The insects are everywhere! They look like jumbo grasshoppers with wings and emerge from underground dormancy every seventeen years to swarm for their mating ritual. My teacher says there are as many as a million-and-a-half bugs in a single acre of earth. Regan peddles around on her Big Wheel with ziplock bags and collects the little empty bug-shaped shells they shed on trees and window screens and sometimes on our stereo speakers if they manage their way inside the house.
“I know we were right here,” Sadie is adamant. We’ve walked through the campground several times, loaded down with a cast iron skillet and an old drywall bucket full of dishes. There is no sign of Henry or my uncle Bob.
Bob is not really our uncle, although he used to be married to my aunt Kate (the body builder) before I was born. Somehow he ended up with her best friend, who he is still with, but everyone loves him and he is especially good friends with Henry. They take us camping in the summer, but my mother never comes with us.
“You’re a nerd,” Sadie reminds me daily, despite my endless efforts to reap her approval. When I was three she taught me what she was learning in school and regrets it fiercely because I wrote her name on the wall and she got blamed for it. Nevertheless, I started reading for enjoyment very early. Kindergarten lasted only two weeks before I was moved into the First Grade, though my mother claims to have been morally opposed to the advancement for reasons of emotional readiness.
“Emma’s the genius in the family,” Mom Stephens says to someone on the phone. My paternal grandmother doodles artistic masterpieces of beautiful faces on a scratch pad at the kitchen table while she talks. Educated at a Brooklyn art school, her pre-retirement career was fashion design for storefront windows. Her name, Maggie, is written in calligraphy everywhere, even hand-painted in white on her red tool box.
My kitchen is not just messy but days worth of messy – the kind when you’ve run out of clean spots on the counter to set something down. Usually that drives me crazy, but not today. It is afternoon but I couldn’t say what time, having been unemployed now for nine months. I’m still in pajamas, typing on an unmade bed. This is about all the disorder I can handle, but for me that’s a lot. I roll out of bed every morning, reach for my laptop, and start typing, not sure from where this energy is coming.
It’s a beautiful Virginia Saturday and I’m banished to the bedroom upstairs at Chestnut Street when a rock hits the window. “Psst! Emma!” I lift it open and look down at Sadie. We’re not supposed to be talking. “Throw something down for me to climb up,” she begs. Earlier in the day, Sadie and I were sent outside to get out of our mother’s hair. We climbed up to the unfinished tree fort my stepfather Henry has been building for us and swung our legs over the side of the sturdy platform overlooking the neighborhood rooftops, planning the secret knock for entry once the walls go up.
On Sunday mornings, we drive down the windy road to the little white Southern Free Will Baptist Church.
“…take one down, pass it around, thirty-nine bottles of beer on the wall…,” Sadie and I sing the whole way.
The church is tiny but not stuffy like my aunt Martha’s church with its high ceilings and stained glass windows where they all stand and sing from the hymnals in opera-like manner to the sound of an organ. No, these people are boisterous and happy and crank out music on guitars and banjos.
Grandma has been sitting with me for an hour with a jar of peanut butter trying to loosen up the wad of gum that Sadie stuck in my hair. My aunt Kate barks, “You two are the reason I’m not having kids.” She is my mother’s younger sister and has just appeared on the cover of a body building magazine. She always adopts the look of her new boyfriend, the former one being a hairdresser with a long frosted mane. The newest claims to be a professional body builder, but behind his back everyone thinks he’s with the CIA.
When I tell people my parents are divorced I get a sympathetic sigh as if it is the most tragic thing they can think of, which makes no sense to me. I hardly remember my mother and father together, and I love having such a big family. Sadie and I have two sets of grandparents and two sets of step-grandparents living within miles of our home, so Christmas is outrageous.
My father’s spot is on the short end of the L-shaped couch, facing the television. Sadie and I are on the floor in front of the long side with our knees under the coffee table, still finishing up dinner. We have never eaten at the real dinner table with its fancy mahogany legs protruding out from under a mound of miscellaneous junk – disposable diapers, sunglasses, empty coffee cups from 7-Eleven, and a pile of bills growing up the wall in the corner it is pushed against.