“He wants us to do what?” Caroline Tate and her brother, J.P., spoke in unison. That was a very rare occurrence. Caroline and J.P. were such enemies that they usually never spoke at all in each other’s presence; now, suddenly, they were not only speaking, but saying exactly the same thing. And then they did it a second time. “HE WANTS US TO DO WHAT?” they asked again.
Their mother looked at them in amazement. “You two should try out for the Mormon Tabernacle Choir,” she said.
“Don’t change the subject, Mom,” Caroline said. “Let me see the letter. I can’t believe I heard you correctly. It’s a cruel hoax, right?” She reached over and took the letter that her mother was holding.
Caroline read it quickly; it was a short letter. “I can’t speak,” she said when she had finished. “I’m just sitting here in stunned silence.”
“Lemme look,” said her brother, and he took the letter. J.P. was such a genius and speed-reader that he only needed to glance at it and he had it memorized. “I can speak,” he announced. “No. I won’t go.”
Joanna Tate looked at them both and sighed. “It’s a shock, isn’t it? After all these years. I don’t blame you guys for being upset. I guess I am, too. But you know, maybe it’s not such a bad idea after all—”
“On a bad-idea scale, from one to ten,” said J.P., “with nuclear war rated ten, this idea would come in at a good eight.”
“Nine,” said Caroline. “I think it’s a nine. And I won’t go, either. For the first time in my life I agree with J.P.”
“Hold it,” their mother said. “There’s something you don’t understand.”
“Wrong,” Caroline said. “I understand perfectly. You and he were divorced when I was two years old—that’s nine years ago—and J.P. was four. He never writes to us. For Christmas and birthdays he spends a whole lot of time and thought renewing our magazine subscriptions—”
“His secretary renews the subscriptions,” J.P. interrupted.
“You like those magazines,” their mother pointed out.
“The point is,” Caroline went on, “he doesn’t really care anything about us. Twice we went there to visit—twice in nine years—and both times it was just for a week, and both times it was boring. And now he says he wants us for a whole summer? No way.”
“I have plans for this summer,” J.P. added. “I plan to build a computer this summer.”
“I don’t have any particular plans,” Caroline admitted. “But I sure am going to come up with some plans, and they are not going to include Des Moines, Iowa.”
“Well,” said Joanna Tate, looking miserable, “believe me, I understand how you feel. But I have to be honest with you. You are going to Des Moines for the summer. Both of you. There’s nothing I can do about it.”
“WHY NOT?” bellowed Caroline and J.P. together.
“Because,” she explained, “our divorce agreement says that he can have you for the summer. It says every summer, in fact. But it was never convenient for him before. One summer he had a girlfriend living there. And one summer he was playing on a softball team. One summer he had a cold. And one summer he had just gotten married. And the next summer his wife had just had a baby. And one summer—oh, I forget. He always had an excuse.”
She crumpled the letter and stared out the window, down into the New York street at the people, cars, noise, and bustle. “It might be fun to spend a summer away from the city,” she suggested. “I’ve never been able to afford to send you to camp or anything. And I worry about you when I’m at work and school’s out.”
Caroline and J.P. stared at her and didn’t say anything.
“It might be fun,” their mother said again, very glumly. But she said it the way someone would say, “This might be good,” about a tuna fish and bean sprout casserole. Polite. Hopeful, even. But not convinced.
“Mom,” Caroline said finally. “If the law says I have to go, then I’ll go. I’m not going to run away or anything. How about you, J.P.? Were you thinking of running away?”
“No,” said J.P. “Actually, I was thinking that I might handcuff myself to the doorknob of my bedroom and then swallow the key to the handcuffs.”
“But how could you build your computer if you were handcuffed to a doorknob?”
“There’s a problem there,” J.P. acknowledged.
“Can J.P. take all his electronics stuff to Des Moines?” Caroline asked her mother.
“Actually, I was assuming he would. Even hoping he would, so that I can clean his room for the first time in five years.”
“J.P.,” asked Caroline, “if you could take all your electronics gear, would you go? Because I guess I’m going, but I don’t want to go alone.”
“If you get him to sign a paper that I won’t have to play baseball,” J.P. said. “I want a legal statement, notarized and everything. Last time I visited him he kept making me play baseball. He called me ‘fella’ all the time. I want it to say in the statement that he won’t call me ‘fella.’”
“That’s right!” Caroline said. “I’d forgotten that! And he called me ‘princess’! He couldn’t ever remember our real names! Make him promise not to call me ‘princess,’ Mom!”
Joanna Tate nodded. “I’ll call him,” she said. “And you two can talk to him and tell him all of that. Write out a list of requests—like no baseball, and no stupid nicknames—and you can negotiate that over the phone.
“I wish I’d been as assertive as you kids are,” she added, “when he and I were married. Because—well, you want to hear something really disgusting?”
Caroline and J.P. nodded.
“He used to call me Jo-Jo,” their mother confessed, cringing.
“See?” said Caroline and J.P., like the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. “SEE?”