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1st place, The Jeds 2001, Outstanding Characterization of Other Character, Bartlet Administration (Charlie)

The Language That Gets The Job Done

Some nights, I feel too young.

And it's strange, because you would think I would feel old, not young. While these thoughts are bouncing around in the back of my head, I'm washing a sink full of dishes my sister dirtied cooking us dinner. And baking a cake. The kid baked a cake while I was making sure the country got ran.

So you would think we would both feel too old, Deena and I. But she's on a sixties music kick, and I'm hearing all these songs that inspired people to change their world or to dance around and have a good ol' time, and I wasn't even born. My mom was a kid and Toby Ziegler's sisters took him to protest and Dylan was a hell of a lot younger, but didn't really look it.

And the sad thing is, I don't really know that much about those days. I mean, dates and facts and stuff, yeah, but -- nothing real. Mom didn't talk about her childhood too terribly often. She told us house-tales -- told us about the time Grandma Lucy took her to a restaurant and asked for a glass of water, a dollop of ketchup, and saltines, and created tomato soup for free. And about the time Grandpa Joe thought he lost baby Mina in a crowd, and it turned out she was sitting on his shoulders playing with his hat the whole time. But she didn't tell us too terribly much about what happened outside the family.

"When you're older," she liked to say a lot, and now I'm older and she's dead.

So I'm standing here doing the dishes, and I don't know the first thing about my mother's life when she was my age. And I'm too old, and I'm too young, and my little sister is sitting at the kitchen table behind me and she hasn't said a word for 17 minutes.

It's quiet in here, and I'm thinking, I've got homework. I've got homework from summer school, and part of it is for this extremely complicated physics course I took to get the President off my back. But part of it is for the American History course I took for myself, and it's got me thinking about the decades just before me.

Ten years before me it was 1969, and my mom was 16. Right now, the kid sitting behind me at the table is 16, and she's every bit as closed off to me as that 16-year-old kid who was my mother. It's enough to make me feel old again -- the teenager I'm raising doesn't want to talk to me. The scary part is that I don't want to talk to her. I don't know what to say.

Because today is Mom's birthday, and I'm about 98% certain that's why Deena baked. Which means she realized it a long time before I did. I wasn't that great at remembering Mom's birthday when she was alive, and I've had six hours of sleep in the past 72 hours, so. Still, it was a jolt, when I walked into the house on my first early night off in weeks. Because my eyes fell on the hall calendar at the exact moment when I smelled the cake. So it was a double notice: Your mother would've been 48 today, and instead she's dead, and you didn't even think about her that much. You didn't wish her a happy birthday and you didn't take her flowers, and you didn't bake her anything, to be sure.

Deena took the flowers alone, and I wish that's why she isn't speaking to me, but this silence started a while ago. A few weeks or something. I'm losing track of time. Hard to keep track of time when you're this young, hard to notice weeks passing when you're as old as I am. I wrote the date on seven hundred thousand pieces of paper today and my hand paused every time, but the thought never quite made it to the conscious part of my mind.

So I'm doing the dishes, and wishing I knew what kind of clothes Mom wore when she was 16. Deena wears tank tops and short shorts, and I don't say a word. There have to be pictures, don't there? Pictures of my mom as a kid, pictures other than that uniformed photo the newspaper carried the day after we lost her? There have to be pictures in our apartment somewhere, and I don't notice the water sloshing down my shirt front as I drop the cursed mixing bowl and dry my hands on a yellow dish towel. In the hall closet, there are boxes.

And boxes and boxes and boxes. Stuff we "might need someday". Stuff we damn well aren't going to part with. I'm looking through them, and I'm not finding pictures of the old days. I'm finding stuff that was hers in this apartment with us. Her CDs. Her computer disks.

Aah, hell. Her CDs. My eyes travel back to them, to the Easy Sixties mix, to Time Life Sounds of the Seventies, to the Beatles, to just about every Dylan album ever released ... and another angle, The Dixie Chicks, John Michael Montgomery, Trisha Yearwood ... and another, Sister Hazel, Hope of the Ashes, U2, Aerosmith, and another, Tchaikosky, and another, Dar Williams. My mom had an amazing range of taste.

But I'm too young tonight, not too old, so I reach for the stuff my sister's been hooked on.

I don't think Deena looks up for a full minute after I start blasting Chimes of Freedom. But I see her tense her jaw, and I know she's going to say something soon. So I step around her, into her line of vision, and I offer her my hand.

"Care to dance?" I say gently, and my sister looks up at me, and our vision is blurred by tears on both ends.

"You sure Zoey won't be jealous?" she teases, and an enormous sigh of relief escapes me when I realize she's not too mad to tease.

And then I realize it's been a full five minutes since I've thought at all about my girlfriend. It's a strange feeling, because it's the first time I've realized how little Zoey and Deena know each other, these two most important women in my life. I mean, they know each other -- they've met, they've spoken, they've smiled shyly from either side of me, but they don't know each other like family should, and they're the largest part of my family. It is unfathomable to me that they've never giggled together over something they won't share, or gotten into a food fight, or tackled homework together like family members do.

"We should invite Zoey over sometime," I say. "She'd love your cooking."

"We should," Deena agrees, moving into my arms as we begin to dance. "But not tonight, okay?"

"Okay," I say, and then I wait.

"Charlie, how long did it take you to realize what today is?" she asks, and there's this moment when I'm strongly compelled to lie. The instant I woke up, I want to say. I knew, I thought about it, I thought about her all day long, because it's only been a couple of years, and that's too soon to forget such a thing.

"I remembered when I got home," I answer honestly. "Deena ... You know, it's not that I forgot exactly, it's just --"

"It's okay," she says, very quietly.

"No, it isn't. But it's ..." I sigh. "People's minds work in strange ways. All day long I knew I was going to remember something later, but I never stopped to think about it, because the President never stopped moving today."

"It's okay," she says again, and this time I don't argue.

Minutes pass. No, only seconds, because the same song is still playing, but it feels like minutes, and then Deena draws back from me a little and studies my face.

"You could still wish her a happy birthday," she says, but I can tell her mind's moved on to something else. And a second later, it comes. "Why did you stay out of college, Charlie?"

"I, uh -- I took some time off to --"

"Raise your sister?"

I shrug. "You were fourteen."

"And now you're working 20-hour days half the time, and the other half, you're in night class."

Ah, hell. She's lonely. And she's right.

"I'm making good money," I tell her.

"You'd be doing that job for free," she replies, and she's right again.

I shrug, and study her as we dance slowly around the kitchen. "I love it," I say. "It's an incredible job. I love it. And I love the people I work with. And I love the pace. I'm learning things there they don't teach in night classes."

"So why do you need night classes?"

"Because they teach things like, I don't know, physics."

Unexpectedly, she giggles. "Do you know the way you talk has completely changed since you took that job? It's like a code language. The I-don't-knows and the things and the whatnots. This is really the language that gets the job done?"

For some reason this cracks me up. I think it would be fun to take Deena to work with me one day. I think it would be fun for her to hear first-hand all the I-don't-knows and the things and the whatnots that go into the running of our country, and then I think, why shouldn't she visit?

"Maybe you can come with me sometime and hear it for yourself," I suggest. Which takes guts, considering I'm inviting family to the White House, and the only other people I've seen do so are the Chief of Staff and the President, both of whom outrank me by about a million miles.

"I would like that very much," she says, but that isn't all she wants to say. There's something else still lingering, some unanswered question in her gaze.

And then the CD launches into Do You Believe In Magic, and we both start laughing and the pace of our dancing picks up. I twirl her, and she forgets she's mad at me and laughs out loud as we celebrate Mom's birthday. Mid-twirl, as her hair obscures her face, and under the dingy overhead light, I am struck tangibly by how much she resembles our mother.

It's happening. It's coming true. I am looking at my mother at 16, and I don't need pictures, just family.

"Tomorrow, okay?" Deena says, and I'm not sure what she means.


"Zoey. For dinner. Tomorrow. I'm still gonna be in the mood to cook."

And the song ends and she drops back into her chair, but somehow she's speaking to me now.

Tomorrow. Dinner. Deena's cooking, Zoey's laughter, and this kitchen table with its scratches.

"Sure," I say, and think, I should go and call Zoey, but I don't. "Hey, Deena."

"Hmm?" She pretends not to be interested in anything I've got to say, but I see a smile tug at the corners of her mouth.

"It's a beautiful cake," I tell her, and she studies it as it sits in its place of honor at the center of our table.

"Yes, it is," she says. "Too bad neither one of us will ever get up the nerve to cut it."

She's older than me, my kid sister.

"Zoey will," I offer, and her reaction tells me I've hit the mark. She deserves to know better the woman I love. That's what she's asking, and offering, me.

Deena sits back in her chair and studies the cake, and then the scratched surface of our table, and then me. "Good, then" she says, and her too-familiar dark eyes are locked on mine, and I think, but don't say, Happy Birthday, Mom. And then I grin at my kid sister and pick up the phone.

26 June 2001

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