The Prettiest Star by Carter Sickels – Excerpt
On Sunday we go to church, like we do every Sunday. Like every Sunday, my husband sits beside me. We’re in our usual spot—five rows back, center aisle. Our daughter Jess sits in the row behind us next to my mother-in-law Lettie, who never misses a service.
The church is small and old. Behind the pulpit and on either side of the building, stained glass windows fracture the morning sun into shards across the dark walnut pews and the maroon carpet, reflecting in the gold plates where we drop checks and dollar bills.
“Look around! God’s light shines.” Reverend Clay reads his part from the bulletin. He stands in the same place where my father used to.
We dutifully respond: “The darkness disappears and gives way to light.”
The congregation is sparse, glaring gaps of emptiness. This is how it will be through spring and summer. Now that Easter’s over, people have absorbed enough religion to carry them through to Christmas. Birth, death, resurrection. Those are the days people remember.
Reverend Clay lifts his arms and we rise as one. The old widow Anita Brewer plays the opening chords to “How Great Thou Art” with great passion, her eyes squeezed shut like she’s in pain. It’s one of Lettie’s favorite hymns, and I hear her from behind us, drowning out everyone within a three-row radius. She is off-key, practically shouting, Then sings my soul, my Savior God to thee. Travis glances over, the edges of his bristled mustache curling up, his eyes saying, That’s just how my mother is, what can you do? I try returning his smile, but my mouth feels stiff, like my jaw is wired shut. A son’s first love is always for his mother, that’s what they say isn’t it?
Travis rests his hand in the middle of my back. He smells clean and minty like mouthwash. Sundays are the only days I see him dressed up. For him, this is just like any other Sunday. He doesn’t know about the letter from our son. Back at the house, folded up in my jewelry box, it is my secret, my cross to bear.
When the hymn ends we stay standing, except for Anita, who remains seated at the organ, her twiggy fingers now still. Someone coughs, then the crinkling of a wrapper. The reverend holds out his cupped hands in supplication and looks up: Let us go forth in peace, may God be with you. He sounds muffled and far away, like I’m sinking underwater. The letter came on Friday. After I read it, I wept. I prayed to God to give me an answer.
We bow our heads. I keep my eyes open. The faded, thinning carpet. My navy flats, Travis’s dress shoes with the tassels. His hand still on my back. He stands close to me, breathes easily. A soft, sad silence thumps in my head. I will have to tell him. When? There will never be a right time. Reverend Clay says, Amen.
“Well, it’s about time,” Lettie says. “Get you something to eat.”
She’s set out cold cuts, potato salad, and a cherry pie.
Travis and Jess act like they’re starving and pile up their plates, then go out to the backyard to join the others. I linger in the kitchen, and Lettie studies me.
“You look a little peaked.”
“I’m fine,” I say.
She makes a dismissive clucking sound, meaning she doesn’t believe me, and lights a menthol. Lettie’s a stout, strong woman who raised three sons mostly on her own, and now she’s a grandmother and great-grandmother. Her bouffant black hair and dark, penciled eyebrows make her blue eyes look even more striking, but the caked-on makeup gives her the look of a washed-up Grand Ole Opry star. She’s traded her church dress for knit slacks and a short-sleeved pink blouse that shows off her pale freckled arms. Gaudy fake rubies—clip-ons—sparkle from her ears, and her thick fingers are studded with rings.
“Last night I had a dream about him,” she says in a low, secretive voice, and every receptor in my skin rises like a thousand candlewicks suddenly alight and burning. Nobody else in the family ever mentions Brian, only Lettie—and whenever she says his name, a thin, delicate fissure cracks my chest, bones splintering like dry wood.
For a second, I wonder if Brian also sent Lettie a letter, but, no, she would have told me—Lettie can’t keep a secret. She’s described her dreams to me before, the signs that tell her Brian’s okay and he’ll be coming home. I’ve always ignored her premonitions, but now I want to know.
“What happened?” I ask.
“It’s fuzzy.” She draws on the cigarette. “He was a little boy, and he was telling me some story, you know the way he used to do, laughing and his hands flying around.” She stops. “Well, I don’t remember. Sometimes he just comes into my mind.”
“I know,” I say.
“It’s been so long since we heard anything.”
I pinch the insides of my crossed arms so hard I wanted to cry out. “I’m sure he’s fine,” I say. “He just lives a busy life.”
My voice sounds strange and hollow like someone else is speaking through me. Lettie takes another drag and sets the cigarette down on a glass ashtray.
“I better go on out there. You coming?”
“In a minute.”
After the screen door swings shut, I pick up the burning cigarette and taste the sourness of Lettie’s lipstick, probably one of the many tubes leftover from her Avon days. When Brian was little, she used to take him along with her to sell makeup and creams and perfumes. Maybe he spent too much time with her. She was too soft with him, Travis said, loved on him too much.
The backyard buzzes with conversation and laughter. I settle into a green and white striped lawn chair between Liz and Carol, my sisters-in-law, and as we catch up, Jess, who is much younger than her cousins, plants herself on a quilt, cooing over Allie, Gus and Pam’s six-month-old. Travis talks to Paul and Wayne about work, and my nephews Matthew and Kyle toss a green foam football with their sons, while their wives, Sherri and Lisa, also Chester natives, smoke cigarettes and complain. I always thought Kyle in particular would end up dead or in jail by twenty-five, as wild as he used to be, but here he is: a father and husband, alive and healthy.
It was the bigness of the Jacksons that drew me to them. They took me in without hesitation, sweeping me in as easily as a river would a leaf or a twig. Everything about their way of living was new to me. I grew up in a house of quiet. Mother in her room or at the kitchen table, reading historical novels. Father busy at church, writing sermons or ministering to his wife. At the Jackson house, the TV or record player or radio was always on, sometimes all three at once. Lettie raised her three sons on her own, after her husband died in a car accident when Travis was three years old. Lettie doesn’t say much about him, just that he was a good man. She never remarried, never even dated again, as far as I know.
Everyone in the family lives nearby. Carol and Wayne in a little brick ranch on the outskirts of town, and Paul and Liz in a double-wide. Travis and his brothers, and his brothers’ sons, all work at P.T. Gas & Electric, the same place where their father once worked. After their father died, Wayne and Paul helped take care of Travis, and he credits them for teaching him how to be a man.
After a while, Wayne’s voice dominates, as usual, demanding everyone’s undivided attention. My neck stiffens, preparing myself for his vulgarities—Travis is always quick to defend him, says he doesn’t know any better—but today Wayne just tells a tedious story about a boss who gave him trouble (he claims) because Wayne knew more than he did, one we’ve all heard before.
“Yes, he treated you bad,” Lettie says. “I remember.”
Lettie is one of the kindest souls I know, but when someone does her or her family wrong, she doesn’t hold back. Even a minor slight by a store clerk can set her off. She doesn’t yell or throw a fit, but she’ll say what’s on her mind. She holds grudges.
“Told that son-of-a-bitch to stick that pipe where the sun don’t shine.” Wayne smiles in his surprisingly charming way. The oldest brother, he has black hair and deep-set dark eyes that make him look like he’s always a little bit hungry. He’s strong with wiry muscles, and rides a motorcycle, and, like most of the men around Chester, he’s rough around the edges.
Carol smiles at Wayne, bored—she’s heard the story a hundred times. Back in high school, Carol used to be wild: cutting classes, smoking in the bathroom, nipping whiskey out of a flask. But over the years as a mother and now a grandmother, the wildness has disappeared like muscles lost under the folds of flesh. She’s put on at least twenty pounds in the last two years.
“I remember him, he wasn’t from around here,” Paul says. “Didn’t stay either.” The middle son, chubby, with shaggy hair and thick eyeglasses, Paul is the most easygoing of the three. He reaches into the cooler and hands Liz a beer. “Here you go you, baby,” he says. After all these years, they still hold hands.
Travis pulls down his baseball hat to shade his eyes. My husband was different from his big brothers, had ambition. While they skipped classes and smoked cigarettes and drank too much, Travis made good grades, and played baseball and basketball. He was a clean-cut, all-American kid. But after the war, he stopped talking about going to college or trying to work his way up to foreman. He didn’t say much about Vietnam, except, It’s hell over there. I used to watch the nightly news with Lettie, both of us quietly terrified as Walter Cronkite gave his report. The number of the dead rising and rising, and no end in sight.
“Sharon, we ought to go on a girls’ shopping trip soon,” Liz says. “Lettie, you want to come with us?”
“You know me,” she says. “Shop till you drop.”
Conversations float in and out like too many different radio stations playing at once. The sun is beginning to set, and I feel chilled. From the center of town, a passing coal train blasts its horn.
Lettie mentions Wayne’s upcoming birthday, and the attention swerves back to him. “Fifty,” Paul says. “Brother, you’re getting old.”
“Hell, I’m still not as gray as Travis,” Wayne says.
“I don’t know about that,” Travis says. “Mom, you think you ought to take him to the beauty shop with you?”
“Well, Annette sure knows how to hide the gray,” Lettie says.
“Should I get a perm too?” Wayne pretends to fluff his hair. “Won’t that look good?” he says in a falsetto.
Everyone laughs, and, encouraged, Wayne keeps going, talking about getting his nails done, looking pretty. His pretend lisp gets louder, as if he’s shouting into my ear, and everything turns too bright—the green lawn, the black of Lettie’s hair. Jess doubles over with laughter.
“Wayne, you seem a little too comfortable, if you know what I mean,” Travis jokes.
I don’t know if I’m angrier at Wayne or at my son for putting me in this situation. The flash of brightness fades and the voices start to sound normal again. But my heart races, my mouth tastes strangely of blood. This wasn’t supposed to happen. They were the ones with the troubled kids: teen pregnancy, jail, school suspension. Travis and I were different from his brothers and their families, and so were our children, who we believed would go to college and find good jobs, get married and give us grandchildren, and live close by. They’d live happy lives like the kind you see on television. We felt protected from tragedy and looked forward to the future, a glistening river of possibilities.
Once you know something, you can’t un-know it.
I first heard about the disease two or three years ago, mentioned on the news, and I remember seeing it come up on a TV show, some hospital drama that Lettie had on. I still remember how I felt when they said the character was gay: everything in me went still and I started chattering, it didn’t matter what came out of my mouth, I just needed to talk over the TV, block it out, cover it up. Since then, of course, you can’t escape hearing about the gays or the disease, especially after Rock Hudson died last year. The preachers say it’s a punishment from God.
Now I have this letter, a half page written on yellow legal pad paper. He said in the first line, There is something I need to tell you. The word AIDS printed carefully in capital letters. He’s been in the hospital already. Didn’t want to worry us. He’s doing all right, he says, he feels stronger. The letter was shockingly direct, but also vague. It’s been a while, and I was thinking maybe I’d come home to see everyone. I’d like to see the family. How is Sadie doing? I wonder if she’ll remember me. His phone number was written below his signature. He was waiting for us to call.
A few years ago, Brian sent a picture of himself with a man. They had their arms around each other. Brian looked healthy, handsome, strong. Hair curled around his ears, crooked teeth, blue eyes. Head tilted to the side. His smile was big. Then, this man. Older than him. Tall, muscular. Black. Later, Brian told me that his friend was dead. Didn’t tell me how he died, but now I know. It was him. He infected my son.
Alone in the kitchen, I hear my husband and daughter upstairs, the creaking of the floorboards. I’ll tell Travis about the letter tomorrow. Let us have one more night where nothing is changed.
But when I walk in the bedroom and close the door behind me, I can’t hold onto it any longer. Travis pulls on a pair of blue plaid pajama pants, his T-shirt crumpled in a ball on the floor.
“I have to tell you something.”
He raises his eyebrows. Pants on, no shirt. His chest hair curly and thick, silver as pencil shavings. “What’s wrong?”
I open the jewelry box, which used to belong to my mother. It sits on top of the dresser like a white cake. I open the lid. Inside, pink silk lining, the faint scent of stale perfume. There are two layers, and the letter rests on the bottom, folded in thirds. I take it out. Hand it to him. His face wrinkles with confusion. He opens it, barely glances at the writing, and closes it. Doesn’t read it, doesn’t want to know. There is a tremor in his voice.
“What is this?”
He holds up the folded letter away from him, a piece of evidence he doesn’t want to see. But I want him to read it: why do I have to explain? As I glance away, I catch sight of our reflections in the mirror, our drawn, worried faces, how naked and vulnerable they look, and I quickly turn, don’t want to see. The light is low in the room, a dull yellow, and everything seems old and worn: the pale blue carpet, the beige bedspread with peach and blue flowers. I hear Jess, opening the bathroom door, closing it.
“It’s from Brian,” I say.
Travis holds the letter towards me, wanting me to take it back, but I don’t.
“He’s sick,” I say, and as soon as the words leave my mouth, as soon as I let them go, my bones turn to mush, I have to sit. My legs fold, the mattress holds me up. “He has AIDS.”
Travis is standing in front of me, so I have to look up to see his face. The skin around his eyes crinkles, as if he is staring into the sun. His eyes are light blue, like glass canning jars. He cocks his head like he misheard.
“He has what?”
His tone is incredulous and sharp, like he thinks I have everything wrong, and a rush of anger spreads through me like a fever, gives me the strength to stand back up.
“AIDS,” I say, then say it again, louder, getting myself used to the word. “He has AIDS.”
Travis doesn’t understand. Staring blankly. Of course, he knows about it—he’s heard Wayne’s jokes, he’s read the newspaper articles, heard the preachers and politicians. But, like me, he has ignored, deflected, refused. He drops the letter on the bed. Still, disbelieving. An accusatory tone of voice: “What does that mean?”
His pajama pants hang low on his hips and he is wearing white tube socks, and now I wish I told him before he started getting dressed for bed. The anger dissipates from my body like a dying light. He looks old and childish at the same time. He looks scared.
“Brian’s sick,” I say. “He could die.”
Could die, would die. The words swell inside me like a bruise. A disease of the blood, a disease that people catch. People die from it. People, what kind of people. He doesn’t ask, I don’t say. It is quiet except for the ticking of the alarm clock, but outside these walls, the noise is normal and good. Jess running water. Jess brushing her teeth. The lid of the toilet. Bathroom door, bedroom door. Jess climbing into bed, pulling up the covers, closing her eyes. Her heart beating. Healthy, alive.
“He wants to come home,” I say.
For a moment, a band of light, hope, twitches across Travis’s face: his son is coming home. The son he loves, the son he carried in his arms. Then he remembers. Shaking his head, he takes a step back, further away from me, in the shadows, the way he used to disappear after he came back from Vietnam. He was the same man, a good man, except quieter—sometimes he vanished from conversation, eyes fevered with memories he wouldn’t share.
“Is that even safe?” he asks. “For him to be here?”
He crosses his arms over his chest, letting go of nothing, making me do all the work.
“It’s not contagious,” I say. “Not by touching.” Stop. Don’t want to think about the ways it is spread.
Travis rubs his jaw, thinking. His eyes hooded, protected, downcast. He is studying his socks. How clean, how white.
“They don’t know for sure,” he says. “There’s a lot about this they don’t know.”
He wants me to agree with him, to take everything back, to apologize, to keep things from changing. I am close enough to touch him, but I don’t. I hold my arms at my sides, heavy and dense like they’ve been packed with mud. My legs still feel rubbery, and my feet are weak, useless things.
“He wants to come home,” I say.
The pause of silence that follows is not quiet but hot and panting. Travis looks up. “So he only wants to come home when something’s wrong,” he says, his voice swollen with anger and hurt and guilt and accusation. All of the same feelings in me. He is hurting, I am hurting.
Travis goes over to his side of the bed. Him on one side, me on the other. The bed a mountain between us.
“How sick is he? Does he just want to come here for a little bit, or stay here until…” He trails off.
“I don’t know.” My voice is sharp and prickly. But I understand: we’ve already been through so much. Travis, sighing, sits heavily on the bed, his back to me. I return the letter to the jewelry box, close the lid. I don’t know how to fix any of this.
I change into my nightgown, and get into bed. Travis lies on his back, staring at the ceiling. His chest is wide and strong, and I remember when we were young, how easy it was to sleep with my head right there, to curl into him, holding on until we grew into a single body. But now to slide up beside him like that feels awkward and forced. I stay on my side. Why is it up to me to do the talking?
“We need to tell him something,” I finally say.
He turns toward me, his face sad and scared and pale, and I feel sorry for him, sorry for us. When Brian left, Travis said it was his choice—we were not the guilty ones, it wasn’t our fault. He was strong then, maybe too strong. He made me believe everything would be okay, and I want that again, for Travis to take charge, to do the right thing: I will stand by him.
“I don’t know what to do,” he says.
I hold my breath as he reaches over and turns out the light. He rolls on his side, away from me. In the dark, where he now feels safe to tell me his fears, his voice sounds husky, strange.
“If he comes back,” he starts, and I stay as still as possible, hollowness thudding through me. “What will people—”
I force myself to speak, just to stop him from talking. “He’s our son,” I say. It is the right thing, but even as I say the words, they sound easy, rehearsed, false.
Travis says nothing else. Neither do I. But the decision has been made. We have to let him come back home and I must bury the unspeakable thought: I wish I’d never even opened the letter. I lie next to Travis for what seems like hours, until finally his body softens, his breathing slows. He’s been awake all this time. Both of us staring into the dark, not touching, not talking. When his breaths turn to snores, quietly, I get out of bed, go downstairs. I shuffle my feet into my tennis shoes, dig the cigarettes out of my purse. I’m a smoker again.
I walk into the backyard. The wet grass brushes against my bare ankles like pieces of velvet and soaks through my tennis shoes. The Dennisons’ hound is quiet, but the night insects sing and hum, calling each other. The moon is almost full and the sky is clear and everything glows under the silver light: the towers of trees, protecting our still house.
Travis’s words, spoken in the dark, ring in my head as I strike the match. He asked the same question six years ago when Brian left this family and all he knew. This isn’t supposed to happen, we raised our kids right, we weren’t perfect but we were good, and now here I am sneaking out in the middle of the night and our son, five hundred miles away, is dying from what is in his blood, dying because of what he did, dying because of what he calls himself, and what if he comes back here and what if people find out the truth, then what will happen to us? What will people think?
Carter Sickels is the author of the novels The Evening Hour and The Prettiest Star, which was recently released in May 2020. He is the recipient of the 2013 Lambda Literary Emerging Writer Award, and has been awarded scholarships to Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, VCCA, and the MacDowell Colony. His essays and fiction have appeared in various publications, including Guernica, Bellevue Literary Review, and BuzzFeed, and he is the editor of Untangling the Knot: Queer Voices on Marriage, Relationships & Identity. Carter is Assistant Professor of English at Eastern Kentucky University, where he teaches in the Bluegrass Writers Studio Low-Residency MFA program.
Music by Catlofe