Family is Important

My sister is a strange person. I should know. I've lived with her for thirty years, ever since my son Charlie was born. Hester took us in when my husband ran off, leaving me with a new baby and no money. Unless you call twenty-two dollars money. Hester had a good job teaching history at the high school and we raised Charlie together. In exchange for room and board, I kept house for Hester. It was an arrangement that suited both of us.

Charlie grew up well fed and secure in the love his aunt and I gave him. And if we didn't play baseball with him, we sent him to the Boy Scouts and Hester made sure he had music lessons and lots of books to read. He was always a quiet boy and he liked to spend time in his room listening to records when the other boys were hanging around the mall or cruising around in their fathers' cars. But we agreed it was his personality and you shouldn't try and change a person. As far as I was concerned, he never gave us a day's worry, but Hester always worried about him growing up without a father. I reminded her that in Charlie's case, this was a good thing.

When I took a bad fall last April and couldn't keep up my end of things, Hester hired a local girl, Jean Rogers, to do the housework. I liked Jean. She was a kind of free spirit, always singing at the top of her lungs while she pushed the vacuum around, and she cheered me up and took my mind off the pain whenever she was around. Hester wasn't sure it was a good idea having a nineteen-year-old girl around a household with a thirty-year-old bachelor, but I told her Charlie was a good boy and she was worried about nothing.

"Charlie isn't a boy, Maddy," she reminded me. "He's a grown man who should be on his own, with a wife and children. It's not natural, him living with two old women at his age."

"Charlie's happy," I told her. "He'll move out when he's good and ready."

"He feels responsible for you," she said impatiently, "and it's up to you to change that."

"He's my son, Hester, and we're responsible for each other, always have been and always will be, ever since that rat of a father of his took off and left us to starve."

"That was a long time ago, Maddy. You need to cut Charlie some slack."

Before he starts getting weird, was how she usually finished that sentence. Hester was convinced in her own mind that Charlie wasn't living a normal life, whatever that was, and that he should be - in three words - on his own. I told her that I thought family was more important and besides, he was paying rent and contributing and that was the mature, adult thing to do. And as far as Jean Rogers was concerned, I couldn't see how Charlie would be interested in her, anyway. She was very pretty, but she wasn't educated or interested in books and jazz the way he was. And the way I heard it, she was keeping time with a pump jockey at the Petro-Can.

Jean stayed with us for three months in a little apartment Charlie fixed up for her in the basement. It wasn't really an apartment, but she had her own room and a bathroom and she could use our kitchen to cook her own meals whenever she didn't feel like joining us. Mostly she went out in the evenings and we never asked any questions. We figured if she was old enough to work for a living, she was old enough to live her own life.

I don't know whether he sensed Hester's uneasiness, but Charlie seemed to go out more than usual while Jean was with us. I thought maybe it was because he didn't like the idea of having a stranger living in the house, but Hester thought maybe he was on the prowl, those were the three words she used, on the prowl, and that maybe he was ready to make a change.

The last couple of weeks she was with us, I started to notice little changes in Jean. She wasn't singing as often, or as loud as usual and the least little thing would make her short-tempered, like the cord of the vacuum cleaner getting tangled around a chair leg. I mentioned it to Charlie and he just shrugged his shoulders as if he hadn't noticed. When I mentioned it to Hester, she suggested maybe the poor girl was tired from chasing around after me all day. I said I didn't think that was the case because I had started doing things for myself again, and was even helping her with some of the lighter chores.

"Well I'm sure it's nothing we need to worry about," said Hester, dismissing my concern. "She's probably had a fight with that boyfriend of hers."

For all the years she's worked with kids, and all the human relationships she's observed in her life, including for that matter, reading history books, my sister is sometimes very unsympathetic to the plight of her fellow human beings. To be fair, she changed her life for me and Charlie, but she won't lift a finger for anybody else. Keep your nose out of it, she always tells me. We don't need the aggravation.

Except it aggravated me that I didn't know what was bothering Jean. How does a girl with such a sunny disposition become miserable and short-tempered overnight?

"It's hormones," said Charlie one night when we were having supper. "You know, a woman's thing."

I raised my eyebrows in surprise and looked at my sister, who was wearing the very same expression. "And how would you know about that?" she asked, sarcastically. Charlie rolled his eyes and looked at the ceiling, as if the appropriate answer might miraculously appear printed across the plaster.

"I read about it in a magazine once," he said, shifting his glance to Hester and returning her scornful gaze.

"Don't be silly, Hester," I said, breaking in between them, "I'm sure Charlie knows a lot about women. After all, he lives with two of them. And he works with women, too, don't you Charlie?"

"That's right, Ma," he said, in a tone that told me he didn't wish to discuss it further. After that he went up to his room and we could hear the morose wailing of Billie Holliday comforting him. I always felt a little frustrated after these conversations with Charlie and my sister. Things never seemed to get resolved. Charlie would listen to his music and Hester would bury her face in the newspaper and I would sit there and wonder if I should have said something else.

Well, the upshot of it all was that Jean didn't come back one night and we didn't discover it until she wasn't there making breakfast in the morning. I thought we should call the police, but both Hester and Charlie overruled me, saying that she was probably just waking up after a night of partying with her boyfriend and she'd be along any minute. They both went off to work as if nothing was happening and I sat there and stewed in my own juice, as Hester would say, wondering where Jean was.

It was a week before they found her body tied up in an old sack and stuffed into a garbage can behind the mall. She had been strangled and there were thumb-sized bruises on her throat where the killer had squeezed the last breath out of her. I felt just awful. I had notified the police after five days and that's when they started to look for her. Nobody else had reported her missing because they knew she was staying with us and hadn't seen much of her for the last three months anyway.

"I feel responsible," I told my sister. "I should have called the police sooner."

"This has nothing to do with you," Hester told me. "You didn't murder her and stuff her in that garbage can."

"No," I said, "but somebody did and maybe she'd still be alive if somebody had here looked for her sooner."

But that wasn't true, the police told me. She had been dead for a week when they found her and had probably died before we noticed she was gone. They came to interview all of us, but they seemed to go on at Charlie for a long time, and finally asked him to come down to the station and make a statement.

"Maybe they think he did it," my sister said. "He was out that night quite late, wasn't he?"

I was horrified she would even say such a thing. "He couldn't have done it," I said. "Charlie would never do something like that."

"I didn't say he did it," Hester said. "I just said maybe the police thought he did it. After all, he probably looks pretty suspicious to them."

"What do you mean, he looks suspicious?" I asked, wanting to shake her I was so angry.

"Well, the way he lives here with us, and he doesn't have any friends. And he's never had a girlfriend. Maybe they think he was sweet on her."

"That's ridiculous," I said, almost spitting my fury at her. "How can you say that about your own flesh and blood?"

"It's not me that's saying it," she said, as if she were talking to a moron. "It's me saying that maybe the police are saying it."

"Well it's just not true," I said, putting an end to the conversation. "It's just not true."

The papers that night were full of the murder of Jean Rogers. Apparently she had been pregnant when she died, just over two months, which meant that she must have got that way after she came to stay with us. The boyfriend couldn't be located and the police were asking anyone with information to come forward. They also said that Charlie had been held for questioning but had been released.

When Charlie came home that night, he looked like a different man. He was pale and haggard and his hair was hanging in strings around his face. His clothes were rumpled and he looked like an old man. I sent him straight upstairs to take a shower and change while I heated up his dinner in the microwave. Hester didn't say anything.

Charlie ate his supper in silence and then went straight up to bed. He didn't even watch the ten o'clock news. I could tell Hester was dying of curiosity, and so was I, but neither of us had the courage to penetrate his armour of silence to ask what had happened.

"Maybe it was his baby," Hester whispered in a stagy way that I found particularly annoying.

"I doubt it," I said coldly. "I'm sure he wouldn't have touched that girl. She wasn't his type."

Hester laughed, a short, sharp sound that was more like a snort than a laugh. "What's type got to do with it? I'm talking about sex, not love and marriage, Maddy. Surely you of all people would know about that."

I wasn't about to acknowledge her remark with a response, but it hurt me that she would say it and in saying it, imply that my son was no better than I had been. After all we had done for him, giving him advantages we had never had, loving him every single minute of his life. If she was going to blame me, she would have to blame herself as well.

Charlie kept to himself for the next few days, eating his dinner and going up to his room. He listened to a lot of Ben Webster and Nirvana, of all things and I just couldn't figure him out. Once I went up with a cup of tea and some biscuits for him, hoping he would be in the mood to talk a bit, but he just mumbled thanks and shut the door.

"Something's got to happen soon," said Hester. "We can't go on like this forever."

It was the police who finally figured it out. They came to the door asking for Charlie and I called him to come down. I didn't want them going into his room when I didn't know what kind of condition it was in. When he came downstairs, he had his jacket on and his hair combed as if he was expecting to go somewhere.

"Where is he, Charlie?" the officer asked. "You have to tell us. If he dies, you'll be responsible."

Hester and I just stood there with our mouths open. Charlie bent over and kissed me on the cheek, and then he kissed Hester on the cheek and told us not to worry. Everything would be all right.

Then he left with the police to show them where he was hiding Tommy Manley, Jean's boyfriend from the Petro-Can.

The truth finally came out when Tommy confessed to killing Jean because he didn't want her to have the baby. Charlie had guessed about Jean's pregnancy right after she started acting strange because he had taken to following her some nights, for reasons I will never understand. He said it was because he was worried about her going out on her own after dark, but Hester thought that was a lot of crap and that he desired her for himself. I thought it was a strange word to use, desire, but she remains convinced that Charlie was in love with Jean.

Charlie knew Tommy didn't want the baby. He used to take the car over to the Petro-Can to top up the tank and one night he heard Tommy tell somebody there was no way she was going to have that kid.

"He shouldn't have said that, Ma," he told me. "That poor baby deserved to be born."

So Charlie took matters into his own hands and decided to punish Tommy. He grabbed him one night when he was leaving work and beat him to a pulp behind the Petro-Can. Then he wrapped him in a blanket and threw him in the trunk of the car - Hester's car, which she now refuses to drive - and drove to an abandoned shack near an old rock quarry. He locked Tommy inside with six cans of dog food and a rusty can opener.

"I thought Jean had run away from him so she could have her baby. I even thought I could find her and help her raise the child. If I had known she was dead ... " His voice trailed off and he covered his tired face with his hands.

We were sitting at the kitchen table, the three of us, having a cup of tea as if everything were normal again. Finally he took a sip of tea and looked at both of us. He reached across and took my hand in his. "A father should not abandon his child," he said quietly. "Every child deserves a father."