Dot woke to the sound of the phonograph. She sat up in bed for a
long moment, blinking her eyes, trying to make sense of the sound.
It was incongruous with the long shadows that the moonlight cast
as it poured through the narrow opening of her bedroom curtains.
She shivered a little in the dark. Her thin cotton nightgown didn’t
guard very well against the early spring night chill. She gathered her
chenille bedspread around her shoulders and wandered barefoot
and quiet into the sitting room. She stood in the doorway, a small,
caped specter, and took in the scene.
A record played on the Victrola in the corner. The phonograph’s
mouth yawned open like a sleepy tulip and the scratchy sounds of
Guy Lombardo filled the room. It was just a small phonograph, that
sat atop the large, flat topped radio cabinet which still sported the
Sears, Roebuck & Co. tag on the side. A few other albums leaned up
against the side of radio. Dot recognized The Good Ship Lollipop by
Shirley Temple among them.
Aunt Vy was undisturbed by the music. She sat, more or less
upright, on the corner of the settee, asleep with her mouth open
wide as a bullfrog’s. She still wore her clothes from the day. Her head
hung back away from her ample bosom which strained against the
gingham of her dress. Her sturdy legs gave way to wide feet still in
stockings, but no shoes. Her feet were planted broadly on the floor,
toes turned out, and the skirt of her dress hung between her knees.
Her arms lay limply beside her, but her hands were slightly curled
inward, as though she might clench them into fists at any moment,
the only telltale sign of the woman’s waking personality. Dot saw her
sleeping aunt’s spectacles resting beside her nearly empty tumbler
glass on the end table beside her and knew from experience that Vy
would not wake until tomorrow. She took the opportunity to stare
openly at her aunt, absorbing the unusually placid expression on
the wide expanse of her mottled face. She scanned her aunt’s body,
noticing, as she did, the woman’s shoulders inside her dress. They
were incongruously slight when the rest of her was so imposing. Her hair was curled, knuckles red and chapped lips neutral in color – like
the nude of her stockings. Vy’s snore was a soft chortle.
A noise interrupted Dot’s exploration of her aging aunt and made
her redirect her gaze toward the other side of the settee where, like a
smaller bookend, her mother Lily sat. She, too, was in her day dress,
with a tumbler glass next to her, but hers was full of something clear.
Her blond ringlets – hair that always seemed too young for an aging
woman – hung forward and concealed her long, plain face as she
stared down at a large book in her lap. The noise that had distracted
Dot from Vy was Lily giggling her familiar, odd, nervous giggle. Dot
looked down at the book in her mother’s lap and saw that it was an
old photo album. She didn’t recognize it as one she had seen before.
The black and white photos inside were staged and the people in
them looked stiff. The edges of the photos, where they were mounted
on the black pages, were yellowed. Lily ran her hand over them as if
she were casting a spell. She took her full drink in her other hand,
never looking away from the page.
Dot, small, quiet and unnoticed, waited a long moment before
she questioned, “Mama?” Lily looked up, taking a moment to focus
her eyes on the young girl wrapped in the bedspread, and, though it
was the middle of the night, she did not tell Lily to go to bed. “Come
sit by me.” Dot wrapped her blanket tighter around her, and more
shuffled than walked to sit awkwardly between her mother and her
sleeping aunt. She sat close enough to Lily that their legs touched.
Lily put an arm somewhat stiffly around Dot, and, clinched like this
in Lily’s arm, she was able to get a good look at the photo album. Lily
had to use her drink hand to turn the pages, now that her other arm
was occupied, and she sloshed gin onto the photo in the center of the
page. She shoved her drink into Dot’s hands, wiping the page with
her blouse sleeve.
Dot, tumbler glass of spirits in her lap, with Lily’s arm draped
heavily over her shoulder. Lily, no longer swabbing, her hand resting
on the picture again. The photo in question showed three girls. Each
girl looked to be about sixteen or seventeen years old and they all
wore old-fashioned, white, lacy frocks. Dot admired the high collars
and flattering lines of the fancy dresses. The girls in the photo had
their arms looped around each others waists as if they were part of a chorus line. One girl, the one farthest to the left, wore a serious,
unreadable expression. Dot inspected her knit brows, the broad
curve of her pale cheek, the implied tightness of her lips. These
features contrasted with her wide, almost startled-looking eyes. The
girl next to this serious figure, in the center of the triad, was taller
by a head and more willowy than the other two. Her expression
was that of being caught mid-laugh, her eyes crinkled with mirth,
her mouth open in a wide grin. Her hair appeared to be a different
color from the the other girls — the picture was black and white but
Dot might have guessed, based on the shading of the photo, that the
young woman’s hair was red, or auburn, or even strawberry blonde
like her own. There was a gap between the laughing girl’s two front
The third girl in the photo, the one all the way to the right, was
neither as serious as girl number one, nor as carefree as girl number
two. This third girl was also smiling, but in close-lipped way. Her
head was tilted toward her companions, but Dot noticed that she
wasn’t looking at them. Her gaze was distracted, caught elsewhere.
Maybe she had turned her head at the last moment. The photo was a
little blurry due to the girl’s apparent movement. To whom was she
looking? Who took this photograph? Who were these girls?
Lily’s finger slid from one face to another and finally paused on
the girl with the wide eyes and serious expression. “Violet,” she
murmured. Dot looked at her, surprised. Then she looked down at
the picture, over at her sleeping aunt on the other side of the settee,
and back at the picture again. There it was. The wide eyes, maybe
the eyes of someone nearsighted who required spectacles. The
broad, though line-less, face in the photo was certainly her aunt’s.
If the other features didn’t give it away, the knitting of the brow was
unmistakable. And, even on a much younger woman, one could see
the slightness of her shoulders.
As Dot took all of this in, Lily moved her hand again across the
photograph like the little table in a ouija board, to the last smiling
and unfocused form. “Pretty,” she murmured, running her finger
around the crown of the girl’s head like a halo, and still only speaking
in a one-word soliloquy.
Dot looked carefully at the picture. If that girl on the left was Aunt Violet, then someone in this picture must be Lily.
“Is that you, Mama?” Dot looked up at Lily expectantly, her finger
covering the head of the image Lily had been tracing. Lily looked
back for a long moment. She licked her lips and took the glass from
Dot. She swallowed a large whack of the clear liquid, ice cubes
tinkling in the glass, before handing it back. Dot caught the aroma
of strong spirits. Lily turned back to the photo and moved her finger
once more to the laughing girl in the middle, pressing her finger
pointedly at that girl’s chest. She did not look back at Dot after that
gesture. Dot stared again at the picture, a deep frown adding years to
her seven year old face. What did it mean? The girl in the middle was
not Lily. But the girl on the right… she was familiar.
The phonograph record ended and the room was quiet but for Vy’s
snoring. Lily patted Dot’s shoulder and then leaned on her heavily
as she stood, staggering just a little. Lily reached for the tumbler,
draining it. Dot moved the large picture album into her own lap,
staring even more intently at the now damp photo.
Dot’s curiosity gave way to something more serious. “Who is this
lady?” she asked, louder than she meant to, pointing to the tall girl
in the center. Then, a flash of insight. “Isn’t that the lady from the
village? I’ve seen her before. I was with Auntie Vy… is this… your
sister, too?” Lily did not answer but only turned the album over and
placed the needle oh-so-carefully onto it. “I didn’t know you had
another sister. Is this my aunt, too?”
Lily began to move about the room in a shuffling dance. She still
did not look at Dot, but she spoke her first full sentences of the night.
“No, girl.” she said, “She is your mama.”
The record playing Guy Lombardo’s music suddenly seemed
Dot stared at Lily. Then, she stared at the photograph. She did not
Lily went on, eyes closed as she swayed, “Our other sister, her
name is Rose. She couldn’t… take care of you… so we agreed to take
you. You were the one who started calling me Mama. It just stuck
after that… It just stuck.”
Dot sat in that spot forever. The snoring Violet. The swaying,
shuffling Lily. The record. The Photograph. The chenille bedspread. She tightened the wrap of the blanket around her, like a caterpillar
weaving its cocoon, or a spider binding its prey. Clutching the spread
over her heart, she stood, and the scrapbook slid from her lap and
clattered onto the floor. The record playing on the turntable skipped
and then continued on as if it had never happened. Lily’s dance never
paused. Violet snorted a little at the sound, but returned to her steady
Dot stepped around the album, catching the trailing end of
her bedspread on its corner and dragging it a few feet before she
was free of it. Once unencumbered, she made her way out of the
the lamplit parlor and back down the shadowy hall to her little
bedroom where she curled up, still wrapped in the bedspread, and
did not sleep.
Eve Kerrigan is a writer of fiction and personal essays. She is the mother of an exuberant five year old and the caretaker of several small animals. Eve has recently returned to Southern New England after a very long absence. Her short fiction has been published in L’Allure DesMots, The Oddville Press, and 521 Magazine. Her creative non fiction has appeared in such online forums as The Narcissistic Anthropologist and Sociology of Style. Eve is currently at work on her second novel.