The Company of Lovers

by Lorraine Paterson 

When Lucy Shipley was nine years old, she once followed a woman for four long blocks because the woman had seemed so incredibly lucky. The lucky woman had short bobbed blonde hair and she was wearing a long light green raincoat, and as she walked along the sidewalk Lucy followed.

For Lucy, being connected in life was some­how connected with being lucky, and she simply couldn’t divide the two. They were elusive. It was nothing tangible about the woman, not the tilt of her head or the way she walked. Nothing solid that nine-year-old Lucy could say, “Here, here I have it,” but it was there. In the tilt of her head and in the way that she walked. Undeniable and unquestionable luck.

When Lucy was twenty-nine she no longer followed lucky people on the street. She was too old and too wise to believe that luck and connectedness could be learned and emulated by following lucky people on the street. Instead, Lucy decided to take a hand in her own fate. She began by visiting “Molly’s Reliable Adoption Agency.”

“I would like to be adopted,” she told the clerk at the front desk.

“But surely you can support yourself?” the clerk said. “Surely you are self-sufficient. You must be how old? Thirty perhaps.”

“I’m not talking about financial support. I would just like to be connected. Did you ever play ‘Connect’ as a child?” Lucy asked.

“No,” said the secretary.

“Well, this works on exactly the same principle. The game has pieces with blue and black and red lines on them and they all have to be connected. Age is completely irrelevant.”

“Nobody wants older children these days,” the secretary said firmly.

 

After the “Molly Agency” disappointment, it wasn’t until Lucy met Gerald and Sarah that a definite plot began to form in her head.

Lucy had tried various sexual ideas before, but sex and luck and connectiveness just didn’t fit together for her. She couldn’t touch a lover’s chest. Her palms naturally splayed out. Her previous lovers had thought her aloof and unfriendly. One of them once complained, “I just don’t feel like we are friends.”

“Friends,” said Lucy, “now there’s a new possibility.”

But with Gerald and Sarah it was different. A different angle on sex. A nonparticipating angle. From the first time she saw Sarah, Lucy thought, “There is a woman who doesn’t want to have children.” There was something in the way that she held her neck erect and postured. Lucy knew because she watched them every time they came into the library where she worked. Sarah’s long brown hair fell slightly over Gerald’s shoulder as she leaned on him when they read poetry together. They looked well fed, the pair of them. Bright eyed. Well dressed. Definitely without any connections but themselves.

One day they were standing at the book checkout. Lucy stamped “Plants of the Middle East” and “New Techniques on Sheet Wallpapering” and then said, “Here are your options: either you can adopt me or I’ll have children for you.”

“We don’t want children,” said Gerald cautiously.

“Well, I can fit into your domestic arrangements any way you want. Child. Cousin. Sister. Aunt. Whatever you want.”

 

Lucy moved in with Gerald and Sarah the following week. She paid them rent, but they gave her a discount because she was a relative. They lived in a small red brick house that seemed rather sprawling and badly furnished to Lucy. Sarah tie-dyed sheets and hung them on the walls. Sparsely.

Lucy rotated relationships. The intention was one month child, the next month sister, the next cousin. She started off in the child cycle, which presented some problems simply because Sarah was only five years older than Lucy. But they all tried the best they could. One Saturday afternoon, the three of them made brightly colored mobiles out of crepe paper and hung them all over Lucy’s room. It was the baby’s room, after all, and somehow they needed to create a nursery atmosphere to make up for the fact that Lucy Shipley was twenty-nine years old.

At first it was fun. When Gerald and Sarah picked her up from work, they would sit in the car and examine their watches crossly and Sarah would say, “What a girl for dillydallying she is. It’s terrible. She certainly didn’t get it from me.”

And they would make her wrap up warmly and not stay out late and tuck her into bed. But it wore thin. Gerald and Sarah did not have any children of their own because they raised their voices too often, weren’t patient enough, and despised dependent things. They didn’t like having a child and everyone was relieved when they unanimously voted to go on to the sister cycle after only two-and-a-half weeks.

 

As Lucy and Sarah lay on the Navajo rug in the front room, Sarah said, “Sometimes I just think about Mother so much that I don’t think I can stand it anymore. I hate to think of her being in a rest home.”

“She was a liability,” said Lucy. “On that bicycle she was hell careening around the neighborhood. When she ran over Timothy Webster and gave him thirty stitches, I knew something had to give.”

“But you know she hated homes. I always remember when we were young, she told us, ‘People should never be in homes. It just isn’t right,’ and the way she said ‘isn’t right’ gave me chills,” said Sarah.

“Six bottles of vodka a week,” Lucy said. “It just kills me to think of it, six bottles a week. We should never have drunk it with her.”

“It’s in the genes,” said Sarah.

“Let me show you Mother,” Lucy said, “all I have left. All I brought with me of her.”

Lucy brought out an old and battered handbag. It was lizard skin and grotesque.

“Driver’s license, lipstick, small bottle of rum, bicycle clips,” Lucy said.

“How old she looks,” Sarah said as she touched the license lightly. “I have her eyes.”

Sarah unwound the lipstick: “Magnolia Passion.” She smeared it on her lips and rubbed them together. She went to the mirror.

“Mother’s color,” she said.

The license had a large “Revoked” stamped on it. “Drinking,” said Lucy.

“I wish Mother and I hadn’t drifted apart,” sighed Sarah. “If only she had liked Gerald more, things would have worked out so differently.”

Sarah and Lucy tried not to refer to the “rift” too often. It was painful for Sarah to discuss.

“Mother didn’t want to go to the home because of Aunt Agatha,” Lucy said. “I wish Mother didn’t feel so bothered by it. The time that Aunt Agatha bit the head off Theresa’s scuba diving doll. I mean, it was one of the happiest days of my whole life.”

 

There were parties each weekend and lots of drinking and laughing. Gerald and Sarah had a little group of friends they always invited over.

Gerald played the piano and he would sing, “Sisters . . . did you ever see such sweet sisters?” to a tune Lucy suspected he had composed himself. And Lucy and Sarah would sway together.

Sarah said, “That dark brown hair of Lucy’s is a throwback to Grandma. Mother always liked her hair better than mine. Brushed hers fifty times a night and mine only thirty. These small things have an effect, you know. It’s the small things that matter.”

When Lucy became really drunk she would pretend to be her mother on her bicycle on the driveway, lolling over to one side. Sarah saw her mother’s hair flowing out to the side and the pastel scarfs she would wear.

“Oh, Lucy,” she would say, “to be able to capture her so brilliantly and beautifully. It’s practically a gift. It’s Mother. It’s Mother. I get choked up.”

“It was art,” Gerald would later tell her, “sheer and utter art.”

And at the parties Sarah and Gerald would lie beside each other on the couch and say, “Now, who can we find as a lover for our dear Lucy?”

“Blood calls to blood,” Sarah would say. “I just can’t let her live alone. I would prefer to cut off my right arm than leave her alone.” She always accompanied her words with a movement, a soft chop on her arm, “Cut it right off.”

Lucy lived in the small atticlike room at the top of their house. It became infused with her own personality, different from the rest of the house.

“Droll,” Sarah would say and lie on the bed with her light brown hair lying out in all directions. “Damned droll up here.” Downstairs was a sheer confusion of art and design and artistic people’s temperaments.

Sarah and Gerald made love noisily and at night. As Lucy lay in bed trying to sleep, she could hear them.

Gerald was a freelance writer and he worked in a small room downstairs in the house and he wrote loudly. Lucy found him slightly distasteful at times with his dark eyes and sallow skin. There was something nervy about him, Lucy thought. He talked too quickly and pulled his fingers along the stubble on his chin as he talked. It didn’t seem quite right to Lucy.

“Christine, Sarah, Theresa, and Lucy,” he would say, “the Shipley sisters. I always thought you four were like the Bronte sisters or something Chekhov would write about. Sometimes when I called up I would say, ‘Are any of the Shipley sisters free tonight ?’ and I would just take whoever was free. That’s why, Lucy, I sometimes took you out.”

Sometimes when friends came over in the afternoon to hear Gerald’s new poem or admire Sarah’s new splashed wall hanging they would ask, “Now where exactly did you find Lucy?” and they would go through the long rigmarole of how they found her and took her in and how she belonged.

One day Sarah dyed her hair dark brown and came home with a large Indian scarf wrapped around her head. Gerald and Lucy were sitting at the dining room table playing Scrabble when Sarah came in. She pulled the scarf off with a flourish, like a conjuring trick.

“Mother always preferred your hair color,” Sarah said, “and I thought, oh what the hell, I’ll be like you and Grandma.”

At Sunday dinners Lucy and Sarah showed Gerald what hap­pened when their Uncle Peter came over to visit.

“That was in the days long before I met you,” Sarah said and leaned over to rub Gerald’s arm.

“Uncle Peter was an explorer. He was always dressed in the same red shirt and blue jeans and wore mountaineering equip­ment wherever he went because he was on a crusade to find faulty parts. And the only way he could find out was to con­stantly wear the equipment,” said Lucy.

“He was a savior,” said Sarah. “He saved lives by wearing his equipment.”

“Once he even climbed Everest,” said Lucy.

“Oh, don’t be so gullible,” said Sarah. “That’s just the kind of thing we wanted to believe when we were children. Lucy, you know perfectly well that Uncle Peter never climbed Everest. We just wanted to think he had.”

Sarah and Lucy demonstrated the ceremonial and feverish swapping of kitchen utensils that Mother and Uncle Peter did “while drinking small glasses of vodka that we constantly had to refill,” said Sarah.

Lucy and Sarah did it in the kitchen. Pulling out the cutlery drawer and laying all the knives, forks and spoons out, they exchanged them in a haphazard, bizarre fashion.

“But I don’t understand,” said Gerald. “Why on earth did they want to swap kitchen utensils?”

Lucy and Sarah began to laugh and laugh together. Holding on to each other’s sleeves like clowns, they had convulsions as they shook with raucous laughter.

Lorraine Paterson teaches English in Thailand. This story won first place in the Inscape fiction contest.