Just like her, Rosemary grumbled inwardly, as she surveyed the faded yellow walls. Just like that girl--mussing the curtains, smearing the vinegar-cleaned panes. Leaving the tea kettle on high to rattle and spit and screech until the place was in near-danger of burning down. Lucy couldn't hear it, that was true. Still, she might have used more sense, instead of expecting Rosemary to keep them both from the next moment's disaster. That was what three more minutes of life in this world got you--the wisdom of the ages and a fool of a twin sister to not only look like but to look after. Rosemary dried her hands on her apron and took the kettle off. Finally she peered over Lucy's shoulder.
This was a fancy one, all right. The doctor's only daughter was marrying some out-of-town big shot. Talk was that she had met him at her fancy college. A rich boy with "the third" in roman numbers after his name, printed right there in the bulletin banns. And what commotion the sisters had contended with that morning while going about their regular Saturday-morning duties.
After Confession Rosemary and Lucy always cleaned the church. Not the heavy-duty weekly chores of waxing and scrubbing that they used to do, but general tidying before Sunday Mass, weddings, Baptisms, and funerals. Father Schmidt had always called them the Divine Dusting Duo of Immaculate Conception Parish. He had understood. Father Schmidt had blessed them with his jokes and praise, for he had appreciated a clean church and those who kept it that way. And whatever God's will, he had not deserved a fatal heart attack after the triple bypass and all their prayers.
And Father Schmidt certainly did not deserve the lingering gossip that sullied his good name with the suggestion of drink, of privately being a broken man whose collar and bottle had made his face flush red. He had been human, but he had been holy. His ruddiness was hard work and high blood pressure, aggravated by the burden of caring for souls whose gossip was the least of their transgressions. As if they should talk. But for 12 years Father Schmidt had let the two sisters know that he and the Good Lord recognized the particular and underestimated value of dusting.
But the new priest was just the know-it-all type who took over everything but who never bothered to pick up after himself. Too busy talking about love and politics and setting the world on fire to hang up his vestments properly. He spoke loudly to them as if they were dotty old bingo-brains or a couple of broken hips waiting to happen while he was in charge. He regularly brought up the ridiculous notion of hiring a "professional cleaning service," as if this were the Vatican or a fancy hotel instead of a parish church. Their church.
Still, they worked. It was necessary, and so they were needed. And it was their duty since nobody else would do it, or at least do it right. Who else but them? What with those nuns being set loose to live alone in apartments, wearing tennis shoes instead of habits, and stirring up a stink over not being priests, when all the while Holy Mother the Church needed serious cleaning and the loving care of lemon oil. Someone had to keep the sanctuary in place.
But that morning the delivery vans had arrived early, and before anyone could say "beg your pardon," total strangers had pushed the "dusters" out of the way and transformed the church into a private garden. Pink roses everywhere you looked, no doubt at a dollar a stem. At least. Rosemary figured that 30 years of gall bladders, worn-out hearts, and kidney stones were like fertilizer, and what bloomed was this bower of indulgence and vanity and just plain showing off. The sick got puny carnations in a cheap vase, but the doctor--who could take knife and needle to you, and Lord knows how well he'd washed his hands--he could order more roses than you'd care to smell. Such was the way of the world. You were not promised a flower garden, like the song said--and if you got one, it would need plenty of pruning and horse manure. And it would have thorns.
"Oh, look, Ro! Lookie here, look at this!" Lucy murmured, pulling on the sleeve of Rosemary's cardigan and dragging her back to the present.
The bride had arrived. She stood at the corner in front of the church, her billowing skirt blocking the view of the petunias the sisters planted around the shrine to the Blessed Virgin. The breeze lifted the long, filmy veil until a flock of pink-taffeta-clad girls, each as perfect as on television, reached around the bride to hold her layers in place and to keep the white sweep of dress above the ground.
"See? Goodness, that dress goes on forever! Oh my!" Lucy chattered, straining to see through both the screen and her cataracts.
Rosemary had seen quite enough. The glistening expanse of silk, the jeweled neckline plummeting way past decency, the bouquet as huge as a casket cover--none of this excess had escaped her attention. She had watched the photographer step right into the flower bed, snapping his camera and nearly knocking over the Mother of God. All for the sake of some pretty, private spectacle.
That morning Rosemary had observed so much that her head still ached. Now she poured the steaming water, then bobbed one tea bag between two cups. As she watched the pale liquid darken, her own face clouded. She was tired, but no matter. Lucy wasn't about to finish what she'd started, but that was the story of their life. Still, Rosemary could not let go of what had transpired earlier.
Every Saturday it was Rosemary's habit to stand back for a few moments after dusting to watch the sanctuary fill with morning light. Glimmers of red and blue would adorn their handiwork like a county-fair ribbon for fine needlework or prize pickles. Rosemary would gaze at the orderly place in all its majesty and then she would see, in her straightened missals, swept aisles, and tidied corners, the grace of duty. At such times she knew that her life counted, no matter how careless some people were in the house of the Lord. The Lord who welcomed the sinner, slob, and litterbug, but who knew and held dear those who kept His Commandments--and kept His house clean.
And that morning, chaos, flowers, and all varieties of loudly extravagant hoopla had disrupted her ritual of providing the Almighty with maid service. Before long, Rosemary and Lucy had been in the way. A gum-snapping woman in bright pink lipstick and tight slacks had asked in a whining, coarse voice, "Could that wait until the flowers are all set up?" She had meant their cleaning.
It was not ever a question but an order. Directed at her, Rosemary, in the midst of her regular, rightful work. From someone not of Immaculate Conception. A flower-store, floozy woman who wore bruiselike eye shadow and who wanted to tape big pink sateen bows over finger smudges on the wood. A questionable individual who would just stick some fancy, overpriced arrangement over a messy spot on well-preserved oak. Rosemary had grimaced, twisted her dust rag tight, and crept to a dark corner.
Off to the side, straightening the collection envelopes in a back pew, Rosemary had felt crumpled and discarded. She had not reached for her Rosary but let its vinyl pouch remain within her pocket, protected from the profane who would no doubt mistake its beads for costume jewelry. And after some angry moments she had felt odd. Not just the odd one out but strange, weak, and overwhelmed.
Suddenly the vaulted blue had emptied. She had stood alone. Around her she could hear the rip and snap of just the kind of tape that marred the finish of old wood, but she could not muster protest. She could only stand and feel the vastness of space open around her and separate her from all she would never know in this life. And it was then she had heard Lucy call her. Looking up, Rosemary had seen an old, frail woman where her double should be, a strange creature with a tight home permanent, seeking help with the vacuum cleaner. Between them lay only 20 feet, but the distance stretched into the miles of time and loss and unfulfilled possibilities.
Then Rosemary had slumped in a pew, paying no attention to ribbons, tape, or bad manners. There she had fought for air, which came in stuffy gasps, perfumed with candles, incense, and furniture polish. The flowers had wafted up at her, choking her, taunting her with their intense sweetness. Lucy had turned back to her task, fumbling with the vacuum cord as the wedding set up around her small presence. Rosemary could not pray, not then, not even the familiar words for divine intercession in the hour of death. She could only sit limply and imagine her funeral in this great empty space filled with the blank stares of wooden saints, few flowers, and a handful of mourners scattered among the front pews. That, and the inevitable litter of used bulletins.
Lucy had told her she looked funny, then fetched her a cup of water. She had stood over Rosemary, wildly fanning her with a missal until Rosemary had wanted to scream rather than faint. Exasperated at the whole situation, Rosemary had been as direct about that fact as her labored breathing would allow. The flower woman had glared at them with rolling eyes and bad-mannered impatience, ordering her helper to hurry up with the bouquets before the flowers wilted and "Her Highness the Princess Bride" had another fit. Rosemary grabbed the missal from Lucy, put it back with solid resolve, and scowled. "Back to normal, I see," had come Lucy's wry observation.
They had gone home after that, treading slowly along the street that had been their lifelong address. Briefly they had seen a throng of young men in tuxedos hanging awkwardly about the alley, laughing and slapping a peaked-looking fellow on the back. The boys had passed a bag among themselves, drawing it to their mouths between guffaws. Lucy had eyed her sister, waiting for Rosemary to pronounce it the disgrace that of course it was. Rosemary had only looked away from the spectacle, her mouth too slack to speak. Finally, they had made their way home.
Rosemary didn't see things her way, and that was that. The week before, in the dentist's office, Lucy had shown her that magazine picture of the twin girls. Two heads, one body, joined at the chest, two hands tugging on one pair of boots. "See, they're like us," Lucy had remarked brightly. Before she could add "We each have our own mind," Rosemary had hurled the magazine aside, stormed out of the office, and marched around the block until Marjorie the receptionist, who always fussed over them as if they were children, had called her name out from the front door. Afterwards Rosemary wouldn't speak to Lucy for a whole day.
Rosemary could argue with her and spite her, nag and torment her to no end, but Rosemary could not change who they were. They had spent their entire lives being sisters. The Glueck sisters, which was not like the show-business sisters who sang and danced way back when, because it was just the two of them and Rosemary said Lucy couldn't carry a tune. But they were twins, and that was a good enough show for some. A matched set. That was how everybody knew them. Their mother had once dressed them alike. "You will never be alone," she told them when they were too young to know better. And when one of them did wrong: "You will make your sister look bad."
Matching dresses. They outgrew them, and it was no longer darling. Only for 60 years Lucy had kept borrowing Rosemary's clothes, or she would order the exact same blouses from the Sears catalog. Rosemary would not wear the uniform and be mistaken for Lucy. Rosemary had her own likes, and while she worked for the city water department she had her own wardrobe of permanent press scented with lavender and cedar. "Remember, you will never be alone," Mother had said, until her voice went raspy with age and her words sounded like a threat or a warning of something past their escape. The sisters had fought until they were too old to quarrel anymore with the big issue of leaving, and then it was too late to move away. So they had fought with each other.
And when Mother and Father died, they had stayed in the house. The Glueck girls were no more. "Those two funny little-old-lady sisters" was how they had often heard themselves called, even at church. The people who saw only double, but never who they were.
But that Lucy too often made a spectacle of herself, and it was up to Rosemary to keep her in line. Lucy had the most outrageous sense of an outfit--whatever wasn't in the dirty clothes hamper seemed to leap onto her like a scared cat. Rosemary kept the door of her closet locked. She'd taken to making her own clothes to save both money and face. Being alike had never really been much fun. When they had been small and dressed in blue sailor suits, Lucy's tights had sagged, her bow had gone crooked, and by the time Rosemary had set her straight, she would find her own wrinkles and tears. And that had been their life, watching each other, watching over each other. Watching everyone else go by, and waiting. Cleaning on Saturdays, then watching the week dirty it back again.
"Watch your sister when I can't," Mother had told Rosemary for years. Years ago.
That Saturday, on the way home from cleaning, Lucy had asked her if it was the arthritis again. Rosemary had said nothing, but Lucy knew. She knew this was not merely the sullen way her sister had ignored her since youth whenever Rosemary decided to play at being the high-and-mighty one, Miss Independent.
It was another silence, neither insolence nor deafness. It was what private pain and familiarity did to conversation, and so Lucy understood what the matter was. After the doctor was done writing checks for his daughter's highfalutin wedding, he would dish out some stronger medicine for her sister. He'd check her heart and listen close. Lucy would tell him to do just that. He would pay attention, or she'd give him what for. And this time he would admit the pain was real. Lucy would see that he did so.
It was Lucy who had opened the door with the key she wore pinned inside her pocket so she would not lose it again. As Rosemary had moved slowly through the darkened living room, Lucy had set about making tea. That would perk Rose up, surely. And tomorrow, after the last Mass, Lucy would gather up some of the leftover wedding flowers and make arrangements for the kitchen table. And a bud vase for Rosemary's vanity.
The roses would still be perfectly good, after all. And once taken away from all that commotion, the fragrant blooms would seem a new offering, almost as if someone had wired them flowers. As if God himself had sent them bouquets, with little invisible cards bearing messages that they could read only when prayers became the loneliness of listening. Messages that were understandable to the secret, pierced longings of the heart, in the far places inside that could never be fixed with pills or transplanted or regulated by tiny miracle machines or stirred by romance or faraway excitement.
As the water heated, the long white car had pulled up in front of the church. Lucy could not resist bending the venetian blinds to peek. For more than 60 years it had been their custom to watch for Her to appear, and so at that moment Lucy could not contain her off-key twittering of "Here Comes the Bride." Lucy wondered what became of all those white dresses. If the brides hauled them to the dry cleaners right away, and if they stored them just so, did the fabrics turn yellow with time? And how did brides feel when the sweep of fabric slipped from their shoulders and they were just ordinary women again? She knew that later they must look at the pictures and miss that vision they were for an afternoon. How they put up with those men until death did them part had her confused, but she knew that some souls had it rough. Bless them in their troubles, she sighed.
Lucy did not know what happened finally to the dresses and to the brides, and she did not want to spoil the sight by fretting too much over what was beyond understanding. She strained to glimpse the last sweep of white before the oak doors closed and all that could be seen was a wreath of roses hanging there.
"Lucy, your tea is getting cold!" Rosemary's voice reached her plainly. Cranky and strong. Her old self.
"Well, there goes another one. Yep, there she goes," Lucy said, toward the view beyond their window. Then she turned to face what she knew awaited her inside. They each settled into their places.
"Here," Rosemary passed the cracked sugar bowl. She waited for her clumsy sister to slurp the hot brew, or to spill it.
"Oh, yes," Lucy replied, taking a sip. The cup found its way back to the saucer with a tiny, reverberating rattle.
"Yes, right here," Lucy said, happily spooning sugar into her cup, showing no memory that sugar had once been rationed, or that it wasn't good for the blood or the teeth. Rosemary swallowed her words, for they were not what she wanted to say then. She could see dust swirling in the sunlight of late afternoon, before the steam from her teacup rose to displace it from her view.
Then Lucy spoke again, "Here we are."
By Victoria Carlson, a freelance writer and advaned writing teacher at Saint Louis University.
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|Title Annotation:||short story|
|Date:||Aug 1, 1998|
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