Yvette and Rose
by Teresa Tumminello Brader
On a day the sisters toted accumulated bikes, tackle boxes, fishing rods, and lawn furniture from under their house and up the steps, their mother brought home a new co-worker. From the wide porch, the four of them watched as the sky’s colors descended from the purple of a fresh bruise to the sickly yellow of an old one: The projected storm was on its way.
After pointing out the bathroom to the newcomer, Yvonne asked her daughters to make a pallet on the couch. “Bernard’s going to stay with us tonight.”
“Why?” Scowling, Rose plopped down on the sofa. “He’s dirty and ugly and I don’t like looking at him.”
“That’s hair, not dirt,” said Yvette. Bernard’s thick limbs held more hair than she’d ever seen on anyone. Rose giggled.
“Our house is safer than his trailer,” Yvonne said. “Set the table, please.”
“We never do that,” Rose spoke in the scoffing tone her mother and sister knew too well.
“I’ll do it.” From the cupboard Yvette fetched cutlery and big bowls for the pork-backbone stew Yvonne had started simmering in the crockpot before she’d left for work. If they’d known classes at the community college were to be canceled, the girls would’ve cooked it on the gas stove. Instead, the aroma had tantalized them all day as they made their progressions up and down the stairs.
Bernard joined them at the table, no longer reeking of seafood but of their honey shampoo, wearing baggy shorts and a royal-purple t-shirt, the black hair on his arms and legs a damp pelt. He was not particularly tall and certainly not fat, seemingly all muscle, but he dwarfed the chair he sat upon.
After helping to clear the table, he pulled out a worn deck of cards. “Yvonne taught y’all bourré?” he asked the girls. Squalls rattled the silver-taped windows and the overhead light flickered momentarily.
“Boo-ray, boo-hoo,” Rose said, folding her arms.
“Ma doesn’t have time for games.” Yvette tolerated them for the sake of Rose, who nagged her every evening to play one of her shabby board games. Lately, though, while Yvette read texts for her folklore class, Rose neglected her own coursework and moved the red car along the roads of Life, sighing deeply.
“You could teach us,” Yvette said to Bernard. He explained the rules and dealt the cards. Rose won the first trick. Yvette willed herself not to fidget but couldn’t squash her restlessness. “I better see if Ma needs help with the dishes.”
“Don’t quit.” Rose won the imaginary pot and hooted. “Ma’s fine.”
“Sorry, Yvette, you’ve gone bourré.” Bernard’s words were plodding, like lonely drops of rain.
“No tricks for Yvette, how appropriate.” Rose leaned forward. “Bernard’s a name for a fossil. Can we call you Bernie?”
His small dark eyes dwindled to black pinpoints as he gathered in the cards with both hands. “I was named after my parrain. And, no, you can’t.”
In the kitchen, Yvette hoisted herself onto the counter. Yvonne removed the coffee cup from her lips. “Get down, ‘Vette. You’re too old for that.”
She hopped down and bounced her rump against a cabinet drawer. “Do you like Bernard?” She knew he couldn’t hear her over Rose’s loud chatter.
“I invited him over, didn’t I?” Yvonne sipped her coffee and smiled vaguely at her namesake. “He’s a nice kid, hard worker. No one’s better at hauling the traps and cleaning the catches.”
“He’s not a kid and you’re not old.”
“Did I say I was?” The pretty face of their whip-thin mother, who wasn’t yet forty, was marred with creases from heavy smoking and incessant gardening in the sun. After their father had left for good, employed at the store from open to close, Yvonne had swapped nicotine for caffeine and left the cultivation of her prize cauliflowers and tomatoes to her daughters; but the damage was done. “What’s your point?”
Searching for an acceptable point, Yvette’s mind wandered to fairy tales, wondered if any of the barren couples yearning for a child received a son. Except for the story of Tom Thumb, the couple always seemed to be granted a daughter and, more often than not, it ended badly. “Did you ever wish for a son?”
Taking in Yvonne’s hard stare, Yvette realized she’d broken her promise to herself to stop asking silly questions, as her mother had once labeled them. Yvonne reached for the carafe and refilled her mug. No matter how often Yvette scrubbed the kitchen, the musty coffee scent never faded. “Don’t forget the bedding for Bernard,” Yvonne said. “You and Rose won’t be sleeping in the front room like last time.”
And the time before that, Yvette thought as she shifted toward the hall, and every other time a hurricane threatened. It was the best part of the wait: she and Rose wrapped in sheets, frightening each other with stories of ghosts, serial killers, and the ghosts of executed serial killers. When a gust of wind spun the doorknob, they screeched and threw the blanket they shared over their heads.
Their scariest stories involved the decrepit old man who fished at the point. Always alone, glaring at anyone crossing his path, never returning a greeting, he surfaced in warm weather only, prompting the girls to speculate that he hibernated as if he were a bullfrog. With his stern line of a mouth, wide-set eyes, spikey elbows, and bent knees, he even looked like a frog—well, a frog with a long white beard—and they’d dubbed him Monsieur Grenouille. Once, when he stumbled on the rocks at the shoreline, they dropped their poles and ran to help, each taking a scrawny arm; but his curses rebuffed them, bringing Yvette to tears and turning Rose’s face the color of her name.
Sideways rain lashed the girls’ bedroom window. During a lull, Yvette finally drifted off, undecided in her last moment of awareness if the breathing she heard was her own or Rose’s. In the small hours cackling gales and a rhythmic grating noise disturbed her uneasy slumber. She’d been dreaming of huge white bones being scraped together as if Jack had been strong enough to wield the stripped bones of the dead giant. She turned her pillow over and tried to go back to sleep. When the air-conditioner ceased its humming and the bedroom grew warm, she gave up. Next to her, Rose snored as softly as a child.
Yvette pulled on jean shorts and a blouse, smoothed her hair, and grabbed the waiting penlight from the nightstand. The house was silent and dim, daybreak leaking through the front-room window’s blurry panes. Grandmère’s quilt, folded neatly, lay on one end of the sofa. A golden-yellow jersey peeked out of Bernard’s backpack like a secret he’d let slip.
From the porch, she saw a moving light, as if a feu follet had strayed out of the marshy depths of the bayou. It was Bernard, the beam of a flashlight pooling on his feet. He wore Grandpère’s shrimping boots and tromped around as if he were lord of the manor. Yvette bristled, feeling a fierce pride of ownership for the weathered home Yvonne had inherited from her parents.
At the porch’s other edge, Yvette discerned the crown of a tree sprawled on the ground like soggy garments on a broken clothesline. She slid her bare feet into her gardening clogs and clomped down the wet stairs. The tree closest to the sisters’ bedroom had toppled, by luck or by magic away from the house. The intricate root system was almost obscene in its exposure. Thinking of the slugs that had clung to the stems of last season’s harvested cabbages, Yvette expected to see slithering worms, but the dirt was dead.
Back inside Yvette smelled the burnt tobacco odor before she saw the steaming mug of coffee in her mother’s hand. Yvonne stood in the kitchen archway, dressed in khakis and a black polo shirt, her work uniform. “Radio says the storm’s over.” She shook her head, though barely. “Always seems to come at night.” She blew on her coffee before draining it. “Don’t know when our power’ll cut back on. I better start cooking before the fridge spoils.” Yvonne went to the stove and poured more coffee from Grandmère’s old-fashioned percolator. “Come help if you’re not going back to bed.”
Hours later, on her way to the bathroom, Yvette heard Rose’s laugh and peered out their open bedroom window. Near the fallen tree, talking with her hands, Rose walked alongside Bernard as he arranged small logs in a stack off the puddly grass. She wore the tank top and gym shorts she’d slept in, and her long hair was in a tangle. Bernard lifted Grandpère’s axe and Rose stepped back.
The brilliant sun ousted the gloomy clouds and Yvonne replaced Yvette at the window. “Bernard,” she hollered, “the store needs us.” She turned to Yvette. “They got the generator going and a line out the door. I’ll send some ice, so y’all don’t have to come wait.” Her last sentence floated down the hallway behind her.
Yvette let the tepid shower water linger on her neck and shoulders. After shutting off the taps she heard screaming, shoved a dry towel around herself, and hurried into her clothes. She scampered down the porch stairs and stopped in surprise at the sight of M. Grenouille. He clutched the handle of a child’s wagon, more rusty than red; several of Bernard’s logs lay inside it.
“Looter!” Rose yelled as she tugged on the old man’s arm. She spotted Yvette. “It’s about time. I’ve been calling you for ages.”
Yvette rushed to Rose’s side. “We don’t need those logs.”
“I told Bernard he could sell them.” Rose seemed determined to snap Mr. Frog’s frail arm in two, as if it were a wishbone.
“Let go of me.” His voice was as creaky as a frightened wood duck’s. His beard was dingy and he stunk of rotten eggs. He wrenched his arm from Rose’s grip and the wagon handle, fashioned from a piece of green hosepipe, fell to the ground. “I’m bleeding, salope. You probably gave me disease.” The tips of Rose’s fingernails had marked his freckled skin with tiny red crescents. He reclaimed the handle and pulled the wagon to the street.
Rose’s nostrils flared; her cheeks were pink. “Did you hear what he called me?”
“It doesn’t matter about the logs. He can’t cart them all and Bernard can chop more.”
Rose narrowed her eyes at Yvette. “Why’re you being nice to that nasty old thing? I’m your sister!” She whirled away and stomped up the stairs.
Hands trembling, an inevitable result of even a mild disagreement with Rose, Yvette watched as M. Grenouille headed toward the distant crabgrass. She stood staring into the space he’d vacated until a pounding that echoed her heart dragged her out of her trance: Rose was bumping a bicycle, the one with the wicker basket, down the stairs’ grayed wood. Her hair was drawn into a high ponytail and she’d changed her clothes. Weariness engulfed Yvette. She rubbed her eyes. “Where’re you going?”
Chin raised, Rose swung a leg over the bike. “The store, I’ll get a bag of ice.” Her words were clipped.
“Ma’s getting it.”
Rose leveled her head to glare at Yvette. “It’s hot and I’m bored to death. Maybe Bernard’ll be on break.” Her foot pushed down on the pedal and she was off.
“They’ll be too busy,” Yvette shouted after her. Like a startled killdeer or that of a queen dismissing her subjects, Rose’s hand flew above her head.
Back inside, under the open window screened against mosquitoes, Yvette pillowed her head on the quilt. A whiff of soap and sweat arose from the fabric and she fell into a dream of a brown pelican wearing a golden coronet. While dozens of gulls in the distance flashed copper in the sunset, the pelican dive-bombed into the bay to net specks and reds in its pouch. When the caught fish transformed into diamonds and rubies, the regal bird dropped the gems at Yvette’s feet. Mr. Frog materialized, gathered up the jewels, and fled, as did her sleep at the too-soon knock on the door.
“I got ice.” Bernard carried the heavy bags into the kitchen as if they were sandwich baggies. “Wanna ride with me to check on my trailer?”
Yvette yawned. “Where’s Rose?” She ripped open a bag and dumped the frosty chunks into the cooler, packing them around the food cooked that morning, a morning that seemed days ago.
“I don’t know where she was going.”
“Did she tell you about Monsieur Grenouille?” Yvette uttered the childhood nickname before she could stop herself.
“Who?” Stowing the other bag into the sink, Bernard chuckled. “I guess Mr. Earl does look like a grenouille. She asked where he stayed too. I told her to keep away from the crank.”
Suddenly wide-awake, Yvette paused in her jigsaw-puzzling of ice and food packets. “I bet she went there.”
Bernard tilted his head, a quizzical expression on his placid, round face. “Nah, she was going the wrong way.”
“She tricked you.” Yvette stood up and the cooler lid slammed shut. “Rose holds grudges. She hasn’t let me forget I broke her sunglasses, a cheap pair, accidentally, years ago.”
From a pocket of his cargo pants, Bernard retrieved a set of keys. “I’ll find her.”
“I’m going with you.” Yvette tied her tennis shoes and left the ice in the sink to its melting.
Alone with Bernard in his battered truck, Yvette felt as if she was betraying Rose, though Rose was the reason she was there. He wheeled his pickup toward the point then veered down a lane hidden by some live oaks. The blast from the air-conditioning vents was like a reprieve. “Nice,” she said, as the cool air blew on her face. “I didn’t think it was going to work.”
“Don’t judge a vehicle by its body. These innards are in tip-top shape.” He braked on the rutted road and Yvette looked around.
“He stays here?” Trees surrounded them; a few had been downed by the storm, limbs snapped, branches crisscrossed. To snuff a flicker of panic, Yvette reminded herself she trusted her mother not to bring someone dangerous into their lives.
“I can’t get closer.” Bernard shifted the gear upward. “We have to walk the rest. It’s not far.” He guided her through the thicket, but when Yvette spied Rose’s bike she ran ahead. The wagon full of their logs was parked in front of Mr. Earl’s house. The rickety structure looked more like a toolshed than a suitable dwelling for a human being.
Yvette dashed up the wooden steps and glanced into a puttied-in window, both hoping and dreading to find Rose on the other side. The yellowed plexiglass revealed nothing. She put her fingers inside the hole where a doorknob should’ve been and yanked the door open. Corroded and shiny objects gleamed dully in the murky sunlight. The room—that’s all it was—smelled of mold and damp earth. “Rose?” Something stirred, ominously, like the rustling of a cockroach in a sleepy bedroom.
“‘Vette?” The shaky syllable ascended from a heap of pipes and wires; hunkered behind it was Rose. Noticing a bump on Rose’s forehead, Yvette helped her stand and steered her to the doorway.
Waning sunshine filtered through the soft green of the bald cypresses to the west. Oaks encircled the cabin like the shower curtain around their clawfoot bathtub. The heavy silence was a companion Yvette didn’t desire.
As she wondered where Bernard was, Mr. Earl appeared in front of them, a shotgun along his arm. “What y’all doing in my house? What’d you take?” Like a blade against a whetstone, his voice set Yvette’s nerves on edge and she almost screamed at him to shut up.
Then, from the corner of her eye, she glimpsed the black of Bernard’s shirt. He moved deliberately and without a sound as Mr. Earl raised the gun. Then he was behind Mr. Earl and the gun aimed at her and Rose. Then he knocked the old man down with a single swipe of his hand. Then Mr. Frog lay motionless in the mud.
“Oh my God, is he dead?” Rose sobbed. Her whole body shuddered, even her teeth.
Yvette lowered Rose to the bottom step and squatted next to Bernard. “Is he?” she whispered.
Bernard removed his thick fingers from Mr. Earl’s pulse. “I gotta get him to Regional. Can you get Rose home on the bike?”
“We’ve done it before.” She didn’t mention the last time had been years ago.
Cradling Mr. Earl to his chest, Bernard nodded toward a barely visible path. “Head that way.”
Though Rose was slight, her clinginess increased the burden and Yvette labored to keep pedaling. The darkening trail ended at a patch of wildflowers near their home and Yvette wondered how Bernard knew the area better than she did.
A figure as rigid and straight as the trunk of a pine tree stood on the porch, its shape defined by a light coming through the screen door. The power was back. Yvette skidded to a stop and Rose jumped off the bike, nearly kicking Yvette in the back.
“Where in the world—?” Yvonne’s question was interrupted by Rose’s flinging her arms around their mother. Another bout of crying and feverish words ensued, as Yvette paced her wobbly legs up the stairs. “What happened, ‘Vette?”
“Can I tell you while we eat? I’m starving.”
After Yvette’s telling of the tale, Yvonne took freshly brewed coffee to her bedroom to watch over Rose. Yvette plunged her hands into the soapy dishwater and suppressed roaming thoughts of the encounter with Mr. Earl, focusing instead on a mental to-do list. With a trace of guilt, she looked forward to sleeping by herself. And with school shut down for one more day, she’d sleep late. Then she’d repair the cauliflower and tomato beds at the rear of the house. The surviving plants needed retying, but someday, soon, they’d need to be relocated.
A rap on the front door disrupted Yvette’s scheduling. She dried her hands and let Bernard in, another event that seemed like days, not hours, since she’d done it last. “How is he?” she asked.
“Not good.” Bernard rubbed the side of his long nose. “I went inside Mr. Earl’s house with the sheriff. Now I know who stole my trailer’s a.c. coils. Old coot’s been hoarding for years.”
Yvette’s jaw tensed and she winced. “He’s dangerous. He hurt Rose.”
“He couldn’t’ve.” Bernard knuckled the stubble on his chin. “He got there after we did. Sheriff had just run him off from shooting quails.”
“How’d she get that lump on her forehead then?” Yvette’s arms crossed behind her back, her hands gripping the skin of her forearms. “She doesn’t remember.”
Bernard shrugged, his shoulders disappearing into his wide neck and for one confusing moment Yvette longed to rest her fingers there. “Sheriff’s gonna come round tomorrow to talk to y’all.”
Her anxiety crashed like thunder. “He was going to shoot us!” She breathed deeply; her hands released her arms and, elbows straightening, clasped each other. “Thank you for stopping him.”
“I better go.” He scooped his backpack off the floor and poked the sleeve of the jersey back inside. “Feels like I haven’t been home in forever.”
“Wait.” Yvette darted to the kitchen and grabbed a brown sack from the table. She presented it to him at the front door, the mingled fragrances of leftover stew and braised doves wafting between them.
On the porch, Bernard hesitated. “Wanna go on my boat this weekend?”
Yvette looked up and noted the velvety-blue corona circling the hazy moon. Despite the pressures of the day, she felt jubilant, as if she could touch the amber-streaked sky. She’d lived with the view from the point almost her entire life, but for the first time she understood the horizon was limitless and its colors were infinite.
She lowered her gaze to Bernard’s face. “What about Rose?”
“I’m not good-looking enough for Rose.” His lopsided smile seemed shy, but his tone was teasing.
Yvette placed her hands on her hips. “I have no idea how to take that remark.” She grinned back. Perhaps it was her imagination, or that they were standing in semidarkness, but he no longer appeared furry.
“I’ll bring my brother. You bring your sister.”
As he walked to his truck, Yvette called to him over the railing. “Do you drink coffee?”
He squinted up at her. “Can’t bear the stuff.” Under the full moon, a dark eye winked.
Teresa Tumminello Brader was born in New Orleans and still lives near Lake Pontchartrain; the city, the estuary and its denizens are the source of much of her inspiration. Her stories have appeared in several online journals, including Hobart Pulp and Halfway Down the Stairs, and in print in anthologies such as Families: The Frontline of Pluralism from Wising Up Press; Coming Home: A 2010 Main Street Rag Short Fiction Anthology; You Don’t Say from Ink Monkey Press; and moonShine Review. Her most recent short story was published in University of Kansas’s Landlocked.