Charlotte went to the window as soon as her daughter Diana backed out of the driveway. She leaned over and pushed aside the curtain just a bit, watching the traffic pass by, glancing one way up the street, then the other. Making sure Diana hadn’t forgot something, that she wasn’t coming right back. Diana had said she was going to pick up a few groceries, and buy Samantha a couple notebooks for school. Charlotte turned to Jack, Diana’s fiancée. Jack sat on a stool in the middle of the room
“I’m so excited,” Charlotte said , clasping her hands together. “You must be excited.”
“Well, it’s still a little ways off,” he said.
Charlotte resumed her seat by the window. “My cousin got married in June. It’s a beautiful month to get married.” She paused a moment, her mouth hanging open. “Johnny Carson was there—he flew in just for the wedding, and then he served as master of ceremonies.” She paused again. “Me and him both. I still have his autograph. I had a picture of the two of us, Johnny with his arm around me, but it burned in the fire. Everything burned in the fire. We lost everything. It makes me so angry every time I think about it.”
The fire had occurred just a few weeks before. More than half the house had burned. The official report had said that someone had been freebasing in the attic--they found the remains of a syringe, a spoon, residue—but after Charlotte had spoken with the investigator, and read the report, she had discarded it in the neighbor’s trash.
“Electrical,” she now told Jack. “I’ve been telling Martin for fifteen years that that old house needed new wiring.” She sighed. “But he just wouldn’t listen. And now look at us. Homeless. Fifty-five and homeless.”
Fortunately, they had only homeless for less than a day. Charlotte’s third oldest son Danny had bought an old Victorian on auction a mile away, converted it to a three family, and he was now letting them—Charlotte, Martin, and their three youngest adult children: Stephen, Roger and Bibi-- stay there for free while they rebuilt. The apartment was on first floor and less than three blocks from the abandoned factories and project houses of crumbling red brick. The living room was a big room with white walls, long windows and hard wood floors, but there wasn’t much furniture it—just the chair Charlotte sat in, a kneeler by the window which Charlotte had borrowed from a church over in Whitman, the stool Jack sat on in the center, and the small table beside it. Charlotte could picture a dance in the room. Lovely ladies in low cut fine dresses, and men in dark suits. Everyone spinning. And then maybe a polka. She smiled at the thought.
The table beside Jack was draped with a cloth and topped with scissors, a comb, gel and Barbasol; Bibi was cutting Jack’s hair. Practicing. Bibi was twenty-two, and had just finished hair dressing school. Of the children at home, Roger was a year younger, and Stephen two years older. Diana had told Charlotte that Jack worked in the mental health field—doing something with the crazies—and Charlotte was curious about this. Roger had some trouble—he had been reading the Summa Theologica, a worn paperback copy stuffed in his back pocket at all times, and he had confided in Charlotte just last week that he himself was Thomas Aquinas. Charlotte had told him to go clean out the shed. Stephen had temporarily had some problems, too, and there were rumors spread by her other children that he was experimenting with drugs, but that was all over now, Thank the Lord. Over and done with. Charlotte had talked with him just the week before the fire after she found him in his bed covered in vomit, scabs up and down his arms, and he assured her he was finished with it. Bibi, though, had never tried drugs. Not like Eddie…and like Diana; Diana didn’t fool her, climbing out on the rooftop smoke a joint back in high school, and Eddie was stoned all the time still. Bibi, though, was different. Bibi had already cut nearly everyone in the family’s hair, and so now they brought in Jack. Bibi had all the gear; she just needed a job. She wore tight denim shorts, cuffed high on the thigh, and a T-shirt, cut mid-riff. Her hair pulled back from her face with a red bandana, the knot tied on top; they were in the middle of a heat wave that had already lasted a week.
Bibi cut up around Jack’s ear.
Charlotte was watching.
“I’m so nervous,” Bibi said.
Jack looked at her sideways. “Please don’t be.”
Charlotte crossed her legs at her ankles, and folded her hands in the her lap, barely containing herself. She was a pretty woman with short blonde hair and empty blue eyes. Much heavier on bottom than on top, her weight centered low. Everyone said Diana looked just like her, but Charlotte wasn’t foolish, even when she was Diana’s age, she was easily fifty pounds heavier. She noticed Jack glance at the framed inauguration invitation by the entranceway to the kitchen.
“It was one of the few things to survive the fire,” she said.
“Where did you get it?” Jack asked.
Charlotte paused, mouth open again. “We were invited. Me, Martin, and my mother. My mother was very active in local politics—she was actually a Kennedy Democrat, I was raised a Democrat, but then after Roe vs. Wade, we all jumped ship. Anyway, all three of us campaigned for Nixon, and so he invited us to the inauguration. And to the ball!”
Bibi stopped, looked at her. “What was he? President or governor or something?”
“President,” Charlotte said.
Bibi waved the scissors about. “I knew it was one of those. I’m a Republican, so I only follow people in my party.” She resumed cutting.
“Bibi is going to be hairstylist to the stars,” Charlotte said to Jack.
“Shut up, Ma,” said Bibi. “You’re embarrassing me.” Bibi stepped back and blew her bangs up away from her eyes. Bibi didn’t look like Charlotte. Dark hair, dark eyes. And curved everywhere she needed to be. “I’m so hot,” she said to Jack. “It’s so hot in here.”
“When we get the house rebuilt, we’re going to get central AC,” Charlotte said. “I can’t wait.”
Bibi leaned in close again, reaching up, pressing against Jack. She snipped at the top of his head. “I don’t want to go to short. Just tell me when to stop.”
“Diana used to want to be a hairdresser,” said Charlotte.
Bibi snipped again. “Really? She never told me that.”
“She did,” said Charlotte. “She just never…never had the knack for it. She used to cry herself to sleep after she flunked out of hairdressing school. I remember it so clearly. I would go in and hold her, and tell her there would be something else for her in life, that there was something for everyone. And then of course, the asshole stepped into the picture and we all know what happened then.”
“Ma, don’t swear,” said Bibi.
“I’m sorry,” said Charlotte, “it’s just that every time I think about him, and what he did to our family, my blood begins to boil. And Diana has always been so…” Charlotte stopped, searching for a word. “Fragile. She’s always been so fragile.”
“Well, she does pretty well for herself now,” Jack said.
“She does,” said Charlotte, “but that’s because I put her through nursing school. We had to find something. Especially after she got pregnant with Samantha. I worked sixty, sometimes seventy hours a week so she could go to school.”
“I thought you watched Samantha for her when she went to school,” said Bibi. “When Samantha was little, I mean.”
“I did,” said Charlotte, “and on top of that I was working sixty to seventy hours a week. Sometimes I would take Samantha with me as I went house to house, apartment to apartment. Cleaning windows, and…and scrubbing floors, teaching her the value of hard work. And the value of a dollar. Samantha used to like to wring out the mop,” she said gleefully.
Bibi stepped back to look. Charlotte looked, too. Jack was twenty-eight and Irish, maybe a little good looking, and maybe kind of short. He had a look about his eyes like he could be a wise ass, like he thought things were funny, but he was quiet, and as far as Charlotte knew, non-violent. That was good, the one before him, the asshole, had been violent. Charlotte hated to think of it, but then again, maybe it had been a good lesson for Diana. After leaving her, going to him. Charlotte had told her she had to choose, and she did, and that was where it got her. Fiddlesticks. Separated in two years, divorced in three. And now, this one, Jack, had been around for a year or two, something like that. Maybe longer. And Charlotte figured they had probably been sleeping with each other all of that time. Doing any number of filthy things. He was Catholic, said he was Catholic, but she had confided in Bibi that he was probably full of shit. “Dime store Catholics who show up to Mass on Christmas Day and Easter,” she said. “But Jesus takes them in, just the same. He takes them in.”
Now she smiled again. “So tell me, Jack, are you in love with my daughter?”
“What?” said Charlotte. “It’s a very straightforward question.”
“You’re embarrassing him.” Bibi stepped back. “You’re face is turning red,” she said to Jack.
Jack nodded. “It’s warm in here.”
Bibi wiped her forehead with the back of her wrist. “It is. I’m so hot.” A few wisps of hair had fallen free from her bandana, and she blew them up and away from her eyes. She stepped in closer. “I wish I could just take all my clothes off right now,” she whispered.
“So are you?” Charlotte asked Jack again.
“I am,” he said. “Sure. Of course I am. That’s why I proposed to her.”
Charlotte had heard the proposal story. Now two months back. Diana had called her the next day. Summer Solstice, Fort Revere, high on the hill overlooking the Hull Peninsula, Nantucket Beach, Massachusetts. The asshole had been giving Diana the business that day, refusing to drive the kids home—Sam and her little brother—and Diana was upset. A basket case. That was the problem with Diana, it didn’t take much to turn her into basket case. Had never had to deal with the ups and downs, Charlotte had, didn’t know how to turn lemons into lemonade. Anyway, Diana said she didn’t know Jack was planning on proposing, didn’t know he had bought her a ring till he slipped it on her finger. He had asked her to close her eyes as he read her a poem he wrote her. Then he asked her to marry him in the last line, put the ring on her finger, told her to open her eyes. Then the cops came and threatened to arrest them for trespassing, for being in the park after sunset or some holy horseshit like that. Charlotte must have heard the story a hundred times by now. She figured most of it was a great big lie.
Now she just stared. “Well,” she said at last. “Just because you proposed, it doesn’t mean you love her. Plenty of people get married for reasons other than love.”
“Like what?” Jack asked. He had that wise ass look in his eyes now.
“Sex,” Charlotte said. She hesitated waited, letting it sink in. Then: “For all I know, you could be looking for just a lot of sex. I told Diana—they won’t buy the cow if they’re getting the milk for free, and I think she listened to me. I hope so.”
Bibi turned. “Ma!”
“It’s true,” said Charlotte.
Jack swallowed his breath. “Well, I love Diana. And I admire her. She’s accomplished a lot considering all the road blocks she’s had.”
“Road blocks she put there herself,” Charlotte said.
Jack didn’t respond.
Charlotte just stared some more. Mouth open, silent. Her thoughts were suddenly silent, too. This happened sometimes. Everything would shut down. And then when she went to speak it was almost as if her words weren’t her own. She could hear them, but she didn’t think them before she spoke. The words just came. They came from Christ.
“Well,”she said at last“there’s some things I think you should know then.”
“Ma, don’t do this,” said Bibi.
“I’m worried about Diana,” Charlotte said. “She needs some help.”
“Help?” Jack said.
“I think she needs to see a psychiatrist,” Charlotte said. “I think she needs to be on medication.”
. Bibi suddenly put her scissors and comb down on the little side table, right next to the jar of blue Barbarsol. “I’ll be right back.”
Both Charlotte and Jack watched Bibi walk from the room.
“Bibi didn’t want me to talk to you about this,” Charlotte said. “She said it’s none of my business. And you know what I said to her?”
She was beaming now, smiling wide. “I told her I’m a mother, it’s always my business. And if you’re going to be her husband, it needs to be your business, too.”
“But I’m not really sure what you’re talking about,” Jack said. “Diana seems pretty well adjusted to me—especially considering all she’s been through. She works full time, raises two kids on her own—“
“Well…,” Charlotte interrupted. “Diana sometimes remembers things that never really happened.”
Charlotte shook her head. “Never. Like when she first got pregnant? She tells people how angry I was, disgusted and ashamed. How I locked her upstairs and wouldn’t let her out of the house. That never happened.” Charlotte smiled. “I embraced her. We all embraced her. And then I cried because I knew the child was a gift from God. We all cried. Even big six foot four Roger. And then after we were all done crying, the first thing my mother did was call Father Paul, he came over and blessed Diana and the baby, and then we had a big breakfast. With ham and eggs. And…croissants an muffins.” She started kicking her feet in the air. “I even had a little champagne.”
Bibi scurried back into the room. Tips of her toes. Her feet barely left the floor as she moved, and she held a new pair of scissors in one hand, and her spray bottle in the other. She was down to a bikini top, or what might have been half of one.
“I’m so hot,” she said again. “I’m afraid I’m going to drip all over you.”
“And then after we ate,” said Charlotte, “and the Father said another blessing, we all sang. Beautiful hymns. The problem with Diana was she wanted us all to react negatively. She wanted us to be angry with her because she was so angry with herself. She’ll never forgive herself.”
“I barely remember any of it,” said Bibi, “I’m still so young.”
“But a child is a child I told her ,” continued Charlotte, “and a blessing from God, and it doesn’t matter what old fuddy duddy way it came into being. Even if it was in the back seat of a beat up old Corolla.”
“Is that what the priest said?” Jack asked.
“Well…, Father Paul is a very pious man. Very pious. One word comes to mind when you meet him—Holy.
“I think he’s an asshole,” whispered Bibi.
Charlotte looked at the ceiling. “He reminds me of….John Paul II.”
Bibi spun her head around, looking at Charlotte, eyes wide, smiling. “He looks just like him!”
“He does,” said Charlotte. “Just like him. As a matter of fact sometimes I believe they are one in the same person.”
Bibi looked puzzled. “What do you mean?”
“Kindred spirits,” Charlotte said. “I think they might be kindred spirits. I’m so happy he’s going to marry you. In any case, regardless of the joy we all felt, he is a priest, and he had a job to do. Diana had fornicated. She was a fornicator—no two ways about it, it doesn’t matter if it is in The Four Seasons Hotel or on top of the refrigerator with nothing on but an apron—and he had to talk to her about it. But he did hear her confession, and he offered her penance. And then once it was done, he pulled me aside outside the confessional, and he started to cry. He told me it was beautiful.”
“Fornicating?” Jack asked.
“And then after she gave birth, he was the first one in the hospital. Blessing the baby again before she was even baptized. A holy, holy man. We’re lucky to have him in our lives. Diana is lucky to have him in hers.” Charlotte wiped at an eye. “In any case, she might tell you some things about me, about all of us, but you need to know that they’re just not true. Diana does that sometimes—she doesn’t tell the truth.”
“She hates my guts,” whispered Bibi.
“I remember when she left the family, left us for the“--Charlotte silently mouthed the word “asshole”again —“and we didn’t know where she was. Not for over a year. I went looking for her everywhere. All over Massachusetts.” She paused, the empty feeling in her head settling in again. Empty but... soothing. “Everywhere from the Berkshires to Cape Cod, and then finally one day I found an old bill from her insurance company—her car insurance—and I so I jumped right in my car and traveled over to get her new address, but of course they wouldn’t give it to me. It’s confidential, they said, but I stood my ground. I’m her mother, they said, there’s no such thing as ‘confidential,’ but they still wouldn’t budge. So then I made a plan.”
“What did you do?” Jack asked.
Charlotte noticed he sweating a little himself now, what was left of his bangs clinging to his forehead. Bibi lifted the spray bottle. Sprayed him.
“Well,” Charlotte said, “I left the building and hid outside in the bushes, looking in the window and waiting for the secretary to go to the ladies room. Oh, I waited and waited. And then as soon as she got up, I raced in and rifled through the cabinet until I found their file.”
“Sounds like Jessica Fletcher, “Jack said. “Diana loves that show.” Bibi had the clippers out now, buzzing the back of his neck.
Charlotte ignored him. “Well, I had to work quickly, I’ll tell you,” she said, “but that’s what I did. I copied down her address—they didn’t have a phone number, despite all the accidents she had been in—and then I raced out the door before the secretary even made it out to find her. And then we—me and Bibi—went to find her. Do you remember that Bibi?”
“I remember it. I was only fourteen. Or maybe I was fifteen. I was something like that. I was still pretty young. And then when we found her I thought, “shit! That’s my older sister!”
“I think you were only twelve,” said Charlotte.
Bibi shook her head. “No. Diana still lived at home when I was twelve. That’s when she got pregnant.”
“Well, it couldn’t have been much after,” Charlotte said. “I remember thinking I had to get you home so you could get some sleep for school the next day. Bibi was our honor’s student.”
“I got all D’s,” Bibi said.
“And I remember sitting in the car, in the snow, and in the, in the…”Charlotte huddled herself in her arms, shivering, “in the cold. It was so cold. Our car didn’t have heat back then, but I had a little trick I used to play in those days to keep warm, picturing myself on a warm beach on tropical island.” She hesitated. “Wearing a big white hat and dark sunglasses, with black men in white suits serving me lemonade.”
Jack nodded. “Of course.”
“Anyway, I had to send Bibi up to the house to talk to her because I knew she wouldn’t let me in, wouldn’t talk to me—she was still so angry with me for loving her so much. She had blamed me for everything that happened with him—said I made her make a choice, me or him, and that just wasn’t true. A mother’s love is unconditional. And here she was, this poor little girl in the dark and cold, ringing the bell.”
“Diana?” Jack asked.
“It was freezing,” said Bibi.
“And what did you tell her?” Charlotte asked.
Bibi jumped up on her toes. “I told her that Jesus loved her! I told her that we loved her!”
Charlotte nodded. “That we loved her and wanted her back.”
Jack was looking at Charlotte, and she could tell he was waiting for her to go on. But she was silent herself, for the moment, just smiling, waiting herself. For something. Anything. A word or phrase to pop from her lips. She never knew when the divine intervention was over, or when it was just beginning. And that was one more thing that made it so beautiful.
“That’s a wonderful story,” Jack said at last.
“It was wonderful.” Charlotte sighed. “And it was beautiful. And now we get to the problem. Now that you’re engaged, I’m afraid Diana is just making the same mistake all over again.”
“What?” Jack said.
Charlotte smiled wider. “I think this marriage is a big, big mistake.”
She watched his eyes. At first taken back. Perplexed. Bewildered, that was the word, bewildered. And then turning just a little bit defensive. Angry.
“But I’m nothing like her first husband,” Jack said.
Bibi had put down the clipper, and was rinsing the scissors again in the Barbarsol.
Charlotte hesitated. “I know you’re not. I think you’re wonderful. Simply wonderful. I tell Diana that all the time. The problem isI just don’t think that Diana is…really quite ready.”
“She’s twenty-eight years old.”
“Twenty-eight going on eighteen,” said Charlotte. “She missed all those developmental years when she was raising Samantha and living away from home, and now I think it’s haunting her. Diana’s main problem is that she’s selfish. She’s always been selfish, and she won’t do anything unless it benefits herself, and that includes getting married—a second time. Her temper is out of control, and her poor little girl—my Blessed granddaughter—is terrified of her. She calls me up, begging me to come stay with them. ‘Please Grandma, please come stay with us.’ All she does is yell at her, blaming her for ruining her life, and once,” Charlotte paused, “she said she hated her. Her own child.”
Bibi sprayed Jack’s head again, and began to run her fingers through hishair. Charlotte watched a small drop of water move down over his brown onto his cheek.
“Now don’t get me wrong,” Charlotte continued, “I have seven children myself, so I understand stress. But I never raised my voice to them, and if I felt like I was going to, I would remove myself from the situation, and prostrate myself at the feet of the Blessed Mother—she burned in the fire—until I had composed myself. Until I got over it. Sometimes it took a few minutes, a few deep breaths, and some serious going back and forth with Our Lady, but I always got over it. And then I would come out and give them a hug. The trouble with Diana is that she doesn’t know how to get over it. Doesn’t know how to hug. And then she takes it out on everybody around her. People like me, and her child. Her poor helpless child.”
Charlotte’s head went blank. And then she was there, in her own thoughts. Younger. Smaller. Seventies pants suits, and piled hair. Wrinkle free and just the right amount of lipstick. Sitting in the front row of church, then prostrate before the stations of the cross. Running the bake sales in the basement of the church, and then waving to Father as he hung his head out the window as she and Martin and the kids drove by the rectory in there woody station wagon and and beeped. Everybody singing at once. Carptenter’s songs…I’m on the top of the world, lookin…down on creation… It was all there for a moment, and then it was gone.
“I’m not sure what you want me to do,” Jacksaid.
“I want you to leave,” Charlotte said.
“You don’t even have to break off the engagement—Bibi and I can just make something up for you—you can just go.” She waved her hands in the air. “No strings. Just go. You’ll be scot free.”
Jack and Charlotte sat staring, eyes locked. Bibi put down her scissors and comb again. “Wa-lah!” she said. “Finished.” She tiptoed around Jack, and grabbed a mirror, holding it up to his face, standing between him and Charlotte.
“Do you like it?” she asked.
Jack nodded a little. Shifted in his chair.
“Just think,” Charlotte continued. “Your whole life ahead of you. Free. You don’t have to worry about two kids, a ready made family, or any of that nonsense.”
Bibi undid the barber’s smock, and brushed off hisneck. Blew a little at the side of hisface and ear.
“Missed a spot.” She stood back and smiled. “I have to go clean up,” she said after a moment, and she scurried off to the kitchen, the empty spray bottle in one hand, scissors, comb and Barbasol in the other. The faucet turned on in the kitchen. Moaning loudly. Air in the pipes.
“And as a little extra incentive,” continued Charlotte, “I’ll even throw in a little treat.”
Jack stood up. “And what would that be, Charlotte?”
“Bibi,” she said, “Just for the afternoon. You can have your way with her, and then you can both go to confession. If that’s what you do. I’m not sure if you celebrate the sacrament of reconciliation or not. I know you celebrate fornication—because I know you sleep over Diana’s apartment, Samantha tells me—and maybe for you that is a sacrament, blow jobs and sex toysand all that happy horse shit, I’m not sure, but I’m guessing a little tryst won’t be an issue for you. In any case, she’ll do whatever you want—we already talked it out, and she’s willing to make the sacrifice, she’s willing to soil her soul to help save her sister’s—and then you’re free to go.” Charlotte hadn’t broken the smile.
The sink turned off in the kitchen, and footsteps pattered down the hall. Bibi. Heading back to her bedroom. A car passed out in front of the house. Charlotte glanced at the driveway and then back at Jack. He was white, his mouth still open, but something again was building in his eyes.
“So what do you think?” she asked at last.
“I think it sounds crazy.”
“Is love crazy, Jack?” she asked. “If I love her, and you love her, and Bibi loves her, is it crazy to do what’s best for her? I think we both know that the two of you getting married wouldn’t be the best thing for her.” Charlotte nodded. “She needs to be with her family. She left her family once, but we’re willing to forgive. That’s what this is all about, it’s about forgiveness.” She paused. “It’s about Jesus.”
“I see.” Jack started to step forward. He shook his head. “I’m sorry Charlotte, but I can’t. I won’t.”
She nodded. “Are you sure?”
“Positive. I think I know who needs help.”
Charlotte kicked her feet in the air again. “Then you passed the test!”
“I had to test you to see how much you loved her. And you passed! I’m so happy.” Charlotte stood up, started towards him as if to embrace me, but then she stopped. “But do me a favor, don’t tell Diana. She won’t appreciate it, and she won’t understand. Let’s just keep it between us.”
Jack didn’t answer.
“Do you want a dish of ice cream?” Charlotte asked. “Double Chocolate? You can eat some ice cream while you wait for Diana. Fiddlesticks. This heat is awful.”
The stereo went on somewhere at the front of the house. Bibi’s room. Charlotte was always telling her to turn it down. A man singing, “And in between the moon and you, angels get a better view, of the crumbling difference between wrong and right…. It was a song Bibi played all the time.
Jack was about to respond, when a horn blew out front. Charlotte walked him to the front door, talking about Stephen. Stephen was applying to Harvard, she said, and was expected to receive a full scholarship. His SAT scores were so high, she said, that the school was already offering him a lecturing position while he worked towards his degree.
“I can just see him strolling about campus in a tweed coat and smoking a pipe,” she said.
They passed by Bibi’s room on the way to the door. Bibi was flat on the bed, now down to nothing but a red pair of panties, high on the hip. She looked over at them , rolling onto her side, and gave a small wave. The ceiling fan spun above her.
Outside, Charlotte stood on the front porch and watched Jack walk to the car. The two children were in back now. Samantha and Calvin. And Diana had that look on her face. Always impatient, always in a hurry. Never taking taking a moment for the Lord.
Diana said something to Jack, and Jack shut the door. The spoke for a moment, and then Diana looked up at the porch. Looked up at her mother.
The sun was beginning to set, breaking in reds, but the sky was still deep blue. It was a beautiful day. Thank the Lord, Jesus Christ, Charlotte thought, for beautiful days. The car began to back out of the driveway, and as it did, Charlotte smiled wide, and began to wave.