This is the fifth chapter from the “September” section of my now-finished (!!!!) novel PUSHING THE RIVER. Watch for the sixth chapter next Friday, and catch up on previous chapters in my blog entries over the past month.
The first time Madeline ever saw Savannah, she was plunked in her sister’s lap at the one and only performance of John’s music group. Claire sat on the floor in the middle of the open room as the musicians set up, both arms bear-hugging Savannah as she rocked the little girl back and forth in exaggerated swings. And she was a little girl, too. Ten years old back then, and small for her age. She was all eyes – immense pools of deep blue that flashed out from behind chin-length brown hair that gave the very strong impression it wasn’t going to follow anyone’s orders no matter how hard they might try to maneuver it into place.
She exuded scrappiness, just like her mama and her sister; and whether this was something they had all learned cause of everything that life had thrown at them, or something rooted in their bones, it was certainly there. She looked like she should be a literary character in a series of books that generations of children would adore, or the star of some adventurous, clever, educational TV show.
Madeline didn’t see her again until the next summer, when John married Claire. Savannah was not much taller, but still managed to show signs of gangly, awkward early adolescence, her arms and legs getting in her way all the time, and little, high-up breasts poking out from her T-shirt. Once in a while she could be caught with a far-off look on her face, as if she were gazing way, way into the future. Other times, she was a little girl; one of those legs would get in her way and she’d take a tumble and need her mama to carry her around for a while.
Savannah didn’t make her annual trip to visit her mama the following year, so the next time she came for the summer, she was thirteen years old. If she stood up straight as a die, she would still not reach 5 feet; but in that two years, everything had changed. Instead of being all eyes and a hank of hair, she was all eyes…and absolutely enormous breasts. In an effort not to look like some cruel joke had situated a little girl’s head atop a very-much grown woman’s body, she had begun wearing makeup and coloring her long, still-wild hair.
No one knew quite what to make of her when she first arrived that summer – whether they should talk to her just the same as always or treat her like the entirely different creature that she looked to be. But other than spending sizable amounts of time trying to straighten out and generally tame her long mane, she proved very much the same.
At least that’s what everybody thought at first.
She spent pretty near all day sitting on the sofa watching hour after hour of TV shows about movie stars. Once in a while, she’d walk to the store a few blocks away to get herself a cold drink, or a packet of gummy bears. Her favorite color was orange, followed by red, then yellow then green. Madeline teased her, saying that they didn’t have different flavors at all, just different colors. Then Savannah would make Madeline test her by giving her different colors with her eyes closed, which she could always make out, and then say Ha Ha, so there.
It seemed like every time she’d walk to the store, she’d come back home and spend a whole lot more time on her phone. She would sort of curl herself around it, like it was some precious, secret thing she was trying to protect, her eyes just a couple of inches from the little screen, thumbs flying, and her lips moving every so often.
The whole clan ended up living in Madeline’s house that summer – daughter Kate, son John, his wife Claire, and her baby sister Savannah. Everyone except Madeline was set to scatter to the four winds come the end of August. Madeline loved nothing so much as a house filled with family, and she drunk up their very presence like a hungry cat with a bowl of fresh warm cream. The place was a damn mess. John set up a bike fix-it shop right in the middle of the living room. Claire cooked all sorts of the most bizarre-smelling concoctions at all hours of the day and night. The TV blared non-stop with Savannah’s movie star channels. Kate practiced her fiddle in whatever room was empty. The household went for an entire summer without hearing those things that Madeline looked forward to the rest of the long year – the chirp of a cricket, the breezes ruffling the leaves on the ripe trees, the sounds of children playing long into the evening, giving you the sense that life does go on.
Madeline acted for all the world like every wrench set strewn across the living room floor, every pile of pots and pans, every gummy bear candy wrapper stuffed between couch cushions was a buried treasure. She got into the habit of doing everybody’s laundry, insisting that it was just as easy to toss theirs in as long as she was doing it, and way more efficient to do full loads, besides.
One afternoon, as Madeline took things out of the dryer, sorting, and folding, and humming a medley of tunes from West Side Story, she screamed out, “Claire! Claire, come here! Claire!!
From the sound of Madeline’s voice, Claire could not even imagine what catastrophe had come to pass. She hightailed it down the stairs and into the laundry room, where Madeline held a pair of black lace panties in her hand like it was a dead rat who carried the plague.
“Are these yours?”
Claire laughed. “No. Definitely not.”
“They aren’t Kate’s. I buy all of her underwear, so I can tell you this for a fact.”
“You buy all of her underwear? That’s weird.” Claire took them in her hand and flipped them over, revealing that the back side of the panties laced up, top to bottom, with a shocking pink ribbon.
“Shit,” said Claire.
“Claire, we gotta get that kid on birth control.”
“NOW. Right now, we have to.”
Middle and bottom photos: Jock Sturges