He had had enough. His friends were questioning his sanity. He had gone above and beyond, really, so why did he feel so guilty? When he lost Sis he felt like his life was over. He had spent his life protecting her, and ultimately, defending her when her relationship fell through and the father of her children left her. After all, in those times, no one had children out of wedlock. That was just Sis though. She was such a beatnik. She had always been such a free spirit. The kids at school had treated her like a freak. And a freak she was. She was beautiful in an odd way, with her pointed chin and her quizzical eyes. But she dressed unlike anyone in her class, preferring to haunt thrift shops for ratty old pieces of clothing that she put together in odd ways. She found a used drum set, and she banged away on them at odd hours when their folks were not around. Which was often. Their folks had been drunks, long before that became stylish, and he found himself at home with his little Sis all the time. Their folks had both died badly – their mom fell down the stairs (although everyone swore Dad pushed her) and Dad bled out in the hospital Emergency Room with bleeding varices from his ruined liver. He had wound up with a strange little sister and a lifetime of bad memories.
Then Sis got hooked up with a man more freakish than she. He fancied himself a poet, and a free spirit and he and Sis moved in together long before that became acceptable. When she found herself pregnant, her father disowned her, just before he died. He was just sober enough for it to register that his daughter was pregnant and not married, and that even for him this was unacceptable. The disowning was a formality, really, as he died broke and had nothing to leave them. Sis and her man fought on and off for two years, and then suddenly she was pregnant again. Imagine that. The brother had been slipping her little bits of money and food when he could, that useless son of a bitch Sis was with didn’t think that a job was included in his adult duties, since the man was not a man at all, but a miserable weakling who could not be bothered with anything.
He had never married. He had seen his parents’ marriage go bad, and violent, and he felt that the institution held nothing for him. He was determined not to be a worthless drunk and didn’t drink alcohol at all. He worked at a thankless job at a local newspaper setting type and put away little bits of money after the rent was paid and the groceries were bought to give Sis to help feed her kids and keep the little house from being foreclosed on them. Finally the useless bastard left her; even the ghost of a responsibility was more than he could handle and it ran him off. So Sis was left alone, never married, with two kids out of wedlock to take care of. She was the town pariah. She had been known in school as a bizarre girl, and her behavior with this useless man marked her as untouchable. So she had no one to help her, except him, and he did the best he could.
Then the worst happened. Sis got a lift home from the store one day and was killed instantly when the car she was in slammed into a bridge abutment. The two kids had been left home alone, and when he got the call and no mention was made of small children in the car, he went to go get them. What choice did he have? There they were, tiny and alone, but oddly undisturbed by their abandonment. This was not the first time Sis had had to leave them home alone. He tried to think of a way to explain what had happened, but they were so small, and looked at him so strangely that he just told them that Sis had been in an accident and would not be coming back. This seemed to satisfy them; neither of them questioned him at all. So he just took them home with him.
With his limited funds, he was able to hire an elderly woman in the neighborhood to care for them when he was gone to work, and then money and food were even more scarce. He found a second job delivering the papers early in the morning. Nothing had prepared him for having small children. They cried, and shrieked, and ran around the house, and tore the place up. The woman who was keeping them reassured him they were fine, that all small children were like this. He spent all his money on rent and on food for them. He went to work, and he came home, and there were children there, and then he got up before dawn and went to work again. His social life had never been very active; he had had few girlfriends since he was so soured on marriage and so busy with his Sis. Now, though, there was no chance of anything at all.
So, as luck would have it, he met someone. There was a woman on one of his paper routes who had been widowed young, and she began to take the habit of waiting for her paper to arrive so she could chat a few minutes with him. Still he did not take her out, or call on her, for quite some time. After all, the children were at home, and the elderly woman who kept them could not be prevailed upon to keep them of an evening, and who could blame her? One morning, the woman on his paper route invited him to dinner. He stammered and stuttered and finally explained that although he was unwed and had no children of his own, that he was left with the responsibility of caring for Sis’s children and that there were two children at home waiting for him. “Bring them,” she said. It turned out she was childless, for she had lost her husband before they could have children. So he brought the children to dinner at her house, and they ran, and shrieked and generally behaved as they always did. But the woman seemed curiously undisturbed. She found the children adorable. And, he supposed, as children went, they were.
They began to see the woman more and more often; she somehow found out where they lived and brought them a casserole dinner one night. She brought gifts for the children too: toys and little outfits. He felt as though he were taking advantage of her, but she persisted in her wooing of him and the children, and before long, she began to feel like family. A year after he found his “gentlewoman caller”, she began to drop hints and before he knew it, somehow he found himself engaged. He told her he could not afford a church wedding. “Then we’ll just go before the justice of the peace,” she replied.
And so, one afternoon he checked out early from work and picked up the children, as the woman had specifically said she wanted them present. They met on the sidewalk; the woman had a camera and proposed a photograph of the three of them, him and the two little children. She snapped the photo, and they went on to the justice of the peace, who married them with the two children standing with them, wearing their best clothes.
Years from then, when the children asked about the picture he told them, “That’s how we were then, before Mama came to be with us. It was just the three of us, since we lost Sis.” They did not remember Sis, all they remembered was Mama. And the man who did not believe in children, or in marriage, came to find himself happily ensconced with both.