A Buttermilk Sky
Alice Whittenburg
On the way to meet her sister for lunch, Karli Zabriski glanced at the sky from time to time, wondering if the morning’s forecast of rain would prove accurate. By the time she stepped out of her car, a rippling array of small white clouds had nearly filled the big Tucson sky. Not rain clouds but change clouds, she thought, and hard to say which way the weather would go next. Then she heard a mocking voice call, “Is that you, Cassiopeia?”

Karli scanned the parking lot until she spotted a gray-haired woman in a flowered dress who may or may not have been someone she went to high school with. “I think you have me confused with my sister Cassie,” Karli said in the sternest voice she could muster.

“Oh, yeah. Hi,” the woman muttered. She ducked her head, slid into her 20-year-old Volvo and drove away.

Karli sighed. She had arrived early at the café her son Blake had recommended because she wanted to have time to relax and think about what she was going to say when Cassie got there. This reminder of school days, though unpleasant, wasn’t really surprising. Karli was a year older, but people had been mistaking the Zabriski sisters for one another since they were in grade school. And then, during Karli’s senior year in high school and about a year after Mom died, Cassie had drawn ridicule and disapproval onto herself by claiming she had seen a UFO, a green fireball in the night sky near the constellation Cassiopeia. Mockery and teasing references to the UFO quickly became a part of Cassie’s life – and of Karli’s, too, because she was often mistaken for her sister. That it could happen after so many years was part and parcel of the complicated problem that was Cassie.

Once inside the café, Karli spent a while looking at paintings by local artists that hung salon-style on one bright yellow wall, and she had just settled herself with a cup of black coffee in a seat by the window when Cassie arrived. The two women hugged awkwardly, then went to the counter to order lunch.

“Is the soup vegan?” Cassie asked the unsmiling red-haired man behind the counter, and Karli was surprised when he said that it was. Cassie ordered soup and a veggie wrap, and Karli ordered a chicken salad club with a side of potato salad. Cassie got some ginger tea, and the two women sat down to wait for their meals. “Where’s Jeremy?” Karli asked.

“He said he needed to go to the library. He’ll pick me up in an hour. We have a lot to do to get ready for our party tonight.”

“Then I guess you and I had better get down to business.” Cassie looked startled, so Karli added, “I told you there are a few things I want to talk with you about.”

“OK. Fine. I also thought we were going to enjoy each other’s company.”

“We are… We will. But this is important.”

“So get on with it.”

Karli paused and bowed her head and steepled her fingers and took a breath. It was more difficult than she had thought it would be. “I wanted to ask you... That is, I appreciate what you do for Blake, I really do, but I wanted to ask you to think seriously about the kind of influence you have on him.”

Cassie laughed and shook her head. “One time – I think I was about 35 and this was a few years before Jeremy – I got involved with a guy who was much younger than me. And his mother, who wasn’t much older than me, invited me to lunch and asked me to think about her son’s future and break up with him. Which I did because it really wasn’t working out anyway. But in this case, exactly what kind of influence do you think I have on Blake? Do you think I bribe him to be like me?”

“Just stop enabling him! Stop finding him those jobs! He needs to go back to school, not become a freelance free spirit, drifting through his life like you drifted through yours.”

“Wow,” Cassie said softly. “We really do have some things to talk about. I’m sorry that you feel that way about me, about Blake. But do you honestly think I’m trying to influence him? Because I’m not. I just used some of my publishing contacts to help him get work. He told me he doesn’t want to go to graduate school right now, but I’m sure he’ll be ready soon.”

The food arrived before Karli could ask how anyone could know that, and she began to eat hungrily.

Her sister said, “You shouldn’t eat when you’re so angry. Calm down a little bit. Let’s talk this through.”

Karli swallowed a big bite of sandwich and said harshly, “You always have such strong opinions about what you shouldn’t do and what I shouldn’t do, but as for what anyone should do… Well, that’s where you’re on less solid ground.”

“First, do no harm,” Cassie said. Then she sipped a little bit of soup from her spoon, tipped her head to one side, and said, “This is actually pretty good.”

“I’m so glad it meets with your approval,” Karli said, and when she heard her own harsh words with her mind’s ear and she could see that Cassie heard her hearing it, they both began to laugh. And they laughed for a while, until some tears came to Karli’s eyes and she asked, “Can we eat now?”

“Yes, I’m glad we worked through that tense time. I thank you and my microbiome thanks you. Because you know stress can have a big impact on the gut. On the flora and fauna there.”

“Is this more of your junk science?” Karli muttered. She was annoyed, but her mouth was full of potato salad.

“Not at all. I’ve been reading articles in Nature and other publications you would consider reliable. There’s a lot of research being done on the human microbiome right now. How the bacteria and other microorganisms inhabiting our guts today compare to those found in early humans. How the microbiome affects immunity. I’m surprised you haven’t read about it.”

“I’ve had other things on my mind,” Karli said. “Like that big indexing job you got for Blake: Artist as Prophet, which sounds like some kind of New Age rubbish.”

“It’s an art book by a very reputable publisher. And they want a real index. It’s interesting and beautiful work, and he’ll earn good money. What’s wrong with that?”

Karli didn’t have a ready answer, and after an uncomfortably long silence, Cassie looked out the window and said, “All those little clouds in rows! That’s called a mackerel sky, isn’t it?”

“Yes, although that hardly seems like the right name here in the desert. It looks more like a flock of grazing sheep to me, but I’m sure artist-prophets would see it as some kind of omen.”

Cassie didn’t react to this, so Karli just looked at her plate and picked at her potato salad.

“You know what those clouds actually remind me of?” Cassie asked after a while. “Marilyn Monroe on the cover of Life Magazine. April of 1952.”

Karli made a face; she remembered the picture very well. “You’re right. That ruched white dress she was wearing. And her hair – those puffy sculpted blonde curls.” “I still have that magazine.”

“I’m sure you do. I remember coming home that night and finding you and Dad sitting there, looking at an article in Life about UFOs!”

“Fireballs… When I told Dad I saw a green fireball, he unearthed a 20-year-old magazine and told me about what he saw during the war – white fireballs that pilots called foo fighters. He kept the magazine because he felt vindicated when he read that article in a mainstream magazine; something about ‘a Case for Interplanetary Saucers.’”

Karli rolled her eyes. “Yes, well, whatever the ridiculous article was called, I was just happy Dad was talking. About anything. I mean, the first year after Mom died the silence was unbearable. Then you and Dad became obsessed with fireballs and foo fighters. But you know what I wanted to talk about? Mom! Mom committed suicide the same way Marilyn Monroe did. We could have been talking about Mom!” Karli worked to hold back tears.

Cassie held out a couple of napkins for her sister to use as hankies, but Karli brushed them away. Cassie said, “When I came home and told him what I had seen, he was filled with a kind of eager excitement. He just opened up to me…”

“It was a strange scene to walk in on,” Karli said, “but I tried to join in. I remember saying that the sky is a lot scarier and filled with more unpredictable things than the solid, dependable ground is. So why do we believe heaven is in the sky and hell is down below us? But it wasn’t a question that either you or Dad wanted to try to answer that night. You just went on comparing experiences, and I felt a little bit regretful that I didn’t have a similar experience to share.”

“I’m sorry about how it affected you when people called me names… Cassiopeia. Cassie-dopia. Cassie-opium.” Cassie shrugged and laughed.

Karli, who still couldn’t see the humor in it, said, “I guess the worst thing was that I felt jealous. Because you had something in common with Dad…”

“Not for long. Once I started going to antiwar demonstrations, Dad stopped confiding in me… He stopped talking to me about foo fighters. He said he was ‘bitterly disappointed’ in me. Maybe something like that will happen between me and Blake and all your worries will be over!”

Karli didn’t have a chance to react to what her sister had said or the tone of voice in which she said it because Jeremy pulled into the parking lot at just that moment. Cassie got up and left the café without even kissing her sister goodbye. Through the café window Karli watched her sister walk away, and she noticed with a pang how stiff Cassie’s walk had become and how much her once-erect posture had been eroded. Yet in other ways, she was still very much the same as she had been in high school, with long hair and floaty clothing, with an inscrutable way of being in the world.

Karli went to get another cup of coffee and sat for a while trying to decide whether or not she owed Cassie an apology. Even after she had drained her cup, she still couldn’t make up her mind.

By the time she left the cafe, the day was brightening; the wind had prised apart some of the dense rows of clouds and now they gave way to intermittent blue. Three F-16 fighter jets screamed overhead, and it took Karli a few seconds to realize that someone was calling her name. When she looked around she saw the woman with the 20-year-old Volvo who had earlier mistaken her for her sister.

“Hi, you’re Karli, right?” Karli nodded and the woman introduced herself as Peggy Something. The noise of the jets obscured the full name. She said, “I’m here to see my son – he owns this place – but I’m glad you're still here. I felt bad about calling you by that silly nickname earlier: Cassiopeia. I really didn’t mean to be offensive…”

Karli said, “It was all such a long time ago,” but Peggy was eager to continue. “We thought she was cool – Cassiopeia I mean. She wasn’t afraid to say what she saw. Some people made fun, but most of us thought she was very much her own person.”

“Thanks for telling me,” Karli said and solemnly shook the woman’s hand.

As she drove home she thought about Peggy’s view of Cassie and compared it to her own. The array of small clouds overhead had drifted into even more irregular rows and now looked like what Dad would call a buttermilk sky. This name suited Karli’s mood. It implied something sour and curdled but suggested that change might be in the offing.

Alice Whittenburg's

short fiction can be found online at riverbabble, Atlas & Alice, The Big Jewel, Eclectica Magazine, outwardlink, Pif Magazine, WordRiot, and Doorknobs & BodyPaint. Her stories also appear in these anthologies: The Return of Kral Majales, Prague’s International Literary Renaissance 1990-2010; Condensed to Flash: World Classics; and the Eclectica Magazine 20th Anniversary Speculative Anthology. She is coeditor of The Cafe Irreal, an online magazine of irreal fiction, and of The Irreal Reader, Fiction & Essays from The Cafe Irreal.

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