by Brent Armour
My brother had died yesterday. The living room was littered with clothing that had been tossed off carelessly, a bra on the cactus plant, a pair of men’s briefs resting frumpled under the television, complete with yellow stains. Amber tinted glass ashtrays brimming with the remnants of marijuana joints and cigarettes sat on the floor, the bookshelf, the coffee table. It was my father’s empty, or half empty beer cans that completed the scene. The white and red painted aluminum catching the sunlight that slid across them, across the room to land on a coarse green blanket that covered my parent’s naked sleeping bodies. My brother had died one year ago, and every yesterday since.
I turned away, wincing, and made my way into the kitchen. I would pour a bowl of cereal and eat it alone in my bedroom, foregoing Saturday morning television in exchange for avoidance of hungover parental nudity. Things are going to change. They’d been saying this for a while now. As soon as we get the new house, things are going to change. No more parties. And we would have dinner at the table. And she would actually cook the dinner. And he wouldn’t drink beer with the dinner. And they wouldn’t fight during dinner. As they assured me of this with sweet voices accompanied by rubbed shoulders and patted legs, I wondered whether they were planning on changing anything else besides dinner.
The new house was coming tomorrow. They would hitch this one to a truck and carry it away, sliding the shiny and untouched double wide into the empty space that it would leave behind. No more living in my dead brother’s bedroom. No more passing the bloodstained carpet on your way out the door.
I heard my parents rousing. My mother, in her thick, southern drawl, mumbled, “Is Brent up yet?”
I scurried back to my bedroom, milkless bowl of cereal clutched in my hands.
The new house was glorious. Laminated floors. Shiny accents on wallpaper. Clean blue carpet. Our tacky and dilapidated furniture seemed like a practical joke inside of it. Already my mother was hinting at a new couch. “After Florida,” my father would say, and I wondered what he meant. My uncle Chris was there to help us move, but he mysteriously disappeared once we were settled in. This had never happened. In the entire time I’d been aware that I even had an uncle, he’d been like an ever present leech; if leeches could have perpetually dirty fingernails and mysterious facial tics and gross brown teeth.
“Honey, guess what?” my mother stuck her head through my bedroom door as I finished making my bed for the first time in my new room. I turned and looked at her, but was afraid to guess. “Momma’s made dinner.” I gulped. My mother’s past ventures into the realm of the cooking and cleaning housewife had always involved a microwave and undercooked meat. She flavored her cakes with kool aid and she added lard to box pudding. “Makes it thicker,” she would say.
“I’ll be right there.” I managed to force a smile that I hoped conveyed delight, but she rolled her eyes and stormed off. My mother had a very short fuse. Anything could be the spark. She would become so enraged that her face matched the color of her lipstick and a huge vein appeared on her forehead that was never visible otherwise. This was generally accompanied by screaming and throwing dishes at the wall.
The table was set and the food set upon it. The food was fried chicken, not at all home cooked, with a few sides. Though we’d never ordered fried chicken before, I had eaten it plenty of times before at sleepovers. Sleepovers that had ended after my mother had decided to never let me do anything fun ever again, using her lack of desire to ‘lose another son’ as justification. That is, unless she needed a free babysitter so that her and my father could go to a bar. Then sleepovers were fine.
“So, son,” my father piped up when my mother took a break from talking about all of the things she liked about ‘the new trailer’, “We have another surprise for you. The end of the school year is in a few weeks. When that’s over, we’re all going to Disneyworld.”
What? Huh? I couldn’t react. I had food in my mouth. Rather than swallowing, my brain decided on the path of least resistance without bothering to check with me first. Warm, wet mashed potatoes flew from my mouth in a trail that landed on my father’s plate, leaving nothing but gloppy destruction in their wake. I immediately slapped my hand over my lips, my eyes going wide with fear. If I stayed like that, staring at my father, who sat opposite me, I wouldn’t have to look over to see if any potato had landed on my mother. I looked. I kept my hand where it was but moved my widened eyes a little to the right, just a twitch, to see hundreds of little white droplets sitting calmly on my mother’s skin and blouse while her reddening face was anything but calm.
The next morning, sitting next to a breakfast of microwave sausage biscuits, I found a huge black book. It was the biggest book that I had ever seen. Bigger than the bible. Reading the title, this made sense. The Big Bible of Etiquette.
“I dug that out of your gramma’s old books. Good thing we had all of the boxes down from the move. You’re gonna need it if you want to go to Disneyworld. Your father’s takin me out for lobster and I suppose we gotta bring you along and I’m not havin you make a fool of me like you did last night.” I noticed that she’d used more hairspray today than usual. A lot more. Her hair was huge. The shining strawberry blonde highlights bobbed slowly as she spoke. “Now,” she sat down next to me at the dining room table, a sudden bolt of self-importance shooting through her as she prepared to commit an uncommon act of motherhood. “You’re gonna read a chapter from this every day and I’m gonna quiz you on it. I know you don’t have no homework cuz it’s the end of school, so this’ll be your homework.”
As our departure date grew closer, we both became less and less concerned with the rules of etiquette and more excited about the trip. My father had dropped down to three beers a night, and my mother only two wine coolers, and there had been almost no smoking of anything inside the house since we’d moved in. It seemed that my parents were finally making an effort at entertaining themselves with things that didn’t have to be lit on fire in order to be effective.
The moment of truth had arrived. We had spent the entire day riding rides, taking photographs and being normal. Space Mountain, Splash Mountain and some other kind of mountain. Then back to the room to change clothes and rush to our eight o’clock reservation at “The Boathouse”, where my mother was hoping to be able to pick her own lobster like she’d seen them do in the movies
“Well don’t you look fancy,” my mother said, pinching my cheek and pulling me along by it as we made our way into the restaurant. Sitting at the table, she continued to compliment herself, her family and the restaurant’s high level of ‘fanciness’, despite the fact that she hadn’t been able to choose her own lobster after all. She compensated for this by having my father order lobster and steak for all of us. “He’s a growin boy, he can handle a steak,” she’d assured him. “Besides, he oughta know everything about how to eat one, oughtn’t he?” She cast a look over at me that said everything she needed to convey about what hinged on my successfully eating this meal while using all of my newfound knowledge of etiquette and manners.
“Yes mam,” I nodded and tried to smile while my insides slowly shriveled and died. I hadn’t even read the chapter on lobster. I had planned on ordering fish and chips.
When the food arrived, it came with a large steak knife, and a couple of other strange utensils for the lobster: something that looked an awful lot like a pair of pliers and the tiniest fork I had ever laid eyes on. I reached for the steak knife immediately, hoping that my parents would pick up their players and baby forks so that I could see how it was done while eating my steak. My mother’s hand shot before me in a flash and the knife was gone. “Scuse me mister, scuse me,” she called out, waving the blade at our waiter. He came rushing back to our table. “Can you bring us like, a child’s knife or a butter knife? I’m not going to lose another son here this evening because you all like to give sharp objects to children.” He said something polite and took the knife away, returning with something that was more appropriate for placing butter on toast, according to The Big Bible of Etiquette.
I sawed and sawed, metal clinking against plate, brow furrowed, determined to pass this final test, but I could not cut the steak. My mother, however, wasn’t looking. I decided that if I could finish the steak before she noticed, I could maybe, maybe make it through this evening without seeing the forehead vein. I jabbed the baby fork into the meat and lifted the entire steak from the plate, taking a huge bite. As I tried unsuccessfully to chew, steak juice began to spill from my lips, but I couldn’t drink water until after I’d swallowed, according to The Big Bible of Etiquette.
The waiter returned and immediately noticed my predicament. I stared at him, my eyes begging him to walk by casually and not draw no attention to me. Instead, he stood patiently by our table, a nervous smile on his face, waiting for my mother to stop talking long enough for him to inform her that her son was probably about to choke to death on half chewed New York strip. I pulled the fork from the steak and set it beside my plate, I stopped chewing as I tried to resist the screaming urge to cough, and I slowly brought the napkin from my lap towards my juice covered chin. But I wasn’t fast enough.
“I’m sorry mam, I think your son may be having trouble there,” he said. My mother’s big, aqua net infused head slowly turned towards me while her eyes stayed locked on to the waiter. The vein was there. I felt like I could see it shimmer and pulse under the bright lights of the restaurant. Just as her eyes caught up with her head and landed on me, the urge to cough became too strong. Napkin already in hand, I spat the chewed up wad of steak into it, trying my best to wipe the juices away from my chin as I pulled it away, but only succeeding in dropping wet meat onto my fancy white shirt for everyone to see.
My mother shook with anger. Her face had become as red as the lobsters on our plates, and I could see her eyeing these plates, wanting to throw them all at me. Instead, she looked to the waiter and asked with an impossible calmness, “Could you bring my son some fish and chips, please?”
We left the next day, cutting our trip two days short. “I’m ready to get home and have some real fun in our new house,” my mother said. My father seemed relieved. When I awoke the next morning, I made my way into a kitchen with no holes in the walls, walking on a carpet with no stains, and found my Uncle Chris asleep on the dining room table, snoring, an overfilled amber tinted glass ashtray resting on his stomach, rising and falling with his ragged breath. There was a note from my parents on the refrigerator. “Brent,” it said, “We’re sleeping. Don’t wake us up.”