Thursday, August 06, 2009

Chapter Two

Today I'm offering for your review Chapter Two of my first novel, still a work in progress, called The Definition of Family. Make sure you've read the first chapter before starting on this one!

FAILURE (fal’yer) Alteration of failer, default, from Anglo-Norman, from Old French faillir 1. The condition or fact of not achieving the desired end or ends 2. One that fails 3. The condition or fact of being insufficient or falling short 4. A cessation of proper functioning or performance 5. Non-performance of what is requested or expected 6.The act or fact of failing to pass a course, test, or assignment. 7. A decline in strength or effectiveness.

I can’t say I was truly surprised when Ma called me to say that May was dead. Drunk driving she said; once again no real surprise there. Somehow I always knew May would come to a bad end. I flew home alone for the funeral. Joe couldn’t get away from work, and frankly, he’s not inclined to visit my parents anymore than necessary. The kids were in school, and they never really got to know May, so what was the point? Ma handled everything so quickly; I barely stepped off the plane before I was standing in front of a closed casket. She had put May’s graduation picture on top, but I couldn’t bring myself to meet those smiling brown eyes. I saw the picture hanging on my living room wall every day, but seeing it on top of what I knew was her dead body made me cold inside.

I am the oldest of Delbert and Georgia Jansen’s daughters. Mama named us April, May, and June, even thought we were born in July, October, and February. May and I were two years apart, June was the little “surprise” ten years after May was born. By the time June was walking, I was busy with cheerleading and band, so I wasn’t around much. And I was gone by the time she was in school. May and I grew up together, we shared a bedroom and a common enemy: Mama. She always knew just how to make Ma mad, and God how I loved her for it. She was brave enough to say everything I wasn’t.

I used to hate the way people reacted when Mama would introduce us, “These are my daughters: April, May, and June.” They always made some “Oh, how sweet” comment. I hated being part of a list that way, rather than an individual. Even if it was just me, she’d say, “This is my daughter April, her two sisters May and June are at home.” I couldn’t even make a nickname out of April, although May managed it.

Going back to Pine Ridge always reminds me of all the reason I left. Pa still won’t look at me. My husband is an engineer for NASA, but do you think that matters? Not one bit, Pa still calls him the “papist idolater.” May told me that she asked him once what that meant just to hear what he’d say, and he became so angry, he turned bright red, stood up, shook his finger at her, sputtering bits and pieces of cuss words and threats. We figured he has no idea what it actually means; he just knows it’s something bad about Catholics. I wonder what Ma and Pa would think if they knew that I only dated Catholic boys.

Ma used to make me so mad with her it’s my way or the highway attitude all the time. I could never win, no matter what I did. No grade was high enough, no award great enough. I got tired of her controlling, so I left, but May was there for another two years alone, poor thing. I guess she showed them though: dead at 22. At least she left behind a child.

I talked to Joe about it before I left, and we agreed that I would bring May’s girl Merit home to live with us. Who knows where her daddy is, and Ma and Pa are too old to be raising a little one. They have enough trouble with June as it is. I know I didn’t do right by May abandoning her to them that way, so at least I could help her little one. I tried talking to Ma about it, and she shut me down. “Papa and I have taken her in.” and that was the end of it; I just said “Well, ok Mama.” I never could stand up to her. You’d think I could over something so important, but instead I slipped right back into old habits and caved rather than raise a fuss.

The funeral was just too much; too many flowers, neighbors gossiping, ministers lying, dusty hymns. Yet in some ways it was too little: too little laughter, friends, crying, too little May. After the service, everyone went to the basement for the meal, and that’s when I got to meet Merit. She was down there with old women who were gossiping about her mother’s death while they plated up jell-o molds and potato salad. She was a quiet little thing carrying around a dirty stuffed animal of unidentifiable species and a thick paperback book. Watching everyone, she sat very still on a folding chair with her arms wrapped tightly around her precious items. I pulled out a nearby chair and sat down. People around us were talking loudly now that the deceased had been laid to rest. Merit looked at me with her mother’s big brown eyes.

“Merit, honey, I’m your Aunt April.”She watched me.

“Did your Mommy tell you about me?” She nodded ever so slightly. “I’ve got two little ones at home a lot like you.” To tell the truth, she looked a lot like Tabitha. “Would you like a piece of gum?” Merit sat up a little and nodded again this time with a bit more enthusiasm. I pulled out packs of Juicy Fruit and Double Mint. “Which one do you want sweetie?” Merit pointed at the mint gum, and I glanced down to pull it out of the wrapper. When I looked back up, tears were streaming down her face, and she was gulping hard to not sob out loud. She took the gum but when she opened her mouth to put it in, a wail let loose that stopped all the talking and eating. I started to gather her into my arms, but Ma was there before I could move.

“Look what you’ve done, what did you say to her?”

“Ma, I-“

“Get away from her, haven’t you done enough?” Ma scooped her up in her arms and pushed Merit’s face into her shoulder. Merit was trying to struggle without dropping her prized possessions. Ma’s strong, but she’s pushing sixty, and Merit was wiggling furiously. Pa pulled his napkin from his collar and threw it down of the table as he stood up, “April, leave your mother alone!” I could feel the weight of everyone’s judgment on me.

I sighed, picked up my purse, and turned to leave.

“NO!” Merit shouted and finally freed herself from Ma’s hold. She ran to me and when I knelt down next to her, threw her arms around my neck. My throat was so tight, I couldn’t breathe or even swallow, and I had to blink back tears. How I had messed things up with my little sister! I pulled the fragile body into mine and hugged her the way I wish I could hug May just one more time.

“Merit, come here,” Ma commanded. The little girl pressed her face into my neck; her hot tears scalding my skin. “Merit, come here child,” there was an edge to Ma’s voice now. Merit released me and pulled away, wiping her nose on her stuffed animal. I saw now that it was an elephant. She turned to walk back to Ma.

“Wait, Honey, just a second,” I pulled the gum back out of my purse and gave her both packs. She took them solemnly and walked back to my mother. I stood up feeling lighter and heavier all at the same time. I had to leave; I was not spending another minute in Pine Ridge.

“I’ll call you Ma, I have to go.” I nearly ran up the stairs into the church and out the door to my rental car in the parking lot. I was driving right back to the airport. I’m sorry May. I’m sorry Merit.