Where the Street Learns Its Curve
by Donna D. Vitucci
As a child, there is a period when you do not leave your yard, a world drawn with a grade schooler’s compass. When you finally walk down the street and spy others, it’s amazing to step outside the known pecking order, to present you, only you, with no family attached. By the time you meet Connie Marlowe, her dead mother’s name was not spoke. None of you’d known this family existed, suffering and crying and being winnowed.
As a child, when you’re driven down streets, and especially with regularity your own street, your world begins to fan out. Your sponge-mind sees, accepts, files and your base expands concentric. Your core is the core of your one tree, and you are its pith.
Soon you can skip down the road in your mind and identify Donovan’s blue ranch, Bender’s new modern black-roofed house, a peach colored brick ranch with a mystery owner; Mrs. Overbeck’s shady porch attached to white clapboard; and then Marlowe’s blond brick ranch with pink trim, where Mr. Marlowe’s red truck anchors the gravel of the far right drive. Cars park on a second driveway of blacktop to the left of the front yard, partly blocking out a net-less basketball hoop.
Mr. Marlowe has a temper. With a swarthy complexion, prominent nose, dark eyes and hair that falls insistently front from slicked-back-ness, he’s the handsomest dad next to yours. Inside his house you learn to watch your mouth. He is “in sod,” and he can mow you down.
You’re lucky he doesn’t remember your name; he might tease you to the hilt or tell you to clear out of his headache. You can’t rest easy around this moody man. You, your little sister Karen, and Shellie, the girl next door — you’re just a locus of gnats circling Connie and her younger brothers Colt and Petey. Connie’s skin tone, and the boys’ too, make you guess their mom had been of the tropics, their mom a vacant color now cold in the ground. Her being dead polishes up the Marlowes. You want inside that family.
Winter shrinks the circle to you and Karen, the school back-and-forth, sledding the backyard where Mommy can watch you from the kitchen window as she irons. Tag-along Shellie from next door might join, since she never fails to horn in on your sled hill. She calls it her hill. You all climb it and sled it and use it and claim it. You learn to share, otherwise Shellie’s brother will bean you with an ice ball. The snow is deep, winter long, and homework incessant. The Marlowes ride your school bus, but Connie’s not assigned to your classes. Whenever you see her, she’s bundled in a blue coat with a hood, she goes hatless, her brown eyes wide in her dusky face. Her laughing with the boys in the back seat intimidates and needles you. In school’s realm you don’t even act friendly. Her bus-wiles and cutting up make her smarter than you by leaps.
Neighbors learn Mr. Marlowe has married Sadie Henfair over the winter. How? When? Where? This was no white dress church occasion, or people would have known. Talkers easily deduce the why– to help corral his five children. Alone he sure couldn’t do it all, or do it right, not even a little bit. Children sixteen down to six, with Petey the wobbly first grader. Sadie adds her three colts to the barn—Jeannie, Sophie and Monique—12, 15 and 8. Too many names, but names are mostly place holders. Concentrate instead on the constellations, their creep across heaven, how the seasons suck and shed light, as your legs lengthen and strengthen and you lose your baby fat.
The Marlowe-Henfairs are the one blended family on your street, in your neighborhood, in your parish. Connie acquires a same-age step-sister. Jeannie’s in Connie’s and your seventh grade. Call neither of them Cinderella.
Jeannie rubs her fingers absentmindedly across her forehead as she watches Connie push a white leather belt through the loops of her hip-hugger jeans. Boys just won’t leave Jeannie alone. Boys glom to Jeannie like bobby pins to a fridge magnet. Her forehead’s bumpy as sandpaper while Connie’s free of blemish, but the phone ringing constantly for Jeannie’s got handsome Mr. Marlowe in one of his black moods. All three of you bolt downstairs because he makes Jeannie take it in the kitchen where he sits at the large trestle table with his new wife. None of the girls are allowed phone privacy–one reason why they each, eventually, will run away.
For now it’s much lesser crime– junior high’s worst boys calling and asking for Jeannie, and while she talks with her back turned and her shoulders hunched to guard what she can, Mr. Marlowe says, “Bees to the new hive.”
Sadie says, “Shush,” puts the hand she’s smoking with on his wind-worn hand. Dark-skinned all summer and winter, for the moment he even glows.
You’re the smartest in the room but also the most naïve. You sense something shameful in Mr. Marlowe’s simple words. You swear you won’t be caught up with Jeannie, you’ll never be named alongside her, and you’re out the door in a flash.
A long alcove beside where the stairs cut into the second floor serves as the Marlowe children’s closet. Their clothes hang on long garment racks like those in a department store’s back room—boys’ to the left and girls’ to the right. Minus any electric light there, the shadowy space inspires a confessional mood. Funny how no light fosters light. Your Catechism-coated childhood is starting to crack, and why? Because amped-up wattage in the back seat on the school bus. Because Connie’s new half-family. Because Education Night the school required junior high parents to attend, where they divided boys from girls and ran gender-specific filmstrips about your changing bodies and God’s intentions. How can a “unique woman” emerge from your squirming? You look like puberty sounds—puny, half-formed, and eyeless.
In the Marlowes’ finished attic all six children sleep. Four beds whose head boards meet the wall along the closet exterior sketch out the girls’ section. Beds are arranged in a line a giant rabbit could bounce across one-two-three-four, if anyone could get away with jumping on the beds. A dresser with a mirror and a chest of drawers hold underwear, folded clothes, makeup, and jewelry you can buy up the street at Chinatown.
When Sophie turns sixteen she’ll drop out of school to work there, will be promoted from cashier to service desk to front end manager. Chinatown will be her realm. Sophie sits and rats her hair before the dresser mirror. She adds two inches to her height and three years to her age, after the liquid eyeliner. Round the attic’s corner to the top of the stairs and that dead-on area holds one bed that Colt and Petey share. Colt’s skinny ranginess doesn’t handicap him when he’s pounding his little brother. He’s elusive and slippery, you’ll learn. Sophie may be new to the house but she’s got vibrancy. Maybe she’ll teach you how to be taller, hotter. Sophie erupts from the bench, breaking the boys apart, whopping Colt with her rat-tail brush: “Leave. Him. The hell. Alone!”
Jeannie has been seated cross-legged on the floor, in a corner of the attic closest to the window, out of any fray.
“Who’s the smart one now?” she says. She winks at you. She’s got this whole new family of hers sussed out, and you’re not related but she includes you in the sussing.
She’s been penciling darker her rather light-brown eyebrows, and as in Sophie’s case, eyeliner also makes Jeannie Eqyptian-eyed. All the girls in the Marlowe house wear eyeliner. They are sister raccoons while you are of an entirely other species; you pace, hunted, through attics and basements. You haven’t got the goods these sisters have. They see you as furniture. Among them you might as well be hairless or blind. You are the bench where they rest their backs, the step-around in the kitchen while they’re intent on the door, and still they’re careful not to knock you over.
Donna Vitucci’s stories, poems, and creative non-fiction have been published in print and online since 1990. Her novels IN EUPHORIA, SALT OF PATRIOTS and AT BOBBY TRIVETTE’S GRAVE are 5-star-reviewed. Her most recent novel, ALL SOULS, along with the others, is available through Magic Masterminds Press. A Midwestern girl, she has relocated to the North Carolina piedmont, where she enjoys gardening, reading, walking and yoga.