Karen Brode

Opal stared at the open suitcases on her bed. They were near full, but she wondered if she needed all of it for a trip meant to comfort her sister Cleo after the death of her husband.

The one item she questioned the most was the pair of yellow stretch pants she had bought the week before on impulse. She had thought they might be more practical to do the work of packing up Cleo’s house, even though she knew the church did not condone women wearing pants. She figured that perhaps in this situation, church folks might cut her some slack.

Still, she decided she should try them on before deciding to take them all the way to Denison, so she slipped out of her dress and proceeded to make the great effort of pulling on the pants.

Fifteen minutes later and dripping in sweat, Opal looked in the mirror.

“Oh, goodness no.” She clucked. “These look hideous.”

When she went to pull them back off, though, they were too tight. She started to panic as she pulled and pushed to get the blasphemous apparel off. In complete desperation she ran down the hall to her sewing room and cut them off. Once relieved of the pants, she took great pleasure tossing the pieces into the garbage bin.

Back in her bedroom, she buttoned up her dress and nodded in the mirror.

“That’s better,” she said.

The woman staring back at her was the woman she knew to be a pillar of the community and the church. She was a woman of substance, a woman who could probably endure anything.

She thought about Hazel, her sister who lived in the same town with Cleo. Right after Neal had died, Opal had wondered why Cleo hadn’t asked Hazel to help her. It didn’t take much thinking on Opal’s part, though to know why. Hazel was afraid of her own shadow. After her husband had passed away all those years ago, Hazel never recovered. She was barely equal to all the surprises life had handed her. She had nothing left to help Cleo stay afloat.

“Cleo,” she thought.

Opal frowned thinking about this sister whose husband had so recently passed. In her heart she had never liked Cleo’s husband, Neal. In all her memory, she couldn’t remember a single word he had uttered to her. For this, she could never forgive him. It was rude not to talk to your own sister-in-law. Besides that, he was just odd.

When the call came a month ago that he had passed, she had thought about not even going to the funeral, but her sister had wanted her there, so she went. Now, though, Cleo needed her to clean up the house and help her settle in as a widow. And when duty called, Opal was the first to answer.

The folks at the church in Fort Smith had been so accommodating when she told them about her family’s loss and her sense of duty. Brother Brown, the minister, had been especially kind to Opal during this time of need. He was a fire and brimstone preacher who delivered his sermons with a nasally Arkansas lilt. In times like these, he always found the right words of comfort.

“What a sad time for your family, Sister Taylor,” he had said squinting up at her with his dark brown eyes. “But what a great day for heaven.”

Opal had nodded at these kind words with furrowed her brow, clutching her watch necklace. It was a gesture she always did in sorrowful times. In that moment, though, she didn’t have the heart to tell Brother Brown that she was only half sure Neal was in heaven right then. She simply thanked the preacher and told him that she looked forward to joining her brother-in-law someday.

Now, though, it was time to join her sister and help her sort through the mess she liked to call a house.

“Three bags,” Opal said with decision at the suitcases. She sighed. “I just can’t know how long this will take.”

She bent over and latched each of the hardcover suitcases and carried them all at once out to her car. Someone with less heft might get a hernia carrying that many bags full-to-capacity, but Opal was was a sturdy woman, with a wide center of gravity, and not much phased her when it came to lifting things.

She had just slammed the trunk of her car when she remembered the wedge pillow she needed for sleeping. Even with all the junk Cleo collected, Opal knew her sister wouldn’t have a wedge pillow – at least not one that was clean.

She took one last walk through the house, going over in her mind anything she might have forgotten. Once she picked up the wedge pillow, though, she decided that was that and she headed out to the car.

The car dinged when she opened the door and she rolled her eyes. There was a time when the only noise a car made came from the engine. She decided she would like to go back to those days. She could do without the racket.

Behind the wheel of her Oldsmobile Cutlass, she looked out over the hood into the far distance of where she was heading. It made her tired when she thought of the long drive to Denison.

It was going to be a sunny day. She leaned over the wide berth of a front seat and dug her clip on sunglasses out of the glove box. She looked in the rearview mirror and decided it was a good thing she was doing. Besides being a help to her sister, she knew she, Cleo, and Hazel would have some high old times remembering their childhood.

Around 11:30am, Opal stopped at a roadside diner near Texarkana. All the booths and tables were filled with local farmers, businessmen, and several women with small children.

While she waited for a table, Opal noticed a family nearby whose children seemed better suited for the jungle than a public diner. Parents had no idea how to raise children these days, she thought. If those had been her children, they would’ve sat in their seats and been quiet and still. Now, though, people acted like they were afraid of their children, afraid to discipline them, afraid to even tell them no.

She shuddered when she heard the mother of the two boys sitting in the booth across from where she was standing bargain with her son.

“If you stop hitting your brother,” the woman said, “you can get a toy at the grocery store – okay?”

No child of hers would’ve ever heard her say that.

When it came her time to be seated, the restaurant hostess asked if she could sit at the bar to keep the tables open for groups of two or more. Opal was never one to make a scene so she agreed to sit at the bar.

What she hadn’t counted on, though, was how small the bar stools might be. She hefted herself up on the stool, but there was more of her hanging off to the sides than was on the stool. She shifted her body to the seat next to her and distributed everything across two stools.

It never occurred to her that her seating arrangement might be amusing to the other customers. She had stopped trying to explain her weight to anyone. Everyone who knew her knew that she ate like a bird. She often looked at her sisters, who were not fat, scarf down huge meals like wolves. Opal had just come to accept that her weight was just another injustice she had to endure.

Sitting there all alone, she had the impression that this trip seemed longer than it usually was. Maybe it was because on most of these trips to Texas her sister Jewel had been with her. Jewel wasn’t all that interesting, but she would’ve made the trip easier for Opal by just being someone to talk to.

Back in the car and satisfied from lunch, the car seemed to drive effortlessly. Opal turned on the radio, and heard the last part of a very important announcement.

“Ladies and gentlemen, our president has been shot!”

“Not again,” Opal thought in despair, thinking immediately back to the day she heard of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. As she listened, though, she was relieved to learn that President Reagan was alive in spite of being shot.

“Thank goodness,” she said out loud.

Ronald Reagan was too nice a man for something like that to happen. He was nice looking, too. Opal had seen all of his pictures.

She listened intently to the news stories as she continued toward Denison. She was thankful when she heard the shooting had taken place somewhere besides Texas. Once she knew this, she turned off the radio.

Finally, after what seemed an eternity, Opal drove up to Cleo’s house. She was surprised to see several cars parked outside with people milling about the lawn and porch.

Cleo didn’t notice Opal as she stood on the corner and watched her sister and all the people on her front lawn.

There was a sign on one of the porch posts that read “Big Porch Sale” in writing Opal recognized to be Cleo’s.

“No, no, now,” Opal heard Cleo say to someone on the other side of the yard. “I’ll have to get at least a dollar for that.”

Opal took in the scene of bargain hunters picking over the junk overtaking the whole front of Cleo’s house. She had forgotten how Cleo loved to haggle over things. She often wondered in these moments how she and Cleo could possibly be sisters.

This feeling alone made Opal want to get back in her car and drive down the road. But she watched Cleo and suddenly felt sorry for her. Cleo would never be the pillar of strength or the definition of cleanliness and organization that Opal was, but ultimately they were sisters and this bond alone kept Opal from leaving. She was there to help Cleo become stronger in her time of need and, if she could, teach her to be a little less cluttered, more organized – like she was.

With her resolve restored, Opal walked through the crowd of people and up onto Cleo’s front porch. She had already started calculating how they might get rid of all this junk without having to deal with all these people when she heard Cleo’s screech from the steps below.

“Opal! You made it!”

In seconds, Cleo had bounded up the steps and across the porch. She threw her long, skinny arms around Opal in a tight hug.

“Now that you’re here,” she said in Opal’s ear, “I can let myself cry.”

Opal didn’t even have to look at her sister to know tears were already streaming down her face. She could feel the sadness pour through her. She felt the pent up worry and fright that Cleo must have been enduring all this time.

Cleo pulled away and smiled at Opal. She sniffed and wiped her nose with the fatty part of her palm – if any part of Cleo could be called fat.

Much to Opal’s dismay, her sister then clutched Opal’s shoulders with the same hand she had just used to wipe her nose and said, “Let me send these people home.”

Before Opal could say anything, Cleo turned from her sister and, in an age-weary voice, said as loud as she could, “The sale is now over! Please leave!”

Some of her customers looked pouty they didn’t get to go through more of the boxes, but in just a few minutes, they had all meandered off to homes Opal could only imagine were cluttered with the kind of junk Cleo was selling.

It took them half an hour, but the two sisters worked together to get all the boxes, containers, and fold-up tables back into Cleo’s house. Opal bit her tongue to keep from making editorial comments on the items her sister felt proud to offer for sale. From what Opal could see, it was just a bunch of ridiculousness.

It wasn’t until they had gotten Opal’s things from her car and had started to settle in that she realized her sister had left off cleaning at all. She wanted to say something. She wanted to point out that Neal would never have liked living in these conditions, but she didn’t think it was the right time, so she kept her mouth shut.

When Cleo led Opal down the hall, she noticed that her sister’s bed was not made. It didn’t seem like anything had been swept or dusted or cleaned in who knew how long.

Opal began to wonder if Cleo had always wanted to live like this and, had it not been for Neal, she would have lived like an animal her whole adult life. Under her breath, she whispered, “At least he was good for something.”

Other than that, she kept her mouth shut out of respect for Cleo’s feelings. She almost lost it, though, when they came to the bathroom. Two birdcages sat in the only tub in the house. There was no shower–this is where Cleo would bathe. Opal had wondered when they had hugged earlier, when Cleo had last bathed. The birdcages confirmed her fears.

“Have you met my parakeets?” Cleo asked. She pointed to one cage and then the other saying, “This one is Toodles and this is Penny.”

“Is this where they stay all the time?” Opal asked. She took in shallow breaths to keep from breathing in the smell of bird dung that permeated the room.

“I can’t think of anywhere else they could be,” Cleo said, as if that was a perfect explanation.

“I could think of lots of places they could be,” Opal thought to herself. But again, she held her tongue. Cleo was still suffering, she thought. Give her time.

It was almost too much, though, when they came across their mother’s crocheted ecru tablecloth. It was torn all along the edges. Pieces were just dangling from it. Opal wanted to pull the tablecloth to her and cry. She remembered their mother working on it for hours with hopes that it would be cherished and passed down for generations – and now it was in tatters, beyond repair.

“Be careful on the rolled up carpet in the hall,” Cleo said when Opal left the dining room.

Sure enough, her foot slammed into a thick area rug that was rolled up and sitting on the floor in the hallway.

Opal felt her blood pressure rising. When she had agreed to help Cleo get settled, she didn’t imagine this level of disaster. Even with the contents of her three suitcases, she had not come prepared.

She thought of her suitcases and wanted to cry. All the clothes, all her belongings were going to be tainted with the smell that seemed to follow her everywhere she went in Cleo’s house. It was a combination of mold, rotting food, and bird or cat mess.

When she reached the kitchen, Opal found the source of at least two of those smells. Littered across the floor were dirty plates. There were several cats sitting on the countertops and the table. One was on the floor cleaning the leftovers off a plate.

“We don’t even have to wash,” Cleo said, coming into the kitchen, laughing. “We have our own little dishwashers!”

“Where did all these cats come from?” Opal asked, trying to sound more curious than disgusted.

“Oh, I just let them come and go. They’re neighborhood cats.” Cleo pointed to a hole in the screen door that led out to the back of the house.

Opal watched in horror when another cat squeezed through it and walked right in as if he owned the place. He meowed a couple times and Cleo bent down to pick him up.

“This is Fluffy,” Cleo said. “He’s my favorite.”

The cat purred in Cleo’s arms. Opal suddenly felt sick. This was a new feeling for her. She was the rock that held everything together. This, though, was too much.

“What should we have for supper?” Cleo asked Opal. She set the cat down next to a plate of picked-over chicken bones and then started rummaging through the cabinets.

Opal shook her head but didn’t answer right away.

“I, um, I saw a restaurant a few blocks away we could go to.” She surprised herself by the lack of conviction in her voice. She usually always knew what she wanted and was never reserved at saying so.

Cleo laughed. “We can’t go there. They close at five.” She opened the freezer and started rummaging through a thick block of frozen things that had been there for who knows how long. “I’ve got some corndogs in here somewhere. Would you turn on the oven?”

Opal tried hard to focus on her sister. It was a rare thing for her to be shaken like this. She kept reminding herself she was there to help, but she was just beginning to wonder if Cleo could be helped.

“Found ‘em!” Cleo said, holding up a flimsy box of corndogs. She turned and looked at Opal with a smile. “I’m so glad you’re here.”

Opal tried to smile, but she couldn’t. In the smallest voice she had ever heard herself use, she whispered, “Me too.”

Not knowing what else to do, she went to the oven and turned it on. Then she went to the table and watched in disgust as her sister prepared the corndogs next to a cat sitting on the counter.

(To Be Continued.)


Karen Brode is a senior contributor Jet Planes and Coffee. She grew up in Denison, Texas and graduated from Denison High School in 1972.  She took courses at Southeastern Oklahoma State University and worked in a church office for 25 years.  She and her husband, Gary, have been married 39 years and they have one son, Brandon. Karen’s hobbies are writing, sewing, and gardening.

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