Family Trees

The other woman sat on the couch. Its cushions were overstuffed, at least one seam in the dark plaid threatening to split. The living room was done in green. Pale green, brown, and dark red.

Shelley, herself, felt green. She just knew she was going to be sick. No, no, I am not; she spoke to herself and drew a deep breath. But why couldn’t Jim take care of his own goddamned wife? Ex-wife, she corrected herself. Shelley was his wife now. Jim’s.

“Well, I won’t let Rebecca go. I won’t.” Janice’s thin nose quivered. Jim’s first wife was so angry her fair skin was beginning to blotch red underneath her freckles.

Shelley was busy thinking of her own first husband. After she’d left her first husband, Bob, and moved into the trailer, he’d delivered all of her house plants in his truck. She could still remember opening her front door as if to flowers and late afternoon sunshine, the smell of a field lying out beyond her doorstep.

Bob, her first husband, had then taken each of her plants and thrown it up against the side of the trailer. Dirt had crumbled down over the shiny white. If the plant didn’t fall free, the pot did a pretty good job of crushing the tender stems. Shelley had finally had the presence of mind to close the door and quit watching.

“Why do you want my child?” Janice brought Shelley back to the present. Janice continued, “You don’t even have the time to watch Becky, and a child of twelve could still be up to all kinds of things, you know. You’re gone all day. All summer is a long time for you to want to keep her. Why do you want her?”

What Shelley wanted to say was, “If you don’t let Becky come, she’s only going to run away!” However, she’d promised herself that she wouldn’t threaten. Surely, she was above that. Also, she could understand. Rebecca and James Jr. were Janice and Jim’s children. Of course, Janice wasn’t going to be crazy about letting her daughter live with Jim and a new wife!

“You’re a career woman!” Janice went on. “That’s what you are.” Jim’s ex-wife wore a blouse of plain white cotton. Thin. Sleeveless. Janice had seemed so surprised to find Shelley when she’d opened the door.

Yes, Shelley thought about the two years she’d spent in business school. This had certainly gotten her a long way. She could visualize work now—a wide, bright room filled with desks, a woman behind each, a computer. Shelley was nearest the last door, Assistant to the President, meaning secretary in her case—Executive Secretary, though, in a company town. Not a bad job actually, but certainly not particularly difficult.

Shelley tried to turn her mind back to the problem at hand, though, feeling she was having to grope for the right words. To save the situation for Jim, for Becky, to save Janice’s own feelings as a matter of fact, Shelley so wanted to be tactful. No use in just insisting. Her purpose today was to convince.

She began, “Rebecca’s at that age when, well, she wants her father.” Shelley could picture Jim, tall, blond and brown. “All teenagers feel low self-esteem at her age, and she wants to be near her father, feel important to him.” Shelley kept trying, “As a teenager too, you know how girls are, a young girl growing up and wondering about boys . . ., Shelley faltered.

Janice exploded, “Well, Mr. Man, Mr. Jim was certainly never around for Becky when she was a baby!”

“She needs to feel esteemed by her father,” Shelley finished faintly and simultaneously.

What Janice was saying about Jim running around was, she knew, true enough. For some reason, though, she again found herself thinking of Bob, her own first husband. Why Bob was in her mind more persistently today than just about any other day in the last two years. Maybe because we had no children, but Shelley thought, she was considering another first wife today. Who Mrs. Bob would be talking to one day, she had no idea, if anyone would have that man again, Shelley thought wryly.

“Jim was never around back then and don’t think I’ve kept that from Becky either!” Janice said. “That’s what the experts say these days, isn’t it? To be honest with your children. Well, Mr. Jim never saw the dirty side of a diaper in his life, not Becky’s or Jim Jr.’s, you can bet on that.”

Shelley was thinking that Jim, her second husband, had never met her first one, Bob. No need. No children, no need. No home, no payments, no guilt. Or at least, not much.

What Shelley kept seeing in her mind was Bob sitting in his orange beanbag chair as she came home from work. She’d had a more lowly clerical position then, and Bob had quit yet another job. He was drinking beer. Bob, her college graduate, made it a matter of pride to earn at least a few thousand dollars per year. He smoked a lot of pot. Shelley had looked up to his degree, and she had also once loved him very, very much. Also their dogs, their cats, the house they could only rent. No children—but Bob, unlike Jim with Janice, had always been home.

Meanwhile, Janice had stopped talking and closed her eyes. She began, “You know,” but had to stop and start again. “You know, I’ll bet those experts giving all that advice haven’t changed many diapers either.” Janice’s voice was high and strained, Shelley thought, like a little girl’s.

“I hate her!” Jim had sworn about his ex-wife last night. He’d spoken softly enough, but he repeated it while he looked at his hands. “I’ll not be the one to ask her. Janice made my life a joke! Talk with her? I hate her!”

Rebecca, the child who was the topic of conversation, had just been outside the door that Shelley was still glad she’d remembered to shut. The child was awaiting a verdict on her summer living arrangements. Jim was a man of few words. He worked on the assembly line. He’d sat last night, brown arms bared, helpless and sad.

“Don’t you realize,” Shelley pleaded with Janice today, “that if you don’t let Rebecca come for the summer, she’ll just want to come stay with us all the more?” Shelley gathered courage, “Also, the more you say badly about Jim or even me, Becky’s at an age where your words will drive her right to us. Don’t you see?”

The children usually with Jim and Shelley for the weekends only, Shelley’d been the one to discover the twelve-year-old girl last evening. Rebecca had been back in her bedroom while little Jamie was out in the yard with his father, helping to clear it of rocks.

Becky had held her tiny parakeet in her hand, her nose to its soft beak. “You’re my only friend,” she’d said to the bird. “You’re the only one who ever listens to me, and I love you. You and me, we’re going to fly away. We’ll go where no one can get at us.” Then Rebecca, blond and all legs like Jim, and unfortunately many even remarked that Becky looked a lot like Shelley too, had walked over to the closed bedroom window, stood looking out over the yard, and she had cried, and cried, and cried.

“I care, honey,” Shelley had been absolutely shocked and dismayed, striding from the doorway to Becky. “What is it? Please tell me what it is. I care.”

Of course, today, it was Janice who was sobbing.

Rebecca had asked Shelley, could she come to live with her father and her? Just for the summer? Just to get away from Janice, her own mother who loved Jamie, James Jr., more than Rebecca and who didn’t care enough to come to her softball games or to chaperone her dances? Becky sobbed she wanted to get away from her new stepfather who was saying terrible things about Jim and Shelley.

“Louis, please!” Janice called to the little boy who crossed in front, in-between her and her TV set. One of Jack’s, the second husband’s children. Janice had remarried this man, Jack, also a father. Jack was Janice’s husband, thus Rebecca and Jamie’s new stepfather, the one who purportedly did not care for Shelley and Jim. Shelley realized this was Becky’s report, of course.

Meanwhile, Janice insisted today, “I’ve told Becky not to smart off. I told her to try and say smart stuff to her father sometimes, and then see how fast he’s gonna hit you right across the mouth!” Janice stopped suddenly then, mouth open, as if she hadn’t meant to go on.

Shelley was appalled. Of course, Becky had a talking-back problem. She was a teenager, but Jim hit anyone? Who’d been hitting who here?

“Told me she was smarter than me, me being a high school dropout.” Janice tried to explain. She fought to compose herself. “I told her, she even said you told her that I did it for her. I dropped out of school to have and take care of her. There was no one else.”

When Janice stopped, the room fell silent. Shelley waited. Janice dried her cheeks with her hands. “Jamie will stay with me this summer, except weekends, as usual.”

“Right,” Shelley was careful to immediately agree. “Just Becky can stay with us, and just for the summer. She’ll move back in the fall, as usual.” Shelley tried to picture Jamie as he often cavorted with his father in the backyard, playing at sword fighting, and the two feigning strikes at one another with plastic toys. The boy seemed under no mental duress. He’d even said he liked his new stepfather, Jack, okay. Shelley knew that Janice took him to and from school personally, even sometimes picked him up and brought him home for lunch.

“Janice did always play favorites,” Jim had finally spoken up on Becky’s behalf last night. Shelley thought she’d remembered that ‘his boy” had also been Jim’s primary concern during the divorce too though.

“Right now, it’s maybe because Janice still misses you,” Shelley had tried to intercede and explain to Jim. “Having her little boy is still having a part of you or a part of her protector around. Janice still loves you, Jim.” Shelley had explained to her husband, while adding, “You need to think about your daughter too though; she needs protection too maybe, at least attention.” She’d dropped the issue then, just wanting to give Jim something to think about.

“She’s stupid!” Rebecca had always said, her mouth set in a straight line when speaking of her mother. Shelley thought maybe Becky blamed Janice for her father’s leaving also. Her mother had probably not been a good enough wife. A failure.

Shelley, herself, had met Jim at a company party. She had absolutely not realized then that he was married. Jim said because no one ever much realized he was married back then. In his own mind, he said, he actually hadn’t been back then, not really.

Shelley credited Jim that he never spoke so in front of the children now, but what he’d always said about Janice was that “Anyone can spread their legs at fifteen and get pregnant.” Jim had also sworn, “And Janice did just the same thing to me again when I was trying to leave her the first time. You’d have had a vasectomy too!” Jim also had explained his former decision to Shelley.

“Louise!” Now, Janice talked to Jack’s children, “Tell your brothers to get washed up. I have supper to get.” Janice eyed Shelley then, though her thoughts seemed to have turned elsewhere. “My husband will be home soon,” she remarked to Shelley, but then simply sat back down on the couch and seemed to drift off. Lost.

Shelley didn’t know whether to just get up and leave on her own or not. In the growing quiet, she suddenly thought of her busy office in contrast. The ever-efficient assistant, Shelley was so used to making sure everything was routed to its proper destination, that every right person was shown into the right meeting at the right time, with all the right information right at hand.

Shelley suddenly worried for her first husband, Bob. There’d been no real contact since her own new marriage, and her first husband had always seemed so helpless about really taking care of himself. Of course, maybe he’d finally found someone else too by now.

“I’ll miss her,” these words from Janice, about Becky evidently, finally seemed to break through Shelley’s indecision. She watched Janice pull at a loose thread in the couch cushion. Janice had long fingernails. “The boys aren’t going to wash up,” she sighed as she spoke of Jack’s boys, while she shrugged her shoulders listlessly. “Those kids of his don’t mind. I’ll have to get in there and get them ready for supper.”

Shelley worried about Janice’s eyes that slid away from her own. Like every morning at work after she’d first been promoted out of “the pool” into a one-on-one situation with the boss, it was the way “the pool” had looked at her. Or rather studiously did not look at her. All of the other women had avoided eye contact. Jim said what they felt didn’t matter, though. After all, he’d remarked, before she met him, she’d had to support herself and there was nothing to be ashamed of in getting a little ahead of the game. He was even proud that Rebecca had spoken of her stepmother’s job for a report at Career Day for school.

“You know, Becky may even get bored at our house,” Shelley explained while being shown to the door. “Why, she may just stay with us for a week or two and find out she doesn’t like it all that much. I have made her agree to help with the chores . . .”

“Good luck,” Janice interrupted.

Shelley knew that when Janice had found out about Shelley and Jim, only then had she finally gone down to take her GED. She’d graduated from high school in another attempt to keep Jim.

“She won’t have any of her friends around, Janice,” Shelley said, still trying to downplay things, “so maybe Becky will decide she wants her old room back and her life back to normal again.”

“Do you know what my husband, Jack, says about you?” Janice asked softly, raiding her eyes while she opened the door.

Shelley had just been getting ready to confide to Janice that Jim actually missed the kids during the week, but he’d gotten used to Janice having them and their being away sometimes, just like Janice might.

All wide gray eyes, Janice told her, “Jack says you don’t have natural feelings. He says you could have had children at one time, like anybody else, but you didn’t. You never had children of your own,” Janice raised her fragile chin, “and so now, I think you’re trying to steal mine.”

“Excuse me,” Shelley turned away, walked to her car and got in, backed out of the driveway without a hitch. Then she drove off down the street, but not quite to the end, where she pulled in to park in the deserted grade school lot.

Shelley was breathing fast and so tried to slow down, sort things out. Here she was, the stepmother who had successfully negotiated with the first wife, and now it was time to go home and explain the situation to Jim. Then she’d have to start getting a room ready for Becky; there’d need to be closet space for the child. Also, Shelley knew she’d need to adjust her driving times to work so that she could get Becky to scouting activities each summer morning. Rebecca had promised to help Shelley with the chores in the afternoon, so all three of them—Jim, Shelley, and Becky could have more together time in the evenings.

A car passed, Jack coming home to Janice for his dinner.

Shelley reminded herself to remind Jim to be sure Jamie didn’t think they were playing favorites either. She and Jim had to keep Jamie feeling included. The little boy was growing taller, growing so much.

Shelley started to cry. Her extra, on-the-side makeup sales might have to go, but that had only been extra cash for weekend activities, anyway, and who knew, maybe she could still manage to squeeze in a few calls or a few orders anyway.

Shelley pictured her first husband again as if he was sitting in his beanbag chair, beer in hand, watching TV, in the home that was never to be theirs, plus all their dogs and cats, and finally she’d had to gather them all up and leave him. Then he’d said he wouldn’t really mind having a child. Of course, she’d already been packed to go, not to mention, how would he support a child, Shelley hadn’t even dared to ask. Then when she’d met Jim, he’d already had a vasectomy. No, she sobbed bitterly, she had no children.

Why then the impulse to deny Janice, “I do too have children. I have lots of them. Lots. I do.” Sitting here thinking of Janice raising her chin so proudly, “My husband says you’re not natural,” Shelley cried and cried. It was enough to make you hate women. Anyway, that’s who she thought she hated—other women.