Elsa was the youngest Emerson by ten years: the blondest, happiest accident. It was John, Elsa's father, who was the most pleased by her company. His older daughters already wanted less to do with the Cherry County Playhouse, and it was nice to have Elsa skulking around backstage, her white-blond hair and tiny pink face always peeking out from behind the curtain. Elsa was a fixture, the theater's mascot, and the summer crowds loved her.
The Cherry County Playhouse, so named because of the cherries Door County produced, was housed in a converted barn on the Emerson property in Door County, Wisconsin's thumb. The barn was two hundred feet off the road, which had been renamed Cherry County Playhouse Road in honor of Elsa's parents' efforts and because there was no real reason not to. From May until September, tourists from Chicago and Milwaukee and sometimes even farther afield drove up and stayed in the small wooden rental cabins for the entire summer. After days spent on Lake Michigan or Green Bay, they would pile into the old barn and sit on wooden pews cushioned with calico pillows sewn by Mary, Elsa's mother. John directed and often starred, his booming baritone carrying into the surrounding trees, all the way to the road. The older girls, Hildy and Josephine, who had been such promising Ophelias and Juliets in their early teens, had instead taken jobs at the Tastee Custard Shack down the road and could most often be found handing over cones of frozen custard. Elsa was nine years old and happy to participate. She tore tickets, swept the stage of errant leaves and clods of dirt, and doted on the barn cat, who hated everyone, especially children.
The actors and crew members all moved onto the Emersons' land for the entire summer. The boys from fancy schools on the East Coast, the ones with drama programs and crew teams, and all the delicate young women moved into the main house; the men with sturdier constitutions slept in tents and cabins scattered around the property, which gave the whole place the feeling of a summer camp. Elsa loved cuddling up to the beautiful young women, who would do her makeup and brush her hair for hours on end, all for the low cost of listening to them talk about their sordid and endlessly complicated relationships with men back home.
Hildy, Elsa's second-oldest sister, was nineteen and had few interests outside of her own body. She would sometimes borrow her mother's sewing machine to make new dresses, but would give up halfway through and leave the fabric limping off to one side like a wounded animal. Hildy was given to the dramatic, despite having forsaken the theater.
"Mother, I could not possibly help you with the dishes. My headache is the size of Lake Michigan," Hildy said. It had previously been the size of the kitchen, the size of the house, and would soon be the size of the entire state of Wisconsin. Elsa sat underneath the long barn-wood table and watched Hildy waggle her knees back and forth.
"Excuse me," Mary said. "There is no room for talk like that in this house." Elsa could hear Mary's tired hands shift to her hips, where they would roam around, pressing into the sore spots with her wide, blunt thumbs. Mary woke at dawn and made breakfast for the entire cast and crew — that summer, it was twenty-seven people, all of whom would groan loudly if given the chance. The girls' mother ran a tight ship. Elsa often thought that her mother would have made an excellent homesteader, as she seemed happiest when conditions were tough and the going was hard.
Hildy rubbed her temples. She had always had headaches — all the Emerson women did, blackout, knock-down headaches that crowded the sides of their skulls and didn't let go for days. One of Elsa's chores was dampening a washcloth and placing it over her mother's and sisters' closed eyes, then tiptoeing out of the room. Elsa couldn't wait to be a woman, to feel things so deeply that she too needed a dark room and total silence. She'd asked her sister about the headaches once, when she could expect them to start, and had been laughed out of the room.
"Honestly, Mother, honestly." Hildy was the most beautiful of the three Emerson sisters, though Elsa was so young that she hardly counted. Josephine was the oldest and the most like their mother, with a wide, fl at face that hardly ever registered any expression whatsoever. It was what their father called A Norwegian Face, which meant it had the look of a woman who had seen fifteen degrees below zero and still gone out to milk the cows. Josephine was inevitably going to marry a boy from one of the cherry farms down the road, and no one thought that they would be anything more or less than perfectly fine.
But Hildy was better than fine. Elsa loved to look at her sister, even when Hildy was having one of her episodes and her blond hair was wild and matted against one side of her head from all her flip‑flopping and thrashing in her sleep, and her pale pink skin had flushed and broken out into a crimson red. When she wanted to, Hildy could look like a movie star. It hadn't come from their mother — that was a fact — neither the raw good looks nor the knowledge of what to do with them. Hildy pored over all the magazines she could find, Nash's and Photoplay and Ladies' Companion, and practiced putting on the actresses' eyeliner in the mirror for hours every day until she got it right. When Hildy was feeling light, as she put it, and the headaches were gone, she wriggled through the house in castoff costumes, and Elsa thought she was as beautiful and lost as a landlocked mermaid.
From Laura Lamont's Life in Pictures by Emma Straub. Copyright 2012 by Emma Straub. Excerpted by permission of Riverhead, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.,