kristen j. tsetsi
The first thing I notice is she's wearing those goddamn suspenders. She looks like a hotdog bun.
"Hey," she says. And then she comes toward me, fast and bouncy the way she does—like we're meeting in some park or coffee shop—and touches my arm. "How are you?"
I don't know what she wants for an answer, and I don't know how to answer, anyway, so I shrug. "Okay, I guess." I ask her if she wants to sit down, or if she wants to stand in the middle of the room the whole time she's here. Kevin's watching us from the table by the vending machine and he's looking at her like I don't know what. Like he wants her to sit with him. His wife smacks him across the face and then kisses his hand.
My friends used to ask if they had a chance with her, and I'd tell them to back the fuck off, she's my sister. When they found out she was my step-sister, they asked why I wasn't fucking her, myself.
"Let's sit here," she says, and she pulls out a chair. The linoleum is old and cracked and the chair scrapes on it so loud people turn to look at us. I sit down, stretched out as much as I can, and she sits with her elbows on the table and her face in her hands.
I say, "So," because I don't know why she came. It's just a freak chance I'm so close to where she lives and it's been years since I saw her. "What'd you come for?"
"To see you in your natural habitat," she says. And then she laughs. "Just kidding. I thought maybe you'd want a visitor."
Kevin nods at me from over there and I look away. "I guess. I don't get too many."
"What about your mom?"
She tucks her hair behind her ears and looks around. There are seven tables in all, half of them being used. I only know Kevin. The rest I don't talk to and they don't talk to me. "You scared, in here?"
"No way. This is fascinating. I've never been to a prison before." She leans across the table. "Is it like it is in the movies?" Her eyes are all big. She wants me to say yes.
"What, you want that?"
"I just wondered. There's this show."
"Naw, it ain't like TV."
She rubs her hands like they're cold and the sun comes through the high window and lights her hair.
I ask her what she's been up to, because I don't know what the hell else I'm supposed to say.
"School," she says. "I'm almost done. One month." She moves her fists like they hold pom-poms. “I never thought I would go to college." She kicks me under the table, then, and she says, "I guess you won't be going, huh?" And then she laughs.
"I guess not." Hal, one of the guards, puts some change in the machine and gets a bag of chips. "Hey, you got any change?"
"Sorry." She slides her chair out to stand up, and Kevin jerks air under the table while he checks out her ass. She pulls the insides of her pockets out straight. A piece of white fuzz falls on the floor. She says, "I had an apple in the car that I was going to give you, but I started eating it on the way, and now it's just sitting half-eaten on the passenger seat. Probably brown, now." She sits back down.
I tell her it's okay, that even if she could bring the apple in I don't want it. I want a double chocolate cake and a box of mac and cheese.
"Sorry," she says. She smiles at me. "Why don't you ever smile?"
"You think I should smile?"
"You’re like one of those guys in a video. It’s like smiling will get you shot.”
"Whatever." And something comes off her, some smell comes from her hair when she plays with it like that, fresh air or snow. Something.
"It probably wouldn’t be as ‘cool’ if you admitted it.”
I tell her she's nuts.
She shrugs and makes her fingers into a grid. "How much longer do you have?"
"I don't know. Years."
"Good." She makes the grid loose, then tightens it again, then makes it loose again and makes her middle finger stick out the longest, but in a way that I can't say for sure if she means it. She says, “It’s funny, don't you think, that I get to sit here, and whenever I want, I get to walk out? I don't know. I find it kind of funny."
“You can find it however you want to find it.”
I have a picture of her that I keep for when I want to get out. It's not like I love her, not that way, but she was my sister and she’s sweet, under all her hatred for me. It's not too many times you meet someone with real sweetness.
“Thanks for coming,” I say.
“Don't thank me.”
Mom always got mad, permanent mad, at everything. The stealing. Drugs, guns. Not Lonni. Not the time I stole the vacation money she kept in that box. Not the time I slipped my hand under her blanket when we were kids. Not the time I stole from her again. Forgave me every time, and she was the only one. Until I ran over that fireman's wife. That was her final straw, she said, and when they put me in here for it she said I was dead to her, as dead as the lady is to her four kids.
This right here, I see now, is Lonni visiting a grave.
She asked me before why I don’t smile.
"What are you laughing at?" she says, and when I shake my head, she says, "Well, it's nice to see you smiling."