The Armada

John Carr Walker

 

The state of her well worried Altie Machado. Every morning as she ate breakfast, she’d boil a kettle, and once the water was cool, strain it through cheesecloth into a pitcher, repeating the process at lunch, but twice a day would not be often enough with her sisters visiting. She turned off the burner and listened to them clucking in the other room.

“She phoned me in tears again,” said Nadean.

“That’s how she dials now,” said Larue. “Baby sister cries heavy, surprisingly accurate tears these days.”

“She’s in no state to drive all that way, if you ask me.”

Nadean had come with Larue in the motorhome. Its corrugated sides blocked the view of the vineyards out Altie’s kitchen window. Larue belonged to a garden society and was secretary of the Library Friends of Bakersfield. Nadean owned and ran Seasons Art Gallery. They were speaking of Betty Sue, the youngest sister, driving down from Portland, Oregon by herself.

“She told me she found more bank statements in the trash. She confronted Harry with them, and they screamed for hours. I don’t think she’s being very fair.”

“She’s feeling grief,” said Opal.

The youngest next to Betsue, Opal Renton was a counselor in Los Angeles. She’d been on the earliest Amtrak of the morning and stepped off the train in bright white sneakers and a jogging suit, a thin sweat glowing on her forehead. “I walked the aisles whenever I started feeling anxious,” she’d explained, when Altie met her at the Fresno station.

“It’s grief,” Opal told them. “The death of her personal truths. The man she thought Harry was is dead to her now. She’s in mourning. We must simply be there for her.”

“Shut your eyes, hold your breath, and feel better. That’s your advice?”

“We should definitely not hold our breath, Larue. Grieving is a long process.”

Their visit was always going to be about this. The sisters had been phoning each other for most of the year, each reporting what Betsue had told her in confidence, assembling the full picture like a puzzle between them: Harry was lying to her, and to most of northwest Oregon, about money; his concrete business was in trouble, and his reputation ruined. Betsue felt betrayed, embarrassed, enraged. She wanted a divorce. The sisters loved it—not Betsue’s pain, of course, and certainly not the idea of divorce—but they loved being busy with the gossip.

Altie inched her hand toward the burner, testing the air for heat. She was able to open her palm over the pot, so she strained the water and put the pitcher in the fridge. It hardly seemed possible that a divorce could come as a surprise, given the times, when half of all marriages ended in divorce, and everyone from Louis Farrakhan to President Reagan (himself a divorcee) bemoaned the splitting core of the nuclear family. Yet surprised she was. The last time she’d spoken to Betsue on the phone, she’d asked, “What’s it no one knows? Are you or him cheating? Because this trouble with Harry, while surely it sounds awful, doesn’t add up to divorce. It’s not you he’s hurting.” Click, the phone went. More like bang, a shot fired, right through the ear, right through the whole brain. Altie kept addressing the dead line, not quite believing that she’d been hung up on, and since then had carried the weight of her worry like a boulder in her apron pocket.

Altie refilled the pot. She looked at the water as it climbed the curved walls, gray and motile. Betsue had been 14 when a car crash killed their parents and she came to live with Altie. At the time, Opal was working in her first counseling office, still auditioning for plays and television on the weekends. Nadean had secretly (at the time) borrowed money from Larue’s husband to open the gallery in downtown Bakersfield. Larue had yet to learn she couldn’t have children, and their guest room was furnished with a crib. By comparison, Altie’s life had seemed permanent, married with two sons not much younger than Betsue. It was Altie who took her bra shopping, met her boyfriend at the door, talked to her like a mother would, and risked resentment like a mother would. Altie’s house was where Betsue had herself snapshotted in her senior prom dress, where Betsue spent Christmas breaks home from college, and where she held her wedding reception, hanging strings of lights to pretty up the backyard fence. As for the other sisters, they listened, they helped some, but their minds couldn’t allow for how Altie and Betsue could be like mother and daughter, yet still be like sisters.

They were expecting her any hour now.

§

Betsue’s car idled behind the motorhome. Altie listened to the engine run, then a voice, Opal’s, almost sing a welcome from the doorway. Opal led Betsue by the arm to the loveseat and sat down to visit. Betsue spread Altie’s quilted throw over her lap, an Irish chain in red and white, faded after all the years hung over the sofa back.

Nadean leaned over to rub the binding where it crossed Betsue’s ankle. “Why you insist on using your quilts, Altie, I don’t know,” she said. “Look it, these stitches are breaking. You should pack this away to save.”

“Leave my cozy quilt alone,” said Betsue, kicking.

Altie watched her. Signs of her strife passed like shadows across her unmade face, then were laughed away. “Any of you hens want more sun tea?” she asked.

Opal and Larue handed her their glasses. Betsue declined.

“Go ahead and have some,” said Larue. “It’s made with Altie’s special water. She’s been in her laboratory since lunchtime.”

“It’s no trouble to me,” said Altie.

“If no one minds, I’d like to get to sleep early tonight,” said Betsue. “I’m tired out from the drive and, you know, it was a chore getting away this year.”

Opal stroked her leg.

“We’re just glad you made it,” said Nadean, standing. “It wouldn’t be a quilting circle without all of us here.” She went to the motorhome and came back with her and Larue’s pieced squares. Opal fetched hers from the suitcase and Altie hers from the sewing closet. Over the course of the year, the sisters had paper-pieced four squares each. The process worked backwards: each block started off ragged, a mess of fabric scraps, but with each new line of stitching, the pattern emerged, a small boat resolving out of chaos. Nadean unfolded the squares on the carpet. “All we need now are your squares, Betsue,” she said. “Tell me you remembered to bring your squares.”

“I double-checked before I left.”

“I feared a moment you’d forget.”

“I never doubted Betty Sue for a second,” said Opal. “Go get yours and we’ll sew the top tonight.”

“You sure about that tea?” Altie asked. “I have brown sugar to put in it?”

This time Betsue accepted.

§

After breakfast, the sisters rearranged the living room. Betsue and Opal moved the coffee table against the low wall under the picture window, then pushed the chairs, end tables, and loveseat closer together, careful to keep the throw quilt from falling down the sofa back. Altie vacuumed over the indentations her furniture left in the carpet. Nadean assembled the quilting frame, slotting the rails into the legs and fastening them with woodworking clamps. She measured the corners for squareness, and Larue made fine adjustments to the frame with smacks of her hand. They fitted the stretcher bar with its fringe of canvas. The whole thing resembled a launch pad more than a sewing accessory. The four legs were heavy posts, each foot gusseted for strength, nail heads as close and precise as rivets, while the clamps that kept the structure rigid looked like instruments for averting nuclear disaster.

Quilting meant something in their family. When their parents had first come to California in the Dust Bowl, they had a Model A, $50, and Mom’s quilts. The car soon broke down, and the money ran out trying to fix it, but the quilts never let them down. Quilts kept Altie and baby Larue alive through the hardest years, camping on roadsides with no bedding but quilts. Worn out clothes got cut up and stitched into quilts. Mom made cheesecloth quilts, flour sack quilts, new quilts out of old quilts. Nadean and Opal were born on quilts; Altie remembered boiling those quilts on a labor camp stove and scrubbing out the blood. It was Nadean who started cataloging the quilts that Mom had made, transforming them from blankets into heirlooms. She saved as many of the originals as possible, rescuing several from use as tarps, and another from Dad’s tractor seat. For fifteen years, they’d been making quilts to commemorate milestones in the family: new babies got square quilts for their cribs; cousins, nieces, and nephews got dorm-sized quilts for high school graduations; the largest, most demanding quilts were saved for weddings. But what should mark a divorce?

Larue helped Nadean pin the pieced top, batting, and backing cloth to the canvas fringe. They tightened the stretcher bar, pulling the fabric until the surface went trampoline flat. Twenty boats stacked on a level sea, on different shades of water blue, set against a sky of yellow, orange, or scarlet. Nadean said the quilt’s name was “Sea Journey,” but Altie thought “The Armada” a better name. The sisters took their places around the quilt, as if on land surrounding the harbor, with Nadean and Larue on one long side, Altie, Opal, and Betsue on the other. One finger each—nails manicured, brightly painted, trimmed square, bitten down—were tipped with thimbles.

“Would you just look at us all? So nice to be working together.”

“Slaving, more like. I know what’s coming. Bleeding fingers and golly-goshes.”

“I can’t believe we’ve never missed a year. No matter what we’re here. That’s something to be proud of by itself, never mind the quilts we make.”

As they worked, they found a rhythm in the topstitching. Visiting was easy: Betsue worked happily, it seemed, reminiscing, smiling, but her divorce occupied their silences. That afternoon, she finished out her thread, then passed the needle through the fabric and went to her room.

“Poor thing must be exhausted.”

“She’s not exactly a trooper, is she, our baby sister?”

“Grief is a complex emotion.”

Opal and Altie spread out to fill the space Betsue left.

“Well maybe after a nap she’ll feel up to it again,” said Nadean.

“Altie, you and Opal ought to go straighten her out.”

“Emotions aren’t reasonable, Larue.”

§

A car pulled into the driveway. The doorbell rang. Betsue beat Altie to answer it. In her room, she’d changed into shorts, sandals, and a white t-shirt so thin that her skin fairly glowed through the fabric, except for where it was blacked out by the straps and cups of a bathing suit.

Betsue invited the man inside. “This is Michael Vallejo,” she said. “Michael, these are all my sisters. You remember Altie.”

He stood on the entryway linoleum, brown-skinned with acne scars on his cheeks, gel greasing his sharp black hair. Larue smiled back at him. Opal studied Betsue, trying to read her. Nadean went on stitching, her grip on the needle making her fingertips go bloodless. Altie fought the urge to scold him, to scold them both.

“Ready?” Betsue asked him, and she shut the door behind them. His loud car started and backed from the driveway, engine fading as it traveled away down the country road.

“I remember that name,” said Opal. “He’s not the same guy, though. Altie?”

“Her high school sweetheart.” The only boy, save Harry, that she’d ever brought home. He’d sit in this room and talk cars with Lee, waiting for Betsue to finish her makeup. Once, Altie took Betsue Christmas shopping for him. Their heels failed to echo crisply off the tile floors of Gottschalk’s department store, having already looked at watches, ties, and tie clips. Eventually, Betsue settled on a scrolled picture frame and a portrait to go inside it. The photographer perched her on a stool, sculpting the hang of her hair and rise of her cheek as if working in clay. It was the happiest Altie had ever seen her little sister, practically her daughter, posed under a baffling array of soft lights. When they joined Lee in the waiting car, fresh cigarette smoke in the upholstery, he folded the newspaper he’d been reading and asked if they’d found the right thing. “Perfect,” said Betsue. “He’s going to love it.”

“Well where on earth she’s gone with him? What about us?”

“We can’t blame baby sister if a better time comes along.”

“Why would she want to run around?” Nadean touched her sailing boats, the dark water, soft sunsets.

§

Altie strained water from the cool pot into a pitcher, then started another boiling. She could hear them, her sisters, over the rattle of stovetop heat.

“Poor baby sister, Betty Sue, BS,” said Larue.

“But remember? Grief,” said Opal. “It’s like a death. When she gets back we must treat her warmly no matter what. If Harry had died, I mean really, would any of us let our noses get out of joint?”

“I’m not going to just stop liking Harry.”

“If Harry was dead-dead, Opal, you’d be talking about closure. Viewings and funerals. We’d all have a good cry and wouldn’t be the least bit confused as to why. This ain’t that.”

“I think I know my field better than you, Larue,” said Opal.

“Your field! And here I was, thinking we were talking about our sister.”

Altie told them goodnight. She shut her bedroom door, changed her clothes, but paused before turning back the wedding quilt that finished her bed. She imagined Betsue would keep the house. Isn’t that what happened? The wife who made the house kept the house, while the husband started over somewhere else. Altie’s late husband Lee had left her this house; her eldest son farmed the vineyards and shared the profits with her. Keeping the house was supposed to be merciful, but Altie wanted to warn Betsue about empty houses. Once Harry was gone, there’d be rooms she wouldn’t like entering. She’d get used to it, even congratulate herself on learning to live alone, but find solitude a hard habit to break.

Michael Vallejo’s car finally turned off the road and rumbled in the driveway. Altie’s front door opened and shut while the car drove away. The voices of her sisters in the living room were faint and tempting, forgiving Betsue this trespass. Instead of joining them, Altie rolled over and faced the window, dark except for a few small floodlights on her neighbors’ farms, and pulled her quilt up so it covered her ear.

§

“Do you still like coffee first thing?” Altie asked.

“God, yes. Coffee.” Betsue rubbed her eyes, stretched. The ends of her combed hair left damp patches on the high shoulders of her blouse.

“You’ll just never like mornings, I guess. When I used to wake you for school, remember? It took two, sometimes three tries to get you out of bed.”

“Sometimes I just don’t want to put the effort in, that’s all.”

Opal’s shower hummed in the pipes. A loaf of homemade zucchini bread thawed in foil on the kitchen counter. The coffee, made with grounds from the freezer, smelled flat and bitter.

Altie put the mug on the table in front of Betsue.

“This’ll do,” Betsue said. “Thanks.”

“Hardly the first time I’ve indulged you.”

Larue and Nadean opened the back door on their way in from the motorhome.

“I was only saying thanks for the coffee,” said Betsue.

“I heard the magic word. I heard coffee,” said Larue. She sat at the long side of the table. Her robe of shimmering material covered her arms, but not her deep cleavage. Nadean sat beside her and straightened her necklace, turquoise stones set in shiny plates, and eyed the quilt in the other room. “I’ve got one for you all. Why don’t cows play basketball?” Larue cleared her long, loose sleeves from her hands. “Because. It’s hard to get the jerseys.”

Opal’s tennis shoes chirped on the linoleum. She sat next to Betsue and massaged her neck with one hand.

“Opal missed your joke,” said Nadean. “You should tell her.”

“Which joke?” asked Opal.

“It’s the worst. I’m sure she’ll tell it again while we’re all quilting.”

The work started again after breakfast. They reached toward the center now, their lines flowing toward a meeting point. The more topstitching that went in, the more wind and waves seemed to surround the boats. Nadean predicted they would finish today.

“Good,” said Betsue. “I won’t be letting you down if I see some old friends later.”

“Are you sure, Betty Sue, you’re not hurting yourself?”

“I beg your pardon?”

“You need to give yourself time to grieve for the losses you’ve suffered. Are you sure being with your friend allows you that time?”

“I think it’s just terrible you want to abandon our family like this,” said Nadean.

“Well then we had better get this done so I can ruin my life without interfering with the goddamn quilt.” Betsue watched her own fingers measure the stitches, but then dropped her needle—it rolled in an arc toward the center, anchored by her thread—and she left the quilting circle at a trot.

“Let me try and talk to her,” said Opal, and followed Betsue down the hall.

“Ask me, love’s on her mind.”

“Everything’s funny to you, Larue.”

“Larue’s not the one tramping around with some Mexican.”

“I married myself a Portuguese man,” said Altie. “Did you think about him the same way? Dumb Lee Portagee?”

“All I’m saying, who’s he think he is anyway? She’s still a married woman, that’s all I’m saying.”

Opal came quickly back. She took up her needle and thread and felt the direction of her previous stitches as if reading braille, her lip tucked under her top teeth in concentration.

“Aren’t you going to say something?”

“No, Nadean, I am not going to say something.”

“So that’s everything spoiled then.”

Altie pulled her stitch tight, hand over hand, at the beginning of a fresh thread. It wasn’t finished when the car pulled up in the driveway, and Betsue rushed out to meet Michael Vallejo.

§

Betsue came home to a dark house—a punishment. Altie had listened in bed to her hand patting the wall for a light switch. In her absence, the sisters had indicted Betsue for a lifetime of frivolity. She was careless, ungrateful, foolish. However, now that they sat together at the breakfast table, no one had the courage to speak her mind. Altie looked at her reflection in the kitchen window, her frown like a smudge on the glass, less distinct than a fingerprint.

“Betty Sue, have you had any of the zucchini bread since you got here?” Opal rose and went to the fridge, took out a tub of cream cheese, and then from the breadbox, the loaf wrapped in foil. She spread the cheese and offered the bread to Betsue. “Let me get you a knife and fork,” she said.

“I’m fine with my fingers.”

“Obviously not true,” muttered Larue.

“Mom’s recipe,” said Opal. “Isn’t that right, Altie?”

“I follow her recipe exactly. That’s the only trick with Mom’s recipes. You can never make up things on the spot.”

“Mom put all her recipes on index cards for you, didn’t she?”

“She used cards from the backs of library books. Mom asked the library to save them for her when the lines filled up. Wrote her recipes in magic marker right over all the due dates.”

“Reuse the library cards,” said Opal. “Isn’t that just Mom up and down?”

“I’m sick of hearing you both talk about Mom.”

“That ain’t fair, Nadean,” said Altie.

“Don’t you have some water to boil?” said Larue.

“Unless you want to leave my table—”

“—I think we should all calm down and think,” said Opal.

“—I’ve got a table of my own,” said Larue. “A table on wheels.”

Altie threw up her hands. She turned to the stove, arrayed with pots on the burners, mason jars on the narrow counter, cheesecloth and rubber bands, and tidied pointlessly.

“If Mom and Dad could see the shameful way you’re behaving!” Nadean covered her mouth.

“You’re mad because I didn’t want to work in your sweatshop. That I chose an old friend, an old friend, instead of slaving over your stupid quilt.”

“You ought to know. We wanted to call immigration on your old friend.”

Betsue jumped up and emptied her purse on the kitchen counter. Her hands spread the contents around until they picked a red address book from the mess, which she opened and flipped through with trembling fingers before hurrying her things back inside. She took her purse and hurried from the kitchen.

“You off to screw around some more?” Nadean called out.

“She’s going to stay here with me,” said Altie, and followed Betsue through the living room, past the quilt and all its sailboats, none capable of sailing them across the poisonous water, to safety.

 

John Carr WalkerJohn Carr Walker’s writing has been appearing in literary journals since 2007. His critically acclaimed first book, “Repairable Men” (Sunnyoutside), was featured on Late Night Library. A native of the San Joaquin Valley and former high school English teacher, he now lives and writes full-time in Saint Helens, Oregon.