We arrive, one at a time, at our Grand-Pop’s shore house. We claim rooms like it’s a free for all. Mom already has one of the master bedrooms and Dad is nowhere to be found. We don’t remember the last time we’ve all been under the same roof. Maybe it was a holiday, we think Christmas, ten years or so. Grandpa bought this house after World War II for next to nothing. The house was appraised for one point three million this year.
Dad, with his hair darker than it was when we were little, is the last one to show. He’s with his girlfriend Victoria and their new baby, Star. Victoria holds Star like a barrier between us and her, as if the fact that she is our half sister might matter to us.
We are not happy to see one another. There are things that we’ve done that cannot be undone. There is money that won’t ever be paid back and words we can’t forget. We have stolen our brother’s girlfriends and slept with our sister’s boyfriends. We have put bloody tampons in our sleeping brother’s ears. We’ve stuck needle holes in our sister’s diaphragm. But most of all, more than anything, we were there when our family fell apart. It was the last thing we ever did as a family and it’s why those old hurts bloom so easily.
In our lives we get by, just barely. We have graduated from being sparring siblings to absentee wives and alcoholic dads. The fact that this is our only chance to own a vacation home is not lost on us. We understand big dreams and little lives.
We watch Dad toss Jake out of the second master bedroom upstairs. It was the room our parents shared, when they were together. Jake gives Dad the finger after he turns his back, then walks into the next open room. Thomas’s bags are already there.
“How come you get this room?” Jake asks Thomas. Thomas is lugging in his family’s bags from the car.
“I’ve got the kid and wife, we need the space,” Thomas answers and gives him a pat on the belly. Jake has put on a substantial amount of weight since we last saw him.
“We should come up with a fair way to choose rooms.”
“Pie eating contest is out,” Thomas tells Jake. “You’ve got an unfair advantage.”
“Yeah,” Jake replies, rubbing his stomach. “I’m almost as fat as your wife.” The sound of toppled furniture and obscenities draws the rest of us to the room where they are fighting. The pecking order is being reestablished. It only takes a few accidental collisions and some choice words before we’re all involved: punching, choking, pulling hair, and scratching. It is strange how our aging bodies remember the violence. We go after each other as if we were in our prime. We don’t worry about the toll it will take on our joints and muscles.
“Stop it, stop it! You’re acting like children,” Victoria says. We all freeze. She is only two years older than Shirley, our oldest sister, who at the moment has a fist full of Thomas’s hair. Even though we are in a ball on the floor she doesn’t stand a chance against us.
“She talking to you?” Shirley asks.
“She’s can’t be talking to me,” Thomas says.
“Maybe she’s talking to me,” Lucy adds.
“I can’t believe she touches Dad’s dick,” Jake says. We have her on the verge of tears in seconds. Victoria runs from us, which makes us happy. Dad barges in red-faced and huffing. It’s like we’re all kids again.
“Goddamn it,” he yells. “You will treat Victoria with respect.”
Mom storms in and we think it’s just like the old days.
“You ruined my working life Norman,” she says with her finger pointing straight at him, inches from Dad’s face. “You’re not going to ruin my retirement. That goes for you kids too, sort it out.”
The pecking order has changed. Mom squints at us, lights up a cigarette, and then backs out of the room. She and Grandpa were always very close, more like a real father and daughter than in-laws. They used to go fishing for Bluefish in the bay all the time. They enjoyed the catching more than the eating. Bluefish tastes terrible. Grandpa joked that the perfect Bluefish recipe was to grill the fish on a cedar plank, with tomatoes, onions, and lemon. Then toss out the fish and then eat the plank.
When the bags are unpacked and the rooms are divvied up we look around the house. We find Lucy, our youngest out on the deck with Shirley’s second husband George. Jake’s head is in the fridge putting his hands on our food, opening things, taking bites and then dumping it back on the shelf. Shirley is looking at Lucy and George through a window, scowling at them. She’s thinking that this isn’t going to happen again. Thomas is helping his wife zip-up a dress that has gotten too small for her. He curses Jake when the zipper breaks.
It is tough to be in this house, just knowing we lurk around each corner. One by one, we sneak out, and then scatter like sand on the dusty wind blown beach road Grand-Pop’s house sits on. How could we not sell the place? We’ll get a good bit of cash in our pockets and then go our separate ways. We are sure most would go for it. Mom will be the toughest sell.
We all start showing up at the same old bar. It’s funny how we’re all hard wired in the head. The bar hasn’t changed as far as we remember. It’s still owned by the same family that built it in the forties. We sit with our husbands, with our wives, or our young children, but not all together. We find our own spots and order a drink. The plump old lady behind the bar says she remembers us. We used to come in here with Mom and Dad and make a hell of a ruckus when we were kids. This makes us happy and Jake calls out: “Do you remember that B.S. story Grandpa used to tell us about the Nazi coming in here for Hamburgers?”
“That story is one hundred percent true,” The plump old lady says. “I was here washing glasses while my Daddy tended bar.”
“No way,” Jake says with a smile.
“I swear it,” she says. The old lady puts one hand in the air and the other over her heart. We remember the whole story before she tells it. How before the U.S. entered the World War II Nazi U-boats trolled the eastern seaboard on reconnaissance missions. One rainy night four German officers landed on Long Beach Island and walked down the street and stopped at this bar. The plump old lady’s father served them hamburgers and sent them on their way.
“We weren’t at war then,” she always ended the story with the same explanation. If her father had known what was really going on he would have taken them apart with his bare hands.
“I don’t know if I one hundred percent buy it,” Lucy says. We agree with our sister, but it’s still a good story, we tell her.
When we get back to the house Mom is in the kitchen holding Star and talking to Victoria. We hear her tell Victoria that Star is a beautiful baby and no matter how bad of a husband Dad had been, he always redeemed himself by making beautiful babies.
“Speaking of beautiful babies,” Mom says to Thomas as we file in the kitchen. “How about letting Grandma hold your little boy?”
“Sure Ma,” Thomas says and hands little Teddy to her.
“Let’s all have a drink together,” Dad says. He walks into the kitchen with a bottle of Irish whiskey in his hand. “This was the last bottle Grandpa ever drank from.”
We raise our glasses to Grand-Pop and cheers him. Then we tilt our glasses to one another and drink. Later, in the night, we sit in a circle on the back porch, wrapped in blankets to fight the chill. Mom and Dad have gone to bed, the kids, the wives, and the husbands are long asleep.
“You know Mom’s never going to sell,” Lucy says after taking a sip.
“It’s been fun,” Shirley says. “I’m not going to lie. But, it took a bottle of Irish whiskey and I just don’t have it in me to drink much that every time we’re under one roof.”
“Agreed,” Thomas burps out.
“You know,” Jake says, holding a citronella candle in his hand. “The salt air is very corrosive. Imagine what it’s done to the propane tank on Granddaddy’s grill.”
“That’d be a shame,” Shirley says, “if something happened.”
“And this deck is almost fifty years old, might as well be a tinder box.” Jake shrugs. “If no one was down here, well, the house could be totally destroyed before a neighbor gets the chance to call the fire department.”
Lucy holds her drink out in front of her. It stands alone for moment, then one by one, we reach together and clink our glasses. Once all our glasses have touched we knock back the last of the Grand-Pop’s whiskey, and then go to bed.