You couldn't really say that the children's rebellion against private school began with Marca getting into yet another fight on the schoolgrounds, but that hair-pulling, scratching, kicking quarrel with the guidance counselor's daughter certainly was like the rock fall that starts an avalanche. Marca was expelled from the school at the beginning of her seventh-grade year. In November, her normally passive twin Oesha was caught going through the teacher's desk and displaying the contents of the teacher's purse to the other students. Four days later, she horrified and astounded us all by distributing copies of Cosmopolitan among her classmates (none of us had any idea how she got them, and when asked she insisted that she had received them from a fellow student whose name she didn't know) and a week after her suspension from school due to that incident, was expelled in her turn for pulling out a pack of cigarettes and coolly lighting one up in the middle of a history lesson.
The school faculty was on the lookout for the Reich-Ambris Gang after that. Michel and Kelsa were next, reprimanded several times for humming together during tests, then for getting up and walking out of the classroom together without permission; their suspensions followed their filching of poster paint and writing with it on the wall by their classroom door, "This way to hell." They were put in separate classrooms, but that was a mistake; one or the other would sit at a desk in her/his twin's room, and refuse to leave. The teachers would have to literally drag the limp twin to another classroom. The principal recommended that the children be withdrawn from Port Laughton Academy because she didn't favor the possibility of a lawsuit incurred by having to drag the younger Reich-Ambris twins about the hallways.
Owen was the last. He stopped doing any homework when Oesha was suspended; when the teacher called him on it, he told her that the class tests would indicate that he knew the material and that the homework was redundant and superfluous. Although his test scores were consistently ninety-eight percent or above, his teacher, Mrs. Beecham, began to weight homework more heavily, and by mid-December, Owen was limping on a "D" average. At that point he began writing fiction stories about a female character named "Sunny Beech" and made copies not only for his friends, but for anyone who asked. "Sunny Beech" was an exaggerated character who, when confronted by a stop sign, was frozen to immobility; a character who, in a Chinese restaurant asked to choose two items for the lunch special, argued long and rudely that if any two items could be chosen, then three would be just as easy for the cook, for the same price. To load insult upon insult, the character "Sunny Beach" would end each story by crawling into the bed of random secondary characters.
When Marca was kicked out of school, none of us were really surprised; we had hoped that she would be able to control her temper more as she grew older, but we knew that her potential for hot-headed physical retaliation was likely to get her into trouble sooner or later. Oesha's acting up seemed related to separation from her twin; but when the other three changed systematically from ideal students to incorrigible troublemakers, I felt sure there was a common theme, and a criminal mastermind. Not Marca and Oesha -- they weren't particularly imaginative; Kelsa and Michel were still too young. There was only one of the five with the creativity needed to script the misbehaviors of his siblings.
"Owen," Bodie asked the week before Christmas break, "are you trying to get kicked out of school, too?" It was Friday evening, and rain was pounding the windows. Andersol had coaxed Jesse out to look for bargains at Macy's so that Bodie and I could do some interrogation without the distraction of Jesse's panicky motherhood.
"Yes, sir," Owen replied humbly.
"So that you could all stay together?"
"I guess so." He huddled back in the oversized chair.
"'I guess so?' That's an evasive answer, Owen," I told him. "We all know something is up, why won't you tell us what's going on?" He was still quiet, and would not look at me.
"I understand you all wanting to stay together," said Bodie. "Really. But Marca made her own choice by cat-fighting with that girl. You don't have to follow her lead."
"Bodie," I said, putting a kind hand on his arm, "they didn't follow her lead. This is your kingpin. Owen planned this all out."
Owen sat up with a gasp. "Who told you?"
"You gave yourself away with the 'This way to hell' line. You dramatically bowed and said that one evening when you were five, as we were all going in to a dinner of broiled scallops with cooked carrots on the side."
"I did?" he said, puzzled.
"You did. Those who do not remember their history are doomed to repeat it. Now, since I already know your guilty secret, why don't you tell us what set off this 'kick me out of school' challenge?"
He sighed so hard his lips fluttered. "That girl that Marca beat up."
I was glad, in an odd way, that he was able to see that Marca had beaten up the girl, not merely retaliated against her. He was eleven, and although he wasn't the oldest, he was the definitely the leader, the one the others assumed would provide direction, even this dangerous one of defiance of authority. "I think you should come over here and sit against my legs," I said to him. "That way when I whack you, you'll have fair notice, just like how you were taught to stand close to your horse so that you know what he's doing. Oh, there you go, sit on my feet and I can't kick you. Now, what about this girl?"
"She was making fun of our names last year. Marca is Spanish, Oesha is African, Owen is Welsh, Michel is French, and Kelsa is Scotch. She was telling everyone that Mama traveled around the world, and that all of us had different fathers, that's why we don't look like each other, and why we have names from other languages."
Bodie and I just stared at each other at the cruelty of which children are capable. With the kids' father dead, there was no way for them to compare themselves to him. Owen definitely had his father's chin; Oesha looked remarkably like her paternal grandmother Claire had in her childhood. Kelsa looked like I did when I was her age, freckled and skinny; Michel -- well, I don't know. Marca looked like a stouter, fiercer version of Jesse. They did look different from each other.
"This fall she said that Michel looked like Uncle Bodie, and that maybe my father didn't die of a heart attack." His mouth was grim. "They started calling us 'The Ambris Bastards.' We decided that the next time she said anything to Marca that Marca should just let her have it."
"And she sure did," I mused.
Not having been smacked or screamed at or kicked, Owen continued, his enthusiasm growing. "We knew Marca would get suspended or kicked out of school, and then that girl Helen and her friends would really get on us without Marca to keep them away, so we planned how we could get expelled. We knew what we could do without getting arrested."
"You mean, you knew what you could do," I offered. He was quiet again. "Where did the cigarettes and the Cosmo magazines come from? Owen, I'm not going to overlook this one; tobacco is a controlled substance that ended up in the hands of a minor. Whoever provided it is guilty of a crime. If you don't tell me, I report it to the police."
Bodie looked at me with alarm. So did Owen. "Marca's friend Jeffrey's oldest brother. We got him to get them. He's over twenty-one! That's not a crime!"
"No, but giving them to you is. Apparently you need some home-schooling on what constitutes child endangerment."
"Why didn't you tell your mother what was going on at the school?" Bodie asked him. "There's no reason you kids should have been subjected to that kind of harassment from another student."
"Mom gets really upset about things and shouts and wants to sue everyone! That makes Oesha throw up! And if she makes trouble at school, Michel and Kelsa end up being the ones picked on because they're the littlest. We hate it there! It wasn't too bad when Papa was alive, because he was always there! He came to everything! He was there every day! He was proud of us! He was -- "
"Easy, Kiddo," I said, as his voice got louder and more shrill. "Easy."
He leaned his head back on my knees and took a deep breath. He needed to talk about missing his father; they all did. I did. The only family member that didn't was Jesse, their mother, whose grief had mostly been about the responsibilities with which he'd left her. But this wasn't the time, not with the Honorary Uncle turned Stepfather sitting here with us.
Bodie had been sitting silently for a while. Then he said, "Here's the deal, Owen: you want public school, you got it -- up until your grades drop into the 'B' range. At that point, you're headed off to military boarding school, got it? Go report to your operatives that this campaign was a success," Bodie ordered. "But the next time you guys decide on a plan of action, talk to one of us first." As Owen nodded, Bodie's voice became deeper. "Don't turn this house into a battleground like I grew up in, with kids on one side and adults on the other. We lived like that until we left my parents' house. Trust me, you don't want to think you see a sign on your front door that says, 'This way to hell.'"
Owen whispered, "I'll get A's. I can get A's. But I'll go to boarding school before I'll go back to Port Laughton Academy." He stood, and gave each of us a kiss on the cheek, and then left my study.
"I'm out of my depth, Sully," Bodie said, looking up at the figured squares of the ceiling. "I thought the kids were just reacting to Marca getting expelled, and thought she was just being herself. I had no idea they were being tormented like that. I feel like I failed them, somehow, that they couldn't tell me."
"They didn't tell me, either, so don't beat yourself up too much about this."
He chuckled. "And you're not going to rehash this over and over again in your mind, either, is that what you're saying? I know that's a lie. You never let anything go easily." Standing, he stretched his arms above his head. His oxford cotton shirt strained at the seams becomingly; but not as becomingly as had the sweatshirts and long-sleeved tees of the time before his marriage. He was becoming downright respectable.
I felt a twinge of regret, remembering the easy, wine-soaked party evenings he and his twin and I had enjoyed. "No," I said, to no one statement in particular. "I'm going to go outside to think, Bodie. Don't let anyone lock me out, okay?"
"I'll tell Redell when I go whine for a supplementary sandwich, okay? These early fish dinners on Fridays are starving me to death. But seriously, Sully, we need to have a pow-wow about this, the four of us, as soon as Jesse and Andersol get back."
"I don't think so, Bodie. We don't want to go into a holiday with Jesse on a rampage about the kids. Remember what Owen said about Oesha getting the pukes from stress."
He waved his hands in dismissal. "I'll take care of Jesse's rampage, don't worry. What door are you going out?"
"The porch off the ballroom. It's the only one that stays dry through a storm."
He gave me a thumbs-up sign and left the study, which had become too stuffy and warm. I couldn't open the windows because of the rain driving against them.
I went down the back stairs but instead of turning to the right to the kitchen, I took the hallway to the left with its oak cabinets and counters. The long hall opened on a small ballroom, where in days past, parties would be held with dancing to a small grouping of musicians, or perhaps guests would be subjected to a concert or recital or a speech by an aspiring politician. The room was dark and deserted, dust-covers draped over the furniture. A maintenance light was on outside the french doors, and I followed its gleam on the polished hardwood floors.
Five children, aged twelve, eleven, and nine. The two oldest are going to need training bras soon, I thought, feeling the sudden surprise of years. Weren't they just little kids a couple weeks ago? Their father has been dead for three years -- that's almost forever to them. Who tells them their father's stories? Their mother, who was nuts in love with another man a matter of months after her husband's death? The step-father and aunt, who never knew their father? Maybe their grandmother Claire, who was so irritated by Jesse's ineptitude at estate management and motherhood that she was spending longer and longer periods of time with friends in Europe? That left the house staff and me. Well, the head of estate staff management, Redell, was still here. All the others had found other jobs and new personnel took their place over the years. Even Nanny had left in a huff after Jesse remarried, adding to the turmoil of the household.
A gust of wind spattered me with droplets even though I stood close by the doors. I suppose that leaves me to tell the stories of Charles Reich that I know, I thought. Of seeing him dancing, playing 'Ring A Round of Rosies' with Marca, Oesha, and Owen, looking like a giant holding hands with staggering toddlers. Of hearing him sing Beatles' songs to his children, It Was a Hard Day's Night, and church hymns at their bedtime, This Day God Gives Me, to the same tune as Cat Stevens' Morning Has Broken. Of the crown of pink and lavender roses that he placed on Jesse's head after the youngest twins were born.
I hoped that Charles' collection of his children's artifacts was still somewhere in the house, and that Jesse hadn't heedlessly thrown the things away.
Once upon a time, an auntie watched five children come to live in the world, and she was very happy indeed about the prospect of talking baby talk to them, and combing their delicate hair, and having them snuggle against her at Mass. Auntie never imagined that one day she would be trying to help adolescents work through the weighty and ragged stages of grief, or that she would be the repository of their memories of their past.