Sometime in 1994, Mother picked up a yellow handbag at a yard sale. It had blue flowers with a red stain down the back. It was hideous and I was convinced the stain was dry blood. She carried it with her every-day and we could see her approaching from a distance. A short, fat lady with a yellow blob on her shoulder. While shopping for curtains one day, we dragged her into a pawn shop with an ancient Roman helmet in the glass window, and an Ouija board.
The store owner looked at us and at Mother’s handbag. He asked where she had picked it up from. She told him and he wanted to examine the back. “Do you know who this belonged to?” Mother shook her head and he said Lorraine, the Slicer. “I knew it,” I said. Lorraine Kimberley sliced up her two-month old baby, stuffed him into a handbag and walked to the police station near her house. The man asked Mother if she would be willing to sell, since he enjoyed collecting crime memorabilia. “How much?” “Twenty five thousand.”
That’s the money we used for the trip to Bahamas. While Dad lay sprawled on the sand with a number of empty mojito glasses around him, Mother looked out at the waves and shifted uncomfortably in a deck-chair. “I should have carried a cushion.” My sister, Tammy, and I sat under a palm tree, planning. “I’m going to stay back here,” she said, “I’m prettier than those bartenders and you saw the tips they get?” My lucky guess about the blood stain had me convinced I would make a great detective. “I’m going to be the next Sherlock Holmes,” I told her, seriously. “But that’s fiction, Jimmy,” she laughed. I told her she wasn’t half as pretty as those bartenders and her face behind the bar would be bad for business. She ran crying to Mother and tripped over Dad, hitting her forehead on the deck chair. I remember her blood dripping on the beach, turning the golden yellow sand to a dark maroon.
The mark never went. A short, light-brown line just above her left eyebrow. She became Three-brow Tammy and the name stuck till she left town for college. We hardly spoke and I think she still hates me for what happened on our only holiday. I walk into a bar and there behind the counter I see Tammy serving drinks. “What are you doing here? You’re underage.”
“Not if the bartender is your sister.” “Fuck you, Jimmy. You think you’re so smart.” “Dad’s dead. The funeral is in two days. Ma wants you to come home.” I jumped off the bar stool and walked towards the door as a man in a cheap suit shouted for another round. “Make it quick, sweetheart.”
At the church, Aunt May and Mother sat in the front pew wiping tears silently. I sat behind them as Tammy put her hands around their shoulders, ignoring me. The priest droned on as I stared at a sparrow flying in and out of the large window to the right. After the burial we walked home and mother asked Tammy about her job. “It pays the bills.” In the living room, we sat around the old table and sipped on tea that was too sweet. I stared hard at the chipped edge of the kitchen top trying to think of better times when Ma broke the silence. “I want you two to know he loved you very much.” Both Tammy and I snorted. Just love can destroy you, at times. It is too much of a good thing.
“Remember that yellow handbag I had?” We nodded. “Your father really liked it. I shouldn’t have sold it.” “We should have sold him,” I muttered. “Jimmy, please...” and she trailed off. I looked at her for a moment and saw years flash by like a movie reel, fast forwarded. The walks to school, my plans to become a baker, Tammy bawling when she lost the local beauty pageant, our holiday in the Bahamas and I thought of Dad. I imagined him as a living scarecrow staggering in the background. He was there to ward off the crows, but that was never enough. Sometimes, the land doesn’t need protecting because the soil isn’t fertile.
I drank down to the dregs and remembered when Ma tried to teach us to read them. That was a fun day. Dad was stable, more or less, and he stared at us from his chair as we laughed at our ridiculous predictions. Tammy said she saw a palace and Mother replied it meant she was going to marry a prince. I peered into mine and saw dead tea leaves. Mother took my cup, turned it this way and that, and reached a conclusion. “You’re going to travel, Jimmy. Far and wide to places you only read about in your school books.” Dad sniggered in the background and asked me if I knew what dirty dishes in the sink meant. I shook my head. “It means your world is no bigger than a kitchen sink and we’re all going to try and jump out. But you’re going to fail.” I thought it was funny because I couldn’t imagine Mother fitting into a sink. I told him that and we all laughed, loud and clear.
Sitting around that same table, I tried not to give in to the fact that he may have been right. If you take away the drinking and keep only the rambling, Dad wasn’t all that bad. I told mother so because she looked like she needed comforting and I wasn’t very good with hugs and all that. She tried to smile but it took the life out of her so she ended up staring at me tight-lipped. Tammy was drumming her chipped nails (painted red) on the table. That is when I knew even families come with an expiration date. They do. You don’t know when memories become painful and wipe everything out. Dad was right about memories, too. “You know what memories become, Jimmy boy? Fossils. You need to dig so deep to find them that it’s almost always a waste of time.”
Nicholas Rixon’s short stories and travel non-fiction have appeared in The Statesman’s 8th Day, Penguin Unplugged, Hindustan Times, Spelk, 101India, and Catapult’s Community Fiction. He currently lives in Calcutta and is working on his debut short story collection.