Flowers for Elvis

Flowers for Elvis

Julia Schuster

$14.95 April 2009
ISBN 978-0-9821756-1-3

The wry, observant spirit of a dead child follows the twists and turns of her twin sister's turbulent life. Quirky Southern fiction at its best!

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Synopsis | Reviews | Excerpt

I came into this world and left it on the same day. I guess God knew what He was doing. Being the illegitimate daughter of a nun would have been restrictive, to say the least. Then, when you factor in that my mother was white and my father black, that they lived in the podunk town of Iuka, Mississippi, and the year was 1956—I guess I should really feel blessed to be dead.

In 1956, Olivia and her twin sister are born to a nun an old auto parts store turned convent in rural Mississippi. Little Olivia doesn't survive the day, but her spunky spirit hangs around and takes on the role of ethereal watchdog over her twin. When the Reverend Mother—and holy guilt—convince the nun's sister (a young pregnant newlywed) to secretly raise the baby as the twin of her own soon-to-be-born child, Olivia realizes the urgency of her presence and support. Not only is her aunt a fanatical Elvis fan, she's a renegade Southern belle, bent on self-indulgence and desperate to safeguard her multitude of sins.

Without revealing which girl is her twin until the end, Olivia takes the reader on a flower strewn tour of misguided love and maternal betrayal which culminates at Elvis' funeral, where they finally discover the truth of their parentage and unravel the generations of secrets that shadowed their lives.

Flowers For Elvis is quirky Southern fiction with a literary edge, surprising humor and an uplifting spirit.


"Flowers for Elvis is a touching tale made stronger by an unexpected spin." -- Midwest Book Review

"Willard and Genevieve, Anna Beth and Louisa evoke the Practical Magic sisters or the women from Fried Green Tomatoes. They are strong, flawed characters, loving and willful and impatient and wise. By the end of Flowers for Elvis, I was captivated by this story. It helps that there's a twist I didn't expect--it's hard to surprise me--and an ending that might be one of the most perfect (in that same strange, charming way) endings I've ever read." -- In Search of Giants Blog (on all things reading, writing and literary)

"Vibrant, lyrical and full of quirky charm." -- Karen Kendall, author of TAKE ME IF YOU CAN

"Julia Schuster is a born writer who understands that fiction is the art of empathy, and she blossoms in this strange and wonderful tale that has its roots in Elvis worship, Memphis rhythm and blues, flower shops, and the complex hearts of the women of a Southern gothic family." -- K. L. Cook, author of The Girl from Charnelle and Last Call

"Julia Schuster deftly weaves together cultural issues that were the pulse of the 1950s and 1960s in her latest book, Flowers for Elvis—among them: unwed mothers, racial discrimination, religion, and, of course, Elvis Presley. The book is a comfortable read, its language and characters dropping the reader into the humid heart of the South, into a time we believed to be innocent. Related with insight, and tongue-in-cheek humor, Flowers for Elvis will keep readers turning the page.” -- Vickie Weaver, 2006 Pushcart Nominee


Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life's Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar:
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home:
Heaven lies about us in our infancy!

Excerpt from Ode: Intimations of Immortality
By: William Wordsworth

Love Me Tender
Film, Twentieth Century Fox, and
Top 20 Billboard Hits Single

I came into this world and left it on the same day. I guess God knew what He was doing. Being the illegitimate daughter of a nun would have been restrictive, to say the least. Then, when you factor in that my mother was white and my father black, that they lived in the podunk town of Iuka, Mississippi, and the year was 1956—I guess I should really feel blessed to be dead. Still, it would have been nice to hang around in the flesh for a while. Instead, God put me in charge of my other half, my twin, whose lungs were a tad bit more developed than mine at the time of our premature entry into the world. She became my responsibility—and, oh, what a time that child gives me. What a time indeed.

Heartbreak Hotel
Top 20 Billboard Hit Single

My sister came within an angel's breath of being dropped on her head when her body gushed from between our mother's legs. Would a good rap on the concrete have done her some good? The convent's Reverend Mother and I couldn't be sure at the time, but you know what they say about hindsight. Instead, the Reverend Mother caught her by the ankles on the fly and swooped her up into her arms like an outfielder cradling a grounder to her chest. Midwifery hadn't been a required course of study in the nunnery, I don't suppose, but this woman could field! My sister arrived blaring like all holy fury from her first breath. But not one scream escaped our devastated mother. Not one "Jesus, Mary and Joseph,” only silent tears and whispered prayers for the welfare of her twins.

Mother Superior bent down and placed my squalling sibling on the straw mat on the floor next to my lifeless shell. Not even the blue shade of death could conceal our difference. My body was blue-lipped and as chalky alabaster as the good nun's bib and coif, like most Negro babies appear in their first moments on earth. It is not until breath and blood work together to energize pigment that the skin warms with the rich tones an African heritage affords. My sister, however, was as purple as a grape, like most white babies are at birth. A barely audible "Lord, have mercy,” escaped with Mother Superior's gasp. She crossed herself, staring down at my screeching sister and the inert body my spirit had briefly possessed. Finally, she composed herself long enough to give our grieving mother's hand a quick squeeze. "I'll take care of it,” she whispered to my panting mother. "You'll have to trust me, but I promise I'll do what's best.” She wrapped us in a tattered bath towel, rubbed her hands against the chill, and scooped us up.

A hush enveloped the room for the first time as Mother Superior whisked us from our mother's cell. The rubber soles of her slippers slapped the concrete as she scurried down the hall, passing a long row of closed doors. Light streamed from beneath each door, but none opened with an offer of assistance. This woman was on her own.

Silence draped the metal stairwell as we descended. For the first time I recognized that my vantage point had changed. I was not in the nun's arms with my sister. Had I ever been? Instead, sometime between my death within my mother's womb and my sister's life surge, the essence of me had wriggled out of myself and squeezed into the space between my sister's heartbeat and my Father's lap. I was stuck between the two, cocooned, but now, infused with a milky understanding and abilities I would figure out as I went along, and with no flesh to contain me, no tiny house of bones and blood and breath to keep me small, I grew in space and knowledge, all air and fog and stars, memory and thought and calm. Over my right shoulder I saw my family's past. I grasped its meaning, comprehended its effects, but its members and their connections to each other seemed too complicated for me to decipher just now. I turned my attention to my sister, whose present pulsed through me like the breath I never required to sustain me, urgent and still within my grasp. Ahead, though, time loomed before us, shrouded with uncertainty and a foggy translucence I knew I was destined to wade through and figure out.

Glancing down at myself, I checked out my ethereal outfit like a skinny woman trying on bathing suits for the first time. I looked good, felt good, knew good, but sensed, too, the evil that walks hand in hand with the physical world. A door stood partially open beside me close enough to touch. It had six panels and a golden knob with no lock. It glowed with the blue translucence of welcome. White light streamed from its crack, the triangular point of it reaching me. I shook my foot; it shook with me, attached at my toe, my heel, my hand. This light moved with me. I placed my hand on the door, but did not push. I knew I wasn't supposed to, not now, not yet. A parental nudge at the small of my back turned me toward my sister again, making all I needed to know for now clear.

At the bottom of the stairs, the Reverend Mother stopped suddenly and leaned into the shadows against the wall. "Go on by,” she prayed aloud. Headlights illuminated the front of the building. The backward words, Beaver's Auto Parts and Shop, stood out in streaked red across the plate glass windows. The Sister barely breathed until the vehicle moved on.

"Curtains, we've got to make curtains,” she murmured, and scuttled across the large front room headed toward the back. I tagged along, knowing no other option. I figured God would get around to giving me details when He got a break in His schedule.

Rough wooden benches stood at odd angles on the oil-stained floor facing a makeshift altar under a faded wall painted with signs advertising spark plugs and motor oil. A statue of the Virgin Mary stood against the far wall on an old display case. So beautiful. Votive wishes flickered at her feet. Mother Superior paused in front of the statue just long enough to whisper a prayer. Then she moved on through a crude kitchenette, and into a pantry stacked with canned goods and cases of wine.

She bent low to enter a subterranean chamber through a beat up metal door and bolted it behind us. "I just don't understand it,” she told no one, as we hurried down concrete stairs to the basement. "How can one child be white and the other black?” Congealed grease smell and heavy incense clogged the air. She stifled a cough and cleared her throat. "Help me, Mother. What should I do?” This time she directed her pleas to a broken statue, resting on its side on the floor. This disfigured Virgin had lost her outstretched arm. The lopped-off appendage lay next to a stack of Bibles, propped against the cinder block wall. "What will I do with these babies? How could this happen? How could I not have known?” A bare bulb cast shadows about us. She glanced down into the wide eyes of my sister. "I must protect them. I know that, Sweet Virgin. And their mother, too. Oh, their mother, the poor dear. Whatever will I do about her now?”

As she gazed down at my vacant gray shell, struggle played across her face. I knew what she was thinking; not through some extrasensory perception or mind reading benefit, but from a rumble that surged within me. She fought as surly and determined as in a verbal argument to stave off the thoughts pushing to the forefront of her mind: How could You let this happen, Lord? But thank you, God, for not allowing the little Negro child to live. The impressions sickened her, and me too, for that matter. How could it ever be good for a baby to die? Especially me. But already—by gift or curse, I couldn't be sure which just yet—I knew the inner workings of this woman, as if I possessed a sympathetic insight born of my beyond-life circumstance. This knowing was equipped with an uncertain depth, though. Resonating, as if God had added a bass bell to a deep chime, her heart's song assured me that it wasn't like her to question God. She would never assume that she knew what was best. In this instance, however, she was glad it had turned out this way. She cared about our welfare and how difficult it would have been for me if I had lived. Mississippi in those days—and in these days still—was not a friendly place for those born with racially mixed-up blood. God taking me out of the equation like He did relieved the Reverend Mother of the predicament of having to explain our births and the anomaly of twin girls with opposing skin hues.

Water oozed from a crack in the cinder block wall, dripping into a perpetual puddle on the floor. Despite the nuns' best efforts, this was a cold and smelly hole. The fact that it even existed was nothing short of a miracle. A convent in rural Mississippi? And the idiot who came up with the plan to turn an auto parts store into a convent must never have visited this place. It needed work—starting with a furnace. Mother Superior shuddered. She had taken vows to uphold her duties to the Church. Did that include covering up this mess, she wondered? Making livable this inhospitable place had seemed like a great deal to ask of one person just weeks before when the nuns had moved into the space. But that seemed simple in light of the situation that presented itself now, in the flesh. The icy chill of isolation tore at her heart. Who could she ask for help? Certainly not me; I had my own situation to figure out.

The good Sister bowed her head. A great mole stuck out on her forehead, her public brand of imperfection for everyone to see. Her thick lenses fogged as she peeped through the haze to make sure I didn't twitch or move. Trembling, she filled a small mixing bowl with water. Then she dipped her hand into the Corning Ware holy water font and dribbled the cool liquid over our heads. It was then that I realized the magnitude of my lacking. No greater gift could God have taken from me than the sense of touch. I suddenly ached to run my fingers through that water and experience its cleansing flow. I reached out to touch the wall; I felt nothing. I rested my hand on the Sister's shoulder, but no energy conveyed. My hand indented the fabric of her sleeve, but no friction transferred. She felt nothing; I felt nothing in return.

"Hush, hush now little one,” the Reverend Mother begged my sister. "I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.” She made the sign of the cross on Baby Big Mouth's head. Picking her up and to no avail, she bounced her frantically as wails reverberated through the damp cave. She reached down and placed her hand on the motionless chest of my old self. "And I baptize you, precious child, Olivia Abigail Clancy Hersh, after your dear grandmother, your mother's mother—God, rest her soul. And I commit your spirit into God's loving hands.”

Olivia Abigail. Nice name, I thought. The sound of it rang through me with the perfect pitch of a Gregorgian chant. But the startling realization that no one would ever call me by it saddened me. No one would ever know me. Olivia Abigail was dead. I had died before ever leaving my mother's womb. I wondered why I was hanging around. Shouldn't I be going somewhere? Up, maybe? Could I stand being left here in this void indefinitely when already I longed for the physical, I ached for the intimacy these humans already shared?

I glanced back at my glimmering door. All I understood was a connection, a bond, tethering me by a tenuous thread of light between the physical plane of the living and the mysteries that lay beyond. I longed to be here and elsewhere. I was alone and in company at the same time. The nun couldn't see me, didn't have the slightest hint of my presence. My ethereal exile became both my blessing and my penance for sins I would never have the opportunity to commit.

Many times during that seemingly endless night of squalling several expletive salutations came to the exhausted Sister's mind. When daylight finally glinted through the flip-out window above our heads, her back ached from hours of rocking and shushing, and my obstinate sister's wailing had grated on my last nerve. But I sensed that Sister's prayers had been answered. Providence had delivered her a solution, and for that she was truly thankful and relieved. My next questions were: Why was I shielded from the details? Why hadn't anyone informed me?

Mississippi mud is harder than granite, especially when it is thirty degrees outside. It took three Sisters all morning to dig my hole. Their spades picked and hacked at the earth, useless toothpicks as the sinuous roots of ancient oaks impeded their path. Gray woolen clouds billowed above them and rained darts of sleet onto their hunched shoulders like barbs of regret. They were silent in their work, glancing up now and then, puzzled as to why their spiritual leader had requested such a task in the dead of winter and before morning prayers. I watched from above them, around them, beside them. Moving around seemed effortless for me, the only requirement a thought, a blink, a wish, although I never felt like I could or should stray too far from my sister. She was my only real connection. At least in our mother's womb our hearts had beat in unison, our life sacks had bumped and rubbed and rolled in the happy dance of anticipated birth. I tried to remember what it was like there. What it felt like to be close enough to touch. But nothing. I was relegated to a space apart, alone. I watched the nuns scoop each shovel full of dirt from the hole that would soon hold my body. They didn't acknowledge my presence because they didn't know of it. I was air.

Mother Superior flitted around in a state, as anxious and flustered as a canary in the sights of a prowling cat. She came out to check and recheck their progress. And finally, on her fourth or fifth trip, she dismissed her holy laborers to go on about their duties, certain of their loyalty and silent confidence. She stood at the foot of the termite-ridden split rail fence encircling the property, her lengthy skirts billowing in the breeze, and mumbled prayers for my departed soul, making invisible crosses in the air with one hand while holding her veil to keep it from blowing off her head with the other. A stopped-up nose muffled her words. She had no more tears. Arthritic expiation settled in on her as she patted the icy earth around my crude coffin, a wooden case that once held the finest altar wine.

A dog howled in pain from somewhere close by or some place far away. Or was it my pain escaping, a gush of sorrow released to the wind? I wanted to follow it, fly with it away, to a place that might be different, but I knew I couldn't depart. I would never really want to leave here, to leave my sweet sister. But I would always want what she had—life. Could cold be any colder than this?

Lifeless and brittle, earthy refuse blew up around the Sister's black stockings. "Sleep well, little Olivia Abigail. Fear not, for God has better plans for you, my dear.”

I wondered how she knew this. Why had no one consulted me about these things? My death and birth had transformed me, yes, but into what I could still not be sure. I sensed things, knew things, but not everything. Why, I wondered? Like an overly sensitive transistor, static often interrupted my signal. Was God still figuring out what He wanted me to do? Sister turned, clasped her rosary beads and dried her eyes on the back of her hand. No one else witnessed my burial that day. Our secret births and my death registered only in our mother's heart and in the heart of the kindly Reverend Mother who did the best she could do at the time.

A young woman waddled into Mother Superior's office that afternoon and lowered herself into the wooden chair facing the desk. Her name was Genevieve Baxter. In an instant, I knew her, had personal knowledge of everything about her as if her personality suddenly pulsated through me. Her past and intentions rubbed coarse against my own. She revolted me instantly as if a cloud of distrust followed her into the room. What was Reverend Mother up to? I settled myself into the windowsill, a good vantage point for keeping an eye out.

No amount of disinfectant could remove the stench of ancient mildew and greasy rags from the convent. Genevieve's nose wrinkled. She shivered. She rubbed her swollen belly and checked herself to make sure none of the notes she had written to Elvis had escaped her jacket pockets. Elvis, yes, Elvis. Silly details about this complete stranger came to me as if an internal movie reel played just for me in stereo hi-fi. His baritone moaned, "Walk That Lonesome Valley” in my ear. His hips swiveled before me. His slim hand pushed a dark curl out of his face. And I knew Genevieve loved him. But Reverend Mother's plans for my sister played on stations my antennae could not locate. Was God some kind of jokester, I wondered? Was He funning with me? Was He going to keep me guessing and dole out information on a need-to-know basis? Or, rather, was I just not good enough, not smart enough for this job?

Genevieve fingered the ragged scraps of paper—her confession notes, she called them. Who needs a priest when Elvis is close at hand, she thought. Something primitive, almost carnal oozed luxuriously from her sigh. "Well, at least they can't recruit me,” she whispered to the daydream of her rock-and-roll idol. "I don't exactly fit the nun mold anymore—not that I ever did.”

She fidgeted against the rough oak of her seat, wondering why the Reverend Mother had summoned her to come all the way out to the convent on such a cold and dreadful day. She wondered, too, what she had gotten caught at. She knew it was something, but with her delinquent reputation, it could have been one of any number of things. She turned, thinking someone had opened the door behind her. This startled me. Had I done that? Had she felt my presence there? I was watching the door at the time. Had I made her look? I focused my attention on the doorway again, willed it to move, or at the very least to squeak. But no, nothing. It didn't move. Genevieve didn't look again. Tugging at her coat, she settled uncomfortably back into the chair.

A few moments later, footsteps sounded from the hallway. Genevieve brushed back her bouffant flip and stood up just as Mother Superior pushed open the door and entered the room.

"Good morning, Sister,” she chimed in her best parochial-school chant. She almost choked on it, but she got it out.

She glanced down and noticed her new Elvis Presley Fan Club button peeking out from beneath her car-coat lapel. Tugging gently at the jacket to conceal her pride, she twisted her pearl choker around her finger to make her restlessness appear nonchalant.

"Yes, yes, good morning, Genevieve,” Mother Superior replied. She crossed the room to stand between Genevieve and her desk, and motioned for the young woman to sit back down. She didn't sit down herself.

This is bad, Genevieve thought, studying how the Sister's deformed brow was furrowed more deeply than usual, and how she nervously fingered the rosary bead belt encircling her waist.

"Regardless of the outcome of this meeting,” Sister said flatly, "I trust that every word spoken in this room will be kept in the strictest of confidence. I mean no one—not even your husband, Ned—can know what we discuss. Can I have your word on that, Genevieve?” She stared buckshot through Genevieve, who dabbed at perspiration that had suddenly formed on her upper lip.

"Well, uh, of course, Sister. Why? What's wrong? What did I do this time?”

The nun's lips pursed as if she'd taken a bite out of a dead rat. Something was up and Genevieve knew it—if she could only figure out what it was before Sister wielded her holy wrath.

Sister was thirty years old, at the most, only a few years Genevieve's senior, but that day she looked much older, haggard and tired. With good reason, of course, considering all we'd been through the night before. Neither one of us had gotten a bit of rest. Sister inhaled with effort. The massive crucifix around her neck rose and fell with her breath. Finally, she said, "There is a child, a baby who needs a good home. I want you to take her, Genevieve.”

What? My mind screeched the question to the heavens, but no one answered. How could this be? How could I not have known? My feeble understanding of my reality shattered under the realization that not only God, but also these people, could keep secrets from me. Until that moment I thought I could read every feeling, sense every thought of every person I had been around. Evidently, I am not a siphon, I thought. I wondered if I had accidentally triggered an invisible on and off switch somewhere, and wondered, too, what other surprises would catch me off guard.

Genevieve cocked her head, also unsure if she'd heard the woman correctly. What's this? A convenient twist, she thought. Being here has nothing to do with me, or anything I've done? She straightened up in her chair and moistened her suddenly parched lips. "A baby, Sister? Take her where?”

"Why, home with you, of course.”

Genevieve's complexion grayed markedly and her muscles seemed to give way. Her eyes searched the nun's face for a hint of something other than solemnity, but found none. "But Sister, do you mean? But that's impossible. I'm .... ”

"Yes, yes, I know. Under the circumstances, you are the best choice, the perfect choice. You and your husband will care for her. No one will ever guess that she isn't your child.”

Genevieve's legs stood her up. Her hands twitched. She needed to move and wanted to escape. Her thoughts screamed so loudly I plugged my ears, and even she feared Sister might actually hear the horror in them. Her brain told her feet to act quickly, to take one step and then another and another until she was out the door. I urged her on. Yes, go, go. You can't have my sister, you can't. But holy guilt glued her to the floor. Was this some kind of cruel joke, she wondered? Was God paying her back for all the hell she'd raised as a teen? She folded her hands in front of her, studying them. It must be God's way of forcing her onto the straight and narrow. His way of making her accept her rightful place in goodness like her saintly older sister had. Well, I'll have none of this, she thought, tightening her lips. I don't want to be good, and no one can make me. She shoved her hands deep inside her pockets and once again fondled the scraps of papers hidden there. Oh, if they could only grant her reprieve.

Wavering a moment longer, she struggled to hang on to her resolve, and to avoid the cool eyes that now gripped her gaze. Lord, this woman is ugly, Genevieve thought. She can't make me do this. I won't. But it was no use. Those eyes told the tale. It was easy for Genevieve to do as she pleased when no one was watching, but when God used a nun to point His finger, there was no escape. Genevieve's countenance collapsed, and she gave in like the good little Catholic girl she had never been. "But why me, Sister? I don't understand.”

Mother Superior walked around her desk and eased herself into her oppressive chair. "The child was born here last night, Genevieve. Yes, that's right—here, in this convent. I'm sure you understand the consequences of such an occurrence. This child needs and deserves a loving home.”

Was that a hint of mist in the Sister's eyes? I was certain of it, but she blinked it away before Genevieve could be sure.

Sister tucked her hands inside the wide sleeves of her habit, hugging herself. I couldn't decide if I wanted to hug her or slap her silly. What could she be thinking? This Genevieve person wasn't fit to raise a yard dog. If I knew nothing else, of that I was sure. "I prayed for God to reveal His plan to me and He did,” Sister said weakly. "I'll never understand it, but He revealed you, Genevieve. As hard as it is to believe, you are His plan. With you so close to your own due date, you can take this child and raise her with your child as your own.”

Genevieve squirmed. The meaning took a few minutes to seep in. While she steeped, my purpose in death rang through me with the clarity of an intelligent mind. I wasn't sure yet what, if any, effect I could have on the physical world, but if this was to be, if Genevieve Baxter was to become the adoptive mother of my sister—and I use the word "mother” loosely—she would not get off easy. She would have to contend with me. Was I being judgmental and unfair? Maybe. Okay, yes! Jumping to conclusions? Probably. But my first concern was my sister, and I sensed that Genevieve, this self-absorbed little hussy, only thought about herself, her own desires and pleasures, and never considered charity and sacrifice for the good of someone else, even a helpless child. Sure, Christian responsibility had been drilled into her head her whole life, but the dog must have eaten her homework or, at the very least, she'd slept through class.

Suddenly, Genevieve felt hot, flushed. Glancing over her shoulder toward the doorway again, she whispered, "This place gives me the creeps.” She fanned herself with her open hand. Then rested her forehead in it. "I don't know, Sister,” she told the floor. She tried not to, but looked up into the Sister's eyes again. They grabbed her like she knew they would and pulled her in. "What about Ned? He'll have to know. Won't he?”

Reverend Mother leaned back in her chair, but didn't utter a word. She leveled her gaze on Genevieve, a well-practiced terror tactic Genevieve had experienced often in parochial school. I leveled more than my gaze on her as she sat there, simmering in her misfortune. As I suspected it might, the pause gave her legendarily-devious mind time to do the rest.

Three days later another child was born at the convent.

"Oh, Good Lord, you're in labor!” Reverend Mother screeched at Genevieve, who sat sprattle-legged in the middle of the kitchen floor. She had left Genevieve at the convent to baby-sit her "new daughter”—ugh, it chokes me up to think about it to this day—while the other resident nuns made their weekly trek around town to visit shut-ins. Watching her fumble, mishandle, and downright ignore my sister pained me greatly, but solidified my place and duty. I'd just as soon have been damned to live with Lucifer forever as to ever leave this ingrate alone with my flesh and blood.

"Look, Sister,” Genevieve said, "my baby is coming and there's no way to stop it. Isn't this what you wanted? So, help me. Do something before I spit this baby out right here on the linoleum floor or die trying.”

I could only wish.

"Yes, yes, of course. This is how God meant it to be.”

At this birth, all the nuns chipped in to assist. Reverend Mother had had no other choice but to trust them and enlist their help in her little cover-up scheme. All helped, except one, that is: our mother, who had been ordered to cloister herself in her cell until further notice, where she remained, painfully oblivious to the escapades that took place in the days just after our delivery. She mourned her losses alone, while her convent Sisters rushed around just beneath her like a gaggle of over-excited geese.

The kitchen clucked with excitement. One saintly goose accepted the handoff of my twin while the others dressed the kitchen table in clean linens and boiled two Dutch ovens of water on top of the stove. Mother Superior bellowed orders like she knew what she was doing. She pushed her long sleeves up over her shoulders, flipped her veil out of her face, scrubbed down like a surgeon and sterilized a butcher knife big enough to gut a goat.

Genevieve's pains brought forth screaming obscenities. Whoa, that woman could cuss. The busy flock of nuns just tucked their heads, while crossing themselves obsessively to ward off any adverse effects of the curses. Finally, the tiny bundle oozed into Reverend Mother's awaiting arms.

"It's a girl. Another precious little girl,” she cried out. She slapped its purple behind and cries rang out through the Motherhouse again. "I think I missed my calling,” Sister said, through a flood of new tears. "Maybe a baby doctor was what He had planned for me to be all along.”

She was probably correct in that assumption, but as good as she would become at keeping secrets, I knew being a nun was the right choice for her. She would need the time to spend on her knees.

"I think they're identical,” Ned announced soon after he had retrieved Genevieve and their new daughters from the convent. Makes me queasy to say the words … new daughters. A sad day, such a sad, sad day. He had been suspicious at first. Genevieve had spent every spare moment at the convent, awaiting her child's delivery, since the morning Reverend Mother made her unusual request. He probably wondered why on earth his wife, of all people, suddenly felt compelled to attend daily Mass with the Sisters. Why would anyone, especially his Genevieve, want to spend hours upon hours in contemplative prayer? As I saw it, and knowing Genevieve as I already did, it would have been evident to anyone with a lick of sense. Guess that says a little about our dense old Ned. But when he saw his twin daughters, all his worries were relieved. Well, almost all.

He rubbed his clean-shaven chin and pushed up his red thermal sleeves. While Genevieve gave birth at the convent that morning, Ned had been sitting alone and unarmed in a duck blind, at his morning constitutional, no matter what kind of hunting season was open. Now, with his hunting vest rumpled and empty, cigarette smoke and the light embrace of inexpensive bourbon clung to him. A new duck call hung around his neck from a leather shoelace chain. "Just look at them, Genny. They're the spitting image of themselves—and of me.” He was seated on the foot of the bed, bouncing as he spoke. The thick padding of newspapers under his dungarees, applied for warmth with duct tape at four a.m., encircled his legs with news of a world he knew little about.

Genevieve moaned. She rolled away from what she considered "her unfortunate excuse for a husband” to face the tall windows that looked out over the carriage house and greenhouses of the family's once-grand Mississippi estate. The metal bed squeaked at the commotion. Icy rain pattered against the tin roof of the back porch. "You're blind, Ned. They don't look anything alike, you fool.” The bed became oppressive under his weight.

"Are you sure we shouldn't get that old doc over in Iuka to drive out here and take a look at them, though? This little one's a bit pique-ed. Maybe you'd better bare your knockers and feed the little tikes.” He stood up. The bed sprang back in relief.

A yellowed wicker bassinet beside the bed held the two babies, lying elbow to elbow. One rested quietly. The other squirmed around like a banked fish, kicking and fretting to free herself from the confines of the blanket papoose meant to keep her calm. My Little Miss Fussbudget. But Genevieve had passed the babies around so much and bundled them up so barely a nose peeked out, I worried that I'd lose track. Cute and as white as a lop-eared bunny, but oh, that child had opinions. She twisted her little mouth into a knot and let out a howl that scared the mice right back into the old Victorian walls. As if unwilling to be outdone, the other child tuned up and joined in. The shrill reverberated across the hardwoods and down the stairway, all the way to the parlor on the front of the house.

"Holy Mother!” Ned whooped, moving toward the door. "I'll check on things in the flower shop and let you deal with the little buggers. Thank God I'm not equipped for your job.”

"Well, you sorry, good for nothing, SOB!” Genevieve screeched, flipping back over like a flapjack to face him. "I delivered our baby on the cold floor of an auto parts convent and now all you can think about is getting out of here at the first little peep.”

Ah, Genevieve's true colors showing themselves. Ned didn't catch her slip of the singular. If Genevieve wasn't careful, she would blow Mother Superior's plan out the back windows.

I could only hope and pray.

"Now, Genny …. ”

"Don't you ‘now, Genny' me.” She sat up straight as a yardstick in the middle of the bed. So much for all that pain she'd suffered just moments ago. "I won't have it, you hear? Now pick a squalling baby up and bounce her till she's quiet.” Ned obeyed. "Bare my big knockers, my eye. I am not breast-feeding. Who do you think God invented that new fangled formula stuff for?”

"Now, Genny, is that stuff safe?” Ned was making tracks back and forth across the bedroom floor, bouncing and shooshing at the same time. I sat in yet another windowsill. Aren't windowsills and doorframes the place to go when earthquakes hit? I had already discovered them to be the perfect perching spots for a soul stuck between here and there.

"We're trying it,” Genevieve announced, wiggling her hips back into the softness of the feather bed. "And if it doesn't work, I'll hire some wet titties.” She snatched a hand mirror from the nightstand. Staring into it, she fluffed her teased hair helmet and checked under her eyes for wrinkled luggage. "Ned, I don't even let you near my breasts. What makes you think I'd let the babies suckle me like a couple of hungry little pigs?”

"Okay, okay, Genny, don't get all riled. We'll try it, but stop talking about a wet nurse. Nobody does that anymore.”

Ned gently placed the baby he was holding in the bassinet next to my replacement. Then he said, "I'll get Madson to make some up right now. By damn, that nigger knows how to do just about everything, but I'll bet he never thought he'd be mixing up baby formula for our twins. And I never thought I'd be glad his sorry black ass was around to do it.”

"You are treading on rose petals now, Ned,” Genevieve growled, pointing her manicured finger like a dagger. "Leave Madson alone. He's been my best friend since forever, a lot longer than you've been poking around.”

Ned grumbled, "You hate 'em as much as I do—probably more than the Klan, and you know it. I never thought I'd see the day.”

"Out Ned—get out of my sight and out of my earshot or I swear I'll … ”

"I'm going. I'm going.”

He exited the room quickly, before she had a chance to get going on some other yelling upset. The nine-foot door closed with a distinctive click. I wanted to join him, but didn't dare leave. Plus, where would I go? I kept expecting my mother to walk through the door, to say it was all a mistake and that she'd come to collect her child, but I could not feel her or sense her. She was outside my realm. I assumed she was still at the convent, but I could stray only so far, directed by God's prodding to be exactly where He wanted me to be. I thought about her, though, prayed every second that she was safe and that her grief had not vaporized her into a world of despondency beyond anyone's reach.

Genevieve pushed herself up onto her elbows, wincing at the sudden jab of pain between her legs that she hadn't felt just moments ago in the heat of her frenzy. I envied her grimace, longed to feel something physical, and wondered, too, if pain felt anything like the hollowness of detachment that echoed through my bodiless soul. With some difficulty she fluffed her stack of feather pillows and leaned back into them, tucking the quilt up under her engorged breasts. For a minute all she did was stare at the wall, the babies' uneasy wiggling only a mild annoyance to her reverie. Then, from the nightstand drawer, she retrieved the small photo album she kept hidden there under her prayer book and extra Modess pads. She thumbed through it, passing up the five-year-old wedding picture of Ned and herself under the oak trees out back, and stopped on a page with a photo of her mother on one side and her sister's First Communion on the other. I recognized my mother, even as she posed as a child in her white dress and veil. I gasped. They were sisters, my mother and Genevieve. The woman raising my sister was my aunt!

Genevieve pulled both snapshots partway out of the plastic sleeve and fingered their edges to free the hidden photo between them. Her cheeks warmed. A smile dimpled them as she gazed down at her prize.

This ought to be good, I thought, and eased in closer to get a good look at the sepia picture of a man standing next to several buckets of flowers. His hair and skin seemed light against the bronze background of a brick wall, his face taut. Bland-Hersh Wholesale was painted on the wall. His pant pockets bulged with fists shoved deep. He was not looking at the camera, but off to the side, as if he'd turned away just before the shutter flashed.

"I love you,” she whispered to the image. "You're the only man I'll ever truly love.” She pressed the picture to her swollen bosoms and sighed. I was astonished to see tears trickle down her cheeks as she ruminated over the life she was meant to have had, but I assumed they were of the crocodile kind. This woman could not possibly be capable of real feelings, could she? With no audience present, at least not one that she was aware of, I had to wonder. Had I judged her too harshly? Okay, okay, I will admit that her life had been sad, tragic even, a life devoid of love. I guess some fast-talking lawyer could make the case that, since no one had ever shown her love, how would she know it if it bit her in the backside? No one had ever loved her for herself. Who would want to, I wanted to know?

She thought it wasn't fair. She thought she deserved better, that she was worthy of more. How would she ever get that life now? The lace curtains on the window next to the bed billowed up suddenly like a puff of summer breeze had caught them and tossed them into the air. The window was shut tight to keep winter's fury at bay. Again I asked myself, was that me? Had I ruffled the curtains? Genevieve pulled the down coverlet up to her chin, shivering. "Who is it?” she whispered, hoarsely. "Who's there?” The lace relaxed.

After several minutes, she shook off the mood and reached over the edge of the mattress. From there she pulled out a magazine that she'd tucked under her side of the bed. Before opening it, she glanced over at the window to make sure the curtains remained calm. I gave it a try, but to no avail. Both babies started fretting, but Genevieve couldn't acknowledge their cries. The magazine's front cover caption read: Tupelo native Elvis Presley hits the charts with Heartbreak Hotel. She flipped through the pages and creased them back when her dreamy-eyed idol appeared on the glossy, full page.

"I can't love who I want to,” she told Elvis, "but I can love you. Oh, yes, baby cakes, you'll do just fine.” She propped the open magazine against the lamp on the bedside table. "I don't care what Ned says. I'm your number-one fan. And you know all of my secrets. I may have to hide my real love, but I won't hide you away. Ned can just go suck a snake egg.”

A passing thought darted though my mind, but didn't stop long enough for serious consideration. I had to wonder, though: Was her relationship with Elvis real, or just some fantasy she had dreamt up for herself as an escape from her pitiful life? I was privy to much of her past, but some things seemed evasive, shrouded in deep folds of her psyche that I hadn't learned how to unfold yet. Like I said, the idea was too ludicrous. It exited as quickly as it had arrived.

A soft rap on the door roused her from her daydreams. "Cover yourself. I'm coming in.” The door squeaked open and a lightly bronzed man slipped into the room. He was wearing crisply ironed jeans, rolled up twice and precisely at the hem revealing their lighter underside. A razor crease down the front was so sharp it could cut you if you got too close. He wore a starched white shirt, buttoned up tight to a pole thin neck, and black shoes so shiny one could mistake them for onyx rocks. He wasn't any bigger around than a cedar fence post. He crossed in front of the bed with the easy gait of belonging, stopping to place a vase of Sonya roses on the dresser and to straighten the tatted doily beneath it before approaching the bed.

"Oh, thank God,” she said, holding out her arms to him for a hug.

He considered her distance from the edge of the bed, hands on his hips, brows raised in jest. He moved in once. Then rethought his position and came at her again. Leaning forward at the waist, he readjusted his trajectory several times. Then with his knee supporting his weight, he leaned in, and placed his hands on top of the bed covers on finger tripods, one on either side of Genevieve as if touching any part of her body might harm her somehow. When their cheeks met, her arms flung around his neck with such force he almost toppled. His eyes bulged. Shaking his head, he pulled away and retreated. He scooped both babies up in his wiry arms, and laid a child into her lap with a tenderness no one I had met thus far had possessed. Then, like magic, he retrieved two baby bottles from the wide pocket of his flower shop apron and handed one to Genevieve with fingers like the petals of a bony flower. Livvie's Heavenly Bouquet was embroidered in fine script across his chest in light green with Madson written beneath it in simple block letters.

"I heard you hollering all the way downstairs,” he said, poking the rubber nipple into my sibling's mouth. I watched her suck, mesmerized by the action. What must it be like to taste, I wondered. I imagined the warmth of the white liquid traveling from lips to mouth to throat to soul. But my images held no flavor. I was distracted by my own longing, and I had to force myself to concentrate. "It ain't good that you've been giving that husband of yours such a hard time,” he was saying. "He's a new daddy. He's got no clue what to do with twins and he never knew what to do with a crazy wife like you.”

"No clue is right. The flowers from you?”

Madson shook his head. "Jack Bland told me to take some out of our last order and make you up a bouquet. Sends his congratulations.”

"Humph. Make sure he makes up for them on the next shipment. It'd be just like him to forget.”

Madson sat down on the edge of the bed and picked up the conversation where he had detoured. "You might as well make up your mind to settle down, you know. You're a momma now. These young'uns need somebody to bring them up right and take up for them when times get rough.”

I liked this man already. Words of wisdom, how refreshing. Where had he been all this time?

"Like you took up for me, Madson?” The man looked away. "You did, you know. Time and time again. Especially when I … when Grandpa … Oh, I'll never forget it, Madson. I'll never forget what you did for me.” I almost fell out of the windowsill. Grateful sentiments coming from Genevieve. There is a God. She smiled up at him and drew her legs under her to support the feeding infant in her arms. "What would I have done, what would I do now without you to help me survive my life? Tell me that, Madson.”

"Don't know, but chances are you'd be locked up in some nut-house somewheres. Either there or in prison. Uh huh, that's right. Locked up, shore as the world.”

For the first time in days my fears for the well-being of my baby sister eased a bit. I had just met my first ally and could not have been more relieved. Madson finished feeding my sibling in silence. Then, he laid her on the bed, and left Genevieve to mull over her new life.

Staring down at the infants, she seemed engrossed for the first time by their presence. She had expected them to be whiter than a freshly burst cotton boll, but they weren't. Her child resembled a new bruise, still puckered and swollen from its struggle to exit the womb. But my sister's complexion had cleared to reveal a buttery softness the color and consistency of whipping cream. Genevieve stroked the cheek of her child as it suckled the rubber nipple. Guess who squirmed within the confines of her blanket, almost satisfied for a time at least? Genevieve smiled, happy and overwhelmed at the same time.

So often she let life's goings-on consume her, a convenient way to disengage herself from anything that might hurt. But how could she detach herself from this, she wondered? She had never held a baby until the last few days. She had always felt leery around younger kids. And Grandpa Clancy had never allowed her any friends of any age. Now, what would she do with two arms-full? How would she raise these babies with no foundation in the art? Maybe osmosis would prevail. She could only hope. We could only hope. Tears brimmed again. She blinked, letting them roll as motherhood—or more likely, raging hormones—engulfed her. Her chest tightened with a warmth she'd never known, a warmth that both calmed her and scared the bejeezes out of her.

"We'll have fun,” she whispered in an effort to shift her mind gears. She could almost hear them grinding hard to thwart emotions she could never let herself feel. It was too risky, letting them in, letting anyone in. "If nothing else, we'll have fun.” She swallowed hard. "And I won't let anyone hurt you, babies.” Memories washed over her like dirty rain. "Nope, no one will hurt my babies. I won't let them. I won't let myself.”

Even coming from Genevieve, those were the best words I had heard since my death.

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