Gene could hear the phone ringing inside the trailer as he fumbled with the lock he kept meaning to fix. It was probably one of the stepmothers changing something. He wasn’t in the mood to talk to any of them. Let the machine take it.
He picked up when he heard Stacey’s voice.
Her father was serious, she said. Now that she was pregnant she wasn’t his problem anymore, and he wanted her out. She thought last night he was just blowing off steam, but when she got home from school just now she found all her stuff in plastic garbage bags piled in the living room.
“He just grabbed stuff off shelves and out of drawers. My Tony Romo bobblehead got broken. He left a note. A note! ‘You can stay the night, but I want you gone before I get back from work.’ What does he think I’m supposed to do?”
“It’s just a lot for him to deal with,” Gene said. “He’ll calm down.”
“I don't want to be here one second longer than I have to,” she said. “You and I have to figure something out anyway.”
“We have my brothers this weekend,” he said.
“I don’t care,” she said. “Come and get me right away.”
He was there in fifteen minutes. She didn’t have much—clothes, some CDs, her school stuff. He shoved everything into the trunk of his old Plymouth. She yelled when the display board with the leaf project she’d done in middle school got bent and some of the leaves that had been glued to the board for three years crumbled and fell off. “I need that. Next year! For botany. So I don’t have to start all over again.”
“It’s just leaves,” he told her as they turned up 225. “We’ll get more.”
For twenty-five miles she bitched about her father, how she knew now why her mother had left, how she should have begged to go with her.
“Then you wouldn’t have hooked up with me,” Gene said. He squeezed her knee, letting his hand move up her thigh a few inches.
“Yeah,” she said, pushing him away. She turned her face to the window, and fell silent.
The missing mother had brought them together. He’d been late for school that day because he had to haul his dad, hungover or maybe still drunk, out of bed and make sure he got to work. He was on his way through the empty halls to first period when he came upon Stacey, a sophomore whose name he didn’t know but whose butterscotch hair made him catch his breath every time he saw her across the cafeteria.
She was kicking at the pile of things that had fallen out of her locker and cursing. He stopped to help her, said something about his day starting off all sucky too, and suddenly they were both sitting on the floor in front of her locker and she was crying and telling him about how she hated and missed her mom both at the same time and her father was a bastard and he’d yelled at her because she tried to make him French toast but it burned and she’d forgotten to buy coffee and he’d left without even saying goodbye.
“My mom left without me, too,” Gene said.
“Sometimes I miss her so much,” Stacey said.
“Yeah. Me too.”
Gene put his arm around her and brushed the hair away from her face. He wanted to kiss her, at least on the cheek. He was leaning in to do that when Mrs. Ambrose came out of her room and yelled at them to get to class
He was trying to figure out how he could talk to her again when she came over to his table at lunch and his buddies all got up and left them alone. That was last spring. They’d been together ever since.
Gene made this same trip every other Friday. First he picked up Robert, his half-brother by his dad’s second wife. Gene was five when his dad married her, a year after his mother left. They had this kid in no time, and for a while it was like it had been before, only with a baby brother instead of the sister his mother had taken with her. By the time Gene was nine, though, the stepmother was gone, and the brother too, and it was just him and his dad again. “Did you pack enough medicine? That inhaler thing?” he asked the woman. She just nodded without speaking before she shut the door.
Then it was southeast ten miles for Eddie, the third wife’s boy, and Patrick, who belonged to the ex-girlfriend. They were both six. Twin sons of different mothers, Gene called them. He’d always liked the third wife. She’d been his stepmother until he was almost thirteen, but after the dustup over the pregnant girlfriend she’d left, and he never saw her now. She made the kid wait on the porch, alone, his stuff in a plastic bag.
He’d never met Patrick’s mother until he became the visitation chauffer last year. She always wanted Gene and the other boys to come in. She asked about his dad and fussed over Eddie and Robert, giving them cookies and sometimes little gifts. She always looked great. She was twenty-seven, only nine years older than Gene. Gene figured she wanted the dad back, but sometimes he thought she'd settle for him. Sometimes he thought that might be cool. Today he sent Stacey to the door.
The brothers liked these weekends with Gene and their father. Their mothers weren’t exactly strict, but they did have some rules for bedtime and mealtime and TV time. At Red Henderson’s almost anything went — pretzels and chips for dinner, Lucky Charms straight out of the box for breakfast, the TV on all day, any show you wanted.
The boys were skinny, so they didn’t really crowd the back seat, but there were only two seat belts. Gene made Patrick and Eddie share one, as if they really were twins. Gene wondered sometimes what it would be like to live with these brothers, to be a normal family. Would his mother have had more children if she’d stayed with his dad? He’d have two parents and be the big brother to a sister and at least two of these younger boys, maybe all four of them, maybe two more sisters instead of two more brothers. Yeah, the Henderson kids. They’d live in a house instead of a shitty trailer, his dad wouldn’t be drunk most of the time, and his mother would be best friends with Mrs. Ambrose, who would live around the corner.
“Do you ever wish you had brothers and sisters?” he asked Stacey.
Stacey looked back at the boys. Robert was showing Patrick and Eddie how to belch the alphabet. “No,” she said. Then she touched Gene’s arm. “But I would like to have more than one myself.”
They turned toward home, but halfway to the last stop he realized they didn’t have room for Donnie and his car seat and his diaper bag and the special toddler food and those wiper things that made him smell like a girl. Gene’s dad wasn’t even sure this one was his, but Donnie’s mother was. She said it was important for Donnie’s father to be part of his life. Gene thought it was important for her to get her hair and nails done and bring home guys from Stallions every other Friday.
“You’ll have to hold Donnie on your lap,” Gene told Stacey. “It’ll only be twenty minutes.”
Donnie and his mother lived in a little town north of the city. At least with the new development they didn’t have to drive all the way around the mountain anymore. They could cut through at Hickory Way.
It was spring cleanup week in Misty Mountain Estates. Piles of stuff waited at the end of each long driveway. A lot of it looked new or barely used. Gene wondered how people whose living rooms were bigger than the trailer he and his dad had could accumulate enough stuff to have to get rid of some.
“Stop!” Stacey yelled. “Look at that play set!”
Gene hesitated but finally pulled up to the curb. “What if somebody comes out?” he said.
“They don’t want this stuff,” Stacey said. “They put it out for the trash.”
She was already pulling at the plastic cart that was wedged behind two boxes of books. It was on wheels and looked like a pastel version of the barbecue grills Gene sold down at the home center. It had a rack with little plastic pots and pans hanging from hooks, a sink, and a fake stovetop. It tipped when Stacey bounced it down over the curb and the oven door flew open, spilling out more colorful pieces.
“Ooh, more accessories!” she cried. “The kids I babysit for have this. I want it for our baby.”
Gene gathered up the plastic steaks and French fries. Some of the fake fruit was rolling down the street. He watched Stacey chase after it.
“How do you know the baby’s a girl?” he asked. He couldn’t say our baby yet.
“It doesn’t matter," Stacey said. “Boys should learn kitchen stuff too. You and your dad think macaroni and cheese from a box is food.”
She was right. Gene used to make fun of the elaborate dishes Eddie’s mother served. But he’d give a lot some days for a bowl of her mulligatawny.
He pulled Stacey’s trash bags out of the trunk and slid the play kitchen in on its side. He arranged the bags around it and then dumped the accessories into the top of her gym bag.
“Here,” she said. She handed him a box marked My First Lab Microscope and a world globe. “Well, our baby has to learn stuff,” she said when he rolled his eyes.
He grabbed the globe by the curved thing it was screwed to and tried to settle it in on top of the garbage bags. The land masses spun by and when the ball stopped turning he saw that he was looking at a vast territory marked USSR.
“This globe is old,” he said. “There’s no more Soviet Union.”
“There’s not?” she said, and got into the car.
"Did you tell your dad I'm moving in?" Stacey asked him after they had Donnie's stuff arranged on the floor of the back seat and were headed down the mountain again. She had Donnie on her lap and her jacket folded like a pillow between the dashboard and his head.
Gene hadn't thought of what Stacey was doing as “moving in,” exactly. He'd thought of it more as what she was doing this weekend until they figured out what she was really going to be doing.
“No,” he said. “I didn't even tell him yet you were pregnant. I mean, it's only been a week since you told me.”
“Well, what are you waiting for?” she asked him. “There's things we have to do.”
“Like what kind of things,” he said, wondering if getting married was one of them. The younger boys had started making fake belches. “Cut it out, Patrick,” said Gene. “You know that makes you puke.”
“Well, like, find a doctor, find out if my dad's insurance will help us out, maybe fix up your room if we're going to stay there till we have our own --,” her voice broke off. “Wait!” she yelled. “Stop the car! Stop, Gene!!”
Gene stepped on the brake and the car swerved some. It needs a front-end alignment, he thought. Stacey pitched forward because she wasn't wearing the seat belt and pushed Donnie's head into the folded jacket. The zipper scratched his cheek and he began to whimper.
“What! What!” Gene yelled. The brothers had also bounced around. Eddie was crying now. “It's okay, it's okay,” he said to them. “Stacey, what the hell --.”
“It's a turtle,” she said. “There's a turtle trying to cross the road.”
Gene peered ahead. Indeed, there was a turtle making its way into the path of the car, about two feet from the berm.
“I wasn't going to hit it,” Gene said. The turtle was continuing to make progress. Now he'd have to pull around it.
“It'll get hit by another car,” Stacey said. “Traffic from the other way comes around a curve. People don't care anyway.”
As she spoke, two cars shot around the bend.
“Go get him,” Stacey said.
“Fine. I will.” She got out of the car, still holding Donnie. She put the little boy down in the grass and stepped around the front of the car and into the roadway to pick up the turtle. Its legs remained extended and continued to move as if it were still walking. Donnie had followed her. She scooped him up under her left arm and he dangled sort of sideways as she started across the road. She had to stop in the middle to let a half-ton truck rumble past.
Watching her, Gene saw her two years from now, pregnant again, the baby that was inside of her now the one under her arm, Donnie a four-year-old and Patrick and Eddie eight, waiting for her to hand out cookies or something. He'd be twenty years old and a father of two, still looking after his half-brothers on weekends.
Stacey set the turtle down in the grass on the opposite embankment. Now its legs grabbed the ground and it started moving forward on its own. Gene wondered if that side of the road, that patch of weeds, was really where it had intended to go.
“What are we going to do about dinner?” Stacey said.
“Hell if I know,” Gene said. “I worked last night. The juice tasted funny this morning. I can't remember if there was anything else in the refrigerator. Maybe Dad went grocery shopping.”
“Right,” Stacey said. “Stop at the RealSave. I'll make us some cowboy stew.”
“I'll stay with the boys,” Gene said when he parked. “Let me give you some money.” He hoped the ingredients for cowboy stew didn't cost more than six dollars.
“I have money,” Stacey said. She pulled a fat roll of bills out of her jacket pocket. “They're all tens and twenties. I found my dad's poker stash.” Gene raised his eyebrows. “I only took about half,” she said. “He won't even miss it.”
“Take Donnie,” Gene said. “I think he needs to be changed.”
She pulled what she needed out of the diaper bag. Gene watched as she popped him into the grocery cart and fastened the safety belt, and then bent to kiss his reddened cheek. She looked like she'd been doing this all her life, or all Donnie's life anyway. She looked like she was born to pop kids into grocery carts.
She was gone longer than he expected but when she came out she had four grocery bags that looked packed. They had to make the boys sit straight in a row and balance the bags on their knees.
“What’s in cowboy stew?” asked Robert.
“Ground beef, onions, a can of corn, two cans of cream of celery soup, and Chinese noodles on top,” said Stacey.
“Cowboys ain't Chinese!” shouted Robert.
“I don't think they eat celery soup, either,” said Gene. “I'm not sure I've ever eaten celery soup. Or celery.”
“Well, this is what my mom called cowboy stew and she used cream of celery soup and Chinese noodles,” said Stacey. “Open a can of that Dirty Manure stuff if you don't want this.”
“Dinty Moore,” said Gene, looking forward to the cowboy stew.
Gene was twelve when he and his dad moved into the trailer in Whispering Wind Village, after Eddie's mother kicked them out in the brouhaha over Patrick and his mother. They had a two-bedroom model, small but with a deck hung off the back that looked out on a creek. Their back yard was mostly a tangle of bushes and scraggly trees, but Gene liked to sit out there and smoke and listen to the wind and the water as it tumbled over rocks and fallen tree limbs.
He stopped at the row of mailboxes at the turn-in and pulled out the bills and crap stuffed into the glossy RealSave ad. He laid it on the shift console. It fell open to a white envelope addressed to him, from a university in New York.
He'd sent the application three months ago, just before the deadline. No one knew about this except Mrs. Ambrose, who'd prodded him to do it, who'd ponied up the application fee and the SAT fees for him. He'd paid her back forty bucks, still owed her a bunch, though she insisted she didn’t care when she got it back. He remembered now he was supposed to go see her after school, about some scholarships she’d found for him to apply for. The envelope looked thick. Mrs. Ambrose had said to be looking for a thick one. They were acceptances. He pressed the bundle closed and shoved it down between the console and his seat.
Gene carried in all the stuff and Stacey got the cowboy stew bubbling on the stove. She'd bought a bag of apples and a box of refrigerated pie crusts, even a disposable pie tin because she said she didn't figure there was actually a real pie pan in that sorry-ass bachelor kitchen, let alone flour and oil for the crust and a rolling pin to shape it. She was chopping the apples when Gene's dad came through the door.
“Hi, Mr. Henderson,” said Stacey. Nobody called him Mr. Henderson, Gene thought. Or Donald, either. Even Gene called him Red most of the time, a nickname left from his childhood. “Hi,” Stacey said then, a greeting that was answered with a soft, “Ha-a-a.”
Gene turned around on the couch where he was watching cartoons with Eddie and Patrick. He saw a slender woman in skinny jeans and a blouse that was too tight. She had long blonde hair that she let hang in her face.
“This here's Chelle,” said Gene's dad. Gene had never seen this one before. She looked to be past forty, older than most of the women his dad brought home, older than Gene's dad even. The younger boys ran over to him. “I didn't know you guys were gonna be here. Did I get my weekends mixed up?”
“Guess so,” Gene said, “ ’cause here they are.”
“Hi, Casey,” Gene's dad said.
“It's Stacey,” she said. “Hi Chelle. You like cowboy stew? Soon as I get the pie in the oven we can sit down.”
“What's all this stuff?” Gene's dad said. Stacey's trash bags and her gym bag and her leaf project, as well as the play kitchen that Donnie was busy with were set beside the couch.
“That's Stacey's stuff,” said Gene. “Her dad kicked her out.”
“I'm pregnant,” Stacey said. “We’ll only be here till me and Gene get our own place.”
“Oh,” said Gene's dad. “Okay. Any mail?”
“No,” said Gene.
After dinner Gene carried in the rest of the stuff. He set the globe down on the coffee table and put the mail beside it. Chelle was bouncing Donnie on her knee. “I was just your age when I had my first boy,” she said. “I got two grandkids from him, three more from my daughter, and two from my other boy.” Gene wondered how many fathers and mothers this involved.
He went out on the deck. His dad came out, popped the tops on two beers, lighted two cigarettes, and handed one of each to Gene.
“I'm trying to quit,” said Gene.
“The cigarettes or the beer?”
“The cigarettes. I didn't sneak any all day today at school.”
“Pretty good, seein’ you got some stress goin’. You sure it’s yours?”
“Sure what's mine?”
“This bun old Tracy has in the oven. You sure it’s yours?”
“Stacey. Her name's Stacey. And why wouldn't it be mine?”
“Well, you never can tell. She wouldn't be the first girl in a situation to pick the best of the bunch. Look at Donnie. You think he looks like me?”
Gene suddenly felt sorry for Donnie’s mother if she’d believed Red Henderson had been the best of the bunch.
“It's mine. Trust me.”
“So what are you going to do?”
“Boy, you got responsibilities now. You can probably go full time down at the store soon’s you graduate. Guess you were gonna do that anyway. See if they got management training. That's where the money is.” He took a big gulp of his beer. “I could let you have this place, especially if things start going good with Chelle. But let me tell you something. Get yourself fixed soon. I waited way too long. Six kids before I was thirty-five. Shoulda had it done after you. You do it soon, maybe try again if this one’s a girl. But do it soon.”
Gene thought of the sister he hadn't seen since he was four. His mother had come to the babysitter’s one day, taken just the girl, and told him his dad was coming for him later. He never saw them again. Neither, he supposed, had his dad. His mother sent him birthday cards for a while, but that stopped when he was about ten.
“Yeah, I'll do that,” he said.
“Listen, Gene,” his dad said. “I forgot the boys would be here this weekend. I was kind of hoping for a nice long relaxing evening with Chelle. Know what I mean? Could you and, um, what's-her-name, hold down the fort here? I could come by in the morning, make you guys a big ol' lumberjack breakfast.”
“Yeah, okay,” said Gene.
They put Eddie and Patrick in Gene’s single bed and Robert in a sleeping bag on the floor in his room. Usually when the boys were here Gene slept on the couch. Tonight he and Stacey took his dad's double bed and put Donnie on the floor beside it in kind of a blanket and pillow fort Stacey rigged up.
He woke about two. The moon was hanging full in the small strip window almost like a headlight, making sharp shadows on the walls and across the floor and the bed. Stacey was on her back. She was snoring softly. Gene had never slept with her before. In the year they'd been together they'd messed around after her dad went to work at ten, but Gene always left by midnight or one. He didn't know till now that she wore a t-shirt over a bra and panties to bed and cradled a stuffed penguin that was so bedraggled it seemed all one color.
Gene looked at her, at her sandy gold hair gone shades of gray in the moonlight, at the little mole that rode just under the arch of her left eyebrow. She was the only girl he’d ever been with, the only girl he'd ever dated, really. He reached under her shirt and put his hand on her stomach. Her skin was smooth and taut between her sharp hip bones. They'd need to be sure she was able to graduate next year.
Donnie woke up then too. He seemed to be breathing hard. Probably asthma, like Robert. Inherited from their dad. Donnie started to cry.
Gene got out of bed and picked the little boy up. He took him out to the living room and changed his diaper. He seemed to be breathing better when he was sitting up. Gene switched on the TV. A nature show came up. Turtles having sex.
“Turtles come together only to mate. The act takes place quickly,” the announcer was saying, “the male mounting the female and holding on with his long claws. After copulation, the male moves on, and the female makes a nest and lays her eggs alone, sometimes weeks later. The male will continue to seek females until mating season is over. Many females die from exhaustion and stress during mating and nesting.” Gene watched the male turtle grind against the female a few times. Then it let itself slide off and began its movement away from her.
The globe and the microscope kit they’d salvaged from Misty Mountain Estates was on the coffee table along with the mail he hadn't really looked at. He put Donnie on his lap and stretched his legs out to rest on the table. He bumped the pile of mail and the letter that had come from the college fell onto the floor. He could see now that it was thick, an acceptance definitely, probably forms they wanted him to fill out, tell them something about himself to let them know what kind of roommate to pair him up with, maybe a letter from his new advisor in the chemistry department.
He switched the TV to a hockey game, saw the players, just shapes at this distance, moving constantly back and forth across the screen. He pushed at the globe with his toe. He watched the continents and the countries whirl by. Donnie laughed. Gene pushed at the globe again, and then again, keeping it moving.
Margaret DeAngelis lives in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, where she writes and maintains a blog called Markings: Days of Her Life.