Eleanor Tolliver’s heels clicked on the sidewalk—click click, click click, like a cantering horse, if a horse could canter in size seven and a half shoes. It was odd, this lopsided step, in a woman whose lavender suit had been bought last week at Lord & Taylor. Really, she admitted to herself as she clicked down Elm Street, she should not have bought the narrows. The left shoe, in particular, pressed against her corn and produced the cantering gait we have noticed. And this was fitting because Eleanor, in spite of her lavender suit and matching handbag, looked like nothing so much as a horse.
The Eliots had always been horsy. The men had ridden hard, shot straight, and drunk whiskey. Their women had ruled the social world of Ashton, North Carolina. Any of them could show you the foundations of a house destroyed in what they still privately referred to as The War. If you looked carefully, you could see the stump of a column among the lilac bushes. When a daughter of the house, in the irresponsible twenties, had run off with a black chauffeur, her name in the family Bible had been scratched over with ink. The Eliots were rich and respectable. On Sundays, they took up the first two pews of the Methodist church.
Eleanor had been a quintessential Eliot. Although her face had the approximate dimensions of a shoebox, its length fitted her particular type of beauty, which was angular and expensive. Charles Tolliver had felt himself lucky to catch the oldest Eliot girl, when he was only a junior partner at her father’s law office. The youngest, now, he wouldn’t have touched with a ten-foot pole, in spite of her father’s money.
Poor Lily, thought Eleanor, clicking past the hardware store that was going out of business now a Walmart had opened fifteen miles down the interstate. She had been an inadequate Eliot, an unsatisfying sister. Instead of being angular, she had been round, with startled brown eyes and a figure that Eleanor in her less generous moments described as chubby. Instead of Sweet Briar, which had matriculated three generations of Eliot women, she had gone to an art school in New York. There, she had met and presumably married an artist. Presumably was the word Eleanor used to her friends. After all, no one had been invited to her wedding with András Horvath, and although Lily wrote a letter about it afterward, since when was Lily to be trusted? Look at how she had burned Eleanor’s school uniform by leaving a hot iron on it, in ninth grade. The artist had died in an airplane crash. He had been flying alone and probably, Eleanor told her friends, drunk. Afterward, Eleanor had assumed Lily would move back to Ashton. But she had stayed in New York.
This thought brought Eleanor to a gate that was half off its hinges, which anyway were attached to a fence that was half fallen over from the masses of honeysuckle climbing over it. Just like Lily, to come back not to Eleanor’s house, where she and Charles had lived since her father’s death, but to this shack with its peeling paint and its gutters hanging down from the roof. Everyone would think Eleanor had refused to take her sister in. How perfectly unfair. She would have put Lily in the guest bedroom, which had lavender-scented liners in all of the drawers. Lily could have shared a bathroom with Jane.
Eleanor smiled at this reminder of her evolutionary success. Jane had the sandy Eliot hair, the angular Eliot features. Everyone said she would grow up to be as attractive as her mother. On her last report card from Saint Catherine’s, Sister Michael had written, “Jane is a bright girl, who could accomplish a great deal if she would only apply herself.” Catholics were so good at educating girls.
As if she had unconsciously internalized her clicking, Eleanor repeated its pattern on the door: knock knock, knock knock. After an impatient moment, which she spent inspecting her fingernails, manicured a week ago and painted in Chanel Pink Fantasy, someone opened the door.
Someone might have been a housekeeper or a hospital nurse, but she held out her hand and, in a voice Eleanor would later describe to everyone as “New York, you know, though I’m sure she’s a very nice woman,” invited Eleanor into the house. “I’m Sarah Goldstein. Lily probably wrote about me.”
Eleanor refrained from mentioning that Lily had rarely written, and that even her last postcard, with a picture of the Statue of Liberty on it, has said only, “Dying of cancer. Coming home June 7, 2:30 p.m. Charlotte. Could you send Charles to pick me up? Lots of baggage. Love, Lil.” Charles had talked about her baggage all through dinner. “You know what she had?” He spooned more mashed potatoes onto his plate. In the last two years, his waist had expanded. If he didn’t stop eating so much, he would have hips like a woman. But he refused to exercise, except for golf. “Cardboard boxes. Hell of a lot of cardboard boxes. I think I sprained my back carrying them to the car.” Eleanor had said “Charles,” because you didn’t say “Hell” at the dinner table. Jane had looked superior, because everyone nowadays said “Hell.” Even Sister Michael had said it once, when her chalk broke on the blackboard.
“Let me make sure she’s awake,” said Sarah. She stepped around the cardboard boxes on the living room floor and opened a door on the far wall. She said something Eleanor couldn’t hear, then closed the door again. “She needs a minute to get herself together. She’s still tired from traveling.” She gestured around at the boxes. “We had some time getting these through airport security. You’d think we were carrying automatic weapons. Would you like some tea?” Eleanor said that would be fine. Charles hadn’t mentioned that Lily was traveling with someone. But Charles never noticed unattractive women, she thought, looking at Sarah’s bottom, retreating through what was presumably the kitchen door. Why did anyone wear puce?
Eleanor walked around the living room, her shoes sounding hollow on the wooden floor. No furniture, just boxes. Lily would have to come live with her. Jane could probably lend Lily her television, at least while she was in school. Eleanor looked out the window, at the overgrown honeysuckle. Charles kept the grass in their yard trimmed short enough that he could practice golf swings. On Jane’s seventh birthday, they had installed a pool so she could have friends over for swimming parties. In summer, there were always young people in swimsuits lying on the deck chairs, smelling like coconuts. Jane was one of the most popular girls in school.
Eleanor looked at the boxes again. The tape on one had been torn off and balled into a sticky brown tangle on the floor. She reached down to open it, more out of boredom than curiosity, when Sarah walked back into the room. “I’ve put the water on. It took me a while, figuring out the stove. Lily hated leaving that apartment. She said she had spent the happiest years of her life there. I don’t mind that, but I do miss the dishwasher. We had everything there—and a toaster just for bagels. But don’t mind me, I’m a little homesick for New York. I think she’s ready to see you now. Go on in. I’ll bring the tea when it’s ready.”
Lily had changed. She was lying in a double bed, the only piece of furniture Eleanor had seen so far in the house, with a blanket pulled over her breasts. Her cheeks, which had always been round and slightly red from rosacea, were yellow and sagged toward the pillow. She seemed to have melted, all but her small, sharp nose. Even her hands, lying on the blanket, looked like puddles of flesh. And she was bald.
“Ellie,” she said. Her voice sounded like an echo, as though she were speaking from the bottom of a well. “Do you have a cigarette? Sarah won’t let me have one.” From the living room, Eleanor could hear the sound of ripping tape. “She thinks they make my throat worse, but they help me, Ellie. I can’t think without them.” On Lily’s bedside table were orange plastic bottles, with varying levels of pills. Eleanor counted them twice, and got two different numbers.
So this was Lily. The same old Lily, who couldn’t take care of herself, who made wrong decisions. The same old Lily, but wrinkled and unattractive—and dying.
There was no chair. Eleanor sat down on the side of the bed, which sagged under her. “I think Sarah’s quite right. Look where smoking has gotten you.”
“Sarah’s always right.” Lily shook her head from side to side, fretfully. “I was so mad when I found out András had been sleeping with her, almost from the day we got married. But he said she was the best manager he ever had. She found him galleries, you know. Really good galleries. And when she moved in, she managed the apartment for us. She’s a wonderful manager.” Lily’s voice faded. She lay with one cheek on the pillow, her eyes closed, like a piece of parchment that had been folded many times, then smoothed out again.
Eleanor sat up straighter and put her handbag on her lap. So this was her sister’s marriage to the great artist. Poor, stupid Lily. “I don’t understand why you’re staying here with that woman, instead of coming home to your family.” Eleanor spoke calmly, as though to a horse that wouldn’t jump over a hedge. One always had to be calm around Lily when she was unreasonable. Like when she had refused to come downstairs at Eleanor’s debutante ball. “A woman your husband—well. If this were my house, I’d turn her out at once.”
Lily opened her eyes and put one hand on Eleanor’s knee. “Ellie, it wasn’t like that. I was mad at first, but then I realized it didn’t matter. I invited her to move in with us. She had such a small apartment in Brooklyn, and we had that huge loft. She cleaned and paid the bills. She would have cooked, but I wanted to do it. They liked my cooking, you know. They never minded when I burned anything.”
Ellie put her manicured hand on Lily’s. It felt cold and flabby. “Did he continue sleeping with her, after she moved in?” It was best to know these things, distasteful as they were.
Lily pulled her hand out from under her sister’s, as though it had grown too hot. “But he painted me. He slept with her, but he painted me. He never painted her, not once. Such wonderful paintings. Oh Ellie, you have to see the paintings.”
“Chamomile tea,” said Sarah, opening the door. “Am I interrupting?”
“Sarah, you have to show Ellie the paintings.” Lily tossed her head again, from side to side.
“Calm down, you,” said Sarah, “or you’ll lose the benefits of your beauty sleep. I put a little honey in it,” she said to Eleanor, handing her a pottery mug decorated with yellow bees.
“See, isn’t she a good manager?” said Lily. “I don’t know what I would have done without her after András died. I had run out of money, you know. She sold his paintings to all the right galleries, and paid for my treatments.” She raised her hand, then dropped it again over the edge of the bed. Sarah took it, put it back on the blanket, and stroked it for a moment. Lily closed her eyes. Without those spots of brown, she looked curiously colorless, as though already a corpse.
“I think we’d better leave her,” Sarah said in a low voice. “She’s worn out. Maybe she’ll have more energy tomorrow.”
Eleanor followed her out of the room, wondering what András Horvath had seen in this woman, with her puce bottom and her gray hair, which looked like it had been cropped by a barber. Artists, she thought, had peculiar tastes in women.
In the living room, Sarah said, “I’m glad you came to see Lily today. I don’t think she’ll hold on much longer. You’ll want to bring your husband, and Lily said you had a daughter?”
Ellie nodded and tapped her fingernails on the mug. What did you say to your sister’s husband’s mistress? “Maybe I’ll bring Jane. My daughter, Jane.” Of course she wouldn’t bring Jane. And Charles never liked being around sick people. He hadn’t visited his own mother in the nursing home before she died.
Sarah looked at her for a moment, then looked toward the window, where the honeysuckle was growing over the fence. “Lily wanted you to see the paintings.” She leaned down and opened one of the cardboard boxes. Many more of them were untaped, now. Out of it, she pulled an unframed canvas.
It was a painting of Lily. But Lily as she had never appeared in real life. Lily elongated and white as a sheet of paper. Lily with forget-me-nots for eyes. In the painting behind it, Lily had horns: short, curving spirals like seashells. Behind that, Lily held a pomegranate in her left hand. Lily, her head covered with butterflies. A lily that was also, improbably, Lily. Lily blue like the sky, with clouds moving over her breasts. Endless Lilies, all different, all—Eleanor caught herself before she said the word—beautiful.
Sarah pointed to the painting with the clouds. “He painted all sorts of things, of course, but before his death he only painted Lily. He did a larger one of those, with the sun as her left eye. I gave it to the Guggenheim.”
“Gave it? You gave it?” Lily had said something about spending all her money. What, Eleanor suddenly wondered, were András Horvath’s paintings worth?
Sarah looked at her, and continued to look at her until Eleanor shuffled her feet. “András left his paintings to me. Just like he left Lily to me. He knew I would manage everything.” She put down the paintings she had been holding. “András could see things. He once told me his great-grandfather had married a witch or a woman who lived in a tree or something like that. Back in his own country.” She smiled, and shrugged. “Hell, I don’t know. But you can see it in the paintings. If he painted a rock, it looked like a snake, and every time you looked at that rock afterward, it would look like a snake to you, because he was right. It was a snake, even though it was also a rock. Then maybe every rock would start looking like a snake, or a flower, or a piece of bread. Sometimes I wonder if that’s how he died. There he was, flying a plane. What if he saw something—really saw it? He wouldn’t have cared that he was about to crash. It’s frightening, if you think about it too hard. Maybe art always is.” Sarah turned to the window again. “He saw people, too. He saw me so well. One day he said, ‘I’ll never paint you, Sarah. I don’t need to paint you, because you’re exactly yourself.’ But he saw Lily better than he saw anyone else in the world.”
Click click, went the heels of Eleanor’s shoes on the sidewalk. She clicked homeward because Charles would need his dinner. She would make mashed potatoes. What did she care about his weight? Men always looked more dignified with a little extra padding. She would make mashed potatoes and peas, and she would ask Jane about school, and Jane would look superior, and maybe afterward they would all play monopoly.
Was it already five-thirty? Eleanor looked up at the sky, and there was Lily, with clouds moving over her breasts. Her left eye was the sun. She tried to imagine Lily with her yellow skin sagging, her bald head sinking into the pillow. But Lily’s head was covered with butterflies, and she was holding a pomegranate in her left hand.
Click click went her heels, faster and faster, and finally, in spite of her corn, Ellie began to canter in earnest through a world that was Lily, endlessly Lily, her handbag swinging like an irregular pendulum and her hair, which had been permed only last week, shedding hairpins behind her.