It’s the oldest girl’s chore to wash the dishes. She will do so without complaint, drying and stacking them on the cupboard shelves.
“Can’t we run the dishwasher?” she asks.
“No—that thing makes too much heat, and it’s already eighty-five degrees in here,” her father replies. Disgust tinges the edge of his words, and he shakes his head at her like she’s an imbecile for even asking.
The girl’s brother and two younger siblings, a girl and a boy, wear the smiling faces of obedient, compliant children. They dash away amidst the tension their older sister has created. Their smiles have more to do with not having to wash dishes in the August heat.
And so the girl suffers alone as her family seeks shade in the darkened family room and cool beneath the ceiling fan. She’s up to her elbows in hot, sudsy water, thinking about how her father never used to speak to her in that tone when he spoke to her as a child. He developed the manner in the sixth year of his second marriage when his new wife had their first child, the little girl. It worsened when the boy was born, as if her father was obligated to speak to her this way.
She’s not paying attention, and her hands slip off a plate. It lands on the two inches of counter space between her and the sink, bouncing twice, before it shatters into a million shards. All she can think is that she didn’t know a plate could bounce.
“I’ll replace it,” the girl says, sensing her father’s wife behind her. No doubt the woman had come to criticize the girl’s work, but a more fortuitous situation presented itself.
“Don’t worry about it,” the woman says. There is no inflection in her voice, no understanding in her eyes. “It was ugly and mismatched anyhow. The last one from your grandmother’s set.”
It is not the last one, but it might as well be. There’s a saucer under a dying jade plant in the family room, chipped and stained from soil leaching out the hole in the terracotta pot. The girl will pay for the broken plate with money earned from her job as a lunch counter girl at the golf course because it’s the right thing to do.
Later, when the sun dips behind the pines in the backyard, the girl sits in a lawn chair and drinks iced tea. Her bare feet brush over the fuzzy, silver leaves of lamb’s ear she planted around the air conditioner compressor last year. She thinks to herself that she cannot remember a time when there wasn’t lamb’s ear in her life. Even at the apartment complex where she lived with her mother and brother. And she thinks that it is stupid to have whole-house air conditioning and not use it.
There was an old couple who lived on the first floor of the complex who kept lamb’s ear in planters on the concrete porch. She would slip down to visit them while her mother slept off her third-shift weariness. Her brother sat in his playpen in front of the TV turned to Sesame Street. The old man and woman knew the girl never had enough to eat, but they were also poor. They fed her ice cream floats made with Pepsi and sent her home with bouquets of lamb’s ear. Her mother spanked her when her brother ate one and got sick. Then her mother got sick, and finally her dad came to visit. She remembers him calling his new wife from the green phone hanging on the kitchen wall. His finger absently picked at the peeling, flowered wallpaper.
“Honey, the kids are going to come stay with us for a while.”
With one sentence her life changed forever. She and her brother had a new home and a new mommy who never let them forget that she sacrificed her career in banking to raise them. Then came the two new siblings who the girl tried to watch over when she wasn’t being shooed away by her father’s wife. She didn’t want her new sister and brother to eat lamb’s ear. They are old enough to know better now.
She remembers when each of those babies came home from the hospital. Everything smelled new then, like baby powder and plastic toys. Plenty of pictures exist of these events, pictures with the girl’s profile or arm just barely captured in the frame. That’s when she realized her position was oldest girl, not oldest daughter. Her brother is nowhere to be seen. In fact, except for school pictures, there are very few of the girl and her brother since the arrival of their new siblings.
The sky turns dusky, then the shade of a bruise, and when the bats swoop from the trees, the girl goes in. Her family already retired upstairs for the night without calling to her. She is old enough to get herself to bed. First, she must do a load of laundry that includes her bras and pantyhose. Her father’s wife made her wait until laundry for the rest of the family was done because no one else needed to wash their items on delicate. The girl doesn’t want her things ruined; she has to buy them herself. No matter. It is cool in the basement, and she can doze on the day bed while watching reruns of ‘80s sitcoms on the black and white TV her father keeps on his workbench.
The girl falls asleep to the rhythm of the washer and dreams about the Gibson Girls in the wallpaper behind her father’s bar. She sees herself in the bust-enhancing gowns with her hair piled elegantly on her head and a bouquet of lamb’s ear in her hand. Many suitors try to tempt her with ice cream floats, but the girl knows she is not free to accept, and so she runs away, Cinderella-style, to a waiting sinkful of dirty dishes.