Calvin comes home from work to find his sister Maggie and his niece Sonny, with whom he’s living while he saves up money, sitting at the dinner table, ready to eat. Maggie and her and Calvin’s mother both suffer from bipolar disorder, but Maggie is medicated whereas their mother—who disappeared long ago—never was. Calvin and his brother Charles feel that their sister is “the key to the history of [their] lives.”
Though Maggie and Sonny are very minor characters, Orange still imbues them with the weight of a difficult family history. He does this to show that every person alive is walking around with a burden—and every story has inherent worth.
Maggie, Sonny, and Calvin eat dinner happily, but when Calvin goes to the kitchen for a beer and Maggie calls for him to bring back some lemonade, Calvin becomes angry at being bossed around, and yells at her. Sonny flees the room, and there is the sound of the front door opening and closing. Worried that Sunny has run out of the house, Calvin comes out of the kitchen and goes to the front door to find that his brother Charles and his “homie” Carlos are in the living room with big bottles of alcohol in their hands. Calvin, who owes Charles money, laments that the time for him to pay up has come.
Calvin is clearly yet another character who is at something of a breaking point. Desperate for his sister’s help but strangled and embarrassed by this need, he lashes out at her—and clearly makes bad decisions which threaten her and her daughter, selfishly putting his needs before his family’s.
At six-foot-four and two hundred and forty pounds, Charles is a huge and intimidating man. He sits down on the couch and begins berating Calvin for avoiding him and “playing house” with their sister. Calvin blames Charles for setting him up to get robbed at a recent powwow, and for roping him back into the drug trade—which he’s trying to get out of. Charles threatening tells Calvin that he and Carlos are taking him for a drive. Charles and Carlos smoke a blunt before starting up the car, and Calvin reluctantly takes a hit, too. They drive into Deep East Oakland, and Calvin feels the potent effects of the marijuana, which he suspects was mixed with some other drug.
This passage establishes Calvin as an untrustworthy and self-serving individual who’s trying to escape a troubled past—but doing a poor job of it.
They arrive at someone’s house, but Calvin, disoriented, is uncertain of where they are. Soon, Octavio walks in, asking the “Charlos” what is going on. He diminutively refers to Charles and Carlos, who are almost always together, by this mononym. Octavio, too, is tall and imposing, and threatens Charles and Calvin with a gun, accusing them of failing to pay for drugs that they lost. Both Charles and Calvin owe him for various reasons, and Octavio wants his money. Calvin begins freaking out, imagining an elaborate scenario in which he is able to wrestle the gun away from Octavio and then force the man, at gunpoint, to drink so much that he forgets Calvin and Charles’s debt.
As the connections between Octavio, who plans to rob an upcoming powwow, and Charles, who has been shown to have a dubious and changeable moral center, begin to emerge, Orange sets up a chaotic and doomed trajectory not just for the two of them but for Charles and Carlos as well.
When Calvin snaps himself out of his reverie, he realizes that Octavio, Charles, and Carlos are all laughing and shaking hands. Charles inspects Octavio’s strange white gun, which Octavio reveals was 3-D printed in a basement by an old friend’s little brother. Octavio urges Charles to tell Calvin what’s going on. Charles tells Calvin—who is on the committee for the upcoming Big Oakland Powwow—that he and Octavio plan to rob the powwow to secure the fifty thousand dollars in cash prizes.
Calvin’s position on the powwow committee makes him useful to the other men. Whether he will stand up for his people and take a moral stand or allow himself to get roped into yet another doomed scheme creates a good deal of tension throughout the novel.
Calvin says he has no interest in helping to rob the people he works with—and would never get away with it anyhow. Charles tells Calvin that if he helps them, he can have a cut of the money. Octavio raises a glass and drinks to their plan, and Calvin, feeling cornered, drinks too. The men down a whole bottle of tequila, and then Charles and Carlos drive home in silence. Calvin worries they are all headed “toward some shit [they’ll] never make [their] way back from.”
Calvin is coerced—and perhaps even a little bit enticed by the money—into helping out with Octavio’s scheme. Even though Calvin senses a deep feeling of impending doom, he is too lazy or frightened to stop the gears that are being set in motion.