Bright Angels and Familiars
by Eugene England, Editor

Family Attractions
Judith Freeman

[211] Evelyn sat in the kitchen, trying to figure out what to do for the twins’ birthday. She was going through the “Family Attractions” column in the newspaper.

“How does Magic Mountain sound?”

“Bor-innng,” Lois said. Linda didn’t respond. She was lost to the music coming through her headphones.

“Hollywood Wax Museum … ?”

Lois shook her head. “Why don’t we get George in here? He might have an idea.”

“Don’t ask George what he wants to do because he won’t have an answer,” Evelyn said. George wasn’t the father of the girls, although he’d accepted that role as well as he could, given the fact he was a lifelong bachelor and over sixty when he met and married their mother, several months ago. The girls’ real father had died in a fiery collision near Barstow.

“Cabrillo Marine Museum?”

“Dead fish,” Lois said. “I can open a can of tuna if I want to see that.” She stuck her thumb in her mouth.

“What’s that thumb doing in your mouth?”

[212] “I can’t answer, I’ve got a thumb in my mouth,” Lois said.

“And you’re turning nine tomorrow.” Evelyn shook her head. “I rue the day I gave you binkies.”

Linda took her headphones off. “Are we going to have lunch or what?”

“Or what,” said Evelyn. “It’s not even noon.”

“We could go to McDonald’s.”

“Wait till George finishes what he’s doing and we’ll eat. But we’re not going to McDonald’s. There’s leftover meatloaf from last night. We’ll make sandwiches.”

Linda put her finger in her mouth and bent over the table, pretending to gag. Evelyn looked hard at her.

“You know, there are lots of starving kids in the world who would be very happy to get meatloaf.”

“Name two,” Linda said.

“Very funny. I don’t know why I’m going to all this trouble here. You two are ingrates.”

 

When George came in from the yard, they were still sitting at the table.

“Ugh,” Evelyn said. “You’re tracking something here.”

George looked at his shoes, then tiptoed back through the door and reentered moments later.

“I hope that wasn’t what I think it was,” Evelyn said, looking up from her newspaper.

“Just mud,” George said.

”The girls haven’t been picking up after the dog this week. In fact, they’ve been very lazy about their chores. I don’t know what we’re going to do about it.” She looked at her daughters severely.

“How about we string them up by their toes and put goose feathers under their noses?” George laid a finger lightly on the end of Lois’s nose. She squealed happily.

“George!” she yelled, twisting away from him.

 

From the beginning, during those first awkward days after the wedding when tests of various kinds were common and the twins [213] saw to it that George remained unassimilated, everyone had agreed that the girls should call him George, and not Dad, as a means of letting them guard their familial territory until such time when they could accept him naturally. For weeks, they kept him outside their circle, sometimes refusing to talk to him at all, other times being intentionally rude. Unkind reminders of his age were used to distance themselves from him: “George is old enough to be our grandfather,” Lois said one day in front of him. “George is older than our grandfather,” Linda added. Quite recently, however, something had happened. The tide had turned. More and more they warmed up to him, sensing, old or not, George was the kind of person who, without striving for it, was a source of marvelous fun.

 

“So how are the plans coming?” George asked.

“Mom doesn’t know what we’re going to do,” Lois said wearily.

“There’s the Stuntman Hall of Fame,” Evelyn said, still reading from the newspaper. “Or the Museum of World Wars, Sea World, the Pasadena Flea Market. Hey, how about the flea market? That might be fun.”

“Fun for you,” Lois said.

George spoke up from the sink where he was scrubbing his hands.

“When I was a boy,” he said, “I took my mother rowing on Lake Larson every year for her birthday. Lake Larson is in Minnesota,” he added.

Evelyn, who harbored a low opinion of George’s athletic abilities, said, “I didn’t know you could row, George.”

“They had the prettiest little boats that you could rent,” George said. “That was Mom’s idea of heaven.” He was about to tell them what color the boats were, a bright blue, and how his mother liked to row to a monastery on the far side of the lake where, near a statue of Christ, they sat on a marble bench and ate their picnic lunch, but Evelyn spoke up first.

“Why don’t we take a picnic to Lake Sherwood tomorrow and George can row us around the lake?”

“I don’t know this Lake Sherwood,” George said. “Is it near?”

[213] Lois, taking her thumb out of her mouth, brightened and said, “Can Barky go?”

“I’m sure they don’t allow dogs,” Evelyn said. She wanted to slap her daughter’s hand away from her mouth. Ignore it, the shrink said, but it was easier said than done. Evelyn turned to her other daughter. “What do you think, Linda?”

Linda held up her hand to indicate that her mother should not, at this crucial moment, interrupt her musical concentration.

“I’m talking to you,” Evelyn said.

“She can’t hear you,” George explained, pointing to his ears.

Evelyn yelled, “I’m trying to plan something here!”

“Sounds good to me,” George said happily. “Rowing, a picnic. Great. I could use a day in the sun. Sometimes I think this job is killing me. It’s bad enough during an ordinary week, but when it’s hot people get crazy and they’d like to kill you. You go into people’s houses and they’re filthy, especially under the sinks. I had to crawl under a house yesterday because a rat died between a wall and the bathtub and the smell was coming up through the pipes. There wasn’t anything I could do to get that rat out of there. ‘You’re going to just have to wait until Mother Nature does her work,’ I said. ‘Dust to dust.’ But the woman didn’t want to hear that. They don’t want to pay you if you can’t fix everything, but you’ve got to charge them for trying.”

“What about Barky?” Lois said.

“Take that thumb out of your mouth, you’re nine years old.”

“Technically, I’m still eight,” Lois said.

“I think Barky could go,” George said. He stood behind Evelyn and put his hands on her shoulders. As he spoke he softly kneaded her flesh. “We’ll sneak him in.”

Evelyn felt a sudden annoyance. Everything was working against her. The whole family was like a wave shoving her back to shore when she was trying to make a little headway here. She waved a hand in front of Linda’s face. “Hey you,” she said. She waved again.

Linda took her headphones off and stared at her mother. “You just interrupted the best part of ‘Material Girl.’ Like the very part I’ve been waiting for.”

[214] “What the hell have I done wrong, ” Evelyn said, and walked out of the kitchen.

George and the girls were watching TV when Evelyn came down later and apologized for being short-tempered. “I’m getting my period,” she whispered to George, settling down beside him on the couch. “I haven’t actually started bleeding yet but I feel awful. Edgy, you know.”

“Oh,” George said. He was still unused to a woman confiding in him about her cycles.

They were watching a program on vampire bats on the public television station. The bats were shown flying through the air in slow motion, undulating like swimmers, and although their faces were terrifying, Evelyn thought their bodies quite beautiful. Lit from behind they had a human shape—legs and arms—with wings of the thinnest membranes, translucent as fine pink silk, stretching from the arms to the body like some sort of see-through garment.

The narrator said that in a small town in Mexico, bats were posing a problem for livestock raisers who annually lost hundreds of animals to anemia as a result of bats preying on them.

In the next scene two bats were shown sneaking up on a tethered horse that was so gaunt its bones protruded like the spikes of a broken umbrella pushing against the fabric. The bats moved along the ground, hopping like quick little monkeys.

“How do they get these pictures at night?” Evelyn asked.

“Infrared photography, I guess,” George replied.

“Ssshhh, you guys,” Lois said.

A bat hopped onto the horse’s hind leg and bit it just above the hock. The horse stamped its foot and the bat scurried away. But it was too late, the narrator said. The bat had already done its work, injecting a numbing agent, secreted in its saliva, into the horse’s leg. Now the bat would wait until it could return to the site and feed without the horse feeling anything. The bats hopped around the horse like mischievous fairies. A few moments later, one of the bats jumped onto the horse’s leg and began drawing blood. Afterward the bats returned to their cave and were shown feeding regurgitated blood to their babies and mates, who hung [216] upside down from the cave’s ceiling.

“I just don’t see how they get these close-up shots in a cave,” Evelyn said. “How come the bats let somebody in there to take pictures?”

”They’re using a hidden camera,” George said.

“God,” Linda said in disgust. “Look at those things.”

“I’ve told you not to use God like that.”

“You do.”

“You’re not old enough. Can it.”

Since the farmers were losing livestock, the narrator said, it was decided the bats must be controlled. The same gaunt horse that had appeared in previous scenes was injected with a slow-working poison. When the bats returned to attack it that night, they filled up on poisoned blood and returned and fed it to the others. In the last scene, helmeted men with flashlights were examining a cave littered with bat corpses.

“I don’t know how we can eat dinner after that,” Evelyn said when the program was over. She puckered her mouth and squinted at George.

George laughed. “It’s just nature, Evelyn.”

“We could go to Chuck E. Cheese,” Lois said. She stretched, yawned sleepily, and rolled over onto her stomach, lying on the carpet in front of the TV. Linda put her feet on Lois’s back.

“Get your dirty socks off me,” Lois said, and twisted away from her, rolling over and over across the floor.

“That stuff in the fridge is going to spoil if we don’t eat it.”

“What are these?” Lois said. She was looking at George’s hand.

“Age spots,” George said.

“Oooo,” Lois said, and fell back on the floor in a slump as if she’d just fainted. “How disgusting.”

Linda took off her socks and stuffed them into one big ball and lobbed it across the room at Lois. Lois ducked, then picked up the sock-ball and threw it back.

”Tell you what,” George said. “Since you only turn nine once in your life, we’ll go out tonight. How does that sound?”

In five minutes, they were ready to leave. But as they stood at [217] the door, Evelyn looked wistfully back toward the kitchen and said, “I just hate to waste food.” She sighed. “All that stuff rotting in the refrigerator.”

 

That night George said, “You have so many nice nightgowns, why don’t you ever wear them?” Evelyn, wearing a gray sweatshirt, had just gotten into bed.

”I’m cold,” she said. “I just want to be warm.”

George slipped his arm under her neck and tried to roll her closer to him.

“It’s all right, George.”

“I thought I’d get you warm.”

He smiled. Evelyn looked closely at his mouth and thought, If he went to a hygienist now, it would be a big, unpleasant job to clean his teeth. He had let it go too long.

She turned out the light. Cars sped past the house, the sound building and fading, like waves. A motorcycle roared by, followed by a car with rock and roll blaring from its radio. It was silent for a while; then because the light up the street changed, more cars went by.

George said, “What time should we plan on leaving tomorrow?”

“Oh, whenever we get away.”

George imagined rowing his family over the water, pulling the boat across the smooth surface of a lake, balancing the weight of his passengers, shifting to counter their movements.

Evelyn, feeling his hips move beside her on the mattress said, “It’s the wrong time for that, George.”

At first he didn’t understand what she meant, and then he did, and he wanted to say something, how he was thinking about something else. Sometimes he didn’t know where things came from, why they didn’t understand each other better. How could she think he had wanted that, when he had only been thinking about rowing and steadying the load of his passengers?

 

“It’s lunchtime at McDonald’s,” Lois said as they were loading blankets and food into the back of the truck, which had the name [218] of George’s company, LAYTON HEATING AND PLUMBING, painted on the doors.

Evelyn frowned at the picnic basket she held. Catsup had oozed from the bottle and soiled a napkin. She tightened the lid.

“Ooo, bat blood!” Linda said, staring at the thin line of catsup on Evelyn’s hand.

“Bat blood!” the girls shrieked, feigning horror, and backing away from their mother. Evelyn held her hands up to scare them and the girls grabbed for each other and ran behind the Pittosporum bush.

“Help us, George,” they squealed, “save us please!”

“Coming to get you,” Evelyn said. She held her hands up and pulled a face.

“Ha ha ha,” she said gruffly and chased the twins around the bush and back to the truck, where George stood ready to catch them and lift them up into the truck bed. They all stood looking at one another, the girls excited and still acting like they were frightened, Evelyn flushed from running, George calmly smiling.

“Now promise me you won’t stand up or move around if I let you ride back here,” he said to them.

As they pulled away from the house and drove down the street lined with flowering acacia, George checked the rearview mirror to be certain the children were safe and still in their places.

 

Under a sky that was gray, they drove west on the Ventura Freeway. By the time they reached Calabasas, openings appeared in the clouds and big holes of blue showed through. As they were passing the pet cemetery, Evelyn said, “I wonder where we’ll bury Barky when he dies.”

This upset George. It seemed unnecessarily morbid since Barky was only three and a vigorous, happy animal.

“Don’t think about it,” he said.

“I’m trying to think about something other than the damned thumb sucking,” she said.

George looked in the rearview mirror. The girls were waving at an older couple in a Cadillac who were following them. The couple [219] weren’t waving back.

“Marla tells me to ignore it and I try, Lord, I try, but every time one of them sticks a thumb in her mouth I think, where have I failed here? It’s like a picture of my failure. I didn’t give them something. I didn’t do something right.”

George could not think of who Marla was. The counselor at school? The psychiatrist Evelyn went to before the one she had now?

He said, “How do you know those twins wouldn’t have sucked their thumbs if they’d been born to somebody else?”

“Well, you can’t ever know something like that.”

“Everybody does the best they can,” George said. “If they could do better, they would.”

“Maybe this is over your head. Or out of your ballpark or something.”

“What do you mean?”

“Maybe you’ve got to have kids to know what I’m talking about. ”

“I’ve got kids now,” he said. He waited for her to say something but she didn’t.

The Cadillac pulled into the next lane and began passing. As it went by the girls waved again. He could see their fluttering hands and wished the people would wave back, but they kept their eyes straight ahead, ignoring the girls.

“I wouldn’t let them keep their binkies so long,” Evelyn said, “if I had it to do over again.”

“Binkies?”

“You know, pacifiers.”

 

“That’s where they filmed M*A*S*H,” Evelyn said later, lifting her aviator sunglasses. “That’s supposed to be Korea.”

They were inland from Malibu on a two-lane road climbing through the dry hills that separate the ocean from the valley. George slowed down to look at the M*A*S*H buildings, set back off the road in a narrow canyon. Hawks circled above the ridge, riding a hot wind.

“Look at the hawks,” he said.

[219] “I see them,” she said.

A few miles later, they came to the Lake Sherwood turnoff. A man sat on a folding chair at the end of a dirt road, cleaning his fingernails with a pocketknife. They paid him two dollars. He made them promise to leave the dog in the truck once they got to the lake. Dogs weren’t allowed. He was willing to make an exception, as long as the dog stayed in the truck.

 

Barky jumped out as soon as the truck came to a stop under a eucalyptus tree, and the twins followed.

“Everybody carry something,” Evelyn yelled to the twins. “You take the Playmate,” she said to George, meaning the plastic cooler with the drinks inside. George was looking out over the lake. It was a fine spot. Steep green hills rose from the edge of the water. The sun glinted on the water’s surface, breaking up into sharp points of dancing light, and George thought it a wonderful sight. The lake seemed to be quite large, and L-shaped, although part of it wasn’t visible from where he stood. Next to the truck, a field of orange poppies bloomed, and beyond that stood two small white buildings, the cafe and bait shop.

The children swirled around on the dusty path, trying to grab Barky by the collar.

“I know we shouldn’t have the dog,” Evelyn said. She walked lopsidedly, weighed down by the picnic basket.

The girls ran on ahead. A wind came up suddenly and lifted their dresses, and George looked away, shy and embarrassed before their youthful shapes.

“I know we’re going to get busted,” Evelyn said.

“Wait by the dock,” George told her. Inside the little store he rented a boat for three hours. He bought KitKat bars for the girls and stuck them into his pocket. He saw some fishing lures on a cardboard display that he thought he could make into a pair of earrings for Evelyn, and he bought two of them. They were beautiful metal ovals, speckled purple and yellow, and he could imagine them flashing from Evelyn’s earlobes, catching light and casting pale hues of color onto her neck.

[221] Once outside he waved to his family from the porch and started walking toward the dock. It still surprised him that he had this family, that the identical girls in blue dresses and the woman in a full yellow skirt and black sweater, who were all now waving back at him, their arms raised up into pale and fragile arcs, were actually his own.

“They’re fishing, George,” Lois said, pointing to some kids standing on the end of the dock. “Linda and I want to fish.”

“Ah, fishing,” George said. “We’ll have to do that.” He looked over the row of wooden boats bobbing on either side of the dock.

“Hurry up, honey,” Evelyn said. “Pick a boat, any boat, and let’s get going before somebody stops us.”

The boats were white and in need of a fresh coat of paint. George frowned at them. Finally he picked out one with an extra oar and helped his family climb in, then coaxed Barky aboard.

“George, is this a good idea?” Evelyn said, trying to steady the boat with one hand and pushing on Barky’s haunches with the other, in an effort to get him to sit. She held onto the dock while George stepped over the edge, and the boat lowered deeper into the water. Someone appeared on the porch of the bait shop and yelled at them. George with a firm push sent the wavering boat gliding away from the dock.

“It’s a very good idea,” he said. “Just sit still. Pretend you don’t hear him. Don’t look at him.”

Evelyn put her sweater over Barky’s head and tied the sleeves around his neck like a scarf. She put her sunglasses on his nose.

“He looks very human,” George said. “One of us. ”

 

George had met Evelyn on a Sierra Club bird-watching trip to Point Mugu Naval Station where, in marshes set among the test-firing ranges, they observed blue-crested mallards, willets, leggy egrets, and the rare clapper rail. Nearer the ocean, tide pools were also examined.

“We’re here to observe what’s above and what’s below,” Puff McGruder, the outing leader, said to the Sierra Clubbers as they disembarked from the bus. Since they all belonged to the West Side [222] Singles Chapter, they were also there to observe what was next to them.

During a restroom stop at the golf course clubhouse, a long line formed in front of the facilities. George, who was standing near Evelyn, noticed the flower printed on the front of her t-shirt and asked the name of it.

“That’s a giant Coreopsis,” Evelyn said.

“How large are they?” George asked.

“Oh, about a thirty-six D,” Evelyn said, and they both laughed.

George bought her coffee, served in cups with plastic missiles for stirrers, and they sat together on the bus during the rest of the trip. Soon they were dating regularly.

In many ways they made an unlikely couple. He was sixty-three, she just thirty-eight. He stood six feet four, she was just over five feet. The first time he hugged her, he felt the sharp point of her nose pressing against the bottom of his sternum.

He had never planned to marry, let alone marry a woman twenty-five years younger and one with two energetic children. But Evelyn, in so many ways, was the perfect match for him. She was the only woman with whom he’d ever seen a future. It surprised him. It came late in life, when he’d adjusted to things going another way.

“If you’ll have me,” he said to her a few months after the Point Mugu trip, “I’m yours.”

 

The lake was smooth and George found rowing easy. He faced his family and contemplated his luck. What would he have, twenty years with them? Fifteen? Life insurance should guarantee educations for the girls if he should go sooner. Recently, the heavyset black woman who was the dispatcher at work said to him, “I bought me an alarm clock, but you know, that thing runs backward. Now, I don’t need that.” But that’s precisely what George wished he had, a clock that ran backward for a while.

He felt for the lures in his pocket and drew them out to show Evelyn, but she was looking through the binoculars, studying some [223] birds feeding close to shore. He put them back and remembered the KitKat bars.

“Want some chocolate?” he said to Lois, who was holding her Barbie doll over the edge of the boat, dragging the permanently arched feet across the surface of the water.

“Yeah,” Lois said.

“Say thank you.”

“Thanks, George.”

“Want a candy bar, Linda?”

“Thanks a lot, Georgio,” Linda said.

 

George decided to row to the small island in the middle of the lake. It was farther than it looked. Progress was slow in the small boat, loaded down as it was, but he felt he could row like this all day. About halfway to the island, however, he began to feel a tiredness in his arms that progressed to an overall fatigue he was embarrassed to admit. He stopped for a moment, pretending to enjoy the scenery, and they drifted, borne by a wind that moved them toward another boat where people were quietly fishing.

“Hallooo,” he called, and the fishermen gave a friendly wave.

By the time they reached the island, George felt he needed a rest and suggested they go ashore for their picnic.

“But it says no trespassing.” Evelyn pointed to a sign posted by the Department of Water and Power, that threatened trespassers with fines and prosecution.

“Who’s the wiser?” George said, and put the boat ashore on a sandy strip between two rocks. He was the first out, stepping into shallow water in his chunky shoes and black socks, claiming the island as the sovereign territory of the Laytons.

The island was so small it took only a few minutes to climb to the summit where they had a view of the whole lake. Lois, Linda, and Barky ran down to a grove of oak trees while Evelyn spread the blanket and set out brightly colored containers of food. George felt out of breath and lay down close to her. He closed his eyes. Spirochete-shaped objects floated before him, rising and falling fluidly against the pinkness of his eyelids, illumined by the sun. He [224] felt a little nauseated, his back ached, and his wet shoes were uncomfortable.

He looked up at his wife, who was spreading pimento cheese on crackers, her breasts full and free under her dress. Reaching out, he touched her, while Evelyn continued making sandwiches. He didn’t fondle her breast, but held it still and firmly in his hand, enjoying its weight. It made him immensely happy that Evelyn allowed him to do this. From a distance, he heard the children’s voices, singing in unison: “We are the thumb suckers of the thumb-sucking club,” and the giggling that followed.

Evelyn frowned.

“Evelyn,” he said, and when she looked at him, he smiled. “It’s OK.”

 

After they ate, the kids cracked rocks and examined their interiors.

“This one looks like an M&M, doesn’t it?” Lois said, and held up a white rock with a black interior.

“This one is even prettier,” Linda said, exhibiting a plain rock that wasn’t very pretty at all.

Evelyn and George lay on the blanket and dozed, thinly aware of the world, the motorboat in the distance, the flies above their heads, the dog digging a hole, the girls hammering on their finds.

When he awoke, George called to the girls and together they climbed a large boulder at the very summit of the hill. He took two balloons from his pocket and blew them up and gave one to each girl, telling them to make a wish and let the balloons go. The balloons, a red one and a blue one, were carried by the wind out over the low trees, over the island’s shore and beyond the boat, floating far out over the lake before they descended and skittered across the surface of the water.

“You will live long lives,” George said, assuming an erect posture befitting his role as mock fortune-teller. “You, Lois, will marry a whale,” he predicted, “and live happily in the sea. You, Linda, will marry a bear and be queen of the forest.”

“George,” Evelyn called. “We ought to get going. What are you [225] guys doing up there? It’s getting late.”

 

The children ran down the hill, dodging clumps of cacti and the prickly bushes, racing toward the boat. Evelyn and George followed at a slower pace.

“George,” she said just before they reached the spot where the boat was tied, “would you like to have a baby?”

George laughed. “That’s a new one.” He felt his heart beat faster.

“I’ve been thinking we could have a child together if we do it soon. Lots of women have kids when they’re my age.”

“I don’t know,” George said, but he did know, and he would tell Evelyn later, when he had thought it through and knew exactly how he wanted to say it.

Rowing back across the lake, the sun was low and their skin glowed a golden apricot color in the light. George pulled at the oars, but his arms felt heavy and he was very tired. Frequently, he looked over his shoulder to check the distance to the docks, which never seemed to change. Lois hung over the side, dangling her doll, moving its legs so that sometimes Barbie swam, and sometimes she walked on the water. Linda slept, her head on her mother’s lap. Each time he looked at Evelyn, she smiled at him so kindly that she appeared beatific to him. As they rounded the rocky point where the water eddied into a cave at the shoreline, something swooped out of the sky and darted past so quickly that for a moment George wasn’t certain he’d actually seen anything. He thought some trick of the eye had fooled him. But then a second time the thing dove in front of him, and this time he saw it for what it was, a bat, moving out at dusk from some dank and darkened dwelling.