Late afternoon in the early summer, and I’m sitting in the backyard with a glass of wine and a book of short stories. I’m having a hard time concentrating on the book; my gaze keeps doddering off the page to watch a pair of sparrows carry bits of twig and leaf up into our one tree, building a nest. The dog is lying on the patio beside me, panting slightly, his eyes closed, lips pulled back into a contented smile. The nesting birds are loud, louder than the traffic whooshing behind the fence at the end of the yard. My eyes slide down until they are almost closed, though I am careful not to spill the wine. Peaceful.
The phone rings inside the house. I open my eyes and swear softly to myself. “Motherfucker.” It is a kind of sigh, a curse for waking up. Unwillingly, I rise from the chair, dropping the book but not the wineglass. The phone’s ring echoes through the open house. Stepping into the kitchen, I am temporarily blinded by the change from afternoon light to unlit interior. The phone rings again. I make my way to stand beside the answering machine, waiting for a voice to tell me whether or not to pick up. I screen all my calls this way.
Whoever is on the other end chooses not to leave a message. With a shrug, I pad across the warm wooden floors toward the back of the house, intending to get through one story at least before the sun sets. At the kitchen door, though, the phone rings again. “Goddammit.” I set the wineglass on the kitchen table and go back to the phone, answering this time. “Hello?”
“Why didn’t you answer before?” It is my sister, calling from Milwaukee.
“I was trying to screen my calls. I would have picked up if you’d left a message.”
No reaction to this. I wait for a moment, and then ask, “What’s up?”
“I have a gamma ession for you.”
The connection is bad. “A grandma session?”
“A gamma kession.”
My phone is cordless. I wander back through the house, pick up the glass. “One more time.”
“I have a grammar question for you.”
“Oh. I thought you said grandma session, and I couldn’t figure out what that might be.”
She ignores me. I wait again, give in sooner this time. “So what is it.”
“Okay, would you say ‘me and my sister’ or ‘my sister and me’?”
“My sister and me,” I answer automatically, and then think. “Well, what’s the sentence?”
She reads, carefully enunciating every word. “One of my favorite pictures is this, a black and white portrait of my father holding my sister and me when we are small.”
“Yeah, my sister and me.”
“That’s what I thought.”
I am on the patio again, settled back in my deck chair. The sun is beginning to set behind me, lighting up the house across the street with a muted orange that deepens the shadows and contours of the rounded adobe walls. On the other end of the line, my sister is silent, and I imagine that she is making notes on a rough draft. “Are you writing a paper?”
I take a sip of the thin merlot. “Read the sentence again.”
She sounds embarrassed. “No.”
“Come on. Please.”
With a slight sigh, she reads it to me again. “One of my favorite pictures is this, a black and white portrait of my father holding my sister and me when we are small.”
I am silent for a moment, letting the echo of her voice fade into the chirpy backyard birdsong and passing traffic. “How did you know it wasn’t ‘my sister and I’?”
“Because if you take out, ‘my sister,’ it would read, ‘my father holding I,’ and that doesn’t make sense.”
I nod into the phone. “Huh.”
“I learned that little trick from you,” she says.
I don’t say anything, just raise my eyebrows to the birds and nod again.
“You know what else I learned from you?”
“No, what?” I ask, wondering what other grammar tricks I’ve taught her over the years.
“That you should be in second gear when you drive around a corner.”
Surprised, I laugh. “Oh!”
“Yeah,” she says. “I was thinking about that the other day, when I was driving dad’s new car.”
“Dad has a new car?” This is news to me, the daughter who lives on the other side of the country.
“I didn’t know that. I just talked to him, too.” The dog wanders out from the kitchen and stretches out on the concrete beneath me. “Why?”
“He bought it at Cabaret,” she says, no inflection in her voice to indicate that this is strange. Cabaret is an annual bidding auction at the church we grew up in, a fundraiser. Normally people offer things like massages or artwork, cooking lessons or quilts. Not cars. “He was planning to resell it, but now he likes it.”
“Because he can pretend to be a race-car driver?” I ask knowingly. He’s been driving a mini-van since we were teenagers.
“Yup. It’s a speedy little car, too.”
“Mmm-hmm,” she agrees, undoubtedly remembering how our father marred his perfect driving record by speeding around town in her old car, a tiny red Mazda. My sister left her car with him in Madison when she went to college in Milwaukee. He took to driving the Mazda instead of his mini-van for the sheer pleasure of shifting gears and zipping around bulky SUVs on the freeway. His race-car dreams were squanched when he zipped his way into a three-car pileup and totaled the car.
I say, “Lately whenever I tell people about him, they go, ‘I wish I had a dad like that!’”
“Well, I called him last weekend to help me sort through some stuff, and so this week I keep saying, my dad told me this, my dad told me that.” In the last few years, our dad has become the primary sounding board for both of us, his daughters. He makes his living as a life coach, which as far as I can tell is a therapist who gives advice. Of course, he doesn’t charge us, but I tell him that we’re helping him to build his portfolio of cases, lives for which he can take partial credit.
“What stuff?” my sister asks.
“Nothing interesting. Work stuff, office relations and management things. Boundary issues, communication things... you know.”
“I’m moving,” I say.
“In the next two weeks, I think.”
“Where are you moving to?”
“The mountains. Well, the foothills. Closer to the mountains than I am now.”
My sister sounds disappointed. “I was going to help you. I wanted to help transplant your garden.”
“My garden?” I ask, thinking that I need help more with the large furniture pieces than the small geraniums and Mexican sage growing along my garage.
“I don’t want you to leave it there. And you might cut through the roots.”
I am touched by this, my little sister’s conviction that I’m not capable of achieving this trifling task, though I’ve been living away from her for nearly six years. A part of her has always been convinced that it is she, not I, who is the rightful owner of the title big sister in our family.
“So are you coming out to help me move?”
She sounds irritated. “Not in the next two weeks I’m not. I have finals.”
“Oh. Well, you should come soon.”
“If you buy me a plane ticket.”
I roll my eyes. “Sorry, sis, no can do. The move’s going to take a toll on my checkbook, I’m afraid, especially if this promotion doesn’t come through soon. Ask dad, he might go half and half.”
On the other end of the line, she is shaking her head, I know. Her voice brightens. “Guess what I spent twenty-six dollars on today?”
“Books and magazines about Boston terriers!”
I groan. This is her latest obsession: a place of her own and a dog to go with it, which would be fine with all of us if she weren’t so determined to acquire a member of one of the ugliest breeds of dogs on the planet. “God, no. They’re hideous!”
“Did you know that Boston terriers are prone to eye injuries?” she asks happily. “Their bulgy eyes stick out so far from their skulls that they get poked out a lot!”
“I’m going to pick out the puppy with the biggest, bulgiest eyes and name him Mister Googles!”
I laugh and laugh. I can’t help myself. At my feet, my own dog (a handsome German shorthaired pointer with normal-sized eyeballs) cocks an ear at me inquisitively. I try to imagine the future Mister Googles, try to imagine loving him as my sister loves my dog, and resign myself to the fact that I would have no choice. We are dog people, my sister and I, cut from the same cloth. There is no question that the dogs in our lives will be loved.
The sun is setting now, the last shadows waving across the rocks in my backyard. On the other end of the line, my sister is still talking about Boston terriers, happily chattering about their eating and exercise habits. I think about the ways our lives have turned from one another and how our dreams are still the same: a place to call home, with a dog and a garden. I think about how we’ve lived apart for years and how we still speak the same language, a vocabulary of shortcuts and old jokes built over a lifetime of shared experiences.
Picking up on my inattention to her fact file and puppy plans, my sister says she needs to get back to her paper. “Anyway, I’m on the cell phone, so I can’t talk longer.”
“Okay,” I agree, slightly disappointed.
“Hey, some of us are still in college,” she says.
“Wait, before you go,” I say, trying to delay her.
“Read me that sentence again.”
“No-oohwa,” she says, stretching the word into a whine.
“Come one, just one more time. Please?”
“Fine,” she says, giving in. I can hear her ruffling some paper, can see in my mind the way she picks them up and holds them in front of her like a small-town news anchor. “Okay. One of my favorite pictures is this, a black and white portrait of my father holding my sister and me when we are small.”
I finish the last bit of wine in my glass and smile.
“Happy?” she asks.
“Okay then, I have to go. I love you.”
“Bye. Good luck with the paper.”
Across the street, the first star shimmers through the hazy dusk. Trying to hold on to her words in the growing darkness, I whisper them again to myself.