September 20, 1997
The clouds that covered the sky were thin and soupy in bruise purples and wolf’s fur gray, moving so it looked like there were dark, serious mountains slowly parading across the moon. Now and then they obstructed it completely, then let it peak out between their valleys, then stretched out in tendrils so it shone bright and round, revealing the cover as smoke.
“Blow your smoke away from me,” Vanessa was saying to Ken.
Charlotte turned away from up to look at her sister and her – what? boyfriend? – on the curb, alongside the long, burgundy old convertible, its driver-side open. Ken was leaning up on the top of the open door, its window down, pulling on a dark black cigarette while Vanessa, arms crossed, looked annoyed, like she wished she had something in her hand to look at and distract her.
Ken closed his eyes to swallow the smoke, then exhaled slowly. Calmly, he explained, “I can’t control which way the wind blows.”
“You know it’s bad, that’s why you don’t do it in your car.”
“That isn’t logically sound,” said Ken, still fluidly serene. He smoked a little again, then said, “Nobody is allowed to eat in my car either, and I don’t, because I don’t want the upholstery to be stained. That doesn’t mean I don’t believe in eating, or secretly believe that feeding myself is a sin.”
Vanessa frowned with the left side of her mouth. “Whatever.”
“I don’t let anyone who wants to willy-nilly fuck inside my car. Do you think that belies my secret shameful hate for the procreative act of our species?”
“I don’t care,” said Vanessa, turning to look at Charlotte with a pleading anger.
Smiling at her with as conciliatory and friendly a look as she could muster, Charlotte walked down to the curb and stood beside them, the top of a standing Stonehenge temple. Or the bottom of a fallen one.
“Maybe you should just think before you speak,” Ken said.
His name was just Ken but they called him Kennedy, he said because he was smart and had good hair; Charlotte’s friends said it was for other reasons.
Rick came out of the house, a bottle in his hand. He was grinning like a madman, expecting to bask in more admiration for his hard-won public feat. It had been his uncle, a promoter who knew how to use computers for printing flyers and the like, that had scored for him the backstage passes for the Hootie & the Blowfish show they were going to see. Charlotte and Vanessa had genuinely jumped up and down when he told them, letting Rick babble on in a glow and ignore actual responses.
“I don’t know if Hootie himself is going to be there,” Rick had said.
“There is no Hootie,” Ken had answered.
“I guess they’re front-row seats in this section and everything,” Rick continued, all deaf ears.
“It’s standing only in the floor section,” Ken had said. “There are no front-row seats.”
“We’re going to get to see them after the show,” Rick had gone on to the girls. “I don’t even know which one of them is Hootie.”
“None of them is Hootie,” Ken had said.
Now he finished his cigarette and threw it onto the sidewalk, quashed it with his shoe.
She felt in his demeanor that there was something important in his treatment of tonight, that either he had decided something about her he was waiting to tell her, or he expected to decide something about her tonight. She reached out and tugged on the sleeve of his long-sleeve shirt to imply that he should put his arm around her, chilly in her blue-gray Everclear hoodie and jean shorts. He reached out and brushed her shoulder a little bit with his fingers, brought it back to adjust the sunglasses in his shirt collar.
She had asked him about the sunglasses once, “Who are you, Jack Nicholson?”
He’d been driving them to his dad’s apartment, which was always empty. “Sunglasses are important to me because my eyes are light-sensitive and I get headaches,” he said. “It’s a side-effect of too much reading when you are a child, along with the nearsightedness.”
Then he didn’t give her more than one-word responses until that evening, smoking in his father’s brittle sheets. He never worried about his father coming home. In bed, he wanted her to hold on to him so tight her fingernails dug and reddened into his shoulders, eyelid-shape cracks whose tiny folds barely kept blood under the cusp of broken skin, but he never wanted to hold her after.
Charlotte felt a little sickness at trying to tell herself it didn’t really matter.
A little figure ran up out of the dark, and called her name. “Charlie! Charlie!”
Moses was 11 years old and less than 4 feet tall, which made people guess that he was younger than he was. He was Charlotte’s brother the same way Vanessa was her sister, three of a total six all adopted and/or cared for by the Bannon clan. That was what they called themselves, a clan. The parents did, anyway, with their thick brown-swirl-frame glasses and plaid buttoned up too far. Moses had just come a year ago and Charlotte suspected he might have had it worst of all of them, before the Bannons. They were worried about him being able to pass 6th grade in school, even in self-contained special education class. He’d taken a shine to Charlotte who, she had to admit, was kinder with the little ones that most.
“What’s wrong?” she asked.
He stared up at her with questioning eyes. “I got a bite.”
“Person, plant, or vampire?”
“What bit you?” Charlotte asked.
“Let me see.” Charlotte kneeled down next to Moses, who pulled down a sock to reveal a little bump on the ridge of his ankle that was swelling big, the top of the ankle knob a half of a plum now, and blue like a bruise. “This is from today? Right now?”
“Yeah. At first it didn’t really hurt but now it hurts a lot.”
“Do you know what kind of spider it was?” Charlotte asked.
“No, I killed it.”
“Over by the step,” Moses said.
Charlotte stepped over the dark green weeds and grass of the front lawn, moist and soft from the previous rain with Moses in tow to the front step of the big orange house. Clinging near the bottom of the step, messy and random in what might be layers, were low-built webs that looked tangled and irregular. There weren’t any spiders themselves visible.
“Does anything else hurt besides your ankle?” Charlotte asked.
“My stomach, a little.”
The Bannons were out buying groceries – a constant task, with so many mouths to feed – and Chris, the oldest, was in charge of watching them. He was a responsible guy, and kind, as much as any 17-year-old guy could be those things, anyway. They’d left him the GMC if anything happened. But Moses hadn’t looked to him. He’d gone to Charlotte.
“We have to take you to a doctor,” Charlotte told him. “I’ll leave a note for the Bannons.”
“Can you take me?”
“Let me tell my friends to go without me, and I’ll borrow Chris’s keys.”
Moses looked relieved.
September 21, 2005
The little kids running were the defining feature of the house, a small pre-fab rectangle on a cul-de-sac street in a maze of pre-fab cul-de-sacs: a reservation, Charlotte thought, a frontier outpost, of retired women and families without much money. Melissa was the oldest, at seven, and she was not shy about chasing after her brothers, giving them back what they gave to her. The TV was empty noisy soundtrack in the adjacent living room, some annoying character voices trying to sound pleasing to children.
There were segmented dinner plates, frog-shaped cups, and big plastic-handled utensils lying about on every which surface. Charlotte stacked some together on the counter-top next to the running stove (boiling water for hot dogs) so she could set down her cup of coffee.
“Ken doesn’t get home until night-time,” Vanessa was explaining, pulling open a refrigerator package of Oscar-Mayer. “But the kids all get hungry much sooner. Then I have to cook again for us later, when he does. There’s never time to clean up or do anything. Especially since Kate started staying with us.”
Charlotte glanced over to make sure the girl wasn’t around to get her feelings hurt.
“No, she isn’t here,” Vanessa told her. “She’s almost never here. Which is part of why it takes so much time to look after her. Ironically.”
Ken and Vanessa had been married about five years when his sister Kate started getting into trouble. After she got off easy from an arrest with a small amount of pot and paraphernalia, Ken was convinced their father couldn’t look after her – and didn’t really care to. What she needed was a man to watch out for her, and decided he and Vanessa would give her that better, although with him always at work it was really only Vanessa left to look after her, and the other kids.
“Don’t worry about it,” Charlotte smiled. “I don’t come see you to be waited on.”
“Here they are,” Charlotte’s partner Chloe sang like a song lyric, stepping through the house’s screen door. “It wasn’t in the bag of books in the trunk like you said it was. It was in the other bag of books in the trunk.”
“How foolish of me.”
“Hi, Vanessa,” Chloe held both of Vanessa’s hands in her own and air-kissed both of her cheeks before reaching into her bag for the books she and Charlotte had brought. “Charlotte decided it was time for Kate to read this. Actually, I decided too, but it sounds less presumptuous if I say Charlotte did it. Every girl should read these, especially around the time of menarche. Their blood starts flowing to the heart too.”
“Thank you,” said Vanessa. “What’s menarche?”
“Oh, you’ll find out when you’re old enough,” Charlotte told her dryly.
Chloe continued to smile disarmingly as she sidled up next to Charlotte and slipped a hand through hers. “Be nice.”
Melissa was at the fridge, closing the door after extracting a soda, when she turned and saw books on the table. “Hey, can I have one?”
“I’ll tell you what,” said Chloe. “We’ll leave them here and when you’re old enough to read them you can pick them up.”
The back door swished closed, and Vanessa wiped her hands on a napkin before stepping out to the hallway where Katie was approaching, backpack slung on one shoulder. “Did you go to school?” Vanessa asked.
“Your English teacher Mr. Murphy called to ask why you’ve been so absent lately.”
“My boyfriend’s really into girls. I have to make sure and keep him satisfied so he doesn’t wander off with other hoochies.”
“Did you just self-identify as hoochie?” Charlotte asked.
“You said so he doesn’t wander off with other hoochies.”
“You and JFK,” said Katie. “You’re always dissing people with explanations.”
“JFK?” asked Chloe.
“She calls her brother JFK,” Vanessa said. “Because we used to call him Kennedy.”
“At least you aren’t mean when you do it,” Katie told Charlotte, “the explanation thing.”
“If you’re smart enough to figure out the explanation is dissing you-”
“It’s always funny when grown-ups pronounce that,” Katie said.
“- then maybe you could avoid the description applying to you,” Charlotte finished.
“Were you with David?” asked Vanessa.
“So what if I was?”
“He’s a total douchebag,” Charlotte said.
“Who says you can judge people? You don’t know what he’s like when we’re together.”
David had almost killed Charlotte a few months back, when she and Chloe were in her car right behind David and Katie in his, following him to get a quiet dinner at the Mexican place in town. A truck was carrying some rural load in front of them going about 10 miles per hour too slow and David could not abide that. After a few seconds of extreme tailgating, he accelerated and shot into the other lane to pass, despite the fact that there was an oncoming car not two seconds from them. The truck slammed on its brakes, a long horn that for some reason Charlotte could remember thinking in her panic sounded a lot like a duck filled the moment, and she swerved into the ditch to avoid hitting the rural load.
David and Katie’s car had managed to slip back into their lane thanks to the truck braking, the oncoming car passed without incident, and Charlotte was left with about 1500 dollars in damage to replace the body panels and wheel rim where she had hit the ditch’s irrigation pipe.
As far as official fault, Charlotte asked the mechanic, she was the only one to blame, because there was no collision with another car? But if she had actually slammed head-first into the back of the truck, then she could try to make the case that David’s unsafe passing had caused the crash? Basically, yes, the thoughtful and potbellied man had told her. Economically, it would be the more defensible position to slam into the truck and then incriminate the passing vehicle afterwards, rather than plow through a ditch and have no one else involved in the incident to charge. Of course, in that case, he told her, you would probably crumple into your windshield and die. He chewed on his gum and then mentioned, well I think you made the right choice.
“You shouldn’t be anywhere during school hours except at school,” Vanessa now told Katie.
“Well, school’s out now. I just came to drop off my books. I’m going out tonight.”
The phone rang. Vanessa put up a finger to signal wait then used the same finger to plug her right ear against the screaming of the children and the TV while cradling the wireless receiver on her right shoulder. Katie sighed but waited while Chloe picked the books up off the table and held them up even though the girl, arms crossed, wasn’t looking.
“That was Moses. He wants your help with the project-”
“Oh, jeez. Again?”
“Your brother’s going to pick him up on the way home from work and bring him over,” Vanessa said. “You’re going to help him. He’s a good guy and he deserves to graduate.”
Katie was not unaware it was morally indefensible to refuse. She moved to the stairs. “Whatever, I’ll be on the computer.”
“No more inappropriate pictures on MySpace.”
“Fine,” Katie’s voice walked further away. “I’ll keep trying to get a college email address so I can join the Facebook.”
Vanessa shook her head. “Hot dog?” she asked Charlotte, holding one up on a fork.
With a rebel yell, Melissa charged in ahead of her brothers and grabbed it off the fork with one hand before charging onward.
September 22, 2013
Ken was at the table with a can of beer when Charlotte and Chloe came in, and managed to get rid of the sour look on his face for at least a moment. “There it is!” shouted Vanessa, and jumped up from the table to get a look at the bundle in Charlotte’s arms, where the baby was sleeping.
“Oh my god,” whispered Vanessa, “it’s perfect. Look at you.”
“Well,” said Charlotte, “we figured now that we were married it was okay to make a baby.”
“I see motherhood hasn’t affected your sense of humor,” said Ken, adjusting his glasses and toasting her with his beer.
“Chloe’s the mother,” said Charlotte. “I didn’t get pregnant.”
“Aunt Chloe didn’t either,” said Vanessa’s son Perry, who was now at the stove.
“Must have been the Holy Spirit,” Charlotte said.
Chloe had always wanted children, as far as she could remember. There were plenty of ways to have children, Charlotte had told her a long time ago, some of which didn’t even involve implantations or test tubes. Considering how you turned out, Chloe had told her, any way is as good as any other.
“Congratulations,” Ken told them, and paused to hug Charlotte on her side before picking another beer out from the fridge. No longer did Vanessa have to stay up late to cook for him – nor, Charlotte figured, would she. He’d been laid off from work over a year ago, and since then sat around the house growing steadily fatter and aggravating the children with unhappy retorts about their clothing or their grades or how they held their forks when they ate. Before that, Vanessa’s explanation for why they stayed in the same house was a financial one. Now she didn’t make explanations. Some things you got used to you didn’t usually have to explain to strangers, or Charlotte figured, yourself.
“It’s beautiful!” said a teenage girl that stood barefoot in the kitchen entrance, wearing shorts covered by a blue-gray Everclear hoodie.
“Look at that,” said Charlotte. “Where in the world?”
“She found it at Grandpa Bannon’s a few weeks ago,” Vanessa told her. “I figured you wouldn’t mind.”
“It’s vintage,” Melissa said, extending a hand to softly brush the baby’s hair. “Perry wanted it but being the only daughter means I get first dibs on clothes. Moses! Come look, the baby’s here! And bring my iPhone.”
“He wanted to be here to see it,” Vanessa explained.
“Can I hold the baby?” Melissa asked.
“Melissa,” Moses told her, pink iPhone in hand, “it rang three more times.”
“Andy?” Melissa asked.
“That’s what the picture said.”
“Is something wrong?” Vanessa asked.
“No, we broke up,” Melissa said. “He says I don’t have the right to make him feel this way or something illogical like that.”
“Do you want me to answer?”
“Aw, thanks, Moses,” said Melissa. “But I can handle this.”
Vanessa cast a worried look at Charlotte.
“Vanessa,” Charlotte reassured her. “Not all issues carry.”
“How’re you gonna take care of it?” Vanessa asked her daughter.
“By telling him to eat a dick,” Melissa said. “Obviously.”
Ken put a hand to his head. Charlotte laughed, and put the swaddle of blankets carefully into her niece’s cradled arms.
“Moses!” Melissa told him. “Do what I told you.”
Moses swiped on Melissa’s iPhone a few times and the speakers began to blow out clearly and loudly an iTunes rendition of Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines.” Immediately, Melissa started to dance around the kitchen with Charlotte and Chloe’s baby, trying out the following facial expressions in brief posed tableaux: happy, surprised, conspiratorial, furiously confused. Following what were clearly established instructions, Moses swiped a few times on the phone again and began to snap a picture every time she paused.
“Do you have an Instagram so I can tag you on these?” Melissa asked Charlotte.
“That’s what’s wrong with your generational group,” Ken said. “Everything is about your own exposure, you, you, you.”
“What’s wrong with your generational group,” said Melissa, as she continued to dance while the iPhone snapped away, “is generalities. Generalities and bombast. I think that you are lazy.”
“Didn’t you see that video?” Ken said to his daughter. “That girl who crashed through the table and started on fire? That’s what happens when you act like a dumb girl.”
“That video was a month ago,” said Melissa. “And it was obviously fake. You’re stupid if you couldn’t tell the minute you saw it. I knew right away, Jesus. I mean, why would you have a ton of candles on your table in a circle like that? You took the time to light a dozen candles in a pentagram circle before you started twerking? Think about the time and consideration that takes. Was she trying to do a séance? Was the twerk show for Satan? I hath summoned you, Dark Lord, now watcheth my booty pop.”
“I’m going to bed.” Ken took another beer can and started up the bedroom stairs.
“Dance, baby!” Melissa rallied the baby.
“Do you know why they call him JFK?” Moses asked Melissa solemnly.
“I figured ‘cause he’s old.”
In Melissa’s arms, Charlotte’s baby boy gave a kind of coo.