Four years ago a born-again folk duo came through Pulverdale, gigged at the harvest festival, and knocked up Cici Carver’s older sister, Dane, a 16-year-old atheist with a weakness for men who sang harmony. Dane would never tell which Christian folkie was Trevor’s father, and Cici suspected that Dane wasn’t sure herself. Rona Carver bore her teenage daughter’s pregnancy with the cultivated stoicism she’d been honing since she divorced Dane and Cici’s father years before. Kit came and went and came and went, and there was always a spot at the table, and no one Rona’d rather welcome into her bed, but she was no longer naïve enough to expect anything from the man. From Dane, Rona didn’t expect much but disappointment.
Dane did manage to graduate Pulverdale High with Rona watching Trevor during the school day, so in love with her first grandchild that if she’d been able, she’d have nursed him herself. Caring for Trevor was a way to care for Dane without actually caring for Dane. Thus, a situation that might have torn their family apart served instead to broker the only peace Rona and Dane Carver ever really knew. And then, one afternoon that July after she graduated, Dane left. With the baby. Without a word.
Three years later Rona’s house was a-buzz and a-bang with preparations for Cici’s wedding when an unfamiliar car came up the drive. Cici, 18 and newly graduated, had been out back helping Kit and Bear build the dance floor, but the afternoon sun was making her queasy, and she’d started inside for something to drink. She was almost to the porch when she heard a car engine’s protests and saw the enormous rusting-white Mercedes lumbering up the rutty drive. For all the drilling and hammering, no one else had heard the heaving engine.
Time seemed to pass according to alternate principles: spatially, barometrically. The car was a thing of the distance, and then it was so close, Cici felt the heat coming off its hood like fever. And then a person—Dane!—was flying out the door, engulfing Cici, submerging her. She breathed in cheap, buttery shampoo, and beneath that was the smell of Dane: rich, ripe, somehow feral. Dane’s pull on people was more than just attraction—and it wasn’t just men, and it wasn’t just sexual. Men, women, prepubescent boys, adolescent girls, family, and people who didn’t know Dane from a Mormon missionary. People wanted her. They wanted to be near her, to touch her, to breathe her in like air.
From within Dane’s embrace Cici had the sensation of being watched, and she struggled up—like swimming, out of breath, for the water’s surface. The sisters clung to each other as Cici pivoted them toward the car. One rear passenger door now stood ajar, wide and white as an airplane wing, and there beside the door, standing where the driveway dirt met scrappy, mossy lawn, was Cici’s nephew, Trevor Winston Carver, in a grimy yellow T-shirt and long red shorts, and a pair of high-top Velcro sneakers so dirty you almost couldn’t tell they were girls’ shoes. Once a Weeble of baby fat, he’d become a solid, upright, freestanding child, and Cici peeled her body from Dane’s and went to him. She wanted to seize Trevor up like Dane had seized her, to hold his little body and try to understand how this was the baby she’d once known.
Cici moved with blind and urgent instinct, and Trevor didn’t flinch, just stood there bobble-headed and glassy-eyed, his strawy hair stuck up in spots from sleep. She stopped herself just short of tackling him, and sank to her knees in the dirt, looked into his soft, drooly face, the crusty corners of his lips and eyes, the sweaty mat of yellow hair, the dark brown Carver eyes that had won out over the nameless folksinger’s genes. Trevor looked back at her, not scared or confused, just concentrating. Finally he moved his gaze over Cici’s shoulder to his mom, and when Dane spoke, Cici realized it had been three years since she’d heard her sister’s voice.
“She doesn’t look so different, does she, T?” Dane said. “You know Cici, don’t you?”
Trevor looked back to his aunt, and relief seemed to spread through his body. His face opened in glee. “Soccer!” he cried.
Dane smirked. “He’s kind of a genius.”
The photo Dane and Trevor had of Cici was a clipping from the Pulverdale Post’s sports coverage of her ninth-grade JV season, and if Trevor—genius or not—recognized his aunt from that shot it wasn’t because Cici hadn’t changed in four years but because that clipping was the only family photo Dane had.
Cici didn’t notice the hammering had stopped until she heard her father’s voice behind her. “Well, fuck me!” Kit said, and Dane ran at him like she might fling herself into his arms and wrap her legs around his middle like when she was a kid and he’d land on their doorstep, again. Dane was their father’s girl; Cici was their mom’s. That’s how it had always been.
Close behind Kit, Bear nearly got dominoed over. Cici watched Bear, afraid he might simply turn back around, snub Dane the way he felt she’d snubbed her family. But he just waited near Kit like a patient footman and hugged Dane in turn, good-naturedly, if with reserve. “Long time no see, girl,” he said, and this seemed to satisfy his desire to admonish her. Bear and Dane had dated, briefly and long ago, the summer when he was a just-graduated senior, she about to be a freshman at Pulverdale High, a small-enough school in a small-enough town that to have dated all the boys in your class, or even most of the high school, didn’t necessarily mean you were slutty.
Cici was still on the ground beside Trevor, and then Kit was there too, awkwardly saying hello. Kit hadn’t been around much the year Trevor was born. Unsure what to do with a grandkid, then and now, he got to his feet again and returned to Dane. “So, how’d you hear about the wedding?” he asked.
Dane only asked questions, didn’t answer them. “I couldn’t miss my baby sister getting married, could I?” Then she sang, Heard it through the grapevine, honey honey yeah, teasing the man who’d taught her those coy, flirtatious ways.
The song petered out, and Dane now looked toward the house. Rona had emerged onto the porch, wiping her hands on a dishtowel like this was a scene from a western in which women of a certain age were counted on to come through screen doors, wipe their hands on dishtowels, and see what kind of trouble might be afoot. She shifted the towel back and forth, slowly, as if to say that the world would simply have to wait until Rona Carver’s hands were dry. Finally Rona clamped the towel to her hip and breathed in like she might be about to say something.
Cici’s nausea rose. In the yard, Dane turned to her small son, his smudgy face, those Carver eyes gone squinty with confusion. “You remember your Nana Ro, don’t you, T?”
Trevor looked to Rona on the porch. Everything hung on him. A dog barked in the distance. Horseflies circled the compost pile like planes in a holding pattern. And then Trevor’s face seized in an expression that—if you were looking for it, or had a vested interest—certainly could have passed for recognition. Which was all it took for Rona’s girdled regard to go soft. She was steeled to many things in this life, but now her arms fell to her sides and she dropped the dishtowel like a shield she no longer needed. “Trevor Winston Carver,” she said, “you can’t possibly recognize your ancient old Nana Ro.” And who can tell if Trevor actually knew her or merely sensed that he’d make this lady very happy if he pretended to remember who she was. She’d been named for him twice in as many minutes, but people will see what they need to see, and when the name “Nana Ro” bounded out of Trevor’s mouth, the Carvers decided that Trevor remembered his home.
The afternoon continued in that stilted, heady, awkward rush, everyone talking at once, then no one knowing what to say, then someone getting an idea—“We should show Dane the new well!” or “Let’s rehang the old tire swing for Trevor!”—and all of them hurtling off with destination and purpose until that was done and they had to think up something else. Kit and Bear drifted back to their construction. Rona was making cheese sticks for the reception and suggested Trevor and the girls could help. She scooped up her grandson, and three generations of Carvers started inside.
Rona had billed herself as ancient but was actually only 40 and didn’t even color her hair yet, though Cici’d lately suggested it might be time. She lifted Trevor—40 pounds, at least—stuck him on her hip as though it had been days, not decades, since she’d carried her own, and climbed the porch steps. “You got a diaper under there, Trevor Winston?”
Trevor nodded absently, looking over Rona’s shoulder into the redwoods between the house and Pulverdale Cemetery.
“Wet or dry, Mister?”
“Wet?” Rona pressed.
He kept nodding.
Dane paused at the flower bed beside the porch steps, squatting to sniff the roses and reaching in to deadhead spent blossoms, flicking them down like cigarette butts.
“Dane,” Cici called from the stairs, between her mother on the porch and her sister in the dirt below, “you got diapers in the car?”
“He need one?” Dane kept pruning, her voice disapproving, as though garden care had been neglected in her absence. “There’s some in the trunk, I think. Key’s in the car.”
Cici started back down the steps, and Dane stood as she passed, seeming to consider the situation: Rona, with Trevor in her arms, toeing open the screen door. Dane said to Cici, “I’ll come,” wiped her hands on her pockets, and galloped at her sister. She flopped her arms around Cici and herded her toward the Mercedes, singing, I will follow Ceece, follow Ceece wherever she may go. There isn’t an ocean too deep, a mountain so high it can keep, keep me from Ceece … Sometimes, Ceece seemed to rhyme with peace; other times, Cici could only think: grease.
Dane pulled the keys from the ignition and tossed them to Cici: a car key, and another one— smaller, for a padlock, or a garage—attached to a temporary valet tag that read, Gino’s Casino, Las Vegas, NV. Cici opened the trunk. It smelled of spoiled milk and Clorox, and she stepped back and lowered her head. When the nausea passed she lifted her eyes tentatively. Dane hadn’t seen, was stretched, belly down, across the back seat, feet sticking out the open door, digging for something under the front seat. Her chunky mules slid off her feet into the dirt.
Dane’s trunk contained the largest package of diapers Cici had ever seen, squashed into the corner like a bag of marshmallows at the bottom of a grocery sack. The trunk was full of plastic bags from Lucky and Wal-Mart. Some held clothes, and some spilled toys and ointment tubes, Lincoln Logs and Legos and other choking hazards. A miniature plastic arm poked through a Safeway sack as though its owner had died trying to escape. Cici started to wrestle out the diaper package, then stopped herself, removed one diaper—misshapen as a slice of well-traveled Wonder Bread—and shut the trunk again. They could come back for the rest, if Dane suggested it. It was better not to assume how long she might stay.
Cici rounded the car just as Dane unearthed a deformed, drool-matted, dirty-gray stuffed animal. She thrust it at Cici, then heaved herself up. Cici tried to mush the beast back into some recognizable form—elephant?—while Dane slipped back into her shoes.
“It’s a good fucking thing,” Dane was saying. “He cried for Mr. Yucky half the way here. I knew the damn thing was in there somewhere.”
Halfway from where? Cici wanted to ask. Instead she said: “Mr. Yucky?”
“If the name fits …” Dane winked.
Cici stared pitifully at the creature. “Mr. Yucky, you look like you’ve lived some life.”
Dane laughed, and Cici flushed with relief. Sometimes Dane’s laughter, low and false, could make Cici feel ashamed, but this was approving and easy. Dane had started around the car when she paused. “Hey, you see like a blue blanket in there?”
Cici poked her head in. An old unzipped sleeping bag had been mashed into the seat crevice. A laundry bag and a flowered pink pillow were wedged against the door. Cici grabbed a scrap of pilled, mouse-blue rag, a tattered blue ribbon of blanket-binding hanging off it like a tail. She held it up to Dane.
“Just guess what its name is,” Dane said.
Cici grimaced. “Mr. Grody?”
“Doe-doe?” Cici glanced again into the car, the bed where Trevor slept while they drove from wherever they’d driven.
“Doe-doe.” Dane rolled her eyes.
“Doe-doe,” Cici said again. They started back to the house, holding each other close, Dane resting her head—girlishly, affectionately—on Cici’s shoulder. Cici was trying to figure out if Dane didn’t know you had to have a car seat for a child, or just didn’t care. But the old Ford she’d left in had a car seat. This Mercedes—Trevor’d be lucky if it had seatbelts. Clearly, cars, car travel, and car safety had joined the lists of things not to bring up around Dane. Cici wondered—not for the first time—when there’d simply be nothing safe left to say to her at all.
Rona said everyone walked on eggshells around Dane: you accepted Dane’s terms or got no terms at all. But Cici thought it was worse than eggshells: a minefield. You never knew what might set Dane off, so you avoided everything, stepping only on ground she’d cleared for you herself. To displease Dane was to lose her so fast you never knew what you’d done, or when—or if—she might forgive you. When she left with Trevor, people outside the family said she’d be back when she hit trouble or needed money, and surely that wouldn’t take long. But Cici and Rona knew that home was the last place she’d turn. It took her three years to run out of other options. Rona used to have a little framed saying on the wall beside the door: Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in, but she took it down when Dane was 11 or 12 and started running away on a semi-regular basis. Or maybe she took it down after the divorce, because Kit did keep coming home, and Rona did keep taking him in, which was a fine arrangement between the two of them, but she didn’t need it hung up on the wall for everyone to see.
Rona changed Trevor’s diaper. She and Dane kept space between them, handing off Trevor like a relay baton. Rona even managed not to comment that she hadn’t realized they made diapers for children as old as Trevor. She got him set up at the kitchen table rolling cheese sticks, all of which she’d have to roll again, as if she minded in the slightest. Rona had loved her own daughters, surely, but Cici had a hard time imagining Rona deriving such pleasure from making Play-Doh or coloring Easter eggs with her and Dane.
Dane needed a cigarette, so Cici went with her to the porch. Dane smoked and asked questions, sitting sideways on the porch rail, her back against a column. You couldn’t see the ocean from Rona’s, but it was there, beyond the redwoods. The property lay between the cemetery and the water, buffered by thousand-foot cliffs and cragged boulders below. Dane liked to say it was perfect for an Agatha Christie: Death on Either Side.
The yard abutted a section of the Pulverdale Cemetery marked off from the other graves by a waterproof baby-blue banner staked into the earth on two white Little Bo-Peep crooks. Between bunches of pink and yellow balloons trailing their strings to heaven, stenciled white letters announced the entrance to Babyland. It was among the perfect rows of tiny graves lined up like nursery cradles that Dane and Cici spent their playtime as children. In a graveyard in Pulverdale where nobody goes live lots of dead babies in very straight rows. The Babyland babies were their wards, and the girls had tended their graves as though they needed what all babies needed: naps, burps, bottles. They lugged dolls out from the house and lay them to sleep on the dead babies’ graves, headstones as pillows, the dolls dirt-smeared, their coarse doll hair stuck with dead leaves and twigs. Dane and Cici read the epitaphs and made up lives for these little people who hadn’t gotten to live their own: Gracie Cora Geller, May 9–May 11, 1912, We Would Miss You More, Did We Not Know That We Shall See You Soon. Little Gracie, they imagined, would’ve been a hellion. Driven her poor mother to dis- traction. And drink! Flora Linnea Burne, infant daughter of Mary Louise and Carl Anger, Sept. 15, 1933. A prodigy, they decided: sweet and shy and bright as sunrise. Oh What Glory to See a Rainbow From Above! But their favorite was Trevor Winston, Jan. 27–Feb. 3, 1964, If Love Could Have Kept You Here, You Never Would Have Gone. Trevor was their golden boy, the angel of their dead-baby nursery. Years later, when Dane christened her illegitimate, born- again-fathered child Trevor Winston Carver, no one else knew where she’d gotten the name. Rona didn’t spend time in the cemetery, had no idea where Trevor came from, but there’d once been a barn cat they called Winston. She said it was stupid to give a kid the name of a long-dead, mangy Calico. Cici could only imagine what Rona’d say to learn that her grandson was named for a dead infant in Babyland. At the time, it had seemed to Cici like a hopeful gesture, another chance for Trevor Winston in this world.
Dane perched on the porch rail and sucked her cigarette, gazing bitterly into the distance. She exhaled dramatically. “Cici Carver and Bear Winewski,” she marveled. “Who’d’ve thought?” She sounded like Kit, who delivered such canned phrases as though he’d coined them himself. “How long’ve you two been together?” She sounded ready to pull rank and dispense advice.
Cici leaned on the rail and faced the house. “The real answer, or the official one?”
Dane waved her cigarette, shook her head, demanding eye contact. “Duh?”
“Nearly three years.” Cici took both shame and pride in this fact, and expected Dane could hear both in her voice.
“Fuckin’-A, Ceece—what were you, like 15?”
Dane softened. “Three years. That’s a long time.”
“Yeah, it is.”
After a minute, Dane asked, “So what’s everyone else think?”
Cici arched her back, stretched, then let go. “I don’t even know. I think they think whatever they can deal with thinking.”
Dane pulled the cigarette from her lips, aborting a drag, and regarded her little sister with a cocked head and a proud eye. “You’re a smart cookie, Cici Carver.”
Everyone in Pulverdale knew Bear, knew his folks, had cheered him through Little League, varsity, all the way. Straight out of Humboldt State, he’d landed a phys ed position back at Pulverdale High, coaching wrestling, track, spirit squad, and among other things, girls soccer. He’d been 23, Cici 15. No one knew anything officially until Cici’d graduated and turned 18 and they were legal at last and announced their plans to marry that summer. It would eventually be no secret that their love had been such a secret for such a long illicit time, but that was in the past now, and no one wanted to dredge up trouble. People had no beef with Bear and Cici, wished them only happiness, those kids, good kids, both of them.
“How long’d Mom know?”
“Officially? She didn’t.”
“I think she always knew,” Cici said.
“You think? ”
Cici caved. With Dane she always caved. “She knew.”
Dane waved her cigarette again. “And it probably never even crossed her mind to object!” Her tone was admonishing.
Dane noodled her in the side with a bare toe. When Cici turned to look, Dane was all kindness and smiles again, saying, “My baby sister’s going to be a bride!” and Cici smiled back, and they sat there on the porch like a Hallmark Hall of Fame version of themselves.
Finally it was late enough to justify mixing up some gin and tonics, and that helped them get through dinner, which was just steaks and corn on the grill, and some supplementary spaghetti with tomato sauce from a jar, since Rona’d planned a meal for four, not six. In dinner’s aftermath they sat on the back deck overlooking the frame of the small, unfinished dance floor.
“We still have three days,” Kit said.
“The chairs and tables and everything comes Saturday,” Rona reminded him.
“We’ll get it done,” Kit said.
Dane asked questions about the wedding: the plans, details of food and dress, flowers and favors and rings and music. She didn’t ask about people, steered clear of Whatever happened to … lest someone dare to turn the question on her. She seemed excited about the wedding, drawling that she hadn’t “a stitch to wear!” at which Rona and Cici both offered—too quickly, and at the same time—to loan her something, then both pulled back, embarrassed. Dane said she’d figure it out, and Rona joked that she’d be keeping an eye on the window curtains, so not to get any Scarlett O’Hara ideas, which was when Dane, without responding, stood and started to clear the table.
They cleaned up, and then Bear escaped to the basement and left the Carvers—Kit, Rona, Cici, Dane, and Trevor—to sit around their living room imitating the family they’d never been. Rona found an old plastic truck in the shed, and Trevor entertained himself running it over the treacherous terrain of the ill-piled coffee table until he started to get yawny and impatient, pulling at Dane’s legs and clinging to her arm so she couldn’t drink her wine. Rona sug- gested maybe it was time for b-e-d, and left to make up the guest room. When she returned, Dane hefted Trevor from the floor, hitched him onto her hip and instructed him to wave goodnight before they disappeared up the stairs to enact a bedtime ritual that the Carvers in the living room would have been more than curious to witness. Instead they could only overhear Trevor crying plaintive, overtired-child sobs. Dane called down the stairs, “Don’t pay attention to him, okay? He’s just got to learn!” and then a door closed and the shower went on in the upstairs bathroom, and they listened as water ran noisily through the old pipes and the water heater clanked and Trevor cried, “Mom, mama, mama! ” until Rona finally got up and turned on the TV, for which everyone was grateful.
Half an hour later, when Trevor had cried himself to sleep and Law & Order was in the courtroom drama phase, Dane came downstairs, her hair washed and blown out long and straight. She stood beside the couch, laid an uncharacter- istically tender hand on her mother’s shoulder, and said, “You okay to watch T awhile?”
Everyone sat there, not saying yes or no, just watching Dane to see what she’d do next, until finally she said, “I’m just going down to Geo-Jo’s, see if anyone’s there—it’s been ages,” and the only thing to do then was to shrug and nod, Sure, okay. This wasn’t anything new: Dane going out, them babysitting. “He usually sleeps through the night,” Dane said. “He’s a good kid.” And then, in a tone so uninviting and obligatory it was humiliating to be on the other end of its ostensible offering, she said, “Anyone want to come?”
Rona and Kit demurred in the style of old folks who haven’t been to a bar in decades, although they both not only drank in bars regularly but had worked in them for much of their adult lives. Cici was underage anyway, though so was Dane. But Dane had always gotten served, not because she looked so old (though there was a hardness to Dane’s beauty that would age her fast, and her lifestyle, what- ever it was, had already begun to show its wear) but because no one ever seemed to refuse Dane anything.
“Hey, Ceece,” Dane called, “come help me carry some stuff from the car?”
Cici rose, and Kit started to get up too, but Dane said, “That’s okay, Dad, there’s not much.”
Kit sat again, off the hook as always. “ ’Night, baby,” he said.
“ ’Night, Dad.” Dane wrapped an arm around Cici’s waist and herded her sister out the door. “Oh, Ceece, I missed you.” They took the stairs slowly, like lovers lingering in each other’s touch.
“We missed you too.”
“You surviving here with Mom?”
“It’s just till Bear can get the house done.”
“He’s building it himself?”
“Mostly. He’s got some guys helping. It’s straw bale—they go up pretty quick.”
“Just don’t huff and puff and blow it down!”
“Lots of people are doing them here now,” Cici said. “It’s pretty sustainable, you know? We should be able to live in it by the time school starts, even if it’s not totally done done.”
“I might try Humboldt State for a term,” Cici said tentatively, “see how it goes.”
“You know, sometimes I think about doing massage school,” Dane said. “Good money, lots of demand. In Vegas there’s always demand.”
Cici didn’t know if massage school actually meant massage school.
When they got to the Mercedes, Dane turned Cici around to look back where they’d come. “That fucking house!” Dane said. “It’s like being back in high school!” Cici might have reminded Dane that a month before she had still been in high school, and she’d never lived elsewhere. But why bother? It was like Dane couldn’t imagine anyone staying there once she’d gone.
“It’s okay,” Cici said. “It’s not too much longer. We’ve got the basement, so it’s sort of private.”
“Okay, I lived in that room how many years, Ceece? It’s not private.” Dane paused. “My waterbed still down there?”
Cici nodded, than laughed.
Dane laughed too. “That fucking thing!” She shook her head ruefully. “How many summers did I work at fucking Dairee Freez? And I blew it all, practically, on that fucking thing. You cannot fuck in a waterbed.” Still shaking her head, smiling. “That’s my lesson I learned from that one: waterbeds are not for fucking.”
It had taken a long time for Bear to convince Cici that until she brought him there, he had never slept in that waterbed. “No kidding,” Cici said to Dane. “Whose bed do you think it’s been the last three years?” As the words came out she felt instant regret, fear that Dane might find some wrong way to take it. But Dane kept laughing, pulled Cici into a hug, one hand petting her head in sympathy. The moon glared off Dane’s huge white car in the drive.
Dane pulled away first, swept around, and popped the trunk. “Grab those, Ceece?” She pointed to the Pampers. “I got the rest of my be-yoo-ti-ful luggage …” Dane gathered plastic bag straps onto her wrists like a homeless can-collector.
“Think you brought enough diapers?” Cici joked, wobbling the package’s awkward bulk.
“Well, if T doesn’t use them, yours will.” She winked over the hood, all play, but Cici choked, and Dane’s face curled from that mercurial tease to something graver as comprehension shifted into a question. “I didn’t …” she began. “You’re not …?” Dane’s eyes gleamed, and she lifted her hands, weighted down by the bags, as if to dem- onstrate how powerless she was to stop or hide the smile breaking across her face.
Cici peered at her sister over the top of the enormous diaper package. “I bought the test,” she said. “I haven’t done it yet.”
Dane’s smile dimmed. “Don’t do it ’til after the wedding. They can’t blame you for what you do before you know. You don’t need Mom telling you you can’t have champagne at your own fucking wedding, okay?” She was looking into Cici’s face like it was very important that she promise to do as Dane said. Cici nodded, her chin grazing diapers.
Dane slammed the trunk, and they walked the moonlit path to the porch. Cici set the diapers by the door to take some of the bags, but Dane shook her head, set everything down, and wriggled her wrists free. “Can you—?” Dane indicated the bags, then motioned into the house. “I don’t want to deal again tonight.”
Dane stood rubbing her wrists, her head cocked. “You’re going to be such a good mom,” she whispered.
Cici bit her lip and tried not to cry. With a hummingbird’s flurry, Dane popped up, pecked Cici on the cheek, and fled back down the steps. She sprang into the Mercedes, whose gargantuan engine turned over with the rumble of a rockslide, and it took about a 12-point turn to get the car headed in the right direction. Then Dane coaxed it back down the mountain she’d driven up with Trevor just a few hours before, and she was gone.
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