Family Style
                    Fiction by Matthew Grice

       I got off the school bus and there were strange designs written in sidewalk
chalk at the end of our driveway.  They were letters that had been turned into
smiley-faces and slices of pizza and houses with chimneys.  There were more
letters chalked onto the front steps, but these weren’t disguised by extra marks.  
They said IT’S OVER.  Inside the house the message was repeated a few times
in black magic marker: on the door of the microwave, across the top of a tub of
margarine.
                                                  * * *
       There was a hole exactly the size of my littlest toe in the linoleum under
the kitchen table.  My father had dropped a cigarette on the floor.
                                                  * * *
       I remember showers with my father.  He turned the temperature control as
far to the right as it would go, the showerhead hissing and steaming, the
atmosphere tropical.  He used washcloths and plenty of bar soap, scrubbed till
he turned pink.  We stood sideways, my head at the level of his stomach, the
muscles of his abdomen swelling like frogs in the first heat of spring.  His penis,
hanging in front of me, made me feel that everything going on was deadly serious.  
What would happen if I did something wrong when my father’s penis was right
there, seeing everything?
                                                  * * *  
       My mother was a nurse and my father a New Orleans policeman.  My
mother was always looking for more comfortable shoes.  My father kept his gun
in a locked metal box underneath the bed.
                                                  * * *
       The room in our house where we kept camping supplies and old coats
suddenly had a mattress and an alarm clock and my father’s uniform hanging in
the closet.  The sheets were all tangled up and twisted around on themselves.  I
never saw anyone enter or leave the room, and the door was always shut, as if
there were an animal inside that couldn’t be let out.  Once, when I was very little,
I had a guinea pig that I kept in a cage in there, but I forgot to fill its water bottle
for a week and it died.
                                                  * * *
       My mother kept photo albums in a chest at the foot of her bed.  They were
numbered 1 through 23.  I was born halfway through album 13.  My parents
went to Florida, to California, and to New York City; they had a cat, and a
rabbit, and another cat; and they documented six Mardi Gras celebrations, all
before album 10.  The covers were strangely sun-faded even though I was the
only one who ever took the albums out, and the photographs had the dated,
almost exotic brownish-yellowish tint that old cameras from before the 1990s
gave to pictures. The first five books required me to peek through my fingers,
squeezing my eyes shut at the naked photos that peppered the pages.  
                                                  * * *
       I shut myself in the closet when I heard the yelling start, and then I knocked
something over in the dark and a pile of large unknown objects fell against the
door.  I banged and shouted but they couldn’t hear me over themselves.  
                                                  * * *
       “Come to a yoga class with me,” my father repeated.  Finally I did.  A
woman with blond hair and brown roots waved to us as she spread her legs.
“This is Linda,” my father said, and then they talked about something—the
weather.  “She’s very flexible,” my father told me.  The yoga studio smelled like
menthol and there were three times as many women as men in the class.  Later
my mother found a number written on the peeled-off label of a beer bottle.  She
went through the phone book to match the number to a name and an address.  
She didn’t have to look very long because Linda’s last name happened to be
Abrams.   
                                                   * * *
       The porch door got slammed so many times it broke off.  My mother left
it flat on the stones but my father propped it up against the doorframe to keep
out the bugs.  When my mother wanted to slam it again she just picked it up and
threw it against the house.
                                                   * * *
       “You’re going to burn the house down!” my mother screamed at my father.  
He was standing in the doorway, silhouetted against the setting sun, a cylindrical
bulge at his side where his gun was holstered to him.  “I carried a dead fifteen-
year-old today,” he replied.  “I carried a dead baby,” she screamed loud enough
that the boy who lived next door asked me about it on the bus on Monday.
                                                   * * *
       I remember my first memory of my father.  He is holding a red rose in a
white vase.  The rose is bright red and the vase is dull white.  We are bringing
them to my mother who is in the hospital about to give birth to my sister.
                                                   * * *
       My mother threw my father out of the house and called the locksmith on
the phone, but instead of asking him to change the locks she yelled at him until he
hung up on her.  
                                                   * * *
       I was down in the basement, ineffectively lifting ten-pound weights, chinning
myself on a beam that left spider guts on my palms.  I heard someone coming
down the stairs and, embarrassed, I put my shirt back on, sat down on the
concrete.  My father squatted next to me on his heels, staring around the
darkness.  He asked if things around the house had been tough for me the past
few months, and I shrugged and mumbled that things were way tougher at school.  
The water heater came on, sounding like it was clearing its throat.  “Your
mother’s telling me to leave,” my father said, and he started to cry.  I was
embarrassed for him.  I felt like I was ten years older than he was.
                                                   * * *
       I visited my father at the place he was living near Jean Lafitte Park.  His
house was in the backyard of a bigger house.  It was lined with chocolate-
colored wood paneling interrupted by small windows, and it smelled like bayou
and cigarette smoke.  He had his weight bench in the middle of the living room.  
He told me the drive into the city was better from there.  We stood around until
his neighbor came over to return a bright green bottle of margarita mix, explaining
that she’d only needed half of it because she was known for serving drinks to
knock you flat.  She wiped her hands on the dishtowel hanging from my father’s
oven door and exclaimed, “Hey there!” when she saw me, making a pistol out
of her thumb and forefinger and pulling the trigger.  
                                                   * * *
      My mother sold the house and we moved to Kenner, where people left
their Christmas lights up through March.  The family who lived behind us, five
kids to a three-bedroom, burned a hole in the side of their garage with
firecrackers.  Their cat climbed in and out through it.
                                                  * * *
       My mother told me that my father once made her get an abortion, back
when they first were together.  She said at that time she was so in love that she
would do anything for him.  “I don’t want you to ever make that mistake,” she
said.  
                                                   * * *
       My mother made me get a job.  I found one, but I lied to her about it.  I
handed out fliers at the corner of Saint Ann and Bourbon Street.  When the
fliers were gone I went into Lafitte’s and ran ice cubes across my wrists and
temples.  The barback had a claw that he clicked all the time, the way old-man
barbers keep clicking the scissors even when they are not cutting hair.  He
lifted cases of beer and bags of ice with the claw, and then when he had a
moment to himself he leaned against the bar and clicked until I slipped him a
cigarette and took his other arm, the one that was whole.  
                                                   * * *
       I remember (older) lying in the tub, my two legs propped like logs against
the wall, my chest submerged.  I was an aquatic habitat.  The pondweed
covering my legs was matted and flat at the waterline.  A loose sliver of soap
floated through algal strands of pubic hair.  My body disappeared behind a
reflection on the surface of the water, and I poked a finger to break it into
fragments.
                                                   * * *
       That year for Mardi Gras I was a cop.  I bounced around Bourbon and
Chartres with a hat, a squirt gun, a pair of handcuffs, a plastic badge, and a
real nightstick my father didn’t know was missing.  A bartender at Lafitte’s
taught me how to take the caps off of beer bottles using the nightstick and the
edge of the bar.  I was drunk and barely wearing any clothes and I kept lighting
the filter end of my cigarettes, but I made one hundred and twelve dollars in
tips tucked into my belt.  I carried the money home in my underwear, sliding in
through the back door at six forty-five in the morning, and my mother, standing
at the kitchen table drinking a can of Diet Coke before she left for work, stuck
a hand out to stop me, pressing the beads I was wearing into my skin.  “What
are you doing,” she said, her fingers pulling at the handcuffs and the plastic gun,
“you know your father came home at this time one morning, drunk as you are,
crawling across the floor.”  But I was too big for her now: she couldn’t get her
arm all the way around my torso.            




                          ____________________________


Matthew Grice lives in Ithaca, New York.  This is his first publication.


On “Family Style”:   
I was inspired to write this story by Joe Brainard’s wonderful I Remember;
I sat down and wrote a few things I remembered, myself, and then I started
running with it, creating a fictional story out of some memories of childhood,
Louisiana, and a yoga class I visited when I was a teenager.  Memories are
messy and disjointed, and so are families, and the form of the story came out
of that.  


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Apple Valley Review:
A Journal of
Contemporary Literature
 

ISSN 1931-3888

Volume 4, Number 1
(Spring 2009)

Copyright © 2009
by Leah Browning, Editor.

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