The White Elephant
The dust that Pancho bit down South ended up in Lefty’s mouth.
Carline and I sat at the breakfast table dressed as the dancing ostriches from Fantasia. It was Halloween morning, 1967 — the last year of my family’s unbroken life — and my older sister and I were having a fight with our mother. She had made these outfits for our schools’ costume parade.
“My beautiful ballerinas,” Daddy said. “Both of you. Miss Cissy and darlin’ Carline the Pageant Queen.”
“We’re not ballerinas,” Carline retorted. “We’re freaks.”
To eat, we wore our papier-mâché beaks shoved up on our foreheads. My tummy strained against the waistband of the ostrich-feather tutu Mother had stitched; Carline, lithe in her plumage, batted irritably at the huge black hair-bow Mother insisted each of us wear.
“Nobody but Minnie Mouse wears a giant goddamned bow on her head!”
Carline’s eyes, lovely and blue and huge, blazed under false eyelashes. My own eyes burned from envy and eyelash glue.
“Carline looks better than me.”
“Better than I,” said Mother. “Don’t compare, Cissy.”
“If you didn’t want her to compare, you shouldn’t have dressed us alike,” said Carline.
Unfortunately for us, Mother was a woman of powerful imagination.
“You wanted an animal costume, Cissy,” Mother told me. “Carline wanted to go as Odile. It’s easier to make one costume twice.”
“You always say never do something simply because it’s easier,” I said.
“A mother can’t survive without some double standards, Cecilia. And besides, no one will know you’re dressed alike; you go to different schools.”
She took a prim sip of her coffee and with maddening composure returned her attention to her halved grapefruit.
“Mama, this getup is about as far from Swan Lake as the moon!”
Carline had just turned twelve and still danced ballet. Most girls had given it up by then. (Mother had already let me quit and I was only ten.) Carline at least was built like an ostrich, long neck and all, so her costume suited her. Except for the beak, she looked gorgeous. I was, Carline pointed out, built more like one of Fantasia’s dancing hippos.
“My tutu’s itchy,” I complained.
“Clothes impart discipline,” said Mother. “Look at your father.”
Daddy wore his pilot’s uniform, which might as well have been a Halloween costume. He flew for Lonestar Air — a trans-Texas airline company his own father had started back in what Pawpaw called the golden age of flight. Daddy was airforce-trained, saw action in Korea. Someday, Pawpaw said, he would run the company, if he kept his nose clean and his whistle dry. Tee-totalitarian, Daddy called him.
The heavy navy blue uniform gave Daddy square corners. His white shirt made him look crisp and alert; the knotted tie dignified his poorly shaven neck and lifted his chin. When he set his heavy captain’s hat on his head, its shade lent his features an expression of cheerful seriousness. In his pilot’s costume, he looked like someone you could trust.
His uniform perked us all up because it meant he’d be gone from the house. His absence from home was like a pulled tooth, a hole to explore, gingerly, but with deep relief.
“There won’t be any fighting during your Aunt Loretta’s visit,” my father said, and lit a cigarette. “And you girls best get home from school right quick and clean my trophy room.”
“I wish you wouldn’t smoke at the table,” Mother told Daddy. “Carline, you eat two more bites of that egg.”
Carline cut the bites and pushed them around on her plate. She didn’t like to eat. She used her mouth for sass, mainly.
“It’s not our job,” Carline announced. “It’s her job to clean Daddy’s morgue.”
“I’m standing right here,” said Mother.
Carline pinched me.
“Caroline Louise Bowman,” snapped Mother. “You are excused from this table.” Carline smiled. She’d gained her point; she handed her plate to Mother, egg uneaten.
Mother stacked the plates noisily. When she leaned over to clear Daddy’s, she inhaled deeply and said, “A little more aftershave, Mark. And you might want this.”
She slipped him a packet of Sen-Sen to clear up his breath.
“Shoot, Grace, you got a nose on you like a bloodhound,” said Daddy. “No one else can smell a thing. Right, Cissy?”
I leaned in and sniffed.
“No sir,” I lied.
“I don’t see why we need to clean up for old Aunt Loretta,” said Carline from the doorway. She looked over at Daddy to gauge her effect.
He sat turning his pilot’s cap over in his hands, putting off the moment when it would weight his head. He had one last Starliner run to make to El Paso — a trip that would bring him back to us by the late afternoon. Fortunately, he hadn’t caught Carline’s remark. Daddy was a great talker but a bad listener; he tuned in at the wrong times and to the wrong things. If we pitched our voices right the odds were good that he’d miss half the meaning of anything we said. It was safer that way. Daddy had moods.
Usually any mention of Aunt Loretta brought on a tirade about how far away his sister lived or a hymn to her praises. He took hops out to see her in Big Spring because it was on his flight route, but we had never met her. We were pilot’s children, but we had never been up in a plane.
“What’s this about Loretta?” said Daddy. “You girls ready for the sweetest woman that ever lived? You ready to meet your little cousin? Loretta says he’s pure Bowman. I ever tell you girls my sister’s nickname?”
“Only a thousand times daily from birth,” said Carline.
“Can I call her Aunt Pistol?” I asked. I hoped if I loved Aunt Loretta as much as Daddy did, I’d get on his good side.
“It’s ‘may I. ’ And say aunt, not ant, Cissy. She’s not an insect,” said Mother.
“She sure as hell ain’t no insect! My big sister,” said Daddy, “is a pure pistol; one hundred percent red-blooded Texan — wild, wild, wild. Sure is cute as a bug, though.”
He winked at Mother. Mother looked away. She couldn’t bear it when Daddy got folksy.
“Ever since we was kids,” he said, “I called her Pistol and she called me Gunn. Can’t wait for you girls to meet her. She’s a true Southern lady. She’s a Belle Starr bom...