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Pink Oleander

by Anne Tourney

In the photograph from that summer I am dressed in white dotted Swiss, dirty hands sunk deep in the ruffles of my princess skirt. Dirty hands, dirty heart -- perversion of a Sunday school hymn. I peer out of the box-like frame of a Dutch boy haircut. I am ten years old.

At night I dream of twisting staircases built in mid-air, of string ladders and vertical paths of stepping stones. In my grandmother's library, I find a book of dream interpretations. Dreams of stairs indicate an unwholesome quest for physical gratification. I reel in a vertigo of recognition, though I don't understand all the words. An unwholesome quest for physical gratification.Wasn't that why Eve was driven out of the Garden of Eden?

I'm standing on my grandmother's left-hand side. She cradles my baby cousin in her right arm. The baby's long gown drifts like a surfeit of blessings. My grandmother is a stocky woman, but she seems to tower; it's her virtue, and the length of her outdated Victorian skirt, that create the illusion of height. Brown--everything about her is brown, except for her snowy hair and the two pink disks that the photographer painted on her cheeks. We all have those pink spots, me and my grandmother and the baby. Pink means different things to all of us. Prosperity. Fresh promise. Shame.

The baby's name is Richard Cooper Brandt, shortened to "Dickie." I am Elizabeth Cooper -- no middle name, no diminutive. I live in my grandmother's house. In the dining room, in the car, and in our family portraits, my place is at her left.

In the background, tinted a toasty pink-brown, is the back wing of my grandmother's mansion. An oleander hedge shields the high wall. Sensuous, poisonous oleander, a glory of salmon, coral and pearl. Its luscious blossoms are as tempting as fresh cakes or swollen lips.

Someone wrote the date on the back of the photo, in ink that has faded to dun: June 22, 1921. Nana with Dickie and Elizabeth. The summer is hot and dry; relief will come in December floods. It is a year of bizarre weather. Snow falls in Hollywood in January. The aurora borealis appear for the first time over Los Angeles. Then a drought, followed by furious winter rains. Miracles and disasters tumble helter-skelter from the mountains.

That summer I was trying to decide whether to become a whore or a poet...

Pink Oleander is now available in the new "Best of the Online Journals" award book, E2Ink-1, guest-edited by Pam Houston, and in honor of that we have temporarily removed the story from our site in the hope that you will continue to help support literary writing on the Web by purchasing the book.

©2001 by Anne Tourney

Anne Tourney's fiction has appeared in various journals and anthologies, including The Best American Erotica and Best Women's Erotica series, Zaftig: Well-Rounded Erotica, Embraces: Dark Erotica, and the online magazines Clean Sheets and Scarlet Letters.

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