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Broken Window Blinds
by Walt Giersbach

In Manassas, Va., the old housing code defined “family” as any group of people defined by blood or marriage. In December 2005 a new definition limited family to immediate relatives of homeowners. Parents, children and siblings were family; uncles, cousins, nieces and nephews were not. This definition was repealed in January 2006.

The problem wouldn’t have come up if the window blinds hadn’t been broken. That’s why the neighbors complained. Carson was compelled as zoning commissioner to drive over to the Gibsons’.

“Mrs. Gibson,” he said, “How many people are domiciled in this house?”

The sounds of shrieking children came from inside. Someone played an amplified guitar in the kitchen, and four men dealt cards at the dining table.

“What do you mean, people?” she asked. “This is our family.”

“Under Article II of the town code,” he recited, “you’re only allowed two or more persons related to the second degree of collateral consanguinity or otherwise duly authorized custodial relationship, as verified by official public records, living together as a single housekeeping unit, exclusive of not more than one additional non-related person.” He took a deep breath.

“What’s that mean?”

“That means you can have yourself, a spouse and your children.

“Baloney! Nobody authorized my dad to be my dad. My brother-in-law Al’s family are here just till he finds work.”

“Well, there you are. They’re unauthorized.”

“My uncle’s here because he has phlebitis and my nephew takes him to the doctor. The kids just happened. It’s called biology.”

“Gibson conceded, “Your children are all right.”

“Well, my five came out all right, but I don’t know about Al and Joanie’s four.”

Tom Carson rose to his full height. “You have a three-bedroom house. How many people should live here? Twelve? Fourteen?” This rhetorical question passed over Mrs. Gibson’s head.

“It’s extended family. Didn’t your grandparents come from somewhere, like those islands in Europe?” she asked. “You think there’s only standard-issue families?”

“You have five children and your sister-in-law has four.” He squinted. “Aren’t you rather sexually active?”

She snorted. “No, we just lie there.”

“This isn’t normal! There are rules about how many people can live in a domicile. We must have rules, else why do we have a zoning commission? The whole thing could come unglued and then where would I be?”

“Maybe it’s gotten out of hand.”

“Then—we agree there are too many people to call this a family?”

“When Jason arrived I said it might be too much.”

“Who’s Jason.”

“Jason and I…” Quietly, she continued, “Have a relationship. My husband has a prostate condition, so we agreed Jason could come and see me.”

“Jason isn’t family!” Carson exploded.

“He said, in a manner of speaking, I was wife to him and George, so it was natural to put his bedroll on the porch.”

Carson put a hand over his eyes. “Mrs. Gibson, I’m leaving, but please fix your window blinds—and keep them closed!” He turned, “And don’t talk to your neighbors!”