I have a sister.
We don’t always get along, but that’s generally what I say when asked the perilous question: How many people are in your family? There are too many in the mix; around the time my sister was born, my parents split and began to acquire and then inevitably lose stepchildren. I have one half-sister. One stepbrother stuck around too, and he’s a good guy so he counts in some way. I also have an aunt and uncle who were raised by my mom. I never know when to include them, or when they include me. I generally just keep it simple: I have a sister.
She called me on a summer morning about a year ago. I was blow-drying my hair. Pages were propped open with my phone so I could brush with one hand and hold the dryer with the other. The warmth felt nice in the air-conditioned bathroom and the book was good. When my sister called on the landline, my daughter had to bang on the door loudly before I heard.
“Dad is dead,” my sister said bluntly into the phone.
“WHAT???” I said, my voice high and melodramatic, hating myself already.
“Dad is dead,” she repeated.
It’s a four-hour drive to my hometown, and information came in as I travelled. Someone who knew someone on the scene reported that my father’s hair was long. The television had been on, the lights lit throughout the house. But Dad was in bed, one leg on the floor. My sister told me how she got the call and then sat with our half-sister outside the house until they wheeled his body out. The gurney hit a sharp piece of pavement, and the medic had to stop the slide of the thin plastic bag with her knee.
The police offered to lock the house.
“There are guns in there,” one said.
“Should I go in to get them?” my sister asked.
“I don’t recommend it,” he said. “He’s been dead for a while.”
They went in. They didn’t find the guns. A few hours later, my sister met me at our mother’s house. We sat around a box of veggie pizza and discussed what to do. I noticed a strange stain on the armchair, and realized that it corresponded to a bigger stain on my sister’s shorts. It was thick and black with a sheen of tar that looked tricky to wash out. That night I tried to sleep, but instead listened to the chimes of my mother’s grandfather clock. Eventually, I got up and bleached everywhere my sister had been.
I did not want to go in his house. “You have to go in,” my mother said the next morning. She was not his most recent ex, which meant that she did not have to do anything at all. She sat at her kitchen table with a cup of coffee, fielding phone calls from her friends. It struck me as odd that she wasn’t smoking, although she quit when I was a kid. As she arranged a ride to the still-unscheduled funeral with her second ex-husband, I put on an old pair of her shoes, white old lady sneakers, and followed my sister out the door.
We smeared vapor rub under our noses, and strapped paper filters from CVS over our mouths. My sister had picked up plastic booties too, but she lost them so we went in without. Our breath was magnified through the masks, making us sound like twin Darth Vaders as we carefully stepped into the living room. It was dark, the curtains all closed, the air thick and creepy. A reading light was on, but the television had been turned off. There were open bags of Doritos lying about, a jar of peanuts. There was a small folding table set by a lounge chair, a plate with the remains of a hoagie set carelessly on top. The bread was stale, the roast beef dehydrated, dark and plastic-looking in spots. It was not moldy, which surprised me. Instead the lettuce was limp and dry.
Bills were in stacks on the floor, in an order of sorts, but not the papers we needed for insurance. Small noises came from the periphery of the room and each one made me jump–was it a mouse? A rat? A fly in its last death throes? Dead flies were everywhere, like someone had sprinkled them evenly, for effect, over the entire house. Sturdier ones still buzzed behind the curtains. They were ridiculous, a cliché: there was nowhere to step that wasn’t covered in flies.
In his bedroom, the sheets were dank, twisted onto the floor, stained and shredded where the body had lain. “He was half out of bed,” my sister said, her voice muffled through the mask, “but the paramedics told me his body might just have rolled from the gasses after he died.”
This did not sound plausible to me. I noticed his phone beside the pillow, and I wondered if he tried to make a call. Was he not feeling well? Did he know he was about to die? He disliked the phone, rarely called anyone. The phone on the bed seemed significant. I thought I saw crumbs laying in a half-circle, too. I wondered what he ate as he propped himself up, but when I looked closer it was just more flies. There was a bucket, too. Maybe he had been sick? Maybe the paramedics left it? It was filled with something greasy, viscous, solid lumps rising from the oil. I turned away, afraid to look closely. Later, to the insurance man, I would be unable to describe it. “It’s a bad bucket,” I would say.
In addition to the papers, we were looking for our father’s dress shoes. Our half sister wanted him buried in his lieutenant’s uniform. I approached his closet by walking against the wall. It made me too jumpy to have the bed behind my back. There were clothes heaped by the closet door, and I hesitated in front of it for a long time, the Vader-breaths coming faster. The drapes buzzed angrily, the stain by the bed glinted, and I couldn’t open the closet door. I just couldn’t do it.
In the end it didn’t matter. Our father’s body was never put on view, could not even be transferred to the funeral home. We never saw him again. My sister would spend two weeks obsessed with the coroner’s report, convinced that the body weighing 52 pounds could not have been our tall, imposing father. I would argue that the report simply solved the mystery of the bucket.
That day, though, we went outside with paper filters hanging around our necks and waited for the truck that would clean up the floorboards, the bucket, the flies. Sitting on the cement wall, we marveled at how nice the day was and talked over, in a glazed businesslike sort of way, how to handle Dad’s property. We thought the house wasn’t lost. At least, we thought, the building could be redeemed.
When a neighbor stopped to question us sharply, not knowing who we were, we were not surprised. Few people knew our dad had daughters. We were used to the surprised, almost accusatory look people would give us as though we were imposters in some elaborate scam. We snickered when the neighbor left and dared each other to invite the next one in, maybe offer him Doritos.
“Careful, though, “my sister planned to say, “it smells a little off.” I laughed through the vapor rub in my nose. It hadn’t blocked the smell but we kept smearing more on, hopeful. We looked back at the monstrous flies in the window, vying to escape, and that made us laugh too. It was all just so absurd.
When the cleanup crew arrived, they were kind and spoke gently. They gave us baggies for our shoes and fancy masks with plastic air filters, like little white gas masks. We marveled at how much more effective they were than our cheap ones. “Would it be inappropriate if we took a selfie?” my sister asked, fitting the mask over her head. But our phones were in the car, and we didn’t want to taint them with our smell.
The cleanup crew put on hazmat suits and I took them in for a tour. Afterwards, they worked up an estimate, apologetic about the cost. When they went back in to take pictures, I returned to the wall. My sister nudged me and whispered, “At least they’re nice.”
“That’s why it’s so expensive.” I said. “We let our father rot into the floorboards, and now we’re paying them to keep us from feeling guilty.” My sister gasped, her eyes round, then we began to laugh hysterically, like drunk sorority girls.
We tried to hold it in so the neighbors wouldn’t see, we knew how inappropriate we were being, but that just made it worse. We shook and gulped air, trying to calm down, snickering each time we did. My sister told me that another neighbor stopped by while I was in the house. She hadn’t had the guts to offer him Doritos. As we talked, he appeared on the porch next door and eyed my sister with suspicion.
“Who is this?” He asked sharply, pointing at me.
“I have a sister,” she answered, her voice abrupt, almost rude. Under my breath, I mumbled, “Invite him in.” She snorted. I started to giggle. The neighbor gave us one last doubtful look and shuffled back inside. We laughed openly, rocking on the wall.
Whether the man went in to call the police or just to watch more TV, we didn’t care. Our fancy masks swung against our collarbones, weighed down by the yellow filters as we laughed. I realized that we sounded the same, like one laugh digitally magnified. My sister leaned into me, her shoulders shaking. The smell of our dead dad wafted from our hair as we bent over, trying to catch our breath.