It is their twice a year visit to see the relations. This includes the husband’s brother, a shyster if there ever was one, cousins who taunt the kids for the rejects they are and the brother’s wife, a nervous, fluttery thing.
Her white Nylon kerchief is tied with a flourish under her chin. She pulls down the visor flap and applies the greasy red lipstick, then blots it with Kleenex. She looks like some gangster’s moll. She gently places the huge sunglasses on her face and tells her husband to step on it, playing the part. They immediately light cigarettes that their kids, a boy and a girl, smoke second hand in the back seat.
Off to Batavia they are and the mother yells above the radio, starting every conversation with serious and cruel nitpicking of the past three generations of Kosinskis. The husband says Charlotte, in a tone so gentle he might be trying to lull a baby to sleep. The predictable don’t Charlotte me! follows, and the kids become giddy. They are entertained by their mother’s cruelty, and curse their father’s ineffective gentleness which they’ve inherited. But behind the walls of their own house, they are schooled by their mother in the art of the barb. Locate your target, zero in and hit it! the mother repeats, every chance she gets. In the car the kids become suitably brutal and merciless in their verbal battering of their twin cousins, Darlene and Marlene, who have called the daughter butt ugly and her brother a fairy. To a greater extent, both taunts are true.
The father rakes one hand through the thin blonde/grey strands on his head and grips the steering wheel with the other. His wife stops her prattle for a few moments. He sneaks a look at her, her sullen and quiet beauty, her desperate aspirations. He will not ask her why she takes part in the twice yearly pilgrimage, as she calls it with a sneer, because he knows.
They arrive and the mother steps out of the car. Her kerchief, red lips and large sunglasses create a Warhol tableau. On the porch, his brother grins whiles his wife twists her hands. The twins are eerie in their sameness and ready to pounce. The families eye one another other. Darlene and Marlene begin whispering in each other’s ears, as the son and daughter approach. When the son trips taking the porch steps two at a time, the girls laugh like rabid hyenas. The mother snorts in disgust.
They are all silent on the way home. This is never a good thing. At home, the kids leap out of the car. The son takes the concrete steps up to the house two at a time, his gangly legs doing what they should, smoothly. Yes! His arms go up in a victory salute to himself. He looks to see if his mother is watching him, but she is removing her kerchief and putting her sunglasses away. An unlit cigarette dangles in her lips dejectedly, but with the promise of a light. The boy still has such a long way to go. The daughter will lock herself in her room, pile some lipstick like her mother and try to get her mouth to say all the things that it couldn’t in Batavia.
The husband approaches his wife, hands deep in his pockets. He looks at her and shrugs, part embarrassment, part apology, who the hell knows. She does the slow shake of her head that can mean one of many things, though she takes the guess work out: “They’ve got Kosinski blood,” she deadpans. “They’re just like you. I can’t teach them nothing.”
“No use even trying, right?” He cocks his head at an angle, and only a trace of the sarcasm he wants to convey reveals itself.
“There’s always next year.” She winks, lighting her cigarette, the filter branded like everything around them, with her lipstick.
And he understands, because he has to.