Stevie Mackenzie’s brother broke up the family. He emailed her a few days after Thanksgiving to announce it. He would no longer be coming home for Christmas. John Armstrong—the family called him Army—had decided to spend the holidays in San Francisco with friends. His friends didn’t try to shove him in a box and tape it shut. His friends understood his situation.
A year went by, and Army stayed away again. Stevie and her parents fought to keep him. Eva, the older sister, was strangely neutral. Fewer pieces in the pie? Maybe. Perhaps she had a problem with intimacy. Whatever the reason, Eva was willing to let him go. She and Army had much in common: strong chins, advanced degrees, jobs in technology. They even attended the same gadget conventions in Las Vegas. At one of these, they lunched.
“He still wears men’s clothes to work,” Eva told the family when she got home. “And his start-up is hot.” Eva’s company was cold, almost frozen, but at least it was in New York. “When Starhorse goes public,” she added. “Army’s going to make a ton of money. That’ll keep him in his chinos.”
Mother and Father burst into applause; golfer’s applause, of course, and only in their hearts, but Stevie could hear it. The whole family wanted John Armstrong in pants and a blazer. An IPO windfall would be fine.
“But on weekends,” said Eva, ruining the mood around the kitchen table. “He walks around like Liza Minnelli. It’s a known fact.”
“Liza Minnelli is a stereotype,” Stevie argued.
“No, she’s not,” said Mother. “She’s just a very sad person and she’s getting old.”
Stevie was no girl with a basket herself. She was almost thirty-five, she was single, and she still lived in Aspen, where she landed after college intending to stay a year. What she had in her life that mattered to the world was her marathon time. Stevie could run it faster than most women in her age group. This was no longer the bracket for brides.
She spoke to Army on the phone whenever she could get him to answer. He continued to talk about the East Coast as if it lacked air and water. He didn’t invite her to California, either. But she kept after him.
Thanksgiving came around again, and Stevie took an extended trip to see Mother and Father in New Jersey. It was rolling into high season in Aspen, but Stevie had fallen out of the resort economy. She had fallen out of any economy. She had fallen. Her parents were paying her big bills. She took care of the little ones.
After turkey, she crawled up to her attic bedroom and called Army on her cell phone. (Mother listened in on the landline.) She begged him to come home for Christmas.
“Ascots and boxer shorts,” he said. “No thank you.”
“A few days won’t kill you.”
“You’re paranoid,” said Stevie. “No one gives a shit about your gender confusion.”
“There!” Army pounced. “See that? You call it confusion. That feels threatening.”
Later that night, he speaker-phoned the entire family and announced that he was getting married to his longtime girlfriend, Greta. He regretfully informed the huddled Mackenzies that they would not be invited to the wedding. Not Mother, not Father, not Eva, her husband Trick, or their twin girls. Not even Stevie, who had once played the part of Army’s best friend. He and his fiancée had no tolerance for identity bullies, enforcers of gender. So with all love and due respect . . . not invited.
Mother and Father were too shocked and hurt to defend, rebut, or even say nasty things. Eva was happy to save the plane fare and the hassle. Stevie had to speak up for herself, for everyone. For decency, duty, honor. This was unacceptable.
“We’re not enforcers of anything!” she protested. “You’re terrible! What did we ever do to you?”
“I’m sorry,” said Army. “I’d have you there if I could. But it’s our day. We need to be ourselves. We don’t want to wear masks at our own wedding.”
“Who’s asking you to wear a fucking mask?”
“You don’t understand, Steve.”
“I hate you,” said Stevie. “And I hate your gay wife.”
Army hung up on her. No one had the guts to call him back.
The newlyweds did stop briefly en route to Paris for their honeymoon. They took the Mackenzie family out to lunch in New York. Stevie flew in from Aspen on Father’s frequent flyer miles. She wanted to finally meet Greta. Also, she was running out of mac-n-cheese.
“Greta is pretty,” said Mother in the car on the way home.
“If you like Charlie Chaplin,” said Eva. She was texting with Trick, who was home in New Jersey looking after their girls. They had just bought a house down the street from Mother and Father.
“She’s condescending,” said Stevie.
“Stevie, I’m not defending her,” said Eva. “But you are a bartender.”
“No, she’s not,” said Mother. “Stevie’s a caterer.”
“She’s a caterer who tends bar.”
“Greta would look good in a skirt,” said Father. “She’s a nice-looking gal.” Then he swerved the Chevy Tahoe, as if to take out the taxi in the next lane. His wife and two daughters screamed, and he corrected himself, just in time.
Of course, the Mackenzies had no clue, at the time, that Greta was pregnant. Army waited six months, until she was almost due, before he finally told them. When the baby was born, he posted an announcement to Facebook.
Stevie called her parents from Colorado.
“The baby is ugly,” she told Mother, who had already seen the Facebook photos on Eva’s laptop.
“All newborns are simian,” said Mother. “He’ll be cute when we finally get to meet him.”
“He’ll be in college by then,” said Stevie, then she quickly regretted it. Poor Mother. “If I had a baby,” Stevie said. “I’d want you right there when it was born, Mom. Right in the room.”
“I know, dear.”
Mother was fine. She had dibs on Eva’s girls, who called her Memaw and went through her wallet.
During the next few weeks, Stevie started to call Army every day. He was on paternity leave, so he usually answered. And he was happy to share every little detail about his baby, Fleetwood. He texted Stevie photos from his cell phone so she could keep up with Fleetwood’s growing hair (fuzzy), his first smile (crooked), and his hatred of baths (whatever).
Stevie sometimes cried on the phone. She was two years older than Army. Had he knocked her out of line? Ruined her chances? Who could make her pregnant? She hadn’t had a promising relationship in a long time.
Army reminded her that she was only thirty-seven. Plenty of women give birth at fifty. Besides, her life wasn’t so empty. She loved to ski. She had her running. She’d qualified for New York three years in a row.
“So that’s called achievement,” said Army. “Success. It makes people happy.”
“All I want is a baby.”
“You should leave Aspen then,” he said. “It’s not a real place.”
“Maybe I should move to Boulder.”
“You don’t understand. The Rockies are my way of life.”
“Until you die in the snow.”
“I hope I do,” said Stevie.
“You don’t mean that.”
After a long silence, Army said that he was interviewing nannies to live on the fourth floor and look after the baby while Greta went to film school.
“Maybe you can do that,” he suggested. “Take care of Fleetwood.”
“I’m not qualified.”
“Of course you are. You’re his aunt. You helped Eva with her girls.”
“That was a long time ago.” Stevie reflected back to those dark days: Eva in her bloodstained nightgown, crying and barking orders like a deranged queen. Stevie said she would think about it. Army would talk to Greta.
“Greta says yes,” he informed her three hours later.
Why did Greta agree to it? Was she exhausted and hormonally crushed? Did she love Army so much that she would do anything he asked? Was a former retail clerk with a newborn in any position to argue? Stevie didn’t bother with these questions, not at first. Later, after the offer’s bony legs had buckled beneath it, she did wonder about Greta’s hasty decision. But when Stevie first got the good word, she just started to pack and arrange her affairs. Every day, she expected to hear that Greta had changed her mind. But three weeks went by, and the call never came.
Stevie flew out.
Army was supposed to meet her at the airport, but when she made her way to the baggage area from the gate, he wasn’t there. She tried his cell, but he didn’t answer. No one was holding a sign for her, either. The names were all Chinese.
An airport worker showed her where to catch a shuttle van into San Francisco. Stevie had the bad luck of riding with three young ladies who were returning to the fall semester at college. They seemed giddy with youth and good fortune. They weren’t as pretty as Stevie, but they were younger.
They struck up a casual conversation with Stevie, who ended it when she said, “Life is amusing when you divide it into semesters. And take a little time off in between to binge and purge.”
The young ladies didn’t stop snickering and whispering until Stevie got out of the van. She was hoping that the grandness of Army’s hilltop Victorian would impress them. It sure made an impression on Stevie; she was almost afraid to go up on the porch. Luckily, the van pulled off before Stevie had a chance to ring the doorbell. Because when she did, no one answered.
Army and Greta were in the house. Stevie could hear the baby. It was crying, naturally. She sat down on her suitcase and called Army again from her cell phone. A ringtone went off inside: Aretha Franklin, predictably. Then it stopped.
The house was across from a small park with giant fir trees. The air was thick and misty. Stevie took a deep breath. She was tempted to unpack her sneakers and run away. She could run right over to the Golden Gate Bridge and leap off into the fog. Luckily, Army came out to the porch. He saved her life.
“Finally!” said Stevie, slapping away his attempt at a hug. Army was wearing a silk kimono over a Beatles tee shirt, skinny jeans, and flip-flops. His toenails were painted blue. He was losing his hair, so he had shaved it close to his head. He grasped her by the shoulders.
“I’m so, so sorry. Greta is freaking out.”
Army didn’t need to answer. The pitiful guilt on his face said it all.
“Second thoughts?” said Stevie. “Now?”
“You should go to a hotel.” He handed her his Amex card. “Just tonight. One night. She’ll come around.”
“What? No way,” said Stevie.
“It’s not the end of the world. You can go to the Quartz. They have an indoor pool.”
Stevie threw herself at her brother and he held her in stiff arms. Now what? She should cry. She should faint. She just stood there and he eventually let go.
“Come on, Steve,” he said. “You know how it is.”
A taxicab pulled up.
“Wow,” said Stevie.
“She called them.” Army turned to look back at the house and Stevie saw that Greta was standing in a grand, bay window holding the baby. Stevie felt a tug toward her tiny nephew, but she looked away. Norman Bates with a nursing bra. Fine, she would get into the taxi.
“This isn’t my fault,” said Army, opening the door.
“Maybe not,” said Stevie. “But it’s cruel.”
“Take her to the Quartz,” Army told the driver. He leaned in and scanned Stevie’s face for some sign of blessing or at least acceptance. She noticed how tired he looked, and that he had a little leftover mascara and eyeliner on, maybe from the night before. This surprised her, though it shouldn’t have. Now she started to cry.
“Wait,” he said. “I’ll come with you.”
The décor at the Quartz was upscale and contemporary. The furniture, the artwork, even the bathrobes were for sale. Stevie took a nice, hot bath. At bedtime, a bellman named Ramon stopped by with milk and cookies. He had short black hair with lots of gel and a soul patch. Stevie gave him ten dollars from Army’s wallet. Army was in the bathroom talking to Greta on his cell phone. He was still in there when Stevie fell asleep.
The next morning, Greta came by the hotel lobby and left the baby with Army, so she could see her therapist. Stevie hid in the room. When Army came up, he was pushing the sleeping baby in a stroller. Stevie squatted down to get a good look.
“Hello, squirrel,” she whispered. Fleetwood immediately woke up and started to wail. They quickly set up a colorful contraption on Stevie’s bed and stuck the baby under it. Then Army went over and poured himself some wine from the minibar.
“Wine before noon?” Stevie asked.
“Glass houses,” said Army. Stevie didn’t know what he was talking about. She never drank. She looked down at Fleetwood, who was wiggling around, making awful noises. Army reached over and shifted the baby. He said, “This contraption encourages him to move his eyes.”
“Wow,” said Stevie. “He’s really stuck on the basics.”
“He’s eleven weeks old.”
“Don’t worry. He’ll catch up.”
“You’re insane,” said Army. Then he decided to change his clothes. He didn’t even bother to go into the bathroom, as Stevie had been doing. He just stripped down to his thong right in front of her. She didn’t react. She was too tired and anxious all of a sudden to care.
She said, “You used to be such a string bean.”
“That was young skinny,” Army said. “It doesn’t last.”
He put on a dressy white shirt and a tight-fitting black suit with pants that looked a few inches too short. Too-small suits were fashionable; Stevie knew this.
“Nice suit,” she said. “What did it cost?”
“Don’t ask then.”
Army went to the minibar for a second glass of wine.
“At least you’re an alcoholic,” said Stevie.
Fleetwood suddenly grunted and turned red in the face.
“Is he okay?” asked Stevie.
“He’s just taking a crap.”
Fleetwood took quite a while to finish, and when he did, the stuff had exploded up the back of his polka-dotted shirt. Army expertly wrestled the baby into a new diaper. He put the diaper in the hallway in an ice bucket and went down to meet Greta and give her the baby. Stuck in the room, Stevie decided to call her parents. She explained her predicament to Mother.
“Mom? Are you still there?”
“I can’t believe Army would do this,” said Mother. “He knows you gave up your apartment in Aspen.”
“He thinks Greta might change her mind.”
“He’s an idiot. Come here and stay with us. We’ll buy you a plane ticket.”
“No. I don’t want to. San Francisco is a real place.”
“Real if you’re a transvestite.”
“Mom, that attitude is destroying our family.”
“Real if you’re into computers,” Mother persisted.
“You sound ignorant. It’s unbecoming.”
“New Jersey is real.”
Stevie eventually got her mother off the phone, but only by promising that Army would call her within the hour.
“You need to call Mom,” Stevie told him when he came back to the room.
“I know. She already sent me a text.”
“Since when does Mom text? She never texts me.”
“Texting is better for me. I don’t like talking to her.”
“Jesus, Army. Tell me how you really feel.”
“I feel like I’m going to drown in her neediness.”
“You’re a horrible son.”
Army stared at her. “You really think that? You think I’m a horrible son?”
“I do,” said Stevie. “And I think you’re going to regret it some day. When Mother and Father are gone. They way you treat them. All of us. It’s shameful.”
“How dare you say that to me?”
“You could have gotten me at the airport,” she muttered. “Or did Greta hide the keys to your Porsche?”
Army jumped right up in Stevie’s face, which scared her.
“What the hell do you know about it?” he shouted. “You’re a piece of driftwood!”
Stevie didn’t acknowledge what he said. She simply shut herself into the bathroom. Before she even clicked the lock, Army was pounding on the door and screaming her name. Stevie ignored him. On the nineteenth floor, even the bathroom had a great view. She looked down at the street and pictured herself with all the little bugs, running up the long hill to the park. And then back down again to the sunny neighborhood where Army used to live before he got rich.
He was still banging on the door. Then she heard someone else’s voice.
“Ma’am, I need to ask you to come out now.”
Stevie got up and opened the door right away. As she had guessed, it was Ramon, the handsome bellman. He had a weird look on his face, a mixture of fear and indifference.
“Is there a problem?” she asked.
“The guest in the room next to you called the front desk. So yes, there kind of is.”
“Other people are being interfered with by your noise.”
“Okay, okay, we get it, you moron,” said Army. He was sitting on the edge of the bed clutching his cell phone.
Stevie followed Ramon out of the room.
“I really feel badly about this,” she said.
Ramon shook his head. He was what? Disgusted? It was true that the hallway smelled like Fleetwood’s diaper, which was still sitting there in the ice bucket. Stevie hoped that Ramon wouldn’t offer to take it away. He didn’t. He just went.
Back in the room, Army was packing his suitcase.
“Should we have tipped him?” Stevie asked.
“Ramon. The bellman. We didn’t give him a tip.”
“The kid who came to the room just now? The one you were making eyes at?”
“I wasn’t making eyes.”
“You want to give him a tip?”
“There’s another option,” said Stevie. “Call him a moron.”
Stevie knew she was pushing her brother away, and she didn’t want him to go. But she couldn’t keep him. So it didn’t matter.
“Boy, Stevie. Your picker’s really broken.”
Army had told her this before. He thought she made terrible choices. Wrong job, wrong place to live, wrong men to love, wrong areas of interest. Broken picker. But a choice is made by a person. Stevie was a person. She made the choices.
“Wow,” said Stevie. “I wish I was perfect like you.”
“Let’s go ride the cable car,” said Army. “I need to get out of here.”
The heavy cable car chugged up Powell Street. The angle was so steep, it didn’t seem possible. Army was calmer now; he was obviously soothed by the clickety-clack, the grip and release. He even flashed Stevie a warm smile, which brought tears to her eyes. Her brother was so wide-open and spacious, he was capable of much more love than Stevie. He always had been.
She said, “I’m sorry I called you a horrible son.”
“I am a horrible son,” said Army. “But at least I’m alive.”
“What does that mean?”
She knew what it meant.
On the other side of the hill, they jumped down and went into the tiny Cable Car Museum, where the powerhouse was still in use. Army came here a lot. He had even brought Stevie before during a long-ago visit. He liked to stand at the balcony on the second floor and watch the wheel turn. The cables whirled grandly, as if they still really mattered. As if cars and electric buses hadn’t long ago replaced them.
He gestured to the gears.
“Do you understand how they work?” he asked.
“Not really,” said Stevie.
“It’s amazingly simple technology. If you look under the—”
“Army. I don’t give a shit about cable cars. Okay?”
Army turned on his heel and walked away. Stevie followed him through the doors of the museum into the dramatic sunlight outside.
“I’m trying to help you,” he said when she caught up to him.
“I don’t need help. You’re the one who needs help. I came out here to help you. Remember?”
Army started to walk backwards up the sidewalk. He said, “Keep the credit card, Steve. For as long as you need it.”
Then he turned around to face the hill. He was going home. The sun was so bright and burying, all she could see was a retreating silhouette, crisp and black. He should look great, for three thousand bucks.
Back at The Quartz, Stevie called the front desk and asked them to send up a bellman for Army’s suitcase. She didn’t even want to look at it. Then she reached for her running shoes, which had been waiting all day in the closet. She was fastening her water-bottle belt when the bellman arrived. It was Ramon.
“Is this all?” He was gripping the brass dolly. “One suitcase?”
“I’m an idiot,” she said. Ramon didn’t disagree; he just dropped the suitcase on the dolly and pushed it into the hall. Stevie realized she had no money for a tip. She wanted five bucks so badly she could have mugged someone. But the only person with cash in his pocket was Ramon.
She quickly checked the room. Army had left some loose change on top of the dresser, but Stevie snatched a postcard instead. She had planned to write to her nieces. Dear Lily and Maude. I’m going to kill myself. Love you much, Aunt Steve.
She caught up with Ramon at the elevator and gave him the blank postcard, a sepia-toned photo of the destruction after the 1906 firequake. He tried to give it back.
“No,” said Stevie. “You keep it.”
Ramon pressed the down button. He didn’t like her. She checked her reflection in a wall mirror. She always wore her blonde hair in a high ponytail when she went for a run. Her green tank top made her boobs look big. But Ramon wasn’t looking at her ponytail or her boobs. He was staring down at his shoes.
Stevie thought of the lucky students she rode in with on the airport shuttle. Those girls were around the same age as Ramon, or even younger. Promises hovered in the air around their heads. Promises turn into horseflies.
“Are you a student?” she asked.
They were alone in the elevator going down.
“Are you in college?”
“No,” said Ramon. “Obviously not. I work here. All the fucking time.”
They had reached the lobby. He followed her out of the elevator and dropped her postcard into a trashcan.
“I saw that,” she said.
Ramon gave her a ticket. “Give this to the guy at the valet desk. When you want the suitcase.”
“You don’t have to be rude,” said Stevie. But Ramon was already out of earshot. She pushed blindly through the revolving doors and took off running, because that was the best and only thing to do.
Rounding the corner onto Market Street, Stevie collided with a homeless girl, a teenager with matted hair and a pitbull on a rope.
“Watch where you’re going, bitch,” said the girl. Then she rattled a cup of coins in Stevie’s face. “Spare change?”
Stevie ran away up the street, leaping to avoid a stream of urine. It was coming from a drunk man in a wheelchair. He also had a dog.
After running uphill for almost an hour, Stevie started down a concrete staircase. Below her, the bay was dotted with white caps and busy with boats. It looked just like the picture postcard that Ramon had rejected, minus the charred rubble. He hadn’t torn it up; maybe she could get it back and write to her nieces. Dear Lily and Maude. I’m here in California with Uncle Army. I’m going to med school! Excited! Love you much, Aunt Steve
Eva’s girls were old enough to recognize their aunt’s handwriting. Old enough to know she was lying, and that she had amounted to nothing. Zilch.
Stevie pounded this word against the sidewalk, which was getting more crowded as she circled down through the Marina to Fisherman’s Wharf. She was lightheaded and spent, so she slowed her pace and walked, hands on hips, chest heaving. She blundered into a group of Japanese tourists, who swept her along into the open square where the trolleys let out. Stevie yanked a bottle of water from her belt and sank to her knees.
The tourists stepped around her; they were snapping pics of a street performer, a human statue in gold-painted clothes. He was up on a milk crate, collecting tips in a coffee jar on the ground. His audience gradually got bored and walked away, so he stretched and fiddled with his iPod. Then a fresh crowd tumbled out of an incoming cable car and he struck a new pose.
A text message dropped into Stevie’s phone. She heard the musical plunk through the padding of her running belt.
“Greta is very sorry,” her brother wrote. “We both are. Check out of the Quartz and come here. We have your room ready.”
Stevie turned off her phone. She wouldn’t go to Army’s. She wouldn’t go back to Colorado. And she couldn’t even think about the state of New Jersey. She would slip away to a place as yet undiscovered and unnamed. Before she left, she would send her brother and Greta a postcard, too, a nice black-and-white photo of Alcatraz from when the prison was still in use.
A view of a cell.
Elizabeth Trundle received a creative writing degree from Hollins University. She has written for textbooks in the subjects of mathematics and literature. As Boo Trundle, she performed and recorded original music, which was released through an imprint of Caroline Records. She gathers her thoughts at itchybanquet.com.