Callie scoots up next to her grandmother who is sitting on a wooden bench at a picnic table shaded by a white beach umbrella, pocked with gray soot from the nearby freeway. Grandma is wearing a dress like always, belted at the waist. Her only concession to the San Antonio heat is no nylons and open-toe pumps. She’s holding the camera up to her face, trying to make the whole family fit. Except for Callie, they are spread out around Howard Johnson’s kidney shaped swimming pool. Mama in a lounge chair, stretches out like a cat, arms raised above her head. Debra, valedictorian class of ’67, cools her feet—toenails painted bright pink—in the turquoise blue water that laps at the wide cement steps leading into the shallow end. Billy and April, nine-year-old twins, wrestle on a strip of bright green grass, tangled up in each other like a couple of puppies. Jared, just learning to walk, teeters on the rusty red tile that outlines the side of the pool. Grandpa urges Callie to take the scowl off her face and join the group.
There will be more vacations and more family following the summer of 1967, but this picture is the last Grandma takes of the family in this composition. The image bears her signature: quarter-moon-slice of ring finger in the upper right hand corner. Callie is split in two by the thin white strip that borders the photograph as she rushes to be included.
When Grandma puts the camera back in her purse, Callie takes a seat on the step near her sister’s feet. “I’m no valedictorian…”
“And you never will be.” Debra, aloof in sunglasses, interrupts her sister without looking up from her magazine.
“But I can do simple math.” Callie paddles to the side of the pool and catches Jared as he topples in. “And there is no way Ryan is the father of that baby.” She points at the soft new bulge in her mother’s stomach.
“What do you want, Callie?” Mama inspects the peachy glow of newly applied fingernail polish. Her hope for this daughter is that one day they can have a conversation that begins with something other than an accusation.
“I want Ryan to marry you. How do you think he’s going to feel when he comes home from Vietnam and finds out that Jared isn’t the baby of the family anymore?”
“Like hundreds of other Vietnam vets.” Debra punctuates her response with a crack of her gum.
“Don’t be a smart aleck.” Mama rolls onto her side to make sure she tans evenly.
“I’m never getting pregnant unless I’m married.” Callie glares at Mama, angry with her for being a juicy piece of fruit that draws men like flies. “And I’m only having one baby.”
“Who would marry you?” April yells as she jumps high into the air, grabs her knees, and launches her cannonball into the pool.
“You’re so ugly, you shouldn’t be allowed to have babies.” Billy takes his twin’s cue then does a sharp jackknife off the diving board, slicing into the water and making another big splash.
Of all her brothers and sisters only Billy and April share a father, and that’s because they’re twins. Callie doesn’t even know who her father is, something she fears the baby Mama is carrying shares with her. She sets Jared on the side of the pool, patting his firm little belly. She loves his eyes that are round and dark brown like his father Ryan’s. “Watch him, Mama,” she calls as she swims quickly toward April, taking her by surprise and dunking her deep. Billy splashes Callie in the face, and the water war that ensues empties the pool of all who are not related.
In an attempt to protect the ash blonde beehive that she sprayed into place earlier in the day, Mama pulls her lounge chair farther away from the pool.
“You people are embarrassing,” Debra says. She gathers her towel and magazines and heads back to the room she shares with Callie, Mama and Jared. Billy spits a fat fountain of water at her as she goes, but splats a sunbather instead. The sunbather threatens to call the hotel manager.
“Come on, kids. We need to get ready for the concert.” Mama never apologizes. She slips into a silky cover-up that clings to her hips, sticky with sweat and sunscreen, and falls in a seductive fold over her breasts shaped by the wired cups of her swimsuit into large, soft cones.
Callie, April, Billy, and baby Jared scurry off behind her, leaving a snakelike trail of water that quickly evaporates in the heat. Grandma and Grandpa follow, gathering stray sunglasses, towels and flip-flops.
In her senior year of college, Callie will take the Family Vacations photo album, explaining to Grandma that she needs it to illustrate her thesis in American Studies, a lengthy piece of writing she calls, “Leisure Habits of the Lower Classes.” She does not tell Grandma, who has her own ideas about high and low class, the title of her thesis. Callie has learned to see her family through what her favorite professor calls a critical lens, and she doesn’t want to explain.
Callie watches the evening news while her family rotates in and out of the shower and dressing room. “How stupid do you think we are, Mr. Cronkite, showing us those pictures of soldiers smiling and waving like a bunch of dumb farm boys? Do you think we don’t know what’s going on?”
“Maybe he doesn’t want to scare us.” Mama never watches the news, afraid she’ll see her boyfriend, Ryan, strapped to one of the stretchers that spins lazily through the air on its way to a helicopter marked with a Red Cross.
“It’s war. We should be scared.”
“Quit fussing at your Mama and come in here.” Grandma calls through the open door of the adjoining room.
Callie does as she’s told and curls up next to Grandma on the big queen-size bed in the room where her grandparents sleep with the twins. Grandma’s sweet yeasty scent permeates the air around her. Callie will forever associate the colorless odor of vodka with desert heat and air-conditioned motel rooms. Grandma hums “I’m in the Mood for Love,” a song they have driven across New Mexico and a large portion of Texas to hear Louis Armstrong sing at an exposition called the Hemis-Fair.
“Can’t you make Mama get married?” Callie whispers. “She should be if she’s going to have so many babies.”
“Oh, Callie. I can’t make Patty get married. Or stop getting pregnant. When you’ve lived more life,” she says, gently squeezing Callie’s arm, “you’ll understand.”
“I can’t stand this.” Callie wrestles free and makes a dramatic show of what this is by grabbing up the bathing suits, towels, soggy diapers, brassieres and jockey shorts that litter the room.
“You’re part of this.” Grandma tosses Callie the long t-shirt she slept in and left on the bed when she put her swimsuit on earlier in the day.
“My point exactly.” Callie grunts and dumps all the laundry into a plastic bag that will sour in the trunk of Grandpa’s car on the drive back.
“I always wanted a big family,” Grandma says quietly. She gets up and carries her drink to the vanity and motions for Callie to join her in front of the mirror. With the fingertips, of her free hand, Grandma lifts Callie’s bangs. “I like this short haircut. But you could trim these a little so people can see your beautiful green eyes.”
“It’s the style.” Callie smoothes her bangs, hoping they stay on the topic of hair and away from family because she can tell by the quiet tremor in Grandma’s voice that she is going to start talking about her dead babies, the twins with spina bifida and the baby boy who died in his sleep.
Callie kisses Grandma’s cheek and leaves her staring out the window at their view of the freeway overpass and then goes back into her mother’s room where the twins are playing checkers. People who don’t have to live with them call the twins good-natured. Why wouldn’t they be? Callie thinks. Together from the very beginning—swimming in the warm soup of Mama’s belly—always two. Never one. She checks her reflection in the mirror and dabs at the makeup Debra put on her nose and cheeks to cover up her big freckles. She wonders if Mama keeps having babies to replace Grandma’s dead ones.
Women Studies is offered for the first time in Callie’s junior year of college and she eagerly enrolls. She believes that Debra died trying too hard not to end up like Mama—an unmarried woman with too many children—or like Grandma—a woman drunk on grief. She thinks that by studying the lives of women, she can avoid the fate of the three she loves the most.
“Her boobs don’t talk,” Callie says to the desk clerk who is supposed to be calling them a cab but is instead trying to start up a conversation with Debra, who walks away shamed not only by what Callie said, but also by the fact that the desk clerk had been talking straight into her D cups.
“Young man,” Grandma interrupts before he has a chance to say anything. “I’ve been waiting 30 years to hear Mr. Armstrong sing. And I’m not going to miss a minute of it. Call us a cab. Now.” She takes Callie by the hand, and before they join Debra in front of the motel, she tells Callie, “You really should be thankful you don’t have large breasts like your sister and your mother. They are nothing but trouble.”
“Oh, I am glad, Grandma.” Callie pushes her glasses up on her nose that is caked with sweaty makeup. “And I’m thrilled with my crooked teeth and bad eyesight, too.”
“You have a smart mouth, Callie.”
And you drink too much, Callie wants to say but doesn’t. Otherwise she’ll end up watching TV alone in the motel room while everyone else is at the Hemis-Fair. She dutifully props Grandma up, and they wait on the burning sidewalk for the cab to arrive.
“Patty,” says Grandma, as Grandpa takes a seat up front, and everyone else piles into the back, “if you keep having children we’re going to become a two-cab family.” Grandma laughs and hiccups at the same time. Debra rolls her eyes.
“Nothing wrong with a lot of children,” says the cab driver. “I got me eight.”
“Don’t let Callie hear you,” says April.
“She’ll have you brought up on charges.” Billy finishes her sentence. The two of them laugh like they have made the best joke ever.
“Which one of you is Callie?”
Callie raises her hand the way she does in class when she volunteers an answer she’s unsure of but wants to talk anyway.
“See that little white house?” says the cab driver. He points to a hill where several small saltbox houses sit on lawns patched with grass and dirt, separated from the freeway by a chain link fence. “That’s mine. I’m out here driving around so we can send our kids to college. All eight of’em. During the day I work at the Post Office and my wife works some nights right back there at the Howard Johnson. We’re living Dr. King’s dream.”
When Callie is required to write a personal essay about cross-cultural encounters in her freshman composition class, she will write about the cab ride, remembering that it took her a minute to realize that the driver was talking about Martin Luther King, Jr. She wasn’t used to hearing him called Dr. King. She wrote that where she grew up—out in the country near one of the largest SAC bases in the U.S.A.—the war in Vietnam had occupied her thoughts in a way that the Civil Rights Movement did not. She could locate Hue, where Ryan was killed, more quickly on a map than she could Selma or Birmingham. In the margins of her essay, the professor calls her a racist and asks her how she could watch hour after hour of nightly news yet fail to be moved by images of demonstrators attacked by dogs and fire hoses. He uses the backside of the page to explain that she is an unconscious racist—the worst kind. Callie is unable to revise her experience to the professor’s satisfaction. She fails the assignment. But she learns the importance of things she does not understand.
“I thought it would be something else.” When she heard they were going to a Louis Armstrong concert, Callie had imagined a luxurious hall, carpeted floors, plush seating, at the very least a fancy movie theatre. The auditorium on the grounds of the Hemis-Fair looks more like a school cafeteria with its bright white walls and linoleum floors. Callie and her family sit in metal folding chairs at the back of the room. Up front the chairs are burgundy velvet, the kind Callie had imagined.
As the band takes the stage, Grandma grips Callie’s arm. “Mr. Armstrong.” She points to a small thin man who takes several bows before picking up his instrument. “He’s got cancer.” She explains his appearance, much diminished from the image of the bubble-cheeked man on the cover of the albums she’s been showing to Callie while they listen to the records on the hi-fi.
But there is nothing diminished about his music. When he begins to sing, Grandma rests her head on Callie’s shoulder, and for a moment Callie fears that Grandma is so drunk she’ll pass out and miss what she’s been waiting 30 years for. But when Callie feels Grandma moving to the rhythm, she knows her grandmother is reliving an old mood filled with love. Callie has a hard time believing it is a memory of her tight-lipped Grandpa who sits stiffly between his drunk wife and his unmarried daughter. But she’s also aware of her ignorance on the subject of romance.
When she fills out her college application, Callie declares herself an English major. In one of her favorite classes—American Short Fiction—she is assigned Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants.” When they discuss the story, what the class does is argue.
She should have it. He doesn’t love her.
Who cares what he wants?
He can’t tell her what to do.
“. . .they just let the air in,” a girl screams out a line from the back of the room.
It’s illegal. A boy contributes this fact.
What Callie wants to talk about is the fact that the man in the story is the man and the woman is the girl. Jig. A little dance. Not even a full jiggle. Just Jig, forever alive in fiction, fingering the beaded curtain and drinking Anis del Toro. Debra had been alive in the real world, a National Merit Scholar, a girl who wanted to major in mathematics but instead hemorrhaged to death alone on a Greyhound bus headed for home after an abortion she’d had across the border in Juarez. Callie drops the English major and for two years remains undeclared.
To the annoyance of the people in the velvet seats who turn and glare at them, the people in the back of the auditorium—most of them Black, some of them White—begin to dance when Louis Armstrong sings “What a Wonderful World.” Grandma escorts Callie to the aisle, leading her in the slow two step she’s taught all her grandchildren so they will know how to do something other than twist and jerk. One at a time, the twins embrace Grandpa and take a spin. Humiliated as always by her family’s behavior, Debra flees to the lobby, arms full of sleepy Jared who drools on her neck. Mama waltzes away in the arms of a smitten stranger.
Many years later at the premiere of her film, Life Studies at the San Francisco Film Festival, Callie watches this final scene with her daughter Debra Armstrong, who she names for her sister and for the summer of 1967 that so many in the audience think of as The Summer of Love. Debra Armstrong cries and cries. She’s only ten. But she understands.
Jane Hammons has a story included in Hint Fiction: An Anthology of Stories in 25 Words or Fewer (W. W. Norton 2010). She recently received a Derringer Award from the Short Mystery Story Society for Best Flash Story 2011. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and teaches writing at UC Berkeley.