by Sand Rector
Everything seemed terribly wrong to Rupert since his sister Zinnia left to live with a man she barely knew, a man who was only recently separated from his fourth wife, for crying out loud. Could it get any worse? With Zinnia gone, the house was like one of those black holes that you can’t really see because it swallows all the light.
At 25, Rupert had the look of an elderly boy. He was overweight and pink cheeked with thin, slicked down hair over a growing bald spot. His normal dress was black polyester pants with an elastic waist, hidden at the back so it wouldn't show in the front, a white, cotton long sleeved shirt worn with different pale colored ties for each day of the week and penny loafers. He considered himself a loner. Although he wasn't particularly happy about this and might have liked to have a girl friend, he could never make up his mind to actively begin searching. He rationalized this by saying that he never had time, just too much to do between his never ending list of chores at home and his demanding job as business manager for Chez Tulips, a local restaurant. He might have moved out of his mother’s house, but in truth found it comfortable and could never quite bring himself to leave, although it did occur to him from time to time, especially whenever his mother threatened to raise the rent.
His sister's leaving had made his life even more difficult as he was now expected to do her chores as well as his own including cleaning the house on Saturdays. It was too much, too damn much. Although Rupert wasn’t the sort who angered easily, he had grown quietly furious at Zinnia for doing this to him. In fact the stress of being so upset was giving him headaches and he was having trouble sleeping. It was even affecting his work. Twice, he’d had to go over figures he had already gone over because he got two completely different answers each time. This was not him. He did not make these kinds of mistakes. It was all Zinnia’s fault. Something must be done to restore the balance in his home. But what?
While Rupert was contemplating, his Aunt Helen appeared. She was a peevish woman of sixty or so with a permanently suspicious look on her face like people were out to hurt her or take her money. She had moved in right after Zinnia left in order to console Rupert’s mother. She was supposed to leave in a week but she had taken over Zinnia’s room and it was starting to look like she would never leave.
Since it was Sunday, she was all dressed up for church in a suit. Her broad middle looked like it was made of steel thanks to a heavy duty piece of rubber tubing called a body shaper. Rupert used to amuse himself thinking about what would happen if the tubing ever burst. But even that wasn’t funny anymore. He just wished she’d go home.
"Has your mother come out of her room yet?" his aunt asked.
"No, she still refuses."
"You really should do something about Zinnia, Rupert.” She made a clucking noise with her teeth as though to further fault him.
Rupert was tempted to say something to her like stop complaining about me and worry about your own life or get off your dead butt and do something around here once in a while like cook a meal, vacuum the living room floor, or even spend those few dollars you keep wadded up your sleeve along with your handkerchief and buy a half gallon of milk.
"Zinnia is a grown woman," he said, careful to keep the irritation out of his tone because if he became angry with his aunt his mother would become even angrier with him and he hated that idea. "I can't make her do anything."
"Well, you should at least try," the aunt said. "She listens to you."
Thankfully, his aunt left for church, leaving Rupert in peace. Noticing it was lunch time, he heated up a can of tomato soup, sliced up some cheese and put it on a plate along with some Saltines then put it on a tray and carried it up to his mother’s room, grumbling quietly to himself that he was the only one who ever did anything around here.
His mother’s round, wrinkled face was puffy and streaked with tears as he brought in the tray and sat it down on the side table. She did not look up at him or speak. However, her misery did not seem to affect her appetite as she quickly hoovered up her lunch as though she were starving. When she finished, she silently handed the tray back to him with the look of the martyr on her face, then lay down and faced the wall. He felt bad that her only daughter should cause so much pain, but what could he do?
Afterwards he fixed his own lunch of cheese and crackers which he ate in front of the television while watching old re-runs of the Miss America contest. He enjoyed the bathing suit competition the most but if you asked him, he would have said that he enjoyed the talent most since it didn’t seem quite nice to enjoy the bathing suit as much as he did. Still, some of those girls were really talented. The girls from 1996 were just starting to dance and sing as a group, the part he considered not worth watching, and he was about to drift off when he pictured Zinnia and her boyfriend together enjoying themselves. The thought made him furious.
“No!” he said jumping out of his chair and snapping off the television. “No, no, no.!”
His lips thinned, his nostrils flared with fury, his whole round, puffy face was alive with his rage as he rushed out of the house without a jacket or his umbrella, extremely unusual for him, especially since it looked like rain. Seething with anger at all the pain those two had caused him and his mother, he jumped into his Buick and drove to the house where Zinia and her paramour Grady lived.
As he drove, Rupert’s hands gripped the steering wheel like it was Grady’s throat. He had the urge to force him into a headlock and pound him a good one until he truly understood just how much trouble he was causing everybody. Zinnia, his sweet loveable sister who always thought the best of everybody, would probably try to make excuses for this, this jerk. Well she better not try, was all he had to say.
"That may be just fine and dandy for you, Missy,” Rupert said out loud as he drove. "But what if your mother dies from a broken heart? What about that?”
As he drove, the sky suddenly became unnaturally dark and a storm came up. Loud thunder rumbled across the sky and rain began to stream out of the clouds. Storms made Rupert nervous. Suddenly he began to wonder what would happen if Zinnia's paramour had a gun or a knife. And what about Zinnia? What would they say to each other? He should probably return home and check to make sure all the windows were closed and the drain pipes attached – they had a way of getting loose. Nope, he thought, his fury returning, although much weaker this time. He’d be darned if he would turn back now. He straightened up and stuck out his chin defiantly. He, Rupert Percival Anderson was the man of the house and it was up to him to convince Zinnia to come home and forget about this Grady person she was addicted to.
By the time he arrived and parked out front, the rain had stopped. The house was small and desperately in need of paint, the yard was a mess too. Some of the weeds were waist high. What kind of a person lets the yard go like this, he thought disdainfully as he stepped out of his car. As he did so, he saw a man walking towards him. A yellow cat sat on the man’s shoulders like a fur stole. The man reached up to pet the cat as he passed Rupert. Then Rupert saw a pale stick of a man come out of the small house, sit on the stoop and light a cigarette, obviously the Grady person. Rupert wondered what Zinnia saw in him. The man was not young, he was not handsome, his eyes were small, and he had a rather deep dent between his eyebrows. He also had narrow sloping shoulders and a pot belly. And he smoked, something Rupert loathed and was sure that Zinnia did too. Rupert wondered if he was living off of Zinnia's work as a receptionist at the bank as he approached him.
"You must be Zinnia’s brother Rupert,” the man said in a pleasant tone of voice. “I’m Grady.” He flipped his cigarette to the sidewalk adding it to several other cigarette butts on the ground, stood up and held out his hand for Rupert to shake. .
On top of everything else, the man’s a litterer, Rupert thought dismissingly, refusing to shake the man’s proffered hand.
"Yes, I've come," Rupert tried to sound hard and tough, like the head of a household should sound when someone has threatened the peace and sanctity of his home.
“It finally stopped raining,” Grady said. He indicated for Rupert to follow him inside.
Grady bade Rupert sit down in the living room on a blue sofa whose upholstery was so worn in places the Styrofoam was poking through, then went to find Zinnia. Rupert waited stiffly, his whole body anxious and on the alert. The only hint that his sister lived here was the overall cleanliness of the place and a bouquet of feverfew in a Coke bottle on the coffee table. Zinnia loved flowers and always made sure that there was at least one flower-filled vase in the house at all times. She said they made her soul smile. The odor of something wonderful wafted into his nostrils. Zinnia’s chocolate chip cookies. An ache of such huge proportions hit Rupert’s chest that for a moment he actually felt like something had squeezed his heart. And just like that his anger fled, replaced by a big knot of sadness. Nothing he did would ever change Zinnia’s mind. It never had in the past, why would it now? Maybe she’d let him have a few cookies before he left.
"I'm so glad you came," Zinnia said poking her head into the living room. She wiped her floured hands on her apron and went over to him and gave him a hug. She was a big-busted woman with an oval face, big innocent dark eyes and lustrous black hair which she usually wore pulled back in a pony tail. Over her plain yellow cotton dress which Rupert knew she had made herself, she wore a white apron. Rupert thought she was so beautiful that she could have been a movie star. Why would she, who could have had anyone, choose a second rate person like Grady? It just made no sense, no sense at all.
"I know what we've done is wrong,” Grady said joining Rupert on the davenport, “but we can’t help ourselves. We want to be together but we know that we’ve hurt a lot of people. We hope we can be forgiven, but understand if we can't. We tried to keep our love a secret at first -- it all happened so fast -- one day we were talking like two acquaintances, the next day we realized that we were in love. But just because we've hurt you doesn't necessarily mean that what we did was wrong for us. I worship your sister. When I come to her, it is as though I am coming to a church, that's how much I revere her.”
Zinnia looked over at Grady and gave him an indulgent smile.
"Well, you should be married properly," Rupert was shocked to hear himself say out loud. "Can you get a divorce any time soon?"
"Yes, I suppose, but I'll have to give up everything."
"What does that mean?"
"My wife cares only about herself. Thankfully when she took our two kids and walked out on me she left me this house, which my father built with his own two hands. But before she did, she emptied our bank accounts and took everything except the few sticks of furniture you see here. What kind of a horrible woman would do such a thing?"
Why he's a mess and my sister is as weak as I am, Rupert thought sadly. Fact is, both Zinnia and I give in too easily and let life happen to us rather than us happening to life and this is the result. But life without Zinnia at home was unbearable. When Zinnia was around, everything was brighter and nicer and Rupert missed that feeling. Apparently his mother missed it too, although she wouldn't admit it, saying only that she was humiliated that her daughter would go off with such a slug and not say a word to anybody and what must the neighbors think? Then she would start crying and saying how could a person bear such a thing, her own daughter too, and then go to her room and lie down and only come out long enough to tell Rupert what she wanted for lunch or to add to her list of things that needed to be done around the house.
Before Rupert could think of anything to say a timer went off and Zinnia left to tend to her cookies. Rupert sat silently thinking. Apparently the silence bothered Grady, because he began to babble on about his life. He said he had married badly for the fourth time and in his anguish he’d been forced to have several affairs.
“It was reassuring to know that so many women wanted me,” Grady said, “but that all changed when I met Zinnia. After that, I wanted only to make an honest man out of myself.”
Listening to Grady go on, Rupert had to admit to himself that he secretly admired his free-for-all life. It sounded like Grady had done just as he pleased his whole life no matter the cost to anyone else. Rupert, on the other hand, had always done the expected. Even his teenage rebellion had taken the form of only a mild sullenness.
Rupert stopped listening after a while and stared out the window instead. It was raining, really more of a drizzle. He saw his car, which needed a good wash, was looking shiny and cleaner than usual. Grady continued to talk, Rupert began to listen again and this time he thought that Grady made a lot of sense. Suddenly Rupert realized he was caving in. He wasn't going to punch anybody. He didn't have it in him to stay mad. He was weak and spineless and that was just the way he was.
"I will do everything in my power to make Zinnia happy," Grady said finally. "I will work as hard as I can to be worthy of her. She will have a good life, I can promise you that much. Now let's go see if the cookies are done yet, shall we?”
Rupert followed him into the kitchen, his stomach rumbling. The kitchen was the largest room in the house. Cupboards lined every available wall. A gray Melmac table surrounded by beat-up grey Naugahyde chairs stood in the middle of the spotless room. As the two men sat down at the table, Zinnia took out the first batch. She had made a fresh pot of coffee too. The kitchen smelled wonderful, like their kitchen used to smell when she still lived at home.
Zinnia smiled sweetly at them both as she poured them each a cup of coffee. A big crack of thunder sounded then and Zinna grimaced as she put the coffee pot down. She covered her eyes with her hands.
"You never used to be afraid of thunder and lightning before," Rupert said, concerned.
"The storms on this side of town make the cupboards rattle,” she said. “And it can be really creepy when the wind howls. The storms seem much bigger too. You wouldn't understand."
Which made Rupert want to protest that it could be unpleasant on their side of town too, especially now that she was gone. The piano was closed, gathering dust, there was no appreciation of his efforts in the garden, and they were stuck with his neurotic aunt who ate only soy, no dairy or wheat and seemed to be against everything good in life. His eyes filled with tears which he quickly wiped away. He pretended to blow his nose so that Zinnia would think he was tearing up because of his usual allergies at this time of the year.
“How are things at home?" Zinnia asked. "How is Mother? Do you think she’ll ever accept Grady?" Her cheeks were pink from the warm kitchen and her eyes were brighter than usual. It seemed so sad to Rupert that his beautiful sister should have to live in such a low manner.
"You know Mother," he said. "She gets upset very easily. I think you should do something, maybe go see her, ask her to forgive you."
"If I ask her forgiveness, that assumes I'm sorry, and I'm not," she said, a determined look on her pale face. “Eventually she has to get over it or lose me altogether.”
"Mother can be very stubborn."
"Yes, but I'm her only daughter. She has no choice.”
It was hopeless. Rupert stood up, indicating that it was time for him to leave. Zinnia did not protest as she took his arm and walked with him out to his car leaving Grady behind. Outside, everything smelled fresh and clean from the rain which had now stopped again. Zinnia kept talking like she was reluctant to let him go or like she expected him to do something, but what? What could he possibly do for her now that she had lost all reason?
As she walked him to the car, suddenly a small twig with a sharp point made its way into Rupert’s sandal and cut his foot. Blood began to gush forth from his foot like water from a hose. At the sight of his own blood, Rupert fell to the sidewalk in a faint. Horrified, his sister screamed for Grady to call 911. Moments later two young, blue suited emergency technicians appeared and found Zinnia giving Rupert artificial respiration. Grady stood by calmly smoking a cigarette, seemingly unperturbed, as blood gushed from Rupert’s foot.
"The twig cut an artery," the oldest one of the E.T.’s explained to Zinnia who was sobbing for them to save her brother’s life. He began to apply pressure to the wound, while the younger E.T. prepared a tourniquet.
"He's lost a lot of blood,” the older man said. “We need to get him to the hospital right away.”
Zinnia stubbornly insisted on riding in the ambulance with him in spite of both E.T.’s protests. When she refused to budge from the back of the ambulance, they gave in and let her ride downtown with them. Nor did they protest when she insisted on sitting close to him.
"Don't die, Rupert," she cried, sobbing like he already had. "Please. Don’t die."
Rupert, who was sedated, did not answer, but did manage a weak smile.
At the hospital, Rupert, at Zinnia’s insistence, was given a private room and kept over night for observation. When Rupert complained about pain, he was given Demerol and kept for two more days for observation. Zinnia rarely left his side and his mother even got out of her sick bed to visit him. His aunt visited too and brought Rupert a box of champagne truffles from Just Truffles, his favorite chocolates of all time. His co-workers also brought flowers and his co-workers brought him a special dessert of poached pears in a red wine sauce covered with caramel with a gorgeous bruleed crust from Chez Tulips, one of the best restaurants in town. At one point, so many people were calling that Rupert asked to have his calls held because he was losing his voice from talking to so many people. Even Joy, the beautiful hostess he'd had his eye on at work but hadn't had the nerve to say anything to showed up with flowers and giggled when she told Rupert how much everyone missed him.
Even though he insisted that he was still too weak to go home, he was discharged three days later. At home, still too weak and dizzy to actually stand up, his mother left her bed to care for him and the rest of the house. Zinnia stopped by almost every day to see if he was okay and even his aunt pitched in around the house.
The attention died down after a week and although he didn’t feel ready, he went back to work. His mother did not return to her room but she might as well have as she did little or nothing around the house. His aunt also continued with her neurotic demands and Zinnia returned to living with Grady.
One day, as Rupert was washing the windows with his mother supervising, and complaining that the window was still streaky, he began to have a choking sensation like he was trying to expel something and couldn’t. He coughed so hard his face turned reddish purple and he had to sit down. His mother pounded him on the back. When Rupert was finally able to take a breath, his heart was pounding so dangerously he had to lie down.
"Are you all right?" his mother asked worriedly.
He suddenly began to twitch like someone with palsy. “I don't know,” he choked out between gasps. "I, I, don't think so."
When the ambulance arrived, Rupert was barely able to wheeze out the request that he be taken to Golden Valley, a state of the art hospital that he heard had large private rooms, the very best equipment and even a celebrated chef on staff. He stopped breathing several times on the way, each time making a kind of gasping, popping noise.
Inside his cozy, private room which even had a small red velvet settee for visitors, a nice older nurse took his vitals and attached a monitor to his chest. A young woman with a large bosom, periwinkle blue eyes and amazingly white teeth, drew some blood. The doctor was beautiful too, tall and slim with blond hair.
"I don't understand it," she said checking his chart. "Everything checks out normal."
Rupert suddenly began to make popping noises in his throat again. He rolled his eyes as though to pass out. The doctor, alarmed, called for an orderly to take him downstairs immediately for a CT scan.
"What are you looking for?" Rupert managed to choke the words out.
"Oh a brain tumor or something like that," she said offhandedly. "We can't be sure until the test comes in.
"Really, you think a brain tumor?"
"You never can tell without a test," the doctor said.
“I know,” Rupert smiled weakly but bravely, as he was eased into a wheelchair and wheeled downstairs by the orderly, a sweet motherly type of woman.
© Sand Rector
Sand Rector has placed stories with Dublin Quarterly, Amazing Stories, Pedestal Magazine, and Black Petals, and has published articles and essays in The Washington Post, Cooking Light and East/West.