Emily West's "Why Eulagene?"

Second Place winner in the 2017 Austin Chronicle Short Story Contest

For Christmas, the last time she was here, my sister gave me a Rubbermaid tub full of shit. Because, she said, I'm really hard to shop for.

I kept waiting for the anecdote, because it seemed like there would be one; you know, like half the gift is the story. But I guess on the giving end it all made a lot more sense, because the only other thing she said was, "From llamas!"

"Cool. That's cool. Hey, thanks, G."

It seemed like such a vindictive thing to do, but I knew my sister. She wasn't vicious. She didn't do confrontation. And it was wrapped like a real gift. There was even a nativity gift tag. Little baby Jesus in a manger.

I gave her this bowl, this ceramic bowl that had been broken and then put back together with gold lacquer, so it shined at the cracks. It seemed so perfect when I picked it out, but then, when she was sitting there on the couch, kind of wrapped up in her own shoulders, it felt presumptuous, or I don't know, wrong. We were still broken.

But, she stayed all afternoon and we made rosettes. I bought an extra Waffelbäckerei iron so we could make two at a time, like when we were kids, standing side by side on a piano bench in front of the stove. The kitchen is a good place to be when you don't know what to say. When it got too quiet I could whip my whisk against the side of a bowl, or wet my fingertips and flick them over the hot oil. It took all afternoon, but we made a mountain of them. Fragile, golden snowflakes. With enough powdered sugar on top to make us both sneeze. They were so good.

Turns out, the shit was for my garden, so I guess I should call it manure. Composted manure. It adds a lot of nitrogen to the soil – roses need a lot of nitrogen – without burning the plants. Actually, it's great. She bought it from this farm kid she knew from church, who was raising money for charity. Classic G. But I didn't know that at the time, and a lot had happened between us that year.

Well, a lot, but mostly the one thing. Miriam, my niece, was born late on a Sunday night in June. G called when she went into labor. By the time I got there, she was already in the NICU.

I stayed with G the week Miriam was alive. Mostly just to cry with her, because what else can you do? We cried in the vinyl chairs at the hospital and curled up in our pajamas in the big corduroy recliner in her living room.

When she'd get up to go to the bathroom, I'd Google things like "How to comfort NICU parents." One blogger recommended getting vaccinated against pertussis, the idea being that you believe the baby will live long enough to benefit from herd immunity. So I did, even though I think we both knew it wouldn't matter.

The fourth day, we sat on the floor of her house, folding laundry, and she said, "It's like she's already gone. Today, you know, when I went in, she was laying there, and she was so swollen, I didn't even recognize her."

And I said, "Lying there."

I mean, how do you fix that? It just slipped out.

She looked down at the socks she was balling and blew half a laugh through her nose. Then it was quiet. She turned on the television, and we sat leaning against each other, her head on my shoulder, watching buffalo bulls spar for dominance over a thicketed patch of West Sudanian grassland.

She was always smarter than me. Way smarter. It bothered me more than I realized. I used to tease her about paying for her Ph.D. when she could have gone to Sunday school for free. I've got all her books now – history, philosophy, ethics, Hebrew, Greek, some German. Some are stacked up in my bedroom, but most are still boxed up in the garage. They're pretty dry. I tried reading one the other night when I couldn't sleep. A few paragraphs in, I caught myself just staring at the words, cleaning my fingernails on the page corners. She would have hated that.

Maybe one of her friends from school will want them. A bunch of them came over when I threw a party for her dissertation defense. It was funny. All those theology students, everybody talking like preachers. They gave these long, cheesy toasts, but they were all drinking Coke. Nobody touched the champagne.

G didn't drink. Not even later, in the kitchen, when she was about to call Mom and Dad. Not like email would have been any better, but the phone call idea was doomed from the start. I poured bourbon into two glasses and nudged one toward her, but she was already dialing.

"No, Mom, it's me. It's G. I'm at Vivi's. How are you? ... Well that's okay, hey, maybe you can tell him for me: I passed my defense! ... It is nice, yes! Super nice! So, the convocation's in May. I want you guys to come, I'd love to see – Yeah. Yeah, she's right here."

I took the phone and shook the glass in front of her. Mom was cooing in my ear, in this syrupy sweet voice she used to mask the bitterness of her tone with G.

"Viv! Sweetie, I heard your commercial on the radio this morning!"

"For Country Crock?"

"Yes! I just caught the end, but I knew it was your voice! '... simple goodness, like farm fresh foods and sunny days. Country Crock is always the family favorite!'"

G emptied her glass into the sink. "It's not even real butter."

That's how it was between them. And not just after she came out. I guess once Mom figured out it was more than just a phase. Somewhere around third grade.

In third grade, Dad got a new post assignment, so right after we moved, we were hard up for friends. G reinvented herself at our new school. She got a pixie cut and wore the most boyish clothes we owned. I finally made a friend. Erin Bustos. She invited us to the pool. G was totally against it, but I begged and begged. So we went. I had this swimsuit designed to look like a mermaid tail – shimmery green, with scales. I rolled my belly between the seat belt straps, watching sunlight glide over the spandex. Totally mesmerizing. I tried to get G to look, but she just glared out the window. She and Mom fought the whole way there. Mom was yelling, "I drove all over town to find you a ThunderCats swimsuit, so no, you can't swim in your clothes!" G wasn't one to yell, but she did start crying. "Well, why can't I just stay home?!"

We were there maybe five minutes before some kid yelled, "Eugene's wearing a girl's swimsuit! Eugene's a girl!"

The worst part is that I didn't even swim. I got sunscreen in my eyes and cried until we went home. Mom sent us straight to bed. Not even a bedtime story. And she made G sleep in one of my pink nightgowns.

G liked to sleep in Dad's old PT shirts – the gray one, with black ARMY lettering across the front. Washed so many times you could read a newspaper through them. And so soft.

Dad had a long commute, because we lived off base, so he could never get home for dinner, but he was always there after our bath to read us books. And that was the best part of the day, squeezed in between Dad and G in their soft shirts. When we were really little, four or five, we'd have these races after bath time. Underwear races. We'd put our nightgowns on, but leave our panties down around our ankles, and run through the whole house like penguins. Dad was the finish line. A big, tough Army guy, waiting under the pony sheets with a big smile and a book in each hand.

The winner picked the book. I didn't care what he read. He was good reader, no matter what we picked. In a way, he was like my first voice acting coach. But for G, it was a big deal and she always wanted to win. She even pushed me into the wall one night and I broke my front teeth against the chair rail. Mom sat me on the kitchen counter and made me chew on a cold, drippy washcloth, while G snuggled next to my dad and he read two chapters from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

Vivi and Gigi, like two drops of water. That's what my Grandma would say. Mom used to paint our toenails different colors, until we were old enough that she could tell us apart.

I actually came this close to being Gigi. The way we were Tetrised together in the womb, she probably would have been born first. I was like an x-axis, she was a y. Not that I have memories before we were born, but from what I've been told, and what I imagine it was like. A womb's such a surreal thing, right? Like, it's the ocean and the sky and the food in your belly. All at the same time. The boundaries are just so blurry.

I imagine that, once we found the edges of ourselves, where I ended and she began, it was mostly just a question of whose foot went where, finding some pleasant correspondence between our two bodies in such a tight space. At some point, though, I managed to knot the cord around my neck, so I was pulled out first. It's weird, come to think of it, that that's how she left the world.

Anyway, I was born first, so I was named Vivian after my paternal grandmother, a vaudeville actress from New York. My sister was born two minutes later, so she was named Eulagene, after my maternal grandmother, who taught Sunday school and quiltmaking classes in a tiny Appalachian town east of Mt. Airy.

It's such a terrible name. But, it's a good name for this rose.

The summer she died – the summer after the shit Christmas – the roses grew to the size of cereal bowls. Almost too heavy for the stems. So much about that summer was a muted blur, but the garden just exploded, like a kaleidoscope pointed straight at the sun. If that could somehow smell like a thousand Pemberton roses.

Pembertons have always been my favorites. So that summer, I started crossing them. Creating my own hybrids. This one – the Eulagene – is six years in the making. Started with a Gloire de Chédane-Guinoisseau and an apricot Danae. I love it, I think, for all the same reasons I loved G. It's a big climber, no thorns, doesn't want too much pruning. The anthers are the same golden color as the freckles in her eyes. And it smells good. Like not quite what you think of, when you think about how a rose smells, but it's got this really addictive, musky thing going on. You just want to plant them everywhere, and then keep some more in a vase on your kitchen table.

It'll tolerate a fair amount of shade. And, you know, a lot of folks will warn you not to overfertilize, but I don't believe there's such a thing.

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Austin Chronicle Short Story Contest, Emily West, Why Eulagene?

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