External Photo Clues:
“Mule” stuck fast. Larry hated it and his friends were never bold enough to drum up his sister’s nickname in front of him, but Larry knew that was what the town was calling her. It could have been worse and he supposed there was at least a little bit of sympathy that passed when the name left their snickering lips. They all knew that Darlene wasn’t always like this, a five year old child in a twenty-two year old body.
But he stuck by her all the same. Even after high school ended and his friends left for big cities or for the 17th Parallel in Vietnam, he stayed with her. Even when the old vets threw him sour frowns when word got around he’d asked for a draft exemption, he stuck with her. He did it because he owed her a debt for the one night when it was Darlene that had stuck with him.
Their father was a mean rattlesnake of a drunk. Darlene was a bold, precocious twelve year old with a brain bigger than an encyclopedia. Larry, at eight, was little more than skin and gristle and still had to depend on his big sister to handle the bourbon-fueled fury of his father. Their mother was a wilting wisp, an apologetic shadow, and she often escaped the drunken tirades by sitting with the cows until the man passed out.
Larry can’t say exactly what had started the fight, perhaps Darlene was cracking wise and prodded the rattlesnake out of its hole, perhaps the man was just as sour of a cuss as the townspeople said and was looking to fight anybody and, that night, Darlene was anybody.
His sister herded him into the bedroom when voices were raised, told him to lock the door from the inside and not to come out for any reason. He obeyed, even after he heard her scream. The boy knew where his father kept the family shotgun and considered going for it, but instead stared at the closed door as he hugged himself in the corner.
The father had left late that night, slamming the door behind him and deputies came in the morning, Larry’s handcuffed father in tow. He’d gotten picked up at three a.m. for causing hell in town and they were bringing him home to sleep it off. When the deputies saw Larry’s mother dabbing a wet rag at the dark purpled face of her comatose child, they took the father back to the lockup and there he stayed for six years. When the day of freedom came, he returned home “a changed man,” but Darlene had changed too. Her memory had been beaten out of her and with it, seven years of maturity had been ripped away, leaving Darlene a perpetual little girl.
Unable to stomach the fruits of his alcoholism, the man left and Larry’s mother followed. At fourteen, Larry took control of the household and charge of his sister.
She was stubborn, no denying that. “Mule” was apt and trips to the local grocer turned into spectacles as Darlene pouted and protested because Larry couldn’t afford to get her a licorice whip. Their mom had left behind enough money for Larry to keep them alive through the winter, but cupboards went bare soon after. Larry knew his way around a combustion engine, so when he was fifteen, he dropped out of school and found gainful employment at a garage.
Darlene was always much calmer at home, so he left her in charge of cleaning the house while he was gone. Because of her spotty memory, she would often sweep the floor four to five times in a day. She would ask where mama was and, rather than rehashing their abandonment, he just muttered “out, she’ll be along shortly.” The adult girl would skip away happily to play with her dolls or to dust and arrange the bookshelves for the tenth time.
Larry took up his pa’s acoustic guitar out of boredom and began singing gospels with his sister. She still had a beautiful voice, but it was a child’s small voice. Because of his sharp good-looks and coal black hair, people around town kept asking him to play Elvis songs and they were always disappointed that, as much as he looked like Elvis and dressed like Elvis, he didn’t much sound like Elvis.
Darlene was invited to sing with the choir and, though she might forget what part of the year it was or where Larry went every morning, she never missed a practice and never forgot one word to any hymn.
The girls came and went for Larry. He didn’t have the time or inclination to maintain a busy social calendar so the type of girls he dated weren’t those that were much interested in being tied down to a man already tied down to another woman, even though that was his sister. From time to time, an enterprising lass would venture a formal sit-down meal with Darlene, but Darlene would be sullen throughout the meal and throw a fit if she didn’t get her way.
At twenty, Larry fell in with a determined blonde with meaty curves. The girl suggested a picnic in the country. They made it three miles until Larry had to stop the car to settle down Darlene’s panic attack. Darlene bolted out of the car and into the storefront for a local oil man, saying she’d been kidnapped.
It took an hour to coax Darlene back out of the building as the owner threatened to call the sheriff. Darlene refused to get back into the car until the blonde, sensing that the date was over, asked and received a ride from an oil worker heading to Elk City. The sheriff finally showed up along with an enterprising young journalist who was the lone writer and photographer for the small town paper.
In the quiet town, even such a minor commotion meant front page news so as long as there was a photo. The newspaper clipping was immediately framed and mounted on the garage wall by the fellas and Larry never said a word.
A year later during a meal at the house, Darlene informed a mousey brunette that “if anyone is gonna have children with Larry, it’s gonna be me.”
Larry was horrified and struck dumb. The subject had come up before between Larry and Darlene. She just didn’t understand what procreation was, let alone incest. She just knew that they were a man and a woman living together like married folk, so babies would surely follow. Larry would tell her it didn’t work like that between brother and sister and then Darlene would cry and stamp off to her room until her memory faltered and she forgot all about it.
But that night, the promising young brunette who thought she could handle Darlene went pale as she stared from sister to brother and back to sister. She politely excused herself to the bathroom, emerged five minutes later and asked for a ride back into town.
At twenty-eight, Darlene’s memory started getting better and she insisted on daily visits to the library when Larry returned home from work. She was perhaps nine years old in her maturity, but her mind was opening up wide again like it had when she was younger. She gobbled up books about animals and medicine, but didn’t have much use for fiction. She begged her brother to let her go volunteer at a veterinarian clinic a mile and a half away and he knew there would be no dissuading her. There never was when she set her mind to something, which was only getting worse now that she remembered things better.
He was fraught with nerves when he picked her up from her first day of work, but the vet boasted that he’d never met a person more natural around animals than Darlene. She later told him she could feel what the animals wanted. They didn’t communicate by talking like Larry did, but they talked through emotion. He didn’t understand what she meant, but it seemed to work well enough that the vet took her on full time and paid her an honest wage.
Larry was hopeful that Darlene’s tangled, broken mind was finally mending itself and she would one day become a full grown woman, but her growth stalled at about eleven. She was old enough to work a full day, but not old enough to live alone. She got scared at night when the wind howled and the thunder rattled the windows. It would set off severe panic attacks and he knew he was the only one that could help her.
She’d grown to the point that she would accompany him to weekly poker gatherings at his boss’s house. Larry would drink beer and play cards in the garage while Darlene would chat away with the women inside the house. She quickly learned to only say one out of every four things that came to mind, otherwise the women’s eyes would glaze over and they would smile patiently before finding something to busy themselves with in another room.
At forty, cancer came for Darlene like a summer electrical storm, short and brutal. She didn’t suffer like he’d seen some old folk do. It was maybe two months of doctor’s visits and then three nights in a hospital in Elk City. And then she was gone.
“Now you can start living your life,” is what people said most in the weeks following her funeral. They’d looked at her like she was a millstone hanging from his neck, and now that she was at rest, he should feel light and free. His life was not buoyant, though, it was weighed down by her absence. During those long, lonesome nights, he had yearned for liberation from his duty as his sister’s keeper, but only briefly. He knew he still owed her for that terrible night, for taking the beating that robbed her of womanhood.
He escaped the empty house as much as he could. He played guitar at a local bar for a Western swing outfit that also traveled to West Texas at least three times a year. The long nights of travel, packed into a small car of musicians was a welcome reprieve, a chance to taste what it meant to be a young man. But it was hard for him to enjoy it as he fretted over going home to a house with no one in it.
While in a sleepy town outside of Amarillo, Larry met the woman he would later make his bride. She was a widow with two young children. Over a year and a half’s time, they talked by phone, by mail and spent days together while Larry’s band was traveling through.
Larry brought them back to Oklahoma, back to the family home. They could not fill Darlene’s void, but they at least gave her spirit something more interesting to look over than a lonely man shuffling from work to bed and then back again.
He was a natural father and while the woman, nine years younger than Larry, curled against his body in a warm summer night after the kids had settled to bed, she asked how a single man could jump into family life so effortlessly.
“That’s how Darlene raised me.”
About The Author:
Charles Martin & Will Weinke
Charles Martin is an arts and entertainment writer for the Oklahoma Gazette, co-founder of Literati Press and author of 2008’s “the dominant hand” and 2010’s “Edward and the Island.” He’s lived in Oklahoma since he was a child and is eagerly awaiting the chance to sell out his home state and move to Beverly*. *Hills that is.
About The Imaginary Family Project:
The 2011 Imaginary Family Project is a year-long collective art endeavor coordinated by occasional amateur artist Quentin Bomgardner and co-sponsored by The Red Dirt Chronicles. This project is based around “lost” vintage photographs, which have been acquired at flea markets, garage sales, estate sales, and eBay – heirloom collections, with no heir. Every week a different author will “find” one photograph by creating an imagined history around one of its subjects. At the end of the year, the collection will be compiled and presented as a group.