Two Wednesdays in a row Vandalia tore holes in Mark’s butt via the telephone when he insisted he had no paychecks for her.
“Come to the warehouse in two weeks, Van,” he said. His hand visored his forehead as he focused on the calendar desk blotter in front of him. “Charlie promised he’d stop by and see us that Wednesday ‘round about quitting time. You can duke it out with him then.”
Van took Mark up on his offer. Showed up at five that day with the two kids incarcerated in their car seats from what we could tell when we peeked outside.
Mom O. tiptoed over to the window and hipped Jason out of the way. Pincer-gripped the curtain and tugged it to the left an inch.
“What on earth did that girl do to her hair?” she said over her shoulder. “It’s the color of blacktop now. And since when was it that long? How could she possibly think that looks natural?”
When Charlie finally showed up, Van followed him into the office. It seemed as if Charlie, like Mom O., didn’t know quite what to make of Van’s hair. After she gave him a half-hearted squeeze, he walked around behind her. Grabbed a hank of hair near her part and followed it down to the bottom. Then he just stood there, futzing with the ends. We weren’t sure if the glint in his eye was because he found it attractive or because he thought it silly.
Van wriggled free then reached into her voluminous handbag and produced a sheaf of papers. She held them out to Charlie.
“Here,” she said. “I got you some more job applications. ‘Cept these ones are for around here.” She sidled back up to Charlie. Rubbed against his side like a cat. “I want you to quit that fracking job out west. I don’t like you being that far away.”
Charlie smirked. “Why, Van,” he said, “don’t tell me you actually missed me.”
Her face didn’t change as she plotted her words. “Of course I did, silly. It’s hard doing everything alone. Plus without you, the kids won’t go to sleep at night for nothing.”
Charlie’s grin increased. “And then there's the fact the kitchen doesn’t get cleaned, the toys picked up. The laundry doesn’t get folded and put away. The—”
Van gripped Charlie’s arm so that her violet fingernails disappeared. Her eyes flitted around the room, attempting to gauge our opinions.
“Charlie, stop that,” she said. “You’ll give folks the wrong idea. Fact is, I do miss you. A lot. And besides . . .” Her voice trailed off as she splayed her fingers on either side of the zipper on her snug-fitting, low rider jeans. She made sure her eyelashes were fanned out just so on her creamy cheeks before she spoke again.
“There’s more,” she said. “I had hoped to tell you this when we were alone but you’re forcing my hand here.” She raised her gaze. Pursed her lips to redistribute their ruby shine. “I’m . . . We’re . . . gonna have another baby.”
As one, our jaws dropped. In the next instant, we found ourselves puzzled by Charlie’s lack of reaction. Without so much as a glimpse at her, he dug deep into the cargo pocket down by his knee and withdrew a granola bar. Didn’t speak until he had the package open.
“Funny you should mention that,” he said. “There’s something I had hoped to discuss with you in private as well. Seeing as how you’re laying things out in the open, I may as well do the same.”
Charlie lowered himself onto the folding chair beside Jason. Took a bite of his bar. Chewed thoroughly. Swallowed.
“You know how Davey and Kendra have been trying for years to have a baby?”
Van leaned on the door jamb, taking care to arrange her straightened black hair behind her shoulders first. She nodded.
Charlie licked his pinky and used it to get the last bits of granola out of the bottom of the wrapper.
“Seems their lack of babies is Davey’s fault,” Charlie said. “They told me that the first night I was out in Colorado, at supper.”
Van’s face remained blank. Like she could care less about Davey and Kendra’s quandary.
“So they asked if I’d—”
Van straightened. The sudden intake of her breath made a scraping sound in the hollow quiet of the room. In the next moment, her face reconfigured. Into someone, something, decidedly less attractive.
“Please tell me they don’t want you—”
Charlie rolled his trash into a ball, squinted, and arc'd it at the garbage can.
“He shoots. He scores,” Adam said without enthusiasm.
Charlie produced a beef jerky stick from his back pocket. Met Van’s gaze as he stripped off the plastic.
“Actually they do. They wanted me to help them have a baby.”
It sounded weird. Charlie using the past tense.
Vandalia rooted in her purse and produced her pink satin makeup bag. Unzipped it and proceeded to attend to her lip ritual. She lined, primed, painted, blotted, and glossed. When she was finished, Charlie spoke.
“I told ’em yes. But then in the screening process, Davey and I discovered yet another thing we have in common besides our passion for American Idol.”
Everyone but Van figured out what was coming next.
“I’m sterile, Van,” Charlie said. “Just like Davey. Something about us both having mumps real bad when we were little.” Charlie pointed to Vandalia’s stomach. “That baby in your belly? And Jeremiah and Hannah? They’re not mine either. You got any idea whose they might be?”
Vandalia’s grape-colored fingernails scraped the doorframe as she clutched it with both hands. To keep from collapsing.
She swallowed before she spoke. “You’re wrong, Charlie,” she said in words that seemed mustard colored. “Of course they're yours. They’re—”
Charlie studied his hands as he meticulously dissected the jerky wrapper into thin strands. We sat in silence as we waited for him to say something else. Finally he glanced up.
“They tested me more than once, Van. Turns out, you’re the one who’s wrong.”
The air in the office felt instantly thick. With a buzzy quality to it. An odd odor, not unlike that of a threatened rabbit, seemed to suddenly take precedence over Vandalia’s Estee Lauder perfume.
Charlie stood then. Fished in his jacket pocket for keys.
“I showed the doctor, the fertility specialist, the pictures of Jeremiah and Hannah I keep in my wallet,” he told Vandalia. “He laughed, the son of a bitch, when I swore up and down they were my babies. Advised me to schedule a paternity test. Before he left the exam room, he said the strangest thing.”
“What?” Jason said. His eyes were wide and eager to know. “What did he say?”
Charlie singled out his ignition key. “He said, ‘You’re from a small town, Charlie. Pay attention. You see a guy with wavy red hair and blue eyes, that’s your woman’s baby daddy.'”
Sweat slicked my palms and armpits as the temperature in the room seemed to soar all of a sudden. My face felt like it might combust or even explode. The minute they all turned and stared. At me.
(This is the final installment of a short story. If you'd like to read the whole piece, go to June posts and start with "Vandalia and Charlie.")