Family Ties (black sheep)
  FIVE STORIES by Ellyn Bache
  1  Siblings
2  Cousin Calvin
3  Cousin Cindy
4  Wife
5  Husband
  About the Author  |  |  September 2015 Fiction Issue

Cousin Calvin

Calvin the criminal, that's how I always thought of him. Exceptionally good-looking but wily. Impulsive. Mean. Aunt Peggy never saw it. Such a loving parent. Too loving if you ask me.

The year Calvin turned eight and I turned sixteen, Aunt Peggy's mother got sick and she had to go to the hospital every evening. Calvin’s ten-year-old sister Min went to a friend’s house, but nobody would take Calvin, even then. I had announced that I was too old to babysit. This is family, my mother said. A duty, not a choice. Sitting at Aunt Peggy's dining room table, I sorted through my note cards for a term paper and stared out the window. I was bored.

Calvin was outside. It wasn’t dark yet, the days were long. I didn’t call him even when dusk fell; he wasn’t a baby. Finally he came in the back door and thumped around the kitchen, probably getting something to eat. He was a small kid who’d grow tall eventually, but not for years. He clumped into the dining room louder than he had to, just to make sure I'd look up. Good thing I did. He was brandishing the long knife Aunt Peggy used to slice brisket.

“Get out,” he said.

“Put that back. You shouldn't joke around with knives.”

“I'm not joking.” He held the knife aloft, as if about to stab, the pose used in ads for horror films.

The dining room table separated us. “Put it back, Calvin. I mean it. Do it now and I won't tell your mother.”

He didn’t budge, didn’t take his eyes off me. At eight Calvin was round-faced and beautiful, his hair a glossy black and his eyes a very pale blue, a perfect sky-blue, baby-blue, with a rim of gray outlining the irises. His expression was perpetually surly. Picture any old B-movie. Picture a criminal named Babyface with dark hair. He sidled toward me around the table.

“I'm not an infant,” he hissed. “I don't need a sitter.”

“I'm not a sitter, I'm your cousin. I'm here doing homework.”

He stopped to take this in. Tension pulsed from him like heat; the hand clutching the knife white-knuckled, his cheeks flushed and feverish. He moved closer.

“Don't be a jerk,” I said.

“Get out, Camilla,” he whispered. We’d both been given names starting with C after our great-uncle Clive. Breathing heavily now, nostrils flaring as if there wasn’t enough air in the room, he raised the knife higher. I stood up.

“What are you going to do?” I joked. “Stab me and leave my body on the floor for your mother to find?”

“I will if you don't get out.” He closed in on me. I backed away, not meaning to. I knew murder in the eyes when I saw it. This was not a joke.

“Get out.” His voice mechanical now, wooden. He might have been in a trance.

The gray rims around his irises grew darker. The hand with the knife froze, fist at the level of his ear, weapon pointing downward. I was afraid. Afraid of an eight-year-old. My heart beat fast, but for a moment I didn’t budge.

Then he leapt toward me, dramatic. I scurried away.

“Out!” he shouted. “Now! I mean it.”

I went.

Aunt Peggy found me on the front porch in the dark, staring at the sky. “The night’s so warm,” I told her, “I couldn't stay inside. Calvin's been in bed for hours.”

Turned out, he had been. The knife lay on the floor beside him, dropped from a limp hand.

“What this?”

I feigned shock. “Don't know a thing about it.” Peggy frowned but said nothing, carried the knife back to the kitchen. She didn’t ask me to babysit again, which suited me fine.

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At sixteen Calvin was a lanky six foot two, wearing a red bandanna around his head, jeans, no shirt. He lay on his back on the living room floor, knees to his chest, hugging his long legs, trying to stretch the spasms out of his back. He’d lost his balance on his skateboard and landed on his back. His face was contorted with pain — that flawless, empty face, some would call it pretty.

“They're gonna operate,” he told me. “I may never get on my board again. Shit.”

Calvin,” Aunt Peggy said.

“Shit,” he repeated.

“There are other things you could do,” I told him.

“Like what?”

I didn’t answer.

Calvin beckoned me closer, whispered in my ear. “Fuck you, Camilla.”

The surgery ended Calvin's skateboarding career and cost him a whole semester of classes. If anything, the pain was worse. He quit school and began a new phase of his career in crime, which before had consisted of small thefts and cruelties. Now the goal was obtaining drugs.

His new modus operandi was to steal prescription pads from his doctors, forge prescriptions for painkillers, fill them at various drugstores. He wasn’t too successful. He kept getting caught. Spent time in detention centers, went to drug treatment programs. Aunt Peggy begged him to get his GED but he didn’t. Between confinements, social services found him jobs to help him get back on his feet.

“The tragedy is, he's in real pain,” Aunt Peggy lamented. “Ever since the beginning. The pain never goes away.”

“I don't believe it. I think he's conning you.”

“Camilla, how cruel.”

He became a delivery man. Quit. Took a job clerking in a photo store. Got busted for forgery and served another detention. Entered a training program at a bakery where they taught him to be the bagel man. Each new position left Aunt Peggy giddy with relief. He loves it, she’d say. He's really settling down. Each job was going to be the one.

Our grandparents — mine and Calvin's — gave us silver dollars for our birthdays, old ones, worth more than face value. I saved mine in a pink padded box I'd had since grade school. After college, I took a job, got raises, moved into the first apartment I could afford to rent solo, no roommate to contend with, only a cat. I kept the padded box on a shelf in the closet. One day I came home to find the front door ajar and the silver dollars gone. Nothing else missing, even the cat, nothing out of place.

Calvin, I thought.

I found out where he lived and paid him a visit.

A girl named Sheila answered the door — tall, red-haired, surly. Behind her, Calvin sprawled on the couch, half-asleep. He was only twenty, but he looked terrible. Not just tall and thin but skeletal and skinny, his expression slack. He sat up and nodded at me, but for a minute his eyes didn’t focus.

“I want my silver dollars back,” I said, “though I see they're probably up your nose or down your throat or into a vein by now.”

He grinned. “What silver dollars are those?”

“You know damn well.”

“Sit down, cuz. Take a load off. Have a beer. Have a cup of coffee.” He motioned Sheila to offer me refreshment. She looked at me quizzically but didn’t move.

Why was I there? You can't get the better of a psychopath, Calvin’s sister Min often said. I didn't expect to get the coins back. What did I expect?

“You bastard,” I said.

Calvin shrugged. Sheila walked me to the door. Min was right. You couldn’t shame someone without a conscience.

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A few years later Aunt Peggy quit her job and started driving a cab. Her old job had taken her out of town part of each month. Three times she’d been away when Calvin was picked up by police. In the cab, she could be reached at a moment's notice.

There was another consideration. Sheila had given birth to a daughter. Calvin had moved out while she was in the hospital. Aunt Peggy wanted to be a grandmother. She visited and gave Sheila money, not that she had much to give. Little Emily, a dark-haired cherub, looked exactly like her father: round face, fair skin, eyes the color of ice.

At Thanksgiving, for the first time ever, I brought a man to Aunt Peggy's house for the family meal. Wendell and I were engaged, but I had been putting off the wedding. I worked for a large corporation where I had just been promoted. Wendell was an entrepreneur. He owned a rug-cleaning firm, a rent-a-handyman service, and a yard maintenance company. “Honey, I know you’re under pressure,” he said to me and to the crowd in general, “but until you're in business for yourself, you're still playing with somebody else's money.” He winked, as if to show that in spite of my success, I was still more decorative than useful.

We were not a formal family, but at holidays the women wore dresses and the men button-down shirts and ties. Emily, nearly five, sported shiny patent shoes and a blue bow in her hair. I was relieved to see how cheerful she was, how normal, despite her father's glacier eyes.

Surprise! Just before dinner, Calvin showed up. I had thought he was in jail.

“Out on parole,” my mother whispered. “Peggy has visitation rights to Emily. Calvin doesn't. This is the only way he can see her.”

Emily went rigid when Calvin hugged her. When he ruffled her hair, she pulled free, scooted to the other side of the room. Calvin laughed. He had become a skinhead. He wore jeans and a flannel shirt and had gained a little weight. My mother whispered that he'd been clean of drugs for a year.

“Hey, cuz,” he greeted me, comically raising one eyebrow when I introduced him to Wendell. His eyes seemed clearer than before.

During dinner, he sank into one of his sulks. He answered questions with one-word sentences. Emily sat on the other side of the table, clinging to Aunt Peggy.

Later, Calvin and I were momentarily alone in the living room. “Stole any more silver dollars lately?” I asked.

“How old are you now, Camilla?” he replied.


“And you finally got a boyfriend, huh? I'm surprised.” He winked. “I thought you were a dyke.”

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Five years later, Calvin called me at work to ask for money. For a person who didn’t speak to his relatives from year to year, he had an amazing facility for keeping track of us. By then I’d moved twice, broken up with Wendell, and found Kelly, who turned out to be the love of my life.

“Money for what?” I asked

“For rent.”

“You're thirty-two years old and you're asking me to pay your rent?”

“Just this once. I started a new job. In merchandising. Great job, but I don't get paid for a month.”

“I've heard about your great jobs, Calvin.”

A couple of years ago Aunt Peggy had supposedly stopped giving Calvin money, but everyone knew she helped whenever she could. Now that was over. Aunt Peggy had had a stroke. Her right side was paralyzed, her speech reduced to gibberish. She was in and out of rehab.

“Camilla, do you think I'd call you if I wasn't sincere?” Calvin asked.

“Fine,” I said, wanting to honor my aunt. “Tell me your landlord's name and I'll write him a check directly.”

“I'd be embarrassed. Better write the check to me.”

“In your next life, Calvin.”

“Camilla, Camilla,” he cajoled. “Are you implying you don't trust me?”

“The chances of my writing a check to you are slim and none, Calvin. Less than zero. Beyond the realm of possibility.”

“Thanks anyway, cuz,” he said, and hung up. For the first time, I thought I had gotten the better of him.

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That evening, my house was in shambles. Every lamp knocked over, every picture off the wall, pillows dumped from the couches and chairs; vases, candy dishes, ashtrays slammed into smithereens.

A wave of nausea overtook me. It's true what they say about feeling violated. I walked two steps into the living room and could go no farther. I sank into a sitting position on the floor. I was forty years old, observing the wreckage of the only house I'd ever owned, mine and Kelly's. Until that moment, whenever I’d walked through the door I was happy. Black dots swam in front of my eyes. I wasn’t sure if I was going to faint or vomit.

“You should have trusted me,” his voice said.

Well, of course. He wouldn't have left without seeing me. Five years, and nothing had changed. The lanky build. The flinty stare. The surly expression. Only his hair was different, no longer shaved, an improvement. He filled the kitchen doorway.

“You pig,” I said.

He advanced into the room. “I was right, wasn't I?” he asked.

“About what?”

“The boyfriend.”

“Get out, Calvin.”


He moved toward me. I wanted to get up, but I was locked in place, sinking into the rug. I watched a slant of evening sun catch his hair, make it glisten. The rims around his blue irises were black.

“What do you want, Calvin?”

“Like I said, a little cash.”

“Find any?”

“No. But I think you'll tell me where it is.” He rubbed a hand against his jeans. I noticed he was wearing gloves. Latex, form-fitting, the kind you see in doctor's offices popping from the box like tissues.

“Worried about fingerprints?” I asked.

He smiled, pulling the gloves tighter.

Anger radiated through my chest like a sunburst. I got to my feet.

He catapulted himself forward then, caught my arm. Pushed me onto the cushionless couch and wrapped gloved fingers around my neck.

I kicked out, hit air. Then the fingers closed in. I screamed once, couldn’t breathe. Saw red.

“Hold it,” a voice said.

Just as quickly, the fingers loosened.


Calvin turned. She was behind us, in the hallway to the bedroom, pistol in her hand, hair slicked-down and wet, terry-cloth robe brushing her knees.

I dived from the couch, flattened out, caught a splinter of glass in my hand. Calvin got his bearings and lurched in Kelly's direction. She fired. He kept moving. She fired again.

He was hit. Stopped a second, then stumbled forward. He didn’t go down. There was a smell of burning.

“Lesbian bitch.” He faltered, fell to one knee. Finally he crumpled.

Black dots filled my head again; I thought I was passing out but I didn’t. Sensing Kelly next to me, I sat up. “It's okay,” she said. “It's okay.”

She was barefoot. That was the first fact that registered. Her legs muscular, tan. Her face ashen. I noticed all these things.

“I was in the shower,” she said. “The radio was on. I didn't hear. Jesus. He did all this while I was in the shower.”

Her right arm hung at her side, hand clutching the pistol. We’d bought it when she started traveling, took lessons in how to shoot. Didn't think we'd have to.

My head cleared all at once. “I'll call 911,” I said. The phone was in the kitchen. I made it as far as the hallway.

He was lying on his stomach, blood seeping onto the rug from the chest wound, stain oozing out around his shoulders. Right cheek flat to the floor, eyes staring at the wall, glazed and blank. No expression, no surliness, no attitude. As if he'd left the premises. I'd never seen a corpse before. He looked so peaceful. “I think he's dead,” I murmured.

“They'll be here any minute,” Kelly answered. I realized she'd gone into the kitchen, called the police, come back.

The light deepened and shed a pinkish cast on everything: fallen lamps, smashed vases, shards of glass from the broken knick-knacks. The splinter in my hand began to sting.

“Who the hell would do something like this?” Kelly shouted. “At six in the evening! With people coming home from work! What kind of raving–”

“Calvin,” I said. “My cousin Calvin.”

“Oh my God.”

“He called me at work. Wanted money.”

“Oh Camilla.” Her voice began to break. “Oh, Camilla, I'm sorry.”

“Don't be. He was always a shit.”

Kelly put down the pistol, wrapped her arms around me. We stood there I don't know how long.

A terrible sob filled the room. A long wracking moan. I realized it was coming from me.

“It's natural to grieve,” she said, folding me closer. “Even if he was robbing you. He was kin.”

I thought of him at eight, his pudgy hand clutching the handle of a brisket knife, anger in his belly, fury in his eyes.

“Go ahead and cry. Grief is natural.” She rocked me back and forth like a child.

“I'm not grieving. I'm mad because he looks so peaceful. He has no right.”

“It's okay,” she whispered, but I pulled away. She wouldn't understand, and I could never tell her. I could never get the better of him, even at the end. This was not grief, this was despair. I wished I'd shot him myself.

  © Ellyn Bache, 2015

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