Deep in the heart of a dirty, windy city stood a tired wooden house; and inside the house lived a woman with busy hands; and inside the woman lived an angel. The angel sat on the head of a pin. Her balance was poor, and she tended to teeter this way and that.
The woman, Leet, felt this teetering only as a slight twinge beneath her rib. Leet mistook it for the pang of a hungry heart that sought passion as she swept, washed, and sewed. She longed for love to compensate her for the rotten hand dealt her by Fate. Her parents were gone, leaving her in charge of her younger sisters, and though she loved them both dearly, found them demanding and selfish.
The angel had come to her as a prayer on the lips of her dying mother. Protect my children, she had begged as she lay battered and broken in the street beside her husband, assaulted by thugs, relieved of their money and simple jewelry, then kicked repeatedly for not having more valuables on them. These were indeed ugly times.
The angel saw at once that the protector must be Leet. Leet was twenty, and the eldest. She had a hard edge that made her tough, and enough self-doubt to hold her tongue. Leet’s sister, Lott, was sixteen, and obsessed with beauty products, particularly nail polish. She planned to own a nail salon one day, and grieved that her parents hadn’t taken her dream seriously. The youngest girl, Lett, was thirteen and liked to wear pretty clothes and carry small, costly handbags that let her pretend she was someone who didn’t live in a dirty, windy city where the sun was rare and only grudging at best.
The meager insurance policy her parents had had was just enough to pay off their house. A miserable monthly stipend from Social Security meant their daughters wouldn’t starve. Leet’s hopes for a higher education, which had been iffy when her parents were alive, now went the way of the wind. She washed the front windows and watched scraps of paper lift and twirl, then disappear down the street. She hated her life, and resented her sisters.
They are your blessing, the angel said. Leet had by then, a few months later, reluctantly accepted the presence of the angel within. She knew it was wrong to respond silently with sarcastic thoughts like, Yeah, with a blessing like that, who needs misfortune? She recalled her stoic mother, always putting a brave face on things. Leet’s father repaired watches. He made enough money, but they were never comfortable. Leet’s mother had always fretted. Now Leet was the one who lay awake, adding sums, making disappointing compromises.
Leet bagged groceries in a harshly-lit, giant store that required a long commute on two different buses. Leet would have preferred a job closer to home. There’d been none. Most of the customers said nothing to her as she put their items in the sturdy brown paper bags. Some tried to make conversation. They talked about the weather, particularly the snow, which could be unrelenting. Some were crabby, downright nasty. Sharp rebukes sat unspoken on Leet’s tongue, held there by the angel who murmured soothing words in her ear. Let it go, let it go. They know not what they do.
Oh, yeah? Well, they can kiss my. . . Leet restrained herself. She smiled and wished everyone a nice day.
Her trouble continued when she got home. Her sisters worried her. Lott was happiest when she had her nail polish bottles lined up on the kitchen table, like glamorous beauty contestants, she once said. The choosing took time and patience. Concentration, too. The applying was done with a surgeon’s care, if not skill. She often slopped outside the boundary of her nails, just as she did with her coloring books years before. Waiting for her nails to dry meant she couldn’t do her homework. This happened even on nights when her polish was several days old. Leet finished many math worksheets for her, and wrote a couple of book reviews, too. She was especially good at book reviews. She always knew what the author was saying down below the actual words on the page. Lott had trouble with the words themselves. She didn’t understand why people bothered to read books, let alone write them.
Lett caused her share of grief, too. She was arrested for shoplifting. She was detained at the entrance to a department store with three small handbags shoved inside her own, large purse. She assumed that because the handbags didn’t have anti-theft devices pinned to them, she was in the clear. An undercover store detective had been following her since she left the perfume counter. Lett didn’t look like the kind of girl who could afford a store like that, which made her presence there at all highly suspicious. Leet bridled at the explanation. How did anyone know how much money anyone else had? She wasn’t defending Lett as much as she was crying out against their own lesser fortunes. And again, the angel intervened.
Patience, child. Patience!
Leet promised the juvenile court judge that she would better supervise Lett. The bailiff escorted her out. He was punishingly handsome. She smiled her best smile. He was unimpressed.
God is testing you, the angel assured Leet. Your fortitude would be rewarded. Leet knew better than to ask when.
Lott got herself a nineteen-year-old boyfriend. He was only one year younger than Leet, which made him better for her than for Lott. He was edgy, sensitive, clearly suffering for some unnamed art. He sat at the table, stooped, silent except when he ate, which he did almost constantly. His dirty dish never made it to the sink unless Leet carried it. She didn’t mind, for once. She made small talk, tried to catch his eye. When she did, she was met with a gorgeous sullen stare. Lott didn’t deserve him. Lott was round in the middle. Leet was not. Lott had the brain of a lizard. Leet did not. These astounding differences, which she imparted with great delicacy-– you’re just a little roly-poly aren’t you? and please save the crossword puzzle for me, I know it’s not at all your thing— didn’t impress the boyfriend. Leet overheard him tell Lott that he thought her big sister was weird.
Leet despaired. She would remain unloved forever. She was jealous of Lott. She’d known this, but hadn’t seen. The angel chided her. You must guide your sister in this matter. Protect her innocence.
What innocence? She’s been giving it up since she was fourteen!
The angel grieved.
So, Leet guided Lott, cautioned her against losing her heart and doing something she’d regret. Lott nodded, miles away. Leet also guided Lett. Get a little job, she said. Save some money. Then take yourself shopping as a treat. That way, you can reap what you sow. Lett also nodded. Her eyes were full of longing. Plotting her next caper, no doubt.
Leet ignored the angel’s gentle reminder that cynicism would avail her nothing.
Oh, so what? she thought.
A man at work asked her out. He was older, in his late thirties, with a desperate air about him that made Leet cringe. Loneliness could do that to a person, she thought. The angel nodded in agreement. They went to a small Italian restaurant where the hearty food made Leet relax. She drank wine. She giggled. He asked her all about herself. She told him. He said she was an angel. She laughed long and hard. He looked confused. She didn’t explain. It would sound too weird. He hoped she’d agree to see him again. She said she didn’t see why not. He wasn’t bad looking. Why his wife had left him she supposed she’d find out in time.
It came to her in a flash of light. She wasn’t an angel, and didn’t want to be. She didn’t want to be any better than she really was. She wasn’t mean-spirited, or possessed of a cruel heart, but she’d held her tongue long enough.
She summoned her sisters. There would be changes made. From then on, they were to tow the line. Lott would improve her grades, or else.
Or else, what? Lott asked, her eyes narrow with challenge.
I’ll kick your ass, Leet said.
Lott sucked in her breath.
And you, Leet told Lett. You get rid of those sticky finger of yours, or you’ll get the same.
Lett’s heart skipped a beat.
They sulked. Both remembered how in childhood an expression of sadness made Leet show a little kindness. Leet showed them no kindness now.
Then they tried wheedling. They offered to do her chores. One shed tears. The other refused to eat for two whole hours. They gave up, and went on with their day.
The transgressions fell in number, then stopped. No more arrests. No more failing grades. Lott and Lett didn’t exactly thrive, but held their own just fine.
And as for Leet, she went on seeing the man from work. The future, which had once been black and without end, took shape. The angel praised her.
You have found your voice, and your true self, she said.
Yeah, and no thanks to you.
On the contrary, this is exactly what we planned.
We? Who the hell is We?
But the angel was gone, on her way to assist another in distress, leaving Leet, a clever, capable young woman, to find her own answer in time.
Anne Leigh Parrish’s debut novel, What Is Found, What Is Lost, was published last October by She Writes Press. She is also the author of two story collections, Our Love Could Light The World (She Writes Press, 2013) and All The Roads That Lead From Home, (Press 53, 2011). She lives in Seattle; follow Anne on Twitter and Facebook.