If the Cabrellis were certain of anything, it was that they were a family unit that resembled a landlocked ship. Every one of them had leanings toward greater individuation or dreamed of enchanting distant destinations. Or just wanted a day or two for themselves. But they were bound by not just deep familial affection but loyalty to one another, that tenacious glue not likely to be pried away without great laborious effort. They were the classic American unit, off-kilter and indispensable.
Or so it seemed to her. Sometimes Charlotte imagined herself in a three-legged race though life, doomed to be stumping along while everyone else passed her by. It didn’t help that she and her brother lived with their parents in a crumbling corner mini-manse.
“There’s a gutter that seems to hang low at a corner,” she mentioned to her father after stating the obvious: that the place was starting to crumble more. It wasn’t money, it was lack of time and other priorities.
“I wouldn’t say it’s near crumbling, my dear, it just needs a little repair.” Frances, her father, peered over his readers at her. “I keep an updated list going, don’t worry over it.” he did not want to be irritated; he was still getting used to having Charlotte back home. He was delighted and concerned and annoyed by it. When was the nest going to be emptied?
“And the list keeps going nowhere– hire someone and it’s done in a jiffy, well–a few jiffies,” her mother, Mirabel, said dryly, finely penciled eyebrow rising. She studied a page in her tome of contemporary art. “What we need is great art to improve on what can’t be undone or rehabbed.”
Charlotte nodded, but kept on with her notebook scribbling. She was trying to recall song lyrics that came to her when suddenly awakened too early in the morning. It might be time to give up; she sensed a sore spot of her parents’ was being poked and regretted her own words.
“I think the house still has its graces,” she offered.
“We’ve run out of wall space,” Frances reminded them both with a sweep of his arms, “and that is one of the things on my list to remedy.”
“Are you building another room for my collection, finally?” Mirabel said sweetly.
Frances grunted and left in search of more coffee. It was a Saturday morning but he had a virtual meeting in an hour. He needed a clear mind and a hefty dose of caffeine to prepare him for price negotiations on a new product he might order.
Everyone–her family, friends and neighbors– knew Mirabel had long studied drawing and painting before she had Charlotte, then three years later, Tony. Lately she’d been talking again about putting obligations aside and devoting herself to art. Making it. A residency somewhere might be an effective starting point, she’d said, and Frank had squinted in her direction as if he wasn’t clear it was Mira speaking. (Oh, he guessed she once did do those nice paintings of wildflowers–in college?) But she squinted back, thrusting tiny daggers with both eyes. Frances was thinking how he had more talents unfulfilled–woodworking, for example–and he had precious little time, either, but what was the big deal? He owned Cabrelli Lawn and Garden, and business was booming more lately. This was not the time for Mirabel or him to slow down. That was way ahead, plenty of time to sufficiently relax.
“I think you ought to apply for an art residency, draw and dab paint a couple weeks and see what happens. I know you have thought of it a long time,” Charlotte said to her mother. “Show Dad he lacks the right viewpoint on art–and your creative vision. You will fall in love again…I mean, with creating art!”
Frances shook his head at his daughter and laughed. He thought this a silly idea, in spite of adoring his wife. He generally exited such “conversations of the soul”, as he called them.
“We shall see.” Mirabel smiled gratefully and stood up, shook out her arms and hands, rolled her shoulders.
She had tender spots and aches that indicated she was on the far side of 40, skidding her way down to imminent decrepitude. She had found several new gray hairs threading their way through impeccable walnut brown locks. She sighed and asked Charlotte, “A coffee refill?” Maybe coffee was aging them all, one never knew. It was an obsession of Frances’ that they have the best beans readied for a fresh pot at any given time. He never was any good at letting down, it was always go-go-go.
“I’d love some, use my big grey mug, please!” called out Tony as he slid into the living room, arms open wide. Twenty years old and still sliding around in his sock feet.
“At your service, Mr. Antony,” Mirabel murmured and was gone, her high heeled boots clicking on the tongue-in-groove wood floors. You could hear her all over the house whenever she abandoned comfort (quiet-soled loafers or sneakers) for an attempt at chic. It worked fine now and then, looking sharp and confident.
Charlotte examined her brother. He appeared to be in too good of shape for someone who’d crept in from a party later than was decent. But he didn’t have to go that much bother to shape up. Bags under his eyes did the talking, and also a maze of red capillaries on his eyeballs as he blinked at her. And attractive despite himself.
“Good morning and all that.” he yawned rudely.” It was quite a night… Hey, are you still refusing to go to JT’s next week-end with your friend? That one I like?”
“That greasy food about gags me and you know I don’t like much beer and you shouldn’t drink again. Carly is babysitting her nephew tonight, anyway. She’s ancient, like me, Tony!”
He didn’t need an ID at JT’s but he got a fake one in case anyone bothered to ask. Why bother? Most everyone knew the Cabrellis. And he bought everyone drinks and his birthday was in two months.
“No reason to refuse an offer of a free meal and music, you’ve become absolutely solitary and lazy as a log since you came home.” The words held an undertone–subdued anger? sarcasm? envy? But he plopped beside her. She swatted at him, he pushed against her shoulder and she got up.
Charlotte wanted to tell the truth for a change: Who is lazy in this room? What have you been doing since I have gotten not only a B.A. but an M.S. in social anthropology by age 26? Working at JT’s as a part-time DJ and getting drunk most nights? But she frowned at him, took her book of song lyrics to the sunroom.
Mirabel gave the mug of coffee to her son and took refuge in her office. Let the kids enjoy each other while she schemed how to get away and make art. Tony took a slurping gulp and followed his sister, at which point she gave up and looked hard at him.
“What? What do you want now?”
He managed another small slurp then sat down. “I dented my car last night. But I’m not sure how.”
Charlotte shook her head, put down her notebook, looked out the window at the sheet of rain drenching the sweeping, verdant side lawn. She took a deep breath. This was being home with her family: entering the mouth of a beautiful, testy lion and hoping to get make it out alive again. Likely not entirely whole and functioning. She prayed every night and day for a job far away. Even though the lion was beloved and she’d always miss it.
“Tell me what you know, Tony.” And she did feel ready to listen.
“Lisa and I had an argument and then I had a couple more beers….”
“Lisa again? I thought that was done. But far more importantly, how many?”
He shook his head head side to side and covered his face. “Maybe… four more? After three?…”
It took all her strength to stay seated and not to yell at him, not to call her mother. “A huge overindulgence. Get on with it, Tony, you have my undivided attention.”
And he talked, drank coffee and talked more until he was just repeating himself and getting a worse headache. She saw a brother in serious distress over more than he could articulate. And it hurt her. Scared her some.
“I will help you as much as I can. It may not be much, though.”
“I know I can count on you, thanks. I’ve missed having you home more. Maybe you’ll stick around…despite being preachy and self-righteous.” He smiled, teeth showing.
“Oh come on, you know I’ve always been your advisor, but you ask for it!”
The fledgling song lyrics Charlotte had committed to paper lay dormant in the closed notebook for the rest of the day. Songwriting was, according to her father after dinner that night, a nice hobby but obviously her other capabilities were more sorely needed. And she wondered: was it giving aid to Tony? Was it succeeding at her goals to make her father look even better? Was it buoying up her mother’s artist heart?
What about her own needs?
Mirabel found four residencies west of the Mississippi that looked interesting. They required samples of her work, among other things. Did she have a couple of respectable drawings on her files? Should she attempt a few fresh pictures? One residency was pointedly for women over forty-five, with or without a college degree in art, with or without any exhibits, who had never attended an arts residency. In other words, slackers or newbies. Biting her lip, she poured over the details, insides trembling with excitement.
Or was it fear?
The last time she had created anything was for her best friend’s birthday four months ago. She’d made an original card–something she enjoyed doing. It was a pen and ink with a wash of watercolor. Yes, she got praises from Lara who simply adored anything arty and especially Mirabel’s renderings; she felt they should be framed, and hung on as many walls as possible– why not start a little side business? The woman had no idea how much it took to find time and mental space to make even a throwaway card. She was always engaged in other matters, even filling in at the family business.
Frances rapped on the doorframe, then entered. Mirabel shut her laptop.
“Yes? Was the meeting productive?”
“I think I got what I wanted–not sure they did.” He chuckled and glanced at her desk, then the small gold clock that rested on a square of marble, a find at an estate sale. “I just wanted to tell you I’m swinging by the store and nursery for a few hours. When’s dinner?”
She tapped her bright lips. “I haven’t gotten that far, it’s only late morning. How about take out?”
“Naw, how about your chili? It’s cold out there.” He came closer, gave her a peck on the cheek. “I’m off.”
As she heard him run down the stairs, she reopened the laptop and griped to herself. “How about chili? Well, how about bringing home something fantastic from Stafford’s?” The clock reminded her she had cleaning to pick up, groceries to buy, a stop at Lara’s to get a dress she’d loaned her which would turn into an hour gabfest. She’d see what Charlotte was up to; maybe she could help out. Isn’t that what adult children were supposed to do–help at home when they couldn’t find a decent job and lived off parents?
What an uncharitable thought. When, to be honest, Char had sent out plenty of resumes and had completed three good interviews, just not good enough. And she’d been home only seven months. And she was helpful, mostly with moral support. Unlike Tony, who took more than gave and never offered an apology or any other thought about things. A young man who still collected model planes and cars…would he never grow up? And then what? Was there a decent future for him? Her head felt beleaguered by worry.
Both of her kids would be long gone and glad of it one day. She’d still be attending charity functions and shoring up their business work force, making chili and stuffed Cornish hens when she wanted simple take out and a glass of wine.
Mirabel stared at the residency’s website a long moment. It began to elicit a flaring desire. To nurture her creative bent. To get the heck of out of there, away from all the fine and cracked things and people claiming to be her beloved family. Which they were, but that was often the rub.
“You’d better call Paul right this minute and see what he knows. If he can’t recall, you have to keep asking around until the full story comes to light. Or maybe look on the news?…Tony, you make me crazy! Alcohol will be your ruin if you don’t watch it, I mean it.”
Charlotte left him to it. She had an errand to run.
Tony was in trouble. He called it making another dumb mistake. He had gotten into the argument with Lisa over something not worth recalling. Drunk more then driven home way too late with his buddy, Paul. He’d let Paul off down the street and proceeded home, right? But he had a gauzy memory of Paul yelling at him then he got out of Tony’s Charger. And Tony wanting to fight his best friend. Before they got into it, they gave it up. Paul went into his house as Tony drove on. Barely able to command his body to get the car into their curving driveway, open and enter the garage. And stop. As he stumbled out of the car and rounded the front of the Charger to go into the house, he noted a weird, bad something on the fender. Too bleary, he kept going, forcing his legs to carry him upstairs so he use the bathroom, flop on his bed. Of course he drank too much again, that’s what he did these days.
He knew he’d made some huge mistake after he woke up in a panic and checked his custom metallic blue Charger. He was aghast at the sight of an ugly dent and scrapes on the bumper. A light had a jagged line in the cover, too. It felt even worse when he called Paul and left a message, then had to wait until he called back, angry and still half-asleep at noon.
“What did you feed me last night, bourbon?” Paul demanded. “Now that I’m 21, I can make my own idiotic choices, you’re supposed to stay a lot more sober to drive but no, then to top it off–oh never mind, you’re just in for it!”
He hung up on him so Tony called back to no avail. Then he texted him: What did I do to my car? And something else? No animate objects… right?
Then Paul called.
“Crap, Tony, you knocked over the mailbox. My parents’ mailbox! Plowed it half-down and never even understood what you did. You wanted to fight me when I got mad– you were out of it.”
Relief flooded him, then a quiver of panic. “Oh no! It’s ruined? Even the bluebirds perched on top? What did your dad say?” He was starting to sweat, nausea threatened.
“They’re gone for the week-end, remember? Other wise we wouldn’t be having this nice conversation and our fathers would be having it out. Maybe we can fix it. But I’m so hungover… aren’t you?”
He touched his forehead then wiped his face with a shirt sleeve. “Yeah–but we have to fix this! I’ve got to fix it before my parents find out.”
“Ask Char what to do, maybe she can help smooth things out. Because your dad and mom will see your Charger and then what? And my parents, when they get home, hate to think of it.”
“Oh my perfectly hot blue baby…” He moaned and dropped the phone, ran to the bathroom.
“The bare facts of the matter are that you have a son and I have a brother with a big alcohol problem!”
Mirabel closed her bedroom door and shushed her daughter, then replied as quietly as possible, “How can you determine that? You know young women and men have to experiment until they have had enough! It’s a rite of passage. he has to get it out of his system now, not later when he’s forty or fifty!”
“Not everyone has to go through this stage, as you call it.”
“Well, you were different, you never liked it much, were very studious. Are studious. You have a fine mind.” She placed her hand on Charlotte’s arm and led her to the two big armchairs by a window. They sat. “Not that Tony doesn’t, he just has different strengths…”
“It isn’t one bit about me, Mother, you don’t know what I got up to in college–let’s face up to Tony’s issues here and now. He got really drunk–again–and hit and ran over Carter Harrison’s fancy mailbox.”
Mirabel stifled a snicker despite the discomfort tightened her chest. “A big, unsightly one, you have to admit. But yes, that counts for more than a little thing. He’s never had an accident that I know of…yes, this is not good.”
“He got two speeding tickets, it’s only luck that he wasn’t drinking then.”
“But he’s very young, honey, they do these things, your father was the same. Well, he didn’t drink much and you know he still doesn’t. That was my mother’s side, she liked her wine, her father drank a bit much. But if Tony had a long list of alcohol-related issues, I’d see why you’re so upset. He simply made too close a turn into Paul’s driveway and–“
“Will Carter Harrison feel that way?”
Mirabel sighed. “Of course not, though it was Jane’s idea to adorn their mailbox like that, love birds and all.” She laughed too heartily. It was not stacking up to be a great Saturday evening and she hadn’t even begun the chili. “He’s lucky he didn’t hurt his Charger even more. And I am grateful no one was hurt! It can be fixed. It can all be fixed, Char.”
“Yes, I suppose so. Things are always fixed one way or another–or utterly ignored–around here. I can’t believe you aren’t more concerned about this or Tony.” Charlotte felt tears rise and she swallowed them back down. Steady now. “He’s one day going to get hurt badly or damage someone else, not just his car, Mother! This is no small thing–driving while drunk!”
Mirabel felt the rapid swing of a heavy door deep inside herself–the door that closed tightly and locked up the aches and bruises of the past and kept her feeling safer. Yet her heart galloped because she knew Charlotte was right: Tony had to be taken in hand. She had lain awake so many nights worrying that he’d get home in one piece. She’d nursed his hangovers with him. She’d given him advice on how to stop at just one or two drinks and then told her darling boy that that he should stay away altogether from it, alcohol seemed to push him to the limits. And of course, he was too young to be drinking like that out there. Although…they’d served wine in their home; their kids got to sip at a young age. And it was this way many places. But her son had trouble written all over him now.
Charlotte didn’t know how Mirabel had tried to help Tony, then protect him from Frances’ short fuse over what he deemed sheer irresponsibility. Her daughter had left at eighteen, went far away, and attended university a long time. Mirabel just hated it to be this way now. To tear the sturdy fabric of their family over a ridiculous mailbox, a minor victim.
This time. Next time it could be hell.
“You’re likely right, Charlotte. Your father will be home soon, we’ll face it somehow, deal with it. Thank you for warning me about the accident.”
Her mother put her arms around her. For a moment Charlotte felt entirely protected with care. But then Tony called upstairs, looking for food like a hungry child. They gave each other a long look and went down, toward dinner time, and more.
She walked along the darkening street, shadows melting into rainfall. She’d felt if she didn’t get outside she’d explode into a thousand pieces like confetti sprung from a bashed piñata, but no sweets, no goodies as reward. With a taste of rain on her tongue and wind playing with her hair and leaves crunching under her footfalls she felt more sane, more herself. Less alone.
For months she had watched their mother sigh and gaze out the window, yearning for more–it was worse than her teen years at home–and her brother get drunk, charm everyone and flounder, and their father run in circles with work, always work his medicine and his poison. The house held such subterfuge; she didn’t even want to know what it all was. It was Charlotte so often who was the center of the turning wheel and who people turned to, sought solace from when worse came to worse. It seemed an affliction of hers, this energy of helping that she emanated, but she knew she might be helpful. It had gotten very hard, and she sought freedoms of every sort at a university in Vermont– the far side of the country.
Charlotte had a piece of news, too. News she had kept to herself for three days. She was soon to have an in-person interview at a place she’d admired next Friday. In Honolulu. And she had a good feeling about it, even if it didn’t pay what her father could brag about. It was a nonprofit Institute for Humanitarian Studies and Advancements. She loved saying that over and over, relishing a sense of things to come. And no matter what came of it, she’d be elsewhere, in Hawaii a couple of days. Sunshine, sea air, sea life! Respite.
The moon barely made it appearance from beneath the floating clouds but the rain had stopped. She dug her hands into her rain jacket pockets and found an old ticket for a concert in Vermont. One that had inspired her to try again to write song lyrics, try out her tunes that she had sung to herself. She wasn’t a great talent; it wasn’t that. Though there was a man who she had loved who partnered with her then sang them on their university coffee house stage now and then. Charlotte so enjoyed creating lyrics. No one in her family got it since she rarely sang.
She arrived as rain began to pelt her: Paul’s house, where the debacle had occurred. The mailbox was put into position again, to her surprise; there didn’t appear to be irrevocable damage done. Or the guys had fixed it well. But the bluebirds were gone; she was sorry, but they might be replaceable. There might be little harm done. This time.
She headed back home. But all she could do was care about her family, try to be there when they needed her, yet she had to get on with her life. She had to leave the mouth of the lion and forge her own path.
Tony came bounding up to her out of swaths of dark rain.
“Char! I was looking for you., Dinner’s ready and Dad found out.” She linked her arm with his and they walked slowly, out of sync as ever, trying to better match each other. “He’s so angry with me, you should have seen his face, all deep red when he saw my Charger, then heard about Carter’s mailbox…it was pretty messy. Mom, too. I do feel terrible, Char! But Paul and I worked on the mailbox, as you just saw. I’ll pay for body work as I can, Dad insists. I have more DJing jobs coming up. But he informed me I have to start work at the nursery, too. Snagged at last by the Cabrelli business.”
Charlotte slid a glance at him. He had said all that with an equanimity, no anxiety or outrage. “And that’s fine with you, the last part?”
He lifted his shoulders high, paused, let them slump. “Guess so. I’ve avoided it forever but I’m not ready for more education so why not? Anyway, I have no other choice right now. I might learn something. I might like the it, who knows?” He stopped and turned to her. “What do you think?”
“I think you should take a hard look at your drinking problem before you make other plans or dream any dreams.”
He stepped away, began to walk faster.
“Because I don’t want to ever lose you to alcohol and maybe worse consequences, Tony. I love you– and this family–way too much. So–enough!” Her voice had wavered mid-shout but she got it said.
When she caught up to him, he let her put an arm through his again. In a moment he squeezed it to his side briefly. “Okay, I’ll give that a try. I promise,” he conceded. “Besides, the parents are gunning for me now, I have to stay sober, or at least try hard.”
They entered their family’s elegant home (if constantly in repair) with verdant lawns and a long history that kept on being made anew. They knew the chili would be excellent–they inhaled it like a fine fragrance– and the table would be set beautifully, as ever, no matter what they ate. Even if it was mixed with admonitions and escaping tears, a seasoning of strife, loyalty and care, the meal would be enjoyed and a funny anecdote might be told. Charlotte would finally share her own news. And her mother–she was apt to have something to divulge, as well. They were in this together, no matter what.