Hollister stood at the screen door, looking through it into the
twilit backyard. There was no sound except the faint creaking
of an old-fashioned couch hammock which stood at the back of the
garden facing an alley. The hammock had been placed in that spot
years before, because someone had once said the breeze was better
there. A cricket began his strident little chirp and Mrs. Hollister
found herself listening, almost unconsciously, to time the pauses
between his calls. There seemed to be none. ‘That means
it’ll be over 100 degrees tomorrow,’ she thought.
The failing light flattered the neglected yard, softening the
few dejected lines of iris and snapdragons which struggled to
survive in the August heat and hiding the tentacles of crab grass
which crept out of the lawn to join them. Honeysuckle in full
bloom covered the garage wall and its heavy sweetness hung in
the still evening air. Not a branch stirred on the locust tree
which shaded the hammock from noon on. Its pods hung ripe, expectant.
Mrs. Hollister also seemed to be holding herself in readiness,
as if preparing for an unseen but imminent encounter.
“Amy?”, she called into the
darkening yard. “Do you want some tea?” Both the hammock
and the cricket fell silent.
“Tea? Do you mean a cup of tea, dear?”
Mrs Hollister closed her eyes, very briefly, and when she answered,
arranged her words carefully, like small knick-knacks on a shelf.
“Iced tea, Amy.
Iced tea left from dinner.”
“Oh, I don’t know, dear. It’s
awfully near bedtime, isn’t it? Well, maybe just half a
Mrs. Hollister stood very still. She appeared to be waiting for
“Or ginger ale would be nice. Don’t we have some ginger
ale, Edie?” The hammock began again.
“We don’t have any ginger ale.
You finished it yesterday. Don’t you remember?”
“Did I? I thought I saw some, way
at the back of the fridge. A big green bottle?”
“That’s lemon juice, Amy. Would
you like some lemonade? Or iced tea?”
“Yes. Well…, actually, no.
You know, what I’d really like is a nice glass of ice water,
dear. If it’s not too much trouble.”
Mrs. Hollister withdrew from the screen
door, backing away from it slowly, as if she could not bear to
leave it. She exited the kitchen shortly, carrying a tray with
two glasses and an ash tray on it and a large canvas bag over
her arm. She stepped outside, flicking on a light which illuminated
the small cement porch. There were a round, metal, table with
a hole in the center where an umbrella had been, four folding
chairs and a large philodendron in a plastic pot. She placed the
tray on the table and sat down in one of the chairs, with the
canvas bag on the ground beside her. Eventually the cricket resumed,
but the hammock stopped.
“Edie? Is that you? Did you put the
light on? Are you coming out here?”
“I’m on the porch, Amy. I’m
going to sit on the porch. Your water’s here.”
“Oh, you’re not coming down
here? It’s so nice and cool down here, Edie. It’s
the most comfortable I’ve been all day.”
Mrs. Hollister took a package of cigarettes
out of her apron pocket and lit one. She inhaled deeply before
“I’m going to sit up here.
It’s light enough to embroider up here. You stay there if
you’re comfortable.” She waited, sitting motionless.
“Are you smoking, Edie?”
“Yes, I am.”
“The only reason I mention it, Edie,
is that sitting up there on the patio, next to the garage, the
smoke just sort of hangs in the air and I can’t help breathing
it in. Down here, if there’s just a tiny breeze, the smoke
blows away more, is what I meant.”
“Then sit down there. I’ll
sit up here and smoke and you sit down there where the air’s
She withdrew a small, fabric-covered, wooden frame from the bag
and examined it pensively. Then, putting on a pair of magnifying
glasses and extinguishing her cigarette in the ash tray, she turned
her chair slightly more toward the light and began to stitch.
Both the cricket and the hammock ceased and Mrs. Hollister paused,
listening. Presently her sister emerged like a large moth from
the dusk of the backyard, making flapping motions with her handkerchief
at something unseen. She was only two year older that Mrs Hollister
but she seemed infinitely frailer and less substantial.
“Mosquitoes, Edie! I’m sure
there are mosquitoes out there. Have you been bitten?”
“Mosquitoes hate tobacco smoke. Didn’t
you know that?”
“I’m sure I never heard that.”
Mrs. Ellis eyed her sister suspiciously. “No, I never did.
You just made that up, didn’t you?” She pulled out
one of the folding chairs and sat down, smoothing the folds of
her light, summer dress carefully over her knees. She was a tall,
thin woman, given to garments at once appropriate for the occasion
and oddly unsuited to her. Much of her clothing appeared to be
secondhand, though it had been bought new and expensively so.
She reached for one of the glasses.
“Is that my water? Ooooh, lovely!” She swallowed and
reflected upon it briefly. “It’s not very cold, is
“It was, when I brought it out, Amy.
It had ice in it.”
“Well, it’s cool. It’s
just not really COLD. But it tastes lovely, just lovely.”
They sat in silence. Mrs. Hollister waited. “What’s
that you’re drinking, Edie?” “Lemonade.”
“Oh, that sounds good! I didn’t
know we had lemonade.”
“I told you that we did.”
“No, I’m sure you didn’t,
Edie. I’m sure that I would have remembered if you had.
No, you said ‘tea’, and I really didn’t want
any tea, because it’s too near bedtime for me to have tea.
It keeps me awake if I have it after seven o’clock. But
I don’t remember you saying anything about lemonade at all.”
Mrs. Hollister lit a cigarette, placed
it in the ash tray and resumed embroidering.
“Yoo-hoo, Edie? Amy?”
A voice came from the alley and as they watched, a small round
woman approached, walking heavily and fanning herself with a folded
“Oh, mercy, hasn’t it just been awful today? I don’t
think it cooled off at all last night. I told Ed, I don’t
think it cooled off one bit, not one bit.”
“Sit down, Dorothy. Have some iced
tea? Or lemonade?”
The woman collapsed into a chair which
gave a small shriek of protest.
“Oh, Edie, lemonade sounds wonderful.
I don’t know where I’ll put it. God alone knows where
I’ll put it. I must have drunk three gallons of ice water
and soda and tea and fruit juice today and I just sweat it right
back out.” She chuckled and Mrs. Ellis smiled politely.
Mrs. Hollister rose and went into the house.
The two women sat and in the sudden stillness the cricket recommenced
his manic chant.
The visitor shifted her chair toward the
“Hear that? The cricket? Hear how close together his calls
are? Well, the closer together they are, means the hotter it’s
going to be the next day. That’s what I heard. They sounded
just like that yesterday evening, and it never cooled off last
night, and today was hotter than yesterday, don’t you think?
Did you ever hear that? About crickets?”
Mrs. Ellis made as if to smile and then
realized that her lips had not released themselves from her last
smile. Her face had begun to ache slightly and she exerted a conscious
effort to relax it. She spoke pleasantly.
“No, I don’t think I ever have,
Mrs. Niederman. Isn’t that interesting? But then animals
are more in tune with Nature, aren’t they, than we are?
I’ve always thought so.” There was a pause during
which Mrs. Niederman fanned herself vigorously and Mrs. Ellis
flapped her handkerchief at an occasional mosquito. Mrs. Niederman
broke the active silence.
“Well, what do you think of it here?
Are you enjoying it? God knows August is a hellish month to visit,
of course. Better to wait and come in October, really.”
Mrs. Ellis’ smile, seemingly possessed of a life of its
own, had crept back onto her face and now refused to be dislodged.
“Oh, I’m not here to visit!
I live here now, with Edith. Oh, yes, we share the house. well,
I own it actually, Papa and Mama left it to me as the elder,”
(she seemed unable to stop talking) “but I never lived here
because I had my OWN house when I was married, you see. I mean,
WE did, my husband and I. Edith and HER husband lived here and
then he passed on and so did my husband and there I was, rattling
around in all those rooms,” (dear God, shut her mouth) “and
Edith and I, we, decided that I should come here to live. What
made you think I was only visiting? I mean, Edith didn’t
say I was VISITING?” Mrs. Niederman slapped her ample forearm.
“Mosquitoes, damn ‘em! Eat
you right up. Lord, honey, I don’t know, nobody ever said
anything one way or the other that I can remember. I guess I just
assumed. Hey, never assume, it makes an ‘ass’ out
of ‘u’ and ‘me’! Isn’t that a good
one? ‘U” and ‘me’, get it?”
She tapped Mrs. Ellis supportively on the knee. Mrs. Ellis’
smile twitched alarmingly.
“Well, that’s wonderful isn’t it? It’s
a terrible thing, living alone. This way, you save on expenses
and you’re company for each other. Sisters and all, I think
it’s just wonderful.”
She sighed. “Whoosh, it’s hot, isn’t it?”
Mrs. Hollister came out of the house, carrying a glass of lemonade
and a plate of small, brown cookies. Mrs. Niederman drank deeply.
“Mmmmm, yummy. And you watch, I’ll just sit here and
sweat it out. You know you’ve got mosquitoes, Edie?”
“That’s what Amy says. I told
her that they don’t bother me because I smoke.”
“Oh, shoot, Ed smokes like a chimney
and they bite hell out of him. Out of both of us. Don’t
you have any of that mosquito repellent stuff? We use it and it
really works. Only you’ve got to put it on everyday. I forget
half the time.”
Mrs. Hollister lit a cigarette and took up her embroidery. Mrs.
Ellis flapped her handkerchief nervously.
“I would hate the idea of putting
something poisonous on my body and that’s what it is, of
course, poison. I mean, it couldn’t do you any good, could
it, putting poison on your skin, even if it did repell mosquitoes?”
Mrs. Niederman snorted.
“You don’t DRINK it, honey!
Nobody’d be fool enough to drink it. You just rub it on
your hands and neck and face and whatever else is going to be
out there to get bit. That’s all you do. Or you can try
taking a whole lot of Vitamin B. My nephew goes camping all the
time and he swears by it. He says you stink so bad from Vitamin
B that no old mosquito’ll touch you with a ten-foot pole!”
She laughed heartily.
They sat for a while in silence, Mrs. Niederman
eating cookies and fanning herself, Mrs. Hollister embroidering
and Mrs. Ellis willing the muscles around her mouth to calmness.
The darkness grew deeper and the cricket’s song sounded
unnaturally shrill in the quiet, night garden. Finally, Mrs. Niederman
sighed gustily and struggled out of her chair.
“Well, I hate to do it, girls, but
I got to. Ed’ll be thinking that I ran away from home. Thanks
for the goodies, Edie.” She inhaled audibly.
“Doesn’t that honeysuckle smell wonderful? I just
love honeysuckle. Well, goodnight, you two, sleep tight.”
She started toward the alley.
“Goodnight, Dorothy,” Mrs.
Hollister called. Mrs. Ellis murmured something indistinguishable.
Mrs. Niederman waved her newspaper fan without looking up and
disappeared around the corner of the garage. Mrs. Hollister stood
and began to return her embroidery to its bag. She hung it over
her arm, put the dishes on the tray and moved to the screen door
where she waited. Finally she spoke carefully.
“Can you open the door, Amy?”
Mrs. Ellis jumped up guiltily.
“Oh, yes, heavens, yes! Here I sit!
I’m sorry, dear.” Mrs. Hollister went into the kitchen
and stacked the glasses in the high old-fashioned sink. Mrs. Ellis
could feel herself beginning to smile and took a deep breath to
relax. She noticed the little pad and pencil on the telephone
table in the hall.
“Shall I start a grocery list for
“If you want to.” Mrs. Ellis
perched on the stool by the table.
‘Frozen peas,’ she wrote neatly
in her small tidy hand, ‘margarine, a shower cap, safety
pins, shredded wheat.’ Mrs. Hollister snapped off the kitchen
light and stood in the doorway.
“Do you want to try that mosquito
repellent that Dorothy was talking about? They’re just going
to get worse till cold weather.”
“I don’t think so, Ede. I truly
don’t like the whole notion of poison on my skin. Ugh! I
wouldn’t even want it in the house. It horrifies me, really
“Suit yourself. They never bite me
Mrs. Hollister went into the living room and began straightening
pillows. Mrs. Ellis remained at the phone table, studying the
‘Tomatoes, hair remover,’ she
wrote carefully, ‘granola, aspirin, peaches.’ She
stared at the paper and thought, that dreadful, common woman.
How can Edie abide her? How COULD she have gotten the idea that
I was only visiting? Surely Edie must have said something about
the house belonging to me. She MUST have. ‘Carrots, celery,
dental floss, laxative.’ But then, Edie is so much more
capable than I am. People can picture her owning something like
a house. She is strong and sure of herself and I am a fool, such
a silly useless fool of a woman. ‘Dish detergent, room freshener.’
They didn’t leave the house to you because you’re
the elder, Amy. They knew that you’d need it more, because
you would never be able to live alone and this way you’ll
never have to. She remembered her father’s voice, across
the years. ‘Pity that sister doesn’t have a few of
your ladylike ways, Amy, and you don’t have some of her
gumption. You’d both be better off.’ She’d thought
it an odd unkind thing to say. And their mother, how many times
calling after them as children, ‘Edie, you keep an eye on
Amy! Don’t run off and leave her.’ Surely it should
have been the other way around, shouldn’t it? Edie had been
with their mother when she died. Had mama said something like,
‘Remember you must always be there for Amy. She can’t
take care of herself.’ Had she said that or something like
it, never seeing the resentment, the hatred, smouldering in her
younger child’s eyes? Could that have happened? And Edie
herself, so self-contained and unreadable. How could she ever
know what Edie was really thinking?
Of course, she doesn’t want me here.
She probably wishes I would just disappear. There were tears of
self-pity in her eyes now and her lips curved relentlessly upward.
Oh, Amy, you idiot. She blew her nose and took several very deep
breaths. There. Better. Much better. Well enough to make a little
“I’m in here.”
“Yes, I know you are, dear. I just
wondered if I should pick you up some of that stuff that people
dip their cigarettes in, you know, to make them stop smoking?”
Mrs. Hollister emerged from the living room and started upstairs.
She spoke without turning around.
“I don’t think so, Amy. I think
I’ll just keep right on smoking for the rest of my life.”
“Yes, I suppose you will, won’t
you?”, Mrs. Ellis said. “Goodnight, Edie.”
“Goodnight, Amy.” Mrs. Ellis
watched her sister out of sight. The house was very quiet, except
for the sound of the cricket madly repeating his single note through
the still-open screen door. Mrs. Ellis listened for a moment and
then bent over her list and wrote rapidly.
‘Ginger ale,’ she scribbled
fiercely, ‘mosquito repellent.’ She was not smiling.
Taken from ‘Roughly Speaking’
(1991), pages 20-25.