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by David Kessler

Sheila woke up in her queen-size bed that took up most of the bedroom. The headboard was still broken from when she threw a fit about not being able to have one that wasn’t twenty years old and sagging. She was alone as her husband got the hell out of the house during her cleaning day and went walking. She mustered herself out of bed, her nightgown sticky from sweat. They had air-conditioning, but since Alan lost his job, they refused to use it to save costs. Hell, they hardly used it when Alan had a job, only during unbearable heat waves, as if God was dually testing his will and wallet. Sheila walked into the hall bathroom. Butterfly wallpaper covered anywhere there wasn’t porcelain or tile. She looked into the toilet. Alan had dumped blue crystal flakes into the bowl before he left. How sweet. She urinated on top of them.

She studied herself in the mirror, running her fingers over a small crop of pimples on her cheek and cursed them as she splashed cold water on her face. She took a step back on the throw rug and looked at her reflection. Sure, she’d put on a few pounds. She couldn’t help it; the medication bloated her.

“Rrrrrrrrrr-K’BANG! Rrrrrrr-K’BANG! Rrrrrrrrr-K’BANG!” Sheila vacuumed the rug outside her eldest son’s room and was carelessly smacking the base of his door with it like a motorized battering ram.

Barry turned in his damp sheets. He dreamed his mother was banging her head against his door.

After a few thwacks, the door flew open and Sheila made no attempt to close it as she continued vacuuming. She didn’t even think he deserved a door after the time he brought that tramp from down the street up to his room, locked the door, and emerged hours later with an enormous hickey like a black-and-blue medal on his neck.

Sheila clicked off the vacuum with a stamp of her slipper and stepped all over Barry’s clothes and magazines, marching her way to his bed. She never noticed that his room was bigger than her own until now. She looked down on him. He did look like his father, even inherited his ruddy complexion. She wondered how long it would take until it moved from his face to his back, like Alan’s.

“Get up,” she demanded and shook him forcefully by the shoulders. He remained still, deep in sleep.

“I said ‘get up’,” she said to Barry’s face again, as if he was purposely ignoring her the first time. She began to lose her patience when she saw that he hadn’t budged a goddamn inch. She went to pull the sheets off him, but realized she had tucked them tightly into the mattress the day before, just the way her and mother had done to all the beds in the inn her parents ran when she was a child. She thought of all her father’s failed businesses: the inn, the farm, the grocery stores.

“Get up!” She yelled directly in his ear.

These wake-up calls were becoming a frequent thing since the old man lost his job, the week of high school graduation. Alan was a twenty-year veteran of the Morristown school system and during his sabbatical, took a position at the local library for a few months, until the city realized they were sending two checks to the same employee. He went down to City Hall for a routine meeting and the board sprung on him what they knew and promptly canned him, no questions asked. Ever since then, Alan had been in a semi-comatic state and his wife compensated by becoming permanently hysterical.

“I know you hear me, you little punk,” Sheila continued.

Barry opened his eyes, his face tied to the pillow by a string of drool. He felt like he had just woken from the dead, being up half the night, tossing and turning. It dawned on him that he must have slept only three hours or so, due to the weather and having slept the previous day away. He tried to sleep by forcing himself to organize all the MAD and CRAZY magazines he collected as a kid. When that bored him, he masturbated to a picture of Veronica, clipped from the Archie Comics and imagined he came all over her blue hair. When that didn’t make him sleepy, he downed a shot of NyQuil.

“It’s eight o’ clock and stores are going to open in exactly an hour and
you know what you have to do.”

Yeah, he knew what he had to do; get up, shower, shave, put on a dress shirt and go out and find a job. He was casually looking for one, but since his father’s sudden unemployment, the search was thrown into high gear. He motioned to get out of bed, but realized he had taken off his boxers to masturbate and now was nude with a big fat morning erection.

“I’m going to give you five to get the hell out of that bed.” Lazy shit, she thought.


He tired to remember whether it was car tires or sports they tell you to think about when you want to get rid of it.


He attempted to pull the sheets out and around him, but his mother tucked the sheets so tight she must have sewn them to the fucking mattress.


“Maaaaaa!” Solomon, his younger brother was screaming into the intercom that Al had bought at Radio Shack and installed in every room of the house, even the bathrooms, so the family wouldn’t have to yell from floor to floor. Now they simply yelled into the intercoms.

“WHAT?!” his mother shrieked, pushing all the buttons on the intercom at once. They had them for a year, and she still hadn’t learned how to use it.

“Hey! Ma! You’re hitting all the wrong buttons!” Solomon yelled from the kitchen. Barry hated Solomon’s ultra-nasal voice. It was like he talked without opening his mouth. The worst part of which, when Barry heard himself on a tape recording, he sounded exactly like his brother.

Sheila had her back turned on Barry and was now focused on Solomon like a bull distracted by a rodeo clown. She followed the sound of his voice down the stairs.

Barry’s body relaxed slightly and he closed his eyes. He was tired of taking heat from his parents. Shit, his old man was the one who got canned, not him, for God’s sake. What could he do? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. His college education was put on hold and there were no jobs anywhere. He even made a couple trips to the supermarket he worked at the summer before collecting stray shopping carts in their parking lot, inquiring about work. He remembered when he first started working there, he wore the required uniform: white collared shirt, store vest, dress pants and shoes. By the end of his first week, working the eight-to-four shift under the blazing sun, he stripped it down to wearing the vest over a bare chest, shorts and sneakers. The hot asphalt melted the soles right off his shoes. His bosses never said boo about being out of uniform, just as long as the lot was free of abandoned carts.

So a year later, this was his mother’s strategy: she would call the supermarket, demand to talk to the manager and when she got him on the line, complain how their lot had turned into some kind of obstacle course with all their carts all over the place, threatening to take her grocery shopping elsewhere. Within an hour’s time, she would send Barry over to apply for a job as a cart catcher. It never worked.

“I understand it’s only eight-thirty, but since he was the manager, I figured he would be in earlier.” She wiped her brow. Solomon watched as she spoke. He felt lucky to be a year under sixteen, or she would be breaking his balls about a job, too.

“All right, when he gets in, please tell him what I’ve told you...thank you very much...goodbye.” She was nicer to the Food King girl than she is to me or Barry, Solomon thought. She even said ‘please.’ Maybe she wanted girls instead of boys.

Sheila took the phone from between her shoulder and ear and placed it back in the cradle of the receiver. She looked over across the table to Solomon, sitting naked from the waist up in his father’s chair watching television. She had a rule about sitting at the table without a shirt on, but found herself speechless as she looked at him long and hard for the first time since he was a baby. He was a beautiful boy. He had blue eyes and hair that fell into golden blond ringlets all over his head. Then it hit her. He couldn’t read and it drove her crazy. She flashed on taking him to auditions for television commercials when he was an adorable eight year old. Adorable and dyslexic. Producers loved him, but he didn’t have a clue as to what was written on the cue cards.

Upstairs, Barry was dreaming about the time he was in elementary school and someone told him the story of Oedipus having sex with his mother and blinding himself afterwards. He swore from that moment on not to get too close to his mother in case anything like that happened.

Sheila was dialing restaurants and telling whoever answered the phone that her son was looking for a job, and yes, he had plenty of waiting experience, although the only waiting he had done, she thought, was waiting for a goddamn job to fall out of the sky and land in his lap. Solomon looked over and listened to his mother on the phone during a station break. Barry could never get a job as a waiter, he thought. They never hire waiters with acne.

When she hung up the phone, she walked over to the television. Foghorn Leghorn was trying to get pulled into a hole in the ground that only his foot fit into by a bug-eyed, salivating, spastic weasel. “Son, I say, son,” the bird stammered in a Southern accent. Sheila suddenly switched it off.

“Hey,” Solomon started.

“You’re too old for that kind of crap,” she interrupted.

“Ma —”

“Shhhhhh!” She reached over and clicked off the kitchen fan to hear if the shower were running, some activity upstairs. When she heard nothing but the hum of air-conditioners from outside, she ran to the stairs. As soon as she was out of the room, Solomon turned the television back on.

Sheila stormed into Barry’s room to find the sheets empty, but rumpled, the ends still tucked into the mattress. It would be a cinch to remake it. She went to the window. Barry’s figure was disappearing down Bonner Street. A wave of anger passed through her body. Where the hell did he think he was going without telling her? The wave came and went. She no longer felt angry, but hot, tired, drained. She rested her head in the crook of her arm on the window sill and then lifted it and peered out the window. Without her glasses she couldn’t tell what he was wearing. The kid had no sense of how to dress respectably. No wonder he couldn’t get a job. He didn’t even shave for his high school graduation. She was surprised they didn’t deny him the diploma looking like that. She squinted to try and see what he had on, but everything was just a colorless blur.

As he walked, Barry was proud of how he snuck out of the house, remembering the secret code that turned off the alarm his father bought for the door, a cheap speaker that ding-donged anytime someone came or left. Recently, even that was the cause of a fight; in a fit of rage, sick to death of the bell going off right in his ear anytime he came home from getting the mail, the paper, or coming in late from a date, sick of it monitoring his coming and goings like a cat collar of bells around his neck, Barry ripped it right off the door hinge. To his shock, the alarm became alive in his hand, buzzing, squirming, and screaming in an loud electrical high-pitched voice, the nine volt dangling from the speaker like a heart by green and blue veins.

He peeled off the white undershirt that began to stick to his body. It was so hot he didn’t care if the blemishes on his back did show. Anyway, the street was deserted. He passed Christy Thomas’s house. He hadn’t heard from her for months since her stepfather started calling her “Hoover” after seeing the job she had done on Barry’s neck. As a result, his mother made him keep his bedroom door open the rare times he had a girl over. He tried calling Christy few times after that, but every time he asked for her, her mother, who was only fifteen years older than Christy, hung up the instant she heard a male voice say her daughter’s name.

A red sports car suddenly ripped by blaring its horn. He hadn’t realized how much he had strayed from the curb, since there were no sidewalks to walk on, just front lawns flush against paved road. He wheeled around and was immediately struck by the vision he had of all the houses on Bonner. He swore that it was the closest thing he ever had to a religious experience in his entire life and he wondered if during his walks, his father ever saw the street as he was seeing it now.

The houses were so identical it seemed like the whole block could have been done with mirrors and because of the heat, the air was bending, every house, every home, as if there was an unseen, giant flame under them, all wavering in bright light.

© 1992, David Kessler

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