Brothers and Sisters

The Offer, by Caitlynn Martinez-McWhorter

I.    CONCEPTION

I imagine my mother, at twenty five, a petite brunette with giant hazel eyes.  I can picture her hanging upside down off the edge of her queen-sized bed, blood rushing to her head, the way she told me it did.  She had just made love to my father and hoped gravity would work in her favor and she’d conceive a child.  As she hung there, upside down, I wonder if she pictured her future.  I wonder what kind of child she’d wished I would be.

I’ve been thinking about babies a lot lately, as two of my cousins, as well as my own brother, have become parents in the past three months.  I’ve attended and thrown baby showers, I’ve memorized baby gift registries and product reviews, and I know more now about breast pumps than I ever wanted to. 

I tell my mother I’m not going to breastfeed if I ever become a mother.  I tell herthis, partially to get a rise out of her, but mostly because I know it is true.  She looks hurt, saddened, but mostly disappointed.  “You’ll change your mind,” she says, brushing off what I said as if she knows better.  Will I change my mind?  Or will I give in and let her change it for me?  “You develop a bond when nursing that you can’t form otherwise,” she says.  I try to rationalize, because she is making me feel guilty.  If the child has lived inside of you for nine months, shares half of your DNA, and is helpless without you, I’m not sure your breast in its mouth in place of a bottle will make any difference when it comes to the relationship you will share.  I tell her my breasts are the one area of my body I’m truly comfortable with.  They’re the only thing I wouldn’t change about myself were I given the chance.  I don’t want them to sag, I don’t want them to hang.  I don’t want my nipples to get large and callused and sore.  “That is selfish,” she says.  


II.     BIRTH

My younger brother was an accident.  Sometimes I think he holds this common knowledge against my mother, though I don’t believe she has ever actually mentioned his accidentness in my brother’s presence.  Somehow, he just knows, the way birds know to migrate or fish know to swim.  Part of me wonders if my mother doesn’t favor my brother more because he was unplanned.  Perhaps she feels guilty for this, and subconsciously tries to make it up to him, or prove that he is, in fact, wanted.  My parents would have probably tried for a second child eventually anyway, maybe after a few years, but instead my mother became pregnant with Joey when I was only seven months old.  I was the easy baby, my parents have always said.  Joey was more difficult.  If my brother had been born first, my mother admits, my parents probably would not have had a second child. 

My brother’s own child, my niece, was also an accident.  After my brother and his fiancé announced their pregnancy, I offered to help get my brother out of it.  Those were the words I used: “I’ll help get you out of it,” as though he’d just gotten a parking ticket or a detention.  He was too young, at twenty three, and too immature to raise a child, I thought.  I offered to pay for an abortion.  It seems horrible, now, as I think about my niece at home in her crib, giraffe stuffed animals tossed about her bedroom, and the walker I bought her in the corner.  But, in that moment, filled with anger, frustration, and fear, I did what I thought I needed to do.  I tried to protect him. 

My mother cried to me a few weeks later, as she confessed that she had once, almost thirty years earlier, given her own baby brother a similar offer in a similar situation.  She said she regrets it, now, as she thinks about my cousin, my uncle’s first child, and wonders what life would have been without her.  I’m not sure I’ll ever regret what I said the day Joey told me they were pregnant, the way my mother regrets what she said to her brother almost thirty years earlier.  I truly do love my niece, who is now my goddaughter.  But, I don’t know if I’ll regret the offer I made, and maybe that is why I feel so guilty.  That is why I am ashamed.  Is it possible to feel guilt for something you wouldn’t change?  For a while, I felt it came from somewhere maternal, and that I was just trying to protect him.  However, maybe I was just subconsciously being selfish. 

I’ve been trying to mother my brother for most of our lives.  I’ve always felt the need to speak for him.  I was the only person who could understand him, due to a speech impediment, when he first started speaking.  I would translate his wants and needs to my parents for the first few years of his life, until he was taken to speech therapy and learned how to talk.  When we were toddlers, Joey would wake me up every morning.  I’d get him a bottle the way my mother taught me, and turn on his cartoons in the basement so my mother could sleep in.  I felt pride in the responsibility.  I felt grown up.  On his first day of kindergarten, I was pulled out of my first grade classroom to talk my brother down from the large jungle gym we called “the spider.”  He’d climbed about halfway up it during his first recess and froze, his knuckles turning white as they clutched the metal bars.  I don’t know why an adult didn’t just pluck him off, as he couldn’t have weighed more than a bag of topsoil and was only about four feet above the ground.  Instead, I had to leave my classroom, go outside, and talk to him as he took one shaky step after another.  “My sister, I want my sister,” I could hear him say as I approached the spider. 

I used to sign his permission slips for field trips on the bus on the way to school.  He’d forget to bring them home to our mother, and remember only once other children reminded him on the day they were due.  I had mastered my mother’s signature early on, and knew just where the loops and sharp angles were to go.
 

III.     INFANCY

I received a text from one of my best friends, Jamie, the night my niece was born.  He congratulated me on my newly acquired aunt status, and asked how I felt about it.  I told him I was excited.  Scared for my brother’s future, yes, but excited.  We talked for several hours until he turned in for the night, to sleep beside the woman he has been dating for five years, the one he cheated on, with me, for over a year while they were attempting long distance.  The one he eventually moved almost seven hours away to live with, following our scare several years ago.

When the test read positive, I collapsed to the floor in a crying, huddled, blob, as if all of the bones in my body had turned to liquid.  I lay there on the cold tile in the bathroom of my apartment, having an anxiety attack—shaking, not able to catch my breath.  After I calmed down a little, I called Jamie, who was at work and could only talk for a few minutes.  “We’ll figure this all out, Cait, I promise.”  He spoke, calmly, almost too calmly. 

It wasn’t that we hadn’t taken preventative measures.  I remember, after the condom broke on the 4th of July, how we jumped in his old diesel pickup and I google mapped the nearest 24-hour Walgreens to purchase backup.  On the drive there we joked about how screwed up our potential child would have been.  We decided he or she would have my emotional instability, callused feet, and butt-chin, as well as Jamie’s alcoholism, poor coordination, and the acne he had when I first met him when we were sixteen years old.  It was all a little morbid, but it was the only way either of us knew how to deal with the situation.  As I waited for Jamie to get off work a few weeks later, the day of the scare, I called the only person in the world I wanted to see in that moment.

My mother arrived at my apartment within half an hour, though I lived 45 minutes away.  She’d stopped at the drugstore on the way over and carried a bag containing two more brands of tests and a candy bar.  She asked no questions, passed no judgment, only held me like she did when I was a small child, smoothing my hair back as I buried my face into her shoulder, telling her everything she’d already suspected. 

Thirty minutes, two more tests, and an empty candy wrapper later, and it was confirmed that I was not pregnant.  It had been a false positive, a very rare result that occurs in only 1% of pregnancy tests.  Jamie and I agreed to end the physical part of our relationship, and within two months he was gone. 

I sometimes wonder what Jamie meant by “we’ll figure this all out,” though I’ll probably never acquire the courage to ask him.  I also often wonder what I would have decided to do, had it not been a fluke.  I had loved Jamie, in some capacity, since we were awkward teenagers, getting drunk for the first time in his parents’ cul-de-sac.  But it had been a very long time since I’d thought about any kind of future with him.  Then, almost a decade later, lying on that cold bathroom floor, I was contemplating having his child.  Part of me is afraid to prod any further.  Part of me doesn’t really want to know the answer.    

Ten months ago, I told my brother he was making a big mistake.  I said that, despite not knowing what I would have done.  I said it, having almost been there not long before.  That was selfish.  I was trying to control his life.  I was trying to make decisions for him.  Maybe it was a “do as I say, not as I do [or might have done]” situation.  I want to believe I was being protective, maternal, but that is probably not true.   
 

IV.     WEANING

I have a hard time separating my mother and my brother.  I have a hard time writing about one without writing about the other.  This seems like a strange connection.  It would seem more logical that writing about my mother would make me need to write about my father, or her mother.  It would seem more logical that writing about my brother would make me need to write about his fiancé, or my father.  But something keeps making me connect the two of them together.  Perhaps it is because, for the past few years when trying to talk with either, the conversation always turns to the other.  They fight relentlessly.  Yet, despite their often being at odds, and their relationship showing strain, sometimes I’m almost envious of it.  I realize the more energy she spends on him, the more neglected I feel.  The easy child is on the parent’s mind a lot less often.  It is the difficult child who gets the most support and attention. 

I wonder what it means to be a mother, as I watch my cousins and sister-in-law both impress and disappoint me with their maternal instincts.  I have what some would call a strange relationship with my own mother, one that defies almost all boundaries.  Family friends and coworkers are always astounded, curious, and jealous of our relationship.  They wonder how it works and how it came to exist. 

Most women will say they are close to their mothers, and I imagine they are, but our relationship is different somehow.  She is my partner, and my best friend.  An ex boyfriend once told me that I would never find a man to love me as long as my mother remained such a large part of my life.  This ex and my mother had butted heads from the very beginning, and he said it in a heated moment after I’d broken up with him.  However, what he was saying did hold some truths.  In that moment, years later, when I held the positive pregnancy test in my hand, although my first call was to Jamie, it wasn’t him I wanted there with me.  It was my mother.  I’ve never quite made enough room in my life for anyone else to play the “most important person” role, and this might have ruined many of my relationships.  I sometimes wonder, will I ever be fully ready to be a mother myself, when I’m not even ready to be weaned from mine?    

My grandmother says she is so close to all of her children because she grew up with them.   She was 16 when she gave birth to my aunt, and 20 when my uncle, the last of her four children, was born.  My mother blames her mother for her own ideas of what parenting is.  She says she didn’t know any better.  I don’t remember a time when I didn’t have a say in my own life.  I don’t remember ever being talked to like a child.  I don’t remember hating my parents the way other angsty teenagers did.  There were no filters.  There was no great moment of realization when I peaked behind the curtain and discovered my parents were only human.  I’d known that all along. 

Maybe they had it all wrong.  Or maybe my mother and grandmother figured out this being-a-mom thing.  Who is to say?  Although I can tell you the difference between a bebePOD and a Bumbo chair, and know how to sew a cloth diaper, I don’t know much more about motherhood.

Donna, Jamie’s mother, posted a photo to Facebook of her two year old great-niece a few months ago.  I sat, mesmerized by the child’s face on my computer screen.  I covered her eyes with my fingers.  Her hair was mine, light brown with tight curls, and her chubby cheeks, button nose, and dimpled chin were all reminiscent of my own baby pictures.  Then I took my hand away to reveal her eyes.  They were the sad, green, basset hound eyes that Jamie shares with his mother’s side of his family.  I reminded myself I had not given birth to this child, despite the intensity of the emotions I was feeling staring at her picture.  I felt overwhelmingly nauseous, until I closed the computer screen to make her tiny little face disappear.  Was I mourning the loss of a child that had never existed?  Or was I just missing a friend I’d felt had abandoned me?
 

V.     EMPTY NEST

It is common for the first child to feel like an experiment, or like the first pancake in a batch, the one that is either under or over cooked, because you were trying to get the stove to just the right temperature.  It is common for the first child to feel like they’ve grown up quicker due to birth order and the need to watch out for younger siblings.  I had only fifteen months to be the baby and the center of my parents’ world before my mother gave birth to my brother, the accident.  She was taken from me, by him, before I was ready, and I can’t help but believe that caused something inside of me to constantly associate them with one another.  I must look at him as the cause for my loss of mother.  I abhor the accidental.

Then why have I spent so much of my life trying to protect him?  Why have I tried to give him things I feel he’d stolen from me?  If he looked like less of a problem, or if he needed less from her, did I feel I would, then, receive that attention that was not given to him?  Was I trying to be his mother so she would be mine again?  When my brother announced their pregnancy, was I subconsciously afraid of losing further attention from my mother, which she would bestow upon this newborn? 

My brother and I were fascinated with Zoobooks and animal encyclopedias as children.  Joey was always much better at remembering the names of the different animals, and was able to recite where they lived, what they ate, and sometimes even their scientific names.  I was much more interested in looking at the pretty pictures.  Maybe this was why I chose to take an animal behavior class as my science requirement in college.  As I write about my brother, I’m reminded of a species of bird the professor talked about at length, the blue-faced booby.  The female booby lays two eggs, and if both hatch it is almost always the case that the older, stronger of the two chicks will push the younger, weaker one out of the nest to its death.  This is called siblicide.  The theory behind this behavior is that if the parents only have one chick to focus on, that chick is more likely to survive and prosper than if there were two of them to split the resources.  When I first learned about siblicide, I didn’t initially think of my brother.  In fact, I didn’t think about it until just recently, as I watched my mother spend extreme amounts of money on her first grandchild.  I distinctly remember thinking, “what will be left for my children when I have them?”  It was reminiscent of the jealous little girl whose accidental brother was taking her mother away from her.  In a sense, it was another maternal instinct, looking out for the children I’ve yet to have, but also I felt a lot like a blue-faced booby hatchling, wrestling my baby brother and his newborn daughter out of the nest so I would have a better chance at survival, and be given all of my parents’ love and attention.  Maybe that was why I made him the offer.

Caitlynn Martinez-McWhorter, a native of the Chicago suburbs, holds an MFA in Nonfiction from Columbia College Chicago where she currently works as Coordinator of Graduate Admissions. Her essays have appeared in Animal, Sugar Mule and The North Branch. She can do a one-handed pushup, has potty trained a wombat, and owns over 200 pairs of shoes.

What Was Found, by Barbara Raimondo

The police divers brought up the ATV.
Later our father restored it to its original condition.
The divers kept finding Jack’s things under the water.
They brought up his smile with its oversized tooth.
The way he played princess with Amanda.
His track team from the seventh grade.
The red Mustang he was going to buy.

They kept going down and coming back up.
They found the biggest fish he ever caught.
The family vacation at the ranch in 1998.
The first time he held me.
The watermelon plant he grew from a seed.

They brought up the notes he used to leave to mom.
“Out stopping traffic.”
“Sorry about the mess.”
“Thanks for dinner.”

They put out the twenty-five candles that had been lit, they
Pulled down the 100 balloons with notes attached.
They closed the bible with the stories about Jesus.
They sent the people home, even if they had been waiting all day to
Say something.



Barbara Raimondo lives in Washington Grove, Maryland, where she is a member of the Washington Grove Poetry Workshop. She and her husband have two young adult children. The family is bilingual in English and American Sign Language. Barb likes to try new things and recently completed a half Ironman triathlon.

Brothers, by Margaret DeAngelis

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.

            “Who?”

            “The turtle.”

            “Aw, Stace--.”

            “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?”

            “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.

Once, We Posed Our Barbie Dolls Like a Playboy Shoot, by Kate Litterer

       We stole eggs from the refrigerator
       instead of the chicken coop—maybe
       we wanted to test if our parents will
       notice. They don’t.

Once, my sister threw
my cat into the creek. Once, I threw
a rock in the air knowing it might
fall on her & it did, but I didn’t mean it,
I was just curious. The only time
my father spanked me was when I
raced my sister to the front seat of the car,
slammed the door on her fingers, & kept
pulling while she screamed.
I wasn’t aware that she was hurting,
was I?

       But isn’t pain regular
       & to be expected? Shouldn’t my
       apology be implied & accepted
       without me having to ask for it?

When you’re young & neglected, grotesque
is normal. The floor is lava, you have
a Nintendo, you eat mashed
potatoes, so everything is normal.


Kate Litterer's poems appear in numerous online & print journals, such as Coconut, h_ngm_n, Forklift, Ohio, The Destroyer, and phantom limb, and are forthcoming from La Vague and finery. She is included in the anthology Please Excuse This Poem: 100 Poems for the Next Generation, forthcoming from Penguin in 2015. Check her out at bestevercatparty.tumblr.com.

 

Bond, by Anna Meister

Like fireflies, our faces
glow from the TV light
that night in June. We shoot Jack
until the burn dies,
bottle left with nothing
to claim.

& later the violence,
from stomach to throat
& out. Silk lining
ripped from a favorite jacket.
Sick draped on the bowl's lip.
I would hold back your hair
if you had some.

We share the toilet
like anything, toy
or dog, just as we've been
taught. Collapsed
puppets propped up
against the tub. Repeat
this last name of ours
like some reason to be
proud.


 

Anna Meister is an MFA candidate in Poetry at NYU. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Sugar House Review, The Boiler, Drunk in a Midnight Choir, Driftwood Press, & elsewhere. Anna loves political thrillers, coconut curries, & the Midwest.