I tried everything—running the lid under the hot water tap, banging it against the granite countertop. I was that sick of my brother-in-law Luke telling me how inept I was, or not saying it, but silently radiating disdain. I weighed my desire for apricot jam on light rye against my antipathy towards that withering look. I actually bribed myself. I thought, if Luke gives me any shit at all about the jar, that is really and truly it. I am going back to Kansas City, and he can strain Sheila’s soup and read aloud magazine quizzes during her chemo drip his own fucking self. Strangely enough, that thought made me feel calm, almost beatific. It was like there was a puddle of sunshine on the floor and I was Cornelius, the tabby cat Sheila and I had as a kid, stretching myself. When I walked downstairs and handed the jam jar to Luke, I said, “Could you—”. “Sure,” Luke said, and opened it. I felt almost disappointed.
At the Beach
When my sister Sheila was seven, we went to Hawaii for Christmas, and Sheila got a second-degree sunburn. This was before parents, at least our parents, knew much about sun protection. We’d been in Maui for a week, Sheila’s skin had burned, then peeled in white strips. (Years later in San Francisco I would buy Japanese confections wrapped in rice paper, and that rice paper reminded me of those strips of Sheila’s skin—thin, yet meaty). Then Sheila’s new, pink skin burned again, and that was how she got the second-degree burn. Her back was covered in fat blisters that looked like bubble wrap. On the flight home, Sheila couldn’t wear a shirt. For weeks after, those blisters seeped milky liquid. Decades later, when Sheila got liver cancer at thirty-seven, she didn’t fit any of the indicators for liver cancer patients, until her oncologist asked her if she’d ever gotten a really bad sunburn. I was sitting with her in his office, Luke stuck at work. It was me holding her hand when Dr. Wang asked her that, and Sheila looked at me, and I said, “Oh, shit.”
Bubble Wrap, Redux
After Sheila died, Luke sent me a package. Inside were two photos, taped so carefully it took me five minutes to unwrap them. I laid them out on my coffee table. That picture of Sheila and I on the beach—black and white, but even so, her shoulders were thunder-cloud gray, so I knew the photo was taken after the original sunburn. That picture was on the piano when we were growing up. Sheila must have taken it from my parents’ house after first our mother and then our father died, within a year of each other, in 2013. “You took everything,” I said to Sheila. One of many mean things I said to her, though the truth was I couldn’t be bothered. The other photo was from my wedding to Jerry, Sheila in the sea-green maid-of-honor dress that I heard her complaining about at the reception. How that enraged me! Trying to make me sound like one of those controlling psycho brides. “You picked it out yourself, you phony!” I snapped. I never saw that picture in the three months I lived at her house, helping out. She must have hidden it after Jerry and I divorced. I ran my fingertip over the return address on the opened box. Luke Carmichael, the only family I’ve got left.
Kim Magowan lives in San Francisco and teaches in the Department of Literatures and Languages at Mills College. Her short story collection Undoing (2018) won the 2017 Moon City Press Fiction Award. Her novel The Light Source (2019) was published by 7.13 Books. Her fiction has been published in Atticus Review, Cleaver, The Gettysburg Review, Hobart, SmokeLong Quarterly, Wigleaf, and many other journals. Her story “Madlib” was selected for Best Small Fictions 2019 (Sonder Press), and her story “Surfaces” was selected for Wigleaf‘s Top 50 2019. She is the Fiction Editor of Pithead Chapel. Visit: www.kimmagowan.com
Lead image: “Bubble wrap” (via Flickr user Aiza Zainol)