Theresa Defused by Frank Dineen


The big rock in the Pocono woods shot up beyond the trees.

Therese said, “Let’s climb it."

Hannah said, “No way. Too steep, too high."

“Everything scares you."


“Then come on."

“Dad would kill us, if we’ re still alive."

“Then keep your mouth shut."

“You’ re not, really?"

“Nothing ventured," Therese said.

Hannah watched her go. It was slow. Sunset was near when Therese clambered over
the top.

“What’s it like?" Hannah called. She imagined a bunch of mountains and the usual
colors. Like on the ride up.

There was no answer. She called again, then several more times. It was half dark before she saw Therese starting down. Five feet up, she let go, ending on her rump in the fine fall leaves.

“I kept calling to you," Hannah said. “Are you deaf?"

Therese laid back. She laughed with abandon and splashed the leaves over herself.

"So? What did you see? The sunset? Mork from Ork?"

“Yes," Therese said.

“I’ve stepped away from my desk," Hannah Tempy’s recorded voice tells Ercole Fortunato, the horndog, who way back when had first interviewed her, then “dated" her, then hired her, then become a rummy, then, recently, after three years, having dried out and scraped himself clean, surfaced again and (cue the violins) needed work.

A loser. A pest. A hairy back.

Hannah would’ ve blown him off in any case, but would rather have been there to do it, because of what has yanked her away. Therese had phoned, asking how to replace an electrical socket.

Call your landlord, said Hannah. He doesn'tcall back, said Therese. Call an electrician, said Hannah, distracted, I’ ll pay. No, said Therese. Then leave it, said Hannah, I’ ll try to come by later. No, said Therese, hearing the snap in her sister’s voice, you do enough, you’ re busy.

Hannah is nearly always busy. It takes that, to be a top headhunter. She links potential hires--VP-level and above, strictly--with drug companies. They’re ambitious people, canny careerists who, if less smart than they act, at least are shrewd. Hannah j ibes with their rapt self-interest. She has only to understand them, not like them, which comes easy, since that’s how she deals with herself. It’s been good work, enabling her to marry up, live well, be envied.

That screwdriver I got you, Therese? Find it, unscrew the cover, then the socket. It pulls right out. Unwind the copper wires. Note their colors, where they go. Take the bus to Walmart. Buy a new one. They’ re cheap.

Snap, snap; Therese’s hurried “I love you" before hanging up.

Hours passed before the words Hannah hadn'tsaid clapped in her head:
Turn off the power first.

There’d been no answer when she’d dialed Therese back.

In the badlands of the city, she passed the sorry parish house and school where Therese cleaned. She was gone, Hannah felt. Mother and Father will have to be told. So will Pastor Moore and the children who ask Therese to sing for them. Hannah herself never could holda tune. There must be others to tell. She’ ll think of who they might be.

She and her sister had first seen light within minutes of one another, sufficient reason for excited Debbie to assume them identical, and dress them identically, and to marvel at yhe sameness of their wee feet and hands, their gray unfocused yes and muddy Churchill mugs. Right from the first, she imagined them communing, as twins do. It was a given, wasn’t it, the four of two and two, a mystical link which everyone, even their eventual spouses, would defer to, bestowing a special added mystery to the miracles she and Charles
had brought into the world. She sent a Polaroid to him in Vietnam. He scrutinized it in a tent, tired and scared, by flashlight. I think they’ re you, she wrote. The different-colored blankets are to tell them apart. See where I snipped squares fromeach, and stitched them into the other? The Eastman girls will always be together. Hannah knew the photo.

Therese’s blanket was white. Hannah thought her sister might still have it. Hers had been yellow.

Young men idling at street corners eyed her in her Audi as she passed. One of them grabbed his crotch and yelled something. Society has broken down. Idling herself one school night, she told her father she’d forgotten her books, and he said, thus the mind obeys the will. But she’d been spinning a dozen plates when Therese called. She was the best sister she could be, what with handing down some decent things for her to wear, which Hannah knew came out of Therese’s closet only when they were together, or treating her at Applebee’s, or to the extra television Therese never turned on, and who knows what for that unworldly creature. The best sister she could have been, considering that she doesn'tmuch
care for people who are too different from her, least of all when it’s your very twin who throws up in your face all you value, the way you simply are. That’s judgment, no mistaking.

“But sister," Therese said, so sure she understood why Hannah called last month, out of nowhere, weeping for no reason she could name, “I admire your energy, your wanting to accomplish. That’s your gift. Use it well, that’s all." In other words, material girl, I applaud you for disgusting yourself.

She’ ll be lying there, looking like some prematurely ravaged Afghan beauty. But she’d sought her church mouse life--as a pinnacle, you’d almost think, by the calm that came to fill her over time, and how she smiled, and forgave, and moved through her world as though it were something to be trusted. “The tide is always with us," she said. Oh? Was it there with you in your childhood tantrums, your wailing and screeching to get your way? With your sister, your less bright and lovely, so fraternal twin, the stupid tin-eared cow who wouldn'tcede the keyboard? And all your horizontal friendships with those lucky boys in the high school band--was it your benevolent tide that laid you down beneath them? “It was all to the good," said Therese, of the easy virtue, the turning her back on a full boat to Bryn Mawr, of the dead-end slogs at every other soup kitchen and AIDS hospice and haven for sundry fuck-ups. You could teach, Therese. Be a doctor, a nurse. You’ ve more to give than scraping away at barnacles. But mother’s and father’s concerns weren'thers. They’ d
evidently served their purpose just by making her, because she was bound elsewhere, passing through the Eastmans as a pilgrim, as though a lifetime’s measure of mistakes had been arranged, just for her to hasten through them on the way to higher ground. Wherever Hannah landed, Therese had been there and gone: first to pop out, to walk, talk, read; first in makeup, first to bleed, first in the pants of the boys. It seemed no place Hannah ever got was any place that mattered to her sister. Always, Therese floated up ahead, in the know,
out there where those spirits dwell who deem themselves unbound by trivial calls to make the most of what uneven-handed fate has divvied out.

Hannah reminds herself that by and large the world smiles on people like her and, lip service aside, is indifferent to the Thereses in its midst. Is it a crime to please your parents, for starters? She finds herself returning to this incontestable truth more often lately; retreating to it, in truth, from the sullen deafness of Ellis Schuyler Tempy to the pleading silences between them. Nevertheless, it irks her that she still measures her life by Therese’s, that she never has found whatever it takes just to regret her sister’s squandered promise, and move on. But, consanguinity has its burdens, and loving this stranger she’d been born
with was one of them.

This furtive ride Hannah is now on will not make the news. These silent tickings of
her particular life will go unmarked by her fellow citizens. That is because the true life of this republic is lived at a level far beneath politics or economics or the vagaries of fate or anything else that is acknowledged. Or so Therese had once pronounced. It was just the sort of shrouded Delphic crap that drove Hannah up the wall. And that she should think of it now--the whiff of confirmation in that--irked her even more.

She parked and got out, pressing the lock pad twice and scanning the street. Hop
scotching girls stopped to gape at her and her j aunty yellow car. She moved down the block, feeling other eyes on her. The rooming house slouched in the middle. It went five stories up, where Therese was. The mere sight of it shamed Hannah. That she should have any link to such a place, let alone possess the key to it; that an Eastman girl had come to this.

She let herself in, started up, then stopped. She’d never seen a corpse in the raw. She thought of her parents, cruising to Bermuda on the dime of the daughter who hadn'tnearly wrecked their marriage. Would Therese want to spoil that? For that matter, the priest would eventually look into her not showing up, and the ancient lady in the room below would miss Therese’s footsteps on the ceiling, her lilting chatter when she dropped in for tea, or to dust the musty furniture there. Maybe Hannah should let her sister be. She’d treasured her solitude, hadn'tshe, practically craved anonymity? It would be a favor, the timid, earth-bound twin doing as ordered, keeping her mouth shut. There’d be the interlude, too, perhaps a good couple days, of the world thinking Therese was still there, of only Hannah knowing. That could feel something like special, like when she’d been
pregnant once for a little while, suddenly guarding her own grand secret. Ahead of
Therese, for a change. But the girls on the sidewalk, and others, she’s sure - - she herself has not been anonymous today. Questions might be asked--small chance, but not zero, which Hannah prefers--and questions in turn could trigger procedures, which might involve telephone logs. Yes, she called for advice about changing the socket. I tried to help. I did the best I could. My mind obeyed my will.
Hannah resumes her climb. She needs to be ready, to rehearse. Shock is certain, but she mustn'tcry out. Her stomach might flip, but she mustn'tvomit. Though there will be sadness, too, already the animal in her is feeling a rush because the person she was born with and sat in the bathtub with and who had worn her socks and panties was gone, and she was still here. It does not occur to her that she will see Therese not as a sobering reminder that she herself will inevitably expire, but on the contrary, as further evidence that she is exempt, that death will continue to flow around her like water past a mighty rock, because Hannah Tempy is the exception, it must be so, since the obliteration of her own consciousness is utterly inconceivable. She’s likewise unprepared for the annoying likelihood that when she sees that face its owner hadn'ttrusted, that misleading face, she’ ll remember it in all its splendid flower, and hear Therese say again that the beauty of her
youth had come to strike her as a hint, a fleeting sketch of what she was meant to make herself inside, that the freshness sought a deeper place to moisten, as water burrows down to roots.

You can gain the roof from the fire escape here, a feature her sister had thought a luxury beyond compare, and there one night, when she’d asked Therese when she’d changed, the best she could do was to point at the moon and say, it only moves when you turn away. Hannah could have pushed her off.

She’ ll spoil the cruise and tell the priest who will tell the kids. An aunt, an uncle, a
handful of cousins, too. Who else? She’s left so few footprints, so little for her precious tide to tidy up. Maybe the long-gone boys in the band deserve to know. Burns and Dahms and Danny Wendling and the rest. For auld lang syne.

The climb has Hannah breathing a little hard, but it feels different, like there’s more
oxygen, now that she’s not sharing it with Therese. She’ ll have to adjust, of course. From now on, she’ ll be the only daughter, instead of the good one. She’ ll be without the person who had saved her the trouble of not looking away, who had spared her, by example, the scary downside of not sleepwalking through her life. But Hannah Tempy reckons she’ ll be fine now.

She sees herself as past the need for any pseudo- twin to make her seem to shine, any accidental womb mate to show her how it’s not done. Now, she reckons, the world is a safer place. She’s more sure of it with every step she mounts.

That’s the news she’d really like to tell. That a bomb has been defused. A nuke in a head case, in a hand-me-down suit. There are others out there, too. They blend in. They’ re invisible.

You wouldn'tnotice, unless you’d been chained to one from birth. But they’ re watching.

Watching and judging. And quiet as church mice, but don'tbe fooled: their muteness is a tantrum, and how they live is their way of wailing and screeching until we knuckle under.

Paranoia? Not. Just sit. Sit for a while and keep your mouth shut. Sit there and make yourself quiet. See what can happen when you do that. That’s how dangerous these people are.

Therese’s door is not locked. Of course it isn’ t.

At Walmart, the meats and fruits and produce surprise Therese. It’s like a regular supermarket.

She hadn'tknown. Far to walk, though, here to the very edge of the city. She should have done as Hannah said, and certainly will on the way back.

She lays down her few items on the counter, and grabs a Hershey bar for Miss Jelinek.

There is raspberry tea, too, something different they might enj oy together. The cashier is old.

His knuckles are swollen and his fingers warped out of line. He holds up the socket and says,

double check that the power’s still off.

“I will," Therese says. “And thank you for mentioning it."


Frank Dineen

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