PUBLISHED IN: 2005
THE AUTHOR: Jean Ryan.
THE EDITOR: Self-edited.
THE PUBLISHER: iUniverse
SUMMARY: A saute cook at a Berkeley restaurant, Lorrie Rivers is weary of her job and tired of the dating circuit; she needs to make some changes in her life. More than anything, she wants to visit her estranged sister Bett, for whom she feels tremendous love—and guilt. When Ginger, Bett’s look-alike, appears, Lorrie instantly bonds with the girl and enjoys a second chance at being the older sister. But joy turns to fear as Lorrie begins to understand not only what happened in her own family, but the peril surrounding the young girl.
THE BACK STORY: The story was always inside me, and eventually it surfaced. The actual writing, which took place over about two years, felt like an imperative, requiring more soul-searching than research.
WHY THIS TITLE? The narrator’s sister lives a transient life, moving from one town to the next, never feeling at home anywhere. Lorrie believes that Bett’s inability to find peace, to form true connections, is a result of the harm she suffered as a child. Essentially she feels that Bett is lost.
WHY SOMEONE WOULD WANT TO READ IT: This story concerns child sexual abuse, a crime that is largely unpunished and one that leaves irreparable damage. There have been plenty of tell-all books regarding monstrous parenting, but few that take a tender and focused look at the harm itself and what it feels like to have one’s sense of freedom taken away at a young age.
“I have just finished living though Lorrie Rivers, the main character in Ms. Ryan’s first novel, Lost Sister. I could not put it down. I was captured by the honesty and tenderness with which she presents her characters’ lives. They are people in the throes of human frailty and circumstance going about their day. Having lived in Berkeley for a number of years myself, I was delighted to revisit it through her eyes. She has truly captured and presents us with the quirky; `uniquely Berkeley’, a city people joke about, and its inhabitants love like an old pair of Birkenstock’s.
I was touched by her careful illumination of the ghostly masks of child abuse. Lost Sister is both disconcerting and comforting. It touches a chord familiar to so many women. Ms Ryan’s steady, metered style of telling a story is infused with kindness, humor and hope. I was empowered by it and look forward to her next book with great anticipation.”
“Having enjoyed so many of her previously published poignant short stories, I looked forward with much anticipation to reading Jean Ryan’s first novel, LOST SISTER. And I was not disappointed – what a great read it was! Her acumen, wit and sensitive story-telling revealed a compelling emotional courage in confronting a journey many can relate to. LOST SISTER was a riveting and insightful novel, an excellent narrative tapestry which so wove me into its essence that I wished it could have continued on – sorry that I would be missing my new friend, Lorrie Rivers, and wishing I knew her more. I’m looking forward to future works from this talented author, Jean Ryan.”
“I thoroughly enjoyed this novel. The story brought back happy memories of childhood’s favorite books and pastimes. And yet it was topical as well. The vividness of Ms. Ryan’s descriptions made me frequently return to a phrase just to read it again and savor her skilled use of language. I admire Ms. Ryan’s humor, knowledge and talent and hope this novel not only achieves the success it deserves but leads to more stories from this gifted author. This is one of the few books that really captivated me and made me want to read it again.”
AUTHOR PROFILE: Jean Ryan, a native Vermonter, lives in Napa, California. Her stories and essays have appeared in a variety of journals and anthologies, and she has been nominated several times for a Pushcart Prize. Her debut collection of short stories, SURVIVAL SKILLS, was published in April 2013 by Ashland Creek Press and was short-listed for a Lambda Literary Award. Her story “Manatee Gardens” is included in the anthology OUTER VOICES/INNER LIVES; her story “Greyhound” appears in the anthology AMONG ANIMALS. Ryan is presently editing a second collection of short stories and a collection of nature essays, many of which originally appeared as blog posts on her website: http://jean-ryan.com/. There you can find her posts, as well as reviews of SURVIVAL SKILLS. The Story Links page contains links to stories available for reading online.
AUTHOR COMMENT: “I spend an extraordinary amount of time on my writing, believing there are no shortcuts. Writers must stay on course, figuring out what they want to convey, putting their idea into words, then finding the right words—precise and beautiful at once. Every so often the perfect word or phrase arrives unbidden, but writing in general is hard work. If it isn’t, it probably isn’t worth much.”
With LOST SISTER I hope to bring greater awareness to the problem of child abuse and to offer comfort for those who have been harmed.
At the age of two she was wearing glasses, light blue frames with butterflies on the corners. Behind the thick lenses her eyes were enormous, and when she peered up at people on the street, they stopped and beamed at her; they couldn’t help it. That wispy blonde hair. Those glasses.
So now she’s in Virginia. I look at the photo on the postcard: a curving road, a field of yellow flowers, slate blue mountains in the distance, then turn the card over and read her words again. “It’s hot here. The frogs are noisy at night. Lots of bugs too—I just counted 14 daddy longlegs on the ceiling. I have a job. Maybe just for the summer though. The kitchen is pink!”
This, as usual, is all the information she offers and I stand in the hallway trying to piece together her life. She forgot to include her address, though the postmark tells me that she’s living in or near a town called Burkes Pond. She must be renting a cabin, something cheap and poorly made, on the edge of a lake. Her job is seasonal, dependent on tourists or vacationers. Maybe she’s working at a roadside restaurant, one of those old snack bars strung with yellow light bulbs and mired in the sweet reek of fried food; families, barefoot and sunburned, swarm the place at dusk, jamming the battered picnic tables. Or maybe she’s got a job at the boat rental, filling up gas cans, handing out red and white flotation cushions.
I walk down the hall and into my bedroom, a small rectangle barely big enough for the furniture: a mahogany double bed and dresser my Aunt Rose left me, a bedside table and a stuffed blue chair, occupied as usual by Murphy, my 16-year-old yellow tomcat. I pet his broad head a couple times, which brings on his staticky purr, and then I walk over to the corkboard on the wall and tack this latest postcard, photo side down, next to the others she’s sent me. I collect these cards: I use them to track her, to fix her in time.
At the top of the corkboard are my two favorite pictures of Bett, the first taken just after she got her glasses. She is standing next to our green Plymouth station wagon and Barbara has a hand on either side of her head, keeping her face to the camera; I am there too, squinting, one foot hooked behind the other. She is still unsteady, and her legs, in red corduroy pants with snaps on the inseams, are braced apart, her arms lifted for extra balance. She is grinning, as she always was back then; her joy was instinctive, a natural, boundless response to being alive.
In the other photo she is wearing a two-piece, faded blue swimsuit and leaping ahead of a wave. She is four years old. Her golden hair is caught in the wind and she is shrieking with laughter. There she is, arms up, knee cocked, forever outrunning the Gulf of Mexico.
When Barbara saw the postcards she started to cry. “Why do you do that? Pin them up like that, with her pictures on top. It’s sad, Lorrie. It’s like a shrine. It’s like a missing person poster.”
Her words startled me, because I knew they were true. I’ve been pursuing my younger sister for most of my life, even before she left home. There will never be enough clues in these cards she sends. They tell me where she is, but who, at this point, can find her?
Behind me Murphy stretches and groans. His groans sound human. He doesn’t even meow like a cat. He opens his mouth and says, “Buk? Buk-buk?” Like a chicken.
He came to me by way of a friend who joined the Peace Corps and had to leave him behind. I wasn’t thrilled at the idea of adopting him—I wanted a kitten, some sweet little thing that would race up the side of the bed, tuck itself under my chin and fall asleep. Murphy was nine years old and overweight. He had a broken fang and his ears were scarred and tattered at the tips. He didn’t want much, just his food and a soft chair and permission to follow me around. He didn’t twine around my legs, or ram his head into my hand, demanding to be petted. He didn’t
even cry to go out; he simply sat in front of the door waiting to be noticed, and if I didn’t take heed, he would start to pick the threshold, very gently. It didn’t take long to love him.
I bend down and kiss his head—it smells dusty—and his paws stretch and crimp. “Who’s my boy?” I murmur, and he looks up at me in sleepy confusion, his upper lip caught for a moment on what’s left of his fang. A bead of drool slides down his chin.
“Who’s my beautiful boy?”
I check my watch again. It’s 1:40 pm, which gives me ten minutes to get ready for work—more than enough time. Unlike most people, I dress down for my job, in jeans and sneakers and spotted T-shirts—only when I’ve managed to stain something is it suitable for work.
Some days I tell myself that a lucky chain of events brought me to cooking, that a mysterious and knowing force directed me away from the tidy corporate world and into the fun house of kitchen work.
And there are other days, more and more of them, when I look at my life squarely and find, not serendipity, but sabotage. That’s when I see, with stunning clarity, each wrong turn I’ve made, and how much these blunders and bargains have cost me.
I should have stuck, in the first place, with science. As a child I was enthralled with shows that took me underwater: Flipper, Sea Hunt, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. I wanted to live in a world of chattering dolphins and singing whales; I wanted to search for giant squid with eyes as wide as dinner plates. “I’m going to do what they do,” I announced to my mother one evening. We were watching a Jacques Cousteau special. Jacques had hold of a sea turtle and his crew—four skinny men—were cutting away the fishing net it was trapped in. My mother, snuggled into the sofa, sipped her scotch and nodded. She was happy, smoking cigarettes and watching TV; my father, who wouldn’t permit these pleasures, was away on business.
Anything that slid through water, even through a mud puddle, captivated me, and I took to carrying a plastic bucket wherever I went, coming home with my catch of the day: silver minnows, velvety tadpoles, yellow-bellied newts. These I tried to nurture in a fish bowl on my bedside table, but they never lasted very long, especially the spry minnows, whose wizened bodies I’d find on the hardwood floor. One time I ordered a pair of seahorses through the mail. They were a disappointment from the start, a lot smaller than I imagined and not much fun to watch. For four days they clung to the scrap of seaweed they came with, and then they simply let go and died. They weren’t, in the end, any better than sea monkeys.
Still I wasn’t deterred. What I needed, I told my mother, was an aquarium, and, eying the latest casualty on my bedroom floor, she agreed. The next day she cashed in her green stamps and bought me a starter tank with all the accessories, and instead of scooping my pets out of puddles and ditches I began to buy them. I still have that aquarium, and two others. That’s what my dream has amounted to: three fish tanks in my livingroom.
Where would I be now if I had stayed true to this first love? Navigating the Amazon? Anchored off the coast of Figi? What would I be doing at this very moment if, 14 years ago, I had held my course and majored in biology? Instead, panicking over the math, I veered off into English literature. Wrong turn number one.
I take off my sweatpants and pull on the jeans I wore yesterday, then open my dresser and pull out a clean t-shirt. That’s one of the compensations of cooking, not having to spend a ton of money on clothes. I don’t have to fuss with makeup either; I work behind a swinging door and no one but the staff sees me.
I pause in front of the mirror and smooth back my short hair with my hands. My hair gets a lot of attention, mostly because I’m 32 and it’s white. Ten years ago, when I noticed the first silver streaks, I was more curious than anything: if my hair was going, what else was? Since then I haven’t given it much thought. People seems to like my hair, though that’s not the reason I don’t color it. The truth is, I can’t be bothered, can’t imagine having to worry about my roots and whether they’re showing.
I lift my purse off the the doorknob and turn to Murphy.
“Okay, Murph. It’s time.”
He gets to his feet and carefully lowers his haunches to the floor. I follow his yellow bulk as he walks, head down, out the bedroom, through the kitchen and utility room, to the back door. He breaks my heart, this cat.
It’s a sunny afternoon, surprisingly warm for the end of May. Locking the door, I smell the neighbor’s creeping jasmine. Fat black bees hum in the red trumpet-shaped flowers that hang above my head. Vines have mobbed this place. You can’t even see the fence anymore, just a cool blue wall of morning glory.
Though the rent is nearly half my income, I’m lucky to be here. Not many people in Berkeley get to live in a cottage, and this one, trimmed in flowers, is perfect. Just big enough for one person, or a couple, but only if they’ve learned to live like a pair of old slippers, side by side in quiet agreement. Rita and I never made it that far, which is why her leaving was such a relief.
The house in front of my cottage is occupied by Joel and Sasha, a free-spirited pair who grow marijuana among the tomato plants in our backyard. There is a three-story home next door and a set of apartments behind us, but people here respect this sort of enterprise and kindly look the other way.
Joel, who paints murals, is standing in his kitchen as I walk past the house. He lifts his beer and grins at me through the window, and I wave back. He is a slight man in his late 20s with green eyes and a gorgeous jaw. He dyes his hair platinum, wears neon-colored T-shirts and likes to sing, often in the garden as he trims his pot plants. Sasha is an ardent cyclist; today she’s pedaling through the east bay hills, training for a race in Salinas next week. While not as good-looking as Joel, Sasha is the picture of fitness; I like the veins in her forearms, and I never get tired of gazing at her sinewy legs.
In the driveway, two strips of concrete with grass in the middle, sits their battered Volkswagen van. It’s plastered with pleas: Save Mono Lake, Think Green, Buy Organic, Protect Your Local Planet. I don’t have a car, or a license to drive one. At 16, having failed the road test twice, I blew my nerve; now I can’t even think about trying again without breaking into a sweat.
Fortunately the restaurant is only four blocks away. Reaching the corner I turn onto Telegraph Avenue and the world is suddenly filled with cars and motion. On either side of the street people are taking care of business: walking dogs down the the gum-studded sidewalk, shoving wet laundry into the dryers at Bing Wong’s, pushing shopping carts through the Co-op parking lot. An elderly woman, her face mottled and shrunken, sits on a milk crate and holds out her hand. Coming toward me are three Hare Krishna, bald and equally ugly; then a tall black man who is talking to himself with great enthusiasm, his arms a blur of gestures. Next comes a Hindu woman in a hurry. She brushes by me, her eyes dark with worry; I look at the red dot on her forehead and feel as though I’ve just been warned—or cursed.
I don’t see Zee’s bicycle when I come around the side of the restaurant. Maybe she got a ride? No, Ann assures me, her voice exultant.
“Zee called an hour ago. She hurt her foot and can’t walk. Or so she says,” Ann adds, arching an eyebrow.
Shit. I grab a menu to see how much work I have to do; without Zee I’ll have to prep the pantry station as well as saute. The salads aren’t bad: Caesar, of course; mixed greens with a roasted shallot vinaigrette; butter lettuce with gorgonzola. Looking at the first courses I see that I have to clean mussels, slice prosciutto and make some kind of soup. Oh no. There are five pastas tonight and one of them has calamari in it.
I look up from the menu and glare at Ann; satisfied, she turns away.
“Why didn’t you call me?” I say.
She shrugs. “I didn’t think about it.”
Ann likes me, as well as she likes anyone. She’s just mad at the world and her revenge is reflexive. She’s not pretty, that’s the main trouble. Her face is a long box, her eyes are a watery, bloodshot blue, and her mouth is a junkyard of crooked teeth. What she really wants to be is a concert pianist; she doesn’t like to talk about this and I have no idea what’s stopping her. I do know that she’s a good broiler cook, though she hates every minute she spends here and never tires of telling me what “crap food” we make. Today she’s especially spiteful and, taking another look at the menu, I see why: one of the appetizers is fritto misto.
Robert, our bright-eyed, boyish pastry chef, has taken off his apron and is scraping the dried dough from his butcher block. While he works only four hours a day and could easily wash a case of lettuce, I don’t bother to ask him: he won’t. I don’t blame him, in fact I admire his boundaries. Usually. Right now I can’t even look at him.
I throw a pan of shallots in the oven and start slicing through heads of romaine. The lettuce is muddier than usual and in a few minutes my cutting board is smudged and gritty. And the quality isn’t good either—there’s no heart to speak of, just tough dark green leaves. Molly won’t be happy about this, though it’s probably her fault: I bet she forgot to pay the produce bill; either that or she sent them a bad check. Our paychecks bounce all the time, which is why we race each other to the bank; if we don’t make it there before the funds run out we have to go back and tell Molly, who feigns surprise and remorse, then unlocks her desk drawer and pulls out some cash. I was stunned the first time this happened, and embarrassed for Molly, but now it’s just tedious.
The water in the bus tub is dark brown—I’ll have to rinse this stuff three times. At least I don’t have to dry it by hand. Someone had the clever idea of buying a used washing machine; we just dump in the wet lettuce and turn on the spin cycle. You can only use it for romaine though, the other greens won’t hold up. My anger mounts as I think about the flimsy butter lettuce and how long that’ll take me; and the dressings, the soup, the pasta prep, not to mention the five pounds of calamari. For a minute I think about asking Molly to take if off the menu, but I know the pained look she’ll give me and what she’ll say: “Oh Lorrie, I wish I could, but the menus are already printed”—like that three bucks she spends at the copy place is such a big investment.
I look out the back door and see Juan watering the garden. Juan lives behind the restaurant, in an apartment owned by Molly. In exchange for rent he tends the garden, breaks down boxes, washes dishes and runs errands. On days when he’s not feeling like a kept man, he can be charmed into helping me clean fish, chop parsley, dice onions. This doesn’t happen often and it won’t happen today. I can tell by the stubborn set of his shoulders, by the way his legs are planted, that my feminine wiles will be of no use.
Well I’m not making a pureed soup, that’s for sure; and they’re getting yesterday’s crostini; and if I have to make salads all night I’m premixing the Caesar dressing and grating the Parmesan ahead of time.
There are a few small rewards: Zee squeezed lemon juice last night, we have four quarts of bolognese in the freezer, the faucet next to the stove has been fixed and we don’t have any reservations until 6:45.
I grasp another squid, cut off the tentacles and squeeze out the soft white guts, then slide my finger into the slick tube and drag out the quill. And this is nothing compared to some of the things I do here. Last month, for instance, we had what they call the “Unmentionables Dinner,” a ritual we practice once a year to amuse a few ruthless chefs. I think it benefits something, certainly not the animals. I couldn’t bring myself to pluck the starlings so they made me peel turkey testicles.
The only civilized part of my workday comes at 4:45 when the cooks and waiters sit down to dinner. We’re supposed to discuss the specials, which we prepare for this purpose, but after the first five minutes the conversation dilates and we end up talking about movies, or the concert program at the Greek theater, or a sublet someone heard about, or current airfare to Italy. Our wait staff is an accomplished lot, one a professional photographer, another a published author. None of us intended to work in a restaurant and we all believe we’ll find a way out.
It’s a night like many others. The start is slow, just a handful of walk-ins before the predictable 7 to 8 flurry, then a lull that nobody trusts. Sure enough we get hit again just after 9—a play or movie must have ended. For a while I manage fine, sprinting between the stove and salad station, keeping track of my tickets, but then they start streaming in and before I know it I’m buried. Ann, seeing this, barks out the orders and I just keep my head down and make them. At one point Paul, one of our newer waiters, tells me he needs a frutti di mare without scallops and an alfredo without garlic. “Write it down!” I hiss, shoving the ticket at him. He makes a note on the order and eases it back to me and I snatch it from his hand. The worst moment comes when he tells me he dropped a pasta carbonara. “Great,” I say. “Fucking great. That helps a lot.” He blanches and flees the kitchen and I hurl another saute pan onto the stove.
By 9:45 every table is eating and aside from plating a few desserts and putting things away my job is over. I walk over to the grill station and thank Ann for calling out the orders. Happy to be leaving soon, she gives me a snaggle-toothed smile and says she knows what it’s like, working without a pantry cook. The floor in front of the deep fryer is splattered with grease and she’s pushing a bar towel across the area with her foot. Ann’s had a bad night too; her apron is filthy, her bangs are sticking to her forehead, and there’s a fresh burn on her forearm.
Andre walks up with half a bottle of Montepulciano and pours us each a glass.
“79 covers,” he says. He turns to Ann and clinks his glass against hers. “And 32 fritto mistos.” He looks at her, cocks his head in sympathy. “Sorry. I wasn’t trying to sell them.”
“Everyone loves fried food,” I say, picking up my wine.
Paul rounds the corner and, seeing me, pauses. Feigning interest in the flowers on the end of the bar, he plucks off a few dead blossoms.
I walk over to him and place my hand on his arm. “Paul. I’m sorry for snapping at you.”
“It’s okay.” He turns from the flowers and looks at me and I notice what long lashes he has. “I’m sorry about dropping that pasta.”
Every night it’s the same. The rush ends and we all emerge, as if from the same cage, dazed and grateful, our hearts swollen with forgiveness. I give his arm a squeeze and head back into the kitchen.
At two minutes after ten, a breathless young couple shows up at our locked door, tapping on the glass, pleading to be fed, and naturally Molly lets them in. What they want of course is pasta—I just dumped both pots of water.
There’s no fog cover tonight and the air is chilly. Telegraph Avenue is quiet now, with only a few cars going by. I walk quickly, not because I’m afraid of being out at night, simply because I want to get home. I don’t fear being assaulted in this city. Berkeley is home to the homeless, a haven for lost souls. The free-loving 60s still resonate, and while petty theft is common enough, real criminals can get no purchase here.
Murphy is waiting on the steps. He hoists himself up when he sees me and lays a paw against the door.
“Hi sweetie,” I whisper, petting his back, which he arches in compliance. His fur isn’t very soft anymore; like old upholstery it’s showing wear.
Right away I pour myself another glass of wine and collapse on the sofa. On my clothes I can smell the foods I made tonight, my fingers reek of garlic. Murphy doesn’t mind; he settles in beside me and gazes at my face. I love sitting here in the soft glow of the aquariums, Murphy purring, the pumps humming. Hypnotized by the movements of the fish, I lull myself into a stupor.
When I have finished my wine there is nothing to do but go to bed. Shifting Murphy, I rise from the sofa, my legs weak and rubbery. It’s not good to be on your feet for so long. I’ll probably get varicose veins.
I am so tired that even brushing my teeth is a chore. Accomplishing that, I wash up at the sink—no way could I manage a shower—and make my way to the bedroom. Buttoning my pajamas I study the new postcard from Bett. Virginia. A pond. A pink kitchen.
Murphy, considerate as always, lies down at the foot of the bed and I climb in and pull up the covers. A breeze comes through the window and I hear wind chimes. I don’t like chimes, not at night. That disembodied music, that tinkling in the dark. It makes me feel lonely.
It’s 2:30 in the morning in Virginia. I see Bett, unable to sleep, leaving her cabin and walking through tall wet grass down to the pond. The crickets are shrill and constant. A television flickers in a nearby window. When she reaches the mucky bank small green frogs jump into the water. She wraps her arms around herself and looks out over the pond. A zigzag of moonlight slides across the black surface. The cry of a loon carries over the water; she tries but can’t see it. For several moments she stands there, her jeans soaked with dew, and then she turns around, heads for the yellow light of her porch.
WHERE TO BUY IT: LOST SISTER is available on Amazon and Barnes and Noble. The price is $12.95. Used copies are available.