Copyright © 2008, John F. Raffensperger
16, 24 September 2000, 12 November 2002
Inspired by a dream, and my father’s amazing ability.
Karen Jenkins gave birth to healthy identical twins, Jennifer and Julie, at the Kansas City Hospital. Wilbur Jenkins found a trash can in the parking lot, and threw up. “Happy Independence Day,” he muttered to himself. “It should be shot or something.”
The hospital saw no reason to keep them, as they seemed perfectly healthy, so they went home, though the doctor took careful notes of his own. On July 5th, Wilbur went on a business trip, selling equipment for water wells, leaving Karen to deal with the new pair alone.
She had one girl asleep with the other howling, when the next door neighbor, Angie LeSeur, brought over a frozen tuna noodle casserole. Angie let herself in the back broken screen door, and found Karen in the kitchen trying to feed Julie without disturbing Jennifer.
Angela stared for a minute, then said slowly, “I just don’t see how the one can sleep when the other is screaming.”
Karen mumbled wearily, “Maybe they’re different.”
Angela was amused. “Oh, they’re different all right! I never seen babies stuck together like that.”
Karen replied in frustration, “I mean, maybe they’re different from each other.”
“How can they be different? They’re even plugged into each other!” Angela giggled, banging the screen door on her way out, making Julie jump.
The girls thrived, with high foreheads, navy blue eyes, and black hair. The locals found the pale toddlers cheerful, disarmingly friendly, but always arguing with each other. Jennifer was forever cracking jokes, “Hey, guess what our favorite fruit is? Pears!” Julie at breakfast would sometimes put oatmeal on Jennifer’s side of the bench before they sat down, or she would tap Jenny’s right shoulder in a crowd to make her think someone wanted her attention.
They didn’t have a lot of clothes. Karen Jenkins made them with snaps and ties, so either girl could wear any outfit, but they kept their own. Jenny preferred reds and oranges, especially with blue jeans. Julie cared more about the feel of the fabric, with a blue corduroy dress her favorite.
If they had been separate, people would have first commented on their cutes, and then their brains. The neighbors, wise from generations of hard life, soon became protective of them.
Curiosity seekers following Angela LeSeur’s careful directions always found themselves wandering gravel roads through mile after mile of cornfield. “Now those twins are really something else. Joined right at the hip, just like the original Siamese brothers. You take Green Street here down to Perry Street, turn left, go about two miles until it turns to gravel. Right ‘bout then you get to State Highway 6. Then you turn right and keep driving eight or ten miles until you see the Presbyterian Church on your left…” The Presbyterian Church was actually in town. She was a creative direction-giver.
Angela’s pudgy husband Andy liked to play basketball with the cheerful girls in the LeSeur’s driveway. It didn’t matter much, Wilbur Jenkins was usually away. As a boy, Andy used to imagine having a twin, a soulmate to be a confidant for sadness and a foil for humor. Once, honest as an anvil, he caught himself wishing the children were his own.
During a silly evening basketball game, the light on the garage burned out. Andy was so fat that he couldn’t get up the ladder, so the girls volunteered. Jenny unscrewed the dead bulb and threw it into the garbage can, beyond Andy’s yellow pickup truck.
“Two points!” she sang out triumphantly.
Andy handed the new bulb to Julie, but when Julie leaned to get it, the twins lost balance and went flying into Andy’s privet bushes.
“Ow OW OW you idiot,” shouted Jennifer, at the top of her voice. “Couldn’t you be more careful?”
“Get your elbow out of my face! You were supposed to be holding on!”
“Girls, girls,” soothed Andy, “Let’s look at the damage.” The girls were fine except for scratches, and soon Jenny was cracking jokes again. “Hey, how many Siamese twins does it take to change a light bulb?” Andy was taken aback, baffled. Jenny answered her own riddle, “Better go with just half.” “You corn cob,” Julie snapped. “You corn ball,” Jenny shot back. Andy put on a few Band-Aids. Julie mimicked the old Band-Aid commercial, “I am stuck on Jenny, ‘cause Jenny’s stuck on me!”
In grade school, the girls refused to work together. They insisted on doing their own homework. They wanted a piece of cardboard between them so they could take their own tests and be graded separately. Julie was slightly better at math than Jenny.
They even demanded to be on separate baseball teams. The Little League coach thought this was too complicated. “I’m not Jennifer,” yelled Julie. “I don’t wanna play on her team.” The coach gave in, and the girls played fair. Jenny bat righty, Julie bat lefty. Jenny didn’t even interfere when Julie caught a fly ball off Jenny’s heartthrob, dyslexic little Tony Perelli.
At their third game, a reporter for the Kansas City Herald came to watch. He was out of favor with his editor and got the crummy assignment of covering Little League. When he saw the twins, he saw a way to show up his boss. He started asking casual questions of the parents in the stands.
“Say, who are those Siamese twins? They can play ball, can’t they?”
It was Myrtle, the cashier at the grocery store. She liked the little girls, and always gave each a stick of gum when they came in the store. “Sure they can play. Aren’t they lovely girls?”
“Well, yes they are. Say, do you know their name?”
“Well, looks like they’ve each got their own number on their uniform, so I bet they each got their own name.”
“So you don’t know them?”
“Awww, I’ve seen them around. They’re just a couple of little girls.”
The reporter could see he was getting nowhere. “Ma’am, I’m a reporter for the Kansas City Herald. These girls are amazing! They’re inspiring! They’d be a heart-warming story.”
Myrtle grew up with brothers who didn’t always play fair, and she was as cynical as a prison warden. “Mister, you let them be. You can get today’s story from misery somewhere else.”
The reporter eventually found his way to the right street, only to get directions from Angie LeSeur. Twelve miles out of town, he knew Angie had lied. There was not a soul in sight, much less a Presbyterian Church to save them. But he was more determined than the average curiosity seeker, since his paycheck depended on it. He guessed the girls must live close to Angie, so he went to the tavern on the corner of Green and Perry, and called into the newspaper office for a photographer.
An hour later, he was rewarded. The girls came walking back from the baseball game, with Tony Perelli and Tony’s best buddy Rodney Philips. The newsmen charged the children like wolves, the photographer snapping pictures. The reporter was disappointed to find four ordinary children, the girls definitely attached but just ordinary. They were adorable rather than shocking. Tony and Rodney stepped in front, arms folded, to block the pictures, but not before the photographer had gotten a couple good shots. The cropped film would show two surprised little girls attached at the hip, in baseball uniform.
“So kids, how was the game?” But the double pair walked inside the house.
Wilbur Jenkins drove up in the station wagon. Seeing the newsmen, he stopped in the driveway, and got out.
The reporter greeted him. “Good morning, sir, are you the proud father of those lovely Siamese twins?”
Wilbur was at the sharp peak of a hangover, and the afternoon sun shone painfully in his eyes, but he clearly saw the camera. “Yeah, get lost.” The photographer snapped a shot of the salesman.
“Well, they’re great kids. You have a nice day.” Having gotten all they needed, the newsmen left.
The next day, the story came out on page 3, with a non-descript picture of the girls, and a ghastly picture of Wilbur, squinting with his shirt and belly hanging out, his hand to his head. The reporter must have had a shred of compassion, though, because their address was reported as Kansas City, Missouri, not Kansas City, Kansas.
The summer when they were 10 years old, a circus came to town. The manager saw the girls in the grocery store, and offered them two dollars an hour to stand on a stage in swimsuits. Myrtle rolled her eyes, but felt proud when the girls demanded two dollars each, and got it. They were billed as the Fabulous Two-Headed Siamese Lady. But when the excited circus-goers came into the tent, they fell silent. “Just two pretty girls,” grumbled an old cattle farmer. “I though we were gonna see a monster or something.” Years before, his herd had produced a two-headed cow. Some people wanted their money back, and twenty minutes later, the girls’ circus career was over.
When they turned 12, their father was home for their birthday, a remarkable event itself. He gave them roller-skates. “Here’s what we do,” he said, “I’ll put a rope on the back of the station wagon, and I’ll pull you down Perry Street, real slow.” Jennifer thought that would be a blast. Julie was more cautious. But off they went, the girls in their new skates, Wilbur looking grim.
At first, he went extra slow. “You girls could be a box car, you got eight wheels each.”
“No way,” said Jennifer. “I’m the engine, she’s just the caboose.”
“You’re just spouting smoke,” chimed in Julie.
Gradually, Wilbur picked up speed. Jennifer let out a whoop. Julie was getting worried that their legs would get tangled, and she expected to hit the road with her nose. The pavement sped by faster. Soon, Jennifer was worried, too, especially when she realized that Perry Street turned to gravel at Highway 6. “Hey, slow down,” she shouted to the wind. Her father didn’t seem to hear.
“We’re gonna hit the gravel,” Julie screamed.
Jenny shouted back, “No, listen, we’ll let go and go into the grass.”
So they let go, coasted fast off the street, and fell rolling together into the summer weeds. When they stopped, Julie said, “Hey corn cob, you okay?”
There was no answer, and there was blood on the side of Jenny’s head.
“Jenny!” she screamed.
Jenny stirred, “Ow,” she whispered.
Julie managed to sit up, with her twin leaning against her, and after some adjustment, managed to stand. She picked Jenny up and, bending sideways, she carried her to the road, holding her sister tight. Wilbur Jenkins was nowhere to be seen. “Oh no,” she whimpered.
She started walking towards town. Julie supported her own weight a little. A yellow pickup truck approached in the dust. Andy LeSeur stuck his head out the window. “Wanna ride?”
Andy bounced out of the truck and helped Julie get in with Jenny. Then they shot like a rocket down the gravel road to the hospital, rocks banging on the steel truck. “What happened?”
Julie took the heavy skates off her and her sister, one at a time. She was crying. “I think he was trying to kill us. I think my daddy was trying to kill us. He was pulling us, he was going too fast, he didn’t slow down for the gravel, he didn’t even come back for us.” As each skate came off, she flung it out the window into the cornfields.
Andy stared at the road, and said nothing until the hospital.
A mild concussion with three days’ bed rest for Jenny meant a lot of reading for Julie. Tony Perelli stopped by during a thunderstorm. “Hey, I was just wondering how you are.” He was soaking wet.
Jenny answered with an especially warm smile, “Hiiiii! Uh, hi, Tony! Um, how are you? I mean, I guess I’m fine. How are you?”
“Well, it’s just nice to see you.” Their eyes locked, then Tony looked away, at Julie’s book. “Draw Nancy? Is that some kind of girl’s art book?”
Julie realized that Tony had read the words in reverse. She was gentle, “Oh, this is Nancy Drew, it’s about a girl detective. You’d like the Hardy Boys better. This is kind of a girl’s story.” The lightning flashed, and Julie noticed Tony staring at Jennifer. “Is she going to be all right? I mean,” his face betrayed his affection, “We could use her back on the team.” A pause, then “Well, I better go.”
“Thanks for coming around, Tony,” said Jennifer.
“Bye, Tony,” called Julie after him. “I think he likes you,” she said.
A week later, Andy found Wilbur at the corner bar. Andy sidled up to his neighbor. “Let me buy you a beer.”
They waited in silence until the mugs arrived. “So how did the roller skating go?”
Wilbur was suddenly on guard. Andy continued. “I know what you were trying to do out there.”
Wilbur said, “What are you talking about?”
Andy took a long sip of his beer, then looked hard at Wilbur. “If anything happens to them, you need to know that I’m on to you.”
Wilbur looked into his beer. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Andy continued, “They’re great kids. I wish they were mine.”
Wilbur raised his eyebrows and his beer. “They’re a monster. I threw up the first time I saw them.”
Andy, “You don’t deserve to have them.”
“Oh, yeah? Maybe not. You can have them. Do you remember that newspaper article that came out? And the circus? They’re freaks.”
Andy turned and looked Wilbur in the eye. “Mister, you better stay away for a while, or I’m gonna see you in jail for double attempted murder and child abuse too!”
Wilbur glanced at Andy, then threw the rest of his beer on the wooden floor and belched. “Thanks for the beer,” he growled, and walked out. But he took the warning to heart, and spent even more time on the road.
As long as their father was away, the girls were themselves, doing chores like a ballet, cleaning the kitchen as fast as four hands and like minds. When Wilbur was home, the girls became sullen. Karen saw her husband’s hostility, and she was just as happy to have him away.
In the summer before high school, Tony and Rodney taught the girls poker. In their first game, playing for pennies, Rodney accused the girls of working together against the boys.
“That’s not true,” shouted Jennifer. “We’re individuals,” yelled Julie.
“Okay, okay, let’s just play,” Rodney was placating. He liked the girls as much as Tony did. The fact was, the girls never looked at each other’s cards, but both tried to see everyone else’s.
The next week, Tony couldn’t make it, so Rodney brought his brother Gil. Gil was a few years older and he wanted to play for nickels instead of pennies. After a few hands, Julie was suspicious that Gil was cheating. “Hey, you took that card out of your lap.”
“I did not!” said Gil.
Julie did not reply, but glanced at Jennifer, who gave her the smallest signal back.
A few hands later, it was Gil’s call. He had three Jacks, one of which he had taken from his lap. Two weeks worth of the girls’ allowance was in the pot.
Jenny put her cards down. “Two queens beats anything.”
“Yeah right,” said Gil, with a triumphant grin.
Then Julie put her cards down. “Hey, I have two queens, too. Four queens beats three jacks, and two queens can beat anybody!”
The girls stood up together, four fists aiming towards Gil. Gil stood up, too.
Rodney, still seated, told his brother, “Don’t do this, Gil. Give ‘em the nickels and let’s go home.”
The fight ended only when Andy heard the commotion and ran over. Poor Rodney had tried to stop them, but took an elbow in the nose for his trouble. Gil was on his back, the two girls sitting sideways on him, raining down blows. They stopped when Andy came in. Andy hauled Gil out the back broken screen door, and advised him gently not to try to cheat smart people.
High school began. Tony and Rodney wanted to date the twins, and the girls were pleased to oblige. In sophomore year, Tony and Rodney had them surrounded most of the time, and one wonderful night, Jennifer let Tony kiss her. Julie was still too shy, and Rodney insufficiently aggressive, so they only held hands.
The next day, Julie thought up a trick on the boys. “Look, Tony reads things backwards all the time, and Rodney’s not too good with left and right either. How about if you wear my green corduroy, and I’ll wear your red top and blue jeans, and we’ll pretend to be each other?”
“But that means you have to kiss Tony. You wouldn’t even kiss Rodney,” Jennifer protested.
“Well, it probably won’t get that far. Let’s try it just for fun.” So they agreed.
That night, Tony went to take Julie’s hand. The clothing fooled him.
Rodney wasn’t so sure. “Wait a second, Jenny’s on the left. Julie’s on the right.”
Julie smiled, “No, I’m Jenny.” And Jenny said, “Come on, Rodney,” and held out her hand to him.
At this, both boys were confused, so they went on the whole date, to a movie and ice cream, feeling vaguely something was off, but having a good time anyway. When it came time to sit under the stars, Rodney just took Jenny’s hand. But to his very pleasant surprise, he got a warm kiss on the lips. He kissed back.
Tony was leaning in to kiss Julie, but Julie froze. “Jennifer, I can’t go through with this.”
There was a stunned silence.
In spite of his dyslexia, Tony realized what happened before Rodney did. “Hey, I thought you were Jennifer! You’re – you’re – you’re Rodney’s girl!”
Jennifer gave Rodney one more impish kiss, just for mischief. Rodney was blissful. “So what.” He leaned in for another kiss, but the joke was over, and this time, all he got was a pat on the back.
Just before they graduated from high school, Karen got a call from the doctor at Kansas City Hospital. He had not forgotten the unusual birth and had kept his eyes open for progress. He was a serious and compassionate man, genuinely concerned for people. “Mrs. Jenkins, I think I have some interesting information for you. Recently, a hospital in Chicago has had good success with separating conjoined twins. I think your girls are good candidates.”
When Karen told the girls, they were not sure what to do. Julie spoke first. “What’s the big deal? We’re individuals. We do things differently. We have our own ideas.”
Jenny said, “We even have our own boyfriends.” Then she added with a grin “Most of the time.”
Karen spoke a bit too fast, “But you could be really individuals. You could be normal. You could be alone if you wanted, without someone else always hanging over your.”
The twins looked at each other, feeling normal already, but said nothing.
When Wilbur heard of the possibility that the girls could be separated, he surprised his wife by saying, “Sounds like a good thing. I’d put up the money for it.”
And so it was arranged, a few months off. The twins told everyone, with Jenny cracking jokes, “How do you separate Siamese twins? With a paring knife!” The neighbors were happy for them, except for Andy. Andy was happy for them, too, but his absurd wish for a twin of his own receded forever in mature realism.
When the big day came, Karen drove the girls to Chicago and checked them into the hospital. The girls soon had the affection of the staff and the patients, even though they continued their arguing ways. Jenny kept singing, “Hip bone connected to the hip bone! The hip bone connected to the hip bone! Hip bone connected to the hip bone! Now hear the word of the Lord!” More than one medical student found himself attracted to the sparkling young women.
The operation was easy. They each ended up with an inch less of hip bone. “They won’t even need crutches,” predicted the surgeon, when he met Karen in the waiting room.
When the anesthetic wore off, the twins insisted on having their beds close together. They held hands whenever they were awake, and the night before they left the Chicago hospital, the nurse found them side by side in the same bed.
In the weeks that followed, they became more accustomed to being apart, but each girl found herself bored without the other. They both limped, though the surgeon said there was no reason for this.
After several months, the limps went away. Julie decided to go to college at Kansas State University in Wichita. Jenny went to work at the diner across from the bar. They both lost interest in their boyfriends and focussed on work.
Julie found herself lost at college. Everyone else was as smart as she was; many were smarter. She felt that she had nothing special to offer anyone. She was lost in the crowd. She wished she could be with Jenny, but felt they should each be on their own. “I am an individual,” she thought. But she only got more depressed. She got in trouble with the dormitory supervisor for leaning a pail of water against the door of a snobby girl from Topeka; the resulting deluge had soaked the girl’s stack of Elvis records.
At the diner, Jenny worked the evening shift, mostly truckers. She felt like she didn’t have enough hands anymore. With Julie, she could hold stacks of dishes. Her boss had no complaints, but Jenny felt she didn’t work fast enough. The other waiters and waitresses were more experienced and knew how to handle the rude remarks and lousy tips. After a year of waiting tables, Jenny found herself saying, “I’m just a waitress. I’m nothing special.” Nobody seemed to laugh at her jokes. “Hey, what do Siamese twins like to eat? Pears!”
“Who am I?” Julie thought, studying for a French test. She went through 50 words of French vocabulary, trying to memorize them.
At the bottom of the page, she thought, “I’m Jenny’s sister.” She went over the 50 words again.
At the bottom of the page again, she thought, “That’s not good. I shouldn’t be just Jenny’s sister. I should be myself.” She looked at the middle of the page, the foreign letters blurring in hot tears.
“I am Jenny’s sister, and she’s my sister, and she’s my best friend, and I miss her.” She wiped her eyes, picked up the telephone and dialed home, though it was almost midnight. “Hi, corn cob. How are you doing?”
Jenny had just served seven loutish truck drivers who stayed long after closing and left her a ten-cent tip.
“Hey, Jenny, would you come up to Wichita for the weekend? I’d love to see you.”
Jenny replied without thinking, “Sure, corn ball, I’ll come on out.”
Saturday night found them playing poker with three obnoxious fraternity boys. The twins were getting tired. Jenny put down her cards. “I have a pair of queens, and that beats anything.” The boys laughed, “Yeah, right.” Then Julie said with astonishment, “I have a pair of queens, too! A pair of queens can beat anybody. So let’s beat it, Jenny.” She went out arm in arm with her sister, and they found a late-night ice cream place.
“Look, Jenny, would you come up and join me at Kansas State?”
“Corn ball, we’re supposed to be individuals now.”
“Jenny, we are individuals. You’re you and I’m me. But I’m me better when I’m with you.”
“You know, that sounds really stupid.”
“Oh, thanks a lot, corn cob. I spill my hip bone and my guts, and you think I’m stupid.”
“Yeah, well who’s stupid, calling other people up to Wichita and claiming to be individuals.”
There was a moment’s silence, and Jenny said, “OK, sis, I’ll come to school with you. And to be honest, Julie, I’ve really missed you, too. But would you help me with calculus?”
Julie was thoroughly in tears now. “Yes, I can help you with calculus. Do you think Rodney and Tony would come up, too?”
“I don’t know. We can ask them.” She paused, then said, “Hey, corn ball, I have a joke for you. How do you get separated Siamese twins back together?”
“Jenny, this isn’t funny.”
Another moment’s silence.
“Bring some with.”