Charlie Salinger looked from across the room. It took him a while, but, he saw things he hadn't noticed before. Well, that wasn't quite true, he thought. It had been too long since he really made an effort to pay attention.
The pose before him reminded him of a photo he'd seen when he was young - of a woman in her mid-twenties with a distant look on her face as if she was in search of something -happiness? a loved one? Either way, she had appeared oblivious to the warm sunshine that broke through the shadow of trees in the park she was in. Whether or not the photographer knew that at the time, Charlie wasn't entirely certain. His parents were a mystery to him even now.
His siblings weren't any easier.
Julia cheerfully explained the paintings in the exhibit room to a group of unappreciative adults. The longer Charlie watched, the more he wondered, how well could she hide secrets, and play people away from them, more to her goals?
The room finally emptied and he took a seat on the bench in the middle of the room. "And you used to do this for nothing?" he asked.
"What brings you here?" Julia asked, sitting down beside him.
"I made a deal with Nina, you know the woman I was telling you about? Well, she insisted on watching Owen so long as I found something relaxing to do. No work, no stress, no family, etc. It occured to me that I hadn't been in an art museum in quite some time. Thought it might do the trick."
She smiled. "So, I get the stress of family here at my place of work? Thanks for your brotherly love."
"Don't mention it. When is your lunch break?"
"In an hour, why?"
"Then, name the spot I can meet you at. I want to treat you."
"You don't have to do that. Griffin packed me a decent lunch and-."
"And it requires a microwave. I'm talking about freshly made pizza or something hot. There's a new pizzaria a few blocks from here and I heard their garlic and pesto crust is to die for. Of course, if you just want a salad..."
Julia laughed. "Fine. Hot lunch it is. Want to meet me at the side door around the corner?"
Charlie nodded, wondering "In an hour, then?"
"Yeah." She turned as at the sound of more patrons walking in. "I better go meet my next group," she said. "Middle schoolers. They're the worst."
"They're not that bad. Think of them as a group of youngsters caught in the middle. Literarly. I mean, there's the group ahead of you that you want to be like, and fear all the same. Then, there's the group you left behind that you want to taunt, yet return to. That's not easy."
"Neither's being the middle child," she said, leaving before he could reply.
Julia looked across the table and shook her head. After all the many descriptions of pizzas and warm dishes, it was Charlie who settled for the salad.
"You're stalling," he said.
"What? No, I'm not," she said, trying to recall what he asked her. It took her a beat or two. "You can't know what I'm talking about because you're the oldest. And there's enough of a gap between you and Bailey to not matter. I'm not that lucky."
"So, there's only a year or so between you and Bai. But, you have nearly the same distance between you and Claude that Bai and I have."
She did the mental math: 27, 20, 18, 13 and 3, counting Owen. "You're wrong," she said. But, do you even have a hint of what I'm talking about? How can I take any broad steps of my own with Bai so close?" Then again, she thought, it was Charlie who had to be extra cautious on what steps he took, now being the father figure of the family.
"I won't try to tell you what you should do. I could make suggestions like, 'Hey, do whatever makes you happy so long as I don't find you on the streets,' or something along those lines. But, I don't know how to relieve whatever pain you're feeling. Are you and Griffin having difficulties or anything?"
Julia took her time. It had been almost half a week since she and her husband had dinner together, given their busy schedules. True, they had most of their conversations at night while in bed foolishly avoiding sleep, but they seldom kept secrets. In fact, he was as vocal about his frustrations with Charlie's interference as she was.
She thought about the remark her brother had made to her the last time they had a pizza dinner together- about the door locks being weak. She had been mad at him for it until Griffin mentioned that Bailey had heard the same thing a few days later. When she called Bailey on it, he had said, 'Face it, Jule, no matter how old he gets or how mature we get, he'll always see us as his little brother and sister. It's that protective instinct that lets him say those things, even if we want to believe we're on our own.'
"How do you feel?" she asked, changing the subject. "I mean, you haven't been looking like yourself lately."
He frowned. "Fine, why? If Claudia's called you about something, keep in mind she tends to exaggerate."
She didn't admit to Claude's phone call the afternoon he had left to meet Nina. Julia knew he was getting ill. Most likely a cold or something, she thought. But, she'd swear that he looked thinner. "You're the one who's really in the middle."
"I don't follow you," he said.
She smiled, saying nothing after she declined dessert.
"You had your eye on the peach pie, didn't you," he noted.
"Guilty. But, I really should make it a point to make something at home. To share with Griffin, you know."
"It would be nice if you two could join us for dinner tomorrow night at the house. Claudia's calling Bailey and Sarah tonight and... Well, I thought it would be nice if we were all together. You know, we haven't been at the restaurant, the five of us alone, in a while and..."
"I'm married, Charlie. I won't leave my husband out of family things."
"I'm not saying you should. I'm just saying, it would be nice if we could all get together. I know it's asking a lot to try a weekly gathering with all the schedules and all, but... Will you come? Tomorrow night at seven? That gives Griffin time to switch gears after work, and Bai and Sarah..."
She smiled. Forever concerned with everyone else's schedule but his own. "I think we could make it."
No sooner had she kissed him goodbye on the cheek, she turned to see her boss, Daniel Musser, glaring at her.
"Another one of your husbands?" he asked sarcastically. "You must be quite the player."
She wasn't going to put up with it. "He's my brother, as if that's any of your business." She didn't think she owed him an explanation and went off to meet her next group.
"I'm telling you, Jule, it's just like your brother." Griffin said after he heard about the lunch. "Personally, I think he knows exactly what you're talking about, but he's too stubborn to admit it."
"Hey, I'm the only one here who's allowed to insult my brother. Except for Bailey or Claudia when they come over. But, am I wrong, Griffin?"
He thought she was, but he didn't thinik it was his place to say. "Well, maybe he's just trying to assure you that he isn't as alone as you guys think he is." The more he thought about it, the more senseless it sounded. From his own point of view, Charlie was dealing with premature middle-age. Why not? Two siblings were gone, grounding the eldest for sure, while two younger ones needed his attention. In some ways, he was glad that it was only him and Jill. Now, it was just him.
"I told him we'd meet him for dinner for tomorrow."
Griffin knew she'd be going alone, and decided to tell her now.
"I can cancel, have him arrange another day," she said.
Griffin shook his head. "No. You should go. It doesn't make sense for you to turn down an invitation because of me." Besides, he still smarted from the last time she bailed out on him.
Julia looked around at the dinner-free table. Claudia had left with Reed to a dance, while Sarah and Bailey called at the last minute to cancel. "Some family dinner, eh?" she joked. "Four out of five Salingers show up."
Charlie smiled. "Don't worry about it. We'll all get together. Maybe not until there's another wedding, but, we'll pull it off."
Owen was beginning to dose off in his chair. Charlie scooped him up in his arms. "Bedtime, Owe."
"Uh-uh. I'm not tired, Charlie. Nina hasn't called. I want to talk to her," he said sleepily.
"In the morning. You get to sleep in your own bed in the meantime, got it?"
Julia laughed as Owen continued to say no, nodding all the way up the stairs. "Want to watch a movie?" she asked when Charlie returned.
"Sure. But, you may want to take that one out first."
"It's Mary Poppins. I think we stopped it just shy of the chimney sweep dance."
"Well, let's watch the rest of it, then," she said, touching the play button. "What, are you and Owen on an Andrews addiction or something? It was just last week Claudia was telling me how many times you guys watched the Sound of Music."
"Don't start," he said. "Just tell me I don't have to explain Poppins to you, please. I had to with Bai the other day."
"You have to remember, we weren't raised on Disney like you," she explained. "Scwartzenegger and Stallone were our staples."
"And that explains your sorry state, too," he joked. "No, I seem to recall we watched a few decent films late at night."
"Remember how we used to lean against each other's backs," she said, turning so her back was to him. "Then, we'd always wake up in our own beds somehow."
Charlie laughed. "Yeah," he said, turning likewise. Back to back, the two of them sat on the couch watching the last half of the video.
Julia listened carefully. Charlie had fallen asleep. She turned so her back was against the cushion of the couch, his head, not his neck, resting on her shoulder. Instinctively, she felt his forehead. It was burning. Fatigue, she thought, taking a nap beside him.
Shortly after Claudia came home, Charlie woke up. "Jule?"
"Hmmm?" She saw that it was midnight.
"Never let me sleep like that, all right? Griffin's probably worried about you."
"I'm fine. He knows not to worry about me."
"Not if he knows what's good for him," he mumbled, reaching for his keys. "I'll drive you home."
"I have a car, thank you," she said, waving Claudia to go on upstairs.
"You also have a terrible oil leak and a tire that's going flat. I'm surprised you didn't notice. Come on. I'm sure you have to be at work early tomorrow."
"Tomorrow is a bad day," Claudia told Reed. "I mean, I'm suppose to watch my baby brother and all and..."
"I can keep you company," he said. "I've a younger sister. She's just started second grade, so you could say I have experience with tiny tots."
Claudia liked that bit of info. A junior with a baby sister. There was a soft side to him after all. "Well, I don't think my brother, Charlie, would go for it."
"Judgemental youth, is he?"
This time, she laughed out loud. "Oh, no! Charlie's my older brother."
"You told me Bailey was. You know, the one who talked at the scho-."
"You haven't told anyone that, have you?" she asked, panicked. Not saying it was really a secret anymore. She knew she was getting funny looks from other students as she walked down the hall. She could guess some of the things they said about her behind her back.
"Of course not. Well, I'll come over before he leaves and introduce myself. Then, if he disapproves, which I doubt, I'll leave. We are truthfully studying, you know. I mean, who else can help you with that algebra class?"
That's what Claudia liked about Reed. He wasn't a pompous jock. She found out that they had very few things in common, but that's what made him so interesting. "Deal."
She wasn't sure what surprised her more: the fact that Charlie honestly liked Reed, or the fact that Reed was as good as he said he was with youngsters. Owen didn't cry once the entire evening. She even told Charlie after he returned from driving Reed home.
"Well, you were like that, too," he said. "It's not hard to say that you and Bai formed your bond day one."
"Oh?" she asked. "What do you mean?"
"I watched you whenever Mom and Dad went out. I swear, you out-cried Bai and Jule easily. But, the moment he walked into the room, everything was perfect for you. He had a way with you I don't understand still. Even Julia is still searching for that... I can't even describe it."
She thought she heard a hurt tone in his voice. "I wasn't that bad, was I?"
"No. I wouldn't say bad. It was just... Let's just say, if anyone's walking you down the aisle, it will most likely be him."
The thought of marriage pleased and saddened her. "I wish you married Kirsten."
He glanced at her. "I know you want a mother figure, Claude. I'm trying. I don't want to rush into anything like I did before, all right? And speaking of rushing, I want you to watch yourself with Reed."
She put herself on the defensive. "There's nothing wrong with Reed! He's- he's nice and he treats me like a regular student. Not like some of the others who say-." She bit her lip, cursing herself for going too far.
"What are they saying?" he asked.
"Fine. You can tell me when you're ready, though," he said. "And that's at any hour of the night."
Claudia looked at him. "Did I agree to that when you woke me up that one night with that really bad upset stomach?" she asked, a hint of complaint in her voice.
He smiled. "No. You shouldn't have been burdened with that. I'll make it a point to schedule my illnesses so they don't conflict with your schedules," he joked.
"What if Reed decides he hates me?" she asked, changing gears at the last minute.
"Claude? Go to bed. It's too early for a nightmare for you."
"A nightmare?" Bailey asked when he saw the kitchen light on.
Sarah shook her head, her tangled hair getting into her eyes. He walked over and brushed a few locks away. "No. I'm just sitting here debating."
"What to wear to class tomorrow?" he joked.
"Whether or not to call my parents."
"You should. At least they're there for you to call. It's better to leave that door to the relationship unlocked at least. Nailing it shut will only bring pain later."
"Oh?" she asked surprised, and angered. "And what do you call what my parents put you through?"
He shrugged his shoulders. "A defensive gesture on their part? Come on, Sarah! If they lose you, they lost everything. I mean, after Charlie told me what he did with Owen, regarding Jenny, it made sense to me. Frankly, I''d worry if your folks hadn't done anything. Of course, it would have been better if I wasn't at the receiving end, too."
"You make sense some of the time, you know that? And other times, you sound as if you're coming in from left field or something."
"Hey, that's why you like me," he said, kissing her on the forehead. "Call them tomorrow, after you get some sleep."
"I can't sleep," she said. "Because, I confess, there's someone else I wanted to call."
"Annie." She waited a beat before continuing. "I wanted to tell her that she better not hurt you, and that she had no right using you like she has. I don't like the idea that she should feel comfortable clinging to you while she's trying to recover. And the idea of you complicating your life... Well, I think you're pushing your luck."
"Fine. You can deal with any complaints she has. I don't see why she should bother you. She's not a threat to our friendship. And like I said, we're just two people with AA meetings in common. It's not like I'm about to plan a future with her or anything."
"I hope not. She's old enough to be... to be Charlie's wife!"
"Get a life!" Griffin said.
"I beg your pardon?" Sarah said. "If that's how you feel about being asked over on your day off to help someone in need, then-."
"You're not listening," he said, as he helped her bag the leaves off the roof. "I said, if you're still reaching for the past or future, you need to get a life! It's better to live in the moment, with all the ups and downs, than to long for the so-called perfect life. It isn't out there."
"You're speaking from a depressing standpoint," she said.
"Hey, my life's had just as many complications as your's has. I'm just saying, how do you expect to climb a mountain if you're never going to go down a slope? Come on! You have to admit, you're not doing too bad. You're a great friend to Bailey and Julia. And heck, I feel like we're practically family, you and I. You're a smart student at university, I bet. What more are you trying to reach for?"
"I don't know." She had a long list of items, and at the top was a chance to call Bailey something more than a friend. "Feels like I'm not doing something right, though."
"That's your imagination. Besides, you can't go on saying, 'I'll be happy when...' When never comes," he said, taking care of the last bag. "So, shall we get cleaned up and head out to dinner?"
Bailey laughed as Owen told his joke again. "You know, you could be a stand-up comedian," he told him.
"Don't put any ideas into his head," Charlie said. "I don't care what kinds of jobs you guys pursue. Just so long as it earns you enough to stay out of jail."
"Oh, but you forget," Griffin said, "Getting into jail is free."
"Unless you're playing Monopoly," Claudia said, "then it costs fifty to get out."
Julia laughed. "Do we still have that game, Charlie?"
"Yeah. In the basement. Why don't you guys set it up while I clean up."
"I'll help," Nina said.
Between the six of them, Charlie and Nina bowing out to play Chutes and Ladders with Owen, Bailey won with only one monopoly.
"Leave it to you to have the poor district," Julia said. "And putting us into the poor house."
"Poverty's astate of mind," Griffin said. "If you think you can do anything you want with a place, or with a given lot, you can. As they say, the worst enemy you can have is yourself."
"Why am I going to school if you're picking up on all this philosophy from the shop?" Sarah asked.
"Funny thing I have, a library card. Let's me check out anything I want. I'm currently plowing through Pythagoris."
"Ah, the author of the Pythagorian theorem," Claudia said.
"Did you tell them your score?" Reed asked. "A plus, here, with only one wrong."
"Only because you confused me on that negative/positive point," she said.
Charlie laughed. "Well, I think I'll hand over all the financial matters to Owen," he said.
"Why?" Julia asked. "We clearly demonstrated that we can master money matters in our sleep."
"True, but, can you guys boast about never taking a slide?"
Nina sat Owen in her lap and asked, "How do you do it? You made it to the top without a single chute."
Owen shrugged his shoulders. "I'm good at it," he said.
"Well, you're going to bed if you want to stay that way," Charlie said.
"Do I have to?" he asked.
Reed and Claudia stepped in. "I'll tell you a story, pal, all right?" Reed asked. "In fact, there's only one other person who's heard this story, so..."
"All right!," he said.
As the three of them disappeared up the stairs, Charlie said, "That about describes my life, I think."
"What does," Bailey asked, putting the games away.
"All right. I mean, what more can you ask for? Family, a roof over my head, enough provisions for my loved ones. I don't think I'm missing much of anything at the moment."
Julia and Bailey exchanged glances. Maybe things weren't perfect, and weren't meant to be. But, there wasn't any serious suffering going on in their lives. Not recently, at least. They had weathered the worst of it together, the loss of their parents, and many other things, and that provided them strength to say nothing more could knock them down.
All of them went their separate ways, but not before watching an autumn sunset together.