Sister Sarah Elizabeth Schantz
Time Commitment: 9 minutes
Originally Published In:
Los Angeles Review

Because all the silverware is dirty, Krystal uses an aluminum tablespoon to smear the yellow glue into the plastic bag. The same kind of bag she uses for Baby Girl’s bologna sandwiches on those days when she packs a picnic and takes her little sister to the park. Krystal likes to go. She likes the sound of the running water, how the creek carries the air, the way this air feels cold as she stands on the rocks watching Baby Girl play. Krystal watches making sure this sister gets to be a little girl.

The tablespoon is rectangular, the shape of a bulldozer scooper, only smaller and more shallow. The glue acts like honey, thick and impossible. Krystal transfers it to the bag from the blue tin with the three black Xs on the label. Industrial strength: Tandy Leather Glue. Krystal stole it from Preacher’s shop—dropped it in her bag when no one was looking. The same bag that carries everything she might ever need.

Preacher is her sister’s boyfriend. Her oldest sister, Jewel. His shop is along Highway 6, a converted orange caboose he sleeps in the back behind a curtain. The shop smells like rawhide, leather dye, cheap Mexican weed, and the inside of new cars. Preacher works leather. Makes jackets, chaps, custom saddle bags, belts, and even whips. His signature is fringe. He sells the gear to the bikers who pass through town late summer. August smells like motor oil and coconut suntan lotion. And sounds like Harley Davidson motors, long whistles, and chirping cat calls. Krystal loves to sit on Preacher’s deck and watch the bikers drive by. Chewing her Big Gulp straw, Krystal sees herself hitching a ride. Sees the day she stands on the side of the road with her thumb stuck out. And once she’s gone, Krystal sees how she’ll never come back. This is why she carries a bag with everything she might ever need.

Preacher rides a vintage maroon Indian. A bike with slender contours and curves like the egg-filled abdomens of an insect Krystal once saw on TV when she was stoned. Preacher proposed to her sister five years back but Jewel still hasn’t given him an answer. Krystal sits on the counter in the kitchen wearing the black fringed leather vest Preacher made for her this year—a gift for her fourteenth birthday. She wears it over her favorite shirt, a white tank with airbrushed roses splattered across the chest and spaghetti straps. Krystal hides the lump on her shoulder with the vest just like Preacher thought she would.

The kitchen sink is no bigger than a large-sized Tupperware tub, overflowing with dirty dishes, and half-eaten grilled cheese with cigarette butts put out in the greasy bread. The rest of the trailer is clean because a small space has to be.

Krystal sits on the narrow counter and keeps from falling by stretching out one long leg. She pushes her bare foot against the built-in table to steady herself, to keep from going down. The table folds out of the wall and was made to look like chrome, but the chrome is a mirage. Just cheap contact paper beginning to wrinkle and peel from years of the Minnesotan bipolar seasons. Sacred Heart is either sweaty hot or bitter cold.

The trailer is the only home Krystal’s ever known. Born inside the flimsy walls on a floor without foundation, she took her mama by surprise. Third babies come real fast. With Gemma on the phone with 911, and Jewel poised to catch the newborn, Krystal was delivered in the tiny bathroom slash hallway, sliding doors on either side to separate the back bedroom from the living area. Jewel, with her ring-laden hands and sharp fake finger nails, not only caught Krystal’s slick body, but was the first to discover the odd lump. Over the years, the men who are never really fathers, but her mama’s men come and go, building the additional rooms in attempt to make space where there isn’t any room. Methamphetamines, skunk weed, rye whiskey, hammers, saws and screws, these men never find a way to fit.

Haphazard, un-insulated and made from bowed plywood, three tiny make-shift bedrooms cling to the side of the trailer like a Midway funhouse. Covered with sheets of slanting tin, the bedrooms get too hot and too cold and always leak. The door that was meant to be the backdoor is now the door that opens onto the narrow hallway leading into these rooms occupied by Krystal and her older sisters.

Krystal has the last room with the big round window salvaged from a mansion that was torn down somewhere in the Twin Cities after a tornado. Double-pane, something is wrong with the seal. When it rains the water collects between the two sheets of glass and smears the outside world Krystal likes to look at. The window sweats and the water evaporates. Then it rains again, and the process repeats itself—like everything in Krystal’s life, forever looping.

Baby Girl sleeps with their mama, but when Mama has company, she sleeps with Krystal. As soon as Jewel says yes to Preacher, Baby Girl will get her room. There isn’t any room left on the lot for another addition. Everyone knows that Jewel will come around and marry Preacher who is good to her, who is good to them all. They know this like they know the SSI comes on the third of every month just in time to avoid any late fees on the lot rent. Jewel just struggles when it comes to accepting anything nice someone else has offered her.

Tonight Krystal put Baby Girl down in their mama’s bed. Even in the summer she insists on sleeping in her footed pajamas—the ones with the plastic soles all cracked from too much washing and too many bodies handed down. When she sleeps, Baby Girl sucks on her arms. She’s covered in red welts like she’s been sucked on by leeches. Red welts that keep making Social Services come around for yet another look.

Everyone else is out for the night. Mama playing bingo, Gemma on a date with a new guy, and Jewel working the graveyard shift in the sugar warehouse at the beet factory over in Renville. All night long Jewel sweeps sugar from one side of the warehouse to the other. When she works inside the factory she squeegees the molasses from one side to the other, the wide pipes overhead dripping more of that dark sweet gunk.

Krystal says she will never work the factory. It is her mantra. Runs the words through her head every night as she stands in front of her circle window, looking out at another world—“I will never work at that factory.” She makes this promise to her ephemeral reflection in the glass or the girl she sees in mirrors. For now, Krystal’s job is to take care of Baby Girl who sometimes slips and calls Krystal, Mama.

Using the plastic baggies like a glove, Krystal works the glue off the tablespoon and doesn’t get any on her thumb. There is more than enough glue on the inside of the bag. It’s a waste because glue dries so fast, but not as fast as paint.

This is her second bag tonight. She pinches the opening with her thumb and forefinger, and her heart-shaped mouth blows into the bag which inflates like a third lung. She holds the see-through, make-believe balloon in the air and studies it the way a person might study an aquarium or a curio cabinet. She sees animals inside: deer bodies with rabbit heads and rabbits with antlers. Winged fish and alligator men ride on trolley cars pulled along by clouds instead of cables. Sometimes she really can see the rest of the world—the world where she is headed. The texture and color of phlegm, the glue is attached to the inside of the bag the way a tumor attaches itself to a body. This is what glue does; it makes things stick together.