Monday, July 11, 2011

Nery Legacy (7): Setting Things Straight*

    It had been a busy week. The twins were home from college for the summer, and the school rivalry had come home with them. He’d broken up one fight when Court had shoved Brendan in the hallway upstairs. He’d wound up taking a fist to the chin, and the boys had lost their cars for the rest of the week. He didn’t care whether or not they were eighteen. They were his sons, and they were by God going to respect the rules of the house, even if their mother was too lazy to keep up with what was going on with their sons. Thank goodness for private schools. He wasn’t sure that he wanted Randy raised by a nanny, and he and Carrie were both usually busy with their careers, him in law and her in politics.

    But Malcolm had taken off the week from work, canceling all of his appointments and trying not to be pissed off when Carrie refused to help in the search for their niece. Mal was close to his brothers, and he thought of his nieces and nephew very much as he thought of his own children. If Charlie was missing, it was part of their responsibility to look for her.

    Today was a paperwork day. Malcolm had taken it with him to his brother’s house, where he made a few phone calls and then settled back to go over the documents that he would have to present to the court regarding custody of his niece Maia. Though Raph had been considering moving into the old family home, where Malcolm now sat at the kitchen table (and where their brother Ben lived with his wife and their two daughters, one of whom was currently missing), his older brother had decided that for right now, it was best he sleep on the couch and give his bed to his daughter, when Mal was able to get the final paperwork signed so that everything was tied up tight.

    Here with his brother Ben, everybody was waiting for the other shoe to drop. Charlie, Mal’s sixteen year-old niece, had gotten into a fight with her mother, and disappeared the next day. She’d left a note, saying that she was leaving and not to look for her, and that she’d left because of the fight with her mother. The concern that Mal had was that the fight had become physical. Ruby, Ben’s wife, had slapped her daughter when she found out that the sixteen year-old was pregnant, and when the police came to question the family about Charlie’s disappearance, the facts of the case had come out. So far, there had been no contact from child welfare, but Malcolm had learned that you never trusted the police, and you certainly never talked to him (which of course his brother and sister-in-law had done, breaking the cardinal rule of protecting yourself from a corrupt police system. Malcolm had taped a copy of the constitution to the fridge so that they could read it every day and remind themselves of their rights should the police get funny during the search for their daughter).

    “Who’s gonna get Randy?” Mal’s niece Clarissa asked from where she was sitting across the table and putting his papers into order for him. “I mean, when you an’ Aunt Carrie get divorced.”

    Malcolm had set the ten year-old with a job to keep her busy just so that she wouldn’t ask that kind of question, and he groaned inwardly. He knew that Ben was trying to get her to tone down with the gossiping, but she’d caught on to it and never let it go. He wondered, sometimes, if the closeness that his family possessed might sometimes be a bad thing. After all, it seemed that this gossip was the sort of thing that his wife was involved in all the time in her political career. He tried to ignore the questioning, since he didn’t think that it was Clarissa’s business who got custody of Randy, or the fact that he was pretty sure that Carrie didn’t have enough concern over her sons to even try to get custody of them. They were divorcing and still living under the same roof right now anyway. How did he explain that one to his niece?

    “Uncle Malcolm?” Boy, the kid could be pushy.

    “It ain’t your business, Clarissa, so I think it’s time you just shut your mouth up an’ stopped askin’ those kinds of questions. I woulda thought your daddy taught you better, but if he ain’t, then I can start workin’ on it.”

    When the girl went quiet, Mal felt a tug of regret. He glanced up at her, but she was just watching him intently. He frowned and put his pen down, then pulled off his glasses and put them down on the paper he’d been going over. “What is it, Clarissa?”

    “Daddy said he wasn’t gonna divorce Mama ‘today.’ Does that mean he’s gonna divorce her someday?”

    Inwardly, Mal groaned. If that was what was on Clarissa’s mind, her parents were better people for her to be talking to about this. But knowing Ben, he wasn’t talking, and he’d always known Ruby to just sort of sweep things under the rug. He sighed, staring at his niece for a long time. “Maybe,” he said. “I think it depends on whether they find your sister. If they don’t... I don’t know what’s gonna happen, baby.”

    “Daddy’s real mad at Mama. Cause Mama called Charlie a whore, an’ she smacked her.”

    “He ain’t mad at her, Rissa. Not any more. An’ far as I’m concerned, he got every reason in the world to be mad at her. What your Mama did was wrong, Riss. Your parents are both sufferin’ the consequences, an’ Daddy didn’t do nothin’ wrong. That’s somethin’ for you to think about.”

    “Daddy spanked her. Mama I mean. She was cryin’ real loud. I heard her.”
    The statement made Malcolm uncomfortable enough to elicit a small laugh. He shook his head at Rissa. “I’m sure that ain’t true,” he said. “Daddy doesn’t spank Mama. He might smack your bottom when you need it, but not with Mama.” Whether he was right or wrong, Mal didn’t really care. He wanted the subject dropped. If Ben and Ruby engaged in that sort of activity, it wasn’t his business, but more than that, it wasn’t Clarissa’s business, and if they were doing that, they needed to keep it a lot more private than that. He’d have a chat with his brother later about keeping their private life private, but he suspected that part of the problem was that his niece just didn’t know how to mind her own business.

    The paperwork was done, and he was about to hand the rest of it to Rissa when he thought better of it. It was all personal stuff, most of it between him and Carrie, but some documents related to Raph’s custody of Maia, and he thought they were written entirely in legalese that Rissa was unlikely to understand, he didn’t want to take risks. “Give me those,” he said, reaching for the papers that he’d already given her. Most of these were innocuous, and he stacked everything together and put it back into his briefcase.

    Ben and Ruby were in town talking to the police, and then he was quite sure that they were going out on another canvass. That left him at home with Clarissa, and because nobody felt that it was appropriate for her to be going out on the runs with the adults, he figured that it was going to be this way at least for a while. So he stood up and went to the fridge to pour two glasses of sweet tea, then brought one of them back to Clarissa. “So, does Charlie talk to you much?”

    The ten year-old shrugged her shoulders, and Mal raised an eyebrow as he sat back down. He caught her eye, and she shrugged again. “Sometimes. We didn’t used to, but I heard her cryin’ a couple months ago an’ we started talkin’ then.”

    “What happened?” Mal asked. For the most part, he didn’t like that his niece was a gossip, but sometimes he thought that the information could help him. As best as he could tell, nobody else was talking to Clarissa about what she knew about Charlie, and somebody had to. Even the police had written her off as insignificant. If there was something she’d told Clarissa that could help them find her, they needed to know what it was.

    Clarissa looked uncomfortable for a moment, her cheeks growing pink, and Mal studied her for a long time, his dark blue eyes on her until she nibbled at her lower lip. The expression in her eyes made him smile. She could read her easily enough in that he could see she was debating how much to tell him. Odd how she could share information when it would get her what she wanted, but when it was important, she held it back. It seemed to him that maybe gossip was something like a drug. So Mal leaned forward conspiratorially. “What did she say?” he asked her again, trying to make his eyes twinkle with mischief and shared secrets.

    He wasn’t sure if he was pulling it off until Clarissa grinned at him. “Mama gave her a spankin’ cause she said she wasn’t gonna do her chores an’ she was gonna go out instead. Then she asked Daddy for the car. Mama was kinda upset. I remember.”

    Malcolm knew that there had been some problems with Charlotte’s attitude but, as Ben had told him, they had mostly been typical “teen stuff” and had been quite fleeting. Teenaged girls and their mothers often fought. He was aware of that, though he did wonder if there was something more going on with Ruby. His first guess was that she was jealous of her sixteen year-old daughter, which wouldn’t surprise Mal at all. Ruby had always had a jealous streak in the time that he’d known her, and it was more than that, too; Ben did spend a lot of time on the girls, and perhaps too little on his marriage. But who was he to give marriage advice? He was getting divorced following his wife’s affair.

    “What did Charlie say?”

    “Well...” Clarissa licked her lips, and Mal thought that she was really warming up to her story now. He wasn’t sure that he liked that about his niece, the way that she seemed eager to talk about her sister being in trouble. It wasn’t an attractive trait in a person, and for a moment, he felt shame at asking her at all. After all, the conversation between Charlie and Clarissa had been private, and what prompted the conversation even more private again. “She told me how Mama made her bare her bottom, an’ how much she hates it when Mama an’ Daddy do that.”

    This part of the story was probably contrived, Malcolm realized, the product of a childish fantasy of what it must be like for an older sibling to be punished in such a childish way. Though he had no doubt in his mind that Charlie probably had been punished, he didn’t think that she would have talked about the details of the punishment with Rissa. Once again he was left thinking that it wasn’t pleasant the way that the ten year-old seemed to enjoy her story so much. However much Clarissa was enjoying her story, Mal didn’t want or need to hear the details of the punishment. He was more interested in Charlotte’s thoughts than in her actions. But if he had to get through this to keep Clarissa talking, that’s what he was going to do. “What else did she say?”

    “She told me about how Mama made her do it herself, an’ then she hadda lay over Mama’s lap like she was a little girl. I ain’t been spanked since I was seven. I can’t imagine bein’ sixteen an’ gettin’ a spankin’!”

    Bingo, Malcolm thought. The story was at least partially made up, though he had no doubt that the two sisters had talked about something that had happened between Charlie and their mother. He was getting to the point when Clarissa couldn’t avoid giving him the information that he was looking for.

    Mal cleared his throat. How did he steer Clarissa in the direction that he wanted her to go? “How did Charlie feel about that?”

    Now the ten year-old really brightened, and Malcolm felt a flood of relief. Maybe she was getting to the climax of her story after all. Clarissa leaned in, and lowered her voice. “She said that Mama an’ Daddy hate her. An’ that she was thinkin’ about running away.”

    The emotional reaction was so immediate that Mal had to tighten his fingers into a hard fist as he stared at his niece. “Did you tell somebody?”

    Clarissa drew back, but Mal didn’t try to hide his frustration with her. He didn’t see the point. Her actions lately had been in some ways helpful, but he was beginning to understand why his brother was at a loss with his younger daughter. After a moment, the little girl nodded her head and bit her lip. “I told Mama.”

    Dammit, Mal thought. What the hell?


    Only one of the Nery men had married well, at least in Malcolm’s opinion. Raph might have had some responsibility in his own divorce, given that he had been engaged in an ongoing affair at the time that Mandy left him. What had happened since then, Malcolm didn’t even want to think. Amanda made Ruby look like mother of the year, and it disgusted him that she still had custody of the children, especially with the way that she moved them around the country, avoiding Raphael. Even if his brother wasn’t paying child support, there was a court order for visitation. Carrie might not have been so bad if she hadn’t been a backstabbing, adulterous... politician. But Bridget shone, and when they were together, he could see the way that she lit up Seth’s world. It made Malcolm feel good, and he appreciated, especially now, the way that she had taken Clarissa out of the house so that he could call the much-needed family meeting with all of the adults present.

    Ben was the oldest, and perhaps the most protective over his brothers, their wives and their children. But Malcolm thought of himself as the head of the family in their father’s absence. After all, he’d been the favorite child of their parents, spoiled more than any of the other children. He’d been the most cheerful as a child, though things had changed, and now there was no doubt that Seth was the most likable amongst them. It almost made Malcolm laugh, but with his family gathered, he thought better of it.

    Ruby had served up iced tea to all of the men, then taken a seat off to the side. Malcolm was smart enough to pick up on the symbolism of the gesture, though he thought that her actions were perhaps a bit passive aggressive. It bothered him to think that the girls were being raised with her throwing her weight around in such a manner. Passive aggressive behavior could be like a hammer used to truly abuse the unwitting, or even those who recognized it for what it was.

    “Ruby, sit with the family, please,” Malcolm said in his firmest voice. His sister in law was older than him, and he recognized no need for a woman to obey a man by virtue of being a woman, even if that was how it had worked in their house growing up. Mal had simply chosen to ignore his mother’s deference to their father, and he had overlooked the fact that all three of his brothers seemed to expect the same from their wives. He’d never tried to push his weight around with Carrie, and it wouldn’t have occurred to him to do so, even in light of the affair.

    When Ruby didn’t move, Ben cleared his throat. Malcolm didn’t look in the direction of his brother, but nodded when Ruby finally complied. “I’m gonna say this once, an’ I ain’t tryin’ to be mean. But that kind of passive aggressive shit is one of the reasons you’re havin’ problems with your kids. Cut it out, an’ act like a mother instead of some teenager yourself. You might have better results.”   
    “Mal...” Ben said warningly.

    Malcolm held up his hand to his brother, shaking his head. “No, Ben. It’s time that somebody said somethin’. We’re all in this together. I ain’t gonna have us brothers backin’ you up, an’ even Bridget out there all pregnant an’ lookin’ for your daughter while your wife pulls some passive aggressive routine tryin’ to make everybody feel sorry for her. She got into this mess, an’ she’s gonna have to cooperate with gettin’ us out of this mess.”

    There was a moment of silence while everybody looked at him expectantly, and Mal took a drink of his whiskey. He was drinking, but wanted the rest of the crowd sober. It had been a long week for all of them, but he felt like the whiskey would clear his head. “Now listen to me,” he said. “I had a talk with Clarissa earlier. She told me that she an’ Charlie had a talk a couple of weeks ago, an’ Charlie said she thought Ruby hated her.” He held up a hand before the woman could object. “It’s part of bein’ a parent to teenagers. You done some wrong things, but any teenager is gonna think at some point that her parents hate her. An’ before it’s over, you’re gonna be thinkin’ she hates you, too. So I ain’t gonna have anybody accusin’ me of bein’ too hard.”

    Malcolm paused, then put his drink down, finished with it with half the tumbler still full. He pushed it away, letting any one of his brothers pick it up if they should want it, then he finally sat down in the chair that Ruby had vacated. He leaned forward, folding his hands and putting his elbows on his knees as he looked at everybody. “Rissa also told me that Charlie told her she was plannin’ on runnin’.”

    Although he might have gone on, the gasp from Ruby made Malcolm pause, and he looked toward his sister-in-law and cocked an eyebrow at her. “She also said she told you about it.”

    Ruby shook her head, and Malcolm’s heart sank a little bit. One of the two were lying, and he suspected, under the circumstances, that it had been an embellishment of the story on the part of the ten year-old. What made things worse, he wasn’t sure that he could confront her about it. There were two potential problems with doing so. The first was that Rissa was only ten years old, and if she felt threatened, the lie was likely to get deeper. The other was the fact that she might have convinced herself that things had happened differently than they had, as a means of coping with the situation that was happening in her family.

    “A’ight,” Mal said. “So that’s one lead that we’ve lost.” He shrugged his shoulders. “I was hopin’ that maybe Clarissa had more information, but if things didn’t happen the way she said they did, then I don’t think that we’re gonna get any real information out of her, at least not the kind that’s gonna help us.” He shrugged his shoulders again, disappointment flooding through him. “We done called all her friends. Anybody talked to Greg recently?”

    “He went out with us this afternoon,” Ben said wearily. “He said he’d gotten a phone call from her but the number was blocked an’ the police weren’t able to trace it. One of them throwaway cell phones or somethin’, registered to some homeless guy. The police say they think she’s stayin’ with somebody, but so far nobody’s speakin’ up.”

    Malcolm nodded. “Well I ain’t an investigator, so I ain’t gonna be much help in the department of findin’ missin’ persons. But I do got more to say.”

    Four sets of blue eyes looked expectantly at Malcolm and he cleared his throat anxiously. “Well. Yes. First thing I wan’ed to say is this: She’s comin’ home. Charlie’s gonna come home. I suggest, Ben, that you put somethin’ on the answerin’ machine in case she calls. Make it invitin’. Tell her about how she ain’t gettn’ punished an’ if she’s in trouble she oughta leave a message or come on home. How you miss her, an’ you love her, an’ how important she is to this family.”

    “Consider it done,” Ben said. “Been thinkin’ about goin’ on the television too. Get some media coverage. Maybe she’ll see somethin’ an’ call us.”

    Nodding his head, Malcolm agreed with his brother. “I think Ruby’s gonna have to say somethin’ too. Let Charlie know she wants her home. That’s the biggest factor. If Charlie really does feel that strongly that her mother don’t care about her, she’s gonna need to hear it straight from the horse’s mouth. No offense, Ruby,” he added. He nodded in her direction, then cleared his throat. There was more, but how to say it? Especially with an audience?

    “There’s one other thing,” Malcolm started. He reached for his whiskey again. He was going to need it to get through this part. “I don’t care what any of y’all do in the bedroom. You wanna engage in some hanky panky spanky in the bedroom, that’s fine by me. Nothin’ wrong with a little kink. Back when we were first married, Carrie used to like to tie me up. No big thing. But I never let my kids know it was happenin’.  You’ve got enough goin’ on with the police comin’ in an’ out through this house an’ the last thing you need is Clarissa talkin’ about how she heard Daddy spankin’ Mommy.”

    When he looked up, Ruby’s cheeks were beet red, and he noticed the color at the tips of his brother’s ears, too. “She heard us?” Ben asked.

    “At least once,” Mal told his brother seriously. “Told me you had Ruby screamin’.”

    Ben closed his eyes for a moment, then sighed heavily. Mal almost felt bad for his brother. “She been snoopin’ around. There ain’t no gettin’ around her, or away from her. She knows everythin’ from the fact you’re gettin’ divorced to how much trouble Bridget had gettin’ pregnant. Heck, she informed me, quite proudly, that it took three tries of the in-vitro to get her a baby that stuck, then told me all about the process of selective reduction, back when they were considerin’ it as a possibility.”

    “Be more careful,” Malcolm admonished. “That ain’t somethin’ she should be hearin’. An’ there ain’t no reason she knows about your sex life either,” he told his younger brother, frowning at Seth and shaking his head.

    “An’ there ain’t no reason she knows about your divorce,” Raph said from where he’d been quietly sitting on the couch.

    Raphael and Malcolm had the hardest time getting along of any of the four brothers, and Mal leveled a look at his older brother, then shook his head, his jaw clenching with agitation. “No, perhaps not,” he agreed. It seemed that if there was one of the brothers Rissa knew the least about, it was Raph, and that was probably just as well. He had enough skeletons in his closet as well. He wanted to say something about the child support he’d been paying to Raph’s ex, but he kept his mouth shut.

    “There’s one more thing I wanna cover, an’ it ain’t directly related to Charlotte. But I wanna say this. I ain’t gonna have my niece goin’ from a bad situation to a worse one. I’m talkin’ ‘bout Maia. Her mom’s had her movin’ all over the country the last nine years an’ I think it’s about time we put a stop to her livin’ in cramped apartments all the time. Now Raph has asked if he can stay here, an’ we all know this is the family homestead. This farm has been in our family for three generations an’ we all know what Granddad would have wanted.”

    “I hardly think that this is the right time!” Ruby’s voice was indignant, and Mal gritted his teeth against the urge to snap at her. He didn’t necessarily like his sister-in-law, but the truth was that this was a very difficult time for her. But it was also a difficult time for him (going through a divorce and trying to figure out who got the house and the kids), for Seth (dealing with his wife who was in a high-risk pregnancy with twins) and for Raph (who was trying to get custody of his kids) as well.

    “Are you sayin’ that Charlie’s more important than Maia?” Malcolm asked before Raph could get fully engaged to fight. “Cause I’m tellin’ you right now, she ain’t. An’ I ain’t sayin’ that just cause they’re my nieces an’ not my kids. I’d feel the same way if it was Randy out there, or one of the twins. So let’s not act like one person’s problems are any bigger than anybody else’s. Raph can start movin’ in tomorrow. We’re pickin’ Maia up at the airport next Friday. An’ honestly, Ben? You could do with the help around here. Somebody to stay with Rissa when you gotta go out lookin’ for Charlie if she ain’t back before Maia gets here, maybe somebody to help with the chores. There’s a lot goin’ on, an’ you’re gonna take the support. Got it?”

    Normally he wouldn’t have thought to talk to his older brother that way, but Mal was on a roll, and he wasn’t going to hold back anything. “Meeting dismissed. I’ll take care of the dishes, then I’m goin’ home. Raph, you’re comin’ with me so we can talk about next week. Seth, you get Bridget taken care of when she an’ Clarissa home. She’s been stressin’. I can see it in her face. Tell her to lay low. I’m done talkin’.”

    With a deep sigh, Malcolm got up and went into the kitchen to finish off the dishes, offering up a silent prayer that they would find his niece without any further incident.

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