Here’s an excerpt from my novel-in-progress, “Three Sisters Antiques.” The narrator is Caro, looking back in the 1970s on her childhood growing up in Sacramento in the 1950s:
When El and Lil came to live in my house—that’s how I thought of it the year I was ten, as “my” house—the last thing I wanted, besides their father who, with a shiny gold band on his left ring finger, suddenly became my father, was two sisters. I had never had a sister—never had a father, for that matter—and Ma and I were doing just fine, thank you very much. I had never shared womb space—much less room space—with another girl, never had to move aside and even discard personal items like my worn Monopoly board to make room for someone else’s belongings. Suddenly, the summer before the fifth grade, I had to move over and accommodate two more beating girl hearts.
To say that I was unhappy did not begin to describe it.
It wasn’t that I didn’t like Eloise or Lillian—I liked them fine when Frank would bring them over before he married Ma, and we all sat around Grandma’s ancient oak-and-clawfoot dining table at our little house on H Street. “Just like family,” I remember Ma saying as she served meatloaf and mashed potatoes. Lil, who was six and impossibly blonde, chattered like a jaybird and ate all her vegetables for the first and last time that I ever saw at that table, and El, who was eight, was quiet and serene with an enigmatic smile under her dark hair and eyebrows. She apparently looked a lot like their dead mother, I learned later.
Frank and Ma had met at Alhambra Bowl, and, it turned out, they both worked as hospital custodians—Ma at Sutter Memorial with the new moms and babies, and Frank at Sutter General, the big hospital not far from our house. She was the crack bowler, and Frank was fond of saying that he fell for Ma because of her smooth style laying down a ball dead center in a lane. When she told me the first time that she had invited Frank and his girls to dinner, I was incredulous.
“Why?” I demanded. “You guys go bowling every Thursday. Isn’t that enough?”
Ma had smiled a far-off smile, and I swear she sprouted a dimple she’d never had before in her right cheek. She was wearing her curly hair up in a bushy ponytail for work in those days, and she looked a decade younger than her 30 years.
“Carolyn,” she said lightly. I couldn’t get her riled for that whole year she and Frank were dating. “Really.”
“What?” I said a bit too petulantly.
But Ma seemed not to hear my tone. “Sometimes it’s nice to have a man around to…” She paused and looked off in a far corner, a bit too wistfully, I thought, “…do things with.”
Certainly she’d had a man to “do things with” ten years earlier, a man who’d become my father. Ma had never been shy about talking about the way I came into the world. All I knew was that he was a soldier who’d gone off to the war. I didn’t even know his name. “It doesn’t matter, Caro,” she said whenever I asked. “He’s never going to be in our lives.”
Honestly, that was fine with me. I operated on the you-can’t-miss-what-you’ve-never-had philosophy in those years. No father, no siblings, no problem.
But the first time Ma brought Frank home one night after bowling in their matching mustard shirts with their names across the right sides of their chests in unnaturally curvy script, I knew we were in trouble.
Frank Lansens wore his hair spit-shined on his head, greased with something shiny. His big black-rimmed glasses made him look a little like Buddy Holly. He was tall and thin compared to Ma’s shorter roundness, and his Adam’s apple really looked like he had a piece of fruit stuck in his throat.
He put out his hand to me that night when Ma brought him home the first time. He smiled wide, and his front teeth lined up like perfect pickets on a fence. His handshake was warm and firm.
“Hi, Carolyn,” he said. “I’ve heard a lot about you from your mother. She says you’re the smartest girl in your class.”
I pulled my hand out of his as soon as decently possible. “Uh,” I said, negating his statement and looking way up at Frank. His eyes were smooth hazel with flecks of brown in them.
“Oh, Frank,” Ma said, breezing by us to take off her car coat and head for the kitchen. “You don’t have to butter her up.”
But Frank kept smiling at me—gently, kindly, sincerely—and that’s how I knew we were in trouble. He was a Nice Guy. A Really Nice Guy. Ma hadn’t dated much that I knew of, but one thing I did know. She had not found Nice Guys, though she often talked about how she’d like to meet one. I figured that my father could not have been a Nice Guy. He got Ma pregnant and left her in my imagined version of the story. And the only other man she’d gone out with twice—Tony Antonelli—was like a smarmy Dean Martin wannabe. He thought he was handsome, a real charmer.
But this guy, Frank Lansens, he was a tall geek. Now he was saying, “I like smart girls. I have two of them myself—Eloise and Lillian. They’re seven and five. How old are you?”
“Uh,” I said again, rooted, caught by those eyes, by my own reflection in his glasses.
“She’s nine,” Ma called from the kitchen where I heard water running, filling the percolator. I faintly smelled Folger’s from afar.
Frank nodded. “That’s right. Your mother told me that. Tell me about yourself, Carolyn.” He took a seat on the sofa. “What books are you reading now?”
I found myself sinking into the soft cushion next to this man and heard myself begin to speak. I don’t know what I told him, only that I sank deeper and deeper into his eyes, which held me in a gentle way. If someone had said that I had been missing an older man in my life, I probably would have vigorously denied it. Ma and I did just fine on our own.
But as Frank and I talked that first night, something inside me started to waver a bit. Many years later I would recognize it as falling in love. That night, though I didn’t know it yet, my father had come home.